The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-second in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Thursday, October 14, 2010, with Thomas R. Mattair presiding.
Director, Middle East Studies, U.S. Marine Corps University
Today I am speaking on my own behalf and not as a representative of the Marine Corps University or any other government institution.
I have been involved in the Gulf region as a political adviser to the Saudi Arabian Mission at the United Nations on Middle East issues, specifically Iran, and this perspective has made me reflect lately on the work of Edward Said, particularly his famous book Orientalism. I think we're institutionalizing the Orient as something to make statements about, to structure in our own perspective. Said took it one more step, saying that this helps us to have authority over it. We talk about the Middle East; we describe the Middle East; we talk to the Middle East; we talk at the Middle East. But we do not talk with the Middle East. The question arises whether it's possible to approach as equals an area whose very name comes from our narrative: the "Eastness," the "Middleness" both come from our perspective. The power relationship has not changed much since the colonial period, and that power relationship also affects how we look at it.
Second is the question of whether the United States is a reliable partner or a problem to be managed. The gap between the two answers is bigger depending on whether, say, it is the Saudis or the Iranians who reply. I'll focus on Iran and include some comments on Afghanistan.
For some Middle Eastern countries we, the United States, for better or worse, are one reason they are still there. So whether we are a reliable partner or a necessary partner, without us their survival may be very hard. For some others, the United States is the cause of pretty much every problem. If anybody listened to the speech made by President Ahmadinejad on his current trip to Beirut, and especially the accompanying speech by Mr. Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, you heard that even the rain that falls in the Middle East — or doesn't fall — is directed by the United States.
Sometimes when I speak to our Middle Eastern partners, I wish we had the kind of power that they ascribe to us, or 10 percent of it. They actually do think we change weather here and there to affect their crops. It's fascinating the role the United States plays in the Iranian psyche. The United States has become part of the Iranian narrative, and that is a very dangerous thing. Part of my research has to do with how narratives are written and how people view a reality. Whether it is reality or not is unimportant. Once you create a narrative, it becomes your reality. Sometimes you can make it sacred. And once you make it sacred, you can even use violence to preserve it. You will feel that violence is justified.
In the case of Iran, the United States is not just the "evil empire." Right now, they don't use "the great Satan" as much; they use "the global arrogance." This has become part of what drives the Iranians — not only the government but also the society. I'm not saying it is always negative. It is fascinating how this dynamic works. The country is obsessed with greatness. Listen to any Iranian speech maker, not only Mr. Ahmadinejad, and there is this absolute obsession with greatness. Iran is a great country that has to be recognized as a great country. They tell it to President Obama; they tell it to their neighbors: Iran will control the Middle Eastern oil economy.
Some scholars say that you have to look at the internal Iran and Shia Islam mingling together to understand their sense of destiny. On the one hand, it's fatalistic. On the other hand, it harkens back to Cyrus the Great. In Iran, history is always before you. It's carved on mountainsides. Those of you who've traveled to Iran know what I'm talking about. It is like Egypt or Jerusalem. You can't avoid history. You walk, it's right there. But there are two Irans, the public and the private — the government and the society.
The idea here in Washington is that, while the Iranian government hates us, the public loves us — as opposed to the Arabs. In general, while most Arab governments like us, the Arab public does not. That's kind of a simplistic view, of course. But for the Iranian government, while we are a problem to be managed or defeated, they also look at us as a reliable partner.
Why do I say that? Go back to 1980, the first year of the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran. What is the biggest challenge to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? It's internal; secondly, it's Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When Iraq invades Iran, Khomeini manages to crush most of the opposition, but he never really has a victory. As Khomeini said, famously or infamously, he drank from the chalice of poison to accept their cease fire, which still stands. Iran and Iraq are technically still in a state of war. They don't have an agreement on the border.
So Saddam Hussein was a general menace to Iran. A second, outside of the Iranian border, was the Taliban — not Afghanistan per se, a very weak country — but the Taliban and its ideology of Sunni resurgence. And, while the Arabs are always seen in the Iranian vision as beneath contempt, Iran cannot be great without Afghanistan being part of its sphere of influence. It's impossible. Those of you who know Iranian history, look at the Shahnameh; "The Book of Kings" tells us Iranian history. It's The Iliad or The Odyssey of Iran. Most of the locations mentioned in the Shahnameh are not in modern-day Iran, but in modern-day Afghanistan.
So, if you don't have Afghanistan in your sphere of influence, you can't be great. You can't be called a world power, as Ahmadinejad terms it. But until a decade or two ago you have Iraq and Afghanistan both at odds with Iran — one attacking their territory and causing one million or so losses, one killing their diplomats. Who gets rid of both of them? The United States. Look at it from the Iranian perspective. Two of the greatest enemies they have — the very powerful Saddam Hussein and the weak but ideologically and historically significant Afghan government in their narrative — are just wiped out overnight, by the same power that they consider an enemy. Are we a reliable partner, or are we a problem to be managed? They're also managing us. Our invasion of Iraq was a gift for them. They have no more Saddam Hussein. For the first time in years, you have the heartland of the Arab world now democratically controlled by the Shias. And the Iranians are trying to play a bigger role. As we look at Iraq's future, how the Iranians play that game will be one of the most important strategic balancing acts in the Middle East.
We all look at Afghanistan. We look at the Arab-Israeli issue. I always say that what happens in Iraq will be crucial, and I'm not talking about decades. How Iran plays this game in the near future, and what the reaction is from other Middle Eastern countries, namely Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent Turkey, will be very important. The Iranians are managing us also because, when we were in the Iraq War, they were killing our soldiers.
Guess what they do in Afghanistan? Those of you who know about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, draw your own conclusions. On the one hand, in Herat they do a great job. Herat is the safest major city in Afghanistan and the most functional. Herat is the only place in Afghanistan where traffic lights work and people actually do stop. When I go to Afghanistan, I'm less worried about bullets than about being hit by a vehicle in Kabul.
The point is that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Iranians play an amazing game. They are one of the most reliable partners to the Afghan government, while they're also supporting the Taliban — the very people who kill our troops and our allies. They are playing this game amazingly well.
Some Iranians see us as "liberators." There's also a notion here in this town that a kind of fifth column will "clear" Iran. I think that's a wrong assumption. I don't think we know Iran very well. I mentioned the sacredness of narrative. In Iran, certain narratives have become sacred. For example, the role of nuclear weapons in the Iranian psyche may now be developing into a sacred cause.
If this happens, it becomes a narrative not just of the Islamic Republic or the regime; it becomes an Iranian narrative. It becomes part of that "Cyrus the Great" narrative, a continuum of greatness over all their enemies. Look at how they incorporate Islam into their ideology. They are more Muslim than anybody else, yet they think Arabs are half human, at best. You take the Arabs' religion, you take their language, you take their alphabet, yet you look at them as half human, at best.
