Kenneth Pollack, Paul R. Pillar, Amin Tarzi, Chas W. Freeman, Jr.
The following is an edited transcript of the seventy-seventh in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on July 21, 2014, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
We chose this topic when President Obama gave his speech at West Point in late May of this year. He did say that the United States would use force unilaterally if our core interests were directly threatened. But he emphasized a counterterrorism strategy that would rely upon supporting, training and working with security partners and announced a $5 billion program to support security partners in the Middle East, having identified terrorism as the most direct threat to the United States.
Not long after that, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria moved down the Tigris River, and the Iraqi security forces retreated, raising the question of how much we can depend upon a strategy like that in Iraq or even in Afghanistan, where we will be leaving soon. He also said that Syria would be a major focus of this strategy. However, we've had a difficult time finding security partners there, because it's a very fragmented opposition and hard to vet and find moderates.
Another point that the president emphasized in his speech was our commitment to upholding international order through support for international institutions and international law. And he spoke about our multilateral sanctions against Iran and our multilateral diplomacy in that context. We know that the P5+1 negotiations with Iran were scheduled to conclude yesterday, but they didn't. They were extended for four months because everyone feels that some progress was made, enough to go forward and continue trying. What terms ought to be in a final agreement, and what would the United States have to consider doing if we don't get a solution we consider satisfactory?
I was struck by the fact that when President Obama talked about international order, international institutions and international law, he never mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But his support for Secretary of State Kerry's peacemaking was well known. Unfortunately, it did not succeed. He is said to be willing to try again before his term is over, but wanted the failure to really sink into the minds of the parties in the hope that they would come back to him with better ideas. Now, instead of that, we have the third escalation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip in the past five years. We know how they go and we know how they end. They don't produce agreements, they produce casualties. That is another situation that we should try to explore today.
KENNETH POLLACK, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution; Former CIA Military Analyst; Former Director of Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
When the Obama administration first took office, I had occasion to talk in a number of instances with different members of the administration about their Middle East policy. And that interaction has gone on ever since. What I consistently heard from the president's Middle East team was that the United States had consistently over-invested in the Middle East. That was their perspective on U.S. policy toward the region: the United States had needlessly squandered resources, time, energy, et cetera, on the region, and they were determined to fix that.
When I pressed them to explain their rationale, what I heard very consistently from them was a three-point argument. First, we Middle East experts and many other people had greatly exaggerated the importance of the Middle East, in particular had greatly exaggerated the capacity for things to go wrong there. They argued that the region really didn't need the United States to the extent that we Middle East analysts and other people seem to believe. What's more, some would go beyond that to argue that the United States was a major source of the problems in the region and that not only could the United States afford to disengage from the region; it would be better for the region if we had less to do with it.
They went on to argue that the Middle East simply wasn't that important; even if bad things happened there, they really wouldn't affect core American interests. Therefore, for all of these reasons, they felt that it was not just possible, but necessary, for the United States to pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the Middle East. We should instead pivot to other things, to Asia and, in particular, to dealing with the American economy. I think the president was right about this and that the president believed it was what the American people had elected him to deal with first and foremost.
At the time, I questioned many of these assumptions, but I think that we can see very clearly the underlying foundation of how the Obama administration, at least in its first four or five years, approached the Middle East in this basic philosophy, this basic set of sentiments about the region. Unfortunately, of course, this policy has run into some very significant problems since then. The first set of assumptions — that the Middle East wouldn't go to hell, that the United States wasn't necessary to keep it from going to hell and that the United States was in fact part of the problem rather than part of the solution — I think that that has been proven demonstrably false by the events of the last few years.
The region has gone to hell. And I say this as someone who wasn't exactly fond of George W. Bush's approach to the Middle East either. I never thought that in 2014 I would be looking at a Middle East that could somehow be worse than the Middle East of 2006, the nadir of George W. Bush's approach to the region. And yet, that's what I see. Iraq and Syria are in civil war. Libya is in civil war. Yemen is on the brink of civil war — probably is in civil war by most academic explanations. Lebanon has experienced all kinds of problems. The Arab Spring is dead. Egypt has returned to a dictatorship, at least temporarily. Any number of other problems are spreading all across the region. It is a deeply troubled place. Not to mention the point that Tom just made about having yet another Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza.
While I don't think that everything the Obama administration argued was wrong, I do think that the United States has certainly made its share of mistakes in the Middle East, and not only under the George W. Bush administration, although they certainly made more than their fair share of those mistakes. But it certainly is the case that the United States has often contributed to the problems of the region. Nevertheless, I think the weight of evidence on the whole is that the United States has helped solve the problems in the region more than we have worsened them, especially if you note the obvious contrary examples of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and certain other issues.
Even the Obama administration now recognizes this, and the best proof is the way they've been handling the Middle East in the last year or so. We've seen a very significant change in the Obama administration's approach to many different issues in the region. It started with the selection of Senator Kerry as secretary of state, our foreign minister, and his decision to pursue a new peace process between Arabs and Israelis, between Israelis and Palestinians. While that effort seems to have failed, and failed badly, nevertheless, he was willing to try. For the previous three years, the administration had wanted nothing to do with the problem, and this was the first indication that the administration was beginning, just beginning, to question some of those basic assumptions. It was recognizing that the region was not headed in a good direction. It was even threatening the last and most important of their assumptions, which is that problems in the region really weren't problematic for the United States.
I think we've seen since then a number of other important course corrections. The president's recent decision to allot $500 million for unknown purposes in support of the Syrian moderate opposition represents a very dramatic departure from his prior position on Syria. And now there are the recent efforts, since the fall of Mosul, on the part of Secretary Kerry and other Obama administration officials to become much more actively involved in Iraq's politics, to try as best they can to pull it back out of the civil war into which it has once again descended. I applaud those efforts, and I think that they are the right ones. I only wish that they had come quite a bit earlier.
In a piece in Foreign Affairs, I talked about this and about the fact that I had the strong sense that, while the United States had swung too far in one direction under George W. Bush — toward unilateralism, toward the militarization of its Middle East policy, toward a war on terrorism that encompassed and overwhelmed everything else going on in the region — I felt that the Obama administration had pushed the pendulum too far the other way, toward disengaging, toward simply walking away from the region and believing that whatever happened there wouldn't be too bad and wouldn't be able to hurt us.
Again, I think that the administration is recognizing that their early position has become unsustainable and is already tacking back in the other direction. But what I take away from that in particular is not just that we need to do better with some of the crises at hand — we do, and I'm glad to talk about them. In a number of those cases, while I dislike how the Obama administration handled them before we got there, in some of those cases I largely agree with how they've been dealing with them since we got there.
Iraq is a perfect example. I think the administration's Iraq policy was an unmitigated disaster. I think that it helped cause the civil war in Iraq. But since the fall of Mosul, with some tactical tweaks here or there, I think they have been by and large following the right policy.
Iraq in particular illustrates what we have to think about moving forward and what the Obama administration failed to recognize in its first four to five years: in the Middle East the old aphorism, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, is the best motto for the United States to follow. There were any number of occasions when the United States could have had an impact on Iraq that could have allowed it to avoid the current impasse at much lower cost, with much fewer resources, with much less commitment of time, energy and effort than what we may now have to sink into it if we are going to try to help them pull themselves out of civil war.
I think we missed important opportunities early on with Syria, and with Libya after the fall of Qadhafi. I think we missed some tremendous opportunities in Egypt, especially after the fall of Mubarak. Had we made a great effort with the government then, we might have helped President Morsi avoid some of his worst mistakes and perhaps even headed off the military coup that overthrew him and replaced him with yet another Egyptian dictatorship. Around the region, we can find other similar instances.
This brings me back to this essential focus, that the Middle East does need some help from the United States. But the more that we are engaged on a regular basis in the regular processes of diplomacy, trade, public diplomacy and military assistance in a whole variety of ways, the better we will be able to head off problems and prevent the kinds of crises we are now facing and the more influence and leverage we will have when the inevitable Middle East crisis does break out.
Looking forward briefly, I just want to say a few words about a couple of issues out there that we need to think harder about, in the context of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure. The first of these is the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is not what any of us hoped it would be. It's not what most Arabs hoped it would be. There are a lot of different reasons for that. But the desire for change on the part of a great many Arabs has not gone away. It has been stifled in many cases by the fear of what happened in Syria and Yemen and Libya and elsewhere. But the basic unhappiness that gave rise to these protest movements all across the Middle East hasn't gone away. Chances are, they will reappear; they will resurface at some point in the not-too-distant future. And we need to be thinking about what form they will take and how best to head off the potentially very negative manifestations of that pressure.
This goes back to an idea that I and a number of other people were advocating for long before the Arab Spring: the idea of reform rather than revolution. Here I would suggest that we take a look at Ambassador Freeman's former stomping grounds in Saudi Arabia. We don't see Saudi Arabia as a great beacon of reform. But, from my experience, the Saudis do, and that's been a critical element in allowing the royal family and the Saudi system to negotiate the Arab Spring without the same kind of unrest that we saw in other countries. I can remember speaking to Saudis at the time and hearing them say that, yes, while we have the same problems as Egypt, we don't need to do what the Egyptians did. We have Abdullah, not Mubarak, and Abdullah is moving us in the right direction. And for me, that's one thing to think about: even in the face of all of this chaos and all of this anarchy, the impetus for change is still there.
One useful role that we can play is in helping the remaining governments of the region, those that have not fallen into civil war, to think about how they can begin programs of reform that will at least begin to decrease the pressure, that will defuse the anger that led to the movements of 2011.
