Philip H. Gordon, Michael Doran, Jon B. Alterman
The following is a transcript of the ninety-fifth in a series of Capital Hill Conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. It was held in the Russell Senate Office Building on January 15, 2019, with the following presiding: Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, Council vice chairperson, and former ambassador to Malta, as moderator; Richard J. Schmierer, Council chairman and president and former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, as contributor; and Thomas R. Mattair, Council executive director, as discussant.
PHILIP H. GORDON, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow, U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Adviser, Albright Stonebridge Group; Former White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region
Let me start with what I predict will be a point of agreement among the panel though I'm sure we'll have plenty of things to disagree about, but we can probably agree that it's hard for any administration to get good grades on their midterm. I say that not facetiously, but in all seriousness. If any of the recent U.S. administrations were judged on the results of their Middle East policy in terms of bringing prosperity, peace and stability, they wouldn't get particularly good grades. Anyone approaching this topic needs to give an assessment with a degree of humility, both when it comes to the past and to prescriptions moving forward.
The Middle East today is going through a set of convulsions that make it really difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with it or to "fix" the region's problems. There's a tendency in Washington in sessions like this one, and frankly in the region itself, to attribute everything that's going on to U.S. policy — "We screwed this up or we got that right, and we caused this or that." The United States is an important factor, but it's certainly not the only one or even the main factor. The reality is that over the past 15-16 years or so, from the Iraq War through the Arab Spring to today, the old order in the Middle East has broken down, and we haven't found anything to replace it.
The autocracies and dictatorships, that stood in a number of countries across the region — Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and so on — are gone. There was a lot to be said against that old order, but it provided a certain order. Now that it's gone, all sorts of regional and local actors are rushing to fill the vacuum. That's inevitably creating conflicts that are very difficult to resolve. One result is increasing sectarianism. You have within some of these countries that are fractured a competition to fill the vacuum, largely along Sunni-Shia lines. This is creating splits within countries, but also between countries, as Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for regional leadership.
You also have ideological struggles to fill that vacuum, without some order at the top. Within the Sunni world you have deep divisions, which we see playing out in the Gulf today. Not just Saudi-Qatar, but across the board, on one side Turkey, Qatar, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and on the other side some of the Gulf leaderships. I make that point at the start to underscore, in the context of whatever assessment we give, that this is really hard, and the United States can't and doesn't have answers to these questions. We're going to talk about the current administration, but I think it's fair to note that the approaches of the past two administrations have not been particularly successful either, and they came at it from opposite perspectives.
The Bush administration faced a challenging Middle East and deciding to try to solve the problems by transforming the region and putting U.S. military power behind democratization and transformation. That ended in widespread failure, without advancing peace and stability and democracy in the way that we hoped. But then, under the Obama administration, you had largely the opposite — an attempt to limit U.S. engagement and costs and entanglements. That approach avoided deep entanglements, and it was also a period that saw the rise of ISIS and the horrific civil war in Syria, and absence of progress on Middle East peace, Libya and so on. So you've had two successive administrations coming at it from opposite perspectives, and they would ultimately not get particularly good grades either if you were only looking at results.
With that as background and context, what is the assessment? What can we say two years into the Trump administration, as it tries to grapple with these problems and challenges? Let me make a general point, and then talk about a couple of the specific policy issues. The general point would be that I think that this administration's Middle East policy suffers from a core contradiction that has yet to be resolved.
On one hand, the administration has very far-reaching goals and ambitions. We are going to confront, deter and contain Iran, and stop it from meddling throughout the region. We are going to destroy forevermore ISIS. We are going to present a Middle East peace plan that's the ultimate deal. And we are going to show American leadership in this region. It's a perfectly legitimate set of goals and aspirations. It was embodied, in a way, in the speech the secretary of state gave in Cairo a week ago, where he talked about reinvigorating American leadership and being a force for good in the region. He said, we will not retreat, and we're going to stand firm until every last Iranian boot is driven out of Syria. That is, on one hand, the administration's policy.
On the other, at least from the president of the United States, it's the opposite of all of that. The president continually says, and said before he was elected, that we have wasted six or seven trillion dollars — the figure changes all the time — on the Middle East, and we've got, quote, "nothing for it." Trump says that we would be better off if the past presidents had just gone away on vacation or played golf instead of doing all this intervention in the region. We were told a week or two ago that Syria is just sand and death, and we should get out and let others pay for it. I think that is a fundamental contradiction. The policy can be either one or the other, but not both.
In the business world, in contracting, you sometimes hear the expression: "you can have it fast, cheap or good, but you can't have all three." When it comes to the Middle East, I think there's a degree of that, too. You can make it your top policy goal and put all sorts of resources behind it, or you can get the heck out and say it's of no interest to you, But you can't do both of those at the same time. In that sense, I think there are two Trump administration policies towards the Middle East, and we're still trying to figure out which one it really is.
My sense is, it's more the latter than the former. At the end of the day, I think this president does believe it is a vast waste of American resources and assets. And he's not prepared to devote the blood and treasure necessary to achieve those very far-reaching goals that are sometimes talked about. I thought the secretary of state had a pretty hard job on his last trip, having to go to the region to try to reassure partners and allies of our commitments and determination. He went to Cairo to give a big speech about all those things, just after the president, out of the blue, decided the battle against ISIS was finished, because ISIS is allegedly defeated, and we're pulling out of Syria. That's something the administration is going to continue to struggle with.
What about individual policy issues? Let me mention four: Iran, Syria, the Gulf, and Israel and the Palestinians. I start with Iran, because I think that's where the administration would start. It's clearly the centerpiece of the administration's policy, sometimes even to the exclusion of anything else. If there is a Trump doctrine for the region, it probably is the notion that Iran is at the heart of all of the problems we face across the Middle East, and if we could just deal with that, many of the other issues would not necessarily be solved but would be far less difficult.
The problem is that after two years, the result of the policy has been, for sure, increased pain for the Iranian economy, but not the results that we're looking for in terms of Iranian behavior in the region. Thus, I have a set of questions about what this approach is really going to accomplish. The core of it, of course, was pulling out of the nuclear deal. We're not going to debate that deal here; that's been debated extensively in this room and others. But the point I would want to make is that the administration would give itself very high marks for pulling out of the deal and increasing pain on the Iranian economy. There's no doubt that U.S. secondary sanctions are having an effect.
The important thing to remember, however, is that this is not the goal of our policy. The goal is to use that pain and pressure to get Iran to do things differently. I don't think that is happening, and I don't know what path we expect to take that will lead it to happen. That's what I would ask about the administration's approach now. What is supposed to happen as we increase this pain on the Iranian economy? Are they going to behave better in Yemen, and Syria, and vis-à-vis Hezbollah, and elsewhere in the world? I don't see that happening yet. Are they going to accept a better nuclear deal? When the president pulled out of it, the argument was that it was a terrible deal because it had sunsets and didn't cover ballistic missiles. It didn't cover Iranian regional behavior and it didn't allow inspectors to go in anytime, anywhere — a wide array of complaints about the deal.
Do we expect that the Iranian regime is going to come back to the table and say, "OK, you're right, we accept it now. The deal can last forever. We'll have zero enrichment. It'll cover ballistic missiles. It won't let us interfere in the region"? I don't see that happening either. So then what? Is the Iranian regime going to change? Is this pain going to lead to a different regime that accepts the better nuclear deal and stops meddling in the region? Again, if the answer is yes, more power to the administration; let's tip our caps. The administration will have accomplished great things. But that doesn't seem to be imminent either.
The best thing I think that can be said about the administration's approach so far is, it has denied Iran resources it can put to some of these activities in the region. The problem with that, though, is that most of these things are relatively cheap. It doesn't cost Iran very much to interfere in Yemen and Bahrain or even support the Syrian government. Therefore, I come back to my core critique of the policy: it is no doubt increasing the pain on Iran, but it's not leading to the better and different policy that is meant to be the goal.