As for where the United States stands in Afghanistan: whether we are a reliable partner or a problem to be managed, the title sticks very well. Mr. Karzai can't survive with us, and he thinks he can't survive without us. So, on the one hand, we are a reliable partner. He is there by the grace of NATO. At the same time, our being there is a problem that he has to manage. If we withdraw, I don't think the Europeans will stay on alone. Three of the people killed this morning were not Americans. They are from our NATO partners. Every day, all of us together are shedding blood there. Without us, what will happen in Afghanistan? It may continue, as we saw when the Soviets withdrew their forces in 1989 and President Najibullah continued for two more years. But the situation will most likely change. Every other month or so, Mr. Karzai goes on a rampage about how we are destroying his credibility, but we are both a reliable security partner and a problem to be managed.
The Middle Eastern friends of ours have to take some responsibility. This is still lacking on the government and personal levels, in my view. But the waters move much slower there than our fast-paced media like to believe. We want things to change suddenly because we have a change in administration or a handshake. We say, "Oh, there has been a handshake between the prime minister of Israel and a Palestinian leader, so tomorrow everything will be great." It's not going to happen like that. But I think for most of the Middle East, the United States remains both a reliable partner and also a problem to be managed.
President, Arab American Institute; author, Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters
I want to take a look at this in a couple of different ways. Instead of beginning with the U.S. role, I want to look at the region itself and the transformations that have occurred over the last several decades.
Amin is correct in the way he describes the history that brought us to where we are today. But the term I use to describe this situation is that the Middle East has been a "subordinate reality" for the West. More than being seen as an invaluable partner, the West has viewed the Middle East as a region to be managed — and manage it they did, though not always responsibly. From the Sykes-Picot agreement that cut the region into pieces to the creation of borders and lines and the establishment of regimes — this was the handiwork of colonialism. As a result, the region lost control of its own history. It lost the ability to shape and define itself, and some of the problems that we're seeing today remain problems emanating from that loss of control.
There was, for example, the issue of oil, which has defined much of our relationship with the region. Then there was the Cold War, and with the Cold War, a choosing of sides. Not always were the wisest choices made, but there was an effort to stabilize the region around the rivalry with the Soviet Union and to see everything in the region through the prism of that conflict. So if we became an invaluable partner, or if they became invaluable partners of ours, and if they became a region to be managed, they were partners and managed in an effort to forestall Soviet penetration into the region.
That defined Middle East reality for decades. I was flying to Kuwait the day that the Berlin wall was torn down. I was on a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt with reporters from NBC who were on their way to cover it, and there was tremendous excitement — what were they going to find when they got there? — and a sense that there was something momentous occurring. I got to Kuwait and it was a different setting.
I found myself at one point in the office of the crown prince. I was talking to him about my experience on the flight. He was looking out the window lost in thought. He turned back to me and I said, "It's enormous what's happening." He looked back and said, "Yes, it is momentous, but what will it mean for us? What will happen to us?" Of course, we saw not a long while later what happened to them was that the lid came off, and the stability that the Cold War rivalry had produced was undone with the invasion of Kuwait.
There was the sense that the rules had all changed, and one could behave differently. There was this jockeying for power. One of the ways we dealt with that, not so wisely, was what we called a dual-containment policy. It actually was a containment policy everywhere in the region. We tried to keep the lid on everything that had happened in the period up through the Cold War. We didn't mind the Iran-Iraq War. They were killing each other; we were playing games with both sides. It sort of contained things for us. It didn't get out of control for us.
At the end of that, there was an effort to keep it under control again, to sort of keep both Iran and Iraq in a headlock and hold things in place. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, they'd come to a momentous decision on their own. They were unable to move any further, but as far as we were concerned, we could manage with that. We spent a decade saying, "You guys have had a problem, and you're now recognizing you want to solve that problem. Go off and solve it yourselves." We knew full well that they couldn't solve it themselves. But it didn't matter to us. It was manageable, and everything was stable as far as we were concerned.
The status quo continued. There was turbulence underneath the surface, but we were dealing with it. What happened, I think, in the Bush administration was, whether by decision or not — and some suggest there was a decision to sort of blow the lid off and see where the pieces landed — the damage done by those decisions and behaviors are playing out today.
On the one hand, the region has not changed. It still feels a loss of control, an in ability to define its own reality. I agree with what Amin said, that there are decisions that have to be made by the leadership in the region. I was asked by somebody in the administration what I thought was going to happen at the Arab League summit. I said they will do what they always do: make non-decision at all, try not to irritate folks at home, and try not to irritate you, so that the no-decision becomes a decision.
They view it as sort of escaping the bullet. It's actually a way of displaying their weakness — and it's a weakness that they acknowledge. They don't know how to make a decision. They don't feel they control what the impact of any decision would be — either to suspend Palestinian-Israeli negotiations or to say, "we're not going to be a part of this," or to make the decision and say, "we should go forward with this," without any confidence that it will produce a result.
That's kind of the situation we're in right now. The United States, having upended the apple cart and dug a very deep hole, finds that the holes are all interrelated. I think Amin did a wonderful job of showing how interrelated they are: in the process of overturning the regime in Baghdad, we ended up emboldening Iran and fueling extremism in the broader region. We also ended up hurting our own legitimacy in the region and affecting the legitimacy of countries that have been working with us, creating the very conditions for the panel session that we're dealing with today: the United States is now going to be, in the mind of the Arabs, a problem to be managed.
In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince Abdullah once described the United States in a parable about the guard dog that was hired to protect the sheep that turns out to be a wolf and is eating the sheep. The farmer doesn't know what to do. Does he get rid of the guard dog or acknowledge the fact that he still needs the dog to protect against an external enemy? Some in America might find it a crude way of describing the relationship, but the reality is that the Saudis need us and the Saudis are afraid of us. The Saudis are still dealing with external threats, some of which have been exacerbated by our own behavior.
They're also dealing with internal turmoil, again, exacerbated by our own behavior. I always find it striking that part of our political rhetoric has been that the reason for extremism in the region is the lack of legitimacy of Arab governments. People are resisting their own governments, and that's why extremism exists. In fact, in all the polling we do we find something quite different. It's American policy that produces the problems, and it's the countries that are the most closely allied with the United States that have the greatest legitimacy problems, because they are strong supporters of us.
Two stories come to mind. I was in Jordan when Liz Cheney tried out the line that was later to be made famous by our secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice (in a speech she gave in Cairo a short while later). Cheney noted that for the last 60 years we've made a mistake in this region in the way we've applied our policy. There was a gasp in the audience; people thought, "Oh my God, she's going to acknowledge that the United States erred in its dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict." But instead, she said that the mistake was that we've supported regimes and dictators against their people. That was not what the audience had expected to hear.
I thought to myself, "She's in Jordan; King Abdullah II is one of our allies. She is undercutting the legitimacy of one of our few friends in that region. Does she understand the consequences of this?" When, a year later, President Bush was on a famous flyover to Jordan to meet with Nouri al-Maliki — he was trying to solve some problems we were having with the Iraqi government — Bush was greeted at the airport by the king. Bush was at the height of his unpopularity. America was in the depths of its popularity. We were in trouble in that region. This kingdom was the one place we could land to meet with the Iraqi prime minister. American favorability ratings were 5 percent. You don't get congressmen running for reelection in America wanting the president to come into their district when his favorable ratings are under 50 in their district. Bush had a favorable rating of 5 in Jordan, and the king was meeting him at the airport to help arrange this meeting with Nouri al-Maliki. The risk the king took to himself, to the legitimacy of his government, and to the relationship and partnership we've established was enormous, without any recognition on our part of what price he and other leaders in the region pay for that relationship.
