Joan Polaschik, Geoffrey Kemp, Daniel Benaim
The following is an edited transcript of the ninety-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill Conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 12th, 2019, in the Russell Senate Office Building with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
JOAN POLASCHIK, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Former U.S. Ambassador to Algeria
Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has seen profound change. Eight years ago, popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes illustrated a deep desire for more responsive and accountable governance. The hope remains that broader economic and political participation can deliver a better life to the citizens of the region.
Despite the instability of subsequent years, the people of the MENA region continue to raise their voices. They are demanding leadership that confronts corruption and welcomes citizen participation in addressing long-term socioeconomic challenges. Tunisians are preparing for a second round of presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, an important milestone in consolidating their democratic institutions. And we’re seeing the people of Algeria demonstrate for change in government after 20 years under former President Bouteflika. As protests, elections and wars in the region continue to make headlines, we are reminded every day just how much the Middle East matters. In the face of the region’s persistent challenges, we’ve had to question our assumptions, move away from things that didn’t work, and look at new ideas for advancing U.S. interests.
For this administration, U.S. engagement in the region is a top priority. As Secretary Pompeo said earlier this year in Cairo, a strong, secure and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest. Consistent with the president’s foreign-policy agenda, we are protecting American security at home and abroad. That means working actively with our partners to counter the threat from terrorist groups and states that sponsor terrorism. That means ensuring critical natural resources and international commerce flow freely, preserving a vital linchpin of the global economy. That means preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And that also means a steadfast commitment to the protection of our strongest allies, including Israel.
Secretary Pompeo has made it clear that the United States has been and will continue to be a force for good in the Middle East. As we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty last month, we took a moment to acknowledge the progress made possible by this seminal diplomatic achievement, an example of U.S. diplomacy as a force for good. We also underscored our unwavering dedication to pursuing a more comprehensive peace in the region that respects the dignity and security of all involved. Quite simply, the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa remain a critical and enduring U.S. national interest. We will remain deeply engaged in the region, pursuing engagement anchored in a few key principles.
First, the United States is committed to tackling the problems in the Middle East via coalition building. Whether it’s the Defeat ISIS Coalition, the Warsaw Ministerial or the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the United States knows that we cannot go it alone. To that end, we are actively working to promote partner countries’ economic and security self-reliance. Second, Iran poses the greatest threat to the region’s security, stoking conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and beyond, and bankrolling terrorist groups like Hezbollah. The United States is committed to working with our allies and partners to counter Tehran’s aggressive actions throughout the world. Third, it is clear that the conflicts that have wracked this region for more than eight years cannot be resolved by military force. The United States will continue to support UN-led peace efforts throughout the region and will remain the world’s largest single donor of humanitarian assistance. Our traditional focus on protecting the rights of the most vulnerable includes a strong focus on protecting religious freedom.
Our approach to the region rests on the principle of coalition building. There are real threats to U.S. national interests that emerge from the region. It is in our interest to remain engaged to address these concerns, but we will not — and, frankly, cannot — lead alone. What does this mean in practice? We have long asked our partners in the region to demonstrate more leadership and responsibility in contributing to regional security. Our approach to coalition building is to ensure that our regional partners have the capacity to provide effective solutions to regional problems. As the president said in Riyadh, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”
And our partners have stepped up. A leading example is the success of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Recently, the coalition marked the hard-won territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Defeat ISIS Coalition is a testament to what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal by, with and through local partners. Today, the territory ISIS once held is liberated, and stabilization efforts are underway. The 74 nations and five international organizations in the Global Coalition, are and should be, enormously proud of this achievement. But we have much hard work ahead, and the fight against ISIS is not over. This is why our allies and partners have launched an unprecedented military, stabilization, counter- messaging and law-enforcement effort to prevent attacks against our homelands and to counter ISIS’s evil ideology.
We, along with our coalition partners, continue to work closely with Iraq as it recovers from ISIS and strives to reach its full potential as a sovereign, strong and prosperous state. U.S. and coalition forces remain in Iraq at the invitation of its government to help battle ISIS remnants, and we are committed to maintaining the security partnership. But we are also working to broaden our relationship across a range of areas including trade, culture and education.
Last month, the president announced that U.S. troops will remain in northeast Syria as part of the continuing de-ISIS coalition. Our goals in Syria have remained consistent. We are committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS, a political resolution to the ongoing conflict in Syria in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and the complete withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria. We will not provide U.S. reconstruction assistance from areas of Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and until we see irreversible progress toward a political resolution. Only by working together in support of the UN-backed political process can we end the conflict and allow for the safe and voluntary return of millions of refugees who have fled the violence in Syria.
Another example of our efforts at coalition building to bring security and stability to the region is the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). This is an initiative to enhance multilateral cooperation in the political, economic, energy and security spheres. Not only will MESA build a strong foundation for countering Iran’s malign influence, but it will enhance our partners’ capacity to be positive contributors to regional security. Just last week, we had a team in Saudi Arabia to continue the discussion with member countries as we move forward to shape the alliance. As Secretary Pompeo acknowledged last month, it’ll take us a bit, it won’t be straightforward, but our shared interests provide an opportunity to get our partners to come together. A unified GCC, obviously, is a key building block for MESA.
Second, let’s talk about Iran. Iran is pursuing dangerous nuclear and ballistic-missile technology and stoking deadly conflict through its support of proxy groups. Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It spends billions of dollars supporting terrorist groups and proxy organizations, and it continues to develop and test ballistic missiles in defiance of UN resolutions. Iranian malign activity in Syria and Yemen, and its continued support for designated terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, prolong regional conflicts that radiate instability This administration is engaged in a powerful pressure campaign to cut off the revenues the Iranian regime uses to spread terror and destruction throughout the world, and that pressure campaign is working. Our oil sanctions have taken approximately 1.5 million barrels of Iranian oil exports off the market since May 2018. In addition, 23 entities have reduced their purchases of Iranian crude to zero. These actions deny critical revenue for Iran’s malign activities.
Earlier this year at the Warsaw Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo outlined our vision of how we can work together to achieve peace and security in the Middle East. Iran stood at the center of that discussion. The international community largely shares the view that Iran’s policy choices are destructive. We’re now developing issue-specific working groups with our partners to determine how we can work together on these shared concerns. And on Monday, Secretary Pompeo announced his intent to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including its Quds Force, as a foreign terrorist organization. This announcement is a significant step to counter Iran-backed terrorism around the world. We will continue to raise the cost to Iran for its malign activities until Iran changes its behavior.
Saudi Arabia is a critical partner in our efforts to advance regional stability, including countering Iran and supporting UN efforts to bring the war in Yemen to an end. Our interests are best served with a strong, stable Saudi Arabia that is a reliable partner. As partners, we and the kingdom can have frank conversations on tough issues, including the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of human-rights activists. We continue to insist that Saudi Arabia hold accountable those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, and we have taken our own actions as well. This week, for example, we took the important step of designating 16 individuals connected with the killing.
A third and final principle underpinning our engagement is a clear commitment to resolving conflict through peaceful political processes and an equally clear commitment to meeting the humanitarian needs of the millions of conflict victims throughout the region. In Yemen, we are engaged in intensive efforts in support of UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to implement the Stockholm Agreement, including a redeployment of forces in Hodeidah, and bring both parties one step closer to a comprehensive political settlement.
We have also extended this approach to Western Sahara, where our backing for a UN-led political process could help resolve a longstanding conflict and transform North African regional dynamics. We support the personal envoy of the UN secretary-general, Horst Köhler, and his efforts to achieve a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the conflict, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. And we’re seeing signs of progress. On March 21 and 22, the relevant parties met for the second time in the last few months to discuss how to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution.
Our humanitarian engagement on the region’s many conflicts remains strong. In territory liberated from ISIS, we have provided over $2.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Iraq since 2014, and we’ve worked with our coalition partners to raise billions more. These funds are being used to allow people to return to their homes and resume their lives. We also have been a leading donor of humanitarian assistance in Yemen, where we have provided more than $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance since October 2016. This funding includes security assistance, medical care, safe drinking water and other support. Only a political solution will end the dire humanitarian crisis, which is why the United States stands firmly behind the UN special envoy and his efforts to help the Yemenis bring this brutal conflict to an end.
