A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World

Mar 17, 2009

In an informed assessment of the past, present, and future of America's relations with the Muslim world, the CIA's point person on Islam, Emile A. Nakhleh, makes a vigorous case for a renewal of American public diplomacy.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome our members and guests and to thank you for joining us.

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Emile Nakhleh, who came from New Mexico to be with us. He will be discussing his book, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World, which will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program if you so choose.

The events of 9/11 have had a devastating effect on the relations between the United States and the Muslim world. What happened on that day raised a series of issues and reinforced several misconceptions about Muslims worldwide. Questions such as "Why do Muslims hate us?" and "Is this the beginning of the clash of civilizations?" were the subject of newspaper articles, pundits, and ordinary citizens alike. Additionally, since that day there has been a tendency to group all Muslims and make them collectively responsible for what happened on a day that will live in infamy.

For the past eight years it has been too easy for America to view Muslims through a prism of terrorism, instead of focusing on the common interests that Americans and mainstream Muslims share.

In A Necessary Engagement, our speaker, a 15-year veteran of the CIA who served as a senior intelligence officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis program in the Directorate of Intelligence at the CIA, has spent a great deal of time investigating U.S. policy towards Islamic nations. Drawing from his vast experience, historical knowledge of Islam, and travels to over 30 Muslim countries, which served to deepen his expertise and strengthen his analysis of political Islam, Mr. Nakhleh is able to offer the American public as well as its new administration an imaginative and clear ten-point program for rebuilding America's relationship with the Muslim world.

It is a forward-looking roadmap that focuses on engaging Arabs and Muslims rather than a backward-looking critique. He argues that effective public diplomacy must be a unified effort pursued at the federal government level and should also be driven by a presidential declaration that reaches out to all Arabs and Muslims.

While some of the suggestions that Mr. Nakhleh will discuss may have already taken hold, as evidenced by the rhetoric in President Obama's Inaugural Address, along with his subsequent interview with Al Arabiya television and with his appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America still has a long way to go to implement a new public diplomacy that will change Muslim attitudes towards the United States.

While we know about the challenges, there are also many opportunities. Perhaps if we implement some of the initiatives that will be discussed here this afternoon we can succeed in overcoming some of the major obstacles needed for a more harmonious world.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speaker. Nice to have you here. Thank you.


EMILE NAKHLEH: Good evening and thank you very much for coming, and my thanks to the Carnegie and to Joanne for organizing this event, and to Princeton University Press.

What I have discovered since the book came out in the last couple of weeks is how scary one's life can become and the blackest fear. After having lived a somewhat sheltered life for the last 15 years, I should have realized that one interview on one of these blogs overnight was spread over 30-35 blogs all over the world and, frankly, scared the heck out of me. But be it as it may, I am very happy to be here and to share with you the book, the key judgments, and the key recommendations.

My experience at the Agency—I always said I made the migration backwards, from academia to government. Most people make the migration in the reverse, from government to academia. But it has been an absolutely wonderful experience. It gave me the opportunity to travel and interview hundreds of Islamic activists worldwide, literally, from what used to be from Marrakesh to Bangladesh, but it is really from Turkey to Indonesia and from China to Central Asia. This was a fantastic experience.

When I started at the Agency, I went there as a scholar in residence for one year, and then they created a position that was really too good to turn down. So I retired from academia and started in the government.

The DDI [Deputy Director for Intelligence] said, "Well, I haven't created such a position in 25 years."

I said, "Gee, thanks. What do you want me to do?"

He said, "Write your job description."

So I wrote my job description, and that's what I did for most of my time there.

I had no idea about this GS business. So I went to the personnel director—it is now called the HR person. I said, "What is this GS business?"
She said, "Oh, it starts at GS-1, GS-2."

I said, "How high does it go?"

She said, "GS-15."

I said, "I'll take that."

She said, "And there are steps."

So I said, "What is that?"

She said, "15-1, 15-2."

I said, "How far does it go?"

She said, "15-10."

I said, "I'll take that too."

