Rami Khouri Interview

Steve Babcock: I just want to thank everyone for coming tonight. We’re here at the sponsorship of the Northeastern News and the International Affairs Society, so I definitely want to thank the International Affairs Society for getting this wonderful food. I hope everyone will eat it after we’re done. I’m Steve Babcock. I’m the managing editor of the Northeastern News, among other things. A few ground rules before we start; here’s the format. We’re gonna do 45 minutes of an interview, which I’m going to get flagged down on, right when that happens so we don’t keep you guys too long. And then we’ll have 15 minutes of question and answer if anyone has any questions they think about. For the benefit of Rami and me, we hope there is a question, obviously. I am going to be recording it audio recording, so if you guys can just try to keep it down that’ll make for a better recording. We’ll try to post it on the Northeastern News website in its entirety, which is www.nu-news.com, hopefully by tomorrow. So if you guys have friends who couldn’t be here and would like some insight, we’ll have that as well.

I guess we’ll get started. We’re delighted to be joined by Rami Khouri, who is the editor at large of the Daily Star in Beirut and a number of other syndicated publications too. So welcome, for sure.

Rami Khouri: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Babcock: Yeah.

Khouri: I’m know you all came out for the pickles, but we’ll do a little chat before that, and then you can get to the good stuff.


Babcock: So I guess we’ll get right down, kind of, to business, Especially on the day that Donald Rumsfeld is stepping down. It’s extra timely that we talk about the reasons that the U.S. went into Iraq in the first place. A lot of the statements that were coming out of the Bush administration at that time was about creating a new beacon for democracy in the region, and creating something that could really be looked upon by most of the world as something that would change the

Middle East. As we’ve seen, that hasn’t been the case over the past three or four years. But we have seen, in that time, some democracies spring up in Lebanon. We’ve seen a newly democratically elected president in Iran. And in Palestine we had elections too last year. So I was hoping to get your thoughts on, I mean is it overthrow into democracy? Is that going to be the path that brings the Middle East to a more democratic region or is it going to be more gradual of a shift like we’ve seen in the past?

Khouri: Thank you for having me, thank you all for coming, and thank you to the International Affairs Society for feeding us all. I have a couple things to say to that point. I think there’s actually an inverse relationship between American military overthows and regimes in the Middle East and a provisional democracy. I think it probably works the other way around. The more the U.S. uses its military power unilaterally to overthrow regimes or to threaten them or sanction them the more you get support in the region for anti-American movements, or anti-American governments, many of which tend to be non-democratic. also the idea that the U.S. can promote democracy while conducting warfare without the sanction of the rest of the world. The rest of the world does not approve of the U.S. involvement in Iraq and the more that happens the less credible the U.S. becomes as a purveyor or an advocate of democracy. And what happens since the US went into Iraq is that American attempts to promote democracy have been met with extreme skepticism and active resistant in most parts of the Arab world and most parts of the Middle East and I would say in most of the world. Even in Europe and China, Russia, forget about the Middle East and the Arab Islam world. Most of the rest of the world look at the US with a lot of skepticism these days in terms of feeling that it is not really either sincere or consistent in advocating the promotion of democracy.

For several reasons, the main one being that what has happened in Iraq, and it has only been a three years or so since the war started, three and half years now, but still what has happened in Iraq has been pretty deadly for the Iraqi people. And the consequence of the overthrow of the regime, and it was a terrible regime, nobody doubts that, and we in the Middle East, we, people like me, and others who actively are promoting democracy and human rights for the past three years, we were criticizing the Saddam Hussein regime in the ’80s when the American government was helping. There’s a famous picture of Donald Rumsfeld, now thankfully retired, giving Saddam Hussein…or shaking hands with him on a visit.

So the American track record is also historically is one in which the U.S. supported these autocratic regimes for many years and still does in most of the Middle East. This is the problem. There’s quite a few reasons why people are skeptical of the U.S. inconsistency, insincerity, lack of authority. Nobody gave the United States the legal or the moral mandate to be the promoter of democracy around the world. And the United States is a powerful, strong and generally a fine nation, but it doesn’t have the mandate to define the leadership and systems of government of other people. It can certainly advocate for democracy and it should advocate for democracy, all of us should, but it doesn’t have a mandate, it doesn’t have the legitimacy to do this.

