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The following is an edited transcript of the seventy-first in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Wednesday, January 16, 2013, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
In order to formulate a grand strategy, one should have clarity about national interests and policy objectives, and plans for achieving them. We can think about national interests as either strategic or ideological — strategic national interests in security, prosperity and stability, and ideological national interests in the promotion of popular government and human rights. Are they complementary or contradictory? Can we find a set of policy objectives that are complementary and implement a set of strategies, maybe a grand strategy, that is coherent and potentially successful?
Since World War II, our traditional objectives have been to prevent adversaries from dominating the region, to maintain access to the region's oil and waterways, and to defend and support Israel and other friendly states. We have done this through a grand strategy of containment: through multilateral agreements, strategic partnerships, arms sales, foreign aid, Arab-Israeli diplomacy, rapid-deployment forces and, eventually, intervention to liberate Kuwait. And it was quite successful. Containment was also the grand strategy of the post-Soviet era until 9/11. We were dominant. Our specific objectives were to contain Iran and Iraq, and to promote nuclear nonproliferation and Arab-Israeli peace. Some of the strategies we employed were the forward basing of land, sea and air forces, defense cooperation, economic sanctions and diplomacy. We had some success, but transnational terrorism was brewing, and it exploded on 9/11.
The Bush administration tried to develop a new grand strategy at that point, which we could call liberal hegemony, with the objectives of maintaining American primacy and promoting democracy, along with the more specific objectives of containing rogue states and transnational terror. One of the things they employed as a strategy that was relatively new was unilateral preemptive or preventive military intervention — accompanied by regime change, nation building and counterinsurgency, with a lot of coercive diplomacy. I think it would be fair to say that the Obama administration inherited a lot of problems from the Bush administration and its eight years of liberal hegemony.
The question panelists will be talking about today is whether the Obama administration has been attempting to have a pragmatic, nonideological foreign policy, where specific strategies are tailored to specific problems, or whether they've been trying to develop a grand strategy that might be called selective engagement. But any strategy is evaluated in terms of how successful it is in achieving its objectives and attaining national interests. As we go into a second term, we should ask how successful they have been in attaining their objectives.
One, of course, is the objective of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which they explained was important to our national security, to stability in the region, to fighting transnational terror, even to containing the challenge that Iran poses to the region. How secure is Israel? How satisfied are our strategic partners? How well are we doing in the struggle with transnational terror, in stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and in restoring American power, influence, prestige, prosperity and security?
CHAS W. FREEMAN, Jr., chairman, Projects International; former ambassador to Saudi Arabia; former president, Middle East Policy Council
I'm glad that Tom opened by defining grand strategy. Years ago there was an American diplomat, a very senior one, who was asked what American policy in the Middle East was, and his reply was, we don't have one, and it's a good thing that we don't because, if we did, it would probably be the wrong one.
Over the past half century or so, the United States has pursued two main but disconnected objectives in West Asia and North Africa: on the one hand, strategic and economic advantage in the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and Egypt; on the other, support for the consolidation of the Jewish settler state in Palestine. These two objectives have consistently taken precedence over the frequently professed American preference for democracy.
These objectives are politically contradictory. They also draw their rationales from distinct moral universes. U.S. relations with the Arab countries and Iran have been grounded almost entirely in unsentimental calculations of interest. The American relationship with Israel, by contrast, has rested almost entirely on religious and emotional bonds. This disconnect has precluded any grand strategy.
Rather than seek an integrated policy framework, America has balanced the contradictions between the imperatives of its domestic politics and its interests. For many years, Washington succeeded in having its waffle in the Middle East and eating it too — avoiding having to choose between competing objectives. With wiser U.S. policies and more judicious responses to them by Arabs and Israelis, Arab-Israeli reconciliation might by now have obviated the ultimate necessity for America to prioritize its purposes in the region. But the situation has evolved to the point that choice is becoming almost impossible to avoid.
The Middle East matters. It is where Africa, Asia and Europe converge. In addition to harboring the greater part of the world's conventionally recoverable energy supplies, it is a key passageway between Asia and Europe. No nation can hope to project its power throughout the globe without access to and through the Middle East. Nor can any ignore the role of the Persian Gulf countries in fueling the world's armed forces, powering its economies and setting its energy prices. This is why the United States has acted consistently to maintain a position of preeminent influence in the Middle East and to deny to any strategically hostile nation or coalition of nations the opportunity to contest its politico-military dominance of the region.
The American pursuit of access, transit and strategic denial has made the building of strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt a major focus of U.S. policy. The partnership with Iran broke down over three decades ago. It has been succeeded by antagonism, low-intensity conflict and the near-constant threat of war. The U.S. relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now evolving in uncertain directions. Arab governments have learned the hard way that they must defer to public opinion. This opinion is increasingly Islamist. Meanwhile, popular antipathies to the widening American war on Islamism are deepening. These factors alone make it unlikely that relations with the United States can retain their centrality for Cairo and Riyadh much longer.
The definitive failure of the decades-long American-sponsored "peace process" between Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs adds greatly to the uncertainty. Whether it yielded peace or not, the peace process made the United States the apparently indispensable partner for both Israel and the Arabs. It served dual political purposes. It enabled Arab governments to persuade their publics that maintaining good relations with the United States did not imply selling out Arab or Islamic interests in Palestine, and it supported the U.S. strategic objective of achieving acceptance for a Jewish state by the other states and peoples of the Middle East. Washington's abandonment of this diplomacy was a boon to Israeli territorial expansion but a disaster for American influence in the region, including in Israel.
Over the years, America protected Israel from international rebuke and punishment. Its stated purpose was the preservation of prospects for a negotiated "two-state solution" that could bring security and peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike. A decade ago, every member of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation endorsed this objective and pledged normalization with Israel if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeeded. In response, Israel spun out its talks with the Palestinians while working hard to preclude their self-determination. It has now succeeded in doing so.
There has been no American-led peace process worthy of the name for nearly two decades. There is no prospect of such a process resuming. No one in the international community now accepts the pretense of a peace process as an excuse for American protection of Israel. Eleven years on, the Arab and Islamic peace offer has exceeded its shelf life. On the Israel-Palestine issue, American diplomacy has been running on fumes for some time. It is now totally out of gas and universally perceived to be going nowhere.
Sadly, barring fundamental changes in Israeli politics, policies and behavior, the longstanding American strategic objective of achieving acceptance for the state of Israel to stabilize the region where British colonialism and Jewish nationalism implanted it is now infeasible. In practice, the United States has abandoned the effort. U.S. policy currently consists of ad hoc actions to fortify Israel against Palestinian resistance and military threats from its neighbors, while shielding it from increasingly adverse international reaction to its worsening deportment. In essence, the United States now has no objective with respect to Israel beyond sheltering it from the need to deal with the unpalatable realities its own choices have created.
The key to regional acknowledgment of Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East was the "two-state solution." The Camp David accords laid out a program for Palestinian self-determination and Israeli withdrawal from the territories it had seized and occupied in 1967. Israel has had more than 45 years to trade land for peace, implementing its Camp David commitments and complying with international law. It has consistently demonstrated that it craves land more than peace, international reputation, good will or legitimacy. As a result, Israel remains isolated from its neighbors, with no prospect of reversing this. It is now rapidly forfeiting international acceptability. There is nothing the United States can do to cure either situation despite the adverse consequences of both for American standing in the region and the world.
In the seventeenth century, English settlers in America found inspiration for a theology of ethnic cleansing and racism in the Old Testament. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Jewish settlers in Palestine have invoked the same scripture to craft a parallel theology. The increasingly blatant racism and Islamophobia of Israeli politics, the Kafkaesque tyranny of Israel's checkpoint army in the Occupied Territories, and Israel's cruel and unusual collective punishment of Gaza have bred hateful resentment of the Jewish state in its region and throughout the Muslim world. One has to look to North Korea to find another polity so detested and distrusted by its neighbors and with so few supporters among the world's great powers.
The United States has affirmed that, regardless of how Israel behaves, it will allow no political distance between itself and the Jewish state. In the eyes of the world there is none. Israel's ill repute corrodes U.S. prestige and credibility, not just in the Middle East but in the world at large.
Israel does not seem to care what its neighbors or the world think of it. Despite its geographical location, it prefers to see itself as its neighbors do: a Hebrew-speaking politico-economic extension of Europe rather than part of the Middle East. Nor does Israel appear concerned about the extent to which its policies have undermined America's ability to protect it from concerted international punishment for its actions. The United States and Israel's handful of other international supporters continue to have strong domestic political reasons to stand by it. Yet they are far less likely to be able to hold back the global movement to ostracize Israel than in the case of apartheid South Africa. America may "have Israel's back," but — on this — no one now has America's back.
For a considerable time to come, Israel can rely on its U.S.-provided "qualitative edge" to sustain its military hegemony over others in its region. But, as the "crusader states" established and sustained by previous Western interventions in the region illustrate, such supremacy — especially when dependent on external support — is inevitably ephemeral — and those who live exclusively by the sword are more likely than others to perish by it. Meanwhile, as the struggle for Palestinian Arab rights becomes a struggle for human and civil rights within the single sovereignty that Israel has, de facto, imposed on Palestine, Israel's internal evolution is rapidly alienating Jews of conscience both there and abroad. Israelis do not have to live in Palestine; they can and do increasingly withdraw from it to live in diaspora. Jews outside contemporary Israel are coming to see it less as a sanctuary or guarantor of Jewish security and well-being than as a menace to both.
The United States has made an enormous commitment to the success of the Jewish state. Yet it has no strategy to cope with the tragic existential challenges Zionist hubris and overweening territorial ambition have now forged for Israel. The hammerlock the Israeli right has on American discourse about the Middle East assures that, despite the huge U.S. political and economic investment in Israel, Washington will not discuss or develop effective policy options for sustaining the Jewish state over the long term. The outlook is therefore for continuing deterioration in Israel's international moral standing and the concomitant isolation of the United States in the region and around the globe.
This brings me back to the other main objective of U.S. policy in the Middle East: the nurturing of strategic partnerships with the largest and most influential Muslim states in the region. Iran and Syria have proven to be lost causes in this regard. Iraq is now more aligned with them than with America. Turkey is still an important U.S. ally on many matters but, with the exception of some aspects of relations with Syria, Ankara is following policies toward the Middle East that are almost entirely uncoordinated with those of the United States. The two pillars of the U.S. position in the Middle East beyond Israel are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neither can now be taken for granted.
Egypt is in the midst of a transition from American-aligned autocracy to self-determination under Islamist populism. It is not clear what sort of domestic political order this populism will shape, but it seems certain that future Egyptian governments will listen less to the United States and demand more of Israel. The diversion to Egypt of a portion of the U.S. government's generous annual subsidies to Israel long sufficed to secure Cairo's acquiescence in the Camp David framework. This enabled Israel to pretend that it had achieved a measure of acceptance among its Arab neighbors, despite its default on its obligations to the Palestinians and its escalating mistreatment of them. More important, it gave Israel the strategic security from Egyptian attack it had been unable to obtain by force of arms.
Populist Egypt's passivity is very unlikely to be procurable on similar terms. Enough has changed to put the Camp David framework at severe risk. (This is true for Jordan as well. Jordan made peace with Israel in response to the Oslo accords, which the ruling right-wing in Israel systematically undermined and finally undid.)
Since 1979, the U.S. relationship with Israel has been both a raison d'être and essential underpinning for U.S.-Egyptian cooperation. It is now reemerging as a point of division, irritation and contention between Americans and Egyptians. Egypt is once again an independent Arab actor in the affairs of its region, including Israel and Iran. It is no longer a reliable agent of American influence. It reacts to Israeli actions and policies calculatedly, with much less deference to U.S. views than in the past.
Islamist parties now dominate Egyptian politics, as they do politics in Tunisia and among Palestinians. It is very unlikely that post-Assad Syria will be democratic, but it is virtually certain that it will be Salafist. The so-called "Arab awakening" has turned out really to be a Salafist awakening. There is a struggle for the soul of Islam underway between Takfiri Salafists and conservative modernizers. In the traditionally Islamist states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this struggle is being won by the forces of tolerance, reform and opening up. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, the outcome remains in doubt, but nowhere are Muslim conservatives, still less Salafists, at ease with expansionist Zionism or the sort of aggressive anti-Islamism that the United States has institutionalized in its "drone wars."
In the wake of Washington's abandonment of the effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the impact of 9/11, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the transformation of a punitive raid in Afghanistan into a long-term attempt to preclude an Islamist regime there, the U.S.-Saudi relationship, once an example of broad-based strategic partnership, has markedly weakened. American Islamophobia has erased much of the previous mutual regard between the two countries. The United States continues to be the ultimate guarantor of the Saudi state against intervention from foreign enemies other than Israel. There is no alternative to America in this role. Nor, even when it regains energy self-sufficiency, will the United States be able to ignore Saudi Arabia's decisive influence on global energy supplies and prices. But U.S.-Saudi cooperation is no longer instinctual and automatic. It has become cynically transactional, with cooperation taking place on a case-by-case basis as specific interests dictate.
Policy convergence between Washington and Riyadh continues but sometimes conceals major differences. This is clearly the case with Iran, where Washington's interest in nonproliferation and its desire to preserve Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East overlap but do not coincide with Riyadh's concerns. If Tehran does go nuclear, Saudi-American disharmony will be glaringly apparent in very short order. Similarly, in Syria, the common desire of Americans and Saudis to see Syrians overthrow the Assad government masks very different visions about what sort of regime should succeed it and what the stance of that regime should be toward Israel, Lebanon or Iraq.
The bottom line is this. U.S. policies of unconditional support for Israel, opposition to Islamism, and the use of drones to slaughter suspected Islamist militants and their families and friends have created an atmosphere that precludes broad strategic partnerships with major Arab and Muslim countries, though it does not yet preclude limited cooperation for limited purposes. The acceptance of Israel as a legitimate presence in the Middle East cannot now be achieved without basic changes in Israeli attitudes and behavior that are not in the offing.
U.S. policies designed, respectively, to pursue strategic partnerships with Arab and Muslim powers and to secure the state of Israel have each separately failed. The Middle East itself is in flux. America's interests in the region now demand fundamental rethinking, not just of U.S. policies, but of the strategic objectives those policies should be designed to achieve.
WILLIAM B. QUANDT, professor, University of Virginia; former member, National Security Council
It's a little difficult to follow Chas Freeman. He has the effect of sounding so authoritative and so pessimistic that it's hard to know what to say next. I'm not going to try to cheer you up and say he's all wrong and that we really have brilliant ideas that can transform the Middle East. Obviously, the Middle East is going through a lot of turmoil, and it's going to be very difficult for any of us to see how things will sort themselves out.
I must confess that I'm rather suspicious of grand strategies for the Middle East, especially at times like this, when so many balls are up in the air. In the past two decades, in particular, we have had two quite different broad approaches to the region. Perhaps one can dignify them as grand strategies. The first was the approach of the first President Bush and President Clinton, from Madrid through, let's say, Camp David, from about 1991 to 2000. One key element of that approach — and maybe it was a grand strategy — was to try to keep Iran and Iraq more or less contained. This was the so-called dual-containment policy enunciated early in the Clinton period.
The point, of course, was to keep the Gulf region relatively stable and quiet while we tried to forge some kind of international consensus behind a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, the goal of the Madrid conference and its continuation through the subsequent decade. Had this approach succeeded — and I think there was a moment in 1993-95 when it seemed possible — it might very well have helped to stabilize a relatively moderate, pro-American political order in the Arab-Israeli region while keeping Iran and Iraq from too much mischief-making. But it failed, and quite spectacularly, in 2000 — Clinton's last year.
That failure was combined with the emergence in the mid-1990s of an alternative grand strategy. Recall the "Clean Break" document (http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm) that was written as a memo to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, and George W. Bush's ABC policy — Anything But Clinton. These two phenomena, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, set the stage for a fundamental transformation in the American approach to the region generally. It was an attempt to remake the Middle East that was as ambitious as anything that had been envisaged since the British set out to remake the Middle East in the 1920s.
The centerpiece of the Bush II strategy turned out to be Iraq, but Iraq was, of course, never meant to turn out the way that it did. It was not supposed to be such a big, expensive and ultimately flawed experiment. Instead, Iraq was to be an example of a clean, quick use of force to change an admittedly dreadful regime, and then we would turn things over to the always elusive pro-Western moderates. In this case, Ahmed Chalabi was supposed to become the model democrat — or at least not as bad as Saddam Hussein — who would make peace with Israel. Remember "The Road to Jerusalem Passes Through Baghdad" article (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/58616/michael-scott-doran/palestine-iraq-and-american-strategy)? That was a real winner. A grateful Iraq would provide the United States with military bases with which we could help to balance Iranian power. Meanwhile, it would set a model for change, plus democracy, elsewhere in the region. Iraq was not meant to be the end of this very ambitious project.
I traveled frequently to the region during this period, and I was rather stunned to find some of my democratic friends in the Arab world really believing that it might work. Everybody had a favorite dictator that they wanted to see shoved aside by muscular Americans. Of course, it didn't work out. The Bush moment in the Middle East, like the earlier British moment that lasted much longer, came and went without leaving much behind in terms of the hoped-for result: a stable, democratic, pro-Western political order — and this after spending an unprecedented amount of taxpayers' money, at least a trillion dollars, and thousands of American lives and untold numbers of Iraqi lives.
Iraq today is hardly a model for anyone; U.S. influence there is less than that of Iran. Modern democratic order is nowhere in sight; political Islam is stronger than ever; and, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict is still with us. Yes, Saddam and Bin Laden are gone, but the Middle East is in turmoil, the price of oil is over $100 a barrel compared to a quarter of that price in the 1990s, and the American public is fairly disillusioned with big schemes for fixing the region. As Bob Gates, our former secretary of defense, said when he left the Pentagon, if his successor were to think of sending troops to the Middle East, he should have his head examined.
But there are voices, some quite loud right now, that do want to send troops or arms or bombs or drones or something to fix the problems of, for example, Syria and Iran. So far, President Obama has resisted the temptation, and it looks as if his new choices for secretary of state and secretary of defense, if they get confirmed, will reinforce and perhaps reflect his cautious stance. But caution is not a policy; it's at best an attitude, just as belligerent liberal or neoconservative interventionism are not policies. They are more frames of mind. So, is there a sensible grand strategy, or at least a comprehensive, well-considered approach that makes sense for today's Middle East? If so, I believe it resides in a realistic appreciation of what American national interests are, and it must start with the understanding that we are not all-powerful. This was the great illusion of the 1990s and the first decade of this century.
Look at the size of our budget deficit, and look at the inevitable cuts in military spending that lie ahead. Whatever we set out to do in the Middle East and elsewhere, we're going to have to think about doing it in cooperation with other parties — some to help pay the bills and some to add to our waning political influence. In short, we're going to have to rediscover some of the classical maxims of multilateral diplomacy: think more of balancing than of winning; think more of persuasion than of diktat.
I would start to design a basic approach to the region with several key points in mind. First, I think it is high time to overcome the long U.S.-Iran estrangement. Some form of diplomatic rapprochement is needed in the coming years. The elements of a deal on nuclear capabilities are visible, if not quite in place, but they need to be part of a larger package. Since we cannot negotiate this very well in the open, given our own domestic public opinion, the new secretary of state should find a reliable channel to Iran's top leadership and start his own assessment of how to forge a new relationship.
This is, as I said, not going to be easy, but it is certainly important. If we could succeed, the benefits would be seen in places such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf region, and we would avoid being pressured into what could turn out to be an extremely dangerous war, now lurking on the horizon. Chas Freeman was involved in the Nixon opening to China, one of the great acts of strategic far-sightedness. This Iran move would not be as big, but would be comparably audacious. An improved U.S.-Iran relationship would serve our interests well.
Second, keep close to Turkey. I slightly disagree with Chas about the quality of the U.S.-Turkish relationship today. I think this is an area where President Obama has actually done fairly well so far. The United States and Turkey on a wide range of issues have been more cooperative than competitive. Obviously, it's important to try to keep this relationship on track. It has a lot to do with what will eventually unfold in places like Syria and Iraq. To an impressive degree, Turkey is something of a model to be emulated in the region. Its political and economic reforms have been essentially successful, and Turkey has played an impressive and independent role in the region, for which I think we should be glad. It's a voice, on the whole, for reason. Turkey is also a reliable NATO ally, at least so far (see William B. Quandt, ed., Troubled Triangle: The United States, Turkey, and Israel in the New Middle East [Just World Books, 2011]).
The third country that I think we need to pay a lot of attention to is Egypt. We took it for granted for a long period of time, when Sadat and Mubarak were president, and we can no longer do that. Egypt is going through a transformation and we don't know where it's all going to end up, but the U.S.-Egyptian relationship remains an important one. We have to think of fresh ways of dealing with a new Egyptian leadership, and it's going to take constant attention and effort. You've probably seen the unpleasant press stories in the last few days that are designed to demonize President Morsi. Indeed, he seems to have said some fairly dreadful things, and you can expect doubts to be raised about the importance of this relationship as Egypt flaunts its Islamist credentials. Egypt remains important for what happens in the Arab-Israeli arena. It is geostrategically important. If you think of the Middle East as a region with several large players in the game of regional politics, Egypt is certainly going to be one of those.
What about Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and Syria? These are, after all, the countries that generate a lot of the headlines about the Middle East. I think we need to recognize that Saudi Arabia is almost certainly going to be passing through a generational transition that will be quite complicated for them in the coming decade. We will have very little to say about how that plays out. I saw someone from WINEP [the Washington Institute for Near East Policy] recently writing that the United States should try to influence the choice of the next king of Saudi Arabia (http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/to-stop-iran-get-a-new-saudi-king). I cannot think of a stupider thing to try to do. We would almost certainly get it wrong, were we to try, and whoever we might try to anoint would almost certainly lose legitimacy overnight.
During this period of transition in Saudi Arabia, which is inevitable simply because of the age of its leaders, we shouldn't ask too much of the Saudis. They cannot be expected to be at the cutting edge of any big diplomatic initiatives. They are going to be looking inward to consolidate their power during a difficult period. By the same token, we have no reason to make the process any more difficult for them than it's already going to be.
Syria is a terrible tragedy. I'm not sure it had to turn out as badly as it has so far, but it is certainly a situation that we cannot fix on our own. The Assad regime almost certainly cannot restore its power, but, at the same time, the opposition is not poised for a clear-cut early victory. The alternative to an even worse civil war than we have seen to date could be a political deal of some sort. This seems to be the faint hope that Lakhdar Brahimi is pursuing. I think we should wish him well and try to work with the Russians and others to bring both sides of the conflict to accept the need for an early ceasefire and a negotiated transition. It's not going to be easy. People on all sides — and there are more than two by now — still think they can "win," but ultimately the important thing is for the fighting to stop and for inducements to be created from all of those who wish Syria well for the country to seek a broad reconciliation. Not an easy task, but an important one.
What about Israel-Palestine? I'm just about as pessimistic as Chas, but maybe not quite. We can't pretend the conflict no longer matters just because we're tired of it, though many of us are. It has the potential, as the recent Gaza crisis showed, to flare up and risk spreading. The new conventional wisdom seems to be that the two-state approach is dead. Maybe it is, but it was never seriously tried, in all honesty. Clinton in December 2000 broached an imperfect outline of what a two-state solution might look like, and a few years later Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas pushed the model a bit further in 2008. When they needed assistance to bring it to a successful conclusion and turned to the United States, they got no help whatsoever from George W. Bush. So we have been at a dead end since then.
The current Israeli government seems uninterested. The Palestinians are divided. But I still think that John Kerry owes it to himself to do due diligence on this issue. You can't pretend it can be ignored. He needs to at least engage seriously, in the early days of his tenure, in the serious talks with all of the interested parties.
He certainly should not waste his time — the president must know this by now — in trying to engage in confidence-building measures. We have been through a decade and a half of the pursuit of tiny little steps to build confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. It simply doesn't work. It is also futile to say, let's get the parties back to the negotiating table, as if that by itself will provide some magic in the absence of prior agreement on the broad outlines of what a negotiation would be about.
The Obama administration essentially dropped its efforts at Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy quite dramatically and embarrassingly in mid-2011, when Bibi Netanyahu came to the United States and got 29 standing ovations in front of a joint session of Congress. We ended with a fairly weak statement of what we thought an Israeli-Palestinian agreement might look like. It might well be time for us and partners in the international arena to revisit the issue of what we would be prepared to support, to state it clearly, and to allow the parties in the region to start debating again whether it is worth trying to pursue that kind of an outcome — or whether we have to think fundamentally about a Middle East without the prospect of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Oddly enough, some people argue that we shouldn't bother with the Israel-Palestinian initiative because the conflict is too hard to solve. Yes, of course it's hard. If it were easy, it would have been solved long ago. But often this is said by the same people who urge intervention in Syria or Iran. Now, my view is that the latter cases are much more difficult and much more risky and likely to be much more costly than tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know, broadly speaking, what the contours are of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Yes, it's tough, but I don't think it's impossible. It just takes an act of extreme political will, which is hard to mobilize here. It's hard to mobilize anywhere. It takes energy and effort by sophisticated and tenacious diplomats, but otherwise it doesn't entail big costs or risks. If we try and fail, it's not the end of the world. If by chance we were to succeed, which I think is unlikely, the benefits would actually be quite substantial.
