DATE March 31, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Flynt Leverett discusses the politics of Lebanon and
the Middle East, and how US foreign policy comes into play
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon,
brought thousands of people into the streets to protest Syria's military
presence in their country. It pushed the pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar
Karami, to resign last month. But then he returned to lead the formation of a
new government. He's been unable to make real progress, and has announced his
plans to resign again.
We're going to look at what the changes in Lebanon and Syria mean for the
Middle East and for the US. My first guest is Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow
at The Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He worked
as an expert on Syria in the CIA in the late '90s, then during the first two
years of the Bush administration he worked in the State Department and the
National Security Council. He resigned because he disagreed with Bush
administration policies on Syria and the Middle East. His book, "Inheriting
Syria: Bashar's Trial By Fire," comes out in mid-April. It's about Syrian
President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, after his
death in 2000.
I'm interested in hearing if you think that there's a connection between the
demonstrations that we saw in Lebanon--demonstrations to get Syria out of
Lebanon--if you think that that's connected to the elections in Iraq? You
know, the--one of the goals in the invasion of Iraq was to bring democracy to
that country and to hope that democracy spread through the Middle East. Is
what's happening in Lebanon a sign of it spreading, or is it unrelated?
Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution's Saban Center
for Middle East Policy): It's a nice coincidence and it's obviously something
that the administration and its supporters want to claim as a byproduct of the
administration's Iraq policy. Frankly, I don't believe that there's really
any connection between what the United States has done in Iraq and the holding
of elections in Iraq on--at the end of January, and what we've seen in
Lebanon. The demonstrations in Lebanon really were sparked by an unrelated
event, that is, the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri on February
the 14th. You saw that as a--serve as a kind of catalytic event for the
opposition, galvanizing people to go into the streets to protest the
long-standing Syrian presence, Syrian role, in Lebanon. At the same time, you
also saw that provoke even larger counterdemonstrations organized by
Hezbollah. I think this is really a Lebanese drama that we're seeing played
out before us, driven by long-standing forces and concerns within the Lebanese
polity. It's not related in any significant way to Iraq.
GROSS: In the United States, Hezbollah is on the list of terrorist groups,
and Hezbollah's two main enemies are Israel and the United States. In
Lebanon, Hezbollah is--it's a political party. And so, you know, we saw that
the Hezbollah demonstrations in Lebanon were even larger than the
demonstrations to get Syria out of Lebanon. So in this period of transition,
how do you think that Hezbollah's role in Lebanon might change?
Mr. LEVERETT: I actually think this is one area where US policy at the moment
runs serious risks of unintended consequences. Hezbollah is, I would argue,
and I think most of my former colleagues in the US intelligence community
would argue, is the world's most capable terrorist organization. It is the
group that before September 11 had killed more Americans than any other
terrorist group in the world. It still today maintains an international
terrorist network that is more capable of hurting American interests around
the world than al-Qaeda is. But we are embarked on a course which I think
will inevitably lead to Hezbollah's empowerment as a political force in
We saw in the demonstrations that you referred to just how much of a popular
base it can command. If we really do push the Syrians out of Lebanon and try
to create some new political order in Lebanon--if that order is going to be
genuinely reflective of Lebanon's political forces, it is going to have to
include Hezbollah in a significant way. And let's have no illusions:
Hezbollah is going to come into a greater degree of political power still
armed. It is not going to give up its arms, and with the Syrians gone there
will be no one there to disarm Hezbollah.
GROSS: Well, has Syria been empowering Hezbollah or controlling Hezbollah?
Mr. LEVERETT: It's been doing both. It has allowed Hezbollah to develop its
military capabilities, particularly in the south. It has allowed Hezbollah to
capitalize on its popular following and establish more of a political role for
itself in Lebanon. At the same time, Syria has set limits on Hezbollah's
operations. Syria, for example, has forbidden Hezbollah to target American
interests in the region. It doesn't have a lot of influence on what Hezbollah
does internationally, but within the region it's said you don't target US
interests. It has set limits in terms of the scope of Hezbollah's operations
in the Shebaa Farms area against Israeli forces. So I think Syria's played a
dual role: on the one hand, empowering Hezbollah and using Hezbollah as a
lever for it to pursue its own interests, but at the same time setting some
limits on what Hezbollah can do.
