Welcome to this year's Lund Critical Debate. Our topic today is American Foreign Policy in the Middle East-- Success or Failure?
I'm delighted to welcome. You my name is Fred Logevall. And I am here in my capacity as director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. I'm also a faculty member in the History department. And I serve as Vice Provost for International Affairs here at Cornell.
Very pleased to see you. Even though the great Ithaca winter of 2015 shows no signs of abating. You've made it out, and we're grateful. And I'm just going to make a few general remarks about the debate and then turn things over to Aziz Rana, who will be moderating today's event.
By the way, we had no idea I think-- well, we had some idea. We knew that this was going to be a timely subject when we selected it. I don't think we understood at the time maybe just how timely, with a certain prime minister in Washington today giving a much-anticipated speech. But it's certainly a subject that we felt strongly is of great contemporary resonance and of particular importance to US foreign policy. And so we're pleased to be able to present this.
This Lund Critical Debate is part of a Foreign Policy Forum that we have here at Cornell. Many of you, I think, are familiar with the Forum. It brings together experts on campus who have a particular interest and expertise in foreign policy. And it involves also having both outside speakers and forums here on campus that connect in some way to foreign policy concerns. We have a current events class that we offer as part of this network.
And I want to mention that we have two upcoming events, very briefly. On Monday-- next Monday, March 9, excuse me-- Will Hitchcock, who is a professor at the University of Virginia, will present a lecture in our Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker series. And Professor Hitchcock will be here to speak on the question or the subject of "Why the First World War Still Matters-- Reflections on the Centennial, 1914 to 2014." That is March 9 at 4:30 PM in Lewis Auditorium.
And then, I want to mention that US Ambassador to Russia, recently, in the Obama administration-- that is Michael McFaul, who is currently Professor of Political Science at Stanford University-- will be here as this year's Bartels World Affairs fellow. And he will give a lecture. Ambassador McFaul will speak on the subject of "A New Cold War? Explaining Russia's New Confrontation with the West." That is March 16. So also coming up, in-- I believe-- here in the Statler Auditorium. That's 4:30 on March 16, I believe.
This debate today is part of our Foreign Policy forum, our Foreign Policy Initiative. It is made possible by a very generous gift and the generous support of Judith Lund Biggs, class of 1957, who has really made this possible. And I'm really grateful to her for her generosity in supporting the debate.
And she is a 1957 graduate of Cornell. Majored in American studies and government when she was here. She earned a master's degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and has maintained a lifelong interest to this day in foreign affairs, in US foreign policy. She serves on the board of the Foreign Policy Association. And I want to thank Judy on behalf of Cornell University for making it possible for us to have today's very special event.
Now, let me introduce you Aziz Rana, who is moderating today's debate, who will introduce our two distinguished debaters-- Ambassador Dennis Ross and Professor Bassam Haddad.
Aziz Rana is an Associate Professor of Law here at Cornell, where he specializes in American constitutional law and political development. Professor Rana's book, The Two Faces of American Freedom, was published by Harvard University Press. He has also written articles that have appeared in scholarly journals as well as magazines such as The Nation and the New York Times. Prior to joining Cornell's faculty, Aziz was Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fellow in Law at Yale. He received his bachelor's degree summa cum laude from Harvard College, a JD from Yale Law School. He has also earned a PhD along the way, in political science from Harvard, where his dissertation was awarded the university's Charles Sumner Prize. I'm very grateful to Aziz Rana for his willingness to moderate today's event. Please join me in welcoming him.
So I'd like to begin by just saying it's a pleasure to be here and to have the opportunity to introduce these two incredibly distinguished speakers-- Ambassador Dennis Ross and Professor Bassam Haddad. What I'm going to do is provide a short introduction. And then I'm going to lay out a bit of the frame for our conversation before turning it over to the speakers.
So Ambassador Dennis Ross is currently the counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's also had a remarkable career in foreign service and diplomatic service serving for four different US presidents and really being the point person through large swaths of recent American history, especially on this Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
In addition, he's written or co-authored a number of books. I'm just going to mention one-- Statecraft: And How to Restore American Standing in the World. It's a real honor to have him here as part of the conversation.
Professor Haddad is the Director of the Middle East Studies and teaches in the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. He's also a visiting professor at Georgetown University. He's the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience. He's also been a really important public intellectual and institution builder when it comes to questions around the politics of the region.
He's the founding editor of Arab Studies Journal. He's on the editorial committee of MERIP, the Middle East Report. He's the co-founder of an e-zine, an internet web magazine, called Jadaliyya-- J-A-D-A-L-I-Y-Y-A. So for students here, especially that are interested in the region, I think it's one of the very best places on the internet to get information from a variety of intellectuals and activists and public actors about what's going on. And he's the Executive Director of the Arab Studies Institute, an umbrella for four organizations dealing with knowledge production on the Middle East. And on top of that, he's been a director and a filmmaker in a variety of different film projects.
So it's a pleasure to have both speakers here. And really, what they're going to be focusing on is the US role in particular when it comes to policies in the region. And in some ways, we can take as the starting-off point for our conversation the events in 2011, what's sort of commonly called the Arab Spring, and the transitions that have been underway since. And especially, what's the US position in these transitions. And to what extent should we think of the US role as overall one that's been that beneficial or problematic.
In a sense, the transitions took actors both inside and outside the Washington beltway really by surprise. And you can see that by the fact that across a number of different countries approaches by US policymakers have been distinct. So Libya-- there's been a project of intervention and regime change. In a place like Yemen, by contrast, there was a desire to manage the transition, to maintain a set of allies that are committed to the War on Terror.
In Bahrain, the US was largely silent, while standing in the background as Saudi Arabia participated in supporting the monarchy against protesters. In Egypt, by contrast, the US seemed like it was willing to the play ball with whoever was in power, while at the same time ensuring, or wanting to ensure, that its own military and strategic alliances remained in place. And in Syria, you had a project of support for regime change but weariness of engaging in direct military intervention.
And there've been two large views or perspectives about how to make sense of these various, competing, perhaps contradictory approaches. One view is to say, well, what the US has largely wanted to do is to promote democracy and regional stability. But it hasn't been able to pursue these ends just as it wants because of the fact that the region is complex, and circumstances are quite difficult. And so for that reason, the US has found itself perhaps engaged in practices that are inconsistent, or pursuing policies that might not have reached the desired effect. This is a circumstance, let's say, of good intentions compromised by the complexities of the region.
A second view about how the US has approached the post-2011 transitions is to say, no. Well what's really defined the American position is whether or not we're talking about allies or enemies of what the US views as its structural and strategic interests. And that if a country is an ally, the US is engaged in protecting what we might think of as authoritarian dictators. If a country is an enemy, then the US has been engaged in attempting to flip authoritarian dictators and supporting what you might view as regime change.
But this inconsistency has been problematic. Because it's generated both instability, and it's been incompatible in many contexts with local aspirations on the ground. And this disagreement in position about how generally to view what the US has been doing post-2011 in many ways is part of a much broader and more longstanding conversation the precedes 2011 about the US's strategic interests in the Middle East, and the extent to which the US has imagined these interests-- and particularly, let's say its connections to questions about oil, alliances with Saudi Arabia and also with Israel-- as either promoting stability and ensuring that the region is one that is steadily in a process both of political development as well as economic improvement.
Or instead, that the grander strategy has actually left the US, in many ways, as behaving in ways that are consistent with local aspirations and contrary to what you might think of as actually goals of democratization and peace.
So with that laid out as perspectives, and the question of success or failure as sort of, let's say, in the ether, in thinking through this question about the role, I'd like to turn it over to the two speakers. Ambassador Ross is going to speak first. Each speaker will speak for 13 to 15 minutes. And then we'll come back for a question or two, as well as an opportunity for the speakers to initially respond to each other, before we're going to turn it over to the audience for questions.