So I would keep Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of what a sensible strategy for the new Middle East should be, without illusions, but I don't think we can abandon our interest and concern with it. As I mentioned, it should be part of a broader approach that places priority on the big-three countries of Iran, Turkey and Egypt.
JOHN DUKE ANTHONY, founding president & chief executive officer, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
It's a pleasure to be here and to focus on one of the least well-known subregional organizations in the world, certainly among the Arab countries, the Middle East and the Islamic world, namely the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). We've made some progress over the years. Few Americans anymore believe it has to do with the Gulf of Mexico; and none, I believe, still regard it as possibly animal, vegetable or mineral, but they're not sure which.
First, a little background on what the GCC is and what it is not, and then on aspects of GCC perceptions of American strategies. I will end on what's of greatest need and concern insofar as the GCC countries themselves are pertinent to this discussion. Few people are aware that the GCC came into existence under less-than-auspicious circumstances. Unlike the European Union, which it has used from the beginning as an exemplary model in terms of its progress and achievements, there was no guarantor of the six countries' security, such as the EU had through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of 1949.
There was no previous intraregional organization such as the Coal and Steel Community that the Europeans had, upon which to build with regard to complementing their needs and concerns and interests. Neither was there the atmosphere of emotional devastation from the ravages of World War II, when 19 countries were laid on their backs by one country that was disciplined and single-issue-oriented and heavily industrialized. Nor did they have the background of something like the Marshall Plan, which from 1947 onward provided foreign direct investment, capital, trade and technology cooperation, establishing joint commercial ventures that would be of reciprocal reward and benefit to the partners.
The GCC countries had none of those four things to facilitate its founding and give it confidence that it would not fall apart like so many previous pie-in-the-sky aspirations for regional, political or other integration. In terms of the context, the language of the preamble to its charter is self-revealing: six countries with a broadly common culture and history, a broadly similar, if not complementary, set of challenges in terms of their quest for modernization and development, and, most relevant of all, a similarity in their systems and structures of government.
This last phrase, of course, precluded Iraq and Yemen from being members of the GCC. It also precluded Jordan, even though Jordan was similar in being a monarchy, but Jordan was not a member of the Gulf region per se. At the inaugural summit in Abu Dhabi in May 1981, at the very last moment, Sultan Qaboos of Oman asked for the floor. Until that particular moment, the proceedings had been rather bland, talking about harmonizing educational curricula, civil-aviation standards, weights and measures and the like. There was nothing really controversial, even though the mere fact that they were meeting was controversial in the eyes of Iran and Iraq, which were angry for being excluded.
Sultan Qaboos said, and I am paraphrasing, that it's fine for us to discuss and have agreement and be cordial on all the things we share in common and all the things we're doing to strengthen our societies and to strengthen all six of us as a collective unit. But none of this will amount to anything if we do not build a wall to protect what we have already achieved, since all of us have obtained independence, national sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity now that the British have abrogated their last defense treaties. Sultan Qaboos went further to say, we will not be able to do this unless we cooperate economically and developmentally, and provide the financial wherewithal to build and sustain this wall of defense.
The GCC countries from then on became intimately involved with the United States to provide stability and security for the region. Oman took the lead from the beginning, with Bahrain, which had had the longest nonstop relationship with the United States, cooperating on national as well as regional and international security issues, along with Saudi Arabia, the biggest, the most diverse, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and the most intimately involved with the United States. The GCC countries decided that this was necessary to keep the region as stable and secure as possible. Without it they would have no chance to be prosperous, to be protected and to be able to plan, prepare and predict what was coming down the road for themselves and those who would follow.
In terms of strategic agreements and formalities, Oman was the first to sign an access-to-facilities agreement in 1980. Ten years later, four additional GCC countries — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — entered into defense-cooperation agreements with the United States. Saudi Arabia has no such agreement, but here we don't want to confuse form with function. The Saudi Arabian component of this strategic set of dynamics is greater, arguably, than all of the other five combined.
What the GCC countries brought to the table was arms procurement in terms of interoperability of equipment and technology. There was also stepped-up training as well as increased numbers of exercises and an ongoing, almost nonstop, relationship with the United States Central Command, which has this particular region as its primary area of responsibility.
Going beyond those agreements, there is a GCC-relevant land force in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; there is a naval force in Bahrain as well as Oman, focused on the Strait of Hormuz, through which every day at least one-fifth of all of the internationally traded hydrocarbon fuels pass — and they travel through Oman's waters, not Iran's, as many are misled to believe. In terms of air facilities and assets in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with regard to geopolitical defense strategy, the GCC helped to pass UN Security Council Resolution 598 of July 20, 1987, for the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq that ended their eight-year war. That was the first unanimous UN Security Council vote on a war-and-peace issue since the Korean War, which was unanimous largely because the Soviet ambassador wasn't present when the vote took place — he was reportedly in the bathroom. Iraq accepted it within a month. Khomeini took a year to accept it.
With regard to the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91, 12 members of the League of Arab States — the six GCC countries brought along six more — voted in favor of condemning Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Also, on August 10, 1990, a landmark decision passed 12 to 9, calling for all Arab armies to mobilize and deploy to Saudi Arabia to prevent the invasion from spreading further.
In terms of geoeconomics, the GCC countries are still wedded to the American dollar as the medium of their international financial transactions, although Kuwait uses a basket of currencies — the biggest egg in the basket being the dollar. This has assisted the ongoing preeminence of the American banking system worldwide, with offshore banks in Bahrain filling the gap after the civil war began in Lebanon in 1975.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has been going to these countries more than to any others in the developing world to ask for assistance with stability and predictability. The GCC countries, several of which are annually in surplus because of their oil-revenue receipts, have worked in partnership with the United States for common purposes in order to lessen the blows of the international housing crisis, mortgage crisis, financial crisis — the economic crisis, writ large.
In terms of geology, the GCC states bring to the market 40 percent of proven — not debatable — reserves of the world's hydrocarbon fuels. The United States — the single-largest consumer and the biggest waster of this commodity, and the loudest crybaby with regard to its relationship to it — has barely 2 percent. Saudi Arabia alone has 10 times the reserves of the United States.
They are aware that the United States has some aspects of a grand strategy and other issue-specific strategies. What would pass for a grand strategy, although not named as such, would be the defense-policy guidance of late 1992, drafted by someone known to most here, but not necessarily in the most positive way: Paul Wolfowitz. He posited that by 2020, in order for the United States to remain the world's sole superpower, it would have to continue to excel in five areas: economics, finance, industry, defense and technology.
The answer to the second "push" question — what was essential to excelling in these five areas? — was energy. Whose energy, ours or someone else's? Someone else's, since energy is a finite, depletable resource, cheaper and more abundant elsewhere. And if we use our own, we'll run out sooner rather than later and become weaker sooner rather than later. This is not a strategic option for us.
As to subinterests, there exist issue-specific strategies, in descending order of priority. The overriding one is the perpetuation of peace and avoidance of war. And where there are cross-border forays and vitriolic pronouncements from radical extremists and fanatics in the region, to ensure that they do not escalate to civil war or a war between countries because of what that would do to regional stability and security. Economic interests should be straightforward in terms of sheer access, regardless of price, regardless of levels of production of this hydrocarbon resource that fuels all the economies of the world — rich and poor, big and small, new and old.
In terms of foreign policies, the GCC would prefer noninterference in their domestic affairs, but the United States has not seen any reason not to interfere. Of course, there hasn't been reciprocity on the GCC side. Indeed, this is a bedrock strategic maxim of the GCC countries in communiqués they have signed their names to in the last 40 years: noninterference in each other's domestic affairs.
Commerce used to be linked to economic interests, but for the last 35 years, it's been separate. Because the United States is the world's single-largest importer of this commodity, we have to lessen the overall net bill as best we can. One way to do that is to export to them as much as we can in goods and services and technologies and other things to lower the overall drain on our Treasury.
