Purchased a FORA.tv video on another website? Login here with the temporary account credentials included in your receipt.
Sign up today to receive our weekly newsletter and special announcements.
Good evening. Welcome to council members, welcome to Council on Foreign Relations guests, welcome to C-SPAN. The Council on Foreign Relations always enjoys having C-SPAN. Tonight is very special to me. It's the first, I guess, official discussion of the new book by Professor Fouad Ajami. And it puts me in mind of the old days, Sundays in New York in front of Zabar's when there was a man always sitting out in front of the store hawking things. And one day he was holding up a newspaper and saying, "Last week's New York Times Week in Review. Only a week old and already a classic." Fouad's book is minutes old from the press, and it is already a classic, and it deserves to be. It's far and away the best book published on Iraq, about Iraq. Not America and Iraq, but Iraq. Tonight's meeting is on the record. And Fouad and I, in theory, will be having a conversation. I've been lucky in any conversation we've ever had to get in two words edgewise. We're hoping for a revolution this evening. Fouad is a distinguished professor of the Middle East at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and a terrific columnist for the U.S. News & World Report, and often for the Wall Street Journal as well. And I'm adding a new title to Fouad tonight. He's gone to a number of conferences in the Gulf, and he has title-envy as a result of it. He's found that he goes to these conferences and he sees people being introduced as head of the Albright group, or head of the Cohen group, or head of the Haass group. So tonight I also introduce Fouad as chairman and CEO of the Ajami group, his own group. The title of Fouad's book is very provocative: "The Foreigner's Gift" about Americans and Arabs in Iraq. And we're going to be talking for about a half hour and try to cover three broad areas. First there's a little background and history because Fouad has written in this field very importantly for more than two decades. And then I thought it would be interesting to give you a sense of the people, the Iraqis running Iraq. We only see the stories about our guys, our women. But who are they? Who are those guys. Iraqis. who we're pinning such hopes on? And then, finally, we'll get into some questions about how this all comes together for the future there. So again, welcome. And it's a treat to do this with you, as always, Fouad. The first question which really has to be asked, given the books you've written in the field. "The Arab Predicament," "The Vanishing Imam," "The Dream Palace of the Arabs". where you portray Arab society and politics as, even as you say in this book, extremely, overwhelmingly difficult, full of complications, even malignant, how do you come with 20 years of scholarship like that and now bring optimism to the present situation? Well, there's one unflattering explanation. I met Dick Cheney. But there are some. But there are some other explanations. First, I just want to. I want to start by. Who is that unflattering to? No, that's exactly. I want to just thank Les, and I want to thank the staff of the council. I know their summer had begun, and bringing them back. Martina and her colleagues. I'm truly grateful. And I'm truly grateful that I could bring Les to participate in this effort. Les can do anything he wants with this book, but there's one paragraph that I marked, I sensed, I built a fence around it, and it is with this one paragraph that Les cannot quarrel. "On one of my six visits to Iraq, I traveled with the fearless Leslie Gelb, one of our country's smartest and wisest foreign policy minds. To travel with him and to be sustained by his wisdom and his humor was an experience I shall always treasure." Those of you who know Les know that he had many, many medical challenges before that trip to Iraq. And his guts and his willingness to go to Iraq was remarkable. And I think it was my best time in Iraq. I rode in his sidecar. Anyway, if you go back and look at what happened in the month we were in Iraq, that visit we made to Iraq, it turns out to be one of the calmest months in Iraq. The fatalities were. American fatalities and Iraqi fatalities took a nose dive. And I think it has to do with the sight of Les in flak jacket and helmet it so scared the insurgents, they were gone! I couldn't button the jacket! Yes, exactly, exactly. And watching Les come in and out of choppers now that's an experience I can talk to you off the record, as they say, on that one. But at any rate, I am truly grateful to be here. There are many good people, many outstanding guests. And I'll try to make it worthwhile for you. I don't really have an easy answer for you, Les. I really don't. I knew you were going to ask this question. I had a sense you would ask this question. And all I can tell you is that I came to the study of Iraq and to this book on Iraq and to the American experience in Iraq informed by everything I had done before. And as I said, as a younger man I had written "The Arabic Predicament," a study of the malignancy of Arab politics. I had written a book on the Sadr family. So when people now see Muqtada al-Sadr, you know, suddenly this great, new star, well, two decades ago I had written a book called "The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon." I had worked on the Sadr family. I had