Media Conference Call: Arab Turmoil Continues

Media Conference Call: Arab Turmoil Continues

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CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook and Foundation for Defense Democracies Research Fellow Tony Badran discuss the increasing violence and political change sweeping the region with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose. Cook and Badran have authored articles in the recently released eBook New Arab Revolt, published by CFR and Foreign Affairs.

OPERATOR:  I would now like to turn the conference over to Gideon Rose.  Mr. Rose, please begin.

GIDEON ROSE:  Hi, everybody, and welcome.  My name is Gideon rose, and I'm the editor of Foreign Affairs.  And this call is a twofer.  On the one hand, it is a celebratory discussion of the new e-book that Foreign Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations have just put out, called "The New Arab Revolt: What Happens (sic; Happened), What It Means and What Comes Next," which is a spectacular collection of our coverage of the Arab Spring and related topics from the Foreign Affairs archives, the Foreign Affairs website, the Foreign Affairs magazine, CFR's website, and a whole bunch of primary source documents as well.

But we also have a couple of the authors from that book, Steve Cook, from the Council on Foreign Relations, and Tony Badran, from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who are going to not just talk about what we have in the book but also address the breaking news around the region and the current state of the upheavals across the Middle East.  Both of them are wonderful examples of the kind of experts we are featuring in the book, and it's my pleasure to bring them to your attention and lead a discussion with them for your edification.  After some Q&A from me, or with me, we're going to turn it over to your questions, and you can basically pick at them as well.

So without further ado, let's get right to it.  Guys, Israel, attacked by a whole variety of Palestinian forces on various sides.  What, if anything, does this have to do with the upheavals going on across the Middle East?

STEVEN COOK:  Tony, you want to start and then we'll go to me?

TONY BADRAN:  Sure.  So basically, from the perspective of Syria, if you will recall, two days ago, I think, or just a couple of days ago, there was -- The New York Times ran an exclusive interview with Rami Makhlouf, Bashar Assad's cousin, who is often described as a quote-unquote "private citizen," but who is in fact really the economic arm of the -- of the Syrian regime.  And he made an unambiguous threat on the pages of The New York Times that the stability of the regime in Syria behooved -- it behooves Israel to maintain the stability of the regime in Syria, because its stability is Israel's stability.  

And so two days, three days after that, whatever it was, you see the Syrians opening the floodgates of -- busing in, essentially, Palestinian refugees from camps that have specific, you know, penetration by the Syrian intelligence.  And they brought them all to the border with Israel in order to basically show Israel that this is what you can basically look forward to if something happens to the -- to the Syrian regime.

And there was a similarly coordinated movement in southern Lebanon under the control of Hezbollah, in towns totally controlled by Hezbollah, where also Palestinian refugees were bused in and put on the border in order to send the same message.  Now the Lebanese army there dispersed them.  Some say even -- I mean, they say they shot in the air, but some even may have -- they basically even fired on the Palestinians themselves.  And they sent them home, and it was contained there.  And basically the idea was -- the consensus right now is coming out -- that this is a plain message to -- a security message to the Israelis and to the world at large that if you -- if you really are going to push us against the wall, this is what you can look forward to.  We're going to basically light up all the fronts.

ROSE:  Tony, are you saying we should be so cynical as to see the Palestinian issue being used as a diversionary tactic by the existing Arab regimes to deflect attention from their own problems?

BADRAN:  Yeah, I am shocked -- shocked -- to say yes.  But actually, indeed, that's -- I mean, that's what we're seeing.  We're seeing a decades-old tactic by the Arab regime, which is the use of Palestinians, but also even in the case of Syria, the use of Lebanon as a territory as proxies to basically maintain the -- not just -- either the continuity of the regime's own survival on the one hand or the projection of power by Arab regimes, which is what has been done -- by Arab and non-Arab regimes, by the way, including the Iranians today.

ROSE:  Steve, would you accept this analysis, and would the MESA establishment go along with it as well?

COOK:  Well, I don't know whether I'm part of the MESA establishment.  In fact, I don't think I'm -- nobody would ever consider me to be part of the MESA establishment.  (Laughs.)

But I would say that there is -- given what Tony's laid out, there is every reason to believe that the Assad regime, working in coordination with Hezbollah and other groups, have sought to relieve the pressure on Syria by stoking solidarity with the Palestinians, especially on the day that Palestinians mourn the establishment of the state of Israel.

I would say, though, you know, when you move down to Egypt, it's a -- it's a fundamentally different dynamic.  We don't have a regime that's seeking to manipulate its own people in order to divert pressure.  But, in fact, it is activists and revolutionaries who are in the streets, who are seeking this demonstration that was staged on Friday that went well into Saturday morning; was staged both as a demonstration of national unity after the pretty terrible sectarian violence that happened over the course of that week and as solidarity with the Palestinian people.  And I think that there is tremendous amount of pressure, to the extent that public opinion matters more in Egyptian foreign policymaking, to alter the status quo in Egypt-Israel relations.  And you're seeing that -- you're seeing that play out.

