GUEST: Milton Viorst
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I would remind you that one of any teacher’s great privileges and pleasures is to be taught in turn by those he — or she — has taught long since.
Which is my position today. For my guest – indeed, my teacher today – was my student at Rutgers nearly three score years ago. He won’t admit that, but it’s true.
VIORST: No, I won’t (laughter).
HEFFNER: And I take great pride in how much I have learned – and how much you will, too – from his splendidly, concisely, clearly written new book, Storm From The East …The Struggle Between The Arab World And The Christian West, a Modern Library Chronicles Book published by Random House.
Milton Viorst has covered the Middle East as a journalist and scholar since the 1960’s.
He was The New Yorker’s Middle East correspondent, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
He lives very much inside the Beltway with his wife, the poet Judith Viorst.
Now, former National Security Council Director Brzezinski writes that my guest’s book, and after all those years I have to put on my glasses “… reminds readers saturated by slogans about terrorism and jihadism that Arab hostility to Western intrusion has a longer political history than the current conflict in Iraq.
“Sadly, blissful ignorance of that history is one of the root causes of America’s ongoing and increasingly tragic military plunge into the Middle East quagmire.”
Former President Jimmy Carter writes that “Milton Viorst has the eye of the historian but the brevity of the reporter… and his concise book sweeps across centuries.”
And NPR’s Daniel Schorr wishes that “… President Bush had had the benefit of Storm from the East before stumbling into a war in which so much blood has been spilled. This is an illuminating — and deeply disturbing account—of the ages-old conflict between Christian and Muslim civilizations. Iraq emerges as one episode in this long struggle.”
And I would begin our program today, Milton, by asking you … going back to Dan Schorr’s comment … do you think it would have made any difference?
VIORST: I wish I thought it would have made a difference. A lot of people have made that comment and I’ve made it myself. God some of the stuff was so obvious, there was nothing mysterious, they didn’t need a communications satellite in order to find out…the fundamentals of the Arab world. They could have gone to the nearest library shelf and found it…
But they didn’t. No, I don’t think and I suspect you don’t think that it would have made any difference at all.
HEFFNER: Why didn’t they? Because it wouldn’t have made any difference?
VIORST: No because these people … I think … present leadership of the United States is ideologically driven and it didn’t want to be disturbed by any real understanding. You know, there was this famous quote that was published in The New York Times … early in, early in the Bush years, which goes something like …“We don’t care about reality here in the White House, we create our own reality.” And I think they really believed that they could do that.
HEFFNER: They weren’t wrong were they?
VIORST: (Laughter) I’m afraid they were a little wrong and I’m … and I think that an awful lot of Iraqi families as well as American families feel that it’s a tragedy that they were wrong and I think we will be paying for this wrong for a long time to come.
HEFFNER: Well, what I meant by that … they weren’t wrong, they did make reality. And we’re stuck with it.
VIORST: Well, they did … they did make an effort to create their own reality. But it was based on totally false assumptions and … and I don’t think then that it deserves the term “reality” if it’s based on that kind of shaky foundation.
HEFFNER: What would you … have been your advice to the White House?
VIORST: Well, my advice to the White House … and I think I wrote it in a column in the New York Times shortly before the … before the war began which was that … “listen we lived through 50 years of the Soviet Union, by being patient and, and, and prudent. And we probably can live through a few more years of Saddam Hussein, we don’t have to go in there and put our civilization in jeopardy.” And I think we would have been well advised to follow that course. There was something … there is something to be said for patience in foreign policy. This happens to be, as we know, an administration that’s extremely impatient and wants to solve everything immediately and by the most brusque and, and, and, and violent way, in many cases.
HEFFNER: And the larger war? The larger conflict, as you write about it, would have gone on though?
VIORST: Well yes, of course. What I argue is that the current Iraq war is the latest episode in a fourteen hundred year struggle between the Arab world and the Christian West and I, I don’t take that back, I believe that.
But that doesn’t mean that every year we have to have a violent struggle in which thousands and thousands die.
