PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite


The President's Inbox: The Greater Middle East

Presider: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director Of Studies, And Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Panelists: Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow For Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow For Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow For India, Pakistan And South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
January 23, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations


GARY SAMORE: I'd like to thank everybody for coming here in the new year to our new building. I want to mention that Carla Hills is here, who is a co-chair of our board of directors, and takes, I think, some real credit for making this all happen. Today we're going to have an on-the-record meeting to talk about the Middle East. I'd like to remind everybody, including me, to turn off your electronic gizmos.

The discussion today is on the Greater Middle East, and I've always wondered what's so great about it. (Laughter.) It seems to me it's a part of the world where most of the fanaticism and violence and conflict and tension somehow seems to have become concentrated. So the president doesn't have so much of an inbox as he has a Pandora's Box to deal with. And I think one measure of how difficult and challenging a foreign policy issue is has to do with how many special envoys are appointed to deal with those problems, and the Greater Middle East of course already has two special envoys -- Senator Mitchell and Ambassador Holbrooke, and perhaps more on the way -- to deal with some of the other problems such as Iran. And waiting in the background there's Iraq, which is quiet now, but I think, as you will hear, has every possibility for blowing up again, especially if the U.S., or as the U.S., begins to withdraw its forces.

So, to help us advise the new president on how to deal with that very daunting inbox, we have three of our most distinguished senior fellows, who focus on issues relating to the Greater Middle East. Steve Biddle, who is a senior fellow for defense policy and has spent a lot of time working on Iraq and also on Afghanistan; Steven Cook, who is a senior fellow for Middle East, very knowledgeable about both the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as well as other issues in the Middle East, like Iran; and, finally, Dan Markey, who is the senior fellow for Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia.

So I want to start off the meeting by asking each of them to talk about what they see as the greatest challenges facing President Obama in the Greater Middle East, and in particular if they can, to the extent that they can, tailor their advice to the new envoys who are soon going to be taking on these missions to deal with the Greater Middle East. I'd like to start with Dan and then we'll work back toward me. Dan?

DANIEL MARKEY: Great. Thanks, Gary, and thanks to all of you for this opportunity. With respect to my portfolio, South Asia, broadly conceived, there is such a rich menu of challenges that the first challenge is figuring out which challenge to focus on. For the purposes of these remarks I'd like to focus on the Pakistan-Afghanistan piece. I think it's revealing and, I think, encouraging that the new administration has also chosen to move very quickly with the Holbrooke appointment to focus on this, because I think it is the priority issue.

I'd like to keep the remarks brief and just say there are three broad points that I would make on these issues, and the first of these is that Pakistan is actually the primary issue, with Afghanistan being the subordinate issue to it. And, now, this is not, I think, as appreciated as it should be, but if you look at the challenge in terms of broad U.S. national security concerns, Pakistan is significantly larger in every possible way. It is actually the focal point now for what I gather is being called the struggle against terrorism and extremism, as compared to the global war on terrorism. It has nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda core is probably based there. It's globally interconnected and linked up in every possible way through networks both legal and illegal in ways that Afghanistan has never been and probably won't be for some period of time.

So my first comment would be essentially that to the extent that the administration has focused on these paired countries -- Pakistan, Afghanistan -- that it should prioritize the Pakistan piece even though we are at active war in Afghanistan. And so that's going to be a challenge because it actually turns our focus, which is typically military-led, because that's where most of our resources are, to one that is led by both a political and development, and only in a second-order way, military intelligence, law-enforcement effort. That's what we need to move ahead with on Pakistan. So that's the first broad point I would make.

The second is that -- and this is an even bigger one -- is that this new administration really needs, as it confronts these challenges, to think about the gap that has existed between ambition and resource. As I look at Afghanistan and Pakistan, what I see is a situation where we have had extremely high ambitions, particularly in Afghanistan, since 9/11, essentially to transform and develop a country that has never seen development of this sort in the past -- not to rebuild of reconstruct, but to build in the first place both political institutions and economic opportunities for its people. This is a huge and incredibly daunting challenge. It is only dwarfed by the kind of challenges that we face in Pakistan in terms of weak civilian government capacity and all kinds of other challenges that I've already laid out.

So what needs to happen very quickly, I think, is both for a scaling up in the resourcing of these issues -- and we've already seen indications that the new administration is inclined to do this -- but then also, at the same time, a scaling back in the rhetoric and ambition, at least to some degree. Some very difficult decisions are going to have to be made as to what this new administration thinks it can really accomplish in these places. Those decisions need to be, then, defined and articulated more firmly and then mated up with these resources.

The third point I would make is simply that both of these countries are areas of rolling crisis. And in my brief experience in the U.S. government, what I've perceived was that there was always something to be distracted by. In Pakistan, you know, another assassination attempt or a bomb going off would usually, in many cases, derail longer-term perspective. What this administration needs to try to do is get ahead of these immediate crises and fit them into a broader context so that it's not yanked back and forth by the whipsaw of what are likely to be a series of challenges that are going to come very quickly; and, two, I would point out first is the presidential election in Afghanistan has the potential, I think, to really distract from any and all other activities in the country. It's obviously a high priority that this election come off well, but it's not the only priority.

And in Pakistan, the level of political uncertainty that exists and continues to exist there I think is under-appreciated, and I think there's a potential for another political crisis which could catch this new administration off guard, even within the next six months and really derail these longer-term efforts of the sort that are necessary.

SAMORE: Thanks very much, Dan. Let's move east and ask Steven Cook to comment on the middle of the Middle East.

