Panel 3: In Search of Coherence: US Policy in the Arab World
November 15, 2013
Kate Seelye, Middle East Institute: Thank you for joining us for the third panel of the day. We’ve just come out of a very interesting lunch featuring an Arab and an Israeli businessmen who are part of an initiative to promote Arab-Israeli peace and it is a topic that I am sure will be touched upon in today’s panel entitled “In Search of Coherence: U.S. Policy in the Arab World” - although it should really be called in the Middle East. It’s a title that several of my friends in the State Department have strongly objected to, noting that State Department policy is coherent and it’s often the implementation of that policy that is incoherent. It’s a debate that I hope the panel will have today.
Moderating today’s panel is an academic who’s spent a lifetime writing about and researching the Middle East and in the process has come to know an awful lot about the region. Michael Hudson is currently the director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, no relationship to us though we are trying to build bridges, as well as a professor of political science there. Previously, he was director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and remains professor emeritus there. He has published widely on the Middle East including a seminal book on Lebanon. Michael, I want to thank you very much for joining us today and I’d like to put the panel into your very competent hands. Thank you.
Michael Hudson, National University of Singapore: Kate, thank you very much and thanks to the Middle East Institute for organizing what so far has been, I think, an exceptionally interesting discussion of many complicated and important issues. We’re assigned to do a general overview, a critical overview I hope, of the question of U.S. policy across the region and we will not confine ourselves just to the Arab states.
Let me begin by telling you where I have come from. I have come from Singapore. Singapore is the hub - or they would like to think they’re the hub - of almost everything that’s going on in this very fast growing region of Southeast Asia including Middle East Studies. That’s why we refer to the Middle East Institute of Washington as MEI West and we, at the National University of Singapore, recently are trying to develop MEI East. We have a ways to go but the kind of cooperation that Kate referred to I hope is something that we will develop into a rather more tangible expression.
But coming from Singapore, let me tell you a little bit about what my sense of what the chattering classes, the foreign policy elites of Singapore and other places in Asia, because we have collaborations with China and Japan and so on, think about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Broadly speaking, it’s not a flattering picture. It is not coherent. It is not successful and there is an almost unspoken assumption that the United States is in decline particularly in this region but, perhaps, generally in the world. The rate of decline being a little bit faster perhaps than some people had anticipated.
Foreign Minister of Turkey Ahmed Davatoglu once said at the beginning of his tenure that he wanted to pursue a policy of “no problems” on any border or in any area and maybe that’s what President Obama had in mind at the beginning of his first term, especially after his very famous speech at Cairo University. But, when we look around the region now, as I hope we will do with our very distinguished panel, it seems as if there are problems everywhere. While we have recently heard some very optimistic words about the possibilities of Israeli-Palestinian peace, about the possibility of a grand bargain between Iran and the United States, about the problems of dealing with the complications stemming from the Arab uprisings that have gone off on different trajectories, while we’ve heard a lot about that, folks in Southeast Asia look askance at those who insist that America is the indispensable nation or the U.S. has a certain hegemony over the Middle East, that it does and it should, and there’s a lot of questioning about that.
So, what I’m going to do is turn this over to a panel of very well known commentators on the Middle East as a region in general and, also, on certain particular areas of it. I won’t introduce them at length because they’re well described in your program but it’s very good, I think, that we have Roula Khalaf from the Financial Times; Aaron Miller from the Woodrow Wilson Center, a man with long experience in U.S. Middle East diplomacy; Fred Hof from the Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council; and, Steven Simon from the IISS which is not to be confused with the ISIS (laughter) and I think will not be.
I’m going to simply go down the row here at the beginning and ask my colleagues to comment on this notion that the United States is in significant decline in the Middle East. Is that true? And if it is true, is it a bad thing or a good thing?
I’ll start with Roula Khalaf. People will talk about that and they’ll talk about anything else they want to. I know that Aaron has a few things he wants to get out on the table right away about the nature of decision-making in Washington with respect to the Middle East. We’ll start first of all with Roula Khalaf from the Financial Times.
Roula Khalaf, Financial Times: Thank you, Michael. I think decline is a loaded word. I thought I’d make four observations.
The first is that the U.S. to my mind is in a sort of deliberate retreat and when you become very hesitant about your intentions and your policies, then inevitably you end up with less leverage. I think what we do see in the region right now is that the U.S. does have less leverage and that has opened up the space for others, for more regional players, to have more leverage, for the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks.
My second point is that this is a region, right now, in which almost every single country is in some form of crisis, which is truly unprecedented. Traditionally we’ve had, you know, two running crises and maybe one other country that’s exploding for one reason or another but today every single country has to deal with an internal problem. Some of it is very violent; some of it, not as much. I think that makes it very difficult for any outsider - whether it’s the U.S. or any other power - to address such fast changing circumstances. So, policy becomes very reactive rather than being strategic and we saw that in Egypt, the hesitancy. One day the U.S. seems to be on the side of the Islamists; the next day it seems to be on the side of the military.
My third point is that as a result of all of this we are now in a situation where virtually every constituency in the Middle East is alienated and blames the U.S. whether it’s the Islamists or the liberals in Egypt, the rebels in Syria and the regime, in fact more recently, the Palestinians and the Israelis. So, nobody is satisfied and everyone seems to blame the U.S. policy.
