War with Iraq is not inevitable, says Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Noting the “stunning” Iraqi prisoner release and mounting international pressure on Saddam Hussein, she says that a coup might yet solve America’s Iraq problem. But she also offers a far-reaching critique of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy—for failing to bring along friendly Arab states, for not recognizing deep strains in U.S.-Saudi relations that go beyond 9/11, for attaching itself too closely to Israel’s Ariel Sharon, and for embarking upon “the mother of all nation-building campaigns in the Middle East.”
Bronson, who is also Olin senior fellow at the Council, made these comments in a wide-ranging interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website, cfr.org, on October 25, 2002.
Q. How important is the passage of a compromise resolution in the Security Council on Iraq to the Arab states in the Middle East?
A. A U.N. resolution is probably one of the most important parts of an American response to the Iraq problem. If the president can get some sort of resolution, it allows the Arab states to go back to their own people and say, “The international community has decided that, in defense of the Security Council resolution, there will be a response in Iraq. If it comes down to military action, we don’t want to support it, but we would because it is part of a U.N. response.” And that’s a lot easier for them to tell their population than saying that the United States has decided it’s going to invade another Arab country and we’re going to support it. And those are the two options.
And what I think is incredibly important is that immediately after President Bush addressed the U.N., you saw President Mubarak of Egypt, Crown Prince Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia], and Amr Musa, the head of the Arab League, all come out and say, “We will go along with the U.N. resolution, with all that it entails.” All the president had to do was make a speech at the U.N. and across the board, they came out supportive.
Q. Was it your understanding that the diplomats paved the way for that presidential speech? There must have been a lot of backchannel discussion about what to do.
A. I think there was a lot of pressure put on the U.S. to do something at the U.N. for that reason, but it took the administration a long time to realize the importance of using the U.N. And some people in Washington have been very cynical, saying the reason the Saudis came out and supported the U.N. action was because the U.S. started threatening to move its military presence to Qatar and that maybe we would really pull out—and cynically, it shows the importance of being tough on the Saudis that way. But if you look at the Saudi response, it is consistent with the Egyptians’ response and the Arab League’s response. It was very [much] in keeping with the Arab response.
Q. You saw the draft resolution in the paper. It was fairly mild in my mind. Do you think this will fly past the French and Russians?
A. The French and the Russians are going to look for a resolution that doesn’t necessitate action. My guess is this or something like it will pass, and the reason I think so is that the French and the Russians don’t want the U.S. to have no resolution. They don’t want the U.S. to have to feel it has to go alone. And so all of their diplomatic weight comes from having a campaign against Iraq within the U.N. context. So I do think something will pass. I think this is probably fairly close to what the resolution will look like in the end. It may be a little bit softer, but I won’t be surprised if this or something like it goes through.
Q. Are you surprised that the Bush administration has gone as far as it has on using the U.N.?
A. I am happy they finally realized the importance of using the U.N. I think it was obvious it would make their life a lot easier if they used the U.N., and it took them a long time to realize it. It took them longer than it should have [to realize] that it was in their interest to do it. So in some ways, I was surprised because it conflicted with past behavior, past rhetoric. But no, I wasn’t surprised, on the other hand, because it seemed so obviously the right way to proceed. It was surprising it took them that long to realize this.
Q. If there is no resolution, it will be very hard for the U.S. to get bases in the region, won’t it?
A. Yes. Certain bases are key, like those in Turkey, but others can be substituted for with aircraft carriers. But bases serve two purposes. Militarily, they make things easier, of course. But politically, they also show a country’s diplomatic support, and in this case, that might be just as important. Without access to regional bases, it makes everything harder.
But here’s what I think the real key is, and why the U.N. is important: getting a resolution. We don’t want to have to deal with Iraq the day after by ourselves. We don’t want to have to bear the whole financial responsibility, we don’t want to bear the law-and-order aspects of it. We don’t do it very well. We are not equipped for it. Others do it a lot better than we do, and so getting others to go in with us helps us to have others with us going out. So in my mind, having a U.N. resolution will be very helpful for “day after” issues as well.
Q. What do you make of the internal situation in Iraq? I was struck by the reaction to the amnesty release of all these prisoners and the public response, which seems to put the regime somewhat on the defensive. Any thoughts?
