burning flag
target america
hometimelineinterviewsdiscussionislamic terrorism

photo of hisham melhem

Hisham Melhem is a Lebanese journalist who works as Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir. He also reports for Al-Qabas, a newspaper based in Kuwait, and for Radio Montecarlo. In this interview, Melhem reviews the evolution of Arab and Muslim nations' perspective on United States policies and actions in the Middle East, especially during the U.S. intervention in Lebanon during the 1980s. He also explores how Osama bin Laden and his contemporaries differ from the militant Islamic movements such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, which confronted the Reagan administration. Interview conducted late September 2001.

hisham melhem

Give us a review of some of the different opinions of Arab nations and Arab people towards the events of Sept. 11, 2001. What effect do you think it's had on their views of America?

The way Arabs reacted really covered the whole spectrum of feelings. It was a mixture of feelings. Revulsion, fear, disbelief. Fear, because instinctively they felt that this is going to hurt a great power, and that great power is going to lash out. That's one.

There was a disbelief because there's this view, which is very exaggerated, in the Arab and Muslim world about America as the omniscient and the omnipresent power, about the ability of American institutions, including intelligence agencies, to know practically everything. This is a stereotypical view of America that knows everything in the world. That's why it's difficult for some people to believe that the United States can be so vulnerable that a bunch of people can use a mixture of primitive means, as well as technical skills, to carry out such a horrendous act. ...

Looking back at the early days, all the way from the early 80s for instance, was this event to be expected? Is this the latest in a natural progression toward some goal?

If you allow me just a brief history here. For more than a century there was a huge reservoir of goodwill towards the United States throughout the Arab and Muslim lands, for a variety of reasons. Chiefly among them the fact that the United States had no colonial legacy in the Arab and Muslim world. Unlike the Brits, the French, the Portuguese and the Spaniards and the Italians, the United States was seen as an benevolent power ... as the country that built great educational institutions in the Arab world, principally the American University of Beirut, which was established in the mid-1860s. Later on the American University in Cairo. These universities, particularly in Beirut, graduated thousands and thousands of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans. Many prime ministers, many great businessmen, many intellectuals -- and some terrorists who tormented the United States later on -- got their degrees from the American University in Beirut.

Now, this view of the United States began to change in the mid-'50s. Actually, it began to change in 1948 with the immediate American embrace of the new Jewish state that was established in Palestine. ... The downward slide began in 1967 with America's embrace of Israel's victory [in the Six Day War], and the beginning of the military relationship. Then, in the eyes of many Arabs, the United States became the facilitator of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and the supporter of Israel as the new superpower in the region.

Then you add to that, of course, in the following decades the problems in Iraq, the [sanctions.] The Arabs don't call the sanction regime a sanction regime, they call it Al-Hisad, which is "the blockade" or "the siege."

Of course, you add to that other reasons such as the American support for autocratic, repressive regimes in the Arab world. Some of these countries are very close to the United States, they're allies of the United States. And these countries do not respect the basic human, civil, political rights of their own people. They deprive their own people from organizing, even in peaceful ways. And, therefore, many people see that these regimes can stay in power only because of the American support. ...

Where were we in 1981?

From the 1980s until now, what we've seen is the following. For the first time, the United States engaged Arab states and Arab parties militarily. It occurred in Lebanon, when the United States was seen by a large number of Lebanese as another militia -- albeit a great power with great forces -- but, a militia involved in essentially civil war, when the Americans intervened in 1982.

In 1983, you found the Americans bombing Syrian targets in Lebanon, and the Syrians bringing down an airplane and capturing an American pilot. In 1986, you had the American attack on Libya. And then in 1990-91, you had half a million men and women from the West going to the Middle East, going to the Gulf to do battle with a principle Arab power.

So, when you look back in a panoramic way from 1981 to 1991, you've seen this complex, violent, contradictory relationship, multi-faceted relationship, if you will, between the United States and certain Arab states. ...

Israel invades Lebanon in 1982. How does it effect the terrorist threat? And what are the long-lasting effects of that? What does that put into motion?

