From the Pentagon’s think tank

US Middle East expert Harold Rhode speaks candidly on freedom in Iraq and positive trends coming out of Iran.

April 9, 2010 22:48
Harold Rhodes (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Harold Rhodes 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Immediately after the US led military campaign deposed Saddam Hussein, Harold Rhode arrived in Baghdad as part of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, an agency set up under the auspices of the US Defense Department to take charge of civilian affairs in Iraq. Shortly after his arrival, Rhode was involved in salvaging the Iraqi Jewish archive, which had been housed in the building of the Iraqi security services. The building was hit by a missile during the war, causing extensive damage.

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“One day I get a call from Judith Miller of The New York Times that someone has come to an opposition leader in Baghdad and said that there is a very ancient Talmud in the Muhabarat [intelligence agency] and she figured that I’m an Orthodox Jew and who else around could tell anything about this. What happened here was as follows. This guy was head of the Israel or the Jewish section of the Muhabarat, and what went on was that if you were part of the previous administration under Saddam, people who had blood on their hands especially would come to opposition leaders and say, ‘I have information in exchange for a certificate of cleanliness. I’ll talk to you.’ This guy did that.”

The opposition leader in question was Ahmed Chalabi, a current Iraqi political heavyweight once championed by the Americans and now considered an ally of Teheran.

“Anyway, Chalabi and Miller called me and off I went with them. Judith Miller was embedded in a Weapons of Mass Destruction team and the building in which they were housed was the combination FBI, CIA building. The place where the Jewish records were kept was in the basement. We are led down there and it’s all filled with water.

“What had happened was that as the headquarters of the Muhabarat, we apparently had bombed the building, the bomb went through the building, came out the side and was still alive and had lodged into the ground. It didn’t break the building but it broke the water system. All the water dripped down into the basement. Through Chalabi at first, we hired these small pumps to try to suck the water out and we find that there is a Jewish room and there is an Israel room.

“We got a few things out, a few Torahs and things like that. It was absolutely awful, no one was interested. I eventually got a grant from somebody in New York. I couldn’t get anybody to be interested; the Americans weren’t interested. And then very simply [Natan] Sharansky, who phoned me from time to time when I was there to make sure I was still alive – I’ve known him for many years – called [Dick] Cheney. The American government all of a sudden got very interested. They brought in huge pumps and got the rest of it out.

“Now it’s in awful shape. Chalabi got us bins to put it in. I was trying to catalog whatever I could. Now one waterlogged book is very heavy. We found Torah scrolls; we found a Megilat Esther, a lot of things, all under water. The question is what do you do with it? You need to freeze it [to get the mold out] and there’s no electricity.

“Eventually the American government took it all over to Texas where they have national archives that do restoration. What they do is first suck out all the water to stop the damage, and then it was sent to Archives 2 in Maryland. And there’s a lot of fight about what’s going to happen to this [still going on]. It’s in terrible shape, it’ll cost millions of dollars to restore and you have to do triage: What do you bury as geniza and what do you try to restore?

“The problem here is who owns it. By international law you may not take the treasures of one country and take them to another country. But this case is outside of the norm because it belonged to the Jewish community. But the Jewish community of Iraq is no more. When I was there there were no more than 23 Jews. It’s over. So no one can use these things and it’s going to cost millions to restore. The Iraqi government has other things to do with its money.

“I don’t see any reason for it to go back to Iraq, because if it is the patrimony of the Jewish community of Iraq then wherever they are it’s theirs. When they left, they would have taken it with them had they been able to take it with them. You don’t abandon Torahs.”

RECENTLY RETIRED from the Pentagon, Rhode, 60, primarily worked for the Office of Net Assessment, an internal Defense Department think-tank that deals with the risks and opportunities facing the US, or as Rhode puts it: “What are the problems that are going to face us in the future, how we understand them and how then do we prepare for that future so that we can deal with these problems.”

Rhode’s field is Islam – he has a PhD from Columbia in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern history. He is fluent in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic and Turkish. “I’m basically concerned with how to understand the Muslim world,” he says in an interview in Jerusalem. “I lived in various places in the Muslim world over the years and my goal was to sit in cafes and to talk with people and to really understand how they view the world. Not to agree or disagree, but to understand the mind-set, and I believe that that is key in making any type of decision.”

Rhode is highly analytical, yet he likes to talk in analogies. To illustrate the point, he says: “Let’s say you’re not interested in buying that store across the street and I try to offer it to you. That’s silly, because you’re not interested. If you know what you want to do and you try to put it in terms of what the other side wants, maybe you can get to what you want, maybe.”

