A Conversation With Senator Chris Murphy
Senator Chris Murphy discusses the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Persian Gulf, the status of American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the foreign policy priorities for the 117th Congress.
KELLY: Thank you and good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Chris Murphy. I'm Mary Louise Kelly; I will be presiding. I want to thank you all, to start with, for being flexible with your timing so that we could get the senator on to his vote and back. And I want to thank you for being so numerous. We have a ton of you registered—about 450 people. So we will do our best to get to as many of your questions as I can. Let me begin by saying, Senator, we welcome you. Welcome to the Council. By way of introduction this is Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, incoming chair of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and counterterrorism. And particularly relevant for our purposes today, I think it’s safe to say you've long been one of the staunchest congressional critics of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. I know you've been pushing for years now to end U.S. involvement in Yemen and try to reset U.S. engagement with the broader Middle East region. So I know you have some opening thoughts on that. Welcome, I'm going to throw to you and then we'll take some questions.
MURPHY: Great. Well, thank you to the Council for hosting. Mary Louise, I'm looking forward to the conversation between us and to taking as many questions as we can fit in. And let me add my thanks for the flexibility from both the Council but also the attendees and participants. Today, we had a series of votes on the floor of the Senate on a subject near and dear to all of our hearts, which is the confirmation of Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be the next ambassador to the UN. I just returned from those votes, so I appreciate the ability to put this off by a bit. But I do want to share some opening thoughts and then dive into a dialogue. And I want to start down the road from the Capitol complex. You know, there are probably a lot of legitimate reasons why the government of the United Arab Emirates would make $180 million investment in a children's hospital on the other side of the world. And frankly, as hospitals across the country are facing financial challenges, Children's National here in DC is really in no position to look too far into the rationale for such generosity. Maybe the investment was to serve the Emirati citizens who live in and around the Capitol. Maybe it was to create a partnership with a top pediatric hospital that could end up in better health care in the Emirates. But maybe the reason doesn't really matter. Maybe what actually matters is the fact that this $180 million investment was barely noticed, because it is a drop in the bucket compared to the investments that Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar make in American companies, American think tanks, and American philanthropies in and around Washington, DC. Listen, we all know it. Much of this town runs on Gulf money. It's an open secret.*
(*Editor's Note: CFR does not accept funding from foreign governments, a policy that has been in place since 2008, nor does it accept grants or membership from corporations that are majority-owned by foreign governments.)
And I lead with this not to shame individuals or institutions who are taking these investments, but to use this reality as a mechanism to frame the answer to the question that I want to ask today. And the question is this? Why after three decades of tumult and change in the Middle East, including the end of the Cold War, the end of American dependence on Gulf oil, the beginning of the internet age, the birth of modern terrorist networks, is our policy toward the Gulf virtually unmoved since 1980? Why are we still stuck in the Carter era when nothing else in the world or the Middle East looks like it did forty years ago. In his State of the Union speech in 1980, which came in the wake of the 1970s oil shocks, President Carter described in really grave terms the risk of losing access to Middle Eastern oil. He said, you know, "Any attempt by an outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America." And he said that it would be “repelled through American military force.” That was, of course, the Carter Doctrine, and it's remained a defining feature of U.S. policy towards the Middle East ever since. And you can understand why Carter takes this line in 1980. Back then the United States relied heavily on oil imports to power its economy and of those oil imports, which were the majority of our oil, 29 percent of those came from the Persian Gulf. Frankly two decades later little had changed by, you know, the turn of the millennia. In 2001 the United States was still importing 29 percent of its oil from the Gulf. But it's not 1980 anymore. It's not 2001 anymore. Today the United States produces as much oil as it gets from abroad. And of the portion we get from abroad, only 13 percent of that comes from Gulf countries. The United States now imports, for instance, more oil from Mexico than we do from Saudi Arabia.
And that's not all that's changed. Twenty years ago America was attacked by a group of extremists fueled by a corruption of Islam, enabled by an intolerant conservative brand of the religion funded by and through the Gulf. The weapons we sell to the Gulf used to be, for all intents and purposes, really museum pieces. They were used to build clout and influence but they were rarely actually used. Not anymore. The weapons we send to the Gulf are now used to bomb civilians in places like Yemen or transferred to extremist militia groups. And proxy wars have exploded all over the region, pitting Iran against the Gulf or the Gulf against Turkey or sometimes even the Gulf against itself. So much has changed except for our policy toward the region. So let me pause here and state for the record that I believe in a strong U.S. relationship with Gulf nations. And also let me acknowledge that there's a lot of risk in making generalizations that sort of lump together countries that make up the GCC. They're all different. The United States has different bilateral relationships with each different interests with respect to each nation.