[The Lebanese militant Islamic group] Hezbollah was created in 1982 following the Israeli invasion. The Israelis felt that by invading Lebanon we can get rid of the PLO ... and we can create the regime in Lebanon that will be dependent on us. They ended up creating a power, Hezbollah, with grassroots support, 10 times tougher than the PLO. And Hezbollah, 20 years later, ended up basically alone -- with some support from Syria and Iran -- driving the Israeli forces from South Lebanon. ...

editor's note
Twice during the early 1980s the United States deployed troops to Lebanon to deal with the fall-out from the Israeli invasion. In the first deployment, U.S. Marines helped oversee the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut. In the second deployment, 1,800 Marines were sent as part of a multinational force after Israel's Lebanese allies massacred civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps in mid-September 1982.

The United States went to Lebanon after the massacres of the Palestinians, because the Americans gave the Palestinian leadership a promise that if you vacate Lebanon, we will protect the Palestinian civilians. That did not occur. When certain Lebanese henchmen, murderers -- under Israeli protection -- went on a killing rampage and killed almost eight hundred men and women, mostly men -- women and children in the camps, the Americans felt guilty ... and they dispatched the Marines to provide some sort of protection.

The Lebanese government at that time gradually pulled the Americans into the Lebanese quagmire. With the passage of time, the mission in Lebanon changed. Then we began to hear your President Reagan ... talking about [Lebanon] in strategic terms, [giving a] sense that this is incredibly important real estate strategically for the United States, when [it] was not. The Americans talked about the Syrian threat ... Soviet intervention and things of that sort. So, the mission which was initially to protect what was left of the Palestinian civilian population, changed gradually, and the Americans began to support the Lebanese army, which was seen as a party to an ongoing civil war.

The Americans began to shell forces that were engaging the Lebanese government and the Lebanese army, which represented one faction of the Lebanese. They were engaged in a military confrontation. The Americans were seen as siding with one side against the other.

What does our involvement, our sending in the Marines to Lebanon, say about our policy toward the Middle East, and our strategy towards dealing with terrorism? What does it say about the view of the administration at that point?

It shows a number of things. It shows that even a great superpower, with great institutions, with an advanced degree of checks and balances can get bogged down in an adventure, without really going through all the potential pitfalls. ...

How did the U.S. become a target in Lebanon?

... The Lebanese government, unfortunately at that time, was very skillful in drawing the Americans into a battle that the Americans really had no interest to be in to begin with. I mean, there were no major American interests that were being threatened, whether by Hezbollah, by the other leftist groups in Lebanon, or by Syria, or by the remaining Palestinian armed groups in other parts of the country. ...

So, why were we there?

If you want to be a little bit harsh, you'll probably talk about the arrogance of power. You'll probably talk about the feeling that we can go in, clean up the situation and come back. We can impose a certain reality because we are a superpower. And we can get away with it. And in certain areas we did get away with it. But, in other places we didn't get away with it. ... The United States suffered a major blow when a few men, literally a few men, blew up the Marine barracks in Lebanon, and ending by killing 241 young American men. It was a major blow to America's prestige. ...

What kind of signals did the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks' bombing send across the Middle East?

It means that, although the United States has a great sway in the region, although most governments in the Arab world are, in many ways, close to the United States, even beholden to the United States, being protected by the United States, nonetheless there are groups of people there who are willing to sacrifice their lives to challenge the United States, if they see that the United States' power has become too enormous for them, or that the United States influence is going to crush their agenda, or crush their vision of the region. ...

The battleship New Jersey shelling after the Beirut incident was an answer that the Reagan administration came up with. What did they perceive this might accomplish? But more importantly, how was this perceived?

Ironically, it was perceived as an impotent gesture, as an impotent act. When I saw the New Jersey firing against those mountains that have existed there since time immemorial, I remember a passage in Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, when on his way to Africa he sees a British ship firing at certain positions of certain rebels there. And the way he describes it is the following: "And there she was firing at the continent."

Just to bring out the irony of it, this tiny ship firing at the continent. It was an act of absolute impotence. The New Jersey did not scare anybody. It did not scare those people in the mountains. And that is ironic. And that's why it didn't work out. And that's why later the Americans had to re-deploy and withdraw.

