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February 26, 2003:

Michael Doran *97, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton and adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, published an article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in which he argues that war against Saddam Hussein is justified, because he represents a "direct threat that must be countered firmly and effectively." In the same article he argues that the Palestinian cause has become "protean" — that Palestine is not regarded merely as a place, but as a powerful symbol. The Palestinian flag has come to represent a stand against the status-quo, and not just in Palestine, Doran writes.

Doran is the author of Pan-Arabism Before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question (1999), and last semester he cotaught The Historical Roots of the Bin Laden Phenomenon. Here he talks with PAW's Lolly O'Brien.

A shorter version of this interview appears in the February 26, 2003, PAW.

Go directly to topics within this article:

Foreign Affairs article


Saddam Hussein

War in Iraq

Al Qaeda

Anti Americanism

Advice to President Bush


Osama Bin Laden

Foreign Affairs article

What was the reaction to your article in Foreign Affairs?

All the reaction I've heard has been positive. Plenty of people have disagreed with me. I was just at a seminar last week in New York with some academics, some government people, and a lot of newspaper reporters that had been organized by the Carnegie Foundation. The seminar was around my article. And it was an interesting opportunity for me to get some feedback.

The group was mixed; there were Republicans, Democrats, moderates, independents, extremists, all sorts. There were people who were clearly militantly in favor of what I said, people who were militantly against, but the discussion was very, very spirited and profoundly interesting.

The people who were most against it were against my conclusion that war against Saddam Hussein is justified or wise.

With regard to the component of the article that talks about Palestine as place and Palestine as symbol, there were people who found it insightful and told me so and said it really opened their eyes. There were people who disagreed with me, but even the ones who disagreed with me were willing to accept the principle that it is obvious that this issue, outside of Palestinian society itself, in the wider Arab world is a highly symbolic issue laden with meaning that goes well beyond Palestine itself.


You point out that the idea of "Palestine-as-symbol" has been used by groups wholly unrelated to Palestinians. An example you used was in Northern Ireland last summer when the Irish Republican Army raised the Palestinian flag over Republican strongholds.

Yes, and as I wrote, it's because for many around the world, this flag now expresses simple anticolonial defiance. It's a protest by those who believe their native rights have been trampled under the boots of foreign rulers. And, at the same time, Unionists in Ireland countered by flying the Israeli banner over their neighborhoods.You say: "Then as now, defeating Saddam would offer the United States a golden opportunity to show the Arab and Muslim worlds that Arab aspirations are best achieved by working in cooperation with Washington. If an American road to a calmer situation in Palestine does in fact exist, it runs through Baghdad." Could you talk about that a little bit?

What we're witnessing in the Middle East is that the deepest sources of anti-Americanism are beyond policy. There's a generalized protest against the status-quo that takes the form of Anti-Americanism.

How do you know this?

This is a question of analysis. In the article I gave the example of the Al Jawf region in Saudi Arabia, where there were unlawful protests on behalf of Palestine. But, then you ask the question, why does the Al Jawf region feels particularly strongly about Palestine? You don't have protests in Riyadh, but in Al Jawf, yes. And just saying that people are upset about Palestine, which they are, is not an explanation. That's a generalized phenomenon.

So you have to ask what's different in Al Jawf, and what's different in Al Jawf is that it's a miserable place. The people are impoverished, and they are very alienated from the central government. So what are these protests all about really? Are they really about Palestine, or are they about Jawf? I'm saying they're about Jawf.

Another example. There was a little intifada in Antwerp last year [April 2002], when the Israelis were going into the West Bank. Though the protest was in the name of Palestine, the primary concern, which the protesters expressed openly, is the status of Muslims in Belgium. These are unemployed Moroccans mainly. The Moroccan unemployment rate in Belgium is 30% as opposed to a 10 % general Belgian unemployment.

Saddam Hussein

Why is Saddam Hussein the most urgent issue now?

Because the U.S. position in the Gulf and in the region in general is being undermined by our attempt to contain him and Iran simultaneously. And that the undermining of our position causes instability in the region in general.

What does Saddam Hussein want?

He wants, in the immediate term, he wants an end to the sanctions regime. He wants to develop weapons of mass destruction, and he wants drive the U.S. out of the Persian Gulf.


Because then if the Americans withdraw, Iraq will be much more powerful, because it's more powerful than its neighbors.