And let me also make clear there is a lot of good that comes from the Gulf. I mean, just to give you a few examples. Bahrain and UAE's decision to establish formal ties with Israel is a clear sign of the positive influence that these countries can exert. Kuwait and Oman play a powerful role in mediating regional conflicts. Gulf countries have been generous donors to UN humanitarian aid appeals. The United States counterterrorism partnerships—they're flawed, but they're real. They're still crucial. These governments often have information that we can't glean ourselves. And we're always broadening our people-to-people ties. You know, for instance we've got tens of thousands of students from the Gulf that study today at U.S. colleges and universities. So let me be clear. What I'm proposing is that our policy just catch up with the times, not that we pull away from the Gulf. No, what I want is a more substantive and stable link between the United States and the GCC that actually aligns with the interests of both partners. Because right now our relationship is mutually destructive. There is, I would argue, a kind of central design flaw in the United States' current approach to the Gulf. Think of it this way. The two top GCC priorities for the relationship—one, sustaining U.S. military assistance to fight these regional proxy wars, and two, maintaining U.S. silence on Gulf domestic political repression—will in the long run collapse the region into inter-regime and intra-regime conflict and that's bad for everybody.
So the first step here, I think, is for the United States to disengage from the GCCs proxy wars with Iran. Now, the Iranian government is our adversary, but the festering series of hot and cold conflicts in the region—we'll talk about Yemen and Iraq and Lebanon and Syria—have simply served to strengthen Iran's influence in the region. They have created just catastrophic levels of human suffering throughout the region. A pullback from U.S. intervention in places like Syria and Yemen is no doubt going to cause a lot of commotion and consternation in the Gulf, but by now the enormous costs of this false belief that the U.S. military can change political realities on the ground and the region, it should be pretty clear, because the most significant effect of recent U.S.-Middle East military adventurism has been to fuel perpetual wars that allow extremist groups and anti-American sentiment to just grow and grow and grow. Second, I think it's time for us to challenge this belief, which is kind of just baked into the DNA of the foreign policy consensus in Washington today that the U.S. can't defend our interests in the Gulf without massive bases scattered throughout the region. Let's just remember that before the Gulf War, the United States was able to protect its interests in the region without billion dollar bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and without billions in annual arms sales to these same nations. It's crazy that Washington acts like this massive military presence is now mandatory even though it didn't exist until the creation of the post-9/11 security state. And U.S. bases are costly, not just in monetary terms. Sure they draw focus away from important other theaters like Asia and Africa, but they also create a lot of pressure on the United States to ignore serious human rights abuses by our hosts. And they stand out as military targets and propaganda targets for Iran and al-Qaeda and ISIS and other extremist organizations. Finally, let me talk about our other military partnerships. We should continue to sell military equipment to our partners in the Gulf, but we should make sure that these really are truly defensive arms. Today, too many of our weapons are used irresponsibly, sometimes in violation of international law. Other sales, such as the recent announced Reaper armed drone sales to the UAE, they're just likely to fuel our regional arms race that runs counter to our national security interests. Now, we should be willing to maybe increase the level of truly defensive arms that we're willing to provide like the THADD missile defense technology system, but we should make sure that what we're selling is truly defensive.
Now, I understand that if Washington does all these things, Saudi Arabia and the UAE predominantly are going to complain that the United States is abandoning them and empowering Iran. And the Biden administration's task, and Congress's task, is going to be to convince our Gulf partners that there is an alternative to this never-ending military contest and political contest with Tehran. A regional security dialogue that includes all parties can replace this arms race and this set of proxy wars. I know this may sound like utopian fantasy, but I don't think it is. I see the early shoots of this dialogue; they've been showing for years. I think Yemen can be a testing ground for this concept, but only if U.S. leadership is willing to create a structure for detente. And although the United States, we shouldn't give UAE or the Saudis veto power over whether or not we get back into the JCPOA, if we're in this regional dialogue it binds the Gulf countries closer to all of the decisions the United States makes and would give GCC countries a lot more input on our policy in the region. And here's how I think we need to talk about this. We need to make clear that de-escalation with Iran should be really appealing to Gulf nations. The moral and the financial cost of these wars is huge. The future is not going to run on oil. Declining petro revenues means that Gulf nations are soon going to need to make some hard choices between investing in domestic economic reforms or in fighting wars in foreign countries. Constant conflict is going to be unaffordable pretty soon.
