Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy

A conversation with Pakistan Scholar, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa


Pakistan for Sale


“They never forget. They’ll come after me. Not now, but later. The military never forgets. Never,” warns Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, a “Pakistan Scholar” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of the incendiary “Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. While eating a South Asian, weekend buffet at Mehran Restaurant in Bay Area, California, where she recently gave several talks on the “most dangerous nation on Earth,” the Pakistani native calmly explains how Pakistan’s military has yet to retaliate against her damning critique of the military industrial complex. Due to global attention and vigilance fixed directly on Musharaff and the military to provide “free and fair elections,” the military, according to Siddiqa, has acted cool and allowed her to promote her latest book that catalogues the pervasive influence and predatory nature of Pakistan’s military, which, she alleges, controls and abuses the country’s military-industrial sectors for personal profit and political leverage.

I sat down with the opinionated scholar over several cups of tea for an exclusive interview to discuss her controversial book, the recent Pakistan elections, the influence of Pakistan’s military, Pakistan’s volatile relation with India, and the role of the United States in supporting Pakistani dictatorships.

ALI: Many, like you, argue the Pakistani Military is overbearing and pervasive in the political and economic sectors. Yet, the recent election results saw majority votes for Bhutto’s PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] and [Former Prime Minister before Musharaff] Nawaz Sharif’s party ­not the pro-Musharaff parties. So, perhaps the military is not as pervasive as one would assume? Does this mean democracy is back in Pakistan?

SIDDIQA: Firstly, the election result doesn’t mean the military is not pervasive. It means, for certain reasons, the military didn’t put pressure, did not use its intelligence agencies to influence the election results.

Pakistan has had 3 free and fair elections in its history: first was in ’71, the other in ’88, and now in 2008. These were three times the military was under tremendous pressure and sufficiently demoralized. It’s a very social-political institution, the military of Pakistan. It’s not like a bureaucratic organization we have in the United States. It’s very much part of the Pakistani society and politics: it is very sensitive to how people feel. It, on part, depends on how accepted it is in the society. Here in 2008 we have a problem of the military’s image being tarnished due to Musharaff’s activities and how it got involved in the economy and society.

The military has just backed down for a while and let the elections play the way they did: thus, we had relatively free and fair elections. This doesn’t mean there was no rigging of the elections, or rigging didn’t take place.

Does it mean democracy is back? I hope it is. But, it’s too early to draw any conclusions. First, the political government has to strengthen itself. Second, there will be tremendous economic pressures. Thirdly, there will be pressure from outside, like United States: it will be too anxious to see Pakistan tow its policy on the war on terror. Finally, the military will be, meanwhile, waiting in the wings: it needs 2-3 years to repair its damaged image. If the [newly elected] political players don’t improve their behavior, the military is waiting to take over.

ALI: Were the election results an example of Pakistani people embracing the policies of PPP and PML-N, or rather was it mainly an anti-Musharaff vote: in that they would side with anyone but the military and Musharaff?

SIDDIQA: It is an anti-Musharaff vote, but see, PPP and PML-N [the political parties that won the majority of seats] are part of the life there. These are the alternative, patronage networks available to the common man to get some benefits. When you have a government of the military and technocrats ­ that’s what Musharaff is proposed to have done ­ the problem is that in the name of “sham meritocracy” the distribution of resources is very limited.

In a political government, the so-called distribution of resources is slightly wider. So, when you have political governments, people talk about jobs, because the nature of that political animal is as such that it has to prove employment, jobs, create jobs for its constituency. Once you have a military, the government of technocrats, the problem is they can always say, “Well, we cannot create jobs if there are no jobs.” [The common man] can’t even go and vie for a share of the resources. Who do you talk to? The bureaucracy has a bland, emotionless face: they don’t respond. The political parties, however, do.

You have to look at the voting patterns: Punjab [one of the four major provinces of Pakistan] urban voted primarily for PML-N [Nawaz Sharif’s party] and the rural areas voted for PPP [Bhutto’s party], where it’s more popular. So, you can’t just say it’s an anti-Musharaff vote itself.

ALI: You coin an interesting term in your book: MILBUS. You define it as “military capital used for personal benefit of a military fraternity.” Briefly describe MILBUS, how it relates to Pakistan, and why it dominates Pakistan?

SIDDIQA: MILBUS is a term I coined for “military plus business.” For years people have discussed military-economy defense spending in relation to defense budgets ­ the entire debate was focused on that. Yet, what one saw all over the world was a larger military-economy, which was not captured by the academic debate at all. The security sector, after the end of the Cold War, has evolved all over the world, even in the United States. It’s not fair to argue that in the United States the security sector is limited to just the Armed Forces; it includes parts of the private sector as well. In Pakistan, historically, it has been expanding. It’s been happening in a lot of other countries.

So, first, what is this military capital and then what is its impact? I argue that first; it is an illegal and predatory military capital because it enters into areas of activity that technically belong to the world of civilians. Here, military makes a foray into commercial activities because of its influence in parts of the government of where they are. Secondly, if you then have this predatory capital in a country where the military is very politically active, for example in Pakistan the military is considered the largest political party, right? So, if you have that, then what affect does this combination have?

In Pakistan, you can see in 1954 the military first started its foundation and a lot of industries were set up in the name of contributing to national development. There are 3 reasons why militaries engage in business:

1) The national savior paradigm where they protect the state and contribute to national development.

2) The national development paradigm, of course.

3) Finally, the predatory-anarchical paradigm which means that commercial activities are conducted due to the greed of individual officers and generals.

ALI: You mentioned that 7% of Pakistan’s GDP goes to the military?

SIDDIQA: Yes, 7%. That’s how much they control. It includes everything, the defense budget as well. It is the net natural resources, approximately, that Pakistan spends. Now, it’s very difficult to draw the line, which says, “These are the activities which were done for national development, or which were done in the context of the national savior paradigm, and these were predatory.” Because military in Pakistan is definitely above accountability: it is not transparent.

So, when can you tell the officers are now engaging in predation? It’s very tricky. For example, General Ayub Khan [Pakistani military general who seized power through a coup and was President from 1958to 1969] who started setting up these industries, started expanding the network of military welfare later in the 50’s and 60’s, he himself engaged in predation. He and his senior generals got over 250-260 acres of land ­ a single individual got this. He established his sons in business like many generals who set up private businesses. But these businesses weren’t doing well because they were wonderful entrepreneurs; it was because they were depending on their influence and connections to the state machinery to set up their personal business.

ALI: Let’s discuss legal accountability. You mention Halliburton and Dyncorp as examples of private military firms operating in a fog of war, such as the current Iraq War. They emerge as “ambiguous entities” that neither belong to the public nor private sectors, and as such there is no legal accountability for their actions. How is this similar or dissimilar to the Pakistani Military?

SIDDIQA: On a theoretical level, they are all connected. There’s Halliburton, Dyncorp, MPRI, many companies in U.K., France, South Africa, Brazil, Burma, Bangladesh ­ lot of countries have it. The difference between all of these is that their visibility and nature of predation depends on what role the military has vis-a-vis other stake holders. In case of the United States with Halliburton, it’s extremely predatory. Unlike Pakistan, they predate on resources outside the United States.

ALI: Like Iraq?

Like Iraq, like Bosnia, Africa. We talk about Iraq, because we’ve heard about Iraq. No one speaks about the kind of damage they’ve done in Africa, Sierra Leone. Right? Their role has been disastrous. They have an impact on the American economy as well, because millions of dollars, contracts, have gone to these companies without any proper accountability: that’s a common thread. They benefit the military fraternity because a lot of people working in these corporations are retired military people.

In the U.S., there is this case of “double dipping.” A military person takes early retirement from the United States military that has provided him training. Then, he goes and gets employed by a private company, which is then subcontracted by the U.S. government. Then, this chap gets paid more money for doing the same job, which he was doing earlier.

ALI: But with no legal accountability? There will be no court marshal for him, right? Like what we’re seeing with Blackwater now?

SIDDIQA: Right, Right. So, you have that. The other point of departure is – in the case of American companies – the main predator is the corporate sector. The United States Military is a secondary predator: it piggybacks on the private sector.

In Pakistan’s case, the military’s predation inside is much larger. The visibility of its predation is much bigger. The military is the primary predator, and the corporate sector is a secondary predator.

ALI: Ok, now I’m going to talk like a Pakistani middle-aged uncle. And Pakistani uncles are the same everywhere; United States, Pakistan, all over the world doesn’t matter; I’ve met ’em all. They’ll say to you, “Even if what you say is true, at least under military dictatorship there is stability in Pakistan. There is economic growth. So, Musharaff is the lesser of two evils. The system is so out of whack, we might as well choose the lesser of 2 evils that at least helps the economy.” Your response?

SIDDIQA: Where’s the evidence? Right now, whoever comes in the next government is basically screwed from the word “Go.” During Musharaff’s 8 years, they have ended up in a huge budgetary deficit well over a billion dollars. Problem is how do you finance this deficit? We badly need price adjustment. Now, if you do price adjustment in the short run, it will increase costs: fuel costs, electricity costs all by 20-30%. You do this, and all other commodity prices go up; the big fat ones won’t be affected. The poor man is the first one to get affected. The transition cost for the poor man increases.

ALI: What percentage of Pakistan is the poor man? What slice of the pie?

SIDDIQA: 36% are below the poverty line: that’s huge. Now, if they don’t do price adjustment, the government will be forced to borrow from the banks: they have to. If you borrow, you have to return it. That means the Pakistani government is bound to print currency. You print currency, you get inflation, and then the poor man is dead. There is a huge issue here.

The other option of course, which some always recommend, is sell your assets. How far can we go on selling our assets? You have a military regime that has not come to an end because Musharaff continues. The same thing happened under Zia al Haq [Pakistani’s military dictator from ’77 to ’88.] They do borrowing; they are so much dependent on external capital influences. They create this sham semblance of economic growth, but after a while they [the military] are gone, it is the political governments that must start picking up the pieces. No one is saying their performance is excellent comparatively. But, the political governments have always had to pick the burden of what has happened with the military regimes.

Look at the 1960’s: this was the age of development where 22 families made it rich. Now, these Pakistani uncles sitting around everywhere will say, “Well, at least it was economic growth.” Now, I say, “At what cost?” You have half of the country which walked away. The uncles will also it was Zulfikar Bhutto [Benazir’s father who was Prime Minister in the 70’s] who did it. But, the guy in charge was also in the military ­ not just a nobody. What the Ayub/Yahya [The Khans who were, respectively, Presidents of Pakistan from ’58 to ’71] duo passed on to us was a legacy of a broken up Pakistan [Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, separated and became an independent republic] and a huge cost of war [the 1971 India-Pakistan War] and an economically impoverished country. That’s what we got in 1971. Then, you have 7 years of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: a policy of nationalization. In hindsight, we all get critical of Bhutto, but today we look in Venezuela and we see Chavez doing nationalization as well. Remember 1970’s? Nationalization, breaking the cycle, the curse of the corporate sector, the entrepreneurs who were far and few: it was important. You had to nationalize. In hindsight everything looks much clearer, but not at that time.

In 1980’s, you had economic boom, but you also had drug economy. You also had weapons, a culture of weapons of civilian destruction: the small arms and light weapons. Pakistan got flushed with weapons: Klashnikovs, AK-47’s which would sell for $100,000 Rupees in 1979. Now, that price is something like $12,000 Rupees which is something like what? Less than $200? You can get it delivered at home. So, that’s the legacy of General Zia al Haq [Pakistan’s military dictator in the ’80’s who helped supply arms and munitions to mujaheddin forces in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Unions.]

The problem of the Pakistani uncles is they need to put things into perspective. Yeah, right now, you see privatization, you see a lot of corporate culture, but it is so very limited. You have a lot of money, because post 9-11, post the earthquake, a lot of money has come in. The question is: “Is that money reaching where it ought to? The poor people?” We still have those disparities which will create greater tensions between the haves and the have-nots.

ALI: That post 9-11 money, approximately $10 billion, came from U.S. So, here’s a question: How has the United States colluded in the growth of Pakistan’s military industrial complex? Specifically, how do we explain the duality of a relationship in which U.S. has given the most amount of money to Pakistan under military dictatorships, yet barely anything when there were seeds of a democratic movement?

SIDDIQA: Well, the United States says they want democracy; they want responsibility in governments. The problem is that once you have political governments, the political governments have their own issues as well. They have their own constituents to deal with. Once you deal with constituents, not everybody will agree with how policies are made or implemented. For example, in the months to come, the War on Terror for the United States will be trickier for them than it was under Musharaff. On the one hand, this is a better action because you will have political actors on board able to negotiate with their constituents about this war. But not everything the Pentagon would want to see implemented will be implemented.

Secondly, another problem that is possibly going to come in is that the military will shut its door. Their policies will not be in the purview of the Prime Minister. If we are going to have that duality, it will create problems. What happens is that the United States gets too nervous, too worked up over the domestic tensions in Pakistan. And, then, the minute the military actually steps in and gets rids of the political governments, United States is happy to go back and talk to the military. It has happened twice before [U.S supporting dictators like General Zia al Haq and General Musharaff.] Unfortunately, this is a strategy India has been adapting as well.

ALI: How so exactly?

SIDDIQA: Well, you talk to people in the security sector in India, and they’ll be like, “Well, Musharaff and military bring stability to Pakistan.” I get very worked up. Because, here is India claiming to be the largest democracy, and here there are some Indians claiming that instead of a democratic, political setup, it is the military and Musharaff which are the answer for Pakistan’s stability.

ALI: A lot of people, including Indians, Indian Expatriates, Pakistanis, and many Americans, say the following: Why has India progressed and Pakistan floundered? Same time partition, and the same time declaration of independence. Look at India right now: it has a flourishing democracy, it has infrastructure, a sophisticated groundwork to stop brain drain and support the IT sector, a technological sector, and so forth. Now, look at Pakistan: a near failed state. So, why has India progressed, while at the same time Pakistan has not?

SIDDIQA: Firstly, we failed to market ourselves. I am proud to say our media, at least some segments of it, are much braver and much more courageous than India media can even dream to be.

ALI: What’s a concrete example of that claim?

SIDDIQA: Not just one, there are several. Indian media, and of course Indian politics, is different. Ask the biggest giant media in India to go write detailed commentaries on Indian politicians and Indian political parties; they will steer clear of that. Day and night in Pakistan, we criticize the government, the politicians, we criticize different people left, right, and center, and we survive. We have problems as well, it’s not that we don’t have problems in the media, but we do it. I’m not arguing that Indian performance has not been better; of course, it has.

