Arab, Muslim Perspectives on Iraq Study Group Report

December 12, 2006, 10-11:30 a.m. (Eastern)
National Press Club, 529 14th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.
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Remarks by Parvez Ahmed

Good morning and thank you for joining this important forum to discuss America’s future engagement in Iraq.

On September 26, 2002, George F. Kennan a career Foreign Service officer who had formulated the U.S. policy of "containment” during the Cold War listening to the drums beat of war had uttered a prophetic statement, “Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.”

The ISG document is a report about how we can end this crisis.

Going in no one doubted our efficacy in toppling Saddam and bringing a regime change. What we always had apprehensions about was about what came next and how will the end be written.

The latest poll shows that today 68% Americans believe us to be losing ground in Iraq. 53% think that the US did not do the right thing by invading Iraq. 62% believe we should have a timetable for withdrawal.

Three years ago American Muslims had deep misgivings about the Iraq war. No one wanted to see Saddam in power but invading a sovereign to bring a regime change did not sound like a good idea, no matter how hard the Bush administration tried to sell the idea that the world has changed after 9-11.

Three years ago Muslims were a minority voice in America advocating against the invasion of Iraq. Today, we see a grim tale of the aftermath of this Iraq project – nearly 2900 U.S. servicemen dead, approximately 20,000 wounded, anywhere between 50,000 and 650,000 Iraqi’s dead, 500 billion dollars in U.S. taxpayer money spent, and an entire region teetering on the brink of a disaster. Obviously “staying the course” is not a strategy anymore and the ISG came to the same conclusion.

Now what I will state over here is a conclusion that I have reached. It is not necessarily CAIR's official position. But I think this is a fair characterization to make -- that the U.S. should immediately withdraw from Iraq. The withdrawal should be immediate and the withdrawal should be orderly.

And here is the reasoning that I came up with. I'm not a foreign policy expert. I'm not a historian or a public opinion poll like Dr. Telhami is. I'm not from the region like Dr. Imad Moustapha is.

But sitting in America, as an American Muslim, looking at the aftermath of the Iraqi project, I see the following:

I see that it is time for us to entrust the affairs of Iraq in the hands of the Iraqi people. Let them decide what they want to do next. If they decide to invite UN peacekeepers to mediate their “civil war” then let that be a determination they make. If they decide they can politically sort out their differences then let that be their plan not some directive being hatched in Washington.

The American presence is fueling insurgency and providing a disincentive for the different political and religious factions in Iraq to cooperate on a political solution. No group will ever make comprises as long as US troops are in Iraq. Also this position is respectful of the desire of the people of Iraq (ending occupation and moving towards self governance).

Nir Rosen, a journalist who had spent sixteen months reporting from Iraq after the invasion, suggested that the U.S. would do better to pull out of Iraq sooner rather than later. He argued, “Civil war is already under way—in large part because of the American presence. The longer the United States stays, the more it fuels Sunni hostility toward Shiite "collaborators." Were America not in Iraq, Sunni leaders could negotiate and participate without fear that they themselves would be branded traitors and collaborators by their constituents.”

It is America that is fueling the insurgency. "If the occupation were to end," he explained, "so, too, would the insurgency."

When insurgency ends, Iraqis will have to contend with the reality that they will have to govern themselves. The reality of self-governance will force each religious or political group to make compromises. The civil war in Iraq is not a war fueled by any deep doctrinal difference within Islam. It is rather an existential conflict whose solution is for the warring parties to sit and negotiate.

Also the regional powers such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and SA will also have to nudge their influence groups towards compromise. They may do so, we hope for the right reasons, but they will do this if only to keep the Americans from returning to Iraq. The regional powers of the region, like any other civilized society, obviously dislike the specter of foreign occupying forces knocking on their door steps. When America leaves they will have to step up to the plate to demonstrate their regional responsibility by playing a positive role in resolving Iraq’s civil war. This way they will gain international credibility, while ridding the region of American hegemony.

Any discussion about the Iraq Study Group report must also address what went wrong?

There are many ways to answer this question. I will try to use anecdotal evidence.

In October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq's proposed constitution, Mark Danner a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker had gone to Fallujah, in the Anbar province the heart of the Iraqi insurgency. There he met a young American diplomat who explained to him the intricacies of the politics of the battered city and said, "You know, tomorrow you are going to be surprised. Everybody is going to be surprised. People here are not only going to vote. People here—a great many people here—are going to vote yes (to the referendum on the constitution)."

