Scott McConnell, Jocelyne Cesari, Nathaniel Kern and Paul Pillar
The following is an edited transcript of the seventieth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Wednesday, October 17, 2012, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
This program is about policy choices facing the next administration. Whoever is going to be leading it is going to have some decisions to make. Will the next administration resume the peace process in order to seek resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the establishment of a two-state solution? Will he be willing to expend political capital on this? Is it a national-security interest of the United States to get a two-state solution? Various members of this current administration have said so; and if that's true, it would be good to succeed. There are others who are not so sure that it's achievable or worth spending political capital on. If the next president wants to do this, he's going to have to build a domestic constituency to overcome the opposition.
On the question of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, the administration will have decisions to make about sanctions, about diplomacy, about war. If the Iranian regime comes to the table with serious intent for any reason, either because the sanctions are biting or because they're worried about threats of military strikes, or for any other reason, the question is: Will the American government take yes for an answer? Or will it have conditions that cannot be met by the other side? Would the administration even consider what was previously called a grand bargain, to attempt to resolve all the outstanding issues between the United States and Iran? This would include what Iran's role in the region should be, and what kind of attitude they should take toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and any potential peace agreement. Would the next administration actually engage in military strikes against Iran?
Three recent studies have come out. One is by the Iran Project: "Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran." People such as Anthony Zinni and Thomas Pickering were associated with it. As the title suggests, it weighs costs and benefits, and it's fairly comprehensive. One issue it doesn't touch on is covered by another report, by Khosrow Semnani and published by the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute: the deaths and injuries that would result from military strikes. Finally, there's a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center that goes into the costs of allowing Iran to get a nuclear weapon, particularly the economic costs.
When it comes to Syria, a difficult case in the Arab awakenings, one question is: If we were to give them heavier weapons, would we promote the downfall of the Assad regime and promote the rise of a rebel opposition friendly to the United States? Or would they fall into the wrong hands and produce militias with weapons that could do what was just done to our ambassador in Libya? Are there really prospects for a democratic, pluralistic regime's coming to power after Assad? Do we really have a role in a post-Assad transition, or would we be putting our people in harm's way by trying to do that?
When it comes to other cases in the Arab Spring, like Egypt, where it looks as if we have a president from the Muslim Brotherhood who's establishing a strong executive authority, there are questions about whether we should be giving them foreign aid. In Bahrain, we're dealing with a non-NATO ally with a record of progressive reform, facing determined opposition that has significant support, especially from international human-rights organizations. How much reform do we ask the regime to engage in? To what extent might we be playing into the hands of anti-democratic forces in Bahrain?
Finally, when we come to the Gulf, we need to decide what kinds of relationships we're going to have with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, who have security issues that they need to contend with. They know very well that American defense industries can provide them with outstanding equipment, but they have some questions about the extent of our security commitments to them, particularly given the way the administration rather quickly called for the Mubarak government to step down. They want business ties with the United States, but they see opportunities elsewhere. They're very distressed by our Arab-Israeli policies. We know that they're frustrated by our policies toward Iran and Syria, thinking we ought to be doing more in Syria and worried about everything we might do with Iran, even diplomacy, which they fear might provide Iran with some advantages. They're also concerned about our domestic Islamophobia and wonder what kinds of relations they can have with us when that kind of thing is occurring here.
SCOTT McCONNELL, founding editor, The American Conservative
What are the prospects for a new president's achieving a fair peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians? I believe, unfortunately, that they are not very good. By a fair settlement, I mean a two-state solution, a Palestinian state comprising Gaza and the West Bank, with some minor negotiated land swaps, with control of its borders, its water resources, its airspace — something similar to the Clinton parameters of 2000. I believe that this outcome, more than any alternative, would satisfy the core needs for security and self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians.
As you know, every American president since Lyndon Johnson has tried to stop Israel from building settlements on the West Bank, because they understood that those settlements threatened to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution. Some presidents pushed hard, some not very hard. At Camp David, Jimmy Carter believed he had received from Menachem Begin assurances that settlement building would stop and that a process leading to Palestinian self-determination and autonomy on the West Bank would commence. But settlement building did not stop, and both Carter and the Egyptians, for different reasons, did not make too much of a fuss.
Ronald Reagan called for a settlement freeze without making a big issue of it. George H.W. Bush did make a big issue of it and paid a steep political price, which may have cost him re-election. Bill Clinton very much wanted a viable Palestinian state, but he found that settlement building continued, whether Israel was headed by Likud or by Labor and indeed accelerated throughout the 1990s. Barack Obama made a settlement freeze the jumping-off point for his peace efforts and was smacked down decisively by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israel lobby.
The reason for these failures is obvious. Israel, no matter what coalition was in charge, wanted to build settlements on the West Bank more than the United States was committed to stopping them. The Israel lobby — which I would describe as a loose coalition of groups and individuals who are committed to ensuring American backing for Israel no matter what Israel does — was able to generate enough political pressure to thwart serious American diplomacy to stop settlement building.
Nevertheless, something important is beginning to happen. The Israel lobby is beginning to exhibit cracks and weaknesses. I believe we're witnessing the beginnings of an historic transformation in which its power will be considerably diminished. First, the Democratic Party: On the second night of the convention, roughly half the delegates in the hall — perhaps a quarter of the 6,000 — voted "no" to what party leaders had assumed was a routine platform resolution — an amendment stating that Jerusalem was Israel's undivided capital. Such planks had appeared in both party platforms before, and in practice presidents had ignored them, so not much of substance was at stake. But in the spirit, in the emotion, which is at the root of political change, a great deal happened.
I'm sure many of you have seen the video: three votes, three choruses of no, as unplanned as they were unexpected. Big party poo-bahs descended on the television booths to play down the episode. Alan Dershowitz described the naysayers as rogue elements, Arab-Americans and anti-Zionist Jews — 1,500 of them, apparently. What took place I would call nothing less than a collective Rosa Parks moment. Let me quote one reaction from Alana Goodman of Commentary magazine, which is now unabashedly a Republican publication: "This video of the voice vote should chill every pro-Israel Democrat — scratch that; every pro-Israel American — to the bone. Israel relies on bipartisan political support from the United States, its strongest ally. The floor vote at the Democratic convention portends a day when that bipartisan support will cease to exist."
I'm a former neoconservative; in another life I used to write frequently for Commentary. I think Alana Goodman is completely correct that the contested vote does indeed portend such a day. How far in the future, I don't know. It was a decade between Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus and the emergence of a sufficiently powerful anti-segregation consensus to pass civil-rights legislation. For a major political party to become devoted to fairness between Israel and Palestine will take at least that long.
But the reason Alan Dershowitz and Commentary find the erosion of bipartisan support alarming is that partisanship would let loose a torrent of competitive debate about the morality and utility of America's special relationship with Israel. Israel's treatment of the Palestinians under the occupation would be subject not only to academic and journalistic scrutiny, as it is now, but to political polemics. Something like the openly expressed skepticism about Israel's behavior now heard on elite university campuses would become widely disseminated.
The special relationship's survival depends on its own rules of discourse. Israel's value to the United States is held to be so self-evident, its interests and values so obviously congruent to America's, that any criticism must be deemed marginal, weird, motivated by bigotry. Those who question the consensus are not debated and often smeared. But once the seal is broken, I believe, and I think Alana Goodman believes, the notion that it is some sort of metaphysical requirement to treat Israel as a privileged and adored touchstone of American Mideast policy could unravel with stunning speed.
For a long time, Protestant churches have been inhibited on these questions. Their leaders instinctively gravitate towards warm ecumenical relations with mainstream Jewish organizations, with whom the mainline churches have built historic alliances on civil rights, on Vietnam and on church-state relations. And yet these churches also have ties to the Arab world as educators and missionaries and social workers in refugee camps, and they have Arab co-religionists. They see themselves as promoters of social justice. Historically, this tension has always been resolved in favor of silence, so as not to upset relations with American Jewish leaders. That period, which has lasted since the founding of Israel, seems to be now over.
Third, the very obvious pushback against Israel's effort to persuade the United States to attack Iran, or to support an Israeli strike, or to accept Israeli advice over what timetables or red lines Washington should adopt — this has involved some firm public language. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has said we don't want to be complicit in an Israeli attack; Secretary of State Clinton explicitly rejected Israel's red lines; Obama does not rearrange his schedule to meet with Netanyahu in New York [at the UN General Assembly].
Of course, this wasn't over Palestine. It was over an issue with more immediate and obvious economy and security implications for the United States. But it was also the most unmistakable public defiance of Israel's wishes by an American president in a very long time. And though I'm assuming that the election is now a toss-up, the events I referred to were followed by Obama's largest lead in the polls this year. If Obama loses, I think we can say with assurance that a public disagreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu had nothing to do with it.