STEVEN A. COOK: Thanks very much, Gary. And I just want to say that -- I've said this before to Dan -- it's either heartening or frightening to me that he works on a part of the world that's even scarier than the part of the world that I work on.

I think when we talk about the heart of the Middle East, it's important to remember something that Richard Haass talked about a week ago Tuesday in a town hall meeting here -- separating what's urgent from what's important. And let's just say if this meeting was happening six or seven weeks ago I would've said that the priorities for the new administration would certainly be one and two, Iran and Iraq, and an Arab-Israeli conflict being a third but it being unclear as to how quickly and how important it would be for an administration to engage very early on that issue. My sense was that the Obama people wanted to take at least some time to assess what had gone before, before making a big leap into Arab-Israeli conflict.

Well, obviously the violence in Gaza over the previous three weeks have changed that, and the administration -- the new administration is thrust immediately into a conflict management situation. I think the key for them on this issue in particular is to create an environment where we have this -- we get a sustainable ceasefire. Right now, it's unclear whether this ceasefire is something just done in deference to the new administration or whether the parties really genuinely have an interest in maintaining the ceasefire, but using a diplomatic skill to build a process from this ceasefire.

But by all measures, though, Senator Mitchell's job is a daunting one. The two biggest issues that I think that he will confront immediately is that, first, he's confronting essentially two Palestinian governments that are at war with each other -- the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank, which is led by Mahmoud Abbass, a Fatah faction -- the Palestinian Authority that the United States and Israel has chosen to deal with -- and the Palestinian Authority of the Gaza Strip, led by Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and has no love lost for their colleagues in Fatah. And Hamas now finds itself, as a result of the last three weeks, in a greatly strengthened political position. There's been a significant amount of sniping among the Palestinians about why Abbas took the kinds of, from their perspective, passive perspective on what the Israelis were doing in the Gaza Strip. After all, his narrative is that negotiations are the best way to move forward, yet his negotiating partner was involved in a wide-scale and fairly brutal military operations against the Palestinian people.

So I think that's going to be the first problem is dealing with these splits within the Palestinian political arena and working with allies in the region to try to cobble together some sort of Palestinian unity government -- an issue that has been brought up over and over again in the last number of weeks but is by no means a panacea. I'd call your attention to the fact that there was a previous Palestinian unity government in the spring of 2007, which led to, essentially, Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip.

The second tremendous challenge, I think, for Senator Mitchell is going to be dealing with the Israeli settlement issue. The development of the infrastructure of the settlement has been so extensive that it has essentially fragmented the West Bank, making it extraordinarily difficult to perceive how this piece of territory can be divided in some sort of fashion that will satisfy the needs of both communities. So I think that Senator Mitchell's tone, the president's tone on this issue have been just right, but when they get down to the nitty-gritty on the ground I think they're going to find themselves in a situation that is far more complex than many people believe it to be.

We can talk about the rest of the Middle East, but I only have four minutes right now.

SAMORE: Thanks, Steven. Professor Biddle?

STEPHEN BIDDLE: Okay. Well, I guess I'll do Iraq then in this context. The issue of the hour with respect to Iraq is the way in which the administration is going to go about dealing with the campaign pledge to remove all major combat formations from the country within 16 months and then swing those resources into Afghanistan. It's complicated both with respect to the domestic politics of this here, but with respect to the institutional politics of this within the military in that the theater command, in the form of General Odierno in Iraq, and the regional command, probably -- as General Petraeus is going to see at Central Command -- has tended to be cautious with respect to the degree to which you can safely drawdown forces in Iraq quickly and shift resources in Afghanistan.

The military staffs in the Pentagon, by contrast, have typically been much more enthusiastic about the whole project of reducing the engagement in Iraq and either swinging those resources into Afghanistan or simply using them to allow the military to rebuild itself institutionally.

In trying to balance these various pulls and pushes and pressures around them, I think the new administration needs to keep in mind the nature of the process that we're in the middle of in Iraq and what its key drivers are. And I think the right way to think about the Iraq conflict is in 2006 it had already become an intense ethno-sectarian civil war of identity, which then, over the course of 2007, was largely resolved in the sense of getting a ceasefire through a series of essentially bilateral negotiated deals in a very decentralized way with a very large number of violent actors within the country.

That puts us in a situation today, in January of 2009, where we are in the early stages of the negotiated end to a pretty intense civil war. These kinds of transitional moments are, classically, highly volatile and very unstable. Lots of situations like this revert to violence. Where they don't revert to violence it's usually because there's some outside party to act as a peacekeeper with a substantial quantity of capable military forces to damp escalatory spirals, reduce mutual fear among formerly warring parties, and facilitate the transition to a different set of mutual expectations within this formerly warring society.

That role at the moment is being provided by us. The central mission of the United States presence in Iraq today is to serve effectively as a classical peacekeeper to facilitate the transition out of an intense civil war into a process of slow-moving gradual reconciliation. That has to take place against at least two major constraints that the administration finds itself facing now in January 2009. One is their own campaign promise to remove all major combat formations, and peacekeeping of the kind required in this situation today requires combat capability. This is not primarily an economic or political undertaking. The business we are engaged in in Iraq right now requires getting past serious security concerns in ways that require combat-capable military forces classically.

