Chris Murphy on the Roots of Radical Extremism
A Conversation with Chris Murphy
U.S. Senator (D-CT)
Staff Writer, New Yorker
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) joins the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson to discuss the situation in the Middle East. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Murphy focuses in on the war against extremism: its current standing, U.S. shortcomings, and potential plans of action for the future. While employing provocative arguments, Sen. Murphy laments the United States' short-term focus in the region and proposes a series of long-term resolutions, including a frank discussion on the perversion of Islam by terorirst organizations, a reevaluation of U.S.-Saudi relations, and the underlying role that pervasive poverty and illiteracy have played in radicalizing the region.
DAVIDSON: Hi. Welcome to today’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, with Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. You all have the senator’s biography, so I’ll just keep this very short and ask the senator to come up for a few remarks that he has before we start the conversation. Thanks so much.
MURPHY: Well, thank you very much, Amy. Thank you to Richard and to the Council for having me here today. This is my first visit to CFR. I’ve been a member of the Foreign Relations Committee now for three years and was a member of a similar committee in the House as well, so I’ve been not only a great admirer of the membership here and the work that you produce, but also someone who has, I think, greatly benefitted from the products that come from the Council on Foreign Relations. And so I jumped at the opportunity to come here and speak with you. I know there are a lot of friends and a lot of connections to Connecticut here as well.
I wanted to spend my time making a very specific pitch to you about some very uncomfortable truths that we have to deal with in our war against extremism. And then I think that Amy and I will get to broaden the conversation when we sit down. And so let me take a few moments to make my argument to you.
I would be a rich man if I had a quarter for every time that I’ve listened to my Republican colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee utter some variation of the sentence: President Obama doesn’t have a strategy to defeat ISIS. It’s their calling card on the committee. It’s also their calling card, as you saw last night in the debate. But it’s not true. The president does have a strategy to defeat ISIS. And it is largely working on the ground today. ISIS’ territory in Iraq and Syria has been reduced by 30 percent over the last year. We’ve tightened our immigration policies to make sure the bad guys don’t get in. We’ve stood up a more capable fighting force in Iraq, we’ve squeezed their financing networks. Now, it’s hard to win when only one spectacular and deadly strike can erase all of your good work, but the president does have a strategy.
The problem is—and this is what I want to talk to you about today—the problem is it is still a short-term strategy. What I want to say today is that one of the reasons that really no one has a particularly credible long-term strategy is that having one would involve some very uncomfortable truths being talked about, about the nature of the fight ahead of us and about the imperfections of one of our most important allies in the Middle East. And so to make this case to you, I want to bring you to a small town in northwest Pakistan, and ask you to imagine for a moment that you’re a parent of a little boy there. You’re illiterate, you’re poor, you’re getting poorer by the day, unemployment in your village is sky high, inflation is making everything unaffordable, your crop yields have been terrible.
And one day, you get a visit that changes your perspective. A cleric from a nearby conservative mosque offers you a different path. He tells you that your poverty is not your fault, but simply a punishment handed down to you because of your unintentional deviation from the true path of Islam. And luckily, there’s a way to get right with God, to devote your son’s life to Islam. And it gets even better, because the cleric’s going to educate your son in his own school, we call them madrassas, and not only will not you not have to pay for the education, he’ll actually pay you—sometimes as much as $6,000. And when your son finishes school he’ll get employment in the service of Islam. Your 10-year old, previously destined to lead a life possibly more hopeless than yours, is now going to get free housing and meals, religious instruction, a promise of a job when he’s older. And you’re going to get money and improved favor with God.
And so for thousands of families in destitute places like northwest Pakistan, it’s a pretty easy choice. But as you go on, you lose contact with your son. Gradually, the school cuts off your access to him. When you do see him, now and again, he’s changing. And then one day it’s over. He’s not the little boy you once knew. He’s a teenager, announcing to you that the only way to show true faith to Islam is to fight for it against the kafir, the infidels who are trying to pollute the Muslim faith, and against the Westerners who are trying to destroy it. He tells you that he’s going off to Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iraq with some fellow students, and that you shouldn’t worry about him because God is on his side.
And you start asking questions to find out, well, what happened at this school? And you start to learn. You discover the textbooks that he read, that taught a brand of Islam greatly influenced by something called Wahhabism, a strain of Islam based on the earliest form of religion practiced by the first four caliphs. It holds that any deviation from Islamic originalism is heresy. In school, your son was therefore taught an ideology of hate towards unbelievers. Now, these are Christians, Jews, Hindus, but also Shiites, Sufis, and Sunni Muslims who don’t follow the Wahhabi doctrine. He’s told that the Crusades never ended that, aid organizations, schools, government offices, they’re the modern weapons of the West’s continuing crusade against his faith, and that it’s a religious obligation to do battle against the infidels.
I tell you this story because, as you know, some version of it plays out hundreds of times every day in far-flung places, from Pakistan to Kosovo, from Nigeria to Indonesia—the teaching of an intolerant version of Islam to hundreds of millions of young people. In 1956, there were 244 madrassas in Pakistan. Today there are 24,000. So these schools are multiplying all over the globe. And don’t get me wrong, these schools, by and large, they don’t teach violence. They aren’t the minor leagues for extremist groups. But they do teach a version of Islam that leads very nicely into an anti-Shia, anti-Western militancy. And I also don’t try to make the case here today that Wahhabism is the only sect of Islam that can be perverted into violence. Iran’s Shia’s clerics also use religion in order to export violence into Syria, and Iraq, and Lebanon. But it’s important to note that Americans know by name are Sunni in derivation, and are greatly influenced by Wahhabi Salafist teachings.
