What is the American National Interest?
FRANK ANDERSON, President, Middle East Policy Council
Good morning, everyone. I’m Frank Anderson, the president of the Middle East Policy Council. The first thing I want to do is welcome everyone and express my gratitude that you’ve braved the storms to get here. It’s been a fascinating day in so many ways. It’s been a fascinating time, and then today’s weather just sort of symbolized it all.
First, let me — a very brief introduction to the Middle East Policy Council for those of you who may be new to the room.
We declare ourselves to be a nonpartisan, nonprofit, and our role is to inform the dialogue on issues in the Middle East that will affect U.S. policy interests. We do it through three programs, and the first is the publication of the journal, Middle East Policy.
It continues to be — by the only rating agency that does this — the most cited publication in the field. And much of that credit goes to our editor and vice president, Anne Joyce, who’s standing there. And I’m going to ask Anne Joyce — she doesn’t like to do this — but stand up so that the crowd can see you.
The second of our programs are these Capitol Hill conferences, directed always by our executive director, Thomas Mattair, who does all the work while I get all the credit around here.
The third of our programs is an educational outreach program. We conduct 50 teacher workshops around the country, teaching teachers in ways that enable and excite them to teach about the geography, the geology, the history and the politics of the region.
In many ways that’s our sort of legacy program. And I think when you just do the math — we do 50 programs, each bringing in an average of 50 teachers — it’s 2,500 teachers. And because those teachers are junior high school and high school teachers, they’re not the kind that only have one classroom.
You know, those teachers usually touch a hundred children each time, so we’re looking at tens of thousands of children who are educated in ways that break down stereotypes and give them information about the Middle East that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I’m proud of all our programs. The teacher workshop director is not here, but Neil Brandvold is, who is the program director. Well, he’s outside the door. But at any rate — no, there he is. Stand up.
Those are the three legs of our stool. The fourth leg that is building quietly — and I have to give credit to Jeremy Tamanini in the back — is represented by the fact that our proceedings this morning are being livecast around the world, and Jeremy is our electronic media person, who shepherded the redesign of the Middle East Policy Council website.
Those of you who may not have visited it recently, it’s just been named by the Interactive Media Council, which I didn’t think was — I didn’t know was a big deal until I learned of it, which it is in the world of web communications, the best in class of nonprofit websites this year. It is — this is their term. It is the best in the world.
I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of our programs and grateful to all of you for coming. And I’ll turn it over now to Tom Mattair, who is going to conduct this morning’s proceedings. Thank you.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council; author, Global Security Watch Iran — A Reference Handbook
Thank you, Frank. And welcome to all of you.
And with reference to our live streaming, if you are watching it that way, you can submit questions, which I will bring to the attention of the audience. Let me say a few brief words before I introduce the panel.
The uprisings that began in Tunisia in December and have spread across the Arab world since then have much in common. In the broadest sense, they are demands for economic and political change, but they also have much that’s not in common in that they are protests against regimes that have very different records of governance and very different kinds of relations with the United States.
The Obama administration has been accused of having a hesitant and reactive policy, but it has been dealing with numerous opposition movements that have different constellations of political forces, different leaders, different grievances and different agendas, and they’re not always known to anyone, including the Obama administration. That makes it difficult to know who would come to power first and who might come to power later.
The administration has also been dealing with some regimes that have provided much better governance to their population than other regimes and have been much more open to reform than some other regimes.
And the administration has been dealing with some regimes that have been allies and some that have been adversaries. U.S. officials have had to think about our ideological national interests, which support more popular political participation in government, and also have had to think about our strategic national interests, which include access to oil and gas and dealing with challenges posed by Iran and al-Qaida, and coping with these in situations that are not identical.
So it may not be very surprising that the administration, which already had a reputation for pragmatism in foreign policy, has not responded in identical ways to each situation. Having said that, however, it’s fair to ask whether its policy choices in different countries have been the best choices it could have made. Should the United States be more supportive of opposition movements in particular countries? Or should the United States be more sympathetic to what’s being called, not entirely accurately, counterrevolution?
Those are some of the questions we will have to think about today, and we have a panel that can do it very well. You have an extensive bio of each of these speakers on the back of your invitation, and I can’t do as much justice to them in two minutes as you’ll find in the invitation.
But our first speaker will be Anthony Cordesman, who is the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the country’s foremost authorities on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and U.S. strategic interests there, and in fact, in 2010 published “Saudi Arabia: National Security in a Troubled Region.” That was published by CSIS.
Next we will have Barak Barfi, who is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, has also been at the Brookings Institution, has also been with ABC and has published very widely in The New Republic and Foreign Policy, many other prestigious places, and is an eyewitness to what has been happening in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, and also — I don’t know the last time you went to Libya — but has been on the ground in Libya — pardon me, Yemen — but has been on the ground in Yemen often.
And then I think we will ask Karim Mezran to speak third. He is the director of the Center for American Studies in Rome. He has published widely in both Italian and English. And I think that, having already listened to him in my office a day or two ago, he has some insights into Libya and European policy that probably couldn’t be shared by anybody else in Washington.
And then our final speaker will be Professor Bassam Haddad of George Mason University, who is also an award-winning filmmaker and the editor of the Middle East Report, and has a new book coming out with Stanford University Press this year, and it is called “The Political Economy of Regime Security: State-Business Networks in Syria.”
So this is a good panel. And, again, I welcome you. And, Tony, would you please come to the podium?
ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I was in Morocco when this began, at a conference on security in North Africa. And what was interesting was the delegation from one country began by talking about the major forces for instability in the other. And by the second day of the conference, it was gone. And what was also interesting was the total lack of agreement among virtually everyone as to the details, the causes and the specific problems that they faced in security.
And so, what I’d like to do, rather than focus on individual cases, is just talk a little about some work we have done to try to look at the underlying causes of what is happening, how they’re likely to be enduring problems, and that whether regimes survive or do not survive, these problems are likely to outlast this series of crises in far more countries than they are likely to be solved in.
We did a look at many of the indicators that could be used to measure instability on a comparative basis, and I have to qualify what I’m about to say with the fact that the main results of that review were to reveal that the United States government has at least four different estimate of even basic data like the size of the gross domestic product, that you have the World Bank producing wide ranges of indicators for which there is no clear source or measure that you can trust, that you look at groups like the IMF, which largely ignore the underlying stability problems, that you have no agreement whatsoever on population growth data and demographics except when somebody goes back to the same source.
But, having said that, I think there are some factors that become clear. We’re talking about roughly 20 countries, and they do have some things in common. One is far too often the governing elite does not meet the needs and expectation of a people whose population has tripled since 1950 and may well double again by 2050.
You are talking about countries where people do not perceive the sources of anger or complaints in terms of simple measures. It’s not simply poverty. It is not simply discrimination. There was, I think, an interesting warning in the 2009 Arab Development Report that things like this might happen. It wasn’t a prediction; it was a warning.
But what was striking about it was that although that report focused on economics, the polling that was in it — and it is hard to find meaningful polls in countries in this region — showed that in the four countries they could find data on, there was almost no agreement between countries on what people worried about, what they feared, how they prioritized the causes of their concerns.
And we have seen other polling data that raises very, very serious questions about the tendency to use words like “democracy” or “justice.” The fact is, very often people do not share any common perception of what these terms mean, and it can range from an elite that sees them in very Western terms to people who, when you question them, rapidly transform “democracy” into a strong leader that favors them without political parties, and where elections are a minor luxury.
And I think this is going to play out in very dangerous ways in some countries and successful in others. And if we simply look at the history of Western societies, quite aside from the Arab world, we should also remember that the ability to predict the outcome of revolutions is one thing that everybody lacks having in common.
It is almost the history of historians and analysts being consistently wrong in predicting what would happen, when you had regime change, over a very long period of time. What we do see is, in many cases, far too many, a reliance on repression rather than real reform. The rhetoric of reform is easy. Measuring in any transparent way whether the reform actually occurred is often extremely difficult. And when you do try to measure it, you find that people say things for which there is no substantial data to support that they actually achieved those results.
What we also see over time — something that probably has played a role in what we see — is a very major increase in the size of internal security forces. Some of that proceeded 9/11. Some of it has been driven by the pressure on counterterrorism by 9/11. Some of it has been simply a factor that there is, in rough terms, a correlation between the age of the regime and the growth and number of the internal security forces.
One problem we have is that for all the talk of area expertise, political science and reporting, there is almost no way to track, with any accuracy, how this has actually played out. The best thing I have been able to find, frankly, are the country reports and the State Department human rights report, but there are many cases where they rely on NGOs and other organizations where it’s clear that the event either did not happen or could not have happened in that particular form.
But what they do show is something that is somewhat surprising but tracks with polling data. One aspect of polling is that people don’t like the internal security forces when you ask them about the operation. If you ask them about the nation’s army and the police, the polling can be extraordinarily favorable, which makes no sense at all when the same poll asks them how the police and how the army and the security forces actually treat them.
But an underlying factor here that’s very important when we talk about democracy is that polls provide a consistent warning that one of the most serious areas of corruption lies in the courts, both in criminal justice and in civil and property issues. This is not consistent from country to country, but it is a warning that you do not, in many cases, have a functional rule of law in the Western sense and you do not have a clear separation of powers.
And you have two court systems. One is only casually corrupt. That is, you may not get a meaningful criminal justice, you may not get an honest resolution of a business dispute, but it is not dysfunctional. What does exist in virtually every country is a separate court system for security purposes where you do not have any enforcement of the legal system in the classic sense — arrests, phony trials, imprisonment, disappearances, exiles.
We also need to look across this area and realize that in many countries either political parties have not been allowed to form or that political parties do not exist in any real sense. I have to say, as somebody who once blundered into political science, it is always interesting to hear about the word “democracy” in a republic which is not a democracy, which relies on the separation of powers, which uses elected officials, and whose capability to operate as a political society depends on moderate political parties with vast experience in acquiring and giving up power.
The number of cases where a regime change has worked when there have not been prior working political parties and experience with governance and politics is a warning that change itself can be a recipe for failure.
You look beyond this and you see a long history of failed secularism. Whatever people advocated didn’t work, didn’t reach the people, didn’t stop growing disparity of income, did not produce expansion of infrastructure, education or government services that met popular expectations — not necessarily needs, but expectations.
You also see, if you start mapping sectarian, ethnic and tribal tensions, an increase over time, not always in violence but in rhetoric, and sometimes in violence as well. Again, it does not fit every case or government.
