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Shibley Telhami
Shibley Telhami
U.S. Toughens Warnings to Syria on Iraq, Other Issues (Post, April 15)
Syria Responds to U.S. Charges (Post, April 15)
War in Iraq Special Report
War in Iraq Discussion Transcripts
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War in Iraq
With Shibley Telhami
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland

Wednesday, April 16, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

With the war in Iraq coming to an end, the Bush administration seems to be shifting its focus to Syria. Senior officials recently warned Syria of developing chemical weapons and aiding escaped Iraqi senior officials and anti-Israel terrorist groups. Syria has rejected these accusations and allegations.

Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland Shibley Telhami was online Wednesday, April 16, at 2 p.m. ET to talk about Syria.

In addition to his work with the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution, Telhami has been a council member for several foreign relation advisory committees such as the American Delegation of Israeli-Palestinian-American Anti-Incitement Committee and the committee of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. He is author of "The Stakes: America and the Middle East." He has taught at several universities including Princeton University, Columbia University, and the University of California at Berkeley where he received his doctorate in political science.

The transcript follows

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Arlington, Va.: I've heard an interesting theory that our top officials have been so bellicose toward Syria not because we intend a new war, but as a means to prod the Israelis to be more conciliatory toward the Palestinians, since the Israelis see Syria as a strategic threat. How's that sound?

Shibley Telhami: This is an interesting theory but very unlikely. In fact, you can make quite the opposite proposition as many in the Arab world are making: that this is intended to divert attention from the American commitment to implement the road map between the Israelis and the Palestinians that President Bush has committed himself to. Personally, I believe that neither one of these theories is accurate, although what happens in the U.S. and Syrian relationship will certainly have a bearing on the revival of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

In my judgement, the elevated tension is due to two factors. One is real concerns among many in the U.S. government about Syria's active opposition to the war with Iraq and also a concern that some Iraqi officials and more importantly scientists may take refuge in Syria - something that U.S. clearly wanted to pre-empt. Beyond that there was also concern even before the war about Syria's role in Lebanon and Syria's relationship with Hizbollah. Normally these concerns would not have been elevated to project a fear of real confrontation but since the U.S. is really still at war with Iraq and the public is focused on this issue, these concerns appeared even bigger than they are. Second, there are many in our national debate, including possibly within the Bush administration, who want to broaden the new American role in the Middle East beyond Iraq. This was already our national debate prior to the war with Iraq and now that the U.S. appeared to have a relatively speedy military victory in Iraq. It is inevitable that we will have many voices wanting to take the fight beyond Iraq to states like Syria and beyond. Anyway this is going to be a more critical debate in American foreign policy in the coming months about the broad aims of policy, beyond any particular case.

Laurel, Md.: From the Shiite protests at the Ur tent meeting, it looks like a secularized democracy will be difficult to form. How will a new democratic government accede to the Islamist demands? Or will the Shiites eventually accede to a secularized state?

Shibley Telhami: To many of the Iraq and Middle East experts, the protests in Ur were not especially surprising. Certainly, like many Iraqis hated the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and wanted him overthrown. But it has always been clear that there are many divisions among them and that these divisions will be challenging, even regardless of how they come to see the U.S. In terms of Shiite protests specifically, one should not read too much into them -- in so far as they relate to the question of a secularized state. Certainly the Shiites in Iraq have an Iraqi identity but also strong ethnic and religious identities. Some of them want religion to play a stronger role in politics. But we don't really know what the majority among the public want. And if you consider what has transpired in Iran, where you have a clergy rule over a largely Shiite community, and where you have apparent public resentment of this clergy rule, one should be cautious in drawing conclusions about the inclinations of Iraq Shiites.

Bethesda, Md.: Dr. Telhami
How do Arab intelligentsia, academics, and other opinion leaders view the US invasion of Iraq? Also, do you perceive a differentiation in the Arab world between US opinion on the military action prior and post-invasion? My sense, as a non-Arab American, is that most Americans support the military and the successful completion of the campaign, but not necessarily the war itself.

Shibley Telhami: The Arab reaction to the war has been complex. On the one hand, the vast majority of Arabs at all levels of society, including the intelligentsia, have opposed this war in large part because they didn't trust American intentions and believed the war to be mostly over oil and also to help Israel. Of course, many around the world also opposed the war. Unfortunately, the opposition to the war had blinded many to the degrees of brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime even though many never liked Hussein. The war has been a real shock to many. Not so much because of the apparent relatively easy American victory but more because the Arab world was once again impotent in dealing with the crisis. Many were surprised by reevaluations of the regime's brutality but also by the reactions of the Iraqi people. I wouldn't say that the intelligentsia's view of the U.S. has changed but I would do say that there are major reassessments of Arab politics and of Arab discourse in a way that is similar to the period after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel.