We're hit hard with the loss of those Marines in Lebanon, and we pull out. What signal does that send? And what effect does it have?

I mean, the American "redeployment" from Lebanon, so to speak, which was a withdrawal, of course, had reverberations throughout the Arab world. Because it was seen by America's friends and America's adversaries as a major event signaling the fact that if the Americans pay a heavy price, they withdraw. Even a small group of people can force a superpower to withdraw.

Now, of course, what you have here is a direct admission that the United States really was not fighting to protect its basic strategic interests in Lebanon, because there were no such interests in Lebanon. You cannot drive the United States easily from the Gulf War, from Kuwait, or from Saudi Arabia. But, you can drive the United States out of Lebanon, out of Somalia. Because the American public will not support a military adventure in those countries when there is no clear-cut American interest to protect. ... What happened in Beirut in '83 can be interpreted as a signal, albeit an indirect signal, to the likes of Osama bin Laden and others that yes, we can challenge the Americans, and we can force them to flee.

Compared to the [the Lebanese militant Islamic group] Hezbollah, for example, or other militant Islamic groups, where does Osama bin Laden fit in? How is he different?

He represents an atavistic reactionary vision of early Islam, taking puritism into its extremes. He doesn't believe in the legitimacy, essentially, of any Muslim government in the world. In that sense, he is unique. But, we've seen self-appointed prophets like him throughout Arab and Muslim history before. ...

He does not represent a movement with grassroots support, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, for instance, or other Islamic groups, from Algeria to Pakistan. So, in that sense, he relies on a small cadre of people. Although some of these guys who did these acts on Sept. 11 do not fit the classic profile of a terrorist. They are not marginalized, they are not poor, they are not uneducated, on the contrary. So, that raises certain questions probably in terms of recruitment, in terms of the mentality of some of these guys.

He doesn't hold sway in the Arab world or in the Muslim world. ... He doesn't command respect among Arab and Muslim clerics. He does not command respect among Arab and Muslim intellectuals. This is a man with a small army, albeit dedicated, who happen to have access to a great deal of funds, and who manage to find a sanctuary in Afghanistan. ...

Define how the goals of bin Laden are different than those of the Hezbollah and thus the tactics different.

Groups like Hezbollah and the other Islamic organizations through the Arab world, especially those organizations that are not involved in any violent acts, they have social and political agendas. They have a constituency they would like to serve. One reason Hezbollah had a degree of legitimacy in Lebanon is the fact that they were providing social, cultural services, medical services, to the downtrodden in the country. The kind of services they would expect the government to provide.

The other reason for the legitimacy is the fact that they were fighting an Israeli occupation in South Lebanon. So, they became 10 feet tall because they were challenging a powerful Israeli occupation force, and at the same time providing social services.

We do not have a situation like that with bin Laden. Hezbollah is not interested in imposing its own vision of Islam on the world, let alone on the Lebanese society. There was a time early on when Hezbollah used to talk about establishing an Islamic republic in Lebanon. You don't see any Hezbollah leader talking about establishing an Islamic republic in Lebanon now. They know it's difficult. ... Lebanon does not have a majority of Muslims or Shiite for that matter. So, they stopped talking about this....

Bin Laden is different. Bin Laden is waging a crusade. He would like to impose his own vision of Islam on everybody else. He believes that the United States is the enemy. He doesn't make a distinction between civilians and military people.

Bin Laden, along with a lot of intellectuals in the Arab world and Muslim world, and even intellectuals in Paris, sees globalization as another manifestation of an American hegemonic project. They exaggerate the impact of this globalization. They see it as an American attempt to deny, or to crush their own very identity. That's why to them there are no limits. That's why to them, something like the attacks on Washington and New York is possible. Because they believe that the American bulldozer is coming, and we have to stop it by any conceivable means, even if those means are horrendous and utterly violent. ...

Bin Laden's also got alliances now. Tell us a bit about what seems to be more of a movement towards different groups coming together and fighting the good fight together.

There is a degree of coordination among these groups; just as there is a degree of coordination among the Arab and Muslim states -- and sometimes Western states -- in combating terrorism, in terms of sharing information and logistics and whatnot. So, you see a front, if you will, if you want to exaggerate a little bit and call it Terror International, in which ... Osama bin Laden has a significant place. ...