What I'll do is I'll just take questions from the audience. And then after that, there will be an opportunity for final comments from each of the speaker's. So, Ambassador Ross.
Aziz, thank you. It's nice to be here. Actually driving here was an adventure. And I'm pleased that I made it.
Look, I think the way Aziz framed it is interesting. It's not going to surprise you if I tend to come down more on one side of the way he framed the issue. But I want to offer a kind of perspective from someone who has been both a participant and a kind of active observer. I want to do it in the following way, by looking at the last two administrations-- being the current administration and Bush 43, in terms of how they approached the area.
And I'm focused on some of the questions that Aziz sent to us, which I think basically were riveted much more on the question of transitions than what was the US role in these transitions. If we go back to 2005, then-Secretary of State Condi Rice gave a speech in Cairo in which she said, for the last 60 years the United States has promoted stability over democracy. And in those 60 years, we produced neither stability nor democracy.
And that reflected what I think was an ideological mindset built into the Bush administration, that as they faced what they called the War on Terror, there was a recognition by the President, by the Secretary of State, that there wasn't only a military answer to this. The perception of the Bush administration might well have been that it used military force very rapidly, and oftentimes not as a last resort but as a first resort. But internally, their perspective was we have to have an answer that is non-military to succeed against Al Qaeda.
And they created an ideological justification or rationale for what we were doing in this competition. And that ideological rationale was if we promote democracy, that's the best way to compete and win in this struggle. Freedom of expression, liberty, and elections took on a kind of life of their own. In fact, I would say in the Bush administration elections were a fundamental part of the freedom agenda.
And it led to, for example, strong support for elections across the board, but particularly for elections within the Palestinian authority. The Palestinian authority in 2006 had elections where Hamas ran again, ran in these elections. And I note this in particular because at the time, the elections were approached from the administration with the standpoint that there were no criteria for who could be involved as a candidate. Because elections were seen as self-correcting. They would produce accountability. And whoever won didn't matter.
Because if they didn't deliver, then the end of the day, they'd be thrown out later on. So there was a kind of self-correcting mechanism. Hamas was allowed to run, even though Hamas had boycotted the elections that took place-- the initial elections, there have only been two-- the initial elections that took place in 1996, which were created by the Interim Agreement, something that I helped to negotiate.
The Interim Agreement set up what was known as the Palestinian Legislative Council. And it created a set of criteria for who could be a candidate. Among other things, you couldn't be a proponent of violence and be a candidate. Hamas boycotted those elections because they weren't prepared to meet the criteria for being a candidate. In 2006, they were allowed to run. And there was no consideration given to the fact that there in fact had been a set of criteria over who could be a candidate.
Well, Hamas ended up winning in those elections. And I think it's fair to say that though the Bush administration-- at least at a rhetorical level-- never walked back its commitment to democracy promotion, the level of its investment after 2006 in promoting elections and so forth was not quite as pronounced as it was prior to 2006.
All right. So the Obama administration comes in. And from its perspective, there was a view that democracy promotion had almost become kind of a dirty concept. Because it was conflated with the Bush administration's approach to producing change, imposing change, in the Middle East. Democracy promotion and elections were somehow seen through a lens. And that lens wasn't one where you were promoting a kind of diversity of views and pluralism and the like. Instead, it was seen as part and parcel of what we've done in Iraq.
And rather than be a proponent of democracy promotion, the Obama administration was, in many respects, embodying a kind of anti-Bush approach to things. He tried to create a real disassociation from what had been identified with the Bush administration. So much so that the Obama administration, in the first few months of the administration, one manifestation of this difference was that when it came to Egypt, the administration was prepared to accept the Egyptian position that we would not fund any NGOs that weren't accepted by the Mubarak regime.
And when the President went to Cairo and gave the speech in Cairo in June of 2009, if you go back and actually look at the YouTube of that speech, you'll see when he gets his fourth item, and he talks about democracy, he's thrown off a little bit. Because there's applause from the audience for the reference to democracy. And he was actually using it to create a different from the Bush administration.
And it wasn't that he was saying that our values aren't important. But he was in effect saying, we aren't going to impose our values. We understand you can't impose our values. We still think the principles we believe in are the most important. But we're not going to impose them, as a kind of contrast. So democracy promotion was not something that was a key principle in the first part of the Obama administration.
Now in 2011, when what I'll call the Arab Awakening begins to emerge, then the President sees in what's happening a unique development. Here is the potential to produce change peacefully. He sees the forces of history in the squares, not in the presidential palaces. He becomes someone who wants to identify with those who are out embodying, in a sense, a way to pursue their aspirations through peaceful means. And he wants us to be on the side of those forces.
Now he wants, in truth, to create a transition. But he is perceived-- certainly in the region and certainly by a lot of America's traditional friends-- as pushing Mubarak out. The fact that after he has one phone conversation with Mubarak, and he comes out, and he says, the transition begins now, and then the next day Robert Gibbs-- the spokesman of the White House-- came out and said in response to, "What does this mean?", he says it means the transition began yesterday.
This created an impression that we were pushing Mubarak out. Now the truth is, we weren't the ones who forced Mubarak out. It was the military who actually saw that their own well-being as an institution might somehow be at risk if Mubarak stayed in. It wasn't the US that pushed him out. But we, then, sought to work with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Marshal Tantawi.
And we sought-- the administration sought-- to impress on Tantawi and the SCAF what were the ways to produce a transition. We made an effort with them. It was a quiet, effort but it was a very intensive, deliberate effort, to get them to focus on a set of principles related to the rule of law, related to pluralism, related to inclusion, to participation. We thought these principles should be embodied in the constitution, and that the drafting of that constitution ought to be done by, again, a very diverse cross-section of the population.
Tantawi's response to us was basically-- I'll use a diplomatic term for it-- to blow us off, and to ignore everything we had to say. And that process of constitution drafting wasn't inclusive. We made suggestions at the same time. I say "we" because in this instance I actually was part of the administration.
We made suggestions at the same time that the approach to elections-- there shouldn't be a rush to elections. Because you needed to create the conditions for it. You needed to create political parties. You were moving from a circumstance where the key institutions for doing this really didn't exist. And that you should take your time to allow different groups to be able to form.
And that if you didn't, by the way-- if you put elections prematurely or if you organized parliamentary elections before presidential elections, you gave an advantage to those who were the only ones who were really already organized, had a clear identity, had a clear platform, had a clear agenda, and had a structure throughout the country from the grassroots level. And obviously that was the Muslim Brotherhood.
And our argument was don't rush. And at least have presidential elections first. Again, same reaction-- blew us off. Parliamentary elections took place first. And the Muslim Brotherhood emerges in a strong position. Salafi's emerged also in a strong position.
And eventually you have an election that produces President Morsi. When he comes in, he doesn't adopt an inclusive approach. He appoints people who are almost exclusively from the Muslim Brotherhood. And we are trying to get along President Morsi.
Aziz, when you were saying we tried to get along-- we tried to get along with everybody in Egypt. We start with President Morsi. We are largely silent in response to his adopting a very exclusive approach, not an inclusive approach. We don't say a lot when we begin to see him prosecute journalists who are critical of the presidency. In fact, you see more journalists being prosecuted under Morsi than you did even under Mubarak.
When there are demonstrations outside of the presidential palace, there are thugs from the Muslim Brotherhood who come in and inflict lot of bodily harm on anyone who is demonstrating. Again, we don't say a lot.
When President Morsi issues a decree that says he's going to govern by decree, and that the courts-- in fact, he will not respect the courts. We, actually the administration, actually described this. I was still part of the administration at this point. I was not enthusiastic about this position. But we described what he's done as, well this is an internal Egyptian process. And this was a function of trying to get along.
Now, obviously, one of things that happens is that Morsi is then removed by then-Marshal Sisi, who is now President Sisi. And when he's removed, in a lot of ways he's removed by what many Egyptians will refer to as a kind of popular referendum. Meaning, you had millions of people in the street.
