Why the United States should dialogue with the Middle East: An Interview with US Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD)

Daily News Egypt
11 Min Read

United States Representative Wayne Gilchrest is a Republican Congressman serving the State of Maryland’s 1st District. Recently, Michael Shank, Policy Director for the 3D Security Initiative in Washington DC, interviewed US Congressman Gilchrest for THE DAILY STAR EGYPT.

Shank: Is the United States maximizing its diplomatic capacity in the Middle East?

My perspective is that we’re wholly lacking in communicating with the vast majority of reasonable competent Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Turks, you name it.

We don’t have diplomacy in the Middle East. There’s no concept, I think, within this administration for a dialogue with other reasonable people. We’re just focused on the murderers or the ideologues or the religious fanatics. We’re stereotyping the Middle East.

The vast majority of people, no matter where they are, still have a level of intellectual capacity that we have not tapped, a level of interest in business activity that we have not tapped, a level of interest in trying to prevent infectious disease that we have not tapped. That’s the human infrastructure that we need to be talking to directly, on many, many different levels. We’re not doing that.

Shank: The Iraq Study Group recommended talks with Iran and Syria. Why did the Bush Administration dismiss this?

I’m still supportive of that idea and I haven’t put [the Iraq Study Group report] on the bookshelf to gather dust. We’re actively working with Members of Congress to write letters, to pursue dialogue with the Iranians, with the Syrians, with the Cubans.

We want to the follow the example of Eisenhower when Khrushchev pounded his shoe on the podium at the United Nations, pointed at western diplomats and said “we will bury you .

Eisenhower’s response was to invite Khrushchev to the US. Kennedy invited the foreign minister of Russia when he learned that they had armed warheads in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of the US. We didn’t retaliate militarily, we could have.

Everybody in the world new we could have. But we decided to talk our way out of that, to dialogue our way out of that. Strong countries should not ever be afraid for any reason to have a dialogue with a weaker nation.

Shank: Can you tell me about the House diplomacy/dialogue Caucus you are looking to create?

I started watching the [Bush] Administration pursue its foreign policy and I gathered a little steam of frustration at the lack of openness and the lack of dialogue-which I think if pursued consistently with America’s best and brightest diplomats and people from Congress we could be further ahead in bringing people together in the international community.

So what we have begun now, in its draft form, is a Dialogue Caucus of probably 25-30 members, Republicans and Democrats, who will then pursue, in a general sense, a dialogue with many countries around the world that we don’t have a dialogue with.

Yes, we’ll pursue Iran and yes we’ll pursue Cuba. Yes, we’ll pursue Syria and yes, we’ll pursue Burma.

Shank: Why has the Bush Administration decided not to pursue dialogue and instead chooses isolation and estrangement?

I’ve asked a number of people whether it’s Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice or Ambassador Negroponte or Mr. Hadley or Mr. Cheney or former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld or Mr. Wolfowitz. The list is pretty long. They have varying, in their mind legitimate, opinions. One of them is “you can’t trust them or “they’re going to lie to you or “they’re going to dupe you , the list goes on.

But I always go back to the idea that we never stopped talking to the Russians. We never stopped talking to Eastern Europe. We never stopped talking to the Chinese. We have dialogue with the North Koreans.

So their pursuit of isolation and economic sanctions, they feel, will so disrupt the economy of some of these countries, or Iran in particular, that they will come to the table. The [Bush] Administration’s policy is that we will talk to Iran as soon as they meet the criteria that they will stop enriching uranium. But the Iraq Study Group says that should be a separate track.

Let’s put that on track but on this other track we should continue to have dialogue about stability in the region, about reconciliation in the region, about economics in the region, about integration peoples’ ideas about solutions to the sectarian violence in the region.

I would quip that if I stopped talking to Members of Congress that lied to me I would stop talking to many Members of Congress.

Shank: What roles do US allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt have in Iraq and Palestine/Israel respectively? Should the US call on them to play more active diplomatic roles?

The Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks, could help resolve some of the serious issues of sectarian violence in Iraq if they saw that the United States had a comprehensive Middle East policy. If the United States started to dialogue with Iran, if the United States had Condoleezza Rice regularly visit Damascus, if we pursued an upfront fair policy in Lebanon and began talking about economic development, if we pursued a very strong policy to be involved in the peace talks with the Palestinians and the Israelis, more so than we have been in six years, I think this would create an air of much greater opportunity for the Saudis and the Egyptians to participate.

If you begin to peal back the layers of this onion, Iranians benefited from us getting rid of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. The Syrians benefited from that as well. Egyptians do not want chaos and religious fundamentalism taking hold of the violence in the Middle East. The Saudis want stability.

All of the countries, the vast majority of the people, want stability in the Middle East, they don’t want al-Qaeda reigning in Afghanistan, they don’t want the Taliban, and they don’t want sectarian violence.

We cannot win this war militarily. We cannot the war in Iraq when we’ve isolated the war in Iraq from the greater broader region.

Shank: How would you assess Congress’s knowledge of Islam and the Muslim world?

I don’t think the House and the Senate, in a general sense, has an in-depth understanding of the Islamic world and all its origins, its practices. I think we’re all a little behind the learning curve. That’s why dialogue is so critical, it’s too easy to stereotype.

It’s much more difficult to use rigorous mental effort to understand the problem than it is to stereotype the problem. So dialogue is essential for us to build upon what we do know, what we are reading, to expand our knowledge and hopefully to expand our wisdom.

Shank: What role can development play in bringing stability and security to Iraq?

Colin Powell said a few years ago to the President: Mr. President, if you break it you own it. We broke Iraq. We don’t own Iraq, but we owe the Iraqi people some redevelopment money. I don’t want to compare Iraq to World War II. It’s vastly different. Different cultures, vastly different difficulties. But we didn’t have the international community supporting Iraq like we did with one million troops occupying Germany in World War II.

If you had that in Iraq things would be different but we don’t. So rebuilding Iraq is going to be ten times more difficult than rebuilding Germany or Europe.

We need a Marshall-type plan from the international community for rebuilding Iraq but you’re not going to get that unless you dialogue with the regional countries which will cause other countries like China, or Russia or Europe or other places to see that the US is really serious about diplomacy.

You can’t win everything with a big stick. So I really think that we need to do something to rebuild Iraq from its agriculture, to its oil industry, to its education, its hospitals, and its infrastructure.

We can’t do it alone, but we can spearhead that effort and if we do it the right way we’ll have a lot of other people helping out.

If we just have a surge in troops but we don’t commit dollars to reconstruction and w
e don’t see the broader attributes of dialogue with the region, this is just not going to work.

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