last updated: April 3, 2013
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- Gatestone Institute: Distinguished Senior Fellow
- Hudson Institute New York: Former Senior Advisor
- Clarion Fund: Advisory Board
- Defense Department: Adviser, various roles, 1982-2010
- Columbia University: PhD, Islamic History
Harold Rhode is a retired Defense Department adviser based at the Gatestone Institute in New York, an advocacy group known for its promotion of anti-Islamic rhetoric and policies. Formerly a senior adviser at the New York office of the neoconservative Hudson Institute, Rhode has also served on the board of the Clarion Fund, a controversial film production and distribution group. Rhode retired from the Defense Department in 2010 after nearly three decades serving as a foreign affairs and Middle East analyst at the Office of Net Assessment and other Pentagon policy shops.
At Gatestone, Rhode has published numerous articles attacking Islamic culture and promoting U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. A central theme in his recent work has been the purported backwardness of the Muslim world.
In a March 2013 post for Gatestone, for example, Rhode compared the Islamic world to China, citing remarks made by "the Chinese" to argue that the latter had overcome foreign exploitation to become a major player in the global economy while the former had languished in resentment and victimhood. "The Chinese," Rhode claimed, "at behind-the-scenes conferences and discussions during the past few months, kept saying they were perplexed about the Muslim world's—particularly the Arab world's—inability to deal with the modern world. The Chinese and the Muslims, they repeated, had suffered the same humiliation and occupation by foreigners over the past two hundred years, but the Chinese and Muslim reactions to these experiences seem so completely different." Rhode claimed that these unnamed "Chinese" had accused Muslims of being "obsessed" with "portraying themselves as victims," which "gets people nowhere."
Similarly, in a July 2012 article titled “Existential Questions Facing the Muslim World,” Rhode argued that Muslims, particularly Sunni Muslims, are prevented from questioning authority figures and being critical thinkers. “Until Muslims once again allow themselves to ask questions and engage in critical examination," he concluded, "they are disabling themselves from accomplishing as much as they otherwise might.” He added that “Religion has nothing to do with this situation; Islam therefore is not the problem: Islamic culture is. Only when Muslims address their culture head-on can there be any real hope for their world to overcome its self-imposed limitations and start fully contributing to the wonders of the 21st century.”
Rhode has used his allegedly special insights into the Muslim world to promote interventionist policy recommendations. In a July 2012 article titled “What the Iranian People ‘Really Think’ … and How to Help Them,” Rhode deigned to divine the real thoughts of the Iranian people. Based on his observations, Rhode claimed that if the United States and the Westgave “them some sort of indication that we would back them, the Iranian people will understand the encouragement. After a few times, the Iranians would almost assuredly get the message and take matters into their own hands. Helping them liberate themselves would be a win-win situation for the West, and would help put the Iranian people out of the misery imposed on them by their tyrannical regime.”
Rhode also weighed in on Israel's 2013 decision to issue a long-delayed apology to Turkey over the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos killed nine unarmed Turkish activists aboard a humanitarian aid flotilla attempting to breach the Gaza blockade. Rhode suggested that the Israeli government had "obliged" Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Rhode asserted "considers himself a Muslim before a Turk" and aspires to "reestablish his own version of the Ottoman Empire." While the apology allowed Israel to normalize ties with an erstwhile ally, Rhode added, "It is essential that Israel will remind its enemies who’s boss."
Influences and Ideology
Observers have speculated on Rhode’s ideological makeup and its relationship to his work and career. Blogger Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, has described Rhode as “a long-time Middle East specialist in the Defense Department who has cultivated far right pro-Likud cronies for many years.”
In an article for Mother Jones, Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest argued that Rhode was an “ideological gadfly” in the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon, where he worked under Douglas Feith. According to Dreyfuss and Vest, “Rhode helped Feith lay down the law about the department's new anti-Iraq, and broadly anti-Arab, orientation. In one telling incident, Rhode accosted and harangued a visiting senior Arab diplomat, telling him that there would be no ‘bartering in the bazaar anymore. … You're going to have to sit up and pay attention when we say so.’"
