Is There One?
THOMAS MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Well, I’m Thomas Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. I’d like to welcome all of you to our 71st Capitol Hill conference. And we have an unusually distinguished panel today to talk about a very important problem, particularly as a new administration gets ready to take office. Before we move to that, I’d like to tell anyone who doesn’t know about the Middle East Policy Council that we are now a 31-year-old nonprofit educational organization in Washington, and we have three major programs. The first is publication of Middle East Policy, a quarterly journal, the most cited publication in the field of contemporary policy issues in the Middle East, and edited for 30 years by Anne Joyce, our vice president.
And the second program is this series of Capitol Hill conferences, which also examine contemporary policy issues that American business leaders and government leaders and the media need to understand – particularly government leaders. And these transcripts are published in the journal. They’re the first item in every issue of the journal. And it’s live streamed, so there’s a virtual audience watching us, and they will be able to answer questions.
And the third program is an educational outreach program that has been focused primarily on K-through-12 in recent years, but we are widening it and expanding it to college and junior college and World Affairs Councils and other informed groups of citizenry. And we have a website, www.mepc.org, at which you can find past issues of the journal, articles from past issues of the journal, videos of past Capitol Hill conferences, a lot of commentary that we do for the media, and the curricular materials we provide to educators. So I do invite you to visit www.mepc.org.
The title of today’s conference is “U.S. Grand Strategy in the Middle East: Do We Have One?” And we could add other questions such as "can we have one," or "should we have one." The panel – I think I’d like to introduce each one of them just before they speak but – and there’s a lot of detailed information about their bios on the back of your invitation, but we do have Chas Freeman, a former president of the Middle East Policy Council; William Quandt, a just-retired Edward Stettinius Professor at the University of Virginia; Marwan Muasher, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Jordan and ambassador to the United States; and John Duke Anthony, the founder and CEO of the National Council of U.S.-Arab Relations, which is a sister organization to ours.
And it’s been 68 years since World War II ended. I can’t cover that in 68 seconds, but I’m going to try to cover it in three minutes and say that – before we go to the panel. In order to formulate a grand strategy, one should have clarity about national interests and policy objectives, and plans for achieving them. And we can think about national interests in two categories; strategic and ideological. We have strategic national interests in security, prosperity and stability. And we have ideological national interests in the promotion of popular government and human rights. Are they complementary, or are they contradictory? Can we find a set of policy objectives that are complementary and implement a set of strategies, maybe a grand strategy, that is coherent and potentially successful?
Let’s look at the record. After World War II, our traditional objectives have been preventing adversaries from dominating the region, maintaining access to the region’s oil and waterways, defending and supporting Israel and other friendly states, and we have done this through a grand strategy of containment, and we have done this specifically with strategies of multilateral agreements, strategic partnerships, arms sales, foreign aid, and eventually, rapid deployment forces and eventually intervention to liberate Kuwait, and through our Arab-Israeli diplomacy. And it was successful – not completely, but quite successful.
Containment was also the grand strategy of the post-Soviet era until 9/11. We were dominant. Our specific objectives were to contain Iran and Iraq, and to promote nuclear nonproliferation and to promote Arab-Israeli peace. Some of the new strategies we employed were the forward basing of land, sea and air forces, defense cooperation agreements, economic sanctions and diplomacy. We had some success, but during this time, transnational terrorism was brewing, and it exploded on 9/11.
And the Bush administration tried to develop a new grand strategy at that point, which I think we could call "liberal hegemony," with the objectives of maintaining American primacy and promoting democracy, and more specific objectives of containing rogue states and transnational terror. And one of the things that they employed as a strategy that was relatively new was this unilateral pre-emptive or preventive military intervention and regime change and nation building and counterinsurgency with a lot of coercive diplomacy.
Different people evaluate that differently, but I think it would be fair to say the Obama administration inherited a lot of problems from the Bush administration and from its eight years of liberal hegemony. And so the question panelists will be talking about today is whether the Obama administration has just been attempting to have a pragmatic, nonideological foreign policy where specific strategies are tailored to specific problems, or whether they’ve been trying to develop a grand strategy that could possibly be called "selective engagement." But any strategy is evaluated in terms of how successful it is in achieving objectives that have been set and attaining national interests, and as we go into a second term, we should ask how successful they are in attaining some of their objectives.
One, of course, is the objective of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which they explained was important to our national security, important to stability in the region, important to fighting transnational terror, even important to containing the challenge that Iran poses to the region. So how successful have they been in that? How secure is Israel? How satisfied are our strategic partners? How well are we doing in this struggle with transnational terror, and in stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and in general, in restoring American power, influence and prestige and prosperity and security? So that’s the framing that I’d like to make.
And as I said, I’d like to introduce each panelist separately, just before they speak. So our first panelist is Chas Freeman, who, as I said, is the – is currently the president emeritus of the Middle East Policy Council. He succeeded George McGovern in 1997 and served until 2009. He had before that been assistant secretary of defense and was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and has had many other positions in the foreign service of the United States and has formally been vice chair of the Atlantic Council and other important organizations and has written a number of important books. A recent one is America’s Misadventures in the Middle East, and there is a forthcoming book which is called Interesting Times: China, America and the Shifting Balance of Prestige. So thank you all for coming. And Chas, the podium is yours. (Applause.)
CHAS W. FREEMAN, Jr., Chairman, Projects International; Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Former President, MEPC
Thank you, Tom. It’s a pleasure to be back with the Middle East Policy Council for this occasion. I see many familiar faces and some new ones, and I’m very happy to be here. I’m also glad that Tom opened by defining grand strategy. Years ago there was an American diplomat, a very senior one, who was asked what American policy in the Middle East was, and his reply was, we don’t have one, and it’s a good thing that we don’t because if we did, they would probably be the wrong one. So on that note, I will take off where Tom began.
Over the past half century or so the United States has pursued two main but disconnected objectives in West Asia and North Africa: on the one hand, Americans have sought strategic and economic advantage in the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and Egypt; on the other, support for the consolidation of the Jewish settler state in Palestine. These two objectives of U.S. policy in the Middle East have consistently taken precedence over the frequently professed American preference for democracy.
These objectives are politically contradictory. They also draw their rationales from distinct moral universes. U.S. relations with the Arab countries and Iran have been grounded almost entirely in unsentimental calculations of interest. The American relationship with Israel, by contrast, has rested almost entirely on religious and emotional bonds. This disconnect has precluded any grand strategy.
Rather than seek an integrated policy framework, America has balanced the contradictions between the imperatives of its domestic politics and its interests. For many years, Washington succeeded in having its waffle in the Middle East and eating it too – avoiding having to choose between competing objectives. With wiser U.S. policies and more judicious responses to them by Arabs and Israelis, Arab-Israeli reconciliation might by now have obviated the ultimate necessity for America to prioritize its purposes in the region. But the situation has evolved to the point that choice is becoming almost impossible to avoid.
The Middle East matters. It is where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. In addition to harboring the greater part of the world’s conventionally recoverable energy supplies, it is a key passageway between Asia and Europe. No nation can hope to project its power throughout the globe without access to and through the Middle East. Nor can any ignore the role of the Persian Gulf countries in fueling the world’s armed forces, powering its economies, and setting its energy prices. This is why the United States has acted consistently to maintain a position of preeminent influence in the Middle East and to deny to any strategically hostile nation or coalition of nations the opportunity to contest its politico-military dominance of the region.
The American pursuit of access, transit, and strategic denial has made the building of strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt a major focus of U.S. policy. The partnership with Iran broke down over three decades ago. It has been succeeded by antagonism, low-intensity conflict, and the near constant threat of war. The U.S. relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now evolving in uncertain directions. Arab governments have learned the hard way that they must defer to public opinion. This opinion is increasingly Islamist. Meanwhile, popular antipathies to the widening American war on Islamism are deepening. These factors alone make it unlikely that relations with the United States can retain their centrality for Cairo and Riyadh much longer.
The definitive failure of the decades-long American-sponsored “peace process” between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs adds greatly to the uncertainty. Whether it yielded peace or not, the “peace process” made the United States the apparently indispensable partner for both Israel and the Arabs. It served dual political purposes. It enabled Arab governments to persuade their publics that maintaining good relations with the United States did not imply selling out Arab or Islamic interests in Palestine, and it supported the U.S. strategic objective of achieving acceptance for a Jewish state by the other states and peoples of the Middle East. Washington’s abandonment of this diplomacy was a boon to Israeli territorial expansion but a disaster for American influence in the region, including in Israel.
Over the years, America protected Israel from international rebuke and punishment. Its stated purpose was the preservation of prospects for a negotiated “two-state solution” that could bring security and peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike. A decade ago, every member of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation endorsed this objective and pledged normalization with Israel if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeeded. In response, Israel spun out its talks with the Palestinians while working hard to preclude their self-determination. It has now succeeded in doing so.
There has been no American-led peace process worthy of the name for nearly two decades. There is no prospect of such a process resuming. No one in the international community now accepts the pretense of a "peace process" as an excuse for American protection of Israel. Eleven years on, the Arab and Islamic peace offer has exceeded its shelf life. On the Israel-Palestine issue, American diplomacy has been running on fumes for some time. It is now totally out of gas and universally perceived to be going nowhere.
Sadly, barring fundamental changes in Israeli politics, policies, and behavior, the longstanding American strategic objective of achieving acceptance for the state of Israel to stabilize the region where British colonialism and Jewish nationalism implanted it is now infeasible. In practice, the United States has abandoned the effort. U.S. policy currently consists of ad hoc actions to fortify Israel against Palestinian resistance and military threats from its neighbors, while shielding it from increasingly adverse international reaction to its worsening deportment. In essence, the United States now has no objective with respect to Israel beyond sheltering it from the need to deal with the unpalatable realities its own choices have created.