The last point that I wanted to make was on Iran. I'm still hopeful that we will get a deal with the Iranians. If we do, that would be by far the best outcome for us, for the Iranians, for our allies in the region. But, obviously, that hope has to be tempered by the realities that we've faced certainly over the past six months, but arguably over the prior 35 years. It is going to be difficult, and I think we need to start thinking now about what we might do if we don't get a deal with the Iranians. We also, by the way, have to be thinking about what to do if we do get a deal. That will be equally important. But I've been struck by how many people around town are already focused on that.
We also need to be thinking about the other side. I think this is going to be a very important debate. If we don't get that deal, many people are going to take it as a sign that the Iranians are now bound and determined to acquire nuclear weapons. They may be right. We probably won't know. But there's going to be a critical question of how we handle the Iranians and the rest of the world going forward. From my perspective, I think war is not a good option; it could be the worst of all options. But if we don't start to explore the alternatives and start to put in place the policy mechanisms and the pathways we might follow when the time comes, I fear that we will have no other good alternatives, and we will find ourselves pushed into another Middle Eastern war that we don't need. Just because I don't think that Obama has gotten it right — that he pushed too far toward disengagement — doesn't mean that going to war with Iran is the right way to center that pendulum either.
PAUL R. PILLAR, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution; Contributing editor, The National Interest; Former CIA Analyst
The title of this event is "Obama's Foreign Policy Vision and the Future of the Middle East." In my judgment, the "vision thing," as the elder George Bush referred to it, is overrated. It tends to be a thing that people like us, pundits and critics such as those of us sitting in the front of the room, like to deal with as a way to encapsulate and get our conceptual hands around policy. But any themes that would satisfy us in that respect would almost by definition be too simple — I would say simplistic — to be the basis for sound and successful U.S. foreign policy. The challenges out there are simply too complex and the U.S. interests at stake in facing those challenges are too multifaceted to boil everything down to a single vision in a bumper-sticker kind of way. That is certainly at least as true in the Middle East as elsewhere.
Successful foreign policies, including U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, I would suggest, are necessarily more ad hoc, and at least as much a matter of avoiding losses as scoring gains, than the sort of vision that would score high in the estimation of most critics. Foreign-policy strategy does not tend to get high marks for not doing certain things as opposed to doing certain things in response to a positive vision. But I would suggest that not doing certain things — or to put it differently, not screwing up — is at least as important in advancing and protecting U.S. interests in this region as doing things. Ken suggested a motto, the one about an ounce of prevention. Let me throw out an alternative motto, one not in conflict with it, but which you should consider as well: the Hippocratic principle of "first do no harm."
If you look back over the last few decades of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the U.S. interests that have been affected by it and ask yourself what particular things, where the United States had some control over them, have had the biggest impact, positively or negatively — in terms of American lives, resources, distraction from other interests and the legacy problems we're dealing with today — I would have to put squarely at the top of the list and squarely on the negative side, the launch of the Iraq War in 2003. As that example would indicate, not doing certain things and not doing harm is an important part of judging anyone's foreign policy, even though it doesn't get high marks from the vision people.
Mr. Obama's West Point speech did not get especially high marks from most of the critics, and it probably did not deserve them in terms of the usual criteria for assessing these things, as opposed to my criteria: The one stab the president seemed to take at a theoretical framework in the speech was deficient, in my view. He seemed to equate realism with isolationism, which was incorrect. Much of the rest of what he did say was consistent, however, at least implicitly, with what I would consider more of a realist view, and that's sound.
The president articulated several important principles that I think we ought to bear very much in mind. He talked about distinguishing our core interests from other lesser interests and explicitly made the point that that distinction is important in weighing what means we should use to pursue those interests. He also made very clearly the point that not every problem has a military solution. I think this particular point is one on which we see the sharpest difference or the greatest daylight between Mr. Obama and his most vocal critics here in Washington. I suspect that Mr. Obama himself probably privately regrets, as he looks at the current mess in Libya, the role that the United States played in the use of military force there. I might be wrong, but that's just a guess regarding his private thoughts.
The president appropriately acknowledged the many tradeoffs between different U.S. objectives, even when dealing with a single Middle Eastern country, and he specifically used the example of Egypt. This is as good an example as any, in which we have interests having to do with democratization and human rights, but he also quite frankly said that we've got more strategic military interests. We can go on and on in detailing those, which involve passage through the Suez Canal and so on. He did not mention, I could also add, the Egyptian role in the current tragedy in the Gaza Strip that we've been reading about over the last week. But the point is, he's correct that there are conflicting objectives. It can't be all boiled down to one vision, even with a single country like Egypt.
The president made a good case, I thought, for collective action, the need to rely on what other countries and not just the United States do in this region, even when we're pursuing U.S. interests. I think this is another major difference with some of his chief critics, who seem to believe that if there is a problem out there, not only can it be solved, but the United States can and should be the one to solve it.
The president did not explicitly address, but I think we should, the basic criteria in determining cooperation or lack of cooperation with particular states in the region. We Americans have an unfortunate manichean tendency to divide the world, including countries in this part of the world, into allies on one side and adversaries on the other, a very rigid division, and to take that as the sole guide for determining whom we're going to cooperate with and whom we're going to oppose. The label gets slapped on some as "ally" as if that were a substitute for careful thinking about what the government of that country is doing that may conflict with or may advance U.S. interests. Conversely, we look at those who are traditionally labeled as "adversaries" and consider any influence that they might have as bad, without taking the trouble to ask ourselves how they will use that influence and to what purpose, which may or may not be consistent with or in conflict with our own interests.
There are a variety of conflicting and convergent interests with different states across the region, including those that are traditionally labeled allies and others that are traditionally labeled adversaries. The most effective foreign policy, I would suggest, in the region is a flexible one that is not chained to any one set of fixed relationships, but rather leaves our policy makers and diplomats to do business wherever it serves U.S. interests.
Mr. Obama in that West Point speech voiced some pretty conventional themes that didn't really distinguish himself clearly from his critics and seem innocuous enough, although some of them may carry the hazard of trapping him into acting against some of his own principles, or at least increasing the pressure on him to act in ways that are contrary to his own principles. He identified terrorism as the biggest threat to U.S. interests. We could debate that, but let's just accept that for right now.
The counterterrorist aid initiative that he announced is a worthwhile recognition of the principle I mentioned earlier of how what other countries do can be at least as effective as what we do ourselves in advancing our interests. Speaking as an old counterterrorist hand from the pre-9/11 days, I can tell you quite strongly that on the particular issue of terrorism, the United States must rely at least as much on the actions of others who are closer to the front line of dealing with terrorist threats and groups as on its own resources. But the enshrinement of terrorism as the prime threat — with the natural focus on the ogre of the day, in this case the group that's called itself ISIS — increases the pressure to act in a place like Iraq along the lines of those who believe that every problem can be solved by the United States and every problem has a military solution. This goes back against what the president was trying to articulate elsewhere in his address. We see some of the same things regarding Syria, too, even though the ogre there is on the same side of the overall civil war as those we would be assisting.
Still on terrorism, Mr. Obama mentioned in his speech what I thought were a very sound set of criteria in determining when to pull the trigger on a drone strike. But it still comes down to those individual decisions. And there probably is, with this administration at least as much as the last one — you can just count the number of strikes that we've had — a bias in pulling that trigger maybe more often than a careful consideration of the criteria the president voiced would dictate, because of the pressure to do something about terrorism.
A few closing thoughts. I think the best approach to U.S. policy in this region is somewhat akin to steering, to use another cliché, the ship of state carefully to avoid the rocks and shoals where it might crash. If we're thinking just about long-term vision, we may miss the rocks that are right in front of us, and there are plenty of them right in front of us in this region. That sounds a little bit like straight-lining; it is not imaginative about how can we change things for the better, and I'll grant that. I would identify two particular things that would be most likely to more fundamentally change what we're looking at in the Middle East and change it, in my view, for the better.
One is very unlikely, because the political courage here in Washington will not be mustered. The other is much more likely. The first one is to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to get that story off its tragic course, the tragedy of which has been emphasized by the events of the last week more than anything I can say. That requires not so much vision as a conscience and political courage.
The other thing, which is, happily, much more likely is the one that Ken finished his thoughts on, and on which I agree with almost everything Ken said: completing the nuclear deal with Iran. Besides being the best way to preclude any Iranian nuclear weapon, it would also, by opening the door to a more normal relationship with Iran, unshackle an important aspect of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East and enable us, as I suggested earlier, to do business with anyone labeled as an adversary or an ally where it serves our own interests. The fact is the Iranians are major players in a lot of places of high concern to us, even where we wish they weren't, like Syria. And there are other places where they are not only a major player, but their interests actually are quite parallel to ours in major respects, even though in other respects they would still conflict. I'm thinking of Iraq, I'm thinking of Afghanistan — to go a little bit farther east — as areas where neither we nor the Islamic Republic have an interest in endless conflict and instability, and which are on their borders and not on ours.
Finally, that kind of world in which we had a more normal relationship with Iran or were edging closer to it — I'm not suggesting any embassies are going to be opened up in the foreseeable future — would bring us closer to a system where we had more flexibility and leverage in dealing with anyone else in the region who is troublesome, whether they're labeled as an ally or an adversary.
AMIN TARZI, Director of Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University; Senior Fellow, Program on the Middle East, Foreign Policy Research Institute
Unlike my esteemed colleagues, I still work for the United States government, and I will be speaking here wearing my FPRI hat and not my Marine Corps hat. Whatever I say, it is Amin Tarzi speaking and not the Defense Department or any branch thereof.