That's why he's interested in fomenting all this discontent. Because he calculates that if there were if the Americans weren't in the Gulf militarily then the whole field would be open to him.

He's a madman, right?

I don't think he's mad, no. No more mad than a Mafioso. He's thuggish and cruel, but he's very clever and he knows his own backyard. Otherwise he wouldn't have been there. I mean you think the Ayatollah Khomeini, his enemy is gone. Margaret Thatcher is gone; George Bush senior is gone.

Do other states want Saddam to go?

They would like him to evaporate. Nobody is shedding tears for him the man. But they don't like to see so much American power right on their borders.

If Saddam did not want weapons of mass destruction and did not want those things he wants, everybody would be just happy to let him be?

Actually it seems that a big section of the world is quite happy to let him have weapons of mass destruction as well. But as long as it doesn't look like he's going to attack any neighbors tomorrow governments don't want to take responsibility for getting rid of him.

War in Iraq

What is the U.S. going to do in Iraq?

Hopefully, there's every reason to believe a war itself is going to be short. If 1991 is anything to go by, there's not going to be a lot of fight in the Iraqi army. And we're much stronger than we were in 1991, so the combination of a weaker Iraqi army and a stronger U.S. means it should be fast. My gut feeling is that it's going to go down like a house of cards. Because we're much stronger than we were in 1991, and he's much weaker, and you saw how everyone gave up. But that doesn't mean we should plan for it to be a house of cards. I mean there's all kinds of bad scenarios that one could think of. I suspect that once we show real resolve, the regime is going to down rather easily.

God willing, Saddam Hussein won't use any chemical or biological weapons successfully, or if he does he'll use them sparingly. So assuming that it's rather quick and there aren't a lot of casualties, which is already a large assumption, hopefully, then there the U.S. will begin some sort of reconstruction.

What that process is going to look like is not clear. Even if there is a clear plan at this point, I'm sure that events will overtake it. No one is really sure what they're going to find when they get into Iraq, and at that point other regional powers like Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia will begin to try to influence the process of reconstruction.

Some people in the Department of Defense have talked about a military government for a long period of time. Other people are arguing that that's a big mistake, that it will be seen as direct American colonialism and will be despised throughout the region. I'm sure that that debate will be carried on inside the U.S. society, and it also will be carried on inside the administration and it will be vigorous, and exactly what the outcome will be, no one can say.

How will negative reaction be manifested?

There's the possibility of severe unrest in those three countries: Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. My feeling though is if the war is quick and if there are not a lot of casualties as a result of Saddam Hussein using chemical or biological weapons, then the demonstrations will lose steam, much as they did after the U.S. went into Afghanistan. If it's quick...I think in that Iraqis in generals are going to be dancing in the streets.What do you think the Saudis are going to say when we go in?

I think what the Arab states are going to do is they're going try to — that are aligned with the United States — is they are going to try insulate themselves as much as possible. So, for instance, there will be an initiative to ask Saddam Hussein to step down. And the reason they'll do that is that knowing full well that he's unlikely to do so, they'll then be able to say to their own public we tried. Saddam Hussein brought this on himself. We tried to find an alternative, and Saddam Hussein didn't work with us. That's to try to deflect a little of the responsibility from the Americans and from themselves. So they want to try to show to their own public some sort of alternative that they worked at so as to distance themselves from both Saddam Hussein and the United States. So basically, it's going to happen. If Saddam doesn't go out, then we're going to go in.

It looks like it's going to happen, but there's a lot of political opposition mounting.

Why doesn't everyone agree with the U.S.?

People in general are very wary of American power. America is so much more powerful now than any other country, it makes everybody nervous. And this has become the test case.

Al Qaeda

Is al Qaeda alive and well at this point?

Alive certainly. How well, I'm not really sure.

How has al Qaeda changed in the last six months to a year?

Well, they've changed tactics somewhat. They attacked the Israelis in Kenya, and they attacked in Bali and Yemen. The organization is shadowy enough that it is hard for somebody like me to exactly what changes it's gone through. It's clearly trying to demonstrate to the world that it's still alive and capable of striking in a variety of places.


What is the state of anti-Americanism in the Arab world today?

There are two schools of thought out there. One school of thought says that anti-Americanism is a result of American policies, in particular support of Israel, sanctions on Iraq, which are causing suffering to the Iraqi population, and support for corrupt regimes.