The administration doesn't refer to it as a coup. Because had the administration referred to it as a coup, we would have had to cut off assistance. We want to try to have it both ways. We realize Egypt is important. We know we have strategic interests with Egypt. Just like we tried to manage with President Morsi, now we try to manage with Sisi. But it's complicated.
Because he adopts what is a strong authoritarian policy. He sees himself engaged in an existential struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. And we are trying to urge him to adopt a certain pathway that will allow us to maintain our assistance. But in the end, we do withhold arms, including we withhold Apache helicopters. And he sees this, at a time when he's fighting what are ISIS, now some groups that are actually ISIS supporters, or claim they're connected to ISIS, or Daesh, he sees himself engaged in a deep struggle with terror. And he resists it.
OK, so I have two minutes left. So I was going to say a lot more. This is what happens when you're a former negotiator, you know, you go on for very long periods of time. So let me fast forward, and I'll try to encapsulate this in two minutes. And maybe we'll get into discussions so I can do more.
Bottom line here is that if you look across the board, we have tried to get along. We've tried to have it both ways. Not because we're guided by a sinister intent. We're not. We do have strategic interests. But we also have certain values. We're trying to reconcile both. It's not a simple thing to do.
In Bahrain, I would take a little bit of issue with what you said about Bahrain, only in the following sense. We actually do withhold arms from the monarchy. We do press them very hard to try to get releases of those they put in jail. We press them very hard on a dialogue. We also work with al-Wefaq, which is the largest Shia syndicate, to try to get them to engage in a dialogue that will produce a political approach to what's going on. We're not very successful.
We're not very successful in Egypt. If you look at Egypt today, across the board, we seem to have alienated everybody. Muslim Brotherhood thinks that we went along with the coup. Sisi thinks that we're basically trying to force him to live with the Muslim Brotherhood. We withhold arms that he thinks that they need.
In Bahrain basically, we were trumped by the Saudis. Because they provide 70% of the Bahraini budget. So everything we did there didn't work out very well. Obviously, Syria is its own separate story. We've had what I would describe as largely a minimalist approach to Syria.
If you look at the pattern, we've tried to create transitions. We've tried to promote them. But we haven't been very effective.
And the real question becomes could we be more effective? Now I think we should understand a couple things. First, in theory of course, I think we could be more effective. And I'm going to get at some suggestions about how we can do that in the next phase. I think we could be more effective.
But I think we should also have a high degree of humility. This is not a region that we're going to be able to shape. This is a region where there's upheaval that is being driven by a fundamental struggle over identity right now.
We are looking at a region where in the aftermath of authoritarian regimes that disappear, you create a vacuum. And the forces that emerge in its place are those that are most coherent. They draw support based on resorting to fundamental basic forms of identity, which creates a stronger sense of security, loyalty.
And in a place like Egypt, where there actually is a sense of national identity-- where the Muslim Brotherhood went wrong is that they violated that basic sense of identity. The most basic sense of identity in Egypt is a national identity. That's not true in most of the other states within the region. In most of the other states in the region, it's sect. It's tribe. It's clan.
And there's a struggle for who can be both A, authentic, who can deliver-- And today, our values-- which we want to promote-- are not necessarily going to be seen, when we present that, as somehow being selfless. There is a perception of us. The perception of us is always tied to us engaged in some kind of conspiracy.
I would make one last comment because I want to respect the time. And I do want to reserve for later, I want to come back and offer what I think are some recommendations. But I want to say this is a region that is characterized by a profound sense of conspiracy. I often used to say that in this region, conspiracy is like oxygen. And everybody breathes it. And nothing happens by accident. It's always because there's something deeper going on.
You know, Sheikh Tahave of Al-Azhar made a statement just, I think, yesterday where he blamed-- he was attacking ISIS. That's the good news. And the bad news was he was saying, in a lot of ways they're really a Western conspiracy designed to divide the Muslim world.
Now, to have that as your explanation tells you a lot about this region. That it's never the responsibility of those there. It's always somebody on the outside. And if we really want to see change in this region in a more favorable direction, in a way that reflects values that we would like to see take hold, one of the things that's going to have to happen is there's going to have to be a sense within the region of responsibility.
You explain why things happen not by searching for conspiracy. You create a sense of accountability. And that's not going to happen so long as conspiracy drives what takes place.
We shouldn't contribute to that. We do have interests that we have to try to reconcile with values. It's not to be so simple for us to do it. But all the blame for what's happening in the region also shouldn't be put on the United States.
Thank you. And I'm really happy that Ambassador Ross went two or three minutes over time. Because I just want to replicate that.
Thanks Aziz, and thanks to the university and the institutions and Professor [INAUDIBLE] and others who have put this together. This is really a fantastic time. As you all know, it's a fitting day, given what happened in Congress, to speak about US policy in Israel-- I mean in the Middle East. And it's important for us to be a bit sober. So some of what I say will sound a little jarring. I apologize. But I'm trying to do a lot in such a short time. And there's a lot to cover. And much of it is not pretty.
I will read so in order to keep time. When I first got the invitation for a debate on whether US policy in the region, in the Middle East, was a success or a failure, I thought the invitation was coming from The Onion Magazine. It's like asking about Russia's policy in the Ukraine, or Saudis' policy in Bahrain, or Israel's policy in Gaza.
Then I realized it's not that funny. Because many people believe in the benevolence of US foreign policy, and fall for what is called the fundamental attribution error. That is, when the US does something horrible in the world or bad, it's because of circumstances. We are defending ourselves, and we had to do it. But when others do something horrible, it's a reflection of their nature.
So essentially, we're always on top, almost figuratively. And we are essentially good. And the other is essentially, or potentially, bad. And not even God-- Her or Himself, if She or He exists-- can convince some of us otherwise.
You can cite everything from nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki to destroying Iraq and all the supportive dictatorships, apartheid states, and thugs in between. It matters not. We come out on top strategically and morally in our foreign policy.
And if there is any doubt about that, Hollywood will take care of it, in Dolby sound at an IMAX theater. American Sniper, for instance, is the latest installment. Sadly, these movies are often more persuasive than some of our media anchors, academics, and politicians. I didn't say diplomats.
I appreciate that.
Whether we evaluate-- and that's what I would like to address-- whether we evaluate US Mideast policy as a set of policies in and of themselves, regarding a commitment to democracy in the region, or evaluate it based on its outcomes, it's been quite a failure-- especially in relation to possible alternatives.
I was asked to address and highlight US policy towards the Arab uprisings primarily, so I will not go through the usual gamut. But to be sure, you would have to look really hard to avoid witnessing decades of support for authoritarian dictatorships and the settler-colonial state of Israel, before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. With superficial talk, of course, of democracy at best-- as will become evident when I address the uprisings.
The so-called specter of Islamism itself in the 1980s was not un-related to US Cold War policies in places like Egypt and Afghanistan. Finally, the missiles that broke the camel's back was the US direct military intervention in the region with its epitome being the fraudulent and brutal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
As part the disastrous and historically counterproductive War on Terror, the war in Iraq and the most devastating sanctions that preceded it, on Iraq, set in motion a social, political, and military trajectory that has torn apart parts of the region for years, if not decades to come. At every stop of the way, we find ourselves complaining about and fighting what is in good measure the outcome of our previous policy failures. It's like Groundhog Day-- the movie.
Much more can be said, but I'd like to turn quickly to some caveats before I address the specifics of US policy in the context of the uprisings. In discussing US Mideast policy, three caveats come to mind. And they become a recurring theme as soon as we start any discussion on the topic.
First, the importance of recognizing the extraordinary power of the United States, both in relation to the region and to the world. The implication of this caveat are simple, even if not always readily visible-- invisible power, impunity of power, unprincipled power. The US need not always act in order to have an impact. It can just be, so long as its preferences are known or perceived to be known. That's invisible power.