I agree on some of the main points about the invasion of Iraq. Before I was a government person, I wrote that it was one of the greatest strategic mistakes in our country's history. I still stick to that opinion. But at the same time, I think — unlike any area of the world, and that includes even sub-Saharan Africa, which at one point was not doing so well — there is no place that has the problems the Middle East has. People are asking why. This has been going on for a long time; it's not new. Is the psyche of the Arabs and the Muslims the problem? Is it colonialism? Is it the Arab-Israeli affair? Some of us students of the Middle East studied it in the last century, literally.
Unless we address the causes in some ways, I think we go from crisis to crisis. Not that the United States can fix everything, I don't believe that, though I am a former Marine. I think everybody thinks that we can fix everything, but we cannot. Yes, we are a partner. We have interests there for the foreseeable future, despite our fracking and all that. We need to be in the region. We have interests that are interwoven with those of other countries in the region.
Consistency is important. When you talk to colleagues in the region, they are confused. The word I get is, if we are putting a policy forward to confuse them, as part of its implementation, we are doing a fantastic job. Friend and foe alike are confused; they have no idea what to do anymore. Maybe it's not a bad thing, but we are no longer the sole superpower, as we were right after the Cold War. There are rising powers. The United States, still the strongest power in the world, still the most looked-up-to power, is not seen as reliable. But we have to avoid the rocks, and try to have some predictability.
If you consider the foreign policy of President Obama, we have not only been inconsistent, but we have actually made the situation worse regarding the promotion of democracy. In the fiscal year 2009, the United States put more money into democracy than in the entire decade between 1991 and 2001. We spent more money in one year than in the entire preceding 10 years. Look at the input and the outcome. If you put this into a mathematical format or regard it as an investment, this was an amazing loss.
The other aspect is, are we looking for partners in the region beyond these temporary friends — or foes, for that matter? Iran is now, partly, both. Or are we looking at something that is a bit more stable? Is it possible? Yes. Look at Latin America a few years ago and at what's happening today. They're not all friendly. We have Bolivia and Venezuela, but there is still a much better process to deal with than what we have in the Middle East.
I'm not saying democracy is a panacea, but the inconsistencies about democracy are obvious, going back to the Cairo speech of 2009, then the 2010 West Point speech. With the exception of Tunisia, which is struggling, things have gotten worse in every case. The New York Times a while ago in an editorial called Egypt Exhibit A for its failure to support a democratic movement. We even called the ouster of Morsi — not that Morsi was any great person — the "restoration" of democracy.
If we're looking at this new generation coming up, whether it be in Afghanistan in the east or all the way to Morocco in the west, where are they going to look for help? During the Cold War, we always stated that we supported regimes for our security or because they were against communism, or after 9/11 because they were against terrorism. But now we have lost out on democracy and gaining these allies for the long term.
I think we have to have a balance between the expedient — avoiding the dangers that are in front of us — and the strategic. Policy has to be a balance bar. I think, when you look at the past few years, that is the missing piece. There are those who blame everything on the United States, including the weather. But that's not what I'm talking about. People demand to know where the president stands on every issue. If we removed every leader after a year in office because he mismanaged it and called him a terrorist the next day, the world would be without leaders. I'm not saying Morsi was a good president, but the events that went on in Egypt flew in the face of this democratic movement.
I will use the remaining time on two countries, Iran and Afghanistan. I agree that an agreement on Iran is a wonderful thing. An agreement whereby Iran stopped trying to develop nuclear weapons would be a great thing. Nobody is against that, at least I am not. The question that we forget is, why were they pursuing a nuclear potential? If anybody thinks that they were not pursuing weapons, I would argue against that. They were, or at least they were trying to tell us that they were. If they weren't, they were doing a great job of telling the outside world that they were trying to get a weapon system.
Why they mortgaged their country and came very close to having themselves be targeted, either by us or by a regional state, is the question. In my view, there's only one answer: The Iranians, including Ayatollah Khamenei and Mr. Rouhani, fundamentally believed and still do — even after President Obama's UN General Assembly speech of last September, when he said that the United States is not interested in regime change but change of behavior — that the number-one U.S. objective is regime change. They also believe, and this is where I become very worried as somebody who in a past life dealt with nonproliferation, that having nuclear weapons will alter America's actions towards you.
Iran is one of four countries that the State Department says are state sponsors of terrorists. Yet they sit down with the six top leaders of the world, four top democracies plus China and Russia. Why are they there? How did they get that seat at the table? Because they are nice guys? No! They cheated and they're being rewarded. They may actually get to keep their regime, a regime that kills more people today than Ahmadinejad did.
The question here is why Iran was going for nuclear weapons and why they are delaying the effort. Who is Mr. Rouhani? In my view, he is a regime savior. This is not the first time he's come to the fore; just look at his biography. We can discuss that in the Q&A if you want. Rouhani is there for one specific reason: The regime was hurting inside. Number one, there was a structural problem. The whole idea of velayat i-faqih, the rule of the jurisprudent, of the Iranian regime was crumbling, mainly because of Khamenei's 2009 support for Ahmadinejad.
Secondly, the sanctions were working. Here we have to praise the president's policies, the coalition building, the fact that Ahmadinejad was so easy to attack — calling the Holocaust a fable, saying that we're going to destroy everybody. It was easy to dislike him. Rouhani is sending Rosh Hashanah greetings from Iran to Jews around the world from his Twitter account.
I'm not saying Iran is going to invade anybody; don't get me wrong. I do not think Iran is going to invade anybody. I was just in Israel, and I told that to my Israelis friends in public. However, it is not that Iran has become a good guy. But we have to be looking down the road. Let's say, in November, we have an agreement. Then what? Does that include delivery systems? The question will then become, why? Khamenei will say that anybody who talks about their missiles or any other platforms is crazy. So, if a country is building weapons that are only useable for delivery of a specific type of warhead — i.e., a nuclear warhead — the question is, why?
Some people say an Iran with nuclear weapons will create a domino effect. I'll even say, if Iran gets an amazing deal, that will push a lot of countries in the region toward nuclear potential. They will think that alters U.S. policy towards them. Khamenei keeps on pointing at Libya, saying after Qadhafi was killed, "You fool, the Westerners gave you something, then you gave them everything and they killed you like a dog." Nuclear weapons get you a seat at the table with the big boys. I think it is dangerous, and it's going to come back to bite us if we don't watch out.
I'll add a thought on Syria. This chemical weapons use and then the agreement — which in itself is good, please don't get me wrong — has gotten Bashar al-Assad a lifeline. In a way, Bashar may have saved his regime by using chemical weapons. This is a very dangerous precedent. We have to make sure that we have an agreement that is solid, not just expedient at that moment.
On Afghanistan, it's the longest war we have ever fought in our history. Eighty-something countries have tried to democratize this country. We could discuss the merits and whether the constitution is good or bad, but that's too much for today. There was an election in April that was applauded. We all said, at least there was one place where things are going a little bit further in a good way. The elections were actually pretty open. Fingers were cut and all that, but people actually queued up. Great. Unfortunately, nobody won. Nobody won the 50-percent-plus-1 vote. So we went back to square one. The second time, pretty much everybody agreed it was a very fraudulent election. Secretary Kerry effected a miracle to at least have them talk. But right now, the problem as we speak is that nobody has agreed on the mechanics of how to count these votes. Yesterday was an agreement, but the details were missing.
I think for the last 10 years or so what we have done is build these Potemkin villages, these walls that look very good, but they have no foundation. If we are not careful, these walls will fall and not only on the intended people. They may fall on something bigger.
CHAS W. FREEMAN, JR., Chair, Projects International, Inc.; Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense; Former President, Middle East Policy Council
A while back, the United States set out to reconfigure the Middle East. The result is that the region and our position in it are both in shambles. Much of what has happened seems irreversible. In the short time allotted to me, I want to talk about the region's dynamics. I will conclude with a few thoughts about what might be done but probably won't be.
To begin, if we are at all honest, we must admit that the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East — in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and, peripherally, Libya and Afghanistan — is a product not only of the dynamics of the region but also of a lapse in our capacity to think and act strategically. We have answered the end of the bipolar order that characterized the Cold War with a mixture of denial, strategic incoherence and inconstancy. False American assumptions and unrealistic U.S. objectives have helped create the current mess in the Middle East.
It is not news to anyone that American politics is uncivil and dysfunctional. We have a foreign-policy elite that has its head up its media bubble, prefers narratives to evidence-based analysis, confuses sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy, and imagines that the best way to deal with hateful foreigners is to use airborne robots to kill them, their friends and their families. We have leaders who can't lead and a legislative branch that can't legislate. In short, we have a government that can't make relevant decisions, fund their implementation, enlist allies to support them, or see them through. Until we get our act together at home, those looking for American leadership abroad will be disappointed.
At West Point, President Obama accurately pointed out that "our military has no peer." He sensibly added that "U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
True enough. Experience has amply justified hesitancy about the use of force. Our hammer blows in the Middle East were intended to showcase our power. Instead, they convincingly demonstrated its limitations. These interventions worsened — not improved — the region's stability, politics and prospects. Our unmatched military prowess has not enabled us to impose our will in West Asia, in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. The record of covert action at solving political problems in all of these regions has been no better.
The question then is, what alternatives to the military hammer and related kinetic instruments of statecraft does the U.S. presidency now have? Normally, the answer would be the political screwdriver of diplomacy or other non-percussive means of influence, like subsidies and subventions. But there is a reason the Department of State is the smallest and weakest executive department of our government. The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences with other states. Gladiators trump diplomats anytime in terms of the spectacle they provide. And, even if they don't work, coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.
Then, too, aside from our reflexive militarism, we are broke. Our military commanders have walking-around money. Our diplomats do not. And the amateurism inherent in the spoils system further reduces the effectiveness of our diplomacy.
