One on One: 'Victory is somewhat archaic'

IDC's Shmuel Bar points to the challenges posed by a potentially polynuclear Middle East.

bar 88 (photo credit: )
bar 88
(photo credit: )
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot," quips Shmuel Bar, paraphrasing Mark Twain. Indeed, says Bar - director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington - Western intelligence agencies would do well to rely a bit more on historians when gathering and assessing information relevant to the Middle East and its culture. This thinking may have to do with the fact that Bar, a "jack of all trades" but a master of radical Islam, is himself a historian - something he stresses repeatedly to ensure that his analyses are not mistaken for political science. To the layman, such a distinction may seem like a form of intellectual nitpicking, particularly in the context of Israel's national security. Among the experts, however - scores of whom will be arriving from near and far to attend the eighth annual Herzliya Conference - the line is as clear as the challenges they will be discussing during the four-day mind-and media-fest that begins on Sunday. And what are those challenges? Well, Iran, of course. And the Palestinians. Terror and deterrence. Domestic social issues, too. Not much new there. But - as Bar asserts - the atmosphere will be calmer than it was last year, in the immediate aftermath of the Second Lebanon War. Not that the months since then have been uneventful, what with Annapolis, Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Bush's visit and Winograd, with its final report to be released at the end of the month. Another difference Bar points to is the emphasis that will be placed on confronting a potentially polynuclear region - attributing to the IPS and previous Herzliya conferences what he claims is the wisdom of their forethought and accuracy of their forecasts. "We put the Iranian issue at the center of our discussions years ago, when everyone else was talking about the Palestinian issue," says the boyish-looking 55-year-old grandfather - a member of the conference steering committee - with pride. What he does not brag about - but which is by now understood by anyone who has ever attended the conference - is what many consider to be the true pull of the ultra-prestigious affair, established and chaired by IPS founding director Uzi Arad: its "lobby" power. Literally. Indeed, no event in this country can boast such an array of see-and-be-seeners milling around the Daniel Hotel premises, exchanging knowing glances and business cards with the panache of the privileged. In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post , Bar previews the happening with his motto for deterring terrorism: "Speak loudly, make yourself clear and from time to time use a big stick." Earlier this month, there was a "chicken game" incident in the Gulf involving the US Navy and Iranian boats. What was the meaning of it? It's a bit like [Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella] Chronicle of a Death Foretold. At the Institute for Policy and Strategy we have performed a number of studies on Iranian strategic behavior and decision-making, and have participated in simulations held in the United States. There is very little here that surprises. The Iranians have been trying to establish hegemony in the Gulf, and accustom the Americans and the British to this by taking certain actions. For example, twice the IRGC navy captured British sailors and held them in custody, claiming they had infringed on Iranian waters. The Iranians like to emphasize that it's the Persian Gulf, not the Arabian or the American. Their claiming to have free access to all parts of it is a sort of policy statement. This is why they are trying to stretch the borders of American tolerance of Revolutionary Guard activities there. Iran is also keen to demonstrate to the West, and particularly to the US and the UK, what is in store for them in the event of an escalation in the Gulf. We have to remember that the threat to the US in the Gulf comes from the IRGC navy, and not from the regular Iranian navy. The Iranian navy is very old-fashioned, stationed for the most part in the Indian Ocean, and not much of a match for the US Navy. The IRGC navy, however, can be a terrorist-type threat in the form of operations such as the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole. The IRGC navy is also involved in most of the Iranian smuggling operations in the Gulf. The Iranians are aware that in case of an American blockade, the US can challenge them by reflagging shipping in the Gulf as it did in the Iran-Iraq war, and by giving a notice to mariners that any boat that comes within, say, two or three nautical miles of any ship flying an American flag is going to be sunk. This would rivet the IRGC navy to port. Because they're aware of this, the Iranians are sort of preempting it by testing the waters, literally and figuratively. Was the American response to the latest incident not foolish, then? No. The Americans called the Iranian bluff; they told the Iranians to turn around and they did. And I think that had the IRGC boats gotten any closer to the American ones, they would have been sunk. Moreover, had the Americans actually sunk an IRGC boat, I don't think the Iranians would have reacted. They're not looking for a conflict. What they're trying to do is push the Americans into a paradigm of behavior in the Gulf in order to give themselves as much freedom of movement and maneuver as possible. How