So the first set of constraints is, what do you do with this campaign promise to remove the forces that nominally would be required to do this within 16 months, which, in classical terms, is much sooner than you would normally like for that scale of drawdown to a peacekeeping activity. The other major constraint they're operating under is the Status of Forces Agreement that was signed in the last months of the Bush administration, which commits the United States to a slower withdrawal timetable, but nonetheless one that's much more demanding than normal peacekeeping trajectories would call for. All American forces are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Now, I think, in practical terms, these two constraints are more slack than many people suppose. There is a lot of freedom of maneuver within the constraints of meeting the campaign pledge and the SOFA requirements, and I think what that does is drop in the laps of the National Security Council team coming in, and the Defense Department team coming in, and the rest of the administration, a set of very interesting design questions. How, within the limits imposed by those two proclamations, do you design American military posture that can provide as much peacekeeping capability as possible as long as possible and reduce, to the degree possible, the risk that, like so many other civil wars before it, the situation in Iraq spirals its way back to 2006 or worse under the Obama administration's watch.

SAMORE: Thank you, Stephen. I've got time to ask a follow-up question of each of the speakers and then I'll open it up to all of you. Stephen -- Stephen Biddle -- you have focused your comments on Iraq, but as I understand it you've just come back from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. I'd be interested in your assessment of the military situation in Afghanistan, and in particular, is the surge -- the so-called surge going to be capable of achieving the same results in Afghanistan that it has apparently achieved in Iraq in terms of stabilizing the situation?

BIDDLE: Well, I think in the sense of viewing the prospective Afghan surge as can it do in Afghanistan what it did in Iraq, the answer is almost certainly no. I mean, the process by which violence came down in Iraq was somewhat idiosyncratic, but very tightly connected to the underlying nature of the Iraq War, which is an ethno-sectarian identity civil war. Afghanistan is, by contrast, a much more classical insurgency of ideas, which operates according to different logics, which has a different dynamic to it and which will respond to American military forces differently.

All those things, I think -- if you were to work through the details in ways that you'd be very annoyed if I took the time to do now -- I think imply that a substantial U.S. reinforcement is a necessary but insufficient condition for getting to something that looks like an acceptable outcome in Afghanistan, which, as Dan rightly pointed out, requires a substantial walk-back of the previous administration's ambitions for what can be achieved. But to achieve even a plausible end-state in Afghanistan will require a substantial U.S. reinforcement, but lots more than that, and it will work much more slowly.

Violence came down in Iraq within 12 months of the beginning of reinforcement. That's wildly unrealistic as a timetable expectation for Afghanistan. If the process is going to work at all in Afghanistan, it's going to work on a much, much slower timetable, which is going to pose lots of other challenges, in both military and political terms, for the Obama administration because the results, A, are going to be slow, but, B, are going to follow in a much more stretched-out way the same trajectory they probably did in Iraq, i.e., big increase in violence, losses and costs early, which, if you play your cards right and get lucky, eventually produces a reduction much, much later. That all unfolded over 12 months in Iraq, it is not going to unfold over 12 months in Afghanistan. This is going to be a much, much slower-moving process there than it was in Iraq.

SAMORE: Steven, you talked about some of the challenges facing Senator Mitchell. You know, another uncertainty or challenge is the upcoming Israel election, so I'd like you to talk about, A, how Gaza has impacted the running among the three major candidates; and, B, who do you think is going to win; and, C, how will that impact on the challenges that you talked about for Senator Mitchell?

COOK: That's a great question, Gary. Thanks very much. There was actually a lot of commentary during the -- at least in the initial stages of the Israel offensive in Gaza, that there was politics was in part driving -- Israeli politics was in fact driving the offensive, and in fact it was, on two levels. First, there was tremendous political pressure from the Israeli public to do something about the rocket attacks. That pressure had been building prior to the June 18 ceasefire that the Egyptians helped the Israelis and Hamas hammer out. And that pressure was basically in a state of suspected animation until December 19th when Hamas and other Palestinian factions started lobbing about 200 rockets into Israel over the course of a week, and that pressure just returned.

Then of course you are in an Israel electoral season and you have the defense minister, the leader of the Labor Party; the foreign minister, the leader of the ruling Kadima Party, in coalition of course; and Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who is the leader of the Likud Party, who had opposed the Gaza withdrawal, who could claim that he predicted what was going to happen in Gaza that was actually happening, and was clearly sniping at both Barak and Livni from the right on security issues, and the poll numbers clearly indicated that.

Both the foreign minister and the defense minister have used the opportunity of the rocket attacks from Gaza to demonstrate their toughness, first with the foreign minister in Cairo a day or two before the Israeli military operations began. You have to understand, when Israeli officials arrive in talks in Cairo, particularly with President Mubarak, they're extremely deferential -- extremely deferential, but on this occasion the foreign minister publicly repudiated President Mubarak's call for restraint. And then of course Ehud Barak, the most decorated officer in the history of the Israeli Defense Forces, whose reputation was, nevertheless, tarnished as a result of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 and the subsequent calamity of the Camp David talks in July of 2000 was looking to this operation as a way of burnishing his security credentials.

The polls have changed somewhat. Barak was in dead last by far, and to the extent that Operation Cast Lead, as it was called, remains popular among the Israeli public, there is now an actual race for the prime ministry. I think the betting remains that Benjamin Netanyahu will once again become the prime minister after February 10th and can cobble together some type of coalition. If that in fact happens, I would expect there to be significant tension between the United States and Israel. If you look at historical patterns, anytime that you have an American government that is interested in pushing the peace process forward in terms of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and you have a government that's not -- an Israeli government that's not -- you're going to lead to some type of clash between those two. And if in fact the polls are correct and Netanyahu becomes the prime minister, it makes Senator Mitchell's job and the president's job and the secretary of State's job all that more difficult.