There's a certain amount of truth in that, no doubt about it, but I think I belong to a second school, which basically sees anti-Americanism, and also anti-Israeli feeling, as to a certain extent a reflection of hostility to the status quo in general. That's my big point.

A comparison to Iran is interesting. In 1979 there was the Iranian revolution, which was a radical Islamic revolution against the shah, who was an ally of the United States and was deeply anti-American because at that point in time large sectors of Iranian society, almost every major sector, was alienated from the shah's regime. And their hostility to the shah was projected on to the U.S. because the U.S. was seen as the guarantor of the system in Iran.

Now 20 years later, we've had the revolution in Iran, and the revolutionaries are in power. And they're not delivering to the population politically and economically. And there's a lot of hostility in Iran to them. And in that climate, America is rather popular.

The exact thing is going on in Saudi Arabia, where America is seen as the guarantor of order, so anybody who's hostile to the status quo is hostile to the U.S.

Obviously the Arab world has a conflict with Israel. Very obviously there is a sentiment in the Arab world that is sympathetic to the Palestinians. But at the same time that those feelings are going on, there is local politics in every part of the Arab world, and the state of the Arab world today politically and economically is very poor. Populations have been exploding throughout the Arab world. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, fully 50% of the population is under the age of 20. And the economies as not growing fast enough to keep pace with the rising populations, so there's a big stress of the economy.

How does that flip over into anti-Americanism or anti-Israeli feeling?

Peoples' dissatisfaction with the status quo translates into anti-American feeling, because America is seen as the guarantor of the status quo. The good example is what took place in Iran in the last 20 years.

You write : "Until the Arab and Muslim worlds create political orders that do not disenfranchise huge segments of their own populations, the civil war will continue to touch the U.S." Do you think the Arab and Muslim worlds are interested in creating such political orders?

No. I think there's total political stagnation in the Arab world right now.

What DO they want?

The regimes just want to stay in power. But they're very narrowly based. Saddam Hussein is an extreme example. But the trend is general. It's an example of a small clique that controls the state; large repressive apparatus, secret police, and everybody's in everybody's private business.


Advice to President Bush

If you were called in to President Bush's office and asked to tell him specific things to do. What would you say?

I would tell him that he should topple Saddam Hussein sooner rather than later.

He should get involved state building in Iraq for the long haul. There's no quick fix.

He has to prepare the country, prepare Americans for the fact that there is no quick fix and that we're in this for the long haul.

And after toppling Saddam Hussein that he should launch a serious Arab-Israeli peace initiative.


Do you think weapons of mass destruction are the real issue?

I think that they are an important issue, yes. I don't think it's the whole story.

Is it oil? How much is this oil, how much is this weapons of mass destruction?

I didn't answer that question directly in the article. What I see as the fundamental driver of the U.S. policy, is maintaining the U.S. predominance in the Persian Gulf.

What do you mean by predominance?

There's nobody who can threaten the American order. Of the three major powers in the region, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, only one of them is aligned with the U.S. And two of them are rather hostile to the U.S. And the one that is aligned with the U.S., Saudi Arabia, finds itself in a precarious position, in that the alliance with the U.S. is very unpopular inside Saudi Arabia. And it's being attacked outside Saudi Arabia for being aligned with the U.S.

For the U.S. that's an unstable position to be in. So the U.S. is presented with the alternative of either backing away from its attempt to contains Iran and Iraq and accepting much less influence in all that goes on in the Gulf or toppling Saddam Hussein and reasserting U.S. predominance in the region.


It means that any attempt by a regional power to reorganize the area, like Iraq going into Kuwait, will be stopped. The reason the U.S. wants predominance is because of oil. Ultimately that's why the U.S. is involved in the Middle East. Everything that we do in the Middle East is ultimately a result of our concern about oil. That's our fundamental interest in the region. So if there were no oil there, we wouldn't be all that interested. But the argument out there that this is about oil, meaning that the U.S. is interested in dominating this or that oil well or seeing to it that this or that field is under the control of an American oil company seems to me to be rather simple minded.

Osama bin Laden

Is bin Laden of interest to you? Or is he a blip on the radar?

He is interesting to me as an example of the larger phenomenon.

Would you like to meet him?

I doubt that as an individual he is all that interesting. If I had the opportunity to meet him I would. I doubt that I could spend a couple of hours with him. I doubt that he could tell me very much. He's a politician.

Would you try to kill him?

If I saw him?


Probably not.

If President Bush asked you to?

I'd be happy to. Sure.