The fifth interest is defense cooperation. Under George W. Bush, this came higher on the list of subinterests, but for most of the preceding years it had been number five. It's possible, under the Obama administration at least, that there would be far less of it than under George W. Bush, with the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that other countries need to belly up to the bar and begin to pay a proportionate share of what it costs, namely $100 billion a year, to protect this particular region.
Notice that I haven't mentioned a single word about soft power as a subinterest, let alone a grand strategic interest, in terms of democratization or increasing the level of popular participation in the national-development process of civil rights, gender rights or human rights. It is my conviction, and many in the region share it, that despite all the ink we spill on this, and all the Sunday talk-show verbiage, at the end of the day if we're objective and dispassionate, the conclusion is hard to miss: this particular interest is a psychological indulgence and politically expendable.
As to how the GCC's strategic concerns relate to all of these aspects, their primary interest is for clarity and transparency. What are America's objectives really? Their number-one priority is the ongoing maintenance of political stability, which they have linked to the physical security of their infrastructure, their capital assets, their facilities that produce the valued worldwide commodity for which they are responsible.
Without that kind of security and stability, they would not have the means for the humanitarian role that they play, largely unnoticed and unrecognized. They were among the first in the world to help the people of Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as those of Afghanistan and Iraq. Kuwait has been a leader in this, as have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, increasingly, Qatar. This too cannot take place without the requisite stability and security. Believe it or not, Kuwait and the UAE provide more than 115 countries with various forms of humanitarian aid and developmental assistance.
What they seek more than anything else is clarity on two issues. They are uncertain as to where the United States is coming from or headed regarding Iran, but the larger issue — the older, more massive and pervasive one — is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They look at the United States, a country of 310 million, and they see executive-branch cowardice and congressional timidity, our government being intimidated by the representatives, the agents, the sympathizers, the fifth columns, the Trojan horses of a country of 8 million people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Bill Quandt made reference to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu getting more standing ovations than the president of the United States when he spoke to our Congress.
With regard to human rights, which has come up a lot in the case of Bahrain — a country that has been a steadfast defense and strategic partner of the United States since 1947, nonstop. They would counter that there is no universally agreed, globally acknowledged, international consensus on human rights per se. They acknowledge civil rights, human rights and gender rights as such, but they add that any country, any government, any people who have the means will be faulted on the altar of human rights if they do not do the maximum to provide housing for the homeless. Here in the nation's capital this evening, like last evening, like tomorrow evening, there will be 12,000 people who are homeless. This is in the nation's capital of the strongest, wealthiest power in history. In New York City this evening, there will be 50,000 who are homeless, 20,000 of whom are children. Multiply that by St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and other urban centers and you'll see how short the United States falls on that particular criterion regarding human rights.
And then there is health care. We're the only industrialized country to lack universal, comprehensive health care, even though we've got an economy that dwarfs those of almost all of the others. Not to mention education, which in the GCC is also free of charge from kindergarten all the way through to the PhD or MD. Not to mention crime. One-fourth of all the people on the planet who are behind bars are here, out of 212 countries in the world. This stands as its own indictment in terms of human rights.
MARWAN MUASHER, vice president for studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; former Jordanian foreign minister, deputy prime minister and ambassador to the United States
I speak as an Arab, having worked on peace and reform issues in my country and in the Arab world — and I am a strong believer in both — and I also speak as an analyst, being with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. I do not speak as an Arab official, of course, although my views are certainly shaped by the experiences that I have had in the Arab world for the last 20 years.
I want to start with the premise that the rising up of people demanding freedom, dignity, social justice and government accountability across the Arab world is, to me, a positive development. It puts the Arab world back on the right course of history. But that does not mean that there is not a long road ahead. The fateful, messy and unpredictable process of self-government and democratic institution building is just beginning, and it would be wrong to judge the process by what has transpired in the last two years. This process will necessarily unfold through decades, not through months or years. Taking place under banners of democracy and freedom, these Arab revolutions fulfilled the long-stated U.S. goal of moving the Middle East toward greater democratic and representative government. So the United States cannot turn its back on this process now. Washington has a stake in the outcome of the political jockeying unleashed by the Arab awakening and must stay engaged as the people of the Middle East struggle to take control of this moment.
But I think we need to realize that U.S. policy in this new environment will be more complicated and demand more time, effort and patience than when pro-American leaders sat in Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa, or when Baathists had a firm grip in Damascus. The relative predictability of the old order, for good or ill, is gone. Fluidity now rules the day, both for the countries in transition and for those that have not started a transition yet. We also need to realize that the Obama administration's ability to influence events will often be limited by a number of factors, including reduced economic resources, limits to military power (as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere), domestic fatigue with military involvement, and Arab frustration with longtime U.S. support for the status quo and failure to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Nevertheless, America has an important role to play. Those who doubt the relative significance of American leadership need only look at the recent cases of Libya and Syria, where the decisive factor for action or inaction has been the extent to which the United States chooses to engage. The states in the midst of transition, in my opinion, will still need U.S. encouragement, understanding, tough honesty and, where appropriate, economic assistance to build new institutions that support pluralism, foster respect for minority and individual rights and international law, marginalize the voices of extremism and sectarianism, and put their people on a path to greater prosperity. The countries that have not yet moved toward reform also need the United States to bluntly assess the consequences of their actions and encourage them to embrace change.
I have a number of suggestions on U.S. policy for the new Obama administration. I have no way of telling whether they will embrace them or not, but as an analyst, I can afford the luxury of only suggesting them. First, focus on performance, not ideology. The commitment to democracy is fundamentally correct, and the United States should make it clear that it will always support the ability of the people of the Middle East to choose their own governments and hold them accountable. The United States should stick to a disciplined policy approach, though, that emphasizes the primacy of adherence to international standards, including respect for treaty obligations, individual and minority rights, and the peaceful rotation of power.
The losers in the initial political competitions will in some cases be all too ready to raise questions about the validity of the process or the desirability of democracy, to cover their own shortcomings or frustrations. The Obama administration cannot let the naysayers or the extremists, either in the region or in the United States, hijack the narrative of the moment. As Secretary of State Clinton said, one election does not a democracy make; that's just the beginning of the hard work. The United States should make it clear that it is in for the long run. U.S. criticism or praise for countries of the region should be based on performance, and should be applied to newly transitioning countries as well as traditional friends, but should not be based on ideology.
The second suggestion is to set realistic expectations. The Obama administration's policy must be guided by realism and pragmatism as it engages with new actors in the Arab world. You're not going to be able to do everything that you want to do in the Middle East. Washington's ability to influence events will be marginal in many areas. Political transition on the ground will largely be driven by domestic events and considerations, and the competition for votes, power and resources. Whenever possible, though, the United States should focus on institutions, not individuals, as it did in the past. This is where democratic processes will be implemented or not.
In President Obama's second term, the administration should re-energize efforts to build constructive working relationships at the institutional level and forge partnerships around practical endeavors to advance effective governments and inclusive economic development. U.S. involvement and engagement should also help Arab countries develop and finance their own civil societies and political parties, a task Arab capital is certainly capable of. But, while U.S. support for local nongovernmental institutions has been successful, it is important that these organizations nurture and develop deep roots in their local communities to be credible and sustainable. Finally, the administration should be extremely cautious about imposing political conditions on aid, trade, debt relief and other support. Seeking to use aid as leverage often backfires; in the fragile political atmosphere that currently prevails in these countries, such attempts are likely to provoke a strong nationalistic reaction, and do more to undermine U.S. long-term goals than to advance them.
The third suggestion would be not to try to pick winners and losers. The United States should avoid taking sides before the electorate has registered its decision at the polls. For the foreseeable future, Islamist parties will likely dominate politics in most of the countries in transition, and other parties and movements will have to work harder to gain traction in the new political environment. Initially, the political playing field in many of these countries will display a tendency to develop around familiar communal, religious and tribal banners; real party building in the Arab world will likely take decades.
Along the way, the United States should be available to advise all nonviolent groups on electoral practices and democratic processes. Moderates will inevitably be challenged by extremists in the new public domain, as has been the case in Egypt and Tunisia, for example. But the primary U.S. goal in this area should not be to become part of the internal political narrative. Visible U.S. efforts to encourage liberal movements to organize and build stronger grassroots support are likely only to hurt these groups. The best way to support the goal of sustainable democratic change is by clearly committing to the principles and processes of democracy, accepting and dealing with all legitimate winners of elections, and insisting at the same time on the need for continuing the electoral process into the future.
