Rachel Bronson, the Council on Foreign Relations’ director of Middle East studies, says she finds “enormous opposition” among Arab states to a possible United States invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. In an interview, Bronson faulted the Bush administration for not providing enough information to counter harmful rumors and reports in the region about U.S. intentions.
Bronson, asserting that war seems inevitable, also said that France, currently leading the anti-war forces on the United Nations Security Council, will eventually join with the United States in a second council resolution on Iraq.
Bronson was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 10, 2003.
Everyone seems to think there will be an invasion of Iraq led by the United States in the next six weeks or so. Do you concur?
Yes. I think it is very likely.
Do you expect much real debate with the French and others on a second Security Council resolution, or will the United States decide to go it alone?
If necessary, the U.S. will go alone. But I think we will push [a second resolution sanctioning forced disarmament] through the United Nations. It is in French national interest to make sure that we have a second Security Council resolution. A functioning Security Council ensures France a seat at the table. I would expect Russia and China to follow suit. In many ways, the French have played this very well. They will appear to the rest of the world as putting up a real fight against America. But we all know there is a French aircraft carrier headed to the Persian Gulf. When push comes to shove, I think they will be with the United States. The French are very good at playing both sides of this and they are doing it extremely well.
The tricky one is Germany. They are spreading their wings, trying to create a foreign policy independent of Washington. This is new for them, as their leaders and their population finally emerge from the shadow of World War II. But they have overplayed their hand, taking a more rigid position than their own diplomats would like to see. It is a new Germany that we are seeing, in many ways a novice, bound to make rookie mistakes. Still, I would not be surprised to see a second Security Council resolution.
You have just been to the Persian Gulf area. How do the Arab states regard the impending war?
They are deeply worried about the consequences. They are worried about refugee flows. They are worried that the United States doesn’t know what it is doing. They are concerned we will leave too soon [after hostilities end] and Iraq will fall apart, or too late and establish a colonial beachhead in the Middle East. They are not convinced that we will try to support a stable Iraq and eventually turn power back over to the Iraqi people. We have basically given them nothing to believe that we will do so. We have given them nothing to suggest that the administration has a very good appreciation for “the day after” issues.
Why do Arab leaders not come to Saddam Hussein’s defense?
No one wants to fall on his sword for Saddam Hussein, and they know what is going on. What surprises me is that the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or elsewhere, have not been quietly petitioning France and Germany for a Security Council resolution [authorizing force against Iraq]. One of the worst things that can happen to Saddam’s neighbors is a U.S. military assault without a United Nations Security Council resolution. We, and Arab states’ populations, know that, in any event, Iraq’s neighbors will open bases and air space to U.S. forces and undertake all necessary logistic support. There will be domestic costs if they do all this without a U.N. resolution. By blocking the U.S. at the U.N., France and Germany are working against that long-term Arab interest.
But you do think France will sign on to a second resolution?
I think the French will, but they are making it difficult for the Arab states to make the necessary preparations. They are certainly making it miserable for Turkey.
Is there Arab opposition to an American invasion of Iraq?
Yes, there is enormous opposition, but it is important to parse out the causes of the opposition. First, there is an enormous amount of mistrust of United States motives in general. People in the Gulf are under the impression that in Afghanistan, there were up to 20,000 civilian casualties. The number is probably closer to 1,000 to 1,500.
Reasonable people in the Middle East take the number of 20,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, multiply it by a factor of three, four, or five, for Iraq, given that it is an urban society and Saddam is likely to use human shields. In their view, civilian casualties in Iraq are likely to number between 60,000 to 100,000, clearly way out of sync with what Americans are expecting. Then they look at American planners and note a marked lack of sympathy for that number of civilian casualties— which there is, if you think the number in Afghanistan is 20,000 and the number in Iraq could be 100,000. This is a huge public diplomacy problem that is not being managed.
Third, people in the Gulf are afraid about the use of chemical or biological weapons, as are we. They are worried about what will happen to the Iraqis, but they are also worried that this stuff will drift south and affect them. Technically, it is unlikely it will drift south. But again, nobody is trying to provide that information to people who are concerned because they are not that far from Iraq. This is where Charlotte Beers [Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs] and her crew should be focusing the public diplomacy fight.
How would the United States address this?
You could have a fact sheet certified by technical institutes saying that if chemical or biological weapons are used, here are some of the facts. There is real concern out there. We are not helping ourselves.
There is also enormous concern about “the day after.” The Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker Institute jointly issued a report on that, but there is very little discussion from the administration on “day after” issues.
The administration has been virtually silent on this, right?
Almost silent. So the craziest voices are being assumed to represent the U.S. government. Influential leaders and people in the Arab world are concerned that the United States is [planning to invade Iraq] only to take over the oil. And it doesn’t help when it seems that the administration is debating what to do about oil. They are also concerned that the United States will sweep up all the [postwar] contracts [for reconstructing Iraq]. What that means is that if the United States sweeps up all the contracts, they are worried that once again this stagnant economic region will not benefit. This attitude is very selfish in some ways, but we are all involved for self-interest. What these leaders are worried about is that Iraq will not return to a normal state that will once again be the economic engine of the Middle East, which it could and which we should be articulating as a goal, but the United States will take over and steer contracts and the other countries in the region will remain an economic backwater.
An article in the New York Times on Sunday quoted Saudi sources saying the Saudis would ask the United States to withdraw all its forces after the Iraq war and start some kind of democratic elections. On the surface, both seem extraordinary. Did you hear much about that?
I don’t really think it is extraordinary. Before the first Gulf war, the United States was very active in training the Saudi national guard and all that, but we did not have the kind of troop presence we have now. Basically, the Saudis are calling for a return to the pre-1991 arrangement, which I think is entirely healthy and acceptable.
But I can envision a looming problem. In past experiences of post-conflict reconstruction, neighboring states played an important role as a staging ground. In Afghanistan, for instance, we rely heavily on Central Asian states, and so we will have to consider— assuming the Saudis want an American commitment to stabilize Iraq, which I think they do— what kind of support [functions] they will allow to operate from inside their territory.
What about elections? You were recently in Bahrain, which is close to Saudi Arabia and recently had elections. Is there movement toward more openness?
Yes. The experiments in Bahrain are important because Saudi Arabia looks to Bahrain as a Petri dish. Saudi Arabia subsidizes Bahrain by giving it oil to re-export, the two are very close politically. Increased democratization in Bahrain should be viewed as a Saudi effort toward democratization on a small scale.
Reforms and change come very slowly to Saudi Arabia. There has been a lot of important movement in terms of things Crown Prince [Abdullah] has said. A number of Saudi elite have petitioned King Fahd to put through reforms in terms of women’s rights, and in terms of education and things like that. There’s a mood for change there. But it will take a long time, time that they and we may not have. In Saudi Arabia, it is a big step for them to say anything, and an even bigger step to follow through.
After the 1991 Gulf war, the United States spearheaded the Madrid conference on Mideast peace that led eventually to the Oslo agreement between Palestinians and Israel. Some people are now saying that, after the Iraq war, there’s likely to be a new opening for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Do you agree?
The opportunity will certainly be there. But the administration will have many of its Middle East hands tied up with Iraq for months if not years. [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz made some promising statements about restricting Israeli settlements, but I don’t get a sense that this administration thinks that there is a problem out there with their policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. So, the opportunity will be there, I don’t have a lot of confidence that they will seize it. I hope I’m wrong.