Dr. Shibley Telhami, Dr. John Mearsheimer and Mr. Philip J. “P.J.” Crowley
Transcript No. 360 (November 4, 2011)
U.S. Foreign Policy toward a Revolutionary Region: Opportunities and Responsibilities
Dr. Shibley Telhami:
Thanks very much. It’s really an honor to be here, and thanks also to the director, Yousef Munayyer who is, as you may well know, an excellent product of the University of Maryland.
What I’d like to do is make a few opening remarks, I know that the most interesting stuff will be the exchanges afterwards of the big issue. So I’m going to focus my comments largely on how the United States has reacted to the Arab awakening and this evolving policy. I’d like to make a few remarks about that. First, pertaining to the official reaction, particularly with the [U.S. President Barack Obama] administration and Congress, and I will also talk a little bit about how the American public has been reacting to the Arab awakening because we have done some public opinion polls that give us a little bit of a picture about how the American view of the Arab world is changing a little bit because of the Arab uprisings.
Let me just start by saying, obviously the Arab awakening has not only began transforming the Middle East but it has been transforming international reaction to the Middle East. Every country has been scratching its head and scrambling to figure out how it’s going to react to these events that they don’t fully understand and certainly cannot fully predict. And you can find that across the board. I mean, it is not just the U.S., certainly. I was invited to China just a month ago because the Chinese are scratching their head. Multiple European countries have hosted conferences trying to figure out how they are going to deal with it. I just came from a European conference in Zurich. So everybody around the world is trying to figure out how to deal with it. Clearly, the most striking example of that was France. If you recall what happened in France, when the revolution began in Tunisia, the French automatically embraced [former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine]Ben Ali and it was partly automatic pilot policy and partly because they saw him as a secularist anti-Islamist and it worked for them and certainly they thought he was going to prevail. And when he didn’t, they shifted policy 180 degrees, dumped their foreign minister and became the biggest advocates of intervention in Libya. To think about that, and to also think about the amazing receptivity of the Arab public to an international intervention in Libya – those of you who understand how adamantly opposed Arabs are to European-Western intervention and it was a primarily European-led intervention, France and the UK [United Kingdom] taking the lead in Libya, and they were seemingly welcomed by the Arab public. We’ve done a little bit of study on that to see what the initial Arab public reaction was. It’s rather amazing that you’ve had this unanimity in the case of Libya. So France was clearly a case of a country that immediately kind of changed course on how to deal with the Arab awakening.
Well, what about the United States? What happened with the Obama administration? I’m going to make a few points to put the American reaction in some perspective, by no means comprehensive. First, the previous [U.S. President George W.] Bush administration had made the advancement of democracy in the Middle East at least a rhetorical priority. I say rhetorical because, as you know, the Arab public never bought it, they never thought that’s what the administration was trying to do. We’ve shown that in public opinion polls, but at least here in America it was seen to be a priority for the Bush administration. So while President Obama continued to push for democratic reform, his policy didn’t place the issue to the top of priority when he first became president. He moved to consolidate relations with traditional allies in the Arab world, particularly the [Hosni] Mubarak government in Egypt and the Saudi royal family. Take, for example, the choice of the Cairo speech. When the president wanted to set a new tone for relations with the Muslim and Arabs countries he chose Cairo. So there was a sense that he was going back to traditional American policy that was more really in the realist camp of preserving relations with allies.
He faced criticism from the Right for not pushing hard enough on democracy, and while the Republicans were divided among those who wanted the U.S. to stick with the traditional allies and those who wanted to use the Bush policy as a means of criticizing the Obama administration, and sort of the argument that Elliot Abrams made that “Bush was right” “Bush was right,” as if that was sort of a confirmation of what the Bush administration did, but as a mechanism of criticizing the Obama administration. This division only added to the pressure from the Democratic base, which was decidedly in favor of taking the side of demonstrators, which was also the president’s own instinct. So as these uprisings unfolded I think in some ways the Democratic-Republican divide in America, which is pronounced, and now increasingly more pronounced, initially, instinctively, for this context that I am giving, was more on the side of the demonstrators than anything else. In normal times I think you would have found far more people arguing for sticking with allies, that division and the context of the Bush administration and the political criticism pushed in that direction.