My fourth point is that what we’ve seen over the past three years in the Middle East is an existential crisis for many countries. Countries in the Gulf, in particular, that were afraid that this wave of uprisings, popular movements would reach them and therefore the counterrevolutionary forces have been very, very forceful and unusually forceful in many instances. That had led to a divergence of interests between traditional allies of the U.S. and the administration. The Saudis, for instance, drew the line in Bahrain. Whatever the U.S. said, they simply weren’t going to take it. I think in a similar way they simply said, “either back the latest coup in Egypt or keep your hands off.”
These changes that we’re seeing don’t allow for the traditional alliances to work in the way that they used to work. Having said all of that, I think the greatest irony in the Middle East and it’s always been so is that while people complain about U.S. policy, while people feel alienated by U.S. policies, everybody does still seem to look to the U.S. for solutions. It used to be a decade ago that the alienation was due to not wanting the U.S. to intervene. Today, actually, a lot of the anger that we see is because the U.S. is not intervening.
Hudson: We’ve heard a lot this morning, to back-up that comment, that people seem to be asking or expecting the United States to do something and yet the question of declining leverage is pretty evident. If the U.S. decides not to send another carrier group to the Gulf or if the U.S. seems to falter or stumble on the question of Syrian opposition, if the U.S. seems to find itself pushed aside by the Russians of all people - remember them! - who have come back and seem for the moment, at least, to be taking the lead in a certain diplomatic course, that’s a problem. You’re quite right, because we travel a lot in the Gulf, that there’s an apprehension that “where is the United States?” Is it a question of lack of capability of hard power? Or, is it, in addition perhaps, a lack of will and certainly perhaps a decline of soft power?
Let me turn now to Aaron and we’ll continue on.
Aaron David Miller, Woodrow Wilson Center: Michael, thank you and Roula, those were terrific comments.
My own view on these matters is somewhat different and counterintuitive. To talk about cohesion in U.S. foreign policy assumes that that’s been the standard method by which the United States has operated. I would argue that it is in the job description of great powers. However much we may be in decline, and we can talk about that in a minute, life is relative. We are, in my judgment, not not in decline so much as we have made a set of decisions based on a president’s priorities about what to do and what not to do. We always talk about U.S. policy. We always focus on the substance. We don’t talk about the politics and priorities of presidents. The appropriate place to begin to understand American policy is not in the region. It’s in Washington. I would argue, for at least thee reasons, you have a different style of operation.
On the one, you have a president who envisioned himself as a transformative political figure when he came to office. Transformative, literally by who he was. Historic. A historic president by any standards but a president who inherited arguably the two longest and among the least profitable wars in American history and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. These were transformative experiences that he believed that he could fundamentally transform them and American politics. He also believed that he could be transformative abroad. He got the Nobel Peace Prize on the part of Europeans - Swedes and Norwegians - but it reflected a tendency in Europe and in the Middle East to believe that Barack Obama would be fundamentally different than all of his predecessors.
This was a fundamental mistake because what happened is a transformational president with transformational objectives soon understood that he was faced with an environment that if he was lucky, both at home and abroad, he’d be able not to transform at all but to transact and that’s exactly what he has become. He has become a transactional president with lowered objectives and a set of priorities frankly that are focused much more on the middle class than they are on the Middle East.
This is something that escapes most people. As if Barack Obama should, at a time when America’s house is broken, at a time when it is inarguably dysfunctional - I call them the five or six deadly D’s: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, deteriorating educational system, deteriorating infrastructure, dependence on hydrocarbons – be chasing around the world, trying to repair other people’s broken houses without first or at the same time attending to America’s own difficulties, no longer was sustainable among the political elites, some exception, in the country as a whole.
So, he’s made choices. That’s my first comment. Those choices are risk-averse except when it comes to what we could generally describe as the national security arena where he has been eminently risk-ready and frankly, he has evolved to be a much more disciplined, less reckless, I would argue without being pejorative, version of his predecessor. That’s set of comment number one.
Number two. I know you’ll find it shocking and stunning to the point of not being credible but I would argue to you that on the four or five core interests that represent what Obama believes to be American interests in the Middle East we are actually not doing badly.
Number one. He’s prevented another attack against the continental United States - the organizing principle of any nation’s foreign policy. If you cannot protect your homeland, you don’t need a foreign policy.
Number two. We have an energy revolution in North America. We are weaning ourselves from Arab hydrocarbons. It doesn’t solve the energy security problem and since oil trades in a single market, disruption in country x means potential complications for American economy and financial markets too.
Number three. We are getting out of among the two most profitless wars in American history where the standard for victory was: never could we win but when could we leave? An extrication is no metric by which to judge the performance of this still most consequential country in the world. It has implications for the President’s decision-making with respect to Syria, you’ve already seen it, and with respect to Iran.
Finally, we are involved for the first time - it may work, it may not - in an effort to prevent the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity through sanctions, through diplomacy, and arguably, through the threat of force. Those, I would argue, are core and vital American interests.
