From the Internet Archives: My 2003 Interview with Rashid Khalidi on Middle East politics, Iraq, Palestine, Neo-Cons & beyond

Here's a nice find. In October 2003 I interviewed Rashid Khalidi for the Mac Weekly. It wound up on the website and eventually got deleted around 2006, but it was still in the Internet Archives Wayback Machine at

Overall I think this interview aged well, was it really more than seven years ago? In the last few days it's been great to see Khalidi appearing a couple times on MSNBC right before remarks from President Obama about Egypt. So here's the whole interview, with subjects like Israeli settlers, neo-con arcana, Muqtada al-Sadr before he became so well-known, etc. The linkage between neo-cons and the Israeli rightwing fringe Khalidi explained in this interview was cited & footnoted by James Bamford in 2004's "A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies," which was the first time (only time?) my scribblins have been footnoted in a serious book. (and it was awesome to randomly discover that one day, too!)

I'm leaving the weird HTML code from the Internet Archive / abandoned Mac Weekly site fragments for the archival awesomeness of it all. Enjoy! exclusive
Interview with Roundtable participant Rashid Khalidi

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute.
Inteview by Dan Feidt

Interview conducted October 10, 2003

DF: You said in your talk regarding Iraq that “there are much worse days to come.” What leads you to this?

RK: Several things. The first is that the Administration purposely had too few soldiers for the post-war, leading directly to a chaotic situation which resulted in the destruction of the organs of state. The occupation thereafter took a number of decisions which alienated the entirety of the armed forces, and the Baathist technocrats, without whom it would be almost impossible to run a modern state in Iraq.

Both of those decisions I think were essentially ideological. It’s understandable that they would have wanted to eliminate the party leadership, people involved in war crimes, people involved in crimes against humanity, people who carried out notorious human rights abuses.

But why a medical doctor, why a lab technician or a schoolteacher, a low-ranking member of the party should be removed just because she or he was a Baathist? Why the officer corps of the army or the conscript regular soldiers were all fired is inexplicable. All of these things led to a situation where instead of coming in with the potential goodwill the United States might have had with the removal of an unpopular regime, the United States has pretty much alienated a large proportion of the population.

In the case of the Sunnis, this has been exacerbated by the civil war that [Ahmed] Chalabi is trying to foment between the Shia, to whom he’s posing as the champion of, and the Sunnis. The United States is on the point actually, I’m afraid, of incurring hostilities of more than just a lot of disgruntled Sunnis, and former Baathists, former soldiers, and so on, a few jihadis and others who are coming in, but maybe also the largest single group in Iraq, which is the Shiites.

DF: What do you think is Ahmed Chalabi’s plan?

RK: Chalabi wants to make himself ruler of Iraq. He and his group have been trying since before the war to impose themselves as the natural rulers of Iraq. They tried to get the Pentagon to fly them in there, so they could take a picture-postcard role in the liberation of the country, so that they would be posed to be the sole group that would be the intermediary between the occupation authorities and the Iraqis. They are still trying to do this even though Bremer and more and more people in Washington are realizing how dangerous to the United States and to Iraq Chalabi probably is. But there is a factional battle going on in Washington over this issue and there is a battle going on in Iraq, with the Chalabi and his people trying to win over the Shia, and engage in what some people have called already a pogrom or purge of Sunnis. Not just Baathists, Sunnis. Bremer and some of the civilian occupation authorities, and also some of the uniformed military, are beginning to tell Washington in no uncertain terms that that this man has to be stopped.

DF: There have been a lot of violent incidents of in Sadr City recently, because the Americans have detained some clerics that follow Sadr. Is that a sign that the peace between the Shia religious groups and the United States is fraying?

RK: It is not clear whether in fact what the United States is doing with Muqtada al-Sadr—in this place called Sadr City which is named for a relative of his who was killed by the Baathists—is going to lead to alienation of the Shia from the United States. Sadr doesn’t represent all the Shia. He is one factional leader. He is charismatic, he is popular but there are a lot of other people there.

The big question is A: how alienated are people in Iraq going to be, Shia, by American actions and policies, and B: to what extent will the United States try to repair its relations with the Shia by making up to Iran. There is an important faction in our government which is trying to do that, just as there’s an important faction in the government trying to sabotage any such possibility. So stay tuned for where the arm wrestling in Washington will end up. That in turn will determine a lot of these things. If The United States totally alienates Iran then one of the few possible means of positively affecting the attitudes of Shia in Iraq will disappear.

DF: What do you believe are the central principles of neo-conservativism? Do you believe it carries an outer moral ideology for mass consumption, and an elite truth for the few?

RK: Yeah, Seymour Hersh in his articles in the New Yorker about these people has argued that these are people who studied under Leo Strauss or under disciples of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, people like Wolfowitz himself, [Pentagon policymaker] Abram Shulsky and others, and that they came away with a sort of neo-Platonic view of a higher truth which they themselves had access, as distinguished from whatever it is you tell the masses to get them to go along.

