Advice to the Trump Administration
The Middle East Policy Council's 87th 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 January 11, 2017, offered diverse perspectives on U.S. commitments and engagements in the Middle East for the new 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 a transcript of the eighty-seventh 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 January 11, 2017, 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, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome. Thank you for joining us. We’re going to get started, even though one of our speakers I think is still on the way through checking into the building. But we want to take advantage of the time we have. So, again, thank you for joining us. My name is Richard Schmierer. I’m the chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m very pleased to welcome you, on behalf of the Council, to our 87th quarterly Capitol Hill conference.
(As an aside.) Oh, here we go. We’re just getting started. Hey, welcome.
We’re particularly pleased today to have with us such a distinguished group of panelists to discuss what we all know to be a very timely topic, and that is U.S. Commitments to the Middle East: Advice to the Trump Administration.
Before I introduce the panelists, I would like to say a few words about the Council and its programs. Our organization was established 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 are quarterly Capitol Hill conferences, such as today’s event. A second is our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which enjoys a wide circulation in the region and among those interested in the region. It can be found actually in 11,000 libraries worldwide. There were some sample copies out on the desk. Our most recent issue has a very good piece on the same topic that we’re discussing today, in a sense. It was the Middle East and the new administration. And then our third program is an educational outreach program geared primarily towards high school students and teachers, providing both materials and speakers for such audiences. So I’m pleased — I would encourage you to visit us on our website, www.MEPC.org, and our TeachMideast website, www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our activities.
Now to today’s event. This program is being livestreamed on our website. And so I’m glad to welcome all of you who have logged in to view the program over the internet. The proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, and a recap of the discussion will also be posted there. An edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy. And I think you all saw the bios of our panelist in the invitations and from the front table, but let me just briefly introduce you to the four of them, and in the order in which they’ll be speaking.
Our first speaker will be Derek Chollet. He’s held senior positions in both the White House and the Department of Defense during the Obama administration and he was currently, I believe, very recently, promoted to a new position at the German Marshall Fund, where he is now the executive vice president. So congratulations to Derek on that.
Our second speaker is a colleague from my time — we were together at the State Department, Jake Sullivan. Jake has been both at the White House and the State Department during the Obama administration. And he’s had — he was the senior policy advisor on Secretary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Our third speaker, who just joined us, will be Dimitri Simes, who the president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, which he has led for more than two decades, and is the publisher of the journal, The National Interest.
And then our final speaker will be Mary Beth Long. Mary Beth has served as a senior — in senior positions in the Department of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, and is the founder and CEO of the security consulting firm Metis Solutions.
The discussion following the presentation by our panelists will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Tom has lived in and published on the region, was previously the director of research at the Council, and has served as the Council’s executive director since 2009.
Following the opening remarks by our panelists, we will have a Q&A session. And please note on your chairs that we have index cards placed around the room. We would ask that as any question comes to mind during the presentation of any of the panelists, you write down the question and hold up the card. Our staff will gather the cards and bring them up to Tom, and he can then start working through them during the presentations by selecting the questions and the topics that are being raised in the — through your questions.
So, without further ado, then, let me turn it over to you, Derek. You can stay there. That’s fine. Oh, we have — the video would be better if you came up. That would be great. Thanks.
DEREK CHOLLET, Counselor and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy, The German Marshall Fund of the United States; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel; Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director, National Security Council
All right. Well, thanks, Rich, for that kind introduction. Tom, it’s good to see you. And thanks to the Council for having us here this afternoon. It’s great to be on a panel sharing the stage with my good friend Jake and Dimitri and my — one of my predecessors in my last job in the Defense Department, Mary Beth, for this very timely and important discussion.
I thought what I would do to kind of kick things off is to offer some observations about what the new team — Trump administration will be inheriting in U.S. policy in the Middle East, offer some thoughts about how we got here, what President Obama has tried to achieve in the eight years he has been in office, but also some of the challenges he has faced along the way. And then to really ask some questions, which we can get into in the Q&A or my colleagues might help answer, about issues — policy issues for the new administration and what we should be looking for in terms of course corrections, changes, shifts when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
So, first, to how we got here. There’s no question that President Obama, when he took office eight years ago, sought to recalibrate the U.S. approach to the Middle East. I don’t see the initial policy as one of a dramatic shift, but more of a — of a recalibration along several lines. I mean, first — and this is probably the area where there was the most dramatic shift, of course, was the withdrawal from Iraq. Much has been discussed in the last several years about the wisdom of that withdrawal, but of course that was something that President Obama campaigned on in 2008. And in many ways that was the policy he inherited in 2009, building on the SOFA that Rich and his colleagues — their hard work brought across the finish line in November of 2008 with the outgoing Bush administration, which set the timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq between 2009 and 2011.
The second element of Obama’s recalibration of — in the Middle East was, of course, dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. And in many ways, if you look back at the Obama approach, it’s sort of a quintessential long-game play, where the United States found itself, in early 2009, out of position when it came to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, which had gotten demonstrably worse during the course of the 2000s. And the United States found itself in the position of being an outlier in the world, where many countries, particularly our European partners, saw that our lack of engagement in dealing with the problem was, in fact, the source of our difficulties, not the other way around.
So from the very beginning of Obama’s time in office — in fact, from his first inaugural address, when he talked about reaching out to adversaries with that outstretched hand, he tried to change the power dynamic and the leverage, where instead of the Iranians having leverage over us, we tried to create leverage over them — first by testing engagement, with the full expectation that that would not work but therefore would prove to the world that the Iranians were in fact not interested in dealing with us without significant pressure put on them.
And so that then laid the groundwork for the pressure campaign that was started in 2009 by Secretary Clinton in trying to rally the world, successfully, to put unprecedented sanctions on Iran, but also on the military side of the equation. As we were withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, ensuring that the United States maintained the military footprint in the region to keep the pressure on Iran, and then began an effort — really, accelerated an effort to ensure that our partners in the region got significant military capabilities to defend themselves and to deter Iran.
The third area of recalibration in the region, which is the subject of some controversy still today, was an attempt to reset relations with the Muslim world. Obviously talking a lot about a different kind of reset of relations right now. But with the Muslim world, of course, with the Cairo speech in June of 2009 was kind of the key moment for that, where the president — in terms of both the ideas and the concepts, but also the policies to back those up — tried to start afresh with the Muslim world, and tried to work away and some of the scar tissue that had been built up in the previous eight years in terms of U.S. relationships with not just — not just governments in that region, but more importantly the people of that region.
I think that’s one area where expectations were set too high. And I think one of the dynamics that the Obama administration had to grapple with in the course of its presidency post-Cairo was one of dashed expectations about the promise of Cairo, being quite bold and ambitious, but the reality never quite matching that great promise. But then, finally — or finally, in terms of policy, the Middle East peace process. Of course, there was a decision early on to appoint a senior envoy, Senator Mitchell, to try to rejuvenate efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. It was something that Secretary Clinton spent a good deal of time, Secretary Kerry spent even more time on. But that was — that was clearly, from the early days, an effort by the administration to recalibrate the U.S. approach to the region.
But the finally, and kind of more broadly, I think there was an effort early on that really carried through the course of his presidency, even up until his speech last night, which was to try to address this notion — and maybe it’s an illusion — that there’s a U.S. fix to every problem in the Middle East. That’s not to say the U.S. has no role to play in trying to address the great challenges and threats in the Middle East, but that if there’s not a single set of policies that U.S. alone can lead to a solution. And, you know, Jeff Goldberg, the journalist, he talked about it. It’s the Carly Simon syndrome, trying to address this. Not everything is about us. And also — (laughs) — we can’t necessarily alone fix all of these problems.
Now, that’s led to a lot of anxieties in the region. And this gets to the second part of what I wanted to get into in terms of the challenges the president has faced, because there’s a no question that there is a lot of anxiety in the region among long-standing partners about the United States, our approach to the challenges in their neighborhood, and what role that we will play moving forward in helping them address those challenges. The region is going through a once in a century set of changes. A convulsion in terms of its security, in terms of its borders, in terms of its economic and social order. But it’s fundamentally not about the United States, not about any particular U.S. policy, but of course has huge ramifications on the United States, and it creates a lot of anxieties in the region about their own future.
And so it points out this challenge of reassurance. I think there’s great doubts about the U.S. role. I think there’s several reasons for that, one of which is greater energy independence for the United States. And as the energy picture changes so dramatically here, there’s a question among particularly some of our Arab allies that we will rely on them less, and so they may have less leverage on us. I think it’s important to note that this effort of greater energy independence actually started — it predates Obama. It was President George W. Bush in this 2006 State of the Union address who talked about an American addiction to oil from the Middle East, and promised over the next several years to have a 75 percent reduction in U.S. reliance on Middle East oil.
So I think — I mean, clearly that that kind of approach creates doubts among many of our Arab partners about our continuing reliance on them, and whether we’re going to be there for them in the future. Obviously, the Arab Spring itself — which, as I said, was not about any set of U.S. policies, but the convulsion that we all saw in — starting in late 2010 early 2011 — caused many of our closest allies in the region to question their own future, and whether they were going to — whether the same thing that was happening on the streets of Tunis or Cairo or Damascus was going to be coming to them. And then, of course, we’re worried about our own — the U.S. responses to that and the sort of — this narrative that’s set in about the U.S. abandoning someone like Mubarak, which I reject that narrative but I concede that it’s out there.
A lot of anxiety in the region about the rebalance to Asia. I mean, one of the great strategic moves of the Obama administration, and, frankly, one of — one of the areas of Obama’s foreign policy that probably has the most bipartisan support is the rebalance to Asia. But one of the unintended consequences of that strategy was the insecurities that it created around those countries who were seen as being rebalanced away from. You saw it in Europe, certainly. You see it in the Middle East. I mean, it’s an interesting dynamic that Jake will remember well, where when the Obama administration officials would talk to Asian allies, we would have to reassure them that we really meant it about the rebalance, and to say that we wouldn’t be distracted by problems elsewhere, that we would follow up on this rhetoric to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. But of course, our friends in the Middle East and elsewhere heard that there was going to be even less time and attention for them.
And then also on clearly this — Obama’s rhetoric about U.S., quote, unquote, “non-intervention.” Again, going back to this earlier recalibration, that there’s not a U.S. fix for every problem, this perception in the region that the U.S. could always be doing more, and why isn’t it doing more, was something that created a lot of anxiety in the region, and compounded this challenge of reassurance. There were also diverging interests. And as the United States tried to seek about a diplomatic solution on the nuclear — Iran nuclear program, which meant a secretary of state talking quite frequently with his Iranian counterpart — something that had not happened at all since 1979.
Just even in this course of this administration we went from a situation where we would have hours and hours of meetings in the Situation Room about whether if an Iranian diplomat and a U.S. official were found in the same room together at a large international conference — if they were going to be allowed to, like, look at each other in the eye, to a secretary of state, John Kerry, regularly text messaging and talking to his Iranian counterpart in the course of the Iran nuclear negotiations. That’s a pretty dramatic shift — perception shift that for many of our allies was very unsettling.
Clearly the situation in Syria and the desire by many U.S. partners in the region for the U.S. to do more in Syria, to be more militarily engaged, to take on Assad more frontally, and the Obama administration’s resistance to that, created some sense of anxiety. And then, of course, as I mentioned earlier, the situation with Egypt, where there was a sense, and particularly with some of Gulf partners, that the Obama administration was too quick to dismiss Mubarak, which I think overstates both our agency in that process but also what was actually happening on the ground.