The motive of the United States is deeply suspect. Of course it happened after 9/11, after this traumatic criminal attack in the United States. Suddenly the United States says we have to promote democracy to protect ourselves. That’s a very legitimate view from the United States but that’s not our view. That’s not a readily accepted view. A more accepted view would be to promote democracy because that’s the right thing to do for all the people in the region. If you’re going to do that then you have to do it consistently in order to be credible in order for it to be effective. So you can’t say that you promote democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq and then support autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and especially places like Libya. These hypocritical double standards are so devastating for America’s credibility that all you get is strong disillusion and skepticism and resistance and that’s the situation right there.

There’s really no linkage and democracy wasn’t really given as a major rationale when the U.S. went into Iraq. That came out about a year and a half later when the original rationale, which was the weapons of mass destruction, proved to be nonexistent. So the U.S. was looking for other reasons. And in fact we really still don’t know completely why the U.S. attacked Iraq and overthrew the regime. I’ve heard about five or six different explanations, all of which are fascinating, but the fact that we have so many of them makes it probable that none of them are really the true reason.

And this is a very lively debate about what people ask. Why did the US go into Iraq? Some people say it’s for oil, some people say it’s to protect Israel, some people say it’s to set an example of democracy, some people say it’s to get back at, to prevent any possible future terror attacks, so there are many different reasons that are given and all of them are fascinating but its not clear. I think what we do know is that this happened at a particular moment in time after the Cold War when the US was all-powerful in the world and it could do anything it wants without anybody really being able to stop it militarily. It happened after 9/11 when there was a great sense of outrage in the U.S. and a need to have retribution and revenge of some sort for this act of terror and to stop future acts of terror. So there was this powerful sense of a need to do something by the United States to stop these kinds of terror attacks from happening. And you have this peculiar group of people called the neo-cons, the neo-conservatives Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney to an extent, Doug Feith, Richard Perle, there’s about a dozen of these characters, most of whom now really have been forced into involuntary retirement or political exile, thank god.

They’re gradually being scattered and taken out of the political scene, but this peculiar set of people, whose philosophy is that you use American power affirmatively, positively, and dynamically and you go around the world using the power of the United States, which nobody can stop, to make the world a better place for the world or for the U.S. To beat up tyrants, to make sure that people are friends with the U.S., to promote democracy. So there’s a kind of romanticism about it which was quite positive in many ways at the theoretical level. It sounded good; you use your power to do good in the world, to promote democracy and to fight tyranny. Nobody could object to that very much, except the way it was done, again it was so selective and the impact was so destructive in Iraq, the consequences were such that it is not a philosophy that has been accepted by anybody around the world and has now pretty much been rejected by the United States.

I think the election results are partly a repudiation of that philosophy, but the neo-cons being in power and the president has many good, George Bush has many good qualities, but intelligent analysis and deep perceptions of the world is not one of them. He doesn’t understand the world, he’s not very intelligent in terms of dealing with foreign cultures. He doesn’t have much experience, he doesn’t have much insight, he doesn’t have much sensitivity and he’s really quite simplistic in his views of the world and he was in a position where he was a rather weak president in his sense of foreign policy and the neo-cons were able to more or less direct foreign policy in that direction.

So you have all of those things coming together and you have the strange philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld, this kind of Dr. Strangelove attempt to prove a new kind of defense strategy and he was just itching to try this out and 9/11 gave him the opportunity with the neocons who had wanted to hit Iraq and to bring democracy to the Middle East and to the heart of the arab world. All of these things converged right after 9/11 and I think that explains a lot of it. Or Israel and these other things are elements, but I dont think they are main ones.

Babcock: And then on, this summer, actually on July 21, we saw again with the Lebonan war, the Israeli/Lebonan conflict in full affect we saw Condolezza Rice talk about the birth pangs of a new Middle East. So what’s really kind of trumpeted up the view of democracy in the Middle East and the U.S. as being there to spread is…So what’s going on there? Are we now seeing ourselves in the long haul in the Middle East? I mean, there hasn’t been a lot of shift in policy since she talked about the birth pangs. What do you think is going on there?

