CFR Fellows’ Book Launch Series: The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East by Steven Cook

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Author, The End of Ambition: America's Past, Present, and Future in the Middle EastEni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director, International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations

In The End of Ambition, Steven A. Cook boldly claims that despite setbacks and moral costs, the United States has had a record of success in the Middle East. Yet, beginning in the 1990s, those achievements bred ambitious policies to remake the region that ended in failure and regional instability. While making the case that retrenchment is not the answer to America’s problems in the Middle East, Cook highlights how America’s interests in the region have begun to change and examines alternative approaches to U.S.-Middle East policy.

The John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture was inaugurated in 2002 in memory of CFR member John B. Hurford, and features individuals who represent critical new thinking in international affairs and foreign policy.

LINDSAY: Hello everyone. I want to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations John B. Hurford Memorial Lecture. I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

The Hurford Lecture was inaugurated in 2002 in memory of Council member John B. Hurford. The lecture brings speakers to the Council who represent critical new thinking on foreign policy and international affairs. I would like to recognize Hilge Hurford, and Jennifer Hurford, and friends of the Hurford family who are with us tonight. 

I also want to acknowledge at the back of the room the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass. And I also—(applause)—and I also want to note that we have more than 215 Council members from across the country joining us online. 

Now, as it says behind me, the topic of our of our conversation tonight is the End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. And I am both delighted and honored to introduce our speaker tonight, Steven A. Cook. Steven is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies here at the Council. He’s also a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine. Steven is the author of the new book. Do you want to hold it up, even though— 

COOK: Well, we have the big picture here. (Laughter.) I’ll hold it up. 

LINDSAY: Just for effect. The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. Steven, welcome. Congratulations on the publication of The End of Ambition.  

COOK: Thank you, sir.  

LINDSAY: It’s great to have you here. 

COOK: It’s great to be back in New York. Thank you for doing this. 

LINDSAY: It’s always good to be in New York with you. You ready to talk? 

COOK: I’m ready to chat. (Laughter.) 

LINDSAY: OK. First question: They say that the eyes are the window into the soul, and a book title should be much like that. It should provide a window into a book’s main argument. Richard Haass taught me that. Why do you call your book The End of Ambition? 

COOK: It’s a—it’s a terrific question, Jim. But if I can put it on pause for just one second. (Laughter.) 

LINDSAY: You’ve got six seconds. 

COOK: I mean, there’s a—there’s a number of—there’s a number of people that I’d like to—I’d like to recognize before I get into my answer, to your question. First, I also want to recognize the president emeritus of Council, Richard Haass. It’s wonderful to see Richard back at the Harold Pratt House. I will say, however, that when Jim and I saw Richard’s name on the roster, we both got a little nervous that we’re going to get grades later in the emails. (Laughter.) I also—I want to recognize Shannon O’Neil, the deputy director of studies, who was very helpful in the manuscript. And, of course, you, Jim, for your tremendous help— 

LINDSAY: That wasn’t what you said at the time. (Laughter.) 

COOK: No. I was—well, you can tell in the acknowledgements, but actually I make you sound a little bit grinchy in the acknowledgments. But you should know that your nickname behind your back is actually Papa Bear. (Laughter.) So I do want to acknowledge I have friends here from a lifetime ago. I want to just acknowledge their presence. It really means a lot to me for them to be here. My family is here. My in-laws are here. My older but younger-looking and much smarter sister, and my nephew—who’s looking great—is here. My aunt, who doesn’t look her ninety years. My mom. And my late father, who gave me the curiosity about the world. And, of course, the three most important people in the world to me: My lovely wife, Lauren. There would not be not just this book, but no book without her love and support, which I can never repay. Just know that what I’ve said in the book is that you are my everything, and it’s true. And to Maddie and Mia, my two beautiful, lovely, smart, wonderful children. I do everything for you. Even though this is about me tonight, it’s really for you. (Laughter.) 

LINDSAY: OK, so let’s talk about you. 


LINDSAY: I asked a question.  

COOK: Yeah. What was the question, again?  

LINDSAY: What do you – what do you want readers to take away from calling your book, The End of Ambition? 

COOK: Well, so, Jim, the book starts out with me in Iraq in 2019, and kind of surveying the wreckage of that country almost twenty years after the American invasion. And almost every kind of pathology that the Middle East writ large was confronting was before me in Iraq. And it struck me that the United States had, for the better part of the previous two, two and a half decades, had gone out into the world to use its power to make good things happen, had just an ambition to transform the Middle East, and had failed. That our return on our investment was not to zero, it was actually less than zero.  

And it struck me that this was not a good way to continue to go, and that we needed to do something about it. And that this idea that the United States could engage in a broad kind of international social engineering project so far away—we didn’t have the resources, we didn’t have the knowledge, we didn’t have the insight to accomplish these goals. And that’s something we needed to correct. And so we need to end our ambition. And if we look at the past in the Middle East, there was a period in which the United States was actually relatively successful, by dint of what policymakers sought to do in the region.  

LINDSAY: OK. I want you to explain to me what that period was, and what you mean by success.  

COOK: Yeah. Another good question, boss. (Laughter.) 

LINDSAY: Thank you. 

COOK: You know, between, arguably, the end of the Second World War and the early 1990s, the United States had pretty limited goals in the Middle East. And those limited goals really only came into view starting in the 1970s with the British withdrawal from the region. And those limited goals, those were things—basically three things that the United States wanted to do: To prevent disruptions to the free flow of energy resources out of the Middle East, to help thwart challenges to Israeli security, and to prevent any single country or groups of countries from challenging American dominance in the service of those other two interests.  

