When: Friday, April 12th 10am - 12noon
Where: Russell Senate Office Building SR-485
Please see below for the full video, event recap and transcript.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Good morning, everyone. My name is Richard Schmierer, and I’m the president and chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. And it’s my pleasure to welcome you all here today on behalf of the Council.
Our topic today, “The Future of U.S. Engagement in the Middle East,” is an issue of growing focus and attention in policy circles, and interestingly with very widely diverging views among the acknowledged experts about the U.S. engagement in the region going forward. So we feel it’s a timely topic and it’s a topic that we’re very fortunate to have been able to get three very distinguished panelists to come and discuss with us this morning. So we look forward to that.
Before we get into the program, though, I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. We’re a nonpartisan educational organization focused on the Middle East. We were founded in 1981. And our – we have primarily three major programs.
One is this series of Capitol Hill Conferences, which we do quarterly here up in one of the – using one of the buildings on the Capitol – on Capitol Hill, focused on current issues – current policy issues related to the region. So we’re pleased to see such a good turnout this morning and we do find that there tends to be considerable interest here on Capitol Hill on the topics we address.
Our second major activity is our quarterly journal. It’s entitled Middle East Policy. It’s quite influential. It’s found in 15,000 libraries around the U.S., in the region, and more broadly around the globe. And so it also has quite an impact on policy discussions concerning the region.
And our third primary activity, one we’re very proud of, is our educational outreach to secondary school students and teachers, because we feel that the region – the Middle East is a region that really is underserved in terms of our educational approach to it and our high schools. And so we try to contribute to improving the level and the availability of information about the region for those students.
But now let’s turn to today’s event. First let me mention that we’re very pleased that C-SPAN is covering the event live. We’re also livestreaming it on our website. So I do want to welcome the viewers on C-SPAN and the viewers who are watching the event on our website.
The proceedings of today’s conference will be posted in video form on our website and there will be a transcript eventually posted on our website as well, and then we’ll publish the transcript in the next issue of our quarterly journal. So for that we’re very pleased that we feel that these events really do have a good impact not just among the audience present, but more widely because the content is disseminated.
Now let me briefly introduce our panelists. We’ll begin the program with our friend and colleague Ambassador Joan Polaschik, who is the acting principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the Department of State. Joan is a career Foreign Service officer, and her most recent diplomatic assignment was as ambassador in Algeria.
Our next speaker will be Geoff Kemp. Geoff is the senior director of regional security programs at the Center for the National Interest. Geoff previously served as senior director for the Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Our third panelists will be Daniel Benaim. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He’s also served as Middle East advisor at the White House, the Department of State, and in the Senate.
I’d like to thank all three of you for being here with us this morning.
The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be narrated – it will be moderated by my colleague Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.
Note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. Please use these cards to write down any questions which you have as the speakers are speaking. And then hold the card up so that our staff can collect the cards during the presentations and bring them up to Dr. Mattair, who can then begin to sort through them and prepare the questions for the Q&A. So thank you for your cooperation in doing that.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to my friend Joan. Joan, welcome.
JOAN POLASCHIK: Good morning, everyone. And thanks, Rich, for that lovely introduction. It feels like old home week to be doing an event with you.
It’s truly a pleasure to be with all of you this morning. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the future of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa with such distinguished colleagues.
Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa has seen profound change. Eight years ago, popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes illustrated a deep desire for more responsive and accountable governance. The hope was and remains that broader economic and political participation could deliver a better life to the citizens of the region.
Despite the instability of subsequent years, the people of the Middle East and North Africa continue to raise their voices. They are demanding leadership that confronts corruption and welcomes citizen participation in addressing long-term socioeconomic challenges. Tunisians are preparing for a second round of presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, an important milestone in consolidating their democratic institutions. And we’re seeing the people of Algeria demonstrate for change in government after 20 years under former President Bouteflika. As protests, elections, and wars in the region continue to make headlines, we are reminded every day just how much the Middle East matters. In the face of the region’s persistent challenges, we’ve had to question our assumptions, move away from things that didn’t work, and look at new ideas for advancing U.S. interests.
For this administration, U.S. engagement in the region is a top priority. As Secretary Pompeo said earlier this year in Cairo, a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest.
Consistent with the president’s foreign policy agenda, we are protecting American security at home and abroad. That means working actively with our partners to counter the threat from terrorist groups and states that sponsor terrorism. That means ensuring critical natural resources and international commerce flow freely, preserving a vital linchpin of the global economy. That means preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And that also means a steadfast commitment to the protection of our strongest allies, including Israel.
Secretary Pompeo has made it clear that the United States has been and will continue to be a force for good in the Middle East. As we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty last month, we took a moment to acknowledge the progress made possible by this seminal diplomatic achievement, an example of United States diplomacy as a force for good. We also underscored our unwavering dedication to pursuing a more comprehensive peace in the region that respects the dignity and security of all involved.
Quite simply, the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa remain a critical and enduring U.S. national interest. We will remain deeply engaged in the region, pursuing engagement anchored in a few key principles. I’d like to quickly outline them.
First, the United States is committed to tackling the problems in the Middle East via coalition-building. Whether it’s the Defeat ISIS Coalition, the Warsaw ministerial, or the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the United States knows that we cannot go it alone. To that end, we are actively working to promote partner countries’ economic and security self-reliance.
Second, Iran poses the greatest threat to the region’s security, stoking conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and beyond, and bankrolling terrorist groups like Hezbollah. The United States is committed to working with our allies and partners to counter Tehran’s aggressive actions throughout the world.
Third, it is clear that the conflicts that have wracked this region for more than eight years cannot be resolved by military force. The United States will continue to support U.N.-led peace efforts throughout the region and will remain the world’s largest single donor of humanitarian assistance. Our traditional focus on protecting the rights of the most vulnerable includes a strong focus on protecting religious freedom.
Let’s unpack these principles a bit further. In doing so, I’ll touch on a few illustrative examples and leave the rest of the Middle East’s many challenges for the Q&A session.
First, our approach to the region rests on the principle of coalition-building. There are real threats to U.S. national interests that emerge from the region. It is in our interest to remain engaged to address these concerns. But we will not – and, frankly, cannot – lead alone.
What does this mean in practice? We have long asked our partners in the region to demonstrate more leadership and responsibility in contributing to regional security. Our approach to coalition-building is to ensure that our regional partners have the capacity to provide effective solutions to regional problems. As the president said in Riyadh, “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”
And our partners have stepped up. A leading example is the success of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Recently, the coalition marked the hard-won territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Defeat ISIS Coalition is a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal by, with, and through local partners. Today, the territory ISIS once held is now liberated and stabilization efforts are underway. The 74 nations and five international organizations in the Global Coalition are and should be enormously proud of this achievement.
But we have much hard work ahead, and the fight against ISIS is not over. This is why our allies and partners have launched an unprecedented military, stabilization, counter-messaging, and law enforcement effort to prevent attacks against our homelands and counter ISIS’s evil ideology.
We, along with our coalition partners, continue to work closely with Iraq as it recovers from ISIS and strives to reach its full potential as a sovereign, strong, and prosperous state. U.S. and coalition forces remain in Iraq at the invitation of its government to help battle ISIS remnants, and we are committed to maintaining the security partnership. But we are also working to broaden our relationship across a range of areas including trade, culture, and education.
In Syria last month, the president announced that U.S. troops will remain in northeast Syria as part of the continuing de-ISIS coalition. Our goals in Syria have remained consistent. We are committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS, a political resolution to the ongoing conflict in Syria in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, and the complete withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. We will not provide U.S. reconstruction assistance from areas of Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw, and until we see irreversible progress toward a political resolution. Only by working together in support of the U.N.-backed political process can we end the conflict and allow for the safe and voluntary return of millions of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria.
Another example of our efforts at coalition-building to bring security and stability to the region is the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA. MESA is an initiative to enhance multilateral cooperation in the political, economic, energy, and security spheres. Not only will MESA build a strong foundation for countering Iran’s malign influence, but it will enhance our partners’ capacity to be positive contributors to regional security. Just last week, we had a team in Saudi Arabia to continue the discussion with member countries as we move forward to shape the alliance. As Secretary Pompeo acknowledged last month, it’ll take us a bit, it won’t be straightforward, but our shared interests provide an opportunity to get our partners to come together. A unified GCC, obviously, is a key building block for MESA.
Second, let’s talk about Iran. Iran is pursuing dangerous nuclear and ballistic missile technology and stoking deadly conflict through its support of proxy groups. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It spends billions of dollars supporting terrorist groups and proxy organizations, and it continues to develop and test ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. resolutions. Iranian malign activity in Syria and Yemen, and its continued support for designated terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, prolong regional conflicts that radiate instability.
This administration is engaged in a powerful pressure campaign to cut off the revenues the Iranian regimes uses to spread terror and destruction throughout the world, and that pressure campaign is working. Our oil sanctions have taken approximately 1.5 million barrels of Iranian oil exports off the market since May 2018. In addition, 23 entities have reduced their purchases of Iranian crude to zero. These actions deny critical revenue for Iran’s malign activities.
Earlier this year at the Warsaw ministerial, Secretary Pompeo outlined our vision of how we can work together to achieve peace and security in the Middle East. Iran stood at the center of that discussion. The international community largely shares the view that Iran’s policy choices are destructive. We’re now developing issue-specific working groups with our partners to determine how we can work together on these shared concerns. And on Monday, Secretary Pompeo announced his intent to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including its Quds Force, as a foreign terrorist organization. This announcement is a significant step to counter Iran-backed terrorism around the world. We will continue to raise the cost to Iran for its malign activities until Iran changes its behavior.
Saudi Arabia is a critical partner in our efforts to advance regional stability, including countering Iran and supporting U.N. efforts to bring the war in Yemen to an end. Our interests are best served with a strong, stable Saudi Arabia that is a reliable partner. As partners, we and the Kingdom can have frank conversations on tough issues, including the horrific murder of Jama Khashoggi and the detention of human rights activists. We continue to insist that Saudi Arabia hold accountable those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and we have taken our own actions as well. This week, for example, we took the important step of designating 16 individuals connected with the killing.
