The following is a transcript of the ninety-fourth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2018, with Richard J. Schmierer, chairman of the Council's board of directors, moderating, and Thomas R. Matthair, the Council's executive director, serving as discussant. The video can be accessed at mepc.org.
RYAN CROCKER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon; Diplomat-in-Residence, Princeton University
If you hang around the Middle East long enough, you get to meet a lot of people, and the nice thing about it is that they cycle through your life as one goes forward. I recognize many people here, but two in particular I'd just like to mention as exemplars of good things in terrible times: my former colleague Anne is here. Like me, she is a survivor of the April 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Unlike me, that blast broke just about every bone in her body. Every single person who was injured in that attack and got to the American University Hospital alive stayed alive. At that time I think it was beyond doubt the best trauma center anywhere in the world because they had seen so much of it.
Anne, I will always remember going to visit you, and I just wanted to touch you in some way. With 117 different breaks, or whatever it was, I found a toe that looked whole and gave it a little tug. You never lost your positive outlook, your cheerful attitude that not only sustained you through that trial but reflected off the rest of us. So thank you for that, and thank you for your service far beyond.
Muhammad is another figure from my past. I didn't recognize him, even when he introduced himself. That's because when we intersected, nine months before the horror of the embassy bombing, it was September 1982 in the immediate aftermath of another unspeakable horror: the massacre at the Shatila refugee camp. I worked very intensely as a political counselor in Beirut at that time with some truly great Americans on this end, and we were able to bring him and his brother to the United States. They are two among many, but these things count, they make a difference. We made a difference in your life and that of your brother through the work you have done. Since you've been in this country you have enriched all of our lives. Before I go into my long sequence of doom and horror, I just wanted to get that out there — the small, good things.
On to Turkey and Saudi Arabia — a great subject and let me tell you why. In very real and enduring ways, both countries have been absolutely critical U.S. partners in the aftermath of World War II. Turkey, a founding member of NATO, after World War I, of course, no longer owned the Middle East as they had for centuries before under the Ottoman Empire. But it was always a place of significant influence and indeed advice for us, a critical NATO relationship that was there at the foundation of NATO.
It is a little bit different, obviously, with Saudi Arabia, but that is also an enduring relationship that goes back to 1945. The war was not even over in Europe, in February 1945, at the historic meeting between a very ill FDR and Ibn Saud on the deck of a U.S. warship, the USS Quincy, in Great Bitter Lake. That an ailing president would make that trip at that time and to have the meeting on a ship of war underscored the significance of what happened that day. It forged the enduring relationship with the kingdom and, through the kingdom — the heart of that region — based on the fundamental premise or transaction, if you will, though it became far more than that: oil for security. Oil, of course, had been discovered in Saudi Arabia before the Second World War but had not really been developed. Nonetheless, coming out of that war, we knew that clearly the largest reserves in the world were likely to be located in Saudi Arabia.
So we were present at the creation. These relations go back very far and run very deep. In some respects, one could make the case that it's closer, perhaps, with Turkey because of the NATO membership. We still have the use of Incirlik in Turkey as an air base, which has been crucial to a lot of what we have done and done together against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. It would have been a very different situation for us, for the region, and indeed internationally, had we not been able to base many of our operations out of Incirlik.
Turkey stood with us in Korea and they wanted their troops to go wherever it was hardest. I had a friend in later years who had been in the military. He was of Greek origin and spoke Greek, so was attached to Greek troops in Korea. He recounted a story that he said he saw time after time: the Turks would be given whatever impossibly hard objective there was to go and take. There would be this tremendous din of gunfire, plumes and clouds of smoke, and battle after battle. When the smoke cleared, there would be a Turkish flag on top of whatever the objective was. The point being, don't mess with the Turks.
Fast forward to where we are today, and you can say that if we are not in a relationship crisis with both of them, we've skated pretty close to it. And it could get better or could get worse. For those of you who may be a bit newer to the region than I, bear in mind that, as bad as things look in the Middle East, they in fact can get worse. I'm the poster boy for that. There is no bottom. Again, I underscore here that Turkey, in its post-World-War-I form, is not an Arab land and does not control Arab lands in any occupational sense, but because of its unique position can bring considerable influence to bear on what happens in the Middle East.
When I left the Middle East for what I thought was the last time as an ambassador in early 2009, I looked back with real gratitude for the Turkish role in Iraq at a critical time. We had negotiated a very difficult set of agreements: one on security that served as a framework for our forces going forward, and a much broader political agreement that we envisioned at the time being the basis for an ongoing relationship in Iraq and beyond — something the United States had never had before with any Iraqi government.
The complexity of politics at that time meant that it isn't over till it's over, and even then it isn't over. Foreign Minister Zebari and I signed the agreement in October 2008. By signing it, we closed it. It would go up to the Iraqi parliament for ratification with only an up or down vote possible. The text would not be reopened. We worked hard, and we got that positive vote. But then, because democracies are complicated, there was also the issue of the vice president's signing off on it, one of whom was Tareq al-Hashimi, representing largely the Sunni community. He, I think with perfect reason, had a lot of questions that we sought to answer. Most critically at that time, so did the Turkish envoy with whom we worked very closely. He had a connection that went back years with Iraq, and I have always thought that bringing the vice president finally aboard on that agreement had a great deal to do with the Turkish role. These are things that do not make the headlines, that no one knows about unless you are out there — how personalities count, how histories count, and a little bit about how to try to manage those.
I'm not going to stand up here and take any whacks at a given administration — but maybe I actually will. Again, looking at the moment here, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in a process of significant internal change — in Turkey, of course, with the ascension of President Erdoğan. He has remade the entire politico-military structure inside Turkey, something I never dreamed I would see with respect to the Turkish army.
As luck would have it, I got to be in Istanbul for two of the coups — 1970 and 1980 — so I had a certain sense of the resilience of Turks. The restaurants stayed open, the bars stayed open, and traffic was way down. It was kind of nice, but it also left me with the sense that we're just going to have to live with the fact that the army is never going to be checked by a civilian government. Well, that happened, and continues to go on happening, if you will. So what role does President Erdoğan now envision in the Middle East? I'm not going to talk here about the Kurds because I know that will come up and we can address it later. It's not that I forgot it; it's just something I don't want to try to deal with in these remarks.
So what's the outlook beyond Idlib? Beyond Manbij? These are places no one had ever heard of in this country, but we'd never heard of an obscure archduke in an even more obscure town called Sarajevo in August 1914. There are any number of flashpoints as we look ahead on Syria, and I know we're going to talk about that, too. In the meantime, dust off your Barbara Tuchman book, The Guns of August, the war that nobody wanted and everybody got, and apply that to some of the developments in Syria now involving the Syrian regime, the Israelis, the Turks, the Russians, and you can see how World War I got started. Again, I won't predict doom here; I'll let my colleagues do it and all of you.