The remaining two interests, I argue, are discretionary. Not because they’re not important but because our capacity to resolve them is limited. One is how we deal with what Roula rightly described as a fundamental transformation in a region in which there are so many moving parts that I would challenge any great power to create a policy that had cohesion and continuity right now. Second, the Arab-Israeli issue where I spent most of my professional life, at least in government. These are not vital in the sense that what we do and what we don’t do are important but they are determinative. That makes pursuing these interests a much more complex proposition for the United States.
Hudson: Well, okay. (Laughter.) We’re digging ourselves out of two holes in Afghanistan and Iraq, that’s something. Fracking is something that happened - not exactly Obama’s decision. Saving the homeland from a terrorist attack. Well, it hasn’t happened. Why has it not happened? That is a broader question.
And on these discretionary matters, I think I would agree with you that it would be very difficult if you put yourself in Obama’s position to imagine a consistent policy when Arab uprisings have taken so many different courses in so many different places but nevertheless, one wonders where exactly were we on Egypt and Libya and Syria where suddenly we got diverted in a chemical weapons issue, which is nice in itself, but sort of sidestepped major issues and so on.
On the Arab-Israeli matters we just heard a most eloquent and highly optimistic presentation at lunch but the consensus, maybe academics are just to skeptical or maybe we’ve been studying it too long, is that to get to a meaningful two-state solution is not going to be so easy even though the Secretary of State seems to be throwing himself into this with genuine enthusiasm.
But, we can come back to all these things. After our other two colleagues have made general comments, I hope we can perhaps zero-in on some of these more specific issues and then, of course, open it up for your comments and questions toward the end. Let me turn now to Ambassador Hof.
Amb. Frederic C. Hof, Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council: Well, thank you, Michael. I think my colleagues have bracketed the issue rather well.
Now, if you are inclined as I am to believe that the United States is indeed the indispensable nation when it comes to confronting threats to the peace around the world, when it comes to trying as best we can, given all our constraints, to shape geopolitical developments, then I think there is a natural inclination to resist the proposition that what we’re seeing in the Middle East is a permanent diminution of American power and influence. What’s beyond dispute though, at least in the context of Syria where I’m spending a lot of my time concentrating, is that allies and friends of the United States do indeed see us as rudderless and directionless. This is simply beyond dispute, at least, in terms of what their perception is. I think they’d agree entirely with Aaron, they see an administration and a president whose interests and priorities are entirely elsewhere and they get it. They understand fully that at least one reason for the President’s reluctance to invest more time and effort in Syria and in the region generally, has been his priority on domestic issues. They even get it in terms of the President having to make sure, for example, that the rollout of the Affordable Healthcare Act would have to be flawless.
I think we’re dealing not so much with a permanent decline as we are, a temporary distraction. It’s understandable to me and it’s even defensible that President Obama would want what he considers to be the poisoned chalice of Syria to pass his lips. No doubt the full recovery of our economy is what he wants to focus on. No doubt he sees the long-term interests of American security and the American economy more bound up in East Asia Pacific than he does in our favorite part of the world.
He has a good argument to make, I think on both accounts, but the ability of presidents to pick and choose priorities is not without limit. Korea is not where Harry Truman thought he would be focusing the bulk of his time from June 1950 right through January 1953. We’re faced now with a Middle East where fundamental questions of political legitimacy stemming from the age-old problem of what follows the Ottoman Empire - these questions are being addressed. We’re facing a situation in Syria where a country is being informally partitioned by a long-term state sponsor of terror and terror itself.
So, I don’t think we’re looking at decline and I did not see what I consider to be the mishandling of the Syria situation as necessarily having implications for American commitments to peace and stability elsewhere in the world. But, I think the distraction is real and the manner in which we interact with friends and allies, at least for them, is a real issue.
Hudson: You know I met a Chinese analyst from a think tank in Shanghai not long ago and he said, “we were watching very carefully to see if the U.S. was going to use force in Syria and when we noticed that the U.S. didn’t…” He thinks the Chinese leadership then thought, “well, we can be a little bit more pushy in the East China and South China Seas.”
That says something not just about the Middle East but also about the famous pivot which is regarded, I think, in some quarters in South East Asia at least with some skepticism. I heard an Indian analyst at a conference in Singapore not long ago saying, “well, 1500 Marines to Darwin, that’s laughable. Four littoral landing craft to Singapore, well, yes, but…” From their point of view, the country to watch is China which is cleverly free-riding on the United States, the Middle East and letting their sometimes colleagues the Russians do the pushing in that part of the world.
So I agree with you and I think it is indeed a poisoned chalice that Obama was right not to sip from but there are repercussions and whether it’s just a temporary diversion or something more serious, I think still needs to debated.
Steven Simon is our fourth panelist and I turn the microphone to him.
Steven Simon, International Institute for Strategic Studies: Thank you, Michael.
Now that Roula and Aaron have bracketed the topic and Fred had staked out the middle ground, perhaps, I’ll say a few words about the monetization of European debt. (Laughter.) No, really, I’ll make a few cats and dogs observations just to maybe round out the discussion a little bit.