GROSS: Hezbollah wants a fundamentalist state in Lebanon, right?
Mr. LEVERETT: They say that they want to see the establishment of an Islamic
state, that's right.
GROSS: So is it possible that Lebanon will become one of those paradoxical
places where we see it as heading toward democracy, but the majority ends up
voting for an Islamic state, which the West would see as not exactly embodying
democracy, and certainly not embodying the spirit of Western democracy?
Mr. LEVERETT: I think that that's very much the pattern that we're seeing
played out in Iraq, where the dominant political force in Iraq at this point
is Islamist Shia. They are balanced to some degree by Kurds, who are much
more secular in their orientation. But if you just look at the numbers, the
dominant political force in post-Saddam Iraq are Islamist Shia, who, while
they are participating in democratic processes, I think have views regarding
the proper political order for Iraq regarding various social issues, regarding
the role of religion in society--which are not exactly compatible with Western
democratic norms. I think you do run this risk in Lebanon, as well. I think
that the course we are embarked upon right now, by pushing for precipitous
Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, one of the consequences of this is going to be
Hezbollah's empowerment. Hezbollah is going to become more powerful, more
influential, have more of a role in Lebanese political life. And both from a
standpoint of prosecuting a global war on terror, and also trying to foster
democracy in the Middle East, I'm not really sure why that course serves
GROSS: So since Hezbollah is on the list of--is on the American list of
terrorist groups--if Hezbollah rises to a larger position of political power
in Lebanon, what does that mean for relations between America and Lebanon?
Mr. LEVERETT: Well, that's a very good question. We face this problem in
Iraq. One of the leading Shia Islamist parties, the so-called Dawa Party, up
until the time of the American military campaign in Iraq, was labeled a
foreign terrorist organization. And we simply removed them from the list of
foreign terrorist organizations so that we could begin working with them, and
now, you know, they've emerged as one of the major players in Iraqi politics.
In terms of how we deal with Lebanon, assuming that Hezbollah does become a
more powerful politically influential player, that's a good question. It is
really hard for me to imagine, given Hezbollah's history, given the reality
that I don't see Hezbollah disarming anytime soon--it's really hard for me to
see how this administration could make an argument that Hezbollah should be
removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. At a minimum, I
would think it would mean that to the extent Hezbollah's taken into a Lebanese
government--you know, there are going to be large parts of that government
that the United States simply can't deal with on an official basis.
GROSS: My guest in Flynt Leverett. His new book, "Inheriting Syria," will be
published in a couple of weeks.
We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at The Brookings
Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
You've worked as an expert on Syria in the Bush administration, and you
resigned over a conflict in policy. What was your disagreement with the Bush
Mr. LEVERETT: I had, I would say, three conflicts with the administration
that eventually brought me to the point where I felt I needed to leave. One
was not Syria-specific, but it did relate to the question of US policy toward
state sponsors of terror--Syria being one of those countries. I believed that
in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, we had real opportunities with
Syria, with Iran, with other countries of concern that were coming to us in
the aftermath of the attacks offering us various kinds of cooperation against
al-Qaeda. In the case of Iran, offering to work with us to establish a
post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
And while, you know, I certainly have no illusions about these countries' own
complicities in various types of terrorist activity, I believed we had a real
opportunity to engage these countries, take their cooperation against
al-Qaeda, and use that to leverage improvements in their behavior on terrorism
and other issues of concern, and basically start a process where we could get
these countries out of the terrorism business in return for a better, closer
strategic relationship with the United States. I believe that was in US
interests in terms of our foreign policy. I believe that was in our interest
in terms of prosecuting the global war on terror more effectively and more
The administration basically went in the other direction. It said for state
sponsors of terror we are not going to basically offer positive inducements
for changes in behavior. These countries will simply have to get out of the
terrorism business because it's the right thing to do. I don't think that
approach has been very effective, and I disagreed with the policy on that
GROSS: What was another conflict that you had with the Bush administration?