Looking forward, I think there's an interesting question about the nuclear deal itself. The argument was that by pulling out of the deal and re-imposing secondary sanctions, we would get a better deal than we have so far. Now, so far, Iran has stuck with the deal, hoping to entice others — the European Union, China, India — to keep buying Iranian oil. It would remain in Iran's interest to stay in the deal. Perversely, in a way, the more successful we are, the less likely that is to continue. If we're so "successful" that Iran in the next two years says, what's the point? If we're not getting any benefits from this deal, we might as well resume some nuclear activities, then the Trump administration will be in the same position as the Obama administration and the Bush administration before that. They faced this terrible binary choice between allowing Iran to have a nuclear-weapons capability and using military force to stop it.
Let me say a word about Syria. I would give the administration credit for a couple of things. One is the campaign against ISIS, which when the Trump administration came in was not complete. ISIS still held a lot of territory and had a lot of fighters. The Trump administration maintained the strategy that the Obama administration had put in place. It even said at the time it would be a 36-month campaign to defeat the caliphate and take all that territory back. The Trump administration arguably even intensified it and made further progress, including the liberation of Raqqa, the ISIS caliphate's capital. That has been a positive aspect of the administration's approach in Syria.
I also would give the administration credit on the chemical-weapons issue. I thought at the time it was the right thing to do to threaten or use U.S. military force to stop the wanton use of chemical weapons, killing thousands of civilians. I think the administration has shown that, while imperfectly, it is possible to deter the use of chemical weapons without getting bogged down in a civil war.
I think the more recent Syria policy of the administration is problematic, to say the least, and raises some really difficult questions. There's a legitimate debate that we could have about the recent decision to withdraw. I think a credible case can be made that we should pull out the 2,000 troops remaining in Syria, for reasons of costs and risks. It's certainly true that the administration overstated the benefit for a while — until it decided to pull out — of those troops being there, especially when it came to containing Iran.
I've said publicly that my own view would have been to maintain them there, at least for now. I think they were serving the enduring purposes of deterring a Turkish invasion and giving the Kurds leverage they need in negotiations with Damascus and finishing the job against ISIS. I think it's just factually wrong, as the president and vice president have said, that ISIS has been defeated. In fact, we saw that in the horrific bombings last week. ISIS is still not defeated. But that's a legitimate debate, and you can make honest and credible cases on both sides.
What I'm certain of, though, is that the process the administration has used in making this decision is counterproductive. I can't think of a worse way to have gone about pulling the troops out of Syria than that, with advisers right up to the day of the announcement making clear that the opposite was our policy — that we were going to stay in Syria so long as Iran had troops abroad. It was even called a new policy. This was articulated by top administration officials right up until the day the president suddenly tweeted that he thought ISIS was defeated and those troops were coming out "now."
I think this severely undercut those top administration officials, surprising allies and partners. It betrayed our Kurdish partners on the ground and undercut their leverage. In a functional administration, an NSC process would have been undertaken before the announcement, and before the tweet, and the final decision, not afterwards. In this case, it was backwards. The policy decision came out, and then administration officials were scrambling around trying to understand or interpret it, in some cases contradicting it, as the national security adviser did in Israel, only to be overruled by the president. In my view, a serious case can be made for a conditional, carefully planned and clearly articulated American troop withdrawal. But this version of withdrawing is the opposite of that. You could even call it diplomatic malpractice. I think it'll have consequences for our polices throughout the region.
How about the Gulf? It's been another priority, partly because of the issue of Iran for the administration. There, it is fair to say that the Trump administration has improved relationships with the leaderships of the countries in the Gulf. The question is, at what cost and to what end? When I say he's improved relations, I'd be the first to admit that during the Obama administration those relations were strained. There were real differences. On Egypt, they criticized the United States for not standing more firmly with Mubarak, even though it was the U.S. judgment at the time that it was the Egyptian people that decided to get rid of Mubarak, not the United States. Nonetheless, it was an area of friction.
On Syria, those governments — the Saudis and Emiratis, sometimes others — thought the United States should be more forceful in getting rid of the Assad regime, mainly to contain Iran. The United States had a different view and didn't want to get bogged down in that war, and there was a legitimate difference. Obviously, on Iran those leaderships were not happy with the nuclear deal and other American policies. Fair enough; there were some strains. They can be wildly overstated, mind you, because even in the Obama administration the United States was selling unprecedented amounts of weaponry to these governments, maintaining defense and intelligence cooperation, supporting the Saudi intervention in Yemen, notwithstanding U.S. concerns, being on the same side of the civil war in Syria, working with them on the Libya operation. It's easy to overstate the degree of those strains. There was a lot of cooperation as well.
Trump came in and sought to improve these relationships. Not least by taking his first-ever foreign trip to Riyadh. This was extraordinary for an American president to do, rather than going to Canada, Mexico or a European partner. It was meant to signal something: that the United States was going to prioritize cooperation with these countries. To sum it up, it was a transactional deal. The Trump administration was saying: If you signal your willingness to invest in the United States, buy U.S. weapons, and work with us on our priorities, like ISIS and Iran, we will back you on your priorities, like Iran. We will also get off your back when it comes to the democracy and human-rights dialogue that previous administrations would usually bring up. In that sense, there's no doubt that relations are better between the United States and those Gulf governments.
What's less clear is what the United States is getting in return and what the cost of that policy is. By "getting in return," I would say that, while the administration touts all sorts of investments from the Saudis and arms sales, people who have looked at this understand it is wildly overstated. Most of the arms deals were in place before the administration came in, and the investments are much more limited than the big numbers the administration throws around. There's also been a cost to it, signaling that we are so supportive of the agendas of those Gulf partners that they have a green light and a blank check to do whatever they want — launching the boycott of Qatar, continuing the bombing campaign in Yemen, repressing dissidents — without any pushback from the United States.
It's certainly right for the administration to want to preserve the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, but the reluctance to criticize the Saudi government over anything — including the Khashoggi affair — implies somehow that the United States needs Saudi Arabia's support more than Saudi Arabia needs U.S. support. I would question that proposition. I don't think the Saudis are standing up to Iran as a favor to the United States. They're standing up to Iran because it's their own policy.
I'll make my last point about Middle East peace. In the old days, the Israel-Palestinian issue would be the first point. These days, because there's so much else on the agenda, it often comes last. But I didn't want to finish without mentioning it, even if it is, to a degree, the dog that hasn't barked. We're two years into the administration, which came in with very far-reaching plans and great fanfare to negotiate the ultimate deal. But there has never seemed to be the right time to launch it.
Meanwhile, the administration has taken a number of unilateral steps that I think undermine the prospects for that plan, if and when it ever emerges, These include the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and the moving of the U.S. embassy without getting anything in return, cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA, closing the PLO office in Washington, and, most recently, supporting the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which has led the Palestinians to reject even security assistance, a priority of the Israeli government. So we find ourselves in a position where the Palestinians won't even talk to the United States, not the healthiest background to a successful peace plan.
I'll just sum up with a reinforcement of the point I made at the very beginning. These issues are all hard; there is no easy fix for the United States. And I wouldn't hold it against any administration not to be able to somehow solve the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Certainly Obama's administration couldn't do that, and the Bush administration couldn't do it either. That said, the United States is still a major player in the region that can make things better or worse; we still have major interests there. And I think it's fair to say that on most of the issues I've mentioned, the Trump administration has not made things better. In some cases, they've made things worse, and I worry about where that might lead over the next two years.
MICHAEL DORAN, Senior Fellow, Middle East Security, Hudson Institute; Former Senior Director, National Security Council; Former Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
If we're going to assess the Trump administration, we should start with what the president promised us during the election: I'm going to do more with less. I'm going to do much more than Barack Obama with much less blood and treasure than George W. Bush committed. Trump looked at the Bush effort to democratize the Middle East as a big boondoggle, a fantasy that was disconnected from a hard-headed definition of American interests. And he looked at Obama's policies as capitulation to adversaries, primarily Iran.
So there's a line of continuity between Obama and Trump. Both, responding to American domestic opinion, wanted to keep the Middle East at arm's length. The American public looked at the record of the however many years since 9/11. They saw that we'd toppled or had a hand in helping to remove four leaders in the Arab world, and they didn't see a lot of advantage to the United States for having done so. You have this same impulse working on both presidents, but they had a very different approach about how to deal with it.