You do see surprising estimates of poverty levels. And here let me say, like every number I’m going to quote, there is no reliable source. If you look at the CIA, it does not agree with the State Department, which does not agree with the World Bank, which does not agree with the U.N. And if you look at the background of some of those data, you find that the basic model for collecting them can be anywhere from five to 10 years old.
Having said that, you see estimates of 30 percent at the poverty level — that’s a dollar and a quarter a day in an oil country like Libya — 18 percent in Iran, 25 percent in Iraq, and 45 percent in Yemen. Understand, the poverty level is subsistence or below. The vast number of people who are angry are not even in this group because they don’t have the time or ability to act out in demonstrations. They are far more the people who see income disparity or unfairness.
What you also find as you look at this and you try to see whether governments have invested in their people, a massive lack of credible transparency across the region. Where you have partial exceptions are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Morocco. It’s interesting when you actually look at the budget and investment and five-year plan data, to the extent they exist for other countries, their credibility could be described as “lacking.” In fact, the content is often missing.
It’s also true that governments that are not democratic in general do not poll. They may look at the polls, but it’s interesting how often they do not bother to measure popular grievances. And that means also that far too often we look at demonstrators in a square or on television, or the people with guns, or the people who are loud or reaching out to the Internet, and we take them far too seriously without knowing what the people as a whole think.
Here Iran is an interesting case. If you read through the literature, you find all kinds of comment about the Internet and tweeting, and the popular unrest and opposition to the regime. Fair enough. There was some, and we saw a lot of it.
You look at five to six different polls — one of them has dubious credibility — and you find that there was very broad support in Iran for the election and the regime because they went beyond the demonstrators that were visible. Was the poll accurate? I doubt it. Does the regime know what’s happening? No.
The population data are truly frightening, and perhaps my colleague from George Mason is going to comment on that as well, but you cannot have a threefold increase in population in countries which lag far behind other more developing regions and meet popular expectations.
All of us are aware you have very young populations. What you also find, to the extent the data are available, is these young populations peak, in unemployment terms, regardless of education, which is a very interesting metric. We don’t have precise data, but going to secondary school and university does not get you a job anymore. Contacts, family are far more influential. And we often see figures where you have 30 percent unemployment under 25 for males. Women are often simply not included in the search for the labor force.
We have some preliminary data which looks at another measure: Can young men and women afford to get married and buy a house? And the answer far too often is no. Some governments like Morocco have made this a really major priority. When Saudi Arabia announced the measures that the king issued after the ninth five-year plan during this crisis, he put a massive emphasis on housing. And there is, in a country like Saudi Arabia, a major deficit, particularly for young couples.
You are looking at hyper-urbanization, which often extends beyond utilities, beyond services to the government. You look at satellite photography and you see that cities have large slum areas in far too many countries where the government simply ignores or does not service the population.
And social change is truly radical. When you have this level of urbanization — and in Saudi Arabia, for example, the CIA estimates, with whatever credibility, that urbanization went from 8 percent in 1950 to 85 percent today. Talking about traditional societies is a somewhat dangerous issue to raise.
You also look at the Middle East and you see some very surprising realities about ranking in terms of international competition. You can’t transfer economics into unrest but you can say a country that has massive economic problems now is going to have economic problems for at last half a decade in the future regardless of how the regime changes. There are no quick, sudden answers.
Let me just quote you a few ranks in the world. Qatar is number one or two in GDP per capita. Algeria is 128th. Iran is a 100th. Iraq is 160th. Libya is 85th. Saudi Arabia is 52nd. Oman, sorry, is 52nd. Saudi Arabia is 55th. And Yemen is 172nd. Jordan ranks 141st, and Bahrain, which has been the source of so much unrest, ranks 19th.
So, whenever we talk about economic causes, what we see again and again is not the obvious: income disparity, perceptions of unfairness, perceptions of corruption, perceptions of nepotism, perceptions that you do not have a future, an opportunity. If you’re young, you have nowhere to go, and if you have children, they have no place to go.
So let me conclude. What is the message, to the extent we have one? Calling for reform doesn’t mean people know what they want. It means they share a common anger and lack of support for the regime, but they don’t even agree on what they are against, much less what they are for.
Regimes that do survive are probably going to go on repeating this mistakes until they are forcibly changed the next time. Regimes that do try to come to grips with these issues are going to have to be far more transparent and aggressively win public support because these problems are far too deep to deal with quickly. And unless you can bring the people along with you in an evolutionary way, the new regime is not going to fix anything.
If you look for historical parallels, there will be the 1789s in the Middle East, but my guess is there will be a lot more 1848s. The regime survives and 10, 20, 30, 40 years later the cost of that to the people is expressed in broad terms.
Just very quickly let me make some clear predictions for questions.
Bahrain, my guess, is failed reform, continued repression, sectarian division, and blaming Iran for the mistakes of the prime minister and the cadre around him.
Kuwait, already bound up by service politics, Islamic politics, sectarianism, splits in the royal family, but so much money it really doesn’t matter all that much.
Iran, a steady increase in the role of the security services. As yet, the backlash effect is not that high but it is making sufficient numbers of ongoing mistakes, so things will get steadily worse for the foreseeable future.
Iraq. There is no sector of the Iraqi economy which, at this point in time, is on a path to stable reform or growth, with the possible exception of the petroleum industry, and even that is uncertain. Democracy is semi-functional. The rule of law is not functional. Where this is headed is up in the air. It may well work out; it may well not. But we should not be either optimistic or pessimistic.
Oman I think is trying. The elite is aging. Population and over-dependence on foreign labor are serious problems. And looking at the planning structure, they probably need a little, shall we say, generational change.
Qatar. Well run, good plan structure, some moves toward reform, but with that much money, how can you go wrong?
Saudi Arabia, there’s no question. It’s extremely conservative. It does not share a lot of or social values. But what’s striking about Saudi Arabia is government-to-government in this region, it is has invested more money with probably more effectiveness in the immediate needs of the people than any other regime in the Arab world.
The UAE. Too rich, too few natives to fail. It may well become the most successful South Asian country in the Middle East.
Yemen. Frankly, it’s rather interesting that this is one of the cases where I think the World Bank has abandoned hope. You simply do not have a model that gets you out of the demographic economic water, and other issues.
Countries survive in spite of economic planners. So let me just conclude with one other point here.
Tom raised the issue, how do we address this? I think one clear point is nothing that happens is going to make a final change or set of reforms. If we are not prepared to work with each country on its terms, hoping for it to solve its own problems is simply not realistic.
When we talk about the cliché of dual standards with this much instability, we have to act to our own interests, and do it on a country-by-country basis. Talking about sending in the IRI or its democratic equivalent to sort of spread instant democracy failed dismally in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and it will fail again if that is seen as the solution to the region’s problems.
We’re going to have to look at our security interests over time, and we’re going to have to make some very hard choices between countries in a climate where, quite frankly, there is less and less domestic support for the kind of patience and role by the State Department, the expansion of country teams, and the kind of aid work that could actually work over time.
That is not a happy conclusion, but we need to really look at ourselves if we want to actually have the relations we’re going to need. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you for the broad analytical introduction.
And now Barak Barfi will possibly tell us what he’s seen.
BARAK BARFI, Research Fellow, New America Foundation
Thank you, Tom. I don’t know if I can go after Anthony’s great speech. I really agree with everything that he said. He really hit all the major points. I wanted to start with just a few basic points about the region before I talk about every country, about what I saw.
I first want to start talking about “Hama Rules” that Thomas Friedman came up with in 1982. It basically says that a dictator can kill and massacre its people in the Middle East, and that’s the rules that we played by when President Hafez al-Assad killed about 10(,000) to 15,000 people.
That was basically a unique experience in the Middle East. We’re talking about Alawis and Sunnis and the historical oppression of the Sunnis and the Alawis — oppressing the minority Alawis. No one was really able to replicate that in the Middle East.
I’m more apt to agree with the view that sees the Arab leader as a tribal sheik, as the Islamic historian Ya’qubi described the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty, where he said he threatens and he promises — (Arabic phrase). He basically cajoles, flatters and threatens to achieve policy objectives rather that using brute force, and violence is merely only a tool that he uses to achieve broader aims, and not the only one.
Another broad thing that we’re seeing in the Middle East, there was a long debate in Middle East circles about whether the Arabs were like us, whether their values were universal or not. The idea was embodying Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” It now appears that the Arabs love freedom as much as we do.
The differences between the two civilizations is not very large. H. A. R. Gibb’s theories about development seem much more apt today. That said, it remains to be seen whether the Arabs will embrace new modern values or remain embedded to their traditional ones, neo-patriarchal ones, as Hisham Sharabi discussed in his book.
I want to talk now about the three countries I visited in the last month or so — actually six weeks — and then talk about Yemen, a country that I do research about.
First off, in Egypt, the revolution took many by storm and shock. A lot of people outside the square couldn’t really stand the instability. They kept saying, this is not Egypt; this is not who we are. They were very frustrated. This was especially true outside the square where the television cameras were focused on Liberation Square.
Many Cairenes outside the square were frustrated with the protesters because of the damage to the economy. And Mubarak had some support in society. There were people that, even to the last days, were still saying, oh, Gamal could be a good president. And it just wasn’t isolated cases. You were seeing this throughout Cairo.
In the early days of the revolution, many in the West spoke of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover and feared an (Iranian ?) revolution redux. That was overly exaggerated. The Cairenes I spoke to fear a religious takeover and the loss of their liberties.
Appreciating these concerns, the Muslim Brotherhood decided not to seek absolute power and decided not to run candidates in more than half the districts so that they wouldn’t receive an absolute majority.
That said, we have seen an upswing in religiosity in Islamic groups. The end of the Mubarak era and its policy of religious containment has led to the emergence of new and old religious groups.
Salafists, who historically tried to shun politics, publicly emerged, and they took a vocal position during the constitutional referendum — the referendum on amending the constitution. We’ve also seen radical groups that engage in terrorism in the past, such as the Gama’a al-Islamiyya, declare that they want to transition into political parties.
And the notion of — on the subject of Israel, I found out that people still support the peace treaty with Israel, the Camp David Accords. They don’t really want war, but they do claim that Israel is violating this treaty and they want Israel to abide by it.
Populist politicians who have low poll numbers will probably seek to exploit the issue and to use it to their advantage in elections. We’re already seeing this with people like Ayman Nour. But the military will never allow a civilian government to annul the treaty because it brings in the latest military technology and about $1.3 billion in aid.