Fluent in several Middle Eastern languages—including Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi—Rhode’s work on the Middle East dates back to his university studies. Rhode was studying at Tehran University during the onset of the Iranian revolution. In 1979, he received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Columbia University.
One of his main influences appears to be the controversial scholar Bernard Lewis. According to a source quoted by Juan Cole, “Although [Rhode’s] PhD adviser was Tibor Halasi-Kun, Harold regularly visited Bernard Lewis at Princeton. He considered Lewis his real mentor. Later, [I was told by someone in the know that] that Lewis helped him get a job in Richard Perle’s office at the Pentagon. The rest is history.”
For much of his near-30-year Pentagon career (1982-2010), Rhode was based at the Office of Net Assessment, whose alums include Andrew Marshall and Dennis Ross. According to Jason Vest, Marshall and Rhode were known for "actively tinker[ing] with ways to re-engineer both the Iranian and Saudi Arabian governments."
After the 9/11 attacks, Rhode was tapped to work at the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which was led by Douglas Feith. Its mission was to help plan for the impending Iraq war. According to one account, “Rhode worked with Feith to purge career Defense officials who weren't sufficiently enthusiastic about the muscular anti-Iraq crusade that Paul Wolfowitz and Feith wanted. Rhode appeared to be 'pulling people out of nooks and crannies of the Defense Intelligence Agency and other places to replace us with,' says a former analyst. 'They wanted nothing to do with the professional staff.’”
Dreyfuss and Vest reported in 2004 that "the unofficial, off-site recruitment office for Feith and Rhode [during the build up the war in Iraq] was the American Enterprise Institute, a rightwing think tank whose 12th-floor conference room in Washington is named for the dean of neoconservative defense strategists, the late Albert Wohlstetter, an influential RAND Corporation analyst and University of Chicago mathematician. Headquartered at AEI is Richard Perle, Wohlstetter's prize protege, the godfather of the AEI-Defense Department nexus of neoconservatives who was chairman of the Pentagon's influential Defense Policy Board. Rhode, along with Michael Rubin, a former AEI staffer who is also now at the Pentagon, was a ubiquitous presence at AEI conferences on Iraq over the past two years, and the two Pentagon officials seemed almost to be serving as stage managers for the AEI events, often sitting in the front row and speaking in stage whispers to panelists and AEI officials.”
In late 2001, Rhode became entangled in a controversy regarding secret meetings in Rome between “mid-level Pentagon officials,” Iranian dissidents, and an Italian intelligence official, according to a September 2004 Washington Monthly report. The meeting involved several players: the neoconservative pundit Michael Ledeen , then at the American Enterprise Institute; Larry Franklin (a veteran intelligence official who was later charged with passing classified information to the Israeli government); Rhode and other colleagues of then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith’sstaff; the notorious Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, who was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s, as well as several other Iranians; and Nicolo Pollari, then head of Italian military intelligence, and Antonio Martino, a former Italian defense minister. The secret meeting—as well as later meetings—were organized by Ledeen in cooperation with Feith’s office in an effort to push a hardline, regime-change policy toward Iran, where Ghorbanifar claimed he was in touch with dissident elements of the military.
At the time of meeting, the U.S. ambassador to Italy was Melvin Sembler, a high-profile Republican Party donor and backer of several hawkish advocacy groups, including the now-defunct Freedom’s Watch. Regarding Sembler’s role in the affair, the Washington Monthly reported: “Alarm bells about the December 2001 meeting began going off in U.S. government channels only days after it occurred. On Dec. 12, 2001, at the U.S. embassy in Rome, America's newly installed ambassador, Mel Sembler, sat down for a private dinner with Ledeen, an old friend of his from Republican Party politics, and Martino, the Italian defense minister. The conversation quickly turned to the meeting. The problem was that this was the first that Amb. Sembler had heard about it. … Soon both Sembler and the Rome [CIA] station chief were sending anxious queries back to the State Department and CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., respectively, raising alarms on both sides of the Potomac.
