FRANK ANDERSON, President, Middle East Policy Council
Well, good morning, everyone, and thank you for braving horrible weather and the resultant horrible traffic to get here. You’re the few and the brave and we greatly appreciate it.
I’m Frank Anderson. I’m the president of the Middle East Policy Council. Middle East Policy Council is a nonprofit nonpartisan institution dedicated to improving the informed dialogue on national policy issues that – or national security issues that impact American interests in the Middle East.
We’ve recently expanded the Middle East to involve the entire arc of crisis from sort of Morocco through the Indian subcontinent in the issues that we address. We do so with three mechanisms – one, we publish Middle East Policy, which keeps being measured as the most cited journal in the field in other journals; through conferences like this on Capitol Hill – today’s – the transcript of today’s conference will become the first chapter, as it does every quarter, of the next issue of Middle East Policy; and the third leg of our stool of education on the region is an educational outreach program in which we go around the country presenting teacher workshops to teachers, enabling and exciting them about teaching the geography, the history, the culture, politics, and religion of the Middle East.
I’m going to turn over to Tom very quickly because we have – it’s late in time because of weather – to do the full introductions of each of our speakers. I wish to express my great appreciation to each of them. There are a couple good and old friends on this panel and I greatly appreciate their attendance and thank you all for coming and now let me introduce to you Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council; author, Global Security Watch – Iran: A Reference Handbook
Thank you, Frank. Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming in the rain. We chose this title because we were having a conversation with a former assistant secretary of state talking about the difference between American policy during the 20th century and the 21st century, and his remark was that in the 20th century we were viewed as a reliable security partner but in the 21st century we are viewed as a problem to be managed.
So we’ve selected people who are very knowledgeable about various countries in the Middle East and the views of their leaders as well as their publics and I think we can cover this very well.
Let me briefly introduce them. There are much more significant ample bios here on the invitation but I can give you the highlights of – of our speakers. Dr. James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C., organization which serves as a political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.
He has a long history of activism in the Arab American community in the United States and is – has played an important role in the affairs of the Democratic Party, and he’s a senior advisor with the polling firm of Zogby International, founded and directed by his brother, John Zogby. And he seemed a natural choice today because his brand-new book is appearing either this week or – and it’s called “Arab Voices: What They’re Saying to the U.S. and Why It Matters,” and it’s based on many, many trips to the Middle East and meetings with leaders and publics and understanding the results of polls that have been taken about how we are perceived and what – and what they perceive is the major problems in our – in their relations with us. So we’re glad to have him.
We also have Dr. Amin Tarzi, who is the director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, previously with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty’s regional analysis team focusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he has spent time at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and at the Emirate Center for Strategic Studies and Research, where I spend some time, and is the author of a couple of important books. One’s called “Taliban and the Crisis in Afghanistan,” published by Harvard University Press in 2008, and another called “The Iranian Puzzle Piece: Understanding Iran in the Global Context,” published by MCU Press last year.
We also have Dr. Leon Hadar, research fellow in foreign policies at the Cato Institute. He is the former U.N. bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and the current Washington correspondent for Singapore Business Times and blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and is published in most of the – most important newspapers and magazines in this country. And he is the author of “Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East,” published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1995, and many other works, and has taught at American University and at the University of Maryland and is a graduate of Hebrew University and has a Master’s from Columbia and a Ph.D. from American University.
And our fourth speaker is Jon Alterman – Dr. Jon Alterman – who’s the director and senior fellow of Middle East program at Center for Strategic and International Studies, also in Washington, and before that was a member of the policy planning staff in the State Department and a special assistant to the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. He’s a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel, served as an expert advisor to the Iraq Study Group, teaches Middle Eastern politics at Johns Hopkins and at George Washington, and before entering government served at the U.S. Institute of Peace in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is the author of a number of books and is a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
So that is our panel. I’m Thomas Mattair. I’m the executive director of the organization and I will moderate it. And we’re glad to see you and I think we will start with Amin Tarzi.
AMIN TARZI, Director, Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University
Good morning. First and foremost, I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for extending this invitation so I could leave our swamp and come to this great city of Washington, and it’s a pleasure to be here and before I say anything else I want to make a disclaimer. I do not speak here for the United States Marine Corps or any U.S. government agency. I’m speaking solely as a researcher and as in a capacity as a professor. I teach there at the Marine Corps University. So I just want to make that clear. I’m not speaking here on behalf of DOD or anybody within the U.S. government.
And I just learned that Mattair and I were kind of colleagues at one point without ever meeting each other. So that’s – that’s the Middle East for you. Sometimes you’re colleagues and you don’t even meet each other. It’s a small world. I want to begin today our discussion on the title. Now I know where the origin of the title is. When I read the title, as someone who – and I have – as you can see from my name, my origin is from that part of the world that we call the Middle East – I’m still not sure middle of what desert but we all – you know, I’m a former Marine as well so I cannot wear two hats. I’m – I don’t like hyphenation. I’m an American.
But whatever I am I’m not – you know, my name gives away my background and I’m very proud of that. I’m not going to hide that name. So I may have an opinion of both of those sides and one, you know, both academically – I got my Ph.D. on Middle East studies. I don’t know if that was a great idea but I did it anyway – and I worked with two Middle Eastern countries. You heard about UAE but, five years, I was a political advisor to the government of Saudi Arabia on issues of Middle East, specifically Iran.
So those perspectives have kind of made me reflect more, if I would, semantically about the title, so I’ll start with the title. And I’m not saying, by the way, that we should not discuss the Middle East or look at the Middle East as something that cannot be discussed or understood. But what I will try to do is – and I’m actually going to borrow a line from a former professor of mine by the name of Edward Said – most of you may know him – he, unfortunately, passed away; he was at Columbia – in his famous book, “Orientalism”.
I think by looking at, you know, Middle East perspectives but from our perspective – here, we’re all from the West. We represent the West. We live in the West. But we are talking about the Middle East. And I lived in Europe. I was born in Europe. And in Europe, I was just in a conference in a Central European country. Again, we had a panel of about 50 people talking about the Middle East but there was no Middle Easterner there – somebody whose life is affected by whatever we do.
Again, borrowing from Said, I think we’re institutionalizing the Orient as something to be made statements about – to – we authorize views on to describe, to structure it in our own perspective.
And Said took it one more step saying that this is actually in order for us to have authority over it. We talk about the Middle East. We describe Middle East. We talk to Middle East. We talk at Middle East. But we do not talk with Middle East on a platform that is equal.
The question again comes up whether it’s possible to have an equal footing with an area that the very name of it comes from our narrative, from our perspective. The Eastness, the Middleness, all come from our perspective.
Again, I want a caveat – I’m not saying we should not talk about the Middle East. But please, as we all go sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle that this whatever we call – we don’t even know the borders of which – where they are – is our perception, our mindset, shaped by a very specific institutional thinking going back (in the ?) colonial Europe and now maybe perhaps with – if you would like to look at post-World War II as neocolonialism or some people call it neoimperialism – that it is a change but the power relationship has not changed much and that power relationship also affects, in my view, how we look at it. Is this a Middle East – (inaudible) – or not. So I’m looking at it, Western perspective and American perspective or Western perspectives on the Middle East rather than their perspectives on us.
Secondly, the issue of reliable partner or a problem to be managed. The gap between those two statements is a bigger gap of as how, let’s say, the Saudis or the Iranians will view us. Again, I’m not – when you look at it whether the Middle Eastern countries see us as a reliable partner or as a problem to be managed. Again, I’ll repeat it.
But in various countries – and I won’t even name one – but – (inaudible) – will be us, you know, if you look at a country like the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran, that perspective is so different to put it in one context, again, will miss the boat. And, again, it’s good to raise it because if we don’t look at it as a complex issue we tend to make judgments based on short sight or tactical reasons rather than the strategic perspective which will be good for all sides, not only for here. When I say us I mean the United States specifically, not Europe as a whole or West as a whole but United States and (for the ?) whatever Middle East is.
For some Middle Eastern countries we, the United States, for better or worst, is one reason they are still there. So whether as a reliable partner or a necessary partner, without us their survival, the shape they are may be very hard. For some others, the United States is the cause of pretty much every problem. If anybody had time to listen to the speech made by President Ahmadinejad in his current trip in Beirut, Lebanon, and especially also the accompanying speech by Mr. Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, you see that even the rain that falls in the Middle East or doesn’t fall is controlled or directed by the United States.
Sometimes when I speak to our Middle Eastern partners, I think I wish we had that kind of a power – the power that they ascribe to us in the United States I wish we had even 10 percent of it that, you know, we could do these things. So again, as I said, for some Middle Eastern countries their relationship with United States is as vital as their own survival the way it is. I’m not saying these countries will collapse without a U.S. relationship but the way things are going right now may not go for them, and some other ones for better or worse see us as the source of all evil – all bad things – as I said, even weather changes.
And I’m not making a joke. They actually do think we change weather here and there to affect their crops or so on and so forth. But I think the reality is somewhere in between and I’ll try to focus on Iran but I was – I was thinking that Middle East (ends ?) on Iran but now that I have been given a little bit leeway this morning I will include Afghanistan on (a little bit ?) discussion since they’re – the center I direct, although it’s called Middle East studies our main focus is Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So those are the three countries that I spend most of my time on and my staff. So I’ll stick to that but if you have questions and answers (that ?) I told you I’ve worked in the Gulf and I have done (track two ?) for about seven years with various Middle Eastern countries. We can discuss those in Q&A but I will focus it on that. For Iran, it’s fascinating how the United States plays in the Iranian psyche.
First of all, we, the United States, have become part of the Iranian narrative and that is a very dangerous thing. I wrote my – part of my dissertation has to do with narratives – how narratives are written and how people view a reality. Whether it is reality or not is not important. Once you create a narrative that becomes your reality. And with that narrative, sometimes you can make it sacred. If that narrative becomes sacred then you are even – it has been proven scientifically that once you make it sacred then you can even use violence to preserve it and you will feel that violence is justified.