And we were largely successful in doing that. There were setbacks, of course. There were moral costs to this, because our partners were authoritarian governments. We helped enable the continued displacement and statelessness of the Palestinian people through this. But policymakers said, we want to ensure the free flow of oil out of the region. We want to help prevent threats to Israeli security. American predominance will ensure those other goals. And we were successful doing that. The question is, what happened? And – 

LINDSAY: Well, before we get to the “what happened,” I don’t want to sort of jump over that question of the United States making common cause with governments that acted in many ways antithetical to American core values. Make the argument to me that that was the right thing to do, and that’s—how that factors into your definition of success. 

COOK: Well, look, like I said, let me start out, I don’t kill puppies. I like, you know, nice things. (Laughter.) I’m a good person, generally. (Laughter.) But authoritarian stability was something that helped the United States achieve its goals relatively easily and less expensive than it would otherwise be. That’s a difficult thing to get your head around. But with those limited goals, working with the Hosni Mubaraks of the world—we got thirty years of help from Hosni Mubarak. We got thirty-five years of help from the Shah of Iran. We got—we’re getting help now from the Saudi government, which the current president, as a candidate, referred to as pariahs—as a government that was beyond the pale, no redeeming quality.  

My sense was that we have these larger strategic goals. It would be nice if they were democracies. They’re not, and we can’t make them democracies. Only the people of the region can make those countries democracies. We tried that in a number of different ways, and we were unsuccessful. And so, yes, there were moral costs. We sidled up to people who do not share our values, who do not have the same outlook that we do. But we have certain interests that they helped us achieve or defend, and that was worth something. 

LINDSAY: OK. The pivot. You were going to explain what happened that we abandoned these limited goals in search of, we’ll call them, transformational goals. 

COOK: Yeah. I think, you know, post-Operation Desert Storm and post-Cold War the United States had a lot of power in the world. And we did a lot of things in order to make the world a better place. And we did a lot of things to kind of—in the belief that the world is going to ultimately kind of look like us. There was the expansion of NATO, the economic shock therapy in Eastern and Central Europe, the push for globalization. And in the Middle East I think policymakers, really beginning with the Clinton administration—and my apologies to anybody here who served in the Clinton administration, or anybody online who served in the Clinton administration—there was this effort, in the words of President Clinton, to pull the Arab countries into the twenty-first century. That would be done through peace and reform.  

Or then President Clinton’s successor, President Bush, wanted to pull these countries into the twenty-first century through reform would bring peace in the world. Then, of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was intentionally called Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’m going to anticipate a question that you’re going to ask me about Iraq, because Iraq was justified on the idea that Saddam Hussein was a threat to global peace. Which everybody believed. Everybody believed. I like to point out to people in Washington, especially to his staff, that Senator Bernie Sanders voted for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which was a kind of predicate for the invasion of Iraq.  

Everybody believed that. But at a crucial moment when principals in that administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said: Let’s just put another general in charge after we overthrow Saddam Hussein, the president himself said, no, we’re not going to do that. If we’re going to—if we’re going to save the world from the Iraqi regime, we might as well promote democratic change in that country. And that will have a cascading effect throughout the region. So, but these kinds of things were—I guess they made sense in the conference rooms of Washington, D.C., with a country that had a lot of power to try to make good things happen.  

But, as I said, I started out the book in Iraq surveying incredible damage. Iraq went from a totalitarian murderous system to a chaotic murderous system. I mean, you know, I remember traveling through Tal Afar, which was a place of an extraordinary battle between American forces and Iraqi insurgents, and the drivers in the armored cars were—you know, they pressed the gas. They didn’t want to be in places like this. It was—and it was telling that our return on this tremendous investment was less than zero. 

LINDSAY: Thinking about that return on investment, obviously one of the big events of the last fifteen years was what was called at the time the Arab Spring. You were actually in Tahrir Square in Cairo when it first happened. Was it inevitable that that seeming democratic opening was going to fail? And to what extent does U.S. policy play into that? 

COOK: Yeah. That was an extraordinary moment to be in Tahrir Square. I’m sorry you had to go to meetings because I was getting tear gassed. 

LINDSAY: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. 

COOK: I apologize for that. 

LINDSAY: Well, we were worried about your safety and security, as I think— 

COOK: I know. As was Lauren. I would have stayed much longer than the four days that I stayed, but Lauren said I had to come home. (Laughter.) Two things she said to stick the knife in. She said, you have two little kids at home. And this was—you’re not so young any longer. (Laughter.) So I got the last flight out of Cairo before the airport closed during the—during the uprising. 

Anyway, you know, it was an extraordinary moment to be in Tahrir Square when that was happening, and to hear Egyptians say, you know, dignity, life, bread, social justice. And there was a sense that that could really happen. But it went sideways pretty quickly. And I think—and this is what I laid out in in in my book, False Dawn, was that the would-be revolutionaries were arrayed against such powerful forces that controlled the institutions of the state and, importantly, controlled the guns, that even if there were, you know, millions and millions of Egyptians and millions and millions of Tunisians who wanted to live in more democratic and open systems, as well as in other countries in the region, they were outmatched. 

And institutionally they these were not revolutions. They didn’t overthrow these political orders. So the defenders of these regimes remained there, and armed, and able to undermine them. But what was so interesting about that moment was at the moment that that was becoming abundantly clear, President Obama—who I think would be sympathetic to the ideas in The End of Ambition—I mean, if you read his speech in Cairo in June 2009, what he said was: Look, we’re not going to engage in democracy promotion, but if you become democracies we’ll help you. In May of 2011, he went to the State Department and he gave a speech that his predecessor, George W Bush, could have given. It was, you know, now we have the opportunity to remake the world the way we would like it to be. I use the exact opposite logic in the book. Which is, we need to recognize the world as it is and not try to make it the way we want it to be, because when we do—when we try to make it the way we want to be, we fail.  

