Steven Erlanger

From Culture to Chaos

VTR Date: May 26, 2004

Steven Erlanger discusses Middle East politics.


GUEST: Steven Erlanger
VTR: 5/26/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And both times my guest today was here before, I introduced him, accurately, to be sure, but still with some degree of incredulity as Culture Editor of The New York Times.

All the while insisting that Steven Erlanger, instead seemed so much more to be at least Hollywood’s notion of the classic foreign correspondent; having been at various stages of his quite illustrious career at The New York Times, the Times Berlin correspondent, its Bureau Chief for Central Europe and the Balkans, its Moscow Bureau Chief, its Bangkok Bureau Chief and Southeast Asia correspondent, as earlier he had run more or less the same gambit for The Boston Globe.

So what, I more or less asked in introducing him, was Steve Erlanger doing at the Cultural Desk in Times Square? With the answer coming just recently of course that now he has been assigned to perhaps his paper’s most difficult foreign beat, as The New York Times Bureau Chief in Jerusalem where so many believe that man’s fate hangs in the balance between Israelis and Palestinians. And I suppose I should ask Steve if he believes that, too?

ERLANGER: I think man’s fate is a complicated question.

HEFFNER: Spoken like a true diplomat …

ERLANGER: [Laughter] That’s right.

HEFFNER: … rather than correspondent.

ERLANGER: I remember Mahler wrote a novel with the title and didn’t answer the question either. No, I, I think, however, the road to Baghdad lies through Israel and Palestine. I think that’s true. I think the Bush Administration did, as General Zinni has said, get it backwards. They thought the road to a Palestinian/Israeli peace was through Iraq. I think it’s the reverse. So, it’s a very interesting moment in the region; it obviously matters for many Americans and it matters for the rest of the Arab world also.

So, you know, it’s, it’s not a happy picture, but I think it’s a very compelling one.

HEFFNER: Do you have the sense that perhaps the Administration in this country now realizes that?

ERLANGER: Well, it’s hard to know what they realize. I mean I think there was a sincere belief, which I think was hubristic and wrong, that after the fall of communism the next great challenge for American altruism was to bring democracy to the Middle East and to re-make it.

And that always seems to me too big a task for a country that has not shone a lot of patience in its activities around the world. And I think now this Administration has realized that it probably bit off more than it could chew. Right now it wants to get through the Iraq experience with dignity and with a good result. I think it’s a little bit less worried about what the impact’s going to be in Syria or Egypt or anywhere else.

HEFFNER: Are you being kindly when you indicate that you believe that this has been a function, all of this, has been a function of the Administration’s idealism, its sense of Americans’ idealism, too?

ERLANGER: Well, I think it’s accurate. I think in general, you know, most government officials are not malign; you know they’re not evil. They’re often wrong, which is different. And I do believe that after 9/11 their view of what American security is and must be changed. And what they said, quite explicitly, was that what was acceptable behavior before 9/11 in other parts of the world was not acceptable now. And the thing that I think worried them the most, I’m trying to be fair to their arguments is state-sponsored terrorism and the chance that rouge states, like Iraq and others, would get in bed with terrorists groups like Al Qaeda and provide them weapons of mass destruction.

Now that was a legitimate fear. I don’t think there was much support for it factually. But that, I think, was their fear and they were an Administration that was very obsessed with the idea of “big states”. I mean Condoleezza Rice is a Russian expert. I mean Cheney … the first Bush Administration was all about the Gulf War.

What had happened since they’d left office was the growth of these non-state actors and that’s something I don’t think they took into account well enough. I don’t think they understood Al Qaeda and it’s potential and they concentrated too much on, on the states that might sponsor terrorism and not enough on the stateless, atomized groups of organized fanatics who were organizing 9/11 and other atrocities.

HEFFNER: Now, again, it seems to me you’re being rather generous. Because there have been so many who have felt that there attitudes toward this part of the world had been solidified long before 9/11.

ERLANGER: Well, I think it’s true they have an Iraq obsession, you know. Bush-father, Bush-son, Cheney … I mean there was a sense of unfinished business in Baghdad; there’s no question.

And there had been a long relationship among some of them with the Kurds and a feeling that somehow Saddam, who had certainly, you know, ten years ago, been looking for weapons of mass destruction … you know, was a great threat to peace and stability in the Middle East and to Israel, America’s ally. So, in that sense, I think they came into office wanting to do something about Iraq and, you know, some of them certainly used 9/11 as a pretext to think about Iraq.