When we look to the future and the future leader, we only have a few choices. Amr Moussa must be considered the front-runner for the presidential elections. He’s been in the media spotlight since he became foreign minister in 1991. Ten years later he was named secretary general of the Arab League. This means that a generation of Egyptians grew up knowing him on a first-name basis.
He won the admiration of his countrymen when he stood up to Israel during the peace process years of 1990s. The Israelis were so frustrated with Amr Moussa that the circulated a government document, I think in about April 1995, that said, quote, “There were ill winds blowing in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry,” unquote.
This was much like Dominique de Villepin in France leading the French charge against the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003, making him very, very popular amongst his countrymen. Finally, Amr Moussa has not been associated with the regime for the last decade, leaving his free of accusations of corruption.
Another contender is Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian chemist who won the Nobel Prize. He’s very respected in society, but the fact that he took American citizenship hurts him much more than the fact that he spent time abroad.
The West has talked of Mohamed ElBaradei for a year, before the revolution, but he’s proved completely inept at politics, aloof and far too urbane for the average Egyptian fond of humor. Many Egyptians consider him a foreigner for the decades — the time that he spent abroad. His name recognition is usually tied to the regime placing him in a spotlight when he was IAEA chief. His potshots at the United States have not won him a lot of support recently.
Ayman Nour, the final candidate, he almost has no support in society and he will not be a factor in presidential elections, although parliamentary elections could be something else.
In Bahrain — I was able to spend some time in Bahrain. The idea of Iranian involvement in Bahrain is completely overblown. The mullahs gave up trying to export the revolution to Bahrain in the early 1980s. The island’s Shia view themselves as Arabs, limiting their feelings of kinship to Iran on merely religious factors.
Many Shia travel to Iran but only to study and to visit religious shrines. They don’t really buy into Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideology. Excuse me; I’m just going to get my water. During my time in Bahrain, I didn’t see any pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini or Khamenei, or flags — rather pictures of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, but I did see the Bahrainis chanting slogans like, quote, “This nation is not for sale. Brothers, Sunni and Shia,” unquote.
The mainstream opposition party, al-Wefeq, looks to Arab religious leaders known as marjas rather than Iranian ones. Those who look to Iran for guidance are on the fringes of the political spectrum and do not have much support.
The Saudis used events in Bahrain to send a signal to their own population, the Americans, and the Iranians. They were not going to allow their clients, the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain, to fall or get damaged. Bahrain has been Saudi Arabia’s best friend in the Gulf Cooperation Council and votes Riyadh’s line all the time.
The Saudi regime has propped up Bahrain for decades with financial support. A challenge to the Al Khalifas could have altered the balance of power within the GCC and tilted it in favor of the Qataris.
Shia power in Bahrain could have also empowered — emboldened, excuse me — Saudi Shia who are just across the causeway in the Eastern province. Any weakening of Bahrain’s Sunni leadership would have been a victory for Iran in the Saudi-Iranian proxy context that is emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Looking forward, the situation in Bahrain has reached depths never before seen during previous unrest in the 1920s, ’50s, ’70s and ’90s. It will take a long time to repair the damage. Sunnis are scared to travel to Shia areas. They no longer speak with their Shia friends. Shia people were picked up in the hospitals and taken to interrogation quarters.
State television brought on guests that properly questioned the loyalty of the Shia. The main opposition party, al-Wefeq, has lost a lot of its credibility on the streets. The younger generation will be drawn to fringe parties such as al-Haq, which advocate no compromise with the regime.
Crown Prince Salman, the island’s leading voice of reconciliation, is in the same hole with al-Wefeq and lost most of his influence and credibility. In short, the battle may be over in Bahrain but the hostility will endure.
Though the regime is pro-United States and Washington has now backed the protesters, the Shia are not anti-U.S. They have conflicting feelings and really don’t understand why the United States didn’t back their stand. But there’s little chance that they will attack American interests, as happened during the protests following the Israeli incursion into the West Bank in April 2002.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh overplayed his hand when he resorted to violence on March 18th. General Ali Mohsen proved himself to be the true power behind the throne when he defected and essentially signaled the end of the Saleh era. Even members of units run by Saleh’s nephews, counterterrorism units, sided with the protesters. At this point Saleh is being propped up by his money, having lost all his military and tribal backing.
Saleh did not understand that the rules of the game have changed. The tactics that he used in the past, negotiating in bad faith and turning the tables against his interlocutors, is over. People are focused on one thing: getting rid of him. And they’re adamant that he do so, and they won’t leave the streets until he does. As a result, his room to maneuver is quite limited, and the dignified exit he seeks will be refused him.
The opposition has been all over the board in this game. They were slow to respond to the initial protests and them moved to embrace them, gain them some respect, and now they’ve lost it all by accepting a deal with Saleh, allowing him to remain president until the parliament accepts his resignation. The backroom deal between Yemen’s powerbrokers smacks of everything that the Yemeni protesters want to get rid of.
Al-Qaida — Yemen does not have — Yemen does not interest the United States as much as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula does, and with the Yemeni military focusing its weapons and other military units, AQAP is free to plot attacks, strengthen existing relationships with its hosts, and develop new strongholds.
The organization has proved itself very adept and it doesn’t need a real — a large window of opportunity to score. But now that it’s offered more than that, they will be able to exploit instability. Time to think and plot will translate into more creative attacks that have become the hallmark of the most lethal al-Qaida affiliate.
Iran emerged as the big winner of the Arab Spring until events heated up in Syria. The fall of President Mubarak — Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was a tremendous coup for Tehran. He had a, quote, “visceral hatred,” unquote, of Iran according to American diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. He feared its religious radicalism would spread to Egypt. He loathed the Shia and saw them as a fifth column in the Arab world.
When Hezbollah operatives were caught planning in Egypt in 2009, they confirmed his worst fears. Mubarak stood with the United States and Saudi Arabia to contain Iranian influence. His successor is sure to take a more conciliatory view towards Iran. Any new Egyptian policy towards Iran will serve as progress. Mubarak’s fall leaves Saudi Arabia alone as a counterweight to Iran.
In Bahrain, there was little the Iranians could do because they didn’t have an operational network on the island and they had few supporters there. Despite the crushing defeat for the Shia there, Iran emerged somewhat victorious, if only because there’s so much enmity directed at the Sunni powers among the Shia. In the zero-sum game that characterizes the Middle East, any defeat of pro-American regimes must be viewed as a victory for Iran.
I want to finish by talking a little bit about the United States and its role in the protests. I think Tom talked about the Obama administration and its early paralysis. There is this notion in Washington — in the United States that America can really influence events on the ground and persuade people to go into the street or not to go into the street.
We saw this with the criticism of President Obama in June 2009 with the Iranian election — the protests and the aftermath of the Iranian elections. We heard it again during the Egyptian protests. I spoke to the protesters in Egypt and in Bahrain and they’re not taking their cues from the White House. They’re taking their cues from pent-up anger and frustrations that Anthony spoke about in his speech, and if President Obama tells them to go into the street, they’re not going to go into the street.
I remember in the years of the Palestinian intifada, I never heard a Palestinian say he didn’t go into the street because President Bush didn’t want him to. He went into the street because that’s what he felt. So, basically the ability of the president or the United States to really influence people to think what they want on the ground is somewhat limited.
Just one last point. I’m hearing a lot about that the Israelis are asking the United States not to put pressure on Syria and the Assad regime. I’m not sure where they’re getting this information because the Israelis I spoke to in senior positions are quite happy to see political instability in Syria and some damage to the Assad regime.
In Libya — just a few quick points because I know our other speaker is going to speak a lot about it. What I’m seeing on the ground in Libya is a lot of — a lot of joy that the Gadhafi era is over. People have a lot of faith in the National Transitional Council and the politicians there.
But if the council is not able to make progress on the battlefront and address burgeoning economic concerns that will arise in the next few months, people are sure to become frustrated and turn on it. So it’s in America and the West’s interest to really help the council at this point in time.
People are pretty frustrated with NATO. They don’t understand why NATO can’t strike all the time. They’re always asking us about this, the foreigners. And they’re also very frustrated that all they hear coming out of America is, well, are these people al-Qaida or not? They’re always telling us to tell Obama there is no al-Qaida in Libya, that they just want their freedom.
And basically what you see is the fighters there, they’re just average people — plumbers, teachers, petrochemical engineers — who are going to the front and just want to fight for their freedom. This idea that al-Qaida in Libya is very difficult to prove, and we’re not really seeing that a lot on the front.
With that I’ll turn it back over to Tom.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. Great to get a firsthand report.
There’s been a little change in that Bassam Haddad will be speaking next about Syria.
BASSAM HADDAD, Director, Middle East Studies Program, George Mason University
Good morning. Thank you for holding this event and for inviting me.
It is probably too early to make too many statements on what is going on in the region, and it’s best to stick to more preliminary claims or observations. What we do know is that what we are witnessing, even in cases like Tunisia and Egypt, is not a revolution, however. Neither is it complete regime change. But that is not pessimistic analysis, judging from a historical perspective.
And I’m not going to go into why this is the case. I’m assuming we all recognize that these things take time, perhaps not fast enough for the Facebook revolution, but it is actually the case that what we are witnessing is simply a resumption of politics in places like Tunisia and Egypt, to begin with, although more genuine levels of participation and contestation, which might lead in various directions and might involve reversals.
I would like to begin by critiquing the snapshot view of the uprisings and address the heterogeneity of cases, which was discussed by my fellow panelists.
First, it is important for us to recognize that many of us arrive at the situation today and have a snapshot view of what’s happening. Even Middle East analysts that I personally know, even myself, are not aware as much as we would like to be of some of the cases in which uprisings are taking place.
But, however, we are — in the sense that we are not as aware as we are on other cases, but somehow we try to put everything in a particular mold, and that kind of snapshot view I think produces problematic analysis.
And I think it’s better to hesitate sometimes before we make claims regarding regional level issues or generalizations, or regarding countries that we just assume that are going in this or that direction, without having research studied, read about what’s been happening in the past 30 years and how these years are filled with what we are seeing today, including the contradictions we are seeing that do not make sense without looking at this history.
The second point is the heterogeneity of cases. We are looking at a region that involves a vast difference among countries in terms of their particular economies, their social structure, the external relations, their internal regional diversity, internal communal diversity, sectarian diversity, and so on and so forth.
Egypt is a case where we saw people centered in Tahrir Square, for instance. Syria is a case where we have a completely different way of protest or patterns of protest that actually are nowhere near the center of Damascus. And this is just an anecdote, but there are many other much more significant differences.