A. This amnesty is stunning. It is a complete surprise to me. Why they did it is very debatable, and everybody is trying to second-guess why they would have done this. Saddam Hussein may very well believe what he is saying—that this is a goodwill gesture, and now all these people are going to turn around and support him. But in my mind, they are front-line soldiers for America, if played correctly. I wonder if some of this is due to the fact that the administration is finally is starting to make this a human rights issue in addition to [an issue of] weapons of mass destruction, which they should have been doing all along. The American people can support a war when it’s for strategic as well as moral reasons. The condition of the Iraqi people is so uniquely horrendous; it is not like other authoritarian states. And I wonder if Saddam did not see that that case was building and try to counter by saying, “What do you mean, I just released tens of thousands of people from prison.” That is the only logical explanation I can come up with. These to me are front-line foot soldiers for an American intervention.
In Eastern Europe there were some attempts to do exactly this. Eastern Europe scholars have said it did not work. It was only the first step of the beginning of the unraveling of the control. There were protests in Iraq of hundreds at different secret police headquarters. What is important is to see now what happens to those protests. Are they squashed effectively? That’s what’s important to watch. Are the local protests put down? Are people put back into jail? Do they shoot in the air and no one goes home? In Eastern Europe, they shot in the air, and no one went home.
Q. Is a military invasion of Iraq this year inevitable?
A. No. I honestly believe the president hasn’t made up his mind, although he’s certainly leaning heavily toward an attack. But I think two things could happen to delay, or postpone indefinitely, an attack this winter. First, a coup. When we gear up to go and have the full complement of American power on the Iraqi border, in my mind, we may see a coup. Smart military officers are not going to organize a coup now. Every coup attempt that’s occurred over the past decade—and there have been many—has been squashed. But when America is bearing down and Iraqi military officers have to decide to either take a bullet for Saddam or for the U.S., they may decide their best bet is to try their luck and target Saddam, because we might go home at that point. I think that’s entirely possible, and as long as the new leader shows some commitment to working with the U.S. and seriousness about reducing Saddam’s massive weapons of mass destruction program, I think we’d be just fine with that.
The other thing that could happen is that the U.N. process actually does work: inspection teams are organized, sent over, and do their work. I see this taking a good several months, well into the winter. This puts us past the window in which we want to attack—before March, when it gets really hot and our equipment begins breaking down. In my mind, this whole military campaign should have been originally planned for a year from now so that the military build-up and diplomacy all converge on an attack. Right now, our diplomacy and military planning are out of whack, as far as I can tell.
Q. How important are the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to the Iraq situation, vis a vis support of Arab states, or is the Security Council resolution enough?
A. The ongoing fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians only makes our job that much harder. The reason the U.S. wants to be involved in trying to further a deal or a [negotiating] process of some sort is because it’s the right thing for the Palestinians and the Israelis, but it is also the right thing for the U.S. because countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and European countries want to see some sort of progress. They can be much more helpful to the peace process, to be sure, but it makes it easier for us to ask them for assistance on other things if they do not have to defend against U.S. policy in the region. So I think they are very much separate issues, but each provides a context for the other. When things are going badly between the two parties, it makes it that much harder for the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan and others to do what we would like them to do on Iraq. They have their own plates full.
The fighting in the region is, for the first time, putting pressure on the leaderships of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and others. In the past, I believe, the fighting allowed the leaders to divert their publics’ attention from domestic problems to international adventure. But now with satellite television, with a very young population that is wiser and sees what is going on in the rest of the world, I don’t think the conventional wisdom is true any more. The people are saying to their leaders, “We see what’s going on in Palestine, and we see what’s going on at home. Why are you so impotent at home as well as abroad?” I think it has propelled action from the leaders you didn’t see in the past. I think that is where [Saudi] Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative comes from. Cynically, people say this is an attempt to get terrorism off the front page, the poor U.S.-Saudi relations. In my mind, it is consistent with what I was reading of the dissidents. The crown prince was feeling he was losing control of events and was trying to get fighting off the TV screen.
Q. Talking about the Saudis, they have come under a lot of heat, including in the Council on Foreign Relations’ independent task force. Is the criticism justified, or have the Saudis taken steps to ameliorate the situation?