can this paradigm be seen in the context of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)? In the first place, the NIE doesn't say what the media attributed to it. In the second place, the information it reveals does not lead to the conclusion that the report mentions and that the media highlighted - that Iran is more susceptible to diplomatic pressure than previously believed. The information it provides is that Iran had a weaponization program that it dismantled in 2003. In 2003, Muhammad Khatami was president of Iran. It was a few months after the US invaded and occupied Iran's neighbor, Iraq, claiming it had weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and toppled its regime. The Iranians were terrified that this was an American plot and that Iran was next in line. This is why they then agreed to various compromises with the Europeans, such as putting a hold on their enrichment program for a certain period of time: They didn't want to give a pretext to the Americans to invade. And the best pretext for the Americans would have been a weaponization program - which would have been perceived as a "smoking gun." A priori I would mention - and President Bush even said so clearly - the fact that Iran had a weaponization program at a time it claimed to have none, and duped the international community, is in itself proof of its basic intentions in its nuclear program. The NIE also states that Iran will continue to aspire to a military nuclear capability and sees such a capability as a cornerstone. So that is what we know. What we don't know is if this was its only weaponization program, or if the dismantling of the program wasn't a sophisticated disinformation operation, or if the Iranians suspected that the Americans had intelligence access to this particular program, and then dismantled it and put it together somewhere else. Western intelligence agencies have made great mistakes in covering nuclear programs. At one point, for example, most of the West was convinced that the Korean-Iranian missile deal was defunct. Then they discovered that while they thought the North Koreans hadn't even been developing a nuclear missile, the missile had actually been tested and sold to Iran. This had been going on for years without anybody's knowing about it. Here I would add that the fact that American intelligence discovered in 2007 that in 2003 a weaponization program was dismantled is not to its credit. The existence of an Iranian weaponization program in 2003 should have been discovered in 2003, not in 2007. We know from the Iraqi experience that Iraq had multiple channels for achieving both enrichment and weaponization - not only one program - and there is no doubt that the Iranians learned from the Iraqi experience. In other words, there is no indication that Iran is not continuing to engage in weaponization and, actually, the conclusion to reach from the NIE is that Iran does have a nuclear program, based on the fact that it already had one. Is is possible that politics - not merely intelligence failures - are often at play when it comes to looking the other way? Everyone is biased by his background. Some people are influenced by wishful thinking, as well. But I tend to think that those at the senior level in the CIA and, in this case, the National Intelligence Council, sincerely tried to give their political leaders the best intelligence and insights that they could. What is possible is that they weren't aware enough of the implications of their wording - did not give much thought to the way that it would appear in the media and the consequent political ramifications. But let's not forget that the NIE isn't intended to be published. Has the experience of not finding WMD in Iraq made American security agencies overly-cautious about warning of nuclear dangers in Iran? There's no doubt that the Western intelligence community in general, and the American in particular, have been traumatized by Iraq. I would suggest that Israelis, who are now very smug in looking at this, remember the same thing happened to us in [the] 1973 [Yom Kippur War]. When intelligence services go through such traumas, the reaction is usually for the pendulum to swing the other way. Isn't it possible that Iraq actually did have WMD, and moved them? After all, the Iraqis had ample time to transfer material while Hans Blix allowed them to keep postponing inspections of the suspected sites. It's very possible that some material was smuggled to Syria, since relations between Iraq and Syria were very close at that time. As for the issue of the inspectors: It would have been worthwhile for American intelligence to have employed a few historians, who have studied totalitarian regimes, particularly those led by a single strong leader. Using the Iraqi example, the scenario might play out something like this: Saddam says to his subordinates: "I need WMD capability; go get it." Now, even if they are unable to do so for many reasons, among them the fear of repercussions in the event of an American invasion, they are not going to admit it to him. So they fudge it a bit. If they don't succeed in carrying out their leader's command, they certainly aren't going to let him know that. They will pretend that everything is going according to his wishes. But then they have to deceive both their leader and their subordinates. Now, imagine they've been telling Saddam and everybody else that they've got WMD, and then the inspectors arrive. If no steps were taken to hide what was supposedly there, and the inspectors