I would liken President Obama's approach to conceiving of the Middle East as a round table. The job of the United States was to put all of the stakeholders together around it. That's an Obama administration phrase, and that's a great way to talk about the Middle East. We don't have enemies or friends; we have stakeholders and problems to solve. So Syria is a problem, and the stakeholders include the Israelis and the Saudis — but they also include the Iranians and the Russians. We bring them together at a round table, where we are first among equals. We're the chairman of the meeting, and propose solutions, and then try to come up with policies all the stakeholders can agree on.
The problem with this, from my point of view and I think from the point of view of the Trump administration, is that when you treat an adversary like the Iranians as a stakeholder and not an adversary, they're happy to pocket all the concessions you give them, and then they expect more. So we let them into the boardroom with the beautiful chandelier and the lovely paneling on the walls and they sat there and they took everything we gave them. Then they started dismantling the chandelier, pulling the paneling off the walls, and taking it to sell elsewhere. So the Trump administration's answer to the problem of how we look after our interests but minimize the commitment of blood and treasure is to work through allies. That, of course, has been the traditional answer in international relations since the Peloponnesian War.
The traditional allies are those who will accept the American security umbrella in the region, the most important being Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Those are the ones that have the greatest capacity to project power beyond their borders, whether it's hard power, military power or, especially in the case of the Saudis, economic power. The idea is to put together a coalition of our traditional allies to contain Iran. I would liken the Trump approach to a rectangular table. On one side you have the United States and its traditional allies, and on the other the adversaries, in particular the Iranian alliance system and the Russians. The job of the United States is to strengthen its side of the table against the other.
I believe that the Trump administration's approach is much healthier than the Obama administration's. The Obama administration's approach had failure baked into it. The conception was based on the idea that ultimately we're going to reach a deal with the Russians and the Iranians that is acceptable to all sides. It comes down to how you read the Iranians. And the Trump administration's read on the Iranians, and my read on the Iranians, is they want to destroy the American alliance system and expel the United States — from the Gulf, certainly, and from the Middle East.
The Obama administration's approach was to think about capabilities. They'd say, there's no way the Iranians have such aspirations; the power differential is so great, they'd be crazy to think that way. But if you look at what they do and what they say, they're telling us all the time that, indeed, they do think that way. In fact, they've had remarkable successes in thinking that way, despite the incredible power disparity.
So if I had to give the Trump administration a grade for its performance so far, I'd divide the grade into two parts: conception and effort, on the one hand, and results on the other. I give it an A-plus for conception and effort, and like Phil, I'd give it an incomplete for performance. We have to wait and see how all of this works out. There are a number of things that are, to me, unclear as yet. Some of them track with what Phil described. I totally agree with the general picture that he presents, but I totally disagree with all of his assessments.
I think the difference comes from this: Phil's grading success by whether we've solved problems in the Middle East. But I would start with his last assessment, that everything in the Middle East is hard. There are no easy answers, or quick fixes. We're not going to turn this region into Western Europe. We're not going to have an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement anytime soon. I'm not going to say it's not going to happen in my lifetime, but I'll be surprised if it does.
But if we have one, the world as we know it is not going to change. We're still going to have Hamas, and we're going to have the Palestinian Authority. We'll have an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas will reject it, and behind Hamas will be the Iranian alliance system and anybody else that wants to undermine the American security system. We're still going to have the same sort of balance of power on the ground that we have right now.
We're not going to put Syria back together. Syria is a problem that's going to be with us until I die. I hope that's a long time from now, but it's going to remain. We have millions of internally displaced people and refugees outside of Syria. They're not going back to their homes. This problem is going to have to be managed for a very long time, and on and on. We're not going to solve these problems.
What's the best that we can possibly hope for? That we position ourselves to manage these issues to the best of our ability. That's all we can hope for. The Trump administration's conception that we work with our close allies, or those who are willing to accept the American security system, is the only one that makes any sense. The American people have decided we're not going to bludgeon these people into doing what we want, and we're not going to transform them into being something other than what they are. We have to work with the region as it is, and we're going to work with it from a distance.
The Trump administration gets an incomplete for execution — but not for the reason that Phil mentioned. Yes, I give Donald Trump low marks for process errors, for tweeting out a policy on Syria without first having a well-managed NSC process and rolling it out with allies. Process error. There are some diplomatic repercussions from that, but the result is, on balance, good. My primary reason for saying that is that we had positioned ourselves in Syria so as to turn Turkey into a permanent enemy of the United States. How did this happen? It happened because, as I said, President Obama wanted to reach out to Iran, to turn Iran into a stakeholder at the round table, rather than an enemy. He believed that if he reached out his hand in friendship to Iran, as he said in his first inaugural, that the Iranians would reach out their hand in return. If we showed them that toppling their regime is not the goal of the United States, they would work with us to solve problems in the Middle East.
So when the Kobane crisis hit, when it became obvious to the president that he could not stay out of Iraq, that he was going to have to commit troops to Iraq and to Syria because of the rise of the Islamic State — this, you remember, is the thing that President Obama wanted to do least in foreign policy. He said in an interview with David Remnick, every president gets his paragraph. Every president has, in the history books, a paragraph about him that says: He did X, Y and Z. Obama came into office saying: A president has to know what his paragraph is going to be. So he had written his Middle East paragraph before he ever made policy toward the Middle East: I ended Bush's wars. I got us out of the Middle East. That was his paragraph.
When the Islamic State popped up, and he had to put troops into Iraq and Syria, it was devastating to him because it erased his paragraph. But the other achievement in his paragraph was: I transformed relations with Iran. The Iran nuclear deal was part of a thaw with Iran that was the thing Obama was most proud of. He was in the middle of negotiating it when the Kobane thing happened. So he gave an order to his people: We need a proxy on the ground that will not undermine our Iran policy and that will not pull us into direct conflict with the Assad regime, the primary proxy of the Iranians in the fertile crescent. The YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, the separatist Kurds in Turkey, raised their hand and said: Put us in, coach, we'll do it.
The Talabani faction from the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq has good relations with Iran and with the YPG. The Barzani faction is aligned with Turkey. The Talabani people grabbed the Americans by the hand and made the marriage with the YPG. It was all part of a seamless idea of Iran's becoming a stakeholder rather than an adversary. Our 2,000 forces in eastern Syria, whether they told themselves they were doing this or not, were building Rojava, the PKK's autonomous statelet in northern Syria, giving the PKK strategic depth and permanently destroying relations with Turkey, a NATO ally.
What President Trump did in pulling the troops out is to cut that Gordian knot, and that's a very good thing. It offers the prospect of pulling Turkey into a policy designed to stabilize the region, to the detriment of Iran and Russia. That's impossible without Turkey. Now, we're not there yet. President Trump is testing the proposition of whether we can return Turkish-U.S. relations to the kind of cooperation that we have known historically. The grade he will get in the end will depend in part on the success of that. I was disappointed about the pullout of the troops. I had always hoped we would use our position in Syria for our troops to actually carry out a more robust anti-Iran strategy. But by the time he did it, I realized that was never going to happen.
I hate to agree with Phil, but I have to agree with him on this. There is a gap between the stated aspiration of the Trump administration about countering Iran and the capabilities that we can see on the game board. It's not clear to me that if we have some 22 months — between now and November 2020, when we have the next presidential election — the president is going to succeed in tipping the balance between Iran and the United States. I will grade success differently, however. By doing very little, it was remarkable how consequential President Obama was with this roundtable approach, alienating the United States from its traditional allies and giving the United States very weak cards to play against Iran, as it used the Hezbollah model to insinuate forces into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. And also, by instituting the JCPOA.
You can see that the grooves of the Obama policy are now well-established in the minds of the Democratic foreign-policy elite. If we get a Democratic president in 2020, they want to immediately go back to the grooves that President Obama established. It was extremely hard for the Trump administration, given the tools that it had, to reverse what President Obama did. So I will give the Trump administration an A for execution if it does as good a job between now and November 2020, or whenever President Trump leaves office, of making it impossible for the next administration to reverse course, turn away from our allies and go back to what I consider to be a delusional policy of reaching out to Iran.
