The Middle East Policy Council convened its 95th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 25th: "The Trump Administration's Middle East Policies: A Mid-term Assessment." Convened at the midpoint of President Trump's first term, all of the panelists agreed that the Trump administration has approached U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with the goal of remedying perceived failures of the past Obama and Bush administrations, something often frustrated by the disconnect between administration policy formulation and the president's direct communication via Twitter. But in analyzing its implementation, the panelists differed on their assessments, particularly how well specific policies will further the Trump administration's overall goals in the region.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice chairperson of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event; Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) was a contributor and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Philip Gordon (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations); Michael Doran (Senior Follow, Hudson Institute); and Jon Alterman (Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, CSIS).
Mr. Gordon began by stressing how hard it is for any presidential administration to get high marks at the midpoint of its first term, particularly given the near constant convulsions in the Middle East. Yet he sees contradiction in the approach being taken by the Trump administration: on the one hand there is far-reaching ambition to tackle large, historically intractable issues like Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while on the other hand, President Trump views the region as one where the U.S. has wasted money and lives with little to show for it. Mr. Gordon ultimately sees the latter being the more prominent driver of U.S. policy in the region. In terms of priorities, he sees containing Iranian influence as the central goal of this administration, but doubts that the associated policies will achieve it. For example, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal may have increased the pain on the Iranian economy, but has not changed Iranian behavior in the region. Similarly, the ambition to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians appears to be undermined by the controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Mr. Doran summarized President Trump's approach to the Middle East as "I will do more with less" when compared to the past Obama and Bush administrations. This is rooted in a sharp difference between how Presidents Obama and Trump view the region, with the former seeing it as a round table with different stakeholders whom the U.S. is tasked with organizing and the latter seeing it as a rectangular table with allies and adversaries, with the U.S. goal being to strengthen its side. Viewed through this lens, Mr. Doran graded the current administration's effort quite favorably. There has been a successful effort to shore up the relationship with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the three Middle East countries capable of projecting military power beyond their borders. In terms of policy performance, Mr. Doran conceded that some of the problems in the region may be too big for the U.S. to really "solve," with the best-case scenario being to effectively manage them.
Mr. Alterman defined three main pillars to the Trump administration's Middle East policy: rebuild close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia; counter Iran; and limit the U.S. involvement in the region, particularly costly military interventions. Yet he questioned the reasoning behind these priorities. Ties were never really that frayed with Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, save for personality differences between the heads of state. And the focus on Iran is peculiar given the immense disparity in power between the U.S. and Iran and the reality that Iran can always be a spoiler but never an actual winner. Ultimately, Mr. Alterman warned of an erosion in U.S. moral standing in the region, particularly as the Trump administration embraces authoritarian leaders and tactics while at the same time disparaging U.S. institutions. This turns U.S. foreign policy into a series of bilateral, transactional relationships where the U.S. is always the stronger party, rather than one guided at least in part by principles and values.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council's leadership, please email [email protected].
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Hi. Good morning, everyone. We’re about to start. If anybody still needs to get any coffee or anything to eat, we’re setting up a few additional chairs and we’ll be starting in just a couple of minutes. So if people could grab their coffee and food and get settled, we’ll get started. Thanks.
GINA ABERCROMBIE-WINSTANLEY: Good morning, everyone. Can you all hear me? All right. Excellent. I am Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley. I am the vice chairperson of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m pleased to welcome you, on behalf of the Council, to the 95th quarterly Capitol Hill conference. Our topic today is the Trump administration’s Middle East policy and midterm assessment. And this is certainly a rich topic for discussion. Consider recent developments regarding Syria and ISIS, the humanitarian crisis in and growing international outcry over Yemen, the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder and repeated delay in the release of the administration Arab-Israeli peace plan. All of these, and other regional issues, remain front-burner challenges for the administration as it enters its midpoint.
We’re fortunate to have an experienced and expert panel with us today to delve into these and other regional issues. However, before I turn to today’s program, I would like to say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. The Council was established in 1981 for the purpose of promoting dialogue and education concerning the United States and the countries of the Middle East region. We have three flagship programs: Our quarterly Capitol Hill conferences, such as today’s event, our quarterly journal Middle East Policy which enjoys a strong reputation among those with an interest in Middle Eastern affairs and can be found in some 15,000 libraries worldwide, and our educational outreach program for our next generation Teach Mideast, which provides educational resources on the Middle East targeted mainly towards secondary school students and teachers. Please visit us at our website, www.MEPC.org, and our Teach Mideast program on the web at www.TeachMideast.org to learn more about our organization and our activities.
Now to today’s event. This program is being livestreamed on our website. And so I am pleased to also welcome those of us who will be joining us online. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, as will a recap of the discussion. An edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal, Middle East Policy.
So let me know briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the program with Philip Gordon. Philip is the Mary and David Boies senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group and a former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region. And of course, I know him very well as a former assistant secretary for European affairs, which concentrated on the Middle East. But we’ll talk about that. Our next speaker will be Mike Doran. Mike is a senior fellow on Middle East security at the Hudson Institute. He’s also served as a senior director on the National Security Council and as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Our third panelist is Jon Alterman, the Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He also directs the Middle East Program at CSIS. Jon is a former member of the policy planning staff at the Department of State. I’d like to thank all three of you for joining us here today.
The program will begin with each panelist delivering brief opening remarks. This will be followed by a discussion session which will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. I and our president and chairman, Ambassador Richard Schmierer, will be joining in the question and answer session as well. Please note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. I hope you picked them up before you sat down. And we’d like you to use them to write down any questions you have as the speakers are speaking, and then hold up the card. Our staff will collect these during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair so that he can consolidate the questions for the discussion session.
With that, I’d like to turn it over to Phil, and thank you.
PHILIP H. GORDON: Thank you, Gina. And thanks to Richard for inviting me. And thanks to everyone for being here.
Let me start with what I predict will be a point of agreement among the panel. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of things to disagree about. But I’d make one point to kick it off, which we’ll probably agree on, which is simply to say that – we’re doing midterm assessment here – that it’s hard for any administration to get good grades on their midterm. And I say that not facetiously, but in all seriousness. If any of the recent U.S. administration were judged on the results of their Middle East policy bringing prosperity, peace and stability, they wouldn’t get particularly good grades. And I think – and I say that to start off because anyone approaching this topic I think needs to do so as they sort of give an assessment with a degree of humility, both when it comes to their assessments and prescriptions moving forward.
And I think it’s so hard because the Middle East today is going through a set of convulsions that just make it really difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with it or to, quote-unquote, fix the problems. There’s a tendency in Washington, or in sessions like, and frankly in the region itself, to attribute everything that’s going on to U.S. policy. We screwed this up or we got that right, and we caused this or that. The U.S. is an important factor, but it’s certainly not the only factor, even the main factor. And the reality is that over the past 15-16 years or so, sort of from the Iraq War, through the Arab Spring, to today, the old order in the Middle East has broken down, and we haven’t found anything to replace it.
The autocracies, dictatorships that stood in a number of countries across the region – Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and so on – are gone. There was a lot to be said against that old order, but it was a certain order. And now that it’s gone, all sorts of regional and local actors are rushing to fill the vacuum. And that’s inevitably creating conflicts that are really difficult to resolve. It’s exacerbating sectarianism. So you have within some of these countries that are fractured a competition to fill the vacuum, largely along Sunni-Shia lines, which is creating splits within countries, but also among countries, as Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for regional leadership.
And then you also have ideological struggles to fill that vacuum without some order at the top. So within the Sunni world you get different splits, which we see playing out in the Gulf today. Not just Saudi-Qatar, but across the board, with on one side Turkey, Qatar, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and on the other side some of the Gulf leaderships. So I make that point at the start to underscore in the context of whatever assessment we give that this is really hard, and the United States can’t and doesn’t have answers to these questions. And we’re going to talk about the current administration, but I think it’s fair to note that the approaches of the past two administrations have not been particularly successful either, and they came at it from opposite perspectives.
So you had the Bush administration facing a difficult and challenging Middle East and decided to try to solve the problems we face with extraversion, to transform the region and put U.S. military power behind democratization and transformation. And that ended in widespread failure, without advancing peace and stability and democracy in the way that we hoped. But then under the Obama administration, you had largely the opposite and an attempt to limit U.S. engagement and costs and entanglements. And that did avoid those deep entanglements, but it also was a period that saw the rise of ISIS and the horrific civil war in Syria, and absence of progress on Middle East peace, Libya, and so on. So you’ve had two successive administrations coming at it from opposite perspectives. And they would ultimately not get particularly good grades either if you were only looking at results.
So, again, I say all this as background and context for what will be my own midterm assessment of this administration. So what is that assessment? What can we saw two years into the Trump administration, as it tries to grapple with these problems and challenges that I just described? Let me make a general point, and then I’ll talk about a couple of the specific policy issues. And the general point, from the perspective two years is, would be that I think that this administration’s Middle East Policy suffers from a core contradiction that has yet to be resolved.
And what I mean by that is on one hand the administration has very far-reaching goals and ambitions for the region. We are going to confront, and deter, and contain Iran, and stop it from meddling throughout the region. Destroy forevermore ISIS. Present a Middle East peace plan that’s the ultimate deal. And show American leadership in this region. It’s a perfectly legitimate set of goals and aspirations. It was – it was embodied, in a way, in the speech that the secretary of state gave in Cairo just about a week ago, where he talked about reinvigorating American leadership and being a force for good in the region, and we will not retreat, and we’re going to stand firm until every Iranian boot is driven out of Syria. That is – that is, on one hand, the administration’s policy.
On the other, at least from the president of the United States, it’s the opposite of all of that, because the president continually says, and has said both before he was elected and as president, that we have wasted six trillion –
MR. : Seven trillion.
MR. GORDON: Yeah, it changes all the time. It’s up to seven now, it’s true. Sometimes it’s six, sometimes it’s seven. The point is, trillions of dollars. And we’ve got, quote-unquote, “nothing for it.” And he says that we would be better off if the past presidents had just gone away on vacation or just played golf instead of doing all this intervention in the region. And we were just told a week or two ago that Syria is just sand and death, and we should get out and let others pay for it. So I think that is a fundamental contradiction. And it’s kind of one or the other.
