[These are selected highlights excerpted from Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr.’s address to the Middle East Policy Council’s 86th Capitol Hill Conference. The complete video and transcript of the entire conference are available at: http://mepc.org/hill-forums/middle-east-and-next-administration.]
The Middle East and the Next Administration: challenges, opportunities and recommendations [Excerpts selected by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D., Minaret of Freedom Institute]
CHAS W. FREEMAN, JR. (Chairman, Projects International Inc.; Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense; Former President, Middle East Policy Council)
I think Osama bin Laden must have died happy. He devoted the last third of his life to creating animosity between the West and Islam and to driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Today, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are all estranged from our country. And as an unexpected bonus, so is Israel….
America is less secure, we are less prosperous as Americans, and we are less free than we were as this century began. In life Osama was transformative. In death he continues to shape the world he left behind. Can a new administration change this? Will it…?
I do not believe that we are about to elect a president able to govern effectively and to end dysfunction in Washington. Whoever we choose as our president seems certain to be regarded as illegitimate and opposed by supporters of her or his rival…. [A]t heart, the two candidates faithfully reflect the narratives, prejudices and conventional policy approaches of the nation they propose to lead…. This gives them so much in common that I think it’s more efficient to discuss them together rather than separately. So I will refer to Candidates Clinton and Trump as one gender-fluid person, “Candidate Clump.” (Laughter.) Candidate Clump is on the payroll of the Israel lobby’s major donors, wants to isolate Iran, and loves sanctions and other forms of economic warfare more than trade and investment. Clump was for the invasion of Iraq before “hesh” was against it. (Laughter.) Hesh is more interested in poking at the Middle East than in understanding it….
When elected, President Clump will give Israel whatever it must have to fend off its political tantrums … [and] is very unlikely to lead an intelligent interagency or national discussion about what must be done to dig ourselves out of the very large and deep sinkhole in the Middle East that we’ve fallen into….
What situations will our president, Congress and Supreme Court inherit in the Middle East…? [T]here are at least 12 distinct but overlapping wars going on in Syria, maybe more. Saudi Arabia is at war with Iran; foreign-backed insurgents with the Assad government; Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran with the insurgents; Islamists with secularists; foreign-backed forces with Daesh, the Islamic State; Shiites with Sunnis; Kurds with Arabs; Kurds with Kurds; Turks with Kurds; and the United States separately with the Assad government, with Daesh and with Russia.
The United States is indirectly or directly involved in about half of these Syrian wars, aligned with and against Assad and with and against the insurgent forces, sometimes with Turkey and sometimes against Turkey, sometimes with the Kurds but always against Russia. Oh, and Israel continues to bomb Syrians whenever it feels like it….
Assad remains in power. The Gulf Arabs feel let down. Sectarian strife swells. Foreign interventions wax and wane. Iran retains their preeminent political role in the Levant. Turkey turns this way and that. Kurdish self-determination looms and recedes. Turkey and Europe drown in refugees. The U.S. and Russia are ever closer to war. All sides, including the United States, remorselessly violate both international law and the basic canons of human decency. And Daesh revels in its martyrdom. And the slaughter continues….
We accept no responsibility for the 450,000 or more dead Syrians or the 11 million displaced from their homes. Our politicians and public oppose taking in the refugees from the anarchy we have helped to foster. This is craven, dishonorable, and a reproach to our moral standing and prestige. But let’s leave such quibbles aside. This is, after all, Washington, where both common sense and moral accountability come to die….
Part of our reason for joining Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE in attempting to overthrow the Assad government was to show solidarity with them – complicity instead, I should say…. [T]here is no silver lining to be seen in the dark cloud of Syria’s agony
Parallel contradictions are at work in Iraq, which our 2003 invasion and occupation also thrust into anarchy…. As in Syria, our policies appear to align every which way….
Occasionally, presidential candidates hint that they have a plan that diagrams how Americans can end our misadventures in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the last box on their plan seems to read “a miracle happens here.” It’s the Middle East, so where miracles are said to have happened in the past so I suppose you can’t rule that out, but it’s hard to consider this much of a plausible probability….
[W]ith the cult of the warrior ascendant in our culture and few Americans dying, the Washington playbook is likely to prevail. We will continue on autopilot but deploy more firepower. Anti-American terrorism with global reach will therefore continue to grow…. Whether homegrown or foreign, our attackers see themselves as humiliated, persecuted, bullied or otherwise victimized. They’re looking for a cause larger than themselves in which to cloak their criminality…. We mistake their terrorist doctrine for their motivation. But they are psychotic, not pious. They are gangbangers, not theologians.
Bombing the so-called Islamic State and snuffing Muslims from the air with drones don’t help cure anti-American terrorism with global reach. They feed the very paranoid delusions on which it thrives. Eliminating the Islamic State’s control of parts of Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the causes of terrorism directed at the West.
It’s time for a different approach. The place to start, I think, is Syria … [where reliant on external support, combatants] have not needed to court popular support by avoiding atrocities against civilians. Cutting off overt and covert aid to combatants would help restore their incentive to do so, meaning to take account of the feelings of the people they are victimizing in Syria.
[All parties] would all be better off if we and all other external parties agreed to mutual restraint and an end to the supply of weapons and training and fighters to Syria … [and] would also bring the world back into conformity with the principle that one should do no harm and mark a return to respect for international law….
As part of a search for a regional détente, the United States needs to have a serious discussion with the Saudis about a war termination strategy for Yemen … [which could] help detoxify the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It’s become politically poisonous in both countries, as illustrated by the blossoming of American Islamophobia, Saudi vituperation against America, and the recent override of President Obama’s veto of JASTA, the cynically named Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. This is actually the “shyster’s relief act” of 2016.
Despite decades of efforts by the United States to broker peace between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab and Muslim worlds, the so-called peace process is now dead and buried. It cannot be exhumed and it will not be resurrected … [meaning that] the United States will have no political cover internationally at all for its continuing subsidies to the Israeli settlement enterprise or for its protection of Israel from international condemnation and punishment for its gross violations of the rights of its captive Arab populations, illegal territorial expansion, and intermittent military assaults on neighbors….
Israel has become one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. It dominates its region militarily yet U.S. taxpayers will pay, or more likely borrow, $3.8 billion each year for the next 10 to subsidize it – this despite the fact that Israel contemptuously opposes most U.S. policies in its region. It goes out of its way to demonstrate its defiance of U.S. and international opinion of its policies and seems to many to be hell-bent on doing itself in. Unconditional support for Israel does grave harm to Israel by enabling it to behave in ways and take risks with its future that it otherwise would not….
U.S. attempts to advocate human rights, oppose racism, promote the rule of law, empower women or support the democratization of government as insincere, hypocritical or downright duplicitous. Americans speaking out for our values in the Middle East now persuade no one there. We just remind them of our unflinching complicity in Israeli policies and practices that mock the ideals we claim to champion.
On its way out, the Obama administration has begun speaking more honestly – which means more harshly – about the extent to which Israeli statements and behavior now trouble Americans, including, by the way, the great majority of American Jews. But in the region this just comes across as: Who are you going to believe, America or your lying eyes?
… [T]he probable result of doing more of the same is more of the same. That’s really too bad, both for us and for everyone in the Middle East….