What is it then that the US wants from the Muslim world?

I can’t speak for any administration; I can speak for myself and that’s it. To quote Margaret Thatcher in a marvelous afternoon speech in Washington where she talked about the differences between European countries and the United States: We are in the end a political nation, we are not based on ethnicity or common religion – it’s a commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights... That’s what America is all about. It’s hard to sustain a foreign policy based on anything else because really what we have in common with countries in the world, with peoples in the world, is freedom.

It’s the freedom issue. Freedom is indivisible. I’m very much a [Natan] Sharansky guy. I think he really wanted to call his book “The Case for Freedom” and not The Case for Democracy, but the publisher didn’t. Freedom is indivisible, meaning that as long as there are tyrannies in the world, tyrannies by definition need external enemies, and they make trouble for their external enemies, and in the end that means they’ll be problems and therefore we can’t really sustain a foreign policy based on alliances with tyrannies.

How then do you export freedom?

I wouldn’t use the word export, I would say the question is how can we help others become free. You can’t make someone else become free. Someone who leaves prison after a long period of time doesn’t remember how to act. Imagine people who’ve never had it.

Is forceful regime change the way to bring about freedom?

Let’s call it surgery. It would be very nice if things happened internally. It would be wonderful. I don’t believe in using force, except as a last resort.

Assume the following: We live next door and we don’t get along and every day you or your son is shooting at me and I very politely come to you and say to you, “Please stop this.” Now you say, “I’m sorry,” and either you do or you don’t stop shooting, or you provide your kids with the ammunition to shoot. Sooner or later soft power, which is what the EU is all about, is very nice, but if we don’t agree on the rules, if you say hard power and I say soft power, what am I left to do in the end? I have to stop you from shooting at me and my family.

I’m not for war, I don’t think the answer is war. But when the narratives of two peoples are very different, when my neighbor is shooting at me, when my neighbor is putting garbage at my doorstep, I can be really nice but there is a point beyond which I’ve got to protect myself and I’ve got to stand, up and that’s when you use force.

Does a democracy have the right to go thousands of miles overseas to effect change?

Let me give you a joke. I would say that a joke or a proverb is the best insight into a culture, into a mind-set, into a way of thinking. The joke in Iraq was when one of Saddam’s daughters had a birthday she said, “Daddy, it’s my birthday; what are you going to get me as a present?” He replied, “Anything you want. What do you want?” She said, “Could you get me Bahrain?”

YOU HAVE to stop things up front before they get out of control, says Rhode, before turning to the example of Europe’s failure to stop Hitler in the 1930s, an analogy he will return to later when the discussion turns to Iran.

To press his point home, Rhode quotes one of his Washington mentors, whom he prefers not to name: “We who lived through the ’30s and experienced the war in the ’40s realized that if you don’t stop conflicts up front, the loss in human life and property is astronomical.” Had Saddam not been stopped, Rhode adds, he would have eventually built up the power to give his daughter a lot more than Bahrain.

The idea of regime change in Iraq is something that Rhode admits he worked on since Saddam marched into Kuwait. He calls the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction a “canard” and a “sop to allow Tony Blair to sell the invasion of Iraq to the British Parliament.”

“I’ve been working on this project since 1990. On the idea of liberation of Iraq. Since the Kuwait war. I knew we were going to get there. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when. I just knew it. If I believe in something, I don’t know the word no. I know yes, and not yet. That’s as long as it’s moral and legal. That’s my framework. If you give me the answer no and it’s something stupid, then my answer is: ‘I don’t really hear you; I’ll find a way.’”

Was the issue of weapons of mass destruction “finding a way” to get rid of Saddam Hussein?

Regarding the WMD in Iraq, I ask you the following: Everything that Saddam did showed that he was hiding something. All the inspections he found out [about] beforehand, and when inspectors arrived they could see people running out the back door carrying things. Why do this if you have nothing to hide?...

Is it possible that he wanted to do what the Japanese have done? The Japanese don’t have nuclear weapons, but if they needed to go nuclear, they could go nuclear overnight because they’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how.

Saddam had a very sophisticated policy of trying [to push] the limitations on the sanctions; while increasing the limitations on what the inspectors could do. Eventually they would have been thrown out and then all he would have had to do, since he had the expertise in line, would be just do it. So I would argue with you: If you have nothing to hide, why are you hiding it? So it’s a very logical conclusion for people to believe that there was something.

