Bin Laden Is Not a Serious Enemy'http://thetyee.ca/News/2010/
Former CIA operative Robert Baer on Israel's assassinations, confronting Iran and why we worry too much about Osama.
By Blake Sifton, 7 Apr 2010, TheTyee.ca
During Robert Baer's 21-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency he was considered "the best on the ground field officer in the Middle East," according to Seymour Hersh.
Fluent in Arabic and Farsi, Baer hunted Hezbollah operatives and their Iranian backers in Lebanon in the 1980's and helped organize opposition to Saddam Hussein in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990's.
Also stationed in Tajikistan, Morocco and India at various stages of his career, Baer retired from the CIA in 1997 after being investigated by the FBI for allegedly plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein.
The film Syriana was based on Baer's book See No Evil, an account of his time in the CIA. George Clooney won an Oscar for his portrayal of the agent.
Regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on the Middle East, Baer is now the intelligence columnist for Time.com and a regular commentator on security issues and U.S. foreign policy.
Baer spoke to The Tyee from his home in California. Here is what he had to say. . .
On the impact of the suicide bombing against the CIA in Afghanistan
"It's demoralizing because it forces the CIA to pull back farther into their fortresses. It's like Iraq, they're afraid to go out and they're cut off from the locals. The more cut off you are the less you know about a country. It shows how little we're able to operate in Afghanistan."
On the security failure that led to the bombing
"The Taliban's local intelligence is pretty good. They probably knew a lot about how that base worked and saw its weaknesses. But the fact is that the CIA had 13 people put intentionally within range of a man who had extolled martyrdom. They basically met him with a cake to sing happy birthday.
"It's not the way things used to be done when meeting a hostile. What we used to do is hold a machine gun to the back of their head when they got in the car and say, 'we might die but so will you.' That was just the reality of working in a hostile area.
"I think the security failure is a metaphor for what happened to the CIA. The clerks are running the place rather than the operatives. But they're just going to whitewash the whole thing and say that nothing went wrong."
On Israeli domestic pressure to attack Iran
"The Israelis have convinced themselves that they can't allow Iran to become a nuclear power and there is a political imperative inside the country to stop them. Israel's foreign policy is heavily influenced by internal politics and Netanyahu has promised his reputation on stopping Iran.
"After the 2006 war a lot of people are worried that they don't know what Iran or Hezbollah are capable of. They're saying, 'We have to take care of this Iranian and Hezbollah problem now or it's going to get worse.'"
On how the West should confront the Iranian nuclear program
"If you start with the notion that Iran is suicidal you may look at things differently, but I think that's wrong. Nothing to date has suggested that the Iranians are suicidal.
"I think we should ignore them, keep the economic sanctions in place and let them work their problems out. If they test a bomb then you line up the Chinese and the Russians and say this has just gone too far. There's nothing short of World War III that's going to force them to completely put their nuclear program under inspections in a total, transparent process with inspectors running all over the country. The regime will just never let it happen. They'd rather fight a war.
"There's a power struggle going on in the country and you can't deal with an insecure power unless you want to use force. Iran is a country of 70 million people and the United States just doesn't have a large enough military. You would have to bring back the draft and prepare for a very, very long war that I don't think anyone is ready for.
"There is no solution to Iran really."
On the impact of the democracy protests in Iran
"The protests are not leading anywhere and they're certainly not going to change the regime. The protests are just the surface of it. What's really going on is an internal power struggle and there's nothing we can do about it.
"It's a military dictatorship in Iran. Khameini defers to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), not the other way around. As much as he's in power his base is in the Revolutionary Guard. I just don't see the opponents of the regime reversing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' influence. It's just too powerful."
On the effect an Israeli attack would have on Iranian politics
"An Israeli attack would bolster Ahmadinejad and the militants in the regime. In fact, Ahmadinejad wants Israel to bomb a few nuclear sites. He would be delighted. It would unify the country and the opposition would have to shut up. It would look disloyal if they were attacked and the opposition was trying to undermine the government. It would also boost Iran's standing in the Middle East. They could say, 'look we're Israel's main enemy. We are the Muslim power that's holding back the Zionist regime.'"
On Iran's willingness to retaliate if attacked
"The Iranians said they would strike vital oil facilities in the Gulf as retaliation and I think they probably will.
"I speak from a point of view of knowing the organization that runs Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I understand the IRGC and its bloody-mindedness. They will take radical measures. They are not afraid of taking on the United States. They've taken it on and won before.
"They attacked the marines in Beirut and they got away with it. The United States decided to look the other way. They attacked the US embassy, they attacked Argentina and there was no retribution and this was imprinted in their minds. They believe that they are an expansive power and that we are a paper tiger. I don't think that we're a paper tiger but they're liable to make that mistake."
On Washington's understanding of the consequences of an attack
"In Washington there's this feeling that it's totally irrational that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by striking oil infrastructure in the Gulf. But there are very few people who were around in '83 and '84 that really understand Ahmadinajed and the mentality of the leaders in the regime.
"The policymakers just don't get it. I mean before the Iraq war no one considered what the long term costs were, no one. It was utter stupidity. Why would anyone think were any smarter now?"
On the Mossad's killing of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai
"It was a dumb operation because it's clear that they wanted to make it look like he died of natural causes and they obviously failed to do that. He wasn't very important to Hamas. He was an arms dealer, not a charismatic political leader. It just seems like the cost of this operation wasn't worth his life. I can understand that you want to avenge the kidnap and murder of two Israeli soldiers, but at that cost? I can't imagine that the Israelis were prepared to have 26 of their officers exposed. And stealing identities from their own country? It just beggars the imagination what the hell is going on there.
"Once you go down the road of executing everybody responsible for killing an Israeli you're in trouble. It will be a very long list of people and you will piss off the entire world beyond repair if you started going after every single person."
On why we shouldn't worry about Osama Bin Laden
"Al Qaeda isn't a centrally controlled organization. It's an idea. You kill Bin Laden and the idea will still be there.
"Bin Laden is not a serious enemy but we're living in a culture where the idea of violence against us, any violence, is abhorrent. But in terms of history he's not a threat to the survival of this country as World War II was. The Japanese taking the Pacific or Hitler taking Europe that could have been a game changer.
"We've been drawn into two wars by what can be considered a fairly minor attack. 9-11 was not Pearl Harbor."