LINDSAY: Yeah. Help me understand what that means in practice, because I think there are a fair number of Americans—certainly, a fair segment of the foreign policy community—that would agree with you that the United States tried to transform the region. It was misguided. It didn’t work. It came at great cost in blood and treasure to the United States. And the conclusion they’ve drawn from that diagnosis is that the prescription should be either substantially reducing a U.S. role in the Middle East, or withdrawing entirely. Is that the right prescription? 

COOK: No. It’s too radical a solution. We still have strategic interests. There are things that are still important to the United States in the Middle East. I think one of the problems that we had over the better part of the last thirty years is that we’ve lost what’s—excuse me—lost sight of what’s important to the United States in the Middle East. And so everything was a core interest. Everything was crucially important. Therefore, nothing was. And we tried to do too much of everything. And I think the argument about withdrawal or retrenchment, the kind of vogue idea of what’s called offshore balancing is that the United States would provide its partners in the region with the resources, the weaponry, to establish a balance in the region. And if that balance became imbalanced, the United States would come in, reestablish the balance, and then the United States could leave again.  

Well, we’ve tried that. And it didn’t work. We’ve had to come back over and over again. And there’s a very—there’s a difference between—I have kind of a snarky line in the book. There’s a difference between the way people in Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh, and Jerusalem view imbalance and the way people in Cambridge or, you know, the South Side of Chicago – I’m using those two places on purpose – view imbalance, and what their interests are. And that leads partners in the region to do things that are greatly destabilizing. Like the Saudi intervention in Yemen was, in part, a function of the fact that it saw an imbalance that the United States didn’t see, and it tried to rectify that balance. And it didn’t work out. The Saudis contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe by intervening in someone else’s civil war. Of course, we’re now learning that they had a point about the Houthis, who they were fighting in Yemen for many, many years.  

So I think it’s too radical a solution. I think we should stay and that we should understand what’s important to us and devote our resources to those things that are important to us. 

LINDSAY: OK, so let me pick up on that question. It seems that you’ve laid out what might be called a Goldilocks strategy—not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold. That’s the easy part. What should U.S. priorities be in the region? That is, how do you bound our ambitions at the right level? What exactly are they? And then also we’ll follow up with, how do you actually achieve those ends? 

COOK: Yeah. You know, if you remember, the first draft of the last chapter was called Goldilocks in the Middle East.  

LINDSAY: Yes, I remember it too well. (Laughter.) 

COOK: I think it was Richard who said it was a little too glib. And since I’ve only—this is my fourth book, and he’s written like a million, I figured it was a good opportunity—good idea to follow his advice. But in essence, what I’m saying is there are a limited number of things we should do. And what I lay out in the book are six of them, four of which will sound familiar to you, although some of them have twists to them, and then two newer ones.  

And those six are: continuing to prevent challenges to the free flow of energy resources out of the region, continuing to help ensure Israeli security—but I think in different ways. Counterterrorism. If administrations only read their counterterrorism strategies we would have been much better off over the course of the previous thirty years. (Laughs.) Nonproliferation. And then some new ones. Climate adaptability in the region. And, of course, the issue that seized everybody in Washington prior to October 7, which is great-power competition in the Middle East.  

Those are kind of limited things. They don’t require the enormous investment that the United States made. It doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of forces in the region. It requires us to understand that those things are important and understand what we can do. And there are things that we can do that are constructive to meet those goals and protect our interests. You want to pick on me?  

LINDSAY: I’m going to pick on you. Let me begin with the first one, which is ensure the free flow of oil. I guess the question I would ask you is, why should that be a U.S. responsibility as opposed to a shared responsibility? You’ve seen a lot of commentary, obviously, over what has happened with the Houthis attacking shipping in the Red Sea and in the vicinity, arguing why aren’t the Chinese stepping up to the plate providing this public good, this common good? Given that China is dependent upon the flow of oil from the Middle East. So what’s the argument that the United States, I presume, from what you said, should take the lead in providing this global public good? 

COOK: Yeah. Let me just say, first of all, I don’t think that we’re going to fully decarbonize our societies. Not in my lifetime. Not my children’s lifetime. Not in their children’s lifetime. So hydrocarbons will be important to everybody. And I say this as someone who drives an EV, and composts, and does all those kinds of cool things. (Laughter.) But I think the United States has a compelling global interest in a healthy international economy. And you’re quite right that the Chinese also have a compelling interest in that. But they have been willing to cut side deals with the Houthis and with the Iranians. And I’m less concerned really about the Chinese at the moment, although they are undercutting us and have cut side deals with the Houthis, than I am with the axis of resistance, the Iranians and the Houthis.  

I have been, you know, called a warmonger in Washington because I have called for a more robust response to what the Houthis are doing in the Red Sea, because that is clearly a global interest of the United States to ensure the free flow of energy resources. It’s 100 percent true that we’re the largest producer of oil in the world, but it is truly a global market. And it is a compelling global interest of the United States to have a healthy international economy. And that’s why the responsibility remains ours. The Chinese have demonstrated that they’re not actually as interested in it. They’d rather bog us down in the Middle East than share that responsibility because they’re worried about the United States being in East Asia. All of these things are quite connected. But there’s a principle.  

LINDSAY: So should the United States try to get China more involved? I mean, if Xi Jinping were to place a phone call to President Biden tomorrow morning saying, actually, we want to help, should the United States welcome that? 

