Time Magazine's Man in Cairo

Scott MacLeod of Beaver County has been Time magazine’s Cairo bureau chief for the last 11 years. During 21 years of covering that region he has personally interviewed nearly every Middle Eastern leader and thug you can name, from Yasser Arafat and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Jordanian Queen Rania al Abdullah, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Osama bin Laden.

MacLeod, a 1976 Pitt grad, lives with his wife, Susan Hack, and daughter, Sophie, in Cairo. But I caught up with him by telephone Wednesday in Tehran, where he was making his 15th visit to Iran.

What are you doing in Iran and what do you expect to find there?

Scott MacLeod: Well, Iran has long been one of the most important countries in the Middle East and therefore it’s one of the most important stories that Time covers. And visas are not always easy for American journalists, so when you get one, you want to come here and take advantage of it. We’re interested in writing about all the issues, from Iran’s nuclear ambitions to its role in Iraq to its relations with organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Iran is in the middle of a lot of things Americans are interested in, so it’s always a good story to be here. It’s a semi-open society. There are always plenty of people to talk to. The politics are very lively here and there’s never a dull moment.

Will you be interviewing your old pal President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

MacLeod: Well, I would love to (laughs). But that’s easier said than done. Fortunately, Time has a high profile in the world because it’s a brand name in American journalism. We generally have access in the Middle East to the higher echelons… . It’s an interesting thing, actually, because it shows that the Iranian regime is very interested in communicating to the U.S. government and American elites and decision-makers. They do want to have some kind of a dialogue. People in both governments have been calling for negotiations and discussions and I have no doubt that there will be some in the future.

Can the Iranian leaders be trusted to deal in good faith with the United States?

MacLeod: Probably a lot of Iranians are asking that question of their own policy-makers who want to talk to the U.S. When it comes to countries like Iran, or when we had enemies like the Soviet Union, it comes down to each country’s national interests rather than personalities or individuals. Personalities are important. But I think if a dialogue gets going, it’s going to be on the basis that Iran knows that it has interests that it can achieve by talking to the U.S. and vice versa. There’s going to be distrust on both sides and neither side is going to give the other everything it wants. But I think if the discussions get moving they will be relatively successful.

Both sides have studied this very, very carefully and if the thing gets on track, it will be on the basis of a lot of understandings that both sides can live with. We’re not there yet. Maybe in the eyes of Washington these are still open questions. But my opinion is that while Iran is very theatrical in its revolutionary-style rhetoric, if you look at the Iranians’ actions over the last 15 to 20 years, they have been relatively conservative and careful. It’s not the radical revolutionary regime that its own rhetoric would have you think and what American political rhetoric would have you think.

For example, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, the Iranians have meddled; they’ve interfered, but certainly no less so than the United States government has. We heard James Baker in releasing the Baker-Hamilton report actually refer to Iranian cooperation and assistance in a positive way in Afghanistan. So clearly the Iranis are looking out for their interests; whether those interests are compatible with American interests is another question. But foreign relations are always a matter of balancing interests. Nobody ever gets 100 percent of what they are looking for.

In Time you said Middle East leaders you’ve talked to say the whole region is in monumentally worse condition now than it was six years ago when President Bush took office. What are the important examples?

MacLeod: Well, as far as Americans are concerned, Iraq is the most obvious case. Very few people would have had anything good to say about Saddam Hussein before he was overthrown. But … most people would agree that Iraqis and the Middle East are not better off from our having invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam. As desirable as it would have been to get rid of Saddam, the consequences of how you got rid of him and what was left behind had to be taken in account.

What we’re seeing now is that this foreign policy project of regime change in Iraq has created tremendous crisis for Iraq and the whole region. It’s not just the war in Iraq, but a war that could bring the whole region into a regional war. This is pretty serious stuff. We didn’t have this on the agenda six years ago. We really upset the apple cart with the invasion of Iraq.

Another important misstep on the part of the Bush administration is to have ignored the Palestinian problem. In a nutshell, when Bush came to office, the first Bush administration had invested an enormous amount of American diplomatic capital in promoting peace between the Israel and the Arab states. But after George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon came to power on almost identical dates, we have seen disengagement in the peace process by the United States government. This has left this problem drift.

What do leaders in the Middle East want the U.S. to do?