I could point to other areas, but you get the idea. Discussion of Israel-Palestine is opening up in historic ways. Congress is a lagging indicator, still rolling out AIPAC-sponsored resolutions by the margins everyone is familiar with. But one day the Glasnost will penetrate up here as well.
What relevance does this have for the next president? Unfortunately, I fear, not very much. I would love to be proven wrong. But on the basis of Mitt Romney's public statements and the private comments that have become public and his choice of foreign-policy advisers, I believe there's no chance he will become engaged in restarting a genuine peace process.
Obama is a different matter. He clearly wants a Palestinian state, but he was decisively rebuked in the first year and a half of his administration. He couldn't persuade Israel to carry out a settlement freeze, much less withdraw from territory. Could next year be different? I've fallen near to the camp of those who now think the time for a two-state solution has probably passed. I believe Israeli settlements on the West Bank have precluded the possibility. There are too many settlers armed and intensely committed to remaining there. It is not clear that any Israeli government could remove them without risking a civil war. And though there are mild Israeli polling majorities in favor of a two-state solution, there's no significant Israeli constituency for giving up any sovereignty over East Jerusalem. And a Palestinian state without Jerusalem as a capital is a nonstarter.
There is now one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, a state connected by a highly developed infrastructure of roads and water pipelines. I'm not sure when the point of no return was passed. Seven years ago, on my first visit to Israel, it still seemed quite plausible to speak of a Palestinian state. Now it does not.
So I believe any kind of normal diplomatic process — appointment of a special envoy, searching for common ground, building on previous agreements such as those arrived at under Prime Minister Olmert and Prime Minister Barak — don't have much chance of success. There's no political majority in Israel in favor of the withdrawal from the territory and settlements Israel would have to carry out to allow for a genuinely economically viable Palestinian state. Prime Minister Netanyahu, I know, has given lip service to the idea, but people close to him have said he would never offer the Palestinians something they could accept. An archipelago of bantustans in the West Bank Areas A and B, cut off from the world,without control of their air space and their water, will not produce a viable state.
What can the next president do to change this? The only intervention that might shake Israel out of its current spiral would be if a president made clear where the United States sees this heading. Absent a two-state solution, Israel is en route to becoming an apartheid state, as Israelis will not willingly accept granting Palestinians voting or civil rights. So we're headed towards a state roughly half Palestinian, half Jewish, one group denied political and civil rights, the other group possessing them.
Could President Obama cite words that previous Israeli prime ministers have said, who have warned quite unambiguously that Israel would be facing an apartheid situation in the absence of a two-state solution? Could Obama tell the Israelis that, regardless of who is president, it will be very difficult for America to maintain a special relationship with an apartheid state in the middle of the Middle East? That such an alliance would contravene America's values and interests? And that, once the relevant question in the one state that exists between the river in the sea is whether Palestinians should have the same voting rights as Jews, it will be natural, given America's democratic ideology and its history, that it will support Palestinian voting rights? Failure to do so would not make sense to most Americans. And in a practical sense it would render it impossible for the United States to speak credibly in favor of democracy or human rights in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.
In other words, the centerpiece of the president's intervention would be shifted away from the Palestinians and their historic suffering and their need for self-determination. I'm pretty sure most Israelis don't care very much about that. It would be about American values and American interests and where Israel fits into them. I'm not sure that such a speech, perhaps accompanied by diplomatic measures such as not using America's UN veto on Israel's behalf or perhaps even supporting pro-Palestinian measures, would change the political calculus in Israel. Perhaps it would have no impact at all.
Do I think President Obama might say something like this, speaking before the Knesset perhaps? Of course I don't. If the Israel lobby is getting weaker, it is still very powerful. America is not yet ready for a presidential approach like this. A re-elected President Obama would have more pressing priorities than a viable state in Palestine — and priorities that are easier to achieve. But I don't think anything less dramatic and less forceful has any chance of success.
JOCELYNE CESARI, co-director, SAIS Global Politics and Religion Initiative; research associate, Harvard University
I would like to focus my remarks on the changes needed in U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis the countries going through what was called the Arab Spring, now the Arab Awakening. We have gone through lots of ups and downs since the revolution of last year. I say "we" from an American perspective. We saw the Tahrir protests as a sign of the democracy we thought was not there. Then, after the elections, we were disappointed by the victory of Islamists. In the last six months, we have gone from enthusiasm to disappointment and now are in the pessimist phase. Recent events, such as the protests against the anti-Mohammed movie, have led some analysts and policy makers to link the failure of the Arab Spring with this unfortunate episode.
So I will focus first on the fact that democracy is a value that is now shared by the majority, especially the young people, of all Muslim-majority societies. Does this mean that it's the democracy we experience in the West, and especially in the United States? Probably not, and we have to be aware of this. In some ways, the West is a victim of its success. The Jasmine Revolution and the Tahrir protests show that democratic values are no longer "Western." This has not been thought through sufficiently. We are not paying enough attention to the fact that democracy is persistently praised by citizens of Muslim-majority countries. There are tons of polls showing that people are more in favor of democracy than the average respondent in a Western country. This hope in democracy is still there, despite the skepticism around the new regime [in Egypt] that emerged from the elections. People also disconnect the limits of the new regime from this hope for democracy. I think it's important to maintain this positive outlook on what's going on.
Unfortunately, we turn very quickly from one assessment to another, without taking into account indicators that Muslim societies are in favor of democracy. We have known this for a long, long time. This didn't come with the Arab Spring. It was already there in facts and investigations that are publicly available. But what kind of democracy are we talking about? I would like to draw a distinction between consensus and the principle of freedom of political expression and opposition. In other words, the fact that rulers have to be elected, and that they can change from one election to another is now pretty much established in most of these countries.
Does this mean that we are witnessing a sort of secularization in the American sense? Probably not. So we have to disconnect a few elements from what we have considered the whole package of democratization — that it goes with secularization and the decline of religion in public space. We have to be very aware that this is not happening. In this sense, the protest against the anti-Mohammed movie shows us that Islam remains a very strong marker in the public space. From the West, this is always difficult to understand, because we think that religion is private, that religion concerns only our beliefs. This is not true only for Muslims. I could talk about India in the same way. We're going to have to understand that, for Muslims, Islam is not only a question of belief; it's also a question of belonging and being a citizen.
It is not because, as I hear everywhere, Islam doesn't separate politics and religion. This would be looking at Islamic tradition in the wrong way. But since the inception of the region's nation-states, even by the very secular elite that we used to work with — Mubarak or Ataturk or Bourguiba — Islam has been embedded in them. What do I mean by that? It's not only the mention of Islam in the constitutions; it is also creating the connection between being a national and being a citizen. Again, this didn't come from Islamists. What we are witnessing is how the new regimes, led by Islamists, have to work within a framework that already was there. The blasphemy laws were not an invention of the recent regime. They were already there. Today, it's a major debate in Tunisia about how to remove laws that sanction people who would say something insulting about the Prophet. This was already there under the secular Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes.
We have to be very careful about how we assess this kind of event. It is a complex picture. Instead of looking at Islamists as a separate entity challenging secular states, we have to take into account what the state institutions are. What are the other situations today that also influence the interaction with the Islamists? I think we have not done that. It requires a very different outlook, accepting that democratic values are shared now beyond the West. But does it mean that everywhere we're going to witness duplication of the American model of democracy? Probably not. Does it mean that therefore we reject the whole experience? That would not be a wise move.
This brings me to my second point: what does this mean for U.S. foreign policy? We are at a time now when promoting democracy is criticized and rejected. And I understand why. If you look at the popularity of the United States in this part of the world, you see a consistent decline of positive opinion. This doesn't mean that we have to abandon the promotion of democracy. It means not promoting values, not assuming that the West has to teach democracy to the other parts of the world, but creating some kind of partnership. This is possible. It has been done by U.S. administrations, particularly in the Eastern European context. There are elements of this experience that maybe we can learn from and use in Muslim-majority countries, primarily establishing good communication with the target audience in the marketplace of ideas. I think this is missing in our relationships with Muslim-majority countries.
Since the Arab Spring, we are aware that communication matters. Actually, we are too aware of it. Now the social media have become a panacea for everything. There has been a lot investment by the current administration in communicating through this channel with different segments of civil society in the Muslim world, but what are we communicating? What are we paying attention to? I would say here that words are loaded. When we say democracy, again, it may not mean the same thing to someone living in Rabat or Tunis. When we hear the term Sharia, it doesn't mean what we are afraid of here — the imposition of a medieval, barbaric code of law. We don't make enough effort to clarify this kind of loaded terminology in communicating with this part of the world.
