- Articles & Commentary
- Hill Forums
- Media Resources
- About the Council
The following is a transcript of the eighty-seventh in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on January 11, 2017, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council moderating, and Thomas R. Mattair, executive director of the Middle East Policy Council, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
I thought what I would do to kick things off is to offer some observations about what the Trump administration will be inheriting in U.S. policy in the Middle East — offer some thoughts about how we got here, what President Obama has tried to achieve in the eight years he has been in office, but also some of the challenges he has faced along the way. And then to ask some questions about policy issues and what we should be looking for in terms of course corrections, changes, shifts when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
First, how did we get here? There's no question that President Obama, when he took office eight years ago, sought to recalibrate the U.S. approach to the Middle East. I don't see the initial policy as one of a dramatic shift, but more of a recalibration along several lines. This is probably the area where there was the most dramatic shift, of course: the withdrawal from Iraq. Much has been discussed in the last several years about the wisdom of that withdrawal, but of course that was something President Obama campaigned on in 2008. And in many ways that was the policy he inherited in 2009, building on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the hard work of Rich and his colleagues brought across the finish line in November of 2008 with the outgoing Bush administration, which had set the timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq between 2009 and 2011.
The second element of Obama's recalibration in the Middle East was, of course, dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. In many ways, if you look back at the Obama approach, it's a quintessential long-game play, where the United States found itself, in early 2009, out of position when it came to dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, which had gotten demonstrably worse during the course of the 2000s. The United States found itself in the position of being an outlier in the world, where many countries, particularly our European partners, saw that our lack of engagement in dealing with the problem was, in fact, the source of our difficulties, not the other way around.
So from the very beginning of Obama's time in office — in fact, from his first inaugural address, when he talked about reaching out to adversaries with that outstretched hand — he tried to change the power dynamic and the leverage. Instead of the Iranians having leverage over us, we tried to create leverage over them, first by testing engagement, with the full expectation that it would not work but would prove to the world that the Iranians were not interested in dealing with us without significant pressure put on them.
That laid the groundwork for the pressure campaign that was started in 2009 by Secretary Clinton, rallying the world to put unprecedented sanctions on Iran, but also on the military side of the equation. As we were withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, this ensured that the United States maintained the military footprint in the region to keep the pressure on Iran. Then the effort was accelerated to ensure that our partners in the region got significant military capabilities to defend themselves and to deter Iran.
The third area of recalibration in the region, which is still the subject of some controversy today, was an attempt to reset relations with the Muslim world. Obviously we're talking a lot about a different kind of reset of relations right now. But the Cairo speech in June of 2009 was kind of the key moment for that, where the president — in terms of both the ideas and the concepts, but also the policies to back those up — tried to start afresh with the Muslim world, and tried to work away some of the scar tissue that had been built up in the previous eight years in terms of U.S. relationships — not just with governments in that region but, more important, with the people of that region.
That's one area where expectations were set too high. And I think one of the dynamics that the Obama administration had to grapple with in the course of its presidency was one of dashed expectations about the promise of Cairo, being quite bold and ambitious, but the reality never quite matching that great promise. Then, finally, in terms of policy, the Middle East peace process. Of course, there was a decision early on to appoint a senior envoy, Senator Mitchell, to try to rejuvenate efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. It was something that Secretary Clinton spent a good deal of time on, and Secretary Kerry spent even more time on. That was, clearly, from the early days, an effort by the administration to recalibrate the U.S. approach to the region.
Finally, and more broadly, I think there was an effort early on that really carried on through the course of his presidency, even up until his speech last night, which was to try to address the notion — and maybe it's an illusion — that there's a U.S. fix to every problem in the Middle East. That's not to say the United States has no role to play in trying to address the great challenges and threats in the Middle East, but there's not a single set of U.S. policies that alone can lead to a solution. The journalist Jeff Goldberg talked about it; the Carly Simon syndrome. Not everything is about us. We alone can't necessarily fix all of these problems.
And this leads to the second part of what I wanted to get into concerning the challenges the president has faced. There's no question that there is a lot of anxiety in the region among longstanding partners about the United States, our approach to the challenges in their neighborhood, and what role we will play moving forward in helping to address them. The region is going through a once-in-a-century set of changes, a convulsion in terms of security, borders and its economic and social order. It's fundamentally not about the United States, not about any particular U.S. policy, but of course it has huge ramifications for the United States, and it creates a lot of anxieties in the region about their own future.
It points up the challenge of reassurance. I think there are great doubts about the U.S. role, for several reasons, one of which is the greater energy independence of the United States. As the energy picture changes so dramatically here, there's a question, particularly among some of our Arab allies, that we will rely on them less, and so they may have less leverage on us. It's important to note that this effort toward greater energy independence actually predates Obama. It was President George W. Bush in this 2006 State of the Union address who talked about an American addiction to oil from the Middle East, and promised over the next several years to have a 75 percent reduction in U.S. reliance on Middle East oil.
Clearly, that kind of approach creates doubts among many of our Arab partners about our continuing reliance on them and whether we're going to be there for them in the future. Obviously, the Arab Spring itself — which, as I said, was not about any set of U.S. policies, but the convulsion that we all saw starting in late 2010 to early 2011 — caused many of our closest allies in the region to question their own future, and whether the same thing that was happening on the streets of Tunis or Cairo or Damascus was going to be coming to them. And, of course, we're worried about this narrative that's set in about the United States abandoning someone like Mubarak. I reject that narrative, but I concede that it's out there.
There is also a lot of anxiety in the region about the rebalance to Asia. One of the great strategic moves of the Obama administration, and one of the areas of Obama's foreign policy that probably has the most bipartisan support, is the rebalance to Asia. But one of the unintended consequences of that strategy was the insecurity it created in those countries that might be rebalanced away from. You saw it in Europe, certainly; you see it in the Middle East. When Obama administration officials would talk to Asian allies, we would have to reassure them that we really meant it about the rebalance, and to say that we wouldn't be distracted by problems elsewhere, that we would follow up on this rhetoric to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. But, of course, our friends in the Middle East and elsewhere heard that there was going to be even less time and attention for them.
Then there was Obama's rhetoric about U.S. "non-intervention." Going back to the earlier recalibration — that there's not a U.S. fix for every problem — there was a perception in the region that the United States could always be doing more, and why isn't it? This was something that created a lot of anxiety in the region and compounded the challenge of reassurance. There were also diverging interests, as the United States tried to seek a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear program, which meant a secretary of state talking quite frequently with his Iranian counterpart, something that had not happened at all since 1979.
Just in the course of this administration, we went from having hours and hours of meetings in the Situation Room about whether, if an Iranian diplomat and a U.S. official were found in the same room together at a large international conference, were they going to be allowed to look each other in the eye — to a secretary of state, John Kerry, regularly text messaging and talking to his Iranian counterpart in the course of the Iran nuclear negotiations. That's a pretty dramatic perception shift, and for many of our allies it was very unsettling.
Clearly the situation in Syria and the desire by many U.S. partners in the region for the United States to do more in Syria — to be more militarily engaged, to take on Assad more frontally — and the Obama administration's resistance to that, created some sense of anxiety. Then, of course, as I mentioned earlier, there was a sense, particularly with some of our Gulf partners, that the Obama administration was too quick to dismiss Mubarak. I think this overstates both our agency in that process and also what was actually happening on the ground.
Then, finally, the Obama administration has struggled to manage the tradeoffs between what we're doing in the Middle East and what we would do in other regions. I think even though the United States has fewer limits than any other country in terms of what it can do, its capabilities, we still can't do it all. To the extent the United States is doing more in places like the Asia Pacific, doing more in the last several years in Europe in terms of military posture and diplomatic energy and effort, it's been perceived as doing less in the Middle East. Dealing with that balance, which the Obama administration has tried to maintain, and dealing with problems around the world have meant that for many in the Middle East there is a sense that we care less.
That's why I think there's been this myth, as I see it, of U.S. disengagement from the region. That's why I'm very careful to say it's a recalibration. It's not a disengagement. It's not a retrenchment. It's often easier to say all the problems of the Middle East are because the United States is doing "less." It's easier to say that than to grapple with the more complex story of what's actually happening in the Middle East. When I look across the landscape of what the U.S. is currently doing in the region, I see a United States that has shepherded through some record-setting arms deals to our Gulf Arab partners, selling the most modern capabilities to the Saudis, the Emiratis and others. I see a security framework that is more robust today than it was a decade ago in terms of the level of diplomatic and military interactions the United States has with its Gulf partners through the Camp David process President Obama launched, which was continued last year in Saudi Arabia, where the United States and its GCC partners are trying to do what we routinely do in other regions of the world, in Europe and Asia: to have a regular meeting of the leaders to talk about common security issues and common solutions to those problems.
Look at the relationship with Israel, which has had no shortage of drama at the highest levels over the last eight years; yet for those of us working down in the trenches, we saw a security partnership that's stronger in many ways than it's ever been. The president on his way out the door signed off on a record-setting agreement with the Israelis, a memorandum of understanding to provide them $38 billion over the next 10 years — a level of cooperation between our military and security services that has never happened before.
Look at Egypt, where the United States was criticized for being complicit, supposedly, in overthrowing Mubarak. On the other side, this administration has been criticized for not cutting off the military assistance we provide Egypt for maintaining the military relationship with Israel. So, it's criticized not for disengaging but for continuing to engage.
