Accessibility links

Breaking News

Walter Cutler interview - 2002-02-28

Earlier today I spoke with former U.S. Ambassador Walter Cutler. He served twice as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and as Ambassador to Tunisia and Zaire. I asked him what he thought about the Saudi initiative.

Joining me is Ambassador Cutler. Ambassador Cutler, thank you for joining us today. The Saudi initiative, aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East, what is your reaction to it, sir, and do you think it can be productive?

Well, first off, my reaction is positive. And second, I congratulate you for calling it an initiative and not a peace plan, as we've heard from some commentators. Because it's not a plan yet. It is an initiative.

And I think it's important, one, because it comes at this particular time, and there is really nothing else of a serious nature on the table and, two, that it comes from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country that is an important player but it has not taken many initiatives in recent years. So the fact that it comes from Riyadh and it comes at this time I think makes it important.

Let's talk about that. Why, in your view, has this initiative come at this time? Because clearly the Saudis understand that U.S. and Western media attention has not been the most positive after 9/11. Osama bin Laden and many of the terrorists involved in that were from Saudi Arabia. So clearly they have a public relations problem. If we were being a little bit cynical, we might say that this is all tied together, but what is your take on that?

Well, I wouldn't deny that one of the benefits that the Saudis might perceive in taking this initiative is the fact that they need and they would like to improve their image, particularly in this country. And by becoming the initiator of a peace idea, it's going to help. It's going to help their public relations.

On the other hand, I think you have to give them much more credit than this. And I say this because this comes from Crown Prince Abdullah. And having dealt with Crown Prince Abdullah for a number of years, going way back into the eighties, I know that the Palestinian issue is something that is extremely high on his agenda. He feels a sympathy and a need for progress with respect to the Palestinians very personally. And so this is, I think, a genuine concern of his that goes way beyond PR.

Now, Osama bin Laden, many, many months ago, tried to make the Palestinian issue a larger one for him, to tie that together, to make it the case for Islamic fundamentalists, that until the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be resolved, until the Palestinians, in his view, were not discriminated against, that the cause of the Islamic fundamentalists would never really be resolved.

Please explain to our viewers and listeners how, in your view, the two are linked. Can there be any diminution of Islamic fundamentalist terror if there is no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem?

Well, the two are related. There is no question that they are related. It would be a mistake to say, however, that if we finally were to see a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli problem that this would end the tendency towards violence that we've seen in recent years. A lot of terrorism has been directly related to the Palestinian issues. We see that right now. We see the suicide bombers. We see the Israeli reaction. So certainly there would be a decrease in that kind of violence.

But we have to remember that some of the other conflict in the Middle East has had very little to do with the Palestinian issue. I mean, look at the Iran-Iraq War for eight years. Look at Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. That really didn't relate to the Palestinian issue. So you've got some other sources of conflict, and maybe even relating to religiously motivated conflict, that would not disappear.

But I think that Osama bin Laden, for example, when he started out, the Palestinian issue was not at the top of his agenda. He obviously saw that he could exploit that and proceeded to do so. And I am under no illusion that when you go to Arab countries today, the Palestinian issue, particularly among young people, for example, is a very, very emotional and heartfelt issue. And so this increases the pool of possible candidates for terrorist activities in the area. So they are related, but it's not a direct cause and effect.

Ambassador, in the last minute or so that we have, you have been a member of the U.S. Government. How do you think the United States should play this from now on? Should the Bush administration be more actively involved in Middle East peace? Or is it playing, in your view, an adequate role, slightly behind the scenes but continuing to push, push, push?

I don't think we've been pushing enough. This first year of President Bush's administration, I think there was the hope that if we stepped back, that the two sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, might decide to move forward on their own, and then we would step in. That hasn't worked. I think we have to be much more active.

At the same time, we have to have more cooperation from the Sharon government and, at the same time -- and this is why I think the Saudi initiative, the timing, is interesting -- I would like to see all of the Arabs involved.

And right now I think the American administration has learned that hands off doesn't work. So we are ready to play a more active role. I would hope that the Arabs -- and we're looking at the Arab League Summit next month -- would be more involved. And I think that this will help induce -- I hope it helps induce -- the Sharon government to step forward and be more cooperative.

Thank you, Ambassador.

You're welcome.

That was former U.S. Ambassador Walter Cutler.