Managing, Ending and Avoiding Wars in the Middle East
Former military, intelligence and diplomatic experts on Capitol Hill on eve of State of the Union address
WASHINGTON, January 20, 2015 – The Middle East Policy Council’s 79th Capitol Hill Conference convened four experts with diverse backgrounds in the military, intelligence and diplomatic services of the U.S. government to look at the Middle East today and to discuss prospects for applying lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan to conflicts in Syria and Yemen and avoiding a new one over Iran’s nuclear program.
These lessons, according to the panel, are nuanced and not always applicable to the Middle East landscape U.S. policy makers face in 2015. Active conflicts like Syria more closely resemble the dynamics in the tribal regions of Pakistan than those in neighboring Iraq. Both Syria and Yemen face increasing Iranian influence, something that alarms U.S. Arab Gulf allies and illustrates the more expansive role of Iran and its proxies today as compared to the height of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The panelists included Michael Hayden (former director, Central Intelligence Agency); Daniel Bolger (Lieutenant General, United States Army (ret.)); Dafna Rand (deputy director of studies, Center for a New American Security); and Francis Ricciardone (vice president and director, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East). Omar Kader, chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council, introduced the event. Thomas Mattair, executive director, was the discussant. More specific remarks from the panelists:
• Michael Hayden explained that Iraq and Syria as defined by the Sykes-Picot agreement are “gone,” replaced by an emerging divide defined in large part along Sunni and Shia lines. He continued to assert that the best potential outcome in Syria is one where President Assad’s regime remains with changed behavior and that the U.S. should continue to combine its superior financial and technology advantage with local “on the ground” intelligence partners that are more culturally and linguistically agile.
• Daniel Bolger emphasized that in losing the war in Iraq, the U.S. should reevaluate its definition of success, approaching this new war against ISIS with a more realistic goal of containing, rather than defeating, the Islamic State. He also suggested a need for a transparent debate on the future U.S. military role in the region, beginning with elected officials in Congress, who have not formally authorized U.S. military engagement in the region for over a decade.
• Dafna Rand stressed the value of limited military engagements coupled with employing the coercive tools of statecraft at the United States’ disposal. In her view, while states in the region are weakening, they aren’t going to disappear; local actors will continue to value U.S. involvement amidst a lack of viable alternatives, and the United States should remain engaged so long as our interests are implicated.
• Francis Ricciardone suggested the United States should focus less on what we don’t want and more on opportunities, so we don’t miss new chances for progress by being overly focused on the various challenges in the region. In addition to more assertively affirming what the United States is for, he urged leaders to “never waste a great crisis” and to highlight the Islamic State as one of the dangers of extreme sectarianism.
An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website.
Contacts: For interviews or other content associated with this event, please contact Grace Elliott – (202) 296 6767 – [email protected].
The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 20, 2015, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Omar Kader moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
OMAR KADER, Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready to start the program. I’d like to thank all of those of you who have taken the time to come to — we welcome you and we’re glad that we’ve got such a distinguished panel today to cover a topic that is always in the news: Managing, ending and avoiding wars in the Middle East. Just by prefacing what we’re about to do, a lot of other things happen in the Middle East besides wars, but we’re going to talk about wars today, if that’s OK.
I’d like just to welcome you and introduce you to the Middle East Policy Council. I’m Omar Kader, the chairman of the board. And I’ve been affiliated with the council for over 30 years. It’s our 33rd year. We see our job as provoking thought by asking tough questions on national security interests in the Mideast. And the tough questions are no self-censorship, as long as it enhances U.S. national interest.
So we take a lot of pride in being consistent in making our journal, which we consider to be the best in the field, available to speakers and thinkers of all stripes on all sides of the issues. And we’ve done very well with soliciting hundreds of manuscripts and publishing ideas that we don’t see in other journals.
So today we’re going to address our national security interest in a region that is in turmoil and transition. The solutions that we may form today become tomorrow’s headaches, or they may really be tomorrow’s solutions. And as we look at the history of the Middle East, and you look at every problem they’re facing, it’s not hard to find a dotted line to a decision made in the past.
So let’s today welcome a very distinguished group of speakers, professionals. The program is listed and the speakers will go in the order. The bios are on the back. If you don’t have a program, just raise you hand and someone will bring you one. I won’t take time to read these bios, but these are people of significant distinction. And we’d like to welcome them to begin in this order: General Hayden will begin and we will conclude with Ambassador Ricciardone.
MICHAEL HAYDEN, General, United States Air Force (ret.), Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency, Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Former Director, National Security Agency,Principal, the Chertoff Group
Well, thank you and good afternoon. And thanks for the opportunity to be here and an opportunity for me to learn.
What is going on now in the Middle East, and particularly in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant I would actually nominate as the single most complicated problem I have seen in 40-plus years of government service and retirement. I think we’re actually seeing epochal change. And it’s causing such a disturbance in the force there that we see the vibrations in places like Ottawa and Sydney and Paris because these forces are so great.
I’ve taken, over the last year or so, to pointing to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and how artificial that was and how those were artificial boundaries, indifferent to local realities like culture, history, language, religion and economics, and how those were sort of flash-frozen, those boundaries, and kept in place for about a century by the raw application of power.
First imperial power, secondly the — kind of the power of the two superpowers during the Cold War as those states kind of lined up on one side of the ball or the other. And neither of the superpowers would want a client to do something that would draw it into war, so the boundaries remained inviolate. And then they remained inviolate for another decade or two with the raw power of Arab autocrats.
And I know you’ve all been following along at home. Not been a good decade so far for Arab autocrats. And with the removal of those, all those forces that were sort of flash-frozen and bottled up are now coming out. I tell general audiences, it’s like we’re opening a Coke can for the first time in a hundred years and the Coke can’s been shaken for the entire century.
You know, we all have our issues. Our society has issues. We have tensions. But we have institutions elastic enough to deal with them. And even when they turn ugly, we face them and take our game to the next level. That has not happened in this part of the world for the last century. And all these tensions now are exploding onto the scene with terrible destructive power.
I’ve taken to saying, over the last year, that Iraq is gone, Syria is gone and Lebanon is gone. They aren’t coming back. We may see a single seat at Turtle Bay in New York at the U.N. for something called Iraq, but in terms of the nation-state system that we have seen, I think what has gone on, the dissolution in those countries, is irreparable.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has commented that what we’re seeing now in the Levant is the equivalent of what Europe saw in the 30 Years War. And if you think back to European history, in the middle of the 17th century we went from one equilibrium to another equilibrium. But it took 30 years to get there. And in those 30 years, about one-third of the population of Europe died.
When I do this with viewgraphs, I throw up a picture of a map and the cast of characters, like al-Baghdadi in ISIS and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. And I make the comment that even if we were able to replace these guys with St. Francis of Assisi, this was going to be a really bad situation for a really long time — generational.
Even definition of the problem — and I suspect the ambassador’s going to talk about this, but I’ll use Turkey as an example — even definition of the problem is very much at variance. I mean, we look at the issues now spinning around here and saying: Big problem is ISIS. Then you got the Assad regime. And, frankly, the Kurds are our friends. And the Turks take that taxonomy and say: The biggest thing we got to worry about are the Kurds, then it’s Assad and, frankly, well, we’ll get to ISIS directly. Do you see how different it is, because the changes are so fundamental?
About two, two-and-a-half years ago I began saying that of the potential outcomes in Syria — and at this point we were able to focus narrowly on Syria — I said, of the potential outcomes in Syria, given the degree of American involvement or the degree of American uninvolvement — I said, of the potential outcomes, I mean, that could really happen, the best one I could come up with was Assad wins because the other two were ISIS wins or nobody wins, and we have this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe for years — for years on end.
There are basic forces at work here. And I’ll just rattle off a series of them. You know, there’s Arab, non-Arab; there’s moderate, extremists; there’s secular and religious; there’s democrat and autocrat. And they’re all playing out. I think, though, that if you want to really step back and look at how this region will now self-organize as you come out of this tumultuous period, I think the dispute that will form the axis of how this is resolved is, in my mind, almost certainly Sunni-Shia. And that will become a fundamental organizing principle as we go forward.
Now, I’m here and I’ve been talking for a few minutes. And I’m the career intelligence officer. Nothing I have said to you is a secret that needed to be stolen. (Laughter.) Nothing here is the product of espionage as we traditionally know it. And you recall the grand debate we had here domestically, what did the president know, when did he know it? What did Jim Clapper know? What did Jim Clapper tell him about ISIS? OK?
Actually, I don’t think that’s a very interesting question. Fundamentally, what’s going on here doesn’t really need intelligence or espionage to understand it. It’s a much broader question. Nothing I’ve described here for you to date is something sitting on JWICS or Intelink, which are the systems that we go to for answers — far more fundamental than that.
I mentioned — I mentioned the — kind of an epochal change, you know, kind of along the broad arc of history. And I suggested — or, at least, Richard Haass has suggested — this is kind of like what Christendom went through in the 30 Years War. And if you recall what happened from 1618 to 1648, is we came out of that into what we call now, in the West, the modern era.
We came out — we came out of this with two things: Number one, the nation-state system; and, number two, we kind of took religion off the list of things that we could — we could refer to in order to kill one another, OK? We stopped wars of religion fundamentally. I know this is fuzzy, but fundamentally out of Westphalia, the nation-state and end of wars of religion.
And now, a lot of folks are looking at the current conflict within Islam, of which this is deeply interconnected, that it’s almost certainly going to follow the same arc that Christendom did, that Islam, in its struggle with adjusting to modernity, will follow the same path that Christendom did. It’s about nation-states and it’s separating the secular from the sacred.
I don’t know that that’s guaranteed. I don’t know that that’s, you know, intuitively obvious that that’s how this ends up. If you look at this region of the world and what are the organizing principles, we — Europeans, Westerners — impose nation-states. Their first opportunity, the local residents tried to go — remember the day — tried to go to pan-Arab unity. Remember, Nasser and the United Arab Republic? It failed, but you see the vision was something larger than nation-state.
And now we’re looking at another collection of actors — another collection of actors who also seem to have little regard for the nation-state and, in fact, are opting for a more unifying principle they call the caliphate. So again, the arc that Christendom and the West followed is not necessarily the arc that will be followed in this part of the world. And with regard to separating the secular and the sacred, in which we have done, I’m not at all sure that Islam arrives at the same compromise that Christendom arrived at in 1648.
Sorry, not much intelligence detail there. But you know, I pictured — I pictured an NSC meeting, all right, that I would be sitting at again. And we’re now trying to get our act together for, OK, we got to staunch the bleeding in Iraq, kind of. Don’t really have a coherent policy for Syria yet.
But we got all the deputies together in the room and, of course, the rhythm in those meetings is you turn to the far end of the table, to where the intel guys are, and you go: OK, intel, give us the lay down. And I imagine myself saying: Well, in 682 there was this argument. (Laughter.) Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DANIEL BOLGER, Lieutenant General, United States Army (ret.), Special Faculty, North Carolina State University, author, Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
Thank you, sir. And thanks, General Hayden. My background’s infantry, not intel. So I was the guy receiving the stuff from General Hayden. And you saw how that all turned out. (Laughter.)
Today’s conference couldn’t be on a more important subject. I mean, managing, ending and avoiding wars in the Middle East — I’d like you to put me firmly in the avoiding camp. Having gotten to fight in a couple of them, I will tell you this is something that the United States has got to think long and hard about before we send our great young men and women in our all-volunteer force into fighting these wars.
We went into Afghanistan in 2001 and carried out a very innovative, rapid and decisive campaign — combining our intel services, our special operations forces and our air power — and quickly defeated the armed forces of the Taliban, the people wearing uniforms. And then we backed into a counterinsurgency that remains active, with the Taliban now in effective control of large parts of eastern, southern and southwest Afghanistan.
We went into Iraq in 2003 and, again, launched a very innovative, rapid and decisive campaign against the conventional armed forces of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist military. Defeated them quite rapidly, marched on and took Baghdad, and backed into a counterinsurgency led largely by Sunni Arab insurgents, displaced members of the Ba’athist party, religious groups, but also supported by the country to the east, among the Shia majority — people supported by Iran. And that counterinsurgency also continues.