One thing that I’m kind of curious about the way the issue was framed was the emphasis on decline and how that reminded me of previous bouts of declinism, even within my own career in Washington, but, certainly, there have been bouts of it before. Within recent memory, Japan looked like it was ascendant and the United States was going down the tubes. The U.S. deployed forces to Lebanon. They got attacked by Hezbollah and the United States turned tail and ran. There was Vietnam, of course, a tremendous defeat. 57,000 killed. Somehow the United States managed to climb up out of that pit and within a few years was crushing the Soviet Union en route to an end of the Cold War. You look at the failure, if I can put it that way, of the U.S. to roll back communism from Eastern Europe in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s. Was that a function of declinism or was that a function of mature risk assessment? You decide.
The other thing about decline that got me thinking, I guess, so I suppose it was worth while in that respect to frame the issue in those terms, was to ask myself what the U.S. would have been doing differently over the past few years if it had been ascendant as against a declining power. The answers just weren’t really clear to me. I mean if the United States had not been in decline, arguably speaking, would the United States have somehow kept Mubarak in power or alternatively, would it have rolled back the coup that ejected Morsi from power? Would the United States have somehow forced Israel to do a deal with the Palestinians or the Palestinians to do a deal with Israel or what have you? Would the U.S. actually have used force against Syria? Would the U.S. have assessed that as the strategically sensible thing to do? So, trying to distinguish between whether the United States does something out of weakness or it does something out of an intelligent selection of choices based on an assessment of risks and opportunities is something perhaps we do want to talk about.
My own sense, which is Aaron’s as well and even Fred was, I think, on this page, is that these have been deliberate choices that have not been made necessarily because of a sense of defeatism or an instinct for preemptive capitulation borne of a sense of weakness.
Having said all of that, it’s not as though the U.S. has a lot of cards to play at the moment and that’s partly owing to the wars that we fought. There’s a paper that just came out from Harvard by Linda Bilmes who’s the economist who co-authored the book with Joe Stiglitz about the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which observes or calculates really that the costs of the wars was somewhere between four and six trillion dollars. This is really a lot of money and what makes it really, really a lot of money is that the entire amount was borrowed and we’ve been servicing the debt on that from the moment the first supplemental appropriation was made and the money borrowed to back it in 2002. So, this is quite a bill and it’s going to necessarily confine America’s flexibility, particularly in the Middle East where money is important and the use of force has been a characteristic of American foreign policy responses to challenges in that region. This isn’t to say we’re in decline but it’s to say that there are constraints that any administration regardless of party will have to contend with.
Just two other thoughts which relate to the underlying premise of this panel. The one on coherence is that you can’t expect, it seems to me, a country like the United States with very diverse interests in a region that one of my co-panelists has just said has a lot of moving parts and owing to the Arab Spring was extremely dynamic right now - it’s unrealistic to expect a “coherent” response. We want democracy in Egypt but we also want to see Arab-Israeli peace. Well, it’s going to be a lot harder to get Palestinian - Israeli peace accords if we have turned our back on Egypt. It’s just going to be harder. Now, these are two legitimate objectives that they happen to clash and they’re going to produce what some might regard as an incoherent policy response.
Lastly, on the question of credibility, I just note this is a bit academic and I’m not even an academic so perhaps I shouldn’t be treading in these deep waters but it looks to scholars who now have had access to the archives of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries that crisis response on the part of parties involved in a crisis generally doesn’t relate to reputational issues. In other words, one country will not respond in a crisis to another country’s moves on the basis of what that second country had done ten years before in circumstances that were not exactly similar. That countries in a crisis tend to look at their adversary through a contemporary lens, asking themselves, “What is at stake for my adversary right now and what is my adversary’s capacity to defend his interests?”
I’m not all that worried, perhaps I should be, but I’m not all that worried about analysts in Singapore who look at the U.S. response to Syria and wonder whether the Chinese are going to come and devour them because the Chinese are no longer afraid of the United States. If there ever is a confrontation between the United States and China in the South China Sea or wherever, I’m sure the parties will decide how it is they want to deal with that confrontation on the basis of their assessment, at that moment, of the stakes involved for each party and the capacity they have to defend them. Thanks.
Hudson: Speaking of treading in deep academic waters, let me ask you to put on your professorial hats and give a grade to recent U.S. Middle East policy, considering that they don’t like us very much in Egypt whether they’re in the government or in the opposition, they’re mad at us in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. In Iraq, they might like to see more of us but Iraq is a mess that we have been trying to get out of. In Israel, it’s possible that a right-wing government thinks, “Well, this administration is so weak and can’t possibly exert pressure if pressure in fact is called for to advance negotiations” and so on and so forth.
I don’t know. I would give them about a C, I guess, but I don’t know whether Roula, and I think there’s some differences of opinion among us here on the panel, would.
Khalaf: I don’t think we can give a grade. I don’t think all the crises can be dealt with in the same way nor do I think that the administration could have, there are issues that it could not have done anything about. I think Syria and Egypt, in particular, there could have been early action and more coherence. I think on Iran the administration is doing exactly what it should be doing, on Israel-Palestine as well.