As for Saudi Arabia, we no longer rely on their oil, but, believe me, our friends do, particularly in Japan and South Korea, for example. So the question is this: Is our special relationship with these two countries now going somewhere that it has not been since 1945, and that would be somewhere not good? With Saudi Arabia, is it going to be the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, someone that I think probably everyone in this room had some contact with? And the war in Yemen? We've all seen in this building how the Senate has now reacted to that, both the killing and the war. Where is that going to take us? Where is a completely new leadership approach with the ascension of Mohammed bin Salman going to take the relationship if we get over these current challenges? Because this is different.
In Turkey, to a very large degree, I believe that where we are has a lot to do with the Europeans, because basically over time the message from the EU became pretty clear: "You Turks are certainly good enough to be a founding member of NATO, so you can fight and die for us should that need arise, but you are never going to be good enough to join the gentlemen's club of the European Union." I believe, and I put this out there so you can tear it apart, that that had something not insignificant to do with the rise of a politician who could tap into that sense of being dissed by the West, to take the message to Anatolia, not simply the drawing rooms of Istanbul or Ankara, and develop a really impressive, popular constituency, something his predecessors did not have.
The last thing I'll say here, because it's what I know the least about, is the ideological or theocratical differences between the two that we may be seeing play out a bit in the Khashoggi instant. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have an ideology that they support. In Saudi Arabia, of course, it's the Salafi trend, persistently and wrongly labeled Wahhabism in this country and much of the West. It is not new. In Turkey with President Erdoğan, it's the Muslim Brotherhood, which comes in a huge variety of flavors, as you know. One of them would be the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was way off on the far end of the scale — very big on car bombs, truck bombs, bomb bombs and anything else they could make blow up in Damascus, Aleppo or elsewhere, throughout the 1970s. Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifaat cornered them in Hama, and in February 1982 killed thousands of them. Nobody outside this room has a clue, but that had a significant amount to do with the civil war that broke out in 2011.
At the other end of the continuum, I would suggest you would find, say, the Muslim Brothers in Turkey and Iraq as pledged to the system. Indeed, in the case of Turkey, certainly, it is a system through President Erdoğan. So this notion that we should label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization is as dangerous as it is idiotic, quite frankly. Who are we going to talk to in Iraq? Who are we going to talk to in Turkey? If you want to talk about an assault on the democratically elected leader of a NATO member, that would be it, at least in my view. Muslim Brothers in Egypt, of course, eschewed violence years ago, and as the only organized non-state-controlled political apparatus after the fall of Mubarak were positioned to win the elections, as they did. And we all know how that's gone since.
Again, I pose these as questions for my colleagues to address, in particular the role of Islamic ideology in both countries or the lack thereof. It's all completely overstated, but we need to talk about it. It has a lot to do, in my view, with the crisis in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the state of Qatar. I don't know how many Muslim Brothers there are in the state of Qatar, but they have certainly assisted Muslim Brotherhood organizations outside, to the extreme displeasure of the Saudis.
So it is an immensely tangled set of issues we're wrestling with here. My bottom line is this: as frustrating and difficult as they are, they are also extremely important. Do we really want to lurch forward farther into the twenty-first century with our relationships with both of these powers — and they are similar relationships — in tatters and getting worse? Do they? And what's the way forward? Having posed all the questions, I turn it over to my colleagues, who will produce all the answers.
HUSSEIN IBISH, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Weekly Columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and The National (UAE)
The key word in the title of this symposium is rivalry. I think what it gets at is the unstable nature of relations between Ankara and Riyadh, how multifaceted and how changing they are. I wanted to try to kind of describe that, particularly from a Gulf Arab, or at least a Saudi, point of view.
What sets the stage for this more than anything else, as Ambassador Crocker was saying, is the turn by Turkey away from the West and towards the East, largely because of the rebuff of the EU that helped give rise, as you suggested, to the AKP in general, and Erdoğan in particular. Turkey's epicenter of its foreign policy shifted from an engagement with Europe to an engagement with the Middle East, looking back at its former imperial lands and to its fellow Muslim countries in the Arab world and in other parts of the Islamic world.
This is a core element of Erdoğan's ideology, of the AKP's appeal, of the alliance that they have with other forces in Turkey, so the extent to which Erdoğan has ridden this wave and then led Turkey in that direction can't really be overstated. That, of course, has greatly altered the nature of the Saudi-Turkish relationship, exacerbated by the very aggressive domestic and even regional approach that the AKP and Erdoğan have taken since the failed coup of 2016. Every time this process has gone through a change, it has been emphasized. There is a kind of distillation going on here, so it's very important.
What you end up with is a situation where, very recently in the context of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, more than one senior Turkish leader said that Turkey is the only logical leader of the Islamic world. Whether that means the whole ummah or the Sunni ummah or whatever, doesn't really matter. It is really, in a certain sense, a direct challenge to Saudi Arabia, which presents itself as the logical leader — on the grounds of history, geography, custodianship of the holy sanctuaries, and the unstated position, since the beginning of the third Saudi state in the '20s, that only Saudi Arabia has a pure Islamic system relying on the Quran and not on any kind of written constitution and so on. So when you've got a Turkey that sees itself not as an integral part of Europe, but as the only rational leader of the Muslims of the world, you've got a rivalry situation with Saudi Arabia, I think, by definition.
I wouldn't want to try to characterize the way Turkey sees its own foreign policy. I'm not an expert on Turkey, and — though I think my colleagues will do this — it has become very difficult, at least for me, to see where Turkish national interests, as defined by the state, end and the political interests of the AKP and the personal interests of President Erdoğan begin. This is, it seems to me, a fuzzy line. Maybe our colleagues can educate us.
But describing the situation from a Saudi perspective, I'll just tell you how I think Riyadh looks at Turkey, and it will explain a lot of things. I do think Saudi Arabia sees Turkey, first of all, as a rival, another large state in the region with allies, a strong military, and a major presence capable of projecting power that has to be taken seriously.
Second, I think that's offset by seeing Turkey as a necessary balance against Iran. The major Gulf Arab concern since 1979, and particularly since 2003, has been the idea of a hegemonic Iran that is both aggressively Shiite and revolutionary at the same time, and Persian. It combines all these very threatening identitarian qualities that have scared the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE, very greatly. Turkey, under almost any circumstances, looks a lot less threatening than that. So Turkey provides obvious necessary ballast against Iranian influence.
But, at the same time, Turkey is another potential hegemon now that it is looking east. I think that there are places in the Arab world, including in the Gulf, where memories of Ottoman rule are not extinguished, where talk about the only rational leadership of the Islamic world hits hard, where Turkish efforts to cultivate their regional alliances with, for example, Qatar and the Muslim Brothers and others in the region — which I will talk more about — are seen as evidence of this growing potential hegemonic agenda. And of course, the neo-Ottoman rhetoric that sometimes is engaged in by various Turks including AKP people, friends of the AKP, is noticed in the Gulf and it is taken exception to. I think this is more along the lines of a potential issue rather than an immediate one or a real one, but it's very much there.