I mean Bob Woodward wrote in, not this latest book, the book before, that as early as, I think, you know, the day after 9/11 at a Camp David meeting, the question of Iraq came up right away, with some people saying clearly Iraq was behind 9/11.

So there was always a searching for evidence even where it couldn’t’ be found to tie Iraq to Al Qaeda, so in that sense I think, yes, there was a predisposition from the beginning to deal with Saddam Hussein.

HEFFNER: We’re speaking here at this table at the end, appropriately enough at the end of May, close to Memorial Day … do you think the Iraq War will be memorialized in terms of our movement, our official, our governmental movement into different directions?

ERLANGER: Well, I think it’s an important moment. In a way, it is … I don’t want to exaggerate, but it feels to me a little bit like Vietnam. I mean it’s not, you know, an unalloyed success. The question is whether it becomes a failure. I think it would be a disastrous thing, certainly for this administration to pull out of Iraq precipitously. And I think it would probably be bad for American stature in the world and the Middle East to handle it badly.

That’s not to say that, you know, I think the Democrats have any clear answers either. But you know, once we’re in there … and Colin Powell’s famous phrase, “Once we’ve broken it, we own it.” We do have a responsibility for trying at least to leave behind something that functions and that does achieve at least some of the goals which we enunciated, which is an Iraq that’s free to choose it’s own destiny in a modicum of freedom and democracy.

HEFFNER: But those sound, at least to me, like so many words, repeated, I admit by the Democrats and the Republicans alike, by those who say that Bush was wrong and by those who say that Bush was right. Is it … does that notion stand up to examination that we can’t wisely pull out of Iraq?

ERLANGER: Well, I don’t, you know, I don’t see how wisely we can just abandon the Iraqis to their own complications. I mean the problem of Iraq always was essentially was three ethnicities cobbled together by Britain into a fake state. And unless you’re willing to see that state break apart, one has to, at least, try to arrange some kind of, you know, Iraqi sovereignty with, I think, more broad backing. Ideally UN backing for a process of transition to something that at least will result in an Iraqi state that is federal that functions in some fashion and that is not a threat to its neighbors. That I think is the minimum.

HEFFNER: Do you think that that’s a Western, New York Times, American educated point of view and that, indeed, what seems to be unthinkable …

ERLANGER: … well …

HEFFNER: … might well be thought …

ERLANGER: … I think one always should try to think the unthinkable and, you know, it is possible, one can imagine an Iraq that splits apart …


ERLANGER: … which you know, to some degree might be even less of a danger to its neighbors. But I don’t think the Turks believe that. Because their afraid of a new Kurdish rebellion. I’m not sure the Iranians believe that. You know, it’s a very dangerous neighborhood and you go blundering in there, the way we’ve done; you can’t just go blundering out again and say, “Whoops, I’m sorry.”

HEFFNER: Well, we went blundering in … I just raised the question as to whether blundering out, if you want to consider it that, is going to be worst or perhaps a bit better than, as we say now, “staying the course.”

ERLANGER: Yes. Well, everyone has to define carefully what the course is, that’s the point. I mean I think just picking up now and going, you know, that old famous George Aiken, “Let’s declare victory …


ERLANGER: … and go home.” It’s one thing if, you know, you’re talking about a Vietnam with a kind of functioning government and party.

But, you know, basically we’ve driven out a functioning, you know, not a very nice government out of Iraq and we haven’t replaced it with much of anything. And I don’t think chaos is a very good recipe for stability in the Middle East. Chaos in Iraq or chaos anywhere else.

I think in general we have a larger problem, you know, which is part of what I hope to, to write about soon, which is the growing anti-Americanism among the larger Arab states and the growing religious fanaticism among Arab nationalist groups. It seems to me there is a war going on.

One sees it among the Palestinians, also; between the old style PLO, which after all was essentially secular, sort of Marxist … really Baathist sort of, it came out of the same period as Saddam Hussein against the more religious dominated Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. And, you know, if Hamas and Islamic Jihad win this war for the Palestinians, I think it, it will … and I think they seem to be doing it … it will change the relationship between Israel and Palestine and make things much more complicated.

HEFFNER: You say, “If they win the war”, you mean for the hearts and minds …

ERLANGER: Of the Palestinian peoples …

HEFFNER: … of the Palestinian ….

ERLANGER: Yeah. Because you know, part of what’s going on is, you know, how will Palestine define itself as a state. I mean even the Bush Administration recognizes there will be a Palestinian state of some kind or another. But, you know, what is really at question, is, who will dominate it and who will run it. And, and … it’s like in Egypt, if you had a free election, a really free election would the people who win it, be the people you want to win it? That’s one of the great quandaries of American diplomacy.

