Our 100th Capitol Hill Conference
Friday, April 17th - 10am - noon ET
This event was held virtually through Zoom.
The event recap, full video and transcript are now online.
The Middle East in 2020
Roger Cohen, Mona Yacoubian, Kirsten Fontenrose, Richard J. Schmierer
The following is an edited transcript of the 100th in a series of Capitol Hill Conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The event took place on April 17, 2020. Due to circumstances arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was held using the Zoom virtual meeting platform, with Council Vice-Chairperson Gina Abercrombie Winstanley moderating and Executive Director Dr. Thomas R. Mattair serving as discussant.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY, Vice Chairperson, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador, Malta:
I am very pleased that the council has such knowledgeable and experienced experts on hand to contribute to this milestone event, our 100th Capitol Hill Conference – albeit, not on Capitol Hill. Over the decades during which we have been conducting such events on Capitol Hill, we have strived to foster open, politically diverse, and unbiased discussion of the Middle East and U.S. policies and interests in that region. We’ve had the good fortune to be viewed as providing a platform for a variety of views concerning the Middle East and, as a result, our Capitol Hill Conferences have attracted panelists representing the broad political spectrum of those who deal with the region. This has given the Middle East Policy Council a unique impact and credibility.
Today’s event very much follows in that tradition, as we take a snapshot of the Middle East, and U.S. engagement in that region, in the first half of 2020. Of course, the staging of this event has had to bow to the current circumstances of a global public health emergency. Thus, I am particularly grateful to our panelists and our audience for making the effort to join us today at this virtual event. As it has been for decades now, the Middle East is a region that is of essential importance to the United States and the broader global community, and the effort to identify and to address critical developments and key U.S. interests and policies in that region needs to continue, despite the necessary focus on dealing with COVID-19 at this time.
ROGER COHEN, Columnist, The New York Times and The International New York Times
Good morning, everybody, from New York City. There are always things more important than what we think is important. The coronavirus has been a reminder of that. Still, the Middle East has not gone away. A few months ago the United States almost went to war with Iran. Remember that? It’s hard to recall things these days, such is the cascade of events, the changing nature of time in a lockdown, and the bombardment of social media. The immediate cause of the near war with Iran was President Donald Trump’s order to kill General Qassem Soleimani, the ruthless chief architect of Iran’s regional expansion. Whatever you think of Soleimani – and I think he did a lot of harm – this was an impetuous decision whose consequences might have been devastating.
I am reluctant to say this as an American patriot, but I must say it because I’m an American patriot. President Trump is not someone who thinks things through. He does not read history. He is skeptical of science. He is not curious. He relies on his hunches. His attention span is short. This combination of characteristics in the American president can be dangerous. It can be dangerous in the Middle East. It can be dangerous just about anywhere.
I was thinking when I was asked to do this what I might call this presentation. Perhaps, adieu Middle East, the consequences of American abdication. Or, adieu to a certain America. I’m referring to the United States of the post-1945 era, the underwriter of global security. The country that, yes, made many mistakes, as nations do, as individuals do, but held fast to certain values – liberty, the rule of law, representative government, a free press, human rights, a rules-based international order, defense of its allies. The America that opposed tyrants and favored the spread of freedom; the America whose word was worth something; the America whose seriousness of purpose helped forge the Egypt-Israel peace of 1979 and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994; the America, in short, that I cherish. America is an idea, or it is nothing. That America is under threat right now. Whether it can be revived in any form is an open question. It may be that my adieu turns into an au revoir.
Now, the view of the United States that I’ve just expressed may not be widely shared in the Middle East. The American-orchestrated coup in 1953, the embrace of dictators in the pursuit of oil interests, the largely consistent favoring of Israel over Palestine, the Iraq War, and disastrous inaction in Syria are just a few instances of the kinds of policy decisions that have persuaded many people in the region that American foreign policy is more of an exercise in hypocrisy than in honor. Against this view, I would suggest a couple of things. The tendency to blame America as a convenient escape from responsibility is a region-wide reflex. Conspiracy theories that attribute to the CIA fantastic forms of omniscience are also exercises in evasion.
The United States’ role in the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel was critical. Absent Rabin’s assassination, I believe an American-backed two-state peace would have been achieved. If the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a fragile entity, has survived and become an island of relative stability in the region, it’s because the United States has stood by it, providing well over a billion dollars a year in aid, as well as military intelligence and other support. In the end, the question is, has the United States been a force for good or ill in the world? Personally, I do not hesitate to say, “good.”
President Trump, however, has bulldozed the America I believe in. During his presidency the United States has walked away from a serious, as opposed to frivolous, involvement in the Middle East. Other actors, notably Vladimir Putin’s Russia, have moved into the vacuum. The inherent instability born of unresolved conflicts and inadequate political systems has been exacerbated by this American abandonment of its allies and its values. A young population stirs for change across the Middle East in the direction of greater agency and economic opportunity, away from cronyism, and nepotism, and corruption remains strong.
Where an older generation sees inevitable division and sectarianism, the young people I met in the streets of Beirut a few months ago see shared humanity, the fragility of the planet, the bonds that unite irrespective of race, gender, religion. Uprisings from Beirut to Baghdad at the end of last year were a kind of Arab Spring redux. But the one-time advocate of more open and accountable Middle Eastern societies, the U.S. of A, has gone AWOL. Syria and Yemen and Libya fester, refugees continue to flee Syria – a dismembered country that is a stain on humanity’s conscience. Turkey threatens to weaponize those refugees by sending them on to a Europe that does not want them.
Whatever hopes there were of drawing Iran closer to the world through the Iran nuclear deal have been shattered. The Islamic Republic’s radicalism will only be exacerbated by further isolation. The risk of war is always there, as events this year have already shown. The nuclear deal was not perfect. What in life is? But it served a purpose and was a potential bridge. President Trump blew up the bridge rather than build out from it, an error. Mohammad Bin Salman’s erratic rule in Saudi Arabia, most recently manifested in the arrest of several princes and an oil price war with Russia, now maybe resolved, causes havoc. Yet, President Trump has been an enthusiastic supporter of MBS, abandoning any search for an American policy that involves Saudi-Iranian balancing. Ultimately, the region will need that Saudi-Iranian balancing. But in general, balance, like science, is not a word this administration likes.
I used the word “frivolous” earlier. What other term is appropriate for the so-called Trump peace plan for Israel-Palestine? The deal of the century to the president; the slap of the century for Mahmoud Abbas; and, most accurately, the farce of the century. The words the plan has written all over it are words President Trump has used during the coronavirus crisis, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” It is an unserious plan. In essence, the proposal reflects the administration’s contempt for the cause of Palestinian nationhood and a two-state outcome, and its uncritical support for Israeli goals of annexation and rule over the whole area, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
In formulating it, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, made no serious attempt at mediation. He seemed to place his faith in the ability of the Saudis and the Emiratis to buy off the Palestinians’ quest for statehood with a few billion dollars – a misjudgment. This is not about money, in the end; it’s about Palestinian dignity, and their quest for a state. In a recent conversation with me, Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz told me: “A deal involves two parties. We can’t only give one party the benefits immediately and say to the other, perhaps in 40 years you will maybe see some benefits. It’s just a farce. One party gets everything it wants, the other gets the optics of pretending you care about them.”
Kushner, however, and Trump, did not care just how insulting the plan is to the Palestinians. Since the announcement of the plan in January – and of course we’ve had the eruption of the coronavirus crisis – we have heard little of it. This is consistent with President Trump’s replacement of politics with theater. His irresponsibility has consequences. The peace plan effectively gives Israel a carte blanche to annex the Jordan Valley and existing settlements. Israeli politics are in flux, but the fact that the United States has reversed itself on fundamental principles of any two-state peace is damaging. The possibility of resolving the conflict feels more distant than ever. Until a new generation of leaders comes along in Washington, Jerusalem, and Ramallah, I fear the best we can hope for is the avoidance of another war.
For me, an American Jew, the idea of Israeli statehood built on the statelessness and humiliation of another people, the Palestinians, is an unacceptable outcome – pregnant always with further violence. For decades now, I’ve been a strong supporter of efforts to forget a two-state peace, allowing Palestinians and the Israelis to live side-by-side in peace and security. But, you may say, is that not just a pipe dream now? Has the 53-year occupation not gone too far? Does the fact that only five Jewish members of the 120-member Knesset are today willing even to use the word “occupation” not demonstrate that Israelis now believe, in their vast majority, that all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River is theirs? Is the presence of hundreds of thousands of settlers not an insurmountable obstacle? How much more evidence do you need to pronounce Oslo a cadaver, beyond resuscitation?
The other question, of course, is “what is the alternative?” One state, one state, one state. It has become fashionable to dream of a kind of United States of Jews and Palestinians in the holy land, as if a country in which a certain day for half the population is a day of liberation and for the other half a day of catastrophe might not be unworkable. As if terrible history can be wished away overnight. As if such a country could ever agree on a school textbook. As if Jews who dreamed for millennia of their own homeland will suddenly concede this was misguided and believe once more, the Holocaust notwithstanding, in the kindness of strangers. As if the Middle East offers multiple credible examples of harmonious coexistence between different national and religious groups. As if it’s enough to dream, and all will be well.
Which dream is more outrageous then, two states or one? Tough call, as I speak. So we’re stuck with the reality, the status quo. Except that the status quo implies immobility. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political genius has been to use the so-called status quo over a decade and a half to advance the destruction of the ideal of Palestinian statehood. The status quo moves, ladies and gentlemen. Now the question for Israel is simple: Does it really want to be an apartheid state? If it does not, it cannot continue indefinitely with its current policies.
