COVID-19 has ravaged societies and governments around the world. Militaries have been hit hard too. In the United States, the military has had to balance between supporting the civilian authorities in their efforts to provide medical supplies, defending the nation from external dangers, and protecting U.S. strategic interests abroad, all while ensuring that they are taking all appropriate precautions to protect the health of service personnel and their families. Even for the most powerful and resourceful military force on the planet, this is an incredibly difficult balancing act. In the Middle East, where the United States has a large military footprint, readiness seems uncertain with resources getting diverted, training exercises getting canceled, and soldiers getting sick.
How has COVID-19 affected U.S. defense strategy and posture in the region? What are the implications for Washington's plans in Iraq and against Iran and the Islamic State? The Middle East Institute is proud to present a panel of experts to address these questions and more.
Bilal Saab [00:00:33] Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for logging in. My name is Bilal Saab. Let me welcome you to this afternoon's conversation on the effects of COVID-19 on U.S. defense strategy and posture in the Middle East. This is a discussion hosted by MEI's Defense and Security Program of which I am the founder and director.
Bilal Saab [00:00:54] I'm joined by three panelists, two of whom are actually affiliated with the program and a third who I believe had tried to recruit but failed. Although she's in a very good place at Brookings, my previous home where I still have many friends. Let me introduce the panelists just very briefly, Mara Karlin is currently with SAIS at Johns Hopkins University and also, as I just mentioned with Brookings Foreign Policy Studies Program. If you haven't read Mara's book, I urge you to because it's brilliant. It's called "Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States." And she also co-wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs magazine not too long ago with Tamara Wittes, also a former colleague of mine, called America's Middle East Purgatory. I also urge you to consult that piece because it's thought provoking. I could spend another half an hour talking about what Mara has done inside and outside government. But I do please ask you to check out her bio page on SAIS' website and you can check out all that good stuff.
Bilal Saab [00:02:04] Michael Patrick Mulroy. Gee, it sounds very serious when I say that, Mick, the whole full name. He's an MEI Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy. He's also the co-founder of the Lobo Institute, which is a strategic consultancy firm based in Whitefish, Montana. If I understand correctly, Mick, used to be a thinly populated place, but now a lot of celebrities and wealthy people are flocking your neighborhood. Although I know that you wanted to keep it peaceful, but tough luck on that one. Mick has had a long and distinguished career in government. In the US military having recently served as the Pentagon's most senior official on the Middle East. And then last but not least, also our very own Joe Votel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow on National Security at MEI and the President and CEO of Business Executives for National Security. I don't need to remind anybody that Joe was recently the commander of CENTCOM, which is the geographic combatant command based in the Middle East, and he as well has had a long and distinguished career in the US Army. It's great to have the three of you with us, not only because your experience and expertise, but because I also believe that your views complement each other. I was just joking with you earlier, we at MEI believe in healthy civil-military relations. And so to have both the tactical operational perspective on these issues that we're going to talk about, but also the policy and strategic issues from that perspective would be quite important.
Bilal Saab [00:03:48] So lots to cover. And we're going to try to do this all in one hour. But before I start, a quick administrative note for those of you who are with us on this call. If you have a question for any of the panelists, write it down in the Q&A section and I'll do my best to pick a few either during the conversation or at the very end. And I'll ask the panelists to answer them. So with that, Mara, let me start with you and let's tackle the issue of resources and the effects of COVID-19 on DoD resources. Specifically, we know that the department has a very large budget north of 700 billion dollars, right? So is there really reason to be concerned, to worry about resources now being diverted away from military purposes and activities to combat the virus?
Mara Karlin [00:04:44] I think it's a terrific question, Bilal. Thanks for having me, it's a real treat to be here with you, Joe and Mick. You know, the the immediate resources being diverted for COVID-related reasons is not terribly substantial. However, it is growing and it is going to grow. And it's worth noting it's going to grow in kind of three key ways. First of all, the scale of COVID. Right? This is a massive challenge, a challenge that is only growing more and more. And because of its size and obviously all the uncertainty we have about it, it's going to really just kind of infiltrate every element of the Defense Department, how you manage the force, how you build the force, supply chain issues, obviously how you deal with recruitment, retention, exercises. There's just kind of no piece of the department that I think this won't end up touching and that'll obviously have attendant budget implications. The geography of it is the second most notable reason this is not constrained, right? So it's a challenge both at home and abroad. Obviously at home, the forces working in support of civil authorities, but it can be called on and has been called on in a bunch of different ways. And then, of course, there's there's the role of the military abroad. And finally, just the character of COVID, it kind of goes against how the military usually wants to deal with threats, right? It wants to run at challenges. And yet that seems to be not quite the right answer here. So I think it is actually going to end up having a pretty outsized impact on the Defense Department's budget situation.
Bilal Saab [00:06:28] Thanks a lot, Mara. Mick, any further thoughts on this?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:06:33] Yes. So first of all, hello everybody from Montana. Great to be with you guys today. So I'm not a budget expert, so that actually encouraged me to go ahead and talk to at work. So I was kind of surprised by the level of impact this would have on the budget to go off what Mara is saying.
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:06:54] Essentially, it was described as meaning this is going to have a taxation on the budget for many decades to the point where it's going to be worse than even sequestration was. That was very emphatically put to me. The other points that they made that I think would be helpful for the group. There's been a considerable impact on the building and manufacturing of a lot of critical weapon systems. I think Undersecretary Lord actually highlighted that last week. That's important not only for the jobs that are impacted. You know, the United States building these critical weapons systems, but also the fact that there won't be online as fast as we thought. The last thing that was brought up to me and the impact of COVID is there's action going to be delay in the passage of National Defense Authorization Act for the years coming up. And they actually -- I talked to a staffer, quite frankly, who said you don't even have them scheduled right now. So to the extent that it also impacts money and in budget, also bring that up as well.
Bilal Saab [00:08:01] OK. Joe?
