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Ex-Bush Official Warns the Administration: Don’t Rush on the Road to Damascus

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We talk to Flynt Leverett who served as President Bush’s senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from March 2002 to March 2003. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the Middle East. Tensions continue in Lebanon after a series of explosions amidst the ongoing political instability sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri earlier this year. The Bush administration, meanwhile, continues to amplify its rhetoric against Syria. And this policy is drawing fire from some former senior members of Bush’s foreign policy team. In a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times called “Don’t Rush on the Road to Damascus,” our next guest writes, “Does the Bush administration understand that for the foreseeable future, any political order in Lebanon that reflects, as the White House put it, the “country’s diversity,” will include an important role for Hezbollah? Does the administration feel confident about containing Hezbollah without on-the-ground Syrian management and with the group’s sole external guide an increasingly hard-line Iran? Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s national security adviser recently said that an overly precipitous Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could pose a threat to Israel.”

The Op-Ed continues, “The sudden end of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad would not necessarily advance American interests. Syrian society is at least as fractious as Iraq’s or Lebanon’s. The most likely near-term consequence of Mr. Assad’s departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist. In the end, the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower Mr. Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him.”

Those are the words of our next guest, Flynt Leverett. He was the senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from March 2002 to March 2003. He was involved in developing President Bush’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and advised the president and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on relations with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Prior to joining the National Security Council, Leverett was a Middle East and counterterrorism expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Before that he was the senior CIA analyst on Syria and Middle East affairs. Leverett is currently a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book- Inheriting Syria.

  • Flynt Leverett, former member of President Bush’s National Security Council. He is a former CIA analyst and Middle East specialist. He is now a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He is author of the forthcoming book “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the next — those are the words of our next guest, Flynt Leverett, Senior — he was the Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council from March 2002 to March 2003. He was involved in developing President Bush’s positions on the Israel/Palestine situation and advised the President and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on relations with Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Prior to joining the National Security Council, Flynt Leverett was the Middle East and counterterrorism expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. Before that, he was senior C.I.A. analyst on Syria and Middle East Affairs. Flynt Leverett is currently a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute and author of the forthcoming book Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire . We welcome you to Democracy Now!

FLYNT LEVERETT: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s continue on what you were writing, that op-ed piece about Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. What are you concerned about?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I’m concerned about a number of things. As your quote highlighted, I’m particularly concerned that what is going to happen is we are going to end up empowering Hezbollah without any real mitigation of Hezbollah’s paramilitary or terrorist identities. Hezbollah is a very multi-faceted organization. It is, in many ways, a legitimate Lebanese political movement. It is the largest single party in the Lebanese parliament, and that has to be acknowledged as part of Lebanon’s contemporary political reality. At the same time though, Hezbollah is the terrorist organization that before September 11th had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world. Today it maintains an international terrorist network that is more capable of harming American interests than al Qaeda is; and I believe that the course we’re embarked on could very well result in a situation in which Hezbollah’s political influence, political stature, political standing in Lebanon and in the region is increased, but we’re not going to get Hezbollah’s disarmament or any constraint on Hezbollah’s paramilitary and terrorist activities.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it has a terrorist network more extensive than al Qaeda? What proof do you have of that?

FLYNT LEVERETT: There is substantial intelligence information, much of which has been discussed publicly by U.S. officials. The Hezbollah is a worldwide organization that in many respects does quite legitimate activities — social service kinds of activities, religious proselyzation — things that no one would really have any objection to. But intertwined with that network, in Lebanon, in the region, and literally around the world, there is a support network for international terrorist activities that is closely tied to Iranian intelligence.

AMY GOODMAN: We were just talking about John Bolton and about his nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In the letter that this group of diplomats wrote objecting to that nomination, they write that John Bolton’s unsubstantiated claims that Cuba and Syria are working on biological weapons further discredited the effect of U.S. warnings and U.S. intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. What about what he said about Syria?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that, to the extent that we have basically a solid basis for talking about Syria’s WMD activities, we know that they have a missile program. They have Scud missile brigades. They have the largest chemical weapons program in the region and they’ve weaponized chemical agents for deployment on top of their missiles. Beyond that, I think there is a lot of speculation. People talk about a possible nuclear program. Maybe Syria was one of the customers of the A.Q. Khan network; but there’s no real evidence to substantiate that. The I.A.E.A. continues to say there is no evidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program. Similarly, on the biological weapons front; I mean, certainly given the dual-use nature of much contemporary pharmaceutical and biomedical technology, you could say that Syria has infrastructure that could be applied to a biological weapons program. But there’s certainly no publicly available information that would substantiate an assessment that, you know, we know there is a biological weapons program.

AMY GOODMAN: Flynt Leverett, why did you leave the Bush administration?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I left for a couple of reasons. One was, as you said, I was working very hard on the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and I felt in the end that this administration was simply not going to take that issue seriously. I came to that conclusion for a couple of reasons. One was, in the road map, which I worked on very hard, there is really an unwillingness on the part of the administration to say very much about the parameters for resolving the key final status issues — status of Jerusalem, final boundaries, this kind of thing — and I thought that was really essential if we were going to move forward in this area.