So I started at 15-10 in the government. Of course, I was promoted after that.

The reason I tell this story is because I really did not have an axe to grind in terms of career promotion in the government. That gave me in my briefings downtown, in my analysis and my analysts' analysis, the courage—I know this is a very trite phrase—to speak truth to power. I cannot vouch for everybody, including my former director, that they could say that. But that gave us the courage to do that, go out and look at the impact of policies without making policy, and come back and making briefs in terms of the impact of that policy.

We were aware of two points, and that was throughout. One, we did not make policy—I realize some of you think, "If you believe that, there is a bridge for sale"—but it's true we really believed in that. Two, it was oftentimes frustrating. My wife would ask me after I would go downtown to the West Wing and I would come home, "Aren't you frustrated? How come they don't listen?"

I said, "Well, we are one voice."

So we did not make policy. But we also believed that we were one voice. They listened to other voices. Once you accept that, then you proceed.

Now to the reason I decided to write this book. Basically, I wanted to share five very quick objectives.

    • One, to explain the phenomenon of political Islam worldwide, and that is the diversity, the complexity, and the different ideologies in the Islamic world, very briefly, to show that there was no such thing as one Islamic world, one Islamic society, one Islamic public opinion; that there were many Muslim worlds, many Muslim societies and many Muslim streets, and many Muslim public opinions. That was important. We constantly briefed in that. After you brief this issue and then you go back to the office, then something happens and you constantly get the same question: "What does the Muslim world think of this?" I just kind of explained that there is—you know, "Which Muslim world are you talking about?" So that was one objective.

  • The second is to discuss the U.S. government response to political Islam and the whole growth of Islamization. So you have two responses generally: one is the Agency's response, CIA, especially the analytic part; and one is the policymakers downtown.

    The CIA, the analytic part, began to systematically develop expertise in this issue. It was the only government agency that assigned appropriated resources and personnel to develop expertise to know, to understand, the phenomenon of political Islam. The good news is that it started with that 20 years ago. The bad news is that it remains the only U.S. government entity with that type of systematic expertise. It is not enough, but this is the good news, bad news. Unfortunately, in the last eight years, ten years, the U.S. policy response has been, particularly since 9/11, to paint the Islamic world with one broad brush of terrorism. So I discuss these two issues in the book.

  • The third objective, very briefly, is to analyze Muslim or Islamic opposition to the United States. What is it? We interviewed people. We looked at public opinion polls. We studied all those polls, both public and otherwise, trying to analyze what is it that Muslims don't like.

    We concluded, based on public opinion and data available from 2001 to last year when I finished writing the book, that the opposition basically is to policies and not to values. That is an important issue to make. Whether in the Pew or the Gallup or other polls, when they asked people about ideas of good government—in other words, representative government, accountable government, rule of law, inclusion—generally the majority favored those views. The opposition, therefore, was over policies rather than values. That's why when Joanne raised the question "Why do they hate us?" we tried to get to that question. We concluded that the opposition was to policies which they perceived to be un-Islamic, particularly when we painted the Islamic world with one broad brush of terrorism.

  • The fourth objective was to discuss the ongoing debate, which really developed more openly in the last two-three years within the Islamic world, the debate about the future of Islam. That is, that it is not that the vast majority of Muslims support terrorism. In fact, we discovered that the vast majority of Muslims, through all of these public opinion polls, do not support terrorism, and, in a sense, they tend to be critical of what the terrorists have done not only against the United States but against Islamic countries. More and more Muslims are saying that more Muslims have suffered and been killed by Muslims in the name of whatever defense of Islam or whatever reason they give. The debate is now raging throughout the media in analyses about which vision of Islam that Muslims should pursue. Why should it be a conflicted image, as bin Laden has presented and al Qaeda? There are more views now, and more openly stated, much more so than in 2001, 2002, and 2003. So we tried to analyze this.

  • The final objective was to make a rigorous case, a rigorous argument, for engaging the Islamic world. That is, the vast majority—I call them "mainstreamers" in the book—not the radicals who are beyond redemption, but the mainstream Muslim community.