Joseph Votel [00:08:03] Yeah. Thanks. Thanks, Bilal, and Mick and Mara, great to be with you. Great to be on an MEI event here again. So I think Mara and Mick covered an awful lot there. I think it's without a doubt there's going to be some budget implications for this. I mean, I think, the numbers I saw this morning were roughly 61,000 U.S. troops involved in the support of this right now, today. That includes a significant number of doctors and nurses, about 5000 of them and the Corps of Engineers and National Guard forces that are out helping their states or supporting civil authority. So that's a that's a significant chunk. And in the near term, the department, you know, often demonstrates the ability to move resources around to have an impact or to create the impact they need in the short term here as the nation requires. I, as Mick and Mara kind of talked about, I think the bigger impacts are going to come in the long term here. And that is, you know, out of this it will be very hard for me to believe that the country won't try to do something to address this. Institutionally, how we're organized or resource wise. And as they do that, that's going to cost money, whether it's investments in our health care, whether it's investments in our national response or stockpiles or things like that. We're going to have to do that. And I do think that money is going to -- the Department of Defense is going to be a primary source for that. And so we're going to have to contend with that long term. And I think there are going to be some some bigger implications with this. I would just say also that, you know, there are some other impacts that are taking place out there. I mean, we've all seen some of the basic military training has stopped, although it appears that some of that is restarting now and people are getting back to doing the things. And, you know, I think the good thing about the U.S. military is it is a learning organization. And they will figure out a way to overcome all of this. But it's going to take a little bit time, it is going to have some impacts on how we do things, how we do things going forward. But there are definitely going to be some budget impacts on the department for us.
Bilal Saab [00:10:14] OK. Thank you, General. I think it's a perfect segway since we started resources and Joe, you already talked about capacity issues. I mean, Mara, to the best of your knowledge, to what extent really is the U.S. military involved in helping the civilian authorities? And equally important, does that affect significantly global deployments?
Mara Karlin [00:10:38] It is playing a role domestically, as I think Joe noted, the impact on deployments will absolutely be significant, right? Remember, every part of the military depends on this very kind of clear cut logistics system, right? And that's logistics of people and logistics of stuff. And so when you start to tweak that and then throw on the chapeau of all of this uncertainty that we've got with COVID, I think it's really hard to imagine that we're not going to see a pretty substantial effect on the U.S. military's ability to really fulfill what has been kind of strategic imperative for decades, which is to kind of be able to go anywhere and any time. I think that will be absolutely notable. And I want to underscore just a terrific point Joe emphasized, which is the extent to which the American people might question how we're kind of relying on the tools in our toolkit of statecraft. Particularly post-9-11. There has been an overwhelming, and arguably unhealthy, reliance on the military kind of tool as opposed to other parts of the toolkit like diplomacy. And as we're about to see, as many Americans die from COVID, as U.S. service members died in the Vietnam War, I'm just really hard pressed to imagine a situation in which the American public doesn't look around and say, wait a second, we're facing this catastrophe, this catastrophe that does not have an end in sight. And who are we turning to? How do we rethink that?
Bilal Saab [00:12:14] Right. Mick?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:12:16] Yeah, so totally agree with Mara, and to Joe's point, it's been a substantial call up of U.S. forces to help help local and state governors fight this battle. I really do think the National Guard deserves a shout out, if you will, for all the role they played when it has come to that. But not only them, but also the hospital ships and the Army Corps of Engineer-built hospitals and all that. So certainly that is absolutely required. But to your question, as far as affecting overseas and the other military operations, I think there's no doubt, in fact, there is essentially an all-stop order by the Secretary of Defense on movements overseas and at least from from what we understand here, because I'm also an ABC news analyst, that authority goes all the way up to the SECDEF, to be able to sign and approve of movements overseas. So, you know, at least from my understanding, that means nobody is moving, because that's not something that's going to happen very often. So I think it's had a very dramatic impact on military operations.
Bilal Saab [00:13:30] You guys are providing me with the perfect segways. So let's just double delve a little bit deeper into this issue of readiness. Joe, and I'm going to read you what NPR recently reported: Recruiting stations have closed. Everything is online now. Large training exercises have been canceled or curtailed. Both the Marines and the Navy have temporarily stopped bringing in new recruits. Army is still bringing in new recruits, but everyone's trying to make sure there's adequate social distancing during boot camp and basic training. So, Joe, the question to you is: how has this crisis affected military readiness? You know, as encompassing term as it is, obviously, and of course, the training and the military operations in missions around the world, I mean, do you cut down on some of these deployments, do you modify their scope?
Joseph Votel [00:14:16] Yeah, well I think you probably do. I mean, I think probably in the near term here, the first month and a half, two months of this, probably the impact probably hasn't been as great. Certainly we've got to get people back into basic training and, you know, we've got to get people moving around the military and I think that, you know, again, without knowing all the details yet, I have enough confidence in our people in uniform and our civilian leadership over them to figure out how we how we do that and do it safely for our families, for our servicemembers and stuff like that.
Joseph Votel [00:14:50] I think the bigger issue here is sustainment. You know to the last question here, you know, can we serve 60,000 people to take care of the -- yeah, we can we can do that. We're big enough to do that. But the issue really comes in in sustaining this, whether we have to continue to keep people deployed for that or whether we have to be prepared for another resurge in the fall or what impact that this has on our other deployments. This is always, I think the biggest challenge for the services, is the ability to sustain the requirements over time. And, you know, certainly when I was in uniform with Secretary Mattis, as our Secretary of Defense that was something we talked about in the area that I had responsibility for is: how do you how do you get to a sustainable level of deployment here that you can reliably do that? And when you add more pressures into the situation, like we've added with this, then I think it just becomes more and more difficult. So I think what people ought to be thinking about is the sustainment of this is to me is the bigger issue. The near-term things, getting people to basic training and those types of exercises and things like that, I think that'll have some impact, we'll have to curtail exercises. And we'll have to reinvent how we do some of those signs and we'll probably figure that out. And there will be maybe a little degradation as a result of that, but we probably can figure that piece out. The bigger aspect is how do we sustain ourselves if this is now a big requirement that we have to deal with. And of course, all the things that go along, I mean, forces deploying into theater going into 14, 21 days, of quarantine. That's a that's another month brought into this, so there is just the added pressures into the system I think what we ought to be concerned about.
