The first panel at MEI's 69th Annual Conference featured Prem Kumar (Albright Stonebridge Group), Michael Singh (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Tamara Cofman Wittes (The Brookings Institution), Robin Wright (The New Yorker, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars), and moderator Elise Labott (CNN).
Elise Labott: Thank you. Thank you Wendy and thank you to the Middle East Institute, you know as Wendy said, I’ve been covering foreign affairs in the State Department for quite some time and when I came to Washington in 2000 the Middle East Institute was already a group that I had known very well through my studies, and in fact studied here , I studied Arabic for a few years at the Middle East Institute, so the quality of the scholars and the educational programs that the Institute has done over the years has really helped me in understanding this region that continues to challenge and inspire us.
We have a wonderful panel today, I know you were expected Phil Gordon, but Prem Kumar has kindly agreed to fill in for him and I think that having just left the Administration you’re gonna hear some really interesting insights, and hopefully a little candor, about where we find ourselves right now. But I think you know all of these people I’ve known for some time and I can’t think of a better panel to talk about where we find ourselves in this turbulent region and where we go from there as we approach the election section. You know President Obama came to office promising to extricate America from the entanglement of wars in the Middle East, it was a simple premise, and understandable for a war weary American public. But the realities of governing showed President Obama, as they do all U.S. presidents, that the world waits for no man and the Arab Spring obviously had transformed the region in ways that one could not have foreseen when President Obama took office. You know even as he scaled back the military involvement, President Obama has not been unwilling to act, we’ve seen him intensify counterterrorism strategies, drone strikes, he’s certainly been active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and in September 2013 the President defined his policy towards this region in transition in a speech to the United Nations where he defined four core interests for which he was prepared to deploy all instruments of American power, including military force. And that was protecting allies against what he called external aggression, insuring the free flow of oil and gas, preventing terrorists against America and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Today the situation we find ourselves is very dire, the borders of Iraq and Syria are barely existent, the terror group ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State, whatever you want to call it, is certainly a dangerous and deadly group capturing a large swatch in both countries, has now morphed into what many argue is the preeminent terror organization in the world. Egypt has reverted to a harsher authoritarianism than some might argue even Hosni Mubarak, Syria, Libya and Yemen are torn by civil war and extremism, and U.S. allies in Israel and the Gulf have said that they feel abandoned by the U.S. And we see the refugee’s crisis rocking not only the Middle East, but spilling into Europe, which really kind of globalizes what’s going on in Syria right now. Now President Obama has been accused often of not having a strategy for dealing with the region, presidential candidates have seized on this somewhat, we haven’t really seen the Middle East largely in this campaign, but we’re still early. The Iran deal is still on its way to implementation, but this really could yield President Obama’s biggest hope for a very positive legacy if it curbs Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but whether it will spur a broader rapprochement and a positive rebalance in the region is far from clear and many would argue unlikely.
So what elements of President Obama’s Middle East policy legacy will be most influential to our enduring national interests? What can the Administration do in its final 15 months to reduce the bloodshed in the region, aid our allies and advance our interests, and what are the Middle East policy challenges that the next Administration is likely to be focused on and how might the candidates handle them differently? As I said, we have a stellar panel to discuss this; we have Prem Kumar, who now is the Vice President of Middle East and North Africa Practice at Albright Stonebridge Group. He helps clients operating in the region devise strategies to enhance growth, resolve disputes; anyone that knows about the Albright Group knows how interesting it is, Albright Stonebridge. And Prem served on the National Security Council staff at the White House for more than five years, earlier in his career he served at the U.S. Mission to the UN, where he negotiated resolutions on the Israeli, Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, Syria and other issues, and I’m sure if another Democratic president comes into office they’ll be wanting to tap him once again.
Robin Wright, anybody that follows the Middle East has found Robin to be one of the most insightful analysts of this region, of her generation. I met Robin when she was at the LA Times, but now she’s a contributing writer at The New Yorker, a Joint Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. She’s reported from more than 140 countries on six continents as a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, she’s written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and has previously been a Fellow at Brookings, Carnegie, Yale, Duke, Dartmouth, everyone knows that if you want to really dive deep into the region, you need to know Robin and her writing very well.
Michael Singh is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and another person whose writings really kind of capsulate the challenges that we find in the region. You know Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as you know, a leading think tank here in Washington. In the Bush Administration he was Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs at the White House and also before that served as Staff Director for several Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Syria. Michael has served as Special Assistant to both Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and co-chaired Governor Mitt Romney’s State Department transition team in 2012 and served as a Middle East advisor to the presidential campaign. I must say though as we continue that none of these people on this panel, I’m sure you’re wondering, are advising any of the candidates. Obviously they’ll be wanting to read their writings to get a lot of insights, but nobody here is advising any of the candidates.
Tamara Cofman-Wittes is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Middle East Policy and the Brookings Institution. We met when Tam was at the State Department working on Middle East transition and (inaudible 12:48) issues. She served, as I said, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, where she coordinated U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East and oversaw the Middle East partnership initiative.
So with that illustrious panel let’s kick it off with Prem. Let’s talk a little bit about the frame that President Obama, particularly in his second term, has approached his policy in the Middle East, mindful of the limits and risks of further U.S. involvement.
Prem Kumar: Sure, well first of all thank you Elise and thanks to the Middle East Institute. I think the speech that you refer to that the President gave in September 2013 at the General Assembly, was a good reflection of how this Administration has seen the Middle East, especially in the last few years. In the beginning of the Administration, 2009 there was clearly a great deal of focus on Middle East peace, the Israeli, Palestinian conflict. We’ve seen of course that that effort, despite significant time dedication by Senator Mitchell, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Kerry, has failed to move forward, as we’ve seen in previous Administrations. But as time went on and the Arab uprisings took place in 2011, the Administration’s focus had to change, clearly, and to adapt to the traumatic; the traumatic and dramatic changes in the Middle East that we’ve seen over the past few years, and the Administration, the President had to decide what the role of the United States would be. And I think at the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011 there was a great deal of emphasis on supporting the push for political and economic reform while recognizing that these were dynamics that were motivated by people in the region, that these uprisings, the conflicts that we later saw, were not fundamentally about the United States, and that’s I think a very important thing to keep in mind in terms of understanding the Administration’s perspective. Clearly over the past few years those uprisings have taken different courses. In Tunisia I think it’s safe to say that there has been a fair amount of progress despite the challenges. Egypt, as you said, has been far more challenging, and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, I think are dire as you said, it’s hard to imagine a time in the region where we’ve seen more upheaval. And so you know these events helped the Administration to clarify, or led it to clarify the situations in which the United States would use all elements of our national power to intervene to shape events. Because that was really the question I think, these uprisings were taking place, conflicts were starting, and the question was, what was the role of the United States going to be with regard to these issues? And I think in a fairly hardheaded, some would say in a clinical way, the President and the National Security Team in the summer of 2013, discussed the wide range of issues and decided that these were the four issues, the four core, vital national security interests of the United States, in which we would intervene with all elements of our national power. The, as you said, safe access to energy, prevention of the emergence of terrorist safe havens, the prevention of the use or spread of WMD and the protection of our allies against external aggression. This is not the sum total of the Administration’s perspective and approach to the Middle East, there was an emphasis on Middle East peace again in that speech in 2013, and we’ve seen the results, and an emphasis on concluding the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Which in my view, will be the most important legacy of this Administration in the years to come because I suspect if this agreement is implement that no matter whether the President’s successor is a Democrat or a Republican, that this agreement will endure and will at least take off the table the question of whether Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon. So there are lots of other implications, I think of the Administration’s perspective, but the broad frame is while we support these efforts toward greater political and economic reform, we recognize that these conflicts and transitions are not fundamentally about the United States, and therefore we have to clarify our most important, vital national security interests and the situations in which we would intervene, and I think the Administration has done that.
