Conversation with Vitaly Naumkin (1).
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 2/19/03
Welcome, Professor Naumkin.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in a very interesting place, which is the city of Yekaterinburg. This was a city where the first president of Russia, Mr. Yeltsin, was also born. It was a very isolated city, because it was mainly the place where a very substantial part of military industries of the former Soviet Union were located. So we felt very much isolated from the world, because there were no foreigners when I was just a youth. At my school, we knew very, very, very few things about the world. We knew them from the TV, from the mass media, but we were very much isolated. And so my choice was very unusual for going to Moscow and studying international relations and the Middle East.
Before we talk about that, tell us a little bit about how your parents shaped your thinking about the world. Did you talk much about the world?
No; they were surprised by my choice, because they had been preparing me for a different career. They were theatre people. My father was a ballet director at the local theater, and that was the background of my family. My grandfather was an officer in the czar’s army; he died many years ago. My father first was a great dancer in Moscow, then he went to Siberia for some reasons, and he settled in Sverdslosk. He became director of this ballet and he survived all these difficult years. My mother was also a dancer at the theater, and they were not very much interested in politics. They were interested in reading literature, novels, the arts. They read a lot, and they were interested in everything, but they are not interested, professionally, in politics. So my interest towards history and international relations in the world was based on my self-education and reading.
Did you go to Moscow with an inclination to do international studies, or did you acquire this inclination in Moscow?
I acquired this while in Yekaterinburg.
And I decided to go then. When I graduated from high school, I went to Moscow University where I studied history and international relations as majors, and also Arabic as one of my majors.
What drew you to the Middle East as a subject matter?
God knows what. It was very exotic in those days and I read a lot about that. I found it charming and very interesting, very unusual. Maybe because of the fact that it was very far from the world where I lived, where I was brought up. I found it extremely interesting, especially history and language, culture. I was dreaming about that.
What year did you get your Ph.D.?
The Ph.D. was in ’72.
And you have, obviously, a facility for languages. You speak Arabic, French, English, and Russian.
Yes. I studied also some Persian as well, and one very rare language of the same area, the language of one very distant island in the Indian Ocean, which is the Socotran language — the language of Socotra, a very rare language; it was my hobby to study this language and to go there.
To do research?
Yes, I did some research and published several books on that.
Your education and your focus on the Middle East occurred at a time when the Soviet Union still existed, so I’m curious about how the fall of the Soviet Union, the fall of communism, affected you personally and the way you see the world.
I wouldn’t say it affected my thinking about the world, because my thinking hasn’t changed. I was always in favor of liberal ideas and liberal changes and democratic changes in our country and everywhere. But the collapse of communism changed our position as researchers, because everything had been supported by the state and controlled by the state prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was hard for some people to find their new niche in the new life.
It was a bit difficult, but it was intriguing to live differently. I think that I was able, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to find my place in this world. My international contacts helped me a lot; my interest is not only in the Middle East, but in Central Asia and to the Caucasus, because I was also interested in all the Islamic areas. So I was interested in Islam, and then part of my research had been done on Islam prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. So after the collapse, maybe I paid more attention to the new independent states, the former republics of the Soviet Union, due to the fact that they belonged, now, to the Islamic world.
I’m curious about your incubation as a liberal during the Soviet period. Was that because you were an academic, or because of the range of readings, or what?
I think it was partly personal, partly because I was an academic, and partly because I was dealing with issues, with parts of the world, which were not so strongly ideological for the government, for the Party, as, for instance, American studies or European studies, or studies of Soviet or Russian history, or the problems of Russia. So what I thought about Russia was not a part of my research. What I did was the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, and Islam. So I think that Oriental Studies, which I was specializing in (at least, I had been specializing in that until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I became involved in Russian politics and on our internal problems as well), was not as controlled. There was much more opportunity for self-expression in these studies.
With this background, and with the fall of the Soviet Union and the importance of Central Asia in the world’s consciousness since 9/11, how do you evaluate the Soviet experiment in Central Asia as an effort to bring modernity to a very traditional way of life?