Bilal Saab [00:16:38] OK. Mick, sustainment -- big problem?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:16:40] Yeah, so two points here. My partner and I Eric always were asked to draft a paper actually looking at operational readiness and we basically looked at methods that the military might want to look at as far as getting the force back up to the point where it's not so threathened by the virus. So it could be mass exposure, it could be hunker down until we get a vaccine, it's kind of the way the rest of society is looking at it. But quite frankly, I don't think we have the same amount of time to have the operational readiness we need as it might take for the natural spread of the virus and waiting for a year and a half to get a vaccine. So, we were -- it's a SEAL and paramilitary guy so we weren't really giving medical advice [inaudible]. But those are some of the things we looked at. Because, for us just the way to -- the military has very, very good discipline. Alright, so if they lock people down, they're not going to get the virus. But that might not be necessarily the best outcome to have the only people that [inaudible] the virus a year from now be the U.S. military. So, anyway, I bring that up. The other thing we touched on and we're going to touch on here is operational security. So I think at first we kept seeing the reports come out in the media almost all the way down to the unit, certainly for the aircraft carrier, just total disclosure -- How many people had contracted the virus and need impact it was having on that crew. You know, we live in a democracy. It's good to pass information. When you get that detailed, you start running into the issue of operational security. They shouldn't be giving your enemies the information that they would otherwise [inaudible]. So I think the DoD has gotten away from that, now they're just issuing general numbers of infected not going [inaudible] on the unit because it certainly would cause concern there.
Bilal Saab [00:18:43] OK.
Bilal Saab [00:18:44] Mara, just a final point on readiness. Let me take you to sea and, I mean, just tell us what happened on the Roosevelt and what are the implications for readiness at sea, at least?
Mara Karlin [00:18:55] Absolutely. Look, any conversation about readiness has to start with two questions. Ready for what? And ready for when? And I think when we're trying to assess the effects of COVID just across the force, before we get into the issue of the Roosevelt, it's important to note that we still need the military to be ready for all sorts of kind of conflagrations that could happen with places like China or Russia or Iran or North Korea or various kinds of violent extremists. And we probably want them to be pretty ready. Well, we've thrown on this kind of more challenging chapeau of everything posed by COVID, which both affects us and affects our competitors and our adversaries. And I would know Joe made this good point about personnel. You know, it is entirely possible if we start to see some challenges in recruitment that you could go back to a story we all remember from Iraq circa 06, 07 with stop loss orders, because if you're not able to start bringing folks into the system and training them at the same sort of level, you could actually be kind of kind of testing that compact between those who sign up to serve and what they pledge. So this could get into all sorts of thorny issues on readiness. On the Roosevelt specifically, this is kind of almost a complicated Shakespearean tale punctured by no shortage of hullabaloo. I would say it is a fantastic tale of leadership that I really hope is being taught in professional military education. I can promise you I have taught it in my class at SAIS this past semester and I am grateful at least for the academic opportunity, although I sure wish we hadn't seen it erupt the way it has. But look, it's a tale of military leadership, a tale of what civilian control could look like and all of the challenges within that. But most importantly, what does it mean for readiness? I think that's where you're centered on. And that's a really important point. You know, when we were dealing with sequestration, I was in the department at the time trying to wrestle with kind of what what we would do as sequestration hit. Where were we going to scoop up all of this funding, what would we cancel, et cetera. You know, as we were looking at that, the idea of canceling carrier strike group deployments was a really big debate. As you can imagine, and effectively, that's what we've seen. And just based on what we've seen in public, actually, Navy readiness has been hit pretty severely. The Roosevelt is just probably the most kind of explosive story and the most spectacular one. And so there are real, real challenges inherent in losing those capabilities. And, you know, I would not underestimate the focus that a country like China has had on that story. Nevertheless, I think the compact one has with those who serve has got to be first and foremost in our minds, not just thinking about the security environment. I will just note, if you want a wonderful case study in military leadership amidst COVID, I strongly recommend you look at General Abrams out at US Forces Korea who I think has just been superlative in terms of how he's taking care of his forces, how he's managed a rather complicated and sporty relationship particularly at this time with the South Koreans.
Bilal Saab [00:22:16] Thank you. OK, Mick. Before you move forward, just an ask from the audience, if you don't mind, just getting closer to the mic so they can hear you a little bit better. There you go. All right. Let's turn to the region. The Middle East, which all of you know very well. Joe, I'll ask you and then I'll go to you next, Mick. I mean, how has this crisis affected our presence in the AOR? Do you think that our adversaries will be in a position to exploit this or are they also very badly hit and they're not?
Joseph Votel [00:22:54] Well, I think, again, we have to make sure we started the data that's coming out of the different countries there and in understanding what that is, I had a chance to look at it over the weekend. And, you know, at least in terms of the reporting that you're seeing there, with the exception of Iran, most of those countries don't look like they've got a problem on what we've seen in some of the Western countries, some of the European countries to this point. I'm not saying it's not there, but we just haven't we haven't seen it yet. So I think you have to - we have to - be a little skeptical about the numbers and recognize that there isn't is an issue there.
Joseph Votel [00:23:28] You know, I think, for the most part, I mean, it does impact how we're doing operations. You know, kind of back to Mara's point on readiness here. You know, the first factor of readiness is making sure we have a healthy force here. And none of interests can be protected or preserved if we don't have a healthy force that can do that. So we've got to make sure we're taking steps -- forward, back here -- to make sure we're keeping the force as healthy as we can. And you know, the last topic, on the Roosevelt, we got to trust leadership at the lowest component level to help inform that process. They're the ones that are seeing it. They're the ones that can help guide us through this. So we've got to pay attention.
Joseph Votel [00:24:12] That said, I think, you know, as a former CENTCOM commander, what I think about is that this has the capacity to, I think, add to the underlying tensions of the region and in some cases spiral them in, you know, the things that we normally think of in this in this region, you know, poverty, unemployment, disenfranchisement, refugees and internally displaced persons and terrorism and corrupt governance. You know, something of this magnitude. I mean, look at what's happening in our country, in other countries around here, and the impact that it's had. You can only imagine what that's going to be like when it gets to these areas where we don't have the same institutional foundations that are present here. And, you know, as difficult and chaotic as it may look like our approach to this is, you can only imagine how difficult that will be in this area. And so that's what I'm concerned about, is that it takes these situations and makes them even worse in terms of how to deal with it. And I think that's something we have to be concerned about kind of long term.
Bilal Saab [00:25:22] OK. Mick, I'll ask you the same question, but also follow up with a question from the audience that's a little bit more specific. So tell us first, in your opinion, how does that generally affect our presence and plans in the AOR? And then second, this is from Tony, how does COVID-19 affect the SOF mission set, special operations forces.