COOK: Well, you know, I’m not a Mandarin speaker, so I don’t want to wander into someone else’s territory, but I do know Mandarin speakers. And their assessment is that the Chinese look at what the United States has done over the course of the last three decades as a major strategic blunder. And so they’re not—they’re not—they’re not going to do the kinds of things that we did. And I think that— 

LINDSAY: Oh, I’ll accept that. I guess my question is whether U.S. policy should be open to having Chinese assistance or not.  

COOK: I don’t think—there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, given the fact that we share those interests. The question is whether the Chinese are willing to play ball on that. And I think they’d like to see us more involved in the Middle East so that we’re less involved ensuring the freedom of navigation through the Taiwan Strait. Regardless, I think the responsibility continues to be United States. And now all of our lifestyles are, in fact, dependent upon that. 

LINDSAY: So let’s talk about your second priority. OK, you argue that the United States should remain committed to security of Israel, but you would do it in a different way. I should note that you wrote the vast bulk of the book before October 7. Does October 7 change your argument at all? And what do you mean by different? 

COOK: Happily, it doesn’t. I didn’t have to stop and rewrite the whole book, although writing a book about current events does put you in odd— 

LINDSAY: At the mercy of current events.  

COOK: At the mercy of current events. I was—and this is on the record, but I’ll say it—a number of years ago I was in the odd position of rooting for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the failed coup of 2016, because had the coup plotters prevailed I would have had to rewrite big parts of a book, which—(laughter)—I was sitting on the beach and saying, I really don’t want to have to do this. (Laughter.) So I was rooting for Erdoğan. And I was very, very happy when he prevailed. (Laughter.) Those were actually happier times in comparison to what I had to deal with when it comes to October 7.  

But let me—let me talk a little bit about the argument in the book about Israel, and then we can have a broader conversation about what’s happened since October 7. But what I—what I argue in the book is, essentially, there remains a lot of political support in this country for Israel. There’s political support. There’s strategic rationale. There’s historical, moral commitments that different people have and have articulated to justify the special relationship which was first articulated by President John F Kennedy. But there’s nothing written that says that the United States needs to every ten years sign a memorandum of understanding committing it to providing $40 billion of military aid to Israel, especially since Israel is an advanced economy with a GDP per capita of around $52,000. 

Now, a lot of economists out there say, you know, that’s not the best measure of wealth. OK, but it’s a measure that people can kind of get their minds around. And its GDP per capita is actually larger than some of our NATO allies. And I know—I realize this is odd to argue this during a time when Israel is under threat, but because the politics of Israel are clearly changing in this country—clearly changing. Last March for the first time there was a Gallup poll which demonstrated that more Democrats were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than they were to Israel. Republicans remain pretty rock solid in support of Israel. But there are changes. There are generational changes happening here.  

What I suggest is, is that support for these kind of MOUs is going to erode over time. So let’s agree with the Israeli government over a ten-year period to phase this out. We’ll sign another MOU, and then there won’t be another MOU. And we’ll replace it with security guarantees, with agreements about technology sharing, with agreements about all kinds of cooperation in the security and military realm, without having to commit ourselves to the Israelis in this way. In a way, it helps politically. It helps lower the temperature on the relationship. And, believe me, if you just look around, just some of the things that have happened in this city over the course of last twenty-four hours, the temperature really needs to be turned down.  

And it also makes the United States less complicit with some of the things—particularly a government like the one that’s the government now in Israel—is aiming to do. So I think that’s a way of doing it that’s not punitive, that can be done with the two governments. And that can achieve the goals—the kind of legacy goals that we have in helping to ensure Israeli security. 

LINDSAY: But how does all of that translate into the current moment? Israel is at war in Gaza. There’s concern about opening up a northern front. We have Iran supporting proxies across the region. Is the Biden administration doing the right thing? Should it be doing more, doing less, doing something different? 

COOK: Let me just say before I start, that we would not be talking about this if the Israeli military and political leadership had listened to young women about my daughter’s age who spend nine hours a day looking at video screens on the Gaza border, who were telling them that something big was coming. And they were essentially blown off. We would probably be talking about Saudi-Israel normalization, which we may talk about— 

LINDSAY: We’re going to get to that next question.  

COOK: OK. So I think that President Biden did precisely what I thought he would do. If you had said to me as I was writing the book, there was going to be—I would say, based on what I’ve laid out here, this is what a president is likely to do. I think where the president miscalculated was when he went to Israel to give the Israelis his kind of famous bear hug, or whatever you want to call it, he thought it was buying him the ability to influence their military operations, and they thought it was their green light to prosecute the war however they believed they wanted. And I think he and his advisors missed—hey, I didn’t see you walk in. Good to see you. (Laughter.) I’m glad you made it. 

Anyway, what he missed was that they were going to define this conflict in existential terms, a fight for their lives. And I’ll tell you, I—as a professional responsibility I saw the October 7 footage. And it’s footage that still wakes me up at night. I saw it in December. And this is not to diminish Palestinian suffering, which there has been so much, but when you see that—those videos, you understand why the Israelis—at an intellectual level why they see this as an existential struggle. And I think the president missed that. And there were missed lines of communication. And there wasn’t clear enough from the United States about what—how best to prosecute this conflict.  

