While the Middle East burns, policymakers can’t seem to agree on how to douse the fire. This discord was on full display Monday, at the Middle East Policy Council’s annual conference. Speakers included Kenneth Pollack, Paul Pillar, Amin Tarzi, and Ambassador Chas Freeman, with Thomas Mattair moderating. Pollack sought a more robust military presence in the region, while Freeman advocated for a hands-off approach. Pillar and Tarzi fell somewhere in between.
Pollack said America must reengage fully with the Middle East, diplomatically and militarily. From the beginning, Obama wrongly assumed that America had overinvested in the region. He believed that the US was in fact a major part of the problem and couldn’t affect the outcome of events in any case. These assumptions have proven demonstrably false over the last five years, he said. The Middle East today is, amazingly, in even worse shape than it was in 2006.
He noted a shift in Obama’s approach to the region in the last few years, beginning with the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State. Kerry’s attempt to revive the peace process signaled a more hands-on approach. The announcement of half a billion dollars in aid to the Syrian rebels was also a positive sign.
Moving forward, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is especially apropos. America could have reduced the costs we are now incurring had we intervened earlier. We should have provided more support for Syrian rebels at beginning of civil war. When the US gets involved earlier, we have more leverage when things go awry.
Pillar said that the Hippocratic principle of “first do no harm” should take precedence over Pollack’s “ounce of prevention.” “Bumper sticker” solutions will not address our problems in the region. America’s Middle East policy must be ad hoc.
We have an unfortunate Manichaean tendency to divide the world into “ally” and “enemy,” Pillar said. US policy should be more flexible than that. It should serve our interests without regard to labels. Concluding a nuclear deal with Iran is one occasion where we must deal in shades of grey. Iranian interests sometimes clash with ours, as in Syria. But other times they converge, as in Iraq.
Tarzi argued against Pillar’s “ad hoc” approach to the Middle East. We must have stable partners in the region, he said. We must also look at why Iran began seeking nuclear weapons in the first place. Khameinei realizes that possession of the bomb gets you a seat at the table with the big boys, while giving it up means you get the boot (Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi). Assad may have saved his regime by using chemical weapons on his people, setting a dangerous precedent. America cannot allow these precedents to stand.
Tarzi added that Iran would not attempt to strike Israel or the US, a belief that was echoed to him by a number of experts on a recent trip to Israel.
Freeman cautioned against confusing sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy. Obama said at West Point “Our military has no peer.” But he added, “Just because we have the best hammer doesn’t mean every problem is a nail.” Unmatched military prowess has not proven equal to many of the problems in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is hard to think of any US project in the Middle East not at or near a dead-end. American efforts at negotiating Middle East peace are not so much dead, said Freeman, as “so putrid as to not be fit for a wake.”
Our attempts at democracy building have failed spectacularly. In fact we have pulled down several budding democracies in their infancy, as was the case with Egypt. US counterterrorism programs are only fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. In Iraq we replaced secular dictatorship with a religious one, and gave birth to the jihadistan we see today.
We have repeatedly told leaders in Middle East that they must be “with us or against us,” Freeman said. They remain annoyingly unreliable in this regard. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is with us on Iran and Syria, against us in Iraq. Salafists are against us in Iraq, with us in Syria.
We cannot have a policy when people are so “damnably inconsistent.” The US should withdraw from the Middle East, he argued. We must stop protecting Israel, which would make better decisions if it weren’t shielded from the consequences of its actions by the US.
Assad miscalculated with the over-application of force early on, Freeman said. Protests quickly escalated into a civil war. However, the conflict was exacerbated by the flow of arms into the country. We should try to stop the flow of weapons into Syria, rather than attempting to find the “mythical Syrian moderates” who will rise up against Assad.
Pollack countered that it is possible to build a conventional army of non-jihadists in Syria who can oppose both ISIS and Assad. The purely diplomatic solution Freeman proposes is not possible without a shift in the balance of power on the ground.
