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15 Nov, Thursday
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Lunch with a Neoconservative


WHEN my friend and fellow blogger Ahmed Al-Omran, aka Saudi Jeans, told me last week that he was having coffee with Joshua Muravchik, I immediately thought “I want to meet this guy.” After all, how many American neoconservatives do we have the chance of running across here in Saudi Arabia? Not that many.

I called Josh and arranged to have lunch with him last Sunday in Jeddah. Joining us were my colleague from Arab News Usama Hussein, my friend and fellow journalist Faiza Ambah, and the British historian and writer Robert Lacey.

Josh is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., a conservative think-tank that has had 22 of its members join the Bush administration. To say that it has had an inordinate amount of influence in helping to craft the foreign policy of President George W. Bush would not be an exaggeration. Bush’s plan of promoting democracy in the Middle East and confronting America’s enemies on their own turf sprang from the shock and turmoil following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

The American bombing of Afghanistan and subsequent toppling of the Taleban regime there in 2002, and the US invasion of Iraq and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, were all actions that sprang from neoconservative ideas of attacking America’s enemies at the source.

But now four years later, with Sunnis and Shias locked in a bloody and deadly struggle for power in Iraq, where daily car bombings, assassinations and kidnappings are all too common, would even Josh admit that invading Iraq to begin with was a mistake?

“The execution of the invasion of Iraq was disastrous,” admitted Josh when I asked him that question as we drove him to lunch. And he agreed with me that doing so had opened up a Pandora’s Box of horrific consequences that no one had thought possible. (Click here to read his Washington Post piece about how neocons can get their groove back following the Republican losses in the November 2006 elections.)

Yet Josh himself wrote a piece last November in the Los Angeles Times saying that Iran had to be bombed by the US to stop it from developing nuclear weapons.

“I think that Iran should be bombed to stop it not from using a nuclear weapon itself against another nation,” explained Josh, “but to stop it from supplying a terrorist group with a nuclear device.”

He also said that Iran should be stopped at all costs from acquiring a nuclear weapon because it might use it to intimidate its Gulf neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, and allow it to expand its influence in the region.

“But aren’t the Gulf states already under the nuclear umbrella of the US? And if so, wouldn’t this lessen the ability of Iran to intimidate us?” I asked.

Josh said he thought we would be defended by the US if threatened by Iran, but that he was still worried by a possible attack on Israel by a terrorist group with an Iranian-supplied nuclear bomb.

“So you don’t think that containment works anymore? Not even after more than 40 years of Cold War with the Soviet Union?” asked Robert.

Josh said he didn’t think traditional notions of containment worked nowadays because of the possibility (in his mind) that Iran could give a nuclear device to a terrorist group that has no return address.

“I seriously doubt that the US would retaliate against Iran if a nuclear device were detonated in the US and we were not absolutely sure that it had originated in Iran,” said Josh.

Faiza, trying to veer our conversation to something less politically charged, tried talking about “abayas” (the black cloaks that all Saudi women wear in public to cover their bodies).

At this point my mind wandered as I concentrated on eating my Vietnamese sandwich and potato wedges, when suddenly an outburst by Josh brought me back to the conversation.

“That’s bullshit to say that the Holocaust can be questioned,” said Josh, who is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine.

The conversation had taken a sudden turn from “abayas” to the Holocaust conference that Iran held last year in Tehran.

“They’re just Holocaust deniers. None of the participants were trained historians,” said Josh with disgust.

Usama and I agreed with him, while Faiza and Robert kept insisting that rational human beings could have a debate on aspects of the Holocaust.

In the end they agreed to disagree and we ended our lunch with a question that I posed: “Aren’t you afraid of all the more hatred against America that an attack on Iran would produce? President Bush and the US are already so hated around the globe, even by non-Arabs and non-Muslims. Doesn’t this worry you?”

Josh said that yes it did worry him and other neocons. (For an interesting analysis of Josh’s way of thinking read this article.)

Earlier I had asked Josh what Saudis he had been meeting in Riyadh had told him about a possible US attack on Iran, and he told me that they were all against it and tried to persuade him to change his mind.

Josh is speaking tonight at the weekly meeting of the Makkiah group at Dr. Sami Angwai’s home here in Jeddah. Let’s hope he listens to the voices of concerned Saudis, though I have a feeling nothing much will dissuade Josh from believing that the Iranian regime is not to be trusted.