Primarily, India received a much more capitalist structure. Ours was a pre-capitalist structure, which was a mix of postcolonial capitalism and feudalism with the dominance of feudalism. The areas that became Pakistan were much more socio-politically underdeveloped than the rest of India: the dynamics were different. And who says India isn’t authoritarian? It is authoritarian: civil authoritarian. But again, India has the basic minimum which is necessary for a democracy: electoral democracy.

You know, countries go through different experiences. In a family, you have siblings that take different routes; their lives are born of the same womb, yet they go in different directions. Yes, India has been lucky. But, more than lucky, it is, primarily, because they managed to get rid of feudalism. And, they had capitalist structures that made them get rid of feudalism much quicker and much earlier than Pakistan ever did.

ALI: A common remark by many is that Pakistan should not have sought partition from India in the first place. They did partition to seek freedom for Muslims, and yet when they got it, we see Muslims killing Muslims. Is Islam the problem? Was partition necessary?

SIDDIQA: Well, people are dying in India as well. When I look at partition of 1947 [Declaration of Pakistan and India’s respective independence], well, we can look in hindsight now and argue maybe the partition shouldn’t have happened. And, who knows, maybe it shouldn’t have happened? Now, in 2008, let’s not get bothered by 1947. The fact is in the Indian subcontinent the 1947 partition happened because the Muslim elite’s understanding was that they had to create another exclusive category based on religion. Because in a larger India, they would not have any influence on favorable distribution of resources.

Then in 1971, there was Bangladesh. Many would argue that this unraveled this “exclusive category.” I say they are wrong. Bangladesh did not unravel religion as a basis of exclusivity. Bengalis did not go and merge into India: they made Bangladesh. It was an option to merge, but they didn’t. They held onto their Muslim identity. On top of that, they created another exclusive category based on ethnicity and culture. So, those who argue that the whole basis of Pakistan as a country which would provide better opportunities with Muslims was unraveled by the creation of Bangladesh, my argument is no it didn’t. It created another additional category.

Wherever you have a problem of resource distribution, people tend to create those categories. Let’s go back to pre-1947, even if we were a united India, you’d still have people fighting each other, because there were economic disparities all over, all over India. There are regional disparities in India. For those who want to run away or hide away from how huge the income disparity is in India ­ I want to draw their attention. There is one India in the form of high tech educational institutions, the doctors, the IT experts all over the world. Then, there is another India as well, where a major part of the population doesn’t even have access to electricity. There are educational disparities. Only 5% of the people get admission in higher institutions. Less than 5% are from small towns. That says something.

Ultimately, wherever you have a tussle for resource distribution you would have a conflict. We made Pakistan, but we still have Muslims fighting Muslims. In India, which claims to be secular, you still have Muslims fighting Hindus. Nothing has changed. Even if we put them all together, nothing would change.

Despite that I would argue things would get better if regions of South Asia connected together. We have to re-imagine South Asia differently. Things need to change.

ALI: There is always a concern about “elitism” that permeates the South Asian society. This manifests itself in the military, as you’ve mentioned, classism, education, and even color of skin. Why is elitism so deeply entrenched in Pakistani culture, and how do we remove it in the 21st century?

SIDDIQA: The first move is education. The day in South Asia we manage to free education from the hold of elitists and elitism, we will start to make progress. There’s a great work by a prominent Pakistani linguist Dr. Tariq Rahman and he argues quite well that English is meant for the select few ­ for the elite. It is deliberate that the teaching of this foreign language is taught to the elite, because you don’t want to make it the language of the general public. Same goes for India and parts of South Asia. That’s one major issue. If you begin to empower people with tools of social mobility, elitism will begin to break down. That is a starting point.

ALI: One aspect that is not touched upon frequently is not only the rise of extremism of Pakistan, but the rise of religious extremism in India as well. We see in Gujrat, the popularity of Narendra Modi [pro-Hindu, nationalist Chief Minister of the state of Gujrat] and the appeal of his very anti-Muslim rhetoric to the middle class and rural class. We also see Pakistani, pro-Kashmir, anti-Indian groups and their extremist actions and rhetoric. A question asked by many Americans: why do Pakistanis and Indians hate each other so much? What’s the cause of this hatred, and can we move beyond this and create a bridge between both neighbors?

SIDDIQA: First, I will completely disagree. We don’t hate each other. Let me tell you this interesting story. In 2002, that was the first time ever in my life I went to India: the middle of a stand-off between both countries.

Now, I’m not a hawk by any standards, or I don’t feel like one at least. But, you suddenly realize how 30 ­35 years of propaganda can get to you. The day before I left to India, I asked a family member, “Hmmn, so what do you think people in New Delhi look like?” And my family member laughed and said, “I didn’t expect you to ask a question like this. Of course they look like us!”

Those were also the days when there was no direct flight from Pakistan to India, so I went through Dubai. I’m waiting in the terminal of Dubai Airport waiting for my Delhi flight, and I walked towards a woman with a bindi on her forehead and looked very Hindu-Indian to me. I very consciously went up to her and asked her, “So, how long is the flight to Delhi?” She turns around and says, “Haven’t you been home?” I said, “I’m not Indian. I’m actually traveling from somewhere else.” And I was constantly gazing at her. And then she asked, “Where are you from?” And I answered, “Pakistan,” measuring her response and expecting her to jump in the air and shout, “Devil! Devil!”

Nothing of the sort happened. She casually said if you’re in Delhi go see that area, go see this area, don’t go here alone, be careful at night, and all of that. And, I spent 6 uneventful days in Delhi despite this tension. I saw one line scribbled ­ a wall chalking ­ against Pakistan much later when I went.

Look, we have co-existed together with very silly and negative perceptions for 60 years, right? Things need to change. We can’t continue living like this for another 60 years. This is not the answer for a Pakistani or an Indian.

In 2004, I was in Karachi, Pakistan. A few months earlier Vajpayee [Former Prime Minister of India] had come to Islamabad and things started to look better. I talked to my Pathan Pakistani cab driver from the frontier province region. I asked him about the visit and he said, “Well, mehim sahiba, let’s have peace.” And I was surprised and asked him, “What will we do with Kashmir? Don’t you want it?” And with exhaustion in his voice, he said, “You know? Leave it. You know we can’t have it. You know it doesn’t matter. Let’s have peace so there is more money that our government can spend on our health and education.”

The common man wants that. Yeah, of course, we’ll have ego issues. Once you have open interactions with Pakistanis and Indians, of course there will be misunderstandings. Pakistanis, of course, will get very upset sometimes with this aggressive attitude. The average Indian of the middle class in India, when they look at India, or perceive India today, it’s like a young woman discovering her sexuality, and getting very excited about it. They’re so excited they don’t care how people perceive them.

The Pakistani wants to discover its sexuality yet it’s so scared. So, you have those differences which sometimes create misunderstandings, yet that is a bridge we all have to cross.

Yes, there is Modi in India. Yes, we have our extremists as well. But, let me tell you, extremists are very few and far between; they do not represent the perception of the common man in Pakistan. That crazy element of the society would be present in any society. The only thing that will put an end to this extremism is better relation with India in the South Asian region. A better structure of the region in the long run where people can relate to each other, where people believe in each other’s well being because they benefit from it, rather than thinking of war and conflict.

For example, if you have investment in Pakistan, Indian business investing in Pakistan, right? What would happen? At some point, they will stop thinking of war and conflict. In fact, war and conflict will make them nervous. So, why can’t we do that?

ALI: Rage boy is the image of the enraged, angry, frothing Pakistani on the cover of magazines. Is extremism the modern image of Pakistan? Is this limited only to the northern frontier regions, and why is extremism so difficult to root out from these places?

SIDDIQA: First, extremism is not the face of Pakistan. If you look at the results of 2008, people voted against religious parties, didn’t they? Common, ordinary people voted against them; the same people who Musharaff claims are extremists. See, my problem with this whole debate with extremism is that it is a creation of the Musharaff regime itself. It has systematically sold this idea, which has comfortably been bought by the Republican administration, that the country of Pakistan is filled with extremist, religious whackos, and the only sensible guy is Musharaff and his cronies.

What no one talks about is that these whackos have been created by the military themselves, and some of them are still being kept. For example, Jaysh-e-Muhammad and Lakshar-e-Tayyaba [Pro- Pakistan Kashmir extremist groups], there is no evidence that action is being taken against them, because the military considers these militants as assets. Not just in Kashmir. See, as long as Pakistani establishment’s perception of India remains as it has –

ALI: Which is?

SIDDIQA: Which is that “India is an enemy, it is about to eat us up. We have to challenge it. Like a good, Muslim state we have to stand up to the Hindus and show the non-Muslims we are strong here.”

As long as we live with this mentality we will not have peace. I say this out of my concern for Pakistan. Even before the Taliban, we engaged with non-state actors and militants. Who fought the war in ’47-48 war? We got those tribal warriors from Waziristan [Northern, tribal region of Pakistan] primarily to fight. In 1965, again, we used jihadis. It just so happens militancy and jihad, and what it can do to a society and state, didn’t feature anywhere in the radar screen of international communities until 9-11 happened. This was all happening much earlier

A reason it’s been there is because we’ve wanted to use it as a defensive, or as a defensive capacity against India. Now, the fear is that what happens if NATO forces withdraw? What will happen to Afghanistan? We don’t want India to have influence, so Pakistan must have partnership, etc. So, some extremist assets are destroyed and some are kept. This policy is dangerous. We need to come to terms with our relationship with our larger neighbor. We need to walk away from that fear, so we can develop ourselves.

ALI: How can we repair our relationship with the United States? I’m assuming the United States now is so discredited in the eyes of Pakistanis.

SIDDIQA: It can be repaired. It all depends on what the United States does in the future. They are so careful when it comes to supporting people’s initiatives. In this point of time, it has become so institutional. Gone are the days the U.S. military would talk to people and individuals. Now it only talks to institutions. It’s a very schizophrenic relationship we have with the United States. The joke in Pakistan goes you can run Pakistan with the “3 A’s:” The Army, America, and Allah. (Laughs.) That still goes and it’s a popular perception. So, in the long term, it’s not just the responsibility of America, it’s also a responsibility of the Pakistani intelligentsia to tell the ordinary Pakistanis that, no, it’s not just America. It might be the Army and Allah, but not America. It’s time for Pakistan to take responsibility for what we do ourselves to ourselves.

ALI: Will a Western model of a secular democracy ever be implemented and accepted by the Pakistani populace? Can this “American” model succeed there?

SIDDIQA: Well, the United States doesn’t want democracy. They don’t want democracy in Iraq, they don’t want democracy in Afghanistan, they don’t want democracy in Pakistan. They want people to tow the line. Democracy is not even an issue as far as America as concerned.

Secularism? You’ve had non-religious, political parties, who are averse to implementing Sharia. We also want parties that will call the bluff of the religious parties. This election might take us in that direction. There is an amount of conservatism that has come in, which has entered our discourse. However, that element is in no way different in how it has happened in the United States. George Bush is far more conservative than many conservatives in Pakistan.

ALI: The poet laureate of Pakistan, Allamah Muhammad Iqbal created a motto for Pakistan: Unity, Faith, and Discipline. Up to now, how has Pakistan lived up to this motto and how do you see it implemented in the future?

SIDDIQA: So far none of these three have worked; neither faith, nor unity, nor discipline. The reason being the state has been captured by this elite and these centripetal forces which are unwilling to give any fiscal or political autonomy to the rest of Pakistan.

Pakistan belongs to the Pakistanis. That’s how it should be. Pakistan includes all four provinces. The problem is when you have a polity in which a homogenous military dominates; it begins to see things from its perspective. They are still afraid of nationalism.

Why is there still a problem with nationalism? Why can’t Pakistanis first be regional, such as Balochi, or Punjabi, or Sindhi, Pathans first? Once, they are consolidated comfortably in their [regional, provincial] identity, then connect with their second identity which is Pakistani. What’s the harm with that? Why must we say, “We are Pakistani first.” It will come. Why to develop and encourage such a tension between those 2 identities? It shouldn’t happen. Let there be provincial autonomy as was put down in the ’73 Constitution, but we still don’t have it.

We also don’t still have equal distributions of resources. So, we can have a brilliant kid from Balochistan region, but since he has not received a proper education and school system, his quality is poor. Same goes for some kid from the frontier or from Sindh. We need to reassess our priorities. We are fixated with is central intuitions: military. We say, “If something happens to the military, if we don’t concentrate on it, then Pakistan will disappear.” Pakistan will not disappear! This is a Western fallacy. It’s a fallacy of those who don’t know Pakistan. Pakistan will not disappear if we have a much smaller defense budget or a much smaller military. We need to cut down our non-development expenditure, and start building our regions and give them fiscal and political autonomy. Let the people own Pakistan, which they do! Let them decide.

For God’s sake, the military is not the only institution worth investing in. There are others as well, and that’s where the primary focus should be.

ALI: What do Pakistanis want? Tell me about the 40% of the pie: the poor guy below the poverty line. What does the ordinary Pakistani want?

SIDDIQA; He wants education, health for him and his child. You open up a school and you will have a queue line up for that. It’s not just in Punjab, it’s also in the Northern regions and tribal areas. I’ve seen mothers beg and say, “Please don’t even give my child a single day holiday. We want our children to be educated.” They want social mobility. They want access to food. They want security of life. All those ordinary things which any ordinary citizen anywhere in the world would want. Nothing else.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

THE OMISSIONS OF THE COMMISSION: The Uncensored History of the 9-11 Investigation

416tutxpvnl_aa240_.jpgIn 2004, The 9-11 Commission issued what it deemed as the most complete, final, and authoritative report examining the events and history of that fateful day. However, according to the new, controversial best selling book, “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9-11 Investigation,” the report suffers from drastic omissions and oversights that distort the reality of the tragedy and protect powerful individuals in the White House Administration from facing accountability for their negligent actions. I recently spoke with the author, veteran New York Times investigative journalist Phillip Shenon, for an exclusive interview regarding his explosive discoveries.

ALI: In their book “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission,” Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton recounted their experience serving as co-chairs of the 9-11 Commission, and how they felt that the Commission was set up for failure from the beginning. How accurate is that statement?

SHENON: There is a strong argument for it. They had 5 pretty partisan Democrats and 5 pretty partisan Republicans, and they were asked to reach an agreement on who was responsible for 9-11. And, they were asked to do this at one of the most poisonous, partisan times any of us had ever known in Washington. They also had to do it during the run up to the 2004 Presidential elections, which was sort of the worst of times do it, because the atmosphere at that time was so charged.