Jet-propelled seat-of-the-pants drop-bys with foreign leaders by secretaries of state have proven to be no substitute for either strategy or the patient cultivation of influence with those leaders or in their capitals. It's hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end. This includes our policies toward Israel and Palestine, democracy promotion, Egypt, Islamist terrorism, and stability in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant, Iran and the Gulf. Let me run very briefly through that list.
In April, our four-decade-long effort to broker a secure and accepted place for a Jewish state in the Middle East sputtered to a disgraceful end. In the tragicomic final phase of the so-called "peace process," instead of mediating, the United States negotiated with Israel about the terms of Palestinian capitulation, not with the Palestinians about self-determination. The U.S. effort to broker peace for Israel is now not just dead but so putrid it can't be shown at a wake. Israel didn't believe in it, so it killed it. May it rest in peace.
From the outset, Israel used the "peace process" as a distraction while it created facts on the ground in the form of illegal settlements. Israeli expansionism and related policies have now made Israel's peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians — and, thus, with Israel's Arab neighbors — impossible. The United States created the moral hazard that enabled Israel to put itself in this ultimately untenable position. Forty years of one-sided American diplomacy aimed at achieving regional and international acceptance for Israel have thus perversely produced the very opposite: increasing international isolation and opprobrium for the Jewish state.
We will now "cover Israel's back" at the United Nations as its ongoing maltreatment and intermittent muggings of its captive Arab population complete its international delegitimization and ostracism. We will pay a heavy political price for this stand globally, in the Middle East, and very likely in escalating terrorism against Americans abroad and at home. It may satisfy our sense of honor. But it more closely resembles assisted suicide than a strategy for the survival of Israel and our own position in the Middle East.
Americans like to have a moral foundation for policy. In the Middle East, and not just with respect to Israel, the geology has proven too complex to allow one. Take our professed desire to promote democracy. In practice, the United States has made a real effort at democratizing only countries it has invaded — like Iraq and Afghanistan — or those it despises — like Palestine, Iran and Syria. The rest we carp at but leave to their hereditary rulers, dictators, generals and thugs. When democratic elections yield governments to which we or our allies object — as in Algeria, Palestine, and Egypt — Washington contrives their overthrow and replacement by congenial despots. If democracy is the message, America is not now its prophet.
Our willingness to rid the region of troublesome democrats has appeased Israel and the Gulf Arab states. But it has greatly tarnished our claim to seriousness about our values. It has produced no democracies. But it has pulled down several before they could institutionalize themselves.
Egypt is a case in point. After raising hopes of a democratic Arab awakening and electing an Islamist government that proved to be incompetent, Egypt is now an economically sinking military dictatorship, distinguished from other tyrannies only by the grotesque parodies of the rule of law it stages. Not much we can do about this. U.S. concerns about Israel's security dictate support for Egypt regardless of the character of its government or how it put itself in power. America's Gulf Arab partners are committed to military dictatorship and suppression of Islamism in Egypt. It is hard to think of a place where a starker contradiction between American ideals, commitments to client states, and interests in precluding the spread of terrorism than in contemporary Egypt.
It's tempting to conclude that, if we're going to be hardheaded realists, we should just skip the off-putting hypocrisy about democracy and human rights and get on with it. That seems to be what we intend. How else is one to interpret the president's proposal for multiple partnerships with the region's security forces to repress Islamist terrorism? Today's Egypt is the outstanding example of regional cooperation in such repression. We have no other model to build on. But, by leaving no outlet for peaceful dissent, Egypt is forcing at least part of its pious majority toward violent politics. This risks transforming the most populous of all Arab countries into the world's biggest and most deadly breeding ground for Islamist terrorists with global reach. It's true, of course, that Egypt is not the only incubator for such enemies of America.
Americans went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. We found them and bred more. Some have already followed us home. Others are no doubt on their way. That's why we have an expanding garrison state. Our counterterrorism programs are everywhere nurturing a passion for revenge against the United States. We gave a big boost to the spread of Islamist terrorism when we invaded Iraq. Our stated purpose was to deny weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist to terrorists who weren't there. Having removed functioning government from Iraq, we thought we might as well engage in hit-and-run democratization of the place. So we replaced a secular dictatorship with a sectarian despotism. Not only did that not work; it set off a religious war that ultimately gave birth to the Jihadistan that now straddles the Syria-Iraq border.
What we did in Iraq has resulted in its breaking into three pieces. Now, in practice, we're working on dismembering the rest of the Levant. Israel is gnawing away at what remains of Palestine. A transnational coalition of jihadis is vivisecting Syria and Iraq. With our help, Syria is burning, charring Lebanon and scorching Jordan as it does. The Kurds are making their escape from the existing state structures.
The Syrian government is loathsome but we fear that, if — as we wish — it is defeated, it could be replaced by even more frightful people. Bombing can't prevent this, so in a triumph of magical militarism we propose instead to arm a force of mythical Syrian moderates. We expect this latest "coalition of the billing" to fight both the Syrian government and its most effective opponents while nobly refraining from making common cause with the latter or transferring weapons to them. Sounds like a plan for pacifying Capitol Hill, if not Syria. And if our objective is to keep Syria in flames, it's a plausible plan.
Perhaps that is what we really want. After all, the anarchy in Syria is a drain on Iran, which we have identified as our main enemy in the region. Destabilizing Syria arguably adds to the pressure on Iran to give up the nuclear-weapons program that Israel's and our intelligence agencies keep telling us it doesn't have and that Iran's leaders have said they don't want because it would be sinful. Our frequent threats to bomb Iran seem to be a devilishly clever test of its leaders' moral integrity. If we give them every reason we can think of for them to build a nuclear deterrent, will they still not do it? Judging from Friday's news, this experiment will go on for at least four more months.
This brings me to a key point of policy difficulty. We've repeatedly told people in the Middle East they must be either with us or against us. But they remain annoyingly unreliable about this. Iran's ayatollahs are against us in Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain but with us in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Assad regime and Hezbollah oppose us in Syria and Lebanon but are on our side in Iraq. The Salafi jihadis are with us in Syria but against us in Iraq and elsewhere. Israel's government is with us on Iran but against us in blocking self-determination for Palestinians while favoring it for Kurds. Saudi Arabia is with us on Iran and Syria but against us in Iraq. It was for us and then against us before it was for us in Egypt. It's against the Jihadistan in the Fertile Crescent but nobody can figure out where it stands on Salafi jihadis in other places.
How can you have a coherent strategy to manage the Middle East when people there are so damnably inconsistent? The answer is that outsiders can't manage the Middle East and shouldn't try. It's time to let the countries in the region accept responsibility for what they do rather than acting in such a way as to free them to behave irresponsibly. It's time to recognize that the United States can't solve the Israel-Palestine issue, can no longer protect Israel from the international legal and political consequences of its morally deviant behavior, and has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by continuing to be identified with that behavior. Israel makes its own decisions without regard to American interests, values or advice. It would make better decisions if it were not shielded from their consequences or had to pay for them itself. America should cut the umbilicus and let Israel be Israel.
It's time to stop pretending the United States assigns any real importance to democracy, the rule of law or human rights in the Middle East. We pay for gross violations of all three by Israel, support their negation in Egypt, and do not interfere in the politics of illiberal monarchies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Clearly, U.S. policy is almost entirely about interests, not values.
If that's the case, let's not violate our laws by dishonestly claiming that there have been no misuses of American weaponry by Israel and no coups, judicial horrors or severe human-rights violations in Egypt. We should not have laws that require us to be scofflaws. If the real interests of the United States in Syria relate to Iran and its contests with Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as to our new cold war with Russia, let's admit that and behave accordingly. This would mean axing the farcical format of the Geneva conference on Syria. That excluded key parties, making it a public relations stunt, not a serious effort to bring peace. Only if we include all the parties engaged in proxy wars in Syria, including Iran, can we hope to end the mass murder there.
It's time to do that for more than humanitarian reasons, compelling as those are. Ending the fighting in both Syria and Iraq is the key both to containing Jihadistan and to halting the further violent disintegration of the region. We should not be upping the ante in Syria by pumping in more weapons (many of which are likely to end up in jihadi hands). We should be trying to organize an end to external involvement in the fighting there and focusing on preventing the emergence of an expanding terrorist bastion in the Fertile Crescent and Levant that will serve as a homeland for the growing legions of enraged Muslims our drone warfare rallies to the black flag of Islamism.
The Jihadistan calling itself "the Islamic State" is a menace to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Distasteful as they might find it to work with each other, they have a common interest to discover. The new "state" was born of geopolitical and religious rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran and can only be contained by their cooperation. Depending on how U.S.-Iran relations develop, America might be able to help them do this. But, if the United States and Iran remain enemies, the obvious alternative for the United States would be to accept the inevitability of an expanded Salafi-dominated state that will replace much of the political geography in the region, to work with Saudi Arabia to tame extremist tendencies within such a state, and to yoke it to a regional coalition to balance Iran — as the Iraq that U.S. intervention destroyed once did.
Any and all of these approaches would demand a level of diplomatic imagination and skill the United States has not shown in recent days. The more likely outcome of our current blend of baffled hesitancy, diplomatic ineptitude and militarism is therefore that events will take their course. That means the growth of a credible existential threat to Israel, a prospective political explosion in Egypt, the disintegration of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria along with Palestine, and the diversion of a considerable part of the resources of these countries to terrorism in the region and against the American homeland. We can and should do better than this.
DR. MATTAIR: Ken, you spoke about missed opportunities. What do you think we could have done, if anything, in Iraq to get a better outcome than the one we have now? Do you think a greater effort should have been made to get a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that would have left Americans there to train Iraqi security forces? And Paul, maybe you could comment. You questioned the labels we put on people when we call them partners or foes. Is the al-Maliki regime really a reliable partner for the United States?