Khouri: There has been this consistent theme in American foreign policy since 9/11 and certainely since the second Bush administration. A consistent theme about promoting democracy and a forward strategy for freedom. You know the speech writers for the Bush administration are much better than the strategists of the Bush administration. The speeches are wonderful if you read a little. They sound terrific and no one can argue with promoting freedom and democracy and human rights. I mean all of us would say, definately we want that, but the maner in which the US does it is so brutal and so inconsistent and so counterproductive that it generates this great skeptisism that I talked about. If the US, for instance, you mentioned Lebonan. The US has spoken of Lebonan as an example of what it wants to do to promote a democratic government. Now Lebonan has had its own form of democracy since the 50s and it’s a peculiar sort of democracy. They have elections. They have a parliment. They have political parties. They have [UNKNOWN WORD] free press, but they share the pie among these 18 different religious and confessional groups and the cabinet seats, the senior posts in the army, the senior post in the bureaucracy and the members of parliament are all shared among the Maronites and the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians and the Shiites and the Sunnis and Druse and others.

And there’s no real incentive for people to have a meritocracy because they all know they’re going to get their share of the pie and at least to a certain stagnation of corruption and efficiency which is one of Lebonan’s problems. But it is at one level a democracy and at least it’s opened and they can speak much more openly than most other countries. But what the U.S. really was trying to do in Lebanon was not so much promote a democracy but to get the Syrians out. The Syrians had more or less run Lebanon for 25 years or so since they went into Lebanon during the civil war and basically stayed there and dominated. Many Lebanese say it was an occupation, you can call it whatever you want. But the Syrians have effectively controlled Lebonan for 25 years and the Syrians and the Americans are the bad guys because they opposed the U.S. in Iraq, they’re friends of Iran, they’re friends of Hezbollah, they help Hamas, they help the Palestinians, they criticize the Israelis and so there’s been an American/ Syrian feud going on for some years. And the U.S. passed, the American Congress passed a law about three years ago putting sanctions on Syria, unilateral American Congressional law against Syria. So there’s tension between the U.S. and Syria and so really what the U.S. wanted was to get the Syrians out of Lebanon rather than promote a real democracy.

Because if the U.S. wanted to promote a real democracy in Lebanon it would not have supported Israel so fervently in the war this summer and let Israel destroy much of Lebonan and cause much human suffering and damage to the economy, which in fact weakened the central government of Lebanan rather than strengthen it. Because now Hezbollah is much stronger, and some of the forces that are close to Syria are much stronger, through the central government is much weaker, which is the group that the U.S. supports from Prime Minister Siniora and some of his allies.

So America’s actions contradict its words. It says it wants to promote democracy in Lebanon but it’s actually promoting the forces who are against the government.

And the idea that this is the birth pangs of the new Middle East is, I think, a bit simplistic and it’s not clear what is this new Middle East, and if it’s a new Middle East meaning the lands of the more democratic government systems, more human rights, rule of law, then that should be done not through wars, but through active political engagement. The irony is the the majority of people in the Arab world, from my experience in the Arab world, living in the Arab world and traveling a lot, and reading a lot, and talking to the people in the region. They all want democratic systems, They all want to live in more decent societies ruled by the rule of law, and with indepedent judges, and a good system of justice, and a regressive greivence, and habeas corpus, and rule of the majority and protection of minority rights, all of these basic principles that define your kind of democracy are the ones people in the Middle East want. And they’ve been working for them for years, so what the United States should do is engage with the populations in the Middle East and slowly, it has happened actually in the Soviet Union, I mean, one of the reasons the Soviet Union fell apart finally and dissolved is that the United States very patiently kept pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing and promoting democratic spaces and openings through the Helsinki process, for those of you who are old enough to remember in the mid 70s there was the Helsinki process. The U.S.and the Soviet Union agreed on this grand framework of political issues, social issues, economic issues, and security issues and one of them was to open the space a little bit in the Soviet Union to allow opposition groups a little bit and to have certain human rights standards and that process slowly, slowly, slowly with internal pressures from within the Soviet Union, like [UNKNOWN WORD] and the Solidarity movement of Poland in the 1980’s.