And here's where human rights comes into the conversation. The massive wake of Donald Trump and January 6 makes clear that the United States is going to have some difficult work ahead of us to rebuild our global brand. But there's no way that happens without ending Washington's hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach in the Gulf. But like with regional de-escalation, the Gulf should see the merits of political reform. If the Gulf really wants to attract international investment, which leaders like Mohammad bin Salman talk about constantly, it's got to address the ongoing brutal crackdown on political dissent and a lack of rule of law. Outside investors are just never going to make a big play in the Gulf while political space is so limited. And the long-standing social bargain in places like Saudi Arabia of no taxation but no representation either, I just don't think it can last as population growth outstrips oil revenues, royal families are not going to be able to afford that payoff once subsidies go down but repression remains. A disastrous storm of unrest is going to brew there. So listen, I've been arguing for years that U.S. foreign policy has become really dangerously anachronistic. I sort of think of it as an instrument that's tuned to play a song that the orchestra no longer performs and I make that critique very broadly. I've been making the case to develop a new foreign policy toolkit to meet the actual challenges that confront the United States today. But U.S. policy is maybe most dangerously out of tune in the Gulf. And President Biden and his team have a chance to change this, but only if they and we in Congress are willing to step outside this forty-year-old policy sclerosis toward the Middle East and start asking some really, really hard questions about whether our policy is actually aligned at all with our interests in the interests of our partners in the region anymore. So I'm really excited for the conversation today. Sorry, that was maybe a little long, but I wanted to, you know, put a bunch of thoughts out there on the table for discussion and I look forward to the dialogue.
KELLY: Thank you. Thank you, Senator. I will flag for everybody listening along that the senator elaborates on all of this in a new piece in Foreign Affairs. The headline is "America's Middle East Policy is Outdated and Dangerous." We just heard you make the case there, Senator. I will dive in right there with a question so obvious that you raised it yourself, which is the risk that this is seen—U.S. disentangles from Yemen, if the U.S. disentangles from other proxy wars, if we close massive military bases in the region, as you're advocating, if we scale back intervention in the region—that our allies will look at this and say, "You're abandoning us. You're ceding influence to Iran." If I'm sitting listening to you in Riyadh, why wouldn't I be really worried?
MURPHY: Well, because, you know, ultimately, as I make the case in those remarks and in that piece, it’s not in the long-term interests of our Gulf partners to be in a constant set of very expensive proxy wars with Iran. Detente and reconciliation is in the long-term interests of both sides of that conflict for regional hegemony, and we just should not accept this premise that it is inevitable that there is going to be military conflict between the two sides for the next twenty years and the United States is duty-bound obligated to weigh in on the GCC side over and over again despite the fact that little to no progress is being made. Look at Yemen. The battle lines in Yemen have not moved for the most part over the course of the last six years. And to the extent they're moving today, they're not moving to the benefit of our side. So I don't think there's a lot of evidence that our continued military support for these conflicts in places like Yemen or Syria have ultimately strengthened the hand of our partners or our side. Indeed in Yemen today, our side is losing ground, not gaining ground. And again, I think we replaced this with other types of partnerships. I take Mohammed bin Salman at his word. I think he really does see a future for Saudi Arabia in which it has a truly diversified economy and that that is a primary goal for him if he, you know, becomes leader of the country. We can't be a partner with him in that if the region is constantly on fire, if they're using our weapons to kill civilians. Our companies won't listen to our entreaties to move into Saudi Arabia if there's still a guardianship system there. And so I think we've got to make the case that there's good that comes from less conflict and that we can be bigger economic partners with the region, that are our industries can be bigger and more important economic partners in the region if they are able to also open up political space.
KELLY: Is there a risk that if the U.S. steps back, other powers step in and that our Gulf allies look to Russia or China for their economic needs, security needs, leadership?
MURPHY: Well, part of the reason that I, you know, sort of wove into the piece a tiny sort of history lesson is to, you know, reflect on this new expectation that by closing a base in Bahrain or reducing the number of troops at Al Udeid that we are abandoning the region, right? We didn't have these bases in the region in the 1980s or the 1990s. I would argue probably during most of that time not as big of military partners we are today. We're selling way more weapons, way more complicated systems today than we were back then. But nobody claimed in the '80s or '90s that we were abandoning or that we weren't good partners with the region. It's just that the expectations have changed. And so I think we can still be important security partners with the region even if we don't have as many troops or as many bases there. And your question is one that constantly gets raised. Often when I'm arguing against arm sales to the region, my colleagues will say, "Well, if we don't sell them these systems, the Russians or the Chinese will." I think that's a red herring. Ultimately, the Russians don't have anything that compares with the kind of equipment that the United States can sell. We can drive a harder bargain. Second, the Russians in the Gulf countries over the next forty years are going to be desperate competitors because as oil revenues and demand shrinks, all of a sudden they're going to be scratching at each other's throats for share of the market. And the Chinese, they want to be economic partners in the region, but they don't really want to get their hands dirty in the complicated security dynamics. The Chinese navy is not coming to the rescue of any country in the Gulf that gets attacked by Iran. So we are still the indispensable partner and this, sort of, idea that if we don't sell them the weapons somebody else will and so that's why we should be in business with the Gulf, I just don't think it holds enough water.