Mr. LEVERETT: One of the issues that I worked very hard on was the
Palestinian issue. I am, I think it's fair to say, one of the four or five
people most responsible for the content of the road map for
Israeli-Palestinian peace. We actually wrote the road map with the idea that
it would be put out before the end of 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq war, as
a way of giving the United States a defensible position on the Palestinian
issue going into the Iraq War. The administration, though, made a decision in
late 2002, because Prime Minister Sharon called early elections in Israel,
that it would not put out the road map before the Israeli elections.
The argument was if we did that we would be intervening in Israeli politics.
My argument was that if we--after we have told the world we will put out a
plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace before we go to war in Iraq, and we don't
do that simply because Prime Minister Sharon has asked us not to, then we are
intervening in Israeli politics, just in a different direction.
What can I say? I lost that argument. The road map was not put out on the
schedule that I think it should have been put out, and I came to a conclusion
that the administration was fundamentally not serious about dealing with the
Palestinian issue. And that was another reason I felt it was probably a good
idea for me to move on.
GROSS: Was there a third conflict?
Mr. LEVERETT: Yes. In late 2002, the administration brought in Elliot
Abrams to be senior director for Near East and North African Affairs and to
work alongside me as senior director for Middle East affairs with the idea
that we would be able to work together and deal with issues in this part of
the world. I thought, frankly, that even though I tried for a few weeks to
work with Elliot, that this was really a sign of a lack of seriousness on the
administration's part about dealing with these issues in a really creative and
It's not just a question that Elliot and I had very different perspectives on
the region and what US policies should be, but Elliot was someone who, apart
from his previous entanglement in the Iran Contra affair, had no experience
working on Middle East issues. And I thought his appointment was a very
politically calculated signal that we weren't going to be doing strategically
grounded diplomacy in this region.
GROSS: What was Abrams' involvement in Iran Contra?
Mr. LEVERETT: Elliot Abrams, in the end, pled guilty to--I believe it was two
counts of lying to Congress about the plan to divert resources from the sale
of anti-aircraft missiles to Iran for use by the Nicaraguan Contras, even
though Congress had said US aid was not supposed to go to the Contras. Elliot
pled guilty to making false statements to Congress regarding this matter. The
first President Bush, the current president's father, pardoned Abrams shortly
before he left office.
GROSS: So you have your disagreements with the Bush administration. What
kind of policy would you like to see toward Syria, toward Lebanon?
Mr. LEVERETT: Well, I think that our policy towards Syria and Lebanon needs
to be put, first of all, in a bigger strategic context. I think that the real
threat to US interests in this part of the world and globally comes from Sunni
Islamist extremism epitomized by al-Qaeda. The course that I recommended in
the aftermath of September 11 would be to focus like a laser beam on that
threat. I think we did the right thing going into Afghanistan. I was one of
a small group of people called back into the State Department on the night of
September 11th to put together the diplomatic strategy for assembling the
coalitions that would go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban. I think we got
started off right. I think we lost our focus in the war on terror against
Sunni Islamist terror, largely because of Iraq.
I also think we needed--alongside a very robust campaign against al-Qaeda, we
needed a diplomatic approach of what I would call tough-minded carrots and
sticks engagement with state sponsors of terrorism like Iran, like Syria. In
this approach, you would go to these states and you would say, `OK, you want
to be helpful to us against al-Qaeda; that's fine. But we also have concerns
about your involvement with groups that we consider terrorists. We need to
have a serious conversation about what it would take to get you guys out of
the terrorist business. We're prepared to talk to you about what the benefits
would be to you for doing that in terms of a better relationship with the
United States, strategic, economic benefits that would flow from that, but we
also want you to understand that there are going to be negative consequences
for you if you don't get out of the terrorism business.'