In the case of Iran, their relationship with United States – not just that we are the evil empire or what they call us there. Right now it’s – they don’t use the “great satan” as much – they use more the global arrogance – that we are the global arrogance has become part of what drives the Iranian not only government but also the society, for better or worse. I’m not saying this is always negative.
I used to travel to Iran. Now, of course, with the position I have unfortunately I can’t go there and it is – it is fascinating how this dynamic works. And I will even humbly tell you that with a country obsessed with greatness – you listen to any Iranian speech maker and it’s not only Mr. Ahmadinejad only – there is this absolute obsession with greatness. Iran is a great country that has to be recognized as a great country. They tell that to President Obama. They tell that to their neighbors – that Iran will control the Middle Eastern oil economy.
They will protect everything. This sense of greatness – I call it their (imperial ?) hubris – is where some scholars have, you know, say that with Iran you have to look at the internal Iran and Shia Islam mingling together and you get that. On one hand, it’s fatalistic. On the other hand, it still thinks of Cyrus the Great. And in Iran you can’t avoid it. In Iran, history is before you. You walk there, there it is. You know, they’re carved on mountainsides. Those of you who’ve traveled to Iran you know what I’m talking about.
It is like Egypt. You can’t avoid history. You can’t walk – it is like Jerusalem. You can’t avoid history. You walk, it’s right there. But I think for the Iranians, U.S. has seen – and you have heard a lot from scholars and others here in Washington and elsewhere that there are two Irans – the public Iran and the private Iran – the government Iran and the Iranian public.
The idea here in Washington is that while the Iranian government hates us the Iranian public loves us as opposed to the Arabs that, in general, while the Arab governments, most of them like us – most of them – I say not – I don’t include Syria and some others in there – but most of (us ?) like us whereas the Arab public do not like us. That’s kind of a general thing. I think that’s, again, a very, very simplistic, if I misuse that word, view of things. Well, in the Iranian system, the Iranian government, while we are a problem to be managed for them or a problem to be defeated, they also look at as a reliable partner. Why do I say that?
Go back to 1980, the first year of the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran. What is the biggest challenge to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? It’s internal – secondly, it’s Saddam Hussein. He manages with the war – when Saddam Hussein invades Iran he manages with that war to crush pretty much most of the opposition, hold off against Saddam, but he never really has a victory. As he said it, famously or infamously, that he drank from the chalice of poison to accept their treaty which still stands. Iran and Iraq are technically still at a state of war. They don’t have a – they just have a peace treaty. They don’t have an agreement on the border.
So Saddam Hussein was a general menace to him. As a second – you know, outside of Iranian borders – I’m not talking about (MKO and the other thing ?) against him was the Taliban. Not Afghanistan per se – Afghanistan is a very weak country – but the Taliban – the ideology of the Sunni resurgence where that’s very important. And while the Arabs are always seen as – in the Iranian vision as, you know, I won’t even tell you what Iran Persian culture talks about the Arabs but they’re pretty – pretty nasty. The Afghans – Iran cannot be great without Afghanistan being part of its sphere of influence.
It’s impossible. When you look at Iranian greatness you look at – those of you know Iranian history look at the Shahnameh, “The Book of Kings,” which basically goes back and tells us the Iranian history. It’s like “The Iliad” of Iran, if you would, or “The Odyssey” of Iran.
Where are those places? More than 70 percent of anything mentioned in Shahnameh is not in modern-day Iran. They’re all in modern-day Afghanistan. Rustam, the Archilias (ph) of Iran – guess where he was born. In Zabul province. Where was he married in? In Balkh. Where did he die? In Khorasan. Where is Khorasan? It’s modern-day Herat.
So if you look at that – if you don’t have Afghanistan as your influence you can’t be great – you can’t be called the (world nine power ?), as Ahmadinejad calls it. So here you have Iraq and Afghanistan both at odds with Iran and one even killing their diplomats, one attacking its territory and causing 1 million or so losses. Who gets rid both of them for Iran? United States. Look at it from the Iranian perspective. Two of the greatest enemies they have – one very powerful in Saddam Hussein, one weak but with ideology and historical significant going against their narrative – they are just wiped out overnight literally by the same power that they look at as a supposed enemy.
Just think about that. Are we a reliable partner or are we a problem to be managed? Yet they’re also managing us. Trust me, they are managing us. (Why we went there, then they got it ?). It was a gift for them. The gift was here they have no more Saddam Hussein. For the first time in – since – you have to go back to the – (inaudible) – that you have the heartland of the Arab world now democratically controlled by the Shias, and the Iranians are trying to have a bigger hand and I would say that as we look at Iraqi future the Iranians – how the Iranians are playing that game will be one of the most important strategic balancing acts in the Middle East.
We all look at Afghanistan. We look at the Arab-Israeli issue. I would always say that what will happen in Iraq will be crucial and I’m not talking about in decades. Right now. How Iran plays this game and how the reaction of other Middle Eastern countries, namely Saudi Arabia and then to a lesser extent Turkey, how they play a hand in there will be very important. So Iranians are there. They are managing us also because when we were in the Iraq war actively they were killing our soldiers. There’s no – you know, there is nothing heathen about that.
Guess what they do in Afghanistan? Those of you who are fans of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that’s all I can say. The Iranians, on one hand, in Herat they do great job. Herat is the most safest city – major city in Afghanistan – the most functional. The Iranians are sending not only power, they are sending – electricity works – the only place in Afghanistan actually red lights work and people actually do stop. When I go to Afghanistan, I’m less worried about bullets than I’m worried about being hit by a vehicle in Kabul. But it’s pretty nasty, although we lose people. This morning, by the way, we lost four more people.
So the issue is that in case of Afghanistan they play an amazing game. On one hand, they are one of the most reliable partners to the Afghan government. On the other hand, they’re supporting the very people that kill our troops and our allies – the Taliban. They are playing this so amazingly well that, again, is it a reliable partner or a problem to be managed? We are both.
The Iranian people – again, if you look back at the – at the so-called green revolution, and I say so-called because we created something in our own head. It wasn’t the Iranian narrative. It was our narrative imposed that. It didn’t work. As we see, it did not work. And for – but I’m not going to get into the Iranian politics. Unless you ask question, we’ll go there.
The Iranian people, while they – (some often ?) see as liberators, if you would, there’s a notion here in this town that, you know, again, that that is the – kind of the fifth column that will clear Iran. I think that’s also a wrong assumption. I don’t think we know Iran very well. I mentioned before about sacredness of narrative. In Iran, certain narratives have become sacred and close – this is something scientific – somebody’s working on this as a project – we are not finished right now (by it ?) but it is being financed within – within the Defense Department – to look at the role of nuclear weapons in the Iranian psyche, and it is getting to that point of sacredness.
If it becomes that it becomes a narrative of not the Islamic Republic or the regime, as we call it, but it becomes an Iranian narrative. It becomes part of that Cyrus the Great narrative – that continuum of greatness of Iran vis-à-vis all these enemies whether they’re Arab (look how ?) they incorporate Islam into their ideology. They are more Muslim than anybody else yet in the same time they think Arabs are half human, at best – at best. How you incorporate that – that’s fantastic when you look at it – that here you take their religion, you take their language, you take their alphabet, yet you look at them as half human, at best.
And that – just briefly in Afghanistan now when Afghanistan, again, where the United States stands, whether we are a reliable partner or a problem to be managed. There, I think, the title sticks very well. But Mr. Karzai, he can’t survive with us and he thinks he can’t survive without us. So on one hand, we are a reliable partner. He is there at the grace of NATO, I dare say. At the same time, us being there is a problem that he has to manage. So I think that the title as it stands fits extremely well in the case of Afghanistan. We are their very existence because if we withdraw we – not just us but if we withdraw I don’t think the Europeans will stay alone so as a coalition (in ?) ISAF as a U.S.-led coalition we are not alone.
As I said this morning, three of the people killed were not Americans. They are from our NATO partners. Every day all of us together are shedding blood in there. But if we withdraw I think this NATO force would not be sitting there. Without us, what will happen in Afghanistan? At least, Afghanistan may continue as we saw when Soviets withdrew and Mr. Najibullah, President Najibullah, continued for two more years.
But the situation will change most likely. So there is the reliable partnership. In the same time, every other month or so, Mr. Karzai goes on a rampage on how we are destroying his credibility on – we have made changes on civilian issues. But we are both to them.
So I will end. I think my time is over on that – that for most of the Middle East – I am not an expert in the Islamic Maghreb or North Africa so I will not make any comments on that. But on at least the peninsula, Israel, to my understanding, and specially Iran, Afghanistan, the United States remains as both, simultaneously. (We can find ?) the countries – we say, well, in this case we are more of a problem to be managed at this very moment in 2010.
But when you look at it a little bit broader and that will make it much harder to understand the Middle East and dealing with them. First, as I go back to what I said from Edward Said, that unless we create – and I don’t know how this is created – I’ve spent most of my adult life dealing with this thing and I don’t have an answer for you – I wish I did – to speak with rather than at, to, or about. We keep on doing that. We speak at, to, or about, not with. And this is not our fault, by the way. Trust me. This is not our fault alone.
The Middle Eastern friends of ours, they have to take responsibility. One thing in the Middle East that is still lacking on the government level and personal level, in my view, is taking responsibility. It’s always easy to hide behind somebody else’s fault or some – (your own fault you just came from it ?). So I’m not saying this – this lack of talking with is a Western or U.S. problem. No way. And I have been on both sides of the table working for both sides. It is a neutral issue. But that’s not going to get solved tomorrow or today. It won’t.
But as far as the situation where we stand, whether it was the previous administration or our current administration, I don’t think people, again, think that because of an administration change everything in the Middle East will shift.
I think the waters move much slower there than our fast-paced media likes to believe. We like things to change suddenly because we have a change in our administration or something we do or a handshake. We say, oh, wow, there has been a handshake between prime minister of Israel and, you know, Palestinian leader so tomorrow everything is great. It’s not going to happen like that. There – a lot of (currents ?) and we are both. I think for most of the Middle East, the United States remains both a reliable partner and also a problem to be managed. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Amin. Our next speaker will be Jim Zogby.