JON B. ALTERMAN, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, CSIS; Director, Middle East Program, CSIS; Former Member, Policy Planning Staff, Department of State
It's a pleasure to be back here. I used to work right down the hall. Mike got me invited to my first international conference and blurbed my first book. Gina drove me in Saudi Arabia when women weren't allowed to drive there. You can ask her how she pulled that off.
We're all talking about the Trump administration's policy in the Middle East, but as we've already heard, there are a whole bunch of policies: moving the embassy to Jerusalem and closing the PLO office and ceasing to abide by the JCPOA. There's the national security adviser saying we're not going to leave Syria as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders — and that includes Iranian proxies and militias — and then the president tweeting that we are leaving, then the administration saying it will take 30 days, then saying it will take six months. There's the embrace of the Saudi government. There's the relative U.S. disengagement on Yemen. There's the mixed messaging and then the disengagement on the disputes within the Gulf Cooperation Council. There's the idea of the Middle East strategic alliance in the Gulf as a way to say, "Let's ignore the fact that we're fighting now and talk about something we'll all do together in the future, and that's the way to solve that problem."
But it seems to me we're not really here to talk about policies. We're talking about how they fit together. It's really about what the Trump administration's strategy is in the Middle East. There are some who say the Trump administration doesn't really have a strategy in the Middle East; it's constantly flying off in all different directions. It's not coordinating. I don't think that's true. In fact, I think the Trump administration does have a Middle East strategy, which I would argue has three main components. So I'm going to talk about that and about Secretary Pompeo's speech in Cairo, and what I see as the shortcomings of the approach. Then I want to talk about some underlying weaknesses in the administration that exacerbate them.
I think we heard about the three key components from Phil and Mike. One is to rebuild the close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia that became frayed in the Obama administration. The second is to have the central organizing principle of U.S. strategy in the Middle East to be countering Iran, reversing the Obama administration's strategy of engagement. The third is, despite the first two, we're going to embrace the Obama administration's strategy of holding the Middle East at arm's length.
Let me take them one by one. First, as Phil described, our ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel were never that frayed in the Obama administration. With Israel, in particular, the Obama administration concluded a $38 billion aid package, provided funding for the deployment and development of the Iron Dome missile defense, and arranged for the sale of F-35 jets. Bilateral trade shot up 40 percent, as did military and intelligence training. This was not a ruined relationship. It was a close relationship where the personal ties between leaders were not warm, but that's not a frayed relationship. On Saudi Arabia, as well, the things that we do with Saudi Arabia on military issues, intelligence issues, diplomatic issues, we were coordinating. The leaders did not have warm feelings toward each other, but the national relations, I think, were strong. The Trump administration's changed the mood, but I don't actually see the level of cooperation being much different between the two administrations.
Second, I think it's strange to focus on Iran as the core of your Middle East strategy. Iran is so much weaker than the United States. Their military's had a horrible time resupplying for four decades. Their GDP is somewhere between the GDP of the state of Maryland and the state of Michigan — way below North Carolina. Mississippi is the state with the lowest per-capita income in the United States but seven times the per capita income of Iran. This is our big rival in the Middle East? Are you kidding me? Iran fights asymmetrically; it finds cheap ways to hurt. But it has no way to actually win; it can't defeat the United States. There's no way in the world. It's a country with no real allies, certainly no strong allies. As a general principle, Iran's game is that they can be a spoiler, but they can't be a winner. Building them up into the boogie man of the Middle East just lowers the bar for them to be a spoiler. We're making their job easier. By saying we're all about keeping them from doing anything, we're making it easier for them to do something.
In terms of withdrawing from the Middle East, to paraphrase Trotsky — not something I do in the Senate Russell Building very much — you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. As a country, we really have to have a conversation — long overdue — about our goals, ways and means in the Middle East. What can we expect to do? How much will it cost? What tools do we have? The president should have that discussion with the American people. The last several presidents have made promises but haven't really wanted to have the discussion. I think it's the role of Congress to engage in that discussion.
Those are the three pieces of the strategy. As for the Cairo speech, what was striking to me about it is that Secretary Pompeo reduced the Middle East to a collection of states, abandoning the long-standing practice of the United States of seeing countries, including the United States, in terms of both the governments and the people who live there. In a way, it gave away one of our big tools. For more than a century, the United States has stood as a cultural icon, an economic model, a political beacon and a government. And we were able to play one off against the other; one became a force multiplier for the other.
Our effectiveness as a government was in part because the United States as a nation has long been a force on the world stage. We've always played off that duality. In fact, we've often had success because we played off that duality. It was the U.S. government working with governments and people that facilitated the peaceful end of the Cold War in Europe. It was working with governments and people that helped spread prosperity and democracy in East Asia. From the days of decolonization after World War II to the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government has been conscious of the power that the idea of the United States has around the world. And it's maintained the useful tension of working with governments while still being conscious of the U.S. government's effect on populations.
Secretary Pompeo sort of tossed all that out in Cairo. He criticized the human-rights performance of hostile governments, Syria and Iran, and then just talked about the rest merely as partners and allies. He criticized the Obama administration for its eagerness to embrace only Muslims and not nations. But by "nations" he only meant governments. Now, there's something a little weird about that. This is a U.S. administration with unprecedented contempt for the bulk of the U.S. government, a government that doesn't really like government. And it's doubling down on governments that in almost all cases lack the honesty, efficiency and efficacy of their U.S. counterpart.
The concepts of a deep state, rogue intelligence operations, officially sanctioned torture, bribery, corruption, executive meddling in the judiciary — a whole bunch of things that are commonplace and tolerated throughout the Middle East — are rare and prosecuted in the United States. To juxtapose the fact that the administration wants to embrace those governments while being skeptical of the U.S. government is something I sometimes have a hard time wrapping my head around.
People in the Middle East see this in their own government, and they see this in the U.S. government, and they strain against their government. But the traditional approach in the United States has been to work with both. You can't abandon the governments and just work with inchoate groups of people. States are sovereign in all those things. But you understand, and you build ties, and work with your friends on what you have to work with, but you also push them, and try to get the parties to somehow come together and make governments more effectual and get populations to find pathways to improve their governments.
That's what we've done for decades. And that's what, to my frustration and disappointment, the Pompeo speech seemed to turn away from. I don't think it's going to lead to better policies. It seems to me that merely rallying governments to push back against Iran is not going to lead to U.S. success in the region. As an approach, it's one-dimensional. It leads to quick results, and it's easy to keep score. But it won't get us what we need.
All of this, I think, suggests a second problem I see in the Trump administration's approach: the abandonment of the consensual leadership that the United States had in the world. By turning everything into a bilateral contest where the United States is the stronger party, I think we're creating antibodies to the United States actions in the world. There's a tendency to balance against the United States, and for countries to supplement their relationship with the United States with other relationships. To me, the major successes in the region — pressure on Iran and Libya to end their proliferation efforts, the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait — they all came from very broad international efforts. No other government besides the United States could have led those efforts. And no other government could have been successful.
What I see in the administration's approach in their sense of leadership is to head off in one direction, and to expect other people to be following behind. But as we've seen in Syria, it leads others to think, "How do we fill the vacuum the United States has just created?" To me, the biggest mistake of this administration is its almost idiosyncratic embrace of some and the abandonment of many. It makes it hard to understand how to please the United States and it diminishes countries' interest in doing so. The United States, I think, is emulating the kind of foreign policy we see out of China, a country with no genuine allies on its periphery and which major powers in the neighborhood — India, Japan, South Korea and Australia — are all coming together to balance against.
