The text of the interview of Lorne Craner, assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, with Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi from Al-Madinah Newspaper. Jeddah, July 21, 2003
Q: First I would like to ask a general question: Why are you here?
A: I am here because I have wanted to come here for quite some time. I have been intrigued to hear of ferment in the Kingdom in terms of human rights and democracy. From the outside I can say we have seen more individual small steps in the last year and a half than we have seen since 1993. Having done this type of work for a while and having seen how big things can start with small steps, I was very intrigued to come to Saudi Arabia. To see what really is going on and to encourage people, both in the government and outside the government, to continue this kind of movement.
Q: What were the most intriguing topics on your agenda?
A: After the burning of the girls’ school here there were some things that we hadn’t seen here before. The formation of the journalist association was intriguing. I think there has been a series of small things that if you had read about one or two, you would not think they are related. But if you put them together, then it indicates that something is going on. There is something of a trend here and that is an encouraging sign.
Q: Are you watching the freedom of the press for example? Are we freer today to express our opinion than we were before?
A: Freedom of opinion is an important thing, but definitely being able to report on things that you could not report on before. There are fewer boundaries on what is acceptable, and if those boundaries begin to fall, then that is a good thing. Because in a country where people are going to make decisions in their lives about what they need to do economically and politically, the more information they have the better the decisions they can make, and the more informed the decisions they can make. You can sense that people are able to report on things that they could not report on five or ten years ago. I think that is certainly good. Does that mean that everything is perfect? No.
Q: If this free speech environment resulted in more angry columns against America, would you accept this as a price?
A: Yes. But if you look at our history, especially the recent past and what we have done, the best example is the Philippines. We have very large bases in the Philippines. There were times when former President Marcos was not viewed as being democratic and no longer represented the will of his people, and without getting into historical details, we encouraged him to leave, knowing very well at the time that a democratic Philippines would not let us continue on those bases, and indeed that was what happened. Are we less happy now with the Philippines than we were under Marcos? No, we are much happier, because the Philippines is a very democratic country where people are able to express what they want, and the people there feel closer to the United States now than they did then.
Q: Let me bring in some other examples: Germany and Japan and South Korea; and there are other examples such as Iran and Venezuela but especially in Iran.
A: Let’s talk about Venezuela first.
Q: Well, the impression here is that after Venezuela became a democracy and for the first time elected a president, you seem to have been unhappy about it. And there was a revolution there.
A: I am shocked. No, Venezuela has been a democratic country for over a century. It is one of the few still standing democracies in Latin America. It was the paragon of democracy in Latin America for many years. We used to tell people, if you want to talk about democracy go talk to the Venezuelans, because they have been doing it for decades. What happened in Venezuela in fact was that in some institutions the underpinning of democracy started to fall apart. The political parties that exchanged power for decades stopped representing the people. And as a result people turned to something new. I was down there during the election. It was a perfectly conducted election. And the president won fair and square. Is he doing things that we are not happy about? Yes, and we have expressed that. We have the freedom to express things that we do not agree with. But it was not the case that he was the first democratic president. I am not sure how many they have had over the centuries.
In the case of Iran, that is something we learned from. And it is part of the reason why we are so interested in seeing democracy in the rest of the world. If you have a copy of Colin Powell’s book in English or in Arabic — I understand that it has been translated — he tells a story of going to Iran in 1978 and he is taken around by an army general and they see the Iranian army generals’ brigades — I think it was called the Peacock Army Brigade. And the general says to Powell: “These are the best men, the most proficient men, they will stand by the Shah until the last shot is fired; they will never ever defect on him.” Secretary Powell tells the story of coming back to the United States and he said: “I turned on my TV and there it was, the Iranian revolution.” He said that the Peacock Brigade had defected on the very first day of the revolution. He also said that the general who took him on a trip in Iran was lying in a morgue; he was dead because of the revolution. He said the mistake we made in Iran was to invest only in the leader of the country and not in the people of the country. Because of that we earned the lasting enmity, for generations, of the Iranian People. And I think for people like the secretary of state, the president and Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in an era were we did these things, we invested only in the leader of a country and not in the people of a country, we learned our lesson. That is not a moral thing to do, and not a smart thing for the US to do. That is the lesson that we have learned.
Q: If we took this lesson and saw what you have learned from the Arab world, what did you learn?
A: I think it is clear in this administration — I cannot speak for the previous administrations — it is clear what this president, secretary of state and national security advisor have learned from it, which is that there should not be any region on earth where there is what is what is called a democratic exception. And that is what did occur for many years, and for decades where we were interested in democracies in Latin America and central Europe and South East Asia and Africa, but there was much less of an interest officially in this region. I think what this president, his secretary of state and the national security advisor have said is that this is not acceptable. It is not acceptable to say that we stand strongly for human rights and democracy in every region of the world, but we leave it here. Why is it not acceptable?
Q: Why was it acceptable for previous administrations?
A: You have to ask the people from those days. There were official policy-makers doing that. For this crew, this administration has had long-standing pre Sept. 11 interest in doing that.
Q: But this crew treated Chairman Arafat, who was an elected president, as a non-elected.
A: The issue is not being always in agreement with every democratically elected leader. We just had a long dispute with the Germans and the French. Nobody would doubt their leaders were democratically elected. But that does not mean that we cannot have disagreements with them. You can have disagreements with democratically elected leaders. What it really means is that while you might disagree on the substance with a democratically elected leader, that you have created a bedrock in both countries, if you are a democracy, to have a relationship that continues to exist — by virtue of both countries being democratic, and both countries accepting certain principles. So our relationship with the French will endure, and our relationship with the German will endure. But when we have disagreements with dictatorships it really freezes the relationship. Our relationship with the Palestinian people endures as you are seeing not only from the president’s statements on the road map but from his constant personal involvement on the issue to try and make things better. We would like to see a state of Palestine that a) lives in peace with its neighbor, and b) where not only do they have democratic government, but a government that has democratic inclinations.