I think, as is the case in every colonial experience, it is a balance. On the one hand, we can praise this experiment because of the modernization that was done, because these countries were like what we can see in Afghanistan. They were tribal areas with very, very backward economies and social structures. When Russia came to Central Asia in the second half of the nineteenth century, during the Russian Empire, the idea or the concept of modernization was more or less successful — and even after the Revolution, [under] Soviet rule. Of course, there were a lot of negative sides of that, but it can be compared with what the Soviet rule did to all parts of the Soviet Union, [including] Russia itself. But as far as the regions of the Soviet Union, as far as the former republics are concerned, I think modernization was maybe one of the best achievements of the old regime, despite all these negatives sides, which we all know.
Do you believe that the tenets of Islam are incompatible with modernization and modernity? One wonders sometimes whether this apparent incompatibility is a product of what was done to the Islamic world, either by imperialism or by capitalism or communism under the Soviet Union. Or whether there are parts of the tenets of Islam that are incompatible with, for example, the requirement of modernization to separate the state and government from religion.
It’s a hard question. I believe that Islam can be closely linked with modernization and can be modernized, and is compatible. We cannot say that any religion is incompatible with modernity, because all these religions — they are different, but all these Abrahamic religions — are very similar. Islam is a very special sort of religion, at the same time, because it very closely relates power with the state. The concept of state and power was always a part of all Islamic teachings, and the first Islamic state — the state of Prophet Mohammed — was a theocracy. This is one of the reasons why Islam is pretending to control the greater part of the individual’s life and controlling the state as well.
So to what extent can modernity be brought into Islamic territories? We know that there are a lot of modernizers within Islam. There are a lot of thinkers starting from the nineteenth century who dreamed about organizing Islam everywhere, starting from Muhammed Abdo in Egypt, as well as in Russia, in Central Asia. We had the so-called “jadids” who were modernizers, and a lot of other groups that dreamed about modernizing the Islamic world. We had, also, traditionalists who were thinking in more traditional terms. And we had the so-called revivalists who were fundamentalists aiming at reviving the idea of the Islamic state and returning to the old days of the first theocratic rule within the Islamic world.
I think that it is counterproductive to impose changes in the Islamic world by force or from the outside world. The more you pressure the Islamic world, the more ground you will create for these fundamentalists and traditionalists to exploit this situation in order to protect their own values. Any society within the Islamic world is a traditional one, and especially if it’s fragmented, it’s a part of their identity. You cannot just organize a sort of cultural invasion. The cultural pressure from the developed growth is in itself so great that the people have a counter-reaction against it. They’re trying to protect their own values. And it creates the ground for political mobilization on the part of those evil forces who want to use the situation in order to seize power. They’re thinking about power, nothing more.
Let’s take a look at the Cold War and the dynamic that led the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and led the United States to respond to that invasion. What followed was a decade of clandestine and open struggle. In retrospect, how important was that dynamic and the wreckage that resulted in creating the present situation in which the fundamentalists appear to have taken something of an upper hand, at least as Islam presents itself globally?
The invasion in Afghanistan was one of the most serious and tragic mistakes of the Soviet government in those days. It was more than a mistake; it was even a crime. It didn’t serve any interests of the people of the Soviet Union in those days, and even the regime itself, because it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in general. It created a lot of problems for many years between the Russians and the Islamic world as well.
Historic memories are very powerful in all traditional societies. The history is there in the hearts and the souls of the people in all countries, and people won’t forget the woes of this war. But the [immediate] negative result was that, due to the rationale, to the logic of the Cold War, the United States supported Islamic forces that actually were not only struggling against the Soviet Union as an invader — these Islamic forces were right in trying to do that — but at the same time, they were against modernization. They were traditional forces, revivalists, fundamentalists who were working against modernization of the country, which was imposed by the Soviets in those days. So forget about communism; I wouldn’t say that it is impossible to imagine that Afghanistan could have been turned into a communist country.
So you are talking about big power politics.
Yes. But a result of that on one side was the main factor of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a big crisis in Russia, which is still there. And on the other hand, we had very powerful Islamic fundamentalist movements, supported by the West from the days when [Western leaders] liked Osama bin Laden fighting within the ranks of these guys who were supported by the West and who found funding from Saudi Arabia and military support from Pakistan, and also were supported by the United States.