One of the failures I think of the Reagan administration is that they believed that state-sponsored terrorism was the issue, that if you take away the states, and their sponsorship, the terrorism will wither on the vine. Is that incorrect?

Those states that are on the American list as sponsors of terrorism, most of them, if not all of them -- and by the way, Afghanistan is not on that list, which is ironic -- those states would think 10 times, not only twice, before they allow a group of people like those 17 to blow up symbols of American power and prestige. Because those states calculate rationally that they will receive the full wrath of the United States. ...

At some point in early 1985, the U.S. undertook covert operations in Lebanon. The CIA supported counterterrorist units. Was that a wise move? Was that a foolish move?

It was a disastrous move. ... There was an attempt at a car bombing in Beirut that killed 80 civilians. Later on it became clear that those who did it were a group of people who were trained by the CIA. The CIA said "This is a rogue operation. We did not approve it." In a sense, they were saying they were freelancers. But, the net result was 80 civilian bodies. And that deepened the hatred for the United States in Beirut.

Why would a Reagan administration end up with the need for involvement of that sort?

Because probably they felt that this is a dirty war. You need to deal with dirty characters, shadowy characters. ...

There's a debate that everybody talks about between George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger. George Shultz's position seemed to always be "you go in and you do what you need to do." This is a situation [where] I would assume covert action is necessary at some point to root out those that are fighting a war in a very different way. These are not battles of the old sort of World War II. These are individuals, rag-tag groups of people that when you're least expecting it blow up you and any civilians that are near you. So, you go in and take them out in any means possible. Why is that wrong? Why was that mistaken in Lebanon?

Even if we're dealing with bona fide terrorists, I would still argue you cannot get rid of terrorism by military means or security means alone. These people grow up in a certain milieu. And there are cultural, political, social aspects to the milieu that they come out of. And unless you deal with the broader picture, and you focus only on security or military means, you may get rid of those immediate terrorists that you're dealing with today, but you run the risk of another generation of terrorists, years later. ...

Covert operations are not a panacea in and of themselves. ... It's not enough. That's why you have to fight terrorism by security means, military means, political means. And you cannot fight it alone. You have to fight it with other interested states. And you have to deal with the environment that allows for the emergence of these kinds of people.

On June 17, 1985, [Ronald Reagan's former national security adviser Robert] McFarlane issues a national security directive that encourages eventually the exploring of relations with Iran, including the sale of arms. Eventually this becomes public. Give us your understanding, or again the view of Arab nations looking at this from afar. What was going on? What signals did it set off?

To begin with, the Americans were dealing with a bunch of wily, cunning, smart men in Iran. Those men in Iran knew that the American president was desperate to solve the hostage crisis in Lebanon. And they knew that they can extract a price from them. And when they smelled that there will be weapons, from whatever source, to help them in the biggest fight of their lives against their Iraqi enemy, they jumped on the opportunity. They knew that they were in a good bargaining position, and they played the games against men in Washington, who had absolutely no idea about the types of men that they were dealing with. They had absolutely no idea about the dynamics in Iran, or/and in Lebanon for that matter. That's why they were drawn into this game, and ended up paying a tremendous price. ...

What was the truth? What was the dynamics of the Iranian situation at that point that we did not understand?

... The Americans went into Tehran not knowing very well the players that they were dealing with. Not knowing the extent of their influence in Lebanon. Not knowing in advance to what extent they are willing to go. ...

Were the Iranians playing two games here? What was their influence in Lebanon?

The Iranians were very influential in Lebanon, and obviously people were released when the Iranians received weapons. So, there was cause and effect if you will. So, definitely certain Iranian political figures, religious figures had a great degree of influence over certain elements within Hezbollah at that time. And those people were behind the kidnappings.

Those people were not kidnapped for no reason. I mean, they were kidnapped as a challenge to the United States. And later on when it suited those people in Iran to use the hostages as a currency in their ongoing war with Iraq, and when the offer came from the United States, they jumped on it. ...

What do we know about the Iranians funding the same folks that were blowing up our embassies at this point?

In Lebanon? The Iranians provided training, provided funding, provided political cover, provided intelligence. And they were good, very good in all these areas.