US need not follow international law or any semblance of procedure in conducting itself internationally, if it does not want to. This is not a carte blanche where everything has a price. But it is a choice that other states make, often at their existential peril. The US makes it at a perceived, manageable cost. Unprincipled power-- while the US has the material, historical, and media infrastructure to toggle between professed principles and realpolitik in justifying or preparing virtually any action with equal success.
Secondly, there is a widespread readiness-- the second caveat-- to be nearly anything about the Middle East and its peoples and cultures. When in doubt, throw any number of sound bites about Arabs, Muslims, or Palestinians, or what have you, and save yourself a ton of serious discussions. I'm not going to go through some of these sound bites, in order to save some time.
The third corollary caveat is that, embedded in a lot of discussion on the region, is an unspoken but presumed notion of superiority of the self over the other. Not across the board, but it's dominant. It's not always literal, but it is easy to spot. And is usually posited as a last resort in our PC world.
Going back to the role of the US in the region then and now, any serious discussion, I think, should actually entertain two principles. First, the US is not responsible, is not responsible, for all that happens in the region. It's important to recognize that. The second principle is, we cannot understand the development in the region-- good and mostly bad-- without understanding US foreign policy there.
So the issue is messy and complex and should not be reduced to sound bites that Sean Hannity can understand.
The tally of US Mideast policy-- in a nutshell when it comes to promoting democracy or movements towards any form of real democratization in the Middle East, the record of the US role is superficial at best, and reprehensible at worst. In fact, the popular uprisings in the region took place despite US foreign policy, not because of it.
The formula has always been that the US is not looking to promote democratic or authoritarian regimes in the region. It's looking to nurture sustainably compliant regimes, whatever their persuasion. Now as candidates of such regimes, what kind of regimes are sustainably compliant across years and decades? You do the math. Basically we prefer dictatorships. It's rational, in that instance.
I'll say a little bit about our current allies, then delve into the uprisings. To begin with, if we just take a quick look at our two closest allies in the region, we see that they are first, a misogynistic dictatorship-- Saudi Arabia-- and a settler-colonial state, Israel. Most of our other allies in the region are Arab dictators whom we support, and in some cases finance. The argument that this is a tough neighborhood, that there are no better choices available, and that this is a matter of realpolitik, is no longer convincing, if it ever was. And I will try to explain why later.
It has even become the farce how our foreign policies in the region have helped reproduce or produce the demons we subsequently fight and complain about, as an outgrowth solely of local processes or worse, the natural product of that culture. The Arab uprisings, reflecting the will of the people for the most part, took place in an environment where some stability and balance of power was at hand in 2010, 2011. We always forget that they started in 2010 in Tunisia, on December 17.
So there is about a balance of power at hand, with most countries in the region being on our side, and with Iran and Syria clearly outside the fold. US policy was, therefore, not unpredictable, and followed all the fault lines initially in terms of where to stand, based on with whom we stood-- with the people or with the dictatorships-- with little variance and nuance.
We can judge policy based on the policy itself, or on its outcome. On both counts, we don't do well in the region, and often do horribly in relation to the people of the region. The same applies to the record of US policies towards the uprising, whether in terms of democracy promotion or in terms of producing a desired sustainable outcome.
Tunisia-- and I'll do the six cases quickly. We were shocked, like everyone else, with the Tunisian uprising-- even people who are critics of US foreign policy-- and its initial quick success. But Tunisia was never a major "asset." Tunisia is considered the only successful democratic transition to arise out of the 2010, 2011 wave of uprisings. Al-Nahda Party, who won early elections, peacefully ceded control to a nonpartisan government following their failure to manage the various crises of 2013.
After the initial period, the US did not seem to have any ongoing deep interest in Tunisia. We were the farthest from development there, which some argue is one of the reasons Tunisia is comparatively the most successful case of post-initial uprising period in the region. In fact, the overall weak US response to Tunisia points to the contention that democracy is only a secondary US interest in the region.
The US gets a N/A grade in Tunisia-- not applicable. Though it can do more to support democratic progress there, it's really best if it maintains its grade and stays away.
Egypt. Only at the 11th hour did we join the people of Egypt in calling for Mubarak to go. We at Jadaliyya were following the news second by second to hear and listen and read what Secretary Clinton and others were going to say. And we kept on waiting and waiting until some deal was apparently struck. This is key to understanding the threshold of our resistance to join the people. And of course, something had to be agreed upon between the US and the military in order to support Mubarak's exit at the 11th hour.
Indeed, we see that cynical deal unfold today in Egypt. Sisi is Mubarak 2.0-- all the fat, and none of the calories. But it's essentially a heart attack for Egypt in the long run. In the meantime, the US is content with Cairo, and is likely to increase support despite the occasional theatrical hostility that characterizes diplomatic relations, especially from the Egyptian side.
A quick glimpse into US officially reaction tells the story. On 3 July, 2013, the military-- led by Abdel Fattah Sisi-- dissolved Morsi's government. President Obama released a statement on the same day, expressing concern-- very important word-- over the military's actions, while stressing he supported democracy rather than any particular party in Egypt.
Although many lawmakers and members of Congress argued that the United States was legally obligated to suspend aid to Egypt, the administration hesitated to characterize the events as a coup. There are a number of other documented examples of the same and worse, having to do with the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the responses, and how one of the things that we have done was to cancel bi-annual joint military exercises with Egypt.
That was the punishment, which is kind of like cancelling a picnic. But maintaining, of course, that we support the transition and democracy, and so on and so forth. And later, we had another punishment, which involve delaying the shipment of certain military equipment to Egypt.
In all cases, one can argue that so long as the coup regime of Sisi upholds agreements made with the US and Israel, politically and economic, Sisi is going to come out on top. The US gets an F in Egypt for supporting the rolling back of potential democracy there, by essentially and ultimately supporting a military coup, even if the incumbent Muslim Brotherhood government was incompetent and was pushing for centralization, such as more Morsi's passing of a constitutional declaration that granted him extra-presidential authorities.
Libya. US policies towards the uprising in Libya were very closely tied to what Libya represents as a small country with large oil reserves. Thus the US was quick to call for NATO military intervention on humanitarian grounds related to the impending massacres of inhabitants of Benghazi by advancing Gaddafi forces. Ultimately I'm going to skip a lot here.
There was a NATO intervention. We called for it. It happened. And it turned Libya into a chaotic place that is now being torn apart by the day. The US gets an F in Libya in terms of policy and in terms of outcome, which we are still witnessing today.
Yemen. Besides the lobbing of drone missiles, the US has been interested in maintaining stability, securing Arab Gulf interests and fighting terrorism there, much more so than considering prospects for democracy. Our policy was to actually maintain these interests and, as of late, we have had trouble doing so because of the Houthi movement takeover. Ultimately, it does reflect our interests in not prioritizing democracy there. The US gets a D-, and not an F, in Yemen, only because we are confused there. We need a good neocon to change that grade in Yemen, actually.
Bahrain. Bahrain is a turning point. It represents a good deal of what is bad in US Mideast policy. Here's a situation where the United States could have stood by the Bahraini protesters for democracy, against a ruling family dictatorship. Instead, well, it did not. And it ultimately blessed the crushing of the democratic opposition and resumed all significant relations-- strategic and not-- with Bahrain, notwithstanding some of the theatrics and rhetorical lip service here and there, albeit of the muted variety. The US also gets an F there on all counts.
In Syria-- well, I mean, that's a can of worms. Or several cans of worms. The US policy towards the Syrian uprising was essentially equivocal, despite relatively hostile relations with Assad. The brutality of the Assad regime historically, coupled with its support of resistance against Israel's occupation and belligerence usually gives the US a carte blanche to oppose it.