Elise Labott: Let’s talk, let’s maybe start with, you know let’s go back a little bit to you know the Arab Spring, and even before that maybe with the Cairo speech. I mean I think part of the criticism of the Administration, while recognizing the limits of what’s possible and the influence of U.S. power, that this President did not follow up a lot of his words, particularly in Cairo, by meaningful action. There was an erratic response to the Arab Spring that while the Libya intervention was of a humanitarian nature, it was not kind of, it was squandered by helping the rebels create a stable government. And I think this is one of the criticisms of the President, is that this pattern of not wanting to go in, going, being you know the realities of governing as we said, kind of brings you there, but not, but it wasn’t done in a full enough way to kind of manage your objectives. I mean talk a little bit about that.
Prem Kumar: Well I think, you know I’ve certainly heard that criticism and given the state of the Middle East and the dramatic upheaval and instability we see, it’s not difficult to understand why there is, there is that line of thinking in terms of the approach of the United States. Now I go back to the first conclusion, which is that these events were not fundamentally about the United States, that they’re motivated by actors within the region, but that said you know on, if we go back to the Cairo speeches you said there was a specific focus on Middle East peace, I think the Administration invested a significant amount of time and effort on that issue, the results have not been, have not been impressive. But I think that’s not out of keeping with frankly the results that we’ve seen over the past 50 years, and I think the conditions were clearly not propitious for that effort. Much of the rest of the speech was focused on establishing a new kind of relationship with the Arab world, one of mutual respect where we would support movement towards political and economic reform, but do so without trying to impose American values. And I think the next few years showed that above all this President, this Administration, were pragmatic in how they applied the principles from that Cairo speech. With regard to the Arab uprisings, in Libya the Administration intervened because it had an opportunity to do so because the Arab states, the EU, were all, the European countries, were all pressing the U.S. to get involved and because there was an opportunity to protect civilians against a brutal dictator, the United States, the President chose to intervene. In Syria, my own view is that that opportunity didn’t exist, that there was never the kind of international coalition that would have supported intervention, nor was there a clear path to achieving even the goal of a regime change and ushering a political transition in Syria. And there were significant risks, not only in terms of the risk to American servicemen and frankly, American resources in Syria, but also risk of counter escalation as we’ve seen over the past few years whenever the Western coalition has escalated, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, have counter-escalated and so in my mind the opportunity that existed in Libya did not exist in Syria.
Elise Labott: We’re gonna, we’re gonna dive a little bit deeper into Syria in a minute, but let me stay on Libya for a minute and the kind of accusation that yes, that opportunity existed, but was squandered in the sense that the U.S. did not follow up the you know ousting of Muammar Gaddafi with an intensive diplomatic and political engagement that would help this you know fragile nation grow. You know we’ve seen, you know obviously Libya’s still in the throes of political chaos, was there enough diplomatic muscle in the aftermath of this revolution? Tam?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: Well thanks Elise, I’ll address that directly, let me just say at the outset what a delight it is to be back at MEI, which is the place that gave me my first job out of grad school and helped me get started in this business, so it’s lovely to be, to be with you. On Libya, look I think we have to, we have to recognize that the challenge there, the difficulty of building effective governance, of establishing monopoly on the use of force, you know all those basics of statehood, those problems were not created by the military intervention, they were not created by the toppling of Gaddafi, they were created by 42 years of Gaddafi’s destruction of Libyan society, of Libyan social institutions. There was not an effective political system in Libya before the uprising, there was Gaddafi, it was a personalized dictatorship that actively worked to suppress and destroy and undermine any alternative center of authority in society, and that’s what Libya was left with. So I think that we have to recognize the scope of that challenge and we have to recognize that that challenge faced Libya no matter what. Whenever Gaddafi went and however he went, it was gonna be a huge struggle for the Libyan people. Now given that I think the United States and the others who were involved in that humanitarian intervention faced the narrow question of whether to prevent a massacre and then the broader question of having made that decision, how to, and, and knowing that that was gonna have the effect of supporting this uprising, once Gaddafi went, how do you respond? And we had a test case of an alternative model for American or external intervention in Iraq where the United States and many other countries sunk trillions of dollars, years of effort and lives of our people to try and help a society rebuild in the wake of a tremendously destructive authoritarian legacy, with limited results. And by the way, that effort was still ongoing while the Libyan intervention was taking place. And in this case it was a situation where the Libyans didn’t want that kind of footprint and the international community didn’t want that kind of footprint, and the region didn’t want that kind of footprint. So I’m not sure that there was any demand, and I don’t know that it would have been welcomed, but even if so I’m not sure that even that model, as we saw in Iraq, it doesn’t solve all the problems to try and engage in that kind of nation building effort. I think what we can say is that Libya fell victim to the broader sweep of what was going on in the region and it’s suffering from that even today where there are broader regional power struggles and Libya has become, in a sense, a proxy arena for those broader regional power struggles. And so you know there, there may have been a very brief window where if all the regional players, who had initially supported the mission in Libya, could be on the same page about what the future of Libya should be, maybe they and the international community together could have united in support of a new Libyan government, but that wasn’t the situation we had. We had division in the region over the future of Libya and the future of a lot of other places and Libya suffered from that as well.
Elise Labott: Robin, pick up on that here, I mean if there are limits as to U.S. influence and these are factors that are largely not determined by the U.S., where in a case like Libya, is the role, what is the role for U.S. leadership, or is there one?
Robin Wright: Of course there was and I actually would take a slightly different spin on Libya, I think it’s a classic case where the international community was successful militarily, but once again, didn’t know how to pull together an alternative. And it was a real missed opportunity because Libya was the one country that had the resources in its oil wealth and a small enough population, only six million people, to actually pull off a transition, to pay for it and to create an alternative. Yes there were longstanding divisions between East and West, Benghazi and Tripoli, that always made the country vulnerable, but take neighboring Tunisia as another case where you had, you have a success story, the only success story really out of the Arab Spring, and again there’s a lack of leadership I think in addressing the, a country of only ten million people, that doesn’t have sectarian divide, has you know not ethic, core ethnic issues and, and yet this is a country that’s in trouble. It has contributed more foreign fighters to ISIS than any other country, 3,000, with another 9,000 stopped by security forces from leaving the country. I was an international monitor at the presidential election in December and the one thing that was most striking across the country was the fact that the lowest turnout among any group in the country was among the young, those who had been responsible for inspiring, they were the backbone of the Arab Spring, and the lowest single turnout in any city in Tunisia was in (inaudible 28:50), which is the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where the young fruit vendor set himself on fire. And this is a country which desperately needs aid to create jobs, that the core problems that contributed to the Arab Spring basically the, the dissatisfaction with, not just jobs, but the prospect of having a future in the country. This was never about liberal democracy, it was always about those issues of survival and as they like to say, justice and dignity, but it was about being able to survive. And today you have over 30% employment among the young in the interior cities where the uprising started. This is, you know this is where we should have much more leadership in providing, not just counterterrorism training to help with the extremists inside Tunisia, but in dealing with the core problems. Now that’s not to say that jobs is gonna be the alternative in the region, but we are not very good at creating the coalitions, the peaceful coalitions, to help use our resources, to help a country that desperately wants help, that doesn’t have some of the core problems that neighboring Libya does. And that we’ve failed I think in that respect.
