Middle-Eastern Perspectives On The U.S. Election

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Rami Khouri, editor for the Daily Star, discusses the political challenges in Lebanon and describes the different ways people in the Middle East view the U.S. presidential election. Khouri directs the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Rami Khouri is a familiar name to regular listeners when we need help to understand events in the Middle East. Rami is one of our go-to analysts. He's based in Beirut, Lebanon, where he directs the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He's also editor-at-large of the Daily Star Newspaper. Over the years, Rami Khouri has talked with us often about Lebanon. But about Israel too, about the effects of U.S. policy and perceptions of the presidential candidates overseas.

For the past couple of months, though, he's been not at his regular post. He's been here in Washington, D.C., on a summer fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Before he heads back to Beirut, we've asked him to stop by the studio. If you'd like to talk with Rami Khouri about the political challenges that face Lebanon or how the U.S. presidential election is viewed from overseas, our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Rami Khouri, after all these times, finally, it's nice to meet you in person.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor, Daily Star, Director, Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut): Thank you. It's a great pleasure for me to be here.

CONAN: And now that you'd been away from Beirut a couple of months, tell us - is that a strange place to live?

Mr. KHOURI: It's a wonderful place to live. But it is occasionally strange when you have wars and assassinations and bombings. But those are very infrequent events, and they tende to be narrowly targeted at people. So for ordinary people, life is - if you have a job and if your kids are at school, etc., it's a wonderful place. It's the most dynamic, creative, pluralistic place, especially the part - Beirut itself. It's the most cosmopolitan, dynamic place in the entire Arab world and still is, despite all of the wars and the problems it's had.

CONAN: Just a couple of months ago, everybody was holding their breath; it looked like the country was on the brink of another civil war.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, it looked that way to many people. I never thought there was going to be a civil war, and I think I've been proven right and many others felt the same way, too, that there was a lot of tension and there was a lot of violence. People in Lebanon have gotten to the point where they use brinkmanship as a daily operating system. And so, they're living constantly on the brink, on the edge. And this is very tiring for many people, but this is how politics works. They agree on something. They, you know, they agreed on the president, they agreed on this - the cabinet, none disagreed. Now, they agreed on the statement of the cabinet - the policy statement. They'll find other things to disagree about.

This is one of the chronic problems of the system. The way it's set up, with 18 different congressional groups and the external influences - there's a lot reasons why Lebanon is unstable and politically chaotic. All those reasons don't detract from the fact that it is incredibly creative, dynamic, very rich in intellectual, cultural to professional knowledge.

CONAN: One of the weaknesses you were talking about is the existence of - well, there's the state, but it's a very weak state. As you say, it's very much divided. And sort of this parallel structure in huge parts of the country are run by Hezbollah.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, that's right, and it's a kind of chicken and egg situation. Hezbollah says it had to create this very powerful sort of parallel state because the state wasn't doing its job in terms of security, in terms of protecting the country from attacks by Israel or other people. So the fact that Hezbollah has become so strong is partly a result of the weakness of the Lebanese state, but partly of its own - let's say, professionalism without being judgmental.

You know, you can like them or not like them. And I criticize them for some things and praise them for others. But they're very professional in what they do. They're efficient, they do their job well, including fighting Israel, which they've done better than anybody else in the region. So, they're controversial and people - many Lebanese, criticize them now more than ever before. But people understand that this is a very serious group, and it's probably the most efficient political party in the entire Arab world right now, and probably the most efficient military force in the entire Arab world.

CONAN: And we're talking with Rami Khouri. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, e-mail us, talk@npr.org. Andrew is on the line. Andrew calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.

ANDREW (Caller): Hey, I was just wondering how you think the presidential election and who will win affects the U.S.'s relation and overall standing with, not only Beirut and Lebanon, but also organizations like Hezbollah?

Mr. KHOURI: Thank you, Andrew. I think the consequences of the election will be felt in terms of the policies of the next administration. You can't really judge right now from the personalities of the candidates or of their positions, especially on Middle East issues, especially on Arab-Israeli issues, which are a big, big thing out there in the Middle East because they have, tend to have very similar positions on Arab-Israeli situation.

And the reality is that policies are made by a balance of power in the United States between the Congress, the president, lobbyist, special-interest group, etc. And that is - becomes clear after the fact. But I think people like Obama's tone, they like the way he talks about things, he's more - he comes across to most people in the region as more, more human, more accommodating, more reasonable. McCain strikes people as a little bit more militaristic. But most people are watching this with interest, but not with any expectation of any significant change in policy.

