Mary Louise Kelly: Thank you. Thank you, Wendy. Good morning, everybody. It is a great pleasure to be here. And I do indeed have a remarkable panel up here with me, so let’s get to work. I’m going to introduce the other four people up here with me and give you a sense of what we’re going to do in this first session. I’ll work my way right first.
General John Allen, four star Marine Corps. General, now retired, who I first encountered, John, when you were the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. And, I should add, this month you have taken over as commander, or president as they say in civilian terms, of the Brookings Institution. So congratulations on that.
Next, you, Phil Gordon, who was the White House and National Security Council Middle East Coordinator under President Obama, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome.
Nancy Lindborg, who is president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, among the many past hats you have worn: leadership roles at USAID, Mercy Corps where you were president, and U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, among others. Welcome.
And on the end here Juan Zarate, who was in the Bush White House as his counterterrorism chief. Worked on terror financing at Treasury before that. Now an advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-founder and chair of the Financial Integrity Network. Welcome to all four of you.
So, one measure of how volatile and complex this region is, and hence our task this morning is, is that as I started thinking about preparing for this panel a couple weeks ago I thought we’re definitely going to lead with Raqqa, recapturing Raqqa. This is going to be the defining incident we’ll all be focused on. Then by last week I was thinking we’re definitely going to be leading with, “What the heck is going on in Riyadh and what the crown prince is up to there?” And by the time this weekend rolled around I was thinking, “Uh-huh, we’re definitely going to need to [talk about] Lebanon and what the heck is up with the prime minister of Lebanon, and where is he today?”
And that is setting aside half a dozen other important and pivotal developments unfolding in this region as we speak. All of which is to say, I’m going to throw it to the panel to let us know where we should start. We will get to Iran, spoiler alert!; we will get to Syria; we will get to the Middle East peace process writ large in the 90 minutes before us. And I’m going to open the bidding by noting not only is this a remarkable panel, but we have here gathered people with deep expertise of the military aspects of the region, the diplomatic aspects, economic and sanctions in play, and then the role that international organizations and networks play.
So what I’m going to do is let them start. I’m going to give you a minute each, guys. That’s, like, a few sentences. But just to lay the groundwork of what to you are the biggest challenges, the biggest questions in the region. And General Allen, I’ll give you the first word. In a few sentences a quick summary of the many challenges from the military point of view.
John Allen: Well, Mary Louise, it’s great to be with you. And let me just make a very quick comment. In an era where we’re wondering about truth in our society and the advent of the post-truth theory of where we are today, I truly believe that NPR is one of the sources that we can be fully confident in, and I want to thank you for your contributions. It’s been my pleasure, really, to be in and out of the Middle East for more than 25 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it as unstable as it is today. And just to touch the key potential military flashpoints, because I think that’s where we are. And I’ll sort of [go] from north to south.
Obviously the referendum in the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government, is a potential flashpoint in a variety of ways. And I won’t go into the details now. We can talk about that. Reconciliation between the Kurds and the Iraqis in the aftermath of the recovery of much of Iraq. Reconciliation within Iraq of the Sunna elements and the Shia elements. As we continue to the south, what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, I think, has a number of us scratching our heads. But I think the young prince, Mohammed bin Salman, may have violated one of the great strictures of great power politics, which is: don’t destabilize your base as you’re attempting to engage in broad overseas adventures, which would be in Lebanon and in Yemen still.
But also, the other aspect of the region is that four party versus one party standoff that we see in the Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Egypt versus Qatar. That has, I think, permanently fractured the GCC, potentially. It has engaged Iran more deeply in the problems and has brought Turkey now back into the region. And of course, we have the four civil wars that are underway that Wendy talked about, any one of which has its own destabilizing quality to it. And of course, underlying most of it is the continued Iranian destabilization more broadly of the region. From the western third of Afghanistan all the way across through Lebanon and some relationship still with Hamas, obviously pointed towards, with Hezbollah, pointed towards Israel, our ally in the region.
And then of course, beyond all that, if that doesn’t turn your stomach, the potential decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by the president with respect to Iran’s compliance with the negotiated outcome of that process. If we snap sanctions back on the Iranians, we could find ourselves in another level of conflict than we’ve had before. And having been one of the military planners to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, that isn’t a particularly appealing prospect.
And then finally, my last gig, as they say in government, which is the Islamic State. We’re in a different place today than we were when we first confronted them in ’14. But the Islamic State today, while it has been in many respects decimated in the physical sense, in what we call core ISIL in Iraq and Syria, it became a three-headed monster a couple of years ago. Which means the Daesh, as it’s called, now has provincial holdings in many of the places around the Middle East. The periphery in Libya, in the Sinai, in the Khorasan, which is the “Khorasan” part of Pakistan.
But it also has gone global, and so a very effective global network, which is riding on the internet of things. So many challenges. And they all are related in some form or other. Being able as an administration to figure out how they do, in fact, relate. And they all sort of end, or could begin, in the Middle East process, which is one of the most important aspects of the service that I’ve ever had. They all have an interrelationship that we should help the administration figure out as they seek, not to parcel out the different issues, but ultimately to find the common threads between them so we can have a comprehensive Middle Eastern policy, which we lack right now.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. Excellent starting point. Phil, let me let you pick up. How do U.S. diplomatic challenges and opportunities overlap with the military picture?
Philip Gordon: Thanks, Mary Louise. Nice to be here. As you say, we face a bewildering number of diplomatic, military and other challenges across the region. I think if you gave us all a test and we all had 60 seconds to get them all in, John did about as well as possible. But at the end of it I think we’d say to ourselves, and you’d say to yourself, “Well, we didn’t even mention X, Y and Z,” because it may be unprecedented the number of hugely important things that we do face. So rather than try to pass that test I would make a comment about the region more broadly and where it fits into U.S. policy, which is to say that – this panel, I guess, is about priorities and what we focus on would sort of indicate priorities.
My basic point to kick off would be that the Middle East itself must be a priority. And I say that as somebody who has, I think, learned appropriate skepticism about how the United States can deal with some of these challenges, some of which are literally impossible. And as someone who served in an administration who proclaimed a goal of pivoting away from the region, partly because it was too difficult. But partly because in some ways people felt that we didn’t have priority interest there. I think one thing that should be clear and should emerge from this discussion is: that seems, to me at least, not really [to be] an option.
We continue to have enormous interest in all of the challenges we’re talking about. John mentioned a few, but in Iran we’re talking about nuclear proliferation. And if Iran gets a nuclear weapon you can be certain that other nations in the region will want to. That seems to me a remaining primary U.S. interest. You look at the humanitarian piece and we’ve seen in recent years hundreds of thousands of people being killed and displaced. A million refugees going into Germany alone, destabilizing European politics. I would argue that the stability of the European Union and Europe is a strong American interest.
So that alone, even beyond the humanitarian. Also, undermining neighbors, the numbers of refugees in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, which we’ll get to, another factor there. I don’t think you can in any way suggest that that’s not a major interest. And even energy, the old standard which used to be the argument, to a large degree, to why we have a strategic interest in the Middle East. And then I think some have allowed themselves to conclude, “Well, that’s not so true anymore. The U.S. is relatively independent so we can pivot away.”
But that one too doesn’t really hold up. We, as the United States, might be relatively energy independent, but the world isn’t. And energy is fungible. And still as long as Europe, India, and Asia rely on the Middle East, we have an interest there. So that’s my broad overall point. We’ll get into priorities among those issues, but I think we have to understand that the region itself remains a profound interest.
Ms. Kelly: Nancy, where would you pick up that thread, looking at it from the perspective of, I’ll call it soft power, but from the perspective of the international organizations that you’ve worked with.
Nancy Lindborg: Sure. Thanks, Mary Louise. And congratulations for a wonderful event, Wendy. That was quite a comprehensive laydown. Let me just add that we’re really looking at the fruit of a number of decades of militarized proxy building within the region. And you’ve got the result of armed militias and factions throughout the region, some of which are slipping out of control of their patrons and leaving in their wake thousands and thousands of mainly young men who are armed.
