The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-seventh in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on July 21, 2014, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
We're ready to begin. I'm Tom Mattair, I'm the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. I'd like to welcome you here.
This is the 77th Capitol Hill Conference, and it is about President Obama's policies in the Middle East.
We are live streaming this event and C-SPAN is here. So I would like to say a few words about the Council before we begin.
The Middle East Policy Council is now 33 years old. It has three major programs. One is the publication of our journal, Middle East Policy. It's been published now for 32 years, and for 30 of these years it's been edited by Anne Joyce. This is her 30th anniversary as our editor.
Would you stand up, please, Anne? (Applause.)
So Anne has taken the journal from its infancy to its current status. And it is the most frequently cited journal in the field of contemporary politics in the Middle East.
Our second program is these Capitol Hill Conferences. As I've said, we've done 77 of them. And we publish them in the journal. We live stream them. And we have the video on our website so you can watch them later.
And our third program is an outreach program in which we provide content for secondary school educators and community college educators and workshops for them and their students.
You can see all of that on our website at www.mepc.org. And I hope you visit; it is a very rich website.
Now, I'd like to say just some brief words about the topic before I introduce the speakers. We chose this topic when we heard President Obama's speech at West Point late in May this year. He did say that the United States would use force unilaterally if our core interests were directly threatened. But he emphasized a counterterrorism strategy which would rely upon supporting and training and working with security partners and announced a $5 billion program to support security partners in the Middle East, having identified terrorism as the most direct threat to the United States.
Not long after that, the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria moved down the Tigris River and the Iraqi security forces retreated, raising the question of how much we can depend upon a strategy like that in Iraq or even in Afghanistan where we will be leaving soon.
And he said that Syria would be a major focus of this strategy. And we know that we've had a difficult time finding security partners there because it's a very fragmented opposition and hard to vet and find moderates.
Our panelists will be discussing that today.
Another point that he emphasized in his speech was our commitment to upholding international order through support for international institutions and international law. And he spoke about our multilateral sanctions against Iran and our multilateral diplomacy with Iran in that context.
And we know that the P5+1 negotiations with Iran were scheduled to conclude yesterday and they didn't. So they were extended for four months because everyone feels that some progress was made, enough progress was made to go forward and continue trying. We will discuss that today: what terms ought to be in a final agreement and what the United States would have to consider doing if we don't get a solution we consider satisfactory.
I was struck in the speech by the fact that when he talked about international order, international institutions and international law, he never mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But his support for Kerry's peacemaking was well known and unfortunately it did not succeed and he is said to be willing to try again before his term is over, but wanted the failure to really sink into the minds of the parties and hope that they would come back to him with better ideas.
And now instead of that we have the third escalation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip in the past five years. We know how they go and we know how they end and they don't produce agreements, they produce casualties. So that is another situation that we should try to explore today.
And I know the panelists are ready to do that.
I will introduce the panelists very briefly, all at the same time, and they'll speak in the order in which they're listed. And I ask each of them to come to the podium because we do have TV cameras here, and speak into the microphone, which I hope I've been doing.
Our first speaker is — and by the way, each of these speakers has a bio that would take all day to read. And you will find them on the back of the invitation, so I'm only going to give you the highlights.
But our first speaker will be Kenneth Pollack, who is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy at the Brookings Institution. And before that, he was the director of the center, and before that, he was the director of research at the center. And he also has been at the Council on Foreign Relations and had a career as an analyst at the CIA and is a very well-known author who has a recent book out called “Unthinkable,” which is about the Iranian nuclear program.
Our second speaker is Paul Pillar, who is a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, a contributing editor to the National Interest — I recommend that you look up his articles there — and a former CIA analyst.
The third speaker is Amin Tarzi, who is the director of Middle Eastern Studies at the Marine Corps University and a senior fellow at the Program on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
And finally, our fourth speaker is Chas Freeman, chairman of Projects International, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and also a former president of the Middle East Policy Council.
So with that I conclude and turn the mic over to Kenneth Pollack. (Applause.)
KENNETH POLLACK, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution; former CIA Military analyst; former Director of Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Good afternoon. Thank you, Tom, for that kind introduction. Thank you to the Middle East Policy Council for inviting me up here today.
When the Obama administration first took office, I had the occasion to talk on any number of different instances with different members of the administration about their Middle East policy. And of course, that interaction has gone on ever since.
And what I consistently heard from the president's team, the president's Middle East team, was a proposition that the United States had consistently over-invested in the Middle East. That was their perspective on U.S. policy toward the region, that the U.S. had needlessly squandered resources, time, energy, et cetera on the region and they were determined to fix that.
And when I pressed them on this, I pressed them to explain their rationale, what I heard back very consistently from them was a three-point argument. The first one was that we Middle East experts and many other people beyond that had greatly exaggerated the importance of the Middle East and in particular had greatly exaggerated its capacity for things to go wrong there.
As part of that, they argued that the region really didn't need the United States to the extent that we Middle East analysts and other people seems to believe. And what's more, some would go beyond that to argue that in fact the United States was a major source of the problems in the region and that not only could the United States afford to disengage from the region, but that in fact it would be better for the region if we had less to do with it.
And then they went on to argue that the Middle East simply wasn't that important and that even if bad things happened there they really wouldn’t affect core American interests and that therefore, for all of these reasons, they felt that it was not just possible, but in fact necessary for the United States to pay less attention, devote fewer resources to the Middle East and instead pivot to other things, to Asia and, in particular, to dealing with the American economy which, of course, and I think that the president was right about, that the president believed that that was what the American people had elected him to deal with first and foremost.
At the time, I questioned many of these assumptions, but I think that we can see very clearly the underlying foundation of how the Obama administration, at least in its first four or five years, approached the Middle East in this basic philosophy, this basic sent of sentiments about the region.
Unfortunately, of course, this policy has run into some very significant problems since then. And certainly, the first set of assumptions that the Middle East wouldn't go to hell, that the United States wasn't necessary to keep it from going to hell and that the United States was in fact part of the problem rather than part of the solution, I think that that has been proven demonstrably false by the events of the last few years.
The region has gone to hell. And I say this as someone who wasn't exactly fond of George W. Bush's approach to the Middle East either.
I never thought that in 2014 I would be looking at a Middle East that could somehow be worse than the Middle East of 2006, the nadir of George W. Bush's approach to the Middle East. And yet, that's what I see. Iraq and Syria are in civil war, Libya is in civil war, Yemen is on the brink of civil war, probably is in civil war by most academic explanations, Lebanon has experienced all kinds of problems, the Arab spring is dead, Egypt has returned to a dictatorship, at least temporarily, any number of other problems are spreading all across the region. It is a deeply troubled region.
Not to mention the point that Tom just made about having yet another Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza. This is not a good situation. This is not a good region.
And while I don't think that everything that the Obama administration argued was wrong, I do think that the United States has certainly made its share of mistakes in the Middle East, and not only under the George W. Bush administration, although they certainly had more than their fair share of those mistakes.
But it certainly is the case that the United States has made mistakes in the region, that we have often contributed to the problems of the region. But nevertheless, I think the weight of evidence on the whole is that the United States has helped the problems in the region more than we have hurt them, especially if you accept the obvious examples, the obvious contrary examples of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and certain other issues.
And I think that in fact the best proof that even the Obama administration now recognizes this is how they've been handling the Middle East in the last year or so. We've seen a very significant change in the Obama administration's approach to many different issues in the region.
It started with the selection of Senator Kerry as our secretary of state, our foreign minister, and his decision to pursue a new peace process between Arabs and Israelis, between Israelis and Palestinians. And while that effort seems to have failed and failed badly, nevertheless, the fact that he was willing to do so when, for the previous three years the administration had wanted nothing to do with it, I think was the first indication that the administration was beginning, just beginning, to question some of those basic assumptions, was recognizing that the region was not headed in a good direction and was even threatening the last and most important of their assumptions, which is that problems in the region really weren't problematic for the United States.
But I think that we've seen since then a number of other important course corrections. The president's recent decision to allot $500 million for unknown purposes in support of the Syrian moderate opposition, that represents a very dramatic departure from their prior position on Syria and now the recent efforts, since the fall of Mosul, on the part of Secretary Kerry and other Obama administration officials to become much more actively involved in Iraq's politics to try as best they can to pull it back out of the civil war into which it has once again descended.
And I will say that I applaud those efforts and I think that they are the right ones. I only wish that they had come quite a bit earlier.
And in a piece in Foreign Affairs, I talked about this and I talked about the fact that I had the strong sense that it was my perception that while the United States had swung too far in one direction under George W. Bush toward unilateralism, toward the militarization of its Middle East policy, toward a war on terrorism that encompassed and overwhelmed everything else going on in the region, that I felt that the Obama administration unfortunately had pushed the pendulum too far in the other way toward disengaging, toward simply walking away from the region and believing that whatever happened there wouldn't be too bad and wouldn't be able to hurt us.
And again, I think that the administration is even recognizing that their position, that that early position has become unsustainable and is already tacking back in the other direction.
But what I take away from that in particular is obviously not just that we need to do better with some of the crises at hand — we do, I'm glad to talk about them. I will say actually that in a number of those cases, while I dislike how the Obama administration handled them before we got here, in some of those cases I actually largely in agreement with how they've been dealing with them since we got there.
And Iraq is a perfect example. I think that the administration's Iraq policy was an unmitigated disaster. I think that it helped cause the civil war in Iraq. But since the fall of Mosul with some tactical tweaks here or there, I think they have been by and large following the right policy toward Iraq.
But I think that Iraq in particular illustrates what we have to think about moving forward and what the Obama administration failed to recognize in its first four to five years, which is that especially in the Middle East the old aphorism that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is the best motto for the United States to take.
I think that there were any number of occasions when the United States could have had an impact on Iraq that could have allowed it to avoid the current impasse at a much, much lower cost, with much fewer resources, with much less commitment of time, energy, effort, et cetera, than what we may now have to sink into it if we are going to try to help them pull themselves out of civil war.
I think that we missed important opportunities early on with Syria. I think we missed some tremendous opportunities with Libya after the fall of Gadhafi. I think that we missed some tremendous opportunities in Egypt, especially after the fall of Mubarak where I think that had we made a great effort with the government then, we might have helped then Prime Minister Morsi avoid some of his worst mistakes — excuse me, President Morsi avoid some of his worst mistakes and perhaps even headed off the military coup that overthrew him and that replaced him with yet another Egyptian dictatorship. And I think that around the region we can find other instances of that.
And again, what it brings me back to is this essential focus, that the Middle East does need some help from the United States, but that the the more that we are engaged on a regular basis and the regular processes of diplomacy, of trade, of public diplomacy, of military assistance in a whole variety of ways, the better we will be able to head off the great problems of the region to prevent the kind of crises that we are now facing all around the region and the better able we will be, the more influence and leverage we will have when the inevitable Middle East crisis does break out.
Just looking forward briefly, I want to comment on a few other things. And again, I'm glad in the Q&A to focus on whichever specific parts you folks are interested in. But I just want to say a few words about a couple of issues that I think that are lying out there that we need to think harder about, again, in this same context of an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.
The first of these is the Arab spring. The Arab spring is not what any of us hoped it would be. It's not what most Arabs hoped it would be. And there's good reasons for that. There are a lot of different reasons for that.
