Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi interviews US Ambassador Robert Jordan.
Question: The Emir of Qatar announced recently in a formal speech that political democracy and economic democracy are inseparable. To what extent does such a position support your view of a new economics in the Middle East?
A: In answer to the first question about political and economic democracy being important, our country strongly supports democracy in the Middle East — both political and economic democracy.
On Dec 12th 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a speech in which he referred to the Middle East partnership initiative. He stated that the United States is going to seek to support the economic and social participation in the Arab countries by the people of these countries.
Really what led to that speech was, as you know, the United Nations Arab Human Development Report by about thirty Arab scholars under the United Nations.... That report found that Arab countries seem to lag behind other areas of the world, and their income levels also, and education and civic institutions as well.
This Middle East Partnership Initiative recognizes that the Arab World is very diverse and that the way in which public participation in Arab society will occur is going to be different for each country. So what we are simply trying to do is say that we are interested in these principles.
As Secretary Powell put it: “There is a job gap, an education gap and an opportunity gap.” We want to find ways to empower the people in those countries to empower women and to revive economic opportunity, but it has to be done in the way that each country wants it done.
We are saying that we support these goals, we are here to help you, tell us and we will support it.
Q: Are you asking the governments or the people?
A: The government is the representative of the people in a theoretical sense. We make the request but we don’t stay simply with that, so we will be writing some pieces in some of your newspapers here in the Kingdom expressing our support of these goals, of these objectives, and asking the people to come to us.
Q: From what I hear the budget you appropriated for the project has been criticized for being so meager.
A: No, that was only for the first year, and I think there has been some misunderstanding about that — in the first year it was $29 million — but for the next year we are asking for several hundred million, and because the speech came in the middle of our budget cycle, that was all the money there was available that had already been appropriated by congress.
Now we are going back to Congress, the representatives of the people in our democracy, to approve several hundred million for the coming year; we’re optimistic that we’ll have that kind of money.
Q: That’s for the Arab World?
A: That’s correct. The Arab world is the only area we are directing this money to.
Q: Many expect the US to use Iraq to dismantle OPEC. From your perspective, are these concerns founded?
A: There is no plan to dismantle OPEC. What we’re trying to do is to remove the UN sanctions from Iraq and quickly phase out the oil for food program, which right now is the only real way Iraq can sell its own oil. As the Iraqis establish their own government, it’s going to be up to them to decide what international institutions, if any, they want to participate in.
Q: Will you put pressure on them or try to influence or persuade them to participate?
A: I don’t think there are any specific plans in that regard — it is something that the Iraqi people are really going to have to come to terms with, and I am sure they are going to want to explore participation — but they are going to want to explore other options as well, and we support the result that is consistent with the wishes of the Iraqi people.
Q: Gulf oil producing states have huge financial and real estate investments abroad, especially in the US and Europe, estimated to exceed $2.75 trillion. Do you expect a reorientation of these investments toward Europe as a result of local worries?
A: We are not concerned about the loss of investment from this part of the world in the US. Wealth investors invested billions of dollars all around the world. They are very sophisticated and the decisions they make on their investments are based on risk and return. They are going to put money where it is safest and where there is the best chance of making the smartest investment.
The US is the largest and the fastest and most transparent of the three major financial markets in the world, the US, the EU and Japan. I am completely confident that the US will continue to attract a very large percentage of the investment dollars from abroad.
Q: But don’t you agree that some lawsuits do frighten investors, such as the one filed on behalf of the victims’ families against the alleged Arab supporters of Sept. 11 terrorist?
A: I don’t want to comment directly on the lawsuit, but I think it is safe to say that we have a very transparent legal market and system — your money cannot be seized in the US without what we call “due process of law.”
We have to have a proper court procedure, so any individual investor would not be subject to losing their investment merely because someone has filed a lawsuit against someone else in the US. We want to make it very clear that investment opportunities will exist under a very clear rule of law.
This is something that distinguishes the United States from many other countries.
Q: The US started a PR campaign to win Arab and Muslim hearts and minds before the war. Now the war is over and in the light of Arab and Muslim reaction to it, what changes do you envisage to the original plans?
A: I’m not sure I would say we have a PR campaign as such. We obviously want to get information out to the public about what we are trying to do, and I don’t think we need to change those efforts. The reaction to the liberation of Iraq so far has been mixed.
Q: We are talking about the campaign directed toward the Arab world — do you still have plans to put out “useful information” to Arabs?
A: Yes, and this goes back to the Middle East partnership initiative and what Sec. Powell announced on Dec. 12th. We want to explain ourselves to the Arabs in a way that shows we are partners — that’s why we call it a partnership initiative.
Q: Disarming Iraq of WMDs was a US main objective in this war. Still, the US seems reluctant to allow the UN to send back inspectors to do a neutral, credible search. From a legal point of view, how can the world verify any US claim in this case?
A: First of all, I think that sometimes we get caught up in labels. There is nothing about the UN that says that the finding of WMD by a UN inspector is more legal than finding WMDs by someone else. In fact, the US has hired former UN inspectors to help us in this search. The question that should be asked is not whether there is some label attached to the people conducting the search but: Have they found those weapons, and how persuasive is it that they have made that discovery?