ALI: The White House, however, claimed it gave “unprecedented cooperation” to the 9-11 commission, yet your book indicates the Administration, especially President Bush and Cheney, were loathe to create the commission in the first place. Why the hesitation and such a strong cloak of secrecy? I recall they both didn’t want their testimony made public, recorded, transcribed, nor subject to an oath.

SHENON: That wasn’t so surprising because Presidents are almost never required to be put under oath under that sort of questioning, and they usually don’t participate with blue ribbon commissions – at least not face to face. The White House probably did give unprecedented cooperation to the 9-11 Commission, but it had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do it.

They argued that they were just trying to protect the prerogatives of the President – this thing called “Executive Privilege.” Lot of the Commissioners believed they [The White House] were just trying to cover their backside and trying to make sure that no embarrassing information got out on how the White House had dealt with terrorist threats before 9-11.

ALI: Let’s talk about the Commission itself. We have this interesting character on board named Phil Zelikow, a bright scholar from University of Virginia, who served on the 2000 Election Reform Commission. First, let’s explain his relationship to Condi Rice.

SHENON: That relationship goes back many years. They had been young staffers together at the National Security Council with the White House. When the first President Bush leaves office, Zelikow and Rice stay in close touch and write a book together. After the second Bush comes to office, Condi Rice is named his National Security Advisor; she sets up the transition team for the National Security Council and brings on Zelikow to be on it. And Zelikow is given responsibility to look over the Counter-Terrorism Operations in the White House. One of the things he does is that he pretty much demotes Richard Clarke [Former Chief Counter-Terrorism Advisor and author of the book Against All Enemies], who becomes very famous later on. Those are just some of his ties to Rice and the White House.

ALI: You mention Zelikow had closer ties with the White House than what was originally disclosed to the public. He had written a report: “National Security Strategy of the United States,” published in September 2002. Explain this document and the importance of it concerning Zelikow’s “neutrality”?

SHENON: This document sort of turned military doctrine on its head and said that in the future the United States could invade a nation that did not necessarily pose a military threat to this country: it was called a pre-emptive war, or pre-emptive defense doctrine. It was pretty clear to everybody in September 2002 that it was written with Iraq in mind: it would be an intellectual justification for the invasion of Iraq. Now, when it came out in 2002, people didn’t know who the author was. We learn 2 years later when the 9-11 Commission was really coming close to the end with its investigation, that Zelikow was the principal author.

When that was found out, some of the staff wondered whether or not Zelikow ‘s efforts earlier in trying to tie Al Qaeda and Iraq – you know, whether he was motivated there by trying to justify a war he, in some way, set the path to.

ALI: This screams out “conflict of interest.” How come nobody else saw this?

SHENON: It sure screams it. I think a lot of the staffers saw the same thing. Certainly, some of the critics of the Commission, then and now, saw the same thing.

ALI: Help me with the timeline. When Zelikow was asked to write this report in 2002, how knee-deep was he in his 9-11 Commission responsibilities?

SHENON: It was published in September 2002, and this was months before the 9-11 Commission was even created, which was November 2002, and Zelikow came on in, I believe, January 2003.

ALI: Max Cleland, one of the first members appointed to the Commission, said he was going to resign based on Zelikow’s placement on the Commission, right?

SHENON: Right. Cleland was one of the 5 Democrats appointed to the Commission, and he leaves about a year later. He said he left because he was so frustrated with the potential that all of this was going to simply be a “white wash.”

ALI: Speaking of “white wash,” you make a pretty damning accusation that Zelikow had personal phone calls with Karl Rove during the investigation – 4 times I believe – and ordered his secretary to remove the logs of the phone calls. What was said between the two, and why the need to erase and remove the evidence?

SHENON: I can tell you what I’m told. Zelikow comes on the Commission, and everyone understands he has these potential conflicts of interests, and Zelikow promises the Commissioners that he is going to do his best to even avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest by really cutting off his unnecessary ties to the White House.

And then in June 2003, the phone ring in Zelikow’s office, the secretary picks up and it’s Karl Rove. And, she’s surprised by this, I mean, why is the Executive Director of the 9-11 Commission in touch with President Bush’s chief political operative? Then, Rove calls again the next day and he calls again a couple more times in September. It becomes known as a fact that these contacts are happening between the two, and staff becomes alarmed by this.

Now, Zelikow and the White House insist these were pretty completely innocent conversations that involved Zelikow’s old work with the University of Virginia, and at the University he ran a presidential history program, so maybe there was some reason for these two men to talk. But, if you think about it, it’s pretty alarming that Rove is in contact with Zelikow.

Then, Zelikow calls in his secretary and closes the door, and apparently tells her he doesn’t want her to keep telephone logs in the future of his contacts with anybody at the White House. She’s so upset by this, she goes to the chief lawyer of the Commission and reports it. And I talked to the chief lawyer, and he confirmed what happened.


ALI: Recently, Zelikow responded to your accusations with the following:

“I was authorized by the Commission to talk to White House officials regularly, as was the general counsel, Dan Marcus. But on this business of Rove, it’s a little ironic, since I don’t even really know Rove. We had two brief contacts that had to do with University of Virginia business, because I used to direct a presidential research center. In both cases, we handed off the issues to others. The university actually has records on this matter. I told Shenon all of this.”

Later, when defending allegations regarding his bullying nature and attempts at influencing the commission, Zelikow says, “Another member of the staff who plays a very prominent role in Shenon’s account wrote to all the commissioners, reached out to all of them, and described Shenon’s account as, quote, “a case study in hype.”

Respond to both of Zelikow’s statements please.

SHENON: I tell you that my book is just chalk full of anecdotes of Zelikow’s staffers believing Zelikow was bullying them for one reason or another. So, I find that a little hard to imagine that was what the second statement was in reference to.

But, on the first quotation with the phone logs and the contacts, I mean the book reports that he says he made innocent conversations regarding the University of Virginia – that’s all in my book. The fact that Zelikow saw no problem with having several contacts with the President’s political advisor at a time when Zelikow was already under suspicion for his ties with the White House, that does create an appearance problem. It sure did for a lot of members of the staff.

ALI: You’re saying he called four times, and he says he barely knows Rove. Is someone lying?

ZELIKOW: No, not necessarily. I can’t exactly parse out what he’s trying to say there, he said he doesn’t know Rove very well. That this is all involving University of Virginia business, and that’s in the book. That’s what he says.

ALI: I want to talk about some of the big players now. Let’s start with Vice President Cheney, who always has this stereotypical image of a man with his fingers always in the cookie jar; he’s always involved in everything. How is he involved, specifically, with this report? You cite an interesting example of how Cheney issued an unauthorized “Strike-down” order of the airplanes on 9-11 before they hit the towers. That’s an illegal action for a Vice President to take, right?

ZELIKOW: If you read between the lines of the 9-11 Report, they are pretty much saying they don’t believe what Cheney said regarding his actions on the morning of September 11th. Cheney is in the White House that day, and President Bush is in Florida. After the first hits in New York and Washington, Cheney issues an order to the Pentagon to begin to prepare the “shoot down” of the passenger planes if they approach the Capitol. Now, the Vice President doesn’t have military authority under the Constitution. If not the President deciding to order the military to do something, then that decision is supposed to be made by the Defense Secretary.

In this case, Cheney said he issued the order, because he had talked to the President and the President had authorized the “shoot down.” Now, the staff becomes very convinced over the course of the investigation that, no, the Vice President issued this order on his own. He didn’t talk to the President or get his approval. This order was almost certainly unconstitutional. Now, the President and Vice President tell the Commission otherwise, but if you read the report, you can see Commission suggests it doesn’t believe the Vice President.

ALI: In your book, and I’m paraphrasing now, you mention that many of the staffers did not have a high, valued opinion of Condi Rice. In fact, they believed she was of the most incompetent National Security Advisors in recent years. What’s the final analysis on Condi’s actions: how’d she do if you had to rate her performance?

SHENON: Not much analysis in the final report, which critics say is part of the problem. The central question remains between Condi Rice and her Counter Terrorism Director, Richard Clarke. He came forward and said, listen, Condi Rice and President Bush ignored terrorism warnings throughout 2001, months before 9-11.

Rice says, “No, no, no. We were acting promptly on these threats and taking them very seriously.” So, who was telling the truth: Clarke or Rice? The Commission doesn’t make a judgment at the end of the day. They only said, “Clarke says this, Rice says this, Clarke says this, Rice says this” without any judgment to where the truth was. But, the staff pretty much believes Clarke’s account was the truthful one.

There was a lot of concern on part of the 10 Commissioners, both Republican and Democrats, that Rice’s performance before 9-11 was incompetent or not far from it. She was such a rock star in Washington that nobody wanted to go up against her and make that allegation directly.

ALI: Why didn’t anyone want to confront her, or call her out basically on these blundering actions?

SHENON: Several reasons, I mean you hear her described as a “rock star.” She sort of rises above any allegations that she doesn’t do her job well. She’s a real celebrity in Washington, and people don’t want to attack someone like that. Number 2: I think a bunch of middle aged, white people find it difficult to go up against a very articulate, very poised, very attractive, African American woman. The appearances did not look good.

ALI: What was the fear they had if they had confronted her?

SHENON: That there was a sort of racial tension to this that everybody was sort of uncomfortable with.

ALI: Here’s a part that fascinates me the most. Let’s talk about Richard Clarke, the former Counter Terrorism Director. Here’s a guy who is basically doing his job, he comes in and hands in a report about a week before 9-11 saying, “listen, Al Qaeda is coming. Terrorists are going to strike.” Why such hostility and animosity towards his predictions, and why the rush to discredit him by the Administration?

SHENON: Well, the rush to discredit him is because he was so dangerous. He was essentially saying 9-11 didn’t have to happen, and that if the Bush Administration had acted on the intelligence that was sitting in front of them, there was at least a shot that 9-11 could’ve been prevented. In Bush’s re-election campaign, he was basically running as the decisive leader on terrorism. If Clarke was right and the White House bungled the intelligence and had some responsibility for 9-11, that could’ve sunk Bush’s election hopes.

ALI: Was it pure negligence on the part of the White House? Was it structural and procedural inadequacies and lack of communication between agencies, such as the CIA and FBI? How could such vital information just be ignored?

SHENON: It wasn’t being ignored in some places. Richard Clarke, I mean, wasn’t certainly ignoring it; he was at the White House sitting right there. It does appear that above Richard Clarke there wasn’t much interest in the subject. The new President saw terrorism as sort of a Clinton Administration issue that they weren’t interested in. Bush Administration was interested in missile defense, American relationship with Russia and China, rogue states like Korea and Iraq; they just couldn’t their arms around this concept of terrorism. And, many people would argue, we all paid a price for that.

ALI: What’s your take on Rudy Giuliani? Specifically, was he able to make New York secure and safe pre 9-11? Is his successful image as mayor during that time overblown?

SHENON: The Commissioners and the staff believe he did a really fine job on the day of 9-11 and the hours and days that followed. He really comforted the nation in a way that President Bush wasn’t able to do. But, the Commission investigators found that for the 8 years before that, Giuliani and his administration in New York really did shockingly little to prepare New York City for a terrorist attack. That seemed particularly upsetting since New York City was attacked before: it was attacked in 1993 when a bomb was set off at the World Trade Center. Why should anybody be shocked that 8 years later a related group of people would come back and attack the World Trade Center? The city did very little to prepare itself for that.

ALI: Here’s an interesting aspect regarding the makeup of the Commission, which is supposed to be neutral: 5 Republicans and 5 Democrats. But, there was this decision to make Henry Kissinger, of all people, the Chairman of the Commission; a man who is one of the most well connected people in Washington, and – as you mentioned – one of the most paranoid. So, why choose Kissinger?

SHENON: He was chosen by the White House, they could choose the Chairman. Certainly, the 9-11 families and the Bush Administration’s critics say that Kissinger was chosen because he was very close to the Bush family and the Republican party, and that he would “protect” the President in this 9-11 investigation.

ALI: You have this telling recounting of an episode where Kissinger spills coffee over himself, becomes flustered, and quickly ends the meeting when of the victim’s family members asks him about his connections to Saudi Arabia and the Bin Ladens. Let’s use this as a microcosm as Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Bin Ladens. Illuminate this relationship, because most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and the country is an exporter of Wahhabism. How deep does this history run?

SHENON: The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States runs real deep. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the oil supply U.S. gets from the Saudis. A lot of the big conspiracy theories that run to this day involve the actions of the Bush Administration, the Saudis, and Prince Bandar, and what went on. Specifically, what went on in Southern California, whether or not there were Saudi officials who were providing important logistical support to a couple of the hijackers who lived, really, in the open in San Diego a year before the attack. So, there remain a lot of unanswered questions in the report to this day about Saudi Arabia and the possibility that some people in the Saudi government were helping some of these bad guys in South California.

ALI: Did the final report gloss over this you think?

SHENON: The Commission’s staff, a bunch of really talented young investigators, became really concerned that there was a lot of evidence tying some elements of the Saudi government to this network in Southern California, this logistical support network. But, they were overwhelmed not by Zelikow but by their team leader, who demanded that there be a 100% proof of guilty before he was going to make an allegation in the final report. You know, when you’re dealing with an authoritarian government like Saudi Arabia and a shadowy terrorist group like Al Qaeda, it’s hard to get 100% proof of anything. So, a lot of that ended up on the cutting room floor.

ALI: Ok, so 9-11 happened nearly 7 years ago. The 9-11 Commission Report was finished nearly 4 years ago. You, yourself, mention the Report as the most authoritative and comprehensive document analyzing that event. Many will say, “Ok, it’s done. Move on. Why should we still care about this now? Why still keep digging?”

SHENON: A lot of reasons. One is that a lot of people who may have had some blame for 9-11, for having allowed 9-11 to occur are still in power in Washington. They were never ever held accountable for what they did. Maybe someday some of those people should be held accountable – certainly in the history books.

ALI: Name me some names.

SHENON: I think a lot of people have a lot of questions about Condi Rice. They have a lot of questions about the current leadership of the FBI. You know, at the end of all of this, not one person anywhere in the federal government was either fired or demoted for having bungled their jobs before 9-11. And Pearl Harbor? The Navy Commander in the Pacific and the Army Commanders were forced out of their jobs in disgrace: nothing like that for 9-11.

ALI: Finally, will the family of the victims ever get the whole truth?

SHENON: Like every big tragedy in American history, you’re probably never going to get the full truth. It’s probably going to be a judgment that history is going to have to make long after we’ve all passed from the scene.




