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The following is a transcript of the eighty-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on October 13, 2016, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
I think Osama bin Laden must have died happy. He devoted the last third of his life to creating animosity between the West and Islam and to driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Today, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are all estranged from our country. As an unexpected bonus, so is Israel.
The United States, meanwhile, is making enemies all over the Muslim world. And every day here at home, millions pay homage to the memory of Osama bin Laden as they remove their shoes to pass through metal detectors and are stripped of their dignity by body-imaging devices at airports. I'm told it's not true that the images are outsourced to India, but who knows? America is less secure, we are less prosperous as Americans, and we are less free than we were as this century began. In life, Osama was transformative. In death, he continues to shape the world he left behind. Can a new administration change this? Will it?
I have a political confession to make: I do not believe that we are about to elect a president able to govern effectively and to end dysfunction in Washington. Whomever we choose as our president seems certain to be regarded as illegitimate and opposed by supporters of her or his rival. These opponents will be just as determined to discredit and oust him or her from office as diehard Republicans have been to thwart and discredit President Obama over the last eight years. This means that indecision born of political gridlock, the sequester and other illnesses of our body politic will continue. It may even get worse.
After careful analysis of Mr. Trump's inconstancy on the Middle East and other issues, I've come to suspect that he's actually five guys sharing a single oversized orange wig. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton presents herself as the pitiless goddess of airstrikes, drone warfare and dead dictators. But, at heart, the two candidates faithfully reflect the narratives, prejudices and conventional policy approaches of the nation they propose to lead.
This gives them so much in common that I think it's more efficient to discuss them together rather than separately. So I will refer to candidates Clinton and Trump as one gender-fluid person, "Candidate Clump." Candidate Clump is on the payroll of the Israel lobby's major donors, wants to isolate Iran, and loves sanctions and other forms of economic warfare more than trade and investment. Clump was for the invasion of Iraq before "heesh" was against it. "Heesh" is more interested in poking at the Middle East than in understanding it.
Clump thinks terrorism is a function of theology rather than a violent response by misfits to humiliation and social marginalization. Heesh is convinced that bombing is the best antidote to what heesh imagines is a religious onslaught. Heesh is not fond of Egypt and wishes Saudi Arabia would just go away. When elected, President Clump will give Israel whatever it must have to fend off its political tantrums. In short, the next president will concentrate on keeping the lid on the explosive mess that the last few presidents have made of the Middle East and America's position in it.
All this means that the next administration, whoever heads it, is very unlikely to lead an intelligent interagency or national discussion about what must be done to dig ourselves out of the very large and deep sinkhole in the Middle East that we've fallen into. The only part of our government policy apparatus now capable of planning and with the money and the moxie to act on plans is our armed services.
The easiest path for the next president to follow, therefore, will be to double down on the militaristic policies that have brought our relations in the Middle East to their current deplorable state. But, in the interest of discussion here today, I propose that we suspend disbelief in contemporary American politics and politicians and do our best to imagine a return to intelligent and competent government in Washington. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Come on, we can imagine that. Yes, we can.
What situations will our president, Congress and Supreme Court inherit in the Middle East? What should they do about them? What new challenges will they face? To begin with, there are at least 12 distinct but overlapping wars going on in Syria, maybe more. Saudi Arabia is at war with Iran; foreign-backed insurgents with the Assad government; Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran with the insurgents; Islamists with secularists; foreign-backed forces with Daesh, the Islamic State; Shiites with Sunnis; Kurds with Arabs; Kurds with Kurds; Turks with Kurds; and the United States separately with the Assad government, with Daesh and with Russia.
The United States is indirectly or directly involved in about half of these Syrian wars, aligned with and against Assad and with and against the insurgent forces, sometimes with Turkey and sometimes against Turkey, sometimes with the Kurds but always against Russia. Oh, and Israel continues to bomb Syrians whenever it feels like it.
Notwithstanding all the humanitarian crocodile tears, one-sided anti-Assad narratives and public-relations exercises masquerading as diplomacy, the net effect of U.S. policy has been to perpetuate the anarchy and slaughter in Syria by feeding ever more weapons into it. This is a policy congenial to Israel, which openly prefers chaos to competent but hostile government in Syria. It frustrates or horrifies everyone else.
Assad remains in power. The Gulf Arabs feel let down. Sectarian strife swells. Foreign interventions wax and wane. Iran retains its preeminent political role in the Levant. Turkey turns this way and that. Kurdish self-determination looms and recedes. Turkey and Europe drown in refugees. The United States and Russia are ever-closer to war. All sides, including the United States, remorselessly violate both international law and the basic canons of human decency. Daesh revels in its martyrdom. And the slaughter continues.
The disgusting effects of lawless outside intervention in Syria, as in Libya, have driven a stake through the heart of the so-called principle of responsibility to protect. Americans are in denial about the significant role we have played in destabilizing and immiserating Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. We accept no responsibility for the 450,000 or more dead Syrians or the 11 million displaced from their homes. Our politicians and public oppose taking in the refugees from the anarchy we have helped to foster. This is craven, dishonorable, and a reproach to our moral standing and prestige. But let's leave such quibbles aside. This is, after all, Washington, where both common sense and moral accountability come to die.
Our attempts to oust the government of Syria have produced another backfire for attempted regime change. Syria has also served up a further demonstration of the limited capacity of armed intervention to impose the U.S. government's will abroad. Bombing and support for insurgents are feel-good actions, not substitutes for coherent strategy. We and those who have followed our lead have gained nothing and lost much from our latest thoughtless lurch into the Levant.
Part of our reason for joining Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE in attempting to overthrow the Assad government was to show solidarity with them — complicity, instead, I should say. An erratic U.S. performance has irreparably damaged all these relationships. Complicity in the Syrian catastrophe and Israel's assaults on Gaza and Lebanon, and in Saudi Arabia's brutal attempt to bring Yemen to heel, have earned the United States outrage abroad and no plaudits at home. As U.S. influence has receded, Russia has re-emerged as a diplomatically skillful greater power in the Middle East. Meanwhile, there is no silver lining to be seen in the dark cloud of Syria's agony.
Parallel contradictions are at work in Iraq, which our 2003 invasion and occupation also thrust into anarchy. By marked contrast with Syria, where we're working with Sunni Islamists to oppose Iran and a pro-Iranian Shiite regime, in Iraq we're working in parallel with Iran to suppress Sunni Islamists and resistance to Shiite exclusion of Sunnis from a role in governing the country. Ironically, given our support of it, Iraq's government participates in a joint intelligence headquarters with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, Hezbollah and Russia. As in Syria, our policies appear to align every which way.
Not to worry; there are fewer wars going on in Iraq than in Syria — only five or six by my count. In various combinations, the Iraqi government, the United States and Iran are each fighting against Daesh. The Shiite Arab majority is against the Sunni Arab minority and vice-versa. Daesh kills secularists, Shiites and carefully selected Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The Kurds, with American support, stand against Daesh and sometimes against the Iraqi government. The Kurds kill Turkmen and the Turks kill them.
Occasionally, presidential candidates hint that they have a plan that diagrams how Americans can end our misadventures in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the last box on their plan seems to read "a miracle happens here." It's the Middle East, where miracles are said to have happened in the past, so I suppose you can't rule it out, but it's hard to consider it much of a probability.
The next administration needs to give our Iraq policies a hard scrub. But with the cult of the warrior ascendant in our culture and few Americans dying, the Washington playbook is likely to prevail. We will continue on autopilot but deploy more firepower. Anti-American terrorism with global reach will, therefore, continue to grow.
Our counterterrorism policies need a fundamental overhaul. We're not being assaulted by religious fanatics so much as by young men, and the occasional woman, who fit the murderous profile of misfits like Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski. Whether homegrown or foreign, our attackers see themselves as humiliated, persecuted, bullied or otherwise victimized. They're looking for a cause larger than themselves in which to cloak their criminality. Like the perpetrators of gun massacres from non-Muslim backgrounds, they are boastful and crave attention through spectacular violence. Sometimes they act to get such attention. All too often we give it to them. We mistake their terrorist doctrine for their motivation. But they are psychotic, not pious. They are gangbangers, not theologians.
Bombing the so-called Islamic State and snuffing Muslims from the air with drones don't help cure anti-American terrorism with global reach. They feed the very paranoid delusions on which it thrives. Eliminating the Islamic State's control of parts of Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the causes of terrorism directed at the West.
It's time for a different approach. The place to start, I think, is Syria. In Syria, the combatants have all relied on external support. They have not needed to court popular support by avoiding atrocities against civilians. Cutting off overt and covert aid to combatants would help restore their incentive to do so — to take account of the feelings of the people they are victimizing in Syria.
Syrians, Turks, Saudis, other Gulf Arabs, Europeans, Iranians, Lebanese and Russians would all be better off if we and other external parties agreed to mutual restraint and an end to the supply of weapons and training and fighters to Syria. Syrians need to sort out their differences among themselves. Curtailing the proxy wars in Syria would remove major obstacles to Syrians' actually doing this. It would also bring the world back into conformity with the principle that one should do no harm and mark a return to respect for international law — something now rarely mentioned but which we all have a stake in preserving. Focusing on calling off the proxy wars in Syria could also facilitate exploration of how to dial down the increasingly dangerous geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unless that's done, there can be no return to peace and stability in the region.
As part of a search for a regional détente, the United States needs to have a serious discussion with the Saudis about a war-termination strategy for Yemen. Riyadh traditionally managed Yemen with money, not military operations — an approach in which it has enjoyed many advantages over Tehran. We need to help the Saudis find a way to replace warfare with less ruinous ways of pursuing their entirely understandable interest in denying Yemen to Iran strategically.
Working with Saudi Arabia to reduce armed conflict in its region would also help detoxify the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It's become politically poisonous in both countries, as illustrated by the blossoming of American Islamophobia, Saudi vituperation against America, and the recent override of President Obama's veto of JASTA, the cynically named Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. This is actually the "shyster's relief act" of 2016.
I mentioned the Supreme Court earlier, and this is where it comes in. Neither country can afford to make an enemy of the other. The United States needs Saudi Arabia's cooperation, not so much for its oil, which we once again produce in abundance ourselves, but for other compelling reasons. These include Riyadh's capacity to influence the religious orientation of the world's Muslims for better or ill, to condone or refute Salafi jihadism, and to promote or subvert tolerance among the various schools of Islam and between Muslims and the adherents of other religions.
The United States also has vital interests in the kingdom's facilitation of air and sea travel between Asia and Europe, its economic and military support rather than opposition to U.S. policies and interests in the region, and its continued reliance on conventional rather than nuclear weapons for its defense. Saudi Arabia, for its part, has no alternative to the United States as the ultimate guarantor of its security. The next administration should strive to restore U.S.-Saudi relations so that they permit exploration of how to advance interests that both countries share with Iran, like the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq.
To do this would not be easy, of course. It would require buy-in from the Saudis, the UAE and others in the Gulf, as well as cooperation from Iran. And it would also demand understanding from Israel, which remains a potent if declining force in American domestic politics. Despite decades of efforts by the United States to broker peace among Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, the so-called peace process is now dead and buried. It cannot be exhumed and it will not be resurrected.
This means that under the next administration, the United States will have no political cover internationally at all for its continuing subsidies to the Israeli settlement enterprise or for its protection of Israel from international condemnation and punishment for its gross violations of the rights of its captive Arab populations, illegal territorial expansion, and intermittent military assaults on neighbors.
