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Interview with Shibley Telhami

Aired November 4, 2002 - 12:27   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: People of course in the Middle East, throughout the world, are very closely watching U.S. moves as far as Iraq is concerned. At least it's safe to say in public the majority at least in the Middle East apparently don't like what's going on. Shibley Telhami just got back from a two-week trip to the Middle East. He's also a political science professor at the University of Maryland, author of a new book, "The Stakes: America and the Middle East." Shibley, one of the knowledgeable analysts around, thanks for joining us.

BLITZER: Fair to say, people in the Middle East aren't happy with U.S. policy?

TELHAMI: In fact, what's really going on, Wolf, when you think about Saudi Arabia and what they're doing, everybody is taking their own secret polls, and the polls are of one mind: The vast majority in Saudi Arabia, in Jordan, everywhere you poll, opposed to the war. Period. And they certainly don't want to see their countries involved.

BLITZER: They don't see Saddam Hussein as a threat?

TELHAMI: No, they don't. And, actually, what's interesting is, of course, they don't trust American intentions. They see this as an American initiated activity to serve American interests. And they're also looking at it through the prisms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When you look at television in the region, as I was every single night, much of what you see is what's happening on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. That's what people see.

BLITZER: And so what you're saying is that is poisoning attitudes, even among moderate, pro-Western, pro-U.S. states, what's happening between the Israelis and Palestinians?

TELHAMI: There's no question that there is a relationship. But even aside from that, I would say that most people think that the U.S. is going after Iraq for its own interests, not because Iraq is violating U.N. resolutions. There is -- in fact, there is not really even clarity about the violations of the resolutions, because people make the argument and say, well, other countries have nuclear weapons. When you argue to them that well, other countries have not contracted to be free of weapons of mass destruction as Iraq did, they have a tough time with that. There's clear message there.

In the Saudi case, though, I think there is something else going on. I think what happened, frankly, a few weeks ago when the Saudis gave the impression through a statement that they would actually be possibly cooperative if there is a U.N. resolution, the impression was given that their position was softening, and that was a problem for them not only with their own public opinion but they thought they couldn't affect the American decision that way in a positive way.

BLITZER: Because, as you remember, the same Saud Al Faizal, the foreign minister, spoke with CNN's Jonathan Mann about a month ago, said exactly the opposite of what he told Christiane Amanpour, our Christiane Amanpour, this weekend.

TELHAMI: It's interesting and I think what's happening is, not only the polls, but what's happening also is that they now think that they don't want to give the impression that the position is softening because they think it's not a foregone conclusion that the U.S. will wage the war or at least that there will be U.N. resolutions supportive of what the U.S. wants to do.

BLITZER: We've got some e-mails. And I know you can answer these questions. James in Augusta, Georgia writes this: The Saudi prince seems to have allied himself with Saddam Hussein by denying the U.S. use of its bases or air space should we attack Iraq. Is this a sign of the collapse of the U.S.-Saudi alliance or does the prince fear Saddam's wrath?

TELHAMI: Well, I don't think it's the correct way to put it. I mean, frankly all of Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Israel, all of them have vital interests involved in what happens in the war. It's not just an America versus Iraq, it's really an international community versus Iraq. They have vital interests. It's their right actually to make the statements. If they're obligated by U.N. resolutions, every country should obey U.N. resolutions, if there is an obligation that comes out of that, but frankly everybody is trying to protect their vital interest in this environment. I think there is some problem obviously in the Saudi-U.S. relationship that's going to have to be addressed, both internally and externally. But ultimately, it is very clear that the U.S.-Saudi relation remains vitally important to both countries.

BLITZER: We have another e-mail from Pearl in Boston: Will the recent election of an Islamist-based party in Turkey affect that country's role as a U.S. ally in a potential war with Iraq?

TELHAMI: You know, the good news about Turkey is, it was a democratic election, and too there still is a commitment to secularism, with two very important conditions for a vibrant Turkish policy, regardless of who wins. Those are the positive sides.

The negative side from the point of view of the U.S. is a party that is not exactly the most friendly to the U.S. has won. And I think when you consider the impact of that and you consider that the Islamists did well in Bahrain, that they did reasonably well in Pakistan, that a year after 9/11, some of the most important forces that are not exactly America's friends are winning, something is wrong, and it really does matter. I don't think it's just a -- we should just rush and say well the military in Turkey is still committed to the U.S. But the military faces a domestic problem.

BLITZER: As you know, the word we get from administration officials maybe not necessarily publicly, but privately, is all of these countries, whether the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, in Bahrain or Qatar, they'll come around -- the Kuwaitis -- as soon as the United States begins to move because they'll want to be on the winning side and they're looking to a post-Saddam era.

TELHAMI: There's some truth to that. Hey, I mean, nobody wants to be on the losing side, and it became inevitable, some of the countries will come on board, frankly. I think what is uncertain now is they really are in new territory particularly with their inability to control public opinion because of the new media. That is a factor they haven't really experimented with yet, and they're all frightened. So we're not going to have the same type of coalition that is going to emerge as emerged back in 1991.

The second thing is I think all of them, with no exception, they may want to jump on the bandwagon because they don't want to be on a losing side but all of them are frightened by the consequences. None of them want it. And the delicate balance is now between their thinking that the war is inevitable, as some do, and their thinking that maybe it still can be prevented.

BLITZER: You were just in Damascus also. We don't speak to a lot of people who were just in Damascus. What's the thinking over there? What's going on, because of course Syria is a member of the Security Council.

TELHAMI: Two things. One, I think they're of the opinion that war has become inevitable. I think they are of that opinion. Second, they don't want the war, and the most important thing is they're fearful for the disintegration of Iraq. They;re less fearful, interestingly, of the possibility that the U.S. would become an imperial power in the region. They don't think the American people actually have imperialism in their heart. They're actually more worried about the disintegration of Iraq and the consequences for the conflict with Israel. Those are the issues that are on their minds.

BLITZER: Very briefly, you were just in Israel as well. You were right near Tel Aviv. We just had this report on this latest bombing that occurred there. A new, more right-wing government without Labor inside. How will that affect potentially the Israeli response if there is a U.S. war against Iraq.

TELHAMI: Frankly, I don't think it's going to make a difference. I think that the reality of it is the Israelis are calculating now based on the relationship with the U.S., based on the relationship with the possible Iraq war. I don't think it -- obviously, it might be a more extreme response but ultimately the policy will remain the same in the short term. I want to say, though, I was in both the West Bank and Israel, and obviously in the West Bank you have a feeling of humiliation and hopelessness, on the Israeli side you have fear and a sense of helplessness, and those two are paralyzing politics in each side. You have a cycle that is feeding on itself. BLITZER: Shibley Telhami, I would recommend to all our viewers, the book, "The Stakes," one of the best books out there. Thanks very much.

TELHAMI: Thanks very much.

BLITZER: We'll be reading the book and learning from it.

TELHAMI: I appreciate that.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.


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