And now the president finds himself in an extremely difficult situation where he is the one who wants a ceasefire, and no one else does. I think that’s abundantly clear, that the key political actors, the most important—I shouldn’t have said key, because Richard Haass is in here. He doesn’t like that, other than when you put it in a door. The most important political actors, Hamas and the right in Israel—and I’m talking about, you know, the radical right, the Bezalel Smotriches, the Itamar Ben-Gvirs, these guys—they’re the—they’re where the energy is, where most—and they don’t want. These are two groups of one-staters. Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 under the terms of its 1988 charter, which is not the liberation of Gaza and the West Bank, but the liberation from Israel’s north to its south. That is undoubtedly the case. And it comes through in those videos. Not the sham 2017 reformed whatever. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, the people that they represent want to resettle the Gaza Strip. And they want to annex the West Bank. And what’s particularly frightening about this moment when it comes to Gaza is that their argument about Gaza is much more potent politically than it was in 2005, when Israel was withdrawing, and they said: We should never withdraw. We’re going to be attacked. We’re getting nothing but trouble out of this. And now they’re saying—and polls show, you know, 20-22 percent of Israelis want to resettle the Gaza strip. That is, I think, a disaster for everybody involved. And I don’t think that the president either has the influence, because of the framing—the way this side’s framed this issue—has the influence to move these parties to a—to a ceasefire. The conflict is not ripe yet. Believe it or not, after all of this bloodshed and death, it’s not ripe.  

LINDSAY: I want to bring the rest of the group into the conversation, but I did promise to ask you a question about Saudi Arabia. Much talked about. I don’t know whether there’s going to be a treaty, memorandum of understanding, something between that that would be between Washington and Saudi Arabia. You’ve written with Martin Indyk about the need for a new compact between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Is that along the lines of what you think this United States is not doing too much nor too little, should be doing? 

COOK: It is in line with what Martin was suggesting we do when we—when we collaborated. And I said, no, we should set our sights lower. So kudos to Martin, who I hope is watching from his—from his home office. Look, I was in—I was in Riyadh in late April. And the Saudis are all in, for obvious reasons. The United States is going to give them all kinds of goodies, and a security guarantee that is along the lines of the security guarantees that the United States provides to the Japanese government. It’s less than, you know, Article Five of NATO, but it’s pretty robust. And it’s not just about a security pact, that we will provide them with civilian nuclear technology, all kinds of side agreements on technology, AI, and a variety of other things.  

The hitch is that when we first—when the Biden administration first started thinking about this, there weren’t the votes in the Senate for it. You need two-thirds of the Senate if this is going to be an actual security pact. And so someone came up with this idea—and if I was sitting next to the president I would have said, it’s not a bad idea, Mr. President—is to wrap the security guarantee around Saudi-Israel normalization, as the sweetener for members of Congress. Saudi Arabia being not so popular, Israel being popular. But the problem now is that Israel is somewhat less popular with the Democratic Caucus in the Senate, and Saudi Arabia remains unpopular. But the real rub here is that after October 7, the price for Saudi Arabia of normalizing with Israel has gone up. 

Prior to October 7, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could say, well, some problems need to be resolved. And everybody would say, OK, he doesn’t need a two-state solution. Well now, after eight months of horrific warfare and a very online Saudis of his generation—he’s, you know, thirty-four, thirty-five years old—who’ve seen the bloodshed in real time, he needs something much more out of it. And that is—at least the way in which they say it in Saudi Arabia is a concrete, time-limited process towards a Palestinian state. Israelis aren’t takers on that. And it’s not just Prime Minister Netanyahu and the people to his right. Two-thirds of the Israeli public are opposed to a two-state solution, particularly after October 7.  

I have—we have very dear friends who are Israelis who are, like, the last two Labor voters. And you can’t talk to them about a two-state solution. You know, it doesn’t—they’re in an existential struggle. So it strikes me that the best thing—and this is something I’ve written more recently—is that if the United States has a real strategic—there’s compelling reasons to have a security pact with Saudi Arabia, the president should go to the Senate and sell it. Wrapping it around Israel normalization right now, it’s too—it’s too complicated. It’s like the iron lotus of agreements here. You have so many moving parts all at the same time, someone’s likely to get killed in the process.  

So the Saudis are—what was pretty extraordinary in Riyadh—and I didn’t think that Saudi officials were sort of fronting to me—they remain committed to the idea of normalization of relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem. Their whole vision 2030, their whole plan for the transformation of Saudi Arab and the transformation of the region, hinges on regional integration. So they very much want to move forward. And they want to find a way to move forward. And that’s actually been extraordinary around the region. The Abraham Accords countries remain committed to—it’s been a strategic decision for them to normalize relations. Except, I think if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s partners to his right get their way on Gaza. That will be something that will undermine those achievements. 

LINDSAY: At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this is a hybrid meeting, and it is on the record. We’ll take our first question from here in New York. We’ll go to the back of the room. 

COOK: That guy. The ringer.  

Q: Hi there, Steve. Is it on? I guess it is. 

COOK: I can hear you, Gideon. 

Q: Do American domestic politics make it impossible to have a sensible Middle East policy for either the Levant or the Gulf? 

COOK: Come on, Gideon. This is—by the way, this is Gideon Rose, one of my colleagues, former editor-in-chief of Foreign Affairs, who published me in Foreign Affairs. Thank you. You know that at the Council on Foreign Relations we do policy, not politics. (Laughter.) Well, this is what I’m saying—without getting into the politics of it, because we do policy not politics at the Council on Foreign Relations—because we’re a nonpartisan membership organization—(laughter)—my proposal to shift the way in which we help the Israelis is, to my mind, a way in which we lower the temperature and the emotionalism around these relationships. Whether it’s the U.S.-Israel relationship, U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. This, I think, is what we can hope to achieve.  