Second, many in Washington [DC] were not particularly focused on Tunisia when that first happened, as it was not seen as a central issue for American policy. It was much easier to move quickly to embrace the public uprisings particularly after the relatively quick departure of President Ben Ali. By the time the Egyptian public took to the streets there was already an American mood that had embraced the Arab public. There was not much at stake in Tunisia; it was much easier to love what was happening with the public. And by the time Egypt happened you were already on one side of the issue. It created momentum.
Third, while the American reaction changed from initially sticking with Mubarak to later calling on him to resign, the change was relatively rapid. I think in a historical perspective, it was amazingly rapid given how important the Mubarak regime was in American foreign policy. If you look at Mubarak himself and his importance on all sorts of issues, from supporting the war against Iraq in 1991, to commitment to his peace with the Israelis, but the United States also could not initially tell how determined the Egyptian public would be, or if Egypt was simply too different from Tunisia to expect the same outcome. If you recall, everybody was debating whether this is an Arab revolution, Arab awakening or if Tunisia was just a case of one. You heard a lot of analysts saying Egypt is different than Tunisia and then Yemen is different from Egypt and that was certainly an argument. And frankly, I think the U.S. government was uncertain about that. And I know for certain they were uncertain about what would happen in Egypt. As the intensity of the uprising increased, despite the initial bloody response by the Egyptian police, the American position moved quickly.
One should also not underestimate the consistent advice the United States gave, including the Pentagon, to its allies in the Egyptian army not to use force. Certainly the Egyptian military leaders had their own calculations and made their own decisions, but the United States made its own position clear. I think that may not be a fully told story if the U.S. actually intervened at all in Egypt, it was largely in insisting the military not to use force. And I’m not saying that’s why the military did not use force. Don’t get me wrong, the military had their own calculations and I think they would have lost legitimacy and I think the U.S probably could not have pressured them one way or the other, but the U.S. certainly took that position.
Fourth, the American calculation was that the outcome in Egypt and elsewhere was not dependent on only the United States. Whatever the U.S. said or did was not going to determine the fate of President Mubarak. That is certainly the conclusion the White House had, I think that was a conclusion the State Department had and I think it was largely right. Even more, the uprisings in the first place were not about the United States, as the demonstrators did not chant anti-American slogans early on. And there was a danger that a more visible American intervention against the public will would back fire. There is no doubt about that in my mind that was a central part of the calculation.
Fifth, there was an understanding that while Arabs may want moral political support against their oppressive governments, most Arabs historically have opposed western intervention and that this fear of Arab reaction also explains why later the United States was not particularly anxious to intervene in Libya, even as France and Britain were pushing for such an intervention. I think there was no question that the slogan was “don’t make this about America” in large part because of this understanding that there is an opposition in principle for western intervention in the Arab world.
Sixth, the peaceful nature of the demonstrations captured the imagination of the American public and Washington, including Congress. And they went against the general expectation that change in the Arab world was most likely through militant means. That clearly created a much more openness toward the change in the Arab world. And I’m going to mention a few things later on about the role of Congress in this because I briefed Congress multiple times during the uprisings and the sort of questions I was getting were very interesting.
In terms of the polling, this particular point that I want to make I want to show you in some of the polls that I’ve conducted how in fact it affected the perception of the Arab people in America. The American public has had what I call the beginning of the end of the post 9/11 paradigm in the mind of the public. Whether it will be lost or not I have no idea, but there is no question that we see that.