My positions in the government, in the intelligence community, the frequent trips I took to so many Muslim countries, and the interviews, and the level of briefings I was privileged to participate in, oftentimes solo briefings, led me to believe that I think there is something to offer in this book.

Now, briefly, for those of you who have not seen the book, it is basically four chapters. The first chapter talks about the nature of political Islam, the different strains, the different arguments, the different debates that are going on. The second chapter talks about the CIA's response, especially the building of expertise, and a strong case is made as to why we need deep expertise in Islamic cultures and Islamic society. The third chapter talks about summarizing public opinion polls and why they disagree. The fourth chapter is this ten-point blueprint, ten recommendations.

Now, I must admit that these recommendations are not new. We have briefed many of those recommendations in recent years to our policy masters. Very few have been implemented. Some have not really been implemented. But we make the case in the book why we need to do this engagement.

The basic reason I present is that engaging the Islamic world is a question of national security. With all due respect to Muslims, it is not just because we love Muslims, but it is because we are talking about over a billion, 1.4 billion, Muslims worldwide, all the way from Fairfax County, Virginia, where the CIA is, to Indonesia and all over the world.

Now, if we concluded, as we have, that a vast majority do not support terrorism, are mainstreamers, then we need to engage them. If we need to engage them and if they are so diverse, then we need to study languages, cultures, civilizations, histories, their own national narratives, if we are going to communicate with them clearly.

You all know from your experience when you speak to a foreign person through a translator they clam up. They don't trust translators or interpreters and they think that they are not talking to you personally. So you've got to have the language in order to communicate one-on-one. So we need that expertise.

We discovered over the years once you start talking to many of these people in so many countries, if they discover (1) that you can speak their language and (2) if they believe that you know what you are talking about, they kind of get over the fact that their perception is that you are a CIA person or you are a government person. It doesn't truly matter anymore once the conversation starts at a certain level. We have case after case after case to illustrate that.

Now, the key judgments and arguments in this book—and, by the way, as Joanne indicated, and as the book clearly states, I am not a political person, I am not registered anything except an Independent, I have no policy or politics, no political axe to grind. So these were based on the observations that our senior analysts and myself discovered in the field, rather than from Washington looking out, but from the field looking at Washington.

The first key argument in the book is that the vast majority—and again, this is all supported in public opinion polls—do not support violence and reject radicalism and the al Qaeda paradigm. That is very important. Now, I know you might have the question, "How come they have been silent?" I will be happy to deal with that based on some of these interviews.

The second point in argument is that painting the Islamic world with a broad brush of terrorism has generated the perception that the war on terror is a war on Islam. We have not been able to break this connection.

The third is that most mainstream Islamic political parties—and we studied over 100 of these political parties from Turkey to Indonesia, to Bangladesh, to Kuwait, to Morocco, to Malaysia, to Uzbekistan, to Jordan—we discovered that most of these mainstream political parties want to participate in elections, have participated in elections. And you know what? When we analyzed their behavior in national legislatures, we discovered that their behavior was not any different from the behavior of other political parties. They bargained over bills. They focused on daily issues. They compromised to pass legislation. Not one of them after being elected to national legislatures—now, admittedly, the vast majority of them remain minorities—not one of them has raised the specter of Shariah [Islamic Law] or has demanded that Shariah be instituted in that national legislature.

So the behavior of these parties might for the future be the metric by which we measure whether the shift from refusal to participate to acceptance of participation is tactical or strategic. So in our analysis of their performance and their behavior in national legislatures we discovered that their behavior is not any different from most other political parties.

Another argument is that we should become more aware of the debate that is going on among Muslims. There is vigorous debate, vibrant debate, going on, if you see their media and their interviews and live debates, on which future Muslims should follow. We tried to talk about that and say that's very important for us for the future, to understand this debate.

Another argument, which is really the heart of the book, is that we believe our low standing in the Islamic world is reversible. There is nothing deterministic about it. Only 20 years ago, our standing in most Muslim countries was pretty high. It turned in the last few years. If it is based on perceived anti-Islamic policies, then it is reversible.