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: Can I just, I think Robin’s on to something really important here, which is that no matter what our understanding of the needs and imperatives are, or of the longer term strategy, which involves a lot of civilian elements of power, that security challenges keep kind of pushing those things down the priority list or off to the margins of the conversation and Tunisia is a fantastic example of that. You know Secretary Kerry went out there this week for a bilateral dialogue to demonstrate American support for the Tunisian transition, to talk to them about hitting that tough balance between supporting their growing democracy and fighting terrorism, and his entire visit, media coverage of his visit, was totally overtaken by a drone strike in the Syrian, Iraqi arena. And so I think the kind of urgent security challenges that cropped up in the wake of this regional upheaval have made it very challenging for the United States and for other governments to keep their eye on the ball on these longer term, societal development issues.
Elise Labott: All right Robin you have a quick point and then I want to go to Michael.
Robin Wright: Yeah, I just want to say that I think there’s something much deeper going here and that is the key question of what is our priority? Is our priority stability or is it trying to nurture the kind of values and political systems that we have? And that we, by kind of default, we keep going back to we have moments of brilliance, I actually thought it was important that President Obama walked away from Mubarak to signal that we, after 60 years were responding to the will of the people, to popular sentiment. But I think we, now we’re back to the same old position of opting always for stability in our support of…
[talks over her]
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: But that’s not stability as you just pointed out.
Elise Labott: Let me bring, guys, guys let me bring Michael into this equation here. Michael, I think that one of the threads that I’ve seen, especially when President Obama first came in, but I think that there are still some remnants of it, that it’s I’m gonna do things exactly the opposite of how President Bush did and in fact, David Rothkopf wrote in his book a little bit about the kind of symmetry between the policies of President Obama and President Bush. Whereas President Obama went too deep in, there was a lot of you know Iraq is obviously one example, but you know there was the democracy agenda, there was you know we’re going to democratize this region and President Obama was a little bit you know more reluctant to you know put that American stamp on it. And where you know President Bush was very robust in his defense of the use of American power, President Obama does seem to treat American power itself as not only limited, but maybe dangerous in some cases. So can you talk about that in terms of how you think the Obama Administration you know kind of dealt with the aftermath of this Arab Spring, keeping in mind that he wanted to avoid some of the mistakes that President Bush did.
Michael Singh: Sure and well I’ll like, like my fellow panelists here, I’ll start by saying thank you to you Elise and to the Middle East Institute, an Institute for which I have just tremendous respect for the Institute scholars as well as for Wendy and for Mark Scheland and other people who are involved in putting this all together and bringing you here today. And I’m glad you said, Elise, that we’re not, we’re speaking on our own behalves, not the behalves of candidates. I’m not speaking certainly on behalf of Republican candidates, if I were I’d have to sort of spend the time arguing with myself I suppose.
And I say this only half in jest because I think one thing that’s important to recognize is that these are not really partisan issues when it comes down to it, there’s probably more distance within the parties, between different candidates, between different wings, than there is between the two parties themselves, between say the centrists in both parties. And one of the things which we haven’t managed to do and which is maybe puzzling, maybe not, is we haven’t managed, despite the fact that we’ve had a succession of essentially liberal internationalist presidents since the end of the Cold War, we haven’t really managed to put together a sort of a long term strategy for the Middle East. We haven’t managed to have the kind of continuity that I think we would like to have in the Middle East. And I think that it would be, as much as you know those of us who deal with foreign policy would like to see foreign policy be a big issue in elections, in a sense we should be comforted that it’s not and we should actually want it to be not a political issue, not a partisan issue. Because there is I think the tendency, Elise, that you absolutely described correctly, which is for a new Administration to come in and want to be the anything but you know insert name here of your predecessor. And I think we did see that in a sense with the Obama Administration and it’s even worse in a sense because it’s, you’re reacting not just to your predecessors’ policies, but to your own description of your predecessor’s policies, which is often in fact a caricature of those policies. And so what I’ll say is I think that it’s very important that the next president, whoever it is, whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, not sort of fall into this same pattern. You, I think that there, it’s fair to say that there are quite a few people who feel as though we haven’t had a strategy in the Middle East or that we’ve had sort of strategic drift in the Middle East for a number of years now. But it’s equally important to say that simply doing the opposite of what we’re doing now, whether it’s in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere, will not constitute a strategy either, there needs to be some deeper thought. And so look I think that the problem that we have had often is that we have a sense of what our interests are, I mean those four interests that President Obama described, I think most of us would come up with a similar list frankly. If you polled the people in this room you’d probably come up with a set of, if you asked people for four, you’d probably come up with tremendous overlap in that list, maybe you’d have sort of six or seven or eight things mentioned, but there’d be a lot of overlap.
We’ve talked a lot about tactics. Should we have boots on the ground, should we not, should we engage, should we not engage with the Iranians and so forth, where we, where we rarely have any real discussion is the middle part, strategy, what connects the tactics, you know our military interventions or our diplomatic conferences and so forth, with these interests and objectives which are inherently quite long term, and that’s I think where we need to have more thinking. I think the next president, look will have a lot of different fires that he or she will try to put out, a lot of different short term crises, and they’ll be confronted with the questions of what more or less do I do in Syria? What more or less do I do in Iraq? How do I get this Israeli Palestinian issue from sort of falling off a cliff for example? But I think it would be a big mistake if there weren’t also some thinking about what is the long term vision, what is the sort of longer term roadmap on which the United States is operating? Not just me and my Administration in the first 100 days, but the United States? And there I think we have to look at the reality of the region itself, which has changed a lot over the last few decades and it’s changed a lot even in the last four or five years. I think you had a sort of twin collapse in the region. You’ve had the collapse of states and institutions within states, and you’ve had the collapse of the regional security architecture. And I don’t think that our efforts, over time, will succeed unless we have an idea, with allies in the region, of how we’re going to address those twin collapses in a sense. And so I think we do have to have a long term policy to address those things, to improve the resiliency of states, through I think economic and political reform, I don’t think that should be controversial, I think that needs to be an element, a strong element of American policy in the region. And yet it’s one which has been, I think despite a lot of talk about it, mostly absent from our policy, and I think we need to think about a new regional security architecture. You’ve seen our allies being a lot more active in places like Bahrain and Yemen and Syria and Libya and so forth, what you haven’t seen is any real coherence to all of it.
Elise Labott: Well let me ask Prem here, we have you know four, fourteen months left of this Administration and clearly you know the situation that the next president inherits will in large ways be defined how the situation shakes out in Syria. You’ve seen the globalization of this war with the migration issue, Russian intervention, I think we’re not speaking actually enough about how their intervention has fundamental consequences, not just in Syria, but throughout the region and the world. And you know not only dealing with President Assad and the question of his future, but the civil war, the civil society there, and you know this deadly group, ISIS, how does, speaking to Michael’s point about some kind of larger strategy for the region, how do you anticipate this President you know handing over this file to the next President, are we gonna be just sputtering along here or is there a strategy where you think you can hand this off, clearly it won’t be solved, but in a little bit better shape than we are now?