don't find anything, that's bad. So then a bunch of trucks come and go, actually transporting nothing. The people in these regimes are all playing a game. They are all deceiving everybody. We know this about the Stalin and Hitler regimes. This is one of the reasons such dictators seem not to act rationally. But they are acting rationally on the basis of their understanding of the situation - a situation about which they cannot receive a true, honest description. This is the Achilles' heel of these regimes, and what gives democracies a qualitative edge when fighting them. Now discuss Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in that context. Ahmadinejad is not the supreme leader of Iran - Ayatollah Khamanei is. However, the balance of power between the president and the supreme leader is not the same as it was under Khatami. Khatami had no control whatsoever over the domain of security and defense. Ahmadinejad, with his links to the IRGC and the Basij - a sort of army of militias - has tried to take over the nuclear issue and is using it to increase his prestige within the regime. But Ahmadinejad is not the "Fuhrer." Had somebody killed Hitler during the war, the war would have looked completely different. Whereas, if Ahmadinejad dies, or if Khamanei gets rid of him, the IRGC is still there. He will also end his term in office, but the problem he represents will remain. If Ahmadinejad is not the "Fuhrer," what is he? He is a representative of a new, second-generation elite of the revolution. At risk of sounding like a political scientist and not a historian, I would say that historically, revolutions go through phases. Revolution, by definition, is utopian, and the idea behind it is that doing a certain thing will solve all problems. Because utopia doesn't exist, after a period of time, there are two reactions to the fact that the problems haven't been solved. One reaction is reformist. The reformists feel that maybe the revolution went too far and has to be tweaked a bit. The other reaction is what I call Jacobin, like in the French Revolution. The "Jacobins" feel that the problems are the result of not being true enough to the revolution, and that Madame Guillotine is hungry for more heads. The same phenomenon was manifested in Trotsky's opposition to "socialism in one country" and the "Cultural Revolution" in China. I would even venture to say this exists in the Zionist revolution, as well. For example, Gush Emunim's reaction to the leadership's giving up on the idea of eretz yisrael hashlema [Greater Israel]. This dichotomy is what is happening in Iran. The IRGC looks at the situation with youth holding hands in the streets [in protest] and asks itself, "Is this what we had an Islamic revolution for? Is this what we spilled our blood for? Apparently, not enough heads have rolled, and we have to renew the purism of the revolution." The Old Guard - which is no less revolutionary - responds differently. They view the New Guard as upstarts. They say, "We did all of this already. How can you come along and tell us what's lacking? We were in the shah's prison. Where were you?" Given this dichotomy, what are the world's options vis-a-vis Iran? There is a human tendency, when we are confronted with something bad and see that any action we may take could precipitate something even worse, we freeze. People prefer to let bad things happen because of fate, not because of something they did. Another human tendency is to look for the silver lining to justify passivity by saying there's a bright side. This explains why many people in the non-proliferation community in the US say that, actually, countries become more responsible when they have a nuclear bomb. These people point to the Cold War, where there was a sort of balance of power, due to MAD [mutually assured destruction], that prevented nuclear war. These theoreticians reach the conclusion that the Middle East in some ways would be more stable with a nuclear Iran than without. Another group pins its hopes on the Iranian people. They tell themselves that the Iranian people are on the verge of revolution, based on the youth uprisings. Well, I would remind Americans that in the 1960s, there were massive student protests against the Vietnam War, yet there wasn't a revolution in the US, and the regime remained in place. Now, it's true that Iran is different from Arab Middle Eastern countries, because Iranian culture, unlike Arab, accepts the concept of revolution. And while the Iranians have had a revolution, no Arab country has had one. Arab countries have gone through coup d'etats but not revolutions. But I don't think Iran is on the verge of a revolution at the moment, or that this regime is going anywhere between now and the time it takes to acquire a nuclear capability. So, relying on the Iranian people to put things right for us is not a reasonable policy. Is taking military action reasonable? Certainly not as a first option. I think that a complete blockade on Iran until it gives up its nuclear program could bring down this regime within months. Iran imports most of its refined oil. Were a blockade to be put in place, the first thing they would do is hoard the oil, which would mean cutting it off from industry and from the civil sector of society, which would cause the economy to collapse and civil society to fall apart. Why would harming the economy lead to a toppling of the regime? In Gaza, the hungrier civil society gets, the more the populace blames Israel for its plight rather than Hamas. Gaza's not a good example