I remember that when the new transition regime in Libya took over, one of its first declarations was, we're going to impose Sharia in the country. And this was considered very worrying from the Western perspective. What does Sharia mean there? It may simply be principles, like the Ten Commandments. In the United States, if a politician refers to the Ten Commandments, it is not seen as a backward move toward a religious state. Sharia is often used this way. Tunisia is a very good example of this move from reference to principle to imposition in concrete law.
It is also important to watch, and not just take at face value, what people are saying. There is a lot of power politics in the use of words. This may not sound realistic in terms of international relations, but symbols matter. And we have not paid enough attention to the symbolic aspect of communications in this part of the world. So incidents are piling up, from the Quran desecrations to the anti-Muhammed movie. These are not exactly part of U.S. foreign policy, but we have to deal with them. An apology is good, but this is a very reactive approach. We need to be much more proactive in the way we communicate.
If we want to target audiences or actors that can promote a vision of democratization, including not only free and fair elections, but other elements, such as a pluralistic approach to society, we have to change the way we interact as a people of institutions and governmental agencies. We have given too much priority to the leaders, although the current administration has tried to diversify using NGOs. But then it turns into a very compartmentalized approach, with one hand of the administration doing one thing with NGOs and the other hand doing something else with the state. Sometimes these two elements do not come into synergy. This can be heartbreaking from an American point of view, because we put a lot of money into all this action in this particular part of the world. It's as if we are doing nothing.
How do we make this work in a way that is more transparent, that is more coordinated? This has to go along with the wishes of the population. They toppled Mubarak and Ben Ali because they wanted transparency and more equal distribution of resources. It also means trying to think of another way — instead of doing one thing here and another thing there — by creating platforms and bringing together these different ways that America is involved with the country. Sudan at the time of reconstruction is a very good example of the successful synergy of multiple administrative and political units of the U.S. administration coming together to help rebuild the country and bring in different elements, not only state institutions, but civil society.
The point would not be to increase aid, but to think more about creating interfaces that would help make this more efficient and also change the perspective of the United States in this part of the world. I think that focusing only on state work is counterproductive; the state is seen as biased, as the previous speaker explained.
But there are huge resources that the United States is not using enough: American society itself. I have done lots of focus groups with American Muslims living in the United States. Whether they are from Pakistan, Egypt or Iraq, the first thing they discover is the energy and vibrancy of Americans. They tend to distinguish between U.S. foreign policy and American society, and all of them are very positive about this. Every time they say in these groups, we didn't know because we see only the foreign-policy aspect. There is a lesson here in terms of communication, also, that could be helpful, then multilaterally. I know this is not very popular, but it may work. In view of what the EU is doing in this part of the world, perhaps some initiatives could be put together, especially in Libya now or in Tunisia.
Again, the most extreme resistance activists play on the divisions, not only among their own politicians, but also the divisions among Western facilitators. The idea of platforms is something to think about; it has been working in some cases.
The work is daunting. It requires thinking of how we interact, of the very concrete aspects of who does what in these different parts of the world. It also means being able to relate locally and not only through the Internet. The Internet can give a very deceptive impression of what people are doing. Social media don't make revolutions. Education makes revolutions. The urban middle class makes revolutions. We need to be more aware of indicators of who is doing what now in these different civil societies. And for that, better understanding is necessary — to be able to bring in skilled help. People in this part of the world admire the United States for its education, for its entrepreneurship. We can bring entrepreneurs from the Middle East to visit the United States or vice versa, but that doesn't create positive cross-pollination with state institutions. How can we make this work? This would be a very important way to build more secure societies; as we know, democracies do not fight each other. So what I'm aiming at is a more long-term approach. This may be very frustrating, especially in an election season, but in the long run, there are sufficient assets that can be used. We could start using them right now to change our interactions with this part of the world.
NATHANIEL KERN, president, Foreign Reports
My job on this panel is probably a little easier than the jobs others have. It's basically to discuss the policy choices that the next person in the White House, Obama or the governor, will face in terms of dealing with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Whatever the outcome of the election, there's going to be a new secretary of state, I believe. How would a professional foreign-policy official brief that new secretary before he or she had a first substantive meeting with Saudi leaders? What would be the issues and questions that briefer would want to put on the agenda? I think any good briefer would look back and examine the previous interactions between American presidents and the Saudi leadership.
You would start with the meeting between then Crown Prince Abdullah and George W. Bush in Texas in 2005, when the crown prince suggested, and the president agreed, that they would form a strategic-dialogue committee. One of the reasons for wanting to have such a committee, headed by the foreign minister and the secretary of state, was that prior to that, there had been a great many issues coming from all different parts of the government complaining about one kind of Saudi behavior or another, and there was no way to put things in context — religious freedom, human rights, democratic values, versus cooperation on the peace process, the oil markets and other things. One of the things that the strategic dialogue did was put everything on the table for a once-every-six-months review by the top leadership.
Back in 2005, the main issues on the agenda were counterterrorism and how to go against terrorists themselves; terror financing and how to clamp down on loose money going, wittingly or unwittingly, to terror groups; visas for Saudis; Saudi Arabia's desire to finally join the World Trade Organization; the peace process; oil prices; and Saudi plans for expanding capacity. That was several years ago. I think, if you look back you can pretty much tick the box on counterterrorism. You've got well-admired counterterror operations in Saudi Arabia, both on educating the public and tracking people down, identifying them, prosecuting them and then often trying to rehabilitate them. I don't know of any American official who thinks they've fallen short in that area. There has been a great deal of praise for how far they've gone.
It took a little longer for the United States and Saudi Arabia to work together on terror finance, but a year ago, the Treasury held sort of a September review of where things stood on cooperation with Saudi Arabia on those two issues. Former officials like Stuart Levey and Fran Townsend from the Bush administration attended along with the current ones. During that symposium, I was struck by the unanimity with which all those officials felt there'd been very substantial progress, and that these boxes of counterterrorism and terror finance had been ticked off. They'd need continued attention, but they are no longer issues you would put on the next secretary's agenda. They're finished; you can tick the box off.
The visa issue, which was very contentious in 2005, is pretty much done. Between 2000 and 2005, an average of about 3,000 Saudi students were studying here in the United States. And, of course, after 9/11, there was a lot of scrutiny of the visas. People were held up, students would often miss a year because their visas would expire and they'd have to go back and wait in line. Now we have 60,000 Saudi students here. The visa problem's been solved; they get five-year visas, and Americans get five-year multiple-entry visas to Saudi Arabia. I think it's worked very well. The fact that King Abdullah has provided scholarships for those 60,000 Saudi students is an example of where he wants to take the country. He wants 60,000 people to come back with a good view of American values — and I would point out that, among those 60,000, there is a disproportionately high representation of Saudi Shia. Saudi ID cards don't identify whether you're Sunni or Shia, but as people try to figure out who's who, perhaps double the percentage of Shia in Saudi Arabia are getting scholarships here. I think that's good.
Again, in 2005, the big question was oil prices and what Saudi plans for expanding capacity were. Oil minister Ali Naimi was there, Dick Cheney was there, and they described a program that they were then launching to expand production capacity by 2.5 million barrels a day. That's done. We still have considerably higher oil prices now than in 2005; they've been accelerating, but that's largely the result of growing world demand outside of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]. Unless there's some change in that, we're going to have continuing robust pricing. Now, if you were briefing the new secretary, you would go over the boxes that have been ticked and successfully done, but also the new issues they would face. Obviously an issue worth discussing, because it could involve action taken together by our country and Saudi Arabia, is the fallout from the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt and Yemen.
We know that Saudi Arabia had mixed feelings about how quickly Mubarak was dumped, but the Saudis played a crucial rule in easing Ali Abdullah Saleh out of Yemen. It wasn't easy; it was slow and bloody, but compared to some of the other changes, it wasn't that bad. In April 2011, just as the Arab Spring was in full bloom, the G-7 finance ministers met in Deauville, France, and formed something called the Deauville Partnership. Their vision was very simple: Europe had been through this kind of thing before. After Eastern Europe broke away from the yoke of the Warsaw Pact, a whole group of newly independent countries were struggling not only with democracy, but also with economies.
How do you go from a controlled economy to a free economy and make it work? What Europe had done, basically, was establish the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which was modeled on what the World Bank did to help Western Europe and Japan after World War II. The EBRD provided capital, plus knowledge we've all learned about how to do things right rather than wrong in building a new economy. What laws do you need? What structural reforms do you need? Where's the best place to put money, so as not to just throw it down black holes? At the Deauville Partnership, the G-7 finance ministers — meaning the G-8 minus Russia — included in their meeting the finance ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. So the Deauville Partnership on the donor, advice-giving side was the G-7 plus those three countries. On the potential recipient side was Egypt and later Libya, in terms not of money, but to get help in planning and economic revival. Just last month, Yemen was added to the list, and Tunisia, of course. Tangentially, Morocco and Jordan are on it. They hadn't gone through a transition period, but they also needed economic assistance.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been quite proactive in extending aid to Egypt, both before and after Mohammed Morsi was elected. I think it's important to understand what sort of aid. One of the things Egypt needed right away was the ability to sell government bonds and treasury bills; it's currently paying about 14 percent interest, which is pretty high for a government. In the immediate depths of the summer, when things looked terrible, both the Saudis and the Qataris came in and said, we'll buy your one month's issue of T-bills; obviously, they got good security of repayment unless the government defaulted on everything. This has helped relieve some of the interest pressure and helped to move Egypt out of the debt trap it's in — worse than that of Greece or Italy or Spain.
The second thing that both the Saudis and Qataris have done is to help the Islamic Development Bank and other quite good development banks identify investment projects and make sure they're done without corruption and that they become effective. I think it's $4.5 billion that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have extended to Egypt. That has helped. And the IMF — whose director Christine Lagarde was out there in September — is working on a loan program with very easy terms, low interest rates and forgiveness that would extend another $4.5 billion or so to Egypt.
If these things are combined, Egypt has a fighting chance to get its economy back on its feet. Then it would be a little easier to talk about equitable division of resources. If the resource base is going down the tubes, you're in a pretty desperate situation. They're starting to talk about doing this with Yemen, too. The United States and Saudi Arabia have cooperated a lot on counterterrorism, on the GCC Initiative, to get the transition in power. But now how do you get this desperately poor country, running out of everything all at once, a chance to get back on its feet? We've started working together on that.
The big issues that you want to brief the next secretary on are, of course, Iran sanctions and Syria. The imposition of the current set of sanctions by the United States and the EU would not have been possible without pre-agreement with Saudi Arabia last November. But if those sanctions led to Iran's losing up to more than half of its oil exports, would Saudi Arabia be willing to step in and make up that amount so the price wouldn't go through the roof? They agreed, with the caveat that the Saudis can't make up all of Iran's exports. There'd be some mechanism to prevent totally shutting them down, because that would leave the Saudis no spare capacity, which tends to be a driver for higher oil prices. So with the anticipation of the sanctions, we had some bumpiness in the oil market, particularly in the spring. But as they've been implemented, we've had at least a stabilization of prices at somewhat lower rates than were expected. We'll see whether these sanctions have an influence on Iranian decision making.
To me, the bottom line is this: is Iran really willing to seriously talk about giving up its nuclear-weapons program? If they are, I don't see a big problem in resolving the whole issue. If they want to prevaricate and have a situation where they're "sort of" talking about their nuclear-weapons program, then the sanctions are probably going to remain for a long time, at least until some other situation arises. I don't think the next administration is going to have a terribly difficult time with Saudi Arabia one way or the other. If diplomacy works, that's fine; they will have full diplomatic relations and fully correct relations with Iran if it produces an end to the Iranian nuclear weapons program. If not, there are different views in Saudi Arabia. Some feel very supportive of a military strike, and others are more fearful of it.
On Syria, we're in a state of limbo, with the Saudis and Qataris providing arms to the Syrian opposition. I think it's been widely reported that the United States has said, please hold off on providing the very effective shoulder-fired missiles that can hit airplanes and tanks. We're still sort of in limbo on that. I think there are some of those more sophisticated weapons near the borders of Syria, but they're not getting to the opposition. That's been a point that I think Governor Romney has made, that he would be in favor of working with the Saudis and Qataris to ensure that the Syrian opposition gets the weapons it needs to hit Assad's planes and tanks. As far as I know, this is still tied up in the Principals Committee, in terms of what actions we should or should not take. On the one hand, we don't want these arms to go to people we don't know, dangerous people. On the other, if you leave Assad in place and he prevails, what kind of world is that?
These, I think, would be the big issues on the agenda. On the Middle East peace process, if there's something that could be done, Saudi Arabia would be very supportive. I think at the moment, they want to get on with the rest of their lives, as long as they can see that this is a riddle that is not going to be solved anytime soon.
The final issue, always on agenda, would be oil-market stability. That's been an issue between the United States and Saudi Arabia since FDR first met Ibn Saud in 1945. The United States didn't import any oil then; we were an oil exporter at the time. But for FDR and the 12 presidents that followed him, it's been a very simple formulation, if you understand the size and importance of Saudi oil reserves. Whether the United States needs to import oil or not, we don't want those reserves to fall into the hands or under the indirect control of hostile elements, whether the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein or, currently, the ayatollahs. The world would be very different if hostile powers held the oil resources of the Gulf. They would be able to control the world economy, something that, again, past presidents have not wanted to contemplate. That's the perennial issue on the table, and it tends to guide the rest of the relationship.
PAUL PILLAR, former national intelligence officer, National Intelligence Council; professor, Georgetown University
As the cleanup hitter, I've been asked to address Iran and Syria, which I will do in that order, with most of the attention devoted to the first topic. I would say on both of them, there will be as we head into the new administration next year pressures on the U.S. president, whoever he is, to do more, to get involved more on both of those issues. But on each one, there will either be no good choices for the administration to make or, if there are at least reasonable choices that could be taken, it will be politically difficult back here in the United States for the president, whoever he is, to select them.
Let's talk first about Iran. There are many potentially useful departures that a U.S. administration could make with regard to Iran that would involve trying to improve our absolutely awful relationship with the Iranians and to actually get some benefit in areas where U.S. and Iranian interests, believe it or not, parallel or intersect — such as Afghanistan, stability in Iraq and so on. But there will continue to be a fixation on one issue above all, and that's the Iranian nuclear program. That's mainly because of the unceasing agitation on this topic by the current Israeli leadership.
There will, of course, be an election in Israel, too, in the first part of the year, but all of the prognoses I've seen with regard to its likely outcome indicate that we will still have Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, even if there might be some adjustments in the ruling coalition. This means a continued political environment here in the United States — at least in the short term, though we might hope for Scott's long-term prognosis to come true — in which the issue of the Iranian nuclear program will necessarily be a political fixation.
An obvious constraint on either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney as president, beginning in January 2013, would be that he would be boxed in by his own comments, repeatedly stated, that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable. And, of course, there have been statements here on the Hill by Congress along the same line. That would not necessarily have to be a problem, given that there is no indication to date, as our intelligence agencies tell us, that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. But certain aspects of their nuclear program, particularly the enrichment of uranium, have come to be perceived in the debate as having a degree of unacceptability of their own. And, of course, the Israeli prime minister talks about this constantly and about so-called red lines and so forth.
Avoiding having this situation turn into a disaster for the U.S. administration is a problem mainly of political constraints here in this country rather than any lack of negotiating space between Iran and the P5-plus-1, the negotiating group that the United States is part of. To have an agreement, you would have to allow some uranium enrichment, probably at no more than the 5 percent level. The outlines of an agreement are pretty clear. They would involve trading severe restrictions, to be negotiated, on medium-level or 20 percent enrichment in return for sanctions relief. And we should bear in mind that sanctions relief is the main reason that the Iranians have to negotiate at all at this point.
On the first aspect, the 20 percent, there are questions that need to be negotiated — not just ending the 20 percent enrichment that's going on now, but also determining the disposition of the stockpile that Iran already has. Happily, the Iranians have already helped resolve that problem by converting some of the fuel at that level to fuel plates for reactors, where it's no longer usable for further enrichment to weapons grade. There would also have to be negotiations over the sequence of when each side has to live up to its part of the bargain. The Iranians reportedly placed a proposal on the table that was unacceptable to the West. Their preferred sequence, understandably, would be to have what they want in terms of sanctions relief come first, before they give up what they'd have to give up with regard to medium-level enrichment. The P5-plus-1 preference is, of course, the opposite.
This is a very common situation in international negotiations. Naturally, each side wants to get what it wants first before giving up anything. It's also very common that this is one of the most eminently negotiable items. It's not an indivisible good; you can compromise. The usual solution is some kind of sequencing arrangement in which, at each stage, each side both gives and gets. So the outlines of an agreement are pretty clear. I would go so far as to describe our current state of affairs, if we were serious about negotiating over it, as a matter of details. Exactly how do we handle that 20 percent stuff that's already been enriched, and exactly what will be the sequence for implementation?
The sanctions that we talk about so much and that keep getting ratcheted up are ostensibly a form of leverage to get the Iranians to make concessions on the nuclear issue. Secretary Clinton not too long ago described the sanctions in exactly those terms: if the Iranians will make concessions, then this is a problem we can deal with in terms of offering sanctions relief. The main problem so far is that the P5-plus-1 has not put any sanctions relief on the table as an offer, except for the sole minor exception of airplane spare parts. So the principal problem right now, in terms of where the negotiations stand, is that the Iranians have been given no reason — certainly no assurance — that the sanctions won't just continue on, no matter what they do with regard to nuclear policy. That obviously kills any incentive to make concessions on their part.
The problem for the new U.S. president will be to find political space to be flexible with regard to the sanctions. Prime Minister Netanyahu will reject any loosening of sanctions; in fact, he's rejected the whole idea of negotiations basically out of hand. This, of course, will continue to have obvious implications with regard to shaping the political climate here in the United States.
We also have those who hope, both here and in Israel, that the squeeze of sanctions will somehow hasten regime change in Iran. In other words, there is some other purpose besides leverage for getting concessions on the nuclear issue. That's notwithstanding the prospect that even if there were regime change — and I certainly would not advise holding our breath waiting for it — that it would mean whoever comes into power in Tehran would fold on the nuclear issue. Not likely, given the broad support that a peaceful nuclear program has in Iran. Note, also, that a lot of the U.S.-imposed sanctions, as embedded in legislation, have had other issues besides the nuclear one stated as rationales: human rights, relations with terrorist groups, and so forth. So it would be very difficult here on the Hill to back down on that, even if negotiations went well with the Iranians.
All of these constraints, put together, do not augur very well for taking advantage of the negotiating space that does exist. And showing flexibility and using sanctions for what they ostensibly are to be used for — that is, leverage — requires you to be flexible. It requires you to put offers on the table, assuring that you will provide relief if the other side makes concessions. This is something we haven't done so far. We have used sanctions as some kind of unending punishment, which, as I said, gives the Iranians no incentive to concede. Perhaps the only offsetting basis for optimism I could cling to is that anyone who is even halfway briefed on this issue will know that there is a clear basis for an agreement along the lines that I just outlined. And with some flexibility on sanctions, an agreement can be achieved.
We shouldn't be surprised if this issue, as we move through 2013, staggers on in pretty much the form that we see it today. Don't be deceived by talk about zones of immunity and implied deadlines and so on. Despite the bursts of talk that suggest urgency, this talk isn't all that new. It really hasn't changed for the last several years, certainly since Mr. Netanyahu has been prime minister in Israel. Bear in mind that those agitating most loudly on this issue have other motives, including distracting attention from other problems, particularly the problem that Scott discussed. If anything, that's a reason for them to continue agitating about this issue rather than to actually resolve it.
Although both presidential candidates have boxed themselves in with statements about the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon, there are bases for anticipating some differences with regard to how our own election is going to come out. The main one is that, if Mr. Obama wins, he would be a second-term president, never running for office again. He would have more basis, because of that, for perhaps taking political risks in the interest of introducing the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement. Mr. Romney would be running for re-election from day one. On anything involving Israel and the concerns of Prime Minister Netanyahu, a President Romney would have to wonder what Sheldon Adelson would say the next time he happened to see him.
Iran may not force any U.S. president, even over the next four years, to come to terms with the nuclear-weapon-is-unacceptable idea. They haven't made a decision even to make one, and they could just stick with their declared intent not to. So we may never see true presidential bottom lines on this issue.
One final observation: The fact that military force would be a counterproductive folly should be clear enough that a second-term Obama administration would do just about anything to avoid it. For Mr. Romney, the issue has so far been — how shall I put it? — an epiphenomenon of the need to show no daylight between him and the Israeli leadership. What his own personal bottom line would be on the Iranian nuclear issue if he were in office is anyone's guess. But his election clearly would mean a return to policy-making positions of some of those who do not believe that war with Iran would be a counterproductive folly.
Now for some briefer observations on Syria. In many people's eyes, some of what's most important about what's going on in Syria is the Iranian connection, the idea that the Assad regime has been the only ally of Tehran in the Arab world. So there has been the hope that, if we can get regime change there, it would be a big blow to Iran. Actually, the chief considerations on Syria and the problems it will present for the new U.S. administration are not so much about the Iranian connection, but about considerations inside Syria. Two major factors will shape how we think about this issue in the year ahead.
One is that there will be continued pressure to do something, to do more. One only has to read the Washington Post editorial page, where there's tub-thumping on this almost every other day. This, in turn, is driven by two things. One is the very understandable humanitarian concern about the bloodshed. The second is a desire to give Assad a push, to get rid of this regime. This is partly because of the Iran alliance, but also because of general anti-dictatorial sentiments and the hope that something like a democracy could emerge in Syria. The other major factor is that there is very little, if anything, the United States could do that would shorten rather than intensify the war and not run the risk of becoming a slippery slope toward a much deeper U.S. involvement than the overwhelming majority of Americans would want.
The main problems that underlie the latter factor are not about to go away. The chief one is the prospect of the pro-Assad forces' hanging on for a long time, however desperate their situation sometimes seems, as we read about the opposition's doing this or that. The main factor behind this and something that makes Syria different from Libya, for example, is the sectarian dimension. You've got the whole Alawite community, which to greater or lesser degrees, mostly greater, sees itself linked with this regime and fears, with good reason, what their fate would be if the largely Sunni opposition took control.
There are also big problems on the opposition side: disunity, radical influence, and the absence of anything to give us confidence there would be someone or something to establish order if the regime were to crumble next week.
Getting into some of the issues that Nat touched on, there was a David Sanger article in The New York Times just a few days ago that appropriately got a lot of attention. It had to do with the arms supplies from the Saudis and Qataris to some of the Syrian opposition and the understandable concern that these arms seem to be going into the hands of militant jihadists. All this replayed in my mind what was going on in Afghanistan more than 20 years ago. We and the Saudis were trying to support the fight against the Soviets, and we had to work with the opposition militias that were in place. The most effective fighters among them were hardline jihadists, people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who later came to be considered an enemy of ours.
That's basically the kind of situation we've got in Syria. It should not surprise us that we cannot fine-tune who gets the weapons and have them go only to people who share our values. In addition, the more extreme militants are the ones who tend to be the best fighters in an extreme, brutal civil war. That's the way it was in Afghanistan; that's the way it seems to be in Syria.
Despite the efforts of the candidates to show that they're somehow different, I look at what the current administration's saying and doing and what Governor Romney is saying, and I don't see much difference in their basic positions. The only basis one can have to infer a difference is the prospect that there will be a neoconservative entrée into a Romney administration. This requires us to take an all-bets-are-off approach with regard to any new initiatives that involve military force.
Some of what may shape or even force new decisions on whoever is the new president will involve how the Syrian civil war affects or is engaging other states in the region. I say this even though I don't subscribe to what you hear about civil war spreading across boundaries, like molasses oozing across the map. That usually doesn't happen. However, we've got some important players — the most important being Turkey because it's a NATO ally — that have to defend their borders. Look what's happened to them lately: mortar and artillery shells have killed their citizens across the border. They have to do something about that. And insofar as they want to make good on their opposition to support for the Assad regime, they also have to do things like force down planes in their airspace that are shipping matériel to Syria. So things might happen to the Turks that force their hand, which, because they are an important ally of ours, force the hand of the U.S. president in some way.
There is also the obvious potential for things to be stirred up in Lebanon because of the special relationship and geographical link between Syria and Lebanon. That can go in so many directions I'm not going to try to game it out here. Then you have the concerns of the Gulf Arabs, especially the Saudis, about the fate of their Sunni brethren in Syria. This is something the United States will have to deal with, and for this reason, the handling by the new administration of the Syrian problem will be very much a function of U.S. relations with the Gulf Arabs and especially the Saudis. Except for the optimistic note that I struck earlier that there is negotiating space to be explored and exploited on the Iranian nuclear issue, I really don't see many opportunities for productive advances in either of these areas by whoever is president come January.
DR. MATTAIR: To begin the Q and A, I would like to mention an anecdote. I interviewed an official at the State Department in the late 1990s when I was writing a book. He said to me, "We do not make our policy t oward Iran based on our national interests. We make our policy toward Iran based on our domestic politics." Paul served in government and had to think about our national interests all the time, and he thinks there is an opportunity for a diplomatic resolution of the Iran issue. Scott has talked about the importance of the Israel lobby, although it may be cracking. What can the next administration do to overcome this?
As a graduate student, I remember listening to Ronald Reagan's 1982 address to the nation from the Oval Office about what was occurring in Lebanon, where Israel had intervened, and we were just about to deploy Marines. Would it make a difference for a president today to talk to the nation about the way in which our failures in Arab-Israeli affairs have led to anti-Americanism in the region? Moreover, many people in an American audience today would not know the difference between uranium conversion and uranium enrichment and the design of a warhead, how long it would take to build and test a weapon and what it would require to deliver it accurately.
Can an American president educate the American people enough to build a domestic constituency that supports a different kind of American foreign policy in the region?
DR. PILLAR: Admittedly, it's very difficult to translate some of the things we may discuss in this room to this sophisticated audience into a way that's going to play to Peoria. But even on some of these issues, with the appropriate simplification — not dumbing down, but simplification and some appropriate, quite frankly, rhetorical artifices — some things could be done. On the Iranian nuclear issue, for example, you're right, Tom. How much does 20 percent enrichment mean to the man on the street? But let's suppose the president, in speaking publicly about this, emphasizes the theme that we've been putting these sanctions on again and again; we've ratcheted them up again and again. They have a purpose: to induce concessions by Iran on the nuclear issue. Repeat that again and again. Using sanctions that way means we have to be willing to lift them or reduce them if, indeed, we get concessions. It's a pretty simple message, I think, that even John Q. Public can understand. It's got to be repeated a number of times.
Or to take one other example, which Scott talked about: challenging the lobby. Let me offer a slogan to whoever is the White House political director: "America first." Shouldn't we put America's interest ahead of any other country? America first. Keep repeating that and applying it to the problems that Scott talked about. I think that would have some effect.
DR. MATTAIR: If there is still a window for a two-state solution, what do you think the president could do?
DR. McCONNELL: I think the window for some sort of détente with Iran is more open than for a two-state solution. The domestic opposition would be easier to overcome. The example that keeps coming to mind is Nixon's going to China, which was considered hugely weird, and he could never have campaigned on it. The Chinese were killing American soldiers in Vietnam by transferring weapons, and they had a regime that was considered a crazy state ready to use nuclear weapons because they would survive with several hundred million people, and the West would not. Yet they also had a Zhou Enlai and a government that was very businesslike in terms of being able to reply to Kissinger's and Nixon's outreach.
I think that situation may exist with Iran, and I think that would change a lot in the region. If you get off the U.S. mindset that all Muslim states, except the most docile ones, are potentially adversarial, that seems to be possible. In an opposite way than the Israelis claim, I think the route to a Palestinian state may go through Tehran — not after wiping them out, but after finding some common ground with them.
MR. KERN: The only question that I'd raise with Paul on how potentially easy it would be to negotiate is that I can't figure out what earthly value Iran gets out of a peaceful nuclear-enrichment program. Their nuclear power plant at Bushehr could be fueled for $60 million a year with nuclear fuel. What is it costing them if this is a purely peaceful program? That's what baffles me.
DR. PILLAR: I was in the Emirates a couple of years ago, and the same question came up as to why the UAE, with all of its oil, is pursuing nuclear energy.
MR. KERN: That's different because they have just contracted to buy all the fuel they'll need for their nuclear plants for the equivalent of $60 million. They're going to have some more nuclear plants, but they'll be buying it. It will be enriched outside by Canadian, British, Russian and French companies, fabricated in Korea and then shipped in. They don't want to do the enrichment. So it's a separate question.
DR. PILLAR: There's no question that there's an Iranian interest in a nuclear weapon. They've even done design work in the past.
MR. KERN: There's no such thing as a peaceful program.
DR. PILLAR: Those are two different things. To say that there is an interest, and potential future decisions with regard to weapons and weaponization, versus no peaceful purpose — those are not equivalent questions.
MR. KERN: Why would you suffer $50 billion of losses on an annual basis to protect a $60 million-a-year program?
DR. PILLAR: A former Pakistani prime minister talked about eating grass to satisfy his prestige-fueled nuclear ambition, and he was talking specifically about weapons. But the nuclear program as a whole, if you look at what indications we have of Iranian public attitudes toward it, distinguishing between weapons and a peaceful program, is that there is very strong support for the peaceful program. It would be a major political hazard for any Iranian leader, including the supreme leader, to say, we're going to give up the program because of pressure. That's just not going to happen.
MR. KERN: I can't believe that the Iranians are backing a $60 million program with the strength they do unless they believe it'll provide them with weapons.
DR. PILLAR: The Iranians, like a lot of other decision makers, haven't made all the national-security decisions that will cover them for the next 10 years. This is a decision that has not yet been made. It is a decision that will be heavily influenced by what the West — and the United States, in particular — does. The decision can still go either way; the Iranians can decide to build a nuclear weapon. They would almost certainly decide to do that if, for example, they were subject to a military attack. But they haven't done that yet, and whether they do it or not depends on things we do.
DR. MATTAIR: I might add, in addition to these questions about pride and responding to popular sentiment, and maybe stubbornness too, would be the fear that a foreign supply of enriched uranium could be cut off. It's a country that's been subjected to sanctions for a long time; even in the 1950s, its oil was boycotted. However, I think that, in the backs of their minds the option of weapons is something that they want to have.
MR. KERN: We want them to give up that option.
DR. MATTAIR: The other concern is more about general security: they have nuclear states to the north, east, west and south, and even an American military presence. That's why I spoke earlier about a grand bargain, which I know Saudi Arabia and some of the other Gulf states are concerned about. If you negotiated not only about nuclear weapons but also about what kind of Arab-Israeli agreement they will accept and not try to disrupt, and what their role should and shouldn't be in the Gulf vis-à-vis the Gulf Arabs, maybe you'd provide them with more incentive to give up these dreams of weapons. But it would have to be constructed in a way that guaranteed the Gulf Arab states that their security interests are not going to be compromised; that we are not going to recognize a dominant Iranian role vis-à-vis the Gulf Arab states. That has to be clear.
MR. KERN: And the fallback position, if they don't capitulate and diplomacy doesn't work, is containment. We know how to do that. We had 18,000 nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at the Soviet Union.
DR. MATTAIR: That's right. And most people think they are a rational regime.
MR. KERN: Eighteen thousand nuclear weapons trained on you makes you rational.
DR. CESARI: I would like to make two comments about what can be done in the short or longer term. Regarding the point of making the public aware that the reinforcement of sanctions against Iran is against the interests of the United States and will not weaken the Ahmadinejad regime: I think quite the opposite. What we are witnessing now is reinforcement by people who cannot stand the current regime. But they are afraid Iran might be attacked. The more we attack Iran, the more we reinforce Ahmadinejad domestically. If this could be advertised, it might help.
This brings me to the second point. The new administration will have to move out of what I call the Camp David paradigm. It doesn't exist anymore. We can address Iran. We can address Saudi Arabia. We can address Syria. But what is really needed is a vision of the geopolitical balance in the region. This also has to be discussed with other partners, including Turkey but also the Gulf states. It cannot just be simply, first we solve Iran, and then we solve the Palestinian issue, and then we solve the Syrian issue. We need not a grandiose vision but a regional vision. All these new political actors think regionally, and we don't have an alternative regional vision.
DR. PILLAR: I would like to ask Scott McConnell a question. If Obama wins the election and makes the kind of speech that you outlined — maybe even before the Knesset — what would be your fondest hope in terms of the Israeli reaction? Given that you're among those who believe we've perhaps passed the limits of a two-state solution and the overwhelming majority of Israelis would not want to grant the vote to Palestinian Arabs. What would be the hoped-for Israeli reaction if that kind of speech were made?
DR. McCONNELL: I think the Israelis might vote for a change of government, headed by Olmert or someone like-minded, who recognizes that Israel's current course is unsustainable. Someone who believes that a secure, dynamic state that was recognized and respected in the Arab world would satisfy the core ambitions of Zionism.
This would mean embracing something like the Clinton parameters. It assumes Palestinian interlocutors. I believe they certainly exist, but it obviously isn't a done deal, because of the stance of Hamas among other things. But my hope would be that a speech like this would change the political balance within Israel and make Israelis understand, rather viscerally, that their current direction is off course.
Q: I'd like to raise the question of controlling the war policy, including the drone-war policy, of the Obama administration. It completely ignores Congress, the War Powers Act and the Constitution. Let's leave aside what Romney might do, which is to bring about a kind of 9/11 redux, represented by the calamity in Benghazi and the possibility now of a bombing retaliation to that calamity. This has gotten into the election campaign only to the extent that al-Qaeda is not being defeated by this strategy, but rather the opposite. The Saudis are in the middle of this, as is support from London for terrorism.
There is a resolution before Congress sponsored by Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a militarily connected representative, to make an impeachable offense the waging of war by any president without going to Congress. How can this war policy be controlled?