Similarly, I can tell you a story about Saudi Arabia. Jonathan Alterman and I met with some members of the Majlis as-Shura, asking them questions about reform. One of the people we asked said, "I love your reform, and I think your president's advocating democracy is such a good thing." The question was why. What do you mean by that? He responded by saying, "It undercuts the legitimacy of our king, and they have betrayed Islam and Arab values. They've sold out to your country and to Zionism and its designs in the region. So any effort you make to delegitimize them helps us make the changes we want to make."
That is a view that has to be acknowledged, and the consequences are of significance to the discussion that we're having today. I also want to look in some detail at the perception side of it — that Arab governments have one view of the United States in this role, and Arab people may have a different sense of it. I think some of you may know the polling we've done over the years, where we look not just at America and its standing in the region, but at how Arabs view the American people and American values and a whole range of issues involving America. Largely, the American people and culture and values are far more favorably rated than our policy, which is very low and drags down attitudes towards everything else.
As we were approaching the 2004 election, we were paying special attention to this to see how it would play out in Arab public opinion. It was interesting that, after the election, there was a drop in favorable Arab attitudes toward the American people and our values, et cetera, largely because the policies they had given us a pass on appeared to them to be ratified in an election that they found disturbing.
As we got to 2006 and the numbers continued to drop even further, it rose to a worrisome level. In 2007 and 2008, as we began to gear up toward a presidential election, our polls revealed enormous interest in that election. In effect, they saw in the Arab world how we would respond to six or seven years of policies that had made a relationship more complicated.
I did a panel with CNN International. We did the polling for them that found striking attention paid. To some degree, they knew the candidates better than the American public did, their policies and issues, and they were following the campaign fairly closely on television. And then we got to the general election. It wasn't just our election. It was the world's election. People all over the world understood their fates were somehow being decided by the choices that we made.
After the election of Barack Obama, there were tremendously favorable ratings for the new president. At the same time, there was the sense that no president really can make a difference. So there was hope in the person, but not in the position. As we continued to poll, the president's numbers spiked at the Cairo summit. Immediately after that, there was a decline, and a validation that the person doesn't matter. The policy doesn't change. There's something quite distressing in that.
I remember the editor of one of the largest papers in the region, whom I met with before the election as I was getting anecdotal evidence to be able to better talk about the polls. I asked him who he hoped would win. He said, "I don't want to tell you, and I don't want to hope. I've been let down too many times before, and I'm not ready to be let down again." So there was this sense that they wanted change. They no longer wanted to feel like jilted lovers, who had good feelings about America but felt that the feelings weren't returned and that the policies demonstrated that.
The impact of our culture in the region is profound. The impact of globalization is everywhere, from kids in Saudi who wear basketball jerseys and Yankee baseball hats, to folks who go to Starbucks in Jordan, not because the coffee's better, but because they want to buy a little piece of America. We don't export product; we export a way of life, and people want it. But there's a sense that, as important as we are in defining contemporary culture, the best they can do is buy a piece of it at Starbucks. What they can't do is get the respect and the policies they had hoped for, and that is what fuels extremism.
It is a promise — I believe a false promise — that those violent actions or extreme attitudes can give a restored sense of power over a situation that is out of control. In that context, Ahmadinejad is a fascinating character. He's like a Middle Eastern Farrakhan. As Ron Walter — one of the most wonderful people I've had the honor to work with in the last 30 years — one time described Farrakhan to me, "He is the measure of the depth of black alienation from white America." When he's outrageous, it's not just the angry nationalist youth who feel empowered and smile; it's the upper-class African-American attorney or doctor who gets a smile on his face and says, "stick it to 'em, man." When he's attacked, it validates that alienation and empowers him and emboldens him more. Farrakhan would always look for a way to be outrageous, knowing that, as he threw that tantrum or made that disgraceful remark, it would only provoke the Establishment to come down on him, which would only reinforce the sense that he spoke for the anger and the alienation of his people.
Ahmadinejad knows the same thing. He looks for openings to be outrageous. He looks for ways to create provocation. He looks for ways to play to what he knows is there: a profound alienation and a profound sense of anger at the West, and also a sense of not being in control. He creates an illusion of control and power that enhances his own popularity. It would be nice to be able to say, if we just ignore him, he might go away. But if that won't work, what also won't work is to play into his game and establish ourselves as "us" versus "him."
In some ways, I think, Israel and its leadership and Ahmadinejad almost need each other. They play off of each other. He reinforces their narrative of vulnerability, and they reinforce his narrative of the powerful crushing the vulnerable of the Earth, who need to be liberated from oppression. Their narratives play off of each other, and the consequences of the game are great, but what the game is all about is winning over those alienated and angry young and not so young folk throughout the entire Middle East who are listening to this play out and choosing a side. Frankly, right now, I think our side is not playing it all that well. Ahmadinejad has to some degree found an opening and is looking for ways to play a rather dangerous game. But he's playing it rather effectively.
I thought his behavior in Lebanon was, on the one hand, disgraceful, but, on the other hand, incredibly smart, given what he's trying to do: to provoke and to create disruption and to create a backlash that will only fuel even more the sense of being aggrieved. There's a two-sided part to this game. He is trying to gain some broad support in the Arab world, but the fact that he entered so decisively into a sectarian Lebanese context might play against him in some corners of the Arab world. The question will be this: Is the outrage against the West going to be greater than the outrage against him for siding with one sectarian faction in Lebanon against what remains at least in its own community, a fairly popular government in Lebanon with Sunni leadership?
The bottom line is that, on both sides, America is viewed as a necessary partner and one to be managed, and the Arabs are viewed by America as partners that they still want, but partners that need to be managed. Neither of us has figured out how to make this relationship work. But there are many consequences, especially since the end of the Cold War, that have only made the situation worse and dug a deep, deep hole for our leadership in all parts of the region. We have a more difficult problem on both sides of this equation than we've ever had before.
Research Fellow, CATO Institute
The last time I participated in a discussion here was a few days before the start of the Iraq War. If you have time, do glance through the transcript of that event, In the Wake of War. I did. And to demonstrate my sense of humility, let me quote from the conclusion of my comments: "I have a feeling that in another 10 years, we will recall all this talk about a Pax Americana — or an American Empire in Middle East — in the same way we are now reminded of all the nonsense we have read, and written, about globalization in the 1990s. One more intellectual fad that was oversold, and then over-run, by events."
But it takes time for us to be able to face reality. It is interesting to recall that, as the sun was setting on the British Empire in the early 1950s, members of its political elite continued to live under the illusion that Britain remained a paramount global power. And that perspective was shared by many non-Brits.