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:25:50] OK, thanks Bilal. Well, first off, I'd say that there was already a push, I would say, to reduce our presence in the Middle East, quite frankly, politically, COVID might just amplify and give those voices more of the podium. I would disagree with that. I think that we need to focus on what's best for the US and our national security in the long term. And a substantial reduction in presence in the Middle East would not be in our best interests. You look at Syria. I think there's a lot of belief that we can simply declare victory and depart. But I would argue that the stabilization component to that and the continuation of the enduring defeat of ISIS is as important as the effort that Joe led, quite frankly, which was substantial in defeating the caliphate.
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:26:44] So I'd put that in and the other point I'd make before I hit the special operations part is the impact on the haves and have nots, if you will, we already talked about a lot of our key partners in the region. They seem to weathering it pretty well so far. But of course, we've also seen a collapse in the price of oil. So they're going to be affected by that long term. And then the have nots, if you will, we're also advisers to the United Nations, specifically on the crisis in Yemen. And if you want to see the people that are paying right now, aside from the developed world, our response to COVID, I talked to the team who work with -- that's responsible for the U.N. efforts in Yemen. So they haven't seen a large infection yet. But when that happens, it's obviously going to take a very dire situation and it's going to get even worse. And I think the international community obviously has to worry about what's going on in their country. But they can't they can't just ignore what's it looks like is going to be inevitable in places like Syria and the al-Hawl camps like that. And then, of course, Yemen, this [inaudible] with very limited to no capacity.
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:27:57] You know, as far the special operations component, I mean, just like the rest of the military, they have to deal with the need to either immunize themselves from the disease and make sure they have an operational readiness, but I'll also say for a lot of them, it's even more important because particularly in a military side with the top tier units, they have a mission that needs to happen at almost a moment's notice. So they're on standby for global deployment, you know, within a very short leash. So to that extent, they have to ensure that they are ready to go and they can't be affected by COVID or that mission will be not able to be carried out.
Bilal Saab [00:28:51] OK, Mara, before I move on to Iran, because I see already a bunch of questions on Iran. Let me ask you to put on your posture hat one more time. You're back to the department. You're dealing with this crisis. What kind of recommendations do you issue on how do you reconsider or rethink our posture in the region? Does this, as Mick said, even though he's not in agreement of drawing down, does this accelerate drawing down in the region or not necessarily?
Mara Karlin [00:29:20] So it's important, I think, that we recognize how hard it is to have this conversation on Middle East posture. Right. The Middle East has been the preferred son for Middle East posture in the post-9/11 world. And it is you know, I think a lot of us have kind of baselined as to what normal posture looks like. I also support a U.S. posture in the Middle East, but I support one that is streamlined and that is sustainable. And I think if you look at the security environment, I have much greater concerns about China in line with the national defense strategy than I do with what's going on the Middle East. To be clear, there are not butterflies and unicorns across the Middle East. I think Mick made a fantastic point about how the gap between the haves and have nots and frankly, incompetent and feckless governments, if I might add to a statement, is only going to get exacerbated by this situation. But there is a real opportunity cost by having an outsized posture there. So I think it needs to be streamlined. I think it needs to be more sustainable as we recognize that opportunity cost. You know, it's hard to find a whole lot of silver linings looking at the effect that the pandemic is going to have in the region, I would like to think it may help the Saudis finally wrap up their war in Yemen, but that may be overly optimistic. But in particular, as it relates to the U.S. posture, what I think we will be seeing is a worrisome development in terms of the balance of power, in particular, our Gulf partners, whom we rely on a lot and whose funding is really important to what the U.S. does in the region are facing a catastrophe, a catastrophe that they haven't seen and that actually goes against how, on the whole, they've developed their their economies. And so I think that's going to make what is a necessary and kind of urgent need to move out of the region even more so, but will also add to the kind of the bumpiness in in facilitating that.
Bilal Saab [00:31:19] OK. Joe, why don't we just touch on the issue of Iran? Like I said, there are a bunch of questions on that. And we'll look at it from both perspectives, from least how you understand the Iranian perspective and abilities to continue to engage in malign activities in the region, but also our own ability to try to counter those. So just your own assessment. Do you think that this crisis, which we know that Iran has been hit pretty hard by the virus, did you think that it would affect its own ability to continue to do things that it has done for a long time or will remain committed to the cause?
Joseph Votel [00:31:58] Well, I think one would think so that perhaps it might, you know, with a rational, rational actor, this might this might cause them to make some different choices and establish some different priorities. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the path that Iran is taking here as illustrated by these recent activities in the Gulf, which we saw for a while, and then we've seen them drop off and now we're seeing them come back. Iran, as you know, is doing a variety of things, they're continuing to test red lines. They're continuing to do activities that draw attention to U.S. presence in the Middle East and stoke this discussion about why we're there. And I think it's you know, I think they certainly see it to their interest that that discussion goes on, that we -- that there's a vigorous debate in our country and other countries about do we need to go on there, because ultimately, that's what they want. They want us out of there. So they will continue to do things that will be, you know, relatively small tactically. But will put our forces at risk and create opportunities for chaos here to try to try to draw attention. So you would think they would deal with this. But that does not appear to be to be the case, in my view, you know, what's always been missing here is a very effective information campaign that is focused on the Iranian people to make sure they understand exactly the choices that their government is making for them and what position that is putting them -- it's continuing to contribute to to a bad situation for them now made worse by, you know, by this COVID crisis which I think everybody acknowledges Iran has is has is feeling the effects of that . Iran is being Iran and they haven't changed even in this current situation.
Bilal Saab [00:33:54] OK. Well, I guess I'll ask the other two panelists before we get into the U.S. abilities to counter. Joe has mentioned that, you know, Iran will do what Iran has done. Mick, do you see anything changing in strategy and the level of activities or it's going to remain the same?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:34:19] So if we look at the strategy of the maximum pressure campaign, which of course, is run by the State Department and it's primarily economic pressure put on the Iranians to hopefully get them back into an agreement that is more in accord and includes the malign activities that they're doing. I mean, the whole point is, as I mentioned, put economic pressure on them. I would guess that the COVID epidemic is also putting economic pressure on them, just like it is us. So I would hope that we take the opportunity to open up a diplomatic dialog so that we can get back to the negotiation table and start talking about coming up with a solution and an agreement that everybody can live with so that we can bring them back into the community of nations where they belong, help stabilize the Middle East, and take care of our national security interests, which are obviously preventing them from acquiring a nuclear weapon and the malign activities in the region. So I would hope that we take the opportunity to get back to the table. Before I left, there was a lot of talk about whether the economic pressure points were actually doing that and if they weren't whether we should readdress our strategy to ensure that they do, in fact, get them back to negotiations.