In addition to our traditional humanitarian assistance, the Trump administration also has made support to persecuted religious minorities and the protection of religious freedom a key priority in the region and beyond. We have assisted the recovery of Iraq’s persecuted religious communities, particularly those that ISIS targeted for genocide. The administration has programmed nearly $340 million since 2017 to support these communities, including lifesaving humanitarian assistance, rehabilitating critical infrastructure, clearing explosive remnants of war, psychological and legal services, and funding justice and accountability efforts. Supporting pluralism and protecting the rights of minorities is integral to the administration’s efforts to defeat ISIS, counter violent extremism, deny Iran the ability to exploit sectarian divisions, and promote religious freedom around the world.
This engagement reflects core American values. As the president has said, above all we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. The United States maintains an unwavering commitment to freedom, democracy and fundamental human rights. Our core values of human rights, rule of law, and accountable democratic governance include a commitment to freedom of religion for every person.
Taken together, these principles — our coalition-building, our efforts to counter Iran, and our steadfast engagement in support of peaceful solutions to conflict — lay a clear path for sustained U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. As I stated at the outset, a stable and secure Middle East is in the national interest of the United States. Our engagement is designed to advance that interest in the face of longstanding and emerging challenges. We stand ready to work with partners who have the courage and leadership to address the challenges we face and are ready and willing to make positive contributions to regional peace, security and stability.
We appreciate that the challenges facing the region are complex. For that reason, the administration has made it clear that the way we have always done things historically won’t always be the preferred approach. And even as we’re shaking things up, we believe firmly that common threats and common interests mandate continued U.S. engagement. To once again quote Secretary Pompeo: “Our aim is to partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies, because a strong, secure, and economically vibrant Middle East is in our national interest.”
GEOFFREY KEMP, Senior Director of Regional Security Programs, Center for the National Interest; Former Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, National Security Council
I’m delighted to no longer be in government so it’s possible to speak a rather different narrative. I can’t remember a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East was so weak in comparison to the past 30 or 40 years, and I think it might be useful to remember what happened in the past. I’m going to discuss this in terms of three timeframes: 1991 to 2001, 2001 to 2011, and 2011 to the present.
1991 was highlighted by the first Gulf War, a huge success for the United States. With a couple of exceptions, we had the rest of the world behind us, including the Soviet Union. We won the war, expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait, and the Japanese and other allies paid for it. In the wake of that successful war, George H.W. Bush pronounced a new world order and talked about four needs for the Middle East: a shared security, an end to proliferation, a more vigorous peace process and economic development.
There were some successes during this 10-year period. The Madrid Conference in October 1991 was co-chaired by the United States and the Soviet Union three months before it ceased to exist. Two years later, the Oslo Accords and the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Rabin and Arafat took place. In 1994, the second major peace treaty involving Israel, this time with Jordan, was signed — and has been sustained. We engaged in a number of multilateral dialogues on all sorts of issues, from water to the environment; they didn’t get very far then, but today are as important as ever.
This was the unipolar moment of American power, and not just in the Middle East. It was global, and everyone recognized it. Then suddenly, on September 11, everything changed, and we embarked on two wars that are still not over. Afghanistan was a war we had to fight, and we would have done much better had we stayed there and not gotten distracted by a disastrous war, the invasion of Iraq. It is still plaguing us today. If you want one symbol of why Iran features so prominently now in everything the administration says, it is because we gave it the opening by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and leaving no one in place who could check Iran. Iran moved in — also a Shiite country — to work very closely with the Iraqi government, as it does today.
In 2005, Condoleezza Rice went to Cairo and made important comments on American policy. She said: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, and we achieved neither. Now we’re taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” That was a major criticism of her predecessors, who had, among other things, brought peace between Israel and two of its neighbors, both of which happened to be led by autocratic leaders. So, the one area where there was solid peace, it was achieved by an Israeli government and autocrats. She was highly optimistic in 2005 that the people of Iraq would do well. She said in her Cairo speech, “The people of Iraq are exceeding all expectations.... The Palestinian Authority will soon take control of Gaza, a first step towards realizing the vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and security.”
Then in 2009, a new president, Barack Obama, made his way to Cairo, as everyone seems to do, and made remarks that were designed to reach out to the Muslim world. Yet, he made some statements that did not go down very well with his opponents in this country. He said that “9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases led us to act contrary to…our ideals.” He got criticism for that, but I think in retrospect it was a fair statement.
The third period came with the Arab uprisings, which Joan began her talk with. This was as traumatic as anything we’ve seen in the Middle East, but the net result has been confusion and illusions. I won’t go through all the countries that rose up in the spring of 2011, just the two critical ones, Egypt and Syria. In Egypt, we displayed total confusion. First, we cheered on the population as they pushed to overthrow Mubarak. Then we gave faint praise to Mr. Morsi, who was democratically elected, so they say, but then we did very little when he was overthrown by General Sisi, who is still there today. He’s our great friend, though he reflects none of the democratic aspirations George H.W. Bush, Condi Rice and Barack Obama called for.
Syria is perhaps the most serious case; on Syria we punted. I won’t go into the details, but we drew a red line: if you use chemical weapons, there will be military retaliation. But there was not. Russia moved in, along with the Iranians and Hezbollah. After six years of brutal fighting, we have to admit that Assad and his friends, at least for the time being, have won the war, and we have no influence over what is going on in mainstream Syria. We do have a lot of influence on what’s happening on the periphery, where we have been fighting ISIS successfully with our friends, including the Syrian Kurds.
The situation today is that the United States is now facing competition in the region from outside powers, particularly Russia but also Turkey — which does not share our views on many things — Iran, and perhaps in the longer term, China. China’s influence in the Middle East is growing systematically, not in a military sense but primarily through economic investment and trade. In the future, China’s going to be a factor in the Middle East that we have to deal with.
The current administration seems to be preoccupied with Iran for understandable reasons. Iran does pose a major challenge to our interests in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, where it has a land bridge now to the Mediterranean. It has many forces there that it supports, including Hezbollah. It’s put a huge investment into Syria and Lebanon and shows no sign of going away. And the Russians don’t seem to object at the moment.
Mr. Pompeo, however, went to Cairo again in January 2019. His view was that we’re going to do the following: “In Syria, the United States will use diplomacy and work with our partners” — now listen to this — “to expel every last Iranian boot, and work through the UN-led process to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people. There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance for areas in Syria held by Assad until Iran and its proxy forces withdraw and we see irreversible progress towards a political resolution.” Of course, what he did not say in that speech is how we’re going to get every Iranian boot out of Syria at the very time that the president has said we are pulling all of our troops out of Syria. Does he think the Russians are going to do it? I don’t know; this is a much more challenging problem than the secretary of state suggested in his speech.
We have to accept that the end of American dominance is a fact. It doesn’t mean the end of American influence and presence or that the capacity to do useful things is over. But the reality is that America was the unipolar power, the superpower that really could call the shots in most regions of the Middle East, and it can’t do that today. It does have challenges — Russia, Iran, Turkey, China — but if you look at the capabilities of these four countries, they don’t add up to American power. So though we have challenges, I don’t think there’s anyone there to replace us. That means there will be friction and conflict and no easy solution to the challenges we face.
We have to accept that in many cases we have misunderstood the nature of the conflicts in the Middle East. One of the tragedies of the Iraq War was that, if you go back and look at the debate on Iraq and what the Pentagon was saying at the time — not the State Department, which was left out of the planning — there was really no understanding of how confusing and sectarian Iraq was. The war wouldn’t be a cakewalk; even if we won the first round of the military confrontation, that was just the beginning. And, of course, the drawdown of our forces for use in Iraq weakened our position in Afghanistan. Some would argue that Iraq is the reason we’re still in Afghanistan. We never really gave Afghanistan the full capabilities we had at the time.