A third and final principle underpinning our engagement is a clear commitment to resolving conflict through peaceful political processes and an equally clear commitment to meeting the humanitarian needs of the millions of conflict victims throughout the region. In Yemen, we are engaged in intensive efforts in support of U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to implement the Stockholm Agreement, including a redeployment of forces in Hodeidah, and bring both parties one step closer to a comprehensive political settlement.
We have also extended this approach to Western Sahara, where our backing for a U.N.-led political process could help resolve a longstanding conflict and transform North African regional dynamics. We support Personal Envoy of the U.N. Secretary-General Horst Köhler and his efforts to achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. And we’re seeing signs of progress. On March 21st and 22nd, the relevant parties met for the second time in the last few months to discuss how to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution.
Our humanitarian engagement on the region’s many conflicts remains strong. In territory liberated from ISIS we have provided over $2.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Iraq since 2014, and we’ve worked with our coalition partners to raise billions more. These funds are being used to allow people to return to their homes and resume their lives.
We also have been a leading donor of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, where we have provided more than $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance since October 2016. This funding includes security assistance, medical care, safe drinking water, and other support. Only a political solution will end the dire humanitarian crisis, which is why the United States stands firmly behind the U.N. special envoy and his efforts to help the Yemenis bring this brutal conflict to an end.
In addition to our traditional humanitarian assistance, the Trump administration also has made support to persecuted religious minorities and the protection of religious freedom a key priority in the region and beyond. We have assisted the recovery of Iraq’s persecuted religious communities, particularly those that are – that ISIS targeted for genocide. The administration has programmed nearly $340 million since 2017 to support these communities, including lifesaving humanitarian assistance, rehabilitating critical infrastructure, clearing explosive remnants of war, psychological and legal services, and funding justice and accountability efforts. Supporting pluralism and protecting the rights of minorities is integral to the administration’s efforts to defeat ISIS, counter violent extremism, deny Iran the ability to exploit sectarian divisions, and promote religious freedom around the world.
This engagement reflects core American values. As the president has said, above all we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. The United States maintains an unwavering commitment to freedom, democracy, and fundamental human rights. Our core values of human rights, rule of law, and accountable democratic governance include a commitment to freedom of religion for every person.
Taken together, these principles – our coalition-building, our efforts to counter Iran, and our steadfast engagement in support of peaceful solutions to conflict – lay a clear path for sustained U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. As I stated at the outset, a stable and secure Middle East is in the national interest of the United States. Our engagement is designed to advance that interest in the face of longstanding and emerging challenges. We stand ready to work with our partners who have the courage and leadership to address the challenges we face, and are ready and willing to make positive contributions to regional peace, security, and stability.
We appreciate that the challenges facing the region are complex. For that reason, the administration has made it clear that the way that we have always done things historically won’t always be the preferred approach. And even as we’re shaking things up, we believe firmly that common threats and common interests mandate continued U.S. engagement. And to once again quote Secretary Pompeo: “Our aim is to partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies, because a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest.”
Thank you very much, and I’ll turn this back to Rich. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: If anyone has questions, would you please let our staff know and she can pick them up? Thank you.
GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, thank you very much, and I’m delighted to be here. And I’m delighted to no longer be in government so it’s possible to speak a rather different narrative.
I have to say that I can’t remember a time when the United States’ influence in the Middle East was so weak in comparison to the past 30, 40 years, and I think it might be useful just to remember what happened in the past. And I’m going to discuss this in terms of three timeframes: 1991 to the year 2001, 2001 to 2011, and 2011 until the present.
Now, of course, 1991 was highlighted by the first Gulf War, a huge success. We had the rest of the world with a couple of exceptions behind us, including the Soviet Union. We won the war, we expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait, and the Japanese paid for it. In the wake of that successful war, George H.W. Bush pronounced a new world order and talked about four needs for the Middle East: a shared security, an end to proliferation, a more vigorous peace process, and of course economic development.
There were some successes during this first 10-year period. The Madrid Conference in October 1991 was co-chaired – can you believe this – co-chaired by the United States and the Soviet Union three months before the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Two years later you had the Oslo Accords and the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Rabin and Arafat. 1994 you had the second major peace treaty between Israel, this time with Jordan, and that has been sustained. And we engaged in a number of multilateral dialogues on all sorts of issues, from water to the environment, which didn’t get very far then but actually today are extraordinarily important.
This was the – this was the unipolar moment of American power. And it wasn’t just in the Middle East; it was global, and everyone recognized it. And then suddenly, on September the 11th, everything changed and we embarked on two wars which are still, you know, in a way not over. Afghanistan, I think, was a war we had to fight, and I think we would have done much better had we stayed there and not gotten distracted by what I think was a disastrous war, the invasion of Iraq. And that is still plaguing us today. If you want one symbol of why Iran features so prominently now in everything the administration says, it was essentially because we gave them – we gave them the opening by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and leaving no one in place who could check Iran, and Iran moved in – Shiite country to – work very closely with the Iraqi government, as it does today.
In 2005, Condoleezza Rice went to Cairo and made some very important comments on American policy over the years. She said in particular: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region” of “the Middle East – and we achieved neither. Now we’re taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” And that, of course, was a major criticism of her predecessors, who had among other things brought peace between Israel and two of its neighbors, both of whom happen to be autocratic leaders. So, I mean, the one area where there was solid peace was achieved by an Israeli government making peace with autocrats.
She was highly optimistic in 2005 that the people of Iraq would do well. She said the people of – this was at her Cairo speech in 2005 – “the people of Iraq are exceeding all expectations.” “Palestinian Authority will soon take control of Gaza – a first step towards realizing the vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and security.”
And then in 2009, a new president, President Obama, made his way to Cairo like everyone seems to do, and he made some remarks that were essentially designed, I think, to reach out to the Muslim world. And yet, he made some statements that did not go down very well with his opponents in this country. He said that “9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases led us to act contrary to…our ideals.” And he got criticism for that, but I think in retrospect it was a pretty fair statement.
The third period came with, of course, the Arab uprising, which Joan began her talk with. And this, of course, was as traumatic as anything we’ve seen in the Middle East, but the sort of net result has been confusion and illusions, from my point of view. I won’t go through all the candidates who rose up in the spring of 2011, but the two critical ones from an American point of view.
Egypt, where I think we displayed total confusion. First, we cheered on the population as they pushed to overthrow Mubarak. Then we gave faint praise to Mr. Morsi, who was, you know, democratically elected, so they say. And then did very little when he was overthrown by General Sisi, and General Sisi is still there today. He’s our great friend. He reflects none of the democratic aspirations that George H.W. Bush, Condi Rice, and Barack Obama called for.
Syria is perhaps the most serious case, because in the case of Syria we essentially punted. And we won’t go into the details – we can in the questions and answer – but essentially, you know, we drew a red line that if you use chemical weapons there will be implied military retaliation. There was not. The parallel thing that happened in Syria was that Russia moved in. Russia moved in with the Iranians and Hezbollah. And after, you know, six years of brutal fighting, we have to admit that Assad and his friends at least for the time being won the war, and we have really no say or influence about what is going on in mainstream Syria. We do have a lot of influence about what’s going on on the periphery, where we have been fighting quite successfully ISIS with the friends – with our friends, including the Syrian Kurds.
So the situation we have today is that the United States is now facing competition in the region from outside powers – particularly Russia but also Turkey, who does not share our views on many things; Iran; and perhaps in the longer term China. China’s influence in the Middle East is growing systematically, not in a military sense at the moment; primarily through economic investment and trade. But in the future China’s going to be an issue we have to deal with.
The current administration seems to be totally preoccupied with Iran. And you know, for understandable reasons because Iran does pose a major challenge to our interests in the Middle East, particularly in Syria where it has essentially a landline now between Iran and the Mediterranean. And it has many forces there that it supports, including Hezbollah. It’s put a big investment into Syria and Lebanon and shows no sign of going away. And the Russians don’t seem to object too strongly at the moment.
Mr. Pompeo, however, went to Cairo again – another trip to Cairo; you see, you have to touch base there – and he – his view was that what we’re going to do in Syria is the following: “In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners” – now listen to this – “to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the U.N.-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people. There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance for areas in Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and until we see irreversible progress towards a political resolution.”
Now, of course, what he did not say in that speech is how we’re going to do this – how we’re going to get every Iranian boot out of Syria at the very time that the president has said we are pulling all of our troops out of Syria. Does he think the Russians are going to do it? I don’t know. But I think this is a much more challenging problem than the secretary of state suggested in that speech on January the 10th of this year.
I think we have to accept the fact that the end of American dominance is obvious. But it doesn’t mean to say the end of American influence and presence and the capacity to do useful things is over, because the reality is America was the unipolar power, the superpower that really could call the shots in most regions of the Middle East. It can’t do that today. It does have challenges – Russia, Iran, Turkey, China I’ve mentioned. But actually, if you look at the capabilities of these four countries, they don’t add up to American power. So, I mean, we have challenges, but I don’t think there’s anyone there to replace us. So what that means is that there will be friction and conflict and no easy solution to the challenges we face there.
I think we have to accept the fact that in many cases we have misunderstood the nature of the conflicts in the Middle East. I think one of the tragedies of the Iraq War was that we had no real concept – if you go back and look at the debate on Iraq and what the Pentagon was saying at the time – not the State Department, but they just – the problem is they were just left out of the planning – there was really no understanding of how confusing and how sectarian Iraq was, and why it wouldn’t be a cakewalk, and even if we won the first round of the military confrontation that was just the beginning. And of course, it was the drawdown of our forces to go into Iraq that weakened our position in Afghanistan, which some would argue is the reason we’re still there is because we never really gave Afghanistan the full capabilities that we had at the time.
