Reading Rick Francona’s bio makes me feel like I’ve hardly left my home office. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force as an intelligence officer, and he worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Balkans. He flew aerial reconnaissance missions over Laos and Vietnam, worked as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces directorate of military intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War, flew sorties with the Iraqi air force, tried to foment a revolution and a military coup against the government of Saddam Hussein, and led a special operations team on a manhunt against Serbian war criminals in the Balkans. He is fluent in Arabic and Vietnamese and was inducted into the Defense Language Institute Hall of Fame in 2006.
Most US military sources I’ve spoken to are familiar with Iraq and the Persian Gulf but know relatively little about the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean) and even less about distant North Africa. Francona knows Iraq and the Gulf, and the Levant and the crucial parts of North Africa. I spent several days with him in Israel during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and recently met up with him again at his home in Oregon where we discussed the wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
MJT: I am amazed at what’s happening in Libya.
Rick Francona: I must admit that I am also surprised. I thought Qaddafi had tighter security controls in place to prevent this kind of uprising, yet it appears he is being boxed into a small area around Tripoli. With the Tobruk and Benghazi areas out of his control, I wonder if he will be able to retain his position. He doesn’t appear to be reticent about the use of force against his own citizens.
If the media reports are true, that Libyan military and security forces are using helicopters, fighter aircraft, armored vehicles and snipers against the civilian population, the regime will have achieved a new low in its already abysmal human rights record. And Libya is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
I listened to both Qaddafi’s and his son Saif al-Islam’s speeches in Arabic. The son’s tone was defiant, but it was at least coherent. The father’s nonsensical ramblings showed a mix of a warped sense of history and what I would call narcissism. I am not a psychologist, but it seemed to me that Qaddafi was truly shaken by the thought that he is not thought of as the “hero of the Libyan revolution,” as he sees himself. If he really believes what he said in his speech, he’s in denial. The only thing that might keep him in power is his willingness to slaughter people.
At some point, the world must react. I was shocked to hear a State Department statement that the Obama administration was looking at the text of Saif al-Islam’s speech for “indications of commitment to meaningful reforms.” I hope someone at Foggy Bottom loses their job over the thought that we can deal with the likes of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi. There needs to be a change of government in Libya, and we should be assisting however we can. When this is all resolved and there is a new government in Tripoli, the Libyan people hopefully won’t accuse the United States of supporting yet another autocracy in the Middle East.
Looking beyond the savagery that is taking place inside Libya, this uprising has had a more immediate impact in the West than the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and the demonstrations in Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen. In the long run, though, the changes in Egypt will likely have the greatest effect on the region. Egypt is the cultural center of the Arab world. It sets the tone for much of the political thought in the Middle East. It shares a border with Israel and, along with Jordan, has made peace with the Jewish state.
Libya’s impact was much more immediate and reverberated not only politically, but economically as well. The possibility of interrupted oil flows from Libya has a much more profound impact on the price of crude than the perceived potential shut down of the Suez Canal. I think US oil futures are trading over $100 a barrel; European futures are well above that. As you know, the price of oil affects the prices of almost everything.
As for the claims by a defecting official that Qaddafi personally ordered the attack on Pan Am 103, I don’t buy it for a minute. I have always thought it was an Iranian-sponsored, PFLP-GC -executed operation; the two Libyans were co-opted by Ahmad Jibril’s people and were not operating with Qaddafi’s sanction. If they had been authorized by Qaddafi, there is no chance that they would have been given up for trial. Countries do not offer up their intelligence officers for carrying out orders. If so, no officer would ever undertake these missions again. As I learned in the intelligence business years ago, defectors often tell you what they think you want to hear in hopes of getting favorable consideration. Qaddafi is guilty of a lot of things, but I doubt the Lockerbie bombing is among them.
MJT: I have no opinion on this myself, but you aren’t the only former intelligence source who says this about Qaddafi and Lockerbie. Reza Kahlili, a former CIA agent who worked inside Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, also said Iran’s government is responsible in his book A Time to Betray.