HEFFNER: And in Iraq?

ERLANGER: Well, in Iraq you have the same problem. I mean you, you have minorities and majorities and what, you know, the American administration, whatever it’s called … in Iraq, you know … Paul Bremmer and his group of plenipotentiaries, that’s what they are … are trying to do, is to create a kind of, sort of democracy with limitations on the majority. Which is a very hard thing to sell in a place that hasn’t had democracy.

HEFFNER: I want to ask you one further question about Iraq. Will the UN pull our irons out of the fire?

ERLANGER: It’s very, very hard to know. I mean part of the problem is security. After Sergio Vieira de Mello and the original UN group went in to try to do precisely that and were blown up, and died … Kofi Anan essentially pulled the UN pretty much out. Lakhdar Brahimi, you know the Algerian, former Algerian foreign minister who cobbled together the Karzai government in Afghanistan, helping us to pull our irons out of the fire there, is trying to do the same in Iraq. But it’s a much harder thing to do and it’s also much harder because … to state the obvious … most of our allies in the UN opposed our intervention there. And can’t see why they should put their soldiers at risk in an uncertain, insecure atmosphere. And for what?

And having been treated badly by the Bush Administration even before the Iraq intervention, having been patronized, having had their views on issues like Kyoto and other … the international criminal court … rejected by the Bush people, they have very little desire to come save this President’s bacon if the President changes, they may feel differently.

HEFFNER: If the Presidency changes.


HEFFNER: There is a new President.


HEFFNER: What baggage, if I may call it that … or what intellectual convictions will you take with you when you leave New York and go to Jerusalem?


HEFFNER: Relevant ones.

ERLANGER: It’s a very important question and I’ve thought a lot about it. I think, you know, what I want to bring is … empathy isn’t enough because there are victims on both sides. I mean empathy takes you into people’s lives, but it doesn’t help you analyze much of anything. Empathy, I think, I will bring. Experience … certainly. I mean I’ve covered ethnic and religious conflicts before. I’ve covered wars before. I’ve also been the Chief Diplomatic Correspondent for the Times in Washington, so I also understand how Israel resonates in American politics, which I think is a very important part of the story.

I mean in some ways, Israel isn’t a foreign policy issue in the United States. A domestic policy issue. So I think I bring some understanding of the politics of Israel as an issue and the way it resonates in both the Democratic and Republican Parties, it’s impact on the Presidency. And what I hope I bring is a kind of maturity and I hope a degree of analytical coldness. I don’t know how long that will last, but that’s what I’m trying to bring.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean “analytical coldness”?

ERLANGER: Well, I’m not a partisan on this issue. I mean I do believe and, you know, this is kind of hostages to fortune … but, I mean, I do believe that part of the burden and responsibility of America’s global power is to defend Israel’s existence as a state. And I think that’s an important part of our obligation.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the United States, while supporting Israel as a democracy should not give up its at least stated role of being an honest broker in the Middle East, trying to actually bring along a negotiation and hence the possibility of a peace settlement between the Israelis and not just the Palestinians, but the Israeli and the larger Arab world.

I think that is a very important American obligation. Some argue that the Bush Administration by backing Ariel Sharon too fervently has given up that “honest broker” role. I want to go there and make my own decisions.

HEFFNER: “Honest broker”. I have to say to you that most of my friends, most of my friends who are Jewish feel that The New York Times has cast its lot, not with Israel, but with Israel’s opponents. I don’t believe that. I can’t read that in its editorials. To what degree do they have some justification?

ERLANGER: Well, I don’t think … I mean first of all let me say I’m going as a news reporter, not as an editorial writer. I’m not going as a columnist. I’m not going as an opinion writer. I’m going as a news writing journalist. And so, frankly what the New York Times editorial opinion is on the topic, I don’t care about it. It doesn’t interest me. I’m not sure I even want to read about it.

What I want to do is report, as honestly as I can, within my own limitations, the reality that I see for myself on the ground.

HEFFNER: Now let me ask you a question that I’ve asked all of the journalists who’ve sat at this table, in one way or another. What will be the relationship between what you report and what is printed?

ERLANGER: Ahmm, it’s … in my experience a very direct relationship.

HEFFNER: One on one?

ERLANGER: Yeah, I mean, you know, we get edited, of course. Having just been an editor, you know. But we edit for clarity, we edit for, you know, context. The Times in general … they’re not sending me because they think I’m a neophyte who doesn’t know how to write a story. The, the subject is too important to them. And, you know, editing, I think, will be done very carefully. I hope they will edit mistakes out of my copy. Generally, editors, the best editors raise questions … “do you want to say it this way?”, “is this really accurate?”, “is this how we should be presenting it?”, “haven’t we talked to this person, or that person?”

