Devil’s Game

A reporter tells the story of how U.S. policies in the Middle East spurred the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.


Robert Dreyfuss’ new book, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, provides a thorough look at how the United States’ strategy during the Cold War gave rise to the very radical Islamist and terrorist groups on whom it has recently declared war. Based on interviews with government and CIA officials, the book details the intelligence operations and policies that funded, armed, and then turned a blind eye to Islamic terrorist groups and their activities. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. often chose to partner with theocratic despots, royalist regimes, and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood — a strategy borrowed from European imperial powers that was calculated to suppress the nationalist and democratic impulses that threatened foreign control in the Middle East.

Though the rest of world was shocked by the attacks of September 11, Dreyfuss argues that U.S. intelligence received numerous warning signs that the country’s strategy in the Middle East was turning into a “devil’s game,” even if they failed to interpret them. “We didn’t create this [radical Islamic] movement—it had a life of its own—but we seemed to see it was a convenient horse to get on and ride,” says Dreyfuss. “And we were wrong about that.” Dreyfuss, a regular contributor to this magazine, recently spoke with Mother Jones about his new book.

Mother Jones: Time and again, the CIA, the British, and even American allies in the Middle East like Anwar Sadat were taken by surprise when the Islamic radicals they had backed started disrupting the West’s control of the region and striking out violently on their own. Why didn’t they see this coming?

Robert Dreyfuss: They were warned and didn’t heed the warnings. Sometimes people think they can control the forces that they unleash and find out that, to their chagrin, they can’t. It’s the historical problem of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

In Sadat’s case, when he became President of Egypt he had no political base, and used the Muslim Brotherhood to help him combat and suppress the Nasserists and Egyptian left, encouraged them to combat left-wing students on Egyptian campuses during the 1970s, and I’m sure he felt that, because he was their patron, nothing bad would ever happen. In fact his wife, Jihan, warned him that something bad might happen. And it did, it happened on television for the whole world to see when these Islamist fanatics jumped out of their trucks and jeeps and machine-gunned him to death on Egyptian television.

MJ: There were warning signs that Islamic fundamentalism was spiraling out of control. Did the United States and Britain simply not understand these signs, or did they just think they could rein the radicals back in if necessary?

RD: The basic problem is that American policy makers and intelligence people didn’t ever really step back and look at the big picture. They saw it all on a country-by-country, year-to-year basis. They never really thought, “Is this guy talking to that guy? Is this movement connected to that movement?”

The clearest, most glaring case of that is with Afghanistan. Here we were supporting a jihad in Afghanistan and recruiting Islamists from all over the world to go fight the communists, and at that exact moment, these same Islamists killed the President of Egypt, who was our main Arab ally. And it gave nobody pause. What about the Islamists who overthrew our chief Middle East ally, the Shah of Iran? They didn’t realize that maybe this could all be connected together on some level.

To ignore the fact that these moves were all multiply connected and [that the Islamists were] talking to each other, drawing on each other’s successes and learning from each other’s failures, is just absurd. In my research for the book I came across people who wrote some report for some intelligence agency saying “We’ve got to start worrying about this Islamic thing.” Yet they were always a kind of ignored minority.

MJ: In part, the failure of US intelligence to predict the rise of radical Islam was due to a dearth of specialists who were studying Islamic countries. Is that still a problem?

RD: Being an Arabist has never been popular in the American bureaucracy. In the last twenty years, it has been almost a curse. An entire industry has been created to attack Arabists and to smear them with all sorts of charges of being beholden to Saudi Arabian sheiks and so forth.

In the last year and a half, since Porter Goss took over as CIA Director, there’s been yet another purge of the CIA, which has fallen most heavily on its Near East division and on the CIA’s Arabists, many of whom have quit in disgust. It’s clear that since President Bush was elected no one in the White House was interested in the intelligence conclusions that these Arabists came to as professionals. The intelligence on Iraq was skewed, twisted and distorted, and in some cases manufactured. That’s gotten worse under Porter Goss, who was sent over to the CIA to quell a perceived rebellion in the agency against the White House. But in a time in which we need the CIA to understand the Middle East, political Islam, and the nature of the terrorist threat that we face, the agency is being stripped of its best and brightest minds on the topic.

