In the wake of 9/11, president George W. Bush tapped Tom Ridge to head up America’s new Office of Homeland Security. Mr. Ridge, now 66, presided over efforts to protect America against further terrorist attacks. He was also personally named in a lawsuit filed by Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who said he was tortured in Syria after being extradited there by U.S. authorities. Sonia Verma spoke with Mr. Ridge, now CEO of a Washington advisory firm, by telephone from Cairo just a few days after tens of thousands of Salafi Muslims protested in Tahrir Square, calling for an Islamic state
Tom Ridge: You’re not hanging around Tahrir Square, are you?
Sonia Verma: I am in fact.
What are your impressions? One of the concerns that some of us have had privately is better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. And [former Egyptian president Hosni]Mubarak wasn’t someone who we would necessarily want to embrace for his commitment to democratic ideals, but when he’s out the door it’s always a question of who comes in the door. And when they had that hundred thousand group of those Salafists in the square the other day, that sent a chill up and down my spine.
What do you think is the most important legacy of 9/11 for America?
I think the events of 9/11 did not make us more vulnerable as a country. It simply made us more aware of our potential vulnerability. … The emergence of this country as a very specific target has frankly been the legacy of 9/11.
Do you feel, in retrospect, that some of the policies that were implemented to protect homeland security had a negative effect on America’s reputation?
A small group of jihadists and extremists were the target. Not the Muslim community. There was a tremendous effort to build greater understanding between law enforcement and the Muslim community and president Bush and President Obama have continued to act in that fashion. Having said that, there are two things about the Muslim community I would observe: One, this is a small, extremist group out of that community. And, secondly, those who practise the faith of Islam within that community have an ongoing responsibility to discredit the jihadist belief system.
The one issue I thought impacted America’s brand was Guantanamo. I fully supported president Bush. I believed it was appropriate to identify a venue to take individuals who are not prisoners of war. They don’t wear the uniform of a country. They embrace a belief system. I think what undermined the brand of America was that it would incarcerate in perpetuity those they had taken off the battlefield. That flew in the face of who we are as a country. It took us several years to decide that they had to have some form of due process. That delay in identifying what that due process would be probably hurt us with the Muslim community. Some of our allies questioned it because it seemed uniquely un-American. If there’s anything that diminished the American story or the American brand overseas it was probably those couple of years when they were there in Guantanamo without the appearance of any kind of due process.
What about the relationship between the American government and American Muslims? Of course you’re aware of Maher Arar, who said he was tortured in Syria after being deported there by American authorities.
I’m familiar with his claims. I’m not familiar with how accurate they are. This is a global scourge. It’s really a case of first impression for everybody. As secretary of homeland security after 9/11, I dare say America was confronted with a set of challenges it had never seen before and we acted with what we thought was in the best interest for securing America. We also looked back at what we did and made some adjustments. I’ll just leave it at that. We can kill bin Laden and eliminate a lot of these other extremists, but that whole belief system is out there. It doesn’t take too many people to buy in to it to cause enormous damage.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Washington supported regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s as allies in the war on terror. Now, with him literally in a cage, where does that leave the United States?
Frankly, our policy has been inconsistent in that region of the world. The threat of Iran escalates every single day. There was a Persian Spring that this country paid absolutely no attention to. I always thought [Syrian president Bashar]Assad was a much greater threat because of Syria’s connection with Iran and their mutual support of Hamas and Hezbollah. That’s a much greater threat to regional stability and the interests of the Western world. We have been very indecisive on Syria, other than making rhetorical challenges. Yet we’re spending time and effort in Libya. I am at a loss.
Do you feel that the United States today is stronger than it was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks?
I believe because the global community sharing information – through intelligence circles or the law-enforcement community – has made us safer. But at the end of the day no country can guarantee they’ve created a failsafe environment. It’s just not the reality. The new norm is that we may be more aware of our vulnerability but we’re still vulnerable.
It was a war between the United States and al-Qaeda. Do you feel that the United States has won that war?
I don’t think either the United States or the rest of the world community is ever going to win the war. I don’t think you are ever going to have a “Victory over al-Qaeda Day.” Al-Qaeda is a group of individuals. What we’re really up against is a belief system. I wish we thought a little bit differently at the outset about naming it a war on terror because terror is simply a belief system. And al-Qaeda is a group of individuals that have embraced that belief system. Other peripheral groups share it as well. The real challenge is confronting a belief system. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to undermine that to the point where it’s no longer attractive to a small group of extremists.
Has the United States, with its financial troubles and exhausted by two wars over the years, lost its ability to influence the region?
I wish I could give you a good answer. First of all, I don’t think the leadership of this country should ever be so bogged down in one or two domestic or international events that they lose their ability to influence events in other parts of the world. Our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq has consumed much of our time, our treasure and blood. But that’s never an excuse for not paying attention to the other big issues in that region. I think Iran and Syria have been ignored and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why. Who knows what Iran’s connection is to the Muslim Brotherhood? As the rest of the world takes a look at the United States’s posture in North Africa and the Middle East, they’d probably scratch their head trying to figure out what our policy is there as well.
Do you think it was a mistake to support Mubarak?
There weren’t too many good alternatives out there. There were reasons for us to support him – the stability that he brought to the region. It’s difficult for me to second-guess. I think at the time it was the right thing to do. I’ll give you a grander statement. The days of family rule around the world are numbered given the globalization of communication and finance and everything else. Right after 9/11, Mubarak and that relationship was sustained. And not being in on all the little secrets within the State Department and the military, it still seemed to be the right thing to do.
Did America miss the opportunity to engage the people of the Middle East in a meaningful way? While the protests of the Arab Spring were secular, people are not exactly embracing America the way Washington might want.
When everybody rallies against Mubarak, how does one determine they’re small “d” democrats? I don’t think it ever hurts America to publicly support those who aspire to self-government. I don’t know whether we missed an opportunity or not, but I’ve always thought those are the aspirations of most people around the globe. It’s almost instinctive in their nature. And how you apply that to individual countries really depends on the circumstances. This notion that two or three or four months of repression or the killing of innocent civilians – whether it’s in Iran or Syria, and we’re either being mute or marginally rhetorical – it’s inconsistent with the kind of ideals we should be promoting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.