worked on one character in the Sadr family. But when the Sadrs emerged in Iraq, it was a familiar story to me. And so I came to this work and I came to this American expedition in Iraq against this background. And I was informed and deeply, deeply shaken by 9/11, as we all were. So to me, and this is one of the controversies about this book, I view the Iraq war as one of the twin wars of 9/11. I view the Iraq war as embedded in 9/11. I use the word "embedded." And after 9/11, I was surend you can check me on this one. I was sure after 9/11nd I coined an expression at the time. I said there is a highway; it begins in Kabul and it ends in Baghdad. And Les was with me. We were in Iraq and we met with our remarkable top commander in Iraq, General Casey. And General Casey. we were just trying to make small talk with this amazing general. And I thought we had met before. And he told me: You know, we met. We met. We met at the Pentagon when your former boss, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, brought you and Bernard Lewis to the Pentagon. I didn't know you, but there you sat saying there's a highway, it begins in Kabul and ends in Baghdad. I didn't think you knew what you were talking about, and here I am in Baghdad, so I guess there is a highway, it begins in Kabul and ends in Baghdad. But you went through an intellectual highway too, Fouad. Yes. And again, I think everybody who has read you really wants to figure out how at the end of this highway you see optimism and hope in a situation where you found it almost hopeless before. Well, some of my peers in the Arab world, the ones who are still talking to me, all seven of them in a meeting Would you all turn off your cell phones, by the way. In a meeting in Kuwait, a very, very decent Kuwaiti intellectual said: Look. Many, many years ago, when we were full of enthusiasm, you appeared to be the undertaker. You wrote something called "The End of Pan-Arabism," "The Arab Predicament." We were all intoxicated with Arab nationalism, and you were actually dampening our enthusiasm. Now all of a sudden we're all despondent, and you come here full of hope. You think something noble and something good is being born in Iraq. There is a quotation which I like. It was made by the mayor of Baghdad in late 2004, early 2005, on the eve of the so-called revolution of purple ink, when millions of Iraqis went to the polls and celebrated this very strange thing in an Arab society. democracy, voting, choosing your rulers. And this mayor said something which I think is quite remarkable. He said, "The people of the region are envious. The rulers in the region are nervous about Iraq." So I don't know where I got this optimism. I just, after 9/11nd this is really. I must return to this. I was actually working on a book on 9/11. I was working on a book that I had talked to you at great length about. I was working on Ayman Zawahiri, to begin with, because I was very interested in Ayman Zawahiri. Right. And he had been a young man. I had gotten his police recordnd he was caught up in the dragnet following the assassination of Anwar Sadat. And I was happily working on 9/11 when the war in Iraq started. I was not. I repeat the word "not". beating the drums of war. My attitude was my country, the United States, went to war in Iraq. I followed it to war. I was not. I never signed, you know, Projects of the New American Century, Committee to Liberate Iraq. And I didn't think it was my business. So when we went to Iraq, I thought, well, this journey must succeed. This is really the hope. Now, do I approach Iraq with the sense of caution? Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm not just out celebrating that everything is great there. But I can tell you that there is something in Iraq which is better than the autocracies of the region around it. And I will elaborate on that. Well, let's try to do this in terms of the people there. One of the astonishing things about Fouad's book is that he went around and he met the Iraqi leadership. It's a rare thing for Americans to do. We mostly go there, talk to each other in green zones for four hours and go home. Fouad spent an enormous amount of time there actually meeting the Iraqis, the Iraqi leadership across the board. So let's explore for a while, Fouad, whether the hope you find for this country resides in this leadership, whether you think this leadership really can do the job. And let's start at the top of the country with the Hatfields and the McCoys Barzani and Talabani, two people you really know quite well. Kurds. Yes. I actually know Talabani much better. And therefore, of course, I like him more. No, seriously. Yes, exactly. Exactly. Les is right. I mean, if you really want to do Arab politicsnd I also include in that Kurdish politics. you really have to do biography. I mean, that's really what it is. Talk about institutions, constitutions. forget about it. You are in the land where it's really history is made by individuals. And one of the things I am very optimistic about Iraq and one of the things I like about Iraq is Jalal Talabani, the president of the country. And one of the things I admire about this Iraqi experiment is that you actually have a Kurd a Kurd!s a head of an Arab state. You know, the Arabs have an expression: which means, "Do you take me for a Kurd?" It's not a flattering expression. There had been much cruelty heaped on the Kurds. And the fact that here is this man, Jalal