What's more alarming — and you can see how the Khashoggi murder has brought this last anxiety to the fore — is the idea of Turkey as the leader of a rival third camp in the Middle East. I think almost everyone accepts the idea that there are two rival camps: one is a kind of pro-Iranian alliance, mostly Shiites, also Bashar al-Assad and a few others, Lebanese Christians as well, but mostly a Shiite alliance. Even the Houthis are part of this in a weird way, though they are not Twelver Shiites, but it doesn't really matter. The point is that everyone accepts that there is a pro-Iranian camp, and generally speaking, those opposed to Iran are seen as comprising a second camp, no matter how loose it may be. Obviously, when you've got Israel and the Gulf states in the same general camp, it's not much of one since they don't have relations, even though they are working on building some. It's much less, let's say, vertically integrated than the Iranian one, and that's its real problem. But I think it's fair to say there is a distinctly anti-Iranian camp led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE; you could even look at it as a pro-American camp.
Many people end it at that, but not the Gulf Arabs. The Saudis and the Emiratis would say there is a third distinct camp, the Sunni Islamist camp, led by Turkey and including Brotherhood parties all over the Middle East and Qatar. This is an ideological camp, and that's one of the reasons we have a boycott of Qatar. One of the reasons we're so upset is that we see this group as not loyal to the anti-Iranian cause; it's really kind of Turkish-oriented. I think, while there is a sense that Turkey helps to balance Iran, there is also an understanding that Turkey and Iran historically do not go to war; they are not going to fight it out. It's very hard to imagine a situation where the Turks and the Iranians don't do some kind of deal in any given situation, to share their interests somewhat. This is not making anyone in the Gulf sleep any easier. It's easy to imagine the Turks and the Iranians just splitting the difference at Gulf Arabs' expense, so this is highly alarming.
And when they imagine the rise of a third camp, which is completely beyond their control, it looks like the whole region is fragmenting. It looks like a net loss to them because this camp would not be in the pro-Iranian corner. It ought to be, this thinking goes, part of a Saudi-led, pro-American alliance. But what are the Qataris doing, playing footsie with the Turks? Why are the Turks running around trying to build an alliance? Everyone should be working together in coordination with the United States to offset Iranian hegemony, and this looks like a terrible kind of betrayal of that effort.
Here, I think, is the epicenter of concern right now: the idea that Turkey is the leader of this rival camp. Actually, the thinking goes even further. It's almost always unstated, but there is a deep fear that this third camp, if it exists at all, could evolve into the most dangerous thing imaginable: an alternative to the current pro-American camp of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and a very loose arrangement with the Israelis, the Egyptians and others to stabilize the region.
It's imaginable, from a nightmarish Gulf perspective, that the United States would conclude that this alliance is fundamentally unworkable and dysfunctional and falls apart. Look at the GCC, having completely fallen to pieces over Qatar and with Kuwait even moving away. And I think there is a concern that if the pro-Turkish camp, the Sunni Islamist camp, could become strong enough, you could see it not only vertically integrating, but starting to bring in other countries that are nominally part of the pro-Saudi camp but could conceivably defect. I'm talking here particularly about Kuwait and Jordan. You can imagine a bloc of Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait providing alternative ballast for the United States against Iran in a much more vertically integrated alliance.
You could easily turn around and say Washington is not going to get in bed with a Muslim Brotherhood coalition. The Jordanians are not going to join this. What are you talking about? I'm not talking about reality; I'm talking about an anxiety, but it's very real. It's often unstated, but I would be remiss if I didn't convey that nightmare scenario to you, because it's very much out there. You could see all of this playing out in the context of the Khashoggi affair. I think that tells you where relations are, particularly if you look at how Turkey managed the scandal. It was very deftly done by Erdoğan and his people. Obviously, they saw it as a great opportunity to bedevil and hobble a regional rival, and they did that. Saudi Arabia, in general, and Mohammed bin Salman in particular, were targeted, and the drip, drip, drip of information, the mixing of credible information with the absolutely lurid — it's hard to exaggerate the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but they managed to do it, including live dismemberment, the slow cutting off of fingers — stuff that's no longer at all discussed. The hilarious idea that the whole thing was transmitted live on his Apple watch is just silly stuff, all mixed together to make sure that the story did not leave the front pages for weeks, in a kind of uncoordinated partnership with The Washington Post, which quite rightly considered this a killing in the family and is still hammering away at it. All perfectly understandable.
But at the same time, Turkey did not want to precipitate a rupture with Saudi Arabia. What serves their interest is to weaken Saudi Arabia but not create a total meltdown. So there was never a public accusation against Mohammed bin Salman from senior Turkish leaders; it was implicit or said by anonymous officials in the media. It was always deniable. President Erdoğan has gone to great lengths to shield King Salman from any question. This doesn't really withstand scrutiny because Mohammed bin Salman is not the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in the way that, say, Mohamed bin Zayed is the de facto leader of Abu Dhabi. He is maybe the day-to-day ruler, but I don't know anyone who is serious about Saudi politics who doesn't recognize that the king retains ultimate authority. Major national decisions are not being made against the wishes of the king. And he is not a vegetable who can't be consulted, the way some other titular leaders may be. That's not the situation; otherwise we wouldn't have seen this grand tour of Asia that he managed to pull off recently. Outsourcing day-to-day administration to somebody else is not the same as relinquishing authority.
So when Erdoğan writes in The Washington Post, "I am absolutely sure that King Salman had nothing to do with this and no knowledge of it," hint, hint about his son but not actually saying it — this does not constitute an act of policy, therefore we do not have to break relations with Saudi Arabia — this tells you exactly the kind of tightrope the Turks very successfully danced merrily up and down on with great success. I think they managed to greatly strengthen their hand and greatly weaken the Saudi reputation, particularly that of the crown prince, and create all kinds of headaches for the Saudi government. They also managed to unload Pastor Brunson, who was useful for a while and then became an unbelievable headache — the question became, how do we get rid of this guy without looking like we've caved in to the Americans. This was the perfect opportunity. They release Brunson and get all the credit with Trump. Nobody in Turkey said, "you've caved to the Americans." They all said, "what a brilliant move, what a smart guy you are," so it was perfect. It was like excising a rotten tooth; it was just great.
I'm impressed with the skill with which this was handled. And I think what it shows you is how bipolar — and I use that term advisedly — Turkish-Saudi relations are within the context of this rivalry. They're pendular, swinging back and forth between overt cooperation, particularly when it comes to reducing the role of Iran versus unstated cooperation. If you look at the way their relations have developed on Syria, you can see how it works really well. When the uprising began in earnest, both Turkey and the Gulf countries were supporting armed Sunni rebel groups, sometimes, especially in the case of Qatar, the same groups, sometimes groups that were operating in coordination. There was really a fairly close alliance to try to get rid of Assad. The joint intervention by Iran and Russia in 2015, the saving of Assad by this foreign intervention, the big military surge, and the coup in Turkey all helped to reshape Turkish ideas about what should happen in Syria, emphasizing containing the growing power of Kurds in the southern border area of Turkey and not caring so much about the future of Assad anymore. This was one of the two or three things that kind of killed the ambition of the Gulf countries to get rid of a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus and replace it with a neutral or anti-Iranian regime, taking away this major Iranian asset. The Turkish interest in that kind of went away. And there was a period of near confrontation in Syria when the groups that were supported directly or indirectly by Gulf countries were almost being targeted by Turkey. This was a real confrontation of interest.