Now, if it is reversible, and we believe it is, then how can it be reversed? The ten-point blueprint is a suggestion to start a national conversation as to how to engage the Islamic world. These are ideas. Some are controversial. Some are basically, as I said, not rocket science, recommendations that have been made before. Some are debatable. But all of them require a new commitment and resources. They cannot be done on the fly. They need to reflect a national commitment at the highest level that engaging the Islamic world serves the interests of the United States. So it is a national-interest issue rather than just—I hate to say it—a moral or ethical issue.

The engagement, as the CIA has concluded over two decades ago, is a long-term generational issue. It is very difficult to assess the success or failure except over time. We don't have clear metrics to measure. It is a generational issue, and that will require commitments that go beyond a four-year presidential term or a six-year senatorial term, or whatever terms that our political system operates on. It's a long-term issue.

Some of the policies that have been perceived to be anti-Islamic have been identified in many of these public opinion polls. They include the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, continued detentions in Iraq and Afghanistan, renditions to other countries. These issues have been stated in the interviews as issues that Muslims identified as anti-Islamic, along with perceived support for Israel in Lebanon in 2006 and more recently in Gaza, and, finally, the bellicose language against Iran.

Now, very briefly, the blueprint, the ten points, some have been done; some were attempted but not sufficient.

But the first point, even though the president had already appointed an ambassador, I decided to keep it. We had made that recommendation briefing to the White House years back, that the Islamic world would respond favorably to the appointment of an ambassador to the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

And finally, President Bush appointed an ambassador last year. It was a special envoy that would end with his term to the OIC. We had recommended that it be a distinguished American Muslim, preferably Sunni, preferably should be knowledgeable in Islam, should be able to speak one of what I call the Islamic languages (Arabic or Urdu or Farsi), and be able to go and participate in discussions and be the one single voice on behalf of the United States, because oftentimes when Karen Hughes was at the State Department, we would get the question from the field, "Who is speaking for the United States? Is it this lady or is it this ambassador? Who is speaking for the United States?" And so that one ambassador was important.

I decided to keep this recommendation because the ambassador, with all due respect to the person who was appointed, was a person from Texas, a businessman of Bangladeshi [Editor's Note: Pakistani] origin, who was Ismaili, not even Shia, not even Sunni certainly, without discussion with the State Department. We had suggested that this person should have an office at State, of course, and should have an office at the White House, at the NSC, so that people overseas would know that this person is speaking on behalf of the United States, one voice. Of course, he has got to tailor-make those messages to fit the different Islamic audiences. The Muslims of Indonesia are not the same as the Muslims of Egypt. So you've got to coin those messages to fit the audiences. But there would be one messenger.

I will not go through the ten recommendations, but, to be fair, I will cite a controversial one; some of you might be interested in this.

We called for the creation of an imamate university in this country, a university that would train graduate students according to a mainstream, moderate course of Islamic study, to bring in people to become imams in mosques. Now, this was driven by our analysis of terrorism, to be very fair about it.

The problem is that many of these imams in mosques, both in this country and overseas, are trained according to either a narrow-minded, intolerant program of study, whether in Saudi universities or elsewhere, and the recommendation here is to get the top American universities to work together with some mainstream Islamic universities, including OIC, to develop a graduate program of study to train people to become imams.

Currently, there is only one university in this country, the Hartford Seminary, that gives a license, a certificate in chaplaincy. That is, Muslim chaplains who are chaplains in the United States Armed Forces get that certificate I think from one place, and that is Hartford Seminary.

The idea here is to develop this program. Not only would you educate Americans through this, but also you would bring students from Muslim countries to be educated here, and they can go back and act as preachers in their own mosques based on a certain mainstream, if you will—I hate to use the word "moderate"—tolerant system of education. That is very important because we discovered throughout these trips that once a preacher begins to talk, and we know the universities he studied at, then we could tell what ideological inclinations he would have and whether he would become an enabler for terrorism and a recruiter, or an opponent to the radical paradigm. To us, as far as the national security is concerned, this is a very important issue for the future.