The question for Palestinians, it seems to me, is this: Has the time not come to blow up a so-called status quo that day-by-day undermines the goal of Palestinian statehood? The Palestinian National Authority is the symbol of this iniquitous situation. A supposedly interim form of self-government, it has become the corrupt – deeply corrupt – agent of Palestinian emasculation and complicity in Israel’s designs. No election has been held in a decade now. It’s not enough to blame the occupation, devastating as it is. The case for dissolution of the authority, it seems to me, is increasingly compelling. At the very least, it would oblige Israel to think again. If a peace process is fictive, so too is the PA. Better then to be done with it.
After World War II France and Germany did not decide to abolish their borders. They set out on a path that would make those borders meaningless. To me, in Israel-Palestine, that path of peace still begins with two states. Their borders in such a small, physical space, would ultimately over decades dissolve to the point of meaninglessness. However, it’s easier today to predict a third intifada, or another war on the Lebanese border, or another eruption in Gaza, than it is to see such an outcome. Still, I refuse to give up. A millennial generation in the Middle East deserves better. It’s sick of frozen conflicts and frozen political systems. Neither the oppression of dictators, nor the promises – false promises – of Islamic radicalism, has delivered the human dignity that comes with more transparent governance, free elections, and the rule of law. I look forward to the day when those causes are once more a priority for the United States government.
MONA YACOUBIAN, Senior Advisor on the Middle East and North Africa, United States Institute of Peace; Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Middle East Bureau, USAID
I was asked to dig down a bit deeper on countries in the Levant, looking at Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. But before I do that, I wanted to offer as well a few contextual points on where we are in the Middle East in 2020. I think the first and most important one, and the reason we’re all meeting now virtually, is precisely the COVID-19 pandemic. And that we really can’t, I think, think about or talk about the Middle East in 2020 without now considering the impact of the pandemic on the region. I think it’s important to underscore that the pandemic has yet to really hit the region with full force, and I think unfortunately the worst is yet to come.
In thinking about it, I would offer, I think, three dynamics we should consider. The first, and this is something that Richard Haass wrote about last week in Foreign Affairs, is this idea that the pandemic will accelerate history. I think that is very much the case in the region. It could accelerate conflict dynamics. It could also accelerate the de-escalation of conflict where that may be in the cards. Secondly, and somewhat related, I think the pandemic is going to amplify divisions and divides, whether by identity, sectarian divisions, the division between state and society. The third is, I think if we look at this idea of accelerating and amplifying, and bring those two things together, that will bring about, I think, profound disruption in the region. That disruption, I think, certainly is going to pose enormous challenges. But I also think there may be opportunity there.
The second key contextual point is that, the pandemic aside, when we think about the Middle East, unfortunately, it disproportionately reflects a rather destabilizing dynamic. In particular, I would underscore, again, three things. One is conflict. This is a region, as Roger has well pointed out, that is rife with conflict. The World Bank estimates that one in five people in the Middle East and North Africa now lives in close proximity to conflict. In Syria, that number is 84 percent of the population.
The second key dynamic is that of forcible displacement. We are in a year of record forcible displacement around the world, more than 70 million people. However, a disproportionate number of those forcibly displaced are in the Middle East and Turkey. Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and that’s followed by Jordan and Turkey.
Third is poverty. Here, again, the Arab world has consistently lagged behind other regions in efforts to combat poverty. According to the UNDP, in 2015 two-thirds of the region’s population was considered to be poor or vulnerable to poverty. That number has only deteriorated with the onset of more intense conflict. More than 90 percent of Syrians are considered poor; 80 percent of Yemenis. Unfortunately, the UN estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring another 8.3 million people in the region into poverty.
The third sort of contextual point is a brighter spot. That is that, just prior to the pandemic, we saw in the region a renewal of peaceful popular protests. We saw these protests erupt across from Algeria, to Lebanon, to Iraq, Sudan. I think Roger rightly called it, maybe, an Arab Spring redux. I think there’s something quite important that was going on in these popular protests. They were peaceful, and they were, by and large, focused on popular demands for accountable governance, for an end to corruption, for an end to sectarianism. I mean, it’s notable in Lebanon, in particular, that these were decidedly anti-sectarian demonstrations. They were geographically diverse. And they also had women and youth in the forefront. So that was, I think, a very popular and important moment; we shouldn’t forget them. Now, the pandemic has brought a halt to these protests, but I would argue that because their concerns, because the demands that initially brought people to the streets are only going to be more acute, we can see, post-pandemic, a resurgence of these protests.
Let me now sort of dive down – first, very quickly on Iraq. I know Kirsten’s going to spend much more time on it, but I was asked to talk about Iraq from the perspective of governance. Here, I think, we need to think about Iraq suffering through four overlapping crises, all at the same time. The first is a governance crisis, one that is bound by the corruption, unemployment, inadequate service provision. This is what brought people in Iraq to the streets in what many are terming historic protests that brought about the collapse of the government. We’re now on the third potential prime minister candidate who is attempting to form a new cabinet.
The second – and I think the importance of the oil price collapse cannot be overestimated for Iraq – Iraq relies on oil for 90 percent of its revenues. So this collapse in oil prices could potentially be existential for Iraq. The third, and Roger’s spoken about it and I think Kirsten’s going to go into much more detail, are the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran that are being played out in Iraq. And finally, a fourth crisis is the pandemic itself. Iraq being next to Iran, which is really the regional epicenter of the pandemic, I think makes Iraq particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, and I think there are real concerns that the extent of the virus is being underreported in Iraq.
Let me now turn briefly to Lebanon. Lebanon, too, is contending with two very significant simultaneous crises. The first, which well-predates the pandemic, is a financial meltdown which is, unfortunately, was already bringing Lebanon onto an almost Venezuela-like trajectory. Lebanon is one of the most indebted countries in the world. Its current debt-to-GDP ratio is 176 percent, which is basically unsustainable. This debt crisis was brought about by years of mismanagement, corruption, and this is really what brought people to the streets last October. That crisis has not gone away, and in fact if anything, Lebanon is suffering from growing poverty, high unemployment. There are even concerns in Lebanon today about hunger; this was once very much a middle-income country. Unfortunately, Lebanon has yet to really move forward with any sort of resolution to this financial crisis. Now, with the pandemic overlaying it, I think unfortunately Lebanon has a number of very, very dark and difficult days ahead before it makes its way out of this.
Finally, let me talk for a moment about Syria. Syria, of course, is now entering the tenth year of its conflict. Prior to the pandemic we witnessed a very brutal offensive by the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, to retake Idlib, the northwestern governate, the last remaining anti-Assad rebel stronghold in Syria. They actually were able to recapture quite a bit of territory, but at an enormous humanitarian cost. In fact, that offensive spurred the largest single episode of displacement in the nearly decade-long conflict; nearly a million people fled to and were pinned up against Syria’s border with Turkey.
Now, the pandemic has, in a way, slowed the offensive. Perhaps in the question and answer period of people are interested, we can talk a bit. I actually have a slightly more optimistic view about the pandemic and its impact on Syria with respect to the prospect for peace building. However, Syria is also poised to suffer significantly from the pandemic, because of the state of conflict, because of the fact that its health care system is devastated. In some parts of the country, of course, hospitals and medical clinics have been purposely bombed by the Assad regime.
Syria also – and here I would add both Lebanon and Iraq – has a very high percentage of forcibly displaced. I think it’s important to underscore the particular vulnerabilities of refugees and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in this pandemic. They often live in very crowded conditions, unsanitary conditions. They may not have access to clean water. And so this makes the key sort of coping mechanisms in a pandemic – whether it’s social distancing, hand washing, quarantining – all of those practices are enormously more difficult for those populations that are forcibly displaced, let alone not having adequate access to health care facilities.
I think in the case of refugees who live in very precarious conditions because of their legal status of being non-citizens in the countries in which they live, there is the added stress that may leave folks not to report when they’re ill or not be able to have access to health care systems to assist them in case of contracting the virus.
Lastly, I wanted to just turn very briefly to the implications for the United States in all of this. Here, I think, it’s clear to me that the U.S. likely in the coming weeks and months will remain inwardly focused, as we continue to battle and contend with the pandemic at home. Yet, I would underscore, I think there are very compelling reasons for the U.S. to remain engaged in the Middle East. However, and I’ll come to this at the very end, I think our engagement needs to shift from a paradigm of one focused on counterterrorism to one focused on development and on diplomacy.
If we are looking at reasons why the U.S. needs to remain focused on the Middle East, the first is that the United States will remain impacted by the pandemic as long as it is raging anywhere else in the world. We have to understand the interconnected nature of the world in which we live, and that the chain of transmission of this pandemic will not be broken as long as people are suffering from it, wherever in the world. Secondly, because of the very acute repercussions that I think the Middle East will suffer as a result of the pandemic, I would argue that that potentially has important national security implications for the United States.
So how do we engage? I think that we really do need to shift the paradigm in terms of how we think about and approach the Middle East. Even before, of course, the pandemic, this sort of military/CT focus had really dominated U.S. engagement in the Middle East, really for the past 20 years, since 9/11. I think, unfortunately, what we’ve learned in those two decades is that that military/CT prioritized approach has really not been effective in helping the region contend with its challenges, and in helping to advance U.S. interests in the region. So I think in the shadow of the pandemic, it will be very important for the United States to evolve its approach to the region, to shift away from this kinetic focus, and to really focus much more intently on diplomacy and development.
KIRSTEN FONTENROSE, Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council; Former Senior Director, Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Office, National Security Council
I’ve been asked to talk about U.S. relations with the two heavyweights in the Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and how current events, like coronavirus and the oil price war, will impact these relationships moving forward. We’ve all read a lot of analysis about whether or not U.S. foreign policy lines of effort focused on Iran are working. Let’s look today instead at whether Iran’s foreign policy towards the U.S. is effective. I’d love to engage in more discussion about this at Q&A; I will contend that the answer to this question is no.