That's the kind of approach that I favor to a state and toward a state like
Syria. It's not one that the administration has wanted to pursue. And
finally, I think you do need to give a really high profile in your regional
diplomacy to efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
GROSS: There was some pretty tough talk on the part of the Bush
administration toward Syria after we invaded Iraq. Do you think the Bush
administration ever seriously entertained the idea of invading Syria in a way
similar to the way we invaded Iraq?
Mr. LEVERETT: There are those in the administration, particularly in the
office of the secretary of Defense and in the vice president's office, who've
always wanted to push that as a serious policy option. It never has been
adopted as policy, in part because the time has never been right. And
particularly in the aftermath of the Iraqi campaign, American military forces
in the region were seriously overstretched and it just wasn't feasible at that
point to go after another Middle Eastern rogue state.
I think what's going on now is those voices in the administration who might
argue for some kind of engagement with Syria have gotten weaker, particularly
as the president has gone into his second term, and those voices in the
administration who are arguing for, in effect, the policy of regime change
towards Syria have gotten stronger. And I think this is not a helpful trend
because I think that if the United States tries to pursue coercive regime
change in Syria, it will basically create more problems than it solves. And I
think the United States could achieve its policy objectives towards Syria more
efficiently through what I describe as tough-minded conditional engagement.
GROSS: When you say coercive regime change, are you talking about invasion?
Are you talking about CIA covert operations?
Mr. LEVERETT: I think there are a couple of different scenarios. One would
be an outright invasion, basically like we did in Iraq. Another alternative
that some people are interested in is using external opposition forces, much
as we tried to do in Iraq--use external opposition forces to push on the
regime. This is part of why I think that the administration has latched on to
the opening that was created by former Prime Minister Hariri's assassination
to push on the issue of Syria's presence in Lebanon. The administration
believes that if it can push Syria out of Lebanon, this will weaken Syria's
position and weaken the regime so much in Damascus that within not that much
time it will start to unravel. So if we can't free up the forces to invade
Syria, there may be, in this view, other ways that we could force a regime
transformation, regime change in Damascus.
GROSS: Flynt Leverett. His new book, "Inheriting Syria," will be published
in mid-April. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, more on political changes in Lebanon and Syria. We
continue our conversation with Flynt Leverett, the author of "Inheriting
Syria." Then we'll talk with Elizabeth Dibble in the State Department and
we'll call Rami Khouri in Beirut where he's editor at large of The Daily Star
newspaper and writes a syndicated column.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Flynt Leverett. He's a
senior fellow at The Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East
Policy. Leverett's new book, "Inheriting Syria," is about Bashar al-Assad,
who took over as president of Syria in 2000 after the death of his father,
President Hafez al-Assad. The book will be published in mid-April.
Let's look at the regime in Syria now, where the president of Syria, Bashar
al-Assad, is the son of the former president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad.
Mr. LEVERETT: Yes.
GROSS: How do their regimes compare?
Mr. LEVERETT: I would say that Bashar, the son, is in many respects a
different character from his father. He's obviously from a different
generation. He's had different formative experiences. He received at least
part of his education in the West. And I think that Bashar is someone who, in
contrast to his father, recognizes that things need to be different in Syria.
The economy needs to be modernized. Certain types of social reform need to
move forward, particularly to try and weaken people's sense of sectarian
identity in Syria. Over the long run, he professes interest in political
liberalization and political opening.
I don't want to overstate that. Bashar's experience in the West was basically
in the context of what we in the United States would describe as an
ophthalmology residency program in London. He was originally planning to be a
doctor and to become an eye surgeon. It was only when his older brother,
Basil, was killed in an automobile accident in 1994 that he was plucked out of
that life as a medical resident in London and told he was going to need to
prepare himself to become president of Syria.