In fact, a while ago I discovered an old atlas from the early 1950s. It showed a huge British Empire colored in red. Very striking! I was teaching at that time a course in international communication. So I asked my students to do a content analysis of major newspapers. We discovered that both Britain and France were being referred to in the 1952 press as Big or Great Powers. This was at a time when both countries were economically bankrupt and dependent on American financial support and military protection. It was the fiasco of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 and the ensuing retreat from what was left of their empires that made it clear to everyone that Great Britain and France had ceased to be Great Powers.
The time lag between the effective end of the British Empire and the recognition that, indeed, it was all over proved to be quite lengthy. The concept of "recognition lag" is familiar to economists. It refers to the gap between when an actual economic shock — a sudden boom or bust — occurs and when it is recognized by economists and central bankers, and government officials signal its end several months later.
Like changes in economic conditions, changes in the global status of nations are not always immediately obvious, even to politicians and generals and the journalists who cover them. That domestic and foreign elites continue to share such misconceptions about the nation's ability to exert global influence has do with the power of inertia and wishful thinking, as well as with the way vested interests try to maintain the status quo.
I am not comparing the global status of the United States today to that of Great Britain after World War II. Based on a comparison of the economic and military power of the United States to that of other players, the United States is still the only remaining superpower. We are talking here about a relative decline in geostrategic and economic power. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the U.S. military is overstretched. The financial meltdown was a reflection of the economic problems.
But, not unlike the officials, lawmakers and pundits of London in 1950, their contemporary counterparts in Washington in 2010 resist adjusting their nation's foreign policies to the changing global balance of power. This may explain why so many members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment seem to be so depressed in the face of the Obama administration's current difficulties in dictating global developments. These range from the military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, to Iran's nuclear aspirations and the deadlocked Israel/Palestine peace process to the stalled negotiations on global trade liberalization (the Doha Round), the efforts to reach an international agreement on climate change and the global financial imbalances between the United States and China.
Where is U.S. leadership on this or that global policy issue? they ask. Why can't the Obama administration "do something" to resolve this or that international crisis?
In a way, what has been described here as the U.S. being "a problem to be managed" may have to do with the way that the recognition lag affects the perspectives of allies, partners and client states, including those in the broader Middle East. By the way, most of them — with the exception of Turkey but including Pakistan — are client states of the United States and not allies.
This is twilight time or nightfall in the international system, as we are shifting from the unipolar moment of the United States to a softer multipolarity. We are probably already there or getting there. President Obama has been managing this transition through a policy of muddling through, reflecting the growing constraints on American power. This tends to confuse the domestic and foreign players that have been programmed to expect certain American responses to global developments. So it is not surprising that these allies, client states and the many rent seekers that follow in their footsteps are disappointed when their expectations are not fulfilled, whether these are the schemes of the Bush administration to remake the Middle East and impose American interests and values on the region, or whether these are the plans of the Obama administration to engage the Arab and Muslim worlds and bring peace to the Holy Land.
By the way, American power has always been constrained. But now, during twilight time, the obstacles — economic, military and the pressures of the bureaucracies, Congress, interest groups and public opinion — are even more daunting.
Ironically, it is during the height of their power that hegemons and empires become entangled in growing webs of commitments at home and abroad. They are under pressure to extend even more economic and military support to allies and clients and to juggle commitments among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, or Israelis and Palestinians, or Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. The end result is that these waning hegemons end up losing even more power, influence and credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. It becomes a vicious circle.
Now, after the initial confusion over American policy and after they recognize the changes in the balance of power, foreign governments and players in the Middle East and elsewhere respond by trying to hedge their strategic bets. This is exactly what, say, Turkey or Japan have been doing. Indeed, the new foreign-policy direction that seems to be embraced by Turkey is not an indication that its government is pursuing an anti-American agenda or embarking on a civilizational confrontation with a U.S.-led West. My guess is that a present-day Ataturk would have embraced a similar hedging approach in response to such developments as the failure of Washington to help bring Turkey into the European Union, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the evolution of an autonomous Kurdistan, and the strategic vacuum in the region that was created in the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S. hegemonic project.
It seems to me that the recognition lag in the Middle East is probably going to be shorter than anywhere else. Political survival is the name of the game there, and the one-night stand is the most familiar modus operandi — call it Chalabism, Jumblatism or Asadism. The Hashemites, the Saudis, Kemalism, Zionism, and the Arab state system have all lasted longer than most of the other regimes and movements of the twentieth century — longer than the Soviet Union, for example. My guess is that, as they sense that the United States has ceased to be "a reliable security partner," these veteran Machiavellians will adjust to the new reality, and sooner rather than later. In that context, the big dogs will do better than the small ones.
Israelis are certainly the ultimate Realpolitik buffs when it comes to their relationship with Washington. They would scoff at the notion that the United States and Israel are allied in the cause of spreading democracy in the Middle East. After all, their government has been strengthening its military ties with China despite U.S. opposition. Israelis are not "pro-American" because of their commitment to Jeffersonian values, but because they have concluded that their interests and those of the United States seem to be compatible. But, again, they see this "special relationship" not as a marriage but as an affair. And, like any affair, it could end.
Indeed, there was a time when Israelis were pro-Soviet and pro-French. In 1948, Stalin's Soviet Union was the most enthusiastic supporter of the establishment of Israel. It hoped Israel would be a leading anti-imperialist post in the Middle East, while Secretary of State George Marshall pressed Harry Truman not to recognize the new state, warning that it could harm America's position in the region. Moscow recognized Israel immediately after the state was proclaimed and provided it with arms. It took the Americans more than a year to grant de jure recognition to Israel, on which they imposed an arms embargo. At the height of Russia's love-fest with Israel, the expectation was that the new state would remain neutral in the evolving Cold War.
Then Israel had its French kiss. It was France that served as Israel's main source of arms in the 1950s and early 1960s and helped it develop its nuclear arsenal. Israel was then embracing a European orientation and forming close ties with an emerging Franco-German bloc to help resist U.S. pressure to end its nuclear program. The Israeli alliance with France reached a peak in the aftermath of the 1956 campaign to oust Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser from Suez. Their interests were seen to be compatible as the French tried to suppress the Nasser-backed struggle for independence in Algeria. But after Charles de Gaulle's decision to grant independence to Algeria, the relationship between Israel and France cooled. They soured after Israel rejected the aging French leader's advice not to attack Egypt in 1967. It was only after Israel's 1967 victory over Egypt, a Soviet ally, that the intellectual predecessors of today's neoconservatives started popularizing the idea of Israel as an American "strategic asset" in the Middle East.
In conclusion, I think that the more important topic we need to discuss, sooner rather than later, is "American Perspectives on the Middle East." In some respects, American intervention in support of foreign governments and groups tends to encourage them to engage in risky behavior whose costs end up being paid by American soldiers and taxpayers. It could be considered a case of moral hazard. It doesn't advance the interests of the United States or even its client states. This raises two questions: Is U.S. intervention in the Middle East promoting American security interests, and is the Middle East a problem worth managing?
Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, CSIS
I was struck by Amin's conception that this construction — whether the United States is a reliable security partner or a problem to be managed — is on the one hand too broad, and on the other simultaneously true at both extremes. That's an interesting sort of tension. How can a question be too broad, and yet, its opposite proposition be true?