Prem Kumar: Well first of all I would say that I think the conflicts we see in the Middle East are going, unfortunately, to endure for many years, so while this President I think will try to hand off to his successor as manageable a situation in the Middle East as possible, I suspect his successor will be dealing with many of these same crises for frankly many years to come. But I think there are a few things that this Administration can do to try to improve conditions over the next 16 or so months and I think many of them are, you know what my friend Mike was talking about. First, in terms of improving, addressing the need for a more robust regional security architecture, I think the Administration began that effort at the Camp David Summit this May in talking to our Gulf allies in particular about what more we can do to promote intelligence sharing, to promote interoperability, to support a joint Arab force, missile defense, and most importantly, to reaffirm our commitment to the security of our Gulf allies against external aggression. I think second, the way that we implement the Iran deal will be extremely important for the future of this issue in the region, if the Administration allows small violations to take place without a response, which I don’t think it will, but if that were to happen I think that would send a very negative signal to the region and also to the Iranians about what’s permissible under this arrangement, so even small violations need to be met with a firm response.
And then in terms of Syria I think there is more that the Administration can do to shape the conditions for an eventual end of conflict and that includes increasing support to the opposition, as the Administration has begun to do, this is a very arduous task as we’ve seen over the past few years from the results of the various train and equip missions, but it needs to continue in some form, we have to choose our partners carefully. But there also needs to be a clear end goal in Syria and I suspect at least in the next few years it’s not going to be regime change, it’s going to be an end of conflict. And so if you couple increased support for the opposition with a renewed focus on diplomacy, as Secretary Kerry has been doing in Vienna and will continue to do, involving all actors in my mind, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, based on some of the ideas that (inaudible 42:42) and others have put forward, then I think you know over the next 16 to 18 months or so we can begin to lay the foundations for an eventual end of conflict in Syria, which would be probably the most important legacy that this Administration can leave its successor in terms of beginning to manage, or at least helping to manage, the crisis we see across the region.
Elise Labott: Tam, 16, 14 months, Syria, is an end of conflict at this point all that’s possible and is that enough for, given the situation that we find ourselves in right now? And what do you think more, I mean clearly there’s a diplomatic process in place, I would argue that maybe it’s not, it will probably will leave a lot of the regime intact because you know the U.S., I feel, does in some ways see this Russian narrative a little bit that you don’t want the states, the complete collapse of state institutions, where does that leave this Administration in the time it has left?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: Sure well I think whether you’re talking about Syria specifically or you’re talking about the Middle East more broadly, we’ve seen tremendous dynamism in the last five years and 14 months is actually a long time. So I sometimes hear…
Elise Labott: It’s so funny to hear you say in the Middle East 14 months is a long time.
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: I know, you know and certainly in the historical scheme it’s a blink of an eye and people in the region have long, long memories. But honestly some of my regional interlocutors at this point are looking past that already, they’re thinking about what comes next and they you know for, they’ve decided that this Administration is just that’s where it is and they’re not gonna see any new initiatives, they’re not gonna see any policies that they like better and so they’re just waiting for the next Administration. I think that’s a mistake, I think that 14 months can be a very long time in a region that is in this much turmoil. Now you know I think there were many more opportunities for American engagement to shape the environment in Syria, three years ago, even two years ago, than there are today. And I think that when we look at Syria today we have to look at it in the context of what we know about civil wars and how they proceed and how they tend to end and we have to be realistic. Civil wars end in one of two ways, either one side destroys the other side and either destroys it utterly or beats it back so badly that its entirely subsumed, and that can take an awfully long time and a terrible amount of blood. Or, a civil war ends through a negotiated agreement and the history of civil wars in the modern era, and particularly the post-Cold War era, tell us that those negotiated agreements don’t stick unless they are guaranteed and enforced by outside parties. And we’ve seen that in a number of cases around the world in the post-Cold War era. So I think just, you know speaking as a political scientist, but speaking as a pragmatic policy analyst, we have to accept if we don’t like the idea of a zero sum game in Syria where one side in the this civil war is destroyed, then we have to look at a negotiated settlement. Now how do we get there? And I, you know I have significant doubts that the process that’s being set up in Vienna is gonna get us there. Mainly because although it does for the first time bring in all the relevant external players…
Elise Labott: It doesn’t bring in the internal players.
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: …it’s disconnected from the internal players. And you might be able to get some concert of powers to agree on a governmental structure for Syria, but the ones who are gonna make it real, the people who will populate it and the people who will have to make the compromises and live with the compromises are Syrians, and they are not effectively at the table so…
Elise Labott: Well there’s us…
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: …the bottom up, I don’t, I don’t see how you get there.
Elise Labott: Robin there’s also a third option, which you know very well which is a civil war that basically kind of lasts for 20 years or more and just basically transforms the region. Given where we are now, given the possibilities that lay out, that lay out, where do you see this going in Syria and how, given the turmoil that we see throughout the region, we’ve seen you know Lebanon, now it’s even though the, clearly the instability has been bleeding into Lebanon, we saw what happened yesterday with that horrible bombing, set of bombings in Beirut, how is this, how do you see this playing out and what, where does this shaping, where’s this shaping the region in terms of, of the near and medium term future?
Robin Wright: Well this, Syria is the strategic center of the Middle East and what we’re beginning to see, almost five years in, is the globalization of the Syrian conflict. Lebanon’s civil war was a regional conflict in which every player in the region had either a militia, financial interest, political interest, or some kind of stake. Now we’re finding that Syria is spilling over, whether it’s the security threats to us across an ocean or the migration challenge in Europe, and of course the redrawing of the map. I think the diplomatic is the first time we’ve seen a serious initiative where all the players are there, but I think the differences particularly between the Saudis and the Iranians are likely to make any kind of agreement difficult, in part because there are different, whether it’s sectarian or political differences, that this is gonna be a long term challenge. I think when we look at Syria you have to understand that there’s a two prong process that has to happen in order to end the, well, three actually. The first is you have to push back ISIS and Nusra and the other militias far enough that you can actually have a legitimate political process, hold an election, have local councils begin to take over authority in the administration of big places that no war’s gonna end unless you have a Aleppo, ISIS and you know some kind of unity in Aleppo. And, and the tragedy is when you look at the militias they are so divided, thousands of them now, that they are neighborhood to neighborhood, I met with 31 commanders from Aleppo a year ago and you’d think they’d have common cause being from the same place, all fighting, whether it’s the regime or trying to hold ISIS back from Aleppo, and yet they were so divided among themselves that they couldn’t come together. So you have that first process, that’s military. Then you have the political process and that can’t happen until you have territory, the majority of territory under control. And then you have the third problem and that’s the recreation of the state, which we saw in Iraq was the most complicated and the fact is Syria has witnessed greater devastation than any war in the Middle East. Half of the population has been displaced, a third of the kids are out of school, somewhere between 60 and 80% of the population is unemployed, the economy is dysfunctional. That, that recreating a stable environment will be difficult, one this is multicultural and that’s one of the great things about Syria, it was a, it had so many different minorities, so that’s the process.
And then there’s the fourth big question that nobody has yet put on the table, and that’s the question of do we want to use our military muscle, our economic resources, our diplomatic leverage, in holding the current states together? Do we want to fight for those states? I’m not arguing one way or another, but I think it’s one that given the changes in the Middle East map over the last four years, particularly the last year and a half, we have to begin to address. These are not always natural creations and there’s no guarantee that lots of mini states would be any more stable or viable, but the question is that’s one of the things we have to put on the table. And then the question becomes, how do we use our resources to back whatever we decide and I think that we’re kind of piecemeal going into each of these conflicts, be it Yemen or Libya or Iraq or Syria, only because of ISIS are we beginning to have to take a bigger look at the whole. But I think there’s some fundamental questions that the next Administration will have to face that are much bigger, much more important and it’s, as Michael pointed out, the state structure, but are these even states that we should be investing in using our resources to hold them together when they may not want to hold together themselves.
Elise Labott: Michael, given what Robin just said, does the next president come in with a new vigor and a new energy and vitality to this issue, or is it not, or is it, is Syria lost, is there a center ground that you’ve heard both kind of Jeb Bush and you know others talk about where you kind of continue to go after ISIS, build up an opposition, not just in Syria, but you know in the region, that is do you think it’s a, at this point that there’s a fatigue in this Administration or that a new president could come in, or are these problems now you know so intractable that we’re, you know I don’t want to use the kind of being led by behind, are we being dragged you know into situations that we can only just help but manage and not you know lead here?
Michael Singh: So I’m not sure when there has been enthusiasm about being involved in the Middle East, so you know I, this is, there…
Elise Labott: I didn’t say enthusiasm, I said vigor.
Michael Singh: I mean look there’s of course fatigue, there’s fatigue with any hard problems, right? I mean I was just reading, rereading a 1969 essay about Walter Laqueur from Foreign Affairs about look we’re being dragged into the Middle East because we have to, because the Soviets are there, right? I mean this, we are there because we have interests there and because if we neglect these problems they will adversely affect our interests, think that that’s absolutely clear. Not because we’re excited about it and not because we’re enthusiastic about it and so we need to get over the idea of fatigue. Of course the American people are very skeptical, I think rightly skeptical about the idea of more interventions in these problems and that just puts the onus on the President, however it is, to make the case. And I think that, what I can say is that it would be hard for the next president to show more indifference towards this problem than I think we’ve seen in recent years. We’ve have a sort of…
Elise Labott: How do you really feel about it?
Michael Singh: …a diffident policy and so yes I think the next president, regardless of who it is, will bring new energy and new vigor to this problem. But you asked a question about the next 14 months and I don’t think we can simply say what will the next president do because I agree with Tamara, that the next 14 months will be vital in shaping this issue. One of the great fallacies I think that we’ve all witnessed with respect to Syria is the idea that well this could be just contained, that if we stand back, maybe let’s let them fight it out, or maybe let’s try to avoid having this e our problem, this is a real political issue in Europe for example. And one thing we could see as a result of this massive refugee flow from Syria, from the Middle East into Europe, is strengthened far right parties in Europe which sympathize more with Vladimir Putin than they do with whoever the next occupant of the White House is. And so President Obama, if he doesn’t I think get more serious about addressing this problem, could bequeath an even worse situation to his successor, which is harder to solve. And so I do think it’s very important, the next 14 months that the focus be on shaping the ground for an eventual diplomatic solution rather than trying to simply lead with, let’s have a conference, let’s talk it out, let’s sort of have as many conferences as necessary, which we heard yesterday from Secretary Kerry, I think the answer has to be, let’s start shaping the conditions on the ground so that whether it’s before January 2017 or after, we can have a viable solution that advances American interests and let’s get our allies involved in that. There’s tremendous thirst right now, in Europe, because this is a political issue that’s going to affect the fortunes of elected officials, for some kind of American plan, some kind of American leadership on this. And I think that it’s well within President Obama’s capacity to offer that, but I think we just haven’t done it, we still haven’t decided on what is our strategy here, what is our approach, that’s still an unanswered question.
Elise Labott: Did you want to talk?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: Well maybe just a note on the question of strategy and I agree with everything that Mike just said about setting the table in the next 14 months for whomever comes next, but I think one of the challenges of the last period, since the Arab uprisings began, is that this regional environment has defied the assumptions of successive American Administrations about Middle East policy and even about how to pursue American interests. And so we can say you know, as Mike said, that those core interests that President Obama laid out in September 2013 at the UNGA are the core American interests and we can say that for a half century the United States has tried to preserve a degree of stability in the region to advance those interests, and that’s true. But the situation in the region today, the degree of upheaval, both in state breakdown and in breakdown of the state system, is unprecedented and so how does one pursue stability in that environment? What are the requisites of stability, whether at the sub state level as Robin was saying, or at the regional level? And what, if anything, can the United States do to move down that road? I think those are the tough questions, I think they go beyond a strategy in Syria and I think that it is impossible to avoid see the really deep daily connections on the ground, in the Middle East, between questions of local governance, of inclusion, of representation of opportunity, and the larger questions of security. ISIS didn’t grow out of nowhere, the Syrian and Libyan civil wars did not grow out of nowhere, they grew out of crises that were brewing over decades. And as Mike said, I think there were American Administrations that recognized those problems were there, but that did not apply themselves sufficiently, it didn’t prioritize it sufficiently and by the way, the regional governments also aware of these brewing crises did not address them seriously or effectively and the result is the explosion that we saw in 2011.
And so it’s not a matter of laying out a Syria strategy and then we know you know where we’re aiming for on the horizon, it’s a matter of recognizing that rebuilding order in this region is something that’s gonna have to happen from the bottom up and it’s gonna have to require a degree of consensus building within the region and between the region and outside powers like the United States, that do have a tremendous amount of influence. And I don’t think any of that consensus is there, it’s not there inside Syria, it’s not there within the Arab world, it’s not there in the U.S., Arab relationship, and so I don’t, I don’t think you can build a strategy right now without those core agreements on what we need to do to rebuild order in this region.
Elise Labott: Robin, everyone’s obviously focused on ISIS and Syria right now, but we’ve talked about there are some kind of unforeseen or brewing storms that possibly the next president will have to deal with. Talk a little bit about some of the unforeseen or kind of gathering storm of challenges that you know we could be talking about this time next year.
Robin Wright: Well I’m not sure this time next year, but I think in the next Administration there are a number of issues. One is the question of some of the leaders in the Middle East being aged and ailing, whether it’s the Sultan of Oman, the President of Algeria, the Palestinian leadership is aging, that Saudi Arabia you have an elderly and not totally healthy king, that some of the, our interlocutors may change. I think this plane crash in the Sinai underscores the vulnerability of the Egyptian government, that as strong as Field Marshall/President el-Sisi appears, that the repercussions, the rippling effect of the plane crash on tourism, on an economy that was already very vulnerable, you know there’s a process, if the State Department issues a travel warning about a place, then insurance companies will not insure travel agencies to back tours, it’s not that people don’t want to go, it’s that it’s just impossible, financially, to pull them. And there’s a famous story about the camel guide around the Pyramids who said, was reflecting on the problems of the diminishing tourism and he said, I’m getting to the point that I’ve gone through all the reserves that my family, my extended family have, and I’m getting to the point that I have to decide whether to feed my family or my camel and I may have to feed my camel to my family. And I mean that was actually a quote that one of the camel drivers gave a colleague at The Washington Post, I mean there is a sense of vulnerability. General el-Sisi has had a falling out with the business community, he is rather narrow in who he turns to, he’s been far more autocratic than President Mubarak was in the heyday of his crackdowns, and I think this does not reflect well on a country that accounts for a quarter of the Arab world population. I think Saudi Arabia’s a country, and I defer to Jamal Khashoggi, who’s on the next panel, on this question, but this is one where it’s, economically it’s facing challenges it hasn’t faced before. Not only with the price of oil declining, but also using, going through some of its own reserves, that it has, it faces its own war in Yemen that can’t be won militarily and this is one that’s a very messy conflict too, we don’t pay much attention to it, but it’s I think one that we’re all, that we’re, we’re likely to have to face. So I think those are the three, I mean I think the repercussions of Syria, again on the region with a quarter of the population in Lebanon is now Syrian refugees, the fourth largest city in Jordan is a refugee camp , in Zaatari, that the two million in Turkey, that it’s, that it’s not just the human, humanitarian crisis, it’s the drain on resources in fragile states when the international community is not providing even half of the resources necessary to sustain. And what do you do about those kids who are not in school, who are in refugee camps, what does it do to the next generation that there are these bigger questions that I think that haven’t been addressed that are going to trouble the next president, particularly if they’re around for eight years.