He's someone who has come to office--while he has the sense that things need
to be different, he doesn't have a well-elaborated vision for how to transform
Syria. And he doesn't have as large a reservoir of world-class technocratic
talent around him as he needs to develop that vision.
GROSS: Is he or was his father brutal in terms of treatment of their own
Mr. LEVERETT: His father was certainly an authoritarian ruler who was
prepared to put down challenges to his authority with whatever degree of
force was required. The high point of that was in 1982 when he ordered the
suppression of a revolt in the Syrian city of Hamah; somewhere between 10
and 20,000 Syrians died in that assault. Hafez al-Assad was certainly a very,
very hard, authoritarian ruler who used coercion as he felt he needed to, to
preserve his hold on power.
Bashar is someone who, I think, is less inclined in that direction, but who is
hemmed in by his own lack of technocratic capacity and who is hemmed in by
very powerful elements of the system that he inherited from his father. And I
think Bashar's strategy is to avoid a confrontation with this so-called Old
Guard that he inherited from his father, but rather to develop his own
personal network of supporters and advisers and, basically over time, figure
that biology is on his side. He's going to be able to outwait, outlast,
outlive this Old Guard and, over time, replace them with his own people. This
is a very gradualist view of reform, and I think the real critical question
is: Given Bashar's deteriorating strategic situation, does he really have
time for that kind of approach?
GROSS: Is Bashar al-Assad any easier to negotiate with for the United States
than his father was?
Mr. LEVERETT: Hafez al-Assad was a notoriously difficult negotiating partner.
American secretaries of States from Henry Kissinger to James Baker, Warren
Christopher, have all written about this; Dennis Ross has written about it.
It's not really clear at this point what kind of negotiator his son would be
because, frankly, we have not really tried. It's interesting to note that
Bashar's coming to power coincided more or less with the collapse of the Syria
track of the Middle East peace process in 2000. And without a Syria track,
the United States, for the most part under the Bush administration, has not,
since 2000, had a strategic framework for engaging Syria. We have a list of
complaints about Syrian behavior on terrorism, on hegemony in Lebanon, on
other issues, and we keep reiterating those complaints. But we don't really
have a strategic dialogue in the sense of talking with them about `Here's what
we need you to do, and if you cooperate with us, here are the benefits that
could flow to you.' We don't really have that kind of dialogue with Syria, so
we don't really know at this point what kind of negotiator Bashar would be.
What we do know is that he is consistently expressing an interest in this kind
of strategic dialogue with the United States.
GROSS: You've said that you could learn something about who Bashar al-Assad
is by looking at the woman who he chose to marry.
Mr. LEVERETT: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us something about her and what you think she says about him.
Mr. LEVERETT: Asma al-Assad is the daughter of a Syrian expatriate
physician, a world-class interventional cardiologist in London. She's born
and raised and educated entirely in the UK, graduated from the University of
London in computer science, went through the investment banker training
program at JP Morgan, worked at Deutsche Bank and had been accepted into the
MBA program at Harvard Business School when Bashar proposed to her.
I think, among other things, what Bashar's choice of her says is that he is
someone--first of all, he married her over his mother's objections, which is,
in Arab culture, a not insignificant thing, but it says to me that he is
someone who is genuinely open to new ways of doing things in Syria. The
person he picked to be right next to him is someone who has had world-class
exposure to the most developed aspects of the globalized economy of the 21st
century and who has emerged in her own right as a kind of champion of civil
society and NGOs in Syria. So I find his choice of her kind of confirmation
at a very important emotional level that, at some level, Bashar really is a
different kind of leader and wants things to be different in his country.
GROSS: Well, Flynt Leverett, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LEVERETT: Thank you.