Nor does it mean the, that this is … that, that we are doomed for this to continue. I mean there are ways to try to work these things out, at least on a, on a temporary basis. There is both within our culture and theirs the notion of a truce. So we can feel that rivalry, we can feel that competition with the Arab world and with Islam still without getting into violent struggle. I think there’s a big difference between those two.
HEFFNER: Then you don’t accept the notion that in the contemporary scene, the jihadism that Brzezinski is so opposed to making a constant in our…in our language … that it needn’t lead, at any one point, to armed conflict.
VIORST: There’s a great deal…in Arab culture that deserves to be examined. I talk a great deal in this book about the concept of historical memory and historical memory is…is weighted down among Arabs with the notion that they were profoundly screwed by the West.
And beginning, let’s say … we can start … there are many beginning points to this, but we can certainly begin with World War I, when the Arabs thought that they had a deal with the West by rising up against the Ottoman Empire in return for which Britain would grant them national nationhood. And they had some good reason to believe that this promise was conveyed to them.
But when the war was over Britain and France had, had made up their minds to divide up the Arab world between them, to pay no attention to the contribution the Arabs made in overthrowing the Ottomans. So this, this sits very deeply in the Arab soul and the Arab historical memory.
Well, this has happened repeatedly…and the fact that we have made, I think, rather little effort to resolve the Arab/Israeli crisis which is the most inflammatory of the present issues that are outstanding between East and West. And I think if we had made a serious effort many of these things would … many of these conflicts, many of these eruptions … we would have been able to get by them, by, by negotiating our differences out…
HEFFNER: A faith based assumption, Milton?
VIORST: Well, I think we are dealing with, with a President who has the faith based assumption …
HEFFNER: No, I mean yours.
VIORST: No, I don’t think mine is a faith based assumption. I think mine is a, an assumption based upon history. Much of which I learned from you.
VIORST: Six decades ago, as you were so indiscreet to point out. (Laughter) Yes, it was a long time ago that I took history at Rutgers.
HEFFNER: But, but I, I’m quite serious about this …
VIORST: I am too. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: It sounds to me as though what you’re saying is as much faith based. Your assumption … assumption is too strong a word … your fervent hope that had we not marched as we marched … there could have been a reconciliation to…
VIORST: I don’t use the word “reconciliation”. Some sort of understanding … not, not … we couldn’t “reconcile” …
HEFFNER: Understanding? What good is understanding?
VIORST: An understanding that will … the kind of understanding we had with the Soviet Union for fifty years. And prevented the world from blowing up. We could have had that with Saddam Hussein, I suspect. Ahmm, yes … if there was anything faith based here I think it really was a President who believed he had an evangelical obligation to take these infidels on. And I know that’s hard for people to swallow, but I have been looking at this for a long time, and I, I think it’s true.
HEFFNER: Why do you sound so much to me like Lawrence of Arabia now?
VIORST: Ahemm … I haven’t discussed Middle East politics with you, Dick, so I don’t know what your positions are. There was a certain … there was a certain legitimacy to what Lawrence of Arabia was arguing. And I don’t think we should dismiss Lawrence, eccentric as he was. He had some, he had, he had some sound ideas.
HEFFNER: In terms of the, the…perfidiousness of the relationship between France and England and the Arabs? Is that what you mean?
VIORST: Yes. Oh, yes. No, no. Lawrence was the principle figure in this, in this, in this commitment that the Arabs believed and he believed…and Lawrence believed, had been made that in return for the Arabs turning on the then occupying power, the Ottoman Empire and fighting the war in our behalf … that is the West’s behalf … Britain and France and later the United States, who recall entered that war. He believed that they had earned the right to nationhood and Britain and France with the complicity of Woodrow Wilson, decided that this was not so, and we would, in effect, betray them.
And they haven’t forgot that … and Lawrence didn’t forget it. And I think it’s not appropriate to mock Lawrence ‘cause he was a little bit of a nutcake, but I don’t think his politics were that unsound.
HEFFNER: Let’s accept them. Now what?
VIORST: Well, what do we do now? I think there are … there’s a lot of repair that the West can engage in. We are the principal power there. We … the United States has now replaced Britain and France. Once they were seen as the imperial devils, now … now, it’s us.