The key to regional acknowledgment of Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East was the “two-state solution.” The Camp David accords laid out a program for Palestinian self-determination and Israeli withdrawal from the territories it had seized and occupied in 1967. Israel has had more than forty-five years to trade land for peace, implementing its Camp David commitments and complying with international law. It has consistently demonstrated that it craves land more than peace, international reputation, good will, or legitimacy. As a result, Israel remains isolated from its neighbors, with no prospect of reversing this. It is now rapidly forfeiting international acceptability. There is nothing the United States can do to cure either situation despite the adverse consequences of both for American standing in the region and the world.
In the seventeenth century, English settlers in America found inspiration for a theology of ethnic cleansing and racism in the Old Testament. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Jewish settlers in Palestine have invoked the same scripture to craft a parallel theology. The increasingly blatant racism and Islamophobia of Israeli politics, the kafkaesque tyranny of Israel’s checkpoint army in the occupied territories, and Israel’s cruel and unusual collective punishment of Gaza have bred hateful resentment of the Jewish state in its region and throughout the Muslim world. One has to look to north Korea to find another polity so detested and distrusted by its neighbors and with so few supporters among the world’s great powers.
The United States has affirmed that, regardless of how Israel behaves, it will allow no political distance between itself and the Jewish state. In the eyes of the world there is none. Israel’s ill repute corrodes U.S. prestige and credibility not just in the Middle East but in the world at large.
Israel does not seem to care what its neighbors or the world think of it. Despite its geographical location, it prefers to see itself as its neighbors do: as a Hebrew-speaking politico-economic extension of Europe rather than part of the Middle East. Nor does Israel appear concerned about the extent to which its policies have undermined America’s ability to protect it from concerted international punishment for its actions. The United States and Israel’s handful of other international supporters continue to have strong domestic political reasons to stand by it. Yet they are far less likely to be able to hold back the global movement to ostracize Israel than in the case of apartheid South Africa. America may “have Israel’s back,” but – on this – no one now has America’s back.
For a considerable time to come, Israel can rely on its US-provided “qualitative edge” to sustain its military hegemony over others in its region. But, as the “crusader states” established and sustained by previous Western interventions in the region illustrate, such supremacy – especially when dependent on external support – is inevitably ephemeral – and those who live exclusively by the sword are more likely than others to perish by it. Meanwhile, as the struggle for Palestinian Arab rights becomes a struggle for human and civil rights within the single sovereignty that Israel has de facto imposed on Palestine, Israel’s internal evolution is rapidly alienating Jews of conscience both there and abroad. Israelis do not have to live in Palestine; they can and do increasingly withdraw from it to live in diaspora. Jews outside contemporary Israel are coming to see it less as a sanctuary or guarantor of Jewish security and well-being than as a menace to both.
The United States has made an enormous commitment to the success of the Jewish state. Yet it has no strategy to cope with the tragic existential challenges Zionist hubris and overweening territorial ambition have now forged for Israel. The hammerlock the Israeli right has on American discourse about the Middle East assures that, despite the huge U.S. political and economic investment in Israel, Washington will not discuss or develop effective policy options for sustaining the Jewish state over the long term. The outlook is therefore for continuing deterioration in Israel’s international moral standing and the concomitant isolation of the United States in the region and around the globe.
This brings me back to the other main objective of U.S. policy in the Middle East: the nurturing of strategic partnerships with the largest and most influential Muslim states in the region. Iran and Syria have proven to be lost causes in this regard. Iraq is now more aligned with them than with America. Turkey is still an important U.S. ally on many matters but, with the exception of some aspects of relations with Syria, Ankara is following policies toward the Middle East that are almost entirely uncoordinated with those of the United States. The two pillars of the U.S. position in the Middle East beyond Israel are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neither can now be taken for granted.
Egypt is in the midst of a transition from American-aligned autocracy to self-determination under Islamist populism. It is not clear what sort of domestic political order this populism will shape but it seems certain that future Egyptian governments will listen less to the United States and demand more of Israel. The diversion to Egypt of a portion of the U.S. government’s generous annual subsidies to Israel long sufficed to secure Cairo’s acquiescence in the Camp David framework. This enabled Israel to pretend that it had achieved a measure of acceptance among its Arab neighbors despite its default on its obligations to the Palestinians and its escalating mistreatment of them. More importantly, it gave Israel the strategic security from Egyptian attack it had been unable to obtain by force of arms.
Populist Egypt’s passivity is very unlikely to be procurable on similar terms. Enough has changed to put the Camp David framework at severe risk. (This is true for Jordan as well. Jordan made peace with Israel in response to the Oslo accords, which the ruling right-wing in Israel systematically undermined and finally undid.)
Since 1979, the U.S. relationship with Israel has been both a raison d’être and essential underpinning for U.S.-Egyptian cooperation. It is now reemerging as a point of division, irritation, and contention between Americans and Egyptians. Egypt is once again an independent Arab actor in the affairs of its region, including Israel and Iran. It is no longer a reliable agent of American influence. It reacts to Israeli actions and policies calculatedly, with much less deference to U.S. views than in the past.
Islamist parties now dominate Egyptian politics as they do politics in Tunisia and among Palestinians. It is very unlikely that post-Assad Syria will be democratic but it is virtually certain that it will be Salafist. The so-called Arab awakening has turned out really to be a Salafist awakening. There is a struggle for the soul of Islam underway between Takfiri Salafists and conservative modernizers. In the traditionally Islamist states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this struggle is being won by the forces of tolerance, reform, and opening up. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, the outcome remains in doubt, but nowhere are Muslim conservatives, still less Salafists, at ease with expansionist Zionism or the sort of aggressive anti-Islamism that the United States has institutionalized in its “drone wars.”
In the wake of Washington’s abandonment of the effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the impact of 9//11, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the transformation of a punitive raid in Afghanistan into a long-term attempt to preclude an Islamist regime there, the U.S. - Saudi relationship, once an example of broad-based strategic partnership, has markedly weakened. American Islamophobia has erased much of the previous mutual regard between the two countries. The United States continues to be the ultimate guarantor of the Saudi state against intervention from foreign enemies other than Israel. There is no alternative to America in this role. Nor, even when it regains energy self-sufficiency, will the United States be able to ignore Saudi Arabia’s decisive influence on global energy supplies and prices. But U.S. - Saudi cooperation is no longer instinctual and automatic. It has become cynically transactional, with cooperation taking place on a case-by-case basis as specific interests dictate.
Policy convergence between Washington and Riyadh continues but sometimes conceals major differences. This is clearly the case with Iran, where Washington’s interest in non-proliferation and desire to preserve Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East overlap but do not coincide with Riyadh’s concerns. If Tehran does go nuclear, Saudi-American disharmony will be glaringly apparent in very short order . Similarly, in Syria, the common desire of Americans and Saudis to see Syrians overthrow the Assad government masks very different visions about what sort of regime should succeed it and what the stance of that regime should be toward Israel, Lebanon, or Iraq.
The bottom line is this. U.S. policies of unconditional support for Israel, opposition to Islamism, and the use of drones to slaughter suspected Islamist militants and their families and friends have created an atmosphere that precludes broad strategic partnerships with major Arab and Muslim countries, though it does not yet preclude limited cooperation for limited purposes. The acceptance of Israel as a legitimate presence in the Middle East cannot now be achieved without basic changes in Israeli attitudes and behavior that are not in the offing.
U.S. policies designed, respectively, to pursue strategic partnerships with Arab and Muslim powers and to secure the state of Israel have each separately failed. The Middle East itself is in flux. America’s interests in the region now demand fundamental rethinking, not just of U.S. policies, but of the strategic objectives those policies should be designed to achieve.
Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Chas. I would now like to introduce William Quandt, who, as I said earlier, has been the Edward Stettinius Professor at the University of Virginia since the mid-1990s until his very recent retirement. I didn’t know that, actually, that you’d retired.
DR. QUANDT: It hasn’t quite happened.
DR. MATTAIR: Ah, OK.
DR. QUANDT: It’s slightly premature.
DR. MATTAIR: That’s why I didn’t know. (Laughs.) Before that, he was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and before that served on the National Security Council under Nixon, Ford and Carter and was very intimately involved in our Arab-Israeli negotiations during those years and in the achievements of the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. And also, although it’s not listed here, it mentions that he’s the author of a number of important books, but one of them is the third edition of “Peace Process,” which is a history of America’s Arab-Israeli policy from 1967 until 2005, and as a graduate assistant, assistant professor and think tank analyst, I always found that book and his others to be absolute must-reading.
So I now introduce William Quandt. (Applause.)
WILLIAM B. QUANDT, Professor, University of Virginia; Former Member, National Security Council
Thank you very much, Tom, and it’s very nice to be here and to see many old friends. It’s a little hard to follow Chas Freeman. I think he has the effect of sounding so authoritative and so pessimistic that it’s hard to know what to say next. I’m not going to try to cheer you up and say he’s all wrong and that we really have brilliant ideas that can transform the Middle East. Obviously, the Middle East is going through a lot of turmoil. It’s going to be very difficult for any of us to see how things will sort themselves out.
In terms of the topic of grand strategy, I must confess at the outset that I’m rather suspicious of grand strategies for the Middle East, especially at times like this when so many balls are up in the air. It strikes me that in the past two decades in particular, we have had two broad approaches – quite different broad approaches to the region. Perhaps one can dignify them as grand strategies if you want to do so. The first was the first President Bush and the Clinton approach from Madrid through, let’s say, Camp David – from about 1991 to 2000. And the key elements of that approach, it seems to me – and maybe it was a grand strategy – were to try to keep Iran and Iraq more or less contained. This was the so-called dual containment policy that was enunciated early in the Clinton period.
And the point of that, of course, was to keep the Gulf region relatively stable and relatively quiet while we tried to forge some kind of an international consensus behind a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, which was the point of the Madrid conference and its continuity through the subsequent decade. Had this approach succeeded – and I think there was a moment in, perhaps, 1993 to ’95 when it seemed possible – it might very well have helped to stabilize a relatively moderate, pro-American political order in the Arab-Israeli region while keeping Iran and Iraq from too much mischief-making, but it failed, and it failed quite spectacularly in 2000 – in Clinton’s last year.