And of course, the real rub is that we’ve known this. We’ve known it for a long, long time. Secretaries of state, ambassadors, diplomats, four-star generals, they’ve all complained over and over again about it. And yet, we do very little to stop this slow spread of intolerance. And we don’t address it because to do so would cause us to confront two very difficult issues. The first is how we talks sensibly about Islam. Right now, we are caught between two extremes. Leading Republicans want to begin and end this discussion with a debate over just simply what we call terrorists. And of course, their party’s leading candidate for president, Donald Trump, equates the entire religion with violence. The debate over nomenclature is overwrought, but I certainly understand the problem of labeling something radical Islamic terrorism, giving purchase to Trump’s unforgivable argument that all Muslims are radicals or terrorists. Republicans don’t want to seem to go any deeper into the conversation than just a simple labeling of the threat.
But Democrats also have to look inward as well. The leaders of my party do backflips to avoid using these kind of terms, but that ends up forestalling any conversation about the fight within Islam for the soul of the religion. It’s a disservice in the debate for Republicans to simply brand every Muslim as a threat to the West, but it’s also a disservice for Democrats to refuse to acknowledge that though ISIS has perverted Islam to a degree that is unrecognizable, the seeds of that perversion are rooted in a much more mainstream version of the faith that derives in substantial part from the teachings of Wahhabism. Leaders of both parties should avoid the extremes of this debate, and enter into a real conversation about how American can help win the moderate voices within Islam, help them win out over those who would sow the seeds of extremism.
And let me give you an example. Last fall I visited the Hedayah Center in Abu Dhabi, which is a U.S.-supported, Arab-led initiative to counterprogram against extremism messaging. And when I pressed the center’s leadership on the need to confront Wahhabi teaching and these roots of extremism, they blanched. They said it was out of their lane, they told me. They were focused on the branches of extremism, not the trunk. But of course, by then it’s often too late. Now, America doesn’t have the moral authority by ourselves to tip the scales in the fight between moderate Islam and less-tolerant Islam. Muslim communities and Muslim nations need to be the leading edge of this fight, but America, and most notably sometimes the leaders of my party, we can’t afford to just shut our eyes to the struggle that’s playing out in real time throughout the Muslim world.
And so that brings me to my second uncomfortable truth, and I present it to you in a quote from Farah Pandith, who was President Obama’s former special representative to Muslim communities. In a moment of candor, she commented on the over 60 countries that she has visited as part of her official position. She said: In every place that I visited, the Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence, funded by Saudi money. The second uncomfortable truth is that for all of the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side to Saudi Arabia than the one that faces us in our bilateral relationship, and it is a side that we can no longer afford to ignore as our fight against Islamic extremism becomes more focused and more complicated.
Now, first, let me acknowledge that there is a lot to like about our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Now, I don’t agree with the cynics who just say that our relationship is an alliance to facilitate the exchange of oil for cash and cash for weapons. Our common bond, it was formed back in the Cold War, when American and Saudi leaders found common ground in the fight against communism. The Saudis helped the U.S. ensure that the Russians never really got a meaningful foothold in the Middle East. The unofficial détente between Sunni nations and Israel, our most important ally in the region, is in part a product of Saudi-led diplomacy. There have been many high-profile examples of deep U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the fight against al-Qaida and ISIS. And more generally, our partnership with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful, richest country in the Arab world, it serves as an important bridge to the Islamic community. It’s a testament to the fact that we seek cooperation and engagement with governments in the Middle East, and it’s a direct rebuttal of the terrorist ideology that asserts that we seek war with Islam.
But increasingly, there are more and more things not to like about the state of our relationship. The political alliance between the house of Saud and the conservative Wahhabi clerics is as old as the nation. The alliance has resulted in billions funneled to and through the Wahhabi movement. Those 24,000 religious schools in Pakistan, thousands of them are funded by money that originates in Saudi Arabia. According to some estimates, since the 1960s the Saudis have funneled over $100 billion into funding schools and mosques all over the world, with the mission of spreading puritanical Wahhabism. As a point of comparison, researchers estimate that the Soviet Union spent only about $7 billion exporting its communist ideology from the entire period running from 1920 to 1991. Less funded—less-well-funded governments and other strains of Islam, they just can’t keep up with this tsunami of money.
Now, rightfully, we engage in daily castigations of Iran for sponsoring terrorism throughout the region. But why has Saudi Arabia been largely immune from direct public criticism from political leaders simply because they are a few degrees separated from the terrorists who are often inspired by the ideology their money helps to spread? And why do we say virtually nothing about the human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia, fueled by this conservative religious movement, when we so easily call out other countries for similar outrageous behavior?
So we need to have a reckoning with the Saudis. But it also needs to be on a second topic, and that’s their increasing proxy war with Iran. There is more than enough blame to go around in assessing the damage done by the widening Saudi-Iranian fault lines in the Middle East. And I’d argue that the lion’s share of fault lies with the Iranians. It’s been the Iranians who have destabilized places like Lebanon and Iraq. It’s the Iranians that are propping up a murderous regime in Damascus. But in the wake of the Iran nuclear agreement, there are many in Congress who would have the United States double down in our support for the Saudi side of this fight in places like Yemen and Syria, simply because Saudi Arabia is our named friend and Iran is our named enemy.