Finally, our military footprint is quite significant. Despite our withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, even if you set aside the capabilities we have in theater to fight the ISIL campaign, more military men and women are deployed in the Middle East than before 9/11 in terms of our maritime and air presence. If you look back over the last three decades, the biggest difference between our posture today and where we were eight years ago, is that we don't have 150,000 troops in Iraq. I don't know if that should be the sole measurement of U.S. engagement or disengagement in the region.
What President Obama is leaving, in my view, is a situation that from a U.S. perspective is sustainable. It's sustainable in terms of our military footprint and what we're doing in operations. On the ISIL campaign, we've made tremendous progress over the last several years. I think the new administration has some decisions to make about what to do about the campaign in Mosul, when to retake Raqqa, whether they want to add special operators on the ground and change the rules of engagement in places like Syria, but it's a sustainable presence. When you look at the public support that we have here in the United States for what we're currently doing in the Middle East, this campaign that we just went through was about a lot of things, but I heard it as more of an affirmation of what we are currently doing in the Middle East than any dramatic change. I actually anticipate with General Mattis, who I worked very closely with at the Pentagon, in many ways a co-architect of many of the policies that I've just talked about, to see a good deal of continuity.
The questions for a new administration coming in are, first, obviously, the Iran deal. There are lots of questions about whether the United States is going to try to throw away the Iran deal, amend it, or end up doing something that might look quite a bit like what Secretary Clinton talked about last year: the vigorous implementation of the Iran deal.
Second, ISIS, and the important tactical issues about how quickly we seek to retake Mosul or Raqqa and what kinds of capabilities we're giving to the Syrian opposition. Again, the new administration is a bit unclear on this — everything from the president-elect's suggesting that we want to stop support for the Syrian opposition, to some of those who are part of the defense transition talking about how we actually want to dial up support to the opposition.
Third, on Syria, the Assad question writ large. We have a wide variety of options, everything from taking the Putin position and working with Russia and Assad to deal with ISIL, to actually dialing it up in terms of what we're doing to squeeze Assad and get him out of power.
Fourth, our Gulf partnerships. Clearly, there are going to be a lot of questions in Gulf capitals about what the next administration's going to do. A question in my mind is, will the president-elect help organize, and in fact, attend another summit of Gulf leaders in the next six months? If the election had gone a different way, that's something I would have expected to see happen, but I'm not sure if that's going to happen with this administration. It's something I hope the new team is thinking about.
Fifth, what are the areas in which they decide to be "disruptive"? How quickly, if at all, do they want to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem? Does the president-elect want to declare the two-state solution dead? Things that may not actually achieve a near-term goal might be very disruptive and have some knockoff effects that would be unanticipated.
Finally, the inevitable crisis that's coming our way. I think there's one thing those of us who have followed Middle East policy closely over the last several years have been humbled to learn and relearn: how little in control we can be of events and how things will come up and in many cases literally blow up in our faces. I think that's something we can, unfortunately, expect to see in the coming months in the Middle East. How the new team handles that inevitable and probably unexpected crisis will be something that will matter greatly to all of us.
Derek and I work very closely together, and I think you just heard an incredibly effective tour of the region, much of which I agree with. I'm going to pick up where Derek left off on some of the big questions facing the incoming administration. Obviously, over the course of the past two years, I have given a lot of thought to the really hard questions. So I'd like to use my time today, rather than giving advice to the new administration — which I don't think I'm really in a position to do, or talk as much about how things might have gone if the election result had been different — is to tee up five hard questions that the incoming administration is going to have to grapple with. They raise a series of tensions and contradictions for which there are no easy answers. That's not a surprise, given the nature of the modern Middle East. There are going to be these huge difficult questions where American policy is going to face dilemmas and contradictions.
I'll start with the Iran deal, something that I care deeply about, having participated in it from its inception. Obviously, on the campaign trail we heard a huge amount about ripping up the deal, getting rid of it, it's the worst thing ever, et cetera. I think the rhetoric has changed pretty dramatically since the election. It certainly seems to me that we are on a course to not see the Iran deal torn up in the first instance, but rather to see it enforced vigorously. Then, if any additional pressure is placed on Iran, for that to happen outside of the nuclear context: ballistic missiles, human rights, support for terrorism.
Here, to my mind, is the core challenge facing that policy. It would have faced Secretary Clinton if she had been elected president because she proposed a policy very similar to the one that I now expect the new administration and the Congress, bipartisan leadership in both the House and Senate, to pursue: to vigorously enforce the deal and then try to impose costs for Iran's activities and behaviors outside of the context of the deal. The core challenge is how to dial up the pressure on Iran for what it's doing with its ballistic-missile program, its support for terrorism, its abuse of human rights, without effectively re-imposing exactly the same sanctions you just lifted in the course of the Iran deal, and thereby blow up the deal in the process. In effect, it's what I would call a bait and switch. How do you have a credible story to tell your partners in Europe and the other members of the P-5+1, and a credible platform to stand on that says we have a right under the deal to sanction you for your violations of your ballistic-missile obligations? These restrictions, by the way, are embedded in UN Security Council resolutions, but don't go so far as to just be the wholesale replacement of the old sanctions regime with a near-identical new sanctions regime that was the price that was paid for the deal in the first place. That is a very hard question, and getting the calibration right will be incredibly important. If you undershoot, you're not going to put on the pressure that's needed to hold Iran accountable for these other activities. If you overshoot, you could break up the coalition that's come together to enforce the deal, and that would put the United States in a difficult position going forward.
For me, that is a big piece of business that is a little less strategic than it is practical. It's actually about what exactly are the tools available to hold the Iranians accountable for these other things, and what do we have to do from a diplomatic perspective to convince the rest of the international community that we are within our rights to do these things. I think that is going to be an early test of this administration's capacity to effectuate a complicated multivector strategy.
The second core challenge facing this administration is that the current posture talks very tough about both Iran and ISIS. But the problem, of course, is that trying to push back on Iranian influence in the region and trying to hold Iran accountable for its behavior in respect to supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah runs headlong into a strategy that says by any means necessary, we're going to get rid of ISIS. Much of what we heard from the president-elect on the campaign trail seemed to be a ratification of Iran's strategy in Syria, and much of what he talks about in respect to going after ISIS inside Iraq could have the perverse effect of actually strengthening Iran's hand in Baghdad and across Iraq. How do you resolve that tension? How do you have a go-tough sign up with any partner who's willing to fight ISIS, on the one hand, and on the other, a policy of "we are going to undermine and push back on and try to hold Iran's feet to the fire and reduce its influence across the region." Is it possible to thread the needle on that? I'm not totally convinced that it is. I think both the new administration's Syria policy and its Iraq policy are going to have to come down on one side or the other of this fundamental contradiction.
The third issue is the larger question of Syria itself. If you listen to the weight of what we heard during the campaign — a wide variety of things during both the campaign and the transition — it seemed to be in favor of essentially saying the Russians are on to something, so let them take care of Syria. That seemed to be where the weight of opinion was. Where is that ultimately going to leave Syria, though, in the long term? How do we think about actually trying to re-stitch some kind of stable equilibrium in Syria that reduces the killing and the slaughter of innocent civilians, that reduces the long-term prospect that, even if you roust ISIS from Raqqa, you don't just get the son of ISIS or the cousin of ISIS a year or two from now because you've merely installed something akin to the status quo ante? This set of questions is going to come home to roost for the administration very quickly, and I think they're going to find that taking a position that just says, let's support the strongman, let's let the Russians help prop up Assad and so forth, it ultimately is going to beg a lot more questions than it answers. I'll be interested to hear from both Dimitri and Mary Beth what they actually anticipate, to the extent it's possible to do so, how this particular set of questions and tensions gets resolved.
The fourth significant question, from my perspective, facing the new administration goes to the president-elect's seeming predilection for supporting strongmen and authoritarian regimes across the region. He loves Sisi, seems to like Erdogan, seems to like the Gulf leaders for their strength and toughness. These all, in his view, can be partners against terrorist groups, against ISIS.
I think that that raises a fundamental and profound question about U.S. policy. Do we really believe that the old authoritarian bargain is sustainable — we support regimes that have deep questions about their fundamental staying power and legitimacy, in exchange for their help in fighting terrorists and keeping some measure of regional equilibrium? Is that old bargain conceivably sustainable, particularly given what we saw in 2011-12 with the Arab revolutions? Can we go back to just betting on the strongman? Do we think that is a long-term proposition and is in the best interests of U.S. national security? I have strong doubts about that. I wonder if we don't have to be thinking hard about the ways in which, while supporting the efforts of our Sunni partners across the region and raising their confidence and adding reassurance, we don't also have a clear vector of trying to encourage and induce the kinds of reforms that can lead to a more sustainable future for the Middle East. This is going to be a big piece of business that the new administration's going to face. Very recent history reminds us just how brittle and unstable a regime can become if it loses legitimacy with its people and isn't capable of embarking on a path of reform.