And these were our partners at that point during the sales of the weapons.

See, that's the naiveté. You saw them as your partners, but they didn't see themselves as your partners. I mean, this was opportunism elevated to an art form. Their obsession with [fighting] Iraq at that time, you were willing to give them weapons and they took it regardless of the source. And to them, it was an exchange. It was based on interest, pure and simple. No partnership, no political understandings, no political deals whatsoever. ...

So, what does it say, after five years of give and take and debate in Washington on how to deal with the problems in the Middle East, and state sponsored terrorism, and not being able to deal effectively with other states -- we decide after five years to bring down the military hammer on Libya. What does that say?

Libya is not a key Arab state, so it's probably easier to hit than, let's say, Syrian territory. In 1983 the Americans engaged the Syrians in Lebanon, but they did not hit Syria proper. In 1983 you had a close Soviet relationship [with Syria]. So the Americans would have to think carefully about that. Libya was an easier target, and after the La Belle bombing ... the Americans may have felt that now we have the evidence and we can hit them. And, we can achieve victory.

... Probably the unfortunate attack in 1986 which led to the death of Qaddafi's daughter and other civilians, probably, and I'm just speculating, that was the impetus that ended up in the Pan Am 103 bombing, and the killing of hundreds of Americans and British citizens.

So, the effect of our attack again blew up in our face.

If the Libyans were responsible for Pan Am 103 -- and now we have a ruling by a court -- if that's the case, then one could say this may have been linked to the American attack on Libya which killed civilians in 1986. And that's why, you know, when you combat terrorism you have to always think about the retaliation, too.

But, again, one could argue on the other hand that since that time, since the Americans accused the Libyans of the Lockerbie bombing, since they convinced the international community at the Security Council to slam Libya with tough sanctions, Libyans stopped meddling in terrorism. And there is a case to be made in this area.

If you go back and read the American reports on patterns of global terrorism, they will tell you in the last 10 years probably, or 11 or 12 years, the Libyans were not involved directly in any kind of terrorism. One could argue that by international means, legal means, economic pressure, and occasionally the use of force, you can deal with a state like that.

But how large a victory was that?

... I mean, if the 1986 bombing of Libya was a victory, it was a ... [pyrrhic] victory, because when you link it to Pan Am 103, then it ceases to be a victory, and you could argue that it led to a tragedy for the Americans. Now, after Pan Am one could argue that the United States did succeed in containing Libya, not only by military means, but because it used other legal and economic means, and international means, to put pressure on Libya. So, maybe one could argue the Libyans learned the lesson. ...

What you look at the history you start out with the hostages coming back from Iran, which seems to be a great victory. But, you quickly get into the quagmire of Beirut and Lebanon. You end up, after many attempts in many directions, with Pan Am 103 soon before the administration disappears. Rate the achievement of the Reagan administration to deal with the difficult issue of terrorism.

If the United States was raging a campaign against terrorism in the 1980s, in the Middle East, one could argue that they failed miserably. They did all the wrong things in the case of Hezbollah and the hostages in Lebanon. They ended up bombing civilians in Lebanon. They ended up [arming the] Iranians. They ended up looking like fools. Many people resigned because of the Iran-contra [scandal]. The attacks on Libya really did not change considerably the Libyan behavior until after Pan Am and after the other measures that were imposed on Libya. So, one could argue that the Reagan administration entered into a conflict, or waged a campaign against terrorism without really thinking through the means, the methods, the goals, and the alliances. ...

How did the folk that are now fully involved in the decision-making process, what did they take from the Reagan years, or what can one can assume that they would take? Rumsfeld, for instance?

You have one school of thought represented by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and a number of conservative thinkers and activists in this country that would like to see the United States toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, would like to see the United States acting unilaterally on the international scene, vis-a-vis the ABM Treaty, for instance, or in the Middle East, for instance.

On the other hand, you have a different kind of school represented probably by [Secretary of State] Colin Powell, who is essentially a man, notwithstanding his military background, who thinks in political terms and believes that political problems can be dealt with politically through rational calculus. He's reluctant to use force unless it's absolutely necessary. ... And that's why he's not that enthusiastic about scuttling the ABM, he's not enthusiastic about going it alone in the current fight against terrorism. I think he's counseling the president to work on an alliance that will endure, that will use not only military means, but political, economic, and legal means. So you have two schools competing in the administration now.

