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My guest today is Dr. Robert ‘Bob’ Bowker whose career in the politics and analysis of the Middle East spans five decades. He spent 37 years as an Australian diplomat in the region, firstly on postings to Saudi Arabia (74-06), and Syria (79-81), and later as the Australian ambassador to Jordan (89-92), Egypt (05-08) as well as non-resident ambassador to Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan. Bob also held senior roles at the United Nations Relief and Works Program for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (1997-1998,) based in Gaza and Jerusalem.
Following his diplomatic career, Bob spent more than a decade as an academic, firstly as an Adjunct Professor and later as an Honorary Fellow at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. For a period of that time, Bob also served as an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments.
Bob recently published a memoir about his extensive career and personal attachment to the Middle East titled Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots: an Australian Diplomat in the Arab World. Bob joins me today to discuss his book as well as his views on the state of the Middle East, its predominant and enduring fault lines, as well as the role of the West in the region.
Some of the topics we covered are:
- Bob’s introduction to Islam and the Arab World
- Misrepresentation of the Arab World’s relationship with the West
- Meaning of the book’s title and why it captures the sentiment of the Middle East
- Importance of cross-cultural engagement for diplomatic success and understanding of power structures
- Memorable cultural exchanges and their impact
- The importance of history to societies of the Middle East
- Western politicians’ failure to consider culture and history when dealing with the Middle East
- Analysis of the 2003 Iraq Invasion, its background, and failures
- Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War
- Whether Australia should debate a decision to go to war in the Parliament
- Reconciling the tensions between national interests and promoting certain values
- Bob’s work in Palestine with United Nations Relief and Works Program for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA)
- Analysis of the Palestine and Israel conflict and why peace remains untenable
- Why the ‘Two State Solution’ is dead
- The unwavering US support for Israel and the possibility of change
- The future of Iran’s relationship with the West and the US
- Prospects of Chinese success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia
Listen to the podcast here
Ambassador Robert ‘Bob’ Bowker – Understanding The Middle East: Lessons From Five Decades Of Life And Work In The Region
My guest for this episode is Dr. Robert ‘Bob’ Bowker, whose career is in the politics and analysis of the Middle East and spends five decades. He spent 37 years as an Australian Diplomat in the region, firstly in postings to Saudi Arabia and Syria and later as the Australian Ambassador to Jordan and Egypt, as well as a non-resident ambassador to Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan.
Bob also held senior roles at the United Nations Relief and Works Program for Palestine refugees in the Near East, based in Gaza and Jerusalem. Following his diplomatic career, Bob spent more than a decade as an academic, firstly as an Adjunct Professor and later as an Honorary Fellow at the ANU Center for Arab and Islamic Studies.
For a period of that time, Bob also served as an Intelligence Analyst with the Office of National Assessments. Bob recently published a memoir about his extensive career and personal attachment to the Middle East titled Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots: An Australian Diplomat In The Arab World. Bob joins me to discuss his book as well as his views on the state of the Middle East, its predominant and enduring fault lines, as well as the role of the West in the region. Bob, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
It’s my pleasure.
That’s quite a background you’ve got. I can’t quite remember that I’ve spoken to an ambassador with such a portfolio in the past. There’s such a diverse and broad portfolio. Firstly, congratulations on such an amazing and extensive career.
Thank you. At times, the department decided I wasn’t much use for anything else, so they kept sending me back and completely fine.
I’m sure they knew what they were doing. I have no doubt. Certainly, given the countries you were looking after and the interesting colours and dynamics of that region, I suspect they knew what they were doing. Before we get to the region proper, maybe we can start by finding out what motivated you initially to enter the world of international relations.
It wasn’t a very clear-cut decision. I spent some time in Indonesia when I was a student, in far-flung bits of Indonesia, including delivering fuel oil around Sumatra on a small boat. I came to encounter Islam for the first time with the Bhutanese crew members on the boat. I was deeply interested in Islam as a religion.
I’m not a spiritual person myself, but the attraction of coming to understand a different culture and the elements that contributed to that culture started me off on a path that eventually led me into the Arab world. When I was at university, I studied Indonesian and Malay in Arabic script, which was a nice introduction to Arabic later on. As I said, it was an exposure to a different set of ideas, people, and circumstances that attracted my interest for the first time.
I did study for some years and I did use it extensively while in Timor Leste. I wouldn’t be able to hold the conversation at the moment. I suspect that broadened your profile or horizons at a rather early age and is something you want to touch on later on. I’m interested. Why the long-standing interests or why the interest in Islam? What was it about Islam that drew you towards it, especially since you’re not a spiritual person?
It was the sense of communal solidarity that it encourages. The elements of mercy and forgiveness are very much at the heart of Islamic teaching. There’s an element of history there as well. It’s a cultural phenomenon of which Arabs are very proud. Muslims generally are very proud as an identifier of who they are. Lots of things that are not part of a Western culture shine through. There’s a great deal to admire in all of that.
The elements of mercy and forgiveness are very much at the heart of Islamic teaching. The distortion of Islam as a result of the behavior of individuals pursuing political objectives has been very tragic. Click To Tweet
Also, it is not what’s usually heard in the West about Islam over many years as well. It’s another interesting insight.
The distortion of Islam as a result of the behaviour of individuals pursuing political objectives has been very tragic. Whereas, there was a long history of positive interaction between Islam and the West. A far longer history of engagement in commerce and culture than there is a history of conflict has largely been set aside in Western memories because of activities on both sides. It was the people who’ve sought to exploit and those instances where conflict has occurred and present that as some enduring phenomenon, which historically is quite inaccurate and certainly should be dispelled at every opportunity.