And none of that -- just as it's not entirely surprising that the Assad regime would do what it did yesterday, there's nothing terribly surprising about Egyptian activists seeking this kind of fundamental change in relations -- in relations with Israel, because they believe and it has been a central part of opposition -- the opposition narrative in Egypt, that is, opposition to the Mubarak regime, that there was a strategic alignment with Israel and the United States.  And that fundamentally had to change, because it ran counter to Egypt's national interests.

ROSE:  Let's stick with Israel for 200.  The --

COOK:  Does that mean I have to answer in the form of a question?

ROSE:  No.  But is the Israeli -- is the Israeli government in league with the old order -- I mean, misreading their Haggadah?  It seems like in the spring, the Israelis sided with Pharaoh this time rather than the people demanding to be let go.  Is the Israeli government more comfortable with authoritarian persistence than it is with popular uprisings?

COOK:  Absolutely.  I think it's clear.  If we look back during the Bush years, and people are holding up Natan Sharansky, the Israeli politician -- a Russian-born Israeli politician, who advanced this argument about democracy in the region -- Sharansky was really an outlier in Israeli politics.  This is -- this is a foreign policy establishment and national security establishment that is to the core realist, and who have often regarded any kind of change in the Arab world that gives -- that opens the countries to more democratic and open practices as a potential threat because it might -- their concern is that it might bring forces hostile to Israel -- in particular, Islamist forces -- to power.

It's no secret that the Israelis regarded Hosni Mubarak as a strategic asset.  Now, they have no love lost, really, for Assad, but the Assads have been predictable, have kept their border quiet -- and that there was some belief that one could do business with the Assads.  So there's really no strong pull within Israel to see these regimes come tumbling down.

BADRAN:  I would take --

ROSE:  Let's move -- OK, sorry.

BADRAN:  I'm sorry.  I would just take just a couple of minutes, just basically.  I would -- I would contend with -- a little bit with that.  I mean, I think there's a -- there's a sort of a narrative that's developing, and especially a lot in the Arab world media, because there's this sort of entrenched attitude that it's -- that the reason why the Syrian regime is in power is because Israel is protecting the Syrian regime.  I think that in this case actually this is -- this is a little overstated, just to say the least.

I don't think there is -- as Steve noted, I don't think there's any love lost for Assad there.  And I think if you monitor some of the statements by Israeli officials -- including, specifically, by Ehud Barak, who has been -- really, I mean, if you -- if you look for anyone in the current Israeli sort of political scene that is -- that has still maintained calls for peace with -- opening peace track with Syria, it's him.  And he has the -- he has come out and said, you know, nobody should take it as a negative for Israel if this guy falls; you know, we're not really -- we're not really all that -- all that concerned.

But then you have also even other security officials who are saying -- who express belief that this guy's not going to be able to hold on necessarily.  Yuval Diskin, I think, of the Shin Bet, said that basically he's not going to be able to put that genie back in the bottle.  So I don't think there's necessarily any movement there.

And the same can be said actually of the Turks, who while still maintaining hope that Bashar Assad will somehow do something and follow their lead and their advice in implementing reforms, they have -- they, too, have hedged.  I mean, they have hosted the Muslim Brotherhood in -- the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey, and they are taking a somewhat more harsh public stand to the events in Syria.  So it's not as clear-cut as, you know, the -- sort of the conventional narrative in the press would have it.

ROSE:  Let's move to --

COOK:  Let me just respond by saying that I certainly don't agree that the Israelis are -- you know, the Assad regime is -- it remains because of the Israelis.

BADRAN:  Sure.

COOK:  But I think that this kind of change is deeply unnerving to the Israelis.  They certainly have -- yes, Ehud Barak has made a statement or two; Yuval Diskin has said certain things.  But there has not been any kind of real fundamental Israeli break with the old older.  I think that they, as I said, remain deeply concerned about what's going on.  And the Turks have been looking for a resolution to the Syria problem with Assad, with -- an Assad solution to this problem.

Now, as time has gone on, they may have begun to hedge.  But their first inclination, given how much they have invested in Assad, has been and continues to be to a large extent one that does not seek the end of the Assad regime.  But, you know, Tony's right.  There is -- obviously, the countries have to hedge, given everything that's happened.

ROSE:  Let's turn to Washington, Steve.  A couple of months ago, the United States, along with Britain and France, launched a military operation in Libya, supposedly to protect civilians from the regime's crackdown.  Eight hundred, at least, Syrians have been killed by the regime, 10 times that many imprisoned or disappeared, and yet nobody says "Boo."  Why do we --

COOK:  No, they say it's heartbreaking.

ROSE:  They say it's heartbreaking.  Why does the United States and the West in general treat its enemies, or its -- people it doesn't like, worse than people it actually is allied with?

COOK:  It's a great question, to which I don't have a satisfying answer.  I -- you know, the administration certainly set a precedent in what it did in Libya.  I think there was an over-optimistic belief that NATO air power would really level the playing field in a way that Gadhafi would go relatively quickly.  And that's one of the reasons why you see a tremendous amount of reluctance to do much of anything with regard to the Syrians, another terrible regime.