And that failure, combined with the emergence in the mid-1990s of an alternative grand strategy – think of the “Clean Break” document that was written as a memo to Benjamin Netanyahu – you should remember – in 1996 – that plus the second President Bush’s ABC policy – Anything But Clinton – meant that the approach to the region, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, set the stage for a real fundamental transformation in the American approach to the – to the region generally. This was an attempt to remake the Middle East that was as ambitious as anything that was – had been envisaged since the British set out to remake the Middle East in the 1920s.
The centerpiece of the Bush strategy – Bush II strategy turned out to be Iraq, but Iraq was, of course, never meant out to turn out the way that it did. It was not supposed to be such a big, expensive and ultimately flawed experiment. Instead, Iraq was to be an example of a clean, quick, use of force to change an admittedly dreadful regime that we would then – and then we would turn things over to pro-Western moderates – always in search of those – in this case, Ahmed Chalabi, who would become model democrats or at least not as bad as Saddam Hussein, would make peace with Israel – remember the “road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad” article? That was a real winner. (Laughter.). And this grateful Iraq would provide U.S. – the United States with military bases with which we could help to balance Iranian power, and meanwhile, it would set a model for change, plus democracy elsewhere in the region. Iraq was not meant to be the end of this very ambitious project.
I traveled frequently to the region during this period, and I was rather stunned to find some of my democratic friends in the Arab world really hoping that it might work, because everybody had a favorite dictator that they wanted to see shoved aside by muscular Americans, and of course, it just didn’t work out. The Bush moment in the Middle East, like the earlier British moment – although the British moment lasted much longer – came and went without leaving much behind in terms of the hoped-for result of a stable, democratic, pro-Western political order, and this after spending an unprecedented amount of taxpayers’ money – at least a trillion dollars – and thousands of American lives and untold numbers of Iraqi lives.
Iraq today is hardly a model for anyone; U.S. influence there is less than Iran’s. Modern democratic order is nowhere in sight, political Islam is stronger than ever, and of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict is still with us. Yes, Saddam and bin Laden are gone, but the Middle East is in turmoil, the price of oil is over a hundred dollars a barrel compared to a quarter of that price in the 1990s, and the American public is fairly disillusioned with big schemes for fixing the region. As Bob Gates, our former secretary of defense said when he left the Pentagon, if his successor were to think of sending troops to the Middle East, he should have his head examined.
But there are voices – some quite loud right now – that do want to send troops or arms or bombs or drones or something to fix the problems, for example, of Syria and Iran. So far, President Obama has resisted the temptation, and it looks as if his new choices for secretary of state and secretary of defense, if they get confirmed, will reinforce and perhaps reflect his cautious stance. But caution is not a policy; it’s at best an attitude, just as belligerent liberal or neoconservative interventionism are not policies – they are more frames of mind. So is there a sensible grand strategy, or at least a comprehensive, well-considered approach that makes sense for today’s Middle East? And if so – if so, I believe it resides in a realistic appreciation of what American national interests are, and it must start with the understanding that we’re not all-powerful. This was the great illusion of the 1990s and the first decade of this century.
Look at the size of our budget deficit, and look at the inevitable cuts in military spending that lie ahead. So whatever we set out to do in the Middle East and elsewhere, we’re going to have to think about doing it in cooperation with at least some other parties – some to help pay the bills and some to add their political influence to our waning political influence. In short, we’re going to have to discover or rediscover some of the classical maxims of multilateral diplomacy. Think more of balancing than of winning; think more of persuasion than of diktat.
With these precepts in mind, I would start to design a basic approach to the region with several key points to consider. The first one – I think it is well time to overcome the long U.S.-Iran estrangement. Some form of diplomatic rapprochement is needed in the coming years. The elements of a deal on nuclear capabilities are visible, if not quite in place, but they need to be part of a larger package. Since we cannot negotiate this very well in public, given our own domestic public opinion, the new secretary of state should find a reliable channel to Iran’s top leadership and start his own assessment of how to forge a new relationship.
This is, as I said, not going to be easy, but it is certainly important. If we could succeed, the benefits would be seen in places such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf region, and we would avoid being pressured into what could turn out to be an extremely dangerous war, which is lurking on the horizon. Chas Freeman was involved the Nixon opening to China, which was one of the great acts of strategic far-sightedness; I think not as big a move, but a comparably audacious move toward an improved U.S.-Iran relationship would also serve our interests well.
Second point for looking ahead: Keep close to Turkey. I slightly disagree with Chas about the quality of the U.S.-Turkish relationship today. I think this is an area where President Obama has actually done fairly well so far. The United States and Turkey on a wide range of issues have been more cooperative than they have been competitive. Obviously it’s important to try to keep this relationship on track. It has a lot to do with what will eventually unfold in places like Syria and Iraq. And to an impressive degree, Turkey is something of a model to be emulated in the region. Its political and economic reforms have been essentially successful, and Turkey has played an interesting and impressive and independent role in the region, which I think we should be glad of. It’s a voice, on the whole, for reason. It’s also a reliable NATO ally, at least so far.
The third country that I think we need to pay a lot of attention to – and this is not particularly new or original, but it is Egypt. Egypt we have taken for granted for a long period of time when Sadat and Mubarak were president, and we can no longer do that. Egypt is going through a transformation. We don’t know where it’s all going to end up, but the U.S.-Egyptian relationship remains an important one. We have to think of news ways of dealing with a new Egypt, with a new Egyptian leadership, and it’s going to take some real constant attention and effort. You’ve probably seen the unpleasant press stories in the last few days that are designed to demonize President Morsi, and indeed, he seems to have said some fairly dreadful things, but you can expect doubts to be raised about the importance of this relationship as Egypt consolidates its Islamist credentials.
But Egypt remains important, it remains important for what happens in the Arab-Israeli arena. It is geostrategically important. And if you think of the Middle East as a region with several large players in the regional game of politics, Egypt is certainly going to be one of those.
So what about Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and Syria? These are, after all, the countries that generates a lot of the headlines about the Middle East. I won’t say much about Saudi Arabia. I think Chas has said what needs to be said, but I think we also need to recognize that Saudi Arabia is almost certainly going to be passing through a generational transition that will be quite complicated for them in the coming decade. We will have very little to say about how that plays itself out. I saw someone from Winnip (ph) recently writing that the United States should choose the next king of Saudi Arabia. I cannot think of a stupider thing to try to do. We’ll almost certainly get it wrong, were we to try, and whoever we might try to anoint would almost certainly lose legitimacy overnight.
During this period of transition in Saudi Arabia, which is inevitable simply because of the age of its leaders, we shouldn’t ask too much of the Saudis. The Saudis cannot be asked to, you know, be at the cutting edge of any big diplomatic initiatives. They are going to be looking inward to consolidating their power during a difficult period. By the same token, we have no reason to make the process any more difficult for them than it’s already going to be.
Let me say a word about Syria. Syria is a terrible tragedy. I’m not sure it had to turn out as badly as it has so far, but it is certainly a situation that we cannot fix on our own. The Assad regime almost certainly cannot restore its power, but at the same time the opposition is not poised for a clear-cut early victory.
The alternative to an even worse civil war than we have seen to date could be a political deal of some sort. This seems to be the faint hope that Lakhdar Brahimi is pursuing, and I think we should wish him well and try to work with the Russians and others to bring both sides of the conflict to accept the need for an early cease-fire and an negotiated transition. It’s not going to be easy. People on both sides – there are more than two sides by now – still think they can, quote, “win,” but ultimately I think the important thing is for the fighting to stop and for inducements to be created from all of those who wish Syria well for the country to seek a broad reconciliation – as I said, not an easy task, but an important one.
And what about Israel-Palestine? Well, I’m just about as pessimistic as Chas, but maybe not quite. We can’t pretend the conflict no longer matters just because we’re tired of it, which I think many of us are. It has the potential, as the recent Gaza crisis showed, to flare up and risk spreading. The new conventional wisdom seems to be that the two-state approach is dead. Maybe it is. But it was never really seriously tried, in all honesty.
Clinton in December of 2000 broached an imperfect outline of what a two-state solution might look like, and a few years later Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority Leader Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas pushed the model a bit further in 2008. And when they needed help to bring it to a successful conclusion and turned to the United States, they got no help whatsoever. So we have been at a dead end since about 2008. The current Israeli government seems uninterested. The Palestinians are divided. But I still think that Secretary Kerry, assuming he will be our new secretary of state, owes it to himself to do due diligence on this issue. You can’t pretend the issue has – can be ignored, and he needs to at least engage seriously, in early days of his tenure, in serious talks with all of the parties interested.
And he certainly should not waste his time – the president must know this by now – in trying to somehow engage in confidence-building measures. We have been through a decade and a half of the pursuit of tiny little steps to build confidence between Israelis and Palestinians, and it simply doesn’t work. It is also futile to simply say let’s get the parties back to the negotiating tables, as if that by itself will provide some magic in the absence of prior agreement on the broad outlines of what a negotiation would all be about.
So when the Obama administration essentially dropped its efforts at Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, which happened quite dramatically and embarrassingly in mid-2011 when Bibi Netanyahu came to the United States and got 29 standing ovations in front of a joint session of Congress, we ended with a fairly weak statement of what thought an Arab-Israeli – Israeli-Palestinian agreement might look lie. I think it might well be time for us and partners in the international arena to revisit the issue of what we could be prepared to support, to state it clearly and to allow the parties in the region to start debating again whether it is worth trying to pursue that kind of an outcome or whether we really do have to think quite fundamentally about a Middle East in – without the prospect of peace between Israel and its remaining Arab neighbors.
Oddly enough, some people argue that we shouldn’t bother with the Israel-Palestinian initiative because the conflict is too hard to solve. Well, yes, of course it’s hard. If it were easy, it would have been solved long ago. But often is this is said by the same people who urge intervention in Syria or in Iran.