Puzzlingly, these are all close U.S. allies that, with the exception of India, have had crises with the Trump administration. Why are we doing it that way? I think there's an underlying dynamic to all of this, and that is, the processes in this administration don't work. Mike pointed out to me more than a decade ago that in the U.S. government, "interagency" isn't an adjective; it's a noun. The interagency describes a process of bringing things, people, ideas together. But now we have a president who's divorced from his government. His advisers don't work together well, and bureaucracies aren't integrated. It's the president's frustration with the poor functioning of his staff that leads to tweets on Syria withdrawal that precede rather than follow careful study. And it's the government's distrust of the president's leadership that results in policies not following the president's clearly expressed views.
On Syria, in particular, the national security advisers seem not to be channeling the president, which is really a big problem. But the biggest problem is the administration hasn't seemed to deploy an apparatus that draws on the tools at its disposal, that vets ideas and presents them for consideration and decision. If there's a single weakness in the Trump administration, it is its inability to function in a coherent and coordinated manner. That does two important things. First, it means that its policies are often ill-informed. It's remarkable to think just how much information the U.S. government can access, but you have to ask the question. And we have an administration that, to an unprecedented degree, is not asking its own government answers to questions.
This also means, importantly, that the U.S. government can't operate with a whole-of-government approach, which both reduces American power in the world and denies the unique U.S. ability to lead billions of people toward solutions to complex problems. Now, you might argue that I should be happy that the Trump administration is hamstrung in carrying out its policies, because if I think they're wrongheaded I should want them to fail. But actually, I'm overwhelmed by my concern that rebuilding U.S. power and influence in global affairs will be a long, hard slog, if it can be done at all. The United States has set out to fix a lot of things in the Middle East in the last 75 years. And you might argue that it's been a failure because so much still needs fixing.
You can argue, and many have, that the United States has made things worse and not better over the decades. But it's hard for me to imagine that the Middle East will make the United States more secure and prosperous, if the United States acted on the belief of many Americans that the region is hopeless and irredeemable, and we should merely arm our allies and wish them luck. We have more at stake in the Middle East and around the world for us to reduce our strategy to the idea that "Syria is nothing but sand and death." We've worked with our allies and partners to make the Middle East better, and while we may need to reduce both our efforts and our expectations, it's hard to imagine that much good will come from our absence.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
What I heard was that the Trump administration are realists: we know they're not liberal internationalists, but they're not isolationists. There are objectives they want, and they have a realist approach to the state of anarchy, the balance of power, where the threats are coming from, and who their allies are. Then the critique was that they're not applying the resources that would be necessary to succeed. Then Jon questioned something very basic: Have we defined the threats accurately? Questioning whether Iran is worthy of being the center of our policy. By the way, I never heard much said about Russia today. But there was a time when our objective was to make sure that Russia didn't dominate the region, and Russia is in the region again.
Can we go a little more into this question of why we have focused on Iran as a threat? What are their objectives? We've talked about their power. But what are their objectives, and what have their accomplishments been that pose a challenge for us? Where do we stand with them?
DR. GORDON: Iran is clearly a problem for the United States in the region. But I think Mike's comparison between the Obama approach and the Trump approach mischaracterized the Obama approach. The idea that in the Obama administration our relations with and attitudes toward, on one hand, Iran, and on the other hand, the other countries, were sort of equal — as if they're all stakeholders of the same nature and our job was to pull them together. Let's be clear. If you arrived from Mars or somewhere and looked at American policy in the Middle East under Obama, you would hardly say that it was kind of equal between Israel and Saudi, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other.
Even after the nuclear deal, we imposed a range of sanctions on Iran. We don't trade with Iran at all. We don't invest in Iran. We punish other people for doing so. We don't have an embassy in Iran. We barely talk to the Iranians. We work intensively with a whole range of countries to undermine Iranian policy, whereas vis-à-vis these other countries, with whom we're allegedly sort of equidistant, we have deep and intimate defense and intelligence relationships. We joined them in confronting Iran by supporting the Syrian opposition. We supported one of them in a war in Yemen to counter the Iranians. We provide Israel with and have sold to our Gulf partners hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of weapons against Iran. I take the point that Obama might not have been as confrontational towards Iran as the current administration or possibly even the previous one, but let's not misunderstand this. Iran is clearly an adversary. Its interests are not our interests. And we have an interest in containing it.
Point two is the question of what is the best way to do that? And just to respond to Mike's point about grading on effort and concept and performance when it comes to Iran, the only point of effort and concept is to get better performance. You can give good grades for concept and effort if you want, but what we should care about is the outcome of all of this in terms of the things we care about — security, peace, our own interests, prosperity. I don't really care if someone feels that the way of thinking about it is better. What matters is having positive results, and I challenge that when it comes to Iran.
When you think about this concept of grading on performance in Yemen, Mike, you might give the Saudis good grades, and those who supported them, for thinking about it the right way. They're not going to put up with Iran's meddling in their affairs. And their effort has been great, right? They've sustained a war for three and a half years. You might give them nice points for thinking about it, but isn't what matters the effect it has had on the ground? Is it containing Iranian influence in Yemen? I don't think so. Is it helping the people of Yemen, or is it having some other consequences, including the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the world?
We see the same issue with regard to Qatar. You might give the Saudis and Emiratis and others points for making an effort in confronting Qatar and thinking about it the right way. But when I talk to my friends in these countries, they say, fair enough. It's not having a positive impact, but at least we're being clear. But I think the impact is what does matter. Finally, on Iran itself in terms of our own policy, that was my point of critique in tearing up the Iran deal and the Iran policies the Trump administration is pursuing. Is it having a positive effect? Has it led Iran to stop meddling in the region in ways that we don't want it to? I don't think so.
If you don't believe me, ask the Trump administration, because they're constantly talking about the degree to which Iran remains a terrible actor in the region. On the nuclear issue, the same thing is true. I don't care if you're thinking about it the right way. I care whether it's effectively stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. So I think we all share the view that Iran is a problem, but where we have a fundamental difference is over the best way to get results — which I think is all we should care about.
My last point is a difference with Mike both in terms of analysis and recommendations. I don't understand this logic that our problems with Turkey were somehow because Obama was obsessed with repairing relations with Iran, and that's why we ended up partnering with the Kurds. I don't recall that at all. You mentioned Kobane. I was in the White House at the time, and I can assure you that the thinking wasn't, how can we go about this in a way that doesn't offend Iran. The thinking was, ISIS is controlling territory in Syria, beheading Americans, sponsoring terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris and elsewhere, and we need to fight it. And who do you have to fight it? We can go in on the ground ourselves, but we don't want to do that. The only logical partner was the Kurds. And we took a difficult decision that that was the only way we were going to effectively fight ISIS on the ground.
Notwithstanding all of the talk of others, including our Turkish friends, that they had some big Free Syrian Army that was going to do this job, it was never available. So, going into Kobane was about saving some people from being massacred by ISIS. Then, partnering with the Kurds later was about defeating ISIS. I think the notion that this was about finding a way to work with Iraq is where you end up, when your whole frame is — and this is what I said is a problem with the Trump administration — everything we should do should be about containing Iran in the region.
DR. DORAN: Let's say Phil is sitting in his living room building a fire to boil his coffee, and I say, Phil, you're burning down your living room. He says, no, I'm making coffee. I say, but look, the fire is spreading. Yeah, but I'm making coffee. Nobody in my house ever said we're going to burn down the living room. They said we're going to make coffee. So you can look at the same thing and see very different things.
During the Obama administration, how many weeks did John Kerry sit in Europe negotiating with that used-car salesman Javad Zarif? Was it 57 ½? 63? 15? I don't remember. But he was elevating a third-rate power to first-rate status — when the secretary of state of the world's only superpower sits there and begs the used-car salesman to come to a deal on the nuclear question. Maybe Donald Trump got it wrong when he said 7 trillion. How many trillions of dollars have we spent in Iraq? Is it two? Four? It's many pallets of cash we have spent in Iraq.
If you're an Iraqi leader today, do you listen to the United States? When you think about what you're going to do, do you think: If I do X, will that annoy the United States, or will it annoy Iran more? Which one do you listen to more? What we managed to build in Iraq is a government that listens to Iran at least as much as it listens to us. I'm fearful it's probably even more than it listens to us. The Iranians have managed to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat in Syria. The Iranians are establishing a base in Yemen, where they're going to have smart missiles trained on Riyadh, a G-20 capital.