So, if there’s no one who can replace us, what should our policy be? I don’t object at all to building alliances, putting sanctions on countries. I’d just note, though, that sanctions are the easiest, laziest form of policy that Washington ever engages in. When you vote for sanctions against Iran or Venezuela or Russia, there’s no lobby opposing you. If you tried to impose sanctions on India or Israel, there would be an enormous amount of lobbying to stop it. Others are freebies. But they don’t necessarily get you what you want except to cause pain, and they certainly have.
There’s no doubt that American sanctions on Iran, particularly in the financial arena, were one of the reasons they came together to sign the JCPOA with the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians and ourselves. We have now walked away from that agreement, and it is not clear whether Iran is going to restart its nuclear enrichment program. But we are being very glib if we think new sanctions and new alliances are going to bring Iran to heel. Probably quite the reverse. I think the situation is going to be, if anything, more dangerous than it has been for many years. We’ve put the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on notice that they are a terrorist organization, and they’ve put us on notice that our Central Command is a terrorist organization. It’s very easy to see how all the things we’ve worried about, like confrontations in the Gulf at the naval level, could quickly escalate. We have two cheerleaders hoping we will get involved more kinetically with Iran: Saudi Arabia and Israel. I think that would be disastrous for the region, for us and for the world economy.
We have not paid enough attention to the serious, lasting, historic effects that sectarian conflicts have on the region, why it is going to be so difficult to bring these groups together, and why the dream of democracy that Condi Rice, Bush and Obama have talked about is somewhat illusionary.
The second point I want to make goes back to some of the issues that were discussed in the multilateral meetings after the Madrid conferences. The Middle East faces horrendous environmental problems. They don’t get talked about because we’re preoccupied with the fighting that’s going on and the uprisings in the street; but, from Morocco to Yemen, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, these countries face the effects of climate change with a double whammy. They’re suffering from shortages of fresh water and are facing the dangers of rising seawater. Egypt is a classic case. So, while we’re debating grand strategies and nuclear weapons, these countries are facing catastrophe in some areas. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that five years before the Syrian upheaval in 2011, there was a severe drought in the countryside that led to mass migration to the cities, where there were no jobs. That became tinder for the fire that exploded.
I have a rather pessimistic outlook, as you can see, but we should not walk away from the region. I think we should speak with more caution and more realism, and not constantly talk about how we’re going to bring democracy and peace to the region, when it’s clearly not going to happen anytime soon. I will leave for the question-and-answer period the important issue that we should be discussing: will there be a new American peace process to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis together at a time when Mr. Netanyahu has won the election, with Donald Trump’s blessing, and is talking about further annexations in the West Bank?
DANIEL BENAIM: Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Middle East Adviser at the White House, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Senate
I’m reminded of the old political saying that everything important has already been said but not everyone has said it yet. So I’m going to try to take a slightly different tack and talk about how the present points to the future of U.S. engagement. I’m reminded of the adage variously attributed to the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Yankee legend Yogi Berra: never make predictions, especially about the future. In a region that disagrees so often about the past, it seems an apt place to start.
I come to a discussion about the future of the Middle East with a hefty dose of humility. I arrived at the State Department in late 2010, at a time when everyone was consumed with the fallout of our diplomatic cables by a little outfit never heard of again called WikiLeaks. Nobody had predicted in that winter — not even me, who had spent time with some of the people who ended up becoming the revolutionaries of Tahrir when I was a graduate student — that one year later, four dictators totaling over 130 years of rule would be gone in 2011. So I approach this recognizing that no president and no party has a monopoly on either wisdom or wishful thinking on Middle East success or failure. This region has thwarted the intentions of many on a bipartisan and nonpartisan basis for some time. So I thought I would start on the firmer ground of assessing what I see happening now and then venture into future trends and what I see happening.
Two years in, I see a decidedly mixed record unfolding, and I say this with sincere respect for very able diplomatic colleagues who are working day in and day out to advance the interests of the country and to serve in an honorable way, regardless of their perspective vis-à-vis several administrations they may have disagreements with over time. I see a Trump administration that genuinely deserves credit for continuing the military campaign against ISIS, which was begun and designed under one president and is being completed under another. But I see an administration that is underinvesting, especially in the civilian side of the aftermath in eastern Syria and in Iraq outside of that very worthy and important area of the Nineveh Plain, whose communities do indeed deserve to have the kind of future we’re trying to give them.
I see an attempt to reorient U.S. policy around countering Iran, much to the satisfaction of some key regional leaders. But I see an administration that has yet to reconcile maximalist goals and rhetoric with minimal investments, beyond sanctions, to change the regional equation over time. I see an administration that has worked assiduously to restore frayed U.S. partnerships with key regional players, an opportunity President Trump saw and seized fully, but also one that too often has outsourced regional leadership to partners while granting them a blank check, as it seems from outside, for destabilizing moves and domestic repression. We’re seeing, I think, a calculable impact of that green light in some of the regional choices, in particular, of various actors.
And I see an administration, again with great respect, that has systematically downgraded diplomacy and development tools, whether it’s the 20 to 30 percent budget cuts that are recommended by the administration year after year or the winding up of very valuable development missions in places like the West Bank and — newer but still valuable — in eastern Syria, or the unfortunate security-driven closing of the U.S. consulate in Basra. What I see is a rather uneven kind of hyper-personalized approach unfolding at the cost of expertise and civilian capacity and, unfortunately, bipartisan support for key relationships that shouldn’t be partisan issues.
I think all of this, you won’t be surprised to hear, is likely to leave us worse off, as I pivot to the future. It’s my sense that such an approach — an unquestioning embrace of complex partners, escalating tensions with Iran without an off-ramp, and short-changing civilian power — is unlikely to succeed on its own terms. It may even be a recipe for deepening the region’s key divides: Sunni-Shia, Sunni-Sunni and the too-little-talked-about citizen versus state. It may exacerbate some of the deficits outlined in the Arab Human Development Reports over the years. That’s likely to require more U.S. resources and spark more costly interventions later on.
A sounder approach might be to invest more deeply in the civilian side in the aftermath of ISIS, including in Iraq — which should be more than an arena for zero-sum competition with Iran — to try to build a partnership model that pairs U.S. insurance with demands for greater responsibility, including deescalating regional tensions and curbing domestic repression. On Iran, it would seek to contain what is indeed malign Iranian behavior, especially its most threatening area, its nuclear program, but would leave a wider peaceful path, knowing that neither bombing nor regime change is likely to do the trick for the long game we face.
It would engage with societies as well as states, not just to counter ISIS and Iran, but to deal with broader trends. That requires civilian tools, including championing human rights, not just against our adversaries but as a way to strengthen societies, including friends. That’s where I think we are heading forward from the present, and I thought I would talk about a couple of changes that are probably more likely to play a larger role in the next five years than they have in the last, some U.S.-driven and some driven more regionally.
The first is minimalism. From the U.S. side, it is a question of, can we do less? How little can we do? I think about the Japanese design maven, Marie Kondo, who says: “Close your eyes, hold the object in your hand; does it bring you joy? If not, throw it out.” By that standard, the Middle East does quite poorly with the U.S. public. Terrorism, failed peace plans and democratic transitions, brutal authoritarianism — and that’s just our friends.
I would argue that this works better as interior design than policy design. We still have core interests, and I think we can still advance them. This isn’t 1979, when we had this heroic Camp David peace deal and a dominant role in shaping the Middle East. And it isn’t 2001, but it is still a moment when we have core interests that we’re fairly good at protecting: blocking interstate war, stopping the spread of WMDs, protecting allies like Israel and partners like Saudi Arabia, even if some of their most existential threats come from their own domestic challenges. We’re helping, maybe by being more the systemic regional superego than the side-picking id. We still have an interest and real partners in fighting terrorism in many places, including Iraq. And we ignore the destabilization and radicalization of unmet human need and persistent, grinding conflict, at our own peril.
I understand the fatalism about America’s role in the region. We come by it honestly after the last 20 years. But if our goal is not to dominate but to lead, if you look at things like the anti-ISIS campaign and the Iran nuclear deal, we can still do meaningful, important things. And we will need to. I think we are still, to some extent, as a recent Foreign Affairs article put it, in purgatory: too invested to leave and not invested enough to dictate the answer.