But what I think that we need to recognize moving forward is that the desire for change on the part of a great many Arabs has not gone away. It has been frightened in many cases by fear of what happened in Syria and Yemen and Libya and elsewhere. But that basic unhappiness that gave rise to these protests movement all across the Middle East, they haven't gone away. And chances are they will reappear, they will resurface at some point in the not-too-distant future. And we need to be thinking about what form they will take and how best to head off the potentially very negative manifestations of that pressure.
And in my mind, it goes back to an idea that I and a number of other people were advocating for long before the Arab spring, which was the idea of reform rather than revolution, OK? And here I would actually suggest that we take a look at Ambassador Freeman's former stomping grounds in Saudi Arabia.
We don't see Saudi Arabia as a great beacon of reform. From my experience, the Saudis do and that's been a critical element in allowing the royal family and allowing the Saudi system to negotiate the Arab spring without the same kind of unrest that we saw in other countries.
I can remember speaking to Saudis at the time and having them say that, yes, while we have the same problems as Egypt, we don't need to do what the Egyptians did because we have Abdullah, not Mubarak, and Abdullah is moving us in the right direction. And for me, that's one thing to think about is, even in the face of all of this chaos and all of this anarchy, the impetus for change is still there.
And one useful role that we can play is in helping the remaining governments of the region, those that have not fallen into civil war, to think about how they can begin programs of reform that will at least begin to let off the pressure, that will diffuse the anger that led to the movements in 2011. That's a very important one.
And the last point that I wanted to make was on Iran. I'm still hopeful that we will get a deal with the Iranians. If we do, that would be by far the best outcome for us, for the Iranians, for our allies in the region.
But obviously, that hope has got to be tempered by the realities that we've faced certainly over the past six months, but arguably of a prior 35 years. It is going to be difficult. And I think that we need to start thinking now about what we might do if we don't get a deal with the Iranians.
We also, by the way, have to be thinking about what we do if we do get a deal with the Iranians. That will be equally important. But I've been struck by how many people around town are already focused on that.
I think that we also need to be thinking about the other side. And I think that this is going to be a very important debate to be had, because if we don't get that deal many people are going to take that as a sign that the Iranians are now bound and determined to acquire nuclear weapons. They may be right. We probably won't know.
But there's going to be a critical question of how we handle the Iranians and the rest of the world going forward. From my perspective, I think war is not a good option. I think war could be the worst of all options. But if we don't start to explore the alternatives, if we don't start to put in place the policy mechanisms and the pathways that we might follow when that time comes upon us, I fear that we will have no other good alternatives and we will find ourselves pushed into another Middle Eastern war that we don't need.
Just because I don't think that Obama has gotten it right, that he pushed too far toward disengagement doesn't mean that going to war with Iran is the right way to center that pendulum either.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Ken.
I should have said that there are cards on your seats. And if you think of questions, please write them down and my staff will collect them. It may be hard to take questions from the floor because we didn't get the standing mic that we asked for. So please.
Paul, thank you.
PAUL R. PILLAR, non-resident senior fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University; non-resident senior fellow, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institution; contributing editor, The National Interest; former CIA analyst
Thanks very much, Tom. And good afternoon.
The title of this event is “Obama's Foreign Policy Vision and the Future of the Middle East.” In my judgment, the vision thing, as the elder George Bush referred to it, is overrated. It tends to be a thing that people like us, pundits and critics such as those of us sitting in the front of the room, you know, like to deal with as a way to encapsulate and get our conceptual hands around policy. But any themes that would satisfy us in that respect would almost by definition be too simple, I would say simplistic, to be the basis for sound and successful U.S. foreign policy.
The challenges out there are simply too complex and the U.S. interests at stake in facing those challenges are too multifaceted to boil everything down to a single vision in a bumper sticker kind of way. And that certainly at least is true in the Middle East as elsewhere.
Successful foreign policies, including U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, I would suggest, are necessarily more ad hoc, at least as much a matter of avoiding losses as scoring gains, than the sort of vision that would score high in the estimation of most critics.
Foreign policy strategy does not tend to get high marks for not doing certain things as opposed to doing certain things in response to a positive vision. But I would suggest that not doing certain things, or to put it differently, you know, not screwing up, is at least as important in advancing and protecting U.S. interests in this region as doing things.
Ken suggested a motto, the thing about the ounce of prevention. Let me throw out an alternative motto, not to be conflicted with it, but I think you should consider it as well, that's the Hippocratic principle of first do no harm.
If you look back over the last few decades of U.S. involvement in the Middle East and the U.S. interests that have been affected by it and ask yourself what particular things where the U.S. had some control over it have had the biggest impact, positively or negatively, in terms of American lives, resources, distraction from other interests, legacy problems we're dealing with today, and I would have to put squarely at the top of the list and squarely on the negative side, the launch in the Iraq war in 2003.
So just as that example would indicate, not doing certain things and not doing harm, I think, is an important part of judging anyone's foreign policy, even though it doesn't get high marks from the, you know, the vision people.
Mr. Obama's West Point speech did not get especially high marks from most of the critics and it probably did not deserve them in terms of the usual criterion for assessing these things, as opposed to my criteria.
The one stab that the president seemed to take at a theoretical framework in the speech was a pretty bad one, in my view. He seemed to equate realism with isolationism, which was rather wrong. Much of the rest of what he did say was consistent, however, with, at least implicitly, with what I would consider more of a realist view, and that's sound.
The president articulated several important principles that I think we ought to bear very much in mind. He talked about distinguishing our core interests from other lesser interests and explicitly made the point that that distinction is important in weighing what measures and what means we should use to pursue those interests.
He also made very clearly the point that not every problem has a military solution. And I think this particular point is one on which we see the sharpest difference or the greatest daylight between Mr. Obama and his most vocal critics here in Washington.
I expect that Mr. Obama himself probably privately regrets, as he looks at the current mess in Libya, the role that the U.S. played in the use of military force there. I might be wrong, but that's just a guess in terms of private thoughts.
The president appropriately acknowledged the many tradeoffs between different U.S. objectives, even when dealing with a single Middle Eastern country, and he specifically used the example of Egypt, which is as good an example as any one, in which we have interests having to do with democratization and human rights, but he also quite frankly said we've got more strategic-type military interests. We can go on and on in detailing those, passage through the Suez Canal and so on.
He did not mention, I could also add, the Egyptian role in the current tragedy that we're reading about over the last week. But the point is he's correct that there are conflicting objectives. And it can't be all boiled down to one vision, even with a single country like Egypt.
The president made a good case, I thought, for collective action, the need to rely on what other countries and not just the U.S. do in this region, even when we're pursuing U.S. interests. And I think this is another major difference with some of his chief critics who seem to believe that if there is a problem out there, not only can it be solved, but the U.S. can and should be the one to solve it.
The president did not explicitly address, but I think we might, I think we should, the basic criteria in determining cooperation or lack of cooperation with particular states in the region. We Americans have an unfortunate manicky and tendency to divide the world, including countries in this part of the world, into allies on one side and adversaries on the other, a very rigid division, and to take that as the sole guide for determining whom we're going to cooperate with and whom we're going to oppose.
The label gets slapped on some as “ally” as if that were a substitute for careful thinking about what the government of that country is doing that may conflict with or may advance U.S. interests. And conversely, we look at those who are traditionally labeled as “adversaries” and we consider any influence that they might have as bad without taking the trouble to ask ourselves, how will they use that influence and to what purpose, which may or may not be consistent with or in conflict with our own interests.
There are a variety of conflicting and convergent interests with different states across the region, including ones that are traditionally labeled allies and others that are traditionally labeled adversaries. The most effective foreign policy, I would suggest, in the region is a flexible one that is not chained to any one set of fixed relationships, but rather leaves our policymakers and diplomats to do business wherever it serves U.S. interests.
Mr. Obama in that West Point speech voiced some pretty conventional themes that didn't really distinguish himself clearly from his critics and seem innocuous enough, although some of them may carry the hazard of trapping him into acting against some of his own principles, or at least increasing the pressure on him to act in ways contrary to his own principles.
He identified terrorism as the biggest threat to U.S. interests. We could debate that, but let's just have that sitting on the table right now.
The counterterrorist aid initiative that he announced is a worthwhile recognition of the principle I mentioned earlier of how what other countries do can be at least as effective as what we do ourselves in advancing our interests. And speaking as an old counterterrorist hand back from the pre-9/11 days, I can tell you quite strongly that on that particular issue, terrorism, the U.S. must rely at least as much on the actions of others who are closer to the front line of dealing with terrorist threats and groups as on any other issue.
But the enshrinement of terrorism as the prime threat with the natural focus on the ogre of the day, in this case the group that's called itself ISIS, increases the pressure to act in a place like Iraq along the lines who believe that every problem can be solved by the U.S. and every problem has a military solution, which again goes back against what the president was trying to articulate elsewhere in his address.
We see some of the same things regarding Syria, too, even though there the ogre is on the same side of the overall civil war as those that we would be assisting.
Still on terrorism, Mr. Obama mentioned in his speech what I thought were a very sound set of criteria in determining when to pull the trigger on a drone strike. But it still comes down to those individual decisions. And there probably is, I would guess, with this administration at least as much as the last one, you can just count the number of strikes that we've had, a bias in pulling that trigger maybe more often than a careful consideration of the criteria the president voiced would dictate because of the pressure to do something about terrorism.
A few closing thoughts. I think the best approach to U.S. policy in this region is somewhat a kin to steering, to use another cliché, the ship of state carefully to avoid the rocks and shoals where it might crash. And if we're thinking just about long-term vision, we may miss the rocks that are right in front of us, and my goodness there are plenty of them right in front of us in this region.
Now, that sounds a little bit like straight-lining, it's not imaginative, how can we change things for the better, you know, I'll grant that. And I would identify two particular things that would be most likely to more fundamentally change what we're looking at in the Middle East and change it, in my view, for the better.
One is very unlikely because the political courage here in Washington will not be mustered, the other is much more likely. The first one is the courage to do something about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to get that story off the tragic course, the tragedy which has been emphasized by the events of the last week more than anything I can say. That requires not so much vision as it does a conscience and the political courage.
The other thing that's happily much more likely is the one that Ken finished his thoughts on and I agree with almost everything Ken said about this, and that's completing the nuclear deal with Iran, which besides being the best way to preclude any Iranian nuclear weapon, would also by opening the door to a more normal relationship with Iran unshackle an important aspect of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, enable us, as I suggested earlier, to do business with anyone labeled as an adversary or an ally where it serves our own interests.
And the fact is the Iranians are major players in a lot of places of high concern to us, even where we wish they weren't, like Syria. And there are other places where they are not only a major player, but their interests actually are quite parallel to ours in major respects, even though in other respects they would still conflict. I'm thinking of Iraq, I'm thinking of Afghanistan to go a little bit farther east as areas where neither we nor the Islamic Republic have an interest in endless conflict and instability, which is on their borders and not on ours.
And finally, that kind of world in which we did have a more normal relationship with Iran or we're edging closer to it — I'm not suggesting any embassies are going to be opened up in the foreseeable future — but it would bring us closer to a system where we had more flexibility and leverage in dealing with anyone else in the region who is troublesome, whether they're labeled as an ally or an adversary.
Thank you very much.
DR. MATTAIR: Dr. Tarzi.