But the Middle East doesn’t work like that anymore. And there’s growing evidence that our support for Saudi-led military campaigns in places like Yemen are prolonging humanitarian misery and aiding extremism. Ninety billion dollars in U.S. arms sales to the Saudis have helped Saudi Arabia carry out a campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Our government says that it’s top priority in Yemen is defeating AQAP, which is arguably al-Qaida’s deadliest franchise. But this ongoing chaos, it’s created a security vacuum in which AQAP can thrive and can actually expand. No expert would dispute that since the Saudi campaign began, al-Qaida has expanded in Yemen, and ISIL has gained a new terrorist and recruitment foothold. And to make matters worse, Saudi Arabia and some of their GCC allies are so focused on the fight against Iran in Yemen that they have dramatically scaled back, or in some cases completely abandoned, their military effort against ISIS.
So how, under these circumstances, does military support for these campaigns help us in our fight against extremism? So my recommendation here is simple. The United States should suspend supporting Saudi Arabia as the military campaign in Yemen, at the very least until we get assurances that this campaign does not distract from the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida, and until we make some progress in the Saudi export of Wahhabism. And Congress shouldn’t sign off on any more military sales to Saudi Arabia, until similar assurances are granted. If we are serious about constructing a winning strategy to defeat ISIS and al-Qaida, then our horizons, they do have to involve a strategy that looks beyond just the day-to-day, the here and now, the fight in Iraq and Syria.
And we need to admit that there is a fight for the future of Islam, that we can’t just sit on the sidelines of that. Both parties in Washington need to acknowledge this reality. And we need to talk reasonably about how the U.S. can engage with moderate forces. And we need to be careful about not just blindly backing our friends plays in conflicts that simply create more instability, more political and security vacuums into which ISIS and other extremism groups can fill, like what’s going on in Yemen today. Tackling intolerant ideologies, refusing to incentivize destabilizing proxy wars, these are the elements of a long-term anti-extremist strategy. And we should pursue this strategy, even if it makes us, on occasion, very uncomfortable.
Thank you for giving me the time to lay this argument out to you. I know we will get to—cover a lot of other topics in our time on the stage, but it really has been my honor to join with the Council on Foreign Relations today. Thank you very much for having me. (Applause.)
DAVIDSON: Thank you. That was so provocative. I’ll just start with a few questions, since I think the other people are going to have a lot of questions too. Maybe let’s start with the image that you introduced, of that teenager in Pakistan. And I wonder how that teenager in Pakistan imagines us. I was really struck by something you said about the U.S. not having the moral authority to really jump into this conversation. It’s hard for an American to hear that we might—that our moral goodwill wouldn’t be axiomatic. Why don’t we have that? What cost us that? And how can we get it back?
MURPHY: So my remarks were already much longer than they should have been, but there’s a whole nother section of those remarks that can be very self-critical of the United States in assessing the blame that we have for, you know, losing that potential to have moral authority. Listen, in Pakistan it comes from a variety of reasons, right? We are perceived to have destabilized that entire region through our ill-thought-out invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. I supported it, but it certainly didn’t go the way that we had hoped. Our drone campaign, which is killing way more civilians on an annual basis than it is intended targets robs us of moral authority. And then our inability to funnel aid dollars in a way that doesn’t just simply feed corruption in Afghanistan robs us of that authority as well.
And so I want to make it clear that I think there are limited ways in which the U.S. can be the leading edge of this fight to try to help the moderates win out in this battle for the future of Islam. But we do need to be self-critical in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but for a whole different set of reasons in the Middle East as well. And though we do send a lot of money to try to set up parallel structures of education in a place like Pakistan, we also need to come to grips with the fact that it is a pittance compared to what we used to spend. In 1950, we were spending 3 percent of our GDP on foreign aid, helping to rebuild our friends and enemies throughout Europe and Asia. Today, we’re spending 0.1 percent of our GDP on foreign aid. And it just can’t match that hundred-billion-dollar commitment that’s being spun off by the Saudis. And so it’s not just about spending money more effectively, it’s actually about spending more money in places like the one I described in Pakistan.
DAVIDSON: Although, you mentioned that the spending of money in Afghanistan had not gone—had, in a way, contributed to this. So but what you also seem to be saying is that it’s not just a matter of hating our freedom or assuming that we’re crusaders, or us spending girls to school. There are things that we might need to change to win this argument.
MURPHY: Listen, there’s a certain amount of this trumped-up war between East and West that we can’t do anything about, right? But there certainly are many that are in our control. And we are in a pickle now in the Middle East where we need the daily cooperation of the Saudis to fight ISIS, but we need to acknowledge that the way in which we’ve conducted ourselves in the Middle East, with the invasion of Iraq, gave rise to ISIS in the first place. So I think that—
DAVIDSON: I’m imaging a Muslim-American teenager in Minnesota or in Brooklyn. How would you present this conversation to that young person? And is it a different debate? Is that a different kind of conversation than the one with sort of radical jihadism abroad?
MURPHY: You know, I think that one of the most frustrating aspects of the fight against extremism has been our inability to identify one simple pathway to radicalization. And we still don’t have a great handle on all of the factors that contribute to an individual deciding ultimately to go and join a group like ISIS or al-Qaida. But what we do know in places like Europe, is that the ghettoization of Muslim communities, the ostracization and isolation of those communities make them much more liable and pliable to that messaging.