You know, in the business world, in contracting, you sometimes hear the expression you can have it fast, cheap or good, but you can’t have all three. And when it comes to the Middle East, I think there’s a degree of that too. You can make it your top policy goal and put all sorts of resources behind it, or you can get the heck out and say it’s of no interest to you, but you can’t really do both of those at the same time. And so in that sense, I think there are two Trump administration policies towards the Middle East. And we’re still trying to figure out which one it really is.
My sense is it’s more the latter than the former, which is to say that at the end of the day I think that this president does believe that it is a vast waste of American resources and assets. And he’s not prepared to devote the blood and treasure that is necessary to achieve those very far-reaching goals that are sometimes talked about. In that sense, I thought it was – I thought the secretary of state had a pretty hard job on his last trip, where he had to go to the region to try to reassure partners and allies of our commitments and determination. And he went to Cairo to give a big speech about all those things, just after the president out of the blue decided that the battle against ISIS was finished, because ISIS is defeated, and we’re pulling out of Syria. So I think that’s something that the administration is struggling with and is going to continue to struggle with.
What about on individual policy issues? Just briefly let me mention four. There’s so much, as always, one can talk about in the Middle East, but I think I’ll say a brief word about Iran, Syria, the Gulf and Israel and the Palestinians. And I start with Iran, because I think that’s where the administration would start. It’s clearly the centerpiece of administration policy, sometimes even to the exclusion of anything else. But really, if there is a Trump doctrine for the region, it probably is that Iran is at the heart of all of the problems that we face across the Middle East. And if we could just deal with that, then many of the other issues would not necessarily be solved but would be far less difficult.
The problem, I think, is two years in the result of that policy has been, for sure, increased pain on the Iranian economy, but not the results that we’re looking for in terms of Iranian behavior in the region. And thus, I have a set of questions about what this approach is really going to accomplish. The core of it, of course, is pulling out of the nuclear deal. And we’re not going to debate that deal here. I think that’s been debated extensively in this room and others. But I think there is something important – or, at least the point I would want to make about it, which is that the administration would give itself very high marks, I think, for pulling out of the deal and increasing pain on the Iranian economy. There’s no doubt that U.S. secondary sanctions are having an effect.
But I think the important thing to remember is that’s not the goal of our policy. The goal of our policy is to use that pain and pressure to get Iran to do things differently. And that, I don’t think is happening. And I don’t really know what path we expect to take that will lead it to happen. And that’s what I would ask about the administration’s approach now. So what is supposed to happen as we increase his pain on the Iranian economy? Are they going to behave better in Yemen, and Syria, and vis-à-vis Hezbollah, and elsewhere in the world? I don’t see that happening yet. Are they going to accept a better nuclear deal? I mean, when the president pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the argument was it was a terrible deal because it had sunsets and it didn’t cover ballistic missiles, it didn’t cover Iranian regional behavior, it didn’t allow inspectors to go in anytime, anywhere, a long array of complaints about the deal.
OK, fair enough. Do we expect that the Iranian regime is going to come back to the table and say: OK, you’re right. We accept it now. The deal can last forever. We’ll have zero enrichment. It’ll cover ballistic missiles. It won’t let us interfere in the region? I don’t see that happening either. So then what? Is the Iranian regime going to change? Is this pain going to lead to a different Iranian regime that comes in and accepts the better nuclear deal and stops meddling in the region? Again, if the answer is yes, more power to them. Let’s tip our caps and the administration will have accomplished great things. But that doesn’t seem to be imminent either.
The best thing, in all fairness, I think that can be said about the administration’s approach so far is it has denied Iran resources that it can put to some of these activities in the region. The problem with that, though, is that most of these things are relatively cheap. It just doesn’t cost Iran very much to interfere in Yemen and Bahrain, or even support the Syrian government. And therefore, I come back to my core critique or problem with the policy is that it is no doubt increasing the pain on Iran, but it’s not leading to the better and different Iranian policy that is meant to be the goal.
Looking forward, I think there’s an interesting question about the nuclear deal itself because, again, the argument was by pulling out of the deal and re-imposing secondary sanctions, we will get a better deal and deal with the nuclear question better than we have so far. Now, so far Iran has stuck with the deal, hoping to entice others – European Union, China, India – to keep buying Iranian oil. And it would remain in Iran’s interest to stay in the deal.
But perversely, in a way, the more successful we are, the less likely that is to continue. And if we’re so, quote-unquote, “successful,” that Iran comes to the view in the next two years that says, well, what’s the point? If we’re not getting any benefits from this deal we might as well resume some nuclear activities. Then the Trump administration will be exactly in the same position that the Obama administration was, and the Bush administration before that, which was to face this terrible binary choice between allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapons capability and using military force to stop it.
Let me say a word about Syria. I would actually give the administration credit for a couple of things on Syria. One is the campaign against ISIS, which I think when the Trump administration came in that campaign was still not complete. ISIS still held a lot of territory and had a lot of fighters. And the Trump administration maintained what – the strategy that the Obama administration had put in place, and even said at the time would be a 36-month campaign to defeat the caliphate and take all that territory back. Trump administration came in, arguably even intensified that, and made further progress, including the capture of Raqqa, taking back liberation of Raqqa, which was the ISIS caliphate’s capital. So I think that has been a positive aspect of the administration’s approach in Syria.
And I also would give the administration credit on the chemical weapons issue. I thought at the time that it was the right thing to do to threaten or use U.S. military force to stop the wanton use of chemical weapons, killing thousands of civilians. And the Trump administration did that. And I think has showed that, while imperfectly, it is possible to deter the use of chemical weapons without getting bogged down in a civil war.
That said, I think more recent Syria policy by the administration is problematic, to say the least, and raises some really difficult questions. There’s a big and legitimate debate that we could have about the recent decision to withdraw. I think that a credible case can be made that we should pull out the 2,000 troops that were remaining in Syria, for reasons of costs and risks. And it’s certainly true that the administration overstated the benefit for a while – until it decided to pull out, it was overstating the benefits of those troops being there, especially when it came to containing Iran.
I’ve said publicly that my own view would have been to maintain them there, at least for now, because I think they were serving enduring purposes of deterring a Turkish invasion and giving the Kurds leverage that they need in negotiations with Damascus and finishing the job against ISIS. I think it’s just factually wrong, as the president and vice president have said that ISIS has been defeated. And, you know, we saw that in the horrific, tragic bombings last week. ISIS is still not defeated. But that’s a legitimate debate and I think you can – you can make honest and credible cases on both sides.
What I’m certain, though, of is that the process by which the administration has gone about this decision is counterproductive. I can’t think of a worse way to have gone about pulling the troops out of Syria than the way that we have seemed to have gone about it, with advisors right up to the day of the announcement making clear that the opposite was our policy. That we were going to stay in Syria so long as Iran had troops abroad. And it was even called a new policy. This was articulated by top administration officials right up until the day that the president suddenly tweeted that he thought ISIS was defeated and those troops were coming out, quote-unquote, “now.”
I think that undercut severely those top administration officials. I think it surprised allies and partners. I think it betrayed our Kurdish partners on the ground and undercut their leverage. In a functional administration, an NSC process would have been undertaken before the announcement, and before the twee, and before the decision, not afterwards. In this case it was backwards, where the policy decision came out and then administration officials were scrambling around trying to understand it or interpret it, in some cases contradicting it, as the national security advisor did in Israel, only to be overruled after that by the president. So in my view, a serious case can be made for a conditional and carefully planned and clearly articulated American troop withdrawal. But this version of withdrawing is the opposite of that. You could even call it diplomatic malpractice. And I think it’ll have consequences for our polices throughout the region.
How about the Gulf? It’s been another priority, partly because of the issue of Iran for the administration. And I think there it is fair to say that the Trump administration has improved relationships with the leaderships of the countries in the Gulf. The question is, at what cost and to what end. When I say he’s improved relations with those governments, I’d be the first to admit that during the Obama administration those relations were strained. There were real differences. On Egypt, where they criticized the United States for not standing more firmly with Mubarak, even though it was the U.S. judgement at the time that it was the Egyptian people that decided to get rid of Mubarak not the United States, but nonetheless it was an area of friction.
On Syria, those governments – I’m mainly talking about the Saudis and the Emiratis, sometimes others – thought the U.S. should be more forceful in getting rid of the Assad regime, mainly to contain Iran. U.S. had a different view and didn’t want to get bogged down in that war, and there was a legitimate difference. And then obviously on Iran those leaderships were not happy with the Iran nuclear deal, and other American policies towards Iran. So fair enough. There were some strains. I think they can be wildly overstated, mind you, because even in the Obama administration the United States was selling massive amounts of – unprecedented amounts of weapons to these governments, maintaining defense cooperation, intelligence cooperation, supporting the Saudi intervention in Yemen notwithstanding U.S. concerns, being on the same side of the civil war in Syria, working with them on the Libya operation. So it’s easy to overstate the degree of those strains. There was a lot of cooperation as well. But fair enough.
Trump comes in and reverse that. Not least by taking his first foreign trip anywhere to Riyadh, which is actually extraordinary for an American president to do that rather than Canada, Mexico, or a European partner. But it was meant to signal something. And it signaled that the United States was going to prioritize cooperation with these countries. And to sum it up, it was sort of a transactional deal. The Trump administration was saying: If you signal your willingness to invest in the United States, buy U.S. weapons, and work with us on our priorities, like ISIS and Iran, we will back you on your priorities, like Iran. And we will also get off your back when it comes to the democracy and human rights dialogue that previous administrations would usually bring up. And so in that sense, I think there’s no doubt that there are better relations between the United States and those Gulf governments.