So I would like to just say those words at the outset so that we can take pause and be humbled — and I address this also to myself — in terms of what we say in terms of broad generalizations.
We do know there is a number of political and economic causes that have been brewing for decades in the region, waiting for a spark to ignite protests in a variety of Arab countries. But we cannot reduce the protests, revolts or revolutions, whatever your taste, to political and economic causes, and many have been doing so.
And I’m glad to see that some of the comments made today also were critical of this idea that poverty or even inequality or political repression alone can produce these outcomes because you have poverty everywhere, you have political repression everywhere, and not just in the Middle East of course, and you have inequity, you have social injustice, and it doesn’t produce these things automatically.
Authoritarian rule did not just violate rights and impoverish large segments of the population. It also crushed sensibilities and destroyed spirits. More than the existence of this or that factor, it is the combination of frustrations on multiple levels that we can discuss in single cases with no exit in sight that made these societies ripe for an imminent uprising. And “ripe” doesn’t mean necessarily that it will happen automatically, of course.
In fact, the biggest elephant in the room — that is rarely discussed because perhaps it is not sexy to write about it or talk about it on television because more serious research and articles have not been produced yet — the biggest elephant in the room is not a product of authoritarian policies or imperialism or even Israel. It is actually demographics, what is known as the youth bulge in the Arab world.
Syria is a fantastic example, where more than 25 to 30 percent of the population is between 15 to 25, depending on the sources you cite. And every year in Syria, as in other countries in the region, depending on the population of course, but in Syria, more than 250,000 people enter a job market that is not providing for its existing job seekers.
So we have basically an army for the past 10 to 15 years of people that are just lounging, waiting for an opportunity. This is something that does not in itself cause protests, but if something is sparked, as in the case of Tunisia, there will be people who are ready to go to the streets, because they have very little to lose and because of a host of other factors that took place, including the domino effect.
It’s very important for us to know that people would not have been able to step to the streets in Syria had there not been Tunisia and Egypt and these other cases today. So this is analytically very important and it tells us a lot about, first of all, the connectedness within the region, despite these other differences. And it tells us a lot about the psychological barriers to transforming internal discontent and frustration to something that is somewhat public.
So the objective requirements for mass mobilization were all there in the late 1990s, in fact, after decades of a combination of repressive rule and lack of economic opportunity. And I do say — and I do intend to say that this is, for the most part, across the Arab world, with the exception of some of the oil-rich countries that have been able to provide the basic needs for their populations, as well as being places where explicit violence was not the norm.
A few events prolonged this state of pent-up frustration from the ’90s and early 2000s — discontent and anger that brewed. A few events prolonged this frustration, including the attacks of September 11th. And of course the effect was different in many cases because the attacks also provided the opportunity for many of the rulers in the region to fight their “opposition,” quote-unquote, legitimately in the international perception in the name of fighting, of course, terrorism. The invasion of Iraq and the two wars in 2006 and 2009 between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas respectively, though the latter was less of a war and more of a bombardment campaign — the point is that some countries in the region, not all, were affected differentially by these matters and of course this prolonged what we are viewing today.
In fact, what we are seeing today or what we saw in Tunisia in January is something that not one of us predicted. In fact, even those of us who predicted an imminent fall, we did not predict it would start in Tunisia. I do not know of any single — and I’ve done quite a bit of research — of any single analyst that predicted that this would happen this early, and if they did they did not predict that it would happen in Tunisia. Which also speaks to the importance of being just careful and taking pause in making a lot of statements, and I myself, again, might be overstepping this caution.
What seemed to hamper movement in the direction of protest in Tunisia, however, because Tunisia is a case that is far removed from this Levantine-related event that I shared with you — what seemed to hamper movement in the direction of protest in Tunisia and beyond was the fact that people were accustomed to respecting the wall of fear.
This is, again, one important variable; it’s not “the” variable. They respected the wall of fear on perfectly rational grounds. Once the psychological barrier was broken, the rest of the story was and is a matter of time for many such countries where the so-called objective conditions for protest or revolt were ripe.
Syria is certainly a case in point. And though the revolts and the consequences in Egypt are grand considering Egypt’s positionality in the region, Syria’s uprising and their — uprisings and their implications are no less consequential in the region. And I dare say, more dramatic, considering what Syria symbolizes for many in the aftermath of Camp David and the destruction of Iraq, twice.
I will say a few words on Syria and will leave the rest to the Q&A. Syria situation — Syria’s situation appears to be somewhat enigmatic from afar. But it is not so for long-term followers of developments there. Decades of oppressive rule complemented in the last 20 years with the rolling back of the welfare state, for the lack of a better word at this point, have produced the kind of disturbances to Hafez al-Assad’s strategy of leveling egalitarianism that the Syrian regime was never likely to withstand for too long.
The fact that the Syrian regime accumulated a relatively higher level of what we can call nationalist credentials was not sufficient to prevent or subvert protest. And certainly not when Syrian soldiers and secret service officers were shooting and killing Syrians.
This relatively higher level of nationalist credentials, which is actually touted by many inside and outside the regime, was acquired in part because Syria, as opposed to many states in the region, did not accept the prescriptions or conditionalities from international financial institutions like the IMF or the World Bank. Syria today does not have formal relations with these institutions, for instance. More significantly, however, Syria was and perhaps is the last bastion of anti-imperialism in the region at the level of states, and a secular one at that.
This is often referred to as Syria’s confrontational stance vis-à-vis Israel’s policies and the United States’ dominance in the region. Thus, Syria represented more than itself or the regime. It became a symbol of resistance to the unprincipled policies of the United States and the apartheid-like existence of Israel.
The fact that the Syrian regime exaggerates the import of this symbolism and has squandered much of this political capital by actively mimicking the brutality of both the United States and Israel in the region at the same time that it sought to appeal to this nationalist reservoir does not mean that these credentials do not exist at some level.
It would be a big mistake to discard this factor completely when it comes to regional variables. And we are seeing this at play when we compare Syria and Libya, where the fall of Gadhafi or even the fall of Ben Ali is very much the fall of Gadhafi and the fall of Ben Ali, whereas the fall of Syria is quite more complex as a result of Syria’s alliances, which we will see develop as time goes by as this conflict within Syria is going to be transferred, at some level, to the regional and perhaps even the international realm.
However, as we saw in the case of Egypt, this dimension — that of anti-imperialism — is not what these protests are about. And neither are the Syrian protests about anti-imperialism. These are local protests against local symbols of prolonged repression and stagnation. The resistance factor plays a more dominant role among publics outside Syria, which explains the relative quiet among the left and center segments of the political spectrum in the region, compared to their vociferous condemnation of the other regimes earlier and ongoing.
Ultimately the Syrian regime has always been more fragile when it came to its domestic policies. And despite the regime’s narrative of external infiltration, and what is called the mundaseen (ph), which is another world for infiltrators, the protests are certainly about domestic policies.
Rest assured, however, that the time will come in both Egypt and post-Assad Syria for the other issues dealing with Israel and the United States and other topics in the region. Just like there will never, or there will be no return — not never, but there would likely be no return to the sort of the repression we witnessed in the region for decades, there will also be no return to the weak and pathetic stance many of these regimes adopted vis-à-vis the United States and Israel, at least not any time soon.
What remains is a discussion of how Syria might differ or not from its Arab counterparts in terms of regime-protesters dynamics — regime-dash-protesters dynamics. I would like to address this at three levels if time permits, and then maybe say just a couple words about policy. I’m not very big on policy; I’m more trained in analyzing, and not always very well, of course, like the rest of us, but I’m not going to focus too much on policy. But I will say a few words.
Three things about Syria I can discuss very quickly if time permits: regime, on the one hand; opposition-slash-protesters on the other; and the society at large and divisions within it. I’ll start by looking at the regime. What is significant about the regime is actually a whole set of factors that I will not discuss all of them. I will discuss the relevant ones, at least what I think are the relevant ones, and I’m happy for — I’m happy to get more input or questions about these issues.
The most significant difference between the Syrian regime on the one hand and the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes on the other hand is that the kind of possibilities that -- the lack of an organic structure for the other regimes, in Egypt and Tunisia, does not basically hold in Syria. In other words, the Syrian regime is far more organic internally at least at the middle, above middle and top levels. And the higher you go, the more you’ll find an organic type of regime that is not likely to lend itself to the kind of outcomes that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, whereby some sort of authority other than the top leadership of the regime can step in and resolve the conflict or transit into something else by basically removing the head or symbol of power. This is simply not possible in Syria. It’s a ship that will either sink or float, however badly.
So that informs the strategies of top leadership within the regime. And the kind of zero-sum game that you see unfolding on Syrian streets between the regime and the opposition is very much a posture that is reflective of that reality. I could be wrong; I would be extremely surprised if we see cracks at the top. There might be cracks at the top but they will reserved internally and then the ship will keep on moving in whatever direction that the victor decides. But we will not see a split whereby an institutional component is part of the split; say, the top security services or the top army officials.
Second, the opposition and the protesters. There are a number of things we can say about the opposition and protesters in Syria, but perhaps the most significant starting point is the fact that in the past 20 or 30 years the kind of connectedness among individuals in Syria is very different from, say, the case of Egypt. Whereby in Egypt, civil society expansion and various measures of civil and political rights were extended, in Syria this has not been the case. In fact, the atomization of Syrian society into individuals that actually stay away from politics for rational reasons having to do with the threat of getting involved in politics still colors the Syrian polity today.
Therefore, we see that there is a lot of commonality in terms of how the protesters or the opposition is united against something, but there is very little indication that they are united for something. And that creates — that has strategic implication for how things unfold on the ground. As a result, the opposition is somewhat fragmented. It does not have a clear systematic strategy. Also, now, because of a lack of communications which is evident by the siege of Daraa and soon to be followed perhaps by other cities, because this is becoming a model.
And you know things are getting really nasty when these tactics — when these regimes begin to emulate Israel, in its siege of Gaza for instance. And that is likely to continue if other factors, like international or regional interference, does not bear fruit.
So as a result the protesters are likely to be more and more fragmented and attempts at connecting actually might not even be feasible within the opposition. The other issue with the opposition is that it has not yet resorted to violence, which is something that is a good idea because resorting to violence is going to justify and legitimize responses that are — that will make what we have seen recently look like a picnic.
One other, and that is the opposition in Syria, to the extent that the United States tries to support it or other regimes or countries or states or governments try to support it, I think it might actually backfire depending on the source of the support because of the nature of the Syrian polity. The organic Syrian opposition, for instance, vehemently refuses support from factors or states like the United States because it will delegitimize them. It’s a bit of a different situation than in the other cases.