AMIN TARZI, Director of Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University; senior fellow, Program on the Middle East, Foreign Policy Research Institute
Thank you. Thank you very much. I want to just put one caveat. Unlike my esteemed colleagues, I still work for the United States government and I will be speaking here wearing my FPRI hat and not my Marine Corps hat. So whatever I say is Amin Tarzi speaking and not the Defense Department or any branch thereof.
While I agree on some of the main points the invasion of Iraq — before I was a government person, I wrote about that was one of the greatest strategic mistakes in our country's history and I still stick to that — and on the Iranian issue, but I'll dwell on that a little later, I do have — maybe I'm an idealist, maybe I just go to Middle East too often; I'll be there in three days again, I do understand the fact that we should look at ad hoc avoiding the rocks and sailing straight. But at the same time, I think, unlike any area in the world, you pick any area in this world and that includes now even sub-Saharan Africa which at one point was not doing so well, there is no place that has the problems that Middle East has.
People are talking about even why, you know, this has been going on for a long time and it's not new, the psyche of the Arabs and the Muslim problem, is it colonialism, you name it, is it the Arab-Israeli affair. This has been going on for so long. Some of us students of Middle East studied it when last century, literally.
But the question that I have is that unless we address those in some form or fashion, I think we go from crisis to crisis, it becomes more of a crisis management rather than trying to at least find a way as a reliable partner. Not that the United States can fix everything, I don't believe in that. I am a former Marine. I think everybody thinks that we can fix everything; I tell you, we cannot fix everything.
But as we heard before, yes, we are a partner. Yes, we have interests there for the foreseeable future, despite fracking and all that, that we need to be in that region. And they're interests that are interwoven with other countries in the region as well.
So I think a little bit of consistency is important. When you talk to colleagues in the region, they are confused. The word I get, if we are putting a policy forward to confuse them as part of an implementation of a policy, we are doing a fantastic job. Friend and foe are confused to the point that they have no idea what to do anymore.
And in my view and where the leadership of our country is no longer, and maybe that's not for the bad thing, we are no longer a unilateral situation right after the Cold War when the United States was the sole power by all means. And there are rising powers. And that kind of environment, if you don't have a reliable partner as still the most strongest power in the world, as still as the most looked-up-to power, then you have a state where I think the Middle East will be. We have to avoid rocks, if I may use that cliché, rather than have some smooth sailing at one point to have some predictability.
And I think if you talk about the foreign policy of President Obama, if I think — you know, again, you may say after the first two speakers that I'm very ideological. One of the issues that I look at and say we have made not only inconsistencies, but we actually have made the situation worse is let's say the promotion of democracy. This is not new in the United States, promotion of democracy came in, but when you look at the numbers.
In the fiscal year 2009, the United States put more money on democracy than the entire decade between 1991 to 2001. So we spent more money in one year than in the entire 10 years. But look at the outcome. Look at the input and the outcome. If you put this in a mathematical format or investment, you say this was an amazing loss.
And the other aspect is, do we — are we looking for partners in the region beyond these temporary ad hoc friends or foes for that matter? Iran is now, as I agree both, partially. Or are we looking at something that is a bit more stable?
Again, is it possible? Yes. Look at Latin America a few years ago and what's happening. They're not all friendly. We have, you know, we have Bolivias of the world and Venezuelas, but there is still a process that is a much better process to deal with than what we have in the Middle East.
I'm not saying democracy is the panacea of all of this, but the inconsistencies that we have had with democracy going back to the Cairo speech 2009, then the speech at 2010, first West Point speech, and what has happened afterwards post Arab uprisings, or if you want to call it spring — I like spring a little bit better than what's going on there — with the exception of Tunisia, that is one exception is struggling, but it is sort of the exception, things have gotten worse in every case if you look at it as a — you know, New York Times a while ago in an editorial called Egypt exhibit a for failing to support a democratic movement. Even we called the ouster of Morsi, not that Morsi was any great person, the restoration of democracy.
So if that's what goes on and if we're looking at the basic idea of this new generation coming in, whether it be in Afghanistan in the east or all the way to Morocco in the west, where are they going to look at? Because it becomes almost, you know, in the Cold War we always stated that, you know, we have supported regimes because of security or, you know, regimes that were against communism and after 9/11 who were against terrorism, and we have lost both on democracy and supporting, you know, and gaining these allies for a long term.
I think we have to have a balance of expedient ad hoc, missing the dangers that are in front of us, but also have a vision and balance it. Yes, you always have to have a balance. I agree that the policy has to be a balance bar.
So I think when you look at the past few years, that is the missing issue. When you sit down, as I said, and talk to either the military side or the civilian side or (I'm not even talking about ?) grass root, there is an utter — you know, a lot of — (inaudible) — there, but blame everything on the United States including the weather condition. I have gotten used to that. But that's not what I'm talking about.
There are fundamental issues they look at and they look, where are you standing on this issue? You know, if we remove every single president after a year in office because they mismanaged it and called him a terrorist the next day, the world would be without any leaders.
So this is I'm not saying Morsi was a good president, but the events that went on there was very, very in the face of this democratic movement.
Now, I would use the remaining time, if I could, on two countries, Iran and I'll go all the way to the east and touch a little bit on Afghanistan as I was asked.
I agree that if an agreement with Iran — and again, I'm speaking on my own behalf — an agreement on Iran is a wonderful thing. An agreement whereby Iran stops using or stops trying to procure nuclear weapons, that is a great thing and it's applaudable, it is wonderful. Nobody is against that, at least I am not.
The question I want to ask, and this is something that we forget, is that Iranians, why they were pursuing a nuclear potential. If anybody thinks that they were not pursuing weapons, I would argue against that. They were, or at least they were trying to tell us that they were. That's the whole thing. If they weren't, they were doing a great job of telling the outside world that they were trying to get a weapon system.
Why they went through basically mortgaging their country and coming very close to having themselves be targeted, either by us or by some other regional states, but yet in the same time they went through all of that, why? This is a question.
To my view, there's only one answer: The Iranians fundamentally did and still do, even after President Obama's U.N. General Assembly speech of last September where he said that the United States is not interested in regime change but change of behavior, the Iranians by and large, that includes Ayatollah Khamenei and, in my view, that includes also the smiling Mr. Rouhani, believe that the United States of America's number-one objective is regime change, not behavior change.
And they also believe, and this is where I become very worried as somebody who once in my past life dealt with nonproliferation, they believe fundamentally that having or pursuing weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons specifically, will alter America's activities towards you.
And here we have Iran, a country that is one of four countries that the State Department advises are state sponsors of terrorists — only four of them; the oldest before Cuba, '84 I believe. Human rights, just the State Department human rights report about them or what comes out of this building.
Yet they sit down with the six top leaders of the world, four top democracies — two of them are not democracies, but four, you know, China and Russia excluded — why are they there? How did they get that seat at the table? Because they are nice guys? No! Because they cheated and they're being rewarded and they may actually get to keep their regime, a regime that kills more people today than Ahmadinejad did. And this is where we need to look at, yes, it's an expedient, it's great thing to do.
The question here is why Iran was going for nuclear and why are they delaying it? Who is Mr. Rouhani? Mr. Rouhani, in my view, is a regime savior. This is not the first time he's come to the fore, just look at his biography where he has come in. And I have them all here written, but we can discuss that in Q&A if you want.
Rouhani is there for one specific issue: The regime was hurting from within. Number one, there was a structural problem. The whole aspect of velayat i-faqih, the rule of the jurisprudence, which is the basic of Iranian regime was crumbling mainly because Khamenei's 2009 support of Ahmadinejad where he became part of politics.
Secondly, the sanctions were working. There was a lot of things that made the sanctions work. And here we have to praise the president's policies, the coalition-building, the fact that Ahmadinejad was so easy to go against, calling the Holocaust, you know, a fable, saying that we're going to destroy everybody, it was easy to dislike him. Rouhani is sending Rosh Hashanah greetings from Iran to Jews around the world in his Twitter.
But the aspect is this man has a — I'm not saying Iran is going to invade anybody. Don't get me wrong in that. I actually do not think Iran is going to invade anybody. I was just in Israel and I told that to my Israelis friends in public. However, the aspect is not that Iran has just become a good guy. And this is what somebody said before. We have to be looking — let's saying tomorrow, you know, in November this year we have a solution and we know we have an agreement, then what? Does that include that Iran will have delivery systems? The question will become, why?
Khamenei will say that anybody who talks about their missiles or any other platforms is idiotic and crazy — (inaudible) — to use the Persian word on that. So if a country is building weapons that only are useable for delivery of specific type of warhead, i.e., a nuclear warhead, why are they having it? Intrusion? We have to balance this.
And the second thing is that some people say an Iran with nuclear weapons will become a domino effect. I'll even tell you, if an Iran gets an amazing deal, that will push a lot of countries in the region for a nuclear potential or at least attempt thereof because they think that alters the United States policy towards them. And then always Khamenei keeps on pointing at Libya. Always saying that, he's actually quoted that a few times. Look, you know, he's kind of saying after Gadhafi was killed, look at you fool, the Westerners gave you something, you gave them everything and then they killed you like a dog.
So this is the idea is the promotion of nuclear weapons is something that gets you a seat at the table with the big boys. I think it is dangerous and it's going to bite us in the you-know-where if we don't follow it.
And I'll add a line on Syria. I believe that this chemical weapons use and then the agreement, which in itself is good, again, please don't get me wrong, has gotten Bashar al-Assad a lifeline. In a way, Bashar al-Assad may have saved his regime by using chemical weapons. This is a very dangerous precedent. And if we don't take leadership on that — not to bang anybody, I don't believe in Iran being attacked at all, so please — all I have to say is because of an expedient agreement that could be nice because of whatever — I'm not going to go there because I want to keep my job — (laughter) — because of that, we have to make sure that we have an agreement that is solid and that does not — that does not — portray us as somebody who gets whatever that comes in because it's expedient at that moment.
On Afghanistan, I'll say one sentence. Afghanistan became a — it's the longest war we have ever fought in our history. In the history of the United States, that's the longest war. Eighty-something countries tried to democratize this country. We can discuss the merits whether good or bad, the constitution is good or bad, that's too long for this here.
The question is, right now. There was an election in April that was applauded. We all looked, at least there was one place that things are going a little bit further in a good way. The elections were actually pretty open. Fingers were cut and all that, but people actually queued. Great.
Well, unfortunately, nobody won. Nobody. It doesn't matter who. Nobody won the 50-percent-plus-1 vote. So we went back to square one. The second time it was pretty much everybody agrees it was a very fraudulent elections.
Secretary Kerry did a miracle to at least have them talk. But right now, the problem as we speak today is nobody has agreed on the mechanics of how you count these votes. So yesterday was an agreement, an expedience issue, but the details were missing.
I think for the last 10 years or so what we have done is we have built these Potemkin villages, these walls that look very good, but they have no foundation. And all I'm saying is if we are not careful, they look good, as I say, for picture-taking and sending back home, but if you're not careful these walls will fall and they fall not only on the intended people, but may fall on something bigger.
Thank you very much.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you.
CHAS W. FREEMAN JR., chair, Projects International Inc; former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense; former president, Middle East Policy Council
I think those were three very interesting and stimulating presentations. A while back, the United States set out to reconfigure the Middle East and the result is that the region and our position in it are both in shambles. Much of what has happened seems irreversible.