The fourth suggestion is to recognize that political Islam is neither monolithic nor static. The entry of Islamist actors into the political process in transitioning countries holds the greatest promise for the evolution and moderation of political Islam. For the most extreme Salafi groups, political participation presents a major ideological threat. But for others that are in power today in Egypt, in Tunisia, partly in Morocco — all offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood — governing will require new pragmatism and difficult choices. The dynamic is likely to differ from country to country, but the United States must be ready to challenge new Islamic governments and emerging Islamist groups across the region, to strengthen and institutionalize the democratic processes that brought them to power.
In its dealings with the Islamists, the United States should also be attuned to emerging generational and ideological splits within these movements. Even among the region's Salafists, there is evidence of important divisions between groups engaged in social and political activism, and those that espouse violence. The United States should avoid viewing all groups through the same lens. The new Arab order has to be based on principles of political, cultural and religious pluralism if this Arab awakening is to succeed. If Islamists are going to lead the way for now, they will need to embrace these values. It is too early to tell if this is the cards, but it is too early to assume that it will not be. The United States and the international community should work together to help show the way.
Fifth is to break the regional deadlock on Syria. The Syrian regime has so far been able to postpone defeat, a defeat that I believe is inescapable. Bashar al-Assad has been aided in this effort by deep divisions among the opposition and the heightened regional struggle between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other, over outcomes in Syria. To date, U.S. policy makers, we must recognize, have faced few good options. Since the start of the revolution, the risks presented by greater U.S. military engagement — greater loss of life, further militarization of the conflict and empowerment of military elements within the opposition over civilian and nonviolent ones — have outweighed the potential benefits. However, this calculus may be beginning to shift. The key will be, in my view, progress made in efforts to promote greater unity and inclusiveness among the Syrian internal and external opposition. It is too early to tell whether the recent events in Doha and the new unified Syrian opposition will advance this role.
In the final analysis, any political settlement in Syria will require the support of Syria's neighbors in order to be sustained. There are some indications that the ongoing fighting and threat of an enduring military conflict has begun to shift regional attitudes towards a political settlement. Turkey, a staunch supporter of a military overthrow of the Assad regime, assumed initially there would be a quick revolution along the lines of Egypt and Tunisia, but the increasing threat of spillover into Turkey has shifted Ankara's assessment of the risks and costs of continued conflict. There are signs that there may be increased interest in diplomatic action to end the fighting.
The Obama administration should engage in aggressive diplomatic activity in support of a negotiated settlement to the conflict that places Syria on track for political transition and eventual elections and institution building. Therefore, U.S. outreach to Moscow as well as to the other regional players should focus on breaking the international and regional deadlock and gaining support for a transition that will remove Assad — because I don't think he can any longer claim legitimacy — end the fighting on the ground and prevent the breakup of the state. This will necessarily require a formula that takes into account the need to assure the principal minorities in Syria — the Alawites, the Kurds and the Christians — that they have a future in the country. Without this element, a post-Assad Syria will remain a serious destabilizing factor in the region, where growing sectarian-conflict-enabling states will present an increased threat to regional stability.
On Iran, I would suggest that the United States stay the course. I think, more or less, it has been implementing the right policy. The Arab awakening in many ways represents a strong challenge and setback for Iran, in my view, one of the biggest losers in the Arab awakening. Its model of governance has been proved to be totally deficient. Its support for the Assad regime has resulted in a dramatic loss of public support in the Arab world after that support reached its zenith about five years ago. The Obama administration is likely to face new obstacles and decisions about when and how to support Iran's internal opposition over the next four years. But in the second term, President Obama should continue to resist political pressure to embrace democracy activists publicly. Doing so would undermine the credibility of their cause at home.
The United States should also use its leverage with Gulf states to promote regional goals. Since the fall of the shah of Iran, U.S. objectives in the Persian Gulf, or Arab Gulf, have remained largely unchanged: ensuring security and stability, maintaining the free flow of oil and gas to international markets, and using American military assets to counterbalance Iran and keep the Strait of Hormuz open. These efforts serve both the United States and the regional states that are concerned about Iranian influence and intentions. However, the Arab awakening has added a new dimension to U.S. relations with Gulf states by underscoring the high cost of friendly states' failure to take the need for internal reform seriously. This failure represents a direct threat to long-term U.S. interests and security and stability in the Gulf. Significant reform in the Gulf states is critical to stave off further polarization and inevitable unrest. The Obama administration cannot afford to gloss over this point with Gulf Arab monarchies.
Finally, a word on the Arab-Israeli conflict. As somebody who has worked on peace between Israel and Arab states for 20 years, I agree with all the comments of my predecessors, but I'll even put it more dramatically than they have: The choice for the Obama administration today is peace now or never. And I don't use these words lightly. More than five years have passed without any substantive direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The situation has left a deepening paralysis and almost complete deadlock. The Palestinian Authority, which has aggressively pursued economic state-building projects and security cooperation with Israel in recent years, faces near-certain demise, both politically and economically. And Israel, for its part, must deal with a looming demographic time bomb of existential proportions. The number of Arabs living in areas under Israel's control today is equal to the number of Jews: six million. The demographic bomb is no longer something that is going to happen in the future. The time for peace is now. Each month that goes by makes the problems more difficult to address.
Time and experience have shown that the stars will never align to make Israel-Palestinian peace easy. If we are waiting for a better time to come, I'm afraid that that time will never arrive. The Obama administration needs to accept that to wait for such a moment is to intentionally defer action forever. Those who choose to subscribe to this view — and there are many in this town — argue that the time is not right for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli governments are ready, that we should wait for a better time, when the dust settles on the Arab awakening. Those who subscribe to this view must do so with eyes wide open, acknowledging the consequences both for Palestinian rights and aspirations and for the long-term existence of Israel as a democratic state.
Years of failed effort have demonstrated, as Bill has also said, that it is useless to talk about launching another process on the way to a settlement. Process is no longer sufficient. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, it has become no more than a synonym for delay and inaction, for creating new facts on the ground with settlement activity that makes securing a two-state solution impossible. There is no substitute for an active and engaged U.S. role in this area. The United States must commit itself to work through the Quartet to bring about a speedy settlement of the conflict before it is too late. This means engaging Arab players such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt and securing an understanding about the basic parameters of a comprehensive settlement, something which is not that difficult to do.
But the goal should be to establish a timetable of months, not years, to iron out the details that, in large part, are already very familiar to all those involved. Making peace in the Middle East is not cost-free, but it is vital to U.S. national interests. The absence of a two-state solution will have very serious repercussions not just for Palestinians, but for the long-term future of Israel and the long-term stability of the region. The choice today on this issue is between the difficulty of achieving peace today and the impossibility of achieving it tomorrow. The administration has to choose.
DR. MATTAIR: There's a disagreement that I'd like to explore as to whether the possibility of a two-state solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is dead or not, and whether the United States is or is not committed to it as a strategic objective. If we're not committed and don't make the best of the possibility that remains, or if it is dead, what does that mean for our ability to fight extremism in the Middle East, to fight transnational terrorism and promote moderation?
The second question is, are we or are we not committed to stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons? Are the covert operations, the economic sanctions and the potential war enough, or would we really have to be willing to promote a win-win diplomatic compromise and take yes for an answer? Again, if we're not committed, what does that mean for our ability to combat extremism and moderation in the region, and how will our friends and security partners cope with their security concerns? Will they view us as a reliable or an unreliable partner, and will they enjoy enough stability to introduce or to continue the reforms most of them are already making?
AMB. MUASHER: There might be differing views on whether the two-state solution is dead or not, but in my estimate, the optimistic view is that the two-state solution is dying. Whether it is dying or dead, it is certainly clear that it's not going to be with us for a long time. Why do I say that? Because we have today more than 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, 200,000 of whom are in East Jerusalem itself. Eighty thousand are in the heart of the West Bank, not on the green line separating the two communities. It will be very, very difficult today, even if a solution is arrived at, to separate the two communities and arrive at a two-state solution. Waiting a year or two or three is going to make it impossible to do so. And if a two-state solution becomes impossible, then Palestinians will resort to the only alternative they have if they cannot have their own state, which is to call for equal rights within the territories where they live. Equal rights in a binational state, a one-state solution, means, for Israel, of course, the end of the Zionist project of a democratic and Jewish state. I don't see another more likely scenario than this developing in a decade or two.