The final recommendation I make is engaging the American Muslim community in the process. That is, our engagement overseas will ring hollow if we are not engaging the American Muslim community in the crisis. I call it CBI, community-based intelligence. That is, we would work with the American Muslim community as part of engaging the wider Islamic world so that this becomes like a bridge, if you will, between the United States and the wider Islamic world.

I will just conclude with two parting thoughts.

It seems to me, unless U.S. policymakers view public diplomacy, which is this ten-point program, as central to our country's national interests and national security, and unless the necessary funds are appropriated and public support is mounted for this effort, I don't think the effort will succeed, to be candid about it.

But on the other side, a redesigned public diplomacy can help the country regain the stature, prestige, and influence it had in the Muslim world only a couple of decades ago and recapture our past image as a beacon of hope, liberty, and human dignity.

Thank you. I will open the floor to discussion.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you for the many interesting ideas.

I'd like to pick up on a comment you made about part of the reasons why we are not viewed favorably. You grouped Iraq and Afghanistan together. I think a large group of people in this country don't support the war in Iraq but fear it was necessary in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda was situated. I wonder if you could speak more fully about that.

And also, when you started, you alluded to a speech you gave on a blog, if I understand it, and you got a lot of hostility.


Oh, I thought you got a hostile response.

No. Actually—I'm sorry to interrupt—no, there was no hostility whatsoever. It was just published out there, and the blogosphere kind of scared me. No negative comments.

Okay. If you could go more into Afghanistan and Iraq, a differentiation. Thank you.

EMILE NAKHLEH: The question on Afghanistan was beyond 2001. In other words, public opinion polls have made a distinction actually between our actions in Afghanistan immediately after the heinous crimes of 9/11—in other words the period through which we got involved to remove al Qaeda, if you will, and the Taliban from power—and since then. So the question about Afghanistan is that what we have been doing since the removal of the Taliban, public opinion polls have shown that this kind of almost a continuing occupation and kind of a mission creep is not much different from what had happened in Iraq. So that is why they lumped those two together. But the distinction with Afghanistan is after the fall of the Taliban rather than before the fall of the Taliban.

QUESTION: Is religious tolerance consistent with the Qur'an? If one is a devout Muslim, can one truly tolerate an infidel religion, or even a secular regime?

In fact, there are two ways to answer this question.

By the way, I should have stated early on—and I'm sure the book, I think, makes this very clear—that I do not offer an apologia for Islam.

As somebody asked me, "What do Christians do in the Middle East?" I was talking to one high level person in the White House who was wondering what do Christians do, because he had heard that Christians live in the Middle East. "Well," I said, "they come to this country and become experts on Islam."

One way to answer the question is that generally the Qur'an is two parts of revelations. One is called the prophetic part and one the messenger part. The prophetic part, those revelations that were revealed to Mohammed in Medina, those were very specific, dealing with very specific issues, whether Christians or Jews or polytheists, and whatever. The messenger part, the universal principles, were revealed in Mecca.

That has always in the last few years given me a pretty good indicator. When a Muslim begins to talk, I immediately know what ideological meaning he supports from the chapters, the Suras, he cites in the Qur'an. You find that the radicals, the bin Laden types, invariably cite the Suras that were revealed in Medina. So when they talk about the Jews, let's say, they say, "Ah, you see, the Prophet said that." Well, he didn't say that about the Jews. He said that about Christians and Jews in those two battles in Medina. In Mecca, one of the revelations was talking about Jesus, and subsequent Suras were talking about Jesus and Mary and Moses and the people of the book.

So it depends on what interpretation you took from the Qur'an. So you find people, like in Turkey or Indonesia or Malaysia or even in Central Asia, have taken certain aspects of the Qur'an that makes it more tolerant of non-Muslims. The radicals tend to focus on those aspects that try to support—I hate to say it—the Wahhabis' view, the narrow-minded, intolerant, exclusive view that we see developed by Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia over the years.