But here are a few things about what the answer is: First, civilian power is a heck of a lot cheaper than the military; don’t overmilitarize and don’t start wars of choice. Second, we have to figure out how and when we can share the burden with others without making it worse. This brings me to my second U.S. trend, political polarization here in America. I see key relationships becoming hyper-personalized in the hands of a few White House officials, and therefore not only under institutionalized, but overly politicized and polarized. This risks leaving our partners feeling whipsawed.
As a policy maker who served in the last administration and hopes to serve in future ones, this question of whether we have one set of policies under one political party and another under the other is going to be only more pronounced and more paramount. My disagreement with those policies will have to be tempered by valuing the policy continuity, if and when political power shifts in this country.
I think Trump saw an opportunity to do something different than Obama, who on key issues — whether it was the Arab revolutions and the fall of Mubarak or the Syria red-line episode or the Iran deal — simply saw the region differently from key Middle Eastern partners. It was in some ways a sincere disagreement. Trump saw an opportunity to repair those relationships and seized it fully. But I think what happened has been something beyond that, such as the decision to recognize the Golan for Israel three weeks before a hotly contested election. Or when a legal resident of Virginia was murdered, taking the side of the accused party rather than launching into a full inquiry immediately. Things like this have, in my mind, deepened U.S. political polarization. These are relationships that matter, and they’re being stretched beyond recognition, at the moment, in a way that will further divide us.
I want to be clear that Obama and the Obama administration deserve their share of lumps on this, and so do the regional partners. It’s not simply the Trump administration at work; there are honest choices here about how to handle partnerships amid disagreement. But these partnerships matter for U.S. policy, and we have to find a way to get them right.
My third trend is the revenge of geopolitics. For a lot of reasons, from the collapse of the state system to the rise of outside powers, to the perception of a U.S. long good-bye, all have contributed to a kind of intensifying tussle within the region. You have a kind of top-down Iranian-Saudi competition that has fastened itself onto local conflicts in places like Yemen and Syria, in ways that have prolonged those conflicts to the detriment of the people there, who seem to find money from regional competitors for proxy fights but less for rebuilding.
You have an inside-out competition among the different blocs of the Sunni world, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other. I think America would like to see a unified bloc pushing back against Iran. Instead, this divide seems to capture the vigor and enthusiasm of people on both sides, at the expense of some of the goals we might share. You have an outside-in competition from China and Russia, and a bottom-up pressure all happening everywhere at once.
And I think you see the lines between the MENA region and the rest of the world being erased in some ways. Russia is trying to be a counterweight to the United States, with a unique set of relationships that mean it can’t be ignored. They are close to and in regular communication with Syria, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi, Egypt and the UAE, not to mention Libya’s General Haftar, the Houthis and others. They will be part of brokering whatever peace agreements come next, whether we like it or not.
China and East Asia are increasingly where the region’s oil goes, and Chinese capital investment and loans are traveling in the reverse direction. America can’t hope to match it. This can be useful in a region with multiple rebuilds underway, and not just for war zones; Cairo and Egypt’s new capital need huge infusions of funds. And Djibouti, just down the Red Sea, is China’s first overseas military base, where they’re increasingly focused on protecting their own commercial interests. And the Middle Eastern countries are reaching right back out through these same areas.
You see MBS, the Saudi Crown Prince, traveling to East and South Asia, taking part in a kind of mini great game in which Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are competing for shorelines, ports, farmlands and proxies in East Africa. These are dynamics that span bureaucratic fault lines in an unusual way and sometimes require interagency meetings that feel a little bit like a Star Wars cantina of Arabists, Africanists and Asia hands, with security specialists and hydrologists. This kind of thing is actually going to matter in a more global Middle East, getting those connections right and distinguishing threat from unease, leadership from domination. Not every Middle Eastern problem is a prize for America to dominate. We need, as I said, more interagencies that look like Star Wars cantinas.
Fourth, authoritarianism is evolving. Algeria and Sudan show that, when it comes to the Arab Spring, the past isn’t really past. Last time, it was about aging leaders without clear lines of succession. Now we know that Algeria, Oman, Palestine — where Mahmoud Abbas is in year 12 of his original four-year term — Iraqi Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia all have either successions or generational transfers of power underway or ahead. And underlying the politics of almost every country in the region today is a crisis of political legitimacy that everyone is trying to deal with. The revolutionary euphoria of 2011 is gone, but a lot of the drivers — those same deficits in democracy, jobs, good governance, dignity — are still there.
Countries are not standing idly by or sitting on their hands. Many are engaged in big, bold efforts of one kind or another to respond. In many cases, that’s authoritarian modernization. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are both engaged in big economic reforms, huge infrastructure projects with real potential to deliver future growth, but cause pain today. Not just shining new cities, but the price of a bowl of koshary in Cairo are the kinds of things that should be barometers of current and future stability. Whether these kinds of authoritarian modernization experiments succeed will be tremendously important to the region’s future.
The flipside is the kind of severe and intensifying hyperrepression with the tacit approval, at some points, of the highest levels of the U.S, government. There may be within this idea of authoritarian modernization some contradictions, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia discovered when it launched a crackdown against its economic elite and top investors, just as they were trying to attract foreign direct investment for their own reform programs. They saw their investment in the country collapse by 80 percent. These experiments in authoritarian modernization matter greatly.
Nationalism is another key authoritarian evolution that we’re seeing, which can bring coherence to countries like Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The discourse of tribes with flags may capture some important connections and layers of authority, but I think it risks ignoring others. It is an alternative to sectarian or religious identity. In places like Egypt and Saudi, it’s part of an attempt to defang extremism. But it comes with its own confrontation and demonization, which I think you could see when young Saudis cheered on Germany and Canada in fights between Saudi Arabia and Germany and Canada, countries that had the temerity to criticize Saudi Arabia mildly over human rights.
The final dimension of this authoritarian evolution that I want to mention is technology. It’s a scarily overlooked trend in which Chinese, Israeli and American firms are helping to create a kind of global template for technological repression. This is the next frontier, not just hacks and leaks against key figures, but a suite of technologies being perfected in places like Tibet and Xinjiang that merge closed-circuit cameras, facial recognition and big data to monitor and track people in real time. It’s like an Arab Spring in reverse. If the Arab Spring was about young people using technology to reclaim the public square, this is the reverse. This is the pendulum swinging back, governments using technology to reclaim the public square from their own citizens.
Finally — and I’m happy that Geoffrey Kemp brought this up — is nature and national security. These might be a bit further down the road, but there are credible arguments that rising food prices among the world’s largest grain and wheat importers, and the forced urbanization of Syrian farmers, helped drive the revolutions of 2011. I suspect that the intersection of nature and national security will only grow, as Mr. Kemp said, from the drought in Yemen, to Gaza’s scarily undrinkable water, to the Mosul Dam — which, while we were in government, threatened to loose a 20-foot tsunami that would have turned Mosul city into a fishbowl and was predicted to send a 20-foot inland wave as far south as Baghdad.
And there is the massive hydroelectric dam, the largest in Africa, that Ethiopia is building upstream from Egypt and Sudan. Its reservoir alone requires more water than Egypt uses in a year. We’re going to need U.S. policy makers and a process to bridge these kinds of regional functional divides, and people who speak both languages — the language of water and nature and also the language of security and politics. Sometimes, we’ll need the kinds of dialogues that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have, where security and intel chiefs sit next to water ministers and diplomats.
What does this all mean? To my mind, we need to make a case for restrained, but sustained, U.S. engagement in MENA without arguing for a path-dependent and overly militarized status quo. We have to find ways to make our partnerships work better on both sides. We’re a systemic actor, and the choices that we make have moral-hazard effects on the players on the ground. We need to make investments beyond Iran and ISIS, and beyond rulers, to connect with societies. I continue to ask myself why it is, given our professed interest in the wellbeing of the Iranian people, that the current travel ban, with limited exceptions, still bans Iranian people from coming to the United States. Banning their rulers as part of this policy makes sense to me; banning the people does not. We need to reinvest in civilian tools to help get things done at an acceptable cost to the American people. None of this is easy, but I would submit that all of it is worth a try.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council: I thought I might start with a question that was brought up in the Foreign Affairs article someone mentioned, arguing that we’ve been too engaged in purgatory, with results that are too poor for our investment. One of its principal underlying arguments there was that our stake in the region is not as great as it once was, that it doesn’t matter as much anymore. One thing that was cited was our development of our own energy resources. Has our stake diminished, and do we need to worry less about major competitors, economic interdependence or demographics — and how all of that can impact us?
