A Conversation With Richard Falk
The scholar, adviser to governments and civil-society groups, and advocate of Palestinian rights speaks on international law and world affairs.
It is hard to place Richard Falk in any category that usefully describes the man. Princeton scholar, international lawyer, adviser to governments and civil-society groups, activist, advocate of Palestinian rights, prolific writer: The interesting thing about Falk is that in his long career all of these roles so often intersect. Falk always seems to be just off a flight or just boarding one, and one can never presume to know which continent he was on when he wrote an arriving e-mail message.
I had looked forward to meeting and talking to Falk for many months before we finally found a day when we would both be in New York. Because he served as the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestinian rights from 2008 to 2014—a term that provoked much (entirely honorable) controversy—the Middle East was prominent among my questions. We spoke at the Algonquin Hotel for two hours shortly before the year turned, but after two hours we were not quite done. We finished up by telephone not long afterward.
Falk’s books are many, and so are the topics it is worth engaging with him; he blogs with impressive dedication. Our exchange ranged widely, as I had expected: From the Middle East scene and the fate of Palestinians we moved on to the corruptions of the press, Trump’s foreign policy, how to understand terrorism, and the changing fortunes of international law.
This is Part 1 of an exceptionally wide-ranging conversation. Part 2 will appear shortly. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for conscientiously turning the audio recording into a transcript.
Falk’s global grasp and unusually varied experience cast him—for me, at least—as one of those thinkers who can field questions that take in everything. I started with one.
Patrick Lawrence: Global events seem to be moving at an absolutely astonishing pace these days. I wouldn’t put so big a question to many people, but I have an idea you’ll have an opinion as to whether they’re moving in a good or bad direction. Maybe I’m asking you whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.
Richard Falk: I always tell people when they ask this question that I’m not smart enough to believe either one, because it presupposes an awareness of the future. And one thing I think we all should have learned is that we’re not smart enough to anticipate the future. Lots of things have happened that couldn’t have been anticipated. The collapse of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring—all those things came unexpected by the so-called experts, and people like me come along afterward and try to tell you why it had to happen that way.
At this point, if I were to judge from the trends and tendencies that seem dominant, I would be very doubtful that the human species has very good prospects for longevity on the planet.
PL: But you draw a very interesting distinction here and there in the books between appearances and underlying realities—notably in your distinction between the advantages of hard and soft power. You also distinguish between optimism and hope in one of your books. So I’m surprised to hear you take that line.
RF: Well, it’s sort of a bottom line reaction to a set of trends. The emergence of right-wing populism around the world, which I find quite distressing and potentially catastrophic. The kind of crises that our president is gifted at causing.
Wars with the kind of technology that’s around often derive from unintended interactions. So the way in which the US and North Korea are interacting, the way in which the US and Iran are interacting, are potentially quite catastrophic.
And then the inattention to the real challenge of climate change. The nature of the challenge has been validated by an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists.
PL: It’s shocking how inclined our leadership is to flinch, or to do merely the obligatory.
RF: And that the citizenry isn’t more insistent. That’s part of what I guess you picked up when you were surprised by my initial dark vision of the future.
PL: I wonder how you view this administration’s foreign policy in the context we’re discussing. If I read your point in Power Shift [Zed, 2016] correctly, you would judge it in a thoroughly defensive stance—a militarized hard-power policy framework standing against all that is evolving away from traditional state-directed notions of sustainability and power. I take American foreign policy to be essentially defensive at this stage, well on the way to desperate.
RF: Yes, but the question is defending what? I don’t think it’s defensive of the homeland.
PL: Defensive of a nostalgic notion of primacy.
RF: Or I would concretize it more than that and say it’s trying to protect the global state that the US became in the course of the Cold War. The national-security bureaucracy wants to sustain this. One reason the Republican national-security people broke with the Trump candidacy [in the summer of 2016] was that in the campaign he seemed to sell it that he was going to dismantle or threaten that national-security bureaucracy.
PL: It was a very interesting interlude.