There’s also the question of the many young, mainly men, but some of them women, who were pulled into extremist groups. What is their future and where do they go? 15 million refugees in the region who have been displaced by the force of the wars that we’ve all talked about. And the question is what happens to what is essentially the next generation of this region in an era where education has been disrupted for hundreds of thousands of displaced children and young adults. And you continue to have women not fully being able to be a part of the rebuilding. So you’ve got profound social disruption which needs to be thought about as you look at solution sets.
And it’s in a region that, a colleague of mine reminded me recently, it’s a region without regionalism. The Middle East was a term coined in the early 1900s by an American, and there isn’t a platform for dialogue or cooperation or even a way to come together to address what are profound rifts within and between countries. And you see this increasing factionalism with Sunni leadership as disrupted and as weakened as we’ve ever seen. So it creates additional, I think, requirements of support and leadership from third parties.
And looking at helping to rebuild not just the infrastructure, and to amplify what John said, really looking at how you proceed with reconciliation at a very basic level between all of the factions within Iraq, within Israel, among the Palestinians. It’s a place that is so divided that it affects the future for generations to come.
Ms. Kelly: And that’s a great frame for our comments this morning, looking at this from a generational point of view. Juan, let me let you pick up. I don’t know if you want to take on the economic challenges and opportunities or speak to the counterterrorism efforts underway, which obviously affect the entire region.
Juan Zarate: Thank you, Mary Louise. Let me echo the thanks to MEI and Wendy for, not just this conference, but for your important work on these issues. Especially now in this period of great dislocation and adjustment, as General Allen noted. And I just want to note, my claim to fame is that I was a classmate of Mary Louise’s in college. That’s my great honor.
Ms. Kelly: And I have some great stories, so see me after.
Mr. Zarate: You’re going to the reunion this year, right?
Maybe I can do this. Let me just comment in 30 seconds [on] the broad trends, feeding off what Nancy indicated, that I think are important to understanding the dislocations. And then talk about three particular things I think are interesting from a counterterrorism and economic perspective. The first are the demographics. This is a region where the majority of the population is under the age of 30. And that creates an enormous amount of pressure as well as opportunity. Challenges with respect to the lure of extremist groups, the disillusionment of societies that aren’t providing economic or other opportunities, and what the future of the region demonstrates.
And so, a lot of the threads that you see throughout the catalogue of challenges that General Allen laid out revolve back down to the question of demographics. A question, secondly, of leadership and governance. What does that mean in a region that’s undergoing a shockwave not just of demographics, but of what actual governance means in the 21st century? We saw that in the context of the Arab revolutions. We’re seeing this in the context of the civil wars. We’re seeing this even in the context of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. So this broader question of what does governance actually look like?
And finally. modernization. What does a modern Middle East actually look like and what does it aspire to be, whether in the context of tribal societies or the context of regional arrangements? What is the future of the GCC, for example, in the context of the rupture that has been described? So those are three overarching themes that are important to keep in mind because they thread throughout all the issues that we’re going to talk about.
Three particular issues that I think are important from my perspective and given my background from a CT perspective and from the U.S. Treasury:
One is that the nature of the proxy battles that we’ve seen simmering for many years, that Nancy described, are now not only heating up but coming to the fore and are animating the counterterrorism problems in a very dramatic way. So I think we’re entering, actually, a new phase of counterterrorism challenge that moves beyond the challenge of Al Qaida and ISIS and Daesh and begins to look at counterterrorism through the lens of the proxy battles that are emerging between the Iranian led forces and proxies and Sunni-Arab supported proxies. And that begins to reshape how we think about counterterrorism forces in the region. And we can talk a bit more about that. So that’s one.
Second is we have shifting alliances in some fairly dramatic ways that I think are important. You obviously have the rupture among the GCC. You have an alignment between Israel and Sunni Arab states, an alignment against the Muslim Brotherhood, against Iran, and in common cause against other actors. You have the question of what the U.S. role is in this context. What does U.S. alliance with the Kurdish forces that we’ve aligned with mean? What does the U.S. relationship with Turkey look like, given the changes in Turkey? So you have sort of this dislocation and adjustment of alliances that I think are important to keep in mind in this environment.
And third, and this, Mary Louise goes to your question about economic power and to Phil’s point about the role of energy, there’s an interesting dimension to the use of economic power and influence in a more aggressive and overt way in the region than ever before. In part, taking lessons from what the U.S. did post-9/11 to put more centrally the use of economic and financial power at the center of national security as a way of isolating rogue actors or punishing rogue behavior. You now see that at play in terms of what’s happening in the region, especially with the major economic and energy powers. So you see that in the debate between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, a very fundamental question of how you think about sanctions and embargos. Turkey has entered this space a bit. You now have a question of how Saudi is treating Lebanon in terms of the use of economic power and influence. How the UAE is using its power. So there’s a new dimension of the use of economic and energy power in a regional and even a global context which I think is different and interesting to talk about.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. Thanks to all four of you for setting the stage. I’m going to drill now on some of the topics that we’ve touched on in the opening remarks. I’m going to stay with you, Juan, and throw you a quick question on the news that many of us woke up to this morning. Which is the latest: what the heck is going on with the prime minister of Lebanon? Is he still the prime minister of Lebanon? Where is he? How long is he going to be in Riyadh and is he there against his will? The story is changing as we sit here hour by hour. But what is it revealing about the broader forces at work in the region?
Mr. Zarate: That’s a great question and I don’t pretend have any better insights than anybody else. I’m reading the media as it unfolds. But I do think it’s an interesting reflection of a lot of the dynamics that we’ve all talked about. First and foremost it’s a reflection of some of the internal dislocations and shifts within Lebanon. There has been a sense that Hezbollah has been on the upswing and more greatly empowered in recent years politically, economically, and militarily than certainly the Saudis and Western-aligned forces would like. I think there was an assumption for many years that Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian civil war would actually be their demise. And in many ways that has not turned out to be the case. In fact, just the opposite.
I think the concern for Western forces, for the Saudis, for the Emiratis, and other forces, is not only has Hezbollah gained greater influence, but Iran is gaining an even greater foothold on the Mediterranean as a result. There is concern in Israel as well that what you have in a Hezbollah that is not only politically empowered, but is more empowered by better weapons with missiles that are trained at Israeli cities. Missiles that have been shipped to the Houthis and now are being used again Saudi Arabia.
So this sense of growing military dread around a conflict is there.
And then, this sense in Saudi Arabia that they should being to exert more influence around what is in essence a proxy battle in Lebanon and their attempt to actually machinate this. Which leads to this intrigue around: “Was Prime Minister Hariri forced to resign; is he being held hostage?” A really remarkable statement if you think about it. A country holding another prime minister potentially hostage and dictating the terms of his governance of another sovereign state. That’s a pretty dramatic statement if that’s the case.
And so, I think what’s unfolding as sort of a telenovela in the Middle East has very serious ramifications for the concerns of a proxy battle in the Middle East and how it is we think about governance in Lebanon.
Ms. Kelly: Let me let John jump in here. Pick up on this point of what this tells us about Saudi Arabia and what Crown Prince Mohammed is thinking and how he is exerting influence.
Gen. Allen: Well, let me come back to what Juan said. And I’ll get that in a moment. There’s a couple things. I do absolutely believe that we have an issue of an extension, by the use of proxies, of larger power dynamics in the region. We’re seeing that in the battle space in Syria. We’re seeing that in places as well. I think Lebanon is an example of that.
But I think we’re going to still see the dynamic, and this goes to Nancy’s point, of the use of proxies to lead and conduct terrorism versus our inability both to understand and to articulate the regional strategy necessary to deal with the forces of radicalization, which are going to continue to radicalize tens of millions of young men and women every year that have just no hope except to be pushed into the arms of these extremist and ultimately end up in these groups. So, radicalization is a real issue that we’re going to have to deal with, apart from the fact that they’re wielding these groups as proxies once they have metastasized into Al Qaida, Salafi jihadist organizations primarily.
With regard to Hezbollah, one of the things we should not discount is the fact that while they’re well-armed they’re also now highly experienced in the battle space. Entire battles were fought in Syria where the ground forces were either Hezbollah elements that were supported by Iranian – and we didn’t mention Russia to this point, but Russian support, to include Russian special forces advisors. Hezbollah beyond being well-armed has now I think very well groomed in the context of battlefield experience. They have taken casualties, they have fought well, and if you didn’t like what happened in the Lebanon war in ’06 you’re not going to like what the next one looks like on the ground with respect to the challenges that Israel will face.
