'The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East'

Thursday, May 26, 2016
Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Steven Simon

Visiting Fellow, Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College; Former Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Ray Takeyh, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Steven Simon, Visiting Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College, discuss The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East, their new book that reframes the legacy of U.S. involvement in the Arab world from 1945 to 1991 and sheds new light on the makings of the contemporary Middle East. In their discussion with CFR President Richard Haas, Takeyh and Simon explain why they believe U.S. policy in the Middle East during the Cold War was particularly effective. They examine the most significant Middle Eastern crises of the era, the conditions that made handling them successfully possible, and the insights that can be gained from the policy choices made during that period. 

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. It includes a discussion with the author, cocktail reception, and book signing.

HAASS: OK. Well, good evening, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.

I’m Richard Haass, and tonight is the kind of night I look forward to because it’s the night at which we mark and celebrate the birth of a book. In this case, the book is called “The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.” And it is co-authored by the two gentlemen sitting up here: immediately, Ray Takeyh, who is our senior fellow principally dealing with Iran, but also other aspects of the Middle East and the Gulf. And with him is Steven Simon, who’s also one of this country’s leading Middle East experts, has been affiliated with the Council, has also spent quite a lot of time more recently in the U.S. government.

So we have two scholar-practitioners who have put together this book, which deals with the Middle East. And it’s encouraging to deal with the history of the Middle East because dealing with the Middle East currently is a truly depressing undertaking. So I can understand why somebody would think historically.

So let me begin where I often begin, which is, why the title? “The Pragmatic Superpower” something tells me has something to do with the United States. Being deeply insightful, I’ve come up with that. I’ve also had the advantage of having read the book. But also, tell us—sort of introduce your book, which is what’s the—what’s essentially the argument here?

TAKEYH: Well, I’ll start. The book essentially tries to make the case that the United States’ policy in the Middle East during the Cold War period, from 1946 to 1991, was actually remarkably successful—not completely successful, but remarkably successful. And it tries to make that argument by examining 10 crises, and those crises come in a number of baskets: how the United States approached a revolutionary situation, interstate conflict, Arab-Israeli wars, revolution, and breakdown of state order. And that’s essentially the thrust of the argument.

And then it tries to figure out why was it that it succeeded where it succeeded, and why did it fail where it failed. And the argument was partly because of American pragmatism, partly because of luck, partly because—

HAASS: Could you—look, let me interrupt. Could you define the word “pragmatism” in this context? When you—when you say “because of American pragmatism,” “The Pragmatic Superpower,” just so I understand you and everybody else understands you, what is it you’re getting at?

TAKEYH: The United States defines its interests quite carefully and in a calibrated way. It had no permanent enemies, or permanent allies even. It was willing to essentially be much more tactical in many respects. It often reexamined its assumptions. And you see that particularly in the Eisenhower years, where the first four years were largely a failure, then Eisenhower comes back in a much more insightful way, having reexamined his assumptions and the Eisenhower administration’s assumptions.

And essentially the parameters of success were to some extent that the United States at that time had the fortune of having resilient allies; flexible adversaries; and its principal adversary, the Soviet Union, was more maladroit than the United States. And at the end of the day, I think two other factors of success were there was a bipartisan consensus that the region mattered and the United States had to succeed in it, and it mattered more to the United States at the end of the day than the Soviet Union.

HAASS: Steven, do you want to add anything, or do you want me to go on to another question here? I mean, do you want to—want to contradict your co-author?

SIMON: I wouldn’t dream of it.

HAASS: (Chuckles.) So one of the features of this era, much of it, was a fairly intimate tie between the United States and Israel, though we obviously had the disagreement in ’56 and had other areas of friction and all that. All things being equal, during the roughly four decades of the Cold War, was the U.S.-Israel tie—do you see it as something that essentially advanced the U.S. position in the Middle East, or was it something of a burden that the United States was more than willing to pay, for specific reasons, but a burden all the same? Where did you two come out on that? Where did you come out on that?

TAKEYH: We elected Steve as our spokesman on matters Israel.

SIMON: Well, that’s a good question, Richards. I think it was actually some of both. I think there were some moments where the relationship with Israel was burdensome and some where it advanced U.S. interests in that Arab states saw that if they wanted to make any kind of deal with Israel, it would require U.S. mediation. So that required being close to the United States, and that in turn advanced an interest.

