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World Views: International Journalist and Commentator Rami Khouri (Apr 09, 2012)

Last week marked 30 years since the invasion that began the Falklands War, and Latin America expert Charles Kenney joins the panel for a conversation on U.K.-Argentina relations, and a preview of the 2012 Mexican presidential election.  And international journalist and commentator Rami Khouri speaks to Zach Messitte and Joshua Landis about the U.S. response to the Arab Spring.

Rami Khouri, thank you for joining us on World Views.

RAMI KHOURI: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

MESSITTE: You recently wrote that we are “at a major moment of historic change that includes much more than merely the replacement of authoritarian regimes by more democratic systems and that every single major player in the Middle East, from Arab states, to Israel, Turkey, Iran, the European Union, and the United States is undergoing a major change in regional relationships.” What’s driving all of this, and where is it heading? What are the next few months going to look like in the Middle East, and the next few years?

KHOURI: I think three things are driving this. You have converging together essentially the end of colonialism, the end of the Cold War, delayed twenty years, and the end of the modern Arab police state. Those three things reach the end of their life, and people are rebelling against the police state or the security state in which the ordinary citizen doesn’t have any real rights or equal opportunities. They’re rebelling against a couple hundred years, if you go back to the French and the British, a couple hundred years of Western colonial, imperial, whatever you want to call it, domination which now is represented by the Americans very much, and in recent years the Russians played a role as well. And the general issue, the Cold War, as well as the third thing, that ended of course twenty years ago, but that external influence where countries were independent but not really sovereign, and average citizens feel that they don’t really make their own decisions, so you’re seeing all of these things come together and it just took one event; it was Tunisia in December 17th and it was like a Rosa Parks Moment where one person did one spontaneous event and it resonated with tens of millions of their countrymen and women and then it sparked this uprising and this is what we’re seeing. It’s changing the fundamental exercise of power, and the relationships between powerful players. Both of those things are changing.

MESSITTE: I want to follow up a little bit on at least how Washington is reacting to this, because you’ve been very critical in some of your writings about the flat footedness, to a certain extent in Washington, and that particularly the U.S. inability at the U.N. to stop the Palestinian bid shows an example of how the strongest power in the world, you wrote, may also be the weakest power in the Middle East and that in your talks and listening to people in Washington on the Middle East, you said, is to wander into a world of deep perplexities, so that people in Washington really don’t seem to have a grasp yet on how to react, what to do, how to position themselves. What does this mean though for a country like the United States to be at such a loss, at such a critical juncture?

KHOURI: I think it means that, first of all you have to be really honest and ask yourself how the U.S. got to this point? Which is not always done because in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the wider Middle East, and relations with Iran, and the contacts with the Islamic societies, and in contacts with the world of oil, at those different levels there is a limit to what you can actually ask in Washington, because you run up against strong political pressures, whether its from lobby groups, or interest groups, or money, or patriotic considerations, or just the continuing resent and anger at the trauma of the crime of 9/11, and still people remember the Iran hostage crisis, they want to get even with Iran. For various reasons, there’s a limit to an honest and complete discussions of these issues, but the first thing that the U.S. must do it break through these limits, and really analyze the reasons why it got to this point. The second thing that the United States needs to realize is that it is perplexed and confused and a little bit weak now, but there is enormous respect and admiration and desire to emulate American values across the entire Middle East. Ordinary people still look to the U.S. with great admiration when they meet the people, when they come to school here, when they do business, but they don’t like what the American government is doing, so the U.S. should not confuse political confusion and helplessness and marginalization, its own self-induced marginalization, should confuse that with a lack of respect for American values, and the U.S. should realize that this is actually a moment of opportunity to reengage with the people of the Middle East, to have a relationship that actually is mutually beneficial to both sides. It’s not that people are saying we don’t want to have anything to do with the U.S. They are saying U.S. policies in the last twenty to thirty years have failed, and we don’t want to have anything to do with those policies, so let’s start again.

JOSHUA LANDIS: A lot of skeptics look at this Arab Spring, or the Arab Revolt, and they say this isn’t going to end up in democracy, and they point to things like the failure of these security states, which you have talked about, to produce economic benefits for their people, the poverty rate is terrible. What provides you with the hope to say we’re on a better path?