Q: Yes, but in the case of France and Germany, the US did not demand that the people choose another leader as it did with the Palestinians? That is the difference between disagreement and demanding to change the leadership.
A: I think what we said is that another negotiator on the part of the Palestinians is more likely to be able to produce peace at home and with Israel. The Palestinians have selected that person. He is involved in what many people would agree is very productive negotiations.
Q: People here see double standards as in the case of Egyptian human rights. People say that when the accused are not Americans or if they are Islamists, then America would not intervene. How do you explain that?
A: I have to tell you as a human rights person that getting people out of jail is not the be-all and end-all of human rights and democracy. The be-all and end-all of democracy is when somebody who has to leave a country and wants to return to their country after they got of prison can go back to that country. It is when dissidents who were in prison and get out of prison can go to a newspaper and write a column criticizing the government and nothing happens to them. It is when the system changes so that people can express their opinion. That is something that we are dedicated to doing in all regions of the world.
A country becoming democratic does not depend on the US; it depends on the people in that country. We cannot create a democracy. I think people would be disappointed in the results if we created a democracy in our image. I do not think people in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, or Bahrain want an American-style democracy in their country. I do not think they want an American culture in their country. Our lifestyle in America is fine in America because we have decided that this is a culture that suits us, but is not a culture for everyone. Nor is our system a perfect system for every country. We want people to get involved and be involved in the decisions of their government and adapt it — not adopt it — to the local circumstances. Just like what is happening in Afghanistan now. People around the world have to figure out how they want mechanically to run their own democracy, just as the French decided they would do it different than the British, and we decided to run our democracies different than the British, but we are all democracies.
What you get at the end of the day on the part of the people is that they feel they have more of a say in their political system. They have more control of their political system and they have more political responsibilities than they had before. It is worth it because they have control of their own lives. And that is not dependent on the US but on the people of the country. We can help, but we cannot create.
Q: Is that the case in Iraq?
A: Yes, We can give the Iraqi examples; at the end the Iraqis must be the ones who decide. We cannot decide that for them because we do not have a sense of what they want or how they want their democracy to work. We cannot transplant our system to theirs because it would not work. Our point is to ensure that the citizens have a say in what government does, and ensure that the citizens have a sense of their responsibilities in this system. But how they do it is their business. For example, just the other day there was a demonstration outside the US headquarters by thousands of Shiites. It is their right to demonstrate and express their opinion. I doubt that under the Saddam regime thousands of Shiites would have been able to demonstrate outside Saddam’s palace. We may not agree with what they are saying, but as I said it is their human right to demonstrate and express their opinions. The only rule is that you cannot incite violence among American troops, but other than that, the newspapers can say whatever they want.
Q: Do you think that security is the first human right?
A: I think that there are many human rights that are important. I do not consider security the first and most important human right. There are a lot of human rights. It is very important that people feel secure, but I would not go as far as saying that security is the first human right.
Q: When you planned for this occupation of Iraq, you seem to have planned the very small details of the invasion, but it does not seem that you have anticipated what could happen after. It seems that you are planning as you go along.
A: You have to remember first of all that we did not have a lot of experience. We do not go and occupy a lot of countries. When we went into Iraq, we had to reach back for over 50 years to learn from other experiences. There were many things that we did anticipate and planned for. We expected a lot of refugees and planned for that. We were worried about environmental and health consequences and we planned for that. What we did not do is say, let us wait for another six months and see what else could happen. There were a lot of things that were anticipated and planned for and other things we did not anticipate and did not plan for. Many things that you haven’t seen are because we planned for them.
Q: Was policing the country, like the museums, something you did not plan for?
A: On the museums, I have to say that the first concern of our troops in Iraq was to protect themselves and the Iraqi people, and if in the course of that they did not send enough tanks down to the museum to protect pieces of art, they had a lot of things to think about at that time. If you go back to that example you will find that most of the looting took place even before the war had begun.
Q: Here people feel that the US has double standards. There is different treatment of American and non-Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, and in Guantanamo. While the US is one of the leading countries in the field of human rights, it seems that you are not being true to your principles. The other thing is that there is different treatment of Arabs and Muslims in America. Now you have emergency laws to deal with them.
A: Let me comment on the treatment of Muslims in America. I think that if Sept. 11 had happened in any country other than America, the treatment of those who were thought to be responsible for such attacks would have been much worse than what happened in the US. I believe one Muslim was killed in America after Sept. 11, and I believe [the killer] is now in jail.
Q: The United States is sending too many confused messages in its policies. You do not seem to be able to give one precise message.
A: I think all the explanations that have been given are valid. I do not think it is a confused message. I think it is a message with different parts. The immediate goal is to get Al-Qaeda on the run and to capture and kill as many of them as possible so that there is no more Sept. 11 and May 12. Our long-term goal is to help the people of many countries to have their voices heard.
Q: What is the difference between intervention and help in Saudi Arabia?
A: The limit is what people ask for. And I hear people and government asking for economic and political reforms. In the end it’s a job for the Saudis, it’s not a job for the US.
Q: Do you think that we will succeed in joining the WTO?
A: (from Ambassador Jordan): I think that if the actions that are taken that are required for membership in the WTO, I think there is a great interest both in the US and the WTO for Saudi Arabia join. It is up to Saudi Arabia to make sure that its laws and membership requirements conform to those of the WTO, I think there a big chance for Saudi Arabia to be part of the WTO.