Iran has not successfully driven the U.S. from the region. Iran has not forced President Trump to lift sanctions. Iran has not driven a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. Iran has not installed legitimate anti-American governments in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. Part of the reason for their ineffectiveness is that Iran is standing in its own way. They are missing an opportunity to get what they want from the United States. President Trump would love to reduce U.S. troops in the Middle East. The reason he can’t do this is Iran. Iran continues to attack U.S. interests, allies, and people, so the U.S. must stay and defend them.
If Iran were to focus on their domestic needs and cut off aid to violent groups in the region. President Trump would ask his Cabinet why the U.S. needs to keep our men and women stationed on its periphery. We have already begun handing over bases to Iraqi security forces and bringing U.S. trainers and troops home from Iraq. They’re even speeding up the preplanned drawdown because of COVID-19. This is achieving a piece of precisely what Iran states is their primary foreign policy objective vis-à-vis the U.S. – withdrawal.
Yet we continue to see attacks by Iran – by the proxies they direct in Iraq – on U.S., Iraqi, and international forces. This is ongoing, and there’s a heated debate in the United States, within the U.S. government, about how to respond to these attacks. To walk us back a few weeks, the U.S. was struck in Iraq on March 11th; I’m not going to take us all the way back, I’ll start with recent news. The U.S. responded to this with strikes on Kata’ib Hezbollah logistics’ hubs, I’m sure everyone is tracking. The U.S. was struck again on March 14th in the Green Zone and responded with measured strikes against more enabling capabilities belonging to militias.
The objective that the U.S. government put out was to signal that the U.S. would respond but would not escalate. However, these measured strikes did not deter. So what next? U.S. options are limited. Targets like hubs and depots are finite, so we’d be looking at an expanded target set. Sanctions to impact the ability of Iran to provide funding and material are fully deployed. So the secretary of defense has signed off on a concept that would allow the U.S. military to respond robustly to continued attacks on the U.S. and Iraq when no attempt is made on the part of the Iraqi government to constrain the use of force by rogue militias. This once secret concept is no longer a secret, thanks to a New York Times article, so we can talk about it.
The silver lining is that Iran now knows that there is a new red line and there will be new consequences. But only in Iraq, which is likely why this week we see renewed IRGC aggression in the Arabian Sea. In one incident, which has to remind us of the mistake Iran made in downing the Ukrainian passenger jet, the IRGC boarded a tanker off of Iran’s coast, only to learn that it was owned by a Chinese firm that had been sanctioned by the U.S. for doing business with Iran. In a second incident, IRGC speedboats did the equivalent of buzzing the tower and taunted U.S. Navy ships. The question is, what strategic shift led to these actions? Why do it?
The answer is likely a combination of the following: One, to rally support at home when the population is angry about virus mismanagement. Two, to provoke a U.S. strike and use it to rally the population to support the regime around the nationalistic message with which the regime has astutely replaced its previous ideological messaging. Three, to continue to pursue the death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against the U.S. presence without using their extra-military forces in Iraq, because the U.S. has made it clear that further attacks by these militias on the U.S. presence will cross a red line and result in a much stronger U.S. response. So, in other words, move the action elsewhere, to a different theater.
Four, to warn us not to take signs of weakness, like the supreme leader’s isolation, the preoccupation of the leadership in general with the health crisis, as an indication that they will be distracted from their objective of pushing the U.S. from the region. Iran watchers within the administration are placing their bets about Iran’s next steps right now. And right now, the eyes of those watchers are darting between the Arabian Sea and Baghdad. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman and the U.S. secretary of state both tweeted support for Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s nomination as prime minister of Iraq. This is a reassuring sign that pragmatism is calling the shots in both capitals.
This is not because the coronavirus has tapped the bandwidth each has to be overbold. It is not because both realize that al-Kadhimi is as good a neutral player as they can hope for to be approved. It is because decision making, both for and against escalation, in both Washington and Tehran, is hinged on this idea of each camp wanting to tell the other: “I told you so.” Those for escalation believe that the only way remove the adversary’s influence in Iraq is to push them out by force. Any compromise that allows the other to maintain a footprint is untenable. Escalation needs provocation if it is to avoid international condemnation. (Little catchphrase; I’m going to try to make it a thing.) And both sides believe that the other will provide this provocation.
Those opposed to escalation believe it will inevitably lead to a full-scale war. While that war will destroy their adversary’s role in the international order, it will be a mutually assured destruction. So, despite Tehran’s public support for prime minister nominee al-Kadhimi in Baghdad, the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq vow to oppose him if he is approved. Optimists could say this is an indication that Tehran does not, in fact, direct the actions of these militias. There’s logic to that theory on the surface, but the intelligence doesn’t back it up. The leaders of these militias have made public statements of allegiance to the IRGC and Iran’s supreme leader, and Iran’s own foreign policy statements list the use of these militias as a critical tool they intend to continue to deploy. And that’s all from open source.
So what are we seeing with this contradiction? Iran’s strategy here is to garner international goodwill by supporting Iraq’s government formation process, but send a clear message to a future prime minister of Iraq, through its proxies, that if Iran’s agenda in Iraq is blocked, he will be short-lived. One thing we’ve learned, Iran will fight the U.S. to the last Iraqi. One thing we are learning is that the coronavirus, despite its power for disruption, is not swaying either the U.S. or Iran from their stated course of zero-sum, us or them, regional hegemony strategies. This is what we know about Iran in the light of the coronavirus, a piece of it.
Despite the fact that GDP has contracted by 30 percent since the start of the virus, which has doubled the impact of sanctions, only 30 percent of government revenue is tied to oil, because of sanctions. So Iran has not been hit as hard proportionally as other oil producers by the jab-cross combo of the reduced demand for oil resulting from virus lockdowns, and the Saudi-Russia oil price war. The virus is not impacting Iran’s drive toward its goal of pushing the U.S. out of the region. We are seeing an uptick in attacks on U.S. forces. Iran knows the virus-distracted world is not watching, and they are right. Nobody but the U.S. is holding them accountable for their attacks and provocations right now.
The virus impacts sectors that had not taken as large a hit from sanctions as other industries – things like tourism, trade within the country, exports of non-petroleum-based products. And the regime is trying to provide loans and financial aid to the population, but that’s not sustainable because of the fragility of the economy already. The fact that the regime will not curtail funding to the IRGC to alleviate the health and financial blows of the virus illustrates what a sacred cow the IRGC and Quds Force budget is. Europe will not be able to move the U.S. administration toward supporting the IMF loan until Iran moves on this.
The U.S. administration believes there is an irony in Tehran requesting sanctions relief to aid in saving its people from the virus when the very reason for the sanctions is Iran’s funding violence that kills people outside their borders. Iran could be granted sanctions relief in the name of humanitarianism if it would disband its proxies in the name of humanitarianism. Most Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, and Yemenis would support that kind of agreement. So too would most Iranians.
Why does Iran choose to be pariah? That’s the big question the administration asks itself. The world would enthusiastically embrace Iran if they stopped trying to create vassal states out of their neighbors. Why should the international community tolerate Iran’s efforts to exploit the economies and strangle the will of citizens in nations like Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria? Regardless of how cheap it is to support violent proxies, the opportunity costs of being on bad terms with so much of the world must be incredibly expensive. There should be no stigma attached to Iran’s return to international good graces, and no face lost.
The clerical establishment and the IRGC are not going to collapse under sanctions or COVID-19, let’s just face it. They will turn guns on their own people before they will step aside. Hardliners in the U.S. and Iran aren’t going to meet at the table. European mediation won’t work as long as Iran believes that holding out advances their objectives of driving a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. So we need a behind the scenes agreement between the U.S. and Europe that lays out commitments. If Europe pressures Iran successfully to shift funding away from proxies, as a start, toward domestic needs, in exchange for Europe not condemning Iran publicly for their attacks and provocations of late, then the U.S. will agree not to block the IMF loan. Tiered steps.
Prior to the virus, conventional wisdom said that Iran would wait out the U.S. presidential election. While the regime still likes that plan, the street is focused internally and may press for their own needs before then. At that point, instead of forcing the regime in Tehran to defend itself, the U.S. should work with Europe and other partners in a unified bloc to coax out the changes Iranians demand from their government. At that point, it will be time for tough love.
We’re in a time of tough love right now with Saudi Arabia, our other bookend in the Gulf. The U.S. administration stuck by them through a stream of reckless behavior these past few years. They started a war in Yemen in which they were destined to be Goliath. They humiliated Hariri in Lebanon, making other small nation leaders wonder if the price of friendship was worth it. They severed relations with Canada, the globe’s Miss Congeniality. They extorted money from the royals in a way that would make The Godfather proud. And this was all before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Through all this, the U.S. government asked tough questions behind closed doors, but stood by the partnership in public. Saudi Arabia knows it owes the U.S. administration some loyalty. Without this steadfast position by the U.S., Saudi would effectively been a pariah following the Jamal murder. Nevertheless, Saudi was a tough partner these past few weeks leading up to the OPEC+ and G-20 meetings a week ago. President Trump burned some goodwill with Saudi to get OPEC to a deal. We will have to rebuild that goodwill with them, and we will, whether this administration or another.
Meanwhile, the U.S. position toward Saudi has unintentionally evolved into a good cop/bad cop strategy. The White House had been tough behind closed doors, as I mentioned, but supportive in public, while Congress has been tough in public, but the majority has supported the president’s prioritization of the long-term relationship with Saudi behind closed doors. The threats from Congress to punish Saudi in the past two years have been real, as was the recent threat to ask the president to withdraw troops from their posts protecting the Gulf.
