The most important skill that a CIA officer can have is the ability to be at the right place at the right time—and to recognize the moment. By that taxing measure, Bruce Riedel has been extraordinarily successful.
His first country assignment for the agency was the Iran desk, where he arrived in 1978 during the twilight of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s reign. The Iranian revolution the following year irrevocably changed how the United States could operate in the Middle East—a reality borne out by the 444-day hostage crisis that followed.
Riedel then became the CIA desk officer for Egypt, authoring an intelligence report in the fall of 1981 that warned of the high risk of Anwar Sadat’s assassination following the peace treaty with Israel. The briefing, in which Riedel predicted the rise of then–vice president Hosni Mubarak, proved stunningly prescient: during an Oct. 6 military parade that year, a group of soldiers, for whom peace with Israel was anathema, assassinated the Egyptian president.
“That was one hell of a day,” Riedel recalls in a NEWSWEEK interview, during a week when an uprising in Egypt has once more thrown the region into turmoil.
Serving four successive presidents, Riedel went on to work at the Pentagon, the White House, and at CIA headquarters in Langley, getting to know the most important players in Washington and the Middle East. But it is his last assignment—Pakistan—that keeps him awake at night.
“In Pakistan, we now have, for the first time, the possibility of a jihadist state emerging,” Riedel tells NEWSWEEK. “And a jihadist state in Pakistan would be America’s worst nightmare in the 21st century.”
His book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad was recently published by the Brookings Institution Press. Intended as a primer on Pakistan’s turbulent history, the book sets out to explain, as he writes, “why successive U.S. administrations have undermined civil government in Pakistan, aided military dictators, and encouraged the rise of extremist Islamic movements that now threaten the United States at home and abroad.”
“The record of American presidents handling these crises is not particularly reassuring. Jimmy Carter failed disastrously in Iran, and George [W.] Bush didn’t do much better in Pakistan.”
Riedel describes the original democratic vision of Pakistan’s engaging founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—a dapper, chain-smoking, British-educated lawyer with a fondness for cocktails—and, at a brisk pace, takes readers on an excursion from the nation’s birth in 1947, through the India-Pakistan wars and the military dictatorships that followed. Of particular interest is Gen. Zia ul-Haq, arguably the world’s first jihadist head of state.
Among the brighter moments in the country’s history was the election of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s first female prime minister, whom Riedel got to know.
“If there was a Pakistani politician who could have found a better future for the country, she was probably the one,” he says. “It was a great tragedy that we lost her. She had her failings, but she was by far the most modern and forward-thinking Pakistani leader of our time, and we’re still suffering from her departure.”
The genesis of Riedel’s book was his appointment as chair of President Obama’s 2009 strategic review of American policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he is full-throated about the threat: an unstable democracy armed with the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, and blighted by ungovernable Islamists.
As Riedel’s book suggests, international strategy is an awkward mélange of ideals and realpolitik. And while there may have been good reasons why successive administrations supported military dictators in the Middle East and South Asia, Pakistan’s past—and Egypt’s present—suggest that America needs to change course to offer more than rhetorical support for democratic movements.
“The record of American presidents handling these crises is not particularly reassuring. Jimmy Carter failed disastrously in Iran, and George [W.] Bush didn’t do much better in Pakistan. In Pakistan, America tried very hard to keep the dictator Gen. [Pervez]
Musharraf in power long after the Pakistani people had said he should go,” Riedel says. “There’s a high risk that if you don’t stay ahead of history and change, you’ll be blamed by the populations, by the people of Egypt, by the people in other dictatorships—just as we’re blamed in Pakistan for having stood by the military.”
By definition, revolutions are unpredictable, but should democracy take hold in Egypt, the American administration will have to deal with a much more messy and turbulent situation.
“The challenge Obama has now,” Riedel says, “is managing the whirlwind.”