Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations
The Middle East Policy Council's 86th Capitol Hill Conference has concluded. The full video and unedited transcript are available below. A policy brief derived from this event can be read here. The panel, held October 13, 2016, offered diverse perspectives on the challenges for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and opportunities for the next administration. To receive invitations to future events, click here, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. To view our recent Capitol Hill Conferences, click here.
The following is an unedited transcript of the eighty-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2016, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Former Ambassador, Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Richard Schmierer. I’m the chairman of the Middle East Policy Council, and I’m very pleased to welcome all of you here today for our 86th Capitol Hill Conference.
We’re particularly pleased to have such a distinguished panel, and we’ll get to them in just a moment to discuss today’s topic, which is “The Middle East and the New Administration: Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations.” But before I introduce our panel members I’d like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council and its programs.
We were founded in 1981 for the purpose of promoting dialogue and education concerning the U.S. and the countries of the Middle East. We have three flagship programs: one, our Capitol Hill Conferences, such as today’s event, which we do quarterly here up on the Hill. The second is our very well-renowned journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a very good reputation among those interested in the area, and has widely circulated both in the U.S. and internationally. And finally, our educational outreach program, which we call TeachMideast, which is targeted primarily to secondary school students and teachers. I would encourage you to visit our website, www.MEPC.org, and our TeachMideast program website, which is www.TeachMideast.org.
Now to today’s program. The program is being live-streamed on our website, and so I’m pleased to welcome all of those who have logged in to view today’s event. The proceedings from today’s program will be posted in both a video and transcript form on our website, and we’ll get those up as soon as we can. And then the transcript will also be published in edited form in our journal, Middle East Policy. We will also post a recap of today’s program on our website in the next day or so.
You will find complete information on today’s panelists in your program, but I would like to briefly introduce each before we launch into our discussion.
Our first speaker today will be Ambassador Chas Freeman. Chas has had a long and distinguished diplomatic career, including holding the positions of assistant secretary of defense and ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Freeman is also a president emeritus of the Middle East Policy Council. (Clears throat.) Excuse me.
Ambassador Freeman will be followed by Mr. Ilan Goldenberg, who is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Ilan’s distinguished career has included influential positions on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the Department of Defense and at the State Department.
Our third speaker today will be Dr. Jim Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, an organization which he co-founded in 1985. Dr. Zogby writes a widely – a weekly column focused on the Middle East and appears frequently in national and international media to discuss the region. He is also a noted expert on public opinion in the Middle East.
And our fourth speaker will be Dr. Jerry Hyman, who is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Dr. Hyman has also been associated with the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and has done democracy and governance assessments on several countries in the Middle East.
The discussion following the presentations by our panelists will be moderated by Dr. Tom Mattair. Tom is the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. He has lived in the Middle East and published widely on the region. Previously, he was director of research at the council and has served as the council’s executive director since 2009.
Following the opening presentations by our four panelists we will have a Q&A session. Please note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. Please use these to write down any questions which you have as the speakers are speaking and hold the cards up. Our staff will collect them during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair so he can consolidate the questions and tee them up for the discussion session. So with that, I think we’ve got our program launched.
Chas, can I invite you to the podium?
CHAS W. FREEMAN, JR., Chairman, Projects International Inc.; Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense; Former President, MEPC
Thank you very much, Rich. It’s really a pleasure to be back in front of the Middle East Policy Council after an absence of some years. And I will launch directly into my remarks.
I think Osama bin Laden must have died happy. He devoted the last third of his life to creating animosity between the West and Islam and to driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Today, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are all estranged from our country. And as an unexpected bonus, so is Israel.
The U.S., meanwhile, is making enemies all over the Muslim world. And every day here at home, millions pay homage to the memory of Osama bin Laden as they remove their shoes to pass through metal detectors and are stripped of their dignity by body imaging devices at airports. I’m told it’s not true that the images are outsourced to India, but who knows? (Laughter.)
America is less secure, we are less prosperous as Americans, and we are less free than we were as this century began. In life Osama was transformative. In death he continues to shape the world he left behind. Can a new administration change this? Will it?
I have a political confession to make: I do not believe that we are about to elect a president able to govern effectively and to end dysfunction in Washington. Whoever we choose as our president seems certain to be regarded as illegitimate and opposed by supporters of her or his rival. These opponents will be just as determined to discredit and oust him or her from office as diehard Republicans have been to thwart and discredit President Obama over the last eight years. This means that indecision born of political gridlock, the sequester and other illness of our body politic will continue. It may even get worse.
After careful analysis of Mr. Trump’s inconstancy on the Middle East and other issues, I’ve come to suspect that he’s actually five guys sharing a single oversized orange wig. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton presents herself as the pitiless goddess of airstrikes, drone warfare and dead dictators. But at heart, the two candidates faithfully reflect the narratives, prejudices and conventional policy approaches of the nation they propose to lead.
This gives them so much in common that I think it’s more efficient to discuss them together rather than separately. So I will refer to Candidates Clinton and Trump as one gender-fluid person, “Candidate Clump.” (Laughter.) Candidate Clump is on the payroll of the Israel lobby’s major donors, wants to isolate Iran, and loves sanctions and other forms of economic warfare more than trade and investment. Clump was for the invasion of Iraq before “hesh” was against it. (Laughter.) Hesh is more interested in poking at the Middle East than in understanding it.
Clump thinks terrorism is a function of theology rather than a violent response by misfits to humiliation and social marginalization. Hesh is convinced that bombing is the best antidote to what hesh imagines is a religious onslaught. Hesh is not fond of Egypt and wishes Saudi Arabia would just go away. When elected, President Clump will give Israel whatever it must have to fend off its political tantrums. In short, the next president will concentrate on keeping the lid on the explosive mess that the last few presidents have made of the Middle East and America’s position in it.
All this means that the next administration, whoever heads it, is very unlikely to lead an intelligent interagency or national discussion about what must be done to dig ourselves out of the very large and deep sinkhole in the Middle East that we’ve fallen into. The only part of our government policy apparatus now capable of planning and with the money and the moxie to act on plans is our armed services.
The easiest path for the next president to follow, therefore, will be to double down on the militaristic policies that have brought our relations to the Middle East to their current deplorable state. But in the interest of discussion here today, I propose that we suspend disbelief in contemporary American politics and politicians and do our best to imagine a return to intelligent and competent government in Washington. Close your eyes. (Laughter.) Take a deep breath. Come on, we can imagine that. (Laughter.) Yes, we can.
What situations will our president, Congress and Supreme Court inherit in the Middle East? What should they do about them? What new challenges will they face? Well, to begin with, there are at least 12 distinct but overlapping wars going on in Syria, maybe more. Saudi Arabia is at war with Iran; foreign-backed insurgents with the Assad government; Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran with the insurgents; Islamists with secularists; foreign-backed forces with Daesh, the Islamic State; Shiites with Sunnis; Kurds with Arabs; Kurds with Kurds; Turks with Kurds; and the United States separately with the Assad government, with Daesh and with Russia.
The United States is indirectly or directly involved in about half of these Syrian wars, aligned with and against Assad and with and against the insurgent forces, sometimes with Turkey and sometimes against Turkey, sometimes with the Kurds but always against Russia. Oh, and Israel continues to bomb Syrians whenever it feels like it.
Notwithstanding all the humanitarian crocodile tears, one-sided anti-Assad narratives and public relations exercises masquerading as diplomacy, the net effect of U.S. policy has been to perpetuate the anarchy and slaughter in Syria by feeding ever more weapons into it. Now, this is a policy that is congenial to Israel, which openly prefers chaos to competent but hostile government in Syria. It frustrates or horrifies everyone else.
Assad remains in power. The Gulf Arabs feel let down. Sectarian strife swells. Foreign interventions wax and wane. Iran retains their preeminent political role in the Levant. Turkey turns this way and that. Kurdish self-determination looms and recedes. Turkey and Europe drown in refugees. The U.S. and Russia are ever closer to war. All sides, including the United States, remorselessly violate both international law and the basic canons of human decency. And Daesh revels in its martyrdom. And the slaughter continues.
The disgusting effects of lawless outside intervention in Syria, as in Libya, have driven a stake through the heart of the so-called principle of responsibility to protect. Americans are in denial about the significant role we have played in destabilizing and immiserating Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
We accept no responsibility for the 450,000 or more dead Syrians or the 11 million displaced from their homes. Our politicians and public oppose taking in the refugees from the anarchy we have helped to foster. This is craven, dishonorable, and a reproach to our moral standing and prestige. But let’s leave such quibbles aside. This is, after all, Washington, where both common sense and moral accountability come to die.
Our attempts to oust the government of Syria have produced another backfire for attempted regime change. Syria has also served up a further demonstration of the limited capacity of armed intervention to impose the U.S. government’s will abroad. Bombing and support for insurgents are feel-good actions. They’re not substitutes for coherent strategy. We and those who have followed our lead have gained nothing and lost much from our latest thoughtless lurch into the Levant.
Part of our reason for joining Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE in attempting to overthrow the Assad government was to show solidarity with them – complicity instead, I should say. An erratic U.S. performance has irreparably damaged all these relationships. Complicity in the Syrian catastrophe and Israel’s assaults on Gaza and Lebanon, and in Saudi Arabia’s brutal attempt to bring Yemen to heel have earned the United States outrage abroad and no plaudits at home. As U.S. influence has receded, Russia has re-emerged as a diplomatically skillful greater power in the Middle East. Meanwhile, there is no silver lining to be seen in the dark cloud of Syria’s agony.
Parallel contradictions are at work in Iraq, which our 2003 invasion and occupation also thrust into anarchy. By marked contrast with Syria, where we’re working with Sunni Islamists to oppose Iran and a pro-Iranian Shiite regime, in Iraq we’re working in parallel with Iran to suppress Sunni Islamists and resistance to Shiite exclusion of Sunnis from a role in governing the country. Ironically, given our support of it, Iraq’s government participates in a joint intelligence headquarters with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, Hezbollah and Russia. As in Syria, our policies appear to align every which way.
Not to worry; there are fewer wars going on in Iraq than in Syria, only five or six or so by my count. In various combinations the Iraqi government, the United States and Iran are each fighting against Daesh. The Shiite Arab majority is against the Sunni Arab minority and vice-versa. Daesh kills secularists, Shiites and carefully selected Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Kurds, with American support, stand against Daesh and sometimes against the Iraqi government. The Kurds kill Turkmen and the Turks kill them.
Occasionally, presidential candidates hint that they have a plan that diagrams how Americans can end our misadventures in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the last box on their plan seems to read “a miracle happens here.” It’s the Middle East, so where miracles are said to have happened in the past so I suppose you can’t rule that out, but it’s hard to consider this much of a plausible probability.
The next administration needs to give our Iraq policies a hard scrub. But with the cult of the warrior ascendant in our culture and few Americans dying, the Washington playbook is likely to prevail. We will continue on autopilot but deploy more firepower. Anti-American terrorism with global reach will therefore continue to grow.
Our counterterrorism policies need a fundamental overhaul. We’re not being assaulted by religious fanatics so much as by young men, and the occasional woman, who fit the murderous profile of misfits like Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski. Whether homegrown or foreign, our attackers see themselves as humiliated, persecuted, bullied or otherwise victimized. They’re looking for a cause larger than themselves in which to cloak their criminality.
Like the perpetrators of gun massacres from non-Muslim backgrounds, they are boastful and crave attention through spectacular violence. Sometimes they act to get such attention. All too often we give it to them. We mistake their terrorist doctrine for their motivation. But they are psychotic, not pious. They are gangbangers, not theologians.
Bombing the so-called Islamic State and snuffing Muslims from the air with drones don’t help cure anti-American terrorism with global reach. They feed the very paranoid delusions on which it thrives. Eliminating the Islamic State’s control of parts of Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the causes of terrorism directed at the West.
It’s time for a different approach. The place to start, I think, is Syria. In Syria the combatants have all relied on external support. They have not needed to court popular support by avoiding atrocities against civilians. Cutting off overt and covert aid to combatants would help restore their incentive to do so, meaning to take account of the feelings of the people they are victimizing in Syria.
Syrians, Turks, Saudis, other Gulf Arabs, Europeans, Iranians, Lebanese and Russians would all be better off if we and all other external parties agreed to mutual restraint and an end to the supply of weapons and training and fighters to Syria. Syrians need to sort out their differences among themselves.
