TCS Daily

Let Freedom Ring: A TCS Interview With Michael Ledeen

By Michael Ledeen - November 6, 2001 12:00 AM

Jim Glassman: In an article on October 30th in the Wall Street Journal, you made the case that what's needed as an answer to terrorism is revolution. What do you mean by that?

Michael Ledeen: What I mean is that the terrorist states -- Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, probably Sudan as well -- are all hated by their people. They remain in power solely by the use of political and military terror, they oppress their people mercilessly, and whenever their people have had the chance to express their true feelings, they've showed that they would much rather live freely.

And the example I used in the article are these dramatic demonstrations going on in the streets of virtually every major city in Iran over a period of two weeks, where they have explicitly called for an end to the radical Islamic regime and the establishment of a secular tolerant free society.

Jim Glassman: Is the press paying attention to these demonstrations?

Michael Ledeen: No.

Jim Glassman: Is the government of the United States paying attention?

Michael Ledeen: I think it's starting to, I don't think they've paid much attention to it up until the end of October.

Jim Glassman: So what are the implications of what's going on now in Iran for what our government is trying to do in fighting Osama bin Laden and the Taliban?

Michael Ledeen: It shows that what Osama Bin Laden is calling for is a total failure because if there's any place in the world where a regime of the sort Osama Bin Laden really wanted, has been established long since its Iran. Because a very strict, ascetic Islamic regime was established there in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini and has been there for 22 years, and from all the evidence we have, the overwhelming majority of Iranians hate it and they want to get rid of it. So, you can't imagine a happier message for the Western world at this moment than this because we can now say to the rest of the world, look this kind of thing fails, this kind of thing fails on the most basic level, which is the people hate it, they don't want it, they want to get rid of it.

And the regime itself is showing just how weak it is by running around confiscating television satellite dishes. I mean, they know the most popular television program in Iran is "Baywatch," and they don't want the Iranian people to be able to see "Baywatch."

Jim Glassman: So while our press is concentrating on demonstrations in Pakistan of 40 or 50,000 people opposing the U.S. action in Afghanistan, there are demonstrations of a million people, you point out, in Iran against exactly the kind of regime Osama Bin Laden would like to install throughout the Islamic world.

Michael Ledeen: Yeah, and very strong demonstrations of support for America, moreover. You had a lot of particularly young people; Iran is a very young country. Now there's a whole generation that's come of age underneath this regime, and on the 12th of September, tens of thousands of them filled the streets of the country carrying candles, mourning the murder of innocent Americans.

Jim Glassman: Is there something specifically that the U.S. policymakers can do to encourage this kind of activity, not just in Iran but as you point out, Syria, among the Palestinians, in Iraq . . .

Michael Ledeen: Yeah.

Jim Glassman: What can be done?

Michael Ledeen: Well we can do what we did to the Soviet empire, which is to tell the world what it really is, their evil little empires. We should broadcast to the people of those countries. We're doing some but not nearly enough and we should support the leaders of democratic resistance movements.

And that seems to me to be entirely within the tradition of the United States. It comes naturally to us, we believe in it, we automatically ally ourselves with these people anyway, and we should do it explicitly and openly.

In the case of Iraq we have quite a good opposition movement, the Iraqi National Congress. But Clinton refused to support it, in fact he betrayed it when Saddam attacked them in 1994. Bush has been a bit better. He's given them some money, but, his State Department has instructed them that they're not permitted to operate inside Iraq, which is truly ridiculous, because it guarantees we get the worst of both worlds. We do enough for Saddam to hate us even more, and we don't do enough to have any real effect.

Jim Glassman: You say in your article that Islamic radicalism flourishes in corrupt pro-American countries in the Middle East, but is hated in an anti-American fundamentalist country like Iran?

Michael Ledeen: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it?

Jim Glassman: And so a corrupt pro-American country in the Middle East would be a country like, what, Saudi Arabia?

Michael Ledeen: Yeah, or Egypt.

Jim Glassman: So, is there something we should be doing in those countries right now? Let me put it this way, there seems to be almost a kind of timid stance that the U.S. government has taken toward Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Well, we don't want to offend the government because they may... do what? Turn on us? Whereas actually, we should be... what? Opposing the government?

Michael Ledeen: No, we should be doing what we should have done with the Shah, which is sit on them and make them reform and make them clean up their act. And we're always afraid to do this because one part of our national psyche says we mustn't meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. While the other half of our national psyche says, no we have to promote democracy and transparency and rule of law wherever and whenever we can. So we're always schizophrenic about this kind of question.