You know it’s difficult to know what’s going through – shifting to Saudi Arabia – what’s going through the mind of the young prince. Lots of people are looking to him to fulfill at least his publically stated intentions, which is to begin a reform process in Saudi Arabia which the state desperately needs.
It really needs, and this goes to Juan’s point, it really needs to embrace the modernity for those people in a manner that both embraces modernity, but also creates reforms within the society itself, freeing it from some of the Wahhabi lock, which has in many respects frozen the society in ways that keep it out of sync with many of the societies around them, in particular, I’m thinking Israel, and on the other side, United Arab Emirates.
So as he seeks change, but he has also very aggressively under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign, eliminated perhaps much of the opposition, ultimately, to his ascending to be the king in the event that his father, for any variety of reasons, where to abdicate early or were to find it difficult to continue to lead. But he’s created this internal friction and this internal instability at the very moment that he is finding it difficult to resolve the issues associated with the war in Yemen. Having led the process ultimately of confronting Qatar, which really has not resolved, I think, in any way that either the Saudis or the Emiratis would have liked to see. Qatar seems to be capable of holding on and resisting.
So what we’re finding is we have internal dynamics in Saudi Arabia which are uncertain at the very same moment that we have a major war to the south that has been unresolved. We created friction in the Gulf that has had negative consequences for the GCC. And now we’re engaging Iran in other places as well. That’s a lot of dynamic for a very young leader in a country which, in the end, really has very limited capabilities. And our concern as we watch this unfold is that one or more of the wheels is going to come off this car very quickly if we’re not careful.
Ms. Kelly: Phil, I want to let you follow quickly before we move on from Saudi Arabia. Are the wheels going to fall off this car?
Dr. Gordon: Well, they might. And I agree with John about the risk of taking on two much. Two points, one of the Lebanon piece and then on reform. Because I think on Lebanon, Juan and John took this in the right direction. The question isn’t really what’s going on in Lebanon – there are things going on in Lebanon. But it really is what is going on in Saudi Arabia. Because the prime minister of Lebanon didn’t just up and decide one day, “You know, I feel like resigning for domestic political reasons.” Clearly, everything that is going on on that front, which was addressed well, is a function of what’s going on, on the Saudi front.
And what seems to be going on is that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was not prepared to allow the prime minister to continue to be the face of what he considered to be a Hezbollah-Iranian government. And so at a minimum it seems to be a Saudi message that says, “We’re not going to allow that anymore, that you have this legitimizing face. That country is run by Hezbollah, dominated by Iran, and we need to be clear about that.” So at a minimum I think it’s that. So we need to be clear about that. The more open question is what is the next step? Is resignation what they’re asking for or is it more than that?
And putting it in the context of other crises that John mentioned there is a pattern here of Saudi Arabia defining a problem and then doing something about it. In Yemen for years they were saying, “Look, we’re not going to tolerate Iran putting Hezbollah on our border.” And then they did something about it. We can debate the merits of what they did, but they went in. In Qatar they said, “We’re not going to tolerate government associating with Islamists, with the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on and so forth.”
They tried something in 2014 and then eventually the crown prince and others did something about it. So I think the question about Lebanon now – is it only the prime minister has to resign because I don’t want to see his legitimization of Hezbollah? Or, and you put it in the context of declaring the attempted Houthi missile strike on Riyadh as an act of war by Iran. I mean the logic, if you follow those other things, is potential action could follow that.
Ms. Kelly: So a great big “Watch this space” hovering over a couple of key actors in the region. But let me pivot us to Middle East peace process writ large. I don’t know if you all still get your newspapers delivered at home, but I do, and I woke up Sunday to a New York Times headline, “Kushner led team is forming for ultimate deal for Mid-East.” And we read that this is the Trump administration forming, and I’m quoting, “A concrete blueprint to end the decades old conflict.”
Now keep reading and you will find quoted in this one Philip Gordon, who weighs in and tells us, “There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to Middle East peace. Even vague principles are beyond what the parties are willing to embrace.” So Phil, let me give you the first word on this. “Color you skeptical,” it sounds like.
Dr. Gordon: Yeah, I agree with that actually. That was a profound point I think. John and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time on this issue together and I think I’ll go out on a limb and say neither one of us is going to say it’s easy. And I would even take the next step and say the conditions are probably even worse now than they were then. They were hard enough then and we, notwithstanding – I don’t think anyone can blame the United States for a lack of effort on that. Secretary Kerry devoted enormous energy to that problem. He’s often criticized for putting too much time into that.
John and his team devoted enormous energy to maybe the key to the situation, which was resolving Israeli security concerns, and maybe John you’ll want to say a word about that. But not withstanding all of that energy and effort, the reality was, and that’s what I said in the piece, that fundamentally the sides were too far apart on fundamental issues. You currently now have an Israeli cabinet, the majority of which doesn’t even believe in a two-state solution, let alone being willing to sign onto measures that would be domestically difficult to sell –
Ms. Kelly: When you say conditions are worse now, is that what you mean? That domestically you’re dealing with two leaders who have less power than they did five years ago?
Dr. Gordon: I mean on both sides. If you assess that any peace plan, whether put forward by the United States or the parties, needs to be accepted and sold on both sides, it seems to me the Israeli side is less willing to offer something that would meet the Palestinian bottom line, the conceivable bottom line, now than it was in 2014. And on the Palestinian side you have a government that couldn’t sell it to its people, doesn’t have the legitimacy to sell it to its people, even if somehow, miraculously, President Trump persuaded them to try it. [The] Palestinian Authority is on the verge of a leadership transition. President Abbas is in, I think, the 13th year of his five year term. He’s 82 years old. He is not about to embrace the offer that is coming from this current Israeli government and somehow try to sell it.
And then last point, Mary Louise, because I know that the administration has talked about, and many people have speculated about, what’s different and the reason I’m wrong is that the Arabs are going to help this time. The so-called Outside-In Process where, okay, the parties won’t agree, but now that the Gulf Arabs agree with Israel on Iran and ISIS and other things they’ll come together and bring the Palestinians to the table. I think it is accurate to say there is a new sort of strategic alignment between Israel and those Arab states on certain questions like Iran. But getting from there to getting those Arab states to bring the Palestinians to the table to accept a deal that they are not willing to accept is not something I don’t think we should bank on as our approach to Middle East peace.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. I bet you want to jump in John, but Nancy I want to throw this broader Middle East question to you. Whether it’s looking at what’s going on between Israelis and Palestinians and whether there is some deal there, or more broadly at the region, one of the criticisms that has been leveled at the Trump administration is: he comes to this with no experience, Jared Kushner comes to it with even less experience, most of the people working on this for him come to this with very little experience. That’s a valid criticism. On the other hand, if you have little experience you bring little baggage. Do you see opportunities for progress that maybe weren’t possible under prior administrations?
Ms. Lindborg: Well, I’m an incurable optimist so I would never say it’s not worth trying and sometimes fresh eyes can be helpful. At the same time I agree with Phil that there’s nothing new under the sun here. The additional challenges, I would add to Phil’s list, that we’re seeing on the ground a level of division within Israeli society and within Palestinian society that add to the challenge and complexities of selling a deal. And one of the necessary moves right now is to create means for there to be greater cohesion just within each of those, the Palestinians and the Israelis.
But one of the challenges also is getting all the pieces, al the approaches to sync up. So the outside-in, the bottom-up, the top-down, each of those have been lined up and ready to have success in the past but the challenge is getting them all to be lined up at the same time. I would also note, I think, that many of us have observed this issue – I mean we used to quaintly think of Middle East peace as this issue. We’ve just done a laydown that makes this a side show in a region that’s on fire. And so, the degree to which it continues to get attention and focus – you know, it could be an opportunity because you’ve got a different set of concerns with the Arab neighbors, or it could mean that it is just something that could continue to be just slowly simmering over there.