What’s less clear is what the U.S. is getting in return, and what the cost of that policy is. And by “getting in return,” I would say that while the administration touts all sorts of investments from the Saudis and arms sales, I think people who have looked at that understand that it is wildly overstated. Most of the arms deals were in place even before the administration came in, and the investments are much more limited than the big numbers that the administration throws around. And I think there’s also been a cost to it in terms of signaling that we are so supportive of the agendas of those Gulf partners that they have a green light and a blank check to pretty much do whatever they want, whether it’s launching the boycott of Qatar, continuing with the bombing campaign in Yemen, repressing dissidents, and all of that they can do not expecting any pushback from the United States.
And it’s certainly right to – for the administration to want to preserve the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, but the reluctance to criticize the Saudi government over anything – including the Khashoggi affair – implies somehow that the United States needs Saudi Arabia’s support more than Saudi Arabia needs U.S. support. And I would question that proposition. I don’t think the Saudis are standing up to Iran as a favor to the United States. They’re standing up to Iran because it’s their own policy.
I’ll make my last point about Middle East peace. And it’s actually worth observing that in the old days Middle East peace would be – I mean, the Israel-Palestinian issue would be, like, the first point. And these days, because there’s so much else on the agenda, it often comes last. But I didn’t want to finish without mentioning it, because I do think it’s important even if it is, to a degree, the dog that hasn’t barked. As Gina mentioned, we’re two years into the administration, which came in with very far-reaching plans to – and great fanfare – to negotiate the ultimate deal. But there has never seemed to be the right time to launch it.
And meanwhile, the administration has taken a number of unilateral steps that I think undermine the prospects for that plan, if and when it ever emerges, including the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and moving of the U.S. embassy without getting anything in return for it, cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority, cutting off aid to UNRWA, closing the PLO office in Washington, and then most recently supporting the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which has led the Palestinians to reject even security assistance, which is a priority of the Israeli government. So we find ourselves in a position where the Palestinians won’t even talk to the United States, which needless to say is probably not the healthiest background to a successful peace plan.
Lots more could be said, and I look forward to the comments of my colleagues. I’ll just sum up with a reinforcement of the point I made at the very beginning. These issues are all hard. There are not easy answers. There is no easy fix for the United States. And I wouldn’t hold it against any administration not to have silver bullets or not to be able to somehow solve the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Certainly Obama couldn’t – the administration couldn’t do that, and the Bush administration couldn’t do it either. That said, the United States is still a major power – a major player in the region that can make things better or worse. I think we still have major interests there. And I think it’s fair to say that on most of the issues I’ve mentioned, the Trump administration has not made things better. In some cases, they’ve made things worse. And I worry about where that might lead for the next two years. Thank you. (Applause.)
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Are there any questions that you want to pass to the staff?
MICHAEL DORAN: Well, thanks to Phil for those opening remarks. And thanks to the Council for having me. And Tom, Richard and Gina, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here, see old friends. I’m surprised at how many of you came. I think – and it’s great to see you.
I think if we’re going to assess the Trump administration, we should start with what the president promised us during the election. And basically, if I could summarize his promises, I think they come down to: I’m going to do more with less. I’m going to do much more than Barack Obama with much less commitment of blood and treasure that George W. Bush committed. Trump looked at the Bush effort to democratize the Middle East as a big boondoggle, as a fantasy that was disconnected from a hard-headed definition of American interests. And he looked at Obama’s policies as capitulation to adversaries, such as Iran – primarily Iran.
And so what you see is there’s a line of continuity between Obama and Trump in that both, I think responding to American domestic opinion, want to keep the Middle East at arm’s length. The American public looked at the record of the last however many years since 9/11. They saw that we’d toppled – or had a hand in helping to remove four leaders in the Arab world. And they didn’t see a lot of advantage to the Middle – to the United States for having done so. And so you have this kind of same impulse, I think, working on both presidents. But they had a very different approach about how to deal with it.
I would liken President Obama’s approach to conceiving of the Middle East as a roundtable. The job of the United States was to put all of the stakeholders – and that’s an Obama administration phrase, that’s a great way to talk about the Middle East. We don’t have enemies and friends. We have stakeholders and problems to solve. So Syria is a problem, and we have all the stakeholders. The stakeholders include the Israelis and the Saudis. But they also include the Iranians and the Russians. And we bring them together in a roundtable. And we – our job is sort of first among equals at the roundtable. We’re the chairman of the meeting. And the United States tables solutions, and then tries to come up with policies that all the stakeholders can agree upon.
The problem with this, from my point of view, and I think also from the point of view of the Trump administration, is that when you treat an adversary like the Iranians as a stakeholder and not an adversary, they’re happy to pocket all the concessions that you give them, and then they offer more. So we let them into the lovely boardroom with the beautiful chandelier and the lovely paneling on the wall. And they sat there, and they took everything we gave them. And then they started dismantling the chandelier, and pulling the paneling off the wall, and going off to sell it elsewhere. So the Trump administration’s answer to the problem of how do we look after our interests but minimize the commitment of blood and treasure is to work through allies. And that, of course, is the traditional answer in international relations since the Peloponnesian War.
And so the traditional allies are those who will accept the American security umbrella in the region. And the biggest among them are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. I mean, those are the ones that have the greatest capacity to project power beyond their borders, whether it’s hard power, military power, or especially in the case of the Saudis economic power, and so on. And so the idea is to put together a coalition of our traditional allies to contain – to contain Iran. I would liken the Trump approach to a rectangular table. On one side you have the United States and its traditional allies. And on the other side of the table you have the adversaries, in particular the Iranian alliance system and the Russians. And the job of the United States is to strengthen its side of the table against the other – the other side of the table.
I believe this is a much healthier approach. If we – I believe that the Trump administration’s approach is a much healthier approach than the Obama administration’s approach, because the Obama administration’s approach has failure baked into the – baked into the conception because it’s based on the idea that ultimately we’re going to reach a deal with the Russians and the Iranians that is acceptable to all sides. So it comes down to how do you read the Iranians. And the Trump administration read on the Iranians, my read on the Iranians, is they want to destroy the American alliance system and they want to expel the United States from the – from the Gulf, certainly, and from the – from the Middle East.
The Obama administration’s approach is to look at this and think about capabilities. And they say: There’s no way the Iranians have such aspirations, because there’s so much – the power differential is so great they’d be crazy to think that way. But if you look at what they do and what they say, they’re telling us all the time that, indeed, they do think that way. And in fact, they’ve had remarkable successes in thinking that way, despite the incredible power disparity.
So if I had to give the Trump administration a grade for its – for its performance so far, I’d divide the grade into two things. The conception and effort on the one hand and results on the other. And I give it an A-plus for conception and effort – A-plus for effort. And I’d give it kind of – similar to Phil – I’d give it an incomplete for performance. We have to wait and see how all of this works. There are a number of things that are, to me, unclear as of yet. Some of them kind of track with what Phil and I – with what Phil described. I would say that I totally agree with the general picture that Phil presents, but I totally disagree with all of his – all of his assessments.
And I think the difference comes from this – and I don’t want to put words in Phil’s mouth – but I think Phil’s grading success by whether we’ve solved problems in the Middle East. But I would start with his last assessment, which is that everything in the Middle East is hard. There are no easy answers. There are no quick fixes. We’re not going to – we’re not going to turn this region into Western Europe. We’re not going to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement anytime soon. I’ll be surprised – I’m not going to say it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. I’ll be surprised if it happens in my lifetime.
But I’ll tell you something else, if we have one the world is not going to change. The world as we know it is not going to change. It’s not going to be worth that much, because we’re still going to have Hamas, and we’re going to have the Palestinian Authority. We’ll have an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas will reject it, and behind Hamas will be the Iranian alliance system, and anybody else that wants to undermine the American security system. And we’re still going to have the same sort of balance of power on the ground that we have right now.
We’re not going to put Syria together. You can see that Syria is a problem that’s going to be with us until I die. I hope that’s a long time from now, but it’s going to – it’s going to remain. We have – we have millions of refugees – internally displaced people and refugees outside of Syria. They’re not going back to their homes. This is going to be a problem that’s going to have to be managed for a very long time. On, and on, and on, and on, and on. We’re not going to solve these problems.
So what’s the best that we can possibly hope for? The best that we can hope for is that we posture ourselves to manage these difficult issues to the best of our ability. That’s all we can – that’s all we can hope for. And the Trump administration’s conception that we work with our close allies, or those who are willing to accept the American security system, is the only one that makes any sense, given the fact that the American people have decided we’re not going to bludgeon these people into doing what we want, and we’re not going to transform them into being something other than what they are. We have to work with the region as it is. And we’re going to work with it somewhat from a – from a distance.
Now, the Trump execution is – the Trump execution is an incomplete – not for the reason that Phil said. Yes, I give Donald Trump low marks – process errors for tweeting out a policy on Syria without first having a very well-managed NSC process and rolling it out with allies. Process error. And here are some diplomatic repercussions from that. But the result is, on balance, I think, a good result. And my primary reason for saying that is that we had postured ourselves in Syria so as to permanently – turn Turkey into a permanent enemy of the United States. How did this happen? It happened because, as I said, President Obama wanted to reach out to Iran. He wanted to turn Iran into a stakeholder around the roundtable, rather than an enemy. And he believed that if he showed – if he reached out his hand in friendship to Iran, as he said in his first inaugural, that the Iranians would reach out their hand in return. If we showed them that toppling their regime is not the goal of the United States, they would work with us to solve problems in the – in the Middle East.
So when the Kobane crisis hit, when it became obvious to the White House, to the president, that he could not stay out of Iraq, that he was going to have to commit troops to Iraq and to Syria because of the rise of the Islamic State – and these – and this, you remember, is the thing that President Obama wanted to do least in foreign policy. He said in an interview with David Remnick, every president gets his paragraph. Every president has, in the history books, a paragraph about him which says: He did X, Y, and Z. And he said this – he came into office saying: A president has to know what his paragraph is going to be. So he had written his Middle East paragraph before he ever made policy toward the Middle East. And we know what that paragraph said: I ended Bush’s wars. I got us out of the Middle East. That was his paragraph.
