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IA-Forum Interview: Kristin Smith Diwan
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International Affairs Forum: On balance, in terms of the Middle East, what do you make of what was done by the Bush administration over last eight years? Prof. Kristin Smith Diwan: If we are looking at the Bush administration, it has clearly been a very transformational time in the Middle East; they have taken a lot of strong actions that have shifted our position in the region, and the way people from the Middle East look at us. The strongest action that was taken was the intervention in Iraq, though there are a couple of other actions that had an impact. First of all, their conception of the war on terror shaped strongly their policies in the region. Secondly, this whole idea of democratization - bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East. They saw it in the same way as the U.S. had freed Eastern Europe at the end of World War II: people held by authoritarian rulers, a need for strong U.S. action, and moral support to allow these people to speak out. But the intervention in Iraq has been much more costly and problematic than they expected. Iran is strengthened. This country, for the new Obama administration, is a key in regards to emerging policy concerns. If Obama wants to withdraw from Iraq, he will have to make some policy arrangements with Iran as well. As well Afghanistan policies, Iran is key. The other issue, a big one, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. The Bush administration has been sort of interventionist and also in Palestinian policies: in this framework of democratization, they pushed for elections to occur, which brought Hamas into power. That whole kind of set of policies has got to be reviewed. IA-Forum: What do you think should be the priority for the Obama administration for its foreign policy in the Middle East? Prof. Smith Diwan: During the Bush years, we had two frames in the Middle East: the war on terror on one side, and the democratization efforts on the other side. The Obama administration needs to take a step back, be critical towards these policies frames, and think about a new way to engage the U.S. in the region. He has already hired high-level individuals to go there and talk and listen to people about actions to take. He has to come up with a new approach. Concerning the priority measures, first of all there is Iraq. But it will be important as well to strengthen military positions and civil reconstruction in Afghanistan. Iran is going be a key, and also for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A growing polarization in the region has been very destructive and Palestinians are practically in a civil war. The new administration has to find somehow a way to talk to Iran, to integrate them into security structures in the Middle East. It has to deal with nuclear issues as well, which is going to be tough. Obama, during the campaign, made it clear that there would be a different approach. They would be talking to these powers. The policies will affect the way Iran reacts. We should negotiate first and also call for some requirements Iran has to respect. If not, we still have the threat of military force. However we do need to be more open-minded towards Iran. This country is involved in so many areas of the Middle East. Iran would like to see a stable Iraq, a stable Afghanistan. Our interests can work together. If we look for big compromises, things will come out better. IA-Forum: What is your view of democracy promotion programs in the Middle East? Have they been effective under the Bush administration, or were they more a way for greater control of security in the area? Prof. Smith Diwan: It was a big part of the Bush administration. However, as other policies have been strongly unpopular, the democratization policy has been also somehow discredited. I don’t think that’s fully true. There have been a lot of studies in the Middle East showing that people are really hungry for more engagement, that they would like the United States to keep playing that leadership role in the area. But it has to be done in a more sophisticated and inclusive way. What we need is a closer approach towards moderate political Islamic movements. As we have seen, free elections have given these political movements a higher importance, for instance around the Gulf. But with this broader frame of the global war on terror, they were seen on the wrong side. IA-Forum: Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, did you expect the recent Gaza crisis? What were the main causes for this conflict? Can you see a prospects for peace in Gaza in the future? Prof. Smith Diwan: There is the issue of the most recent conflict, and the drivers of that. But there is also the issue of the broader conflict, and its deep causes. I’m not sure it is exactly the same. For the recent conflict, we seemed to have negotiations, indirectly, between Hamas and the Israeli government, over the extension of the cease-fire. But that broke down. I think this had to do with a short-term political calculation - there was a deep frustration within the Israeli public, especially since 2006, and the war on Hizbollah in Lebanon, and also the growing power of Iran. There was sort of a popular unease given the context. There was also the whole issue of transition in politics here in our country; Israel didn’t really know what kind of policies would be implemented by the new Obama administration. A lot of these issues pressed for a strong Israeli reaction. And of course, Hamas pushed even more by shooting rockets. But at a broader level, there is a deeper problem. If we look back at the Oslo process, one thing that sustained according to polls was that the majority, on both sides, was supportive of the two-state solution. Both people wanted peace, and this general solution was approved. It was one of the best times during the Oslo process, when Rabin was taking the lead in Israeli politics. For instance, in front of Hamas, Rabin and Arafat would have stood together to show their opposition to this. This is now completely broken down. We have a fragmentation of leaderships, especially in Israel. Far-right parties are gaining strength, Netanyahu is more likely to come back to power, and he opposes any kind of movement towards a political solution on the Palestinian side. On the Palestinian side, we have a complete split in the