In terms of the society at large and divisions within it, of course this does not explain the — or does not prevent a coup d’état or a change in regime. But it makes it very complex that the Syrian society is made up of a variety of groups. We can call them sects, we can call them communities, we can call them what we will. I try to avoid calling them sects because that lends itself to the sectarian argument that I reject. But Syrian society is quite heterogeneous and in the natural state it’s very difficult for them to come together to define, in this condition, to define what they want. It’s much easier to come together to define what they do not want.
Which is one of the reasons why, despite the thousands and tens of thousands of people we saw on the streets, this is the reason why millions of Syrians who are not in love with the regime, and many of them actually do not like and perhaps detest the regime, are not going to the streets; not because of support for the regime but because of the fear of an unknown unfolding in Syria that would produce the kind of chaos that Syrians still remember from what happened next door in Iraq or what is happening today in Libya.
So the regime has opportunities to drive a wedge in, basically, in the situation today, between protesters and to reduce the flow of this reservoir of Syrians that have not yet taken to the streets. Of course, the continuing violence by the regime is likely to spin all these variables I discussed out of control and bring even more and more people to the streets despite all of these seeming impediments. So there is a threshold of violence that is at play here. I don’t know — I do not know what the threshold is. But I do know that if it’s crossed a lot of these cautionary statements will dissipate.
I’ll say a few things about policy, what do we need to do or what does the U.S. need to do with respect to foreign policy in Syria or in the region at this time. Anytime people speak about policy I would like to just say that we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. I’ll just mention one of them for the — because I think I’m running out of time. First, what is or on what basis are we making policy recommendations?
And that is something that we take for granted and we never rethink the basis, or at least many of us do not rethink the basis or rethink them simply in a procedural manner. Are we assuming that continuity is desirable? Or are we to rethink the basis of U.S. policy in the region?
The current uprisings, in my view, coupled with what has happened in the United States over the past 10 to 15 — well, 10 years — including what happened in 2008 economically and so on, signal that it is high time for the U.S. to reconsider the basis of foreign policy, not necessarily foreign policy itself. Things don’t change that quickly and perhaps shouldn’t.
I have no illusions that social justice will have a place even in a reconsideration of the basis of U.S. foreign policy. This is not something that, I think, sane analysts would advocate — at least not with a lot of salt or whatever spice. My fear, however, is that even rationality will be sacrificed yet again. Rationality in the sense of at least holding back forces that exact undue influence on U.S. foreign policy at a time when the world is changing and, if nothing else, the United States is no longer at the top or on the top of the world without potential rivals.
Absent rationality, do not bother introduce any social justice concerns, and I think it is prudent for us to recognize in the Middle East that there is this other player, even if it’s an embryonic player, which is — you know, in a sort of romantic way — people power. And that is something that I think we must contend especially if we’re looking at the long term, not just at the next presidency or the next election.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Bassam, and Karim, would you come to the podium?
KARIM MEZRAN, Director, American Studies Institute, Rome
Thank you. Thank you very much, Tom, and after all this suspense, it would be nice to come up and say, sorry, I don’t have anything to say and — (laughter) — and just go.
Well, after all these great speakers, it’s quite challenging for me to come up and say something that will interest you enough, and they went very much and very well over the various descriptions about the regions and analyzing what was happening in general in various countries. So what I’ll do, I’ll stick to Libya and I’ll try to make a little analysis and more — get more on some few policy points to discuss.
But just one note: As Tom said, I live within Europe and the Middle East so I’m sort of — I don’t want to say biased, but highly influenced by the perceptions that in Europe we have about what is happening. And there were two points for those who are mainly and mostly discussed or taken by the press and the political actors that I didn’t see as evidenced as much here.
And the first thing is that what was — what we tend to emphasize is the fact that finally, after many, many years of farce, of joking about it or some — the Arab press, the Arab place, the Arab street, the Arab square has come up into the picture. People have taken in their hands, for whatever reasons there were, the decision to revolt against regimes, to rebel — something we’ve been accustomed to see in other parts of the world and were sure they did not exist in Europe — in the Middle East. So that was one of the first things that were pointed out.
And second, in regard to the U.S. foreign policy, while I agree completely with Barak that none of us were — the Arabs went to the streets because the President Obama told them to do, but the perception was that, for the first time, it has been changed at least apparently, but I don’t know how much correct it is, and you know more than I do about that.
The impression is that, for the first time, the old saying that it is ours — it is a son of a bitch, but it is our son of a bitch, has been changed, and the United States will not stand by a dictator the when — the moment that he is attacked or contested or revolted by his own people. That the policy would be switched the moment a good governance would not be true anymore. And so that is probably one of the reasons that, in Europe, they think that there is this factor of imitation between one country and the other — that it’s like — let go, there won’t be much reaction against it. These are just two observations.
The debate on Libya has been also focused on, until very recently, on the why it has happened: What were the genesis of this revolt? Was it natural? Was it spontaneous? Was it guided? Was it the fruit of somebody else’s intermingling with the domestic affairs? That has been really talked a lot about it. And been journal articles been written about strange connections here and there, but I would like to shy away from that, and get directly into what is happening today, what’s the situation now. Because I think that it is getting bad, and the situation on the ground is providing a stalemate, and it is important that we find a way out or a — propose a way out that does not imply the complete destruction of the country, as it seems for many people I talk to an almost inevitable trend: The choice has been made to go to war, and that’s the only possible solution.
What is happening is that we have the insurgents, the rebels, whatever you want to call them — the patriots, however you want to call them — mainly concentrated in Cyrenaica, so —enthusiastic, mostly young people and professionals and so on, supported by this international coalition led with a lot of enthusiasm by France and England, with much less enthusiasm followed by other actors, such as the United States. And dragging behind is the government of Italy, who has no clue about what’s going on in its former colony and its — in its most important country for its foreign exports, and it’s vaguely hanging around asking what to do and what not to do.
This support goes on with the French furnishing of weapons, of technology, now more of in the — in instructors. We know that there have been many more before, but officially they’re just coming in right now. Bombing are happening; raids are occurring in — not only on the coastal cities, but also on the interior, we have reports of bombings even down south through Sabha and other cities.
The situation is such that nevertheless, at this point, it seems to be clear that, as it is, the forces are with this — so this current support of the West, the transitional council of Benghazi, and then his troops and his volunteers are capable of holding on the part of Cyrenaica, not much more than that. These troops are undisciplined, poorly trained, disorganized, they control less than a third of the territory, much less so of the — of its resources. There is an incredible level of rivalries within its self-appointed members of the council. There is fighting. Haftar left, went, nobody knows really who controls the troop and so on.
The situation in Tripolitania is even more delicate than that. Strangely as it is, the troops have hold — the army has hold its grounds. The soldiers are fighting, the officers are not defecting to a large part, the much-vaunted part of mercenaries — they do constitute a part of these troops, but a minimal part. Gadhafi has shown that he has immense — a minimal, but a certain number of consensus around his government and — at least in the region. He has kept control — there’s something that has went overlooked is he has kept control over the southern part. The Fezzan is still largely in his hands, the troops of (unintelligible)— are intact, are there. Nobody knows what to do. They seems to be loyal to the government, but they’re still there, untouched.
This tactically means that Gaddafi has a way out down south from where money, weapons — the mercenaries can keep on coming. Therefore, means it is almost meaningless, the barrier on the northern part of the country, the embargo that is considered to be also an important aspect.
The tribes — what do we mean by “tribes”? In Libya, especially in Tripolitania — and the vast majority of the citizens of Tripolitania are beginning, while not supportive — and this has to be emphasized — of the regime, by no means, the vox populi is: If I have to trade Gadhafi for his butler, who’s a member of — who’s (from ?) Cyrenaica, to come over here and rule me, that is not acceptable.
There is a — the reorganization of guerrilla unity, there is a fragmentation in gangs and stuff that is going on in Tripolitania that is not an indication of positive outcome. There is also this belief, which is widely expressed — okay, I understand that we all know it, that in the Middle East the idea of conspiracy theory is big. We are all American-trained, and we tend to shy away from this. But when something is believed very much, it becomes a political factor. So we have to take into consideration.
In Tripolitania there is a strongly held belief that the coup — the revolt were spontaneous, but they triggered an attempted coup d’état that was organized month and month before by France, by betrayed traitors within the regime, and so the idea is that is a Cyrenaican affair. That’s something that happened there. They want to overturn the balance of power; we are not going to accept it. And that’s — this is a widely held belief against which you encounter difficulty in talking.
Some other people say that there is the perception within the entourage of Gadhafi, within his inner circle, that he could hold — that the war can be won, that there is no way that the West will intervene militarily in such an effective way to get to Tripoli and conquer the country. This I don’t think it’s true. There is a heavy pressure within the same circles and there is the realization that the era is finished, that the regime is over, that there has to be a way out that has to be found and/or created or proposed.
The fact that the troops are holding their grounds doesn’t mean much, and doesn’t mean much as well the rhetoric with which the regime is aggressively presenting itself in the press. That has always been the case, and it’s a very typical attitude of that regime and that personalities. You shoot very high, and then on the ground, you act differently. Therefore I don’t think that the dominant perception within the regime is that of a victory. It’s that there is a stalemate, and we can hold the ground until something happens. What happens — they’re not working for that, for anything to happen, they’re waiting for something to happen from the outside.
Another point that should be make is that, “rebus sic stantibus,” being this the situation on the ground, I do not think that, if even a victory, by whatever means — Gadhafi is killed, and the regime implodes, and the people from the transitional council of Benghazi are parachuted by the French into Tripoli and enter Tripoli victorious — that will mean the unification of Libya, that will mean a solution to the case, that will mean peace and that will mean reconstruction. I actually believe that that will mean the opposite.
We are — the scenario that I play in my mind and in that of my colleagues when we think about it is the Iraqi scenario, where you enter in with the belief that you remove Saddam Hussein, disband the army and bring democracy and everybody will be happy. Mutatis mutandis, that, OK, is a different — I know. But the same thing will then happen to Libya. You kill Gadhafi, kick it out, everybody will be happy, the army goes home, and the new administration can be set and the country will be unified and everything will go back to shape.
I don’t think that will happen. I’m actually highly pessimistic either in the case of a stalemate or in the case of a victory of — the sudden victory of the Benghazi council will solve anything. The other possibility, there is a victory of Gadhafi or holding out, I don’t even take it into consideration. There is in my opinion absolutely no way that the regime can survive. It has exhausted it’s — if it ever had a reason, it has been definitely exhausted.