We’re not going to—I think it would be—talking about politics, if there was a proposal to cut the aid to Israel, you can imagine how certain people would want to make that a wedge issue, to play politics with these issues. This seems, to me, a way in which we can find the best possible way to continue to help support the Israelis, as I think last Harvard-Harris poll—pardon me—Harvard-Harris poll, I saw 53 percent of Americans, 54 percent of Americans support the overall relationship between the two countries, although Americans clearly have qualms about the way in which the Israelis have prosecuted their campaign in the Gaza Strip. This is a way of doing it and normalizing the relations and, like I said, diminishing the emotionalism around all of these relations. But you’re not going to get me to talk about politics, Gideon. 

LINDSAY: We’ll go here toward the front, gentlemen with the admirable beard. 

Q: Thank you very much. Elliot Waldman. I work at an investment fund here in New York City. Congratulations on the book. 

COOK: Thank you. 

Q: You wrote in a recent piece that—I think you were—the line was U.S. policy toward Israel is stuck in the ’90s. And essentially— 

COOK: Oh, did that get me in trouble. (Laughs.) 

Q: Essentially, I think the argument was that, you know, the way that Benny Gantz is seen by people in Washington, it doesn’t really add up, given the things he’s said and the positions that he’s taken. I’m kind of wondering if you could connect that with the thesis of your book in the broader region, to what extent is the problem—you know, you mentioned earlier that, you know, we should be seeing the region as it is and not the way we want it to be. To what extent is the problem that we see the region as we want it to be and not as it is? And how do we get beyond that?  

COOK: That’s a great question. And that piece that you quoted—and thank you for reading it. It’s always a thrill to meet a—to meet a reader. And my—the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy is here. And he is just wonderful and has been so generous to me, and lets me write these kinds of things and explore these ideas—many of which got into the struggle—not the struggle—The End of Ambition. That Benny Gantz piece is a piece that I’ve been itching to write since, like, October 10. Because folks in Washington have this idea about Benny Gantz being this, you know white knight, who, you know, the former chief of staff, and he’s a man of the center, or the center left.  

I mean, only by really Israeli standards is he in the center or the center left. Anywhere else he be definitely to the right. And in fact, in the series of elections that the Israelis had, he ran to the right of Netanyahu on Gaza. So it was a way—talking about the kind of assumptions that people had about Gantz was a way to pivot to the assumptions that American policymakers have brought to the Middle East over the course of the last three decades. Not Richard Haass, of course, but others have brought to the region over the course of three decades, that have led to these failures. Because we have in our minds believed certain things about the Middle East that just objectively are not true.  

It’s our Middle East. It’s what we assume the Middle East to be like, not actually how it is. And my plea is, let’s see it how it is. And let’s—because half of Washington, or more than half of Washington is afflicted by the other BDS—Bibi derangement syndrome—they read into Benny Gantz what they want to see in Benny Gantz, not actually who Benny Gantz is. And we’ve done that over—we’ve done that about democracy promotion. We’ve done that about peace. We’ve done that about the JCPOA and the willingness of the parties to share the region. And President Obama’s famous words to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine. And I think that if we had a much more realistic understanding that didn’t come with those assumptions to the region, we would be in a much better place than we are now. 

LINDSAY: Here in the back. 

Q: Younghee Kim. 

I have a question for you. I think The End of Ambition is almost appropriate because my understanding is we don’t have ambassadors representing American interest in several of these important countries in Middle East. And who is really representing our interest or our thoughts? And why are we lacking our ambassadors and presence in these important strategic countries?  

COOK: People want to pull me into politics. And I think one of the reasons why there’s vacancies in the region has more to do with Washington than representing our interests or no one representing our interests in Washington. The ambassadorial appointments have been—have been a problem because we’ve been so polarized in the region. But quite honestly, the Middle East is— 

LINDSAY: And it’s not limited to the Middle East.  

COOK: It’s not limited to the Middle East. 

LINDSAY: It’s a problem around the world. 

COOK: That’s exactly right. It’s a problem around the world. But when it comes to the Middle East in particular, because we’ve been so focused on it, a lot of the critical work is done in Washington rather than in posts out in region. And that’s where the policy is developed and made. So as important as ambassadors are, as important as our Foreign Service officers are—I mean, you know, I read the WikiLeaks cables. I’ll never get a security clearance ever because I read the WikiLeaks cables. But it’s extraordinary writing. We have extraordinarily talented and smart people who are serving the country as diplomats. But a lot of that policy is really kind of remote controlled from the National Security Council, which has become almost a mini-State Department within the White House complex. 

LINDSAY: Up here at the front. 

Q: Mark Rosen, Advection Growth Capital. 

You haven’t talked a lot tonight about Iran. And I wonder if you could address the Iran nuclear threat. It seems like the evidence in the IEA is that they’re getting very, very close to being able to develop a nuclear weapon. What should the U.S. do about that? 

COOK: Yeah. It’s a great question. There’s actually a lot in the book about Iran. Much of it I channel from my dear colleague Ray Takeyh, who is, you know, to my mind, a stunningly excellent Iran analyst. What I say in the book is let’s acknowledge that Iran is a nuclear-capable state, and then fashion a policy around that, that is not regime change though. What I call for is a—to use a Washington word—a robust containment and deterrence. Which is not what we have been doing. What we have been doing is operating under the assumption that Iran wants what we want, which is a new relationship. And the Iranians have made clear that they don’t want a new relationship with the United States. They’re perfectly willing to make agreements in one realm and then pursue malevolent policies in other realms.  