The U.S. relationship with Israel is becoming increasingly unbalanced and costly. Israel has become one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. It dominates its region militarily, yet U.S. taxpayers will pay, or more likely borrow, $3.8 billion each year for the next 10 to subsidize it — this despite the fact that Israel contemptuously opposes most U.S. policies in its region. It goes out of its way to demonstrate its defiance of U.S. and international opinion of its policies and seems to many to be hell-bent on doing itself in. Unconditional support does grave harm to Israel by enabling it to behave in ways and take risks with its future that it otherwise would not.
Of greater importance to all Americans, it also greatly reduces the credibility of the United States by causing Arabs, Muslims and many others to see U.S. attempts to advocate human rights, oppose racism, promote the rule of law, empower women or support the democratization of government as insincere, hypocritical or downright duplicitous. Americans speaking out for our values in the Middle East now persuade no one there. We just remind them of our unflinching complicity in Israeli policies and practices that mock the ideals we claim to champion.
On its way out, the Obama administration has begun speaking more honestly — which means more harshly — about the extent to which Israeli statements and behavior now trouble Americans, including, by the way, the great majority of American Jews. But in the region this just comes across as: Who are you going to believe, America or your lying eyes? We're a bit late and $38 billion short. No one believes that the United States will curtail its enabling of Israel or that our politicians will put the national interest ahead of their own personal security in office.
To sum up, despite the shambles present and previous policies in the Middle East have produced, the next administration is likely to ratchet them up, not change them. They serve too many vested interests and resonate with too many entrenched narratives to be discontinued. But the probable result of doing more of the same is more of the same. That's really too bad, both for us and for everyone in the Middle East.
The region is ripe for new approaches. The opportunities for imaginative statecraft that can secure a long-term place for Israel in the region, share the burden of protecting access to the energy supplies of the Persian Gulf, dial down anti-Western terrorism with global reach, phase out the slaughter in Syria, restabilize Iraq, and channel Saudi-Iranian and U.S.-Russian rivalry away from proxy wars are all there to be found — if only our leaders have the political courage to look.
As I look at the region, I see three central challenges facing the Middle East, working together to create the horrible brew we're now dealing with. The first challenge is the security vacuums in places like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen that followed the collapse of some of these Arab republics. These vacuums are highly problematic, setting the conditions for extremism. They are where extremists organize and plan attacks, and where refugees originate. A lot of these destabilizing problems then affect the entire region.
These vacuums are, in some ways, the embers of the fire. Then you add gasoline: the proxy wars, state-on-state competition. As Ambassador Freeman laid out, the most prominent and problematic is the Iranian-Saudi competition. But you also have Turks, Qataris, others in the region, the United States and Russia.
All these countries are insecure. They are concerned about losing influence in these vacuums that have been created. How do they respond? They provide weapons and money in an effort to increase their influence and make sure they are on the winning side or have some influence in whatever vacuums are filled. But by doing this, they just add fuel to the flames.
A third factor is the American role. What you have right now in the Middle East is a perception that the United States is pulling back. It's important, whether it's partially true or not true, since this perception is feeding further competition. It's creating insecurity among some of our friends, especially the Saudis and other Gulf states. They fear that the United States is moving away from them and towards Iran, and this is then causing them to be more aggressive in their responses and to act out in ways that are sometimes unhelpful to their interests and ours.
But it's also creating the sense in some of our competitors, such as Iran and Russia, that seeing an increasing vacuum, they can then go in more aggressively. So one side is insecure because of a fear that the U.S. is leaving, and it's getting more aggressive. One side feels there's more opportunity, so it's getting more aggressive. The end result is more aggression on all sides, which is further fueling this fire. Part of this perception is on us in the United States, and part of it is on our partners. I'll give some examples.
When Hosni Mubarak was falling in Egypt, there was a perception that somehow this was an American responsibility, and any leader of the free world should stand up when there are a million people in the streets. I think this is unfair. Part of it is the reality of internal problems that these states are dealing with and that they've put on the United States and really shouldn't. On the other hand, when you draw a red line in Syria, for example, and say that you're going to strike and then you don't, you shake the confidence of many of our partners in the region.
When we do a nuclear agreement with Iran that is in our interest and is explained as not intended to be a fundamental strategic pivot but just a means of keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, I put that on our friends for not trying to better understand it. But when you don't follow it up with more forcefully pushing back on Iranian interests in other places in the region where they conflict with ours or some of our traditional partners, I put that on us.
This perception of American withdrawal is a complicated dynamic. If you try to pursue a purely de-escalatory strategy, I fear that all you're going to end up doing is fueling the fire. If you try to pull back, all you're going to do is send more signals to the Russians and the Iranians to pull forward and send more signals to your friends that they're on their own. So I would offer a different approach for the region for the next administration.
The first priority is to fill the security gaps across the region, starting with Syria and Iraq. After 9/11, we had to decide how to deal with the problem of terrorist safe havens. We invaded countries. We put 150,000 troops on the ground. It turns out that this doesn't work. It's too expensive for our interests; it's not sustainable politically in the United States; and it doesn't actually achieve our objectives.
We then, I would argue, turned to a different approach from 2009 to 2014, where we really just tried to pull back as much as we could, using drone strikes and other long-distance instruments over the horizon. It turns out that doesn't work either. We pulled out of Iraq; we pulled out of Libya; and we ended up with problems like ISIS and terrorist safe havens in the heart of Iraq and Syria. I think we're stumbling onto a third way, slowly, at least in the fight against ISIS, but this approach needs to be applied across Iraq and Syria and across the rest of the region.
Here's what I would argue for: First, what we need to focus on, is who we are going to support, as opposed to who we are going to oppose. Are we against Assad? Are we against ISIS? Are we against Jabhat al-Nusra? It doesn't matter if there's nobody whom we have as a partner who can take and hold territory.
You need forces on the ground that you can work with. And we've actually started to come up with some models for that. We've had a model with the Kurds, whom we've worked with in northern Syria. It's a model that worked with the Anbar Awakening. It's also something that worked in southern Syria with a group called the Southern Front.
In all these cases, the United States and its partners worked with forces on the ground, groups that I think you'd have to call acceptable, as they're not interested in conducting terrorism abroad and exporting extremist ideology. Their ideology is inclusive enough that they can work with other actors in these territories instead of being so extreme it would just fuel the fire. They also have to have local legitimacy. You have to work region by region in Iraq and Syria to support these actors, including in northwest Syria, where an al-Qaeda safe haven is essentially being created.
The second part of the strategy involves providing the necessary direct limited American military support to help these actors hold territory. That varies region by region. It doesn't involve going back to 150,000 troops on the ground, but it does involve advisers in a lot of these cases. When you have a few hundred or a couple of thousand advisers on the ground, you have a force-multiplier effect. That allows you to help your partners take and hold territory. But American forces should not be taking and holding any territory themselves.
Part of this does involve, in some cases, making sure that at least your partners aren't exposed from the air. This is one of the big problems in northwest Syria, where you have an opposition force that's a jumble of extremists and more acceptable groups. The Assad regime, Russia and Iran don't have the capacity to retake that territory and physically hold it, but their strategy for the past few years has just been to make sure nobody else can take that territory and govern it. The end result is incredible violence, where the biggest losers are civilians and the biggest winners are extremist groups.
I would argue for an escalation there that actually does require different and creative means. Some of our candidates for president talk about safe zones or no-fly zones. There are other options short of these that don't require major American military intervention but can relieve these groups of the pressure that comes from the Assad and Russian air forces. That's step two: direct military support.
Step three is taking that American investment and strategy and getting your partners coordinated and on board with you. Right now we don't really have that. Where we do have it — for example, in southern Syria with the Jordanians — it's actually worked pretty well. But we need to get on board with the Turks and the Saudis in supporting the same groups, not supporting extremists.
The problem is they don't believe we're really in the fight, and as long as they don't, they're going to continue to work on their own. The question is, if the United States increases its involvement in this conflict, does it then have the leverage to actually get some of these other actors to play a more constructive role? I think we can.
Finally, over time, the idea is to have these local actors take and hold more territory, to the point where they start to plug these vacuums and close them. Then we can get to try to leverage the situation to forge a negotiated outcome or political solution for the conflict.
This strategy does not involve regime change; that should not be an American objective in Syria. What this involves is trying to come to a political agreement and set the conditions that work for the actors. I have a hard time seeing how Assad stays in power in a situation like that, but our objective is not to get rid of Assad. Our objective should be to close these vacuums in Iraq and Syria and replace them with something that's at least marginally acceptable to our interests.
This is going to be a place where the next administration will have to put a lot of effort. And I worry that, if you instead try to de-escalate and pull back your forces, nobody else is going to pull theirs. We have been doing this half-heartedly in Syria and Iraq for a few years, and the end result has been that everybody else is dumping weapons. I have a hard time seeing how we can get to an agreement with the Russians, the Iranians or any of our friends right now that starts with this: "We're all going to have to stop doing this." I don't think that's going to happen.
Second, I think the other key step is how to push back on Iran while keeping channels open. Right now, there's anxiety from our partners and a sort of confidence on the Iranian side. We need to implement the nuclear deal vigorously. I very much think that's in our interest and in all of our partners' interests, whether they believe it or not. But we can do more to push back on Iran in the region.
I'm not calling for major escalation. I think there are things you can do — exercises, interdictions of ships going to places like Yemen — small signals that you can send. The Iranians want no part of a major direct conflict with the United States. I served on the Iran desk at the Pentagon for a number of years and always found that, when the United States firmly stood up and drew a line and said, this will get you in trouble, the Iranians pulled back.
Finding ways to do that, ideally with our partners, starts to reset the calculus. It's sort of a signal to the Saudis, to the Israelis, to others that we're not turning the region over to Iran. But at the same time it's a signal to the Iranians that this is how far you can go. Part of it also just involves our public posture. We've had four or five interdictions of Iranian ships in the last few months. Nobody really knows about it. So part of this is just signaling and making things a little bit more public.
The last thing on Iran is that, even as you do this, you also keep channels open for dialogue and look for ways to cooperate. What worked in the nuclear agreement was a combination of economic pressure while keeping the channels open for engagement.
In the region generally, you can take the same approach: more pressure where you disagree and where you want to push back, even as you leave channels open for engagement in the discussion. And it's always better to have diplomatic channels than not have them, leaving open the possibility that maybe things will, over time, start to shift in Iran. We shouldn't foreclose that option, but we can't assume it's actually going to happen.
A third element here is, early on, having some very serious direct conversations with our closest allies, saying to them, we're going to do these things that you are more interested in having us do. We're going to get more engaged in Syria, not just with ISIS but with concerns that you have. We're going to push back more on Iranian influence, but we also have some expectations of you.
This is where you can use your leverage to try to get them to dial back on certain things. I don't think you're going to get the Saudis to stop the war in Yemen tomorrow, but at least you can start to influence their calculus in terms of the types of operations they're conducting and what might or might not be constructive.
You're not going to get the Turks to stop arming groups in Syria, but you can maybe get them to stop arming some of the most problematic and extreme groups in Syria. The Turkish approach is mostly, Anybody but Assad, so let's just dump weapons and support in there, no matter who it's going to. You can exert more leverage and get better cooperation, I believe, if you're willing to invest more in the region and then use that leverage to try to change the behavior of your partners.