Seventh, the non-ideological nature of the uprisings was striking. Most demonstrators in the early stages focused primarily on dignity and freedom and kept ideology and foreign policy out of the equation. Many of the organizers appeared to be liberal, and this mitigated the fear that many had and still have in Washington that Islamist groups are the only alternative to existing regimes. Now that obviously may change in some of the debate particularly given the outcome of the Tunisian elections, the fear of what might happen in Egypt and what might happen in Libya. Clearly that can change but for awhile it applied the brake for people who were using the fear of Islamists to be the key reason to oppose the change in the Arab world.
Eighth, as I show in the results of the public opinion polling, the American public was warming up to the Arab people but still reluctant to intervene, which limited the options of the Obama administration. Now when I say, still opposed to intervention, you’ll see from the polling that what we have is on the one hand, the American was in support of the intervention in Libya all the way through August, at least the last poll we’ve done on this was in August; diminishing support, but still majority support for intervention in Libya. Most didn’t want the U.S. to intervene anywhere else. So there was a strong norm against intervention.
Ninth, the intervention in Libya, in my own view, was an exception to the rule. The Obama administration was not taking the lead and was responding more to its European allies. The Arab League supported international intervention. The Arab public, which was historically opposed to western intervention, was in this case far more supportive of intervention. In fact, it’s actually kind of a historic oddity that you have in times of revolutions Arab governments and Arab publics on one side of an issue in Libya. It’s really quite extraordinary when you think about it. I think the Libyan leader himself [Moammar Gadhafi], his enemies as well as his threat to hunt his people house to house clearly made this a particularly exceptional case. Still, the [Obama] administration remained reluctant to commit ground forces, or even provide arms to the rebels when the outcome seemed uncertain. This is not a situation that is likely to repeat itself in the Arab world, and I don’t think Syria is anything like that. And once Gadhafi was killed I think President Obama was able to reap the benefits of that policy.
Finally, politics in Congress are highly partisan, especially in an election year. Even though Republicans themselves are divided on whether or not the United States should stick with allies among Arab governments, or to aggressively support public desire for democratic change. But three issues define the attitudes of many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. Number one, the fear of Islamic groups. Number two, the consequences for Israeli security. And number three, the impact on the flow of oil. Those three trump everything else that Congress might worry about. In fact, in the early days the only two questions I got from Congress when I went there [were], “what is that going to do to peace with Israel?” and “will the Islamists win?” Everything else was secondary. People were curious. It was interesting, but when it came to calculations, those were the issues that were clearly dominant.
Final point on the Obama administration. The Obama administration believed early on and now still believes the reason the American interest in supporting the public aspirations – even separate from the issue of American values – is because these uprisings are seen to be a reflection of Arab public empowerment enabled by the information revolution that will only expand in the coming months and years. It cannot be ignored. For now the public seems to assert itself mostly peacefully. The fear is that if the public fails to get what it wants in peaceful means, that energy will be channeled into more militant means that will come back to haunt the United States and the rest of the world. So there is this fear that an unsuccessful fulfillment of the public aspirations is going to turn that energy into militancy. I think that is a legitimate fear. I wrote a piece the day Mubarak fell in Politico saying, “Bin Laden’s Nightmare in Egypt” calling the success of the revolution [Osama] Bin Laden’s nightmare in Egypt.
Just a final comment on the public opinion in the U.S. toward the Arab world. First, one of the things that we found is that Americans now have a positive view of the Arab world. Fifty five percent of the American public has a positive view of the Arab world. We can see how Tahrir Square is being evoked in American events and I’m not going to mention Wall Street. I’ll mention Wisconsin first because that was an interesting case in where in middle America you have people evoking Tahrir Square. The idea that the American public can learn something from the Arab public was just amazing and I think that reflected itself in the early reaction where 55 percent of the American public expressed a favorable view of the Arab people, including 70 percent expressing views of the Egyptian people right after the Tahrir Square events. So it captured the imagination of the American people. Second, the American public in the polling, a majority say they would like to see democratic change in the Middle East even if it leads to governments that are not friendly to the United States. That is really a surprise. Third, while more people sympathize with the demonstrators in every country than with the governments, including Saudi Arabia, the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t want the U.S. to intervene. That is very clear in all the polling that we have done. Now I didn’t say a thing about the dilemmas the U.S. has faced and the contradictions and what people call the double standards, including on the Bahrain issue or the Arab-Israeli issue. I’ll be happy to engage that in the questions and answers and I’ll end with this. Thanks very much.