Bilal Saab [00:35:51] Mara, how big of a variable is this? It sounds like, you know, more of the same, right? Seems to be less relevant than people think. How do you assess the effects of this on the relationship? How tense it is and how it's going to move forward?
Mara Karlin [00:36:06] So, you know, on one level, it is more of the same. If we just look at the broad strategic argument to focus less on the Middle East, recognizing it is still important, Mick mentioned the presence in Syria and I would absolutely agree with him on that, that's actually a pretty small presence, though, compared to our broader posture in the region. And I think it is an important case study of operational efficacy. We can talk about the strategic efficacy at another point. But look, vis-a-vis Iran, I think the challenge here is that the Iranians are facing economic pressure. Absolutely. However, it becomes kind of a matter of one standard deviation, left or right. Right. They're used to it. They've already kind of acknowledged and accommodated the opportunity --excuse me -- the sunk costs of this economic pressure. What's changed is that our Gulf partners are now feeling that, that is absolutely not at all what they are used to. They're used to using their money for influence and that's how frankly, that has been kind of fundamental to the relationship with the United States. Obviously, you know, oil prices plays into that and also to how they've kind of maneuvered around the region. And we're now seeing all of that, I think made kind of a lot more complicated.
Bilal Saab [00:37:16] OK. I feel like a lot of the questions that I'm going to ask you are. So how does COVID-19 affect this? And then the answer is going to be not much, but let me try to force an answer here. So, I mean, it is a big crisis, obviously. We've started the conversation the first half an hour about the significant effects of this on all sorts of issues affecting the United States and the United States military but let's move over to Iraq and start with you, Mick a few words and I'll move to Joe. How does that affect our presence and what we're trying to do there? I think, you know, you mentioned that yourself before. There was some sentiment pre-COVID 19 of, you know, drawing down or removing a few troops. You might not like it, but that was the reality of it. So now that we're in this situation, does that affect what we're trying to do in Iraq?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:38:12] Right. So I to your last point there, I do think that there is a push to withdraw our forces from Iraq because of the defeat of the ISIS caliphate. Again, to reiterate, I think that the stabilization and the enduring defeat is just as important. We need to be there for that. Also, one of the, if not the, number one ways that we push back and counter the Iranian influence in Iraq is to be there and to be a key partner on the security front for them. And we can only do that by maintaining our presence there. It might not be as large as it has in the past, but quite frankly, we've been we've been up from 150,000 people down to where we are now, 17,000 people. So I think we've shown progression in a positive way there. I think any precipitous withdrawal would not be in our interest whatsoever. It would be in Iran's interests it would be to the detriment of the Iraqi government. Now, specific to COVID, I mean, the I'm sure a lot of everybody on the panel and probably many in your audience have been on a forward operating base. It is almost as close in proximity as you would be on a ship in many places. So it is a problem that, you know, Lieutenant General White and General Miller in Afghanistan have to deal with, certainly. It is difficult environment to stop the spread of any communicable disease or any kind of flu like this, virus like this. So that's going to have an effect. We just like everywhere and we have forces deployed and we're going to have to figure out a way to deal with that, because the mission in Iraq, for example, is critical to our overall national security.
Bilal Saab [00:39:58] Joe, countering the Islamic State?
Joseph Votel [00:40:02] So, I mean, part of the campaign plan that, you know, has been in place and remains in place, has been keeping the pressure on ISIS and the remnants that are left from the defeat of the physical caliphate. So, I mean, that remains, I think, an important mission. But, you know, hopefully more and more -- Iraq -- the forces of Iraq are getting to a position where they can they can maintain that. But that has been an important component of our of our overall campaign plan. I think it's a worthy component to prevent the resurgence of that.
Joseph Votel [00:40:36] More importantly, however, I mean from my view, I really view Iraq as an important geostrategic location for us. And I mean, it sits at the nexus of these sectarian challenges in the region, it sits at a critical geographically important area. It reaches the Persian, reaches the Gulf, reaches the Levant. So it is it's an it's a critical location for us. And I think it's in our interest. I think, you know, it's important part of our interest to have a good relationship with with Iraq. And so I think that -- as we move beyond ISIS, I think that ought to become our priority. And that doesn't necessarily mean that we have to keep thousands of thousands of troops on the ground, although I do agree with Mara on this is that over time, we need to move our posture in Iraq, and other places, to something that is sustainable. In the long term, I think our main effort looks like security cooperation, very strong, capable security cooperation, efforts to build capability that continue to demonstrate that we're a reliable partner with Iraq and in doing so, preserve our long term interests. Iraq is a unique place. Every time I know with Prime Minister Abadi, during the time we were orchestrating this, he always reminded me of the difficult neighborhood that they live in, with a neighbor like Iran. But that didn't stunt, you know, their confidence and their need for U.S. and coalition forces to be there. This is about a balance and we've got to figure out what that is. And, you know, if we could do anything getting back to the relationship that we had in place during the main part of the campaign, where we were viewed as a kind of a behind the scenes, reliable partner focused specifically on some pretty key military tasks that put us in a good place. Where we are now is we're in a place where we are -- where it's being questioned, what our role, are we there for ISIS? Are we there for Iran? What are we there for? And we have to be very, very clear about that. And we have to look at how we make this a long term, excuse me, sustainable relationship with the Iraqis.
Bilal Saab [00:42:57] Mara, why don't we just to stay on Iraq just a little bit more. It's not just the Islamic State, that's obviously a big problem for us, but it's also the militias that are under the influence of Iran, right? So here's a question from the audience, which I think is an important one. The PMF has not really been very popular lately, right? But let's just assume that they issue a response that is quite effective to deal with this COVID-19 situation. What are the implications of that for us? Because that would be quite specific to the current crisis beyond, you know, more generally speaking, what is our mission in Iraq? Say these guys become more effective. People look to them for answers. Is that a problem for us?
Mara Karlin [00:43:36] I think that is such an interesting question to consider, sorry?
Bilal Saab [00:43:42] Governance.