So if there’s no one who can replace us, what really should our policy be? Well, you know, I don’t object at all to building alliances, putting sanctions on countries. I’d just note, though, that sanctions are the easiest, laziest form of policy that this town ever engages in, because when you vote for sanctions against Iran or Venezuela or Russia in this town there’s no – there’s no lobby opposing you. When you try to impose sanctions on India or Israel, you know, it would be – (laughs) – it would be an enormous amount of lobbying to stop it. But it’s a freebie. You can – but it doesn’t necessarily get you what you want. It can cause pain, and certainly has.
And there’s no doubt that American sanctions, particularly in the financial arena, on Iran were one of the reasons they came together to sign the JCPOA with the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians, and ourselves. We have walked away from that. It is not clear whether Iran is going to restart its nuclear enrichment program. But we are, I think, being very glib if we think that new sanctions and a new alliance is going to bring Iran to heel. I think probably quite the reverse, and I think the situation is going to be if anything more dangerous than it has been for many years, since we’ve put the Iranian guard on notice that they are terrorist organizations and they’ve put us on guard that our Central Command is a terrorist organization. I mean, it’s very easy to see how all the things we’ve worried about all these years – confrontations in the – in the Gulf at the – at the naval level could quickly escalate. And we have two cheerleaders, of course, hoping that we will get involved more directly with Iran with kinetic energy, I mean, Saudi Arabia and Israel. And I think this is an area which would be disastrous for the region, for us, for the world economy, but it’s something we can debate about.
We have not paid enough attention to the serious, lasting, historic effects that sectarian conflict have on the region, and why it is going to be so difficult to bring these groups together, and why this dream of democracy that Condi Rice and Bush have talked about, and Obama, are, I would say, somewhat illusionary.
And the second point I want to make – this goes back to some of the issues that were discussed in the multilateral meetings after Madrid conferences – the Middle East, whether you like it or not, faces horrendous environmental problems. They don’t get talked about because we’re preoccupied with, you know, the fighting that’s going on and the uprisings in the street, but the reality is all – from Morocco to Yemen, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, even Algeria, Tunisia, these countries face the effects of climate change in a – in a double whammy. They’re suffering from shortages of fresh water and are facing the dangers of rising seawater. You know, Egypt is a classic case in this. And so that underneath the surface, while we’re all debating these grand strategies and nuclear weapons and – you know, the countries are facing catastrophe in some areas, and it’s not unknown and not unnoticed that five years before the Syrian outbreak in 2011 there was mass drought in the Syrian countryside which led to migration to the cities with no jobs, and that just became tinder for the fire that exploded.
So I have a rather pessimistic outlook, as you can see, but one that I do not think we should walk away from. I just think we should walk with more caution and more realism, and not constantly talk about how we’re going to bring democracy and peace to the region when it’s clearly not going to happen. I will leave for the question-and-answer period the huge issue that we should be discussing at this panel because of what happened this week, namely: Will there now be an American – a new American peace process to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together at a time when Mr. Netanyahu has won the election with Donald Trump’s blessing and he’s talking about further annexation in the West Bank? So let me just stop there. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: Are there any questions? You could raise your hand if you have a card.
DANIEL BENAIM: Thanks very much, everybody. It’s an honor to follow two such distinguished and insightful speakers and to share the dais today with a couple of U.S. ambassadors who are both so personally decent and so widely respected and admired in their work.
In speaking to you today, and I’m reminded of the old political saying that everything important has already been said but not everyone has said it yet. (Laughter.) So I’m going to try to take a slightly different tack here and talk about the future and how the present sort of points to the future of U.S. engagement. And in so doing I’m reminded of the adage variously attributed to the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Yankee legend Yogi Berra, which is to never make predictions, especially not about the future. And in a region that disagrees so often about the past, it seems kind of an apt place to start.
Now, I come to a discussion about the future of the Middle East with a hefty dose of humility. I came into the State Department in late 2010, at a time when everyone was consumed with dealing with the fallout of our diplomatic cables by a little outfit never heard of again called WikiLeaks. Nobody had predicted in that winter of 2010 – even me, who had spent time with some of the people who ended up becoming the revolutionaries of Tahrir when I was a graduate student – that one year later four dictators totaling over 130 years of rule would be gone in 2011. You know, so I approach this with humility, also recognizing that no president and no party has a monopoly on either wisdom or wishful thinking in the Middle East on success or failure. This is a region that has thwarted the intentions of many on a bipartisan and nonpartisan basis for some time. So I thought what I would do is to first start on the firmer ground of assessing what I see happening now and then venture into the riskier ground of future trends and what I see happening.
Two years in – and I say this with sincere respect for very able diplomatic colleagues who are working day in and day out to advance the interests of the country and to serve in an honorable way, regardless of their perspective vis-à-vis several administrations that they may have disagreements with over time – but I see a decidedly mixed record unfolding. I see a Trump administration that genuinely deserves credit for continuing the military campaign against ISIS, which was begun and designed under one president and is being completed under another one. But I see an administration that is underinvesting especially in the civilian side of the aftermath in eastern Syria and in Iraq outside of that very worthy and very important area of the Nineveh Plain, whose communities do indeed deserve to have the kind of future that we’re investing to give them.
In Iran, I see an attempt to reorient U.S. policy around countering Iran, much to the satisfaction of some key regional leaders. But I see an administration that has yet to reconcile maximalist goals and rhetoric with minimal investments beyond sanctions to change the regional equation over time.
I see an administration that has worked assiduously to restore frayed U.S. partnerships with key regional players, an opportunity that President Trump saw and seized fully, but also one that too often has outsourced regional leadership to partners while granting them a blank check, as it seems from outside, for destabilizing moves and domestic repression. And there’s a real honest choice here that we should come back and talk about. We’re seeing, I think, a calculable impact of that greenlight in some of the regional choices in particular of various actors.
And I see an administration, again with great respect, that has systematically downgraded diplomacy and development tools, whether it’s the 20 to 30 percent budget cuts that are recommended by the administration year after year or the winding up of very valuable development missions in places like the West Bank and – newer but still valuable – in eastern Syria, or the unfortunate security-driven closing of the U.S. consulate in Basra. And what I see is a little bit of an uneven kind of hyper-personalized approach that I think is unfolding at the cost of expertise and civilian capacity and, unfortunately, bipartisan support for key relationships that shouldn’t be partisan issues.
Now, I think all of this, you won’t be surprised to hear, is likely to leave us worse off, as I pivot to the future. It’s my sense that such an approach, an unquestioning embrace of complex partners, escalating tensions with Iran without an off-ramp, and short-changing civilian power is unlikely to succeed on its own terms, and may be a recipe to deepen the region’s key divides, Sunni-Shia, Sunni-Sunni, and too-little talked about, citizen versus state, and deepen some of the deficits outline in the Arab Human Development Reports over the years. And I think that’s likely to require more U.S. resources and spark more costly interventions in the years ahead.
In my mind, a sounder approach is to invest more deeply in the civilian side in the aftermath of ISIS, including in Iraq, which should be more than arena for zero-sum competition with Iran, to try to build a partnership model that pairs U.S. insurance with demands for greater responsibility, including deescalating regional tensions, and curbing domestic repression. On Iran, it would seek to contain what is indeed malign Iranian behavior, especially on its most threatening area, its nuclear program, but would leave a peaceful path and a wider peaceful path, knowing that neither bombing Iran nor regime change is likely to do the trick for the long game that we face here.
And it would engage with societies as well as states, not just to counter ISIS and Iran, but to deal with broader trends. And that requires civilian tools. And I think it including championing human rights, not just against our adversaries but as a way to strengthen societies including friends. And that’s kind of where I think we are heading forward from the present. And I thought it would talk about a couple of changes that I see regionally that I think are probably more likely to play a larger role in the next five years or so than they maybe have in the last. Some U.S. driven and some more regionally driven.
The first is minimalism. It is, from the U.S. side, it is this question of, can we do less? How little can we do? Are we – are we out? And I think about the Japanese design maven Marie Kondo who says: Close your eyes, hold the object in your hand, does it bring you joy? If not, throw it out, right? And by that standard, the Middle East does quite poorly with the U.S. public. Terrorism, failed peace plans and democratic transitions, brutal authoritarianism, and that’s just our friends. (Laughter.)
So I would argue that this works better as interior design than policy design. I think we still have core interests. And I think we can still advance them. This isn’t 1979, when we had this sort of heroic Camp David peace deal and had this dominant role in shaping the Middle East. And it isn’t 2001. But it is still a moment when we have core interests that we’re fairly good at protecting – blocking interstate war, stopping the spread of WMDs, protecting allies like Israel and partners like Saudi Arabia, even if some of their most existential threats come from their own domestic challenges. We’re helping – may meaning being more the systemic regional superego than the side-picking id. We still have an interest and real partners in fighting terrorism in many places, including Iraq. And we ignore the destabilization and radicalization of unmet human need and ongoing, grinding conflict, at our own peril.
So I understand the fatalism about America’s role in the region. We come by it honestly after the last 20 years. But if our goal is not to dominate, but to lead, if you look at things like the anti-ISIS campaign and, frankly, the Iran nuclear deal, I think we can still do meaningful, important things. And we will need to. I think we are still, to some extent, as a recent Foreign Affairs article put it, in purgatory, where we’re too invested in leave and not invested enough to dictate the answer. I think that’s a correct diagnosis, but I don’t know that the answer is to quite such a dramatic event.
And a few things about what the answer is: First, civilian power is a heck of a lot of cheaper than the military. So don’t over-militarize and don’t start wars of choice. Second, we have to figure out how and when we can share the burden with others without making it worse. And – which brings me to my second U.S. trend, which is polarization – political polarization here in America. And I see key relationships becoming hyper-personalized in the hands of a few White House officials, and therefore not only under-institutionalized, but also overly politicized and polarized, which risks our partners leaving feeling whipsawed.
And as policymaker who served in the last administration and hopes to serve in future ones, this question of whether we have one set of policies under one political party and another under the other is going to be only more pronounced and more paramount. And my disagreement with those policies will have to be tempered by a degree of policy continuity – valuing the policy continuity if and when political power shifts in this country.