Now, my view is that these latter cases are much more difficult and more much risky and likely to be much more costly than tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know, broadly speaking, what the contours are of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Yes, it’s tough, but I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s just an act of extreme political will, which is hard to mobilize here. It’s hard to mobilize anywhere. It takes energy and effort by sophisticated and tenacious diplomats, but otherwise it doesn’t entail big costs or risks. And if we try and fail, it’s not the end of the world. If by chance we were to succeed – which I think is unlikely – the benefits would actually be quite substantial.
So I would keep Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of what a sensible strategy for the new Middle East should be, without illusions, but I don’t think we can abandon our interests and concern with it. But as I mentioned, I think it should be part of a broader approach that places priority on the big-three countries of Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Bill.
If Rebecca (sp) is here, maybe Rebecca (sp) could bring me the invitation and the bios because I’ve misplaced them. But – (off-mic conversation) – thank you. Thank you. I left it here. But that’s all right. I’ve known John Duke Anthony a long time. I know how to introduce him. He’s the founder and the president and CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. You must also be celebrating your 30th anniversary, I believe, as a nonprofit educational organization. And he does a number of programs that complement ours, including an annual conference on matters like these and many cultural exchanges for students and professors and military officers, and also finds the time to teach at various institutions of the State Department and Defense Department, and is the only American to be invited to all of the ministerial and heads of states meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council – and that’s about 31 or 32 of them, I think – and is the author of some books, including one that was of interest to me – still is, because I’m a student of the lower Gulf, the UAE and those countries – and it’s called “States of the Lower Gulf, People Politics and Petroleum.”
So John Duke Anthony, please. Would you like to sit or stand?
JOHN DUKE ANTHONY, Founding President & Chief Executive Officer, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
I’d like to stand. (Applause.) Thank you, Tom, Chas, Bill, Marwan and distinguished guests. It’s a pleasure to be here and to focus on one of the least well-known subregional organizations in the world, and certainly among the Arab countries, the Middle East and the Islamic world, namely the Gulf Cooperation Council. We’ve made some progress over the years in the sense that few Americans anymore believe it has to do with the Gulf of Mexico – (laughter) – and not any, I believe, still regard it as possibly animal, vegetable or mineral, but they’re not sure which.
I’ll make my remarks first in terms of a little on the background context in perspective of what the GCC is and what it is not, and then on aspects of GCC perceptions of American strategies – grand strategies and subgrand strategies – and then end on what’s of greatest need, concern, interest, objectives insofar as the GCC countries themselves are pertinent to this discussion. In terms of background, few people are aware that the GCC came into existence under the less-than-auspicious circumstances. Unlike the European Union, which it has used from the beginning till now as an exemplary model to follow or to judge itself, guide itself by in terms of its progress and achievements, there was no guarantee of the six countries’ security such as the EU had through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of 1949.
There was no previous intraregional organization such as the Coal and Steel Community that the Europeans had, upon which to build with regard to complementing their needs and concerns and interests. Neither was there the atmosphere of the emotional devastation from the ravages of war and – World War II, where 19 countries were laid on their back by one country that was disciplined and single-issue-oriented and industrial with – behind its military might. Nor did they have the background of something like the Marshall Plan from 1947 that underwrote – that provided Foreign Direct Investment and capitalization and trade and technology cooperation and the establishment of joint commercial ventures that would be of reciprocal reward and mutuality of benefit to the partners.
The GCC countries had none of those four things to facilitate its founding and to give it the self-confidence that it would not fall apart like so many previous pie-in-the-sky aspirations for regional, political or other integration. In terms of the context, the language of the preamble to its charter is self-revealing in the sense of six countries with a broadly common culture, a broadly common history, a broadly similar, if not complementary, set of challenges in terms of their quest for modernization and development and, most relevant of all, the similarity of forms and systems and structures of government.
And this last phrase, of course, precluded Iraq, precluded Yemen from being members of the GCC. And it also precluded Jordan, even though Jordan was similar in terms of a monarchy, but Jordan was not a member of the Gulf region, per se. At the opening founding inaugural summit in Abu Dhabi in May of 1981, at the very last moment, Sultan Qaboos of Oman asked that he have the floor. Up until that particular moment, the proceedings had been rather bland and innocuous, talking about harmonizing educational curricula, civil aviation standards, weights and measures and the like and nothing really controversial – even though the fact that they were meeting alone was controversial in the eyes of Iran and Iraq, which were angry for being excluded and not included.
Sultan Qaboos said, it’s fine for us to debate and discuss and have agreement and be cordial on all the things that we share in common and all the things that we’re doing at the present time to strengthen our societies and to strengthen all six of us as a collective unit, but none of this will amount to anything if we do not build a wall to protect that which we have already achieved since all of us have obtained independence and national sovereignty and political independence and territorial integrity once the British abrogated their last treaties whereby Great Britain had responsibility for their defense in foreign relations.
And Sultan Qaboos went further to say, and we will not be able to do this unless we cooperate economically and developmentally in terms of providing the financial wherewithal to build and sustain this wall of defense. In terms of what the GCC countries from then on – with Oman particularly in the lead from the beginning, but also with Bahrain which had had organizationally the longest non-stop relationship with the United States in terms of cooperating on national as well as regional and international issues pertaining to defense and security, along with Saudi Arabia being the biggest and the most diverse, and – quantitatively as well as qualitatively the most intimately involved with the United States to provide stability and defense and security for the region.
The GCC countries said, these are the things that we can bring to this particular challenge to keep the region as stable as possible, as secure as possible, without which we have no chance to be prosperous, we have no chance to be protected and to be able to plan, to be able to prepare, to be able to anticipate, to be able to predict that which is coming down the road for ourselves and those who will follow from us.
And so in terms of agreements and formalities that were strategic in their focus, Oman was the first and oldest, from 1979, in terms of a defense – in 1980, rather – in terms of an access to facilities agreement. And 10 years later, four additional GCC countries – namely Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – entered into defense cooperation agreements with the United States. Saudi Arabia has no such agreement, but here we don’t want to confuse form with function in the sense that the Saudi Arabian component of this defense cooperation – strategic set of dynamics is greater, arguably, than all of the other five combined.
The things that the GCC countries brought to the table were arms procurement in terms of identicality (ph) on the technology front – or when they weren’t identicalities, at least there were interoperabilities between their equipment and ours. Also, hyped up – stepped up training as well as increased numbers of exercises, and an ongoing, almost nonstop relationship with the United States Central Command, which has this particular region as its primary area of responsibility.
With regard to going from beyond those agreements in terms of on-the-ground empirical realities, there is a GCC-relevant land force in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; there is a naval force in terms of Bahrain as well as Oman, focused on the Hormuz Straits, through which every day one-fifth at least of all of the internationally-traded hydrocarbon fuels are passed through Oman’s waters, not through Iran’s, as many are misled to believe. And in terms of air facilities and assets and capabilities in Qatar in the United Arab Emirates, with regard to the geopolitics related to the Defense Strategic Aspects, you had the GCC helping to pass UN Resolution 598 of July 15, 1987, for the re-flagging and the – rather, the ceasefire – the immediate ceasefire between Iran and Iraq in the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war.
That was the first unanimous United Nations Security Council vote on a war and peace issue since the Korean War, and the Korean War had been unanimous largely because the Soviet ambassador wasn’t present when the vote took place. The frame of reference was that he was in the bathroom. (Laughter.) I don’t think he’s – well, he has gone to the bathroom since, but not in terms of votes as crucial as that one was. Iraq accepted it immediately. Khomeini took 13 months to accept it.
With regard to the Kuwait crisis of ’90-’91, 12 of the League of Arab States countries, the six GCC ones brought six more together, the vote being 12 to 9 in favor of condemning what Iraq did in its invasion and occupation of Kuwait. And also, on August the 10th, a landmark decision, where the same votes, 12 to 9, passed calling for all Arab armies to mobilize and deploy to Saudi Arabia to prevent the invasion from spreading further.
In terms of the geoeconomics of this, with regard to the GCC countries, still wedded to the American dollar with – as the medium of their financial international transactions, although Kuwait has a basket of currencies even if the biggest egg in the basket happens to be the dollar, and what that has done to assist in the ongoing preeminence of the American banking system worldwide in terms of the offshore banks in Bahrain that took up the slack after Lebanon in 1975 had its revolution or its rebellion and its civil war until 1988, Bahrain came in to fill the gap there.
And in terms of what the United States has been doing with regard to our Department of Treasury, going to these countries more than to any other countries in the developing world to ask for assistance in terms of stability and predictability regarding the uses to which the GCC countries, several of which are annually in surplus because of their oil revenue receipts, can do in partnership with the United States for common purposes in order to lessen the blows of the international housing crisis, mortgage crisis, financial crisis – economic crisis, writ large.
And in terms of geology, they know that they bring 40 percent of proven, not debatable, reserves with regard to the world’s hydrocarbon fuels and that the United States – the single-largest consumer of this commodity, biggest importer of this commodity, biggest waster of this commodity, loudest crybaby with regard to its terms of relations with this particular commodity – has barely 2 percent. Saudi Arabia alone has 10 times the amount of reserves of the United States.
Now from that aspect, in terms of what they have been bringing to the table that has strategic interest and strategic value and utilitarian benefit, they are aware that the United States has aspects of a grand strategy and then other aspects of issue-specific strategies. What would pass for a grand strategy, although not named as such, would be the defense policy guidance of late 1992 that was drafted by someone known to most here – not necessarily in the most positive way – called Paul Wolfowitz who posited that between and 2020 A.D., in order for the United States to remain the world’s sole superpower, it would have to continue to excel in five areas: economically, financially, industrially, militarily and technologically.
And the second push question as to what was essential to excelling in these five areas was energy, and the aspect of whose energy, our energy or someone else’s energy, was announced in terms of someone else’s energy because this is a finite, depletable resource, and it’s cheaper elsewhere and it’s more abundant elsewhere. And if we use our own, we’ll run out sooner rather than later and we’ll become weaker sooner rather than later. And this is not a strategic option for us.