What do you see as the role of the Saudis in adding to this witches brew that has emerged from that part of the world?
Saudi Arabia is a very important country. It is important because it’s a cradle of Wahhabism, a very puritan, very special kind of Islam, though they prefer not to call themselves Wahhabis but Salafis or adherents of classical Islam, of the Islam of the first days of the Islamic state. The Saudis have always supported all sorts of these revivalist and fundamentalist movements in the world.
By the way, the Saudis now are saying that the West owes Saudi Arabia at least two things. I spoke to one of the rulers in Saudi Arabia, one of the ruling families. He told me, “Yes, the West owes us two things. First, we helped the United States in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, because we supported Europe with cheap oil. Second, we helped them to liberate Europe and also Russia from the communists, because we supported the struggle of the Mujahedin in Afghanistan. It exploded the whole situation, and Eastern Europe was liberated from communism.”
It is partly true. But what is the agenda of those Saudis? They have different agendas. The ruling family, which has modernized part of the society, has friendly relations with the West. They have their agenda in modernizing society, but keeping the power in their hands as well. But there are a lot of forces within the society who have quite a different agenda in building Islamic states all over the world, and supporting those who are now working as terrorists against, practically speaking, human civilization.
Other than the trail left by the Saudis and the bipolar conflict between the Soviets and the U.S., what else do you think is driving the dynamic, leading to the empowering of this global fundamentalist movement?
There are a lot of socioeconomic factors, [including] a very big gap between different states, different regions, and different social forces. Many of these states are ruled by dictators, and there is a clear lack of democracy in these countries, or sometimes an absence of any elements of democracy. Also, no participation on the part of people, no participation at all in any sort of decision-making. They cannot be represented in any way.
The problem of self-expression is so strong that the people find in the Islamic alternative something that can bring a change in their conditions, in their lives. They’re not satisfied with these conditions. So when the Leftist (or socialist or communist) alternative disappeared because there’s no credibility — maybe for many years already, who knows? — the only alternative is Islam, and maybe radical Islam, because they are proposing easy solutions. So, “Welcome back to the State of Caliphate, or Islamic group, where everybody will be equal.”
These are the same ideas as the communists used: social justice, equality, wealth distributed among everybody. “You’ll participate in all these things through the Islamic mechanisms, and it will be fair. The state will be fair to everybody.” It’s not mere coincidence that a lot of former followers of socialist ideas (or Arab nationalist ideas, because Arab nationalism was also discredited) became fundamentalists. They just turned to support the Islamicists, they became adherents of the radical Islamic movements.
This shift can also be explained in terms of the scope of the social, economic, psychological, and cultural problems. Also, anti-Westernization is a very substantial part of this process. The people feel frustrated because they feel that the West is very strong; it invades their society, including Western mass media, information, education, wealth, technology, everything. They have their own identity, they would like to protect themselves from this strong pressure.
I think the West in general, [including] Europe, needs to have some self-restraint. We have to be cautious about intervening in the affairs of Islam. We have to help to enhance modernization, but very cautiously, without breaking this, because it reminds them of the past. If we are going to change everything, to impose these changes by force, well, we’ll just behave like Bolsheviks. They had the same idea of changing everything, you know, the export of revolution. I think the export of democracy is not less harmful than the idea of the export of revolution.
3-Russian Perspectives on Islam
Does your description and analysis suggest that in the present environment, Russia and the United States have a great compatibility of interests in dealing with that part of the world?
Absolutely. I think that we have full compatibility in dealing with these parts of the world. We have common interests. These are interests in providing security to all of us. Russia regards itself as a part of the Western world and wants to be a close ally to the United States, and I think Mr. Putin’s politics, especially since September 11, are a clear evidence of his course.