Elise Labott: I’m gonna open it up to questions in one minute, but I just want to ask Prem one last question, do you think that you know this President, in his term, has had you know the kind of partners in the region that have you know helped build, helped him lead, or do you find that he was kind of knocking on a closed door in the sense that he possibly had he had more support from Arab leaders, or better relationships with Arab leaders, this is a President that let’s face it, isn’t know of having such great relationships with leaders in the region. Had he had stronger partners do you think that we would have seen more robust leadership?
Prem Kumar: Well I think it’s a good question and I think the answer is that is that it was mixed. That you know we have strong partners in the region, several countries come to mind, Jordan, the UAE, you know Saudi, to an extent I think you know countries in North Africa, like the Moroccans, Israel of course on certain issues, not on others, but you know it depends on the issue. Clearly with regard to Middle East peace, as I said before, the conditions weren’t propitious, the leaders, the partners weren’t really there. Both I think on the ground in Israel in the Palestinian territories, but also more broadly, because when the Administration reached out to the rest of the Arab world to try to support that process the answer was, for the most part, silence. And with regard to conflicts like Syria, there unfortunately wasn’t much of, there wasn’t really much unity because of the internal divisions within the Arab world, within the GCC, on what the region ought to do to work with the international community led by the U.S. And so you know it really does depend on the situation I think you know in Egypt for example, there has been the prospect of a partnership between for example, the U.S. and the UAE, but that can go only so far because, as Robin as said, there’s also the question of Egyptian leadership. So I’m not sure that we have in all cases have the partners that we’ve wanted, but you deal with the partners you have, not with the ones you want.
Elise Labott: Okay we’re gonna open it up to questions, if you have a question there are mics on either side over there. I’m gonna ask you to state your name and your affiliation and let’s keep the questions brief so we can get as many as we can. Sir, right over here?
Male: Thank you and thanks for all the speakers. My name is (inaudible 1:06:31); I’m with the Center for Egyptian American Relations. My question is to Ms. Wright, and I see that most of the discussion this morning was about the penthouse. What’s the penthouse, it’s the Gulf States. The Arab world is really a structure, which the elite are the rich Gulf, but 40% of this is really happen to be the oldest state in the world, in the humanity, in the human history, which is Egypt. Now we replaced an elected government with a military government, ruled by a second Gaddafi.
Elise Labott: Where are you talking about sir?
Elise Labott: Egypt, okay sorry.
Male: The second Gaddafi is now ruling and Egypt is gradually disintegrating. Many Egyptians were putting a lot of hope on President Obama, but right now most of the heart and the souls of Egyptians believe, believe that U.S. have conspired with Sisi to overthrow the legitimate elected government. So whether this is true or not, do you think President Obama is willing, is able first, is he unable or unwilling to realize that this whole structure called the Arab World, if the biggest, the 40% of the population, Egyptian…
Elise Labott: Okay, let’s, let’s…
Male: …will disintegrate, what will happen next? Thanks.
Robin Wright: That was pretty big. I guess my gut instinct about Egypt is that the revolution is still to come. We’ve had two military coups, I, I don’t think it’s imminent, but I think that the kind of, because Egypt is a big, historic place, there is an Egyptian sense of nationalism, it is the one country that is not likely to crumble physically, but I think it faces some of the biggest political changes. And it goes back to what I said earlier about what do you believe in? I am disappointed that the United States still spends 1.3 of its 1.5 billion dollars in aid to the military, rather than in dealing with some of the core problems, I think that’s one of the core issues about U.S. policy and I don’t know that it’s gonna change under the next Administration, I suspect that will probably continue. Was there something else in that question that…?
Elise Labott: Let’s just take another question. Right here?
Male: My name is (inaudible 1:09:37), I was born in Tehran and I have a foundation called Global (inaudible 1:09:42) for Humanity and our motto is “To use your tongue, not your gun”, and…
Elise Labott: Good motto.
Male: Yes thank you. And the panel were talking about the confusion of the policy of the United States for the past 40 years or 50 years in that area where I was born and all comes down to one very important criteria, that America supports a certain country, regardless of what they do, unconditional support, economically, military, any kind. So if the Administration is looking for some solution or the people in America are interested really to see peace prevail in that area, they have to solve that problem first, thank you.
Elise Labott: Okay, okay thank you. We’re gonna, I’m just gonna ask that if you have a question, keep it to a short question, we have a lot of people lined up and we want to get to as many questions as possible.
Female: So (inaudible 1:10:44), we talked about how it’s important for the U.S. in the next 14 months to shape the conditions for a lasting solution and in what way does the Russian military intervention shape the capacity of the U.S. to do so?
Elise Labott: Tam, what do you think?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: You want me to address the Russian intervention? Look I, I think it takes us very much in the wrong direction for two reasons. Number one because Russia’s objective here, it’s understanding of the situation is that Syria needs a strong man in power to beat back the threat of ISIS, and that’s the strategy it’s pursuing, it’s backing Assad. And the, and its strikes are clearly directed at enabling Assad advances against Syrian opposition, not directed against ISIS. So that escalation on behalf of Assad is being matched by an escalation on the other side and we get an escalatory spiral that doesn’t help us get to a place on the battlefield that supports diplomacy.
Elise Labott: Okay but Prem, does the Russian intervention, as Secretary Kerry told me, offer an opportunity here? I mean look there was not 19, there were not 19 countries in a room agreeing on, and not that these articles of agreement that they had in Vienna last week were really kind of in agreement, but has the Russian intervention created a new urgency and a new dynamism for people to want to try and find common agreement here?
Prem Kumar: Yes. I mean I agree with Tami that the Russian intervention is deeply troubling, I think the Russians will themselves find that even the goal of propping up Bashar and enabling him to retake territory and hold that territory from the opposition, will be more difficult than they imagined, but I think that does give rise to an opportunity because they will, at some point and I think we’ve already begun to see this, look for a way out and while I’m skeptical about Russia’s willingness to pressure Bashar to leave and whether they are frankly able to, I also think that there is a difference between Russian interests, vis-a-vis Bashar and Iranian interests vis-a-vis Bashar and the extent to which they compete for a solution that would, that would advance their own interests I think the better for us.
Elise Labott: Okay, sir?
Michael Singh: Elise can I just say one thing about that? Look I, to me I think the answer’s much more straightforward, I think that Russia’s military intervention limits American options, options that we might have been able to exercise before with respect to our military involvement.
Elise Labott: But just, but let me press you on that. I mean a lot of people think that, not, I won’t say that the President is relieved, but that it solves a lot of problems for President Obama because he didn’t want to deal with this and now the Russians are coming in, I’ve talked to White House officials that say, look they’ve got a plan, we don’t.
Michael Singh: Well that’s a troubling [laugh], that’s a troubling observation.
But I think very, very straightforwardly, Russia’s involvement limits American options and gives Russia more bargaining power at the table in Vienna and I think you see that play out in the statements that are coming out.
Elise Labott: No I don’t disagree.
Michael Singh: You see the watering down of the American position and I think it’s very straightforward and very simple and we’re seeing I think why you can’t simply stand back and assume that the situation will either remain static or somehow inevitably evolve to your benefit and I think we’re seeing a lot of post hoc kind of justification of well we intended this to happen or this all works to our benefit, I just, I don’t think it’s that way frankly.