And then finally, it’s — the Obama administration has struggled with managing the tradeoffs between what we’re doing in the Middle East and what we would do in other regions. And you know, I think even though the U.S. has fewer limits than any other country in terms of what it can do, in its capabilities, we still can’t do it all. And to the extent the U.S. is doing more in places like the Asia-Pacific, doing more in the last several years in Europe in terms of military posture, in terms of diplomatic energy and effort, it’s been perceived as less in the Middle East. And dealing with that balance that the Obama administration has tried to maintain and in how it’s dealing with problems around the world has meant that for many in the Middle East there is this sense that we care less.
And that’s why I think there’s been this myth, as I see it, of U.S. disengagement for the region, OK? That’s why I’m very careful to say it’s a recalibration. It’s not — it’s not a disengagement. It’s not a retrenchment. I think it’s often easier to say it’s — you know, all the problems of the Middle East are because the U.S. is doing, quote/unquote, “less,” it’s easier to say that than to grapple with the more complex story of what’s actually happening inside the Middle East. And when I look across the landscape of what the U.S. is currently doing in the Middle East, I see a U.S. that has shepherded through some record-setting arms deals to our Gulf Arab partners in terms of the most modern capabilities to the Saudis, the Emiratis, and others. I see a security framework that is more robust today than it was a decade ago in terms of the level of diplomatic and military interaction the United States has with its Gulf partners through this Camp David process that President Obama launched and that was continued on last year in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. and its GCC partners are trying to do what we do in other regions of the world routinely, in Europe and Asia, which is to have a regular meeting of the leaders where we can talk about common security issues and common solutions to those problems.
Look at the relationship with Israel, which has had no shortage of drama at the highest levels over the last eight years, but yet for those of us working down in the trenches, we saw a security partnership that’s stronger in many ways than it’s ever been. The president on his way out the door signed off on a record setting agreement with the Israelis, the memorandum of understanding, to provide them $38 billion over the next 10 years; a level of cooperation between our military and security services that has never happened before.
Even look at Egypt — again, a country which the U.S. was criticized for not doing — for being too quick to overthrow Mubarak, but on the other side — or to be complicit, supposedly, in overthrowing Mubarak — but on the other side, this administration has been criticized for not cutting off Egypt in terms of the military assistance we provide Egypt for maintaining the military relationship with Egypt. So, it’s criticized not for disengaging but for continuing to engage.
And then, finally, our military footprint, which despite our withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, we — and even if you set aside the capabilities we have in theater to fight the ISIL campaign — more military men and women deployed in the Middle East than before 9/11 in terms of our maritime and air presence, quite significant. It seems to me that if you look back over the last three decades, the biggest difference between our posture today and where we were eight years ago, is we don’t have 150,000 troops in Iraq, and I don’t know that that should be the sole measurement of U.S. engagement or disengagement in the region.
So, what President Obama’s leaving, in my view, is a situation that from a U.S. perspective is sustainable. It’s sustainable in terms of our military footprint and what we’re doing in operations. On the ISIL campaign, we’ve made tremendous progress over the last several years. And I think the new administration has some decisions to make about what to do about the campaign in Mosul, when to retake Raqqa, whether they want to add special operators on the ground and change the rules of engagement in places like Syria, but it’s a sustainable presence. And when you look at the public support that we have here in the United States for what we’re currently doing in the Middle East, this campaign that we just went through was about a lot of things, but I heard it as more of a(n) affirmation of what we are currently doing in the Middle East than any dramatic change, and I actually anticipate with General Mattis, who I worked very closely with at the Pentagon, in many ways a co-architect of many of the policies that I’ve just talked about, to see a good deal of continuity.
Which, then, I’ll close with this, which leads to kind of the questions that I’m looking at for a new administration coming in, and I’ll just tick through these very quickly in terms of both what they do and how they respond. First, obviously, the Iran deal. Lots of questions about whether the U.S. is going to try to throw away the Iran deal, amend the Iran deal, or end up doing something that might look quite a bit like what Secretary Clinton talked about last year, which was the vigorous implementation of the Iran deal.
Second, ISIS. As I said earlier, these tactical issues which are very important about how quickly we seek to retake Mosul or Raqqa, what kind of capabilities we’re giving to the Syrian opposition. Again, the new administration is a bit unclear on this, everything from the president-elect suggesting that we don’t — we want to stop support for the Syrian opposition to some of the folks who are part of the defense transition talking about how we actually want to dial up the support to the opposition.
Third, on Syria, the Assad question writ large. Again, we have a pretty wide variety of options being thrown out there — everything from we want to take the Putin position and work with Russia and Assad to deal with ISIL, to we want to actually dial it up in terms of what we’re doing to squeeze Assad and get him out of power.
Fourth, our Gulf partnerships. Clearly, there’s going to be a lot of questions in Gulf capitals about what the next administration’s going to do. A question in my mind is, will the president-elect help organize, and in fact, attend another summit of Gulf leaders in the next six months. I think if the election had gone a different way, that’s something I would have expected to see happen, and I’m not sure if that’s going to happen with this administration. That’s something I hope the new team is thinking about.
Fifth, what are areas that they decide to be “disruptive,” quote/unquote, how quickly, if at all, they want to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, does the president-elect want to declare the two-state solution dead — you know, things that may not actually achieve a near-term goal but would be very disruptive and may have some knockoff effects that would be unanticipated.
And then finally, the inevitable crisis that’s coming our way. I think there’s one thing those of us who follow Middle East policy closely over the last several years have been humbled to learn and relearn, is how little in control we can be of events and how things will come up and in many cases literally blow up in our faces. And so, I think that’s something we can unfortunately expect to see in the coming months, in the Middle East. And how the new team handles that inevitable and probably unexpected crisis will be something that will matter greatly to all of us.
So, with that, over to Jake.
JAKE SULLIVAN, Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School; Senior Policy Advisor, Hillary Clinton for President 2016; Former Deputy Assistant, President Barack Obama; Former National Security Advisor, Vice President Joe Biden
Thank you. Thanks, everyone, for being here, and to Rich and Tom for putting this thing together. You know, Derek and I work very closely together, and I think you just heard an incredibly effective tour of the region, much of which I agree with. And to Dimitri and Mary Beth, it’s an honor to share the stage with you.
I’m going to pick up a little bit where Derek left off on some of the big questions facing the incoming administration. Obviously, over the course of the past two years, I have given a lot of thought to the hard stuff, the really hard questions, and I think I’d like to use my time today, rather than give advice to the new administration, which I don’t think I’m really in a position to do, or necessarily talk as much about how things might have gone if the election result had been different, is rather tee up five hard questions that the incoming administration is going to have to grapple with, which raise a series of tensions and contradictions, and for which there are no easy answers. And that’s not really a surprise given the nature of the modern Middle East. Of course there’s going to be these huge difficult questions where the American policy’s going to face dilemmas and contradictions.
So I’ll start with the Iran deal, which is something that I care deeply about, having participated in it from the inception. And obviously on the campaign trail we heard a huge amount about ripping up the Iran deal, getting rid of it, it’s the worst thing ever, et cetera. I think that the rhetoric has changed pretty dramatically since the election, and it certainly seems to me that we are on a course to not see the Iran deal torn up in the first instance, but rather to see it enforced vigorously, and then for any additional pressure placed on Iran, for that to happen in the context of things outside of the nuclear context: ballistic missiles, human rights, support for terrorism.
So here, to my mind, is the core challenge facing that policy, which would have faced Secretary Clinton if she had been elected president because she proposed a policy very similar to the one that I now expect the new administration and the Congress, bipartisan leadership in both the House and Senate, will pursue, which is vigorously enforce the deal and then try to impose costs for Iran’s activities and behaviors outside of the context of the deal. The core challenge is how do you increase, dial up the pressure on Iran for what it’s doing with its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, its abuse of human rights, without effectively re-imposing exactly the same sanctions you just lifted in the course of the Iran deal, and thereby blow up the deal in the process — effect what I would call a bait and switch? How do you have a credible story to tell your partners in Europe and the other members of the P-5 plus one, and a credible platform to stand on that says we have a right under the deal to sanction you for your violations of your ballistic missile obligations — restrictions, by the way, that are embedded in U.N. Security Council resolutions, but that don’t go so far as to just be the wholesale replacement of the old sanctions regime with a near-identical new sanctions regime that was the price that was paid for the deal in the first place? That is a big and very hard question, and getting that calibration right will be incredibly important, because if you undershoot you’re not going to put the pressure on that’s needed to hold Iran accountable for these other activities, and if you overshoot you could break up the coalition that’s come together to enforce the deal, and that would put the United States in a pretty difficult position going forward.
So, for me, that is a big piece of business that is a little bit less strategic than it is practical. It’s actually about what exactly are the tools available though as to hold the Iranians accountable for these other things, and what do we have to do from a diplomatic perspective to convince the rest of the international community that we are within our rights to do these things? I think that is going to be an early test of this administration’s capacity to effectuate a complicated multi-vector strategy.
The second core challenge facing this administration is that the current posture talks very tough about both Iran and about ISIS. But the problem of course is that trying to push back on Iranian influence in the region and trying to hold Iran accountable for its behavior in respect to supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah runs headlong into a strategy that says by any means necessary we’re going to get rid of ISIS. Much of what we heard from the president-elect on the campaign trail seemed to be a ratification of Iran’s strategy in Syria, and much of what he talks about in respect to going after ISIS inside Iraq could have the perverse effect of actually strengthening Iran’s hand in Baghdad and across Iraq. So how do you resolve that tension? How do you once have a go-tough sign up with any partner who’s willing to fight ISIS, on the one hand, and a we are going to undermine and push back on and try and hold Iran’s feet to the fire and reduce its influence across the region on the other hand? Is it possible to thread the needle on that? I’m not totally convinced that it is, and I think that both the new administration’s Syria policy and Iraq policy is going to have to come down on one side or the other of this fundamental contradiction.
The third issue is the larger question of Syria itself. If you listen to the weight of what we heard during the campaign — and Derek is right that, you know, we heard a very wide variety of things both on the campaign and during the transition — it seemed to be in favor of essentially saying the Russians are on to something, so let them take care of it in Syria. That seemed to be where the weight of opinion was. Where is that ultimately going to leave Syria, though, in the long term? How do we think about actually trying to re-stitch some kind of stable equilibrium in Syria that reduces the killing and the slaughter of innocent civilians, that reduces the long-term prospect that even if you roust ISIS from Raqqa, you don’t just get the son of ISIS or the cousin of ISIS a year or two from now because you’ve merely installed something akin to the status quo ante? I think this set of questions is going to come home to roost for the administration very quickly, and I think they’re going to find that taking a position which just says let’s support the strongman, let’s let the Russians help prop up Assad and so forth, that that ultimately is going to beg a lot more questions than answers as that policy actually unfolds. And I’ll be interested to hear from both Dimitri and Mary Beth, what they actually anticipate, to the extent it’s possible to, how this particular set of questions and tensions gets resolved.
The fourth significant question, from my perspective, facing the new administration goes to the president-elect’s seeming predilection for supporting strongmen and authoritarian regimes across the region. He loves Sisi, seems to like Erdogan, seems to like the Gulf leaders for their strength and toughness. These all, in his view, can be partners against terrorist groups, against ISIS.