The name already mentioned by General Hayden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a guy who was on my target list both times in I was in Iraq, still there, still active. According to the news this morning, killed once again, but you know how that goes. But it’s an indicator of how long-standing these are. You know, as General Hayden said, we should remember that this Sunni-Shia argument, you know, culminated in the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D., and it is still going on. And Iraq is the split between the Sunni and Shia.
You know, I would go back a little bit to U.S. military history and conjure up somebody whose name isn’t mentioned that often, but he was a teacher for a guy whose name is mentioned and who is commemorated in this very city. A guy named General Fox Conner was one of the great American strategists of World War I. And after the war, he was the U.S. commander in the Panama Canal Zone, back when we used to run the Panama Canal Zone.
And one of his staff officers was a young captain named Dwight Eisenhower. Dwight Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915. He was, like, one of the only guys in his class who did not get to deploy to the big one in World War I. So he gets to Panama, he’s sort of bummed out, and General Conner takes him under his wing and says: Now, Ike, I know when you were at West Point you spent the majority of your time playing football and goofing off. But I’m going to teach you some military stuff. So take notes, pay attention.
And what did Conner teach young Eisenhower? He said that when the United States goes to war, there’s three things we probably need to keep in mind. The first is that, for Americans, war should be the last resort — the very last resort, the very last thing we do. We should try every other means of national power before we send our young men and women over to fight.
The second thing is he said: Ike, Americans, when they go to war, want to have allies, like we had in the Great War. We don’t always get along with them. We don’t always like them. They have their own interests. But it lends legitimacy to the war. And in a democracy that’s very, very important. A war cannot be perceived as the idea of the current government in power. It’s going to be something that has international legitimacy.
And finally, he said: Ike, most important of the three, you’ve got to end it quickly. Another general of that era, who would become Eisenhower’s superior, General of the Army George C. Marshall, would make the famous comment midway through World War II that a democracy cannot fight a seven-year’s war. Now, what Marshall was saying and what Fox Conner had warned Eisenhower is, a long war is not in the American character. It’s not something we want.
And so when we go into wars — in the Middle East or anywhere else — it is very important that it be the last resort, that we have legitimate allies with us and listen to them, and that absolutely we must wrap it up quickly. Afghanistan has been going on for over 14 years. Iraq has been going on for almost 12 years. And, depending on how you set the compass, you could actually set these even further back then that. I will tell you that the Iraqis see the American intervention there as beginning in the 1980s and that in Afghanistan they look back to the war of the Mujahedeen against the Soviets that started in 1979.
The important point there is that these are lengthy, lengthy wars and we are not winning. So we need to figure out what we have just done to ourselves in the current campaigns — the one that started in ’01, ’03 — why it happened that way and, most important, which is the thing I think we’re going to talk about here this afternoon, what do we need to do about it to do better the next time? And the next time is already on us, as General Hayden has warned. Thank you. (Applause.)
DAFNA H. RAND, Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Pannetta Fellow, Center for a New American Security, Former Director for Democracy and Governance, National Security Council, Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State
Good afternoon, and thanks to the Middle East Policy Council for hosting us and for inviting me to speak. And thank you to my very esteemed co-panelists, the two generals and the ambassador. I’m honored to speak with you on this topic, that is both everything and almost nothing, in some ways, about the Middle East right now, because it’s really a remarkably broad topic.
But what I’d like to do in my short time is lay out what I see are the specific variables that are going to be continuing and enduring and characterize the conflicts in the region over the five to 10 year time frame, the horizon, offer the options for grand strategy and then argue to you that there’s only one real viable strategy or grand strategy going forward in terms of managing the conflicts that we have in front of us.
So what is it about the conflicts in the Middle East that is so different or enduring or challenging? I see four characteristics that are really unique in some ways, and that are perplexing. The first is that the state is obviously disintegrating and becoming more weak in the Middle East. But it’s not going away. Those who have said that it’s the end of statehood in the Middle East are too presumptuous in some ways. The state is not dissolving. It’s becoming weaker.
There are states that are still strong and, in some cases, even more robust in their security apparatuses than before 2011. So we have strong states next to weak states, next to nonexistent vacuums, along with non-state actors that are growing in strength and their willingness to confront states. So we have a multidimensional problem with non-state versus non-state conflict, state versus non-state actor conflicts, et cetera.
The second characteristic is that these conflicts will not really end any time soon. We might have a ceasefire in Libya, which is the news over the weekend. We might have an arrangement after what’s going on in Yemen this weekend that changes the status quo. But in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, maybe even in the Palestinian territories, there will be conflict that is enduring, mostly because in all of these areas, there’s great susceptibility to outside powers, and not of the Western or American variety.
In all these cases, we have seen how the weakening of the state and the deep sectarian identities of the people involved in society is opening up the conflicts to the money and the assistance and the funding of outside powers — nominally, of course, Iran, with what we’re seeing in Yemen right now with the backing of the Houthis, but other powers have played a role on and off, particularly in the past two or three years, in Libya, in Egypt and elsewhere — Syria, of course.
And then the third is this — the importance and the randomness, but the strength of the spillover effects. And what I mean by the spillover effects is that it’s unpredictable how to judge and predict how one conflict will affect other conflicts in the region. So we saw after Libya that there was a coup in Mali. That was a spillover effect that would have been hard to predict.
Even the flows of refugees is changing the demographics of all of the neighboring countries of Syria. This will change the endurance of Jordan, for example, to all kinds of political changes. And so now, we see a coup by Houthis who only three or four years ago were considered a separatist movement that was not even capable of taking on the state.
So what should the U.S. do about the fact that these conflicts will endure and they will be challenging in these new ways? I see four different options that have been bandied around. The general already spoke about the fact that the U.S. public is in no mood and has no appetite to reinsert U.S. ground forces at the scale that we’ve seen in the past decade. That is obviously an option, but many and most would agree that it’s not really a viable option.
We could ignore these conflicts altogether, try to go on with our business, try to ignore the effects on U.S. interests. And many in the U.S. public would appreciate that and would support that approach. We could ignore these conflicts altogether, except for direct action when necessary when we believe there’s a terrorist or another threat to U.S. interests in a very concrete way.
And these second and third options are quite appealing in some way, because they bring it down to what really matters to the U.S. But the problem with both of these is that we are implicated and our interests are implicated all across the region. And letting the status quo in the conflicts continue will just — will just — will increase the challenges to U.S. power and leverage.
So the fourth option, or the fourth strategy, is a reinvestment in the limited military options and the non-coercive tools of U.S. diplomacy and statecraft. And that seems to me the only viable option of how to manage conflict, mitigate the effect to U.S. interests. And so it has to be this action, I think, for a number of reasons.
We have interests in this region that are undeniable. We have our commitment to our allies, the protection of the state of Israel. We have our economic interests, including the economic security of the flow of natural resources. We have our concern about terrorism, as has been discussed. And of course, we have counterproliferation concerns. And of course, the containment of Iran is based on these last two interests.
So — but the firewall in the region between American interests, ones that I’ve just enumerated, the domestic politics that are ongoing has now dissolved. And that is why this fourth strategy — the strategy of limited, but important and smart non-coercive diplomatic engagement is so important. At one point, we could have divided the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region from what was going on domestically. In fact, for decades, that’s what U.S. policy was premised on, an ability to bracket what was going on domestically. We can’t do that any longer because of the ways in which our interests are very much affected by what’s going on domestically.
The second reason why I think we need this fourth strategy is because there’s no one else to manage these conflicts. We have seen when the region tries to self order, and it does not end well. Think about Qatari and Emirati efforts post-Libyan intervention. They were with us in the intervention. And then when the intervention ended — the military intervention to topple Gadhafi, it was a free-for-all. And there was an effort and competition among many states in the region to try to find their proxies with a notion of ordering and managing the region to suit these interests of these big outside powers. They’re not even big; they’re just powers in the region.
And the third reason is because there’s no real status quo in the Middle East. Things tend to only get worse and not better. So what do I mean? Just five quick details about this strategy — which is not even a grand strategy. It’s just a practical strategy, where we’re going to see very, very limited military interventions of small amounts with coalition allies, but really thinking more carefully and harder about every single resource of non-military, non-coercive tools that we have at our disposal.
We have to, of course, raise the primacy of diplomacy, bilateral, multilateral. We’ve seen this already in the past couple years with the importance of the Iranian-U.S. negotiations — or the P-5 plus one negotiations with Iran. We’ve seen it in new talks about a Syria de-escalation plan, which seemed to be everyone’s acknowledgement that, no matter how much Geneva I and Geneva II failed, the end of the Syrian conflict or a de-escalation will require negotiations.
We’ve seen this with every secretary of state’s efforts to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the odds. We’ve also seen it recently in Iraq with that, I would say, successful diplomatic efforts to move Maliki out, bring Abadi in, et cetera. That story is not over yet. We may also need to do this kind of multilateral diplomacy Yemen, Lebanon, there might be other places. It won’t always have an American face.
The second part of this strategy is recognizing the centrality of Syria as a ground zero in spreading the spillover effects of the conflict and terrorism. Syria is so central to the rest of this region right now. And all of U.S. interests are implicated in dampening, at least, the violence there. So we have to increase our training and assisting to those we believe can be part of a future of Syria and be multisectarian and secular and nationalist and inclusive. And we need to push the regime as well through clever coercive diplomatic efforts.
The third is that we have to develop a better way to use our economic assistance — our positive tools, our carrots — to teach conflict resolution, political training, good governance, inclusive governance. These are skills that are totally necessary at every state, but sorely lacking, as we’ve seen with both Maliki’s failed efforts at governance and other cases. We need a new toolset and we should immediately as the U.N., Europeans and others who are probably better at doing this than us, on what is the research and what are the best ways to try to promote this kind of good governance and good thinking about inclusive representation.
Fourth, we need to rethink about the Arab League, the GCC and other regional institutions. There is a new generation of leaders coming up in all of these institutions. And so there might be an opportunity — and many of these newer leaders have lived through the tumult of the last 15 years or so. So there might be an opportunity provided by these new leaders.
And then, lastly, I would ad the caveat that Iran is not a partner in this effort, in this strategy. Iran might have — you know, in some cases, like Iraq, the same limited interests, but Iran can not be trusted as a partner to cooperate with on issues such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, et cetera. They have a different approach to governance in that they do not believe in this inclusive governance that is necessary to mitigate conflict.
And then, finally, I’ll end with the importance of Congress in this endeavor. If this strategy is going to rest so much on the positive assistive levers, on the non-coercive tools, Congress is very much involved in asking the questions: What is working on FMF and FMS, for example? That should be a top congressional question. What conflict management goals that we have funded have actually yielded a return on the U.S. taxpayer’s investment?
So I see a lot of work for Congress in this strategy because Congress, you know, as the — appropriating the funds, has a lot to say about what are the parameters of this toolkit and how changes are made to ensure each of these tools is achieving the desired results. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
FRANCIS RICCIARDONE, Vice President and Director, the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Turkey
Good afternoon. I’ve very much enjoyed and profited from the Middle East Policy Council’s vigorous research and analysis over many years as a serving government official. And so now I’m especially pleased to join the conversation today.
And as a newly inducted member of global think-tankdom, I can reveal that many of us — when I was — on the U.S. government inside actually do pay attention, actually do read and listen to what the best minds of the Middle East Policy Council, and of the Atlantic Council, of course, think, publish and say. I didn’t know anyone in the United States official community — still don’t — who claim a monopoly on wisdom for the United States national security apparatus.
So thank you, Chairman Kader — Omar — and Dr. Mattair for inviting me today to join such very distinguished fellow speakers. And thanks to all of you who have come to participate in this conversation. I recognize many eminent, very distinguished colleagues and friends here. I recognize other faces from participation at our Hariri Center events. Like the Middle East Policy Council, our Atlantic Council members tend to be radically independent-minded and opinionated, but at the same time supremely open-minded. It’s one of the things that attracted me there.
