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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Steven Simon

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

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

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

In conversation with CFR Senior Vice President James M. Lindsay, Ray Takeyh, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Steven Simon, Visiting Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College, discuss their new book, The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East. The authors explore how their book reframes the legacy of U.S. policy in the Middle East from 1945-1991.  In their discussion, they explain what they believe to be both the high and low points of U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world during that period. The authors also consider whether they believe there are opportunities for similarly effective diplomacy currently in the Middle East and what obstacles face the next administration.

LINDSAY: Good evening, everyone. Welcome here to the Council on Foreign Relations tonight. I am Jim Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies here at the Council. I also want to welcome everybody who is joining us via the Internet as we livestream tonight’s discussion. I think you’re going to find it to be both timely and important. It is my great pleasure as the director of studies to introduce tonight’s guests. They are both terrific talents. I am very honored that I can call both of them my friends, besides being colleagues.

Let me begin with the gentleman to my immediate right, Ray Takeyh, who is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ray has written two books on Iran, along with numerous articles and op-eds. He has also written widely on political reform in the Middle East, as well as on Islamist movements and parties. In 2009, Ray served as a senior advisor on Iran in the U.S. State Department. For those of you who watch C-SPAN, he’s probably very familiar, because he has testified before the U.S. Congress more than 20 times.

To Ray’s right physically, not necessarily in the other way, is Steve Simon. Steve is currently a visiting fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Steve has had a long and distinguished career in the U.S. government working on Middle Eastern and terrorism issues. Besides holding a number of posts in the U.S. State Department, he has served on the staff of the National Security Council, under both presidents Clinton and Obama, most recently as senior director for Middle East and North African affairs. Steve has also been a senior fellow at RAND, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and here at CFR. Like Ray, Steve has written widely and well about a range of Middle East issues. And I believe, come fall, is going to be joining the faculty at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Now, I’d be happy to talk about all the great things that Steve and Ray have written in the past, but our purpose here tonight is to recognize the publication of their terrific new book. I’ll hold it up right now, “The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.” I say it’s a terrific book and I’m not the only one who has said this. Publishers Weekly said the authors “puncture entrenched myths,” “lucid and accessible.” The New York Times Book Review says it’s an “insightful, comprehensive account.” And Kirkus Review says, “It’s a singular take on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.” So please join me in welcoming Ray and Steve tonight. (Applause.)

Let me congratulate both of you on the publication of the book. I know it’s always nice to be done, and particularly done with revisions. When you read “The Pragmatic Superpower,” the takes readers on a historical journey that begins with the Iran crisis of 1946, goes all the way up through the 1991 Gulf War, with stops along the way for the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War, and the Iranian Revolution, among other major events. But let me ask—direct this toward you, Ray. Your assessment of U.S. policy during this time is more positive than most historians’ take on this. What have previous writers gotten wrong?

TAKEYH: Well, I think they looked at the issue perhaps, obviously, differently than we did. What we came to look at was how narrowly the United States defines its interests. Not what those interests should have included, but how were those interests defined. And they were defined narrowly, but not modestly. They were narrow in terms of access to oil, security and stability of Israel, and finally preventing Soviet Union from making inroads in the region.

You can make a case that these were not—and others have—these are not sufficient set of standards that United States should have and others, but within the parameters of how United States defined its interests it was rather surprisingly capable of discharging those across administrations and across vast changes in the region and the global politics as well. So there was a sort of unusual consensus that prevailed among different American administrations. And I think what we’ve suggested is those interests were broadly successful. Not always. We don’t make the case that United States was successful at every instance. But you know, at the end of the day the balance sheet kind of worked out correctly.

LINDSAY: So, Steve, when was the United States successful?

SIMON: Well, I think it was successful in ’48. It was successful ’73.

LINDSAY: Unpack. ’48 would be the recognition of Israel?

SIMON: There was—in 1948 the U.S. backed the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. And the administration recognized the state of Israel over against the strong opposition of a bureaucracy that tended to misread Soviet motivations on the one hand, and overestimate the sensitivity of Arab governments on the other, particularly the Saudis whose interests were actually going to be dictated by their threat perceptions and not their views of Israel.