KELLY: Let me zoom in on, if not the central, certainly a central relationship here—the U.S.-Saudi relationship and where your proposal would leave things. You know, it won't be lost on our members here that you and I are speaking in a week when we await the unclassified report from the Director of National Intelligence on the Jamal Khashoggi killing. And if it tracks with what we're told the classified version that came out back in 2018 was that it will directly finger Mohammed bin Salman as having ordered that killing, which, you know, feels like a bomb being dropped in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Where does your proposal leave this very complicated relationship? Is the bottom line, as you see it, just that that relationship is less central to U.S. strategic interests than it once was?
MURPHY: Well, I certainly think that we have to right size the relationship in perspective to its importance to the U.S. security interests. And that's why it's important understand that, you know, the basis for the Carter Doctrine, the idea that the U.S. can't live without Saudi oil has changed. Listen, Saudi oil is still important to the United States, but it's not as important as it was in the 1970s or the 1980s. And forty years from now, I would hazard a guess that the United States is going to be able to live fairly easily without oil imported from the Gulf. So the nature of the relationship has changed, but we still care a lot about the Middle East. The terrorists that attacked us on September 11 and still want to do harm to us are still organizing in the region. And so we don't have interests in the region devolving into chaos nor these extremists gaining space. We still have great interest there. But yes, we should drive a harder bargain with both the Saudis and the Emiratis when it comes to our security partnership with them. We should expect more when it comes to the opening of political space before we get into complicated arms sales with them. We should be careful to not fuel an arms race. I just don't think we should be selling Reaper drones into the region because soon thereafter the Iranians will have a complement to that system. At the same time, I'm willing to do more than we have on truly defensive systems. So for instance, you know, there has been reluctance to sell THADD weapons technology into the region. I think that that's a very appropriate ask, and I think that we should be in the business of significant defensive systems with the region. So there are ways in which we can plus up our security partnership. I think there are some systems that are truly offensive that don't belong in the Gulf region. And then I also think that we can drive a harder bargain and ask more of our partners when it comes to political reform, and I don't think we need to worry that they will walk away if we simply ask them to do a little bit better on, you know, human rights, civil rights, women's rights.
KELLY: In a moment I'm going to open the floor to others to chime in with their questions. But let me get one more and if I may, which is, let me broaden it out a little bit. Setting aside U.S. involvement or lack thereof, what chances do you see, Senator, for peace in the region unless and until there is some kind of grand reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran? I mean, we've talked about the proxy wars. We've kind of been skirting around Iran and their role in all of this. But if you don't get some kind of bargain between those two, if not a formal accord, are you always just putting out fires as they continue to fight each other through proxy wars and proxy groups throughout the region?
MURPHY: I think that's right. And, you know, I will also submit that there is a limit to U.S. influence and authority in the region. This is ultimately going to have to be a decision made by the people of the Middle East, by the Saudis and the Iranians and the Emiratis as to, you know, whether they want a future for their children in which they are in constant conflict, they are at constant risk of attack. I think that they can do better. And I think that, you know, they want to do better. I think the United States still plays a really important role as an interlocutor. Clearly, that's made easier if the United States has a dialogue with Iran, which is why I want us to, you know, have some diplomatic relationship once again with Tehran so we can actually convene some of these conversations. And in the Foreign Affairs piece I go into a little bit more depth on this. I think that Yemen is the testing ground here. I see the outlines of a political reconciliation in Yemen that will require the Saudis and the Iranians to give, and in that sort of compromise in Yemen is maybe the sort of testing ground for a broader dialogue in the region. The Iranians won't have as much influence as they would like. The Houthis will have to share power. The Saudis will have to spend some money to reconstruct the war-torn areas of the country. We'll have to move on from the Hadi regime to some transitional, multisectoral government. But Yemen to me is a place where the United States doesn't need to sort of immediately tackle the big question of sort of how we have a regional settlement of accounts between both sides. We can start with Yemen and if we're successful in Yemen, I think it shows both sides that there's merit in continuing the conversation. As you know, Dennis Ross used to say in the Middle East, you know, the dialogue, the debate is the process, right? Once you create a dialogue in Yemen maybe that starts an ongoing dialogue that becomes peace.
KELLY: All right, I have follow ups but let me invite my fellow members to join the conversation. We've got, it looks like about half an hour for questions. We pledged to get everybody on with your day by 1:30 sharp. I will echo the reminder that we are on the record. And I believe the operator is going to hop on and remind everybody how to join and ask a question.
STAFF: [Gives Queuing Instructions] Our first question today will be from Elise Labott.
Q: Can you hear me okay?
KELLY: We can.