It also involves, very early on, some very positive signaling. Many of our partners, because of the nuclear deal and the president's public statements to Jeffrey Goldberg on how he views some of our partners in the region, a lot of our traditional friends in the region are looking past this president to the next one because they are very frustrated.
I think there will be some opportunities early on for a reset with the new president that don't involve major shifts in policy, but just a change in tone. Look at the way President Obama acted with Europe early in his administration, a Europe that had gotten completely fed up with George Bush, even as Bush administration policies started to change from 2006 to 2008 and became much more pragmatic and realistic. Just the signaling created a lot of space diplomatically, and I think you can replicate some of that in this case, early on, for a new president.
At the end, though, looking a few years down the road, you need to get to a de-escalation, a point where you can actually get a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement or at least agreement on how they view the region. You've got to end the Syrian civil war through negotiated outcomes. So the approach that I'm laying out views that as a step two, followed by trying to build those institutions. First you have to reset the region and start to address the core problems that are driving it.
Once we've reassured our partners, once we've pushed back on Iran, once we've started to do more to close the security vacuums that exist, we will be in a better position to try to negotiate an outcome — for example, in Syria, one that ends that war — and then leverage the types of negotiations there to expand into a broader regional construct down the line, something along the lines of a Middle East OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe].
That would be ideal. The problem is, if you propose it today, all of our competitors are going to say, this is the Americans pulling out, so we're going to get more aggressive. All of our friends are going to say, this is the Americans turning over the region to the Iranians and the Russians. You can't do that today; you have to go long term. Sadly, you have to take some of the first steps outlined before you can get there.
Chas, I just want to disagree with you about one thing. We're not in a sinkhole. It took a lot of digging and a lot of sweat to get us in to the hole we're in. That's where I want to begin.
When President Obama took office, we were in the midst of an economic collapse: banks were at risk; two out of five mortgages were underwater; pension funds were collapsing; unemployment was doubling and the American dream was dying. In our polling for the first time, two-thirds of the American people were saying they no longer believed their children were going to have a better life than they had. In addition to that and the hyper-partisan environment in Washington, which created the gridlock we're living with, Obama faced severe crises in the Middle East, despite the change in tone in the last few years of the Bush administration. The Iraq War had created consequences we were still reeling from.
If I look back at the Project for a New American Century and the way its authors shaped that war, it was supposed to be a decisive show of American power that would secure America's hegemonic role for the next century. At the end of the Cold War, it was going to ensure that a multipolar world would not emerge and that America would remain the decisive power.
The Iraq War did exactly the opposite. It weakened us militarily. It cost us too much in lives and treasure and prestige across the region, the consequences of which are still with us. For those who want to advocate U.S. military force, as some are wont to do, the number that sticks in my head is 22 suicides a day — the number of American veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who kill themselves every single day. We lose more lives every year than we lost in both wars combined over the span of their duration. In addition to an exhausted military and declining prestige, there were the costs we were not equipped to handle because we had tax cuts and two unfunded wars — and the emergence of not only a multipolar world but competition in various regions over who would be its hegemonic power.
It wasn't that President Obama withdrew. It was that the Iraq War made Iran ascendant, brought Turkey into its own, gave Russia a new opportunity to expand itself. That's the world President Obama inherited in 2008.
He did extraordinary work on the economy, but the devastation wrought by what I call the house that George built, the region after Iraq, coupled with an Arab Spring that only made the situation more complicated, was too much for this president or any president, especially one who did not have the support of Congress.
I remember during the Cairo speech I was at CNN with Liz Cheney. We were supposed to react afterward. I thought it was a marvelous speech, and I still think it was. If you go back and read it today, it still provides a roadmap for the way to build a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds. But after I made my comments to that effect, she called it an apology tour, an embarrassment to America and on and on and on. I did three other shows that weekend and got the same talking points from everybody.
On the last one, a Sunday morning CBS show, I was on with George Allen, who had his talking points down. At the end, the interviewer said to me, do you think the president can heal the divide? I said, with the Muslim world, I think so; but with American conservatives, I don't think so. They're not going to give him a break. And they didn't. They said "not in my backyard" over Guantanamo. The pressure on several fronts was such that he never really had a free hand. Because he lacked the kinds of political tools Bill Clinton had or that other presidents in the past have had, to use the politics of pressure domestically to change the political environment, he backed off.
After the second anniversary of the Cairo speech, in 2011, he summed up where we were and made a rather brilliant statement to the effect that we didn't start it, we can't direct it, and we can't determine its outcome; all we can do is help. He then provided how we would help, offering the following: We can help them with what they need to build the middle class and to create societies that will foster democracy. He talked about job creation, investment in education and in health care. I turned to the person next to me and said, this is not directed at the Arab world; it's directed at Congress and reordering their priorities. Of course, it fell on deaf ears.
He then said, we also have to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he proposed something really quite simple: the '67 borders with land swaps. I had no idea it was going to create an uproar. I heard '67 borders and '49 armistice line and land swaps — and I thought, territorial exchanges. Netanyahu had been pushing Obama to do what George Bush had done with Sharon: to say '49 armistice line and territorial exchanges. Obama just changed the words, but the meaning was the same, and Netanyahu exploded. He went to the White House, pointed his finger in Obama's face, went to Congress, and used the joint session to sabotage the president's effort. The president, approaching an election year, backed off.
The problem is that after the years of neglect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has developed into pathologies on both sides. With Israel, it's the spoiled child syndrome. When you get everything you want whenever you want it, and you know if you act up, you're still going to get it, there's no incentive for good behavior. On the other side, when you know you're never going to get what you want or need, no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, there's no incentive for good behavior.
The result is two political groups that are spiraling downward into chaos, Israel moving far far to the right, and Palestinians moving toward greater dysfunction. The president had hoped to arrest that, but only reinforced both negative trends: The Palestinians, feeling they had no champion in Washington; Israelis feeling there was nothing that could stand in their way and whatever they wanted they'd get — $38 billion as a reward for bad behavior and Netanyahu's bucking the president. In reality, Netanyahu didn't lose the Iran vote. He actually won it; he ended up getting rewarded for bad behavior.
People might say, why would the president talk about creating jobs and other programs for the Arab world — and Israel/Palestine? Let me tell you about our polling. When we asked the Arab world how they feel about America — the line during the Bush era was, why do they hate us? They hate our values. Actually what our polling shows is that 80 percent of Arabs like our values, and they even like us. They like our people; they like our culture; they like our products. They like pretty much everything about us except the way we treat them.
What drives the relationship is the behavior. People don't judge you by what you say about yourself; they judge you by how you treat them, and we treat them badly. It's the policy toward Israel/Palestine, it's the policy toward Iraq, basically our policy toward the region and toward Islam generally. They saw it during the Bush era, and they have not seen a fundamental change.
People will say, is Donald Trump recruiting for ISIS? He's not directly recruiting — just as Obama didn't create ISIS — but Trump's words are recruitment tools. He is saying to the people in the Middle East, America hates you, because when Donald Trump says what he says, behind him is an audience of a couple of hundred people cheering and yelling over his obscene rhetoric. That takes a toll.
So we have a situation today where I don't think we understand the mindset of people in the region. They want a relationship with America but not the one we're offering them. When we say to them, what do you want from America, they talk about economic investment, they talk about education, they talk about schools. But the number-one priority is this: solve the problem you helped create, Israel-Palestine. That's not because their leaders, as the rhetoric would have it, have repeated Palestine, Palestine. In the polling that we've done and in the way those of us who understand the region know what is going on, Palestine is the wound that never healed. Palestine is to Arabs what Wounded Knee was to Native Americans. It is what the Holocaust means to American Jews, in the sense that it is something horrible that is happening to people like them.
I had a friend in the Gulf, a virulent opponent of Hamas, who, watching what was happening in Gaza in 2008, 2009, called and said, you know how I feel, but I saw those pictures; I have kids who look just like that; that could have been my kids. The pain of that is very real.
When I look at where we should go or what we have to do in the next administration, I'm going to say the following. I am not going to wait for the next administration. I remember when the whole debate was going on in Congress about whether we should set a date to end the war in Iraq or not. One side said, if you set a date, you give the enemy a target. The other side said, if you don't set a date, then we'll be there forever.
I said, it's not the date you set; it's what you do between now and the date you set. Well, it's not that we're going to get a new administration; it's what this administration does between now and the date they leave that will ultimately make a huge difference for who becomes president. President Obama can leave the mess as it is but, frankly, after watching developments over the last couple of months, the mess we have now can only get worse by the end of the year.
There are a couple of things that I would want to put on the table. Number one, we gave Israel $38 billion, and in the same period we passed JASTA. We have to begin to undo both. Let me tell you how. The president has made it clear that we are concerned about Israel's security. No president has done as much as this for Israel's security. The question is, what do we do about Israel's behavior? That's the big issue.
We can save Israel from its enemies, but can we save Israel from itself? This president has an opportunity between election day and inauguration day to lay down a marker, to resurrect the State Department guidance from the Carter era that said settlements are illegal. It never got rescinded, just buried in rhetoric. The president himself has to say they are not an obstacle to peace, or of the other words we've come to use. They are illegal. Congress is moving in another direction today. They even want to erase the obstacle-to-peace language by kind of redefining jurisdictionally the areas where settlements are now in order to annex them to Israel through legislation.
U.S. government policy has to be clear they are illegal. And we should go ourselves or let the Arabs go to the United Nations with a resolution making the point, not just that settlements are illegal but applying sanctions to those settlements. Israel has to feel punishment for its bad behavior. This doesn't mean America becomes anti-Israel or turns its back on Israel. The United States would be supporting the peace forces in Israel who want to change the behavior of their rightward-galloping government and keep open the possibility of a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
And if the Palestinians go to the International Criminal Court, we should supply an amicus brief — which of course we won't, but we at least ought to not block efforts to enforce the regulations — endorsing the international-law requirements on settlements.
Next, on Syria and Iraq, I have real concerns about Mosul and Raqqa. Chas made the point that if we kick them out of Mosul, that doesn't end the problem. The problem, in fact, has metastasized. We have to stop talking about the fact that we killed Osama bin Laden, as if that actually did something. That cancer has spread everywhere, and it's not going to un-spread if we kick them out of Mosul. What's going to happen — because we are not prepared, nor are the Iraqis — is a humanitarian crisis. I sit on the Commission on International Religious Freedom, and we dealt with the disaster when ISIS came in; we're not ready to deal with the disaster when ISIS goes out, in terms of the minority communities, not just Christians and Yazidis and others, but Sunnis in Shia areas and Shia in Sunni areas. We are not ready or equipped, nor the popular mobilization units, nor the Kurdish Peshmerga, nor any of the forces, to be able to govern that area and stabilize it. It will only create greater instability, not less.
Whatever leverage we have in Iraq, this president ought to use it to forestall the taking of Mosul until the Iraqi government is in full control of the military forces that will go into those areas, without the consequences that I fear: enhanced sectarian conflict and more suffering of the civilian populations who stayed behind.
As to Syria, I have never been a supporter of military force in an area where we don't understand the consequences of such actions. But I've watched this Aleppo situation deteriorate, and I have come to the conclusion that the United States has lost too much credibility in the region and is no longer believed. The Russians are taking advantage of that. So, as risky as it might be, I think that American military force is necessary if only to draw a red line and, for God's sake, do something when it gets crossed.
