What It's Like To Be On Bin Laden's Book List

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In his latest audio tape, Osama bin Laden issued a list of recommended reading. One of the books is The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Stephen Walt, the book's author, responds to hearing that his work has been promoted by the leader of a terrorist organization.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In an audio tape that may have been timed to the anniversary of 9/11, the principal author of those atrocities attacked President Obama and U.S. policy and recommended three books that are now inevitably being described as the bin Laden book club.

"Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," by former President Jimmy Carter, a book believed to be "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" by John Perkins, though the translation leaves some question there, and "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," written by two well-known professors, John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt at Harvard. Professor Walt joins us in just a moment. And he's at a studio at the Harvard campus. It's nice to have you with us today.

Prof. STEPHEN WALT (Co-Author, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I read your book, and there's plenty of criticism of Israeli policy and U.S. policy. But I wonder if Osama bin Laden endorsed the parts where you argued the United States is entirely right to defend Israel's right to exist.

Prof. WALT: He may have read them. I'm not sure if he actually ultimately read the book. It may have been just reported to him. But clearly, he missed the parts where we talked about supporting Israel's right to exist, where we say at several points in the book that the United States should stand ready to come to Israel's aid if its survival is ever in jeopardy. Those were obviously not messages that he wanted to highlight.

CONAN: And, nevertheless, it must be - I wonder what your reaction was as soon as you found out about this audio tape.

Prof. WALT: Well, it's not an endorsement anyone wishes for, of course. The key is what lessons we want to draw from it. Obviously, I wish we had captured bin Laden long ago so he would not be issuing statements to anyone and certainly wouldn't be trying to arrange other much more heinous acts as well.

CONAN: Nevertheless, do you fear that this is going to be used by your critics, of whom there are many?

Prof. WALT: It's probably the kind of thing that a few critics will invoke to try and, you know, undermine our argument. But I don't think it's going to have much traction here.

The key point is that Osama was making a point that lots of other people have made, including, you know, official reports by the U.S. government, like the 9/11 Commission and the State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy. He was making the point that America's unconditional support for Israel and that combined with Israel's occupation and repression of the Palestinians is a major grievance throughout the Arab and Islamic world. And it's one of the reasons that he was inspired to attack the United States 9/11. It's not his only grievance by any means, but it's clearly been a key part of his agenda for quite some time.

That, by the way, that recognition that we have a problem on that area is why Barack Obama made a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo to try and improve things and why the Obama administration is trying very hard to get a two-state solution now in the Middle East. They know we have an issue here and that one way to fix that is to try and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, that was a key item in our book, to try and explain why - problems in the Middle East and what we could do to improve our position.

CONAN: It's interesting you say that this has been part of Osama bin Laden's standard repertoire for some time. As you point out, he really has been focused early on much more about the, well, the dangers he sees from other governments in the Middle East, not so much Israel, but Saudi Arabia. Indeed, a lot of the Arab governments, those were his principal topics for quite some time. It has been more recently that he has focused more on Israel.

Prof. WALT: I think that's actually not correct. I mean, his antipathy towards Israel has been a part of his agenda for quite some time, really even before we knew much about his political career. There's even some evidence from members of his family that this bothered him when he was a teenager or a young adult. So it's been part of his agenda, not by any means all of his agenda.

I think what we are seeing, though, and perhaps this most recent tape reflects that, is an attempt to regain some of the stature he may have had. It has not been a good few years for Osama bin Laden. You know, he's hiding out. Assuming he's still alive, he's hiding out in northwest Pakistan. The public support for al-Qaida appears to be dropping fairly dramatically, in part because they've engaged in acts of terrorism against fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims, which has not won him any friends.

And this, it seems to me, is an attempt to invoke an issue that still does have enormous resonance in the Arab and Islamic world and regain some momentum. Needless to say, I hope it fails completely.

CONAN: And there will be some - and your book was criticized by the Israeli lobby that you write about, indeed, when it was published - as being anti-Israel, indeed, anti-Semitic. But there will be those who say you have provided the greatest enemy of the United States with ammunition.

Prof. WALT: Well, again, I don't think we've provided them with any real ammunition at all. I mean, and lots of other people, American politicians. You know, James Traub writing in the New York Times magazine last weekend, acknowledged something that is widely understood in Washington. There are a number of groups that operate within the American political system to try and sustain a special relationship between the United States and Israel. And what they're doing is completely legitimate and just an - as American, is apple pie. That's why we put it in the book. This is not exactly headline news. And Osama bin Laden didn't need our book to make that particular point.

The key point to sort of bear in mind is that his solution for what to do about this is 180 degrees off from what we talk about in the book. He likes to recruit people to engage in acts of terror against innocent civilians - by the way, to topple all governments in the Middle East, not just Israel. He wants to topple Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and Egypt, and a number of others. And he's willing to kill Muslims, and Christians, and Jews, and anybody else to do that.

Professor Mearsheimer and I, and plenty of other people, recognize there's a problem we have with U.S. policy in the Middle East. We want to do something different, which is get a two-state solution, end the occupation because we think that would be better for the United States, but also much better for Israel and better for our other friends in the region. That's needless to say 180 degrees different from Osama bin Laden's agenda.

CONAN: And the other books on the list - do you find yourself comfortable being linked with them?

Prof. WALT: I think Jimmy Carter has done wonderful work to try and advance the peace process in the Middle East, going all the way back to his presidency, when he shepherded the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that has eliminated a long-standing enemy of Israel.

He's done wonderful things and he's been a quite courageous figure in essentially pointing out that the direction Israel is headed in now is not good and it should change course and the United States should do everything in its power to help it change course. So, I feel, you know, completely comfortable even… I don't want to say honored, because I don't think you need…

CONAN: Given the context.

Prof. WALT: …to be honored by (unintelligible) given the context. But I feel entirely comfortable in his company. The "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man," I will confess I have not yet read myself, so I don't know if that's a good idea or not. From what I've read about it, I suspect I would have some disagreements with it. But I won't comment further not having read it.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, thank you very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Prof. WALT: Very nice talking to you.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and co-author along with John Mearsheimer of the "Israel Lobby and U.S. Policy - Foreign Policy." And he joined us today from a studio on the campus at Harvard there in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And when we come back, the mystery of the double eagle.

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