Couple this with the Arab awakening and what is happening in the Arab world. If the United States is going to try to mend the very low credibility it already has in the region through support of democratic processes and processes of change, it is not going to be able to argue to Arabs that, if you are Egyptians or Tunisians or Syrians or Yemenis yearning for freedom, we are with you, but if you are Palestinians yearning for freedom, it's complicated. That's not going to be an argument that will resonate, not just with the Palestinians but with the rest of the Arab world.
I am not saying that the United States will find it easy to solve the conflict, nor am I saying that it is likely that it will do so. I am well aware of the priorities the president has on his plate, whether it is Iran, whether it is the processes of change, whether it is Syria or other issues. What I'm arguing is that it is futile to live any longer in a farce that attempts to give the impression that there is movement by engaging in a process that not just leads nowhere, but that creates new facts on the ground every day to make a two-state impossible. Somehow it gives the impression in this town and elsewhere around the world that we are moving, just because people are meeting and discussions are being held, and every now and then negotiations take place.
To give this false impression that there is something moving is dangerous and takes us away from looking things right in the eye and understanding that the time of truce has come. We either solve this conflict now, or we all deal, for better or worse, with the consequences of not solving it in the future. But if you think that supporting the Israeli government's intransigence on a two-state solution today is doing Israel a favor, I would suggest that you give it another thought.
DR. ANTHONY: East of the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf, there's concern about U.S. policy. I think Chas Freeman used that word in terms of objectives and interests versus the strategic goals of security and stability. The GCC countries would acknowledge the worth and value of democracy and freedom, but stress that it must be gradual and rooted in the ideals, values, principles and norms of the societies in which this process is taking place. And Tom, you mentioned yourself, the six are not all static, idling at an intersection; they are all making various moves in this particular direction.
With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in terms of the credibility and legitimacy of policy, or attitude, stack that against the following: from 1979 to December 31, 2012, U.S. taxpayers provided Israel with $100 every second, $6,000 every minute, over $300,000 every hour and $8.2 million every day. When you talk about rule of law and accountability and utter the words of peace, we learn as children that crime is not supposed to pay. Here's an instance where it not only pays, but it pays quite handsomely. There's no other country on the planet that receives this kind of largess, this material benefit, despite defying its protector, its primary source of finance and diplomatic intervention, despite all the other things that people say positively about support for democracy and freedom.
There's a glaring contradiction here, and if the United States will not lead, then stand aside and let others lead — the other four members of the U.N. Security Council, none of which has been pressuring or intimidating or trying to cajole and coopt and influence the United States to adopt its policies. Here, we're talking about America's economy, looking out for the interests of the consumer. How can one justify and be legitimate in one's position if you look at the arithmetic that I just cited? And it is not recent, but more than 30 years and counting.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the objective of achieving acceptance for a democratic Israel in the Middle East is a very valid one. But I don't think it's achievable under current circumstances. The two-state solution, which has been our mechanism for achieving it, is physically impossible now. It does not reflect political trends. Read what Naftali Bennett is saying, and look at settler politics in Israel, and tell me that you have any basis for suggesting that Israel is not heading toward ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of a large part of its Palestinian population, and I will have an argument with you. I think we have to be realistic. A two-state solution at this point is a pious hope. It is lofty talk with no realism behind it.
If the objective, for many reasons, is the acceptance of a Jewish-dominated democracy in the Middle East — which I think would have enormous benefits to the region in terms of addressing some of the concerns about democratic evolution in the Arab world and elsewhere — if Israel were at peace and integrated into the region, I think the economic and political and military benefits and the benefits in terms of stability would be enormous. If it cannot be achieved with two states, then it's going to have to be achieved with one. And one means we have to accept that we are moving into an era in which this struggle is for civil and human rights under the government of Israel in the area that it controls, which is all of Palestine. I think anything short of recognizing that, and explicitly setting the objective of achieving human rights and civil rights for all who live under Israeli rule, is going to get us nowhere.
A final point: There's been reference made to Syria and the flux in the region. In many ways, this region reflects the colonial era and Mr. Sykes's and Mr. Picot's work. If Syria falls apart, which is entirely possible, don't bet on Lebanon, which was carved out of it; and don't overlook the impact on Iraq or on Jordan. All of these were part of the project of dismembering the Ottoman Empire and Greater Syria, and I think we're in an era in which borders cannot be taken for granted anymore.
It is a very perilous era indeed, and I think we need to recognize that we have gone through several periods in American policy, one of them a long period where our objective was strategic denial of the region to our adversaries. After the Soviet Union irresponsibly died on us and left us with no clear objective, we went to a policy of hegemony, dominance of the region. That's what dual containment was, no longer relying on balance of power or local strengths to maintain peace, but doing it directly ourselves. That's no longer feasible.
Mr. Wolfowitz, whom I do not admire, had five criteria for carrying out a policy of hegemony in the region: political, economic and financial strengths were among them. I ask you, in the case of the United States, what our condition is in those spheres these days. Our technological superiority is being challenged as well. Our military capabilities remain unchallengeable, but they are not enough to sustain a policy of managing this sphere of influence and acting to preserve status quos that people in the region find unacceptable.
So I think we're going to have to come to grips, as Marwan said, with the reality of Islamist politics in the region. There is a fundamental contradiction between that and drone wars and other activities elsewhere. We're going to have to resolve that and recognize that we don't have the influence or the command authority anymore to tell people in the region what to do. We're going to have to work with them and with allies and partners outside the region to address some of these issues. To go back to Bill Quandt's comments, which I thought were excellent, I'm pessimistic about the current situation. I do not take that to mean that we should relax our efforts to do something about it, but I do think we should be realistic about what we can do. I agree we need to clearly state our objectives if we're to pursue them.
DR. ANTHONY: When we talk about democracy and freedom, I think we have to be careful not to encourage extremists and militants who think that we're going to stand by them no matter what. Unless we are clear and more transparent and nonambiguous, we run that risk. Bahrain is a case in point; elsewhere in the region there are others. The need for absolute clarity needs to be italicized and capitalized, lest one mistakenly confuse or inspire those who take us at our word that we really are serious about doing whatever's necessary in whatever time and by whatever means to bring about freedom and democracy.
DR. MATTAIR: There was one element of my question that Chas wants to address, and that is the question of what we're doing about Iran. We've said we've had the objective for a long, long time to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. We've used all kinds of covert operations and economic sanctions, and we've even had some diplomatic talks. But we haven't succeeded in changing Iran's actions, and we're now talking about war again. Are we committed to that? Have we used the right strategy? If we haven't used the right strategy, which strategy should we use? And if we fail again, what do our security partners think about us as a reliable partner, and how do they go forward?
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the issue is less Iran's nuclear program than it is Iran as an actor and a potential hegemon in the region. It is Iran as an ideological factor in countries like Bahrain that is disturbing. So I agree with Bill Quandt that there is an urgent need to come to grips with the realities of contemporary Iran and to find a new basis for working with it. What Bill did not say — and I think this is not because he wouldn't agree with it but because he focused purely on the United States — is that to build a relationship with Iran, one must also help to build a relationship between the GCC and Iran, most particularly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the most actively opposed to Iran.
I think the net effect of U.S. policy is not to reduce tensions in the region or to promote the emergence of some sort of understanding between Iran and its neighbors in the Gulf, but quite the opposite. It raises tensions. It inhibits progress. It encourages adventurism in places like Syria. I think we need to rethink this, because Iran is not going away. One, it's been there for thousands of years, and it will be there long after the United States has reformulated its policies toward the Gulf region. So I would agree with Bill that coming to grips with the broader realities of Iran is essential.
On the nuclear issue, I would say that there is probably some reason that Iranians might be thinking about nuclear weapons. It might have something to do with the daily threats of bombing and the assassinations and the cyberwarfare that is being conducted against Iran. So the nuclear issue is an important one, but it is a subset of a larger issue of Iran's insecurity, Iran's lack of cordial and effective relationships with its neighbors and the continuing antipathy between Washington and Tehran, which arose, of course, in 1979 and has never been addressed. I think the key to solving the nuclear issue is a broader dialogue and effort for strategic outreach to Iran in partnership with the GCC.