What was so interesting, looking back at the early years as we were researching the book, especially ’47 and ’48, was how comprehensively wrong the analysis of the effects of U.S. backing for partition and Israeli statehood were. The estimates were off by 100 percent. And they were comprehensive in the sense that there was an interagency consensus that backing of partition would be extremely dangerous for U.S. interests in the region, and that was whether you were talking to George Kennan, you know, at the State Department, or you were talking to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.

HAASS: Or George Marshall.

SIMON: Or George Marshall, who challenged Truman on this very dramatically, actually. So that’s quite interesting.

And, you know, that small print on that was very interesting to read about, because the Saudis in particular, who made public noises and to some extent private protests regarding what they thought was U.S. support for Israeli statehood and which turned out to be U.S. support for Israeli statehood, acquiesced because they felt, first, that they needed the U.S. to deal with the Hashemites, who in the Saudi perception were still a threat, and they preferred Americans to British as the imperial equalizer in the region.

HAASS: I’m going to sort of float around here a little bit. Ray, you’ve already mentioned President Eisenhower. When you look at this era of American history—so essentially we’re going from, what, Truman through George Herbert Walker Bush?

TAKEYH: Mmm hmm.

HAASS: Who stands out as the most pragmatic of the American presidents, and who stands out as the least?

TAKEYH: Eisenhower, to a large extent, because he does something that’s rare for American presidents: he changes his policy, which means changing his assumptions. On the other hand, Eisenhower had enormous confidence in covert operations, and all three covert operations that he experimented with in the Middle East failed—Iran, I will say Ajax, in ’53; Syria; and also Operation Omega, which was designed to undermine Nasser’s regime.

The least pragmatic, in the sense that he never got his head around the Middle East, in one sense, were actually both Carter and Reagan—Carter because he rarely challenged his assumptions, and he didn’t have enough time, and was overwhelmed by a crisis he didn’t understand. The Middle East never made sense to Ronald Reagan because it didn’t have that clear demarcation of communist versus anti-communist. I mean, he was selling arms to Israel. He was selling AWACS to the Saudis. He was pressuring Israel, then he wasn’t pressuring Israel. He just couldn’t get his head around the Middle East because it didn’t offer that nice, neat dichotomy that perhaps Latin America offered, or certainly Eastern Europe.

And the culmination of that was the Bush administration, the first one, where you see—the Gulf War plays itself out in three periods: before, middle, and after. And this goes back to the point that I think has been made before but perhaps bears repeating: the United States is very good at waging war, but not always good in anticipating what comes after. Postwar planning in both Iraq wars was lacking. Now, perhaps less significant in the first one because objectives were rather limited; it wasn’t a transformational conflict.

But that, I would say, stands out to me. I don’t know—I don’t know what Steve thinks.

HAASS: Steve, what are your views on this?

SIMON: I think Kennedy was pretty pragmatic.

TAKEYH: Too pragmatic. (Chuckles.)

SIMON: Well, perhaps. But, you know, the thing is he passed from the scene too quickly to know.

Johnson was pragmatic, but so—

HAASS: Well, actually, let me interrupt you. I still don’t understand what you mean by “pragmatic.” If someone’s pragmatic, what are they then not? What’s the—what’s the opposite of pragmatic, in your—in your vocabulary?

SIMON: I would say rigidly defining friends and enemies, and not—and therefore not recognizing opportunities to cultivate new relationships.

HAASS: And what’s the difference between “pragmatic” and “unprincipled”?

SIMON: I think, you know, the one is an epithet and, you know, the other’s a compliment, so. (Laughter.)

HAASS: (Laughs.) OK. I’m glad we’ve had this conversation now. (Laughs, laughter.) Intellectual honesty is so rare, so I welcome it wherever I—wherever I see it.

Ray, as always, you say things that surprise me. You talked about our unsuccessful covert operations, and you mentioned Ajax in Iran.

TAKEYH: Right.

HAASS: Why would you call that unsuccessful?

TAKEYH: If you look at CIA’s record, I think it is often suggested that it was successful in Iran in 1953 and not successful in Iran in 1979. I think we try to make the case that the opposite is true. And I go back to the point that the United States succeeded I the Middle East because of the resilience and initiative of its allies. It succeeded in the two Iran crises in 1946 and in 1953 because of the resilience of its allies, in that case in Iran being a unique combination of merchants, mullahs, and the military.