And I think that that raises a very fundamental and profound question about U.S. policy, which is, do we really believe that the old bargain, the authoritarian bargain, which is we support regimes that have deep questions about their fundamental staying power and legitimacy, in exchange for their help to fight terrorists and to keep some measure of regional equilibrium — is that old bargain conceivably sustainable, particularly given what we saw in 2011, 2012 with the Arab revolutions? Can we go back to just betting on the strongman? Do we think that that is a long-term proposition, is in the best interests of U.S. national security? I have my strong doubts about that. And I wonder if we don’t have to be thinking hard about the ways in which while supporting the efforts of our partners, our Sunni partners across the region, and raising their confidence and adding reassurance, as Derek was talking about, we don’t also have a clear vector of trying to encourage and induce the kinds of reforms that can lead to a more sustainable future for the Middle East. I think this is going to be a big piece of business that the new administration’s going to face, and its very recent history, which reminds us just how brittle and unstable a regime can become if it loses legitimacy with its people and isn’t capable of embarking on a path of reform.
This relates — it’s sort of my 4(a), you know, before moving on to my fifth and final point — to the real I think opportunity — opportunity’s always a funny word to use when you’re talking about the Middle East in general and the peace process in particular — but I do think that there is an interesting convergence of interests happening among our Sunni partners from Egypt to the Gulf, including Jordan and Israel. They share a couple of common adversaries — Iran and radical Islamic extremist groups, terrorist groups — and we’ve seen bubbling up the appearance of increasing cooperation between Israel and these countries. Does that present any kind of opportunity to potentially break the logjam and make progress in the Middle East peace process that gets away from just the kinds of negotiations that we’ve seen over the past few years? I don’t know the answer to that, but I would hope that as the new administration considers potentially precipitous moves in the early days, it at least calculate the possibility that a more careful and cautious approach out of the gate could create or at least preserve opportunities down the road for Israel and the United States and others to convert this growing convergence of interests between the Sunni countries and Israel into some meaningful progress on the peace process. I think there is a possibility there, and I think very careful statecraft coming out of the gate will be important to test that possibility and see if it can actually play out.
And then, fifth and finally, is the question of Russia’s role in the Middle East. I could offer a number of thoughts on this topic, but the next speaker up here, Dimitri, will be able to talk about it to a much greater extent than I will, so I will just start by saying that I think we’ve heard a number of alarming things from the president-elect on the campaign trail about his views of U.S. policy towards Russia. Largely we have focused that discussion around Europe, around Ukraine, around NATO and nuclear weapons and the like. But I think one must have a very clear-eyed view of what President Putin’s objects are in the Middle East, where they converge with U.S. interests and where they substantially diverge with U.S. interests. And that goes not just for the situation in Syria, but for the long-term vitality of U.S. partnerships and alliances with our Sunni — with Sunni states, Egypt and Jordan, and Gulf States with the peace process, with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s larger desire to exert regional influence. And I think there are opportunities here, but I think there are also enormous pitfalls. And without going into further detail, because my colleague can talk about it to a greater extent, it seems to me that taking great care to get beyond the simple maxim that says Putin doesn’t like ISIS any more than I do, and see the larger trends and dynamics at play, is going to be really important, or we could find ourselves in a significantly strategically worse position four years from now than we are today vis-à-vis Russia and its influence across the larger Middle East.
So those are questions and not answers. But from my perspective, those are the things to look at if you’re starting to judge, OK, how is this country — how is the United States going to resolve some of the major challenges facing us in the Middle East? How is this administration going to stack its priorities and make its tradeoffs? And I think if you kind of make a scorecard along these five lines, it will tell you a lot about our capacity for success in the region over the next four years.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Dimitri. Thank you.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Thank you.
Are there any questions that you have written down and — is there someone — Zak, could you make sure someone from our staff gets them? Thank you.
DIMITRI SIMES, President and CEO, Center for the National Interest; Publisher, The National Interest; Former Chairman of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs and Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Thanks so much for the invitation. And I’m familiar with the council. I know the great work you are doing, and it’s a particular privilege to be here today in such distinguished company. I have to tell Jake Sullivan that he’s in trouble, because I am going to agree with a lot of what you have said — (laughter) — particularly about Russia. Clearly, we have to start with an assumption, that the United States and Russia have very different interests, have often contrasting values, and Mr. Putin is not a friend of the United States. I hope the president-elect also knows well that Putin is not his personal friend. Actually, several years ago, during one of his numerous TV interviews, Mr. Putin was asked who are your close friends, and he said, “You don’t understand what a job of the president involves in Russia. You cannot have any friends. If somebody was your close friend, he’s your friend no more, because otherwise he would not be able to do your job right.” And I don’t think he just said it. From everything I have learned from people who know Putin, the more somebody looks like a friend, and particularly the more somebody pretends to be Putin’s friend, the more vulnerable this person becomes. Mr. Putin is an elected emperor. There can be no friends. There are subjects, there are followers, there are allies, but there are no friends. And the fact that he said nice things about Mr. Trump — and actually, in translation in English, what Putin said was exaggerated. Putin never called Trump a genius. He said about Trump that he clearly is a capable and very colorful politician, which is a kind of a — a kind of a compliment, but it was a measured one.
I think that there are other reasons, much more powerful reasons than illusions about Russia and about Putin to think seriously about a different and a better relationship with Russia. And actually, none of these reasons are good. None of them involve any positive interpretation of Russian intentions.
Let me start with reason number one. If you look at challenges to the United States, the challenges this country is facing today and is likely to face in the near future, I would say the number-one challenge is a strategic nuclear confrontation. It’s very unlikely. We all know that. But we also all know that Russia is the only country which has a capability to destroy the United States, a prosperous democratic society.
I was having a conversation with someone who knows Russia well and who was a senior official in the Obama administration, and that person said to me in response to an article I recently wrote with Graham Allison from the Wilson Center, he said you’re exaggerating a danger of nuclear war, because Putin is not crazy and he understands that, yes, they may be able to destroy the United States, but they would be committing suicide. I buy this argument, that Putin would not do something like that intentionally. Kaiser Wilhelm, President Poincare, Emperor Nicholas II, none of them in 1914 wanted to go in this huge European slaughter intentionally. They just thought that their peaceful intentions were clear and that the other side would know when to stop. It did not quite work out that way.
We have a growing tension in Europe. We have new deployments in Europe on both sides. What causes these deployments, both sides view it in a dramatically different way.
In Syria, it was initially portrayed by Moscow as an operation to help American-led coalition and to join the United States in an anti-ISIS campaign. Clearly, it evolved very quickly in an operation to support President Assad, in alliance with the Iranians, and clearly both sides have very different views of what is happening now in Syria, and both sides frankly feel that not only — that not only their interests but their prestige very legitimately are at stake. And, for Mr. Putin, particularly because he can hardly prevail in Ukraine, it’s very important for him politically not to look like a loser in Syria.
We are very concerned, and quite legitimately, about Russian threat to small Baltic states. The Russians are concerned, understandably, about NATO infrastructure moving closer and closer to St. Petersburg and to Moscow. This is not a situation which in my view any responsible American president can leave unattended, just assuming that the other side would be sufficiently wise and pragmatic. That is one reason to seek a better relationship with Russia — not an alliance, not friendship, but something significantly more stable than our growing distrust and actually zero-sum game on both sides.
The second challenge to the United States is clearly ISIS. Now, there are different views on how helpful Russia can be against ISIS, and I’m agnostic on that. And I think there are people on this panel who understand the dynamics in Syria and Iraq better than I, in terms of my experience and background, and able to understand, so I will remain agonistic. What I do know with certainty is that if our relationship with Russia continues to deteriorate, we should entertain the possibility that Russia would want to support some terrorist movements against the United States. And again, an assumption, always this: These are Muslim extremists. They’re a threat to Russia in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, so Russia would never, never ally itself with these people. Well, Russia allied itself with Hitler. It was a very short-lived alliance, but it created a lot of trouble. Russia, I don’t need to tell you, supported the PLO, and there are strong suspicions that it supported indirectly even more radical terrorist movements in the 1970s. I cannot exclude the possibility and I don’t think any serious analyst can exclude the possibility that our relationship with Russia deteriorates further. Russia may become our opponent, using a terrorist weapon against the United States. And those who believe that Russia launched this huge hacking effort inside the United States, I hope they would at least entertain the possibility that Russia can use terrorists if the push comes to shove.
Last, but probably most important, from my standpoint, is American strategic future. As far as I am concerned, a strategic nightmare for the United States is a situation when growing Chinese superpower would be joined by a resurgent Russia, because that clearly would create a major — if not necessarily a full-scale alliance, but a major coalition against American interests and values. And even if China and Russia do not make any formal arrangement, the very fact that the Chinese basically can count on Russian support and Russian cooperation clearly emboldens them in whatever they do in South China Sea and in that region in the Far East in general.
As China is becoming stronger and stronger, it cannot be in the American interest to put China and Russia closer together. And as a result, I think it’s very important for the United States to try to have, as Kissinger and Nixon tried to accomplish, better relations with Beijing and Moscow than they have with each other. At the minimum, we should not be doing things that would be making them closer against American interests.
Now, I understand that Mr. Tillerson, during his confirmation hearings today, talked about the Russian threat in Europe and Russian threat to NATO allies. I think that that’s very clear. We may have a debate about how we have arrived at our current predicament. And different analysts in the United States, in Europe and of course in Russia — they have very different explanations of whose fault it was and how that has happened. But where we are today, it’s very clear that the relationship between the United States and Russia is dominated by adversity, that mistrust is very, very high; that military leaders, both in the United States and Russia, have a growing influence on the decision-making process; that both the United States and Russia pay more attention to how the actions would look to their allies, to their friends than how the actions could look to each other respectively, and in the Russian case how the actions could look in Europe.
In my view, this is a very troublesome situation. I think that as President Reagan, as President Nixon were doing it years ago is a way to start, is through making very clear that the United States is strong. And it requires spending, it requires deployments; it requires moving infrastructure in Baltic states, Poland and elsewhere. I think it requires reassuring our allies, not only NATO but also in Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea and Taiwan.
But what it also requires is a meaningful diplomatic initiative vis-à-vis Russia, because as an old proverb goes, talk without arms, how do you dare to speak? But if you have only arms, if your diplomacy is nonexistent, then you are not giving another side much of an incentive to accommodate you unless you are prepared to defeat them.
President Obama said on a couple of occasions that we were able to isolate Russia, that the Russian economy was in shambles. And then, after that, Russia became a major military factor in Syria. And, after that, we have all this scandal with hacking, and you have an impression that when you back Putin into the corner, he finds a way to lash out and sometimes in a rather disturbing way in terms of American interests.
So what should we do at this point as far as I am concerned? What we should do at this point is first, of course, reassure our allies and friends. In his first foreign policy speech, which Mr. Trump has delivered actually at our center, Mr. Trump said that one of the first things he would do would be to call for a NATO summit and for a summit with our Asian allies where he would reaffirm American commitments but would also discuss missions of our alliances and the new circumstances. I think it would be a good way to start. You don’t start with Putin. You start with our allies and friends.
But then I think you have to try a new beginning with Russia, as was tried of course by the first Bush administration, as was tried of course by the Clinton administration, as it was tried of course by the Obama administration. And the question is why all those efforts have failed. And of course there were a lot of explanations connected to the Russian behavior and Russian own priorities and Russian own circumstances.