In terms of the subinterest for which there are issue-specific strategies, there are the following, in the descending order of priority, which some of you may disagree with, and that’s fine. But the largest overriding one is a strategic interest in the perpetuation of peace and the avoidance of war. And where there are cross-border forays and vehemence and vitriolic exchanges and pronouncements from radical extremists, fanatical spokespeople, representatives and leaders in the region, to ensure that they do not escalate in terms of a civil war or a war between countries in the region because of what that would do to regional stability and security, a set of economic interests that are as straightforward as can be in terms of sheer access, regardless of the price, regardless of the levels of production of this hydrocarbon fuel that fuels all economies in the world – rich and poor, big and small, new and old and everything in between.
In terms of policies, largely foreign policies – and yet there are italics and neon lights and capital letters on this one – because where the GCC would prefer non-interference in their domestic affairs, the United States has not seen any reason not to interfere in their domestic affairs, but there hasn’t the reciprocity on the GCC side. Indeed, this is a bedrock strategic maxim of the GCC countries in terms of all the communiques that they have signed their names to in the last 40 years: non-interference in the domestic affairs of each other’s countries.
With regard to commerce, it used to be linked to the economic interest, but no, for the last 35 years, it’s been separated in terms of because we are world’s single-largest importer of this commodity, we have to lessen the overall net build as best we can. And one way to do that is to export as much as we can in terms of their good and their services and their technologies and other things that lowers the overall drain on our Treasury.
The fifth interest has by and large been the defense cooperation one. Under George W. Bush, this one came higher on the list of subinterest, but for most of the years before in the GCC’s life, it had been number five. And it’s possible, under the Obama administration at least, that it would certainly be far less than it was under George W. Bush with the drawdowns in Afghanistan and the drawdowns in Iraq and statements, like outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that other countries need to belly up to the bar and begin to pay a proportionate share of what it costs, namely $100 billion a year, to protect this particular region.
Notice that I haven’t mentioned a single world about the soft power as a subinterest or let alone a grand strategic interest thus far. Here in terms of democratization or increasing the level of popular participation in the national development process of civil rights or gender rights or human rights. And this is because of my conviction, and those who share it in the region, that despite all of the ink we spill on this particular interest and all of the Sunday talk shows’ verbiage on this particular interest, at the end of the day if we stand back, if we’re clinically detached and objective and dispassionate, the conclusion is hard to miss in the sense of that particular interest being psychologically indulgable but politically expendable.
And without that kind of security and stability, they will not have the means to play the humanitarian role that they play, largely unnoticed and largely unrecognized, as they were amongst the first in the world to help the people of Bosnia, of Kosovo, and those as well of Afghanistan and Iraq. And Kuwait has been a leader in this, so has Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and increasingly Qatar, there – that this too cannot take place without the requisite stability and security. And believe it or not, Kuwait and the UAE provide more than 115 countries with various forms of humanitarian aid and developmental assistance. So they see these as linked.
And what they seek more than anything else – and I’m speaking here from a point of view of empathy, here – is that two issues leave them with uncertainty and a lack of clarity as to where the United States is coming from or headed or likely intending to arrive. And one has to do with Iran, which we can discuss more in the Q-and-A, but the larger one, the older one, the more massive and pervasive one is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And here, in terms of looking at the United States, a country of 310 million, the lenses are ones that show at the other end of the prism executive branch cowardice, congressional timidity in terms of being intimidated by the representatives, the agents, the sympathizers, the fifth columns, the Trojan horses of a country of 8 million people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that has successfully been able to intimidate the head of state of the 310 million. I think Bill Quandt made reference to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu getting more standing ovations than did the president unto the United States, in whose country he was speaking, to the Congress there.
And with regard to the human rights aspect, which have come up a lot in the case of Bahrain – and as I said before, no country and region has been a more steadfast defense and strategic partner of the United States since 1948, nonstop, than Bahrain – they would counter that there is no universally agreed, no globally acknowledged, no internationally consensus on human rights, per se, as to what they cover and what they do not cover. They acknowledge civil rights, human right, gender rights as such, but they add to these that any country, any government, any people who have the means will be faulted on the altar of human rights, in the Richter scale of human wrongs, if indeed they do not do the maximum to provide housing for the homeless.
Here in the nation’s capital this evening, like last evening, like tomorrow evening, there will be 13,000 people who are homeless, OK? This is in the nation’s capital of the strongest, wealthiest power in history, in the world. In New York City this evening, there will be 36,000 who are homeless, 18,000 of whom are children. And multiply that by St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and other urban centers in the United States and you’ll see how the United States falls short on that particular criterion regarding human rights.
As well as health care. And we’re the only industrialized country’s economy to lack universal, comprehensive wealth (sic) care, even though we’ve got an economy that dwarfs almost all of the other major industrial economies of the world. Not to mention education, which is also free of charge from kindergarten all the way through the Ph.D. and obtaining one’s certificate as a neurosurgeon. Not to mention as well crime. One-fourth of all the people of the planet who are behind bars are behind bars here – of the 212 countries in the world. This is its own indictment in terms of human rights and human wrongs. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: And actually, I was going to wait until we start questions, but after John’s speech it’s a good time to mention that we have the ambassador from Oman, the ambassador from Bahrain, ambassador of the Arab League and the GCC ambassador to the United Nations with us today. Welcome. (Applause.) I also want to say at this point that because of the size of this crowd we’ve left cards on your seats. And if you have questions and submit the cards we may get a larger number of questions in – although there is a mic here as well, if you wish to go to the – wish to go to the mic.
And now, I’d like to introduce our fourth speaker, who I thought would be the right person to close because he has a moderate Arab perspective on America’s policy. It’s Marwan Muasher, who is the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, particularly on the Middle East. And his career is Jordanian ambassador to Israel, Jordanian ambassador to the United States, Jordanian foreign minister, Jordanian deputy prime minister, and vice president of the World Bank, and now vice president of Carnegie Endowment. He’s also the author of a book that came out in 2008 called – what’s the exact title – “The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation.” And so Marwan, please. Welcome to the podium. (Applause.)
MARWAN MUASHER, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment; Former Foreign Minister & Deputy Prime Minister, Jordan; Former Ambassador of Jordan to the United States
Thank you, Tom, and all for being here today. I certainly speak as an Arab, having worked on peace and reform issues in my country and in the Arab world – and a strong believer in both – and I also speak as an analyst, being with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. Now, I do not speak as an Arab official, of course, because I no longer am, although my views are certainly shaped by the experiences that I had in the Arab world for the last 20 years.
I want to start with the promise that – the premise that the rising up of people demanding freedom, dignity, social justice and government accountability across the Arab world is, to me, a positive development. It put the Arab world back on the right course of history. But that does not mean that there is no – not a long road ahead. The fateful, messy and unpredictable process of self-government and democratic institution-building is just beginning, and it would be wrong to judge the process by what has transpired in the last two years. This process is one that will necessarily unfold through decades, not through months and – or years.
Taking place under banners of democracy and freedom, these Arab revolutions fulfilled the long-stated U.S. goal of moving the Middle East toward greater democratic and representative government. And so the United States cannot turn its back on this process now. Washington has a stake in the outcome of the political jockeying unleashed by the Arab Awakening, and must stay engaged as the people of the Middle East struggle to take control of this moment.
But I think we need to realize that U.S. policy in this new environment will be more complicated and demand more time, effort and patience than when pro-American leaders sat in Tunis, Cairo and Sana’a, or when Baathists had a firm grip in Damascus. The relative predictability of the old order, for good or ill, is gone. Fluidity now rules the day, both for the countries in transition and for those that have not started a transition yet.
We also need to realize that the Obama administration’s ability to influence events will be limited often by a number of factors, including reduced economic resources, limits to military power, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, domestic fatigue with military involvement and Arab frustration with longtime U.S. support for the status quo and failure to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Nevertheless, America has an important role to play. Those who doubt the relative significance of American leadership need only look at the recent cases of Libya and Syria, where the decisive – factor for action or inaction has been the extent to which the United States chooses to engage. And so the states in the midst of transition, in my opinion, will still need U.S. encouragement, understanding, tough honesty, and where appropriate, economic assistance to build new institutions that support pluralism, foster respect for minority and individual rights and international law, marginalize the voices of extremism and sectarianism and put their people on a path to greater prosperity. The states that have not yet moved toward reform also need the United State to bluntly assess the consequences of their actions, and to encourage them to embrace change.
I have a number of suggestions for U.S. policy in the new Obama administration. I have no way of telling whether the U.S. will – (chuckles) – embrace them or not, but as an analyst, I can afford the luxury of only suggesting. First, focus on performance, not ideology. The commitment to democracy is fundamentally correct, and the United States should make it clear that it will always support the ability of the people of the Middle East to choose their own governments and hold them accountable. The United States should stick to a disciplined policy approach, though, that emphasizes the primacy of adherence to international standards, including respect for treaty obligations, individual and minority rights and peaceful rotation of power.
The losers in the initial political competitions will in some cases be all too ready to raise questions about the validity of the process, or the desirability of democracy to cover their own shortcomings or frustrations. The Obama administration cannot lay the – cannot let the naysayers or the extremists, either in the region or in the United States, hijack the narrative of the moment. As Secretary of State Clinton said, one election does not a democracy make, that’s just the beginning of the hard work. The United States should make it clear that it is in for the long run.
U.S. criticism or praise of countries of the region should be based on performance, and should be applied to newly transitioning countries as well as traditional friends, but should not be based on ideology.
The second suggestion is to set realistic expectations. The Obama administration’s policy must be guided by realism and pragmatism as it engages with new actives in the Arab world. You’re not going to be able to do everything that you want to do in the Middle East. Washington’s ability to influence events will be marginal in many areas. Political transition on the ground will largely be driven by domestic events and considerations, and the competition for votes, power and resources. Whenever possible though, the United States should focus on institutions, not individuals, as it did in the past, as this is where democratic processes will be implemented or not.
In President Obama’s second term, the administration should re-energize efforts to build constructive working relationships at the institutional level and forge partnerships around practical endeavors to advance effective governments and inclusive economic development. U.S. involvement and engagement should also help Arab countries develop and finance their own civil society and political parties; a task Arab capital is certainly capable of. But while U.S. support for local nongovernmental institutions has been successful, it is important that these organizations nurture and develop deep roots in their local communities to be credible and sustainable.