Anyway, I think you’re right that what happens in Egypt will matter more in the long run than what happens in Libya.
Rick Francona: Egypt is extremely important not only to us but to the whole area. If there is a major shift in Egypt’s government structure, it could collapse the peace process as we know it. If the Israelis can’t count on a stable southwestern border, they will truly feel surrounded. They’ve got Lebanon to the north which is now basically run by Hezbollah. They’ve got the continuing problem with Syria to the northeast. They look across to Jordan which has a weak government where the Hashemites survive through compromise. And without the Egyptians providing some stability in the region, this could get ugly. And we get tied up with what the Israelis are doing whether we like it or not.
I’m a little concerned with what I see as the American willingness to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to play a greater role in Egypt than maybe they should. They’re going to be involved. There’s no escaping that—it’s just reality—but legitimizing them by saying we want the “non-secular” players in the equation isn’t helping.
MJT: What do you suppose the Obama administration was thinking when it made that statement?
Rick Francona: I think they had good intentions and were trying to ratchet down a volatile situation where the government in Egypt might have collapsed. I think they were trying to say there are compromise options out there, that if the government talks to the different players it could avoid a total collapse. Maybe it worked. Omar Suleiman said he was willing to make concessions.
But I’m not sanguine about the Brotherhood’s motives. They say what they know we want to hear. They’re planning for the long term. We’re looking to the next election, but they’re looking decades down the road where they might create an Islamic state.
MJT: Do you think they would actually tear up the peace treaty with Israel?
Rick Francona: That would be insane. Stability is a precious commodity in the Middle East. We’ve had thirty years of stability between the Egyptians and the Israelis. It’s the foundation of the peace process. We need to move the Syrian track along and decrease Iran’s influence in Lebanon, but all that is secondary to peace with Egypt. We’ve all heard the adage, “No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria.” If the peace treaty gets scrapped, which is a possibility we have to consider, Israel may have to re-orient its defenses toward Egypt.
But why would the Egyptians want to go to war with Israel? They can’t win.
MJT: I’d like to say they must know that, but the Arab world is rife with delusions about supposed victories against Israel that were actually losses. Surely you’ve seen the ridiculous monument to Egypt’s “victory” against Israel in 1973.
Rick Francona: Yes.
MJT: Have they actually convinced themselves that they won the Yom Kippur War?
Rick Francona: According to the Egyptian account of the war, it was a victory. Hosni Mubarak was part of that process, and Anwar Sadat was a hero of the crossing of the Suez Canal. Of course they neglect what happened next, when the Israelis came within a hundred kilometers of Cairo. Still, it looked like they might win in the beginning of the war, and that gave them a feeling of pride.
Military officers who were there know they lost. They know they were qualitatively and quantitatively outgunned by the Israeli Air Force. They know they were outclassed on the ground. They have to know they can’t win a war.
I also don’t think external players will allow them to have a war, at least not for very long.
MJT: Who do you mean by external players?
Rick Francona: The United States. Maybe the Russians and Europe. This has always been factored into warfare in the Middle East. If you read Sadat’s plan for the 1973 war, and also Hafez al-Assad’s in Syria, you’ll see that they wanted to take as much as they could and as fast as possible and sue for peace. They said, “let’s take what we can and have the UN stop it.”
Today, though, Egypt has nothing to take. Egypt has Egypt. What, do they want Gaza?
MJT: They don’t want Gaza.
Rick Francona: Nobody in their right mind would want Gaza.
MJT: The Israelis don’t want it and would be thrilled if Egypt took it back.
Rick Francona: It would be one less thing they’d have to worry about.
I don’t think any serious Egyptian leader would tear up the peace treaty with Israel. It provides them with stability. They may say they’re going to do it.
MJT: I suspect that’s what’s happening.
Rick Francona: The Muslim Brotherhood leaders have to say that to that to their base, but nobody in their right mind would want to have a war with Israel.
MJT: [Laughs.] Sure, but we’re talking about the Middle East here. Not everyone in that part of the world is in their right mind.
