Blog interview - Michael Ledeen: "Never, never, ever give in to tyranny"
Michael Ledeen has been described as "a Renaissance man... in the tradition of Machiavelli." Currently the holder the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael is one of the leading experts on intelligence, terrorism and international politics. Formerly the Italian correspondent for the "New Republic", advisor and consultant in the Reagan Administration, lecturer and historian, he is also a prolific author, most recently of the bestselling "The War Against the Terror Masters; How it Happened. Where We Are Now. How We Will Win". I decided to have a quick chat to him about Iraq, Iran and the democratic revolution unfolding throughout the Middle East.
The liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq has really stirred up the traditionally stagnant pond that was the Middle East and Central Asia. President Bush's grand democratic experiment seems to have affected to some degree just about every state in the region. Where do you see the events heading in the near future?
I'm not a prophet, I'm an historian. So I think it all depends. It depends on how well the West wages this war, and how well the terror masters in Tehran, Damascus and Riyadh thwart our will and hang onto power. I think Bush is bound and determined to support democratic revolution all over the Middle East. I'm not sure that he has a "war cabinet" capable of designing and implementing strategies that can accomplish it. But this is a revolutionary moment, and we've got most of the people in the region on our side, so the odds favor us.
If you were a member of that "war cabinet" what three things you would suggest the United States should do that is not currently doing?
We should be funding more (mostly private) radio and television broadcasting to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The people in those countries know that they are being lied to by their governments, but they don't know the truth, especially about their own country. If you read some of the blogs from Iran, for example (and there are lots of them!), you find a reflexive rejection of anything that the government says: mullahs say Bush bad, people believe Bush good, for example. They need information. People in Tehran need to know what's going on in Isfahan, people in Damascus need to know what's happening in Aleppo or Beirut, people in Riyadh need to know the latest from the Eastern provinces.
Of course, you have to be careful, because some of the broadcasters are closet supporters of the terror masters, but they are way outnumbered. The Farsi language broadcasters in southern California, England, and Germany, for example, cover a wide range of political opinion, but they generally do a good job. When the revolution gets under way they will serve to "triangulate" communications inside Iran. Someone in Isfahan will report to Germany, and the station there will broadcast back to Iran so people all over the place will be up to date.
Second, I would hammer away at the western trade unions to support the workers' organizations in Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Support politically (yelling and screaming, demonstrating, lobbying their governments) and economically (raising money for a strike fund). The final scene in the revolutionary drama consists of massive demonstrations and strikes, shutting down the economy and demanding that the regime step down.
Third, I would try to use international organizations, even the UN, as fora to denounce the regimes. Words are potent weapons, and we should use them in the revolutionary strategy.
Terror masters, as you call them, in Teheran and Damascus are America's sworn enemies; but how do we deal with Saudi Arabia which is technically our ally and economic partner?
The Saudis are at once our friends and our enemies. We want the Saudis to shut down the transmission belt of hate, to silence the Wahhabi imams, to stop publishing hate literature, to cease recruiting jihadis all over the western world, to stop funding terrorist groups, to close down their border with Iraq and eliminate the recruiting groups inside the kingdom. We have to tell the royal family that if they do not do that--yesterday--we will make a lot of trouble for them.
In politics, there are no irreversible trends. What are some of the factors that might stop or even turn back the progress of reform and democratization?
If we are driven out of Iraq by the surviving terror masters in Riyadh, Tehran and Damascus, it will gravely weaken the forces of freedom everywhere, not just in the region. If Bush is dramatically weakened at home - some terrible scandal, for example, or a resounding Democrat victory in the next elections - that would probably hurt as well.
Before the Iraqi election, the media and the kommentariat have for months run on the premise that the poll will be a defeat for the US and pro-democracy Iraqis because violence will kill the turnout. Now that this scenario did not eventuate, the same people are still arguing that the poll was a defeat for the US and pro-democracy Iraqis because "it's Iran that really won" and Iraq will now turn into an anti-Western Shia theocracy. What is your take on the situation?