And finally, the administration should be extremely cautious about imposing political conditionality on aid, trade, debt relief and other support. Seeking to use aid as leverage often backfires; in the fragile political atmosphere that currently prevails in these countries, such attempts are likely to provoke a strong nationalistic reaction, and do more to undermine U.S. long-term goals than to advance them.
The third suggestion would be not to try to pick winners and losers. The United States should avoid taking sides before the electorate has registered its decision at the polls. For the foreseeable future, Islamist parties will likely dominate politics in most of the countries in transition, and other parties and movements will have to work harder to gain traction in the new political environment. Initially, the political playing field in many of these countries will display a tendency to develop around familiar communal, religious and tribal banners; real party building will likely take decades in the Arab world.
Along the way, the U.S. should be available to advise all nonviolent groups on electoral practices and democratic processes. Moderates will inevitably be challenged by extremists in the new public domain, as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia, for example. But the primary U.S. goal in this area should not be to become part of the internal political narrative. Visible U.S. efforts to encourage liberal movements to organize and build stronger grassroots support are likely only to hurt these groups. The best way to support the goal of sustainable democratic change is by clearly committing to the principles and processes of democracy, accepting and dealing with all legitimate winners of elections and insisting at the same time on the need for continuing the electoral process into the future.
The fourth suggestion is to recognize that political Islam is neither monolithic nor static. The entry of Islamist actors into the political process in transitioning countries holds the greatest promise for the evolution and moderation of political Islam. For the most extreme Salafi groups, political participation presents a major ideological threat. But for others that are in power today in Egypt, in Tunisia, partly in Morocco, all offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, governing will require new pragmatism and difficult choices. The dynamic is likely to differ from country to country, but the United States must be ready to challenge new Islamic governments and emerging Islamist groups across the region, to strengthen and institutionalize the democratic processes that brought them to power.
In its dealings with the Islamists, the United States should also be attuned to emerging generational and ideological splits within these movements. Even among the region’s Salafists, there is evidence of important divisions between groups engaged in social and political activism, and those that espouse violence. The United States should avoid viewing all groups through the same lens.
The new Arab order has to be based on principles of political, cultural and religious pluralism if this Arab Awakening is to succeed. If Islamists are going to lead the way for now, they will need to embrace these values. It is too early to tell if this is the cards, but it is too early to assume that it will not be. The United States and the international community should work together to help show the way.
Fifth is to break the regional deadlock on Syria. The Syrian regime has so far been able to postpone defeat, defeat that I believe is inescapable. Assad has been aided in this effort by deep divisions among the opposition and the heightened regional struggle between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other over outcomes in Syria. To date, U.S. policymakers, we must recognize, have faced few good options. Since the start of the revolution, the risks presented by greater U.S. military engagement, greater loss of life, further militarization of the conflict and empowerment of military elements within the opposition over civilian and nonviolent ones have outweighed the potential benefits. However, this calculus may be beginning to shift. The key will be, in my view, progress made in efforts to promote greater unity and inclusiveness among the Syrian internal and external opposition. It is too early to tell whether the recent events in Doha and the new Syrian unified opposition will advance this role.
But in the final analysis, any political settlement in Syria will require the support of Syria’s neighbors in order to be sustained. There are some indications that the ongoing fighting and threat of an enduring military has begin – has begun to shift regional attitudes towards a political settlement. Turkey, a staunch supporter of the military overthrow of the Assad regime, wavered initially on (short ?) revolution along the lines of Egypt and Tunisia, but the increasing threat of spillover into Turkey has shifted Ankara’s assessment of the risks and costs of the continued conflict and signs that there may be increased interest in diplomatic action to end the fighting.
The Obama administration should engage in aggressive diplomatic activity in support of a negotiated settlement to the conflict that places Syria on a track for political transition and eventual elections and institution-building. And therefore, U.S. outreach to Moscow as well as to the other regional players should focus on breaking the international and regional deadlock and gaining support for a transition that will remove Assad – because I don’t think he can any longer claim legitimacy – end the fighting on the ground and prevent the breakup of the state. This will necessarily require a formula that takes into account the need to assure the main minorities in Syria, the Alawites, the Kurds and the Christians, that they have a future in the country. Without this element, a post-Assad Syria will remain a serious destabilizing factor in the region, where growing sectarian conflict-enabling states will present an increased threat to regional stability.
On Iran, I would suggest that the United States stay the course on Iran. I think more or less it has been implementing the right policy. The Arab Awakening in many ways represents a strong challenge and setback for Iran. Iran, in my view, is one of the biggest losers of the Arab Awakening. Its model of governance has been proved to be totally deficient. Its support for the Assad regime has resulted in its loss of public support in the Arab world, dramatic loss of public support, after that support reached its zenith probably about three years ago. The Obama administration is likely to face new obstacles and decisions about when and how to support Iran’s internal opposition over the next four years. But in the second term, President Obama should continue to resist political pressure to embrace democracy activists publicly because doing so would undermine the credibility of their cause at home.
I think the United States should also use its leverage with Gulf states to promote regional goals. Since the fall of the shah of Iran, U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf, or Arab Gulf, have remain largely unchanged: ensuring security and stability, maintaining the free flow of oil and gas to international markets and using American military assets to counterbalance Iran and keep the Gulf of Hormuz open. These efforts serve both the United States and regional states that are concerned about Iranian influence and intentions.
However, the Arab Awakening has added a new dimension to U.S. relations with Gulf states by underscoring the high cost of friendly states’ failure to take the need for internal reform seriously. The failure represents a direct threat to long-term U.S. interests and security and stability in the Gulf. Significant reform in the Gulf states is critical to stave off further polarization and inevitable unrests. The Obama administration cannot afford to sugar this point with Gulf Arab monarchies.
And finally, a word on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I’m going to probably, as somebody who has worked at peace between Israel and Arab states for 20 years, put it even more dramatically. And I agree with all the comments of my predecessors, but I’ll even put it more dramatically than they have. The choice for the Obama administration today is peace now or never. And I don’t use my words lightly.
More than five years have passed without any substantive direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The situation has left a deepening paralysis and almost complete deadlock. The Palestinian Authority, which has aggressively pursued economic state-building projects and security cooperation with Israel in recent years, faces near-certain demise, both politically and economically. And Israel, for its part, must deal with a looming demographic time bomb of existential proportions. The number of people, of Arabs, living in areas under Israel’s control today is equal to the number of Jews; 6 million Arabs and 6 million Jews today live in areas under Israel’s control. The demographic bomb is no longer something that, you know, is going to happen in the future. The time for peace is now. Each month that goes by makes the problems more difficult to address.
Time and experience have shown that the stars will never be aligned to make Israel-Palestinian peace easy. And if we are waiting for a better time to come, when all the stars will be aligned, I’m afraid that that time will never arrive. The Obama administration needs to accept that to wait for such a moment is to intentionally defer action forever. Those who choose to subscribe to this view – and there are many in this town, arguing that the time is not right for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli governments are ready, that we better wait for a better time, when the dust settles on the Arab Awakening – those who choose to subscribe to this view must do so with eyes wide open, acknowledging the consequences both for Palestinian rights and aspirations but also for the long-term existence for Israel as a democratic state.
Years of failed effort have demonstrated, as Bill has also said, that it is useless to talk about launching another process on the way to settlement. Process is no longer sufficient. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, it has become no more than a synonym for delay and inaction, for creating new facts on the grounds with settlement activity that make securing a two-state solution impossible. There is no substitute for an active and engaged U.S. role in this area. The United States must commit itself to work through the Quartet to bring about a speedy settlement of the conflict before it is too late. This means engaging Arab players such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt and securing an understanding about the basic parameters of a comprehensive settlement, something which is not that difficult to do.
But the goal should be to establish a timetable of months, not years, to iron out the details that, in large part, are already very familiar to all those involved. Making peace in the Middle East is not cost-free, but it is vital to U.S. national interests because the absence of a two-state solution will have very serious repercussions not just for Palestinians but for the long-term future of Israel and the long-term stability of the region. The choice today on this issue is between the difficulty of achieving peace today and the impossibility of achieving it tomorrow, and the administration has to choose.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you very much, Marwan. I’ll take the – (inaudible.)
But there’s a little disagreement that I’d like to explore as to whether or not the two-state – the possibility of a two-state solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is dead and finished or not and whether the United States is or is not committed to it as a strategic objective. And if we’re not committed and don’t make the best of the possibility that remains, or if it is dead, what does that mean for our ability to fight transnational – to fight extremism in the Middle East, fight transnational terrorism, promote moderation?
The second question is are we or are we not committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Are the covert operations and the economic sanctions and the potential war enough, or would we really have to be willing to promote a win-win diplomatic compromise and take yes for an answer? And again, if we’re not committed, what does that mean for our ability to combat extremism and moderation in the region, and how will our friends and partners, our security partners, cope with their security concerns? How will they view us as a reliable or unreliable partner, and how will they enjoy enough stability to introduce the reform or to continue – to continue reforms which most of them are already making?
Can someone take that, or part of it, please?
AMB. MUASHER: Well, there might be differing views on whether the two-state solution is dead or not, but in my – in my estimate, the optimistic side of this plurality of views is that the two-state solution is dying. That’s the optimistic view. Whether it is dying or dead, it is certainly clear that it’s not going to be with us for a long time. Why do I say that? Because we have today more than 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 200,000 of which are in East Jerusalem itself. Eighty thousand are in the heart of the West Bank, that is, not on the green line separating the two communities.
In other words, it is very, very difficult today, even if a solution is arrived at, to separate the two communities and arrive at a two-state solution. Waiting a year or two or three is going to be totally impossible to do so. And if a two-state solution becomes impossible, then Palestinians will resort to the only alternative they have if they cannot have their own state, which is to call for equal rights within the territories they live. Equal rights, you know, in a binational state, in a one-state solution, means, for Israel, of course, the end of the Israeli Zionist project of a democratic and a Jewish state, but it’s something that I don’t see – another, more likely scenario than this scenario developing in a decade or two.