These processes from within gradually brought down the Soviet Union and that’s exactly what the U.S. should do in a place like Iran, Syria. That’s what it’s doing with China now.

Your policy with China is very good and for years you didn’t recognize the Chinese but you don’t threaten them, you don’t go to the UN and sanction them with unilateral resolutions. You engage them, you cajole them, you entice them, you contain them, you negotiate with them and that’s how normal societies relate to one another. There’s a very peculiar exception to this in terms of how the U.S. deals with the Middle East and the U.S. doesn’t really do this in other parts of the world very much.

It doesn’t go around threatening, sancitioning, and attacking and overthrowing regimes as much.Occasionally it’s done it in the past but in the Middle East there is a peculiar exception which makes a lot of people in the Middle East think that the Israeli connection is an important reason for this. What is that connection is not clear. There are many different theories presented. Many people believe, for instance, that the U.S. went into Iraq and is now threating Iran because of the threat that they might pose to Israel. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t know what’s in the minds of the people running the United States government. But it certainly does look that way to a lot of people because of the fact that this American-aggressive policy tends to focus mainly on Arab countries and people in the Middle East. So when the U.S. talks of a new Middle East, many people in the Middle East take that as a threat and not as a promise of something better.

It’s very telling that when you look at the four countries that the U.S., or at least the Bush administration has boasted about, as success stories for the process of democratization which are: Afganistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. Well earlier this year all four of these countries were in a mess. In the throws of either civil war or active wars or rebellions or foreign invasions, or occupations or massive internal dissarry: narcotic problems, drug problems, criminality, gangsters, local gangs, countries falling apart, failed states. mean, those countries, Afganistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Lebonan, were just about the four worst examples you could possibly give in the world if you were trying to say “here’s what happens when the United States engages in its policy of promoted freedom.” You have these messy countries – violent, terrible, messy places. So again people look at that, many people in the Middle East say “Look if this is the New Middle East thanks, but no thanks. Let’s keep the old Middle East and slowly give us a chance to evolve and we will make a better world without the American army being the army of our self-destruction.”

Babcock: So is that what’s going on? This summer, it seemed to me at least, being more of an outside observer, but, the rise of Hezbullah and Hassan Nasrallah again in Lebanon. I mean, are people saying “we don’t want the US’ form of democracy so we will turn to the…

Khouri: No, No I don’t think people are saying that and this is what the Bush administration is trying to say and thankfully the American public, which is very intelligent and very down to Earth, has not bought this can of lies. What the Bush Administration is trying to say is the choice is either between Osama Bin Laden or what we the U.S. are trying to do. But that is not the choice. That’s what the Bush administration propaganda and spin is trying to tell you because from the perspective of the people in the Middle East, what the U.S., the consequences of what the U.S. is doing, in Iraq and Afganistan and other places is a terrible destruction and civil war and collapsed societies and chaos in many cases. So the equation is not really one between whether you take Hezbollah or you take American democracy.

Hezbollah has come to power because of five or six very important reasons. They respond to the social and economic needs of their constituency, they represent their community, the Shiite community in the Lebanese system, they represent a form of empowerment of what had been a marginalized and downtrodden community, they represent forces that are seen and widely are assumed to be representing the desire for clean, non-corrupt, efficient government as opposed to the mostly corrupt, inefficient, mediocre governments that define the Arab world. They seem to be a force that resists the Israeli occupation which in South Lebonan the Israelis were there from ’82 to 2000 and Hezbollah and others finally drove them out in the year 2000. There seem to be people who support the Palestinian cause which is widely supported in the Arab world. Hezbollah is seen to be a purveyor, an advocate of the idea of Pan-Arab (SP) solidarity that Arabs should work together to ensure their rights, to protect themselves, to help each other.

If you listen to Nasrallah’s speeches, they are laced with Pan Arab nationalist ideology and symbolism. Hezbollah is a representative of the many, many people in the region who believe that life should be defined more on the basis on Islamic moral principles; to be good to your neighbors, to have a just society, to treat people fairly, which are the same as Jewish and Christian principles if you read the holy books. It’s all the same stuff, just repackaged in different ways, but the same basic moral principles are there.