Now, I think Trump saw an opportunity, like I said, to do something different than Obama who, I think, on key issues – whether it was the Arab revolutions and the fall of Mubarak or the Syria red line episode, or the Iran deal, simply saw the regional differently from key Middle Eastern partners. And it was, I think, in some ways a sincere disagreement. And that – Trump saw an opportunity to repair those relationship and really seized it fully. But I think what happened has been something even further than that.
Things like the decision to recognize the Golan for Israel three weeks before an election – a hotly contested election. You know, or when a legal resident of Virginia is murdered, taking the side of the party accused seemingly, in the first instance, rather than launching into a full inquiry immediately. So things like this have, in my mind, deepened U.S. political polarization. And these are relationships that matter. And I want to be – and they’re being stretched beyond recognition, I think, at the moment in a way that will further that.
And I want to be really clear that Obama and the Obama administration deserve our share of the lumps on this, and so do the regional partners. And it’s not simply the Trump administration at work, and that there are real, honest choices here about how to handle partnerships amid this agreement. But these partnerships matter for U.S. policy and we have to find a way to get them right.
My third trend is the revenge of geopolitics. For a lot of reasons, from the collapse of the state system to the rise of outside powers, to the perception of a U.S. long goodbye, all have contributed to a kind of intensifying tussle within this region. You have kind of top-down Iranian-Saudi competition that has fastened itself onto local conflicts in places like Yemen and Syria, in ways that have prolonged those conflicts to the detriment of people there, who seem to find money for proxy fights and less money for rebuilding from regional competitors.
You have an inside-out competition among the different blocks of the Sunni world, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other side of a conflict that I think America would like to see a unity in pushing back against Iran. But instead, this divide seems to capture the vigor and enthusiasm of people on both sides, at the expense of some of the goals that we might share. You have an outside-in competition from China and Russia, and a bottom-up pressure all happening at once.
And I think that you see the lines between this MENA region and the rest of the world being erased in some ways. Russia, you know, is trying to be a counterweight to the United States leadership with a unique set of relationships that mean it can’t really be ignored. Their close and in regular communication with Syria, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi, Egypt and the UAE, not to mention General Haftar, the Houthis, and others, all of which I think means that they will be part of brokering whatever pieces come next, whether we like it or not.
China is increasingly – and East Asia is increasingly where the region’s oil goes. And Chinese capital, and investment, and loans are traveling in the reverse direction, that America can’t help to match. And this can be useful in a region with multiple rebuilds underway, not just for warzones but Cairo and Egypt’s new capital need huge infusions of capital. And Djibouti, just across the sea, speaking to a future where China – this is China’s first overseas military base, where they’re increasingly focused on protecting their own commercial interests. And you see actually the Middle Eastern countries reaching right back out through these same areas.
You see MBS traveling to East Asia and South Asia. You see a kind of mini great game where Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, are competing for shorelines, ports, farmlands, proxies in East Africa. And these are dynamics that kind of span bureaucratic fault lines in an unusual way and require sometimes interagency meetings that feel a little bit more like a Star Wars cantina of Arabists, and Africanists, and Asia hands, and security, and hydrologists. And, you know, and this kind of thing is actually going to matter more in a more global Middle East, getting those connections right and distinguishing threat from unease, leadership from domination. Not every Middle Eastern problem is a prize for America to monopolize. We need, as I said, more inter-agencies that look Star Wars cantinas.
Fourth, authoritarianism is evolving. Algeria and Sudan show that when it comes to the Arab Spring, the past isn’t really past. And last time it was about aging leaders without clear lines of succession. And now we know that Algeria, Oman, Palestine – where Mahmoud Abbas is, I think, in year 12 of his original four-year term, Iraqi Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia all have either successions or generational transfers of power underway or ahead. And underlying almost every country’s politics in the region today is this crisis of legitimacy, a crisis of political legitimacy, that everyone is trying to deal with. The revolutionary euphoria of 2011 is gone, but a lot of those drivers, those same deficits in democracy, jobs, good governance, dignity, are still there.
One thing is that I think countries are not standing idly by. They’re not – they’re not, you know, sitting on their hands. They’re engaged in big, bold efforts of one kind or another to respond, many of them. In many cases, that’s authoritarian modernization. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are both engaged in big economic reforms, huge infrastructure projects, with real potential to deliver future growth, but pain today. Not just the kind of shining new cities, but the price of a bowl of koshary in Cairo are the kinds of things that should be barometers of current and future stability. And whether these kind of authoritarian modernization experiments succeed will be tremendously important to the region’s future.
The flipside of that is the kind of sever and intensifying hyper-repression with, I think unfortunately, tacit approvals, at some points, from the highest levels of the United States government. And I think you see that there may be within this idea of authoritarian modernization some contradictions as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia discovered when it launched a crackdown against its economic elite and top investors, and just as they were trying to attract FDI, foreign direct investment, for their own reform programs. And saw their, you know, investment in the country collapse by 80 percent.
So these experiments in authoritarian modernization matter greatly. Nationalism is another key authoritarian evolution that I think we’re seeing, which can bring coherence to countries in places like Egypt and Iraq and Saudi Arabia. But I think the discourse of tribes with flags may capture some important connections and layers of authority, but I think is at risk of ignoring others. It is an alternative to sectarian or religious identity. In places like Egypt and Saudi, it’s part of an attempt to defang extremism. But it comes with its own confrontation and demonization, which I think you could see when young Saudis cheered on Germany and Canada – fights between Saudi Arabia and Germany and Canada, which had the temerity to criticize Saudi Arabia mildly over human rights.
And the final dimension of this authoritarian evolution that I wanted to mention is technology. And it’s a kind of scarily overlooked trend, in which China, Israel, and frankly, American firms are helping create a kind of global template for technological repression. This is the next frontier, not just hacks and leaks against key figures but a suite of technologies being perfected in places like Tibet and Xinjiang that merge closed- circuit cameras, facial recognition, and big data to monitor and track people in real time. I think of it as like an Arab Spring in reverse. Basically, if the Arab Spring was about young people using technology to reclaim the public square, this is the reverse. This is the pendulum swinging back – governments using technology to reclaim the public square from their own citizens.
Fifth, and finally – and I’m grateful and happy that Geoffrey Kemp brought this up as well – is the – I find myself in violent agreement with his comments on this – is nature and national security, which might be a bit further down the road, but there are credible arguments that rising food prices among the world’s largest grain and wheat importers, and the forced urbanization of Syrian farmers, helped drive the revolutions of 2011. I suspect that the intersection of nature and national security will only grow, as Mr. Kemp said, from the drought in Yemen, to Gaza’s scarily undrinkable water, to the Mosul Dam which, while we were in government, threatened to loose a 20-foot inland tsunami that would have turned Mosul city into a fishbowl, and was predicted to send a 20-foot inland wave as far south as Baghdad.
To the massive hydroelectric dam, the largest in Africa, that Ethiopia is building upstream from Egypt and Sudan, whose reservoir alone requires more water than Egypt uses in a year. We’re going to need U.S. policymakers and process to bridge these kinds of regional functional divides. And people who speak both languages – this language of water and nature and also the language of security and politics – frankly, sometimes, you know, we’ll need the kinds of dialogues that Egypt, and Ethiopia and Sudan have, where security and intel chiefs sit next to water ministers and diplomats.
So what does this all mean? We need to make a case for – I believe, for sustaining – for restrained, but sustained, let’s say, U.S. engagement in MENA region without arguing for a path-dependent and overly militarized status quo, in my mind. We have to find ways to make our partnerships work better on both sides. We’re a systemic actor, and the choices that we make have moral hazard effects on the players on the ground. We need to make investments beyond Iran and ISIS, and beyond rulers, to connect with societies.
You know, I continue to ask myself why it is, given the interest in – professed interest in the wellbeing of the Iranian people that the current travel ban, with limited exceptions, still bans the Iranian people from coming to the United States. Banning their rulers as part of this policy makes sense to me. Banning the people does not. And we need to reinvest in the civilian tools and presences to help get things done at an acceptable cost to the American people. None of this is easy. But I would submit that all of it is worth a try. And I look forward to your questions. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: I have to look over here and make sure my voice is captured.
Well, thank you, all of you. There’s a lot to go through. I thought I might start with one question that has been brought up in a Foreign Affairs article that someone mentioned, arguing that we’ve been too engaged in purgatory with results that are too poor for our investment. But one of the principal underlying arguments there was that our stake in the region is not as great as it once was, that it doesn’t matter as much anymore. And one thing that was cited was our own development of our own energy resources, for example. And we begin by commenting on that question: Has our stake diminished, and we need to worry less about major competitors, economic interdependence, or demographics – how all of that can impact us?
MS. POLASCHIK: Have I hit the button correctly? OK. Well, with the permission of my colleagues on the panel, I’d like to just jump in first with the administration’s perspective. Absolutely, our stake in the region still matters. And, you know, we’ve seen now several administrations talk about the need to – you know, people have used the term pivot to Asia, or basically look at the great game. And the administration’s national security strategy makes it very clear that we’re concerned with Russia, and China, and maybe some shifting positions in the world. But fundamentally, whether we’re mired in limbo, or purgatory, or whatever you’d like to call it, there are still very real risks that are coming to the United States from the region.
ISIS had the capacity to reach our partners, to reach the United States. There was very serious, scary threat planning that was coming out of there. We had a national security imperative to address that. Don’t forget about al-Qaida. That’s still active there and has a far global reach. We have key security obligations for our partners. Israel. Israel is gravely threatened by Iran. So our core national security interests still depend on this region. Yes, there are shifting issues in terms of, you know, U.S. energy production. We’re now, I think, one of the world’s largest energy exporters. That’s remarkably different. But we are still – we still have other core interests in that region that we really need to continue to engage. And I think that all of our panelists acknowledge that.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, and even on the question of energy, our major trading partners around the world are far more reliant or dependent on that oil than we are. So we still need to worry about that oil getting out.