I think what you've seen is, under the rubric of a Trump administration policy that's becoming much more coherent in Syria and is focused on doing exactly what the Gulf countries were hoping for — working, first of all, on the ground to block Iranian interests, especially from creating a military corridor through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean — that seems to be out. A year and a half ago, we said that might happen, but it's not going to, largely because the Trump administration is not leaving Syria. But in addition, there's a move by the Trump administration to start a dialogue with Turkey, especially, but also with Russia, to try to see what can be done to squeeze and marginalize the Iranians to make sure that Tehran is not the big winner in Syria and limit their gains. This is all very positive.
All of that indicates the way in which Saudi Arabia and Turkey can still find themselves roughly on the same side. At the same time, you've just seen Turkey enter into a new military cooperation agreement with Kuwait, which, again, raises this fear of a new Turkish hegemony and the emergence of a camp that could even stretch out to incorporate countries most people couldn't imagine being part of it. Again, I mention Jordan and Kuwait as possibilities. It may be fanciful, but when you see new military cooperation agreements, this tends to exacerbate fears. So what we end up with, then, is a kind of bipolar, pendular relationship.
I want to end by thoroughly endorsing Ambassador Crocker's comment about there being no bottom in the Middle East. Things could always get worse. As usual, Shakespeare wrote it best: Edgar in King Lear says, "This is not the worst, so long as we can still say this is the worst." That's always the case.
BÜLENT ARAS, Professor of International Relations, Sabanci University, Visiting Researcher, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
I'm not surprised that I agree with what Dr. Ibish said in his speech. That's the result of rational thinking, but I'm not referring here to the motivation of the Turks or the Saudis. I don't like to carry on this "who's more rational" contest between the leaderships. But I certainly agree with what he said in many areas. First of all, I would like to start with a warning. I believe it would be a false start to evaluate Turkish-Saudi Arabian relations merely as a rivalry. It might rather be defined as concurrent elements of competition and cooperation.
If you go back to AKP's coming to power, it was indeed a development welcomed in Saudi Arabia since President Erdoğan and former President Gul were forced to mend fences with the Arab world. In general, the Muslim world was considered an asset in Saudi Arabia back then. And don't forget, the Saudis nodded to the election of a Turkish professor, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, as secretary-general of the OIC. This would never have happened without Saudi approval back then.
From the Saudi perspective, at the outset, Erdoğan was an asset as a pro-Western Middle Eastern leader, and the Saudis also approved of the fast-growing Turkish-GCC relations back in the mid-2000s. Indeed, I published a piece in Middle East Policy on Turkey and the GCC. Back then, there were bright prospects between Turkey and Saudi Arabia within the framework of the GCC.
The game changer here has been the Arab Spring and the Turkish position on it — Turkish support for, the Muslim Brotherhood movements' right to power and, in general, what has been called in Turkey an electoral transition in those countries. That means political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this position has been almost anathema to the Saudi preference for the pre-Arab Spring status quo.
But beyond the differences in ideology, there was also Turkey's increasing influence in North Africa, in Central Asia, the Levant, and even Yemen. And, as an example of these concurrent elements of cooperation and competition, Syria is a very good one. At the outset, both wanted to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. But later, it turned out that this issue had become a matter of rivalry, or conflict between those they supported. They backed different groups in Syria, while the overarching common goal was still overthrowing Assad.
There had been a brief period after or during the Arab Spring in 2015, after the demise of King Abdullah, when there was a chance of rapprochement between these two countries. At that time, Erdoğan followed a wise policy of increasing his rhetoric of condemnation of Iran. He backed the Saudi position on Yemen, and all he wanted was Saudi support in return in Syria. If you remember early 2015, this Saudi-Turkish position brought Assad to the brink of collapse. But it didn't survive long, mostly because of Erdoğan's reticence to back wider Saudi designs — for example, an Army of Islam against Iran.
This divergence has been very costly to Turkey, although there was a brief period when at least there was a sense that the Obama administration supported the Turkish position. But it's not possible to argue that Turkey's gained much from following this line in the Arab Spring. Syria became a major burden, isolating Turkey from the Middle East. And regional instability and insecurity hurt Turkish interests, Turkish access to Arab markets, and Gulf financing in the wider sense. And on the Saudi side it was a strategic blunder, I believe, to alienate Turkey in the effort to contain Iran.
There is also a UAE factor here. Back in 2011, in particular in the Libya case, the UAE adopted an emotional position against Turkey. Why is Turkey choosing Qatar over the UAE? The UAE has been able to convince Saudi Arabia that Turkey and Qatar are enemies who are open to the Iranian position and are dangerous to pro-Western Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The feelings are mutual. There is widening distaste against the UAE in Turkey. Pro-government circles believe that the UAE was behind the failed coup against the Turkish government — of course, with Saudi approval.
In the meantime, looking at U.S. factors, the leadership of the AKP had a euphoric welcome for the Trump administration. Their perspective was that the new president was going to find common ground with Turkey and Syria. They are going to extradite the Turkish-Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States, to Turkey. And they are even going to take a tougher stance on Syria that will isolate Iran. But Turkey in return got a Saudi-UAE-Trump alliance, which hurt Turkish interests in Syria and which is following a destabilizing line against Iran that will eventually lead to destructive spillover into Turkey. This euphoric welcome has turned out to be a disappointment in a short period of time, and it includes a UAE-Saudi factor.
The blockade against Qatar in June 2017 has also been considered a final move to isolate Turkey from the Gulf, the Middle East and even beyond. That's why Turkey took vital action to provide essential products to Qatar to save it from the Saudi-led coalition. They reinforced the Turkish military presence over there to prevent any kind of action against the pro-Turkish Sheikh Tamim.
At that time there was also Erdoğan's attempt to mediate between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That may be an example of the bipolarity Dr. Ibish was referring to. However, that has been rebuffed by the Saudis as too late. It turned out that the Turkish military presence became a strong part of the Saudi ultimatum against Qatar.
There is also a Mohammad bin Salman factor here, the elephant in the room when it comes to Turkish-Saudi relations. There are many conspiratorial reports in the Turkish media; however, it's true that Mohammad bin Salman himself in March 2018 called Turkey part of an axis of evil, part of a coalition with Iran and Daesh. His outburst was part of the confrontational approach that both sides adopted, and now we see that neither is able to recover — from the Turkish perspective, due to Mohammad bin Salman's decision to eliminate all rivals in the region. His agenda to gather an anti-Iran bloc in the region, his aggressive moves from Yemen to Qatar, and his willingness to ally with Israel have alienated the Turks. They have hoped to co-opt Saudis in their regional policy, but the crown prince's unwavering opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood has left no room for cooperation at the moment.