What is striking is that the administration seems to be passing up what to me seems like a tremendous strategic opportunity, which is to help facilitate the end of the Assad regime, which would, if not resolve, but go a long way towards achieving some other important strategic objectives in the region; namely, isolating the Iranians.  It is, as I've written on my blog and elsewhere, Syria that is the primary focal point through which the Iranians play in Arab politics and try -- seek to influence the region in a whole host of malevolent ways.  There doesn't seem to me to be any reason to believe that any successor regime in Syria would want to continue the strategic relationship that the Assads have had with Iran.  

So it strikes me -- and perhaps the administration knows something that we all don't, but it seems to be as clear as it possibly can be that there really is -- as opposed to Gadhafi, that there really is some strategic benefit in seeing this guy go.

Perhaps they are holding on to the fact that they hold out hope that there might be some sort of peace process.  I can't believe that anybody believes that.  I can't believe that anybody believes, or believed in the first place, that Assad was a reformer.  Perhaps this is one of those cases where the administration is actually taking its cues from Ankara, which has been seeking, as I said before, a solution to the Syrian problem in which Assad undertakes reforms and can remain in place.  But I think we're well beyond that.

It has mystified me and others as to why the administration has been so slow-footed and really actually quite -- despite expressing outrage and broken-heartedness over the violence in Syria, not really done much in order to address the situation in a serious way.

ROSE:  Tony, quickly, do you have any thoughts on why Washington is behaving the way it is on Syria?

BADRAN:  Yeah.  I mean, the two things that Steve said, that he'd be surprised if the administration thought that they can revive peace talks -- well, do not be surprised.  This is exactly what the ambassador to Syria, the one that was infamously sent with congressional confirmation to Damascus, he came on the Al Arabiya satellite station and he said that we remain very, very interested in the Syria-Israeli peace track.  The host, sort of incredulously, sort of asked him, but do you really see any realistic prospects for this?  And he says, well, there's always hope.  You know, this administration has been the most interested in the peace -- in the Syria track of any administration over the last 20 years.

Look, it's clearly their fundamental -- the central pillar not just of their Syria policy but of their entire regional world view, essentially, which can be summed in three catchy terms.  One is "engagement," second is "peace process" and third is "containment" of Iran.  So you engage the Syrians, you get them in a peace process, you get them away from Iran, and boom, you have your containment policy of the Iranians, you've isolated them and so on and so forth.  

And that has been really the essence of their entire policy over the last two years.  And this is what guided their reaction to the Iranian green movement in 2009.  I mean, they've said it explicitly.  They were uneasy about supporting it because it would damage the prospect of engagement with the Iranian regime.  And I feel that to this day -- I mean, Secretary Clinton, when she reformed to Bashar as a reformer, it wasn't a fluke.  She has since repeated that claim twice in May, that basically there's room -- there's still room for reform and -- you know, and so on, so forth.  

And I think to this -- and you'll see it in scattered comments by American officials in the media, that basically, essentially, they still view sort of -- if Assad comes out of this weakened, bruised and battered, there would be still a window of opportunity to clench something; you know, that he will move away from the Iranians, that he will have to somehow distance himself from that alliance and so on.  I think it's just -- it's really the triumph -- as I called it in one of my articles, it's like the triumph of hope over reality.  It's just -- it's delusional.

ROSE:  OK, let's move over east to the Gulf.  You know, the turmoil in oil markets and even in the region and in the world economy in general would be like nothing we've seen at all, should this spring really move, let's say, to Saudi Arabia, or to the GCC in general and with a real vengeance.  Do you think that is going to happen, either of you, and if so, which side do you think Washington will be on when it comes to trouble in the Gulf, serious trouble?

COOK:  I'll start, just with a quip.  I think that if you have one gas station and it starts burning down, it would be crazy for you to not try to put it out.  So that's where I think that Washington will ultimately be after all.

Saudi Arabia is the Big Enchilada here.  Everybody keeps asking -- from the moment Tunisia led to Egypt, people began wondering:  Well, what will happen in Saudi Arabia?  

And this being the season of unthinkable things becoming reality, I think the -- our default position has to be to think about relative vulnerability.  And I think that all the regimes in the region are vulnerable, to some extent.  I think that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has some advantages that, for example, Hosni Mubarak did not have.  And one of those is that he in fact as a person himself is seen as someone who can be part of the solution rather than the problem.  And in -- so in that way, although of House of Saud is deeply popular among certain quarters, there is a general kind of respect and admiration for King Abdullah.

Now of course he's quite old, and what comes next is an open question.  But nevertheless, I think that there is a -- there is a sense, at least among -- I don't want to call people "reformers" -- but more forward-leaning progressive Saudis that King Abdullah is the right guy.

The other thing is that, as the Saudis have demonstrated, they have resources to spend in order to try to buy political quiescence, not only at home but also in Bahrain and Oman, and they're intent on using their resources in order to buy political quiescence.  This is basic, fundamental Saudi foreign policy.  It's what I call "riyalpolitik," R-I-Y-A-L-POLITIK.  And that is basically spreading the money around in order to ensure that the kinds of turmoil that has happened throughout the region don't spread in the kingdom and, if there's any hint of it in the kingdom, to use these resources in order to ensure that it doesn't -- it doesn't take off.