Curtailing the proxy wars in Syria would remove major obstacles to Syrians actually doing this. It would also bring the world back into conformity with the principle that one should do no harm and mark a return to respect for international law, something now rarely mentioned but which we all have a stake in preserving. Focusing on calling off the proxy wars in Syria could also facilitate exploration of how to dial down the increasingly dangerous geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unless that’s done, there can be no return to peace and stability in the region.
As part of a search for a regional détente, the United States needs to have a serious discussion with the Saudis about a war termination strategy for Yemen. Riyadh traditionally managed Yemen with money, not military operations – an approach in which it enjoyed and continues to enjoy many advantages over Tehran. We need to help the Saudis find a way to replace warfare with less ruinous ways of pursuing their entirely understandable interest in denying Yemen to Iran strategically.
Working with Saudi Arabia to reduce armed conflict in its region would also help detoxify the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It’s become politically poisonous in both countries, as illustrated by the blossoming of American Islamophobia, Saudi vituperation against America, and the recent override of President Obama’s veto of JASTA, the cynically named Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. This is actually the “shyster’s relief act” of 2016.
I mentioned the Supreme Court earlier and this is where it comes in. Neither country can afford to make an enemy of the other. The United States needs Saudi Arabia’s cooperation not so much for its oil, which we once again produce in abundance ourselves, but for other compelling reasons. These include Riyadh’s capacity to influence the religious orientation of the world’s Muslims for better or ill, to condone or refute Salafi jihadism, and to promote or subvert tolerance among the various schools of Islam and between Muslims and the adherents of other religions.
The U.S. also have vital interests in the Kingdom’s facilitation of air and sea travel between Asia and Europe, its economic and military support rather than opposition to U.S. policies and interests in the region, and its continued reliance on conventional rather than nuclear weapons for its defense. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has no alternative to the United States as the ultimate guarantor of its security. The next administration should strive to restore U.S.-Saudi relations so that they permit exploration of how to advance interests that both countries share with Iran, like the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq.
To do this would not be easy, of course. It would require buy-in from the Saudis, the Emirates and others in the Gulf, as well as cooperation from Iran. And it would also demand understanding from Israel, which remains a potent if declining force in American domestic politics. Despite decades of efforts by the United States to broker peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, the so-called peace process is now dead and buried. It cannot be exhumed and it will not be resurrected.
This means that under the next administration, the United States will have no political cover internationally at all for its continuing subsidies to the Israeli settlement enterprise or for its protection of Israel from international condemnation and punishment for its gross violations of the rights of its captive Arab populations, illegal territorial expansion, and intermittent military assaults on neighbors.
The U.S. relationship with Israel is becoming increasingly unbalanced and costly. Israel has become one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. It dominates its region militarily yet U.S. taxpayers will pay, or more likely borrow, $3.8 billion each year for the next 10 to subsidize it – this despite the fact that Israel contemptuously opposes most U.S. policies in its region. It goes out of its way to demonstrate its defiance of U.S. and international opinion of its policies and seems to many to be hell-bent on doing itself in. Unconditional support for Israel does grave harm to Israel by enabling it to behave in ways and take risks with its future that it otherwise would not.
Of greater importance to all Americans, it also greatly reduces the credibility of the United States by causing Arabs, Muslims and many others to see U.S. attempts to advocate human rights, oppose racism, promote the rule of law, empower women or support the democratization of government as insincere, hypocritical or downright duplicitous. Americans speaking out for our values in the Middle East now persuade no one there. We just remind them of our unflinching complicity in Israeli policies and practices that mock the ideals we claim to champion.
On its way out, the Obama administration has begun speaking more honestly – which means more harshly – about the extent to which Israeli statements and behavior now trouble Americans, including, by the way, the great majority of American Jews. But in the region this just comes across as: Who are you going to believe, America or your lying eyes? We’re a bit late and $38 billion short. No one believes that the United States will curtail its enablement of Israel or that our politicians will put the national interest ahead of their own personal security in office.
To sum up, despite the shambles present and previous policies in the Middle East have produced, the next administration is likely to ratchet them up, not change them. They serve too many vested interests and resonate with too many entrenched narratives to be discontinued. But the probable result of doing more of the same is more of the same. That’s really too bad, both for us and for everyone in the Middle East.
The region is ripe for new approaches. The opportunities for imaginative statecraft that can secure a long-term place for Israel in the region, share the burden of protecting access to the energy supplies of the Persian Gulf, dial down anti-Western terrorism with global reach, phase out the slaughter in Syria, re-stabilize Iraq, and channel Saudi-Iranian and U.S.-Russian rivalry away from proxy war are all there to be found if only our leaders have the political courage to look.
I look forward to hearing the views of my fellow panelists and those of you who have listened so patiently to my remarks. Thank you. (Applause.)
ILAN GOLDENBERG, Senior Fellow & Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security; Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Former Iran Team Chief, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy; Former Special Advisor on the Middle East, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy
OK, great. Well, thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for having me here today.
And that’s some very interesting discussion from Ambassador Freeman. I’m going to – well, I think we agree on some of the problems. I think we probably have some different prescriptions.
You know, as I look at the region, I sort of see three central challenges facing the Middle East. And these three factors are working together to really complicate and just make the situation more and more – and create this horrible brew that we’re now dealing with in the Middle East.
The first challenge is you have these security vacuums in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – these collapse of some of these Arab republics. And these vacuums are highly problematic in that, you know, from these vacuums flow – these set the conditions for extremism. They are where extremists organize and plan attacks. It’s also where refugees flow out of. And a lot of these destabilizing problems then affect the entire region.
But these vacuums are, in some ways, the embers of the fire. Then you add to that the gasoline, and the gasoline is the proxy wars. It’s really state-on-state competition. And I think, as the ambassador laid out, probably the most prominent and problematic is Iranian-Saudi competition. We also have Turks, Qataris, others, the U.S. and Russia.
This competition, what it does is it’s the gasoline and the fire because all these countries are insecure. They are concerned about losing influence in these vacuums that have been created. And so how do they respond? They provide weapons, they provide money in an effort to increase their influence and to make sure that they are on the winning side or that they have some influence in whatever vacuums are filled. But by doing that, they just further fuel the flames of this fire.
A third factor then is the American role. And I think what you have right now in the Middle East is this perception that the United States is pulling back. And I think that’s important because I think it’s partially true or partially not true, but this perception is then feeding further competition. It’s creating insecurity amongst some of our friends, especially the Saudis and then some of the Gulf States, this fear that the U.S. is moving away from them and towards Iran, which is then causing them to be more aggressive in their responses and act out on their own in ways that are sometimes unhelpful to their interests and ours.
But it’s also creating a sense from some of our adversaries and competitors – “adversaries” is a strong word; I’ll use the word “competitors” – such as Iran or Russia, that then see an increasing vacuum in the United States leaving and then go in more aggressively. So again, this is – again, one side is insecure because of a fear of the U.S. leaving and so it’s getting more aggressive. One side feels there’s more opportunity, so it’s getting more aggressive. The end result is more aggression on all sides, which is further fueling this fire.
And so this is how I view the region as a whole. Where I think I disagree with Ambassador Freeman is on what you do. I think what you laid out was a de-escalatory strategy, which I think is where we do want to get to at the end of the day. The problem is if everybody perceives that we are leaving right now – and I should say, you know, part of this perception is real and part of it is – part of it is on us in the United States and part of it is also on our partners. You know, I mean, when – you know, and I’ll give some examples.
When we have Hosni Mubarak falling in Egypt, this perception that somehow this is American responsibility, and any leader of the free world was going to stand up when there’s a million people in the streets, I think is unfair. And part of this is the reality of internal problems that these states are dealing with that they’ve put on the United States that really aren’t on us. On the other hand, when you do draw a red line in Syria, for example, and say that you’re going to strike and then you don’t, you do shake the confidence of many of our partners in the region.
So there’s both – you know, when we do a nuclear agreement with Iran that is in our interests and is clearly – and is articulated as not intended as a fundamental strategic pivot but is just trying to contain Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, I put that on our friends for not trying to better understand that. But then when you don’t follow it up with more forcefully pushing back on Iranian interests in other places in the region where they conflict with ours or some of our traditional partners, I put that on us.
So this dynamic, this perception of American withdrawal is really on both – some on both sides, when you have this dynamic, if you try to pursue a purely de-escalatory strategy, I think – I fear that all you’re going to end up doing is fueling the fire, because if we try to pull back, all you’re going to do is send more signals to the Russians and the Iranians to pull forward and send more signals to our friends that they’re on their own to push forward. And so I just fear that that is where we would go. So I would offer a different approach for the region for the next administration.
First, priority on filling the security gaps that exist across the region. And that really starts with Syria and Iraq. I actually think, you know, after 9/11 we had an initial approach for how we deal with this problem of terrorist safe havens. We invade countries. We put 150,000 troops on the ground. It turns out that doesn’t work. It’s too expensive for our interests, it’s not sustainable politically in the United States, and it doesn’t actually achieve your objective.
We then, I would argue, pulled to a different approach from 2009 to 2014, where we really just try to pull back as much as you can, and drone strikes and other long-distance elements over the horizon. It turns out that doesn’t work either, you know, as you pull out of Iraq, as you pull out of Libya, and we end up with problems like ISIS and terrorist safe haven in the heart of Iraq and Syria. So I think we’re stumbling onto a third way slowly, at least in the fight against ISIS, but this fight needs to – this approach needs to be applied across Iraq and Syria and across the region.
And here’s what I would argue for: First, what you need to do is focus on who you are going to support as opposed to who you are going to oppose. You know, are we against Assad? Are we against ISIS? Are we against Jabhat al-Nusra? It doesn’t matter if there’s nobody who you actually have as a partner who can take and hold this territory that’s creating these vacuums.
So you actually need forces on the ground who you can work with. And we’ve actually started to come to some models for that. What you need are – you know, and we’ve had it with the Kurds that we’ve worked with in northern Syria. It’s the model that worked with the Anbar Awakening. It’s also something that we did in southern Syria with a group called the Southern Front.
In all those cases, the United States and its partners worked with forces on the ground, groups that I think you’d have to call acceptable. And I define “acceptable” as they’re not interested in sort of conducting terrorism abroad and exporting extremist ideology. Their ideology itself is inclusive enough so they can work with other actors inside these territories instead of being so extreme that it would just fuel the fire. And they have to have local legitimacy. And so you have to work region by region in Iraq and Syria to support these actors. And that means doing more to do that, including in northwest Syria where you have an al-Qaeda safe haven essentially being created.
The second part of the strategy then involves providing the necessary but direct limited military – American military support to help these actors succeed in holding territory. And that varies region by region. It doesn’t involve going back to 150,000 troops on the ground, but it does involve actually having advisers in a lot of these cases. What we find is, you know, when you have a few hundred or a couple of thousand, sometimes, advisers on the ground, you have a significant multiplying effect, a force multiplier effect in many of these cases. So that allows you to help our partners to actually take and hold this territory. But American forces should not be taking and holding any territory.
The third element is if you pursue – well, actually, I should say, part of this does involve, in some cases, you know, making sure that at least your partners aren’t exposed from the air. So this is one of the big problems in northwest Syria, where basically you have an opposition force that’s a jumble of extremists and more acceptable groups. The Assad regime and Russia and Iran, I don’t think they have the capacity to retake that territory and physically hold it, but their strategy has been – for the past few years has just been to make sure that nobody else can actually take that territory and govern it. And the end result is you have this incredible violence where the biggest losers are civilians and the biggest winners are extremist groups, and you have a stalemate.
And so you’re going to actually – I would argue for an escalation there that actually does require different creative ways. And we can talk in a lot more detail. I mean, some of the – you know, our candidates for president talk – I think they’ve all actually talked about safe zones or no-fly zones. I think there’s some other options that are sort of short of that that don’t require major American military intervention, but they can try to essentially relieve these groups of the pressure that comes from the Assad and Russian air force. And then sort of – so that’s step two is this – in terms of how you deal with these internal challenges. It’s direct military support.
Step three is then taking that American investment and strategy and getting your partners coordinated and on board with you. Right now we don’t really have that. Where we do have it – for example, in southern Syria with the Jordanians – it’s actually worked pretty well. But we need to get on board with the Turks and the Saudis, which means, you know, supporting the same groups, not supporting extremists.
And the problem is they don’t believe we’re really in the fight. And as long as they don’t, they’re going to continue to work on their own. So the question is, if the U.S. increases its involvement in this conflict, does it then have the leverage to actually try to get some of these other actors to play a more constructive role? And I think you can.