Dr. John Mearsheimer:
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be back here at the Palestine Center. I’d like to thank everybody for coming out here this afternoon to listen to all of us talk. And everybody who is watching us through the camera, I appreciate your interest as well.
The United States is obviously in deep trouble in the Middle East today, and that situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. I think one could argue if it does change it will change for the worst. I, by the way, don’t think it matters who gets elected president in 2012. I think whether a Republican like Mitt Romney is in charge, or Barack Obama gets reelected matters very little. At the most, it matters on the margins. I’d like to explain to you why I think that’s the case, why I think we’re in trouble and why I think things are not going to get any better. I want to do it by giving you a two-part presentation. First, I want to tell you what I think are the key features of the region that matter most for understanding U.S. Middle East policy. I think there are three of them and I’ll lay them out. Then I want to talk about U.S. foreign policy now and for the foreseeable future.
The three key features that matter the most for us, are first of all the Arab Spring, or what [Dr.]Shibley [Telhami] called, the Arab awakening. I think there’s no question that this represents a sea change that has consequences for the United States. We tend to talk about it in terms of democracy and whether or not you’re going to have democracies all across the region or not. It’s hard to tell exactly how this is going to play itself out, in terms of how many democracies you get and how quickly those democracies come into being. I don’t think that is what’s really important here for U.S. foreign policy. I think what’s really important is that no matter what the democratization process looks like, the fact of the matter is that public opinion in the Middle East is going to have a much larger impact on the leaders in the future than it has had in the past. I think in very important ways, leaders were able in the past, to insulate themselves from public opinion. I think Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was a perfect example of that. I think in the future even authoritarian leaders are going to hear footsteps when they pursue policies that they know are not popular with their publics. So I think the key factor that comes out of the Arab Spring for the United States is that the publics are going to matter much more, and those publics tend to be much more hostile toward the United States than the elites in the region.
[The] second key feature is Iran. There is no question in my mind that Iran is going to continue to pursue nuclear enrichment. Iran, as you all know, is a signatory to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and as a signatory to the NPT it is allowed to pursue the full nuclear fuel cycle. The problem from an American and from an Israel point of view is that if you have a significant nuclear enrichment capability, it’s only a minor step to developing nuclear weapons. The reason of course that the United States does not want Iran to have nuclear enrichment capability is because that will mean they will almost have nuclear weapons and if they decide at some point down the road to get nuclear weapons, it will not be very hard to achieve that goal. To put it in football terms, they’re down on about the one-yard line with full nuclear enrichment capability, and it’s a short distance into the end zone. So Iran is going to loom large for the United States for the foreseeable future, again, in large part because Iran is going to pursue nuclear enrichment.
[The] third feature is that there is not going to be a two-state solution in the Middle East. I find it quite remarkable that so many people inside the beltway still continue to talk about the peace process and a two-state solution. This is, in my opinion, laughable. There is going to be a greater Israel. Israel is going to end up owning all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Bibi [Binyamin] Netenyahu was elected on the platform that there would be no Palestinian state. He has a government that is filled with many people that are much more hawkish than him on this issue. Even if they are thrown out of office and Tzipi Livni comes in to power and decides she wants a two-state solution, she’s not going to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state. And even if she was, there is enough opposition in Israel to make sure that doesn’t happen. For sure the United States is not going to put pressure on Israel to move towards a two-state solution. So the three key features are the increased prominence of public opinion in the Middle East, number one, the fact that Iran is going to continue to pursue nuclear enrichment and number three, that there will not be a two-state solution.