So, I don’t think one can take just a blanket view of this administration’s Middle Eastern policies. On Syria I think it was a missed opportunity. Arming the rebels early on I think could have made a difference. I’m not saying it would have made a difference for sure but I think the chance of making the difference, tipping the balance just enough to get the two sides to the negotiating table, I think that was worth taking the risk for and the administration ended up doing it and not doing it at the same time but when it was too late.
I think on Egypt, I know why the administration didn’t take a position on the coup but I think that what transpired then was one day it seemed to be on one side and the next day on the other. So, while the impact of its policies in Egypt may not have made a difference I think a bit more clarity could have created more leverage because I think the military in Egypt called the administration’s bluff.
Miller: Great powers. We are a great power. We have a better distribution of power, economic, military, political soft power than any other single country in the international system and we’re likely to maintain that favorable distribution of power for many years to come.
The sources of anger toward the United States in the region run deep and frankly, Michael, you know as well as I perhaps better, that they long predated this notion that the president of United States has been - in an unfortunate choice of words by someone that I’m sure that they regret now - leading from behind. Sources of anger run deep. In large part, emblematic are the two special relationships that the United States first maintained in this region from the 1940s - those special relationships are now not in crisis but both the Israelis and the Saudis, our two special relationships, are angry at us. But nonetheless, those sources, our perceived unlimited support for Israel, our support for authoritarian, the kings, which paradoxically in this age of disappointment over democracy, transparency, and gender equality, it’s the kings ironically that have fared better than the faux republics and it’s the kings on whom we are depending. The bell may toll for them too at some point but not for quite a while, I suspect.
So, what is our job? Our job is to be, as a great power, I suspect, admired, feared, respected but never loved. I mean a great power will never be loved and given our relationships in this region - I’ll just use two. Our special relationship with the state of Israel which is only getting more special despite the tensions that exist between probably the most dysfunctional relationship between an Israeli prime minister and an American president that I’ve seen and our relationship with Saudi Arabia - unlike Lehman Brothers, truly these two relationships are probably too big to fail.
Steve and Fred and to a lesser extent Roula have identified the fact that this state is not necessarily a permanent state with respect to American interests and influence in this region. What is idiosyncratic is the region itself and the challenge is that it is offering it up for any power. I’ll return to the theme that I suggested at the beginning. We’re not winning but on what matters to the United States and the things we can do something about, I actually don’t think we’re doing badly however much we are not admired, not respected, and not feared.
Hof: Since the professor asked for the grade, I’ll give one, at least in the context of Syria and it happens purely coincidentally to be a grade I was quite accustomed to as an undergraduate and that would be a D+. (Laughter.)
My criticism has more to do with methodology than anything else. I agree entirely with Aaron that if you’re looking for total coherence, the foreign policy of a great power is not the place to put your magnifying glass. Nevertheless, from the very beginning in my view, this administration has resisted any notion of trying to systematically define objectives and set a strategy with regard to Syria and it’s all understandable and we can argue endlessly over specific steps. I agree entirely on the point of arming the opposition early but these things are debatable. What’s not debatable, I think, is the way business should be done. Even if we’re not going to achieve 100% coherence, should we at least try for some of it?
At the beginning, the guiding assumption for a great many people, quite frankly, was that Bashar al-Assad was toast, that he was going to be gone and it was going to be sooner rather than later. Much of the debate in summer 2011 over whether or not the president of the United States should tell the Syrian president to step aside was driven by this idea that Assad’s going to be going quickly. This is irresistible and we better put together a proper presidential send-off and in the process get our guy on the right side of history. Ok? Not much thought given to what’s the strategy to make it happen. President of the United States in cases like this is not issuing advisory opinions. He’s not a lieutenant at the Officers’ Club, Friday night happy hour, just giving his views about what ought to be happening out there.
Later, when it became clear that Assad was going nowhere fast, largely a function of his ability to harness certain sectarian trends inside of Syria, largely a function of the help he was getting from Iran and Russia in particular, then it became a matter of not really wanting to have a systematic inter-agency review process on this because it was known there were certain places the president really didn’t want to go.
Look, every president has his own style on how he wants to handle national security system but in this case, in my view, it just hasn’t worked. It’s been entirely reactive in nature. There’s been an unnatural reliance on what people in the White House call strategic communications than to try to explain all of this. Hence my grade: D+.
Hudson: And, Steve?
Simon: I guess I give the administration a fairly good grade primarily looking at results and not so much at process which is inevitably a black box to those on the outside of it. Let me know go down the list very briefly, telegraphically.
Iran looks like a deal is within reach to get a six month suspension of their nuclear program while further talks go on for something more long-term. This is going to have an effect on breakout lead times and diminish tensions - certainly that can’t be a bad thing.
Syria is disarmed of its chemical weapons. I just saw a news script the other day saying that Israel was ending its distribution program for gas masks to the public, a major advance in regional security.
In Egypt, I’m not really sure, and perhaps we can talk about this, what the United States was expected to do or could be expected to do but in any case although it’s been messy, bloody, and awful at least the place is not coming apart right now, which is something deeply to be thankful for.
Jordan is hanging in there with a very significant influx of U.S. aid to that kingdom in the face of the serious pressures it’s experiencing.