Q: Hi, Senator. Elise Labott with Foreign Policy. Thank you so much for your remarks and the dialogue. So I just would like to broaden this out to Israel a little bit considering your role on the committee and your involvement in the total region. I do take your points about a unchanged foreign policy towards the Gulf for so many years and ensuring that arms are truly defensive, the fears of violation of U.S. law and human rights, and this kind of see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach, but I think even a lot of people who agree with you, including myself on the Gulf issue, could say much of that applies to Israel and question whether you need to, you know, reevaluate that, particularly in their operations against the Palestinians considering especially that Israel's regional security threat, although still great from Iran, is decreasing a little bit with its normalization with Gulf states. And then on the larger question, how does Israel in your view fit into your idea of this regional security architecture? That includes the Gulf. Thank you.
MURPHY: Sure. Well, you know, obviously when I sort of list the things that have changed in the Gulf over the last forty years, what should be on that list is, you know, essentially, you know, a shift in the foundational organizing premise of the region, which used to be the question of the future of the Palestinian territory. I mean, that used to be the defining organizing principle of the region—which side of that question you were on. Now, the defining organizing principle of the region is the division between Shia and Sunni states. Are you on the Iranian side or are you on the Saudi side and the Turks obviously have a role as well. And so as alliances have shifted, which gives us, you know, some real openings here for new dialogue as has happened over the course of the last year between Iran and GCC members. I do think it is important to recognize, though, that we share values with the Israelis that we don't share with states that are run by repressive, unelected regimes. I would argue for more rights to be granted to Palestinians, but I also recognize that Israel is still a democracy. And that stands in stark contrast to the nations in the GCC and so it also stands to reason that we should have a different set of expectations when we are doing, for instance, military business with the Gulf versus military business with a democracy in the region. Israel clearly has a role to play in this regional dialogue. We shouldn't give them veto power over whether we reenter the JCPOA either, but they should be at the table. And given the fact that they now have, I think, new important ties to the Gulf, they can be a much more integrated and constructive partner in that relationship.
KELLY: Can I just follow on that, Senator? When you bounce these ideas off your counterparts and friends in Israel, what kind of questions do you get back?
MURPHY: Well, I think it would be some of the same questions we will get from our Gulf partners that, you know, in the end, by withdrawing the size of our existing military commitment that we are providing space for the Iranians to operate. And again, to the extent that sort of withdrawing our blank check for these proxy wars and for military support of these proxy wars ends the sort of enthusiasm of the Sunni side to fight them, I think it gives an opening for peace and opening for de-escalation, not necessarily an opportunity for Iran in the way that some fear in the region. So I think that that would be a similar concern raised by the Israelis as the one is often raised by the Gulf states.
KELLY: Next question.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Kip Hale. As a reminder, please state your affiliation.
Q: Hi. Thanks, Senator Murphy, for your words today. My name is Kip Hale, the American Bar Association. For many is a critical foreign policy priority how the U.S. engages with multilateral organizations moving forward, including those involved in the Middle East. Broadly speaking there appears to be bipartisan agreement that the U.S. should project internationally our domestic values and principles. And so building off of your consistent and forceful advocacy against what many believe in the past administration was efforts to politicize the rule of law and put undue pressure on the judiciary, my question is on your stance with respect to the unprecedented U.S. sanctions on the International Criminal Court and its judicial professionals to try to force the ICC to bend to the U.S. political will vis-a-vis Palestine and Afghanistan?
MURPHY: Yes, listen, I agree that there's no way to protect U.S. interests in the world without being a fulsome partner and participant in multilateral organizations. I am glad that this administration is going to reengage with the United Nations. I'm glad that we now have an ambassador. I've been a proponent of rejoining the Human Rights Council. I think we can be a much better proponent of our interests inside that organization and outside that organization. That doesn't stop us from being a critic. That doesn't stop us from pointing out the faults inherent in the UN. And I will say, you know, I have not agreed at times with the moves that the UN has taken to try to isolate Israel, to try to demonize the policy of that nation. I have my disagreements with the Netanyahu administration, but I also think that often some of the dialogue in the UN goes too far. So I think we can at the same time sort of reinvest in multilateral organizations while also trying to protect Israel's interest. There's a lot of members of the UN who don't believe in the existence of Israel, who want it to disappear from the map. And so I think we're just better off fighting Israel's case inside some of these organizations, particularly the Human Rights Council, than being on the outside.
KELLY: Thank you. Next question.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Sarah Leah Whitson.