JAMES ZOGBY, President, Arab American Institute; author, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why it Matters
Thank you – thank you, Tom, and thank you, Amin, for a fascinating presentation and I’m delighted to be part of this panel. You do at the Policy Council, which you always do, and that is assemble a wonderful group of people to share a podium with. I – I want to take a look at this in a couple of different ways. The first is instead of beginning with the U.S. role I want to look at the region itself and the transformations that have occurred over the last several decades.
Amin is right in the way he describes recent history or not so recent history – the history that brought us to the recent history – and the term I use to describe it is that the Middle East has been a subordinate reality for the West. It has been a – an invaluable partner and a region to be managed, and manage it, it did, not always responsibly.
From the Sykes-Picot agreement that cut the region into pieces to the creation of borders and lines and establishment of regimes and the work that colonialism did, all of which were recognized by our president in his Cairo speech, the region in a sense lost control of its own history and lost the ability to shape and define itself, and some of the problems that we’re seeing today remain problems of playing out that loss of control. There was that aspect.
There was also the issue of oil, which defined much of our relationship with the region, and then there was the Cold War, and with the Cold War a choosing of sides. Not always the wisest choices were made but the choosing of sides and the effort to sort of stabilize the region around the rivalry with the Soviet Union and to see everything in the region through the prism of that conflict. So if we became an invaluable partner or if they became invaluable partners of ours and if they became a region to be managed, they were partners and managed in an effort to forestall Soviet penetration into the region.
That defined reality. I remember the day – I was flying to Kuwait the day that the wall was torn down and I was flying actually on a flight to – a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt with reporters from NBC who were on their way to cover it and there was tremendous excitement and just a whole lot of anxiousness, what they were going to find when they got there, and a sense that there was a – there was something momentous that was occurring. I got to Kuwait and it was a different setting.
I found myself at one point in the office of the crown prince and he was just looking out the window as we were in the middle of our conversation. He was lost in thought, looking out the window, and he turned back to me and he said – I said it’s enormous what’s happening and I was telling him while I was talking to him – while he was looking out the window I was talking to him about my experience on the flight, and he looked back and he said yes, it is momentous, but what will it mean for us – what will happen to us. And, of course, we saw then not a long while later what happened to them is that with the – sort of the lid off and the rivalry and the stability that that rivalry produced upended you had the invasion of Kuwait.
I mean, there was the sense that Saddam had – that the rules had all changed and one could behave differently and there was this jockeying for power. One of the ways we dealt with that, not so wisely, was a – we called it a dual containment policy and it actually was a containment policy everywhere in the region where we tried to keep the lid on from everything that had happened in the period up through the Cold War. We didn’t mind the Iran-Iraq war. In a sense, it was a bunch of folks killing each other. We were sort of playing games with both sides. It sort of contained things for us. It didn’t get out of control for us.
At the end of that, there was an effort to keep it under control again and sort of keep them both in a headlock and hold things in place. The Arab-Israeli conflict, well, it was – you know, they’d come to a momentous decision on their own. They were unable to move any further. But as far as we were concerned we could just manage with that. You know, we spent a decade saying okay, you guys have had a problem – you’re now recognizing you want to solve that problem – here, go off and solve it yourselves, knowing full well that they couldn’t solve it themselves. But it didn’t matter to us in the sense that it was manageable and everything was stable as far as we were concerned.
The status quo remained. There was turbulence underneath the surface but we were – we were – we were dealing with it. What happened, I think, in the – in the Bush administration was whether by decision or not, and some suggest there was a decision to sort of blow the lid off and – and turn over the apple cart and see where the pieces landed, but the damage done by those decisions or by those behaviors are what are playing out today.
On the one hand, the region has not changed in that it still feels a loss of control – an inability to define their own reality and I agree with – with what Amin said that the – there are decisions that have to be made by the leadership in the region. I was asked by somebody in the administration what I thought was going to happen at the Arab League Summit and I thought – I said, you know, they will do what they always do, which is make no decision at all and be very good about making no decisions so that they try not to irritate folks at home, try not to irritate you, and the no-decision becomes a decision.
They view it as a – kind of a – sort of a escaping the bullet. It’s actually a way of displaying their weakness and it’s a weakness that they acknowledge – they know. They don’t know how to make a decision. They don’t feel they control what the impact of that decision would be either to suspend negotiations or to say we’re not going to be a part of this or to make the decision and say we should go forward with this without any confidence that it will produce a result.
But that’s kind of the situation that we’re in right now, I think, is that the U.S., having upended the apple cart and having dug a very deep hole and the holes are all interrelated – and I think Amin did a wonderful job of showing how interrelated they are – in the process of overturning the regime in – in Baghdad we ended up emboldening Iran and we also ended up fueling extremism in the broader region. We also ended up hurting our own legitimacy in the region and we also ended up affecting the legitimacy of countries that have been allied with us and have been working with us, creating, I think, the very conditions for the panel session that we’re dealing with today, which is the U.S. is going to be in the mind of the Arabs now a problem to be managed.
Crown Prince Abdullah described the U.S. in a parable about the – the guard dog that was hired to protect the sheep turns out to be a wolf and is eating the sheep and the farmer doesn’t know what to do. Does he get rid of the guard dog or does he – he acknowledge the fact that he still needs the guard dog to protect against an external? But sort of a – some in America might find it a crude way of – of describing the relationship but the reality is that the Saudis need us and the Saudis are afraid of us. The Saudis are still dealing with external threats, some of which actually have been exacerbated by our own behavior.
They’re also dealing with internal turmoil, again, exacerbated by our own behavior. In the polling that we do I always find it striking that the – while we say – part of our political rhetoric has been that the reason for extremism in the region is because of the lack of legitimacy of Arab – Arab governments and – and that people are resistant – resisting their own governments and that’s why extremism exists. In fact, we find something quite different and that is that it’s American policy that produces the problems and that it’s the countries that are the most closely allied with the United States that have the greatest legitimacy problems because they are strong supporters of us.
Two stories come to mind. One actually was – I was in Jordan when Liz Cheney tried out the line that was later to be sort of made famous by our secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice. She gave a speech in Cairo a short while later where she said for the last 60 years we’ve made a mistake in this region in the way we’ve applied our policy, and there was a gasp in the audience. People thought, oh my God, she’s going to acknowledge. And she turned in to saying we’ve supported regimes and dictators against – against the people, and that was not what they’d expected to hear.
She went on and described how our policy would change. I thought to myself, she’s in Jordan. The king is one of our allies. She is undercutting the legitimacy of one of our few friends in that region – does she understand the consequences to this. When a year later President Bush was (at a ?) famous flyover to Jordan to meet with Nouri al-Maliki – they were trying to heal some divide at the time that we were having a problem with the Iraqi government over – and he was greeted at the airport by the king, King Abdullah, and Bush was at the height of his unpopularity.
America was in the depths of its – its popularity. We were in trouble in that region. This king was the one place we could land to meet with the Iraqi prime minister. American favorability ratings were five. I mean, you don’t get congressmen running for reelection in America wanting the president to come into their district when his favorable ratings are under 50 in their district. Bush had a favorable rating of five in Jordan and the king is meeting him at the airport to help arrange this meeting with Nouri al-Maliki. The risk he took – the risk he took to himself, to the legitimacy of his government, and to the relationship and partnership we’ve established is enormous, without any recognition on our part of what price he and other leaders in the region pay for that – that relationship.
Similarly, I can tell you a story in Saudi Arabia where a – Jonathan and I were at a – we met with some members of the Mezhla Sashura (ph) asking them questions about reform and one of the people we asked said oh, I love your reform – I think your president advocating democracy is – is such a good thing. And the question was why. I mean, you – what do you mean by that, and he responded by saying it undercuts the legitimacy of our king, and he has – they have betrayed Islam and they have betrayed Arab values. They’ve sold out to your country and to – to Zionism and the designs in the region and so any effort you make to delegitimize them helps us make the changes we want to make.
That is a view and it’s a view that has to be acknowledged and the consequences of that, I think, are of significance to the discussion that we’re having today. Let me say that – that we can look at that side of it. We also – I want to look at the – again, in some detail the perception side of it – how Arab governments have one view of how they view the United States in this role and Arab people may have a different sense and their – we’ve done this polling and I think some of you may know the polling we’ve done over the years where we not just look at America and how its standing is in the region but we look at how Arabs view the American people and American values and a whole range of issues involving America and, largely, views toward the American people and culture and values are far more favorably rated than our policy, which very low, which drags down attitudes towards everything else, and that is understood.
As we were approaching the 2004 election we were paying special attention to this to see how – how it would – how it would play out in Arab public opinion. It was interesting that after the election there was a drop in Arab attitudes toward the American people and our values, et cetera, largely because the policies which they sort of gave us a bye on appeared to them to be ratified in an election that they found disturbing.
As we got to 2006 and the numbers continued to drop even further it got to a worrisome level. In 2007 and 2008, as we began to gear up toward a presidential election, I found in polling enormous interest in that election. It was an effort, they saw in the Arab world, how we would respond to six or seven years of policies that had made a relationship more complicated.
I did a panel with CNN International. We did the polling for them that found striking attention paid and knowing to some degree more than the American public knew the candidates, their policies and issues, and they were following it fairly closely on television. And – and then we got to the general election. I was calling it – it wasn’t just our election. It was the world’s election. It was an election that people all over the world understood their fate were somehow being decided by the choices that we made. There was a nervousness and we saw that in – in the polls.
On the one hand, there were tremendous favorable ratings for the president. On the other hand, there was the sense no president really can make a difference. And so there was a hope in the person but not a hope in the position, and as we continued to poll his – the president’s numbers spiked at the Cairo summit. Immediately after that there was a decline and there has been a validation, I think, that the person doesn’t matter – the policy doesn’t change. And I think there’s something quite distressing in that.
I remember an editor of a – one of the largest papers in the region who I met with before the election as I was getting anecdotal evidence to sort of be able to better talk about the polls. He – I asked him who he hoped would win and he said, I don’t want to tell you and I don’t want to hope – I’ve been let down too many times before and I’m not ready – I’m not ready to be let down again.