Nonetheless, I think it’s always worth a try. We need to consider how we can be an honest broker. Because if we’re not an honest broker bringing that to the table, there’s little hope of having the forward momentum that we seek.
Ms. Kelly: You raise a bunch of things I would love to follow up on. One of them is this notion that Middle East peace process is a side show in the region, which is something you just never would have imagined saying ten years ago. But let me put question to you, John, that I was raising on the way in, but does the rise of Iran as maybe the more pressing security concern for many parties in the region, if you are an optimist, does that open some doors toward the enemy of my enemy is my friend and open some paths to opportunity that weren’t there a generation ago?
Gen. Allen: I think it could, Mary Louise. As I said a little while ago, my experience is that the enemy of my enemy is my enemy. And if you – you’ve got to be very careful about assuming any friendship in that particular region. I just make a couple of broad comments. And that is: if this administration is not willing to say unambiguously that it will support a two-state outcome, then I think we leave the process of Middle East peace and Israel-Palestinian talks, etc. in doubt. We have to say that. It’s the only way forward. It’s a bi-national outcome. I was in Israel the day after the President’s inaugural speech for a conference, and the sense, by segments of the Israeli body politic, that they were now unleashed to pursue a bi-national approach. In speeches the very next day we were hearing the Palestinian Authority being called the Palestinian Autonomy. Meaning, they were going to ultimately become a part of greater Israel in that context.
And I think, and I believe, because I’ve been doing this for a while – the most important thing I ever did was Middle East peace – it is a cul-de-sac for Israel. It ultimately creates an issue of Israel’s strategic viability as a state. The whole Zionist experience of a Jewish democracy is at risk in a bi-national arrangement.
So this administration’s unwillingness to unambiguously commit to a two-state outcome, I think, undercuts what Jared Kushner is seeking to do already. Now, to their credit, they’ve gone on the listening tour, and they’ve been listening and I don’t know what’s going to come off the yellow sheet of paper with respect to principles. Phil’s point is very good and that is that there are very few principles that are going to make sense that will not be aligned obviously with a two-state outcome or a bi-national outcome.
But look, we have several hundred Israeli commanders and security officials that absolutely are committed to a two-state outcome. Much of the IDF, which has been involved in the occupation of the West Bank for many, many years, they’re committed to a two-state outcome. We ought to be helping – and the Arab Peace Initiative, which is probably not well understood and it ought to be well understood by the American community, the Arab Peace Initiative, which talks about the about the formal recognition of Israel by scores of Arab or Muslim countries in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion of a peace agreement, those are very, very powerful incentives ultimately in moving toward a two-state outcome which is, I think, what most responsible thinkers believe on this issue.
So we as a nation, which will not dictate Middle East peace but can certainly be the vanguard for and the guardian of the process, we need to be unambiguous on this point. And with respect to Iran, you know Iran can create the regional bogeyman which will facilitate all others pointing in the direction of Iran and saying we need to solve that first. I don’t buy that for a second. Because there is no bad time to be attempting Middle East peace. And if we can stabilize that particular portion of the region, we take away from Iran yet one more reason in its justification for supporting organizations like Hamas and others.
And having been personally involved with the Palestinians in this process, I will tell you, I believed in them, I believed in what they were seeking to do as partners with Israel, and their point was we want Palestine, the emergent sovereign state of this process, we want Palestine to be a platform for stability in the region, not a platform for instability. And we can set the example in this regard and we want to be a partner with Israel in that process. There is no bad time to be doing this. And Iran as a regional bogeyman is not the justification for us not doing it.
Ms. Kelly: I’m not bowled over yet by y’all’s optimism about the ultimate deal. Juan, what do you think?
Mr. Zarate: I’m probably the least expert on this panel to talk about Middle East peace. But I do think it’s interesting, just as an outside observer, how the lexicon itself has shifted. We talk about Middle East peace amid all of the dislocations and civil war and tumult that we’re talking about. It’s almost a misnomer at this point. And it reflects your point about how the centrality of this issue has really moved, Nancy to your point.
And it does make me wonder, and this was a question during the Obama administration and now during the Trump Administration, whether or not so centrally focusing on the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian peace and the two-state solution distracts from these broader dynamics. And we’re placing perhaps too much hope, given the diplomatic history of this and our framing of this issue, too much hope that forcing some sort of resolution, given endogenous or exogenous factors, is in some way going to magically solve the other issues in the region that so bedevil us.
I’m not suggesting that people talk that way or think that way, but there’s something embedded in the way that we’ve dealt with the Middle East peace process that assumes that is the case. That there will be a broader set of resolutions that flow from it. And I think we’re in a situation now that’s far more complex and far more advanced. And so it doesn’t mean we don’t try to solve the problem and it doesn’t mean that it’s any less important for the Palestinians on the ground or for the Israelis or for any sort of Arab-Israeli issues, but it does suggest that we’ve got to maybe even talk about this differently. And the very notion of the Middle East peace process in the context of everything else we’re talking about is, I think, almost a misnomer at this point.
Ms. Kelly: Let me pivot us to focus on Iran. And I’m going to let you each give me a one word, yes or no, will the nuclear deal survive? Juan?
Mr. Zarate: Yes, but…
Ms. Kelly: We’ll come back to you. Nancy?
Ms. Lindborg: I wish I had a crystal ball. I’m going to go with Juan on the “yes, but.”
Ms. Kelly: Yes, but.
Gen. Allen: Yes, but.
Ms. Kelly: Phil?
Dr. Gordon: Yes.
Ms. Kelly: Alright. You get to keep it. A few more sentences. Keep going. Why?
Dr. Gordon: To be honest, I became more pessimistic about that prospect about a month ago with the President’s decertification announcement. But kind of for the opposite reasons that were pitched at the time.
Which is to say until then I had been arguing, and could still argue now, that notwithstanding the President having said this was the worst deal in history and he was going to make it top priority dismantling it, notwithstanding all of that, for the nine months or whatever of his presidency he has had multiple opportunities to get out of that deal, either by not waiving the sanctions, or by decertifying, or just announce – so he has had multiple, multiple occasions to get out of it and has ultimately found a way not to because he or at least the people around him realize, I think, that they don’t have an alternative to it and it would not be in our strategic interests to do it.
But make no mistake, the decertification announcement, while in and of itself had no necessary impact because Congress doesn’t have to do anything – it looks like Congress isn’t going to do anything – it has set us up for a very tricky situation going forward. Because the President, when he decertified, which is telling Congress that he didn’t believe the sanctions were proportionate to what we were getting in return, he gave Congress 60 days to kill the deal with expedited procedures to pass sanctions – it doesn’t look they’ll do that.
He invited Congress, working with our allies, to “fix the fundamental flaws of the deal.” But then he said if Congress and our allies don’t fix these fundamental flaws – and he enumerated them, sunset clauses, ballistic missiles, access to bases – then it will be terminated. Well, guess what? Congress and our allies are not going to fundamentally change the deal. It was always clear the allies, who all believe it is working as do most countries around the world and the IAEA and most experts, cannot unilaterally change a deal that was meticulously negotiated over two years by six countries, endorsed by the Security Council and so on.
So that’s not going to happen and it’s now pretty clear that it’s not going to happen. So the question now is, because it doesn’t look like Congress will do anything, the next time the President has to waive the sanctions to keep the deal alive, which is on January 15, what’s he going to do?
The only thing I think in favor, and that’s why I said, I guess” or I agreed with colleagues saying “yes, but” is 1) that he’s always found a way before to find a way to not blow this up because I don’t think they have a suitable response if they do blow it up and Iran resumes its nuclear program, and 2) we’ve seen this president before make far reaching pronouncements and then somehow explain himself away for changing his mind even with not much to show for it. So that is possible on January 15. He somehow declares success, but he really has set up a perilous situation in which he may feel obliged to not waive sanctions and then the deal dies.
Ms. Kelly: While you’ve got the mike, Phil, one thing I want to follow-up on is something you wrote recently about Iran and the politicization of intelligence as you saw it. You wrote that, “For anybody who followed the run up to the war in Iraq, there’s a familiar pattern going on here with, you argued, with the White House making false claim with weapons of mass destruction. Explain what you’re seeing and what actual evidence you have that intelligence is being politicized in some way.