So having established my esteem for the Middle East Policy Council and all of you, let me open by taking issue with the premise of today’s seminar. Whether for individuals, I believe, or great states, societies, governments, focusing on the negative, focusing as strategic priorities on that which we mean to avoid usually gets us off on the wrong foot and can lead us down a certain path. Psychologically, focusing relentlessly on that which we most don’t want can actually increase the likelihood of getting undesired results. So we miss the forest for the trees.
But we also — we miss threats, but we also miss opportunities in pockets of the forest which we had insufficiently attended to, because it looked OK. Telling ourselves, don’t drive into that ditch, means we’re keeping our eyes on the ditch all the time, rather than ahead on the road in all its twists and turns, some of those turns that offer a lot of opportunity, not just turns away from threat.
So positing how to avoid wars as a focus also poses some other problems. One of them is the implication that we know what we’re talking about, that we know what we mean by war — or all agree on a particular meaning, and related conference — concepts that go with that part and parcel — victory, defeat, ally, enemy. In today’s context of multidisciplinary, organized, disorganized, semi-organized, violence, conflict and war, those terms have all got a lot fuzzier. And I’d suggest that our confusion on the very definition of these terms are one of the risk factors, one of the things that helped us slide into what turned out to be real, honest-to-god, protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beyond this, I have another problem with the topic, stating it that. And that is that positing avoiding wars as the title might suggest that there’s an American policy proclivity toward war. As a recovering national security apparatchik, who has experienced war and its less-organized variants up really close, I can tell you that our diplomats, our — especially our soldiers, our intelligence, our global law enforcement officers are notoriously resistant to throwing our military into armed conflict, or even the risk of it, as a whole.
We hardly need orders from elected officials, much less of the advice of us — including me now — in the commentariat to avoid stupid stuff, stupid stuff like wars. So even when the media pundit fulminate about grand, global causes that we must involve ourselves in, it takes extraordinary political leadership to persuade Americans to jump military-feet first into a conflict — into some kind of foreign adventure.
And, like most people around the world, we Americans want the finer things of life, whether for body or soul. Except for violent fanatics, these things do not include war or other less-organized forms of violence against each other. And again, as a former member of the national security apparat, I can tell you, I certainly shared the president’s very conservative instincts toward the deployment of military force. I think most Americans do. And I know that’s the case among the soldiers that I’ve known, of all ranks.
So it’s hard to imagine that anything we might say here today would make us as a nation any the wiser with respect to future decisions on, quote, “war,” and whatever its modern variants under other names. But we do owe it to ourselves to try to distill the lessons we can out of our current and recent experiences in war.
So let me propose a few general notions that I think are germane to today’s discussion. As General Hayden said, none of these are classified. They’re not secret. They didn’t come from espionage. I don’t propose that they’re particularly brilliant or insightful on my part, but they do come from personal experience. And I’ll also propose a larger line of study that we might pursue later on, and engagement — particularly engagement with particular respect to the Middle East, which clearly is the locus right now, and I think in the future, of so much war or armed conflict under any name.
So, the first of what I’ll say out is five proverbs, if you will, or notions that are almost folk wisdom. First, affirm often and with conviction what we’re for rather than waiting until we must react to condemn what we’re against. We achieve the best results, I believe, in advancing our national security interests within a positive, yet sober, patient — meaning, longer-term — vision of collective peace, prosperity and global order. We — as Americans, we kind of had a patent on that.
With our enduring strategic purposes positively and convincingly established, we can respond more nimbly and with greater credibility and confidence to the inevitable crises, including those that will require our application of armed forces, or at least the threat of it. Our own people and foreign states much more willingly will sign on under such circumstances, whether in the heat of crisis or in between.
The president offered such affirmative and convincing statements of an enduring strategic approach with respect to the Middle East at the outset of his first term, with speeches to the Turkish parliament — Jim, were you there for that? You were actually there for that, in April 2009 — and at Cairo University of June of that same year. And throughout my own last responsibilities in government, I frequently fell back on those to inform foreign audiences of the clear, positive, comprehensive American purposes in the region.
So it’s true, from time to time we as a nation will feel compelled, primarily militarily, to disrupt, destroy and defeat and enemy that has perpetrated some outrage against Americans, or who threatens to do so. And provided we’ve given real substance and credibility to our affirmations or our positive collective purposes, our military destruction of an enemy of the moment will more likely prove a short-term, incidental exception to America’s formally, well-branded, larger national purposes and global actions.
Just as during and after — immediately after the Cold War our friends seemed to accept that our military deployments — including for actual or potential combat — were consequent, integral to, even evidence of our long-term purpose of building and sustaining a more stable and prosperous world word as a matter of enlightened self-interest on our part.
A second aphorism: Be careful what you wish for — really careful. Think first and carefully of what time and treasure we will have to invest to achieve whatever we may declare, even implicitly, as our national purposes. Think even more carefully of the consequences of success.
It’s surely a good things for dictators to fall, for example. But before we attempt really declaratively to position ourselves on the right side of history, let’s rigorously think through whether, and in operational detail, how we mean to bring that about. And remember that a single event, no matter how happy, doesn’t stop history. There will be many mornings after.
And as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq are demonstrating, other people’s civil wars really can impact our own and our allies’ defense, our prosperity and our consciences. Even much greater palliation than we’re now offering — we, in the outside world — of the unspeakable human suffering in the Middle East, in that region of failed states, will not stand the incubation of a generation of globe-trotting, violent, suicidal fanatics.
A third bit of folk wisdom: Say what we mean, mean what we say. Speechwriting and delivery are really among the highest arts in democracies. They are to be valued. Words do have consequences in international affairs. But saying something doesn’t make it so. There may be advantage in confounding our enemies, but the first premise of effective leadership is clear and convincing communication, at least to our own cadres and allies, of our firm and considered intent.
That also means putting real fiscal and human resources methodically and in organized fashion against expensive, complex, strategic operations and their multidisciplinary component tasks, and doing so with committed allies. Real-world exigencies of course, certainly, frequently will require tactical adjustment. But being caught out in bluffing or flinching from proclaimed strategic purposes will cost national power and influence among friends and adversaries alike.
Fourth, and maybe this is the most boring and obvious thing I’ll say: Sustain, coordinate and use the full range of U.S. government tools of power and global influence. Successive American military leaders, secretaries of defense, scholars, think tanks studies, much of the work published by the Middle East Policy Council, not least by the Atlantic Council, over several administrations have warned that we continue to under-resource our wide range of civilian capabilities to influence world affairs.
The generals and civilians alike see that the most menacing threats to our national security and our prosperity are developing from non-state, non-military actors and factors. From the outset, the Obama administration emphatically affirms a whole-of-government approach to world and domestic affairs, committing to the three Ds of defense, diplomacy and development. But as this president — this president, as well as his predecessors, inevitably have found that only our defense establishment has the funds, the men, the equipment and the legal authorities — and the political backing, the popular political support — to act quickly and strongly to deal with the exigencies of the moment.
USAID has no foreign peer in global disaster relief and longer-term development to help prevent disasters. The world health organization hardly compares to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in immediate scientific and medical knowledge necessary to prevent and address epidemics. Our State Department works miracles in mobilizing global cooperation in all fields in response to a crisis.
There’s no global agency of law enforcement, that I’m aware of — not Interpol, not the United Nations — no one who is better at monitoring, controlling, watching international borders and legal controls that apply to the movement of people and money, more — that are superior to what the United States has in our agency of law enforcement, FBI, Department of Justice, U.S. Treasury.
We have all of those capabilities, but only our Defense Department has the authorities and the popular support immediately to deploy in sufficient magnitude the funds, the people, the equipment to act against a truly critical, immediate threat. And the greatest example, of course, as we’ve seen this past year in the case of the viral epidemic, Ebola, that threatened to bust out of Africa and disrupt life for all of us around the world.
A corollary to this insight — to use to maximum effect these great resources that we’ve got, which reside principally in the very experienced, expert, loyal and committed people across our complex machinery of government. And here, we can take a lesson from the best, I would say characteristically American, military practices, having served in a couple of military deployment as a civilian.
That is, spare no expense to adequately train, equip and support our people up and down through the ranks, clearly communicate the commander’s intention, and then turn them loose, soldier-by-solider, civilian operative-by-civilian operative, in successively larger teams on all the tasks down to the unit level — down to the tactical level. What I’ve noticed is that when generals reserve tactical decisions to themselves — I’d defer to two generals who are here, but please correct me and don’t take this as disrespectful, because I haven’t seen it often but I have seen it.
When general reserve tactical decisions to themselves, or to a bulked-up headquarters staff, and that they communicate down through the lines that order number one is don’t mess up, they communicate a lack of confidence in the competence and loyalty of their teams, right down through the ranks. Thus, they disempower, demoralize and paralyze the great human resources at their disposal.
By supplanting the decision-making responsibilities and authorities of subordinate teams, their managers and the operatives on the ground, the people at the top can drown in a morass of detail and they can fail. The prime responsibilities I’ve always hoped to get and see exercised at higher headquarters as a field person, whether in war or in peace, at least include hearing, empowering and coordinating and supporting between the supported and the supporting elements that are deploying in a strategic campaign.
Fifth and final observation of what I saw works for us who are devoted to influencing world events on behalf of the United States. And that is, never waste a great crisis. Great crises bring huge advantage to the party that deals from vast, varied and resilient sources of power, provided the strategy is in place, the machinery is in place to seize the opportunity. This means not looking at a crisis in the first instance as demanding the avoidance of war. Of course, it does. Armed force, General Bolger, as you’ve cited, has to be a last resort. That’s what we, as Americans, all expect.
But it does mean for a national security apparatus, for a leader, for a people that wants to influence events in the world — it does mean seeing and exploiting the galvanizing and the clarifying effects of a crisis on world and domestic opinion, and on the political decisions of state and non-state actors alike. Approached in this way, I believe that the confluence of today’s crises in the region of failed and failing states — the land — the geography affected by Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot in that post Ottoman world — this crisis offers not merely the challenge to avoid war — it certainly does do that.
It also offers a historic and huge opportunity to our country, to our friends and allies in the region, and to others around the world who hold a strong stake in the Middle East’s stability, security and its prosperity. I see the current crisis as far larger and more systemic than the cruel murders of individual foreigners — Americans and British.
We all certainly pray for the safe release of the innocent Japanese who are being threatened these days. The emergence of a violent criminal enterprise that’s claiming the legitimate leadership of the entire Muslim world has clarified the extremist Islamic threat — the threat from deep within — not from the Zionists, not from the imperialists or other foreign devils — to even the most conservative Muslim societies, states and leaders. Indeed, especially to those states.
Added to this is the failure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s year-long experiment. They demonstrated conclusively — at least to the mass of Egyptians — that their explicitly religiously based political vision could result — could not result in a well-governed society. It did not. They had every chance. They failed.
And finally, part of this larger critical juncture of course, are the outrageous attacks on people perpetrated in the name of Islam — blasphemously perpetrated in the name of Islam on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, from New York to Sydney, to London, Madrid and, most recently, to Paris. This part of the crisis, too, has shown something very important. It’s increased global solidarity against the perpetrators and it’s showed that we all must pay attention.
In our global solidarity, however, from the Middle East to Japan to Europe, the Americas, across Middle Eastern sectarian divisions, we’re all rather groping — rather too separately, I would say — to respond adequately and strategically to the threat. That so many disparate countries have joined together to bomb ISIS targets is remarkable, certainly a positive thing, in my judgment. And let’s hope that it will, indeed, disrupt and defeat this particular enemy of the moment. But I don’t know anyone in the Middle East who believes that this is more than a tactical response to the grim manifestation of a larger strategic problem.
So let me wrap up a big here and I’ll take my apparatchik wisdom about what works in the application of American power and apply it to the context of the global threats arising from this historic human catastrophe that we see in the Middle East. As President Obama said, referring to the manifestations just in the Levant of this monstrous, complex set of crises across the region, we don’t have a strategy for that yet.
