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Washington's Mideast Thicket

Interviewee: Edward P. Djerejian, Founding Director, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 5, 2013

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Given the rapid developments in the Middle East, veteran diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria and also headed the Near East Bureau at the State Department, says the United States needs to formulate "a coherent and comprehensive strategic policy toward the region" rather than just react to events. In Egypt, he says, the United States should support the goals of democracy, but refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. As for the broader region, Djerejian believes that "U.S. policy can play a role in addressing the demands of the Arab Awakening, which are not only for political freedom but also for economic and social development--development of a civil society."

Let's start with Egypt. The ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday was almost a repeat of what happened in January 2011, when longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was forced to give up power by the military. What's different this time, besides the fact that Morsi was popularly elected?

There is an important difference between 2011 and 2013. When Mubarak was overthrown in 2011, the military dominated the scene. This time, Army Commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was flanked by representatives of core political and religious constituencies in Egypt and portrayed the military as representing the will of these diverse groupings: namely, the secularist and liberals (such as Mohammed ElBaradei and youth leaders), and religious groups, including the head of the Coptic Church, Salafist and Islamist leaders, and others.

Egyptian protestors hold up a photo of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Tahrir Square. (Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters)

The military claimed that they were responding to the will of millions of Egyptians voting with their feet in the streets of the country. The other major point Sisi made was that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had their chance to govern in an inclusive manner and respond to the crying economic and social needs of the Egyptian people--and failed. They focused more on consolidating their power and alienating other constituencies. The third major point Sisi made is that the military will play an essential role in guaranteeing law and order while the "roadmap" to a transitional constitutional and elective structure is put in place.

How will the Brotherhood respond?

Morsi's immediate reaction was a statement that the military's action represents "a military coup d'etat which we categorically reject." It is yet to be seen if the Brotherhood tries to reverse the course of events. That would be a worst-case scenario for Egypt and the region.

The United States seemed to go out of its way not to criticize Morsi when he was cracking down on his political opponents this past year. In retrospect, was this the right course?

"We should be promoting institution-building and civil society, economic growth, trade, and education. Namely, we should be using our soft power."

The United States should support the goals of democracy and the politics of inclusion in these countries. But Washington can no longer assume, as in the past, that it can direct political events in the countries of the Middle East. Those days are over. We should adhere to our principled positions and call the shots as we see them. The worse situation for the United States is to be perceived as interfering in the internal affairs of these countries. We should be promoting institution-building and civil society, economic growth, trade, and education. Namely, we should be using our soft power.

We dropped our support for Mubarak in 2011 and welcomed the election of Morsi in 2012, and we have continued to supply Egypt with military and economic aid. Was that a mistake?

No, one of the greatest assets we have in our relationship with Egypt from the beginning of the Arab Awakening when Hosni Mubarak fell is the very close relationship that we have [cultivated with] the Egyptian military. One of our most successful programs is the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), where we brought Egyptian officers to the United States over many years to be trained in the United States and to learn about the role of the military in society, in addition to providing professional training. Many, many important relationships between the U.S. military and Egyptians were formed because of that program, and those contacts were really very important in the evolution of the situation after the fall of Mubarak. That relationship is still there where the Egyptian military is once again coming into the fore to establish law and order in the country and to play the role of referee to [facilitate] the political process of change.

So you have Egypt facing a second revolution. Chances for a negotiated settlement in Syria seem very slim. And we have a new more "moderate" president about to take office next month in Iran. These are all very crucial issues for the United States. What advice would you offer?

The first thing the U.S. administration should do is step back and really try to formulate a coherent and comprehensive strategic policy toward the region as a whole and to connect the dots. All of these crises that you mentioned are interconnected. But what the administration has been doing is reacting to events--as is very necessary in foreign policy--but not going beyond that. What I see is mostly a reactive policy to try to make best of the given situation. I realize more than anybody how complex these issues are. There is no easy formula. But having said that, when you look at the phenomenon of the Arab Awakening that's been going on since 2011, there should be some conceptual strategic approach on how the United States responds to that. While there has to be differentiation in terms of each country, there are common threads, and U.S. policy can play a role in addressing the demands of the Arab Awakening, which are not only for political freedom but also for economic and social development--development of civil society.