Dr. Gordon: It’s an important question. I wrote that after the President’s decertification speech because it did feel to me like a familiar pattern of an administration getting so focused on achieving its goals that it sees everything through a certain prism and sells everything through a certain prism. And when you listen to that speech with the long detail of all sorts of dangerous and nefarious Iranian activities, which it is legit, the implication that somehow if we had just held on to sanctions a little bit more they would have thrown in the towel and given in.
The message seemed to be that we, the American public, was being prepared for, if necessary, war, and being persuaded that that would be necessary because of the gravity of the threat that we faced. And what I just tried to remind people that what’s similar to the Iraq war was not only that itemization of the threat and the amping it up that we need to deal with, but the risk that if the threats don’t work, then you actually have to go and do the military operation. So that’s what I’m worried about in this situation.
When you’ve gotten to the point where you’re implying that it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear program, and we’re going to get them to give it up entirely by threatening certain actions, if they don’t then you’ve put yourself in a situation where either you have to back down from those threats that you’ve made, or you have to implement that action. And so I’m not – there’s a whole debate about accusing opponents of the Iran deal of wanting war. And I want to be clear that’s not what I’m saying.
But I do want to be clear that you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say this deal is bad and I’m going to insist on a better deal. And if I don’t get that deal then I will do what’s necessary. You can’t both do that and then say, but don’t suggest that I’m not somehow hinting that military force is an option here.
Ms. Kelly: I’ll introduce, just as a counter voice who’s not here, but a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Norman Roule who was the DNI’s Iran mission manager. He retired last month. He did Iran for the CIA for 30 years and I asked him about these points. And he said he saw no echoes of Iraq, no politicization of the intelligence on Iran. And we pressed him on that and there’s a conversation you can go look at on the NPR website if you want. But to introduce another perspective. Juan, do you want to jump in as someone who served on the Bush NSC. I know Iran wasn’t your portfolio, but you were in the White House. What’s your take?
Mr. Zarate: I was in the White House the second term so I wasn’t part of the debates internally on Iraq, but I certainly saw it and was privy to watching General Allen and his great work. I have a different point of view than Phil. But let me go back to your broader question about the deal itself because I think – the “yes, but” – the “yes” is that I think there’s a recognition that the deal gets us something. It gets us some degree of assurances.
But I think to Phil’s point about the idea of fixing the deal, I think that’s more than just political theater. I think there’s merit in that. This is a ten to 15 year deal and any sense that a deal like that is going to remain static over that period of time – looking at the history of arms and missile deals that we’ve had, whether it’s in the context U.S.-Soviet deals or others, there’s always been amendments and fixes and modernization of deals. And so in that context there’s no reason that you shouldn’t have a process by which you think about how you improve a deal, especially if there’s a sense that Iran is taking advantage or cheating, etc. So I think there’s – the idea of fixing shouldn’t be dismissed outright.
Now whether or not we’re prepared to do the hard diplomacy that’s part of it, I think that’s a big question and, I think, something the administration needs to answer for. Secondly, I think there’s a bounty of ways that you can pressure the Iranians in the context of the current deal, which I think we haven’t done completely. And certainly outside the deal. And so keep in mind that when the JPCOA was negotiated the Obama administration committed to, and I think the Trump administration has continued this, saying we are going to continue our economic tools and measures, largely sanctions, around the issues that are not nuclear related.
Now I testified many times before the Senate when the JCPOA was being debated that there is inherent tension in that deal. Frankly, purposeful diplomatic ambiguity, I would say. When you’re arguing for a deal that would promise to the Iranians reintegration into the international financial and commercial system while also reserving to the U.S. all of the major powers and tools to unplug them from that system because of their support of terrorism, their support to Assad, their human right abuses, their missile program, all of which are still in place. So there’s an inherent tension in that.
But it also then is an opportunity for those, like the Trump administration, who would say, “We need to be more forceful, more confrontational with an Iran that is more adventurous after the JPCOA itself.” So you can do that.
Final point: others still want the deal. And so the Europeans want the deal. The Iranians themselves still seem to want the deal because I think it’s an advantageous deal to them. And so I think that’s the reason why the deal with survive. Because there’s ways of both fixing, pressuring, and maintaining the deal in a way that meets the interests that we’re talking about. And I think that’s where we’re headed with the Trump administration.
Ms. Kelly: In a moment I’m going to jump us to Syria and then on to your questions. But John, Nancy, do either of you want a quick last word on Iran?
Gen. Allen: Yeah, really quickly. Three quick points. Having had a bit of experience on the military option, it’s like North Korea. We’ve got options. We probably don’t want to exercise them unless we absolutely have to, which is a national emergency. We ain’t anywhere near that. Number 2, on any agreement where we can get the EU, Germany, the P5 to include obviously Russia, China, the United States, any occasion where we can get agreement on that, we’ve got to be very careful about throwing it out the window over questionable certification issues.
Number 3, if we’re going to make America great again and we’re going to put America first, we have to understand that, should we have to snap sanctions back on, there are a couple of American companies that are looking at hundred-billion-dollar deals, which could employ a hundred thousand Americans, conceivably, that will go out the window in the event that happens. So I think, to Phil’s point and to Juan’s point, the Congress is going to ultimately be the brake on this issue for us.
Ms. Lindborg: I would add a very quick: my “yes, but” was the importance of not conflating the many Iran-related issues that everybody has already discussed with specifically the nuclear issue. And the deal was always designed to address in a narrow way the nuclear issues. It doesn’t address this other large landscape of threats, concerns, challenges. And getting a handle on how we deal with that will be important and I think it will create additional incentive to stay with the deal so that doesn’t come back on the table as well.
Dr. Gordon: Can I just add one thought? One thought about fixing this to be clear. I am in no way saying this deal is perfect and it doesn’t leave concerns. No deal that you negotiate with a tough adversary is. But we’re fooling ourselves if we think it can be “fixed by changing fundamental aspects of the deal.” If you want to talk about how we can handle ballistic missiles outside of the deal or some of Iran’s regional activities, there are things we can do. But my worry, to go back to the original point, is if the President is implying we need to change these fundamental aspects: get rid of sunset clauses, stop them from developing ballistic missiles, allow us to go to their development sites whenever we feel like it rather than using the procedures, that is what I’m concerned about.
If you’re being told that that needs to be fixed or we walk away, then we’re going to end up having to walk away. And if we have to walk away, that’s when we’re going to have to start scrubbing the military plans again as they resume activities. And then the final point, sorry, on the politicization of intelligence or whatever -- the President also in his decertification speech essentially accused Iran of violating the deal. And then he picked examples that actually show why the deal is working: [e.g.] exceeding the heavy water cap. Again, if you’re not following it closely it sounds like he’s whipping up the public to say that they’re cheating. They slightly exceeded the heavy water cap for a short amount of time. The IAEA challenged them on it and then they put it back in place. And then he gave another example of testing not in line with our expectations. If you’re not following closely the technical details, you start nodding your head, you’re thinking, “They’re cheating, they’re taking over the region and they must be stopped.” Be careful and focus on the details and it turns out the deal is actually working.
Mr. Zarate: Let me just jump in very quickly in defense of the Bush administration. I would commend folks to read the Silberman-Robb commission [report], which looked at whether or not there was a politicization of the intelligence, and they concluded there was not. Judge Silberman’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking the underlying myth that has sort of pervaded that that was the case. There was an intelligence view from the late ‘90s about the WMD program in Iraq. We can debate until the cows come home about how that intelligence was used. The assumptions, the refraction to Phil’s point. But I just want to point that out. Let’s be sure about how were comparing and talking about policy decisions.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. I will inject one more fact into the mix which is, for us keeping track, the IAEA this week reaffirmed in its quarterly report that Iran is complying with the deal. So that is the view of the international community. Let me shift us to Syria. Of the gazillion questions I could ask, and we could be here all day, let me throw a provocative one into the mix which is this. Is the real victor to emerge from Syria’s civil war Vladimir Putin?
That is a question that Mike Sulick raised. He was the CIA’s head of the clandestine service for years. And he argues Putin got what he came for in Syria and in the region. He’s raised Russia’s profile in the region. He has kept Assad in power – helped keep Assad in power. He’s taken credit for the defeat of ISIS. John, what do you think?