MR. KEMP: Oh, absolutely. I think that the reality is there is no substitute in the world to Gulf oil, because of it’s easy of extraction and therefore its relatively low price. And that at the same time, other sources of oil are problematic – Libya, Venezuela, just to give two examples. And, yes, Tom, you’re right. I mean, we don’t need the Gulf oil as much as we used to, but if Japan and China find the price of their oil is going way up because of restrictions either elsewhere or because there’s conflict in the Gulf, we’re all going to pay a price for it, because the oil is a fungible commodity that has a world price. It’s not the same with gas. And therefore, any threat to the Gulf oil, whether by war or by embargo, or with OPEC, it’s all something we have to continue to pay great attention to.
MR. BENAIM: I guess I’m going to mildly disagree and say that it probably does in some ways matter a little bit less. The price of oil is a bit stickier at a lower number than it used to be. And we’re on both sides of the equation. Even though I completely agree with my colleagues that the health of the global economy depends on it, to some extent. I think we’re working assiduously on counterterrorism measures beyond the instability of the region. And I think that great power competition and a larger struggle for the so-called liberal international order really will require tradeoffs in U.S. resources. Those things I think are all real.
But then I look at what’s happening inside the region, and I think that we need to sustain certain types of engagement and deepen them anyway. And maybe just recognizing that there are some trades, find ways to do more. And I think that a big part of that is changing the balance, again, between military and civilian tools. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, and President Trump pulls us out of eastern Syria, at some point either in a month or two years, depending on when we actually leave, these are the kinds of things that may create opportunities for a different military footprint.
Our military footprint in the Middle East need not be written in blood anywhere – you know or inscribed in stone. We may need fewer army forces in Kuwait, or a different presence at Al Udeid if we’re not flying into Afghanistan or we don’t need as much ISR, overhead surveillance, of Syria – eastern Syria. So I think all of that should be in play. And we may not need a carrier in the Middle East perpetually. But to me, I think the real missed opportunity is the expectation that we can do less with more and not face any tradeoffs, and that this militarized presence, which is extraordinarily expensive – basically as expensive as the foreign affairs budget, in the CENTCOM region, is an expensive or more expensive than the entire foreign affairs budget of the United States – development, diplomacy, commercial assistance, all of the rest of it. So I would advocate that that’s the rebalance that will allow us to deal with the larger issues of balancing our presence around the world if we’re able to get it right.
MR. MATTAIR: Maybe Geoff, you want to comment on our military posture there? Because you’re an advocate of offshore balancing.
MR. KEMP: Well, listen, I agree with the sentiment. The sentiment of what you said I completely agree with. I mean, and here we are in the Capitol. I’m thinking more about the realities of this administration. And you know, they – are they going to be prepared to make this sort of tradeoff of less military and more aid and diplomacy? Every indication that I see is that they are cutting in the very areas that everybody seems to think we should be increasing.
That building more bombers and aircraft is very fine for constituents that make them, but if you really believe that we need a more effective diplomatic and economic assertiveness in regions like this, the money has to come from somewhere. And I don’t think the mood in this country is one to be more generous. Quite to the contrary. I think the feeling of most Americans is we have paid trillions – it’s probably trillions by now – (laughs) – trillions in these wars, and in aid to various groups throughout the Middle East. And it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack.
MS. POLASCHIK: If I could just comment on that point. This administration is very focused on burden sharing. And, yes, I would agree that there is a need for – I mean, first of all, the military presence, but also on the soft side, diplomacy, development and all of that. And if you look back over the last year-plus, we’ve seen our partners step up and meet challenges that the U.S. has said: We’ve had enough. Thank you very much. Syria stabilization – we have the Saudis and the Emirates who’ve contributed, I think, $150 million for stabilization funding. Why should the United States have to pay for everything in the region?
So, you know, as we look at rebalancing our own interests, I think it is fundamentally in the United States interest – if we want to get out of this purgatory that that article described – we need to ensure that our partners have the capacity to step up and do what they need to do to ensure their own security. And when you look at this idea of the Middle East strategic alliance, that’s where the administration would like to go with this. Why should the United States have to have a forward position, a military presence? Maybe our partners need to play a larger role in that as well.
MR. KEMP: Yeah, could I just add just one thing on that, Tom?
I mean, I think – let’s same the immigration issue, which is a familiar one to all of us. I mean, really, the great immigration crisis of the last five years started in the Middle East, and it affected Europe in a profound and dramatic way that we still haven’t seen the end of. And the bottom line is it’s up to Europe to do – to take the lion’s role in trying to make sure that this flow of immigrants is slowed down by helping them stay home, by development and reconstruction and all that. It’s going to cost them a lot of money, but Europe’s not poor. Meanwhile, the United States – you know, we talk about the caravans from the Honduras and Nicaragua – I’m sorry – El Salvador. But this is just the beginning of South American problems. And the United States has to be a very aware that our immigration problems are likely to get worse from this hemisphere, not from – not from the Middle East. And that’s a priority we’ll have to take into account.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, we’ve got military, economic and diplomatic tools. Stay one more minute on military. Geoff, can you spell out what you believe the appropriate military posture for the U.S. is? Or offshore – to be a position to do off-shore balancing?
MR. KEMP: Well, let’s just think about what we have been doing. I mean, the one thing we have been doing – I think very effectively if somewhat brutally – I mean, we are very good at using air power to deal with recalcitrant enemies, recently ISIS. So I think as long as we have a formidable air presence, both based from land bases and sea – and carriers, we’re going to be formidable – there’s no one that could match us when it comes to the deployment of air power in the Middle East.
Where I think we have gotten into trouble so many times is when we put in ground forces, and start taking casualties, because this town and this country is less – is less upset by the huge cost of every bomb run there is over Mosul, or wherever it is, than they are about the death of one American soldier or contractor, male or female, in Afghanistan or Iraq. So keeping the land component of our military forces small, offshore if possible, not subject to occupation of cities, I think is the way we should be going.
There may be occasions where, of course, we have no option. But we have – we can bring forces in very quickly, because the other great advantage that the United States still has is a formidable lift capacity, which no one else in the world can compete with. So if there were another crisis in Libya that needed American ground forces for evacuation purposes, you know, we can do it.
MR. MATTAIR: And by small forces in the region, you would mean training forces?
MR. KEMP: Yes. I mean, I’ve nothing against training forces, as long as they’re not vulnerable.
MR. MATTAIR: Dan.
MR. BENAIM: Just to that last point, I was going to say to me one real exception is the future U.S. training mission – present and future – in Iraq, where I think we have long-standing and close partnerships with both the central government in Baghdad, and with Iraqi Kurds. And we really actually have a meaningful chance to – by being there, by being part of the political equation in the country, and part of the security equation, and building up state institutions, in my mind decrease the odds that Iraq either falls back into civil war, experiences a real ISIS threat that goes global, or comes to be completely dominated by Iran – as unsatisfying as some of the – some of the developments there may be.
So I’ve been there three times in the last 18 months. And to me, it’s a very prominent exception, and a place that finds itself on the frontlines of three struggles that America really should care about and be invested in. First and foremost, the struggle to make sure that ISIS can’t come back into places where it rose to threaten our allies and our own people, in fact. Second, to make sure that Iran can’t dominate the entire Middle East, although I think we need to be realistic about how that works in practice.
And third, just to show that in the year 2019 and beyond, different sects and ethnicities can actually still live peacefully together in the Middle East. And I think getting those things right and treating Iraq not just as a war but as a country, and not just as a battleground to fight Iran but as a place that matters on its own merits, can help create a building block for a future more stable and less polarized Middle East. And I would love to see Iraq, for example, join this Middle East Strategic Alliance, to make sure that it’s not really just about fighting a sectarian or intra-Sunni battle, but is really sort of about regional stability.
MR. MATTAIR: Joan, can you say something about the reduction of our small presence in Syria? Something about our – you know, the military assistance you provide to the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen?
MS. POLASCHIK: Sure. OK. That’s a two-part question. Let me – let me tackle Syria first. Well, as I stated in my remarks – oh, thank you. I’m having a hard time with my – there. As I stated my remarks, our policy in Syria remains unchanged. And the president made the decision not retain the troop presence there so that we can continue what we need to do with respect to defeating ISIS. Yes, they’ve lost control over the physical territory, but it’s very clear that remnants are going to dig in for an insurgency.
And it’s important that the United States stays engaged. We have capabilities that not all of our partners have. It is a coalition effort. And I think having the U.S.’s continued presence is key to keeping the partners there. And I would second, by the way, what Daniel said about Iraq as well. And I would note that, again, within Iraq, it’s not just a U.S. presence that’s key. We have a coalition presence there. We have a NATO presence now, which is huge. So as I said in my remarks, we’re really focused on coalition building.
And then your second part was about Saudi, right? So let’s look at the situation in Yemen. There are serious counterterrorism threats that are coming out of Yemen. So U.S. engagement has been focused on precisely that. There is the AQAP element there, the Houthis engage in all sorts of bad activities targeting civilians in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates as they’ve been launching these longer-range missiles and drones. So we have a responsibility to our partners to help them counter those threats.
We do have some training and advising that is ongoing with the Saudis in particular to make sure that the Saudi-led coalition is doing its utmost to not target civilians, to minimize civilian casualties. And the administration feels very strongly, as do I personally, that the engagement is critical, because it is – we do face a dramatic humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And we’re not going to be able to make the situation better if we’re walking away from our key partners and we’re not offering them the advice and training that they need in order to make sure that they are protecting their security in the way that most effectively protects civilians.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Now, can I – now can we go to this – just go back to Syria for a minute. You actually defined our objective in Syria as not just containment, deterrence, but a rollback. And that is a pretty high-level objective, to roll somebody back out of a territory. Jeff, I know you are more interested in deterrence and, you know, defeat of aggression, not really – don’t really think we can invest the resources necessary to rollback or contain in the region. I hope I’m characterizing you correctly about that. And then, Dan, you know, what do you think about that? What do you think about the strategy – the goal of rolling Syria out of – pardon me – the goal of rolling Iran back out of Syria, and the strategies that we’re using to do that? Feasible? Appropriate?