Going back to the UAE, that state is orchestrating openly anti-Turkish efforts on all possible platforms, from Sudan to Somalia to Washington and the Western capitals. It was never lost on the Turkish foreign-policy elite that the UAE funded a number of UN members in Turkey's bid for membership in the Security Council. This is never going to be lost on the elite because it resulted in the humiliation of a 193-60 defeat. Just a few years earlier, it was the reverse, when Turkey was unanimously elected to the Security Council.
Coming to the Khashoggi case, it certainly helped Erdoğan to gain the moral high ground in regional politics. I think this is the start of a rational discussion that hurts the Saudi Arabia-UAE line in the region. It's not a secret that Ankara would use any possible means to limit Mohammad bin Salman's role in Saudi politics and probably encourage the other moderate elements, if there are any, in Saudi politics. To some degree we hear that the expectation is not to change the Saudi domestic landscape, but some progress will be considered a success in Turkey.
We are referring to a very delicate relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Khashoggi case. On the one hand, Turkey certainly wants to have access to Gulf financing, but on the other hand, it finds itself in the middle of a dangerous Saudi-Iranian rivalry. And there is an emergent rival in Saudi Arabia. So what Turkey can do is to use the Khashoggi case to weaken Mohammad bin Salman but keep King Salman and Saudi Arabia to the side. However, there is a belief that this can work to preserve relations with Saudi Arabia while weakening Mohammad bin Salman's role in Saudi politics and his assertive line against Turkey. It is a matter of time before that can be seen.
However, I am almost 100 percent sure that Turkey cannot put its domestic integrity into further risk by directly confronting either Saudi Arabia or Iran. That's out of the realm of possibility. Erdoğan is playing the Khashoggi case very well, but with a certain degree of caution as well. That's why my analysis of the Khashoggi affair and its aftermath is that it is a negotiation to moderate their rivalry and consolidate Turkish interests in the Gulf. This is aside from the humanitarian tragedy that I wish had never happened.
Overall, the UAE-Qatar rivalry is a major setback for Gulf stability. And the crisis in itself underlines the need to find common ground among the GCC. So in order to have a rational discussion in terms of leadership of change in the region, the U.S. role, et cetera, first there is a need to put the house in order. Then probably we can talk of rationality. If the United States funded or enforced a cold peace, it's not going to bring about the much-needed common action among the Gulf nations and is likely to leave Turkey aside as a regional "other" in Gulf politics.
From my perspective, Turkey and Saudi Arabia need to find common ground on regional matters, which will certainly calm many issues, from the Palestinian question to Yemen. Saudis can play a role in putting an end to the Turkish-Egyptian rift. Turkey can provide a counterbalancing role in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which I believe Saudi Arabia needs very much. If we are talking about working together towards a regional goal, such common ground is a necessity.
I believe there is room for reconciliation between the two major Sunni powers of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Erdoğan's transformation of Turkey may help. Turkey and Saudi Arabia may understand each other better in comparison to earlier times. However, it certainly requires Saudis to distance themselves from anti-Qatar positions and show moderation towards the Muslim Brotherhood. You may think this is not realistic, but the alternative is the abandonment of stability and peace.
Thinking more academically, as a professor of international relations and geopolitics, what I see is geopolitical crimes committed by all sides. I believe, the choice is now between continuing to commit these crimes for authoritarian survival at home — keeping a hold on domestic power — or sacrificing towards a common ground for addressing the crises.
DR. MATTAIR: I think it would be good if we could come out of this meeting with some ideas for the future of American policy. We might begin with an issue that was touched on but maybe not covered enough: Turkey and Saudi Arabia look at the international system and see declining American power, influence, commitment and engagement over the last 10 or 15 years. They consider advice that they've given to the United States that hasn't been followed — for example, King Abdullah's advising the United States not to invade Iran, which then left the door open for Iran to enter the region, and the Turks not being happy about the way the United States enabled the Kurds to have autonomy in Iraq during the 1990s and beyond, and the way the United States did not engage deeply enough in Syria after 2011. To what extent has this changing global picture and the changing role of American power and engagement — at the same time that Russia started to come back into the region — influenced decisions that Turkey and Saudi Arabia have taken that have alienated the other or helped create the disagreements between them in places like Syria and elsewhere, and vis-à-vis Iran, too?
DR. IBISH: Saudi Arabia has had to play a much more robust and forward-leaning role in the region for three reasons. First, because it feels threatened by the rise of Iran and it's not going to fail to act on that, and that's just a circumstance that would have warranted a more robust Saudi regional posture anyway. Second is the collapse of the traditional centers of our Arab power and influence. Cairo is looking inward, Damascus is ripped apart, Baghdad is, from a national point of view, post-apocalyptic almost. So these traditional power centers in the Arab world are nonfunctional; they either can't rule their own territory or, as in the case of Egypt, look abroad in such a limited way that it constitutes an extension of domestic policy. For example, Egypt's concern in Gaza is not really a foreign but more of a domestic policy issue; the same with Libya. There's such a geographical proximity, it becomes very hard to see this as projecting power much further than the border. In the same way, I think Turkey's concern about Kurds, especially in Syria, is, again, almost more of a domestic issue than a foreign-policy issue. Because of this vacuum of Arab leadership, I think Saudi Arabia has had to step up, the UAE too, and Qatar in its own way. There's a vacuum of Arab leadership. And the third is the decreased role of the United States that you pointed out.
In that context, then, I think these three things come together, particularly the relative pulling back of the United States during the Obama administration. But Trump's America-first policies, though they're hard to read, haven't been very coherently defined yet, but they look like extending some of Obama's caution. The last thing you want is another war in the Middle East, and if there's one idea that's consistent between Obama's and Trump's foreign policy it's this emphasis on burden sharing that they both have and that, to Saudi eyes, translates into "fight your own wars."
Now, they've done that in Yemen. All they've asked for is some support, and now they're getting crucified for it. Of course, it's no problem making the case against the Yemen war, both in theory and practice. That's not a problem. I'm just saying, from the point of view of burden sharing, it's problematic to lecture a country like Saudi Arabia ad nauseam about how they need to fight their own wars, and then when they do, get extremely upset and put sanctions on them. I'm not attacking any of this; I'm just saying, think about it in terms of burden sharing, and it becomes very problematic.
Now, the relative vacuum that the United States sets up — and there was a sense that the U.S. was sort of looking into a potential arrangement with Iran that, because of the JCPOA, didn't pan out. And there's real anxiety about not just the American presence but the reliability of the United States. All of this prompts Saudi Arabia to take a more robust role. This is magnified by the role of MBS, first as defense minister and then as the crown prince. Mohammad bin Salman is a very audacious and at times reckless leader. So you combine all of that and you've got, within the limitations of what they can do, a fairly aggressive Saudi regional policy. I think Turkey, since the coup, especially, has defined its interests more narrowly than before. But where they have identified something as a vital interest — for example, preventing the rise of a unified PKK statelet in northern Syria — they have intervened very forcefully to stop it, to the point of almost confronting American troops in Manbij and places like that. It did not happen but was on the brink of happening, and could have happened.