Couple that with the Arab Awakening and what is happening in the Arab world. And if the United States is going to try to mend, you know, the very low credibility it already has in the region through support of democratic processes and processes of change, it is not going to be able to argue to Arabs that if you are Egyptians or Tunisians or Syrians or Yemenis yearning for freedom, we are with you, but if you are Palestinians yearning for freedom, it’s complicated. That’s not going to be an argument that will resonate, not just with the Palestinians but with the rest of the Arab world.
I am not saying that the United States will find it easy to solve the conflict, nor am I saying that it is likely that it will do so. I am well aware of the, you know, priorities the president has on his table, whether in the region – whether it is Iran, whether it is the processes of change, whether it is Syria or else – or other issues. I’m aware of all that. But what I’m arguing is that it is futile to live any longer in a – in a – in a farce that attempts to give the impression that there is movement on the peace process by engaging in a process that not just leads nowhere but that creates new facts on the ground every day to make a two-state impossible but gives the impression in this town and elsewhere around the world that we are moving, just because people are meeting and discussions are being held and every now and then negotiations are – you know, take place.
To give this false impression that there is something moving is dangerous and takes us away from looking things right into the eye and understanding that the time of truce has come. We either solve this conflict now, or we all deal, for better or worse, with the consequences of not solving it in the future. But if this town – and I’m being sort of very candid here – if this town thinks that, you know, supporting the Israeli government intransigence about a two-state solution today is doing Israel a favor, I would suggest that you give it another thought.
DR. MATTAIR: John?
DR. ANTHONY: (Off mic.) To add just a bit to Marwan’s comments, because he mentioned about the messages the U.S. is sending regarding its support for American values pertaining to democracy and freedom. East of the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf, there’s the concern of it being contradictory. I think Chas Freeman used the word “contradictory” in terms of objectives and interests, that particular objective versus strategic goals of security and stability. The GCC countries would acknowledge the worth and value, the objective, the interest of democracy and freedom, but stressed that it must be gradual and it must be rooted in the ideals, values, principles and norms of the societies in which this process is taking place. And Tom, you mentioned yourself, all six are not static, they’re not idling at the intersection, they all are taking various moves in this particular direction.
But with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict that Marwan is talking about, in terms of credibility and legitimacy of policy, or position, or attitude, or action, stack that against the following, that since 1979 to January 16th, 2013, the United States taxpayers have provided Israel with $140 every second, $6,000 every minute, $300,000 every hour and $8.5 million a day. When you talk about rule of law and accountability and responsibility, when you utter the words of peace, we also know as children that crime is not supposed to pay. And here’s an instance where it not only pays, but it pays quite handsomely. There’s no other country on the planet that receives this kind of largess, this material benefit, despite defying its protector, despite defying its primary source of finance and diplomatic intervention, and despite all the other things that people say positively about support for democracy and freedom.
There’s the glaring contradiction there, and that this aspect – if the United States will not lead – and this is what Marwan seems to be calling for – then stand aside and let others lead – the other four members of the U.N. Security Council, none of which have been pressuring or intimidating or trying to cajole and co-opt and influence the United States to have its policies. Here, we’re talking about America’s economy, looking out for the interests of the consumer. How can one justify and be credible – be legitimate in one’s position and stance if you look at the arithmetic that I just cited, that is not recent, but more than 30 years and counting?
AMB. FREEMAN: If I can add just a – just a few words: I think the objective of achieving acceptance for a democratic Israel in the Middle East is a very valid one. I don’t think it’s achievable under current circumstances. The two-state solution, which has been our mechanism for achieving it, is physically impossible now. It does not reflect political trends – read what Mr. Naftali Bennett is saying, and look at settler politics in Israel, and tell me that you have any basis for suggesting that Israel is not heading toward ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of a large part of its Palestinian population, and I will have an argument with you. I think we have to be realistic. A two-state solution at this point is a pious hope. It is lofty talk with no realism behind it.
So if the objective for many reasons is the acceptance of a Jewish-dominated democracy in the Middle East – which I think would have enormous benefits to the region in terms of addressing some of the concerns about democratic evolution in the Arab world and elsewhere – if Israel were at peace and integrated into the region, I think the economic and political benefits, and the military benefits and the benefits in terms of stability would be enormous. And if it cannot be achieved with two states, then it’s going to have be achieved with one. And one means we have to accept that we are moving into an era in which this struggle is one for civil and human rights under the government of Israel in the area that it controls, which is all of Palestine. And I think anything short of recognizing that, and setting explicitly the objective of achieving human rights and civil rights for all who live under Israeli rule, is going to get us nowhere.
Final point: We are in an era in which – there’s been reference made to Syria and the flux in the region. In many ways, this region reflects the colonial era and Mr. Sykes’ and Mr. Picot’s work. If Syria falls apart – which is entirely possible – don’t bet on Lebanon, which was carved out of it; don’t overlook the impact on Iraq or on Jordon. All of these were part of the project of dismembering the Ottoman Empire and Greater Syria, and I think we’re in an era in which borders cannot be taken for granted anymore.
And this is a very perilous era indeed, and I think we need to recognize that we have gone – we’ve gone through several periods in American policy, and we went through a long period where our objective was strategic denial of the region to our adversaries. After our – after the Soviet Union irresponsibly died on us and left us with no clear objective, we went to a policy of hegemony – that is, dominance of the region. That’s what dual containment was, no longer relying on balance of power or local strengths to maintain peace, but doing it directly ourselves. That’s no longer feasible.
Mr. Wolfowitz – whom I do not admire – had five criteria for carrying out a policy of hegemony in the region: political, economic and financial strengths were among them. And I ask you, in the case of the United States, what our condition is on those spheres these days. Our technological superiority is being challenged as well. Our military perform capabilities remain unchallengeable, but they are not enough to sustain a policy of managing the sphere of influence and acting to preserve status quos that people in the region find unacceptable.
So I think we’re going to have to come to grips, as Marwan said, with the reality of Islamist politics in the region. There is a fundamental contradiction between that and drone wars and other activities elsewhere. And we’re going to have to resolve that and we’re going to have to recognize that we don’t have the influence or the command authority anymore to tell people in the region what to do. We’re going to have to work with them and with allies and partners outside the region to address some of these issues.
So I think a more – I – to go back to Bill Quandt’s comments which I thought were excellent – I’m pessimistic about the current situation. I do not take that to mean that we should relax our efforts to do something about it, but I do think we should be realistic about what we can do. And I agree we need to clearly state our objectives if we’re to pursue them.
DR. MATTAIR: Bill, do you have a comment?
DR. QUANDT: I think I’ve had enough to say on that one. Let’s get some more questions.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, there are a lot of questions here about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and what the United States can and cannot, should not do, but – now, there still are a lot of questions from the audience about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and what we can and cannot and should and should not do, but we’ve just – we’ve just discussed that. There’s another – does any panelist want to make any comment about what any other panelist has said before we start going to more questions?
DR. ANTHONY: Just a brief one, on the – when we talk about democracy and freedom, I think we have to be careful not to encourage extremists and militants who think that we’re going to stand by them no matter what, come hell or high water. And unless we are clear and more transparent or nonambiguous, we run that risk. And Bahrain is a case in point; elsewhere in the region, other cases in point. So the need for nonambiguity, absolute clarity, needs to be italicized, capitalized, neonized, lest one mistakenly confuse or inspire those who take us at our word that we really are serious about rolling up our sleeves and doing whatever’s necessary in whatever time and way and means to bring about freedom and democracy.
DR. MATTAIR: There are – there are questions about that subject, but there’s – there was one element of my question that Chas wants to address, and that is the question of what we’re doing about Iran. We’ve said we’ve had this objective for a long, long time – to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. We’ve used all kinds of covert operations, all kinds of economic sanctions and we’ve even had some diplomatic talks. But we haven’t succeeded and we’re now talking about war again. Are we committed to that? Have we used the right strategy? If we haven’t used the right strategy, which strategy should we use? And if we fail again, what do our security partners think about us as a reliable partner and how do they go forward?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the issue is less Iran’s nuclear program than it is Iran as an actor and a potential hegemon in the region. And it is Iran as an ideological factor in countries like Bahrain that is disturbing. So I would argue that – that I agree with Bill Quandt – that the – there is an urgent need to come to grips with the realities of contemporary Iran and to find a new basis for working with it. What he didn’t – what Bill did not say, and I think this is not because he wouldn’t agree with it but because he focused purely on the United States – is that to build a relationship with Iran, one must – one must also help to build a relationship between the GCC and Iran, and most particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which are most actively opposed to Iran.
I think the net effect of U.S. policy is not to help reduce tensions in the region or to promote the emergence of some sort of understanding between Iran and its neighbors in the Gulf, but quite the opposite. It raises tensions. It inhibits progress. It encourages adventurism in places like Syria. And I think we need to rethink this because Iran is not going away. One, it is going to be there – it’s been there for thousands of years and it will be there long after the United States has reformulated its policies toward the Gulf region. So I would agree with Bill that coming to grips with the broader realities of Iran is essential.
On the nuclear issue, I would say that there is probably some reason that Iran – Iranians might be thinking about nuclear weapons. And it might have something to do with the daily threats of bombing and the assassinations and the cyberwarfare that is being conducted against Iran. So the nuclear issue is a – an important one, but it is a subset of a larger issue of Iran’s insecurity, Iran’s lack of cordial and effective relationships with its neighbors and the continuing antipathy between Washington and Tehran, which arose, of course, in 1979 and has never been – never been addressed. So I think if we – the key to solving the nuclear issue is a broader dialogue and effort for strategic outreach to Iran in partnership with the GCC.
DR. QUANDT: All right –
DR. MATTAIR: Yes.
DR. QUANDT: I agree with virtually everything that Chas said, that we have to look at the overall relationship not just the nuclear dimension and we have to look at other countries in the region and their relation. Let me just say a couple of things. I think we have – in a very bizarre way we created circumstances by toppling Saddam Hussein that made it possible for Iran to imagine itself as the hegemon in the Gulf region.