 

MJ: What lessons have been learned from the West’s complicity in unleashing the most serious global security threat in the world today?

RD: Henry Ford said, “Never complain. Never explain.” And I think I would add to that, “Never apologize.” No I don’t expect to see any awareness or mea culpa coming from either the European imperial powers or the United States about their role in helping to create radical political Islamic movements.

The clearest lesson that’s been learned is, “Look at history and don’t do this.” But, someone much smarter than I said, “History repeats itself.” I find it stunning beyond words that an Administration that says its main mission today is to exterminate Islamist terrorism is supporting, with 150,000 US troops, a government in Baghdad one of whose parties, al-Da’wa, is a terrorist party. I wrote in my book about the history of al-Da’wa. It’s an organization that in 1983 tried to blow up the American Embassy in Kuwait. That, to me, counts as a terrorist action. Yet suddenly we’re supporting them and their leader, President [Ibrahim] Jaafari of Iraq. I find it stunning beyond words that no one in the Bush administration will come forward and say, “Whoops, we made a mistake. We didn’t realize that these deranged people we’re going to end up running the country. And, we’re so sorry.”

MJ: The rise of militant Egyptian Islamists, right under Sadat’s nose, was amazing, and there are countless examples of US intelligence being blindsided in this way. Are there similar foreign projects and religious programs in existence now that could have similarly unintended, negative consequences in the future?

RD: We’re creating a humongous Frankenstein in Iraq, obviously. Because we’re building this monster, there are Islamists all over the region who are starting to look at that and say “Hmm, we could do that.” For instance in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood that represents the majority Sunnis look at Iraq and they say: “Uncle Sam stumbled into Iraq, got rid of Saddam, and the majority Shiites took over and now are pretty much running the place. So maybe if Uncle Sam bumbles his way into Syria, he’ll get rid of [President Bashar] Assad and the majority Sunnis will take over in Syria.” The Muslim Brotherhood is looking at Iraq as a hopeful model of what Syria could look like.

MJ: How well-developed is the current Administration’s understanding of radical Islamist groups, and how has that played into current entanglements in the Islamic and Arab world?

RD: Well maybe you’re joking in asking how well developed their understanding of Islam is. I would say on a scale of one to ten, the Bush administration’s understanding of political Islam is somewhere between zero and one. I think they simply have no concept either of the larger forces at work—that is, how does Islam as a political force operate in the modern world—or of the specific nature of what Bush now calls “Islamofascism.”

On the one hand I think the President is wildly exaggerating the threat from Islamic terrorism when he compares it to global institutional threats, like fascism and communism. And, second, I think that he underestimates the importance of political Islam as an institution in the Middle East, because now we find ourselves, since the invasion of Iraq, supporting an Islamist theocracy in Baghdad. At the same time, the President is pushing forward to replace existing regimes in the Middle East with democracies, which can only enhance the power of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood—the most powerful opposition groups in countries like Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere.

MJ: Is US foreign policy still operating under the legacy of the Cold War in dealing with the Middle East?

RD: The Cold War strategy toward the Middle East was premised on the idea that we have to own it, otherwise the Soviets are going to take it over. Well, the Soviet Union is no more. But what’s replaced it is a similar idea: We have to own it or the Chinese are going to get their grubby hands on it, and maybe some other guys too. The struggle to control the oil resources of Persian Gulf doesn’t have an end point. In the Cold War we just had a different set of bad guys to worry about.

MJ: Do you think an awareness of this history can bring a change in foreign policy?

RD: I’m skeptical as to whether the book will have a big impact on policy and I’ll tell you why. Because, there are many, many people in the United States today who do understand how politics and religion work together in the Middle East. But there’s an enormous gap between their knowledge and that of politicians.

In the months and years before the invasion of Iraq, virtually everyone who knew anything about Iraq opposed going to war. They did so in part because they realized it was utterly stupid and reckless to invade a country without a clear idea of what the consequences would be. Because they were opposed to the war, they were excluded from the planning that went into the war. And that’s a catch-22: Anyone who knew anything about Iraq, because they opposed the venture, was excluded from the war planning. This meant that the only people left over to do the planning were know-nothings, the people who didn’t have a clue. And so the know-nothings ended up planning the war and that is what led us to the current catastrophe in Iraq.