It's risky, but more risky is to wait three more months for the next president to deal with consequences that we can't predict in an area where you have a couple of hundred thousand civilians still sitting there with a thousand or so Nusra fighters entrenched within the opposition forces. We cannot let them pay the price for that any longer.
Finally, on Yemen, I think that the ideas that I've heard today about reengaging with the Gulf states are absolutely critical. I was a supporter of the Iran deal, in the sense that I thought negotiations are always preferable to military conflict — not unlike the way I had supported, for example, the Bush-Baker convening of all the parties in Madrid in 1991. Baker was brilliant at using pressure, but in the case of Madrid, the pressure was only used in the limited goal of getting the parties to sit down together. After they got there, he said, OK, now go into your own corners and try to figure it out. This was short-sighted; they weren't capable of figuring it out. We had to shepherd them through to the next steps. But we took the pressure off the minute we got them to sit at the table.
The problem with Iran wasn't the bomb they didn't have. The problem with Iran was its regional behavior. If we'd used that same pressure to control Iranian behavior, it would be a very different situation today in the Middle East. But we didn't. We took our eye off the real ball and focused on the game Israel wanted us to play: stop the Iranian bomb. Then, when we stopped the Iranian bomb, the Israelis went ballistic. You didn't stop their bomb. I don't know what they wanted us to do — make a parking lot out of Tehran?
We wasted a lot of political and diplomatic and economic pressure, and we did so, I think, short of the goal. So the Arab Gulf states need to be reassured that we didn't forget that Iranian behavior is a problem throughout the region. So they've taken an adventure in Yemen that is horrifying to the Yemeni people. And I don't want the Saudi government — which has now embarked on a dramatic plan, Saudi Vision 2030, quite admirable in many ways — to look back and see a Lyndon Johnson scenario: they tried to do both the war and economic and cultural reform and couldn't handle both at the same time.
We need to help Saudi Arabia save itself and get out of Yemen. The way to do that is by making very clear to them we've got their back, and not the back of Iran. This means taking seriously the commitments we made that we still have not fulfilled, when the president brought the GCC countries to meet here in Washington and then went again to meet with them there. It means another meeting post-election of the GCC states to make clear that our goal will be to push back against Iran and, as Ilan has said, that they have to do some things as well. I think they would welcome it, but we have to be very clear that it's a quid pro quo. We're helping them, and they have to help us by sitting down together and working out a regional strategy that makes sense for everybody. And we have to assure them that we'll have their back.
One of the ways to do that is to do the Israel thing. Doing something really clear on that would be transformative in terms of Arab confidence in America. I have another thing you can do: declare a nuclear-free zone. Go to the United Nations and pass a resolution at the Security Council on a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. It would also send a very direct message to the Arab world that America is serious.
The president's got two months, the window between the election and January 20. I fear if he does not use them well, the Middle East he hands to the next president will be in worse shape than the one he inherited from his predecessor, not because he created it, but because he inherited it and was unable to bring it under control; because he never had the domestic support. But he's got a window, two months, to do some dramatic things that I think would make a big difference.
The Middle East has become known primarily as a region of conflict, dysfunction, and political and economic instability. The pathologies of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya have come incorrectly to characterize the entire region. As is so often the case in diplomacy, the squeaky-wheel principle governs the allocation of scarce funds, diplomatic and military resources, and time. To the domestic dynamics of these four countries are added their effects on the region more broadly and on the participation of the larger outside powers, principally the European Union, Russia and the United States. The next U.S. administration will necessarily be preoccupied with the Middle East as well, though it should guard against disproportionate fixation on the region.
A few main themes dominate the challenges in the region:
• Terrorism, notwithstanding the relatively small number of victims in the United States.
• State-to-state conflicts and Sunni/Shiite frictions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and (parts of) Yemen, and Israel and Palestine.
• Internal conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and (currently quiescent) Lebanon but latently everywhere.
• Extremist religious movements (previously contained), which lie at the root of or exacerbate other conflicts. Sunni-Shia sectarian tension dividing the region into polarized blocs threatening both civil cohabitation and state coherence. Even within Sunni and Shia communities different degrees of pieties and schools of law — the Sunni Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali and the Shia Jafari and Zaide — divide them into sub-communities of thought and practice.
• Hyper-politicization of both Sunnis and Shiites. Even the activist traditions were not, and are not now, equivalent to terrorism or even insurrection, let alone violence and coercion. However, both now feed groups that espouse and practice violence against armed groups, but also ordinary citizens. The victims are predominantly within the region, but the spectacular use of terror in
Africa, Europe and North America has dominated discussion and animated the response. No doubt, socioeconomic and historical factors lie at the root of this eruption, but their religious dimensions cannot be ignored, if only because the brutality and sadism are committed in the name of Islam.
• Acute state-fragility, affecting particularly the weak or "artificial" states created by diplomats who disregarded some primordial social realities: primarily Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Jordan, but the Gulf states as well.
• Existing states challenged by the prospect of new states and redrawn borders.
• Lack of strategies for addressing these themes let alone for reconstructing war-torn states; certainly none for the underlying social, political and economic instability that caused the conflict.
• The refugee flow within and outside the region and the prospects for their resettlement with temporary or permanent political and legal status.
• Lack of success of the Arab Awakening in democracy, human rights or even free markets, except in Israel and (perhaps) Tunisia. The region remains characterized by authoritarianism and autocracy, patronage, nepotism, state control of the economy, and corruption.
Notwithstanding these common themes, the internal character of the region's countries still determines their specific expression. The Fund for Peace 2015 Fragile States Index (http://fsi.fundforpeace.org/rankings-2015) provides a possibly useful way to group them. The FSI scores range from low, indicating greater stability, to high, more fragility: (1) Yemen (108.1), Syria (107.9), Iraq (104.5), Libya (95.3), Lebanon (88.1); (2) Egypt (90.0); (3) Iran (87.2); (4) Israel/West Bank (79.4); (5) Jordan (76.9), Tunisia (75.8), Morocco 74.6), Algeria (79.6); (6) Gulf States: Saudi Arabia (71.6), Bahrain (64.3), Kuwait (57.5), Oman (52.0), Qatar (46.3), United Arab Emirates (46.2).
The challenges of the first group and for the next U.S. administration in dealing with them are far too complicated to be analyzed in this format, as are the challenges for Israel and Palestine. But gross generalizations, however inadequate, might begin to illuminate the policy challenges for the next administration.
The primary challenges are demographics, economic diversification, socioeconomic reform and the role of religion. All have large cohorts of young people, especially young men, without clear promise for a satisfying adulthood. Dependence on oil revenue offers, at best, state dependency and allowances, not real work. Moreover, oil is a depleting resource and one for which most customers want an alternative. Saudi Arabia, the dominant Gulf power, is beset as well by two additional problems, a large Shiite population against whose co-religionists elsewhere Saudi has set itself, and a militant Wahhabi population that stokes the antagonism, that encourages and trains terrorists through its madrassas and mosques across the globe, and whose trainees target the royal family and the country's social structure. Osama bin Laden, for example, was the errant scion of a rich and well-connected Saudi family. His initial target was the Saudi royal family which, in his view, had forsaken the basic tenets of its Wahhabi faith in favor of a debauched and hypocritical lifestyle. Although not really representative, he came to incarnate politically activist Salafism as against its opposite pole, quietist Salafism. The activist tradition has led to the use of terror in the name of Islam, including against fellow-Muslims. His initial quarrel with the United States was the stationing of its troops on Saudi soil and the religious and social pollution that had caused. Yet the basic social contract in Saudi Arabia and underlying the legitimacy of the House of Saud was loyalty from the Wahhabis in exchange for state support. The royal family has begun aggressively moving toward diversification and a more globalized economy, for example through Saudi Vision 2030. ("My first objective is for our country to be a pioneering and global model of excellence on all fronts," says King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in the introduction to that vision statement.) And the apical functionaries of the royal family may be moving toward renegotiating the basic contract with the Wahhabis, if only by limiting their activities and through the sermons and fatwahs of its imams. To some extent, the other Gulf states are following suit.
None of these countries need financial assistance, but the United States should offer any technical assistance they might request for reforms. They are worried more about their security and the challenge of Iran and its Shiite partners, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, and they regard the United States as an unreliable security partner since the nuclear-weapons agreement with Iran. The United States should continue very publicly to provide security guarantees, willing to use military force if necessary, but it should also push the Gulf States to control the financing of extreme religious movements — and to follow through on social, political and economic reforms. Meanwhile, unbalanced and myopic opinion among the U.S. public and in Congress continues to grow against the Gulf states, the Saudis in particular, for example through the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (careless of its consequences in the Middle East as well of its juridical consequences globally) just when they may be adopting policies and taking actions advantageous to all.
Their challenges are similar to those for the Gulf states except that they do not have the oil resources to help meet them, they are even more burdened by conflict, have even more restive internal dynamics and are exceedingly vulnerable to state failure.
Jordan has absorbed massive Palestinian refugee flows from the 1946 and 1967 wars with Israel, even offering citizenship to some, imposing huge social, political and economic costs. The core Bedouin inhabitants of the kingdom, with whom the first Hashemite king crafted a social contract of loyalty and military support for patronage, remain the political bedrock for the monarchy but have become increasingly resentful of the waves of Palestinian and now Syrian refugees. These "foreigners" have become a majority of Jordan's population, much to the irritation of the "native" Jordanians. Meanwhile, the country is running chronically short of water and arable land and other resources. It is the least equipped to meet the dislocations of the region, yet has borne a disproportionate burden of its conflicts: 750,000 refugees from Syria (the demographic equivalent of 7.5 million for far wealthier Germany). King Abdullah has modified Jordan's economic policy, including free-trade zones, resulting in increased foreign investment and a growing IT sector, but those gains are still inadequate. Meanwhile, the claims for patronage continue to grow while the core group around the palace continues to absorb what patronage there is. The mismatch between Jordan's economy and its social needs threatens to unleash civil unrest: towns vs. cities, Bedouin "East Bankers" vs. Palestinian "West Bankers" (compounded by the Muslim Brotherhood) and haves vs. have-nots.
Since independence from France, Algeria has been governed by a series of autocratic socialist strongmen but remains vulnerable to the threat of instability. The now-banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was probably poised to win the municipal elections of 1992, so the government cancelled them, resulting in a violent revolt by the FIS that ended with a program of reconciliation, including (stacked) multiparty elections, amnesty for both the guerillas and the government security forces, and a large development program. Nevertheless, between the restless Berbers (discriminated against by the Arabs), the Islamists, the continuing dependence on oil and gas exports (30 percent of GDP, 60 percent of the budget receipts and 95 percent of exports), the continued state-dominated economy, high youth unemployment, albeit nearly 4 percent real GDP growth, and the second-largest North African economy (after the much larger Egypt), Algeria remains vulnerable economically and politically, though not as much as Jordan.
Morocco has been relatively stable in recent years with a modest level of growth (almost 4 percent), a relatively diversified economy and declining levels of unemployment. Governed by a hereditary authoritarian monarch, its pliant parliament became somewhat more empowered when King Hassan II, following the elections of 1998, invited self-exiled opposition socialist and human-rights lawyer Abderrahmane Youssoufi to return and form a government. Since then, the king has been subject to greater judicial and legislative limitations. Nevertheless, the king and his clientelist entourage, the makhzen, continue to hold the preponderance of political power. The Western Sahara, however, remains an area of contention between the Arab central government and the Sahrawis' Polisario Front, which is seeking independence for that large region with its substantial phosphate reserves. Once intense, fighting between the military and the Polisario has become more intermittent. A number of small Islamist groups, including some Salafis, have deployed bombs to terrorize Moroccan cities as well as some in Europe.