FREE PAKISTAN: An Exclusive Interview with Imran Khan on today’s Parliamentary elections, the future of Musharaff, and the hope for a democratic Pakistan

Pakistani Politician Imran Khan
“Unless we change strategy, the future is in danger”
Correspondent Wajahat Ali manages to speak to Pakistani opposition politician Imran Khan on Monday’s parliamentary elections, the first in a post-Benazir Bhutto age.

After nearly a month’s delay due to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Pakistan’s contentious – some say “historic” – parliamentary elections were held on Monday amidst a sea of violence, unrest, and political instability. One anonymous insider tells me that “these elections are completely rigged, yaar. The results were already in last week. I really pray for Pakistan. There’s going to be a lot of trouble tomorrow.” His voice is dejected, cynical, and yet passionate and straining for hope.Another more popular and influential Pakistani voice is that of Imran Khan. One of Pakistan’s most well known personalities of the past twenty years, Khan first made his name as Pakistan’s winning cricket captain and sophisticated socialite. He then emerged as a worldly humanitarian and founder of Pakistan’s first cancer hospital.However, his newest role as the head of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e–Insaaf [the Movement for Justice political party] has cast him as one of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s most vocal and animated critics. He passionately – some say naively – advocates for Pakistan’s political reform and progression towards an enlightened democracy. After five hours of phone tag on Monday, I was able to speak with Imran on Pakisan’s political future after the ballots have been cast.
The polls in Pakistan for the general election are now officially closed. Here’s the question on everyone’s mind around the world: First, will these elections be free and fair? Second, will the results represent the pulse and wishes of the people?
KHAN: Number one, they are certainly not free and fair. Because the greatest pre-poll rigging ever in our history was done, where the whole State administration was pushing the pro-government, pro-Musharraf candidates. Every party has every day listed the ways the elections have been rigged for the past month. Secondly, it is the lowest ever voter turn out. In fact, I would say that 75% of the people have rejected the electoral process. They did not feel that if your Constitution is suspended, if 60% of your judges have been unconstitutionally sacked, your Chief Justice is under house arrest, then you cannot have free and fair election when the pre-conditions are not there. So, basically, people have rejected the election. If the people have come out to vote, then it is against pro-Musharraf candidates.
So, you’re completely convinced that it’s rigged against the pro-Musharraf candidates?

KHAN: You can just do any random sampling. You can see that people who are coming in – the PML-Q [Musharraf’s party] if it wins, no one will accept the results. No is going to accept the results.

Ok, so no one is going to accept the results. Here is the natural follow up question. Should we expect much violence and bloodshed following the announcement of the results?

KHAN: I think, As I said, there was a poll conducted and 58% of the people said that they would not accept the result if the PML-Q comes to power. Fifty eight percent! And they would go out and demonstrate. This is from a poll done recently.

I need your thoughts on today’s quotation by Musharraf, where he said, “Whatever the result, whatever the result, we will accept it with grace. Whoever is the prime minister, I will work with that person in a reconciliatory mode. We should end the confrontationist politics. Let’s enter into a conciliatory politics.” Do you believe him? Should the world believe him?

KHAN: No one in Pakistan believes him, because everyone knows he has gone back on his word so many times. He has no credibility. In the first election, in 2002, he said, “All I’m interested in is someone becomes Prime Minister, so I can play golf.” And, he did actually anything but that. Again, again, he’s making these statements, but he’s going to rig these elections to the point where he thinks his party can still win. There was a statement out in the paper in an interview he gave where he said he thinks MQM [a Pakistan political party not expected to win] and PML-Q will win the majority seats and will win the elections.

Well, according to the polls, that’s ridiculous.

KHAN: Absolutely. What I’m saying is what he says and what he’s trying to do is two different things. We’ve heard all this – he’s made these false promises so many times that no one trusts him anymore.

The two main opposition parties, now this is a rumor, suggested they unite against Musharraf’s party. This again is Benazir Bhutto’s PPP led by her husband Zardari and Nawaz Sharif’s [Pakistan’s former Prime Minister recently returned from exile]. They said if they could capture two thirds of the seats in parliament and form a coalition, then they would win a two-thirds majority in parliament and take steps to impeach Musharraf. Is a united front going to be successful against Musharraf? Or, like you said, all is rigged and all is lost?

KHAN: Well, if there was a two-thirds majority, if they were free and fair elections, they would get it. But, they are not free and fair elections, I’ll doubt they’ll get the majority. But, there’s always a fear in our minds that People’s Party [Bhutto’s party] might for the fourth time bail out Musharraf by doing a power sharing deal with him. Now, really, this is the next step. Are they going to do a power sharing deal with him?

That’s the question on my mind and most policy experts and pundits as well. Is Zardari going to do a power sharing deal? Will a power sharing deal be engineered between the United States, Zardari’s PPP, and Musharaff?

KHAN: Well, look, if [Zardari] does so, remember, not only will the People’s Party be destroyed, but anyone who now does a deal with Musharraf will destroy himself. If the U.S. backs Zardari – and people will know that if Zardari does a deal with Musharraf, they will know he’s doing a deal to get off his corruption cases [Zardari is affectionately known as “Mr. 10%” in Pakistan due the steep kickbacks he allegedly pocketed during his wife’s tenure]. And so, he will destroy his own party. I don’t think even People’s Party will accept him. [The] People’s Party won’t accept that deal.

Let’s ask a question for the layman. What are the results going to be tomorrow? What are we going to see?

KHAN: Well, I don’t know what the results are. It’s the lowest turn out. But, as we know, Musharraf did a referendum, and there was no one out to give votes, but Musharraf showed, and the election commission showed a 75% turnout! That’s even more than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s turnout! [Benazir Bhutto’s father, who was Pakistan’s popular and controversial Prime Minster, was hung by General Zia-al-Haq following a bloodless coup]. Therefore, no one trusts the results that the elections commissions are going to come up with. That’s why we feel it should’ve been an independent election commission. This election commission – no one has any faith in it.

“The West” has popularized the image of Benazir Bhutto and her party, The PPP [Pakistan People’s Party], as saviors of democracy in Pakistan. What is the truth behind that image?

KHAN: Well, I’m afraid [the] People’s Party has already bailed out Musharraf three times when he was sinking. They actually went against the democratic movement. We were all wanting the Constitution and the re-instatement of [the illegally sacked] judges, and People’s Party bailed him firstly by not resigning from their assemblies – so they legitimized his Presidential elections. Number two, they did not boycott the elections when Musharraf held this illegal, unconstitutional State of Emergency [in November 2007, Musharraf sacked critical judges, jailed attorneys, and shut down NGO’s and independent media] and he held elections under the Emergency. And number three, when Benazir was assassinated, all parties wanted to boycott the elections and first find out who killed her. And Zardari wanted to go ahead with the elections again to save Musharraf. If they save him, this will be the fourth time they will save Musharraf, so I don’t think the rank and file of People’s Party will accept it. He will damage the People’s Party if he does a deal now.

You’re an insider to Pakistan’s political scene. I want your opinion on this. What is America’s interest in supporting Musharraf, and not only him, but also in supporting a power sharing deal between him and Zardari’s PPP?

KHAN: Because Musharraf has sold the idea to the Americans – he has sold the myth that he is the only one who can fight the U.S. “war on terror” and he is indispensable. Therefore, the Bush Administration is blindly backing Musharraf, and as a result, you see the situation where Musharaff is completely unpopular in Pakistan. Everyone wants him out. What we’re seeing is that the U.S. administration is backing Musharraf and wanting a civilian façade, which is why they wanted a People’s Party deal with him.

Here’s what everyone says in America: “If not Musharraf, then it’ll be the Taliban or Al Qaeda taking over Pakistan, so we should choose the lesser of evils.”

KHAN: This is an example of Musharraf propaganda. He’s selling himself to the West that he is a bastion against fundamentalism and Taliban-ization. It is a complete myth. If you look at Pakistan’s electoral history, even the religious parties were not extreme; even they have hardly got any votes. Whenever we’ve had general elections, they’ve always been beaten. Today, Maulana Fazlur Rahman fighting in the name of MMA [the right wing, conservative religious party], he’s taking a bashing, he’s going to barely survive according to the opinion polls. So, people in this country are moderate. Actually, who’s fostering extremism has always been military dictatorships. Whenever we’ve had growth in extremism it’s always been under a military dictator. Whenever you’ve had people who have been allowed to vote, the free and fair vote has always marginalized the extremists.

You know Pakistan’s image in the world. CNN labeled it as “Terror Central” and the Economist called it “The Most Dangerous Nation on Earth.” You have bomb blasts and attacks last week and this week at polling stations, you have kidnappings and disappearances of your diplomats, etc. So how do you convince the world that extremism and violence is not the real face of Pakistan? That Pakistan is indeed moderate under the weight of all this evidence?

KHAN: First of all, the United States backed a dictator [General Zia, Pakistan’s ruler under Martial Law from 1977 to 1988] who took us into the Afghan jihad – never consulting the people of Pakistan. CIA and Pakistan’s ISI trained these people to fight the Soviet occupation in the art of terrorism. Once the Soviets left, Pakistan was lumbered with these people, these guerilla fighters. Then, this other dictator [Musharraf] then takes us to start eliminating these people. We never went in the first Afghan jihad with the backing of the people of Pakistan. We never went into the second, front line state against terror with the backing of the people of Pakistan. Both were military dictators.

Now, thanks to the way Musharraf has participated in the U.S. war on terror, where Pakistan is killing its own people through helicopter gun ships and bombing villages in the tribal areas – there is a backlash. And that backlash is what’s making Pakistan a dangerous place. The moment we have a genuine, democratic government, and they start talking to people and they start negotiating with people and holding dialogue rather than talking with these bullets and bombs, we will again go back to a normal country.

And I’m sad to say that it is the U.S. backing of a military dictator that has gotten us into this mess. It’s the military dictator that got us in there. If we had a democratic government, we wouldn’t have been in this, because our decisions would’ve been much better than what Musharraf has done. Of course, we should’ve always backed the U.S. in this war against terror. But, not the way, blindly following every dictate and now getting ourselves into this situation where our country’s own existence is in threat. Now Pakistan, a country that had nothing to do with 9-11, we now are fighting for our existence. And unless we change strategy, the future is in danger.

The natural question then is how can one get autonomy for Pakistani citizens? How do you bring democracy to this country that is currently under the world’s microscope?

KHAN: The only way, the only way forward is to have the judges reinstated. Then, they give independence to the media and the election commission. Free and fair elections. That’s the only way out for Pakistan.

How do you get out under the thumb of the military? Is it at all possible?

KHAN: If you have an independent powerful judiciary – that is the way you get out of the military’s thumb. They will make the military act according to the Constitution.

Several critics of Pakistan say all this is an example of Pakistan acting as a failed state, and this proves that Pakistan should have never undergone the 1947 Partition with India. Because, well, look at them, Pakistanis are now killing themselves. Is this an accurate assessment?

KHAN: Absolute nonsense! Pakistan is a very viable state. We’ve had a problem because the military kept interfering in our democratic process. We never went through a trial and error period where we could have evolved, where our democracy could have evolved. Now, I think we have, in a way, a very fortunate situation where it looks as if we are finally going to move towards a democratic system the moment our judges are reinstated. And then, Pakistan has a very bright future.

Pretend by some magic, you’ve become Pakistan’s Prime Minster, and you’re given control and autonomy. What would be the first immediate steps and actions you would take to change Pakistan’s current course?

KHAN: I would first of all have rule of law and institutionalize the independence of the judiciary. Secondly, I would have an education emergency in Pakistan. Thirdly, I would have an employment emergency. Finally, I would change the economic policies to change it from an elitist system, but change it to make sure that the priority becomes the common man: the bottom 40% of the population. Ok?

Can I get a last question?

KHAN (voice trailing): Ok, I’ve got to go. Khuda Hafiz [May God protect you].

Khuda Hafiz [May God protect you].

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

PAKISTAN IS BURNING: An exclusive interview with Steve Coll





steve_collclauren_shay_lavin.jpg An Interview With Steve Coll on Pakistan, the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and Bush’s Foreign Policy

ALI: Benazir Bhutto was assassinated over a month ago; a suicide bomber near Peshawar killed 13 people this week; two officials with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission were kidnapped and a Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan disappeared at the Khyber Pass, and you have General elections in a week. Is the Economist correct in proclaiming Pakistan “the most dangerous nation on Earth,” or is that an overblown statement?

COLL: Well, something is afoot in Pakistan that is really dangerous for Pakistanis. There is a real insurgency coming out now that the country has never experienced before, and it’s aimed at the Pakistani state and it’s gaining ground. It’s been cooking up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for a long while, certainly in the last several years it’s been gathering strength.

The more recent expansion of the insurgents into mainland provinces has particularly been in the North West Frontier Province; it’s a really striking change. I’ve been coming and going to Pakistan for over 20 years and traveled in the Frontier, and it’s different now. I don’t think the insurgents are anywhere near a path to seizing power in Pakistan. Although, you can’t rule out the possibility that they won’t be able to organize some coup attempt in the next 3 or 4 years. But it really isn’t encouraging because they’ve been gaining, and the State has been losing in some of these areas.

ALI: Many people in America don’t know about the four different provinces of Pakistan. You’ve spent significant time in the two northern provinces, the NWFP and Balochistan regions, bordering Afghanistan. Explain to me why these provinces, more than any other, are susceptible to hard line, extremist ideologies and personalities? Why is this an impossible region to not only reform but also infiltrate either via Pakistani or American military forces?

COLL: Well, it’s been the site since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since 1979, there has been a deliberate buildup, first with American and Saudi support and then later with the Pakistani army in the lead, to build up Islamist militias that have been equipped, armed, and funded to fight guerilla wars in Afghanistan. The accumulative effects of these programs in these border regions have radicalized and spread Islamist ideology and empowered radical clerics in places where they didn’t hold such unrivaled powers in the past.

These are areas, especially in the NWFP area in particular, dominated by tribally organized Pashtuns who are very conservative, very independent people who have a long history of governing themselves and rejecting outside influences – this dates back to the [British] Imperial period. Their societies, while very conservative in the cultural sense, hadn’t been as radicalized by international Islamist trends as they have now, and that’s a result of the 25 years of war fighting as much as anything else.

So, the Pakistani state in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in particular was not very much present and that was by a constitutional design. It’s difficult for any government of Pakistan to suddenly decide to take these places over; where no imperial power has ever succeeded in doing so, and where the Pakistani state’s bargain was it would govern from a distance.