But it’s neither reasonable nor useful, I think, to blame the United States or its current or recent presidents for the breakdown in Sykes-Picot, if you will, the post-Ottoman order of legitimate, if too often malgoverned, states. That system, now gone, as General Hayden has mentioned — it’s at least under serious threat in at least four states. This system had enabled millions to live in varying degrees of security, if not also dignity, and mostly at much better than bare substance circumstances for the better part of a century.
No one laments its passing in particular, but we do need to see that region regenerate a system of states, of a legitimate order, preferably well-governed states that enjoy the full legitimacy of their own peoples and of their neighbors, the recognition of their neighbors as legitimate states, with all that states mean. And to accomplish this even marginally, it will have to be the task primarily of the brutally afflicted peoples themselves.
And that will require — for any success at all, it will require wise, visionary and courageous indigenous leadership. It will require massive fiscal and human resources, far beyond military resources, sustained and massive outside support and at least a generation or two of time. We have to admit it will also require luck. But the alternative is continuous, violent conflict, yielding hellish — truly hellish human suffering in the region on a scale not seen since the Second World War, and threats to the security, prosperity and the conscious of people otherwise living very comfortably outside the region.
So to the extent that we at the Atlantic Council, we in the think tank community can contribute to this conversation about what to do, we — at least, my outfit at the Atlantic Council — hope to do this by engaging first — not as Sykes and Picot did, sitting in back room and coming up with a strategy themselves — but engaging with the people in the region who are the stakeholders.
People of state, people who are in political leadership positions but also civil society, business people, business groups, starting there, engaging among ourselves across the partisan political divide in this country, certainly engaging with our friends and allies also — we are the Atlantic Council after all — in the Euro-Atlantic community and with basically honorary members of that community in the far east as well, Japan.
We want to we speak with all the people who hold a stake in seeing a stable order or legitimate states reemerge in that region. And if and as we bring American thinkers together across partisan political lines, we’ll be looking for the best questions, as well as the right answers, everywhere that we can find them, particularly to functional regional states, even those that we wish were perhaps better governed than they may be.
And as we work up those ideas and that project, we’ll welcome — we don’t have all the wisdom where I work, anyway, now. And we’ll welcome the input of people around the room. We’ll certainly be in the closest touch with people in Congress and the other great public policy institutes that I see well-represented here today, and the U.S. administration, of course. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Well, I’d like to thank all the speakers. And this is the time to go to a more specific level in our — in our questions and comments. And I will ask a couple and then take some of these questions from the floor.
When we conceived of this topic, we really thought about how the military should be used and what our economic, and diplomatic, and political tools are for positive ends in the region, in order to avoid wars and manage them and end them. And we were particularly struck by the book that General Bolger wrote, “Why We Lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
So I think it would be — and we are currently facing so many questions about Syria. So I think the place to begin would be, say, you believe, General Bolger, that we tried to do too much in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we weren’t equipped for it and that it might have been unattainable. So, what is the correct lesson to take away from that when we think about what we should do in Syria?
There have been all kinds of proposals that have included targeting the Assad regime, maybe only doing it in a limited way to stop his air force from going up in the air, creating a safe zone so that an opposition can form a government. And so — and now we’re training a force — a moderate opposition force that will be asked to fight jihadists and perhaps also the regime.
What do you think, after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can and cannot do that might address some of Dafna’s proposals about limited military operations, tied to diplomatic initiatives to bring about transitional arrangements there?
GEN. BOLGER: Great question. And what I would suggest — Dafna’s option four is very unsatisfying to most Americans, in particular, and to some of our regional partners because it’s very long term and it allows the local people to take the lead and to do things their way. But although it doesn’t necessarily make people happy who watch the 24 hour news or it doesn’t solve everything on your Twitter feed, it’s probably the right solution.
And, Omar, what I would suggest, and Tom and everybody here, is that the keyword in Dafna’s comments were whole of government — and you heard that from several of the other speakers — and limited military. If we limit the use of our military to training, to some limited airstrikes, to providing intelligence and logistic support — you know, supplies and things like that — and allow the local elements to take the lead, we may not get a quick result, we probably will not, but it will be sustainable in our country.
And the one aspect of national power that I think we do need to enlist that we have not yet, is the support of our population, as expressed through their elected representatives in the Congress. What do I mean by that? I think it’s incumbent on the U.S. Congress, in accord with the Constitution, to hold hearings and to pass an authorization for the use of military force.
It disturbs me, not just as a military guy of 35 years, but as a citizen to realize we are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with authorizations for the use of military force that are over 10 years old. The one for Iraq was passed in October of 2002 and dealt with the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein that’s long gone, not the current realities. The one for Afghanistan and the larger struggle against al-Qaida was passed in September 2001, in the wakes of the 9/11 attacks.
And both of these need to be updated after a vigorous public debate. And then, when we send in this limited military contingent, there’ll also be the will to commit those other elements of U.S. national power. And one of those big ones besides our diplomacy is the interest and activity of the American population to see this through. In previous incidents like this, previous events around the world — you know, General Hayden mentioned the Cold War, you know, and things like that — we underscored our commitment with treaties.
And it is disturbing that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, although we have agreements that are initialed by our ambassadors there and by local leaders in those countries, we do not have ratified treaties. And so as a result, in the councils of power out among the ISIS or the Taliban in the two cases there, but other places as well, those people say, see, the Americans really aren’t serious. And even our friends in that region start to wonder, you know, one more election, will you stick with us or not? And I think we need to get beyond that.
Whole of government and a very limited military contingent I think can get to your option four, Dafna, and take a long-term view. And, at least from my experience working with the military and police in the two countries, though local folks there in Iraq and Afghanistan desperately want that long-term tie to the United States, they keep worrying that we’re going to leave. And by god, if we don’t every so often keep telling them, yes, we are.
DR. MATTAIR: Can you elaborate on what you mean by limited military operations and how you would tie it to de-escalating the conflict and setting up zones?
DR. RAND: Sure. On Syria, I actually think that that is approximately our strategy in Syria right now. So I’m not advocating anything new when it comes to Syria at all here. I am explaining why you need to couple a very limited military, you know, engagement — in this case it’s two parts, right?
It’s an anti-ISIS coalition from the air and then it’s a more long-term endeavor to train and assist a moderate — a “moderate,” in quote — force that can challenge ISIS in those areas that are liberated from the Assad regime, which is almost 70 percent of the territory in Syria. These militias, for lack of a better term, are not being trained to topple Assad in any way. So there is not that kind of end goal.
So I actually think the strategy is about right on Syria. But it has to be coupled with an understanding that the political transition will require diplomatically pushing those whom we train and assist. So it’s not too soon to talk about with the, you know, armed opposition units that we’re training the conditions for Syria that we expect, that are — first and foremost will protect minority groups, second that will be inclusive, and to talk about governance.
And there’s some instances where, you know, I think there’s a perception that you can’t talk about these issues when you’re training and assisting. But it’s very much at the heart of the strategy, is to understand the ways in which the political and the military have to work together.
DR. MATTAIR: Would you like to comment on what’s feasible in Syria?
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah. I would actually vote that we’ve got more coherence in our military approach to Iraq than we’ve yet developed in Syria. In Iraq, you do have a genuine combined arms. I understand not all the legs of the combined arms team are as strong as some of the other legs, but you do have the Kurds and you do have our training effort for the Iraqi army.
I would add more direct assistance to the Kurds as a reliable ally of the United States, historically, even when we’ve not been reliable allies for them. I’d also be a bit more willing — nothing dramatic, but a bit more willing to put American forces further forward so that we can more frequently and with guaranteed precision call in airstrikes, which I think should remain the American kinetic contribution to the fight.
What we’ve got in Syria, I think, is less akin to what we have in Iraq, and more akin than what we’ve got — to what we’ve got in the tribal regions of Pakistan, which is in essence, you know, keeping ISIS head down, degrading ISIS, trying to remove ISIS leadership. But it’s not — it doesn’t have the real powerful sense of combined arms. And I realize we got trouble picking who our — who our ground component is for a war in Syria. And that’s going to require some, I think, imaginative diplomacy and perhaps covert action and paramilitary action.
So I think we’re pretty much all on the same page. We’ve got gradations of difference. No one up here — and I’m going to vote for the ambassador because I think I know his heart on this — no one up here is calling for American maneuver brigades in the Iraqi or Syrian desert.
DR. MATTAIR: Do you have a comment?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Yeah. Amen to the last part. I go back to my main point. I’m sorry, I can’t see people when I’m sitting down. It’s annoying. Anyway, I will stand up. (Laughter.) It is so much easier as a — as a diplomat if we can — if we can articulate our strategic purpose in way that’s true, that we mean, that is positive, that we are resourcing. And then we can pick one. We can pick what we want to do of a range of bad and worse options, in the case of Syria.
Clearly, as the administration has said repeatedly, there has to be a political — there can only be a political solutions of this. Russia is — Russia and Iran are certainly relevant participants in this. This is big league diplomacy. This is big league strategic work, heavy lifting for the United States. But I wouldn’t go near Moscow unless I knew what I wanted to get out of it.
And I wouldn’t — I would deal with the opposition only having decided what I expect them to be able to do, what I believe they can do, what I believe their hosts — the Turks, the Saudis, the others — can and should do with them. You can’t disparage them on the one hand, on the other hand, you know, build them up as if they’re going to play a useful role in what we’ve decided is the problem. We’ve decided the problem is ISIS. I believe that’s just a manifestation of a much larger problem that we need a much more comprehensive strategy to deal with. And military capabilities will be a part of it — one part of it.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, then there’s no one who thinks that the Syrian regime should be targeted? Do I — do I have that correct? Because there certainly are —
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I’m not so sure about that.
DR. MATTAIR: OK.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: But the president of the United States did target the Syrian regime. He said that. It’s on the record. August 2011, I was — I was listening carefully, talking with one of our allies about that.
DR. MATTAIR: Militarily, are we —
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Oh, I see what you mean.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. Is there anyone who thinks that airstrikes ought to be targeting the Syrian military or the Syrian regime, or are they now — because of the growth of ISIS, are they an unavoidable diplomatic partner? I mean, you have colleagues at the Atlantic Council who think we ought to be taking the fight to the Syrian regime.
GEN. BOLGER: I would just offer, in a military sense, I think we saw in the two campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, if you turn to the U.S. military and say, destroy this regime, with its conventional armed forces we will do that. But then what? And that really gets to the ambassador’s point. We have to — you know, we’ve screwed this up twice in the last 15 years. We can’t afford to do it again without thinking this through.
DR. RAND: I would just —
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Let me refine that. Oh, go ahead.
DR. RAND: I would just clarify that I think we shouldn’t say we’re not going to target Assad. I think to get them to the table — I don’t know if that’s what you were going to say — coercive diplomacy means keep this strategically ambiguous as a way to get them to the table.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I think it would be great to destroy ISIS if we can through whatever means possible. As for the Syrian regime, it’s behavior shaping we want to do. So an element of coercion and — military coercion I think could be very, very effective. And it might even affect calculations in Moscow and Tehran. How you do that is — there’s a wide range of possibilities.
Certainly allowing the regime to bomb its population centers where the opposition, to ISIS as well as to them, lives, it strikes me as bizarre. I don’t understand why you select ISIS to hit and not those who are — who generated the first half-million refugees that are now in Turkey alone. The second half-million kind of flowed there only after ISIS really became active and did it. So it seems to be a much bigger problem than ISIS.
GEN. HAYDEN: I’ll just add, I’m creative enough, I think, to imagine circumstances where limited activity against the regime — I love your word — shaping their behavior might be useful. I mean, you know, seriously, no-fly doesn’t look as bad as it once did. Now, I realize if you pull — if you weaken the regime that may also have a byproduct of enhancing the relative power of ISIS, which is not a good thing.