But I will give you one reason why I think Mr. Trump may have an opportunity. I think that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, a lot of people in the United States and in Europe are beginning to take Russia seriously, are beginning to come to a conclusion that Russia cannot be ignored; that you cannot take a position, well, this is an Upper Volta with nuclear weapons; these people are nobodies, they can be safely ignored; we should tell them, well, we love you, we respect you, but basically say their perspectives could be safely discounted.
I think we know now this is not the case. I think that we should accept that we need to engage in a serious negotiation with Russia about Syria. And I completely agree that we cannot allow Russia to impose its agenda on Syria and achieve unilateral victory. And I think that it’s very clear that we cannot allow Russia not only to threaten Baltic states but also to dismember Ukraine.
But I also think we should have a serious conversation. We should accept that Russia also is entitled to security. They’re entitled to security not because they are good people, not because we believe that they are pure at heart or that they are friends, but because if we do not negotiate security arrangements which would be minimally acceptable to them, they will be looking for security in other ways, which would be detrimental to American interests.
And when I look at specific proposals on the table both in terms of Ukraine and in terms of Syria, I do believe that we will need to engage in some heavy lifting. But I think a lot of things are doable, and I think that Mr. Trump is likely to be more pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric would suggest.
And I completely agree, actually, with both of you on Iran, that we cannot abandon the agreement. And if you want to know the final reason why we should not abandon the agreement — because if we abandon this agreement, Mr. Trump would have great difficulty having any new beginning with Russia because Russia is allied with Iran. And if Iran would run to the Russians and would ask for their support, before we even started developing a new relationship with Moscow, we may not like how Putin would behave. And any new initiative toward Moscow would likely to be short-lived.
So my hope is that there will be new openness to Moscow, that there will be new seriousness in terms of reaching diplomatic understandings but also, as two previous speakers have suggested, that there would be an element of responsible continuity.
AMB. SCHMIERER: Thank you.
MARY BETH LONG, Founder and CEO, Metis Solutions; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Chairman, NATO High Level Group (HLG); Senior Advisor and Subject Matter Expert, Supreme Allied Commander, NATO
Hi. Well, the first thing I want to do is thank the council for the very gracious invitation to join this really august group and all of you out there. For those of you out there who weren’t intelligence officers, the former CIA officer in myself hopes that all of you and the incoming administration were listening very carefully to what Dimitri said. I think it was very wise.
The former DOD official in me says that both Derek and Jake — it’s really a pleasure to sit at the same table with you. I think it’s very difficult to overstate how impossible both of their jobs were. And they are still alive, and their families are probably still nominally together. But they really deserve a thanks to all of us. And I think one of the great things about working in the Middle East is whether you’re from a Democratic or a Republican administration, the problems and the players basically are the same. And there’s much more commonalities of interests and of problems than one suspects.
So much of what I would have to say would agree with at least some of what Derek and Jake said. So I’ll try to skip ahead and do a little bit of an examination of what I believe to be sort of the outline of what the incoming administration will be looking at or taking position-wise vis-à-vis the Middle East. This is certainly not based on any role that I have with the Trump administration. I’m not involved either directly or indirectly. This is just based on my having talked to some folk and careful reading and what I understand to be some advice that they’re getting.
So just starting out, I think that from this incoming administration’s point of view, there really is going to be a realignment, so to speak, of interests where they will — there will be departures in their — in their view from what has been the posture or the policy that they are inheriting.
And I think the first one would be much more — from their point of view a much more transactional, much more pragmatic approach: This is what I need; what do you need to give it to me? And one of the results of that will be things that may have muddied the water in the past — will you do this for me, how many Gitmo detainees will you take for me if I do this, how will you vote on certain things in the U.N. if you give me that — I think you probably will see a lot less of that.
And from many, I think, Middle Eastern standpoints, it was very difficult at times to determine what exactly was the White House strategy on certain things, Syria being one. There was long suspicions by many of the Gulf states of exactly what it was the president was trying to accomplish in Iran. And unfortunately, I think the Atlantic Council — or the Atlantic article that came out in which the president specifically said he thought it was time that Persia or Iran took its rightful place in the — in the region and that Saudi Arabia in particular was going to have to live with it, I think for good or for ill that confirmed a lot of the deeply held undercurrents of many of the Gulf states that this really was an attempt to lift up Iran to the detriment of the other regional allies and without their participation, more importantly.
It’s important to remember that the — in previous attempts in most of the administrations, frankly — P5+1, P5+whatever — didn’t involve any of the regional players directly, which I think hopefully is something that we’ve all learned is a big mistake, particularly when you have an agreement with Iran about a nuclear power in which you have the power that’s getting the agreement making continuous statements about death to America, the fact that Bahrain is part of its existing empire for which it will — hopes to reassert itself. Same with the islands off of the UAE. And yet none of those — none of those countries were at the table.
So I do think you are going to see a departure or at least in the incoming administration’s mind a departure. And I think from their point of view it’ll be transactional and pragmatic based on U.S. interests, a clear interest that they have identified most likely through a domestic lens. I think this president believes he was elected with a very strong domestic agenda and that his foreign policy, America first, will be through a domestic lens. What does this do for the American people, whether it’s foreign policy writ large, whether it’s trade, et cetera?
And I think part of that will be his attempt to — in this incoming administration’s mind, to reassert American leadership in the region. Personally I — the contacts I have in the region are — have been suffering from what they believe to be either an indirect or direct withdrawal, in their minds, from the region. Part of it may be, as one of the speakers explained, a misinterpretation of the balance, the pivot to Asia. Part of that may be the — what many believe to be the premature withdrawal from Iraq and leaving it in the state it’s in. Some of it may be just a lack of attention and exacerbated by the attention put on Iran.
But certainly there’s a sense that America has vacated. There’s been a power vacuum, and that power vacuum has been assumed by both Iran and Russia that have taken advantage of the lack of a forceful policy by the United States and a lack of U.S. leadership, particularly on certain issues, and that now the incoming administration and our traditional allies in the region are paying the consequences.
So I think that you’ll see a reassertion of that, principally — and I think Mike Flynn has been very clear about this — in the area of restoring our leadership vis-à-vis ISIS or terrorism and working with those who — with whom we have shared goals on terrorism, particularly ISIS, and looking very carefully at the core reasons of extremist violent Islam, which will be returning, I think, to covert action or public affairs, strategic communication — whatever you want to call it — that we used in the Cold War when we directly attacked the underpinnings of communism of the Soviet Union, however you want to characterize that particular ideology or theology, but the bastardization, the use, the improper use, the abhorrent use of a religion, of Islam, for power-grabbing, for violence and for acts that, in fact, are in contravention of Islamic principles. I think you will see a real effort in that direction.
In the context of shared interests, I think you’re going to see a recognition very early on — and this is my third point — that this is by far the most violent region in the world. And while you might want to pivot to Southeast Asia, to China, and certainly pay attention to what Russia is doing, you certainly — you cannot afford to turn your attention away or to blink or to leave a power vacuum in the Middle East.
And there are three primary reasons for that. The one is the existential threat to Israel and to the United States from an interballistic or a ballistic missile or nuclear-armed Iran. And we can have a long discussion about whether or not the Iranian agreement is, in fact, something that should be either modified or abandoned. My personal opinion is it can’t be abandoned, but this is also not a document that we all can live with to the extent it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do, and that is providing U.S. and regional safety.
And I think there’s a lot of debate right now as to whether that document actually does that, and a lot of controversy as to if indeed the agreement itself is designed and can provide the safety in a deferred nuclear ability, why is it we spent $150 billion in cash to the Iranians and didn’t really want to talk about it in order to do what as part of this agreement, and then another $400 million for sailors that were kidnapped literally as the document was being signed in order to pay ransom to get them back.
This is a regime that has, in the course of the agreement that’s supposed to provide us safety, has not at all mitigated its violence in the region. In fact, they have increased Iranian incursions through the IRGC and the Quds Force into Iraq, into proxy forces with Yemen, into Syria are unprecedented. So while we may have gained the document, I think a very close examination of what exactly it gets us, and more importantly what it gets the region, I think, is called for, and perhaps a reexamination as to whether or not, at the end of the day, it’s something worth keeping or worth even enforcing, frankly.
But with the violence in the region basically focused from a new administration on those two points, I think that you will find the new administration also looking at the region less geographically, less from a policy standpoint. I suspect that some of the folk in the region who are looking for a consistent, articulated and enforceable policy, particularly as to Syria, under the previous administration will be equally disappointed under a new administration in that the approach that’s been articulated so far doesn’t seem to be policy-based. It doesn’t seem to be one of those policy-enshrined approaches that you can read about in some of our historic approaches for foreign policy.
This is pragmatism. This will be almost a deal-by-deal, case-by-case, what is in the interest of the United States, which will lead to inconsistencies. I think for those who are looking for a larger framework, and perhaps some confusion certainly in the beginning years as the administration deals with what will inevitably be some unforeseen challenges as it steps into the region.
One of those is going to be Mosul; not talked about today, but 25 percent of the two brigades that were the counterterrorism brigades by Iraq are incapacitated; 30 percent of their equipment is either lost or turned over. Mosul, which was going to be a month-long, two-month-long endeavor, is now approaching how many months? And I don’t think there’s really anybody who foresees Mosul resolving itself anytime soon, certainly not in a way that the post-Mosul situation, which will be sorted out or not, based on Sunnah and Turkmen and other minorities in the city who are hoping to survive and have their rights not infringed upon by the Shia militia and others, the Turks and the Kurds seeking to promote their interests.
I think most of us believe that Mosul is going to be a real challenge, but a microcosm of the rest of the region and what is going to be the more practical analysis of the state of Iraq and Syria in the coming years, which are going to be difficult, a mess, messy, with very few policy options that really change the process on the ground or the prospects for peace in the short term, which leads to an issue that has not come up much, but I think it certainly deserves mention, and that will be — I just said that I think geographically the administration is going to be looking at the Middle East in a different way, an expanded way.
And part of that will come out of the next piece, which is the immigration, refugee, and the humanitarian and human-rights issues that we have all become unacceptably accustomed to, which have a direct impact now on Northern Africa and Europe and are going to have grave consequences if we don’t come up with a solution to them, not only in post-Syria or whatever that geographic land mass looks like, but post-Iraq, but, more importantly, in Northern Africa, and are now putting other states, in particular Jordan, at severe risk.
They simply — we simply cannot sustain the amount of fighting-age males and others who are dying of hunger and starvation. And shame on us all for not speaking about it every single day with the amount of deaths and children and others who are dying and not understanding that the implications for the Gulf war — world, excuse me — and the Middle East are huge, because they will come at exactly the same time that demographic statistics in Egypt, which is already suffering from economic problems that are very possibly more significant than anybody realizes, by 2025 will have over 100 million, some estimate as many as 120 million, Egyptians, many of whom will not have jobs, and with a similar geographic pressure put on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, all of which have a huge, huge impact on the region in our lifetimes, and certainly in our children’s lifetime, and have direct impact on U.S. interests when we speak to energy security, freedom of navigation, allies in the region, et cetera.
I was struck by, along those lines, what I think all of us believe are shared commonalities; certainly the idea — the new administration, I think, puts it in a slightly more brusque manner, but a concept that was brought up in the Bush administration, that was promoted in the Obama administration, but that is that the U.S. simply cannot afford, either economically or resource-wise, to do everything at once.
I don’t ascribe to the belief that the more you do against ISIS, the more you can’t do against Iran and vice versa. We simply have to do both. One’s a strategic longer-term impact of a very different significance than ISIS. And we are not in the position to — there’s no Peter and Paul or no — there’s no future for the country’s interests in sort of ignoring one and hoping and only dealing with the other.