There is a certain element of contempt in their attitude towards people, in the way in which they shamelessly manipulated falsehoods about Iraq, through Chalabi. Chalabi, of course, being part of this group, having studied at the University of Chicago as well, although he was doing his mathematics Ph. D. when they were doing politics degrees.

But I wouldn’t entirely blame this on Strauss or poor Plato for God’s sake. The other thing I would say is that there is another element in some of them, of a belief in force, which doesn’t come just from Strauss and Wohlstetter, who was actually Wolfowitz’s dissertation supervisor. It comes from Strauss via Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the head of the Revisionist strand of Zionism, which was an extreme nationalism which very much believed in force. I think that that view is very widely spread among the neo-cons.

Now, what is their philosophy? ‘Peace through strength,’ whatever that means. Not making concessions to the enemy, treating the enemy as a symbol of absolute moral blackness, not seeing gray in any picture. If you want to describe them in broad brush strokes, that’s how I’d do it. They are people for whom reality is probably less important than their ideology, and their moral certitudes.

DF: Noam Chomsky used the phrase ‘re-Ottomanization’ to describe the neoconservative strategy towards the Middle East, which would involve breaking down the strong states into pieces, giving them regional warlords, with Israel as the hegemonic power. Do you believe there’s merit in that viewpoint?

RK: I think that’s what some of them want to do. I’m not sure that has anything to do with US policy. That’s their fantasy. That’s really what the Clean Break strategy, if you read it very carefully, amounts to. And they’ve argued this in other places. It’s not just one document you have to go on. But to what extent that is more than the wet dreams of a bunch of neoconservatives who love Israel—love a certain muscled, hegemonic Israel—is very arguable.

I wonder about the extent to which that has any influence on US policy. I think that the idea that you crush all the strong states in the Arab world and create a situation of total instability is not something that most American policymakers accept. So, you know, maybe some of them are trying to edge crabwise towards that end, but I don’t think in the larger scheme of things it has a whole lot of influence on US policy.

DF: A Frontline interview with Richard Perle was published with the documentary “Truth, War and Consequences.” He talked about the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which reviewed intelligence on Iraq prior to the war. Perle said the office was staffed by David Wurmser, another author of the Clean Break document. Perle says that the office “began to find links that nobody else had previously understood or recorded in a useful way.” Were the neo-cons turning their ideology into intelligence data, and putting that into the government?

RK: I can give you a short answer to that which is yes. Insofar as at least two of the key arguments that they adduced, the one having to do the connection between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda, and the one having to do with unconventional weapons programs in Iraq, it is clear that the links or the things they had claimed to have found were non-existent. The wish was fathered to the reality. What they wanted was what they found.

It was not just the Office of Special Plans, or whatever. There are a lot of institutions in Washington that were devoted to putting this view forward. Among them, other parts of the bureaucracy, and the vice president’s national security staff.

The vice president’s chief of staff Lewis Libby is a very important member of the neo-con group. He and the vice president have created the most powerful national security staff that anybody has ever had in the office of the vice president. I’ve read published assessments, which say that this is actually more influential than Condi Rice’s staff, the real NSC. This is another center of these views.

And then there are the think-tanks—I would use the word ‘think’ in quotes—like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution and so on, all of which are devoted to spreading similar ideas. Basically any fantasy that Chalabi's people brought in, “we have a defector who says,” was turned into gold by these folks.

We now know this stuff, with a few exceptions, to be completely and utterly false, just manufactured disinformation designed to direct the United States in a certain direction. Whether the neo-cons knew this or not is another question, but I believe Chalabi’s people knew it. I would be surprised if some of them didn’t know it.

DF: Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith‘s former law partner Marc Zell is a leading Israeli settler, and also runs a law firm which is supposed to work with the Pentagon and Chalabi’s nephew to help international businesses set up in Iraq. Is there a connection to be drawn between Feith and the Israeli settler movement?

RK: Feith is a partner of Zell, and Zell is a leading settler. He lives in a settlement; he is an advocate of expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. He and Feith are ardent committed extremist Likud supporters, that is to say they support a policy of Israel’s expansion, they support a policy of crushing the Palestinians, they support the expansion of settlements.

I don’t know what Feith’s position is specifically, whether he’s a settler or in favor of settlements, but he’s published opinions before he went into government which are quite extreme, as far as that’s concerned.

I think the important thing is not that Zell is an Israeli or not an Israeli, or a settler or not a settler, as the fact that such views are now acceptable in the highest reaches of the US government. It used to be that settlements were considered illegal; it used to be that they were considered an obstacle to peace. Different presidents took different positions, but they were uniformly negative until this administration.