leadership between the West Bank and Gaza. It’s going to take a lot of work just to find some consensus on both sides to push things forward. I think it should be a priority, especially on the Palestinian side. It will be impossible to stabilize the situation without engaging Hamas on some levels. There has to be some push to unify the Palestinians because without that no agreement can be enforced. IA-Forum: Barack Obama has a choice between pursuing the isolation of Hamas or engaging in discussions with the organization. In the event negotiations take place, how would you think the American public would react? Do you feel there is still a strong concern over security and fear of terrorism? Prof. Smith Diwan: For now, we don’t really know what he is going to do. There haven’t been clear indications; he may not be ready to take that step already. But on the other side, he has already given an interview to Al-Arabiya, calling for greater engagement. I think it is the first interview he has done and this is a significant symbol for the Arab people. Symbolically, these are important moves. Whether he will take the step to engage discussions with Hamas, and whether that would be accepted by the American public, is hard to say. But I think that it will be hard for the Obama’s administration to make the progress he wants to make without doing that. Especially after the recent intervention, empowering Mahmoud Abbas is not going to work. There is another option: the Fatah leader, Barghouti, could have more credibility in power. Concerning the American public, I think there will have to be some work in dismantling this ideology of the war on terror. As a great communicator, Obama can do that, and can frame a new way of approaching politics in the Middle East, instead of putting all Islamic groups on the one level. IA-Forum: Do you think the dilemma between popular support of Hamas, and its lack of international recognition is the main cause for a lack of Palestinian legitimacy in the international community? Prof. Smith Diwan: I think the bigger dilemma is a lack of any forward progress. But at the same time we see the Palestinian people waiting to have their own state, to control their own destiny. I think the move towards Hamas has been driven by a popular reaction against the Fatah leadership, who are more interested in their own material well-being, rather than in the national project. They weren’t really bringing material for negotiations. We can see that in the increased settlements. There are near 300,000 settlers in the West Bank now. More and more Palestinian territories have been colonized. I think this causes the larger problem, combined on the other side to the lack of Israeli trust towards actions coming from the Palestinians. A consequence of all that lack of progress is that there will more likely be more extremist policies coming from the Palestinians. IA-Forum: Do you think the U.S. could possibly intervene in domestic Israeli policies, and exert some pressure against corruption and fragmentation of leadership to improve relations with Palestine? Prof. Smith Diwan: The U.S. has always been sort of reticent to intervene in Israeli elections and administration. However, Clinton’s administration took a very strong position, especially when Rabin was elected. He has had some influence on the Israeli public. But nowadays, given the kind of Israeli mindset right now, I don’t think a sort of U.S. intervention could be as persuasive. If it is done, it has to be done in a way so that the U.S. still ensures security and support of Israel. And whether or not there are negotiations with Iran will also affect this. IA-Forum: Concerning the withdrawal from Iraq by 2011, do you see this proposition as realistic? Prof. Smith Diwan: I think so, but again it is going to have to be done in a more comprehensive strategy, working with the neighboring states. We have [have had] elections in Iraq. The results will give us a better indication of the domestic situation there. There are a lot of potentially dangerous outcomes there: the Sunni minority in Iraq, for instance, protesting against the lack of integration into the policy decisionmaking. But the logic of Obama is right. It is better for the United States to start moving out of Iraq, to focus more in Afghanistan and to make the political arrangements in the region that will allow it to be stable. IA-Forum: What do you think would be the better solution in Iraq to implement peace between the different ethnic minorities? Taking into account its neighbors? Prof. Smith Diwan: I think Al-Maliki is working very hard to implement a strong centralized power out of Baghdad. There are a lot of concerns and worries about that, especially concerning federal rights, for instance for the Kurds. This is something we need to watch. Some parties have called for more empowered provinces, but others are now calling for making more cross-sectarian alliances, which is a good thing in my opinion. We will see through these elections in which way politics in Iraq will be going. There are possibilities for peace there. There are dangers, but also possibilities - it is not impossible. IA-Forum: You are responsible for the Middle East and Northern Africa student association at AU. What was the purpose of the association? How did its action evolve? Do you see a greater involvement from the students towards Middle East issues? Prof. Smith Diwan: It was created by students. I am only the student supervisor for this organization - it is a complete student initiative. In addition to bringing speakers talking about Middle East issues, they organize cultural events, but also try to change the curriculum here at AU, and to work strongly on a Middle East platform also, to see how we can improve coordination in Middle East studies here. There is an incredible wealth of knowledge, expertise and involvement here. I am really interesting in working on that, along with other groups. We have done some work with One Voice movement for instance. AU is very rich in Study abroad programs in the Middle East as well. And many graduate students are conducting research there, which is very exciting. Kristin Smith Diwan teaches in the Comparative and Regional Studies department of the School of International Service at American University.

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Tue, October 04, 2011 10:11 AM (about 66133 hours ago)
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