Elise Labott: But I mean clearly there is a bit of an acquiescence to the Russians in some sense. Sir?
Male: My name is Howard Sumka, I was the USAID Director for West Bank in Gaza for some time and formerly the CEO of the One Voice Movement. I’d make a quick observation, it’s, it’s both refreshing and remarkable that you spent an entire hour and didn’t talk about the Israel Palestine conflict, I congratulate you on that.
My question is, with all the talk about the U.S. not having the strategy and possibly putting strategies on the table, or taking other kinds of coherent actions in the Middle East, how likely is any of that to happen during the, in the midst of a presidential election, which is so rapidly turning into farce more than politics?
Elise Labott: Michael, pick that one up and also look is the Israeli, Palestinian conflict you know on the back burner because of the more pressing issues, or because it’s you know so intractable that there’s you know every couple of years you need to just take a break?
Michael Singh: [laugh] Let me address the strategy question. I think that obviously, look the presidential candidates themselves are not going to in these, in their debates, get into a big back and forth over strategy, it’s just not the nature of political campaigns, but I do think that the campaign does offer a natural opportunity for the different people who make up the sort of policy teams to, to engage in a fundamental sort of review and rethinking of our strategy. And I’m confident that that will happen on both sides as we go through this kind of transition process and you know hopefully then the key will be executing it and implementing it in the field. So I mean we can’t simply react to developments, I mean there will be that pressure of the short term problems, but hopefully we will also have the kind of leaders in place, not, I’m not just talking about who’s in the White House, but who then implements the policy of the President to carry out a longer term strategy, and hopefully we’ll be able to have some bipartisan, I mean hopefully some bipartisan support for that amongst, amongst those of us sort of in this room and in this larger community in Washington.
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: But, but just one amendment, I think one consequence of it being a political season is that [laugh] we might get some of that bipartisanship maybe after next November, but in the interim it’s a highly partisan environment and I think that does, that inevitably makes an Administration and Congress more risk averse. So to the extent that we’ve been all talking about policy adjustments over the next 14 months that could be helpful setting the table for the next Administration or helping to stabilize the region, I think the political environment here makes it that much more difficult to make those adjustments.
Michael Singh: And so I’ll say just yes, yes and no, I mean I’ll just be very brief, in the sense that I think that yes, absolutely you’re right, it becomes obviously the atmosphere becomes more partisan in the midst of an election, yet at the same time you do have now campaigns which have a thirst for ideas and they know that it’s not enough to say you know I disagree with what President Obama did, they need to say something of their own about what would I do.
Elise Labott: Yeah but it’s interesting that the Middle East policy is such a loser that nobody wants to take it up right now [laugh]. Robin?
Robin Wright: Can I just, on the Middle East peace process, I think it’s really interesting that when you look at the United States since it’s been a superpower, our policy in the Middle East has been based on the need for oil, our alliance with Israel, the Cold Ward and the fact that we wanted to cultivate western oriented countries in the region. Today the price of oil, yesterday was crude, Texas crude was $41 and they say it’ll go down to $30 before it goes back up to $50, when you look at Israel’s borders, I mean the Palestinian border is one of the more stable, the Cold War is long over, we have the, clearly rival with Russia, but most of the countries in the region, for all of their antipathy about U.S. policy, are more western oriented and their people are more interested in empowerment and issues that reflect our values rather than any other part of the world. So one of the interesting kind of undercurrents of policy right now is the premise of U.S. policy has changed so dramatically in the last four years.
Elise Labott: Do you agree with that Prem?
Prem Kumar: I mean I think that the premise of U.S. foreign policy is changing, but I think that those you know main tenets that Robin just said, are still very much at mind. I mean Secretary Clinton for example, has talked in her campaign about reaffirming that the Persian Gulf is a region of vital national security interest to the United States. That’s I think the case for a variety of reasons, it certainly has something to do with the price of oil, so even though you know crude might be $41 a barrel, the fact that the Gulf is the largest producer of oil and is the swing producer and sets the prices, is still extremely important to the American economy and so is, obviously, the security of Israel and the maintenance of our alliance system in the Middle East.
Elise Labott: But I mean just very quickly because I want to try and take a few more questions before we close, Middle East peace process, it’s true we didn’t dive into this, is it because there are more pressing issues or because the President has, and the Secretary have looked at this and said now’s not the time, it’s impossible right now in this climate?
Prem Kumar: Well frankly I think it’s both. I mean I think the President has made clear that he does not expect real progress towards the (inaudible 1:20:21) of a Palestinian state in the next 14 months, and that’s a reflection of the efforts that have been made over the past many years and the partners that we find on the ground. I also think as important as the Israeli Palestinian conflict is to the future of the region, its historical importance, that issues like the civil war in Syria, the contest between Iran and the Gulf states, the future of transitions in countries like Egypt, are frankly right now more important to the future of the region progress towards the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian issue.
Elise Labott: Okay we’re almost about to close, so this is what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna take two very quick lightening rounds, these three right here, and then these three right here and then we’re gonna, we’re gonna close it up, we might go a few extra minutes, but I think Wendy will forgive me.
Male: Thank you. Mohamed Ghanem Director of Government Relations with the Syrian American Council, I have a question for Mr. Kumar since he was on the President’s National Security Council, you said that one of the reasons or the reason that the President opted not to do anything in Syria was because he had no clear path and there was never a coalition willing to work with the President. You know the Syrians demonstrated asking for U.S. support, they enveloped Ambassador Ford’s convoy when he went to Hama, there are a lot of countries that have been screaming at the top of their lungs asking the United States to lead on Syria, the French got offended when the President backtracked on the strikes in 2013, the Qataris and the Saudis were willing to foot the bill, the Turks said they were willing to commit ground troops, so that’s in terms of the coalition. In terms of the clear path, the President’s security cabinet, almost all of it, presented the President with options in 2012 to Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, the head of the intelligence community, Ambassador Ford, and the President said, no, so do you really believe it was about lack of clear path or coalition of the willing or do you believe, do you think it was about lack of political will on behalf of President Obama? Thank you.
Elise Labott: Thank you, thank you, sir? Let’s keep our questions short so we can…
Male: Okay my name is Paul (inaudible 1:22:36), I teach Israel studies at the University of Maryland and I’m a scholar at MEI. I am not talking about Israel, I wanted to ask that you revisit the necessity as I see it of a regional agreement and I think there’s a model that worked more or less next door. I mean the Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanon civil war, it no one’s idea of anything perfect, but it ended the slaughter and I’m someone who sees the Russian incursion, if you will, as an opportunity to bring, I think they don’t want to, they recognize Assad isn’t going to be victorious, they simply don’t want him to disappear and they want to get their base. So it seems to me, with the regional gathering now in Vienna, we have the most important parties and without their help the internal parties are pretty much helpless.
Elise Labott: Thank you, thank you. Ma’am?
Female: Hi my name is Denise Sargess, I’m Assyrian. I’m also an activist for my people, demand for action in my own social media called Supporters of the (inaudible 1:24:42). My question is that we keep sidetrack our answers and we don’t want to address religion, but religion is a big player here and my people keep getting slaughtered because they’re Christians and there needs to be an agreement, a coalition between all religious leaders in the Middle East to find a treaty of peace.
Elise Labott: Thank you, thank you. All right Prem, why don’t you take the differentiation between clear path and political will and then Robin maybe we can talk about the religious issues.
