-It’s heartening to see America’s closest Arab allies working to counter extremist teachings
-Expect a growing presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan
-In Egypt and Bahrain, the U.S. should support its allies’ struggle against terrorism, then discuss political freedoms as friends
-Muslims and Jews are natural allies, and faith in God can bring them together
NEW YORK – MOSTAFA El-DESSOUKI
Former United States Senator Joseph Lieberman has a storied career in American political leadership exceeding four decades. He served as a legislator and Attorney General in his home state of Connecticut, then as a U.S. Senator from 1988 to 2012. In 2000, he became the first Jewish American to run for Vice President, with Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore.
Senator Lieberman has been outspoken in his support for the principles of egalitarianism and tolerance, both at home and abroad — as well as a robust American role in supporting those who stand for these principles around the world. On numerous occasions, his views led him to break ranks with fellow Democrats. During the Obama years, for example, he opposed the Iranian nuclear deal; called for confronting Iran and the range of extremist trans-state actors in the Middle East; and urged unwavering support for America’s longtime allies in the region.
Since retiring from the Senate, Lieberman has worked as an attorney at a prominent New York law firm while remaining active in public life. He serves on the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which strives to counter prejudice against the two faiths in the United States. He chairs United Against a Nuclear Iran, a coalition of Americans concerned about Tehran’s designs. And amid heightened polarization in American politics, he has organized with others to help restore the country’s finer traditions of bipartisanship.
In his interview with Majalla, Senator Lieberman described rays of hope amid turmoil in the Middle East. He reflected on the continuing struggle against terrorism, including lessons from the past and new friendships among like-minded actors in the region. He voiced concerns about political accommodation in Syria, as well as support for American allies Egypt and Bahrain. Recalling a memorable encounter with the late King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, he made the case for a new dialogue among Muslims and Jews — and reflected on the many commonalities between the two faiths and those who adhere to them.
What signs of hope do you see among the many tragedies in the Middle East today?
It is a time of deep division and suffering in the region. The danger comes most visibly from extremist terror organizations like ISIS, but the most serious threat to the security and peace of the region and in fact the world is Iran.
With the suffering occurring in Syria that Iran has contributed so much to; with a conflict in Yemen that has been caused by Iranian meddling; and with the fighting in Iraq, it’s a difficult time. And yet, there seems also to be a new clarity, and here in two ways: One is, there’s a commonality — a shared interest — among some of the powers in the region that have not openly cooperated before. These are all allies of the U.S. — notably the Arab countries, beginning with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, etc. — both against terror and extremism and, longer term, understanding the threat from Iran. On the other side, Israel has exactly the same priority of concerns. I never want to diminish the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how important it would be to make progress in resolving it. But the bigger challenges to regional stability today are Iran, extremism, and terrorism.
So there are these encouraging changes going on. Some of it is, as history aways shows, the quality and focus of the leadership. Leaders change history, for better or worse, and in today’s case, in the Arab world, for better.
The other thing I’d say about why there’s a bit of optimism now is the change of administration here in the US, and I’m speaking as a supporter of Hillary Clinton for President. I supported her. I opposed President Trump. But when it comes to the Mideast, and particularly because of the change of position on Iran and the Iranian nuclear agreement, I think the U.S. is going to play a more constructive role in supporting our allies. The Obama administration got to a point where it seemed to be spending much more time and effort in befriending our enemies, particularly Iran, and turning its back on our allies in the Arab world and Israel. During the campaign, Mr. Trump seemed to want to pull back from world leadership. Now the Trump administration, with almost every passing day, seems more involved in the Middle East, and more clearly involved on the side of our friends — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel — and against our obvious enemies, Iran and ISIS, extremism and terrorism. So this is a potentially transformational moment. It would take an extreme situation for the U.S. to commit a massive number of troops to combat ISIS in the Middle East as Bush did in Iraq, for example. But I think that based on Defense Secretary Mattis and others in the administration including now the President, we’re not going to be withdrawing from the Middle East. And I think you’ll find a growing presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much more aggressive support of the efforts of our allies in the Arab world in places like Yemen, Syria, and hopefully Lebanon.