Rick Francona: I think the Muslim Brotherhood is somewhat pragmatic. I mean, they know what they want, but they also know they can’t do just anything to get it. They have to be smart. Starting off small might be the first step. They’ll agree to be part of the parliament and probably win 25-30 percent of the seats if there’s a free and fair election. Thirty percent isn’t bad. It’s a good start. Look how far Hezbollah gets in Lebanon with 30 percent. Hezbollah and its allies had 11 seats out of 30 in the cabinet and were able to collapse the government.
MJT: Hezbollah also has guns, though. The Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t, at least not at the moment.
Rick Francona: There were clashes in the streets of Cairo, but with rocks not guns. Just wait until this spreads to Yemen.
MJT: There are more guns than people in Yemen. There are more guns than people in Lebanon, too. I’m amazed the guns don’t come out more often in Lebanon than they do.
Rick Francona: The Lebanese are traumatized by civil war. They don’t want to go there.
MJT: But every family is armed.
Rick Francona: Of course.
MJT: They can all bust out the guns whenever they want.
Rick Francona: It was the same in Iraq. Everyone could have an AK-47 for personal protection. And look at what happened.
MJT: They seem to have serious gun control in Egypt.
Rick Francona: Yes. Gun control in Syria is also very effective.
MJT: You worked at the embassy in Damascus as an intelligence officer, so you know Syria pretty well. Can you imagine an uprising happening there?
Rick Francona: No. The people are so cowed by the regime. They remember what happened in Hama in 1982 [when Hafez al-Assad killed as many as 30,000 people in one weekend alone]. That was a long time ago, but they still remember it, and they still talk about it.
You’ve talked to Syrians. You know what they’re like. They’re afraid to say anything. They believe there’s a pervasive security apparatus waiting to pounce on them, and the reason they believe that is because there’s a pervasive security apparatus waiting to pounce on them. Syria has overlapping security organs that monitor everything. And they’re blatant about it.
They used to follow me around, and it wasn’t the kind of sophisticated surveillance operation that we or the British or the Israelis would mount. They would just lock onto my back bumper and sit there all day. They followed me everywhere I went. They didn’t care that I knew. It was their country and they were going to follow me around.
It was illegal to own a fax machine when I arrived because communication, they believed, is the first step toward an organized resistance. After I was there for about a year there was a notice in the paper saying that the Syrian security service now had enough fax machines to monitor everyone’s faxes, so it was okay to have a machine. So everyone knew that while it was suddenly okay to send a fax, the Syrian government was going to read it.
Our phones were tapped at the embassy.
MJT: I’m sure they were.
Rick Francona: We had a unit that could create a secure line if we used a key, but if during a call we said, “let’s go secure,” the line would go dead. Obviously the Syrians were listening and didn’t want us to talk privately. They would rather us talk around the subject so they could try to figure out what we were saying.
So, no, I don’t see Syrians taking to the streets. Syria is not Egypt. The regime isn’t benevolent. Assad will maintain his hold on power.
There is quite a bit of support for the regime, though, not because people necessarily like Assad, but because they think the stability he offers is better than the alternative. If you talk to the Christians or to other minorities like the Alawites, and even to some the Sunnis, they’ll say that stability has a quality all its own even if they have to give up their freedom.
MJT: They’re afraid of the Lebanonization or the Iraqification of Syria.
Rick Francona: Yes. And they’re worried about what would take Assad’s place, that it might be an Islamic state. A lot of Syrians don’t want that, so I don’t expect to see a huge groundswell in Syria.
MJT: What about Jordan? Some analysts predict this wave might hit Jordan. And you know that country pretty well, too.
Rick Francona: I was an advisor to the Jordanian army. And I spent a lot of time there at the embassy with our counterparts in the Jordanian intelligence services, who I think, by the way, are the most professional in the Middle East.
MJT: How are they different from the others?
Rick Francona: Their intelligence services actually work as intelligence services. Most of the intelligence services in the Middle East, excluding the Israelis, exist to provide information that supports regime longevity. Everything is about the maintenance of the regime. The Jordanians actually collect intelligence to advance their foreign policy or to work with us. They have real professional intelligence gatherers. Their internal security services are entirely separate.