Prior to the Saudi-Russia oil price war, Republicans in the Senate prevented the passage of legislation intended to punish Saudi, drafted by Democrats concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Now that the shale oil sector in Republican stronghold stakes is threatened by rock-bottom oil prices, if Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to teach Saudi a lesson, then that legislation would fly through Congress. If Congress passed a bill to withdraw troops or take other action to punish Saudi, the next litmus test would occur when it hit the president’s desk. Would he sign? Saudi believes that the president would be unlikely to sign because he would have problems with part of his base if he signed legislation that effectively raises oil prices, since Saudi would undoubtedly try to kill the U.S. oil shale sector in return.
If the virus were still in swing at the time of signing, the president would have a lot more leeway, because energy prices aren’t a critical issue for the base while nobody is driving, and factories aren’t operating. This means the president is in a good position to apply pressure to Saudi to cut production, raise oil prices enough to protect the U.S. shale industry, without risking votes from his devotees. The 9.7 million barrel cut per day agreed to by OPEC last week will not be enough. Other oil producing nations, like Mexico and Iraq, are in more dire economic straits as a result of the low oil prices.
They’re bitter that Saudi started this war by itself, but is not taking an appropriate proportional production cut. (Try saying that ten times fast.) So we could see more pressure on Saudi to cut production further. The administration here could offer to champion this cause, say, in exchange for immediate steps by Iraq to implement World Bank reform programs for its gas sector. Frankly, this would be in Saudi’s interest too; it would reduce Iraq’s dependence on Iranian gas. So it would really be a win for everyone.
Were that to happen – I’m going to throw this out just to be inflammatory – you might find Mohammad Bin Salman offering to make additional production cuts in the run-up to U.S. elections in return for the favor of friendship to U.S. President Trump. I, for one, won’t be surprised if the promise of such cuts comes with a hint that MBS will appreciate the president’s backing when he ascends to the throne with his father’s blessing, perhaps as early as May. I’m watching Laylat al-Qadr.
For the purpose of putting the U.S.-Saudi relationship in perspective, let’s finish with a really quick look at the Saudi oil price war in context, and then touch on China. The price war was about more than just dollars per barrel, right? This was a game of chicken to establish a power balance for what both autocrats in Saudi and Russia see as the next 40 years of their country’s relations. They’re involved in partnerships and deals across multiple sectors internationally. They believe they need each other, but they don’t believe they can trust each other. As strange as it may seem in our U.S.-centered view of political theater, this is one show where the U.S. is just a subplot.
We should expect COVID-19 to result in a contraction of Saudi’s 2030 growth this year, since capital in the country will be less available. Saudi will therefore be increasingly courted by China. And Saudi is undoubtedly enjoying watching the discord between China and Russia right now that is based on accusations of virus misinformation. In February, King Salman signed six contracts with international companies to send medical supplies to China to help them fight the virus. On April 15th, a team of experts arrived from China with the aim of cooperating and exchanging expertise and information with medical authorities in the kingdom. China is engaging in a soft power surge across the Gulf – really, across the world – with the coronavirus as the impetus. This includes deploying ministers to Gulf countries carrying a message to their counterparts that the virus is a bioweapon released by the U.S. military into China.
Now, this sound ludicrous to us, but this disinformation has gained traction. This is compounded by Chinese propaganda that frames China as having expertly defeated the virus while the U.S. is wallowing in chaos and death. The result of this Chinese disinformation campaign is that our partners are questioning whether the U.S. can be a reliable and capable partner if we can’t even keep our own house in order. Legislation that is being drafted now to contend with Chinese competition around the world should include measures to address the extensive Chinese soft power machine, or China will frame all of our engagements around the world in their interest.
Let’s do a few comments here on perceptions about the U.S. declining commitment in the region, since Mona and Roger mentioned this. I’ll provide a slightly different view, just for the purposes of this discussion. A recent series of administration decisions to disengage, or just not engage at all, like Libya, have caused the region to question U.S. commitment to the relationship, understandably. But the decisions leading to this assumption are all rooted in an avoidance of armed conflict, which is a phenomenon, frankly, we haven’t seen in U.S. foreign policy for some time.
Aside from this avoidance of armed conflict, there are indicators to point to continued U.S. commitment in the region. We just need to keep looking for them – things like training and capacity missions that continue quietly around the region, efforts toward interoperability, the CT and information-sharing piece that we don’t want to be the center of our relationship, but are still critical, and places where the relationship is super strong. Trade and investment continues, support for reform by the U.S. for those initiated in the region in good governance, law enforcement, justice, finance. Another tangible sign is that the U.S. continues to advocate for a Middle East strategic alliance. The National Security Council continues to conduct policy meetings on MESA, with the interagency and coordination meetings on MESA with regional partners still happening.
The push to establish this architecture, that was intended to have economic, security, and energy components, is a strong indication of the U.S. intent to remain engaged and strengthen this engagement. Yes, part of the intent is to make the region more capable and to make it a more interoperable partner with the U.S., and to make it more self-dependent, so that the U.S. can withdraw some of the resources and troop footprint on the ground. But it is not a disengagement from the region in terms of partnership or in terms of intent to be fully engaged on security issues, economic issues, energy issues – the whole gamut. Interestingly, the obstacles to MESA’s formulation are disagreements among regional countries themselves and not U.S. commitment to it. So the region needs to ask itself how much it is engaged to keeping America as a partner.
If we look at the ongoing U.S. commitment to the region, we do have to question the return on investment from years, lives and funds the U.S. has invested in the region, as Mona touched on. We’ve done this without achieving our objectives of increased stability, increased partner capacity to ensure their own security, and sustained U.S. influence. This should give us pause. How can and should we change our approach? Addressing this question will require deep dives and very technical answers on the macro level. I’ll just recommend a few quickly.
One is that the U.S., Europe, Asian partners, Middle East proactively draft coordinated strategies for engagement in countries in turmoil and transition – like Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia. Follow this with implementation plans that are as specific as possible. This could prevent these transitioning countries from continuing to be vivisected by the competing interests of external actors. It will also encourage greater U.S. involvement, because the U.S. will see this as burden sharing.
I also recommend devising ways in which Europe, the Arab world, Japan, South Korea, India, and perhaps others, and the U.S., can collaborate more proactively to counter the influence of Russia, the IRGC, and China in the region. If the international community is not OK with China monopolizing the world’s mineral resources and bribing developing country leaders into leveraging their country’s future, and if we’re not OK with Russia using paramilitary groups to control oil resources in weaker countries that are in conflict, or selling weapons to anyone who will buy them with no restrictions on usage, and if we’re not OK with the IRGC using violence against regional neighbors and fragile governments to prevent regional stability, then tangible efforts should be taken to push back on the negative engagement of each.
This could take many forms. I’ll throw out some, just to start the conversation; this is not exhaustive in any way. To mitigate the troubling side of China in the region, we could consider agreement to lift development assistance in certain sectors from governments that grant mining concessions to China without transparent competition. And I throw out mining just as one sector example. To mitigate the destabilizing side of Iran in Iraq we could consider unified pressure on Iran to support a repurposing of the Hashd militias and unified encouragement of foreign direct investment to rebuild Iraq’s electricity infrastructure or gas sector. We should be asking Iran right now, while the U.S. is mobilizing its military, and countries in the Gulf, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are using civil defense programs to combat the virus, why they are not thinking of repurposing these militias right now for virus response.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, President and Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council; Former U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
I would like to put my remarks this morning in the context of someone who’s been dealing with the Middle East for more than 40 years, since I first went to live and work in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s, and took up my first diplomatic assignment in the region, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in the mid-1980s. In those years, the Middle East was still a relatively unknown and somewhat exotic region for most Americans. In the U.S., people were generally aware of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973, and they had experienced the oil embargo of 1973 and the rapid rise of oil prices that followed. And there was, of course, also the Iran hostage crisis from late 1979 to early 1981. But the longer term and broader modern history of the region were subjects known and understood by very few in the U.S. and the West in general.
That has changed fundamentally in the intervening decades. As developments in the region have impacted the U.S., and the West, and, following the end of the Cold War, as the region became the most important area of U.S. security concern and engagement. In my experience over the past four decades, two issues have stood out as those that have most influenced the views and attitudes of those in the region toward the U.S., and which have been atop U.S. interests and concerns in the region: first, the continuing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians; and, second, the emergence and growing importance of the Gulf States. I would like to share my views on these two key issues, and then conclude my remarks with some observations on perceptions in the region of U.S. policies in the Middle East, and on the U.S. approach to the region and U.S. foreign policy in general.
Concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, as someone who, like many Americans, has always wished Israel well, I had anticipated a course of developments that over time would have led to an equitable and mutually acceptable resolution of this conflict. Recognizing Israel’s need for sustainable and guaranteed security in what has largely been a hostile regional environment, I supported efforts – generally U.S.-led – to address Israel’s security needs in the context of Israel’s continued commitment to the “land for peace” approach outlined in UN Resolution 242. The U.S. has provided considerable security assistance to Israel, and has even publicly adopted a policy of ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) to guarantee that Israel has the ability and support necessary to address any security threats it may face. As I see it, that is the situation that Israel finds itself in today. With such a guarantee Israel could, I believe, enter into a mutually acceptable peace agreement with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.
What I, and I believe many Americans, did not expect was that an increasingly secure and confident Israel, rather than seek reasonable and acceptable compromises to resolve the conflict, would instead make more and more demands of the Palestinians. In the intervening years, what was once an Israel that served as a Jewish homeland, a status and a concept that enjoyed widespread support in the U.S. and in the international community, has come to be referred to as a Jewish state, with the potential for discriminatory treatment of some Israeli citizens, and thus for undermining Israel as a democratic state.
As for the U.S., what had been a broadly bipartisan foreign policy of support for Israel has in recent years been deliberately turned into a partisan issue, both by leaders in Israel and leaders in the U.S. And what had been unquestioned U.S. principles, including respect for the rule of law and support for human rights, have, as regards to Israel, been abandoned in exchange for seeking maximum domestic political advantage from the issue of support for Israel. As a result, U.S. has forfeited its longstanding role as an honest broker in efforts to resolve the conflict.