RF: But since the election, step by step, this national-security bureaucracy—or the deep state, as it’s sometimes called—seems to have reasserted its priorities. They’re personified in the national security adviser, [H.R.] McMaster, and to some extent the secretary of defense, [James] Mattis.
PL: The Mattis-McMaster axis is the center of gravity now, so far as one can make out.
RF: And with [Chief of Staff] John Kelly as well… See, I’m not sure there is a foreign policy at this stage. Trump’s such a personalist leader who can live comfortably with contradiction—I often say Trump has a Hindu sensibility because of this capacity to not be bothered by contradictions.
PL: I think the term is neti neti—neither this nor that.
RF: Yes. Or “this-and-that.” He has no active memory, so he can say in all sincerity, apparently, something today that contradicts what he said yesterday.
PL: You’ve written two very good books on The New York Times. As an ex-Times person I greatly appreciate them. [The Record of the Paper, Verso, 2004; Israel–Palestine on Record, Verso, 2007. Both co-authored with Howard Friel.]
RF: I don’t think they appreciate them.
PL: That’s fine. If they did you would’ve failed. Many of us know of the Times’ fundamental dishonesties, but you seem to take it further, asserting that the Times actually bears some considerable direct responsibility for the many tragedies caused by America’s foreign adventures. I’d like you to elaborate on that, because it’s a step further than most of us go.
RF: I think there are several aspects to this biasing of foreign-policy debates on the controversial issues that pertain to the Times and to other mainstream media outlets. One of the characteristics is to exclude progressive voices from the debate, so the debate is really a center-right debate with a heavy reliance on national-security people. It’s partly, I think, motivated by an overriding desire to remain credible, and also to retain access to the Pentagon and the power structure.
I also think that Zionism plays a role in biasing the Times in relation to the Middle East and especially Israel–Palestine, which means that an Israeli narrative dominates the presentation of complex issues that should be presented in a more balanced, evenhanded way.
PL: But the question of responsibility—you assign the Times a certain palpable responsibility for its failures. I’m interested in that.
RF: Well, of course, they claim to be the gold standard, so with that claim comes responsibility. They are very arrogant, as you know better than I. But having written op-ed pieces over the years, from time to time, they sort of dictate what they want you to say and you feel at the end that it’s just not even your piece anymore. They got me in terrible trouble once. I had a long interview with Ayatollah Khomeini at the height of the Iranian Revolution, and the Times realized it hadn’t covered the revolution very well. They asked me on a sort of 24-hour basis to submit a piece on my meeting with Khomeini.
PL: Is this the Banisadr period? [Abolhassan Banisadr was Iran’s first president after the 1979 revolution, serving from February 1980 until he was impeached in June 1981.]
RF: It was before that. It was the last day he [Khomeini] was in Paris before he went back. I knew Banisadr quite well; he was one of my original connections with the Iranian experience. I knew him when he was in exile in Paris. But on this occasion I wrote this piece under pressure. I was glad to do it, in a way, because it allowed me to give my guardedly optimistic view about what was in store for Iran. But they gave it the headline “Trusting Khomeini,” which I never saw [before publication]. I got hate mail for years—death threats and all sorts of things—just from the headline, not from the piece itself. Tony Lewis [Anthony Lewis, a Times correspondent and later columnist] wrote a very nasty piece about it. We had a conversation at Princeton one time in which he was defending the Shah.
PL: The Moscow bureau and especially the Jerusalem bureau, for my money, are, in the current phase, the worst bureaus in the Times foreign network. But we’ll come back to the Middle East.
RF: Well I had direct experience with the Jerusalem bureau.
PL: There’s often some kind of mess. Ethan Bronner, famously. [Bronner was Jerusalem bureau chief, 2008–12; one of his sons served in the Israeli Defense Force during part of that time.]
RF: And that itself is something that the gold standard should avoid.
PL: To take a specific case, what is your view of Trump’s attacks on the Iran nuclear accord? I read it as an act of desperation. As I suggested a moment ago, Washington acts in behalf of its traditional network of Middle East alliances—Saudi Arabia and Israel at its core—just as this framework is shifting, very possibly passing into the past.
