Keynote address at MEI's 73rd Annual Conference on November 13, 2019 in Washington, D.C.


Thanks to Richard Clarke and Paul Salem for not only the invitation to be here today but for supporting my affiliation with MEI.I have really enjoyed my association with MEI – first, because it is providing me an opportunity to stay engaged with a region which I have loved serving in and second, because it is now allowing me to expand my own horizons about the opportunities of this culturally rich, historically important, deeply troubled, but always hopeful area.  

I think we all saw this on display last evening with the tribute that this Institute paid to Othman and Leila Benjelloum for their extraordinary philanthropy dedicated to educational and economic development for the Children of Morocco and of course by Nadine Labaki and her efforts to bring to life, through the magic the film, the plight of the disenfranchised and marginalized men, women and especially children of Beirut.  Her comments last evening about the current plight of the Lebanese as they fight for their own voices spoke louder than any words I could ever articulate about the hope and opportunity that remains in this region.  It was a truly inspiring evening and I wish more Americans had the opportunity to witness it.

When I met with Paul last July after coming on board what he thought my first contribution could be he suggested an op-ed.  I admit I was a bit uncomfortable with this but finally thought I could perhaps write something on my reflections as a former CoCom Commander.  Little did I know at that time that future events would provide me several opportunities to write.  In doing this I was very fortunate to be able to link with two excellent MEI colleagues to support this writing.

Still -- I was a bit nervous about this because there is in fact a tradition in military circles, especially among senior officers, that when you are retired; be retired.  In this case -- I felt particularly strongly about a topic for which I had a lot of personal knowledge and experience and which I had talked publicly about while in uniform.  I also felt we could communicate in a way that stayed focused on policy analysis, did not get into personality discussions or attacks and which would not make things harder for those on the ground charged with implementing our policies.  I want to publicly pass my thanks to Gonul Tol and Liz Dent, my co-authors who worked with me through this process.  They were great partners and are real assets for MEI.  These small examples, in conjunction with what we witnessed last evening, demonstrate the power of this organization … to enter into the public discourse in a respectful and informative way and help expose the goodness and hope of this region for the American public.  I am very proud of my affiliation with MEI and I so glad to be talking with you this morning.

My time is relatively short --- so I want to move right into the topic that I have been asked to comment on this morning --- US priorities for the Middle East Region.
A few cautionary notes before I get into the guts of my comments. We are covering some very complex issues in a short period of time.  I recognize that much more analysis and discussion is necessary to flush out the ideas that I will share with you today --- hopefully, this can partially be accomplished in the panels that follow. I am an Infantryman and a Ranger --- view things as a practicioner and through the lens of execution on the ground. I am a victim of my own experience --- tend to look at the region through my experiences – especially those of the last 18 years. I am retired --- therefore not only a “refugee from accountability” but nearly nine months away from the best situational awareness and understanding I ever had of the region. Most of my comments this morning will be about our approach in the military security area.  I am mindful that the military is often not the lead and that our efforts must not only be in conjunction with the other elements of power --- but actually in a supporting role.I am also mindful that as we meet here today --- there are military commanders and young American men and women in harm’s way doing their best in our Nation’s bidding.  These comments are not a criticism of them.

Today this region is as complex as it has ever been.  All of the underlying issues which have undermined progress remain present --- sectarianism, corruption, disenfranchisement, economic disparity, terrorism, and extraordinary human suffering.  But these long-standing issues are now being exacerbated by super modern communication capabilities and a more youthful and anxious population that serve to amplify the challenges of the region.  Add to this --- new conflict (as we see between Turkey and Kurds in Syria); increasing instances of civil unrest against corrupt and ineffective governments (as we are seeing in Lebanon and Iraq); increasing instances of Iranian sponsored proxy war across the region (as we see in Yemen, Syria and Iraq); great power competition (between China, Russia and the US); unresolved conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan; and, fatigue on the parts of many of the countries (including ours) who have been engaged in this region for a long time.  The region is on edge --- and it is a tinder box with few clear paths to stability or de-escalation.