DR. POLLACK: I think the mistakes that we made and the missed opportunities are simply too legion to mention. I have been turned off by the blame game that's currently going on in Washington. I think the Obama administration's Iraq policy was dreadful. I think the Bush administration's Iraq policy was dreadful. Both of them contributed to the current state of affairs in very significant ways. Having gone over that history time and again, each time I find a mistake that Obama made, there is an antecedent that Bush made. And every time that there was a good move that either made, you can find it traced to a good move that the other made. Unfortunately, the latter are far fewer than the former.
But to my mind, one of the great lessons of Iraq — and there are many — and where I would like to see us focusing more energy is on this question of what lessons we should be learning as opposed to who was mistaken and who should be blamed for the current impasse. I think one of the greatest lessons was that, whenever we take on a problem anywhere in the world, but certainly in the Middle East, whenever we plan for the best, we get the worst, and when we plan for the worst we often do better than that. Sometimes we even get the best. The 1991 Gulf War comes to mind as an instance where you had a very conservative leadership that planned for all contingencies and did quite well. Obviously, it was not a perfect war — there was unfinished business there as well — but by planning for the worst case, they headed off a lot of potential problems there.
This is one of the issues that I have seen time and again with American approaches to the Middle East. This is what I've consistently seen from American policy makers: a sense that the Middle East is just too hard, it's a mess, we don't understand it, what can we do to push it onto the back burner and get rid of it and move on to something else that we understand and might actually be able to solve. But, of course, the Middle East doesn't go away. As I've said elsewhere in print, it ain't Las Vegas. What happens there doesn't stay there.
As I said, I'd like to see us making more of an effort — not necessarily across the board; I don't entirely disagree with Paul or with Ambassador Freeman, I think there are issues that it's best to keep our noses out of. But, where the issues matter, where they do affect our interests, I think one of the greatest mistakes that we have made is to simply try to put a Band-Aid on things and walk away from them. The problems of the Middle East don't lend themselves to that.
DR. PILLAR: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an excellent example both of what I was talking about in not making policy according to our customary Manichean division between good guys and bad guys, and in why what Chas Freeman was talking about in how players in the region so inconveniently don't fit into those two bins of being for us or against us. Mr. Maliki is for himself, and he's doing his best to try to have a third term as prime minister. Of course, what most politicians aim for is to stay in power, although if one had the larger interests of Iraq at heart, he could, as a very statesmanlike act, step down in favor of someone else. He has a very narrow view of what democracy, if you can still call it that, entails: the Shia are in the majority and the Shiite rule and he's the leader of the Shiites. There's no question that his very narrow view of how the Iraqi polity ought to work has badly antagonized the great majority of Sunni Iraqi Arabs. It is not just ISIS or the Islamic State that has been able to score the gains that so alarm us in the West. It has scored gains because of the much broader disillusionment with the regime.
So in all those senses, he's not a very good partner at all, which isn't to say we shouldn't do business with him. And if he does continue as prime minister, we'll have to do business with him. But the thing we have to keep foremost in mind is that the United States definitely does not have an interest in taking sides or being seen to take sides in sectarian disputes and conflicts in this region.
AMB. FREEMAN: Even if those disputes weren't sectarian, that would be the case. There's a very convenient narrative now in Washington that, if Maliki could just be disposed of, things would get better in Iraq. We've heard that before with Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. And what we should learn from our own malpractice in that area, to go back to the Hippocratic oath — which is not a bad bit of advice — is that perhaps, as Lincoln said, changing horses in midstream is not wise. It's more likely to cause problems than it is to solve them. So that isn't the solution for Iraq, if indeed there is one — if indeed there is an Iraq. It turns out that in our eagerness for regime change, we managed regime removal but no change. And it turns out that in trying to change the regime, we destroyed the state in Iraq.
It seems at the moment, as I said, that the Kurds are busily making their way to the exit. Secretary Kerry, I think correctly, stood for the territorial integrity of Iraq and advised against that. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear he thinks they ought to leave. He would be happy to see Iraq broken up. I think the Kurds are going to do what the Kurds want to do. I don't think they're going to listen to us or the Israelis or anybody else.
We have a problem. We now have something with many of the attributes of a state that is run by vicious extremists and that has erased the border between Iraq and Syria. I think that is the main issue. It is also the case that the Shia, notwithstanding Mr. Maliki's aspirations to lead them all, are divided. There may end up being two states among the Shi'a rather than just one, if Iraq indeed goes the way it seems to be going, which is toward partition. That, by the way, is not an impossible outcome in Afghanistan, either, after our departure. So I think we need to be a bit cautious.
A final observation: What we can learn from the Gulf War and the Iraq War — the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait and the war to subjugate Iraq — is something very simple. You should not intervene without a war-termination strategy. How are you going to end it? It's not enough to get up on an aircraft carrier and proclaim "mission accomplished." Wars don't end until the defeated admit defeat and accept terms. We proposed no terms to Saddam. We sought to impose a UN resolution on him that he did not agree with. He therefore cheated and retreated; he had no commitment to it. And we had nobody left in Baghdad to surrender after we took the place.
Before we start intervening in places like Syria and Libya and Iraq, we should think, what's the end game? How does it end? We should always be asking the question: and then what? We don't ask that question, and that gets us into trouble.
DR. TARZI: For us, Iraq is a very open wound. There are a lot of Marines and other service members who have served there; and when they look at Fallujah as it is today, or Ramadi, and they see what they did there to secure it, a lot of questions arise. I know we are talking about foreign policy, but we have to realize that we're asking a lot from the world's greatest military. There are a lot of questions that I think will catch up with us as a nation about how we use American forces. There's a lot of talk about the state. The concept of state in the Middle East is changing fundamentally. We — alone, Europeans, the West combined — look at everything as state as if state is a holy grail, you can't touch it, that everything works within that state concept. Why? Because our international system is based on a conceptual state that we have taken from, whether it is from the Treaty of Westphalia or later on in Bavaria, whatever. That is shifting under our noses, fundamentally. I'm not saying this is because of the Islamic State or whatever they want to call it. That is a manifestation. But is Afghanistan a state in the Bavarian sense? We still treat them as if they have the attributes we either believe exist. At least that's the only norm we work through.
Sometimes our models are inappropriate. Instead of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, let's change the model. This would only produce a long-term gain; it's not immediate. But the concept of the state and how it works is actually shifting, maybe even in Europe. So we have to at least academically try to start thinking about that. We call them failed states, but they may not be failed; they may work very well and would work within our system. I'm not talking about the Islamic State working very well. I'm just saying that things are going to shift.
DR. MATTAIR: Let me follow up in the same vein as the last question. Is there something that we could have done in Syria to avert the situation that exists now? Missed opportunities are something you spoke about, Ken. Should we have insisted on a safe zone or a no-fly zone? More important, what can we do now? In your Foreign Affairs article, you spoke about training a moderate opposition to the Assad regime. I believe Chas was indicating that he doesn't think that's a possibility. Could you elaborate on that?DR. POLLACK: For several years I was actually quite ambivalent about what we should be doing in Syria. On the one hand, what was going on in Syria is a tragedy, and I'm one of these humanitarian interventionists. I believe that where the United States and the international community can intervene to save lives, we should. It pained me deeply to see what was going on in Syria. By the same token, the United States doesn't have any particular interests in Syria. So the hard-headed realist in me was basically saying, this is going to be a very big problem. And it's not clear that it is necessary for us to do so. It's not clear that it is worth doing so.
The issue that I was watching this entire time was the question of spillover. Would the Syrian civil war affect other parts of the Middle East in such a way that it would begin to affect our interests? I think we got our answer on June 10, when the spillover from Syria became so bad that it has now helped reignite civil war in Iraq. I'm not suggesting that the problems of Iraq were caused by Syria; quite the contrary. Anyone who knows anything about what I've been writing over the years, knows that those problems are entirely internal to Iraq. But there is no gainsaying the simple fact that a group that had abandoned Iraq, moved to Syria, was able to gestate in Syria, rebuild its strength and then re-invade Iraq has brought Iraq to its current impasse.
That leads me to conclude that, yes, the time has come. The United States should be taking a more active role in Syria. And I actually have a piece in the new Foreign Affairs that lays out in much greater detail what I've been talking about.
What I have in mind, in a nutshell — but it really will have to wait until the Foreign Affairs piece comes out because it's a long argument and requires a lot of historical detail to explain — is, in effect, what we did with the Croats during the Bosnian civil war in 1994. Nobody remembers this. Everyone believes that what brought us to Dayton was the NATO bombing campaign. It wasn't. What brought us to Dayton was a Croatian military that was able to defeat the Serbs. And this is the simple problem that we have in Syria right now.
The two groups with the greatest military capacity are the jihadists and the regime. As long as that is the case, they will continue to fight, and we will not want to support either of them. So as we did in Croatia, to a certain extent as we did in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, and as we actually did in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, could we build a conventional, nonpartisan Syrian military, one that is capable of defeating both the regime and the jihadists?
I think the evidence available indicates that, yes, we could. The problems that everyone has identified are important, but they are also not irremediable. In fact, we have dealt with them in the past and done so effectively and without boots on the ground. It would require advisers, it would require more money than we are currently spending, although the $500 million is more than adequate to get this program well off the ground and underway. I'm not quite sure what they are doing with the $500 million if it's not what I'm talking about, an idea that I know the Pentagon has been pushing for quite some time. But it is something that would require a greater commitment than what we've made so far. But it is also the only option out there that actually offers a way of solving the problems in Syria.