On the other hand, there is regime behavior that is not directed against ISIS that we can influence that makes it better for that part of the opposition, whatever it might be, that we would feel more comfortable with. Let me spin it one more revolution here. There were rumors after the vice president visited Ankara that perhaps the Turks would be interested in a protective zone tucked up in northern Syria against the Turkish border, maybe 20 by 200 miles.
I mean, there’s a lot of issues related to that, but I’m not willing to dismiss it out of hand. It gives — it gives the opposition geography, which it’s not had before. It allows the Turks to feed Syrian refugees in Syria, as opposed to in Turkey, which is destabilizing. I can imagine our giving a proclamation simply saying: Nobody goes there in terms of regime or ISIS forces. And that, of course, means we got to be serious about acting if they do go there.
So I can see — I can see permutations and combinations that would have us do that. But recall, in my semi-prepared remarks, I said two-and-a-half years ago I was saying given the possible outcomes then, Assad wins was the best. And so, you know, a sustained campaign to dissolve that government right now I think would not be productive.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, how much time do we have? I’ve read that this moderate opposition force we intend to train in Saudi Arabia hasn’t — this effort hasn’t actually even started yet, and won’t start until about April. And I’ve read estimates that it would take about three years to train a force that would be adequate to go into the country. And do we have that much time?
And if we don’t, what is it that we need from our partners in the region? For example, they all have their own militaries. Do we need to tap into them, as well as their efforts to control financing and the flow of fighters and give us intelligence? And if we do need them, then how much do we need to take into account their understanding of this problem, because they don’t talk about ISIS without talking about Shia militias at the — in the same sentence.
And they are concerned about a focus on Sunni jihadists without a focus on the Shia forces in the region, in Syria, for example. And, as a matter of fact, they are concerned that the outcome of all this will be ultimately advantageous to Iran. So they’re looking for something more than what we’re advocating here today. How do we deal with that?
GEN. BOLGER: Just on the mechanics of the training, it’s very easy to train somebody how to, you know, fire a weapon, throw a hand grenade, you know, things like that. You can do that in a couple weeks. And we do know how to do that.
The challenge — and we certainly saw it with the Iraqi army, I fear we will also see it in the spring with the Afghan military that we trained — is those militaries were trained on a model that insisted that they not only would have training from the U.S. and our allies and equipping, they would also have advisors embedded in their units and they would have some partner units available, to include airstrikes, intelligence, things like that. We took away those other elements. All we left them with was the training and equipping. And as a result, they didn’t do that well — at least Iraqis, some of their army did not do that well against ISIS.
I think we might see a similar phenomenon with these Syrian opposition guys we train in Saudi Arabia. You know, we’ll teach them how to fire their weapons. We’ll teach them how to work together and, you know, do a raid or something like that. But how well they hang together when reinserted into Syria remains to be seen. And one of the big things that we’re going to have to assess in this period is not just their skills — rifle shooting or how to gather information — but their will to fight. And that’s really something that’s much tougher to assess, because everybody’s got a lot of will when they’re at the training range. But you know, when you’re under fire in your own country, things get a little hairier.
So I really think this three-year thing is designed to safe-side it on the military side, to give our military folks enough time to sort of assess the situation and come up with the best answer. But the reality is, we’re going to know within a year or so whether these people can have a willpower to match their skill and are really going to be a legitimate opposition, or whether they’re going to be very weak.
DR. RAND: I would add on the second question, about what we do in those three years while we’re waiting, it’s very, very important that we stop the perception that ISIS is — has momentum. That is very dangerous. It’s dangerous for counterterrorism, homeland security reasons, obviously. And so there’s a lot to be done with these partners who are now in this coalition in the meantime, while we’re waiting to reinsert some of these units.
The administration, others have talked a lot about the counter-financing. I think the counter-recruitment effort is probably among the most important, particularly because a lot of the fighters who are coming into Iraq and Syria are coming from — well, they’re coming from the whole world, but they’re coming from the Arab world. So a lot of these partners really need help on the practicalities of preventing these individuals — mostly young men — from leaving their countries, and then from countering the ideologies that would incentivize them to leave in the first place to go to Syria and Iraq.
So I think there needs to be a — you know, a massive campaign with these partners. A lot of them have announced their efforts. You know, Bahrain on counter-financing. The Saudis have announced their efforts on counter radicalization. But this is an area where there’s an immediate demand — there’s a strategic necessity in the next six months to make it clear to would-be recruits that ISIS has been slowed down.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I would go back to just one of the points I made here. This is a crisis that offers huge opportunity for affecting the behaviors of state and non-state actors that we care about, mainly friends and allies, fellow stakeholders with us. The — one of the big things that — gifts, basically, that ISIS has delivered to us and what we would regard as right-thinking people across the region, is to really magnify, make very clear the danger of sectarianism.
Yes, many people there think in sectarian terms, but even many in the Gulf who were predisposed to see with sympathy Sunni factions and causes, recognize now that sectarianism itself is a cancer that can destroy them. Certainly when I was in Turkey, a majority Muslim country, great majority Sunni, even with some politicians speaking in sometimes sectarian overtones, the Turks were one of the first out of the block to warn of the dangers of sectarianism that Assad himself was exploiting.
So again, we can use this. The right-thinking people, the forces of good, conflict resolution, of building, of state legitimacy in the region can use this because a lot of people have been scared out of their wits by the savagery on the part of both Sunni and Shiite forces in the name — not just of their religion, the larger religion, but of their sect. So this is there to be used.
GEN. HAYDEN: Let me just reinforce that. When we were debating the surge — late 2006, very early 2007, five American brigades — and the desired effect was to push the violence down. And the decision was finally made, five brigades would go and it did push the violence down. It was not just because the American combat power was so professional. It was also because American combat power was nonsectarian and was seen to be nonsectarian.
So Dafna’s point about we’ve got an equal problem coming her from the Shia militia, which — and Dafna’s point again — Iran’s not our ally in this effort. They may be commonality of interest, but they’re pushing the Shia militia, which may or may not be a useful tool against ISIS, but is fundamentally part of the problem not of the — of the solution, in that it is creating sectarian combat power, not more unified combat power. So I think the ambassador’s right. Here’s an opportunity that we can train to competency folks who are genuinely nonsectarian, that is a real winning hand.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, in — before we have trained this moderate force, General Hayden, you have so much experience with the intelligence cooperation we have with some of our partners in the region. Can you go through what they’re doing now and what we need them to do and how much we can expect from that effort?
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah, and it’s —
DR. MATTAIR: And addressing the message — you know, addressing the message of ISIS and its ideology and its lure is another aspect of that.
GEN. HAYDEN: So if you look at ISIS as the target here, and target in the broad sense, what are we trying to gather information on, ISIS to a first order? Although, as I tried to suggest in my opening comments, this is beyond targeting, all right? This is — this has got broad, civilizational forces at work that we really need to understand. And no amount of good targeting overcomes getting the big picture wrong, and — as I started with my remarks.
What we bring to any cooperative effort like this is money and resources — other resources, and technology, all right? And so — and so, other than borrowing geography from friends in terms of applying technology, we’re bringing almost all the cards to the game. What we lack and what local friends could provide is that on-the-ground look at what’s going on.
And so, whereas American can provide good signals intelligence and good imagery intelligence, lord knows with the resource we have we can create an almost unblinking technological stare at a target, what allies in the region could bring would be human intelligence, observations on the ground, even penetrations of a network like ISIS. We have found local partners to be culturally agile, linguistically agile — things that we do not naturally bring to the — to the effort.
There are several good partners in the region. The Jordanians have traditionally been good partners to the United States. The Iraqis have been a mixed bag. The Iraqi national intelligence service was started after the American occupation began. It was fairly non-sectarian, but one of Maliki’s mistakes was to dismiss it and put in its place an intelligence service that was less under the government and far more under the prime minister. And it was almost purely Shia.
And that kind of approach, of course, brings with it more burdens than advantages. So that’s the mix. We can do the technology, but we rely on allies to assist us with the human intelligence that’s so essential.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. There are a number of questions here that pertain to Iran. And I wanted people to think about how to avoid a war with Iran. And so we have these nuclear negotiations going on. What do we need to get from those negotiations in order to take the military option off the table with Iran? And how will that have an affect on the geopolitics of the region? Will it somehow enhance their positions in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana’a, or is there a way to construct it so that we also get compromises from them on the resolution of these other issues, and maybe even dampen down the Sunni-Shia struggle that’s raging in the region?
GEN. HAYDEN: I’ll go. No. (Laughter.) What do we need, was the first question. Five thousand or fewer centrifuges in Natanz, Fordow inoperable, the plutonium creator at Arak neutered, complete visibility into the history of the Iranian nuclear program — because, after all, we need to know where they are if we are to accept stasis — and then, finally, invasive inspection, snap, on the part of the IAEA to any facility in Iran. With that, you got this former director of CIA saying, you know, that’s probably a good enough deal.
Now, you ask, well, what are the political effects of that? The political effects of that, if that were to be agreed to by Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani, would be a coup against them by the IRGC — (laughter) — all right? I don’t — all right, that was an overstatement, all right? Meant to be ironic. That would create such torque inside the Iranian government, I believe, that, frankly, the Iranians can’t give us what I just said was the minimum acceptable deal. So we’ll see — we’ll see where it ends up, but you can probably tell I’m not an optimist.
DR. MATTAIR: Anyone else have a comment about that?
GEN. BOLGER: The only comment that I’d make is based on experience in Iraq. I mean, we spent a good amount of time during the major American campaign in Iraq, from ’03 to ’11, actually fighting Iranian-backed militias. My unit, 1st Cavalry Division, when we were in Baghdad, that was our principal threat.
They were the guys who had the weapons that could penetrate our M1 Abram tanks. They could do some serious damage to use with some sophisticated capabilities. And they backed various groups there — Baghdad Khatib, Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and some of the Madhi militia that worked for Sadr and would rise up every so often and go after the Americans.
That’s a history that’s known to the Iranians, of course. And in their view, we had — I mean, I’ve talked to some of them after we’ve grabbed them or whatever. They basically — they take credit for running the American military out of there. Now, we could argue, you know, we left on our own all that, but that’s the credit they take. And they maintain very strong influence with the current Iraqi government.
I mean, we should keep in mind that the current minister of interior, Ghabban, I mean, he is a member of the Badr Corps. He’s a member of an Iranian-backed militia. And that’s the degree of influence that they have in that government. So not only do we have to look at, you know, Iranian-backed militias on the battlefield, de facto they are in the fight with us against ISIS.
And I think that’s really what’s going to create a real problem as we try to train these Syrian Sunni militias and things like that, is that — is that partners in the region — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, et cetera, are very worried about that Iranian penetration in Shia Iraq. And it’s real, it’s there, and it’s independent of the nuclear program.
DR. MATTAIR: It is. So whether we get an agreement or don’t get an agreement, there’s no way to — well, there’s no way to use an agreement to limit Iranian influence in the Arab world. It’s there to stay, it’s —
GEN. HAYDEN: Well, let me pivot off what Dan just said. To — I just suggested to you the kind of agreement that would make me comfortable, and I realize I’ve got a high standard here, would be unacceptable to the Iranian regime. If, on the other hand, we would concede to the Iranians the kind of agreement that would make them comfortable, the Sunni regimes on whom we have relied and who rely on us would view that to be as a major migration in American policy in the direction of an accommodation with the Persians. (Chuckles.) And once you got them wound up in the conversations, they would simply say, with the Shia, at their expense. So there are a lot of interconnected circles here. But I do think that kind of agreement actually makes our relationship with our traditional Sunni allies even more prickly.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. It’s a fact that this concerns them. And so that actually even takes us to the question of a diplomatic agreement for Syria, for anything that leaves Assad in power for five or 10 or more years and leaves members of his clique in power is going to viewed as something inimical to their geopolitical interests and will have an impact on our future relationship with them and how they see us. So —
DR. RAND: You’re looking at me to respond here.
DR. MATTAIR: Pardon me?
DR. RAND: You want me to respond to that?