Secondly, the administration had promised everyone it would put out the road map before the end of 2002, before the Iraq war; and then when Prime Minister Sharon called early elections in Israel, they decided not to do that. The argument that was made was: If we went ahead and put it out, we’d be interfering in Israeli politics. My argument was: If we pull the road map after we’ve told the world we’re going to put it out and pull it simply because Ariel Sharon asked us to, then we are, in fact, interfering in Israeli politics, just perhaps in a different direction. What can I say? I lost that argument. But I also felt in general the way that the administration was handling the war on terror was going badly off track. I thought Iraq was acting as a distraction, as a drain on critical resources that were still needed in the fight against al Qaeda; and I thought that our whole way of approaching state sponsors of terror, like Syria, like Iran, was not really grounded in a very effective strategy, and the administration took a position which essentially ruled out a kind of carrots-and-sticks diplomatic engagement with these states to try and get them out of the terrorism business. And so, for all these reasons I’ve left.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering if you can comment. There’s a piece in The New York Times today that says, “Columbia panel clears professors of anti-Semitism.” It says an ad hoc faculty committee charged with investigating complaints that pro-Israel Jewish students were harassed by pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia University said it had found one instance in which a professor had exceeded “commonly-accepted bounds of behavior when he became angry at a student when — who he believed was defending Israel’s conduct toward Palestinians.” But the report, obtained by The New York Times before its release today, had found no evidence that any statements made by the faculty could constitute — could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic. Do you feel that there is a crackdown on campus, that professors who are critical of Israeli policy are finding it hard to operate?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I don’t know. I think this is an issue which draws out passions on all sides; and in some cases it is unfortunate people who take a certain position which some would see as insufficiently supportive of Israeli interests end up being labeled as anti-Semitic. Some people who take positions which others would see as overly supportive of Israel are criticized as being anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian. I think, though, that kind of rhetoric really doesn’t help us engage on the real substance of the issues. The fact of the matter is that this is a conflict that has gone on for way too long, imposed too many costs on both sides — on the Arabs and on Israelis — and it’s a conflict which continues to be a drag on U.S. interest in the region. It’s in our interest to try and promote a fair solution to this conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think would be fair?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think that we’re going end up going to have two states. I think that if there’s going to be a settlement that meets the requirements of both sides, it’s going to mean that '67 borders are taken as a starting point for final boundaries; but there will be adjustments to those lines negotiated for security reasons, for other reasons, and there may be compensation to the Palestinians for land that they do not get that fits within the ’67 lines. I think Jerusalem's not going to be divided, but it will have to be shared, and it will have to function as the capital of two states, Israel and Palestinian; and while there may be a right of return for Palestinian refugees that’s recognized in principle, that right is not going to be implemented in a way that undermines the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Those are the basic compromises that I think have to undergird any final status settlement that would meet the minimum requirements of both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: And why shouldn’t Palestinians whose families, or who they themselves were pushed out of that region, not be allowed to return to their homes?

FLYNT LEVERETT: It’s not a question of being allowed or not being allowed. It’s a question of a reality that no Israeli government is going to agree to a resolution of the refugee issue that would undermine the Jewish character of the state of Israel, however that state is — the boundaries are finally determined. And I think that, you know, there are other ways to deal with the Palestinian refugee issue: Repatriation to the state of Palestine, settlement in third countries, various types of compensation. I mean, this is an issue that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have worked on for a long time. I think there are solutions out there to it that would meet the minimum needs of both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Flynt Leverett, former member of President Bush’s National Security Council, also former C.I.A. analyst and Middle East specialist. We have to break, but when we come back I’d like to ask you about the effect of people like Paul Wolfowitz being in the ascendancy and the effect that the invasion of Iraq had, and talk further about the future of Syria. The book that you have now written is called Inheriting Syria.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Flynt Leverett, former member of President Bush’s National Security Council, former C.I.A. analyst and Middle East specialist. He has written the book Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire. So, very briefly, the effects of the neoconservative ascendancy, are they still in it, Paul Wolfowitz in particular, and today the whole issue of him becoming President of the World Bank.

FLYNT LEVERETTPersonally I don’t see any real decline in the influence of the so-called neo-cons in the administration. I know there are some who are arguing that the administration is trying to chart a more centrist course, the voices of the neoconservative camp are more muted than they were during the first term. That’s not my reading of the center of gravity in this administration. And if you look at the way policy is going on a number of issues, I don’t really see a profound diminution in the influence of neoconservative ideas and perspectives. I think, to some degree, that kind of talk, in a way, it both does an injustice to and let’s President Bush off the hook. In a way he is getting the policies that he wants if neoconservatives are seen at certain points as having a, quote/unquote “disproportionate level of influence.” I think that’s because the ideas and policies that they’re pushing match with the President’s own preferences and inclinations, and therefore he chooses them. It is, in the end, his policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Final question on Syria. I would like to have you back in to talk extensively about the history of Syria and Bashar Assad. But how much control does Bashar Assad have over his own government, the son of the long reigning ruler there?

FLYNT LEVERETT: He clearly doesn’t have the kind of uncontested authority that his father enjoyed for, say, the last 15, 20 years that his father was in office. But I think it’s really not realistic to expect Bashar to have that level of control at this point in his evolution as Syrian leader. I think he does have a substantial amount of control. I think he does make the key decisions. He picks and chooses when he is prepared to have a disagreement with one or more elements in the so-called hold guard. He is prepared to do things against their wishes or against their preferences. But he wants to avoid, I think, an across the board confrontation with the old guard. So he is kind of picking and choosing where he wants to take a different course, where he wants to try and push something new and where he is prepared to hold back and, in a sense, be hemmed in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Flynt Leverett, his forthcoming book is called Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial By Fire.

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