KHOURI: I think the situation described is very accurate and correct, but I think the missing element there was the power of the human spirit. I mean I’m simply optimistic simply because I have spent my entire adult life, that last forty-five years in the Middle East interacting with Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Turks, going all over the region, meeting people of the highest level of government, and the most ordinary citizen, refugees, everybody, and there’s this indomitable spirit by people who want to avoid extremism. I mean it’s amazing that we don’t have more extremism and violence in the Middle East given he realities of tensions, of disparity, of poverty, of abuse of power, subjugation, and to the level of dehumanization, and that’s why you’ve had this revolt where people have spontaneously gone out there and challenged their government knowing that they are going to die and thousands have died. They do it because there’s an indomitable will which is genetic, it’s not Arab, it’s not Islamic, it’s human genes. It’s a genetic code that wants people to live in a reasonably open society where they can achieve, they want their security, their food, their clothing, their house, take care of their kids, but they want to live a normal life, and Arabs have been doing this for decades, trying to break through these security states and the foreign support that came from the Western world and the Russians and others. This didn’t happen in a vacuum, We’ve had twenty-five to thirty years of sustained attempts by many people across the Arab world pushing against their governments to get more open, more democratic, less corrupt societies with no real breakthroughs at all, and finally this thing erupted, and I’m convinced that this will work but it’s going to take a long time, and I think its important for people to remember that when the American democratic experiment started in the 1770s, it was white, land-owning, slave-owning men, who had freedom. Nobody else existed, nobody else had real rights, so it took you almost one-hundred seventy/one-hundred eighty years to achieve a stable and equitable democracy, that was equitable to all of its people. I don’t think it’s going to take us that long, but it will take us some time to get through this. This transition is going to be very messy, but finally there has been a breakthrough and how it spreads through the region, its going to take time to find out. We’ve seen Syria, we’ve seen Bahrain, and we’ve seen Yemen, were the regimes fought back; Libya fought back, but finally the regime was removed, and there’s more change to come in Sudan, in Algeria, and Morocco. I think there will be other forms of transitions which will be less violent, but I think once this process starts, like what happened across the Soviet Empire it will spread across the whole region. They will probably end up with some regimes that are like, in the Soviet example, some of the regimes today in central Asia are still autocratic, dictatorial systems, and others are really impressive democracies, and I think we should expect to have that range, with some of the monarchies hanging in there as monarchies but opening up a little bit and getting more rights for their people.

LANDIS: Let me follow up with a question about American foreign policy as Zach was pushing you before. What should America be doing then, in order to open the door for this kind of change, not hinder it? And I want to challenge you particularly on the Gulf countries because America doesn’t have a lot invested in most Middle Eastern countries, but we have a ton invested in the Gulf. How can America manage change in these monarchies in the Gulf without cutting off its own feet?

KHOURI: Well, the first thing I would say is that America should see its role as enhancing American national interests, and when possible, enhancing the interests and rights of the people in the Middle East. America is not responsible for transition in these countries, so it should see itself as reacting to events in those countries rather than initiating them as it tried to do in the past with complete failure, and promote democracy etcetera unless it sent its army to get rid of the regime in Iraq which it did, which is what I also think in the long run had more negative than positive consequences. So the first thing it should do is take an attitude that it should simply react to what is going on there, and people should initiate processes for change, the U.S. should simply say here is what the U.S. stands for, here’s what the U.S. supports: consent of the governed, equality of opportunities, independent judiciary. If that independent judiciary is run by guys who deal with Islamic Sharia, or deal with some kind of tribal law in rural Yemen, but it is a truly independent judiciary that gives a citizen a sense that he or she has a court or mechanism to adjudicate a dispute fairly, then the U.S. should support these principles that are articulated and if people are pushing for those principles it should some how support them. There were three red lines for the U.S. in the Middle East historically: Oil-protecting oil, protecting Israel, and protecting the modern Arab regimes. For the Arab regimes, that red line was shattered by the people of regions. That red line is no longer a red line, but oil and Israel still are, and therefore anything that gets close to oil or Israel, the U.S. is going to act in a manner that may seem contradictory.

MESSITTE: And let’s talk about one of those red lines which I think is Iran. The decision for the president to ask for information related to the Iranian nuclear program to be made public, the decision also to go public and say there had been this assassination plot of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, how does Iran in this U.S.-Iran relationship fit into this new dynamic now in the Middle East?

