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Handling the Middle East's 'Tectonic' Shifts

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian, Director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 1, 2011

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The United States needs to be on the side of those in the Middle East seeking "fundamental political, economic, and human rights," says Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria and Israel. But during this period of turmoil, which Djerejian sees as the end of the post-colonial period in the region, the United States must "differentiate" its support. Djerejian argues, for example, that while it's appropriate for the United States to help rebels opposing Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, he agrees with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that Libya is not a vital national security interest and that aid should therefore be limited. In Syria, Djerejian thinks President Bashar al-Assad wants to "set his own pace of change." As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Djerejian believes "only a strong American team can come in and bring the parties together and say, 'Look, these are the basic contours of the settlement.' " He cautions that if Israel and the Palestinians both act unilaterally--with Palestinians declaring statehood and Israel annexing major settlements--renewed violence is possible.

What should American priorities be in the current Middle East?

The Middle East is at a historic juncture. We're watching a tectonic shift in the region's political landscape, which therefore requires a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy. There are two basic principles of action that the United States should be following. One is that we must, as the United States of America, be on the side of the arc of history. That means liberty. And by liberty I mean what the protestors who started in Tunisia and Egypt and have spread elsewhere in the Middle East are seeking. They're asking for their fundamental political, economic, and human rights. One of the major characteristics of what's happening is that this is a grassroots movement coming from the ground up. This is not a movement initiated by Islamic radicals or any other single party or faction. What we are also witnessing is what could be called the true end of the post-colonial period of the Middle East.

This is not a movement initiated by Islamic radicals or any other single party or faction. What we are witnessing is what could be called the true end of the post-colonial period of the Middle East.

Can you elaborate on that?

The countries of the Middle East after World War II experimented with democratic reforms and constitutionalism, but the countries were rapidly hijacked by one military coup after another. We had basically military regimes taking over under the façade of elections that maintained autocracies throughout the region. So while these countries gained their independence in the post-colonial period, the people really were not delivered their basic rights. The slogan that we've seen starting in Tunisia and Egypt--the word kefayah in Arabic, which means "enough"--says it all. They've had enough of being deprived of political rights, of socioeconomic rights, the lack of jobs. And there is a revulsion against the systemic corruption in these regimes and the incredibly wide gap between the privileged elite and the poor.

The revolutions went fairly smoothly in Tunisia and Egypt, but since then, the regimes have put up much stiffer resistance in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. How do you encourage the liberty that you were talking about in those particular places?

That's the second part of the principle of action I would suggest the administration consider. The first, as I said, is to be on the right side of arc of history, because it relates closely to our values as a democracy. But the second principle is differentiation. Tunisia and Egypt are different from Bahrain. Bahrain is different from Syria. They are all different from Libya. One size doesn't fit all in what we're witnessing in the Middle East today. The principle of differentiation has to be based not only on our values, but also on our national security interests.

Start with Bahrain.

Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, and has been since 1949. The Navy has been assuring the free flow of energy through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz for all of this time. Forty percent of the world's tankers pass through the Straits of Hormuz. This reflects a very important national security interest for the United States and also a global security interest. So, the administration has to differentiate its positions on a country like Bahrain from that of Egypt and Tunisia. In Egypt, which is a major player in the Middle East, the military stepped up to the plate and assumed the role of guardian for a peaceful, political transition. There are close U.S. ties with the Egyptian military. That played a very important role in getting our word across that there should not be a crackdown against the protesters, that the Egyptian military in this transitory period should be the guardian of the constitutional reforms, the new parliamentary elections, the new presidential elections.

What about Libya?

In Libya, Qaddafi is suppressing the protesters by armed might. Therefore, the administration--I think correctly--adopted a "no-fly" zone. The United States military did the heavy lifting at the beginning, along with France, to establish that no-fly zone. That was to avoid a humanitarian disaster, so that there's not another Srebrenica [the site of a 1995 massacre of five thousand Bosnian men and boys by Serb troops] or Rwanda [where more than five hundred thousand Tutsis were massacred by Hutus]. But secondly, beyond the humanitarian reasons, in a more realpolitik way, the administration wanted to level the playing field in Libya so that the rebels had more of a chance of resisting Qaddafi's forces, to come to a point where there is some sort of negotiated political transition in Libya for Qaddafi's overthrow. Again, the principle of differentiation here is very important.

How much support should the United States give militarily to the rebels?

It's one thing to establish a "no-fly" zone that involves, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said, kinetic military action on the part of the U.S. military and the coalition military. To go beyond that and to start arming the rebels and getting involved with the rebels would be a very major move. First, we have to identify who the rebels are. According to press reports, C.I.A. people are contacting these rebels, trying to determine who they are, and who we should support and not support. There are some reports of possible bad actors, be it Hezbollah or al-Qaeda, trying to take advantage of this situation. We need to know whether or not it is in the U.S. national security interests to support the rebel actions.