I tried to present this discussion in the book as, well, all the different views, and I gave examples of some of the radical clerics, some of the moderate clerics, some of the tolerant clerics.

At one time I was briefing the WMD Commission and Judge Silberman said, "I don't like the word 'moderates.' Give me another word." So we concluded, "How about 'tolerant'?" So that became the word in his report, the "tolerate" rather than "moderate," because "moderate" is confusing really.

We talked about pro-U.S. regimes as "moderate" regimes. You know, many of them are authoritarian regimes. So I don't know what's moderate about it. But "moderate" became more kind of narrow.
So Islam does provide—it depends on which parts you read and which interpretation you put on it.

QUESTION: You mentioned this interesting idea of establishing an institution for training imams. Imams, I assume, are clergy.


Just as a preliminary question, how many Muslims do we have here in the United States?

The figures, I would say, to be fair to the sources of these figures, are anywhere from 5 to 6.5 million.

Is it possible or feasible for these American Muslims to start the kind of institution that you're talking about, training imams, rather than whoever, rather than the CIA or—

EMILE NAKHLEH: Oh, no, no. I did not mean that the CIA should do that. No, I did not mean that. It should be a private endeavor by distinguished Americans from across walks of life, not the government.

Is it possible, do you think, for the Muslims as a group to begin—I mean they're the ones in the best position to start such an institution probably.

I think so. Yes, they certainly should be involved. Turkey is very much interested in this type of thing. Indonesia is interested in this type of thing. Some Malaysian elements—Malaysia has a very moderate mainstream Islamic university—would be interested in this type of thing. So it should be an academic program that is not the Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, but in a sense a traditional, mainstream interpretation of Islam.

QUESTIONER: Pursued mainly by American Muslims, I would think?

I would think. And the academics can be from other places that support that view of Islam.

The reason is that we discovered over the years, despite my respect for the majority of imams, that imams tend to be enablers, some of them, for terrorists and radicals and recruiters. Usually, those imams were trained according to a very narrow, intolerant vision of Islam, world view of Islam. So this recommendation is to kind of undercut this type of ideology.

QUESTION: You are recommending that the government engage American Muslims more in not only foreign policy but American life. I'm wondering, with so many of the American Muslims being African-Americans, with their own particular views, how the government is approaching them and how helpful can they be?

Actually, it is no longer. The majority of American Muslims are no longer African-Americans. The majority of American Muslims tend to be immigrants and children of immigrants, second, third generation, fourth generation of immigrants. Of course, like any other community, there will be some elements who will not necessarily be interested even in this type of project or in engagement.

Two years ago I couldn't really focus on that because at CIA we could not focus on U.S. persons. So this discussion is really since I left and I have been studying the American Muslim community in the last two years pretty closely. So there might be elements there, like everywhere else, who will not be interested and who should not even be involved in the process.

But yet, on the other hand, I discovered so many in all walks of life, very distinguished in all kinds of careers, from science to medicine to everything else, to commerce and business. Those are the people I was talking about who could support this effort, be involved in it, and would not really mind at all—would be very much interested actually—in playing a role as a bridge.

QUESTION: Professor, two questions. The first is about President Obama. He is planning a trip to a Muslim country. In which country would you suggest him to go?

The second one is about the content that he is delivering to the Muslims. He spoke in the Inaugural Address about the need to have respect and common interest. Is this the right approach to begin, and what else should be in the content that he should deliver in that speech? Thank you.

EMILE NAKHLEH: I am really going to dodge both questions.

I was asked in private by the government which country I thought would be most useful. I suggested two or three, but not one. The comment, the response to that question, I thought that the substance, the content of the speech, would be more important than the venue. The venue would be only a news cycle story, whereas the content would be with us for quite a while.

Now, you can argue which country. If he wants to go to the Middle East, perhaps Egypt would be the right country. If he wants to go outside the Middle East, Indonesia might be the right place—not because of his connection with Indonesia, but because Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. Or Malaysia. Indonesia might be perhaps the right place.

