Spook with a conscience

Ex-CIA man, Robert Baer, is disillusioned with the US’ current agenda in the Middle East. Speaking to Massoud A. Derhally, he argues that Western perceptions of the Arab world bear little relation to things on the ground.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  March 6, 2005

Spook with a conscience|~|CAUSE-FOR-REBELLION-200.jpg|~|CAUSE FOR REBELLION: Despite being a former ‘Agency’ man, Baer’s opinions differ starkly from those perceived to be held by the CIA.|~|HE’S NOT exactly the type of person you’d think of when you think of the CIA, but that’s exactly why Robert Baer is no longer in the Agency. After growing up in Aspen, Colorado, Baer was sent by his mother to military school. In 1976, after graduating from the revered School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, he joined the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) as a case officer. Like most of his peers, Baer started off at the training school of the CIA, referred to as the ‘Farm’. He then learned his Arabic in Tunisia and was later stationed in various parts of the Arab world throughout his 20-year career. Of all the clandestine and covert operations that took him to hotspots in Beirut and Northern Iraq, it was Baer’s involvement in Iraq after the Gulf War in 1991 that led to his departure from the organisation. After playing a salient role in the CIA’s failed 1995 attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Baer — who is vehemently anti-Bush — quit the CIA and wrote his first book, See No Evil, in which he documents his experiences while working for the Agency. The book, which has subsequently been made into a Warner Brothers motion picture, Syriana [to be released next November], was filmed in Dubai and casts George Clooney as Baer, with Matt Damon in a supporting role. For the part, Clooney had to gain 20lbs and totally change his appearance. But it is unlikely even Clooney could come close to understanding just what kind of life Baer has led. Now that he’s out of the CIA, 52-year-old Baer is quite vocal about how the Bush administration has conducted itself in the Arab world and in Iraq, which he believes already exhibits all the hallmarks of a country in a civil war. “When you are setting off car bombs in front of Shiite mosques, it’s a civil war and it’s only going to get worse,” says Baer. “You talk to the Saudis and they say if Al Anbar province in Iraq comes under threat we are going to have to intervene either covertly or directly — they have no choice. People in Ramadi and Fallujah are related to people in Saudi Arabia, either by marriage or tribal affiliation, and when this comes really unglued Gulf Arabs are going to have to go in and help.” For the moment, the solution Baer proposes for Iraq is one that has been tabled in the West but not accepted in the Arab world, namely federalising Iraq. Breaking the country up like Yugoslavia may seem harsh, but “it’s already broken”, says Baer. The problem in his view is that Iraq fell apart after the US destroyed the Iraqi army and disbanded what was left of it. It’s no surprise then, says Baer, that the oppressed Kurds and Shiites will want to take their revenge. “You can’t separate who was part of the regime and who wasn’t in that part of the world. There is so much animosity,” he says. Baer believes the administration in Washington is out of touch when it comes to understanding the fabric of countries in the Middle East and the changing dynamics present ed by the ongoing turmoil in Iraq and elsewhere. “The amazing thing about this conflict, which Washington doesn’t understand, is the maturity of Iran and the Shiites, because the US invasion was entirely to their benefit,” explains Baer. “If they [Iranians] are patient they will win this; [it’s] something that they have been fighting for for centuries. Iraq will become predominantly a Shiite Muslim country with crucial ties to Iran. This is what the Iranians are expecting,” says Baer, adding, “The Iraqi Shiites are going to depend on Iran to survive, even if those in power are secular Shiites.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s recent article in the New Yorker, which alleged that Washington had plans to carry out covert operations in Iran against the country’s nuclear facilities is a case in point says Baer, when it comes to America missing the bigger picture. “There is this make-believe world in Washington that the US can ultimately change the regime in Iran and have it return to the days of a secular Iran that would be the policeman of the Gulf,” says Baer. “And that one day there will be an Iran that allies itself with Israel,” he adds. Baer points out that the periphery theory, that Iran, Turkey and Israel will maintain stability in the Arab world, is not a new one. But going to war with Iran is farfetched says Baer. “They know they can’t go to war with Iran because there aren’t enough troops. [But] you have the Israelis who are determined to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The most telling element to come out of the war in Iraq and post-9/11 is Bin Laden’s statement where he drew a correlation between Lebanon and the US. “He thought about attacking the US when he watched Beirut being bombarded in 1982. It’s this kind of injustice, unfairness, its not poverty or unemployment, or that people are getting a bad deal that leads to people retaliating with the means they have, which is terrorism,” explains Baer. Commenting on Bush’s inauguration speech, Baer says it has all the markings of imperialism and questions the present agenda of spreading freedom and democracy. “When has democracy been imposed on a country from the outside, militarily? Never. It’s the Arabs problem when they want to democratise and when they want to have revolutions. This whole ideology of liberal democracy is the neo-conservative philosophy.” These remarks are not exactly what one would expect from CIA officials. For many people, the Agency is associated with dubious activities that undermine the national security of other nations or are engaged in helping certain regimes keep their hold on power, Chile under Pinochet being a prime example. When asked why he seemed to be on an entirely different wavelength than customary government officials, Baer pulls no punches. The difference in point of view, he says, is related to him being on the ground. “These [US officials] have never been to the Arab world. Look at Bush; look at Wolfowitz, who was in Indonesia. He doesn’t have an idea of how the Gulf works, not the slightest idea. You see the lies. Look at Algeria; the US firmly supported the crushing of that democracy,” explains Baer. “Is an Islamic democracy not the democracy we like? Do we want [it] in Saudi Arabia? No. You don’t see them going pounding on the Saudis’ doors. It’s hypocritical. How can you rip up the Geneva Convention, the rule of international law, and turn around a couple of months later and talk about liberal democracy and the rule of law? It's crazy,” he adds. Being in touch with the Arab world comes down to immersing oneself in the region, says Baer, and it's something he says present administration officials have been unwilling to do so far. “If you spend enough time in these cultures you begin to understand them and what’s possible. You can’t go to Lebanon today and impose democracy, because the only effective political party in that country that is not 100% corrupt is Hezbollah. Do we want democracy there and have Hezbollah take over? Probably not, but the only effective fighting force in the Middle East is Hezbollah. Do you want democracy in Syria? You would get the Muslim Brotherhood to come back and they’d be massacring the Allawis,” explains Baer. Perceptions of Syria in the US are misconstrued by the dynamics of Capitol Hill and agendas of individuals, says Baer. “The Baathist party is a secular party, but here [in the US] they tend to view it as a fascist party and they equate [that] with Hitler’s Germany and it's crazy.” Syrians, adds Baer, “aren’t anymore ideological than anyone else and they are certainly not fascist. It’s a minority regime. But those kind of pragmatic facts are not accepted in Washington, because people who are closely associated with Likud in Israel drive much of its ideology”. And such an ideology manifests itself in the information chain up to the White House says Baer, with little chance of the President being presented with all the facts. “It’s completely filtered down the National Security Council,” he says. “People like Elliot Abrams (White House Middle East Advisor) and Condi Rice (US Secretary of State) will filter out the bad news or they will go to the CIA like they did on the weapons of mass destruction … I knew when this war was going on we didn’t know [anything] about WMDs. I was the deputy of Iraqi operations; I knew that we knew nothing. Yet they put on paper that they knew. It was cooked, [they] cooked the books,” Baer adds firmly. There aren’t that many differences between Washington and a third-world African country, says Baer; “Washington is run like a Banana Republic — it’s about money and politics.” The chances are that Baer’s forthcoming movie will make many waves. ||**||

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