But President Obama made it abundantly clear in his speech on Libya that he is not going to replicate the Iraq model of President George W. Bush, where it took us eight years, over four thousand American soldiers, and thousands of Iraqis killed to overthrow Saddam Hussein and work out a representative political system. He definitely stated that the administration is not going to be involved in regime change by the use of U.S. military forces. So, the administration's now faced with a very dicey problem in Libya. How far do you involve the U.S. military in what's happening on the ground in order not to cross that line that the president has put down?

Would you go over that line? Would you be in favor of greater military intervention on the side of the Libyan rebels?

If we are convinced the Libyan rebels are a popular movement and that the mainstream are people who want to have a more representative government and a more just system in Libya--fine, then we can start getting involved with providing arms to the rebels. Providing training is one thing, but to actually put U.S. troops on the ground, to overthrow a regime, is a bridge too far. I agree with Gates that Libya is an important national security interest, but not a vital security interest.

Let's jump to Syria, where you were an ambassador from 1988 to 1991, when the current president's father Hafez al-Assad was president. Is President Bashar al-Assad going to institute reform, or just crack down?

Assad spoke on Wednesday (AP) to his parliament, and it was overall a disappointment to everyone but perhaps his inner core of supporters, which is the Alawite military security apparatus and the elite Sunni merchant class, both of which are really invested in the regime. We won't know until the next few days what the street reaction will be. But it was an extremely cautious speech. The purpose of that was to signal to the international community that he doesn't intend to be another Egyptian President Mubarak or another Tunisian President Ben Ali and crumble to international pressure. He wants to set the pace of change in Syria on his own calendar. That was the major message.

If we are convinced the Libyan rebels are a popular movement and that the mainstream are people who want to have a more representative government and a more just system in Libya--fine, then we can start getting involved with providing arms to the rebels.

In other words, Mubarak immediately came out with reforms and that, in Assad's mind, hastened his downfall?

There was an expectation that he was going to announce real reforms, not just talk about them, given the public statement by his influential press spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban, who two days before stated that he's going to lift the emergency law. Then Farouk al-Sharaa, the Sunni vice president who was the foreign minister during my time, said that he [Assad] is going to be saying things that will please the Syrian people very much. That didn't happen. So, there must be an internal debate between those who are advising him to not give an inch, because once you start down that path it will unravel the regime, and those who think Assad has to move toward limited reforms. What we saw in that speech was the straddling of these two schools of thought. Now today [March 31] we have the announcement (VOA) that Assad has set up a commission to study reforms and provide their findings by April 25. Whether or not this is going to satisfy the various constituencies we will just have to see.

What about Yemen, where demonstrations are ongoing and nothing seems to happen?

President Saleh is showing that he still has assets and a tribal and political base so he can hang on tenuously, but I think what we're looking at in Yemen is some sort of exit strategy for Saleh. If it can be done peacefully, that's to the best. The recent news that his major tribes say they'll stand by him (VOA) and that he will be protected is a sign that some negotiations are going on for a peaceful transition. But that is a truly tribal society. Aden in the south has secessionist tendencies. There's also the revolt of the Shiite tribes in the north of Yemen. And the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen is a great concern not only to us but also to the Saudis and others in the region. If Yemen goes under, that's going to be a real can of worms.

You also were ambassador in Israel in 1994. With no progress on the Palestinian-Israel peace front, the Palestinians are pushing to get a vote in the UN General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state. How would you deal with that situation?

With great difficulty. We've been trying through various Democratic and Republican administrations to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together. The contours of a peace settlement between the two are pretty clearly defined. We did a study here at the Baker Institute, published last February, which I gave to the administration. It's called "The Territorial Components of an Israeli Palestinian Peace Settlement" (PDF). A team of senior Israeli and Palestinians studied what compromises could be made, and the bottom line is that a territorial settlement is possible, somewhere in between a range of 3.4 and 4.4 percent of the West Bank. What's important is that a territorial settlement is within the realm of possibility. But the political will is certainly lacking. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not been willing to go across that bridge, and President Mahmoud Abbas has been saddled with Palestinian problems with Hamas.

This is where only a strong American team can come in and bring the parties together and say, "Look, these are the basic contours of the settlement. I, the president of the United States, want you, the prime minister of Israel, and you, the president of Palestinian Authority, to come together on this. We're here to help." If there is anything less than that at this stage, nothing will happen. In the absence of nothing happening, the Palestinians seem to be going ahead for unilateral recognition for their state. The Israelis are now threatening if they do that, they are going to annex the major settlements. That's not a very healthy scenario, because it can be a source of conflict in a region that is going through an upheaval.

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