Netanyahu has talked about economic peace; he has not talked about peace. He has been more forthcoming on the Syrian-Israeli track than the Palestinian track. So I think that if in fact that comes out the way that we believe it will be, it is going to be a period of friction between the U.S. and Israeli governments.

SAMORE: Thank you.

Dan, you as you know, there was some question about whether Ambassador Holbrooke's mandate would include India, and at the end of the day the administration decided not to include India in his diplomatic mandate. But I'd like to ask you, since India is part of South Asia and obviously has a role both in Afghanistan and in our efforts to deal with Pakistan, what do you think the appropriate policies -- U.S. policies should be toward India as they relate to Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MARKEY: Well, you're right. As far as I understand, that was very much a debate as to whether India should be a part of his portfolio, and at an intellectual level and at a deeper level, there is no way really to separate out the India-Pakistan relationship from what we see within Pakistan and what we see even with respect to Pakistan's behavior towards Afghanistan. So these things are all interconnected.

The problem is twofold. First of all that the Indians themselves were not at all eager to see these issues linked in an individual, and they were even less eager to see that individual have any title that included the word "Kashmir" in it because of their own sensitivities. And so they pushed, apparently quite firmly, against this idea. So that's one problem, is upsetting the Indian sense of the U.S. involvement in the region.

More important than that, though, is a question of whether and how the United States can be a helpful actor with respect to the India-Pakistan relationship, and here I believe pretty firmly that the United States has the best role to play, very quietly and very much behind the scenes, that an envoy with an active portfolio who would be speaking in public on this issue would in fact run into a brick wall, certainly with the Indians, but also might be prone to being used by both sides, one against the other, in their bilateral negotiation.

And the other thing that I think of when I think of the trajectory of this relationship is prior to Mumbai, I think it's under-appreciated just how successful the Indians and the Pakistanis were on their own with relatively little U.S. prodding to move forward in their relationship, both in their formal composite dialogue and also in other informal ways that suggested that they were actually moving towards a breakthrough of their own without this kind of U.S. envoy really pushing the agenda.

So although we have obviously hit a setback with Mumbai, it's one that I'm hopeful that both sides can kind of get past and return to a process that was very encouraging over at least the past four years that wouldn't require this heavy U.S. diplomatic intervention.

SAMORE: Thank you, Dan. Okay, we've got a half hour now, and I'll open it up for questions. Yes, sir, in the second row. Yes, sir? Please state your name and affiliation and --

QUESTIONER: Jim Moody. Dan, on Pakistan, I was up in Peshawar recently and the responsible persons up there told me that unless the U.S. understands the poppy issue and the fact that narco-mafia is funding the -- that resist the Taliban, et cetera, that we won't get a handle on it. And, you know, in Turkey we actually -- the U.S. actually ended up buying poppy to take it off the market. And, as you know, before recently -- and under the Taliban, the Taliban actually, with very draconian methods, was actually stopping poppy production. So any commentary would be helpful because people in Pakistan, on that side of the border, think it's a crucial issue, and I haven't heard much about it back here in the U.S.

If I could just add a footnote or a question for anybody. Egypt -- none of you mentioned Egypt. Egypt is obviously a very crucial country in that region. We may be on the cusp of a change in Egypt with Mubarak approaching -- and how the U.S. policy towards Egypt, Egypt is going to shape up, it seems that it could be a very crucial issue. Thank you.

SAMORE: Poppies first and then Mubarak.

MARKEY: Sure. There's little doubt in my mind -- I would certainly agree with the Pakistanis that you spoke with, that the opium trade, the poppy business is fueling a lot of the insurgency within Afghanistan, and it's bubbling over into Pakistan, and so it's raising these kinds of concerns.

The problem I have, though, is that when I think of how to combat the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, I tend to want to place it under the broader challenge of insurgency, or fighting the insurgency. I see the counterinsurgency mission as the primary one; the counter-narcotics mission as the secondary one. And what that means is that you don't want to do anything in fighting the narcotics that will make your fight against the insurgency harder.

So a lot of the tools that are available to fight narcotics, especially eradication, including aerial eradication, are, in my opinion, in Afghanistan, likely to be counterproductive in fighting the insurgency. So that's the careful balancing act in our policy that we need to go after.

I also think that Pakistan and Pakistan's efforts against narcotics is quite instructive because Pakistan has done a good job in basically eliminating a lot of the same problems within their own territory. And the solution that I see that worked in Pakistan had everything to do with being able to control the territory. The point is that the problem in Afghanistan is inadequate government capacity to control its own territory. Getting to that point is goal both in terms of fighting the insurgency and fighting poppy. Anything short of that is likely to fail on both counts.

COOK: Well, thanks for the question on Egypt. Since I'm writing a book about the United States and Egypt, it's right in my wheelhouse. Let me start out by saying that, you know, we spend a lot of time thinking about the deaths of Arab leaders for a long time before they die. Hafez al-Assad, there was a deathwatch for him for at least 20 years. And a friend of mine in Egypt reminded me that it is believed that Hosni Mubarak's father lived to 105, so that means we've got another 24 years, if the genes tell us anything about the health of the Mubarak family. But, that being said, it's a very important issue, and the succession issue has been on the minds of Egyptians for at least 10 years because there is no clear successor. There is a constitutional line of succession but there is no clear successor to President Mubarak.

And what we are seeing in Egypt, particularly the kind of turn inward and the return of the state after a couple of years of more open politics, in which there's been a widespread crackdown in repression, is really the opening act in the post-Hosni Mubarak drama, and there are any number of scenarios about who might succeed him. The leading -- obviously the most publicly available indicators would suggest that the president's second son, Gamal Mubarak, would succeed him, but there is no reason to believe that that is a done deal. Nobody knew who Gamal Abdel Nasser was until he became the strong man behind the Revolutionary Command Council after the coup in 1952.

