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West meddling in Mideast 'kiss of death'

By Maksud Djavadov, PRESS_URL, Vienna

An interview with Dr. Karin Kneissl, one of Europe's most insightful scholars on Middle Eastern politics. Dr. Kneissl is a teacher of International Relations at Webster University in Vienna, and a guest lecturer at universities in Lebanon and Germany.

Previously she was a Professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, University of Vienna and IMADEC University. She has served in the Foreign Service of the Republic of Austria (i.e., the political section, office of the Legal Adviser: Department of Human Rights, Cabinet of the Federal Minister,) at the Austrian Delegation to UNESCO in Paris, the Austrian Mission to the UN (UNOV) in Vienna, and at the Austrian Embassy in Madrid, Spain. She has just recently had published an analytical book on the Middle East The Cycle of Violence between Orient and Occident. Dr. Kneissl has shared some of her insights with our reporter in Vienna, Austria.

Q: Do you think the EU as an organization is becoming more and more centralized or decentralized?

A: It's a difficult question. Well, with the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaty when the European Community turned into the European Union, actually the momentum was more toward inter-governmental cooperation rather than integration. That was so because the member countries were realizing that through these treaties too much power went to Brussels; they wanted to stop that - therefore I think this lead to more decentralization.

Actually, I think that you cannot fully define the EU as an international organization or a federation, its something in between. Actually, many people don't want it ever to become a federation. However, in certain areas it's still possible to say that the EU has really centralized, this would include agriculture. In other areas - such as energy politics, foreign affairs and security issues - it is NOT centralized, because these matters are the most important symbols of state sovereignty. Many EU member states are not willing to give up their most important attributes of state sovereignty.

Q: Interestingly you mentioned foreign policy and energy as symbols of sovereignty. It's understandable why foreign policy is a sign of sovereignty, but how is it that along with that you mentioned energy?

A: The reason I linked foreign policy and energy together is because energy is the precondition for any economy to work. The EU is energy dependent. We import most of our energy from outside. Therefore it's closely related to our relations with other states. This can change if we autonomously produce energy, but I don't think this will take place at any time in the near future.

Q: You mentioned that the EU imports most of its energy, where does it import its energy from?

A: Most of our oil comes from the Middle East; most of our gas comes from Russia and North Africa. The EU wants to diversify its energy imports. By this I mean that they do not want to be dependent on any one particular area of the world for energy import.

Q: Do you think that the EU has specifically chosen unattainable goals for Turkey so as to prevent it from entering into the EU? Is the EU serious in its negotiations with Turkey?

A: I think the conditions for Turkey are the same as for any other country which wants to enter the EU; these conditions cannot actually be called negotiations. The reason for that is because there are agreed upon standards based on which the state is admitted into the EU. The states which want to be part of the EU have to meet them. However, for example, in the case of Turkey adapting certain parts of its legislation would be harder then, let's say, for Croatia. But the goals are not unattainable.

Q: Do you think it is realistic to believe that Turkey will become an EU member?

A: It's very hard to say for me because even if Turkey does achieve all of its legislative reforms in accordance with the EU standards, there are other areas where a lot of work and reform must be done. On the other hand, we have some EU member states openly proclaiming their opposition to Turkey's entrance into the EU. Some states clearly stated that they will put this matter on a national referendum and if one of the EU member countries says that we do not want Turkey in the EU, the entire process of Turkish admission will be put into limbo. I think such an approach in dealing with Turkey is not an honest one. Therefore, I think it may happen that in two or three years Turkey will say that it does not want to join the EU anymore. I have also observed less and less enthusiasm in Turkey about joining the EU.

Q: Will Turkish intervention in Iraq further decrease its chances of becoming an EU member?

A: Yes, it definitely will decrease its chances for entering the EU simply because one of the criteria of entering the EU is not to be in armed conflict and have the rule of law.

Q: As you know one of the hot issues being discussed in the region currently is the US Congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide. There were many editorials published in the Middle East saying that one of the reasons for such a harsh resolution against a very sensitive issue for Turkey is the results of the last parliamentary elections where the Turkish population by voting for the AK party shifted its path towards an Islamic identity. Do you think that one of the reasons for this resolution is to signal Turkey to be careful in its choices?