And if you look at the Gulf, they seem to me to be doing quite well. The Saudis have over 800 billion in the bank. The Kuwaitis probably have something nearing that figure. Reserves, I think, are quite healthy. Oil prices are also hanging in there. I don’t see any prospect for a sudden dive in them that would be destabilizing politically, socially, economically. Really nothing to dislike there and there’s no threat to U.S. base access or defense cooperation agreements. They remain in force, fully observed, and useful. We have a fair amount of forces out there now and of course, the forward headquarters of a major command. No real threat to that it seems to me. Syria is, as Fred has observed, a horrible, horrible problem. How the U.S. can solve that problem is not altogether clear to me apart from some of these arms controls things that we’ve just talked about.
But, on that Syria question, one of the things that’s hampered the debate, it seems to me and maybe both within government but also outside of it, is some reasonable consensus based on a convincing corpus of evidence of the costs of inaction because I think people understand or they have an instinctive grasp of what the costs of action are, especially looking at the two wars that the United States has fought, but defining the costs of inaction is very, very difficult. So, if you’re a policymaker and you’re trying to decide what to do - should I get involved in here or not? - and you’re comparing something unknown, namely the cost of inaction, against what you presume to be very large on the basis of evidence, namely the cost of action, you’re probably going to opt not to get in there. Unless there’s a consensus on the costs of inaction that’s really convincing and that you have a cabinet that can really make that case, I think it’s quite difficult to get a positive response.
Then, just to wrap up, Iraq. Kind of a mess but Nouri al-Maliki has nearly a million-man army. He can protect what’s important to him. I don’t see a disintegration really of the Iraqi state. That’s kind of a banal tour de raison but it’s the situation. If you agree with these characterizations, I think you’d have to agree that the administration, for all the doubts about the policy process that Fred has raised, has done okay.
Hudson: Ok. Well, I don’t think that the assembled professors here all agree on what the final grade should be but that’s fine and that’s as it should be.
The management happily has given us a little extra time so that we can have some comments and questions from the audience.
Let me just say one thing, going back to an important point that I think Aaron made at the beginning. It may be that as you try to assess U.S. Middle East policy you indeed cannot look just at the Middle East itself, you have to look back here at home and I would be interested if this should come up in any of the comments or questions whether our panelists might have an opinion as to whether the domestic factors affecting President Obama significantly affect the possibilities for American action.
At any rate, I think it’s time now to open up the conversation to everybody in the audience and if you have comments or questions, please rise and approach one of the microphones. If you would identify yourself and then make your comments or questions as concise as possible, we’d appreciate it. Yes, please?
Question: I’m Peter Humphrey, intel analyst. McCain says at a minimum, a bare minimum, crater the runways would massively lower the death toll from the sky. I mean really…can’t you just do that? That one thing rather than let this hemorrhage go on and on and on. Can’t you just do that one damn thing?
Hof: I think that during the limited period of time when American military strikes were actually under active consideration right after the August 21 chemical incident, my suspicion, and it’s only that, is that where we might well have focused would have been on airfields. It would have been on aircraft. It would have been on artillery in the open. It would have been on scud missiles and it would have been on rockets. It would have been on, basically, the delivery systems and their support systems - all associated with the regime policy of mass terror. The deliberate targeting of residential areas, which for one reason or another they have declined to occupy them or they’re unable to occupy them on the ground. This is the administration’s real dilemma here because in the wake of that incident, in the wake of the chemical weapons framework agreement, and I agree entirely with Steve, in and of itself, it’s a good thing. Bashar al-Assad and company stripped of chemical weapons, not a thing wrong with that for 23 million Syrians and for the neighborhood.
Question: Iran can return the entire capacity in ten years or more.
Hof: My point, I think, is that a very small percentage of those Syrians, and we’re talking about civilians, killed by the regime have been killed by chemical weapons. Extraordinarily small percentage. And, now the regime is fully back in business, slaughtering people, just taking care to make sure they’re not doing it with chemical weapons.
So I think that’s why we’re seeing the scramble for a Geneva Conference. The problem there is Secretary of State Kerry wants this to focus on the political transition of Assad and company, that is indeed the objective of the Geneva process, but Assad and company have been winning a string of battles on the ground. They think they’re winning overall and they’re in no mood to be transitioned.
Miller: Can I offer one additional point? Watching the President’s behavior over the last several years, I don’t think this is a matter of any specific military tactic. I think it stems from a willful, I would argue, wise - Fred and I have argued about this repeatedly - view drawn from the shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan that loom large. Let me make clear. No one’s talking about the deployment of thousands or hundreds of thousands of American forces on the ground in Syria. That is not the analogy. That’s a false analogy. The proper analogy to draw from the two longest and among the least profitable wars in American history where 6,000+ Americans have died, thousands more have received life-crippling injuries, trillions of dollars expended and the answer is for what? For what?
The proper analogy to draw is: what is the relationship between the application of American military power, even your tactical suggestion of cratering runways, and the end state? That is the critical question that any White House needs to ask and answer. What is the purpose of American military action and what are the consequences for the United States of militarizing its role in this conflict? That question, I believe, was asked repeatedly. I think no one came up with a compelling answer as to why this wouldn’t create additional risks, consequences and ultimately, could involve the United States getting stuck with the check for Syria. I think this has been a decision that the President has willfully made again and again and again. I suspect, barring some event I cannot even divine, he will continue to look for ways to avoid involvement there.