You can trace that back to many, many other examples that I go into in the book, where the people who understood the problem were excluded—for political reasons—from the decision-making. It’s impossible to challenge US policies supporting Israel. It’s impossible to call for a pull-out from Iraq because you’ll get clobbered over the head with a heavy stick when you run for reelection. If the book contributes to a greater public awareness of the blunders of our politicians, maybe it will make a difference, if and when voters act on their newly gained understanding.

MJ: You mention in your book that Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States are all prime targets in some sort of neo-conservative empire-building project. How far do those ambitions go within the Administration?

RD: At the beginning of the Iraq project, I think the majority view in the Administration was “First Iraq, then Syria, then Iran, then the rest of the region. And pretty soon it will all be ours.” As it became clear that Americanization of Iraq wasn’t going too well, there was a rethinking process among some of the more sensible people in the Administration, but others are pressing ahead. We’re faced now with a situation in which the two countries that we probably need the most to help us stabilize Iraq—Syria and Iran—are exactly the two countries that the Bush Administration seems intent on annoying and confronting.

Were I President, I would approach Syria and Iran, and say privately, “Okay, we messed-up in Iraq. Will you help us fix it?” But instead, they’re yelping about how we’re not going to tolerate Syria and Iran—we’re going to put pressure on one and we’re going to squeeze that one and we’re going to threaten this one and bomb that one. That’s not exactly making the prospects for Iraq better. In fact, it makes it more likely that Iraq is going to get worse.

MJ: But doesn’t Syria pose a threat to the United States, both in the sense that it supplies Iraq with new insurgents, as well as its role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?

RD: Syria is a little, tiny country. It’s true it might be able to blow up people in Lebanon. But all kinds of countries have been blowing up politicians in Lebanon for many years, including Israel and the United States. I don’t see that we exactly have clean hands on that score. Anybody who thinks Syria is a kind of global threat doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Syria, believe me, is far more afraid of us than we should be of them.

MJ: You mention that US is now supporting an Islamic theocracy in Baghdad, how does that compare with the one in Iran?

RD: I would say that the Islamic theocracy in Baghdad is a junior partner of the Iranian one. It’s less well-developed and it’s forced to share power with the Kurds, who are secular, which puts a brake on how far the religious parties in Iraq can go. But, left to their own devices, Iraqi groups like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), would create a state that looks very much like Iran and in fact would probably would probably form some sort of permanent working alliance with the Iranian regime.

MJ: Neither American support for radical Islamic groups in the past, nor current aggression—including the war in Iraq—has had a desirable effect, from the perspective of either US foreign policy or the moderate Muslims who must live with the consequences. Is there a solution to the complex problem of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism?

RD: Yes, there is an answer. The simplest way to answer that question is to say we need to lower the temperature. In my book I talk somewhere about a boiling pot of water. If you keep the flame under the pot and the water boils, the hottest molecules escape into the air. And that’s what’s happened.

[Lowering the temperature] means, first and foremost, reducing our military presence in the region—pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, closing down some of the bases we’ve set up in the whole area from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia to the Indian Ocean—and making it clear that we don’t have designs either for permanent bases in this part of the world or for their oil; and taking some serious steps to internationalize and solve some of the festering problems that inflame Muslims from Palestine to Chechnya to Kashmir.

If we can do that I think we can go along way toward lowering the temperature, and then we just need to get out of the way and let the people who live in the Middle East engage in the process of what I call religion-building, a term I got from Cheryl Bernard at RAND, which invokes the notion that we need to create a new philosophy of religion in the Middle East. But it’s not something for the United States to do; it’s something that Muslims need to do. What I know about the region is that there are countless thousands, millions of people who don’t believe in the kind of dark-minded beliefs that these Islamists have and want nothing more than to free themselves from the shackles of political Islam and get on with building a society.

MJ: What do you think the prospects are for this happening?

RD: Bad. Do I need to elaborate? I mean, bad. We’re about to invade another country, probably. It’s bad. It’s horrible and getting worse.