Talabani, in his 70s, optimistic, buoyant, very, very a great narrator, a great host, and a great believer in the unity of Iraq I mean, the ideal was will the Kurds come into this Iraqi experiment and will they take to Iraq? And I think Jalal Talabani brought them to Iraq. The fact hat he came from Sulimaniyah. because, as you know, there are these two turfs, one in Erbil and one in Sulimaniyah, and there are these two competing, shall we say, Kurdish leaders, the fact that Talabani himself made the journey from Sulimaniyah to Baghdad, the fact that he was. he became the Iraqi president is really quite remarkable. But he is really a link between Kurdish nationalism and keeping Iraq whole. What's his thinking? Absolutely. Well, Les, actually, this was. I thought it was very interesting. In January, I think, January 2 '06 I went up to Kurdistan and I went up with President Talabani. he took a number of us with him. He's a very gregarious man. My advice to you, if he offers you food, please take it, you know? Don't say that you are. you can't eat lamb, you're not hungry. This is not. you know, doesn't really. Or does he actually feed you? Exactly. Exactly. We went up with President Talabani, and there was a union, a merging of the two parts of Kurdistan: the Barzani part in Erbil and the Talabani part in Sulimaniyah. The Sulimaniyah culture is slightly more urban. So there is that difference between Barzani and Talabani, which the U.S.has observed, when you were there. And I think he ceremony, the symbolism of that ceremony, bringing these two parts of Kurdistan together, was quite interesting. Talabani, the president of Iraq, spoke in Arabic, fluent Arabic. By the way, he's fluent in Arabic, he's fluent in English, he's fluent in Kurdish. And hold that thought. he's also fluent in Farsi. He's fluent in He's fluent in Farsi, and knows Iran very, very well. And when people tell you about the Iranian Shi'a link in Iraq, many, many Shi'a will tell you hey, look, I lived in Iran for 20 years, I speak not a word of Farsi. But one person who really speaks Farsi is Jalal Talabani. So, Talabani spoke in Arabic. Barzani spoke in Kurdish, because Barzani stays in the hills. He stays in the mountains. He stays in Kurdistan. His bet is on Kurdistan. But, of course, he has sent people of Barzani's own clan are part of this government. I mean, the Kurds have really bought this idea of Iraq. And I know Les and I have somewhat disagreed here and there on the margins about this. I think the Kurds are reconciled to the idea of Iraq. It's not the first choice, but it's the practical choice. And many, many Kurds will tell you that their sentimental choice is independence; they are actually reconciled to the idea that the best political life they could have is to be part of Iraqi nationalism. And on this one I think we may disagree, there are some other people here who will have different views, but I think the Kurds have understood that if they want to deal with he predator nations around them. with the Syrians, with the Iranians, with the Turks. it's best to help Baghdad. It's best to help Baghdad. And many of them will tell you, look, we like being in Baghdad. And some of the best of the Kurdish leaders, the youngest ones, are committed to this Iraqi project. I mention again a man we both know and like immensely: Barham Salih, a very, very talented young man, a Ph.D. from England. He is now deputy prime minister in charge of the economic portfolio. He does not want to be in the mountains in Kurdistan. He likes being in Baghdad. And people are talking about him conceivably one day becoming prime minister in Iraq. Hoshyar Zebari, a relative of Barzani, is the foreign minister. He doesn't want to be a foreign minister of Kurdistan. He doesn't mind being a foreign minister of Iraq. Again, he is part of this Iraqi life. The Kurds compared to almost all the others have done very well. Right. The situation in Kurdistan is better than anywhere else in the country. Let's go to the part of the country where it's worse. in the center and where I think all of us who try to follow this have hardest time figuring out the leadership situation, mainly the Sunni center. We talked about one guy being somewhat symbolic of the Sunni situation and the diversity in leadership, the vice president, Hashimi. Right. Yeah. The Sunni. I mean, the Sunni Arabs, to just give you this kind of. this. I'm going to continue to refer to the trip I made with Les, because I rode in his side car. I was just simply a companion of Les Gelb. It was the best way to do Iraq. What has happened, Les, between the time when were there and then in the most recent turn of events is the Sunni Arabs are now represented by hard-liners. They are represented by people who are really Sunni Arabs. They come what so-called. what the Sunni Arabs call (in Arabic). the noble resistance. So gone are the Sunni Arabs who were brought in by the Americans. And now you have a different breed of Sunni Arab: they came from the insurgency. And there is a leader in Iraq, I shall respect on deep background, who has said. who said some of these leaders, they do politics in the daytime and terrorism at night. That's also true, by the way, of some of the Shi'a leaders. They do politics in the daytime and terrorism at night. What has happened with the Sunni Arabs is. like someone like Tariq Hashimi. Tariq Hashimi is a former colonel, a Ba'athist. And he was described to me by one of