Mara Karlin [00:43:43] Yes, no. Absolutely. But what also this idea of the opportunities that COVID provides for various violent non-state actors and kind of our complicated relationship with them as you no doubt have followed Bilal, you know, looking at Hezbollah's involvement in trying to deal with COVID. I mean, you have a feckless and venal and utterly problematic government in Lebanon, and then you have Hezbollah with kind of every kind of problematic adjective you could add to that. And you know, it just, of course, like has this effect that's pretty soul crushing on the Lebanese people, of course. But so looking at Iraq and the role of the PMF I think there's a really interesting analogy here to when we were in the throes of the ISIS fight. You know, the PMF was among the most effective elements across Iraq in encountering ISIS, right? You had the Iraqi counterterrorism services and then you had the PMF. And I think that in many ways that made kind of the sort of, to the extent using quotes, one could call a "post-ISIS," kind of a "post kind of active kinetic ISIS" time period more challenging. It's because they had really proven themselves, right? They now had kind of an important role in helping severely weaken ISIS and so not only couldn't you ignore them, but they were kind of extra important to how you were thinking about wrapping up the solution. So I think to the extent that PMF ends up playing a positive role in COVID, it really puts a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to show kind of how and in what ways it can kind of be a positive leadership force for the country and a force that folks should turn to. I think it's probably also worth noting. I would absolutely agree with Joe that kind of a secure and stable and capable Iraq is very much in US national security interest and we should we should push for that. I think we do need to recognize, though, that as Iraq moves down, that kind of trajectory, our relationship is going to get a lot more complicated, right? You're going to have a country in which not only does the state have more agency, but different elements in the state have more agency. And I think that's going to make things more complicated for us. But that's probably not a bad thing in the long term.
Bilal Saab [00:46:03] OK, Mick, this is an issue that I'm sure you've spent sleepless nights on when you were in the department. Our presence and mission in Syria. So it's roughly the same question, but how does the crisis affect our deployment there, what we're trying to do?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:46:21] Yeah, so, I mean, once again, the importance of maintaining there, as Mara pointed out, we don't have a large presence there. We have been reducing our presence for quite some time now we're at, I think, the minimum force that we really need to carry out the mission. And we have a very strong partner in the SDF, quite frankly, which allows us to do that. And they have transitioned from the direct fight against the caliphate to the stabilization part to the local security forces. And now even in the fight against the COVID disease spreading throughout that region. So I think I think we have a great partner and that's more of a reason to stay. But they rely on us for a lot of a lot of things and that includes air support, includes intelligence, and it also includes logistic support. I think Mara also pointed out that one thing the U.S. military does better than anybody in the world, in my opinion, is logistical support and expeditionary operations. So we're there and I think we should be there for the long run, COVID is inevitably going to affect these areas. And I think we also need to be there to support the humanitarian efforts that's going to come after, whether it's the U.N. or NGOs. As we saw in that there was a fear of departure of the U.S. military wholesale, the NGOs also fled at the same time because they rely at least in part on security blanket U.S. military provides in places like Syria. So not just Syria, but also in Yemen and other areas. So I think it's going to have an impact. I think we need to be able to weather that storm to [inaudible] the efforts at stabilizing the region and, of course, assisting all the diplomats and their efforts to see the 2254, the U.N. security resolution go forward in some kind of political settlement.
Bilal Saab [00:48:24] OK, Joe, I know you've worked very closely on this issue with the SDF. Any thoughts on Syria?
Joseph Votel [00:48:30] Well, I mean, I think we've, you know, in the wake of some of these rather sharp policy decisions we made here, I think we've -- I'm very glad that we've been able to preserve some type of relationship with with the SDF, albeit it's much smaller and I think less influential over the long term here. But I think it is important to, you know, to continue to have a relationship with with those partners there as we move forward. So, you know, I'm concerned about Syria. I don't think we are -- we, the United States -- are in a particularly good position where we can be as influential as we may have been able to be at one particular point in trying to get to a political resolution of this. But I do think it's important to maintain a relationship with with SDF and continue to to exert our influence wherever and however we can to try to see this through to some type of form, some type of resolution.
Bilal Saab [00:49:29] OK, General, let me stay with you for a few moments. Just so I do a, more or less, I know there are many other regions, areas in the region that we haven't talked about, but just to provide a semblance of a comprehensive picture, right? I want to look at Afghanistan. So it's been a couple of questions from the audience. How does this affect the peace process? Is there any way where this crisis actually strengthens the Taliban? What are your views on this? And I'll ask you the same questions, Mick and Mara after that.
Joseph Votel [00:49:58] Yeah. So, you know, again, I think, like we said, in a number of areas it has the opportunity to make things worse and, you know, take bad situations and kind of exacerbate them a little bit, it certainly has that situation. And one would hope that, you know, it's something like this. A crisis like this would cause factions to perhaps, you know, the government, the Taliban to kind of come together for the good of the people. I mean, I spoke a week or so ago with Martin Griffiths, the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen. And this, frankly, was part of the issue, this was part of the initiative he was trying to capitalize on here was the potential for a crisis like this in Yemen to bring the parties together. It's like all things taking time. I guess when I look at Afghanistan, you know, I think the situation is kind of as expected right now. It's going to be complex and it's going to be Afghan hard the whole way through. I mean, I think we hoped that the political leadership on both sides and the government side and the Taliban side would have seen the need for some level of compromise and begun to move forward. And that's been challenging. That said, you know, there's there's few alternatives at this particular point, I think. There is progress. I mean, there has been exchanges of prisoners. These are small, but it is progress. And progress is progress in Afghanistan. I think for us, I think we have to recognize this is going to -- this was -- I don't think anybody expected this, just because we had some kind of agreement, that we were there, this is going to be a lengthy process. We need to stay engaged. This is going to be heavy on our diplomats as it moves forward and keep the pressure on both of these parties to keep making progress, small or large, as we move forward. And this is the only way that I think we're going to get to this point is by continuing to keep the pressure on.
Bilal Saab [00:51:57] Okay. Mick, I know Afghanistan was probably not part of your portfolio, right? But just in case you have any thoughts on this.