KHOURI: Well, the thing about Iran is that it is a dynamic actor that understands how to deal with the United States does and therefore has these relationships. My perception of Iran is that it is one of the losers of the current Arab uprisings and the transformations politically that are taking place, because it is trying to generate Arab public opinion support by bad-mouthing the Israelis, by challenging the Americans, by asserting its strength in the region, and I think most of those issues are not going to be ones that Iran can credibly exploit anymore. If the Arabs are more democratic, and the Iranian model of Islamic revolutionary regime is not one that appeals to ordinary Arabs, they don’t want to live in a situation like Iranians live in politically, so I don’t see this Iranian system lasting for years and years and years but despite all of that, the Iranians, I don’t believe, are a threat to the United States, and I certainly don’t believe they’re a direct threat to Israel or the Arab countries, I think the Iranians make a very strong case that they are simply trying to protect themselves, and they have very little trust in any of the promises from the Western world, especially a nuclear enrichment over the last twenty or thirty years. The Iranians, I believe, have been badly treated by the Western world, unfairly treated, and what should be done with Iran is to engage them like the U.S. engaged Russia with the Helsinki Treaty - a package of agreements to allow Iran to continue with its political, economic, and social development, and I believe [Iran] will evolve from and change. It uses its confrontation with the Western world, the U.S., and some others to generate more support at home, and so I think the U.S. is using completely the wrong strategy. Finally, the important new development that’s taken place in the region that there is now an open, loud, strong pushback against Iran, led by the Saudis, and you have people all over the world who don’t like the Iranians, and who talk about it openly and say we’rere going to fight them, we’re going to resist them and this is something new ,and the Iranians are not dealing with this very well I don’t think and if there’s any change in Syria, it’s going to have a huge implication for Iran because of A) the role Hezbollah, and B) the alliance with Iran; so Iranians I think are one of the big losers of what’s going on.

LANDIS: Let me switch the topic here to Christianity. You’re a Christian, you’re a Palestinian, you were born in New York in 1948, because your father was covering the U.N. partition debates, and the war broke in Palestine. Israel won, the Jews won, and created Israel. Your home in Nazareth became part of Israel, and you weren’t allowed to go home, but what do you say, if you were giving a sermon, what would you tell people? How would tell people to read the Bible in terms of the Promised Land?

KHOURI: Well, I would first of all tell them my name is Khouri, which means “priest,” and I come from Nazareth where Christianity started, and the Greek Orthodox Church over Mary’s Well in Nazareth was built by great-great-great-grandfather in the 1770s, so our family has strong roots in the Christianity of that region and I would tell them that they should read the Bible in a more theological manner rather than a political manner. That the lesson of Jesus, the lesson of Christianity and indeed of the Abrahamic faiths, the Christians, the Muslims, and Jews in the region all I think have a similar ethical foundation, which is that their texts are written not necessarily to be translated into political actions today, but as universal and enduring and timeless lessons of how human beings should behave in morality, and the morality and the theology of second coming of the Messiah, and the End of Time is really about building a perfect world, and bringing God’s kingdom to our world. If I was a Jew, I would be very worried this kind of evangelical position, because in the Biblical scenario, in the Book of Revelations, and other places, it talks about of the Second Coming of the Messiah and the End of Time, and that the Jews would either convert or be killed, or die, and it’s something that is a very contemporary political reality in some corners of the United States. It is not a universally-accepted Christian theological interpretation of either what is written in the Bible or of what Jesus Christ’s life was all about, both of which presumably reflect some kind of content of the divine message that God has passed down to human beings repeatedly through different prophets. And if you look at Moses and Jesus, Mohammad, and others in the Abrahamic faiths, either prophets or the son of God, or however you look at all of these different figures, the message was the same: treat people fairly, treat people justly, and in the core Biblical message of the book of Deuteronomy which I think is the critical book where God gives the second law to the Hebrews before they go into the Promised Land and Moses dies. He says that in that book of Deuteronomy clearly to pursue justice and only justice. Justice is the absolute foundation, I believe, of the theological message and it permeates the three Abrahamic faiths, so I think the contemporary American evangelical interpretation of the state of Israel, and the obligation of American Christians is a highly distorted, exaggerated political message, and that’s fine that people take that position, but the rest of us should not see it as theologies, but we should see it as ideology.

MESSITTE: Well, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, thank you for joining us on World Views.

KHOURI: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

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