Many people in the Middle East want to have societies that are based on these moral values and Hezbollah represents that to a large extent.

And finally, they reflect the sentiment around the region, which is very strong, which says that we have to be careful of American and Western plans for the region. That western countries are trying to do things in our region that may not be good for us that may be good only for the U.S. or for Israel or for Europe, but may not be in the best interest of the Arab world. Hezbollah has tapped into all of these streams and these sentiments which are very powerful as well as being an extrmeley efficient deliverer of services to their own community and others in Lebanon, but mainly to the Shiites, of health care, education, nursery schools, vocational training, welfare payments to the poor. This combination of reasons explains why Hezbollah has been so popular.

They also operate in a relatively democratic Lebanese system. They’re in the government, they have two memebers in the cabinet, they’re in the parliment, they’re at the local government level, they’re active in public policy discussions.

This is not for instance like the Iranian government that came to power in a revolution and enforced its rule with a force of arms. The Iranian govternment is pluralistic without being very democratic. Within Iran you have a tremendous range of ideas and vitality and dynamism and creativity. Iran is a tremendous society but it isn’t very democractic because the guys at the top, and they are mostly guys, define the rules. They decide who can run for parliament and who can’t run, so its not a fully democractic system. The majority of Iranians wanted a more open, more liberal a more democratic system.

We know that clearly from the way they voted under (former Iranian President Mohammed) Khattami twice over eight years. The Iranian system is one in which the rulers are ruling with an iron fist.

In Hezbollah’s case, it’s not like that. Hezbollah lives in a very pluralistic society. They respresent the Shiites who make up somwhere maybe around 35-40 rpercent of Lebanese society, they have to enage the majority of other lebaonese who are Christians and Sunnis and Druse, so not all Shiites support Hezbollah. So they have to come to power by engaging in a pluralistic system in a give-and- take process and that’s what they are doing right now.

This week – tomorrow – there’s another session of this national dialouge where all the top leaders are meeting to sort out the tensions that now define Lebanon and because Hezbollah wants a bigger share of the central government greater than its allies of the cabinet and other people are resisting that. So they are involved in this rather intense negotioation in which they are looking at Hezbollah’s role in the government. Hezbollah’s allies role, like (General) Michel Aoun, and others in the government, and Michel Aoun is a Christian and he’s a close ally of Hezbollah.

They are looking at the presidency of the Mialhoud cause many people say the president is illegitimate cause his terror was extended by the Syrians when the Syrians dominated Lebonan. This wasnt the free will of the Lebanese, and so the presidency is contested. The whole strategic direction of the coutnry of Lebanon is an issue that is being discussed.

Hezbullah wants Lebanon to be more Arab and Islamic and nationalist. Hezbollah claims that the prime minister and other people in Lebanon want Lebanon to be Western oriented – to be part of the American-European approach. so Hezbollah in many ways has acted very democratically in the context of Lebanese democracy – which really i would rather talk about the pluralism and contestation than pure democracy.

The choice is not between Hezbollah and American democracy. That’s not a fair accurate portrayal of what the situation is. Hezbollah is very popular in Lebanon but also it’s opposed by a lot of people. I would say 30-40 percent, maybe even more, of Lebanese are critical of Hezbollah. They are afraid that it might be an arm of Iran. They are afraid that it might be trying to create an Islamic society like Iran. They are afraid that its simply a trojan horse for Syria. They are afraid that it’s going to spark some more wars like the one we just had with Israel, which creates great destruction in Lebanon. These are all valid issues that have to be discussed and debated; so there is significant criticism of Hezbollah and pressure on it from within Lebanon.

At the same time there are those trying to assert in political terms the power that they feel they have earned through their military performance in fighting Israel in 34 days and they have a lot of popularity around the Arab world.

Babcock: Yeah, yeah i mean what do you think, because that was one thing I was paying attenion to, especially was the rise…Hezbollah certainly gained popularity in Lebanon but also throughout the entire Arab world and I mean what kind of triggers, is there a kind of system that triggers that?