He would have to decide which region. Beyond that, his analysts within the government have been dealing with this question. I honestly do not know what country he has decided to visit.

On the second question, please forgive me, but I hope he would adopt a number of these recommendations. The book is at the White House, has been read by his advisor who will write his speech. Mutual respect and fairness and mutual understanding, these are very important issues in Islam and for Muslims. Instead of lecturing, I think as he does domestically, the kind of back-and-forth, the discussion—and that's why his interview with Al Arabiya, the first foreign medium that he gave an interview to, resonated so well in Muslim countries, because of the attitude he took towards engaging the Islamic world.

There are already good signs, like for example the phrase "the war on terror" has been excised out of our lexicon. You don't hear it anymore. This was an issue that we focused on in the book, that symbolism is important. So the way he talked in that interview was very well received. So I think if he maintains that, plus specific steps that—I quoted one Islamic interlocutor in the book saying, "You can't sell hot air and where's the beef?" So he has got to have specific initiatives, whether regional or macro initiatives, to show the Muslim world that he is truly ready to turn the page from the previous administration, which every public opinion poll showed that they pursued policies that were perceived to be anti-Islamic.

QUESTION: I was intrigued by your saying that the only place that there was study of Islam was at the CIA. I was wondering what the State Department was. I didn't know exactly what you meant. But let me give you the question and you can respond in context.

There was a biography in Atlantic Monthly that was devastating about Arafat. Secondly, The New York Review of Books has been saying that there was no way that Arafat could have signed anything at the Camp David Agreements with Clinton and all of this effort was futile because Arafat was not in a position to sign such an agreement. And I was told by a Palestinian Christian who grew up in Jerusalem that King Hussein absolutely refused ever to deal with Arafat after the Black September.

So my question really is: What kind of intelligence and understanding within the U.S. government led us to think that we could ever deal and conclude an agreement with Arafat? I'm asking what is the process that would provide that kind of intelligence?

EMILE NAKHLEH: The first comment you made—the CIA appropriated resources and personnel and created organizational structures to enhance this expertise and nurture the expertise. They had the resources. Unfortunately, of course, we worked with analysts from INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] at State and at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] and other places. And now, of course, since the reorganization there are 16 intelligence agencies. But they did not have the resources. I mean INR had one or two people really working the whole Islamic issue worldwide.

Of course you can do it. You have to assign resources for that. That is the point I wanted to make—not that the CIA was better than others; it just assigned the resources necessary to do the job. It was not enough, and it is not enough. Of course, I cannot go into numbers, but the effort paid off. The CIA became the source of information and analysis for the administration on the Islamic world.

The Arafat deal, I will not go into details because I was directly and indirectly involved in those discussions.

The point I want to make is that there was even a debate within the Palestinian team. Even at Camp David there was a very strong support to sign the agreement. Arafat's leadership is not an idyllic type of leadership. His own advisors strongly argued that he should sign that agreement ] that respect. What President Clinton took to Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh, you know, the leadership—but that's my personal view—should have signed that.

The problem now would be the Palestinians, of course. And the book argues that we should engage Hamas. Some would debate that issue. The Secretary, of course, talks about working with Abu Mazen.
In fact, the PA leadership in Ramallah is really rife with corruption. Very low level of legitimacy. I don't know how we can engage them really without engaging Hamas and Yaz. That was a debate within the U.S. government after Hamas was elected. I'm sorry to say that the view for engaging Hamas did not prevail. There was a serious discussion of that view that, I would say, lasted 48 hours, and beyond 48 hours that position lost.

QUESTION: Could you evaluate the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear threat and suggest diplomatic responses?

There was a letter, I think, sent to the Obama Administration right before—I'm not sure before or after—he was elected by several scholars in this country on ways of engaging Iran.
First, on the strategic level, a point I made in the book and we have made in briefings, that we as a country in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s viewed Iran, correctly so, as a major player in the Persian Gulf and that had interests on both sides of its borders, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Now, of course, they had a regime change in 1978-1979. Well, that didn't alter the fact that Iran continued to be a major player in the Gulf.