This is sort of my 4(a), before moving on to my fifth and final point. I think there is an interesting convergence of interests happening among our Sunni partners from Egypt to the Gulf, including Jordan and Israel. They share a couple of common adversaries — Iran and radical Islamic extremist groups, terrorist groups — and we've seen bubbling up the appearance of increasing cooperation between Israel and these countries. Does that present any kind of opportunity to potentially break the logjam and make progress in the Middle East peace process that gets away from just the kinds of negotiations that we've seen over the past few years? I would hope that, as the new administration considers potentially precipitous moves in the early days, it will at least calculate the possibility that a more careful and cautious approach could create or at least preserve opportunities down the road for Israel and the United States and others to convert this growing convergence of interests between the Sunni countries and Israel into some meaningful progress on the peace process. I think there is a possibility there, and very careful statecraft coming out of the gate will be important to test that possibility and see if it can actually play out.
Fifth and finally, there is the question of Russia's role in the Middle East. I could offer a number of thoughts on this topic, but the next speaker up here, Dimitri, will be able to talk about it to a much greater extent, so I will just say that I think we heard a number of alarming things from the president-elect on the campaign trail about his views of U.S. policy towards Russia. Largely, we have focused that discussion around Europe, around Ukraine, around NATO and nuclear weapons and the like. But I think one must have a very clear-eyed view of what President Putin's objectives are in the Middle East, where they converge with U.S. interests, and where they substantially diverge. That goes not just for the situation in Syria, but for the long-term vitality of U.S. partnerships and alliances with Sunni states, Egypt and Jordan, and Gulf states with the peace process, with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal and Iran's larger desire to exert regional influence. I think there are opportunities here, but there are also enormous pitfalls. Without going into further detail, because my colleague can talk about it to a greater extent, it seems to me that taking great care to get beyond the simple maxim that Putin doesn't like ISIS any more than I do, and see the larger trends and dynamics at play, is going to be really important. Otherwise, we could find ourselves in a significantly worse position strategically four years from now than we are today vis-à-vis Russia and its influence across the larger Middle East.
Those are questions and not answers. But from my perspective, they are the things to look at if you're starting to judge how the United States is going to resolve some of the major challenges facing us in the Middle East. How is this administration going to stack its priorities and make its tradeoffs? If you make a scorecard along these five lines, it will tell you a lot about our capacity for success in the region over the next four years.
I'm familiar with the council. I know the great work you are doing, and it's a particular privilege to be here today in such distinguished company. I have to tell Jake Sullivan that he's in trouble, because I am going to agree with a lot of what he has said, particularly about Russia. Clearly, we have to start with the assumption that the United States and Russia have very different interests and often have contrasting values, and that Mr. Putin is not a friend of the United States. I hope the president-elect also knows that Putin is not his personal friend. Actually, several years ago, during one of his numerous TV interviews, Mr. Putin was asked who are your close friends, and he said, "You don't understand what a job of the president involves in Russia. You cannot have any friends. If somebody was your close friend, he's your friend no more; otherwise you would not be able to do your job right." And I don't think he just said it. From everything I have learned from people who know Putin, the more somebody looks like a friend, and particularly the more somebody pretends to be Putin's friend, the more vulnerable this person becomes. Mr. Putin is an elected emperor. There can be no friends. There are subjects, there are followers, there are allies, but there are no friends. The claim is that he said nice things about Mr. Trump; actually, in English translation, what Putin said was exaggerated. Putin never called Trump a genius. He said about Trump that he clearly is a capable and very colorful politician, which is a kind of compliment, but a measured one.
I think that there are other, much more powerful reasons than illusions about Russia and Putin to think seriously about a different and a better relationship with Russia. Actually, none of these reasons are good. None of them involve any positive interpretation of Russian intentions.
Let me start with reason number one. If you look at challenges to the United States, those this country is facing today and is likely to face in the near future, I would say the number-one challenge is a strategic nuclear confrontation. It's very unlikely. We all know that. But we also all know that Russia is the only country that has the capability to destroy the United States, a prosperous democratic society.
I was having a conversation with someone who knows Russia well and who was a senior official in the Obama administration. That person said to me in response to an article I recently wrote with Graham Allison from the Wilson Center, you're exaggerating the danger of nuclear war, because Putin is not crazy; he understands that, yes, they may be able to destroy the United States, but they would be committing suicide. I buy this argument, that Putin would not do something like that intentionally. Kaiser Wilhelm, President Poincaré and Emperor Nicholas II, none of them in 1914 wanted to go into that huge European slaughter intentionally. They just thought that their peaceful intentions were clear and that the other side would know when to stop. It did not quite work out that way.
We have a growing tension in Europe. We have new deployments in Europe on both sides. What causes these deployments, both sides view in a dramatically different way. Syria was initially portrayed by Moscow as an operation to help the American-led coalition and to join the United States in an anti-ISIS campaign. Clearly, it evolved very quickly into an operation to support President Assad, in alliance with the Iranians. And, clearly, both sides have very different views of what is happening now in Syria, and both frankly feel that not only their interests but their prestige very legitimately are at stake. For Mr. Putin, particularly because he can hardly prevail in Ukraine, it's very important for him politically not to look like a loser in Syria.
We are very concerned, and quite legitimately, about the Russian threat to the small Baltic states. The Russians are concerned, understandably, about NATO infrastructure moving closer and closer to St. Petersburg and Moscow. This is not a situation that, in my view, any responsible American president can leave unattended, just assuming that the other side would be sufficiently wise and pragmatic. That is one reason to seek a better relationship with Russia — not an alliance, not friendship, but something significantly more stable than our growing distrust and the zero-sum game on both sides.
The second challenge to the United States is clearly ISIS. There are different views on how helpful Russia can be against ISIS, and I'm agnostic on that. I think there are people on this panel who understand the dynamics in Syria and Iraq better than I, in terms of my experience and background, am able to understand, so I will remain agonistic. What I do know with certainty is that if our relationship with Russia continues to deteriorate, we should entertain the possibility that Russia would want to support some terrorist movements against the United States. Again, the assumption is always this: These are Muslim extremists. They're a threat to Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia, so Russia would never, never ally itself with these people. Well, Russia allied itself with Hitler. It was a very short-lived alliance, but it created a lot of trouble. Russia, I don't need to tell you, supported the PLO, and there are strong suspicions that it indirectly supported even more radical terrorist movements in the 1970s. I cannot exclude, and I don't think any serious analyst can exclude, the possibility that our relationship with Russia could deteriorate further. Russia may become our opponent, using a terrorist weapon against the United States. Those who believe that Russia launched this huge hacking effort inside the United States, I hope they would at least entertain the possibility that Russia can use terrorists if push comes to shove.
Last, but probably most important from my standpoint, is the American strategic future. As far as I am concerned, a strategic nightmare for the United States is a situation in which a growing Chinese superpower were to be joined by a resurgent Russia. That would create, if not necessarily a full-scale alliance, a major coalition against American interests and values. And even if China and Russia do not make any formal arrangement, the very fact that the Chinese basically can count on Russian support and cooperation clearly emboldens them in whatever they might do in the South China Sea and in the Far East, in general.
As China is becoming stronger and stronger, it cannot be in the American interest to bring China and Russia closer together. And as a result, I think it's very important for the United States to attempt to have, as Kissinger and Nixon tried to accomplish, better relations with Beijing and Moscow than those two have with each other. At a minimum, we should not be doing things that pull them closer, against American interests.
I understand that Mr. Tillerson, during his confirmation hearings today, talked about the Russian threat in Europe and to U.S. NATO allies. That's very clear. We may have a debate about how we arrived at our current predicament, and different analysts in the United States, Europe and, of course, Russia have very different explanations of whose fault it was and how it happened. But today, it's very clear that the relationship between the United States and Russia is dominated by adversity; that mistrust is very, very high; that military leaders, both in the United States and Russia, have a growing influence on the decision-making process; that both the United States and Russia pay more attention to how their actions would look to their allies and friends than how the actions might look to each other and, in the Russian case, how they might look in Europe.
In my view, this is a very troublesome situation. I think the way President Reagan and President Nixon were doing it years ago is a way to start: through making very clear that the United States is strong. This requires spending; it requires deployments; it requires moving infrastructure into the Baltic states, Poland and elsewhere. I think it requires reassuring our allies, not only in NATO but also in Asia, particularly Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. But what it also requires is a meaningful diplomatic initiative vis-à-vis Russia. As an old proverb goes, talk without arms, how do you dare to speak? But if you have only arms, if your diplomacy is nonexistent, then you are not giving the other side much of an incentive to accommodate you unless you are prepared to defeat them.
President Obama said on a couple of occasions that we were able to isolate Russia, that the Russian economy was in shambles. And then Russia became a major military factor in Syria. And after that, we have this scandal with hacking and the impression that, when you back Putin into a corner, he finds a way to lash out, sometimes in a rather disturbing way in terms of American interests.
So what should we do at this point? First, of course, reassure our allies and friends. In his first foreign-policy speech, which Mr. Trump actually delivered at our center, he said one of the first things he would do is to call for a NATO summit and for a summit with our Asian allies, where he would reaffirm American commitments but would also discuss the missions of our alliances and the new circumstances. I think it would be a good way to start. You don't start with Putin. You start with our allies and friends.
But then I think you have to try a new beginning with Russia, as was tried of course by the first Bush administration, as was tried of course by the Clinton administration, as was tried of course by the Obama administration. The question is why all those efforts failed. There were a lot of explanations connected to Russian behavior and Russia's own priorities and Russia's own circumstances.
