Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (AP)

"Out of this chaos, strongmen will emerge": Richard Engel sees an authoritarian future in the Middle East

The U.S. must fight "a very strong temptation" to embrace stabilizing dictators, author and journalist tells Salon


Elias Isquith
February 17, 2016 5:59PM (UTC)

When Americans think back on their country's foreign policy during the transitional years between the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, there's one region that will loom larger in their minds than even China itself — the Middle East.

From since at least the first Gulf War up until the rise of ISIS today, what the United States should do — or, more often, stop doing — has dominated national conversations about foreign policy. The country's strategy in this part of the world has been so important, in fact, that it's impossible to imagine the past 20 years of American politics without it.

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For most of those years, Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent and author of  "And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East," has been in the Middle East, getting a viscerally up-close perspective on these world-historic events. And as this fast-paced and engaging new book makes clear, even if it hasn't always been easy, Engels' time in the Middle East has always been important.

Recently, Salon spoke with Engel over the phone. In addition to his book, we also discussed what he'd like to hear from this year's presidential candidates, why he sympathizes with those who advocate for non-intervention (but only up to a point), and what he expects of the region's medium- and long-term future. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What made you decide that this was a good moment to take a look back and write this book?

The book has a theory. The theory you can sum up in a couple of pages. The theory is that there was a status quo in the Middle East, and the status quo had existed for decades. It wasn't a good status quo; I compare it to a row of rotting houses. The problems in the Middle East were frozen in the status quo. Then through the direct military action of eight years of the Bush administration and the very soon to be eight years of the Obama administration's inconsistent action, we broke the old status quo and unleashed the problems, unleashed the demons that were deep-seated in the Middle East.

We didn't create these demons; the Sunni-Shia conflict existed 1,000 years before the Declaration of Independence. We're not responsible for the divisions between the Arabs and the Persians, but we do bear some of the responsibility for unleashing these problems. That's the theory, and then I tell that story through anecdotes, through what I have seen over the last 20 years. So most of the book is what I've seen and heard and the people I've met, but when you add it up together that's the theory.

The last part of the theory is: "So what happens next? Where is it going to go?" What I think is eventually going to emerge is a new series of strongmen, dictators. That's what I think is coming, and I think we're already starting to see that.

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How was living in the Middle East different during that old status quo?

The old status quo was my life in Egypt when I first started out. I moved there and there were problems; there were problems of corruption and police brutality and chronic miseducation. The curriculums were not just inadequate, they were wrong and misleading and drove people to think conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism.

There were chronic problems in the Middle East, but like an old rusted pipe-filled house, it had its charms as well. It was safe. I had no problems moving around. There was no ISIS. There was a feeling of curiosity about a foreigner. Now when I go to some places, I feel people looking at me like I'm some sort of giant wallet, they want to kidnap you or steal you. It was a kinder and gentler place, frankly. And that sounds cliché and it sounds like I'm an old guy looking back at his childhood, but this was only 20 years ago. It was a very different region in the old status quo. I'm not nostalgic about it. I don't miss it, but it is certainly gone.

You were a young man when you started working in the region.

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I remember growing up in that period. I moved out to Cairo. I was a 24- or 25-year-old cub reporter chasing stories. I had barely a cellphone, taking taxis, there was not much Internet to speak of in those days. It was a very fun time running around the region, poking around stories, playing cat-and-mouse with the Egyptian security services.

To jump ahead, compare that to the madness that is Syria. You can't just run around and do fishing expeditions like that. There's so much more anger and violence. So that's one of the interesting contrasts. Until I started writing it, I didn't really even realize I had been there 20 years. It kind of crept up on me. I was like, "Oh my god. I've been in the Middle East for 20 years now?"

That makes me think of the quote that's often attributed to Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” You were there for 20 years; but in terms of how much the region has changed, it must feel like it's been longer than that.

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They were transformative years. If I had been there almost any two other decades, the Middle East was kind of locked in its own status quo. Because of the decisive, somewhat misguided actions of the Bush administration and then the often inaction or inconsistent actions of the Obama administration, the status quo is all broken and everything is in flux and it's become a terrifying place.

Look at Aleppo today. People are running from the city, there could be massive massacres happening. I'm doing a story on that now. I just spoke with an activist from Aleppo. They're worried that the whole city is going to get wiped out. A terrible atrocity.

If you look at the cover of the New York Post, which is a local paper, there's a picture on the cover of a man trying to flee Syria on a boat, standing on the piece of the boat that's still sticking out of the water and the others have perished. The Middle East has really gone downhill.

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There's a common sentiment on the left that our interventions are the cause of instability in the Middle East and that the West should adopt a more hands-off posture toward the region — for both their sake and its own. Does the refugee crisis undermine the idea of radical disengagement?

Well, that's the whole point. I'm very sympathetic to that logic. I would love nothing more than for the U.S. not to be involved in Middle Eastern politics. It's been an enormous drain on our resources; it's been an enormous drain on capital; it's been an intellectual drain. There's only so much bandwidth that you can focus on. By focusing so much energy and time on the Middle East it means you can't focus on the space race or renewable energies or who knows what else they could be spending that intellectual capital on.

So I'm very sympathetic about that argument. The problem is: They are thinking about us. The problems don't stay contained there. We are living in a global world and the Middle East is connected to every other problem. You hit the nail on the head. Look at the refugee crisis. Do you think Belgium wants to be involved in Middle East politics? They don't, but now they have refugees flowing in and they have an ISIS problem because a large number of their immigrants have been attracted to this madness philosophy.