What I'm suggesting ultimately is that the reduction of U.S. leadership and the sense that, at least in Riyadh and possibly in Ankara as well, probably, the United States is not only less assertive but less reliable, creates a situation where these countries — not just Saudi Arabia and Turkey but others — are looking to define and secure their own interests independent of the United States. They are operating in an unstable area where terms of reference and balance of power is being negotiated in real time, and in a fast changing kaleidoscopic environment. That, I think, does exacerbate a sense of rivalry, a sense of anxiety and a sense of confrontation.
DR. MATTAIR: I believe you said that it was actually the Russian intervention in Syria that broke apart the Turkish-Saudi agreement on whom to support there.
DR. IBISH: I said that.
DR. MATTAIR: And that from that point on you had Turkey more concerned about containing the Kurds, and therefore you have a confrontational policy because the Gulf Arabs had been supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG. And that's something that Turkey objects to. That actually has something to do with the relationship and Russia. And who's involved and who's engaged and who isn't.
DR. ARAS: If you're talking about Russia, Turkish-Russian relations or the complications in Syria are out of necessity. When Turkey downed the Russian jet in Syria, there was a brief moment of expectation in Turkey that there was going to be regional and U.S. support to Turkey. If you all want to limit the Russian role in Syria, this was a perfect opportunity. But that did not happen. Early on, when President Obama said that Assad is not a legitimate leader and he must go, up to that point, Turkey did not cease its relations with the Assad regime. Despite enormous domestic pressure, Erdoğan kept the relationship. But after that there was an expectation that the United States was going to do something, which turned out to be a presidential brainstorming or something, an intellectual declaration, and it did not happen.
It was self-help from a realist point of view to ally with Russia to pursue a Turkish military operation against the PKK to prevent the emergence of a wider PKK state over there. That was mostly out of necessity. But when it comes to the Astana talks among Turkey, Iran and Russia, Turkey has a different perspective on Iran in Syria. Turkey certainly wants to isolate Iran in Syria, but Turkey considers Iran part of the solution, too. So there is still a belief that there is room for diplomacy with Iran. So there should be a more complicated, multi-level approach, according to Ankara, against Iran. The Iranian role should be limited inside Syria, but diplomatic law says Iran should proceed to act responsibly in Syria. Will that ever happen? Again, time will tell.
DR. MATTAIR: Ambassador Crocker, do you want to comment on this American-Russian involvement?
AMB. CROCKER: Hussein in particular touches on, I think, a core issue here: What is the role of the United States, not just in this region but globally these seven-plus decades since the end of World War II? We in America created the postwar world order, if you will. The United Nations came out of the San Francisco conference, the postwar international financial order out of Bretton Woods — New Hampshire, not Bretton Woods, France — and, of course, NATO. Flash back to the end of World War I, where the United States was sidelined by the French and the British, certainly in this region, and what we got then was a two-decade truce between two halves of a horrific world war. That's all it was, 1918-1938. With U.S. leadership internationally since World War II, we have seen a world, in spite of things like Vietnam, that has been broadly at peace in a way it never was before.
So before we say, damn, the Senate was right to vote down that League of Nations thing, I wish we could do that again — consider the consequences. If we do not lead, who will? I fear the answer to that is, no one will lead because no one can. It's not that I stay up nights worrying about the Chinese taking over the world; it's that neither the Chinese, nor anyone else, is going to be able even to manage conflict. As we look at what's happening in Turkey and what's happening in Saudi Arabia, we see where this could go. And again, as you so rightly point out, this did not start with President Trump; it started with President Obama. Trump has elevated it to an art form by pulling us out of the TPP and the Paris Climate Agreement and the JCPOA, which, by the way, some in the Obama administration totally oversold, to our peril and loss, by pretending it was more than what it was: a reasonably good arms-control agreement, not a treaty of peace and friendship. That spooked the Saudis, and the rest of the Gulf.
What are the consequences going to be down the line? Saudi Arabia, for example, as you point out, took a look around and said, well, we're on our own here, so we're going to whack the Yemenis because they desperately need it. They let us know, 48 or 72 hours before, military to military to Lloyd Austin, who was then commander of the Central Command. The Saudis weren't asking; they were telling us: We're going in; you've got some enablers we really would like to have, and we hope you'll give them to us; but if you don't, we're going in anyway. For someone of my generation, it was unthinkable that the Saudis would ever be in that kind of position. As you say quite rightly, that may not be where they wanted to be, but it is where they are. The irony of our not having been there at the creation but now saying it's not going well, you need to pull out, is rich. But it's also a reality, if you look at the Senate vote the day before yesterday.
Just a couple other quick things: the Turks and the Kurds. I was very much involved in the run-up to March 2003 as deputy assistant secretary covering the Gulf, attempting to make our efforts in Iraq as successful as they could possibly be. One key element of that was having a northern front to bring the Fourth Infantry Division down through Turkey and into northern Iraq. That didn't happen, thanks to the Turkish general staff, largely, which managed to see that what at first looked like parliamentary approval was actually not. There were not enough deputies to make it legal. We were prepared to give the Turks very wide latitude vis-à-vis the Iraqi Kurds — dangerously wide, in my view, as someone involved in our processes. So if the Turks have encountered problems with Iraqi Kurds, they have only themselves to blame. Had that vote succeeded, it would be a totally different landscape, literally, in northern Iraq. I don't know how widely known it is, but it was highly significant at the time.
The other thing that I'd point out, is that we, of course, have had a long, strong military-to-military relationship with Turkey. Turkey is a major customer for our weapons systems. Right now we're working on an F-35 sale of very large proportions. But if Turkey actually goes ahead with that S-400 air defense system from Russia, I don't think the F-35 sale is going to go. Not for political reasons, but because it would almost certainly compromise our most advanced technologies to the Russians through that system. Don't get lost in the details, but some of these things get very important as we look ahead to what kind of relationship we're going to have.
DR. MATTAIR: Coming back to something you said, Hussein — where do the interests of the state begin and end compared to the interests of Erdoğan? Is there something about the nature of these two states, Turkey having some post-Ottoman grievances that carried all the way through the 1920s until today, and having a different ethnic and sectarian makeup, and being a democratic country, and then Saudi Arabia having some grievances against the Ottoman Empire for the fall of the first two Houses of Saud and seeing itself as the custodian of two holy mosques and having pride in its own form of government, which has taken the country into a modern economy and society. To what extent do these differences in the nature of the state contribute to the rivalry or make cooperation difficult? Then you come to Erdoğan, the man, and MBS, the man. Erdoğan feels rebuffed by the West about not getting into the EU, and is committed to Sunni Islamism, whereas MBS is trying to engineer top-down change and thinks Saudi Salafism is worth defending and that their form of government is worth defending against the different vision espoused by Turkey.