MS. POLASCHIK: Absolutely, our stake in the region still matters. We’ve seen now several administrations talk about the need to pivot to Asia or look at the “great game.” And the administration’s national-security strategy makes it very clear that we’re concerned with Russia and China, and maybe some shifting positions in the world. But fundamentally, whether we’re mired in limbo or purgatory, or whatever you’d like to call it, there are still very real risks that are coming to the United States from the region.
ISIS had the capacity to reach our partners, to reach the United States. There was very serious and scary threat-planning coming out of there. We had a national-security imperative to address that. Don’t forget about al-Qaida. It’s still active there and has a global reach. We have key security obligations to our partners, and Israel is gravely threatened by Iran. So our core-national-security interests still depend on this region. Yes, there are shifting issues in terms of U.S. energy production. We’re now one of the world’s largest energy exporters. That’s remarkably different. But we still have other core interests in that region that we need to continue to engage.
DR. MATTAIR: On the question of energy, our major trading partners around the world are far more dependent on that oil than we are. So we still need to worry about that oil getting out.
DR. KEMP: Absolutely. There is no substitute in the world for Gulf oil because of its ease of extraction and therefore its relatively low price. At the same time, other sources of oil are problematic — Libya, Venezuela, just to give two examples. We don’t need the Gulf oil as much as we used to, but if Japan and China find the price of their oil is going way up because of restrictions elsewhere or because there’s conflict in the Gulf, we’re all going to pay a price for it. Oil is a fungible commodity that has a world price. It’s not the same with gas. Therefore, any threat to Gulf oil, whether by war or by embargo, or through OPEC, is something we have to continue to pay great attention to.
MR. BENAIM: I’m going to mildly disagree; it probably does in some ways matter a little less. The price of oil is a bit stickier at a lower number than it used to be, and we’re on both sides of the equation — even though I completely agree with my colleagues that the health of the global economy depends on it, to some extent. I think we’re working assiduously on counterterrorism measures beyond the instability of the region. And I think that great power competition and a larger struggle for the so-called liberal international order will require tradeoffs in U.S. resources. Those things I think are all real.
But then I look at what’s happening inside the region, and I think we need to sustain certain types of engagement and deepen them anyway. Maybe just recognizing that there are some tradeoffs, finding ways to do more. A big part of that is changing the balance between military and civilian tools. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, and President Trump pulls us out of eastern Syria, at some point either in a month or two years, depending on when we actually leave, these are the kinds of things that may create opportunities for a different military footprint.
Our military footprint in the Middle East need not be written in blood or inscribed in stone. We may need fewer army forces in Kuwait or a different presence at Al Udeid if we’re not flying into Afghanistan, or we don’t need as much overhead surveillance of eastern Syria. So I think all of that should be in play. And we may not need a carrier in the Middle East perpetually. But I think the real missed opportunity is the expectation that we can do more with less and not face any tradeoffs. This militarized presence is more expensive than the entire foreign affairs budget of the United States: development, diplomacy, commercial assistance and all the rest of it. That rebalance will allow us to deal with the larger issues of balancing our presence around the world if we’re able to get it right.
DR. MATTAIR: Maybe Geoff, you want to comment on our military posture there, because you’re an advocate of offshore balancing.
DR. KEMP: The sentiment of what you said I completely agree with. Here we are in the Capitol and I’m thinking more about the realities of this administration. Are they going to be prepared to make this sort of tradeoff — less military and more aid and diplomacy? Every indication I see is that they are cutting in the very areas that everybody seems to think we should be increasing. Building more bombers and aircraft is very fine for constituents that make them, but if you really believe that we need a more effective diplomatic and economic assertiveness in regions like this, the money has to come from somewhere. And I don’t think the mood in this country is to be more generous. Quite to the contrary. The feeling of most Americans is that we have paid trillions in these wars and in aid to various groups throughout the Middle East, and it’s time for someone else to pick up the slack.
MS. POLASCHIK: This administration is very focused on burden sharing. I would agree that there is a need for the military presence, but also, on the soft side, for diplomacy, development and all of that. If you look back over the last year-plus, we’ve seen our partners step up and meet challenges. The U.S. has said, “We’ve had enough. Thank you very much.” On Syria stabilization, the Saudis and the Emirates have contributed, I think, $150 million. Why should the United States have to pay for everything in the region?
As we look at rebalancing, I think it is fundamentally in the U.S. interest. If we want to get out of this purgatory that that article described, we need to ensure that our partners have the capacity to step up and do what they need to do to ensure their own security. When you look at this idea of a Middle East strategic alliance, that’s where the administration would like to go. Why should the United States have to have a forward position, a military presence? Maybe our partners need to play a larger role in that as well.
DR. KEMP: The great immigration crisis of the last five years started in the Middle East, and it affected Europe in a profound and dramatic way that we still haven’t seen the end of. The bottom line is, it’s up to Europe to take the lion’s role in trying to make sure that this flow of immigrants is slowed down by helping them stay home, through development and reconstruction and all that. It’s going to cost them a lot of money, but Europe’s not poor. Meanwhile, we talk about the caravans from Honduras and El Salvador, but this is just the beginning of South American problems. And the United States has to be very aware that our immigration problems are likely to get worse from this hemisphere, not from the Middle East.
DR. MATTAIR: Geoff, can you spell out what you believe the appropriate military posture for the United States is? Is it off-shore balancing?
DR. KEMP: The one thing we have been doing, very effectively if somewhat brutally, is using air power to deal with recalcitrant enemies, recently ISIS. As long as we have a formidable air presence, based from both land and sea, we’re going to be formidable. There’s no one that could match us when it comes to the deployment of air power in the Middle East. Where I think we have gotten into trouble so many times is when we’ve put in ground forces and started taking casualties. This town and this country are less upset by the huge cost of every bombing over Mosul, or wherever, than they are about the death of one American soldier or contractor, male or female, in Afghanistan or Iraq. So keeping the land-based component of our forces small, and offshore, if possible, not subjected to occupation of cities is the way we should be going. There may be occasions where, of course, we have no option, but we can bring forces in very quickly. The other great advantage that the United States still has is a formidable lift capacity, which no one else in the world can compete with. So if there were another crisis in Libya that needed American ground forces for evacuation purposes, we can do it.
DR. MATTAIR: By small forces in the region, you would mean training forces?
>DR. KEMP: Yes. I’ve nothing against training forces, as long as they’re not vulnerable.
MR. BENAIM: One real exception is the U.S. training mission — present and future — in Iraq, where we have long-standing and close partnerships with both the central government in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds. We have a meaningful chance, by being part of the political and security equation in the country, and building up state institutions, to decrease the odds that Iraq either falls back into civil war, experiences a real ISIS threat that goes global, or comes to be completely dominated by Iran — as unsatisfying as some of the developments there may be.
I’ve been there three times in the last 18 months, and to me, it’s a prominent exception, a place that finds itself on the frontlines of three struggles America really should care about. First, and foremost, is the struggle to make sure that ISIS can’t come back into places where it rose to threaten our allies and our own people. Second, is to make sure that Iran can’t dominate the entire Middle East, although I think we need to be realistic about how that works in practice. Third, is just to show that in the year 2019 and beyond, different sects and ethnicities can still live peacefully together in the Middle East. Getting those things right and treating Iraq not just as a war but as a country, and not just as a battleground to fight Iran but as a place that matters on its own merits, can help create a building block for a more stable and less polarized Middle East. I would love to see Iraq, for example, join this Middle East Strategic Alliance, to make sure that it’s not really just about fighting a sectarian or intra-Sunni battle but is really about regional stability.
DR. MATTAIR: Joan, can you say something about the reduction of our small presence in Syria and about the military assistance we provide to the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen?