Let me begin my remarks by discussing one big overarching idea and then I will get more specific about several of the current ongoing operations and events that we are currently observing in this vitally important area.

My takeaway this morning is that the best path to stability is to relentlessly pursue clarity in our interests and objectives.  I believe this is the best thing we can do to de-escalate tension, pursue our interests in the region, and best support our overall global national security strategy.

First and foremost --- as a priority I think we have to review, renew and more clearly articulate our interests and priorities in this region.  Only then can we begin to devise an effective regional strategy that can be integrated with our National interests around the globe and which can be effectively implemented by those who do our bidding on a day to day basis.

When people ask me why we care about this area --- I usually try to discuss our interests in five ways: We must ensure countries, areas and populations in the region can’t be used as platforms for attacks against our homeland, our citizens or those of our friends and allies; prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; deter and contain adversarial influence and activities that further de-stabilize the region and prevent them from spilling out and affecting our interests in other regions; protect freedom of navigation and flow of commerce through the region; and maintain a favorable balance of influence that supports our long-term national interests.

This list of interests has not changed significantly for some time and I do acknowledge that an argument can be made about the “vitalness” of each of these interests.  

With the possible exception of proliferation --- I would agree that these interests are not currently “existential” to survival of the United States ---- but that does not mean they aren’t important.  Failing to preserve any one of them would only make things more complicated and complex --- and potentially put our citizens at greater risk.

That said, we cannot ignore that over the last several years --- we have responded militarily and diplomatically in some manner to four of these interests --- and the other, proliferation, triggered a significant, lengthy and largely unprecedented diplomatic effort.

Interests, and their priority and vitalness, ought to be a significant factor for a future strategic vision for this region. For the purposes of discussion and argument this morning --- I will consider the interests that I discussed today to fall into the category of important but not vital interests - meaning that our very survival is currently not at risk.

In the past few decades our strategic approach to this region has been defined by preserving access to vital resources, containing Iraqi aggression, countering Iran’s revolutionary approach or by our concern for terrorism that emanates from the region and which ends up on our doorstep or the doorsteps of our close partners.

All four of these remain important --- but in my view none of them should dominate our overall approach to the region.

Our overall priority should be focused on preserving an overall favorable balance of power in the region when compared against other great power competitors or would be regional hegemons.

As the SOCOM and later the CENTCOM Commander I was supported by a cadre of excellent policy advisors (POLADs).  One of the things they often reminded me of was the foreign policy “principle” (as they referred to it) that allowing any single power to dominate this part of the world would be detrimental to our overall National Security objectives.  Many of our relationships and alliances were built around this fact.  I think this “principle” is still valid today.

This is not new in our approaches to the region.

I often remind people that my first roommate at West Point came to the Academy from Tehran American High School.  His father was our Defense Attache’.  This level of balance on both sides of the Arabian Gulf helped us --- until it didn’t.  Up until that time we didn’t have large deployments of troops in the region --- we didn’t need them; our balanced relationships on each side maintained a relative level of stability that served our interests.

I am also not suggesting that we orchestrate some sort of near-term “kumbyah” moment with the Iranians --- I don’t think this is particularly wise or even achievable right now.

What it does mean is that the United States should pursue an overall strategic approach that makes or keeps us (depending on your view) the preferred partner in the region --- morally, diplomatically, economically and militarily.

Being the preferred partner will allow us an opportunity to preserve our important interests in this region while at the same time shifting necessary focus to address vital national interests that are essential to our survival – like maintaining our competitive edge against China.

And … it can be done in a sustainable manner.