But the idea of having our allies do more, I think, is one that you will hear probably somewhat rudely, I think some people think, the new president talk about. It was like, hey, look, if you aren’t paying your way or if you aren’t contributing, then why should I, particularly to the extent that my interests aren’t directly involved?
I think the good news — and I actually agree with Jake — I will say I think that there are opportunities and good things. I think you’re going to find that the Middle East, and the Gulf nations in particular, will step up and have stepped up, and in my belief — and I think the gentleman would agree with me — have stepped up in important ways and will continue to do so.
There are Gulf nations or Middle East countries, particularly Jordan and Egypt, that need all of our help and have significant repercussions for the stability of the region going forward that can’t step up, but do important things every day, particularly vis-à-vis Israel; that country by which will tell you openly that, from a military and security standpoint, has the best relationships they’ve very possibly ever had with both the Jordanians and the Egyptians now. And we can’t afford to lose that.
I also — I disagree that the incoming president is eschewing United States democratic principles by what appear to be his fascination with strongmen. If we’ve learned anything, hopefully, in the last couple of decades in the Gulf and other places, it’s that replacing a strongman who is not espousing Jeffersonian democratic principles has its own challenges, particularly in what comes afterwards. And usually what comes afterward are those who are best organized in opposition to that particular figure, who are generally the last people on the planet to promote democracy. So we need to be a little more savvy and perhaps a little less naïve, certainly not abandoning our principle, but being a little bit more subtle and savvy about how we approach them.
And then, finally, the role of competing powers. I do think you’re going to find the incoming administration messaging quite difficult to understand, on the one hand — promoting a relationship and dialogue with Russia. I am the victim or — I would say victim, but I have scars on my back from open dialogue with Russia over the third site in missile defense in Europe, particularly as to Poland the Czech Republic. I have found dialogue with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russian leadership to be exhausting and not particularly rewarding when one does recognize them as an intermediary of similar stature; just not rewarding and not very productive.
We’ve also learned that ignoring them and letting them fill vacuums is equally unrewarding. But we’ve got to step up. And if it means working with the Russians in a very narrow sense to address, to the extent there still exist legitimate concerns regarding ISIS and extremist Islamic terrorism, then we need to do so, but only keeping in mind that that narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow confluence of interests is probably grossly outweighed by the threats that a resurgent Russia not only represents to U.S. interests but to U.S. interests of regional allies.
And I’ll stop there; lots of details we could go into. But I look forward to your questions.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Well, thank you, all of you. All of you have already touched on the basic questions I wanted to ask. So if I just restate them a little, maybe you can amplify and have cross-talk and comment on what your colleagues have said and debate it.
Since World War II, we’ve always defined one of our national interests in the region as denying any opportunity for a hostile power to dominate the region. So without going into all the contradictory statements that have been made recently, let me just pose it this way: Is Iran a hostile power? Is Russia a hostile power? If they are, then is containment necessary and sufficient, or is it even possible that one or both of them need to be rolled back? And if containment or rollback is necessary, then how do you engage in engagement? What are the opportunities for engagement?
Michael Flynn has recently said that he believes Russia can be counted on to get Iran in line and to roll Iran back from supporting its clients in proxy wars in the region. Can we talk about that? Because actually the Russian-Iranian working relationship in Syria, for example, has enhanced Iran’s position there through enhancing Iran’s client.
Those are the kinds of questions I’d like you to start debating. Please, anyone. Derek.
MR. CHOLLET: Well, I guess this is less of a debating point, but it’s to respond to that and to pick up on some of what my colleagues talked about, and actually also to pose a question just generally.
First, on is Iran hostile — that’s how you put it, right? Hostile, adversarial. It’s all of the above, yes; to the United States, absolutely. That’s why it’s so important for the next administration to navigate this very difficult dilemma that Jake has posed about implementing the Iran deal but, at the same time, holding Iran’s feet to the fire on all of the other things that it does in the region that had nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal — whether it’s conventional, proliferation, support of terrorism and proxies, and efforts to undermine our friends in the region.
And that’s why we should watch very closely if the next administration will continue apace to ensure that our partners and friends in the region — the Israelis, the Gulf Arab partners — continue to provide them with the capabilities they need to defend themselves, to try to build on this effort to knit those countries closer together, to build that muscle tissue of security cooperation that, over the last two administrations, there’s been an attempt to try to develop. It’s a lot of painstaking work. General Mattis is probably — is, you know, one of the handful of people who knows this the best. So I have a lot of confidence in the secretary of defense along these lines. But we’ll have to see what kind of guidance he’s going to get from the White House.
But at the same time — and this is a response a little bit to a point that Mary Beth made about the anxiety that was induced by President Obama’s comment — actually, technically, it wasn’t his comments in The Atlantic article about some of our partners. It was sort of the bank shot, off the record — background comments that Jeff Goldberg reported on that the president actually didn’t say to Goldberg but others attributed to the president — about our Gulf Arab partners, but also about Iran in the region. Where obviously it’s a fact that Iran is a factor in the region and is going to remain, you know, a player in the region, and our Gulf Arab partners, many of whom interact with Iran a lot compared to the United States.
So trying to at the same time build up our partners, make sure they’re more capable to defend themselves, encourage them to cooperate more together with themselves and with us, and at the same time try to bring together some — or encourage, to the extent we can, some discussion between our Gulf partners and Iran. I mean, that’s something I think the U.S. can’t insert itself into, but it’s hopefully appropriate for the United States, working with our Gulf allies, to encourage that kind of conversation. But I think most of the movement’s got to occur on the Iranian side, to be honest, right? I mean, this is — they are the agitator of much of the ills of the region at the moment.
So I don’t — I don’t see this as a kind of containment or appeasement scenario. We’ve got to stay tough to what we’re doing directly, be there for our partners, and at the same time try to find a way to bring about the sorts of changes inside Iran that we want to see that we think over time will moderate their behavior.
Now, to Russia, and this is more of my question, Russia’s goals in Europe are very clear to me, right? Divide the U.S. from Europe, undermine the European Union project, you know, make NATO weaker, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. In the Middle East, it seems to me its goal is really just to maintain the status quo, which is not a particularly advantageous position for Russia in terms of the status quo. I mean, it’s got very few friends in the region. What it’s been doing in Syria brutally and in a way that I think over time does great damage to Russia. But it’s basically taking a big risk to maintain what it currently has, which is a military position in Syria and a long-standing — decades-long ally in Syria.
But I don’t know what Russia’s broader goals are. I mean, I think, sure, they’d love it if all of a sudden our Gulf partners would buy their military equipment, not ours. I just don’t see that in the cards. I don’t think that our Gulf allies would particularly want Russian equipment. So, you know, when it comes to this question of is Russia filling a vacuum left by the United States, are they surging in the region, I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that beyond trying to protect what they’ve got in Syria, they have much ambition. But maybe I’m missing something.
MS. LONG: I’ll respond to that. And I would love to hear what Dimitri says, actually. I’m sure he’s much more well-informed. But I guess if you boil it down to a practical issue, Russia maintaining and expanding its presence in Syria, its protection of its fleets, its expanding its air capabilities and dual use of an Iranian air field is important, but it — but it underestimates what’s really going on, I believe. And this is a prestige issue. This is a Russia inserting itself into the Middle East, which was clearly where the U.S. was dominant issue. This is Russia hosting peace negotiations without the U.S. being invited. This is about high-level strategic signaling.
This is about everybody in Europe — by the way, the U.S. couldn’t even get invited to the meeting on Russia, Turkey and Syria in our own — so what do you think they’re going to do, Baltic states? Oh, by the way, you non-payers in NATO, you are on notice. Russia — aka the resurgent near-far USSR — is back on the battlefield in a global way. And, oh by the way, stay tuned for Libya, where we will get a little bit of a presence and we’ll help out just a little to scare the bejesus out of all of you regarding what we’re going to do with our presence in the Med. So this is about — this is about chess. And we’re looking at it in checkers. And I think the symbolism of what’s going on here is hugely significant.
DR. MATTAIR: Dimitri.
MR. SIMES: Sure. I think that if we want to have an objective relation of whether Russia is an enemy, we have to decide first what are our interests, because how we define our interests will obviously have an impact on what Russia means for us. Now, if we believe that we will proceed with further NATO expansion, perhaps inviting Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, if we believe that our priority is to remove Russian control over Crimea and that we would not allow any deal on the rest of Ukraine which would give Putin even the perception of success because we would not want to reward Russian aggression, if we feel that Russia does not belong to the Middle East, and clearly the objective in the Middle East is first and foremost to checkmate the United States and to create trouble — now, if this is our definition of American interests and our view of Russian conduct, then of course you’re absolutely right.
I, of course, think that one significance of Trump’s election is that he has suggested a different definition of American interests. American interests are defined more narrowly. Less attempts of the United States being a global government, a global policeman, but a superpower, which can do a lot of things, as you have said, at the same time. You don’t have to say that if we are dealing with Russia then we have sacrificed Baltic states. Certainly far from that. We can do a lot of things simultaneously. But we also are not, according to Trump, a de facto world government. And that there are certain issues which are paramount to American security and prosperity. There are other issues which are just important. And there are some issues which are fairly peripheral.
And if you, for instance, believe that we have to protect Baltic states, as I do, because rightly or wrongly we invited them to join NATO and they are NATO members and we made the commitment, it’s a question of our legitimacy, it’s a question of our ability to work with other European allies, we should deliver on our obligations, then I am not aware of any reason why we should encourage Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. And I’m not aware of any reason why we cannot try to negotiate at least a deal with Moscow and Ukraine which would establish Kiev’s control over the rest of Ukraine, with an exception of Crimea. But in response, there would be a modicum of federalization of Ukraine. And I think that there would be some kind of commitment. And diplomats, I’m sure, can decide how to present this commitment that Ukraine and Georgia in the near future would not join NATO. I think it’s worth trying.
In the case of Syria, Russia is not a superpower. I don’t think that Putin went to Syria as a result of long-term strategic calculation. They went there because Assad was losing. They went there because Putin — I don’t know how many of you remember — he promised that after taking over Crimea there would be so-called Novorossiya, Russian would move further west in Ukraine, and would be allegedly greeted by local population — (inaudible). That never happened. Economic sanctions, decline in oil prices, Putin feels squeezed at home. And he could not afford another humiliation, another defeat in Syria.
I think that we can talk to Russia about a deal in Syria which would address what you have said, namely they would not be doing things unilaterally or with Iranians without the United States. I hope that President Trump will tell Putin privately, confidentially, without embarrassing Putin — but will tell Putin: Vladimir, we now will have a different ball game. We will not try to mess inside your country, even if we disagree with the way you govern. But you need to understand, we will have real red lines. And one of them is on Syria. You will not be able to impose unilateral solution without the United States.
The United States has the means and the determination not to allow this to happen. I will not tell you all the details, but believe me the United States will not allow this to happen. So let’s talk about a formula which would be acceptable to both of us, and which would lead to Syria staying one country, perhaps, obviously, a confederation. And let’s look for a way for Mr. Assad if not to leave power soon, but at least his job being significantly, let’s say, negotiated, reduced, and et cetera. I see no reason why we shouldn’t try that. I’m not talking about any advances to Moscow. I’m not talking about any unilateral concessions. I’m not talking about abandoning any allies.