In ’73, the U.S., I think, was remarkably successful in exploiting a devastating war that took place in October 1973, to essentially flip Egypt from the Soviet camp to the American camp, and ultimately shepherd the results of that very adroit diplomacy toward a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel that, I would say, decisively ended the prospect of a major land war in the Levant. So, you know, two examples, you know, right there.

’67 less so. There was a war in 1967 between Arabs and Israelis. It didn’t work out quite that well because of the extent to which the Johnson administration was so preoccupied and distracted by the war in Southeast Asia. And that was an especially interesting episode to study, because you could see in the course of events moments when U.S. intervention might have obviated the war, and therefore have produced what, in effect, would be a very different Levant today. So that would be a counter example.

LINDSAY: So what were the low points?

TAKEYH: The low points were usually occasions where the United States not only had the false assumptions, but failed to adjust them. The first term of Eisenhower, with over investment in Abdel Nasser as a vehicle for promotion of the American interest, and pretty much every day of the Carter administration. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: So you’re tough on the Carter administration? OK. What did the Carter administration get wrong, and why did it get it wrong?

TAKEYH: All right. Well, Steve can talk about the Camp David portion of it, which they—actually they came in with a different perception of how the Palestinian-Egyptian-Israeli thing had to work out, and they were preempted by Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. On Iran, which was the big issue that they got wrong, they had—there was a failure to understand the coming of the revolution, even though there were some indications to that effect. And then failure to appreciate that revolutionary situations don’t always produce post-revolutionary moderates. And that’s—

LINDSAY: You get more French Revolutions than American Revolutions.

TAKEYH: Almost always.

LINDSAY: But do I take from reading your book that you think that the Carter administration could have helped the Shah remain in power?

TAKEYH: Well, yeah, there’s some new documentation that has come to light recently, as has been published by BBC. The question is, could the United States have done more to instigate a military intervention to forestall the revolution? We kind of make the case—

LINDSAY: Military intervention by whom?

TAKEYH: The Iranian armed forces. That in absence of shah and his collapse was looking for some indications of support before they’d take such bold action. And that was not forthcoming. I think that’s what the missed opportunity was, potentially.

LINDSAY: Ray has concluded that each and every day of the Clinton administration—

TAKEYH: Carter.

LINDSAY: Excuse me—the Carter administration was an unsuccessful day. But most people would, putting aside the Iranian hostage situation, look at Camp David as the great success.

SIMON: You know, it’s really a tough—it’s really a tough call. I mean, I think, you know, from Ray’s perspective—and at this point, I feel perfectly free to speak on his behalf. (Laughter.)

TAKEYH: I don’t. (Laughter.)

SIMON: You know, in terms of strategic import the fate of Iran and its relationship with the United States far outweighed the strategic import of the Camp David Accords. I’m sympathetic to that view, I think. I mean, by the time the Camp David Accords were signed, the prospect of a war between Israel and Egypt I think was fundamentally distanced from any conceivable reality. And I think it was also unlikely at that point that the Soviets could have leveraged the collapse of the Camp David talks—so even the non-existence of a Camp David process—to lure Egypt back into the Soviet camp. I think Sadat was at that point pretty firmly ensconced on the American side of the fence.

So if you—if you take those perceptions as, you know, relatively accurate, then, you know, I think you’re going to look at the attention that Carter lavished on the Camp David process, while Iran—while the situation in Iran was deteriorating, as being fundamentally misplaced. Now, you know, this may have been due to Carter’s preoccupation with, you know, scriptural narrative and, I think, you know, I guess a conviction of a personal mission to bring Arabs and Jews together—what the Israeli defense minister accused Secretary Kerry of, Messianism. But I do think at the end of the day the lesser strategic goal was attained at the expense of the larger strategic interest.