But what I will say -- I'm not willing to predict whether it's Gamal or some military officer or whomever. I will say, though, that it's clear that whoever comes to power in Egypt after President Mubarak passes from the scene will be someone from within the regime, will be within the ambit of the regime. We hear all kinds of scenarios about how the Muslim Brotherhood might take over, Islamists take over, and completely make over Egyptian politics. I don't think that that's the case. But even if this is someone from within the regime, we are probably going to be in for a little bit of a rough ride with the Egyptians initially because it will be -- that person will need to consolidate political power because we'll be facing competitors from a variety of different factions.

And it's easy to beat up on us and the Israelis. So, what I would say, if it comes in the next four to eight years, we will have a moment of real turbulence in the relationship. And there's a lot of friction in the relationship to begin with already, as former Egyptian ambassador to the United States Nabil Fahmy called politely a "mature marriage." And I think that what he was suggesting is something much broader.

In the end, though, I don't expect there to be a tremendous change, either in the U.S.-Egypt relationship or in the nature of Egyptian politics. I think we'll see a lot more of the same.

SAMORE: Yes, Bob Pastor.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Bob Pastor from American University. A question for --

SAMORE: Bob, just stand so everybody can see.

(Off mike discussion, laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Steven Cook, two questions about the Gaza invasion and the aftermath. First is, on the eve of the invasion it was reported that Abu Mazen was going to call for elections for both president and for the Legislative Council. At that time he was ahead in the polls by about 12, 15 points. It suggests now that that may have reversed as the result of the invasion -- just one more tragic irony about the invasion. The question is for the United States and for Mitchell. Should we support, given that his term has ended, free elections in Palestine, and what does that specifically mean with regard to Hamas? Shall we encourage them to participate? Shall we accept if they do participate? Shall we accept the results if they win?

And the second question is about how to make a sturdy ceasefire. Should the U.S. be playing a role in this next round? You could argue in the last ceasefire, the absence of a clear role on the part of the United States allowed a ceasefire agreement to occur in which the Israelis never really acknowledged the elements of the agreement, but that it did in fact work in the sense that from late June until November 4th there were almost no rockets fired from Gaza, but on the Israeli side they did not open up the crossings as they had pledged, and then on November 4th you saw the incursion and then the rockets and the failure to continue it.

So the question is, should Mitchell be directly involved in trying to mediate a new ceasefire in which there would be an agreed text between Hamas and Israel that would be public and that could be, therefore, verified? That would obviously involve direct dealings also with Hamas.

COOK: Great questions all around. And just to your initial comment about Hamas being -- Abu Mazen being up in the polls, one of the compelling factors for Hamas to engage in rocket attacks on Israel is that they do profit from a conflict between themselves and the Israelis. Given the importance of resistance in the identity of Palestinians under occupation, they were bound to derive some political benefit from this. And as I pointed out, they are much stronger than they are.

Let me answer your second question first and then I'll get to your first question, primarily because the second question is easier than the first one and it will give me an opportunity to think about a good answer or a way to snake out of it.

I think that -- I think you're right. I think that the Israelis did not necessarily honor to the letter the ceasefire, and I think that it's incredibly important for the United States to get directly involved in the ceasefire because the situation has changed dramatically. The ceasefire that Omar Suliman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, hammered out last June was predicated primarily on the idea that Hamas, as the strongest faction in the Gaza Strip, would be able to control all the other factions in the Gaza Strip that were firing rockets on the Israelis. That is no longer the case, nor would Hamas have any real interest in restraining other factions.

So what we need to do is -- and I think the logical conclusion here is for -- in the same vein that the president spoke about the conflict in general, and in the same vein that George Mitchell carried out the Mitchell Report, I think it is entirely appropriate to apply pressure on the Israelis in order to do the right thing in terms of border crossings, humanitarian aid, allowing goods and the like into the Gaza Strip. And I think the logical endpoint to this is that there's going to have to be some sort of change in the status in which we deal with Hamas. Hamas is -- remains, even after these three weeks of battering, critically important, probably at this point the most powerful faction in the Palestinian Territories.

And it's not like the Israelis haven't negotiated with Hamas. I mean, after all, what was that negotiation with Omar Suliman? It was a negotiation between the Israelis and Hamas. It's probably not politically fruitful for the administration to come right out of the block and alter longstanding policy on Hamas, but I think in the president's reference to the Arab Peace Initiative from April 2002, it seems to me that that's a much more profitable route for the United States to pursue because you might actually get Hamas to agree to that when you clearly aren't going to get them to agree to the international quartet's demands.

Now, I've spoken long enough to the extent -- Bob, my apologies, I don't remember your first question. If you could just rephrase it very quickly -- (scattered laughter) -- oh, on elections. Should we have elections? You're absolutely right; Abu Mazen's term has run out, so the question is, now what to do? I think that if we wanted to be pure about democracy and the freedom agenda we would say that they've got to go to elections, there have been regularly scheduled elections. But I think that now in the incredibly unsettled environment, neither Fatah nor the Israelis, nor actually, quite frankly, Hamas, will want to go to polls. So I think that that should actually take a backseat. But with a time horizon for Palestinian elections there's going to have to be some sort of change in the way the Palestinians govern themselves. And I think that in order to get to a Palestinian unity government, which seems to be the way in which people are talking -- what the Egyptians are talking about, the Saudis, the Turks, everybody -- there's going to have to be some sort of resolution, and that's going to have to be through elections.