And so in the United States, if we talk about that Muslim-American teenager in Minneapolis, what is most dangerous is the rhetoric that’s coming out of the highest levels of the presidential campaign that could have the capacity to sort of self-isolate these populations, make them believe some online sermon that they hear about the East at war with the West, because that’s exactly what it sounds like the people running for president are saying as well. We have been pretty good in building a large prophylactic against radicalization in this country because of our success in assimilation. We’re at a moment now where we could be reversing a lot of that important historical progress.
DAVIDSON: Well, isn’t this sort of the tricky part of your first uncomfortable truth, that, you know, you mentioned the two extremes, the Donald Trump saying no Muslim should enter the United States and Hillary Clinton being reluctant to use the phrase radical Islamic terror. Are those really sort of the same distance from the center in terms of extreme. And now do you take part in the conversation you want to have started when there’s a pressure to address other things that are being said that could, as you say, lead to radicalization of young Americans?
MURPHY: Yeah, right, I think you’re right, that the two positions that I’m laying out are not necessarily on the same end of one—you know, of one long line. But they do represent how easily overly simplified this debate gets. And what I’m suggesting is that we need to take the time to have a conversation in Washington about the panoply of experience in the Muslim world, and that there are insidious influences that are funded by our friends that we don’t have to accept as inevitable. And I think—and again, my criticism of my party is that we are so afraid of entering into a debate on Islam, because we think that by doing so we will immediately fall victim to this paranoia about Muslim terrorists, that we are—that we are missing a big part of the strategy. And I can’t tell you that we will be able to successfully block that line, but I don’t think that the acceptable fallback is to not try.
DAVIDSON: Now, you talked about our friends. This is your other uncomfortable truth. Why don’t the Saudis listen to us? I mean, we’ve had this long, strong relationship. Why is it so hard? Are we not asking? Are we not asking in strong enough terms? Why don’t they love us?
MURPHY: Well, I mean—(laughs)—well, you know, I think that we are—we are still rooted in a relationship with the Saudis that is dependent on the energy transaction, which is simply not as important today than it was 20 years ago. And so I think for a very long time, though we raised this as an objection, we largely turned our heads because we know ultimately that we couldn’t walk away from the economic relationship we had with the Saudis. It’s still important today, but it’s not as important. Secondarily, we were never in a position to try to hedge our bets in the region contest between the Shia states, Iran-led, and the Sunni states.
Iran was not a player that we could talk to. We had no hope of ever being able to be a bridge. That day is still not here, but it is much closer to being here. And it gives us a moment in which we can say to the Saudis: If you don’t straighten up, don’t expect that we will automatically come to your defense in the conflicts that exist between you and the Iranians, like we may have 10 or 20 years ago. We are in a position in part because of the Iran nuclear deal, in part because of the fact that we have some people in Tehran that we can talk to, to drive a little bit harder bargain with the Saudis. And I would argue that we should take that opportunity.
DAVIDSON: Now, it’s interesting, in the middle of the talk, the discussions about the Iran nuclear negotiations, one thing one heard from opponents of the deal was: If this deal goes through, the Saudis are going to pursue a nuclear weapon of their own. Have you seen any signs of that? Is that something you are concerned about? Or is that just rhetoric in the context of that particular controversy?
MURPHY: I certainly haven’t seen any signs of it. But I will acknowledge that a flaw of my argument is that there is a legitimate worry that should the United States walk away from its historical role as a military guarantor of Saudi claims in the region, that, A, others may step up to fill that role or, B, they may look to develop capacities that right now they don’t feel they need. So I admit that that is a risk, but the most important thing that you could ever do to stop the Saudis from the pursuit of a nuclear weapon, is to guarantee that the Iranians aren’t going to get one either. And so I think the Iran nuclear agreement, for the time being, has divorced Saudi Arabia from any real intentions to pursue that path.
DAVIDSON: That’s interesting. In terms of something you were just saying, I’m just going to quote something that Ben Carson said at the debate last night.
MURPHY: Please do. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: And I quote, “Putin is a one-horse country, oil and energy.” What I think—
MURPHY: Tell me what you think he said. Tell me what you think he meant. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: Well, what I think the idea of a one-horse country, one-trick pony, and that trick being oil. Is what he’s saying—was saying about Russia, something that you would say about the Saudis, in terms both of their ability to guarantee domestic stability with oil revenue, with their influence in the region? And how does that change when the energy picture changes, as he said, and the oil market changes?
MURPHY: I don’t necessarily think that they’re comparable in a sense that because Russia has this unique asset in the greater Euro-Asia region, they are able to leverage it in a way that the Saudis can’t, because there are lots of other players in their neighborhood that have the same asset. And so the Russians are using their oil as a national security influencer because everybody needs it, whereas in—and they’re doing it particularly with gas, which works in a different means than oil does, with prices set on a world market. So I don’t think it’s necessarily comparable. And I think there’s another set of rules that Russia uses, letting them off the hook as simply an exporter of oil influence, when they are doing all sort of other insidious things.
DAVIDSON: So you don’t agree with Ben Carson’s foreign policy analysis?
MURPHY: I’ll let go—I’ll let it go there. No, but I don’t think you have to worry about Saudi Arabia in the way that you worry about Russia, using their oil to try to push around people in the region, part because they don’t have a monopoly on it.
