Turkey's Admission to Europe Would Defeat Jihadists
Joschka Fischer, the former foreign minister of Germany, remains that country's most popular politician. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in May.
NPQ | Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued that, going into this fifth year of war in Iraq, the violence, instability and power vacuum have spread regionally, making it impossible to disentangle crises ranging from Iraq to Iran to Afghanistan to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and terrorism.
How do we disentangle these crises and start moving toward some solutions in the Middle East?
Joschka Fischer | Brzezinski is right. President Bush has been successful in destabilizing the whole region. All these crises are developing in the direction of a big merger, threatening to inflame the entire area from the Mediterranean to the Maghreb down to the Indus Valley. The Lebanon conflict last summer between Hezbollah and Israel has shown this merger of crises is a fact.
This is no surprise for those of us who opposed the Americans going to Baghdad from the beginning. It is what we predicted would happen when a war lacking legitimacy was waged.
The question from the outset was how America could get out of Iraq once it got in without leaving chaos and even greater dangers behind. What we have now in Iraq is a war transformed. It is now between Shias and Sunnis, with Iran backing the Shias and the Saudis supporting the Sunnis, and the American troops in between. This war is, de facto, about ethnic cleansing, with refugees, just as in the Balkans, fleeing from areas where they are a minority to escape being killed. The mixed regions are being purified.
It was always doubtful whether the American public would support over the long term a direct role for the US as a Middle Eastern power—with all the lives and money that would cost—instead of the indirect role it has played since 1945. And, how could this whole exercise, with democracy for the Shia majority in Iraq, not end up creating more power for Iran in the region? How could that not in turn threaten the Sunni states like Saudi Arabia?
But here we are. So how do we deal with it? Everything now depends on the policy of the United States. It has no good options. For America to continue its presence in Iraq only stokes resistance and violence. But if America leaves without creating a minimum regional consensus, including with Syria and Iran, this would be disastrous—possibly leading to the balkanization of Iraq and a regional war with Iran.
For this reason, I think the visit of Speaker of the House (Nancy) Pelosi to Syria was the right thing to do. Whether we like it or not, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the relevant players. Without engaging them, any stabilization of the region—which is all we can now hope for—would fail.
All these regional powers have more to gain from ending the conflict than from continuing it. Colin Powell's adage, "If we break it, we own it," is only partly right. The US broke it, but now the whole region owns it. Iran, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia know that.
NPQ | If US hard power has manifestly failed in Iraq, the "soft power" of the European Union—its diplomacy and economic incentives to get Iran off its nuclear track—has also failed. Why did it fail? What can we now do about Iran?
Fischer | It is not a question of hard or soft power, but of a dumb strategy or a smart strategy. It is very simple to occupy a nation; it is very complicated to create a better situation. It is not a question of military strategy but of nation building.
In terms of nation-building skills, the European Union has been quite successful in its enlargement policy, helping establish free institutions and a modern economy among its new members.
We should be criticized over our present policy on Turkey. Turkish admission to the European Union is key. If we can show that a big Muslim nation can modernize itself with the help of friends, it demonstrates that a strong civil society, equal rights for men and women, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, modern administration and a modern economy are not in contradiction to Islam. This would be the most powerful message against the jihadists and terrorists.
To the extent EU negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program failed, it was because the US did not buy in. In the end, the Iranians want most of all to deal with the United States. So we found ourselves negotiating on the one hand with the Iranians, and on the other hand with the United States.
The only deal that would have worked without the US was for the Iranians to give in entirely, which they weren't about to do.
NPQ | What do we do about Iran now?
Fischer | I was never convinced by the US argument about mass-destruction weapons in Iraq. But Iran is different: It is on the road to becoming a nuclear power. But there are no promising military options against Iran's nuclear program. You can't take it out by air power.
The only option is to put more pressure on Iran by isolating it while, simultaneously, engaging it with a tough agenda. We need to make clear the costs of radical policies yet encourage constructive and pragmatic tendencies.
You need this double agenda because there is a power struggle in Iran. Do not misread the present situation. (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad represents the radical wing in Iran, which is no more than one-third of the power structure. Though his title is president, he is de facto a prime minister. He is running the administration. On the other hand, there are reformers at the local level, in the universities and elsewhere, who previously ran the national government. So, there are both closed and open elements in the system in a fight with each other. And the religious leader arbitrates. So it is a complicated structure.