So when I heard Jon say, look, this is an insignificant third-world country with a standard of living equal to a seventh of Mississippi's, I think, yes, how is it that the greatest power on Earth cannot solve this problem? When you look at the Middle East, we have chosen our proxies incorrectly. We have read the map incorrectly and we have put our resources behind the wrong actors and behind the wrong policies. An example: The minute you say that the strategic goal of the United States in the Middle East is to destroy 20,000 or 40,000 nasty guys with pickup trucks, you have handed the region to Russia and Iran. Countering Iran in that conception is always the second, the third, the fourth priority. In government, once something is the second, third, or fourth priority, it's not a priority at all.
So, yes, we have all of these policies in place that make the United States automatically a rival of Iran. But what has the United States done in response to any major muscle movement by Iran, particularly under the Obama administration? When Iran put missiles and rockets into Yemen, that was a major change in the balance of power. What price did the United States make it pay for doing that? No price whatsoever. Can you even remember the debate in Washington about what we should do about this major muscle movement by the Iranians? There was no debate.
When Iran put forces in Syria, when the Russians put forces in Syria, where was the debate in the United States about what we should do in response to this action, which is designed to undermine us, undermine our allies, and strengthen Iran and its allies? We had a government that called the prime minister of Israel a chickenshit while it sat for 57.3 or 12.8 — I can't remember how many weeks — treating Zarif as if he was deserving of our respect.
The key question is: How do we position ourselves so that we get allies that work with us? We want to counter Iran, because — regardless of how powerful it is by any sort of objective criteria — it is effectively undermining us around the region. And it should bother us that a country with a GDP one-seventh of Mississippi's is able to do that. When we say that countering ISIS is our priority, we adopted a strategic priority that was not shared by any government in the region. None. The United States was the only one that said countering ISIS is the number-one priority. Every other government in the region did the sensible thing. They said, what order is going to replace the ISIS order? And is that going to work for me, or is it going to work for Iran? The United States made choices in its counter-ISIS program that objectively worked to the advantage of Iran, regardless of what it was saying to itself. They were making coffee the whole time. They were never trying to strengthen Iran. But in fact, they were burning down the house.
DR. GORDON: I think the government of Iraq was pretty concerned about ISIS, lest it take over their country. But that's not the point I want to make. I'm trying to figure out what you're getting at in terms of Iran policy. Let's stipulate, Iran is a problematic actor in the region. It is a terrible thing that they are deploying missiles that can threaten Riyadh and trying to undermine governments in Bahrain, and supporting the Syrian dictator. I'm not contesting that at all. Where we differ is what to do about it. I would be interested in hearing the policy approach you are proposing to deal with the problem that we just described. I challenge the notion that nothing is being done about it. The baseline is an anti-Iranian policy. As I said, it's providing all of our partners in the region with hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of weapons. It's supporting anti-Iranian forces for years, notwithstanding great costs in terms of human lives, in Syria. It's supporting our partner in Riyadh in what has been an almost four-year relentless bombing campaign against Iranian interests. It's providing missile defenses to other partners in the region. It's sanctions on Iran. As I said, we still don't invest in Iran, trade with Iran, and so on.
That's the baseline you described as nothing. Where do you want to go from there that is suddenly going to make Iran stop being a problematic actor in the region? I think you have to own the consequences of what you're implying.
DR. DORAN: You — the Obama administration — you don't get credit for the baseline. The baseline has been set by 20-30 years of American policy. You get credit for your definition of the problem and the policy you put in place to deal with it. The Obama administration did nothing to counter the Iranians in Yemen. It did nothing to counter the Iranians in Syria. It handed pallets of cash to the Iranians. What was the Obama administration's policy response to the introduction of Hezbollah and other Shiite militias into Syria to save Bashar al-Assad? What was the Obama administration's response?
DR. GORDON: Wipe eight years off of the calendar. Everything I described was during the Obama administration. All of the support to the allies and partners, all of the support to the opposition in Syria, the support to the Saudis in Yemen, everything I've described was during eight years.
DR. DORAN: How many opposition soldiers capable of confronting Iranian-trained and equipped militias in Syria did the United States train? According to press reports, it's six.
DR. MATTAIR: Jon, I've looked at Iran's military and asymmetrical capabilities, and I don't think they could close the Strait of Hormuz for very long, although, any time at all is destructive. They don't have that kind of power. But we just heard that they have been able to establish themselves everywhere — in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Iraq with all kinds of militias, and in Syria with Shia militias, including people from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then in Yemen. They have a presence in these countries that's not just proxy militias but makes inroads into the governments, and into the militaries, and into the societies as well. Why are you questioning our focus on them?
DR. ALTERMAN: Not to reduce this to dollars, but the Iranians have played themselves into a situation where they spend maybe $10 million a month in Yemen. The Saudis are spending somewhere between $2 and $5 billion a month in Yemen and destroying their public reputation around the world. If you're an Iranian government official, that's a bargain. That said, I think the Iranians start from a few premises. One is, they're totally preoccupied with their weakness, in both absolute and relative terms. If you ever talk to Iranians of any stripe — pro-government, anti-government, secularists, MEK, whatever — mention the Arabian Gulf instead of the Persian Gulf, and watch them go ballistic. There's a deep sense of national humiliation that Iranians share, and a deep sense of resentment that Iran is relatively weak and surrounded largely by hostile powers aligned with the United States.
This is a country that starts with a chip on its shoulder and believes the United States is trying to overthrow its government. You can argue the United States should be trying to overthrow it. You could argue that Iranian behavior certainly justifies that. But where they're starting from is, we are relatively weak and we have to grasp at anything we can to remind people that we're not pushovers. We've created a situation, particularly in Yemen, where they've put forward almost no effort and get a disproportionate response from the Saudis — which harms the Saudis tremendously — and take it all the way to the bank. Why are we getting into that situation?
Should we be pushing back on Iranian arms sales to Houthis and their supplying weapons to the Houthis? Yes. Should we be trying to ensure that Hezbollah trainers don't get to see the Houthis? Yes. Should we have a large multilateral strategy that tries to solve the conflict in Yemen? Yes, we should be doing that too, not because we want to work with the Iranians, but because we want this effort to sow disorder to prove ineffective, because the Iranians can't begin to do what we can do. Are the Iranians hostile? Yes. Are they irrational? No. Can we deter them? I think so. I think we've deterred them for a long time.
But just as you say, completely correctly, if you make ISIS the number-one threat of the United States in the Middle East, you will never be done. ISIS can always find one or two guys to stab somebody or set off a bomb once or twice a year somewhere in the world, and people say: "Oh, look, they're still alive. They're still there." If what you're looking for is zero violations, you will never get that. You will always be doing it. The same thing is true of Iran. We should treat them as a hostile power. We should hem them in. We should punish them. We should deter them. But if we make that a central organizing principle, we warp what we're trying to do and lower the cost for them of seeming effective.
That's exactly what we don't want to do. Iran can do something constructive and positive — demonstrate that and maybe then try to negotiate from their position of weakness and not from the position of strength that we're handing to them.
DR. MATTAIR: Let's talk about strategies. The Obama administration thought that if it negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran it would potentially moderate their other behavior in the region, but it didn't. So the Trump administration has withdrawn from this agreement. But let's consider the possibility of its having stayed in the agreement and developed other strategies instead of relying only on that agreement. Was the agreement so bad that we had to leave it, rather than stay in it, and develop other strategies that would be more effective in addressing their position on the ground in the Arab world — in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere?
DR. GORDON: I can't accept the description of the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran as something that we hoped would moderate Iranian behavior in the region, and when that didn't happen, the Trump administration pulled out. The Obama administration pursued a nuclear deal with Iran to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, because for the previous 15 years, under two very different U.S. administrations, Iran had advanced its nuclear capability to the point that it had mastered the fuel cycle, accumulated a certain amount of low-enriched uranium, around 10 tons, enough for several nuclear weapons. It was at the point where, if something wasn't done to halt and reverse that process, they were a couple of months away from accumulating enough of a stockpile to produce a nuclear weapon. That was the core issue.