It was a much larger period of time where trade was the norm as opposed to a war in conflict. If I’m right, the Prophet Muhammad was a trader himself. That also set the tone for Islam going forward.
It opens up some interesting theological and political debates within the Muslim world as to what the approach should be to the welfare of the community at large. Is it desirable to support the community through welfare, or should it be through economic activity and opportunities for advancement that commerce provides?
There has never been a satisfactory answer to that question, but it played out in the contemporary era, particularly in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt when it came to power briefly in 2013. There are all sorts of angles to Islam that are worth discussing. I always found it very interesting to talk to people about how they perceive their responsibilities as Muslims toward their broader community.
That’s interesting. Are you saying how society should be structured in broader terms? To take the example of the brotherhood, are you saying that they were more focused on the trade or the social welfare side of things?
What I found interesting was that they couldn’t make up their minds one way or the other. There was a factional dispute within the brotherhood on that very question.
Let’s dive into the book a little bit. Firstly, who did you write this book for? What are you hoping to achieve with it?
I, to be honest, wrote it initially for the family to try to explain to future generations of people why their grandfather and great-grandfather did what he did and to put on record for them what my views were on the big issues of the Middle East. As I began by writing about the issues rather than me, I realised that I needed to try to explain how I came to my views, what experiences had shaped those views, what people I encountered, and so on.
That led me to my appreciation of the nature of the Middle East and the Arab world. The book became effectively two books in one. I put an awful lot of effort into the issues side of it, but I wound up spending a lot of time, probably half of the book in total, talking about those events, which had led me to form those views as a Middle East warhorse heading out to pasture.
That’s an aspect of the book I thoroughly enjoyed because it did give us the macro level analysis and useful insights into the region that one earns by decades of living and breathing the region. Throughout the entire book, as you said, it’s two books there. There are personal anecdotes, personal stories, the people you met, the connections you made, and also the ethical challenges that you encountered, which is one aspect I want to get to. What does the title mean? The title is not necessarily self-explanatory as much as it jumps out at you. Before you start, you have a description as to what it means. Perhaps for the audience, what does “Tomorrow, there will be apricots” mean?
There’s an expression in Arabic, “Bukra fil mish-mish,” which means literally tomorrow, there will be apricots. It’s an expression that is used among Arabs who don’t want to flatly disagree with some preposterous statement that’s being made. You don’t want to say, “If God wills.”
Which is the one everyone knows.
Inshallah. It’s a polite, good-humoured way of saying, “Frankly, my friend, pigs might fly before that happens.” It’s an expression that, when a foreigner uses it, often elicits a house of laughter from his audience. We’re not supposed to know what that means.
You’re an insider.
That’s right. It’s worrying when you confront an insider who’s not an insider. It’s something that expresses the warmth and the humour that underpins Arab societies writ large. It is that aspect of the Arab world that I wanted to capture in the book because that is the Arab world that I understand best. It’s a world that is complex, is focused very much on personal relations, emphasises respect and treatment of others with dignity, and has a certain degree of casual suspicion of authority and pretension. It’s an expression that many Australians can relate to very well.
How does it gel broadly to the West or certainly the Western audiences present in the Middle East? How does it contrast, maybe? That’s a better way to phrase the question.
When most ordinary people in the Arab world hear expressions of a political nature from leaders, be they in the West or the Arab world, with how great the future is going to be or how their approach to the region is so attuned to the region’s needs and so on, there is a healthy scepticism that comes back in response because the historical evidence is very much toward a relationship based on inequality and, at times, exploitation of Arab interests by outsiders and by their proxies in the region. That sense that perhaps such expressions of intent should not be taken too seriously is the thinking that lies behind the use of the phrase book.
This is a wonderful cultural insight, and I suspect most people wouldn’t be familiar with it because they wouldn’t have spent as much time in the region as you have. It is an aspect that you talk about quite a lot in the book. You talk about cultural exchanges, whether as a recipient, being introduced to certain aspects of a particular culture as well as sharing aspects of Australian culture. Why did you personally feel that this was important for your job? Perhaps, more strategically, why does it matter?
For an Australian diplomat, it’s important to present the values and the identity of Australia to a wider audience in the hope that we will generate an understanding of who we are and, hopefully, a sympathetic understanding when we present ourselves, our ideas, our views, and our questions to others. It is important to be able to connect at a cultural level with any society in which we’re operating.It's important to be able to connect at a cultural level with any society in which we're operating. Click To Tweet
Professionally beyond that, I always found that cultural engagement with Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and so on provided opportunities firstly to get a much more rounded understanding of the society in which I was expected to achieve results in terms of Australian interests. There are opportunities when you are operating among people who are involved in cultural pursuits to gain a rounded perspective of the society in which they operate and how we might best interact with it.
It also provides opportunities to understand power structures in those societies. It is the sensitivities that apply at the popular level on the one hand at a more socioeconomically advanced level on the other hand. You do something as we did. We had a particular interest in what they call Zah music in Egypt. It’s a very traditional form of music and song, which has deep historical connections down the Nile Valley into parts of Africa.