DR. ARAS: I'm not a part of government, so what I say is purely academic analysis. My sense is that Mohammad bin Salman reminds Turks of King Abdullah. When King Salman came to power, it was a very welcome development in Turkey — a less assertive but more rational and wise king. He's going to follow more moderate policies, a rational containment policy against Iran and a wiser Western line in the region. When the power shifted to Mohammad bin Salman, there was what we call in psychology some sort of return of the repressed, these former feelings towards Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah.
In Turkey, there are still secular, urban people to protect Turkey's modernization. Up to the Arab Spring, Erdoğan was also using this as an asset; he's still using it. He and most of his people are products of Turkey's modern, secular system. They are graduates of those universities and the education system. Erdoğan talks about a new generation and so forth, but all those generations are going to be part of the same system. He did not initiate a new education system, new educational thinking. He is mostly trying to consolidate his support bases. But the Turkish state and the modernization experience is going to resist. Erdoğan is not the only leader who can have the majority support. This change from a parliamentary to a presidential system made him the only possible leader for the foreseeable future. So the only way to get him out of the picture was the coup, an undesirable thing in any democracy, and it also failed.
So from Erdoğan's perspective, he has the majority support, but there are still outside powers trying to figure out how to get rid of him. So a survival psychology is now prevailing. But I think he's going to get over it. Don't forget this constitutional change, all the elections, this political rift with the Gülen group. There have been so many wars. One man can fight one war at a time, but Erdogan's fighting many wars. This psychology of survival is guiding him at the moment, and his political elite, which is also sidelining the Turkish state. There is seemingly this difference between Erdoğan and the state, but they are going to converge at some point; otherwise, it is not sustainable.
From an academic perspective, Erdoğan and Mohammad bin Salman can get along, if they can find common ground — if Mohammad bin Salman shows that he can control the UAE and follow a balanced Iran destabilization project. This is what Erdoğan wants to hear now. However, Mohammad bin Salman is an emergent leader, and he made clear that he's going to eliminate all rivals, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood. But Turkey's part of Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan wants not Muslim Brotherhood but an Islamic brotherhood. But he can forget all about it and get along with it, as he did with Putin. In 2015, after the downing of the Russian jet, it sounded like he and Putin will never get along. But now they are talking on the phone on a daily basis. Looking at Erdoğan's practical side and the way he needs to lead Turkey, I see a likely convergence ahead.
DR. MATTAIR: Did I understand you to say that he's pragmatic enough to distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood?
DR. ARAS: I don't share the opinion that the AKP is a Muslim Brotherhood party. That is one color, but there are also other colors that can limit it.
DR. IBISH: The decision-making process in Saudi Arabia has always been murky. It's harder to read than Kremlinology. It's a more complex puzzle; the dearth of good information, knowledgeable sources, and so on, makes it almost a fool's game. I do think, though, we can be sure of two things: number one, MBS, young, audacious, et cetera, has an enormous amount of power. And the degree to which the changes he has overseen in the past two years constitute a self-coup, which I've been calling them from the beginning — since the Ritz Carlton incarceration of rich men — can't be overstated. The old system of Saudi Arabia, which was monarchical and sort of a modern feudalism with different fiefdoms and checks and balances and accountability within the royal family, is pretty much wrecked. There's been a tremendous concentration of power around the crown prince.
But it also needs to be said that the authority for all of this comes from the king. And the king is a noncontroversial figure, relatively, in Saudi Arabia. His authority is uncontested. His right to be king is uncontested. Mohammad bin Salman does what he does precisely because of the sense that he's doing it all under the rubric of the king, that the king has delegated all of this to him. Don't forget, this is a king who has already replaced a crown prince. Crown Prince Nayef was removed and Mohammad bin Salman was put in as crown prince. In fact, even before that, it was done. It is not unthinkable that, from a structural point of view, Mohammad bin Salman would not be the king. However, the amount of bureaucratic power that he has assembled and the apparent commitment of King Salman to his succession means that, in fact, he will be king.
Now, there's a very strange reality in which he can't be king because he's become so radioactive in Washington, and it would be very hard for him to come here — but he can't not be king because he's going to become king. We'll see how they figure that one out. The point I'm making is that while in Turkey it's easier to distinguish between national and institutional prerogatives and political or personal ones, in Saudi Arabia it's all deliberately but systemically and theoretically mixed up. It's an absolute monarchy, so its état is supposed to be moi. This isn't an accident or a weird thing. That's one of the big differences ideologically: insofar as Turkey serves as a model for anybody, the problem is its republicanism. The AKP model is the brotherhood model in the Arab world. It is not exactly a brotherhood party, but it is a Sunni, Islamist and republican party.
DR. ARAS: And majoritarian.
DR. IBISH: I think you're right, and none of that's true of Saudi Arabia.
I just want to say one thing, in addition. You're absolutely right to locate the fundamental contradiction here between Turkey and its allies like Qatar, on the one hand, and the UAE, on the other. The UAE is the party in the region that is categorically opposed, unequivocally, to all forms of political Islam and the politicization of Islam and the Islamization of politics. Any version of that is anathema to Abu Dhabi's perspective and to the UAE's perspective. They are committed to what amounts to secular politics in the region and to the separation of religion and politics. This, of course, is not really true of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, in a post-Arab Spring moment, particularly under MBS, is certainly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, to a very large extent, and anti-Islamist in a more general sense. But you can't have Saudi Arabia standing for a total break between religion and politics. Saudi Arabia presents itself as a religious state, as the custodian of the mosques and as a pure Islamic state, where the Quran is its constitution, so it's not possible.
Second, you could say, what's the difference between status quo Islamic politics and revolutionary Islamic politics, or republican versus monarchical. The point is, there is no clear break in Saudi Arabia the way there is in the UAE.
The third thing is that MBS is not categorically, unwaveringly opposed to all Muslim Brothers, the way the UAE is. The example here is Yemen. Saudi Arabia in the northern part of Yemen, where it has been operating, has been increasingly working with Al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood party in Yemen, that presents itself as part of this wave of post-Islamist groups led by Tunisia's Ennahda and Justice and Development in Morocco, et cetera, who've broken with three aspects of Muslim Brotherhood structure that are noxious and toxic to Arab governments: their revolutionary and conspiratorial nature, illegal, underground, and above all, transnational. These groups say, "Well, we're not revolutionary; we don't want to change the system. We're not conspiratorial; we're not doing anything in secret. And we're not transnational." In other words, Ennahda only comments on Tunisia and Tunisian foreign policy; it doesn't talk about Sudan, or anything. And Al-Islah takes this position. The Jordanian Muslim Brothers take this position. The Moroccan Islamists take this position. It's one that I think, in the end, Saudi Arabia could easily end up living with. It doesn't threaten a return to an Arab Spring or revolution or anything. It doesn't threaten the state. That would potentially be a Saudi perspective. The UAE, I think, would find all of it threatening. So there's a big distinction.