College Park, Md.: Isn't this the same Syria that was especially helpful and sympathetic to the US after 911?

It seems odd that the US is making such efforts to destroy secular regimes in the region, given the almost certain consequence that hardline fundamentalists will take over. Would it not make more sense to be focused on the regimes that demonstrably aid al Qaeda such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to only name two?

Shibley Telhami: The Bush administration has had some reservations about the relations with Syria from the outset, particularly with its relations with Hizbollah. But after 9/11, Syria took a very strong position against Al Qaeda and provided significance intelligence for the war on Al Qaeda which helped its relations with Washington in the early months. At the moment, I do think that issue is small factor in the way Washington sees Damascus. I do believe those who advocate significant change in the Middle East after Iraq, including possible war down the road, are divided among themselves about where the U.S. should begin. In any case, I do not really believe that a new war with any state in the region is likely in the remaining months of this administration.

Washington, D.C.: I really can't believe Bush and his cronies are focussing on Syria. We haven't begun to make Afghanistan work, Iraq is a complete mess. Our so-called "intelligence" to date seems limited AT BEST. What does the international community think of this latest threat issued from the Bush administration? Is Syria really that big a problem?

Shibley Telhami: In the case in Iraq, the justification for the war was always a valid one -- Iraq's noncompliance with UN resolution on weapons of mass destruction. In Syria's case, there is no such issue at the moment nor is it clear that the U.S. can make a case of a direct threat to the U.S. national interest. This does not mean that the U.S. will not have issues of conflict with Syria and that those will define the relationship. But that is a long way from saying there is a justification at the moment for anything more. Most parties in the international community who opposed the Iraq war, opposed it in large part because they did not want the Bush administration to follow up with other campaigns beyond Iraq. In that sense, there is likely to be even more international opposition to such policy. Finally in the Arab world, to the extent that there will be a need to build a coalition to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process, a confrontation with Syria will have an opposite impact.

Linwood, Pa.: It is an honor have an a expert in the field with us today. In your book, "The Stakes: America and the Middle East," you contend that the United States has a great ignorance of the culture and customs of the Middle East. However, don't you think it is a two-way street? Since Sept. 11 it has become clear to many Americans that the Arab world loves to believe in conspiracy theories. Do you believe the Arab world's medieval viewpoints on many current issues also hurt relations with the West? I would be interested to hearing your opinion on this issue. Thank you.

Shibley Telhami: Actually, in my book "The Stakes," I discussed the issue as a two way street. It is clear that while many Americans have come to learn about Arab and Muslim countries through the narrow prism of 9/11, many Arabs see American policy through the narrow prism of Arab-Israeli conflict, and see American values through the distorting lens of cheap Hollywood movies. These perceptions are obviously a factor. In the book, I also discuss the unfortunate encounter of counter productive tendency to believe in conspiracy theories which I see a part of a product of a pervasive sense of powerlessness in the region.

Conway, Ark.: It seems to me that deposing Saddam was great, but that given the history of the the US and in particular the authors of the current US policies (not afraid to coddle dictators), how confident should we be that the US is committed to creating a democracy and not a puppet state? I worry the neocons have visions of a Pahlavi-Iran style state in the Gulf, and that won't engender any good will for us.

Shibley Telhami: You really make a very good point. I do believe that many Americans today more than ever see democracy around the world as an asset. But here is the problem: will it be a priority that will trump other national security priorities, even aside from the difficulty in implementing it in authoritarian states. For example, the war on Al Qaeda which is and should be a priority for us means that in our relationship Pakistan, our needs are more related to security and fighting Al Qaeda than implementing democracy.

In the war with Iraq, we found that authoritarian Arab states supported the U.S. going against their own public opinion and by virtue of doing so, had to become more repressive to prevent public anger from threatening them. We also found that a close ally like Turkey rejected billions of dollars of aid to support the war in large part because its democracy meant that government could not ignore the public. Historically, these kinds of calculations have reduced the importance of democracy in American foreign policy, and it's not clear why this time will be different.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Saddam Hussein envisioned himself as the future leader of the Arab world. Now that he has been removed from the picture, what is the current status of others seeking to emerge as leaders of the Arab world? Is Iran encouraged to fill any vacuum, or are they sufficiently worried about attracting American attention that they may be somewhat silenced? Or, perhaps, the Arab world is so diverse that it is not useful to think in terms of anyone hoping to provide it a unified voice?