And so there was this sense that they wanted change badly. They wanted – they no longer wanted to feel like jilted lovers who had good feelings about America but felt that the feelings weren’t returned and that the policies demonstrated that. And so, you know, the impact of our culture in the region is profound. The impact of globalization is everywhere from kids in Saudi that wear basketball jerseys and Yankee baseball hats to folks who go to Starbucks in Jordan, not because the coffee’s better but because they want to buy a little piece of America. I mean, it’s – we don’t export product. We export a way of life and people want it.
But there’s this sense that as important as we are in defining contemporary culture the best they can do is buy a piece of it at Starbucks. What they can’t do is get the respect and the – and the policies that they had hoped for and that is, I think, what fuels extremism. It is a promise – I believe a false promise – that it can give you control – that these violent actions or these extreme attitudes can give you a restored sense of power over this situation that is – is out of control. And in that context Ahmadinejad is a fascinating character. He’s like a Farrakhan. He’s like a Middle East Farrakhan.
In Ron Walter’s – one of the most wonderful people I had – had the honor to work with in the last 30 years said one time to me about Farrakhan he is the measure of the depth of black alienation from white America so that when – when he’s outrageous – when he’s outrageous it’s not just the angry nationalist youth that are empower – feel empowered and – and smile but it’s the – the upper class African-American attorney or doctor who gets this smile on his face and he says, stick it to them, man – you got it.
And that when he’s attacked it validates that alienation and empowers him and emboldens him more, and that Farrakhan would always look for a way to be outrageous, knowing that as he threw that tantrum or made that, you know, disgraceful remark it would only provoke the Establishment to come down on him, which would only then reinforce that sense that he spoke for the anger and the alienation.
And Ahmadinejad knows the same thing. I mean, he looks for openings to be outrageous. He looks for ways to create provocation. He looks for ways to play to what he knows is there and that is a profound alienation and a profound sense of – of anger at the West and also a sense of not being in control. And what he does is be defying that he creates an illusion of control and an illusion of power and enhances his own popularity. It would be nice to be able to say if we could only just ignore him he might go away but if that’s not true what’s also not true is playing into his game and sort of establishing ourselves as us versus him.
In some ways, I think, almost Israel and its leadership and Ahmadinejad almost need each other. They kind of play off of each other. He reinforces their narrative of vulnerability and they reinforce his narrative of the power that is sort of crushing the – the vulnerable of the Earth who need, you know, to be liberated from – from this oppression. And their narratives play off of each other and the game – and the – the consequences of the game are great but what the game is all about is winning over those sort of alienated and angry young folk and not so young folk throughout the entire Middle East who are listening to this play out and choosing a side. And, frankly, right now I think we’re not playing it all that well – our side of it’s not playing it all that well, and he has to some degree found an opening and is looking for ways to – I think to play a rather dangerous game but he’s playing it rather effectively.
I thought his behavior in Lebanon was on the one hand disgraceful but on the other hand it was incredibly smart given what he’s trying to do, which is to provoke and to create disruption and to create a backlash that will only fuel even more his sense of – the sense, rather, of being aggrieved. There’s a two-sided part to this game and that is that he is trying to win over some broad support in the Arab world and I think that we might see play out the fact that he entered so decisively into a sectarian Lebanese context it may play against him in some corners of the Arab world. But the question will be as we weigh on balance the outrage is the outrage against the West going to be greater than the outrage over him siding with one faction in Lebanon – one sectarian faction against – against what remains of a fairly popular, at least in its own community, government in Lebanon of – with Sunni leadership.
The bottom line is, is that on both sides, both how America plays itself out in the region and on the level of Arab perception, America is viewed as both a necessary partner and a – one to be managed and the Arabs are viewed by America as still partners that they want but partners that need to be managed. Neither of us have figured out how to make this relationship work but in the middle of that there are many consequences, especially since the end of the Cold War, that have, I think, partly by the consequence of that end of the war and partly because of mistaken policies that only made the situation worse and dug a deep, deep hole for – for our leadership in all parts of the region we have a more difficult problem on both sides of this equation than we’ve ever had before. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Jim. Leon Hadar will be our next speaker.
LEON HADAR, Research Fellow, CATO Institute
I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me – And for all of you for attending. The last time I participated in a discussion here was a few days before the start of the second Gulf War. If you have time, do glance through the transcript of that event, In the Wake of War, I did. And to demonstrate my sense of humility – Not! — let me quote from the conclusion of my comments: “I have a feeling that in another 10 years, we will recall all this talk about a Pax Americana — or an American Empire — in Middle East – in the same way we are now reminded of all the nonsense we have read — and written — about globalization in the 1990's. One more intellectual fad that was oversold. And then over-run by events.”
But it takes time for us to be able to face reality. It is interesting to recall that as the sun was setting on the British Empire in the early 1950’s, members of its political elite continued to live under the illusion that Britain had remained a paramount global power. And that perspective was shared by many non-Brits.
In fact, a while ago I discovered an old Atlas from the early 1950’s. It showed a huge British Empire colored in red. Very striking!
I was teaching at that time a course in international communication. So I asked my students to do a content analysis of major newspapers. We discovered that both Britain and France were being referred to in the 1952 press as Big or Great Powers.
And this was at a time when both countries were economically bankrupted and dependent on American financial support and military protection. It was the fiasco of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 and the ensuing retreat from what left of their empires that made it clear to everyone that — Great Britain and France creased to be Great Powers.
The time lag — between the effective end of the British Empire — and the recognition that indeed it was all over — proved to be quite lengthy. The concept of "recognition lag" is familiar to economists. It refers to the time lag between when an actual economic shock — a sudden boom or bust — occurs — and when it is recognized by economists, central bankers and the government officials signal the end of an economic recession several months after that had actually happened.
And just like changes in economic conditions — changes in the global status of nations — are not always immediately obvious — including to the politicians and the generals and to the journalists who cover them. That domestic and foreign elites continue to share such misconceptions about the nation's ability to exert global influence has do with the power of inertia and wishful thinking as well as with way vested interests try to maintain the status-quo.
Let me stress that I an not comparing the global status of the United States today to that of Great Britain after World War II. Based on many indicators – comparing the economic and military power of the U.S. to that of other players — the U.S. is still the only remaining superpower.
We are talking here about a relative decline in geostrategic and economic power. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the U.S. military is overstretched. The financial meltdown was a reflection of the economic problems.
But not unlike the officials, lawmakers and pundits in London 1950 — their contemporary counterparts in Washington 2010 — resist adjusting their nation's foreign policies to the changing global balance of power. That may explain why so many members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment seem to be so depressed in face of the Obama Administration's current difficulties in dictating global developments — ranging from the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear aspirations and the deadlocked Israel/Palestine peace process to the stalled negotiations on global trade liberalization (the Doha Round), the efforts to reach an international agreement on climate change and the global financial imbalances between the U.S. and China.
Where is U.S. leadership on this or that global policy issue? They ask.
Why can't the Obama Administration “do something” to resolve this or that international crisis? They demand.
In a way, what has been described here as the U.S. being “a problem to be managed” may have to do with the way that the recognition lag affects the perspectives of allies, partners and client-states – including those in the Broader Middle East. And bt the way — most of them – with the exception of Turkey — and including Pakistan – are client-states of the U.S. and not allies.
This is Twilight Time or Nightfall in the international system — as we are shifting from the Uni-Polar moment of the U.S. to a more soft multipolarity. We are probably already there or getting there.
President Obama has been managing this transition through a policy of muddling through – reflecting the growing constraints on American power. That tends to confuse the domestic and foreign players that have been programmed to expect certain American responses to global developments.
So it is not surprising that these allies, client states and the many rent seekers that follow at their footsteps —- are disappointed when their expectations are not fulfilled — whether these are the schemes of the Bush Administration to re-make the Middle East and impose American interests and values on the region. Or whether these are the plans of the Obama Administration to engage the Arab and Muslim worlds and to bring peace to the Holy Land.
By the way American power has always been constrained. But now — during Twilight Time —the obstacles – economic, military — and the pressures of bureaucracies, Congress, interest groups, and public opinion – are even more paramount.
And ironically — it is during the height of their power – when hegemons and empires are entangled in growing webs of commitments at home and abroad – that they are being pressured to extend even more economic and military support to allies and clients – and to juggle these commitments – between Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, or Israelis and Palestinians, or Pashtuns and Tajiks and Uzbeks. The end result is that these waning hegemons end-up losing even more power, influence, and credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. It becomes a vicious circle.
Now… after the initial confusion over American policy — after they recognize the changes in the balance of power — foreign governments and players in the Middle East and elsewhere respond by trying to hedge their strategic bets — which is exactly what, say, Turkey or Japan have been doing.
Indeed, The new foreign policy direction that seems to be embraced by Turkey is not an indication that its government is pursuing an anti-American agenda or that it is embarking on a civilizational confrontation with a U.S.-led West. My guess is that a present-day Ataturk would have embraced a similar hedging approach in response to such developments as failure of Washington to help bring Turkey into the European Union, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the evolution of an autonomous Kurdistan, and the strategic vacuum in the region that was created in the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S. hegemonic project.
It seems to me that the recognition lag in the Middle East is probably going to be shorter than anywhere else. The reason is that political survival is the name of the game in the Middle East — and one-night-stand is the most familiar modus operandi – call it Chalabism or Jumbalatism or Aassadism. Those who have been taken for suckers have been those American who wake up in an empty bed and start weeping: “But you promised to love in the morning.”
The Hashemites and the Saudis, Kemalism, Zionism, and the Arab state system have lasted longer than most of the other regimes and movements of the twentieth century – longer than the Soviet Union, for example – and my guess is that as they sense that the US has ceased to be “a reliable security partner,” these veteran Machiavelians will adjust themselves to the new reality – sooner than later. In that context, the Big Dogs will do better than the small ones.
Israelis are certainly the ultimate real-politik buffs when it comes to their relationship with Washington. They would scoff at the notion that the U.S. and Israel are allied together in the cause of spreading democracy in the Middle East. After all, their government has been strengthening its military ties with China despite U.S. opposition.