There are people that believe the reason that we were unsuccessful in the past is because we were never able to get at the individuals that are hurting us -- the terrorists, and the sects of the terrorists, and the schools for terrorism -- because of state sponsorship. So now the only way to achieve the goal is through military terms. You go in and if the Taliban refuses to cooperate you take the Taliban out. And you root out this individual who wants to kill off the United States. If you find ties to Iraq, you go back and you do the job right -- it was done wrong to begin with -- and you take down Hussein, and you put in a new government there. Give me your response to that mentality.

It's somewhat fanciful, when you wage war against disparate group of states stretching from South Asia to the Gulf, without clear evidence, without a clear enemy. You go and bomb the Taliban, and the Taliban disintegrates and withers away into the caves and in the mountains. It will be difficult to achieve victory because there will be very little to show for in your campaign if you don't get the corpse of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar [the Taliban's leader], or whatever. ...

So it's a bit fanciful. Yes, the Americans in this current state of anger are justified in seeking retribution, and I think they're correct in seeking retribution if we can define the enemy. Now, of course, Osama bin Laden has been defined as the culprit. The Taliban has been involved and defined as the sponsor. Fine. If you go after them and seek retribution, fine.

And if you come up with clear, convincing evidence against Iraq, show us. And that's what, actually, some Arab states and some Muslim states are asking the United States. Not because they don't want to [join the alliance]. They would like to have at least some sort of a political cover to join the alliance. If you are going to say we are going to lash out against Iraq, against Syria, against Iran, then you can kiss the Arab-Muslim component of the coalition good-bye.

But what about the fear that we've been manipulated in the past by states that have sponsored terrorism against us or against our friends? What about the folks who believe that only through vigorous military activity and over a period of many years are you ever going to root out the individuals that are out to destroy you?

One could argue that you're probably playing into the hands of your enemies. You may win one round, one battle or two or three. But you're not going to eliminate all sorts of violence against the United States or its friends in the region. The Arab world will win the Muslim war. And therefore, if you're going to wage a comprehensive campaign, it has to be really comprehensive, and not solely rely on military means.

And you have to tell the people in the region who is the enemy and you have to tell the people in the region what would you like to achieve concretely. You have to tell the people in the region, "Stand with us, but we will provide you with certain forms of support. We will try to resolve certain political problems. We will try to resolve certain underlining causes for the emergence of this phenomena." That's why just focusing on military means at a moment of anger is not going to resolve anything. ...

Can you think of any other lessons learned from the Reagan years, specifically?

Don't act as an empire that thinks that it can impose its own will any time it wants, anywhere it wants. Avoid acting as an arrogant power. Consult. Talk to the people who are involved. Act not in a unilateral fashion. If you can achieve certain things by going through international organizations, legal means, political means, economic means, pursue it. I agree that this is a major threat, this is a faceless enemy, this is a fight that may require certain unconventional means and ways. But don't act unilaterally. And again, understand the environment that you're stepping into.

How different is this quagmire from the quagmire we stepped in 1982 in Lebanon?

It's bigger, because the people in Lebanon had certain interests that they were defending. Many people in Lebanon were making rational calculations. This is a situation where you're dealing with people who have absolutely nothing to lose, who are not ready necessarily to make rational calculations all the time. People are willing to die just for the cause, whatever that cause is. People in Lebanon or in Iran or in the region in the early 1980s, when they were dealing with the Reagan administration were not as atavistic or as bent on exacting retribution of events from the United States, as Osama bin Laden and his soul mates. So you were dealing with different political animals in the early 1980s than you're dealing with today with this phenomenon of bin Laden and his soul mates. ...

home +  introduction +  interviews +  timeline +  islamic terrorism
lessons from the 1980s +  links & readings +  video +  discussion +  tapes & transcripts
press +  credits
frontline privacy policy +  FRONTLINE +  pbs online +  wgbh

photo copyright © reuters newmedia inc./corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation