In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.
Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.
The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.
Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.
Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:
- directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
- impose new sanctions,
- alter the nuclear deal,
- or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.
How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.
A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.
- Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: Negotiation Day – Negotiators’ Behavior in the End Game | Monday, February 27 | 9 – 10:30am | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | No analytical work has ever addressed the subject of How Negotiations End. We know that negotiators act differently in the endgame–when they see the end is in sight, good or bad, and they work to that end. This project addresses that situation, examining way in which the endgame ends positively or negatively, and the way in which typical behavioral patterns are encountered on the way. A path breaking study of a neglected topic. The book is now in press with Cambridge University Press, the latest study of the Process of International Negotiation (PIN) Program at Clingendael, Netherlands.
- Potential Negotiations in the Upcoming Year | Monday, February 27 | 11 am – 12:30 pm | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | We are faced today with an international situation filled with challenges for negotiation. These represent opportunities open for pursuit; others represent situations looking for an opportunity. In this situation, what are the prospects for pursuing and developing negotiations as a means of managing conflict and of furthering US policy goals.Speakers:Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and JordanPrinceton Lyman, former US Ambassador to Nigerial and South Africa
Galia Golan, Professor at the School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya
Vali Nasr, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS
I WIlliam Zartman, Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, SAIS – Moderator
Location Kenney Herter Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW
- Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil | Monday, February 27 | 11 – 12:30pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | Should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf? For more than 30 years, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Yet profound changes in international oil markets, growth in domestic U.S. energy production, and dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power suggest that it may be time to reconsider whether this commitment is still warranted. In Crude Strategy, a multidisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians set out to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security. Their essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.
- The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds | Monday February 27 | 2 – 3:30pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The Kurdish issue in the Middle East is at an important juncture. The Iraqi Kurds, faced with an unsettled Iraq, are itching to declare their independence. The Syrian Kurds have managed to affiliate themselves with the United States against ISIS but face a hostile reaction from Turkey, their northern neighbor, intent on rolling back their successes. The Turkish Kurds have to contend with the effects of government attempts at suppressing their legal political representatives and the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which are challenging the country’s stability. Our panel will discuss these and other issues pertaining to the future Kurdish political landscape.
- U.S. – Turkey Cooperation in Syria and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East | Monday February 27 | 3 – 4:30pm | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | The Trump administration has inherited numerous, complex challenges in the Middle East. Regional instability caused by the Syrian civil war continues to have a profound impact on one of the U.S.’s most strategic NATO allies – Turkey – and on the bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara. As the Trump administration prepares to tackle these issues and re-shape America’s role in the region, experts will discuss the choices and challenges facing the U.S. and Turkey.
- The Impact of Shifting Geopolitics on MENA Energy | Tuesday February 28 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Changes in the energy market, new entrants, and conflicting economic and national security interests at the regional and global level have altered the market power of Middle Eastern oil and gas producers. Industry developments and new policies under the Trump administration are likely to lead to the expansion of U.S. shale oil and gas production and increased exports. Russia vies daily with Saudi Arabia to be the world’s largest producer, while prices remain far below levels of a few years ago. How are Middle Eastern states coping politically and economically with the challenges of a global energy market in an historic transition?
- Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Inheritance in the Middle East (Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture) | Tuesday February 28 | 6:30 – 7:45pm | Elliott School of International Affairs | Register Here | Join us as Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm examines the environment in the Middle East that President Trump inherits from his predecessor and explores the parameters for action by the new administration.
- Food for Humanity | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s Arts & Culture Program is pleased to host a conversation about the political, emotional and symbolic significance of food for displaced and diaspora communities. The panel will explore the unifying role of food, its ability to generate empathy, and its power to build community among diverse peoples through the ritual sharing of a meal. The panel will also discuss how food can serve as a source of income, a form of cultural resistance, and as a means of preserving identity and heritage for refugee communities in the face of loss.
- How People Become Terrorists | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:45pm | New America | Register Here | In the years since 9/11 the scope and nature of the global neo-jihadi threat to the West has changed radically, prompting reassessments from those following the threat. In his latest book Misunderstanding Terrorism, Marc Sageman examines the current threat and articulates a new model of how people become terrorists, which has strong implications for the fight against terrorists that go against the conventional wisdom. New America welcomes Dr. Sageman for a discussion of what is driving the current generation of jihadists to become terrorists and how the U.S. should adapt to the threat. Marc Sageman is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of Misunderstanding Terrorism and two other critically acclaimed books: Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad (UPP, 2007).
- Women of the Caliphate: Gender Dynamics in State-Building Jihadi Organizations | Thursday March 2 | 5:30 – 7pm | American University | Register Here | A Talk with Hamoon Khelghat-Doost, from the National University of Singapore. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost looks at gender dynamics within jihadi organizations by examining their standpoint on the state-building process. His talk will explore the reasons for jihadi organizations, such as ISIS, to incorporate a relatively high number of women. Khelghat-Doost has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and along Syrian borders in southern Turkey.
- Prospects for the Next Generation of Palestinian Leadership | Friday March 3 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s backpedaling on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution shines a spotlight on the Palestinians’ looming leadership crisis. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 81, has yet to cultivate a successor, and his administration faces growing concerns about its credibility twelve years after the last national elections. How should the next generation of Palestinian leaders approach such complex issues as Israeli settlement expansion, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, economic troubles, and engagement on the international stage?
“The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” a Conversation with Dr. Christopher Phillips | Tuesday, February 21 | 10-11:30 AM | GW’s Elliot School | Register Here |
Join GW’s Elliot School and Christopher Phillips, senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, for a conversation on international rivalry in the New Middle East. He was previously the deputy editor for Syria and Jordan at the Economist Intelligence Unit. While living in Syria for two years, he consulted government agencies and NGOs. He has appearances on BBC Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today Programme, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, Sky News and Channel 4 News.
Re-Centering the Bazaar: Notes towards a History of Islamic Capitalism in the Islamic World | Wednesday, February 22 | 3:30-5:00 PM | Register Here|
The Elliott School of International Affairs is hosting a talk explores the possibilities of a history of capitalism in the Islamic world through the prism of one of its most visible expressions: the bazaar. As the locus of a range of different commercial practices, the bazaar offers a useful platform for thinking about economic life in the Islamic world — production, consumption, exchange, and finance. It is also the site through which the inhabitants of the Islamic world came to experience the changing tides of global commerce and politics: the wares of India and Africa, the textiles of Northern Europe, and most recently, the manufactures of China. And yet, as an object of scholarly analysis, the bazaar has largely been reduced to a set of interpersonal or patron-client relations, flattening what was in fact a vibrant site of exchange and transformation.
Rather than speak of the bazaar in the abstract, Professor Bishara will focus on a specific network of bazaars around the Indian Ocean — in Bahrain, Muscat, and Zanzibar — during the nineteenth century, so as to more accurately map out the interlinked markets for commodities (land, produce, etc.), labor, and capital, the paper instruments that linked them all together, and the circulating discourses that animated them. The discussion of bazaar capitalism in the 19th-century Indian Ocean will serve as the platform for thinking about how we might write a history of capitalism in the Islamic world more broadly.
United States in the Middle East: Assessing the Emerging Trump Doctrine | Wednesday, February 22 | 4:30-6:00 PM | George Mason University | Register Here|
The Middle East Policy Group at Schar School of Policy & Government is hosting their first session of Reflections on Middle East Policy. Peter Mandaville is a Professor of International Affairs at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government and served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Justin Gest is Assistant Professor of Public Policy at GMU’s Schar School of Policy & Government.
Militias in the Fight Against ISIS: Spoilers or Stabilizers? | Thursday, February 23 | 9:00-10:00 AM | Wilson Center | Register Here |
The panel will examine militias that have played a major role in the campaign against ISIS, particularly Lebanese Hezbollah, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the PYD (Democratic Union Party), and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units. Are these groups spoilers that will disrupt regional politics and lead to anarchy? Are they stabilizing forces that can help assure peace in areas marred by war? Panelists will assess their impact and discuss how U.S. policy can better engage them to promote regional order.
Global threats and American national security priorities | Thursday, February 23 | 10:00-11:00 AM | Brookings | Register Here
On February 23, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings is honored to host an event featuring General Dunford. He will be joined by Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon for a discussion on American national security priorities and Department of Defense requirements.
The United States has the best military in the world, but it must continue to innovate to stay ahead. Today, the United States faces a particularly complex and dangerous security environment. In his job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 2015, General Joseph Dunford has articulated a framework for understanding the threats America and its allies must address, benchmarking the military’s planning, capability development, and assessment of risk against the challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism.
The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Middle East Institute | Register Here|
The Middle East Institute is pleased to host Roby Barrett, MEI scholar and senior fellow with the Joint Special Operations University-U.S. Special Operations Command, for the release of his new book The Gulf and the Struggle for Hegemony. Barrett will argue that the long-standing ties between the West and the Gulf Arab states have contributed to regional stability and progress.
Barrett draws on a sophisticated understanding of Gulf Arab culture and history to explain present-day policies and rivalries. The book delves into how the Gulf States, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, interpret and respond to regional dynamics such as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the West’s rapprochement with Iran. Barrett argues that a failure to understand the contemporary Gulf from the perspective of its complex historical, political, and socio-cultural context guarantees failed policies in the future.