It is very much a spiritualistic, strongly surface tradition. When you talk to Egyptians about this and especially Egyptians at a higher socioeconomic level, there is a degree of embarrassment that this phenomenon should even exist. It’s viewed with deep scepticism in terms of Islam. Its sufficed elements seem to have some connection to the Shia tradition, which is suspect from a Sunni point of view, yet it endures, at the popular level, with considerable force. When you become involved in watching these performances and talking to Egyptians about them, you get all sorts of interesting insights into what makes Egyptians tick at a personal level that certainly expands your capacity to understand the dynamics of what’s going on around you.
What would be some of those standout cultural exchanges that you remember?
The ones that worked to the greatest effect were two things. We had an opportunity through my wife’s engagement with the tentmakers of Cairo to see how a micro-community in Cairo, these men who’ve been operating since probably the Mamluk period in making tents and decorating those tents from the inside with embroideries, preserved a tradition of artisanship and yet adapted to commercial realities over the centuries in ways that remained very distinctively Egyptian, but which were a reinforcement of a community that was constantly under pressure from larger commercial forces, modernisations and so on and was struggling to secure its future.
That combination of cultural identity and commercial reality was a constant tension in their daily existence. It was rewarding from my point of view to see how, with the assistance of my wife, Jenny, the community managed to establish itself in a broader international market with access, particularly in the United States with the quilt maker communities who could recognise the quality of the work that was being done and respond to that by placing that industry on a more viable commercial sustainable commercial basis.
That was one part of my memories of cultural engagement. The other was the holding of an Australian Film Festival in Cairo just as I was winding up there as an ambassador. We chose to run a collection of old 1970s-style Australian movies because of my wife. Also, at that period of Australian cinema, we had a range of movies that were colourful, entertaining, and that was sometimes light-hearted and, generally, attuned to the interests of the audience that was going to be invited to attend.
I was struck by the reaction to the showing of the rabbit-proof fence because the Egyptians who watched that movie responded to it in ways that were quite distinctively Egyptian. They saw these young indigenous women who were running away from the European, White Australian domination or institutional domination, and so on, and they empathised with them.
People who liked themselves had a story to tell but were not being heard and were determined to do whatever was required to address that through their own efforts and to maintain their sense of dignity and self-respect in doing so. That Egyptian reaction was so revealing in what it said about how Egyptians view themselves with the rest of the world. The sympathy that the movie generated was something that is very positive from the Australian perspective. It is a fact that, firstly, you had indigenous people behaving in that way. Secondly, you had Australian film producers willing to make a movie along those lines. That said something powerful about the values that Australians stood for.
Were the Egyptians wrong for connecting to that or seeing themselves in those stories?
No. I thought they perceived a connection that was entirely appropriate, given their own background. Anyone whose family had been in Alexandria would have been shelled by a British gunboat in 1882 for failing to make repayments on the debt they incurred for building the sewer canal for the British and the French. It would empathise entirely with the attitudes that the movie was depicting.
How much does that history echo through the Middle East? Is that something that people remember and discuss, and refer to?
In the Middle East, the past is not history. It’s practically contemporary. People’s sense of what is important is very much shaped by collective historical memory, real or imagined. It doesn’t have to be accurate in the empirical sense. If it is the collective view of a society that is constantly reinforced by daily lived experience, then it is powerful. That is very much what shapes Arab perceptions of relationships with the external world, including the United States and other Western countries. That sense of how you connect the present with the past is fundamental to the identity of almost every Arab society that I’ve ever worked in.
That’s so interesting. To what extent do you think that is understood by the West broadly construed whatever Western parties are active in the Middle East? To what extent do you think they understand these cultural nuances?
I don’t think there’s much appreciation at the political level.
Why is that? Given that you are in politics and you’ve adopted these views, why is this something that remains distant elsewhere?
You begin with the fact that ministers are busy people and that they have other considerations to take into account. They don’t necessarily have the level of personal interest in the politics, society, and culture of the Arab world that people who have spent five decades working in it might have. There’s a tendency to regard the Middle East as being too complicated, certainly as a political minefield for any political leader who chooses to engage in it. There are precious few rewards for getting involved in the Middle East as a politician or minister.
Not unreasonably, ministers do need to focus on issues that are more directly important to ordinary Australians. Foreign policy rarely has an impact on electoral considerations, let alone the ins and outs of particular conflicts and issues of those of us who work in the region, and is regarded as being of considerable importance.
You made that very clear, especially with the invasion of Iraq. My question to you then is to get to that juicy topic. How much did this misunderstanding, or perhaps lack of intimate understanding and willingness to understand the Middle East, contribute to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003?
We need to look at it in terms of, firstly, the attitudes that were prevailing at that time in the United States and then separately, the issues in the Australian context. What I found unfortunate in the case of the United States was the absence of any strategic analysis about not the capacity of the United States to win a military victory in Iraq, but rather the fundamental question of whether military action against the regime of Sudan Hussein would produce a more durable and satisfactory outcome than a result achieved or sought through political and diplomatic means.
To answer that question, one needed to look at what the post-conflict scenario in Iraq would look like. It needed a careful analysis of the political, regional security element, the nature of Iraq’s society, and its connections beyond Iraq’s borders, particularly to Iraq. It also needed a preparedness to stand back and say, “Can the United States re-engineer Iraq through the removal of a particular regime and achieve through that an outcome that would advance American interests?”
Any competent person advising the US President on that question could only have come to the conclusion that this was not going to work. When I looked at the commentary of people like Tom Friedman, who talked so blithely about reworking the Middle East into some different shape because of the removal of the Saddam regime, I can only comprehend how they could have come to those views leaving aside based political motives and so on, which probably applied in some cases but by no means all.