So when the Islamic State popped up, and he had to put troops into Iraq and Syria, it was devastating to him because it erased his paragraph. But also, the other achievement in his paragraph was: I transformed relations with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal was part of a thaw with Iran, which was the thing that Obama was most proud of. And he was in the middle of negotiating it when the Kobane thing hit. So he gave an order to his people: We need a proxy on the ground that will not undermine our Iran policy and that will not – that will not pull us into direct conflict with the Assad regime, the primary proxy of the Iranians in the – in the fertile crescent. The YPG, that is the Syrian wing of the PKK, the separatist Kurds in Turkey, raised their hand and said: Put us in, coach. We’ll do it.
The Talabani faction from the Kurdish – the KRG, the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, has good relations with Iran, has good relations with the YPG. The Barzani faction is aligned with Turkey. The Talabani people grabbed the Americans by the hand, went and made the marriage with the YPG. It was all part of a seamless idea of Iran becoming a stakeholder rather than – rather than an adversary. We were building – our 2,000 forces in eastern Syria were – whether they told themselves they were doing this or not – were building Rojava, the PKK’s autonomous statelet in northern Syria, giving the PKK strategic depth, and permanently destroying relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.
And so what president did – what President Trump did in pulling the troops out is he cut that Gordian knot. And that’s a very good thing, because it offers the prospect of pulling Turkey into a policy designed to stabilize the region, to the detriment of Iran and Russia. And that’s impossible to do without Turkey. Now, we’re not there yet. President Trump is testing the proposition of whether we can return Turkish-U.S. relations to that – to the kind of cooperation that we knew historically. The grade he will get – the grade he will get in the end will depend on – in part, on the success of that. I was – I was disappointed about the pullout of the troops, in that I had always hoped that we would use our position in Syria for our troops to actually carry out a more robust anti-Iran strategy. But by the time he did it, I realized that that was never – that that was never going to happen.
Now, I’ll just end with this, in saying there is a gap. I have to agree with Phil. I hate to agree with Phil, but I have to agree with him on this. There is a gap between stated aspiration of the Trump administration about countering Iran and the capabilities that we can see on the – on the game board. It’s not clear to me that if we have some 22 months – I don’t know how long it is between now and November 2020 when we have the next presidential election. I don’t know if the president is going to succeed in drastically tipping the balance between Iran and the United States in that timeframe. I will grade success differently, however. The Obama administration did – by doing nothing, or very little, it was remarkable how consequential President Obama was by this roundtable approach, by alienating the United States from its traditional – from its traditional allies and giving the United States very weak cards to play against Iran, as it – as it used the Hezbollah model to insinuate forces all across – you know, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and in – and in Yemen. And also, by instituting the JCPOA.
You can see that the grooves of the Obama policy are now well-established in the minds of the Democratic foreign policy elite. They are waiting out the president. If we get a Democratic president in 2020, they want to immediate go back to the grooves that President Obama established. It was extremely hard for the Trump administration, given the – given the tools that it had to reverse what President Obama did. So I will – I will regard the Trump administration as getting an A for execution if it does as good a job between now and November 2020, or whenever President Trump leaves office, of making it impossible for the next administration to reverse the course and turn away from our allies and go back to this – to this – what I consider to be a delusional policy if reaching out to Iran. Thank you. (Applause.)
JON B. ALTERMAN: Thank you to Mike and Phil. It’s a pleasure to be back here. Partly, it’s a little nostalgic. I used to work right down the hall here. Mike got me invited to my first international conference and blurbed my first book. Gina drove me in Saudi Arabia when women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. (Laughter.) And you can ask her how she pulled that off. So it’s especially fun to be here.
You know, we’re all talking about the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East, but as we’ve already heard there are a whole bunch of policies in the Middle East. There’s moving the Jerusalem embassy, and closing the PLO office, ceasing to abide by the JCPOA, there’s the national security advisor saying we’re not going to leave Syria as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders – and that includes Iranian proxies and militias – and then the president tweeting that we are leaving, then them saying it’ll be 30 days, then them saying it’ll be six months. There’s the embrace of the Saudi government. There’s the relative U.S. disengagement on Yemen. There’s the mixed messaging and then the disengagement on the disputes within the Gulf Cooperation Council. There’s the idea of the Middle East strategic alliance in the Gulf as a way to just – let’s ignore the fact that we’re fighting now and let’s talk about something we’ll all do together in the future, and that’s the way to solve that problem.
But it seems to me, we’re not really here to talk about policies. We’re talking about how they fit together. And it’s really about what the Trump administration’s strategy is in the Middle East. Now, there are some people who say the Trump administration doesn’t really have a strategy in the Middle East. It’s constantly flying off in all sorts of different directions. It’s not coordinating. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think the Trump administration does have a Middle East strategy, which I would argue has three main components. So I’m going to talk about that, I’m going to talk about Secretary Pompeo’s speech in Cairo. I’m going to talk about what I see as the shortfalls of the approach. And then I want to talk about some underlying weaknesses in the administration that exacerbate the shortcomings of the approach.
So the three key components – and I think we’ve heard them from Phil and from Mike – one is to rebuild close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia that became frayed in the Obama administration. The second is to have the central organizing principle of U.S. strategy in the Middle East to be countering Iran, reversing the Obama administration’s strategy of engaging Iran. And then third is, despite the first, that is reversing the Obama administration’s tensions with Israel and Saudi Arabia, despite the second we’re going to orient around Iran reversing the Obama administration’s strategy, number three is we’re going to embrace the Obama administration’s strategy of holding the Middle East at arm’s length.
Let me take them one by one. First, as Phil described, our ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel were never that frayed in the Obama administration. I mean, with Israel in particular, the Obama administration concluded a $38 billion aid package, funded for and deployed Iron Dome, arranged for the sale of F-35 jets, bilateral trade shot up 40 percent, military training, intelligence training. This was not a ruined relationship. This was a close relationship where the personal ties between leaders were not warm. But that’s not a frayed relationship. Saudi Arabia as well. The things that we do with Saudi Arabia on military issues, intelligence issues, diplomatic issues, we were coordinating. Yeah, the leaders did not have warm feelings toward each other, but the national relations I think were strong. The Trump administration’s changed the mood, but I don’t actually see the level of cooperation being much different between the two administrations.
Second, I just think it’s strange to focus on Iran as the core of your Middle East strategy. Iran is so much weaker than the United States. Their military’s had a horrible time resupplying for four decades. Their GDP is somewhere between the GDP of the state of Maryland and the state of Michigan – way below North Carolina. Mississippi is the state with the lowest per-capita income in the United States – seven times the per capita income of Iran. This is our big rival in the Middle East? Are you kidding me? Iran fights asymmetrically. It finds cheap ways to hurt. But it has no way to actually win. It can’t defeat the United States. There’s no way in the world. It’s a question with no real allies, and certainly no strong allies. As a general principle, Iran game is they can be a spoiler, but they can’t be a winner. And building them up into the boogie man of the Middle East just lowers the bar for them to be a spoiler. We’re making their job easier. By saying we’re all about keeping them from doing anything, we’re making it easier for them to do anything than something.
In terms of withdrawing from the Middle East – you know, to paraphrase Trotsky, which is not something I do in the Senate Russell Building very much – you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. As a country, we really have to have a conversation – long overdue – about our goals, ways, and means in the Middle East. What can we expect to do? How much will it cost? What tools do we have? And I think the president should have that discussion with the American people. And I think the last several presidents have made promises but haven’t really wanted to have the discussion. I think it’s the role of Congress to engage in that discussion.
That’s the three pieces of the strategy. The Cairo speech. What was striking to me about Secretary Pompeo’s speech in Cairo is that he reduced the Middle East to a collection of states, abandoning the long-standing practice of the United States of seeing countries, including the United States, both in terms of the government and the people who live there. And in a way, it gave away one of our big tools because, you know, for more than a century the United States has stood as a cultural icon, an economic model, a political beacon, and a government. And we were able to play one off against the other. And one became a fore multiplier for the other.
Our effectiveness as a government was in part because the U.S. as a nation has long been a force on the world stage. We’ve always played off that duality. And in fact, we’ve often had success because we played off that duality. It was the U.S. government working with governments and people that facilitated the peaceful end of the Cold War in Europe. It was working with governments and people that helped spread prosperity and democracy in East Asia. From the days of decolonization after World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government’s been conscious of the power that the idea of the United States has around the world. And it’s maintained the useful tension of working with governments while still being conscious of the U.S. government’s effect on populations.
Secretary Pompeo sort of tossed that all out in Cairo. He criticized the human rights performance of hostile governments, Syria and Iran, and then he just sort of talked about the rest merely as partners and allies. He criticized the Obama administration for its eagerness to embrace only Muslims and not nations. But by “nations” he only meant governments. He only meant governments. Now, there’s something a little weird about this. And the weird thing is that this is a U.S. administration with unprecedented contempt for the bulk of the U.S. government, right? I mean, this is a government that doesn’t really like governments. And it’s doubling down on governments which in almost all cases lack the honestly, efficiency, and efficacy of their U.S. counterparty.
And the concept of a deep state, rogue intelligence operations, officially sanctioned torture, bribery, corruption, executive meddling in judiciary – a whole bunch of things – that frankly are commonplace and tolerated throughout the Middle East, and they’re rare and prosecuted in the United States. And to juxtapose the fact that the administration wants to embrace those governments while being skeptical of the U.S. government is something that I sometimes have a hard time wrapping my head around.
And the reality is, people in the Middle East see this in their government, and they see this in the U.S. government, and they strain against their government. And the traditional approach in the United States has been to work with both. You can’t abandon the governments and just work with inchoate groups of people. States are sovereign in all those things. But you understand, and you build ties, and you work with your friends on what you have to work with, but you also push them, and you try to get the parties to somehow come together and make governments more effectual and get populations to find pathways to improve their governments.
That’s what we’ve done for decades. And that’s what, to my frustration and disappointment, the Pompeo speech seemed to turn away from. And I don’t think it’s going to lead to better policies. It seems to me that merely rallying governments to push back against Iran is not going to lead to U.S. success in the region. As an approach it’s one-dimension. It leads to quick results. And it’s easy to keep score. But I think it won’t get us what we need.
