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Wittes: U.S. Assuring Arab States It Will Remain a Force in Mideast Post-Iraq

Interviewee: Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 1, 2007

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Tamara Cofman Wittes, an expert on Middle East politics, says the unprecedented trip by Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates to the Middle East is meant to assure moderate Arab states that the United States will remain a force in the region even after it leaves Iraq. “The core message here to the Arab states and Iran: The United States is going to remain the core guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf,” she says.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are both in the Middle East. This is the first time both cabinet officers have been to the Middle East together. They’ve just had a meeting at Sharm al-Sheikh with the Egyptian leaders and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. This was primarily about Iraq, but clearly Iran entered into discussions. What do you think the purpose of this unprecedented trip is?

There are a couple of areas of focus. One is clearly Iraq. More specifically, what’s the role of the Arab states in stabilizing Iraq, and what will the American role in the Gulf be after a withdrawal or a drawdown of American forces in Iraq. It seems to me that is a large part of what this trip is about. They’re reassuring the Arab states of the Gulf that even when the United States is largely gone from Iraq, it will still be very much present in the region.

We’ll be present because we’re selling arms or because we’re very interested in the area?

When the United States sells arms to the Gulf there is often a large symbolic dimension. For the Gulf states, an arms package from the United States is a way of signaling closeness to the United States as well as underscoring a broader defense relationship. Many of these systems come not just with equipment, but with American training, as well as bringing Gulf-state officers to the United States for training. It might involve joint exercises, or a prepositioning of U.S.-owned equipment in these countries. All of this is a way of cementing a broader defense relationship in which the United States is a major partner in guaranteeing the security of the Gulf. That’s really the core message here to the Arab states and Iran: The United States is going to remain the core guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf.

Now in Iraq, it’s a difficult situation. All the nations that met with the U.S. secretaries today are Sunni nations. They have no great love for the current Shiite-led government in Iraq and yet the United States would dearly love them to help out in some way. How can they help out?

It’s been interesting for me to listen to some of the statements from Secretary Rice and other briefings the State Department has given and hear how unwilling they’ve been to discuss the specifics of what they would like these Arab states to do. It seems mostly to have to do with the political maneuvering among Shiite and Sunni factions in Baghdad, in parliament and within the government. The Arab states—and especially Saudi Arabia—have been ambivalent about the survival of this Iraqi government, and somewhat reluctant to push their Sunni allies in Baghdad to come to terms with the Shiite factions on major issues. However well the military strategy might be going in Iraq right now with the surge, if the political strategy doesn’t succeed, the military accomplishments are going to dissipate very quickly. So the core concern for Secretary Rice right now is to get Arab states to weigh in as much as possible with the Sunni factions in Iraq and get them to stay at the table to make decisions on core issues like constitutional reform, oil revenue sharing, and the other things that have been sticking points in stabilizing the central government.

Do you think we’ll have much success in this?

Honestly, there are real reasons for skepticism. The Sunni Arab states’ concerns about the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq are so significant that it’s going to take more than a visit from the secretary of state to overcome their reluctance. To some degree, they watched the results of last fall’s elections, and they understood that the United States, sooner or later, was going to be withdrawing from Iraq and that it wouldn’t stay there forever to guarantee stability. Once they saw that, they began to hedge their bets, and that means providing more support for a more recalcitrant position among some of the Sunni factions.

In advance of this trip, there were some reports in the press quoting unnamed administration officials expressing great unhappiness with Saudi Arabia for its lack of support of the U.S. mission in Iraq. This seemed to go against the general theme of building our alliances with these countries.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are going to remain important strategic partners, [regardless of] whether the Saudis are doing exactly what we want with respect to Iraqi politics. We’re going to remain important strategic partners because of energy issues, because of broader Gulf security issues, the new role that Saudi Arabia is playing in the Middle East peace process, and because of Saudi Arabia’s broader role as a leader in the region and the Muslim world. There are some hiccups surrounding the Saudi role in Iraqi domestic politics, but there are other things the Saudis are doing well with respect to Iraq, for example, border security. Secretary Rice had some specific warm words for them on that score. The foundations of the relationship are still quite strong, and I don’t think this arms package should be viewed as a specific quid pro quo for any single issue.