When I was in Iraq in the 1980s, the intelligence services also had a security function. They had the power of arrest. The Jordanian intelligence services don’t do anything like that.
MJT: They’re like the CIA then.
Rick Francona: Very much so. And the Jordanian military intelligence is like our DIA. Our relationship with them is strong, and they’re very professional.
But all that said, Jordan is another one of these artificial countries that was created in the aftermath of World War I. It’s interesting to ask the Jordanians how they self-identify. Are they Jordanians? East Bank Palestinians? Bedouins? Members of various tribes? Jordan is an amalgamation of all these different groups. Everyone has different loyalties. Is the social fabric strong enough to keep that country together with a ruling family that was brought in from the outside? They’re not even from Jordan.
MJT: They’re from the Hejaz, the Mecca and Medina area.
Rick Francona: Right. Exactly. The sharif of Mecca was the father of Abdullah, the founder of the country. There are so many forces the king has to play against each other. He likes to keep the Circassians around because he knows they’re not a threat. They’re not going to take over. He also has to placate the Bedouins and the East Bank Palestinians. It’s a real balancing act. The Hashemite family has done a great job over all these years, but they survive by making concessions.
If you talk to people in Jordan you’ll hear a lot of Islamic sentiment. Jordan might have a problem down the road. I don’t see a real problem right away, but there’s a strong undercurrent of fundamentalist Islam.
All the Arab countries facing upheaval right now, with the exception of Libya, are at least nominal US allies. We could end up losing the entire Middle East. Lebanon, as far as I’m concerned, is already gone.
MJT: Yes, me too. It’s finished.
Rick Francona: Lebanon is gone. Tunisia will probably be okay. Yemen…who knows?
But back to Egypt. Egypt is the key to everything. If we lose all the others but keep Egypt, we’ll be okay. But if we lose Egypt, it doesn’t matter who else we have.
MJT: If we keep Egypt as an American ally, do you think it’s more likely that we’ll keep the others?
Rick Francona: There will be less incentive for the others to break away. If they see that it works in Egypt, they’ll know they can stick with us.
What happens during the next couple of months will be critical, and I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do publicly to affect the outcome. I hope we’re working behind the scenes. I’d like to see less talk coming out of Washington and more diplomacy behind the scenes.
MJT: Okay, so you’re a guy whose entire career was behind the scenes. What would you say to Obama administration officials if they brought you in and asked what kinds of things they should be doing that nobody would know about?
Rick Francona: The key is the Egyptian military, and from what I’m hearing there is work going on behind the scenes. [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates is probably talking to [Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, his counterpart.
The Egyptian army is well-respected. And I think it sent a strong message by placing tanks in Tahrir Square while at the same time not taking action against the demonstrators. The Egyptian army said it’s not going to fire on the Egyptian people, but it is going to maintain some semblance of order. I was heartened to see the army intervene almost on the side of the demonstrators against these thugs from the Mubarak government. It was incredibly stupid what Mubarak did, when he sent in these thugs. Everybody knew Mubarak’s time was up. Even Mubarak must have known his time was up. I don’t know why he prolonged it.
I would tell the administration to say to the Egyptian military that at some point it needs to act like the Turkish military. Egypt needs a short period of martial law as it goes through this transition. The army needs to put somebody in charge and then back away. And I think most Egyptians would accept that.
MJT: Have you personally worked with the Egyptian military?
Rick Francona: I’ve worked with Egyptian military intelligence, yes.
MJT: Okay, so how would you describe the worldview of the army? It doesn’t seem particularly ideological, not at all like the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, but you would have a better sense of it than I do.
Rick Francona: No, you’re right, it’s actually a fairly professional military force, especially compared with the way it was 30 years ago. When we replaced the Russians as their primary advisors the Egyptians were exposed to more Western ideas. The army has evolved into a professional non-ideological military, and I think that’s a good thing.
The Egyptian army of 30 years would not have acted like the Egyptian army is acting today.
