Rudy’s Man in the Middle East

The following profile of Martin Kramer by Jason Horowitz appeared in the New York Observer in the issue of August 27, 2007. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Martin Kramer has never met Rudy Giuliani. But the recently named senior Middle East advisor to the Giuliani campaign appears to be having significant influence on how the former mayor views the world.

“I was not added for who I am,” said Mr. Kramer, in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “Certainly not for my policy experience I don’t have any experience in government. Not for my personal charm I don’t know the mayor. I’m there for my ideas. And for me it is an opportunity to give my ideas a wider audience.

Given Mr. Giuliani’s largely uniform support for the Bush administration’s foreign policy up to this point, those ideas aren’t what one might expect. Mr. Kramer is a self-proclaimed “democratization skeptic,” and subscribes to a distinctly different worldview than that of the idealistic neo-conservatives who promoted democratic elections in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. If his public role on Mr. Giuliani’s foreign policy team says one thing, it is the following: when it comes to the Middle East, Mr. Giuliani is no George W. Bush.

“I saw myself in a debate mode with President Bush,” he said. “I don’t see myself in a debate mode with Rudy Giuliani.”

The international relations philosophy of Mr. Kramer, 52, a dual Israeli-American citizen who is a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, places him well outside the circle of interventionist would-be regional transformers who have guided America’s Middle East policy for the past seven years.

He is perhaps best known in foreign policy circles for his strong views on the perils of democracy promotion in the Middle East, a belief that a consortium of Islamic and Arab regimes and extremists share a grand vision of a world without Israel and a strong United States, and a faith in what he calls the “consensual Authoritarianism” of strong, stable central governments.

To judge by Mr. Giuliani’s recently articulated plan for U.S. policy abroad, he has already begin appropriating some of Mr. Kramer’s ideas.

“Aspiring dictators sometimes win elections, and elected leaders sometimes govern badly and threaten their neighbors,” Mr. Giuliani wrote in a recent, much-discussed article in Foreign Affairs. “History demonstrates that democracy usually follows good governance, not the reverse.”

Mr. Giuliani then specifically cites the election of Hamas in the Palestinian-controlled territories as an example of democracy gone awry.

“The problem there is not the lack of statehood but corrupt and unaccountable governance,” Mr. Giuliani wrote. “The Palestinian people need decent governance first, as a prerequisite for statehood.”

In the article, Mr. Giuliani also seems to distance himself from Mr. Bush’s core ideological belief in democracy promotion, mentioning it only to point out that it must be tempered by “realism.”

Mr. Kramer very much approves.

“The mayor does talk about security being a prerequisite of democracy in that speech,” he said, referring to the Foreign Affairs article, adding “He did, to me, say things that invoked my ideas.”

Mr. Kramer also said that since he was unexpectedly embraced by the Giuliani campaign, his philosophy – and particularly his web site, – has begun receiving a lot more attention.

“I was pleased that someone was interested in my ideas,” Mr. Kramer said. He said the campaign had “pretty much” called him out of the blue, and added, “I have enjoyed watching the traffic on my web site increase.”

Mr. Kramer, like Mr. Giuliani, is a hawk. He supported the invasion of Iraq – but for tactical reasons – and believes, like the mayor, that America is engaged in a long-term global struggle with an Islamic brand of fascism.

But his philosophy about how to conduct that fight represents a sharp turn away from a key tenet of the Bush administration’s Middle East policy – the part that assumes that free elections in repressed Arab nations will give rise to governments that are kindly disposed toward the West and Israel.

Mr. Kramer’s web site promises “alternative readings of Islam and the Arab world,” and lists his lectures, commentary and analysis under categories called “sandstorm” and “sandbox.” The site’s homepage has a doctored image of an ululating woman in black headdress hoisting his staid headshot above her head, and there are several pictures of Mr. Kramer with his “mentor” Bernard Lewis, a Princeton-based Middle East scholar widely admired and cited by neoconservatives.

“I was a student of Bernard Lewis’ and in 1978, Edward Said wrote a book about Orientalism which turned the field first and foremost against my teacher,” said Mr. Kramer, referring to the book by the late Columbia University professor and Palestinian intellectual who argued that westerners had an inherent cultural bias against the Arab world. “I don’t think I could have found a position in the United States at a leading university of Middle East studies with the intellectual pedigree that I had, but I could in Tel Aviv.”