DAVIDSON: Let me push back on you on one thing. Early in your remarks, when you were talking about the administration’s successes in its Syrian strategy, you said that one sign of the success was that we tightened immigration to keep out more of the bad guys. One might say that a failure of the administration’s strategy is that we’ve tightened them so much, or been so unwilling or so unopen, that we’ve taken so few good guys that—4 million refugees, we’ve taken a couple of thousand. How does that really moral failure, how does that fit into this other larger conversation that you want to have?
MURPHY: So I don’t mean to try to sound like I’m trying to, you know, exist on two sides of the coin, but I don’t think it’s inconsistent for me to say that we have made some appropriate adjustments to immigration policy, where there are security vulnerabilities, like the Visa Waiver Program, while acknowledging that there really weren’t major security vulnerabilities in the refugee program, thus we didn’t need to do major adjustments. And I’ve made a whole separate argument that we should be undertaking a policy to tighten them, just the Visa Waiver Program, knowing the threats that exist in places like Europe today, while at the same time expanding our commitment to bring refugees here, because they are already subject to a vet that is much more rigorous than those who come from Europe.
And if you travel to the region, as many of you do, you will hear consistently from our friends that we are not a true partner in the fight against ISIS, unless we are helping them solve the refugee problem. So I would argue to bring more refugees in because I actually don’t think that that’s a threat to U.S. security, but I have argued for a tightening of other immigration programs, because there are just much less rigorous security screens involved in those.
DAVIDSON: All right. Well, one quick domestic question before we move to members’ questions. You work in the Senate. You work with Ted Cruz in the Senate. Can you help us understand the incredible hostility that people in his own party seem to have towards him, the real expressed dislike? Is it ideology? Is it something else? This seems to be shaping the Republican field, that particular view of him.
MURPHY: You know, I think the strong feelings about Senator Cruz have similar roots in the Republican and Democratic Party, which is his rhetoric sounds demagogueish in a way that we haven’t seen in the Senate in a long time. And I think that—you know, a lot of people talk about, you know, the failure of his personal interactions with his colleagues. I can’t necessarily speak to that. But I think that there is a high level of discomfort from both sides in terms of the way in which he is willing to use his rhetoric to oversimplify big complex problems, and to stir up passions that are legitimate in this country towards ends that are counterproductive.
DAVIDSON: All right. Now let’s open it up to—I want to invite members to join the conversation with their questions. Just a reminder that this meeting is on-the-record. Wait for the microphone. Speak directly into it. And stand and state your name and affiliation. And just a reminder to limit yourself to one question so that we can get as many questions as possible.
Right over here.
Q: Thank you. I find your refreshing common sense. Not being privy to some of the information you may have, I’ve come to these same conclusions.
How many—following on Amy’s question—how many of your colleagues feel the same what that you do? How widespread is this willingness to take a look at these truths? And I would include in that question, how many in the Obama administration, do you think, share these views?
MURPHY: Well, you heard me quote, you know, the president’s chief emissary to Muslim communities state fairly clearly that everywhere she felt this very destructive influence of Saudi-funded Wahhabi teaching. And I would suggest that there are many of my colleagues who feel the same way and who say the same things quietly. And I’m going to give a version of this speech on the Senate floor likely next week, in part because I think that someone needs to voice this sentiment in a very public, very clear way, in a way that may make the Saudis very uncomfortable, but that may—I would argue that when really the rubber hits the road, this is not one, or two, or maybe even three on their priority list, and arguably for good reason. My argument is that it should rise higher in the administration’s list in these conversations, and it should certainly rise higher on our list.
Q: Senator Murphy, good to see you here. I’m Farooq Kathwari from Danbury, Connecticut.
My question is, you know, over here we have a tendency of short-term thinking. You know, we are the strongest, so we forget. But the rest of the world, and especially people you talk about, don’t forget the—you know, I was born in Kashmir. They think they lost their independence yesterday. It was 1586. So they don’t forget. So this question of unintended consequences of our actions, I think it—your perspective on the fact that we should—we should also talk about the fact of, perhaps, some of our mistakes that have been made, and now the steps we are taking to correct them.
And I would just like to say, that is being discussed, because people don’t forget the mistakes. People from what happened in the first World War, what happened in Bosnia when 8,000 Muslims were killed in a camp. We have forgotten, but these folks who talk to them haven’t forgotten. So I wanted to sort of get your perspectives of this shaping the debate in a much broader perspective than the fact that it’s the Saudis and all the things you have said, I agree are appropriate and correct.
MURPHY: Well, what’s shocking to me in my short time in the Congress—I got there in 2007. And by that time, we had largely come to a consensus that the Iraq War was a mistake of some degree, right? Maybe not everyone had come at that point to regret their initial vote, but we knew something had gone very, very wrong. What’s shocking to me is that the hubris that allowed us to believe that we could change that place with largely the blunt force of military power really is built into our political system, and it has not disappeared. And it causes way too many of my colleagues in a place like Syria to believe that the same tools and influencers that did not work in a place like Iraq could work in a place like Syria.
We have this ability to just dream up these scenarios in which everything goes right, in which everything goes just as we should plan. People come to their senses and start working together. And I think that one of my missions on the committee is to remind folks that there is really no history of the United States being able to use military force in order to change political realities on the ground in the Middle East, that we are very bad at trying to change realities in places where the people have not made up their mind for themselves to do it absent American intervention.