So, what does this all mean for U.S. foreign policy? How do we think about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East? I think there are three dimensions to U.S. Middle East policy which map quite nicely to those three features that I just outlined. First, lets talk about Israel, and lets talk about the special relationship that the United States has with Israel. Very important to define what we mean by the special relationship. The United States has a relationship with Israel that has no parallel in modern history. Let me put it differently; it has no parallel in recorded history. We have never seen a relationship between two states that looks anything like the U.S.-Israeli relationship. In particular, we give Israel huge amounts of material aid, both economic and military, and we defend it diplomatically at every turn. But what’s most important about the relationship is that we give that aid unconditionally. In other words, no matter what Israel does, it continues to get full American support.
So as most of you know, every American president since 1967 has opposed the building of settlements in the West Bank. Yet we have never done anything significant to cause Israel to change its policies vis-a-vis the settlements, even though our policy has been that this [settlement building] is against the American national interest. The special relationship is not going to change anytime soon. That of course is why Israel will continue to colonize the West Bank and will end up with the greater Israel. We’re not going to prevent that from happening. This is going to cause the United States even more trouble in the future because of the increased importance of public opinion in the Middle East.
It’s very clear that across the Middle East the Palestinian issue is of great importance to most Arabs and Iranians. And as it becomes increasingly clear that the Palestinians are not going to get a state of their own, and they’re effectively going to live in an apartheid state and be second if not third class citizens, that point is going to rub huge numbers of people in the Arab and Islamic world the wrong way. It’s going to cause the United States more trouble than ever because we will continue to support Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. This of course is the reason we are in trouble today and its one of the reasons why we will be in even more trouble down the road as it becomes more apparent that a two-state solution is not going to happen.
I would just add parenthetically that many people say, “Why is it that the Arab Spring has not had an effect on the Palestinians?” I actually think there’s a quite simple answer to that. The Palestinians in the occupied territory, especially in the West Bank, are not interested in democracy. What they are interested in at this point in time is having a state of their own. They’re interested in, to put it in slightly different terms, separation or partition. They are not interested in a democracy, they’re not thinking about being a part of a greater Israel. If you think about where we’re headed, where we’re headed is towards a greater Israel, in which those Palestinians living in the occupied territories are going to come to recognize that they are not going to get a state of their own and are a part of a greater Israel. Once that realization happens, then Arab Spring-like forces are going to come to play. Then the Palestinians are going to want democracy. The United States is going to be in a real pickle at that time because the United States, as you know, has been promoting democracy as the ultimate value. We think it’s very important that states all across the region be democratic and, of course, the Israelis pride themselves on being the “only democracy in the Middle East”. Well, if that’s true, you can’t deny the Palestinians who live in your midst in this greater Israel a vote. Of course, the Israelis will do that because that’s what part of what an apartheid state is all about, and that’s going to tie the United States and the Israelis in knots and causes all sorts of problems. So my point to you is that the special relationship, which is the first dimension of U.S. Middle East policy, is a prescription for big trouble for the United States.
Second, I’ll talk about Iran. There’s no question that we are going to continue to treat Iran as the devil incarnate. The only interesting question really is whether we try to contain it or we attack it. If we, or the Israelis, or both of us, attack Iran, that will cause us untold trouble in the region. It would be a remarkably foolish policy to pursue. We should not, under any circumstances, in my opinion, attack Iran. I don’t think we will. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on that, but I don’t think we will. I think instead we will continue to pursue a hard-edged containment policy that will alienate the Iranians, and not do a lot of good in the region. Moreover, to deal with this Iranian threat that we’ve hyped up, we will end up either inserting more forces in the region, or keeping the forces that we have in the region there and just strengthening them somewhat. I think this is not a good idea, because I think the United States should do everything it can to get all of its forces out or almost all of its forces out of the region, keep them off shore. And keeping more forces in the region is not a smart way to do business. I think, given the extent to which we’ve hyped the Iranian threat, it will be difficult not to increase our presence in the Persian Gulf.