All of this, I think, suggests a second problem I see in the Trump administration’s approach, which is the abandonment of the consensual leadership that the U.S. had in the world. By turning everything into a bilateral contest where the U.S. is the stronger party, I think we’re creating antibodies to the United States acting in the world. There’s a tendency to balance against the United States, and countries to supplement their relationship with the United States with other relationships. To me, the major successes in the region, which were pressure on Iran in Libya to end their proliferation efforts, the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait – they call came from very broad international efforts. No other government besides the United States could have led those efforts. And no other government could have been successful.
I think the – what I see in the administration’s approach is their sense of leadership is to head off, and to expect other people to be following behind. But as I think we’ve seen in Syria, it leads others to think about how do we fill the vacuum that the United States has just created? To me, the biggest mistake of this administration is its almost idiosyncratic embrace of some and the abandonment of many. It makes it hard to understand how to please the United States. And I think it diminishes countries’ interest in doing so. The U.S., I think, is emulating the kind of foreign policy we see out of China, a country with no genuine allies on its periphery and whose major powers in the neighborhood – India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia – are all coming together to balance against China.
Now, puzzlingly, these are all close U.S. allies that, with the exception of India, have crises with the Trump administration. Why are we doing it that way? I think there’s an underlying dynamic to all of this, and that is whatever you ideological – and Mike talked about it some – the processes in this administration don’t work. Mike pointed out to me more than a decade ago that in the U.S. government interagency isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun. Remember that? Yeah. The idea is that there’s a – the interagency describes a process of bringing things, people, ideas together. But now we have a president who’s divorced from his government. His advisors don’t work together well. And bureaucracies aren’t integrated. It’s the president’s frustration with the poor functioning of his staff that leads to tweets on Syria withdrawal that proceed rather than follow careful study. And it’s the government’s distrust of the president’s leadership that results in policies not following the president’s clearly expressed views.
On Syria in particular, the national security advisors seems not to be channeling the president, which I think is really a big problem. But the biggest problem is the administration hasn’t seemed to deploy an apparatus that draws on the tools at its disposal, that vets ideas and presents them for consideration and decision. If there’s a single weakness in the Trump administration, it’s its inability to function in a coherent and coordinated manner. And that does two important things. First, it means that its policies are often ill-informed. It’s almost – it’s remarkable to think just how much information the U.S. government can access. But you have to ask the question. And we have an administration that, to an unprecedented degree, is not asking its own government answers to questions.
But this also means, importantly, that the U.S. government can’t operate with a whole of government approach, which both reduces American power in the world and denies the unique U.S. ability to lead billions of people toward solutions to complex problems. Now, you might argue that I should be happy that the Trump administration is hamstrung carrying out its policies, because I think if they’re wrongheaded I should want them to fail. But actually, I’m overwhelmed by my concern that rebuilding U.S. power and influence in global affairs will be a long, hard slog, if it can be done at all. The United States has set out to fix a lot of things in the Middle East in the last 75 years. And you might argue that it’s been a failure because so much still needs fixing.
You can argue, and many have, that the U.S. has made things worse and not better over the decades. But it’s hard for me to imagine that the United States – I’m sorry – it’s hard for me to imagine that the Middle East will make the United States more secure, more prosperous, if the U.S. acted on the belief of many Americans that the region is hopeless and irredeemable, and we should merely arm our allies and wish them luck. We have more at stake in the Middle East and around the world for us to reduce our strategy to the idea that Syria is nothing but sand and death. We’ve worked with our allies and partners to make the Middle East better, and while we may need to reduce both our efforts and our expectations it’s hard to imagine much good will come from our absence. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. MATTAIR: All right. Thank you very much. I think that, you know, what I heard initially was this idea that the administration is – I guess you could call them realists in the sense that we know they’re not liberal internationalists, but they’re not isolationists. There are objectives they want. And they have a realist approach to, you know, the state of anarchy, and the balance of power, and where the threats are coming from, and who their allies are. And Mike in particular was stressing that. And then their critique really was that they’re not applying the resources that would be necessary to succeed. But then Jon questioned something very basic, which is: Have we – have we really defined the threats accurately? Questioning whether Iran is worthy of being the center of our – of our policy. So I guess we should really start there.
And, by the way, another thing, I never really heard much said about Russia today. And there was a time when our objective was to make sure that Russia didn’t dominate the region. And Russia is in the region again. So can we go a little more into this question of Iran, and why we have focused on them as a threat? Let’s talk a little bit about what their objectives are. We’ve talked about their power. We’ve talked about their strength. But what are their objectives and what have their accomplishments been that pose a challenge for us? Where do we stand with them? Anybody.
MR. GORDON: Sure. I’m happy to – I’m happy to – (inaudible).
Iran is clearly a problem for the United States in the region. And I think Mike’s comparison between the Obama approach and the Trump approach mischaracterized the Obama approach. The idea somehow that in the Obama administration our relations with and attitudes toward, on one Iran and on one hand the other countries, were sort of equal – like, you know, they’re all stakeholders of the same nature and our job was to pull them together. And let’s be clear – I mean, think about this. If you arrived from Mars or somewhere else and looked at American policy in the Middle East under Obama, you would hardly say that it’s kind of equal between Israel and Saudi on one hand and then Iran on the other.
With Iran, even after the nuclear deal, we had a range of sanctions on Iran. We don’t trade with Iran at all. We don’t invest in Iran. We punish other people for doing so. We don’t have an embassy in Iran. We barely talk to the Iranians. We work intensively with a whole range of countries to undermine Iranian policy. Whereas, vis-à-vis these other countries, with whom we’re allegedly sort of equidistant, we have deep and intimate defense relationships, intelligence relationship. We joined them in confronting Iran by supporting the Syrian opposition. We supported one of them in a war in Yemen to counter the Iranians. We sell and provide Israel and our Gulf partners with hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of weapons against Iran. So let’s not – I mean, I take the point that Obama might not have been as confrontational towards Iran as the current administration or possibly even the previous one, but let’s not misunderstand this. Iran is clearly an adversary. Its interests are not our interests. And we have an interest in containing it. So that’s point one.
Point two is, to me, the question is, what is the best way to do that? And I also – and Mike will have his chance to response but just to respond to his point about grading on effort and concept and performance when it comes to Iran. The only point of effort and concept is to get better performance. You know, you can give good grades for concept and effort if you want, but I think as we think about this issue what we should care about is what is the outcome of all of this in terms of the things we care about – security, peace, our own interests, prosperity? And so I don’t really care if, you know, someone feels that the way of thinking about it is better – which I actually don’t. What matters is having positive results. And I challenge that when it comes to Iran.
When you think about this concept grading on performance thing, in Yemen – Mike, you might give the Saudis good grades, and those who supported them, for thinking about it the right way, right? They’re not going to put up with Iran meddling in their affairs. OK. And their effort has been great, right? They’ve sustained a war for three and a half years. OK. You might give them nice points for thinking about it, but isn’t what matters is what effect has it been on the ground? Is it containing Iranian influence in Yemen? I don’t think so. Is it helping the people of Yemen, or is it having some other consequences including, you know, the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the world?
Qatar, same thing. You might give the Saudis and Emiratis and others points for making an effort in confronting Qatar and thinking about it the right way. But – and when I talk to my friends in these countries they say, all right, fair enough. It’s not having a positive impact, but at least we’re being clear. But I think the impact is what does matter. And then finally on Iran itself in terms of our own policy, that was my point in critique of tearing up the Iran deal and the Iran policies that the Trump administration is pursing. Is it having a positive effect? Has it led to Iran – has it led Iran to stop meddling in the region in ways that we don’t want it to? I don’t think so.
And if you don’t believe me, ask the Trump administration, because they’re constantly talking about the degree to which Iran remains a terrible actor in the region. And on the nuclear issue, the same thing goes. I don’t care if you’re thinking about it the right way. I care if it’s effectively stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. So I think we all share the view that Iran is a problem, but where we have a fundamental difference is over the best way to get results, which I think is all we should care about.
My last point is, and this is a difference with Mike both in terms of analysis and recommendations, I think – I honestly don’t understand this logic that our problems with Turkey were somehow because Obama was obsessed with repairing relations with Iran, and that’s why we ended up partnering with the Kurds. I don’t recall that at all. In fact, I was – you mentioned Kobane – I was in the White House at the time of Kobane. And I can assure you that the thinking wasn’t, well, how can we go about this in a way that doesn’t offend Iran. The thinking was: ISIS is controlling territory in Syria, it’s beheading Americans, it’s sponsoring terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris and elsewhere, and we need to fight it.
And who do you have to fight it? We can go in on the ground ourselves, but we don’t want to do that. And the only logical partner was the Kurds. And we took a difficult decision that that was the only way we were going to effectively fight ISIS on the ground. Notwithstanding all of the talks of others, including our Turkish friends, that they had some big free Syrian army that was going to do this job. It was never available. So, one, going into Kobane was about saving some people from being massacred by ISIS. And then, two, partnering with the Kurds later was about defeating ISIS. And I think where you end up – I think the notion that what was this was about was about finding a way to work with Iraq is where you end up when your whole frame is – and this is what I said is a problem with the Trump administration – where the whole frame is everything we should do should be about containing Iran in the region.
MR. DORAN: When I listen to Phil, it’s – I’m trying to think of a metaphor. It’s like the Obama administration – or, let’s say Phil is sitting in his living room building a fire to cook – you know, to boil his coffee. And I say, Phil, you’re burning down your living room. And he says, no, I’m making coffee. I say, but look, the fire is spreading. Yeah, but I’m making coffee. I don’t remember – nobody in my house every said we’re going to burn down the living room. They said we’re going to make coffee. So you can look at the same thing and see very different things.