In 1979, as you begin to examine the CIA’s record, the National Intelligence Assessment and others, and also I would have to say State Department’s INR, from 1976 onwards, they began to ring the alarm bells that there are real problems in Iran. There’s emergence of opposition that could succeed, and the monarchy relies excessively on economic performance as a basis of its legitimacy, and therefore endurance. I’m not saying mistakes were not made, but if you kind of read those reports in 1976—and maybe Cy Vance and others did not—you cannot walk away from that assessment being confidence in durability of the monarchy. When you get an assessment saying that, you know, this monarchy can probably be stable till 1982, and you’re in 1976, I mean—(chuckles)—you kind of worry about that. So the American intelligence community, including the embassy, was good at identifying he problems. Nobody can anticipate revolutions. And the reporting got better as the crisis—as the crisis unfolded.

HAASS: One of the critiques of our policy during these years—Condi Rice made it, and so did others—is that, by essentially siding with authoritarian regimes and so forth, we sowed the seeds of some of the instability we’re now—we’re now seeing. Where do you come out on that? Because the promotion of democracy was not, I would say, a day-to-day priority for American foreign policy. We were more than happy working with the Saudis, the Jordanians, and many others, in part because they were anti-communist—even the Egyptians, Sadat and others. Where do you—is that what—was that an example of American pragmatism that we didn’t put many calories behind democracy? And however you see it, in the—with the advantage of hindsight 25 years, essentially, later after the period you studied ended, was that the right thing to do, or you actually have some second thoughts about it?

SIMON: I don’t really have second thoughts about it. I’m not sure that—well, I can be bolder than that. I am pretty sure that, in the period covered by the book, the United States didn’t have much of an alternative, given its global strategic interests, but to support the governments that it relied on for its regional security objectives.


You know, I’m pausing because I really want to give kind of a full frontal answer to this, but I just—I can’t conceive of an alternative in any of the key countries we were working with. That is to say, an alternative leadership, an alternative party structure that we could cultivate, that would have promoted democracy while at the same time promoting American strategic interests. I just—I just don’t see it.

TAKEYH: Let me just say one thing about that. One of the commitments we made is for every chapter we were going to look at archival evidence, and in some cases it was Richard and others over the years, in the later years obviously. The notion of promotion of democracy was never part of the conversation of the United States government. You can’t find a single document when they talk about this. The concerns that the United States had was—and perhaps this was consistent with the modernization theories of the time—strong states and strong leaders. Strong states and strong leaders would be the basis of promotion of economic reform that the United States had identified as a basis of these regimes’ vulnerabilities.

The question of human rights, is it suggested, entered the lexicon during the Carter administration. Jimmy Carter had one conversation with the shah about human rights. I mean, shah visited in 1976. Carter pulled him aside and he said, how about—can you help me out on human rights? And the shah said no. (Laughter.) That was it. There was no further conversation about human rights.

HAASS: We call that “consultations” in the State Department. (Laughter.)

TAKEYH: There was no—now, let me just say whether the disorder of the Middle East is because of that. History doesn’t move in linear ways, and actually is seldom prologue. In 1992, reform begins to enter the conversation of the United States government and the local states. And the local states and local leaders had choices and decisions to make, and they made all the wrong ones. And Elie Kedourie a long time ago wrote a book, “The Chatham House Version” of Middle East history, in which he said that too often—he was mostly focused on British history and Ottoman history—namely, blaming the disorder of the region on external powers, in which he was critical of that. And I think to blame the disorder of the Middle East on the policies during the Cold War is to misplace agency on the leaders of the region that had choices and decisions made in the intervening--

HAASS: Since I published a book today—an article today arguing just that, that Sykes and Picot should not be blamed for the mess that the Middle East has made of itself, I’m reassured to hear that.

Let me ask one last question and then there’s a lot of Middle Eastern expertise sitting in front of us here. OK, so I used to teach the course at the Kennedy School with Dick Neustadt and Ernie May on occasion about learning from history, thinking in time and all that. So let’s—here you’ve done serious historical work. It was in a different historical era. It ended 25 years ago. But still the question is: What did you learn that’s potentially relevant, or applicable I guess I would say, for either assessing, or more—if you were going to—in a sense, in terms of our policy? What is it—what are the takeaways that are not just of historical curiosity, but of contemporary relevance?

SIMON: Well, you know, Richard, I think that the main lesson lies in conclusions you draw from examining the period regarding the conditions for American success. And there were a range of conditions for this success, some of which Ray discussed, you know, a few minutes ago at the outset of the conversation: a fairly unified, consensual American foreign policy community at home; and conditions in the region that included resilient adversaries, some of whom functioned more as a loyal opposition than existential enemy. You had rising GDPs in the region virtually across the board. The region was doing much better economically. There was more employment than there had been previously. I mean, the Middle East economically just looked a lot different than it looks like—than it looks like now. We were not facing—if I can put it this way—you know, fanatical adversaries who were determined to bring down the regional order, a very difficult adversary to fight.

So, you know, you look at the conditions for success then and you say, well, do those conditions obtain now? Do any of them obtain now? And if they don’t, what does that suggest regarding the price of intervention? You know, how hard is it really going to be if these fundamental preconditions are absent? And our thinking on this—I don’t want to—I’ll speak for Ray for a second—but our thinking on this was, you know, there’s only one conclusion, which is that, if you’re going to be effectual in the region, you really have to go in big, go in with a very serious commitment and a willingness to pursue it over the long term.

HAASS: Let me ask one more question, and ask a slightly unfair one. Because the way you described “pragmatic,” I got the sense of great tactical flexibility, not going in there with great ideological constraints. So in—would that mean—if one were going to be a pragmatic power in today’s Middle East, for example, looking at some of the things President Obama has either done or talked about with Jeffrey Goldberg, would that mean being open to—much more open to a better relationship with Iran, or—one? Would it mean, two, potentially distancing from the Saudis or the Israelis? Three, thinking maybe differently about the Kurds? I could go around, but basically saying that there’s—does it mean that there’s essentially fewer givens? What would a pragmatic superpower do in today’s Middle East? I’m just trying to understand.

TAKEYH: The lesson of Eisenhower about when the region has a cold war—in the ’50s and ’60s it was polarized between conservative monarchies and what were called radical republics—the lesson that Eisenhower learned after ’56 is you stick with your friends and try not to refashion or remodel your adversaries. Kennedy didn’t fully learn that lesson, and eventually had to abandon Nasser because of the war in Yemen.

SIMON: In Yemen, yeah.

TAKEYH: Yeah. Which, just parenthetically, is probably the most significant war in the Middle East in the 1960s, as opposed to the ’67 war. And this is one of the understated—

HAASS: This is a detour, but give us 30 seconds on why that’s so.

TAKEYH: Yemen is the place where the Arab cold war got hot. Yemen was the place where Nasser energy was drained. Yemen was the place where his ideology was invalidated. And what Israelis knocked out in 1967 was a shell of Nasserism. Nasserism was first and foremost destroyed in Yemen. What Israelis knocked down was the façade behind which there was no measure of strength.

Going back to what Steve said about superpower in the Middle East today, the first thing that has to be answered—and I think there has to be some sort of a conversation about this—is, does the Middle East matter? That was never debated in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s. Everybody assumed it did. Eisenhower himself was greatly concerned about people talking about pivots to Asia and not focusing enough on the Middle East, because he had people in his Cabinet like Radford and others who were what they call Pacific-first people. So, does it matter? How much does it matter? And once that issue is resolved, then you can determine the level of resources.

What Steve said is correct in one sense. You’re going to hear a lot of talk in the next several months about how we’re going to destroy ISIS. Everyone’s going to want to destroy ISIS. You cannot destroy ISIS without a measure of ground forces in the—in the region. ISIS cannot be destroyed by drone wars, that unique American synergy of violence and mass entertainment.

You’re going to have to deal with the Syrian civil war. To me, Syrian civil war is very analogous to the Lebanese civil war. And the Lebanese civil war ended when Syrian forces occupied Lebanon—Lebanon, ironically enough. It requires a measure of external intervention, and that intervention is likely to be prolonged.

Rehabilitation of Iraq and what you hear about pushing back on Iran and Iraq, that requires enabling Iraqi civilians and empowering its armed forces. That required American forces, civilians, and so on.

So, at a time when the structure in the region has attenuated, and the factors that Steve talked about—resilient allies, and so on—are absent, to put Humpty Dumpty back together would require a very substantial injection of American forces, presence, and money.

What I suspect will happen is no one is going to say—

HAASS: Would that be a pragmatic thing to do?

TAKEYH: If you decide it matters. And that’s a national conversation that you have to have in the election year. You’re not going to have it this year, but that’s—(chuckles)—that’s a national debate.

HAASS: We’re not big on pragmatic conversations this year.

TAKEYH: That’s a national conversation that you can have. I mean, Steve and I probably will agree and disagree on this, but that’s what it would require.

My suspicion is whoever is the next administration will try to do a little bit more, or maybe a little bit less. A little bit less—a little bit more won’t do the job, and a little bit less will further accentuate the problems. But that’s the conversation that’s not taking place.

HAASS: OK. Well, I’ll show, again, uncharacteristic restraint and open it up. And have at Ray or Steven.


Q: I’m Kenneth Bialkin.

You mentioned in your introduction that several decisions that had to be made along the way were made, and they were not possibly made in the interests of the United States’ interests—that is, decisions and choices have to be made, and politics plays a role. And so I’d like to ask, A, what are the American interests, so-called? Were they constant? And did they change? Were they influenced more by lobbying than by principle? And how does that sort out? There are several books that are written—Tyler is one of them—whose main thesis was that most of the action in the Middle East taken by the United States were decisions made not in the interest of the United States, but in response to political issues that were being applied. And I just wondered how you would sort all that out.

SIMON: I’d need to, you know, hear examples. I can’t think of any at the moment.


TAKEYH: There has never been an occasion, in my view, in American history where domestic politics have not been part of the conversation in foreign relations. The notion that politics ends at water’s edge is fifth-grade sophistry. That’s just part of the conversation in any democracy as it tries to figure out its interests.

American interests in the Middle East during the—during the period under consideration were simple, but not modest: preventing the Soviet infiltration in the Middle East. The Soviet empire remains the greatest empire in terms of challenge to American history. It had a power to blow up the universe, it was animated by an ideology, and it was mischievous. And it was essentially securing passage of oil at reasonable prices to enable European and later East Asian economies that was achieved, and security and safety of Israel, which as I think Steve said in his response did not come at the expense of estranging the Arab alliance.

HAASS: That is ironic that the biggest threat to the availability of oil at reasonable prices—the biggest threat to that did not come from the Soviet Union.

TAKEYH: It came from the Arab-Israeli War, and the allies. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Yes, sir. In the back.

Raga, then we’ll get you next.

Q: Hi. I’m Eric Alterman.

I’m very pleased by the fact of your book, because I’m just starting—a few months into a history of the Israel-Palestine debate in the United States, and I’m also doing it episodically. So I’m curious as to see which episodes you pick versus which ones I pick.

Which leads to my question. Actually, I have two questions. The first question is, is obviously there was a great deal of domestic influence over presidential decisions in ’47-’48. I don’t see much between ’47-’48 and ’67. I’m wondering if you do.

Second question, unrelated, is what do you think of Dennis Ross’s thesis that every time the United States worries about not getting behind Israel vis-à-vis the Arab world, it’s worried about nothing, because there’s never any cost paid for it? It’s a slight generalization, but it’s actually pretty close. Thank you.

TAKEYH: That’s to you.

SIMON: I’m not sure I got the whole question. I’m sorry. Between ’47 and—

Q: The first question, ’47 to ’67, is there any considerable domestic pressure on Middle East policy?

HAASS: Because if there were, conceivably Suez—U.S. policy might have been different during Suez.

SIMON: Yeah. So that question doesn’t pertain to Israel per se.

Q: Mostly it does.

SIMON: Uh-huh. You know, where you saw the—it’s interesting, because there was a big debate in the United States around Suez. And you know, Ray can address this as well. But Eisenhower’s stance, which impeded and ultimately blocked French, Israeli, and British adventurism, you know, in Egypt, was intense. The political debate in the U.S. was intense. And Eisenhower was accused of abandoning allies, of endangering our position in Europe, and taking stupid steps that weakened our posture in the region against the Soviets. He was criticized quite heavily. And the debate, I think, was largely on partisan lines.

TAKEYH: Let me just say one thing about Suez, because there has been an argument that maybe Eisenhower should have done things differently. What was Anthony Eden’s plan for Egypt? What did he think would come after Nasser? Who would take over? Would the person that took over—would be better? Who is that person? Anthony Eden makes Donald Rumsfeld look like a strategic planner. He had no answer to any of those questions. I don’t know what he thought would happen. And Eisenhower is nothing else is about staffing, and planning, and objectives. What are your objectives? What are you hoping to get out of this?

If Anthony Eden had retired in 1955, he would be remembered as a great statesman. He stood up against appeasement in the 1930s. He was actually a very adroit figure in negotiations in the Middle East with the 1955 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty. The problem with Anthony Eden is he didn’t retire in 1955. He retired in 1956. He had and the French had and the Israelis had no plan. Of all of them, the Israelis had a better plan. They wanted to do significant damage to the Egyptian military before it absorbed the Czech arms—the Soviet arms. They had a clear, limited, military objective. Neither the French or the British had any. And this is what infuriated Eisenhower.

