Michael Hayden, Daniel Bolger, Dafna H. Rand and Francis Ricciardone
The following is an edited transcript of the seventy-ninth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 20, 2015, at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, with Omar Kader moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
MICHAEL HAYDEN, General, U.S. Air Force (ret.); Former Director, Central Intelligence Agency; Former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Former Director, National Security Agency
What is going on now in the Middle East, and particularly in the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, I would nominate as the single most complicated problem I have seen in 40-plus years of government service and retirement. I think we're actually seeing epochal change. And it's causing such a disturbance in the force there that we see the vibrations in places like Ottawa and Sydney and Paris.
Over the last year or so, I've taken to pointing to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and how artificial its boundaries were. They were indifferent to local realities of culture, history, language, religion and economics. Those boundaries were sort of flash-frozen and kept in place for about a century by the raw application of power. First it was imperial power. Then the two superpowers during the Cold War, as those states lined up on one side of the ball or the other. Neither of the superpowers wanted a client to do something that would draw it into war, so the boundaries remained inviolate. They remained inviolate for another decade or two through the raw power of Arab autocrats.
It's not been a good decade so far for Arab autocrats, and with their removal, all those forces that were bottled up are now coming out. It's like we're opening a Coke can that's been shaken for an entire century.
Our society has its own issues and tensions, but we have institutions elastic enough to deal with them. Even when they turn ugly, we face them and take our game to the next level. That has not happened in this part of the world for the last century. And all these tensions now are exploding onto the scene with terrible destructive power. Iraq is gone, Syria is gone and Lebanon is gone. They aren't coming back. We may see a single seat at Turtle Bay in New York at the United Nations for something called Iraq, but in terms of the nation-state system, I think the dissolution in those countries is irreparable.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has commented that what we're seeing now in the Levant is the equivalent of what Europe saw in the Thirty Years' War. If you think about European history, in the middle of the seventeenth century, it went from one equilibrium to another. It took 30 years to get there, and during that time, about one-third of the population of Europe died.
Today's cast of characters includes Al-Baghdadi of ISIS and Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but even if we were able to replace them with St. Francis of Assisi, this is going to be a very bad situation for a really long time. It is generational.
Even definition of the problem is at variance. We look at the issues now spinning around and say, the big problem is ISIS; then you've got the Assad regime; and, frankly, the Kurds are our friends. The Turks take that taxonomy and say, the biggest thing we've got to worry about are the Kurds, then it's Assad and, well, we'll get to ISIS directly. The changes are fundamental.
About two-and-a-half years ago I began saying that, of the potential outcomes in Syria — at that point we were able to focus narrowly on Syria, given the degree of American involvement or lack of it — the best one was for Assad to win. The other two were for ISIS to win or for nobody to win. In the latter two cases, we would have an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe for years on end.
There are basic forces at work here: Arab and non-Arab; moderate and extremist; secular and religious; democrat and autocrat. I think, though, that if you step back and look at how this region will now self-organize as it comes out of this tumultuous period, the dispute that will form the axis of how this is resolved is, almost certainly, Sunni-Shia. That will become a fundamental organizing principle as we go forward.
I'm a career intelligence officer, but nothing I have said to you is a secret that needed to be stolen. Nothing here is the product of espionage as we traditionally know it. You recall the grand debate we had here domestically: what did the president know, and when did he know it? What did Jim Clapper know? What did Jim Clapper tell him about ISIS? Actually, I don't think that's a very interesting question. Fundamentally, what's going on here doesn't really need intelligence or espionage to be understood. It's a much broader question. Nothing I've described here for you to date is something sitting on the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS) or Intelink, the systems that we go to for answers. It's far more fundamental than that. It's an epochal change along the broad arc of history, as Richard Haass has suggested, kind of like what Christendom went through in the Thirty Years' War, from 1618 to 1648. We came out of that into what we call now, in the West, the modern era. We came out of this with two things. Number one, the nation-state system; number two, we took religion off the list of things that we could refer to in order to kill one another. We stopped wars of religion fundamentally. I know this is superficial, but fundamentally that's what came out of Westphalia.
Now, a lot of people are looking at the current conflict within Islam and predicting that it's almost certainly going to follow the same arc that Christendom did, that Islam, in its struggle with adjusting to modernity, will follow the same path. It's about nation-states and separating the secular from the sacred. I don't know if it's intuitively obvious that that's how this ends up. If you look at this region of the world and what the organizing principles are, we, Europeans and Westerners, imposed nation-states. At their first opportunity, the local residents tried to go to pan-Arab unity. Remember, Nasser and the United Arab Republic? It failed, but the vision was something larger than the nation-state.
Now we're looking at another collection of actors who also seem to have little regard for the nation-state. In fact, they are opting for a more unifying principle they call the caliphate. Again, the arc that Christendom and the West followed is not necessarily the arc that will be followed in this part of the world. And with regard to separating the secular and the sacred, I'm not at all sure that Islam will arrive at the same compromise that Christendom arrived at in 1648.
Sorry, not much intelligence detail there. But I have pictured an NSC meeting that I would be sitting in again, trying to get our act together, to staunch the bleeding in Iraq. We don't really have a coherent policy for Syria yet. But we got all the deputies together in the room. The rhythm in those meetings is that you turn to the far end of the table, where the intel guys are, and you go: OK, intel, give us the lay down. I imagine myself saying, Well, in 682 there was this argument....
DANIEL BOLGER, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army (ret.); Special Faculty, North Carolina State University; author, Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
Today's conference couldn't be on a more important subject: managing, ending and avoiding wars in the Middle East. I'd like you to put me firmly in the "avoiding" camp. Having gotten to fight in a couple of them, I will tell you, this is something that the United States has got to think long and hard about before we send our great young men and women in our all-volunteer force into fighting these wars.
We went into Afghanistan in 2001 and carried out a very innovative, rapid and decisive campaign — combining our intel services, our special-operations forces and our air power — and quickly defeated the armed forces of the Taliban, the people wearing uniforms. Then we backed into a counterinsurgency that remains active, with the Taliban now in effective control of large parts of eastern, southern and southwest Afghanistan.
We went into Iraq in 2003 and, again, launched a very innovative, rapid and decisive campaign against the conventional armed forces of Saddam Hussein's Baathist military. We defeated them quite rapidly, marched on and took Baghdad, and backed into a counterinsurgency led largely by Sunni Arab insurgents, displaced members of the Baath party and religious groups, but also supported by the country to the east, among the Shia majority, people supported by Iran. That counterinsurgency continues.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the name already mentioned by General Hayden, was on my target list both times I was in Iraq. He is still there, still active. According to the news this morning, he's been killed once again, but you know how that goes. It's an indicator of how longstanding these are. As General Hayden said, we should remember that this Sunni-Shia argument, which culminated in the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D., it is still going on. Iraq is split between the Sunni and Shia.
I would go back to U.S. military history and conjure up somebody whose name isn't mentioned often, but he was a teacher for a man who is commemorated in this very city. General Fox Conner was one of the great American strategists of World War I. After the war, he was the U.S. commander in the Panama Canal Zone, back when we used to run it. One of his staff officers was a young captain named Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had graduated from West Point in 1915 and was one of the only guys in his class who did not get to deploy to the big one in World War I. When he gets to Panama, he's sort of bummed out, and General Conner takes him under his wing. He says, Now, Ike, I know when you were at West Point you spent the majority of your time playing football and goofing off. But I'm going to teach you some military stuff, so take notes, pay attention.
What did Conner teach young Eisenhower? He said, When the United States goes to war, there are three things we probably need to keep in mind. The first is that, for Americans, war should be the very last resort, the very last thing we do. We should try every other means of national power before we send our young men and women over to fight. The second was, Ike, Americans, when they go to war, want to have allies, like we had in the Great War. We don't always get along with them. We don't always like them. They have their own interests. But it lends legitimacy to the war. And in a democracy that's very, very important. A war cannot be perceived as the idea of the current government in power. It's got to be something that has international legitimacy. Finally, he said, Ike, most important of the three, you've got to end it quickly. Another general of that era, who would become Eisenhower's superior, General George C. Marshall, would make the famous comment midway through World War II that a democracy cannot fight a seven-year war. Marshall and Conner agreed, a long war is not in the American character.
So, when we go into wars, in the Middle East or anywhere else, it is very important that it be the last resort, that we have legitimate allies with us and listen to them, and that we absolutely must wrap it up quickly. Afghanistan has been going on for over 14 years. Iraq has been going on for almost 12 years. Depending on how you set the clock, you could actually go back even further back then that. The Iraqis see the American intervention there as beginning in the 1980s; in Afghanistan they look back to the war of the Mujahedeen against the Soviets that started in 1979.
These are lengthy, lengthy wars, and we are not winning. We need to figure out what we have just done to ourselves in the current campaigns — the ones that started in '01 and '03 — why it happened that way, and, most important, the thing we're going to talk about this afternoon, what do we need to do about it to do better next time? And the next time is already on us, as General Hayden has warned.