Gen. Allen: I’m not sure I agree specifically with your formulation, but he has certainly emerged in a stronger place than he was before. As they were intervening in the conflict, the Russians, I was making one of my rounds in the Middle East in my previous job. And I found that, not just were they intervening to stabilize the Assad regime, and by the way not helping us really at all with regard to the Islamic State, but as I was visiting the leadership in the region there was either a Russian delegation coming out of the office or going into the office behind me.
And so what Putin was attempting to do, by virtue of the perception that the previous administration was in fact moving out of the region – not retreating, I don’t want to use that word, but moving out of the region – was, they were going to use this as an opportunity to establish Russian relationships, in the vacuum of the departure of the American regime, that were going to be uniquely available to them in history. Now they’ve had the difficulty, of course, of coming down on the side of the Shia elements, which is going to be something to haunt them for some period of time. But look, the Russians have a unique capacity to dig in behind a difficult policy and endure enormous adversity as a direct result of their involvement.
But I think in the end Putin is in a stronger position, internationally, than before. There’s going to be huge economic consequences for his long-term presence there. But the other piece of this that was also missed was this was another opportunity for the Russians to showcase a modernized military that we had not seen before. The capacity for them to deploy at a strategic distance.
And, if, you noticed, they have employed virtually all of their strategic systems – Blackjack bombers, submarine launch cruise missiles, vertical launch systems, etc. – not only have they stabilized the situation in Syria, but Vladimir Putin has actually exercised many of his firepower options we would never has seen otherwise. And that’s often missed in this conversation. So I think he’s up on top right now as a result.
Ms. Lindborg: I would add I think on top of all that I actually think Iran will be the real winner. And I want to mention that in the context of Iraq, which remarkably we haven’t spoken about yet, and the area where we still have significant troop presence. And Iraq is entering a very critical six-month period as it looks to May 18 elections. Parliamentary. It will reshuffle, potentially, or affirm prime minister, cabinet, governors, the whole government structure has a chance of moving forward. And it’s at a time where you’ve just liberated huge swaths of territory from ISIS.
But the PMU, the Iranian backed popular military units, are increasingly proving security in many of these cleared areas. They’ve gone in – even in the Sunni areas they’re having relative acceptance right now because of the thirst for security at the community level. And you’ve got those same Iran-backed Shia militia units, the PMUs, controlling the border into Syria. And you’ve got presence in Syria and then you’ve got the Hezbollah in Lebanon. And going back to your very original question, it’s that potential swatch of Iranian influence that’s probably rattling the Saudis. And we’re poised at a moment right now in Iraq, I would argue, that – there’s a critical need to double down on enabling the next six months to result in a country that does not resort yet again to factionalism, particularly between Shia and Sunnis in a way that 2014 did, last time they had elections, that led to the rise of ISIS. So we’re in a critical period in Iraq that will have influence and implication for what goes on in Syria and for the role of Iran, which is poised to have a significant swath of influence in the region.
Gen. Allen: A quick comment. Nancy deserves some real credit on this. USIP has done work on the ground in Iraq for the stabilization of some very, very difficult places that I’m not sure we’ve seen anyone else be able to accomplish. And USIP deserves a lot of credit for that.
Ms. Lindborg: Thank you, John. And I would add that if we don’t create reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia communities in critical parts of Iraq that those divisions will be exploited by the PMUs, by the Shia-/Iran backed militia. So we really need to double down now in a time where Iraq is already not at the top of the list as we’ve just experienced with this discussion thus far.
Ms. Kelly: I’m going to let Phil and Juan get in a quick word on Syria before I get to questions. So that’s your signal. We’re going to get to questions in a minute or two. We have mikes on this side of the rom, this side of the room. We will have time for a few. So if you have one you can start making your way and I’ll open it to the floor in a minute.
Phil and Juan, same question, what’s your quick take away from each of you, what’s the U.S. goal in Syria now? I mean it was framed around defeating ISIS, and ISIS with the fall of Raqqa is on its heels, at least in terms of territory that it controls. So what’s the U.S. looking to do in Syria?
Dr. Gordon: I think the U.S. goal is changing. It started with a goal of a political transition, getting beyond Assad, finding some sort of moderate consensus government. But that project and goal has been thwarted by a number of things, including the Russian one that you initially asked about. Because one of the reasons the United States failed in achieving that goal – there were a range of reasons for it – but one was the absolute determination, not just of the Syrian regime, but by its backers in Iran and Russia who were strongly committed to thwarting our achievement of that goal. And they managed to do so.
And I think Russia’s goal was to prevent regime change just as a matter of principle, to prevent what they saw as extremists taking over, and frankly, to prevent the United States from advancing its agenda and influence in the region. So I think over time the U.S. goal pivoted from that desired political transition, especially when it got to the point where the costs were higher than, I think, most people assessed, and that the cost of failing to achieve it were building enormously with casualties, refugees, extremism, diplomatic tensions in the region. And so it then pivoted to dealing with ISIS, which was a hugely important goal but a lesser goal.
And now I think it depends, if you’re talking about the administration or what U.S. interests would be, but it is essentially now focused on winding down the conflict. Which is falling very much short of a political transition and getting rid of Assad, which is a bitter pill to swallow. Which falls very much short of denying Iran and Russia influence, which is a bitter pill to swallow. But it’s better than an ongoing seven year civil war killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Mr. Zarate: Mary Louise, I think that’s right. I think a really fundamental and important question for the administration, assuming the defeat of ISIS and the lack of reemergence of a global Salafi jihadi safe haven out of Syria, which is important, is: what is our Iran-Hezbollah policy in the context of Syria? And to Phil’s point, I think the wind down of the conflict and some sort of political transition are the long-term goals.
I think the next near-term question is: what’s our posture vis-à-vis our allies on the ground? What is our posture vis-à-vis what is already happening which is a Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah attempt to recapture territory to create a cohesive zone, not just of governance, but of potential influence in terms of Shia crescent that Iran can then have access to. And so I think we are now shifting to a moment where the administration is going to have to determine: what is our Syria policy in light of our Iran policy? And I don’t think we’ve quite heard the answer to that yet.
And to your question on Russia I think the problem – because I think Russia is empowered by this, despite all the costs that General Allen has talked about, because all roads have led to Moscow on this question. Right? Whether it was Secretary Kerry or even the context of current questions of what happens next, Moscow has put itself at the center of the discussion which has led others to come to Moscow. Whether it was Israeli leadership, we’ve seen many more visits and relationships sort of emerge. Whether it’s military deals coming out of the south. Moscow has put itself at the center. And remarkably, despite what some of us had thought would happen, they have not borne the immediate costs of the adventure.
There has not been the internal turmoil in Russia, no protests and problems of Russian adventurism in the Middle East. There hasn’t been some sort of economic crisis as a result. There hasn’t been a backlash of greater terrorist activity against Russia because they’re now central to it. There hasn’t been, really, any cost to the enormous human rights violations that they’ve been a part of. And frankly, they’ve been rewarded in some ways. They were the savior of the chemical weapons red line, right, in many ways. So it’s been a remarkable set of steps that the Russians have taken, which have had short-term value; there are long-term costs and questions, relationship with Iran, long-term costs in the region, but they have come out a winner in this. And there’s no question that it’s part of Putin’s broader design.
Final point real quick because I think it’s important conceptually. The Russians and the Iranians have echoed back to the U.S. and to the West a theme that there is no military solution to this problem, to Phil’s point about where we want to go politically. And ultimately that’s right. That feeds right into our sensibilities. But they feed us that as a sword and a shield to what their policies are, which is to use massive amounts of military force to achieve political and diplomatic gain. Which is exactly what’s happened in Syria. So I just wanted to point that out.
Ms. Kelly: And I will say, having spent some time in Russia and reporting on Russia in the past year, one of the reasons why Putin hasn’t paid a price for this is that if you are Russian and following along you wouldn’t know because among other things he controls the media.