The usual silliness from the MSM, who desperately want to prove that Bush is an idiot and is an illegitimate president. It's quite obvious that the Iraqi Shi'ites don't want an Iranian style Islamic Republic, and if anything, the Shi'ite victory in the Iraqi elections threatens the Iranian regime, not the other way around. The Shi'ite tradition - until Khomeini, the great heretic - was a kind of separation of mosque and state. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 created a theocracy, which the Iraqi Shi'ite leaders never accepted. Now the traditional model will be revived, and it will have great appeal to many Iranians, including several leading ayatollahs.
Iran, the other member of the Axis of Evil in the region, seems to be a wildcard. For the past several years I recall the country always tethering on the brink on revolution but the popular protest never seems to reach that critical mass needed to swamp the mullahs. What is the situation inside Iran right now and what are the prospects for the overthrow of the current regime?
The people hate the regime, and the regime is clamping down on anyone who dares to criticize the mullahs. If there were free elections in Iran today, no one with a turban would be elected to anything. This is proven by the regime's own public opinion polls, and by another one that was taken telephonically from the United States, both showing more than seventy percent of Iranians want regime change.
Is there any way to break out of the "unrest-repression-unrest-repression" cycle in Iran? Will we have to wait for some extraordinary international, or even internal, crisis in Iran to provide that final impetus for the opposition or will the opposition reach critical mass gradually and on its own?
Nobody knows. The opposition probably--almost certainly--needs external support. Most successful revolutionary movements have needed it. But sometimes random events - earthquakes, for example - have catalyzed revolutions, as, for example, Nicaragua.
The regime in Iran is very frightened right now. Just look at the panicky reaction to the explosion near the nuclear site last week. First it was a missile, then it was a fuel tank, somehow related to "friendly fire." What in the world is THAT? Iranians firing on their own aircraft? Well, maybe, the mullahs don't trust their own armed forces (and they are right not to trust them).
One could do a lot, but for the most part our governments are engaged in ritual dances to avoid coming to grips with the terror masters, hoping somehow to achieve "stability" and security in Iraq, and that this will inspire the others. But there can't be security in Iraq so long as the monsters are in charge in the neighboring countries...
I'm fascinated by all the anecdotal evidence that many, if not the majority of Iranians are actually reasonably well disposed towards the Great Satan. It reminds me, of course, of the situation in communist countries prior to 1989, but the Middle East is a different political environment. What are you hearing about the popular opinion and sentiment within Iran?
On 9/11 the streets of the major Iranian cities were full of people carrying lighted candles, and that lovely ritual has been repeated on each anniversary. Almost every visitor to Iran finds great affection for the United States; even Tom Friedman wrote about it recently, calling Iran a "red state."
While I'm not privy to top level thinking in the White House and the Pentagon, I don't think anyone is seriously planning for war against Iran. What can we do, short of a military action, to influence the events in Teheran and hopefully affect a regime change?
I don't know anyone in Washington who is thinking seriously about going to war with Iran. The winning option is to replicate what happened in the Ukraine: support democratic revolution.
Ukrainian "orange revolution" almost seems easy by comparison; after all, Ukraine was a lot more democratic and open a society than Iran, and it was far easier for the West to help finance and organize the opposition. What can we do more, or do better, to help the Iranian opposition in the face of a quite repressive regime?
It's easy to say that now, but if anyone had said to us six months ago that we should support democratic revolution in Ukraine, we'd probably have urged him to check into a good psychiatric ward. Tyrannies are unstable, and they collapse quite quickly once the people realize how weak the tyrants are. Remember the Soviet Union? I know YOU do, but it's passing into history now, and modern schools don't teach real history.
You've worked as an advisor and consultant on security matters in the Reagan Administration. What do you think are the lessons from that period that are applicable to our war on terror?
First of all, speak the unvarnished truth, often and forcefully. Help your friends, go after your enemies (sounds easy, but diplomats have a very hard time with that). Believe that most people want to be free, and support them in their struggle. And as Churchill said, never, never, ever give in to tyranny.
You can read more about Michael Ledeen's work at the American Enterprise Institute here, and here is a more complete list of his books.