Finally, we come to the Arab Spring, and the whole question of how the United States will treat that. I think what will happen here is that we will continue to meddle in Arab politics in the region. We have, as most of you know, a very powerful social engineering impulse in this country. We think we are “the chosen people,” to put it in Madeline Albright’s terms. We think we are the indispensible nation, we stand taller, we see further and therefore we have a God given right to go into countries all across the world, the Middle East included, and tell people what their politics should look like. Given that the Middle East is likely to be an unsettled area as democratization plays itself out across the region over time, there will be ample opportunities for the United States to intervene and tell people in the Middle East what kind of politics they should have at home. So you should not be surprised at all if you see more Libya-like operations in the future because it’s consistent with how we’ve behaved in the past and we think about ourselves. You also want to keep in mind that despite all the rhetoric about how much we love democracy and how much we’re interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East and in other areas, we have a rich history of overthrowing democracies in the Middle East and in different places. Just because we get democracy in country X in the Middle East, does not mean that the United States will applaud and move on to promoting democracy in the next country. There’s always a good chance that we will intervene and overthrow the democratic forces, as we did in Iran in 1953 and as we did with the Palestinians after Hamas was elected.
So, my bottom line is that when you look at American foreign policy and you think about the special relationship, you think about how we deal with Iran and you think about our penchant for meddling in the politics of various Arab countries it seems to me that there is no end to how much trouble we’re going to get in, in the future, which would be consistent with our behavior in the recent past. Thank you.
Mr. Philip J. “P.J.” Crowley:
I don’t know whether to go on with my opening remarks or to just agree and disagree, and primarily disagree respectfully with John [Mearsheimer]. I do want to say that Abderrahim [Foukara] in his previous panel said that the Tunisian revolution snuck up on the media. I can assure you, from my vantage point at the State Department in December of last year it snuck up on the State Department as well, for the purpose of full disclosure. This is a great warm up. I teach at Dickinson College, the Penn State School of International Affairs and the Army War College and as it would occur my next class is on the Arab-Israeli situation. So I’ll be primed by the time Monday comes around. I’ve been involved in and around the peace process for about fifteen years in various capacities within government, at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, and in U.S. policy in the region from a political, diplomatic and military vantage point for longer than that. So if I can say, since I left government in March, if you don’t know what’s going on right now with the United States’ policies, it’s no longer my fault.
I am pleased to join this distinguished panel talking about this remarkable sequence of events, the most dynamic and unpredictable regional transformation in the last 20 years. Now, this session is identified as discussing regional opportunities and responsibilities, and I would certainly add to that challenges and resistance. Clearly, as we’ve seen from a country to country standpoint, in most cases the status quo has been turned upside down but we yet don’t know what will replace it. And I’ll speak today from a U.S. policy point of view, as somebody who was, until recently, a social engineer.
Let me briefly talk about the issues in the region more broadly, and then conclude with comments on the latest developments in the peace process, if indeed there is one. This conference highlights a turning point in the region, and certainly in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, for very different reasons, we have reached turning points. The status quo is gone and cannot be resurrected. In other circumstances I would say that we have tipping points. The status quo has been shaken, and some change will occur, but it’s not yet certain if existing systems of government will be overturned. You can look at the situation in Egypt, for example. While there has been a revolution, the old guard is certainly fighting back and behind the scenes wants to have significant control over the constitutional process as it unfolds. At the start of this year, [U.S.] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton gave an important speech in Doha where she said to the leaders there and audiences in the region, the status quo is unsustainable; there must be fundamental political economic and social change. That has been the government’s primary focus during the course of these last few months.