In this administration we have the Undersecretary of Defense, Feith, the number 3 guy, who’s in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq, publicly identifying with such views. And with this law firm, Feith and Zell, which is based in Israel, and its affiliate, which is busy doing this other stuff in Iraq.

The other thing that’s a little unseemly is something that Seymour Hersh has said about Richard Perle. It’s the inability of these people to see the moral problems of being in government and helping out your friends in the private sector. The vice president and Halliburton, Perle and Global Crossing, and all these dubious shady firms he was involved in, he was profiting from and which he was helping to profit because of his connections in the Pentagon. And Feith, he’s the viceroy of Iraq, you can call him whatever you want but he’s the man in charge in Washington—Bremer reports to him—his law firm is engaged in helping businesses do well in Iraq?

There’s a clear conflict of interest. If we had proper ethics codes, this would not be allowed. Nor would the vice president be able to help his Halliburton friends to get no-bid contracts in Iraq. Nor would Perle be able to do as he’s doing with a variety of business interests. Nor would Feith, but that’s another issue, that’s an ethics issue.

DF: Is there a sense with this administration that the so-called military-industrial complex is at the helm?

RK: Well, there’s three or four elements in this administration. The one that gets the votes is not the military-industrial complex or the neo-cons. The one that gets the votes is the southern, western, male Christian evangelicals. That’s the biggest electoral block. Those are people who may believe in the United States being a muscular power in the world, they may not really have time for black and white in international affairs, they may believe that international morality is simple, but they have an agenda which is largely domestic, and they are the people to whom the president looks for a certain core of his support.

There is then the good old rouged representatives of the military-industrial complex, where I would place people like Rumsfeld and Cheney. These are guys that have worked for big business all their lives, they are themselves big businessmen, Rumsfeld’s been on the board of a very large number of very large corporations, and Halliburton was headed by Cheney for many years. So we’re talking about people who really do fit into that category. And they are amply represented in the government.

The third group, and the least important, I would argue, is the neo-cons. They give a little intellectual ginger to this, they push things in the direction of Israel a little bit, they’ve played a particularly important role in the Pentagon and in the office of the Vice President, and to some extent in the National Security Council, where Elliott Abrams is the senior person on the Middle East. They even have people at the state department. But in political terms in the United States they are the least important.

They are important in terms of public opinion, however, because with outlets like Fox, the New York Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and so on, they have very important access to those kinds of outlets. Murdoch’s papers, and Murdoch’s television networks, are the most important of them.

DF: Is Bush trapped in a kind of box which prevents him from understanding simultaneously the occupation, Arab nationalism, and the threat of the settlements, or is he just a pragmatic politician who recognizes that no one in America is going to hold him accountable?

RK: I would say the latter. I think the president is not a reflective intellectual man. He is not a well-read, learned man. He is not a worldly person. He is very smart though. I think he is a smart politician. In fact, I think one of his greatest assets is that people systematically ‘misunderestimate’ him, to use his expression. People underestimate George W. Bush.

I think that he has so far calculated that you could do a number of these things in foreign policy, either because they were popular, or because there would be no opposition. Until recently he was right, and I think the fact that it’s now clear, not so much on Arab-Israeli issues, but on Iraq, that public opinion has if not turned, at least ceased to be enchanted by those policies.

This may in turn impose a rethink on the Bush team. I think that people like Karl Rove, who is a very ideological person, are also only interested in getting re-elected, and they would sell their mothers, as would most politicians, to make sure that their president got re-elected.

And he may ditch people. He may fire Rumsfeld, he may fire Wolfowitz, and he may shake up some aspects of his administration if he realizes that this is going to be a hindrance to his re-election. I think that the reason you haven’t seen a change in this is that you haven’t seen a countervailing bloc.

DF: The first action the United States took after September 11 was the invasion of Afghanistan, deposing the Taliban with a coalition that they described as the Northern Alliance. Today, the situation has somewhat deteriorated. There isn’t a lot of control in the tribal areas, the Pushtun areas, and it seems the Taliban is ramping up for another offensive. Why did this invasion of Afghanistan fail?

RK: I’m not sure that it failed, in that its objective was to bring down that regime. It succeeded in doing that. It failed in the sense of securing a stable, secure Afghanistan, which wouldn’t be a threat to its neighbors, or a breeding ground (I don’t like the term breeding ground) or a base area for operations against the United States and other countries. In that sense it has failed. You still have groups operating there. I’m not sure they’re able to attack the United States from Afghanistan but then I’m not sure they attacked the United States from Afghanistan before either. There were certainly training camps there, but I don’t think those training camps were the real problem.

The real problem is this diversified underground network that’s established in which Afghanistan was just one link. The problem is that, as in Iraq, the only objective was military victory over the enemy in the field, and a subsidiary objective was winning a doctrinal war between Rumsfeld and the uniformed military. Rumsfeld wanted to change the nature of the American military. In one sense he’s right.