Germany, which had a very active policy toward the Middle East a century ago, that has not been the center of their foreign policy scheme. Most of Germany's policy objectives have been about Europe and German reunification. Now, they have hundreds of thousands of people every month trying to get to Germany. So, isolationism is deeply ingrained in American foreign policy, and I can see that tendency and I'm very sympathetic toward it, but it doesn't mean that the problems stay there. You need to be aware of them. But it doesn't mean it's our responsibility to go and fix them all either.

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The mainstream media has been so obsessed with Donald Trump this year. ISIS isn't getting the same level of attention it was, say, last summer.

Yeah, and especially if you've been watching the campaigns, the kinds of things that are being said by candidates on both sides are not particularly well informed. There was one well-known candidate who was talking about making the sand glow to defeat ISIS. I've spent time where ISIS lives. They're not deserts. It looks like southern California. The area around Aleppo in northern Syria has olive groves and rivers. There's no sand there.

And then on the other side you have people talk about how there's no proof that the Iraq War led to ISIS. If you ask ISIS it will tell you that the Iraq War led to ISIS. Its leadership are all Iraqis, many of whom were imprisoned by U.S. troops in Iraq. So there has not been a tremendous amount of informed discussion about the region, unfortunately. It seems to be crowded out by the presidential politics.

So what does this region need now?

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I think it needs stability. It's about Syria. What I think is coming is a new series of strongmen. I think they will be embraced by the U.S., but I think we need to be cautious. There will be a very strong temptation to embrace those strongmen. To say, "Oh, great! Somebody's, at least, taking charge and will put some law and order back into this chaotic region."

There will be more Sisis to come. But what we have to do is be careful that we don't give these new leaders carte blanche to be horrible to their own people. Because it's not right or just, and history has shown us that dictators and fascists can be really dangerous. Out of this chaos, strongmen will emerge. We just have to be very careful about believing that they are a panacea. That would be the advice I would give to the next administration.

Are you concerned about the repercussions, down the line, of Egypt's new status quo?

Egypt is usually at the vanguard of changes in the Middle East, and I think with the Sisi experiment, there are a lot of countries that I think are going to try and replicate it. We will see. So far Sisi has had some domestic issues and he's been pretty rough on some people, but I would think many Egyptians are thankful that they're not living in Syria. I think there are more Sisis to come, and you want to make sure that they don't become Saddam Husseins.

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Now that the nuclear deal with Iran has been agreed to and is being implemented, it seems like Americans don't know what kind of role the country's rulers want to play in the region. Is this attitude unique to Americans; or are people in the Middle East in a "wait and see" stance, too?

I think going forward, if I were to have a crystal ball -- and normally I wouldn't even venture to make guesses like this -- I would say: 1) in the decade to come, we're going to see these strongmen emerge, and I think we have to be judicious in our embrace of them; and 2) I think we're going to see an enormous struggle for the nature of Iran.

There's a battle. Iran feels very schizophrenic at the moment. There are those in the regime who have been around for 36 years who have established interests. They believe that they are defending the Iranian people from the Arab world, defending Islam, defending against the vices of the West. And they not only have those interests, they have a belief structure. And then there is another generation, another group of Iranians who want a fresh start, who don't want that old system anymore. This tug of war, I think, is going to emerge and become much more pronounced in the years to come.

Is that a question that the Iranians will simply have to answer for themselves? Or should the outside world also be involved in that process?

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It depends on which side you want to win. The answer is, Iranians are going to have to sort this out for themselves. But, will that be the case? History has shown us that people meddle. There are other countries and other factors. Iran has its allies and Iran has its enemies. It should be a situation for the Iranians to sort out for themselves. We will see if that happens.

One of the stories I'm most excited about covering in the next few years is Iran. I was just there a couple of weeks ago, and I hadn't been for several years, and it was fascinating. You can really feel there was an optimism about the nuclear deal and a sense of hope and expectation from people in the street. There was also a sense of excited nervousness on behalf of the government. Yes, they're excited about this deal, but they don't want lots of changes. They want to open up economically but they don't necessarily want to change their way of living and their way of governing. So they're trying to do a balancing act. Iran is a fascinating place. People should not think of Iran as monolithic. It is endlessly fascinating.

It's not like the Soviet Union under Stalin, in other words.

No. The people are interesting, the people are dynamic, there was an amazing arts scene that was much more developed than I even expected. I'd go back tomorrow if I could. Admittedly visas are hard to come by, but I thought Iran was fascinating.

What do you hope the future holds for the Middle East?

Looking back at 20 years, I look back, I see myself, this kind of bright-eyed kid who goes out to the Middle East and starts writing down stories and sending dispatches back home. And then I watched Iraq and I watched a couple of other wars in the region and I watched the Arab Spring and I watched Syria and I watched the Middle East unravel. We're in this really dark, horrible place right now. I've never seen it worse. There's no hope, there's so much religious hatred, so much ethnic hatred, family squabbles on a regional scale sometimes.

What I think is going to happen is I think we're going to see from the region itself, and embraced by others, a rejection of this. People saying, "No more. It was better before. Bring back the strongmen." I think we as a nation need to be responsible and not necessarily reject the attempts of the region to bring stability. Because God knows they need stability. But to not turn a blind eye to every human rights atrocity that's going to be coming. I think that will be a temptation and I think we need to resist that temptation.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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