Now, while still in government as events unfolded first in Tunisia, and then in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, the perspective inside the State Department and the White House was these are indigenous revolutions. The directions these movements take will depend primarily on forces within each country. They will go at different speeds. The United States is prepared to help, but our assistance and our influence, we recognize from the outset, would be on the margins. And just to add to what John was saying in terms of the influence on Iran, we already had one set of circumstances in June of 2009 where we had a conscious policy to stay out of the election in Iran and its aftermath, so as not to give Iran their traditional “great Satan” card that they can play. As we’ve seen, the regional governments, as in Bashar al-Assad is the latest to play this: these are outsiders and terrorist trying to upset the status quo. We know that’s not true. The United States did take and has taken an understated policy in terms of our approach as these things unfolded. Shibley [Telhami] gave a pretty good analysis of the administration’s thinking. I would just add to that, that in the back of our minds was also, as you look at the changes in the regional balances and relationships, we were conscious of the possibility that Iran would take advantage of the situations. I happen to believe that Iran has been among the major losers from this year in terms of lost momentum. And I do recognize John that you’re from Chicago, so maybe inside the red zone the Chicago Bears might have more success at getting something over the goal line but if Iran behaves like the Redskins, the conclusion of that is not necessarily foregone.
More or less, with the exception of Libya, the administration’s approach has been recently consistent, which, depending on the country, can be viewed as refreshing, frustrating or even bewildering. With Libya, for example, with the approval of the region, this was vitally important. The president was taking considerable political heat from the Right; with respected voices like [U.S. Senator] John McCain and [U.S. Senator] Lindsey Graham saying you should intervene now. He wanted to make sure, as [former U.S.] Secretary [of Defense] Robert Gates later said, the last thing we should do is put a vast number of forces in an Arab country and wanted to make sure it was clear that regional and international support and legitimacy for what NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] undertook. This is truly at the end of it, the dog that didn’t bark. Obviously, that NATO intervention while stated in terms of humanitarian protection for Libyan population did in fact evolve into more aggressive support for regime change as the National Transitional Council demonstrated its viability and gained support within Libya.
In Syria, the administration has publically called for Assad to step aside. I think it arrived there a bit late in my view, but today it is in the right place, but not withstanding the understanding of the negotiation this week by the Arab league. There are mixed views within the region about the future course of Syria. There is not a consensus for dramatic change in Syria as we saw in Libya, and certainly we’ve also seen the direct opposition in Russia and China to more aggressive sanctions that could turn the tide there. In my view, Assad is mortally wounded but can survive for some time. So it’s unclear whether Syria has reached a tipping point. The same can be said for Bahrain. The United States has taken a very different approach to Bahrain by supporting the reformers within the ruling family and hopes to see reform begin soon, while recognizing that this is a long term process. There are extraordinary risks to U.S. credibility with this approach. That includes the recent announcement to at least inform Congress about the potential sale of military hardware to Bahrain in the midst of military trials of protestors and medical personnel. I think that was a significant mistake and a missed opportunity to make clear to Bahrain that it needs to change business as usual and more aggressively encourage reform.
So now the situation in Bahrain awaits the report of this commission that will detail human rights violations later this month. In Yemen, the United States has supported the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] call for [Yemeni] President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh to step aside. I’ve lost track of the number of times that Saleh has said he will do so. Change is inevitable in Yemen, but how it takes shape is anyone’s guess. Anyone can take issue with the discreet action or statement, but the United States has decided in this year to nudge events forward in the direction advocated by the people in the region rather than try to orchestrate a new regional order. I think if I have a worry about what is going to happen, it is as [U.S.] Ambassador [William] Bill Taylor who’s now the point man within the State Department on transitions in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. He’s an experienced hand but he acknowledged yesterday that the level of resource required to develop the technical assistance for elections in the context of say, Egypt, to try to help Egypt sustain its economy as it tries to rebuild the economic support, tourism that was lost earlier this year. The resources that we had available as a country 20 years ago in Europe to support these transitions, that money is just not here. We’re about to see what the probable failure of sequestration in the Congress, a lot of pressure on budgets, and given a lack of a constituency within the international affairs budget compared to the Pentagon budget, we’re not likely to see the kinds of resources that would give us as much confidence as we can to help these countries move forward.