The State of Iraq- and the Republic of Kurdistan?- After ISIS | Thursday, February 23 | 12:00-1:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here
On February 23, an expert panel will examine the challenges and opportunities ahead for Iraq, Kurdistan, and the new U.S. administration. Should the Trump administration continue to invest in the Iraqi State? Are federalism, institution-building, and good governance initiatives in Iraq a lost cause? How should the new administration deal with Iraq’s powerful, Iranian-backed Shiite militias? Would an independent Kurdish state bring solutions or additional problems for Kurds and the other peoples of Iraq? Similarly, what would the Republic of Kurdistan mean for the United States? The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman will join Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack and Ranj Alaaldin, along with Hudson’s Michael Pregent and Eric Brown, to discuss the implications for Iraq and the region as well as their importance to America’s geopolitical interests. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.
At an event at the Wilson Center last Wednesday experts gathered to discuss the US-Iraqi relationship under the new administration. The panel included Luay Al-Khatteeb, Executive Director at the Iraq Energy Institute and Fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University- SIPA, Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS- Johns Hopkins University and President at the Institute of Shia Studies, and Denise Natali, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. Henri J. Barkey, Director at the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.
Al-Khatteeb discussed the ways in which Iraq and the United States could start a new chapter and develop a more solid relationship. Iraq has experienced two different US foreign policies in the last 15 years, one heavy engagement under Bush and then lesser interest and engagement under Obama. Trump has an opportunity to turn in a better direction. But Al-Khatteeb believes that the administration is off to a troubling start with its executive order on immigration, which sends a bad signal to Iraq.
Iraq still faces challenges. Each is an opportunity for US engagement and partnership. As a major producer of oil, Iraq has the potential to be a commercial economic hub if the right policies are implemented. Iraq must address mismanagement, corruption, and the legal vacuum still plaguing government institutions. Iraqi security forces have become far more effective in fighting transnational terrorist groups, but they still must contend with the post-Mosul security situation as well as maintaining stability as the basis for reconciliation between political actors.
Kadhim underlined the importance of the American-Iraqi relationship from both the Iraqi and US perspective. From the Iraqi point of view, the US provides vital support for the fight against terrorism. The US is also still considered a broker inside Iraq to navigate rivalries between groups within the country. It is America’s moral responsibility to stand by Iraq and help it become a vital state and prevent it from disintegrating into a failed state. Trump cannot ignore the policy of the previous administration or return to a Bush-style engagement, but he should take into account what has been happening and react to the realities on the ground. The United States will also need to decide whether a one Iraq or two-Iraq policy is appropriate for how to work with the country. For its part, Iraq must decide how vital the US relationship is to Iraq, and whether they truly want to engage with America.
Natali said that Iraq is hyper-fragmented and hyper-localized, with a great deal of distrust and revenge within communities that does not necessarily fall along ethno-sectarian lines. This has led to an increased need for protection among these groups, which has subsequently led to a proliferation of militia and transactional security agreements across localities. Cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian pacts have formed in a way unimaginable before, greatly changing societal relations within the country and presenting new challenges. Other challenges include disputed territory and how to delineate boundaries, the relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad, and control of Iraqi oil. While the Trump administration will not fundamentally change US policy towards Iraq, Natali believes it will be important to engage with local partners and state institutions as strategic anchor points. The most important issue is the post-ISIS endgame and its cultural, educational, and strategic impact, as well as border security, military support, and humanitarian relief.
Questions addressed America’s role in fostering reconciliation after ISIS as well as its role as a regional broker. Natali said that the US will not get engaged directly but rather through third parties at the local level and again sought to de-emphasize the ethno-sectarian aspect of conflict resolution. She also said it was important to differentiate between actors who are working to destabilize Iraq. Distinguishing between Iran and IRGC-backed militias, for example, is necessary to make policy more targeted and responsive. Kadhim also emphasized the local level as the site of reconciliation and recommended a committee of experts and people who have the tools to successfully create peace and stabilization to act as brokers. From a regional perspective, Al-Khateeb said that because Iraq is surrounded by six countries that will inevitably be in conflict with one another, state relations will be challenging and the country must adjust to regional realities.
Knowledgeable people gathered last Thursday under Chatham House rules to discuss shifting US objectives in Syria and how the new administration might pursue its ends. The explicit intent of American involvement in the conflict, most thought, should be population protection, because the greatest threat to US interests and security stems from violence against civilians and the resulting population displacement. The most likely outcome for post-conflict Syria is a fragmented and weakened state. The issue would then become how the United States could influence and stabilize the various regions.
The current Russian ceasefire is likely to prove little more than a strategic reset; a true end to the violence will not be realized. There are various strategies the United States might undertake to stop the bloodshed, including reducing the regime’s capacity for aerial bombardment and incentivizing a cessation of violence. It should be made clear that these moves aim to exact a cost on those who thwart US funded humanitarian efforts or directly harm civilians, rather than to engender regime change.
