Details

When

October 29, 2007, 9:00 am - May 25, 2019, 2:07 am

Where

1761 N Street NW
Washington, 20036 (Map)

The panel discussion "America in the Middle East: What Comes Next?" took place at the 61st annual conference in October, 2007.

Featuring:

Phlip Gordon, David Ignatius, Tariq Ramadan, Robert Satloff

 

Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin:

We at the Middle East Institute really think that it is very important for Washington to hear voices outside of Washington. So many times we end up talking to ourselves, and we know what we think. We keep hearing it and then what we think becomes fact if we say it to each other enough times.

So we have invested a lot of money and a lot of effort in this Annual Conference to bring in fresh voices from Europe and from the region – particularly from the region, because they are the people who are experiencing a lot of what we are talking about. So we hope that that comes across in what you have seen and experienced last night with John Burns, who came in from London, having spent most of his career out in the field, and from our panelists today.

Tariq Ramadan is a controversial commentator on what is happening in the Middle East and he is unable to get a visa here. This is one of the reasons why we wanted him and also one of the reasons why we are having to video-conference him in from Europe. Not all of you will agree with what he has to say? Good. Ask tough questions. We want to have this kind of discussion because I think that sharpens the debate. So, thank you all very much for being patient.

David Ignatius: I am David Ignatius, I am the moderator of this session. I hope that the reason that Tariq Ramadan is a little bit late is because he has been pondering the subject of our panel. There is no question that our country is thinking more about or, I would argue, the world is thinking more about than America in the Middle East: what next? What comes next in Iraq, where the US military has been claiming some success in its bottom-up effort at counterinsurgency but where there is still no sign of national reconciliation or a strong Iraqi government? What comes next in America’s confrontation with Iran, a standoff that now stretches all the way across the region that you all focus on, from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, all the way to Afghanistan. What comes next, finally, in America’s encounter with Islam? Are we on the brink of an even broader catastrophe? Do we see the ways to walk back toward something saner?

So with that, let me turn to our special guest, Tariq Ramadan, coming to us live via satellite.

Tariq Ramadan: Thank you for your invitation. I am very sorry not to be able to be with you in the States. You know why, and it is very sad because really it is all about academic freedom of expression. What I want to say here is critical. I have been always critical towards the American policy in the Middle East and I remain very critical because I think that it is worse than ever today to see what is going on and the level of mistrust and disappointment coming from the Arab countries and Muslims around the world. I think we have to assess what is happening now and counterproductive policies promoted by the United States of America in the Middle East and elsewhere.

What I wanted to say first is three main things. I said, and I repeat it, that what was happening in the Middle East, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as to American policy should be criticized because of the unilateral support of America towards Israel and not recognizing the legitimacy of the Palestinian struggle, their dignity and their right in fact to get a Palestinian state. I think that these policies are perceived as the double standard the United States of America has always been in fact indulging to in the Middle East.

The second point, which is really important for me, is that after September 11 the perception was that not only the terrorists were the target but also Islam – a very negative perception of the Islamic tradition, Islamic values and Muslims around the world and especially in the Middle East. Then of course what happened in Iraq and the lies around weapons of mass destruction, the links between the terrorists and Saddam’s government.

So my position on this is really to say the resistance, or to be critical, towards the American policy is legitimate. I always said that I think that resistance is legitimate. The means used by groups – killing innocent people – this is not acceptable and this should be condemned. But we have to distinguish between the legitimacy of the struggles and the legitimate means that are used, and also try sometimes to make a difference between explaining a situation and justifying it. This is what I was repeating again and again in the American Embassy when asked about my position on this. There is a difference between explaining and justifying from an Islamic viewpoint. I am speaking as a Muslim, from within, but also within academia and among us it is very important to be able to say something about what is happening and why it is happening, even though we disagree with the way people are behaving in specific political situations.

So what next? I think we need to take into account something which is really important. You cannot in the name of democracy or our values, Western values – I think there is nothing like Western values or Islamic values. I think there are shared universal values when we speak about human dignity, when we speak about justice, when we speak about the principles of democracy which should have to be promoted everywhere. I speak about the rule of law, I speak about equal citizenship, accountability, universal suffrage and separation of power. These are principles that we can share together.

The problem is that you cannot impose your model. The models are historical and they are coming from collective psychology, from cultures. People have roots and they have a collective psychology that you have to respect – a legal tradition, religious tradition, memory. I think what has been done by the Americans in the Middle East is really to come with “our democracy, our values and we are going to liberate the country, willing or not.” I think the resistance there is – a resistance to what? An illegal war, because it was against international law. It was not supported by the United Nations. Kofi Annan said it just a few months ago: it was an illegal war. I think it was illegal, it was wrong and it was done for naught – not for the weapons of mass destruction, not for a more democratic regime there, but clearly for geostrategic reasons. I am not speaking only about oil, I am also speaking about the support of the Israeli government as to this war for two reasons: for Iraq, but also for Iran. We also have to assess this when it comes to assessing American policies in the region.

What’s next is really to understand that the US policy is failing there, and to withdraw and to find a way to do it step by step with international forces – international forces meaning that we have also to think about not putting in then Americans or even British who are involved in the war, if we are serious about this.

Just to say something which is in my view so important: the way we are talking today about democracy, about our values that should be respected in the Middle East is perceived by the great majority of Arabs and Muslims within the Islamic-majority countries and in the Middle East as a double standard, a discourse which is not consistent. It is just words that we are using, and underneath no respect towards the people, no respect towards the dignity of the people. It is as if the life of an Arab is less valuable than the life of an Israeli or an American soldier. You cannot deal with this without understanding the perception of the people. We have to take into account – politics and policies also have to deal with perceptions, and the perceptions are so bad, so negative and worse than ever today in the Middle East. The current administration in the States is really not helping because when it comes to what happened a year and a half ago in Lebanon, with civilians being killed – nothing, silence. When now we know what is going on in the Occupied Territories and in Palestine – nothing, silence. The only rhetoric and recurrent discourse we have is that Israel should be able to protect itself.

To be critical toward the Israeli government does not mean that we are denying the fact that Israel is a reality. Israel is a reality. But the government, the policies, the way we are now dealing with Palestinians and this peace process – which is not a process at all, it is something which needs another American policy. I was hoping that something could come from the European countries but so far we see the silence coming from Europe and a unilateral imposition as to its policy in the Middle East coming from the States. I think on that it is really important now with all the discourses on Iran – for me it could be a crazy step forward if we go towards something which is threatening and go towards a quick, very fast war against Iran. It is going to fail as it has failed in Iraq.

Once again what we need coming from the States is consistent discourse, not only an arrogant way to speak about democracy and freedom but a consistent way to speak about our values and to do something which is really important – to never compromise on principles but humility as to the models. The people should be able to get their models.

To label people as terrorists and then to say “we are not going to talk to you” is not the way forward. In Palestine, for example, you can be critical and you should be critical as to the means used by groups but at one point you have to decide to open channels as to political discussion and to be able to discuss with the people to find a way. If Abbas now has no real credential among his people, it is not because the people are completely crazy. They are also dealing with something which has to do with corruption within the Palestinian territories, about the people who are just, after so many years of recognition of Israel and its successive governments, nothing is changing. So we also have to put some pressure on Israel to recognize the dignity of Palestinians and recognize that, willingly or not, they may decide for a government we do not like. But this government is there; we need to talk to people, to continue to condemn violence and terrorism but talk to the people to try to find solutions for the future. This is what is expected.

I am not expecting a revolution as to the American policies in the region for the year to come but I think that in the long run we are just nurturing frustration, nurturing alienation and in fact having as a consequence exactly what we do not want: much more frustration, much more marginalization, much more radicalization and people saying, “You are not serious about your own values. You speak about democracy but you want it for yourself, you don’t want it for us because you are scared of the results of democracy. You are ready to support dictatorships as long as your geostrategic interests are protected.”

You may think that this is not right but you have to listen to people saying things like this. There is some logic in this and this is why these kinds of discourses are attracting people. So it is not because you do not like it, it is not because you do not agree with it that we should not be able to listen to it and to listen to the strong statements some of the Islamist groups or other oppositions are doing. They are attracting people much more every day in resistance to what is perceived as US unilateralism, arrogant way of dealing with politics, and double standard policies when it comes to the dignity of the people and their rights.

This is for me to be very critical, yes, but not only for the name of Muslims. I think the way I am critical towards the United States of America today is what I call a critical loyalty. I am loyal to the values that we have in common but the fact that I am loyal to the values is just pushing me, imposing on me to be critical towards politicians, towards governments who are preaching these values and dealing in an inconsistent way on a daily basis. So it is not a Muslim speaking against the West. It is a Western Muslim speaking to the West in the name of Western values, because we are not consistent with the way we deal with our values in the Middle East. The people are telling us. You are accepting torture today? You are accepting Guantanamo? You are silent about what is happening in some of the extraordinary renditions? This is not dignified. This is not the way you are going to be heard by people ready for more dignity, ready for democracy, ready to be respected, if only we are ready to respect them. Thank you.

David Ignatius: Thank you very much. We would like to take the remaining minutes to have a bit of a dialogue and debate with our panelists. To my immediate left, Philip Gordon, who is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Beyond him, Rob Satloff, who is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

I would like to begin with a brief question of my own as moderator. One of our earliest antiwar critics, now running for president – Barack Obama – has said that he thinks the US should be as careful in getting out of Iraq as it was careless getting in, and suggested that a very rapid withdrawal would be irresponsible and would add to the human suffering of that country. I wonder if you agree with that critique, that we need to be very careful as we move American troops out of Iraq.

Tariq Ramadan: Yes, I think this is the wisest way to put it. We cannot just withdraw and expect a withdrawal with no conditions and steps to be followed. I think we have to be very careful and we need an international force to be able to be there on a temporary basis. But yes, I think there is no way but to be careful as to the withdrawal.

Philip Gordon: Thanks, David, it’s great to be here. Thanks to the Middle East Institute. I will start with my idea about the future of the US in the Middle East by suggesting that the era of grand US designs in the region is over.

David Ignatius: I’m sorry, we’re doing questions to Tariq Ramadan in London while we still have him on the satellite.

Philip Gordon: Oh, sorry about that. Please, go ahead.

Robert Satloff: Professor Ramadan, I think you could very usefully inject some clarity into the issue of legitimate resistance that you referred to in your remarks. If I could ask you this question: which Israelis are legitimate targets for attack by Palestinians and the killing of which Israelis would constitute, in your view, terrorism?

Tariq Ramadan: I think that when you are dealing with armed military forces coming and killing people, to resist them and to resist the occupying armies that are killing people – resistance is legitimate. Only towards the army. This is everywhere, in every single war situation, what we have to say. Every single killing of innocent people – people who have nothing to do with the army, who are not a member of the army – cannot be targeted. This is not acceptable. This is for me clear and I think it is exactly the same on the other side, by the way. I think that when you are ready to be able to kill one armed man, to kill a whole family of innocent people is also state terrorism. I think this is not acceptable. Armies against armies; no innocent people to be targeted, no civilians to be targeted. To target, as was the situation in Lebanon – what we have been seeing and the silence of too many European and Western countries as to what happened to the civilians in Lebanon, this is not acceptable, as it is not acceptable to target Israeli civilians.

David Ignatius: We have several really interesting questions from the audience and I am going to go to those. Let me start with a question from David Mack, a distinguished member of the Middle East Institute: What role do you see for non-Muslim religions in majority-Muslim countries?

Tariq Ramadan: I think it should be clear. From the very beginning, when I started to speak about the Islamic-majority countries, we speak about equal citizenship. We speak about the same rights. We speak exactly about being involved as citizens in the civil society. So everything which has to do with discrimination or second-class citizens or the perception that we have to import in our time something which has to do with ahl al-dhimma, all these things – I think this is outdated. We really have to think about the essence of the principles. Equal citizenship is the only way; respect toward their belief. I have been critical in my books about what is going on now in Saudi Arabia, when you invite Christians to come to work and you don’t give them the right to practice. Unacceptable.

Robert Satloff: Professor Ramadan, you were very critical of the rationale and the logic behind overthrowing Saddam, suggesting that it had nothing to do with helping the Muslims who live in that country and saying that it was illegal. Do you have the same characterization of what America did to assist and support the Muslims in the Balkans?

Tariq Ramadan: You have to put things into context. Who was supporting Saddam Hussein for ten years? Who was helping him when he was already a dictator? I think you cannot just take a situation and compare it to another one.

As to the way it was done in Europe, from within and with the support of the United Nations, is something which is legal. It is something which has to do with the legality of it at the international level and within international law. Even the international apparatus was respected. I think you cannot compare what they did in Europe and say, “When we support Muslims you find it legal and when we go against Muslims you find it illegal.” No. When it is just, it is just. When it is protecting people with the international community, it is right. But when it is a unilateral decision against the United Nations and against the international community for the sake of we don’t exactly know what, I think this is unjust and that’s it. I do not think that today it is possible, even in the States by the way – in your next election campaign you will see it – no one could say this was right and this was the right way to do it. It was illegal, it was a mistake and this has to be fixed.

David Ignatius: We have two very provocative questions from the audience; let me combine them. One says that 95 percent of the violence in Iraq is Muslim vs Muslim. Why are the world’s Muslims silent about that? A second question, with a similar theme: you are critical of treatment of Palestinians by Israel and the US; how do you feel about Arab and Muslim countries’ treatment of Palestinians? Is there a double standard here?

Tariq Ramadan: No, there is not. I had fifteen minutes but if you read what I am writing and listen to the speeches I am delivering throughout the world, I am very critical toward the Arab and Islamic countries and even the Middle East. They are saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the cause of everything we are experiencing. I am saying exactly the opposite: it is the consequences. We do not have democracies, we do not have legitimate governments. When we are criticizing Guantanamo and torture, let us also say something about what is going on in the jails in the Arab countries. This is not acceptable. I think these should be criticized. So, no double standard. I do not know anything which is a selective critical approach. This is not acceptable and what the Muslim and Arab countries are doing in the name of Islam or in the name of their so-called regimes has to be criticized with no condition, because it is really unacceptable.

On the other side, I think that the Muslims are not silent about what is going on between Muslims. As to what is going on in Iraq, they are quite confused. They do not really understand what is happening. But you are right, we have to be very clear as to the fact that what is happening among Muslims and what is coming sometimes from the Salafi or Saudi discourses or coming from Shi’ite discourses – this is purely unacceptable. These are radical views that are not helping and they can fall into the trap – if you go on my website, you will see that I wrote a text on what is going on in Palestine but also what is going on in Iraq, saying that this struggle and this war – this intra-community war and battles – are really to be criticized and condemned, so this is what I am doing. So, no double standard, no selective approach. What I am saying as to the West in my criticism, I am saying it to the Muslims and the Arab world. This is something that we have to promote everywhere.

Philip Gordon: When we talk about Muslims we are often thinking about the Middle East or South Asia or Southeast Asia, but there are of course a lot of Muslims in Europe – 15 to 20 million of them, and Tariq Ramadan is one of them. I would be interested in your views about the future of the Muslim communities in Europe and about the link between the Middle East and US policy in the Middle East and Muslims in Europe.

Tariq Ramadan: I think that for the next two generations it is going to be very difficult because the Muslim situation in Europe is confused with immigration and many other issues. But in the long run I really think that they will be European Muslims. We already have millions of European Muslims and this will have a tremendous impact on Islam at the international level and within the Muslim-majority countries. I have no doubt about this. This will have a tremendous impact. But we still have to do much more to know about the European countries and to be much more involved. What is happening now is a silent revolution at the grassroots level, with Muslims understanding better the European landscape and being involved in politics, being involved in civil society and also reforming their understanding of their own religion.

So we have to be patient. We have to understand the dynamics at the grassroots level. But in the long run I think the reality of Western Muslims, not only in Europe but also in the States, in Canada and Australia, this will have a tremendous impact within the Muslim communities throughout the world but also as to our policies coming from the West. This is what we should be: a bridge between two universes of reference rejecting each other today but tomorrow knowing they have shared values and a common future and there is no way but to live together.

David Ignatius: I have a question from Barbara Slavin, a prominent American journalist now at the US Institute of Peace. What would be the impact of a US or Israeli attack on Iran on Muslim opinion?

Tariq Ramadan: I think the impact would be as bad as the impact on Iraq, but I think that here it will be crossing the red line really. I do not think it is going to be – it is just unrealistic to think of it now but if this is happening I really think that not only in the Islamic-majority countries but also in the West – and by the way, not only coming from Muslims but coming from many citizens – this will be too much. Do not take it as only reaction coming from Muslims. If you listen to the streets in Europe and even in the States, it is too much. It is really too much. The current US administration is going too far. So it will be a stronger reaction but not only a Muslim reaction.

Thank you for your invitation once again. They are telling me that we have to stop here.

David Ignatius: Thank you, Dr. Ramadan. We are really happy to have had you with us. This was a fascinating opportunity for all of us.

Tariq Ramadan: Thank you.

David Ignatius: It’s good to see technology that works and technology that bridges great gaps and technology that makes up for visa and consular problems. We are now going to move on to a continuing discussion of our question: what comes next for America in the Middle East? I want to turn to our two panelists. Let me ask Phil to begin and then Rob with some thoughts about this. Then we will turn back to you, our audience, for questions.

Philip Gordon: I gave you a bit of a sneak preview a few minutes ago, the main theme. When I look to the future, I think that we are entering a period of pragmatic, step-by-step crisis management much more than a period of grand designs for the Middle East. I say that looking into the future vis-à-vis the past two administrations. I think the Clinton administration came in with a grand design for the Middle East. With dual containment, Iran and Iraq would be kept out of it. Peace would be pursued – we had Oslo, the theory of four treaties in four years. We all know that got sidetracked throughout the 1990s. One last stab at a big grand theory at the end at Camp David also backfired, led to violence and the United States walked away from that.

The Bush administration came in with an even grander theory – I suppose I should not say it came in with that theory but immediately after 9/11 it developed a grand theory. The United States was going to transform the Middle East. We decided that the stability of the past was false and the US was going to use its tremendous power to democratize the region, to send a message via the invasion of Iraq, to show via democratization in Iraq what other countries could have and send a negative message to other countries if they got on the wrong side of this grand vision.

But that one has not worked out particularly well either and the United States finds itself, in the view of most of the American people, bogged down in Iraq without an end in sight, Iran rising and moving toward a nuclear program, Hamas and Hizbullah rising, no peace process with Israel. So the grand design has either failed or backfired once again.

I think the result of that is not going to be a new administration coming in with some alternative or different grand design or a repeat of one of the old ones but rather a recognition that the region is in deep trouble and that the best the United States can do – a United States that is no longer feeling as powerful and rich and confident as it was earlier in this decade – is try to manage these different dossiers, each of which poses its particular problems.

One reason I am confident suggesting that the next administration will take this kind of approach and move away is that I think this one already has. I think that the Bush administration itself has started to move down this path on a whole range of issues with which it has been dealing.

On Iraq, nobody any longer is talking about Iraq being this model democracy that is going to have a spillover effect in spreading through the region. Rather, it is a question of managing it and trying to get out without it being an even more catastrophic situation than it already is. Nobody is talking about Iraq being the negative message that countries like Iran or Syria would take note of and say, well, we’ve learned you don’t mess with the United States. If anything it has had the opposite effect and the Bush administration seems to be recognizing that as it starts looking at ways to draw down.

On Iran, similarly, a few years ago we were hearing from the United States there was a theory about Iran. You don’t reward dictators, you take a tough line and show them there is a price to pay for not respecting the will of the United States in the region. Gradually there too over the past couple of years I think you have seen already the Bush administration walk back from that by supporting European diplomacy in Iran, by even putting some carrots in the mix with sticks, by being willing to talk with Iran directly. There is much further the United States could go in that direction but there is no doubt that over the past two years that is the direction the administration has been going in.

Similarly on Israel – one could do a whole number of issues – but the theory before was you don’t deal with a regime like Arafat’s regime; we will show how strong we are, we will send a message to the Palestinians that if they are on the wrong side of the powerful United States there is a price to pay and the only thing to do is change course and respect the American will in the region. Now shifting gears from that we have the Secretary of State very active in the Middle East, trying to construct peace almost along the lines of that pursued by the Clinton administration.

So I think we are already seeing the trend that I am talking about under the Bush administration, which makes me believe that regardless of what the next administration is they are going to come in with a similar sort of piece-by-piece, one issue at a time, crisis management, pragmatic approach rather than a grand design.

By the way, democratization would be also on this list for the Bush administration. I think the grand design of transforming the Middle East and pushing democracy, ending tyranny and all the rest we heard in the speeches, they have already considerably backed away from and we are seeing a much more pragmatic, deal with regimes as necessary to try to solve particular problems, rather than the hope that democracy would quickly spread in the region.

A couple of further points on specific issues and then I’ll look forward to the discussion. Maybe just a couple thoughts about what we will and should do specifically on some of these issues that I have mentioned.

On Iraq, it would be silly to predict – I think 2010 is the theme of this conference; I do not even know what is going to happen next week in Iraq. But I would say that it is becoming a bit clearer than it was before in the sense that earlier this summer we all probably thought that the huge question for this fall would be: would the Democrats have enough strength and be able to win over enough Republicans to force the president to start withdrawing troops from Iraq? At the beginning of the summer the assumption was that Iraq was going to remain a violent mess and we would have this huge political debate about whether to withdraw or not, whether Congress would force the president to do so. That debate seems to have slipped away. It is remarkable but Iraq is no longer the dominant political issue in terms of decisions for the United States to make because I think the two sides are narrowing on the subject. They are narrowing first because it does seem that violence is declining in Iraq and the less it is on the front page with massive killing, the less likely are leaders to choose. But I think that both sides in the debate have converged a bit, with the administration coming forward and saying they are already beginning a certain amount of troop withdrawals and they hope that by next summer they will begin more, and the Democrats saying that they realize – as David Ignatius reminded us in the quote from Barack Obama in the quote about getting out carefully – that we cannot just pick up and leave quickly. So Democrats are not clamoring for an immediate withdrawal, Republicans are promising withdrawal and this issue has moved away a bit from the hot potato that it was.

Obviously, predictions are rash. Violence could spike next week and we will be right back where we were at the beginning of the summer. But I do think there has been a convergence that has taken the policy issue away to a significant degree.

Iran, equally hard to predict, but what I would say is that if the Iraq policy debate is moving more slowly, the Iran policy debate is moving more quickly. There my previous view had been that the Iranian nuclear program and Iranian foreign policy maneuvers in the region were not on such a fast track that the Bush administration would feel obliged to deal with it or really have a case to deal with it by the time it left office, and therefore the next administration would be the one faced with this choice, particularly on the nuclear program. That seems less and less likely as we move on. The nuclear program is moving ahead quickly enough and the Iranian regime is acting brazenly enough, one might say, to keep this on, to put this issue on the Bush administration agenda before it leaves power and possibly face that horrible dilemma we all keep talking about between acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear weapon and a military strike.

There is obviously a huge debate about what the administration will do and what they should do. The debate accelerated further last week when the president referred to World War III as the alternative to Iran suspending enrichment. Rob’s conference made news – the vice president made news at the Washington Institute’s conference by talking about serious consequences for Iran if it pursued a nuclear weapon. “Serious consequences” of course was the language we used on Iraq.

My own view is that there is still time for serious diplomacy on this issue and serious international efforts to raise the price on Iran while offering it a way out on the nuclear program, but that time is slipping away. We have made significant progress: the Security Council with several resolutions making it illegal for Iran to enrich uranium; the Europeans getting more and more serious about sanctions and increasing the price on Iran even as they offer carrots as well – the change in France with Nicolas Sarkozy pushing that forward. But at the same time, China and Russia appear even less likely to get onboard for a serious international approach of raising the price on Iran. China is not terribly hard to figure out, just in terms of economic relations. Russia on the other hand seems to be the biggest factor in whether the international community is going to increase the pressure on Iran. They show no sign of being willing to do so. One gets the impression even that it is possible that Russia would not mind a confrontation between the United States and Iran. It would further bog down the United States, it would send oil prices up, and so Putin seems indifferent to that sort of crisis.

Will President Bush use force in the end? I have no idea but – I’m sure David has views on this as well – I could imagine a circumstance in which all of his advice is not to do so: with intelligence agencies telling him we do not have enough information, we do not know where it is; with the military saying we are already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, we do not have the resources for another war; with the State Department saying that no country in the world would support us; with the political people saying that Congress would not give the blank check it gave last time – I could imagine all of that happening and still the president and vice president saying, this is something we have to do and only we can do it.

Last point and very briefly, I would just say that the overall theme applies to Israel and peacemaking as well. I think the current trend will continue. This administration has already decided that you pay a price for disengagement. They have gotten seriously engaged and they are seriously engaged. Nobody expects this to lead to a comprehensive peace before they leave office but I think the idea of at least setting the basis for the first peace process in many years is what they are trying to accomplish. Their reasons for that, I do not want to take the time to get into, but I would expect that the next administration would follow along on that same pragmatic path.

David Ignatius: Thank you, Phil, that’s a good tour de zone. Rob, what comes next?

Robert Satloff: Thank you, David, and thank you, Wendy Chamberlin for inviting me to participate in this panel. Congratulations on this conference. I took seriously the charge that this conference is on the theme of 2010 and what comes next for America writ large in the Middle East, so I have some comments that are broad and we can get into more detail later on.

It only makes sense to discuss America in the Middle East after some opening comments about the Middle East itself. At its core, America is generally reactive to events and trends in the region. Fundamentally Americans do not try to shape the lives of foreigners; we react to the lives and events and trends around the world. Of course prophecy is a bit of a risky business. It is scholarship without footnotes, which is easy to do. Recently it is fair to say we have seen some footnotes without scholarship in some of the books that have come out recently, so perhaps it is all right to engage in prognostication.