DAFNA H. RAND, Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Fellow, Center for a New American Security; Former Director for Democracy and Governance, National Security Council; Former Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State
What I'd like to do today is to lay out the specific variables that are engendering conflict in the region, and that will continue to do so over the five- to 10-year time frame, then offer the options for a U.S. strategy to manage and confront these conflicts, and finally to argue that there's only one viable U.S. strategy going forward to manage the conflicts that we have in front of us.
What is it about the violent conflicts emerging across the Middle East and North Africa that is particularly challenging? I see four new trends that make conflict more likely and more intractable. The first is that the state is obviously disintegrating and becoming weaker in the Middle East, but it's not going away. It is premature to conclude that the state system has dissolved across the region.
For sure, many states have become much weaker, but these weak or non-existent states in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon are coexisting with states with even stronger security apparatuses than before 2011. So we have strong states next to weak states, neighboring territories such as Syria and parts of Iraq where there is no central state. Sub-state and non-state actors are growing in strength. So we have a multidimensional problem with conflict erupting between non-state and state actors, states versus their own sub-state threats, etc.
Second, the arcs of these conflicts are long. We might see a ceasefire in Libya, which was the news over the weekend, or a new arrangement in Yemen after the events of this past weekend that alter the temporary political distribution of power. But in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and maybe even in the Palestinian territories, conflict will endure.
This perpetuation of conflict is in part due to the third variable, which is the unprecedented susceptibility of these states to the meddling of outside powers, and not of the Western or American variety.
With weakening states and deep sectarian identities of the people emerging, fueling conflicts, leaders at the national and local/tribal level are vulnerable and sometimes desperate for the assistance and the funding of outside powers. In Yemen, we see Iranian support for the Houthi advance, of course, but there are other regional powers that will continue to exert influence and shape outcomes in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria and elsewhere.
A fourth characteristic of the conflicts in the Middle East is the strength of the spillover effects. It's almost impossible to predict how one conflict will affect other conflicts in the region. The flow of Syrian refugees is changing the demographics of all of the neighboring countries. This will challenge the ability of Jordan, for example, to confront its own political and economic grievances. And now, we see a coup in Yemen prosecuted by the Houthis, a group that, only three or four years ago, was considered a marginal separatist movement.
Given that these conflicts will persist and are challenging in these new ways, what should the United States do? I see four different options. General Bolger has already referenced the lack of appetite among the American public for reinserting U.S. ground forces on the scale that we've seen in the past decade. That is obviously an option, but most would agree that it's not really a viable one, given public and elite opinion. Second, we could ignore these conflicts and their implications for U.S. interests. Many Americans would support the approach of trying to stay out of these conflicts or would advocate a third strategy: disengage from the Middle East, and only intervene when there is a concrete plot against the U.S. homeland that needs to be disrupted.
These second and third options are quite appealing to many war-weary Americans, who, after 13 years, want to know why the region matters to the United States. But the problem is that our country's security and economic interests are vulnerable to events occurring across the region. And getting out and being disengaged will not help. It will probably hurt in both the short and long term. Letting the status quo conflicts persist in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, in Syria, in Yemen and elsewhere is likely to decrease U.S. power and leverage in the region and worldwide.
So the fourth strategy entails a reinvestment in a combination approach: the authorization of limited military options combined with non-coercive tools of U.S. diplomacy and statecraft. Creatively combining very smart, select military actions with more robust non-coercive ones seems to me to be the only viable strategy for managing conflicts and mitigating the effect on U.S. interests.
We have interests in this region that are undeniable: our commitment to our allies, the protection of the state of Israel. We have economic interests, including the security and the free flow of the region's natural resources. We have deep concerns about terrorist threats emanating from the Middle East and North Africa, as has been discussed. And of course, we have counterproliferation concerns. Our concerns about Iran are based on these last two interests.
The firewall between these American interests and ongoing domestic politics in the region has now dissolved. That is why this fourth strategy — founded on smart non-coercive diplomatic engagement — is so important. At one point, we could have divided the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region from what was going on domestically. In fact, for decades, U.S. policy was premised on just this type of separation, which was able to bracket domestic politics from U.S. concerns. This division is no longer so clear-cut.
The second reason we need to stay engaged in the region, particularly diplomatically, is because there are no other contenders to manage these conflicts. We have seen that when the region tries to organize itself, create its own system for regional order and power balancing, it does not end well. Think about Qatari and other Arab efforts after the Libyan intervention. These partners were with us, in step, when it came to the military intervention to topple Qadhafi, but, when it ended, a number of regional states wanted to influence the political outcome in the country. In Libya, in Egypt, as in Yemen, as in Syria and Lebanon, we have seen competition among regional states to manage transitioning or conflict states, using proxies, to suit their worldview and interests.
The third reason we need this modest strategy of engaged diplomatic leadership is that there is no such thing as a status quo in the Middle East. Things tend to only get worse, not better.
What does this strategy entail? Going forward, especially given the fluid, decentralized nature of the threat from ISIL, we're going to see very limited military action in the region and the use of American power only in combination with allies. The use of military force will be deliberate and must be necessarily cautious. Also, coercion must be carefully combined with the other non-military, non-coercive tools at our disposal.
Therefore, at the heart of this strategy is raising the primacy and centrality of diplomacy — bilateral and multilateral. We've seen this already in the past couple of years through the P-5 + 1 negotiations with Iran. We've seen it through repeated U.S. efforts to push for talks on Syria. Today, despite the bloodshed in Syria, there is widespread acknowledgement that, no matter how much Geneva I and Geneva II failed, any de-escalation of the fighting in Syria will require negotiations.
We've seen the primacy of diplomacy in our regional policies in every secretary of state's herculean effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the odds. We've also seen it recently in Iraq with successful diplomatic efforts to move Prime Minister Maliki out and bring in a new government led by Prime Minister Abadi. That story is not over yet. We may also need to do this kind of multilateral diplomacy in Yemen, Lebanon and other places. But such diplomatic efforts will not always have an American face; hopefully we can push and organize regional diplomatic efforts.
The second part of this strategy is recognizing the centrality of Syria as a ground zero in causing dangerous spillover effects — conflict and terrorism. Syria is central to the rest of this region right now, and almost all of America's interests and values point to trying as hard as we can to at least dampen the violence there. We have to increase our training and assistance to those we believe can be part of a future of Syria that is multisectarian, nationalist and inclusive. We need to push the regime as well, through clever coercive diplomatic efforts.
The third is that we have to develop a better way to use our civilian assistance — our positive tools, our carrots — to focus on economic growth, political training, good governance, inclusive governance. These are skills that are totally necessary in every state but are sorely lacking, as we've seen with both Maliki's failed efforts at governance and other cases where inclusivity and compromise are anathema to government leaders. We need a new toolset, and we should immediately ask the United Nations, the Europeans and others who are probably better at doing this than we are: What is the research and best practices when it comes to promoting these types of good governance and good thinking about inclusive representation?
Fourth, we need to rethink the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other regional institutions. There is a new generation of leaders coming up in all of these institutions. Many of these newer leaders have lived through the tumult of the last 15 years, and there might be an opportunity for new-thinking leaders to work with each other and together on regional stability mechanisms, conflict resolution, economic growth, etc.
I would add a key premise of this approach: Iran is not a partner in this strategy. Iran might in some cases, like Iraq, have the same limited interests as we do, but Iran cannot be trusted to cooperate on issues such as Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, etc. Iran has a different approach to governance and stability, in that today's leaders there do not see the role for multisectarian inclusion as a necessary bulwark to mitigate conflict in the region.
Finally, I'll end with the importance of Congress in this endeavor. If this strategy is going to depend on positive levers, on non-coercive tools, Congress should be more involved, asking key questions as they authorize and appropriate assistance: Where is the leverage that we yield, for example, from Foreign Military Financing and Foreign Military Sales, for example? That should be a top congressional question. What conflict-management goals that we have funded have actually yielded a return on the U.S. taxpayer's investment? How do we best support security-sector reform? I see a lot of work for Congress in this strategy. The parameters and centrality of the non-coercive, positive toolkit will require a push from Congress on developing these tools to achieve the desired results.
FRANCIS RICCIARDONE, Vice President and Director, the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Turkey
I've very much enjoyed and profited from the Middle East Policy Council's vigorous research and analysis over many years as a serving government official and I'm especially pleased to join the conversation today. As a newly inducted member of global think-tankdom, I can reveal that many of us inside the U.S. government actually do pay attention, actually do read and listen to what the best minds of the Middle East Policy Council, and of the Atlantic Council, of course, think, publish and say. I don't know anyone in the U.S. official community who claims a monopoly on wisdom for the U.S. national-security apparatus.
But, first, let me take issue with the premise of today's seminar. Whether for individuals, I believe, or states, societies or governments, focusing on the negative, focusing as strategic priorities on what we mean to avoid usually gets us off on the wrong foot and can lead us down a certain path. Psychologically, focusing relentlessly on that which we most don't want can actually increase the likelihood of getting undesired results. So we miss the forest for the trees.
