The US hopes that Iran will follow Libya's lead in abandoning its nuclear program, but nobody should rule out the possibility of military action against Teheran's nuclear sites if it does not, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview.
Feith stated that the US is now concentrating on "a process to try to get the existing international legal mechanisms – the nonproliferation treaty [and] the International Atomic Energy Agency – to work, to bring the kind of pressure to bear on Iran that would induce the Iranians to follow the path that Libya took in deciding that they were actually better off in abandoning their WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs."
Feith stressed that the Americans are interested in seeing whether the suspension of uranium-enrichment activities that the Iranians agreed to last month in a deal with France, Germany and Britain "can get turned into a permanent abandonment."
But strikingly, whereas British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last month ruled out any possibility of military action against Iranian nuclear sites should the diplomatic path lead to failure, Feith said that "I don't think that anybody should be ruling in or ruling out anything while we are conducting diplomacy."
In the wide-ranging interview conducted on Friday, Feith, who will be remaining in his position during US President George W. Bush's second term, told the Post that democratic reform of the Arab world, including in US-allied Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, will be the linchpin of Bush's foreign policy in the next four years.
He was speaking a day before outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell told a conference of Islamic leaders in Morocco that the Arab world had to implement political and economic reform and stop "pointing to the [deadlocked] Middle East peace process as a pretext for delay."
Feith recalled that "the president has said over and over again that he believes that the world will be a better place, there will be a better treatment of people [and] there will be a more secure international environment if there is a development of representative, democratic-type institutions in the Middle East."
The undersecretary said he saw signs that Bush's democratization platform was having an effect on the public discussion now taking place in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan about democracy, dialogue that barely existed before Bush began discussing the issue in 2002.
"The kinds of things that the president has been saying are stimulating talk about reform throughout the Middle East," said Feith. "There is more attention being paid to the subject. People who are aware of what's going on in the world at large cannot fail to see that the countries that have democratic governments and free economies have a greater degree of prosperity, of political stability [and] of peaceful politics as opposed to violent domestic politics, and they are happier. And that kind of observation, in part because the president is stressing it, is getting more and more play throughout the entire region."
As a principal architect of the US war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, Feith is one of the most controversial members of the Bush administration. Disliked in liberal circles in the US and internationally, Feith, a staunch supporter of Israel, began his government career in 1981 as an assistant to Soviet expert Richard Pipes at the US National Security Council in the Reagan administration. In that position, as he does today for the Middle East, Feith advocated the advancement of the cause of democracy and human rights in the former Soviet bloc as a means of bringing about the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When asked about the failure thus far of the US to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world, where levels of anti-Americanism have risen sharply since September 11, 2001, Feith admitted, "There are a lot of things that need to be done to improve communications. Part of it is how we're organized: how the combatant commands relate back to headquarters here in the Pentagon; how the Pentagon relates to the State Department and the other agencies."
Feith argued that the media's need to grab the attention of viewers motivates news organizations to concentrate on violence at the expense of giving news consumers an accurate portrayal of what life is like in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Comparing the news coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan to the news coverage of Israel, Feith said, "If you live in Israel and you see the way life is there and then you go abroad and see the way Israel is reported on, the way that Israel gets reported on night after night is simply pictures of bombings or military actions. And there are people who have an image that that's all that's going on in the country and people have similar images about Afghanistan or Iraq.
"One of the problems is how do you communicate that, while there are things like that going on and they're a big problem, there's also an enormous amount of life going on that is commerce and culture and education and happy ordinary life."
Feith was highly critical of the role that Syria is playing in fueling the insurgency against Iraqi and coalition forces in Iraq. "Their role is unhelpful," he said. "We know that there are various activities important to the insurgents in Iraq that are occurring in Syria. There are people that have safe-havened there. There are people passing through Syria to join the insurgents [and] to supply them. And it's a bad thing."
One of the elements of prewar planning for which Feith has come under a barrage of criticism from US military commanders was his intention to train an exiled Iraqi military force to fight with the US during the March 2003 invasion. Feith continues to defend his recommendation.
"I did think it was important to do what we could to train up Iraqis as a security force in advance of our military operation. We saw lots of benefits of that – both with regard to the military operation itself and with regard to the post-major combat period. There were certain obvious benefits that trained Iraqis could bring, as people who know the language, who know the lay of the land who know the local culture, [and] work with our forces and help liberate their own country. And then afterward these would be people that we knew and whose views and whose leadership qualities we knew and who could help identify other Iraqis who could play a useful role in the building of a new Iraq.
"We saw lots of benefits in that effort," he continued. "We were hoping to get thousands of Iraqis trained before the war and as it turns out we were only able to train a few score and that was unfortunate. I think it would have been better if we had had thousands who were trained."
While Feith indicated that the US was doing nothing at present to encourage the Iraqis to end their enmity toward Israel, he dismissed the possibility of the post-Saddam Iraq going to war against it.
"If all goes well, the Iraqis are going to have a country that's going to have a representative government and will be at peace with its neighbors and in the region," said Feith. "And if that happens, the whole Middle East will be better off."
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.