The speakers did not see eye to eye on much. On one point, however, they did agree: the Middle East in flames, and America has yet to articulate a coherent policy towards the region. Until we do, it will continue to burn.
PS: Here is the video of the event:
After days of rising hostilities and predictions of a third intifada, Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza last Thursday night. The number of displaced Gazans has nearly doubled and neither Hamas nor Israel has shown any sign of concession. Critiques and counter-critiques abound, from Hamas’ refusal of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to Israel’s relentless military offensive. On Thursday, the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) hosted “Israeli-Palestinian War in a New Regional Landscape” with a panel of its own experts. Ziad J. Asali, Saliba Sarsar, Ghaith Al-Omari, and Hussein Ibish discussed the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the political realities that could play out in the future.
Al-Omari, ATFP Executive Director, analyzed the current political dynamic between Israel and Hamas. “We are entering a posturing moment before a deal is struck for the ceasefire,” he stated. Both sides have made their priorities clear and have proven how much is at stake in this longstanding conflict.
After weeks of heightened tensions, Prime Minister Netanyahu initially accepted the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire this week, while Hamas refused it. Hamas has thus received a great deal of criticism from the international community due to the continued loss of civilian lives. Al-Omari stated that this decision derives from Hamas’ three fundamental objectives in the current conflict:
- Hamas wants to emerge in a position that would allow it to claim some form of victory. Thus far, they have entirely failed to do so.
- Hamas needs a ceasefire that provides some kind of gain. Again, Hamas has failed in this as well, with the Egyptian ceasefire proposal allowing no territorial or political advantages.
- Lastly, Hamas wants Qatar and Turkey to play a role in the ceasefire. Neither has had a significant role so far, as Egypt has been in the lead.
Hamas has prioritized its own objectives, at great humanitarian cost to Gazans in the last several days. Thus, Al-Omari stated that it is absolutely necessary that we open up Gaza in the short-term. Egypt and the US can play a critical role in this context and it is ultimately in their best interests to do so.
Many other regional factors have also had an impact on the current hostilities between Hamas and Israel. Ibish, ATFP Senior Fellow, discussed divisions within Hamas, which is both a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and an ally of Iran. Hamas is also in need of external help, as support from Syria has dried up. The rise of ISIS also causes concern.
At the end of the day, the outcome of this current violence will most likely look a great deal like the “old normal.” This is exactly what Hamas doesn’t want—it will be a crushing blow after the violence and innocent lives lost to return to the way things were. This “old normal” is a desperate box and Hamas is doing everything it can to get out of it, as evidenced by its controversial refusal of the ceasefire this week.
The Palestinians ultimately do not have a lot of options: they lack domestic choices and the great majority does not trust Hamas or Fatah. It is also evident that an increasing number of Palestinians have put more and more blame on Hamas with each rise in hostilities.
According to Asali, President and founder of ATFP, we must rebuild the credibility of the Palestinian leadership and open up the political space. If the international community is as invested in a two state solution as it claims, it can assist, with funding. International sponsors can demand the political space be opened up and another round of elections in the future. They can aid in a protracted campaign with a broader range of candidates other than Hamas and Fatah. This would allow more moderates who better represent the Palestinians to emerge. There never has been a more opportune time to put the international community’s words to the test and break the grim cycle of violence.
My hat is off to Frans Timmermans, Netherlands Foreign Minister, who spoke at the UN Security Council today:
Note the emphasis on justice. The Dutch, who have held their own peacekeepers culpable for the murder of Bosnians evicted from the Dutchbat compound at Srebrenica, are serious about that.
While I agree with those who see the world developing in positive directions over the longer term, I confess to feeling drained of all I have to say for the moment on Gaza, Ukraine as well as Iraq, Syria, Libya and several Balkans conflicts. Somehow this struck a chord:
I would normally await an official investigation before commenting on the downing of Malaysia Airlines 17, but it looks as if there never will be an opportunity to establish the facts in that way. The crash site is being trashed, rebels thought to have downed the plane have recovered the black boxes, and Moscow is failing to press the rebels to allow a serious inquiry, even while calling for one.