We miss threats, but we also miss opportunities in pockets of the forest that we had insufficiently attended to, because it looked okay. Telling ourselves, don't drive into that ditch, means we're keeping our eyes on the ditch all the time, rather than on the road ahead in all its twists and turns, some of which offer a lot of opportunity.
Positing how to avoid wars as a focus also poses other problems. One of them is the implication that we know what we're talking about, that we know what we mean by war, or agree on a particular meaning and related concepts that go with that — victory, defeat, ally, enemy. In today's context of multidisciplinary, organized, disorganized, semi-organized violence, conflict and war, those terms have all gotten a lot fuzzier. I'd suggest that our confusion on the very definition of these terms is one of the things that helped us slide into what turned out to be protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beyond this, positing avoiding wars might suggest that there's an American policy proclivity toward war. As a recovering national-security apparatchik who has experienced war and its less-organized variants up really close, I can tell you that our diplomats, our soldiers, our intelligence, our global law-enforcement officers are notoriously resistant, as a whole, to throwing our military into armed conflict or even the risk of it.
We hardly need orders from elected officials — much less, the advice of us, including me now in the commentariat — to "avoid stupid stuff" — like wars. So even when the media pundits fulminate about grand global causes we must involve ourselves in, it takes extraordinary political leadership to persuade Americans to jump military-feet first into some kind of foreign adventure. And, like most people around the world, we Americans want the finer things of life, whether for body or soul. Except for violent fanatics, these things do not include war or other less-organized forms of violence. I certainly share the president's very conservative instincts toward the deployment of military force. I think most Americans do. I know that's the case among the soldiers I've known, of all ranks. So it's hard to imagine that anything we might say here today would make us as a nation any the wiser with respect to future decisions on "war" and its modern variants under other names. But we do owe it to ourselves to try to distill what lessons we can out of our current and recent experiences in war.
Let me propose a few general notions germane to today's discussion. As General Hayden said, none of these are classified; they're not secret; they didn't come from espionage.
First, affirm often and with conviction what we're for rather than waiting until we must react to condemn what we're against. We achieve the best results, I believe, in advancing our national-security interests within a positive, yet sober, longer-term vision of collective peace, prosperity and global order. As Americans, we used to have a patent on that. With our enduring strategic purposes positively and convincingly established, we can respond more nimbly and with greater credibility and confidence to the inevitable crises, including those that will require our application of armed force, or at least the threat of it. Our own people and foreign states will much more willingly sign on under such circumstances, whether in the heat of crisis or during a respite.
The president offered such affirmative and convincing statements of an enduring strategic approach with respect to the Middle East at the outset of his first term, with speeches to the Turkish parliament and at Cairo University of June of that same year. And throughout my own last responsibilities in government, I frequently fell back on those to inform foreign audiences of the clear, positive, comprehensive American purposes in the region.
It's true, from time to time, we as a nation will feel compelled, primarily militarily, to "disrupt, destroy and defeat" an enemy that has perpetrated some outrage against Americans or who threatens to do so. And provided we've given real credibility to our affirmations or our positive collective purposes, our military destruction of an enemy of the moment will more likely prove a short-term, incidental exception to America's formally well-branded, larger national purposes and global actions. During and immediately after the Cold War, our friends seemed to accept that our military deployments, for actual or potential combat, were consequent, integral to or even evidence of our long-term purpose of building and sustaining a more stable and prosperous world as a matter of enlightened self-interest on our part.
A second aphorism: Be careful what you wish for — really careful. Think first and carefully of what time and treasure we will have to invest to achieve whatever we may declare, even implicitly, as our national purposes. Think even more carefully of the consequences of success. It's surely a good thing for dictators to fall, for example. But before we attempt declaratively to position ourselves on the right side of history, let's rigorously think through whether and, in operational detail, how we mean to bring that about. Remember that a single event, no matter how happy, doesn't stop history. There will be many mornings after.
And as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq are demonstrating, "other people's civil wars" can impact our own and our allies' defense, prosperity and consciences. Even much greater palliation than we're now offering of the unspeakable human suffering in the Middle East, in that region of failed states, will not be able to stanch the incubation of a generation of globe-trotting, violent, suicidal fanatics.
A third bit of folk wisdom: Say what we mean and mean what we say. Speech writing and delivery are among the highest arts in democracies; they are to be valued. Words do have consequences in international affairs. But saying something doesn't make it so. There may be advantage in confounding our enemies, but the first premise of effective leadership is clear and convincing communication, at least to our own cadres and allies, of our firm and considered intent. This also means putting real fiscal and human resources methodically and in organized fashion against expensive, complex, strategic operations and their multidisciplinary component tasks, and doing so with committed allies. Real-world exigencies, of course, frequently will require tactical adjustment. But being caught out in bluffing or flinching from proclaimed strategic purposes will cost national power and influence among friends and adversaries alike.
Fourth, and maybe most boring and obvious: sustain, coordinate and use the full range of U.S. government tools of power and global influence. Successive American military leaders, secretaries of defense, scholars, think-tank studies, much of the work published by the Middle East Policy Council and the Atlantic Council over several administrations, have warned that we continue to under-resource our wide range of civilian capabilities to influence world affairs.
Generals and civilians alike see that the most menacing threats to our national security and prosperity are developing from non-state, non-military actors and factors. From the outset, the Obama administration emphatically affirmed a whole-of-government approach to world and domestic affairs, committing to the three Ds of defense, diplomacy and development. But only our defense establishment has the funds, personnel, equipment, legal authorities and popular political support to act quickly and forcefully to deal with the exigencies of the moment.
USAID has no foreign peer in global disaster relief and longer-term development to help prevent disasters. The World Health Organization hardly compares to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in immediate scientific and medical knowledge necessary to prevent and address epidemics. Our State Department works miracles in mobilizing global cooperation in all fields in response to a crisis. There's no global agency of law enforcement — not Interpol, not the United Nations — better at monitoring, controlling and watching international borders and legal controls that apply to the movement of people and money that are superior to U.S. law enforcement, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Treasury.
But only our Defense Department has the authorities and the popular support to deploy immediately in sufficient amounts the funds, people and equipment to act against a critical immediate threat. The best example, of course, is the case of the viral epidemic Ebola, which threatened to burst out of Africa and disrupt life for all of us around the world.
A corollary to this insight is to use to maximum effect the great resources we've got, which reside principally in the very experienced, expert, loyal and committed people across our complex machinery of government. Here, we can take a lesson from the best — I would say as a civilian, characteristically American — military practices. That is, spare no expense to adequately train, equip and support our people up and down the ranks; clearly communicate the commander's intention; then turn them loose, soldier by soldier, civilian operative by civilian operative, in successively larger teams on all the tasks down to the tactical level. I've noticed that, when generals reserve tactical decisions to themselves, or to a bulked-up headquarters staff and communicate that order number one is "don't mess up," they show lack of confidence in the competence and loyalty of their teams. Thus, they disempower the human resources at their disposal.
A fifth and final observation is, never waste a great crisis. Great crises bring huge advantage to the party that deals from vast, varied and resilient sources of power, provided the strategy and the machinery are in place to seize the opportunity. This means not looking at a crisis in the first instance as demanding the avoidance of war, though of course it does. Armed force, as General Bolger cited, has to be a last resort. That's what we, as Americans, all expect.
But it does mean seeing and exploiting the galvanizing and clarifying effects of a crisis on world and domestic opinion and on the political decisions of state and non-state actors alike. Approached in this way, I believe that the confluence of today's crises in the region of failed and failing states — the geography affected by Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot in the post-Ottoman world — offers more than the challenge to avoid war. It also offers a historic opportunity to our country, our friends and allies in the region, and others who hold a strong stake in the Middle East's stability, security and prosperity. I see the current crisis as far larger and more systemic than the cruel murders of individual foreigners, Americans and British. And today we all certainly pray for the safe release of the innocent Japanese who are being threatened these days. The emergence of a violent criminal enterprise that's claiming the legitimate leadership of the entire Muslim world has clarified the extremist Islamic threat from within — not from the Zionists, the imperialists or other foreign devils — to even the most conservative Muslim societies, states and leaders. Indeed, especially to those states. Added to this is the failure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's year-long experiment. They demonstrated conclusively — at least to the mass of Egyptians — that their religiously based political vision could not result in a well-governed society. It did not. They had every chance and they failed.
Finally, part of this larger critical juncture, of course, are the outrageous attacks on people, blasphemously perpetrated in the name of Islam on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, from New York to Sydney, to London, to Madrid and, most recently, to Paris. This part of the crisis, too, has increased global solidarity against the perpetrators and showed that we all must pay attention.