I think this tells you a lot about the nature of this problem. You've heard all the speakers talk about it. Part of it has to do with us and with our role in the world. When the United States burst onto the scene in the Middle East in the 1940s, it was a breath of fresh air. After more than a century's worth of intervention by colonial powers such as Britain and France and, in many cases, more than four centuries of Ottoman imperial rule, the United States held out the promise to the Middle East of a better, postcolonial future. The United States sought no territory. We had no regional allies. Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" talked about self-determination, and President Franklin Roosevelt promised to dismantle the infrastructure of global imperialism. We were something totally new and something people wanted to bring into the region.
By the end of the century, the region's enthusiasm for the United States, as you may have read, became a little bit more restrained. I think Jim Zogby has been polling on that for a while. The United States had its own set of interests and allies and its own logic for action. Consistent U.S. support for Israel was only a part of this equation. Savvy rulers in the Middle East had come to have disdain for what they saw as a persistent American naiveté in dealing, not only with friendly governments, but also with regional opposition groups and external foes.
You can go and meet leaders in the Middle East who say, "You guys just don't get the Middle East. You're so naïve. You're doing all the wrong things. I'll tell you what to do with these guys." And then they don't quite tell you what to do with them. It never quite amounts to a policy. It ends up as a critique of the current policy, but not quite another policy of its own. On the one hand, I think these leaders have a point: Pax Americana in the Middle East hasn't been such a good bargain for the countries in the region. You've had three Iraq wars: the Iraq war between Iraq and Iran, the Iraq war between Iraq and the United States and the international coalition over Kuwait, and then the Iraq war of 2003 — a persistent Arab-Israeli conflict and an arms race that's drained, literally, hundreds of billions of dollars from the regional coffers.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the status quo in the Middle East has been remarkably durable, securing the rule of friendly regimes from east to west. Arab states scarcely mourned the demise of the shah, and the last friendly Arab leader to fall was King Idris of Libya in 1969. If you talk about the leaderships, what their interests are, and what they want the United States to do for them, the United States has largely done what they most need the United States to do, which is to secure their rule vis-à-vis their own publics and vis-à-vis their external enemies.
What the United States has not done is move the region toward a better future. There's been a great global debate about whether U.S. power is declining, but from my own perspective, the debate hasn't been as serious in the Middle East. When I talk to leaders in the Middle East, both people in government and academics, I get a sense that there's really not the same attention that you hear in Asia or Europe. The prevailing view in the region isn't that the United States is unable to do what needs to be done in Iraq, or in Palestine, or against a whole range of regional challenges. Rather, the United States doesn't want to do what needs to be done. The question isn't U.S. capability. The U.S. ability to do things is overwhelming, compared to any regional actor or any other set of external actors. Instead, the question is American intention, American will and American commitment.
What we have from a U.S. perspective is a series of governments that are, in many ways, dependent on the United States but wishing they had more influence over U.S. decision making. This doesn't strike me as an especially surprising position for a Great Power to be in, nor an especially worrisome one. While I'm sympathetic to their criticisms in some cases, it seems to me that U.S. policy is largely appropriate, reflecting U.S. interests and U.S. politics, first and foremost. Some in the Middle East have said, "What we have to do is change the mix. We have to change the game. We have to reach out to rising powers to either supplement the United States or, sometimes, replace the United States."
The most common object of attention is China, a country with rising energy consumption whose dependence on Middle Eastern energy is rising, as well. Many in the Middle East see in China the same sort of refreshing disinterest in regional politics that they saw in the United States in the mid-1940s. China steers clear of the internal politics of the region's states. It opposes any state's domination of the region and seeks positive relations with everybody. In China's approach to the Middle East, many in the region see a balancer against the United States. Through having this balancer, they would also have a sort of fulcrum against which they could exert more influence on U.S. foreign policy. But the people who advocate this view haven't spoken enough to the Chinese. The Chinese have absolutely no interest in playing that role.
Chinese scholars see, on the one hand, that the Chinese future is increasingly tied to Middle Eastern energy. At the same time, they see that tie as a persistent source of vulnerability for China. Chinese strategic thinkers keep talking about the need to diversify China's sources of energy and are constantly frustrated that the energy is in the Middle East, which is precisely where they don't want to go. If they need additional sources of energy, they need to get it from where the energy is now, and that's the Middle East. Not only do Chinese strategic thinkers see the Middle East as a source of constant instability; they also see it as part of the American imperium. The U.S. ability to project military and diplomatic force in the region is unequalled, and many Chinese see themselves at the mercy of U.S. policy.
China's desire is to have positive relations with everybody, but Chinese decision makers have no illusions about their ability to either shape the region or draw any ally away from the embrace of the United States. They also see themselves in absolutely no position to provide the kind of security that the United States guarantees to its allies.
Tactically, China tries to reach out and pick up distressed assets, to make small agreements that the United States and its allies are unwilling to pick up, at low prices and for purely mercantilist reasons. They tend to pick up assets that people say are just too dangerous. We don't want to be in Sudan, right? It's too risky. But Chinese oil companies will go to Sudan and all kinds of other places because they feel that's where they have a competitive advantage: in their ability to take risks. At the same time, China's willingness to sacrifice its ties to the United States on behalf of some trading partner in the Middle East or beyond is absolutely zero. Time and time again, when the United States has gone to the Chinese and said, this is really serious, do not sell this, the Chinese have stopped.
I think that's a recognition that for China, the key strategic relationship in the world is not with a small, regional power. It's with the United States. We always think of the United States as an Atlantic power because we think about our heritage in Europe. But we keep forgetting that the largest U.S. naval presence is the Pacific Command. We are fundamentally a Pacific power, and the Chinese never forget that for a minute. At the same time, China's been a tremendous beneficiary of U.S. efforts to maintain security and stability in the Middle East. Chinese leaders share a discontent with many in the region, and many in this room, at Washington's management of regional security affairs. Yet, the United States has preserved the free flow of oil and protected the very regimes on which Chinese energy demand is reliant, all at a very, very low cost to China.
China has only very occasionally played a larger role in regional security. It recently contributed peacekeepers to Lebanon, its first commitment of troops that far afield. It has three boats doing anti-piracy off the coast of Somalia. I think it tells you something about Chinese power projection that having three boats so far away from China in non-combat operations is about as much as the Chinese can sustain, in terms of projecting their power. Compare that to the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, and you see a huge disconnect between the ability of the United States and China to project force into the region. China's military activities in the Middle East, if you take them as a whole, are clearly intended to do what? To reinforce the status quo the United States is trying to reinforce.
This isn't the China of the '60s and '70s, looking to promote revolutionary movements all over the world. China is fundamentally a status quo power. The United States is fundamentally a status quo power. And China's interest is in reinforcing the U.S. strategic role in the region, rather than in undermining it. Overall, I think China has had a remarkably unsentimental approach to the Middle East. This sometimes stands in contrast with the emotional overtones of Middle Easterners looking at Great-Power relationships. China has been willing to be an effusive flatterer, but it's consistently reluctant to put its interests at risk. It is locked into the status quo with the regimes in the Middle East.