In the current environment, one in which Israel very likely could achieve every essential element of its security and other policy goals through good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians, and do so with the support of the Arab states, its current leadership, with the support of the current U.S. administration, pursues maximalist demands, thus keeping the conflict festering while increasingly seeing Israel’s reputation and its support in the global community decline.
Let me turn next to a region in which I spent a great deal of my diplomatic career, the Gulf. When I first went to live in the region in the late 1970s, the states of the Gulf were in the early stages of the rapid transformation that their societies would undergo as a result of vast oil and gas revenues. They were still largely undeveloped, had relatively small populations, and had limited foreign policy influence. Since that time, the Gulf States have all modernized, and all have experienced large population increases, with large youth cohorts. They have all enjoyed remarkable stability for states undergoing such rapid development and societal change. And their wealth has given them considerable regional clout and, in some cases, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, even global influence. All have become important international partners of the U.S.
Economically, these states have had to weather several steep ups and downs in the international energy markets. One result of both the demographic and the economic trends that have affected these states has been a steadily increasing commitment to state spending, which has led to an urgent need for these states to achieve fundamental economic changes that each is now committed to. The Gulf States are all working to diversify their economies and lessen their reliance on energy revenues, and they are seeking to develop more robust, competitive private sectors and move away from state-owned enterprises and governments being the employers of last resort. For maintaining their economic success, they are also committed to improving their educational systems in order to better prepare their youth for the jobs that exist in their economies.
One major geopolitical change, and challenge, that has affected these states in recent decades has been the rise of extremism and sectarianism in the region. The initial trigger for this development was the Iranian revolution of 1979, which installed the first government to rule by a new governing concept – Islamic clerical rule, or wilayat al-faqih. Shia Iran’s declared intention to export its revolution to the Sunni Arab world, together with other regional developments at the time – including a bloody siege later in 1979 by Sunni fanatics at the Great Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 that led to the creation of a jihadist movement to counter that invasion – resulted in what has now been several decades of regional tension, including heightened Sunni-Shia competition and conflict.
Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world, sought to counter Iran’s attempt at Islamic religious hegemony by exporting its own fundamentalist version of Islam, Salafism or Wahhabism. This effort led to increased religious conservatism and intolerance in Muslim communities in the Middle East, South Asia, and beyond. Recent changes by the Saudi leadership have, however, provided welcome signs that the kingdom recognizes that its previous effort to adopt a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine at home, and to export that doctrine abroad, was misguided. The loosening of social strictures within the kingdom, and the appointment of a more moderate clerical circle to oversee the kingdom’s promotion of Islam abroad, are welcome developments that should help break the cycle of religious extremism and intolerance in the region and beyond.
Let me now turn to my final topics, perceptions in the region of the U.S. and of U.S. foreign policy there, and the goals and conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the region, as seen from my three decades as a diplomat there. The first point I would make is that those in the region tend to ascribe to the U.S. greater influence and power than is, in fact, the case. This belief, that the U.S. largely directs and determines developments in the region – while false – breeds disillusionment, even anger among Arab publics, and undermines U.S. efforts in the region.
Second, Arab publics tend to ascribe to the U.S. greater policy acumen, that is greater policy planning and prowess, than is actually the case. Thus, few in the region accept at face value the many U.S. missteps in the region, including the poster child of U.S. policy ineptness, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. As a result, many in the region view the numerous detrimental impacts of U.S. actions there as having been intended.
Third, the overestimation of U.S. influence and prowess leads to a common phenomenon affecting regional views towards the U.S. role there: the proliferation of conspiracy theories concerning U.S. policies and actions. To cite one example, when I was a diplomat in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s, when U.S. sanctions on Iraq were causing widespread suffering there, many Saudis with whom I engaged – aware that the U.S. could have removed Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War – believed that Saddam was an agent of the U.S., kept in place as part of a policy to keep Iraq ostracized and in a state of weakness.
A fourth element affecting the attitudes of Arab publics towards the U.S. role in the region is disillusionment that, in their view, the U.S. does not live up to its values in its policies towards the region. That is, Arab publics are aware of, and broadly admire, the principles that the U.S. embodies and espouses – such as individual freedom, rule of law, human rights, etc. But those in the region do not see the U.S. holding their governments to such principles.
In fact, as with every country in the world, the U.S. does pursue its foreign policy interests in a realistic, not in an idealistic, manner. Thus, we seek to have good relations with partners around the globe who share our commitment to a stable, peaceful international order, to the free flow of international commerce, and to market-based economic principles. Many of the governments with which we work in pursuit of these goals do not share the principles and values that guide U.S. society, but to help safeguard international peace, stability, and prosperity, the U.S. cooperates with such governments.
That said, the U.S. has sought to encourage its international partners to aspire to the Enlightenment principles that guide the U.S. and other Western nations. The U.S. approach, however, has not been to force such principles on its partners, but rather to assist them in developing governmental and societal infrastructures that would enable them to move towards adopting these principles. In the Middle East, that has included encouraging the growth of civil society, supporting institutions of accountable governance, and assisting in the development of legal and regulatory institutions to enhance economic transparency. The U.S. has also made it clear that there are red lines in terms of the behavior of our international partners that they dare not cross if they wish to remain in U.S. favor.
Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration has largely abandoned the long-established principles and the behavioral red lines that have defined U.S. international engagement in the past. Moreover, the U.S. is today no longer following the policy of enlightened self-interest that has guided U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Previous U.S. administrations understood that the U.S., as the world’s wealthiest country, was the greatest beneficiary of a world order based on international peace and stability, market-based economic principles, and the rule of law, and thus that the U.S. should expect to play a leading role in maintaining and defending such a global system. That, unfortunately, is not currently the case, and that is to the detriment not only of the U.S. and U.S. interests, but to the international order more broadly, and especially to the now largely abandoned, and increasingly disillusioned, Arab publics.
MR. MATTAIR: Roger mentioned that Russia fills vacuums that the United States leaves in the region. Kirsten spoke a lot about Russian behavior in the region as well. Could we start with a survey of the strengths and weaknesses that the U.S. has with its various partners in the region, compared to the strengths and weaknesses that Russia has with its partners, and where we stand in comparative terms? And whether Russia’s advances in the region should be a significant motive for a new American policy. And those questions are for everyone. I hope there will be a dialogue among you.
MR. COHEN: Well, Tom, on the subject of red lines, which Richard brought up, to be fair to President Trump I think that President Obama’s abandonment of the red line on Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, abandonment at the last, was very damaging to American credibility in the region. It’s really right after that that you see President Putin concluding, OK, the U.S. talks a good line but it’s not going to do anything. So he moves in, and effectively dictated the end game in Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s regime was bolstered, a number of terrible things happened, and that’s the situation Syria finds itself in today. As Mona said, the spread of the virus has just suspended for now what was going on in Idlib and elsewhere.
How concerned should we be about it? I think it’s very clear by now that President Putin wishes the United States ill, and wants to do his best to divide and break the European Union. So I think any advance of Russian power/interest has to be worrying in some degree to the United States. I also think that the end game we allowed to happen in Syria is a bad one. It’s a wound, post-virus, that will go on festering. There was a great misjudgment of how far the disaster in Syria could have an influence far-afield. For example, would Britain have left the European Union without the arrival of a million-plus Syrian refugees onto the continent? So, I think, yes, it has to be a cause of ongoing American concern.
MS. YACOUBIAN: I’d love to sort of pick up exactly where Roger left off in terms of understanding Russia’s engagement in Syria. I would agree very much with his analysis, and would maybe take it a step further. I think if we’re trying to understand great-power competition, and this idea, I think, in the National Defense Strategy that we need to, quote, “pivot to great-power competition,” as though we can think about it and then forget about the Middle East, I think we’re gravely mistaken. I think one of the most active arenas of great power competition is Syria.
I would agree, I think Russia very much has the upper hand in Syria. It began with Russia’s military intervention in the fall of 2015, which I would argue was a key turning point in the civil war. Prior to Russia’s intervention, the Assad regime was potentially on the verge of collapse. Russia’s intervention essentially turned the tide of the war. But I would take it a step further and say that today, as we look at Russia and its involvement in Syria, Russia views its position in Syria as important but also as a very important launch pad or place from which to project power more broadly in the region, in places like Libya and in the Gulf.
Russia also, I think – and I know this from conversations with Russians – seems to think of Syria as the test case for what they call the “post-West world.” I think that’s something we need to think about in terms of the international order, and the U.S. role in the international order, and where things are headed. Russia has played what would arguably be a weak hand in Syria quite well, and has postured itself, I think, to perhaps dictate the terms of the end game in Syria; and, more importantly I think, to use its position in Syria to project and to try and cultivate, for example, ties with the Gulf.
Now, I think the Syria we will see will be a very fractured, violent Syria. I don’t see stability in Syria for a generation or generations to come. But I do think we need to understand better “lessons learned” from Russia’s engagement in Syria, and how it has managed to thus far exploit its posture in Syria for influence, not only on the ground in Syria but even beyond to other parts of the region.
MS. FONTENROSE: I couldn’t agree more. I think, you know, a close relationship with Russia is tantalizing on the surface, but if the populations of the region kind of game out what their leaders courting these relationships mean for them in a longer term, then it’s much less tempting. Two examples are just, Russia’s a cheaper partner for all of these leaders to work with in terms of acquisition of military equipment and the like. But on the flipside, they will sell to anyone. You could wind up acquiring an expensive system that Russia then sells the defense mechanism for to your adversary. So, you’ve dumped money and gotten nowhere in terms of competitive advantage.