If you were a betting man and you had to ask what the Middle East would look like three or five years from now, you would have to say that it would look pretty much like it has in the recent past. Contrary to most conventional wisdom, the Middle East is in fact far more predictable than most people think it is. I prefer to use the word “predictable” than the word “stable.” For me the analogy is to the lives of the Flying Wallendas – they all lived long and happy lives, died of old age, but you cannot say they had a stable job. They did not have a stable job but their job was predictable, and I think the Middle East is very much like that.

Look at what is likely to happen in the next few years. Regimes around the Middle East, with very few exceptions, are likely to be right where they are. Look at North Africa, for example: who would have thought that Qaddafi would be celebrating his fortieth anniversary running the Libyan revolution pretty soon? Let alone the fact that the Alawite regime in Morocco – yes, it is an Alawite regime in Morocco; a different sort of Alawite regime – has been in power since 1666. These things suggest a certain measure of predictability.

I am usually a voice of doom and gloom around the Middle East so I thought it would be appropriate to come to the Middle East Institute to offer some heretically good news which I think rarely gets enough attention. The first piece of good news that I think is likely to hold throughout the period that we are talking about is that the chance of a regional war emerging from Iraq as a result of America’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein is next to nil. The fear that was espoused, for example by Secretary of Defense Gates in his confirmation hearing, of Arab states going in to support Sunni insurgents is fantasy. A much more appropriate symbol of the Arab view to what is going on in Iraq is the decision I think just affirmed in the last ten days or so by tenders – the decision by the Saudi government to build a fence between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, namely to keep the Iraq virus in, not to get directly engaged in that. I think there is certainly the likelihood that the Turks may go back and forth as they have done for years, well before the American invasion of Iraq, to do certain things in northern Iraq, which I think has very little to do with the events in the rest of the country. Generally I think the fear of regional war as a result of America’s engagement in Iraq is nil.

Secondly, I think the chances of a regional Arab-Israeli war are also close to nil. People should remember that it has been now thirty-four years since the last regional Arab-Israeli war, namely the Yom Kippur War of 1973. This is one of the great achievements of the peace process that people fail to give enough account to American diplomacy of both parties over many administrations. This is a huge achievement. Indeed there was a study which came out recently that showed that something like more people died in one year of the Iraq-Iran War than have died in all Arab-Israeli wars combined. I think as we look at the Arab-Israeli – and I will say a word about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – but with the Arab-Israeli conflict I think that we have reason to be confident that that regional war which characterized 1948, 1967, 1973, is unlikely to occur any time in the foreseeable future.

Third, the chances of a violent Islamist revolutionary overthrow of any major Arab regime – which we should remember was the dominant fear of the decade after the Khomeini revolution – a legitimate fear it was, but that fear is also unlikely to come to pass anytime in the near future. This is not to suggest that Islamic parties will not make inroads, sometimes with our misbegotten connivance. But the fear that gripped policymakers in the 1980s – remember when the Iranians actually tried to kill the Emir of Kuwait, did all sorts of things to violently overthrow other regimes around the region – I think the chances of violent overthrow of any Arab regime by Islamic revolutionaries is quite low.

There will still be focuses of violence throughout the Middle East based primarily on ethnic, religious and national competition. Inside Iraq, for example; Lebanon, sadly; between Israelis and Palestinians – these are all focuses of violence which are likely to remain with us. In this regard I see over the course of the next three years very little structural change in any of these three focuses of violence, despite the best efforts of our diplomats. I think there are structural reasons why intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian violence is going to be with us for quite a number of years. I will be happy to go into that in further detail.

Here I would say just one point which I think is also a piece of overlooked good news. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for all the damage that it has done and continues to do to Israelis and Palestinians, actually there is very little empirical evidence that it has any impact beyond the sphere of the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Let me repeat that because it is a counter-conventional wisdom view. For all the damage that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does to Israelis and Palestinians, there is very little empirical evidence that it has much impact on the stability of states, on the actions of people, on the behaviors of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

Let me give just one example, and I think there are many. If you look at the most violent period of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the period from 2000-2004, when more Palestinians died and more Israeli civilians died than in any other point in the history of this conflict – it was a terrible moment for both of those parties. That was a moment of great tragedy and great bloodshed. It had no impact on the stability of any Arab state. It had no real impact on the nature of the peace treaties between Jordan and Israel and Egypt and Israel. Not a single Arab state gave assistance, material or otherwise, to the Palestinians fighting against Israel. Indeed the only state government that gave assistance to the Palestinians fighting against Israel was Iran, which says something about the resilience of the Palestinian issue in Iranian minds but something also very powerful about the resilience of the Palestinian issue in Arab minds.

The United States in the Middle East, very briefly. The United States has a whole range of opportunities and challenges but I just want to focus on three. I think they are concerning what I would call the three civilizational countries in the region: Turkey, Egypt and Iran. I refer to civilizational countries – I think the Middle East Institute audience will understand why I am using that term to refer to the historical and cultural importance of Turkey, Egypt and Iran. There are really big questions that the United States has regarding each of these.

With Turkey, will this be and will this remain a pro-West country ten, fifteen, twenty years from now? This is a hugely important issue for the United States. In the broadest strokes, the Middle East equation and why this has been a generally benevolent Middle East for America over the last generation is that of the three civilizational countries, America has been an ally with two of them, Turkey and Egypt – whereas Iran has chosen to be an adversary. If, however, this changes and Turkey, which is moving socially more conservative and politically more neutral – if it moves fully in a direction which is anti-West then I think it is a great and forbidding challenge to our interests in the region. What can America do to prevent that? That is the first big question.

The second big question concerns Egypt. Egypt is in transition already. It is already engaged in its leadership transition. I think the great and very positive effort the United States has done to inject the idea of democracy promotion into its foreign policy – and let me say that this concept, for better or for worse, in my view is now part of the firmament of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. It will wax and wane with different presidents and different administrations but I think it is impossible for any administration not to actively invest in and support the instruments of democracy promotion in the Middle East. For all we have done, the most important test for America will be how we help and participate, support, the transition in Egypt between the government of Hosni Mubarak and its successor. The test of America is: can we support a transparent, open and accountable transition in which the people of Egypt feel that they themselves play a role and that it is legitimate for them, while we also maintain our strategic interests in this country? This is a profound test and it is one of the most important tests for the next administration.

The third great question is Iran, which Phil went over in some detail. This I do include as a civilizational challenge. It does make a big difference that it is the Islamic Republic of Iran and not just any government of Iran that is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. How will we prevent it? Will we prevent this? It is much bigger than just the question of President Ahmadinejad. It is much deeper than this.

