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World: Ghassan Salame Talks To RFE/RL At Forum 2000

The annual gathering at Forum 2000 was launched in 1997 by former Czech President Vaclav Havel RFE/RL speaks to Ghassan Salame, a former Lebanese culture minister and currently a professor at Sorbonne University, Paris.

RFE/RL: What are the prospects for democracy in Iraq?

Ghassan Salame: We have had elections in Iraq of a very reliable nature in the 40s and 50s of the 20th century, so these are reasons to believe that it can be flourishing again in Iraq. So I would not be surprised that the country becomes slowly and gradually a democratic country. My worry is over the American management of this transition, where I find a lot, a lot, a lot of mistakes. So many mistakes that some people start saying that democracy is becoming difficult to really produce. It is not with the principle of democracy -- this is going to take place in Iraq, and I think a very large majority of Iraqis are happy that the regime, the Ba'athist regime, has fallen but what happened in the past two years and a half is a long chain of mistakes that have somehow produced a new skepticism, due not so much to the fact that people do not want democracy, they badly want democracy, and all polls we have, including the latest poll by Pew Research [Center] in Washington show clearly that people find that democracy is very desirable....

RFE/RL: What exactly do you have in mind?

Salame: Well, a number of mistakes, one after another. The disbanding of the army was a terrible mistake because it produced insecurity and because it pushed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers into the insurgency. The de-Ba'athification, that is the eradication of Ba'athists in the civil administration, has entirely paralyzed the administration, while a more subtle way of approaching things would have been to say that everybody was [a] member of the party in order to get a position when you had a single party the way it was here in Czechoslovakia when the Communist Party was leading. In Prague, you didn’t send back all doctors and lawyers and administrators and everything back home just because they were members of the Communist Party. They had to have done something very specific in order to be eradicated. Well in Iraq, unfortunately, they took over all the leadership of the Ba'ath Party and sent it home which paralyzed entirely the civil administration and made things even more, even more difficult. Even more importantly I think we approached Iraq in a way that where regime change was very clear, but not regime replacement. It is very, very easy to operate a regime change, very easy. With the military power now in the hands of America and their leading allies, they can operate change almost everywhere in a very rapid period of time. What is problematic is regime replacement, once you have been able to make a regime collapse, how do you replace it? And I think a lot of thought had been given in America for how to make the regime of Saddam Hussein collapse but not enough thought on how to replace it and how to rebuild Iraq once the regime has collapsed.

RFE/RL: There is also a lot of pressure, I know you have written about that, Iraq is represented and posited as an exemplary case of how democracy can flourish and the whole world is watching and that pressure of course complicates things even more. What can you tell us about that?

Salame: Yes, that’s true. I think that each case had to be approached in a very specific way. And I think it was really a mistaken idea that you can take a complex country, a very complex country like Iraq, and transform it into a model. Iraq cannot be a model for the rest of the region. For many reasons: one of them is the fact that the regime that we had in Iraq was one of the worst in the Middle East, while other countries have had a much more peaceful and much more democratic approach to politics in the past 20 or 30 years, so you cannot say everybody should follow the Iraqi example because the Iraqi example was not an example, it was somehow an exception. So this was conceptually flawed. But another problem had to do with the fact that you [have to] look at political geography. Iraq is not an island in the sea, so you cannot do whatever you want in Iraq and tell Iraq’s neighbors to just wait until you finish the job. Iraq is almost an enclaved country with six neighboring countries, all of them very worried by the fact that the Americans were saying "well we will finish the job in Iraq and then move against somebody else." "Who’s next, who’s next, who’s next," was the question in 2003. This was problematic, of course, [because] when you do that you give a vested interest to those neighbors to keep you busy as long as possible in Iraq so you don’t turn against them after Iraq and that’s exactly what’s happened. The American Pentagon has handled Iraq as if it were an island in the sea while the neighbors who have had like 5,000 years of interaction with Iraq, of course, knew that Iraq was not an island, an enclaved country, it was a very small window to the sea and [they have] used their very porous borders between them and Iraq in order to do a lot of unnecessary and very hostile and very destabilizing things in Iraq in order precisely to keep America busy in Iraq so it doesn’t turn against them once the Iraq business is finished.

RFE/RL: That’s a very interesting perspective. And one final question, speaking in terms of culture and clash of cultures, maybe, how do you see the East and West, if you like, generally proceeding from here?

Salame: I am very radical on that one, let me be very clear with you. I don’t believe there is a clash of civilizations or a clash of religions.

RFE/RL: But many people do.

Salame: Of course, I know, I have been debating with Samuel P Huntington [author of "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order"] for the past 15 years of my life and we keep quarrelling and we have been quarrelling for like 15 years now so I haven’t changed my mind, on the contrary. I don’t think that there is a clash of civilizations, and that’s exactly what I am going to say in a few minutes. I don’t think there is a dialogue of civilizations possible. I don’t think that civilizations can enter either into a clash or a dialogue, I don’t think civilizations exist as political actors on the international scene. And I think it’s very anti-democratic to think that civilizations exist, because if you say that civilizations exist, then you should tell me how do you select those who should speak in their name, and why should we select one rather than the other? Why George W. Bush and not his cousin? Why the pope and not the protestant? Why the mullah in Iran, rather than the mullah in Saudi Arabia? Who tells us how civilizations operate and can produce representatives [that are] democratically accepted. There is no way, because they are not political units and they cannot produce democratically selected representatives -- therefore civilizations are not political actors in the international arena so [that] they can clash or so they can enter into dialogue. Civilizations are just a reservoir for our values, for our ideas, for our dreams, for our languages from which we borrow from time to time and very often we forget. So that’s what civilizations are, they are not actors, individuals are actors, groups are actors, states are actors. Civilizations are just a reservoir of values and ideas.

See also:

Forum 2000 Looks At War on Terror

More Interviews From Forum 2000