I am inclined to believe the emerging consensus in the West that Russian-assisted rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down the Boeing 777 thinking it was a Ukrainian military aircraft. No alternative hypothesis has yet emerged consistent with the location of the crash site, as well as the post-crash behavior of the rebels, which is clearly intended to obscure and not clarify the matter. The notion that the Kiev government brought down the plane thinking it carried Russian President Putin doesn’t pass the laugh test, despite its prominence in Russian media.
The question then is what should be done about Russian mendacity and potential culpability.
Insistence on a serious, internationally staffed investigation is still important. Even a hampered or partial investigation could turn up useful results. Ukraine is the “state of occurrence” and therefore in the lead. It has requested assistance from the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Russian participation should be welcomed, but it cannot be a Russian-led investigation. Nor should the rebels be allowed to participate. Their “republics” are internationally unrecognized, even by Moscow. The Netherlands, which had many passengers on board, Malaysia (where the aircraft was registered) and the United States (where the aircraft was designed) will also need to be involved, as well as other interested parties.
Such investigations are often lengthy and sometimes equivocal in their outcomes. Some people still have doubts about what brought down TWA 800 in 1996, even after an investigation that lasted four years. For MH17, a great deal will depend on the willingness of Moscow to be transparent about which weapons it supplied to the rebels, who was in charge of them and whether any missiles were fired at the time of the occurrence. Ukraine will similarly need to specify where its anti-aircraft weapons were located and whether any were fired. Given Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s unequivocal statements on the subject, such clarity on the part of Kiev should not be a problem.
What is to be done in the meanwhile?
Here is where American diplomats need to earn their pinstripes. What is needed is for Moscow to come clean and recognize that continuing support to the rebels in Ukraine is putting at risk Russia’s claim to being a responsible member of the international community. We’ll get a hint of Moscow’s attitude today, when the UN Security Council discusses a draft resolution calling for a full investigation and for armed groups to allow access to the crash site.
It is increasingly apparent that the thuggish rebels do not have the kind of depth of support in the local community that was available to their counterparts Crimea, which nevertheless is already costing Russia a bundle of money. Moscow should be worried that rebel success in Donbas will cost much more, both in financial and reputational terms. The substantial flow of Russian military equipment back and forth across the Ukrainian border makes Moscow complicit, if not responsible.
The Americans and Europeans are slow act, but they are not stupid. They know the rebellion in eastern Ukraine would collapse if Moscow ceased its support. Brussels and Washington are running out of the easy sanctions that send a signal but don’t do much economic damage. It would be foolish for Moscow to court additional sanctions that hit hard at its banks and other financial institutions.
The credible threat of such sanctions is difficult to mount, not least because Russia is said to be prepared to torpedo the nuclear talks with Iran. But doing that would damage Russia’s interests even more than the West’s, as either a nuclear Iran or an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would diminish Russia’s role in a world already inclined to regard its behavior as roguish. Moscow’s best bet is to fess up on MH 17 and end support for the rebellion in Donbas.
- ISIS, Iraq, and the Gulf States Monday, July 21 | 10:00 am – 11:30 am Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; 1799 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND A panel discussion with Dr. Shireen Hunter of Georgetown University, Dr. Abbas Kadhim of SAIS, Ali Al-Ahmed of The Gulf Institute, and Kadhim Al-Waeli, an Iraq military analyst, concerning the present and future of ISIS in Iraq and the Gulf States.