In the short time allotted to me, I just want to talk about the region's dynamics and I'll conclude with a few thoughts about what might be done, but probably won't be.
To begin, if we're at all honest, we must admit that the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East, in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, and peripherally Libya, Afghanistan, is a product not only of the dynamics of the region, but also of a lapse in our capacity to think and act strategically.
We have answered the end of the bipolar Cold War order with a mixture of denial, strategic incoherence and inconstancy. False American assumptions and unrealistic U.S. objectives have helped create the current mess in the Middle East.
It's not news to anybody that American politics is uncivil and dysfunctional. We have a foreign policy elite that has its head up its media bubble — (laughter) — prefers narratives to evidence-based analysis, confuses sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy and imagines that the best way to deal with hateful foreigners is the use airborne robots to kill them, their friends and their families.
We have leaders who can't lead and a legislature that can't legislate. In short, we have a government that can't make relevant decisions, fund their implementation, enlist allies to support them or see them through. Until we get our act together at home, those looking for American leadership abroad will be disappointed.
At West Point, President Obama accurately pointed out that our military has no peer. He then sensibly added that, quote, “U.S. military action cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” True enough.
Experience has amply justified hesitancy about the use of force. Our hammer blows in the Middle East were intended to showcase our power; instead, they convincingly demonstrated its limitations. These interventions worsened, not improved the region's stability, politics and prospects.
Our unmatched military prowess has not enabled us to impose our will in West Asia, North Africa, Eastern Europe or elsewhere.
The record of covert action in solving political problems in all of these regions has been no better.
The question then is, what alternatives to the military hammer and related kinetic instruments of statecraft does the U.S. presidency now have? Normally the answer would be the political screwdriver of diplomacy or other non-percussive means of influence like subsidies and subventions.
But there's a reason the Department of State is the smallest and weakest executive department of our government. The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences with other states. Gladiators trump diplomats anytime in terms of the spectacle they provide. And even if they don't work, coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.
Then, too, aside from our reflexive militarism, we're broke. Our military commanders have walking-around money, our diplomats do not. And the amateurism inherent in the spoils system further reduces the effectiveness of our diplomacy.
Jet-propelled, seat-of-the-pants drop-bys with foreign leaders by secretaries of state have proven to be no substitute for either strategy or the patient cultivation of influence with those leaders who are in their capitals. It's hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end, this includes our policies toward Israel and Palestine, democracy promotion, Egypt, Islamist terrorism, stability in the fertile crescent in the Levant, Iran and the Gulf.
Let me very quickly run through that list.
In April, our four-decade-long effort to broker a secure and accepted place for a Jewish state in the Middle East sputtered to a disgraceful end. In the tragic-comic final phase of the so-called peace process, instead of mediating, the United States negotiated with Israel about the terms of Palestinian capitulation, not with the Palestinians about self-determination.
The U.S. effort to broker peace for Israel is now not just dead, but so putrid it isn't fit to show at a wake. Israel didn't believe in it so it killed it. May it rest in peace.
From the outset, Israel used the peace process as a distraction while it created facts on the ground in the form of illegal settlements. Israeli expansionism and related policies have now made Israel's peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians and thus with Israel's Arab neighbors impossible. The United States created the moral hazard that enabled Israel to put itself in this ultimately untenable position.
Four years of one-sided American diplomacy aimed at achieving regional and international acceptance for Israel thus perversely produced the very opposite, increasing international isolation and opprobrium for the Jewish state.
We'll now cover Israel's back, as the saying goes, at the United Nations as its ongoing maltreatment and intermittent muggings of its captive Arab population complete its international de-legitimization and ostracism.
We'll pay a heavy price for this, political price globally in the Middle East and very likely in escalating terrorism against Americans abroad and at home. It may satisfy our sense of honor, but it more closely resembles assisted suicide than a strategy for the survival of Israel and our position in the Middle East.
Americans like to have a moral foundation for our policies. In the Middle East and not just with respect to Israel, the geology has proven too complex to allow such a foundation. You take our professed desire to promote democracy. In practice, the United States has made a real effort at democratizing only countries that it has invaded, like Iraq and Afghanistan, or those it despises, like Palestine, Iran and Syria. The rest we carp at, but leave to their hereditary rulers, dictators, generals and thugs.
When democratic elections yield governments to which we or our allies object, as in Algeria, Palestine and Egypt, Washington contrives their overthrow and replacement by congenial despots.
If democracy is the message, America is not now its prophet.
Our willingness to rid the region of troublesome democrats has, of course, appeased Israel and our friends in the Arab Gulf, but it has greatly tarnished our claim to seriousness about our values. It has produced no democracies, but it has pulled down several before they had a chance to take root.
Egypt is a case in point. After raising hopes of a democratic Arab awakening and electing an incompetent Islamist government, Egypt is now an economically sinking military dictatorship, distinguished from other tyrannies only by the grotesque parodies of the rule of law that it stages. Not much we can do about this.
U.S. concerns about Israel's security dictate support for Egypt regardless of the character of its government or how it put itself in power. America's Arab Gulf partners are committed to military dictatorship and suppression of Islamism in Egypt. It's hard to think of a place where there is a starker contradiction between American ideals, commitments to client states and interests in precluding the spread of terrorism than in contemporary Egypt.
It's tempting to conclude that if we're going to be hard-headed realists we should just skip the off-putting hypocrisy about democracy and human rights and get on with it. That seems to be what we intend. How else is one to interpret the president's proposal for multiple partnerships with the region's security forces to suppress Islamist terrorism? Today's Egypt is the outstanding example of regional cooperation in such repression. We have another model in mind? It's not apparent.
But by leaving no outlet for peaceful dissent, Egypt is forcing at least part of its pious majority toward violent politics. This risks transforming most populous of all Arab countries into the world's biggest and most deadly training ground for Islamist terrorists with global reach.
It's true, of course, that Egypt is not the only incubator for such enemies of America. Americans went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. We found them and bred more. Some have already followed us home; others are no doubt on their way. And that's why we have an expanding garrison state in this country. Our counterterrorism programs mean well, are everywhere nurturing a passion for revenge against the United States.
We gave a big boost to the spread of Islamist terrorism when we invaded Iraq. Our stated purpose was to deny weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist to terrorists who weren't there. Having removed functioning government from Iraq, we then thought we might as well conduct a sort of hit-and-run democratization of the place. So we replaced a secular dictatorship with a sectarian despotism. Not only did that not work, it set off a religious war that ultimately gave birth to the jihadistan that now straddles the Syria-Iraq border.
What we did in Iraq has resulted in breaking it into three pieces. Now in practice, we seem to be working on dismembering the rest of the Levant. Israel is gnawing away at what remains of Palestine. The transnational coalition of jihadists is vivisecting Syria and Iraq. With our help, Syria is burning, charring Lebanon and scorching Jordan as it does. The Kurds are making their escape from the existing state structures.
The Syrian government is loathsome, but we fear that if, as we hope, it is defeated, it could be replaced by even more frightful people. Bombing can't prevent this, so in a triumph of magical militarism, we propose to arm a force of mythical Syrian moderates. We expect this latest coalition of the billing to fight both the Syrian government and its most effective opponents while nobly refraining from making common cause with the latter or transferring weapons to them.
This sounds like a plan for pacifying Capitol Hill, if not Syria. And if our objective is to keep Syria in flames, it's a plausible plan. Perhaps that's what we really want. After all, the anarchy in Syria is a drain on Iran which we have identified as our main enemy in the region.
Destabilizing Syria arguably adds to the pressure on Iran to give up the nuclear weapons program that Israel's and our intelligence agencies keep telling us it doesn't have and that Iran's leaders have said they don't want because it would be sinful. Our frequent threats to bomb Iran seem to be a devilishly clever test of its leaders' moral integrity. If we give them every reason we can think of for them to build a nuclear deterrent, will they still not do it? Judging from Friday's news, this experiment will go on for at least another four months.
This brings me to a key point of policy difficulty. We've repeatedly told people in the Middle East that they must either be with us or against us. They remain annoyingly unreliable in this regard. (Laughter.)
Iran's ayatollahs are against us in Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain, but with us in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Assad regime and Hezbollah oppose us in Syria and Lebanon, but are on our side in Iraq. The Salafi jihadis are with us in Syria, but against us in Iraq and elsewhere. Israel's government is with us on Iran, but against us in blocking Palestinian self-determination and favoring it for the Kurds. Saudi Arabia is with us on Iran and Syria, but against us in Iraq. It was for us and then against us before it was again for us in Egypt. (Laughter.) It is against the jihadistan in the fertile crescent, but nobody can figure out what its stand is on Salafi jihadis elsewhere.
How can you have a coherent policy in the Middle East when the people there are so damnedly inconsistent? I think the answer is that outsiders can't manage the Middle East and shouldn't try.
It's time to let the countries in the region accept responsibility for what they do rather than acting in such a way as to free them to behave irresponsibly. It's time to recognize that the United States can't solve the Israel-Palestine issue, can no longer protect Israel from the international legal and political consequences of its morally deviant behavior, and has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by continuing to be identified with that behavior. We pay for Gaza.
Israel makes its own decisions without regard to American interests, values or advice. I think it would make better decisions if it were not shielded from their consequences or if it had to pay for them itself. America should cut the umbilicus and let Israel be Israel.
It's time to stop pretending the United States assigned any real importance to democracy and the rule of law or human rights in the Middle East. We pay for gross violations of all three by Israel. We support their negation in Egypt. And we do not interfere in the politics of illiberal monarchies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Clearly, U.S. policy is almost entirely about interests, not values. If that's the case, let's not violate our laws by dishonestly claiming that there have been no misuses of American weaponry by Israel and no coups, judicial horrors or violations of human rights in Egypt. We should not have laws that require us to be scofflaws. If the real interests of the United States and Syria relate to Iran and its contests with Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as to our new cold war with Russia, let's admit that and behave accordingly.
Now, this would mean axing the farcical format of the Geneva conference on Syria that excluded key parties, making it a public relations stunt, not a serious effort to bring peace. Only if we include all of the parties engaged in proxy wars in Syria, including Iran, can we hope to end the mass murder there.
I would say the same thing is true of the situation in Gaza. It cannot be ended without talking to all parties, including Hamas.
It's time in Syria to end the mass murder, not just for humanitarian reasons, compelling as those are, ending the fighting in both Syria and Iraq is the key both to containing jihadistan and to halting the further violent disintegration of the region. We should not be upping the ante in Syria by pumping in more weapons, many of which are likely to end up in jihadi hands. We should be trying to organize an end to external involvement in the fighting there and focusing on preventing the emergence of an expanding terrorist bastion in the fertile crescent and Levant that will serve as a homeland for the growing number of enraged Muslims our drone warfare is rallying to the black flag of Islamism.
The jihadistan calling itself the Islamic state is a menace to both Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as to us. Distasteful as they might find it to work with each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia have a common interest to discover. The new state was born of geopolitical and religious rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. And it can only be contained by their cooperation.
Depending on how U.S.-Iran relations develop, America might be able to help them do this. But if the United States and Iran remain enemies, the obvious alternative for the United States would be to accept the inevitability of an expanded Salafi-dominated state that will replace much of the current political geography of the region, to work with Saudi Arabia to tame extremist tendencies within such a state and to yoke it to a regional coalition to balance Iran as the Iraq-U.S. Intervention destroyed once did.