Hudson: Yes please? Identify yourself.
Question: Ivan Plis, MEI. I was just wondering we haven’t heard too terribly much about the recent round of negotiations with Iran and I was wondering given what we do and don’t know if we could speak to that situation especially if Saudi Arabia feels threatened by that and sort of what the calculus there is.
Khalaf: An Israeli official said recently that Israel is saying what the Saudis won’t say in public. I think the position of Saudi Arabia today towards these talks is quite similar in that the concern is that if you end up with a deal that is not watertight - and you have to remember that for the Sunni Gulf States, their concern about Iran is not limited only to the nuclear program. It is about Iranian influence in the region - I think the concern is that a deal that allows Iran wiggle room will end up legitimatizing Iran’s role in the region and undermining their own.
I think that these fears are overblown and that the Gulf States are still unable to envisage a different security relationship in the Gulf. I think they’re stuck in the rivalry in the very traditional power struggle and I think if a deal is reached with Iran, it opens up a lot of possibilities for a completely different security framework in the region that could in fact benefit them. A change of behavior in the Iranian regime does have a lot of benefits to the Gulf States whether it’s in Lebanon, in Syria, or in Bahrain.
Hudson: Roula, do you think that the near miss of the recent talks has opened up so many opportunities for those that are against some kind of an arrangement between the U.S. and Iran on the nuclear issue and maybe other things, that this possibility for an ultimate, not a rapprochement but a sort of deal, is scuttled because you have hard liners in Iran, you have hard liners in the region and you certainly have hard liners here in the United States that see an opportunity now?
Khalaf: Well, what matters immediately, I suppose, is mainly Congress and we’ve seen all this week the debate in Congress. There’s a lot of opposition to this deal but I’m not sure that there’s enough time for momentum to be so strong that it derails a deal. There are meetings next week. I think what we hear is there’s still a good chance that something will be achieved and then I think if the administration can show something credible, I think the president knows that public opinion will be on his side and I think that could potentially change the dynamics in Congress.
Hudson: Would you like to add something? Yes please?
Simon: Which is the interesting thing about this is what it shows about the lack of leverage that others have on an issue that’s of strategic importance to the United States.
Hudson: Yes, please?
Question: Hi, I’m Matt Spetalnick with Reuters News Service, White House correspondent. I know a lot of these folks and I appreciate you doing this.
Again, staying on Iran, given again the vociferous complaints from Israel and Saudi Arabia and apparent divisions also within the P5+1, how well or badly is the administration handling the talks with Iran and what could wrong if this diplomatic tract fails? What are the risks?
Simon: A lot of things could go wrong. Plenty of opportunity for slip between cup and lip on this one, obviously. I think the main contours had already been worked well before the first 5+1 meeting, the first of the two that have taken place thus far. I don’t think that there was a great deal of sticker shock on the Iranian side and U.S. allies certainly had been briefed on the contours of the deal beforehand. The U.S. has been doing handholding on this for years now and the president, in this regard, has gone very far out on a limb in positing the use of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon - that’s what he said on a number of occasions publicly. That’s quite an audacious claim and it was intended to be reassuring, particularly to the Israelis but possibly also to the Saudis. That kind of handholding will continue.
Now, the anxiety of the Israelis and the Saudis, in particular, is riding very high. I mean it’s pretty obvious. I think for the Saudis but also to some extent for the Israelis there’s an underlying concern and that concern is about the withdrawal of the United States from the region - a kind of a retrenchment and there’s a sense that the eagerness or apparent eagerness to do a deal with Iran is intended to pave the way for a withdrawal that would not only leave our allies exposed but also create opportunities for Iranian aggrandizement in the region. In fact, in the darkest version of this narrative, in the deepest most fevered dreams, there’s an unspoken side agreement to clear the market with the Iranians whereby Iran would be given carte blanche to do what it wishes in the region so long as it agreed to this nuclear deal in a 5+1 context.
In that bigger framework, the Syria situation fits in quite nicely because it looks as though the West is walking away from Syria in a way that enables Iran to maintain its prerogatives there. You have an understanding of the situation that contributes I think pretty understandably to a high level of anxiety and that will be difficult to quell, I think.
Miller: It’s fascinating because I can’t prove this. There’s no empirical evidence to validate it but I cannot but believe that one of the reasons the president willfully steered clear of military intervention in Syria was because he knows that the grander prize here is a deal with the Iranians on the nuclear issue and a military intervention could result in two consequences: one, a proxy war with the Iranians and second, even the possibility of killing or wounding Iranians on the ground. I think his calculation was he would not get the Russians also to agree to both a comprehensive deal on Syria and Iran. I think this just validates the Israeli concern.
