Anatol Lieven is a senior research fellow on Russia, Europe, and South Asia at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, D.C. He is the author of numerous books, including Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2004, and revised in 2012), and most recently, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Changing World. In the 1980s and 1990s Lieven worked as a journalist, and was a correspondent for the Times of London in South Asia and the former Soviet Union. He is the winner of the George Orwell Prize for Political Writing for his book The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Path to Independence. Diwan interviewed Lieven in the third week of July to get his perspective on America in the Middle East, at a time when U.S. involvement in the region is going through major change.
Michael Young: In America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, a remarkable forecast of the Donald Trump years, you view U.S. support for Israel as inherent to what you call America’s “radical nationalist discourse.” What do you mean and what place does Israel hold in U.S. political culture?
Anatol Lieven: The United States—or at least the U.S. establishment—has been brought up to regard Israel as virtually a part of the United States, or at least very closely identified with it in terms of culture, society, and values. It’s a bit like the way the British used to see Australia or the Russians saw Serbia. The result has been that the enemies and critics of Israel are seen automatically as enemies of the United States. This however may be changing gradually among American liberals—witness the writings of Peter Beinart in the New York Times. Views like his would have been impossible to express a decade ago.
MY: One dimension of the U.S. disengagement from the Middle East has been what can only be described as an uneasy relationship with Islam—in the sense that there is a perceived cultural fault line between America and the Muslim world. How would you fit this into your examination of American nationalism, and what have the consequences of this been for Muslims in the United States?
AL: I don’t think that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East. It is pulling back from the vastly intensified engagement that resulted from the end of the Cold War, the start of the “war on terror,” and above all the invasion of Iraq. The complicated U.S. relationship with Islam comes in part from a real divergence of values, but much more from the contradictory impulses of U.S. loyalty to Israel (something that is bitterly unpopular among most Muslims and makes them ipso facto critics of the United States) and U.S. alliances with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Muslim countries, which necessitate a respectful attitude toward Islam. This tension I expect to continue for a long time to come.
MY: You don’t believe there is a U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, but there appears to be a drive in the region by states to fill the spaces opened up by the Americans in recent years. This includes regional non-Arab states—Turkey, Iran, and Israel—as well as Russia and more assertive Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates. Could the U.S. have handled the transition away from its dominant role better, and what are the consequences of such dynamics today?
AL: It is not U.S. disengagement from the Middle East that has created opportunities for Russia and Iran. After all Russia has long had important interests in the region, while Iran has been there for 2,500 years or so before the United States came on the scene. The opportunities have been created by too much U.S. engagement of the wrong kind—the destruction of the Iraqi and Libyan states and the absurd U.S. attempt to fight the Islamic State and overthrow Syria’s regime at the same time. All this created an opening—the Russian and Iranian governments would say a duty—for them to intervene.
The United States could certainly have handled its pullback from the hyperinterventionism of the George W. Bush presidency much better. Above all this would have involved an earlier and more determined attempt at rapprochement with Iran. It would have also included stronger efforts to limit the influence and behavior of Saudi Arabia, and of course would have excluded Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty with Iran. The reasons for this U.S. failure have far more to do with domestic U.S. politics and the influence of the pro-Israel lobby than they do with U.S. national interests or the needs of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
MY: You covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Times of London during the 1980s. As the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, can you explain how the country might become a new front in the regional rivalries of the Middle East, by virtue of being on Iran’s border?
AL: Afghanistan may become a new front in regional rivalries, but this is not certain. Most of the major powers in the region (including now even India) recognize the need to establish good working relations with the Taliban, as long as the Taliban do not threaten them by supporting international terrorism. India, of course, insists rightly that the Taliban’s opposition to international terrorism based in Afghanistan must also include opposition to Pakistani Islamist groups that target India.
A crucial factor will be the relations between the mainly Pashtun Taliban and Afghanistan’s other ethnic and ethnoreligious populations. If Afghanistan returns to the situation before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban were at war with the Shia Hazara and the Turkic Uzbeks, then Iran and Turkey will almost inevitably be drawn in on the other side—especially if Saudi Arabia resumes support for the Taliban as a way of attacking Iran and expanding Wahhabi influence. Ideally, a regional consensus could successfully pressure the Taliban to respect the autonomy of minority areas. Whether this will take place I do not know.
MY: This coming September we will be commemorating the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. For you what are the main lessons American should take away from the conflict-ridden two-decade encounter with the broader Middle East?
AL: The lessons are multiple, and in some cases replicate lessons that the United States should have learned from its mistakes (and sometimes crimes) during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The first is not to become so obsessed with the enemy of the particular moment that this drowns out other important interests. Second, the United States should be careful not to allow a belief in the absolute evil of the enemy to justify its own evil actions and support for evil regimes. Third, it is absolutely essential not to lump a range of very different countries and forces in the world into one allegedly homogenous enemy camp. This is what the United States did during the first decades of the Cold War (until president Richard Nixon visited communist China), and Bush repeated this disastrously with his “Axis of Evil” approach and his deeply foolish and immoral use of the 9/11 attacks to justify the invasion of Iraq, which had no connection to those attacks.
One way of avoiding this kind of mistake and guarding the U.S. establishment against such manipulation is to cultivate real expert knowledge of key countries and regions of the world. Daniel Ellsberg famously wrote that when the United States dispatched its military to South Vietnam in 1965, there was not a single official in the Pentagon who could have passed a freshman exam in Vietnamese history, society, or culture. Shamefully, the U.S. officials who planned the invasion of Iraq were equally ignorant of that country. After 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, many of the U.S. “experts” pontificating about the country lack real knowledge of the place. Amid the hysteria about Russia, real study of Russia in U.S. universities and think tanks has plummeted. This is no way for a superpower to run an efficient global strategy.