I mean that is what good editing does. What has never happened to me at the Times is to have, you know, my articles turned upside down for some ideological purpose. That has never happened.

HEFFNER: Think there should be some connection between the front page and the editorial page?

ERLANGER: Well, I think there’s an inevitable connection; I mean one would be naive to think otherwise. I mean, but I think it’s the front page that does more to effect the editorial page, than visa versa. Because in the end a lot of the editorial writers really depend on what they know, from what they’re reading in the front page. Because I’ll be there and they won’t be. And, you know, if they come for a visit it’s only a visit. I mean you can take a tour, you can spend a week. It’s different than when you’re actually there in the middle of it. So I think there is an influence, but it goes more from the front page back, than visa versa.

HEFFNER: Have you ever been in as hot a position?

ERLANGER: Well, I covered the Iran revolution, which was pretty hot. And I covered a war against Belgrade from Belgrade and Kosovo, which was pretty hot. And I covered the Chechen War which was very, very hot. But, it’s hard to know. This is a, this is a place where so many peoples’ hopes and beliefs are invested and have been so for millennia. I mean this is hardly a new phenomenon where the great religions, you know, struggle … the great Western religions struggle over, you know, primacy and, and real estate. I’m very conscious of all that. So, in the sense of being … of you know, a place where my words will be parsed to the nth degree by people who, who care desperately about what they say, it’s probably the most unusual place I’ll have been.

HEFFNER: You mention Iran. Do you, too, believe and I say “too” because I know how many people do … that that in itself is the key place … that whole part of the world that is beyond our borders.

ERLANGER: Well I think what happens in Iran is very important. And, you know, Iran … you, you know, it’s the biggest, most influential country in the region and, of course, isn’t Arab at all. I mean it has a, you know, a long history it’s own culture … as the French keep saying to me, “It has a film industry!” And it is not a cobbled together country from colonial masters, like Iraq. So, it’s different. But what it decides to do, particularly in its nuclear program, is, I think really important.

And it seems to me that in the new circumstance where you have an Iraq that is no longer an existential threat to its old rival and neighbor, Iran, an Iraq that is clearly non-nuclear; that is not a threat to Iran, then it is up to the Iranians to look at this new world and, and think it through.

Now Iran will always be neuralgic about the United States, for good reason. I mean their revolution was aimed at the United States; United States support of the Shah. And we should remember that the Iranian nuclear program was started by the United States under the Shah.

And we should also remember that, you know, Israel remains a neuralgic point for the Iranians as well as for the Arabs. That having been said, I think progress toward an Israeli/Palestinian solution is, you know, something that can take the heat out of some of Iran’s anxieties, but it is also very interesting to see what will happen in Iran between the clerics and, you know, a growing middle class of people who want the same things everybody else wants.

I mean I think in, in the long run, the clerisy is weakening in Iran, but as, as we all know, as Tocqueville taught us, it’s times of transition that bring often revolution and struggle; not times of strength.

HEFFNER: And I must say I’ve been puzzled trying to figure out from the reports that I’ve read, even in The New York Times, as to where one can assume Iran will settle down.

ERLANGER: It’s very hard to know, because I don’t think the Iranians know themselves. I mean, you know, clearly the clerics are nervous about, you know, more democratic movements inside the country. I don’t think over time they can hold it. And, I don’t think we simply know. But I think in the end the Iranians and the Americans are going to have to come to terms in some fashion over the Middle East, but also over Iran’s nuclear programs.

HEFFNER: And Israel’s nuclear program?

ERLANGER: Well, we all know Israel has a nuclear program. You know, and every one …

HEFFNER: So do the Iranians.

ERLANGER: Well, sure. You know. I always thought you could make it … almost you could make a defense for Saddam Hussein looking for a nuclear weapon because he needed a deterrent against the Iranians. This is the old circular logic … after all, it was Iran who invaded Iraq, not the other way around. That having … it was Iraq … I’m sorry.


ERLANGER: … that invaded Iran. But that having been said, you know, the logic of deterrence is something that we all have to grapple with whether it’s Indian/Pakistan or Iran and Israel.

HEFFNER: And it’s at that point I want to thank you so much for joining me again, Steven Erlanger, and good luck in Jerusalem. I should say good luck to all the rest of us who will be reading what you write.

ERLANGER: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, 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 an 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.