Q: Why not the UN inspectors?
A: We’re putting a thousand people in the field — that’s many times more than the UN had — they did not succeed during the efforts they made previously.
We are on the ground now, we’re building the organization, we are already there, we can move more quickly and we have the expertise of the former UN inspectors available to us, so it makes much more sense to us to proceed along this basis as we are moving into areas that have, in some cases, been subject to heavy fighting, and a destabilized environment. We have our ability to provide security, and at the same time we engage in the search for the weapons.
It’s also important for us to be able to interrogate some of the former regime members who may be able to lead us to those WMDs — that is something that the UN is not currently organized to do. There are individuals we are pursuing, detaining and interrogating.
Q: When you find something, what do you do? Do you bring the UN to verify or the journalists to see what you have found?
A: I can’t predict the exact mode or method in which it will be done, but we will do it in a way that ensures the maximum credibility and reliability so that the people of the world will know for certain that these are actual weapons that have been discovered.
Q: How does the US justify deciding alone who gets what of the contracts to rebuild Iraq? How do you explain giving certain companies huge contracts worth tens of billions without due competitive process? How could other non-US/British companies participate? Would Saudi companies be allowed to take part?
A: It’s important to understand that these first contracts are essential emergency contracts. The people have many urgent needs right now. These are contracts that are going to be paid for out of the US treasury, this is not Iraq’s money that is being used at this point. If it’s the US treasury that is involved, then it’s fair to look at US contractors to lead the effort.
Q: You are not going to take that from Iraq’s oil?
A: These contracts that have been awarded to US general contractors have not been taken out of Iraqi oil money. It’s from the US Treasury.
Q: And it never will be?
A: No, not on these contracts. At the same time, these contracts are awarded to general contractors who are going to hire sub-contractors — and this could well involve Iraqi contractors, Saudi or other contractors from other parts of the world.
Q: Are you including France and Germany?
A: I don’t know specifically what contractors are being considered for which projects right now, but I am sure we will see the best people selected for the task at hand; this is US money that’s being used.
Q: Syria received prior assurances that it won’t be next on the US list and was thanked for its help during the previous Gulf War and the War on Terror. How do you explain the sudden change of attitude?
A: First of all, there’s no list. Our government’s made it very clear, there is no list. For many years, Syria has been identified as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States. We have expressed a lot of concern that Iraqi war criminals were making their way into Syria, and in fact several have been captured as they were making their way toward the Syrian border. But we are very pleased that Syria has stated that it’s not going to let the Baathist regime leaders into Syria.
There is no great change in our position at all. We have had some successes in the war on terror with Syria, but we have also had a great concern that we have expressed very consistently for a number of years over their sponsorship of terrorism and more recently their inviting their country to these war criminals.
Q: Would you expect more assurances about their support of Hezbollah and Al-Jihad and others?
A: We are extremely concerned about Hezbollah and their role in arms shipments and other means of support for terrorists, and so I am sure we will continue to have a dialogue with them on this very serious and important topic.
Q: How does the US view the recent meeting of Iraq’s neighbors? Does the US appreciate these countries’ concern regarding the religious and racial re-mapping of the geopolitical map?
A: Regional stability is extremely important to the US — we believe that all countries in the region ought to be interested and involved in the reconstruction of Iraq. We applaud that interest. We don’t think that the US should determine what role these countries should play in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Q: Were you consulted about the meeting?
A: We were advised that the meeting was taking place, but they certainly didn’t need our permission to conduct the meeting and they would not seek that permission.
Q: Did you give them a message — for example not to interfere in Iraq’s politics?
A: The group that met in Riyadh didn’t need any instruction from us and they were very capable about making their own determination about not interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq. And I think they made a statement after that meeting that was their intent. We support their interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and that the will of the Iraqi people can be accomplished, and so we were very much in tune with their interests in that regard.
Q: Has there been interference or meddling from concerned countries — e.g. Iran?
A: We have expressed our interest and so did the meeting of the neighboring states in Riyadh, that no individual state should attempt [to interfere] in the internal affairs of Iraq as they move through this critical period of establishing a new government. This ought to be something decided by the Iraqi people.
Q: How does the US value the Saudi Government’s stand in this war and the war on terrorism in general? What is expected of Saudi Arabia in the near future?
A: First of all, we deeply appreciate the role that Saudi Arabia has played in the War on Terrorism. We both have interests in this region — they are not identical interests, but I think the length and depth of our relationship with Saudi Arabia has allowed us to have differences yet at the same time to respect each other’s position. I have personally worked with many Saudi officials on the war on terrorism, and it’s important — not simply because the US expects this help, but because it’s important to Saudi Arabia as well. This is an area where our interests are very similar. We both hate terrorism, we both hate the idea of the threat of terrorism to any of our people. Terrorism threatens the people of Saudi Arabia and it threatens the security of the region. What we expect is Saudi Arabia to continue its efforts to confront extremists wherever they are found — and this is very much a common interest that we both share.
Q: We hear media reports about US demands for changes to the educational system, and watching some preachers. Is it true?