But I will give you one reason why I think Mr. Trump may have an opportunity. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a lot of people in the United States and Europe are beginning to take Russia seriously, are beginning to come to the conclusion that Russia cannot be ignored, that you cannot take the position that this is Upper Volta with nuclear weapons, these people are nobodies, they can be safely ignored; we should tell them, we love you, we respect you, but basically say their perspectives can be safely discounted. I think we know now this is not the case. We should accept that we need to engage in a serious negotiation with Russia about Syria. And I completely agree that we cannot allow Russia to impose its agenda on Syria and achieve unilateral victory. And I think it's very clear that we cannot allow Russia to threaten the Baltic states or dismember Ukraine.
But I also think we should have a serious conversation. We should accept that Russia also is entitled to security, not because they are good people, not because we believe they are pure at heart or that they are our friends, but because if we do not negotiate security arrangements that are minimally acceptable to them, they will be looking for security in other ways, and this would be detrimental to American interests.
When I look at specific proposals on the table in terms of both Ukraine and Syria, I believe we will need to engage in some heavy lifting. But I think a lot of things are doable, and that Mr. Trump is likely to be more pragmatic than his campaign rhetoric would suggest.
I completely agree, actually, with both of the previous speakers on Iran, that we cannot abandon the agreement. If we abandoned this agreement, Mr. Trump would have great difficulty initiating any new beginning with Russia, because Russia is allied with Iran. And if Iran ran to the Russians and asked for their support, before we even started developing a new relationship with Moscow, we might not like how Putin behaved. And any new initiative toward Moscow would likely to be short-lived.
My hope is that there will be a new openness to Moscow, and a new seriousness in terms of reaching diplomatic understandings, but also, as the two previous speakers have suggested, that there would be an element of responsible continuity.
For those of you who weren't intelligence officers, the former CIA officer in me hopes that all of you and the incoming administration were listening very carefully to what Dimitri said. I think it was very wise. The former DOD official in me says that it's really a pleasure to sit at the same table with Derek and Jake. I think it's very difficult to overstate how impossible their jobs were. And they are still alive, and their families are probably still nominally together. They really deserve thanks from all of us. One of the great things about working in the Middle East: whether you're from a Democratic or a Republican administration, the problems and the players are basically the same. There's much more commonality of interest and of problems than one suspects.
Much of what I have to say agrees with at least some of what Derek and Jake said. So I'll skip ahead and do a bit of examination of what I believe to be the outline of what the incoming administration will be looking at vis-à-vis the Middle East. This is certainly not based on any role that I have with the Trump administration; I'm not involved either directly or indirectly. It is just based on my having talked to some people and careful reading of what I understand to be some advice that they're getting.
I think that, from this incoming administration's point of view, there is going to be a realignment, so to speak, of interests; there will be departures in their view from what has been the policy that they are inheriting. The first one would be, from their point of view, a much more transactional, much more pragmatic approach: This is what I need; what do you need in order to give it to me? One of the results of that will be things that may have muddied the water in the past — will you do this for me, how many Gitmo detainees will you take for me if I do this, how will you vote on certain things in the United Nations if you give me that? I think you probably will see a lot less of that.
From many Middle Eastern standpoints, it has been very difficult at times to determine what exactly the White House strategy was on certain things, Syria being one. There was long a suspicion by many of the Gulf states of exactly what it was the president was trying to accomplish in Iran. Unfortunately, I think the Atlantic article in which the president specifically said he thought it was time that Iran took its rightful place in the region and that Saudi Arabia, in particular, was going to have to live with it, for good or for ill, confirmed a lot of the deeply held undercurrents in many of the Gulf states that this was an attempt to lift up Iran to the detriment of the other regional allies — and without their participation.
It's important to remember that previous attempts by most administrations didn't involve any of the regional players directly. This is something that I hope we've all learned is a big mistake, particularly when you have an agreement with Iran about nuclear power in which the country that's achieving the agreement is making continuous statements about death to America, the fact that Bahrain is part of its existing empire, which it hopes to reconstitute — as with the islands off of the UAE. Yet none of those countries were at the table.
So I think you are going to see a departure, at least in the incoming administration's mind. I think from their point of view it'll be transactional and pragmatic, based on U.S. interests, a clear interest that they have identified, most likely through a domestic lens. I think this president believes he was elected with a very strong domestic agenda and that his foreign policy, "America First," will be pursued through a domestic lens. What does this do for the American people, whether it's foreign policy writ large, whether it's trade, et cetera?
I think part of that will be the attempt in this incoming administration's mind, to reassert American leadership in the region. The contacts I have in the region have been suffering from what they believe to be either an indirect or direct U.S. withdrawal, in their minds, from the region. Part of it may be, as one of the speakers explained, a misinterpretation of the balance, the pivot to Asia. Part of that may be what many believe to be the premature withdrawal from Iraq and leaving it in the state it's in. Some of it may be just a lack of attention, exacerbated by the focus on Iran.
Certainly, there's a sense that America has vacated the region. There's been a power vacuum, assumed by both Iran and Russia, which have taken advantage of the lack of a forceful U.S. policy and a lack of U.S. leadership, particularly on certain issues, and that now the incoming administration and our traditional allies in the region are paying the consequences.
I think you'll see a reassertion of American leadership. I think Mike Flynn has been very clear about this — in the area of restoring our leadership vis-à-vis ISIS and working with those with whom we have shared goals on terrorism, and looking very carefully at the core reasons for extremist violent Islam, which will mean returning to covert action or strategic communication — whatever you want to call it — that we used in the Cold War when we directly attacked the underpinnings of communism and the Soviet Union, however you want to characterize that particular ideology. But the abhorrent use of a religion, Islam, for power-grabbing, for violence and for acts that contravene Islamic principles. I think you will see a real effort against that.
In the context of shared interests, I think you're going to see a recognition very early on that this is by far the most violent region in the world. And, while you might want to pivot to Southeast Asia, to China, and certainly to pay attention to what Russia is doing, you cannot afford to turn your attention away or to leave a power vacuum in the Middle East. There are three primary reasons for this. One is the existential threat to Israel and to the United States from a ballistic-missile or nuclear-armed Iran. And we can have a discussion about whether or not the Iranian agreement is, in fact, something that should be either modified or abandoned. My personal opinion is that it can't be abandoned, but this is also not a document that we all can live with to the extent it's not doing what it's supposed to do: providing U.S. and regional safety.
There's a lot of debate right now as to whether the deal actually does that, and a lot of controversy as to why, if indeed the agreement itself is designed to provide safety in a deferred nuclear ability, we will return billions to the Iranians in order to meet part of this agreement, and then return another $400 million for detainees who were kidnapped in order to get them back.
This is a regime that, in the course of an agreement that's supposed to provide us safety, has not at all mitigated its violence in the region. In fact, they have increased Iranian incursions through the IRGC and the Quds Force into Iraq, into proxy forces with Yemen, into Syria. So while we may have gained the document, I think a very close examination of what exactly it gets us and, more important, what it gets the region, is called for, and perhaps a reexamination as to whether or not, at the end of the day, it's something worth keeping or worth even enforcing.
But with the violence in the region basically focused from a new administration's view on those two points, I think that you will find the new administration also looking at the region less geographically, less from a policy standpoint. I suspect that some of those in the region who are looking for a consistent, articulated and enforceable policy, particularly as to Syria, under the previous administration will be equally disappointed under a new administration in that the approach that's been articulated so far doesn't seem to be policy-based. It doesn't seem to be one of those policy-enshrined approaches that you can read about in some of our historic approaches to foreign policy.
This is pragmatism — almost deal-by-deal, case-by-case, what's in the interest of the United States — and it will lead to inconsistencies for those looking for a larger framework, and perhaps some confusion, certainly in the beginning years as the administration deals with what will inevitably be some unforeseen challenges as it steps into the region.
One of those is going to be Mosul. It is not talked about today, but 25 percent of Iraq's two counterterrorism brigades are incapacitated; 30 percent of their equipment has been either lost or turned over. Mosul, which was going to be a month-long, two-month-long endeavor, is now approaching how many months? I don't think there's anybody who foresees Mosul's resolving itself anytime soon, certainly not in a way satisfactory to the Sunnis and Turkmen and other minorities in the city who are hoping to survive and have their rights not infringed upon by the Shia militias and others — the Turks and Kurds — seeking to promote their own interests.
I think most of us believe that Mosul is going to be a real challenge, a microcosm of the rest of the region and what is going to be the more practical analysis of the state of Iraq and Syria in the coming years, which are going to be difficult, with very few policy options that really change the process on the ground or the prospects for peace in the short term. This leads to an issue that has not come up much, but I think it certainly deserves mention. I think, geographically, the administration is going to be looking at the Middle East in a different and expanded way. Part of that will come out of the next piece: the immigration, refugee and humanitarian and human-rights issues we have all become unacceptably accustomed to. These have a direct impact now on North Africa and Europe and are going to have grave consequences if we don't come up with a solution, not only in post-Syria or whatever that geographic land mass looks like, and post-Iraq, but, more important, in North Africa and, in particular, Jordan, which is at severe risk.