Putin’s main idea is an idea of modernization. He wants to modernize the country, and he’s ready to do whatever is needed to [accomplish] that. Of course, the latest contradiction on the issue of Iraq is a very special case. But in general, there is a clear coincidence of interest, security, of economic interests. Russia is interested in, I think, American presence in the world, economically and politically. But, as I said, it will be very counterproductive to understand this as trying to change this world in accordance with our recipes, by force, and trying to speed up all these developments. I’m in favor of evolution, so all these regimes can undergo certain evolution as the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe did. They did it successfully.
Before we talk a little about Iraq, let’s talk about how Russia is dealing with Islamic fundamentalism and questions of autonomy for particular regions within its own boundaries. How would you assess the way the different post-Soviet Russian regimes have dealt with the province of Chechnya?
Russia has a bad record of dealing with Chechnya, though I would rather say that in general, the Russian government’s position towards Muslim regions and towards Islam and those who seek autonomy and these ethnic minorities — this policy is not bad at all. It’s not bad at all. We have very broad autonomies for all these regions, and there is much tolerance in the politics of Kremlin towards these regions. I think the government is very cautious about impeding changes or trying to spread its control over spheres that are very sensitive for the Muslims.
Does that extend back to the Soviet period, what you’re describing? Or is this only now?
The Soviet Union was different. You know, it was controversial. On the one hand there were some positive elements, for instance, in spreading education and culture in certain regions. And also, developing local, maybe ethnic elites and so on. But in general, the Soviet national policy did a lot of damage to [Chechnya], and its atheistic Bolshevik dimension was even more damaging. There were a lot of positive things done in Central Asia in the Islamic region, especially in the sphere of education and modernization, but Chechnya is a very sad case.
It happened that this region was alienated. On the one hand, it’s the legacy of the past, because there was a big Caucasian war in the nineteenth century. Now the question is why — if this is the main reason, as some Chechens think — why are the other ethnic groups in the Northern Caucases are not conducting such revolts? Dagestan, for instance, because of the implication of Imam Shamil in the nineteenth century, who was an Avar from Dagestan. He was not a Chechen. Most of the imamate, Shamil’s followers who were conducting this war against Russia for many years, were Avars — the Avar component was the main one. As far as the Dagestanis were concerned, there was no problem. The Ingush, an ethnic group very close to Chechens, are a very peaceful group and they have no problems with Moscow.
Why is Chechnya so different?
Why is Chechnya different? The Chechens are very independent-minded people. I think they have a very special mentality, very special political culture of violence. And being deported — but many ethnic groups were deported; some of them are now quite comfortable. They didn’t, of course, forget about these deportations. But the Chechens are different. They have a very strong historic memory, very strong culture of violence, very strong love for freedom, and a very specific mentality which helped them to start this rebellion. In the beginning, this rebellion or these ideas were supported, unfortunately, by some democrats from the center, because the main idea of some democrats in the beginning of the nineties was to replace the old nomenklatura, the old Party bureaucrats who were ruling these regions, with some new people. They were imagining; they had some illusions about the fact that maybe Mr. Dudayev was a new guy, a new general.
A Chechen general who was supported as somebody [new] instead of the old Party bureaucracy. He would be a good ally of the new democratic Russia. And it was a mistake, because he came with crazy ideas. I wouldn’t say that they had no right to struggle for independence, but they have to use legitimate means for that. But what happened under Dudayev, Chechnya turned into a place where a lot of people were taking hostages, were being kidnapped, and a lot of criminal affairs were just a part of their ordinary life. He tried to change the traditional way of life of the Chechens and turn it into an Islamic rule, in the fundamental sense, and a lot of bad things were done. Of course, I still think that it was a mistake that the Kremlin started the war. There was still some opportunity to deal with the problem, to solve the problem by peaceful means, but it wasn’t done then.
Now we’re all leaving. We’re all seeing all these bad, very negative consequences of the situation. The war is still there, though the active phase of war is over. I am a cautious optimist. I think that most of the Chechens now think about their future. They want to live peacefully. And there is some opportunity of solving this problem. So I think that both sides, the Chechens and the government, have to be more tolerant, to use better ways for understanding and trying to solve this problem peacefully.
Is the rebellion there, or whatever is the appropriate term, the discontent and so on, how much is it affected by these external forces, both in concrete aid, but also in terms of ideology?