Israelis are not “pro-American” because of their commitment to Jeffersonian values but because they concluded that their interests and those of the U.S. seem to be compatible. But again, they see this “special relationship” not as marriage but as an affair. And like any affair, it could end.
Indeed, there was a time when Israelis were pro-Soviet and pro-French. In 1948, Stalin’s Soviet Union was the most enthusiastic supporter of establishing Israel. It hoped would be a leading anti-imperialist post in the Middle East, while Secretary of State George Marshall pressed Harry Truman not to recognize the new state, warning that it could harm America’s position in the region. Moscow recognized Israel immediately after the state was proclaimed and provided it with arms, while it took the Americans more than a year to grant de jure recognition to Israel, on which they imposed an arms embargo. At the height of the In-Russia-With-Love mood in Israel, the expectation was that the new state would remain neutral in the evolving Cold War.
Then Israel had its French kiss. It was France that served as Israel’s main source of arms in the 1950s and early 1960s and helped it develop its nuclear arsenal. Israel was embracing then a European orientation and forming close ties with an emerging Franco-German bloc to help resist U.S. pressure to end its nuclear program. The Israeli alliance with France reached a peak in the aftermath of the 1956 Suez campaign to oust Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Their interests were seen to be compatible as the French tried to suppress the Nasser-backed struggle for independence in Algeria. But after Charles de Gaulle’s decision to grant independence to Algeria, the relationship between Israel and France cooled; they soured after Israel rejected the aging French leader’s advice not to attack Egypt in 1967.
It was only after Israel’s 1967 victory over Egypt, a Soviet ally, that the intellectual predecessors of today’s neoconservatives started popularizing the idea of Israel as an American “strategic asset” in the Middle East.
In conclusion, I think that the more important topic we need to discuss sooner than later is “American Perspectives on the Middle East.” In some respects, American intervention in support for foreign governments and groups tends to encourage them to engage in risky behavior whose costs end-up being paid by American soldiers and taxpayers. It could therefore be considered a case of moral hazard. It doesn’t advance the interests of the U.S. or that of its client states. Which raises the question: Is U.S. intervention in the Middle East promotes American security interests and whether it the Middle East is a problem worth managing.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Leon. Our fourth speaker is Jon Alterman.
JON ALTERMAN, Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, CSIS
Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thank you very much. Thanks very much to Frank and Tom for inviting me. It’s nice to be here among old friends, both on the panel and in the audience. I think I actually was at the first meeting where Frank and Amin met each other in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I remember Frank being very impressed by a younger Amin Tarzi. So it’s nice to reunite that group again.
I was struck at Amin’s conception that this construction that we have, that – to say that the United States is a reliable security partner, or a problem to be managed, is, on the one hand, much too broad. There has to be something in the middle of that spectrum. And yet, when we think about it, actually, both apply. And that’s a sort of interesting tension. How can something be too broad and yet, both opposite things are true?
And I think that tells you a lot about the nature of this problem. And you’ve heard all the speakers talking about it. I think part of it has to do with us and with our role in the world. You know, when the United States burst onto the scene in the Middle East in the 1940s, it was a breath of fresh air, right? We were totally new.
After more than a century’s worth of intervention by colonial powers, such as Britain and France and, in many cases, more than four centuries of Ottoman imperial rule, the United States held the promise to the Middle East of this better, post-colonial future. The United States sought no territory. We had no regional allies. Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” talked about self-determination and President Franklin Roosevelt promised to dismantle the infrastructure of global imperialism. We were something totally new and something people wanted to bring into the region.
By the end of the century, the region’s enthusiasm for the United States, as you may have read, became a little bit more restrained. I think Jim’s been polling on that for a while. The United States had its own set of interests and allies, and its own logic for action. Consistent U.S. support for Israel was, I think, only a part of this equation.
Savvy rulers in the Middle East – and I think we’ve spoken to our share of them – came to have disdain for what they saw as a persistent American naiveté dealing not only with friendly governments, but also dealing with regional opposition groups and dealing with external foes. You can go and meet leaders in the Middle East who don’t tell – you know, you guys just don’t get the Middle East. You’re so naïve. You walk in. You’re doing all the wrong things.
I’ll tell you what to do with these guys. And then they don’t quite tell you what to do with the guys. I mean, it never quite amounts to a policy. It ends up to a critique of the current policy, but not quite another policy of its own. You know, on the one hand, I think these leaders have a point, and that is that Pax Americana in the Middle East hasn’t been such a good bargain for the countries in the Middle East.
You’ve had three Iraq wars, right? There was the Iraq war between Iraq and Iran, the Iraq war between the U.S. and Iraq and the international coalition over Kuwait, and then the Iraq war in 2003, persistent Arab-Israeli conflict and an arms race that’s drained, literally, hundreds of billions of dollars from the regional coffers.
But on the other hand, it seems to me that the status quo in the Middle East has been remarkably durable, securing the rule of friendly regimes from east to west. Arab states scarcely mourned the demise of the shah, and the last friendly Arab leader to fall was King Idris of Libya in 1969. I mean, if you talk about the leaderships, what their interests are and what they want the United States to do for them, the United States has largely done what they most need the U.S. to do, which is secure their rule vis-à-vis their own publics and vis-à-vis their external enemies.
What the United States has not done is move the region toward a systematically better future. There’s been a great global debate about whether U.S. power is declining, but from my own perspective, the debate hasn’t been as serious in the Middle East. I mean, when I talk to leaders in the Middle East and I talk to both people in government and academics, I get a sense that there’s really not the same attention that you hear in Asia or that you hear in Europe.
The prevailing view in the region isn’t that the U.S. is unable to do what needs to be done in Iraq, is unable to do what needs to be done in Palestine, is unable to do what needs to be done against a whole range of regional challenges, but instead, the U.S. doesn’t want to do what needs to be done. The question isn’t the U.S. capacity. The assessment is still the U.S. ability to do things is overwhelming, compared to any regional actor and compared to any other set of external actors.
And the question is not American capability, but American intention and American will, American commitment. What we have from a U.S. perspective is a series of governments that are, in many ways, dependent on the United States, but wishing they had more influence over U.S. decision-making. This doesn’t strike me as an especially surprising position for a great power to be in, nor an especially worrisome one.
While I’m, in some cases, sympathetic to their criticisms of U.S. policy, it seems to me that U.S. policy is appropriately U.S. policy, and that it reflects U.S. interests and U.S. politics, first and foremost. Some of the Middle East have said, well, what we have to do is sort of, we have to change the mix. We have to change the game. We have to reach out to rising powers to either supplement the United States or, sometimes, supplant the United States, replace the United States.
And the most common object of attention in all this is China, a country with rising energy consumption, and whose dependence on Middle Eastern energy is rising, as well. Many in the Middle East see in China the same sort of refreshing disinterest in regional politics that they saw in the United States in the mid-1940s. China steers clear of internal politics in the region’s states. It opposes any state’s domination of the region. And it seeks positive relations with everybody.
In China’s approach to the Middle East, many in the region see a balancer against the United States, and through having this balancer, they also have this sort of fulcrum against which they can exert more influence on U.S. foreign policy. But the people who advocate this view, to my mind, haven’t spoken enough to the Chinese because the Chinese have absolutely no interest in playing that role.
Chinese scholars see, on the one hand, the Chinese future is increasingly tied to Middle Eastern energy, but at the same time, they see that tie to Middle Eastern energy as a persistent source of vulnerability for China. Chinese strategic thinkers keep talking about the need to diversify China’s sources of energy, and are constantly frustrated that, the fact is, the energy is in the Middle East, where, precisely, they don’t want to go.
If they need additional sources of energy, the places they need to get it from are precisely the places where the energy is now, and that’s from the Middle East. Not only do Chinese strategic thinkers see the Middle East as a source of constant instability; they also see it as part of the American imperium. The U.S. ability to protect military and diplomatic force in the region is completely unequalled, and many Chinese see themselves at the mercy of U.S. policy. China’s desire is to have positive relations with everybody, but Chinese decision-makers have no pretense of their ability to either shape the region or draw any ally away from the embrace of the United States. They also see themselves in absolutely no position to provide the kinds of security guarantees that the United States guarantees to its allies.
Tactically, China tries to reach out and pick up distressed assets, tries to make small agreements that the United States and its allies are unwilling to pick up, at low prices, for purely commercial reasons – purely mercantilist reasons. And they also tend to pick up assets that people say, that’s just too dangerous. I don’t want to be in Sudan, right? It’s too risky to be in Sudan.
But Chinese oil companies will go to Sudan, and they’ll go all kinds of places because they feel that’s where they have competitive advantage – in their ability to take risk. But at the same time, China’s willingness to sacrifice its ties to the United States on behalf of some trading partner in the Middle East or beyond is absolutely zero, absolutely zero. And time and time again, when the United States has gone to the Chinese and said, this is really serious; do not sell this; do not – the Chinese have stopped.
And I think that’s a Chinese recognition that for China, the key strategic relationship in the world is not with a small, regional power. It’s with the United States, that the United States – we always think of the United States as an Atlantic power because we think about our heritage with Europe. And what we keep forgetting is the largest U.S. naval presence is Pacific Command. We are fundamentally a Pacific power. And the Chinese never forget that for a minute.
At the same time, China’s been this tremendous beneficiary of U.S. efforts to maintain security and stability in the Middle East. Chinese leaders share a discontent of many in the region, and many in this room, at Washington’s management of regional security affairs. Yet, the United States has preserved the free flow of oil and protected the very regimes on which Chinese energy demand is reliant, all at a very, very low cost to China.
China’s only very occasionally played a larger role in regional security. It recently contributed peacekeepers to Lebanon – its first commitment of troops that far afield. It has three boats doing antipiracy off the coast of Somalia. I think it tells you something about Chinese power projection, that having three boats that far away from China in non-combat operations is about what the Chinese can sustain, in terms of projecting their power.
Compare that to the 5th Fleet in the gulf, and you just see a huge disconnect between the ability to project force into the region, between the U.S. and China. China’s military activities in the Middle East, if you take them as a whole, are clearly intended to do what? To reinforce the status quo the U.S. is trying to reinforce, right?
