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The United States and the Middle East: A Conversation with Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel ‘75 is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies. He served in the CIA for 30 years before retiring in 2006. He was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to four presidents and has written extensively on policy issues in both regions.

Mira Mehta: Is there anything from your time at Brown that you think has particularly shaped your perspective or your career?

Bruce Reidel: Brown was great. I really enjoyed it. I have very fond memories. The year I was a junior at Brown, the October 1973 War broke out, which of course was a complete surprise to the Israelis and to the American government and to all outside observers. And I just found it absolutely fascinating. I’ve been interested in the Middle East my whole life, but I would say that the 1973 War and what followed confirmed my interest in studying Middle East history. King Faisal [of Saudi Arabia] was aware that the attack was coming, the Saudi Egyptians and Syrians had consulted with him in a summit meeting, and he had already committed to them that once the United States began supporting Israel with military supplies, Saudi Arabia would cut off the export of oil to the United States, which is indeed what it did. And, as a consequence, we had the worst foreign-­inspired recession in modern American history. No country has deliberately done as much economic damage to the United States as Saudi Arabia. And it awoke my interest not just in the Middle East, but in Saudi Arabia in particular.

I was [also] very fortunate to have several professors who helped really shape my thinking about how you study history, how you write history. There was a political science professor at Brown when I was there named Lyman Kirkpatrick. He was the former Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency. I was his research assistant the last year I was there, and he got me interested in the CIA. He’s quite a notable character because after the colossal failure of the Bay of Pigs, the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961 that failed miserably, he was tasked by the then-CIA Director, as IG, to write a report on what had gone wrong. And he wrote a blistering account that essentially said nobody in the CIA’s management structure had wanted to be responsible for this mission because nobody thought it could succeed. Therefore, no one was really in charge, which only guaranteed that it would completely fail.

Well, it was such a tough report that the CIA decided to suppress it, and all copies were brought together and kept in a safe at CIA headquarters, which undermined the whole purpose. The whole purpose is that people can learn from a previous mistake. Fortunately, several years later, it was disseminated in the American government and it is available in a declassified version today. So I would say my exposure to my history professors and also, in particular, to this former CIA officer helped nudge me in the direction of a career in the intelligence community.

MM: What do you think Americans misunderstand about Middle Eastern politics and history?

BR: In general, Americans have a weak understanding of Islam. Most Americans don’t understand that Islam is in many ways very close to Christianity. The Muslim faith holds Jesus as one of the prophets, as well as Moses and the other earlier prophets. I don’t think very many Americans understand that.

I think that there’s also a great deal of fear about Islam. To some extent, this is understandable. We were attacked on September 11 by an organization that claimed it spoke for the Islamic world. It didn’t. Al-Qaeda killed far more Muslims than it ever killed Americans. And it violated one of the sacred principles of Islam, which is that you don’t kill innocent civilians. Unfortunately, that established an ethos that some politicians in America have sought to use. Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims coming to the United States is the most egregious example.

Interestingly, the president at the time, George W. Bush—who made a lot of mistakes in his eight years, including not taking seriously the intelligence that Al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States was coming—was very careful after the attack not to blame Islam, not to call for a crusade to go after the terrorists. He actually went to a mosque shortly after the attack and said, very clearly, that Islam is not the enemy. Our enemy is this terrorist organization. And he was very careful over the remaining seven years of his tenure to draw that distinction. Not all of the administration was as careful. And of course, W. [Bush] committed the terrible blunder of going to war in Iraq. But I still give him credit for making clear that we were not at war with Islam, that we were at war with a terrorist organization.

MM: Given your position in intelligence, what do you think the role of these misunderstandings and fear have been in driving US policy towards the Middle East?

BR: I was a carry­over into the George W. Bush administration, and I was there in the summer of 2001 as we saw evidence after evidence of the plot coming. I couldn’t get Dr. Condoleezza Rice to focus on the threat. She was much more focused on strategic arms agreements with the Russians and issues like that. She just didn’t take the Al-Qaeda threat seriously, and she was not alone. Dick Cheney didn’t take it seriously. The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, didn’t take it seriously.

So on the morning of September 11, I was actually going to our senior staff meeting in the White House Situation Room. We’d already heard a vague report that one plane had hit the World Trade Center, but we didn’t realize it was a jet passenger airplane. So we sat down and started the meeting, and about two minutes into the meeting, the door opens and the senior duty officer in the Situation Room comes in and says to Dr. Rice, “A second airplane has hit the World Trade Center. We are under attack. America is at war.” We immediately, of course, went back to our offices and were then immediately evacuated from the compound, which we had never practiced before. In my seven previous years in the White House, we had never had an evacuation drill. As a consequence, nobody knew what to do. So it was real mass confusion. Fortunately, the Situation Room continued to function effectively. And the president, after many hours traveling, got back to the White House.

And there was certainly a great deal of fear at that time. The assumption universally was that another attack was coming, and it would only be a matter of time, and it would probably be worse than the first attack. We now know in retrospect that there was a plan for a follow-on attack to attack the West Coast. That plot, fortunately, was foiled by our move into Afghanistan, in which we learned who the hijackers were. But there was a huge amount of fear and concern and worry. We easily forget today that we also had a biological weapons threat that went on with a mysterious white powder. We never really understood what that was all about.

At the time, the universal assumption was that this was also an Al-Qaeda plot. It wasn’t, but it helped create the sense of panic. 9/­11 really was like a traumatic moment for many Americans. Despite what George W. Bush said, Islam appeared to be the enemy. People thought, “These strange foreigners who dress funny, they’re the problem.” I think one of the surprising consequences of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that at least some Americans came to have a greater appreciation for what Islam is, and to make some of the distinctions about it that are important to having a better understanding.