Shibley Telhami: Unlike President Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s and 60s, very few people in the Arab world saw Saddam Hussein as a true potential leader of the Arab world, at least since 1991. I do not think that there is a vacuum created by his demise. I think the real problem in the Arab world now is that the political order in place for the past several decades have repeatedly failed to address vital crisis including the war with Iraq. In that sense, there is a pervasive sense of weakness and helplessness and disgust with states and international organizations. Unfortunately, that could well play in the hands of militant non-state groups that would exploit the anger and the despair.

Amman/Jordan: How could the US hope to reconcile its strategic alliance with Israel and friendly relations with the Arabs,is that not mutually exclusive ,particularly after its conquest of Iraq and the rising threats to Syria ? I really would like to know how American policy makers think.

Shibley Telhami: The U.S. commitment to Israel and its interest in the Arab world has always meant that anytime the Arab-Israeli conflict is intense, it is troublesome for American foreign policy. Ultimately, Arab-Israeli is an American interest. Certainly there are other issues for the U.S. in the region and other challenges but the Arab-Israeli issue remains the prism for which people see the U.S. At the moment, there is an opportunity that comes with crisis. The real issue is whether this opportunity is exploited to advance Arab-Israeli or whether the administration sees that as not practical at the moment and focuses instead on broader strategic objectives. The debate in Washington at the moment is much bigger than the Arab-Israeli issue or Syria. It is about the general shape of foreign policy, about the role of power, about unilateralism vs. multilateralism and about the core objectives of America and the world. It is a critical debate. But I should say that ultimately much of the responsibility for advancing peace in the Middle East lies within Israelis and Arabs themselves. While America has a role to play, there is a desperate need for initiatives from the region.

Manchester, NH: Ariel Sharon has hinted recently about giving up some settlements for peace if the conditions were right, such as the new Palestinian PM etc.
along the lines of the US road to peace. How would the Syrian factions that support the rebellion feel about that? Do they truly want peace or and end to Israel?

Shibley Telhami: Mr. Sharon hinted about giving up some settlements recently and of meeting the new Palestinian prime minister which were all positive moves. The real issue obviously is whether Palestinians and Israelis will work with the administration to implement the road map that Bush had supported -- implementing a Palestinian state within 3 years that would end Israeli occupation and would bring real security to Israelis. It is too early to tell what the prospects of this are but it is clear that there will be many factions among the Palestinians, in the Arab world, and among Israelis who will attempt to derail the effort. Any successful diplomacy therefore would want to build the greatest possible coalition to limit the prospects of the militant opposition.

Arlington, Va.: Prof. Telhami,

How do you think the Iraqi people will view the various nations and entities (France, the U.N., the "Arab street," etc.) that actively and passively supported the regime of Saddam Hussein? How might such impressions affect the future politics and policies of a new Iraq?

Shibley Telhami: This is an interesting question and certainly many among the Iraqi opposition have been frustrated with those who did not take their grievances towards Saddam Hussein's regime seriously. But in the long run, I really do not think this will be a critical issue in shaping the dynamics of relations between Iraq and other Arab nations. Iraq is not only an important Arab state but is seen by many to be the seat of Arab civilization. Baghdad plays the role that Athens plays in the history of western civilization. Iraqis see themselves as reflecting the same aspirations of other Arabs on many core issues including the issue of Palestine and the issue of foreign influence in the Middle East. So regardless of the differences among them, and regardless of this stage following Hussein's demise, I would expect that they will see themselves to be tied with other Arabs in the coming years.

Shibley Telhami: It is not surprising that the focus on Syria in the early days after the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime has been related in the minds of many to the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. There are really two paths confronting the U.S. today in its policy in the Middle East. One that centers on exercising the greatest effort to bring Arab-Israeli peace, especially a Palestinian- Israeli peace-- to end the suffering on the ground and to resolve one of the most important obstacles in the path of U.S. foreign policy in the region. The other is to assume that the region's problems could be resolved without progress on the peace front and that the use of overwhelming power (directly or indirectly) is a shortcut to fixing the problems in the American relations in the Middle East.

The fact is that there is no magic bullet. These are complex problems that require initiatives from all sides and that the Arab Israeli conflict remains one of the central issues behind this complexity.

washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company