They could only come to those views in the context of the trauma of 9/11 and the responses that galvanised within American society that ultimately led to such, frankly, hair-brained notions gaining traction. In the Australian context, it is extraordinarily sad that we found ourselves willing to be swept up in that American delusion about remaking Iraq.
We were prepared to accept the evidence that came from the United States and other sources about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program. What we failed to identify was that the real motivation behind the American approach was this illusion that Iraq and the wider Arab world could somehow be remade, starting with the removal by an external power of an Arab government. In the Australian context, there should have been an opportunity provided to officials to counsel caution on that larger question, even if the intelligence information coming to us was the best that the government could have hoped to receive.
Even that was dubious, wasn’t it?
The Flood inquiry found that they worked with the information that they had and were not unduly critical of the advice that went to the government so far as the WMD question was concerned.
On the British side, the Chilcot Inquiry was fairly critical.
It was, but when Philip Flood looked at the Australian context, he basically said they did with what they had and what they needed to do. At no point did officials have the opportunity to engage with ministers on the larger and more important question of, “Will this work?”
I was not involved in the decision process. I was outside the department at the time. I was quite reliably informed that the decision, irrespective of what John Howard might have agreed possibly earlier with Bush or what assurances he might have given privately to Bush when Ministers were first asked to take a stance on the whole question of Australia’s military engagement, no officials were present. When a minister was asked why that was the case, his response was, “If we needed an official, we would’ve asked for one.” In other words, the government had set its mind on a particular approach, and it was not looking for advice about the feasibility, the practicality, or indeed the strategic rationale for that decision. That was a gross betrayal of the public interest on Australia’s part.
The obvious question is why? Why did the Howard government do that?
I wish I could give you a simple answer to that. One can go back to all sorts of personality factors, political instinct, and absence of understanding of a wider context, but you can come up with as many reasons as one cares to nominate. That might have played a part in all of this. I wasn’t involved, and I can’t tell you exactly what.
I just thought you might have a gut feeling given your deep understanding of the region but also the political machinations at the time.
I’m much better in the region than I am in Australian politics. I don’t know as I say. I do know that, in those occasions, when matters of real strategic import have been addressed by governments, ranging from sewers through to Iraq, it is the political instincts of ministers that are the primary consideration. That’s probably as it should be because ministers will be accountable.
Yes, an electoral cycle makes governments accountable in ways that bureaucrats are not accountable. We put forward and maybe criticised at some stage, but in no sense, we held accountable in the public gaze unless there’s been some clear wrongdoing on the part of an official.
That’s an interesting perspective. On that, John Howard’s one of our longest-serving prime ministers, what price did he pay for Iraq in your view?
I frankly don’t think that there’s anything more than the criticism that he received at the time.
Even then, he doubled down. I might misreference this, but I did read it somewhere that even he was asked, and he still believes that it was the right decision to go.
That’s his privilege. I don’t think that the Australian public is any more engaged in the issue now than it was many years ago and probably rather less. In terms of paying a price, I don’t think the issue is that.
Which is something to be paid for.
That’s an interesting, nuanced point. It’s something that I address quite a lot in the show. I make the claim that our leaders send us to war with relative impunity, which is why I wanted to touch on that point. As much as it is the political cycle, etc., they’re being held accountable, and the accountability is certainly not as great. This is where I talk about the reasons we go to war.
We hold our soldiers accountable for the way they conduct war but certainly don’t hold our leaders to the same level of accountability as to drag them over a court, for example, whether this was an illegal war or an illegal invasion. Even certainly, the Chilcot Inquiry used that language if I remember correctly. On that note then, Bob, given what you’ve explained about Iraq and Australia’s choices, should Australia have debated this war in Parliament? This goes to the broader question that’s certainly contemporary in Australia at the moment whether the prime minister in the cabinet should hold decision power, whether Australia goes to war, or whether we should debate this in parliament.
When one looks at the Iraq 2003 War, there is a very strong case that there should have been a parliamentary debate about the consequences of engaging in what was effectively a military adventure that lacked a clear strategic objective or realistic strategic objective. That was undertaken in the almost complete absence of consideration of the wider context of that war and its capacity to secure the outcomes that were initially indicated as being a justification for that war.
The larger question of whether parliament should always be involved in debating the deployment of Defence Force personnel I’ll leave to others. I’m not convinced that it would be a requirement for every peacekeeping operation. Although, it is always healthy to have a discussion about what objectives are being served and whether they are credible and appropriate against the wider context of Australian deployments.
We’ve had approaching 70 deployments of Australian Naval vessels now to what is essentially a program in the Western Indian Ocean preventing or seeking to reduce the amount of drug smuggling that goes on in the region. I don’t think that’s ever been the subject of parliamentary debate or discussion. It probably deserves to be because it is absorbing a substantial proportion of Australia’s naval assets. There is a place for parliamentary discussion and debate on some of these questions, whether it needs to take place on every occasion. I’m not entirely. It’s one way or the other.
My only thinking on that would be is that, at the very least, it would prevent the type of decisions and the type of quotes, as you quoted earlier, of a minister saying, “If we wanted official advice, we would’ve asked for it.” At least it would prevent that because then, some members of parliament would want to be informed and would therefore seek the opinions of people like yourself, that would then use the public limelight to show how much they know and how nuanced the understanding of the region is and therefore might elevate, one would hope, our discussion and our understanding of the potential consequences of sending our troops in the conflict.