Here I am going to respectfully disagree with an otherwise very convincing series of columns by our moderator, David, who said that our rhetoric on Iran was too overheated and we ought to lower the scale of the rhetoric. My own view is I think the rhetoric is very useful because the key ingredient to avoiding World War III is convincing our European and other allies that the alternative to that is their taking responsibility to raise the pressure on the Iranians. So I see our rhetoric as being utilitarian and quite useful. Actually, I think the more of it, the better. In addition I would like us to be able to use this more effectively diplomatically with our partners to get them to do more on this issue, but I do not see it as a detriment.

Let me just make one final comment. It is commonplace to say that America’s moment in the Middle East has passed. I think a very celebrated American wrote an article about how the American moment has come and gone and that Iran’s moment has now arrived. In my view, this is baloney. When the moment comes, rather, that Middle Easterners start lining up at Iranian embassies for visas, that Middle Easterners start enrolling their children in Persian schools around Arab countries, that they start learning Farsi so that they can engage in commerce, so they can participate in the global community – then I will believe it. But until then, I do not think it is right to say and I think we should not buy this chic conventional wisdom that America’s moment in the Middle East has passed. Thank you.

Question & Answer:

David Ignatius: Thanks to Rob for a very provocative presentation – not simply in challenging the moderator. The notion that these are the good times, that we’ve got it good in the Middle East right now, is an unconventional view. We have a saying in our business that you will never read a headline in a newspaper that says, “Plane Lands Safely.” Maybe we are so addicted to plane crashes that we are missing some of the underlying positive trends that Rob was speaking about.

We have a lot of good questions from the audience and about a half hour left to take them, so I am going to proceed right to those questions. Let me start with a question for Phil Gordon. This is from Haidar Muliq from the Brookings Institution. Do you think Muslim countries must create strong intra-regional institutions, such as a multinational security force like NATO? In other words, should there be some Islamic version of NATO to protect their interests?

Philip Gordon: I guess the question to that question would be: against what? The threat in the Middle East is not an external threat of the same nature as the one that NATO was created and successfully defended against. So I do not see how Middle East countries can come together to protect against a threat when the threat is mostly within. It is linked to something Rob said in his optimistic moment there about the end of interstate war, which I think is largely persuasive but is not as good news as it sounds. It is obviously terrific news that these countries are not going to war against each other but the real issue is violence within states and within groups and across borders. That does not have to manifest itself in interstate war. Africa is not plagued with interstate wars but nonetheless there are parts of it that are horribly violent. The issue in Iraq today is hardly – I agree that it is not an interstate one, that the risk of an Iran-Iraq war or a Turkey war against the Iraqi state or a Saudi war against Iraq, but nonetheless the situation is dire.

So I fear that any proposal to create NATO-like or even OSCE-like structures in the Middle East are most welcome but do not really deal with the core issue, which is internal violence rather than external.

David Ignatius: I think if you look at what the United States is currently doing with the GCC, the Gulf countries plus two – plus Jordan and Egypt – you see the beginnings of a joint security alliance focused on Iran that is roughly comparable to the South-East Asia Treaty Organization – not yet NATO-like but we are building and lavishly arming, in terms of the arms sales that are contemplated, a very robust defense alliance along the Gulf that I think people have not really focused on yet. So my answer to the question would be that in effect this is already happening under American sponsorship and that people need to pay closer attention than they do to all those additional weapons going into this region.

I have a couple of questions for Rob Satloff, taking off from his presentation. First, from Ahmadeddin Ahmad from the Minaret of Freedom Institute: When you say that there was no regional war since 1973, on what grounds do you exclude two Israeli invasions of Lebanon? There is a related question looking forward. With the knowledge that the IDF is training and eager to restore its military deterrence following the war against Hizbullah in 2006, what prospect do you see for another Israeli-Hizbullah war in 2008? What would be the implications of that?

Robert Satloff: First, I did not mean to imply that everything is hunky-dory in the Middle East and you should plan your next family vacation in Basra or something. To me, there are still very great challenges and for Americans great threats that emanate from the Middle East. The foremost is, as I implied in my comments, the acquisition by the Islamic Republic of Iran of a nuclear weapon, which has all sorts of ramifications we can go into if you’d like. Then more broadly, it is not Iran-fixated – it is the spread (I won’t say rise: the spread) of an Islamist ideology which from inside countries and largely through nonviolent means is eroding attributes of state and sovereignty and is taking over various countries from within. It is a very different sort of threat than the conventional threat that we feared in the 1980s and 1990s but I think it is a very dangerous threat. Having lived in North Africa in the two and a half years after 9/11, I saw this up close. It is a very ominous phenomenon.

As to Lebanon, first the question of what defines a regional war. It is really just a shorthand for saying that all hell breaks loose, when country after country gets in. The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 had six countries; 1967 had six countries. It is very different having a localized war. It’s not good, but it is very different. Just last week for example, at the conference that Phil was kind enough to comment on, Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff General Kaplinsky publicly and formally said: if we have another round with Hizbullah, we have no intention of attacking Syria and we hope the Syrians have no intention of attacking us; we want to limit this to the sad, tragic territory of southern Lebanon. It is sad and tragic but it is very different than a regional war.

As for the likelihood of such a conflict, I think it is almost inevitable that the events of last summer were round one or act one in a tragedy that is yet to be played out. I wish that the resolution that ended the last war had been implemented in its full. I wish that the promised second resolution would ever have come to pass. I wish that we had had a mechanism for execution of the prevention of smuggling across the Syrian border. I wish that the Security Council’s mandate that outlawed the provision of weaponry, training, assistance to nongovernmental actors in Lebanon would have been honored. But none of that happened and I think chances are quite likely that there will be another round before too long.

David Ignatius: Rob, let me intervene to ask a question that I am curious about. I know it is difficult for any of us to speak with confidence about what happened in Syria on September 6, when the Israelis are said to have bombed what is said to have been a Syrian nuclear facility. I’m curious about your own assessment of Syria. One of the conventional wisdoms about Syria was that it was a country that understood and respected red lines, especially in its relationship with Israel. In that sense it was a fairly predictable factor in the Middle East. If the Syrians have been moving to construct a reactor undetected, that suggests they were well over what people would have thought were the red lines. Is this a different Syria now than the one we have grown accustomed to?