RF: I think what you say is correct, although it’s a deeply irresponsible way of doing that, because this agreement is, if anything, one-sidedly beneficial to the US.
PL: I couldn’t agree more. The Iranians gave too much away.
RF: Yeah. They gave too much away and the rest of the world knows that. The Europeans know that.
It’s a slightly separate issue, but this special relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel has a pernicious impact on the formulation of rational American foreign-policy decisions…
PL: It often comes over that way, yes.
RF: The Iran issue could easily have exploded, and may yet explode, into a regional war of untold dimensions. It’s very dangerous…
PL: It’s the last thing the Iranians want.
RF: Oh, definitely.
PL: I saw a turning point for the US as soon as Obama and Kerry [John Kerry, at this time secretary of state] determined to open talks with Tehran. The old order—the alignment with Israel and Saudi Arabia, while Europe cooperated in isolating Iran—simply couldn’t hold after Obama and Rouhani [Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president] spoke to one another just after the 2013 General Assembly. I don’t think even the Obama people understood the kind of Pandora’s box they had opened. I wonder if you agree with this.
RF: Well, I do. I wouldn’t call it a Pandora’s box, because I think it was the sensible initiative to take. But it was a door of opportunity that was opened to stabilize the region, which certainly could use stabilizing, and to normalize the relationship with Iran, which I think Iran and the Rouhani leadership definitely wanted and needed, in a way. So I think the P–5 + 1 agreement is one of the few clear-cut, desirable foreign policy initiatives of the last period. [The P–5 + 1 negotiating group consisted of the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany.]
PL: Don’t forget, the Obama administration was not shy about undermining the accord the minute they signed it.
RF: Yes, and of course the Israelis were militantly subverting it in every way they could, and still are. They want to destroy any strong state in the region, with the possible exceptions, currently, of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But they definitely want to destroy the unity of Turkey and Iran.
PL: Yes, I agree. It was a spectacle to watch Kerry, as the negotiations concluded and signatures were on the way, saying again and again, “This is only about the nuclear programs. We are not going to change anything else.” First of all, this could lead only to distortion and trouble. Second, to watch the administration actually saying, “No further benefits are to accrue from this agreement”—they decapitated their own achievement,
RF: Yes. That’s part of what makes it kind of one-sided agreement that should have been welcomed even in Tel Aviv. Many of the national-security people in Israel are all for the agreement. It’s this Netanyahu fearmongering. He uses that in the kind of domestic way Trump uses terrorism.
PL: We’ll come back to Netanyahu in a minute. The Middle East dynamic seems to change by the day. I take it from Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring [Just World, 2015] that you would date this kind of rapid change to the Arab Spring. You witnessed some of the key events as the UN special representative for human rights at the time. What were the underlying forces driving that succession of events in 2010 and 2011?
RF: I think it was an eruption from below that represented a long-deferred resentment against corruption, oppression, torture, abuse of power, external intervention. It showed the power of the people, once mobilized, but it also illustrated the vulnerability of a challenge to an existing order that has no program and no leadership. At the moment of these events, I did have contact with some of the leaders in Tahrir Square [in Cairo] and some of the active Tunisian people, and they were very proud of the instinctive nature [of the revolt], which was spontaneous and inclusive and nonideological. But they didn’t know how to sustain the mobilization that overthrew the existing program.
In Egypt, particularly, the Cairo elite were out of touch with their own country. I had conversation after conversation with important people in Egypt who had clear beliefs on two things. One was that the Islamic support in the country was no more than 25 percent, and at very worst 30 percent. It turned out to be between 50 and 60 percent. The other thing was that the presidential election would be won by Amr Moussa, who was the former foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League. He had supported the overthrow of Mubarak [Hosni Mubarak, president 1981–2011] at the end, but he was basically a person of the bourgeoisie in Cairo, someone they’d lived with. Those things turned out to be false. Amr Moussa got less than 12 percent of the vote in the first race, so he wasn’t even in the final phase, and, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the election.