A: I think the issue of the Armenian genocide is not linked to the last elections. It is purely a matter related to the influence of the Armenian lobby in the US and elsewhere. For example, this issue had been in the French parliament two years ago which was before the current elections.

Q: How do you think the EU reacted towards the last parliamentary election results in Turkey?

A: The EU reacted calmly. The outcome of the election was expected. Actually I think that this kind of government was pushed more by the United States of America rather than by the Europeans. The reason for this is that the US wants to show that AKP party is the right model of an Islamic party. I personally don't think that the AKP party is a typical model of an Islamic party. The US and Britain, who pushed for the AKP victory wanted to show that the path for all Islamic parties to follow was the path taken by the AKP.

Q: Do you think that the EU is mistaken in coming closer and closer towards the US position on some crucial issues in the ME; specifically in relation to its approach towards the democratically elected HAMAS government and the Iranian nuclear issue?

A: I think there is no clear European position. There is a position of states who are members of the EU. Some of those states are keener in following the coercive diplomacy of the US and some are less keen. For example today the French government is much closer to the US then the previous government, but this can change because governments come and go. Italy and Spain totally defected from the US camp of coercive diplomacy. Five years ago the US could totally count on Madrid and Rome in their support, but today Italy and Spain are not in favor of the American coercive diplomacy.

We must also take into account that public opinion in the EU is against any sort of military intervention in the Middle East. However, there is a big gap between the public opinion and the European governments. For example, the European public is not interested in who HAMAS is and who Fatah is, but they see the injustices being done to Palestinians and they are against that. Nevertheless, the EU governments and specifically Germany and Austria will not take a clear-cut position against Israel because of the so called shadow of the Second World War.

However, such positions weaken the credibility of the EU in the region. For example, the EU approach towards the HAMAS victory in the parliamentary elections in 2006 was of a kind which harmed its credibility. The EU basically openly said that we acknowledge the fairness of the elections and their results, but we will not recognize them because we don't like HAMAS. Such an approach toward HAMAS seriously harms the credibility of the EU. The west can say a hundred times “Be more democratic, treat women better, be nice to your environment” and so on, but if we don't act according to our own standards, then we loose our credibility. However, I think in relation to HAMAS the EU is on the move, but it is not yet totally clear towards which sort of position they will lean.

Q: As you have seen in the past 10 years, there is a strong Islamic revival in the Middle East. As a person who is familiar with the roots of political issues in the Middle East I would like to ask you if you think that the EU and the West [NATO members] in general are ready to deal with the increasing political power and popularity specifically of Hezbollah, The Muslim Brotherhood and HAMAS? Do they want to deal with them?

A: I think they have no clue how to deal with them. Well, let me mention Hezbollah as an example with which I am more familiar. The EU does not regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The US regards Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and this is one of the major disagreements between the EU and the US. I remember during last year's war in Lebanon at one of the press conferences which I attended, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU Javier Solana stated that the “EU does not regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.” The Italian government throughout the war had contacts with Hezbollah to arrange a cease fire.

When it comes to other Islamic movements stretching from Southeast Asia to North Africa, the west and the EU has a case by case approach. In some cases it gets involved where it has interests and in other cases they don't care. However, if you compare the EU and the US, the US gets involved much more often. In the past the US supported many of the Islamic movements; this was so even after the Cold War because the US saw them as some sort of a deterrent to whatever other “evil” forces they saw.

In general, when the West gets involved with political movements in the Middle East, it's often a “kiss of death” situation as was the case with the PLO. Many years ago the PLO was taboo in the West. Then, when the West embraced them and the PLO embraced the West, the PLO lost a lot of its credibility. I personally think that the main thing the EU and the West should not do is interfere, specifically with the election results as they did in Algeria in 1991 by supporting the military takeover, or as they recently did in the Palestinian territories by isolating HAMAS. It's up to the people to vote for whom they want to vote for.