And so I fear that we are on the verge of another major mistake. I fear that in our hustle and our paranoia, some of it right-sized, to take out ISIS as quickly as possible, that we are going to commit another large-scale military deployment to that region, or perhaps back into Afghanistan. And while I don’t claim to have an alternative answer on how you quickly root out an organization as insidious as this, I certainly know that that type of redeployment would cause many more problems than it solves.
And so I don’t know if this is answering your question, but these ill-thought-out military campaigns, they last. The bad feelings of them last. The mistake of the Iraq War is hard to fathom in its scope how much damage that did. And the idea that there’s anybody in Washington that’s entertaining doing something on that comparable size anywhere else in the Middle East, it’s shocking to me. And so I think that I am just going to try to be a constant reminder on this committee that no matter how bad things seem there, the hubris that is sort of creeping back into our conversation is even worse.
DAVIDSON: And do you put Yemen in that category as well?
MURPHY: I would. So I would. I mean, one of the—one of the things I’m suggesting here is that the U.S. has gone wrong in its policy to support the Saudis virtually unconditionally in Yemen. There’s almost no result out of Yemen that supports U.S. national security goals. It is a humanitarian disaster that has been made worse by the fairly nonstrategic deployment of Saudi, UAE, and to a certain extent, Qatari assets inside Yemen. Absolutely some of the munitions are falling into the hands of the very people that pose the greatest threat to the United States. And ISIS is now there.
So we have relatively blindly backed our friend’s play there, the Saudis. It’s hard to argue that that has accrued to our benefit. And so I have been probably the most critical member of the Senate about U.S. policy in Yemen. And again, people will say, well, if not this, what? Ultimately, your default can’t be that if you can’t come up with a robust critical nonmilitary solution, that you then default automatically to the military solution. That can’t be the way that our debates play out, but in a place like Yemen and, arguably, in place like Syria, that’s where we are.
Q: I’m David Braunschvig.
To go back to your first story, of the teenager in Pakistan, my question is: Why single out Saudi Arabia? According to the Pakistani government, Qatar contributes five times more to the madrassas in Pakistan than Saudi Arabia. Qatar is very active, contributing to all sorts of causes that we, the United States, oppose, not just with respect to the spread of radical Islam in the Middle East, but in Europe as well. So my question to you is, do you view a change in policy with respect to other players in the Gulf as something that’s part and parcel of your view on Saudi Arabia, or is there a different approach for these Gulf countries?
MURPHY: So I’d be interested to take a look at that data that suggests that there’s more money in some sections of Pakistan from the Qataris than from the Saudis. That certainly don’t match up with both the empirical and anecdotal evidence that I’ve seen. I think the Qataris have gotten much better. We know that two years ago, at the beginning of ISIS’ march through Iraq and Syria, that it was Qatari money being funneled through charitable organizations that was clearly funding their early rise. I think the Qataris to a greater degree than the Saudis have gotten more careful about those funds. I think that’s to be applauded. But I do think in the aggregate, the amount of money coming out of the Saudi operation is a greater threat.
Now, I’m making a specific case on Saudi Arabia today because I think we have been less willing to confront the Saudis than we have the Qataris and others. And so I think that there’s a specific case to be made to rise up that dialogue within the administration. But I don’t dispute your underlying premise, which is that this is certainly not purely a Saudi question. This is a GCC question writ large. I just do hold to the view that the Saudis are the biggest contributor to that line of funding.
Q: Thank you. Jim Hoge.
The Iranian nuclear deal gave rise to the hope that it might lead in addition to its own benefits, to a series of negotiations on other points of conflict in the Middle East. Well, what’s happened since the deal in Iran is that the hardliners are really on a rampage, and have an election coming up in which they’ve pretty much fixed it in advance. They’re not the only ones who aren’t in favor of this agreement. In our own country, we have, particularly in the Republican Party, almost every single major candidate saying that they think it’s a lousy deal. And one of them at least, and I think more than one, has said the first thing he’s going to do in office is to back off of the deal altogether.
My question would be, Chris, how vulnerable do you think this deal is to becoming unraveled? And is there something we are not doing that might shore it up a bit?
MURPHY: Well, you know, you’re certainly right to point out the—you know, the battle that wages inside Iran for influence. And I think you can make a case on both sides of the ledger. The hardliners have certainly scored some wins. They operate—you know, they operate separately in many ways. And so often they can make trouble without actually having to win the argument, because they control certain levers of power autonomously. But you also can’t gloss over the fact that this deal has been implemented according to schedule, that there have been opportunities for the Iranian political infrastructure to upset it, most significantly the vote in their parliament, and it has passed every test.
And so they’re—the moment at which this deal, I think, would be legitimately at risk inside Iran has probably passed. That doesn’t mean that there’s not going to continue to be this battle between the two sides. And I also think, with respect to relations with the United States and in the region, you can make a case both ways as well. So they have certainly ratcheted up their operations in some of these proxy wars, but then you have seen, you know, the successful resolution of the prisoner issue, the relatively successful resolution of the detainee issue, which would suggest that the moderate still are able to control some degree of decision making.
In our country, listen, I just do not believe that any of these Republican candidates are sincere. I think they are absolutely lying through their teeth when they say that they are going to rip up this agreement with us—and Marco Rubio at the top of the list. Marco Rubio knows better. He is not going to rip up this deal when he becomes president, and he knows it.
Q: Hi. My name is Liz Holtzman. And I want to thank you, Senator, for your very thoughtful comments.
