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Max Boot reflects on the Ahmadinejad circus this week, plus where we’re at in Iraq

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

HH: Joined now by Council On Foreign Relations senior fellow, author himself of many fine books and blogger at Contentions, Max Boot. Max, welcome back, always a pleasure to talk to you.

MB: Thanks very much, Hugh.

HH: Yesterday, I spent some time with John Burns. And if we don’t watch out, peace is going to break out over a lot of Iraq, Max Boot. It’s dangerous, yes, the violence by al Qaeda in Iraq continues, but he reported more good news out of Diyala. Is this matching up with what you understand?

MB: I think there is some good news, but obviously we’re a long way from peace truly breaking out. I mean, what we’ve really seen in the last several months is a reversal of what happened in 2006, when you saw this precipitous decline into civil war. And essentially, our troops have managed to get the violence levels down to where they were in roughly 2005. But you know, let’s put that into perspective and realize Iraq was not exactly paradise in 2005. It was still a very violent and very dangerous place. It just became much more so in the course of 2006. So they are continuing to make pretty steady progress, but we shouldn’t exaggerate it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge it.

HH: The tribal concord in Diayala, where they have 20 of 25 sheiks sitting down, this seems to be an attempt to replicate the Ramadi success. Is there any reason you would suspect it would be harder or less hard than what happened in Ramadi?

MB: Well, it might be harder because Diyala is a more mixed province, and it’s not just Sunnis as it is in Anbar. It’s also got a considerable Shiite population and some Kurds and Turkilan and so forth as well. But nevertheless, all that said, I think that the tribal movement is gaining real steam in Diayala Province, as well as in Nineveh and Saladin and some other areas, and it’s even now extending to some of the Shiite provinces, where the Coalition is making some inroads in trying to get the Shiite sheiks to renounce Muqtada al Sadr and the Jaish al Mahdi in the way that so many of the Sunni sheiks have renounced al Qaeda. I mean, this is all very positive news. But again, you know, we have to keep it in perspective and realize these are not irreversible changes, and we are facing some very vicious, very deadly, very determined terrorists, as we’ve seen in the case of al Qaeda, which has been striking back against these tribal sheiks. And you know, they recently killed Sheik Sadr, who was the man who got the whole ball rolling in Anbar last year, and they will continue to fight hard. But I think if we keep our will and keep our troops there, and work alongside the Iraqis, we will continue to make progress.

HH: A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Major General Simmons, who’s the deputy commanding general of Coalition forces for support. And he cast doubt on the reports out of Basra that suggested there was chaos in that city in the aftermath of the British withdrawal. John Burns seconded his skepticism about that. What do you hear about Basra, Max Boot?

MB: Well, what I’ve heard is that the situation has deteriorated there, but we need to put into perspective, I mean, it’s not as bad as Anbar was a year ago. It’s certainly not terrific, and I think there is some insecurity there. Now I admit, I have not been to Basra. I mean, I spent some time in Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala, that part of the country. I’ve not spent time in Basra. But the British basically gave it up, moved their troops out of the city, and have turned it over. And so what you’re seeing now is not so much a sectarian fight, it’s not really a civil war per se, but it’s really a competition between different political and criminal factions for political control, and also for criminal networks smuggling oil revenues, those kinds of things. In some ways, the megastruggle is between what you might call the Sadrites and the Hakimites, the two major militia factions within the Shiite community struggling for control in the south. And you’re seeing that go on now. They’re…it’s not a great situation, but I think the violence and some of the unrest is kept within some kind of bounds, because ultimately, if any side goes too far, they risk a backlash among the Shiite community, and the possible intervention of Ayatollah Sistani, which is what happened recently where you had some of these Jaish al Mahdi militiamen attacking security forces in the city of Najaf. And that caused a backlash such that Muqtada al Sadr had to announce a six month ceasefire. So I think it’s hard to get a grip on what’s going on. I would say the situation is not great, but it’s not terrible. It’s somewhat insecure, but not all out warfare.

HH: What about…and we’ve got a minute to the break, you mentioned the Hakimites. The audience knows who Sadr is, and his followers. Who are the Hakimites, and what do they represent vis-a-vis an American Coalition interest?

MB: Well, Hakim is the leader of what used to be known as the Supreme Islamic Council for Iraq, and has recently been renamed. The new acronym is SIC, which is kind of a silly acronym, but it’s one of the major political, Shiite political parties. I mean, there’s basically three major Shiite political movements. One is Dawa, which is basically led by Prime Minister Maliki and some of his followers. The second one is the Sadrist movement, led by Muqtada al Sadr. And the third one is SIC, led by Hakim, which has a militia, which has ties to Iran, which also has been working closely with Coalition forces, and is basically more or less committed to the democratic process.

– – – –

HH: Max Boot, what did you make of the Ahmadinejad carnival that began Sunday and is continuing through theaters today?

MB: Well, I think he’s basically getting what he wants, which is to be the center of attention. He’s like this little schoolhouse bully who acts up and kicks other kids in the shins because he wants all the adults to pay attention to him. Even if they’re condemning him, they’re paying attention to him. And I think that’s essentially what he’s getting, and he’s able to spin it, by control of the news media in Iran, into making himself into this heroic figure who is confronting the Zionist enemy in their backyard. So I think it’s basically working out to his propaganda advantage.

HH: Did you applaud or regret the invitation Columbia extended to him?