Ambassador Freeman spoke of a diplomatic solution. The only way we get a diplomatic solution is when we change the calculus on the battlefield. Until that happens, they will continue to fight, and nothing our diplomats do is going to make any difference. The question is, do we want to support one of the two loathsome groups currently battling in Syria or do we want to build a new force, one that we could get behind and help to bring this to an end? We've done that before. I think we can do it again in Syria and, while it's not a great option, it's certainly the least bad.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. A realist would say we don't have national interests in Syria. But when Obama spoke about it, he said our national interest in Syria is how it impacts Syria's neighbors, our partners.
DR. POLLACK: Spillover.
AMB. FREEMAN: Frankly, I don't think it's useful to go over what could have been done when it wasn't done. It's a little bit like raking over the Benghazi murder of our ambassador, endlessly. What are we going to learn from that? Absolutely nothing. I would say, however, since the question has been raised, that the two things we did that brought us to this pass were, first, to say right at the outset that Assad not only must go, but will go. That ended any possibility of a negotiated solution inside Syria because it told the opposition that the American superpower would make sure that this bad leader was deposed.
Assad overreacted himself. He saw the Arab uprisings and what had happened to Hosni Mubarak and to Ben Ali in Tunisia, and what seemed to be happening and did happen to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and what was happening in Bahrain and so on. He looked at this and panicked, and he determined to nip the whole thing in the bud. And he used force. That escalated the thing very quickly, especially because there were people happy to supply weapons to counter him.
We made the mistake of believing that, because Hosni Mubarak had been overthrown, with a little push, Assad would go too. Yet, the realities of Syria internally — in terms of sectarian interests, ethnic interests, balances within the Sunni community, secular versus religious — were vastly more complicated. And Assad is winning, despite all the predictions that he would be overthrown. So I'd say the first thing is, stop taking sides in Syria. Try to lower the level of the fighting. Reduce the flow of arms. Talk to the Iranians, talk to the Russians, talk to the Saudis. Act ourselves to try to lower the level of the fighting, not raise it. This is, I guess, the second principle, in a way: don't add fuel to the fire.
Essentially, what we're proposing to do, since there are no effective moderate forces in Syria, is to scour the bars and brothels of the world, find the mythical Syrian moderates, beat their teaspoons into swords, and send them over the border after appropriate training in how to use reforged teaspoons. I don't think this is going to work. Generally speaking, exile operations of that kind are not worth the paper the plan is written on.
What are U.S. interests? Israel. Israel is going to be vastly worse off with a jihadi-controlled area along its border than it has been with the atrocious, but very cautious, dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Another interest is Turkey, a NATO member to whom we are committed by treaty and whose interests have to be taken into account. And I would say the main interest now is that, just as Iraq has broken up, Syria has effectively broken up. The Kurds have left and are associating themselves with the Kurds in Iraq. They are no longer under central control. Syria has broken into at least two other major parts, more than that actually.
I'm not sure, just to go back to Amin's point, that Syria ever was a state in the Western sense of the word. Certainly, Mr. Sykes' and Mr. Picot's creations are all falling apart under the impact of what's happened. Perhaps what is required to create a state is centralized patronage. If you are in Baghdad and you are handing out largesse to Kurds, they pay attention to you. But if you leave them alone to make their own separate arrangements with the Turks, they don't. And if you are in Damascus and you are handing out largesse and you are the sole source of well-being in the entire expanse of Syria, then people pay attention to you. But we have the example of Lebanon, a very weak state where the largesse is not controlled by the government but by various factions, Hezbollah being the main one. That seems to be the model that's emerging in the region, which is one of statelets, states within states.
In any event, I think we should be very, very cautious. One-hundred-and-sixty-thousand Syrians have died. Does that count for nothing? Nobody has mentioned it. There are 10 million Syrians displaced. There are 5 million Syrian kids who aren't getting an education. There are 9-year-old girls being sold into marriage because their parents can't save them any other way. Does this not count for something? I think it should, especially because dealing with it is key to dealing with what the main problem is: the growth of Islamist extremism and its establishment of a secure territorial area in which to plot further action.
The change in name from ISIS to the Islamic State was an indication of a global ambition. Of the four objectives that that group sets, hitting us here in the United States is right up at the top. We should be concerned. I don't think that state's going to last. I think it will fall of its own weight and its own abuses. And I think we should learn something from containment in that regard. George Kennan in 1946-47 argued that, if we contained the Soviet Union, it would eventually fail of its own defects. ISIS, whatever it calls itself, will do the same. But I don't think we can imagine that the current state structures are going to be there much longer. It's not a secure assumption.
DR. TARZI: There are a lot of people who carry the same passports that we do; some of them were even born in Europe and intermarried with Europeans. There are Americans, but not as many as Europeans. These folks are in Syria right now, with a lot of know-how of their own home countries. I know that there are a lot of prevention measures, but there is a new dimension that you didn't have with the old al-Qaeda. Most of them came from the region. These Europeans are very, very worried about the blowback from Syria, whether or not this continues. If it continues, they may go back and forth. If it doesn't continue, then they may come back and "export" this ideology or at least the destructiveness of it on the streets of whatever country they can.
I don't think in the modern world we can be isolated. I agree with President Obama's collective approach. Syria is one place where the Russians are. There is a collective approach. Turkey is very much affected. It's in NATO, but there are other countries in the region or in Europe that may have to take a bit more of the burden. That's where leadership comes in — how to bring in these partners that are affected more than we are directly.
AMB. FREEMAN: I am not a member of the humanitarian industrial complex. And I think this has to be approached very, very realistically. I think Ken correctly said that what happens on the ground is the ultimate determinant of almost everything. And I think we have the ability to affect that, but we don't have a political strategy for using the way we affect it. I think, therefore, we need to confer with the neighbors and be prepared to act internationally, not to defer to particular Syrian factions.
DR. PILLAR: Just two quick points, one relevant to the mythical nature of the moderate Syrian opposition. The fact is, people and fighters move around; ordnance that they use moves around. Often the allegiance that any one fighter has to any one group changes quite rapidly according to who's paying him, who's giving him food and so on. So the concept of vetting recipients of aid sounds very nice in theory, but in practice is virtually impossible.
The other point concerns looking back at where these problems began. I would just remind us that the feared group now calling itself the Islamic State began in Iraq as al-Qaeda in Iraq. It did not exist before we unleashed the forces that we did when we went in and started the war in 2003.
AMB. FREEMAN: The idea of moderate insurgents is a contradiction in terms. If they're moderates, they're not going to rebel. If they rebel, they're not going to be moderate.
DR. MATTAIR: Yesterday the negotiations with Iran concluded without an agreement. They've been extended for another four months. What kinds of terms have been agreed upon so far? What kinds of terms are necessary over the next four months? And what do we do if we succeed, and what do we do if we fail? If we fail, Ken, could you talk about deterrence and containment as options? What will the role of the Saudis be in the region under those circumstances? And if we succeed, how much opportunity is there for us to work with Iran in various venues such as Geneva over the Syria question? How will those who have been our partners for a long time and who are concerned about our policies react to the new role that Iran might have?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the extension has something to do with the fact that we have an election November 4th. Perhaps I'm cynical to bring that up, but we will have a changed circumstance, presumably, as a result of that election, and either more or less flexibility. It's always been hard for me to imagine whatever agreement might be reached with Iran surviving the Israel lobby and the Congress. So there is a connection, whether we like it or not — as a first observation.
The second is that what seems to be at issue here is the quantity and velocity of enrichment, not the centrifuges so much. We're focused on centrifuges, but it's the amount of enrichment that those centrifuges or other more modern centrifuges do that's really the bone of contention. Iran wants to increase its enrichment activity to fuel the reactor that the Russians are supposed to fuel, but which Iran doesn't trust them to fuel, and we are demanding that they decrease enrichment.
A second related issue is what the terms of any agreement would be. Iran I think, wants it to be five years, or maybe seven; and we want a much longer term.
I'd just make one general observation, however. Tom, when you opened the session, you referred to multilateral sanctions against Iran. There are some UN-authorized sanctions, but almost all the sanctions are, in fact, unilaterally concerted between the United States and our European allies. They are enforced by SWIFT, the clearinghouse for dollars that operates in, I think, Belgium, and they reflect our sovereign control of the dollar. Our use of that control, particularly in the case of Iran, to disrupt the oil trade for India, China, Korea and other major consumers of Iranian oil, has been mightily annoying to those countries. It has driven them to begin to consider ways of avoiding clearance through SWIFT and the New York banking system. At Fortaleza in Brazil a few days ago, July 15, the so-called BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — agreed on the establishment of a new development bank to parallel the World Bank and a new currency reserve to parallel the IMF. Along with this, they are all agreeing on new currency clearance procedures that avoid the dollar.
I would draw two conclusions from this. One, I think we're cooking our own goose by abusing our currency, treating it as a solely national currency when it is the international currency, which gives us a great deal of power in the world. We are dismantling that power inadvertently. Second, we cannot assume that in the future, five or 10 years from now, Iran will not be able to circumvent any sanctions that the U.S. and European group impose, even if the United States and the Europeans continue to maintain the cohesion that we have had. This is quite doubtful, given the differences that have arisen over NSA spying, CIA spying, the issue of Ukraine and so forth. I think we're dealing with a lot of imponderables here, and we cannot assume that our level of control of the global economy will be what it is now in 2021. We need to be a little cautious.
The final observation is that Iran may or may not have a nuclear weapons program. Our intelligence people say that it doesn't. It's clearly building the capability, which Japan has, to go nuclear. I don't think that's stoppable. The question is, how to deal with it. If we try to stop it, we'll end up not stopping it, and we will end up with a greater risk of Iranian nuclear "breakout" than we would under an agreement that's monitored internationally. So I very much hope that there will be an agreement, but I am not optimistic.