Tunisia, the bright spot in the entire region, remains very vulnerable to conflict. Until democracy demonstrations as part of the Arab Awakening in 2011 and the subsequent court-banning of the previous ruling party (RCD), Tunisia was governed successively by two autocratic dictators surrounded by their individual clients and families. The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won a plurality of the votes for the Constituent Assembly, formed a moderate coalition and eschewed fundamentalist policies. It forged some consensus among its parliamentary partners and established a democratic republic. Without oil (the "resource curse"), Tunisia has a much more diversified economy than its neighbors (with a more sustainable distribution of exports from agriculture, industry and services), and for some time about 4 percent per annum growth. It also has substantial corruption and cronyism, but the moderation of its political parties and their willingness to compromise has rendered Tunisia the only country in the region that may emerge from the convulsions of the past decade with reasonable stability and the possibility of consolidating its democratic gains.
Unfortunately, Tunisia's dynamics have turned more negative recently: economic growth, never robust, has declined from 2.4 percent in 2013 to 0.8 percent in 2015; a substantial gap is growing between the metropolitan coast and the more traditional inland; corruption continues, with attendant public disapproval; and declining confidence in the democratic transition. Major questions for Tunisia: Will the moderation and compromises last? Will its centripetal forces outweigh its centrifugal ones? Will the disparate elements continue to work together? Will its democratic government meet Tunisians' expectations?
In all four countries, stability is the prime concern and depends on the forging of a revised social contract (including lower levels of nepotism and corruption) acceptable to their populations and on improved economic performance. This in turn depends on greater global integration, the development of comparative advantages, far better governance, improved education and sociopolitical reform. In Tunisia, it also includes a successful consolidation of democracy. For the United States and its allies, the prevention of state failure and chaos should drive policy. Prevention will be far less costly and easier to achieve than failure and reconstruction. For all their problems, these are the states with the best prospects for global integration and stability.
Egypt is in a class by itself, the traditional anchor of the Middle East and the most prestigious source of Arab culture and Islamic jurisprudence. It faces two primary challenges: first, demography, a large pool of unemployed or barely/nominally employed young men without the hope of marriage, children, home, etc. Hardly new, this challenge continues to grow more acute, in part because of state regulation of the economy and the domination of major industries by retired military officers. The answer lies in socioeconomic reform, the reduction of stifling regulations, better education, and the greater incorporation/integration of Egypt into the global economy. Gamal Mubarak took responsibility for some of these reforms, gradual enough not to threaten the military's control of major industries, but many observers believed it was mostly rhetoric and showmanship, not fundamental reform. The second challenge is political reform to deal with the regime's opponents, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants not merely to govern but to change the character of the regime itself. The failure of Mohamed Morsi, the only democratically elected president in Egypt's history — as a result of his seizure of unlimited executive and legislative powers without judicial oversight (a civilian coup) and (because of his poor governing performance) the decline in popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood itself — undercut the potential of a democratic dispensation, abrogated by the military coup rather than a defeat at the ballot box. The coup allowed the Brotherhood to claim once more that a peaceful change in Egypt following the will of the public was all but impossible and that the aspirations of its constituency, Egypt's majority, was again extinguished by the military and the "deep state." The coup allowed Morsi to escape the responsibility of his governance failures. Absent both economic and political liberalization, Egypt will continue to stagnate, indeed decline. It cannot be the pan-Arab anchor without liberating itself from that stagnation. Worse, the stymied anticipations of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists could easily be channeled into violent rather than peaceful opposition.
The United States and its allies can help if the regime is prepared to take the necessary steps for reform. Indeed it is in the national interest for a vibrant, peaceful, prosperous Egypt to fulfill its traditional, self-assigned aspiration as the anchor of the Arab world, forging the path for the others. The challenge for the next U.S. administration is to find the appropriate balance between its commitment to human rights and democracy (including some role for the Muslim Brotherhood, however risky) and the need for order and stability, especially in the face of the turbulence in the region. The United States has emphasized stability, opening it up to charges of hypocrisy. The escape from that dilemma depends on nudging Egypt toward reform. Meanwhile, Egypt's relations with Saudi Arabia have cooled a bit, while those with Russia have warmed (possibly including the reestablishment of a Russian base at Sidi Barrani).
Iran is well on its way toward achieving its ambition to be the preeminent, if not the controlling, power in the Persian Gulf. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq removed the only major check on Iran, with the unfaltering exception of Saudi Arabia. However, the internal struggle also remains unsettled: between Iranians who accept a theological and authoritarian state with messianic purpose and those who, accepting the centrality of Islam as a pillar of the state, want more normalized relations with its neighbors, and a more normalized role in the global order. To use former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's famous dichotomy, do Iranians want a cause or a nation? The U.S. interest lies with the latter but open sympathy with those adherents may well be their kiss of death. However, other countries with less baggage might more successfully help pursue those goals. The United States and its allies must insist that their vital national interests — in particular, free and secure transit through the Persian Gulf — be respected by Iran even to the point, if necessary, of the use of military force. Similarly, they will need to insist on Iran's compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which, if implemented, would constrain Iran's nuclear capabilities for 10-15 years. Meanwhile, the next administration should also keep a watchful eye on Iran's destabilizing sectarian regional behavior and on countering it. Supporting the "green opposition" within Iran is tempting but carries its own risks both to the opposition and to these other U.S. interests. More indirect approaches, for example through other countries and through full-bodied broadcasting by the Voice of America's Farsi broadcasts, should be pursued robustly.
Iraq must forge a sociopolitical consensus in which its various minorities — Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, Ahmadiyyas and others — are guaranteed an acceptable place. Part of a national consensus will require that Iraq manage its affairs as an independent country, not as the vassal of the Iranian theocracy under an intransigent majority, as it did under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Shia majority in any democratic government will have the leading hand in establishing policy, should they be able to manage their own factions, but how? If the Shias insist on the politics of supremacy and exclusion, the minorities will likely not submit, but continue the military and political struggle for independence or autonomy. If so, Iraq will almost surely fracture, beginning with the Sunni tribes and the Kurds but including the smaller minorities as well. The United States and its allies will need a convincing and effective approach to Iraq, including the likelihood of a non-unitary state, and they will need to execute that approach in the face of a very hostile Iranian adversary in a volatile context.
We will confront a region in protracted conflict and internal instability, riven by social fissures exacerbated by a religious, political and social awakening, long-festering impotence and humiliation, the corruption and self-dealing of established elites, a revolt by elements of the mass public that despair of their prospects, and by unrealistic hopes that political or religious movements hold the key to a better future. Some of the states will be disfigured or die. Some of the "created" states — Iraq, Syria and (perhaps) even Jordan — are at primary risk.
The United States, even with its allies, cannot resolve these fundamental dynamics. Any solution will be rooted in local conditions and actors, not imposed by external forces. A few temporary fixes are possible for some of the symptoms, but not a durable or just solution.
The United States cannot and should not be engaged everywhere, let alone equally. It has neither the resources nor the interests to do so and will exhaust itself if it tries, quite possibly leaving each engagement worse than when it first intervened. The attempt itself would bring resentment, first against a hegemon trying to impose its schemes, and, second, against the resulting disappointments at their inherent failures.
Consequently, the United States needs a rigorous set of priorities:
• What is the relationship between U.S. and partner interests, capabilities, means and ends? What are the costs and benefits of intervention for the United States and local populations? What are the likely consequences? What are the likely responses of adversaries and other affected parties? What second-order measures should be taken to deal with those responses? What are the costs and benefits of those ancillary measures? How will the United States tailor its objectives to its resources? Is containing, rather than reversing, the dysfunctional dynamics of the Middle East the most realistic U.S. ambition?
• Most important, what are the local actors willing to do to solve their own problems? Absent local political will for reform, U.S. engagements are likely to be futile and quite possibly counterproductive to U.S. interests.
• What are the costs of U.S. attention to the Middle East on its other interests? It is far from obvious that the Middle East rises to the first or primary place among those priorities. Conversely, what would be the costs of inaction or reduced engagement in the region?
• What is the specific strategy for engagement? What interests would animate it, and how would it be limited? Who, if anyone, has signed onto it, especially among local actors? How does the United States recruit support for it? How does it minimize opposition? What is the long-term plan, with what probability of success, and at what cost? As President Obama apparently has asked his advisers: "Tell me how this ends?" Since the Middle East poses no existential threat to the United States, is it appropriate to go all-in regardless of the risks and costs?
Scenarios should be subjected regularly to "red teams" (preferably a gaming exercise) charged with identifying weaknesses and raising alternatives. Almost never is that done by the civilian side of foreign and military planning.
The United States should do better to avoid engaging in seemingly simple interventions. Exercising the requisite discipline will be difficult, particularly when the humanitarian calamities of restraint are evident, while the consequences of intervention are unknown and allies are entreating it to "do something." Policy makers, including "realists," are subject to human emotions. "You will have blood on your hands, and the judgment of history will be harsh" are appeals laden with emotion. Rarely are they accompanied by clear acknowledgment of counterfactuals and consequences.
There will be no military action without civilian casualties. Period. Anyone who believes in the antiseptic use of force is delusional, but many who talk of humanitarian interventions seem to ignore those certainties. Surely steps should be taken to identify potential civilian casualties, avoid as many as possible, and weigh their costs against potential military successes. But there will be unintended, and even some intended, civilian deaths. Moreover, adversaries may not subject themselves to the same calculations, embedding themselves in civilian neighborhoods, in hospitals or schools — turning them into military redoubts, hence targets — or by using human shields or civilian combatants. It will likely be impossible to distinguish between innocent civilians and combatants. Urban warfare will necessarily result in a substantial number of civilian victims, including those who die of otherwise preventable diseases, starvation and increased crime rates as people try to survive or profit from the chaos.
There will also be human-rights abuses. Abu Ghraib taught the U.S. military some painful lessons about command and control down to the unit level. The principle of proportionality is likely to be observed only by the allied side, if at all. Successful combat cannot be subjected to the ex-post-facto micro-judgments of Article II judges, no matter how deeply the principles of respect for human rights is ingrained in the U.S. military. The rules for asymmetric warfare probably need to be rewritten; certainly they need to be reviewed. For these reasons, "do no harm" and "use of force" constitute a contradiction in terms. Indeed, "do no harm" is a recipe for inaction, which has its own implications for harm.
The United States should avoid unilateral engagements and intercessions. It needs international and, especially, regional partners, if only to share the burden and soften the suspicion that any U.S. intervention is motivated by selfish interests inimical to the region. Europe is the obvious international partner. Given the terrorism and migrations emanating from the region into Europe, it has more at stake than does the United States. But Europe is preoccupied with compelling challenges of its own: the financial and banking crises, the fiscal and social dislocations in the south and west, the rise of populism, Brexit, Russia, the simultaneous need for stronger fiscal integration — but the growing public doubts about further integration, about the transfer of sovereignty to pan-European institutions, indeed about "the Europe project" and its political and economic cohesion and character more broadly. Europe would likely turn inward except that its anxiety about terrorism and migration emanating from the Middle East, which animated the formation, design and construction of its Neighbourhood Policy, inevitably draw it into the region. Despite its internal preoccupations, Europe remains the best partner for long-term solutions in the Middle East, even as it approaches the region with uncertain objectives, conflicting policies and diminished capabilities. Regional partners are weaker and even more likely to have national or parochial interests that complicate their participation and the perceptions of their involvement by local populations and actors.