Q: Hi, Sarah Leah Whitson from Democracy for the Arab World Now. Senator Murphy, thank you for your leadership and really your efforts to change our thinking, a desperately needed change in our foreign policy. But I want to press you a little bit to justify why defensive weapons are any better or why we have any responsibility to defend these, as you said, unelected, repressive leaders? And why would anyone describe unelected brutal leaders, who of course have done things like murder an American resident, Jamal Khashoggi, and we're waiting for the DNI report, repress their own population, as you mentioned, why is it in America's interest to provide them defensive weapons so that they are better able to defend their unelected, repressive rule and tyrannize their own citizens as well as people abroad? And while it's excellent that President Biden has declared an end to America's participation in the war in Yemen, it's gone on for quite a long time and I wonder whether you would support some hearings in Congress to better examine and understand just how it is we got into this catastrophic war and whether there might not be a debt we owe the Yemeni people by way of reparations for having participated in this war for really no legitimate reason whatsoever?
MURPHY: Well, as you know, when I gave the first speech in the Senate on the Yemen war in 2015, early 2016, I don't think more than a handful of my colleagues, you know, even knew that the United States was participating in this particular conflict on the other side of the world. And, you know, when I first raised an objection to an Obama-era arms sale to the Saudis that could have been used in Yemen, I got a grand total of twenty-four votes. Now, the majority of Congress supports a cessation to U.S. participation. It's a bipartisan coalition and it has led to the Biden administration's decision to pull our support. But, and so I think there will be hearings, I think you can guarantee that, you know, my subcommittee will be examining the sort of U.S. participation in Yemen and the path forward. I think you are probably right that there's going to have to be a substantial U.S. commitment to helping to rebuild Yemen. They'll have to be a much more substantial Saudi and Emirati commitment to the rebuilding of Yemen. And so your first question, which I think is a good one, right, the point of my sort of writing this piece and engaging this dialogue is so that we do ask these hard questions, right, that we don't sort of get sort of set in policies that no longer match realities. And so every now and again you should ask why are we in business with the Saudis, right? Why are we in business with the Gulf nations? What do we get for these partnerships? Because we certainly see and have seen over the last four years immense downside to these partnerships. And I tried to lay out some of the positive aspects of our engagement in the Gulf. Again, we are, you know, still only twenty years removed from thousands of U.S. citizens being killed by an attack launched at us from a foreign terrorist group. And so our counterterrorism partnership with these countries is important. We do have an interest in the future of Israel, that is an American interest. We have been a friend of Israel since its founding and Israel still has threats to it in the region. And so working with these countries to continue this detente that exists between the Gulf and Israel, that's a U.S. interest as well. And while we certainly don't import as much oil as we did, the economic partnership still does matter. I mean, we still, I would argue that we don't necessarily have to give the kind of iron-clad security guarantee that we did back in 1980, but it still isn't insignificant the extent of our energy partnership. So for all of these reasons I think it still makes sense for us to have a strong relationship with these countries. I just am arguing that it doesn't have to be as big with respect to military investment and that we can drive a much harder bargain when it comes to the political issues that you're raising.
KELLY: To follow, you talked about a commitment, that there would need to be an American commitment to rebuilding in Yemen. What does that look like specifically and what would be the range? Are we talking, you know, the Americans on the ground there helping and advising or are we a range of money, what would that look like?
MURPHY: Well, I mean, we have presently a very big commitment to Yemen. We're the biggest humanitarian donor to Yemen today. And so, you know, we are spending, you know, tens of millions of dollars trying to keep people alive inside Yemen. And, you know, frankly, we are, you know, begging every single year the Saudis and Emiratis to, you know, just match our commitment. So, yes, if we were able to successfully broker a political settlement in Yemen, I would hope that my colleagues in the United States Congress would be willing to put up significant dollars to help rebuild that country. And in this case there's a very immediate security imperative. AQAP, which is the arm of al-Qaeda that historically has had the clearest designs on attacking the United States, still exists in large numbers in Yemen. It actually continues to control territory and it takes and it reaps as a reward or takes advantage of the ungovernable spaces created by the conflict there. So if we can get a political settlement there, and I think it's there for the taking in the next four years, then I would hope that, you know, there's a big U.S. commitment there to help rebuild. I would argue the Saudis and Emiratis and the Qataris should make a bigger commitment than the United States, but I'll argue for us to be a partner.
KELLY: And to quickly follow on the piece of the question that was why should the U.S. be selling arms? I think we all have heard the argument that there remains U.S. interest in the region, remains an economic relationship, the oil relationship isn't what it was but it remains, but just bottom line, why should the U.S. be selling arms to some of these regimes that are not democracies? I mean, it's a purely an economic question, is this a big U.S. industry?
