Interview with Emile Nakhleh

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by Hasan Mesut Onder 

Hasan Mesut Onder: Is America an empire that wants to maintain its global hegemony, a center power trying to create order in the new world through democratic values, or a state controlled by specific lobbies, economic monopolies, religious and ideological organizations? How do you see the American state apparatus and their government?

Emile Nakhleh: The United States, as a superpower—with global presence, influence, and interests—has always tried to maintain a working balance or an equilibrium between the values of good governance and the pursuit of specific diplomatic, military, and economic interests on the basis of political realism. Such an equilibrium has sometimes gotten off balance, but successive U.S. administrations since World War II have kept the healthy competition between values and interests in mind as specific relations have been conducted with states and non-state actors. Although single-issue interest groups and lobbyists have always attempted to sway U.S. foreign relations toward specific policies and causes, government institutions have prevailed for the most part.

Onder: You said there that there is no opposition between American values and national interests. Which tools should be used for the adoption of these values by other states and societies so that there can be an area of consent-based cooperation? In other words, without the use of force, how can the United States be an effective power in the Middle East?

Nakhleh: There has always been tension between values and interests in the conduct of American foreign policy, but for the most part such tension has facilitated rather than hindered the process of implementing specific foreign policies. Foreign policy institutions within the U.S. government—for example the Department of State, USAID, and the National Security Council—have always been more resilient than single-issue interest groups. While often frustrating, the process seems to work remarkably efficiently. Diplomacy and the threat or use of force have always worked in concert in the pursuit of U.S. interests globally.

Onder: After the Cold War, there was an intellectual debate about how the new world order should be. These debates can be summarized as:

  1. The view which Francis Fukuyama put forward in “The End of History” article, that the United States can provide global order by spreading the liberal values.
  2. According to Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” thesis, the view that the New World will be the scene of the conflict between Islam and Western civilization.
  3. Henry Kissinger argues that the future war will be not between the Western civilization and Islam, but that Islam composes a war in itself.

What would you say about the reflections of these three views on U.S. Middle East policies?

Nakhleh: The debates regarding history, ideology, and realpolitik are primarily academic. In reality, they are more connected than disconnected. Although Communism was defeated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia and China remain serious adversaries and competitors. While the “enemy” is not as clear or monolithic as it was during the Cold War, other ideologies such as terrorism, autocracy, tribalism, and xenophobia, have come to represent a more diverse group of “enemies.” While addressing the new realities, American policymakers remain focused on engaging global communities—not always successfully, I must add.

Onder: You argue that the United States should develop a policy of engagement with Islamist actors. Can you explain this policy in more detail? Do engagement policies and Islamist actors act without harming the national interests of the United States within the economic, political and ideologically controlled borders, or by respecting the actors who come to power with democratic elections?

Nakhleh: Since a very small minority of the 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide engage in radicalism, violence, and terrorism, vast majorities of Muslims in Muslim majority and Muslim minority countries do not get involved in politics.  They have families to feed, mortgages to pay, children to educate, healthcare bills to pay, and generally struggle to eke out a living. Most Muslim communities and local organizations and societies are interested in improving their lives and making their neighborhoods, villages, and towns a better place to live. Engaging these communities through job-creating projects that could help improve their lives is good for them. It also serves the long-terms interests of the United States. An educated, healthier, and employed population, especially among the youth, would be less inclined to turn to violence

Onder: In addition to this question, what are the U.S. national interests and security threat perceptions in the Middle East? What is the impact of pressure groups and lobbies, and at what levels, when determining national interests and threats?

Nakhleh: Despite President Trump’s cavalier attitude toward the Middle East and his unwavering support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repressive policies toward the Palestinians and unlimited military and political support of the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf leaders against Iran, traditional American national interests in the Middle have included a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states between the River and the Sea, a stable Persian Gulf, and the end of regional conflicts. In addition, the United States has called, at least quietly and tacitly, for the end of tyranny and repression and the respect for human rights. Unfortunately, coddling dictators has in recent years trumped traditional values of human rights, democracy, and women rights.

Onder: The United States has opened a space for Iran since the war in Iraq, and encouraged the Saudi Arabian-led Sunni Arab states to cooperate with Israel, fueling the fear of Iran. With this policy, the balance of Arab-Israeli opposition is transformed into a Shiite-Sunni counterpart, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Israel becomes a holder of the balance. Do you think the United States is implementing this secret agenda? In other words, the Henry Kissinger’s “war in Islam itself” mean, is this formed polarization?

Nakhleh: There is nothing secret about the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East. President Trump scuttled the Iran nuclear deal despite opposition from other UN Security Council members plus Germany. He has also wholeheartedly supported Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states against Iran and provided military and intelligence support to the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen, causing horrific humanitarian tragedy. Trump has also sided completely and unequivocally with Israel against the Palestinians. He stopped talking about massive human rights violations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other countries in the region. The Trump administration has basically disengaged from the Middle East, creating a vacuum that is surely being filled by Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and other actors. Traditional American leadership in the region has all but dissipated under President Trump.

Onder: Israel described the Arab uprisings as the Arab Winter and, in the light of this definition, they had clear and covert activities to reverse the democratic transformation of the region. What is Israel’s view about the mainstream Islamist actors in the Middle East? Do you think that Israeli intelligence has the capacity to influence and direct Islamist organizations? It is known that Musab Yosef, the son of Sheikh Hassan Yosef and a Hamas leader, is working (controlled by his father) for the Israeli intelligence and has been carrying out effective activities to enable him to declare a ceasefire.