SAMORE: Ambassador Dunkerley?

QUESTIONER: Craig Dunkerley, NESA Center. Gary, I realize it probably wasn't mentioned because of time constraints, but could I invite you and your colleagues to address that other issue in the inbox -- Iran? And more specifically, what advice would you be giving the new administration in going about some sense of engagement with the Islamic republic, given the fact that they are entering their presidential season now, and presumably we would have an interest in not having any new step seen as somehow advantaging particular candidates such as Mr. Ahmadinejad, and without, at the same time, generating a new round of unnecessary suspicions among our friends elsewhere in the Gulf?

SAMORE: Maybe -- thanks for the question. Maybe I'll take that and ask my colleagues if they want to add to it.

You know, the first thing to say, I think, is that the Obama administration may have a stronger bargaining position than President Bush did, in part because of the collapse in oil prices, in part because of the relative stability in Iraq, in part because President Obama may be in a better position to appeal to the Europeans and the Russians and Chinese to support stronger sanctions if Iran rejects a reasonable U.S. offer, and finally in part because the Obama administration I think is going to be less conflicted than the Bush administration was about directly engaging Iran without conditions, starting a broad dialogue, and offering to improve bilateral relations as part of a nuclear deal.

Having said that, on the other hand, Iran is so close to its very deeply held and long-pursued goal of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability -- I would say one or two years away -- that it's going to be very hard to persuade them to stop working on their enrichment program. And it's very clear how the diplomacy is going to shape up. The Iranian -- the obvious Iranian position is we're happy to talk to you, and while we're talking about all these many complicated issues -- nuclear and Iraq and Afghanistan and Arab-Israeli and so forth -- we're going to keep building our centrifuge machines and expanding our enrichment capacity.

I think early on the Obama administration is going to need to propose to Iran that both sides suspend their hostile actions as a way to create space for a truly comprehensive effort to resolve issues, and in that kind of double suspension, the U.S. would suspend sanctions which the Bush administration has already put in place, and the Iranians would suspect enrichment activities, and however long that double suspension lasted, there would be a true negotiation to see if these many difficult issues could be resolved. So I think we'll actually find out pretty soon whether or not the Iranians are prepared to accept that offer. I think within this year that will become apparent.

Now, you asked about the tactical question of whether to wait or not. I don't think we can afford to wait. I think Iran is moving ahead so quickly that we should at least try to find a way to engage Iran without helping Ahmadinejad take credit for bringing the Americans to the bargaining table. And I guess the way to do that is to try to make a direct approach to the Supreme Leader, who is, after all, the most important figure in terms of making decisions on foreign and defense policy. So I think, just tactically, it would make sense to try to have a representative of President Obama meet with a representative of the Supreme Leader and see if they could begin a dialogue.

But however we do it, as I say, I think very early on it's going to become apparent whether Iran is prepared to stop working on their nuclear program as a basis for having a real negotiation, or whether they're intent on basically delaying while they acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

Do you guys want to add?

COOK: Just one quick thing on that. I think that, picking up on what Gary said about the long-held desire to pursue nuclear development, I think that we should engage with the Iranians, and I think we should do so quickly, but I don't think we should -- we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that this engagement will somehow arrest Iran's nuclear development. I think what is needed actually is some more thinking -- and this is an appeal -- some more thinking about how we deter and contain the Iranians because it seems likely that they are going to develop the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Whether they stop just beforehand or not, they will have that capability, and I think it requires some serious and creative thought about how we deter and contain them as opposed to arresting that development.

SAMORE: Thank you. Yes, sir, here in the second row.

QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt. My question is for Steven Cook. In your opening comments you mentioned the problem of settlements. Could you elaborate on this issue? Could you, for example, tell us what scenario could possibly unfold in which the majority of the settlements would be dismantled as part of a final resolution to the problem, particularly if Netanyahu should become prime minister? How do you see the issue unfolding?

COOK: Well, I think that there's the rub, and that's the problem. You know, with all the diplomatic pageantry that went along with the Annapolis summit and then the subsequent process, if you were standing out there in the West Bank you would not really -- it wouldn't make sense to you, those rounds of negotiation and that diplomatic effort because the infrastructure of settlement and the infrastructure of development has advanced so far that it makes it difficult to see how the Israelis can do it. Never mind the fact that it's infrastructure. You can leave infrastructure behind. That's what the Israelis did in Gaza. There's 255,000 people that live in the West Bank. That's not including the 180-or-so-thousand who live in what the Israelis refer to as "expanded" Jerusalem and the Arabs refer to as "occupied" Jerusalem.

So how is it they do it? It took a year's worth of planning and almost a month to get 7,500 people out of the Gaza Strip. How do you deal with 255,000 people? It seems extraordinary difficult, and obviously if a government comes to power that's not amendable to the negotiation process, it is going to be that much more difficult.

But, to their credit, I think that there are groups within the Israeli national security establishment who have thought about, how do you bring people back beyond the wall? And their argument is that the wall actually only takes up about 8 percent of the territory, which is technically true but the Israelis have done a variety of other things that further fragment the territory. They seem to believe that this is ultimately doable, that you have vast numbers of these people who can be enticed by financial incentives to bring them back across the Green Line or to the other side of the wall. Those people really aren't the problem. It's the people who were rioting in Hebron and Kiryat Arba and all these places that are well beyond the wall that are going to create havoc -- havoc should an Israeli government want to really bring large numbers of settlers back across the line.

So it is, again -- I start out where I -- this is an extraordinarily complicated issue. And, of course, you know, when the Mitchell Report called for a freeze of settlements, even the word "freeze" is subject to debate. What freeze means to me may be different from what freeze means to you; Israeli settlers, it may be different from what the government believes or may be different from what the Palestinians believe. So this is, as I said, enormously complicated, and the odds of achieving that in four or eight years are slim. But I do think that in principle -- in principle -- the Obama administration can make a tremendous difference by making a bold statement that the occupation must end full stop.


QUESTIONER: : Yes, I'm Julia Polaris (sp) with the U.S. State Department. The Washington Post announced today that India plans to build a road from Afghanistan to an Iranian port, and I wanted to know if someone could comment on the impact of India's presence in Afghanistan and how that will play out between India and Pakistan, and what impact that may have on our relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thank you.

SAMORE: Why don't you start, Dan?

MARKEY: Actually, if I read it correctly, I think the situation is that the Indians completed the road, and they've been very actively involved in infrastructure development of certain types within Afghanistan, and I think probably have played a very constructive role there, literally and figuratively, because the Indians have a lot to offer. The problem has been that the Indian involvement, even at what would seem to be a relatively innocuous level of building roads, is perceived by many Pakistanis as an effort -- an Indian effort to encircle them. And so there has been a lot of concern on Pakistan's side that India not become more heavily involved in Afghanistan, and certainly not become involved in any way that would include Indian boots on the ground, meaning troops or trainers or others involved in assisting the Afghan National Security Forces. So that's the underlying challenge there.

I would say that India still has a great deal more to offer in Afghanistan, not just building roads of physical infrastructure, but what I would call maybe intellectual infrastructure or education and training, particularly for the Afghan Civil Service. There's a lot that India can offer that may be more applicable to Afghans -- Afghan public officials than even what the United States can offer. There are a lot of parallels between the way that Indians work in their civil service and the way that the Afghans can work, and I think there's a lot that can be done there.

And I would suggest that those are the ways that India can be very helpful without raising hackles in Pakistan and ultimately proving counterproductive in ways of bringing more of a military presence into Afghanistan might do.

BIDDLE: Just a brief word, in that it strikes me as an interesting example of the way in which the development undertaking takes on a very different cast in the context of an insurgency in the war than it does under other more normal circumstances. I mean, in many respects, economic development in a place like Afghanistan at the moment is a means rather than an end. The central end here has to be political realignment of enough of the Afghan population to end the war.

There tends to be an assumption among some part of the counterinsurgency community that development per se is a central way of going about that. In a sense a rising economic tide lifts all boats, moderates all conflict, makes a resolution easier. I'm skeptical of that argument in general, and in particular with respect to the Indian role, for example, in sort of generic development projects and infrastructure progress within Afghanistan, if the central requirement -- not just politically and strategically but also in humanitarian terms -- is end the shooting and stop the war, there are ways in which development projects can actually make things worse rather than better, for example if they're carried out by the Indian government in a way that causes the Pakistanis to be substantially less cooperative with respect to stopping infiltration.

The tendency among many to see development as an end, which in much of the world it is, rather than as means, which in a counter-insurgency context it has to be, can lead to some very inefficient and in some ways counterproductive development activities. And I think the challenge in a counterinsurgency context is to tie development into a political military strategy for realigning the population and ending the war, and especially in a situation where there are as many cooks in the kitchen, as complicated a command structure, and as many set of actors as we've got in Afghanistan, that's very, very hard to do.

SAMORE: We only have a few minutes left so I'll ask everybody to try to be brief. Yes, sir, you're next on my list.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Sam Speevy (sp). A quick request for elaboration on Steve Cook's response to the question about settlements. In the post-inauguration coverage that gauged Arab and Muslim reaction to Obama's inauguration, sort of the one pessimistic note that was sounded, or the common theme that was sounded, had to do with support for Israel, that Obama would continue in the established tradition of American presidents and sort of hold the line. I'm just wondering, based on preliminary discussion and the people that are sort of forming the brain trust in the foreign policy circle, are we at a point where the doctrine of U.S. policy towards Israel will get a look, or are we looking at more or less continuation of the previous historical theme?

COOK: Well, I think that U.S. support for Israel is a permanent feature of American foreign policy, and when I talk to my Arab friends and my Arab interlocutors I'm very clear about that. Free flow of oil from the region, Israel's security, and preventing another power from dominating the region are the three kind of permanent features of American interests in the region.

That being said, I think you can look at some of the things that Candidate Obama said and now President Obama has said only in the course of a couple days which kind of signal that there is a different approach. First, during the campaign, AIPAC speech aside, the president did say that you can be a supporter of Israel but not support a Likud line on support for Israel. And I think that that was quite important because the perception was that -- particularly in the Bush administration -- that they were particularly supportive of a worldview that is held by the right end of the spectrum in Israeli politics.

And then, secondly, I was struck yesterday that while the president reiterated traditional American support for Israeli security and reiterated his belief that no country could absorb the kinds of attacks that the Israelis had been absorbing without responding legitimately, he did forcefully speak out about the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians and reconstruction of the Palestinians. He did mention Palestinian Authority, which I think was clear mention of Abu Mazen and Mahmoud Abbas, which at least initially there will be continued, you know, exclusive focus on the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank.

But I think that there is an opportunity -- as far as the brain trust and what they are thinking, they haven't really asked me; I'm just reading the tea leaves based on presidential statements and some of the things that have happened over the course of the last not even 72 hours.