MURPHY: Well, again, I think it just speaks to the overall nature of the partnership. So, you know, we have an economic partnership. We have a security partnership. That counterterrorism relationship is important. It is often the case that we provide weapons and defensive systems to counterterrorism partners. And listen, it is also still true that Iran poses much more significant threats to U.S. security interests than the Gulf states do. And so to the extent that there is a legitimate threat of attack against our more sort of reliable partners in the region, imperfect, but more reliable partners in the region, we have an, I think, interest in supporting them. But again, I mean, I want to underscore that I'm talking about a pretty significant change in the level and amount of partnership. Again, there are some, I think, important defensive systems that we can sell, but we have been sort of supersizing the amount of arms that are flowing into the region. I mean, I would argue for a pretty significant reorientation in the kind and amount of weapons that we are selling. So I'm not, I'm not arguing for, you know, changes around the margins here. I mean, I think that, you know, it's been made pretty clear that if you are selling offensive weapons from, you know, munitions to fighter systems to, you know, tanks and ground equipment, it is now very often being used in conflict, whereas when we were selling this stuff twenty years ago it was more just for prestige.
MURPHY: Thank you. Thanks for clarifying. Next question.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Alan Jones. Mr. Jones, if you would like to unmute your microphone. Looks like we're having technical difficulties with him. So our next question will come from Shibley Telhami.
Q: Hi, thank you. This is Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. And thank you, Senator, for being a good spokesperson on behalf of human rights at home and abroad. I did read the article and I really appreciate it. I thought it was thoughtful and particularly clear on our interest in commitments vis-a-vis Gulf states. But I was a little bit puzzled by the absence of Israel in that article. Not just because of the Israeli Palestinian issue, which has a human rights component after more than fifty years of occupation of the Palestinians that you did not address in the previous question, but even vis-a-vis Iran there is a certain sense that the basic problems between the Gulf States and Iran, not so much between Israel and Iran, when in fact, the Israeli dimension of the relationship with Iran, and in fact, our presence in the region, perhaps is even bigger. Because to the extent that we could be drawn into a war with Iran, it's more likely to be over Israel than over Saudi Arabia or the UAE. And that's one reason that Obama was driven to make the Iran nuclear deal a priority to avoid being dragged into a war the U.S. doesn't want that would not serve American interest. We're facing that as well now and even the agreements that you've implemented between Israel and the Gulf states, this comes obviously as part of the package of confronting Iran where Israel is, in fact, lobbying with the Gulf states. So I am surprised that you ignored it and did not mention it given that it is really possibly even bigger than the Arab Gulf dimension vis-a-vis Iran, and also that you kind of put aside the question of human rights violations on the West Bank, not inside Israel but on the West Bank, that need more immediate attention. So I'd like to draw you to have you speak a little bit more on those issues.
MURPHY: Yes, well, I didn't ignore them. I just wrote a piece about the Gulf, not about Israel and Palestine. There's obviously a host of other incredibly important issues in and around the region. And the piece was titled by Foreign Affairs to suggest it was about the Middle East. If you read it, it's really just about the Gulf so don't take the absence of any issue in this article as a suggestion that I don't care about it. I was just writing on a specific topic. But you are, I mean, you're correct to note that this is all integrated. And that as a two-state future slips dangerously out of reach, it causes, you know, real reason to worry about the future prospects for peace and the ability for extremists to use that lack of peace and the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel and the treatment of the Palestinians as a wedge issue and perhaps a spark for future conflict. And so, you know, I'll have a lot to say over the course of the year as I have in the past about how the United States needs to, you know, get back into the business of pushing the Israelis towards peace and towards a two-state solution. As you probably know, I've been, you know, a leader already on this front. I led a letter last year engaging on the issue of unilateral annexation that was signed by eighteen of my colleagues, and I'll continue to lead. I also agree with you that we need to get back into a diplomatic conversation with Iran. I'm glad that the P5-plus-one talks are beginning, but I would counsel the administration to not waste time to get back into the JCPOA as quickly as possible, because we used the JCPOA during the Obama era, not just as a mechanism to make sure that there weren't nuclear weapons poised to be used against Israel or anyone else, but also as a platform to try to resolve other crises. Once we were talking to the Iranians, it, you know, became easier to talk about things other than the nuclear issue. And that will help to the extent, as you mentioned, a sort of platform of hostile behavior begins connected to Iran's feelings about Israel or the Israel-Palestinian question.
KELLY: All right, another question, please.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Evelyn Farkas.
Q: Hi, thank you, Mary Louise and Senator Murphy. Thanks for the vision and the fresh thought. I really have kind of a two-finger on Louise's question about Israel because coming from the defense space, my immediate thought was what do you think about keeping the qualitative edge or helping Israel keep their military qualitative edge since that was one area that you didn't specifically answer? I'll just add that on.