You know it’s very interesting that you hear in the FATA now that there’s quite a lot of appetite to be integrated into Pakistan. This is not a backwards place, although it is very poor and very isolated and its social and health indicators are very low. But, it is affected by globalization just like any other place in the world. They have uncles in Dubai and in the Gulf, and they are ready to be a part of Pakistan, many people are, but how do you pull that off politically? I don’t know.

ALI: You’re this American, white journalist going into the tribal regions of the NWFP in Pakistan. What were your experiences with these Pakistanis? Were they mistrusting, or open and hospitable?

COLL: Pakistan is a very hospitable place. I feel very comfortable there. I recognize that I might not recognize, in any kind of Danny Pearl way, where I had crossed into some territory that’s not hospitable. I think I’d be the last person to notice it. But, I try to be careful in the sense I’m always with the people who I know and trust and I trust they won’t betray me. I’ve never had any trouble.

But, I would say what’s happening from a foreign journalist point of view is that you wouldn’t really want to run into any Algerians, Uzbeks, or Saudis, they won’t be hospitable [in Pakistan’s NWFP.] And they are likely to execute you. There’s a new generation of younger Taliban who seem willing to kidnap and in some cases execute some people whom they consider to be apostates. That would certainly include white skinned foreigners like me. Mostly, it’s trying to stay out of the way of this international brigade.

ALI: Let’s talk about the triptych relationship between the Pakistani Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States. How has the Taliban made such a resurgent comeback in the Afghanistan – Pakistan region and what does this, if at all, speak of our Anti-terrorism and Iraq war efforts? Is this what you’d call a blowback or instead an independent phenomenon germinating on its own in that region?

COLL: I think it’s a combination of a failure of American foreign and counter terrorism policies that I think the Bush Administration, reluctantly, would acknowledge. Now the Pakistani state is directly threatened by Islamist forces the Bush Administration thought they had under control after the fall of the Afghan Taliban.

I think the cause of the Pakistani Taliban emergence has a lot of factors contributing to it. There is American policy and our blind support of President Musharaff, who turned out to be an ineffective leader of counter insurgency and pacification efforts in Pakistan – that was one mistake.

Musharaff’s rejection of plural politics, his inability to find partners in Pakistani democracy was another failure of his and of American support for him. I think the President’s Administration and the U.S. was really distracted by the Iraq War and really stopped paying attention [to Pakistan] until things reached a crisis.

As you know, big government has got a lot of funding, lot of people going to work every day thinking of foreign policy, but it’s remarkable how the Iraq War has drawn off so much of the capacity of the United States, not just financial and physical capacity such as the number of vehicles and uniforms, and blankets, but, it’s the attention span of the government. Every day, every meeting, the whole machinery of the Administration is drawn towards Iraq. As a result, this problem drifted, and if Musharaff had turned out to be a brilliant and effective partner then the fact the United States was so badly distracted would not matter so much. As it was, however, Musharaff was losing his grip on the country at the same time the Bush Administration was distracted with the war.

ALI: Let’s talk about these upcoming elections. Reports are surfacing that the PPP’s Zardari [Benazir Bhutto’s husband] and Nawaz Sharif [Pakistan’s former Prime Minister who returned in the fall from exile] are talking of a united front against Musharraf’s allies. What is the likely outcome of this election? Will it be free and fair? What’s the pulse of the people and will the elections represent their desires?

COLL: The best evidence about the last question is provided by the most recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, which despite its name is pretty non partisan, civil society oriented, polling organization, who have polled pretty consistently in Pakistan. While polling is not a perfect science or art, as Americans have realized in this election season, it’s probably a pretty good approximation of public opinion in Pakistan. And Pakistanis are political creatures, and I think they know what they’re saying when they express their opinions.

By and large what it shows is an enormous amount of support for the PPP [Bhutto’s party] at about 50%, a number higher than I would’ve guessed. It shows PML-Nawaz [Nawaz Sharif’s party] at about 20-30% and shows PML-Q [Musharaff’s allies] way down, I mean, less than 20%. Musharaff’s personal popularity is at an all time low.

What’s important about the poll is that it sets a benchmark by which the results will be measured by the Pakistanis themselves. If the results are way out of line with what that poll shows then the inference will be obvious that a “fix” was put in. But, it also puts a lot of pressure on Musharaff’s government not to permit manipulations that produce results that are way out line with this polling. That’s why it’s clever of whoever scheduled the polls to essentially bracket this election with this information.

I think it must be discouraging and frustrating for Musharaff’s political allies that they have in fact fallen so low. And how they will react to that predicament and how their supporters in the military and intelligence bureaucracy will react is the big question for the next week or two.

I think they’ve been watching what’s happening in Kenya and they know that an illegitimate election that is rejected by a party as large and street oriented as the PPP could be a dangerous event. One hopes they will let the elections go forward. There is always, of course, rigging in Pakistani elections, as it is in India elections, when it comes to the local levels. Candidates figure out how to get 500 people together, put them in a bus, drive them around, and make them vote 10 times. You can’t have a perfect election. But, you need to have an election where those types of local manipulations are awash at the end of the day, and you have a result that is at least broadly responsive to public opinion.

ALI: Is Musharaff going to step down if he loses? Or, will he pull some dictatorship card and declare a State of Emergency again? What do you think he’s going to do?

COLL: I don’t know, but he has secured his 5-year Presidential term even though the next National Assembly is likely to reject that and agitate. That’s what he used the State of Emergency to do in the fall; it was to say, “Hey, I’m around, and you’re going to have to deal with me.” Even if he, essentially, allows his civilian political allies to go down in this election, he’d be tempted to keep himself in power as civilian president by negotiating with PPP’s Zardari. And, this is a cynical point of view that Musharaff and his people around him believe that Zardari is a guy “we can do business with.” [Zardari] has a reputation for being opportunistic in the past, and “we’ll” [Musharaff and his allies] be able to figure out a way to give him what he wants, the cabinets that he wants, give him the access to government that he wants, and by that “we’ll” buy some peace.

But by now, I think Zardari knows that’s his reputation. So, he may decide he’ll defy Musharaff and play it a different way by forcing Musharaff’s resignation. But, I think he’ll be under a lot of pressure from his colleagues in his party to come up with an approach that, first of all, the international community regards as responsible. Second of all, that gives his senior party people access to government, because they’ve been out of power for a long time, and they’re hurting.

So, I think Musharaff could figure out a way to hang on with the PPP government. I hope not in the sense that I feel his unpopularity is so strong that it is a source of instability for the country. And I think if he loves Pakistan as much as he says he does, if he wants to defend its integrity and promote its prosperity as much as he says it does, he really ought to get out of the way at this point.

ALI: I want to talk about Bhutto’s assassination. We heard a lot here in U.S. that she was the best and only hope for a democratic reform in Pakistan. You have an interesting quote in your most recent New Yorker article describing your last meeting and conversation with Benazir. You wrote:

“This was vintage Benazir: perfect pitch liberalism and at the same time, formulation barely distinguishable from the American foreign policy of the moment.”

So, questions, what was American foreign policy in regards to promoting Bhutto in Pakistan, and was this alleged relationship with the United States the cause of her untimely death?

COLL: The answer to the first part of the question is that the Bush Administration in particular wanted to use Bhutto to save Musharaff – initially. I think the aggregate effect of the policy was a way to use her as way to shore up Musharaff rather than to develop a more broadly based approach to democracy promotion in Pakistan. She allowed herself to play that role. Her primary interest wasn’t pleasing the Bush Administration; it was her interest to return to power and return to Pakistan. She saw herself as using the U.S. in order to achieve her goals and the goals of her party. But, it was an instrumental relationship in the sense that it was dominated by how each party could use the other to accomplish their own goals, rather than a deep and sustainable approach to trying to revitalize Constitutional democracy in Pakistan

Did this kill her? There were lots of things going on at the same time as I described in my New Yorker article. But, I mean the ambivalence the United States had about her, the mixed feelings they had about her, did, I think, contribute to the lack of security she had at the ground. Americans would say things like, “How could you hold us responsible for her security? After all, we did everything we could to warn her about the threats she would face! We met with Musharaff and asked him repeatedly to provide security and so forth.”

Ok, those are reasonable defenses, but I really don’t think it is entirely convincing. Because when the United Stated wants to protect the leader of an ally government who might not be able to protect him or herself, it gets the job done. Look at the government in Iraq, in the context of the suicide bombings, most of the national leaders have remained safe and the United States has played an instrumental role in devising security regimes that have kept them safe. Yes, they [the leaders] end up isolated in many cases, but they’re safe.

ALI: Karzai for example. [Hamid Karzai the President of Afghanistan.]

COLL: Karzai –an even better example! I mean Karzai was flanked by American military bodyguards for a long while and then they handed him off to diplomatic security services, and the United States still plays a crucial role in keeping him safe. Well, one can say,
he is an elected leader of a country who made a request to the head of a government, that’s different with the case of an opposition leader [like Bhutto.]”

I mean, come on, if you really wanted to get it done, if it was really an urgent priority, I think the United States could’ve done more. I think it’s entirely reasonable for Bhutto’s family, friends, allies, and supporters to feel aggrieved that the United States did not do more to ensure she had the basic, technical security of someone, who took the physical risks she was taking, deserved.

ALI: Who do you think killed Bhutto? She named some names before her death and ultimately blamed Musharraf about his indifference in an earlier prescient email to her friend essentially foreshadowing her death. What’s the evidence suggesting who killed her?

COLL: Of course an obvious answer to the question is that a suicide attacker killed her and that suicide attacker was almost certainly Al Qaeda, or Pakistani Taliban, or some affiliated sub-cell that seems to be a Pakistani national, but we don’t really know.

It isn’t who was at that moment standing in front of her ready to detonate an explosive device to assassinate her. That isn’t the most important question. The real question is how did that attacker reach her? By what safe houses? By what logistical support? With what money? From what camp? What is the circumstances surrounding that camp? Who is aware of the existence of that camp? To what extent has the Pakistani State, at any level, been involved in protecting the organization from which that suicide bomber arose?

I think those are questions she had in her mind after she was first attacked in Karachi. It was, in a way, an accurate forecast of her own death. She was killed by Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban. But that isn’t the end of the story. I do think the Pakistani government themselves in their reaction harbored a guilty knowledge that they weren’t involved, almost certainly, in an active plan to kill her, but they were probably implicated by some of these contextual questions. So, they’ve been very careful in controlling the investigation. If it turns out that the camp from which this particular suicide bomber emerged was in fact known to the army, or had in the past collaborated with the army, or did have an ISI [Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency] handler of some kind, then they don’t want an independent investigation to these types of questions.

ALI: Let’s talk about the power of the ISI and Pakistan’s military in dominating and spearheading the domestic and foreign policy of that country. Are they aligned with extremist, Anti-American members partial to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda? I mean the Red Mosque was just 1 mile away from ISI headquarters and it was stockpiled with weapons, so how could they miss it unless the ISI were somehow supporting the extremist students who took over the school? What’s your take on the ISI and the Military?

COLL: Certainly, there is no doubt that the ISI has a continuing relationship with some Islamist militant groups on Pakistani soil. The most obvious relationship is with the Kashmiri oriented groups, which still operate, more or less, openly. You have the Lakshe Tayyiba, which operates with its bank accounts; they have a big campus outside Lahore; they operate many, many offices around the country. Now, that’s not Al Qaeda, but it’s an organization whose members have sometimes overlapped with some of the groups in the West and some members of these groups were present in the Red Mosque [during the Red Mosque standoff between extremist students and Pakistan’s army leaving more than hundred, mostly students, dead.]. So, that’s the most obvious sort of collaboration.

There’s also no doubt that the ISI has continued to tolerate and protect the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. Their relationship with the Afghan Taliban has bled with their relationship with the Pakistani Taliban. As to Al Qaeda, the smaller group of mostly Arab and Uzbek fighters who are led by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, I don’t think there is much evidence of a current relationship between ISI and Al Qaeda. There may be individuals within ISI who had such a relationship, but the institutional relationship isn’t too strong.

First of all, Al Qaeda is very suspicious of the ISI. They think ISI is an instrument of the Americans. Nobody who is trying to protect Osama bin Laden from getting caught is going to tell the ISI where he is. Just in historical terms, Al Qaeda’s relations with the ISI have been more indirect; they did collaborate on training camps for Kashmiri groups back in the early 90’s. It’s not anything like the relationship the ISI has with Kashmiri groups or some of the Taliban groups.

ALI: We have one of the most interesting elections in recent times with the tightly contested Democratic race between Obama and Clinton. We know now that McCain is all but sealed as the Republican nominee and he’s a hardliner who doesn’t mind if we’re in Iraq for another 100 years. Clinton also voted for the Iraq War and the strong resolution against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Obama, now infamously, took heat for saying he’d use military intervention in Pakistan if necessary. What should we expect any different in our foreign policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan if Clinton or Obama are elected President?

COLL: I think some of the answers are clear enough even though you wouldn’t be able to know it from the campaign trail. Overall, I don’t think you’d see a dramatic change. I think they would both attempt to rebalance U.S. aid to Pakistan to emphasize civil society, education, infrastructure, safer drinking water, poverty alleviation, alongside support they would continue to provide to the Army for specific operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They would attempt to support Constitutional democracy more explicitly than the Bush Administration did. They would be very skeptical about Musharaff and his role, but they wouldn’t force him out in some way that would look heavy handed. They would leave that to the Pakistani Army to decide. I don’t think they would offer the same rhetorical personal support for Musharaff that Bush has offered.

Overall, the basic idea will be that U.S. support for Pakistan is for the long run and we are not going to repeat this pattern of “coming and going;” that we’re going to build trust, we’re going to help the Pakistani Army defeat this insurgency. And, that we’re going to change strategy and not be so militaristic, but try to take a broader approach. That’s basically what both of them as Presidents would do.

There are some questions around the edges I’m not sure of. [There’s the question of] a return to policies of “conditionality of U.S. aid to the Pakistani Army”, where we would threaten to withhold aid to them if they didn’t do what we wanted. There’s been a debate whether or not that approach has been effective or not, and that approach has backfired in the past. But, there are many people, and I’m one of them, who think that the past policies of “conditionality of U.S.A aid” are so discredited in Pakistani eyes that you really ought to be cautious on using that method again. Because, you’re really going to anger everybody and not accomplish anything.