Eventually, on 18 August, 2001, Obama made a statement calling for Assad to get out of the way and announced Executive Order 13582, which imposed harsh sanctions on the Assad regime, blocked US investments in Syria, and banned US imports of Syrian petroleum products. The official US position on the conflict has been to call for Assad to step down at to facilitate the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, while providing overt nonlethal support to US-friendly anti-regime groups and funding for humanitarian aid.
In short, the US and its conservative Arab allies-- Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with Turkey-- made an historic mockery of themselves by turning a situation where an opposition against dictatorship was botched in favor of a dubious position. And that is, to support anyone who wished to fight the regime, with the bad calculus that the regime will fall as fast as the other regimes did before it in the region. And that ended up creating a Frankenstein that we are now dealing with, as ISIS. And of course, we get an F in Syria as well.
In sum, the US policy towards-- and I'm finishing-- towards the Arab uprisings is strikingly consistent with this policy prior to the uprisings, with a failing grade on substance and also a failing grade on outcomes.
In closing, I'd like to challenge the ideas and statements-- I'm skipping a lot here-- that say, we had to do it-- in other words, in terms of our policy-- we had to do it as a function of realpolitik, to defeat a bigger evil, in terms of supporting authoritarianism, and so on.
Second, we're doing our best given the folks and players we have to deal with. Both statements and many more work, until our opponents use them. When that happens, our only resort is to go back to the third caveat I stated at the outset, which is, but wait. We are better. In other words, without invoking some form of cultural superiority, we have nowhere to go.
So it's not acceptable anymore to say we're doing the best we can under the circumstances. It's a tough neighborhood. And the US must deal with the region and players that exist, not the ones we want to exist. It's all unacceptable from an analytic, political, and a moral perspective. Because we do have choices. We can do better under the circumstances that we helped create, by reversing or adjusting course.
It is a tough neighborhood because we ere too busy supporting the tough guys for several decades and enabling their repression. As to the last statement, I'll just repeat it. The US must deal with the region and players that exist, not the ones we want to exist. My question is, there's not a huge amount of difference, is there?
We are dealing with the region today that includes the fruits of our policies, even if we got some help from dictators and fanatics. We made the mix potentially exponentially more destructive. And we did not have to. Iraq and ISIS are some of the more recurring issues in the news. And I can discuss Iraq and the destruction that it begot and the kind of chaos and vacuum that was created in Iraq that ultimately-- is this a circle?
Oh, zero. I see.
I thought you were just drawing. The kind of destruction that was created in Iraq, and the kind of vacuum that was created in Iraq, and the disbanding of the army in Iraq, and the support of a Shia-led government that marginalized and persecuted the Sunni population in Iraq actually created the grounds where Islamic state in Iraq, before it's ISIS, was able to grow.
And that was actually complemented by a massive campaign of incarceration by the Shia government and the United States, that ended up actually creating the leaders that are now leading ISIS, went to Syria, created an emirate in Syria, went back to Iraq to control parts of Iraq-- because it had breathing in Syria-- and now we're dealing with this ISIS issue.
And when we talk about it, we forget that the Big Bang-- the original sin-- was this fraudulent war in Iraq in 2003. And there you go.
So thank you to both speakers.
Before turning it over to question and answer, what I'd like to do is just pose a question to each of the speakers as a way, perhaps, to get the two of you to respond to each other. Because there's a lot that's been placed on the table.
So in a sense, the question for Ambassador Ross has to do with a claim about, well, doesn't the US play a distinctive role in the region? That isn't it in various ways that the US is something like a regional hegemon, precisely because of the fact of American primacy? And so it has a lot more control in being able to generate what Professor Haddad referred to, as let's say, pliable or client states, than perhaps you were suggesting.
And one of the ways is exactly the Egyptian illustration, where it might have been the case that we're willing to play ball with different regimes as they emerge. But really, what we wanted was continuity about the deep state. And the deep state in Egypt is the military that controls a large chunk of the economy and that has long strategic ties to the US. And precisely because our primary interest was maintaining connections with the deep state, that we actually in various ways implicitly and explicitly facilitated precisely the kind of counter-revolutionary politics that we see.
And then for Professor Haddad, I guess the question in a way is, do you see any daylight? One of the things that Ambassador Ross was really emphasizing was the thought that there is a difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. And that the Obama administration found itself in 2009, in a setting where it was dealing with, effectively, the failed policy of the previous set of approaches that had generated a variety of wars across the region.
And that in point of fact, even if you don't have exactly what you might want, a large chunk of what the Obama administration was really concerned with was moving away from a politics of regime change-- which is one way to read the Bush era focus on democracy promotion-- and to emphasize instead negotiated solutions and diplomatic outcomes. And you can see that in the present, for example, in the decision to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons, which is part of the partisan politics and theatrics around the speech in Washington today. As well as the fact that the Obama administration very consciously chose not to pursue a direct military intervention in Syria.
And so, it might be the case that the Bush administration generated a set of dynamics that the Obama administration has had to deal with, and has attempted to, by emphasizing negotiation, diplomatic processes, and attempting to take seriously at least what the goals might be of countries that have traditionally been viewed as enemies.
So maybe we can turn to Ambassador Ross first, and then Professor Haddad.
Look, I think the question-- can you hear me? Look, I think the question about do we want compliant states-- well, it's obviously a fact we don't want hostile states. The question is, can we live with states that have certain points of view that we may not always share. And I think your question now to Professor Haddad is sort of getting at that.
I think the question for us has been how do we have a region that offers the prospect of development? That offers a prospect of pluralism? That offers the prospect of diversity? That offers the prospect of non-conflict and peace? And can we have that if we don't play a certain kind of role?
I think most American administrations have made a judgment that there's no simple way to go from where the region has been to where we would like it to go. So you have to find a way to produce an evolution. We didn't create what was the awakening that began December 17, 2010. It's true, Mohamed Bouazizi didn't just set himself on fire. He set the region on fire.
We didn't create it. We're trying to react to it. I'll tell you something just as aside, before I go on and answer the question. In the six months prior to that time, we-- I was in the White House-- and we put together an interagency team that was looking at the region with an eye towards what can we do to produce reform in this region? Because what we're seeing is stability that is not sustainable.
We had a sense that if we couldn't create greater reform, if we couldn't influence the states with whom we had a relationship-- starting with Egypt, by the way-- that you were going to find it harder and harder to maintain relationships with states who were going to have to become even more authoritative and oppressive internally. Because the contradictions within these states was going to become more acute.
We sat there, and over a period of six months, we were trying to fashion how we could approach things differently. And it was with an eye towards creating evolution in the region, not with an towards, gee, let's create compliant states. Not with how can we sustain the deep state in Egypt?
We realized that we had a relationship with the Egyptian military. Half the Egyptian senior officers had been trained in the United States. And we hoped to try to influence them to basically say, look, if you don't become more inclusive, if you don't allow economic development to take place where the military doesn't control a major part of it, you're going to find that the state you are presiding over is going to be a very difficult one to maintain.
So we made an effort. And then when Tunisia broke, it was like our first impulse was, how could we invest more in those who are trying to produce change so that we can make Tunisia a model of success? What was guiding us was not the notion of compliant states. What was guiding us was the notion of how can we help ensure that change takes place in a way that is orderly, and it isn't seized by those basically who have an agenda that is an extreme agenda.
Now in my own presentation it was pretty clear I said, we haven't been very effective in terms of doing this. But it isn't because we were guided by this presumption that we have to have compliant states. Yes, we would like to have states that our responsive to us. Yes, we would like to have states who view terror as something that is a threat to them as well as to us. Yes, we have always wanted to have the free flow of energy out of the region. And we haven't wanted have one country-- whether it was the Soviet Union in the past, or it was a hostile power within the region, whether it was Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or it's the Islamic republic today-- that we'd gain the leverage over the supply of energy.
Yes that's all true. Yes, we would like to see peace between Arabs and Israelis. All those are true. And trying to work with those governments that would make that more likely has been a guiding light for almost every American administration.