I think Russia’s experience in Syria is partially intended to send the message, as Mona mentioned, that they will stick by their dictators. And it’s meant to then provide a model for what they can do for you elsewhere. If you’re the populations in the region, that doesn’t work out well because Russia will not come in after your country has been destroyed and rebuild it. They will not pay for reconstruction. It is in their interest to keep these countries weak, somewhat destabilized, and to keep their governments dependent on Russia, and corrupt, frankly, and open to their influence. Their interest is, much like China, in gaining influence and in gaining energy concessions and natural resources concessions. So there’s not a whole lot in it for the goodwill of the populations of any of these countries.
MS. YACOUBIAN: If I could add just one more point to this, I think we should also think about the ways in which Russia has managed to use its position in Syria to provoke tensions within NATO by cultivating a relationship with Turkish President Erdogan precisely over Syria, and developing, frankly, more of a working relationship with Turkey on how to manage issues in Syria, and selling the S-400 air defense systems to Syria, and really, frankly, putting a wedge in NATO that I think ultimately serves Russian purposes, again, well beyond the Middle East.
MR. SCHMIERER: Tom, let me just add a bit of a different aspect to that, speaking a little bit more about my comment about American influence. From my time there, and in continuing to visit the Gulf States regularly, I think the concept of soft power is an important one to remember. It’s true that I lament, as a former diplomat, the current situation where our diplomatic efforts in the region are not as I think they should be. But, fundamentally, the people of the region do recognize the difference between the United States and the West in general as societies and countries to emulate, and countries like China and Russia, which maybe, in the short term, there might be pragmatic reasons to look to to address particularly short-term issues, but I don’t think there’s any sense of a long-term interest in becoming countries like China or Russia.
Also, there’s the fact that, even if the U.S. is kind of unilaterally standing down from the kinds of efforts it had been making to try to move these countries of the region, particularly of the Gulf, towards more open societies, more like those in the West, the fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens, young people, from these countries have now lived and studied for years in the U.S. will have a long-term impact on the thinking of those societies. So I think in the short term it’s discouraging, where we are in my view right now, in terms of the way we’re prioritizing our engagements with these countries. But in the long term, I think America does remain a country which people see in a positive light, and ultimately do still aspire to emulate. So I think there is the possibility – the likelihood – that we will at some point change course and get back to the kind of engagement that had been more typical of our engagement in the region over the last several decades.
MR. COHEN: I would just add to that, Tom, if I may, that I don’t think there’s any country in the region where the desire for that emulation of the West, and particularly the United States, to judge from my visits to the region, various visits, is as strong as in Iran. Here in the United States the Iranian diaspora, along with the Indian, is probably the most successful single diaspora. There are many contacts. The rub of it, the cruel question, and I think there’s a lot of disagreement on this, is how do you work with that desire for emulation? How do you most effectively engage with that in order to produce what I think we all want ultimately, which is a different Iran? And I sense that even within this panel there are very differing views on how that should be achieved.
MR. MATTAIR: It does lead us to several other questions. Mona spoke about the lessons to be learned from Syria. I wonder what they are, and if they could be applied in Libya, for example? That’s one set of questions. Another would be how can we think about – and Kirsten was talking about this – all of the calculations that Saudi Arabia was making when it was negotiating with Russia and attempting to increase oil production and drive the price down in order to get market share, and then responding to American overtures to decrease production so that the price can be more moderate. Is there a way that the United States can join with Saudi Arabia on oil issues, as a way of containing Russia? That’s a second set of questions. And then the third set of questions would come back to what Roger was saying about Iran. But maybe we can hold them for just a minute.
MS. YACOUBIAN: A couple of thoughts on Syria. One is, when we think about Syria there was mention of the Obama administration, Obama’s decision not to enforce the red line. What was really interesting to me is to actually understand how Libya, in the early days of the Syria conflict, had an enormous impact on all of the key protagonists in that conflict. It certainly influenced President Obama’s decision making not to engage in Syria when he saw, in his view, that we, quote, “did everything right,” as he said in an interview, “on Libya, and look where it turned out.”
It influenced Russia for sure in terms of the Russians acquiescing to, or certainly abstaining from, the U.N. Security Council vote that allowed for the no-fly zone to be established in Libya. The Russians, I think, took the lesson from that: never again will we join in some international effort, or allow for an international effort, such as what took place in Libya in the early days. Bashar al-Assad certainly took a big lesson away from Libya in terms of what happened to Mo’ammar Gadhafi. And I think it just deepened what were already existential concerns on his part of where the protests could go. It also, I think, impacted the Syrian opposition and gave them false hope that, in a similar way, the U.S. and others would come to their side in their battle with the Assad regime.
Going forward, I think the key lessons learned are: One, I think what we’ve seen in Syria is the extent to which it evolved from basically peaceful protests to a civil war to now a complex, multilayered conflict that includes a number of regional players and even, as I’ve noted earlier, great power competition. The more external involvement there is in a conflict, the more protracted it becomes, the more difficult it becomes to resolve. And I think we’re seeing that in Libya as well.
The second point, which Roger alluded to and which I think we’ve seen very clearly in Syria, is how difficult it is to insulate conflicts from the region, and even from the rest of the world. We’ve seen it. I would agree that I think that Brexit may, in part, have some of its roots in the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015. This idea that what happens in Syria stays in Syria, we know that is absolutely not the case. And I think in Libya as well, particularly given its proximity to Europe.
Finally, I think we just need to be thinking much more about the impact of the transgression of international norms, which certainly happened in Syria with the almost conventional use of chemical weapons, and the ways in which the laws of armed conflict have essentially be flouted, certainly by the Assad regime and by Russia and by other actors on the ground. I would argue that has enormous impact, again, on the ways in which the world addresses conflict. I think we will see that in Libya. So from my perspective, I don’t think the prognosis is very good for Libya, because many of the elements that I’ve raised on Syria are also present there.
MR. COHEN: I would just add that I think it’s important to remember that the Syrian uprising began as part of the Arab Spring. That this desire – as Richard was saying, as we’ve all said, I think – for more open, more accountable, more transparent, less nepotistic societies in which individual agency becomes a reality rather than an aspiration, that desire – what we saw in Algiers, and I saw in Beirut, Baghdad – is still there, very much there. And if the Arab Spring collapsed largely, outside Tunisia – and I think that was a huge disappointment to many of us – I think what we allowed to happen in the end in Syria was a significant contributing factor to that particular death.
The other, of course, was the massive amount of funding out of Gulf that Saudi Arabia and others put into ensuring the collapse of the Morsi government in Egypt, and essentially shoring up authoritarian systems across the region. I would say that the Obama administration’s policy during that period was not very clearly defined, and faltering. So I think that is one of the important side effects, if you like, of the Syrian disaster.
MR. MATTAIR: Kirsten, could you comment? And the second set of questions I was asking had to do with how we might engineer or reengineer our relationship with Saudi Arabia to contain Russia, and to deescalate with Iran. In fact, I’ve read an article that you’ve written about the role of the GCC in de-escalating the conflict with Iran, which would be to the advantage of the United States. But I don’t think you went into that today. So maybe this would be a good time.
MS. FONTENROSE: Sure. To the first part of it, there has been discussion at the Department of Energy about forming some sort of alternative to OPEC that would reduce Russia’s power in the global oil discussions. But, you know, how realistic is it to really reduce that power when Russia’s a significant player on the supply side? I think for now, since OPEC has reached a deal, that conversation is put on the shelf. It will still reemerge, but it’s been put on the shelf, much like conversations about NOPEC have been put on the shelf. Just that there were kind of some backroom deals made to get us to the production cuts that we just saw.
You know, for de-escalation with Iran, one of the things I think is possible, because I don’t think that we will see sanctions relief for humanitarian reasons, I don’t think we will see sanctions relief for hostages. There’s a shot at that, just because our national security advisor cares so much about that issue, but in general I don’t see the administration pulling sanctions off right now when they truly believe that they’re working, and that any breath would prevent Iran from having to come to the table prior to the elections.
So if we’re looking for de-escalation, just to bring us back from the brink of war, now, before elections, after elections, whenever, and kind of giving us a little bit of space to get creative, I think what we should ask for is for the GCC to speak with Iran about a very limited nonaggression pact. So something fairly simple that involves air and sea lanes, particularly right now where we’re watching Iran this week become more aggressive in sea space. So this limited nonaggression pact would simply say: You don’t both us, we don’t both you. And it’s just GCC, and it’s just Iran. And frankly, it’s something they’re already talking about.
This is already happening. UAE is having backchannels. There’re rumors of Saudi having backchannels. It’s in their interests to do this, but it’s not in the interest of the U.S. to be outside of that conversation, because what that leaves us with is a situation where the Gulf secures its own safety in terms of Iranian aggression, but it’s still asking us to leave our troops and our expensive equipment in the Gulf to assist them with protecting themselves, while we are still a valid target as far as the Iranian regime is concerned.
So why should we not also benefit from the fact that this little piece of de-escalation could happen between the GCC and Iran? Not the GCC as a unit, although I do think that’s how a larger pact should be approached. If the U.S. is made a part of this discussion, and told by the GCC and Iran, we have arranged a pact of nonaggression, then the U.S. president can say: This is fantastic. We really respect the step you all have taken. We’re so glad that now the U.S. does not have to expend the resources and the troops in the region to make sure that we are guarding against another attack on Abqaiq, for instance. And it allows the president to bring home kind of a symbolic level of troops from the Gulf in an election year, when he has vowed as a campaign promise to bring troops home. So it’s something that the administration should be supportive of as well.