ALI: You have a book coming out on Bin Laden in the Spring [The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century], and I’m assuming you’ve spent significant time researching his history, politics, childhood and ideology. How does Bin Laden and others like Zawahiri, products of education and economic well-being, transform from a lanky, well intentioned son of a multi-millionaire to the most wanted terrorist on Earth? Is it accurate to simply think of him in black and white terms as a Jihadist superhero defending the oppressed, according to a few Muslims hardliners, or the Arab manifestation of the devil himself according to everyone else?


COLL: (Laughs.) He’s a really complicated figure. In some ways, he isn’t complicated because he’s so stubborn and not very self-reflective. As guerilla leaders go, he’s nowhere near as interesting as Che Guevara, or someone who murdered quite a lot of his own people like Mao. He’s kind of a one-note thinker and in that way he’s not very interesting. In many other ways, he’s fascinating because he’s a modern man. He grew up in a very modern setting. He was always around and interested in technology and the technologies of globalization whether they were telephones or satellite phones or airplanes and jets. All of the tools of modernity that we’ve all gotten so used to. He fully embraced them, but he just adapted them to a different cause.

After he went and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, he developed a vision of himself as a leader. But, he might’ve just faded away if he hadn’t been this modern figure who knew how to use technology and build diverse coalitions around him. The other thing that is very interesting about him is the lesson his father provided him about diversity. His father ran these multi-ethnic, multi linguistic labor camps in the Arabian desert back in the day when he was building his fortune as a construction magnate. That’s very un-Saudi. Saudis tend to be very clan oriented, very concerned about genealogy and bloodlines, and very racialist, and I don’t want to say racist, but [they have] racialist concerns about racial profiles.

The Bin Ladens lived in multi ethnic, multi linguistic Jeddah, big, sort of, “men of Mecca,” in the sense of Mecca as a gathering place for the whole Muslim community in all its diversity. So, Bin Laden, much more than many of his Egyptian or other colleagues, was always comfortable with a many splendors of following: lots of different people, lots of different places, lots of different languages. He never exhibited bias towards people’s national origin or their social or economic status the way his colleagues did. That made him a great leader. That combined with his comfort with technology made him quite effective.

Of course in the United States, he is just seen as someone who lives in a cave, and I think that is a complete misunderstanding of his success.

ALI: Right, we think he’s just chilling and releasing music videos from Tora Bora Caves.

COLL: (Laughs.) Right, right.

ALI: So, what’s up with this guy, Bin Laden? Is he alive? Dead? Is he in the caves? I mean, where is he?

COLL: Yeah, I think he’s alive, I mean, he’s living where, more or less, everyone thinks he’s living which is up around the border, the territory around North Waziristan, where I guess he would spend some of his time and days. These are people he’s known for 20 years. This is his territory. He’s lived there for a long while. The area is deeply radicalized. It’s entirely Taliban country. So, he’s amongst friends. I think he moves around and probably very few people know where he is at any given moment, and the only people are those in his inner circle. But, he’s obviously in touch with Al Qaeda’s media operations to put these videos together. They obviously have enough comfortable space to operate in to pull these things off without getting caught.

ALI: You think anyone is going to catch him?

The history with these things is eventually somebody takes the money usually. In his case, people have been reluctant because he is seen as such a mystical figure, larger than life. In that part of the world, it’s sort of hard to act as individual if you are, essentially, known as the person that ratted out Osama Bin Laden, then your village, your family, and your clan is going to suffer even if you are going to end up in Arizona with 25 million dollars. So, it’s hard to motivate people to accept the reward money. But, usually, that’s how it ends, and that’s how it ends in the past. I think it’s sort of 50/50 whether someone will walk in and rat him out, or whether he’ll eventually just die of old age or some horrible disease of having to run around and hide all the time.

ALI: O.K., last question. A genie comes to you and says, “Coll, congratulations, you’re in charge of shaping U.S. policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan for a day. You’ve got 2 magic wishes in the form of policy changes you can make. Go for it.” What would you do to ensure the world doesn’t go up in flames in the next 10 years?

COLL: (Laughs.) First thing I’d do is invest in a stable Pakistani democracy. I think that’s the only way that Pakistan will realize its own potential. I think Pakistan has a lot of potential. Between what is likely to be India’s enormous economic and political success and with the money flowing to the Gulf these days, Pakistan is well positioned to develop a truly prosperous middle class, democratic, constitutional society where the army is still there, but like Turkey, it’s out of the way. I think the United States can adjust its policies so as to make that more likely; we can sure do a lot better than what we are doing now to facilitate it.

My second wish would be to take on the problem of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a whole. Right now, all of U.S. policy is stove piped as if these were two completely separate problems, but of course their destinies are tied up with one another. So, the United States, its allies, and its international partners and Europe should respond to this as it is: a regional problem. It’s going to be difficult to get it done. But, that’s a place to start anyway.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at


israel_lobby_home_book.jpgFebruary 11, 2008

A Discussion with Walt and Mearsheimer

The Power of the Israel Lobby


“Let’s move over here–in the corner. It’ll be better for us to talk in private. Or else some people might get the wrong idea,” chuckles John Mearsheimer, a Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and co-author of the incendiary book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

The controversial book’s co-author, Stephen Walt, an Academic Dean at the prestigious Harvard Kennedy School of Government, smiles and concurs as we all find comfortable seats in the back end, lounge corner of San Francisco’s Prescott Hotel for our exclusive, in-depth interview.

“The wrong idea” according to the authors is the inaccurate labeling and smearing of their reputation as “Anti-Semites.” According to them and their supporters, they’ve unfairly earned this slander solely due to their detailed and systematic criticism of an “Israel Lobby” and its alleged actions in greatly influencing U.S. foreign policy in the volatile Middle Eastern regions of Israel and Palestine.

The Anti-Defamation League, which retaliated by publishing “The Deadliest Lies: The Myth of the Israeli Lobby” on the same release date as “The Israel Lobby,” lambasted the professors’ work as an “anti-Jewish screed: a relentless assault in scholarly guise.” However, talking to them in person and later observing their demeanor at a speech followed by question and answer session held at U.C. Berkeley, the two professors both appeared very calm, rational, collected and lacking the stereotypical, passionate vitriol and acidic anger unfortunately espoused by all parties associated with the endless “Israel-Palestine conflict.”

For anyone with even the slightest experience in dealing with the “Israel-Palestine” issue, whether that experience be academic, polemical, political, or even a friendly discussion over coffee, it becomes glaringly obvious the topic is contentious, divisive and, dare I say, explosive. To call it a “powder keg” of a situation would be a glorious understatement.

It is with that understanding and assumption that I conducted this interview in order to achieve, if it all possible, a rational discussion about a tragic conflict producing irrational acts and consequences.

The following is the unedited conversation and interview with the authors regarding their controversial thesis, their critics and detractors, the stifling of academic dissent, foreign policy in the Middle East, and the resulting profound implications for the United State’s relationship with the Muslim World in the 21st century.

ALI: I guess life must have been boring for you guys, and you had nothing interesting going on. So, you decided to spice things up, right? What goes on in your head that makes you get up one day and decide, “You know what? I think we’re going to tackle the “Israeli Lobby.”

(Both laugh.)

WALT: We wrote this not because our lives were boring, but because we were concerned with what was happening with American foreign policy and specifically American Middle East policy. We felt there was an aspect that wasn’t get that much attention in the U.S; the influence of the “Israeli Lobby” was the elephant in the room that no one was willing to talk about. We believe this was having unfortunate affects on the U.S., other countries, and Israel itself, and no one, especially mainstream circles, would speak or write about it. We thought we were in positions of relative security and if we didn’t [talk about it], then no one else would.

MEARSHEIMER: Nevertheless, we fully understood we were grabbing the third rail, and pro-Israeli forces in the U.S. would come after us in a serious way. We’ve not been surprised by the reaction to our piece here in the U.S.

ALI: Ok, for the unacquainted, let’s become familiar with the central thesis of “The Israel Lobby,” lay it out for me and the readers. There’s this group you label the “Israel Lobby.” Who are they and why should we, as average Joe Americans, even care about them?

WALT: The Lobby isn’t a single organization. It is a loose coalition of different groups and individuals that actively work and try to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction and try to maintain a special relationship with the U.S. and Israel. This group includes some predominantly Jewish American groups, such as AIPAC, the Anti Defamation League, The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. It also includes non-Jewish groups like Christian Evangelicals, such as Christians United for Israel. This is not a single organization, and they don’t agree on every issue, but they all want to maintain that special relationship. It’s an interest group like other groups we have in U.S.

Interest groups are part of American politics. So, there’s nothing illegitimate or wrong with what the Israeli Lobby is doing. But, like some other interest groups, when they have profound impact on U.S. foreign policy, they may be leading to foreign policies that aren’t in the interest of the country as a whole. So, Americans should be concerned about this and other interest groups if they are leading to policies that are contrary to the American national interest.

MEARSHEIMER: American should care about the Israeli Lobby, because it has a profound effect on the shape of U.S.­ Middle East policy. We believe by and large that effect is negative. In other words, the Lobby is pushing policies not in the U.S. interest and not in Israel’s interest either. The best example of that is the Lobby’s influence has with regards to the occupation and the building of settlements in the West Bank. The U.S. has opposed settlement building since the Israelis first conquered the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1967. It has been the official policy of every president since Lyndon B. Johnson to oppose settlement building, but no president has been able to put any meaningful pressure on Israel to stop building settlements. The principle reason is due to the Lobby, which goes to great lengths to make sure no President can force Israel to do something that it doesn’t want to do. Since Israel doesn’t want to end the settlements, no President has been able to put an end to the settlement building.

What are the consequences that result from this? It is one of the main reasons why the U.S. is deeply hated in the Arab and Islamic world. It is one of the main causes of America’s terrorism problem. It is clear that Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, one of the main architects of the 9-11 attacks, were deeply battered by American policies in the Occupied Territories [in Palestine.] So, we as Americans should care how the Lobby influences U.S.- Middle East policies, because it sometimes influences them in a way which is not in the best interests of the U.S.

ALI: However, doesn’t the publication of your book, the media publicity blitz surrounding it, the release of Jimmy Carter’s “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” and Norman Finkelstein’s very public criticism of Alan Dershowitz’s “Case for Israel,” all provide examples that a healthy debate about Israel does indeed exist and the Lobby is either ineffective or not as influential as you suggest?

WALT: Nobody believes that the discourse in the U.S. is 100% pro-Israel. That is completely impossible. Our point in the book and our publication of the book doesn’t contradict this, we contend that conversation and public discourse in mainstream media circles is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. It’s not to say occasionally you won’t have other voices out there. But the fact is we had trouble getting our original article published in the U.S., and we have had some coverage, but relatively little, regarding our book in mainstream media circles.

We’ve seen various efforts made to try and minimize the exposure by getting events cancelled when were supposed to speak about this, or having media arrangements fall through. So, it’s not to say you can’t occasionally get critical views out there, but the balance of coverage on the Middle East coverage is pro-Israel. But, if you look at the critical reviews of the book, the reviews in England have been uniformly positive. Generally, all across Europe as well. There have been a number of positive reviews in Israel itself. But the mainstream reviews in U.S. [is a different story], for example the Washington Post, the New York Times Sunday Book Review; the New Republic had a vicious attack comparing us to Osama Bin Laden and Ahmadinejad. So, getting favorable reviews, including in Israel, is relatively easy outside of the United States.

MEARSHEIMEHR: Based on reading our book, one would predict we would get hardly any positive reviews in the United States, and a lot of positive reviews outside of U.S., including Israel. That prediction has held up very well. We have been consistently slammed in the mainstream media inside The United States, and garnered lots of positive reviews outside the U.S., which is what the book would predict.

ALI: Is this proof of the New-Anti-Semitism? Is this the smoking gun evidence that the whole world is ganging up against Israel and American Jewry?

MEARSHEIMER: The fundamental flaw with that argument is that the book has received favorable treatment in Israel itself. One of the most positive reviews was written in Haaretz itself written by Daniel Levi who is an Israeli Jew. The most favorable review overall was written by an Israeli, Yuri Avnery. This is not to say that there are not people in Israel or U.S. who see our book as evidence of the The New Anti-Semitism. We don’t believe there is a New Anti-Semitism. We believe there is not a lot of Anti-Semitism in the U.S. or in Europe itself. And that charge is leveled at critics of Israel like us and Jimmy Carter, because it is an effective way of marginalizing and sidelining us. We are not Anti-Semites, Jimmy Carter is not an Anti-Semite, and the vast majority of people who like our book are not Anti-Semites, in fact many of them are Jews.

ALI: Briefly describe your initial journey towards publication at the Atlantic Monthly. Why did they ultimately reject the draft, and how did you find a publication home at London Review of Books?

MEARSHEIMER: Stephen and I decided in early 2002 to think seriously about writing a piece on The Israeli Lobby and U.S. foreign policy. Then, in the fall of 2002, we were commissioned by The Atlantic to write that piece, and we began working on it. We were slowed down by the fact the Iraq war was about to take place. We couldn’t write about it while it was still happening, because the Lobby was involved in pushing that war. So, we didn’t get a draft of the piece to the Atlantic until the Spring of 2004. After they saw the initial draft, they were very happy with it and asked us to make a number of changes, which we did. We submitted the second draft in January 2005, and shortly thereafter they rejected it. We believe they rejected it because they came to believe the subject was too controversial and would cause problems.

ALI: Were you surprised when it was rejected?

WALT: We differed on this. I was more surprised than John was. But we were both disappointed. Again, we had no indication that they weren’t going to publish it, and they had seen all of our previous drafts and had been very positive about all of them. So, for them to suddenly discover at the last minute that the entire piece was unacceptable, and that they didn’t want us to re-write it to make it acceptable, was very disappointing.

MEARSHEIMER: So, the Atlantic rejected the piece, and of course, surely, they will never say they rejected it out of fear about how the Lobby would react to the piece, but rather how the piece was written. We don’t believe that’s the case. We believe they got cold feet. After it got rejected, we talked to a number of journals about the possibility of getting the piece published somewhere in the 2005.

By the early summer of 2005, it became clear it would be impossible to get it published in the United States. So, we put the article away and didn’t think it was possible to get it published in the U.S. Someone gave a prominent American academic a copy of the piece we had submitted to the Atlantic, and he knew the editor of the London Review of Books. He wrote to me and asked me if we were interested in publishing it there. We talked about it and thought it was an excellent idea, and we talked to them and made an agreement to submit it by January 2006, a new version of the article. They published it two months later in March 2006. I mean, it’s interesting to think had this academic not gotten hold of the final draft we submitted to the Atlantic, it would have never appeared.

