Former CIA official to give next 'First Wednesdays' talk

Haviland Smith

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MANCHESTER - A former high ranking officer of the Central Intelligence Agency will be delivering a talk during next week's "First Wednesdays" lecture series that will focus on the challenges faced by U.S. diplomacy in the seemingly ever-turbulent Middle East.

Haviland Smith, now 82, served as a station chief in Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia, as well as in Washington, D.C. during a remarkable career at the CIA which spanned nearly a quarter-century. Between 1956 and 1980 he was also a deputy station chief in Beirut, Lebanon, and Tehran, before diplomatic relations were severed between the U.S. and Iran. He also served as one of the first counterterrorism chiefs at the agency back in the 1970s.

On Feb. 1, he will be the featured speaker at the monthly series sponsored and hosted by the Vermont Humanities Council and the Mark Skinner Library. The talk will take place at the First Congregational Church and will start at 7 p.m.

"What I do is lay out the realities of the Middle East and get (the audience) to wonder whether or not our expectations for the Middle East are feasible, given the realities that exist there," he said in a phone interview last week.

Those realities, according to Smith, contain a sobering message for the United States as it attempts to contain the multiple, and often inter-related problems the region presents from Washington's perspective. More than five decades of support for various strongman-style authority figures has left the U.S. with little credibility among those who were excluded from the military, political or business elites of the various nations, several of which have undergone significant upheavals in the past year of the "Arab Spring."

The exchange of support for authoritarian rule in return for curbing the influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or on economic matters and oil policy, has left a bad taste in the mouths the Arab middle class and Islamic groups motivated to a greater or lesser extent by religious factors, he said.

But expecting the nations of the Middle East to produce Jeffersonian-style democracies, at least in the near term, is probably unrealistic. Instead, what the U.S. could hope for and work towards is developing a working relationship with those new, emerging power centers that are challenging the rule of former dictators like Hosni Mubarek of Egypt - and those include those who are unabashedly inspired by the Islamic faith.

"My ultimate conclusion is what we need to be thinking about is not creating democracies in the Middle East - which is really contrary to everything they are culturally - and focus on supporting a moderate Islam," he said. "In the long run this would be a plus for U.S. national interests."

You could call it going with the flow. Three recent elections in the Middle East have resulted in Islamic political groups receiving clear majorities - some are more fundamentalist than others. But overall, the groupings give rise to the hope that they are moderate enough to allow democratic processes to creep into the system, Smith said.

The Middle East is a vast place, stretching from the Islamic states of North Africa across the petro-states of Saudi Arabia and smaller statelets strung along the west side of the Persian Gulf, to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In between lies the festering sore that is Israel and Palestine, as well as smaller nations like Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the last of which is undergoing a traumatic upheaval that verges on civil war.

Smith isn't planning to give a case-by-case, country by country breakdown and analysis of each individual situation presented by this group of nations. Rather, he hopes to take a broadbrush approach to the issues presented by the interaction between the U.S. and the nations of the Middle East, and use examples from individual countries to make his points, he said.

"What I hope will happen is the audience will be provoked sufficiently to ask a lot of questions," he said. "I love the Q& A part of these sessions." With Iran much in the news over it nuclear program and threats to close the vital waterway of the straits of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's crude oil passes, to lingering issues with Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the seemingly intractable stand-off between the Israelis and Palestinians over territorial sovereignty, there would seem to be fertile ground for audience questions.

Smith doesn't shy away from controversial assertions either. One of the best things the U.S, could do to improve relations with many of the Arab states is to withdraw all U.S. military forces out of the area, he said. Their presence only fuels continuing resentment and anger. And expecting residents in places like Afghanistan, for example, to side with foreign militaries, who everyone knows will eventually leave, in preference to indigenous, home grown forces - who will be around long after that - is a "no-brainer," he said.

The simple fact is they won't be on our side, because we've already said we were leaving, Smith said.

Smith currently lives in Williston. After he retired from the CIA, he moved to Vermont, where he and his wife had owned a farm since the 1960s in Brookfield, and where they lived until the late 1990s. He has served on his local school board, the court diversion board, and the state's Fish and Wildlife board.

For more information about Haviland Smith's upcoming "First Wednesdays" talk, call the Mark Skinner Library at 362-2607.


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