DR. PILLAR: Let me comment a little more directly on the negotiations themselves. What Chas mentioned with regard to the November time frame and how Congress works into that has been mentioned before — the idea that the lame-duck session after an election, but before a possible Republican majority in the Senate, might be the best time. There's no question that congressional opposition influenced by lobbies we're all familiar with are probably the biggest problem the Obama administration faces, even more so than the tough negotiating of the Iranians and carrying the talks through to a conclusion.
Nonetheless, I think there is a simpler interpretation of what's going on. This is a complex negotiation dealing with a lot of technical nuclear and financial issues. In the preliminary agreement that was reached last November, the prospect of needing an extension was built right into the agreement. So the extension is not a big surprise. There has been a lot of progress, by all reports, although we don't get direct indications from the negotiators about specific terms. This itself is a good sign. If we had more leaks coming out of Vienna, that would be a bad sign.
In terms of the overall shape of an agreement, I think we got an excellent idea with the preliminary agreement, the Joint Plan of Action that was reached last November. That basically is an outline for the complete agreement, where the key provisions are, number one, enhanced, vigorous, more frequent inspection and monitoring. Under a final agreement it would be even more complete and enhanced. That, in my view, is probably the single biggest reason to get the agreement, so we know exactly what the Iranians are doing with their declared programs.
There will be serious restrictions on the amount and extent and degree of uranium enrichment. In that respect, if you remember Mr. Netanyahu's cartoon bomb at the General Assembly, that's an excellent prop. What the Joint Plan of Action, the November agreement, did, as my friend Joe Cirincione puts it, was to drain the bomb. What the Iranians have done, and what the IAEA has confirmed they have done, is to live up to their agreement: to take the medium-enriched — 20 percent enriched — uranium, and either dilute it or convert it to oxide. With this last extension, they made the further commitment to speed up using the oxide to make it into fuel plates for their Tehran research reactor. This puts it even farther out of reach with regard to possible proliferation concerns. There have also been solutions to address the plutonium route with regard to the Arak reactor, which appears to involve some redesign of the reactor that makes it far, far less of an effective plutonium producer.
So we've got the outline right there. The fact that we have that — and it's more than just an outline, it's been an agreement that has been observed by both sides over the last six months — is a bit of a further challenge for the Obama administration in selling a final agreement. To put it quite bluntly, we got the better part of the deal last November. We got the key provisions that drain Bibi's bomb.
In return, the Iranians got middling, minor sanctions relief, including airplane parts, petrochemicals, trade in gold and access to a very small fraction of their frozen assets overseas. All the big debilitating sanctions with regard to banking and oil are still firmly in place. As an anonymous but presumed Treasury Department briefer put it to reporters in Vienna Friday night, we will come down like a ton of bricks — as Treasury has always been doing — on anyone who dares to think it possible to violate the sanctions.
Iran is still hurting economically. And I think where the challenge comes in is to the extent that more concessions need to be made to reach the final deal, we're going to have to make at least as many of those as the Iranians. They've already made the big ones, and we have not made the big one in terms of sanctions relief.
One last comment in terms of how Congress fits into this. It might not be a matter of the administration's trying to fine tune the negotiations so that we conclude them during the lame-duck period. I expect the administration and its P5+1 partners to still be holding out for a fairly extended transitional period in which the sanctions would be relieved only gradually. The administration, even without the congressional opposition, would be looking for a formula for sanctions relief in which, over the first year or two, it would involve only the sorts of things that the president could take through executive action. It would only be later on, as the agreement is upheld — if it is upheld by the Iranians as well as our side — that the greater sanctions relief the Iranians crave would come into effect. Then at some point Congress is going to have to act, but that doesn't have to be in the first few months.
AMB. FREEMAN: I agree with everything Paul said. I want to address the other question, if I could. What if my pessimism is unjustified and we do get an agreement? What could we do with Iran? One issue we're going to have to deal with in the future is Afghanistan. We will not be there forever, but Iran will always have a border with Afghanistan. In the past, we were able to work with Iran quite effectively to keep the lid on in Afghanistan, and I think we're going to have to do that again. If we have an improved relationship with Iran and we are adroit in the manner in which we exploit that, we can help to dampen the sectarian war in the Middle East by helping to broker a better relationship between Riyadh and Tehran.
In a sense, that relationship has become so bad, in part, because of our perceived enabling of Riyadh. We are the backer, the security guarantor for Riyadh. That allows it to do things that it might otherwise not risk, very much as Israel does. We could play a more constructive role in the Gulf if we had a relationship with Iran that enabled us to help Saudi Arabia reconcile with it. It might also help to find some resolution of the internal civil strife in Bahrain, where we have an important naval headquarters and a longstanding relationship that we want to preserve.
I think we would find other issues as well. The major thing probably is, if the jihadistan that now exists does not collapse of its own defects, we're going to need Iran's help to deal with it.
DR. TARZI: We talk about how Saudi Arabia benefits. It has to do with oil. If Iran were to want to become a normal state tomorrow — not a U.S.-friendly state, but normal like any other country — Russia would not allow that. Russia will do anything in its power to keep Iran at least simmering, not boiling because it's too close geographically. Iran is the only country in the world that has access to the Caucasus, to the Caspian Sea, and to Central Asia. If Iran were to become normal, the United States or other Western states could revamp their pipelines, which need a lot of repair. They wouldn't have to go through the Hormuz chokepoint, they could go straight into the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and out. That breaks Russia's monopoly over oil and gas, which run east-west. There will be a north-south route.
I do not believe that, under any circumstances, Mr. Putin will allow this. The Russians know how to play this game; they have played it for a long time.
Number two is Saudi Arabia. If Russia lets this go, there is still Saudi Arabia. It's not the amount of oil we get from Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia's unique power to control the markets that makes it important. There is no other country in the world that can balance the markets for oil and gas, should there be a crisis or a natural disaster. They are the only country that can actually augment or decrease supply. It's a top Saudi secret how much they can put into the market. This gives Saudi Arabia freedom of maneuver politically. Everybody talks about 24 percent of proven reserves, but it is how the market is manipulated that counts. It doesn't matter whether we have fracking or not.
There are only two countries in the world that could change that. One was Iraq, and that didn't work out. If you remember the good old days when we wanted to go to Iraq, one of the ideas was that Iraq remains intact, a nice guy comes in to replace Saddam, who then sells Iraqi oil to the world and democracy will take over in the Middle East. One reason we wanted this was to break the control of one country over the oil and gas market.
The most important country after Saudi Arabia is Iran. A normal Iran's entrance into the market breaks that Saudi monopoly. Forget about the Shia-Sunni issue; control of energy markets will put these two countries at odds. I'm not saying a solution is impossible. I'm an optimist. I don't want to quote a Marxist, but I will quote Gramsci, "I'm a pessimist because of my intellect and an optimist because of my will."
AMB. FREEMAN: I think this raises several important issues. The United States has essentially destroyed Iraq as a balancer for Iran, leaving our forces at present as the only means of balancing Iran. Hence, we are stuck in the Gulf. That is a very uncomfortable position, not only for us, but for our Gulf Arab friends. I could see in the future, precisely because of the historic tension between Russia and Iran — and perhaps adding in the oil factor — that if the Syrian issue weren't there as an irritant, Russia would be a big factor in the Gulf Arab strategy for balancing Iran. It's in the rear — on the other side of the Caspian.
The second point is that Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been at odds in OPEC on price. The reason is that Iran has a finite supply of oil. It has, by the way, since the revolution, grossly mismanaged its oil reservoirs, and even damaged them, so its potential to stimulate production is limited. Saudi Arabia has always wanted to strike a balance between a price that's high enough to finance the Saudi state and the welfare system it provides, yet not so high as to kill demand for oil. This contradiction is going to continue, regardless, but I'm not optimistic that Iran will add much to the global oil supply. It has, by the way, lost half its exports as a result of the sanctions, which have really hurt. That is a factor to be kept in mind.
A final point is that there's actually now another country disturbing the global oil market: the United States, which has used fracking for tight oil and shale gas to very good effect. That is probably a very limited phenomenon, maybe 10 or 15 years. But at the moment at least, it's a very, very important factor in the global oil market. Incidentally, Saudi Arabia has huge potential in shale, too. Perhaps Iran does too; we don't know. We're talking about a very different energy world looking down the road than the one we have been accustomed to.
DR. MATTAIR: Leaving this question of oil aside, the Saudi Arabians and the UAE and their neighbors view Iran's agenda in the region as inimical to theirs. They've been expressing concern about our policies for some time and in fact are concerned that, in pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, we are going to acquiesce in the expansion of Iran's influence in the region. So is there something we can do to ease that concern for them, anticipating possible success with Iran in these talks? Their role will be quite important if there is no agreement with Iran. Then we would have to go to deterrence and containment, and since the Arab Gulf is where we base our forces, we will have to convince our allies that we're willing to use them.
DR. POLLACK: On the last point, that's the piece of containment that has me least concerned. If we don't have an agreement, I think the Gulf states are going to be very frightened of Iran and are going to want us there very much. But there are other aspects of it that are worth talking about.
Your question is important because we need to recognize that, even if we fail to get an agreement with Iran, it doesn't mean that the negotiations have to stop. They may take a very different form, though. They may take an indirect form; they may take an informal form. And they can be both cooperative and antagonistic, if necessary. But we need to recognize that our goals aren't going to end; we're simply going to have to pursue them in a different fashion. There's a reason that Iran came to these talks in the first place. We don't quite know where it is, but I would tally up four different rationales for Iran's decision to get involved in the nuclear talks with us, to sit down and negotiate in a way that they hadn't wanted to previously.