Nakhleh: Although the Obama administration initially supported the Arab Spring and the removal of several Arab dictators, American inaction against Assad of Syria and continued support for other autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other states have for all intents and purposes given dictators a free hand in committing the most atrocious human rights violations against their own people. Of course, Arab dictators and Israel’s right-wing government under Netanyahu now have a common interest in fighting Arab peoples’ calls for freedom, democracy, independence, and basic dignity.

Onder: You have written that Saudi Arabia and Israel have begun to share intelligence about radical organizations such as al-Qaeda in 1990 through Bender Bin Sultan and that this phenomena gained speed after 2000. Steve Cool in his Ghost Wars book claims that Ahmed Badeeb – the chief of staff of the Saudi intelligence minister – was the teacher of Osama bin Ladin and had relations until 1996. In this context, what is your assessment of the cooperation between Israel and the Saudis in order to prevent the actions of the organization, or to control the organization and to use it against the countries they are targeting? Israeli former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said, “If I have to choose between Iran and ISIS, I would prefer ISIS.” Israel also pays a monthly salary of $5,000 to the local groups of al-Qaeda in the regions close to the Golan, and to the militants, in exchange for fighting against Iran, and also treats the wounded persons.

Nakhleh: Saudi Arabia and Israel have established close strategic and intelligence against Iran, Assad, and Islamic radicalism and terrorism. They both vociferously opposed the Iran nuclear deal, but they failed in that effort. However, after Trump took office, both countries, including the United Arab Emirate (UAE), strongly supported Trump’s scuttling of the deal. The personal relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), the UAE Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed (MbZ), and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, has helped them develop and pursue a vision of the future of the Middle East based on entrenched autocracy and a marginalization of human rights as a driver in the relations between the United States and the Middle East

Onder: What are the main determinants of U.S. policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood?

Nakhleh: The United States used to interact with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s and early 2000s. Washington correctly viewed the MB as the largest and oldest mainstream Islamic activist organization in the world, which has been committed to gradual political change through political participation and elections. The MB is the ideological foundation of most mainstream Sunni Islamic political parties, movements, and organizations—from Ankara to Jakarta, and from the Balkans and Central Asia to Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In fact, the election of former president Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, following the demise of the Mubarak regime, was the first fair and free election in Egypt in the last 5,000 years. The United States worked with Morsi and his government right after he became president. Unfortunately, Washington abandoned the MB after Morsi was toppled by al-Sisi in a military coup. Thousands of MB activists currently languish in Egyptian jails as a result of trumped-up charges, sham trials, and illegal arrests. Arab dictators feel empowered by Trump’s proclivity toward authoritarian rule. Washington has also accepted the legally questionable claim of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that the MB is a terrorist organization. Western intelligence services have never included the MB in their lists of terrorist organizations.

Onder: You say that between the main actors in the Islamic world and the CIA or the US diplomats have close relations, and that this relationship plays an important role in the recognition of the United States in the Islamic world. Do you think that the State Department and the CIA do not properly explain the actors they know to the decision-makers? Are your bosses convinced of the Islamist actors? Why are these institutions ineffective in identifying positive policies for the mainstream Islamist actors?

Nakhleh: In the long run, American national interest lies in engaging the millions of mainstream Muslims, as individuals and as communities. Since the horrendous terrorist attacks on 9/11, Muslim world engagement has been the only sensible policy to undercut the radical paradigm and the extremist message. Unfortunately, Islamic dictators have prevented such engagement to occur with their own communities because of their fear of their peoples. I have written previously that Islam is not inimical to democracy; Islamic dictators are.

Onder: What is the logic of seeing political Islam as a holistic phenomenon? Because there are many different denominations and sects in the Islamic world. How right is it to describe all these differences as political Islam?

Nakhleh: In order to understand Muslim societies, one has to take a comprehensive or holistic approach, including historical narratives, economies, religious and social experiences, economic development, employment, and job creation, environmental issues, and natural resources. Most importantly, one must understand the immense diversity that characterized the Muslim world. There is no such a thing as a monolithic Muslim world. There are many “Muslim worlds.” Because of the various historical experiences of Muslim communities in different parts of the world, diverse Muslim communities have emerged across the globe. Consequently, the Muslims of Indonesia are not the same as the Muslims of Saudi Arabia, Although most Muslims adhere to the five tenets of Islam—shahada, zakat, salat, Hajj, etc.—local communities practice their faith differently. Finally, Muslims in Muslim-majority countries view the phrase “al-Islam din wa dunya wa dawla” differently from Muslims in Muslim-minority countries. In reality, most Muslims do not engage in politics or in violence. Millions just want to live comfortably and do not bother with holding their rulers accountable or in participating in coups against their rulers.

Emile Nakhleh was a senior intelligence service officer and director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a regular contributor to LobeLog. Reprinted, with permission, from the Turkish website, Society of Diplomacy.

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  1. Many question parts remained unreplied. Just another question, can Emile just mention some cases of what he claims “Saudi Arabia and Israel have established close strategic and intelligence against …. and Islamic radicalism and terrorism”.

    And interesting to know the connection of bin-laden and Israel before 9/11, had Israel a role in the Saudi adventure leading to ISIS that they admit they preferred it to Iran?
    In fact, if the ISIS adventure was successful know altogether, I.e. US, SA and Israel together with now-missing bin Laden, could chant “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”. Then they would wait for a programmed attack by ISIS to annex the whole area to Israel, this time with an international support.

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