MacLeod: That’s a good question.  What the Arab regimes or leaders want to do is not necessarily what all the Arabs want the U.S. to do. First of all, most Arab regimes want to stay in power. They are not looking to vote themselves out of office. They do accept the principles of reform and democratization, but under their terms, under a process that they can control. That’s the ultimate thing the Arab leaders want.  What they want from the U.S. is for it to calm the tensions in the region. To them, first and foremost, that means solving the Palestinian-Israeli problem. One of the reasons that is first is that they see it as doable. This may be simplistic and not quite correct, but they see it simply as a matter that America should pressure Israel to withdraw from Arab lands and the states have agreed that once Israel does that they will sign a peace agreement with Israel.

The No. 2 demand is that they fully realize the role of the United States as the sole superpower in the world. They like to be friends with that superpower. It gives them some status and legitimacy with the people and it gives them a security blanket — especially the Gulf States like Kuwait, Bahrain. They help the U.S. They allow us to have bases in their countries, some of them. They enjoy the American security umbrella. They seek the American security umbrella but like the umbrella to be one that is relatively passive and visible.

They were not in favor of invading Iraq and stirring up a hornet’s nest there. They think that is actually undermining their security. But having done that, with regard to Iraq they do not want the U.S. to pull out immediately. Some of their rhetoric may say that, but what they really want is the U.S. to do whatever it can — including remaining in Iraq — until the Iraq situation is relatively stabilized.

How bad is it in Iraq and is it really a civil war?

MacLeod: It’s really a pretty bad situation. I think I have to agree with what Kofi Annan said the other day: We’ve seen civil wars in places like Lebanon and what we are seeing in Iraq is worse. The hesitancy of calling it a civil war was, in part, because you didn’t have identifiable representatives of different groups, whether they are political or sectarian, basically in open-armed conflict with rival groups for control of the nation. That would be the typical definition of a civil war. But what you have increasingly is sectarian warfare, possibly being directed or assisted by formal political organizations or rogue organizations, but you had fairly widespread killings of Sunnis by Shiites and Shiites by Sunnis over control of Iraq. There has been an element of al-Qaida and terrorist provocation and violence, which also led people to shy away from the “civil war” term. But gradually over the last year we have had increasing numbers of incidents that could be described as ethic cleaning, attacks on religious institutions and leaders. So I wouldn’t call it an all-out civil war. That would come once the formal political groups openly declare that and are transparently fighting for territory and for control. But there is a kind of simmering civil war that has been going on.

The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report came out today. What do you think?

MacLeod: I think the recommendations are excellent. I haven’t gone through it with a fine-tooth comb but the basic points that they make are all overdue, all make sense and some of them, if they had been done before the war, might have made the regime change effort in Iraq a smoother process. I was quite struck by how smart and how much foresight the commission had. It was an idea for a comprehensive way to deal with the Iraq problem — not just a military issue but bringing in politics and regional politics. I thought it was smartly done.

With regard to the recommendations on Iraq and the military presence there, unfortunately, the American and coalition presence there have helped to create a perception among certain parties in Iraq that the U.S. is an occupation army to be resisted — as all occupation armies should be, because they are not welcome in the country. American troops, unfortunately, fall into a position of being objects of resistance and attack, and as long as they stay there they will continue to be attacked not only by terrorists who come in from outside Iraq but also by Sunnis whose interests are being undermined by the overthrow of Saddam and by the American military presence there. They want to fight the Americans until they leave and they apparently have the resources to do that. And we have apparently not got the resources to defeat this insurgency by military means.

I think it is a good idea to stay in the country for a certain limited period, stabilize it to get all the parties in Iraq into a political process that can be successful and not abandon Iraq. We really owe the Iraqi people, having upset their apple cart; we owe it to them to not just abandon them at their biggest moment of need as their country descends into civil war. We need to be sure that we are not fueling that civil war by being a party to that civil war. So moving to bases and being supportive of the Iraqi security forces and training them would be about the maximum that we could hope for in terms of a military success in Iraq.

Is it too late for the recommendations to be implemented?

MacLeod: With regard to the troop redeployment, we don’t have much choice. We’ve got to do something and staying much longer in the formation we are in now is only going to make the situation worse.

 I was struck by the urgency by which Baker was making these recommendations to Bush. Time is running out. We could see a very dangerous spiral for the worse in the not-too-distant future, but it’s not too late yet. It’s definitely not too late to take the (diplomacy) regional to help stabilize Iraq, because whether Iraq descends into further chaos or not, we’re still going to have the Iraq problem to address and that will have to be addressed in a regional content with regional cooperation. Those recommendations also need to be urgently taken up, but it will never be too late to elicit Iran’s cooperation and Syria’s cooperation.