We went through the Cold War in which John Foster Dulles told them that the enemy was immoral and they could not remain neutral, they could not remain nonaligned, they had to side with us and, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the dominate figure of that period … on the Arab side, said, “Look, for the first time in a thousand years (this was after World War II … finally, they did get their independence) … for the first time in a thousand years, we have an opportunity to create our own states. Give us a little time, give us a little stability, give us a little opportunity for convalescence so that we can build the institutions that we have not had for all of these years when we were under the power of, of Mongols and then Turkish tribes and then the Ottoman Empire.”
And Dulles said, and the United States said, “No, we can’t do that because the Soviet Union is immoral and, and, and, and Nasser said, “Look, we were never occupied by the Soviet Union. We were occupied by Western powers. You can’t tell us that the Soviet Union is our enemy, we’ve never had an argument with them.”
And Dulles said, “That has nothing to do with it. We are dealing in a world between good and evil, and they are evil.” And so we forced them to take positions which they were very loathe to take, and so we generated more and more conflict.
Now I’m going back a few decades, I’m not even getting to Saddam Hussein…that’s even, that is another, that is another sequence in this, in this, in this confrontation where I think many of these … many of these differences could have worked out. Could have worked out without their exacerbating our relationship.
HEFFNER: Milton, my question wasn’t “Could they have been worked out?” My question has to do with the here and now. Which is a very difficult one.
VIORST: Can they be worked out now? Well, I think that all of the Arab world and by extension I would go and say all of the Islamic world and maybe even a few people out there who are not Muslims, say, “It’s about time that we work out this, this Israeli/Palestinian situation, which has been a thorn in the side of relations for a very long time.”
Every President, up until George Bush—George W. Bush—has made some effort and some major improvements were, were undertaken under President Carter and, and, and President Clinton. And all our Presidents, even when the failed, indicated that this was their policy to, to work out some sort of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.
George Bush is the first President who has turned his back on this. And the world has not failed to notice that and particularly the Arabs.
HEFFNER: Milton, I repeat the question. Granted, everything you’ve said … what now?
VIORST: Well (sigh), if I were President, if that’s what you’re asking me to be …
HEFFNER: Why not.
VIORST: If I were President, I would say the first thing we have to do is to get serious about the Arab/Israeli crisis. I think we have to be even-handed about this, recognize that we have interests of our own, we are certainly not asking the Israelis to make existential sacrifices, we are asking them to make political changes. And we are making it possible to end a military occupation, something that is offensive, I think, to most of the world, most Americans. And that’s where I would begin.
And then, if that were resolved…and there have been signs you will remember over the course of the past 20 years that we were moving very constructively in that direction. And we were moving very constructively under…that direction. Perhaps the turning point was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but, but until then we were doing some pretty good work in that field. We haven’t been doing very good work since that time and I think this whole relationship, this whole situation in the Middle East has disintegrated as a consequence.
HEFFNER: You obviously think then that now whatever the situation is, that we can turn our backs on the past. I don’t mean that in an anti-historical way, but rather we can absorb the lessons of the past and move forward. You believe, I gather that Israel can continue to exist?
VIORST: Oh, yes…
HEFFNER: In a relationship with the Arab world with her millions and millions and millions.
VIORST: Not only do I think that Israel can continue to exist; I think that Israel must exist within that framework and that both sides have already, in my judgment, made that psychological shift. It’s just that we have not really been able to move the machinery along in such a way to bring it about. But…yeah, I don’t think we can continue eternally with this constant hostility between Israel and the Arab world because it is a … an inflammatory … a constantly inflammatory element in the whole Middle East situation.
HEFFNER: You know what puzzles me so much, Milton is that the book, Storm from the East, and then your sub-title, The Struggle Between the Arab World and the Christian West, reads at times, to me, as though there’s so much hope. And at times to me, as though you are describing a condition, a situation for us to look at and understand that nothing can be done about that, it has existed for all these hundreds of years.