MJT: What would the army have done 30 years ago?
Rick Francona: The army would have just been a regime tool. It would have imposed a solution, and it would not have been one we liked. It would have been very ugly, and there would be a lot more dead Egyptians in the streets.
I think we’ve seen remarkable restraint. We should be using our military-to-military ties behind the scenes. Almost every senior Egyptian officer has gone to American staff colleges. Egypt sends us its best and its brightest. We get to meet them, influence them, and develop close personal relationships with them. Gates can pick up the phone and talk to Tantawi one-on-one any time.
We routinely train with the Egyptians. We fly joint formations with them. We have a terrific relationship, and we’re putting a lot of trust in them right now.
The CIA and the Egyptian intelligence service have a similar relationship with each other. Omar Suleiman has probably been talking to Leon Panetta. Actually, he’s probably been talking to [National Intelligence Director James] Clapper who has more in common with him than Panetta does. Clapper came up to DNI through military intelligence.
MJT: I find it fascinating that a wave of instability has hit the Middle East, and all of a sudden no one is talking about Iraq anymore. Has Iraq actually become the one country that we no longer have to worry about?
Rick Francona: Iraq has elections.
MJT: Iraq also has car bombs.
Rick Francona: The Iraqis have been through a terrible process. They still have to get rid of the remnants of the insurgency.
MJT: They still blow stuff up once in a while.
Rick Francona: Twenty years ago the Iraqis were extremely effective.
MJT: Reading about Iraq in your book is surreal. It’s like you’re describing another country entirely. What you saw there in the 1980s, and what I saw before and during the surge, is totally different.
Rick Francona: We eliminated the leadership and wouldn’t let them back in, so many of them joined the insurgency. Iraq has had a terrible brain drain. We got rid of everyone who knew how to lead, organize, and administer anything. Iraq had to start all over again. Iraqis are smart people, though. I don’t think we should tell them how to do internal security. They know how to do internal security. And we need to let them have their own style of democracy. It’s not going to be Jeffersonian. It will be Iraqi.
I’m calling Iraq stable right now.
MJT: I think I agree. I’ve seen Iraq at its worst, when it was horrifically unhinged and unstable, but it’s better now.
Rick Francona: Iraq has emerged.
Rick Francona: I don’t like the coalition that was bolted together, though.
MJT: I don’t either.
Rick Francona: I think the Kurds were being very short-sighted when they got in bed with the Shia, but they’ll figure it out.
MJT: A few years ago just about everyone in the region shuddered when they looked at Iraq and wanted to make sure that didn’t happen where they live. There must be people in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria who support the regimes for that reason.
Rick Francona: I know that’s the case in Syria. They’re terrified what might happen if that stabilizing force is removed. Not only do they look at Iraq as a problem, they look at what happened in the Balkans as a problem. When Tito went away in Yugoslavia, the place came apart.
MJT: Do you think the US was right to cut Mubarak loose?
Rick Francona: [Pauses to think.] It was in our interests to do so. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know. You could say we turned our backs on a man who has been our ally for thirty years.
MJT: That’s what the Gulf Arabs are thinking.
Rick Francona: Yes, I know. They’re thinking they can’t count on the United States to support them. But they can count on us to act in our own national interests. A stable Egypt is in our national interest, so we’ll be involved in the transition and in the end game.
I’m sure our Gulf allies are watching all this and thinking that we threw Mubarak under the bus, but Mubarak brought this on himself. He amassed 70 billion dollars of Egypt’s wealth for himself.
MJT: That’s an extraordinary amount of money, especially considering that the GDP of the entire country is barely 200 billion. He has more than a third of that all to himself.
Rick Francona: I thinks this sends a message to our other, quote, “allies” in the region that there’s only so much we’ll put up with. In the end, we have to act in our interests. If their interests and our interests coincide, that’s great, but they had better not go overboard against their people. My concern is that we’re often seen as supportive of these dictatorships.
MJT: We do give some of them money. Two billion dollars a year went to Egypt.
Rick Francona: How much of Mubarak’s 70 billion dollars is our money?