I’m all about elevating discussion. I do think that we need to ensure that parliamentarians, like business people, the defence force, and a whole range of public servants who undertake business connected to the Middle East, need to understand better the environment in which they are working. Only good can come from that, not only for ourselves but for the Middle East as well.We need to ensure that parliamentarians who undertake business connected to the Middle East understand better the environment in which they are working. Only good can come from that, not only for ourselves but for the Middle East as well. Click To Tweet
It brings up an interesting point about this tension between interest risk values. That’s something that I’d be keen to hear your view on, given that you had to balance that in a very nuanced way. You had to present or pursue Australian interests whilst doing it by using our values. How much do you think this Iraq war or this decision to go clashed with our values in the pursuit of some supposed interests?
It’s arguable whether we’re in no interest anyway, but let’s assume that how the government thought it was in our interest to go, which is what we’re being told broadly speaking that both Afghanistan and Iraq were all about the alliance with the US. How much does that clash with the Australian values that you worked so hard to uphold, promote, and project to the region?
I have to look at that in several different dimensions. At a practical level, during my time as ambassador, I was an ambassador in Jordan during the first Gulf War. Our engagement in conflict has not been seen in the region as a significant part of our approach to the region. In fact, Australia has an extraordinarily fortunate absence of historical baggage as far as the region is concerned. We’re not seen as having political agendas in the region.
We are seen as being a reliable partner in trade. We have useful experience in areas that are directly relevant to the region, such as agriculture and dryland farming. We are seen as being honest and straightforward in our dealings, and we are, most of the time. When we committed forces at various times, this did not attract much attention in the election. For those who were aware of it, in my experience, it tended to be seen as something which was part and parcel of being in alignment with the United States but as something imposed upon us rather than something for which we were particularly anxious to do.
What do you mean imposed on us? That’s an interesting word to use.
The Jordanians used to say, “We understand,” in that situation in dealing with the United States. They were being a little bit disingenuous in their interpretation of what we were doing. Nevertheless, from their point of view, if you are close to the United States in so many ways, then there will be obligations upon you to which you have to respond. It’s not something that would attach a sense of particular antipathy or anger from their side. It is that perception of Australia as being outside the cauldron of the region if you like. That does stand to our advantage.
We have built up connections to the region in intelligence sharing, security, and some military connections, which have been quite useful for Australia over the last many years. Force protection requirements and so on have led us into areas of cooperation, which have served Australia’s interests, but it’s still seen as an adjunct to our principal purpose in the region.
On the larger question of how one reconciles between our values and that military engagement, quite frankly, it’s not something that has been a major problem for us because, as I said, firstly, our role was minor compared to others. Where we have deployed, it has been to countries that, in the case of the facilitation, have roles in the Emirates, Kuwait, and so on. It’s been regarded in positive terms by those countries.
In the case of Iraq, we have had such a low profile serving in an area that was less exposed to conflict than many other parts of Iraq that the question of whether we were there for the right reasons and whether we were there with a full understanding of the complexity of Iraqi society and the damage that was being done to Iraq, as a result of what happened in 2003 onwards, hasn’t impacted upon our interests all that greatly.
I found during my time in Iraq, and I’m nowhere near as worse in the culture as you are, that most people had no idea that Australians had deployed to Iraq or even Afghanistan. That’s in my dealings with many Iraqis who were all dealing with international organisations, the likes of the UN and European Union, which to me was an interesting insight perhaps as to why. That’s what you’re alluding to as well. We had a relatively small footprint, and we didn’t get the same sense of ownership of the quagmire that Iraq turned into as perhaps the US did and the UK, to an extent as well. Did Australia have an alternative?
If one looks at the Canadians or most of the Europeans, we had a choice and a careful consideration of the complexity of Iraqi society, and the unlikelihood that an overthrow of the regime would achieve the results that the United States anticipated should have caused ministers to choose otherwise. I’m sure we had a choice. The relationship with the United States could have coped with the absence of Australian participation on the ground in Iraq. I doubt very much that the Americans would have expected us to commit forces to such a venture if we hadn’t been indicating that we were in principle, willing to do so.
We couldn’t have said then that we’re the only ally of the US that has been to every war with them, which is something that Australia in our dealings with the US will cite quite often as a great source of pride. I’m not sure if it’s truly to our advantage. Perhaps to pivot onto another region or another fault line of interest, you spent two years as the Director of External Relations and Public Information for UNRWA. What was that job about? What was it like?
It was focused on trying to raise more funding for UNRWA, which is the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, education, and health and welfare services to supplement the support that UNRWA received mostly from Western country donors. The agency was perpetually in financial strife. The donors of the agency determined that a greater effort needed to be made by UNRWA to build up financial support from the Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, and others.
My role was to drive the agency in that direction. It was a fascinating experience. I thought I had some insights into Arab society and the complexity of the relationship between Arab countries or Arab governments and the Palestinians but trying to raise money for the Palestinians opened up a whole range of new insights into that dynamic. It was a rewarding experience in many ways and a learning experience in others. The agency itself is a remarkable agency. I have never encountered any organisation in the Arab world that is more effective at delivering programs than UNRWA. It is better than any Arab government in delivering its education, health, and other programs.
Despite its funding shortages.