During the recent Arab summit in Amman, a major focus of the discussion was the conflict in Syria, and the question of a political solution. What are your views about the tradeoffs in pursuing a political settlement with the Assad regime?
From the beginning of the conflict in Syria, it seemed to me that American interests lay with those who were fighting Assad. In diplomacy, there are no perfect choices, but you have to decide, if you can, whether this is somebody who’s your friend, or you can at least trust, or if this is someone who has a fundamentally different view of the world and can never be your ally. I always felt Assad and his father were in the latter category. Together with Senator McCain, I met with some of those who were fighting against Assad, early in the Syrian uprising, and felt they were really a nationalist movement — not extremist. Unfortunately, then Iran came in overwhelmingly, and Russia did too, and it’s been a tragedy for a great people.
Yes, you have to be open to the idea of a political solution. But we’ve now put ourselves in a position where people who were our enemies — and enemies of the Arab world and the Syrian people — are in a position to get more out of a political solution than they should. I have in mind Iran and Russia in particular. So, I would not be in favor of a political solution in Syria now — certainly not one that keeps Assad in power. President Trump has talked about something some of us have been talking about from beginning: creating safe havens for Syrians in Syria, and using the American Air Force and allied air forces to protect those areas. Some now say, we might get into a fight with a Russian plane. I say, that’s their problem, not ours. So I’m against a political solution now, as I don’t see it benefiting the Syrian people or the region.
You touched on Arab-Israeli matters and your hopes about the Trump administration. President Sisi and Prime Minister Abbas will meet in close succession with the President in Washington this Month. What potential do you see in such discussions?
President Trump campaigned on the theme of “America first.” But sooner or later, reality intervenes, and disrupts campaign statements. It’s in America’s interests — in terms of security, prosperity, and freedom — to be part of what happens in the Middle East, as well as other parts of the world. And there’s also a kind of magnetic attraction for American presidents, regardless of party, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the dream of making peace. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I dream of peace there myself. The issue is, obviously, a lot of efforts have been made. Some, like Camp David and Oslo and then peace with Jordan, have worked. But a lot of the other attempts at Israeli-Palestinian peace since Oslo have not. I think the Trump administration now is encouraged by exactly what we were talking about earlier: the clear emergence of shared interests between the Arab world and Israel. And I think the Israelis understand that the relationship between Israel and the Arab world can only improve so much, at least in public, if there’s progress or, ideally, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, I think the fact that Arab leaders at that level are coming to Washington is very encouraging. And the interesting thing to say, speaking as an American, is that one of the measures of how much we’re in a different reality in the Mideast today, is that not so long ago, if the Israelis learned that the head of state of Egypt and the leader of the Palestinian Authority were coming to meet with the President of the United States, the Israelis would be agitated. I would say today, not so — and that’s a measure of the change occurring in the region, which of course is positive.
It’s been nearly 16 years since President Bush declared a “war on terror.” Was this war won or lost? Inasmuch as it continues, should it be reevaluated?
The conflict with terrorism that was inspired by a radical application of Islam began before September 11, but we didn’t want to see it. With September 11, the consequences were too devastating to ignore the threat. And a very significant series of steps were taken. There was the establishment of a Department of Homeland Security. There was the creation of a “9/11 commission,” which made a broad series of recommendations about reforming America’s intelligence structures and even our foreign policy. And I’d say that, relatively speaking, these reforms have been successes in terms of America’s homeland security. There certainly hasn’t been a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland that’s in any way comparable to the attack of 9/11 and its terrible damage. In fact, most of the successful terrorist attacks that have occurred in the U.S. have been by the so-called “homegrown” terrorists — that is, people who had legal status in the U.S., and were radicalized over the Internet. So I would say that in the sense of defense of the U.S. against terrorist attacks, the measures that were taken after 9/11, which have been quite costly, have worked.