MS. POLASCHIK: Could I – could I just take the first stab at that just to lay out the administration’s stake and then ask colleagues to comment?
So why would we want to minimize our goals? Don’t we want to aim high and do our maximum? And I would also state, though, like, let’s look at what’s happened in Syria over the last few years. Yes, historically there’s always been that close cultural connection between Syria and Iran. There are Iranian pilgrims going into Syria all the time. But oh my goodness, over the last few years Iran has really dug in, not just in support of the Assad regime but in order to – as other colleagues have pointed out – to create that global line of supplies, right, coming from Iran all the way into Lebanon.
That threatens our key ally, Israel. And I think the president was very clear in his statement on the Golan we cannot have a situation in which Syria or Iran uses the Golan to threaten Israel. So this is all, I think, integral – getting Iran out of Syria, it’s integral to the long-term security and stability of the region. I think a solution in which we would say, oh, it’s OK, you can just have a little bit of a presence, that’s really not acceptable because we have seen Iran time and time again use a foothold to press for more aggressive policies and more threatening actions against our allies.
MR. KEMP: I mean, look, I think this is the one issue on which I just cannot reconcile myself to what the secretary of state – I mean, reducing the Iranian presence in Syria is a goal I am really in favor of. But he says we’re going to – we’re going to use diplomacy and work with our partners to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. I simply don’t – I just don’t get that. How on earth are you going to expel every Iranian boot, unless we’re talking about, you know, military interventions, the Russians doing the job for us, an Israeli invasion, or a collapse of the regime in Tehran? I mean, it seems to me they are entrenched there, they have family relations there. They’ve been in Lebanon forever. That’s why they’re so close to Hezbollah and the Shiite community. I think it’s totally misleading to make statements like that without a strategy for carrying it out.
MS. POLASCHIK: I would argue that the administration does indeed have a strategy, and I think the maximum pressure campaign on Iran is a key part of that. And if you look at what has happened since we reimposed sanctions in November of 2018 – so that’s, what, about six months ago now, right? – Iran is losing money and Iran is losing the ability to fund its proxies. So that’s a critical part of this diplomatic effort because Iran is hugely overextended right now. It has IRGC in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen. It’s stoking war. It’s stoking conflict. That costs money. And as we’re taking away Iran’s ability to finance this, I think we – that will really support our diplomatic efforts.
MR. BENAIM: I mentioned earlier my gratitude for public servants who continue to do excellent work on behalf of the country. I have to confess my gratitude to not being one today at this moment because I really do think that we are dealing with a situation where the current policy of the United States being ably represented and articulated is just – has a complete mismatch between means and ends.
And I think it is a tragedy with blame that should be widely shared that Assad seems determined to hang on in the western half of Syria and gradually extend his reach to the east. And this is an ongoing unfolding human tragedy in places like Idlib, which will, if and when it falls, create both a massive migration wave and a counterterrorism problem among the hardened jihadists who are hiding among the men and women and children living there.
I guess I would subscribe to that – at least in western Syria to that deterrence camp, to making sure that Israel has what it needs to continue to do what it has been doing to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from gaining their foothold in the western part of Syria.
The east is a little bit – although I don’t think they need the annexation of territory they’ve held for nearly half a century – or for 52 years, I guess – to do that; they seemed to be holding it perfectly OK before that announcement three weeks before a contested election. But I think that when it comes to the eastern part of the country it’s a different thing, and it’s where the United States has been more directly involved more recently. And it’s my observation that for all the kind of walking back and walking forward of this policy over time – it’s one month, it’s two years, it’s – you know, we’ve squandered a lot of leverage to use the eastern half of Syria, where we had been providing security, to shape as much as possible either the terms of autonomy for eastern Syria, the cohesion of the various actors on the ground that we’ve been helping – although in the middle of last year we stopped providing them stabilization money of our own – instead of adding that effort to the welcome funds from the Gulf and the UAE we cut our own funds and kept our soldiers there, indicative of this imbalance that I’m talking about in my mind, and zeroed out those funds for future requests despite keeping our troops there. At a minimum, as a matter of force protection, you’d think we’d want American money there.
But that – we never had a great hand to play in eastern Syria, and my colleagues in the Obama administration would tell you, you know, we never should have been there for as long as we were. This is a hard choice. This is a – you know, I take nothing away from that. But the way that this has been handled left us with diminished leverage to shape and negotiate that future role insofar as we can play this hand into the rest of Syria. Now, I think that they have to some extent exercised the leverage that they have since those initial kind of uneven decisions to gain support from the region and other actors, and I certainly give them credit for that.
You know, and the last thing that I would say about this is that while I personally am incredibly proud of the humanitarian monies that have continued to go to Syrian refugees from our government, I do think it is a stain on our national honor that there has been a 99 ½ percent reduction in the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States from two years ago this past year, to I believe 62.
MR. KEMP: Let me just sort of add – (laughs) – poor Joan –
MR. BENAIM: Sorry. (Laughs.)
MR. KEMP: – add a – add a little bit onto this. Look, I mean, there’s a lot we can do to make Iran’s presence in Syria more unpleasant and more costly. And I agree with you, I think they are paying a price. There is also, by the way, a covert war going on between Syria – between Israel and Iran. I mean, Israeli airstrikes are pretty consistent against Iranian targets in Syria, particularly against their ammunition facilities.
But we’re not going to do any of this unless things get really bad. We don’t have the ground forces. We don’t have the money. The one thing, it seems to me, in the long run that could persuade the Iranians to leave would be either enormous pressure from Russia, which I’m not sure will come, but the reconstruction of Syria. I mean, Assad himself faces a huge problem because he’s not secure. He doesn’t control all of Syria. I mean, he’s got – he’s got to somehow now rebuild the country to give some meaning to this death and slaughter they’ve all gone through. Where on the earth is he going to get the funds from? He’s not going to get it from Capitol Hill, that I can absolutely assure you. The Europeans might put in some money because they have a vested interest in stabilizing Syria. Russia, no; I mean, they’ve already – they’re not big on this type of investment. China maybe in the long run, but they’ll take something for it. It’s going to be a long, careful process. And I think as long as that process is underway, the Iranians are going to be around if only for prestige reasons. And it’s – I don’t see how we get them out to the last boot, simply don’t see it.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, does anyone in the administration expect help from Russia in this? I mean, in the early days of the administration there was some discussion about Russia wanting Iran out and helping.
MS. POLASCHIK: Well, Russia, obviously, is a key player in everything related to Syria. And you know, I go to so many of these events where people kind of pooh-pooh the idea that Russia and the United States could work effectively because – together because it’s great-power competition, but in fact we have worked effectively together in Syria. And I think that there is some hope there in those models. You know, certainly over the last couple of years we’ve worked very effectively on the southwest ceasefire zones. That worked. And we continue to discuss Syria with the Russians. They’re going to have to be a key part of the equation.
I would argue that perhaps there is some daylight between Russia and Iran as well. It’s not a monolithic approach to what’s happening in that country. So it’s in our interest to continue those discussions with the Russians and figure out the ways that we can do this because it is the administration’s goal to get every last Iranian boot out of Syria, and we’re not going to be satisfied simply with containment.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, on the question of Russia again, the administration talks about this is a region of competition and the world is a competitive place. I started by asking if our stakes in the region had diminished. Aside from this – these little areas of cooperation with Russia, is the – is the administration not concerned about the – about the reentry of Russia into the region after having been – after having had its influence severely diminished for 50 years? The war provided them – provided them with an opportunity to get back in and to look like a country that would stick up for its client at a time when our partners and allies in the region were not very sure that we were that reliable. So is there any concern about Russia being back in the Middle East or about China making inroads into the Middle East, even if they’re only economic at this time? Is that global geopolitical competition relevant in the Middle East?
MS. POLASCHIK: May I – may I start and then – thanks. Let’s take a look at what Russia is doing in the Middle East right now. It’s certainly not a force for good. It’s meddling in regional conflicts. Look at what it’s been doing in Syria. It propped up Assad, basically kept a murderer in power. It has been very unhelpful in Libya. I just saw press reports today, for example, that Haftar is using Russian equipment, Russian advisers in his march on Tripoli. That’s certainly not helpful. I can’t imagine that if you are a citizen sitting in any country in the MENA region that you look at Russia as a model for good. So it’s – I think it’s destabilizing, it’s unhelpful.
It is – I think one of the largest areas of concern for us right now is the issue of military sales because we see partners turning to Russia for equipment, including outside the region. You know, the issue of Turkish purchases. Folks here on the Hill have expressed a lot of concern about that. We have CAATSA. We have been engaged in very serious discussions with a number of key partners about the risks that they face if they pursue Russian military sales. And I would argue that it’s really not in their interests to pursue that. If you buy U.S. equipment, you have a closer partnership, you have interoperability, you have training, and I think that’s really in the best interests of the region to stick with the United States.
With respect to China, yes, someone mentioned the idea of a base outside – I think it was Daniel – a base in the Gulf. I think that’s one of the outliers in terms of Chinese engagement. What we see really more is the Belt and Road Initiative, the investment in infrastructure, getting those contracts to build roads or dams or whatever. And gosh, how many of those projects have proven to be shoddy, right? Chinese companies consistently underbid U.S. companies because they bring in cheap workers, keep them in horrible conditions, don’t let them leave. And again, I never understand why countries in the region, which face huge unemployment problems, would want to import workers. It seems like this is just, you know, prolonging the problems that they face and exacerbating them in many respects.
So I see China trying to get what it can out of the region and that’s a very different approach from the United States where we’re working together in partnership to help these countries develop.
So let me ask my colleagues to comment on that.
MR. KEMP: Well, I mean, I think the one advantage that Russia has over the United States is that it doesn’t mind dealing with really unpleasant people and supporting them. I mean, aside from the Middle East, remember the Russians have been deeply involved in Sudan propping up the gentleman who lost his job yesterday, which shows the risks of Russian diplomacy. If you put all your eggs in a 30-year dictatorship, I mean, it can suddenly come unstuck.