The Obama administration – I don’t know, how many weeks did John Kerry sit in Europe negotiating with that used-car salesman Zarif? Was it 57 ½? Was it 63? Was it 15? I don’t remember. But when you talk about elevating a third-rate power up to a first-rate status – because when the secretary of the state of the world’s only superpower sits there and begs the used-car salesman to come to a deal on the nuclear deal. The Iranians have – the Iranians have managed – we spent – I don’t know, maybe Donald Trump got it wrong when he said 7 trillion. How many trillions of dollars have we spent in Iraq? Is it two? Is it four? It’s a lot. It’s a lot of money. It’s many pallets of cash we have spent in Iraq.
And if you’re an Iraqi leader today, do you listen to the United States? When you think about what you’re going to do, do you think: Wow, if I do X, will that annoy the United States, or will it annoy Iran more? And which one do you listen to more? And what we managed to build – what we managed to build in Iraq is a government that listens to Iran at least as much as it listens to us. I’m fearful it’s probably even more than it listens – than it listens to us. The Iranians have managed to – the Iranians have managed to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat in Syria. The Iranians are establishing a base in Yemen, where they’re going to have smart missiles trained on the – on Riyadh, a G-20 capital.
So when I hear – when I heard Jon say, look, this is a – this is an insignificant third-world country with a standard of living equal to that of Mississippi, I think, yes.
ALTERMAN: A seventh of Mississippi.
MR. DORAN: A seventh of Mississippi. I think yes. Exactly. How is it that the greatest power on Earth cannot solve this problem? And the problem I see, when you look at the Middle East, is that we have chosen our proxies incorrectly. We have read the – we have read – we have read the map incorrectly. And we have put our resources behind the wrong actors and behind the wrong – the wrong policies. An example: Counter-ISIS. The minute you say that the strategic goal of the United States in the Middle East is to destroy 20(,000) or 40,000 nasty guys with pickup trucks, you have handed the region to Russia and Iran. You have – you – because countering Iran in that conception is always the second, the third, the fourth priority. And in government, once something is the second, third, or fourth priority, it’s not a priority – it’s not a priority at all.
So, yes, we have all of these – we have all of these policies in place that posture the United States – that make the United States automatically a rival of Iran. But what has the United States done in response to any major muscle movement by Iran, particularly under the Obama administration. When Iran put missiles and rockets into Yemen, that was a major change in the balance of power. What price did the United States make it pay for doing that? No price whatsoever. It happened. We don’t even – we don’t – nobody even remembers the – can you even remember the debate in Washington about what do we do about this major muscle movement by the Iranians? No, there was no debate.
When Iran put forces in Syria, when the Russians put forces in Syria, where was the debate in the United States – the really significant debate about what should we do in response to this action, which is designed to – which is designed to undermine us, undermine our allies, an strengthen Iran and its allies? We had a government that called the prime minister of Israel a chickenshit while it sat for 57.3, or 12.8 – I can’t even remember how many weeks – treating Zarif like he was a – like he was deserving of our respect.
One last point and then I’ll – and then I’ll – and then I’ll hand it back to you. The key question is: How do we posture ourselves so that we get allies that work with us? We want to counter Iran, because Iran is effectively – regardless of how powerful it is in any sort of objective criteria – it is effectively undermining us around the region. And it should bother us that a – that a country with a GDP of one-seventh of Mississippi or a standard of living one-seventh of Mississippi is able to – is able to do that. When we say that countering ISIS is our priority, we adopted a strategic priority that was not shared by any government in the region. No government. The United States was the only one that said countering ISIS is the number-one priority. Every other government in the region did the sensible thing.
And they said, what order is going to replace the ISIS order? And is that going to work for me, or is it going to work for Iran? And the United States made choices in its counter-ISIS program that objectively worked to the advantage of Iran, regardless of what it was saying to itself. So, yes, they were making coffee the whole time. They were never trying to strengthen Iran. But in fact, they were burning down the house.
MR. GORDON: Can I just come back briefly? I think, by the way, the government of Iraq was pretty concerned about ISIS, lest it take over their country. But that’s not the point I want to make. I’m trying to figure out what you’re getting at in terms of Iran policy. Let’s stipulate, Iran is a problematic actor in the region. It is a terrible thing that they are deploying missiles that can threaten Riyadh and trying to undermine governments in Bahrain, and supporting the Syrian dictator, and all this. I’m not contesting that at all.
Where we differ is what to do about it. And you are – I would be interested in hearing the policy approach you are proposing to deal with the problem that we just described. The baseline, I challenge the notion that nothing is being done about it. The baseline is an anti-Iranian policy. Like I said, it’s providing all of our partners in the region with hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of weapons. It’s supporting anti-Iranian forces for years, notwithstanding great costs in terms of human lives, in Syria. It’s supporting our partner in Riyadh in what has been an almost four-year relentless bombing campaign against Iranian interests. It’s providing missile defenses to other partners in the region. It’s sanctions on Iran. Like I said, we still don’t invest in Iran, trade with Iran, and so on.
So that’s the baseline that you described as nothing. Where do you want to go from there that is suddenly going to make Iran stop being a problematic actor in the region? Because I think you have to own the consequences of what you’re implying.
MR. DORAN: OK, can I – I’ll answer the question.
MR. MATTAIR: Mike, after you answer that we’re going to go to Jon for a minute, OK?
MR. DORAN: OK, OK. You don’t get credit – when I say “you,” the Obama administration – you don’t get credit for the baseline. The baseline has been set by 20-30 years of American policy. You get credit for your definition of the problem and the policy that you put in place to deal with it. And the Obama administration did nothing to counter the Iranians in Yemen. It did nothing to counter the Iranians in Syria. It handed pallets of cash to the Iranians. Look, what is the – what was the – what was the Obama administration’s policy response to the – to the introduction of militias – to the introduction of Hezbollah and other Shiite militias into Syria to save Bashar al-Assad? What was – what was the Obama administration’s response?
MR. GORDON: Wipe eight years off of the calendar, the baseline that I described, Obama doesn’t get any credit for me? Everything I described was during the Obama administration. All of the support to the allies and partners, all of the support to the opposition in Syria, the support to the Saudis in Yemen, everything I’ve described was during eight years.
MR. DORAN: How many – how many – opposition you said? How many – how many opposition soldiers capable of confronting Iranian trained and equipped militias in Syria did the United States train? According to press reports it’s six.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, let’s go to Jon for a minute. Jon, I mean, it – I’ve looked at Iran’s military capabilities and asymmetrical capabilities and don’t think they could close the Strait of Hormuz very long, although, you know, any time at all is destructive. They don’t have that kind of power. But we just heard everywhere they have been able to establish themselves – in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Iraq with all kinds of militias, and in Syria with all kinds of Shia militias, including people from Afghanistan and Pakistan – and then in Yemen. So they have a presence in these countries that’s not just proxy military but has – makes inroads into the governments, and into the militaries, and into the society as well. So I’m interested in, first, why you don’t – why you’re questioning our focus on them, and then we have to go back to questions of, you know, strategy, and are we dealing with them well.
MR. ALTERMAN: So not to reduce this to dollars, but the Iranians have played themselves into a situation where they spend maybe $10 million a month in Yemen. And the Saudis are spending somewhere between $2 and $5 million a month in Yemen and destroying their public reputation around the world. And if you’re an Iranian government official, that’s a bargain. I mean, you feel you have this – that said, I think the Iranians start from a few premises. One is, they’re totally preoccupied with their weakness, both in absolute and relative terms, right? I mean, if you ever want to have Iranians of any stripe – progovernment, antigovernment, secularists, MEK, whatever – talk about the Arabian Gulf instead the Persian Gulf, and watch them go ballistic, right? I mean, there’s a deep sense of national humiliation that Iranians share. And there is a deep sense of resentment that Iran is relatively weak, is surrounded largely by hostile powers aligned with the United States.
This is a country that starts with a chip on its shoulder and believes that the United States is trying to overthrow it. You can argue the United States should be trying to overthrow it. You could argue that Iranian behavior certainly justifies that. But I think where they’re starting from is we are relatively weak, and we have to grasp at anything we can to remind people that we’re not pushovers. And so we’ve created a situation, I’d say particularly in Yemen, where they’ve put forward almost no effort, get a disproportionate response from the Saudis – which harms the Saudis tremendously – and they take it all the way to the bank. I mean, why are we getting into that situation?
So should we be pushing back on Iranian arm sales to Houthis and their supplying weapons to the Houthis? Yes. Should we be trying to ensure that Hezbollah trainers don’t get into see the Houthis? Yes. Should we have a large multilateral strategy that tries to solve the conflict in Yemen? Yeah, we should be doing that too – not because we want to work with the Iranians, but because we want this effort to sow disorder, to prove ineffective, because the Iranians can’t begin to do what we can do. Now, are the Iranians hostile? Yes. Are they irrational? No. Can we deter them? I think we can deter them. I think we’ve deterred them for a long time.
But putting – but just as you say, completely correctly, if you make ISIS the number-one threat of the United States in the Middle East, you will never be done because ISIS can always find one or two guys to stab somebody or put off a bomb one or two times a year somewhere around the world, and people say: Oh, look, they’re still alive. They’re still there. Tens of thousands of people. If that – if what you’re looking for is zero violations, you will never get by that. You will always be doing it. And the same thing is true of Iran. And I think we should treat them as a hostile power. We should hem them in. We should punish them. We should deter them. But as a central organizing principle, I think we warp what we’re trying to do, and we lower the cost for them of seeming effective.
And that’s exactly what we don’t want to do. They can do something constructive and positive. Demonstrate that and do something constructive and positive. And maybe then try to negotiate for a position of weakness and not from the position of strength that we’re handing to them.
MS. MATTAIR: OK. Well, let’s talk about strategies. The Obama administration thought that if it negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran it would potentially moderate their other behaviors in the region, and it didn’t. So the Trump administration has withdrawn from this agreement. But let’s consider the possibility of having stayed in the agreement and having developed other strategies instead of relying only on that agreement. Why did we need to leave the agreement? Was it so bad that we had to leave it, rather than stay in it, and develop all kinds of other strategies that would be more effective in addressing their position on the ground in the Arab world – in Iraq, and in Yemen, and elsewhere?