The United States military is configured to fight World War II, or World War III, which is the Cold War war that never came, thank God, on the plains of northern Europe or against the hordes of the Red Army somewhere in east Asia. It’s not configured for anything else, and Rumsfeld has tried mightily to change the configuration of the United States ground forces, in particular. And he has come up against enormous resistance.

So to him, the Afghan war was an object lesson in what can and should be done. Those were the two objectives: to defeat the enemy in the field, and you show the hidebound generals that the army should be flexible, light, fast, movable, and basically get rid of several divisions and several structures it has. By divisions I mean army divisions and by structures I mean all kinds of breakdowns between armor and Special Forces and so on.

Unfortunately, war is not just defeating the enemy in the field. War is achieving a political objective. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq the United States resoundingly and rapidly won the military campaign and Rumsfeld in both cases, I think, made his point brilliantly, that a lighter army could do things that the old-style army didn’t want to do and couldn’t do.

They are losing the war—I don’t want to say they’ve lost—because of their hidebound, stubborn persistent refusal to understand that you win by achieving a political objective.

The objective in Afghanistan would have been not just to defeat the Taliban regime, but to stabilize and normalize Afghanistan so that it never becomes again a base area for people like al-Qaeda. Similarly in the case of Iraq, to achieve a rapid, sustainable transition from a dictatorship to a regime that doesn’t threaten its neighbors and is representative.

Well, they say that’s what they’re trying to do, but the means that they’ve employed in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan, by being so light in terms of numbers, and by being so unilateral, have succeeded in alienating the very people you need to bring in.

By relying on the warlords they have succeeded in perpetuating the conditions that caused the problem in Afghanistan, or through the chaos that was created, have created new conditions that may be insuperable.

They may in fact not be insuperable, they may be insuperable, such that you will end up having a political defeat. But we’ll see. That’s what it looks like on the tenth of October. Things could get normalized by Christmas; things could get normalized by January. Things might look very different in both of those countries. I doubt it, but it’s certainly possible.

DF: In the totality of the Middle Eastern political situation, what aspects or factors give you the most hope? What factors to you are the most puzzling?

RK: I get the most hope from the resilience of civil society. Even in the most devastated parts of the Arab world—Palestinian society—NGOs, unions, universities, are still managing to survive and thrive against both the conditions of occupation, war, closure and deprivation, and the autocratic tendencies of the Palestinian Authority. You find that all over the Arab world and all over the Middle East; In Iran, in Turkey, all over the Middle East. Those to me are the most encouraging things.

I find the most puzzling the fact that no alternative to authoritarian governments, besides the Islamists, has emerged. Now, I understand where the previous alternatives to the status quo in the Arab world went. In the ‘30s, the ‘40s and ‘50s the alternatives to the status quo were radical nationalist, socialist, leftist and other groups, which then became the champions of what became a new orthodoxy when they took power.

So the Baath Party, the Arab nationalists, others of that ilk, took power in places like Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, or they formed the traditional opposition to monarchies. And then they in turn became sclerotic, conservative, autocratic, and a drag on their societies, which is what they are now.

The Baath regime in Syria is only marginally less bad than the former Baath regime in Iraq was. They’re terrible regimes. Those were radical alternatives to the status quo once, literally 50 or 60 years ago.

Now, what I find a little puzzling, is that outside of some human rights-based, and other groups within civil society, there's very little political alternative to the immobilism and the kleptocracy which dominates most governments in the Arab world, except the Islamists, and the Islamists don’t have an answer. Their answer is “Islam is the answer,” but Islam is not an answer.

That is a very narrow appeal; it appeals to a very limited number of people in most Muslim societies, in fact. You look at the numbers that HAMAS and other Islamist groups get in Palestine in polling, and on a good day they can reach the 20s, and on a really fabulous day they may hit 30%. But if you ask people about the core values they represent, and the kind of vision they have for a Palestinian state, most Palestinians can’t accept that.

There’s an inherent limitation because it is not an answer. The problem is that they are the only organized opposition to some of these regimes. The anger and the dissatisfaction and alienation that some people feel at unemployment, at poverty, at a lack of development, at theft, at corruption, and so on and so forth, has to find some outlet. The Islamists, for some people, are the outlet. So that’s the thing that puzzles me: where is the alternative?

It’s certainly not going to be American military intervention. That’s not going to solve the problems in the Middle East. That’s causes new problems.

But that leaves a legitimate question: what do you do about these miserable regimes? Because you’ve had democratic transitions in places people thought were totally immobile like Eastern Europe and Latin America.

Why is that not happening in the Middle East? It could be because of the continuing conflicts there, which reinforce the state. That’s the argument I made in my talk, that if we address that it wouldn’t solve the problem but it would make it easier to solve the problem. But that’s not a sufficient answer.

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