This isn’t the China of the ’60s and ’70s looking to promote revolutionary regimes, revolutionary movements all over the world. China is fundamentally a status quo power. The United States is fundamentally a status quo power. And China’s interest is in reinforcing the U.S. strategic role in the region, rather than in undermining it.
Overall, I think China’s had this remarkably unsentimental approach to the Middle East, which sometimes stands in contrast with the emotional overtones of Middle Easterners looking at great power relationships. China has been willing to be an effusive flatterer, but it’s consistently reluctant to put its interests at risk. It is locked into this status quo with the regimes in the Middle East.
Looking forward, it seems to me there’s little chance the United States won’t remain deeply committed to the Middle East for decades to come. Securing a stable, uninterrupted flow of oil at reasonable prices has remained a high priority for the United States, and promoting the stability of friendly regimes has consistently been an important means to that end. U.S. interests in the Middle East go far beyond energy.
The United States maintains a strategic interest in the security of Israel. In addition, the global U.S. defense posture is increasingly concerned with devising effective methods to combat terrorism and other forms of asymmetrical warfare that are often tied to combatances (sic) or grievances arising in the Middle East. Other interests also help shape our interests in the region, from nonproliferation to non-oil trade and beyond.
And while I hope that skepticism toward U.S. policy diminishes in the Middle East, as, indeed, it has a little bit since the election of President Obama, I’m hard-pressed to imagine when it might go away. On a host of issues, sentiment in the United States is simply different from that prevailing in the Middle East, and the different sentiment will produce different policies.
In many cases, of course, there isn’t a separate Middle East policy, so much as a Middle Eastern critique of an American policy. And this isn’t so surprising, but it does suggest to me the difficulty of meeting regional desires. In fact, to my mind, what the region’s governments seek is U.S. consultation, and out of that consultation, wisdom will emerge.
It’s the U.S. job to be wise, and it’s their job to act in ways that protect their rather vulnerable countries’ interests. And there remains no better way to do that, and there will remain no better way to do that, than to maintain those governments’ close ties to the United States. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Jon. As the moderator, I’d like to ask the first question, which is really open to every panelist. And then we will go to the audience for questions. Amin started out by talking about how we talk about the Middle East and talk to the Middle East, but don’t talk with the Middle East, and Jon just finished by saying that leaders there seek to be consulted, and out of that, wisdom will emerge. So that’s how we started and that’s how we finished.
I’m interested in – well, on a recent trip, I heard the same thing: That they feel some resentment that they were not listened to when they advised us about Iraq and that they’re not being listened to now, with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. So I’d like the panelists to explore that. What can we do about that?
And actually, Leon was saying that our influence is declining, and if we cease to be seen as a reliable security partner to Israel, it may move in a different direction. So how do we resolve this? Listening to the Arab leaders, who are offering us reasonable ideas about how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict – the Crown Prince Abdullah initiative of 2002 being, I think, the best one – and how do we deal with the fact that we may be losing our ability to actually bring that about? Can the panelists comment on this?
DR. ALTERMAN: If I may, the only issue in the Middle East isn’t the Arab-Israeli conflict, and one of the things that I’ve recently done, not only a couple weeks ago, but on a longer, more focused trip in the spring, is to talk to Arab leaders about what to do about Iran, behind closed doors. And I’ve had this conversation for several years.
And the fact is, there’s no policy toward Iran. There are critiques of American policy toward Iran, but there’s no policy in any state toward Iran that I can see. There are critiques of American performance. There are critiques of American strategy. There are critiques of American language. But there’s not a constructive way forward.
On the Abdullah initiative, the Arab initiative on Arab-Israeli peace, as you point out, in 2002, was an interesting and focused opportunity, but it seems to me that, on the one hand, it doesn’t constitute a policy because there wasn’t really a concerted effort to push it forward and sell it, and it hasn’t been integrated into a broader series of patterns. I mean, it comes to Jim’s point about the Arab League, sort of, not being able to make itself into a coherent international actor.
And I think one of the advantages of the United States is also one of its weaknesses. We don’t do anything completely coherently because everything we do is a consequence of the interagency process, which is full of compromises and deals and bringing in ideas from lots of places. So everything ends up being an amalgam of different ideas, and when you try to pull out what the actual theory is, the theory often gets muddled in the deal-making.
That being said, we can execute, right? When the president makes a decision, the president signs off and it goes out and you have organs that can act – know how to act and have the capability to act – in a series of focused ways. What I think often happens in the Arab world is, both individual governments don’t have the executive capacity, and collectively, Arab governments don’t have the executive capacity.
So where Arab governments are often exceptionally good is on individual deal-making, right? And you see the Qataris have played this role, and other governments have occasionally played this role, of brokering agreements. But in terms of enforcing, in terms of executing – in terms of all those other things and the range of government activities – I think the Arab world is generally not very good at that, can’t do the sustained policy execution.
On the other hand, is often very critical of the U.S. – both the decisions that are made and the execution it takes. I think that this disparity is a reality. You can lament it, but I think it’s an enduring reality and it’s part of the landscape of the region.
DR. TARZI: If I may, just briefly – first of all, I totally concur with Jon, not because he’s my friend, but I actually agree. I think when you go to the aspect of the Arab world, I think first, we need to get away from that.
Yes, there’s an Arab League back in Cairo, but with all due respect, we still give it much more credence than it has, and it allows – as we just heard from DR. ZOGBY – it allows for that lack of policy or that non-policy to become a policy, and excuse both in the international scene, but also with the domestic aspects of it. I think the Arab League, you know, should have gone away with Mr. Nasser, but still, somehow, is sticking there.
DR. ALTERMAN: The British created it.
DR. TARZI: But that’s one aspect, is the responsibility. I use the word “responsibility” on the side of the Middle East – and I don’t just say Arab; the Middle East aspects to follow through. You mentioned the Prince-now-King Abdullah initiative. You know, we can talk about the Arab-Israeli issue.
Recently, there was a study that is still not public, but looking at what was done in the West Bank on – and it’s pretty broad – that there is – imagine a scenario where Israel will accept 99 percent – to give up 99 percent of the West Bank – 99 percent to 1967 borders, for the Palestinian side to recognize Israel’s special interest in the region because of history. Close to 90 percent said, no.
There was an added question to that, that an incentive would be put in there. The incentive will be – I think it’s $10 billion to be distributed among all the people. Then the questions even go lower. Close to 90-percent-plus say no. So if that is just an indication – I’m not saying all polls or one poll should make policy – even this land-for-peace may not be the answer.
You know, if that possibility was there right now – maybe with the current Israeli government, it may not be on the table – but let’s say even that was on the table – a two-state solution, which is our official united States policy – whether that’s even applicable. Sometimes, we may be fooling ourselves with ideals, not just because we are perfect and the other side is not, but from the other side, I think a lot of what we hear is rhetoric, rather than actual policy that, when the implementation comes, actually will go forward. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: I think Jim would have something.
DR. HADAR: Yeah, let me just make a few points regarding your question, and in general. First of all, when we talk about the Middle East, you referred several times to “they.” You know, the Middle East is a big region. It includes many countries, many civilizations. One of the problems that we had when the Cold War ended – during the Cold War, everything was much more structured between, you know, pro-American and pro-Soviet regimes. Today, it’s a much more confusing mosaic, if you will, that exists there.
And the U.S. has remained as the only power – because of the collapse of the Soviet Union – that has to deal with many of these problems. And the point that I made is that the U.S. – again, I was putting an emphasis that American power is still paramount, that the U.S. is still a superpower, but there are many more constraints on the ability of the United States because of economic and military decline. I don’t have any other word to use for that.
And the fact of the matter is, we hear it’s almost like the best of all possible worlds in the Middle East today, but that is not the case. The fact of the matter is that the second gulf war resulted in – U.S. policies resulted in the emergence of Iran as a major power in the region. Turkey has been revising its policy. Iraq is still a mess. And the U.S. has major problems, in terms of dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issue because of many domestic constraints, and also, changes that are taking place in the region.
There is clearly much more radicalization of the Israeli and Palestinian public that has made it much more difficult to achieve something that was almost achieved in 2000, when you know, that was the height of America’s unipolar moment and you had relatively moderate leaderships on both sides. Today, that is not the case and it’s much more difficult for the United States to do that, and I empathize with President Obama. You know, he faces those problems and he has to deal with the reality as it is, including his need to get reelected, for example.
So there are a lot of – you know, I do think that we are entering into a new era, and as far as China is concerned, I think your analysis was a little bit misconceived in the sense that what the Chinese are doing at this point – they’re actually watching and enjoying what is happening to the United States, that it gets more entangled in the Middle East, and there is no need for the Chinese to do anything, as far as the United States is concerned, because the United States is creating its own problems in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the Chinese are just waiting.
Actually, there was a very interesting story a few months ago in Afghanistan. You know, I don’t have to tell all of you how the U.S. is shedding blood and treasure and so on in Afghanistan, and it came a point in which the Afghani government had to make a deal with an outside business – was going to make a lot of money in terms of dealing with one of the new industries, they picked out the Chinese and not the Americans. So you know, the Americans are providing security protection, now, for Chinese businesses in Afghanistan. I think the Chinese are probably quite happy about that.
DR. ZOGBY: Just on that final point, we do a lot of surveys in the Middle East. We do a business confidence index. And what we find is, increasingly, a sense that, going east instead of west is the place that businessmen are looking toward in making their five-year plans. They still see the United States as a critical economy, as one that they’re deeply invested in, but it’s easier, and they view, smarter and safer, to do business in the East than in the West.
They are the growing economies of the world. And without becoming apocalyptical here, I mean, I kind of think that Lenin’s imperialist war is actually going to be the one that we fight with China before the end of this century, as we – I mean, you go to Saudi Arabia and you visit and office supply place and he has 500 computers that he just ordered – 400 of them have a Hewlett-Packard label and the other ones have no label.
They’re the exact same computer – Chinese companies making them for an American company, selling them abroad. At some point, they just take off the company label and put no label or their own label on it and market it. At what point in their decision-making do they decide, screw the HP label completely? Let’s just sell it, and it’s our market, not yours anymore, and the rivalry accelerates?