I know this is elementary to most of you, but I think we need to reiterate the fact that as we see this shift in the last few years from the Levant to the Gulf—we have seen this definite shift from the Levant to the Gulf in terms of influence and issues and significance—we have seen an ascendancy of Iran as this shift occurred.

Iran's interest in Iraq is not recent, of course. The center of Shia Islam is Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq. I cited the story in the book. After we invaded Iraq, we got a question from a very high policymaker, very senior, asking us, "What is this Shia thing in Iraq?" I mean this is after we invaded Iraq. So Najaf and Karbala have always been important to Iraq.

Then we began to say, "Iraq is engaging Iran and it should not be." Why shouldn't it be? I mean the heart of Shia Islam is Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq.

The second point is that after Afghanistan, after 9/11, we realized that Iran had also interests in Afghanistan. So Iran in the last few years has shown clearly, it seems to us, that they were interested in stability in Iraq and the territorial integrity of Iraq, they were not interested in the dismemberment of Iraq or creating a Shia enclave or state in southern Iraq, and they were interested in stability in Afghanistan, and they continue to do so. They have cooperated with us since 9/11 on both fronts.

So I think this is about engaging Iran. The reason I make this point is to show that there is common ground, that there are common interests that serve both of our countries, despite the areas we disagree with.

Now, that brings me to the nuclear issue. Here I don't want to make any policy for the record. I am not making any policy statement, except to say that I just finished reading a book, called The Nuclear Express, by [Thomas C.] Reed and [Danny B.] Stillman, two distinguished scientists, one at Lawrence Livermore Lab and one at Los Alamos. A beautiful, huge book. It is called The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation, the political history of the atomic bomb from the Cold War until now. This is like some 600-700 pages.

There are two take-aways from the book. One, that any country that has the means—that is, the resources and the will—since the Second World War, any country that wants to go nuclear can become a nuclear power. Now, it will take some countries longer. Countries that do not have spies, do not steal, do not buy, do not have agents, are taking longer—India is a case in point—countries that rely on their own resources. Countries like Pakistan, who get some help from somewhere very quickly, could do it faster. So that's the first take-away. The authors went through every country and every nuclear weapon that different countries build, from India, to China, to Korea, to Israel, to whatever; of course, Russia, England, France, et cetera, the countries that had the means and didn't want to do it because they decided not to pursue it; or countries that decided to start it after a while, like South Africa.

The second take-away is that we have learned to live with nuclear powers regardless of who they are. They go through that from the 1940s to the 21st century. Whatever country that became nuclear, we found ways to live with that country.

I think Iran's going nuclear to me reflects the failure of the nonproliferation regime, and I think it is time that we need to look at the whole nonproliferation regime and perhaps come up with a different counter-proliferation regime. That regime no longer works. When you read Reed and Stillman's book, you find that if Iran has the resources and the will, one of these days it will go nuclear if they want to. I think this is the attitude.

Now, the point I make in the book is that, at minimum, if we want to engage Iran, we need to take regime change off the table. That has been a general recommendation by most experts on Iran. You know, you don't expect them to come and talk to us if we say, "Well, one of these days we are going to go after you." So regime change has to be taken off the table.

Secondly, Iran is a very proud country with a tremendous sense of national pride. We need to work on the common interests and we need to recognize their role in the Gulf, in that part of the region, as a major player. We did so in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. That's how the Nixon Doctrine was founded in that part of the world. Iran was the heart of security, and the security belt that we established in the Gulf, Iran was to be the protector of that. I mean Nixon was so impressed, he came back and ordered even the White House guards should wear the same hats that they wore in Iran. We were just crazy about Iran.

The regime change will not be helped by the fact of Iran as a power. I think when we operate from that then we can find more common ground that would ultimately lead us to the discussion of the issue that we find most vexing, and that is the nuclear issue.

Emile, I have to thank you for engaging us on a topic that is probably more necessary today than it has been since 2001.

Thank you very much. It was really an excellent talk.

EMILE NAKHLEH: Thank you so much.

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