Plus, our diplomats have a nasty habit of sending cables back to Washington every morning saying yes it's true that this is a fairly nasty unpleasant and corrupt government but we have to support it because if it falls something even worse will come along. And, I think it ought to be possible for us to say to a Mubarek or to a friendly King of Saudi Arabia, look, history shows that it's impossible to have a good stable relationship with the United States if you're a dictator. Americans eventually get tired of this kind of thing and turn on you. Look at the Shah, look at Marcos, I mean there's a long string of examples like this. So, you've got to reform, and we will help you reform, plus we will guarantee you and so if you come to be challenged by something much worse, like Khomeini-ism or something like that, we will defend you, we will stand by you. But we seem unable to generate a policy of that sort.

Jim Glassman: There's an intriguing phrase in your piece. You talk about the kleptomaniacs in the Palestinian authority.

Michael Ledeen: Right.

Jim Glassman: And you list the Palestinian Authority as being hated by its own people.

Michael Ledeen: Um hum.

Jim Glassman: That certainly is not the picture that the U.S. press and many politicians give of the Palestinian Authority. They make Yasser Arafat and his colleagues seem to be some kind of a well-liked force that's just having trouble with the Israelis. Could you elaborate?

Michael Ledeen: Well there is some polling data from the Palestinian Authority that suggests that most of the Palestinians realize how corrupt the government of the Palestinian Authority is, and they don't like it. They see all this money going in, and they see that they're living in misery, so the money that goes to the governing authority, doesn't reach the people of the PA.

And they know that Arafat and the PLO have these huge overseas bank accounts, everybody knows that. So the degree of corruption is well known. And they know that they have no free press, because any time anybody in the Palestinian Authority criticizes Arafat publicly and consistently, they're arrested, or they're thrown out, or they're shut down, or they're killed. So, it's really well known.

Jim Glassman: So you're talking in this article about a policy that really just seems to me to fit in perfectly with what Americans believe. We are on the side of freedom and openness and democracy, and that seems to be one of the things that's very frustrating in our dealings in the Middle East. What are the chances that the Bush Administration will actually put a policy like you describe here in place?

Michael Ledeen: I don't know the answer to that question; all I can do is hope and keep fighting for it.

Jim Glassman: But you do talk about an official that you spoke to I guess last week, about what was happening in Iran, and the official angrily asked, 'why have I heard nothing about this?'

Michael Ledeen: Right, he didn't know, nobody had told him and believe me he's one of our very top policy makers, this guy, and he had not heard of it. Nor had the New York Times, I called the New York Times even earlier and said how come you people are not covering this story, it's the story of the year, it's the biggest story of the war, it's a potential turning point. And I think that press coverage of Iran is very much like press coverage of China, and they're subject to the same kinds of threats and blackmail and so forth. Because they all know that if you're a correspondent in Iran and you were to write this story honestly and talk about young people in blue jeans, boys and girls dancing in front of the guardians of the revolution in an open show of contempt, that's the last story you'll write from Iran, because they'll throw you out.

Jim Glassman: So how are you able to get this information, and can individuals who are on Tech Central Station look somewhere on the Internet? I mean, how do they find out what's going on in Iran?

Michael Ledeen: There's several Internet news services, Iranian news services on line, you can get those. And they're pretty good, and then you can read the European press, which here and there has little pieces of the story, and you can add them all up and figure them out.

Jim Glassman: Your presentation here is actually I think very hopeful for Americans. We've been told now for the past few months that radical Islam has become a tremendous power throughout the world and there may be almost no stopping it except with the power of the U.S. military. What you're saying is that most Muslims, many many Muslims, want the same kind of freedom that the rest of us enjoy, is that accurate?

Michael Ledeen: That's what I believe. There's a funny kind of almost racism that applies to the Middle East where people assume that Arabs and Muslims -- there's big differences, Iran is not an Arab country -- for example, are incapable of democracy, that there's some kind of genetic defect in those people that makes them unable to be democratic. And I don't believe it, and I think that we should help them move in that direction. I think the desire for freedom is universal and I think that democracy is what most everybody in the world wants, except for a few nut cases like Osama bin Laden. I think we should promote it.

Jim Glassman: So then instead of not wanting democracy, they are simply oppressed, as so many other people have been for so long. And Latin America is a good example of how things can change.

Michael Ledeen: Yeah, I think things can change, I think it's time. Anyway, even if you look at it from a harsh realpolitik point of view, we can't put up with this kind of tyranny anymore. It's time to unleash democracy on these people, and see if they can handle it. I think they can.

Jim Glassman: Well, thank you, Michael Ledeen; it's a very important piece.

Michael Ledeen: Well, thank you, Jim Glassman, my favorite publisher of everything.

Jim Glassman: Thanks, Michael.

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