That was our doing. And many people think somehow it was intended. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended. I think it was one of those bizarre blank spots on the part of the Bush administration that they didn’t think through the consequences of what the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime would mean for Iran’s relative power in the region – although it was, you know, international relations 101, that if you weaken Iraq you were going to strengthen Iran. So then all of a sudden we faced the consequences of our, quote, “success” in Iraq and got panicked about Iran.
My sense is that Iran wants what many countries in the world have, so-called nuclear latency. They want the potential in dire circumstances to go from a potential to an actual weapon fairly quickly. Now, that puts them in the same league as Japan and Sweden and South Africa and Argentina and Brazil – a lot of other countries that have nuclear capabilities but not nuclear weapons. And I think that’s where they want to be. I don’t know that; I can’t prove it. But everything that they do is consistent with that goal.
The question is can we live with that? And our current policy is very ambiguous. We say that they can have nuclear energy, but not certain kinds of it, not the highly enriched. I think there is a deal to be made. And the – we keep – we keep getting close to it, but it’s being negotiated under conditions which make, I think, the Iranians believe that even if they were to say yes, we would still try to bring the regime down.
And I think that’s where – what Chas says – that there has to be a fundamental rethinking of where the nuclear piece fits into a different kind of relationship with an Iran that isn’t going away, that will be geostrategically important in the region, and where we have no interest in stoking the sectarian Shia versus Sunni relationship. I mean, most Americans don’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shias, but they’re pretty sure that Shia are worse than Sunnis until they encounter bin Laden and realize he’s actually a Sunni.
So I think the kind of Middle East we should be hoping for is one in which these sectarian cleavages cease to be so powerfully important. Certainly Iraq will not recover as a normal state if the Shia-Sunni issue is the main line of cleavage along with the Arab-Kurdish one. That – the kind of Iraq that we ostensibly wanted to see emerge in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow cannot emerge in a highly sectarian, highly polarized Middle East along those lines.
So I think we have no interest in encouraging this polarization along Sunni-Shia lines or any other of these dimensions. But if we don’t have a more normalized relationship with Iran, I think the risk remains that this kind of polarization in the Middle East continues and that, at some point, one or another of the countries – Iran or someone else – will in fact cross the nuclear threshold.
And I think we do have an interest in not wanting to see any countries in the Middle East have nuclear weapons. They’re very dangerous. They’re very expensive. And if they get used, they’re absolutely in a class of their own. They’re not like chemical weapons. They’re not like biological weapons. They’re in a category of their own and it is a very, very dangerous development to be blasé about it.
But to stop it in Iran, I think we have to acknowledge that Iran has the right to the full fuel cycle, as it is called, as long as it’s kept under IAEA supervision, which Iran says it’s willing to accept. So I think we have to figure out how to take yes for an answer in the case of Iran.
DR. MATTAIR: OK. There are a lot of questions here. The second – the first category was Arab-Israeli. There are quite a few questions here about the Arab Awakening. And let me try to be – make some generalizations from them.
Can you define the American policy toward the Arab Awakenings? Is there – is there an American policy toward the Arab Awakenings or is the United States looking at each specific country on its own terms? And that would lead into a very specific question, Bill, that someone addressed to you, which is to amplify on your discussion about generational change in Saudi Arabia.
And the second question is, do the GCC states have a policy toward the Arab Awakenings or, again, are they looking at each individual case?
AMB. FREEMAN: You should add, is there an Arab Awakening?
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. In both cases – in – particularly in our case, how do we weigh our strategic interests against our ideological interests, and how do we evaluate each case – how do we evaluate the different levels of reform that are taking place in different situations? Can anybody comment on that?
AMB. FREEMAN: I don’t think there’s an Arab Awakening. I think Arabs are no longer sleepwalking through history, which is probably a good thing. But there is no coherent view that has emerged from the uprisings that have taken place across the Arab world. What has been demonstrated is that there is a common Arab conversation, that all Arabs are in communication with each other and aware of each other’s dilemmas and the means by which they are being addressed in various countries. So there is a great deal of exchange of technical information about how to oppose government policies and how to make yourself heard, but that does not amount to a coherent view.
I think there is an Islamist awakening in the Arab world, and I think that is the reality that the United States has to deal with. And I agree completely with Marwan that we must approach this – and not from an ideological point of view or with preconceptions, but pragmatically, making choices on the basis of performance and actions rather than some sort of a priori reasoning.
Do we have a policy? We love democracy as long as it’s pro-American. (Laughter.) And so that amounts not to a policy so much as a posture. And, yes, every country is different. And that is the reality, and that is why I don’t like the term “Arab Awakening,” because Egyptians are not thinking the same things as Tunisians or Yemenis and certainly not Syrians. And we need to – or those in the Gulf. So we need to – we need to recognize that there is an Arab phenomenon which finds expression in different ways in different ways in each Arab country, and tailor our policies accordingly.
I would like the United States to be on the side of more popular involvement in government and more transparent government – better governance, less corruption, but I would leave it at that. Let the Arabs decide what they want, country by country.
DR. MATTAIR: John?
DR. ANTHONY: Yeah. In the GCC region, no, there’s not a general collective assessment or analysis, let alone a prescription, as to what to do regarding the challenges in their societies where youth are more activated, energized, inspired than in recent memory. And the issues really aren’t Arab issues, nor are they, Chas, Muslim issues, for the most part. These are incidental or coincidental descriptive adjectives of the people, but the issues are sort of universal in scope, or have nothing whatsoever to do with faith or ethnicity.
For example, on the employment issue – that’s not the issue in Kuwait nor the UAE nor in Qatar. It is the – or certainly a very basic, pervasive issue in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain and in Oman. With regard to – trying to see that the education system in all six is more relevant to the market demands and needs and concerns and issues, that, too, would be from Kuwait to Muscat and everywhere in between – as would the issue of corruption, as would the issue of material well-being in terms of individuals’ possibility of marrying and having the dignity and the self-confidence and the life of meaning and satisfaction that comes with a – with a satisfactory marriage, and the standard of living across the board. Those are not Arab; they’re not Muslim.
On the corruption issue, yes, that is, in all six of the GCC countries, an issue. As to the reaction of the six, perhaps no government was quicker than Oman to react on virtually all five of these issues that are mentioned – issues that were also echoes in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen. Half the Cabinet was sacked within days – not weeks, within the days. The issue of corruption was dealt with in that way and other ways, with early retirements. Unemployment benefits – Saudi Arabia’s used that by hiking them up; so has Oman. Bahrain would have the most visible and transparent of all of the labor regulatory authorities anywhere in the six GCC countries, as well as their Supreme Council for Women.
So each has done it differently, but the issues I mentioned are relevant to all six, with the exception of the employment issue, and that’s relevant to half and not the other half.
DR. MATTAIR: Marwan.
AMB. MUASHER: Perhaps it’s not as useful to differ over what to call what is going in the Middle East. You can call it an awakening, a spring, an inferno, a winter – whatever you want to call it – a mess. (Laughter.) But one cannot escape seeing that this is a transformational process that has resulted so far in four Arab leaders leaving power, peacefully or otherwise – a fifth on his way out – and protests, you know, all over the Arab world, including in the rich monarchies in Kuwait, in Bahrain and elsewhere – and in Saudi Arabia.
So there is a process that is – that is starting. Yes, it is a process that so far has defined – better-defined what it is against – despotism – than what it is for. So far, it has not articulated what it is for as clearly as it did what it is against. And mind you, it is not a process that was started by the Islamists. The Islamists were not the ones that went to Tahrir Square at the beginning; in fact, they opposed going to Tahrir Square at the beginning. They were not the ones that started the revolution in Tunisia, but they are certainly the ones that made use of it.
And why? Because Arab governments, in my view, have left the political space closed for a very long time so that the only two alternatives were either an unaccountable Arab government or the Islamists. And naturally, when, you know, a vacuum was created it was filled by the Islamists. I would caution into the conclusion that as a result, the Islamists are going to remain on top. I’m not naïve to expect the Islamists to disappear, but what I’m saying is, this is – it is way too early to decide that this is a region that is going to be dominated by the Islamists.
Maybe in some countries it will, maybe in others it won’t because, mind you, the Islamists – now that they have come down from their holiness and assumed governance – have to now answer to specific issues. How are they going to create employment opportunities? How are they going to improve the investment climate? How are they going to reduce government deficits? How are they going to improve the lot of people and achieve higher growth rates and more inclusive growth? These are the questions that the Islamists have to answer now. It is not whether people, you know, are going to wear the hijab or not. Go and – go to Cairo and look around. Everybody’s wearing the hijab anyway.
It is not waiting for the Islamists to tell them to wear the hijab. The Egyptians are socially conservative, but that does not necessarily mean that they are, you know, asking for a theocratic state. In fact, if you look at all polls, it shows you that Egyptians wanting a theocratic state are 2 percent, and 70 percent or more are asking for economic issues. I don’t want to claim – although I have done so in the past – that we have seen the peak of support for the Islamists. I think we have. I don’t think the next elections in Egypt are going to see the same support for the Islamists. In Tunisia today, the Nada Tunisia party is already neck-to-neck, you know, with Ennahda, in Tunis. That doesn’t mean that the Islamists will disappear in the next elections, because that – that loss of support is not going to automatically translate into support for secular forces. Secular forces are still weak, are still elitist, do not work on the ground, do not have clear programs, do not have financial means, do not have mobilization abilities. All these take time – are not consolidated – they will take probably decades. But I would caution against the conclusion that, you know, the Arab world has been hijacked by Islamists for the foreseeable future.
DR. MATTAIR: OK, is there any last word from the panelists before we give up the room? Well then, I will – I will ask again – it’s time to give up the room – but I will say, once again, we have a website called www.mepc.org, where you’ll find videos and archives of journal articles. Thank you for coming, and thank you very much to the panelists. (Applause.)