And finally, over time the idea is to have these – you know, these local actors take and hold more territory to the point where you start to plug these vacuums and close them, and then you can get to try to leverage that situation to try to forge a negotiated outcome or political solution for the conflict.
Importantly, you know, this strategy does not involve regime change. That should not be an American objective in Syria. What this involves is trying to come to a political agreement and set the conditions for a political agreement that works for the actors. I have a hard time seeing how Assad stays in a situation like that, but our objective is not to get rid of Assad. Our objective should be to close these vacuums that exist in Iraq and Syria and replace them with something that’s at least marginally acceptable to our interests.
So that’s really going to have to be a place where the United States puts a lot of effort, or the next administration puts a lot of effort. And I just worry that if you instead try to de-escalate and pull your forces, nobody else is going to pull their arms. We’ve been there. We have sort of been doing this half-heartedly in Syria and Iraq for a few years and the end result has been everybody else is dumping weapons. And I just have a hard time seeing how you can get to an agreement with the Russians, the Iranians, or any of our friends right now that starts with: We’re all going to stop doing this. I just – sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen.
So, second, as you do this, I think the other key step is how you push back on Iran while keeping channels open. I think, you know, right now the perception is – there’s anxiety from our partners and there’s a sort of confidence on the Iranian side. We need to implement the nuclear deal vigorously. I very much think that that’s in our interests and actually in all of our partners’ interests, whether they believe it or not. But you can do more to push back on Iran in the region.
I’m not calling for major escalation. I think there’s things you can do like exercises, interdictions of ships going to places like Yemen, small signals that you can send. The Iranians want no part of a major direct conflict with the United States. But, you know, I served on the Iran desk at the Pentagon for a number of years and I always found that when the U.S. firmly stood up and drew a line and said, this will get you in trouble, the Iranians pulled right back.
And so finding ways to do that, ideally with our partners, starts again – starts to reset the calculus. So it’s sort of a signal to the Saudis, to the Israelis, to others: We’re not turning the region over to Iran. But at the same time – and at the same time, a signal to the Iranians: This is how far you can go. Now, and part of it also just involves our public posture. I mean, we’ve had four or five interdictions of Iranian ships in the last few months. Nobody really knows about it. So part of this is just signaling and making things a little bit more public.
The third element as you do this, then – actually, I should say the last thing on Iran is, even as you do this, you also keep channels open for dialogue. You know, I think that the approach I’m recommending – and look for ways to cooperate with the Iranians at the same time. You know, what works in terms of the nuclear agreement was a combination of economic pressure while keeping the channels open for engagement.
And I think in the region you can take basically the same approach: more pressure where you disagree and where you want to push back, even as you leave channels open for engagement in the discussion. And you should always have diplomatic channels – it’s always better to have diplomatic channels than not have diplomatic channels – and leave open that possibility that maybe things start to, over time, shift in Iran. We shouldn’t foreclose that option but we can’t assume that it’s actually going to happen.
You know, as you do this, a third element here is, early on, having some very serious, direct conversations with our closest allies to say to them, in the region – our partners – to say, look, we’re going to do these things that you are more interested in having us do. You know, we’re going to get more engaged in Syria, not just with ISIS but with concerns that you have. We’re going to push back more on Iranian influence but – and let’s look for other ways to talk and discuss, but we also have some expectations of you.
And this is where you can use your leverage to try to, you know, get them, at this point, to dial down on certain things. And I don’t think you’re going to get the Saudis to stop the war in Yemen tomorrow, but at least you can start to influence their calculus in terms of the types of operations they’re conducting and what might be constructive and what is not constructive, you know.
And so getting the Turks, for example, to – you’re not going to get them to stop arming groups in Syria but you can maybe get them to stop arming some of the most problematic and extreme groups in Syria, because the Turkish approach is mostly just: Anybody but Assad, so let’s just dump weapons and support in there no matter who it’s going to. You can do more of that, I believe, if you’re willing to invest more in the region and then use that leverage to then try to change that behavior of your partners.
And I should say it also involves, very early on, just some very positive signaling. I think, you know, in some ways, many of our partners, because of the nuclear deal, because of some things like the president’s public statements to Jeffrey Goldberg on where he views our – you know, the region or some of our partners in the region, there is a lot of our friends – traditional friends in the region are looking past this president to the next one and are very frustrated with this president.
And I think there’s some opportunities early on for a reset with the new president which don’t involve major shifts in policy but just a change in tone in some cases, much as if you look at the way President Obama did with, you know, Europe early in his administration, a Europe that had gotten completely fed up with George Bush even as the Bush administration policies started to change from 2006 to 2008 and became much more, I think, pragmatic and realistic. I think the entire region shut down in early engagement and just the signaling created a lot of space diplomatically, and I think you can replicate some of that in this case early on for a new president.
So, you know, at the end, though, I think, looking a few years down the road, you do need to get to this de-escalation. You know, you do need to get to a point where you can actually get Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, or at least agreement on how that they view the region. You’ve got to end the Syrian civil war through negotiated outcomes. And so the approach that I’m laying out views that as a step two, you know, and then is trying to build those institutions, right? First you have to reset the region. You’ve got to get rid of – you’ve got to start to address the core problems that are driving it.
Once you’ve reassured our partners, once you’ve pushed back on Iran, once you’ve started to do more to close the security vacuums that exist, you’re in a better position then to try to negotiate an outcome, for example in Syria, that ends that war, and then leverage the types of negotiations there to maybe expand beyond the Syrian negotiations into a broader regional construct down the line, something along the lines of – you know, a lot of people talk about a Middle East OSCE.
Yes, that would be great. That would be ideal. The problem is, if you go propose it today, you know, all of our – again, all of our adversaries are going to say – or competitors are going to say, this is just the Americans pulling out, and that, we’re going to get more aggressive. And all of our friends are going to say, this is just the Americans turning over the region to the Iranians and the Russians. So you can’t do that today and so you have to go long term. And, sadly, I think you do have to take some of these first steps I’ve outlined before you can get there.
So I’ll stop there and – (applause).
JAMES ZOGBY, President, Arab American Institute; Member, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters
Thank you very much.
Chas, I just want to disagree with you about one thing. We’re not in a sinkhole. It took a lot of digging and a lot of sweat to get us in the hole we’re in. (Laughter.) And that’s where I want to begin.
When President Obama took office, in addition to the economic collapse – the banks at risk; mortgages, two-in-five, underwater; pension funds collapsing; unemployment doubling and the American dream dying. In our polling, you know, for the first time, two-thirds of the American people were saying they no longer believe their children are going to have a better life than they.
In addition to that and the hyper partisan environment in Washington, which created the gridlock we’re living with, he faced severe crises in the Middle East, the result of – despite the change in tone in the Bush administration in the last several years, the Iraq War created – had consequences that we were still reeling from.
If I look back at the Project for a New American Century and the way that they shaped that war, it was a show – a decisive show of American power that was going to secure the role of America in its hegemonic role for the next century. It was going to – at the end of the Cold War, it was going to ensure that there would not be a multi-polar world emerging and that America would remain the decisive power.
The Iraq War did exactly the opposite. It weakened us militarily. It cost us too much in lives and in treasure and in prestige across the region, the consequences of which are still with us. And for those who want to advocate, you know, U.S. military forces, as some are wont to do, the number that sticks in my head is 22 suicides a day, which is the number of American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who kill themselves every single day, meaning we lose more lives every year than we lost in both wars combined over the span of their duration.
An exhausted military, declining prestige, costs that we were not equipped to handle because we had budget cuts, we had tax cuts and two wars, both of which failed in terms of the outcomes that they were supposed to have realized, and in addition to that not only a multi-polar world but competition in various regions over who would be the hegemonic powers in this multi-polar world.
It wasn’t that President Obama withdrew. It was that the Iraq War made Iran ascendant, brought Turkey into its own, gave Russia a new opportunity to expand itself. And that’s the world President Obama inherited in 2008.
And what he did was extraordinary work on the economy, but the devastation wrought by what I call the house that George built, the region after Iraq, coupled with an Arab Spring that only made the situation more complicated, was too much for this president or, I would say, any president, especially one who did not have the support of Congress.
I remember during the Cairo speech I was at CNN with Liz Cheney. I’ll say it. We were supposed to react after. And I thought it was a marvelous speech, and I still think it was. I mean, I think if you go back and read it today, it still provides a roadmap, as discredited as that word is in some circles, for the way to build a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
But after I made my comments to the fact that I thought that it was a marvelous speech and for the reasons I gave for why I thought that, she called it an apology tour. She called it an embarrassment to America and on and on and on. I did three other shows that weekend, and I got the same talking points from everybody.
At the last show I did, a Sunday morning CBS show, I was on with George Allen – I’m in a strange mood today, so I’m not very polite – not the brightest bulb ever in the chandelier. He and I were going back and forth on it, and he had his talking points down. At the end, the interviewer said to me, do you think the president can heal the divide? And I said, with the Muslim world, I think so; but with American conservatives, I don’t think so. They’re not going to give him a break, and they didn’t. I mean, they did the no, not in my backyard over Guantanamo. They – the pressure on several fronts was such that he never really had a free hand, nor was he willing or politically able because I think he lacked the kind of political tools that Bill Clinton had or that other presidents in the past had had to use the politics of pressure domestically to change the political environment.
And so he did in fact back off. After his 2011 second anniversary of Cairo speech, when he summed up where we were and made, I thought, a rather brilliant statement to the effect that we didn’t start it, we can’t direct it and we can’t determine its outcome, all we can do is help; and when he then provided how we would help, he offered the following. He said, we can help them with what they need to build the middle class and to create societies that will foster democracy. And he talked about job creation. He talked about investment in education and talked about investment in health care.
I turned to the person next to me, and I said, this is not a speech directed at the Arab world; it’s a speech directed at Congress and reordering their priorities. Well, of course it fell on deaf ears and none of that happened.
But he then said, and we also have to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. And he proposed something really quite simple. He said the ’67 borders with land swaps. I had no idea that it was going to create an uproar because I heard ’67 borders and I heard ’49 armistice line and I heard land swaps, and I thought territorial exchanges. The – Netanyahu had been pushing Obama to do what George Bush had done with Sharon, which was say ’49 armistice line and territorial exchanges. Obama just changed the words but the same meaning, and Netanyahu exploded, went to the White House, pointed his finger in his face, went to Congress, and used the joint session to sabotage the president’s effort. And the president, approaching an election year, in effect backed off.
The problem is that after the years of neglect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has developed into two pathologies on both sides. Pathology on Israel is the spoiled child syndrome. When you get everything you want whenever you want it and you know that if you act up, you’re still going to get what you want, there’s no incentive for good behavior. And then the other side, when you know you’re never going to get what you want or what you need no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, there’s no incentive for good behavior.
And so the result is, is that you have two political groupings that are spiraling in a downward way toward increased chaos, Israel moving far to the left and – far to the right and Palestinians moving toward greater dysfunction. And the president had hoped to arrest that but in effect only reinforced both negative trends: The Palestinians, feeling they had no champion ever in Washington – they had hoped that they would; Israelis feeling that there was nothing that could stand in their way and whatever they wanted they’d get, 38 billion (dollars) as a reward for bad behavior and Netanyahu bucking the president. I mean, he didn’t – he didn’t lose that vote. He actually won that vote because he ended up getting rewarded for the bad behavior.
People will say, why would the president talk about jobs, this, this, and this, and Israel/Palestine? Well, let me tell you about our polling. When we asked the Arab world how they feel about America – you know, the line was during the Bush era, why do they hate us? They hate our values. Actually 80 percent of Arabs like our values. They like our values, and they like us. They like our people. They like our culture. They like our products. They like pretty much everything about us except the way we treat them.
And what drives the relationship is the behavior. People don’t judge you by what you say about yourself; they judge you by how you treat them, and we treat them badly. And so it’s not the values that they don’t like; it’s the policy toward Israel/Palestine, it’s the policy toward Iraq, it’s the policy – basically our policy toward the region and our policy toward Islam generally. And they saw it during the Bush era. They have not seen a fundamental change.
People will say I’ve got to ask the question, is Donald Trump recruiting for ISIS? He’s not directly recruiting, just like Obama didn’t create ISIS, but his words are recruitment tools, saying to the people in the Middle East, America hates you because when Donald Trump says what he says, behind him is an audience of a couple of hundred people cheering and yelling over his obscene rhetoric. That takes a toll.