One additional point. Any agreement that doesn’t get to an end state to allay concerns of allies and offers up as its best notional objective putting time back on the clock is going to be perceived as an imperfect agreement. Because let’s be clear, that’s the objective here. Even the end state agreement, who knows in what form it will take, the objective here is not - once scientific knowledge enters the consciousness of a society, how do you extract it? I mean the Iranians may be arguably six months to a year away from a breakout capacity, probably less in terms of the breakout capacity, they know how to do this. The question is to add time to the clock to keep them x number of years, months away from this breakout capacity. That’s the best, in my judgment, you’re going to be able to do. I don’t see this, Roula. I don’t see a transformational change in the U.S. - Iranian relationship. Too may moving parts. Too many conflicts. No political space in Washington at all to give the **inaudible** in Tehran, a very repressive government - 150 people I understand have been executed since Rouhani’s election as president -with a human rights record which is abysmal.
I don’t see transformation here. I see, as I’ve said from the beginning, transaction which is the best we’re going to do for now.
Khalaf: I’m not sure that human rights is going to get into the equation when it comes to Iran and it doesn’t when it comes to any other country. I just want to make the point that there’s a technical issue that here creates a lot of anxiety and that is enrichment of uranium at the lowest level. Until recently, everyone in the P5+1 was in agreement with Israel, with the Gulf States that there would be no enrichment at all. With these negotiations what we’ve seen is that that has changed, that calculation has changed. Now, the P5+1 understands that in order to get a deal and because this is a negotiation, Iran will have some enrichment capacity at the end. I think that is very much the source of the anxiety.
Hudson: Those anxieties that the Israelis had expressed are equally echoed in the Gulf for sure.
Hof: If I could just add one word to that, I think the one thing that Aaron and I could agree on entirely is that there is no empirical evidence that the president refrained from striking Syria because he wished to keep his powder dry with respect to Iran or he wanted to avoid complications with respect to Iran. And, I think, as parties such as Israel look at the contortions we went through in the Syria case, they’re not at all reassured about the president’s reassurances concerning Iran.
Hudson: Let me turn to this side of the room. Please?
Question: My name is Julia Taleb and I’m Syrian. My question is based on several comments you made. If the current president refused to step down and if he insists on nominating himself to the 2014 election, what should we expect? Is it a continuation of the civil war especially that I believe in this current conflict it’s very difficult for either the government or the rebels to prevail militarily or again politically? So, I was just wondering what should we expect.
Hof: First, with regard to elections, if President Assad elects to stand for re-election and if those elections take place in those parts of Syria where he dominates militarily, I would fearlessly predict that he’ll win (laughter) and he’ll win by a fairly substantial margin, I would expect.
There are some attempts at creative thinking around the whole subject of elections, which as I understand are at least on the books scheduled for May, June 2014. I suspect the nearer term challenge is Geneva. As one of the architects of the Geneva 1 agreement, I’m not at all hostile to the idea of seeing this thing implemented in accordance with the formula that was set down. I think, realistically, under current circumstances the chances of success, meaning the creation on the basis of mutual consent of a transitional governing body exercising full executive power in accordance with human rights standards, I think the chances of success are just about nil barring divine intervention and I think in the wake of Geneva I would predict the United States will be back to considering the basic policy dilemma: are we going to somehow reconcile ourselves to the continuation of the Assad regime in some form? Or are we going to craft a strategy designed to affect some changes?
But, I think Geneva may take place on December 12. I don’t hold up much prospect that it’s going to succeed but I certainly hope it does.
Hudson: Thank you. I’m afraid I’m going to be able to take only one more question because I want to give our panelists a last word as it were. Yes please?
Question: My name is Suad Mohamed from University of Virginia. You demonstrated different places to assess decline and coherence of U.S. policy in the Middle East and you had disagreement among you. One even gave a bad grade.
My question is what about your assessment for Yemen and to what degree is the U.S. policy and interference that they do there by 1) sending drones that kill civilians and abolish villages there and 2) by their immediate interference in the transitional phase of the local government? Thank you.
Hudson: I’m glad you asked that question because I think one area that we didn’t really explore was the question of drones and, of course, as we all know, in Yemen that’s a huge popular antipathy toward the use of drones as there has been in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With the, I don’t say the vitality but at least presence of Al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qa’eda in Syria and Iraq and the Al Qa’eda in the Islamic Maghreb, I’m wondering indeed if any of our panelists have a thought about how one should deal with these matters especially in places that are as politically incoherent as Yemen is at the moment...I think there’s no answer to that one.
Khalaf: I’m going to turn the question around. I think obviously the drone strikes in Yemen are a political problem but a military solution. I think that that is the way that it’s viewed in the U.S. but having said that, I’m actually glad that you mentioned Yemen because Yemen is actually one rare example where a transition is working. Now, one has to put this in perspective because it’s all relative. Yemen is an extremely poor country. The transition was very, very complicated but it was in fact a region-led transition, which to my mind makes it quite interesting. I think that that is a very fragile transition and that is an additional reason for the U.S. to be more careful about its drone policy there.
Hudson: It’s the only case of the Arab uprisings where the leader transitioned out, actually remains alive in the country.
Khalaf: But, it was also the GCC that led the process.
I think we’ve come to the end of the time that was allotted to us. I thank Wendy and Kate for giving us a little extra time and I’d like to thank very much all four of our excellent panelists for what I think was quite a stimulating discussion. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)