My reading of the recent British hostage crisis is that the radicals, who want to provoke a confrontation in order to enhance their power, were forced to give in to the more pragmatic powers within Iran.
So, on the one hand, the West must isolate Iran financially—something that can be done effectively with oil-exporting countries because of their tremendous need for cash flow. Then we must isolate the Iranians politically by weaning away Syria—not regime change, but coalition change.
Splitting them off from Syria is key. The visit of Speaker Pelosi to Damascus surely didn't go down well in Tehran. Once they lose Syria, they will lose their last ally in the region. Then they are alone. It will not be easy to lure Syria away, and the price cannot be Lebanon. Its independence is key for security in the region.
On the other hand, let's engage the Iranians with direct talks as the path out of isolation. If we can agree about the cessation of their nuclear program and a constructive role in the Middle East, then we ought to be prepared to offer normalization of relations at the end of the process. That is the carrot.
NPQ | Hans Blix, the former UN arms inspector for Iraq, has said that the North Korea accord is a model for what can happen with Iran. With North Korea, there were no preconditions for negotiations; a sequenced, step-by-step tit-for-tat process in moving toward disarmament; and a security guarantee for North Korea against regime change. Would that work for Iran?
Fischer | The radicals in Iran are not afraid of being isolated the way North Korea has been. The pragmatic, but corrupt, wing led by former President Rafsanjani has a lot to lose from isolation. So whether or not a North Korea-type accord would work for Iran depends on the balance of power internally. If the US were to engage Iran in direct talks without preconditions, that would enhance the moderate forces and, I think, improve prospects for a deal.
It all boils down to two elements: respect and relations with the United States.
When you talk with the Iranian leaders on any issue, you soon realize it is not about "Iran," but about Persia. It is all about their feeling that an old civilization has been insulted by Western powers, and that their civilization deserves a seat at the table where world affairs are decided. Since the U.S. is the great power, that recognition depends on relations with the United States.
NPQ | In anticipation of Iranian nuclear missile capability, the US wants to expand its missile shield to Europe with bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia claims it is aimed at them. Poles and Czechs fear they will be targeted. The current German foreign minister says it might start a new arms race and Cold War in Europe. What is your view?
Fischer | I ask myself, "Why now?" I don't believe this is a threat to Russia. Ten anti-missile missiles! Ten! How can that threaten Russia? We shouldn't accept Putin's aggressive rhetoric. I also don't believe, if such a system really ever works, that it is much protection against Iran. It should be dealt with differently, as we've discussed.
But what this whole controversy reflects is the weakness of Europe. It is not just an issue for Poles and Czechs. We must be able to reach an agreement as Europeans about this. If we can't come to agreement on a missile-defense shield, what can we agree on?
So let's cool down and reconsider the timing. Let's first have a consistent policy in the West on Iran and a consistent policy in the EU on Russia so that Putin doesn't split us and frustrate our common agenda, making separate deals with Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. On the part of the US, it must decide if an oil-rich Russia is a new rival or a complicated partner. I'd advise the second choice. We need Russia in Iran, in the Middle East and on climate change.
NPQ | Facing the diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East and fearing a "Shiite crescent" from Hezbollah in Lebanon to Tehran, the Saudis have launched a new peace initiative. The Egyptians are also trying to get the regional powers together. What are the prospects of success?
Fischer | I belong to the very few who said during the Lebanon war last summer that there were opportunities in that tragedy to restart the peace process. From Israel's perspective, this moment could be a golden opportunity: The majority of moderate Arabs are more concerned about Iran than about Israel. As long as the moderate Arabs think peace with Israel is their better option now, the Israeli government ought to seize the moment before it passes.
Having said this, without decisive leadership of the US from the outside, the regional players won't be able to pull it off, to get beyond nonstarters in their proposals concerning return of refugees or the 1967 borders. As Madeleine Albright has said, America is the "indispensable power." Europe can contribute here, but not lead.