And so we have a situation today where I don’t think that we understand the mindset of people in the region. They want a relationship with America but not the one we’re offering them. And actually when we say to them, what do you want from America, they talk about economic investment, they talk about education, they talk about schools. But number-one priority is solve the problem you helped create: Israel-Palestine. That’s not – that’s not because their leaders, as the rhetoric has gone, their leaders have told them Palestine, Palestine. Palestine in the polling that we’ve done and in the way those of us who understand the region know what is going on, it’s the – I call it the wound that never healed. It’s the – Palestine is to Arabs what Wounded Knee was to Native Americans. And in a way – and please don’t – I get misquoted on this all the time. People use it in a rather negative way. It is what the Holocaust meant to American Jews in the sense that it is something horrible that is happening to people like me.
I had a friend, a minister in the Gulf, who – virulent opponent of Hamas, watching what was happening in 2012 and – 2008 rather, 2008, 2009 – called and said, you know how I feel, but I saw those pictures; I have kids who look just like that; that could have been my kids. And the pain of that is very real.
And so when I look at where we go in the next administration or what we have to do in the next administration, I’m going to start with that issue and I’m going to say the following. I am not going to wait for the next administration. I remember when the whole debate was going on in Congress about should we set a date to end the war or not set a date to end the war over Iraq. Well, if you set a date, you give the enemies of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah; and if you don’t set a date, then we’ll be there forever.
I said, it’s not the date you set; it’s what you do between now and the date you set. Well, it’s not that we’re going to get a new administration; it’s what this administration does between now and the date they leave that will ultimately make a huge difference for who becomes president. I have my own preference for who I think ought to become president, but – and I think she’s going to be great, but the issue is the following. President Obama can either leave the mess as it is – and frankly, after watching developments over the last couple of months, the mess we can have now can only get worse in the next three months.
So there’s a couple things that I would think that I would want to put on the table. Number one is we gave Israel $38 billion, and in the same period we passed JASTA. We have to begin to undo both. And let me tell you how. We’ve made it clear, as the president has, that we are concerned about Israel’s security. No president has done as much as this for Israel’s security. The question is, what do we do about Israel’s behavior? That’s the big issue.
And we can save Israel from its enemies, but can we save Israel from itself? And so frankly this president has an opportunity between an election day and the inauguration day to lay down a marker, number one, to take that State Department guidance from the Carter era that said settlements are illegal and resurrect – you know, it never got rescinded. It just got buried in rhetoric. The president himself has to say it’s not an obstacle to peace, it’s not all of the other words we’ve come to use. It’s illegal. Congress is moving in a direction today to – even want to erase the obstacle of peace by saying it’s – all of this legislation covers Israel and Israeli-controlled territories as if you can kind of redefine jurisdictionally the areas where settlements are to now become – annex them in congressional law to Israel.
U.S. government policy has to be clear it is illegal. And we should go ourselves or let the Arabs go to the U.N. with a resolution making the point not just that they’re illegal but applying sanctions to those settlements, because unless Israel feels the punishment for its bad behavior, which doesn’t mean that America becomes anti-Israel, it doesn’t mean that America is turning its back on Israel; it’s actually supporting the peace forces in Israel who want to change the behavior of their rightward not drifting, but their rightward-galloping government, and keep open the possibility of a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
And if the Palestinians go to the criminal court, we should supply an amicus brief, which of course we won’t, but we at least ought to not block efforts to enforce the regulations – the international law requirements on settlements.
Next, I think that on Syria and Iraq, I have real concerns about Mosul and Raqqa. I – the – Chas made the point, you know, we kick them out of Mosul, that doesn’t end the problem. The problem in fact has metastasized. When President Obama – we have to stop talking about the fact that we killed Osama bin Laden, as if that actually did something. That cancer has spread everywhere, and it’s not going to un-spread if we kick them out of Mosul, because frankly what’s going to happen, because we are not prepared nor are the Iraqis prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis that will emerge – I sit on the Commission on International Religious Freedom, and frankly we dealt with when ISIS came in; we’re not ready to deal with when ISIS goes out in terms of the minority communities, in this case also meaning not just Christians and the Yazidis and the others we talk about but Sunnis in Shia areas and Shia in Sunni areas. The – we are not ready or equipped, nor do I trust the popular mobilization units, nor do I trust the Kurdish Peshmerga, nor do I trust basically any of the forces to be able to govern that area in a way to stabilize. It will only create greater instability and not less.
Whatever leverage we have in Iraq, this president ought to use to forestall the taking of Mosul until Iraqi government is in full control of its military forces, those that will go into those areas and be able to stabilize them without the consequences that I fear, which is enhanced sectarian conflict and more bloodshed of the civilian populations who stayed behind.
In Syria, I have never been a supporter of military force when we are doing it in an area especially where we don’t understand the consequences of it. But frankly I’ve watched this Aleppo situation deteriorate, and I have come to the conclusion that the U.S. has lost too much credibility in the region and is no longer believed. And the Russians are taking advantage of that. And as risky as it might be, I think that American military force is necessary if only – if not – and I wouldn’t say draw a red line in Aleppo; I’d say draw a red line and for God’s sake do something when it gets crossed.
It’s risky, but more risky is waiting three more months for the next president who will deal with consequences that we have no idea what the situation will look like in that area where you have a couple hundred thousand people still, civilians still sitting there with – yes, there’s a thousand or so Nusra fighters who are, you know, entrenched within the opposition forces, but we cannot let them pay the price for that any longer.
And finally on Yemen, I think that the ideas that I’ve heard today about reengaging with the Gulf States are absolutely critical. Look, I was a supporter of the Iran deal, a supporter in the sense that I thought that negotiations are always preferable to military conflict. But not unlike the way I had – and I supported, for example, when Bush-Baker convened all the parties in Madrid, but I had a caveat. I said, all of the pressure that was used – and Baker was brilliant at using pressure – was the misdirection – misuse of pressure toward the limited goal of getting the parties to sit at Madrid. And after they got to Madrid, we said, OK, now go on yourself in your own corners in trying to figure it out, which was stupid because they weren’t capable of figuring it out like they’d been divorced and they’d been ready for divorce for decades but they weren’t able to do it. We had to bring them there, and then we had to shepherd them through to the next steps. But we let the pressure off the minute we got them to sit at the table.
The problem with Iran wasn’t the bomb they didn’t have. The problem with Iran was its regional behavior. And we did not – we – if we’d used that same pressure to control Iranian behavior, it would be a very different situation today in the Middle East. But we didn’t. We took our eye off what the real ball was, and we focused on this game that Israel had wanted us to play of stop Iranian bomb. And then when we stopped the Iranian bomb, they went ballistic. You stopped – you didn’t stop their bomb. Well, I don’t know what they wanted us to do, make a parking lot out of Tehran.
The fact is, is that we wasted a lot of political and diplomatic pressure and we did so – economic pressure, and we did so, I think, short of the goal. And so the Arab Gulf States need to be reassured that we didn’t in fact forget Iranian behavior is a problem throughout the region. And so they’ve taken an adventure in Yemen that is horrifying, horrifying to the Yemeni people. And I fear that the Saudi government, which has now embarked on a dramatic plan, Saudi Vision 2030, which is itself quite admirable in many ways – I don’t want to see Saudi Arabia look back and see a Lyndon Johnson scenario where they tried to do both the war and the economic and cultural reform and couldn’t handle both at the same time.
We need to help Saudi Arabia save itself and get out of Yemen, and the way to do that is by making very clear to them we’ve got their back, that we don’t have – it’s not the back of Iran that we have but we have the back of our Gulf state allies, which means taking seriously the commitments we made that we still have not fulfilled when the president convened or brought the GCC countries to meet here in Washington and then went again to meet with them there, another meeting post-election of the GCC states to make clear that our goal will be to push back against Iran and with the condition, as Ilan raises, that they have to do some things as well. I think that they would welcome it, but we have to be very clear that it’s a quid pro quo: We’re helping them; they have to help us by sitting down together and working out a regional strategy that makes sense for everybody. And we have to assure them that we’ll have their back.
And one of the ways to do that, I said, is if you do the Israel thing, if you do something really clear on that, it would be transformative in terms of Arab confidence in America and its ability to – I have another one you can do too, which is declare a nuclear-free zone, go to the United Nations and pass a resolution at the Security Council on a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. It would also send a very direct message to the Arab world that America is serious.
The president’s got two months, the window between election and January. I fear if he does not use them well, the Middle East he hands to the next president will be in worse shape than the one he inherited from his predecessor, not because he created it but because he inherited it and was unable to regulate it or bring it under control because he basically never had the domestic support. But he’s got a free window, a free space, two months, to do some dramatic things that I think would make a big difference. (Applause.)
GERALD F. HYMAN, Former Senior Advisor and President, Hills Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Member, Advisory Council to the Center for International Media Assistance of the National Endowment for Democracy; Former Director, Office of Democracy and Governance, USAID
Thank you, and thank you to the council for inviting me to be on this panel. So the topic of our panel is challenges, opportunities and recommendations. I think we’re pretty long – or at least I am – on the challenges, a little short on the opportunities. But I do have seven recommendations, going on 10. And I – what I’d like to do is step back a little bit from some of the – but come back to the conflagration elements and look at the region a little bit as a whole.
Seems to me there are four or five – six maybe – themes that pervade the region and are – manifest in different ways in different countries. First one of them, of course, is terrorism or insurgencies, et cetera, et cetera. The second is state-to-state conflicts, which are born in a variety of tensions and fissions.
A third is extremist religious movements, which are related to the first two and which, I think – Chas, unlike you, I think have to be taken seriously on their own terms and not just as epiphenomena of something else. And when I say “just,” that doesn’t mean the other things aren’t there. So we have these religious fissions and intolerance and sectarian conflicts. And I don’t think you can just ignore the religious dimension of them entirely.
A fourth is state fragility and artificial states. A number of these states are – were constructed and haven’t really taken root. And they aren’t – the lack of rootedness of those states in sociopolitical/economic terms is coming to – coming back to haunt the region.
The fifth is aspirants for statehood and artificial states. For example, the Kurds, which is the most obvious example but not the only ones; Turkmen; and so on and so forth. There’s a whole variety of elements in the Middle East that – each of which doesn’t want to be part of a – the state in which it now exists and wants its own state, to which I think we need some kind of possible recommendations.
And then the last one is what about reconstructing war-torn states, assuming for a moment that you can get peace.
So those are themes. I thought it might be useful, just as an experiment anyway, to divide the region into six country types, which happen to – when I – when I did it in my mind happened to conveniently – are conveniently consistently with the failed states index. I don’t know if you know what the failed states index is, but it looks at the potential for an actuality of state failure due to internal conflicts and a variety of other factors.
So the first set of countries, which is at the highest level of state failure probability, are Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon. And the challenges there are – so I want to group the countries, say what the main challenges are, and potentially look at some possibilities – are internal conflict, civil war, the problem of constructed quasi-states, and sociopolitical/economic failure internally.
The second set of countries – actually the second is Egypt, but I put it aside for a moment, so the second is Egypt, a little bit higher on the – little bit more secure.
The third is Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, where the challenge, I think, is economic performance, internal and external stability; and in the case of Tunisia anyway, the potential for completed democratic transition.
The third is Egypt, where again one has socioeconomic and political reform, economic performance, and internal stability absent or without a completely authoritarian alternative.
The fourth is the Gulf States – Saudi, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, et cetera – the main challenge of which are internal socioeconomic reform and political reform; security guarantees of some kind or internal security guarantees, which I think would flow from that; the diversification and globalization of their economy; and their joining into a world modernization that would give their populations some possibilities other than receiving gratuities from the state on the basis of oil, which, as I think the Saudis now recognize, is unsustainable.
The fifth is Iran, which I’ll hold off, but in which free transit in the Persian Gulf with a potential for naval engagement by the U.S. and its allies and their regional behavior are the most important challenges for external actors.
And the last is Israel and the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinians, about which much has been said.
Each one of these, I think, one could come up with particular recommendations to the U.S. government. And maybe instead of going over all of – all of these that other people have already done, I’ll leave that for discussion.