Now there is some evidence that opposition groups, the Sunni opposition activists have been quietly reaching out to Shia opposition activists and engaging in conversation and so on and so forth.  But thus far there doesn't seem to be any kind of real coherent or even, you know, social media movement in a big kind of way that would -- that would threaten the system.  

And I should of course note that the Interior Ministry in Saudi Arabia is -- I've often described it as the ministry that ate the country -- quite efficient and quite well resourced and, given everything that's happened, certainly alert to any kind of problems.

So would I say that Saudi Arabia's next?  Absolutely not.  Would I say that the Saudis are deeply worried and concerned?  Well, they're behaving in ways that they are.  So I would take my cue from the Saudis.

ROSE:  Tony, what's your quick take on Saudi?

BADRAN:  I think -- I think Steve is right in that they are -- they are not taking any changes.  So they have moved not just with the subsidies -- they've paid a lot of money -- they've also moved early on when there's -- when they were -- beginning of any -- like a hint of stirrings in the eastern province, they moved quickly, with force, and shot it down.

Look, they view this as -- they don't want to -- they want -- they don't want to give Iran a foothold.  That's how they're conceptualizing this phenomenon.  And so their eyes, aside from the eastern province, are on Bahrain and Yemen, specifically.

In Bahrain they immediately, again, took no chances.  They -- it -- moved in militarily to sort of block the road for Iran and for any possibility of an Iranian involvement there.  And it seems to have -- I mean, to have controlled the situation.

In Yemen they are working with the GCC to sort of find a way out, sort of a transition of power there.  

But they are very livid at the United States' response to this entire phenomenon in the region.  And so they -- you can see it in their media.  In Asharq Alawsat -- the editor of Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, recently wrote an editorial there that he cannot understand the United States' position on Bahrain versus the United States' position on Syria.  Why is the United States calling for sort of a peaceful sort of a transition, a move and democratic reforms there, but has been silent on Syria and so on, so forth?  So they are very -- they're very unsatisfied with the United States.  

And you can see today in the -- in the op-ed by Nawaf Obaid in the Washington Post, that's sort of -- sort of as a manifesto statement that, OK, we're moving now to -- you guys, you're unreliable, and we're going to move on our own.  And I think sort of their movement in Bahrain, to a large extent, gives a good example that they're not taking any chances.

(Cross talk.)

COOK:  It's abundantly clear.  I mean, from the beginning, from Egypt, that the Saudis and the United States were working at cross-purposes with each other --

BADRAN:  Exactly.

COOK:  -- and, you know, in the Saudi offer to Mubarak that they would make up the aid and then some.

BADRAN:  Exactly.

COOK:  And then precisely what's happened in Bahrain demonstrates the Saudis have absolutely no faith in our position on the region and are now going to look after their own interests in a way they know how.

ROSE:  Before we turn to our questioners, let me ask you a little bit about the book itself, each a different question.

Steve, you have a number of pieces in the book, some archival ones, which discuss and set the scene for Egyptian succession prior to the turmoil of this spring.  

Were you surprised by how things played out?  And were you -- you know, were -- why were Syria's experts as shocked by the timing of all this as everybody else?

COOK:  Well, I don't think anybody -- it's a great question, Gideon.  I don't think anybody can really pinpoint, you know, why we missed the timing of this.  

But I do think that there is a number of problems with the way in which analysts, both academic, think tank, government analysts, all groups who've been looking at the region, have had.  One is that we've been obsessed with the past.  There was a sense that in violation of the first rule of investing, that past results will lead to future performance; and that is that, you know, Mubarak and others were able to muddle through what seemed to be regime crises throughout the years -- and not just Mubarak, you know, Sadat before him and Nasser before him and throughout the region.  Defeat in war, civil insurrection, political assassination, economic underdevelopment:  All these kinds of things, you would think, would contribute to or put regimes in jeopardy, and they never did.  

So I think analysts were led to believe that authoritarian institutions in these places were stronger, more flexible and more supple than we thought.  These were not the analogues of the old regimes of Eastern Europe.

The other thing -- the other problem:  I think we were obsessed with looking at regime politics at the expense of what was going on in society. So we were looking for cracks in the regime, that notion that if the primary constituents of the regime broke off, then that would be a sign that things were not that -- were not well.

But I would point out that that only happened in Tunisia and Egypt at the very last moment, when you started to see real cracks in these regimes; so really was not a good way of looking at and assessing the relative stability or instability of these countries.  

I've since developed -- and this is going to be very clear in my -- in my new book, which is coming out in October, about Egyptian politics, is that we needed to look at the way in which Mubarak in particular either sought to elicit the loyalty or control of his population.  And I think, you know, if you look at the levels of political control, whether it's a compelling ideology, the ability to bring resources to bear -- to buy political quiescence, or the use of violence, I think if you look at the mix of the way leaders in the region have employed these tactics, I think it will give you a better sense of their relative stability/instability.

ROSE:  OK.  Tony, let me take a different tack with you.  In addition to your piece on Syria for the book, you translated for us several of the speeches of the leaders in the question; did a great job.  And there are really fun primary-source translations there, for all of our people listening.

What, if anything, did you learn or did you have fun with in trying to translate those speeches?