PL: What of Mohamed ElBaradei, who had a fairly successful run at the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], who went home, made a brief bid for a leadership role, and then seemed to fade rather swiftly?
RF: He didn’t have a real political base in the country, and it was a kind of bias against someone that had been outside of Egypt. So he had two things against him. He was one of the first people who refused to support a coup though, and he left Egypt.
PL: I took the presence of people like that to be an effort to “bourgeoisify” the events and bring them under some kind of control that would be acceptable in Western capitals.
RF: I think that the Cairo elite, secular and bourgeois, thought they could control it. And when they realized they couldn’t, they preferred to go back to the Mubarak-type structure.
PL: But we’re seeing this in Venezuela now. You have an elite that’s agreeable to the US and maybe Ivy League–educated, and that’s fine, but if the majority of the nation is extremely poor, as in the Venezuelan case, or poor and Muslim, as in the Egyptian case, if they elect an Islamic president, they elect an Islamic president. This is how political evolution proceeds, right?
RF: Yes, but of course in the Middle East there was this fear, and it was aggravated by the image of the Iranian Revolution, that not only was the economic and social status of these people at risk, but also their sense of cultural freedom. There was a lot at stake.
I was a good friend of a man named Nabil Elaraby. He had formerly been the Egyptian ambassador here, and he became secretary general of the Arab League [2011–16], but he was initially the foreign minister for the post-Mubarak period. We saw each other because I had come to Cairo quite often. He was initially very much for the revolution, but after Morsi [Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate] was elected he changed, and was much more opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership than he had been opposed to Mubarak.
PL: I may have been entirely naive, but Morsi didn’t strike me as the worst thing ever to happen to Egypt. He played an interesting role in a conflict in Gaza at one point. The Times absolutely hounded him for disturbing the Egyptian judiciary. I remember saying, “Wait a minute. Does anyone remember how the judiciary was stacked under Sadat and Mubarak? Of course he’s going to clean out the judiciary. That’s very arguably a good and necessary thing to do.”
RF: There was definitely an effort to discredit. Again, I think Israel and Zionism probably played a role behind the scenes. They were very threatened by the Morsi leadership, not because of Morsi so much, but because it gave more political space to popular sentiment. All over the region, the people are supporters of the Palestinian struggle. It’s only these elites who keep them under control. I think Morsi probably was less disposed to maintaining that control. There was an attack on the Israeli embassy [in 2011].
PL: What is your analysis of the Arab Spring’s outcome?
RF: There’s no simple answer to that. I think internal and external forces were unhappy with what seemed to be the direction that the Arab Spring was taking, and they did their best not to provide economic assistance. They wanted especially Egypt to fail, which it did.
The Muslim Brotherhood initially said they weren’t going to compete for the presidency, and they weren’t really prepared to govern. So they fed into this narrative of incompetence. It turned a fairly significant segment of the population against the government, beyond the Cairo elite.
That was the Egyptian experience, and then the [Gulf] monarchies were very effective in using carrots and sticks, giving out monetary subsidies to their populations and then being very harsh with people who seemed to be engaged in real political opposition. Morocco did this, and certain Gulf countries did this, and that bottled it up.
And then you had the Syrian experience, which was I think motivated in part by the fact that it was clear that governments that engaged in severe repression of their own population would not be deeply opposed. And that the West, and the US in particular, were not really supportive of the democratic transition, especially when Islam seemed so strong. Israel, again, wanted the conflict to not be resolved in Syria. They didn’t want either side to win.
PL: It seems the case as we speak, really.
RF: That was the outlook of Kissinger, if you remember, in the Iran-Iraq War. “Let them fight until they exhaust each other.”
PL: You describe the Middle East now as the core of a transformation characteristic of our time. The presence of non-state forces, questions related to state and society. You say in one of your books, “It’s all there in the Middle East.” How do you describe what is going on in the region now, and where do you think the Middle East is going?