What we have not yet really figured out — and this was also part of the 9/11 Commission report and legislation, but was never implemented — was, how do we, first, counter the extremist narrative in the Muslim world, and then, address the difficult realities of life in large parts of the Arab world which foster this kind of extremism and terrorism. And here I’m talking about economic and educational depravation. There’s only so much that the U.S., as a largely non-Muslim and non-Arab country, can do to counter the extremist narrative. But we certainly can be supportive of indigenous efforts in that direction. And I must say that there are, again, among the leadership of some of our closer Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Egypt where the people in power are working for change with those who are the respected authorities theologically in Islam. But this is a difficult challenge, and it only takes an extremely small percentage of people to be, for whatever personal reasons, radicalized, and willing to sacrifice their own lives. And they can not only do terrible damage, but also create anxiety and fear, which is the terrorists’ goal. So we have more work to do on that and need more help on this — we in the U.S., and our allies in the Arab world.
Some of the work done in Saudi Arabia to diversify the economy is very important. And the decision to limit the authority of the religious police was also a significant step, I would say. In December 2014, President Sisi of Egypt gave a speech at the venerated Al-Azhar Islamic seminary calling for leadership in countering extremism and promoting peace and civility. A lot of Americans keep saying, where are the moderate Muslims? Why aren’t they speaking out? I thought President Sisi gave one of the more compelling answers to that question. So there’s change — but not rapidly enough. At one point in the first year after 9/11 — with my colleague Senator Hagel, who later became Defense Secretary — we put in legislation called a “Marshall Plan for the Muslim world.” It was about supporting the counter-narrative, but also direct financial assistance, to improve schools and provide opportunity. Unfortunately, that never was enacted.
After decades in the Democratic party, you memorably ran for Senate reelection as an independent in 2006, and won. To the extent your break with the party related to foreign policy differences, what were they? And how have those concerns evolved since then?
I should say first that I did not voluntarily become an independent. The Democratic party kicked me out, because I lost a primary for the Senate to a challenger. It was all about foreign policy, and about the fact that I refused to abandon the war in Iraq, because I felt that doing so would have devastating consequences on America’s credibility in the world, particularly the Middle East. Certainly we had made terrible mistakes in our conduct in Iraq after we successfully overthrew Saddam. But to just retreat, I thought, would have been horrific, and a lot of Democrats wanted to walk away. I was very lucky to get reelected as an independent. But there’s a larger point here: The foreign policy of the Democratic party has really changed dramatically during my lifetime, and I believe not for the better.
When I was a young man, President John F. Kennedy was one of the great influences and inspirations — not just for me, but really, for my generation. And at that time, the Democratic party stood for international leadership in America. He called it a muscular foreign policy that was based on our ideals. There’s a memorable line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” We were with our friends and against our enemies. On domestic policy, the Democratic party was progressive for change, and that combination I felt very comfortable with and still do. But the party has changed, and became in a way, perhaps not isolationist, but certainly much more reluctant to exercise American leadership in the world, and to stand consistently with our friends and against our enemies. In the end, I fear that would leave us with few friends.
As I said earlier, I supported Secretary Clinton in the last election. I’ve been a friend of hers and of President Clinton’s ever since they were at law school at Yale. But I also felt that Hillary Clinton might be the last chance for a while, if she became President, to reshape the Democratic party into what I’d call a center-left party — not a left-left party. Now I’m afraid that, at least on foreign policy and to a lesser extent on domestic policy, the party is headed in a left-left direction, and I think that’s a mistake. That fight goes on. Somebody recently said to me, “You were the so-called “canary in the coal mine.” That is, I was challenged and defeated because of one position — Iraq — even though my voting record was consistently aligned in 2006 with the Democratic party on everything else, certainly domestic policy. That foreign policy trend, I fear, continued during President Obama’s time. Though I have a lot of respect for him — and I agreed and helped on a lot of his domestic programs — on foreign policy, his administration was harmful to American interests.