And I think it’s very clear from the post-JCPOA period that even though they signed this agreement with the United States, they continued to do things to destabilize the region. Because what the Iranians essentially want is to push the United States out of the region, and to destroy Israel, and to essentially write the rules of the road in the region. And I think since October 7, that’s been abundantly clear, that that is what they want to do. If you listen carefully to what, for example, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, says—and I don’t think enough people actually listen carefully to what they say—these goals are abundantly, abundantly clear. And Hezbollah has become essentially a(n) expeditionary force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran.  

So what it seems to me—you know, I don’t want to—I don’t want to send, you know, 200,000 American soldiers into Iran to overthrow the regime. I think if the regime is going to change in Iran, that’s up to Iranians to do. But I also want to make sure that the things that are important to the United States are protected, our interests are advanced. And the way to do that is to have, I think, a robust containment and deterrence. And what’s not— 

LINDSAY: Steven, pause for a second there. What does that mean in practice?  

COOK: I’m about to explain it.  


COOK: I’m about to explain! 

LINDSAY: I’m impatient. 

COOK: No, I know you’re impatient. I’m not trying to run out the clock. (Laughter.)  


COOK: And what I write about in the book is configuring American forces in the region to maintain that freedom of navigation, but also to establish rules of the road with the Iranians. And containment and deterrence, to my mind, means—doesn’t preclude either dialog with the Iranians or the use of military force when the Iranians are doing things that undermine our interests. And I think the perfect example of that is how we bent over backwards for a decade because we wanted to—we wanted to have a JCPOA. So we overlook the Houthi threat and who the Houthis really are. Then we had the interregnum during the Trump years, where we had a much more robust response to the Iranians intermittently, although it was President Trump who broke the Carter doctrine in the Reagan corollary by after the Iranians attacked Saudi Arabia, he said, eh, we’re not going to do anything about it. And it was the one moment of bipartisan consensus in Trump’s Washington. 

President Biden came back and we chased the Iranians around the region to try to get back into the JCPOA, which they didn’t necessarily want to do. And it wasn’t totally irrational for them to not want to get back into the JCPOA, given what their goals are. And so the idea is that there are going to have to be times where we will have to use military force. And in Yemen, it was one of those places where I think we could have been more robust. The Houthis now have much, much more capability to have leverage over the international economy than they had ten years ago. And it’s not just the fact that they can, you know, attack vessels in the Red Sea. There’s all kinds of knock-on effects to that.  

One of the three main sources of hard currency for the Egyptians is, what? Suez Canal tolls. You take half of those ships off of the Red Sea, they have to sail around the Cape of—Cape of Good Hope? Is that—we’re going there in a few days. The Cape of Good Hope. Egypt is a desperately poor country. Egyptians are already getting on boats and going to Europe. The failure of Egypt would be devastating to everybody around it and everybody on the other side of the Mediterranean. And just in fact, think about the environmental impacts of having more boats sailing for longer periods of time, burning more hydrocarbons, because of what the Houthis are doing. Think about the geostrategic implications of the Houthis being able to close the Red Sea and the Mandeb Strait for the Taiwan Strait. So it strikes me that we should not let the Iranians get away with this kind of thing. And we should dispose of the idea that they want a new relationship with the United States, because they don’t. 

LINDSAY: I’ll go back over here to the corner. 

Q: Hello. My name is Leel Sinai. 

COOK: Like the peninsula in Egypt? 

Q: Yes. 

COOK: Cool. OK. 

Q: If you could please speak to what you mentioned earlier about work—sorry, the United States working with authoritarian regimes in the 1970s, and kind of zoom out and speak about that in the context of the zero-sum dynamics of the Cold War, and sort of why that happened. And then possibly fast forward to today in our more multipolar world, and kind of lessons learned from that dynamic. 

LINDSAY: I will note, that’s the entire point of the book. (Laughter.) So if you could sort of squish it down. There’s a bunch of people who raised their hands and I’d like to give them an opportunity as well. 

COOK: That’s the entire point of the book. I invite you to read it. (Laughter.) What I’d say is, look, the authoritarian stability that we pursued in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, up until, you know, arguably, 9/11, and then some wanted to get back to, provided benefits to the United States. Like I said, we were able to pursue our interests more easily and relatively less expensively than we otherwise would—have been able to do it. And that was important. In this multipolar world, it’s harder to do. And that’s why you see the Biden—President Biden dropping the MBS is beyond the pale to fist-bumping MBS and saying, hey, let’s have a security pact where we will come to your defense If the Iranians attack you. 

LINDSAY: The young woman right here. 

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Council on Foreign Relations, for timely book talk. And thank you, Mr. Cook, for your insights. I’m from the Middle East. My name is Xeyal Qertel.  

In the beginning of your conversation you divided U.S. policies toward Middle East into two, and starting with World War II. I’m one of the forty to fifty million Kurds never represented. So my question to you is, since Kurdish land’s been split into four distinct countries, and none of them is any better toward us than another one, Kurdish coalition with American Army on the ground to defeat ISIS, to defeat, you know, maybe topple even Saddam Hussein because he used chemical gas on us. But yet, we never been acknowledged. So it—on the one hand, U.S. Army is still cooperating and working with Kurds every day, administrations really never acknowledging us. How do you interpret that? And what do you think the future of Kurds in the Middle East? 

COOK: Do you want to do a couple of questions, or do you want me— 

LINDSAY: No, let’s answer this one. 

COOK: Just you should know that the opening of the book starts out with me among Kurdish refugees from Qamishli in Syria who have fled Turkish airstrikes to Iraq. It was one of these kind of unbelievable moments—unbelievable not a good way, where people were pushed out of Syria and found refuge in Iraq, of all—of all places. The Kurdish story is a—is a tragic one, to say the least. And the Kurds have stepped up. When our NATO ally Turkey refused to work with the United States to defeat the Islamic State, we turn to Kurdish forces in Syria to help us.  