Notwithstanding the "squeaky wheel" adage and the impulse to focus on the problem immediately at hand, long-term priority should go toward safeguarding the viable states in trouble but not yet imploding (Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt) and even making progress (Tunisia), together with the Gulf states — if they undertake necessary reforms.
Most states badly need to forge some fundamental consensus or social contact governing their basic character, the relations among their various constituent elements, and their institutional arrangements. This is a region in which no one seems to be able to conceive of any arrangement other than a unitary state with a very powerful central government brooking little, if any, disagreement and dominated by one of its constituent elements, which protects its power and denies rights and authorities to the other elements. This is no longer acceptable. Lebanon is the exception and, like the Lebanese, other local and international players must at least consider confederation or federation — even possible cantonization — as paradigms offering potential solutions or at least outcomes. Territorial integrity may be the casualty, but consensus over the internal structure, functions, institutions and principles is the only real hope to protect that integrity. A unitary state, particularly with a strong central government, is not the only option and often not even the best one.
It should not be surprising if most of the states in the region adopt contracts with provisions and interpretations, for example of sharia law, which is anathema to the United States and its Western allies regarding killing, flogging, the treatment of women, homosexuality, the law of thievery, robbery and amputation, adultery, blasphemy and the like. However, the adoption of these laws and their enforcement is not a casus belli. The United States will have to find other mechanisms and approaches for affecting these concerns.
Ambiguity can often serve diplomacy, but not if it leads to critical misunderstandings about core national interests and the means to advance them. In the Middle East, greater clarity is essential when the United States intends to convey decisive intent and actual "red lines," the crossing of which has serious consequences, including the use of military force. Ambiguity has already led or contributed to the war in Iraq and misunderstandings in Syria. It has also led to disillusionment by Russia and China with UN-supported "humanitarian" intervention in Libya, a disillusionment that may well condemn the UN authorization for future humanitarian aid to their Security Council vetoes.
Several states are at risk of immediate implosion or are already imploding. Containing or reversing state fragility will require, at a minimum, a negotiation among the constituent parts of a social contract, including the possible revision of basic institutions, frameworks, principles and processes. These are extremely difficult negotiations involving basic features, commitments and identities. They are inherently internal, but a mediator acceptable to all parties may be able to assist, at least by providing alternatives when negotiations break down, as they inevitably will. The United States could and should offer itself but is unlikely to be considered disinterested enough to be acceptable or useful. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Chile and perhaps South Africa or Nigeria may well be more acceptable, even though, or perhaps because, they are not global powers with immediate stakes or historical baggage. If the United States can facilitate such a process, it should.
Every country in the region, with the possible exception of the Gulf states, suffers from deficient economic performance. That deficiency can be addressed only by better policies and performance, diversification, greater globalization, improved education in basic sciences and mathematics, and substantially reduced corruption and patronage as well as, in almost all cases, by sociopolitical and economic reforms. These are sclerotic countries requiring, in this sphere too, fundamental realignments and structural revisions. If the elites are prepared to commit to such reforms, the United States and other countries — and perhaps, more acceptably, multilateral institutions, especially the multilateral banks — could provide technical assistance to help design and effect them. Foreign direct investment would follow but cannot lead, absent a more attractive and conducive climate to which these reforms are a necessary but insufficient part. Political will is the key and is, unfortunately the resource in shortest supply.
These two ingredients would reduce, though not eliminate, the prevalence of terrorism, violent rebellion and religious extremism, which should also be confronted directly.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
My first question is to try to elicit some amplification on the question of Russia and to ask if it is necessary for us to be trying to counter Russian influence in the region. If the answer is yes, then how? If not, why not? What can we realistically expect from efforts to create détente?
AMB. FREEMAN: Russia is a regional power, no longer a world power in any respect, except for its possession of the ability to destroy us and the world with nuclear weapons, which is not a trivial element of Russian power. And precisely because of Russian weakness in conventional terms, the threshold for Russia to make use of nuclear weapons has steadily fallen. If you listen to our elders — Secretary of Defense William Perry and others — they are making a case that the world, in fact, is now in an era of unprecedented danger of crossing the nuclear threshold. All of this is to say, before you start talking about getting into armed confrontations with Russia, which we assiduously avoided during the Cold War — we only fought proxy wars — you should be very, very careful. That is the first point.
The second point is that historically, because of its geographic location, Russia has exercised a role in the Middle East. Fifteen percent of its population is Muslim and has historic ties to the Middle East, including other religious communities that are tied to the Russian Orthodox Church. The recent past has been an anomaly in that regard. It's not that Russia has suddenly pushed into the Middle East. It is now back. It is back as an actor and has to be taken seriously. It is part of the solution, as well as part of the problem, in many, many instances.
The third point is that much of the discussion in this town proceeds as though the United States were still the undisputed hegemon in the Middle East, that we have the power to command client states, that they dutifully follow our direction, and that we can direct events. That is not so. We now are one actor among many, most of them regionally based. The Saudis are doing their own thing, the Israelis are emphatically doing their own thing, the Iranians are doing their own thing, the Turks are doing their own thing, non-state actors are doing their own thing, and the Russians are, too. So Russia is part of an increasingly complex order in the Middle East in which we no longer call the shots, and we need help. We need the cooperation, or at least the acquiescence, of others, including Russia, to do things.
So my answer would be that there is no inherent reason to oppose Russia, other than residual Cold War enemy-deprivation syndrome; that there is, in fact, ample reason to want to deal with the Russians; that the recent severance of communication with the Russians about Syria is a grotesque diplomatic misplay that will lead to nothing except more trouble; and that, finally, the sooner we restore such communication and dialogue, the better off we'll all be.
MR. HYMAN: First of all, Ambassador Freeman, you talked about humiliation with respect to the various different extremist and terrorist groups. But I think that is an element as well in the U.S.-Russia relationship. In my opinion, over several administrations after 1991, both Republican and Democratic, we mishandled Russia. Instead of treating Russia as a global player, we just ignored it. We let the Russians sit in their own little corner nurturing their degradation. I think that was a very costly mistake that could easily and cheaply have been avoided. We could simply have included them as if they were — as they are — a major player.
I think that is a lingering element in the way President Putin is comporting himself now. Sometimes people say, why are we personalizing Russia? Well, it's a little hard not to personalize Russian policy when all of the elements of institutional power in Russia are being absorbed into the hands of one person. It's not surprising to conflate the country and the person; there's nothing else there. Putin, I think, feels this humiliation particularly pointedly.
I would include a discussion with the Russians very early on in any consideration of the use of military power by the United States or any other elements of U.S. policy, and try to clarify what Russia's interests are, what its objectives are, and what our objectives are, what their capabilities and our capabilities are, then ascertain the extent to which they align with one another and to what extent there are going to be differences. To the extent that there are similarities, how can we work together? To the extent there are differences, how can we find a way to deal with them short of a confrontation?
It seems to me that Syria is such a case. I think the president would argue that he did try to get the Russians to agree about what was going to happen in Syria with respect to its participation against Daesh and what it was or wasn't willing to do on behalf of Assad. But we backed ourselves into a corner by saying so publicly and emphatically that Assad has to go, and that's the cornerstone of our policy in Syria. It is a policy that was not congenial to Russia. Therefore, it is not surprising that we wind up where we are.
One last point. I think Putin has made it clear that he has no particular love for Assad, nor does Assad personally have to be a part of the solution. But we need to understand, it seems to me, that in Syria, Assad and the Alawites are in what they believe to be — I think correctly, unless there are some alternative interventions — an existential battle. They cannot lose. If they lose, they will be wiped out. The others are going to do to them what Prime Minister Maliki did or tried to do to the Sunnis. So they are not in a position to bargain very much, absent guarantees for their long-term security. That does not necessarily have to include President Assad personally, but it does need to include their interests and Russia's, including what President Obama called a "mediated transition," not necessarily one in which we fly in, take Assad, and dump him someplace.
MR. GOLDENBERG: One, I agree, that we shouldn't inherently be opposing Russia in the Middle East for the sake of influence. We should work with them when our interests overlap; when our interests contradict each other, we need to contest them. A good example is the nuclear deal with Iran, where we worked closely with the Russians. I spent a lot of time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. We have generally worked well with the Russians on that issue as well.
In Syria, we have some fundamental disagreements though I think we have a lot of overlap in terms of our objectives and things we don't care if the Russians keep. They want to have a naval base in Tartus? Fine. They have their own deep relationships with some of the minority groups in Syria long term? Fine.
The operation they're executing right now, in Aleppo, is perpetuating a long-term extremist safe haven in northwest Syria, and it comes with a safe haven that could end up being more dangerous than ISIS — in addition to a horrendous humanitarian toll. I think you have to look at ways to contest that. You can keep negotiating, but also be willing to at least signal the possible use of military force, or try to find ways to leverage some of the dynamics. The other thing to remember here is, yes, it's true, we're not the sole superpower in the Middle East.
I think Vladimir Putin changed everyone's calculus in the Middle East with 24 airplanes. That's what he put into Syria. The United States is not taking the same approach in the Middle East, but we still have a lot more manpower in the region and a lot more resources than anybody else. We may not be a sole superpower, but we are the first among equals. So there's more leverage that we can use militarily.
During the Cold War, we assiduously avoided direct military confrontation, but we found ways to play brinksmanship, instead of backing away at every step and being afraid that anything we do is going to cause the Russians to go nuclear. If we had conducted ourselves during the Cold War as we conduct ourselves in the Middle East today, we would be nowhere.
There are places where we have to push more and accept more risk in how we deal with the Russians, because I think we have a lot more leverage than we're giving ourselves credit for.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Ilan's made an important point about the new world disorder in which we live. We don't have any allies. We don't have any enemies. There are countries with whom we can cooperate on specific issues and whom we must oppose on other issues. And, by the way, we don't have any allies in the Middle East. There's no one with a reciprocal obligation to us. We have protectorates. We have extended protection. We have clients. And that's an important distinction. All too often in the Middle East we have allowed our clients' interests and their values to supersede our own judgment.
I also agree with Jerry. The key reasons to maintain a diplomatic dialogue are to gain intelligence on what the other side's reasoning and probable actions are likely to be, to convey a sense to the other side of your own intentions and capabilities and what you might do, and thereby to caution them. Much as the military adage has it, never lose contact with the enemy on the battlefield, one should not lose diplomatic contact with other powerful actors either. You have an opportunity, of course, if you're in direct dialogue, to try to persuade the other side that they should do things your way instead of the way they initially conceived. So all these things are important reasons for sustaining dialogue with the Russians and not doing the teenage sulk in the tent that Mr. Kerry the other day was driven to.
Finally, it's not up to us to decide the role of Assad in Syria; it never has been. When we attempted to do so, we discovered, to our horror, that he actually has significant support, not just among the Alawites, who face the existential challenge that Jerry mentioned, but among Christians, secular Sunnis, Druze and others, who may not like him but fear the alternatives far more than they fear him.