I’ll argue with you something else: During the three to four months before the actual war, convoys galore kept moving into Syria... We had no idea what was in these things.... what was in those convoys. We never pushed the Syrians on anything there. We had no idea... What was it, candy? They’re in essence saying there is smoke here. Do we know to this day that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction?...

I think the question of WMD is not over until we know what happened with Syria. If I were looking for WMD and I had access to Syria, I would look in some desert areas and I would look in the Alawi areas – the areas where the Alawis are the majority, which is on the coast above Lebanon, and the reason is that this is the only area that the Syrian government, which is Alawi, can be sure that things would be safe.

Do I know what I’ve said is true? It’s all supposition. But it’s the same supposition that there are no WMD.

Rhode says he and his circle of friends were outraged when they heard that the issue of WMD was being used as the grounds to move into Iraq.

I don’t really recall the actual reason, but when we heard this on the WMD most of my friends were outraged. This was done because Mr. Blair needed it. It was a sop as I understand it – I don’t know this, I understand it – thrown to Mr. Blair. That was something he could sell to his Parliament to get British involvement.

How would you have wanted it presented?

For what it was... He [Saddam] was clearly involved with these bastards, with al-Qaida and all sorts of other fundamentalists who are out to destroy the West.

Why should Saddam, a secular Sunni, get involved with al-Qaida? What was his motivation?

Let’s say say that everybody here is helping everybody else. I help you in ways that are good for you, and you help me in ways that are good for me. I have a money system that can transfer things; you use it. I need weapons transferred to someone that you have connections with. I’m not your leader, you’re not my leader. It’s mutual. They’re all on the same side here... Look, there were times the KGB and the CIA were on the same side and there are times right now that this country [Israel] and Saudi Arabia are on the same side – that’s until the day Iran is taken care of and then that will end.

If he’s secular, why did he write “Allahu akhbar” in his own blood on the flag, why did he supposedly have a Koran written in his blood? Why? I don’t know what secular means. Secular is a nice Western word. The best way you can put that in Arabic is la diniyah. La means no and diniyah is the law. That means you don’t fear God, you don’t fear judgment day. That means you can kill me or I can kill you and I’m not afraid of what God will say.

Has the “liberation” of Iraq been a success?

You can’t expect people with no experience with freedom to wake up and be free, so they have to learn to talk with each other. Are there problems in Iraq? There are tremendous problems. But if you look at the direction, people are discussing things now as opposed to in the past killing each other. It’s a good beginning and I think we are on the right path. I think we are on the right path because we helped the Iraqis on the right path and they have to develop their form of democracy... It’s not perfect, nothing is perfect, and there isn’t one definition of democracy. Iraq is going in the right direction. Will there be hiccups on the way? There will be big hiccups...

Can we make Iraq into the United States. No. 1, no. No. 2, we shouldn’t, and No. 3, we’re not trying to. All we want is an inclusive society where Iraqis have a chance equally to advance, to be free, to join the surrounding world. Are there those in Iraq who don’t want this? Absolutely. Do the governments in the surrounding countries want this? No, I really don’t think that any of them want the Iraqi experiment to succeed, because then it calls into question what they are.

You are confident then that democracy will beat out ethnicity and violence in Iraq?

I’m not a prophet. I can look at trends and I like what I’m seeing. I think we should be very proud of ourselves, of what we started. Will it be perfect? You can’t tell me that the British experience is perfect, or the American experience is perfect. We’re constantly trying to fine tune it and sometimes the fine tuning goes overboard. But is the direction the right direction? Absolutely.

Didn’t going into Iraq weaken the West’s hand against an infinitely more dangerous country, Iran?

We have a phrase, “Oh that’s history.” In other words it doesn’t matter. We don’t remember the period before we went into Iraq. We don’t remember the period as the Soviet Union fell or how remarkable it was or how it was a mistake that the wall fell in East Berlin. We just know these things.

We had from international law the ability to get into Iraq; we did not have that ability for Iran. There was an argument over whether to do Iran or Iraq first. There was a UN resolution which we could enforce, which we could not do vis-a-vis Iran. We didn’t have the opportunity to do Iran first. If you ask, I believe in going to the source. But it doesn’t matter. There are many things we believe in that are not possible. We have to look at the realm of the possible and that was possible. I strongly believe that in the future, whatever his positive or negative attributes, president [George W.] Bush will go down as starting a trend in the Middle East of freedom. How long will it take, I don’t know. But all over there are people who want freedom.  

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