I guess my question really reverts to how is your vision going to be realized? Because it seems to me that the U.S., right now, is a puppet on the string of Saudi Arabia. Yemen is one example, but look at what’s happening in Syria. The Saudis don’t want their people to show up at the peace conference, and we just throw up our hands. And so I don’t—I mean, I wish it could happen, because I think it’s been a very nefarious influence. But how is it going to happen? I mean, first, I guess the government has to—the administration has to change its own attitude. But what power do we have really to change Saudi behavior here?
MURPHY: So, the short answer is, I don’t know. And I say that sincerely, in the sense that I wanted to open up this line of argument here, and then develop it in Washington over the course of the next few months, because I think I will have others who will join me. And I think that’s the first step. I mean, frankly, there has been no transparent, open acknowledgement of this problem. Every speech about the Middle East includes sort of a one-off line recognizing this issue. But no one’s really drilled down on it. So my hope is that the first step in changing practice, changing behavior and strategy is a much more open discussion, which maybe the work that I’ll do will cause.
But then I’ve—I’m trying to constantly undercut myself here, but let me acknowledge another weakness of my argument, which is the fight that is real within Saudi Arabia itself for the future of the Saud family and their control over the country. And so I think there will be an element of very smart people in New York and Washington and other places, who will say be careful what you wish for. If you want to get harder—take a harder and tougher line with the Saudis, and the ultimately results in the family losing power, you may be—you may not be happy with what replaces it. And you think the Wahhabis are strong now, imagine a scenario in which they are openly running the government, rather than just being the benefactor of oil money that’s funneled through them.
And so there is something very powerful happening within Saudi Arabia now. There is a coterie of young people that are going to have their say ultimately in the future of that country. So that does argue for being somewhat careful and nuanced in the arguments that I’m suggesting we be louder about, so at to not provide impetus for the tumult before we’re all ready for it.
DAVIDSON: In the be careful what you wish for category, the mention of the militias supported by the Saudis in Syria. You were regretting that Saudi Arabia was more engaged in the Syrian fight. Is there way that they could be a little too engaged, with the wrong people, with forces that might not be so different from al-Qaida or ultimately ISIS?
MURPHY: Well, so I—you know, one of the first things I did when I got to the Senate, was I wrote a—I wrote legislation with Tom Udall and Rand Paul and Mike Lee banning the use of U.S. dollars to fund and train the so-called vetted Syrian moderate opposition, in part because I had seen what had already happened, that our friends who told us that they were working with moderates inside Syria were not working with moderates, and there was no way to untangle the good guys from the kind of bad guys, and the really bad guys. And I just—I think that is such a fine line to walk, that it is impossible for us to ultimately do it. So, yes, I think that’s part of our conversation with them. But I think right now, my chief concern is that we not ourselves get in that business too deep, because if the Saudis are bad at it, we’ll be even worse at it. We don’t have the expertise on the ground.
DAVIDSON: Right there.
Q: Agnes Gund. And I’m a part-time resident of Connecticut, and a fan.
And I wondered, you’ve been cited along with Sherrod Brown from Ohio, for being a person who can work across the aisle. Do you feel you do that? And do you feel there’s any hope in doing that, if it continues to have a Senate and a Congress that are Republican, and there’s a Democratic president?
MURPHY: Well, you know, foreign policy has historically been one of these issues in which you could get the two parties working together. What is unfortunately happening in this election is that Republicans are realizing that if the territory upon which this election is fought is domestic policy, they will likely lose. And so they are going to be very interested in shifting the ground to issues related to national security and foreign policy, which will then disincentivize, over the course of the next 12 months, cooperation between the two parties because there will be an interest, certainly on their side, creating hardened lines in the—in the sand.
I will say, when I speak of my colleagues who quietly share some of the thoughts that I articulated today, there are plenty of them on the Republican side as well. And so it could be that there are going to be Republicans as well as Democrats who might be able to voice some of these—some of these concerns. But, no, on foreign policy, historically it has been a place that you can work together. And I spent most of my first year working on Ukraine policy. I went there three times with John McCain. And we fought and fought and fought, eventually came to a consensus, a bill that we could support to help be a part of the solution in that crisis.
And it was a great example of the two parties coming together. And he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on almost anything in the Middle East, but we were able to find something that we could agree on with respect to Ukraine. But I think those opportunities will be limited between now and November, because I think the other side wants the lines of division on foreign policy and national security to be as clear as possible.
DAVIDSON: In the back there.
Q: Thank you, Senator. My name’s Galen Guengerich. I work on the relationship between religion and public policy and foreign policy. And I must say, that your opening remarks were the most cogent 15 minutes I have heard from the mount of a politician in a very long time, maybe ever. So thank you. (Applause.)
Your story started in Pakistan. And I’d like to ask if you would please return, and comment about the perhaps obvious parallels between our relationship to Saudi Arabia and our relationship to Pakistan. Whether or not it’s true that our time in Afghanistan was spent fighting mostly the wrong enemy, as some people thing, it’s certainly true that Pakistan has been and continues to cause no end of trouble when it comes to things we care about. Could you talk a bit about our overall relationship to Pakistan and whether it should become somewhat more ambivalent? (Laughter.)