Later as it turned out 97% of the people in the Anbar province who voted, voted no. This lead Mark Danner to write in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, “With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.”

This story is indeed symptomatic and emblematic of America’s failed Iraq experiment.

Call it an ideological driven administration, call it fear among the public that the administration exploited to suit its preconceived agenda, call it a backboneless Congress or call it a pliant media or call it the lobbying efforts of powerful interests group, - all of them contributed to the mess that we find ourselves in.

Ron Suskind in his book the “One Percent Doctrine” wrote: “Cheney's ideas about how "our reaction" would shape behavior— whatever the evidence showed—were expressed in an off-the-record meeting Rumsfeld had with NATO defense chiefs in Brussels on June 6. According to an outline for his speech, the secretary told those assembled that "absolute proof cannot be a precondition for action."

The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to make an example of Hussein.” Not WMD, not democracy, not “we fight them there so that we do not have to fight them here.” Pure unadulterated projection of raw power. Finally, the American public has awakened. The fever has indeed broken and the public is demanding change.

At the core the Iraq fiasco – and there is no other way to characterize this other than call it a fiasco, is an utter failure of U.S. foreign policy.

The criticism of the U.S. foreign policy is not just coming from the usual quarters. Influential conservatives like Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, “America at the Crossroads” calls for "multi-multilateralism," involving "new institutional forms," public and private, national and international working to meet the needs of a global economy.

The latest AP poll supports Fukuyama’s position of international cooperation.

57% of American’s agreed that the U.S. should reach out to Iran and Syria for help in stabilizing Iraq.

Fukuyama also writes that, "Although political reform in the Arab world is desirable, the US has virtually no credibility or moral authority in the region."

One way to regain US moral authority back is to follow the approach suggested by ISG i.e. a comprehensive multi-lateral approach to mitigating the decade old problems in the Middle East.

Once again the latest AP poll shows that 61% American’s agree that the U.S. should make a renewed and sustained commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Incidentally, all across the Muslim world the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the number one source of anti-American hostility.

Stephen Walt, who along with Mearshiemer wrote the taboo breaking paper on the power of the pro-Israeli lobby, in his recent book, “Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy,” spoke about the how much American foreign policy has veered off-course. He wrote that "the combination of a universalist political philosophy and a strong evangelical streak" is "bound to be alarming to other countries, including some of our fellow democracies."

Walt deplores the failure of the current administration to understand the roots of anti-American sentiments not just in the Muslim world but also among our many allies around the world.

Another source of criticism comes from John Brady Kiesling, a career foreign service officer. In his recent book, “Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower,” he writes, that successful counterterrorism, requires respect for the lives of innocents. Iraqis, for instance, see dozens of their innocent fellow citizens again and again being sacrificed in American bombing attacks. The American claim that attacks are against terrorists does not have any resonance among Iraqis as they see terrorism and mindless killings on the rise. The dismay and anger of ordinary Iraqis are not being understood.

Complicating our Iraq policy are constant barrages of evidence of US complicity in torture, secret prisons and disregard for international laws and norms.

Kiesling condemns this attitude, writing that the use of torture by the US only makes a mockery of the rule of law, putting us precariously close to the terrorists on the moral scale. As a working diplomat, Kiesling was appalled by bureaucrats who "took the word of their president that preemption of terrorism required unilateral violence and the death of innocent civilians."

In moving forward, we have to realize that military power alone cannot win the war on terror nor be effective in fighting insurgency. Destroying cities, people and regimes does not serve American interests. Using soft power to build civic societies, which promote economic development and cultural exchanges, is the only way to eradicate extremism.

We need a shift from a policy of primacy to one based on reciprocity and compromises.

Multi-lateral institutions like the UN will always need determined leadership but this leadership should be a shared leadership not US primacy. Shared leadership implies working with persuasion and diplomacy not strict command and control.

Thus in my conclusion, what we need is a deliberate and carefully planned withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. This withdrawal will precipitate a moment of truth for the feuding politicians in Iraq – do they continue with blood-letting and at the end only have a pyrrhic victory or do they find the courage to agree on a political solution that allows Iraq to regain its status as one of the birthplaces of civilization.

The American withdrawal should be completed without leaving behind any imperial residue and yet we should be prepared to contribute financially to rebuild Iraq. We broke it. We own it.