In our global solidarity, however, we're all groping, rather too separately, to respond adequately and strategically to the threat. That so many disparate countries have joined together to bomb ISIS targets is a remarkable and positive thing, in my judgment. Let's hope that it will disrupt and defeat this particular enemy of the moment. But I don't know anyone in the Middle East who believes that this is more than a tactical response to the grim manifestation of a larger strategic problem.
So let me take my apparatchik wisdom about what works in the application of American power and apply it to the context of the global threats arising from the human catastrophe that we see in the Middle East. As President Obama said, referring to the manifestations just in the Levant of this monstrous set of crises across the region, "We don't have a strategy for that yet." But it's neither reasonable nor useful to blame the United States or its current or recent presidents for the breakdown in Sykes-Picot, the post-Ottoman order of legitimate, if too often malgoverned, states. That system is under serious threat in at least four states. This system had enabled millions to live in varying degrees of security, if not also dignity, and mostly at much better than bare substance circumstances for the better part of a century. No one laments its passing, but we do need to see that region regenerate a system of preferably well-governed states that enjoy the full legitimacy of their own people and the recognition of their neighbors as legitimate.
To accomplish this, even marginally, will have to be the task primarily of the brutally afflicted peoples themselves. That will require, for any success at all, wise and courageous indigenous leadership. It will require massive fiscal and human resources — far beyond military resources — sustained and massive outside support, and at least a generation or two of time. We have to admit, it will also require luck. But the alternative is continuous, violent conflict, yielding truly hellish human suffering in the region on a scale not seen since World War II — and threats to the security, prosperity and the conscience of people living very comfortably outside the region.
So, to the extent that we in the think-tank community can contribute to this conversation about what to do, we hope to do this by engaging first with the people in the region who are stakeholders: leaders in politics, civil society and business, across the partisan political divide. We want to speak with all the people who hold a stake in seeing a stable order or legitimate states reemerge in that region. As we bring American thinkers together across partisan political lines, we'll be looking for the best questions, as well as the right answers, wherever that we can find them, particularly in functional regional states, even those that we wish were perhaps better governed than they may be. We'll welcome the input of people around this room. We'll certainly be in close touch with people in Congress and the other great public-policy institutes well-represented here today — and the U.S. administration, of course.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
When we conceived of this topic, we were thinking about how the military should be used and what our economic, diplomatic and political tools are for positive ends in the region. We were particularly struck by General Bolger's book, Why We Lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. General Bolger, you say that we tried to do too much in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we weren't equipped for it and that it might have been unattainable. What is the correct lesson to take away from that when we think about what we should do in Syria? There have been all kinds of proposals that have included targeting the Assad regime, maybe only doing it in a limited way to stop his air force from flying, creating a safe zone so that an opposition can form a government. Now we're training a moderate opposition force that will be asked to fight jihadists and perhaps also the regime. What do you think, after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can and cannot do that might address some of Dafna's proposals about limited military operations, tied to diplomatic initiatives to bring about transitional arrangements there?
GEN. BOLGER: Dafna's option four is very unsatisfying to most Americans, in particular, and to some of our regional partners because it's very long term, and it allows the local people to take the lead and do things their way. But, although it doesn't necessarily make people who watch the 24-hour news happy and doesn't solve everything on your Twitter feed, it's probably the right solution.
The key words in Dafna's comments were "whole" of government — you also heard that from several of the other speakers — and "limited military." If we limit the use of our military to training, to some limited airstrikes, to providing intelligence and logistic support, like supplies, and allow the local elements to take the lead, we may not get a quick result — we probably will not — but it will be sustainable in our country.
The one aspect of national power we do need to enlist that we have not yet, is the support of our population as expressed through their elected representatives in the Congress. I think it's incumbent on the U.S. Congress, in accord with the Constitution, to hold hearings and to pass an authorization for the use of military force. It disturbs me, not just as a military guy of 35 years but as a citizen, to realize we are currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with authorizations for the use of military force that are over 10 years old. The one for Iraq was passed in October 2002 and dealt with the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein that's long gone, not the current realities. The one for Afghanistan and the larger struggle against al-Qaeda was passed in September 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Both of these need to be updated after a vigorous public debate. Then, when we send in this limited military contingent, there'll also be the will to commit those other elements of U.S. national power. One of those big ones, besides our diplomacy, is the interest and activity of the American population to see this through. In previous events around the world — General Hayden mentioned the Cold War — we underscored our commitment with treaties.
It is disturbing that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, although we have agreements that are initialed by our ambassadors there and by local leaders in those countries, we do not have ratified treaties. As a result, in the councils of power out among the ISIS or the Taliban in the two cases there, and in other places as well, those people say, the Americans really aren't serious. Even our friends in that region start to wonder after one more election, will you stick with us or not? I think we need to get beyond that.
Whole of government and a very limited military contingent, I think, can get to Dafna's option four and a long-term view. From my experience working with the military and police in the two countries, though local folks in Iraq and Afghanistan desperately want that long-term tie to the United States, they keep worrying that we're going to leave. And every so often, we keep telling them, yes, we are.
DR. MATTAIR: Dafna, can you elaborate on what you mean by limited military operations and how you would tie them to de-escalating the conflict and setting up zones?
DR. RAND: I think that is approximately our strategy in Syria right now, so I'm not advocating anything new. I am explaining that there are two parts to our strategy in Syria. The first is the limited and smart use of American military power, with Coalition support. We have an unprecedented anti-ISIS coalition that is trying to degrade ISIS through airstrikes and local partners, as well as the more medium-term endeavor to train and assist a "moderate" force that can challenge ISIS in those areas that are liberated from the Assad regime, almost 70 percent of the territory of Syria.
I think that use of military force is about right on Syria, and it has to be coupled with the second pillar: maintaining focus on the political endgame. I think the administration understands these twin and inseparable goals of coercion and diplomacy. For example, diplomatically, it's not too soon to talk with the armed opposition units we're training about the conditions for a future Syria — governance that will protect minority groups, that will be inclusive. There's a perception that you can't talk about these issues when you're training and assisting. But it's very much at the heart of the current strategy to find ways in which the political and military approaches work together.
DR. MATTAIR: General Hayden, would you like to comment on what's feasible in Syria?
GEN. HAYDEN: I would actually note that we've got more coherence in our military approach to Iraq than we've yet developed in Syria. In Iraq, you do have genuine combined arms. Not all the legs of the combined-arms team are as strong as some of the others but you do have the Kurds and our training effort for the Iraqi army. I would add more direct assistance to the Kurds as a reliable ally of the United States, historically, even when we've not been reliable allies for them. I'd also be a bit more willing to put American forces further forward so that we can more frequently and with guaranteed precision call in airstrikes, which I think should remain the American kinetic contribution to the fight.
What we've got in Syria is less akin to what we have in Iraq and more akin to what we've got in the tribal regions of Pakistan. In essence, it is keeping ISIS's head down, degrading ISIS, trying to remove the ISIS leadership. It doesn't have the powerful sense of combined arms. I realize we have trouble picking who our ground component is for a war in Syria. That's going to require some imaginative diplomacy and perhaps covert action and paramilitary action. I think this panel is pretty much on the same page. We've got gradations of difference, but no one up here is calling for American maneuver brigades in the Iraqi or Syrian desert.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Amen to the last part. I go back to my main point. It is so much easier for our diplomats if we can articulate our strategic purpose in a way that's true, that is positive, that we are resourcing. Then we can pick what we want to do from a range of bad and worse options, in the case of Syria.
Clearly, as the administration has said repeatedly, there can only be a political solution to this. Russia and Iran are certainly relevant participants. This is big-league diplomacy. This is heavy lifting for the United States, but I wouldn't go near Moscow unless I knew what I wanted to get out of it.
And I would deal with the Syrian opposition only after having decided what I expect them to be able to do, what I believe they can do, what I believe their hosts — the Turks, the Saudis, the others — can and should do with them. You can't disparage them on the one hand, and, on the other, build them up as if they're going to play a useful role in what we've decided is the problem. We've decided the problem is ISIS. I believe that's just a manifestation of a much larger problem that we need a much more comprehensive strategy to deal with. And military capabilities will be one part of it.
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. Is there anyone who thinks that air strikes ought to be targeting the Syrian military or the Syrian regime, or are they now, because of the growth of ISIS, an unavoidable diplomatic partner?
GEN. BOLGER: We saw in the two campaigns, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that if you turn to the U.S. military and say, destroy this regime with its conventional armed forces, we will do that. But then what? That really gets to the ambassador's point. We've screwed this up twice in the last 15 years. We can't afford to do it again without thinking it through.
DR. RAND: I think we shouldn't say we're not going to target Assad. Coercive diplomacy means keeping this strategically ambiguous as a way to get them to the table.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: I think it would be great to destroy ISIS, if we can, through whatever means possible. As for the Syrian regime, an element of military coercion could be very effective. And it might even affect calculations in Moscow and Tehran. There's a wide range of possibilities for how to do this. Allowing the regime to bomb its own population centers, where the opposition — to ISIS as well as to them — lives, strikes me as bizarre. I don't understand selecting ISIS to hit and not those who generated the first half-million refugees that are now in Turkey alone. The second half-million flowed there only after ISIS became active. So it seems to be a much bigger problem than ISIS.