We simply cannot sustain the number of fighting-age males and others who are dying of hunger and starvation. Shame on us all for not speaking about it every single day, along with the number of deaths of children and others. The implications for the world and the Middle East are huge. They will be borne out at the same time as other worrying demographic statistics. Egypt is already suffering from economic problems that are more significant than anybody realizes. By 2025, Egypt will have a population of over 100 million, some estimate as many as 120 million, many of whom will not have jobs. Similar geographic pressures exist in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region, all of which will have a huge impact in our lifetimes, and certainly in our children's lifetimes, and a direct impact on U.S. interests regarding energy security, freedom of navigation and our allies in the region.
Along those lines, I was struck by what I think all of us believe are shared commonalities. The new administration, I think, puts it in a slightly more brusque manner, but a concept that was brought up in the Bush administration and promoted in the Obama administration is that the United States simply cannot afford, either economically or in terms of resources, to do everything at once. I don't ascribe to the belief that the more you do against ISIS, the more you can't do against Iran and vice versa. We simply have to do both. One's a strategic longer-term threat of a very different significance than ISIS. There's no future for the country's interests in ignoring one and hoping and only dealing with the other. But the idea of having our allies do more is one that you will hear the new president talk about, somewhat rudely, some people think. If you aren't paying your way, then why should I, particularly to the extent that my interests aren't directly involved?
I actually agree with Jake — there are opportunities and good things. I think you're going to find that the Middle East, and the Gulf nations, in particular, will step up and have stepped up in important ways and will continue to do so. There are Gulf nations and Middle East countries, particularly Jordan and Egypt, that need all of our help regarding significant repercussions for the stability of the region going forward. They do important things every day, particularly vis-à-vis Israel. That country will tell you openly that, from a military and security standpoint, it now has the best relationships they've very possibly ever had with both the Jordanians and the Egyptians. And we can't afford to lose that.
I disagree that the incoming president is eschewing U.S. democratic principles by what appears to be his fascination with strongmen. If we've learned anything, hopefully, in the last couple of decades in the Gulf and other places, it's that replacing a strongman who is not espousing Jeffersonian democratic principles has its own challenges, particularly in what comes afterwards. Usually, those who are best organized in opposition to that particular figure are the last people on the planet to promote democracy. So we need to be a little more savvy and perhaps a little less naïve, certainly not abandoning our principles, but being a little bit more subtle about how we approach these problems.
Finally, as to the role of competing powers, I think you're going to find the incoming administration's messaging quite difficult to understand, particularly its promoting a relationship and dialogue with Russia. I have scars on my back from open dialogue with Russia over the third site of missile defense in Europe, particularly as to Poland and the Czech Republic. I have found dialogue with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Russian leadership to be exhausting and not particularly rewarding or productive when one recognizes them as an interlocutor of similar stature.
We've also learned that ignoring them and letting them fill vacuums is equally unrewarding. But we've got to step up. If it means working with the Russians in a very narrow sense to address legitimate concerns regarding ISIS and extremist Islamic terrorism, then we need to do so, keeping in mind that our narrow confluence of interests is probably grossly outweighed by the threats that a resurgent Russia not only represents to U.S. interests but to the interests of regional allies.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Since World War II, we've always defined one of our national interests in the region as denying any opportunity for a hostile power to dominate the region. Is Iran a hostile power? Is Russia? If they are, is containment necessary and sufficient, or is it even possible that one or both of them need to be rolled back? And if containment or rollback is necessary, what are the opportunities for engagement? Michael Flynn has recently said that he believes Russia can be counted on to get Iran in line and to roll it back from supporting its clients in proxy wars in the region. Can we talk about that? The Russian-Iranian working relationship in Syria, for example, has enhanced Iran's position there through enhancing Iran's client.
MR. CHOLLET: This is less of a debating point, but it's to respond to that and to pick up on some of what my colleagues talked about, and also to pose a general question. First, is Iran hostile, adversarial? It's both of the above, yes; to the United States, absolutely. That's why it's so important for the next administration to navigate this very difficult dilemma Jake has posed about implementing the Iran deal but, at the same time, holding Iran's feet to the fire on all of the other things it does in the region — having nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal, whether it's conventional arms, proliferation, support of terrorism and proxies, or efforts to undermine our friends in the region.
That's why we should watch very closely whether the next administration continues apace to ensure that our partners and friends in the region — the Israelis, the Gulf Arabs — know that we will continue to provide them with the capabilities they need to defend themselves, to try to build on this effort to knit those countries closer together, to build the muscle tissue of security cooperation that, over the last two administrations, there's been an attempt to try to develop. It's a lot of painstaking work. General Mattis is probably one of a handful of people who know this the best. So I have a lot of confidence in the secretary of defense along these lines. But we'll have to see what kind of guidance he's going to get from the White House.
In response to Mary Beth's point about the anxiety of our Arab Gulf partners and Iran that was induced by President Obama's off-the-record comments Jeff Goldberg reported on, that the president actually didn't say to him but others attributed to the president — obviously, it's true that Iran is a factor in the region and is going to remain a player, as are our Gulf Arab partners, many of whom interact with Iran a lot compared to the United States.
We're trying to simultaneously build up our partners, make sure they're more capable of defending themselves, encourage them to cooperate more with each other and with us, and trying to encourage, to the extent we can, some discussion between our Gulf partners and Iran. That's something I think the United States can't insert itself into, but it's appropriate for the United States, working with our Gulf allies, to encourage that kind of conversation. I think most of the movement's got to occur on the Iranian side, to be honest. They are the agitators of many of the ills of the region at the moment. So I don't see this as a kind of containment or appeasement scenario. We've got to stay tough on what we're doing directly, be there for our partners, and at the same time try to find a way to bring about the sorts of changes inside Iran that we think over time will moderate their behavior.
Now, to Russia. Russia's goals in Europe are very clear to me: divide the United States from Europe, undermine the EU project, make NATO weaker, et cetera. In the Middle East, it seems to me its goal is really just to maintain the status quo, which is not a particularly advantageous position for Russia. It's got very few friends in the region. What it's been doing brutally in Syria I think over time does great damage to Russia. It's taking a big risk to maintain what it currently has — a military position and a longstanding ally in Syria. But I don't know what Russia's broader goals are. I think they'd love it if all of a sudden our Gulf partners would buy their military equipment instead of ours. I just don't see that in the cards. I don't think our Gulf allies would particularly want Russian equipment. So when it comes to this question of whether Russia's filling a vacuum left by the United States — are they surging in the region — I haven't seen much evidence to suggest that, beyond trying to protect what they've got in Syria, they have much ambition.
MS. LONG: But if you boil it down to a practical issue, Russia's maintaining and expanding of its presence in Syria, its protection of its fleets, its expanding of its air capabilities and the dual use of an Iranian air field are all important, but this underestimates what's really going on, I believe. This is a prestige issue. This is Russia inserting itself into the Middle East, which was clearly where the United States was dominant. This is Russia hosting peace negotiations without the United States being invited. This is about high-level strategic signaling. The United States couldn't even get invited to the meeting with Russia, Turkey and Syria on our own. So what do you think the Baltic states are going to do? Oh, by the way, you non-payers in NATO, you are on notice. Russia — aka the resurgent USSR — is back on the battlefield in a global way. And stay tuned for Libya, where we will get a little bit of a presence and we'll help out just a little, to scare the bejesus out of all of you regarding what we're going to do with our presence in the Med. This is about chess, and we're playing checkers. I think the symbolism of what's going on here is hugely significant.
MR. SIMES: I think that if we want to have an objective evaluation of whether Russia is an enemy, we have to decide first what are our interests, because how we define them will obviously have an impact on what Russia means for us. If we believe that (1) we should proceed with further NATO expansion, perhaps inviting Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, (2) our priority is to remove Russian control over Crimea and not allow any deal on the rest of Ukraine that would give Putin even the perception of success, because we would not want to reward Russian aggression, and (3) Russia does not belong to the Middle East, and its objective in the Middle East is to checkmate the United States and create trouble — if this is our definition of American interests and our view of Russian conduct, then you're absolutely right.
I, of course, think that one significance of Trump's election is that he has suggested a different and more narrow definition of American interests, involving fewer U.S. attempts at being a global government, a global policeman. It is still a superpower, which can do a lot of things, as you have said, at the same time. You don't have to say that if we are dealing with Russia then we have to sacrifice the Baltic states. Far from it. We can do a lot of things simultaneously. But we also are not, according to Trump, a de facto world government. There are certain issues that are paramount to American security and prosperity. There are other issues that are just important. And there are some issues that are fairly peripheral.
I believe that we have to protect the Baltic states. Rightly or wrongly, we invited them to join NATO. They are now NATO members, and we made the commitment; it's a question of our legitimacy, it's a question of our ability to work with other European allies, and we should deliver on our obligations. If you believe this, I am not aware of any reason why we should encourage Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. And I'm not aware of any reason why we cannot at least try to negotiate a deal with Moscow and Ukraine that would reestablish Kiev's control over the rest of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea. But in response, there would be a modicum of federalization of Ukraine, and some kind of commitment. Diplomats, I'm sure, can decide how to present this commitment that Ukraine and Georgia in the near future would not join NATO. I think it's worth trying.