MS. POLASCHIK: As I stated in my remarks, our policy in Syria remains unchanged. The president made the decision not to retain our troop presence there, so that we can continue what we need to do with respect to defeating ISIS. They’ve lost control over the physical territory, but it’s clear that remnants are going to dig in for an insurgency. It’s important that the United States stay engaged. We have capabilities that not all of our partners have. It is a coalition effort, and I think having continued U.S. presence is key to keeping the partners there. I would second what Daniel said about Iraq as well. Within Iraq, it’s not just a U.S. presence that’s key. We have a coalition presence there. We have a NATO presence now, which is huge. We’re really focused on coalition building.
There are serious counterterrorism threats coming out of Yemen, so U.S. engagement has been focused on precisely that. There is the AQAP, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula, element there; the Houthis engage in all sorts of bad activities, targeting civilians in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates by launching these longer-range missiles and drones. So we have a responsibility to our partners to help them counter those threats. We do have some training and advising ongoing with the Saudis to make sure that the Saudi-led coalition is doing its utmost not to target civilians, to minimize civilian casualties. The administration feels very strongly, as do I personally, that the engagement is critical. We do face a dramatic humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and we’re not going to make the situation better if we’re walking away from our key partners and not offering them the advice and training that they need to protect their security in a way that most effectively protects civilians.
DR. MATTAIR: Joan, you defined our objective in Syria as not just containment or deterrence, but rollback. That is a pretty high-level objective. Geoff, I know you are more interested in deterrence and defeating aggression, and don’t really think we can invest the resources necessary for rollback or containment in the region. Dan, what do you think about the goal of rolling Iran back out of Syria and the strategies that we’re using?
MS. POLASCHIK: Could I lay out the administration’s stake and then ask colleagues to comment? Why would we want to minimize our goals? Don’t we want to aim high and do our maximum? I would also say, let’s look at what’s happened in Syria over the last few years. Yes, historically there’s always been a close cultural connection between Syria and Iran; there are Iranian pilgrims going into Syria all the time. But over the last few years, Iran has really dug in, not just in support of the Assad regime, but — as other colleagues have pointed out — to create a global line of supplies from Iran all the way into Lebanon. That threatens our key ally, Israel, and I think the president was very clear in his statement on the Golan that we cannot have a situation in which Syria or Iran uses the Golan to threaten Israel. Getting Iran out of Syria is integral to the long-term security and stability of the region. I think a solution in which we would say, oh, it’s OK, you can just have a little bit of a presence, is really not acceptable. We have seen Iran time and time again use a foothold for more aggressive policies and more threatening actions against our allies.
DR. KEMP: This is the one issue on which I cannot reconcile myself to what the secretary of state has said. Reducing the Iranian presence in Syria is a goal I am in favor of, but he says we’re going to use diplomacy and work with our partners to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. I just don’t get that. How on earth are you going to expel every Iranian boot unless we’re talking about military interventions — the Russians doing the job for us, an Israeli invasion, or a collapse of the regime in Tehran? It seems to me they are entrenched there; they have family relations there; they’ve been in Lebanon forever. That’s why they’re so close to Hezbollah and the Shiite community. I think it’s totally misleading to make statements like that without a strategy for carrying them out.
MS. POLASCHIK: I would argue that the administration does indeed have a strategy, and the maximum-pressure campaign on Iran is a key part of that. If you look at what has happened since we reimposed sanctions in November of 2018, about six months ago, Iran is losing money and the ability to fund its proxies. That’s a critical part of this diplomatic effort; Iran is hugely overextended right now. It has the IRGC in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen. It’s stoking war and conflict. That costs money. As we’re taking away Iran’s ability to finance this, that will support our diplomatic efforts.
MR. BENAIM: I mentioned earlier my gratitude for public servants who continue to do excellent work on behalf of the country, but I have to confess my gratitude for not being one today. I think we are dealing with a situation in which the current U.S. policy is a complete mismatch between means and ends. And I think it is a tragedy, with blame that should be widely shared, that Assad seems determined to hang on in the western half of Syria and gradually extend his reach to the east. This is an ongoing human tragedy in places like Idlib, which will, if and when it falls, create both a massive migration wave and a counterterrorism problem among the hardened jihadists hiding among the men, women and children living there. I guess I would subscribe, at least in western Syria, to the deterrence camp, to making sure that Israel has what it needs to continue to do what it has been doing to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from gaining a foothold in the western part of Syria.
I don’t think they need the annexation of territory they’ve held for nearly half a century — or for 52 years — to do that. They seemed to be holding it perfectly well before that announcement three weeks before a contested election. But I think that, when it comes to the eastern part of the country, it’s a different thing, and that’s where the United States has been more directly involved recently. It’s my observation that for all the walking back and walking forward of this policy over time — it’s one month; it’s two years — we’ve squandered a lot of leverage in the eastern half of Syria, where we had been providing security, to shape as much as possible either the terms of autonomy or the cohesion of the various actors on the ground that we’ve been helping. However, in the middle of last year, we stopped providing them stabilization money of our own. Instead of adding to the welcome funds from the Gulf and the UAE, we cut our own funds and kept our soldiers there, indicative of an imbalance, and zeroed out those funds for future requests despite keeping our troops there. At a minimum, as a matter of force protection, you’d think we’d want American money there.
But we never had a great hand to play in eastern Syria, and my colleagues in the Obama administration would tell you that we never should have been there for as long as we were. This is a hard choice. But the way that it has been handled left us with diminished leverage to shape and negotiate a future role we might play in the rest of Syria. Now, I think they have to some extent exercised the leverage that they have, since those initial, uneven decisions to gain support from the region and other actors. I certainly give them credit for that. Finally, while I am incredibly proud of the humanitarian monies that have continued to go to Syrian refugees from our government, I do think it is a stain on our national honor that there has been a 99.5 percent reduction in the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States from two years ago this past year, to, I believe, 62.
DR. KEMP: There’s a lot we can do to make Iran’s presence in Syria more unpleasant and more costly, and I agree that they are paying a price. There is also, by the way, a covert war going on between Israel and Iran. Israeli airstrikes are pretty consistent against Iranian targets in Syria, particularly against their ammunition facilities. But we’re not going to do any of this unless things get really bad. We don’t have the ground forces. We don’t have the money. The one thing, it seems to me, that in the long run could persuade the Iranians to leave would be enormous pressure from Russia, which I’m not sure will come, for the reconstruction of Syria. Assad himself faces a huge problem because he’s not secure; doesn’t control all of Syria. He’s got to somehow now rebuild the country to give some meaning to this death and slaughter they’ve all gone through. Where on the earth is he going to get the funds? Not from Capitol Hill, I can absolutely assure you. The Europeans might put in some money; they have a vested interest in stabilizing Syria. Russia, no; they’re not big on this type of investment. China, maybe in the long run, but they’ll take something for it. It’s going to be a long, careful process. And as long as that process is underway, the Iranians are going to be around — if only for prestige reasons. I simply don’t see how we get them out to the last boot.
DR. MATTAIR: Does anyone in the administration expect help from Russia on this? In the early days of the administration, there was some discussion about Russia wanting Iran out and helping.
MS. POLASCHIK: Russia, obviously, is a key player in everything related to Syria. I go to so many of these events, where people kind of pooh-pooh the idea that Russia and the United States could work effectively together because of great-power competition, but in fact we have worked effectively together in Syria. Over the last couple of years, we’ve worked very effectively on the southwest ceasefire zones, and we continue to discuss Syria with the Russians. They’re going to have to be a key part of the equation. I would argue that perhaps there is some daylight between Russia and Iran as well. So it’s in our interest to continue those discussions with the Russians and figure out ways that we can do this. It is the administration’s goal to get every last Iranian boot out of Syria, and we’re not going to be satisfied simply with containment.
DR. MATTAIR: On the question of Russia again, the administration talks about how this is a region of competition. Aside from these small areas of cooperation, is the administration not concerned about the reentry of Russia into the region after having had its influence severely diminished for 50 years? The war provided them with an opportunity to look like a country that would stick up for its client at a time when our partners and allies in the region were not very sure we were reliable. Is there any concern about Russia’s being back in the Middle East or about China’s making inroads, even if they’re only economic at this time? Is that geopolitical competition relevant in the Middle East?
