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Leverett: A 'Formula' for Lifting America's Standing in the Middle East

Interviewee: Flynt Leverett, Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 12, 2007

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Flynt Leverett, who was a counterterrorism analyst on the Policy Planning Council in Colin Powell’s State Department, and senior director for Middle East affairs from 2002 to 2003 on the National Security Council, says the United States’ standing in the Middle East has fallen sharply because of the perception in the region that the United States is now “an occupier.” He says this started after the first Gulf War when U.S. forces were based in Saudi Arabia, and persists because of the Iraq war. He says the “formula” for ending this is to promote stability in the area, including a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, and to be willing to hold comprehensive talks with all the parties in the region with everything on the table.

The United States is held in very low esteem in the Middle East these days according to every conceivable poll. What’s caused this?

A principal reason for the decline in America’s perceived standing in the region stems from the war on terror, which had very substantial support in the region, and internationally as well, when it was launched. But when we shifted course from a fairly directed campaign against al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters in Afghanistan and moved to Iraq, we lost a significant measure of support in the region. The way the Iraq war unfolded, with a prolonged U.S. occupation coming in the aftermath of the war, seriously hurt the United States in the region, and is really the principal grievance. It is the perception of occupation, and at this point, remarkably, the grievance is not occupation of Palestinians by Israelis, or other Arabs by Israelis, it is occupation by the United States.

This grievance did not begin immediately in the post-9/11 period, but is a problem we have faced ever since the first Gulf War, when, rather than revert to the “over the horizon” military posture from which we had fought the first Gulf War, we made a commitment to keeping significant numbers of forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia and in other places in the Gulf region. That began to create this sense of America as occupier.

Once we went into Iraq—and we are now into the fourth year, of a seemingly very open-ended occupation of a major Arab state—the perception of the United States as occupier has gone through the roof. That’s a very important reason for the decline in American standing.

The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia was started in the Clinton administration, so you are saying both parties are responsible for the decline in American popularity?

The extent of the mistakes that have been made by this administration certainly exceeds that of its predecessors, but the Clinton administration made many of the same mistakes. Not going back to an over-the-horizon posture in the 1990s was a fundamental mistake.

Any other factors?

The other big reason why we’re held in such low repute is the Arab-Israeli issue, particularly the Palestinian issue. This is perceived in the region to be not just our neglect of that issue, but an American empowerment of continued Israeli occupation, the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, and the rejection of a Hamas government that won internationally supervised elections. The way we’ve handled the Palestinian issue over the last several years has done real damage to our standing, because at this point it’s not just, “Oh, the United States is neglectful, the United States is not willing to put enough pressure on Israel.” There’s a perception that the United States is actually empowering an Israeli project to destroy the prospects for Palestinian statehood.

At the time of the Iraq war and in the first few years after it started, the Bush administration pushed hard for democracy in the Middle East. This program clearly has gone nowhere, and now the administration seems to have dropped that as a major policy. Did this have an impact?

That was a major strategic mistake as well. As far as regimes, like the Saudi and Egyptian ones, it was one more reason to begin to doubt the unquestioned benefits of a security partnership with the United States. The democratization push has had that effect on elite circles, certainly within Saudi Arabia, but in other places within the Arab world as well. So it in some ways alienated regimes that we actually need as vital security partners.

But at the same time, we hear criticisms that the United States did not push hard enough for “democratization.” What’s your feeling about that?

In terms of those parts of the public that actually care about democratization, it makes us look hypocritical: We say we’re going to promote democracy, but then when regimes push back, when regimes control elections, when regimes put real limits on the space available to political oppositionists, the perception is that we’ve basically folded. So we’ve lost credibility with the regimes on the one hand, and at the same time we’ve also managed to lose credibility with some segments of Middle Eastern public that care about democratization.

It was a colossally bad strategic choice for this administration to make that a priority of its Middle East policy in the post-9/11, post-Iraq world.

Now the president has called for a Middle East conference in Annapolis at the end of November, which is supposed to deal primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian issues. Does this have any chance of success at all, do you think?

No. In order to create momentum toward any kind of potentially viable political process, you really are going to have to have the United States sketching out a political horizon to define parameters for resolving final status issues—perhaps like President Clinton did in his last months in office. It is necessary to state it as a matter of policy that this is America’s best judgment of how these issues need to be resolved. I guess I could be surprised, but I frankly don’t believe this administration is going to be up to that.