DR. QUANDT: I agree with virtually everything that Chas said, that we have to look at the overall relationship, not just the nuclear dimension, and we have to look at other countries in the region and their relationships. I think we have in a very bizarre way created circumstances by toppling Saddam Hussein that made it possible for Iran to imagine itself as the hegemon in the Gulf region. That was our doing, and many people think somehow it was intended. I'm pretty sure it wasn't. I think it was one of those bizarre blank spots on the part of the Bush administration. They didn't think through the consequences of what the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime would mean for Iran's relative power in the region, although it was international relations 101 that, if you weakened Iraq, you were going to strengthen Iran. So all of a sudden we faced the consequences of our "success" in Iraq and got panicked about Iran.
My sense is that Iran wants what many countries in the world have, so-called nuclear latency. They want the potential in dire circumstances to go from a potential to an actual weapon fairly quickly. That puts them in the same league as Japan and Sweden and South Africa and Argentina and Brazil, a lot of other countries that have nuclear capabilities but not nuclear weapons. I think that's where they want to be. I can't prove it, but everything that they do is consistent with that goal. The question is, can we live with that? Our current policy is very ambiguous. We say that they can have nuclear energy, but not certain kinds, not the highly enriched uranium. I think there is a deal to be made. We keep getting close to it, but it's being negotiated under conditions that make the Iranians believe that, even if they were to say yes, we would still try to bring the regime down.
I think, as Chas says, that there has to be a fundamental rethinking of where the nuclear piece fits into a different kind of relationship with an Iran that isn't going away, that will be geostrategically important in the region, and where we have no interest in stoking the sectarian Shia versus Sunni relationship. Most Americans don't know the difference between Sunnis and Shias, but they're pretty sure that Shia are worse than Sunnis until they encounter Bin Laden and realize he was actually a Sunni.
I think the kind of Middle East we should be hoping for is one in which these sectarian cleavages cease to be so powerfully important. Certainly Iraq will not recover as a normal state if the Shia-Sunni issue is the main line of cleavage, along with the Arab-Kurdish one. The kind of Iraq that we ostensibly wanted to see emerge in the aftermath of Saddam's overthrow cannot emerge in a highly sectarian Middle East polarized along those lines.
So I think we have no interest in encouraging this polarization along Sunni-Shia lines or any other of these dimensions. But if we don't have a more normalized relationship with Iran, I think the risk remains that this kind of polarization in the Middle East will continue and that, at some point, one or another of the countries — Iran or someone else — will in fact cross the nuclear threshold. We do have an interest in not wanting to see any countries in the Middle East have nuclear weapons. They're very dangerous. They're very expensive. And if they get used, they're absolutely in a class of their own. They're not like chemical weapons. They're not like biological weapons. They're in a category of their own, and it is a very, very dangerous development to be blasé about. But to stop it in Iran, I think we have to acknowledge that Iran has the right to the full fuel cycle, as it is called, as long as it's kept under IAEA supervision, which Iran says it's willing to accept. So I think we have to figure out how to take yes for an answer in the case of Iran.
DR. MATTAIR: Is there an American policy toward the Arab awakening, or is the United States looking at each specific country on its own terms? That would lead into a very specific question, Bill, which is to amplify your discussion about generational change in Saudi Arabia. The second question is, do the GCC states have a policy toward the Arab awakening, or are they looking at each individual case?
AMB. FREEMAN: You should add, is there an Arab awakening?
DR. MATTAIR: In our case, how do we weigh our strategic interests against our ideological interests, and how do we evaluate the different levels of reform that are taking place in different situations?
AMB. FREEMAN: I don't think there's an Arab awakening. I think Arabs are no longer sleepwalking through history, which is probably a good thing. But there is no coherent view that has emerged from the uprisings that have taken place across the Arab world. What has been demonstrated is that there is a common Arab conversation, that all Arabs are in communication with each other and aware of each other's dilemmas and the means by which they are being addressed in various countries. So there is a great deal of exchange of technical information about how to oppose government policies and how to make yourself heard, but that does not amount to a coherent view. I think there is an Islamist awakening in the Arab world, and I think that is the reality that the United States has to deal with. I agree completely with Marwan that we must approach this, not from an ideological point of view or with preconceptions, but pragmatically, making choices on the basis of performance and actions rather than some sort of a priori reasoning.
Do we have a policy? We love democracy as long as it's pro-American. That amounts not to a policy so much as a posture. Every country is different, and that is why I don't like the term "Arab awakening." Egyptians are not thinking the same things as Tunisians or Yemenis and certainly not Syrians or those in the Gulf. So we need to recognize that there is an Arab phenomenon that finds expression in different ways in each Arab country and tailor our policies accordingly. I would like the United States to be on the side of more popular involvement in government and more transparent government — better governance, less corruption — but I would leave it at that. Let the Arabs decide what they want, country by country.
DR. ANTHONY: In the GCC region, there's not a general assessment or analysis, let alone a prescription, as to what to do regarding the challenges in their societies, where youth are more energized and inspired than in recent memory. The issues really aren't Arab issues, nor are they Muslim issues, for the most part. These are descriptive adjectives of the people, but the issues are universal in scope or have nothing whatsoever to do with faith or ethnicity.
For example, on employment, that's not the issue in Kuwait or the UAE or Qatar. It is certainly a very pervasive issue in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain and in Oman. With regard to trying to see that the education system in all six is more relevant to market demands, that, too, is relevant from Kuwait to Muscat and everywhere in between — as is the issue of corruption, of material well-being and having the dignity and self-confidence that comes with a satisfactory marriage and high standard of living across the board. These are not Arab issues; they're not Muslim issues.
On the corruption issue, yes, it is, in all six of the GCC countries, an issue. Perhaps no government was quicker than Oman to react on virtually all five of these issues that are mentioned, issues that had echoes in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen. Half the cabinet was sacked within days — not weeks. The issue of corruption was also dealt with through early retirements. On unemployment benefits, Saudi Arabia has used that by hiking them up; so has Oman. Bahrain has the most transparent of all the labor-regulatory authorities anywhere in the six GCC countries, as well as a Supreme Council for Women.
AMB. MUASHER: Perhaps it's not useful to differ over what to call what is going in the Middle East. You can call it an awakening, a spring, an inferno, a winter — a mess. But one cannot escape seeing that this is a transformational process that has resulted so far in four Arab leaders leaving power, peacefully or otherwise — a fifth is on his way out — and protests all over the Arab world, including in the rich monarchies of Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. So there is a process that is starting. Yes, it is a process that so far has better defined what it is against — despotism — than what it is for. So far, it has not articulated what it is for as clearly as what it is against. Mind you, it is not a process that was started by the Islamists. The Islamists were not the ones who went to Tahrir Square at the beginning; in fact, they opposed going. They were not the ones who started the revolution in Tunisia, but they certainly made use of it.
Why? Because Arab governments, in my view, have left the political space closed for such a very long time that the only two alternatives were either an unaccountable Arab government or the Islamists. Naturally, when a vacuum was created, it was filled by the Islamists. I would caution coming to the conclusion that, as a result, the Islamists are going to remain on top. I'm not so naïve as to expect the Islamists to disappear, but it is way too early to decide that this is a region that is going to be dominated by the Islamists.
Maybe in some countries it will, maybe in others it won't. The Islamists, now that they have come down from their holiness and assumed governance, have to answer on specific issues. How are they going to create employment opportunities? How are they going to improve the investment climate? How are they going to reduce government deficits? How are they going to improve the lot of the people and achieve higher and more inclusive growth? These are the questions that the Islamists have to answer now. It is not whether people are going to wear the hijab or not. Go to Cairo and look around. Everybody's wearing the hijab anyway. No one is waiting for the Islamists to tell them to wear the hijab.
The Egyptians are socially conservative, but that does not necessarily mean that they are asking for a theocratic state. In fact, if you look at the polls, Egyptians who want a theocratic state are 2 percent; 70 percent or more are asking for economic action. I don't want to claim, although I have done so in the past, that we have seen the peak of support for the Islamists. I think we have. I don't think the next elections in Egypt are going to see the same support for the Islamists. In Tunisia today, the new secular Nidaa Tunis party is already neck-and-neck with Ennahda in Tunis. That doesn't mean that the Islamists will disappear in the next elections; that loss of support is not going to automatically translate into support for secular forces. Secular forces are still weak, still elitist, do not work on the ground, do not have clear programs, do not have financial means, do not have mobilization abilities, are not consolidated. All this will probably take decades. But I would caution against the conclusion that the Arab world has been hijacked by Islamists for the foreseeable future.