Jesse Helms is the senior senator from North Carolina and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Born in 1921, he held a number of positions in journalism and in politics before his election to the Senate in 1972. Mr. Helms has made a name for himself by speaking his mind, often taking controversial stands; his resumé notes, for example, that he "has never voted for a foreign aid giveaway." In his replies to questions posed by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson on January 11, 1995, Mr. Helms gave his views on some key Middle Eastern questions.
Middle East Quarterly: In what circumstances do you approve of foreign aid?
Jesse Helms: If you mean foreign assistance in the form of handouts to various nations funded by U.S. taxpayers, I do not approve in any circumstances.
MEQ: Do you favor aid to any Middle Eastern states?
Helms: I assume you mean Israel and Egypt. It seems to me that since the Camp David accords were signed, it has become common currency that the United States pay off any country willing to make peace with Israel. Does this mean that the U.S. taxpayers will be obliged to pay off these countries so long as they have peace with Israel?
The nations of the Middle East must make peace with Israel because it will benefit them, not us. They cannot win a war against Israel; peace will bring the Arab states the only victory they have had in this century.
I have long believed that if the United States is going to give money to Israel, it should be paid out of the Department of Defense budget. My question is this: If Israel did not exist, what would U.S. defense costs in the Middle East be? Israel is at least the equivalent of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Middle East. Without Israel promoting its and America's common interests, we would be badly off indeed.
MEQ: Should foreign aid continue to today's recipients for decade after decade?
Helms: I have asked Prime Minister Rabin, and before him, Prime Minister Shamir, why Israel and the United States cannot begin consideration of what happens if and when economic assistance from the United States ends. I don't know how many people realize it, but of the $1.2 billion in economic assistance we give Israel, almost all of that comes back to the United States in the form of debt repayment.
Remember, we wrote off both Egypt's and Jordan's debt to the United States, why not Israel's too? I have proposed that in exchange for a gradual writedown of that money owed us, we agree to sunset economic aid to Israel. Heck, if I thought Israel's survival depended on that aid, it could be another story. But the only thing that's really surviving is Israel's socialist economy.
In any case, both prime ministers shot down my idea because it might harm Israel's credit rating. I don't subscribe to that notion, but I want to work with Israel to deal with this issue, not against Israel. Prime Minister Rabin has said he recognizes that the aid must slow down; why let that moment hit us in the face? We should be talking about the best way for us to support both economies, and not bury our heads in the sand as we do now.
MEQ: In the event of a Syria-Israel peace treaty, the Labor government has indicated it will press the U.S. government for aid to Syria. Would you under any circumstances agree to this?
Helms: Bear in mind that Syria is on the U.S. government list of nations that sponsor international terrorism, that it is the supplier and patron of Hizbullah; and that it is on the list of nations in noncompliance with our narcotics control policy. I continue to believe the Syrian government played a role in the downing of Pan Am 103. The Syrian government was closely involved in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut.
The Syrian government has American blood on its hands. Tell me how peace with Israel will cleanse those hands?
MEQ: You are on record opposing the placement of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights to facilitate a Syrian-Israeli peace. But what if that peace depended on the placement of American troops there?
Helms: Any treaty whose sine qua non requires a U.S. military presence to guarantee peace is no treaty at all.
If Syria and Israel agree to a peace treaty, that is their decision, not ours. If they cannot make a deal without a payoff, or troops, or both, from the United States, I would not favor a deal and there should not be one.
MEQ: What about American forces on the Sinai Peninsula? Is their mission over?
Helms: I have asked both President Mubarak and Prime Minister Rabin why those troops must remain. Each has his own views on the subject. My view is that those troops do little but sit in the sand; that's a heck of a lot of sitting for $30 million a year.
MEQ: Is there a new basis for a post-cold war strategic relationship between Israel and the United States?
Helms: Israel is surrounded by terrorists who threaten not only Israel but the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The United States has vital strategic interests in the Middle East, and it is imperative that we have a reliable ally whom we can trust, one who shares our goals and values. Israel is the only state in the Middle East that fits that bill.
MEQ: Is fundamentalist Islam the new ideological threat facing the United States?
Helms: We must never say, "Communism is dead and we need a new bugaboo to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union."
Islam as a religion is not a threat to the United States. Religious Muslim politicians are not a threat to the United States. The United States is threatened by would-be dictators who hide behind the banner of religion and resort to murder and terrorism to attain their goals.
MEQ: What can we do to discourage terrorism such as happened at the World Trade Center?
Helms: First, in the United States, we must have better coordination between law enforcement and immigration authorities. Right now the system doesn't work and we end up with Sheikh ['Umar 'Abd ar-]Rahman-type people living here.
Second, we must stand up to terrorist states. Right now the Syrians are hosting all sorts of terror groups. Why are we talking to states that harbor terrorists?
Third, countries sponsoring terrorism must be made to suffer. Our allies in Europe must stop cosseting Iran; we must stop the World Bank from lending hundreds of millions to Iran. These terrorists must be made to understand that if they want to be part of the civilized world, they must respect and abide by civilized principles.
MEQ: The French have adopted a tough stance versus fundamentalist Muslims in Algeria; the Clinton administration is looking for "moderates" among them. What's your approach?
Helms: Whether you're killed by a "moderate" fundamentalist or by a "radical," you're just as dead. It's too late to look for moderates in Algeria -- to coin a phrase, there's too much blood under the bridge.
MEQ: Did President Bush do the right thing by calling off the war against Iraq before getting rid of Saddam Husayn?
Helms: Regardless of what anybody may have wished, the specific mission of the Gulf War, as approved by Congress, was to drive Iraq from Kuwait -- not to drive Saddam from Iraq. If that goal could have been achieved easily, and if the Democrat-controlled Congress had approved it, we should have gone ahead, because Saddam promises to be a thorn in our side for years to come.
MEQ: Should we press the Saudi government to democratize?
Helms: Saudi Arabia is an important ally to the United States. It is important for its own survival that it diversify economically and open up to give its people a voice in the government.
However, it is by no means appropriate for the United States to threaten or cajole the Saudis into doing that. Our role, as a friend and ally interested in a secure future for Saudi Arabia, should be limited to passing on private suggestions regarding what we feel is in the best interests of Saudi Arabia.