MS. POLASCHIK: Let’s take a look at what Russia is doing in the Middle East right now. It’s meddling in regional conflicts. Look at what it’s been doing in Syria. It propped up Assad, basically kept a murderer in power. It has been very unhelpful in Libya. I just saw press reports today, for example, that General Haftar is using Russian equipment and Russian advisers in his march on Tripoli. I can’t imagine that if you are a citizen sitting in any country in the MENA region, that you look at Russia as a model for good. I think it’s destabilizing, it’s unhelpful.
I think one of the largest areas of concern for us right now is the issue of military sales; we see partners turning to Russia for equipment, including outside the region. Folks here on the Hill have expressed a lot of concern about the issue of Turkish purchases. We have CAATSA [Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act]. We have been engaged in very serious discussions with a number of key partners about the risks they face if they pursue Russian military sales. I would argue that it’s not in their interests to pursue them. If you buy U.S. equipment, you have a closer partnership, interoperability and training, so I think it’s in the best interests of the region to stick with the United States.
With respect to China, I think Daniel mentioned a base in the Gulf. That’s one of the outliers in terms of Chinese engagement. What we see more is the Belt and Road Initiative, the investment in infrastructure, getting contracts to build roads or dams or whatever. Many of those projects have proven to be shoddy, right? Chinese companies consistently underbid U.S. companies because they bring in cheap workers, keep them in horrible conditions and don’t let them leave. I never understand why countries in the region that face huge unemployment problems would want to import workers. This is just prolonging the problems that they face and exacerbating them in many respects. I see China trying to get what it can out of the region, and that’s a very different approach from the United States; we’re working together in partnership to help these countries develop.
DR. KEMP: I think the one advantage that Russia has over the United States is that it doesn’t mind dealing with really unpleasant people and supporting them. Aside from the Middle East, remember, the Russians have been deeply involved in Sudan, propping up the gentleman who just lost his job, which shows the risks of Russian diplomacy. If you put all your eggs in a 30-year dictatorship, it can suddenly come unstuck. Similarly, in Venezuela, Russia may be backing the wrong horse again. If Mr. Maduro magically departs for a resort in Cuba in the next month or so, it will be another case of the Russians playing games, but they’re not really able to sustain a presence anywhere.
I think Syria is different. The Russians had a really serious presence in Syria until the end of the Cold War. When I was working on this subject with the Reagan administration, we were constantly looking at maps — the range of Backfire bombers that could get from Syria to Libya and refuel and go back to the Soviet Union. It was a serious threat. Tartus is a very important port; they’ve been there for a long time, and they’re not going to get out anytime soon.
Let me say two things about China. What you’re seeing China do in the Middle East is what China’s doing everywhere. They’re in the Arctic, for God’s sake, and they’re not going to stop. The one problem I would raise is that the Middle East is one area where they do have a major potential competitor. India is only a matter of miles from the Middle East. The whole Gulf is sort of Indian in culture. The Indian army under the British liberated the Middle East from the Germans. There are Indian war cemeteries all over the Middle East. India has an historic stake in that region, and they are particularly worried about China’s encroachments into the Bay of Bengal and its cooperation with Pakistan. That’s why India’s working quite closely with Iran to develop the big base at Chabahar to offset the Gwadar base China has built for Pakistan on the coast. Sooner or later India may start flexing its muscles. And that’s something the Chinese have to worry about, just as they have to worry ultimately about Japan playing a stronger role in the East China Sea. They don’t have a free ride, and they’re not particularly popular. I don’t worry about Russia and China at this moment to the point where I see either of them as vital strategic threats to the United States in these areas.
MR. BENAIM: On China, these are countries that desperately need capital infusions and rebuilding. America, which isn’t offering either of those things, would be wise to let some of that happen, even if in some cases it creates Chinese influence and leverage. We have to be comfortable with a little bit of discomfort there but also recognize where our interests are most directly impacted. China is largely a commercial actor so far, but we have to be thinking two steps down the road. It’s clear that their presence in Djibouti is a sign of their uncertainty about whether America will continue to monopolize the securing of the sea lanes around the world. This is already changing in the Red Sea. Ethiopia doesn’t even have a coastline and they’re building a navy. Egypt is building a navy. Saudi has a navy. This is fast-changing geostrategic terrain.
When you look at the commercial competition with India and China, they’re also competing with countries in the region, including Turkey and the UAE. China’s infrastructure binge that they want to continue in this region is in direct competition with Turkish construction companies and with Emirates shipping and port builders. This competition is multilayered in that way. We’re not going to rebuild these places and someone has to. That creates an opportunity for the Chinese that we can’t really tell the region to say no to.
On Russia, I think they have four, maybe four-and-a-half, main interests in the Middle East. First, regional stability. They hate seeing color revolutions that overthrow leaders; they worry that they’re next. That is a clear and relatively consistent interest. Second, they want to sell weapons. What they’ve done in Syria has also been a proof of concept for them — of their ability to sell weapons and use them. They’re willing to accept the reputational costs of the human-rights abuses and war crimes that have been committed with their hardware. Third, they want to undercut U.S. leadership in the Middle East and prove that there is an alternative model. And fourth, they want to enhance their own prestige. Finally, counterterrorism, which they are really worried about. They have their own communities that are threatening to them, and they’re worried that when they go fight somewhere else, such as China, they will come back and endanger their domestic security.
On some of these we can work with Russia. It’s not as though we don’t have any common interests; we just have to be really careful. When a country wants to buy our most advanced fighter jet, for example, and also wants to buy Russia’s most advanced air-defense system to surveil and counter and master the technology of that fighter jet, I think we should put our foot down and say no. But if they want overflight or something else, it may be a case-by-case situation. And they do have these other relationships; they’re friends with Saudi Arabia and Iran, and with Israel and Syria. They have cordial relationships and are selling air defenses to the Turks. Think of the rolodex at work there — the Houthis and Haftar and on down the line. It’s worth exploring where there are opportunities to work together while recognizing that part of their fundamental aim is to undercut us. We should never lose sight of that.
DR. KEMP: I agree with that. China also has excellent relations with all the countries in the Middle East — the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Iranians, you name it. The U.S. Department of Defense, as I understand it, has been absolutely furious with Turkey for saying that they are going to buy the S-400 air-defense system and that, if they do, there will be essentially a total disruption of the supply of the F-35 superfighter, being built all around the world — all our friends are buying it. There’s no resolution to this. Erdoğan was in Moscow two days ago, and both parties said absolutely it is a done deal. If we accept this, I think it will be a great triumph for Russia and a huge blow to us. It will further weaken our relationship with Turkey. As someone said, Turkey is not yet a foe, but it’s no longer a friend. This is another serious development in the Middle East that Mr. Pompeo should be paying a lot of attention to.
MS. POLASCHIK: I don’t want to speak on behalf of my colleagues in the European Affairs Bureau who actually cover Turkey, but the U.S. is concerned about that sale. It is a topic of extreme importance in our bilateral discussions with Turkey.
But I want to follow up on what Daniel said about Russia’s interests in the region. This is something that I’m really trying to understand — the CT [counterterrorism] angle. I was at another event two weeks ago on the subject of Russia’s role in the Middle East, and one of the speakers said Putin’s number-one interest is in preventing another taking of a Moscow theater. Remember how horrific that was. I thought, why would you get in bed with Iran — a state sponsor of terrorism — in trying to stem terrorism from Syria? Iran is Shia, but that’s not an issue. Though, actually, it is. Iran has supported al-Qaeda, so anyone who gets in bed with Iran and thinks that this somehow is going to protect their CT equities is vastly mistaken.
MR. BENAIM: The same might be true for working in a brutal fashion alongside other authoritarian governments that may be creating future radicalization.
MS. POLASCHIK: Exactly. It seems that Russia is perhaps playing the short game.
MR. BENAIM: And perhaps not only Russia.