RF: I think it’s changed. I think the neocons saw the opportunity to restructure the region: That was part of the motivation for the Iraq intervention in 2003. At that time, there was a much greater emphasis on oil geopolitics. The notion that the future would be controlled not by who controlled Europe, which was the old idea, but who controlled oil and Islam and nuclear proliferation: All of those things were playing out in the Middle East. The special relationship with Israel had an important element there, and the neocons, particularly, had worked for Netanyahu when he was out of power—this “Clean Break” study that they had done in the 1990s, Richard Perle, my former student, and a bunch of the others that were part of the Cheney group—Rumsfeld and a whole bunch of people. [Perle, the neoconservative political intellectual, and others wrote Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, in 1996 for the Netanyahu government.]
PL: Let’s stay with Syria. Once again, things are changing very quickly. The Assad government has survived. Washington’s plans for another regime change seem to have failed. Someone said to me the other day, “For better or worse, Assad stands to go down as a hero in many Middle Eastern minds.” He survived the Western onslaught. I have no ambivalence about the survival of the government in Damascus, at least for the time being. What is your view of this?
RF: Well, I think there are certainly no heroes in Syria. The Assad regime did do horrible things toward its own people. The use of barrel bombs and the atrocities seemed excessive. They were helped by the Russian intervention and by the Iranians, but they were also hurt by the Saudi, Turkish, and US interventions. From an international law point of view, the regime had the legal right to obtain assistance from outside. They were the legitimate government, and the rebellious forces, which were assisted long before the Russian intervention—this was a regime-change strategy.
It was a very bad miscalculation. They thought it would be as easy to topple Assad as it had been to get rid of [Moammar] Gaddafi in Libya. Turkey and the US made very bad miscalculations as to the balance of forces within Syria, which were always tilted toward the Assad government. He was supported not only among the Alawites [a minority Shi’a sect to which Bashar al–Assad belongs] but also among the minorities, which make up almost 50 percent of the population and include important Christian minorities and others. And then the urban bourgeoisie felt that they’d be better off with Assad than with a Muslim Brotherhood–type regime, which was the probable alternative. It’s one of the most complicated conflicts in all of modern history.
PL: I want you to help me out on one point you mentioned—the barrel bombs, the children, the hospitals. I do not consider myself capable of judging these things. The press coverage has been so bad one must absolutely not take it at face value.
Patrick Cockburn [The Independent’s celebrated Middle East commentator] explained in an important piece not long ago that Syria is being reported from Beirut by telephone. Who are they phoning? Well, they’re phoning activists and anti-Assad people. And the NGOs? They don’t have any of their own people on the ground. They have locals on the ground, and the NGOs get all their information from these locals, who are also anti-Assad in many cases and naturally given to a certain kind of report. One cannot pretend to know much. There’s nobody whose word one can take right now. Is that a fair position?
RF: I think it is a fair position. It’s a very confusing conflict, and [there is] this clear manipulation with the White Helmets.… [White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, is a Western-supported rescue group critics accuse of close connections with anti–Assad militants.]
I was just in Nuremberg where they gave an award for the “Caesar” photographs that were smuggled out of Syria showing the tortured people in the Damascus prisons. That exemplified what you were just saying. On one side, there are people who are saying this is a complete fraud, and on the other side people are saying this authenticates the argument that Assad should be prosecuted as a war criminal.
At this Nuremberg awards ceremony, there was an important guy from US State Department named Stephen Rapp making that argument, who had been the prosecutor of the Rwanda tribunal, and Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch authenticated these pictures. They had a role in saying this is valid. Both of them were arguing mainly that it’s a scandal not to produce a format that allows criminal prosecution.
PL: In the way I just mentioned, I don’t see grounds for relying on anything Human Rights Watch or NGOs like it report without some other verification. No ideological position, not politics: It’s simply a matter of valid evidence from disinterested sources. To me personally it comes down to professional training. It’s typical of what I said before. There are the two famous chemical weapons attacks—outside Damascus in 2013 and the other last April in Khan Sheikhoun: Same thing. Sy Hersh [the investigative journalist] had a go at both of them and concluded official accounts were false flags. I respect Sy. Theodore Postol [the MIT professor], whose judgement I also trust, drew the same conclusion with considerable evidence. So I do stay clear of that stuff.