- Tariq Fatemi on Pakistan’s Vision for Regional Peace, Prosperity, and Economic Development Monday, July 21 | 10:30 am – 12:00 pm Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; 1799 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The upcoming U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the radicalization across the region, and persisting political rivalries continue to impede South Asia’s growth and economic integration. However, the election of business-oriented leaders in most of South Asia provides reason to hope that the quest for prosperity will at last become the main driver of political relations across the region. Ambassador Tariq Fatemi, special assistant to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, will discuss Pakistan’s vision for regional economic integration and enduring peace and prosperity.
- Iran’s Nuclear Chess: Calculating America’s Moves Monday, July 21 | 12:00 pm – 1:15 pm Woodrow Wilson Center, Fifth Floor; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The P5+1 and Iran have been negotiating since last January under a six-month deadline to convert an interim nuclear accord into a final agreement. The discussion will address the outcome of the negotiations—whether successful in yielding an agreement, extended to allow further negotiations, or at a point of breakdown. What are the implications for U.S. policy toward Iran moving forward? The meeting will feature discussion of the new Middle East Program monograph by Robert Litwak, vice president for scholars and director of international security studies at the Wilson Center.
- Libya: Update from the Field Monday, July 21 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm Atlantic Council; 1030 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Libya’s democratic promise is more precarious than ever. The government recently reached a deal with armed groups over the oil field blockade; however, a political struggle is taking on an increasingly violent dimension. Fadel Lamen, nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council, will discuss the status of Libya’s transitional processes, including the National Dialogue.
- Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East Monday, July 21 | 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm Rayburn House Office Building; 45 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The Middle East Policy Council will hold its 77th Capitol Hill Conference. A questions and answers session will be held at the end of the proceedings, following talks by Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, Paul R. Pillar, Senior Fellow at Georgetown University, Amin Tarzi, Director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, and Chas W. Freeman, Jr., Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
- The Impact of Ukraine in the Neighborhood Tuesday, July 22 | 10:00 am – 12:00 pm Woodrow Wilson Center, Sixth Floor; 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine is having ripple effects throughout Eurasia. But what has been the impact in the immediate neighborhood, the South Caucasus, Moldova, and Belarus as well as Ukraine itself? John Herbst, Atlantic Council, Eric Rubin, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State, Thomas de Waal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, will examine recent developments and prospects in each focusing first on the situation on the ground in Ukraine, the performance of the Poroshenko government, and the latest Russian moves.
- U.S. Policy Today for Africa Tomorrow Tuesday, July 22 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm US Institute of Peace; 2301 15th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND Home to burgeoning economies and brutal civil conflicts – sometimes coexisting in the same country – Africa is increasingly prominent in the foreign policy agendas of world powers. In early August, President Obama will convene most of the heads of state of the 54 nations of Africa in Washington, D.C. for the first-ever summit between U.S. and African leaders. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, and Ambassador George Moose will discuss Africa’s economic growth and poverty, growing trade between the U.S. and Africa, and concerns about closing political space in some countries, among many other topics.
- Hearing: Terrorist March in Iraq: The U.S. Response Wednesday, July 23 | 10:00 am – 1:00 pm Rayburn House Office Building; 45 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, D.C. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs will have witness Mr. Brett McGurk, Deputy Assistant for Iraq and Iran, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
- Confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: Challenges and Options Thursday, July 24 | 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm Johns Hopkins SAIS, Rome Auditorium; 1619 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at SAIS will host a discussion about combating the rising influence of ISIS. MEI scholars Richard A. Clarke, Steven Simon, and Randa Slim will examine the current status of the organization and its support network, focusing on the steps that Iraqi political actors and the U.S. administration can take to address the spread of its influence. Daniel Serwer (SAIS, MEI) will moderate the event.
- The Congressional Role in U.S. Military Innovation: Preparing the Pentagon for the Warfighting Regimes of Tomorrow Thursday, July 24 | 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Root Room; 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. REGISTER TO ATTEND While conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. Congress can be a hindrance to U.S. military planning and budgeting, history tells a different story. Rep. Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, and Rep. Langevin, ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, will discuss the proper force structure and defense strategy for the U.S. military.