What I tried to do by outlining the Bush approach-- including what was an ideological approach. They created what they called the Freedom Agenda. Now it's true the Freedom Agenda was more pronounced in the aftermath of going into Iraq. And it's also true that Iraq unleashed forces that I think were not understood by the Bush administration.
They had a policy for getting into a war. And their approach to the war, I think, in many respects was based on the assumption that you plan for the best hope, and you hope for the best. And they assumed everything would fall into place. The idea of disbanding the military's institution, de-Baathifcation, you basically were taking the institutions that existed, and you were ensuring that you were going to have a vacuum.
So were things done in a way that I think contributed to a lot of what we've seen? Absolutely. Was it guided by a presumption and an assumption that we have a stake in preserving compliant states? I really don't accept. I don't believe that's what was shaping what we were trying to do.
The real issue is, why were we not more effective in what we did? Why were we-- you know, you mentioned the book I wrote called Statecraft. The essence of good statecraft is you define objectives. And you marry objectives and means.
We've had two administrations in a row that have not been very good at defining objectives that connected very well with the means we had to fulfill those objectives. And when you pursue policies where the gap is pronounced-- and it's been pronounced in places like Syria, and it's been pronounced in places like Iraq-- what happens is you not only damage American credibility in the process. You may well also produce policies that in their effectiveness contribute to greater problems within the region.
But I'll just conclude by saying what I said before. We obviously at this point have had the intention to try to make things better. We haven't produce those things. But again, let's look at the region and these forces. We didn't create the forces. It is true-- I mean, I think Professor Haddad and I disagree on a lot of things. We probably have a similar assessment of what produced Daesh.
I will try to also read so I don't go overboard. So the question was, do we see any daylight?
And also that the administration's focus increasingly on diplomatic outcomes, suspicion of, let's say, the more aggressive forms of regime change-- don't these suggest an effort to correct some of the deficiencies from the previous administration?
I mean, I don't want to be extremely negative. But I will be negative. I do not actually see any major differences, when it comes to foreign policy-- not domestic policy-- between Obama and Bush, and between Democrats and Republicans. I mean, of course, there are differences.
But those differences, analytically speaking, can be as wide as differences between two Republican presidents. So in a sense, there's no serious variance, beyond of course umbrage and packaging. Kind of like the difference between Fox News and CNN, whereby CNN appears more moderate. But in reality, I think it plays a much more problematic role. I still prefer to watch CNN, in any case.
And same thing with the other part of the analogy.
I think we should play a role. I think we can play a role, and we should play a role. The United States should play a role. No one is saying break, for instance, all relations with our existing unsavory allies in the region. I mean, this is naive. It's just not how the world works.
Ideally, we should change our policies ultimately, from whatever we may call them now towards our allies, to what can be called transactional policies. Whereby if an action or a country or a policy does not benefit the interest of the people of the United States, we should not do it. Based on the transaction, rather than based on this belief that nothing can break. Nothing can persuade you to actually change. Belief in supporting x number of countries, irrespective of their behavior. From Saudi Arabia to Israel, but also beyond that.
Now, this is the kind of a problem that brings us to something much deeper. And this is where I would probably lose the debate. And that is, it brings us home. It brings us to important questions about who we are, in terms of our government and foreign policy. How is our foreign policy defined? Who benefits from it? And the answers, of course, are bleak.
And point in most cases to particular forces in our society here in the United States, particular groups, particular conglomerates-- economic or otherwise. So sadly, I don't see a way out in terms of us talking about changes in our foreign policy for the past how many, I don't know how many decades. I don't see a way out that is fundamentally better, without some change here at home in terms of how we define our foreign policy interests, and on behalf of whom.
I know that's not like saying much, but not much has changed, either, in the past several decades regarding the Middle East. Other factors can play a role, but with a huge time lag. And that is, the reduction in importance of the region geo-strategically because of the oil reserves it has, and how and where we get our energy sources from. And that is beginning to change in reality. But I think there will be a serious time lag here.
And then you are, of course, left with the question of Israel and Palestine, which actually will take us another two or three weeks to discuss.
Can I ask just one question, Professor Haddad?
So, why don't you ask the question. Then we'll maybe get some questions from the floor. And then we'll return. But why don't you go ahead and ask.
Let's take-- I mean, look. We have a human catastrophe in Syria today. Instead of-- each of us have talked at a high level of generality-- but what would you have the US do today in Syria?
So let's have that as a question that's on the table, which is American policy in Syria going forward.
But now, I'd like to open it up to the floor to any questions from folks here. We have a microphone. The one thing that I would say is that-- both because we have a limited amount of time and also the nature of the topic-- try to keep your comments or your question relatively short and contained. So less speechifying. But anybody that wants to ask a question. So I see a student right over here.
Thank you. I don't believe I need to-- should I introduce myself? Hi. I'm a transfer sophomore with arts. I'm majoring in history. My name is [INAUDIBLE]. But I wanted to pose a question to the ambassador. So, studying the art of statecraft and democracy promotion, in particular in Iraq-- I guess, from the surface is viewed as a failure due to the fact that multiple extremist groups have arose and gained territory within the state.
So, harking back to examples of re-crafting a stable state from a failed state, or a civil war scenario-- so there's obviously our own history here in the United States where the Civil War involved Confederate bureaucrats returning to the federal government in a variety of positions. And also with Liberia in most recent examples. How would you envision-- if ISIS crisis, in the militant sense, would die down-- how could you envision creating a new Iraqi state. Or rather, creating a new Iraqi government with legitimacy? And would it include extremists as well? Because by all democratic means, I think it may have to happen. That's my own opinion. Thank you.
Maybe we can get another question, then come back to the speakers. Any other questions from the audience, before return back? All right. Over here-- one more question.
Given the fact that both of you have identified limited effectiveness of foreign policies under Bush and Obama, I guess the question is does the current conflict in this situation-- whether or not caused by American foreign policy-- does it lend itself to democratic formation? Does it lend itself to peacefully resolving conflict in a democratic fashion, given the multitude of conflict-- tribal, sect, national, Sunni-Shia conflict-- going back many decades?
All right. So maybe we can return now to both questions, as well as the third, which was this issue about how to think of Syria policy going forward, and what opportunities there might be for the US to play a productive role there. So why don't we start with Professor Haddad, and then we'll turn over to the Ambassador.
I mean, this is the million dollar question on Syria. This is not something for which there exists an easy answer. There is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria-- absolutely correct. There are more than 2.5 to 3 million people outside Syria. So a lot can be done, first of all, for these refugees-- over and above politics. And that is something that is not being done for whatever reasons that we can discuss.
In terms of what can be done-- from the very beginning, the uprising in Syria was a very complex situation. The crisis in Syria is very complex. Not because other cases are not, but because there is a serious level of added complexity, given that Syria lies at the intersection of so many conflicts in the region, from the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the escalation of Shia and Sunni tensions, to the regional balance of power between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and their other allies on the other. To the question of fighting or opposing US hegemony and its allies in the region-- call it imperialism, or what you will.
The point is that from the very beginning, the mistakes that the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey made in pushing anyone who is willing to fight the Syrian regime, as opposed to helping develop a robust, independent opposition that is representative, is actually the original sin. The idea, as I shared earlier, was that you would assume that the Syrian regime will fall quickly. And that whatever Frankenstein you might have built as a result of funding anybody who was willing to fight would actually be taken care of easily.
There is no, from the very beginning-- and I spoke in various venues, and I've said from the very beginning-- and people didn't like what I've said because people would accuse or point to sympathies to the regime. Which, if anyone has read anything that I've written, I've been for the past 20 years critiquing the regime, even when these newfound critics of the regime just realized that we need to critique the regime, but for ulterior motives.
From the very beginning, I was suggesting that this conflict is very difficult to resolve without resorting to a political solution in which all the stakeholders-- local, regional, and international-- would participate. As difficult as this is, this is the only solution then, it is the only solution now. The stakeholders can make a difference. Russia and the United States can make a difference.