GEN. HAYDEN: I'm creative enough, I think, to imagine circumstances where limited activity against the regime, shaping their behavior, might be useful. No-fly doesn't look as bad as it once did. I realize, if you weaken the regime, that may also have the byproduct of enhancing the relative power of ISIS, which is not a good thing.
On the other hand, there is regime behavior not being directed against ISIS that we can influence to make it better for the part of the opposition — whatever it might be — that we would feel more comfortable with. Let me spin it one more revolution here. There were rumors after the vice president visited Ankara that perhaps the Turks would be interested in a protective zone tucked up in northern Syria against the Turkish border, maybe 20 by 200 miles. There are a lot of issues related to that, but I'm not willing to dismiss it out of hand. It gives the opposition geography, which it's not had before. It allows the Turks to feed Syrian refugees in Syria, as opposed to in Turkey, which is destabilizing. I can imagine our giving a proclamation simply saying: Nobody goes there, whether regime or ISIS forces. That, of course, means we have to be serious about acting if they do go there.
I can see permutations and combinations that would have us do that. But two-and-a-half years ago I was saying, given the possible outcomes then, Assad's winning was the best. A sustained campaign to dissolve that government right now would not be productive.
DR. MATTAIR: How much time do we have? I've read that our effort to train this moderate opposition force in Saudi Arabia won't even start until about April. I've read estimates that it would take about three years to train a force that would be adequate to go into the country. Do we have that much time? If we don't, what is it we need from our partners in the region? They all have their own militaries. Do we need to tap into those, as well as their financing, the flow of fighters and their intelligence? If we do need them, how much do we need to take into account their understanding of this problem? They don't talk about ISIS without talking about Shia militias in the same sentence. They are concerned about a focus on Sunni jihadists without a focus on the Shia forces in the region — in Syria, for example. As a matter of fact, they are concerned that the outcome of all this will ultimately be advantageous to Iran. They're looking for something more than what the panel is advocating here today. How do we deal with that?
GEN. BOLGER: On the mechanics of the training, it's very easy to train somebody how to fire a weapon, throw a hand grenade, things like that. You can do that in a couple weeks; we do know how to do it. But there is a challenge, which we certainly saw with the Iraqi army and that I fear we will also see in the spring with the Afghan military that we trained. Those militaries were trained on a model that insisted they not only would have training and equipment from the United States and our allies, but would also have advisers embedded in their units, and some partner units available, to include airstrikes, intelligence, things like that. We took away those other elements. All we left them with was the training and equipping. As a result, some of the Iraqi army units did not do that well against ISIS.
We might see a similar phenomenon with the Syrian opposition we train in Saudi Arabia. We'll teach them how to fire their weapons, how to work together and do a raid or something like that. But how well they hang together when reinserted into Syria remains to be seen. One of the main things we're going to have to assess in this period is not just their skills — shooting a rifle, gathering information — but their will to fight. That's much tougher to assess; everybody's got a lot of will when they're at the training range. But when you're under fire in your own country, things get a little hairier. We think this three-year period is designed to give our military enough time to sort of assess the situation and come up with the best answer. But we're going to know within a year or so whether these people have the willpower to match their skills and are really going to be a legitimate opposition, or whether they're going to be very weak.
DR. RAND: On the question of what we should do in those three years while we're waiting, it's very important that we stop the perception that ISIS has momentum. That is very dangerous for counterterrorism and homeland-security reasons, obviously. There's a lot to be done with these coalition partners while we're waiting to reinsert some of these units. The administration and others have talked a lot about countering ISIL financing, and have made progress in tracking the groups' profits from oil sales. The counter-recruitment effort is probably among the most important, particularly because a lot of the fighters coming into Iraq and Syria are from the Arab world. So there is a lot of work that we have started and need to continue with our partners, helping them with the practicalities of preventing these young men from leaving their own countries, and then with countering the ideologies that incentivize them to leave in the first place and go to Syria and Iraq.
Our partners, due in part to U.S. diplomatic leadership, have been forthcoming. A lot of them have announced their efforts, such as Bahrain's work on counter-financing. The Saudis have announced their efforts on counter-radicalization. This is an area where there's an immediate demand, a strategic necessity in the next six months, because it's important to signal to would-be recruits, in the West and in the Arab world in particular, that ISIS has been slowed down.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: This is a crisis that offers a huge opportunity for affecting the behaviors of state and non-state actors that we care about, mainly friends, allies, fellow stakeholders. One of the gifts that ISIS has delivered to us and those we regard as right-thinking people across the region is to make very clear the danger of sectarianism. Many people there think in sectarian terms, but even many in the Gulf who were predisposed to view Sunni factions and causes with sympathy, recognize now that sectarianism itself is a cancer that can destroy them. When I was in Turkey, a majority Sunni Muslim country, where some politicians speak in sectarian overtones, the Turks were one of the first out of the blocks to warn of the dangers of sectarianism that Assad himself was exploiting.
We can use this. The right-thinking people, the forces of good, of conflict resolution, of building, of state legitimacy in the region can use this. A lot of people have been scared out of their wits by the savagery on the part of both Sunni and Shiite forces, not just in the name of their religion, but of their sect.
GEN. HAYDEN: Let me reinforce that. When we were debating the surge late in 2006 and very early in 2007, the decision was finally made to send in five brigades, and it did push the violence down. It was not just because American combat power was so professional; it was also because it was nonsectarian and was seen to be nonsectarian.
On Dafna's point about an equal problem coming from the Shia militia, Iran's not our ally in this effort. There may be commonality of interest, but they're pushing the Shia militia. This may or may not be a useful tool against ISIS, but is fundamentally part of the problem, not of the solution. It is creating sectarian combat power, not unified combat power. So I think the ambassador's right. Here's an opportunity for us to train to competency folks who are genuinely nonsectarian. That is a real winning hand.
DR. MATTAIR: General Hayden, you have so much experience with the intelligence cooperation we have with some of our partners in the region. Can you go through what they're doing now and what we need them to do, and how much we can expect from that effort of addressing the message of ISIS, its ideology and allure?
GEN. HAYDEN: As I tried to suggest in my opening comments, this is beyond targeting. There are broad, civilizational forces at work that we really need to understand. No amount of good targeting overcomes getting the big picture wrong, as I stated. What we bring to any cooperative effort like this is money and other resources, and technology. So, other than borrowing geography from friends in terms of applying technology, we're bringing almost all the cards to the game. What we lack and what local friends could provide is that on-the-ground look at what's going on.
Americans can provide good signals intelligence and good imagery intelligence. Lord knows, with the resources we have, we can create an almost unblinking technological stare at a target. What allies in the region could bring would be human intelligence, observations on the ground, even penetrations of a network like ISIS. We have found local partners to be culturally and linguistically agile, things that we do not naturally bring to the effort.
There are several good partners in the region. The Jordanians have traditionally been good partners to the United States. The Iraqis have been a mixed bag; their national intelligence service was started after the American occupation began. It was fairly nonsectarian, but one of Maliki's mistakes was to dismiss it and put in its place an intelligence service that was less under the government and far more under the prime minister. It was almost purely Shia. That kind of approach, of course, brings with it more burdens than advantages. So that's the mix. We can do the technology, but we rely on allies to assist us with the human intelligence that's so essential.
DR. MATTAIR: There are a number of questions from the audience that pertain to Iran. What do we need to get from our nuclear negotiations in order to take the military option off the table with Iran? And how will that have an effect on the geopolitics of the region? Will it somehow enhance Iran's position in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa, or is there a way to construct it so that we also get compromises from them on the resolution of other issues and maybe even dampen down the Sunni-Shia struggle that's raging in the region?
GEN. HAYDEN: What do we need? Five thousand or fewer centrifuges in Natanz, Fordow inoperable, the plutonium creator at Arak neutered, complete visibility into the history of the Iranian nuclear program. After all, we need to know where the assets are if we are to accept stasis. Then, finally, we need invasive inspections, on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of any facility in Iran. With that, you have this former director of CIA saying, that's probably a good enough deal. What would be the political effects of this? If it were to be agreed to by Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani, it would be a coup against them by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). All right, that was an overstatement, meant to be ironic. But it would create such torque inside the Iranian government, I believe, that the Iranians can't give us what I just said was the minimum acceptable deal. We'll see where it ends up, but you can probably tell I'm not an optimist.
GEN. BOLGER: The only comment that I'd make is based on experience in Iraq. We spent a good amount of time during the major American campaign in Iraq, 2003-2011, fighting Iranian-backed militias. When my unit, the 1st Cavalry Division, was in Baghdad, that was our principal threat. They had the weapons that could penetrate our M1 Abrams tanks. They could do some serious damage and use them with some sophisticated capabilities. And they backed various groups there. Baghdad Khatib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and some of the Madhi militia that worked for Sadr would rise up every so often and go after the Americans. That history is known to the Iranians, of course. I've talked to some of them after we'd grabbed them. They basically take credit for running the American military out of there. We could argue that we left on our own, but they take the credit. And they maintain very strong influence with the current Iraqi government.