GROSS: Flynt Leverett's new book, "Inheriting Syria," will be published in
Coming up, Elizabeth Dibble from the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern
Affairs. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Elizabeth Dibble discusses US State Department policy
towards Syria and Lebanon
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're talking about the political changes in Lebanon and Syria and what they
mean for the Middle East and for the US. My next guest, Elizabeth Dibble,
works in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. In reaction
to the massive demonstrations last month in Beirut calling for Syria to
withdraw its forces from Lebanon, the pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami,
resigned, then he returned to lead the formation of the new government. After
failing to make much progress, he announced he intends to resign again.
What do you think it would mean politically if the Lebanese prime minister,
Omar Karami, did resign?
Ms. ELIZABETH DIBBLE (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern
Affairs, State Department): Well, he has stated his intention to resign.
Right now we have a situation of paralysis, if you will, in the Lebanese
political scene because he has been unable to form a government. And he needs
the--Lebanon needs to form a government in order to enact legislation that
will allow--excuse me--the parliamentary elections to go forward as scheduled
by the end of May. And this is the real crucial point. The government needs
to be formed, not necessarily by Karami--he has not been successful so
far--but there needs to be a government in place that can enact the elections
legislation and prepare for the election.
GROSS: Do you think that the massive demonstrations in Lebanon that protested
the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon were connected to the elections in
Iraq, or do you think the two things are more coincidence?
Ms. DIBBLE: I think the two things are more coincidence, although there
certainly is a demonstration effect that we're seeing across the Middle East,
'cause it wasn't just the elections in Iraq. The Palestinian elections--we're
seeing people across the Middle East find their political voice, if you will.
But I think the demonstrations in Lebanon were sparked much more by the
assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri and the popular uprising, sort
of `Enough is enough; Syria has to get out, and the Lebanese people deserve to
determine their own political future, free of foreign interference.'
GROSS: Hezbollah is on the American list of terrorist groups. In Lebanon,
Hezbollah is a strong political party, a party that might, in fact, get
stronger if Syria does pull out of Lebanon. And, you know, there were two
sets of demonstrations after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister,
one by large groups of people who want Syria out of Lebanese politics, but the
other demonstrations were pro-Hezbollah, and Hezbollah has been aligned with
Syria. So what do you think is going to be the future of Hezbollah?
Ms. DIBBLE: Hezbollah is, in our view, as you noted, a terrorist
organization. They have advocated the use of violence and terror as a
political tool. Part of UN Security Council resolution 1559 talks about the
disarming of all militias in Lebanon; that includes Hezbollah. As the
president has said, however, the immediate focus right now is on getting the
Syrians out and holding Lebanese parliamentary election, free and fair and
credible elections, without foreign influence or interference. And if
Hezbollah renounces terror and violence and the Lebanese people decide that
there is a place in the political spectrum for Hezbollah, you know, that will
be their decision to make. But it's hard to see how a group that advocates
the use of terror and violence can also have a place in the political
spectrum. You can't have it both ways.
GROSS: If Hezbollah takes on a larger political role in the political life of
Lebanon, would the United States be willing, do you think, to work with it, or
would it be forced to work with it?
Ms. DIBBLE: Absent a change in Hezbollah's behavior, policies and outlook, as
long as Hezbollah is still a terrorist organization and advocates the use of
terror and violence for political means, there--I don't see any way that the
United States could work with Hezbollah.
GROSS: Now Syria has been on the US list of state sponsors of terror. And
there were some very harsh words that the Bush administration used about Syria
shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Was regime change ever considered
in--like the regime change, a forced regime change in Syria as it was in Iraq?
Ms. DIBBLE: Our concerns with Syrian behavior are multiple, and they're not
new concerns; they are long-standing concerns. That includes Syrian behavior
with regard to Iraq, including Syrian support for former regime elements and
members of the insurgency, Syrian support for the insurgents. It includes
Syrian support for the Palestinian rejectionist groups: Hamahs, Palestinian
Islamic Jihad. It includes Syrian support for Hezbollah. It includes Syria's
role in Lebanon and the fact that Syria has not--is still in Lebanon and it
exerts a very powerful grip on Lebanon.