NPQ | Jimmy Carter created a firestorm recently in the US by saying that Palestinians lived under conditions of apartheid in the Israeli-occupied territories. Do you agree with this view?
Fischer | The occupation is not in the interests of the state of Israel. Ben-Gurion understood that occupation of a territory with a large Arab population will create a tremendous challenge for the Jewish character of the state one day. The left understood that first in Israel; the right later. That is why a two-state solution is the only answer.
Israel does have legitimate security issues. I once negotiated a border opening for Palestinians with Ariel Sharon, only to see an increase in drive-by shootings. This is a war. I don't see any need for rhetoric about apartheid.
NPQ | You've said the US should talk with Iran. Should the West and Israel talk with Hamas?
Fischer | Hamas must accept the past agreements which were the foundation of their own election. There would be no Hamas-dominated government without the Oslo Accords, which also recognize Israel. It was important at the outset to say we should not do business with a government that wants to destroy Israel and is committed to terrorism.
Now that there is a national unity government that includes Fatah as well as Hamas, it would seem we could move forward through that entity without directly engaging Hamas per se.
NPQ | Though a leader of the '68 generation in Germany, you came to see the US as an "indispensable power" despite its tarnished image after the Vietnam War. Will America be able to recover its image and prestige after Iraq like it did after Vietnam? In a recent poll in Der Stern magazine, 48 percent of Germans said the US was a greater threat than Iran.
Fischer | Yes. I'm pretty optimistic about that. To be in the lead is always to be criticized. When you act, you are criticized; when you don't act, you are criticized. There will always be the usual suspects of anti-Americanism. But most people know there is no other leader besides the United States.
My fear is that the US will go back to its very narrow post-9/11 definition of national interest—"we need to defend ourselves and let the chips fall where they may." This would leave a vacuum of leadership which, 20 years down the road, the Chinese might try to fill.
The US can't just be an 800-pound gorilla sitting on North America. You must be in the lead. No one else can play that role. Not Russia. Not Europe. Can China?
For now, the only alternative to American leadership is a vacuum. And where there is a vacuum, there is chaos and increased threats for all of us. So, there you are, whether you like it or not.
With a new president and a more centrist foreign policy, America can recover very quickly. The world understands they need America.
NPQ | Should Germany's NATO troops be taking on more risks and responsibilities in Afghanistan?
Fischer | These national caveats—the various countries putting limits on what their troops will or won't do in Afghanistan—are a big problem. It is a serious question whether Germany acted wisely—to use extremely diplomatic words—in rejecting support for the Canadians in the dangerous south of Afghanistan. It wouldn't have been easy to win parliamentary approval, but I would have fought for that. Afghanistan is very important for all of us, especially for the unity of the alliance. But this would have meant leadership on the part of the present German government.
It is very important that NATO understands it is an alliance based on solidarity. Solidarity is easy when the sun is shining; it is much more difficult on a dark, stormy day. It is not good to say "no" based on narrow self-interest. You meet twice in a long life. Next time you may need the one who needed you.
NPQ | You are a seminal figure in postwar Germany for leading the cause to use German forces in the fight against genocide in Kosovo. Now history has played out eight years later and the UN emissary, Martti Ahtisaari, has recommended that Kosovo become independent. Are you happy with that outcome?
Fischer | I'm not happy. I would be happy if Kosovo were more developed in terms of democracy and strong institutions. But looking back to the 1990s, in Bosnia 250,000 people were killed and there were millions of refugees. If we hadn't intervened in Kosovo, it would have blown up further, drawing Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria into the crisis. It was really Milosevic who lost Kosovo because of his ethnic-cleansing policies.
In hindsight, thank God we intervened in Kosovo. If we hadn't, hundreds of thousands of Albanian Muslim refugees living in camps outside Kosovo would have been the perfect recruiting ground for al-Qaida in Europe.
Again, the case of Kosovo demonstrates that it is relatively easier to win a war—and sometimes you must win a war—than to build a nation.
But a successful Kosovo will take a long-term commitment from NATO and the European Union. Moving forward to independence is part and parcel of bringing the whole Balkan region into a European environment. But it will take 10 or 20 years. Then, nationalism will be at the fringes of society and no longer dominate. When that happens, Kosovo will be a success.