Mr. Kramer, a Washington native, ended up teaching at Tel Aviv University for 25 years, eventually returning home to visit his children as a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Georgetown and Cornell. In 2005, he retired from Tel Aviv University and moved to the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he is a senior fellow and colleague of prominent Israeli hawk (and democracy advocate) Natan Sharansky.

Mr. Kramer spends half the year there and divides the rest of his time between the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Olin Institute at Harvard University.

From his vantage point in Israel, Mr. Kramer has come to a position of extreme skepticism about the president’s forceful public advocacy of the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

“In Israel, there has never been great enthusiasm for the democratizing agenda,” Mr. Kramer said.

In an address to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy program in Beverly Hills on November 29, 2006, Mr. Kramer expressed disdain for the administration’s “big ideas” for changing the Middle East.

“The way to cure the Middle East was to shake it up by promoting democracy first by forced ‘regime change’ in Iraq and then by encouraging liberals across the Middle East,” Mr. Kramer said in the lecture. “The president launched what he described as his ‘forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.’ It became known as the ‘Bush Doctrine.’”

He continued: “Now that big idea has crashed, too. It has crashed, first, as a result of the maelstrom in Iraq, and second, as a result of the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the fact that free elections everywhere end in victory for Islamist zealots.

“Promoting democracy to Arabs,” he added, “is coming to be regarded in this country as the ultimate fool’s errand.”

Instead of the personal freedoms cherished in the United States, he says people in the Middle East are working off a different model in which they are more protective of collective freedoms, such as the right to speak their language, if not the freedom of speech.

“Were the United States to champion those kinds of freedoms, it would have greater resonance than perhaps the single championing of elections,” said Mr. Kramer.

He believes the countries with the most stability in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, practice a form of government in which a de facto bargain has been reached between a central power and the people in which there are no elections, but the rulers guarantee security and stability, recognize some collective rights, and limit their intrusions into the lives of law-abiding people.

In another panel on June 5, 2007 at the Prague conference on “Democracy and Security: Core Values and Sound Policies,” Mr. Kramer delivered a speech that he fashioned as a direct challenge to Mr. Bush, who was set to deliver his own remarks in the same room hours later, and challenged the Bush doctrine’s core tenant that democracy promotion ultimately serves the interests of America’s national security.

“Democracy competes not against them, but against this consensual authoritarianism,” Mr. Kramer said in Prague. “And the reason democracy is losing that competition is that consensual authoritarianism produces security for its peoples, and exports security to its neighbors and the world.”

Mr. Bush, in his remarks later that day at the same conference, took an opposite view.

“Still, some argue that a safer goal would be stability, especially in the Middle East,” said Mr. Bush. “The problem is that pursuing stability at the expense of liberty does not lead to peace it leads to September the 11th, 2001. The policy of tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure. It is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century.”

Mr. Giuliani has long supported the administration’s rationale for going into Iraq, saying that the Sept. 11 attacks made it clear that the United States had to move off the “defense” and go on the “offense.” But he has since sought to put at least a small measure of distance between himself and the White House by criticizing the tactical mistakes made in the war’s prosecution.

Mr. Kramer, who supported the war, goes further in criticizing the Bush administration, saying that every one of the president’s stated reasons for attacking – the weapons of mass destruction, the introduction of free elections and, especially, the alleged ties to Sept. 11 – was flawed.

“I believed like others and I still believe that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11,” said Mr. Kramer.

Asked if Mr. Kramer’s role as a Giuliani campaign advisor reflected a break with the president on the idea of liberating the Middle East from non-democratic governments, Maria Comella, a spokeswoman for the Giuliani campaign, said in an e-mail, “The Foreign Affairs piece speaks for itself where the Mayor speaks to achieving the ultimate, long-term goal of democracy.”

The area where Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Kramer are most in sync, and the area in which they seem closest to the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration, is their shared belief, as Mr. Giuliani likes to say, that there is a “terrorists’ war on us” and that America faces an “Islamic fascist” enemy.

“I call it a vision, a big idea,” said Mr. Kramer. “The idea in the Middle East or Arab Islamic world is to be free of the restraints that are presently imposed on it by American power. If you look at what these organizations what they say to themselves, it doesn’t matter if it is Al Qaeda or Iran, obviously they are different strands but different strands of the same grand idea, which is that Islam does not enjoy the dominant power that it enjoyed throughout most of history and it should rightfully enjoy again.”

Asked whether Mr. Giuliani, whom he hopes to meet next month at Harvard, truly understands that threat, Mr. Kramer seemed certain.

“It is one of the things he gets,” he said. “He also understands that this is a long-term struggle.”