So our concerns with Syria sort of are--cut across a number of issues.
Congress passed and the president signed the Syria Accountability Act, which
went into effect almost a year ago, which mandated additional sanctions on top
of the sanctions that were already in place due to Syria's role as a state
supporter of terrorism. So our concerns with the Syrian--with Syrian behavior
and with the behavior of the Syrian government were well-known and were
well-documented, and we have continued to make those concerns known to the
Syrian government. At the same time, because we've made those concerns known
to the Syrian government, the Syrian government knows what it needs to do if
it wants a better relationship with the United States.
GROSS: But has regime change ever been on the table?
Ms. DIBBLE: The Syrian government knows what it needs to do to--in terms of
changing its behavior toward all of these issues or vis-a-vis all of these
issues if it wants a better relationship with the United States.
GROSS: I don't hear you saying, `No, regime change is not and has never been
on the table.'
Ms. DIBBLE: I'm just going to repeat what I said before.
GROSS: Do you think that there's hope for better relations with Bashar
al-Assad than there was with his father, Hafez al-Assad, the president of
Syria, and now it's his son Bashar?
Ms. DIBBLE: That's a difficult question because I think when Bashar al-Assad
became president nearly five years ago, he came with the reputation of
obviously being the next generation, the younger generation, perhaps more
reform-oriented, that he would make some changes in Syria, economic changes.
He was known to be computer-literate and a fan of the Internet. So I think
when he became president, there were many who were willing to give him the
benefit of the doubt to see if he really would change the direction of Syrian
policy on a number of issues, you know, across the board. He hasn't done
that. He has not indicated that he's willing to change behavior in ways that
would indicate that Syria wants to sort of become more integrated into the
region and to improve its relations with the United States.
GROSS: Elizabeth Dibble, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. DIBBLE: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Elizabeth Dibble is deputy assistant secretary in the State
Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
Coming up, we talk with Rami Khouri in Beirut, where he's editor at large of
The Daily Star newspaper. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Rami Khouri discusses political changes in Syria and
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're devoting today's program to the political changes in Lebanon and Syria
and what they mean for the Middle East and the US. Earlier today we phoned
Rami Khouri in Beirut, where he's editor at large of The Daily Star newspaper
and writes a syndicated column. Last month's protests in Beirut against
Syria's military presence in Lebanon led to the resignation of the pro-Syrian
prime minister, Omar Karami. Then he returned to the government, but recently
announced his plans to resign again.
The prime minister, Omar Karami, resigned once before. What would be the
significance if he does follow through and resign again?
Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor at Large, The Daily Star): Well, it's not actually
resignation. He's been designated to try to form a new government, so he's a
kind of a designated government former, whatever they call that in political
terms. Now he's not having much success, so he will probably go back to the
president and say, `Look, I can't form a government; pick somebody else to do
it.' The significance of that is that the political alignments are simply not
there right now to create a government of national unity under Karami. And
there will have to be an accelerated attempt to do that, because it's
absolutely critical to get a government in place so that they can make an
electoral law and hold the parliamentary election on schedule during May. So
there's a series of things that have to happen. The first one is to form a
GROSS: Do you think that there's any chance that, as Syria continues to
withdraw, assuming it does continue to withdraw from Lebanon, that Lebanon
might have more factional fighting or return to a state of civil war?
Mr. KHOURI: No, I don't think there's any significant change or any slight
chance of that at all, because the circumstances of the civil war starting in
'75 are completely different than the circumstances today. The other more
important point is that every single Lebanese leader and politician and
street-market vegetable vendor and TV personality and every single person who
has said anything in public in the last six weeks has said that there will be
no return to fighting, that the country is unified. There are political
disagreements, some really strong ones, but there is a tremendously high level
of awareness of both the futility and the cost of returning to internal
fighting. So it's really out of the question that that's going to happen.