DR. MATTAIR: We do have the question of what the limits of our partnerships should be and the question of domestic perceptions of who our partners are and what they are doing, and the burden that places on the administration to explain things. If Iran is the principal danger in the region, and we are relying more on our partners to do something about it, providing them with military hardware and training for decades — yet they’re inexperienced, haven’t used the hardware, haven’t fought a war before — how do we deal with the fact that they are not succeeding in Yemen? How do we help them, when Iran clearly is supporting the Houthis and has been for years, and where the place was a basket case before 2011 because of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s misrule?
You have a partner that over the years has found the United States to be less and less reliable, is told more and more to take matters into its own hands, but when it does contain its regional adversary — which is expanding on the ground — and then they have trouble, how should we be helping? You’ve talked about supporting the political process there, but this has been tried and failed. Sometimes they go to a city and the Houthis never come out of their hotel or don’t show up for the meeting. What are we going to do about that?
So we don’t run out of time, let’s talk about another partner, Israel. We support Israel a great deal. However, I didn’t hear you say the administration supports a two-state solution. Do we? Is what Israel is doing now and saying it’s going to do — annex the Golan and maybe all or part of the West Bank — is that good for the stability and the order of the region? Does that foster extremism and grievances? Does it make our counterterror effort more difficult? Does it help Iran in the long run? Is that something Iran can exploit? How do we manage our partners and guide them away from policies that are not helpful to our national interests and are, in the case of Israel, completely inimical to every policy we’ve articulated since Nixon?
MS. POLASCHIK: The administration is clear-eyed about the challenges of this region. We know our partners are not perfect, but there are key strategic interests at stake, and we have to work with what we have. You hear us affirming the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and all of that. We also, behind the scenes, are having very serious discussions about human rights, and the Khashoggi case. And, by the way, those statements have not only been made in private. The secretary and the president have been very clear about our commitment to ensuring that there is a full, transparent and credible investigation in which there is accountability. So we continue to press for what is right. It’s not a marriage of convenience. This is a region that has profound underlying challenges and issues. We see this reverberating still with its huge youth populations that don’t have jobs or want more personal freedoms. The region will continue to roil, and it’s in our interest to stay engaged so that roiling does not negatively impact U.S. interests.
On the question of Yemen and our partnership there, the United States has been engaged in addressing all of the concerns that you laid out, Tom. I spoke earlier about the training that we provide. We want to make sure that the Saudi-led coalition is doing everything possible to have the correct targeting so it’s not bombing buses of schoolchildren, that it’s doing everything possible to mitigate civilian casualties. We have training on human rights and the law of armed conflict in every single thing that we do. And we also have fundamental interests at stake. We want to make sure that our partners in the Gulf can defend themselves. The Houthis are lobbing missiles at civilian targets, at airports, they’re putting drones in. That’s not OK, and we need to stand by our partners. You also mentioned Israel and peace prospects. The president has been very clear from day one that he will stand by whatever solution it is that the parties can come up with. We’re not going to limit it to one model or another. The administration has been working hard on a peace plan. I think the latest statements we’ve heard coming out of the White House are that, perhaps after Ramadan, there will be a drop. The peace plan will be rolled out when the timing is right and the prospects are greatest for success.
You posed the question also as to everything that’s happened in terms of Israeli policies. I would like to comment on what the administration has done, not what the Israelis have done. But I said in my remarks that the administration has taken a cold, hard look at things that we’ve tried to do for decades. It hasn’t been working. We have been engaged, all of us, in an effort to achieve Israeli and Palestinian peace for decades without a lot of success recently. The administration’s thought is, let’s shake it up, let’s recognize existing situations: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the recognition of Israeli control over the Golan. Perhaps doing that differently will shake things up and create the conditions for peace.
DR. KEMP: What I think a lot of us simply cannot understand is that Trump gave these gifts to Netanyahu — the move to Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan — and didn’t ask for anything in return. This is what nobody can understand. This was a perfectly reasonable thought process because things hadn’t worked. But in diplomacy you try to get something in exchange when you give something. I personally can’t wait to see or hear the Jared Kushner peace plan, coming as it does after all the events that have taken place in the region. I can predict two things: One, without overriding and very public and financially backed Saudi support, there is no way he can have a plan that will provide the sort of financial incentives any Palestinian group would even look at, irrespective of whether they would accept it. That, I think, explains the reasons we’ve been so coy about Saudi Arabia and the murderous activities of its elite.
Backdrop: for the first time, the House and the Senate have essentially said, stop the war in Yemen. This is the first effort to invoke the long-waning War Powers Act, and I think there’s opposition building to this war in Yemen here on Capitol Hill.
What concerns me most is that, if the peace plan is announced after Ramadan — which makes sense — and does not light up the fires of enthusiasm among the Palestinians, and if there’s no price the Israelis have to pay that the Palestinians will regard as a possible tradeoff for a deal, then I fear that the cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at all levels, particularly on security, will diminish and may even rupture. One of the things the Obama administration did very well was to work with the Israeli military and the Palestinians to establish this security relationship, which has kept a lot of things quiet in the West Bank, though not in Gaza. If that breaks down and there’s no peace process, then we really are faced with the prospect that Israel, to protect itself, may have to take much more strident moves to occupy areas of the West Bank that, up to now, it has sort of walked away from. That brings us to the real question, whether or not there could ever be a two-state solution. It would look more and more to me like it would be a one-state solution. For many Israelis and many of Israel’s supporters in this country, that would not be the right tack to take.
MR. BENAIM: I just want to say at the outset, revisiting my earlier comment, that this is hard, whether the president is Bush, who started the security cooperation with the Palestinians that the Obama administration continued, or Obama or Trump. This question of what to do about partners is an extraordinarily difficult one; we want to do less, and we want them to do more. Looking at these fundamental regional conflicts — Sunni-Shia, Sunni-Sunni and citizen-versus-state — the administration that I served in, the Obama administration, sought to take a step back and create some space for reconciliation between various sides. I think it may have had the effect at various points of alienating all six of those quadrants from us.
But what we’re seeing now, this instinct to just unquestioningly embrace, is going very far in the other direction. I think that it creates a moral hazard for behavior that you see in things like the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon or the fight between Saudi Arabia and Canada — in which we were silent — or the Qatar blockade, which continues with no end in sight, or Yemen. And I think there has been belated pressure by the administration, but this is really difficult. Saudi Arabia does have very legitimate threats, and on the ground are 22 million food-insecure Yemeni people in the midst of a war that shows no sign of being solved militarily and creates catastrophic civilian casualties. Even with our best advice, they remain catastrophic. So I think the decision for the U.S. Congress to exert its will and use the tools available to put pressure on the administration — which the president will veto — to say, you can’t re-escalate this war if the fragile ceasefire around Hodeidah goes bad and we need to start working to end it, is part of giving UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths the tools he needs to get to peace.
We also need to do more. We need to work with Gulf partners to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen. This is a fundamentally different war, although in some cases the Houthi war has been counterproductive to that larger effort and has led to leakage, reportedly, of U.S.-supplied munitions to some unsavory folks on the ground. We also need to work with Gulf countries on defensive measures to deal with the Houthi missiles that Iran very irresponsibly seems to have helped proliferate, and UAVs that no country would want. So there’s a lot of work to do here, and U.S. and congressional pressure is fundamental to that.
On Israel, I think there should be and has been strong bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I admire the founders of the country, who had an idea of its Jewish and democratic character, which I see in danger in this current approach of what I fear will be an indefinite occupation. It is sending a sign that, if you create new facts on the ground, they will be recognized — whether in Golan, which on its own terms may be less concerning, or in the West Bank, which I think is quite concerning. I think there’s a danger of being in the Chicken Little caucus of people who, with each new step, say the sky is going to fall. It hasn’t fallen; Arab states have proven remarkably adaptive to these problems, and the Palestinian Authority has kept chugging along. But this doesn’t mean that over time these behaviors may not be risky or counterproductive. My attitude would be to support Israel’s security, for sure, but try not to stoke their right-wing id quite so much; to try to keep a wide path open for peace, which may ultimately be part of supporting a secure Jewish democratic friend in that country.