Did some people hope that, as a function of doing this nuclear diplomacy with Iran, you would get to the point that maybe you could also work together on issues like Syria and Yemen? Sure. To be honest, I don't have any problem with that hope, given that what we've been trying to do for a couple of decades hasn't been working. If that could be a function of this, great. But that wasn't the reason for the deal. The deal was about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In that sense, it worked. It reversed Iran's capacity and moved them more than a year away from accumulating enough LEU to be able to produce a nuclear weapon and bought an enormous amount of time. I just want to be clear. If you conclude after that, because relations with Iran didn't transform and Iranian regional policy didn't change, that the deal didn't work, that wasn't the point of the deal.
DR. MATTAIR: I take that point. Iran was making significant advances, and the deal had merit in thwarting them, but I should have said people also hoped for more — certainly that's been picked up by critics.
DR. GORDON: The reason I make that point is that I think it's fundamental to understanding. But related to this issue of Iranian meddling in the region, the question often comes up: Why didn't we insist on that, too? Why naively just do the nuclear deal? This has been a core Trump administration critique of the deal — it didn't constrain Iranian activities in the region. I would just say to that, it was hard enough to get this deal. It required an international coalition of very tough sanctions that we only got other countries to agree to because of the concerns about the nuclear program.
If we had then said to the Iranians, after two years of difficult negotiations, "By the way, it's good we negotiated the nuclear thing, but we actually can't conclude this deal until you get completely out of Syria, and Yemen, and Lebanon, and completely reverse your foreign policy in the region." Don't get me wrong. Those are admirable goals. I share all of them. But the idea that we could have gotten that as well is absurd. By insisting on that, we would have gotten neither — neither the capacity to contain Iran in the region, nor a nuclear deal. That's why it wasn't in it in the first place. And that's why we need other means to deal with problematic Iranian behavior in the region.
That's my core critique of the Trump approach on Iran. As I understand it, the current policy is maximum pressure on Iran unless it agrees to a much better nuclear deal that lasts forever, has no enrichment, covers ballistic missiles, lets inspectors go wherever they want, and also changes its behavior throughout the region. Getting back to our debate about results, if that ends up being the result of this policy by the end of four or eight years, I will be the first to applaud. I think it's unlikely. By trying to accomplish everything, is it really our policy to put maximum pressure on Iran until it does all of those things and gets out of Yemen to boot? If that's the policy and we try to get everything, I think we're going to end up with nothing. That's a real problem.
DR. MATTAIR: I'd like to ask Rich, our chairman, if he wants to comment on this question of the Iranian nuclear agreement, as he was our ambassador in Oman when it was negotiated.
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER, Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Obviously, our colleagues who were also in government are very familiar with the process. I happened to be in Oman when we started it. I agree with much of what both of you are saying. It is absolutely true that, at the time, it was of critical importance to stop the Iranian uranium program. That had to be the top priority. Obviously, everyone would have liked to have gotten more, but I think that could not be a reason for not going through with the deal.
The process of getting to the deal did have some other positive impacts. It's true, Mike, you can criticize the amount of time that our diplomats spent with the Iranians. But it did actually lead to better understanding of each other's positions, whereas before, without any communication, there were a lot of misconceptions, at least from what I saw in my part in the effort in Oman.
In terms of the hope that it would have other impacts, we needed to solve the nuclear issue, but potentially there could be other positive outcomes. I think it was Phil who mentioned this — one of the things that did happen during the Obama administration was a pretty direct communication to Iran that we were no longer pursuing the policy of regime change. The purpose in sending that signal was to clear the air in terms of our ability to talk to the Iranians.
The other element that I think was at least behind the thinking was that by eliminating the idea that we're seeking to overturn the regime, the regime no longer had us as their boogie man to try to keep their people aligned against us. So one of the hoped-for outcomes was that the Iranian people would become an ally of ours, in order to try to change Iranian behavior. I think we saw some evidence of that with some of the things coming from Iranian people, who were arguing that the dividends the Iranians received from the reduced sanctions be spent in Iran, and not in proxy wars in the region. So there was a hope that that kind of support would help us in our approach to the region.
We have not found a way to really counter malign Iranian behavior in the region. But we are doing a lot that is unseen and unreported to counter it. It's just that we have not really been able to do enough to stop it. But even from my perspective in Oman, you could see a lot was going on that couldn't be reported. So we are aware of and making efforts against Iranian malign behavior, but we're far from being able to actually solve that problem.
DR. MATTAIR: There are military sales to allies to allow them to defend themselves against potential Iranian aggression. There's counterintelligence cooperation for the same purpose. We're working with our partners and friends and allies in region. But some of them are not satisfied with other strategies we're pursuing in the region. They weren't satisfied with the Obama administration's failure to get more deeply involved in Syria at an earlier point, which might have been more successful in thwarting Iran and Russia. But let's assess what Trump is doing. Let's say our 2,000 special forces are not sufficient to contain Iran and Russia in Syria. Are they necessary in conjunction with other efforts, like stabilization? If we do take them out and don't spend money stabilizing, can we trust Turkey to contain Iran and Russia?
DR. ALTERMAN: Our troops don't have legal authorization to be there, to push back on Iran and Russia. If Congress wants to declare war and deploy troops there, it can do it, but legally that was not their purpose. Absent a different legal framework, that's not a useful approach to take.
But here's something really important: the future of Syria is going to be decided in negotiations that largely haven't happened yet. If part of those negotiations were the United States talking about the circumstances under which U.S. troops would leave, the United Statees would have a serious voice in those discussions. But we destroyed any negotiating leverage we had by announcing — before we'd even thought through the implications — that we were summarily withdrawing all of our troops. I don't know what leverage anybody thinks we have, to be able to influence those discussions.
I'm not arguing that we should remain in Syria indefinitely. But I am arguing that, as a matter of diplomacy and national security, we have an interest in what Syria looks like. One might describe it as a process error. It probably would have been nice if we had had the NSC study before the presidential tweet. It would have been nice if we had a diplomatic strategy we were executing, and the presidential tweets were actually integrated with our diplomatic strategy to advance American national-security interests: getting our troops out of Syria and ensuring what's left behind is better for Americans than what is likely to happen otherwise.
Instead, because of the process error, we completely undermined our negotiating leverage and made things much worse, not just for our Syrian Kurdish allies, but for Americans and American allies who care about the future of stability and security in the Middle East.
DR. DORAN: We retain significant leverage in Syria. Number one, our ally Israel is now conducting even more robust attacks in Syria. And it is demonstrating to the regime and to the Russians that it has the military capability to shake the regime to its core. The only way the Russians and Iranians can get that to stop is by going through Washington. The regime cannot retake Idlib without going through Turkish forces, which have an American backstop. You saw that last August, when the Russians and the Iranians started organizing for an assault on Idlib, and the president tweeted that this would be a mistake. The Turks put their forces on alert and we stopped it there.
They need Idlib in order to stabilize Syria. They need the Israelis' consent to stop. And behind the Turks and behind the Israelis is the United States. What exactly is going to happen in eastern Syria is not yet clear. That's going to be part of a negotiation, primarily among the United States, Turkey and the YPG. I don't know to what extent the Russians will be able to insinuate themselves into that. But as the situation crystalizes, we'll also have leverage there.
Exactly how we are "re-repositioning" is not clear to me, when we pull those 2,000 troops out. For example, I've seen press reports, but I haven't had them confirmed by anybody, that we are significantly increasing our presence in Jordan. One could imagine on the basis of that — I'm just speculating here — that from a base on the Syrian side of the Jordanian border, you could imagine it, figuratively speaking, moving to the south, to the other side of the Jordanian border, and continuing to block an Iranian land bridge from within Jordan. That's speculation on my part. I don't know if the Jordanians want to play that role.