Therefore, entering into the realm of policy prescriptions, I do not think, as well, and I do not have any information regarding a fact, that a serious attempt to negotiating or offering a negotiated way out for Gadhafi has been attempted. The African Union was not done properly and was not intended to happen in that direction. One has to understand the inner workings of this regime; one has to understand the dynamics of the elite group and the dynamics of Gadhafi as a man.
Never believe that Gadhafi was crazy; never believe that he was out of touch with reality. Gadhafi is like any other dictator; he needs — he wants to live and he doesn’t want to die as he says he wants to die. And that’s my personal belief.
A negotiated offer should be made that would save his face, but at the same time would prevent him from having any role in the future of Libya. That can only be done, and that is a role that I think only the United States can play. A negotiated message that would convince him to leave power to remain in Libya should be offered, in a way, in total isolation in Sirte, in Sabha, in wherever the debate is, but he has to remain in the country because the most important thing is that he abdicates.
Gadhafi has to leave his role and somebody has to — and this is a transitional situation which is fundamental that somebody takes the power on his behalf in Libya. A figure that is less tainted than he is, that’s not too much into the inner dealings of the regime, but it could hold the ground because the most important thing is that the army gets reassured that there will be somebody that will take the administration in power, that will maintain the structure, whatever structures there are, that will maintain the regularity of the army. There will be somebody, say, guaranteeing the continuation for a few days or a few weeks or a few months, you know, that will start then the negotiations with the transitional council of Benghazi.
At this point, history comes to help because Libya needs — Libya was made by the United Nations many, many years ago. And I think that there is a role for the United Nations at that point to intervene with a commission like the one Adrian Pelt headed or one that Adrian Pelt organized in the early — in the end of the ’40s and early ’50s that led to the independence of Libya.
There should be a commission that should be able to select, and the word is select, a number of representative Libyans from the whole region. People that have not been part of the regime but their — but have, because of their family, because of their tribal, because of their charisma, because of their role in society, enough to be able to represent the whole of the Libyan state, the whole of the Libyan nation. And therefore form a commission that will be in charge to draft a constitution.
A transitional government would be in place; this transitional government would run and rule for the (ordinated ?) administration which needs to be taken care of, and all of this under the protection of the United Nations. The new constitution would be draft, and then a certain period of time would be left for elections.
Now, all of this seems to be elaborate. I understand that this might be a difficult plan, this might be complicated in many aspects, but as we all try to say is that it’s the only alternative for diplomacy to play a role instead of war.
What we see is a tragedy that is going to happen is the complete destruction of what is left of Libya. And I think that if is not — if no negotiated way out is offered to the regime, that’s what we are going to see. We’re going to see a few weeks if not month of heavy bombing, of fighting, of stalemate, of breaking down of the civil order in most parts of Tripolitania, we are going to see what is a civil war, de facto, happening and going on.
One last point: Anytime I speak about this, there is a reaction which is like, it’s not in national interests of the United States to do that. And the second, the idea of leaving Gadhafi in Libya is alien to most of the diplomats in charge and to most of the politicians that talk about it.
I agree that there — at this point it’s not any vital interest of the United States. But at the same time, why — I hear also that there is no al-Qaida in Libya, that is a stupid thing to say that the revolt have al-Qaida behind it or the Islamists behind it. I agree that there is nothing like that. There are very few and scattered for this reason. But it doesn’t mean that an anarchic system, a civil war situation, a gang and criminal racketeering domination of parts of the country will not lead to the realization of sanctuaries, to the realization of training camps for terrorists or for Islamic organizations.
The continuation of the war would also mean the impossibility to maintain the great man-made river structure, which means very little water coming to the coastal cities, which means a water problem very quickly for over 2 (million), 3 million people. Food is already lacking in Tripolitania, there’s nothing like that. There are riots in the gas stations; there are empty shelves in the supermarket and in the stores. It is beginning to become a problem.
All of this to say that once you’re going to have this kind of collapse or this kind of picture, you’re going to have a huge humanitarian crisis right in the middle of the Mediterranean. And if Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, France and company are already complaining about the entering of a group of immigrants of 15 (thousand), 20,000 Tunisians, I wonder what will happen when there’re going to have 100,000 or 200,000 Libyans, starving, walking into Tunisia. Or walking into Egypt if that is going — if that picture is going to happen.
That will then become a vital interest of the West, at least, if not the United States.
Thank you very much.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Karim.
I see about half a dozen people in the audience who could have been panelists today and have been panelists for us in the past and will be in the future, so I know that there will be good questions from this audience. And I don’t want to take much time myself.
But I do want to ask one question. Barak and I already exchanged an email about this. I’m someone who works on Iran in addition to other things, and I’m interested in this question as to how much Iran has gained, particularly in Egypt. Barak thinks that they’ve gained something significant; I wonder what Anthony Cordesman thinks about this.
I myself think that Iran’s potential for more influence in the Arab world is limited, considering how they treated their own opposition. And in Egypt, it’s a Sunni Arab country, the military will still be there playing an important role.
Yes, they’ve talked about establishing diplomatic relations with Iran but the foreign minister also said that the Gulf is a red line and that they oppose an extension of Iranian influence into the Gulf. So it sounded as if they were willing to stand with the GCC. Maybe Barak could amplify on his view, and I am interested in Anthony’s idea about that.
DR. CORDESMAN: Let me just say I think it’s far too early to make any judgments about what is going to happen in Egypt. And I think that whatever happens, it’s going to have a much more direct impact in terms of U.S. access to the Gulf, Israel, what happens in the Levant, than it is in Iran.
As to whether Iran benefits from this overall pattern of events, what has happened in Bahrain, whether or not Iran has been responsible — and I do not believe it has — has triggered in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries a very direct increase in their willingness to react against Iran. And that’s been very clear from the visit of Secretary Gates and others to the region.
I think that what’s less clear is what’s happening in Iraq, which to me is much more critical. But what’s playing out in Iraq is so far from being clear at this point, even to the Iraqis, that exactly what Iran will or will not get out of it is I think equally problematic.
You look at Syria and you wonder exactly what Iran will get out of that, and the answer is I don’t think very much if anything else. Syria ends up, if the regime stays, with a very long period in which the regime has to concentrate on surviving as a regime, less able to play games in Lebanon, less able to play games inside the region.
And the thing that I think we also have to remember is that we haven’t exactly seen Iran exult in the unity of the Iranian leadership over the last few months. We certainly have not seen Iran move toward economic or internal stability. The fact that it is pushed into canceling subsidies is an issue we’ll have to see play out over time.
So for all of these reasons, I think choosing a winner or loser at this point is very difficult. But within the Gulf, and particularly the southern Gulf, Iran has emerged as the loser. The GCC states I think are far more concerned or even more concerned about Iran than they were before this. And it isn’t simply Bahrain, it’s Yemen, and it is Iraq. And these matter a great deal more to the Gulf States in practical terms than what happens in the Levant.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you. Barak — (inaudible) —
MR. BARFI: I don’t think it’s much as an increase in Iranian influence as a reduction in resistance to Iran, which will strengthen its relationship with its clients in the Arab world, particularly Hezbollah and Hamas. If we look at what’s going on with Hamas in Gaza, there’s been a reduction in the Egyptian desire to impose — to coordinate with Israel an embargo against Hamas in Gaza which will eventually strengthen Hamas, and eventually strengthens Iran.
We have to remember Mubarak was an anti-Iranian pillar. Along with Saudi Arabia, it was the pivotal anti-Iranian axis in the region. And as a counterweight to that you had the Qatari, Syrian and Turkish axis. With Mubarak now gone, the Saudi Arabians stand alone. And the Saudi Arabians don’t like to lead policy initiatives in the region. They like to stand behind quietly in the background and dole out money. So it’s going to be very, very difficult for Saudi Arabia to stand on its own.
So also we look at Egypt’s other relationships with the Arab world, and if we look at Bahrain it’s a great example. Egypt was very, Mubarak was very, very close with Bahrain and the ruling family — (chuckles) — particularly because he saw it as a bulwark against Iran. So that’s where I’m looking at Iranian — Iran gaining.
That said, it’s — as I said in my talk, it was gaining until what happened in Syria. Syria is very, very important to Iran. It’s a game-changer in the region if Syria falls because it’s a conduit for Iran to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. So if anything happens to Syria which would jeopardize that relationship, would be very, very damaging to Iran.
To move to the Gulf, I totally agree with what Anthony said about Syria-Iranian interests being damaged there and its being weakening there.
When — a lot of people here in Washington are overly eager to see an Iranian hand in a lot of conflicts and areas, particularly a place like Yemen. We’re not really seeing that Iranian involvement in Yemen and, as I said, we never really saw that in Bahrain. So those are the things that we’re looking at in the region, with Iran’s gaining some type of influence is mostly because of removing a pillar to a resistance and opposition to Iran and just knee-jerk opposition to Iran.
DR. MATTAIR: Okay. Do we have a question from the audience? Yes?
Q: Hi, my name is Santi Riaz Tuti (ph), I’m an internation (ph) journalist. I’m with — a fellow with America Abroad Media. I have a question for Mr. Bassam. I’m interested in your statement earlier that the opposition or the protestors — they unite against something, but not sure for something. So is it possible that probably there’s somebody like a potential leader, within these protestor, that can probably, kind of like, give the cause — what they’re fighting for, against that?
And then my second question is to Mr. Karim Mezran: How do you see — our TV station just sent a team to Libya to confer, and then they just came back this past Saturday, but — how do you see the role of the Gadhafi sons and daughter in the transitional, if possible? Are they also rejected by the people within Libya? Or it’s something that probably — they can probably be at a transitional government before the reform? Thank you.
DR. HADDAD: Thank you. There is no shortage in Syria for potential leaders in the opposition. The problem is one of representation.
People like Riad Seif, who is an industrialist, self-styled social democrat, lives in Damascus, spent five years in jail after the failed Damascus Spring in 2001 because he was outspoken — might speak for a segment of Syrians, but not others as a result of the lack of communication that we are witnessing today in Syria. Others, like Michel Kilo, which is a — who’s an author, who is a leader of the — part of the opposition, of course, throughout the past 10 years, also spent several years in jail and is out. He’s a vociferous critic of the regime; however, he has been advocating, along with many in the opposition — and we’re talking about an opposition that was jailed, some of them in solitary confinement, so these are not sympathizers of the regime — but are advocating a pause in Syria in dealing with what we are looking for as a result of a complex set of variables that include domestic and regional variables, and basically, also the question of where next, where to, if we are just calling for a sort of a regime change.