MR. GORDON: Can I get that? I just want to say, I can’t accept the description of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran as something that hoped to moderate Iranian behavior in the region, and therefore when that didn’t happen the Trump administration pulled out. The Obama administration pursued a nuclear deal with Iran to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, because for the previous 15 years under two very different U.S. administrations Iran had advanced its nuclear capability to the point that it had mastered the fuel cycle, accumulated a certain amount of high – of low-enriched uranium, around 10 tons, which would be enough for several nuclear weapons. And was at the point where if something wasn’t done to halt and reverse that process, they were a couple of months away from accumulating enough of their uranium stockpile that they could produce a nuclear weapon. That was the core issue.
Now, did some people hope that as a function of doing this nuclear diplomacy with Iran, you would get to the point that maybe you could also work together on issues, like Syria and Yemen? Sure. And I, to be honest, don’t have any problem with that hope, given that what we’ve been trying to for a couple of decades hasn’t been working. If that would be a function of this, great. But that wasn’t the reason for the deal. The deal was about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In that sense, it worked. It reversed Iran’s capacity and moved them more than a year away from accumulating enough LEU to be able to produce a nuclear weapon and bought an enormous amount of time.
So I just want to be clear that it wasn’t about that. If you conclude after that that somehow relations with Iran didn’t transform, and Iranian regional policy didn’t change, that that meant that the deal didn’t work? No, that wasn’t the point of the deal.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, I take that point, that Iran was making significant advances and that the deal had merit in thwarting that, but I should have said people also hoped – and certainly that’s been picked up by critics.
MR. GORDON: And the reason I make that point – I mean, first I think it’s fundamental to understanding. But related to this issue of Iranian meddling in the region, the question often comes up: Well, why didn’t we insist on that too, right? Why naively just do the nuclear deal? And this has been a core Trump administration critique of the deal, it didn’t constrain Iranian activities in the region. I would just say to that: Look, it was hard enough to get this deal. It required an international coalition of very though sanctions that we only got – we only got those other countries to agree to because of the concerns about the nuclear program.
If we had then said to the Iranians, after two years of difficult negotiations, oh, by the way, it’s good we negotiated a nuclear thing, but now we actually can’t conclude this deal until you get completely out of Syria, and Yemen, and Lebanon, and completely reverse your foreign policy in the region. Don’t get me wrong. Those are admirable goals. I share all of those goals. But the idea that we could have gotten that as well is absurd. And therefore, by insisting on that, we would have neither. We would have had neither the capacity to contain Iran in the region, or a nuclear deal. So that’s why it wasn’t in it in the first place. And that’s why we need, to answer your question, other means to deal with Iranian problematic behavior in the region.
That’s my core critique of the Trump approach on Iran. By trying to – as I understand it, the current policy is maximum pressure on Iran unless it agrees to a much better nuclear deal that lasts forever, has no enrichment, covers ballistic missiles, has inspectors go wherever they want, and also changes its behavior throughout the region. If that is – getting back to our debate about results – if that ends up being the result of this policy by the end of four or eight years, I will be the first to applaud. But I think it’s unlikely. And therefore, by trying to accomplish everything it’s really our policy of maximum pressure on Iran until it does all of those things and gets out of Yemen to boot? Because if that’s the policy and we try to get everything, in that sense, I think we’re going to end up with nothing. And that’s a real problem.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, I’d just like to ask Rich, our chairman, if he wants to comment on this question of the Iranian nuclear agreement, as he was our ambassador in Oman.
MR. SCHMIERER: Yeah, thanks, Tom. Obviously our colleagues, especially our colleagues who were also in government, are very familiar with the process. I happened to be in Oman when we started the process. And I guess I agree with much of actually what both of you are saying. It is absolutely true that at the time it was of critical importance to stop the Iran uranium program. So that had to be the top priority. Obviously everyone would have liked to have gotten more, but I think that – the more could not be a reason for not going through with the deal.
The deal, or the process of getting to the deal, did have some positive other impacts. For example, I mean, it’s true, Mike, you can criticize the amount of time that our diplomats spent with the Iranians. But it did in fact actually lead to better perceptions or understandings of each other’s positions. Whereas before, without any communication, I think there were a lot of misconceptions – at least what I saw in my part in the effort in Oman. It at least cleared up some of the misperceptions.
Now, in terms of the hope it would have other impacts, Tom, I think you are right, there was a hope that – and I think, Phil, you addressed this as well – there was a hope that we needed to solve the nuclear issue, but potentially there would be other positive outcomes. And I think there was a kind of a specific idea that – and I think it was Phil who mentioned – one of the things we did do, or that did happen during the Obama administration was a pretty direct communication to Iran that we were no longer pursuing the policy of regime change. And I think the purpose in sending that signal was to clear the air in terms of our ability to talk to the Iranians.
And then the other element that I think was at least behind the thinking – and, Phil, you’d know better than I because you were closer to the policymaking point – was that by eliminating the idea that we’re seeking to overturn the regime, the regime no longer had us as their boogie man with their own people to try to keep their people aligned against us. And so one of the expected or hoped for outcomes was that the Iranian people would become an ally of ours, in order to try to change Iranian behavior. And I think we saw some evidence of that with some of the comments, or some of the things coming out of the Iranian people, who were arguing that the dividends that the Iranians received from the reduced sanctions be spent in Iran, and not in its proxy wars in the region. So there was a hope that that kind of support would help – would help us in terms of our approach to the region.
The final thing I would just say is that we have not found a way to really counter Iranian malign behavior in the region. But please do be aware, we are doing a lot that is unseen and unreported to counter malign Iranian behavior in the region. It’s just that we have not really been able to do enough to stop them. But even from my perspective in then Oman, you could see a lot was going on that is not something that can be reported. So we are aware of and making efforts against Iranian malign behavior, but we’re far from being able to actually solve that problem.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, there are military sales to allies to allow them to defend themselves against any potential Iranian aggression. There are – there’s counterintelligence cooperation for the same purpose. You know, we’re working with our partners and friends and allies in region. But some of them are not satisfied with other strategies that we’re pursuing in the region. They weren’t satisfied with the Obama administration’s failure to get more deeply involved at an earlier point, which, you know, might have – might have been more successful in thwarting Iran and Russia. But now let’s assess what Trump is doing.
Is the withdrawal of 2,000 special forces – let’s say they’re not – let’s say they’re not sufficient to contain Iran and Russia in Syria. But are the necessary in conjunction with other efforts, like stabilization? And if we do take them out, and don’t spend money stabilizing, then can we trust Turkey to contain Iran and Russia?
MR. ALTERMAN: So our troops weren’t there, and don’t have legal authorization to be there, to push back on Iran and Russia. I mean, if Congress wants to declare war and deploy troops there it can do it, but legally that was not their purpose. And it’s not – and I think that’s not on – not a – absent a different legal framework – not a useful approach to take.
But here’s something really important: The future of Syria is going to be decided in negotiations that largely haven’t happened yet. And if part of those negotiations for the United States, talking about the circumstances under which U.S. troops would leave, the U.S. would have a serious voice in those discussions. But we devastate, destroyed any negotiating leverage we had by announcing – before we’d even thought through the implications – that we were summarily withdraw all of our troops. I don’t know what leverage anybody thinks we have to have an influence in those discussions.
I’m not arguing that we should remain in Syria indefinitely. But I am arguing that as a matter of diplomacy and national security, we have an interest in what Syria looks like. And one might describe it as a process error. It probably would have been nice if we had had the NSC study before the presidential tweet. It would have been nice if we had a diplomatic strategy we were executing, and the presidential tweets were actually integrated with our diplomatic strategy to advance American national security interests, which are both in getting our troops out of Syria and in ensuring what’s left behind in Syria is better for Americans that what is likely to happen otherwise.
And instead, because of the process error, we completely undermined our negotiating leverage and made things much worse, not just for our Syrian Kurdish allies, but for Americans and American allies who care about the future of stability and security in the Middle East.
MR. DORAN: We retain significant leverage in Syria. Number one, our ally, Israel, is conducting now even more robust attacks in Syria. And it is demonstrating to the regime and to the Russians that it has the military capability to shake the regime to its core. And the only way that the Russians and the Iranians can get that to stop is by going through Washington. The regime cannot retake Idlib without going through Turkish forces, which have an American backstop. You saw that last August, when the Russians and the regime, the Iranians, started organizing for an assault on Idlib, and the president tweeted that this would be a – that this would be a mistake, and the Turks put their forces on – put their forces on alert and we stopped it there.
So they can’t – they need – they need Idlib in order to stabilize the – stabilize Syria. They need the Israelis’ consent to stop. And behind the Turks and behind the Israelis is the United States. What exactly is going to happen in eastern Syria is not yet clear. That’s going to be part of a negotiation, primarily between the United States, Turkey, and the YPG. I don’t know to what extent the Russians will be able to insinuate themselves into that. But as that – as that situation crystalizes more, we’ll also have leverage – we’ll also have leverage there.
Exactly how we are re-posturing is not clear to me, when we pull those 2,000 troops out. For example, I’ve seen press reports, I haven’t had them confirmed by anybody who can tell me, that we are significantly increasing our presence in Jordan. And so perhaps – one could imagine on the basis of that – I’m just extrapolating – I mean, I’m just speculating here – one could imagine that from – you know, there was this base on the – on the – just one the Syrian side of the Jordanian border. You could imagine it basically – I mean, figuratively speaking – moving to the south, to the other side of the Jordanian border, and continuing to block an Iranian land bridge from within Jordan. That’s a huge speculation on my part. I don’t know if the Jordanians want to play that role.
But there’s all kinds of ways. The United States is actually a very powerful country. And it has influence over all the major actors, especially on our side, in the Syrian debate. So I don’t think that we have given up all leverage over Syria by pulling those troops out. On the process, we have – you have to – you have to – I have sympathy – on the process error, if you want to call it that, I have much more sympathy for the president than I think Jon and Phil do, because the president told General Mattis from day one that he wanted to patch things up with the Turks. And General Mattis and Brett McGurk continued to build Rojava.