Any and all of these approaches would demand a level of diplomatic sophistication, imagination and skill that the United States has not displayed in recent years. The more likely outcome of our current blend of baffled hesitancy, diplomatic ineptitude and militarism is therefore that the events will take their course. That means the growth of a credible existential threat to Israel, a prospective political explosion in Egypt, the disintegration of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria along with Palestine and the diversion of a considerable part of the resources of these countries to terrorism in the region and against the American homeland.
We can and should do better than this.
DR. MATTAIR: I'd like to thank the speakers and I'd like to ask if there are any more in the audience with questions and for my staff to bring them.
I would like to start with a couple of questions. Remarkably, in this stack of questions I've been given, there is no question about Iraq. And so maybe we could start there.
Ken, you spoke about missed opportunities. What do you think we could have done, if anything, in Iraq to get a better outcome than the one we have now? For example, do you think a greater effort to get a status of forces agreement that would have left Americans there to train Iraqi security forces.
And Paul, maybe you could comment. Everyone — I hope we get crosstalk here among all the panelists, everyone can respond to these questions. But Paul, you questioned the labels we put on people when we call people partners or call people foes. Is the al-Maliki regime really a reliable partner for the United States?
DR. POLLACK: Tom, I'm going to answer your question in a way that you hadn't intended because the truth is I think that the mistakes that we made and the missed opportunities are simply too legion to mention.
You know, I have been turned off by the blame game that's currently going on in Washington. I think the Obama administration's Iraq policy was dreadful; I think the Bush administration's Iraq policy was dreadful. Both of them contributed to the current state of affairs in very significant ways. And having gone over that history time and again, you know, each time I find a mistake that Obama made, there is an antecedent that Bush made. And every time that there was a good move that either made, you can find it traced to a good move that the other made. And unfortunately, the latter are far fewer than the former.
But what I would say is that, to my mind, one of the great lessons of Iraq, and there are many and where I would like to see us focusing more energy, is on this question of what lessons we should be learning as opposed to who was mistaken and who should be blamed for the current impasse.
I think one of the greatest lessons, of course, was that whenever we take on a problem anywhere in the world, but certainly in the Middle East, whenever we plan for the best we get the worst, and when we plan for the worst we often do better than that, sometimes we even get the best. The 1991 Gulf War comes to mind as an instance where you had a very conservative, small c, leadership that planned for all contingencies and did quite well. Obviously, it was not a perfect war, there was unfinished business there as well, but by planning for the worst case they headed off a lot of potential problems there.
And from my mind, this is one of the issues that I have seen time and again with American approaches to the Middle East, which is what I've consistently seen from American policymakers is a sense that the Middle East is just too hard, it's a mess, we don't understand it, what can we do to just push it onto the back burner and get rid of it and move on to something else that we understand and might actually be able to solve.
And of course, the Middle East doesn't go away. As I've said elsewhere in print, it ain't Las Vegas. What happens there doesn't stay there.
And when we do rouse ourselves to make an effort, and as I said, I'd like to see us making more of an effort — not necessarily across the board, I don't entirely disagree with Paul or with Ambassador Freeman, I think that there are issues that it's best that we keep our noses out of — but where the issues matter, where they do affect our interests, I think one of the greatest mistakes that we have made is to simply try to put a Band-Aid on things and walk away from them.
The problems of the Middle East don't lend themselves to that.
DR. PILLAR: Tom, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an excellent example both of what I was talking about before and not making policy according to our customary Manichean division between good guys and bad guys, and certainly what Chas Freeman was talking about in how players in the region so inconveniently don't fit into those two bins of being for us or against us. Mr. Maliki is for himself and he's doing his best to try to have a third term as prime minister. Of course, that's what most politicians aim for is to stay in power, although one might add that if one had the larger interests of Iraq at heart, he could, as a very statesmanlike thing, step down in favor of someone else.
He has a very narrow view of what democracy, if you can still call it that, entails, which is the Shi'a are in the majority and the Shi'ite rule and I'm the ruler of the Shi'ites and there's no question that his very narrow view of how the Iraqi polity ought to work has badly antagonized the great majority of Sunni-Iraqi Arabs. It is not just ISIS or the Islamic state that has been able to score those gains that so alarm us in the West. It has been because of the much broader disillusionment with the regime.
So in all those senses, he's not a very good partner at all, which isn't to say we shouldn't do business with him, and if he does continue as prime minister we'll have to do business with him.
But the thing we have to keep foremost in mind is that the United States definitely does not have an interest in taking sides or being seen to take sides in sectarian disputes and conflicts in this region.
DR. MATTAIR: Chas?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think even if those disputes weren't sectarian that would be the case. There's a very convenient narrative now in Washington that if Maliki could just be disposed of things would get better in Iraq. We've heard that before with Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. And what we should learn from our own malpractice in that area, to go back to the Hippocratic oath, which is not a bad bit of advice, is that perhaps as Lincoln said, changing horses in midstream is not wise, it's more likely to cause more problems than it is to solve.
So that isn't the solution for Iraq if indeed there is a solution for Iraq, if indeed there is an Iraq, because it turns out that in our eagerness for regime change we manage regime removal, but no change. And it turns out that in trying to change the regime, we destroyed the state in Iraq.
And it seems at the moment, as I said, that the Kurds are busily making their way for the exit. Secretary Kerry, I think correctly, stood for the territorial integrity of Iraq and advised against that. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear he thinks they ought to leave and would be happy to see Iraq broken up. And I think the Kurds are going to do what Kurds want to do and I don't think they're going to listen to us or the Israelis or anybody else.
We have a problem. We now have something that has many of the attributes of a state that is run by vicious extremists and that has erased the border between Iraq and Syria. And I think that is the main issue. And it is also the case that the Shi'a, notwithstanding Mr. Maliki's aspirations to lead them all, are divided. And there may end up being two states among the Shi'a rather than just one if Iraq indeed goes the way it seems to be going, which is toward partition.
And that, by the way, I will say is not an impossible outcome in Afghanistan either after our departure. So I think we need to be a bit cautious.
Final observation: What we can learn from the Gulf War and the Iraq war, the Gulf War to liberate Kuwait and the war to subjugate Iraq, is something very simple. You should not intervene without a war-termination strategy. How are you going to end it? It's not enough to get up on an aircraft carrier and proclaim “mission accomplished.” Wars don't end until the defeated admit defeat and accept terms.
We proposed no terms to Saddam. We sought to impose a U.N. resolution on him he did not agree with, and he therefore cheated and retreated, he had no commitment to it. And we had nobody left in Baghdad to surrender after we took the place.
Before we start intervening in places like Syria and Libya and Iraq, we should think, what's the end game? How does it end? We should always be asking the question, and then what? And we don't ask that question and that gets us into trouble.
DR. TARZI: Just very briefly. For us, Iraq is a very open wound and there are a lot of Marines and other service members who have come out and when they look at Fallujah the way it is today or Ramadi and they see what they did there to secure it, a lot of questions come in.
Now, I know we are talking about foreign policy, but domestically we have to think that we're asking a lot from this military, which it is the greatest military, but there's a lot of questions which I think will catch up on us as a nation, how we use American forces. But I'm not going to go beyond that.
The only other question, I'll say that there's a lot of talk about the state. This is something that's in my head, I'm trying to use my academic side. I don't know, maybe somebody here. The concept of state in the Middle East is changing fundamentally. We — when I say “we” I don't mean the U.S. alone, Europeans, the West combined — looks at everything as state as if state is a holy grail, you can't touch it, that everything works within that state concept. Why? Because our international system is based on a conceptual state that we have taken from, whether it is from the Treaty of Westphalia or later on in Bavaria, whatever.
That is shifting under our noses, fundamentally. I'm not saying because of this, you know, Islamic State or whatever they want to call it. That is a manifestation. But even the states that we look at, is Afghanistan a state in a Bavarian sense? I mean, I can go on to a lot of them. Are these states? And we still treat them as if they have the same attributes that we either believe that exists or at least that's the only norm we work through.
I think one way to look at this part of the world is to try to — sometimes our models, if the model looks like this [bottle] and the reality is this, this [cellphone] will fit in this, let's change the model sometimes. And I think that's an idea that it's a long-term gain, it's not immediate.
But to think about the concept of state and how it works and that it is actually shifting, maybe even in Europe. And I'm not going to talk about — I mean, the concept of state in some European states is diminishing. So we have to at least academically, this is not politically, academically try to start thinking about that. I think that would behoove us to be prepared when these states look like things that we have no idea what they are.
Then we call them failed states. They may not be failed, they may work very well and would work within our system that we have placed. But they may work very well. I'm not talking about Islamic State working very well. I'm just saying that things are going to shift. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, let me follow up really in the same vein as the last question. Is there something that we could have done in Syria to avert the situation as it exists now?
Again, missed opportunities are something you spoke about, Ken. Should we have insisted on a safe zone or a no-fly zone? And more importantly, what can we do now? In your Foreign Affairs article, you spoke about training moderate opposition to the Assad regime. I believe Chas was indicating that he doesn't think that's a possibility. So could you elaborate on that?
And again, other comments, please.
DR. POLLACK: Sure. Thank you, Tom.
First, I'll start by saying that for several years I was actually quite ambivalent about what we should be doing in Syria, because on the one hand what was going on in Syria is a tragedy. And I'm one of these humanitarian interventionists. And I believe that where the United States and the international community can intervene to save lives we should.
And it pained me deeply to see what was going on in Syria.
By the same token, the United States doesn't have any particular interests in Syria. And so the hard-headed realist in me was basically saying, look, this is going to be a very big problem, this is going to be a very big deal. And it's not clear that it is necessary for us to do so. It's not clear that it is worth doing so.
And the issue that I was watching this entire time was the question of spillover. Would the Syrian civil war affect other parts of the Middle East in such a way that it would begin to affect our interests? And I think that we got our answer on June 10th where the spillover from Syria became so bad that it has now helped reignite civil war in Iraq.
And I'm not suggesting that the problems of Iraq were caused by Syria; quite the contrary. Anyone who knows anything about what I've been writing over the years, those problems are entirely internal to Iraq. But there is no gainsaying the simple fact that it was a group that had abandoned Iraq, moved to Syria, was able to gestate in Syria, rebuild its strength and then re-invade Iraq that has brought Iraq to its current impasse.
And so that leads me to conclude that, yes, the time has come, the United States should be taking a more active role in Syria. And I actually have a piece in the new Foreign Affairs, Tom, you'll be happy to know, that actually lays out in much greater detail what I've been talking about there.
And what I have in mind in just a nutshell, but it really will have to wait until the Foreign Affairs piece comes out because it's a long argument and it requires a lot of historical detail to explain it, is in effect what we did with the Croats during the Bosnian civil war in 1994.
Nobody remembers this. Everyone believes that what brought us to Dayton was the NATO bombing campaign. It wasn't. What brought us to Dayton was a Croatian military that was able to defeat the Serbs, OK? And this is the simple problem that we have in Syria right now.
The two groups with the greatest military capacity are the jihadists and the regime. And as long as that is the case, they will continue to fight and we will not want to support either of them. And so the question arises, as we did in Croatia, to a certain extent as we did in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, and as we did actually in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, could we build a conventional, nonpartisan Syrian military, one that is capable of defeating both the regime and the jihadists?