Q: Do you foresee a major shift in the arena of Arab politics in the near future; do you think any major leadership or policy changes will take place?

A: Yes I think transition will take place simply because of biology. Old people pass away. For example, such change can happen in Egypt. If the son of President Mubarak cannot take over, then slowly an evolutionary change can happen in Egypt, maybe towards the Muslim Brotherhood which is the best organized political movement.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, the West lost a lot of its credibility by not acting according to its own standards. Do you think that the West will start to act in accordance with its own standards and ideals?

A: We had a strange and not so bright experience practicing “moral” politics which in reality was not “moral” politics, because in general I personally believe that there are no morals in politics, but instead interests. Therefore today the policies are interest-driven, because we are not acting in accordance with our own standards as we have witnessed in Algeria and recently in Palestine. This should not be so, because if it continues, the extremist forces will have grounds to convince people to join their side.

Q: Do you personally believe in moral politics?

A: I believe that there must be a general framework of morale in politics which must include honesty and the principle of not doing to others what you don't what to be done to yourself.

Q: What are the chances of a US attack on Iran in your opinion? What specific steps do you think China and Russia will take if the US attacks Iran?

A: I think that a military attack on Iran will not happen unless there is some crazy decision making in Washington. I see the talk of war right now as a sort of psychological war. However, unfortunately things happen out of coincidence and not because they were planned. But if some crazy decision does take place and the war with Iran does start then I think the Chinese and the Russians will react harshly. We already see that these two countries are opposed to a third set of UN sanctions. They did agree on the previous two sets of sanctions because they were very light. The Chinese can apply economic pressure on the US. Today, the United States of America is in a very bad economic situation. If the Chinese simply refuse to buy the US dollar bonds, that alone can bring the US to its knees.

Q: In what direction is the issue of the Iranian nuclear program going now?

A: I think its going in the direction of a diplomatic stalemate. I think a big mistake that the Americans have made is that they took the Iranian nuclear program issue out of the IAEA and gave it to the UN Security Council. The US should have known that they cannot do much to Iran through the UN Security Council. By keeping it at the level of the agency (the IAEA) they could have saved face on the diplomatic field.

Q: Are you saying that diplomatically the US is leading itself into a dead end?

A: Well, diplomacy was never the strength of the US. If the US wants to gain a diplomatic victory and the ability to use the UN Security Council against Iran then they need the Chinese and the Russians. They should do their outmost not to annoy the Chinese and the Russians. However, they are doing the opposite. They are irritating the Chinese by inviting the Dalai Lama and annoying the Russians with the missile defense shield.

Q: Many leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement member countries have often proposed a change in the structure of the UN Security Council. The latest leader to do so was President Ahmadinejad. Mr. Ahmadinejad stated that “The present structure and working methods of the Security Council, which are legacies of the Second World War, are not responsive to the expectations of the current generation and the contemporary needs of humanity.” He suggested that “the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the African continent should each have a representative as a permanent member of the Security Council, with veto privilege.” Do you think the current UN Security Council structure can be changed without a major war?

A: The restructure of the UN Security Council has been under debate for over 15 years now. There exists a panel which worked on the restructuring issue and they have submitted some nice recipes even on how to reform the UN charter and not just the UN Security Council. However, we have not yet seen any of it in action. I believe that we should merge the seat of France and Britain on the UN Security Council into one EU seat and have more countries in the UN Security Council. However, those who have power now will not give it up so easily.

I fear that in case we might face a military confrontation of global dimension, as you mention, such a war would destroy the entire UN-system as a whole as it happened to the League of Nations during the Second World War. Given the degree of armament, the overkill factor in the nuclear arsenals and the many other weapons of mass destruction existent in so many states, humankind would suffer from such a war in a horrible way.

Albert Einstein once said: “I don't know what World War III will look like, but the next war after WW III people will fight again with stones.” So my sincere hope is that all decision-makers are aware of the risk in launching wars of such a dimension. We have simply rented this planet earth from the next generation and it is our obligation to hand it over to the children in a responsible way. We are condemned to work together peacefully if we wish to survive in a decent way.

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