And also, at that time, Eisenhower had plans—perhaps they were not going to be realized—about undermining Nasser’s regime. As I said, he had infatuation with covert operations. And that operation was—Operation Omega—was disrupted by the military intervention. And so he essentially saw this as a silly move to lionize Nasser unnecessarily. And he understood that the United States could not have supported Egypt’s imperial folly—British, French imperial folly at the time of post-colonial awakenings. As far as the thesis, whether the United States—I think it was your last question—suffered from association with Israel, during the period under our consideration I don’t think so.

SIMON: Yeah, I don’t think so either.

TAKEYH: I’m not seeing that. Now, you can argue after 1992 whether that situation differed but—and also, there’s a lot of talk about Saudi-Israeli tactical alliance today. The Israelis were flying military mission in the Yemen War with full intelligence cooperation from British and logistical support from the Saudis. The problem with tactical cooperation between Israelis and Saudi, it never culminates in strategic perspectives coinciding.

HAASS: Raghida.

Q: Thank you. Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat and Beirut Institute.

So I thought that doctrine—Carter’s doctrine spoke of that very strong protection of the Gulf region, security guarantees, which would probably—one would say that they got reversed, or are they weaker with what we may call the Obama doctrine now? Can we discuss that a little bit? Where are we? Is it the best thing—the pragmatic thing for the United States to continue to pivot east, or is it the best thing for the U.S. to do what Lavrov and Kerry are doing, to do a partner—to be a partner in Syria, for example, and try to see where the two of us could fix it or could just delay fixing it? I’m just curious about where do you think the pragmatic next president—or, where would you think the next administration would be pragmatic and how—what is pragmatism in that case and that relationship with the Gulf? And of course, not vis-à-vis Israel, because everybody would be on the same page, but at least in the Gulf and Syria?

HAASS: Was the Carter doctrine—I mean, for those of you who don’t remember—after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then—

TAKEYH: Iran’s revolution.

HAASS: Iran’s revolution, Mr. Carter promulgated a new doctrine, essentially saying that any external threat to a core, vital U.S. national interest, you know, would be met with whatever. Was that—did that qualify as something of a pragmatic move or not, or just the opposite?

SIMON: Well, you know, it was dictated by interest. So I suppose in that sense it was pragmatic. It was—it was audacious, I mean, insofar as the U.S. didn’t have the assets to deploy at that time. So Carter’s effort really didn’t take shape until the Reagan administration, which put a lot of resources into establishing an archipelago of U.S. bases on the Arab side of the Gulf to ensure that if there were a need to intervene the U.S. would be able to flow forces in and actually perform effectually in battle against an adversary, whether the Iranians or, at that time, the fear was the Soviets. And the concern was that the Soviets would attempt to take the oil fields in Khuzestan and then hop the Gulf and seize Saudi assets, in the context of a global military campaign against the West.

And the Reagan administration, as did the Carter administration in its latter days, took that threat very seriously. And I think they acted prudently and wisely in setting up this network of access agreements that would enable the U.S. to respond to Soviet aggression. And it’s difficult now, looking back from our perspective, to really understand how strongly this view was held. There was evidence to suggest that the Soviets had aggressive intentions. This was during, you know, Reagan’s first term. You know, maybe the Russians were deterred. Never they never intended to do anything at all. But there was certainly enough to give Washington policymakers and planners serious concern. Now, I don’t see the infrastructure that the U.S. put in place in the Gulf during that period leading up to the First Gulf War—I don’t see that—I don’t see that going away.

TAKEYH: There are today, would you say, 35(,000) or 40,000 American forces in the Gulf—today. That wasn’t the case when Carter talked about the rapid deployment force. It might have been rapidly deployed, but it wasn’t there.

SIMON: We had no forward headquarters.

HAASS: We had no rear headquarters until we created one at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Florida. (Laughter.)

TAKEYH: I would just say the issue about the relationship with the Gulf States—and United States will always remain a Gulf State, the way Britain was after Suez. It still remained a Gulf State. It can—and throughout the history, and you see it in the book, we have never been able to successfully assure the Saudis that we share their interests and have concerns about them.