Very much. I would say that in general, it’s insurgency. In general, it’s a separatist movement. A certain part of this movement is a terrorist one. Not all Chechens fighters are terrorists, but some of them are. And some of them are international terrorists. It’s supported by international terrorists.
I listened to the lecture of Mr. Akhmadov, who is a Foreign Minister of the unrecognized Chechen government of Ichkeria, and he said that the Chechens now are fragmented, that they’re confronting each other. It’s a very tragic result of this war, because it’s not only a conflict between Chechens and Russians, it’s a conflict between Chechens themselves. Most Chechens live in Russian territory outside Chechnya.
And second that the Chechens, when living in these circumstances [under Soviet rule], were ready to accept any aid from whoever was supporting them. So the aid was coming from international organizations — terrorists, radicals, Islamic organizations aimed at creating an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. We know all that. I know that when I travel through the Middle East, this aid is so much that you can go in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and in any country you can enter and see there is support for fighters in Chechnya. The people are donating money. A lot of them are in favor of this military insurgency. [Or on the other hand,] when they are called to support the poor Chechens suffering from the infidel rule, they give money, and this money is used not for good purposes. Sometimes [it’s used] in terrorist networks all over the world and it’s used for drug trafficking, for killing people. In general, this is part of an anti-Western, anti-Christian big battle, which is conducted by these Islamic forces.
Not all Chechens are of this kind. I’m far from describing all Chechens as terrorists. There are people who are separatists and there are people who are innocent victims who are just forced to go there. They have no way but to support this. That’s the most tragic thing in the present situation. It’s very difficult for Mr. Putin to find ways to solve this problem. But the Russian leaders are trying, and there will be elections, a referendum. Maybe it will help to solve the problem.
As the international Islamic fundamentalist movement identifies with various movements for autonomy within particular nation states, what immediately comes to mind is the question of Israel and the Palestinians. Do you think that the Arab states and international Islam can reconcile themselves to the existence of Israel as a state, even though certain fundamentalist terrorists groups might oppose that existence?
I think the Arab states, or many of them, have already accepted the existence of Israel. Many states. First of all, in Egypt, which is maybe the main and the most important Arab state, recognition is possible. Now, of course, there are fundamentalists who are using every opportunity to kill recognizing Israel on the part of the Arabs. But, unfortunately, the situation is so bad in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians that there is a fertile ground for Islamists and for radical groups to use it. You know, they say, “No, there is no other way to liberate our land, but to start this struggle using all these methods.” And history knows that many liberation movements resort not only to using violence, but to terrorism to liberate themselves from what they consider to be an invasion or foreign rule. That’s true.
4- The Case of Iraq
Let’s talk now a little about Iraq. You have studied Iraq; you’ve been there. You were, I believe, involved in negotiations at the time of the first Persian Gulf War and so on. What is the nature of that regime? What is the most important thing for an American audience that might not have all the facts before it to understand that regime?
I think it’s a very specific regime, but if we go a little back, we can see that somewhere in the fifties and sixties, there were several movements in the Arab world that were supported by the majority of the Arabs. They were secular nationalists. The first one was Nasser, Nasserism. This ideology was supported by many people. And then there was Ba’athism, the Ba’athist doctrine, which was born in the end of the forties, maybe the first Arab real nationalist movement which was born [in Syria]. It was the second one. And then was the so-called Movement of Arab Nationalists. So these three movements were transnational Arab movements that were calling people to support the idea of the Arab state, Arab nation, and liberation.
Nasserism died, practically, and cannot be considered as a political force, but Ba’athists remained. Two Ba’athist regimes remained. The first one is the Iraqi regime; the second one is the Syrian regime, which is a Ba’athist regime, a secular regime.
We can hardly imagine that this regime can have good relations with radical Islamists, or even terrorist groups. So for me, the arguments for these connections are very flimsy, because Ba’athist and all Arab nationalists have been always considered by terrorists and radical extremist Islamic groups as the main enemies, because they were not allowing them to gain supporters, to win support of the Arabs within these countries.