Doing this will require that we also pursue some very specific actions that help to solidify our influence. These could include the following:

  • A re-look at our security cooperation arrangements --- both in terms of organization and in execution of our military funding and sales programs.  Our efforts must be backed up with an emphasis on responsiveness, professionalism, and self-reliance.  In a region where we are the preferred partner --- our security cooperation offices should be the main military effort --- working closely through the Country Teams to implement programs for our partners and with our Combatant Commands to support Theater Campaign Plans.
  • To compliment this --- we must make our support conditional on commitment to military professionalism and sustained self-reliance.  We should use our considerable experience in coalition war-fighting to help our partners in the region achieve a better level of integration and unity of effort among themselves.  
  • We should triple the amount of money we spend on IMET.  This is a certain way to create a generation of regional leaders and their families who have an appreciation for our country.  During my last year in CENTCOM --- we spent just under $19M for this program … in the big picture it is not that expensive.  But what we get from it is invaluable.  We get officers that study in our schools and families that live in our communities.  If you don’t think this matters --- look at the most supportive and progressive defense chiefs across the region … overwhelmingly many have spent time in our schools.  Their families have had the experience of living in Leavenworth, Carlisle, Montgomery, Newport and here in Washington and have gained and taken away a positive view of our people and our Nation.  Look also at the countries where we have stepped these programs back --- it is notable in their lack of understanding and appreciation of our country.  
  • We should review and update our access, basing and overflight arrangements throughout the region --- with a view towards ensuring that they can support our ability to respond quickly and effectively in the event of a true emergency.  
  • We should routinely demonstrate our commitment to the region with deployment exercises focused on likely security scenarios.  We should not forget the impact of the BRIGHT STAR exercises of the early 1980s.

There are clearly many other things that we can and must do to solidify our influence --- but I think you get the point behind this overarching idea … and high priority in my view.

With this overarching idea now on the table --- let me now address a few ongoing and emerging areas and offer my assessment on where we are and where we may be going.

Let me begin with our longest ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. I believe the President’s Strategy for Afghanistan is the right one --- focus on reconciliation between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.  This is the only way we will bring an end to the fighting and move this into a phase where we can begin to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and indeed across the region. To this end --- our military and diplomatic efforts need to remain focused on providing pressure on the Taliban to come to the table and make meaningful concessions in the interest of the Afghan people.  If they perceive we are not serious about this --- we will have a hard time achieving our objective. A full court press by all elements of our National power will help the President’s Special Envoy get this done.  For the last year of my command I observed closely and worked alongside our Special Envoy and I assess his efforts are bringing us, sometimes agonizingly slowly, towards the objective we have been seeking.  We need to maintain a level of energy and patience that demonstrates to all parties that we remain serious and focused on achieving our objective.

In the long-term we will still need to preserve our interest of preventing this area from being used as a platform to attack our citizens, our homeland or our friends and allies. This will likely mean that we will need to keep some amount of CT capability on the ground.  Fortunately, the Afghan SOF partners we have are quite capable and while we may not be at a point where we can outsource preserving this national interest to them --- it will certainly allow us to do this in a more economical and sustainable manner.

I am also hopeful that more stability in Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to re-establish better linkages to Pakistan. There is an important balance to be played between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and staying engaged more broadly in Central and South Asia will benefit our long-term National Interests, allow us to compete against other great powers and hopefully prevent us from another situation which requires a massive, costly and lengthy response.

Let me now move to Syria. It goes without saying that the dynamics in Northern Syria have changed rather significantly over the last several weeks. I assess the decision to retain some forces on the ground in north and east Syria, following our pull back from the Northern border, is a good one given the situation and will allow us to maintain some level of partnership with the SDF and importantly stay focused on our campaign objective of defeating ISIS --- and in this present case, preventing them from orchestrating a comeback. I fear, however, that our rather sharp policy decisions have come at the cost of the overall strategic leverage that we previously enjoyed following our liberation of the caliphate.

As we move forward --- I think it will be important to clarify our objectives and make it abundantly clear to all parties what our interests and expectations are in this area.  We should attempt to remove all ambiguity about our position in Syria.  This will be the very best way to de-escalate situations that may arrive among the growing number of converging influencers in this area. We should also work with the other regional influencers to limit (or reverse) the impact of the Turkish-led incursion and address the continuing reports of atrocities.