A. I think even the Council task force says the Saudis have taken steps to ameliorate the situation, and they do point to tactical steps the Saudis have taken. But they are not doing everything we think they should be. I think we face a bigger problem with the Saudis, which I don’t think the Saudi leadership or our leadership appreciates. This relationship started really falling apart not on September 11 but at the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, our interest in the Middle East had to do with the security of Israel, the free flow of oil at moderate prices, and keeping the Soviets out of the Persian Gulf. Keeping the Soviets out of the Persian Gulf is no longer an issue. Security of Israel is not as contested as it was in the past. Free flow of oil is still an issue. But we have a host of new problems—terrorism, Islamic radicalism. And these are issues we have not figured out how to deal with the Saudis yet. This relationship is under significant geopolitical strain. It is not just that the people don’t like each other anymore. This is a serious rift in certain national interests and a real change that wasn’t addressed in the ‘90s and should have been.
There wasn’t a lot of attention [paid to the fact] that this relationship was under strain. Strategically, we were both caught up in very immediate political issues. Our military bases, Iraq, that was our focus. Whatever the Saudis wanted to do domestically, we knew there were problems, and they would deal with that. If you look back on the Cold War, we liked it that they were a theocracy. It was good for the U.S. We were fighting the godless communists. The Saudis dealt with the godless part. We dealt with the communist part. It was useful to us—also very useful to us in places like Afghanistan, where they were spending money for a cause we supported. And then our interests changed in the ‘90s. Theirs didn’t. We started paying attention to the problem of [terrorism] funding. They were paying attention to terrorism well before we were, but they were focused only within their borders. We were paying attention to funding that was going elsewhere. We started paying attention most directly in 1998, although a few people before that. You had the African embassy bombings. And in 2000 the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
A lot of media attention assumed we have been on the Saudis to change their policy for the last decade or so. It is not true. Our attention has only been drawn to it in the last several years. They have taken some tactical steps. They could definitely take more steps. And I think the pressure on this relationship is not just that the public became attentive to it on September 11, but this has been an accident waiting to happen since the end of the Cold War.
Q. What about Egypt?
A. I think that given some of the rhetoric that you hear in Washington, every regime in the region believes they are next, that Iraq is the first step.
Q. That the U.S.will overthrow them?
A. Yes. Either directly or indirectly. Directly, if everything goes well in Iraq, maybe we will turn next to Syria, maybe turn next to Iran. There was that Pentagon briefing in July from [Laurent] Murawiec from RAND. He briefed the Defense Policy Board that we should target Saudi Arabia, the eastern province. That isn’t a unique position. It’s not held by mainstream policy makers, but the Defense Policy Board permitted it. And so countries do feel they may very well be next. There are so many reasons they are resisting the U.S., and on a lot of it I don’t think they are taking a very smart stance. They should be taking more of a French stance on this, on the line. So if and when we march into Baghdad and Arabs are cheering in the street as I believe they will be, they will turn rightfully to the Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis and say, “Where were you when we were going through this? It is one thing for the U.S. not to care, but where were you?”
Right now, it is a very tense time in U.S.-Egyptian relationship. We need them in the war on terror. We need them in the peace process There was a lot of anger they did not put more pressure on Arafat to sign the Middle East peace deal. Just like Saudi Arabia, that relationship is strained too.
Q. Would an invasion ofIraqbe prolonged, or over in a short amount of time?
A. All indications I see is that it will take a long time—maybe not the actual fighting, but the establishment of order. You may get some fighting from the loyalists, the Republican Guard, and the secret police, but millions of Iraqis, once they see that we’re serious—and I think the administration in part is planning for this—will turn against the regime. I think one of the reasons that the administration is going to want to build up forces in the region very, very heavily is that they will want a heavy military footprint to try to create some friction inside so that we don’t have to invade, so that there is some kind of overthrow—which I think we will accept, breathe a sigh of relief, and go home....