In the case of Syria, Russia is not a superpower. I don't think that Putin went to Syria as a result of long-term strategic calculation. The Russians went there because Assad was losing. They went there because Putin promised that, after taking over Crimea, there would be so-called Novorossiya, Russia would move further west in Ukraine and allegedly be greeted by the local population with enthusiasm. That never happened. With economic sanctions, a decline in oil prices, Putin feels squeezed at home. He could not afford another humiliation, another defeat in Syria.
I think we can talk to Russia about a deal in Syria that would address what you have said: namely, they would not do anything unilaterally or with the Iranians without the United States. I hope President Trump will tell Putin privately and confidentially, without embarrassing him: Vladimir, we will now have a different ball game. We will not try to mess around inside your country, even if we disagree with the way you govern. But you need to understand that we will have real red lines. One of them is on Syria: you will not be able to impose a unilateral solution without the United States. The United States has the means and the determination not to allow this to happen. I will not tell you all the details, but, believe me, the United States will not allow this to happen. So let's talk about a formula that would be acceptable to both of us, and would lead to Syria's remaining one country — perhaps, obviously, a confederation. And let's look for a way for Mr. Assad, if not to leave power soon, at least to have his job significantly, let's say, negotiated, reduced, et cetera. I see no reason why we shouldn't try that. I'm not talking about any advances to Moscow. I'm not talking about any unilateral concessions. I'm not talking about abandoning any allies.
Let me make one final point. Some of our toughest allies seem to be able to deal with Moscow quite effectively. Certainly Israel has a very good relationship with Moscow, though they don't agree on a lot of things. I don't think the Egyptians are particularly in love with Russia, but they seem to have a good working relationship. The same is true of Japan. They have an understandable disagreement over the northern territories, but on many issues, they seem to be able to work together. You don't need to have a benign view of Russia to think that sometimes you can have working arrangements with adversaries. Then we can see whether these working arrangements would be transactional or would lead to something more.
MR. SULLIVAN: I'm quite surprised by the degree to which I completely agree with Dimitri. That is not, in my view, at all the way in which the incoming president or his team have talked about Syria. That sounds a lot more like the way Hillary Clinton talked about Syria: ultimately there is only a diplomatic solution which has to take into account Russia's interest but to put on the table the possibility that the United States will exert its own power if there's an effort to impose a unilateral solution.
That is actually calling for the United States to put cards on the table that potentially get us militarily engaged in Syria. It's not enough, as we've learned from the past few years, to simply go to the Russians and say, we want to cut a deal. If Putin doesn't believe the United States is going to do something more active, he's not going to cut the deal. We've seen that. I'm somewhat skeptical, based on what we've seen so far, that the kind of conversation you just described is likely to take place. But perhaps it will.
The other thing that I was struck by is that, in Dimitri's opening comments, he described a fundamentally adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia. How else could one account for the possibility that, if we don't do what Russia wants, or if we cross Russia's red lines, they could weaponize terrorism against us? That, in effect, is defining an adversarial relationship. Of course, you can deal with an adversary in such a way as to come to certain mutual understandings, but if there is a gun-to-the-head quality to the dynamic — we'll hack your election, we'll fund terrorists against you, we'll take other steps to try to undermine you and your allies unless you respect and acknowledge our interests in a certain way — then I think it's only fair to describe that as a basic adversarial dynamic. If you start from that clear-eyed proposition and then say, nonetheless, as a matter of practicality and principle, the United States has to deal with Russia and try to come to some understanding, then I think we're effectively on the same page.
The Iran question is fascinating to me. I have not yet heard a convincing account of how you come to a deal with Russia that excludes Iran's interests. If such a deal exists, that would be great. But my basic concern about an outcome in Syria that's acceptable to Russia is that it's overwhelmingly likely to be acceptable to Iran as well, which means that Iran maintains a forward-base capacity, both directly and through the proxy of Hezbollah, in Syria and Lebanon. And I think that is adverse to our interests.
I certainly don't want my opening comments to be interpreted as saying we have to choose between ISIS and Iran. It's rather that if our strategy for dealing with ISIS is essentially signing up with the Russian playbook on ISIS, we are, in effect, empowering Iran. At least, it seems to me, that is the logical conclusion of a policy that goes down that track. So, were there to be an opportunity to separate Russia and Iran and come to a deal with Russia that begins to push back on Iran's regional ambitions, that would obviously be, as a logical matter, the best way to proceed. Whether as a practical matter it's possible, I have my doubts.
DR. MATTAIR: Derek, we have provided extensive security support to our traditional Gulf Arab allies. And that is a deterrent to conventional Iranian aggression against them, but it wasn't enough to change the situation in Syria — although we did intervene there in more ways than are normally known or talked about. So is it too late for us to do something new that changes the dynamics in Syria? We have also defined as one of our national interests the protection of friends and allies in the region, so that we can have access to sea lanes and air corridors and resources and everything else. They view Iran's presence in Syria and the Shia Crescent as an existential threat. And Russian involvement in Syria, before they got around to attacking ISIS, involved severely weakening the rebel forces that were being supported by the United States, the Saudis, the Qataris and the Turks. This changed the situation on the ground to such an extent, how is it that we talk to Russia about getting anything satisfactory to us in a diplomatic solution for Syria?
MR. SIMES: Let me say first that we have to realize where we are now in terms of the military situation in Syria. I was struck by an event we had at our center several weeks ago with three leading generals, all of them on active duty, all of them involved in planning operations in that region. It was obviously unclassified, but it was off-the-record, so I cannot name the people. What struck me was a consensus among the three generals that, as long as Russia is in Syria and has the capabilities they have now, particularly air defenses, we do not have a credible military option in Syria — short, of course, of risking an all-out confrontation with Russia. I tried to press the generals, asking exactly what kind of conversation could take place between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin where he would tell Putin that it's a new era and a different ballgame: "My friend Vladimir, you had better take me seriously." There was a consensus among the generals that it is too late for that; Putin would not be impressed by words alone. The only thing that can change the dynamic would be some great American presence in the region and perhaps doing something on the ground somewhere, somehow at the right point, to teach Putin a lesson with blood and iron. I think the Russians give us plenty of opportunities to demonstrate our resolve without creating an artificial confrontation.
At the same time, if you don't have a credible military solution, let me quote that great humanitarian, Marcus Aurelius. When he had a rebellious Roman commander to remove from power, Aurelius at first asked, do we have the legions to crush him? The response was, the legions are in Spain; you have to wait. Can we poison him? The answer was no, he has foolproof security. Then Aurelius said, well, let's try diplomacy. (Laughter.) I think, out of necessity, we have to try diplomacy with Russia, coupled with genuine resolve including, if necessary, military moves that would demonstrate to Putin our seriousness this time.
DR. MATTAIR: What military moves?
MR. SIMES: I think we should make very clear that we will do what is necessary to support the Syrian opposition, that we will simply not allow Russia to win militarily, and that we will provide, in a responsible and limited way, antiaircraft weapons. We should make this operation in the long run very costly to Moscow.
I also think that we have to start talking to the Turks and the Egyptians, who are very central to the situation, and to make whatever effort we can to remove Turkey, at least, from the apparent alliance with Moscow that is central for any hope Russia has to impose a unilateral solution on Syria — a solution without the United States. My impression is that Erdogan has serious issues with the United States, but he also has serious issues with Russia. I think meaningful outreach to Erdogan can make a difference.
The more the Egyptian leaders deal with the Russians, the higher their level of irritation rises. I think it would be perfectly appropriate, again, for a new administration to try a new approach to Egypt. They do understand that we don't want to count on strongmen, that this is inherently unstable. But I think it means that when you have leaders whom we did not put in power — who really are genuine local leaders, not little midgets we're artificially supporting in positions of power — that we should be prepared to work with them, recognizing their practical legitimacy and trying to make deals, in this instance against Russian influence.
DR. MATTAIR: Someone from the audience asks you, Dimitri, quoting Rex Tillerson today saying the United States needs to engage its traditional allies, including Turkey's Erdogan. But Tillerson also said the new administration should recommit to the Syrian Kurds. Can we do both?
MR. SIMES: I don't know. Again, you have three experts on the region, much better experts than I. But this brings me to one point. I do not know whether you can see everything at once, but I think that we have to learn to do something very un-American, at least un-American since our victory in the Cold War: we have to start defining priorities, not just rhetorically but in terms of making some hard decisions.
MR. CHOLLET: This points out one of the early choices the next administration's going to have to make when it comes to one of the big opportunities in the counter-ISIL campaign: what to do about Raqqa? It's a timing question, and it involves the Kurds. If there's a judgment that it's in our interest to take Raqqa sooner rather than later, it's going to require relying on the Kurds, who are the most capable of doing that on our behalf with our support. It will also require providing the Syrian Kurds with the kinds of capabilities that would make Erdogan very unhappy; he's made that very clear to the United States. So we can wait and take the time to build up Arab tribes, which our special operators are working on doing right now in Syria. But that's going to take some time.
The retaking of Raqqa is a tactical issue that will be a significant blow to ISIS when it occurs, but if we choose to do this sooner rather than later — and there's an argument that we would want to do this sooner — it's going to create a lot of tension with Erdogan that this administration has not figured out how to navigate. It's unclear to me how the next administration will figure out how to do it, particularly if the president-elect's going to be more forgiving of some of Erdogan's more authoritarian impulses.