GROSS: Hezbollah is on the US list of terrorist groups. Hezbollah is a big
political party in Lebanon, a party that has a lot of power now. It's a group
that's aligned with Syria. If Syria continues to pull out of Lebanon, how
will that change the power of Hezbollah, and what kind of power do you think
Hezbollah would have in a new government in Lebanon?
Mr. KHOURI: Hezbollah is an extremely legitimate, strong party. It is the
single biggest, most organized political group in Lebanon. They have
tremendous legitimacy from their activities in the south to drive out the
Israelis who have occupied the south from 1982 to 2000. They have a massive
social welfare program which helps a lot of people. They have about 500,000
people that they can call on, which is just about one-sixth of the population.
And they're the single biggest and probably the most legitimate group in
Lebanon, though they've always stayed out of sort of day-to-day politics.
So the challenge now is to figure out where they will fit into the new system,
and they're still studying that; they're still looking themselves at what's
the best thing for them to do, how deeply to get engaged in domestic politics,
or should they just stay at the strategic level. For instance, they've never
agreed to be part of any government or accept a Cabinet post, even though
they're in parliament. Now they're thinking maybe they should do that. And
so these are the kind of issues they're looking at.
GROSS: Do you think that the demonstrations in Lebanon to get Syria out of
Lebanon are a reflection of the democratizing influence of the elections in
Mr. KHOURI: No, not at all. I think the elections in Iraq certainly may have
some impact around the region. The whole American regime change by
pre-emptive war in Iraq certainly may have some impact on the region. But we
haven't seen it yet, and it certainly hasn't shown up in the street
GROSS: What would you say--what is the range of popular opinion in Lebanon
about the US invasion of Iraq and the recent election there?
Mr. KHOURI: I think in--well, in Lebanon, in the whole region, you have a
pretty, I think, consistent situation. My sense has always been that there's
a small minority of people in the Arab world who actively and enthusiastically
supported what the United States did in Iraq. And maybe 10, 15 percent of
people in this region, I think, were very much for what the US did. The vast
majority in the Arab world were critical of what the United States did in Iraq
in terms of the pre-emptive war and the regime change and all that.
Now the elections--when the elections took place in Iraq, that was an
interesting and a rather different moment because the enthusiasm with which
the Iraqis voted, at least those who voted, was really quite striking. And I
think many of us in the Arab world kind of paused for a moment, and it caused,
I think, a lot of people to start shifting a little bit from being critical of
what the United States had done in the past in Iraq, in the recent past,
shifting towards being more aware of and supportive of what the Iraqi people
themselves were trying to do to chart out their own future in a participatory
and democratic way. So I think there was a turning point.
GROSS: Is there any action that you would like to see the Bush administration
take now in terms of Syria's relationship to Lebanon or the future of
democracy in Lebanon? And is there anything you would particularly like not
to see them do?
Mr. KHOURI: Well, whether it's in Lebanon or in Syria or in the whole Middle
East, I think what I would say is that when you--first of all, it's really
great to hear the American president talk about promoting democracy and
freedom as an official American policy. I mean, I think this is terrific, and
we've been waiting for this for about two and a half generations, so it's a
great thing. But the problem with it is it's not taken very credibly here in
the region by most people because it's so inconsistent and selectively
applied. So what we would like to see is a consistent American policy. I
think consistency is the single biggest and most useful thing the United
States can do.
And there is a role for foreign countries--Europe, the Americans, whoever,
Japan--to promote democracy and freedom. Absolutely there is a role for
foreign countries. But they must do it consistently. If they want to promote
the freedom of the Lebanese from the Syrians, they must also promote the
freedom of the Palestinians from the Israelis. So I think we are on the verge
of potentially a historic turning point, but it's got to be consistent.
GROSS: Well, Rami Khouri, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KHOURI: Thanks for having me. My pleasure.
GROSS: Rami Khouri spoke to us from Beirut, where he's editor at large of The
Daily Star newspaper and writes a syndicated column.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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