And let me make one final point. Some of our toughest allies seem to be able to deal with Moscow quite effectively. Certainly Israel, they have a very good relationship with Moscow. They don’t agree on a lot of things. I don’t think that the Egyptians are particularly in love with Russia. But they seem to have a good working relationship. And the same is true of Japan. They have an understandable disagreement over the northern island, northern territories. But on many issues, they seem to be able to work together. You don’t need to have a benign view of Russia to think that sometimes you can have working arrangements with adversaries. Then we see whether these working arrangements would be transactional or would lead to something more.
MS. LONG: Good point.
MR. SULLIVAN: Yeah. So couple thoughts on this. I’m quite surprised by the degree to which I completely agree with Dimitri. But that is not, in my view, at all the way in which the incoming president or his team have talked about Syria. That sounds a lot more like the way that Hillary Clinton talked about Syria, which was to say ultimately there is only a diplomatic solution that has to take into account Russia’s interest, but has to put on the table the possibility that the United States will exert its own power if there’s an effort at the imposition of a unilateral solution.
That is actually calling for the U.S. to put cards on the table which potentially get us militarily engaged in Syria. Because you can’t — it’s not enough, as we’ve learned from the past few years, to simply go to the Russians and say: We want to cut a deal. If Putin doesn’t believe that the U.S. is going to do something more active, he’s not going to cut the deal. We’ve seen that. And I’m — and I’m somewhat skeptical, based on what we’ve seen so far, that that kind of conversation, as you just described, is likely to take place. But perhaps it will.
The other thing that I was struck by is in your — in Dimitri’s opening comments he described, I think, a fundamentally adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia. How else could one account for the possibility that if we don’t do what Russia wants, or if we cross Russia’s red lines, they could weaponize terrorism against us. That, in effect, is defining an adversarial relationship. Now, of course, you can deal with an adversary in a way in which you come to certain mutual understandings, but if there is a kind of gun-to-the-head quality to the dynamic — we’ll hack your election, we’ll fund terrorists against you, we’ll take other steps to try to undermine you and your allies unless you respect and acknowledge our interests in a certain way — then, yes, I think it’s only fair to describe that as a basic adversarial dynamic. And I think where — if you start from that clear-eyed proposition and then say, well, nonetheless, as a matter of practicality and principle the United States has to deal with Russia and has to try to come to some understanding, then I think we’re effectively on the same page.
The Iran question is fascinating to me because I have not yet heard a convincing account of how you come to a deal with Russia that excludes Iran’s interests. If such a deal exists, that would be great. But my basic concern about an outcome in Syria that’s acceptable to Russia is that it’s overwhelmingly likely to also be acceptable to Iran as well, which means that Iran maintains a forward base capacity, both directly and through the proxy of Hezbollah, in Syria and in Lebanon. And I think that is adverse to our interests.
And I certainly don’t want my opening comments to be interpreted as saying we have to choose between ISIS and Iran. It’s rather that if our strategy for dealing with ISIS is essentially signing up with the Russian playbook on ISIS, we are in effect empowering Iran, or at least it seems to me that that is the logical conclusion of a policy that goes down that track. So were there to be an opportunity to divide Russia and Iran and come to a deal with Russia that begins to push back on Iran’s regional ambitions, I think that would be obviously as a logical matter the best way to proceed. Whether as a practical matter it’s possible, I have my doubts.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. The first thought I have is that, you know, Derek, yes, we have provided extensive security support to our traditional Gulf Arab allies. And that is a deterrent against certainly conventional Iranian aggression against them, but it wasn’t enough to change the situation in Syria — although we did intervene there in more ways than are normally known or talked about. So is it too late for us to do something new that changes the dynamics in Syria? Because we have — we have also defined as one of our national interests the protection of friends and allies in the region, so that we can have access to sea lanes and air corridors and resources and everything else. They view Iran’s presence in Syria and the Shia Crescent as an existential threat. And Russian involvement in Syria, before they got around to attacking ISIS, involved — I don’t know if decimating is the right word, but severely weakening the rebel forces that were being supported by the United States, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, and changing the situation on the ground to such an extent that how is it that we talk to Russia about getting anything that is satisfactory to us in a diplomatic solution for Syria? To anybody.
MR. SIMES: Well, let me say first that we have to realize where we are now in terms of the military situation in Syria. I was actually struck by an event we had at our center several weeks ago with three leading generals, all of them active duty, all of them involved in planning operations in that region. It was obviously unclassified, but it was off-the-record, so I cannot name the people. But what struck me was a consensus among the three generals that as long as Russia is in Syria and have the capabilities which they have now, particularly air defenses, that we do not have a credible military option in Syria short, of course, of risking an all-out confrontation with Russia.
And I tried to — tried to press the generals, asking exactly about the kind of conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin where he would tell Putin that it’s a new era and a different ballgame, and friend Vladimir, you better take me seriously. There was a consensus among the generals that it is too late for that — that Putin would not be impressed by words alone; that the only thing that can change the dynamic would be clearly some great American presence in the region and perhaps doing something on the ground somewhere, somehow at the right point, teaching Putin a lesson with blood and iron. And I think that the Russians give us plenty of opportunities to demonstrate our resolve without creating an artificial confrontation.
At the same time, again, let me repeat: If you don’t have a credible military solution, let me quote that great humanitarian, Marcus Aurelius, who, when he had a rebellious Roman commander trying to remove him from power, Aurelius at first asked, do we have the legions to crush him? And the response was the legions are in Spain; you have to wait. Can we poison him? And the answer was no, he has foolproof security. And then Aurelius said, well, then let’s try diplomacy. (Laughter.) And I think, out of necessity, we have to try diplomacy with Russia, coupled with genuine resolve and military movements, including if necessary military moves which would demonstrate to Putin our seriousness this time.
DR. MATTAIR: Which military moves?
MR. SIMES: Well, I think that we should make very clear that we will do what is necessary to support Syrian opposition, and that we will simply not allow Russia to win militarily, and that we will provide, in a responsible and limited way, antiaircraft weapons. We should make the operation in the long run very costly to Moscow.
I think that we also have to start talking to the Turks and to the Egyptians, who are very central to the situation, and to make whatever effort we can make to remove Turkey, at least, from that seeming alliance with Moscow, which is central for any hope Russia has to impose a unilateral solution — I mean, a solution without the United States on Syria. And my impression is that Erdogan has serious issues with the United States, but he has serious issues with Russia. And I think a meaningful outreach to Erdogan can make a difference.
The more the Egyptians deal with the Russians, the more people in the Egyptian leadership I hear have — how to put it? — their level of irritation is growing. And I think it would be perfectly appropriate, again, for a new administration to try a new approach to Egypt. And I do understand that we don’t want to count on strongmen, that this is inherently unstable. But I think it doesn’t mean that when you have leaders whom we did not put in power — who really are genuine local leaders, not some kind of little midgets who we’re artificially supporting in positions of power — that we should be prepared to work with them, recognizing their practical legitimacy and trying to make deals, in this instance against Russian influence.
DR. MATTAIR: Someone from the audience asks you, Dimitri, if — you know, he quoted Rex Tillerson today saying the U.S. needs to engage its traditional allies, including Turkey’s Erdogan. But Tillerson also said the new administration should recommit to the Syrian Kurds. Can we do both?
MR. SIMES: I don’t know. Again, you have three experts on the region, much better experts than me.
But it brings me to one point. I do not know whether you can see everything at once, but I think that we have to do — have to learn to do something very un-American, at least un-American since our victory in the Cold War: we have to understand that we have to start defining priorities, not just rhetorically but in terms of making some hard decisions.
MR. CHOLLET: Can I just comment briefly on that? Because it points out one of the early choices that the next administration’s going to have to make when it comes to one of the big opportunities, so to speak, in the counter-ISIL campaign, which is what to do about Raqqa. And it’s a timing question, and it involves the Kurds.
If the — if there’s a judgment that it’s in our interest to take Raqqa sooner rather than later, it’s going to require relying on the Kurds, who are the most capable of doing that on our behalf with our support. And it will also require providing the Syrian Kurds with the kinds of capabilities that would make Erdogan very unhappy, and he’s made that very clear to the United States. So we can wait, meaning we can take the time to build up Arab tribes, which our special operators are working on doing right now in Syria. But that’s going to take some time.
So it’s a tactical issue that would be — will be a significant blow to ISIS when it occurs — meaning the retaking of Raqqa — but if we choose to do this sooner rather than later, and there’s an argument that we would want to do this sooner, it’s going to create a lot of tension with Erdogan that this administration has not figured out how to — how to navigate. And it’s going to be a — it’s unclear to me how the next administration will figure out how to navigate, particularly if the president-elect’s coming into a posture that is going to be more forgiving of some of Erdogan’s more authoritarian impulses.
DR. MATTAIR: Were you trying to say something earlier?
MS. LONG: No. I actually agree that the Kurds are very likely —
(Comes on mic.) It’s uncooperative. It’s obviously Russian. (Laughter.)
— that the Kurds were very likely going to be, both from a(n) Iraq standpoint as well as from a Syria standpoint, the one leverage point that hasn’t been fully explored. And there are significant repercussions on our relationship with Turkey. But there are things that Turkey wants out of us long and short term that we have not been creative about. And I do think that Dimitri and others have hinted at us acting very differently than we have in the past, perhaps more pragmatically, perhaps more — less diplomatically on certain fronts. But, you know, talks on Syria have led us into — you know, again, I can’t say it enough. At a minimum, you know, we talk about it as this post-Cold War strategy between Russia and the United States, of course; and ISIS, which is a legitimate threat to both; and Assad, who is becoming less and less consequential, certainly to the extent that he’s not supported by Russia. But at the end of the day, there are a historically large number of dying refugees and displaced persons with literally a generational impact. And it’s the problem that’s going to keep on giving even as we resolve these other diplomatic solutions, and yet we don’t seem to want to talk about that openly.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. Well, there are quite a few questions here — quite a few questions here about the Arab-Israel conflict and peace process. (Glances at wristwatch.) (Laughter.)
MR. CHOLLET: Mr. Sullivan wants to take all those. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: There’s one other area I want to go into before we get there, and that is Obama said at West Point two years ago that terrorism was the most direct threat from the region, and he emphasized a counterterrorism strategy that relied upon cooperation with our security partners in the region. I’d like to ask a few questions about that.
First, when we’ve talked about the myth — who talked about the myth of disengagement? Was it Derek or Jake? OK. We talked about the myth of disengagement. Particularly people are talking about us not using enough military assets. But actually we have, quite a few. How much of our success against ISIS and al-Qaida would you attribute to that?
Then we have the whole question of the participation of our traditional partners in the region. Sometimes they are criticized for actually facilitating this. But how much have they contributed to the battle against this?
And now we come to Mary Beth. I mean, really, if you have — if our policy in Syria and our mistakes in Syria and the region have contributed to this refugee and this humanitarian situation that can radicalize people and produce more extremism and threaten our partners in the region, then what do we need to do to correct that in terms of the fight against terrorism?
And finally, I will come to Arab-Israel, just to touch on it. If there is a plan to defeat ISIS quickly, does moving the embassy to Jerusalem help? (Laughter.)
MR. CHOLLET: So I — first I’ll start with what — this question of the military campaign against ISIL and what the U.S. has been able to accomplish. Clearly, there’s two dimensions. There’s U.S. direct action, which the U.S. and several European coalition partners have been conducting every day over the skies of Iraq and Syria — I think at last count over 16,000 airstrikes since September of 2014; if you believe our military leaders, nearly 50,000 ISIL fighters killed. I mean, even if you cut that inflation by half that’s, say, 25,000 ISIL fighters killed. That’s not U.S. military disengagement from the problems of Iraq and Syria.