of anything. The Palestinians are linked to us with an umbilical cord. The Palestinians have a tradition of never blaming themselves for anything that happens to them. Iran, on the other hand, is a nation which rules itself and wants to continue doing so. Are you saying the Iranian people would respond to a blockade by blaming the regime, rather than America? Well, it's true that they would blame America. But, there's something else at work that needs mentioning. According to Shi'ite jurisprudence, the public interest is a major factor in determining what is lawful and what is not. This is different from Sunni jurisprudence, which puts the public interest somewhere at the bottom of consideration. Furthermore, though this regime is Islamist and hates us, it is nationalist, and doesn't want the nation to be humiliated or destroyed. I think that, under these circumstances, you will find people among the Old Guard of the regime saying to Ahmadinejad and the IRGC, "Look what you've done to us!" Speaking of Shi'ite and Sunni jurisprudence, what is your view of the situation in Iraq? It has improved in the last few months. The surge has worked. And the American policy of co-opting Sunni leaders is definitely a good model. The al-Qaida and foreign forces are fleeing. This is why it would be a great pity if the next administration decided to cut and run. The ramifications for the free world of an America that is perceived as cutting and running from Iraq would be enormous. Iraq would deteriorate into a bloodbath that would make the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans look like a love-in. Also, nature abhors a vacuum. And the vacuum created by an American withdrawal would be filled by jihadist forces, like al-Qaida. Furthermore, the idea of a Shi'ite predominance in Iraq would so frighten the Saudis and the Sunni world that there would be a rapprochement between the Saudis and the more radical elements, who are stemming the tide of the Shi'ite "infidels." In other words, the US has to be very careful with its exit strategy. Since last year's Herzliya Conference, many weighty events have occurred, most recently the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. At the rate at which things happen in the Middle East, isn't it hard to anticipate the key issues and plan your program accordingly? Actually, I would say that we anticipated everything, and that everything is going as planned [he laughs]. But seriously, our last conference was held half a year after the Second Lebanon War. This year, it will be held about a week before the Winograd Committee releases its final report. The assassination of Bhutto is an even better example of the Chronicle of a Death Foretold and any strategic planner or intelligence analyst should have taken it into account as a probable development. Regarding the question of national security decision-making, it is very much on the agenda. But it's going to be discussed in a much calmer atmosphere than it was with the recriminations characteristic of the immediate aftermath of the war. We're going to have senior people from the US contributing their thoughts on how the US itself should structure the national security decision-making process in order to make it more foolproof. It's not political. Let's also remember that the conference is geared to deal with strategy. Strategy does not change overnight. We put the Iranian issue at the center of our discussions years ago, when everyone else was talking about the Palestinian issue. If it's not political, why is the first day of sessions being held in the Knesset this year? Holding the opening sessions in the Knesset is a symbolic gesture to honor the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. It shouldn't be seen as the face of the conference. This is not the first time that academic meetings are held in the Knesset, and it is quite common for conferences in the West to be held in parliaments. Anyway, the content of the conference is the face of the conference. And what is that content? The focal points are Iran, domestic social issues and the peace process, but with a forward-looking approach. It's clear to everybody that the final status should be discussed on its own merits, not as part of the political polemic inside Israel, but from the point of view of the art of relations between nations - peoples - who separate. Another major question we are going to deal with is the future of deterrence in a potentially polynuclear Middle East. Deterrence has to be tailored to its environment. It is conventional wisdom that if Iran gets a bomb, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will follow. So, how do you create deterrence when there are a number of nuclear players? How do the culture and internal schisms of the Middle Eastern regimes affect deterrence? All of these are issues we would like to contribute to the strategic thinking. You say the final status should be discussed from the point of view of relations between nations which separate. But is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict really between two nations? Isn't it part of a global war between jihadists and the West? Well, at the conference, we're going to discuss Islamic radicalism, of course. And, we have to be careful not to lump everything together. Not everything is al-Qaida. Hamas is Hamas, and that's bad enough. Islamic Jihad is bad enough without its being al-Qaida. You can separate the various manifestations of these elements without rating them on a scale of worse-to-better. Yet, there's