I think the evidence available is, yes, we could. And I think that the problems that everyone has identified are important problems, but they are also not irremediable. And in fact, we have dealt with them in the past and done so effectively and have been able to do it without boots on the ground. It would require advisers, it would require more money than we are currently spending, although the $500 million is more than adequate to get this program well off the ground and well under way, and I'm not quite sure what they are doing with the $500 million if it's not what I'm talking about, an idea that I know that the Pentagon has been pushing for quite some time.
But it is something that would require a greater commitment than what we've been doing so far. But it is also the only option out there that actually offers a way of solving the problems in Syria.
Ambassador Freeman spoke of a diplomatic solution. The only way we get a diplomatic solution is when we change the calculus on the battlefield. Until that happens, they will continue to fight and nothing our diplomats do is going to make any difference.
So the question is, do we want to support one of the two loathsome groups currently battling in Syria or do we want to build a new force, one that we could get behind and help it to bring this to an end? We've done that before. I think we can do it again in Syria and, while it's not a great option, it's certainly the least bad.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes. A realist would say we don't have national interests in Syria. But when Obama spoke about it, he said our national interest in Syria is how it impacts Syria's neighbors, our partners.
DR. POLLACK: Spillover.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah.
AMB. FREEMAN: I don't think it's useful frankly to go over what could have been done when it wasn't done. It's a little bit like raking over the Benghazi murder of our ambassador, endlessly. What are we going to learn from that? Absolutely nothing. So I would say, however, since the question has been raised that the two things we did that brought us to this pass were, first, to say right at the outset Assad not only must go, but will go. That ended any possibility of a negotiated solution inside Syria because it told the opposition the superpower will make sure that this bad leader is deposed.
Assad overreacted himself, looking at the Arab uprisings and what had happened to Hosni Mubarak and to bin Ali in Tunisia and what seemed to be happening and did happen to Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and what was happening in Bahrain and so on, he looked at this and panicked and he determined to nip the whole thing in the bud and he used force. And that escalated the thing very quickly, especially because there were people happy to supply weapons to counter him.
We made the mistake of believing that because Hosni Mubarak had been overthrown with a little push, Assad would go. And yet, the realities of Syria internally in terms of sectarian interests, ethnic interests, balances within the Sunni community, secular versus religious, were vastly more complicated and Assad's winning, despite all the predictions that he would be overthrown.
So I'd say the first thing is stop taking sides in Syria. Try to lower the level of the fighting. Reduce the flow of arms. Talk to the Iranians, the Russians, talk to the Saudis. Act ourselves to try to lower the level of the fighting, not raise it.
So this is, I guess, the second principle in a way, which is don't add fuel to the fire. Essentially, what we're proposing to do, since there are no effective moderate forces in Syria, is scour the bars and brothels of the world, find the mythical Syrian moderates, beat their teaspoons into swords and send them over the border after appropriate training in how to use reforged teaspoons. I don't think this is going to work.
Generally speaking, exile operations of this kind are not worth the paper that the plan is written on.
What are U.S. interests? Israel. Israel is going to be vastly worse off with the jihadi area along its border than it has been with an atrocious dictatorship, but very cautious government of Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey, which is a NATO member, to whom we are committed by treaty and whose interests have to be taken into account.
And I would say the main interest now is that just as Iraq has broken up, Syria has effectively broken up. The Kurds have left and are associating themselves with the Kurds in Iraq, but are no longer under central control. Syria has broken into at least two other major parts, more than that actually.
And I'm not sure, just to go back to Amin's point, that Syria ever was a state in the Western sense of the word. And certainly Mr. Sykes' and Mr. Picot's creations are all falling apart under the impact of what's happened.
Perhaps what is required to create a state is centralized patronage. If you are in Baghdad and you are handing out largesse to Kurds, they pay attention to you. But if you leave them alone to make their own separate arrangements with the Turks, they don't. And if you are in Damascus and you are handing out largesse, you are the sole source of well-being in the entire expanse of Syria, then people pay attention to you.
But we have the example of Lebanon which is a very weak state where the largesse is not controlled by the government, but by various factions, Hezbollah being the main one. That seems to be the model that's emerging, which is one of statelets, states within states maybe, in the region.
In any event, I think we should be very, very cautious. One-hundred-and-sixty-thousand Syrians have died. Does that count for nothing? Nobody has mentioned it. You know, this is — there are 10 million Syrians displaced. There are 5 million Syrian kids who aren't getting an education. There are 9-year-old girls being sold into marriage because their parents can't save them any other way. Does this not count for something? I think it should, and especially because dealing with it is key to dealing with what the main problem is, which is the growth of Islamist extremism and its establishment of a territorial, secure area in which to (plot ?) further action.
The change in name in ISIS from Iraq and Syria to the Islamic state was an indication of a global ambition. Of the four objectives that that group sets, hitting us here is right up at the top. We should be concerned.
I don't think that state's going to last. I think it will fall of its own weight and its own abuses. And I think we should learn something from containment in that regard. George Kennan, 1946, '47 argued that if we contained the Soviet Union it would eventually fall under its own — it would fail of its own defects. ISIS, whatever it calls itself, will do the same.
But I don't think we can imagine that the current state structures are going to be there much longer. It's not secure, not a secure assumption.
DR. TARZI: Just as a — taking the militarian side, I'm actually 12 percent Syrian so I, you know — but in the world right now it matters when policy is affecting the crisis or not. So some of us do feel it, but that's not the most important point, unfortunately. It's a reality, but it doesn't go through.
I would highlight Turkey. But beyond that, I think something that we need to look at Syria, there's a difference — I mean, just recently last week, I think, there was a conference with the mayors of Dutch and Belgian cities. There are a lot of people who carry the same passports that we do, some of them even were born and intermixed, European background there, American, but not as many as Europeans. And these folks I think in Syria right now, with a lot know-how of their own home countries, I know that there is a lot of prevention measures, but there is a new dimension, I think, that you didn't have with the old al-Qaida where they put — most of them looked, you know came from the region.
Here you have a dimension that these Europeans are very, very worried about, that the blowback, if you would, of Syria coming back, whether or not this continues or not. If it continues, they go back and forth; if it doesn't continue, then they actually, you know, come back and export, if you would, this ideology or at least the destructiveness thereof on the streets of whatever country they can.
So that's another issue that it is — I don't think in the modern world we can be isolated. The last thing, I'll stop on that. And I agree with President Obama's approach on collective work.
Syria is one where I know Russians are, you know, I don't know what Russia is right now, look what's happening in Ukraine, but there is a collective approach. Turkey is very much affected. It's NATO, but there's other countries in the region or Europe that may have to take a bit more of a slack. And that's where, again, leadership comes in and how to bring these partners that are affected, maybe more so than we are directly, forget about the humanitarian aspect, just on a very security aspect of it, how to collectively bring them beyond, some would say, beyond the short, you know, (show ?) meeting and wherever, Geneva or wherever it happens, to have some kind of an effective measure that looks at something doable, not a dream.
You can't dream solutions. I think we have to be a lot more realistic. Thank you.
AMB. FREEMAN: I am not a member of the humanitarian industrial complex. (Laughter.) And I think this has to be approached very, very realistically. I think Ken correctly said that what happens on the ground is the ultimate determinate of almost everything. And I think we have the ability to affect that, but we don't have a political strategy for using the way we affect it.
And I think, therefore, we need to confer with the neighbors and be prepared to act internationally, not to defer to particular Syrian factions.
DR. PILLAR: Just two quick points, one relevant to the mythical nature of the moderate Syrian opposition. The fact is people and fighters move around, ordnance that they use moves around, often the allegiance that any one fighter has to any one group changes quite rapidly according to who's paying him, who's giving him food and so on. And so the concept of vetting recipients of aid is one of those concepts that sounds very nice in theory, but in practice is virtually impossible.
The other point concerns, you know, the backward-looking at where all these things began. And I would just remind us that this feared group now calling itself the Islamic State began in Iraq as al-Qaida in Iraq and it did not exist before we unleashed the forces that we did when we went in and started the war in 2003.
AMB. FREEMAN: The idea of moderate insurgents is a contradiction in terms. If they're moderates, they're not going to rebel. If they rebel, they're not going to be moderate.
DR. MATTAIR: Yesterday the negotiations with Iran concluded without an agreement. And they've been extended for another four months. It surprises me again that there's not a question here about this, so I will ask, what kinds of terms have been agreed upon so far? What kinds of terms are necessary over the next four months? And what do we do if we succeed, and what do we do if we fail?
If we fail, Ken, could you talk about deterrence and containment as options? And what will the role of the Saudis be in the region under those circumstances? And if we succeed, how much opportunity is there for us to work with Iran in various venues such as Geneva over the Syria question? And how will other partners who have been our partners for a long time and who are concerned about our policies react to this new role that Iran might have?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the extension has something to do with the fact that we have an election November 4th. Perhaps I'm too cynical to bring that up, but we will have a changed circumstance presumably as a result of that election and either more or less flexibility. It's always been hard for me to imagine whatever agreement might be reached with Iran surviving the Israel lobby and the Congress. So there is a connection, whether we like it or not, as a first observation.
The second is that what seems to be at issue here is the quantity, the velocity of enrichment, not the centrifuges so much, we're focused on centrifuges, but it's the amount of enrichment that those centrifuges or other more modern centrifuges do that's really the bone of contention with Iran wanting to increase its enrichment activity to fuel the reactor that the Russians are supposed to fuel, but which Iran doesn't trust them to fuel and our demanding that they decrease enrichment.
And a second related issue is what the term of any agreement would be with Iran, I think, wanting it to be five years or maybe seven and we wanting a much longer term.
I'd just make one general observation, however. Tom, when you opened the session, you referred to multilateral sanctions against Iran. There are some U.N. authorized sanctions, but almost all the sanctions are in fact unilaterally concerted between the United States and our European allies and they are enforced by SWIFT, which is the clearinghouse for dollars that operates in, I think, Belgium and they reflect our sovereign control of the dollar.
Now, our use of that control, particularly in the case of Iran to disrupt the oil trade for India, China, Korea and other major consumers of Iranian oil, has been mighty annoying to those countries. And it has driven them to begin to consider ways of avoiding clearance through SWIFT and New York, the New York banking system. And at Fortaleza in Brazil a few days ago, Monday I think, July 15th last week, the so-called BRICS, that is Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, agreed on the establishment of a new development bank to parallel the World Bank and a new currency reserve to parallel the IMF. And along with this, they are all agreeing on new currency clearance procedures which avoid the dollar.
So I would draw two conclusions from this. One, I think we're cooking our own goose by abusing our currency, treating it as a solely national currency when it is the international currency and that gives us a great deal of power in the world. We are dismantling that power inadvertently. And second, we cannot assume that in the future, five, 10 years from now Iran will not be able to circumvent any sanctions that this U.S. and European group impose, even if the U.S. and Europeans continue to maintain the cohesion that we have had, which is quite doubtful given the differences that have arisen over NSA spyings, CIA spying, the issue of Ukraine and so forth.
So I think we're dealing with a lot of imponderables here and we cannot assume that our level of control of the global economy will be what it is in 2021 that it is now. We need to be a little cautious.