Looking forward, it seems to me there's little chance the United States won't remain deeply committed to the Middle East for decades to come. Securing a stable, uninterrupted flow of oil at reasonable prices has remained a high priority for the United States, and promoting the stability of friendly regimes has consistently been an important means to that end. U.S. interests in the Middle East go far beyond energy. The United States maintains a strategic interest in the security of Israel. In addition, the global U.S. defense posture is increasingly concerned with devising effective methods to combat terrorism and other forms of asymmetrical warfare that are often tied to conflicts or grievances arising in the Middle East. Other interests also help shape our posture in the region, from nonproliferation to non-oil trade and beyond.
While I hope that skepticism toward U.S. policy diminishes in the Middle East, as, indeed, it has a little bit since the election of President Obama, I'm hard-pressed to imagine when it might go away. On a host of issues, sentiment in the United States is simply different from that prevailing in the Middle East, and that different sentiment will produce different policies. In many cases, of course, there isn't a separate Middle East policy, so much as a Middle Eastern critique of an American policy. This isn't surprising, but it does suggest to me the difficulty of meeting regional desires. In fact, to my mind, what the region's governments seek is U.S. consultation, and out of that consultation, wisdom will emerge. It's the U.S. job to be wise, and it's their job to act in ways that protect their rather vulnerable countries' interests. There remains no better way to do that than to maintain those governments' close ties to the United States.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council; author of Global Security Watch—Iran: A Reference Handbook
Amin started out with how we talk about the Middle East and to the Middle East, but not with the Middle East. Jon just finished by saying that leaders there seek to be consulted, and that out of that, wisdom will emerge. On a recent trip to the region, I heard the same thing repeatedly: Arabs feel some resentment that they were not listened to when they advised us about Iraq and that they're not being listened to now, with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I'd like the panelists to explore that. Leon said that our influence is declining, and that if we cease to be seen as a reliable security partner to Israel, it may move in a different direction. How do we resolve this? Arab leaders are offering us reasonable ideas about how to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict — the Crown Prince Abdullah initiative of 2002 being the best one. How do we deal with the fact that we may be losing our ability to bring that about?
DR. ALTERMAN: The only issue in the Middle East isn't the Arab-Israeli conflict, and one of the things that I've recently done, not only a couple of weeks ago, but on a longer, more focused trip in the spring, is to talk behind closed doors to Arab leaders about what to do about Iran. I've had this conversation for several years. The fact is, there's no policy toward Iran. There are critiques of American policy, but there's no policy in any state toward Iran that I can see. There are critiques of American performance, of American strategy, critiques of American language. But there's not a constructive way forward.
The Abdullah initiative, the Arab initiative of 2002 on Arab-Israeli peace, as you pointed out, was an interesting and focused opportunity, but it doesn't constitute a policy because there wasn't really a concerted effort to push it forward and sell it, and it hasn't been integrated into a broader series of patterns. It illustrates Jim's point about the Arab League's not being able to make itself into a coherent international actor.
One of the advantages of the United States is also one of its weaknesses. We don't do anything completely coherently, because everything we do is a consequence of the interagency process, which is full of compromises and deals and bringing in ideas from lots of places. So everything ends up being an amalgam of different ideas. When you try to pull out what the actual theory is, it often gets muddled in the deal making. That being said, we can execute, right? When the president makes a decision, he signs off and it goes out, and you have organs that know how to act and have the capability to act in a series of focused ways. What I think often happens in the Arab world is that neither individual governments nor Arab governments collectively have any executive capacity.
Where Arab governments are often exceptionally good is in individual deal making. The Qataris have played this role, and other governments have occasionally played a role in brokering agreements. But in terms of enforcing or executing or all those other things in the range of government activities, I think the Arab world is generally not very competent. It can't do sustained policy execution.
On the other hand, it is often very critical of the United States, in both the decisions that are made and their execution. This disparity is a reality. You can lament it, but I think it's an enduring part of the landscape of the region.
DR. TARZI: I totally concur with Jon. There's an Arab League back in Cairo, but, with all due respect, we still give it much more credence than it deserves. This allows, as we just heard from Dr. Zogby, for that lack of policy to become a policy and an excuse in both the international and domestic realms. It should have gone away with Mr. Nasser.
DR. HADAR: First of all, when talking about the Middle East, you referred several times to "they." The Middle East is a big region, including many countries, many civilizations. During the Cold War, everything was much more structured between pro-American and pro-Soviet regimes. Today, it's a much more confusing mosaic, if you will, that exists there. The United States remains as the only power — because of the collapse of the Soviet Union — that has to deal with many of these problems. The United States is still a superpower, but there are many more constraints on the ability of the United States because of its economic and military decline.
We hear that it's almost the best of all possible worlds in the Middle East today, but that is not the case. The second Gulf war and U.S. policies have resulted in the emergence of Iran as a major power in the region. Turkey has been revising its policy. Iraq is still a mess. And the United States has major problems in terms of dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli issue because of domestic constraints and changes that are taking place in the region.
There is clearly much more radicalization of the Israeli and Palestinian publics. This has made it much more difficult to achieve something that was almost achieved in 2000, the height of America's unipolar moment, when you had relatively moderate leaderships on both sides. Today, that is not the case, and it's much more difficult for the United States to achieve anything. I empathize with President Obama. He faces these problems and has to deal with the reality as it is, including his need to get reelected, for example.
I do think that we are entering into a new era. But as far as China is concerned, I think Jon's analysis was a little bit misconceived, in the sense that what the Chinese are doing at this point is watching and enjoying what is happening to the United States. It is getting more entangled in the Middle East, and there is no need for the Chinese to do anything. The United States is creating its own problems in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the Chinese are just waiting. There was a very interesting story a few months ago in Afghanistan. I don't have to tell all of you how much blood and treasure the United States is pouring into Afghanistan. At one point, the Afghan government was going to make a lot of money in a deal with one of the new industries and they picked the Chinese, not the Americans. So the Americans are providing security protection, now, for Chinese businesses in Afghanistan. I think the Chinese are probably quite happy about that.
DR. ZOGBY: We do a lot of surveys in the Middle East, and we do a business-confidence index. What we find is, increasingly, a sense that businessmen are looking East instead of West in making their five-year plans. They still see the United States as a critical economy, as one that they're deeply invested in, but it's easier and, in their view, smarter and safer to do business in the East than in the West. They are the growing economies of the world. And without becoming apocalyptical here, Lenin's imperialist war is probably going to be the one that we fight with China before the end of this century. When you go to Saudi Arabia and visit an office supplier, he has 500 computers that he just ordered. Four hundred of them have a Hewlett-Packard label, and the others have no label. They're the exact same computer. Chinese companies are making them for an American company, selling them abroad. At some point, they just take off the company label and put no label or their own label on it and market it. At what point in their decision making do they decide, screw the HP label completely? Let's just sell it; it's our market, not yours anymore, and the rivalry accelerates?