In the 1958 crisis the Saudis insisted that the United States have to militarily intervene and overthrow the Iraqi government that had come to power through a coup. Otherwise, the relationship was awful. Throughout the 1960s, the Kennedy administration, the relationship was strained by the United States was not aggressive enough in punishing Nasser because of his intervention in Yemen. In the 1970s, the United States was not diligent enough to stop the Israelis in the aftermath of ’67 in Iran, and aftermath of ’79. The Saudis have always offered a bill of fares that no American administration can meet.

This has been—I mean, we talk a lot about how United States has to assure the Saudis. What the Saudis have asked for in aftermath of Arab Spring is for the United States to revolt against the revolutionaries, to essentially intervene in Syria, to not have an arms control agreement with Iran. You know, I mean, some of those may be sensible, but all of them put together are extraordinary. And the Saudis have always made extraordinary requests on the United States. There has always been tension in the relationship because of the mismatch of their requests and the capability of any. The pragmatic thing would have been to reject the Saudi request in many instances, and they were.

Today, the United States is not doing the pragmatic thing by telling the Saudis not to get mired in this Yemeni civil war and this Yemeni conflict. The reason why the relationship between United States and Saudi Arabia works, irrespective of these undercurrent of tensions and mismatch of strategic priorities, is shared enmities—the Soviet Union, then Iraq throughout the 1990s. There is less shared enmities. They seem to think that United States wants to have a grand détente with Iran, which isn’t true. Nobody’s talking about it.

But reassuring of the Saudis, which has been the American policy for 60 years, has often been very, very hard. (Laughs.) And I can understand it from the Saudi perspective, given their vulnerabilities, given their insecurities. But they’re awfully insecure people. And successive American administrations have been unable to fully assuage those concerns.


Q: Hi. Jen Baden (sp).

So an example of American strategic interests, truly the elephant in the Middle East, is our petrodollar agreement with Saudi Arabia. This agreement is paramount to keeping a strong dollar and protecting America in many ways—with a strong dollar, of course. How does this affect our interaction in the rest of the Middle East?

HAASS: How central was access to oil in sufficient quantities at reasonable prices? How much was that consistent or a consistent driver of U.S. policy?

SIMON: I think it’s been quite consistent over time. And, you know, the current discussion is that it’s less central now than it was before, because the U.S. has emerged as a swing producer, quite a dramatic event. But any reasonable hedging strategy would require that the United States continue to support the Saudis. So I mean, despite these developments in the oil market, I don’t see the U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia as diminishing dramatically.

HAASS: Though we will at some point have a meeting on how we would—how that commitment would ever be implemented if the threat to Saudi Arabia were internal rather than external.

Mr. Oppenheimer, you get the last question.

Q: Thanks. I’m Michael Oppenheimer from NYU.

I’d like to hear both of you guys talk about Obama and his approach to Syria. Does this conform to your definition of pragmatism? Restrained, certainly, prudent, cautious, committed to basically a modest degree of intervention in the country? And on that basis, his lack of adaptability would suggest that he wasn’t pragmatic, if adaptability is the criterion for a pragmatist. Also sat through a major deterioration and escalation, et cetera, of Syria so that today it’s a global problem, not what he encountered when he became president. Do you think he’s acted pragmatically in Syria? I’d like to hear from both of you.

TAKEYH: All right.

SIMON: Well, and you start.

TAKEYH: You work on Syria. (Laughs.)

SIMON: I think it’s fundamentally pragmatic, Michael. It’s hard to, you know, answer the question without actually hearing some alternative course of action. The fact is that the regime is pretty strong and the opposition pretty weak. That was a disincentive to intervention, I suppose, to begin with. Well, actually, you know, if you look back to the beginning of the conflict, the wall-to-wall consensus, which of course was unwise, was that Assad was going to go, that he would be toppled. And for a crucial phase at the outset of the civil war, that view was too widely held for anyone to consider paying a price for something that they thought they were going to get anyway.

By the time I think perceptions changed and policymakers wrapped their mind around the fact that Assad was not actually going anywhere, and that the opposition was not going to gel militarily, the battlefield became much more complex. Now, you know, the U.S. did support a covert program that obviously I don’t know anything about, which was effective enough to trigger Russian intervention, eventually. But administrations often can’t talk about what they’re doing secretly, even when—even when it’s—even when its effectual and it’s in pursuit of a rhetorical posture—the rhetorical posture being, you know, Assad must go.