It’s got a little bit lost in the midst of the Iraq crisis, but the Palestinian-Israeli crisis is at a very, very dangerous point of possibly no return and no prospect for ever having a peaceful settlement. And that will mean possibly decades of continued tension between Israelis and Palestinians that will affect the whole region. It’s urgent that the Bush administration as well as Europe and other interested parties really address the Palestinian-Israeli issue and calm tensions over there and show the good faith of the international community to make the Middle East a better place. That good will it engenders will pay off in winning the cooperation of Iran and Syria.

Is the war in Iraq going to be one of the worst strategic blunders in U.S. foreign policy history, as President Carter, Pat Buchanan and others have said?

MacLeod: Clearly, from my point of view and observations over the years, the Bush administration took it upon itself to undertake some very bold polices to reshape the Middle East. (It) had high hopes for these policies. Not only have these hopes not materialized but their worst nightmares have materialized.

Only history will tell if it is one of the worst blunders, or the worst. And never say never. If the damage control is handled well, if some of these recommendations could be put into place and if you get the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks back on track, you could pull Iran into a more constructive role in the region. I’m being very optimistic here; it’s not a prediction, it’s hypothetic optimism, but you could see the dawn of a new understanding in the Middle East that would considerably reduce tensions among all the states.

The way things have been going for the last six years — and it’s not all Osama bin Laden’s fault — the tensions have been getting worse and the chances for more and more conflicts have been growing. We’ve seen a quite a lot of conflict, not only in Iraq but in Lebanon, in Gaza, in the West Bank, and then there’s all this talk about another American attack on Iran over the nuclear issue. We’ve really reached a point in the Middle East of hyper-tension. If it was working, if by some description this was all working out for the better, we could say, “Well, it was a tough road, but it was worth it at the end.” But I don’t think anyone sees this as going in any good direction. It’s only going in a worse direction — and a very dangerous direction.

Five years from now what will Iraq look like?

MacLeod: If experience is anything to go by, it’s likely that Iraq will go through some form of civil war before getting to the next stage. I’m not necessary completely pessimistic about Iraq’s future. There are a number of factors that augur well for an eventual kind of conciliation and progress in Iraq. One is that it’s a pretty rich country, so that could give the various parties reason to fight for the oil of the country. But they are all going to be a lot richer and the people are going to be a lot more prosperous if they don’t fight, if they don’t spend their money on weapons.

Number two, I think there’s recognition that no one party can rule the whole country. The Shiites are never going to be able to control the Sunni areas and no one is going to be able to control the Kurdish areas. So there’s a recognition that they all kind of have to live together and that except for Baghdad, they all kind of have their own territories.

Not a partition?

MacLeod: People talk about partition but I don’t see that as necessarily what Iraqis would end up going for in the end. You have a pretty vicious war in Lebanon, but for the most part it was a fight over the shares of the power, rather than to break up the country or for one party to grab all the power. I think that’s similar to what you are seeing in Iraq. While Iraqi is not as strong as Egyptian or Israeli nationalism is, there is such a thing as Iraqi nationalism. I think a substantial number of Iraqis would be happy to owe allegiance to the central state.
And then much is made of the Iraqi Shiites being either the pawns or puppets of Iran, but one thing that has to be remembered is that Iraqi Shiites are Arabs and Iranian Shiites are non-Arabs for the most part. In other words, Iran is basically a Persian nation and Iraq is basically an Arab nation with the Kurdish non-Arab population kind of being an enclave. So it doesn’t follow that Shiite population of Iraq, or even the Shiite leadership of Iraq, will march much to Iran’s tune. So you have a lot of factors that support the idea of keeping Iraq as one country and of settling the differences between Iraqis. Probably we shouldn’t be that surprised with the fall of a very vicious dictatorship that kept the country glued together by fear and force — we should be surprised that things unraveled to a great extent after that glue was removed.

It’s going to take some time for Iraqis to sit around the table and discuss what kind of government they want, what kind of state they want. I know they have been doing this, but it’s been under the gaze of the United State military presence. They’re going to have to do this on their own and have to answer to each other, rather than to a foreign military power that’s a presence in their country. I think with the support of the region — if there  could be a consensus between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey about the future of Iraq — it could definitely help to persuade the Iraqis that they have a lot to gain from working together to keep their country together.