I mean, we should keep in mind that the current minister of interior, Mohammed Ghabban, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia. That's the degree of influence they have in that government. So not only do we have to look at Iranian-backed militias on the battlefield, they are de facto in the fight with us against ISIS.
That's really what's going to create a real problem as we try to train these Syrian Sunni militias. Partners in the region — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and others — are very worried about Iranian penetration in Shia Iraq. It's real, it's there, and it's independent of the nuclear program.
DR. MATTAIR: It is. So whether we get an agreement or not, there's no way to use it to limit Iranian influence in the Arab world. It's there to stay.
GEN. HAYDEN: I just suggested to you the kind of agreement that would make me comfortable, and I realize I've set a high standard that would be unacceptable to the Iranian regime. If, on the other hand, we would concede to the Iranians the kind of agreement that would make them comfortable, the Sunni regimes on whom we have relied and who rely on us would view that to be a major migration in American policy in the direction of an accommodation with the Persians and with the Shia, at their expense. There are a lot of interconnected circles here. But I do think that kind of agreement actually makes our relationship with our traditional Sunni allies even more prickly.
DR. MATTAIR: A diplomatic agreement for Syria that leaves Assad and his clique in power for five or 10 or more years is going to be viewed as inimical to their geopolitical interests and will have an impact on our future relationship with them and how they see us.
DR. RAND: A lot has happened in 24 months in our relationship with our historic Arab allies, in the Gulf in particular. First, they were really upset about the pivot to Asia and the rebalancing and thought it was an announcement of abandonment. Second, they were upset in the fall of 2013 over what they perceived to be negotiations conducted behind their backs with Tehran on the nuclear issue. So there was a lot of hurt and a perception of the U.S. moving away from commitments. Then there was, of course, the energy issue, which suggested to them that we might be less interested and invested in the strategic foundation of our alliance. All that was happening in 2013 and early 2014. Then the march of ISIS almost to the gates of Baghdad seemed to put everyone back on the same page in terms of recognizing the convergent threat that this jihadist group posed, both to the Gulf states and to American and Western interests.
So today, there is some anxiety about U.S. abandonment and concern about a U.S. deal with Iran, but there's also deep cooperation militarily and otherwise in countering the ISIS coalition that is helping to repair some of the misunderstanding. The military-to-military and the intel relations are very strong between the United States and its Arab partners.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: We can't compartmentalize the Iranian nuclear discussion away from the way the region sees it. I go back to the need for a comprehensive strategy, well-understood by ourselves and well-presented to our friends and allies. The closer we get to an agreement on nuclear affairs with Iran, the more urgent it is that we have a quality conversation — not only with the Israelis but also with the Turks, with our Gulf allies, basically, the Sunni Arab world — to explain what we're thinking and how we mean to deal with this and with them regarding Iran and the larger problem-set that it represents.
It goes back to this violent sectarianism in which Iran is participating, in a practical way you can't compartmentalize. If we are relaxing the pressure on Assad, we're relaxing the pressure on Tehran; they go together. If I were negotiating the nuclear account with the Iranians, I would love to see the United States keep up the pressure on Assad and the regime, at least to change their behavior if not to destroy them. This has serious consequences for Iran. An Iranian general had a misfortune in Syria recently. The Iranians have a big stake in what happens to Assad. How do we not pay attention to that? Our Turkish and our Gulf allies, principally Sunnis, would be more reassured about our negotiations with the Iranians over the nuclear file if they saw that we were keeping up pressure on Iran's proxies in the Levant. This would be consistent with our stated policies, I think.
DR. MATTAIR: I think what concerns them as much as an Iranian nuclear weapon is that Iran's influence in the Arab world has expanded and poses a conventional geopolitical threat to them. But if we fail in these nuclear negotiations — and we're still talking about how to avoid wars — is containment going to be a satisfactory option for an Iran that hasn't signed an agreement and hasn't consented to additional inspections?
GEN. HAYDEN: We discussed this in the Bush administration. I was asked on the margins of an NSC meeting, how many nuclear weapons do you think the Iranians are going to get? I don't know, five, six? How many have we got? Oh, 15,000. So the question was, then, why can't we contain them? Now we've gotten to the heart of the issue. This is not about containing them. Look at Iranian behavior without one of these things in the garage. Now imagine what the Iranians might feel empowered to do — in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and so on — with this whole card. By the way, I need to correct how many weapons they're going to have. I think the correct number is zero. These aren't the North Koreans; they don't need to detonate a device to get the effects they desire. They're going to park themselves within reaching range of a weapon and just stay there, with ambiguity being all they need to harvest the effects of their nuclear program in a geopolitical way.
DR. MATTAIR: Would you assess the utility of covert operations against the Iranian nuclear program and also our ability to detect cheating?
GEN. HAYDEN: Whatever you may or may not think about the American ability to slow Iranian nuclear progress, the rock-solid estimate from my analysts at CIA was that this is a bright people. If they put their mind to it, they're getting a weapon. With regard to the verification of an agreement, do not depend on American intelligence to do that. That will be beyond the reach of American intelligence — and this is not meant to be a critique of American intelligence. We said the same thing about the North Koreans when we thought, near the end of the Bush administration, that Christopher Hill and company might be making their way toward that sort of an agreement.
You need an invasive inspection regime from the IAEA based upon an accurate history of the program and the ability of the IAEA to go where they choose quickly, even if it's an IRGC installation. If you're looking for a very short morality play about whether we're in or out in terms of getting an agreement — and I realize this is now a metaphor because Parchin's been paved over — but, fundamentally, can you or can you not go to Parchin is the pass/fail test for an adequate inspection regime.
Unless you have the ability to visit those kinds of installations under IRGC control, the inspection regime is insufficient. No one in American intelligence will tell you, don't worry about it, we can handle this.
DR. MATTAIR: How do you panel members assess the U.S. approach to Yemen, which has relied heavily on intelligence and drone strikes, given the way events have played out, with Houthi advances on the capital and on the government that was so carefully constructed and supported by the GCC states, and al-Qaeda potentially getting stronger and actively plotting against the West? What should we do in Yemen, militarily, economically, diplomatically?
DR. RAND: Of the four Arab capitals where Iranian proxies have made the greatest headway in the past three or four years, it is maybe most important for the GCC, led by the Saudis, to push back on the Houthi advances and work on brokering a deal in Sanaa. After all, Yemen is next door. So letting Houthis overtake Sanaa seems to me an incredible empowerment of Iran that will change the balance of power in the Gulf in many ways. So there has to be some response. Before the Arab Spring, the Houthi rebellion was considered a small insurgency in the north of Yemen. Their military success represents an incredible shift in three or four years, and a monumental one. What is the Saudi government thinking today as they watch this? And do they have the capacity to help push back against the Houthis? I think this should be a Saudi-led diplomatic and political engagement, if there is one, especially recognizing the complexity of the situation with the presence of AQAP in southern Yemen.
GEN. BOLGER: Just from a strategic point of view, the Bab-el-Mandeb is right next to Yemen, so for the United States and for our allies in the region and in Europe, the Red Sea is an absolutely critical waterway. The idea of an Iranian proxy gaining some degree of ascendancy in that country is going to be really difficult. That's an area where I could see quite a discussion on potential direct U.S. military involvement to prevent it.
DR. MATTAIR: Can you elaborate on that?
GEN. BOLGER: Essentially it would mean carving out an enclave to make sure that A, we get our people out of there, if it comes to that, and B, we don't have somebody controlling that critical waterway. Right now, we — at least in the United States — are benefiting from very low prices of petroleum products. That would change quickly if somebody with surface-to-surface missiles were suddenly sitting on the Bab-el-Mandeb and whaling away at tankers. There are people with those interests that are involved. Right now, the Houthis are much more concerned about what's going on in Yemen, but their sponsors are seeing the bigger picture.
DR. MATTAIR: Yemen is a very, very poor country. You've got tribes that are at each other's throats and no history of a strong central government. What can we do?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: We're neither the cause of the problem, nor the ones who can solve the problem on our own, but we can't afford to ignore it, whether there or in Libya. There's so little to work with in places like Yemen. We're used to working with states or better-organized non-state actors that have leaders who are empowered and can negotiate. It is the primary problem of the people who are living there. So whether it's Yemeni stakeholders or the immediate neighbors, the Saudis and the others in the GCC, there are people who do have a stake in how things turn out there. Or, in Libya, where the Egyptians are taking an active interest, along with people in the Gulf, as the Turks had been doing. There are people to speak with, both inside those horrible messes and outside, who are trying to influence events. It could be that our role from time to time is going to be to supply drones to hit people that we all agree are very bad.