As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I commend Secretary of State John Kerry for his diplomacy in trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to the table. It is a critical issue that has been neglected. But I am of the view that nothing will happen in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations unless the president and his secretary of state take a very firm, clear, political stand.

Regarding Syria, the Geneva II conference seems to have been put off indefinitely. Is there any way to get the Syrian civil war resolved peacefully?

The basic flaw in the U.S. approach toward Syria is the following: at the very beginning of the fighting, we stated privately and then publicly that President Bashar al-Assad "must go." And in so doing, we broke off the possibility of using whatever influence we may have had to get the regime to enter into negotiations with the opposition. What's also ironic about all this is that the United States, along with the other major countries, supported Kofi Annan's UN mediation, UN and Arab League mediation, and now Lakhdar Brahimi and his formula. One of its key tenets is a cease-fire and then establishing negotiations between representatives of the Syrian opposition and the regime to establish a transitional government leading to a post-Assad era. The flaw in our policy is we cut off our ability to deal with the representatives of the Syrian regime, which puts us in a bind. The Russians adopted the approach that Assad is there, he is the legitimate president of the country, and there should be no preconditions that he has to step down. That's why you see this diplomatic minuet between Lavrov and Kerry on how to get the Geneva UN process going whereby you can get a cease-fire and then negotiations between the opposition and the regime. So we sort of imposed this self-inflicted diplomatic wound on ourselves.

Would the United States be better off sending a special envoy to Damascus?

Any solution is going to have to involve negotiations between elements of the regime and the opposition, unless there is an accident in history (i.e., someone is eliminated by events that we cannot see now and the equation immediately changes on the ground). But barring that, there is an inherent contradiction in our policy, and Syria by many measures is headed toward state failure. Extremism is on the rise there, sectarianism is raising its ugly head, you have about a hundred thousand Syrians who have been killed, millions displaced--a humanitarian disaster. And you have the chemical weapons issue in which the United States has taken various public stances but then vacillated on the issue publicly and privately. But the United States should take a leading role in engaging our partners: Europeans, Arabs, and the international community. Our end goal should be to preserve the multiethnic, multi-confessional nature of the Syrian state, and do what we can to promote a political transition a post-Assad regime. Now Assad, in my view, has made clear that he wants to stay on at least until 2014, when the next presidential elections are scheduled. He still harbors the illusion that he could be reelected. That would be a risk that everyone would have to take if there were tightly supervised free elections in Syria. But we need also to really engage Russia so that we can come to some common understanding with them, because as long as we don't do that, we are not going to get anywhere.

At this moment, Syria's main supporter militarily is Iran. Is it necessary to engage the Iranians somehow?

"You don't make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. And strategically engaging adversaries is a very central tenet of diplomacy."

Given Congressional attitudes in the United States and the administration's political sensitivities, I don't think that the United States is going to invite Iran in. But again, we have a new president in Iran, Hassan Rowhani, who is supposed to be a moderate interested in negotiations. Is there a possible opening? You don't make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. And strategically engaging adversaries is a very central tenet of diplomacy.

If you were going to deal with Rowhani, now would be the time, right after he's inaugurated?

Absolutely. Without illusions. When I was heading the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs under both [George H.W.] Bush and Bill Clinton, I would always tell my Foreign Service colleagues in the bureau that when we negotiate with the Iranians, you have to keep one hand on your wallet throughout the whole negotiation. But you negotiate with a clear eye and very realistic approach.

There are so many things on the table to discuss with the Iranians about besides Syria.

The nuclear issue! And there's the whole issue of Iraq, which is going south in a very major way. Plus, Afghanistan, in which Iran has major interests, and our relationships with our Gulf allies and their concerns about Iranian hegemony. There is so much to discuss. All of these issues, while separate and distinct, have connectivity to them. And I do not see any coherent, conceptual approach on how to address these issues in a strategic manner. It's just a very reactive policy.

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