Any sign of any real movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front? This is of course of great importance to the Arab states.

It seems as though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is trying to say the right things. He speaks of his desire to negotiate Palestinian statehood, his desire to enable an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank—there are a lot of things that will have to go right in order to make the initiative that President Bush outlined a few weeks ago viable. There are a lot of barriers to success: the two main parties on the ground and the lack of trust there in terms of the real threat posed by Hamas as a potential spoiler to this peace process; the broader region and the role that the Arab states on one hand and Iran and Syria on the other are playing with regards to this peace process. That said, clearly the Palestinian leadership and the Israeli leadership and the American leadership all have an interest in seeing this peace process move forward, and the Arab states share that interest. So they’re willing to step up, but the question is: What exactly is the United States going to be asking them and is that something they are willing or able to deliver?

Many experts think nothing’s possible as long as Fatah and Hamas are split as they are now. Do you think something can be worked out between President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] and the Israeli government?

I’m not sure that a Fatah-Hamas rapprochement at this point would produce any real gains with regards to Arab-Israeli peace either. I’m not really sure what the alternative is that people are proposing. It does seem to be possible that Abu Mazen as the leader of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] can negotiate effectively with Israel. Ideally, if other pieces of the puzzle are put together well, that will put additional pressure on Hamas to come to terms with the rest of Palestinian society which does favor a two-state solution with Israel. I’m not confident that other pieces of the puzzle necessary to put that pressure on Hamas are really in place now. I don’t think a policy of simply isolating Hamas and expecting them to sit on the sidelines while this negotiation takes place is realistic. They’re not going to sit on the sidelines. But I also don’t think that some kind of American or Western dialogue with Hamas is going to produce any results either.

Now many Iranian experts of course regard this whole trip by Gates and Rice as directed against Iran, rather than aimed at fortifying the U.S. presence in the region. How much of this is really directed at frightening Iran?

There’s certainly an element of that. The timing for one thing. But clearly for the Arab states one motive for building up their defensive capacity is the threat they perceive from Iran, not just with regard to the nuclear program, but Iran’s larger role in the region—the role it plays in Iraq and the destructive role it’s playing in Arab-Israeli relations and in the peace process, and in Lebanon as well. The Arab states and especially the Arab states of the Gulf do perceive a real threat and they feel a real concern over what they believe to be Iran’s expansionist intentions. Therefore they are looking for some reassurance and the arms package is part of that. That’s not the only thing that’s driving this arms agreement. I think it has somewhat to do with Iraq and with Arab cooperation with the peace process, and frankly, it has something to do with good old marketing—the region is awash in petrodollars and I’m sure the U.S. government and the U.S. arms industry want to get a piece of that action and see some recycling of that wealth back here.

A year or two ago, there was a lot of discussion about democracy in the Arab world in the wake of Iraq. Now that has obviously been forgotten, hasn’t it?

The evidence suggests that democracy promotion is not playing a major role in American strategic decisions with respect to the Middle East right now. Given the very difficult strategic position the United States faces, that shift is understandable. Having made democracy promotion a hallmark of U.S. policy in the Middle East for the last six years, how is the United States going to protect this marker that it’s laid down? The notion that we would suddenly do a 180 from prioritizing democracy over stability to prioritizing stability over democracy is not merely something that would produce cynicism in the eyes of regional autocrats and democrats alike, but it also harms the credibility of the United States to everyone in the region. So I would hope over the course of this trip, Secretary Rice will take opportunities and make opportunities to continue to emphasize the importance of democratic reform. But in the context of committing to its new aid package to Egypt, the United States had absolutely nothing to say about democratic reform. That to me is a shame. It suggests that those within the administration who were pushing toward more of an assertive stance—a conversation in which democracy would be an integral part of U.S.-Egyptian relations—lost the argument.

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