So these are just two examples of people who agreed or agree on basics, who agree on the importance of a better leadership, or agree on the principles of democracy. But they represent how difficult it is to basically come together and agree on what is needed to happen. I mean, after all, if there is no gravity behind those leaders and that gravity would have come from a lot of interaction, you can have leaders emerge, but it’s questionable to what extent they would be supported by all factions or all aspects of the opposition. And I think with — as more time passes, we might see something of the sort develop, but we will also see other opposition members having different opinions of how to proceed. So it’s a grim picture, and I think if I’m aware of it, the regime’s aware of it.
DR. MEZRAN: I think that the negotiated solution would imply an offer to Gadhafi that he has to either play the role of Saddam or he plays a variation of the role of Mubarak. In the first case, there — it goes from there what is going to happen, there is no role for anybody. In the second case, in exchange for his abdication, for his going away, life will be saved for his kids and the international guarantee that he can — that they can live outside of Libya, they can go away, they can get forgotten, it can be reached. But whether there is going to be a role for Gadhafi, or anyone of his family in Libya, I tend to exclude it at any cost.
DR. MATTAIR: Hossein?
Q: Hossein Ebneyousef, International Petroleum Enterprises. I’d like to thank you all for the wonderful presentation. I have three quick comments and a question on the education.
Lots of money’s been spent on the education and as Mr. Cordesman been mentioned, in Saudi Arabia in particular, they spend a lot of money on different issues and particularly education. And yet there is a huge mismatch between the needs and the availability and, unfortunately, in the case of Saudi Arabia, looks like that almost half graduates have done their work in religious studies.
On the youth, yes, they’re frustrated. They’re probably vocal, they’re mobile, but the polls that I’ve seen basically says that their political views and even their religious views are not that much different from the rest of the public. So why do we have to highlight the youth and the movement and so on?
And on the emphasis on the domestic nature of the protests and, you know, not mentioning the outsiders and so on, the reality is that the Arab-Israeli issue is at the core and people are really concerned about that issue. And the support that their leaders — the Arab leaders are getting from the outside is something that we cannot ignore. So it’s kind of — the hatred for that kind of relationship, it’s kind of embedded in what we have seen.
But on the question side, we cannot ignore the fact that oil is really the most important issue, as far as the West is concerned, in the Arab world. And yet, today, there was hardly a mention of oil. Mr. Cordesman correctly, you know, pointed out, but some of the benefits that it would have, like for Iraq in particular, but even that perception that oil can really help Iraq is fading. There’s a lot of reneging, you know, there’s a strong resistance to even the first contract that went to the Chinese, the oil companies and service companies — they have, you know, second thoughts about someday the decisions that they’ve made — so the question is, we’ve just completed a major study on the political changes in the Arab world and the impact that it would have on the oil industry, and I hope that some of you at least can address that. And I’d like to see what you think of that — the particular issue. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: I actually in my introductory remark identified access to oil and gas as a strategic national interest that the U.S. administration is thinking about. But — Anthony has something.
DR. CORDESMAN: Let me make a couple of points. One, the mismatch between education and job creation is just as great in Egypt and Iraq as it is in Saudi Arabia. And, if anything, the country that has seen one of the worst collapses in education is Iraq, in part because of the role of the Sadrists, but also because that ministry got so little attention over recent times and, in fact, was almost exempt from major aid activity, again partly because of the Sadrist activity. So you had — you look across here and you have to be very, very careful. Simply because you have secular education doesn’t mean it creates jobs or opportunities.
When you talk about youth, why do you have to take them into account? First, because they are the dominant part of the population now, and they are going to be young and growing for a very long period of time. But second, I don’t know what polls you’ve seen; the polls I’ve seen are much less, shall we say, sanguine. And they are particularly less sanguine about young men.
The problem lies in the difference between political consciousness, insecurity, anger and — among other things, polls that, for example, in one of the Arab development reports indicated that more Moroccan college graduates wanted to immigrate than stay in Morocco — that’s not a sign of security, even in a relatively moderate and secular country.
On oil, the reality is I think we didn’t get into it simply because it is so clear. And there was a projection just two days ago, the Department of Energy issued its latest estimate. Showed the United States will be dependent on oil for 41 percent of its liquids through 2035, which is as far as they projected. That simply says there will be absolutely no meaningful difference in U.S. strategic dependence on petroleum as far as we can model, and this is by the Department of Energy. And that did not include indirect imports — Asia uses oil to produce our goods — or America dependent on the stability of the global economy where other countries have to import.
But the reality is when you look at the numbers, only a very narrow range of oil countries translate oil wealth now into something that gives their population real support. Some of it is Qatar and Kuwait are wealthy enough, the UAE, so they can do it easily, particularly for a domestic population. Saudi Arabia does it structurally and has for something like three five-year plans. The other oil countries simply don’t.
And the problem, particularly in cases like Iraq, is — I have seen some of the models that were used, both by the government and the oil companies in job creation; I think everyone outside realizes these are absolutely ridiculous. They’re an order of magnitude to two orders of magnitude higher than the job requirements created by any other petroleum sector in the region.
The problem is oil wealth is spent through native populations in ways which are not created by jobs in the petroleum sector, and estimates by the Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency show that you’ll get to about half to 60 percent of the production goals set by the Iraqi government about five years later than the Iraqi government. And in countries today which do not have high oil wealth per capita — and the EIA, the Energy Information Agency, maps those quite well. Given current population growth, there will be a steady decline in per capita oil wealth in spite of the major increases in oil prices. And those countries do not rank meaningfully in terms of overall per capita income relative to non-oil countries even in the Middle East.
So what’s sometimes called the petroleum disease is still a major problem for most countries and will remain so.
DR. HADDAD: Can I say something?
DR. MATTAIR: Comment?
DR. HADDAD: The question of the youth, I think, is embedded in the larger issue of demographics. I’ll give you just an example.
In the 1960s the Syrian population numbered in the few millions. State policies, welfare policies were able to satisfy a plurality of these people and their — some of their dependents. Today, the population of Syria is 22 (million) to 23 million that are mostly outside the circle of beneficiaries from these state policies. That alone creates a very serious problem; that’s why I was focusing on demographics.
The second point is the point about the youth, and the reason why this makes it explosive is because this is the first generation in the past, say 10 years — or a mixture of generations, maybe one-and-a-half or two generations, in the past 10 to 15 years — grows up to know for a fact that they — as far as their perception, that is — that they have few opportunities, if at all, inside Syria or inside the countries in which they exist, and that makes for a pressure-cooker situation that developed over more than 10 years.
I’ve been in — recently in Egypt to Lebanon and Syria, and when you speak to the youth you also realize — I mean, add to, of course, add the pressure cooker effect, add the demonstration effect in Tunisia and Egypt, but also add the exposure effect. These are very well connected and wired youth even if they are not from upper- or middle-class backgrounds. And add to that that the research right now that’s being conducted on the youth in the region speak of an ideological shift.
A lot of these people are not as encumbered as their mothers and fathers with Islamism. So we see something like post-Islamism developing. It’s not anti-Islamism, but it’s post-Islamism. Sometimes even post-Islam or post-communalism. We see a post-Arab nationalism develop, also, not against Arab-nationalism and so on. But we see the youth coming together for basic needs and basic freedoms that actually are quite common across the Arab world from Libya to Bahrain.
So the numbers and the level of disenfranchisement among the youth, I think, makes for an explosive situation that we are likely to see in other countries, I think, in the coming five years.
DR. MATTAIR: We do have a question from someone watching the live streaming: One of the features of the Arab Spring that has not come up so far is the apparent irrelevance of Israel in the playing out of events. Can panelists comment on the impact of the Arab revolts on Israel’s own regional policy?
Israel has barely been touched on, although there are questions about how, let’s say for example, the fall of the Assad regime would impact inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli policies. So that’s the question.
Can anyone comment on how Israel is seeing this and how Israel should be reacting to this? Anthony?
DR. CORDESMAN: I think we need to be very careful, because when we talk about Israel it’s a little like talking about the United States. We are very skilled at disagreeing on everything as a country and so is Israel. But the events of just yesterday, I think, are an indication. When Hamas and Fatahagreed, for however long it lasts and however real it may be, to reach some kind of rapprochement, almost before it was announced Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Fatahand the Palestinian Authority would have to choose between them.
Now, as yet, we have not seen a major shift across the border that has affected the arming of Hamas. But the issue that was raised earlier is a very real one. Whatever is happening with this spring, it’s going to be an interesting choice for Egypt. And what is kind of interesting is it’s not clear which choice they’ll make, because with the pipeline problems that have occurred and the dollar income that is affected there is a major buildup taking place in the Egyptian security forces in the Sinai.
And because smuggling has to come, if it’s arms, from outside the immediate border area, it’s not quite clear how this is going to really work out in terms of security and the armament of Hamas. I think that it’s also not clear how the Arab Spring has affected Hamas, because you can talk on one hand about secularism but on the other hand Hamas is very actively not only dealing with Fatahnow but with its own Islamist extremists who are a threat to Hamas. And that’s presenting problems within Hamas’ stability.
More broadly I think we, though, need to wait. This spring is largely a matter of people concerned with their own needs, not some sort of strategic role or concept of the Arab world or the Arab-Israeli issues. They’re dealing with domestic perceptions and domestic issues. And inevitably there’s a morning after. But that morning after hasn’t come yet, so how seriously anyone is going to turn toward the Arab-Israeli issue, I think we need to give it time.
MR. BARFI: Israel, in general, likes the — (chuckles) — status quo in the region; it doesn’t like instability and upset to the established order. The Israelis were very close to the Mubarak regime. Long after President Obama had stopped talking to President Mubarak, senior Israeli officials were still speaking to him. I know one that spoke to Mubarak the day before he resigned. They had a nice conversation, old friend of his from 20 years.
There’s not much pressure on — domestic pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to move forward with the peace process at this time. So with no domestic pressure and feeling wary of the Obama administration, we’re not likely to see any progress on that track. In general, Israel needs to feel strong to make concessions and having lost its — one of its most important allies in the world in Mubarak, it’s really worried about what will happen next.
It’s — in my opinion, it’s welcomed what they’re seeing is Syria, because Syria, Bashar al-Assad has been such a source of instability in the region since he came to power in 2000. He’s made decisions that his father would have never have done; he’s basically in Hezbollah’s back pocket. Hezbollah took him to war in 2006 and he didn’t see that. Hafez al-Assad would never have allowed that to happen.