Similarly, the Russian intervention in Venezuela. I think they may be backing the wrong horse again. If Mr. Maduro magically departs for a resort in Cuba in the next month or so, you know, it will be another sense that the Russians are playing games, but they’re not really able to sustain a presence anywhere.
I think Syria is different. I mean, the Russians had a really serious presence in Syria until the end of the Cold War. I remember when I was working on this subject with the Reagan administration, we were constantly looking at maps, you know, the range of backfire bombers that could get from Syria to Libya and then refuel and go back to the Soviet Union. It was – it was a serious threat. It’s a very important port, they’ve been there for a long time, they’re not going to get out I don’t think anytime soon.
The Chinese, OK, well, let me say two things about China. I mean, what you’re seeing China do in the Middle East is what China’s doing everywhere. This is a global issue, they’re everywhere, in the Arctic for God’s sake. And they’re not going to stop.
And the one problem I would raise, just for your comment, is that the Middle East is one area where they do have a major, major potential competitor. India is only a matter of miles from the Middle East. The whole Gulf is sort of Indian in culture. The Indian army liberated the Middle East from the Germans under the British. I mean, there’s a – there’s a – there are Indian war cemeteries all over the Middle East. India has an historic stake in that region of the world and they are particularly worried about China’s encroachments into the Bay of Bengal, its cooperation with Pakistan. And that’s why India’s working actually quite closely with Iran to develop the big base at Chabahar that offsets the Gwadar base that China has built for Pakistan on the coast.
So the Chinese face a problem that sooner or later India may start flexing its muscles. And that’s something that they have to worry about, just as they have to worry ultimately about Japan, you know, playing a stronger role in the – in the – in the East China Sea. They don’t have a free ride, that’s what I’m saying, and they’re not particularly popular. So I worry about them, but not – I don’t worry about Russia and China at this moment to the point where I see either of them as vital strategic threats to the United States in these areas.
MR. BENAIM: A few – a few quick thoughts on both. On China, I mean, these are countries that desperately need capital infusions and rebuilding. And I – and I think that America, which isn’t offering either of those things, would be wise to let some of that happen. And even if – even if in some cases it creates Chinese influence and leverage and we have to be comfortable with a little bit of discomfort there, but also recognize where our interests are most directly impacted.
You know, and I think China indeed is largely a commercial actor so far, but we have to be thinking two steps down the road. It’s clear that their presence in Djibouti is a sign of their uncertainty about whether America will continue to monopolize the securing of the sea lanes around the world, which is already changing in the Red Sea. Ethiopia doesn’t even have a coastline and they’re building a navy. Egypt is building a navy. Saudi has a navy. I mean, this is – this is a fast-changing geostrategic terrain.
And frankly, when you look at the commercial competition with India and China, they’re also competing with countries in the region, including Turkey and the UAE. China’s infrastructure binge that they want to continue in this region is in direct competition with Turkish construction companies, Emirate shipping and port builders. This competition is sort of multilayered in that way. And I think frankly we’re not going to rebuild these places and someone has to. And that creates an opportunity for the Chinese that I think we can’t really tell the region to say no to fully.
On Russia, I think they have really sort of four, maybe four-and-a-half main interests in the Middle East. First, regional stability. They hate seeing color revolutions that overthrow leaders because they worry that they’re next. And that is a clear and consistent, I think relatively consistent, interest. They want to sell weapons. And this has also been a proof of concept for them, what they’ve done in Syria, of their ability to sell weapons and use them. And they’re willing to accept the reputational costs of the human rights abuses and war crimes that have been committed with their hardware.
They want to – four-and-a-half I said – they want to undercut U.S. leadership in the Middle East and prove that there is an alternative model. And the sort of four-and-a-half is that they want to enhance their own prestige.
And lastly, counterterrorism, which they really are worried about. They have their own communities that are threatening to them and they’re worried that when they go fight somewhere else, as with China, that they will come back and endanger their domestic security.
Now, there are some of these where we can work with Russia. It’s not as though we can’t, we don’t have any common interests, we just have to be really careful. When a country wants to buy our most advanced fighter jet, for example, and also wants to buy Russia’s most advanced air defense system to surveil and counter and master the technology of that fighter jet, I think we should put our foot down and say no. But, you know, if they want overflight, if they want something else, it may be a more case-by-case situation that we have to do it. And they do have these different relationships. They’re friends with Saudi Arabia and Iran. They’re friends with Israel and Syria. They’re friends with – you know, they have cordial relationships and are selling air defenses to the Turks. So you think of the rolodex at work there, and the Houthis and Haftar and on down the line, and, you know, it’s worth exploring where there are opportunities to work together while recognizing that part of their fundamental aim in this endeavor is to undercut us. And we should never lose sight of that.
MR. KEMP: Well, let me sort of add to that because I agree with that. And it’s interesting, China also has excellent relations with all the people, all the countries in the Middle East – the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Iranians, you name it, they’re there.
The one case that I think you alluded to, but this is perhaps is going to – I’m interested, Joan, if you have any comments on this. The U.S. Department of Defense, as I understand it, has been absolutely furious with Turkey for saying that they are going to buy the S-400 air defense system and that if they do there will be, you know, essentially a total disruption of the supply of the F-35 superfighter, which is being built all around the world and all our friends are buying it. But there’s no resolution to this. I mean, Erdoğan was in Moscow two days ago and both the parties said absolutely this is the done deal, done deal. If we accept this, I think that that’ll be a great triumph for Russia, a huge blow for us. It will further weaken our relationships with Turkey. As someone said, Turkey is no longer a friend. It’s not yet a foe, but it’s no longer a friend. This, I think, is another serious development in the Middle East that has to – Mr. Pompeo should be paying a lot of attention to.
MR. MATTAIR: You wanted to say?
MS. POLASCHIK: Well, I don’t want to speak on behalf of my colleagues in the European Affairs Bureau who actually cover Turkey, although many people would say that perhaps Turkey belongs more in – no, no, it’s quite all right, that gives me a good out. But I just – obviously, the U.S. is concerned about that sale. And it is a topic of extreme importance in our bilateral discussions with Turkey. And I’ll just leave that there.
But I wanted to follow up on what Daniel said about Russia’s interests in the region. In my mind, this is something that I’m really trying to understand, the CT angle. And I was at another event probably two weeks ago with a think tank on the subject of Russia’s role in the Middle East. And one of the speakers there said, really, Putin’s number-one interest is in preventing another taking of the Moscow theater. Remember years – I mean, how horrific that was, right? And I thought, well, why would you get in bed with, you know, Iran, the state sponsor of terrorism, in trying to stem that from Syria? And, you know, well, Iran is Shia, they’re not – you know, that’s not an issue. Well, actually it is.
I’d just like to make the point, you know, Iran has supported al-Qaida, so anyone who gets in bed with Iran and thinks that somehow that’s going to protect your CT equities is vastly, vastly mistaken.
MR. BENAIM: The same might be true for working in a brutal fashion alongside other authoritarian governments that may be creating future radicalization.
MS. POLASCHIK: Exactly. It seems that Russia is perhaps playing the short game vice the long game.
MR. BENAIM: And perhaps not only Russia.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, we do have the question of when we are making a decision, we rely more on our regional partners, we expect more of them in terms of their own military operations, their investment of their resources in the development of the region and in humanitarian efforts and all of that, we do have the question of what the limits of our partnership should be and the question of, in my mind, domestic perceptions of who are partners are and what our partners are doing and how that places a burden on the administration to explain things.
If Iran is the principal danger in the region and we are relying more on our partners to do something about it and we are providing our partners with the military hardware and the training that we’ve been providing for decades so that they’ll be in a position, yet they’re inexperienced, haven’t used the hardware before, haven’t fought a war before, how do we deal with the fact that they are not succeeding in a place like Yemen? How do we help them in a place like Yemen where Iran clearly is supporting the Houthis and has been for years and where the place was a basket case before 2011 because of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s misrule?
So you have a partner that over the years has found the U.S. to be less and less reliable, is told more and more take matters into your hands, takes matters into their hands to contain their regional adversary, which is expanding on the ground, and then they have trouble, they have trouble and it’s not succeeding. Where does our intervention – how should we be helping?
You’ve talked about supporting the political process there, but the political process there has been tried and failed. Sometimes they go to a city and the Houthis never come out of their hotel and don’t show up for the meeting. So what are we going to do about that?
And then – so we don’t – so we don’t run out of time, I have to talk about another partner, which is Israel. We rely on Israel a great deal and we support Israel a great deal. However, and I didn’t hear this, I didn’t hear you say the administration supports a two-state solution, do we – and is what Israel’s doing now and what it is saying it’s going to do – annexing will go on, talking about annexing all or part of the West Bank – is that good for the region? Is that good for the stability and the order of the region? Does that foster extremism? Does that foster grievances? Does that make our counterterror more difficult in the long run? Does it help Iran in the long run? Is that something Iran can exploit in the long run?
How do we manage our partners and help them or guide them away from policies that are not helpful to our national interests and our, in this particular case, in the case of Israel, I mean, completely inimical to every policy we’ve articulated since Nixon?
MS. POLASCHIK: May I – may I start with that? Because I think a lot of that was directed toward –
MR. MATTAIR: No, I mean, you are the administration person.
MS. POLASCHIK: I am.
MR. MATTAIR: But it’s for everybody.
MS. POLASCHIK: Yes.
MR. MATTAIR: I mean, it’s for every analyst and every former official, it’s not –
MS. POLASCHIK: Yes. Understood, but let me – let me just address those points quickly and then turn it over to colleagues. And I’d also like to address the point that Dan made about maybe other people are playing the short game.
The administration is cleareyed about the challenges of this region. We know that our partners are not perfect, but there are key strategic interests that are at stake. And we have to work with what we have. And, you know, you hear us saying, you know, affirming the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and all of that. We also behind the scenes are having very serious discussions about human rights, about the Khashoggi case. And by the way, those statements have not only been made in private, the secretary and the president have been very, very clear about our commitment to ensuring that there is a full, transparent and credible investigation in which there is accountability. So we continue to press for what is right. It’s not – it’s not a marriage of convenience.