RF: I have, too. I have a young friend, a Syrian woman, and she does claim that 90 percent of the civilian casualties are attributable to the Damascus regime. It’s just hard to know. I trust her. But at the same time she’s very emotionally engaged.
PL: One wants to draw close. I hope it’s time soon to go and see, so these mysteries are cleared up.
RF: I suspect it will take a long time.
PL: Humanitarian intervention and “R2P” [“responsibility to protect”]: You note the complexities and the judgments involved at some length in the books, and there are a lot of black marks attached to these concepts as they have been used and misused. Is there a case to be made in favor of these?
RF: There always are contextual arguments to be made in particular situations. My bias is against intervention because I think it almost always, whatever the humanitarian wrapping, has a strategic motivation. Governments, including our own, are not humanitarian instruments. When they use the humanitarian argument—unless it’s a trivial natural disaster or something very small—when they embark on a major undertaking it’s either oil or ideological.
PL: The motivations are bound to be corrupted.
RF: Yes. And in fact, if they’re not corrupted, they won’t be undertaken in a way that will be successful. They have to be corrupt to be successful.
PL: It comes down to something rather grim: Humanity is not entirely capable of helping itself.
RF: I would say in this context it’s the primacy of geopolitics and the weakness of the UN and international law in relation to this primacy.
PL: Syria brings us to international law. The US breaches international law with every weapon it sends into Syria and every bomb it drops. The question, now that the war is ending, is whether territory that its proxies hold will actually revert to the sovereign government or not. The Russians, on the other hand, activated in September 2015 at Damascus’s request. They are observant of international law and make a point to say so on regular occasions. I take these matters quite seriously, but as an American journalist and an ex-Times person I have to remark that you never hear about international law in this context. And if you bring it up, you find it’s a faintly subversive topic even to mention.
RF: Or flaky. When international law is on the side of the geopolitical actors, then they are very serious about its relevance. When the American embassy was seized in Tehran after the Iranian Revolution, they talked about the flouting of international law as if that was the most sacred body of law that ever existed. International law is used very instrumentally. If you’re protecting private investment in Venezuela or Chile, then it’s barbaric not to uphold it. But if it’s blocking the pursuit of some kind of interventionist project, then it’s flaky or irrelevant to talk about it. Kissinger complains in his memoir that he had these aides who bothered him by reminding him of the relevance of international law.
PL: Can you please put international law in an historic context? Your starting points seem to be the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo after the 1945 surrenders. How has the status and observance and relevance of international law evolved since then? Did your work on Vietnam, The Six Legal Dimensions of the Vietnam War [Center of International Studies, Princeton, 1968], mark an important point in the story?
RF: I would begin by saying you have to separate out that part of international law that serves the interest of most states most of the time, and that’s a large part of what happens in international life. Where one comes to the questions that I think you’re interested in is the war-peace-security spectrum of policy making. And it’s there that you have what one might call a double standard. When international law is on your side, you are very pious about invoking it and talking about its importance. If it blocks the pursuit of national interests as they’re being defined, then it’s marginalized and ignored.
PL: Has its status diminished since ’45, or since Vietnam, or since the Cold War?
RF: International law was always part of the ideological superstructure of the liberal internationalists. I think what has happened is that kind of perspective has declined, and with it the pretension—it was always a pretension—of respect for law. The Kennedy presidency and the Democratic presidents were always law-oriented—until it was inconvenient. The Republicans were always kind of… national interest prevailed. They didn’t pretend. In a sense, they’ve been less hypocritical. But there wasn’t much difference in policy between the left and the right, if you put it that way.
Again, the liberal internationalists always regarded international law as an integral instrument in their effort to project American global leadership. American global leadership was premised on both the legal order and the institutional innovations after World War II, like the World Bank and the IMF. That’s what liberal internationalism was all about—the institutions and the development of an international law of cooperation among the democratic governments and building that kind of world-order system.