my best sources as a false Islamist. Because many of the Ba'athists have reincarnated, ladies and gentlemen, into Islamists. And there is a very, very talented man, the former Defense minister of Iraq, who's a Sunni Arab from one of the best tribes in Iraq, the Dulayms. he has been pushed aside now because he was much too hard on his own community. What. you know, he described the Ba'ath territory as the Ba'ath-Islamic party. So here you have the irony of the Ba'ath Party, established by a Greek Orthodox boy from Damascus via the. (French). in Paris, Michel flaq, now is becoming kind of an Islamic party because the Ba'athists can play. they can reincarnate and appear in many guises and disguises. The Sunni Arabs now are represented by hard-core elements. For example, a man who was speaker of Parliament. he has been here at the council, Hajem Hassani. he described himself to me and to Les Gelb as the Tip O'Neill of Iraq. You can imagine it. That was years in Connecticut and California gave him the Tip O'Neill analogy. He has now been replaced by Mashhadani, a very different man. The Defense Ministry, which is a preserve of the Sunni Arabs, now has a more of a hard-core, and so on and so on. Tariq Hashimi, as the vice president again, to give you the names. I don't want to confuse the issue with too many names. For example, there was an interim president who then became a vice president, Sheikh Ghazi Yawar. He did not come from the insurgency. He was a Sunni Arab. Now, Tariq Hashimi is a different kind of person. There is a deputy prime minister now who's a Sunni Arab, who's a Sunni Arab, and this deputy prime minister is in the government, but is eternally sniping at the government and fighting with the government. Two questions about these people you've just discussed. One is, do they still have the master mentality that the Sunnis have had for 200 years in that country? Do they still think they are the bosses or destined to be the bosses, should be the bosses? And secondly, are these Sunni leaders in Baghdad the real leaders of the Sunnis? Well, I think if there is a term. which an Iraqi leader gave me, and I recommend it to you very, very deeply and verynd with real conviction he called many of these people supremacists. There are Sunni Arabs in Iraq who believe that Iraq is their patrimony. That's the way the historiography of Iraq was written. And this book, in many ways, explains the origins of that view. So the Sunni Arabs believe that Iraq today. ruled, as they see it, by the Shi'a and the Kurds, that's the way they see it. they believe it's a stolen country. That's really their conviction, that it's a stolen country. Then the Americans came in and upended this old order. And guess what they would probably reconcile themselves to the logical thing had they not been surrounded by a large Sunni Arab world around them. So even though they're a minority in Iraq itself, they're a majority in the region. And as one of my witnesses in this book of mine I profiled, he said, "Though they are a minority, they have the majoritarian mindset. They have the majoritarian mindset." For all these leaders in the government, the real leaders of the Sunni community, now, yes. If you take a look at the National Assembly and if you take a look at the government in 2006 as opposed to 2004 and 2005, the Sunni Arabs are represented by people who are truly hard-core and reflective of their sentiment. Salah Muthlot (ph), again, an old Ba'athist, is president of the National Assembly, with something like 25 people, et cetera. Tariq Hashimi, the Iraqi Islamic Party. You now are beginning to have. brace yourselves the good news from Iraq , you want good news balance of terror in the country, a balance of terror. The Sunni Arabs always believed. I can't imagine better news. Yes, exactly. Exactly. Exactly. When I told one source in Iraq. when I taught them the language of the nuclear age and said "mutual assured destruction," he said, "I love that. I love that." That's. he appreciated the thought of mutual assured destruction. There is an old expressionnd I will translate it for you because I don't think there are many of you who are Arabic speakers. which goes something like this. in rhymes better in Arabic: "To us," it says, meaning the Sunni Arabs. (says Arabic word). ruling. "To you". (says Arabic word). self-flagellation. They're speaking to the Shi'a. Guess what the Shi'a are saying. "We're done with self-flagellation. We've got the Mahdi Army now. We got the Badr Brigade. We got the Interior Ministry." So you have this rough balance, where the Ministry of Defense is a preserve of the Sunnis, the Ministry of Interior is a preserve of the Shi'a. The army is professional, but the police is riddled with these sectarian militias, and the Shi'a have found a way into the police. So there is this interesting change in Iraq that the knock at the door. what we in Arabic would call "the visitors of dawn". you have to know Third World politics to know the meaning of "the visitors of dawn." Maurice (sp) is already smiling. Students of the Third World know the term. "The visitors of dawn." Now the visitors of dawn are likely to be Shi'a, more likely to be Shi'a than to be Sunni. So there has been a change in the country. Let's go to the Shi'a. Because we read often about three people, in particular, three Shi'a leaders: Muqtada al-Sadr, who runs one of the most powerful militias; the new prime minister, Maliki, who