MURPHY: You, as you know, Evelyn, I mean, this was and still is a really important conversation in the context of this unprecedented sale to UAE that Congress came together and objected to in a bipartisan way at the end of last year. I still have serious concerns about selling, as I mentioned, both Reaper drones but also the F-35 system into the UAE. The concerns are connected in part to the danger of spinning up a regional arms race, also connected to the coordination that UAE has with both Russia and China, how technology transfer could seep through the rather thin walls that have been erected. But also, I think, you know, we start to get very close to erasing QME when you give these kind of systems to the Emiratis. And, you know, obviously that sort of feels like it's less of a concern today than it was ten years ago because of this, you know, the series of agreements that have happened between Gulf nations and Israel. But as quickly as things changed to the benefits of Israel's security in their region as it relates to Gulf nations, that could change very quickly in the other direction. And what we've also seen, particularly the Emiratis, is a willingness to transfer weapons, transfer weapons to really dangerous groups. Groups that, you know, don't have the same interests towards Israel as the current Emirati government does. And so you really worry about, you know, not where these weapons go first but where they go second. And so I think this question of QME is part of the reason why we should take our time before deciding sort of what portions of the Trump-era sale to the Emiratis goes forward.
KELLY: Thank you. We can squeeze in one or two more.
STAFF: Our next question is from Elizabeth Holtzman.
Q: Senator, thank you very much for your comments here and for your leadership in general and for your excellent leadership on guns as well as this subject today in the U.S. What is your assessment in a little bit more depth of the Biden administration's approach to Iran with respect to the JCPOA?
MURPHY: Well, as I said, I'm very glad that they are committed to reentering discussions with the P5 plus one. Obviously, it takes two to tango. And so we wait eagerly the Iranian's response. I hope they are willing to come back to the table here. I'll speak for myself, though, I'm a supporter of compliance for compliance. I'm not sure that it requires a new set of negotiations in order to get back into the JCPOA. I think the United States could suspend sanctions, at least the nuclear-related sanctions that were imposed during the Trump era and that would result in the Iranians coming back into compliance. I understand that there were a lot of sanctions levied in the Trump administration and that arguably some of those were levied for reasons not connected to Iran's nuclear program. But I think there is a worry, and I have a worry, that a new set of negotiations is potentially a rabbit hole, a trap from which we won't be able to emerge. Whereas a compliance-for-compliance arrangement is a much quicker route back into the agreement. I mean, one thing I'm not interested in is trying to do what Pompeo and Trump could not, which is sit down at the table and try to negotiate every outstanding issue we have with Iran to try to address every single one of their malevolent behaviors all at one time. I don't think that's the Biden administration's plan. I think their belief is that it's smart to get back into the nuclear agreement. But there are lots of Democrats and Republicans that are arguing that, "Well, you have them at the table, why don't you talk about missiles? Why don't you talk about support for Hamas?" I worry that if that sort of table gets reset, there will be a lot of pressure to put additional items on the table, which is why I would support, and have been very public about this, simply getting back into compliance on our side, expecting that the Iranians then come back into compliance on their side, and then if they don't we can always restart some or all of the sanctions that we temporarily suspended.
KELLY: Can I just put you one second on the timing there, Senator, because as you know, we've been at this standoff where Iran says, "Hey, you're the ones who left the deal. Drop the sanctions and we'll talk." The Biden position has been, "You have to come back into compliance and then we'll start negotiating." And so it's become this question of who will blink first. Are you arguing the U.S. should blink?
MURPHY: Well, I would reject the premise of your question that it's, you know, that it's a blink, right? We did leave the deal first. Iran was in compliance, we left. And so—
MURPHY: The U.S. go first and—
MURPHY: Yes, so listen, I think it stands to reason that the United States should release our sanctions and expect that the Iranians will then come into compliance in return. And again, I don't see a lot of risk there because if the Iranians do not return to the JCPOA, then we can reapply those sanctions. We can do it in short order but by coming back into compliance, we rebuild the P5-plus-one partnership. By coming back into compliance, we are once again on the same side of Iran policy as Europe, China and Russia. And if at that point, the Iranians don't comply, if the Iranians after we have dropped our sanctions, refuse to come back into compliance with the deal, then we are in a position to rally that coalition towards multilateral sanctions against the Iranian economy versus what exists today, which is unsustainable—U.S. unilateral sanctions and our partners doing end-arounds on those sanctions. So, yes, I'm not afraid of going first here and, you know, I don't see as big a downside to that as others do. And I also reject this notion from some of the Iran hawks that just because the Iranians are engaging in provocative behavior that we shouldn't enter into even dialogue with the Iranians. We need to get ourselves into a de-escalatory cycle and Iran was engaged in all sorts of provocations leading up to the negotiation and finalization of the JCPOA. They are involved in provocative behavior right now. But so long as we are continuing to sanction the hell out of their economy, they are going to be involved in provocative behavior. So it is incumbent upon us to begin the process of de-escalation.
KELLY: So much good food for thought here. I promise to get us all out and on with our day at 1:30 and I'm going hold to my word. So, Senator, thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughtful answers to all of these questions. We thank you.
MURPHY: Thanks, Mary Louise. Thanks to CFR.