First of all, the sanctions and the fear that the sanctions were causing internal unrest and the fear that the sanctions were sapping Iran's power. Second, I think it was fear of the Chinese, in particular, but to a lesser extent some other countries like India joining the sanctions in a much more wholehearted fashion. And it's worth remembering that in 2010, before the passage of Resolution 1929, the Chinese went to the Iranians and said, "The Americans are giving you everything that you need for Iraq. You should accept their offer." When the Iranians didn't, the Chinese then joined us in the passage of UN Resolution 1929, the cornerstone of all the international sanctions against Iran. This points out that the Chinese have been in a very different place than where the Russians are or where they're often portrayed. The Chinese don't necessarily want the Iranians to acquire a nuclear weapon, but they don't want us to strike the Iranians either. They have been trying very hard to move the Iranians in the right direction, and the Iranians seem to recognize that. I think they are very concerned that, if they didn't come to the negotiating table and try to get the sanctions lifted, the Chinese would increasingly fall into line with us.
Third, I think Khamenei is terrified of what he keeps calling the U.S. soft war against him. He believes, as several members of the panel have pointed out, that the United States is out to get him. And he believes we're actively trying to do so. But I think it's also clear from a whole variety of different pieces of information and evidence that he believes we could do a lot more if we chose to. So part of what he seems to be looking to do is to answer this question: can he turn off, or at least mitigate, the U.S. soft war?
The last rationale out there, I actually think it's the least important, but worth noting: some kind of residual fear of an American or Israeli strike. I think the Iranians have largely written that off; they wouldn't be at the table if they really thought that we were going to hit them. I think under those circumstances, they would definitely want a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, this rationale is out there.
To me, what these do is set up a process that could move forward things that we would need to keep in place, things that we might want to try to employ in a negotiation, even if an indirect one, with the Iranians. We should remember, even if the negotiations break down, the president's red line is still there. And you know what? It's the right one. We don't want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon. There is a world of difference between the Iranians in their current situation, and the Iranians with a tighter breakout window, and the Iranians having an actual honest-to-goodness nuclear weapon. It is enormous from the perspective of crisis management, regional stability and everything else you can think of. That's where we really need to focus our efforts. Even if we don't get the deal, can we keep the Iranians from crossing that red line? Again, those different interests, those reasons that brought the Iranians to the table, create both things that we might offer to the Iranians and things that we might use to threaten the Iranians should they choose to cross those lines.
Finally, there's a whole other set of issues out there that I think Tom was alluding to, which I'm not going to discuss. It's too big to really talk about in these circumstances. Whether we get an agreement with the Iranians or not, whether we can keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons or not — either way we're going to have a whole slew of areas where our interests clash severely with Iran's and a few areas where our interests will coincide. We've got to think through how we're going to deal with those. This also doesn't end with the nuclear negotiations. It might be nice to get that deal. It might open up the prospect for greater cooperation between the United States and Iran. But even if we don't get it, that doesn't mean our interests stop or that we don't still have ways of negotiating with the Iranians and hopefully, finding peaceful solutions to our differences.
DR. MATTAIR: In the time that remains, let's discuss the issue Obama did not discuss in his West Point speech, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I'll give you a flavor of the kinds of questions that are coming from the floor: Whose interests are we safeguarding, ours or the Israelis? Which comes first? Are we not responsible for this situation, given our support for Israel? I believe it was Paul Pillar who was speaking about the necessity of political courage here if we're going to deal with that issue. President Obama has said the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a national-security interest of the United States because it provides a grievance that feeds extremism and results in terror. He even said resolving the conflict would ease those conditions and therefore make it easier to negotiate with Iran.
Once you say it's a national-security interest, then you ought to succeed in your efforts. If you don't, we need to talk about how we're going to be in jeopardy. What should we be doing to bring these parties to an agreement? Clearly, it doesn't seem that the Palestinians are going to accept being occupied and blockaded. They're going to resist. And if their resistance is always met with this kind of force and these kinds of casualties, we shouldn't be too surprised if some people do blame us.
AMB. FREEMAN: The Israeli objective is very clearly to destroy the unity government that has been formed in Palestine. That's quite clear. The sequence of events began with the murder of three young Jewish boys. Incidentally, responsibility for that was taken by the Islamic State; Hamas denied responsibility. It was politically convenient for Mr. Netanyahu to attribute the murders to Hamas, which he did. That was followed by the round-up of roughly 600 Palestinians associated with Hamas in the West Bank. Two houses were destroyed, and eight or nine Palestinians died in the round-up. There was an Israeli raid into Gaza that drew rocket fire from Gaza. The rocket fire then was used as a justification for the current operation.
The problem here also is a problem of war termination. The so-called truce offer was concocted between Israel, Egypt and the United States without reference to the other side. Not only is that insulting; it's inherently unworkable. It is the opposite of diplomacy. Mr. Kerry is in Egypt and has been talking — to whom we don't know, because talking to the Egyptians, who are the enemies of the people in Gaza now, is not going to do a damn thing. It is a nice show of activity, which seems to be our specialty these days. Frenetic activity is us! But the prospects for its producing anything are extremely poor.
How will this end? Let's not forget that there is a broader context in the Palestinian camp. The so-called peace process, which concluded in April — I think once and for all, because people have had it with U.S. mediation, which wasn't mediation. It was fraudulent in no small measure because the Palestinians were not represented there except through Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has no constitutional mandate to rule. It lost the last elections it competed in and is essentially in the employ of the Israeli occupation with subsidies from the United States. Not represented there were the people of Gaza, the Palestinian refugees, or the Palestinian diaspora. There's a basic rule of negotiation: if you wish to achieve a result that is worth anything, those with the capacity to wreck the result as well as those who must sign onto it have to agree or at least be neutralized. That condition was not even considered.
I don't know how all this ends, but the broader context is that the Palestinians as a whole are moving toward "lawfare," the use of international law and international organizations to put the squeeze on Israel through the International Court of Justice and other instrumentalities. I might add, they are not bound any more than the BRICS have turned out to be by existing organizations. They can call ad hoc conferences and organize boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment without reference to the United Nations. So I think we're headed into a period in which our defense of Israel, which I'm sure we will continue to mount, is going to become considerably more difficult, and there will be no resolution of the issues on the ground in the foreseeable future.
DR. PILLAR: Chas has appropriately summarized the background to the current events. I would just add a couple of other observations in terms of Hamas's point of view. Hamas had been observing the ceasefire that was negotiated after the last, lesser, round of violence in November 2012. They continued to observe it, even though there were some incidents initiated by the Israelis along the border. They stopped observing it after the kidnappings and murders and the Israeli response. This response included, besides forceful action along the Gaza border — which involved some bloodshed — the wholesale rounding up of the usual Hamas suspects numbering in the hundreds, many of whom had just been released not all that long ago in the deal that freed Corporal Shalit. So this was seen as a direct reneging on the deal, certainly in the absence of any evidence of Hamas responsibility. But this whole issue, of course, is so huge that the larger problem involves those issues of political courage that have been with us for several administrations and many decades.
I would just make one other point, again putting on my hat as an old counterterrorist official. You've alluded to it, Tom, in terms of the president's remarks. Both the unresolved nature of this conflict and the extremely close identification of the United States with one side of it is a major factor in radicalization, not just throughout the Middle East, but beyond, and certainly in the Muslim world. One often hears in response a straw-man kind of argument: even if we resolve this, it wouldn't clean up all those other problems in the Middle East, and there still would be a whole host of other reasons why people become radicals. That's, of course, true. But it does not refute the fact that this issue has been a biggie. If you look at the statements of captured terrorists who have been interrogated as well as the propaganda that reflects their calculation as to where they can most appeal for support, this is the thing that comes up again and again and again and again. Until that changes, it will be a major factor stoking anti-U.S. radicalization.
AMB. FREEMAN: If you read the statement by the perpetrators of 9/11, this issue, Israel-Palestine, contrary to the mythology, was very prominently cited as a motivating factor. So it is not the case that this is a trivial matter or, as Ken began this session, that it can be downgraded in importance and ignored. It cannot be. It touches directly on the security interests of all Americans.
DR. TARZI: Perhaps it's naive to think that democratization has any room in the Middle East. But ad hoc support for democracy is what created Hamas and gave it — not created it, but gave it — the legitimacy that it has as a government. That's why I mentioned initially that we have to be very careful in promoting democracy or elections or any other aspect of democracy as legitimization of a political entity. Is Gaza a state or not? They won an election. When we make democracy a fundamental pillar of U.S. security policy and allow a group such as Hamas to run for elections and gain legitimacy, how can you take that legitimacy back? To create these aspects of democracy without proper groundwork, which is a long-term, generational project, has ramifications I think we need to look at. When you look at what happened during the Arab uprisings or what is happening today in Egypt, the Egyptian papers across the political spectrum are blaming Hamas for almost everything.
AMB. FREEMAN: I don't think legitimacy can be effectively conferred by outside forces or foreign powers. Elections are not the only source of legitimacy. There can be other sources, as the Middle East amply illustrates. But if an election legitimizes the government and we treat that as inconvenient and invalidate the result of the election, we are at a minimum not being true to our own values.
DR. MATTAIR: Another issue is how the legitimacy and credibility and stature of the PLO and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have been diminished by failing in negotiations over more than 20 years. I'm really struck by the interview that two administration officials gave after the end of these talks in April, in which they said that the primary reason for the failure of the talks was continued Israeli settlement building. When we know what the outcome ought to be and what the primary obstacle is, and we say it's in our national interest, what should we do about it?
DR. PILLAR: I think Chas covered that in his prepared remarks with regard to what's not only in the U.S. interest, but what's in the long-term Israeli interest in terms of the Jewish state's living in peace and prosperity forever. The current course doesn't do it.