But I have a few recommendations, some of which are rather anodyne but doesn’t make them less important. The first is that we have a region in – to recognize that we have a region in convulsion with social figures which, like tectonic plates rubbing against one another internally and externally, have finally erupted. What to do about a volcano that’s already erupted is difficult to say the least and needs – eruptions are exacerbated by external regional actors, especially in the – external actors, especially in the region; a religious awakening; and a democracy awakening in the form of the Arab Spring, not very – which looked promising but doesn’t look very promising anymore except in Tunisia.
Second, that basically any solution necessarily is going to arise from local conditions and actors and not, I think, by the imposition of any group of external actors, however much coordinated they might be and however much they might agree notwithstanding their other differences. I don’t think Iran and the United States, even if they could agree, are going to be able to impose on any of these countries a set of solutions for some of these internal fissures and tensions.
The fourth – or, sorry, the third is a recognition, which is much bandied about and which has become sort of axiomatic, but which isn’t necessarily taken as seriously as it should when specific issues arise and challenges arise. And that is the U.S. cannot possibly be engaged everywhere and in all ways and in all places and impose its views and its will everywhere all the time.
Which leads to the fourth recommendation, which is the need – most difficult one probably for the U.S. government to get straight – to calculate and prioritize where its interests are, where its capabilities are, what the relationship is between the means it has and the ends it seeks, the cost and the benefits, and those of our adversaries and our partners.
Easy to say and said lots of different times. But the fact of the matter, I think, is that internally almost always the squeaky wheel is the one that gets the immediate attention, irrespective of where you think the priorities actually lie, irrespective of what you think our actual capabilities and objectives are. But we don’t seem to be able to simply walk away from a particularly squeaky wheel.
So we have compelling interests in many parts of the world, in East Asia, in South Asia, in this hemisphere and in Europe and in the Middle East. But it’s the Middle East that seems to absorb all of the attention. And that, I think, has led us to do some things that are not only counterproductive for our own objectives but counterproductive for the region as well.
We need to have – in order – we – in order to get support for – and partners, we need to have a plan for the future and for what happens the day after the war ends or, as President Obama has asked many times of his advisers but I think without getting very many answers, tell me how this ends. What are the – what is the likely scenario? What are the likely consequences of our intervention, of our partners’ intervention, of our adversaries’ intervention, and most importantly of the internal dynamics of where exactly it is that the U.S. is supposed to bring its power or its abilities to bear?
We need to think through those scenarios. And in my opinion, there needs to be, in the civilian side of – on this side of the river, as opposed to the other side of the river, a serious set of alternatives put on the table. What are the alternative scenarios? And there needs to be a red team, which the military does all the time, and which, in my experience, having served on the civilian side, the civilians do none of the time. There is no red team that sits in the room and says, what about X? Or what if this doesn’t work? Or what’s your alternative plan? Or here are the reasons not to do this. You may decide to do it, but you ought at least understand what the negative consequences are and what the potential downside risks are.
We need to avoid, I think, them being enticed, seduced, into seemingly simple interventions that get – that ignore the local conditions, ignore our adversaries, and become much more complicated as soon as we get into them. Iraq is one example of that. Syria is another example of that. Afghanistan is a definite example of that. And it seems to me that if we don’t look at those in a much more balanced and serious way, we’re going to wind up acting first and then regretting later because we didn’t look at what the alternatives were and what the downside risks were.
Without dwelling on it, I think it’s important for people to understand that the use of military force, whether it’s small forces or large forces, is going to involve civilian casualties, period, punct. If you don’t want civilian casualties of any kind, don’t use military force – (inaudible). Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to avoid military – civilian casualties. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t avoid civilian casualties. Definitely we should. But if you think you can go into an antiseptic war, you’re fooling yourself. There are going to be civilian casualties, and that means making some civilian enemies as a result of military interventions.
So if the military is the tool that is preferred, we should at least understand that we are going to involve ourselves in the moral, political, military, et cetera, complications of civilian casualties. We should look for partners – sorry, this is all part of recommendation four. We should look for partners. But our preferred partner, which is the European Union, is itself preoccupied with its own uncertainties, its own internal objectives, capabilities and decision-making.
I think that’s unlikely, given the financial crisis – the financial meltdown in the south, the banking crisis, the fiscal crisis, the migrants, the eurozone, the European Union’s own consistency and coherence, and the Russian challenge, to think that the European Union or its collective members are going to be able to also take on some of these other challenges with any kind of long-term strategy unless we get together beforehand and try to work some of that out, including a division of labor, to the extent that we can find one.
It happens that in the Middle East, of all the areas in which the U.S. is and should be engaged, is the one that engages the Europeans’ interest the most. So if you’re looking at Asia, the Western Hemisphere, and so on and so forth, the Middle East is the place where we can most expect a European partner.
Fifth, I think we should look counter-intuitively. We should look at the states that are in trouble, but not yet imploding, as our first priority, not our last priority. That would include the Jordan-Tunisia-Morocco-Algeria countries, as opposed to consuming our time and energies in Syria and Iraq, however compelling those may be. We wind up spending 90 percent, to the extent that the Middle East is on the table, 90 percent or more of our time on Syria, Iraq, Yemen, et cetera, and almost none on how to prevent this from happening in countries that are likely to go down the same path if alternative measures are not taken, both internally and externally. And that includes Egypt.
Sixth, I think we need to seriously think and convince others to think about confederation or federation as viable alternatives to simply trying to recompose the states that were sometimes or often artificially created in the first place. I’m not sure how you’re going to get a long-term solution in Iraq or Syria, or probably even Yemen, absent some very, very dramatic reduction of the unitary state in favor, at the least, of federalism, if not confederalism, rather than potentially simply splitting up the countries into smaller and smaller pieces, a la Yugoslavia. So I think the confederation and federation need to be serious alternative policy considerations both for ourselves and for those that we engage.
Seventh, and last, I think we need to be very careful about what we say and what we do. And we ought to mean what we say and then follow through. I think it’s a little bit unfair, but only somewhat unfair, to President Obama on the red line. My reading – in Syria. My reading of what he said was if you cross the red line, we will have to reconsider our policy.
Now, that was taken to be – and you can imagine why it was taken to be – we will intervene, and we will oppose you. But I don’t think that’s exactly what he said. But he should have measured his words more carefully, because the implication of those words is exactly what you should have expected, and that is, we will take action, not just we’ll set – we’ll gather another NSC meeting and think about the problem again. But that is, I think, what the red line was.
So if you’re drawing that red line, number one, be careful about the words. Number two, mean what you say, and then follow through on it. But that means really, going back to the scenario idea, thinking through who’s going to do what in response to that red line – who’s going to do what internally? Who’s going to do what externally? What are all of the other regional actors going to do? What are the other global actors going to do? – and thinking that through before you draw a red line.
But then, if we draw a red line, we’d better mean it. And if that means a military altercation or someone who crosses the red line, we’d better be sure we’re going to do it. Otherwise you wind up as a pauper in the world of diplomacy and international relations. No one knows exactly what you mean. No one knows what the consequences are going to be. And therefore, no one knows how their own actions could be gauged.
I think I’ll stop there. I’ll leave aside Iran, West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and a whole variety of other topics which have been covered already by others. But I think some of these recommendations, I think, are unlikely to see the light of day in reality, as they have not been in previous administrations, nor will they be, unfortunately, I think, in the next administration, irrespective of who wins the election.
Thank you. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Well, thank you very much to the panel. I really think everything has been covered, so it’s not as if these questions I want to begin with or the questions from the floor bring up anything particularly new, but they do call for clarification and amplification.
My first question is to try to elicit some of that on the question of Russia and to ask really if it is necessary for us to be trying to counter Russian influence in the region. And if it’s – if the answer is yes, then how? And if it’s not necessary, why isn’t it necessary? And what realistically can we expect from efforts to create détente? And that question is for all of you.
AMB. FREEMAN: Russia is a regional power, no longer a world power in any respect, except its possession of the ability to destroy us and the world with nuclear weapons, which is not a trivial element of Russian power. And precisely because of Russian weakness in conventional terms, the threshold for Russia to make use of nuclear weapons has steadily fallen.
If you listen to our elders – Secretary of Defense Perry and others – they are making a case that the world, in fact, is now in an era of unprecedented danger of crossing the nuclear threshold. All of this is to say, before you start talking about getting into armed confrontations with Russia, which we assiduously avoided during the Cold War – we only fought proxy wars – you should be very, very careful. So that is the first point.
The second point is that Russia traditionally, because of its geographic location – the fact that it is 15 percent Muslim in population and has historic ties to the Middle East, including other religious communities that are tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, Russia has historically exercised a role in the Middle East.
The recent past has been an anomaly in that regard. It’s not that Russia has suddenly pushed into the Middle East. It is now back. And it is back as an actor, and it has to be taken seriously. And it is part of the solution, as well as part of the problem, in many, many instances.
The third point is that much of the discussion in this town proceeds as though the United States was still the undisputed hegemon in the Middle East, that we have the power to command client states, that they dutifully follow our direction, and that we can direct events. That is not so. We now are one actor among many, most of them regionally based. The Saudis are doing their own thing, the Israelis emphatically doing their own thing, the Iranians doing their own thing, the Turks doing their own thing, and non-state actors doing their own thing, and the Russians.
So Russia is part of an increasingly complex order in the Middle East in which we no longer call the shots, and we need help. We need the cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of others, including Russia, to do things.
So my answer would be that there is no inherent reason to oppose Russia, to answer your question, Tom, other than residual Cold War enemy deprivation syndrome; that there is, in fact, an ample reason to want to deal with the Russians; that the recent severance of communication with the Russians about Syria is a grotesque diplomatic misplay, which will lead to nothing except more trouble; and that, finally, we can – the sooner we restore such communication and dialogue, the better off we’ll all be.
DR. MATTAIR: I see – and I read some of your work about Russia, Jerry, and I see you have a statement.
MR. HYMAN: Thank you.
First of all, I think, Ambassador Freeman, you talked about humiliation, I think, with respect to the various different extremist groups and terrorism groups. But I think that is an element as well in the U.S.-Russia relationship. In my opinion, we mishandled over several administrations, both Republican and Democratic, mishandled Russia after 1991.
Instead of treating Russia as a global player, we simply – we just ignored them. We let them sit in their own little corner and do their own little thing. I think that was a very costly mistake that could easily and cheaply have been avoided. We simply could have included them as if they were, as they are, a major player.
That said – and so I think that’s a lingering element in the way President Putin is comporting his policy. And I – the reason I say Putin is – you know, sometimes people say, well, why are we personalizing Russia? Well, it’s a little hard not to personalize Russian policy when all of the elements of power in institutional elements in Russia are being absorbed into the hands of one person. Well, if they’re all in one person’s hands, it’s not surprising that you conflate the country and the person in terms of their actions, because there’s nothing else there. So I say Putin, I think, feels this humiliation particularly pointedly.
To me, I would include a discussion with the Russians very early on in any consideration of the use of military power by the United States or any other elements of U.S. policy, and to try to have – to try to clarify what Russians’ interests are, what its objectives are, what our objectives are, what our interests are, what their capabilities and our capabilities are, and then to see the extent to which those are congenial and consistent with one another and to what extent there are going to be differences.
To the extent that they are different – first of all, to the extent that there are similarities, how can we work those things together? To the extent that there are differences, how can we find a way to deal with those differences short of a confrontation?
And it seems to me that Syria is a case like that. I think the president would make the argument that he did try to get the Russians to agree about what was going to happen in Syria with respect to its participation against the Daesh and what it was or wasn’t willing to do on behalf of Assad. But we backed ourselves into a corner by saying Assad has to go, and that’s the fundamental element, the cornerstone of our policy in Syria. That was a policy that was not congenial to Russia, and therefore it’s not surprising, I think, that we wind up where we are with respect to Russian support of the Assad regime.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
MR. HYMAN: One last point. I think Putin has made it clear that he has no particular love for Assad, nor does Assad personally have to be a result of the solution. But we need to understand, it seems to me, that in Syria, Assad and the Alawites are in what they believe to be, and I think correctly believe to be, unless there are some alternative interventions, an existential battle. They cannot lose. If they lose, they’re going to get wiped out. The others are going to do to them what Prime Minister Maliki did or tried to do to the Sunnis.
And so they’re not in a position to bargain very easily, absent guarantees for their long-term security. And that does not necessarily have to include President Assad personally, but it does need to include Russia’s interests and how we can negotiate potentially what I think President Obama called a mediated transition. But that’s a mediated transition, not necessarily one in which we fly in, take Assad, and dump him someplace.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, I know Ilan wanted to say something. And then, Chas, we’ll come to you.