MS. LONG: The Kurds were very likely going to be, from both an Iraq standpoint and a Syria standpoint, the one lever point that hasn't been fully explored. There will be significant repercussions on our relationship with Turkey, but there are things that Turkey wants from us in the long and short term that we have not been creative about. I think that Dimitri and others have hinted at our acting very differently than we have in the past, perhaps more pragmatically, perhaps less diplomatically on certain fronts. But, at the end of the day, there are a historically large number of dying refugees and displaced persons with literally a generational impact. It's the problem that's going to keep on festering, even as we resolve these other diplomatic challenges, and yet we don't seem to want to talk about it openly.
DR. MATTAIR: Obama said at West Point two years ago that terrorism was the most direct threat from the region, and he emphasized a counterterrorism strategy that relied upon cooperation with our security partners in the region. I'd like to ask a few questions about that.
We have talked about the myth of disengagement, particularly about our not using enough military assets. But actually we have used quite a few. How much of our success against ISIS and al-Qaeda would you attribute to that? Then we have the question of the participation of our traditional partners in the region. Sometimes they are criticized for actually facilitating terrorism. But how much have they contributed to the battle against it?
Mary Beth, if our policy and our mistakes in Syria and the region have contributed to the refugee and humanitarian situation that can radicalize people and produce more extremism and threaten our partners in the region, what do we need to do to correct that?
Finally, I will come to the Arab-Israel conflict, just to touch on it. If there is a plan to defeat ISIS quickly, does moving the embassy to Jerusalem help?
MR. CHOLLET: I'll start with this question of the military campaign against ISIL and what the United States has been able to accomplish. Clearly, there are two dimensions: U.S. direct action, which the United States and several European coalition partners have been conducting every day over the skies of Iraq and Syria — over 16,000 airstrikes since September 2014; if you believe our military leaders, nearly 50,000 ISIL fighters killed. Even if you cut that inflation by half, that's 25,000 ISIL fighters killed. That's not U.S. military disengagement from the problems of Iraq and Syria.
But there's only so much U.S. direct action can do. It's got to be combined with our partners on the ground. There's a lot of confidence from our military leaders that, when it comes to the counter-ISIL campaign, we will achieve military success. But the question is, what comes next. In many ways, the greatest mistake ISIL made was the "S" in ISIL, the word "state." If the United States military has shown anything over the last 15 years, it is that it can take down states. It can destroy finances, kill a lot of fighters, take down their leadership structure, take away their capabilities. The question for us moving forward gets to a point Jake made. If we play this out several steps, not wanting to repeat the same cycle over and over, ISIL ceases to become a state or is dismantled, but then it becomes an insurgency and, just as AQI morphed into ISIL, we morph into the third iteration of this, and on and on.
This then gets to the question of local partners. It's the key to this problem, but also the Achilles' heel of the strategy. One thing I think we've learned through two administrations now, with a lot of U.S. resources and effort put into trying to build partner capacity, to use the Pentagon phrase, is how difficult this is, how imperfect it is, and how, in some cases, very unreliable those partners are over time. There's always a lot of talk about creating the Sunni Arab army to come in and take out Assad. It won't be U.S. troop forces who have to do it; it will be our Sunni partners, who will defend the safe zone in Syria. We'll just create the forces. Well, having been humbled several times by U.S.-led efforts to try to build capable forces, whether in Iraq or Libya or Syria or Afghanistan — where we've had some success — it never turns out the way we would like it to. That's not to say we shouldn't try. We should just have our expectations in check about how difficult that is, how long it's going to take, and that it's not going to be a quick solution to any of our problems.
Very briefly, on the question of the move to Jerusalem, that's kind of a disruptive action. It's unclear to me how that enhances our ability to either bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer together or take advantage of, as Jake noted, this notable strategic convergence we've seen develop over the last several years between Israel and our Sunni partners, in particular. In fact, it could put an issue on the table that unnecessarily undermines that strategic convergence we've been watching develop largely without us. It's been happening kind of on its own.
MR. SULLIVAN: When I think about the ISIS challenge, I see three major driving factors towards the growth of organized radical jihadist organizations across the Middle East to North Africa. The first is the collapsing or weakening of state structures that have created oxygen for these groups and more capacity for them to engage and grow. Part of that is the result of U.S. action, obviously the Iraq War being the most dramatic example, but part of it is also indigenous disaffection with leaders who lost legitimacy like Egypt's Mubarak. That's one.
Two, the growing strain of virulent extremism, Salafism, within Islam that has been bastardized, as Mary Beth said, and weaponized into something bordering on nihilism and barbarism. That has been compounded by the capacity of technology to disseminate that view. And, yes, I do think that money coming from parts of the Middle East and the Gulf has had a lot to do over the last 30 years with helping spread that as well.
The third is a proxy conflict between Iran and the Sunni states that is further fueling the instability and conditions under which groups like ISIS — Ansar bin Maqdis, Ansar al-Sharia, you name it — across the region have been able to take advantage of this ongoing battle.
What can the United States do about these three things? When you think about U.S. policy, it seems to me that military action can treat symptoms but not, ultimately, causes, and hence has done quite a good job of that, taking leaders off the battlefield, reducing the force-projection capabilities of terrorist groups and the like, but not fundamentally settling the question of what we're going to do long term about this issue.
How good are we at stitching together state structures and making sure they're strong, legitimate stable leaders across the Middle East and North Africa? Without going into great detail, I would say, not very good. How good are we at winning the war which Mary Beth alluded to of the moderates against the extremists within Islam? I'm not sure the United States is particularly well-positioned to do that, although there may be some things. Are there steps that we can take to reduce the level of proxy conflict between Iran and our Sunni partners to deal with that aspect and thereby create the greater possibility for those other two drivers of the terrorist threat to be dealt with? I think that is where we've got to put our efforts. For that, it is going to require increasing the confidence of our Sunni partners and denting the confidence of Iran that it can use its particular mix of tactics in Lebanon and Syria, in Iraq and Yemen and Bahrain to achieve its ends. Both of those require greater American engagement in the Middle East.
Here lies another contradiction the new administration is going to face. "America First" is going to run headlong into the possibility that everything Mary Beth laid out in terms of her expectations of what's going to happen is actually going to involve more U.S. commitment and involvement in the Middle East than perhaps we've seen today. I don't know if that is going to sit particularly well with people who hear "America First" and think that means we're letting other people, including the Russians, deal with it. But, fundamentally, from my perspective, you can't engineer Iran's removal from the region. It is there. What you have to engineer is a modus vivendi on terms that are favorable to the United States and our partners, and that is going to require more U.S. engagement in the region.
On the Arab-Israeli question and the moving of the embassy, that is a very risky proposition. Leave aside whether this strategic convergence will ever help you solve the peace process: maybe the answer is no. But we certainly know that it's not helping Israel and it is not in the U.S. interest with respect to the terrorist threat in Sinai, the terrorist threat in Jordan and the terrorist threat across the region. The idea that you would put that at risk by choosing to make a diplomatic move of this kind — which I don't know how it materially advances anyone's strategic interests at this point — seems like not a particularly prudent step to take in the near term.
MS. LONG: You asked me about human rights, which I have hit upon mostly because it hasn't come up in other contexts, and I do think it's important. I agree with my colleagues. Today we're talking a lot about ISIS. Inshallah, we won't be talking about a resurgent al-Qaeda in another six months, but I worry that that will be the next step. Then it will be the Shia militia that were empowered by Iran and Iran's proxies that have a quasi-independent survival mechanism in Iraq, yadda, yadda, yadda. As Jake appropriately said, the increasing weaponization and the increasing technology that are available to these non-state actors, I believe, are just going to mean that the Middle East is going to remain a mess for the foreseeable future. Our policy and our activities at best will play around the margins and better them, hopefully for U.S. interests, but that significant long-term changes will be elusive and take a lot of time and effort.
I can't agree with the underlying statement that we didn't significantly depart the region. I believe we did and that the perception that we did is accurate. We can quibble about that, but I do think that part of it is not creating new vacuums, certainly, and attempting to refill holes that we left in place for the last year — even the perceptual holes. Calling ISIS a JV team, withdrawing our troops from Iraq in the way they were withdrawn certainly didn't help the situation.
But we are where we are, which leads to my most important point: I would hope that this incoming administration will be the exception to the rule, but every new administration gets tested early on by the known adversaries and by the guys they are worried that they don't have to worry about and who creep out from underneath rocks. I think we will be tested, but hopefully we won't be tested on our own shores.
The one thing the administration over the last eight years has done is kept us all safe in our homes, which is no insignificant achievement. It's just phenomenal that we haven't had another terrorist incident and that our government has kept us safe. I worry that there is a coming homerun for a resurgent al-Qaida or an ISIS that wants to reassert itself. That's what everyone's looking for.
We haven't heard from North Korea, and I predict that we will very soon. Nobody likes not being mentioned early and often more than the North Koreans, so we'll have a missile launch or something very quickly.
And I would hope that things like moving the embassy to Jerusalem, maybe not on the high-priority must-do list, will slide to the "gee when we get around to it" list, and perhaps that there will be consideration for, there are fights I want to pick and fights I have to fight, and maybe that falls into the "maybe that's not a controversy I want to add to my plate just now" category. Reality being what it is, hopefully it will slide.