Let me just comment on, "talking at, not with." That's what my book is about — Arab Voices. It's about the fact that we do talk at and not with, and the result is that we both don't listen. We shape policies based on what we think and what we think they think, instead of what they really think. The president was absolutely right: we have a set of policies in the Middle East that are based on an imagined region, not the real region. They have the same problem, looking back at us. I try to deal with this issue, and I think it's important.
In light of that, let me just make three observations about some of what was said. There is an Arab world, Amin, and it's real. It's one I think we have to recognize. One of the myths we have is that, on the one hand, they're all the same and so, why bother. Like Raphael Patai, we can write about the "Arab mind," or like, Tom Friedman, we can dismissively write about "Mideast Rules to Live By," as if they're a bunch of violent, angry, untrustworthy fanatics. It's shocking. When Friedman wrote that article, I thought if you put "black" in there instead of "Arab," nobody would have published that piece. Yet, there it is. It was a way to absolve Bush's really bad decision to go into Iraq. He wrote it in 2006, at the point when the Iraq Study Group was doing their work, and he's saying, in effect, "Mr. President, it's not your fault they didn't understand the gift you gave them." Very disturbing.
The other myth is that they're so different, there's no Arab world at all. But in our polling, we find that there is one. There is an incredible variety of views about culture, about life, about appreciation of their own country and values, from Morocco to the UAE, to Lebanon, to Egypt. Whatever country you look at, there is this amazing diversity. But there is a commonality of political concerns that is striking and that cannot be dismissed. You have this insatiable interest in Palestine, which has become an existential issue. Does anyone deny that there is a Jewish community? Of course not. And we understand the reality of it, forged, in some ways, out of the Holocaust experience. Don't forget that American Jewry opposed the creation of Israel, in large measure, and thought it was a bad idea. Reform Judaism was a counterpoint to Zionism. The Holocaust and the '67 War, to a great extent, created this sense. Jews looked at people very much like them going through this trauma and said, "There I am." Arabs feel the same way about Palestine. It is not a Holocaust, to be sure, but it is "people very much like me." When we ask people why they're interested in Palestine, they say, "They're Arabs like me."
It is the wound that doesn't close, that doesn't heal. It is, in fact, an issue that binds Arabs together. Even here in my community, my uncle years ago made a horrible mistake. Being Lebanese Maronite, he decided that during the '82 invasion, he would go to a local synagogue and thank them, in a public address, for having freed Lebanon from the PLO. He completely lost his base at the church and in the Maronite community. People felt a sense of outrage. My brother called me at one point and said, "I'm at the bakery here. It's weird. Kids we grew up with are now Arab-American. They've become Arabs over this thing." That was the situation in the Arab world. You can deny the reality of that, but you do so at your own risk. I think we've made a horrible mistake in denying it.
There are feelings that are deep and real and cannot be denied that create an identity that is a political force in the region — not just about Palestine, but it is a central issue. It's an existential, almost defining, personal issue in people's lives. I would also add that there is some significant change afoot in the region. As Rafik Hariri said, years ago after the Arab League summit, the importance of this summit was that it changed the possibility of talking about peace in the region. He said, "If 10 years ago, I had said, I recognize Israel and there should be two states, I would have been an outcast." Now, the question is not, do you support it, but how do you make it real and just for everybody. In our most recent polling, we find in almost every Arab country, three-quarters of the people support two states. They don't believe America is committed to making it happen; they don't believe Israel is committed to making it happen. But they support it.
What they don't support is a West Bank-only settlement. They support a comprehensive settlement, like the one the Arab League talked about, that has to include the refugee issue, that has to include Jerusalem, that has to include secure borders — yes, for Israel, but also for Palestinians, to give them access and egress. They're not willing to solve a problem in the West Bank and let Gaza go or let refugees stay refugees forever. They understand the broader Arab narrative and not just the way it's defined here — "let's see now, if Fayyad succeeds and there's a good economy, maybe we could just morph that into a state, recognize it, and that will put it away." That won't work, so let's understand that there is a solution, there is an Arab acceptance of that solution. There is a deeply felt need to have that solution — but on terms that they find acceptable, not just those that we define as acceptable.
On the issue of Arab paralysis, I think it is rational decision making. What's the choice? I was sitting with a minister in Kuwait, and the day before, the Clinton administration had bombed northern Iraq, taking off from the Gulf and flying over Kuwait. The next day, they called off the bombing and stopped it. The minister said to me, "We didn't know it was going to happen. And when it stopped, we didn't know that was going to happen. Nobody talks to us." If you're in the UAE, you have 500,000 Iranians working in Dubai, Iran is one of your major trading partners, you have umpteen flights going back and forth from Tehran to Dubai every day, you've got a nut job on the other side of the water, and you count on the United States to provide stability. Yet U.S. policy amounts to a kind of a meandering as if you don't know from one day to the next what we're actually doing or saying. We're engaging; we're not really engaging; we're focusing on this. It's all the nuclear thing because Israel's the number-one ally in the region — but on Iran's other involvement in the region, we'll take a pass on that. And they're looking at a situation in Iraq that can devolve into regional chaos at any point, and there's no sense that we know where we're going with it. What do they do?
When you sit down and talk to them in private, of course, they tell you, "I wish you'd bomb the hell out of the guy and get rid of him." They want the problem to go away. Do they have confidence in the fact that we can make a decision? They don't. On the issue of our policy, we're supposed to be the people who produce a rational decision-making process that produces policy that works. Iraq? Did somebody really think that one through and say, "Oh, I've got a really good idea; let's do this and in six days it will be over. It will only cost us $2 billion. In six months, our troops will be out. There will be flowers and candy in the street. Democracy will bloom." If you're a vulnerable state in the Gulf trying to figure out how you approach the United States and what to do, I'd say there are some real questions about the country you rely on to be a rational decision maker.
It's almost like an abused child dealing with an abusive parent thinking, I can handle this one. I depend on him to bring the food home. I'm wary of what he's going to do. He's very unpredictable, especially when he starts to drink. But let me see if I can manage this problem. I think today's topic was well-put, and it is indeed the situation that the region finds itself in.
Q: Can the United States be a reliable security partner? There was a recent study on the cost of U.S. forward deployment into the Persian Gulf looking at the period from 1976 to 2008. For the past two decades, about half of the Defense Department's budget has been going towards this region. Other studies put the number much lower, maybe only 10 percent of the budget. But, these are huge sums of money. Should we go back to some sort of offshore balancing, or completely rely on the small Gulf states?
DR. HADAR: I am very interested in this topic. If you go to the Cato website, you'll see that we have done a lot of studies on related topics. To actually expand on what you said, one of the interesting things is that the United States does not get most of its oil from the Middle East, contrary to what people think. They think that the United States gets most of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Actually, Americans get most of their oil from domestic production and from this hemisphere. One of the biggest suppliers of oil for the United States is Hugo Chavez, our great Venezuelan friend, which demonstrates our ability to make a distinction between a commercial and a diplomatic relationship.
If you look at the cost that you pay today for gas at the pump and factor into the price of oil the cost of American security interventions in the Middle East — in the name of securing access to oil in the region — it's very much higher.