MR. GOLDENBERG: Sure.
Just a couple of things on Russia. One, I agree, actually, that we shouldn’t inherently be opposing Russia in the Middle East for the sake of influence and opposition. We should work with them when our interests overlap, and there will be moments where our interests contradict each other, and we need to – there we need to contest.
You know, a good example is the nuclear deal with Iran, where we worked closely with the Russians. I spent a lot of time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. We have generally worked well with the Russians on that issue as well.
In Syria, we have some fundamental disagreements. I actually think we have a lot of overlap in terms of our objectives and things we don’t care if the Russians keep. They want to have a naval base in Tartus? Fine. You know, they have their own deep relationships with some of the minority groups in Syria long term? Fine.
When they are, you know, executing the operation they’re executing right now in Aleppo, which I think, in my mind, is perpetuating a long-term extremist safe haven in northwest Syria, and also comes with – and, by the way, a safe haven that could end up being more dangerous and problematic than ISIS – and when it comes with this humanitarian toll, then I think you have to look at ways to contest that. You can keep negotiating, but also be willing to at least signal the use of military force, or at least try to find ways to leverage to change some of the dynamics, because the other thing to remember here is, yes, it’s true, we’re not the sole superpower in the Middle East.
I think Vladimir Putin changed everyone’s calculus in the Middle East with 24 airplanes. I mean, really, that’s what he put into Syria. OK, the United States is not taking the same approach in the Middle East, but we still have a lot more manpower in the region. We still have a lot more resources in the region than anybody else. We may not be a sole superpower, but we are the first among equals. And so there’s more leverage that we can use militarily.
What we did during the Cold War was we assiduously avoided direct military confrontation, but we found ways to play brinksmanship. Instead of backing away at every step and being afraid that anything that we do is going to cause the Russians to go towards nuclear war, if we conducted ourselves in that way during the Cold War – and I feel like sometimes we conduct ourselves that way in the Middle East today – we would be nowhere.
And so I think that there’s places where we have to push more and accept more risk in how we deal with the Russians, because I think we have a lot more leverage than we’re giving ourselves credit for.
DR. MATTAIR: So, Chas, you wanted to respond. And you said that the Russians could be part of the solution.
AMB. FREEMAN: Well –
DR. MATTAIR: So how do we arrive at that?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Ilan’s made an important point about the new world disorder in which we live. We don’t have any allies. We don’t have any enemies. There are countries with whom we can cooperate on specific issues and whom we must oppose on other issues. And, by the way, we don’t have any allies in the Middle East. There’s no one with an obligation, reciprocal obligation, to us. We have protectorates. We have extended protection. We have clients. And that’s an important distinction. And I think all too often in the Middle East we have allowed our clients’ interests and their values to supersede our own judgment.
I also agree with Jerry. One of the key reasons to maintain a diplomatic dialogue, or the key reasons, are to gain intelligence on what the other side’s reasoning and probable actions are likely to be, to convey a sense to the other side of your own intentions and capabilities and what you might do, and thereby caution them. Much as the military adage has it, never lose contact with the enemy on the battlefield, one should not lose contact with powerful other actors either.
And you have an opportunity, of course, if you’re in direct dialogue, to try to persuade the other side that they should do things your way instead of the way that they initially conceived. So all these things are important reasons for sustaining dialogue with the Russians and not doing the teenage sulk in the tent that Mr. Kerry the other day was driven to.
Finally, on Assad, it’s not up to us to decide the role of Assad in Syria; never has been. When we attempted to do so, we discovered, to our horror, that he actually has significant support, not just among the Alawites, who face the existential crisis challenge that Jerry mentioned, but among Christians, among secular Sunnis, among Druze and others, who may not like him but fear the alternatives to him far more than they fear him.
And Mr. Assad has shown, in the course of the last six years, five years, five and a half years, that he’s not going to be dislodged. So he’s part of the future of Syria. What part he is is up to Syrians to decide. And I think – I go back to my original thesis that we should be focusing on war-termination strategies, answering the question, how does this end? And before we do anything – and I couldn’t agree with Jerry more – we should ask, and then what? And then what? And the failure to do that is what’s gotten us into the deep hole that I agree with Jim we’ve dug for ourselves. (Scattered applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Well –
Q: A comment on that?
DR. MATTAIR: Quickly.
Q: No one seems to realize that the dialogue is about to resume on Saturday.
AMB. FREEMAN: Right.
Q: It wasn’t in The Washington Post today. You had to look really deep into The New York Times to realize that Kerry, Lavrov, the Turkish, the – because our guy and the Saudi and the Iranian are all going to meet, foreign ministers, in Lausanne on the – on the side. So some adult crept into the White House earlier this week and told the president, look, you’ve got to put your foot down and you’ve got to tell Kerry to knock it off. You’ve got to tell Carter to knock it off so that there won’t be a dust-up with the Russian forces in Syria. That’s good news. And I guess, you know, it’s pretty dour here, but that’s good news. Let’s see what happens on Saturday.
DR. MATTAIR: Right. Another – thank you. Another general question, I think – and everyone has referred to this – but do we need to contain the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab world? We – it’s not something that we attempted to achieve in the negotiations of the nuclear agreement, but we did tell our Gulf Arab partners that we were committed to doing that. And it is clearly something that they look at in Syria and Yemen and worry about. And since Russia and Iran are basically working together in Syria, how do we deal with the combination of forces there?
AMB. FREEMAN: Well, this is where in part I disagree with Ilan’s characterization of the recent past. I don’t think it’s the case that the U.S. has been withdrawing or giving the impression of less involvement in the Middle East. I think we have come to realize on all sides that our interests have diverged. We do not share the interests of the countries that we call allies, which are clients, basically, to the extent we once did.
For the Gulf Arabs, the principal objective vis-à-vis Iran is precisely to limit and, if possible, roll back the gains in Iranian political influence that we inadvertently catalyzed with our invasion of Iraq. That is precisely the objective. For Israel, the objective is the nuclear neutralization of Iran, not Iranian political influence, although they would very much like to break the Lebanese connection with Iran.
So we have different interests. I don’t think the United States inherently has an interest in limiting Iranian influence. That is an interest that we may or may not choose to promote because of other considerations. I would think that the long-term objective of the United States in the Gulf should be to try to broker some measure of détente between Riyadh and Tehran and to resume a position between the two that gives us influence and freedom of maneuver with both. But we’re a very long way from that, and getting there will not be easy because there are enormous suspicions of us, some of them caused by mishandling of the red-line issue and so forth, or Mubarak’s overthrow. But I think that ought to be the objective for the long term.
How do we get there? We need to work with countries like Saudi Arabia, not against them. We need to exercise diplomacy, which sometimes I wonder whether we remember how to do – that is persuading other countries that we understand their interests, that we share those interests, and that we’re prepared to work together to further those interests, but that perhaps they need to adjust their own view of their interests.
DR. MATTAIR: Ilan, you want to say something?
MR. GOLDENBERG: Sure. First, on Iran, the one thing I would say is, you know, our first interest when it came to Iran is, in my view, preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon, not just because of the implications in the region, which all become a lot worse if they get a nuclear weapon, but because we have broader interests beyond Iran in terms of the nonproliferation regime, the consequences of, you know, loose nuclear material and things like that. But really, you know, the knock-on effects of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. And so that is why I think we made it the first priority. And I think we – I think that was the right thing to do for American interests.
Not necessarily for our partners, who I think still care about the nuclear question. And, yes, the Israelis more than the rest. So I think the Israelis also are concerned. I mean, I think that the Gulf States also worry about the nuclear question, but they prioritize this – it’s a question of what you prioritize first, the regional behavior or the nuclear question. And I also agree with Chas that a long-term objective should be détente. I worry about, though, is you don’t come into these situations with a clean slate. You do have our previous and past behavior, the relationships that we’ve built over all these years.
And any – right now, many of our – I’ll call them partners; I agree they’re not allies necessarily as a technical term – but some of these regional partners, they have this concern that we are fundamentally pivoting to Iran, that we are moving away. And we need to dissuade them. That is not the reality of what we are doing. Doesn’t mean we want a long-term confrontation with Iran, but we’re also not abandoning our friends. And as long as they’re convinced that that’s what we doing, then they’re not going to cooperate with us on anything. They’re just going to become more insecure, which makes it harder to get them to the table for that détente.
So in the short term I would argue that you need to actually find ways to work with the Gulf States, with Israel, with others to, in some specific ways, push back on Iranian behavior in ways that are clear and that send a clear signal to our friends, and to the Iranians, of lines that we will keep. And I will tell you, I mean, I’ve said this before, Iran wants no part of a direct military confrontation with the United States. This doesn’t require an active military force. It requires taking some of the tools that already exist in the region and talking about them a little bit differently, in some cases.
If you do a major exercise, you spell out publicly that this is at least partially about not just regional security, but it is about dealing with the Iran problem, and it is concerns about, you know, Iran’s behavior, for example, in the Strait of Hormuz, where I think you have a lot of, well, IRGC Navy forces, small boats that act relatively irresponsibly. So there are things that you can do that can, I think, get through to Tehran, and also get through to Riyadh.
And then even as you do it, you keep those channels of dialogue open with the Iranians for areas where we do have common interests, like Afghanistan I think was mentioned before, counter-narcotics, communications to ensure, like – avoid unintended naval escalation. So it’s this – you know, I think of the Iran approach really as both engagement and pushback at the same time, is the only way that you’re actually going to get there on this.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, can you be specific? I mean, earlier you mentioned interdictions of arms supplies to Yemen. And there have been efforts to supply arms to Shia in Bahrain. But we’ve done it. I mean, what signal has been received?
MR. GOLDENBERG: Well, part of it is, I think, a difference in publicity. So I would argue in the interdictions case, you know, what the Israelis do every once in a while, is they take all the weapons off the ship, they take the pictures, they send it around to everyone in the world, and everybody just sort of yawns and says: It’s the Israelis doing this again. We don’t do that. We can do something like that, more direct.
You know, in Iraq, when we thought that the level of escalation was getting unacceptable and the danger to our forces was getting unacceptable, on occasion we would do a combination of some specific steps quietly, under the ground, to make sure we’re rolling up some guys. And you combine it with a firm message: Knock it off. You’re going too close. In the case of the Strait of Hormuz in 2012, Iran conducted a bunch of exercises there early in 2012. Secretary Panetta came out and said this is a red line. That public message and show of force was coupled with some private messages to the Iranian regime. And the message got through very clearly, and very quickly you saw a pull back.
You know, so I don’t think this requires – there’s a whole bunch of tools that we have at our disposal if the next president, for example, were to go to the CIA and the Defense Department and say: Give me a set of options for how we can tie all these types of things up? Those are the types of things I think you can get. And even as you do things like that, you still leave the dialogue channels open. There’s no reason you can’t do both.
DR. MATTAIR: Rich wanted to say something. And then, Jim, you wanted to. Yeah.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Yes, on the topic of Iran I felt that I should comment, since I was U.S. ambassador in Oman when we began our diplomatic engagement with Iran there. And seeing my friend, Ambassador Al-Mughairy here, it reminds me that not only we at that time, and our friends in Oman at that time, were actually very successful in launching a diplomatic initiative which I think has brought great positive change to the region. It has been discouraging, as many of our panelists have mentioned, that the effort which was really simply to ensure Iran did not get a nuclear weapon has been misinterpreted as somehow our partnering with Iran against the other countries in the region, which of course, as has been said many times, is not the case.
The other part of I think what we did through the diplomatic initiative was to rebalance or restate our position towards Iran as a country. We kind of moved away from this idea of regime change as being our policy to simply trying to counter Iranian negative behavior. And as Ilan has mentioned, and certainly all of us who have served in the region and who read the intelligence reports are aware, we do a lot of countering of Iranian malign behavior. It just doesn’t get the publicity, as Ilan has mentioned. So I think the repositioning of our engagement with Iran has been a success. It’s been misunderstood and misinterpreted. But I do think that it’s an area where we have had, both in our own right and with our friends in Oman, a diplomatic success, which I would like to see repeated elsewhere in the region.
DR. MATTAIR: Jim, and Chas, and then Jerry.