So they view him as immature and the instability in Syria is some type of benefit. On the Hamas track I have to disagree with Anthony, I think Hamas has benefited from the fall of Mubarak because Mubarak saw — Mubarak was very wary of Hamas. He saw Hamas as just an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood from which it descended when it declared itself in 1987.
So he was very reluctant to really engage with Hamas and move any of that reconciliation, Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, forward. And the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit which Omar Suleiman was negotiating never really moved forward because Mubarak really didn’t want to deal with Hamas.
Now that he’s no longer on the scene, his policy of the embargo of Hamas and really blockading any type of aid into or movement of goods into Gaza is going to be reconsidered and changed. So you have to — and when we look at Israel and the Egypt track, it’s pretty much lost so much that it will not — likely not to move forward at all on any type of negotiations with the Palestinians or see any sense of urgency to do so at this point in time, barring something happening really with this U.N. declaration in September.
DR. MATTAIR: And Barak, even in light of the fact that the Egyptian military is still really central in Egypt, and that the Egyptian military has a close relationship with the American military, you still are concerned about this Iranian game? I mean, wouldn’t the Egyptian military set pretty clear limits on how far Israel can be provoked and how much influence Iran can have?
MR. BARFI: I think it’s not clear what I mean when I talk about Iranian — Iran gains. I don’t think that Iran is going to make inroads with some of these countries; it’s not going to make inroads in Egypt. There’s really — in the long term you’re not going to see a rapprochement, an Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement. You’re not going to see this increase in trade. There was a great book that came out in Beirut, talked about Egyptian-Iranian trade and broadening horizons for that. It’s just not going to happen; there’s just too much distrust there.
There’s going to be reduction in resistance to Iran. You’re not going to see — the Egyptian military is not going to move the civilians, to persuade them to put pressure to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, which is the big game at this point in time in the Middle East, preventing Iran from getting the bomb. It’s just this whole resistance, this whole access to any type of movement, any time of gain on Iran, is going to recede. Mubarak saw this whole big zero-sum game.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, Bassam?
DR. HADDAD: Yeah, that’s an important question because it’s true, the Israelis are extremely worried. And if you have followed the Israeli press during the Egyptian uprising you’ll know the extent to which the Israeli community polity, especially the politicians, were concerned. And I think for good reason.
In the past, Israel used to exist or existed in a sea of Arab pathetic incompetence, regimes that are completely incompetent, that are authoritarian, that violated all kinds of human rights and international law and so on. And in relation, Israel’s abominable policies were kind of, you know, on par or hidden, or couched in external relations that allowed this to happen.
But now these policies, whether it’s racist settlements, ethnic cleansing and what have you, with time are likely to show up more and are likely to be compared to things that are happening in Egypt, that I think are not — do not rise to the level of many of our desires, but are certainly not what we used to see in the past.
So I think there is reason to be concerned. I think we also are seeing, or are likely to see, a return of politics to the region, especially if we have more such disturbances, which would reduce the kind of incompetence of these Arab regimes around Israel.
DR. MATTAIR: Mustapha (ph), do you have a question?
Q: Thank you. My question, first question, is for Dr. Cordesman. And the point you brought up is about the Fatahand Hamas reconciliation. Now, Hamas won the free and fair election in 2006. Before that, Condi Rice pushed for the election but we didn’t like the outcome so we didn’t recognize them, got them overthrown. Now, after the reconciliation Hamas is going to be part of the interim government and then in elections very likely they’ll come back to power in some coalition. What should be the American policy toward Hamas? Again, we’ll — (inaudible) — them, or we’ll do business with them?
A little more broadly, in Egypt very likely Muslim Brotherhood will — they’ll come to power in parliament or have a leading role. In Bahrain, any (democratic ?) getting into the pro-Iranian Shiite government. So what do we do, are we going to play a game with the Islamist regimes? In Lebanon they’re part of it. Or what do we do about that for American interests?
And second question, Professor Bassam, you said the government being organically linked. What do you see type of governments that are evolving after the post-dictatorial period? Do you think they’ll have — they’ll be like Western-type democracy with church-state separation, or they’ll be like other countries, like, you know, Egypt, like Bahrain, like Iraq, that they’ll be indigenously — will let Islam play a role and there will not be much church-state separation?
DR. CORDESMAN: First, let me say: I understand the views of the Arab members of this panel. I am obviously not Arab, and I do — am not about to take the view of Israel that people who feel that it somehow is so responsible for the problems in this area do.
I also, frankly, find it a little difficult to go from the fact Hamas won an election, largely because the Palestinian Authority’s parties divided against each other, as being a reason the United States should, somehow, support a movement which has danced around whether or not it is calling for the destruction of Israel, but generally danced fairly solidly in the direction that it is. If anyone has illusions that this aspect of U.S. policy is going to change within the foreseeable future, they are illusions you should lose, because it isn’t going to happen.
What I would hope is Hamas would evolve, partly because it is having serious internal problems in Gaza with its own extremists. I would hope that Israel would not have preemptively made judgments about: Hamas might change. Because it is clear that there are leaders in Hamas that are willing to take a more pragmatic view, both in working with Fatah and in working with Israel.
But on any given day, exactly who is to blame for what in this process of paralysis is a judgment which generally should be made with the conclusion: everyone. Everybody shares the responsibility for what is happening here. And to be very blunt, I think that responsibility lies far more among those directly involved than it does in the assumption that somehow, we magically will change the world from the outside.
I do believe that we face a major problem. As these regimes evolve — and I think the answer to your second question is, no one can answer it yet.
What bothers me most is, you need very strong country teams on the part of U.S. embassies. You need to give them discretion and money to run aid programs where those work. You can’t solve the problem through public diplomacy at the Washington level, or by legislating in Congress, or by sending in NGOs without realizing that the track record of NGOs is often as negative as it is positive.
But that would require boosting the State Department, providing discretionary aid funds, realizing that constantly reducing embassies is a bad idea. It would require a change in the culture in the State Department that, frankly, has favored fortress embassies over taking risks as foreign service officers.
And it would require a fundamental revision in USAID, which the QDDR has made brutally clear is not going to happen, so you actually had effective and competent leadership of USAID. And having watched it in Afghanistan and Iraq, good as the people in the field are, I would honestly have to say, I know of no part of the U.S. federal government which is less competent, less transparent, and less capable than the senior leadership of AID.
DR. HADDAD: On the question of the Syrian alternative: the Syrian regime for the past 48 years has set the bar extremely low in terms of domestic policy, much less than regional and foreign policy, so I don’t think it’s going to be difficult to surpass that.
But when it comes to the question of Western democracy, and whether we are likely to see something emerge, whether we are likely to see — likely to see something emerge in that direction, I wonder what is meant by, in public discourse, what is meant by Western democracy. Do we mean the tradition, historically, of racism, sexism, and classism, slavery, all of which were based on genocide that coexisted with plutodemocracy (ph) for the few who were basically upper-class propertied white men? Or are we talking about Western democracy that developed over 300 years to produce stable institutions which, basically, include what we — some of the fruits that we have today?
If you mean the result of this struggle: no. Syria, Egypt, Tunisia will not provide that, will not produce that anytime soon. It will produce something as nasty and problematic as American history was. Perhaps it will be squeezed into less than 300 years, perhaps it will not include the genocide of dozens of — millions of people and their enslavement, but it will be squeezed into a shorter period, one hopes.
And I think we should have a bit of a long breadth, especially — people also in the region who are quick to condemn what is happening in Egypt as actually problematic, I think, lack a historical view of how these things develop. And I think we should recognize that this is going to be a very long and protracted process, and the more so to the extent that external powers are involved in it, and interfering based on their own policies and their own interests rather than the interests of the people of the region. So I think we should temper these questions with a historical perspective.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, it’s 12 o’clock. We have time for one more question from the gentleman who hasn’t asked one yet. But then, it is 12:00, so can it be short?
Q: OK, Thanks. (Inaudible, off mic.) I’ll make this brief, sure.
My question to any of the panelists who wish to address this is, with the recent announced changes at Department of Defense and CIA and the ambassador of Afghanistan, I would suggest that the U.S. will be primarily focused on the Afghanistan-Pakistan area over the next few years. This focus would suggest that the U.S. may not be as engaged in the events of the Middle East as it could be. And my question is: Will the U.S. emphasis on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region be a good thing or a bad thing to the countries affected by the Arab Spring, considering how poorly the U.S. policy is viewed in the region?
DR. MATTAIR: I know somebody who has an opinion on that. (Laughter.) You want to speak about that ?
DR. CORDESMAN: Look, I was not terribly amused by the headlines in the Times and the Washington Post. It was amazing to discover that the CIA had become militarized, which, when you look at the growth pattern, which is hard to describe in public, is just flatly untrue, because given the increase in analysts, staff, and where they are assigned to, that is not what has happened. It also confuses people as being in the agency that aren’t.
In terms of Afghanistan and Pakistan, there’s no question. The account that we call a OCO account shows that you are going to be spending a very significant amount of money on the military in Afghanistan and Pakistan through at least the next fiscal year. The administration has not announced what it will do in FY 2013, which does, according to some projections, indicate a very serious cut. Whether they can do it or not, I don’t know.
But I think anybody who has been in U.S. government realizes that that doesn’t mean that you somehow are ignoring China, or ignoring North Korea, or that you are not directly involved in the strategic importance of CENTCOM broadly, remembering that General Petraeus was the commander in CENTCOM before this. It certainly doesn’t mean that Leon Panetta goes to the Defense Department to focus primarily on Afghanistan at a time when his primary role is going to be dealing with a massive domestic debate over the future of spending broadly.
And I can tell you, as somebody who sometimes has to suffer the consequences, that the policy cluster in the Department of Defense, like that within the Department of State, has just as many country desks working non-Afghan and Pakistani issues as it has ever had in the past. That’s just not the way the government functions. And I thought, frankly, that there probably should be a morning after on the part of the Times and the Post where they might really focus on the range of issues the community and the Defense Department actually have to face, because that was some of the worst transition reporting I think I’ve seen.
DR. MATTAIR: So the Gulf will remain important. (Laughter.)
DR. CORDESMAN: As will virtually — let me say there is very unlikely to be one less desk officer for the countries outside Afghanistan and Pakistan in the foreseeable future in any country that has the slightest trouble, which probably leaves us with reductions in Luxembourg. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you very much, everyone, for coming. (Applause.) We have a website, www.mepc.org, which is very rich, and I invite you to visit it.