But there are all kinds of ways. The United States is a very powerful country. It has influence over all the major actors, especially on our side, in the Syrian debate. So I don't think we have given up all leverage over Syria by pulling those troops out. On the process error, if you want to call it that, I have much more sympathy for the president than I think Jon and Phil do. The president told General Mattis from day one that he wanted to patch things up with the Turks. And General Mattis and Brett McGurk continued to build Rojava.
And if you listened to Brett McGurk on the Sunday shows, McGurk says, We're going to pull out; as we pull out, what we should do is get the Assad regime to take over the Kurdish parts of Syria. So if anybody had any doubt in their mind that the YPG policy that we were following was part of an Obama policy of aligning with the Iranians across the board, just think of what McGurk was saying. These are the people we had in charge.
The counter-ISIS network in the U.S. government, led by Brett McGurk, was entirely hostile to Turkey and entirely in favor of building up the Assad regime. It's the same mindset that said: We don't have to worry about the Iranian-trained and -equipped and -led popular mobilization units in Iraq because they're anti-ISIS in Iraq. We don't have to worry about the pro-Moscow, pro-Tehran proclivities which are very deeply historically grounded, of the YPG, when we align with it. That's the vision that they had. Whether they were making coffee or burning down the house, it doesn't matter. Objectively, our policies were leading to an Iranian land bridge from Tehran to Beirut.
DR. GORDON: I was actually going to let this one go, because I very much agree with Jon's comments both on substance and on process, but two quick additions. On the process, Mike, it wasn't just Brett McGurk. It was the entire administration. We had a new Syria envoy, Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who announced a "new Syria policy" and gave speeches to the effect that we were going to stay indefinitely to fight this mission. That was reinforced by the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser — who said not only were they going to stay there for the ISIS mission, but for a counter-Iran mission. He even said that after the president's tweet.
So the idea that somehow the process was OK, the president was clear, and it was just this one holdover from the Obama administration who had a different view, I'm sorry. You can't just say the process was brilliant and the president knew about it but every other top official was just not on the same page and was saying the wrong thing. That is the definition of a terrible process, and I think it has real consequences.
I think this discussion of how we're going to make up for the troops goes back to the contradiction I highlighted at the beginning about being willing to do what's necessary on the ground and wanting to pull out. If the response to the pullout is, don't worry, we can still do these things because, as Trump said, we have bases elsewhere — like Iraq — and Mike says maybe we'll put one in Jordan, what's the purpose of the pullout? It's either one thing or another: ISIS is defeated, and we can pull out because we don't want the risks on the ground. Or we're still in the region, and we've got bases, and we're going to keep the troops that are necessary to intervene. But I don't see how it can be both.
DR. DORAN: The purpose of the pullout is to create the possibility of reaching a strategic accommodation with our NATO ally Turkey. Forget about the process argument. We were building a PKK statelet on the Turkish border that was going to ensure permanent enmity with the Turks. The president did the right thing for that reason.
DR. MATTAIR: Here's the subject that gets neglected now, the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Do any of you have any idea what will be part of a promised Trump peace plan? And where does that fit into the hierarchy of our concerns in the region? Is it something that still animates extremists and anti-Americanism? Or is it just not as vital right now as civil wars raging through the Arab world. What will be part of this plan, if it is ever produced?
DR. GORDON: I'm happy to say something, and then maybe Mike knows what's in the plan and he will tell everybody. I didn't neglect this issue, because I think it's important, not because it's the central problem in the region, or that solving it would somehow solve all the other problems. It clearly wouldn't. We know that. But that doesn't mean it's not important. It's important, not least, for the people who live there. For Israel, for reasons that American administrations of both parties have said for years: if we want to see Israel be a secure, democratic Jewish state in the future, it needs to figure out a way to resolve this problem and not be ruling over millions of Palestinians. It's hard to see how Israel remains all of those things while ruling over the Palestinians. That's why American administrations have made efforts for years to try to resolve the problem.
Like Mike, I'm hugely skeptical that we'll be able to do so. I almost think at this point it doesn't matter what's in the Trump plan. Even under the best of circumstances, the conditions on the ground are just not right for this ultimate deal. You have, on the Palestinian side, a president who is hugely unpopular, is in about the thirteenth year of his five-year term, wouldn't have the authority to sell a deal even if he were able to agree to it, which he almost certainly wouldn't, not least because the Israelis have no intention of putting on the table anything remotely close to something that he could buy into. You have an Israeli cabinet at this point, more than half of which doesn't even believe in a two-state solution. So the idea that they're going to put one on the table that the Palestinians can agree to — whatever the Americans think — is just not going to happen.
That's one reason it doesn't really matter what's in the plan. The other reason that it doesn't matter I hinted at in my opening remarks. We've done a set of other things that have led the Palestinians not even to be willing to talk to or engage with the United States. So I wouldn't hold my breath. It's not surprising it's been two years and the plan still hasn't come out. Now we're waiting for the Israeli elections. But then the administration will still have to think long and hard about whether it's willing to put forward a plan that would be dead on arrival, unless the only purpose of it would be to let the Israelis sort of semi-embrace it, and the Palestinians denounce it. That can be a further reason to blame the Palestinians for the lack of progress, which I think is unhelpful across the board.
DR. ALTERMAN: I think governments have moved away from the centrality of the Arab-Israeli issue, because they are more preoccupied with their own security, and particularly internal security, something they worried about before, and in a sense the Arab-Israeli stuff is old-style politics that don't really work anymore. I think for broad populations, the Arab-Israeli issue still is a prism through which people see injustice in the world. I don't think that's gone away. I think broad populations still think that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is a profound injustice.
There are two reasons why we shouldn't just walk away. One is the possibility that there will be a serious eruption of violence, which damages Israel and the Palestinians alike. We've seen several intifadas. It is not inconceivable that we could have an even larger eruption of violence. But it seems to me that the most important argument is, what's the nature of Israel if it decides it never has to face this issue? The nature of Israel changes. The nature of Israel as an ally of the United States changes. The nature of Israel in the world changes. There are too many Arabs who do not have citizenship. I'm not talking about Israeli Arabs; I'm talking about Arabs who don't have Israeli citizenship who are under the control of Israeli authorities and whom they regard as an occupying power. If that goes on and on and on, you have the problem of running indefinite occupation and having a genuine apartheid state. That isn't the Israel that many Israelis want. That isn't the Israel that many friends of Israel want. And while there may not be perfect solutions to this, I think Israel has to look for a solution. My strong preference would be to look for that solution before there's an eruption of violence that changes all the pieces on the board right now.
DR. DORAN: The Trump peace plan is the deal of the century, my favorite Arab-Israeli peace plan, the Palestinian-Israeli peace plan of all the ones that are out there both from the United States and from other actors, because it's all drumroll and no plan. And I hope this drumroll continues all the way until the end of the first term. I feel the president will probably have to unroll it at some point, because he promised to do so during the election. I think he wants to keep his election promise. But I agree with Phil; there's no chance that we're going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly not in this administration, and for a very long time. The two sides are too far apart. Mahmood Abbas has no interest, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You could go through all the reasons.
But this issue — I saw it when I was working in the White House — eats up an enormous amount of senior-leader time and effort for all kinds of reasons, which I do not think are strategically justifiable. The focus of the United States should be countering the Iranian alliance system and putting together its own alliance that can help stabilize the region. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going to help in any significant way. There is one counterargument to that, which someone put to me just recently. One of the things that the administration is doing with its peace plan is working to bring the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Emiratis close to the Israelis by means of this plan. So we should see it not so much as an effort to bring Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to the table, but as a tool for building a closer alliance.
We have an alignment right now between Israel and those states that I mentioned. If we could transform it into an actual alliance, we'd have much closer cooperation between the Israelis and the Saudis and so on. Interesting idea, but I'm skeptical. The distance between the Saudis and the Israelis, for cultural, religious and historical reasons, is such that even as they recognized the shared interests that they have in combatting Iran, and even though that leads to a lot of de facto cooperation, it's not the Palestinian-Israeli question that is really keeping this from going to the next level. It's all of the historical differences between them. If I could be convinced that I'm wrong about that, I might see this as a positive step. Until I'm convinced of that, I want it to remain a drumroll with no rollout.