DR. PILLAR: That's a very important set of issues. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not going to pronounce in any specific way on issues of constitutionality, but I think the question very appropriately raises fundamental issues of limits on the use of military force. Basically, all of the lethal actions referred to in the question, and much more, are still being based on the single resolution passed by Congress in the first week or two after 9/11, back in September 2001. In my nonlegal professional view, that's an awfully thin reed on which to base continued justification for use of lethal force outside our borders. That resolution made reference to al-Qaeda and to the perpetrators of 9/11. The term "al-Qaeda" has come over these 11 years to be used in a loose way to refer in general to violent-minded Sunni militants. The term does not correlate well at all with any particular organizational reality for which the laws of war would be appropriate and for which the continued use of congressional authorization of military force really can be considered sound. But other than agitating on the issue, as your question implies, and devoting other careful legal attention to this on the Hill, I don't have a particular solution. I certainly acknowledge it's a major and appropriate concern.
Q: Is it possible to have long-term nuclear stability in the Middle East as long as there is a monopoly on nuclear power? Can we actually get something done in that area without talking about Israeli nuclear weapons and what their role is in terms of Israeli policy in the region? If it is the case that you have to talk about Israeli nuclear weapons, shouldn't the United States and the American president be willing to talk about them, even though the Israelis don't want him to?
DR. McCONNELL: I agree that it's not a stable situation for Israel to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East. I can't imagine the psychology according to which we say, in effect, to the states representing a billion Muslims, Israel can have nuclear weapons but you can't. It doesn't make sense; it's not sustainable.
I used to read carefully and write for Commentary magazine, and in 1975, Robert W. Tucker, an eminent and quite hawkish political scientist, wrote an essay in which he argued that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East might well lead to more stability and peace between Israel and its neighbors than the current situation. The article is available on the Commentary website, and I think it is provocative and probably correct.
DR. PILLAR: On the issue of whether to speak openly about the Israeli nuclear program, there are very thoughtful, informed people who believe it would be in Israel's own interest to be open and not to pretend that this arsenal doesn't exist. Avner Cohen, the foremost historian of the Israeli nuclear program, had an article in Foreign Affairs a couple of years ago in which he argued exactly that.
DR. MATTAIR: You could argue that with no other nuclear power in the region, Israel's nuclear arsenal has given it a tremendous amount of flexibility in its regional policies, being able to use force without thinking about the consequences. There's another eminent political scientist, Kenneth Waltz, who just wrote in Foreign Affairs that, if Iran obtained nuclear weapons, you would have stability in the system because the concept of deterrence would pertain.
Q: In a year or two, the countries surrounding Syria will be at least involved in the conflict peripherally. I was wondering what Dr. Pillar would recommend, given the theme of this panel, as far as how the United States should be interacting with those countries to try to prevent another Afghanistan scenario. If intervention does not happen, what would be the ideal scenario, given the other actors in the region and how they're influencing events on the ground?
DR. PILLAR: The sad reality is that this is one of those situations where there is no ideal scenario, or even a good one. I alluded to that in my opening comments. I would commend a piece by my friend and colleague, Daniel Byman, that was in the Outlook section of the Post this last weekend. He makes the point that the world, and especially the Middle East, is an awfully messy place in many ways, and no U.S. president can be expected to resolve everything. The bloodshed in Syria makes all of us shudder. That doesn't mean there is some U.S. policy option that will bring it to an end or even reduce it. Most of the options I see in terms of trying to do more, if anything, would probably exacerbate it.
The only other thing I can say is that, as your question implies, it's not just the United States, but other players in the region. As Jocelyne was mentioning with regard to the Iranian issue, the same thing applies to Syria. We will, and we should, continue to work very closely with our allies. Jordan, Iraq and Turkey all have something like 100,000 refugees each in their countries, at least. We can't do it all ourselves. I wish I could give you an ideal scenario, but there just isn't one.
DR. MATTAIR: Nat, how do the Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis and others view the possibility of militant extremists coming to the fore in Syria, when they have to fight militant extremists at home — and do a good job of it. What if the money and arms are going to these people in a disproportionate way? The beginning of the David Sanger article says the majority of the weapons are going to militant extremists, but if you read deeper into the article, it says intelligence communities are having a very difficult time determining who the rebel leaders and the rebel factions are. If we don't know who they are, how do we know the majority of weapons are going to militant extremists? But what if they are?
MR. KERN: The problem is, the militant extremists come to the fore as the rebel opposition in general feels abandoned by the West. Failure to get the weapons that they've been promised, for example, opens the space. It's one of those problems that get worse with time if you're doing nothing or blocking effective weapons. It's sort of a conundrum. The next president takes office on January 20. What's going to happen in the meantime? Overall, you've got the problem of unpalatable choices, the lesser of two evils.
To the extent that the Soviet Union's fall had something to do with the defeat in Afghanistan, all the repercussions we had from weapons going to jihadists in Afghanistan were better. It's better that the United States and the Soviet Union are not still threatening to demolish the earth. The other fallouts were worse. We've had tough decisions like this in the past. The second major recipient of U.S. arms during World War II was Stalin's Soviet Union. We might not have won without them. It did result in bad consequences. Sometimes those are the choices; eyes wide open, please.
Q: If we look at the Gulf, I think the safest bet for stability and the interests of Americans and the citizens in the Gulf is by support and encouragement from the Americans. Dr. McConnell, do you think it is feasible for the next administration to play a proactive role instead of a passive role? There is silence about human-rights violations in the region, about calls for reform, about sectarianism and the policies in Iraq and Syria. So what is feasible for the next administration?
DR. McCONNELL: It's far from my field of expertise, but I'm inclined to think that the United States can't do a lot about the internal politics of the Gulf states or other Arab states. It's beyond our knowledge, history and experience. I think we can be an example. I think we can speak out, encourage students to come here and study, be a good trading partner. But I just don't see American policy saying, this is how you deal with your sectarian issues and the role of Islam in your public life. It's just beyond us.
DR. MATTAIR: There's a related question from the live streaming: Should the next administration put more emphasis on human-rights violations by the Islamic Republic of Iran in order to promote their crisis of legitimacy?
DR. CESARI: I completely agree that a discourse on values like human rights and democracy doesn't work. We have gone through that already. I think it would be very bad to give the idea that the United States is here to teach something to these countries. You need another approach: working with the people in the region. There is no retail situation. You have to look at what the protagonists have at stake. You cannot just say, I'm going to come and solve the question of human rights or the sectarian divide. This doesn't always reflect the power relationship on the ground. We cannot do domestic correction. But we can have a geopolitical vision on the whole dynamic behind the question of Sunni-Shia. Iran plays a role in that, too.
It's hard to get out of the mentality that the United States has to do something, to pull up its sleeves and go to work. There is much more regionally grounded, multilateral thought needed. It sounds like words that don't mean anything, but you gave an example where this happened for the United States in other parts of the world with other political partners. It's time to think that the United States cannot solve everything. Does this mean that the United States has a diminished role? I don't think so. It's another approach to what leadership is. I'm not buying the whole "decline of the United States." I think there are lots of very positive things going on. But the United States cannot be the sole actor on some very complicated issues. We have not paid enough attention to the regional actors either. One of the mistakes in Afghanistan was not only arming the jihadis, but not taking into account the regional balance surrounding the Afghan conflict. We were still in the Cold War framework. So I think we have to learn from past mistakes.
DR. PILLAR: Trade-offs abound; U.S. interests are multiple. We've got a limited number of diplomatic and political chits to use, and the more you concentrate on one objective, the fewer chits you have for some other objective. If we're all tied up in knots about a nuclear issue with Iran, for example, and we really want to get something done on the human-rights issue — on which we ought to make our preferences and principles clear — we may not only run into the inherent limitations that Jocelyne mentioned, but also may work against our own attempt to advance other interests or achieve other objectives.
DR. MATTAIR: What the United States has done in the case of Bahrain is to encourage talks between the government and the opposition. It's a non-NATO ally; we have our Fifth Fleet there. Second, over the past 10 years, they've introduced more reforms than a lot of countries in the neighborhood. So if we lack the capacity to do more, at least we've asked for negotiations. Both parties have to be realistic about what they can get out of these negotiations.
Q: Mr. Kern, it seems to me that, when you talk about the Gulf and the problems and challenges for the next administration, one of the biggest questions is, what kind of leadership is the next administration going to have to deal with? It seems almost certain that whoever's president next is going to face new leadership in Saudi Arabia. Who do you think that might be? And do you think it's something that will have a significant impact on our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the region at large?
MR. KERN: We're in a better place now than we were two years ago, when you had an incompetent crown prince in intensive care. He was going to be the next king. And although opinions vary about the late Prince Nayef, I think by comparison, Salman is certainly more worldly and open. Nevertheless, there is a pressing need to move to the next generation. We've got some very capable people in their 50s, particularly the man who's been running counterterrorism, Muhammed bin Nayaf. He is capable, but also a very good politician, well-rounded and very sensible. I'd love to see him elevated to a position of greater responsibility in the not-too-distant future. As a policy matter, you've got to wait till that happens. There's nothing we can do. If there are some changes, the next president and the next secretary of state have to be apprised of what they are. There are no particular policy choices we can make about how the family regulates its affairs and succession.