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:52:04] Yeah, it wasn't part of my portfolio, but I spent a couple of years there. What I would say is start at the, kind of the macro anybody that has an inclination to withdraw forces from overseas is going to use the current pandemic as an excuse to do so. I think we should resist that. I think the United States has a very -- should play a very prominent role in the world, and that includes support to international organizations, particularly ones that actually are responsible for fighting things like international pandemics. Specific to Afghanistan, I think absolutely the Taliban's going to use this to their advantage. Groups like that strive to chaos and quite frankly, whether it's Iran, or the Taliban, or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, maybe. But certainly they're going to use a vacuum that would be created by the US withdrawing and then to the point where they can come in and provide some security, could get some kind of benefit there. I don't think we should change anything when it comes to our decision to withdraw or not to withdraw or the scale on which to do it based on COVID. I think we should do it exclusively on the US national security interests and not on any promises based on anything that the Taliban would have.
Bilal Saab [00:53:23] OK, OK, Mara, any thoughts on this? Or we can move on to another one --
Mara Karlin [00:53:27] I think they've done landscape well.
Bilal Saab [00:53:29] OK. I love this question, so I'm just going to ask it. From Tony Johnson. Given the anticipated resource constraints that we've talked about stemming from COVID and anticipating the impacts of those resource reductions on US security cooperation, what you talked about Joe and assistance, and, you know, IW commitments, especially in the Middle East and vis-a-vis the great power competition pressures. What kind of tradeoffs should the DoD be prioritizing? So every single one of us has had to prioritize at some point. So does anybody want to take that question? What tradeoffs should DoD be prioritizing in this current environment right now? Mara?
Mara Karlin [00:54:12] Sure. So, look, balancing between crisis and long term strategic planning is kind of an endeavor that the Defense Department is really used to. I'm not going to say it always does it well, but it has a lot of practice in trying to do that. So as as it's trying to do that with this crisis that kind of has no end in sight, a couple of things that I might suggest. I think the department should think hard about what's working and what's not working vis-a-vis its response to the pandemic specifically. Right, where are their pockets -- I had mentioned General Abrams out of U.S. Forces Korea -- where are there pockets where we're seeing goodness, where are there other pockets where maybe we're not seeing such goodness? I think the department really needs to step back and reassess the assumptions in the National Defense Strategy, to what extent do they still hold and to what extent do we really need to rethink that? And that is, frankly, a great opportunity to also assess why the implementation of the strategy has been so, slow, to be frank. I think the department probably wants to step back and rethink its mission prioritization. And within that, of course, where is it investing and where is it not investing? Todd Harrison from CSIS wrote a wonderful piece recently about the need for the department to protect its crown jewels. And I think that is spot on. You know, Mick had mentioned earlier this challenge with sequestration look as sort of catastrophic as that was, this will be, I think, in a completely different and much more substantial way. And so it is an opportunity for the department to step back and actually give kind of a hard look and try to be ahead of the game in terms of where it proposes cuts and a lot of these cuts, if you buy into kind of the view that the National Defense Strategy pitches of the future security environment, a lot of those cuts are actually pretty clear. And they've been cuts that I think folks have been trying to implement for years, but pretty unsuccessfully. Maybe this pandemic actually provides an opportunity to get greater kind of bipartisan concurrence on Capitol Hill to make some of those changes and across the Defense Department, too.
Bilal Saab [00:56:17] OK. Wow, I mean, this is really a perfect segway, Mara, thank you. So you talked about domestic opportunities, but why don't we talk about international opportunity? I don't want this just to be a doom and gloom conversation about foreign policy and our involvement in the Middle East. There's gotta to be some kind of an opportunity to de-escalate or do some of the things that even, you know, adversaries of Iran in the region are now doing, reaching out to Iran and providing some level of humanitarian assistance, including the UAE. So is there any opportunity for us to de-escalate tensions with the Iranians at this point, Mick?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [00:56:57] So I mentioned earlier, I mean, the strategy has been to cause economic hardship so that they feel compelled to come back and negotiate. So to the extent that COVID has amplified that, I think we could, to your point of your question, we certainly could offer assistance in some humanitarian way as a gesture of good faith. But we also have to be willing to talk to them about an agreement that they're they're gonna be willing to join in. And at the end of the day, this shouldn't be about forcing action or confrontation, it should be about getting Iran back into the community of nations and coming up with an agreement that we could all [inaudible]. So, I mean, to the extent that this could enhance that, that would be great, it could also exacerbate it, right? They might feel that they, because of the situation there and the fact that the United States as well as the rest of the world are somewhat distracted right now, that they have to take some kind of military action to kind of force our hand. So that's a potential, I mean, I can't say which way Iran's going to go, but I think those are two areas to talk about.
Bilal Saab [00:58:02] Okay. Fair enough, Joe?
Joseph Votel [00:58:03] Well, I would I would just add, I think the number one thing we could be doing here is to try to open some type of communication channel with Iran so we can begin to begin to diffuse this. I mean, we just saw this in the Gulf here. We would not put up with that in Syria when we were orchestrating the campaign. And that's the reason we established this hotline communications link with the Russians, that I can attest saved lives, kept tensions lower and allowed us to stay focused on this very specific mission we had against ISIS. I think trying to figure out a way that we can communicate with them is extraordinarily important. I think it's the number one thing that we can do to diffuse tensions right now, today. And without that, I think we will continue to see this posturing, this posturing around red lines and other things right here for the foreseeable future. We've got to get to a point where we actually are communicating to Iran.
Bilal Saab [00:59:02] Can I push you just a little bit on this, Joe. I know that a lot of people will be interested in this. And probably your answer is going to be, "it doesn't matter as long as we communicate, I don't care about the format." But are you talking mil-to-mil communication or are you talking through the Omanis, the Swiss? What's your --.
Joseph Votel [00:59:16] I think first off, I mean, it has to be a multiple levels. But I think a good place to start is to have a mechanism where we can talk about tensions in the maritime environment. And this would be a way to do that. Now, I know this is, again, I'm not being I'm not being overly optimistic, I know this is a difficult thing to move forward on, but I think it is an important way to build on this. This is how we started with the Russians in Syria, which is our air operation centers talking to each other. And then eventually we had our JTF commanders talking to each other and then we had, you know, our our respective Chairmen or Chiefs of Defense talking to each other. Ultimately, we have to have it at multiple levels and there's got to be a diplomatic aspect to this. But I think starting small over something specific, you know, maritime activities in the Gulf is a way to get started with this. I argued for it as a CENTCOM commander. I think we should we should do this.
Bilal Saab [01:00:18] We got, I guess no time left, but I'll just ask two final questions, if you don't mind. Can anybody, stay for a couple more minutes. Just give me a -- OK.