Of course, people say, it's not really access to the oil for the United States. In some respects, the Europeans and the Japanese are more dependent on oil from the Middle East. But the United States needs to make sure that the region remains stable so the global economy will not collapse. That's an argument I want to see an American president make to the public: Let's do more in the Middle East in order to ensure that the global economy remains stable. That's a very, very complex argument that I think most Americans are not going to buy into. One of the arguments that should be made is, indeed, why are the Europeans and the Japanese and the South Koreans — all those economies that actually get more of their oil from the Middle East — not contributing to spending on defense?
One of the reasons France and Germany have that famous six-week vacation and a great health-care system is because they don't spend on defense. We provide them with security, which allows someone like Sarkozy to go around saying that we need to do something about Iran. By that, he means that the United States should go do something, because they are not going to do anything.
Q: How do you think the United States should approach the problem of Iran over the next 25 years and in terms of its policy toward Arab nations?
DR. ALTERMAN: It depends who "they" are. I think Zogby International just did some polling for Shibley Telhami that argued that most Arabs don't see a nuclear Iran as a problem. In fact, many Arabs see a nuclear Iran as actually adding to stability in the Middle East. I would defy you to find a single minister in a GCC government who would endorse that view. My own sense of Iran is that the future course of Iranian behavior is going to depend largely on things that we can't directly influence. We can play on the margins, but the most profound influence on Iranian international behavior is the price of oil, and that has a lot to do with global demand and Iraqi production. I can't tell you what Iraqi production is going to be in five years or what Asian demand is going to be in five years. But my sense is that the most dramatic catalyst — the international price of oil — is not directly under the control of the United States.
If you want proof that it's not under our control, all the people who said the Iraq War was for oil should look at the price of oil before the Iraq War and the price of oil after the Iraq War and see how we played that one out — not so well.
DR. ZOGBY: Those numbers that Jon cited on Iran represented a shift from the numbers we had the previous year. My explanation is that it's the "screw you" factor. What happened in the couple of months right before we did the poll were the flotilla crisis in Gaza, which fueled a lot of anger across the region, and the NPT meeting here in Washington, which provoked the sense of a double standard. So is it Arab public opinion saying, "We want Iran with a bomb," or is it public opinion saying, "We know who's got bombs; we know it's not fair; we understand that you don't like it; therefore, we like it"?
I think that has to be factored in. Jon's absolutely correct about the fact that there's a disconnect between the thinking of the leadership in the region about Iran, despite the fact that there are ties that they have to maintain. They live in the neighborhood and have to deal with a crazy neighbor. At the same time, you've got public opinion playing out the Farrakhan factor. Perceptions become real and a part of politics and have to be understood.
DR. MATTAIR: So for the public, in part, it's a reflection of disappointment with our Arab-Israeli policy.
DR. ZOGBY: It's disappointment-plus. It's a visceral reaction to their own feelings of vulnerability that are reflected in or manifested by the Arab-Israeli conflict, a sense of betrayal that is played out in that conflict. It's all of that combined. And when I say it's existential, it's a personal issue for people. They don't view it as a foreign-policy question. It's a personal issue, something that, in part, defines them. When you see the feelings that are created in the region by the war in Gaza, it is not simply another war happening someplace. It's something very personal that shakes people's lives.
DR. ALTERMAN: The analog is the way many Americans feel about 9/11 and attitudes about Muslims and the Arab world as a consequence of that.
DR. ZOGBY: Good parallel, Jon. New York is a cultural hub. I sometimes wonder if 9/11 had happened elsewhere…. But there is something about Manhattan, about New York, about the cultural symbol and how because of Hollywood, et cetera, New York has become a defining symbol for America. In some ways, Palestine is the same kind of thing. Arabs who have never been there, don't know the first thing about it, couldn't tell one village from one another are affected. Palestine, somehow, speaks to an Arab consciousness and has to be dealt with.
DR. TARZI: I think the key country for Iran is not the United States, it's Russia. Russia is, with the nuclear issue, with natural gas and oil, the key country that looks at Iran with interest. If Iran could become a normal state — not a U.S. friend, but a country that the world could deal with without sanctions or vulnerability from an economic meltdown — Russia would lose its controlling power over oil and gas to Europe and elsewhere. If you look at Iran strategically, from an energy perspective, there's no other country in the world that has a more strategic location. It has access to the Caucasus through Armenia and Azerbaijan; it has direct access to the Caspian. And normalcy in Iran means, also, that Russia finally has to come down and do something about the Caspian legal regime. Iran also has a direct line to Central Asia through Turkmenistan. Going south, it has access both to the Persian Gulf — but outside of the chokepoint of Hormuz — through Chabahar, right into the Gulf of Oman. I think it may be in Moscow's interest to keep the Iranian cauldron, not boiling but simmering, for a long time to come.
Q: What happens if the two-state solution fails? And what can the United States do about Iran's not playing a more constructive role in the region?
DR. ZOGBY: I dare not project failure; I am not optimistic about success. But if there's failure, I think that you simply have a long dragging out of what has already been a long, dragged out series of hardships. People adapt in ways that are not always positive on both sides. But I do not have an outcome. I know there are those who talk about one-state and apartheid and whatever. I haven't the luxury of projecting one of those outcomes. It's too devastating to imagine. I'm not hopeful or optimistic about the two-state solution being accomplished, but I dare not even imagine if it fails.
DR. HADAR: Iran, notwithstanding its Islamic regime, has national interests that any regime that would come to power in Iran is going to pursue. Because of its civilization and history and so on, Iran is going to probably become, with Turkey and the Arab countries and Israel and so on, one of the major players in the region under any scenario, especially if it were more integrated into the regional system.
DR. TARZI: Things are not stagnant in the Middle East or anywhere in the world. Things change. Right now, we look at Iran mostly from a 1979 perspective. It's hard to imagine, but Moshe Dayan came to Iran as a hero after reconquering Jerusalem. Iran could change. Right now, members of this regime are exaggerating what Iran has. If you take the nuclear aspects out, Iran's conventional forces are extremely weak, but what you hear sounds as if they are about to conquer the world. Their air force is nonexistent. They are literally faking missile tests. But Iran is accepted in the region as very fearsome. The best thing, sometimes, is to say nothing. They are acting as if they can give protection. They tell the Saudis that they're going to give them safety — kick out the foreigners; we're going to be there. Iran is projecting power mostly through proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan; being much closer, they can do it, as well as in Lebanon.
Unfortunately, it is terrorists, not a military force, that we are talking about. When you hear Iran's statistics, they have "bases" in Zimbabwe and Bolivia. In Zimbabwe, there is an Iranian helicopter that does not fly. But there is an amazing ability to exaggerate these things. The nuclear option will change realities on the ground. That's why it has become so central. Conventionally, Iran is not a threat. But as we just heard, I think Iran has a great place in the region. It is a civilization that's been there for thousands of years. Read your Bible. It will be here again.
When Iran says to the Saudis, "We're going to manage the Gulf for you," that sets off alarm bells. It has to be based on mutual trust, rather than managing the Gulf for the rest of the GCC. I think Iran will come out of all of this, as it has done before. In Iranian history, this is not even a page.