an attempt to rate Hamas "worse" than Fatah when talking about the peace process. And, regarding the old and young guards of Fatah, is the "post-revolutionary" phase you mentioned not similar to the situation in the PA? In a way, yes, it is a reaction to pragmatism. However, in the case of Fatah, the Young Guard is paradoxically less "revolutionary" than the Old Guard. It was the Old Guard leadership - Yasser Arafat - which rejected the Camp David proposals; while many of the Young Guard, particularly the ones from the West Bank who have an intimate acquaintance with Israel - including because they served in Israeli jails - tend to be more pragmatic. Indeed, I believe that the Old Guard would want an accommodation with Israel, even though they would have preferred that Israel disappear, just as many Israelis would have preferred to wake up one morning and find the Palestinians gone. The problem is that Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] and his supporters actually have absolutely no authority. Before, we had Arafat, who had the capability to impose a peace agreement, without the intention to reach one. He honestly wanted to go down in history as a revolutionary, not as the person who sold out by giving up part of Palestine. Now we have Abu Mazen, who would like to reach an agreement, without the ability to impose one. In 2004, we held a series of discussions that we presented to the Herzliya Conference on the future of the PA after Arafat. Unfortunately, our forecast was very precise: the decline into anarchy, the rise of Hamas and the lack of leadership. I frequently meet with Palestinians. I told one of them that I would teach him two words from the Zionist lexicon, and then he would have a state. One is Saison, and the other is Altalena. Saison [the name of the joint Hagana and British operation to kidnap, interrogate and deport some members of the Jewish underground, following the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne] is the manifestation of a national movement's decision to be mainstream and not allow radicals to impose their will. Altalena [the name of the 1948 ship carrying weapons to the Jewish underground that the IDF destroyed and in the process killed 21 people] represents a decision by a national government, already established, that there is going to be one gun and one finger on the trigger. These are painful decisions which remain open wounds in the national body for decades. "You cannot have a coalition of armies and call yourself a state," I said to him. "And until you realize that, you won't have a state." He responded: "There will never be a Palestinian Altalena." So I said, "Then there will never be a Palestinian state." The Palestinians are in political "entropy," the second law of thermodynamics according to which energy moves from an orderly state to a disorderly one. The amount of energy required to move from order to disorder isn't sufficient to move disorder back into order: It's much harder to make an egg out of an omelette than an omelette out of an egg. Arafat created an omelette with his own special way of holding things together in order to guarantee that nobody would ever get rid of him. But he went the way of all flesh, and the entropy that he set in motion couldn't be reversed. And there is a large coalition of forces within the Palestinian fabric who have a vested interest in disorder, because they feed off it. There are only two ways to reverse this: either by an immense number of carrots - in the form of money and positions - to woo them into the fold; or by many heavy sticks, which would force them to accept a central authority. But to get to that point, much more energy is needed. This energy can't come from within the PA. Fatah doesn't have it. Nor will it come from outside. Where is it going to come from? Israel? Well, Israel is already helping the PA, by keeping Hamas at bay in the West Bank and making it difficult for it to reign there as it does in Gaza. But the Jordanians aren't going to come in and set up a state for the Palestinians, nor are the Americans. So, the energy isn't there. And no matter what blueprint for an agreement Abu Mazen and [US President George] Bush and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert come up with, how is it going to be imposed? But even if it is imposed unilaterally, as was Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, isn't it necessary to have a contingency plan for the day after, when the missiles start flying? This discussion belongs in the realm of terrorism and deterrence, which we will be dealing with at the conference. We will be presenting two papers that were prepared on the issue of deterrence of terrorism, and the conclusions of a study on Israel's experience in deterring Hizbullah. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we will present findings that indicate that under certain circumstances and in the case of certain terrorist adversaries you can achieve deterrence. The motto has to be, "Speak loudly, make yourself clear and from time to time use a big stick." What about victory - the one word you haven't uttered? The word "victory" is somewhat archaic. Victory happens in total wars, such as World War II. I don't even know if there was a victory in the Cold War, because Russia is still a nuisance. Which reminds me of the famous exchange between Charles De Gaulle and Mao Zedong. When the former asked the latter, "What is your opinion of the French Revolution?" he replied, "I think it's too early to tell."