The final observation. Iran may or may not have a nuclear weapons program. Our intelligence people say that it doesn't. It's clearly building the capability, like Japan has, to go nuclear. I don't think that's stoppable. So the question is how to deal with it.
If we try to stop it, we'll end up not stopping it and we will end up with a greater risk of Iranian nuclear, quote, “breakout” than we would under an agreement that's monitored internationally. So I very much hope that there will be an agreement, but I am not optimistic.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, Paul.
DR. PILLAR: Let me comment a little more directly on the negotiations themselves. What Chas mentioned with regard to the November time frame and how Congress works into that has been mentioned before, the idea that the lame-duck session after an election, but before a possible Republican majority in the Senate might be the best time. There's no question that congressional opposition influenced by lobbies we're all familiar with is probably the biggest problem that the Obama administration faces, even more so than the tough negotiating of the Iranians and carrying this through to conclusion.
Nonetheless, I think it's a simpler interpretation of what's going on, this is a complex negotiation dealing with a lot of technical nuclear and financial issues. In the preliminary agreement that was reached last November, the prospect of needing an extension was built right into the agreement. So it's not some big surprise.
There has been a lot of progress made by all reports, although we don't get, you know, direct indications from the negotiators about specific terms, which itself is a good sign. If we had more leaks coming out of Vienna that would be a bad sign.
In terms of the overall, you know, shape of an agreement, I think we got an excellent idea with the preliminary agreement, the joint plan of action that was reached last November, because that basically is an outline for the complete agreement where the key provisions are, number one, enhanced, vigorous, more-frequent inspection and monitoring, and under a final agreement it would be even more complete and enhanced. That, in my view, is probably the single-biggest reason to get the agreement so we know exactly what the Iranians are doing with their declared programs.
Serious restrictions on the amount and extent and degree of uranium enrichment, and in that respect if you remember Mr. Netanyahu's cartoon bomb at the General Assembly, that's an excellent prop because what the Joint Plan of Action, the November agreement did was, as my friend Joe Cirincione puts it, drained the bomb.
What the Iranians have done and what the IAEA has confirmed they have done is to live up to their agreement of taking the medium-enriched, the 20 percent enriched uranium, and either diluting it or converting it to oxide. And with this last extension, they made the further commitment to speed up the using of the oxide to make it into fuel plate for their Tehran research reactor, which puts it even farther out of reach with regard to possible proliferation concern.
There have also been formulas that have addressed the plutonium route with regard to the Iraq reactor, which appears to involve just some redesign that makes it far, far less of an effective plutonium producer.
So we've got the outline right there. The fact that we do have that outline, and it's more than just an outline, it's been an agreement that has been observed by both sides over the last six months, is a bit of a further challenge for the Obama administration in selling a final agreement, because to put it quite bluntly we got the better side of the deal last November. We got the key provisions that drains Bibi's bomb.
And in return, the Iranians got middling, minor sanctions relief, airplane parts, petrochemicals, trade in gold and a small fraction, access to a very small fraction of their frozen assets overseas. All the big, debilitating sanctions with regard to banking and oil are still firmly in place. And as an anonymous, but presumed Treasury Department briefer put it when they were briefing the reporters in Vienna Friday night put it, we will come down like a ton of bricks as they have always been coming down like a ton of bricks on anyone who deems to think it possible to violate the sanctions.
So Iran is still hurting economically. And I think where the challenge comes in is to the extent that more concessions need to be made to reach the final deal, in some sense we're going to have to make at least as many of those as the Iranians because they've already made the big ones and we have not made the big one, we have not made the big one in terms of sanctions relief.
One last comment in terms of how Congress fits into this, which is why it might not be a matter of the administration trying to fine tune it so we end during the lame-duck period. I expect the administration and its P5+1 partners will still be holding out for a fairly extended transitional period in which the sanctions would be relieved only gradually and that the administration, even without the congressional opposition, would be looking for a formula for sanctions relief in which over the first year or two it would be only the sorts of things that the president could take through executive action and it would only be later on as the agreement is upheld, if it is upheld by the Iranians as well as our side, that the greater sanctions relief the Iranians crave would come into effect. And then at some point Congress is going to have to act, but it doesn't have to be in the first few months.
AMB. FREEMAN: I agree with everything that Paul said. I want to address the other question, if I could. What if my pessimism is unjustified and we do get an agreement, what could we do with Iran?
One issue we're going to have to deal with in the future is Afghanistan. We will not be there forever. And Iran will always have a border with Afghanistan. In the past, we were able to work with Iran quite effectively to keep the lid on in Afghanistan. And I think we're going to have to do that again.
I think that if we have an improved relationship with Iran and we are adroit in the manner in which we exploit that, we can help to dampen the secular — the sectarian war in the Middle East by helping to broker a better relationship between Riyadh and Tehran.
In a sense, that relationship has become so bad in part because of our perceived enablement of Riyadh. We are the backer, security guarantor for Riyadh. That allows them to do things that they might otherwise not risk very much as Israel does. And I think we could play a more constructive role if we had a relationship with Iran that enabled us to do that.
It might also help to find some resolution of the internal civil strife in Bahrain where we have an important Naval headquarters and a longstanding relationship that we want to preserve.
But I think we would find other issues as well. The major thing probably is if the jihadistan that now exists does not collapse of its own defects, we're going to need Iran's help to deal with it.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
DR. TARZI: I'm not going to go into the nuclear issue because it's been talked about. Two aspects that I think I just want to put down there. One has to do with we talk about Saudi Arabia benefiting. There's an aspect of oil that I think we need to put out on the table. If Iran were to become a normal state tomorrow, not a U.S.-friendly state, normal like any other country, or U.S.-friendly for that matter, first and foremost my view is Russia will never allow that. Russia will do anything in its power to keep Iran at least simmering, not boiling because it's too close.
Why? Because an Iran coming into the market, if you look at the map of Iran, it's the only country in the world that has access to the Caucasus, to the Caspian Sea which we don't even still know whether it is a sea or a lake, and that has a major ramification in the hydrocarbon side of the world, and also has access to Central Asia.
And also, if Iran were to come into the normalcy, U.S. or other Western states can revamp their pipelines which exist, but need a lot of repair. They only have to go through the Hormuz choke point, they can go straight into Chabahar into the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, out. That breaks Russia's monopoly over oil and gas, which is east/west. There will be a north/south way.
I don't — I personally do not believe under any circumstances Mr. Putin will allow that. So whatever we think about Iran we have to think about this aspect that is absolutely very important; and therefore, I don't think Russia will play a game. They always play back and forth and they know how to play this game and they have played it for a long time. That's one aspect, so we have to look at it.
Number is Saudi Arabia. If Iran were to come to the scenario that I just said, somehow Russia was satisfied with half of Ukraine or maybe a few other countries here and there, they said, OK, we let this go, at that point Saudi Arabia's one of the most important aspects. It's not an amount of oil we get from Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia's power, exclusive power, unique power to control the markets, there is no other country in the world that can balance the market of oil and gas should be a crisis or if there's a natural disaster or any other disaster.
They are the only country who can actually augment a certain amount. It's a top Saudi secret how much they can put into the market. But this allows Saudi Arabia to get away with a lot of things that they are, not the amount of oil. Everybody talks about 24 percent of proven reserves. It is how the market is manipulated, and this is incredible. It doesn't matter we have fracking or not, the world economy depends on this ability.
There's only two countries in the world can change that. One was Iraq and it didn't work. Some of those who — if you remember the good old days that we wanted to go to Iraq, one of the ideas was that Iraq comes in intact, a nice guy comes in, Mr. Whoever, and then they sell Iraqi oil and the world will be nice and democracy will take over the Middle East. One reason was to break this impasse of one country controlling oil and gas market.
The second country and the most important country after Saudi Arabia is Iran. A normal Iran coming into the market breaks that Saudi monopoly. Forget about Shi'a-Sunni issue, this will make these two countries at odds. So if we want to think about future, we have to — I'm not saying it's impossible. I'm an optimist. Actually, I don't want to quote, you know, a Marxist, but I will. I quote Gramsci. You know, I'm a pessimist because of my intellect and an optimist because of my will.
However, that — but the question here we have to look at is, if you want to go forward these are the big things. It's not, you know, the nuclear issue is itself very complicated, but the day after Russia is very important and Saudi Arabia. It's not just Shia-Sunnia. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think that raises several important issues. The United States has essentially destroyed Iraq as a balancer for Iran, leaving our forces as the only means at present of balancing Iran. Hence, we are stuck in the Gulf. Now, that is a very uncomfortable position, not only for us, but for our Gulf-Arab friends.
I could see in the future, precisely because of the historic hostility or tension between Russia and Iran and perhaps adding in the oil factor, that if we didn't have the Syrian issue as an irritant, Russia would be a big factor in the Gulf-Arab strategy for balancing Iran because it's in the rear on the other side of the Caspian. That's the first point.
The second point is Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been at odds in OPEC on price. The reason is Iran has a finite supply of oil, it has, by the way, since the revolution grossly mismanaged its reservoirs, its oil reservoirs, damaged them, its potential to stimulate production is limited. Saudi Arabia has always wanted to strike a balance between a price that's high enough to finance the Saudi state and the welfare system that it provides on the one hand, and not so high is to kill demand for oil.
This contradiction is going to continue regardless, but I'm not optimistic that Iran will add much to the global oil supply. It has, by the way, lost half its exports as a result of the sanctions which have really hurt. So that is a factor to be brought in mind.
And a final point is there's actually another country that is disturbing the global oil market and that's the United States which has used fracking for tight oil and shale gas to very good effect. I think that is probably a very limited phenomenon, maybe 10 or 15 years. But at the moment at least, it's a very, very important factor in the global oil market.
Incidentally, Saudi Arabia has huge potential in these areas, too. So we're talking about a very different world in the future. Perhaps Iran does, we don't know. We're talking about a very different energy world looking down the road than the one that we have been accustomed to.
DR. MATTAIR: Leaving this question of oil aside, the Saudi Arabians and the UAE and their neighbors view Iran's agenda in the region as inimical to theirs. And they've been expressing concern about our policies for some time and in fact are concerned that in pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran we are going to acquiesce in the expansion of Iran's influence in the region.
So is there something we can do to ease that concern for them, anticipating possible success with Iran in these talks?
And secondly, their role will be quite important if there is no agreement with Iran because then we have to go to deterrence and containment and that is where we will be basing and already are basing forces and we will have to convince them that we're willing to use them.
So Ken, maybe you could comment.
DR. POLLACK: Sure, Tom.
I will say on the last point, that's the piece of containment that has me least concerned because if we don't have an agreement I think the Gulf states are going to be very frightened of Iran and they're going to want us very much there. But I think there are other aspects of it that are worth talking about, so let me touch on a few of those.
And you know, I think why your question is important is because we need to recognize that even if we fail to get an agreement with Iran, it doesn't mean that the negotiations have to stop, OK? They may take a very different form, though. They may take an indirect form, they make take an informal form. And they can be both cooperative and antagonistic if necessary.
But we need to recognize that our goals aren't going to end and we're simply going to have to pursue them in a different fashion. So where I start is to say that, look, there's a reason that Iran came to these talks in the first place. We don't quite know where it is, but I would tally up four different rationales for Iran deciding to get involved in the nuclear talks with us, to sit down and negotiate in a way that they hadn't wanted to previously.