Khouri: I think several of those things I mentioned. There popularity among the Arab world is mainly because they were able to drive the Israeli world out of the south of Lebanon and they fought Israel for 34 days, which no Arab army had been able to do.

Israel, and for most of the Arab world, Israel is a problem. You know for the U.S. Israel is a great democratic ally and a haven for the the Jewish people and a wonderful society and a great democracy and ally and a great source of business vitality and Israel and the U.S. has seen in very positive terms. In the Arab world Israel has not been seen in positive terms. Israel sees enemies, has occupied our land, killed a lot of Arabs, wasted years of development in the Arab region, imprisions people, annexes land, kills people, shoots children. Israel does a lot of terrible things in the Arab view, therefore anyone who fights Israel seems to be respected in the Arab world until we can reach an agreement, reach a state, with a peace agreement with Israel and then we can live a normal life where Israel lives peacefully, the Arabs live peacefully, the Palestinians have a state. But we’re a long way from getting there, but until then fighting Israel is a very popular cause in the Arab world because of the reality the Arabs have lived with Israel for the last 55-60 years or whatever it is.

So that’s one reason why it has popularity. It’s also seen to be a movement that challenges the rather incompetent and often dictatorial rule of Arab regimes in most of the Arab world. Hezbollah has this aura and Hamas has it as well to an extent, of being the clean, non-corrupt, efficient movement, close to its people, ears to the ground, very accountable, very responsive, very efficent, very focused with a good strategy, efficent implementation. It has a lot of respect, it’s respected as an organization that gets things done. And that repsonds to the sentiments of ordinary people.

Hezbollah’s popularity in the region is a function of its perfomance, of absolutely nothing else.

Hezbollah didn’t exist twenty years ago or 25 years ago. It came into existence in the early 80s. Same with Hamas, Hamas didnt exist 25 years ago. These groups came in to being largely as a consequence of the Isreali occupation. Theres other roles that Hezbollah plays. As i said it represents Shiite empowerment, it has linkages with Iran and Syria but its main primary role has been to empower the Shiites of Lebanon and to fight the Israelis and to get the Isreali occupatioin ended. And that’s the reason why it has so much popularity and so much respect.

At the same time it is criticized like I said. But around the Arab world there is less criticism, there’s more support. The criticism around the Arab world is mostly from Arab regimes, governments, who are afraid of these movements that challenge the established political order. Because Hezbollah has seen to be a threat to the dominant politcal order that has defined the Middle East, and the same with Hamas, these are seen to be sort of loose cannons that threaten the regimes and the rulers who have dominated the region for so long.

Babcock: Have you met Nasrallah?

Khouri: Not Nasrallah. I’ve met other members of Hezbollah. And they’re very impressive people. Im not in 100 percent agreement with Hezbollah. I’ve tried to deal with them, and Hamas and anybody else, the Lebanese government, all the people I’ve met with and dealt with over the years with my journalistic work. I try to judge them on their perfomance and morality, their behavior.

And Hezbollah people are very, very impressive. There are questions that have to be asked legitamately of them, I’m not saying they’re wonderful, wonderful people. I’m just saying they’re very impressive people if you judge them dispassionately.

If you look at their perfomance, their rhetoric, their work, their systematic response to the issues that they raise, their response to their own people, they’re very impressive, they’re very professional. I think professional is the word that best describes them. They get things done. They get things done that sometimes, you know, Israelis and Americans or Arab regimes don’t like. And there is a legitimate political discussion there about some of their actions. The Americans and the Israelis accuse them of being terrorists and that’s certaintly an important, serious charge that has to be addressed, there’s no doubt about it. But I think they have to be very careful with American accusations against Arabs in light of the American accusations against Iraq, which proved to be 100 percent false in the Iraq world. All of the intial reasons that the US gave for attacking Iraq proved not to be correct.

Whether that was because the people in Washington were liars and decievers or they were good, honest, patriotic Americans who simply were misled by poor intelligence, I don’t know. The American society has to decide that. History will give a verdict about wether these neo-cons and Bush were just crooks and chalatans or patriots who were decieved by insufficent subordinance. We’ll see, that will come out soon.

But the reality is the accusations that they made against Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, links with Al Qaeda, imminent threat to the U.S., all proved to be 10

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