That then triggers what could be a series of ramped up negotiations. You know, the reason the Macron plan didn’t work wasn’t because it wasn’t a good plan, it wasn’t because Iran and the U.S. both didn’t think there was merit to it. It’s because neither wanted to take the first step. Neither wanted to lose face. So if we ask the GCC to be the one to take that step: we have arranged this nonaggression pact; we have taken a step in making ourselves more secure; we have reduced the readiness burden on the U.S. Then the U.S. can react and say: We’re grateful to you. We think it’s a great sign from Iran. It allows me to fulfill a campaign promise. Let’s talk about what comes next. So I will therefore bring troops home. Iran says, great. We’re happy to see this small amount of troops leaving the Gulf. It looks like people are listening to us. Then you kind of ramp up what the discussions start there. It doesn’t get us to a solution. It’s not a replacement for the JCPOA. It just brings us back from the brink of war, and it’s something that is very tangibly achievable in a fairly near term.
MR. MATTAIR: And I think you suggested that it might even lead Iran to stop some arms transfers to some proxies.
MS. FONTENROSE: Yes, I think that would – exactly – be the next tier of requests. Great. So then the president withdraws some troops. So then it’s Iran’s turn. And they say, OK, we’ll stop transferring arms to the Houthis. Or we will constrain the militias in Iraq through government formation and the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Dialogue scheduled for June. You know, very, very specific, kind of smart objectives, measurable and achievable, and all of that. Baby steps. But with each baby step, even the discussion of a baby step, it means we’re not escalating. And that’s really the goal here.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, that might be a hopeful path for Yemen.
MR. COHEN: I think that’s a very interesting scenario, Kirsten, and maybe, as you said, there is a little progress that could be made there that would indeed deescalate and be helpful. I don’t understand the Trump administration policy toward Iran. It’s a policy of outright hostility – really, ramped up hostility. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, others – if you’re sitting in Iran, you have to pretty much conclude that the aim of the policy is to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, and the system of wilayat al-faqih, and install some new form of government in Iran. I think we’d all like that.
The question, again, if we know one thing about the Islamic Republic after 40-plus year, it’s resilient. It’s resilient! It’s prudent! It’s not crazy! They are not crazy. They are intensely pragmatic, and they have their eyes on the bouncing ball. And the bouncing ball is survival. So, I’m sorry, when I hear this talk of sanctions, sanctions, sanctions – sanctions are what? When you’re in Tehran, you can get what the heck you like. You can get the latest Apple products. You can eat whatever you want. You know, there aren’t any shortages.
Why? Because Iran’s been trading in the area for millennia. They’ve got networks set up in Dubai and elsewhere. You are not going to bring this very proud society to its knees through sanctions. It is just not going to work. If you look at it from Iran’s standpoint, what do you conclude from the United States tearing up the Iran nuclear deal which, as I said, was, yes, imperfect? What do you conclude from this attempt to ratchet up sanctions? What do you conclude from the killing of Qassem Soleimani? Well, you conclude that this is a very, very hostile American administration, and you act accordingly. You respond.
I think what we lost was a bridge. You know, OK, the nuclear deal was never meant to deal with anything more than the nuclear question, and it got us to the middle of the forthcoming decade. It did not resolve Iran’s aggressive actions in the region, the development of missile technology, and all the rest. But it was a bridge. Secretary of State Kerry, Foreign Minister Zarif, they were talking pretty much every day.
A logical step for the Trump administration might be would have been to say: You know, OK, this deal, we don’t particularly like it. There are a lot of ongoing problems. We now need to address them. We’re going to build out from this unsatisfying deal, compromise, and try to address other issues that are of concern to our allies in the region, instead of which the whole thing was torn up.
Kirsten, you talked a lot about Iran’s actions in the region. If you are sitting in Tehran, and you see what the Trump administration has done, beginning with tearing up a deal that, according to the IAEA and everybody else, Iran was upholding, what do you conclude? And I think that, unfortunately, is where we are.
MS. FONTENROSE: I think, honestly, that question should be asked of our partners in the Gulf and in Israel, because as we all know they were super influential in formulating the administration’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA, their argument being that proxies and ballistic missiles were even more of a near-term threat to them, and really begging for the president’s help there.
I will say that I think the world does give Iran a little too much credit. We buy a little too much into their victimization narrative. If France were to sanction the U.K. for something and the U.K. responded by using violence, the world would not think that was an acceptable response. So, why we’re accepting it from Iran is a little bit of a question. The pragmatism in the regime that you point to I completely agree with, and I think that is exactly why the original strategy was to force a guns-or-butter decision.
There was an understanding, that wound up not being true, that the regime – if it had to pick between funding external programs, like the proxies, or ballistic missiles, or military nuclearization; or meeting the needs of its people – they would choose their people. We were wrong about that. They have not chosen their people, and we’ve seen that bear out over the years. So the administration is completely convinced that sanctions are working, because they have seen things like funding for Hezbollah drop; we’ve seen chatter among Hezbollah operatives that they aren’t receiving payments. We saw them draw down from some of their locations in Syria. But we have not seen the holistic kind of turn toward meeting domestic needs, and fear of domestic repercussions, that the administration in 2017 thought they would see.
COVID-19 has both assisted that, by taking protesters off the streets, and made that even tougher for the regime, by applying a new grievance to the public message. You know, when sanctions are met with violence there is a bigger question to ask. I’m not saying that just as someone who sat in some of these meetings in the administration, because I wasn’t there when the strategy was drafted. I was just there when I, surprisingly, saw John Bolton agree with the use of economic warfare instead of kinetics, and the continuation of the economic sanction-based policy, instead of asking for regime change. I really never heard mention of regime change while I was at the White House. It really was about creating behavior change, and that behavior change was supposed to be forcing them to focus internally. Then, if they didn’t, hoping that the population would demand that they focus internally, creating some sort of public pressure on them to switch their decision-making.
We just haven’t seen it. In fact, now I’m more convinced that what we would see if that did happen is the regime would probably call in Hezbollah like they did during the Green Movement to suppress their people. So we shouldn’t be assuming that sanctions are going to bring down this regime. The problem is we don’t have a lot of tools. We have sanctions, and we have kinetics, and there really isn’t much in the middle. I think a lot of work could be done by others to look at what are additional toolsets that the U.S. or any government could apply to create leverage on the decision-makers themselves, with less impact on the general populations. Right now we don’t have those. So, if we criticize the government – the U.S. administration, or any administration that signs onto sanctions for choosing that as their weapon of choice – we have to think about what their other options are, and whether they would be better or worse.
I see your point; we should have engaged Iran in a conversation about their expanded activities at the time. Since that didn’t happen, we need to ask the Gulf and Israel: Why didn’t you advocate for that? Why did you advocate for this president, who you know was not familiar, at all, with the political realities of the region, to wholly pull out from the JCPOA? Was it just because you, the Gulf, were angry that you weren’t involved in the discussions about it? Or did you really think that expanding the discussion to include ballistic missile programs and proxy activities would not lead to the kinds of solutions that you all needed to feel secure? I haven’t heard any of those answers from the Gulf, or from Israel, and I would really be interested in them.
MR. COHEN: Could I just say that, you posit as the two options, kinetic or sanctions. I think the third option is just what the Obama administration was attempting to do, which was, as I understood it, beginning with the nuclear deal, it was a slow, step-by-step attempt to break the psychosis. This is the most psychotic relationship that the United States has with any country in the world, and it’s been going on for 41 years now. As anyone who’s had therapy knows, breaking through a psychosis is not easy. It’s not like you wave a wand or click your fingers. There has to be a gradual rebuilding of trust. There has to be the dispelling of various images that we on this side, they on their side, have. So I would suggest that there was a third option, and it was very deliberately abandoned.
I take your point about violence. I certainly take it. Of course, the Iranians will say, well, what about Mosaddeq? What about Iran Air (whatever the number was)? What about the United States going to war right there, in our neighborhood, right next door to us, like they go to war in Mexico, or whatever? You know, how would you feel? How would you respond?
Yes, the Saudis, Israelis, Emiratis and others – it’s been very interesting to me. I was in Saudi maybe 18 months ago. Every official I saw: “Iran is the Third Reich.” “They’re Hitler.” “They’re worse than Hitler.” There wasn’t a single official I saw who didn’t use that analogy. They’ve gone awfully quiet on that, right? They’ve gone very quiet, as soon as they were hit, very, very quiet. That’s the Saudis. They always talk. I think that’s the way Kushner was taking it. They talk a big line, but what are they actually going to do? They’re worried. They know they’re fragile. So they just went very, very quiet on that. Of course, yes, they were telling the president, “tear it up.” “Get out of it.” They were very happy to fight Iran down to the last American.
MR. MATTAIR: It hasn’t gone well, but there are some backchannels; there is some recognition that the situation is dire, the possibility of escalation is there. There have been some backchannels. Kirsten’s ideas about enlisting them to increase these talks and try to aim for a non-aggression pact, I think that’s something that ought to be explored. Then you’ve got to add onto it by trying to get back to the nuclear talks and trying to expand it out into all these other areas, because otherwise you have a potential for war.
We could spend an hour talking about that, but I suppose unless someone has another comment I’d like to move to two other areas that were raised today. One of them, in general, is basically how does the United States balance all the kinds of geopolitical questions we’ve been talking about for the last 30 minutes with the promotion of its own ideals in the region? We’ve often sacrifice them, clearly, and that has led some of the countries in the region to cross over lines that should have been red. So is there a new American policy for the region that involves development assistance, and investment, and encouragement of domestic reform, without jeopardizing all the geopolitical issues that we have at stake there?
MS. YACOUBIAN: Can I jump in on this? Because, actually, in a way your question leads – I was going to jump in on the previous conversation – I think the missing element in the back and forth between Kirsten and Roger was diplomacy and leadership by the U.S. I don’t want to go back into the whole Gulf tensions, U.S.-Iran, although I would say – to me it’s striking – typically my thinking of the U.S. is that we should be above the fray on these regional conflicts; that what was a Saudi-Iranian conflict should be mediated by the U.S. through diplomacy and with leadership.