LINDSAY: OK. Your book is about the Cold War, but the two words I haven’t heard either of you mention so far, Soviet Union, because obviously the Cold War is a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. And one of the objectives you talk about at some length in the book is that U.S. policy toward the Middle East, toward this region, was designed to prevent the Soviet Union from establishing dominance in the region. In your sort of evaluation of or assessment of the period you chalk it up as the United States succeeding in accomplishing that very goal.

But along the way, as you write, and let me just quote a sentence here: The United States prevailed because the Soviet Union faced even more insurmountable barriers to its political objectives. And you write later that the Middle East was more of a priority for the United States than for Russia. So is it the case that the United States won the battle in the Middle East or the Soviet Union lost it, they never even fought it? Ray?

TAKEYH: I’ll start. The Soviet Union proved even more maladroit than the United States. And that was a great advantage. For a variety of reasons, what the Soviets offered, which at the end of the day was bad advice and shoddy arms, it wasn’t like East Asia or even Latin America. That fusion of nationalism and communism didn’t exist. Most of the political actors in the Middle East at this time were more opportunists than ideologues. And so they would switch sides. The Soviet Union never developed a client that was reliable. They never developed an alliance system that was sustainable. Their relationship with the countries were usually transactional.

And in that particular sense, the United States has advantages that the Soviets didn’t. And one of them was that it had a relationship with the strongest military power in the region, the state of Israel. And eventually all the Arab states recognized that if they want something from the Israelis in terms of territorial concessions or what have you, the road had to go through Washington. By suggesting that the Soviet Union was more maladroit, that doesn’t mean they didn’t invest heavily in the Middle East. In Egypt I think at some point was either the second or third largest recipient of Soviet aid.

SIMON: Yeah. And Syria, too.

TAKEYH: And Syria, too. They invested heavily. But they just couldn’t develop a footprint in the region similar to what they had at various stages in East Asia or Latin—certainly in Eastern Europe.

LINDSAY: Anything you want to add there, Steve?

SIMON: We were, you know, lucky in our friends.

TAKEYH: And our adversaries.

SIMON: You know, the—

LINDSAY: So lesson number one: Pick the right adversaries.


SIMON: Yeah. And pick the right friends. And you know, we were lucky in both respects. I mean, to some extent adversaries of the U.S. were more like a loyal opposition, you know, than anything else. And you know, our friends had stability going for them. In Syria you had multiple coups, leading up to the ascendance of the Assad family there. It was extremely unstable. And when you’re that unstable it’s very difficult to build and deploy an operationally effective army and combat, so you’re at a disadvantage, of course, there. And in the Gulf countries, till the British left in 1971 on the Arab side of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, really quite stable. The most stable friend that the Soviets had was Egypt, which is why it was so remarkably deft and decisive that Kissinger took Egypt away from the Soviet Union.

LINDSAY: And as you both know, there’s a long line of writing that argues that the U.S. relationship with Israel is a net drag on U.S. policy in the region. I take it from your comments you disagree.

TAKEYH: I can’t think of an occasion when that was the case during the period under consideration, an occasion where the Israeli-American relationship was disadvantageous. It wasn’t in ’48. Maybe in 1956. Although, I would have to say, Israeli objectives in 1956 were more thoughtful than French and the British.

LINDSAY: But in 1956, the United States was on the opposite side of the issue from Israel, as well as from France and Great Britain.

TAKEYH: Right. I can’t think of an occasion where I would say that the United States at this particular juncture was hampered by its ties with Israel. Again, in some cases Israelis did the Americans favors. In 1970 in Jordan, and what have you.

LINDSAY: Well, certainly in terms of, I mean, Steve, you point about Americas friends. The relationship with Israel did not prevent U.S. ties or relations with—certainly with the Gulf powers.

SIMON: Well, no. I mean, I have—in answer to that, I really have to go back to the question of threat perceptions, which regulated Arab views toward the U.S. relationship with Israel. And when Arab threat perceptions were running high—and that is to say perceptions of threats to their—vis-à-vis outside powers. I’m not talking about internal, you know, sort of domestic threats. But when they were afraid for their own security they didn’t worry too much about what the United States was doing with Israel. What they wanted was U.S. backing and support. And they were, I think, more or less comfortable overlooking that other aspect of U.S. relations.