We’ve noticed that you have a great many fans in the Kingdom of Bahrain, who remember fondly your visits to Manama as Senator. What views did you form about the country? And what do you make of some of the American debates about Bahrain more recently?
I visited Bahrain several times, sometimes on my own, sometimes with Senator McCain. I got to know the leadership — the royal family — pretty well. The Foreign Minister and others used to see me all the time when they came to Washington. The current leadership of Bahrain are our allies, and we should be supportive of them — and our enemy, Iran, is Bahrain’s enemy. As you would with a friend, if you think there is something they could do better, we should tell them. But we should not break the friendship.
It happens that you and I are meeting on a day, one day after the US has agreed to sell a significant number of sophisticated aircraft to Bahrain. To me that’s the right decision. Bahrain is pivotal, and it’s in a critical position in the region. And it’s obvious that the Iranians are intervening aggressively in Bahrain.
The Obama administration had a different approach on these issues, and a lot of it had to do with the Iranian nuclear agreement. Not only was it a terrible deal, and badly negotiated. But there was also a great misconception: The Obama administration believed that this agreement would moderate and in some sense pacify the current leadership of Iran. It was so ridiculous, as you could judge by the statements of the Supreme Leader and the actions of the IRGC. During the negotiations, the Supreme Leader of Iran made it clear that this was a separate negotiation about nuclear weapons. He said, “We’re not going to change anything else.” And of course, they haven’t. And so I applaud the Trump administration for going ahead with the sale to Bahrain. By doing that, we are not only telling our friends that we’ll stick with them. We’re also telling the regime in Tehran that U.S. policy toward the region has changed. I don’t think the Obama Administration would have made this decision — and that’s a significant change. You’ve got to create some fear in the leadership of Iran, or else they’ll continue to do all the bad things they’re doing.
As you know, sectarianism and religious intolerance in many parts of the region have reached new heights. There’s a widespread feeling that the acrimony of the public discussion plays a role in exacerbating these tensions. Do you see a role for a new kind of open dialogue to potentially address this problem?
I appreciate that you asked me that question, because I believe strongly that open dialogue diminishes tensions. The U.S. is far from perfect on this, but in America, there was an openness to public dialogue, which has helped a lot.
And one of the remarkable changes I’ve seen in my lifetime is the increase in dialogue and understanding between Jews and Christians. You might say it was started in 1965 — by Pope John XXIII, through an encyclical affirming principles of inter-religious dialogue inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council. Then you have no less than Pope John Paul II writing that Jews are our brothers and sisters in faith. So, a big change has occurred here.
I tell that story about Jewish-Christian discourse, because we are ready and desperately need a similar discourse between Islam and Judaism. In some real theological ways, the dialogue actually would have fewer obstacles, because both Islam and Judaism are focused on God. There are many fewer conflicts in our respective religious narratives. I’m a great believer that there ought to be some dialogues just based on religion. I’ve actually recommended this at different times to Israeli friends and Palestinian friends, but it’s also true about the broader Muslim and Jewish worlds.
It would seem relevant that you mentioned President Sisi’s speech at Al-Azhar about fostering tolerance through faith. He, too, has been a subject of debate in Washington in recent years. What policy stance would you like to see the U.S. adopt toward him?
President Sisi is our ally. I’m not just saying that because he’s now the head of state of Egypt, which the U.S. has had generally positive relations with over the decades. President Sisi has taken a strong position against extremism and terrorism — include extremism within Islam. So, again, he has done things I don’t like and wish he wouldn’t do — but you have to have priorities, and the priority is a big battle which we’re in together against extremists and terrorists. Those fights go to the heart of our security and freedom as Americans. President Sisi is our ally, and therefore I think we must support him, including some of his counterterrorism programs in the Sinai. He’s exercised significant leadership in that regard since he came in. He has not been passive. So let’s focus on stopping the terrorists, and improving educational and economic opportunities for the Egyptian people, and then have a good discussion with President Sisi about political freedoms in Egypt.