ALI: I want to talk about this “stifling” of criticism. Let’s discuss this recent “Google” speech, where you were scheduled to appear, but according to you a Google representative at the last minute told you, “You can’t appear without having the other side represent,” and then they canceled at the last second. In your opinion, is this “other side” really present?

WALT: As part of the publicity campaign for the book, our publicist began to setup various venues to come talk about the book. Three of those agreements were cancelled. We were cancelled at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs who had invited us to come and speak. The President of the Council got in contact with John and said, “In order to protect the institution, he was canceling the event. The subject was just too hot to cover,” and we can only appear there if they had someone who would represent the “other side,” and it was too late to get someone from the other side. I should mention they’ve had plenty of people who represent “the other side” speak at the Chicago Council and those people spoke on their own. Michael Oren, an Israeli American historian, for example has spoken on his own without someone else representing the other side.

MEARSHEIMER: Dennis Ross would be another good example. And we always say there is nothing wrong with this.

WALT: We think that’s fine. It’s entirely appropriate for Oren or Dennis Ross or lots of other people to come and speak there. They never said anything to us or our publicist about having someone there to debate us when were arranging everything. It was only after the cancellation, did they mention this. We had an agreement to speak at the City University of New York also in September, but that also fell through without an explanation. Finally, we were scheduled to speak at Google Headquarters here in Mountain View, California, which regularly hosts an author series where they bring authors on a variety of subjects to give talks. So, our publicist got an email the previous Friday late in the afternoon that the event had been cancelled and didn’t give us an explanation.

We were subsequently told that the decision had been made “very high up in the company,” and the Google representative said they had never seen an event like this get cancelled like the way they did. They said they would be interested in possibly rescheduling us, but we’ve never been able to reschedule the event, so clearly, it’s not going to happen. But, just to add a number of other places where we’ve spoken, such as the World Affairs Council in Dallas, the Hammer Museum, The City Club of Cleveland, all these people told us they had gotten emails, phone calls, or messages protesting our appearance and suggesting we be dis-invited. To their great credit, none of these places gave into that kind of pressure. In each of these places, we appeared without note-worthy incident; we had good discussions, they asked challenging questions. Some people agreed with us, some people disagreed with us a lot, but in all these places we had a very useful discussion and nothing bad happened at all.

ALI: I want you to hear some comments by your critics. George Schultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, writes in the new book “The Deadliest Lies: The Myth of the Israeli Lobby” –

MEARSHEIMER: That book was scheduled to be published on exactly the same date as our book was published on September the 4th.

WALT: Publishers know when things are going to appear months in advance and once our publisher made it clear it was going to be on their Fall list, then they can start preparing “The Deadliest Lies,” which is a very thin book that didn’t involve much work, and thus it could be arranged to have it timed with the release of our book. I mean, there are no secrets in the publishing world. Nothing unusual about this.

MEARSHEIMER: The Abraham Foxman book [“The Deadliest Lies] and the George Schultz preface in the forward are not based on the book we wrote, “The Israeli Lobby,” because it hadn’t been published at that time. It was rather based on the article that was published [in 2006.]

ALI: Well, he writes in the forward, “those who blame Israel and its Jewish supporters for U.S. policies they do not support – are wrong. They are wrong because, to begin with, support for Israel is in our [The U.S.] best interests. They are also wrong because Israel and its supporters have the right to try to influence U.S. policy. And they are wrong because the U.S. government is responsible for the policies it adopts.” If you both concede that what the Israeli Lobby does is within the confines of a democratic process, then isn’t Schultz’s critique valid? If the Lobby isn’t working democratically, then how is it abusing the process?

WALT: We make it very clear in our book that what the Israeli Lobby is doing is not an abuse of the Democratic Process, but we think all Americans have the right to organize around political causes they believe about. But the fact that it is legitimate activity doesn’t mean it is in the best interest of the country. Lots of other interest groups have skewed American policy in a way that is not good for the country as a whole. We never argue, and we don’t believe what the Lobby is doing is illegitimate, inappropriate, or not Democratic, it’s just that the effects are harmful to the United States.

Now, if George Schultz disagrees with us, then he can make that argument and we can have a debate on it. One of the reasons we wrote the book is to try and encourage debate. “Whether or not unconditional support for Israel is good for the U.S. or not? Was it making Americans safer? Was it Americans more popular around the world? Was it improving our relation with allies in The Middle East and elsewhere?” If all those are true, then, maybe, we’re wrong. We’re making the argument that unconditional support for Israel, as encouraged by the Israeli Lobby, has been deeply harmful.

I’d alert anybody who reads this article that they should go back and read page 112 of George Schultz’s memoirs called “Turmoil and Triumph” where he talks about his own involvement trying to do Middle East policy in the face of pressure from the Lobby. When he and President Regan were dealing with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he discovered Congress was about to vote a $250 million supplemental military aid package to Israel after the invasion of Lebanon, after [Israel] had used cluster bombs, after the Shatila-Sabra camp massacres. This is what he writes in his own memoirs:

“We fought the supplement and fought it hard. President Reagan and I weighed in personally making numerous calls to Senators and Congressman. The supplement sailed right by us and was approved by Congress as though President Reagan and I had not even been there. I was astonished and disheartened. This brought home for me vividly Israel’s leverage in our Congress. I saw that I must work carefully with the Israelis if I was to have any handle on Congressional action that might affect Israel, and if I were to maintain Congressional support for my efforts to make peace or progress in the Middle East.”

In 1982, and when he wrote his memoirs, he understood the Israeli Lobby was very powerful and he understood that it wasn’t good; it was interfering with what he and President Reagan wanted to do. But he understood it was too powerful to fight it. He might’ve forgotten that in 2006-2007, but that’s what he wrote in his own memoirs.

MEARSHEIMER: There’s no question that Israeli supporters in the U.S. have the right to push pro-Israeli policies. Their behavior in that regard is as American as apple pie. However, there is one form of behavior that many members of the lobby engage in that is antithetical to the American way of doing business. That is the proclivity for smearing critics of Israel. If you criticize Israeli policy, or the power of the Lobby in formulating, or influencing U.S. Middle East policy, you are almost certain to be called an Anti-Semite or worse. Smearing people has become one of the key tactics that large numbers of organizations and individuals use in the Lobby to deal with critics, and this is not as American as apple pie. This kind of behavior should be condemned.

ALI: Let’s switch gears and talk about an Arab-American professor at Columbia, Joseph Massad, who published a stinging criticism of your book in Al-Ahram. He suggests your thesis falls into a predictable trap, and I quote him, “the attraction of this argument is that it exonerates the United States’ government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves for its policies in the Arab world and gives false hope to many Arabs and Palestinians who wish America would be on their side instead of on the side of their enemies.” So, my question, after listening to this, does your thesis help exonerate the U.S. government from all its responsibility? Moreover, perhaps the U.S. is in fact using Israel, instead of Israel and its Lobby using the U.S, correct?

WALT: Professor Massad greatly overstates it when he says this exonerates the U.S. government from all responsibility. We understand that actors in the U.S. government are independent actors to some degree. You take the Iraq war where we believe the Israeli Lobby had a key role in pushing the U.S. to do this, but ultimately George Bush made the decision to invade. So, we wouldn’t let him or Vice President Cheney off the hook. We are not exonerating those people in the U.S. government. Any official or most officials in the government, and certainly people in Congress are shaped by the political and social forces that exist within American society. They always pay attention where the political support is going to be, and it’s quite clear, as we just saw from the George Schultz quote a moment ago, where the Secretary of State thinks policy ought to go in one direction [not giving Israel the supplementary aid] and President Reagan agrees and thinks it’s a terrible idea, but they get rolled by Congress as if they had not even been there.

So, I think the idea that the U.S. government would be pursuing the same policies vis a vis the Middle East the same policies it would be pursuing absent the Israeli Lobby and the political power of AIPAC, I think it is just wrong. It has been the official policy of every president, every president since Lyndon Johnson to not support the settlements but none of them ever do anything about it, and they are the Presidents. It’s because of an array of political forces that make it impossible for them to take action. Problem #2 is the dog wagging the tail argument, here the argument is that Israel basically is our tool, we give it orders, and it does what we want it to do in the Middle East.

MEARSHEIMER: That Israel is our Rottweiler argument.

WALT: I mean, if you look carefully at the record, there is not much evidence that it is the tool we are using to shape the Middle East. I’ll give you three examples. One is the first Gulf War of ’91 where the U.S. goes into throw Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, Israel didn’t participate in the war, not because they didn’t want to, but if they had participated the Arab coalition would have fallen apart. So, we went to great lengths to keep them out. And then we had to defend them when the SCUD missiles starting coming to Israel. The second example is the Iraq War of 2003, here we are our knocking off an Israeli enemy, but the Israelis are not there doing it, it’s us doing it. They are on the sideline yet again. The third example is the Lebanon War in the Summer of 2006. We don’t like Hezbollah very much, and of course the Israelis don’t like them very much, but there is absolutely no evidence that we were pushing the Israelis to go after Hezbollah. More importantly, we certainly didn’t want the Israelis to go after Lebanon. If Israel was taking our orders in the Summer of 2006, they would have left Beirut alone. They would have done nothing to undermine the democratically elected government in Lebanon, which is something that Bush takes great credit for. We had helped put the government in power, and it was one of the big successes you could point to in Bush’s Middle East policy. If Israel was taking orders from us, they would’ve had a very different approach than us in Lebanon. It’s not that there isn’t some collusion, but the idea they are our obedient servant carrying out the wishes of American Imperialism in the Middle East is just dead wrong

MEARSHEIMER: Two quick points. The U.S. can’t use Israel to support its policies in the Middle East in a large part because it is radioactive, and by that I mean so unpopular in the region. We couldn’t use Israel in the first Gulf War or second Gulf War. My second point would be to focus on what happened after the Shah of Iran fell in 1979. Up until that point, the U.S. had relied heavily on the Shah to do much of its heavy lifting in the Middle East. After the Shah fell, the U.S. was deeply concerned that the Soviet Union might intervene in Iran, and number two that Iraq or Iran might try to dominate the region. In that case, we would need military forces in that region to deal with the problem did it arrive.

So, the United States, if we are to believe the story where Israel is our Rottweiler, then we should’ve been able to turn to Israel to replace the Shah. But, of course, we couldn’t do that, and instead we had to build the rapid deployment force, which is an over the horizon military capability. But we need bases in the Middle East to deploy equipment for the rapid deployment force should it have to come into the region quickly. None of the equipment for the rapid deployment force was put in Israel, because it was unacceptable for the U.S. to station or to put equipment in Israel. So, what we did is we developed a rapid development force of our own, and we deployed that equipment in Arab countries.

ALI: Why do these pro-Israeli groups have such a loyal and firm alliance with hawkish, Neo-conservatives and the Christian Right in recent years? This is, after all, the same Christian Right, if you read some of their ideology and dogma, who believe that the Second coming of Christ will end in either the mass slaughter or mass conversion of Jews in Israel.

WALT: The Israel Lobby is a heterogeneous group. They all want to maintain a special relationship with the U.S., but they don’t agree on everything. There are a number of prominent groups, such as AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, the ADL, the Zionist Organization of America. There are a number of moderate groups that support a 2 state solution as well. The Israeli Policy Forum, the Americans for Peace Now are just a few examples. Then, there is this movement of Christian Evangelicals known as Christian Zionists. The more influential and wealthier organizations have tended to be right of center and more hard-line. AIPAC for example is hard-line. The Zionist Organization of America is very hard-line, opposing a 2 state solution.

ALI: Wait, what exactly do you mean by “hard-line?”

WALT: Generally those who oppose a 2 state solution, or like AIPAC never endorsing it. And also, basically supporting the “Settlement” enterprise. Groups like Israeli Policy Forum believe in the 2 state solution and oppose the Settlement enterprise.

MEARSHEIMER: It’s marginally a function of how you think of the [President] Clinton parameters. The Clinton parameters would be a broad outline for a 2 state solution. Organizations like the Israeli Policy Forum, people like Dennis Ross endorse the parameters, I mean he helped craft them.

WALT: I think we argue this in our book, if you look at the major organizations they tend to be more right of center, but they have become more conservative over time, and become more aligned with the Likud party in Israel, more aligned at least politically with conservative movements here in the U.S. The Israeli Lobby has moved in a rightward direction over time. And, it has been strengthened by the Christian Evangelicals who believe, and I’m oversimplifying a lot here, but their view of Israel is shaped by their interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. They believe the re-establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine is foreordained in Biblical prophecy, and it is a key sign leading up to the Second Coming, the End of times.

ALI: Like a pre-requisite?

WALT: It’s a pre-requisite, it’s gotta’ happen. It’s one of several steps we have to go through. So, they oppose any form of Palestinian state, they oppose any withdrawl of the settlement enterprise, because they think that’s inconsistent with what the Bible has predicted.

MEARSHEIMER: What the Bible says is necessary for the End times to come about.

WALT: Now, as you said, obviously this image of what happens to Israel or the Jewish people is not optimistic. Either they die, are converted, or they get left behind. But, obviously, if you are Jewish you don’t believe any of that prophecy stuff, and therefore there has been a tactical alliance between these groups, because it strengthens the political influence of both hard-line organizations. To put it in crude terms, I think the Jewish groups don’t much care for the Christian Zionist’s other views, because they don’t think they’re true, and they’re happy to get their support on this foreign policy dimension. As we can see the support for our very confrontational policy with Iraq and Iran today, where the Christian Zionists have been very bellicose, as have members of the Israeli Lobby been as well.

MEARSHEIMER: An additional point to make is that Israel, itself, has been progressively moving to the right as well. If you look carefully at Israeli public opinion, there is little support for the Clinton parameters, which is the only meaningful way you can create a viable Palestinian state. The Israelis say they are willing to give the Palestinians a state and favor a 2 state solution, but when you see what the majority of the Israelis want to give the Palestinians it does not in any shape, way, or form add up to a viable Palestinian state. Basically, it would be a series of enclaves in the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip would be another enclave. These enclaves would not be territorially contiguous, not connected, and the Israelis wouldn’t give the Palestinians control of East Jerusalem. The point I’m trying to make is that the fact the Lobby is dominated by hard-line individuals is facilitated by the fact that it is a worldview that is largely reflected by a majority of Israelis.