MB: Oh, I would regret that. I think that was a mistake. The whole thing was just so bizarre to me, because on the one hand, I don’t think they should have invited him. But then once you invite somebody to speak at your institution, then to give a long speech reviling him and denouncing him as a bully and a tyrant and so forth seems kind of like bad manners. On the other hand, you know, what kind of manners do you owe to this terrible tyrant who throws people in jail and denies the Holocaust? I mean, it’s kind of a complicate issue, but I think it sort of left me uneasy. And I think the bottom line is they would have been better off not giving him a forum.

HH: On Tuesday night at the Intercontinental Hotel, a number of the city’s elite media, Brian Williams of NBC News, Christianne Amanpour, accepted invitations to dine on fine china with the president of Iran, and to talk to him and have him respond to them. Is that a good idea, Max Boot, to be trafficking in pleasantries with this man?

MB: I’m a little ambivalent about it. I think I’m not as repulsed by that as I am by the idea of giving him a public forum. I mean, there is something to be said for people who gather news talking to somebody who’s an important person, even if they’re evil to the core. I mean, obviously, news people often have to talk to gangsters, dictators, murderous, just as they talk to a much better class of people. On the other hand, the idea of sitting down and having a courteous dinner with him, and making small talk and so forth kind of sticks in your craw, because would you do this with Stalin or Hitler? Hard to say. I mean, the sad reality is that a lot of Western journalists did do that with Stalin and Hitler and the 1930’s or even later.

HH: The best analogy I’ve heard is whether or not they would have gone to dinner with Pieter Botha during the final years of his presidency of South Africa. And I do think there’s a rough analogy between the South Africa of the 60’s and 70’s, and the Iran of the early 21st Century. Is that a fair comparison?

MB: That’s a fair comparison. Again, I’m sort of ambivalent, because I’m trying to think of what would I do if I had been invited, and I wasn’t. I might well have gone, both to the dinner with Botha and to the dinner with Ahmadinejad, both of whom I completely revile. But nevertheless, I mean, if you’re going to comment on these issues, and if you’re going to make pronouncements, there’s something to be said for hearing it from the horse’s mouth. But clearly, I mean, the whole hoopla orchestrated here was designed by the Iranians for propaganda value, and I think it succeeded. And unfortunately, I think too many people are willing to play their game.

HH: Can a sanctions regime ever work without sort of international shunning of the representatives of that regime?

MB: It’s very rare for a sanctions regime to work. I mean, we’ve seen in the case of Cuba, we’ve been trying to apply sanctions on them for over forty years.

HH: We’re going to get it right one of these decades.

MB: Well, Castro’s still there, unfortunately, and that shows you what happens when you have sanctions which were not universal. I mean, one of the few cases, clear cut cases where sanctions did work was in the case of South Africa, where it really was pretty universal. And also, I mean, there were other factors in play there, because the South African elite didn’t like being shunned by the world. They wanted the good opinion of the world. They felt they were a part of the West, and so it cut them to the deep when the West cut them off. That’s not really the case with the Iranians. A lot of them are perfectly happy to thumb their nose at us, and in fact, derive their power from this notion that they are fighting the great Satan. They don’t want to be that close to us. So in some ways, ineffectual sanctions actually help them in some ways, because it allows them to posture as these underdogs fighting the mighty oppressive Zionist entity. But at the same time, it doesn’t hurt them that much, because so many of our trade allies, or trade partners from China to Germany, continue to trade with Iran as well. And so they still have access to the capital they need to keep the regime going.

HH: Much better leverage. Max Boot, what about the raid of Israel into Syria? What’s your understanding of the significance of that, and what was struck at?

MB: Well, I think it’s still pretty murky. It’s still pretty highly classified. But clearly, the Israelis seem to think that they struck at an installation that was being built with North Korean help to possibly give Syria a nuclear weapons capability. I mean, I think it’s unclear whether it was ballistic missiles alone or nuclear as well, but it seems like the balance of evidence is that there was some nuclear work going on as well. And I think Israel, from that perspective, certainly did the right thing. And it shows that we’ve been afraid of getting too tough with Bashir Assad in Syria, but the Israelis just got tough with him, and what did he do about it? Not very much. I mean, there isn’t that much he can do. He basically has to take his lumps, because he knows that if he escalates, Israel can inflict a lot more pain on him than he can inflict on them. I think it was a good move, because this is the kind of axis of Syria and Iran working with Hezbollah and Hamas, and in turn getting supplied by Russia, China and North Korea that has been getting bolder and bolder. And this is really part of Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. That’s what they’re seeking. And they’ve been moving along quite nicely along that path the last several years, and I think it’s time that countries that are alarmed about that, including America and Israel, but also some of the other Arab states, need to push back. And this was an example of pushing back. I think we need to do more of that to prevent Syria from supporting terrorism, or from undermining Lebanese democracy, which is what it’s doing at the moment.

HH: Let’s listen to a little Ahmadinejad today at the United Nations general assembly. Cut number one:

MA: The era of darkness will end. Prisoners will return home. The occupied lands will be freed. Palestine and Iraq will be liberated from the domination of the occupiers. And the people of America and Europe will be free of the pressures exerted by the Zionists.

HH: We’ve got about 30 seconds, Max Boot. Should we be taking this man seriously or dismissing him as a fanatic?

MB: Well, my general rule of thumb is that when somebody is in command of a large capable country with a powerful military capacity, you better take seriously what he has to say. And it’s possible that he’s just bluffing, but I don’t think we can take the risk. I think we have to act as if he’s being serious.

HH: Max Boot, always a pleasure from the Council On Foreign Relations. We read you at Contentions, the blog of Commentary Magazine. Look forward to talking to you again soon.

End of interview.

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