BADRAN:  Well, I mean, in cases -- it's interesting to see sort of how these things -- how these leaders apply very similar sort of rhetorical forms.  You know, I mean, you can be someone -- for me, I mean, as someone who focuses on Hezbollah, for instance, it was very interesting in reading Gadhafi's infamous "zanga zanga" speech -- immortalized by the YouTube clip was -- (laughter) -- how a lot of the tropes in it were identical to the ones used, for instance, by Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, in him -- in referring, for instance, to the people, you know, and to himself.

So, you know, he asked them, you know, who do you think you are?  Essentially he (tells them ?):  Who do you think you are?  And this is who I am, and this is what I did.  And these are the kinds of tropes that Nasrallah uses in Lebanon to attack his domestic opponents, you know.  I mean, he will look at, you know -- basically:  We know you -- like to Christian parties, let's say, who have had past alliances with Israel, you know, he will always say that, you know, who do you think your are?  We are the ones who are entitled to rule here.  We are the ones who have the power.  You don't even have any standing to even question or have an opinion.  

And so it was kind of funny to sort of view these kind of similarities across the board, and this kind of condescending attitude that was best expressed by Bashar Assad.  I mean, it was spectacular to watch that, more than just reading that speech, to actually watch it on TV.  And you see his -- I mean, he is -- this is one of the characteristics of Bashar al-Assad. I mean, his true personality oozes through that speech.  

I mean, he's a very arrogant, condescending character, and so you can see it in the speech, when he's just breaking out in laughter and mockery against his own people who are being gunned down and shot in the streets.  I mean, it was a perfect example of the kind of character.  And you can -- sort of it strips him naked and all the -- you know, the masks and all these illusions that people have tried to project on him as some sort of a new breed -- as Secretary Clinton called him, a different leader, a new breed of leader, a Westernized, you know, whatever; and you see him basically in the best example of sort of the banality of evil, in a sense.  

I mean, you see him cracking up and making fun and dismissing entirely the plight of his people, basically.  And it was just -- it was just a remarkable reminder of the kind of, you know, psychopathic personalities that we -- that you have to deal with in the Middle East.

ROSE:  Okay.  Both of you.  Qaradawi -- we have a little section of his speech from Tahrir Square.  Talk a little bit, as our last time with me, about what Qaradawi said, why it was important to have that in the book, and the whole role of Islam in all this.

COOK:  Tony, you want to start with what specifically he said, and I'll talk about the role of Islamism in Egypt and Egyptian politics going forward?  Maybe -- is that a good way to handle the question?

BADRAN:  I mean, I was going to take a different tack.  I mean, in the Egyptian context, it was interesting because of the sheer numbers that he was able to bring out, on the one hand, as a statement to the power, potentially, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian Society.  Everybody saw, you know, the incident where the Google guy, the -- Wael Ghonim -- youngster who was instrumental in sort of the technological aspect of the -- social media aspect of the Egyptian uprising being shoved off the stage by Qaradawi's bodyguards and not allowed to take the stage next to him, sort of as a -- everybody found that sort of a statement.  

But Qaradawi's importance, to me, actually plays out aside from the -- I will leave the Syrian angle to you, Steve.  But I mean where he really had an impact as well was beyond Egypt.  He had an impact on Syria, too, and on Syrian-Qatari relations.  He has been very vocal in support of the uprising against the Assad regime and the toppling of the Assad regime, which has made the Syrians very unnerved and they have asked the Qataris -- I mean, it has soured relations with Qatar, as well, especially as Al-Jazeera picked up the coverage of the Syrian uprising.  

So in a sense, it projected something new -- well, while there's nothing really new under the sun, I mean it projected something -- a new form of something very old, which is the use -- or Syria as a playground -- as a second-tier regional power and the playground of bigger regional powers.  And you saw it with the interference of the Turks on the one hand, but also of Qaradawi, Qatar, and Qaradawi as what he represents for sort of the new Egypt or the new assertiveness of future Egypt foreign policy and where these guys are projecting their power in the region.  

And the fact that they've zeroed in on Syria I thought was quite telling.  And it has -- it makes perfect historical sense, as -- you know, as anyone who sort of reviews the history of Syria, especially in the 1950s, would see, basically that this is the natural state of affairs in the Levant, in the Middle East, and it's sort of coming back again into play.

COOK:  On the Egypt angle, first, not entirely surprising to me that so many people came out to see Qaradawi, I mean given his huge popularity around the region and widely regarded by many as, you know, a moderate on a whole host of issues.  

I think what it does is -- and what it's done has demonstrated that the, you know, instigators of this uprising, the Wael Ghonims, others, the kind of upper middle-class socialist -- the left, the liberals, the socialists, the labor have a lot of work to do.  The mantra now in Egypt is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists basically own the streets.  And I think that it's wishful thinking for anybody to believe that Islamists aren't going to have any impact on Egyptian politics going forward.

It's interesting to note, just on what Tony said about Qaradawi supporting the uprising in Syria, he is working in a different direction from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, which has not been -- which has implicitly supported Assad.  That also is not -- it's not surprising, but what it does is it points to the titanic struggle that is going to happen in Egypt in the coming months and years over the future direction of the country.  And I think that it's one that non-Islamist groups are starting from a disadvantage -- a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the brotherhood and other groups.