They’ve had the option of doing this since 2002 but they’ve turned away from it every time and I expect they’ll turn away from it again. Without that, there’s no way that the conference and what it produces will get enough regional support to make a difference.

A second reason to expect failure is, you don’t have a unified Palestinian political structure at this point and, with the continued boycott of the Hamas government, even if you can come to an understanding about a communique or statement coming out of this conference, you’re not going to be able to move on it because you don’t really have a unified Palestinian partner.

And a third reason is more strategic. At this point the Palestinian issue is one of a number of budding crises in the region. Iraq, obviously, is one. Iran, in its various dimensions is another. And Syria and Lebanon, which also lapse over into the Arab-Israeli arena, is another.

At this point, these issues have all become bundled up with one another. You can’t deal with any one of them with any effectiveness in isolation. In order to deal with the Palestinian issue you’re going to have to do something about Hamas, you’re going to need to get involvement from Syria, which means you’re going to have to do something on that front, and you’re going to need to get cooperation from Iran. You’re going to need to have some very broad-based, strategic understandings with Iran, and that will also get you into regional diplomacy in Iraq. You can’t get into any one of these problems at this point if you’re really serious about resolving them, without having to deal with all of them.

All right, so let’s jump ahead a year, assuming your gloomy prognosis holds. A new president is going to be elected in this country. What’s the “formula” for changing all of this around, what are the high priority items?

The “formula” consists of two things: First, stability is not a dirty word. Stability in fact should be the watchword for American policy in the region. This means stability in terms of key states, but also stability in terms of the balance of power between, broadly speaking, radical and moderate forces in the region. The primary goal of American policy to recover from this hole we dug ourselves into is stability—that is the only way that we recover.

Now, this gets us into the second element of the formula: comprehensiveness. At this point you can’t deal with any one of these problems in isolation and be serious about resolving it. Take Iraq: You can’t come up with a political settlement in Iraq, unless you are prepared to involve a number of important regional states, including Iran, and including Syria. And there’s no way that you get that kind of regional compact unless you’re also prepared to deal in a very strategic way with the issues that divide those countries from the United States.

You can’t just try to do something nebulous on the nuclear issue with Iran, you need to be able to put on the table, the nuclear issue, Iran’s role in the region, including its role in Iraq, and its attitude towards the Israeli conflict, all the things that we find problematic about Iran. You should put on the table all of the things the Iranians find problematic about our position towards them: sanctions, unwillingness to accept legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. You’re going to have to pursue a grand bargain. You can’t do this incrementally; you can’t do it step by step or issue by issue. You’re going to have to do something to reorient America’s relations with problem states like Iran and Syria on a strategic scale comparable to Nixon’s reorientation of our China policy, while you’re also working on Iraq and while you’re also working in the Arab-Israeli arena.

Let’s talk more about Iraq. The next president is going to have to deal with Iraq in a major way. We’re going to still have one hundred thousand troops probably in Iraq, so what do you do with these troops?

The argument of the leading Democratic candidates—that we’re supposed to keep some residual force in there to train Iraqi security forces and do counterterrorism—is nuts. In the end we should be aiming at a zero ground presence. In Iraq we need to return to the over-the-horizon military posture from which we fought the first Gulf War. We can defend everything we need to defend in the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere in the region, from that posture. All you accomplish by keeping residual forces in Iraq on the ground or on the ground elsewhere in the region, is to help al-Qaeda recruitment and underscore this perception of U.S. occupation in the region. You need to be prepared to get those troops out—I don’t say you need to get them out immediately, just in some kind of logistical order—which would take at least a year. And I would argue you need to link the withdrawal to a serious diplomatic effort to negotiate the kinds of understandings inside Iraq and between Iraq and its neighbors that you’re going to need to move to a more stable political platform there.

The keys will be robust regional diplomacy and a commitment, over a certain period of time, to moving from where we are now in terms of the troop presence on the ground basically to an over-the-horizon military presence.

You’re not afraid that Iraq will just erupt into a sort of cataclysmic civil war?

No, actually I’m not. The level of violence could increase. It’s not going to be pleasant in much of Iraq for a considerable period of time to come. But, if you look at the history of this region, it is not a region that is unacquainted with civil wars. We’ve had them in Algeria, we’ve had them in Lebanon, we’ve had them in Yemen. You might even argue we’re having them in the Palestinian area, and the history is that the civil wars in this area remain contained. They do not serve as the catalysts for a region-wide conflict, even in the case of Lebanon, where you had Syrian and Israeli forces intervening inside Lebanon. Even then the conflict was kept confined to Lebanon.

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