MJT: We were accused of supporting Mubarak. And we were accused of supporting Saddam Hussein when you were there working with the Iraqis.
Rick Francona: When we supporting Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, it was not about Saddam Hussein. It wasn’t even about Iraq. It was about Iran. Everything we did was calculated to make sure the Iranians did not emerge victorious and become the primary power broker in the Gulf.
During the Second Gulf War we did almost everything wrong for years after the fall of Baghdad. Disbanding the Iraqi army was probably the biggest mistake. It triggered the insurgency and played into Iranian hands. But back in 1987 and 1988, we had to make sure Iran didn’t win. If that meant getting in bed with Saddam Hussein, so be it. But the minute the war was over and the Iranians failed to emerge victorious, we left. That was it. We left and we cut off our support for Saddam because it was never about him or Iraq. And the Iraqis were smart enough to understand that.
MJT: We didn’t cut Saddam loose because he invaded Kuwait.
Rick Francona: Right. There were still some exchanges of intelligence, but it was at a very low level.
In September of 1988 I was in Baghdad. April Glaspie was the ambassador. She had just arrived. After I briefed her and told her what we’d been doing, and she said, “That’s going to stop. I want nothing to do with these thugs.”
Pat Lang and I had one last thing to do for the Iraqis, and then that was it. Glaspie cut off all of our contacts and adopted a more adversarial relationship with Saddam Hussein.
MJT: Somebody, it might have been Robert Kaplan, said something years ago that has stayed with me. He said—and I’m paraphrasing him here—that we have good relations with Riyadh and Cairo, and bad relations with Tehran and Baghdad, but at some point in the future we’ll have bad relations with Riyadh and Cairo and good relations with Tehran and Baghdad.
Baghdad flipped in the meantime. Tehran will flip if the Green Movement overthrows the Islamic Republic. And Cairo will flip if the Muslim Brothers takes over.
Rick Francona: For the past fifteen years I’ve been saying there’s going to be regime-change in Iran within five years. And I’ve been wrong for fifteen years. The problem we’re seeing in Iran right now is the same problem we saw ten years ago in Iraq. Regime-change from the inside might be impossible.
That was the assessment we made in Iraq when I was detailed at the CIA. We tried to foment revolution, and we launched a failed coup attempt in 1996.
Afterwards we decided there wasn’t enough effective opposition inside Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. We could see that any regime-change in Iraq would have to be externally driven.
I think we’re rapidly approaching that point in Iran. But who’s going to do it? We aren’t.
MJT: Not now.
Rick Francona: Not after our experience in Iraq.
The army and Marines did a magnificent job in Iraq. The run to Baghdad was classic. That will be studied for years. The logistics were terrific. What the army did out there in the desert was fabulous. But after Jerry Bremer became the viceroy of Iraq and turned our military into an occupation army—something we hadn’t planned or staffed for—everything fell apart. And I think we’ve been so traumatized by what happened during the next five years that there is almost no chance we’re going to impose a regime-change in Iran. The Iranians, I think, are stuck with this regime.
MJT: Do you think they’ll get nuclear weapons?
Rick Francona: Absolutely.
The only country that ever seriously embarked on a nuclear weapons program and failed to develop a bomb is Iraq, and that’s only because the Israelis stopped it. Every other country that had the will and the material support has succeeded. No one has ever been stopped by technology. Everyone has been able to acquire the fissile material by hook or by crook. It’s no longer magic. It just isn’t.
Non-lethal methods are always better than blowing things up, but I don’t think anything will stop the Iranians short of war. You and I were at the same briefing about this in Israel. The Israelis think Iran can’t be deterred, and I think they’re right.
So we have to do one of two things. We either tell the Iranians that we won’t allow them to develop nuclear weapons, and that we’re prepared to physically stop them, or we start planning for the day when Iran has the bomb.
Rick Francona is the author of Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq’s Fall from Grace and is currently at work on his second book, a first-person narrative account of his manhunt for Serbian war criminals in the Balkans. He also has a blog called Middle East Perspectives.
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