It is extraordinary in its political management of the reality that it could if it so chose be a government within a government in those five places where it operates. It has to manage with considerable tact and sensitivity its relationship with its host governments. Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel all have views on how the agency should conduct its business, but when it comes to raising money from the brother Arabs, all sorts of political and other issues become dragged into the discussion.
Whereas Palestine as an issue is deeply important to Arabs at a popular level because it has connections to senses of historical humiliation, malfeasance by Western governments that recognised Israel and admitted it to the United Nations after 1948, and all sorts of other aspects for which the suffering of the Palestinians genuinely resonates at a popular level.
On the other hand, the Palestinians as an organisation or a body have any number of frictions with the rest of the Arab countries. There’s a resentment that individual Palestinians and Palestinian organisations seek to place a moral obligation on brother Arabs to support them financially too often without public recognition of the support that is offered and even more often without any clear accountability for the funding that is provided.
If there’s any amount of antipathy at a private and personal level toward the behaviour of certain Palestinians and Palestinian organisations, bodies, and so on, that inevitably rubs up against the political and ideological sympathy that exists for the Palestinian cause. Working in that environment was tough, entertaining, and difficult. I learned a lot while very proudly representing the agency to those governments.
You were quite critical of Arafat in the book on a number of occasions. Was he one of those who you bestow some guilt for the failure of the Palestinian cause, institution, body, or organisation to galvanize that support and the funding from its Arab brothers as you as you refer to them?
I can share the blame pretty widely. I wouldn’t single out Arafat as worse than most, but Arafat has to be attributed blame for much of what went wrong during the Oslo period and the collapse of the peace process that finally came about with the Second Intifada. I was never impressed by Arafat. I led the first Australian official discussions with Arafat back in 1979. Whatever his political skills were was important. He was not someone who was disposed toward taking the hard political decisions and enforcing the discipline upon the Palestinian movement that was ultimately required if it was to be an effective player vis-à-vis Israel and the United States.
I’m not going to be so critical of Arafat as to exclude all the other elements that contributed to the failure of the process. One has to acknowledge that he did symbolize and gave Palestinians a sense of dignity and optimism about their futures, but at a consequential strategic level, he was not the man who was going to secure a lasting deal.
On the other hand, you had an absence of the desire and the determination on the part of the Israelis and Arafat to build a political consensus in support of the Oslo process that would enable it to surmount the opposition, that movement toward a solution with the concessions would have to be made by both sides to each other required.
The unwillingness on the part of Israel to combat the settler movement, the daily humiliation of ordinary Palestinians at checkpoints and border crossings, and the indignities that people were needlessly subjected to in the name of security or whatever other pretexts were provided undermined the credibility of the Palestinian leadership when that leadership needed to have the undiluted support of the Palestinian population at large.
You’ve got the extraordinary ineptitude of American diplomacy at critical moments. I take my hat off to the Americans for persevering in trying to get the implementation of deals that had been reached, but all too often, the Americans failed to bring together the qualities of leadership and the use of American power to achieve specific outcomes that the situation required.
The worst of that came at Camp David in July 2000 when without proper preliminary work with the Palestinians and Israelis, without clear American objectives, and without an American determination to apply pressure to Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, as well as to Arafat, the negotiations or the attempt at negotiations at Camp David not only failed but the reason for that failure focused entirely upon Arafat and his unwillingness to respond in any form to what the Americans on behalf of the Israelis put on the table.
That was a catastrophic American failure not only because no agreement was reached, but because the attempt to transfer blame for that failure onto Arafat set in train a pathway which led ultimately to the villainisation of Arafat. When the Second Intifada broke out, there was this sense that Arafat was no longer someone with whom the Americans or the Israelis could reasonably be expected to work. That was unhelpful for all concerned.
I’ll circle back on that with another question, but while we are on this topic, you’ve dedicated a fair bit of the book to the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian challenges. Given what you said and what we know of the conflict, what do you see as the key hurdles that exist that would give peace even an inkling of a chance?
The tragedy of the present situation is that the two-state approach is dead.
Why is that? It’s a powerful statement.
It is as dead as mutton. There is no capacity on the part of the Israelis to remove the level of settler presence that has now developed in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That would make a deal possible with 800,000 Jewish settlers now in those places. Even if only 10% of them refuse to move, there is nothing on the Israeli side that will make them move. No political consensus can be galvanized to bring that about. The presence of those settlers is enough. The security arrangements, the access roads, the sheer physical domination of the landscape, plus their marauding behaviour toward Palestinian villages and so on in their neighbourhood are all factors, which ultimately discredit the Palestinian Authority in the eyes of Palestinians.
What we’re seeing at the moment, the rise of these small groups of armed militias in parts of the West Bank, poses no strategic threat to Israel. What they do threaten is the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to represent the Palestinians going forward with the Israelis. You’ve now got a situation where the two-state approach is dead and gone. Even with Easter coming up, I don’t see a resurrection. There is nothing there to replace it. Neither ideologically nor politically is there a case being made by Palestinians or Israelis to shift to a one-state approach.
Everyone says, “The two-state approach is dead. The only way forward is a one-state approach,” but nobody is prepared to sit down and say, “What would a one-state approach look like in practice? What would it mean for settlers, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and all these other issues of incredible sensitivity that might have been addressed by two strong and confident states dealing with each other, but almost certainly cannot be addressed in the context of a single state in which the Palestinians themselves would have to accommodate very much to the economic, political, and other strengths of the Jewish minority in that state?”