Robert Satloff: The short answer is yes. I think that Syria under Bashar is different than Syria under Hafez. For example, you pointed to the nuclear facility issue. I think the relationship between Damascus and Hizbullah is very different today under Bashar al-Assad than it was under Hafez. Hafez Assad never met with Nasrallah. For him this was a tool perhaps of Syrian policy in Lebanon but it was not a model to be emulated by the Syrians themselves. Now there is so much talk out of Damascus how the Syrians are going to be changing their force structure to engage in a battle of resistance vis-à-vis the Golan, like the Hizbullah model – that the Syrians would take a page out of Nasrallah’s book. I think the relationship has just shifted completely and I think the mindset of this leader is different than the father. I think you pointed to one very clear one: I think Hafez Assad, whatever one thinks of him, would never have put Syrian interests in jeopardy the way his son has put them in jeopardy by pursuing that sort of alleged alliance with North Korea that made him as vulnerable as he clearly was.

David Ignatius: A question for Phil Gordon, and Rob if you have thoughts, jump in as well. Hashim Warmsgari from the Department of State: What is the future of Kurdish allies in Iraq in case of withdrawal of US troops from Iraq?

Philip Gordon: Probably pretty similar to the future of Kurdish allies in Iraq in the absence of a US withdrawal from Iraq. That is to say that the Kurds already have and have had for quite a long time significant autonomy. They are armed, they are in control. The United States is not challenging them, which is of course linked to Rob’s big question about the future of Turkey. But even while the United States is in Iraq it is not using its force to force the Kurdish leadership to do what it does not want to do on the PKK issue. Therefore if the United States is in Iraq as it is today or if the United States withdraws from Iraq, the effect on the Kurds seems rather limited.

David Ignatius: Rob, will Turkey and Iran for that matter tolerate this semi-autonomous Kurdistan indefinitely?

Robert Satloff: I think there is reason to think that the answer is yes. Indefinitely is a long time – for the foreseeable future anyway. I think the answer is yes if the Iraqi Kurds do not cross certain red lines in their own relations with either party. I think if there is a practical agreement that is reached on Kirkuk; I think if the Iraqi Kurds are not actively supporting the PKK – these sorts of red lines that would compel Turks, for example, to revisit the status quo. But I think operating within these red lines, the situation can be sustained.

Philip Gordon: There is a tremendous and sad irony of the situation in northern Iraq right now with the Bush administration telling Turkey that it would be a grave error to send troops into Iraq to go after terrorists that may be located there, and the Turkish government responding by saying that if necessary you need to use Turkish territory to send military forces into Iraq to go after terrorists. What the Turks are doing is considering implementation of the Bush Doctrine and the Bush administration is telling them not to do it.

Fortunately, having made the argument to us that invading Iraq was a bad idea, they know all too well that it could be counterproductive. I think what they are hoping to do is saber-rattle sufficiently to get us energized to do more and to get the Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq energized to do more. They do not want to do it but of course, as we learned when we used the threat of force to get inspectors into Iraq, once you have extended yourself to the point of making a threat credible you sometimes have to execute it. That is the danger: even if they know that this would be counterproductive, having made the threats and in their domestic politics they will be forced to follow through with it.

David Ignatius: As John McLaughlin likes to say on his TV show: the right answer is yes! A semi-autonomous Kurdistan will be allowed to survive.

We have a question from Oday Aberdine that I am going to put to Rob. You did not mention any significant role for Saudi Arabia. Why?

Robert Satloff: First, there are a lot of things I did not mention. I am always asking the question of what didn’t happen – it is very important to ask what didn’t happen, what he didn’t say.

I am also not one of those who thinks that this new aggressive Saudi foreign policy that has sort of taken the Middle East by storm in the last year is a permanent feature of the political firmament of the Middle East. It is very difficult to say how much of this is just the personal attention of the current king and how much of this is seeping down as a new Saudi sense of what they need to do in the Middle East. My own view is that Saudi leaders are focused from the moment they wake up in the morning to when they go to sleep at night on domestic issues principally – on the stability of the Saudi Kingdom. I do not place much hope or reliance – certainly not reliance – on the positive Saudi contribution in resolving these other regional conflicts.

David Ignatius: Would either of you like to speak to Saudi Arabia’s role, as our Secretary of State envisages it, as a pre-guarantor of some codification of the terms of a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel?

Philip Gordon: I think there is potential for a positive Saudi role on that. I notice we have stopped talking about Saudi Arabia – it was interesting that Saudi Arabia did not feature prominently in either of our remarks. This was my point about the Bush Doctrine moving away and the democratization agenda being put aside. A few years ago that was part of the agenda, turning Saudi Arabia into a different kind of country that could be helpful. No one is talking about that anymore. There is a different agenda now with Saudi Arabia which is largely this one, as a response to Iran. That is the way in which I think Saudi Arabia becomes a potential partner for the United States and is showing signs of that. Already five years ago the Saudis were the ones to put a peace agenda on the table with some elements that were promising. It was not followed up on at the time but it was a sign that there was a potential different leadership in the Arab world that could play that role. I think we learned from the Clinton experience that without some form of Arab political cover – it is hard enough as it is, but without Arab political cover it is almost impossible to move forward there.

So I think in the meantime two things have happened. One, we have gotten more keen and want to play such a role and want the Saudis to play such a role. But possibly even more importantly, the Saudis see a need to play such a role because they are worried about the Iranian agenda, which has a Hizbullah and Hamas element and a threat to them. So in that sense I do think there is a potential role for Saudi Arabia to play.

It also applies beyond Arab-Palestinian peacemaking, I think even to the Iranian nuclear issue. If Saudi Arabia is really concerned about an Iranian bomb, as they should be and presumably are, they could be helpful on that issue, not least by linking their economic relationship with China to its policy toward Iran.

Robert Satloff: I agree with Phil’s last thought 100 percent, on what the Saudis could do in their own interest – not as a favor to us or the peace process. Over the last year the great Saudi contribution in the peace process has been entirely and profoundly negative. It was the Mecca agreement, which legitimized a terrorist organization. The Mecca agreement was a great step backwards and any attempt to resurrect Mecca, if that is the price the United States has to pay for getting greater Saudi involvement in the peace process writ large, would undermine our allies – I’m not talking about Israel, I’m talking about Mahmoud Abbas and Salim Fayad – and would be a great step backwards for the cause of peace.

David Ignatius: One rule of mine as a longtime Saudi watcher is whenever somebody outside the Kingdom says he knows what Saudi Arabia is doing, don’t pay attention because it is probably wrong. It is a very opaque country. That said, I think we are tending on this panel and in general to understate the role that Saudi Arabia is playing and can play. It seems to me that Saudi Arabia is more stable internally than it was in the immediate aftermath of September 11 and we need to factor that in. I think Saudi Arabia is a more active force in regional diplomacy. The number of times that leaders in crisis shuttle to Riyadh to talk to King Abdullah is astonishing. It is clearly the center point.