PL: You had an interesting comment in one of your blogs: Terrorists are what sovereign states call non-state actors exerting influence. They are known as terrorists. How should we think about the phenomenon of terrorism in the Middle East?
RF: Well, there are two ways to think about it. One is to say that “terrorism” is used as an ideological device to delegitimize your opponents. The difference between terrorists and freedom fighters depends upon how you perceive them. I mean, the Contras in Nicaragua were among the worst terrorists, yet they were supported heavily by the US government and called “freedom fighters.”
PL: This observation applies across the board?
RF: Pretty much. And, of course, the other thing is that if the essence of terrorism is the violence against civilian innocents, then the states are the worst terrorists in the world. More civilians have been killed by states, and therefore, again, it’s a kind of propagandistic move by which we think of terrorists as the non-state actors, and the state actors are using force upholding security. Language is used in this context to either legitimize or delegitimize.
PL: People argue about the definition of terrorism. One of the ones I have some regard for is “the purposeful provocation of fear in a population.” And by that basis you’re quite right. Sovereign states are the primary terrorists of our time. But I’d like you to comment specifically on four entities in this context of terrorists-or-not: Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Iran.
A friend said the other day, “Any organization founded on the basis of a resistance project is bound to have some unpretty things in its past, but they evolve and become political organizations.”
RF: Yes, I think that’s an important insight.
PL: These three organizations, and also Iran—tell me about the nomenclature of terrorism.
RF: First of all, those are the four that are prioritized by Israel and the US as the epitome of international terrorism, outside of ISIS and Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. But I would say that with Hezbollah, it’s very hard to make the case that it’s a terrorist organization. It defended its territory against Israeli occupation.
PL: Chomsky once said that’s Hezbollah’s only sin: It beat the Israelis.
RF: Yes, that’s certainly a bigger sin. The defense of your own territory against a foreign aggressor should not be put into any kind of terrorist framework, if you’re going to use that terminology at all. And as far as I know, their targets were the Israeli military presence in their country. They may have captured some Israeli soldiers and things like that, but that’s not terrorism. That’s warfare and combat of some sort.
PL: The Muslim Brotherhood is very interesting to me, because immediately after Morsi was imprisoned and the purge, if that’s the word, proceeded after his government collapsed the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization. I’m not a great student of the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, but so far as I understand it was primarily social and its sin was its effectiveness. It’s declared to be dedicated to nonviolence.
RF: Yes. I think that that was an outrageous ideological move, again, to try to discredit and try to indirectly legitimize the al–Sisi [Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, president since Morsi was deposed in 2014] bloody crackdown. And as I say, it’s also Saudis. The Saudis were very threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood because they saw this as Islamic democracy challenging the dynastic monarchies.
One of the things I remember from this conversation with Khomeini was that he said he entered politics because there was a river of blood between the state and the people, and the same river of blood existed in Saudi Arabia. He was not at all sectarian, which was interesting. He was very insistent that this was not an Iranian revolution but an Islamic revolution. What he saw was the oppressiveness of these dynastic regimes in the region.
I didn’t understand at first—the Saudis purported to be against Shi’ism, but the Muslim Brotherhood is Sunni. But why they would be so active in supporting al-Sisi and undermining Morsi had all to do with this sense that if a democratically oriented Islam emerges in Egypt, Saudi Arabia won’t be far behind.
PL: And what about Hamas?
RF: Hamas, I think, has evolved. What you said a moment ago definitely applies to them. I’ve had conversations with their leaders in Cairo and in Doha, and I was struck by their feeling that what they called armed struggle had not succeeded and that they had been encouraged by the US to pursue a political track and entered the elections in 2006. Their sin was to win the elections. Israel wanted to keep them in a terrorist box, so they wouldn’t let them get out of that. They’ve offered Israel a 50-year peaceful coexistence arrangement, and Israel ignores this. There were also well-documented secret initiatives to the [George W.] Bush presidency saying, “Please don’t let this tension emerge here, there will be terrible violence on both sides—we want a political solution.”