Fouad knows, one of the few Americans who's had real contact with him; and third and most importantly, Ali Sistani. Right. And here again, Fouad, I think you may be the only American to have seen him as far as I know. Tell us about the three. Because the great figure of Shi'a Islam, the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, could stretch the meaning of American, see, because I'm also a Shi'a. So since I was born in Lebanon, I could come and see him. I think. it's interesting. I mean, as far as. if you take a look at Shi'a politics, the fear of a Shi'a monolith in Iraq was always overdone. This was overdone. The Shi'a are divided. I mean, I suppose that's good news if you want for the Sunni, I mean, because you want to talk about the Shi'a hijacking Iraq and running away with Iraq. The Shi'a are divided. Now, to start with the great figure of Najaf, Ayatollah al-Sistani, I mean, the Iraqis are lucky. The Iraqis are lucky that the young man of Iranian birth came to Iraq in his 20s, came to Najaf and became custodian of this clerical tradition in Najaf. And the art of Sistani and the genius of Sistani and the dignity of Sistani is this enormous- (inaudible). he carries without being overly involved in the details of politics. There's a science to Sistani. Like if you go to see him, you will do the business of politics with his son, and then you'd come in to see the old man. And it's more like an experience to see the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. I didn't really, quote, "interview" him. I just went in I was so overwhelmed by the occasion. And being such a pessimist, I always thought it wouldn't work. So as we drove from Baghdad to Najaf, I just thought we will get. every time the phone rang in the car, I realized that maybe this is it, we're not seeing Grand Ayatollah Sistani. And I should say, because I don't want to take so much credit, you should understand why I saw Sistani. is that I am a very good friend of one of the Shi'a contenders for power who've been here. His daughter, actually, was an intern at the council, and that's Former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi. And given the fact that I've known Chalabi for many, many years, and given the fact that he is married to a woman from southern Lebanon, and it's all, like, very. you know, it's very Arab. He's married to a woman from southern Lebanon where I was born. Her family is close to mine, et cetera, et cetera. Ahmed is about a year older than me. We've had the (traffic) of many of. of a very long time, and I think, you know, he just wanted to reward me. So he told me, "What are you doing on Tuesday?" I said, "X, Y and Z." He said, "No, you're not. You're coming to see Sistani." I thought, "Wow! I will see Sistani." I think the Iraqis are lucky that Sistani was there. There was one legislator, a Shi'a legislator. I will not identify it. who was very, very disappointed because this legislator said if only the (narja ?), the (Sayyed ?), if only. you know, there are many (Sayyeds ?) but there is one "The (Sayyed ?)," which is Sistani. If only he'd let us liquidate thousands of Ba'athists right in the aftermath of liberation, we would never have this insurgency. The aversion of Sistani to bloodshed, the aversion of Sistani to violence, the aversion of Sistani to hooliganism is remarkable. And it only could be the attribute of a great jurist. He lived in Najaf for five years without leaving his home, literally, and when you go to his home, you arrive, you will not believe it's in an alleyway; it's a rented house. There's a piece of batik separating his house and the street, and this is where the great figure of Shi'a Islam lives. And I tell you the experience of meeting him and the agility of his mindnd actually I will tell you, I heard all these things. People say that he's very frail and so on, but the striking looks of the man and the intellect of the man, I think, are remarkable. And it was the luck of the Iraqis that he was on the scene. It was the luck that reined in this. So that's Sistani. Sistani's idea is. it's the old idea of the jurist. The Shi'a jurists do not believe in having anything to do, or overtly so, with politics. They believe in, quote, unquote, "commanding right and forbidding evil." You don't over. get over involved in politics. Indeed there's one great Ayatollah in Iraq, Ayatollah Hussein Sadr, whom I met and chronicled in this book. He got in trouble with his own community. Guess why? Because he met Colin Powell. And people said, "Who's Colin Powell? Why should he meet with him? This is Ayatollah Hussein Sadr. He harks back to Imam Ali. And indeed, he gave me a book of his, and he said, "I am Said Hassan Sadr's son, and Ishmail Sadr's son"nd he went back to Imam Ali in the 7th century. So people said, "Why should he meet with Colin Powell?" There is a kind of an aversion of Shi'a Islam to be overly involved with rulers and politics. That's why Sistani never saw Bremer. That's why Sistani never saw. you don't see Sistani much. But when he speaks on politics, do the others largely follow his will? Well, he doesn't. you know, there is a kind ofn art to Sistani. He doesn't really speak. When he whispers on politics. Exactly. And there are also people who can come and say, "The (Sayyed ) says so." There's also his son who is very, very politically. very politically agile. So there is a kind of a science to Sistani, and it is this moral guidance of this I