Let me just comment on this, “talking at, not with.” That’s what my book is about – Arab voices. And it’s about the fact that we do talk at, and not with, and the result is that we both don’t listen. So we shape policies based on what we think and what we think they think, instead of what they really think. I think the president was absolutely right: I mean, we have a set of policies in the Middle East that are based on an imagined region, not the real region. They have the same problem, looking back at us.
But I try to deal with that issue and I think it’s important. In light of that, let me just make three observations about some of what was said. There is an Arab world, Amin, and it’s real. And it is – it’s one I think we have to recognize. One of the myths we have is that, on the one hand, they’re all the same and so why bother, you know – we can talk about them like Raphael Patai and write about the “Arab mind” or we can be Tom Friedman and dismissively write about Mid-East rules to live by, as if they’re a bunch of violent, angry, fanatic, untrustworthy – whatever.
I mean, it’s shocking. I mean, when Tom wrote that article, I thought, Christ, if you put “black” in there instead of “Arab,” I mean, nobody would have published that piece of tripe. And yet, there it is. And it was a way to absolve a really bad decision about going into Iraq and say, Mr. President – he wrote it in 2006, and it was at the point where the Iraq study group was doing their work – and he’s saying, in effect, Mr. President, it’s not your fault they didn’t understand the gift you gave them – very disturbing.
That’s one of the myths. The other myth is that they’re so different that there’s no world at all. But in our polling, we find that there is a world. Yes, I mean, the incredibly variety of views about culture, about life, about appreciation of their own country and values, from Morocco to UAE and Lebanon, Egypt – whatever country you look at, there is this incredible diversity.
But there is this commonality of political concerns that are striking and that cannot be dismissed. And when you get this incredible interest in Palestine, which has become an existential issue – does anyone deny that there is a Jewish community? Of course not. And we understand the reality of it, forged, in some ways, out of the Holocaust experience. I mean, the fact is, don’t forget American Jewry opposed the creation of Israel, in large measure, thought it was a bad idea. Reform Judaism was a counterpoint to Zionism.
The Holocaust and the ’67 War, in many instances, created this sense. Jews looked at people very much like them going through this trauma and said, there’s me. Arabs feel the same way about Palestine. It is not a Holocaust, to be sure, but it is people very much like me. When we ask people why they’re interested in Palestine, they say, “Arabs like me.”
It is the wound that doesn’t close, that doesn’t heal. It is, in fact, an issue that makes Arabs – even here in my community, my uncle, years ago, made a horrible mistake, being Lebanese, Maronite, decided that in the ’82 invasion, he would go to a local synagogue and thank them, in a public address, from having freed Lebanon from the PLO – completely lost his base at the church in the Maronite community.
The sense of outrage that people felt – my brother called me at one point and he said, I’m at the bakery here. He said, it’s weird. He said kids we grew up with are now Arab-American. They’ve become Arabs over this thing. That was the situation in the Arab world. You can deny the reality of that, but you do so at your own risk. And I think we’ve denied it and we’ve made a horrible mistake in denying it.
With that said – and that is that there are these feelings that are deep and that are real and that cannot be denied that create an identity that is a political force in the region, not just about Palestine, but it is a central issue. It’s an existential, almost defining, personal issue in people’s lives. I would also add that there is some significant change afoot in the region. And that is that not only do we find – Rafic Hariri said, years ago, after the Arab League summit – he said the importance of this summit was that it changed the possibility of talking about peace in the region.
He said, if 10 years ago, I had said, I recognize Israel and there should be two states, he said, I would have been an outcast. He said now, the question is not, do you support it, but it’s how do you make it real and make it just for everybody. In our most recent polling, we find in almost every Arab country, three-quarters of people support two states. They don’t believe America’s committed to making it happen; they don’t believe Israel is committed to making it happen. But they support it.
And what they don’t support is a West Bank settlement. They do support a comprehensive settlement, like the one the Arab League talked about, that has to include the refugee issue, that has to include Jerusalem, that has to include secure borders – yes, for Israel, but also for Palestinians to give them access and egress. They’re not willing to solve a problem in the West Bank and let Gaza go or let refugees stay refugees.
And understanding the broader Arab narrative and not just defining it the way it’s defined here – well, let’s see now, if Fayyad succeeds and there’s a good economy, maybe we could just morph that into a state, recognize it and that will put it away. That won’t work, and so let’s understand that there is a solution, there is an Arab acceptance of that solution. It is a deeply felt need to have that solution. But it is on terms that they find acceptable, not just ones that we define as acceptable.
One last thing, and that is this issue of Arab paralysis. There is paralysis. But I think, almost, that the paralysis is – and I should add that to my earlier comment – is almost rational. It is rational decision-making. Where’s the choice? I mean, if you’re sitting in Kuwait – I’m sitting with a minister in Kuwait and the day before, the Clinton administration had bombed northern Iraq, taking off from the gulf, flying over Kuwait.
The next day, they called off the bombing and stopped it. And the minister said to me, we didn’t know it was going to happen. And then when it stopped, we didn’t know that was going to happen. Nobody talks to us. If you’re in UAE and you have 500,000 Iranians working in Dubai and Iran is one of your major trading partners and you have umpteen flights going back and forth from Tehran to Dubai every day.
And you’ve got a nut job on the other side of the water and you count on the United States to provide stability, and our policy amounts to a kind of a meandering, you know – I mean, a meandering, like you don’t know, from one day to the next, what we’re actually doing or saying.
We’re engaging; well, we’re not really engaging; we’re focusing on this. It’s all the nuclear thing because Israel’s the number one ally in the region, but Iran’s other involvement in the region, we sort of take a bye on. And they’re looking at a situation in Iraq that can devolve into regional chaos at any point, and no sense that we know where we’re going with it. What do they do?
And when you sit down and talk to them in private, of course they tell you, I wish you’d bomb the hell out of the guy and get rid of him. They want it to go away. Do they have confidence in the fact that we can make a decision? The answer is, they don’t. And on the issue of our policy, let’s understand, I mean, we’re supposed to be the people who produce kind of a rational decision-making process that produces a policy that works.
Iraq? Somebody really thought that one through and said, oh, I’ve got a really good idea; let’s do this and you know what, in six days it will be over. It will only cost us $2 billion. In six months, our troops will be out. It will be flowers in the street. Democracy will bloom. The whole Middle East will be – they actually thought that one out, not fantasy. So if you’re sitting there, a vulnerable state in the gulf trying to figure out how you approach the U.S. and what you do, I’d say you have some real questions about the country you rely on being able to be a rational decision-maker, too.
It’s almost like an abused child dealing with an abusive parent, saying, I think I can handle this one, now. I depend on him to bring the food home. I’m wary of what he’s going to do. He’s very unpredictable, especially when he starts to drink. (Laughter.) But you know, let me try to see if I can manage this. I think your topic was well-put and it is the situation that I think the region finds itself in.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you. Well, we got a late start because of the weather and the traffic, but I do want to give you the opportunity to ask questions. So is there one from the audience?
Q: Hi, thank you all for your presentations. I guess my question is going back to the security part of the title of the event, regarding, can the United States be a reliable security partner or not. There was a recent study that came out of an energy policy – (inaudible, off mike) – Princeton who was trying to talk about the cost of U.S. forward deployment into the Persian Gulf.
And this study is looking from 1976 until 2008 – so peacetime and war-time. And he found that from the beginning of 1990, ’91, until now, on average about half of the Defense Department’s budget has been going towards this region. Now, other studies put the number much lower and say maybe it’s only 10 percent of the budget. But whether it’s 10 percent or 50 percent, I mean, these are huge sums of money.
So I think one of the question is, is it in our interest to be – (inaudible) – these types of sums of money to the region, particularly – (inaudible) – many U.S. allies no longer want a large and visible American military presence. The Iraqis – (inaudible). The Saudis did – (inaudible). The smaller gulf countries like Kuwait, Qatar, et cetera, still want us there.
But so the discussion about how this presence should – how it should look in the future – should we go back to some sort of offshore balancing? You know, or completely rely on the small Gulf States? You know, so I was curious to your opinions on what you think – you know, how you think U.S. forward presence will look in the future and how – (inaudible).
DR. HADAR: Yeah, I am very interested in this topic, and actually, if you go to the Cato website, we did a lot of studies on related topics. One of the – I mean, to actually expand on what you said, one of the interesting things is that the U.S. actually gets most of its oil not from the Middle East, contrary to what people think. I mean, if you ask the man on the street, they think that the U.S. gets most of its oil from Saudi Arabia.
Actually, Americans get most of your oil from domestic production and from this hemisphere. Actually, one of the greatest suppliers of oil for the United States is Hugo Chavez – you know, our great friend – which actually demonstrates our ability to make a distinction between commercial relationship and diplomatic relationship.
Now actually, if you go today and look at the cost that you pay today – the gas at the pump, you know – say it’s $10 and you say wow, that’s really cheap. But if you factor into the price of oil the cost of American security interventions in the Middle East, again in the name of securing access to oil in the region, it’s much higher. It’s very much higher.
So you know, that is indeed the cause. Of course, people go and say, well, it’s not really the access to the oil to the United States because, in some respects, the Europeans and the Japanese are more dependent on oil from the Middle East. But the U.S. is the leading global economy, needs to make sure that the region remains stable so the global economy will not collapse.
And you know, that’s an argument that I want to see an American president going to the public and saying, let’s go more in the Middle East in order to ensure that the global economy remains stable. That’s a very, very kind of complex argument that I think most Americans are not going to buy into. One of the arguments that should be made is, indeed, why are the Europeans and the Japanese and the South Koreans – all those economies who actually get more of their oil from the Middle East – why are they not contributing more, in terms of spending on defense?
A country like France, a country like Germany – one of the reasons that they have that famous six weeks’ vacation and a great health-care system is because they don’t spend on defense, that we provide them with their security, which allows someone like Sarkozy to go around and say that we need to do something about Iran, but by that, he means that the U.S. is going to do something about that because they are not going to do anything. So I totally agree with you on that.
DR. MATTAIR: This young man has a question and then we’ll go to you.