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
DR. RAND: Sure. (Laughter.) Look, a lot has happened in 24 months in terms of our relationship with our historic Arab allies — I’ll leave it at that for now — in the Gulf in particular. First, they were really upset about the pivot to Asia and the rebalancing and thought that that was an announcement of abandonment. Second, they were upset in the fall of 2013 for what they believed — perceived to be negotiations conducted behind their backs with Tehran on the nuclear issue. So there was a lot of hurt and a perception of U.S. moving away from commitments.
And then there was, of course, the energy issues, which suggested to them that we might be less interested and invested in these strategic foundations for our alliance. So all that was happening 2013, early 2014. And those were real concerns and real tensions in the alliances. And then the march of ISIS through — almost to the steps of Baghdad seemed to put everyone back on the same page in terms of recognizing the deep threat and convergent threat that this jihadist group posed to both the Gulf States and to American interests and Western interests.
So the way I see it now is that there’s still hurt feelings and anxiety about U.S. abandonment, but there’s also deep cooperation militarily and otherwise in the countering ISIS coalition that is helping to re-stitch together some of the understanding. And, you know, the intel — the mil-mil and intel relations are very strong with the — you know, my co-panelist can talk about it with far greater detail, but re-stitching together the at least tactical and even strategic basis for an alliance that, you know, at the — on one hand has quite different understandings and definitions of stability, but on the other hand it seems — sees at this very moment similar threats.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I was going to make the similar point to what Dafna just said, and the same point that General — Mike just made, but less eloquently. I might take it another way. You can’t — we can’t compartmentalize the Iranian nuclear discussion from the rest — from the way that the region sees it. I go back to the need for a larger, comprehensive strategy, well-understood by ourselves, well-presented to our friends and allies.
The closer we get to an agreement on nuclear affairs with Iran, the more urgent and important it is that we have a quality conversation not only with the Israelis — everybody understands that — but also with the Turks, with our Gulf allied friends — basically, the Sunni Arab world, as you’ve mentioned — to explain what we’re thinking and how we — you know, how we mean to deal with this and with them in dealing with Iran and the larger problem set that it represents.
And it goes back to this terrible sectarianism — violent sectarianism in which Iran is participating, again, why — another way — practical way you can’t compartmentalize. If we are relaxing the pressure on Assad, we’re relaxing the pressure on Tehran. They go together. If I were negotiating the nuclear account with the Iranians, I sure would love to see the United States keep up that pressure on Assad and the regime, at least to change behavior if not to, you know, destroy them necessarily, but to change what they’re doing and how things work out there.
That has serious consequences for Iran. As we’ve seen, Iranians just had a general who had a misfortune in Syria recently. The Iranians have a big stake in what happens in Assad. How do we not pay attention to that? Our Turkish allies and Gulf allies, principally Sunnis there, I think would be more reassured about our negotiations with the Iranians over the nuclear file if they saw that we were keeping up pressure on Iran’s proxies in the Levant, which would be consistent with our stated policies, I think.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. Well, I think what concerns them as much or more than an Iranian nuclear weapon is that Iran’s influence in the Arab world has expanded and poses a geopolitical threat to them — a conventional geopolitical threat to them. But if we fail in these nuclear negotiations — and we’re still talking about how to avoid wars — is containment going to be a satisfactory option for Iran — for an Iran that hasn’t signed an agreement and hasn’t consented to additional inspections?
GEN. HAYDEN: So, we discussed this in the Bush administration. I was asked on the margins of an NSC meeting: So, how many nuclear weapons do you think the Iranians are going to get? I don’t know, five, six? How many we got? Oh, 15,000. So the question was: Well then, why can’t we contain them? Ah, now we’ve gotten to the heart of the issue.
This is not about containing them — and back to the broader portfolio. Look at Iranian behavior without one of these things in the garage. And now imagine what the Iranians might feel empowered to do in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, support to Hezbollah, support to Hamas and so on, with this whole card that they have. And by the way, I need to correct how many weapons they’re going to have. I think the right number is — I think the correct number is zero.
These aren’t the North Koreans. They don’t need to detonate a device to get the effects they desire. They’re going to park themselves within reaching range of a weapon and just leave it there with ambiguity perhaps being a diplomatic escape for us — bad idea — but ambiguity being all they need to harvest the effects of their nuclear program in a geopolitical way.
DR. MATTAIR: There’s a question from the floor that I’d like to combine with a question I asked you two weeks ago. Would you assess the utility of covert operations against the Iranian nuclear program? That’s the question from the floor. And the one that we talked about before is assess our ability to detect cheating in an Iranian nuclear program.
GEN. HAYDEN: OK. Would I assess the impact of covert action on the Iranian nuclear program? No. (Laughter.) What about covert don’t you understand? (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Does that mean it’s not overt? (Laughter.)
GEN. HAYDEN: Whatever you may or may not think about the American ability to slow Iranian nuclear progress, the rock-solid estimate from my analysts at CIA was that this is a bright people. If they put their mind to it, they’re getting a weapon. So let me just — that’s the answer to the — to the nuclear weapon program and whether you can slow it or not.
With regard to verification of an agreement, do not depend on American intelligence to do that. That will be beyond the reach of American intelligence. And that, frankly, is not meant to be a critique of American intelligence. We said the same thing about the North Koreans when we thought, near the end of the Bush administration, Chris Hill and company may be walking their way toward that sort of an agreement.
You need an invasive inspection regime from the IAEA based upon an accurate history of the program and the ability of the IAEA to go where they choose quickly, even if it’s an IRGC installation. If you’re looking for a very short morality play about whether we’re in or out in terms of getting an agreement — and I realize this is now a metaphor because Parchin’s been paved over, all right — but fundamentally, can you or can you not go to Parchin is the pass/fail test for an adequate inspection regime.
And unless you have the ability to visit those kinds of installations under IRGC control, the inspection regime is insufficient and I’m already telling you no one in American intelligence will tell you, don’t worry about it, we can handle this.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. We haven’t talked about Yemen. How do you assess our approach to Yemen, which has relied heavily on intelligence and drone strikes, given the way events have played out in Yemen with Houthi advances on the capital and the government that was so carefully constructed and supported by the GCC states on the ropes and al-Qaida potentially getting stronger under these circumstances and actively plotting against the West? So what do we do in Yemen — militarily, economically, diplomatically?
DR. RAND: Sure, I’ll start. I think this is actually — of the four Arab capitals where the Iranian proxies have made the greatest headway in the past three or four years, this is probably in some ways the most important one for the GCC, led by the Saudis, to push back on somehow or to try to assert themselves because, after all, they are, you know, local. And so letting Houthis overtake Sana’a seems to me a(n) incredible empowerment toward Iran and will change the balance of power in the Gulf in many ways. So there has to be some response.
I keep on thinking this weekend as I read the news about the Houthis that before the Arab Spring, this was considered a small insurgency in the north of Yemen, where MBN, who was at the time just a counterterrorism — Mohammed bin Naif, a Saudi counterterrorism expert at the time — had the file and the Americans perceived that he had done a great job helping the Yemeni central government push it back. So in some ways, this is just an incredible shift in three or four years, and a monumental one.
And so it just begs the question what is — what are the people if Riyadh thinking today as they watch this. And do they have the capacity to help whatever elements that want to push back against Houthis do so? I think this should be a GCC-led, Saudi-led, you know, engagement, if there is one. Diplomatic, maybe limited military involvement — but diplomatic, political, et cetera. And it should be led by Saudi Arabia.
GEN. BOLGER: Yeah, and just from a strategic point of view, like military, because the Bab-el-Mandeb is right next to Yemen, obviously it’s one of the bordering countries of it, that’s all the flow in and out of the Red Sea. So for the United States, for our allies in the region and our allies in Europe, I mean, that’s an absolutely critical waterway. So you know, the idea of an Iranian proxy gaining some degree of ascendancy in that country is going to be really, really difficult. And that’s an area where I could see quite a discussion on potential direct U.S. military involvement to prevent that.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, wow. Can you elaborate on that? What kind of direct military —
GEN. BOLGER: Essentially to have to carve out an enclave to make sure that, you know, A, we get our people out of there, if it comes to that, and, B, that we don’t have somebody controlling that critical waterway, because the — I mean, right now we are benefiting — at least in the United States — from very low prices of petroleum products. That would change very quickly if somebody with some surface-to-surface missiles was suddenly sitting on the Bab-el-Mandeb and wailing away at tankers.
And again, there are people with those interests that are involved. Right now, that group — the Houthis are very much more concerned about what’s going on in Yemen, but their sponsors are seeing the bigger picture.
DR. MATTAIR: General Hayden, can you — do you want to comment about Yemen?
GEN. HAYDEN: No, that’s good.
DR. MATTAIR: This is a very, very poor country. You’ve got tribes that are at each other’s throats. No history of a strong central government. So is there any — what can we do? I mean, we are dealing with the terrorist threat to ourselves.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I didn’t mean to suggest in anything I said — and think I was explicit about it — that part of the world is not our problem. We’re not either the causes of the conflicts or the ones who can solve it on our own, but we can’t afford to ignore it — whether there or Libya. They are just damnably hard. They’re vexing. There’s so little to work with in places like Yemen. You didn’t mention Libya. I suppose we’ll come to that. Tribes, clans — there are not legitimate states. We’re used to working with states, or better-organized non-state actors who have leaders who are empowered and who can negotiate.
It is the primary problem of the people who are living there. So whether it’s Yemen — there are — where there are Yemeni stakeholders and the immediate neighbors, the Saudis and the others in the GCC. There are people who do have a stake in how things turn out there. Or Libya where, as we see, the Egyptians are taking an active interest, along with people in the Gulf, as the Turks had been doing. There are people to talk to, people to speak with, both inside those horrible messes and outside, who are trying to influence events. Now, it could be that our role from time to time is going to be to supply drones and hit very bad people that we all agree are very bad.
OK. That’s a tactical response. It may be gratifying. It may be successful in a tactical purpose. But it doesn’t make the program go away. It’s not going to fix the problem of Yemen, even if we have, you know, 10 very accurate and effective drone strikes there in a row. It’s going to take sustained engagement with people inside Yemen and outside who care about what happens there, lots of money, lots of empowering of people who want to make a go of a new state in Yemen, with no easy answer and no fast fixes. If we can help with certain violent problems on a moment-by-moment basis, we can do a valuable role.
But we ought to make clear that we’re doing this not as the posse over the horizon that goes in, blows something up, and then they’re happy, we’re happy and we change the channel. There is no changing of the channel — the same in Libya. We may well be doing that. Perhaps more visibility of our doing that with our allies and friends in the region would help.
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah, can I? What the ambassador just said kind of hit an exposed nerve here. You know, based on my personal record, you probably guess I’m fairly comfortable with drones. And I think it’s effective. I think it’s lawful. I think it’s appropriate, proportional. You get distinction. It meets the law of armed conflict for necessity. So I’m at a very comfortable level for doing it.
But I — my last couple weeks in government, we had a successful operational activity at CIA. I briefed it on the margins of an NSC meeting and Rahm Emanuel came up afterwards and kind of shoved me and said — I turned around, it was Rahm. He said: Good stuff on that, general. You guys have — and I should have realized, Rahm Emanuel saying something nice, I should just back out of the room quietly and pocket that. But it was one of my last chances to talk to the incoming administration. So I just said, Rahm, thank you. But you realize, that was just a counterterrorism success. Unless you change the facts on the ground, you get to kill people forever.
And that — and the reason I brought it up, it says something you just said, but Dan and Dafna had said it earlier about whole of government and broad approaches. The best that the use of violence can get us is to buy space and time for policy makers to make other things different. And I fear — we’ve been magnificent at killing people who are already convinced they want to come kill us. And that’s a good thing. It’s made the country safe. But we have been — we have been sorely lacking in doing the other things that those efforts have been done to create the space and time for us to move forward on.
There’s a wonderful Israeli film called “The Gatekeepers.” It’s an interview of five or six former Shin Bet chiefs. And — who fundamentally say over an hour and 40 minutes, and some very good visuals, what I just told you, that, you know, we’ve done our duty, we’ve bought you space and nobody’s used it. And that, I think, is a really important thing to remember.