ANDREW: OK. Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call. As people look at the American election, obviously there's political developments closer to home that are going to be even more important: what's going on Israel at the moment, with the prime minister scheduled now to step down come September.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, definitely what's going on in Israel, but possibly a new election for the president among the Palestinians. The election of the Iranian president next year, the Iranian-American-Western nuclear negotiations, the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, I mean, you've got about five or six real big- sticker items out there taking place simultaneously. And I think this is a sign of the times in the sense that all of the big problems in the region are on the verge of being - people are on the verge of attempting to negotiate solutions to them. And people have fought militarily in other ways, now they're exploring diplomatic possibilities. This is a very positive sign. The trouble is that almost all these conflicts are linked in one way or another. So you really have to try to address them all simultaneously, which is very difficult, but this is the consequence of our own modern history and to the leadership decisions that have been taken.

CONAN: Now, let's get another caller in. This is John. John is calling us from Flagstaff, Arizona.

JOHN (Caller): Hello. Thank you very much for taking my call. First of all, Mr. Khouri, if you could comment on what seems to be the inevitability of Israel attacking Iran, and secondly, the United States is pushing for continued inspections of Iran nuclear facilities and yet Israel continues to conceal what their arsenal is. Thank you. I'll take my response off the air.

CONAN: OK, John. Thanks very much. Is a confrontation between Israel and Iran inevitable?

Mr. KHOURI: Yes and no. I mean, the confrontation is already taking place at the verbal level, and there are probably clandestine things going on as well. I don't think it's guaranteed that Israel will attack Iran. I think the diplomatic dance that's taking place literally as we speak; today, the Iranians responded to the...

CONAN: Sort of...

Mr. KHOURI: Yeah. They gave this response, which, of course, was expected; they going to drag it out. First of all, we can be sure that nothing is going to happen between the U.S. and Iran of significance under Bush. I mean, you'll still have them doing this diplomatic dance. I don't think the U.S. is going to attack Iran. Israel might. Israel might, and this is a huge wild card and this is, I think scary to many people in the American administration. So I think they have to exhaust the diplomatic possibilities. That's why Bill Burns, the number three man in the U.S. State Department, went to Iran a couple of weeks ago and went to Geneva, sat with the Iranians, with the others. So there's a big diplomatic process taking place with changes you're going to get probably in two or three weeks. I would expect the Americans and the Iranians will announce they are going to open interest sections on each other's capitals.

This is going to be a significant symbol that they want to explore diplomatic solution. So I don't think it's inevitable that you'll get a strike. What is aproblem, and John is right to point this out, is you have this huge contradiction between Israel having probably 200 nuclear weapons, which is what everybody assumes, and the Arabs and others in the region not allowed to develop nuclear power to the point where if they wanted to develop a weapon, they can. So there is a great contradiction, but this is part of the problem with the imbalance of power in the Middle East.

The Israelis have a set of rules that are more or less for themselves, and the rest of the region has to go along with it. What we're trying to do is find the diplomatic resolution to these issues where nobody will have to use any of these nuclear weapons. And ideally, one day you'll have peace agreements where Israel is secure, the Palestinians have a state, every Iranian feels safe, and then they don't need to develop these weapons anymore. That's the ideal.

CONAN: And part of the problem that you consistently write about is the United States takes sides in all of these local issues. United States is a local player in the Middle East.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, it's not only a local player, it's a local combatant. You know, they're hostile combatants themselves in the eyes of many people in the region. When American troops are going into the region or actively funding one side or another in local civil wars as in Lebanon - not civil wars, but local ideological battles in Lebanon and Palestine and Somalia and Yemen and other places. The - Iraq, many places.

The U.S. actively gets involved on one side or the other on what is purely, almost purely a local battle. And they help with guns, with money, with diplomatic support. And this has backfired almost everywhere the U.S. has done it. I think it's part of the reason you're seeing this shift - this slow shift in American policies in the region on Iran, on Hezbollah, on Palestine. The U.S., I think, is pulling back a little bit, seeing if there's a way to find the diplomatic solution.

I think the other important thing to note is that of the five major diplomatic efforts going on in the Middle East with negotiations taking place, in every one of them, the mediator is not the United States - whether it's Israelis and Hamas, Israeli-Syria, iner-Lebanese, Syria-Lebanese, all the different negotiations going on in the region, the United States is not there as it used to be. And this is a very important sign.

The other one is the U.S. has been telling Israel for the last six to nine months or a year, don't talk to Hamas, don't talk to Hezbollah, don't talk to the Syrians. Israel is doing exactly those three things, ignoring what the U.S. is telling it and talking to - making - they just did a cease-fire with Hamas, prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, and they're negotiating with the Israelis through the Turkish...

CONAN: The Syrians...