But beyond that, the only alternative for the United States, I think, really to manage this problem and obviate a lot of the specific and cumulative tragedies that you’re referring to, would have been to assume responsibility for Syria. Now, I think its legitimate to ask, well, why not boots on the ground? But the U.S. just hasn’t had a lot of great experience with that in the region. And the Syrian lay of the land is such, it would be very difficult for the U.S. to establish control and unilaterally drive down the level of violence to something less appalling than it is now.

The U.S. would also have had to forge, I think, a better and shared understanding of the future of Syrian politics with its regional allies. That was, I think, quite difficult to do, and would—I just think it’s inherently difficult. So under those circumstances, you know, I think restraint, if I can put it that way, was the pragmatic thing to do. Now, if you look at American allies—Israel, Jordan, I don’t know which pocket you’d put Iraq in, you know, at this point—but you know, Jordan is being stabilized. The Jordanians have followed an astonishingly, I think, pragmatic and cautious policy, something that characterize their statecraft mostly and has done, you know, for a long time.

So I think they’re OK. The Israelis are OK. The Turks, they’re a big country. You know, they’re not going to collapse, you know, under the weight of the violence to the south. And the United States is militarily engaged in Iraq dealing with, you know, and ISIS threat from that end, and of course is dealing—the U.S. is dealing very aggressively with the ISIS threat in Syria. So it’s—for me, it’s hard to imagine a policy that would be more pragmatic than that under the circumstances.

HAASS: Ray, let me give you the last one.

TAKEYH: Well, historians will not be kind on this Syria policy when the books are—somebody mentioned domestic—and the Syrian civil war starts in 2011 when the decision was made that Assad must go. There was no programmatic plan for how Assad must go. You would hear things like we’re going to sanction them and the Syrian business community would, you know, have a board meeting and they’d decide, you know, they would vote Assad off the island. There was no plan for how Assad must go. It was a slogan without any substantive backing. And maybe at that stage of the uprising you could have a negotiated settlement with opposition, the Russians, and others. And the Russians were asking for that, at that time. So that was the first red line that was drawn in 2011, I think largely because of domestic politics. And somebody mentioned domestic politics distorting.

Number two is the line of the notion of chemical weapon uses. And to credit the administration, there weren’t a whole lot of Republican backing for intervention on that as well. It was sort of a bipartisan retreat from that particular red line. Syria is defining the politics of the Middle East, not just because of this humanitarian catastrophe, because it’s radicalizing the Sunni political culture. If ISIS disappears tomorrow, there’ll be another ISIS. ISIS is a symptom of Sunni grievances. And those grievances are profoundly manifest in Syria. Today in Syria, given what it is, I don’t know how this conflict ends. To me, it’s reminiscent of the Lebanon civil war. It ends when—after a prolonged period of time when the regional actors and their international benefactors decide that they need some sort of an agreement. And that agreement has to be enforced by an external power for inconceivable years.

It is often suggested when we—when the Americans confront difficult multiethnic, multi-confessional states, well, let’s break it apart. You know, Alawites here, you there, you there. Nobody wants to—the regional actors don’t want to break up Syria. Assad thinks he’s going to win the whole country over. The Saudis don’t want a little Alawite beachhead, or the Israelis, because that’s essentially an Iranian surrogate state. There was talk during the Lebanese civil war about partitioning Lebanon—a little Christian enclave here or there. It is often suggested by Americans—they’re very good at East-West Germany, North-South Vietnam, North-South Korea, partitioning complicated countries. This from a country that fought a vicious civil war to prevent its own partition.

I don’t think partition of Syria is an answer. I think this conflict goes on. And the longer it goes on, and as much as goes on, it poisons, polarizes the politics of the region. I don’t have an answer for you how it ends in the sixth year of a conflict when the parties don’t seem to have exhausted themselves, when it has become part of the regional cold war, when it has defined the sectarian makeup of the region. You know, Vienna talks, I think, are not going to do it, just as many, many agreements on Lebanon did not end the Lebanese civil war. I think exhaustion. But so long as this conflict goes on, I think it really poisons the politics of the region, and radicalizes this already exacerbated sectarian tensions.

HAASS: Well, on that uplifting note we’re going to bring this conversation—this part of the conversation to an end. We have some reception food and drink. You will have ample opportunities to ask those questions you were too shy to ask of our authors, privately. Again, the book is “The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East,” by Ray Takeyh and Steve Simon. Congratulations, and thank you to you both.

SIMON: Thank you. (Applause.)


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