Prem Kumar: Sure it won’t surprise you to believe, to hear that I believe it was the lack of a clear path and the lack of strong partners that led the President to take the policy, take the approach that he has in Syria. You know I, there, there have been many calls for, that we should have done more earlier, we should have aided the opposition more, we should have established no fly zones, safe zones, we should have supported an intervention, either that we would carry out or others would, short of the last one, you know a massive intervention that enjoyed escalation dominance over both Syrian regime and its allies, I really doubt, personally, that those steps would have meaningfully changed the situation, the trajectory of the conflict. Because for whatever support, additional support, the U.S. and its allies might have provided the opposition, I think it’s, especially in hindsight, clear that the regime’s allies would have counter-escalated, so this is not a situation where we are the only actor and we need to think through where our steps, whether they take place or whether they might have in the past, would have led. And to me it’s not clear that they would have led to the removal of Bashar al-Assad.
Elise Labott: Michael, very quickly, do you subscribe to that argument that there wouldn’t have been a different path if more was done and so we shouldn’t do anything?
Prem Kumar: That’s not what I said [laugh].
Elise Labott: Well I mean it’s a…
Michael Singh: You know I mean look I, this is the sort of argument that I’m not sure anybody can win, I mean on the Iran deal it was well if we don’t do this deal everything will be worse. On this issue it’s well if we had done anything it all would have been the same, I mean we can’t know the answers to these questions, the only important question is what do we do today and in the future, that’s a question we have to answer.
Elise Labott: Okay Robin why don’t you take the religious issue. With everything going on with this violence and terror it is true that you know we speak very little about actual religion and how you know people you know din of look at the Middle East and they say it’s you know a religious conflict, but we don’t really dive enough into how religion actually plays a part in it.
Robin Wright: Well it is true that the religious minorities, and the ethnic minorities to a degree as well, have never faced as much pressure in modern times as they do today and that’s across the region and it’s a real tragedy. The interesting thing about Syria is that the rule of thumb is if you have 30% support from, if you’re a dictator and you have 30% support, that you tend to be able to survive politically. And the interesting thing about Syria is that the minorities with you know roughly 11, 12% Christian, 9% Kurd, 11% Alawite, and then you throw in 5% Druze, that you get over, you get over 30% just from the minorities and one of the problems with Syria is that many of the minorities have looked at the Alawite ruling minority as their protector because they had an interest in protecting minorities. And so you know that’s one of the problems that you haven’t seen many of the minorities, for obvious reasons, they have, have grave concern about a you know the dominant Sunni population gaining control and marginalizing them as they’ve been marginalized elsewhere. But sectarianism we talk about a lot and it is true that between Sunni and Shiite you probably find as great tension across the kind of Islamic world as at any time since the original schism 14 centuries ago, and that’s an undercurrent in many of these conflicts.
Elise Labott: Okay we’re gonna take these last three questions, but I’m gonna ask you to keep them brutally short and I will cut you off [laugh], we really need to wrap it up and I’m gonna ask the panelists to kind of answer it with a closing thought. Sir?
Male: My name (inaudible 1:29:31) Center for Egyptian American Relation and I will ask Tamara about opinion of, with respect to United States’ interest in Middle East, stability is number one issue and why United States supporting a dictator in Egypt, military dictator and the States give him weapon to kill his own people and create terrorism in the area. And also…
Elise Labott: No, no I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry we have one question, we’ll have Tamara answer your question, thank you, I’m sorry we’re really short on time.
Male: My name is (inaudible 1:30:08), former (inaudible 1:30:08) from Bahrain. Before the uprising in Bahrain by two months I met Hillary Clinton and ask her whether there are limits for the violations and the repression in Bahrain that can be tolerated by U.S. government. I want to ask Robin the same question again, if there are certain limits for what you can accept from their allies. The question is would the increasing arm sales with the Gulf countries, can U.S. send right advice to their allies at the same time? Thank you.
Elise Labott: Okay thank you.
Male: Peter Harper, Intel Analyst, former diplomat. The next Rubio or Carson Administration may realize there’s a one bullet solution to the Syrian problem, so how about repealing Executive Order 12333 and allowing the Sultan of Brunei or whoever, to put a ten million dollar bounty on (inaudible 1:31:08) until he retires to Tehran?
Elise Labott: Okay that’s, maybe that’s a little comic relief. Tam let’s, let’s start with Egypt and you know did the U.S. kind of revert to you know stability over democracy?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: Okay well actually let me start with the last question because I think that we’ve got some good evidence that simply removing the guy at the top doesn’t solve the problem, the order problem. So on stability, and this gets back to what Robin and I were dialoguing on at the beginning of the panel, I think that you know for a half century the United States had a kind of stable order in the region that served its interests well and that was an order that was undermined from within because of changes within these societies that states and leaders did not respond to well. And when the uprisings came and this order began to crumble, that created a lot of consequences that we’re dealing with today. So I, the first lesson I think is that there is no magic bullet for stability, okay? Returning stability to this region is gonna be a long term process and it is because the crisis came from the bottom up and the breakdown of the social contract, the mismatch between the aspirations and demands of people and what their governments and economies were able to provide, one way or another that governance challenge is gonna have to be addressed to return the region to stability. So I think we’re talking about long term stability and as we’ve been discussing throughout the morning, there are a lot of short term imperatives that sometimes cut across efforts to pursue long term stability in the Middle East, that’s gonna be a challenge for whomever the next U.S. President is.
Elise Labott: Robin, do you want to pick up on the idea of you know the limit of U.S. influence on a country like Bahrain, when at the same time we have these military relationships with them?
Robin Wright: Yeah Bahrain is a country that doesn’t get discussed a lot and of course is, reflects the kind of undercurrent of hypocrisy by the United States toward the region, particularly the Gulf States. I agree with Tami about the long term stability and so forth, the problem is that, in part because of our own political system, we aren’t able to think as long term as we would like and that whichever president leaves office wants to kind of a have a record that didn’t lead to breakdown across the region and that’s what’s happened during the President, during, well during both the Bush and the Obama Administrations, we’re seeing the, the destruction of the region and its infrastructure, the states and across the board. Yeah and so we’re opting once again, whether it’s in Bahrain or Egypt, to look for what is stable in the short term and we’re not planning for the long term whether it’s with our economic resources, or our diplomacy. And that’s a tragedy, it’s reflected in Libya and Tunisia, right across the board and I’m not sure the American system is actually capable of thinking that long term.
Elise Labott: Are we capable?
Tamara Cofman-Wittes: I think we’re capable.
Michael Singh: I, we are capable, I think one thing that should trouble us as a policy community here in this room and elsewhere is that in so many cases we have seen many of these problems coming, whether it was with respect to the Iraq War or whether it’s with respect to Syria and how that conflict has progressed, whether it’s with respect to the lack of basics of political and economic reform and the effects that’s produced, and yet we have not managed to build policies around our analytical insights and it’s a failure of strategic planning. And it should be a priority for the next Administration, and for future Administrations, to do a better job at this, to be more patient, to have a longer term strategy in place. We can absolutely do it; we have the most capacity of any government in the world.
Elise Labott: But just very quickly, closing thought Prem, this President was seen as someone was very analytical and intellectual and do you feel as if we’ve seen that kind of you know long term you know kind of trajectory and analysis from this President and yeah, let’s just close with that.
Prem Kumar: Well I think, I think was certainly an effort, but as they say in the military, no plan survives first contact with the enemy and I think that’s what we’ve seen over the past six years.
Elise Labott: Okay, all right well listen this was a wonderful panel, there are so many questions we all have, but I want to thank MEI, thank you so much.
End of panel discussion
Transcriber: Ruth Frank (505/440-9096)