Mr. Assad has shown in the course of the last five-and-a-half years that he's not going to be dislodged. So he's part of the future of Syria. What part is up to the Syrians to decide. I go back to my original thesis that we should be focusing on war-termination strategies, answering the question, how does this end? And before we do anything — I couldn't agree with Jerry more on this — we should ask, and then what? The failure to do that is what's gotten us into the deep hole that I agree with Jim we've dug for ourselves.
Q: No one seems to realize that the dialogue is about to resume on Saturday. It wasn't in The Washington Post today [October 13]. You had to look really deep into The New York Times to realize that Kerry, Lavrov and the Turkish, the Saudi and the Iranian foreign ministers are all going to meet in Lausanne on the side. Some adult crept into the White House earlier this week and told the president, look, you've got to put your foot down and tell Kerry to knock it off. You've got to tell Ash Carter to knock it off, so that there won't be a dust-up with the Russian forces in Syria. That's good news.
DR. MATTAIR: Everyone has referred to this: Do we need to contain the expansion of Iranian influence in the Arab world? It's not something we attempted to achieve in the negotiations on the nuclear agreement, but we did tell our Gulf Arab partners that we were committed to doing that. It is clearly something that they look at in Syria and Yemen and worry about. Since Russia and Iran are basically working together in Syria, how do we deal with the combination of forces there?
AMB. FREEMAN: This is where, in part, I disagree with Ilan's characterization of the recent past. I don't think the United States has been withdrawing or giving the impression of less involvement in the Middle East. I think we have come to realize on all sides that our interests have diverged. We do not share the interests of the countries that we call allies — which are clients, basically — to the extent we once did. For the Gulf Arabs, the principal objective vis-à-vis Iran is precisely to limit and, if possible, roll back the gains in Iranian political influence we inadvertently catalyzed with our invasion of Iraq. That is precisely the objective. For Israel, the objective is the nuclear neutralization of Iran, not Iranian political influence, although they would very much like to break the Lebanese connection with Iran.
So we have different interests. I don't think the United States inherently has an interest in limiting Iranian influence. That is an interest we may or may not choose to promote because of other considerations. I would think the long-term objective of the United States in the Gulf should be to try to broker some measure of détente between Riyadh and Tehran and resume a position between the two that gives us influence and freedom of maneuver with both. But we're a very long way from that, and getting there will not be easy. There are enormous suspicions of us, some of them caused by mishandling the red-line issue and so forth, or Mubarak's overthrow. But I think that ought to be the objective for the long term.
How do we get there? We need to work with countries like Saudi Arabia, not against them. We need to exercise diplomacy, which sometimes I wonder whether we remember how to do — persuading other countries that we understand their interests, that we share those interests, and that we're prepared to work together to further those interests, but that perhaps they need to adjust their own view of their interests.
MR. GOLDENBERG: First, on Iran, our first interest is, in my view, preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon, not just because of the implications in the region, which all become a lot worse if they get a nuclear weapon, but because we have broader interests beyond Iran in terms of the nonproliferation regime, the consequences of loose nuclear material and things like that — the knock-on effects. That is why I think we made it the first priority. I think that was the right thing to do for American interests. Not necessarily for our partners, who still care about the nuclear question, the Israelis more than the rest. The Gulf states also worry about the nuclear question, but it's a question of what you prioritize first, Iran's regional behavior or the nuclear question. I also agree with Chas that a long-term objective should be détente. I worry though; you don't come into these situations with a clean slate. You have previous and past behavior, the relationships that we've built over all these years. Some of our regional partners have a concern that we are pivoting to Iran, that we are moving away. We need to convince them otherwise. It doesn't mean we want a long-term confrontation with Iran, but we're also not abandoning our friends. As long as they're convinced that that's what we are doing, they're not going to cooperate with us on anything. They're going to become more insecure, which makes it harder to get them to the table for that détente.
So in the short term, I would argue that you need to actually find ways to work with the Gulf states, with Israel, with others to push back on Iranian behavior in ways that send a clear signal to our friends, and to the Iranians, of lines that we will protect. Iran wants no part of a direct military confrontation with the United States. This doesn't require active use of military force. It requires taking some of the tools that already exist in the region and talking about them a little bit differently.
If you conduct a major exercise, you spell out publicly that this is at least partially about not just regional security, but about dealing with the Iran problem, concerns about Iran's behavior in the Strait of Hormuz, where you have a lot of IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] navy forces, small boats that act relatively irresponsibly. So there are things that you can do that can, I think, get through to Tehran and also to Riyadh.
Then, even as you do it, you keep channels of dialogue open with the Iranians in areas where we do have common interests, like Afghanistan, counternarcotics, communications to avoid unintended naval escalation. I think of the Iran approach as both engagement and pushback at the same time. It's the only way that you're actually going to get results.
DR. MATTAIR: Can you be specific? Earlier you mentioned interdictions of arms supplies to Yemen, and there have been Iranian efforts to supply arms to Shia in Bahrain. We've already done these interdictions. What signal has been received?
MR. GOLDENBERG: Part of it is a difference in publicity. What the Israelis do every once in a while is to take all the weapons off the ship, take pictures and send them around to everyone in the world. We don't do that, but we could do something more direct.
In Iraq, when we thought the level of escalation and the danger to our forces was getting unacceptable, on occasion we would do a combination of specific steps quietly, underground, to roll some guys up. You combine it with a firm message: Knock it off; you're going too close. In the case of the Strait of Hormuz, in 2012, Iran conducted a bunch of exercises there. Secretary Panetta came out and said, this is a red line. That show of force was coupled with some private messages to the Iranian regime. Very clearly and very quickly, you saw a pull back.
There are many tools that we have at our disposal. If the next president, for example, were to go to the CIA and the Defense Department and say, give me a set of options for how we can tie all these things up, those are the types of things you can get. Even as you do things like that, you leave the dialogue channels open. There's no reason you can't do both.
AMB. SCHMIERER: On the topic of Iran, I feel I should comment, since I was U.S. ambassador in Oman when we began our diplomatic engagement with Iran there. Seeing my friend, Ambassador Al-Mughairy of Oman here, it reminds me that we and our friends in Oman, at that time, were very successful in launching a diplomatic initiative that I think has brought great positive change to the region. It has been discouraging, as many of our panelists have mentioned, that this effort, which was simply to ensure that Iran did not get a nuclear weapon, has been misinterpreted as somehow our partnering with Iran against the other countries in the region. As has been said many times, this is not the case.
The other part of what we did through the diplomatic initiative was to rebalance or restate our position towards Iran as a country. We moved away from the idea of regime change as our policy to simply trying to counter Iran's negative behavior. As Ilan has mentioned, and as all of us who have served in the region and who read the intelligence reports are aware, we do a lot of countering of Iranian malign behavior. It just doesn't get the publicity, as Ilan has mentioned. So I think the repositioning of our engagement with Iran has been a success. It's been misunderstood and misinterpreted, but I think it's an area where we have had, both in our own right and with our friends in Oman, a diplomatic success, which I would like to see repeated elsewhere in the region.
MR. ZOGBY: When we do polling on attitudes toward Iran in the Arab world, there was a time in the 2006-08 period when Iran was polling in the 70-80 percent range. Saudis were giving Iran a 78 percent favorable rating. We asked, name three leaders not from your own country that you most respect. In Saudi Arabia, the top three were Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Ahmadinejad. This, in the seat of Sunni Islam. What accounted for that? They were angry at America and at their own government for being an ally of America, while in 2006 Lebanon was devastated. Now those numbers have plummeted. I wrote a book based on our polling a few years back, The Rise and Fall of Iran in Arab Public Opinion. It clearly has been a precipitous decline.
When we poll businessmen in the Arab world, on the other hand, they look at Iran and see a potential partner. They look forward to that relationship. So should we engage with Iran? Of course. The question is, what have we done on the other side? The fact is, very little. I hate the conversation about the Arab states, "We don't need their oil anymore so they're no longer an interest of ours." The Arabs thought there was a human relationship.
They've come to discover that there wasn't one. If you listen to the speeches at the 2008 Democratic convention, the main topic was this: we will free ourselves from Arab oil, as if that was the issue that faced us in the Middle East — or if that were even possible. We wouldn't need it, but our allies in Europe would need it, as would the rest of the world. If you had no Arab oil, or if it was no longer secure, the world economy would go kaput and we'd all pay the price. Mattel toys would cost a whole lot more to import to America if China didn't get the oil for the petrochemical industry to build those little plastic toys for our children.
During the entire period, particularly during the Bush era but continuing into the Obama administration, our relationship with the Gulf states was a continuing series of slights. It's taken a real toll. It's not just the Iran deal. It was that we treated them in ways that were very disrespectful, as if the relationship were one-dimensional: we need your oil, you need our protection, period.
I'm still concerned about that; you cannot build trust just by snapping your fingers. Trust has been eroded and destroyed throughout the Gulf region. And it's not just the series of policies. Of course, those policies accent the lack of trust. You pass JASTA. You do the Iran deal. You draw a red line, you turn your back on Mubarak. If you add them all together and don't cultivate the human relationships, you create a problem.
One of the recommendations I think President Obama has a couple months to do, is to ease the way for Secretary Clinton by putting those relationships on a little better footing. She shouldn't have to start from scratch. Frankly, there is no trust. We have to recognize that. Why did they do Yemen? Because they don't have trust or confidence in us. They feel betrayed. They were kind of acting out, to back us into a situation where we had to defend what they did. It hasn't worked for them. It certainly hasn't worked for the Yemeni people, who've paid a horrific price.
On the issue of Iran, there's also a reason countries in the region have a concern. It has exported violence. It has exported insurrection. It has exported disruptive behavior that is threatening to many countries in the Arab world. It doesn't mean the Arab countries that have been victims of it have always behaved well. Bashar al-Assad hasn't played well. Saddam Hussein didn't play well. There has been oppression of minority groups, majority groups, Shia communities. But Iran has exploited that for their own interests and been a destabilizing force. And they continue to project that revolution.
It always intrigued me that Netanyahu would get into this bitter dispute with Ahmadinejad when they actually both needed each other, to pump up the threat. The real victims of this were the Gulf Arabs. Ahmadinejad would say he was threatening Israel, but he really was saying to the Arabs across the water: Look at me. I am standing up to the West. I am standing up to Israel. And your own leaders aren't.
So Arabs feel they have paid a price in terms of what they've done for America. Yes, they've gotten protection, but they also gave a lot. They reduced oil prices. They stabilized the market and paid a price for being the central bank for oil. When they continued to support the United States throughout the Iraq War, they paid a horrific price. At one point, I was speaking to an adviser to then-crown prince, later King Abdullah, during the Bush-Kerry race. He called me the night of the election and said: Do you think Kerry can still pull it out? I said, why would you care? Kerry's spoken very ill of you. He said: We'd rather have an American president who hates us than an American president our people hate.
They need the relationship, but they've paid a price for maintaining it. None of us have faced the fact that for the last several years — well over a decade — people in the Gulf region have wanted a relationship with America but have felt abandoned by it. The relationship needs to be healed, so that we can build the kind of OSCE model we'd like to see in that region. But it's not going to be built unless there's trust, and that doesn't exist right now.
DR. MATTAIR: Chas, this is a quote from an article you wrote recently. You were talking about cooperation between the United States and Iran: "It would have to be conducted in such a way as to reassure their respective clients and friends by avoiding or limiting adverse effects on their vital interests." Given what the Saudis and other GCC states think their vital interests are with respect to Iranian expansion, how do you do that? How do you create a détente that they don't think jeopardizes them?