The main war was between these two factions — secular Arab nationalists and Islamists — all over this history. [The Iraqi regime] was this sort of regime. Of course, it’s a brutal regime. Of course, it’s oppressing people. This regime deserves to be criticized, but at the same time, Saddam Hussein, when he started the war against Iran, was supported by many states, including the United States.
We have to recognize that Iraq was supported against Iran. You can say that it was the lesser of two evils in those days, as some people say. But still, many of my American colleagues who served in the administration say, “Yes, it was a mistake to support Saddam at the end of 1980s.” But who knows, Saddam Hussein and this regime [may have] had some hints and illusions that they would be supported even if they invaded Kuwait.
The Iraqis — at least the people, at least the intellectuals, not only Ba’athist — think that they have legal rights to find ways to solve the conflict with Iran, because of the access to the Persian Gulf. They think the [Irani] regime, with the access through the river Shatt al Arab, is not fair to the Iraqis. They have the same scores with the Kuwaitis, whatever the government is. And Iraq will even if there is a new government. It will start by trying to [gain access], hopefully through negotiations, but it has legitimate security interests in solving the problem of the access to the Persian Gulf. It exists and it’s acknowledged by all specialists and experts here and there.
In the sixties and seventies, the Iraqi regime made some positive changes in the country. There was some development, so a lot of people were satisfied with their position. I have met Iraqis traveling all over the world, like [low-level] officials and even schoolteachers who were having their vacations in Europe, buying cars, and just spending a couple of months traveling all over these countries. So we cannot say that everything was bad and everyone was oppressed.
Of course, almost all these regimes have a very bad record of human rights. Who has a good record on human rights in the Middle East? Who has a better record of democracy, for instance? If we are speaking about connections with this or that regime and extremists, look at, for instance, Pakistan. The Taliban are there. A lot of people from al Qaeda are in Pakistan. Pakistan illegally produced nuclear weapons. The government is not controlling a part of its territory. There are a lot of supporters of terrorist organizations within the government or governmental organizations, within the armed forces, and especially in intelligence, who have been involved in supporting the Taliban for many years. Many Pakistanis could be [involved].
I think it’s very important for all of us to concentrate, because we’re all partners in an anti-terrorist coalition and this global war against terror. The main target is international terrorism, and in this target, there are places where still the terrorists can find a safe haven. I heard from some of the commentators from the TV channels here that there are still al Qaeda supporters in the United States! I don’t think that in Iraq we can see a fertile ground for supporting international terrorists. It’s a secular regime. It has a bad score, very bad from the point of view of human rights. But this regime wants to survive, to stay in power, and there is still some very slim opportunity to engage it and to reckon with it, on the basis of complying with all the resolutions of the United Nations.
So you would argue that the arguments about the danger of weapons of mass destruction, the dangers of links to terrorism, need to be weighed in the context of what else is going on in the region. I would guess that the administration would argue that Iraq has crossed the line. I mean, sure, there are [other] human rights violators in the region, but no one has used chemical weapons against its own population as the Iraqis did against the Kurds. And no one, — Pakistan aside, because I think your point is well taken there — has apparently as aggressively moved to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
India, yeah. Not an Arab country, but okay.
I guess the thrust of your argument calls into question the notion that it’s necessary to intervene in Iraq, as opposed to somewhere else; but also embedded in the [Bush] administration’s policy is the notion that Iraq can become a platform from which the whole region can be democratized. You don’t believe that, do you?
Hopefully, it can happen and we’ll be all glad if everybody is democratized in this world. But the question is whether you are able to do it by military force, and what is the cost of this behavior, of this action? The results can be contrary to what you are expecting. Your agenda is democratization, but it might lead to chaos in this country and all over the Islamic world. There is also a score-settling risk, because the country is highly fragmented. It’s inhabited by Arabs, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, everybody, and a lot of factions that have hated each other for many years.
The country is ruled by a Sunni minority; the country is ruled by a Ba’athist party. But it is a mistake to imagine that there is only a regime of one dictator. There is a deep-rooted regime with many people who are supporting this guy, who are members of his party, who are officers of the army and the security apparatus. What are you going to do with all these people? There will be a lot of revenge. A lot of people will be ready to have the same privileges as their people had. And there will be a lot of blood in this country. So are you going to engage these people? What is your agenda? Until now, I haven’t heard anything. I’m not sure whether anybody has any clear vision about who the new people are going to be. Now, there will be very old scores settled in this country.