We are entering into a void in a sense where we can’t go back, and we don’t know what the future will look like, but there is no attempt to define a realistic or viable political process that will lead us into something new. The risk of descending into a cycle of mutually degrading blows and counterblows is very real at this point.
It’s scary to think about it because the fact that there is no alternate solution means that it’s status quo, and it’s a game of survival or continuation of the struggle for survival because there is no hope. The only alternative you have is to keep fighting. Here’s a question that strikes me, and I know it’s something that has been discussed elsewhere. Why has Israel enjoyed such unwavering support from the US, especially given the justifiable accusations that what Israel is doing is akin to some of the policies that they escaped from to get to Israel in 1948 and onwards? I’m not comparing the Holocaust with what Israel is doing, but the oppression of minorities and the taking over of land has enjoyed for decades unwavering US support. Why is that?
It’s an analysis of American politics that you’re talking about because the historical record would show that even from the late 1940s onwards, there were voices in the American system, particularly the CIA, casting doubt on the wisdom of supporting certain Israeli policies, including in particular their highly aggressive approach to dealing with relatively minor border incursions, clashes, and so on with Jordan and Egypt. There was a shift in the 1960s toward a much more sympathetic approach to Israel at the political level in the United States.
The rise of the evangelical movement reinforced this, plus the imagery of Israel being the embattled state that somehow rather survived the odds in 1967. It all contributed to a very positive imagery of Israel which has become ingrained in American thinking about Israel and the support it deserves from the United States, but it’s not a fixed picture.
What we are noticing is a decline in the level of sympathy for Israel, particularly among the Democrats in the United States, that mirrors the rise in the United States of movements like Black Lives Matter and other social phenomenon in the United States, which can identify more easily with the Palestinian situation than with the traditional narrative about Israel being under threat and so on.
You’ve got the gradual secularization of societies, including in the United States, at the same time that you have the evangelical movement, but the Evangelical element is itself gradually losing support among a younger generation of Americans as well. Not only do you have fewer American Jews who regard themselves as duty-bound to support Israel come what may, but you also have less automatic support across the American population. The Catholics and Presbyterians are gradually easing back on that level of support. It’s almost unrecognisable from the 1960s to what it is now.
The Israelis face a very real question about how to preserve a narrative that doesn’t sit easily with the values of a younger generation of Americans. The turmoil that we see at the moment doesn’t help the Israelis either, particularly if those voices demanding the defence of democracy and so on ultimately fail to overcome the momentum of the religious right in Israel under the patronage of Mr. Netanyahu.The Israelis face a very real question about how to preserve a narrative that doesn't sit easily with the values of a younger generation of Americans. Click To Tweet
He’s been around long enough. He’s somebody who stands out as well as somebody who has courted the religious fundamentalist in the US as allies needing your support, which speaks strongly to this domestic agenda in the US that it’s political suicide to shift your position on Israel in any meaningful way. Somebody like Mr. Trump exploited that by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, which is biblical. It has biblical references to the Second Coming. You’ve made references to Easter and the resurrection. We might laugh at it as secular people, but in the US psyche or a significant portion of the US population, these biblical prophecies play a political role in voting and who stays in power. Am I wrong?
It’s a tricky business because you have an element in the American evangelical community that sees their responsibility as proselytizing and converting Jews to Christianity, yet among the radical right in Israel, there are calls to make such missionary work illegal. You’ve got the deeply conservative religious elements in Israel that have a very antagonistic view of the reformist Jewish element in American Jewish society and even the conservative part of it because, in Israel, there is this desire not to allow converts to Judaism to migrate to Israel if those converts are not going to be supportive of the deeply conservative religious right.
There are all sorts of tensions at play for Israel in its dealings with the American Jewish community. There’s this growing secularization of the Jewish community in the United States, which takes pride in its Jewish identity but stops well short of translating that into political support for Israeli policies and indeed quite often identifies the humanistic tradition of Judaism, which is very powerful with the criticisms of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians under occupation. It’s an open question what that relationship between Israel and the United States will look like 10 to 15 years from now. I don’t see Israel being able to wind things back to a more comfortable relationship than it enjoyed years ago.
That’s a wait-and-see. I imagine most of the Middle East is keeping a close eye on how that unfolds. One other hotspot, and there are many in the Middle East, is Iran and Iran’s relationship to the West, in other words, to the US. Firstly, where is that relationship in your view now? How do you see that moving forward?
The abandonment by the United States of the nuclear deal with Iran will go down as one of the most significant failures of American strategic policy in the post-war period. The likelihood of the United States being able to avoid a situation in which Iran becomes nuclear-capable was diminished by the American decision, which weakened the monitoring capacity of the IAEA and damaged the credibility of those forces within the Iranian regime that was prepared to argue the case for a more constructive approach to dealing with the United States, the West, and in some ways, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
The current leader in Iran still despite reports of health problems enjoys full control over the principal levers of power in that regime. His anathema or attitude to the United States is profoundly negative. There’s no sign of that changing either. There is some prospect of Iran and the Saudis. If the Saudis accommodate Iran, so too will the remainder of the Arab states, but the delivery of the outcomes that are required for that to happen is not entirely within the control of either the Saudis or the Iranians.
In particular, I’m thinking of the Houthi regime in Yemen and also the behaviour of actors in the Iraqi context who are capable of at least undermining on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command attempts at building a more normalised relationship with the Saudis. We can’t make a judgement on how this is going to work out until we see how events unfold in Yemen, and whether the capacity of the elements that will be opposed to a normalisation of dealings between Saudi Arabia and Iran to persuade the leadership of Iran to back off, or a productive relationship with Saudi Arabia comes to fruition.