I was very intrigued by Kirsten’s ideas of a non-aggression pact. I think it’s fascinating. I hope that this is something the U.S. will take up, and rather than being presented with it and have to save face, that the U.S. step up into a leadership role precisely because we are on the verge, potentially, of a very destabilizing war. And actually start thinking about things like a regional security architecture, which I know has been discussed many times for the Middle East and we’ve never been able to get there. In my sense that’s critical.
So to your question, Tom, and having served at USAID for a few years, and prior to that most of my career was either at State or kind of in the more, whatever, I was not really privy to understanding the power of development. Again, as I said from the outset in my opening comments, my feeling is that since 9/11, unfortunately, we have gotten our engagement in the Middle East very wrong; that we have favored, again, kinetic and counterterrorism responses, and we have not stepped up with development assistance and diplomacy. So if we think about the three Ds of development, defense, diplomacy, I think we overly favored defense and we did not put enough investment, and thought, and, quite frankly, strategy into the power of, not only diplomacy, per the last conversation, but also development.
The U.S. leading – again, I think soft power is very important in the region, or smart power, however you want to call it – my own sense is that 9/11 really marks a watershed moment in the world, one in which the nature of power itself is changing as we enter into this millennium. Power is much more diffuse. I think that’s what the Arab Spring was about. The Arab Spring really surprised many of us, and came not from establishment opposition parties but from people in the street, from grassroots and so forth. So, my own sense, and I don’t have the answer to this but I think it requires a lot of thinking, is that as we get deeper into this new millennium we really need to rethink quite significantly how the U.S. projects power, what’s the most effective way to ensure that a very troubled region, like the Middle East, gets onto a much more stable footing. I would argue, it’s going to be through less of an emphasis on military engagement and much more one of development, of stabilization, of diplomacy.
One last comment: we haven’t really talked at all about ISIS or the post-ISIS landscape. I think in many ways we shouldn’t forget that those challenges very much remain. So the territorial defeat of ISIS in no way, shape, or form equates to its enduring defeat. In many ways, the most difficult aspects of that campaign are what we face now, which is helping to stabilize these areas that were occupied by ISIS. Again, it shouldn’t be the U.S. in the lead. It should be those on the ground, local governance, etc. Those issues and grievances that ISIS was so effectively able to exploit need to be addressed, and on top of that, we now also have the issues of a traumatized population, and, in particular, children who have borne an enormous toll in terms of the conflict with ISIS and more broadly in the region.
That’s, I think, where we need to be focusing our attention and trying to understand better how the U.S. can catalyze and lead. I’m not saying we need to be the ones that put forth all of the resources, but we should be in a leadership role where we really begin to address these very, very difficult challenges. And they are challenges, I would argue, that cannot be addressed through military means or through a security-focused lens.
MR. MATTAIR: Since we only have five minutes left – now I’ve been trying to, in my questions, reflect some of the questions coming in from the audience – and several of them have been about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It really fits with my previous question about how do we have a policy that reflects our ideals – and comments made, certainly by Roger and Rich – that our efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian arena have not successfully followed our ideals. What can we do now, at this late state, to help the Palestinians to see if a two-state solution is still possible, to make good on our expressed commitment to human rights, and self-determination, and popular participation, in that arena?
MR. COHEN: Well, I don’t think, Tom, that we’re going to move from policies that, in my view, and Rich’s, and others, don’t reflect our ideals in that conflict to one that does under the current administration. The current administration’s view on the conflict is very clear. We can discuss whether it has merit or not, whether it advances anything or not. I clearly don’t think that it does, but it’s not going to change. It’s there. It’s locked in. So, I think we’re talking about what might happen after a change of leadership in Washington, which we don’t know when it would happen.
I don’t think Mahmoud Abbas has much interest in altering the status quo at this point, so I would equally argue that probably a change of leadership is needed there. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has essentially been, on this issue, a kick-the-can leader. I mean, setting aside (inaudible) land, eleven years ago now, and a glancing or a quick reference to the desirability of a two-state outcome that has never really been – I think he’s his father’s son. I don’t think he sees it as his role to bring that about.
So I think we’re looking at ways a ways down the road. And I hope the United States would eventually reengage in as balanced a way as possible. It will encounter pretty hostile terrain, because a lot of people on both sides have given up. As you all have gleaned from my remarks, while the one state idea may have some superficial appeal, I think in terms of practicability, at least in my lifetime, it’s a non-starter. I hate to be pretty negative in conclusion, but.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, it’s late. And a lot of settlements have been built on a lot of land that’s been taken.
MS. FONTENROSE: I would say that one positive thing we could take is that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court in a good way. I mean, they could very well take this plan that they hate and respond line by line with their own answers to each of the pieces, kind of lock in what they think it does give – any little bits they think it does give – lock those in as a baseline, and say: All right, we see your hand. We raise you the following, and respond with what they would like to see; start a discussion. I know they don’t want to validate the plan, but what are the other options – kind of just pretend it never happened and go back to everybody being angry, and we start from scratch? They could say we’re going to own this instead, and we’re going to respond with our own version of a plan, line by line, and then we’ll use that as the basis for negotiation.
I think they lost a lot of credibility when they said we’re not even going to read it, we’re just going to reject it outright. It probably would be smart to say: We got it. All right. We see what you’re getting to. Obviously, it doesn’t work for us. Here’s what would, and kind of locking in the things that they do accept and presenting their own position on things that could be negotiated.
MR. MATTAIR: OK, yes, that would make sense. But there’s an asymmetry of power, and unless there’s an American role I don’t see much prospect for success. And I wonder what it’s going to do to our reputation in the region when it’s absolutely too late.
MR. COHEN: I think anyone who’s spent any time in the region knows the importance of pride in these societies, and I think the degree of humiliation of the Palestinians in this whole process – or the humiliation at least that they felt – dictated that their response – I take Kirsten’s point – could only be what it was. They were damned if, after all that, they were going to go line by line through a plan that they think is a 99.8 percent embrace of hardline Israeli aspirations and come back with something of their own. They would rather try to wait out this administration.
MR. SCHMIERER: To me, the unfortunate part is that it’s a real missed opportunity. I agree with Roger that I think the leaderships involved among the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the U.S. are missing what really could be a good opportunity. We see now, probably for the first time, or at least to a greater degree than ever, an alignment of the interests of the Arabs and Israelis, given Iran’s activity in the region. And we see tremendous prospects for positive development if the Palestinians and the Israelis could sync themselves up economically. So there are tremendous opportunities that the various leaderships are preventing from being met. And it’s just very, very unfortunate, because I think we’re at a point, probably more so than certainly in any time I can recall, where the interests align to resolve this in an equitable way, and the leaderships are not getting the people there.
Columnist, New York Times and International New York Times
Former Foreign Editor, New York Times
Senior Advisor on the Middle East and North Africa,
United States Institute of Peace
Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Middle East Bureau, USAID
Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council
Former Senior Director of the Gulf, National Security Council
President and Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador to Oman
Vice Chair, Middle East Policy Council Board of Directors
Former Ambassador to Malta
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council held its 100th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 17th: “The Middle East in 2020.” The event was virtual and held through Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event took a broad look at where the Middle East stands in 2020 and how the foreign policy of the current Trump administration has upended, reimagined or continued traditional U.S. engagement in the region. The panelists focused mostly on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and Iran, while also addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and the changing economic and political realities in the Gulf States.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Roger Cohen (Columnist, New York Times); Mona Yacoubian (Senior Advisor on the Middle East and North Africa, United States Institute of Peace); Kirsten Fontenrose (Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council); and Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council).
Mr. Cohen bid “adieu to a certain America” whose foreign policy was based on continuing a post-World War II set of institutions, values and alliances. This conception of America appears to be waning, particularly during the current Trump administration, where U.S. foreign policy is more “based on hypocrisy than honor” and “politics has been replaced by theater.” In practical terms, this shift is seen in the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal with no vision for its replacement and a “farce” of a peace plan recently unveiled to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which amounted to both a “buyout and a misjudgment.” Despite the United States’ diminishing engagement in the region, Mr. Cohen sees hope in the youth of the Middle East, many of whom share the same values that used to guide U.S. foreign policy.
Ms. Yacoubian believes that existing dynamics in the Middle East will be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. She noted that the pandemic could exacerbate existing challenges such as the high levels of forceable displacement in the Middle East that are already some of the highest globally, and rates of poverty which are already as high as 80% in Yemen and 90% in Syria. On the state level, she noted how vulnerable Iraq will be to the oil price collapse, Lebanon’s lack of success at managing the financial crisis there, and the continued instability in Syria which Russia sees as a “test case” for its foreign policy in what Moscow terms a future post-West world.
Ms. Fontenrose discussed Iran and Saudi Arabia with emphasis on how economics might impact their relationship with the United States. With respect to Iran, she explained how Iran is “standing in its own way” on many of its stated foreign policy objectives. For example, continued Iranian aggression is the main reason the Trump administration hasn’t withdrawn more troops from the region, something that it would otherwise like to do. With respect to Saudi Arabia, she envisioned a continuation of the “good cop, bad cop” approach where President Trump publicly supports the Saudis while the U.S. Congress questions some of their actions. The U.S. – Saudi relationship will also continue to be linked to energy, she explained, and the evolving dynamics of world oil prices, the strength of the U.S. shale industry, and domestic politics in both countries.
Mr. Schmierer described the changing landscape for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and an evolving global role for the Gulf States. He explained how Israel progressed from being called a Jewish homeland to a Jewish state, and how U.S. support for Israel used to be bi-partisan but has become increasingly partisan. These developments have forfeited the long-standing role of the U.S. as an honest broker, with the U.S. instead supporting Israel in achieving “maximalist” demands, despite its increased relative security in the region. He underlined the continued need for each Gulf State to diversify their economies away from reliance on energy revenues while reducing sectarian conflict, something the Saudis can further by continuing to support a more moderate clerical circle to oversee the promotion of Islam abroad.
The full video from the event will be available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].