MURPHY: Yeah. So I have been—as a student of foreign policy, as someone who’s been, you know, really working on it earnestly only for the last four or five years, this is probably the most troubling and vexing question for me, our relationship for Pakistan, and one in which I, you know, still have not found the right answer. We have committed sizable sums of money, in the multiple billions of dollars. We have conditioned it upon democratic reforms that have moved forward in fits and starts. We have threatened several times to withdraw it and other means of support. And we are constantly hamstrung by the nightmarish reality of what may come should we actually make good on one of those threats.
And so I don’t—I don’t know that there is a way out of that box, which is to say that they are not committed to the kind of democratic and economic reform that would really make our dollars work in a place like South Waziristan or the FATA territories. But you know, when I was in Islamabad three years ago, the Taliban—the Pakistani Taliban was a hundred miles from the capital, was literally sitting on top of the button that gives you access to the nuclear weapons, which causes the United States to say, how on earth could we walk away?
I think it’s just a continued, long, hard, slog. I don’t think that more money would hurt. I really don’t. I think that the more resources you are committing, the more leverage you have and the more good that you can do to counteract some of the bad that gets done. And so I am a—I am a big believer in the fact that we are dramatically under-resourcing, globally, our foreign aid program. And I could make an argument, enough though we spent a lot of it badly in Pakistan, it wouldn’t hurt to spend even more than we do today. You would just get an economy of scale in terms of, for instance, the number of schools you build to compete with the madrassas. Some of them would be corrupt. Some of them wouldn’t. But at least you’d be able to compete.
Q: My name is Masazumi Nakayama, Citgroup.
Senator, I have a question about China, particularly the region’s west end, close to the Middle East. What’s your view on the stability of that Chinese western region?
MURPHY: So I don’t claim to be a China expert. But, listen, I think we are in for a very difficult stretch in China, which is going to first manifest itself in the area of the country you talked about, which has less political stability to begin with. So if you believe that there is a slide coming economically, then you just simply by extrapolation just have to imagine that in places where the economy begins in a worse off place and political instability already has begun to show itself, that you will—that that will be the place that moves in a bad direction the quickest.
That then will inevitably lead to a crackdown, right, which the United States will have to choose our response. And this is going to be—again, this is going to be another incredibly sticky wicket because as the Chinese economy, right, slides and instability grows, the risks to the U.S. economy grow, right? So we will be caught, as we always have been, in this very difficult position in which we want to speak up for human rights, we want to speak up for people who are having their rights taken away, but we understand the fact that that slippery slope economically there leads to one here as well.
Q: A. Q. Khan, the salesman of nuclear weapons technology, remains a national hero in Pakistan. Pakistan is manufacturing nuclear weapons at a great rate. What is to prevent it from selling its nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, or other friendly states?
MURPHY: So what largely—well, what prevents them from doing that is a policy of the Pakistan government not to do that. And I take them at their word that there is their policy. Policies can change at any moment. And so what is our true buffer against that policy changing is the deep integration of U.S. national security personnel into the Pakistan national security infrastructure, thereby creating the argument, in my answer to the previous question, for why we continue to provide military funding and nonmilitary funding, despite the, you know, growing anti-American sentiment of the country, despite the wastefulness of many of those dollars, and of course despite the fact that the security services inside Pakistan have used, either directly or indirectly, U.S. money to kill U.S. soldiers, which is what was happening in Afghanistan. So I think that’s our buffer, ultimately, is a continued relationship that is admittedly very uncomfortable, and sometimes very unsavory.
DAVIDSON: I think we have time for one more super-quick question. David.
Q: David Shuman, Northwoods Capital.
American presidents tend to have libraries built after they leave office. Should they be permitted to raise money from individuals from Saudi Arabia when they build these libraries? And should the redacted portions of the 9/11 Commission Report be unredacted at this point?
MURPHY: I have no idea. I’d have to think about it. No, that’s a great question. It’s a great question. It’s not one that—
DAVIDSON: (Laughs.) Purely hypothetical.
MURPHY: Yeah, no, it’s not one that I should answer—that I should answer too quickly. Listen, there is a—we should speak to the broader revolving door that exists in Washington, D.C. today, in which we pay attention only to behavior while you are in office, though there are quiet deals in place so that people who are leaving government at every level are taken care of when they leave, in a variety of ways, right? The number of former members of Congress who are registered lobbyists is stunning. And so I don’t necessarily have a specific answer to your point, except to say that it is spot-on in terms of this sort of quiet corruption that happens when you wait to get your payday in some way, shape, or form until you’re out of office. And everybody knows that that’s kind of how the thing ends up working. And so it does affect your behavior when you’re in office, because you know the potential of what you could reap when you leave.
So and as to the second—and as to the second question, I think that should be part of our discussion with the Saudis. I think that should be a relevant topic of our discussion with the Saudis and it should be something we discuss with them if they are not willing to make some of the changes that we think are important.
DAVIDSON: Thank you so much.
MURPHY: Thank you.
DAVIDSON: What a great discussion. (Applause.) And thanks for all the great questions.
Foreign Affairs magazine and Syria Deeply held a media call with former U.S. ambassador to Syria Richard W. Murphy, Syria expert and NOW Lebanon columnist Michael Weiss, and CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Richard K. Betts about the current crisis in Syria and the framework to remove and dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program.
Foreign Affairs magazine and Syria Deeply held a media call with former U.S. ambassador to Syria Richard W. Murphy, Syria expert and NOW Lebanon columnist Michael Weiss, and CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Richard K. Betts about the current crisis in Syria and the framework to remove and dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program.