A: We have made no demands of any kind on the Saudi government in that regard. If the education system is to be changed or if the government is going to deal with religious extremists, then that’s because the Saudi government believes that’s in their best interests, not doing it to do us a favor of any kind. It’s simply a matter of internal decisions by the Saudi government itself.
Q: Also we hear that there is some kind of pressure on the government about women and human rights.
A: We have made no secret of the fact that we support human rights and religious freedom. Each year we publish our statement of religious freedom and we provide this information to the Saudi government. And we continue to express our support for ways in which women can participate more fully in any society and have rights consistent with their status.
Q: Many here suspect that what you have in mind is liberal freedom equal to what you have in the West, which means that women can go in bikinis or go without hijab — things like that. I don’t know if that’s true or whether this represents your official attitudes, but at least that is what many of the US-based women’s organizations say. What is your government’s stand on this?
A: We are very respectful of the traditions of the Arab world and the traditions of the religion of Islam. The men and women of Saudi Arabia will ultimately have to decide for themselves on how they want to adjust to the evolution of women’s rights. But what we are really talking about is ways in which women can participate in the economy, the society, so that they have the ability to decide for themselves what environment they want. At least have the ability to participate in those decisions. I think it trivializes the importance of this issue to suggest that any manner of dress or any way in which they present themselves defines this participation. This is not about wearing abayas, it’s about having a role in their own future.
Q: Do you have any details on this?
A: The US has always stood for religious tolerance; you can come to America and it’s one of the few countries in the world where you can worship any God you wish. No one will tell you how to worship or whether to worship. That’s something that really just needs to be accommodated and dealt with by each country. We’re just saying that we don’t think it’s appropriate to discriminate against individuals because they are Shia, any more than it’s appropriate to discriminate because they worship in some other creed. If the Shia don’t have the right to participate in the government, then we view that as a problem, quite frankly. I am pleased to see that in Saudi there is a Shia ambassador to Iran for example, there is some Shia representation on the Shoura Council, there is some representation, of course, Shia in business and other endeavors...
Q: In the future in Iraq, if they choose anti-American parties, will you respect the result?
A: Democracy doesn’t simply mean being pro US. Democracy means respecting the will of the people. This means having a system in place that means you can realize the will of the people. We certainly would hope that the two countries would have good relations, and we believe that if a democracy is instituted in Iraq, it does respect the will of the people, then we hope that the people of both countries would work hard to have good relations, and I would expect us to have good relations.
Q: Arafat was also elected by a democratic mechanism. America didn’t like him and objected to his election — will this happen again in Iraq, if the same mechanism produces someone like Arafat?
A: I hesitate to speculate — certainly not that far down the road. Our concerns about Mr. Arafat had a great deal to do with his support for terrorism and his refusal to use the power at his disposal to stop terrorist activity at a time when the Palestinian people were crying out for leadership and an opportunity to move forward.
Q: But for example a leader who is very much influenced by neighbors like Iran and who is really Anti-American but is produced democratically — like what happened in Algeria, for example, when some Muslim parties won the election. As a matter of principle, if you don’t like them, will you object to them or accept them?
A: I think that saying that we don’t like someone is a little bit of an oversimplification. There are certainly democratically elected leaders in the world with whom we have had disagreements from time to time. I don’t want to name names, but recent history can give you a few suggestions. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a great deal in common and common interests, either with the leadership or the people of those countries. So, I would expect in any democratic environment, you are going to have issues on which you agree and issues on which you disagree.
Q: In the case of Venezuela, for example, which has no support for terrorism or anything, you just didn’t like the leader and you objected to him — and there was some kind of support for the revolution against him, at least in the beginning — how do you explain that?
A: I don’t think we have ever agreed that we support a revolution against the leader of Venezuela — we may have disagreements from time to time, but we are very much committed to the determination by the people of any particular country of who their leadership to be. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have vigorous disagreements from time to time, and that when we do, we try and diplomatically work them out as we are trying to do in so many areas of the world right now.
Q: Will the US publish the original peace map, and if Israel continues to object and demand modification, what will be your stance? How much investment and involvement will the US continue to make in this process?
A: First of all, we will publish the road map, we are simply awaiting the approval of the final Palestinian Cabinet by the Palestinian Legislative Council. We’re encouraged that that can be done soon, and we are vigorously committed to moving forward on the road map. President Bush and National Security Council Advisor Condoleezza Rice have both said that the road map is not negotiable. This is a plan that is a guideline on which we expect the two parties to sit down and develop.
Q: There are some speculations that since the US administration is going into elections soon that they might be reluctant to make pro-Israel groups angry. And that is why they might agree to some modification to the plan as Sharon wanted.
A: The president is very much known as a man of his word and he has made it very clear that the principles set forward in the road map are critically important. At the same time, at some point in the process, the parties involved, the Palestinians and the Israelis, are going to have to sit down and they are going to have to negotiate.
Q: But if the Palestinians agree to the map “as is,” and demand that is what we want, would they be forced to negotiate on this if the Israelis objected?
A: I think the president has been as clear as he can possibly be. The road map is the road map.
- Arab News Features 1 May 2003