ROSE:  OK.  We'll open it up now to questions from our audience.  Tony and Steve, can you keep your answers concise, so that we can get as many questions in as possible?

COOK:  Sorry.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this time, we will open the floor for questions.  (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Martin Klingst from Die Zeit.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, hello.  I have a two-fold question.  The first one is, you know, at the beginning, when you were referring to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it seemed to me a bit too much as an organized conflict.  But it has deep roots, and I -- when you look at the region, I think, without peace between Israel and Palestine, you will not, you know, come to peaceful solution in the neighboring countries.  And I would like to know your take of it.

And second of all, what are you expecting from Obama's speech that he is giving on Thursday?  Do you, you know, expect a major new peace deal or peace plan?  Or what can you do at this time of the year?

COOK:  Let me take it first.  I'm not quite sure.  Were you suggesting that you could not have some kind of fundamental change, transitions to different kinds of governments in the Arab world, without some sort of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis?

QUESTIONER:  No, you can't have peace --

COOK:  If that's the case -- if that's the case, I think that that analysis is -- just is -- how shall I say this diplomatically? -- overly rosy, to suggest that.  What I do think is that you have in countries -- this is obviously an enormously symbolic issue.  And in a place like Egypt, for instance, it is a basis for opposition to the previous regime, which is going to force a change in politics and Egyptian foreign policy.  That is the power of this -- of this issue, in that it is going to move governments in different directions than it was before.  But suggesting somehow that there's some sort of connection between these revolts themselves and the status quo in the Palestinian-Israeli arena is, I think, not accurate.

As far as Obama's speech goes, I'm not quite sure why they're giving the speech.  One, I think it's clear what he's going to say on the Arab Spring.  He's going to have to say we stand with the Arab people.  But it sets up a metric by which he's unable to -- unable to meet.  I mean, there is no sense that there's a change in Syria policy in the offing.  There's no sense that there's a change in Bahrain policy in the offing.  So he's -- Obama and the administration are only standing with the Arab people in certain places, but not others.

In addition, the metric by which many in the Arab world will continue to view the United States is what we do on Arab-Israeli conflict, and there really doesn't seem to me to be a tremendous opportunity here to strike out on a different course that's going to be productive.

ROSE:  OK.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Stewart Ain from New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, gentlemen, I have two questions.  One is, Italy has now decided to upgrade its Palestinian delegation to full diplomatic mission, joining Britain, France, Portugal, Ireland.  And the other -- and what do you think that is going to hold in the future?  What does that mean?  And of course, the Palestinians are asking for Israel -- for the United States to do the same.

And secondly, where do you think "Bibi" Netanyahu can go now with what's going on?  What can he do to try to break this impasse?

BADRAN:  I mean, I think on the one hand, with the second part of your question, I mean, ultimately, look, the Hamas-Fatah deal, if it holds, will only confirm what, I mean, a lot of -- a lot of skeptics -- which I count myself to be one -- I mean, have maintained, that basically, look, the peace process is dead, all right?  And that's -- and that's the bottom line.  And these guys are -- if this -- if this unity thing holds, it's just another indication that this is dead and that basically they've taken themselves -- that the Palestinian Authority has taken itself essentially out of the game.

And when you look again, despite the administration's lingering fantasies about reviving the Syrian track, that also is dead.  I mean, there is nobody -- and it will be interesting to see if the administration's reaction to the stunt, the media stunt on the Golan the other day -- if its reaction to it will be as a justification or a validation of its policy that we should hold on to Assad; because that would be the exact wrong message that you can get.  Because as a result of this, I mean, I don't think anybody in their right mind in Israel is going to have any interest in negotiating anything with Assad, especially when there's not even certainty about his survivability.  So that's -- so I don't see any venue necessarily for the -- for any new sort of, you know, go at the -- at the peace process again.  I just don't see -- I just don't see it anywhere.

QUESTIONER:  All right, that was -- that's Steve Cook talking?

ROSE:  No, that was Tony Badran.

QUESTIONER:  That was Tony.  Thank you.  And regarding the -- Italy now upgrading to Palestinian delegation --

BADRAN:  Yeah, I'm not sure, necessarily.  I mean, I will leave that, if Steve wants to take it.  I don't -- I don't think it necessarily --

COOK:  I don't think it matters.

BADRAN:  Yeah, exactly.

COOK:  I don't think it matters at all.  It's just another development that kind of hardens the impasse.  I don't think Netanyahu is coming here to provide ideas about how to break an impasse.  I think what -- Netanyahu's main goal is coalition management.  And as Tony said quite eloquently, the peace process is dead.

QUESTIONER:  Right.  And so where do you see this going?

COOK:  Going -- I mean, it's not going anywhere.  I mean, I think what we have is the status quo.  We have things like we saw yesterday.  We have the continued kind of periodic demonstrations in Egypt opposed to Israel -- a kind of roiling of this issue.  But I don't think that it fundamentally alters the calculations of any of the parties with regard to -- with regard to making the kinds of moves that they need to actually achieve peace.  So we're, you know, in the deadlock that we've been in.

ROSE:  The peace process is dead.  Long live the peace process.

COOK:  (Laughs.)