But there’s only so much U.S. direct action can do. It’s got to be combined with our partners on the ground. And so I think there’s a lot of confidence from our military leaders that when it comes to the counter-ISIL campaign, we will achieve military success. But the question is what comes next.
In many ways, the greatest mistake ISIL made was the S in ISIL, was state, because if the United States military’s shown anything over the last 15 years, is it can take down states, right? It can destroy finances, it can kill a lot of fighters, take down their leadership structure, take away their capabilities. So the question for us moving forward — and this gets to a point Jake made about kind of if we play this out several steps, not wanting to kind of repeat the same cycle over and over, is when ISIL ceases to become a state or it becomes basically dismantled but then becomes an insurgency, and then we see just as AQI morphed into ISIL, then we morph into the third iteration of this and onward.
And this then gets to the question of local partners. And in any way, it’s the key to this problem, but it’s also the Achilles’ heel of the strategy, because one thing I think we’ve learned through two administrations now, with a lot of U.S. resources and effort put into trying to build partner capacity, to use the Pentagon phrase, is how difficult this is, how imperfect it is, and how in some cases very unreliable those partners are over time. And we all — there’s always a lot of talk about, you know, we’ll create the Sunni Arab army to come in and take out Assad. You know, it won’t be U.S. troop forces who have to do it. It will be our Sunni partners, which will create the safe zone in Syria, defend the safe zone in Syria. We’ll just create the forces. Well, having been humbled several times on — by U.S.-led efforts to try to build capable forces, whether it’s in Iraq or Libya or Syria or Afghanistan, where we’ve had some success, it never turns out the way we would like it to. So that’s not to say we shouldn’t try. We should just have our expectations in check about how difficult that is, how long it’s going to take, and that that’s not going to be a quick solution to any of our problems.
And very briefly on the question of the move to Jerusalem, as I know I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think that’s kind of a disruptive action. It’s unclear to me how that enhances our ability to either bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer together or take advantage of, as Jake noted, this notable strategic convergence we’ve seen develop over the last several years between Israel and our Sunni partners in particular. In fact, it could put an issue on the table that unnecessarily undermines that strategic convergence that we’ve been watching develop largely without us. I mean, it’s been happening kind of on its own.
MR. SULLIVAN: Sorry, when I think about the ISIS challenge, I see three major driving factors towards the growth of organized radical jihadist organizations across the Middle East to North Africa. The first is the collapsing state structures or the weakening of state structures that have created oxygen for these groups and more capacity for them to engage and grow. And part of that is the result of U.S. action — obviously the Iraq War being the most dramatic example of that, but part of that also is indigenous disaffection with leaders who lost legitimacy in places like Egypt, Mubarak. That’s one.
Two, the growing strain of virulent extremism, Salafism within Islam that has been bastardized, as Mary Beth said, and weaponized into something sort of bordering on nihilism and barbarism. And then that has been compounded by the capacity of technology to disseminate that view. And, yes, I do think that money coming from parts of the Middle East and the Gulf has had a lot to do over the last 30 years with helping spread that as well.
And then the third is a proxy conflict between Iran and the Sunni states that is further fueling the instability and the conditions under which groups like ISIS, Ansar bin Maqdis, Ansar al-Sharia, you name it, across the region have been able to take advantage of this ongoing battle.
What can the United States do about these three things? When you think about U.S. policy, it seems to me that military action can treat symptoms but not ultimately causes, and hence has done quite a good job of that, of taking leaders off the battlefield, reducing force projection capabilities of terrorist groups and the like, but not fundamentally settling the question of what we’re going to do long term about this issue.
How good are we at stitching together state structures and making sure they’re strong, legitimate stable leaders across the Middle East and North Africa? Without going into great detail, I would say not very good. How good are we at winning the war which Mary Beth alluded to of the moderates against the extremists within Islam? I’m not sure the United States is particularly well-positioned to do that, although there may be some things. Are there steps that we can take to reduce the level of proxy conflict between Iran and our Sunni partners to deal with that aspect and thereby create the greater possibility for those other two drivers of the terrorist threat to be dealt with? I think that is where we’ve got to put our efforts. And for that, it is going to require increasing the confidence of our Sunni partners and denting the confidence of Iran that it can use its particular mix of tactics in Lebanon and Syria, in Iraq and Yemen, in Bahrain to achieve its ends. Both of those require greater American engagement in the Middle East.
And here lies another contradiction that the new administration is going to face. America First is going to run headlong into the possibility that everything that Mary Beth laid out in terms of her expectations of what’s going to happen are actually going to involve more U.S. commitment and involvement in the Middle East than perhaps we’ve seen today, which I don’t know is going to sit particularly well with people who hear America First and think that means we’re letting other people, including the Russians, deal with it. But fundamentally, from my perspective, we have to — it’s not — we’re not — you can’t engineer Iran’s removal from the region. It exists in the region. What you have to engineer is a modus vivendi that is on terms that are favorable to the United States and our partners, and that is going to require more U.S. engagement in the region.
On the Arab-Israeli question and the moving of the embassy, that is a very risky proposition for the continued — leave aside whether this strategic convergence will ever help you solve the peace process. Maybe the answer to that question is no. I don’t know. But we certainly know that it’s helping Israel and it is in the United States’ interest with respect to the terrorist threat — the terrorist threat in Sinai, the terrorist threat in Jordan and the terrorist threat across the region. And the idea that you would put that at risk by choosing to make a diplomatic move of this kind, which I don’t know materially advances anyone’s strategic interests at this point, that seems like not a particularly prudent step to take in the near term.
DR. MATTAIR: Any comments? Any other comments?
MS. LONG: Go ahead, Dimitri.
Thank you. I agree with a lot of what I heard. Just a couple of comments. And you asked me about the human rights, which I have hit upon mostly because it hasn’t come up in other contexts, and I do think it’s important, and I’ll put that in context in just a moment. I agree with my colleagues. You know, today we’re talking a lot about ISIS. Inshallah, we won’t be talking about a resurgent al-Qaida in another six months, but I worry that that will be the next step. And then it will be the Shia militia that were empowered by Iran and Iran’s proxies that have a quasi-independent survival mechanism in Iraq, and yadda, yadda, yadda.
And as Jake appropriately said, you know, the increasing weaponization and the increasing technology that are available to these non-state actors are just going to mean that, I believe, the Middle East is going to remain a mess for the foreseeable future. I mean, let’s just get on board with that concept and that our — that our policy and our activities at best will play around the margins and better them, hopefully for U.S. interests, but that significant long-term changes will be elusive and take a lot of time and effort.
I do think — I can’t agree with the underlying statement that we didn’t decrease and significantly depart the region. I believe we did. I believe the perception that we did is accurate. And we can quibble about that, but I do think that part of it is not creating new vacuums, certainly, and attempting to refill holes that we left in place for the last year — and even perceptual holes. You know, calling, you know, ISIS a JV team, withdrawing the troops from Iraq the way they were withdrawn certainly didn’t help the situation.
But we are where we are, which leads to my most important point is — and it leads to your question regarding moving the embassy to Israel — you know, I would hope that this incoming administration will be the exception to the rule, but every incoming administration that I’m aware of gets tested early on, and they get tested by the known adversaries and they get tested by the guys that they are worried that they don’t have to worry with and that creep out from underneath rocks. And I think we will tested, and hopefully we won’t be tested on our own shores.
And the one thing that the administration over the last 10 years or certainly eight years has done is kept us all safe in our homes, which is no insignificant achievement. It’s just phenomenal that we haven’t had another terrorist incident and our government has kept us safe. And I worry that that is the homerun for a resurgent al-Qaida or an ISIS that wants to reassert itself, that everyone’s looking for.
And certainly, we haven’t heard from North Korea. And I predict that we will very soon, because nobody likes not being mentioned early and often more than the North Koreans, so we’ll have a missile launch or something very quickly.
And I would hope that moves like moving the embassy to Jerusalem, which is maybe not on the high priority must-do list, will slide to the “gee when we get around to it” list, and perhaps that there will be consideration for, you know, there are fights I want to pick and fights I have to fight, and maybe that falls into the “maybe that’s not a controversy I want to add to my plate just now” category. It’s not my decision. I would not have made it. But I think reality being what it is, hopefully it will slide.
And then the final thing on the humanitarian issue, look, I grew up in CIA. I’m a lawyer, and I worked at DOD. I am not the person that ever signed up for Greenpeace or any humanitarian or human rights or refugee organization in the world, but I’m the one who’s sitting here pounding that issue, A, because it’s an American issue and it’s deeply embedded in our principle, but from a pragmatic standpoint — and it gets to something Jake and my colleagues have alluded to — we haven’t even begun to think about addressing the reasons why ISIS and al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra and all these organizations are popping up. And, yes, some of it’s the Sunni-Shia conflict and some of it’s, you know, old, old grievances that are tribally based or regionally based, but some of it is underlying grievances that have a lot to do with jobs and access to information and access to power. And, yes, you can argue that a lot of the best-known terrorists are well-educated and come from good families. I get that. But there’s underlying issues here that we have not addressed, and whether it’s Islam that needs to address it or this is the great reformation between Islam and within Islam, I don’t know. But we’ve got to get to it, because when you look at the economy of the West and the economies of the U.S. in particular and the way money’s moving in the world, and you look at the proliferation of weapons and you look at the way things are communicated and then you look at the demographic realities, time is running out. And this is a huge, huge pool of natural recruitment and individuals who have grievances who will be exploited by our enemies if we don’t get there first.
MR. SIMES: Let me make a brief comment about Jerusalem.
MS. LONG: Please.
MR. SIMES: I think that I completely agree with all my colleagues, and I understand that it is a difficult issue and potentially very damaging issue for the United States, but you need to understand also why Mr. Trump has said and has done what he’s said and done. It’s very clear that he had a special relationship with Netanyahu for some time and that Netanyahu was cultivating him at a time when many other leaders were kind of treating him as a pariah. It was not unimportant, to put it delicately, for Mr. Trump that Netanyahu provided him with some legitimacy.
It’s also clear that both Mr. Trump and people close to him have a genuine sympathy, and indeed, I would say commitment to Israel. And the kind of an idea that the Israelis are entitled to select their own capital has a genuine emotional appeal to these people.
Then, I think that there is a question, which — it’s dangerous to say what I will say, because a lot of people would want to oversimplify it and to bring it to illogical extreme. Mr. Trump needs to build a constituency which would allow him to do a lot of heavy lifting domestically and internationally. It’s very important to him if he wants to do a lot of things during his first months in office, as he is clearly hopeful that he will be able to do.
Under those circumstances, this kind of an emotional issue, sending a very clear message, can be quite helpful with an important constituency. I don’t mean — I don’t mean that you are talking about a cynical presentation of views he does not have. I am simply trying to explain calculations of people around Mr. Trump the way I see them.
And then, of course, Mr. Trump is genuinely committed to a wall with Mexico, and to Mexico paying for that. But then, we just have discovered it is a question of sequence. (Laughter.) And my hope and expectation is that we will be able to wait till the Mexicans pay for the wall.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I — thank you. I have talked about American national interests — denying the region to hostile powers, supporting friends and allies, access to resources, and air and sea corridors. But there’s another national interest that we’re starting to talk about here, without really defining it, and it’s an ideological national interest. It’s support for self-determination, popular participation in government, human rights. So where does that — where would that have stood in a Clinton administration? Where is it going to stand in a Trump administration? And let’s touch on two issues that are specific.