AMB. FREEMAN: Let me begin by saying that I agree completely with Jim that the issue between the United States and the Arab world is an issue of relationship management. I'm fond of recalling that Crown Prince Abdullah, in Saudi Arabia, when my deputy, Dave Dunford, asked him to do something that really made no sense at all in terms of Saudi interests, said: I guess a friend who doesn't help you is no better than an enemy who does you no harm. And I will therefore help you.
That sense, on the Arab side, that there was a relationship with the United States that deserved to be tended, nurtured, valued, respected and acted upon is gone. I think one of the reasons it's gone is, frankly, that the American side consistently approached these countries on a transactional basis. What's in it for me? When we didn't want something, we didn't come calling. We didn't sustain the relationship. That's a fundamental barrier to our moving forward in any direction; it has engendered huge mistrust and lack of confidence.
In the case of Iran, I agree with Ilan very much that there sometimes has to be firm pushback, as well as attempts at seduction. There have to be carrots as well as sticks. But my concern is that we've been very heavy on sticks and quite short of carrots. And that our policies — the ones we have been talking about here — with Iran have been entirely military. They don't include political and economic dimensions. That is, in fact, a criticism of our overall strategy in the Middle East. It's all military all the time, and it doesn't include addressing political and economic issues.
A final point on Iran: That part of reassuring our partners in the region about what we're doing with Iran is helping them to understand the reality that Iran doesn't want rapprochement with us across the board. Iran sees us as more problem than opportunity. They made that very clear after the signing of the nuclear accord, when they said: We're first going to concentrate on our relations with our neighbors, and then we will think about what to do with the Great Satan over there on the other side of the world. I think, in effect, much of the agitation on the part of the Gulf Arabs on this question is unjustified. Part of the dialogue ought to be directed toward coming to some common understanding of what the real possibilities or dangers are. I think we would find that their professional intelligence people, and ours, actually more or less agree and that the politicians are making up stories, as they usually do.
MR. HYMAN: I completely agree with what Jim said. Human relationships and honor are particularly prized in the Arab world, and in other places as well. Every human being, I think, has a concern about those human relationships and his or her own honor. When we fail to take those things into account, even at the geopolitical level, we often misjudge the solutions we propose. I think it is important to understand that, at least at the governmental level, Iran is doing things that are not in our interest or our partners'. And we shouldn't just whitewash that. The question is how we deal with it. It seems to me that, number one, we ought to distinguish between our vital interests and our lesser interests.
Our vital interest is naval passage through the Strait of Hormuz. We will not allow our own ships or those of any other country to be impeded by Iran and its navy. If that means military force, so be it. That passage is a vital interest to the United States and globally. That's why I was trying to distinguish before between our vital and lesser interests. Secondly, we have a vital interest in the nuclear-proliferation problem, not just in Iran but elsewhere.
Regional behavior, to me, falls into a secondary category. We should be addressing Iran's regional behavior where it affects us, our interests and those of our partners, but not necessarily in a confrontational matter. We ought to seek ways much more subtle, much more secondary than military engagement, to try to counter some of the kinds of things that Iran is clearly doing — not only to us, but, more important, to some of our partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has to worry about a very large Shia population in some very important strategic areas. No wonder the Saudis are worried about Iran. They are worried that their own stability and economy are at risk. We need to understand that, and to make sure the Iranians understand that.
I regret more than most of you, because I worked with its staff a lot, the demise of USIA — a huge institutional mistake in my opinion, and a great loss. USIA was one of the ways in which we tried to influence other people's behavior through nonmilitary means. It seems to me we need to pursue ways like that, short of a military confrontation, to counter some of the negative regional behavior that Iran is engaging in.
DR. MATTAIR: There's one more issue we need to get to. I was listening recently to someone who's had many years of involvement in our Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts. And he said, no one with a functioning brain could still think the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a national interest of the United States. This was a disappointing comment, from my point of view.
Where is the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict? How important is it relative to these other conflicts? People can argue — and I think, Jim, you have — that it remains one of the causes of anti-Americanism and terrorism. I believe you also said in your remarks here that if we were to successfully resolve that, it would send a signal to the Gulf Arabs about our commitment and actually help us deal with security issues in the Gulf. Was that your argument?
MR. ZOGBY: Last year, Rob Malley, speaking at the Haaretz conference in New York, was asked the question and said, I think rather wisely: No, solving this issue will not be the silver bullet that will make the Middle East at peace; but it will restore American relations with Arab countries, creating the trust we need to move forward. It's an important message to our partners that we actually can deal with the region with integrity, because it is such an evocative issue.
Throughout the entire time we were dealing with the Iran nuclear negotiations, I had this weekly television show. Not once did we talk about the Iran nuclear question that it didn't come up: What about Israel? We had no answer and still have none. It makes no sense to people, other than to show that we can never be trusted as a fair partner. So I would disagree profoundly with the idea that it is not in our national interest.
Leaders might not be as concerned, but people are. And leaders are sensitive to what people in that region think, whether we believe it or not. You will hear, the Saudis are having quiet talks with [Israel] — I don't know if it's true or not — but I know that if they're quiet, they're really quiet and they're going to stay really quiet. If they ever got public, the leaders would be disowned. They can't risk breaking with what they know is a profoundly held opinion in their own country. So it ought to be critical to us. It's also a question of our own honor and integrity.
We signed a $38 billion deal with Israel, and the guy slaps us in the face a couple of days later and announces new settlements. No, he says, it's not really new settlements, it's just on the next hill over from that settlement. And, oh, by the way, it extends right up into the middle of the West Bank, which means you've prevented that area from ever being contiguous. It will now be part of the line we've used, continued settlement activity is illegitimate. But once you build them, they're a reality and we have to accept realities. It's nonsense, yet, that's the hole we've dug for ourselves.
If we want to get out of that hole, we're going to have to draw a line. And, if you draw a line, you better stick to that line. Yet, our continued denunciations are just so much talk; they're never backed up with action. I think it's important for our integrity and our trustworthiness to rebuild our partnerships in that region, as well as to avert another crisis, because you and I know that on the horizon is another eruption in the West Bank or in Gaza. It will destabilize the region for months afterward, until things calm back down again and we wait for the next crisis to occur. We've had a war in Gaza every two years until just recently, going back to 2006. People don't remember that before the Lebanon war that there was a Gaza war in 2006. We could very well be heading for one again.
When it comes, everything else will be forgotten, all the other conflicts in the region. I can't tell you how many times in the last 40 years I've been working on this issue that I've read journal articles that say: Well, it looks like the Arabs have forgotten about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians don't mean anything anymore. Until the next eruption, and then once again it's front and center. It is, in their minds, the wound that never healed.
MR. GOLDENBERG: I agree, first of all, that there is tremendous benefit to Israelis, Palestinians, American perception in the region, of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. I think it is an American interest. But I just don't have the same optimism that Jim has about what it would do for us in the region. Here's my experience. In 2013 and '14, I was part of the very small U.S. negotiating team. I was Martin Indyk's chief of staff during that last round.
Early on, we asked the Arab and the Gulf states to support us by providing $600 million in additional new assistance to President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority to take some of the pressure off of him during these negotiations and create extra space for him to focus on the political piece. We got $150 million. That was the period right after the Sisi takeover in Egypt, and during that year, Egypt got $23 billion from the Gulf States.
So maybe the polling shows that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is big with the Arab world, but it's not clear to me at all that, in terms of priorities, this is where the Arab leaders are. It doesn't mean they don't care about it. It doesn't mean that in Israel now that you're going to somehow go around the Palestinians and have close relations with Saudi Arabia. I agree, that's not going to happen. And it's big for their politics.
But when they look at Egypt and at what's going on in Syria and in Yemen, and the issues involved with Iran, I just don't think the Arab leadership prioritizes the Palestinian issue.
MR. ZOGBY: Egypt is the hinge. It connects three continents. It's the cornerstone. They could not let it fail. So there's no equivalency. The other is that the Palestinian leadership is dysfunctional. In addition to that, what the "peace process" created was a dependency on foreign assistance. They cannot have an economy, because they can't import or export. Israel will not allow development in the West Bank and Gaza. Therefore, the Arab view — and they've said this to me directly when I've talked to them about it — is this: We have been put in the position by the United States that is asking us to subsidize the occupation by paying the Palestinians to continue to participate in a farce of a peace process, while Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank. The reason they didn't give the money isn't because they don't like Palestinians or don't think it's important, but it was just $600 million to give way to another $600 million to give way to another $600 million, when, in fact, if anybody ought to be paying the ticket, it's the United States. We're creating the conditions politically for that occupation to be sustained.
MR. GOLDENBERG: Maybe, but if they want to really get into the game, and something like this is happening, and they were all telling us that they were very appreciative of the fact that Secretary Kerry did this. They have had nobody like Secretary Kerry, I would argue, in the last 15 years, who was as dedicated to putting this issue above all else, even when a lot of other people are questioning why the secretary of state is doing so much. So the man asked for $600 million, and you have the capacity to give it, and you have a champion in Kerry who was willing to really put himself out there. Instead of making excuses or complaining about this and that the U.S. is doing, maybe there was another choice.
Just one last point on the Israelis. There is a balance we have to strike. On settlements, in particular, we should take a harder line in certain ways. But I also think that they're never going to do a deal unless they have confidence that we'll be there. You can objectively pull back, but there is an Israeli psyche that looks at the region and looks at how they feel, surrounded by different actors, and still has this tremendous insecurity, even when you pull back and look at the reality of their military and economic capacity compared to others.
So the United States has a very delicate role to play, where it needs to reassure Israel, to give it the courage to make the deal, while also pushing Israel when there is a problem, when it feels like Israel needs to go further. It's very challenging for us to do. And so we are constantly trying to modulate that through our policies.
AMB. FREEMAN: I'm not going to comment on the Arab-Israeli issue, although the $600 million figure rings in my memory. That was the amount we demanded after the Gulf War by way of compensation for lost tourism in Israel, and it was paid. This, in a war where we lifted all the resources of the Gulf Arabs that we could find. I collected $17 billion. Not bad for government work.
I want to make just one point that I think is important: There will be no starting from scratch for President Clinton. She has a lot of baggage and a record in the region. That isn't going to go away, and it's not particularly admired. So she will start behind Obama in every respect, except a willingness to use force against the Assad military.
Finally, I didn't answer your question about how you can reassure partners that you're not betraying them. There's a model here, which I personally was involved in. In 1972, when the President Nixon opened relations with China, the Shanghai Communique was issued. Eight pages long, it began with six-and-a-half pages that most people didn't understand, that said, very undiplomatically: The United States and China fundamentally disagree on everything in Vietnam, Korea, Kashmir, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then it said, notwithstanding that, we can cooperate to mutual advantage.
Why did we spend six-and-a-half pages saying that? Because we had to reassure our respective clients that we were not selling them out, that there were limits to what we were pursuing. This is a diplomatic problem that is resolvable by diplomats. So, if we want to pursue a limited rapprochement with Iran, for example, we can find ways to reassure people that it is, in fact, limited. And they can find ways of reassuring Hezbollah and Assad and other clients, or their Bahraini coterie, that they are not being sold out. It's resolvable. What we need is imagination, and something beyond purely military approaches. We need to try diplomacy.