Mara Karlin [01:00:29] Mara, I think everybody agrees on the importance of trying to establish lines of communication with the Iranians. But I mean, just do your own assessment. Do they want to talk to us? Well, you've tried us before it.
Mara Karlin [01:00:39] We've tried to before. And I mean, remember, this is how the JCPOA away came alive, right? So it's not as though we haven't had discussions with the Iranians at various points. You know, the International Crisis Group just came out with a terrific report worth reading on this exact point, about the need for a hotline. And I think that is really, really important. We want some level of communication. I think they will want some level of communication. It's important, though, that inside the government we have a frank and honest conversation about what we want and also what we think is feasible because it's entirely possible that those are actually not not in alignment. I mean, we don't have a ton of evidence that the kind of substantial requirements put out by the State Department delineating the maximum pressure campaign, you know, there's not a lot of evidence that that's really borne much fruit. I would say it is useful to talk for all the reasons my colleagues have mentioned, but in particular because it helps us understand one another's escalation ladders. I know it feels like 2020 has already been eight years, but it started with Qasem Suleimani's killing, which was the thing we were all focused about for this brief moment. And I think, you know, that in and of itself was just a great reminder that we want to understand one another's kind of red lines and where they're pink, one another's escalation letters and the different rungs on them. And to the extent that we can have the, you know, this hotline or this connectivity in collaboration with other allies, that's a great thing. The US is stronger and more effective when we've got allies next to us. I think that played into the JCPOA and it's always just really unfortunate when you see us kind of divided, particularly from our European allies.
Bilal Saab [01:02:24] OK, OK. It's hard to have a conversation on defense issues without just very briefly discussing the top priority of the department now another country, at least in foreign policy, which is a great power competition, right? Regardless of how we define it. But there is a couple of questions that I got from the audience. So this -- we'll leave it with a few final words from each one of you on the effects of this crisis, on the great power competition and the Middle East and the great power competition. So is there now room is there an opportunity for a greater, and I think you've already started alluding to it Joe, for multilateralism in the region. You could take the question in any direction you want, but just generally speaking, effects of COVID-19 on the great power competition, of course, on the Middle East. So let me do it this way it would go. Joe, Mick, and then we'll end it with Mara. Joe?
Joseph Votel [01:03:19] Yeah, I think one of the things I've been asked recently, what what should we be paying attention to now in this environment? And my response is twofold. We should always be paying attention to the choices that leaders are making and we should be looking at the international effort that comes together to address this. And I think this is an area where the United States has traditionally led. And I think we do need to be seen as the as the leader in this. And it is a great way to influence people. China has stepped into this void and has provided a bunch of stuff. I mean we've all seen the stories of, you know, bad tests and other things they've provided to people, poor gear and stuff like that. This is an opportunity where we and our Western partners and allies that come along with us really need to step forward here -- like we did with Ebola, like we've done with other things in the past, HIV, other things like this -- and make a make a statement for good here in terms of how we address this. This is really about influence right here. This is about people choosing, you know, which side we're going to be on, we going to be on the US side, or are we going to be on the Chinese side on this? We shouldn't we shouldn't, I think, shy away from this.
Bilal Saab [01:04:33] OK, Mick, you probably agree with all this?
Michael Patrick Mulroy [01:04:35] Yeah. First, before I hit that part, I just wanted to totally agree with Joe's point on the need for dialog. When I was actually there, I made that argument. I lost the argument, but absolutely 100 percent. Not only does that start the process of discussions where there's not as politically charged beliefs and where things should go, because it's simply about military issues. But also to Mara's point helps in escalation control. Right, so that they know what we're doing directly. And it's not funneled through third party, which when it comes to military operations is [inaudible] exactly the time frame that you need to have. Specifically to your point, I would say we have a National Defense Strategy. We prioritize China and Russia as our near peer competitors. That should not be just geographic like parking an aircraft carrier close to China is not exactly really countering China. If they're building ports in Africa and the Middle East or if Russia is becoming more involved in Syria and now Libya, I think you got to look at what they think their priorities are, where they're trying to push back and counter our influences as a clue. So the Middle East is important now. It's going to be important in the future. And we should look at what they're doing and see where we can counter their efforts. And to the point -- also that Joe made -- a lot of what China, for example, does is [inaudible.] So it's not only in our interest, but it's in the interest of the countries that [inaudilbe].
Bilal Saab [01:06:16] Well, Mara, it's obvious that we're struggling inside the country to respond to this. Can we do a better job and step up overseas? And do things that Mick and Joe are talking about.
Mara Karlin [01:06:26] I mean, I sure hope so. Look, the National Defense Strategy is premised on close alliances and partnerships. And I think it would be dangerous and misguided if we just saw that in kinetic terms, "hey, when we go fight x or y conflict you'll be next to us." Everything that we're doing right now vis-a-vis this pandemic is being watched by our allies and partners. And look, the U.S. hasn't led the way that that it probably would have or has, I would say historically and someone's filling that void. And as of now, I think we're seeing the Chinese doing it in bits and pieces pretty incompetently, as Joe noted. But nevertheless, at least running at it, right? They are setting the conversation in a way that we're not, they are no doubt going to inform the norms as well. And that all has kind of, you know, ends up having some real effect on us. The -- look, I hope we end up leading, I hope we recognize that this does provide an arena for great power competition and also provide some opportunities for great power cooperation. But if it's not us, it's going to be someone else and there will be a cost to it not being us. And we've got to recognize that, unfortunately.
Bilal Saab [01:07:40] Okay. You guys have gone overtime, so special thanks to all three of you. Really. And it's such an honor to have both of you on our team, Mick and Joe. Mara, thanks a lot for all your insights and we'll continue this conversation. Unfortunately, it's not going to end in the foreseeable future, but I hope I'm wrong. With that, once again, thank you very much. And we'll keep the conversation and we'll get in touch with all of you. So take it easy and be safe.
Director of strategic studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies;
Nonresident senior fellow, The Brookings Institution
Michael Patrick Mulroy
Senior fellow for national security and defense policy, MEI;
Co-founder, Lobo Institute
General (ret.) Joseph L. Votel
Distinguished senior fellow on national security, MEI;
President and CEO, Business Executives for National Security
Bilal Saab, moderator
Senior fellow and director, Defense and Security Program, MEI