And if you listen to Brett – if you listen to Brett McGurk, on the Sunday shows, what’s McGurk saying he wants? McGurk says: We should pull out an as – we’re going to pull out. But as we pull out, what we should do is we should get the regime – the Assad regime to take over the Kurdish parts of the – the Kurdish parts of Syria. So if anybody had any doubt in their mind that the YPG policy that we were following was part of an Obama policy of aligning with the Iranians across the board – just think of what McGurk was saying. These are the people we had in charge.
The counter-ISIS network in the U.S. government, led by Brett McGurk, was entirely hostile to Turkey, entirely in favor of building up the Assad regime, inside – it’s the same – the same mindset that said: We don’t have to worry about the Iranian trained, and equipped, and basically led popular mobilization units in Iraq because they’re anti- ISIS in Iraq. We don’t have to worry about the – we don’t have to worry about the pro-Moscow, pro-Tehran proclivities which are very deeply historically grounded, of the YPG, when we align with it. That’s the vision that they had. That’s the vision that they had. They were building – again, whether they were making coffee or burning down the house it doesn’t matter. Objectively, our policies were leading to an Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.
MR. GORDON: Can I just make a very brief comment on this?
MR. MATTAIR: Sure. But then I want to move to the topic that usually leads these discussions, and came, you know.
MR. GORDON: OK. I’ll be very brief. I was actually going to let this one go, because I very much agree with Jon’s comments both on the substance and on the process, but two quick additions. On the process, Mike, it wasn’t just Brett McGurk. It was the entire administration. We had a new Syria envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who announced a, quote-unquote, “new Syria policy,” and gave speeches to the effect that we were going to stay indefinitely to fight this mission. That was reinforced by the secretary of state, by the secretary of defense, by the national security advisor – who said not only were they going to stay there for the ISIS mission, but for a counter-Iran mission. And he even said that after the president’s tweet.
So the idea that somehow we had – the process was OK, the president was clear, and it was just this one guy holdover from the Obama administration that had a different view – I’m sorry. The process – you know, you can’t just say the process was brilliant. It’s just only the president knew about it and every other top official was just not on the same page and was saying the wrong thing. That is the definition of a terrible process. And I think it has real consequences.
And then the second point, just briefly, as I think this discussion of how we’re going to make up for the troops goes back to the contradiction I highlighted at the beginning about, you know, being willing to do what’s necessary on the ground and wanting to pull out. If the response to the pull out is, don’t worry, we can still do these things because, as Trump said, we have bases elsewhere, like in Iraq, and Mike says maybe we’ll put one in Jordan, then what’s the purpose of the pullout? I mean, it’s either one thing or another: ISIS is defeated, and we can pull out because we don’t want the risks on the ground, or we’re still in the region and we got bases and we’re going to keep the troops that are necessary to intervene. But I don’t see how it can be both.
MR. DORAN: Can I quickly?
MR. MATTAIR: Quickly.
MR. DORAN: Very quickly. The purpose of the pullout is to create the possibility of reaching a strategic accommodation with our NATO ally, Turkey. All the – forget about all the process argument. We were building a PKK statelet on the Turkish border that was going to ensure a permanent enmity with the Turks. The president did the right thing for that reason.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. I’m sorry. You know, this conversation could go on and we never really got to Yemen. But here’s the – here’s the subject that gets neglected now, the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Do any of you have any idea what will be part of a promised Trump peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian problem? And where does that fit into the hierarchy of our concerns in the region? Is it something that still animates extremists and anti-Americanism? Or is it just not as vital right now as civil wars raging through the Arab world. What will be part of this plan, if this plan is ever produced?
MR. GORDON: I’m happy to say something, and then maybe Mike know what’s in the plan and he’ll tell everybody. So I didn’t neglect it, because I think it’s important, not because it’s the central problem in the region, or that solving it would somehow solve all the other problems. It clearly wouldn’t. We know that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. I mean, it’s important, not least, for the people who live there. I think it’s important for Israel, for reasons that American administrations of both parties have said for years, which is that if we want to see Israel be a secure, democratic Jewish state in the future, it needs to figure out a way to resolve this problem and not be ruling of millions of Palestinians, because it’s hard to see how Israel remains all of those things while ruling over the Palestinians. And that’s why American administrations have made efforts for years to try to resolve the problem.
Like Mike, I’m hugely skeptical that we’ll be able to do so. And I almost think at this point it doesn’t matter what’s in the Trump plan. It would have been – even under the best of circumstances, the conditions on the ground are just not right for this ultimate deal. You have on the Palestinian side a president who is hugely unpopular, is in about the 13th year of his five-year term, wouldn’t have the authority to sell a deal even if he were able to agree to it, which he almost certainly wouldn’t, not least because the Israelis have no intention of putting on the table anything remotely close to something that he could buy into. You have an Israeli Cabinet at this point, more than half of which doesn’t even believe in a two-state solution. So the idea that they’re going to put one on the table that the Palestinians can agree to – whatever the Americans think – is just not going to happen.
And so that’s one reason it doesn’t really matter what’s in the plan. But the other reason that it doesn’t matter is, you know, I hinted at in my opening remarks. We’ve done a set of other things that have led the Palestinians not even to be willing to talk to or engage with the United States. So I wouldn’t hold my breath. It’s not surprising it’s been two years and the plan still hasn’t come out yet. Now we’re waiting for the Israeli elections. But then the administration will still have to think long and hard about whether it’s willing to put forward a plan that would be dead on arrival, unless the only purpose of it would be to let the Israelis sort of semi-embrace it, and the Palestinians denounce it, and then that can be a further reason to blame them for the lack of progress, which I think is unhelpful across the board.
MR. ALTERMAN: Mike has said he wants to have the final word. It’s true.
MR. DORAN: Oh, that’s so false. I very generously said I’ve been talking a lot. If you’d like to go before me, you can. Look at that. Look at that.
MR. ALTERMAN: That’s right. I appreciate your kindness.
MR. DORAN: I’ll give you the – I’ll give you the final word.
MR. ALTERMAN: No, you – I’ll talk. OK, let me just – I think – to answer your question, I think governments have moved away from the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue, because they are more preoccupied with their own security, and particularly internal security – being something they worried about before, in a sense that the Arab-Israeli stuff is old-style politics don’t really work anymore. I think for broad populations, the Arab-Israeli issue still is a prism through which people see injustice in the world. And I don’t think that’s gone away. I think the idea – I think broad populations still think that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is a profound injustice.
And I think there are two reasons why we shouldn’t just walk away. One is the possibility that there will be a serious eruption of violence, which damages Israel and the Palestinians alike. I mean, we’ve seen several intifadas. It is not inconceivable that we would have an even larger eruption of violence. But it seems to me that the most important argument is what’s the nature of Israel if it decides it never has to face this issue? The nature of Israel changes. The nature of Israel as an ally of the United States changes. The nature of Israel in the world changes.
And there are too many Arabs who do not have citizenship – we’re not talking about Israeli Arabs. I’m talking about Arabs who don’t have Israeli citizenship who are under the control of Israeli authorities, and whom they regard as an occupying power. That – if that goes on and on and on, you have the problem of running indefinite occupation and having a genuine apartheid state. That isn’t the Israeli that many Israelis want. That isn’t the Israel that many friends of Israel want. And while there may not be perfect solutions to this, I think Israel has to look for a solution. And my strong preference would be look for that solution before there’s an eruption of violence that changes all the pieces on the board right now.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, so you are going to get the last word. (Laughter.)
MR. DORAN: It all depends on you.
MR. MATTAIR: Go ahead.
MR. DORAN: You could always ask another question. This is my favorite – the Trump peace plan is the deal of the century is my favorite Arab-Israeli peace plan, the Palestinian-Israeli peace plan of all the ones that are out there both from the United States and from other actors, because it’s all drumroll and no plan. And I hope this drumroll continues all the way until the end of the first time. I mean, I feel the president will probably have to unroll it at some point, because he promised to do so during the election. I think he wants to keep his election promise. But I agree with Phil, there’s no chance that we’re going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – you know, certainly not in this administration, and I think for a very long time. The two sides are too far apart, Mahmood Abbas has no interest, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You could go through all the – all the reasons.
But this issue – I saw it when I was working in the White House. It eats up an enormous amount of senior leader time and effort to all kinds of reasons, which I do not think are strategically justifiable. The focus of the United States should be countering the Iranian alliance system and putting together its own alliance that can help with stabilizing the region. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going to help in any significant way in doing way. There is one counterargument to that, which someone put to me just recently, which is that one of the things that the administration is doing with its – with its peace plan is working to bring the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Emiratis close to the Israelis by means of this plan, that we should see it not so much as a – not so much as an effort to bring Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to the table, but as a tool for putting – for building a closer alliance.
You know, we have an alignment right now between Israel and those states that I mentioned. So if we could transform it into an actual kind of alliance, and we’d have much closer cooperation between the Israelis and the Saudis and so on. Interesting idea. I’m skeptical, just because I think the distance between the Saudis and the Israelis, for cultural, religious, historical reasons, is such that this is not going to – that even as they recognized the shared interests that they have in combatting Iran and other interests, and even though that leads to a lot of de facto cooperation, it is – it’s not the Palestinian-Israeli question that is really keeping this from going to the next level. It’s all of the historical differences between them. If I could be convinced that that’s – that I’m wrong about that, then I might see this as a real positive step. Until I’m convinced of that, I want it to remain a drumroll and no rollout.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. We’re out of time. But please, on our website you’ll find the video of this conference within a day – www.MEPC.org. And it will be published in the journal – in the next issue of the journal.
Thank you very much to the panelists for a great discussion. And thank you for coming. (Applause.)
Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Senior Advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group
Former White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region
Senior Fellow, Middle East Security, Hudson Institute
Former Senior Director, National Security Council
Former Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, CSIS
Director, Middle East Program, CSIS
Former Member, Policy Planning Staff, Department of State