Mr. KHOURI: The Syrians and Israelis are negotiating. So these are very important indicators how things are changing.

CONAN: Now, we're talking with Rami Khouri of the Daily Star newspaper and the American University of Beirut, just finishing up a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Institute here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's get John on the line, John calling us from San Francisco.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

JOHN: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JOHN: In June 10, 2006, I produced a 50 Cent concert at the BL(ph) Center in Lebanon, in downtown Beirut. And I wanted to talk about my experience there for two months that summer.

CONAN: Go ahead.

JOHN: We had an amazing experience with the Lebanese. We've - I found them to be wonderful people, full of love and joy and enjoyment of their life. And it was really a wonderful thing to see them, the pride on their faces as we would come across what used to be Syrian checkpoint now were manned by Lebanese army checkpoints. And it was very sad for me that 10 days after I left the country, the airport was bombed by the Israelis. And the scenario changed there drastically.

CONAN: And how did the concert go?

JOHN: Well, we had almost 15,000 Lebanese come out for the largest concert ever in Lebanon.

CONAN: Rami, where you there?

Mr. KHOURI: I was there at that time. I didn't go to the concert, unfortunately, but next time I will.

JOHN: Not sure there'll be a next time considering the - what's going on since, but...

Mr. KHOURI: Oh no, there'll be a next time. They've been having concerts in Beirut since approximately 2000 B.C. so, you know, they've been rallying and partying and having a good time. And with people from all over the world coming to join in, which is one of the reason why it's such a special place.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And Rami, I have to ask you, I know you're a great fan of baseball. And come up with a recommendation on how the U.S. should conduct its foreign policy, lay it out for us.

Mr. KHOURI: Sure. I'm working on this to develop - develop it into an article or maybe a small book. I spent a lot of my time baseball umpiring, umpiring Little League. It's one of the great loves of my life. It's one of the most difficult but satisfying things I've ever done. And I realized as I was doing this one day that the principles of Little League baseball umpiring are perfect principles for conducting American foreign policy in the Middle East, especially if the U.S. wants to mediate between, say, Arabs and Israelis. And what I mean by that is, you know, what makes a good umpire?

First of all there's a rule book, you have law, there's a reference, point of reference. You don't just decide who's right and is not based on power. It's based on the law. And this umpire, first of all, has to know the law. Second of all, apply it fairly, apply it consistently, apply it evenly. If somebody breaks the law, if it's a U.N. resolution or a baseball rule book infield fly rule, you have to apply it the same. Be consistent across the board.

If somebody breaks the law or does something against the rules, you sanction them. And you do that systematically as well. You have to be decisive as an umpire. You can't be, you know, wishy-washy. You've got to be able to talk to everybody. You know, an umpire can't refuse to talk to one of the managers, but you know, foreign policy people do that, they boycott certain players. And second of all, and then it also, you know, what makes umpiring so much fun for me is there's always that little pause when, you know, if you're calling out a runner stealing second or you've - just give it that extra, like, second to make sure you actually saw it properly.

In other words, get the facts, make sure you have the facts. If you're not sure, consult with the other umpires, you know. All of these basic rules or basic principals of good baseball umpiring are profoundly important. And I would urge the wonderful Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who loves sports, to go back and read the baseball rule book and consider using the principles in mediation, as she's trying to do right now: be decisive, be fair, apply the rule consistently, and be accessible to everybody.

CONAN: Of course, Little League umpires have to deal with the parent who would sometimes make the Israelis and Hamas look easy.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, yes, that's true. But that's one of one of the challenges,which is how to deal with the recalcitrant, you know, loud people. And this is part of good diplomacy: how to deal with everybody. If somebody stands up and shouts, who wants to leave the room, you've got to figure out how to deal with them. And that's why consistency is so important, you know. The biggest complaint that people have against the U.S. or the British or anybody or the Europeans: double standards. It's lack of consistency. Consistency matters so much to us out in the Middle East and the Arab world. And this is something that people in the U.S. and Europe and Israel and other places will have to understand, be more sensitive to why this is so important.

CONAN: And do you think this analogy is going to get a lot of play east of Montauk Point?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, I don't know. You know, if Barack Obama wins, I'm going to have to come up with a basketball analogy. Fortunately, I played basketball in high school so I'll work on that, all right.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. KHOURI: It's a great a pleasure.

CONAN: And have a great trip back home.

Mr. KHOURI: Thank you.

CONAN: Rami Khouri is editor at large of the Daily Star, a newspaper published throughout the Middle East, and he's based in Beirut. He's also director of the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He joined us here to day in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, guest Political Junkie Ron Elving joins us at the Newseum. This is Talk Of The Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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