We’ve been talking about moving the embassy. Well, what about signals that we give that suggest support for more Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which then foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution? We acquiesce on that, or we support that, what is our — what does that do to our credibility as a country that has an ideological — these ideological national interests?
Number two — and coming to something Mary Beth talked about — when you look at our traditional partners in the region and the Gulf, and we refer to them as authoritarian and are critical of their domestic governance, do we think about the progress they’ve made in the recent decades to reform, and do we give sufficient attention to — Mary Beth — what would come after them, if they weren’t supported and they were to be in jeopardy?
Actually, a woman — a Saudi woman said to me once, “I hope that we never get one person, one vote here, because if we do, I’m going to lose all my rights.” In other words, the government is much more reformist than the population, and is determining the pace — the possible pace of reform there. So we’re talking about Arab-Israeli conflict, and we’re talking about a relationship with Gulf Arabs, in light of our ideological interests. Can we talk about that?
MR. SULLIVAN: You know, having grappled with these incredibly difficult questions, along with Derek, at the height of the Arab revolutions, I’d say there’s no easy answer to this. And the problem is that we tend to divide this into a short-term, long-term construct, where we say, well, in the short term, we’ve really just got to support the guys that are there, because what comes next is worse. And also, we need their help to do certain things. But in the long term, we’ll work to try to create the conditions under which what the Saudi woman said to you doesn’t persist, or doesn’t obtain, or actually, you begin to inculcate reforms to the point where you could produce a more legitimate, pluralistic, representative government.
And the problem with U.S. policy based on that proposition is that the short term always completely blots out the sun for the long term, and we just sort of end up living in this circumstance where we’re moving — you know, we’re essentially shoring up leaders who, in some cases, get increasingly illegitimate within their own countries. And the bottom can fall out, as has done before, and has — could easily do again, and I think we’d be foolish to think otherwise. On the other hand, if you move to a strictly long-term proposition and say, well, let’s just wipe the slate clean and throw all these guys out and, you know, have hell for the next 30 years — but in the long term, it’s all going to work; if you purely privilege the long-term, you’re in a real problem, too.
So it seems to me that we have to find a way to recognize this challenge to U.S. policymaking that has bedeviled both Republican and Democratic administrations. Be honest about it, and say, OK, well, what can we do to better strike this balance as we go forward, and what does it mean to actually have a country on a path to reform and support it along that path? I mean, I look at a country like the UAE, which I do think has made some incredible strides forward in terms of generating greater legitimacy and opportunity for its people, but I look at other places and see very near-term challenges. I mean, Egypt right now — even if you ask the Israelis, they will say, in the next year or two, we could see an economic crisis in Egypt that would be incredibly profound and destabilizing. And the jihadists threat coming out of Egypt today, right now, is significant.
So how do we properly, taking each country as its own case, figure out a way to navigate this dilemma? It would be great if we could come up with a better answer to that question. I have my profound doubts about whether the incoming administration, which seems to be mostly focused on supporting and shoring up the strongman, is really going to be grappling with that in a full way. But I think, if we don’t keep a basic concept that we’ve got to be working towards a fixed star of representative government — legitimate, accountable government, self-determination and pluralism in the future, then we’re not just undermining our values, we’re undermining our long-term interests in the region, and we will just be putting out fires constantly.
MR. CHOLLET: Look, I completely agree with what — with what Jake has said, and I think that — you know, if you think back, the Obama administration came into office believing that the Bush administration had, perhaps, overdone it with the — with the “democracy” agenda in the region, and that the — that despite the good intentions, that had been unsuccessful. And as I noted in my opening remarks, the tentative reset with the Muslim world, that in itself was unsuccessful, or at least, did not meet the high expectations that many had placed upon it — you know, this is going to be an enduring dilemma, this kind of — this trade-off both temporally, between short-term, long-term, but also, the trade-off between our values and what is our — are our core security interests.
That said, I think — I mean, the UAE is a good example. I think there are — there are trends in the region that are positive. I mean, certainly, Emirates stands out. I would also argue that Saudi Arabia, with some of the reforms that Mohammed bin Salman has been instituting are — although there was a lot of questions early on, are headed in the right direction. And as Mary Beth knows far better than I do, this has been something that the Emirates in particular have been very, kind of, involved in in terms of trying to help their Saudi friends navigate —
DR. MATTAIR: Supportive.
MR. CHOLLET: Right, supportive. And because they’ve — they kind of went through this 15 years ago, right? That said, if you think of, sort of, black swans of what the new administration could face, I mean, if you think of three leaders in the region that are going to matter greatly — the future will matter greatly to the United States’ interest, to Israel’s interests, others — Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, King Salman in Saudi and the supreme leader in Iran — I think the youngest of those three is 79. So — and in all three cases, there are leadership transitions that are not quite clear. And so we could see a contesting for what the future holds. The actuarial table suggests that those are transitions we could see happening in the — in the course of this administration, perhaps all in the same year, which would be one of those challenges that would — that would be significant for any government.
And then, just, quickly on the settlements question — I mean, I see it as less of an ideological question for the United States. It’s more of a pragmatic one. I mean, I think — and the answer — or the question that Secretary Kerry has been asking as he’s leaving office is this question of, how can you reconcile the two-state solution with the demographic reality that we are seeing on the Palestinian side? And if we believe in Israel as a Jewish democratic state, it’s hard to see that as it continues to expand its territorial footprint in Palestinian territories. And I’ve yet to see a compelling answer for how you can solve that dilemma from anyone who supports the expansion of settlements, which suggests to me we’re headed to a one-state solution scenario.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, that’s a question of what future Israel will be — whether it will be a democratic state or a Jewish state, but there’s also the question of whether Palestinians have any hope for human rights and self-determination under the current circumstances.
Any other comments?
MS. LONG: My only comment would be, I do think — and again, I’m not here to speak or anticipate what the incoming administration is, but I do think — I think both gentlemen have alluded to it, that originally, it’ll be a much more pragmatic approach. And, you know, all of these individuals are good people and know what our foundational principles are regarding democracy and human rights, and I’m sure they won’t be neglected. I think, probably, what we’ll see is the primary functions of government from a foreign policy standpoint will be the promotion of American interests abroad, with only a secondary standpoint being export of a particular idea or government structure.
I do think one of the things that, hopefully, we have learned is, while democracy and our ideas of the role of the individual in the decision-making around him are derived of a deep tradition of, basically, Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian — there’s certainly been lots of minorities in the American tradition, but that has been, primarily, the focus — and that’s just not the case in other places in the world, and democracy doesn’t exist unless you have judicial systems, and unless you have people who want and understand democracy the way we do. I have many friends who, frankly, say, I can go to see the crown prince in my country as he’s having lunch at the grocery store and ask him for something, or I can go to his — to his meeting once a week and ask for something. When do you get to go see the president? And at the end of the day, that’s the kind of democracy that I accept. And frankly, you know, there’s an argument for that.
And on the — on the settlements, I’m going to demur, but I do think that any policy of the United States that promotes continued violation of any country’s own laws, whether it comes to property rights and whether settlements are legal or illegal, we are — we should not be in the business of promoting building on, or incursions into places where their own legitimate courts have said, this is not something that we can sustain from a national, legal standpoint. I think that’s a — that is a fundamental issue.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, thank you. On that note, thank you to all the panelists and the audience. I think we just heard from four people who know where we’ve been and know the problems that face us as we go forward, and are uniquely placed. So I think this will be a great transcript, and you can go back and see the video again and revisit this entire experience. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
Senior Policy Advisor, Hillary Clinton for President 2016
Former Deputy Assistant, President Barack Obama
Former National Security Advisor, Vice President Joe Biden
Founder and CEO, Metis Solutions
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Chairman, NATO High Level Group (HLG)
Senior Advisor and Subject Matter Expert, Supreme Allied Commander, NATO
Counselor and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel
Special Assistant to President Barack Obama and Senior Director, National Security Council
President and CEO, Center for the National Interest
Publisher, The National Interest
Former Chairman of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs and Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 87th Capitol Hill Conference on Wednesday, January 11. “U.S. Commitments in the Middle East: Advice to the Trump Administration” offered viewpoints from veterans of the Obama administration and observers of the incoming Trump one on how President-elect Trump’s worldview might intersect with some of the region’s most pressing foreign policy challenges. The four-person panel had expertise gained from working in various areas of the federal government (the National Security Council, Department of Defense, Department of State and the CIA) including for both President Obama and President George W. Bush.
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 Derek Chollet (former Senior Director, NSC); Jake Sullivan (former Senior Policy Advisor, Hillary Clinton for President 2016); Dimitri Simes (President and CEO, Center for the National Interest); and Mary Beth Long (former Assistant Secretary of Defense).
Mr. Chollet explained the recalibration sought by the Obama administration through withdrawing from Iraq, opening dialogue with Iran, resetting relations with the Muslim world, and re-engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He credited the Obama administration with dispelling the illusion that there is a role for the U.S. in solving every problem in the Middle East. Admittedly, this has led some regional allies to question U.S. commitments and heightened their sense of uncertainty, but Mr. Chollet views the region as in the midst of a broader convulsion that has very little to do with the United States. While acknowledging that changed U.S. relations with Iran have unsettled some regional allies, Mr. Chollet asserted that the Obama administration is leaving a situation in the region that is sustainable and has broad support from the U.S. public.
Mr. Sullivan summarized five hard questions that the Trump administration will be forced to deal with: how to pressure Iran for supporting terrorism or other transgressions without disrupting the framework of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); how to contain Iranian influence and fight ISIS simultaneously; how to promote Syria’s long-term stability in following Russia’s lead in ending the civil war in the short-term; how to reconcile Trump’s stated admiration for regional strongmen with U.S. democratic values; and how to define Russia’s core interests in the region. He emphasized the contradictions in many of President-elect Trump’s statements on these topics. For example, “tearing up” the Iranian nuclear deal would likely complicate efforts to forge closer ties with Russia, not to mention alienate U.S. allies in Europe.
Mr. Simes offered mostly Russia-focused observations, beginning with a reminder that rhetorical expressions of “admiration” between Putin and Trump mean very little, especially as the original statement Putin made about Trump was somewhat lost in translation and less positive than reported by U.S. media. He suggested that better relations between the two countries should be explored, at a minimum to avoid an unintended nuclear confrontation that could result from poor communication and misread signals. Beyond such a low probability event, better relations might help avoid a strategic nightmare for the United States: Russia and China forming a major coalition working in a coordinated manner against U.S. interests. Ultimately, Russia will seek security guarantees and if it can’t get them from the U.S., it will be more likely to “lash out” through actions that may be more detrimental to U.S. interests.
Ms. Long sees a realignment of interests in the incoming Trump administration, with a more transactional approach guiding the U.S. posture towards Iran, Russia and the conflict in Syria. More specifically, she predicts that the Trump administration will view the region through a domestic lens, and that this may produce some inconsistencies. She stressed that the Middle East is the most violent region globally and the U.S. must remain engaged and reassert its leadership given the power vacuum that she believes has been occupied by Iran and Russia during the Obama administration. Ms. Long also advocated for greater focus on humanitarian crises like Syria’s refugees, for moral reasons and their potential to foment extremism and terrorism.
The full video from the event is 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.