ROSE:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jack Barry (sp) from CBS News.

QUESTIONER:  Hi; morning.  I also have a two-part question.  There was a pretty interesting piece in The New Yorker a few weeks ago by Ryan Lizza that sort of traced the evolution of Obama's foreign policy from, you know, essentially ignorance, to being idealist, to being a realist, to now essentially, as one of the staff members said, a consequentialist.  I'm curious about what you think the administration's response is going to be to Syria if this sort of bullying by Rami and others continues over the next month, two months, and what might be the tipping point.  You know, more people that -- on the border or -- yeah, I mean, essentially, what do you think some of the known -- unknowns might be that would -- that would prompt a Libyan-like response to the -- to what's -- to what's happening there right now?

BADRAN:  Look, I think -- I think the administration so far has all but ruled out any such -- I mean, they have been at pains to sort of assert to anybody who asks the question or raises the analogy between Libya and Syria, to say, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, there's not going to be any such thing in Syria.  And if you see -- I mean, because one of the most amusing responses came, again, from Secretary Clinton, when she says -- when she was asked and she said, oh, I don't have that comparison between Syria and Libya.

Meanwhile, I mean, the comparison is quite -- is quite there.  I mean, in fact, the interference in Libya was premised on the -- on what Gadhafi threatened he was going to do in Benghazi.  Hence that -- you know, the famous Zenga Zenga thing again, like:  We're going to go house to house, street to street, and basically arrest and kill all these -- Assad did exactly that.

He went house to house, street to street in all these towns and were taking young men out of their houses and they're putting them -- they're so large, I mean, they have 10,000 prisoners now -- I mean, they're putting them in football stadiums in Daraa, for instance, and so on and so forth.

So, clearly, I mean, look, it's very obvious the United States has --this administration has no interest whatsoever in -- it's been reluctant, it's been incoherent on Syria, and I don't see any such movement towards a Libya policy.

So I don't know whether there's even going to be any change beyond sort of a hardening of the rhetoric at this point, because what a change in the Syria policy requires is sort of a reconceptualization of their entire regional approach, which has been premised on the peace process, and that's really been the central pillar of their policy.  And at this point they are doubling down on that approach and they're not -- they're not giving any signs of any sort of tendency towards revising it.

ROSE:  Steve, you know people in the administration.  If they were to hear this, would they sheepishly agree or would they defend themselves with some argument we haven't heard?

COOK:  Well, I think that they -- I'm not sure that they would say that they were doubling down on the peace process.  I think that they are confused and caught by a precedent that they hoped they'd never have to address.  And no matter how hard they try to say that Libya doesn't represent a precedent, it in fact does, and it's creating this kind of pressure on them.

And it demonstrates a certain recklessness about what's going on.  I think they would defend it as best they possibly can by deploring -- deploring the violence yet -- and saying that they stand with the Syrian people, but not yet doing anything about it.

And I think it's a function of the fact that the president himself does not have a policy on Syria.  There was a very telling hearing a couple weeks back in which Michael Posner, the assistant secretary for democracy, rights and labor, and Tamara Wittes, the deputy assistant secretary who's responsible for Middle East Partnership Initiative and democracy promotion in the Middle East, went up on the Hill and got drilled on Syria policy, and all they could do was dance, because there is no Syria policy.  And I think the sense was that once they come up with something, they'll have something to say other than the fact that they deplore the violence.

ROSE:  Got it.

Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Matthew Lee from Inner City Press.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, hello.  I cover the U.N. a lot, so I wanted to know -- and I know it's a smaller part of a larger story, but what you guys each think of the U.N. -- I guess the secretary's performance in Libya and Yemen, both of which they have kind of envoys do.  I mean, obviously they're having to, you know, please the major powers, but do you have any insight into -- you have this Jordanian senator, al-Khatib, that they've sent to Libya a couple times.  What do you think is going to come of that?

COOK:  Nothing.  (Pause.)  Is that concise enough?

(Cross talk.)

ROSE:  No, expound, Mike -- I'm sorry -- Steve.

COOK:  Well, no, look, I think that what -- and I think this is the case with any kind of envoy.  And we see this with countries that actually supposedly have leverage and influence in the region, is that the Gadhafis, the Assads, the Salehs of the Middle East, it has now become existential for them.  And so no matter what kind of vaunted leverage the Turks, for example, believe they have with Assad, if it's a choice between what Assad believes is in his interest and what the Turks are telling him to do, he's going to ignore it.

Then you take the U.N., which does not have the same kind of leverage or influence, and they have some moral authority and some, you know, relatively low-level Arab functionary or former prime minister to come over and talk something -- some sort of sense into these people strikes me as -- it strikes me that the U.N. needs to do something because it's the U.N., but there's hardly any reason to believe that they can be effective.

QUESTIONER:  And what about the U.N.'s role in the military?  I mean, I'm assuming you're going to say largely the same thing, but supposedly they're coordinating the enforcement of the no-fly zone and the arms embargo.  I mean, is that just sort of a joke?

COOK:  Well, look.  You know, the U.N. has provided legal cover for NATO to be doing what NATO is doing in Libya right now.  

ROSE:  Okay?  Asked and answered.

Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queuing instructions.)  We are currently holding for a question.  Okay, we have another question, from Stewart Ain from New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER:  Can you just say, if there's a deadlock now with this peace process, what's going to happen in September at the U.N., and what does that all signify?

COOK:  Is that -- go ahead.

BADRAN:  No, no --

QUESTIONER:  What are the implications of it?  

COOK:  Tony, you want to take that, since I did the last one?

BADRAN:  No, you can -- you can -- you can take the -- you're the peace process guy, so you can --

COOK:  I'm the peace process -- (laughter) -- that's news to me.  (Laughter.)

You should talk to -- just get Rob Danin on the line.

BADRAN:  (Laughs.)

COOK:  I think that what you're going to see in the U.N. -- if the Palestinians are successful, you're going to see this kind of diplomatic train wreck in which the Palestinians declare statehood unilaterally, something that they've done before, but now, with all kinds of things that are happening in the region, and changes, not just in the region but in the Palestinian arena, you're going to see more and more countries actually recognize that state.  It raises a whole host of problems for the Israelis.  You know, will -- to be sure, people will start to discuss the fact that Israel is occupying a state that's been recognized by the United Nations.  Others will -- I'm sure, will call for sanctions and so on and so forth.

I don't think that it will materially alter much in terms of what's going on on the ground, but it will create a very difficult diplomatic situation for both Israel and the United States.  I don't expect that the United States -- that the United States is going to back away from Israel, but it's also going to be in an extraordinarily tough position if it is seen as, you know, what it's likely to do -- vetoing or opposing a Palestinian declaration of statehood.  This is, as I said before, the metric by which the Arab world is going to view what the Obama administration is doing in the region.  Even if he says all the great, wonderful things that we're expecting him to say on Thursday evening about standing with the Arab people -- and he will do it eloquently, and he will be convincing -- this metric remains.  

And I don't see, between now and September, given the way things are, how we are going to move out from this kind of headlong move to the United Nations.  I think the Palestinians are feeling very confident, you know, five months ahead of time, or -- you know, four months ahead of time, and I think that they feel like they have the Israelis on the defensive on this one.  And it's going to be nothing but ugly going on forward on that front.

Is there -- is there a possibility for renewed violence as a result?  Absolutely, absolutely, and I wouldn't be surprised if it happens.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  (Gives queuing instructions.)  

ROSE:  Let me take a question here, guys.  Steve, following up on  that, in, you know, the past, revolutions have often led to wars out -- you know, between countries, as well as sort of upheavals within countries.  Putting Libya aside for a second, which is still sort of essentially the ongoing civil war over who's going to rule that country, do you guys expect that the revolutionary upheavals we're seeing across the Middle East this  spring will lead in some way or another to some kind of interstate war sometime in the next period, in the period ahead?

BADRAN:  Look, I mean, there's been -- there's been a lot of talk about the -- that scenario playing out in Syria, either, first of all, as a civil war within Syria, developing into civil war, that would then invite the meddling of outside states with interest in backing one party against another, especially if the -- sort of the largely Sunni contingent of the uprising decides that, say, you know, the international reaction to their peaceful demonstration did not bear fruit, and therefore maybe another path has to be -- has to be adopted.

And I don't -- I mean, I'm not really sure that that's necessarily going to play out.  But that, I mean, if -- should that play out, then -- the question is, when you're asking a civil war -- in this kind of question is what the role of the other states are going to be.  And in this case, I'm not really sure that any of the other states either is capable or as interested in sort of further nurturing such a -- such a such a strife.  

Now the question is, then, whether this would lead to a state-to-state -- mainly, it would be along the lines of engulfing or entrapping Israel in it, in the way that the Syrians have threatened.  It will not necessarily be done out of Syria.  I mean, the Syrians are -- have long used the proxies to do this, so the question is whether it would be done out of Lebanon.  

But then you have to then here factor again the role of states -- other states that have stakes in this thing, which -- such as Iran.  I mean, are the Iranians necessarily interested in burning Hezbollah yet again and subjecting it to a massive, massive retaliation by the Israelis, as promised, in order to save Bashar al-Assad?

I mean, they may well make that calculation, should things become that dire for Assad.  But it's not going to be sort of an easy decision, because it's going to be very costly for them.  And the end result of it may not necessarily bear fruit.  I mean, it's not -- it may not affect the internal dynamics in Syria anyway.  So as we sort of survey these scenarios, you have to always keep an eye on the -- on the inherent limitations as well by the interested parties.

COOK:  Just quickly, you know, states that are undergoing transitions to and from one system to another tend to be more unstable and more warlike.  That doesn't necessarily mean that I expect there to be interstate war, but I certainly expect there to be more internal conflict than what we've seen in the past.

ROSE:  OK.  

With that, let me -- if there are no more questions, let me bring this one to a close.  Let me just say, "The New Arab Revolt," get it.  It really is a nice collection of all sorts of good stuff.  And continue to follow Foreign Affairs, both in the magazine and then foreignaffairs.com, for high-level analysis of what really is one of the most interesting stories of our times.  Thank you all very much.

COOK:  Thank you.

BADRAN:  Thanks.

ROSE:  Bye-bye.

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