Q: Yes, several of you talked about, kind of, the rising influence of Iran and how that’s affecting the region. Vali Nasr said that it, in many ways, passed the Arab-Israeli conflict as the defining phenomenon in the region. I was wondering if you could go into a little bit more detail about how you feel the U.S. should approach this, in terms of its policy in the next 25 years, in terms of its policy with Arab nations.
DR. MATTAIR: In other words, how do they see it, and how would they like us to respond? How would they like us to be dealing with that?
Q: And how you feel the U.S. should respond or should counter it.
DR. ALTERMAN: It depends who “they” is – I mean, to sort of disaggregate the views of Middle Eastern opinions on Iran. I think Zogby International just did some polling for Shibley Telhami, which argued that most Arabs don’t see a nuclear Iran as a problem. In fact, many Arabs see a nuclear Iran as actually adding to stability in the Middle East. I would defy you to find a single minister in a GCC government who would endorse that view.
So I think you have a wide range of views. My own sense of Iran is that the future course of Iranian behavior is going to depend largely on things that we can’t directly influence. I mean, we can play on the margins, but it seems to me that the most profound influence on Iranian international behavior is the international price of oil, which has a lot to do with global demand and has a lot to do with Iraqi production.
I can’t tell you what Iraqi production is going to be in five years. I can’t tell you what Asian demand is going to be in five years. If you can start filling in my variables, I’ll start projecting out what our policy should be in 25 years. But it seems to me, if you look for, what are the likely catalysts for a dramatic change in Iranian behavior one way or the other, my sense is the most dramatic catalyst is something not directly under the control of the United States at all, which is the international price of oil.
And if you sort of want proof that it’s not under our control, all the people who said the Iraq war was for oil should look at the price of oil before the Iraq war and the price of oil after the Iraq war and sort of see how we played that one out – not so well.
DR. ZOGBY: Let me just – just an observation on that: Those numbers that he cited on Iran represented a shift from numbers we had the year previous. And I don’t know what the transcript’s going to read like on this, but I account for the shift – it’s a “screw you” factor. (Laughter.)
What happened in the couple of months right before we did the poll were the flotilla crisis in Gaza fueling a lot of anger across the region and the NPT meeting here in Washington, which provoked the sense of a double standard. And so is it an Arab public opinion saying, we want Iran with a bomb, or is it a public opinion saying, we know who’s got bombs; we know it’s not fair; we understand that you don’t like it; therefore, we like it.
And I think that has to be factored in. And Jon’s absolutely correct about the fact that there’s a disconnect between the thinking of leadership in the region about Iran, despite the fact that there are ties that they have to maintain. I mean, they live in the neighborhood and have to deal with the crazy neighbor. But at the same time, you’ve got a public opinion that is playing out what I called before this Farrakhan factor. And it is a real issue. Perceptions become real and a part of politics and have to be understood.
DR. MATTAIR: So for the public, in part, it’s a reflection of disappointment about our Arab-Israeli policy.
DR. ZOGBY: It’s disappointment-plus. It’s not just – it’s a visceral reaction to their own feelings of vulnerability that are reflected in or manifested by the Arab-Israeli conflict, a sense of betrayal that are played out in that conflict – and it’s all of that combined. And when I say it’s existential, it’s a personal issue for people.
They don’t view it as a foreign policy question. It’s a personal issue. It’s something that defines, in part, them. I mean, when you see the feelings that are created in the region by the war in Gaza, it is not simply another war someplace, happening. It’s something very personal that shakes peoples’ lives.
DR. ALTERMAN: And the analog is the way many Americans feel about 9/11, and attitudes about Muslims and the Arab world as a consequence of that.
DR. ZOGBY: Yeah, good parallel, Jon – and in the sense, too, that New York, as a cultural hub – I mean, I sometimes wonder, about 9/11, that if it had happened elsewhere, it certainly would have been a shock to the system, et cetera. But there is something about Manhattan, about New York, about the cultural symbol that it is, how it, in some ways, because of Hollywood and movies, et cetera, New York became a defining symbol for America. In some ways, Palestine is the same kind of thing. Arabs have never been there, don’t know the first thing about it – couldn’t tell you villages, one from another. But Palestine, somehow, speaks to an Arab consciousness and has to be dealt with.
DR. TARZI: Just on Iran, I’ll add I agree with what you heard before. If there’s a country, in my view, that has a – especially looking not just today, but more strategic – you used the word 25 years, which is important – I think the key country in Iran is not the United States; it’s Russia. Russia is, with the nuclear issue, with the fuel – hydrocarbons, and I just say that because it’s natural gas and oil – the key country that looks at Iran with interest is Russia.
Because if Iran could become a normal state – I don’t mean a U.S. friend, but a country that the world could deal with without sanctions or the vulnerability of an economic meltdown, Russia would lose its power over controlling oil and gas to Europe and elsewhere. If you look at Iran strategically, from an oil and gas perspective, there’s no other country in the world – Turkey would come second – but no other country in the world that has a more strategic location.
Here’s a country that has access to the Caucasus through Armenia and Azerbaijan; it has direct access to the Caspian. And normalcy in Iran means, also, that Russians finally have to come down and do something about the Caspian legal regime. It also has a direct line to Central Asia through Turkmenistan. Going south, it has access both to the Persian/Arab Gulf – whatever you want to call it – the gulf, or to, also, outside of the choke point of the Hormuz, through Chabahar, right into the Gulf of Oman.
If Iran was to stabilize itself as a country – again, I’m not saying as a U.S. ally – as a normal country in the international community, Russia will lose its monopoly over controlling oil and gas going to Europe, specifically, but also to the rest of the Middle East. And for that reason, I think it may be in Moscow’s interest to keep the Iranian cauldron not boiling, but simmering for a long time to come. Thank you.
Q: Thank you very much for all your comments here. I have a question pretty much for every one of the panel.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, – (chuckles) – we have, possibly, time for one question if you can make it a broad one.
Q: I’m really wondering as to – (inaudible, off mike). And in fact, the question for DR. ZOGBY is that, you know, what happens if this process of two-state solution fails? Amin presented that – (inaudible). What if this occurred? And if I may ask one quick question from DR. TARZI because what – (inaudible). I wanted to know what U.S. can do about Iran not playing – or not – (inaudible) – more constructive U.S. policy on Iran – (inaudible).
DR. MATTAIR: Well, who would like to start? We do need to make answers brief, I think. And Jon actually has to leave, so let’s thank Jon very much. (Applause.)
DR. ZOGBY: I can be very brief. If it fails, I dare not – let me start differently – I dare not project failure. I am not optimistic about success, but if there’s failure, I think that you simply have a long, long dragging-out of what has already been a long, long, dragged-out series of hardships. People adapt in ways that are not always positive on both sides. But I do not have an outcome. I know there are those who talk about one-state and apartheid and whatever. I haven’t the luxury of projecting one of those outcomes. It’s too devastating to imagine. I’m not hopeful or optimistic about the two-state solution being accomplished; I dare not even imagine if it fails.
DR. HADAR: Well, I think that Iran notwithstanding the Islamic regime that they have, they have national interests that any regime that would come to power in Iran is going to pursue, both in the region, which I think is going to – I mean, I don’t think that requires a lot of knowledge and intelligence to assume that Iran, because of its civilization and history and so on, is going to probably become – together with Turkey and the Arab countries and Israel and so on – become one of the major players in the region under any scenario, especially if it would be more integrated into the system.
DR. TARZI: Going and looking at Iran as a – what you heard from DR. HADAR before – things are not stagnant in the Middle East or anywhere in the world. Things change. Right now, we look at Iran mostly from a 1979 perspective. It’s hard to imagine, but it was a reality that Moshe Dayan came into Iran as a hero after reconquering Jerusalem. So that’s the same Iran. Iran could change.
Where the issue is – right now, this particular regime – or members of, not all of them – are exaggerating what Iran has. If you take the nuclear aspects out, Iran’s conventional forces are extremely weak. What you hear is as if they are about to go conquer the world. Their air force is absolutely nonexistent. They are faking missile tests. They are literally faking them.
But it’s accepted in the region as very fearful. The best thing, sometimes, is to say nothing. Let the narrative fall short, because what happens right now is, they are projecting as if they can go ahead and give safety. Even, they tell the Saudis that we’re going to give you safety – you know, kick out the foreigners; we’re going to be there. How Iran is projecting the power is mostly through proxies – and in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s much closer and they can do it, and in Lebanon.
And usually, unfortunately, that is more – whether you call them terrorists or destructive forces – not a military force that comes out there. Yes, when you hear Iran’s statistics, they have “bases” in Zimbabwe and Bolivia. In Zimbabwe, there is a helicopter that does not fly. Yes, there is an Iranian helicopter in Zimbabwe. But there is an amazing ability to exaggerate these things. Sometimes, it’s just, let them go there.
But you have to also watch because the nuclear option will change realities on the ground. That’s why the nuclear issue has become so central, because otherwise – conventionally – Iran is not a threat. But as we just heard, I think Iran has a great place in that region. It is a civilization that’s been there – read your Bible; Iran was still there. It will be here again. And it’s a very important power.
How you manage that to live and let live, rather than – you know, when Iran says to Saudis that we’re going to manage the gulf for you, that just sends very wrong alarm bells. So it has to be more of a mutual trust, rather than managing the gulf for the rest of the GCC, or any other country, for that. I think Iran will come out of all of this as it has done. In Iranian history, this is not even a page. I’ll say it like that.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you. Well, there are just one or two things I’d like to say before we leave. I’ve been reading this – James Zogby, “Arab Voices: What They’re Saying to Us and Why it Matters” – and it’s worth reading. I recommend it to you. And I’d also like to say that this conference – the transcript will be on our website within days, and also, the video of this conference will be on our website within days.
That’s www.mepc.org. And it’s a new website – a newly relaunched website with a lot of literature there about how the Arabs view us and the history of our Arab-Israeli negotiations and debates about Iran between Iranian analysts and Saudi Arabian analysts. So I ask you to visit the website and profit from what we have to offer you. And thank you very much for coming. (Applause.)