Q. Please analyze the Bush administration’s Middle East policy.
A. It is very ironic that the president who campaigned against nation-building has embarked on the mother of all nation-building campaigns in the Middle East. We are committed to a new and democratic Iraq, similarly in Afghanistan; we’re calling for democracy and doing certain things to promote it in Palestine. This isn’t the Clinton administration trying to nation-build in the seams of civilization—the Balkans, or East Timor, or Haiti. This is the Middle East—strong resilient states, angry populations, strategic resources, and the heart of the world’s religions. And so for a president who argued vociferously against nation-building, all you can say about our Middle East policy is that it is a very ambitious nation-building program and none of it really ties together. It’s not really backed up with ideas on what it means—and what kind of resources they are going to put into it. So for instance, in a June 24 speech in the Rose Garden, the president talked about democratizing the Palestinian Authority, wanting transparency, and accountability, but didn’t say what at all the U.S. would do. In fact, he made it very clear the U.S. would do nothing until this happened, even though the Palestinians themselves have for years been calling for these kinds of things and never have gotten it. So no resources, no strategy, no commitment, no anything, but demanding that it happen. And the one condition that was clear was that in the democratic election, the most obvious candidate, Arafat, could not win.
So, despite what you hear, by regional standards, Yasir Arafat is the most democratically elected leader. The Palestinians did have elections. They were considered fair. There are some who will tell you he was the only candidate. And Arafat really is the only candidate for president. There are other candidates for other positions. So it is bizarre that the one who would probably be elected is told he cannot win. So there is no strategy toward this nation-building; the analysis is trying to catch up with the policy. If we do intervene in Iraq, which is something I think we should do, we should think about the day after...
In some ways, you can give the administration enormous amounts of credit. They know where they want to get, and now they are trying to get the train going in that direction. But it would be nice if it was done quietly as if there was a process actually going on rather than all these fits and starts.
... This administration came into power wanting to solve the problem with Saddam Hussein. September 11 sort of added fuel to their fire, but it confused the issue. I think these are two separate things. They would have gotten more support both from the American people, and, as importantly, more international support if they kept the issues separate. But they have conflated them. But we shouldn’t be deceived by it. This is something these guys rightfully wanted to do before taking office.
Q. On Israel?
A. The administration’s very much hands-off approach—tied to the hip of Ariel Sharon—has not been helpful. Ariel Sharon has been incredibly smart and savvy to get the administration to see the war on terror as very much what the Israelis are fighting. I think the Israelis are fighting on a daily basis, but I think when the president made his speech [to Congress] after 9/11, when he talked about terrorism with a “global reach,” that was to differentiate al-Qaeda from local terrorist problems. And so over time, they have come to include all activity in the war on terror, which makes their job enormously more difficult.
I think Arafat made things very difficult for the administration six weeks after September 11, when the al-Aqsa Brigades, loyal to Arafat, came out and took credit for a terrorist attack inside Israel’s Green Line. This happened at a time when Hamas and Hezbollah were talking among themselves to lay low. Arafat made it very difficult for the president, who was not predisposed to working with him anyway...
Momentum in the peace process is good for the U.S., for reasons of regional strategic concerns, and I think this administration has lost sight of that.
Q. What about Iran?
A. Probably the toughest issue out there. In terms of Iraq, Iran has sent very positive signals that they would stay neutral, which is enormously important for the administration. This may be predictable, but Iran has been sending signals that they weren’t going to be as foolish as last time by allowing the U.S. an easy entrance into Iraq and not getting anything for it and not getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Iran has something to be gained from a disarmament campaign against Iraq. Iran sort of wins. But they have sent that message of neutrality, which makes the administration’s life a lot easier.
If there is an invasion of Iraq and the U.S. becomes a military viceroy there, the Iranians are going to become very difficult… That’s not to say there is not a way to work with them. The Iranians speak with many voices. They can be helpful ... but they can be very difficult, as they were in Afghanistan, when it seems they let al-Qaeda people bleed into their territory.... The stakes are even higher in Iraq. The challenges will be the different voices in Iran. I think the question of if or whether there is an attack is very important.
People are operating as if it is inevitable. I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is inevitable in January and February, and it may not be inevitable at all. If the U.S. presses hard up against the borders of Iraq, and there is a coup, as long as we feel we can work with the new leader, I think we will be satisfied.
The timing of it—I always thought, I would be building a campaign for October-November of 2003. We want the U.N. process to work itself out. We want to be able to say we had no other choice. In my mind, that takes us to the fall. You hold the inspectors back and let them go in the spring.... But the Bush administration may have started a train they cannot get off. There may be a timing issue. I would like to see it in the fall. There are good strategic reasons, good diplomatic reasons. But they do seem so impatient for this. So you may see something this winter.