Like all things in this region – we must use our remaining influence to move forward diplomatically toward a political settlement in Syria (hopefully through a UN-brokered process). We must also use our relationships to encourage a discussion between Kurds and Turks to de-escalate the current tensions.  As difficult as this may be - it must be attempted.  I remain guardedly confident that this could be done and should be attempted through relationships with Iraqi Kurds who do enjoy a good relationship and open channels with the Turkish Government.  This is an underlying tension and until it is addressed, it will be very difficult to move forward.

It will also be important to keep our eye on ISIS --- and our deconfliction channels with the Russian Federation will be vital to de-escalation. If there is one thing we have learned about these organizations since 9-11 it is that they are resilient and we must keep the pressure on them until they are at a level that can be effectively managed by local forces.

I am hopeful that we will continue to stand by our Iraqi partners.  The civil situation on the ground is not good right now and our positive partnership with the Iraqi Security Forces is necessary to ensure they operate in a manner which best serves the people of Iraq. Maintaining our influence here is important and so far – our presence and activities in Iraq since our re-entry in 2014 have not become a rallying cry against us.  We must continue this trusted-partner, behind the scenes approach.  

Our military efforts should be matched with an equally focused diplomatic and economic effort.  Iraq, in my view, has always been a strategic lynch-pin for us in this region and if we compete I do believe our interests can prevail.

Staying in the Levant --- let me comment briefly on Lebanon.  We all heard a dramatic rendition of the present situation by Nadine Labaki last evening --- so I won’t try to re-create that. But I will share a quick story with you. When I first became the CENTCOM CG I had a visit to my office in Tampa by a very senior Israeli Officer and we had an extensive discussion about the situation in the region and especially about Iran and the Hezbollah.  He clearly viewed this as the principal threat. When I pressed him on ideas to deal with the situation --- one of his responses not only struck me, but stuck with me.  He told me --- the best thing you can do is to double-down on the Lebanese Armed Forces.  I asked him to repeat that statement and then explain.  He did and his simple argument was this --- the best way to undermine the nefarious influence of the LH armed militias was to invest in the professionalism and capability of the Lebanese Armed Forces.  

An effective, apolitical and well-respected LAF would be recognized by the people and would undermine Hezbollah’s stated need for a militia. My experience supported this.  Every time I visited Lebanon during my tour as the CENTCOM Commander --- I saw progress in both professionalism, capability and legitimacy in the eyes of the Lebanese population. I still think this is the case and in the current turmoil of Lebanon there is an opportunity to “double-down” right now by showing our support for a professional LAF that is focused on protecting the people.

Finally, let me briefly talk about the Gulf and especially our challenges with Iran. I assess that the Iranian threat is a real one --- that they are pursuing both through use of proxies and through improved military capability.  We must take it seriously. I do assess we need to defend our interests with military capability that demonstrates our resolve and which can hold Iran at risk. Like I have mentioned several times already --- I think it is also important to clearly articulate our objectives.  We should attempt to remove all ambiguity.  I am not sure we understand what Iran wants and I am not sure they understand what we are after either. At the same time we should also pursue channels for communication.  I was deeply influenced by the effectiveness of the deconfliction channel we had with the RF Armed Forces in Syria.  I am convinced that this channel helped us keep things in check and more importantly kept our forces safe and focused on the mission at hand --- the defeat of ISIS.

The big challenge in the Gulf, from my perspective, is always miscalculation.  Clarity in objectives and ability to communicate are the necessary ingredients to reduce miscalculation and begin to de-escalate the tension that currently exists. It does not have to be elaborate --- it could start mil to mil or even through a third party.

Let me conclude my remarks here.  My job this morning was to provide you a perspective on priorities in the region --- as well as discuss some of the current hotspots and offer some suggestions that can begin to posture us towards paths to stability. I am under no illusion how difficult all of this will be to orchestrate.  I also recognize that we are just scratching the surface on these issues --- it is impossible to do justice to the region in a short period of time.

Likewise, you may not agree with my assessment and conclusions.  But I do believe it is possible to move forward. It begins with making sure that we are absolutely clear about our interests and objectives. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you this morning and offer some thoughts that may influence the panel discussions that will follow.

Thanks to all of you for your continued interest in this region and for your support to MEI.