That's a tactical response. It may be gratifying; it may be successful in a tactical purpose, but it doesn't make the problem go away. It's not going to fix Yemen, even if we have 10 very accurate and effective drone strikes there in a row. It's going to take sustained engagement with people inside the country and outside who care about what happens there. It will take lots of money, lots of empowering of people who want to make a go of a new state, with no easy answers and no fast fixes. If we can help with certain violent problems on a moment-by-moment basis, we can play a valuable role. But we ought to make clear that we're not the posse over the horizon that goes in, blows something up, and when they're happy and we're happy, we change the channel. There is no changing of the channel; the same applies in Libya. We may well be doing that. Perhaps more visibility of our doing that with our allies and friends in the region would help.
GEN. HAYDEN: What the ambassador just said kind of hit an exposed nerve here. Based on my personal record, you probably guess I'm fairly comfortable with drones. And I think they're effective. I think they're lawful, appropriate and proportional. Our program meets the law of armed conflict for necessity. So I'm at a very comfortable level for doing it. But in my last couple weeks in government, we had a successful operational activity at CIA. I briefed it on the margins of an NSC meeting, and Rahm Emanuel came up afterwards and kind of shoved me. I turned around, and it was Rahm. He said: Good stuff on that, general. I should have realized, that if Rahm Emanuel was saying something nice, I should just back out of the room quietly and pocket it. But it was one of my last chances to talk to the incoming administration. So I said, Rahm, thank you. But you realize, that was just a counterterrorism success. Unless you change the facts on the ground, you get to kill people forever.
The reason I brought this up is that it says something about the whole-of-government and broad approaches. The best that the use of violence can get us is to buy space and time for policy makers to make other things different. We've been magnificent at killing people who are already convinced they want to kill us. And that's a good thing; it's made the country safe. But we have been sorely lacking in doing the other things to create the space and time for us to move forward. There's a wonderful Israeli film called The Gatekeepers. It's an interview with five or six former Shin Bet chiefs, who say over an hour and 40 minutes, and with some very good visuals, what I just told you: We've done our duty, we've bought you space and nobody's used it. That, I think, is a really important thing to remember.
DR. MATTAIR: I'd like to talk for a minute about the extent to which U.S. foreign policy produces anti-Americanism in the region — the way we use our military instruments, the way we use our sanctions, the diplomatic efforts that have not succeeded, how we have an adversary we're going to have for 20-30 years that military means won't be enough to deal with.
How does the Arab-Israeli conflict and our support for Israel contribute to our problems in the region, and to what extent would it help if we succeeded in that diplomatic effort?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: The Arab-Israel conflict is not the cause of all other conflicts in the region, but I completely disagree with those who say it doesn't matter. Of course, it has a huge impact to the extent we are engaged in trying to resolve it and actually get some success, showing we recognize the unacceptability of the duration of that problem. It serves us well, I believe, in public opinion and official opinion there.
On the larger policy, I don't know if Colin Powell made this up or just quoted it a lot from someone else, but he said that optimism is to the diplomat what courage is to the soldier. As a practitioner in the region —in Turkey, the Arab world, Afghanistan, Iraq — I found a lot to work with.
Yes, there's a lot of anti-American sentiment; we poll very badly. But the question is, to what extent are people and their governments willing to work with us on common purposes? There's a huge willingness, in fact, an eagerness for us to work with them and to pay attention to them. When we're not paying attention, they get as upset as when we do pay attention. So it's a matter of paying attention, showing we're paying respectful attention and engaging across the board, not only militarily — as important as that is. The military-to-military relationships we've built up over the years matter, the intelligence-to-intelligence relationships, the law-enforcement relationships. We've done a lot since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to up our contact in places like Egypt, Turkey, even Afghanistan, where there's a state still very much in gestation.
We have immense resources and capability and power. People there all want to send their children to the United States. Even with the restrictions and difficulties we put on transfers of funds into and out of the United States, this is still one of the most desirable places for individuals and even governments to park their wealth. There's a lot to work with. I'm not one of those who sees America in decline and losing influence, whatever that is. We're not as admired on the street as perhaps we once were; I don't know. I remember a lot of anger at the United States at a lot of times. I just find a lot to work with if we will use it and use it wisely.
GEN. HAYDEN: My metric's far more narrow, but as director at CIA for 31 months, I went to more than 50 countries, and more than 50 countries came to Langley. There is an awful lot of, maybe not residual love, but certainly residual need on the part of these institutions to have a tight relationship with us.
DR. RAND: Let me just second what the ambassador said about power and influence and leverage in the Middle East. It's actually quite a disservice to lament the loss of U.S. leverage and influence. It's self-fulfilling, because if we don't have influence, why bother, why even try engaging in high-risk efforts that might fail? But in fact, if you walk around the Middle East as an American, you feel that innate and inherent influence we can exert because of the admiration people feel and also the expectation that Americans represent and espouse universal values. People in the region have come to expect the United States to be willing and able to help others in the world.
That basic foundation of admiration and expectation for the American people and their leaders never vacillates too much, even if periodically there is anger with certain American governments and administrations over particular issues. For decades, we saw frustration with the U.S. government over our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, there was concern about our inaction over Assad, which is the biggest current grievance, along with the charge that ISIS has its roots in the American intervention in Iraq. But that doesn't obviate the real truth: the source of our influence and leverage is the fact that the leaders and their people are looking to Americans. Discounting U.S. influence and leverage does a disservice to our diplomatic and non-military tools; it means that you discount, for example, how much we can leverage a trip to the White House, a visit by the president or even a phone call by him, to pressure, make change, convey opinions and shape approaches. These intangible sources of U.S. influence have to be carefully concerted and then deployed.
DR. MATTAIR: What I'm really referring to is summed up in the phrase: draining the swamp. Should we be revising our foreign policies to make it harder for al-Qaeda and ISIS to recruit followers? Should we take their messaging away from them? Can we take Al-Baghdadi's followers away from him?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: He's taking his followers away from himself. These guys cannot win. They have a huge enemy, and it is themselves. They live in a sea of enemies that they've created who are disposed, perhaps, to some elements of their worldview. In a direct sense, they can cause some pain and harm to us, but the most pain and harm and destruction is to the people they live among.
It's not our swamp to drain. The people who are living there have now recognized a horrible indigenous disease process for which they now are asking outside help and attention. There's nowhere to turn, many of them seem to realize and some even say, but to powerful outside friends. Where do you go? The Arab League? The Organization of the Islamic Conference? The United Nations? No. It's facetious even to suggest that.
People are turning to the United States of America. And we, in turn, get to say to them: You, dear friends, have a terrible internal problem. How are you educating your people to turn on each other on sectarian grounds? How is it that you can let funds flow without controls to these malefactors — funds, people, arms. There are things we can do to help you, if you wish. There isn't a world government, but there is a power in the world that is your friend, believes the things that you believe, wants most of the things that you do. We're prepared to work with you. But here's what we need. We don't need to send our men into harm's way. We'd rather not. So let's have some quality conversations on a sustained daily basis, through diplomatic channels. We tend to have wonderful generals placed out in these areas who have really good conversations like this all the time, because they can. They have the airplanes and the men and the political backing. They can walk in to see their counterparts.
No ambassador has the ability to travel around the Middle East region. We have an assistant secretary, but based in Washington, who can't go out and speak with the authority of the president and have these kinds of conversations with leaders there.
DR. MATTAIR: General Hayden, Ambassador Ricciardone says it's not our swamp, and I understand fully what you mean, but we're a target. Are the events that took place in Paris a week ago likely to happen here? How good is our intelligence? How good is our Homeland Security? How good is our law enforcement?
GEN. HAYDEN: The French are very, very good. Their foreign service, DGSE, and their domestic service, DST, are the best in Europe. So, it really puts everyone off-balance when something like this happens in France. For the Europeans it's, my God, if it happens in France, it could happen here. The French service is really as good as I've described. We're also really good, and we have a lot of resources, which from time to time our allies lack. We've gotten some more legal headroom in the past 13 or 14 years than we had previously. So we are a very hard target. That's a good thing, and we ought to keep it up.
But fundamentally, the difference between ourselves and the French is not the quality of our services. It is the quality of our societies. We have a far better record of assimilating immigrants in a genuine way than any European country does, and therefore the likelihood of this happening in the United States is less. It's not zero. Will something like this inevitably take place here? Almost certainly. But again, we are in a far better position than our European friends because of the nature of our society.
GEN. BOLGER: I would quote to you the old comment from the Irish Republican Army to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: "You have to be right all the time. We only have to be right once."
GEN. HAYDEN: That's correct, so when it does happen, please don't go spasmodic. We have it fully within our ability to take a tactical failure on our part and turn it into a strategic success for our adversaries, not because of things surrounding the original event, but because of what we do afterwards, in how we respond, in how we treat our security services — which are actually doing a pretty good job — in the recriminations we might mount on one another. The London Tube was operating on the evening of 7/7. We can take a lesson from that.