Yet, Turkey remains important to the United States and to U.S. officials. So that we’ve never been willing to forsake our relationship with NATO ally Turkey in order to support Kurdish aspirations. And that’s, unfortunately for Kurds, the way it’s likely to be for the foreseeable future. The Kurds are important, as you point out, in Iran, in Syria, in Turkey, in Iraq—important political actors. But they’re also quite weak. And the fact that the United States has turned to them and sought help from them, and they have stepped up and helped us, and we have not returned the favor, is just the function of how weak you are, and stuck between a number of very important actors to the United States. 

LINDSAY: I think we have a question from a member of our online audience.  


OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Joseph Votel. 

COOK: Uh-oh. Talk about ringers.  

OPERATOR: Mr. Votel, please accept the unmute now prompt. Looks like we’re having a problem with that line. So we’ll take the next question from Ani Zonneveld. 

COOK: Oh! For people who don’t know, Joseph Votel was the commanding general of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the entire Middle East. (Laughter.) So it was likely to be a very good question.  

LINDSAY: Let’s get the next question, if we may. 

Q: Yes. Hi. Good evening. My name is Ani Zonneveld from Muslims for Progressive Values. 

Given the current conflict in Gaza and the unconditional support of Israel, despite the many charges of crimes against humanity, how can America redeem itself as the champion of human rights and democracy? 

COOK: It’s an interesting question, because I actually just wrote a piece saying that we never really were the champions of human rights and democracy. (Laughs.) We’ve had red lines over many years that were not really red and not really lines. There was a moment during the Cold War, and it was a specific moment in a specific place in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where human rights—banging away on the question of human rights helped us strategically. It has not been the case in the Middle East as we have worked with authoritarians and other regimes in the region. So I don’t think that there’s much to redeem. If you look at the—if you look at the record, we’ve never been concerned as much with human rights as we are with what our strategic interests are, which I lay out in the book. 

LINDSAY: Were we able to get General Votel back on the line?  

OPERATOR: He dropped his hand. 

LINDSAY: OK, sir. 

Q: Going back to Iran, a lot of us would like to believe that the majority of Iranians share more of our values than the values of the regime which they are under, and the regime relies more in their foreign legions, like the Houthis and Hezbollah, and so. What are your thoughts about the long-run implications of that, that eventually the best friends that we might have in that area might be the Iranians, despite what we see today? 

COOK: Yeah. I’ll just recall what one of my—one of my good friends, an Iran analyst named Karim Sadjadpour, has said to me over and over again. He said, it could be next week or it could be thirty years. It’s like the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. We just don’t know. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Iranians really don’t like the regime, but I’ll tell you an anecdote. After this poor young woman, Mahsa Amini, was killed by the Iranian religious police for not wearing her scarf correctly, and there were these enormous protests throughout Iran, I arrived—and people were electrified by this. And this was not—this was a period of ten years where there were these protests and they would die down, but there seemed to be—this seemed to engulf the entire country, young people. 

And I arrived in the Gulf, on the other side of the Gulf, and I said to my interlocutors—my Saudi, my Emirati, my Bahraini—I said, look at what’s happening. Look, we seem to be on this lip of this extraordinary change. They said, you Americans are so naïve. This regime has it. They’re going to keep a lid on this. And it’s all going to go away. And I think that’s the unfortunate situation in Iran right now. It could be next week or it could be thirty years from now. Clearly, people don’t like the regime.  

I don’t know how the United States can help in this situation. We are always frozen by our history, or the narrative about our history in Iran, that if we help too much it helps the regime because they can say, it’s once again the United States mucking about and destabilizing Iran. But if we stay out, they still do that. So it’s very, very hard to understand what we should do. And that’s why, because we don’t have the insight, we don’t have the knowledge, we don’t have the resources, what I say this is that I don’t want to get involved in a social engineering project. If Iranians overthrow—throw off this terrible regime, then, of course, we should be helpful to them. 

LINDSAY: We have time for one final question. We’re going to go to the woman in, I think it’s, white. 

Q: Hi. Emily Holzman, Council on Foreign Relations. 

Does the sheer intractability of conflict in the Middle East demonstrate the absolute limits of diplomacy when facing religious conflict? 

COOK: Wow. Staff at the Council of Foreign Relations. Very smart. (Laughter.) 

It’s a good—it’s a great question. Look, which intractable conflict are we talking about? I don’t think that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians lend itself to American diplomacy, at least not yet. Like I said, it doesn’t seem ripe. But after all this time, and I’m not just talking about since October 7, when will it ever be? And I think one of the tragic aspects of this, and one of the things that people aren’t really focused on, is that when it comes to this conflict the more likely outcome when finally it comes to an end—I mean, the current conflict—is it’s going to look more like the status quo ante than it is a two-state solution, or a one-state solution, or anything along those lines. 

There is actually, though, things that American diplomacy can do. You know, Israel and Lebanon now have a maritime boundary that they didn’t before because of American diplomacy. And that allows them both to exploit natural gas off of their—off of their coast. Those are kinds of things that we can help across conflict zones in terms of water scarcity. You know, people may hate each other, but they—people still need to drink water, otherwise bad things can happen in their society. So I do think—but in a limited way—that American diplomacy can help. Just because some of these conflicts are just not ripe for resolution. 

LINDSAY: I will note that we have come to the end of our time. I want to thank everybody online and everybody in the room who joined us for the annual Hurford Lecture. And I would all ask you to join me in thanking Steven. (Applause.) 

COOK: Thank you. Thank you. 


This is an uncorrected transcript. 

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