Since retiring from the Pentagon in 2010, Rhode has joined a number of neoconservative outfits, including the Clarion Fund and the Hudson Institute. Rhode has served on the board of advisers of Clarion Fund and has appeared in one of the group’s propaganda films, Iranium, released in early 2011.
In a review of the film for PBS’s Tehran Bureau, Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib wrote: “The film opens with a history lesson that begins in 1978 with the first signs of the widespread unrest that would eventually topple the Shah. Iran’s despotic dictator is presented as “a long-time ally of the United States,” as the film’s narrator, Iranian actor Shoreh Aghdashloo, explains. Then comes the Islamic Revolution, and the film places the blame squarely on the fecklessness of President Jimmy Carter. ‘The fact that Jimmy Carter did not support the Shah in his time of difficulties actually signaled to the Iranian people that the Shah’s rule was over,’ says Harold Rhode, a disciple of Bernard Lewis (who also appears in the film) and a former Pentagon analyst involved in Douglas Feith and his Office of Special Plans’ activities building a public case for war with Iraq. Rhode’s comment hints at themes that keep reemerging throughout the documentary: The belief that Middle Easterners respond only to shows of strength, and that, while Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have been weak on Iran, Ronald Reagan’s supposed strength was respected in the region (with the exception, of course, of his withdrawal from Lebanon after the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks there were bombed in 1983).”
Rhode authored a number of articles for Hudson after joining the institute in 2010. In a December 2010 article about the impact of the Wikileaks documents in the Middle East, Rhode targeted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He repeated an argument, which gained in prominence among “pro-Israel” hardliners after Turkey excoriated Israel for its deadly attack on the Gaza aid flotilla in May 210, that “Erdogan seemed to be able to get away with doing everything he could to undermine Israel and the United States both in the Middle East and throughout the world.”
According to Rhode, since the leaks, some of which cast Erdogan in a harsh light, Middle Easterners believe that United States meant to intentionally warn Erdogan to behave. Thus, an “unintended consequence of the Wikileaks could easily be an improvement of U.S.-Turkish relations. As an incentive from the American side, this might be the reason, many Turks believe, that the Americans also leaked a document according to which Armenia was facilitating weapons transfers to Iran, which used these weapons to kill American soldiers in Iraq.”
Rhode has been a contributor to other rightwing groups, including the Likud Party-aligned Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Intelligence Summit, which once claimed that it "recruits active serving members of the government, like Harold Rhode of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to serve as neutral moderators" for its events. Rhode moderated a session at 2005 Intelligence Summit conference, which included presentations by Frank Gaffney, Paul Vallely, and a host of other well known national security hawks and neoconservatives.
Rhode discussed his views on the relative influence of Iran and Turkey on the “Arab street” in a December 2010 issue brief for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He argued that these two countries were engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab public, with Iran representing the Shiites and Turkey the Sunnis. Despite this struggle, he claimed that the two countries were “working together against the non-Muslim world—most specifically against the U.S. and Israel.”
He concluded: “The Turkish government has only been engaged in efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street since 2002, when Erdogan's party came to power, while the Iranians have been at this for 31 years. Only if Sunni Muslims converted en masse to Shiism would Iran really be able to gain the upper hand. This does not seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future. What would happen if Turkey and Iran switched places? Let's say, for argument's sake, that Turkey abandoned any pretense of secularism and re-established the (Sunni) Caliphate in Istanbul, while Iran returned to secular non-clerical rule. While we can only speculate, it is likely that, with the exception of Shiite-dominated Iraq and the Arab Shiites of the Persian Gulf and parts of Lebanon, the Sunni Arabs would look to Turkey and abandon any pro-Iranian feeling because they would no longer see Iran as the center of the battle to defeat the non-Muslim world. In that case, Turkey would clearly be the winner in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world.”