The Chinese have been astute to present themselves as mediators between Iran and Saudi based on the close economic ties that China has with both countries, but the Chinese will find themselves somewhat unusually for themselves to be expected to deliver as a mediator, some elements of the package, particularly in regard to Yemen, may be beyond the Chinese capacity to achieve. They don’t have any known connections to the Houthis.
Their connections to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command are not something I’m able to speculate upon. It could well be that the Chinese are bitten off more than they could chew in all of this, but we will see. It’s interesting. It’s in many ways a natural thing for the Chinese to take advantage of an opportunity of a perceived decline in American influence as distinct from military capacity over the region, but whether they will be found to come up short is a very open question.
It’s an interesting one, particularly the point about whether the perception of perhaps waning US influence in the region proves to be accurate as an assessment or not. In Israel, there’s a waning interest or support. We have seen the withdrawals out of the Middle East in one way or another or the lack of engagement by the US in Syria. Is that Chinese calculation wrong in your view?
The Americans will remain the major military power in the region. No one will come close to having the capacity to deliver military power effectively greater than that of the United States. The issue is the influence and perceptions of US credibility. That has been on the decline in my view from the time when Obama failed to enforce the red line that he claimed he saw in Syria in the use of chemical weapons. It was hastened by Trump’s demonstrated unwillingness to engage in an open-ended clash with the Iranians over the Iranian missile strikes on Abqaiq oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Anyone who looks at the United States at the moment, leaving aside the debacle in the withdrawal from Afghanistan and so on, there has to be a significant question about whether the United States has the political wherewithal to commit itself to providing an effective umbrella for the countries of the region should those countries decide to engage in a conflict with each other.
Beyond that, you’ve got the question of where the Israelis fit into this and their construction of a relationship with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and so on ostensibly to provide comfort in those countries’ dealings with the Iranians, but there is no way that those Arab countries would countenance an Israeli attack upon Iran for Israel’s purposes, which would under undermine the capacity of those Arab states to continue toward a predictable and mutually tolerable relationship with Tehran. It’s not as though the Israelis could, in 1 or 2 days, remove an Iranian nuclear capability. You’re talking about a campaign that would extend for weeks if not months. The damage that would do to the willingness of the Arab states to be a party to that process would be enormous.
What you’re highlighting here is the complexity and the nuance that is required to even begin unpacking the Middle East as a region. It highlights why the risk of ministers from Western nations or any nation, even China, as you made a point, becoming involved without a thorough understanding of the problems, the dynamics, and the interpersonal relationships between all the different social groups that exist in the region is brought with danger and why we ought to be talking to and listening to people like you who comes with a Western set of eyes but has come to live and embody the Middle East or understand the Middle East as a local perhaps would, which the title of the book echoes somewhat. I want to give you an opportunity. Given the broad spectrum of issues and topics we have covered, is there anything else that stands out to you as paramount to understanding the region?
It’s important for us to appreciate the ambivalence that exists in the region toward dealings with Western countries generally. There is a long historical memory that has very much shaped Arab identity in a sense that they have not been treated with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled. The credibility of Western commentary about the importance attached to relationships and so on needs to be measured against that collective memory.
The best way in which one can deal with that problem is through a heightened level of personal contact at all levels, whether it’s agricultural engineers working with their Arab counterparts on irrigation techniques or ministers of defence talking about basing facilities. The critical thing that will be required if productive and durable outcomes are to be achieved is a sense of mutual confidence and respect between the principal actors. The only way in which you can do that is by extending the courtesy of visits and being prepared to set aside the time required for people to have a sense of personal engagement.
There is an abundance of goodwill toward Australia in the region. We do not carry historical baggage that others do. We are seen as potentially useful sources of expertise. Arabs like our style. We are direct in what we do, but we are respectful in how we go about our dealings. That is pretty much how both leaderships and ordinary citizens want a relationship to be. They don’t want to be lectured. We need to do more listening to what others see as their rights and their concerns. We need to be responsive where we can to those interests, but most of all, we need to be known as what we are in that part of the world because we do have interests there.
We cannot afford to ignore the Middle East. It may not rank as our highest priority, but the events that take place there and the very challenging future that it faces will pose security and other problems as well as opportunities for us. It’s in our interests to engage with those countries, governments, and societies with a view to that. One thing that I have realised over 50 years of working in the region is that if you turn your back on the Middle East long enough, it will surely bite you on the bum.If you turn your back on the Middle East long enough, it will surely bite you in the bum. Click To Tweet
What an insightful way to finish this conversation. Here’s my last question for you. What’s next for you? What are you doing at the moment?
I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time down at Mollymook harassing a few snappers and generally reflecting on where the world has reached. I’m going to take it easy for a few months and think about what I’ll do next.
Deservingly so. What a wonderful career you’ve had. Thank you for doing what you’ve done and also for capturing so many of your lessons in this book. Some of the blurbs at the front by quite prominent Australians make it very loud and clear. It should be almost requisite reading for any diplomats or anybody that seeks to represent Australia in the Middle East. On that note, Bob, thank you very much for giving me so much of your time. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation as I thought I would. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as well. Thank you very much.
Thanks, Maz. I enjoyed very much our chat. Good luck with the rest of the show.
Thank you so much.