Q: Don't you think that what's happened in the last couple of years — the Arab Spring and what's happened in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia — raises a question about the stability of the Gulf and how these monarchies are going to survive in the long term, and how people in this region will perceive the United States, especially if they see the United States on the side of their repressive regimes? Do you think that it's not only a moral obligation to stand with the calls for democracy and rights but also in the interest of the United States?
DR. CESARI: It's a very important question that shows the view from civil society, which we are not paying attention to. All the changes that have happened in the last two years were not made by the actors that we are discussing on this side of the table. The societies did it, and we are not, as a power, paying enough attention to these different elements of civil society. Change is not going to come from the monarch of Saudi Arabia, but it can come from changes in the balance of power within Saudi Arabia in connection with other countries. As long as we are not ready to include elements of civil society in our strategy in this part of the world, we're going to miss the opportunity to talk differently to people. We still only deal with this leader versus that leader. If there is one lesson learned from the last two years, it is that changes don't come from the professional politicians. They will come because of globalization. They will come from movements within societies. There is already a completly different outlook on how we interact in the region.
DR. McCONNELL: I think it's in America's interest to not get too involved, but clearly we are involved. And I think it's pretty obvious that in two generations the Gulf regimes won't be monarchies. I think we can probably agree on that. I don't think they're eternal. Maybe it will be one generation. Maybe 10 years.
DR. PILLAR: I disagree with Scott on that last point. Jack Goldstone over at George Mason has a thesis about this, what he calls the "sultanistic" regimes. Even if they're monarchical in effect, like the Assads in Syria, they don't have the historical legitimacy that royal families have in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco. Those secular dictatorships that don't call themselves monarchies are inherently more fragile. The monarchies — and what Mohammed VI has done in Morocco provides some examples — have more potential for making concessions and ceding partial political power to popular forces while remaining on the throne. The biggest, most recent change that Mohammed in Morocco made was to cede a lot of power to a government representing an elected assembly. And he's still sitting, more or less happily, in his seat as the king.
DR. MATTAIR: The United States has strategic interests and ideological interests. Sometimes it's extremely difficult to pursue them both at the same time. The ideological interest in the long term is that we favor more popular participation in government. But how much strategic interest can you jeopardize in the short term? That's the dilemma for American government.
DR. PILLAR: I'm a strong believer in the Hippocratic principle of "first do no harm." Unfortunately, despite noble objectives in a lot of places, we've wound up doing harm. That doesn't mean we have to retreat at all from making it clear what principles we believe in, and overall, that the Arab Spring or Arab Awakening, in my view, is a good thing from the standpoint of American interests and American principles.
DR. MATTAIR: I met a rather prominent Saudi woman in Jeddah recently. She said, I hope we don't get one-man, one-vote here, because if we do, I'm going to lose all the gains that women have made under this king. He is reforming gradually, but he has a population that's more conservative than he is. So he walks a tightrope, in a way.
In the negotiations between the Bahraini government and the opposition, is it true that the opposition asked for the legislature to have the power to name the cabinet? Is that a reasonable negotiating point? The legislature in the United States does not name the cabinet. The cabinet's named by the executive branch.
Q: What's happening now in Bahrain is that there are no talks, no dialogue, no incentive to engage with the opposition. There is no pressure on our regime to engage in a genuine dialogue with the opposition. The opposition has declared very clearly that they are ready for dialogue. They don't want democracy to happen overnight. They are ready to discuss the steps and how to get there. But there is no incentive. They have total support from their allies. The people are unarmed. Even though they are majority, the government doesn't care.
We have human-rights defenders, political leaders, physicians, journalists, lawyers in jail, tortured and intimidated, because they spoke out and said, we need more rights. We have a prime minister who has been on his seat for 43 years. There has been no other prime minister since the state of Bahrain was established. Is this something the United States is proud of? We're just asking for fair representation, for an elected government. Even this is negotiable, but at least we need to sit and talk. But this is not happening. And not only this; people are getting killed and locked up day after day.
DR. CESARI: What you are pointing at may not be at the top of the news, but the United States can have a relationship not only with states and state actors but also with the different elements of civil society. This works not by telling people what they have to do, but by putting a challenge of accountability before these countries. The point is not that the United States is going to say this is the right or the wrong interlocutor for you. Sometimes, unfortunately, it has ended up being this kind of selection. But we should bring everybody to the table. I think this is something that we have never really tried. The exception, again, was the Sudan case from 2004 to 2008.
Q: When the United States doesn't want to engage, it is perceived by people as not doing anything, as being on the side of the regime. So being neutral is actually supporting the regime. This is the perception of the people.
Have there ever been any successful sanctions in history? I mean, which have changed a regime? Why does the United States focus on sanctions? I'm from Iraq, and I tasted 13 years of sanctions. They empowered the regime and made us poor and really weak. We couldn't fight the regime because we were trying to survive. That happened in Cuba, that happened in Iran in the 1980s, and you are doing it again in Iran. Is there any reason for that?
DR. PILLAR: One has to be absolutely clear, first of all, on what the purpose of sanctions is. Squeezing the regime to try to topple it is one possible purpose. Inducing the regime to make concessions or change a policy is an entirely different purpose. Part of the problem with these Iranian sanctions is that we've got people who believe each of these things are objectives, and they work against each other. If you thought these sanctions were going to squeeze the regime to the point that it would fall, that means keeping them in, being absolutely inflexible, not conceding anything. If you're going to use them as they ostensibly are, as leverage to get change in Iranian policy on the nuclear matter, that argues for something entirely different. It argues for flexibility.
I am aware of no instance where sanctions can really be credited with toppling a regime. If you're going to use them to get policy changed, a clearly successful example was Libya under Qadhafi. We should remember the drastic change in policy that Qadhafi made — giving up his unconventional weapons programs, his terrorist programs and associations — and that was after he coughed up the Pan Am 103 suspects. The lifting of sanctions was a big part of that. He was under UN sanctions for several years. They were broad sanctions that stopped short of an oil embargo, so that you didn't have sanctions fatigue on the part of the countries imposing them. That was a successful example, and it worked because it was coupled with the offer of negotiations to have a new relationship and lift the sanctions. Unfortunately, a few years later, we said, we want to get rid of him anyway, when the opportunity came up. That damages a lot of our credibility. That's the only way in which sanctions work — to help induce change in policy by a regime — but they have to be coupled with negotiations, the carrots as well as the sticks.
Q: Has that made any more friends for the United States? When you imposed sanctions on 30 million Iraqis, they starved. Did that make them friends of the United States? Is this going to make the Iranians friends of the United States?
DR. PILLAR: I think you very appropriately make the point that there is a further downside with regard to just how populations react to sanctions. This is definitely a hazard that has to be taken into account.
DR. CESARI: On the Iranian case, you are absolutely right. The regime may not be strong, especially in urban areas, but the sanctions are used by the current president as a way to reinforce unity and cohesion among all Iranians, even the opponents, to face the threat from outside. So, instead of weakening Ahmadinejad or his regime, what we are witnessing is a sort of persistence of the regime. People are not going to protest or undermine his power, when they see Iran as a community under attack. So it's helping him. He uses the sanctions as a tool to control the country.
DR. MATTAIR: This has domestic political utility, in a way, here. If you're not sure what diplomatic deal you want and you're not sure you can sell it to the public, and the costs of war are too high, sanctions are a way of showing people you're doing something while you figure out what you want from diplomacy or whether you can avoid a war.
There's a report coming out from the World Health Organization very soon that's going to document how many miscarriages and birth defects have occurred in Fallujah since 2004 because of depleted uranium. We don't talk much about that when we think about war with Iran. A lot of people will die.
Q: Did Saudi Arabia invade Bahrain last year?
DR. MATTAIR: No.
Q: Did they send their military into Bahrain last year?
DR. MATTAIR: They were invited by the king. The Bahraini ruling family asked for support from other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Saudis sent members of the national guard, the Emiratis and Qataris sent police. They went to protect major infrastructure in Bahrain so that the Bahraini security forces could deal with the demonstrations. The Saudis, the Emiratis, the Qataris did not deal with the demonstrations themselves. From their point of view — and this is the dilemma of the United States, too — Iran has exploited situations like this before and there's the fear that it could exploit this one. That is why we do not know what to make of al-Wifaq and where it stands on questions of democracy and participation and in its relationship with Iran. We have concerns about that that are affecting our decision making. We do not want to undermine a good regime on behalf of a potentially anti-democratic opposition.
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.