VIORST: Well …
HEFFNER: This conflict. And aside from George W. Bush …
VIORST: I think it is possible to recognize that the Christian world and, and the Arab world will look upon each other as perpetual competitors. We, we are … both, both of these civilizations are built upon religions and religious belief and religious values which, which hold not only that they are in themselves superior, but that … but that both sides also feel a certain duty to convey their religious beliefs upon the other.
But, I don’t think that that necessarily translates into perpetual warfare. I mean we have had periods when there has not been warfare, there has been rivalry. But there…you know…it’s like…it’s like the Yankees and the Giants … they’re not, they’re not, they’re not at each others throats all the time.
There are periods between the games. And…it would be naive to say that X number of years from now there will not be another clash. And I go about showing how history has had repeated clashes and the more I … I’ve been working on this subject … since the book is finished, and, and there is a richness of, of conflict between them. But that doesn’t mean that we have to adjust ourselves to its, to its continuation in perpetuity, particularly at the violent level that it is now.
HEFFNER: How do you…downgrade that level?
VIORST: Well, the way we downgraded the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union from, from 1945 to 1990. Both sides had made certain rules. Both sides understood where the red lines were. Neither side, except for occasional trespasses violated those rules and we managed to avoid very serious warfare between us and the Russians.
HEFFNER: Milton, one side collapsed!
VIORST: That’s the way it ended. That’s the way it ended, but that wasn’t the situation in 1960, in 1970, when both sides looked as if they were at some level of equality that, that World War III did threaten. And I think this is where we are now with the Russians … excuse me …
VIORST: … with the, with the Muslims. We can also get to a point where … I don’t see where either one will collapse, but I don’t think very many people foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, let’s say in 1970. History plays tricks. You know that. Better than I do. But I think … we don’t have to despair that a better situation than the one we are in now, can be devised between … by, by intelligent human beings.
HEFFNER: How do you think this will be achieved?
VIORST: I don’t know that it will be achieved. Unfortunately we are currently governed in our country by, by a set of ideas which is extremely hostile and extremely aggressive toward the Islamic world and what we have succeeded in doing in the six years of this present Administration is generate a counter-force, a counter action … both military and psychological … probably more psychological than military than ever existed before.
I don’t believe that Osama bin Laden represents the Islamic world. I don’t even believe that Saddam Hussein represents the Islamic world, but if we are constantly raking the coals as I think the West has done particularly in the 20th century and now going into the 21st … then these flames will, will, will, will periodically blow up. And one of the … one of the many failures of understanding on the part of this Administration was that even if the Arab world doesn’t have tanks and airplanes and guns to compete with us, they have shown how competent they are in making life pretty miserable for us on the battlefield, waging the kind of warfare in which they proved to be extremely skillful at over the course of 1500 years.
What they are…the war they are waging now in Iraq is not terribly different from the desert warfare of Mohammad in the 7th century. There are lessons to be learned which would be much to our benefit to examine.
HEFFNER: Do you think that, ah, moving to the present in reality, do you think that a new Administration can do this?…Given all the water that has flowed over the dam.
VIORST: Well, there’s a lot of water over the dam. There’s no question about it. And a lot of that water has gone over the dam since the year 2000. But if I didn’t think another Administration, whether it’s Republican or Democrat … what name it has doesn’t really make any difference. If I thought that other people, other government leaders in this kind of situation couldn’t do better, I’d be…suicidal. I mean as matters are now, I have very little hope for what exists, but that is largely because I don’t see, within the framework of our present leadership any kind of glimmer of hope that this will change.
But, yeah, I mean, one of the things that historians understand is that no situations are, are eternal. That people change, that new faces replace old faces and things can get better. So there has to be some hope if I were to continue this work.
HEFFNER: Milton, my … the hope I find is that more and more people will read Storm from the East because this is, and it’s not just because …
HEFFNER: … you were my student. It’s not because of that. I think it’s an extraordinary book and I hope everybody does read it and thanks so much for joining me on The Open Mind.
VIORST: Thanks for inviting me.
HEFFNER: My thanks to you in the audience too. I hope you join us again next time. For transcripts, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.