But neither of these countries then, and perhaps even now, are willing to make the kinds of compromises in their other relations with other parties in the region and are not willing to make compromises regarding basic issues. So the status quo is to let this take place. And the cost of everything that is happening in Syria today is actually not a cost that the Syrian regime is bearing. It's a cost that any potential future Syrian state will bear, or Syrian society will bear.
And the beneficiary is definitely not the Syrian people, definitely not any notion of Arabs in general, it's whoever wants Syria-- as a state even under another regime or under another government-- to be emasculated. These would be the parties who will benefit.
Maybe we can turn to Ambassador Ross. And also, there were the two questions that were on the table. So, the one issue about statecraft, and this question of what's going to happen in Iraq. And the other, the question about various kinds of tensions that are within the region that are either ethnic or religious, and how to deal with those various cleavages.
So let me make a quick comment on Syria. And then I'll comment on the others. Look, I don't think there's any outcome in Syria that can take place unless the balance of power with the Assad regime changes, or unless the Iranians and the Russians decide that the price of what they're doing becomes too high. There's a reality, unfortunately, that the Syrian people are paying this terrible price.
And we've seen the emergence of Daesh precisely because of Syria. It wasn't only because of Maliki and what the Shia did. It's also because they had a conflict erupted in Syria, and it became a kind of safe haven for them. And they were able to use it.
We have seen what is a humanitarian catastrophe. We've seen that it has the potential to destabilize the whole neighborhood. I don't disagree with your point that at the end of the day, you're going to have to probably bring all those who have the ability to influence what's happening on the ground together, in one place. But if you don't change their incentive structure, I don't see how that changes.
I mean, I don't see much interest on the part of the Iranians or on the part of the Russians at this point to do anything differently than what they're doing. And to some extent, they seem to think that maybe they can still win, which I think is an illusion. So I think somehow you have to create a change in the balance of power.
I personally would like to see a buffer zone created along the Turkish-Syrian border as a way of dealing also with refugees. Because the neighboring states are increasingly less inclined to absorb them. And all those who were displaced within Syria are living in circumstances that are almost unimaginable. So there needs to be a place where they can go.
And there needs to be a place where maybe a more coherent opposition can take shape on Syrian soil. And that may affect the incentive structure on the part of the Russians and the Iranians, if they see that this is where things are headed.
Having said that, I also think there's no easy outcome. And I don't know whether the Syrian state itself is sustainable. And I also think, when we see a breakdown of states in this region, that is the last thing we want to see. Because failed or failing states creates an operational space for groups like the Islamic State, or others who can emerge.
All right. On to Iraq. Iraq-- I think the essence-- if we're going to apply a statecraft model to Iraq, at this point, it's a difficult one also to manage. Because Iran is next door. Iran has basically financed, armed, trained, and developed a lot of the Shia militias. There is obviously a limit to what they will tolerate next door, if they see things emerging that they see as being hostile. They have the ability to frustrate a lot of what could take place. You have Prime Minister Abadi, who actually seems to be operating on the premise of trying to create an inclusive approach to governance, which is the only potential answer.
I worry very much when we look at offensives in what will be Sunni areas, it is one thing to force Daesh out. The question is who stays behind? The idea of creating a Civil Guard or a National Guard that is Sunni under a federal umbrella is the right idea. Will the Shia militias, will the Iranians permit that to happen? I think that's a basic question.
It is right for us to build up the Iraqi military. It is right for us to emphasize this principle of inclusiveness. Is important to work out deals between the Kurds and the central government, if you're going to preserve what is a coherent Iraq. And again, it comes back to what will the Iranians tolerate? And can we create enough of a counterweight? Or is it also possible the Iranians will overplay their hand within Iraq, which I wouldn't discount.
In any case, I think-- here again-- our focus should be on a set of principles, which are guided by inclusiveness, and preserving an Iraqi state. It does require allowing the Sunnis to feel that they're not going to be oppressed. It does require an approach that I think builds a sense of greater federalism, which means a greater degree of autonomy, maybe in different parts of the country under a federal umbrella. I think that's probably the long-term answer.
Do you want me to go on or stop, just because of time?
Yeah, maybe we can get a couple more questions on the table.
Should I address the question of Shias and Sunnis in Iraq and democracy, or no?
Why don't we get a couple more questions, and then maybe we can answer those two in the context of the next round. So any other questions from the audience?
So I mostly had a question for both speakers about-- especially with the difference that's kind of been a theme throughout the debate-- between the Bush and the Obama regime, about the US's soft power and diplomatic stance in the region. And whether or not military action-- whether it's like boots on the ground or air strikes and such-- is really necessary or helpful in this situation? Because I know there's a lot of controversy and a lot of arguments over whether Obama has helped or hindered the US soft power, with his abandonment of red lines and such.
Any other questions? Maybe we can get a second, and then come back. So I see a hand raised over here.
While I appreciate the talk about generalities and the need for inclusiveness and diversity and all that, I think I would like to see more of a tailored idea of American policy directly should be. I think this is aimed more at Professor Haddad, where one minute you said that maybe the policy should be nonintervention. But as we saw in Bahrain, and in the case where the state has a monopoly of force, that will oftentimes lead to the government staying in power. So then maybe we can try intervention, but not state-building, which obviously failed in Iraq.
But in the case of Libya, as you've seen, it's left a complete disillusion and a complete tear-down on the streets, where there's no central government. Then there's the possibility that we could intervene and actually try to build a state, but oftentimes we don't understand the nuances that exist within that country. So can we get a more tailored explanation of what American policy should be? Should it be one of these three policies? Or do we need a fourth policy that's likely to have clear and more succinct way of dealing with the problems in the area?
So maybe we can come back now to the speakers to respond to both of those questions, as well some of the issues that have been floating out there from the previous round as well.
Would you like to begin?
Fine. The issue of soft power-- it's an important one. I think, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she liked to use the term "smart power." And smart power was, how do you use all instruments at your disposal? I've often felt that, particularly in this part of the world but not limited to this part of the world, there is usually a coercive element. Where you have to be prepared, if you're going to make certain kinds of threats, to follow through on them. Because you're also dealing with forces that may not understand much other than that.
I think one key mistake for the president was obviously when he established a red line in Syria and then didn't follow through, at least given the expectation that was raised. One of the things you don't want to do is stake out positions that you're then not actually going to follow through on. And I think there's a perception that's developed in the region about President Obama that there is a gap between what it is we say we will do, and then what we actually end up doing.
Your soft power is likely to be more effective if you're seen as being consistent, in terms of what you say you're going to do. It puts a premium on being careful about what you say. It wasn't just the red line in Syria, it was also that it's true, in August of 2011 the president said that Assad has lost his legitimacy. And he should leave. And the impression was, if you're going to stake out that kind of a position, what were you going to do to make that more likely?
It is also true, I think-- and here, I said there's a lot of things that Professor Haddad and I obviously don't agree on-- but I do think there was an expectation, which was a false expectation, that Assad wasn't going to last. I had never shared that view, I have to say. Because I always assumed that he would turn this into a sectarian conflict as a way of preserving himself in power. Which is in fact what he did.
And so I say this because if we're going to be effective, whether its smart power, hard power, or soft power that we're going to apply, it starts with having a good enough analysis of what we're getting into to understand what we can do and what we can't do. Which instruments and modalities apply and which ones don't.
Don't stake out positions that you're not going to be able to fulfill. And the ones you stake out, then you should be fairly confident that you can actually act on it. And you should pursue it.
I think President Obama was very heavily influenced by the legacy that he inherited. He said he got elected not to get into wars, but to get out of wars. And it has made him, in a lot of ways on a lot of issues, inclined to engage, but always to engage in a minimalist way. And it has created a tendency to always be aware of the cost of action, and not always to be aware of the cost of inaction.