MM: How do you see the role of congressional authority with respect to the way the US carries out military or intelligence operations in the Middle East?

BR: When I went to Brown, we were still in the Vietnam War and we were protesting the Vietnam War, rightly so. Out of that war, there was a law that said the president had to consult with the Congress before engaging in military operations. Well, for the better part of a half century, we really haven’t done that.

In 1991, to his credit, President H. W. Bush did go to the Congress and get a War Powers Resolution for the Iraq War of 1991. His son got a much more loose statement out of Congress. We went into Afghanistan with no serious congressional oversight. In part, that was because we had to act very quickly, but we stayed for 20 years. We’ve engaged in military operations in Somalia, in Lebanon, and in many other places with very little congressional oversight. I would hope that one result of this disaster in Yemen is that the Senate, in particular, takes up its responsibility of providing serious congressional oversight of military operations outside the United States.

We have blundered too many times because we’ve lacked that kind of oversight. [Then-Senator] Joe Biden famously voted against the authorization for war in 1991 and for the Iraq War in 2003, so smart people can make bad decisions about these things. But it’s always better when you get Congress involved. One of the things that the CIA learned over the course of its history was that congressional oversight was actually a good thing because it meant that you had outsiders looking at your thinking and seeing where the mistakes were. Having to inform Congress and then testify in secret about planned covert operations actually helped ensure that really bad ideas never got off the ground, and then good ones got better because the Congress weighed in. We need similar procedures for military operations with real checks and balances on what an administration can do.

MM: How do you address people’s concerns about being able to move quickly with this extra oversight?

BR: We have the capacity to respond quickly. We do not just have the world’s largest defense budget; we also have a global array of bases from Greenland to Australia, across Europe, across the Middle East. We have 13 aircraft carriers; no other country has more than two. So we have the capacity to respond quickly to threats literally almost anywhere in the world. Afghanistan was a challenge. It is a landlocked country in Central Asia. But within about 10 days after 9/11, we had CIA officers and military officers on the ground directing air strikes. That’s very impressive.

There is no reason why you cannot consult with Congress in that kind of a situation. You can begin your military mission and at the same time begin some level of consultation. That’s the right way to do it. You may not get a formal vote right away, but at least you will have consulted with the senior leadership of the Congress. I’m for more oversight, and if that means slowing down a little bit, I’d be prepared to take the risk of slowing down because it’s easy to run into a bad decision quickly. And as we’ve learned in Iraq and other places, it’s awfully hard to get out of a bad decision, and certainly very hard to get out quickly.

MM: What are the most important dynamics in Middle Eastern politics the US needs to be aware of right now?

BR: We are now looking at two very interesting developments in the Middle East. First is the formation of a new Israeli government which is going to have many more far-­right elements in it than we’ve ever seen before—extremism, bordering on racism. This comes at a time when tensions are very high in the West Bank and in the Israeli-Arab community. I could easily see a third intifada erupting in the next 6-­12 months, likely to be more violent than either of its predecessors and including protests among the approximately 20 percent of Israelis who are Arabs. We’ve never really seen a sustained violent protest in that community.

The other thing is what’s going on in Iran. The fact that the Iranian team at the World Cup would not sing the national anthem in order to symbolize their support for protesters at home is really amazing. This takes a lot of courage. Are they going to go home? What kind of reception are they going to get when they get home? The wave of unrest is really unprecedented since the creation of the Islamic Republic.

I worked on Iran in 1978 through the end of the hostage crisis, and there are many similarities in this wave of unrest to 1978. There are also some important differences. In 1978, you had a centralized leadership of the opposition in the Islamic clerical establishment. We don’t have anything quite like that this time. But in many other ways, with the frequency of the protests, the $64 million question is this: Will the Iranian security establishment, and in particular the Revolutionary Guard, continue to fire on their fellow Iranians? What happened in 1979 is that the imperial army of Iran, and, most of all, the forces in Tehran, refused to fire on the mob anymore and went over to the other side, literally. That could happen now in Iran. Fundamental change in Iran like that to a more open, more tolerant government would change the whole nature of the situation. Why would we need to keep thousands of American troops in the Persian Gulf if the Iranian threat was transformed into a non-threat, into a country we could work with? You don’t need huge bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates if you don’t have a threat. So things are always somewhat unpredictable, and, on those two big fronts, we could be looking at some very major changes. We’ll see soon.

MM: In your view, what’s the biggest mistake the US can make in responding to those changes?

BR: I think that we should be less obsessed with the notion of an Iranian nuclear weapon. We have turned this into an existential question. Iran is not going to nuke the United States of America. No Iranian government conceivable is that insane. And they’re not going to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. Iranians know well that Israel is not just another nuclear weapons state; it’s got a very large arsenal and it’s got missiles, fighters, and submarines which could launch nuclear weapons anywhere in the Middle East.

I would devote less attention to worrying about Iran’s nuclear weapons and more attention to trying to encourage reform and change in Iran so that it’s a less hostile state to the United States. After all, we have lived with nuclear­-armed Pakistan for decades, and we’ve had a collection of Pakistani military dictators, some of whom we’ve worked with closely, who were every bit as religiously intolerant as any ayatollah out there. [Muhammad] Zia­-ul­-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was a confirmed religious extremist, but we worked with him. So I think we tend to exaggerate the importance of the Iranian nuclear threat and make it too much of a guiding principle of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.