Also, the change in the very fragile balance of power in this country can lead into some very severe conflicts between Turks and Iraqis or Turks and Kurds. The involvement of Turkey is very dangerous, not a very easy way. Without Turkey, you cannot do anything, but with Turkey, it also creates new risks. I think the measure of the level of threat, of course, is exaggerated. Saddam Hussein cannot represent a major threat to anyone, even if he has several missiles that exceed the six-mile range which has been proscribed by the [Security Council] resolution.
For the last eleven years, Saddam hasn’t done anything as a terrorist. The Iraqis were not resorting to terrorism. It’s also surprising. He is doing a lot of bad things, but he is not an international terrorist. And he has, in my view, no clear links with anybody else. Even if there are remnants of weaponry, is it easier for the Islamic terrorists to have access to these remnants [than to] to the Pakistani weapons, for instance? Or chemical weapons that are available in many, many states of the region?
We know that a lot of states were experimenting in the field of chemical weapons and biological weapons. Simply, we don’t know what companies from Europe helped Iraq. There are rumors that, maybe, in Egypt, they tried to do that. Maybe in some North African states, maybe in some South Asian states — we don’t know. There are a lot of opportunities to trade a dirty bomb, to use nuclear waste, which is buried even in Central Asia. So who knows where the terrorists are going to be?
We have to concentrate on this target, not to allow them to do whatever they can do. But the Bolshevik-type idea of creating Iraq into a platform of democratization by imposing internal conflict is not a very good idea.
I get the sense that, drawing on your breadth of knowledge and study of the region, you are saying that the United States, and also in some cases in the past, Russia, have ignored the complexity of Islam and the Arab world, and not focused enough on the fragmentation, and the opposition that’s created by intervention and efforts to impose either Western values or a Western security agenda. Are those the key elements in what we’re missing and misperceiving in this part of the world, as we develop our policies?
You are right. We have to acknowledge the fact that we may have to live with some bad guys. It’s inevitable. We have to understand all this complexity of the situation in the Middle East, because sometimes we are satisfied with bad regimes, with bad guys, but who are friendly towards us. I am saying “us,” because we are now in one place. We are allies — the West, Russia, it’s all the same in my view. For the Muslims, for the Arabs, it’s all the same. Sometimes they look friendly, but they have, still, a lot of problems as far as their population is concerned, because they create problems for the population, and they make them supporters of the most aggressive, radical, extremist movements.
At the same time, there are countries and states that we may be not very pleased with, but still they’re moving towards democracy. Look at Iran, for instance. I was surprised by the fact that President Khatami was elected by free election. He was not supported by the ruling group of mullahs, who were supporting the speaker of the parliament. So it means that there are elements of democracy in Iran, and these elements are stronger than in many other states of this region which are more friendly to the West, but not advanced very much in the path towards democracy. So is necessary to be taken into account. We have to support some forces of change, of modernization, and even some moderate factions of the Islamic movement to integrate them into modern society, to turn them into our friends, and not to alienate.
I’m not against change, but I think to go to war in every case [where] we dislike someone, and to put into our records, in our history, that, for instance, there was what could be described as an American-Arab war, will be not very productive for the future of U.S.-Arab relations. The same about Russia and Islam. I don’t think that this war in Chechnya serves our security 100 percent, though it was maybe necessary. Now it’s necessary to do something. We cannot just withdraw our forces, to leave them. It’s impossible. It will not work. But sometimes, it’s better to find ways for understanding and not to go to war whenever it is possible.
Professor Naumkin, on that note, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to visit the Berkeley campus this semester and also for being a guest on our program. Thank you very much.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure and distinct privilege to do that.
Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
1- President of the Moscow-based International Center for Strategic and Political Studies, and head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also editor-in-chief of Vostok Oriens, a journal of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is visiting the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley this semester, where he is teaching a course.