MR. ZOGBY: Let me – just a few general observations. First is when we poll on Iran, there was a period of time in the 2006-2008 period when Iran in their world was polling in the 70-80 percent range. Saudi Arabia, 78 percent favorable rating. We asked a question: Name three leaders not from your own country that you most respect. In Saudi Arabia, the top three were Bashar al-Assad, Nasrallah, and Ahmadinejad. This, in the seat of Sunni Islam. What accounted for that? They were angry at America. And they were angry at their own government for being an ally of America, while in 2006 Lebanon was devastated. And now those numbers have plummeted. I wrote a book based on our polling a few years back called “The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab Public Opinion.” And it clearly has been a precipitous decline.
When we poll the businessmen in the Arab world, on the other hand, they look at Iran and they see a potential partner. And they look forward to that relationship. So do we engage with Iran? Of course we engage with Iran. The question is, what have we done on the other side? And the fact is, very little. And I think that that’s an issue. I mean, I hate the conversation about the Arab state that is, well, we don’t need their oil anymore so, you know, they’re no longer an interest of ours. There was – the Arabs thought there was a human relationship.
They’ve come to discover that there wasn’t a human relationship, that it was really basically – if you listen to the speeches at the 2008 Democratic convention, I was struck by – I was actually horrified with, you know, the fact that – and we will free ourselves from Arab oil, as if that was the issue that faced us in the Middle East – or that it was even possible. Yeah, we wouldn’t need it, but our allies in Europe would need it. Those are real – the allies that we got a relationship. As would the rest of the world. And if you had no Arab oil, or if it was no longer secure, the world economy would go kaput and none of us would pay the – we’d all pay the price. Mattel toys would cost a whole lot more to import to America if China didn’t get the oil for the petrochemical industry to build those plastic little marbles for our children and grandchildren.
The problem is that I think that during the entire period, and particularly during the Bush era, but continuing on in the Obama administration, our relationship with the Gulf States was – it was a continuing series of slights. It was like a drip, drip, drip. And it’s taken a real toll. It’s not just an Iran deal, and so we turned our back on them. It was that we treated them in ways that were very disrespectful, as if the relationship were mono-dimensional – we need your oil, you need our protection, period.
And I’m actually – I’m still concerned about that, because you cannot build trust just snapping your fingers in the Arab world. Trust has been eroded and destroyed throughout the Gulf region. And it’s not just series of policies. Of course, those policies only accent the lack of trust. I mean, you pass a JASTA. You do the Iran deal. You, you know, turn your back – you do a red line, you turn your back on Mubarak and stuff. I might have agreed with the – I might have – but you add them all together, and with the absence of continuing to cultivate the human relationships and display the importance, you create a problem.
And that’s what we’re living with right now, which is why one of the recommendations I think President Obama has a couple months to do, is to kind of ease the way for Secretary Clinton – if she becomes president, and I think she will – to have those relationships on a little better footing. She shouldn’t have to start from scratch, because frankly there is no trust. And I think we have to – we have to recognize that. And so why did they do Yemen? Because they don’t have trust in us or confidence in us. And they feel betrayed by us. And so in a way, they were kind of acting out to back us into a situation to defend what they did. It hasn’t worked for them. Certainly hasn’t worked for the Yemeni people, who’ve payed a horrific price – a horrific price.
But on the issue just of Iran, there’s also a reason why countries in the region have a concern about Iran. It has exported violence. It has exported insurrection. It has exported disruptive behavior that is threatening to many countries in that Arab world. It doesn’t mean that the Arab countries that have been victims of it have always behaved well. I mean, you know, Bashar al-Assad hasn’t played well. Saddam Hussein didn’t play well. There has been oppression of minority groups, or majority groups in the case of Iran, of Shia communities. But Iran has exploited that for their own interests and been a meddlesome, destabilizing force. And they continue to project that revolution.
It always intrigued me that Netanyahu would get into this thing with Ahmadinejad in that period. And I thought to myself, they actually both need each other. You know, it’s like they’re both the nemesis for each other that – oh, look they’re threatening me. Oh, look they’re threatening me. Oh, look they’re threatening. Back and forth, they go back and forth. The real victims of this were the Gulf Arabs, because the message of Ahmadinejad, he would say he was threatening Israel. He really wasn’t threatening Israel. He was saying to the Arabs across the water: Look at me. I am standing up to the West. I am standing up to Israel. And your own leaders aren’t.
And so Arabs feel that they have paid a price in terms of what they’ve done for America. Yes, they’ve gotten protection, but they also gave a lot. They reduced oil prices. They stabilized the market in the years when they paid a price for it. When they continued to support the United States throughout the Iraq War, that was a horrific price they paid. And I don’t think any of us – I remember at one point I was speaking to somebody who was very close to – an advisor to then-crown prince, later King Abdullah, during the Bush-Kerry race. He called me the night of the election and he said: Do you think Kerry can still pull it out? And I said, why would you care? (Laughter.) I mean, Kerry’s spoken very ill of you. He said: We’d rather have an American president who hates us than an American president our people hate.
And that – they need the relationship, but they’ve paid a price for maintaining that relationship. And I think that none of us have faced the fact that for the last several years – maybe even well-over a decade – people in the Gulf region have wanted a relationship with America, but have felt abandoned by it. And it’s there. It’s there and it needs to be healed. And it needs to be healed so that we can build the kind of OSCE model that we’d like to see in that region. But it’s not going to be built at this point unless there’s trust. And it doesn’t exist right now.
DR. MATTAIR: Chas, can I – can I briefly quote you from an article that you wrote recently? (Laughter.) And maybe you can incorporate that into your remark. Because you were talking about cooperation between the United States and Iran. And you said: It would have to be conducted in such a way as to reassure their respective clients and friends by avoiding or limiting adverse effects on their vital interests. Now, how – I mean, given what the Saudis and other GCC states think their vital interests are with respect to Iranian expansion, how do you do that? How do you create the détente that they don’t think jeopardizes them?
AMB. FREEMAN: Very good question. Let me –
MR. ZOGBY: And a very good quote.
AMB. FREEMAN: Thank you. (Laughter.) And let me – let me begin by saying that I agree completely with Jim that the issue between the United States and the Arab world is an issue of relationship management. I’m fond of recalling the same crown prince, later king, now no longer with us, Abdullah, in Saudi Arabia, when my deputy, Dave Dunford, asked him to do something which really made no sense at all in terms of Saudi interests. And he said, well, I guess a friend who doesn’t help you is no better than an enemy who does you no harm. And I will therefore help you.
That sense, on the Arab side, that there was a relationship with the United States that deserved to be tended, nurtured, valued, respected, and acted upon, is gone. I think one of the reasons it’s gone is, frankly, that the American side consistently approached these countries on a transactional basis. What’s in it for me? And when we didn’t want something, we didn’t come calling. We didn’t sustain the relationship. So that’s a fundamental barrier to our moving forward in any direction, because it has engendered huge mistrust and lack of confidence.
In the case of Iran, I agree with Ilan very much that there has to be firm, sometimes pushback, and as well as attempts at seduction. There have to be carrots as well as sticks. But my concern is that we’ve been very heavy on sticks and quite short of carrots. And that our policies basically, and the ones that we have been talking about here with Iran, have been entirely military. They don’t include political and economic dimensions. And that is in fact a criticism of our overall strategy in the Middle East. It’s all military all the time, and it doesn’t include addressing political and economic issues.
But a final point I want to make on Iran is simply this: That part of reassuring our partners in the region about what we’re doing with Iran is helping them to understand the reality that Iran doesn’t want rapprochement with us across the board. Iran sees us as more problem than opportunity. And they made that very clear after the signing of the nuclear accord when they said: We’re first going to concentrate on our relations with our neighbors. And then we will think about what to do with the Great Satan over there on the other side of the world.
So I think in effect much of the agitation on the part of the Gulf Arabs on this question is unjustified. And part of the dialogue ought to be directed toward coming to some common understanding of what the real possibilities or dangers are. And I think we would find that their professional intelligence people, and ours, actually more or less agree. And the politicians are making up stories, as they usually do.
MR. HYMAN: Just a couple things. Number one, I completely agree with what Jim said. It’s human relationships and honor that are particularly prized in the Arab world, or even in some other places. But every human being, I think, wants to be – has a concern about those human relationships and his or her own honor. And when we don’t take those things into account, even at the geopolitical level, we do our ourselves and our colleagues a great injustice.
That said, I think it’s – I think where I maybe put a little different emphasis, anyway, Chas, than you do is two things. One is, Iran has – first of all, let’s make a distinction between the government of Iran and the people of Iran. My understanding is that when the population is polled, it’s pretty pro-American in a lot of ways.
MR. ZOGBY: No. (Laughs.) That’s a myth.
MR. HYMAN: Is that right?
MR. ZOGBY: Yeah, it is.
MR. HYMAN: OK.
MR. ZOGBY: It got developed years ago, that the Iranians really, really like us. They actually don’t.
MR. HYMAN: Is that right?
MR. ZOGBY: Yeah, yeah.
MR. HYMAN: OK, fair enough. Strike that.
AMB. FREEMAN: They tried to kill me, but they missed. So I have a fond spot in my heart. (Laughter.)
MR. HYMAN: But I think it’s important to understand at least at the governmental level then that the fact is that Iran is doing things that are not in the interest of ourselves or our partners. And we shouldn’t just whitewash that. The question is how do we deal with it? And it seems to me, number one, we ought to distinguish between our vital interests and our not – and our lesser interests.
Our vital interest is naval passage through the straits, period. We will not allow our own ships or any other ships of any other country to be impeded by Iran and its navy, period. And if that means military force, that’s what it means. That’s a vital interest. And that’s why I was trying to distinguish before between our vital interests and lesser interests. Secondly, we have a vital internet in the nuclear proliferation problem, not just in Iran but elsewhere. Those are important interests.
Regional behavior, to me, falls in a secondary category to that. We should be countering their regional behavior where it affects us, our interests, and those of our partners, but not necessarily as a confrontational matter. And it seems to me we ought to find ways much more subtle, much more secondary than military engagement, to try to counter some of the kinds of things that Iran is clearly doing, not only to us, but more importantly to some of our partners, and particularly Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States.
The fact is that Saudi has to worry about a very large Shia population in some very important strategic areas of Saudi Arabia. No wonder they’re worried about Iran. They’re worried that their own stability’s at stake and their own economy’s at stake. We need to understand that, and we need to make sure the Iranians understand that. How do we deal with that is not with military force.
I regret more than a lot of you, because I worked with them a lot, the demise of USIA. That was a huge institutional mistake in my opinion, and a great loss, because that one was one of the ways in which we projected influence and tried to influence other people’s behavior through nonmilitary means. And it seems to me we need to find some of those kinds of ways to counter some of the kinds of negative regional behavior that Iran is engaging in, but short of these vital interests and a potential military confrontation.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, now there’s – thank you. There’s one more issue. We only have 10 minutes, so there’s one issue we need to get to. And it’s really a combination, but I was really listening recently to someone who’s had many years of involvement in our Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts. And he basically said – I don’t want to misquote him – but I think he said: No one with a functioning brain could still think the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a national interest of the United States – a disappointing comment, from my point of view.
We do have a lot of crises in the region. Where is the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict? How important is it relative to these other conflicts? Now, you know, people can argue, and I think Jim – I think you have – that it remains one of the causes of anti-Americanism and terrorism. And I believe you also said in your remarks here that if we were to successfully resolve that, it would send a signal to the Gulf Arabs about our commitment and actually help us deal with security issues in the Gulf. Was that your argument?
MR. ZOGBY: It was.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. So can we go into that a little?
MR. ZOGBY: Yeah. I thought – last year Rob Malley, who was director of –
DR. MATTAIR: It wasn’t Rob.
MR. ZOGBY: What?
DR. MATTAIR: The quote wasn’t from Rob.
MR. ZOGBY: No, no, no. I’m saying that last year Rob Malley – that was the beginning of the thought – speaking at the Haaretz conference in New York, was asked the question and said, I think rather wisely, that: No, solving this issue will not be the silver bullet that will make the Middle East at peace. But it will restore American relations with Arab countries, creating the trust we need to move forward. It’s an important message to our partners that we actually can deal with the region with integrity, because it is such an evocative question and evocative issue.
Throughout the entire time we were dealing with the Iran nuclear negotiations, I had this weekly television – some of you might – not a single time you talk about the Iran nuclear question that it doesn’t – what about Israel? What about Israel? And we had no damn answer to that, and still have no answer to that. And it makes no sense to people other than the fact that, well, we never can be trusted as a fair partner. So I would disagree profoundly with the idea that it is not in our national interest.