Dr. Gordon: Real quick. I agree with everything Juan said. I would also add they also haven’t paid a price in terms of their relations with the Sunni Arab leaders and states. Which one might have thought that joining with Iran and backing Hezbollah and Assad – it may say something about the cynicism of the region - but even that, far from alienating them they seem to –
Ms. Kelly: We have time for a few questions from the floor. If you have one make your way to the mike. We’re going to start on this side of the room. If you would please state your name, affiliation if you want to give one. Please keep your question short in the interest of getting to as many as we can. And please keep it a question.
Questioner 1: Great panel. Thank you very much. This is Doug Brooks with the International Stability Operation Associations, the contractors that support stability operations. My question is on the future of Kurdistan. The Kurds took a big gamble and seem to have lost and I’d just be curious. They’re one of our strongest allies, obviously, in the region.
Ms. Kelly: Future of Kurdistan. Who wants to jump in? You’ve stumped our expert panel!
Ms. Lindbog: I’ll just say very briefly that they’ve signaled that they’ll accept the ruling on what happens with the referendum. Whatever you may think about the merits of the referendum, it does move us past the more immediate splintering of the region. And the hopeful interpretation is that it will give Kurdistan itself an opportunity to heal the divisions that opened up over the last year between the two parties. It obviously was the part of Iraq that was the most prosperous. The Pesh[merga] were incredibly courageous during this fight. Iraq needs Kurdistan probably more that Kurdistan needs the rest of Iraq. But we are at a moment right now where there’s the potential for moving toward the May elections on the basis of unity based on what the Kurdish leadership has just signaled.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. Yes, sir.
Questioner 2: My name is Blake Selzor. I spent the last three years based out of Jordan for an international humanitarian organization working on Syrian relief. My question is expanding on what Mary Louise Kelly said, what’s the U.S. goal in Syria now? I want to see if the panel had thoughts on the U.S.’s role within the U.N. system. You have Security Council resolutions calling for diplomatic discussions, but you also have the Astana talks. It was mentioned by a panelist that Russia and Iran have taken more leadership on this, of course, with Turkey. And Turkey’s the other angle I wanted to ask your opinion on. So, do you see the U.S. playing a bigger role in the U.N. side of things moving forward?
And finally, not to forget that there are still communities under siege in Syria and how we should continue to be addressing those issues. It’s not over and I think you’re seeing less and less attention on the humanitarian side of things. Thanks.
Ms. Kelly: Okay. So, several questions there. The U.N. role in Syria and the ongoing fighting in Syria. Phil, do you want to tackle that?
Dr. Gordon: Sure. Well, I think Juan addressed the key outstanding policy issue at this point which is with ISIS’s defeat and the vacuum potentially created by it, what is the U.S. stance on who fills those areas? As I said in my earlier remarks I think we’ve pretty much moved on from the goal of a political solution as desirable as that would be. And that’s in response to Astana, sure, let’s push ahead with political talks, but honestly there’s very little possibility for a near-term political transition and the more urgent priorities are deescalating the conflict and finishing off ISIS. But that leaves this major question because to defeat ISIS in southeastern Syria we had to turn to coalition partners that aren’t necessarily going to remain in charge in terms of long-term governance.
And as the regime, backed by Russia and Iran, tries to fill the vacuum created by ISIS’s displacement, how much do we care about stopping that Iranian-Syrian regime filling up that gap? And it’s a particularly thorny question because we have a strong interest in denying Iran and Hezbollah a role in that area. And we’re certainly hearing from the Israelis and Saudis and others about that. On the other hand we shouldn’t pretend that there’s some easy, cost-free way of doing that, as we discovered throughout the Syrian war. And so if we do commit to that goal, including with American personnel on the ground, we need to be prepared to back them and to deal with other repercussions that may come, including in Iraq.
Ms. Kelly: Yes, sir.
Questioner 3: [Inaudible] [75:01:05] analyst and former diplomat. Failing a two-state solution, the unitary entity that exists is Muslim majority, by about 2050, a generation and a half of so. That is certainly an existential threat to Israel. It may be the existential threat to Israel. Why doesn’t Israel recognize that?
Gen. Allen: Let me just offer a couple of views. We used the term “Middle East peace process” and I think Juan rightly challenged the use of that term. Read more and more we should be using “Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” That’s the accurate term. There’s a whole variety of reasons, but if you look at the current politics in Israel and the right-wing coalition that serves the prime minister, the interests associated with evacuating the West Bank with the huge numbers of settlers that are generally out of the four settlement blocks will create a trauma for Israel we can’t even begin to imagine. And I think you if you back to the Israeli retrograde out of Gaza, and we remember the trauma that Israel went through as they were forcibly removing Israeli settlers, that was a relatively small number. We’re talking potentially outside the four settlement blocks which are generally considered to be what will be swapped for equivalent space within green-line Israel, we’re talking probably, conservatively. a hundred thousand Israeli citizens. And the Palestinians have been pretty clear, they’re not interested in drawing any other lines for Israeli settlers in Palestine. They’re also not interested in extending Palestinian citizenship to Israelis who would want to stay in Palestine. So just that one issue alone, the settlement politics, make it very difficult, ultimately, for this sense that the two-state outcome is the only process that can go forward.
As you properly have, I think, identified, the single state option where we find a disenfranchised Arab population that doesn’t participate in the democratic process, is in fact a great strategic vulnerability for Israel ,and it’s going to have to come to grips with this.
Ms. Kelly: Over to this side. Yes, sir.
Questioner 4: Good morning. Thank you for your remarks. My name is Stephen Howard and I’m with In Defense of Christians. And one questions I had was just on U.S. policy in Lebanon. This is a country that‘s already gone through immense demographic challenges with the Syrian refugee crisis. And given just these last ten or so days, what do you think the U.S. can do to help stabilize this country to ensure that yet another state in the Middle East doesn’t destabilize. Thank you.
Ms. Kelly: What can the U.S. do? What should the U.S. do? What’s the U.S. responsibility for what’s happening in Lebanon?
Mr. Zarate: Maybe I can weigh in here. It’s complicated and I don’t pretend to be the deepest expert on Lebanon. But I think first and foremost we have an interest in stability in Lebanon, obviously, and so trying to weigh in in terms of what happens next politically is important. And I know our ambassador on the ground and embassy try to do that. I think there’s a broader question of how do we see the future of Lebanon and whether or not we see it in the stark terms that the Saudis do at this point. Whether or not it has fallen into the hands of Iran and Hezbollah, or whether or not there are ways of stabilizing and helping Lebanon. And helping it in a variety of ways.
Refugee crisis is huge. I think most people don’t recognize the huge percentage of refugees that the Lebanese have taken per capita. It’s just enormous. I think if we were to equate it to what the U.S. would take, it’s probably a hundred million, if not more, people into the population of the U.S. So imagine that. Probably even higher. So that’s one thing; I think helping with respect to that.
Secondly, helping economically. There’s a big question as to how to maintain the stability of the banking sector, something that we work on in my firm with Lebanese clients and others. And so how can we help stabilize the economy, because that’s critical to the Lebanese state.
And finally just figuring out how to work with the Saudis and our allies to influence positively, because I’m not quite sure what the end state is here if the assumption is that the Lebanese state and has fallen into the hands of Iran and Hezbollah. Are we talking about war? Because if we’re talking about war that’s incredibly disruptive, messy, and hard to imagine at this point. And hard to imagine what comes next.
And so I think the U.S. has a role to play in all of it. If I can just – harkening back a couple of questions, I think there’s a fundamental role to play here about what’s the U.S. role in the region writ large. What’s U.S. power? What do we do in terms of Syria and the populations that are still at risk in the vacuums that are being formed? What do we do with our Kurdish friends and allies? I think the U.S. has to answer those questions.
And even if we have to be tactical about it, we have to make sure that our friends and allies realize that relationship with the U.S. isn’t just about near-term U.S. interest, which has often been the case and often been the way that our relationships have been perceived. One idea in the context of Kurdistan, and General Allen may disagree, is I think we should announce that we’re going to form a permanent base in Erbil as a way of solidifying a sense of American presence in the region, calming the waters with respect to Kurdistan, signaling to Baghdad that we’re going to be present in a way, without rupturing the Iraqi state.