In academic circles, where I now reside, there’s a debate as to whether to place the preexisting Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of the Arab Spring. And while it is different in a key respect – establishing a new state as opposed to transforming the governance of existing states – there’s no question that the process is subject to the same regional forces in play as with the surrounding countries. Certainly, you can see with the recent actions of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that they reflect this pressure and as John did say the growing importance of public opinion throughout the region. If the question is: If Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are transforming, why not Palestine? The answer is, of course, that it can and it should happen for Palestine as it is happening for other parts of the world. For 20 years, there’s been a process and a clear path to Palestinian statehood. For 10 years, and I was at Camp David eleven years ago with the president of the United States at the time, there was an understanding of the broad parameters of an agreement that would create a Palestinian state. We know them well. At the risk of picking at an old wound, as the secretary of state has reminded the current Palestinian leadership a number of times, had [the late PLO] Chairman [Yasser] Arafat said yes at Camp David or at the Taba summit, Palestinians would be leading rather than following changes in the region. Ten years ago the essential question that Chairman Arafat faced was: Are the Palestinians ready to end the conflict and make difficult compromises to achieve an independent state? The answer then was no. The answer today appears to be not yet.
While I do not underestimate the complexity, the emotion, or the history of the substance behind this process, there are difficult differences that need to be resolved for each of the final status issues that we know very well. The challenges before us at the moment are about political leverage and the advance of a negotiation, at least today, not withstanding the obvious opinion in this particular room, that negotiations are still necessary in the view of all the current participants in the process as it exists today. There is danger in the present course of doing damage to the peace process itself. Assuming that both sides are still committed to the Oslo process and a two-state solution. Again, I’ve listened attentively to the discussion today, and obviously believe that there may be a different view in this room. The things I can say at this forum, that I could not say at the podium down the street where I was residing a few months ago. The move by President Abbas to formally request Palestinian statehood and the push for membership in various UN bodies, starting with UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], has given the Palestinians the initiative with Israel and the United States is now forced to react. Certainly, some of the ideas you’ve talked about today can add momentum to the Palestinian cause going forward. That’s fair enough, but echoing the words of Director [of the Central Intelligence Agency] David Petraeus, who said during the Iraq war, “Where does this end?” It is one thing to say that there is a loss in faith of the United States as an even handed broker within the process, or that politics in the United States favors Israel as opposed to Palestinian interests. Those are legitimate concerns, and they are certainly nothing new. I would argue that the unique U.S. role in the process is to ensure that whatever is put forward, that both sides get what they need, not necessarily what they want, and to be the essential guarantor and implementer of any agreement that emerges from any process in the future. No one else but the United States has the ability to work effectively with both sides. For a variety of reasons, including domestic politics, the United States is doing the only thing it can at the present time; attempting to work at the expert level to close existing gaps in a situation where a direct, high level negotiation is simply not feasible given the deep lack of trust of the current leadership of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Certainly as we approach an election year in the United States, the Obama administration cannot do more than it is currently doing. I no longer work for the Obama administration. As you know, as Shibley talked about, the Congress is in a very different place. It is in a position to impose real costs on the Palestinian Authority if it chooses, and the closer current efforts get to compromising the effectiveness of UN agencies tied to vital U.S. national security interests. John talked about the importance of Iran, and certainly if this process gets to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] then Congress is likely to step in in ways that will not be helpful to the Palestinians.
While the current tactic does involve the Palestinian Authority acquiring some leverage, it is leverage that can only be spent in a peace process. If there is no peace process, ultimately, there is no leverage. I’ll leave it there and we’ll get on with an interesting discussion among the panel.
Dr. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, Dr. John Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Mr. Philip J. “P.J.” Crowley is a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs.
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speakers’ views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.