You can imagine that in the next decades, if Erdoğan emerges and is recast as part of a post-Islamist movement lacking those three qualities — the revolutionary, the conspiratorial and the transnational — that Saudi Arabia could become very comfortable with that, potentially.
DR. MATTAIR: Is there a way for the United States to support both of these traditional allies in a way that helps them resolve some of their differences and helps us contain our adversaries? Turkey, for example, would not be happy with an Iranian nuclear weapon. Turkey is not happy with Iran's expansion on the ground through the Shia Crescent to the Mediterranean. How do we harness them together in this endeavor better than we've been doing? And what is it that Erdoğan wants from the Khashoggi incident? Is it going to be necessary for MBS to make some concessions because of the Khashoggi matter? Is it useful for the United States to be imposing sanctions on Turkey and Saudi Arabia if we're trying to bring them closer together to contain our common adversaries, which include Russia, and not only Iran.
AMB. CROCKER: I think we can all be very brief here: What American policy? This has been a very interesting conversation to me thus far. In my remarks I tried to point out that in different roles, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been absolutely critical partners in the post-World War II international order. And I think it behooves us, before we let all this drift away, to go sit under a tree somewhere and consider what our vital interests are, what they have been, and where they're likely to go — and then bring traditional regional partners into the conversation. What does Turkey envision as the gains they would like to make? What are the losses they seek to avoid? Same thing elsewhere. But if you're going to do that, you've got to have a policy, and we're kind of short in that department. It's not just the Middle East; it seems to be pretty well global right now. I go back to that waking nightmare: If not us, then who? And with what consequences, for our own security and for international security? I find that a fairly frightening view right about now.
On the plus side, there seems to be a flexibility and a pragmatism in both leaderships as to who they can live with and who they can't. I certainly garnered from that that we would have a lot to work with in Ankara and in Riyadh, if we had a framework to work from. This isn't helped, of course, by the fact that this administration has not seen fit to move expeditiously, if at all, on things like ambassadorial or geographic assistant-secretary appointments. Almost two years in, you don't have ambassadors in really important places like Riyadh.
DR. IBISH: Good nominee, though.
AMB. CROCKER: Yes. Great nominee, though that does raise another question. John Abizaid, of course, is a career soldier, not a diplomat. In modern times we've sent two career diplomats to Riyadh, both Arabists: Jim Akins and Hume Horan. The Saudis didn't like either of them and both left short of tour. What they don't seem to want in the kingdom is someone with the background and the skills to make, say, the politics of the royal family a little less opaque than they are. Opaque is what they want. I don't think John Abizaid is a fluent Arabic speaker, but he certainly knows the kingdom and the region. Let's see how he does out there. Obviously, this would be the worst possible time for the Saudis to take issue with who we send to Riyadh. He has had agrément, of course, but so did Hume Horan until they found out how deeply he could get into their society.
Not to get lost in the weeds there, but I think what we've done here is to convince ourselves of how important these relationships really are and that we've got a lot to work with, as well as against. But that just gets us back to that overarching question. You can't do any of this without a policy.
DR. IBISH: I think, from the Saudi perspective, the return of U.S. leadership would be most welcome, and there would be a tremendous lot to work with. I'll defer to my colleague on Ankara's perspective, but I think the Saudis are hoping for a much more robust American presence. They've clearly bitten off more than they can chew in some places. In others, like Syria, they were relying entirely on the United States to indirectly pursue their interests. And in Iraq it's got to be a collaborative effort by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and others working politically and financially to incentivize Iraqis to come back into the Arab fold and get distance from Iran — with the United States playing its role. I think Iran has a problem in Iraq when it faces what the United States, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bring to the table. But confronting any of those three on their own, Iran is in much better shape to continue to wield undue authority in Iraq. So it's a good example of where these countries actually need each other, even to succeed in the very limited policies that are being pursued right now. So there's a tremendous lot to work with.
DR. ARAS: I don't know to what extent you are following the developments in Iran, but the destabilization of Iran is a real prospect, with what President Trump is doing. Iran may come on the brink of collapse sooner than we assume. In addition, we need to deal with Syria and Yemen. So there should be a simultaneous policy to stabilize Syria and Yemen. There is going to be an enormous spillover effect to Iraq, to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Central Asia. How we are going to deal with it? These tough guys, the powerful leaders, agreed on destabilizing Iran, but how they are going to handle it?
DR. MATTAIR: Is that a policy for reducing Iran's influence in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, by destabilizing Iran?
DR. ARAS: But I don't know what's going to happen afterwards. There should be a policy to deal with it, but there should be simultaneous policies to work harder on Syria and Yemen, to at least handle that one. A signal from Saudi Arabia, from the United States that there is a clear policy on Iran, as well as a renewed engagement on Yemen and Syria is going to persuade Ankara to get on the board with all those initiatives. But before seeing the agenda or future policy on Iran in Turkey, Turkey is going to try very hard like we have seen with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
DR. IBISH: Can I add one very quick thing? It's worth saying that a strong U.S. engagement, a strong assertion of American leadership would be so welcome in Riyadh, that if there were, over a short period of time, a re-establishment of trust and confidence in the United States, the United States could even shift to trying to be a balancing power in the region, with success and with the backing of Riyadh. What makes it so hard is not that U.S. policy isn't pleasing; it's that there's no confidence. If there's confidence and trust, you could have even a more challenging policy and be successful.
DR. MATTAIR: I've tried to reflect a lot of the questions that came out of the audience here, but there's one I want to read, for Ambassador Crocker. If you were to write a new version of the perfect storm memo, what would your central, main warning be to the new administration?
AMB. CROCKER: It would be pretty much what it would have been with the previous administration. I know this getting repetitive, but it's important enough to repeat: Do not cast aside American global leadership without some very careful consideration of the consequences. We've talked about that in the Middle Eastern context. Well, take a look at Europe, and the rise of forces of an extreme right-wing orientation. I'm, among other things, on the Broadcasting Board of Governors; we oversee Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, all official USG civilian media. We have restarted our Hungarian-language service through Radio Free Europe out of concern for the way the current government seems to be controlling individual and press liberties. You may have seen the stories over the last couple of days on how they are shutting down their own media now. Why is this important? Because horrific things have come out of Europe in the 20th century: two world wars and the Holocaust; both are still in living memory. Do we really think that kind of thing can never happen again, that we have reached the end of history? Frank Fukuyama wishes to hell he'd never written that book and has been honest enough to say so. Yes, our post-World War II effort was directed at containment of the Soviets, but a subtext was European unity, not just against the Soviet Union but European unity under U.S. leadership to structurally start to develop the institutions and the orientations that would make a return to that kind of conflict and genocide impossible. We can see now how possible that might get. It isn't just the Middle East. It isn't just the Middle East and Europe. By abdicating in East Asia, the Chinese are building new islands every day, which they're using now for air and sea basing.
So again, my message would not be on the Middle East except by example; it would be on the world. What kind of world do we want to see, and what are its implications for us?