So I think that there are things that was can do tactically that demonstrate that the U.S. isn’t absent from the region and can play a positive role.
Ms. Kelly: This raises really interesting questions that we’ve barely gotten to touch on about to what extent U.S. foreign and security policy should be organized around human rights. Should be organized around promoting and supporting democracy in this region and other regions throughout the world. Which are themes I’m sure will continue throughout the day. I apologize in advance that we’re not going to get to every question. What we’re going to do is a lighting round now. I’m going to take one from this side, one from this side, and then you can ambush these guys at the coffee break with your further questions. So to you first and then we’ll get your and then we’ll –
Questioner 5: Thank you very much. My name is Sami Altecki, I’m a Syrian politician and I’m heading a center for strategic studies in Dubai. Actually I think there are some illusions in the debate here that you think that still America do have leverage in the region? I doubt. Second, there haven’t been any study why ISIS returned to Mosul and what are the condition that ignited this and why Bashar Al Assad be better than Malaki again. So pretending that we are finishing with ISIS, I tell you it is an illusion and you don’t have the leverage to do so. Thank you very much.
Kelly: Thank you. Last question.
Questioner 6: Yes, my name is Monsul Suleiman. I’m the Washington bureau chief of Al-Mayadeen TV. It’s a pan-Arab television station based in Beirut, Lebanon. I’m trying in my question to reflect our audience question to this panel. Who runs foreign policy in the Middle East? U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? That’s a question I’m always hearing people asking. Is it from the White House or the Foggy Bottom? And whether Secretary Tillerson will stay after Thanksgiving or whatever? That’s the question.
The other thing is the issue of proxy. Many people now think because there is a legitimate question about who is running U.S. foreign policy, then is also U.S. is a proxy sometimes used or employed by regional powers that have economic or energy power that could influence United States with this administration. Thank you.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. So just a couple of small, tidy questions that we can easily wrap up there. Nancy, does the U.S. have leverage in the region? “Yes, but?”
Ms. Lindborg: Yes, but. I think we do have leverage. It’s a different kind of leverage probably than we thought going into the Syria conflict some years back. But I would – let me link it to the other part of his question about the conditions for the emergence of ISIS. And where I think we can exert leverage is helping Iraq, for example, not revert to the conditions that enabled ISIS to emerge in 2014. And to my earlier comment there is an opportunity in the next six months to translate a certain sense of unity that prevailed in the fight against ISIS into the political space. And it will require, optimistically speaking, a more cohesive government where the spoils are shared among the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds.
And, on the Kurdistan issue I would add to my earlier answer that I think we all need to guard against and help there not emerge a Kurdish/Arab divide in both Syria and Iraq and to address the Shia/Sunni divides. And part of that is a function of governance.
About a year ago ago I was in Iraq at a time when there were a lot of demonstrations going on in cities throughout the country. They weren’t demonstrating on the basis of communal needs. You know, “I’m Sunni,” “I’m Shia.” They were demonstrating because they wanted better governance. And 14 years into this disruption of Iraq there has been the growing emergence of civil society and a younger generation that has a different vision for what they want their future to be. And we have the opportunity, we have the leverage to support that and help those voices to emerge and help that unity to prevail. I don’t want to sound too Pollyannaish, but part of the good news is that that is a sentiment among a lot of the communities in these countries.
And I would just add on the best example of that, the most important bright spot to not lose hold of, is that example is in Tunisia. And we need to strongly support Tunisia which stands as the only standing example of a post-dictatorship country not collapsing into chaos. And if you ask any Tunisian from President Essebsi, to the four Nobel Prize winning civil society leaders, to community members, the key ingredients were from the ‘50s they invested in education and they invested in women’s education. And so I add that both because we’ve got to stay with Tunisia as an example for the region, and it speaks to the kind of leverage that we absolutely should not squander.
Ms. Kelly: Phil or John, one of you want to take on quickly the excellent question: who is running U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? Who’s in charge?
Dr. Gordon: Neither of us.
Gen. Allen: I don’t think we can tell right now, to be honest with you.
Dr. Gordon: No, I agree. And I gave that one example of on the Iran issue there seems to be a struggle. I mean there are differences. There are clear differences. We saw that on Qatar, where the President tweeted his absolute support for Saudi Arabia, while the Defense Department was stressing military ties with Qatar and the State Department was saying it didn’t understand. So you have differences on that. On the Iran nuclear deal, from what we do understand, the President wanted to do one thing and he was persuaded by advisors. Oh, by the way, it’s not unprecedented.
Ms. Kelly: That’s the way the system’s supposed to work.
Dr. Gordon: Yes. So it is an open question.
Ms. Kelly: I’m going to exercise moderator prerogative and close with one last question. Quick answer from each of you because we have spent the last 90 minutes talking about problems and challenges and tumult. If you look at the region what’s a bright spot? What gives you hope? Phil?
Dr. Gordon: I mean there are a couple of things.
Ms. Kelly: Pick one.
Dr. Gordon: Name one –
Ms. Kelly: Your best one.
Dr. Gordon: This may surprise people to hear me say it but I think the possibility to transformation in Saudi Arabia has an upside along with the risks that we’ve been talking about. Saudi Arabia needs to be transformed. It can’t go on as it has been going on for economic, social, and other reasons. And so the prospect of a young, ambitions, bold leader who is willing to say, “We can’t just do oil anymore. We have to transform the economy. We have to marginalize extremist clerics. We have to bring women into the workforce and education.”
I mean I could take another 90 minutes and tell you all the risk involved in that and all the regional problems and all the ways it might not work. But if you’re looking for a path forward in a positive way, maybe there’s something in that one.
Ms. Kelly: John, what gives you hope.
Gen. Allen: I would expand just slightly on what Phil has said. And, as I said, I’ve been in and out of the region for a long time. And in particular in the Gulf there has been enormous change in the Gulf in the context of embracing education, in women’s rights, economic diversification, the embrace of modernity. I think those changes – when I look back upon my first experiences in the ‘70s in that region and where it is today, yes, there are problems. Phil said we could go down a long, long list of the issues that we face. But when I think about where we have come and where I think we are poised to go – this goes to the point of American leadership in the region – there is a thirst for American leadership in the region.
This is a real opportunity for the Trump administration. Both to help solve some of the difficulties in the Gulf itself,, to exert leadership in helping Israel in ultimately to be secure, and for the Palestinians to have a state, to deal with succession issues around the region in terms of leadership. There’s a real thirst. That’s bright spot for me. A thirst by the elements within the region for an American role, a reassertion of an American role. This is something that the Trump administration ought to be leveraging in every possible way. A comprehensive regional strategy within which we have the context to deal with the individual problems would go a long way towards helping in that regard.
Ms. Kelly: Thank you. Nancy, you mentioned Tunisia, which is clearly for you a bright spot.
Ms. Lindborg: Quickly, yes, Tunisia. And I would add to what I said early is the power sharing government that they continue to maintain between the secularists and the Islamist parties. Which is a model of how to be a more equitable government. And the second bright spot, which expands a little, builds a little on what John and Phil said, and that is the vibrancy of the many youth leaders I have met, both in terms of the entrepreneurial energy they’re bringing, the insistence on a different kind of future. And they – there’s an extraordinary young generation coming forward.
Ms. Kelly: Juan, you get the last word.
Mr. Zarate: I’m going to ride that intellectual wake. I think it’s absolutely right. My experience from a commercial perspective, and certainly when I was in government, is that there’s enormous hope and opportunity with the youth in the region. And in particular what I think we’ve seen in the last couple of years is entrepreneurial spirits rising and especially around new technology. We’ve seen it certainly in the countering of violent extremism. We’ve seen people taking ownership of that issue and being entrepreneurial about how to do it. We’ve seen it with the creation of new businesses. And we’ve seen it with pockets of real innovation not just in places like Dubai, but in other parts of the Middle East.
And so I think that’s an area of hope because one would hope to have a vision of a competition for that opportunity as opposed to completion to fill a vacuum of crisis. And I think that’s a hope for the region is that you do have a competition for opportunity as opposed to ongoing conflict.
Kelly: Juan Zarate, Nancy Lindborg, John Allen, Philip Gordon. Thanks to you all.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 92 minutes