Q: I thought it was going to be three of the four panelists, but at the end General Hayden leaned in too, talking about how we can keep whacking these guys forever, but we have to do an underlying process. Having been involved in trying to do that underlying process for a long time, I'm really concerned. General Bolger pointed out that the military is being misused for things that we need to have all elements of American power doing. Amb. Ricciardone pointed out we need a much more beefed up diplomacy. I could buy that, but he's not talking about a couple of hundred more political officers. He's talking about USAID and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) — the police and Justice, and Treasury and all of that on steroids, a sort of colonial service.
Dr. Rand talked about finding best practices, that there's a way, if we can just tweak this thing. Having spent a lot of time from Vietnam on doing this in one or another capacity, I don't think there is. If you think, A, that the underlying social, political and ideological problems of this region lead to threats like 9/11, and, B, that if we could get the right formula, we can fix them, I don't think it's possible. Whether we assign the 1st Cavalry Division with thousands of engineers and military police and generators and medics to do civic operations, or we charge Amb. Ricciardone to go in there with a bunch of civilians and then ask the 1st Cavalry Division to protect them, I don't think it works. We're going to wind up in another Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia.
GEN. BOLGER: Ambassador Jeffrey, I had the good fortune to serve when you were over there, and I'm in total agreement with you. The option of doing nothing has to be considered a lot more seriously than we usually do. We're Americans, so we love to get involved, but I agree. If we're going to do stuff, that's the way to do it. But what you get out of that is attrition, not decision. You continue to whack people; you don't really solve anything. Sometimes, that's all we want, but we need to be clear-eyed about it, saying, if we go in and do this against ISIS, or if we do this in Syria, no answer's going to arise for 20 or 30 years. From a military point of view, count me as a "no" on U.S.-led counterinsurgency. We're zero for three in big ones in my lifetime, and I don't want to be zero for four.
DR. RAND: I would just clarify what I was recommending. When the United States withdrew its combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan, our strategy in both places was premised on an assumption that we can build partnership capacity (BPC). If you count the number of times BPC repeats itself in national-security strategy documents you'd be amazed, as you know. I'm advocating carefully looking at the tools we're already deploying as part of this BPC effort, in particular FMF, security-cooperation assistance and training in order to make sure that we're not just trying to build military-to-military and particular relations for the sake of military-to-military relations, but that instead we're trying to look at outcomes. Obviously, Iraq is a touchy but very important example.
I think there are a lot of questions on Iraq, but maybe no real conclusions: It is unclear whether we could have done a better job of inculcating values of professionalism and non-sectarianism. Maybe that was impossible, because, despite U.S. training efforts, over the past few years, from the very top there were going to be anti-democratic practices that would unmoor all of our efforts. I don't know what the answers are, but we should be asking, is it possible to build good-governance practices into our approach as we deploy military-to-military assistance and training? These are very important non-coercive, positive levers of our diplomacy, authorized by this Congress every year to the tune of billions of dollars. The question for me when it comes to BPC, like other non-coercive tools, is this: Can we ask rigorous research questions and even design methodology so that we know how we're using these tools? Is there any way to improve the partners' capacity, will and professionalism at the same time, teaching our partners how to successfully hold areas that they've cleared, while contributing to the endurance and success of the central state, so that we don't have to do the COIN operations ourselves?
Q: How do the panelists view what seems to be an emerging greater role of the churches, especially the Catholic Church under Pope Francis, in trying to move these societies and their relationship with the West and to take action on both sides in a more positive direction? I'm thinking in terms of interfaith dialogue contributing to an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The pope has made several statements recently and he's coming to Washington to speak before the Congress in September. I'm sure he's going to speak more than about social issues.
GEN. HAYDEN: All very positive, of course. His predecessor got into a controversy when he described Islam as being a far more transcendental religion than Christianity. Whereas in Christianity, because it was translated through the Greeks, we get a human component of philosophy, in Islam, according to Pope Benedict, not so much. Frankly, I think there's truth there. So we'll see how much the holy father can do to influence the debate.
I think more important was President al-Sisi's going to al-Azhar and challenging the faculty there, which has powerful influence on Sunni thought, that we really need to reexamine our faith, because our faith should not be used to justify these kinds of actions. I thought that was a remarkable step on his part, and one that gave me great hope.
Q: In the Arab world — I don't know about Iran — there's always this question of what are the broader American intentions in the region.
DR. RAND: I think the U.S. government understands the value of public opinion and the influence of traditional and social media. The State Department, when I was there, started a counterterrorism strategic-communication office that was trying to, in real time, respond to some of the accusations against American policy. I think it has done a good job. There was recently an article in The Washington Post about this effort, and in particular its new Twitter feed, #thinkagainturnaway, which is trying to respond to the ISIS tweets. It's interesting that they're pushing back. I think the U.S. government understands quite well the new ways in which public opinion moves more horizontally, as opposed to top-down, especially in the transitioning environment of post-autocratic societies. Across the Middle East, even where there are robust regimes still in place, there is a burgeoning demand for free expression and new ways to communicate, even in environments where there are some elements of state censorship.
GEN. HAYDEN: This is a hard problem. It's all shades of gray, all right? But I think in many of these societies, truth is something that's arrived at by deduction from first principles rather than by induction from data. So the Israelis are bad; if bad things happened, the Israelis must have done them. Our response is, let me show you the facts. That's a far more conspiratorial view of society, and it makes it doubly hard for us, who have shades of gray. We've got our own issues with this, but fundamentally, you know, after Bacon and Newton and so on, we try to go from data to generalization. That's not the pattern everywhere in the world.
Q: You know, you've mentioned a lot about Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and ISIS and a lot of other organizations that are rising up and becoming actors. Wouldn't it be a solution to include them in the political framework so that they release their energy in a political way, rather than in a violent manner?
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Your question takes me back to Ambassador Jeffrey's comment. I almost exceeded the limits on snarkiness that my wife has warned me against, so I didn't put in a sixth aphorism, one I lived by when I was a diplomat: Do no harm. I'm arguing for engaging and paying attention, not being isolationalist, not saying it's not our problem, even if it is fundamentally someone else's problem.
We really should be careful what we ask for, and what we think we know, being careful about intervening, whether with the military or others. Be really careful about trying to release the other person's inner American, to imagine that we can fundamentally change people in ways they don't want to be changed. Some do, and they know how to approach us. Many of them speak English and even get to our way of thinking. We need to be modest. This doesn't mean we shouldn't support people who support the principles and values that we uphold. On the contrary, we should proclaim them and do what we can to advance them. I spent some decades working on that with Middle Easterners who, more or less, shared the values and purposes that we share.
But to go beyond that and tell them, you really ought to include this party in what you're doing because inclusivity is good and will save you draws down the curtain, and some of the conversation ends. If you're really good friends, they'll just change the subject. If you're not, you'll make them angry and even less likely to be inclusive and all the other good things that we want. So I go back to modesty and the do-no-harm principle. Let's be careful about what we're trying to push down people's throats.
Q: How would the failing of Egypt as a state affect the national security of the United States of America?
GEN. HAYDEN: Egypt is so large, so important in the Arab world, religiously and culturally, with al-Azhar and so on, which I mentioned earlier, that success in Egypt sets in motion good things. I have my issues with President al-Sisi in terms of democracy, but I've already mentioned how impressed I was with the comments he made at al-Azhar. One general comment: borders don't mean what they used to mean. A Middle Easterner once told me, Bet on the countries with history. He specifically mentioned Tunisia and Egypt; because of their historical identities, they have the best chance of pushing through the current turmoil to a new, steady state.
AMB. RICCIARDONE: Mike, you made the point that leapt to my mind, only more eloquently. There's always been an Egypt, for at least 7,000 years of at least intermittently recorded history. There's been a national identity. Egyptians, people of the Nile, knew who they were and what they were. Governance has been better or worse. Administrations and states have risen and fallen. Armies have come in and gone out, and Egypt has endured. I'm pretty sure that Egypt, as such, won't fail. There can be more suffering or less, due to better governance or worse, more prosperity, climatic factors, population pressures — all of that. But there will be an administration. They invented the state, complete with provinces, governors, ministers, judges. You can see it in the tomb records. There will be an organized society with an identity.
I likewise have had a lot of time in Turkey. It's a new state, but it comes from a great imperial history of a people who know who they are, how to organize as a society and what it means to have global and regional responsibility. It's a strong partner, a strong stakeholder in the stability and prosperity and success of the region. I don't believe any number of talented American diplomats, soldiers, law-enforcement officers, or intelligence officers can solve the problems of the Middle East. It's going to be generational. They may never be solved. But we will competently manage them if we deal with the primary enduring stakeholders, like the Egyptians, the Turks, and the Saudis, who are not going to go anywhere. Those peoples and their societies are committed, they have children, and they want a better future. We can work with them and manage better if we do some of the things I think are in our nature to do as Americans. We can manage better, even if we can't solve their problems for them and probably shouldn't even try.