A final thought: I think Saudi Arabia is stronger relative to Iran than we generally understand, especially economically. Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, its ability to increase production, its ability to withstand production cutbacks that would otherwise be very harmful, is really large. Saudi Arabia’s economic leverage is a big deal.

We have three interesting, linked questions about Iran and I am going to try to pool them together. The first refers to President Nixon’s overture to China, culminating in the great opening to China and the change in America’s relationship with an incendiary revolutionary China. The question: shouldn’t the American government be trying to engage Iran at the highest level in some similar diplomatic opening?

A related question which contradicts something that Phil said: do you believe that Putin is shopping for a grand bargain, where the West gives up various things in exchange for Russian support in Iran? Certainly the Putin meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei was an interesting one that deserves more attention maybe than we have given it. I am told today by sources that Lavarov, the deputy prime minister, is visiting Tehran today for further discussions about whatever it was that Putin and Khamenei talked about. So what about that? Either an American-Iranian engagement – send Jim Baker on a plane tomorrow – or the Putin mission which is already underway.

Philip Gordon: I have views on all of those things and they are actually not unlinked, or at least they could be linked. To the first one, the right answer is yes. I am not sure what form it should take but the United States should at least take away the notion that it is totally hostile to Iran and not prepared to find an out to this crisis. Whether that is a Bush-Ahmadinejad meeting, I am not so sure, but the Nixon-to-China thing is nice in that it does remind us that crazier things have happened. Mao was not exactly a nice diplomatic leader with whom we thought we could engage.

So why not? Again, one would have to think through the precise tactics. I think this is strongly implied in what much of the Democratic critique of the administration is. There is a different view from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton but both of them say we need engagement, we need high-level engagement, and let’s talk – there is no harm in that. I think absolutely we should be prepared to do that.

The second point about Putin does not really contradict my point. I actually agree that the Russians are cooking up something. Those two things are not inconsistent. What I said was that Russia has showed no sign of being helpful – they are blocking the next resolution at the Security Council, they are telling the world that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon, they do not see what we are worried about and they are showing no movement.

At the same time, I think we should be absolutely ready for the Russian compromise proposal. Russia wants to play a role in the world – that is partly what this is about. They are very frustrated with the past ten years and the way in which they feel the United States has said, “You’re no longer a power – we run the world now.” They want to counteract that and we have seen it on other issues before, where the Russians would come out on Kosovo or in the Balkans and say, “Here’s the Russian proposal.” Most often in the past we were strong enough to ignore that. They did it on missile defense. We have this big dispute about missile defense in Europe and Putin comes up and says, how about a radar in Azerbaijan? They are going to do the same thing on Iran and it is going to be something like Russia gets to continue with its energy arrangement, finish building Bushehr and get money from Iran. Russia would probably even enrich fuel for uranium reactors on its soil, maybe would even build some of those reactors. Iran gets to keep a limited enrichment program, in exchange for which inspectors would go in and Russia would verify that. We do not know exactly but I predict that there will be a Russian proposal and we better think about what is acceptable and what is not, because if we dismiss it out of hand the Russians will then just turn back and say: good luck to you.

David Ignatius: What are your thoughts, Rob? If we find out that Jim Baker is just coming back from Tehran, is he going to get invited to the Washington Institute?

Robert Satloff: If he has the Iranian nuclear program in his hand – sure. Analogies are always problematic. Nixon to China – I am an expert neither on Nixon nor on China, but from what I can remember the third party in this entire enterprise was the fact that there was a Soviet Union out there that made Nixon-to-China rational for both parties. It was not just an American initiative that Mao thought, let’s make friends with America with no external reason to do this.

I support the idea of exploring all peaceful ways to address this problem. I think the formula for making it more likely that it will get resolved without the resort to military force is to convince the Iranians that short of such a resolution there is 100 percent certainty that America, working hopefully with its allies – and let me just say that I recently had a discussion with an ambassador from a prominent European NATO member country who reminded me that for his country, if the UN Security Council gets violated three or four times – that for his country is enough to do things. He reminded me that his country participated in the bombing of Europeans in the Balkans without a Security Council mandate, contrary to what Professor Ramadan said was the situation in the Balkans. It was NATO, not the Security Council, which saved Muslims in the Balkans. Likeminded countries might come together and do it again.

My point is: yes, I think we need to explore all options, knowing that there is no choice but to prevent the Iranian acquisition of weapons capability.

David Ignatius: I would just note as a point of information that when I was in Iran a year ago, in August and September, a consistent theme with Iranians – some government officials, other outside analysts and commentators – was this idea of a Kissingerian engagement, an effort by the US to explore with Iran what are our individual national interests, where do they converge, to what extent and how can we work together on those areas where they converge. It came up again and again. I think they have read Kissinger’s memoirs carefully.

I have got a last question and we need to be quick in answering it, but it is so interesting I do want to ask both panelists to address it. We have talked about Egypt and the transition that is underway in Egypt, and by implication the broader transition in the region. What role do you think the Muslim Brotherhood should play, will play? Rob, in the Egypt of the future, the Muslim Brothers are likely to play a much more important role politically. Are you comfortable with that? Do you think we should try to limit it? Do you think we should encourage it as part of a broader democratic initiative in Egypt?

Robert Satloff: This is a topic for its own panel. I will just very briefly say that I think the Muslim Brothers can play only a negative role in the future of Egypt. The United States need not be indifferent to outcomes in political contests abroad. What is important for the United States is to balance, to find that wonderful balance between assisting governments in having transparent and open institutions while not being indifferent to outcomes. We are not indifferent to outcomes; we have not been so in Europe in the great contests between communists and Western-oriented parties in the wake of World War II. There is no particular reason why the United States should be indifferent to political outcomes when they occur in Middle Eastern countries.

So my own view is they are not our partner. They choose not to be our partner and we have no reason to seek out their partnership.

Philip Gordon: I think that’s fair. The United States should not be indifferent to outcomes. It also cannot be indifferent to realities, and it seems to me in this case – first of all, the premise of the question, that there is going to be a transition in Egypt, I am not so sure of. But if there is one, it seems to me that the Muslim Brotherhood is an important reality that as much as we might like we are not going to be able to ignore.

David Ignatius: I want to close here, apologizing to people whose questions I did not read. I had many questions that were interesting. Some of them were quite narrowly focused and not easy for the panel to answer but they were all wonderful questions. Please join me in thanking all of our panelists, including Dr. Ramadan.

About this Transcript:

The panel discussion was held during MEI's 61st Annual Conference at the National Press Club, Washington, DC.