SAMORE: Okay, we'll try to squeeze in two more. Yes, sir?

QUESTIONER: Hi, I'm Bob Dreyfuss. Gary, I wanted to ask you about your double suspension idea because I don't remember that being part of Obama's campaign discussion on Iran. He said unconditional talks with Iran, not double suspension talks. So I would suspect they could drag on for a year or two until they come to some resolution, and I'm not sure what the hurry is.

And then I wanted to ask Stephen if we can get out of Iraq without Iran's cooperation because Iran is so deeply involved there.

SAMORE: Well, I should have been more clear. I think you can start unconditional talks, you can start a dialogue, you can talk about what the agenda of such a dialogue would be and how you'd organize what will be a very complicated discussion. I mean, between the U.S. and Iran there is a tremendous list of very contentious issues. There may be some issues of common interest, like stopping drug trade out of Afghanistan, but most of the issues on the list are pretty contentious, including nuclear, including Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and, you know, even questions about the structure of power in the Persian Gulf.

But I think you can start that discussion unconditionally, and I actually expect the Obama administration will. My point was that fairly early on in that process I expect that the Obama administration will try to slow down or suspend Iran's enrichment program in exchange for suspending sanctions. Otherwise, one of the main issues of the discussion, which is Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, will be resolved by facts on the ground rather than negotiations. So I'm only talking about what seems to me as the logical position that the U.S. is bound to take, and the logical position the Iranians are bound to take is we're happy to talk forever as long as we can keep building centrifuges.

And so I'm saying, fairly early on I think that issue will arise in the U.S.-Iranian discussion, and we'll learn soon whether or not, as I talked about, the change in circumstances -- collapse in oil prices, Iraq and so forth -- whether that may have persuaded Iran's leaders, even if for only tactical reasons, to accept some temporary suspension while they talk to the United States.

BIDDLE: With respect to Iran and Iraq, there is actually a very sizable overlap in Iranian interests with respect to Iraq and ours. It's an overlap that hasn't been very salient in the public discussion of Iraq over the last several years, but the Iranians do not want chaos on their border any more than we want chaos in Iraq. Now, our ideal preferred outcome and Iran's ideal preferred outcome are different, and that difference in the best -- the perceived best case on our part and theirs, has driven a lot of the conflict between the United States and Iran over Iraq.

The way events have been unfolding in Iraq, though, since late 2007 certainly, is in a sense taking both of our best cases off the table, in all likelihood. We are probably not going to get the Eden on the Euphrates, Jeffersonian democracy in Baghdad that some in America would have hoped for. The Iranians may very well get stuck with an Iraqi government that's much more nationalist and much less pliable with respect to Iranian preferences than they would like.

So to the extent that we and Tehran both end up, for a collection of idiosyncratic reasons, looking at second-best outcomes in Iraq, I think there's actually a fairly significant potential there for some degree of cooperation with respect to this outcome, and especially when the context of this is a U.S. drawdown, which is something the Iranians have sought all along.

And getting back to the underlying point that the Iranians don't want chaos on their border more than we want chaos in the Persian Gulf, a really precipitous U.S. withdrawal isn't particularly in Iran's interests either. They don't want permanent U.S. bases, they don't want a permanent U.S. military presence, but neither do they want the United States bugging out in a way that causes a rekindling of a civil war and mayhem across their border.

I think in the context of second-best solutions and a U.S. presence that's getting smaller rather than bigger, I think there's actually more ground here for U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Iraq policy than there has been in quite a while if it's exploited properly.

SAMORE: Okay, very quickly, Spurgeon, last question, and then we'll have to break. I'm sorry.

QUESTIONER: Spurgeon Keeny. In view of the fact that I think there's a broad consensus that a two-state solution is the way to go in the Israel-Pakistan (sic) problem, how the panel reacted to the op-ed a day or two ago allegedly by Qadaffi, attacking a two-state solution as being unjust and inevitable a failure, and calling for a single state solution. And I ask it, taking in mind that the strong opposition to the proposals in Iraq to solve their problems with a three-state solution, and maybe more significantly the U.S.'s own decision in the middle of the 19th century to go for a single state as opposed to a two-state solution, despite the fact that it led to a civil war and a century of resolving the inherent problems involved.

SAMORE: Steven, that's yours.

COOK: Well, this question of a single state is anathema to, I would hazard to say, 99 percent of Israelis. There are folks on the fringes who would welcome a bi-national democratic state, but a single-state solution would undermine the basic tenets of modern Zionism, and I think that Israelis would resist it at all costs.

That being said, it is important to understand that the idea of a two-state solution is being chipped away on both sides. Palestinian elites are increasingly looking at the situation in the West Bank, looking at the situation in Jerusalem, and coming to the conclusion that the Israelis really have no intention of ceding territory to them that makes their own state viable.

And on the Israeli side, particularly in the right wing of the political spectrum, they are talking about three-state solutions, an elaborate set of land swaps that would essentially Judaize Israel, carving out corridors in Sinai to compensate Palestinians for the land that the Israelis have now essentially expropriated in the West Bank. The problem with those proposals is that they are proposals in a vacuum. They have no input from the other side and they can't be implemented without the other side. President Qadaffi has gone from terrorist to ally of sorts, a sort of colorful character, but I don't think we can take any of this very seriously.

SAMORE: Well, we could obviously go on much longer talking about these issues, but I'm afraid we'll have to break. And I'm sure that none of these problems will go away. We'll have plenty of chance in the future. I'd like to ask all of you to join me in thanking our speakers. (Applause.)






More on This Topic