Just very quickly they are, first of all, the sanctions and the fear that the sanctions were causing internal unrest and the fear that the sanctions were sapping Iran's strength, sapping its power.
Second, I think it was fear of the Chinese, in particular, but to a lesser extent some other countries like the Indians joining the sanctions in a much more wholehearted fashion. And it's worth remembering that in 2010 before the passage of Resolution 1929, the Chinese went to the Iranians and they said to the Iranians the Americans are giving you everything that you need for Iraq — (inaudible) — you should accept their offer. And when the Iranians didn't, the Chinese then joined us in the passage of U.N. Resolution 1929 which is the cornerstone of all the international sanctions against Iran.
It points out that the Chinese have been in a very different place than certainly where the Russians are and where they're often portrayed. The Chinese don't necessarily want the Iranians to acquire a nuclear weapon. They don't want us to strike the Iranians either. But they have been trying very hard to move the Iranians in the right direction. And the Iranians seem to recognize that. And I think that they are very concerned that if they didn't come to the negotiating table and try to get the sanctions lifted that the Chinese would increasingly fall into line with us.
A third one, I think Khamenei is terrified of what he keeps calling the U.S. soft war against him. He believes, as several members of the panel have pointed out, that the U.S. is out to get him, OK? And he believes we're actively trying to do so. But I think it's also clear from a whole variety of different pieces of information and evidence that he believes we could do a lot more if we chose to do so. And so part of what he seems to be looking to do is to answer this question, can he turn off or at least mitigate the U.S. soft war?
And then, of course, the last one out there, I actually think it's the least important of the rationales, but worth noting, is perhaps some kind of a residual fear of an American or an Israeli strike. I think the truth is that the Iranians have largely written that off and I actually think that the Iranians wouldn't be at the table if they really thought that we were going to hit them. I think under those circumstances, they would definitely want a nuclear weapon. But nevertheless, it's out there.
To me, what those do is they set up a process that could move forward, things that we would need to keep in place, things that we might want to try to employ in a negotiation, even if an indirect one with the Iranians moving forward. Because we should remember, even if the negotiations break down, the president's red line is still there. And you know what? It's the right one.
We don't want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon. There is a world of difference between the Iranians in their current situation and the Iranians with a tighter breakout window and the Iranians having an actual honest-to-goodness nuclear weapon. It is enormous from the perspective of crisis management, regional stability, everything else you can think of.
So that's where we really need to focus our efforts. Even if we don't get the deal, can we keep the Iranians from crossing that red line? And again, those different interests, those reasons that brought the Iranians to the table create both things that we might offer to the Iranians and things that we might use to threaten the Iranians should they choose to cross those lines.
And then finally, there's a whole other set of issue out there that I think that Tom was alluding to, which I'm not going to because it's too big to really talk about in these circumstances, and that is, whether we get an agreement with the Iranians or not, whether we can keep them from acquiring nuclear weapons or not, either way we're going to have a whole slew of areas where our interests clash severely with Iran's and a few areas where our interests will coincide with Iran's. And we've got to think through how we're going to deal with those.
That also doesn't end with the nuclear negotiations. It would have been nice or may still be nice to get that deal. It may open up the prospect for greater cooperation between the United States and Iran. But even if we don't get it, it doesn't mean that our interests stop and it doesn't mean that we don't still have ways of negotiating with the Iranians and finding hopefully peaceful solutions to our differences.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, in the time that remains, let's discuss the issue that Obama did not discuss in his West Point speech, which is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
To give you a flavor of the kinds of questions that are coming from the floor, they are, whose interests are we safeguarding, ours or the Israelis? Which comes first? Are we not responsible for this situation given our support for Israel? That's the flavor.
And I believe it was Paul who was speaking about the necessity of political courage here if we're going to deal with that issue.
So I'd like the panelists to comment on this. Before they do, I would say actually President Obama said the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue was a national interest of the United States, a national security interest of the United States because it provides a grievance that feeds extremism and results in terror and he even said resolving the conflict would ease those conditions and therefore make it easier to negotiate with Iran.
Once you say it's a national security interest, then you ought to succeed in your efforts. And if you don't, then we need to talk about how we're going to be in jeopardy. What should we be doing to bring these parties to a conclusion and an agreement because clearly it doesn’t seem that the Palestinians are going to accept being occupied and being blockaded? They're going to resist. And if their resistance is always met with this kind of force and these kinds of casualties, we shouldn't be too surprised if some people do blame us.
AMB. FREEMAN: Well, I think the Israeli objective is very clearly to destroy the unity government that has been formed in Palestine. That's quite clear. The sequence of events began with the murder of three young Jewish boys. Incidentally, responsibility for that was taken by the Islamic state, Hamas denied responsibility. It was politically convenient for Mr. Netanyahu to attribute the murders to Hamas, which he did.
That was followed by the round-up of roughly 600 Palestinians associated with Hamas in the West Bank. Two houses were destroyed, eight Palestinians died in the round-up.
There was an Israeli raid into Gaza that drew rocket fire from Gaza. The rocket fire then was used as a justification for the current operation.
The problem here also is a problem of war termination. The so-called truce offer was concocted between Israel, Egypt and the United States without reference to the other side. Not only is that insulting, but it's inherently unworkable. It is the opposite of diplomacy.
Mr. Kerry is in Egypt or has been talking to whom we don't know, because talking to the Egyptians, who are the enemies of the people in Gaza now, is not going to do a damn thing. It is a n ice show of activity, which seems to be our specialty these days, frenetic activity is us, but the prospects for it producing anything are extremely poor.
So how will this end? Let's not forget that there is a broader context in the Palestinian camp. And by the way, the so-called peace process which concluded in April, I think once and for all, because I think people have had it with U.S. mediation, which wasn't mediation, that process was fraudulent in no small measure because the Palestinians were not represented there except through Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority which has no constitutional mandate to rule, which lost the last elections it competed in, and which is essentially in the employ of the Israeli occupation with subsidies from the United States.
Not represented there were the people of Gaza, the Palestinian refugees or the Palestinian diaspora. There's a basic rule of negotiation, which is that if you wish to achieve a result that is worth anything, those with the capacity to wreck the result as well as those who must sign onto it have to agree or at least be neutralized. That condition was not even considered.
So I don't know how all this ends, but the broader context is that the Palestinians as a whole are moving toward law-fare, the use of international law, international organizations to put the squeeze on Israel, the International Court of Justice, other instrumentalities. And I might add, they are not bound any more than the BRICS have turned out to be by existing organizations. They can call ad hoc conferences and organize boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment without reference to the United Nations.
So I think we're headed into a period in which our defense of Israel, which I'm sure we will continue to mount, is going to become considerably more difficult and there will be no resolution of the issues on the ground in the foreseeable future.
DR. PILLAR: Chas has appropriately summarized the background to the current events. I would just add a couple of other observations in terms of Hamas' point of view. Hamas had been observing the ceasefire that was negotiated after the last, now-lesser round of violence in November 2012. They continued to observe it, even though there were some incidents initiated by the Israelis along the border.
It was after the, you know, the kidnappings and murders and the Israeli response, which included, besides forceful action along the Gaza border, which involved some bloodshed, it also included the wholesale rounding up of the usual Hamas suspects numbering in the hundreds, a number of whom were the ones who had just been released not all that long ago in the deal that freed Corporal Shalit.
And so this was seen as a direct reneging of the deal, certainly in the absence of any evidence of Hamas responsibility. But this whole issue, of course, is so huge that the larger problem involves those issues of political courage that have been around with us for several administrations and several decades.
But I would just make one other point, again putting on my hat as an old counterterrorist official. And you've alluded to it, Tom, in terms of the president's remarks. Both the unresolved nature of this conflict and the extremely close identification of the U.S. with one side of it is indeed a major factor in radicalization throughout not just the Middle East, but beyond, and certainly in the Muslim world.
One often hears in response to that the straw man kind of argument that, well, even if we resolve this, this wouldn't clean up all those other problems in the Middle East and there still would be a whole host of other reasons why people become radicals. That's, of course, true.
It does not refute the fact that this issue has been a biggie and if you look at the statements of captured terrorists who have been interrogated as well as the propaganda that reflects their calculation as to where they can most appeal for support, this is the thing that comes up again and again and again and again.
And until that changed, we have a major factor stoking anti-U.S. Radicalization.
AMB. FREEMAN: Just to add to that one thought, 9/11, if you read the statement by the perpetrators, this issue, Israel-Palestine, contrary to the mythology, was very prominently cited as motivating that. So it is not the case that this is a trivial matter or, as Ken began this session, that it can be downgraded in importance and ignored. It cannot be. It touches directly on the security interests of all Americans.
DR. TARZI: I would just say something about the topic that I said, perhaps it's too naive to think that democratization has any room in the Middle East. But these ad hoc supports of democracy is what created Hamas and gave it — not created, but gave it legitimacy that it has as a government. That's why I mentioned initially that we have to be very careful to promote democracy or elections or whatever aspect of democracy as legitimization of — and again, the reason I talked about states. Is Gaza a state or not? You know, they won an election.
These are aspects that, again, go deeper into that. That's why I raised it. You know, when we go and make democracy a pillar of U.S. — a fundamental pillar of U.S. security policy and support or not support, but allow a group such as Hamas to run for elections and then they gain legitimacy, how you take that legitimacy back out. Therefore, the problem partially goes back to my initial argument, at least in my view, is that to create these aspects without proper groundwork, which is a long-term, generational aspect, democracy doesn't just fall out from the sky, I think it has ramifications and this is one of those ramifications which I think we need to look at.
And beyond that, I think I personally, on the other aspect, I think that while this is a very important issue, I still believe that the importance of if — again, today we can't say it with what's going on there, but when you look at what happened during the Arab uprisings or what is happening today in Egypt, the same Egyptian papers that we read the Egyptian headlines, they are blaming Hamas for almost everything. And this comes from almost the spectrum of Egyptian newspapers.
So yes, it's there, but I think I personally think that there is an exaggeration of the importance of it that, again, I'm not diminishing that it has to be something to happen, but it goes up and down depending on what goes on on the ground in the Middle East. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Yes, Chas.
AMB. FREEMAN: I don't think legitimacy can be effectively conferred by outside forces or foreign powers. Elections are not the only source of legitimacy. There can be other sources as the Middle East amply illustrates. But if an election legitimizes the government and we treat that as inconvenient and invalidate the result of the election, we are at a minimum not being true to our own values.
DR. MATTAIR: And another issue is how the PLO and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have been — how their legitimacy and credibility and stature have been diminished by failing in negotiations over more than 20 years.
And you know, I'm really struck by the interview that two administration officials gave after the end of these talks in April in which they said that the primary reason for the failure of the talks was continued Israeli settlement-building.
So when we know what the outcome ought to be and we know what the primary obstacle is and we say it's in our national interest, what should we do about it?
DR. PILLAR: I think Chas covered that in his prepared remarks with regard to what's not only in U.S. interest, but what's in Israeli interest, long-term Israeli interest in terms of the Jewish state living in peace and prosperity forever. The current course doesn't do it.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, we just heard from four very experienced people, and I want to thank all of them. And I also thank you for coming.
Please visit our website www.mepc.org if you want to watch this video in a day or two or videos of our previous conferences or read articles from the journal.
Thank you very much for coming. (Applause.)