And I would like to circle back to what I said in my remarks as well. This is a region that has profound kind of underlying challenges and issues. And we see this reverberating still with, you know, huge youth populations that don’t have jobs or that want more personal freedoms. So the region will continue to roil and it’s in our interests to stay engaged so that that roiling does not negatively impact U.S. interests.
On the question then of Yemen and our partnership there, well, the United States has been engaged in addressing all of those concerns that you laid out, Tom. I spoke earlier about the training that we provide. We want to make sure that the Saudi-led coalition is doing everything possible to have the correct targeting so it’s not bombing buses of schoolchildren, that it’s doing everything possible to mitigate civilian casualties. We have training on human rights and the law of armed conflict in every single thing that we do.
And we also have fundamental interests at stake, right? We want to make sure that our partners in the Gulf can defend themselves. The Houthis are lobbing missiles at civilian targets, at airports, they’re putting drones in. That’s not OK. We need to stand by our partners.
Also, you mentioned Israel and peace prospects. The president has been very clear from day one that he still stand by whatever solution it is that the parties can come up with. We’re not going to limit it to one model or another. The administration has been working hard on a peace plan. I think the latest statements that we’ve heard coming out of the White House is, you know, perhaps after Ramadan in terms of a drop. But the peace plan will be rolled out when the timing is right and when the prospects are greatest for a successful plan.
You posed the question, Tom, also as to, you know, everything that’s happened now in terms of Israeli policies, is that for good? I would like to comment on what the administration has done, not what the Israelis have done. But, you know, I said in my remarks that the administration has taken a cold, hard look at things that we’ve tried to do for decades, it hasn’t been working, right? We have been engaged, all of us, in an effort to achieve Israeli and Palestinian peace for decades now without a lot of success recently. So I think the administration’s thought is let’s shake it up, let’s recognize existing situations. I mean, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the recognition of Israeli control over the Golan. Perhaps doing that differently will shake things up and create the conditions for peace.
MR. KEMP: Well, thank you, Joan, for being very clear about the administration’s policy.
I mean, what I think a lot of us simply cannot understand is Trump gave these gifts to Netanyahu, the move to Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan, and didn’t ask for anything in return. This is what nobody can understand. This was a perfectly reasonable thought process because things hadn’t worked. But, you know, in diplomacy you do try to get something in exchange when you give something.
I personally can’t wait to see or hear the Jared Kushner peace plan coming as it does after all the events that have taken place in the region. And I would have to say that I can predict two things: One, without overriding and very public and financially backed Saudi support, there is no way he can have a plan that will provide the sort of financial incentives that any Palestinian group would even look at, irrespective of whether they would accept it. And that, I think, explains the reasons we’ve been so coy about Saudi Arabia and the murderous activities of its elite.
Backdrop – for the first time, the, you know, the House and the Senate have essentially said, you know, stop it, stop the war in Yemen. This is – this is the first – the first effort to invoke the long-waning War Powers Act. And I think there’s opposition building to this war in Yemen here on Capitol Hill.
What concerns me most is that if the peace plan that’s announced, you say, after Ramadan, which makes sense, does not light up the fires of enthusiasm amongst the Palestinians and if there’s no price that the Israelis have to pay that the Palestinians will regard as a possible tradeoff for a deal, then I fear what’s going to happen is that the cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at all levels, particularly on security, will diminish and may even rupture.
I think one of the – one of the things the Obama administration did very well was to work with the Israeli military and with the Palestinians to establish this security relationship, which has sort of kept a lot of things quiet in the West Bank, not in Gaza. And if that breaks down and there’s no peace process, then you really are faced with the prospect that Israel, to protect itself, may have to take much more forward and strident moves to occupy areas of the West Bank that, up to now, it has sort of walked away from. And that brings you to the real question about whether or not there could ever be a two-state solution and would look more and more to me like it would be a one-state solution which I think for many Israelis and many of Israel’s supporters in this country would be not the right track to take.
MR. BENAIM: I just want to say at the outset, revisiting my earlier comment, that this is hard and it’s actually hard whether the president is Bush, who in fact started the security cooperation with the Palestinians that the Obama administration continued, you know, or Obama or Trump. This question of what to do about partners is an extraordinarily difficult one because we want to do less and we want them to do more.
Looking at these fundamental regional conflicts, Sunni-Shia, Sunni-Sunni and citizen-versus-state, the administration that I served in, the Obama administration, sought to take a step back and create some space for reconciliation between various sides and I think it may have had the effect at various points of alienating all six of those quadrants from us.
You know, but what we’re seeing now, this instinct to just kind of unquestioningly embrace, is sort of very far in the other direction. And I really do think that it creates a moral hazard for behavior that you see in things like the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon or the fight between Saudi Arabia and Canada in which we were silent, or the Qatar blockade which continues with no end in sight, or Yemen.
And I do think that there has been belated pressure by the administration, but this is really difficult because Saudi Arabia does have very legitimate threats and on the ground are 22 million food-insecure Yemeni people who are in the midst of a war that shows no sign of being solved militarily and with catastrophic civilian casualties. Even with our best advice over this time, they remain catastrophic. And so I think that the decision for the United States Congress to exerts its will and use the tools available to put pressure on the administration, which the president will veto, put pressure on the administration to say you can’t re-escalate this war if this fragile ceasefire around Hodeidah goes bad and we need to start working to end it is part of giving Griffiths the tools that he needs to come to peace.
But we also need to do more than that. We need to work with Gulf partners to fight al-Qaida in Yemen, which is a fundamentally different war, although in some cases the Houthi war has been in fact counterproductive to that larger effort and has led to leakage, apparently, reportedly, of U.S.-supplied munitions to some unsavory folks on the ground, and we need to work with Gulf countries on defensive measures to deal with these Houthi missiles that Iran very irresponsibly seems to have helped proliferate and UAVs that no country would want. So there’s a lot of work to do here and I think that U.S. pressure and congressional pressure is fundamental to that.
On Israel, you know, I think that there should be and has been and is bipartisan support for strong U.S. support for Israel. I guess maybe I’m old-fashioned. I admire the Founders of the country who had an idea of its Jewish and democratic character that I see in danger in this current approach of a sort of indefinite – what I fear will be an indefinite occupation and a sort of steady sign that if you create new facts on the ground they will be recognized, whether it’s in Golan, which maybe on its own terms is less concerning, or in the – in the West Bank, which I think is quite concerning.
Now, on each of these steps, I don’t want to say I think there’s a danger of being kind of the Chicken Little caucus of people who that with each new step the sky is going to fall – and it hasn’t fallen and Arab states have proven remarkably adaptive to these problems and the Palestinian Authority has kept chugging along. But that doesn’t mean that over time these behaviors may not be risky or counterproductive.
So I think my attitude would be support Israel’s security for sure, but maybe try not to stoke their right-wing id quite so much to sort of act on these impulses and try to keep a wide path open for peace, which may ultimately be part of supporting a secure Jewish democratic friend in that country.
MR. MATTAIR: Too bad we don’t have another hour. (Laugher.) But it’s noon, so time to say thank you to the panel.
And this video will be archived on our website probably within about five hours and the transcript will be in the next issue of The Journal, so you can revisit it.
And we thank you for coming. (Applause.)
Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary,
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State
Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria
Senior Director of Regional Security Programs,
Center for the National Interest
Former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Former Middle East Adviser at the White House,
the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 96th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 12th: “The Future of U.S. Engagement in the Middle East.” Convened at the end of a week where the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly won reelection, the panelists presented different lenses through which to evaluate both the present and future of U.S. engagement in the region.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Joan Polaschik (Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria); Geoffrey Kemp (Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, Center for the National Interest; Former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council); and Daniel Benaim (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Middle East Adviser at the White House, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate).
Ms. Polaschik highlighted that engagement in the Middle East is a priority for the Trump administration anchored around counterterrorism cooperation, ensuring the secure flow of natural resources, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and defending U.S. allies. This engagement is based on three core principles. The first is to tackle problems through coalition building while working to promote partner country self-reliance. She described the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS as an example of how this coalition building can realize success in practice. The second is to counter Iran as the greatest threat to regional security through tighter and more aggressive sanctions designed to further limit revenue for its malign activities. And the third principle is that U.S. military intervention cannot be the answer to the region’s challenges. This means greater focus on humanitarian support (e.g. Yemen, the Western Sahara), protections of religious freedom, and other peaceful solutions to conflict.
Mr. Kemp believes that U.S. influence in the region over the past two decades has never been as weak as it is today. This weakened position arrived gradually over three key periods: 1991 and the successful first Gulf War where U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a new world order; 2001 marking the end of unipolar U.S. power with the beginning of the Afghanistan (justified) and Iraq (unjustified) wars; and 2011 with the Arab uprisings and a confused and illusionary U.S. response, particularly in Syria which resulted in the U.S. having no real influence on what happens there today. The result is that in 2019 the U.S. now faces competition from outside powers (Russia, Turkey, Iran and maybe China in the longer term). Yet none of these country competitors has the ability to replace the U.S. fully, suggesting a period of friction, conflict and a lack of easy solutions to managing the political, security and increasingly environmental complexities of the region.
Mr. Benaim advocated for a “restrained but sustained” approach to the Middle East, praising some initiatives of the Trump administration while suggesting that there needs to be greater investments made beyond rulers to see real progress on the ground. He believes that many of the key relationships in the region have become hyper-personalized in a way that risks leaving U.S. partners feeling whiplash. He also criticized the Trump administration for underinvesting on the civilian side and downgrading U.S. diplomatic tools in a manner that leaves the U.S. worse off. Further, he does not see the escalated rhetoric against Iran being matched with funding and programs on the ground to tangibly reduce Iran’s nefarious activities in the region. All of these dynamics are being complicated by the growing impact of nature on national security within countries in the Middle East, something that current U.S. policy is not well designed to confront.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.