The United States needs to work with partners outside of the regime to establish a lasting ceasefire and dismantle terrorist control. It is particularly important to secure the borders of Syria, an effort in which both Turkish and Kurdish fighters need to be involved. The hostility between them derails peace efforts. One commentator called for senior US leaders to demand a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds as a necessary benchmark before any meaningful objectives or lines are drawn. Some participants demonstrated concern for the potential success of this strategy given a growing desire within the Pentagon to leave areas in the east under Assad’s control, and America’s general reluctance to get involved.
The conversation made it clear that the security of post-conflict Syria as a federal system of statelets depends on the “de-marbleization” of opposition groups. Separation of the groups would lead to their turning against Al-Qaeda and subsequently the stabilization of the country. International support today is not sufficient to achieve this. In addition the moderates must be linked to civil society to lead and maintain the separation. Though one speaker was averse to the moderate label, remarking that “moderates never win,” he described a need for a genuine Syrian nationalist movement. There is a lot of local discontent with extremist control. It is urgent to consolidate and support this resentment before it is supplanted with anti-Western rhetoric. The US government must determine which areas to support, and whether or not it is willing to trade off regions of control.
The United States is not alone. Turkey has actively worked to demarbleize opposition groups, and the upcoming peace talks in Astana are an example of its efforts. The Turkish government has reached out to local civil society and non-militant groups to attend these talks in addition to opposition political leaders, though no one expressed confidence in the potential of success of these efforts.
Turkey’s intentions are questionable. The growing power of Erdogan and his willingness to make territorial concessions to the Assad regime are worrisome to US interests and values. Successful implementation of US strategy in Syria requires long term commitment as well as clear limits on the expenditure of US blood and treasure. While the US must wholeheartedly commit to the effort, it cannot do so alone, nor can it dictate the outcome.
President-elect Trump’s cabinet appointments were not moderates from the first. With the exception of Defense and Homeland Security, he has appointed people who oppose the missions of the departments they have been named to lead. Rick Perry famously couldn’t even remember that Energy was one of the departments he said as a candidate he wanted to abolish. Ryan Zinke, named to Interior, opposes the conservation that department is entrusted with.
On domestic issues, we can anticipate that Congress will present a roadblock to some of the more outrageous proposals from the new administration. Abolishing Obamacare without providing an alternative isn’t going to happen, for precisely the reason Republicans opposed it in the first place: there are a lot of people enjoying its benefits. Depriving 20 million people of health insurance is not a winning political maneuver. The Energy Department isn’t going away, if only because it makes our nuclear weapons and manages nuclear waste. I’ll bet the national parks will still be the national parks four years from now, even if they will be open to more commercial activity than today.
On foreign policy, there are fewer constraints. The beneficiaries are not so well defined and presidential powers are dominant. Trump shook the One China policy with a single phone call, precipitating bellicose rhetoric from Beijing about the South China Sea. He has named as ambassador to Israel an advocate of Jewish settlements on the West Bank who opposes the two-state solution and looks forward to moving the embassy to Jerusalem. His bromance with Putin is already shaking allied confidence in NATO. Trump is a master at upsetting apple carts with small gestures.
His nominee for Secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, is not at first sight the same type. By all reports, he has been a capable, maybe even an outstanding, manager of a gigantic energy company, which under his guidance even accepted that global warming is real and caused in part by human activity. But he too has been willing to defy expectations and do business not only with Russian President Putin but also a non-sovereign state like Iraqi Kurdistan as well as with petty dictators in weak states who need Exxon to exploit their resources so they can steal the revenue and keep themselves in power. It is hard to picture Tillerson supporting democratic reforms after a career of ignoring regime abuses, as Rachel Maddow ably made clear last night in an interview with Steve Coll:
Perhaps the most important foreign policy nomination has not yet been made: the US Trade Representative is presumably the person who will need to fulfill Trump’s campaign promises by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, and ending the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If he follows through, these moves will make Europe, Asia and Latin America doubt America’s longstanding commitment to free trade and investment, present the Chinese and Russians with opportunities to fill giant gaps, and undermine the World Trade Organization.
That however is not my biggest concern. Trump is an ethnic nationalist with an extreme ethnic nationalist, Steve Bannon, as his chief strategist. They will be sympathetic to ethnic nationalist reasoning, which is what Russian President Putin is offering as an explanation for his aggression in Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. “Just trying to protect ethnic Russians,” Putin says. How many of these places will Trump be willing to concede to Russia in order to consummate his bromance with Putin? The Trump administration may also be more sympathetic than Obama has been to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence ambitions, setting off a series of partitions in the Middle East (Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, even Turkey and Iran are potential candidates).
Four years is a long time. I don’t think it will be more than a month before some of Trump’s international moves brew the United States big trouble.