If developing trust and rebuilding relationships in the Arab world are important to our national interests, a way ignoring, or just not talking about, or thinking that you can continue to let Netanyahu have his way – and just as The New York Times will rivet on that issue because it’s an important issue for them, papers in the Arab world rivet on it as well. Leaders might not be as concerned, but people are. And leaders are sensitive to what people in that region think, whether we believe it or not.
And so you will hear, the Saudis are having quiet talks with [Israel] – I don’t know if it’s true or not – but I know that if they’re quiet, they’re really quiet and they’re going to stay really quiet. And if they ever got public they would disown them, because they can’t be – they can’t risk breaking with what they know is a profoundly held opinion in their own – in their own country. So it is critical to us. And it ought to be critical to us. And it’s also question of American – our own honor and integrity.
I mean, we signed a $38 billion deal, and the guy slaps us in the face a couple of days later and announced new settlements. No, it’s not really new settlements. It’s just on the next hill over from that settlement. And oh, yeah, oh, by the way, it goes – extends right up into the middle of the West Bank, which if you know the topology means you’ve severed that area from ever being contiguous, because that will now be part of the – you know, the line we used, continued settlement activity is illegitimate. But once you build them, it’s a reality and we have to accept realities. I mean, it’s nonsense. And yet, that’s the hole we’ve dug for ourselves.
And so if we want to get out of that hole, we’re going to have to draw a marker and we’re going to have to, as we’ve said on everything else, if you draw a line, you better stick to that line. And yet, our continued denunciations are just so much blah, blah, blah, because they’re never backed up with action. So I think it’s important for our integrity and our trustworthiness, and, yes, to rebuild our partnerships in that region, as well as to avert another crisis, because you and I sitting here just going back and forth know that on the horizon is another eruption in the West Bank or in Gaza.
And it will destabilize the region yet for months to come after it, until things kind of calm back down again and we wait for the next crisis to occur. We’ve had a war in Gaza every two years until just recently. This is the first year we’ve – well, we’re not out of the year yet, so I can’t – but every even year going back to 2006. People don’t remember that before the Lebanon war that there was a Gaza war in 2006. Every two years we’ve had a major eruption in Gaza. And frankly, we could very well be heading for one again.
And when it does, everything else we do will be forgotten. All the other conflicts in the region – people – I can’t tell you how many times in the last 40 years I’ve been working on this issue I’ve read journal articles that say: Well, it looks like the Arabs have forgotten about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians don’t mean anything anymore. Until the next eruption, and then once again it’s front and center because it is, in their minds, the wound that never healed.
DR. MATTAIR: Now, Ilan was part of the effort in 2013 and ’14, so I know he wants to comment. And Chas has very little hope for our efforts and success, so I know he wants to comment. I think we can fit that in before we – before we adjourn.
MR. GOLDENBERG: Sure. I just – I agree, first of all, that there is tremendous benefit to Israelis, Palestinians, American perception in the region, of an agreement – a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. I think it is an American interest. But I just don’t have the same optimism that Jim has about what it would do for us in the region. And here’s my experience. You know, in 2013 and ’14 I was, you know, part of the very small team that did these negotiations. I was Martin Indyk’s chief of staff during that last round.
Early on, we asked the Arab states and the Gulf States to support us by providing $600 million in additional new assistance to President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to take some of the pressure off of Abbas during these negotiations, and create extra space for him to focus on the political piece. We got $150 million. At the same time, that was the period right after the Sisi takeover in Egypt. And during that year, Egypt got $23 billion from the Gulf States.
So the idea that the Gulf – maybe the population and polling show that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is big with the Arab world, but it’s not clear to me at all that in terms of priorities this is where the Arab leaders are. Doesn’t mean they don’t care about it. Doesn’t mean they’re ready to – doesn’t mean this idea that in Israel now that you’re going to somehow go around, you know, the Palestinians and have these close relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is going to happen – I agree, that’s not going to happen. And it’s big for their politics.
But in terms of when they look at things like Egypt, and they look at what’s going on in Syria, and they look at what’s going on in Yemen, and they look at the issues involved with Iran, I just don’t think that the Arab leadership prioritizes this in that way.
MR. ZOGBY: Can I just comment on that? Look, Egypt is the – it’s the hinge. It connects three continents. It’s the cornerstone. It was looked at as that. They could not let it fail. And so do not – there’s no equivalency on any issue between that and the other. The other is that the Palestinian leadership is dysfunctional. And in addition to that, what the “peace process,” quote, unquote, created was a dependency on foreign assistance. They cannot have an economy, because they can’t import or export, because Israel will not allow development in the West Bank and Gaza.
Therefore, the Arab view is – and they’ve said this to me directly when I’ve talked to them about it – they’ve said: We have been put in the position by the United States that is asking us to subsidize the occupation by paying the Palestinians to be – continue to participate in a farce of a peace process, while Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank. So the reason they didn’t give the money isn’t because they don’t like Palestinians or don’t think it’s important, but it was just 600 million (dollars) to give way to another 600 million (dollars) to give way to another 600 million (dollars) when, in fact, if anybody ought to be paying the ticket it’s the United States because we’re subsidizing – we’re creating the conditions politically for that occupation to be sustained.
MR. GOLDENBERG: Yeah, maybe, but you know, if they want to really get into the game, and something like this is happening, and they are all telling us that they were very appreciative of the fact that Secretary Kerry made this – you know, they had nobody. They had nobody like Secretary Kerry, I would argue in the last 15 years, who was as dedicated to putting this issue above all else, even when a lot of other people are questioning why is the secretary of state doing so much of that? So the man asked for $600 million and you have the capacity to do it, and you have a champion in Kerry who wasn’t able to do it, but was willing to really put himself out there, do it. You know, instead of making excuses or complaining about American – about this and that the U.S. is doing.
Just one last point is –
DR. MATTAIR: Well, we really do need –
MR. GOLDENBERG: You have to close? OK, I’ll let it go.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, can you make it quickly? Because I know Chas wants to say something before we –
MR. GOLDENBERG: Sure. Just one last point on the Israelis. There is – you know, I – there is this balance we have to strike, where I agree we need – on settlements in particular we should take a harder line in certain ways. But I also think that they’re never going to do a deal unless they have confidence in us, that we’ll be there. There’s a lot of insecurity that – you can objectively pull back, but there is an Israeli psyche that looks at the region and looks at how they feel, surrounded by different actors, and still has this tremendous insecurity, even when you pull back and look at the reality of their military and economic capacity compared to others.
And so the United States has this very delicate role it to play where it needs to reassure Israel, to give it the courage to make the deal, while also pushing Israel when there is a problem, when it feels like Israel needs to go further. And it’s very challenging for us to do. And so our policies are constantly trying to modulate that.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. I think the last word goes to our president emeritus.
AMB. FREEMAN: I’m not going to comment on the Arab-Israeli issue, because I think that’s been thoroughly gone over, although I have to say the 600 million (dollar) figure rings in my memory. That was the amount we demanded after the Gulf War by way of compensation for lost tourism in Israel, and paid. And this, in a war where we lifted all the resources of the Gulf Arabs that could find. I collected 17 billion (dollars). Not bad for government work. Which some of it had stuck to my pocket. (Laughter.)
I do want to say also just one point that I think is important is that there will be no starting from scratch for President Clinton – if there is a President Clinton. She has a lot of baggage and a record in the region. And that isn’t going to go away. And it’s not particularly admired. So she will start behind Obama in every respect, except anti-Assad military – willingness to use force.
Finally, I didn’t answer your question about how you can reassure countries with other partnerships – reassure those partners that you’re not betraying them. There’s a model here, which I personally was involved in. And I won’t take long to describe it. But in 1972, when the United States, President Nixon, opened relations with China, the Shanghai Communique, which is about eight pages long, began with six and a half pages that most people didn’t understand, because it said, very undiplomatically: The United States and China fundamentally disagree on everything in Vietnam, Korea, Kashmir, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then it said, notwithstanding that, we can cooperate to mutual advantage.
But why did we spend six and a half pages saying that? Because we had to reassure our respective clients that we were not selling them out, that there were limits to what we were pursuing. This is a diplomatic problem that is resolvable by diplomats. And so if we want to pursue a limited rapprochement with Iran, for example, we can find ways to reassure people that it is, in fact, limited. And they can find ways of reassuring Hezbollah and Assad and other clients, or the Bahraini coterie, that they are not being sold out. So it’s resolvable. Again, what we need is imagination. We need something beyond purely military approaches. We need to try diplomacy.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, OK, thank you. Thank you for coming. Look for the transcript and the video on our website. And let’s have a hand for this great panel. (Applause.)
Chairman, Projects International Inc.
Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense
Former President, MEPC
President, Arab American Institute
Member, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
Author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why it Matters
Senior Fellow & Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security
Former Senior Professional Staff Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Former Iran Team Chief, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy
Former Special Adivsor on the Middle East, Office of the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy
Former Senior Advisor and President, Hills Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Member, Advisory Council to the Center for International Media Assistance of the National Endowment for Democracy
Former Director, Office of Democracy and Governance, USAID
Former Ambassador, Oman
Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 86th Capitol Hill Conference on Thursday, October 13. “The Middle East and the Next Administration: Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations” provided the public with varied perspectives on how the next U.S. president should approach the region’s most intractable problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and Iran’s role in the Arab world.
The four-person panel offered their expertise as former government officials and active members of civil society through multiple prior U.S. administrations. Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (Former Ambassador, Saudi Arabia); Ilan Goldenberg (Senior Fellow & Director, Middle East Security Program, Center for a New American Security); James Zogby (President, Arab American Institute); and Gerald F. Hyman (Former Senior Advisor and President, Hills Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies).
Ambassador Freeman projected that political gridlock will continue to plague the next U.S. president, and that he or she will likely double down on the current militaristic policy in the region at the expense of greater diplomacy. Ambassador Freeman suggested that the current U.S. role in Syria is merely a “feel good” posture, as it allows the U.S. to claim to be doing something when in fact the current administration has no coherent Syria policy. He shared a similar view on Iraq, arguing that U.S. policy there needed a “hard scrub” but would likely continue without much substantive review. In terms of prescriptions, Ambassador Freeman advocated cutting off overt and covert aid to all groups in Syria and advising other external actors to do the same. Without the fuel of arms and other support from the outside, he argued, diplomatic progress would stand a greater chance of success and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran might even subside somewhat.
Mr. Goldenberg emphasized the danger posed by various security vacuums in the region, particularly as they combine with proxy wars that are well funded and armed by regional actors. The perception that the U.S. is pulling back from the region contributes to the combustibility of these various pockets of instability, Mr. Goldenberg argued. However, he was skeptical that the next U.S. president should fully de-escalate from the primary conflicts in the region. Instead, he argued for a role for the U.S. to fill these security vacuums, particularly in Syria and Iraq, by articulating better which groups are U.S. partners and then backing them more aggressively as forces on the ground to advance stability. In addition to bringing more stability to the region, this approach could reinforce confidence among allies that the U.S. remains a committed actor. It could also give the U.S. more leverage to ask its allies to modify their behavior.
Mr. Zogby underlined the lessons of the Iraq war: that a surge in U.S. military power does not necessarily translate to lasting security gains in the Middle East. The reconfigured landscape after the Arab Awakenings suggests even less of a constructive role for a large U.S. military presence in the region. Mr. Zogby emphasized the need to get serious about changing behavior: by punishing Israel for new settlement activity by reducing their foreign aid package; by helping to extract Saudi Arabia from the war in Yemen through greater assurances that the U.S. will guarantee their security; and by acknowledging that U.S. credibility in Syria may be too low to be a constructive broker there. He also urged restraint in cases like Mosul, where the U.S. might slow down the advance to reclaim the city until Iraqi forces are at a point where they have the numbers and competency to hold it.
Mr. Hyman divided the region into six types of countries, mirroring their categorization on the widely referenced Fragile States Index. His point was to illustrate the diversity of country profiles in the region, and how these differences could inform U.S. policy in the future, particularly as these states convulse and interact with one another. One novel suggestion that Mr. Hyman emphasized was that the U.S. should focus more on states like Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt that are relatively stable, with the goal of bolstering their ability to resist discord and disintegration in the future. He also advised policy makers in the next administration to look carefully at the borders in the region, identifying instances where political empowerment of some groups might serve to stabilize the country overall.
The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.