DR. MATTAIR: You know, we’ve talked about the conflicts in the region having a Sunni-Shia dimension. And what I’d like to talk about now for a minute is just an assessment of general American foreign policy in the region and the extent to which that produces anti-Americanism, the way we use our military instruments, the — you know, the way we use our sanctions, the diplomatic efforts that have not succeeded and how we have an adversary who we’re going to have for probably 20 or 30 years, and military won’t be enough to deal with them.
So what do we do about — a very specific question here about how does the Arab-Israeli conflict and our support for Israel contribute to our problems in the region and to what extent would it help if we succeeded in that diplomatic effort? Anyone want to comment about that?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Sure. I agree with those who point out what is to me obvious, the Arab-Israel conflict is not the cause of all other conflicts in the region. But I completely disagree with those who say it doesn’t matter. Of course it has a huge impact to the extent we are engaged in trying to resolve it and actually get some success, show we recognize the unacceptableness of the duration of that problem. It serves us well, I believe, in public opinion and official opinion there. Point number one.
Point number two, on the larger policy: I don’t know if was Colin Powell who made this up, or he just quoted it a lot from someone else, but he said that optimism is to the diplomat what courage is to the soldier. Is that Colin Powell or someone else? You probably know where it comes from. I — as a practitioner in the region, whether in Turkey or in the Arab world, and being places — also Afghanistan or — had as much time on the ground as Jim Jeffrey did in Iraq — I found a lot to work with.
Yes, there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment. We poll very badly. But for me the question is, to what extent are people, their governments, willing to work with us on common purposes? And there’s a huge willingness, in fact, eagerness for us to work with them and to pay attention. When we’re not paying attention, they get as upset as when we do pay attention. When we’re not present, they get at least as upset as when we are present.
So it’s a matter of paying attention, showing we’re paying attention — respectful attention, and engaging across the board, not only militarily — as important as it is. It’s really important. And the military-to-military relationships we’ve built up with the militaries over the years matter, the intelligence-to-intelligence relationships, the law enforcement relationships. We’ve done a lot since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to up our contact, as I’ve observed, in places like Egypt, certainly Turkey, even Afghanistan, where there’s a state still very much in the gestation.
I mentioned intelligence — we have immense resources and capability and power. The peoples, even, there all want to send their children to the United States. Even with the restrictions and difficulties we put on transfers of funds into the United States and out of the United States, this is still one of the most desirable places for people, individuals, even governments to park their wealth. There’s a lot to work with.
I’m not one of those who sees America in decline, losing, you know, influence, whatever that is. Popularity, yeah — we’re not as admired broadly on the street as perhaps we once were. I don’t know. I’ve been in the business quite a long time. I remember a lot of anger at the United States at a lot of times. I just find a lot to work with, if we will but use it and use it wisely.
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah. My metric’s far more narrow, but as director — I was director at CIA for 31 months. I went to more than 50 countries. And more than 50 countries came to Langley. And so there is an awful lot of — maybe it’s not residual love, but it’s certainly residual need on the part of these institutions to have a tight relationship with us.
DR. RAND: Let me just second what the ambassador said about power and influence and leverage in the Middle East. I think it’s actually quite a disservice to lament the loss of U.S. leverage and U.S. influence. It’s actually self-fulfilling, because then you don’t try. In fact, if you walk anywhere around the Middle East as an American, everyone will know that innate and inherent, I don’t know if it’s power, but influence that we can exert because of the admiration that people feel and also the expectation that Americans are — have values, have an ability and a willingness to help others in the world.
And that base foundation doesn’t change even if there’s anger with American governments and administrations over their handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their inaction over Assad, which is the current, I think, biggest grievance or gripe you hear when you travel around the Middle East right now. Those two — you know, also ISIS was caused by American intervention in Iraq. That’s probably a third accusation or anger. Now, but that doesn’t obviate the real truth that people — leaders and their people are looking to Americans.
And so by discounting U.S. influence and leverage, that really does a disservice to our diplomatic and nonmilitary tools, because it means that you discount what the power of a visit to the White House could do to change things. You know, there’s so many tools that are based on these intangible levers of U.S. influence that have to be carefully deployed. And so by lamenting how a changing Middle East means changing leverage or decreasing American influence is quite dangerous line of — so I’m in the optimistic camp, for sure.
DR. MATTAIR: But what I’m really referring to is, you know, summed up in the phrase: draining the swamp. How do we — how do we — should we be revising our foreign policies in such a way that it becomes harder for al-Qaida and ISIS to recruit followers? Should we take their messaging away from them? I mean, we can’t — we can’t invite al-Baghdadi come and do a goodwill tour, but can we — can we take his followers away from him?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: He’s taking his followers away from himself. These guys cannot win. They are — they have a huge enemy, and it is themselves. And they — and they live in a sea of enemies that they’ve created who are disposed, perhaps, to some elements of their worldview. In a direct sense, they can — they can cause some pain and harm to us, but the most pain and harm and destruction is to the people they live among and who are there.
So analogies — metaphors like draining the swamp — you know, it’s not our swamp to drain. The people who are living there have now recognized a horrible indigenous, not exogenous, an indigenous disease process — you can use metaphors like that — for which they now are asking outside help and attention. There’s nowhere to turn, many of them seem to realize and some even say, but powerful outside friends. Where do you go? The Arab League? The Organization of the Islamic Conference? The United Nations? No — it’s facetious even to suggest that.
People are turning to the United States of America. And we, in turn, get to say to them: You, our dear friends, have a terrible internal problem. How are you educating your people to turn on each other on sectarian grounds? How is it that you can let funds flow without controls and go to these malefactors — funds, people, arms. There are things we can do to help you, if you wish. There isn’t a world government, but there is a power in the world that is your friend, believes the things that you believe, wants most of the things that you believe, O government of country X, O people of country X. We’re prepared to work with you. Here’s now.
But here’s what we need. You know, we’re Americans. We don’t need to do this. We don’t need to send our men into harm’s way. We’d rather not. So let’s have some quality conversations on a sustained, daily basis, through diplomatic channels. We tend to have wonderful generals placed out in these areas who have really good conversations like this all the time, because they can, because they have the airplanes and the men and the — and the political backing. And they can walk in to see their counterparts in these things.
Ambassadors are also there, but don’t quite have — no ambassador has the ability to travel around the NEA region. We have an assistant secretary here, but based in Washington, who can’t go out and speak with the authority of the president and have these kinds of conversations with leaders there. We can do this.
DR. MATTAIR: I think I’ll take some questions from the floor in just a second, but one final question from the podium would be: General Hayden, Ambassador Ricciardone says it’s not our swamp. And I understand fully what you mean, but we’re a target. So you know, the events that took place in Paris a week ago, how likely are they to happen here? How good is our intelligence? How good is our Homeland Security? How good is our law enforcement? And how well can we expect to be protected from —
GEN. HAYDEN: Yeah, sure. The French are very, very good. DGSE, their foreign service, DST, their domestic service, are the best in Europe. And so, it really puts everyone off-balance when something like this happens in France. For the Europeans it’s, my God, if it happens in France, it could happen here, because the French service is really as good as I’ve described.
We’re also really good. We really are. And we have got a lot of resources, which from time to time our allies lack. We’ve gotten some more legal headroom in the past 13 or 14 years than we’ve had previously. So we are a very hard target. And that’s a good thing and we ought to keep all that up.
But fundamentally, the difference between ourselves and the French is not the quality of our services. Fundamentally, the difference between ourselves and the French is the quality of our societies. We have a far better record of assimilating immigrants in a genuine way than any European country does, and therefore the likelihood of this happening in the United States is less than its likelihood of happening in Europe. That’s not zero. Will something like this inevitably take place here? Yeah, almost certainly. But again, we are in a far better position than our European friends because of the nature of our society.
GEN. BOLGER: The only thing I would say — sort of echoing what General Hayden warned when he said, you know, sooner or later something will happen is the old comment from the Irish Republican Army to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: You have to be right all the time. We only have to be right once.
GEN. HAYDEN: Can I just add — that’s correct, all right? And so when it does happen, please don’t go spasmodic — (laughter) — because we have it fully within our ability to take a tactical failure on our part and turn it into a strategic success for our adversaries, not because of the things surrounding the original event, but because of what we then do afterwards in either how we respond, how we treat our security services — which are actually doing a pretty good job — the recrimination that we might mount on one another. You know, the London Tube was operating on the evening of 7/7. You know, we can take a lesson from that.
DR. MATTAIR: All right. I’ve just been informed that the mic for the floor is not set up. So if you have a question, please make sure it’s loud so that our tape recorders can pick it up.
Well, the first hand was in the back of the room. Yeah.
Q: Yes. Bill Jones with the Executive Intelligence Review.
Just a few days ago there was a press conference up here on the Hill, a number of congressmen and one former senator, who were calling for the publication to be released of the 28 pages from the report on the 9/11 report, which had been — remained classified, which from all appearances seems to indicate greater involvement of Saudi Arabia in the 9/11 attack. Do you think this would be a good thing to do? Of course, there are many people that — who were killed in 9/11, families who have been calling for this. They want closure on this. Would this not be a good thing? And what effect would it have, do you think, in terms of policy in the Middle East and our relations with Saudi Arabia, if they were released?
GEN. HAYDEN: I guess I’ll start on that, and I’m going to give you a very unsatisfactory answer. I don’t know what’s in the 28 pages. I’ve never pursued it. And obviously the judgment as to whether it should or should not be made public is totally dependent on its content. And so, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what else to say.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Jim Jeffrey, Washington Institute.
I’d like to get to the heart of this, which is — basically of the three things, I think it’s mainly avoiding new wars. And I have a bone to pick. I thought it was first going to be the three of the four panelists, but then at the end General Hayden leaned in too, talking about we can keep whacking these guys forever, but we have to do an underlying process. That sounds good, but having been involved in trying to do that underlying process for a long time, I’m really concerned.
General Bolger pointed out that the military is being misused for things that we need to have all elements of American power doing. Frank pointed out we need a much more beefed up diplomacy. I could buy that, but he’s not talking about a couple hundred more political officers; he’s talking about USAID and INL, which is the police and justice, and Treasury and all of that on steroids. And I’m kind of — I’m taking — putting words in his mouth — sort of colonial service, sort of, you know, what we were in CPA or Afghanistan times 10.
And Dafna talked about, you know, finding best practices, that there’s a way, if we can just tweak this thing. Having spent a lot of time from Vietnam on doing this in one or another capacity, I don’t think there is. And that’s my challenge. If you think, A, that the underlying social, political and ideological problems of this crazy region lead to threats that threaten us — be it 9/11, be it our allies and whatever — and, B, that we somehow, if we can get the right formula, can get in there and fix that, I don’t care whether we assign the 1st Calvary Division with thousands of engineers and military police and generators and medics and such to do civic operations, or we charge Frank to go in there with a bunch of civilians and then ask the 1st Calvary Division to protect them, we’re going to be back in the same mess. I don’t think it works.
And as long as we think it’s going to work and we keep challenging our government and trying to do this, we’re going to wind up in another Afghanistan or another Iraq or another Somalia. I’ll rest my case.
GEN. BOLGER: Ambassador Jeffrey, I mean, I had the good fortune to serve when you were over there. And I’m in total agreement with you. I mean, I would personally say in your four options that you laid out, the option of do nothing has to be considered a lot more seriously than we usually do. We’re Americans, so we love to get involved, but I agree, I think — I think that, yes, if we’re going to do stuff, that’s the way to do it.
But to me, what you get out of that is you get attrition, not decision. You just — you continue to whack people. You don’t really solve anything. Sometimes, that’s all we want. But we need to be open-minded and clear-eyed about it say: OK, realize, if we go in and do this against ISIS or if we do this in Syria, no answer’s going to arise for 20 or 30 years. And I think you heard all of us say long term. I mean, you know that, sir.