I will end with the opening line from the ISG, “There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq.” Since some of our brightest minds and a non-partisan group cannot find a solution to Iraq there is no point in delaying the inevitable withdrawal of US forces.

Staying longer will not produce any better solution than coming to the realization that Iraqis need to feel a sense of responsibility towards self governance that can only happen when all sides feel that the only safety net they have is each other and not some outside power. The death of another American solider will be spared if our withdrawal is immediate and orderly. Yes we will lose some face, but when 90-95% of the people across much of the Muslim world find America untrustworthy, what face do we save by staying.

On the contrary, in the long run an America withdrawal along with our re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will go a long way in rehabilitating our lost power and glory and this can be done at a cost far cheaper than the $500 billion spent on the war so far and with virtually no loss of American lives.

Thank you.

Pope's Visit to Turkey Turns Corner on Muslim-Catholic Relations

Following the death of Pope John Paul II, much of the world, including the Muslim world, anxiously awaited the naming of the next Pope. Such anticipation among non-Catholics was a tribute to John Paul's legacy of outreach and reconciliation with people of other
faiths.

As the world waited to hear the name of the new Pope, I was invited to participate in a "virtual conclave" by Beliefnet.com in which Catholics and people of other faiths discussed who they would like to see leading the Church.

When Pope Benedict XVI began his first visit to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, I went back to the conclave archives to find out what aspirations the participants had about the
Muslim-Catholic relationship.

One prominent Catholic participant posed the question, "To what extent should concerns about Muslim-Christian relations guide the choice of a pope?"

Mary Louise Hartman of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church replied, "The new Pope will have to be skilled in diplomacy and sensitive in his approach to our sisters and brothers in Islam."

Russell Shaw of the National Conference of Catholic Bishop's wrote, "the relationship with Islam is one of the big three issues the next pope will have to address...But what to do? It's all very well to say Catholics should dialogue with Muslims and encourage the moderates
among them. But I do not think the people who flew airliners into the World Trade Center were very open to dialogue."

The desire to build a solid relationship was clashing with fears about extremism.

John Esposito of Georgetown University injected a dose of reality, "Inter-religious dialogue is between the mainstream majorities - their leaders, scholars, followers. Therefore, Catholicism's dialogue with Islam/Muslims is not with the extremist minority no more than
its dialogue would be with Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, etc."

By visiting Turkey, Pope Benedict chose the path of engagement. His visit could help undo the damage resulting from his quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor who had said that Islam was "spread by the sword."

While the reprehensible violence by a tiny minority of Muslims reacting to the Pope's remarks received wide publicity, calls for dialogue by mainstream Islamic groups went virtually unnoticed.

A recent survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that among Muslims in America, 84 percent agreed that they should strongly emphasize shared values with People of the Book (i.e. Christians and Jews).

More than three-quarters of American Muslims are native born. They are part of mainstream America and are here to stay. Yet some are bent on marginalizing this voice of moderation.

Take for example some recent incidents that expose a nasty strain of bigotry in our society.

Washington, D.C., radio host, Jerry Klein in an attempt to ridicule and expose anti-Muslim bigotry, made a suggestion on-air that all Muslims in the United States should wear "identifying markers" such as a crescent-shape tattoo or a distinctive arm band. Rather than be repulsed by this outlandish Nazi-like proposal, the phone lines lit-up with callers who spoke in agreement.

CNN talk-show host Glen Beck recently questioned the patriotism of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. He told Ellison: "[W]hat I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.'"

But perhaps the most disturbing opinion was recently expressed by talk-show host Dennis Prager when he argued that Keith Ellison should not be allowed to take his oath of office on the Quran. "If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book (the Christian Bible),"
Prager tells Ellison, "don't serve in Congress."

Pope Benedict's visit to Turkey may help turn a corner in recent Muslim-Christian relations. His concluding plea, "I hope that this dialogue continues," will reverberate louder than his earlier faux pas. Muslims also have responded with optimism. Turkey's influential Milliyet newspaper declared the visit as "The Istanbul Peace."

The Pope made history by being only the second pontiff to set foot inside a mosque and being the first to join Muslims in prayer. Mustafa Cagrici, head cleric in Istanbul, described this gesture as sign of a new beginning for the world.

People of conscience in all faiths must use the opening resulting from the Pope's visit to Turkey to come together and create a new La Convivencia ("the Coexistence"), when Spanish Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative peace and managed to develop a golden era progress in science and culture.