BM: What exactly do you see as the relationship between extremism in the Middle East and Islam?
AM: Well, what they are extreme about is Islam. It is a pretty direct relationship. It’s complex because it doesn’t mean that that it is the only way of interpreting Islam, but it is the dynamic Islam of the Middle East, and it’s a shame that when we say extremism, we say it mindlessly, because there is something specific that they are being extreme about.
BM: And is that connected to Islam as a religion or Islam as sociology?
AM: It’s hard to break it down in those terms. We think in those terms but Islam—at least in the Medinan period on—does not see itself in terms of separate spheres of spirituality and secular life. In Sharia societies, as classical Sharia is interpreted, Islam is Islam and it doesn’t have a separate spiritual and political domain. When we say extremism, what they are extreme about is the whole corpus of it, and extremism is a kind of ambiguous word, but I think what mainly it is about is extremism in the literal interpretation of the scriptures on the theory that the scriptures are not just divinely inspired but are the verbatim commands of Allah, and that therefore any departure from them is serious business in the way of punishment. And so that is what I think is the extremism is about and it doesn’t have to be a majority interpretation in order to create a lot of havoc, because its very difficult to discredit if it’s based on the literal scripture.
BM: Yesterday the Iranian foreign minister published an Op-Ed in the New York Times calling on Americans to recognize the mutual aims of the two countries. Do you think there is anything to be said for his point?
AM: I think there are aspects of Iranian foreign policy at the moment that align—maybe align is too strong a word—but that run along the same lines as American foreign policy in the sense that for a long time they were aiders and abettors of Al-Qaeda; now Al Qaeda has metastasized into this Islamic State and Iran actually feels threatened by it, and so for at least this fleeting moment in time, we have a commonality of interests there. But it’s important to remember that that doesn’t go all so deep. For example, in Iraq, where the Islamic State is very strong right now, if we were to introduce ground forces there in addition to whatever air support we’re providing, the Iranians would turn loose the Shiite militias and sell us (just as they did as when we were in Iraq) to target Americans. And that’s not a secret, they’ve actually been quite clear about that. I imagine if you go throughout history, you can probably match up three or four things that all countries have some common interest about, but that doesn’t mean that we are aligned in a really meaningful way.
BM: Speaking of ISIS, how effectively do you think the administration has responded to the threat? Do you think that boots on the ground is a necessary or appropriate policy at all?
AM: I don’t think this is Obama-specific. I think things are worse now than they were before. But the lack of having a strategic vision of the war—and particularly one that can meet the enemy’s vision of the war—has been a problem that goes back three different presidencies. So for example, Al Qaeda thinks it’s fighting a global war, and opens the whole world up to attacks. We try to fight back in Afghanistan and Iraq as if they had this Westphalian idea of nation states and battlefields and tradition and the like. So I don’t think this administration has a strategic vision of the war and they have a more dangerous sense that you end war by simply stopping fighting whereas if you have an aggressor, and you decide that you are going to react to that by stopping, that doesn’t mean you ended the war; it means you lost. And when you lose to these guys, it’s provocative in terms of their further aggressiveness. It’s hard for Americans to wrap their brains around I think, because we have not dealt with this a lot in our history but when I used to deal with terrorists for a living, when I was a prosecutor, it was amazing to talk to these guys, because they actually believed they defeated the Soviet Union. You might be able to layout a rational explanation for them that says ‘here is why your version of history is skewed’ or ‘you are vastly overrating what your contribution to it is’, but they don’t want to hear it. They believe they did it, and it emboldens them to go on to the next conquest. When you get in it with them, you have to win. This is one of those enemies where no one is going to get on a big old ship and sign on a treaty, so you either beat them, or you continue to suffer their aggression.
BM: Some people have called this new phase of foreign policy one of ‘offshore balancing’, where the United States delegates direct intervention to the regional powers and spends it time focusing on alliance networks, patrolling the skies and the seas, etc. Do you think this is an appropriate mechanism?
AM: It only works if you have good intelligence and confident forces on the ground. What I worry about is that the only way ISIS (and I think Al Qaeda continues to be a problem too) –the only way you are going to decisively defeat ISIS is with American-led forces on the ground. Nobody wants to grapple with that reality, and it’s a very unpopular political thing to say, but it’s a fact of life. I go back to what happened in Fallujah with the marines in Iraq. We almost went in; we pulled the plug on going in; and then we had to go in nine to ten months later and it was much more bloody and much more difficult. We can put this off for a time, but if we are going to deal with it decisively, there’s no way we’re going to do it without a US led ground force. That doesn’t mean we have to put in 300,000 troops and stay for fifty years, but we’re going to have to do a lot of it ourselves.
BM: Is this extremism we’re seeing in the Middle East a persistent threat over the coming decades or is this a short-term problem and response to short-term factors?
AM: It’s been a pretty significant problem now for thirty years. If you were to ask that question thirty years ago, the smart money would have said Iran would burn itself out within a short period of time. To my mind, Iran is right now more strong than it has been ever in its modern history, and it’s on the precipice—if a few things go right for it—of becoming a regional hegemon. I don’t know what the world is going to look like the day after tomorrow, and I probably don’t know what it’s going to look like tomorrow. I think the best we can say is that this going to be a problem for a long time.