We’d be grateful if you would share some memories of formative experiences earlier in life — perhaps in the realms of family, heritage, learning, and the American civil rights movement, in which you were active.
I look back and of course am very grateful to have had extraordinary opportunities in my life. I served in elected office in Connecticut for 16 years as State Senator and Attorney General, then 24 years as a U.S. Senator, and also had the extraordinary opportunity to run for Vice President. People often ask me, how did you get into politics? Part of it was my parents’ example. They were not political, except my dad read the paper every day. People used to read newspapers in those days! And we would talk about issues around the table. But my parents were involved in community service, particularly within the Jewish community. As a teenager, I started to read, with fascination, history and biography. And I was impressed by the impact of leaders — individuals — on history, for better or for worse. I also grew up in a religious Jewish family. I had a very charismatic rabbi in Stamford, Connecticut, and to make a long story short, I was raised to believe that the test of my faith would be, how I acted. Yes, it is important to pray. Yes, it is important to follow the various rituals about, for example, the dietary laws, or observing the sabbath. But ultimately, it was a question of how you behave, how you treat other people, and whether you do something to make the world a better place. Add to that the example of President Kennedy: I’m graduating from high school in 1960, and here is a young man from Massachusetts running for President and he gets elected. I felt that, because he was the first Catholic President of the United States, that somehow that was going to be helpful to me in my life, being another member of a so-called “minority group” in America. And that’s generally the way it’s been. I wasn’t thinking about running for anything particularly then. But it all came together. I began to get involved.
You mentioned the civil rights movement. Reading the Hebrew Bible and the whole pivotal story of God liberating the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt — and also believing, as I do and as the American founding documents say, that every one of us in the world, not just Americans and certainly not just white people, is created equal by God, and therefore entitled to the same rights and respect — I felt that the civil rights movement was the great struggle of my youth. I don’t want to overstate what I did, but I did spend some time in Mississippi working on a voter rights campaign. And I was very privileged to be at the famous “March on Washington” in August 1963, where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave that magnificent “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln memorial. When my children grew up to be teenagers, or maybe a little younger, and were studying Dr. King, I told them I was there when he gave the “I have a dream” speech, and it was as if I had said to them that I had been there when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It seemed so distant to them. During that period, I learned another lesson: Though the focus of all the civil rights protest worked its way through the courts first, the issue of voting rights — the fact that black people couldn’t vote in large parts of America, in my lifetime — ultimately was addressed by Congressionally enacted legislation. That was a powerful lesson for me, and it probably gave me a push in the direction of aspiring to be a lawmaker at some point.
So give us some tips from your adult life as a parent and a Senator.
I’m now blessed with four children and 11 grandchildren. I’d say the best thing you can do for your children is, one, make sure they know you love them; two, make sure they know you think they’re capable of great things; three, expect them to try to achieve those great things; and finally, when they do, give them a lot of positive feedback. I got that from my parents, and it has carried me forward in my life.
Also from my reading of history, I’d say one of the most important lessons is that you have to have patience and persistence, but you also have to be ready to take risks. The biggest steps forward in my life came when I took them. Also, there’s a certain amount of luck in any life, particularly in politics. There are so many variables. I could give you ten different points at which my career could have ended before I got to the Senate. So while there is no question I worked hard, I’m also grateful for good fortune.
Another lesson is that once you are in office, you can’t just think about politics. You can’t just think about the next election; you have to think about the next generation. You really have to feel — maybe this is from religion — that for whatever reason, whether fate or hard work, you’re a U.S. Senator. So are you going to focus on just doing things that make sure you’re going to get reelected? No. Who knows whether you’ll even be able to run again. You’ve got to do what you think is right when you have the opportunity. And part of that, when I was in the senate, is that if I wanted to get anything done, I had to work with people in the other party. I had to work with Republicans. Not that I was more righteous than anybody, but I think I was more realistic.