ALI: Professor Mearsheimer, you and several academics recently convened in Chicago, Rockafeller Chapel, and you said academia is the only space where Israel is “treated as a normal country, where past and present actions are critically assessed,” and the place where public opinion on the matter is most accurately reflected. If that is the case, then how do we explain the abrupt denial of tenure of Israeli and Dershowitz critic Norman Finkelstein? [Finkelstein’s very public tenure controversy at DePaul University ended in September ’07 when the Board decided to reject his tenure bid, despite overwhelming support for Finkelstein by his peers, his students, and national and international scholars]

MEARSHEIMER: I said in my comments, academia “tends to be the one place,” where Israel is treated like a normal country. I think there’s no question that there is more criticism of Israel in the academic world and in college campuses, then there is in mainstream media. Nevertheless, the Lobby works very hard to influence the discourse on university campuses and goes to considerable length in influencing hiring and promotion decisions regarding critics of Israel. The Normal Finkelstein case is illustrative of this. Nobody disputes that the Lobby put considerable pressure on DePaul University to deny Finkelstein tenure. They will deny that the pressure had any effect on the ultimate decision to deny him tenure, but this is hard to believe.

ALI: You suggest in your book that the image and framing of the issues has been skewed to reflect Israel as a “David” fighting a “Goliath” that is the Palestinians and neighboring Arab enemies. How much of this alleged symbolism is actually reflected in reality? How has this image been popularized and cemented in the mindset of American psychology?

MEARSHEIMER: There is no question that Israeli’s supporters have been very successful in conveying the message to most Americans that Israel is a David surrounded by an Arab goliath. Anyone who looks carefully at the history of the conflict quickly discovers that is not the case. To be more specific, Israelis won the 1948 war decisively, they won the 1956 decisively, they won the 1967 war decisively, and they won the 1973 decisively after suffering a massive surprise attack. All those victories were gained before massive U.S. aid came to Israel.

WALT: Up thru ’67 that’s exactly right. The U.S. was starting to provide significant military aid after ’67, but the aid goes up even more after the ’73 war.

MEARSHEIMER: So, Israel won those 4 wars, and since then no Arab state has picked a fight with Israel for the simple reason they all understand Israel is the “Goliath” and they are the “Davids.” Today, Israel has the most powerful conventional army in the region by far. It’s the only state in the region that has nuclear weapons, it has a couple of hundred of them. It has a very close alliance to the U.S., which would surely come to its defense if its survival is threatened. It has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and would have a treaty with Syria had it not walked away from the deal. So, Israel is not only the most powerful country in the region, but it also has peace agreement with some of its neighbors, two of them they have fought wars with in the past. And it would’ve have peace deals with 3 of its principle adversaries had they reached a peace deal with Syria.

The Saudis started in 2002 to push a peace initiative that would’ve brought peace between Israel and the Arab League, and they resurrected it again this year and pushed it again. This tells you that most of the states in the region are interested in reaching some sort of modus vivendi with Israel. They understand it is very powerful and not going away anytime soon, therefore it makes sense to make some peace agreement. Israel is in excellent shape in terms of military balance. In terms of its dealings with its neighbors, it is in very good shape.

One might say what about the Palestinians? The Israelis have had opportunities to cut a deal with the Palestinians, especially during the 90’s Oslo Peace Process. But they have never shown any serious interest in allowing the Palestinians to have a viable state. If they could change their thinking on that conflict and bring themselves to evacuate almost all the West Bank, and allow for a Palestinian state, then we believe they would have good relations with the Palestinians as well.

WALT: You have to bear in mind the balance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel, today, has the 29th highest per capita income in the world, now that’s not a poor country. Palestinians are deeply impoverished, unable to have a viable economy in the face of all of the obstacles presented now by Israel. The Palestinians have no army, no air force, no navy, they barely have an effective security force, and of course they are deeply divided internally. When any group of people is put into a situation like that, they are going to use any tactic available. Which is why of course the Palestinians have relied on terrorism. John and I both regard the use of terrorist tactics as deplorable, and the loss of innocent human life on either side is deeply, deeply regrettable. So, we’re not defending that. But, the point is that the Palestinians hardly pose an existential threat to Israel. It’s very much a one sided competition. The problem is for all of Israel’s considerable military power it still does not permit them to dominate the Palestinians to the point they won’t try to resist with any means they can come up with. But the idea that Israel is the vulnerable party here, and its various neighbors are all powerful has got reality turned upside down.

ALI: How does the Lobby skew this image, in your opinion, for the Average American psychology?

WALT: By constantly repeating how vulnerable Israel is, by constantly exaggerating the dangers that is faces. And, it does have security problems in addition to problems from terrorist bombings, it has problems with Hezbollah to the north. But the groups of the Lobby are hyping the exaggerated threat that Israel faces in trying to convince people its security is very precarious; that Israel might be destroyed anytime soon, that it faces a gigantic sea of enemies that aren’t interested in peace. But if someone looks carefully at the true military balance, or looks carefully at what Israel’s relations with its neighbors really are and what those neighbors have already offered, it suggests Israel is already quite secure in regards to its overall existence. Its survival is not in jeopardy. Its security can be significantly enhanced if it would reach a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians and take that whole problem off the table once and for a all.

MEARSHEIMER: The principle way that the Lobby creates this image of a beleaguered Israel is by working 24-7 to shape the discourse about Israel. The Lobby not only portrays Israel as a “David” surrounded by “Goliaths,” but it also goes to great lengths to silence those who argue that the opposite is the case.

ALI: Here’s a criticism. The U.S. is country with over 300 million people. We have blogs, the internet, op/ed publications, websites, liberals, republicans, and a diversity of opinions. How can a tiny minority of Jewish people, which is about 2 to 3% of our population, have that much influence? Is this some sort of conspiracy theory suggesting Jewish bogeyman who own the vast, diverse media we have in the United States?

MEARSHEIMER: We want to be absolutely clear we are not talking about a conspiracy. We are also not making an argument that pro-Israel groups control the media. Our argument is that the Lobby has to work very hard to shape discourse in the United States, because it does not control the media. Certainly, there are pundits and columnists and owners of newspapers who are naturally pro-Israel. There are many others that need to be reminded that criticism of Israel carries with it a significant cost. It’s there where the Lobby is great on what is written in the mainstream media in regards to Israel. Our argument is that they are very effective in that regard.

Let’s just talk about the discourse in the mainstream media about the Middle East. Where do you see evidence of Arab Americans writing columns in major newspapers? Where is the evidence of Arab Americans who are constantly on T.V. or on radio constantly criticizing Israel and defending the Palestinians?

ALI: Someone can say Fareed Zakaria is Muslim–[Fareed Zakara is an influential and well known editor, columnist, and pundit]

WALT: He’s not Arab. He’s a South Asian Muslim. He does not take sides on Middle East questions very often. I think he understands this is a delicate issue, and particularly as delicate an issue for someone as prominent as he is who is known to be Muslim. Find me the Palestinian American columnist in the Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the SF Chronicle. They don’t exist.

MEARSHEIMER: What we have here in the United States is a one sided debate. We have pro-Israel forces and nothing else.

WALT: What you see of course is anytime a major media organization does publish something that is mildly critical they immediately get pressure put on them. For example, this past fall CNN ran a 3 part series on Muslim, Christian, and Jewish fundamentalism. The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, said it [CNN] suffered from an “unprecedented attack,” where organizations were putting pressure on advertisers that had bought advertising time. The whole purpose was not to stop the broadcast, because it already happened, but they wanted to put enough pressure on CNN that the next time a producer has an idea or a big story that is controversial, that producer is going to face an uphill battle. Or if a newspaper in Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, pushes an article that is critical of the Lobby, if the editor gets 5,000 letters protesting about that, then they will think twice the next time that they let something like that appear.

If you do this long enough and over many years, plenty of reporters, editors, and columnists realize it’s too much trouble. “I’ll write about something else, or I’ll write something bland.” That isn’t control of the media as in the old conspiracy scene, that’s an interest group, like how a number of interest groups work, working very hard to try and make sure that their story gets reported, and the other side tends not to get reported. I say “tend” because every now and then you see something representing the other side appear in various places, but the point is you want to make sure the balance of coverage is on one side.

MEARSHEIMER: I want to add another dimension to this. It is widely recognized in the U.S. that the Lobby has a powerful influence on U.S.-Middle East policy. If you look at almost all the critical reviews of our book, virtually all of the critics admit that the Lobby is powerful. Nevertheless, when you read American news accounts of U.S.-Middle East policy, you hardly ever see any discussion of the Israel Lobby’s presence, much less influence, in the shaping of the U.S. policy.

WALT: Not never, but it’s rare. It’s rare you find someone who is writing about Middle East policy who will devote a couple of paragraphs to the role that pro-Israeli forces are playing in shaping that policy. Even though everyone in Washington knows that they’re very influential.

ALI: Let’s talk about Iraq. You, unlike many academics, underplay the role of oil and oil lobbies in the Iraq War. If not oil, then what was the motivating reason for the pre-emptive attack, and how does/did Israel benefit from the attack on Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein?

MEARSHEIMER: With regards to the question of oil, there is hardly any evidence that oil was driving the Iraq war. Except for Kuwait, none of the oil producing states favored the war. And even though Kuwait favored the war, it didn’t push the U.S. hard to attack. Saudi Arabia was opposed to the war, as were the other oil producing states in the regime. There is hardly any evidence that I’m aware of that the oil companies which were pushing this war. The oil companies wanted to cut a deal with Saddam, so they could help him develop his oil fields, move his oil around the globe, and make lots of money in the process. The basic problem is there is not a lot of evidence to support the idea that oil was driving this war. What we believe was driving this was war was 1) The Israeli Lobby, and 2) the fact that George Bush and Cheney after 9-11 believed it was necessary to topple Saddam to win the war on terrorism. It’s a combination of them pushing this war to make this happen.

WALT: I would add to that, of course, the people who pushed for this believed it would benefit the U.S. and benefit Israel as well. They believed it would launch a process of political change throughout the Arab-Islamic world that would make the terrorism problem go away, enhance America’s overall strategic position by gradually creating a lot of countries that were Pro-American, and finally enhance Israel’s strategic position by creating a bunch of countries that were willing to make peace. They were tragically wrong on all counts. How would this war benefit Israel? The war didn’t benefit Israel, of course, it’s been a strategic disaster for Israel. It’s created a failed state nearby [Iraq], and it has enhanced the position of Iran, which is a country Israelis worry about even more than they worried about Saddam. This underscores a point we make in our book and make all the time is that the Israel Lobby in pushing for unconditional American support for Israel, and in some elements, pushing for hair-brained schemes like invading Iraq, it has been bad for the United States and unintentionally bad for Israel, too. It’s incorrect to see the Lobby as always pro-Israel. A lot of what they are supporting is very bad for Israel.

ALI: Seymour Hersh of the New Yorkers posits the U.S. is engaged in “The-Redirection,” whereby the U.S. and Israel are aligning themselves with moderate Arab dictatorships against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. As professors of international relations and critics of the Israel Lobby, what blow back would this have, if any, on US-Muslim world relations?

MEARSHEIMER: The basic problem is that the strategy is not going to work. The fact is that Israel is radioactive in the region. The fact that Israel, the U.S., and Arab countries are going to form a right alliance against Iran and maybe Syria and Hezbollah is not going to work. Those Arab countries are going to be unwilling to reach an alliance with the Israelis and U.S. as long as the Palestinian issue continues to fester. One of the principle reasons for Condoleeza Rice is pushing for solution to a Palestinian problem now is because she understands now she can’t put together an anti Iran coalition without shutting down the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. But, there is no serious hope that conflict is going to be shut down anytime soon. That’s why you can’t put that balancing coalition against Iran together. In the populations of countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, there is a significant amount of sympathy towards Iran, and a significant amount of animosity towards U.S. and Israel.

WALT: One of those reasons those countries wont jump into bed fully with us on this, is because they are potentially fragile regimes and they worry about what their populations think if they were to try doing something like that. Second point to remember is Americans sometimes think we would be much better off if we had more democracy in the Middle East, and probably that’s true if you take a very long term view of it. But right now it’s false to imagine rapid democratic transitions in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. You would end up in countries that were very anti-American, because they don’t like the support we’ve given Israel and they also don’t like our support we’ve given to those ruling regimes as well.

MEARSHEIMER: One important piece of evidence that highlights how it’ll be impossible for the U.S. to put together that coalition is to see what happened during the Lebanon war in 2006. Initially, the Arab governments in Jordan and Egypt were very critical of Hezbollah, which is consistent with the policy that the Americans are trying to pursue. But, it quickly became clear to the leaders in Jordan and Egypt that the people in their societies sided with Hezbollah against the United States and against Israel. Therefore, the leaders in Jordan and Egypt had to turn on a dime and become critical of the U.S. and Israel and support Hezbollah.

ALI: Let’s close it with this final question and talk about U.S.-Muslim relations in regards to Palestine. Why is this issue, the Palestine issue, above all other issues at the forefront of the Muslim world’s anger against U.S. foreign policy? How does U.S. relation with Israel and the Lobby undermine or help our relations with the Muslim world in this regards?

WALT: For many people in the Muslim, Arab world there is a fundamental question of justice. What they see happening to the Palestinian people is a great injustice, although there were terrible crimes against Jewish people in history, and those crimes may justify the creation of a Jewish state. You can even argue on balance that it is ok to create a Jewish state in Palestine. John and I both thing it was a good thing. But, that act, creating a Jewish state in Palestine, involved the infliction of great crimes against the local residents–the Palestinians. Until there is some compensation and they are given a state of their own, and effort is made to compensate them and acknowledge what happened to them, the moral balance has not been equated.

Second, the entire episode resonates with the whole history of Western interference and domination of that region. It’s seen as another case where Western powers have inflicted great harm on Arab or Islamic peoples. So, it has a particular salience for people elsewhere in that region. Thirdly, it makes the U.S. look deeply hypocritical. The United States likes to talk about human rights, it likes to talk about democracy, it likes to talk about national self-determination. But here, by giving Israel nearly unconditional support, even as Israel continues its 40-year, 4-decade campaign to colonize the West Bank and previously Gaza, and for us to be supporting that enterprise the way we have is seen as deeply contrary to all the things the U.S. claims to stand for. That drives a number of people in the Arab-Muslim world, at least, makes them very angry. The fact we are so hypocritical and inconsistent with our own professed values.

MEARSHEIMER: It is the longest ongoing occupation in modern history.

WALT: It’s still ongoing; there are others like the British occupation of India that lasted much longer. Of all occupations that are currently happening, and there aren’t that many, it’s certainty the longest, continuing occupation that is still happening.

Wajahat Ali is Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and recent J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is the first major play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at