One final thing on the humanitarian issue — I grew up in the CIA. I'm a lawyer, and I worked on this at DOD. I am not the person who signed up for Greenpeace or any humanitarian or human-rights or refugee organization in the world, but I'm the one who's sitting here pounding that issue. It's an American issue, deeply embedded in our principles, but from a pragmatic standpoint, it gets to something Jake and my colleagues have alluded to. We haven't even begun to think about addressing the reasons why ISIS and al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra are popping up. Yes, some of it's the Sunni-Shia conflict, and some of it's old grievances that are tribally or regionally based, but some of it is underlying grievances that have a lot to do with jobs and access to information and access to power. You can argue that a lot of the best-known terrorists are well-educated and come from good families. I get that. But there are underlying issues here that we have not addressed, and whether it's Islam that needs to address them, or this is the great reformation between and within Islam, I don't know. But we've got to get to it. When you look at the economy of the West, and the economy of the United States in particular, and the way money's moving in the world, and you look at the proliferation of weapons and the way things are communicated, and then you look at the demographic realities, time is running out. This is a huge pool of natural recruitment, individuals who have grievances and will be exploited by our enemies if we don't get there first.
MR. SIMES: I completely agree with all my colleagues, and I understand that it is a difficult issue and potentially very damaging for the United States, but you also need to understand why Mr. Trump has said and done what he's said and done. It's very clear that he had a special relationship with Netanyahu for some time and that Netanyahu was cultivating him at a time when many other leaders were treating him as a pariah. It was not unimportant, to put it delicately, for Mr. Trump that Netanyahu provided him with some legitimacy.
It's also clear that both Mr. Trump and people close to him have a genuine sympathy, and indeed, commitment to Israel. The idea that the Israelis are entitled to select their own capital has a genuine emotional appeal to these people. Then, I think there is another question. It's dangerous to say what I will say, because a lot of people would want to oversimplify it and to bring it to its illogical extreme. Mr. Trump needs to build a constituency that would allow him to do a lot of heavy lifting domestically and internationally. This is very important to him if he wants to do a lot of things during his first months in office, as he is clearly hopeful that he will be able to do. Under these circumstances, this kind of an emotional issue, sending a very clear message, can be quite helpful with an important constituency. I don't mean that you are talking about a cynical presentation of views he does not have. I am simply trying to explain calculations of people around Mr. Trump as I see them.
Then, of course, Mr. Trump is genuinely committed to a wall with Mexico, and to Mexico's paying for it. But then, we just have discovered it is a question of sequencing. My hope and expectation is that we will be able to wait till the Mexicans pay for the wall.
DR. MATTAIR: I have talked about American national interests — denying the region to hostile powers, supporting friends and allies, access to resources and air and sea corridors. But there's another national interest that we're starting to talk about here, without really defining it, an ideological national interest: for self-determination, popular participation in government, human rights. Where would that have stood in a Clinton administration? Where is it going to stand in a Trump administration? And let's touch on two specific issues. We've been talking about moving the embassy. What about the signals we give that suggest support for more Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which then foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution? We acquiesce on that, or we support that, what does that do to our credibility as a country that has these ideological national interests?
Number two — and coming to something Mary Beth talked about — when you look at our traditional partners in the region and the Gulf, and we refer to them as authoritarian and are critical of their domestic governance, do we think about the progress they've made in the recent decades to reform, and do we give sufficient attention to what would come after them, if they weren't supported and they were to be in jeopardy?
A Saudi woman said to me once, "I hope that we never get one person, one vote here, because if we do, I'm going to lose all my rights." In other words, the government is much more reformist than the population, and is determining the possible pace of reform there. So we're talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and we're talking about a relationship with Gulf Arabs, in light of our ideological interests.
MR. SULLIVAN: Having grappled with these incredibly difficult questions, along with Derek, at the height of the Arab revolutions, I'd say there's no easy answer to this. The problem is that we tend to divide this into a short-term, long-term construct, where we say, in the short term, we've really got to support the guys who are there, because what comes next is worse. Also, we need their help to do certain things. But in the long term, we'll work to try to create the conditions under which what the Saudi woman said to you doesn't persist, or doesn't obtain, or you begin to inculcate reforms to the point where you could produce a more legitimate, pluralistic, representative government.
The problem with U.S. policy based on that proposition is that the short term always completely blots out the sun for the long term, and we end up living in this circumstance where we're essentially shoring up leaders who, in some cases, get increasingly illegitimate within their own countries. The bottom can fall out, as has happened before, and could easily happen again, and I think we'd be foolish to think otherwise. On the other hand, if you move to a strictly long-term proposition and say, let's just wipe the slate clean and throw all these guys out and have hell for the next 30 years — but in the long term, it's all going to work out. If you purely privilege the long-term, you're in a real problem, too.
So it seems to me that we have to find a way to recognize this challenge to U.S. policymaking that has bedeviled both Republican and Democratic administrations. Be honest about it and say, OK, what can we do to better strike this balance as we go forward, and what does it mean to actually have a country on a path to reform and support it along that path? I look at a country like the UAE, which I think has made some incredible strides forward in terms of generating greater legitimacy and opportunity for its people, but I look at other places and see very near-term challenges. Egypt right now, even if you ask the Israelis, they will say, in the next year or two, we could see an economic crisis in Egypt that would be incredibly destabilizing. The jihadist threat coming out of Egypt today, right now, is significant.
So how do we properly, taking each country as its own case, figure out a way to navigate this dilemma? It would be great if we could come up with a better answer to that question. I have my profound doubts about whether the incoming administration, which seems to be mostly focused on supporting and shoring up the strongman, is really going to be grappling with that in a full way. But if we don't keep a basic concept that we've got to be working towards a fixed star of representative government — legitimate, accountable government, with self-determination and pluralism in the future — then we're not just undermining our values, we're undermining our long-term interests in the region, and we will just be putting out fires constantly.
MR. CHOLLET: I completely agree with what Jake has said. If you think back, the Obama administration came into office believing that the Bush administration had, perhaps, overdone it with the "democracy" agenda in the region, and that, despite good intentions, had been unsuccessful. As I noted in my opening remarks, the tentative reset with the Muslim world in itself was unsuccessful, or at least did not meet the high expectations many had placed upon it. This is going to be an enduring dilemma, this trade-off both temporally, between short-term and long-term, but also between our values and our core security interests.
The UAE is a good example of trends in the region that are positive. Certainly, the Emirates stand out. I would also argue that Saudi Arabia, with some of the reforms that Mohammed bin Salman has been instituting — although there were a lot of questions early on — is headed in the right direction. And as Mary Beth knows far better than I do, this has been something the Emirates in particular have been supportive of in terms of trying to help their Saudi friends. They went through this 15 years ago. That said, if you think of black swans the new administration could face, and if you think of three leaders in the region who are going to matter greatly to U.S. interests, to Israel's interests and others — Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, King Salman in Saudi and the supreme leader in Iran — I think the youngest of those three is 79. In all three cases, there are leadership transitions that are not quite clear. We could see a contestation for what the future holds. The actuarial table suggests that those are transitions we could see happening in the course of this administration, perhaps all in the same year, which would be one of those challenges that would be significant for any government.
On the settlements question, I see it as less of an ideological question for the United States; it's more of a pragmatic one. The question Secretary Kerry has been asking as he's leaving office is, how can you reconcile the two-state solution with the demographic reality that we are seeing on the Palestinian side? If we believe in Israel as a Jewish democratic state, it's hard to see how it continues to expand its territorial footprint in Palestinian territories. And I've yet to see a compelling answer to how you can solve that dilemma, from anyone who supports the expansion of settlements. This suggests to me we're headed to a one-state solution.
DR. MATTAIR: That's a question of what a future Israel will be — a democratic state or a Jewish state — but there's also the question of whether Palestinians have any hope for human rights and self-determination under the current circumstances.
MS. LONG: I'm not here to anticipate what the incoming administration is, but I think both gentlemen have alluded to it: that originally, it'll be a much more pragmatic approach. All of these individuals are good people and know what our foundational principles are regarding democracy and human rights, and I'm sure they won't be neglected. I think, probably, what we'll see is the primary functions of government from a foreign-policy standpoint will be the promotion of American interests abroad, with only a secondary standpoint being export of a particular idea or governmental structure.
I do think one of the things that, hopefully, we have learned is, while democracy and our ideas of the role of the individual in decision making around him are derived from a deep tradition of Anglo-Saxon, Judeo-Christian tradition, that's just not the case in other places in the world; and democracy doesn't exist unless you have judicial systems, and unless you have people who want and understand democracy the way we do. I have many friends who, frankly, say, I can go to see the crown prince in my country as he's having lunch at the grocery store and ask him for something, or I can go to his meeting once a week and ask for something. When do you get to go see the president? At the end of the day, that's the kind of democracy that I accept, and frankly, there's an argument for that.
On the settlements, I'm going to demur, but I do think that any policy of the United States that promotes continued violation of any country's own laws, when it comes to property rights and whether settlements are legal or illegal, we should not be in the business of promoting building on, or incursions into, places where their own legitimate courts have said, this is not something we can sustain from a national, legal standpoint. That is a fundamental issue.