So in a kind of broad way I would say the answer to your question is be really clear on what your objectives are. Don't stake out positions that you're not going to be able to act on. It's fine to be very careful when you are pursuing policies. But choose those places where you are going to be-- well, if you're going to be more assertive rhetorically, then be prepared to act on what you say. Or don't say those kinds of things in the first place.
Quickly, on the question of Iraq, and Shias and Sunnis, there's always this discussion about Shias and Sunnis fighting, as if it's endemic, as if it's never going to stop, it's always been the case. That's not true. Just like Protestants and Catholics killed each other for decades and centuries and then stopped, this is possible. And actually, in time and space, Shias and Sunnis, most of time, are not fighting.
The situation in Iraq is very much a function of Saddam Hussein sectarianizing and politicizing sects in order to stay in power. And that created a kind of tension that was unfortunately picked up by the Coalition Provisional Authority of the United States when we invaded and occupied Iraq. And we pushed that formula instead of actually reversing it, in more ways than one.
My colleagues and I were there just a couple months after the invasion in Iraq. And we witnessed the building of a new kind of governing council in Iraq that actually in many ways entrenched sectarian in Iraq, and did not reverse it. So it is not something that is necessarily endemic. It's something that is actually quite politicized. And I probably shouldn't get into this a lot more.
So, yes, we do see possibilities in the region for democratic formations. There's no big obstacles for that. But in the very long run. In the short to medium run, it is an incredibly difficult situation. Because the conflict is not contained. Syria's problems are not Syria's problems today. Iraq's problems are not Iraq's problems. They are the problems of all of the countries I mentioned-- I'm not going to list them-- and the international community as well, for various reasons. From Russia to China to the United States, and so on and so forth.
One of the best ways to actually think about the region is to really think about why is it a source of all this quote unquote violence? You have oil, strategic and natural resources. You have the source of monotheistic religions. Israel-Palestine conflict.
And it's geographically in the middle of the world. This used to be more of a problem in the past. It's less of an issue now. But it is a contested region. And whatever is making the region contested, in my view, is going to continue to invite external interference. And then with this external interference, if international players are rational states-- as we read in the IR books-- it's not likely that there will be a move to democracy anytime soon.
But the faster international players withdraw from the region, even if there will be a kind of lull, or a kind of period where there's a lot of conflict, wars, and violence, I think we would be better off. This is why my answer to the question of what should the US do, and military action by the US-- is it necessary? I think it's counterproductive, actually. Bombing ISIS is not the way to go.
And of course, not because ISIS should be spared. Or because ISIS doesn't deserve to be responded to. But we have acted in such a way where our options are so narrow right now. And I'm suggesting that we should develop a transactional policy which will allow the United States to expand its options and rebuild its soft power.
At this point, what is a President of the United States to do after what was witnessed on television regarding the killing of US journalists, and so on? And regarding, of course, the question ISIS's threat to the oil fields in northern Iraq. Because this is when Obama freaked out and actually went on TV and talked about degrading ISIS's capacity, when ISIS began to expand in ways that were not permissible.
And this requires a pause. We can't just ask what should we do today? I have been reading and writing and speaking for many, many, many, many, many years. And every time there's a crisis, we say, given the situation today, what should we do?
Well, we really have to step back. We actually-- and I want to comment that I did not say "ever" and will not say that we created everything that's taking place in the region. But we have a very disproportionate influence on what happens in the region, in some of these places. And we cannot wait until there is crisis that we had a part in producing, and say what do we do now? These options are indeed limited. So I would like to assert that.
In terms of what should the US policy be in general, the world is changing. And I think we're not paying as much attention as we should be. Because like every superpower or empire-- call it what you will, because some people are allergic to the word empire-- what we need to do is reduce the US military footprint in the world. And that applies to the region.
This kind of behavior and this kind of approach, as I said earlier, is going to require change at home. Which means that I'm really-- again, I'm sorry. You want specifics. I mean, if we here as either citizens of the world, or citizens of the United States, if we really want to push for specifics, well, we probably should start at home. Barring that, yes, the world is telling us, is signaling us, that what used to work before is not working now.
I have all kinds of papers here, including surveys and polls, about the standing of the United States in the world. And it's actually increasingly horrible. And that is not something that we should actually be uninterested in.
I was part of a film crew. I directed a film where we interviewed Jean Kirkpatrick. And she said-- that's just like about nine years ago-- she doesn't care about what the world thinks of the US. Because she's carrying that 1970s and 1980s mentality, and fighting the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. I think that's a huge mistake.
And everything that I've suggested today-- including changing the nature of our policy, including reconsidering and adjusting relations with our allies that actually themselves are repressive on various counts, and are considered some of the most dangerous states in the world-- I'm not talking about Iran. I'm talking about Israel, for instance, according to Gallup polls and other universal polls. This is the kind of direction we need to move in. I am just not very hopeful about that. And I don't think much is going to happen, unless something happens locally.
The events in Ferguson and beyond are not going to stop. And these kinds of things are a reminder that-- we talk about foreign policy as if this is where the problems are. And I think we should also shift our gaze a little bit to the home front.
That's great. I think we're actually out of time. So if folks will bear with us, maybe I'll just offer both speakers, very quickly, if you have any final thoughts or words, and then we'll call it a day. Any last comments that we're just about done?
Yeah, I'll make a couple. Clearly, you have two speakers who have a different view of the world. And it's appropriate on a college campus that that should be the case. I just want to make-- in light of what I just heard-- I want to make two points. I do care what the rest of the world thinks about United States. And I do think that it matters. Because we're in a world that is highly interdependent. And that affects our soft power. That affects what we do and how others respond to us.
But I also think that when there are direct threats, and there are those who use force, if the United States isn't prepared to use force against them, we're going to pay a terrible price. I think when it comes to ISIS, it's true that there isn't only a military answer to ISIS. Because obviously ISIS has created, or DASH has created, a certain brand. That it's going to purify Islam. It's going to stand up against those who try to impose on Islam. It's going to be the protectors of the Sunnis.
But a part of its brand is it's on a divine mission. And if it looks like it begins to lose, then its appeal is also going to diminish. So the idea that force shouldn't be used against ISIS-- I wouldn't accept that. I think that's a fact. I think we have to realize that we're going to have to use force, even though that's not the sum total of what we have to do.
And Professor Haddad, maybe a last word, or--?
Well, I'd like to close by reiterating what I came here to do, and that is to discuss US-Mideast policy. And in my view, it has been a failure by most measures. In particular, I would like to say-- and I'll read, so that I don't take more than I should, time-wise.
In particular, it's been a failure for the people of the Middle East-- which we don't talk about very much-- and the people of the United States-- which we also don't talk about very much. If there is any measure of success in US foreign policy in the region, then these measures were gained by special interests here in the United States, and special interests among the elites in the region. Usually connected to economic and political circles, players, in both areas, in both arenas.
The defender of these special interests is the opponent of the people, here and there, and by extension of democracy also here and abroad. So one of the ways I would look like to look at things, and I would like to urge you to look at things, is see who is benefiting from these kinds of policies here and abroad. And you see a very narrow set of interests and groups who are benefiting. So maybe after all, we have a lot more in common than we thought.
Thank you very much to both speakers and to all of you--
--for a very stimulating conversation.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Ambassador Dennis Ross and Bassam Haddad debated U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East March 3, 2015 as part of the Einaudi Center's Lund Critical Debate series.
Topics addressed during the debate were the influence of the United States on various political transitions (for instance in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria), its impact on democracy promotion and regional stability, and the most likely U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Ross played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process for more than 12 years. Dealing directly with parties in negotiations, he was the U.S. point man on the peace process for the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, and also served as an assistant to President Obama and a special advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is a distinguished fellow and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Haddad is executive director of the Arab Studies Institute and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason University. He is founding editor of the Arab Studies Journal, and co-founder/editor of Jadaliyya Ezine, which covers Middle East politics.