But I’d say, at least from a military point of view, I — you know, count me as a no on U.S.-led counterinsurgency. We’re 0-for-3 in big ones in my lifetime, and I don’t want to be 0-for-4.
DR. RAND: I would just clarify what I was prescribing and recommending. And I’m heartened to hear you say that given you everything you’ve lived through, and thank you for your service, Mr. Ambassador.
You know, this strategy of after 13 or 14 years drawing down the U.S. from its combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan has resided on this assumption that we can build the partnership capacity. You know, if you count the number of times BPC or building partners repeats itself in national security strategy documents you’d be amazed — as you — as you know.
So I’m advocating just carefully looking at the tools that we’re already deploying, in particular FMF, FMS, security cooperation assistance and training, to making sure that we’re not just trying to build mil-mil and particular relations for the sake of mil-mil relations, that we’re trying to look at outcomes. Obviously, Iraq is a touchy, but also very important example.
I’m sorry to talk about Iraq, but we need to be asking a lot of questions about the training and assistance that was provided, particularly between — and I’m not saying this just because you’re here; again, really respect your service — between 2008 and 2014 it’s very important to ask what was the training and assistance that occurred?
Could we have done a better job of inculcating values of professionalism and non-sectarianism, or was it impossible, right, because from the very top there was going to be these anti-democratic practices that would have unmoored all of our effort? Is it possible to build governance practices as we are deploying mil-mil assistance and trainings that are, again, non-coercive, but the positive levers of our diplomacy that are being authorized by this Congress every year in the tunes of billions of dollars.
So the question for me is, can we be asking how we’re using these tools and really ask it as a rigorous research question? Is there any way to improve the partners’ capacity and will, professionalism and their contribution — they, themselves, contribution to the endurance of the state, so that we don’t actually have to do the COIN operations ourselves?
DR. MATTAIR: Ben (sp).
Q: Oh, no mic?
DR. MATTAIR: No.
Q: OK. Thank you very much.
Thinking a little bit outside the box, given the failure of states in the region to deal with crucial problems, not to speak of trying to solve them in any way, non-state actors are emerging. How do the panelists view the — what seems to be an emerging greater role of the churches, and especially the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, in trying to move these societies and their relationship with the West and to take action on both sides in a more positive direction? I’m thinking in terms of interfaith dialogue and specifically also an effort to — contributing to an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The pope has made several statements recently and he’s coming to Washington to speak before the Congress in September. I’m sure he’s going to say more than — speak more than about social issues.
GEN. HAYDEN: All very positive, of course. His predecessor got into a controversy when he described Islam as being a far more transcendental religion than Christianity. Whereas in Christianity, because it was translated through the Greeks, we get a human component of philosophy, in Islam, according to Pope Benedict, not as much. Frankly, I think that’s fairly — I think there’s — I think there’s truth there. So we’ll see how much the holy father can do to influence the debate. But again, all positive.
I think more important was President al-Sisi going to al-Azhar and challenging the faculty there, which has powerful influence on Sunni thought, that we really need to reexamine our faith, because our faith should not be being used to justify these kinds of actions. That was — I thought that was just a remarkable step on his part, and one that gave me great hope.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
Q: Hi. I’m Samira Daniels (sp).
DR. MATTAIR: Can you speak up, so we can —
Q: Yeah. I’m Samira Daniels (sp).
I know that we are somewhat wedded to aligning certain problems with certain solutions, I mean, on — there are assumptions. The thing that has struck me in — because while I’m not — I don’t have the facility to read — you know, in other languages I can understand what is being said. And I am struck by how, you know, there is so much discussion on the part of the — of the public — publics in those countries of American intention. I can’t speak for the intelligence community, because I’m not a part of it, but I wonder whether that — how that plays into developing policy in the United States. What — and it might go under the rubric of foreign aid or diplomacy, but I really wonder if that’s where it should be. I mean, how does — what’s your thought on that?
DR. MATTAIR: Are you asking the importance of public opinion about American intentions for the — for the — American policymakers making policy?
Q: Well, who should be — I think that — well, who should be speaking for whom? And I just said that, in those countries in the Arab and — I don’t know about in Iran — there is a — you know, there’s always this question of what are — what are the American broader intentions in the region. And I’m wondering who is the appropriate — who can address that with some facility?
DR. MATTAIR: Which Americans?
Q: Which Americans. You know, I mean, obviously the leaders abroad haven’t done such a great job of that, but —
DR. MATTAIR: Well, Dafna writes about the importance of strategic communications. What would you say?
DR. RAND: You know, I think the U.S. government — I’m sorry; I can’t see you actually — but I think the U.S. government is — if that’s the question, I can speak most, you know, recently about my experiences there — quite understands the value of public opinion and the role of influences in society that are nongovernmental and that are traditional and social media.
The State Department, when I was there, started a counterterrorism strategic communication office that was trying in to, in real-time, respond to some of the accusations against American policy, for example, that I think has done a good job. There was recently an article in The Washington Post about them because they have a hashtag, #thinkagainturnaway, which is their Twitter handle, which is trying to respond to the ISIS — the — (inaudible) — Twitter handle. So it’s kind of interesting that they’re pushing back. And, you know, it’s creative. And you know, so you should look at this Washington Post story about this — about this.
But anyway, so I think the U.S. government has very much understood the importance of the lateral ways in which opinion is moving, as opposed to sort of top-down, especially in the transitioning environment of kind of a post-autocratic, you know, dictatorial societies. And across the Middle East, even there are robust regimes still in place, there is a, you know, burgeoning opening of demand for free expression and new ways of people communicating, even in environments that are still censored. So I think — I think the U.S. government really understands that.
GEN. HAYDEN: This is a hard problem. And I need to be careful here, because this all shades of gray, all right? But I think in many of these societies, truth is something that’s arrived at by deduction from first principles rather than by induction from data. And so the Israelis are bad, bad things happened, the Israelis must have done it. Well, our response is, well, let me show you the facts.
Well, that always — that — it’s a far more conspiratorial view of history — of society and it makes it double hard for us, whom — I mean, our natural — we’ve got, I told you, shades of gray. We’ve got our own issues with this. But fundamentally, you know, after Bacon and Newton and so on, we try to go from data to generalization. That’s not always the pattern everywhere in the world.
DR. MATTAIR: We have time for one or two questions. Yes. Then we’re going to wrap it up today.
Q: Just, you know, you mentioned a lot about —
DR. MATTAIR: Can you talk loud so we can get it on the tape?
Q: Yes, of course. You know, you’ve mentioned a lot about Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and ISIS and a lot of these organizations that are rising up, and due to non-action by the states, they’re becoming actors. The question is — and you mentioned how the Islamic Brotherhood has failed in Egypt as well — the question is, wouldn’t it be a solution to include these actors in the political framework so that they release their energy in a political way, rather than releasing it in violent manner?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Your question takes me back to Ambassador Jeffrey’s comment. I almost exceeded the limits on snarkiness that my wife warned me against. And so I didn’t put in a sixth aphorism, which is one I also lived by when I was a diplomat. And that is: Do no harm. I’m arguing to engage and pay attention, not be isolationalist, not say it’s not our problem at all — even if it is fundamentally other people’s problem.
But we really should be careful what we ask for, what we think we know, be careful about intervening whether with the military or others. Really be careful about trying to release the other person’s inner American, to imagine that we can fundamentally change people in ways they don’t all want to be changed, or necessarily wish to. Some do, and they know how to approach us. Many of them speak English and they can speak our — not just our language language, but can get to our way of thinking.
But to imagine we can go in and remake — we need to be modest. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support people who support the principles and values that we uphold. On the contrary, we should proclaim those and do what we can to advance them, it seems to me. At least, I sent some decades working on that with Middle Easterners who, more or less, shared the things — the values that we share, more or less, and the purposes that we shared.
But then to go beyond that and tell them: You really ought to include this party in what you’re doing because that’s inclusivity and inclusivity is good and inclusivity will save you — it draws down the curtain and some of the conversation ends. And if you’re really good friends, they’ll just change the subject. But if you’re not good friends, you’ll make them angry and make them even less likely to be inclusive and all the other good things that we want.
So I got back to modesty and the do no harm principle. Just be real careful about what we’re trying to push down people’s throats.
DR. MATTAIR: You — this is the last question then we’re going to — yeah.
Q: OK. My name is Abdulateef.
I’m a retired Saudi naval commodore, but right now, I’m the serial columnist for the Arab News. I’m in the United States for one week, just visiting. But I heard about this event and after I read the name of the panelists here, I just — I just can’t visit. But I read “Managing, Ending and Avoiding Wars in the Middle East,” but nobody even — in the panelists from the Middle East. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Not this one, but we often have Middle Easterners on our panels.
Actually, it’s more often Americans of Middle Eastern background, you know, because we’re really interested in American policymakers and American decision makers and thinkers.
Yes. Well, I — just one more and that’s the last one.
Q: A quick one. I guess my question would begin with I’m concerned that managing, ending, avoiding wars in the Middle East did not include much about Egypt, while it is, in terms of population, it is big, and also it is in trouble. According, at least, to what we heard from Zogby Institute, 43 percent are against the military coup — or the coup, and 44 percent are for it. In other words, it’s a split country. My question is, what are — how the failing of Egypt as a state would affect the national security of the United States of America?
DR. MATTAIR: That’s a good question.
GEN. HAYDEN: Egypt is so large, so important, in many ways — I already mentioned religiously and culturally, with al-Azhar and so on — in the Arab world that success in Egypt sets in motion good things. I will admit, I have my issues with President al-Sisi in terms of democracy. But I’ve already mentioned how impressed I’ve been with the comments he made at al-Azhar.
On generalized comment — all these tectonics moving and borders don’t mean what they used to mean. Someone who knows the Middle East — a Middle Easterner — (chuckles) — told me: Bet on the countries with history. And he specifically mentioned Tunisia and Egypt as the ones who, because of their historic identity, have the best chance of pushing through the current turmoil to a new, steady state.
DR. MATTAIR: You were the ambassador to Egypt. Do you want to say?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Again, Mike, you made exactly the point that leapt to my mind, only more eloquently. There’s a — there’s always been an Egypt, for at least 7,000 years of more or less, at least intermittently recorded history. There’s been a national identity. Egyptians — people of the Nile knew who they were, what they were. Governance has been better or worse. Administrations, states have risen and fallen. Armies have come in and gone out. And Egypt has endured.
So I’m pretty confident that Egypt, as such, won’t fail. There can be more suffering or less suffering due to better governance or worse governance, more prosperity, climatic factors, population pressures — all of that. But Egypt — there will be an administration. They invented states in Egypt, complete with provinces, governors, ministers, judges — all of that. You can see it in the tomb records. There will be an organized society with an identity.
I likewise have had a lot of time with Turkey. That’s a new state, but it comes from a great imperial history of a — of a people who know who they are, how to organize as a society and a feeling of global and regional responsibility. I think that’s a strong partner, a strong stakeholder in the stability and prosperity and success of the region. So I don’t believe Americans can solve — any number of talents diplomats, soldiers, law enforcement officers, intelligence officers can solve the problems of the Middle East. It’s going to be generational. They may never be solved.
But we will competently manage them if we deal with the primary enduring stakeholders, like the Egyptians, like the Turks, like the Saudis, who are not going to go anywhere. I mean, some of them will emigrate, but I mean, those places — peoples and their societies are committed. And they have children and they want a better future. We can work with them and we can manage better if we do some of the things that — I think that are in our nature to do as Americans. We can manage better, even if we can’t solve the problem for them, and probably shouldn’t try to solve it for them.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I’d like to thank General Hayden and Ambassador Ricciardone, Dr. Rand and General Bolger. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
General, United States Air Force (ret.)
Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency
Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence
Former Director, National Security Agency
Principal, the Chertoff Group
Lieutenant General, United States Army (ret.)
Special Faculty, North Carolina State University
Author, Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Pannetta Fellow, Center for a New American Security
Former Director for Democracy and Governance, National Security Council
Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State
Vice President and Director, the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Turkey
Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council