TAKEYH: I’ll say one more thing. There was also—and Steve talked about threat perception—there was also alignment of interests between Israelis and, at the very least, the Gulf Arab States. And you saw that, for instance, in the Yemen War—the first Yemen War.

LINDSAY: Back in 1964?

TAKEYH: ’62 to ’64.

LINDSAY: We were both very young then.

TAKEYH: Yeah. The Israelis do actually militarily participate in that Yemen War. They run intelligence aircrafts. So there was always that undercurrent of alignment between the Saudis and the Gulf States and the Israelis. It didn’t always translate into policies that they both could find attractive, but they shared a same kind of animosity toward rise of revolutionary regimes that—mostly in the Levant, but also in Iran.

LINDSAY: Now, you argue in “The Pragmatic Superpower” that policymakers could learn a lot today by looking back at a time when, to use your phrase, hard-headed pragmatism helped the United States get things right in the region. What is it that today’s policymakers have forgotten or never learned? Steve?

SIMON: Well, I think on the part of U.S. policymakers, there’s been an increasingly complex constellation of interests that the United States has tried to maximize in the region. And the more interests you’re trying to maximize simultaneously, and particularly when some of those interests are not, at least on the surface, compatible or reconcilable, then you can really wind up in a bit of trouble.

Now, in the Cold War what we found was that, as Ray said earlier, the U.S. was trying to maximize a very small number of interests, really. Israeli security and access to oil. And both of these were linked in various ways, and at different levels, with the need to keep—the perceived need to keep the Soviets out of the region, keep them off-balance and weak. And these were very well-defined issues. And they were seen as profoundly strategic in Washington. And other interests—what we found was that other interests simply weren’t even considered.

LINDSAY: Hey can I draw you out on—can I draw you out on what you think the other interests are in U.S. policy?

SIMON: I was going to get to that. So, for example, in the United States policymaking world now, particularly in Democratic administrations but this was also true in Republican administrations as well, especially the second Bush administration, there’s a strong concern with democratization—for example, political reform and liberalization, in the Arab world in particular. This is an uneasy fit for the sort of more traditional realpolitik interests that the U.S. was seeking to maximize during the Cold War. So, you know, the more complicated you make things, you know, the more complicated they get. Now, you know, the world changes. So, you know, democratization just necessarily became an interest. And it was pursued. And you know, there it is. But that simply wasn’t a factor in the Cold War.

Now, moving away from Washington to the region, I’ll just say that, you know, the elites in the region have changed in their perception of the United States, in their perception of their own interest, and in how they view what was during the Cold War a fairly conventional patron-client relationship, where depending upon the circumstances the patron or the client, you know, would hold—would hold the leverage. But I think it was—it was less complicated, more straightforward, than now. In the contemporary Middle East, you have so many cross-cutting conflicts that I think it would be difficult for any administration to navigate them. And I’m not sure that they really existed in the same complex way in the Cold War that they do now.

LINDSAY: So U.S. ambitions have changed. The nature of the problem has changed. So can hard-headed pragmatism work in this environment?

TAKEYH: Well, let me just—the U.S. does always have a reform agenda. But it’s a reform agenda that says strong states and strong leaders. And it’s focused on development. It’s focused on fighting corruption. And you’re dealing with states, at this point, for instance, the Saudi state in the 1950s that was going bankrupt. It’s amazing you can bankrupt Saudi Arabia, but there they were. So it’s—

LINDSAY: Well, oil was also at a much lower price at that point.

TAKEYH: Right, but getting them to develop a cohesive treasury system, I mean, it was—that’s sort of the building blocks of a state operating under various sort of ideas of modernization theory, and so on. So everybody kind of had the idea that these governments should be able to better allocate the resources, deal with their economies, industrialization, diversification of economy, and dealing with problems of peasantry as it transitions to urbanization, and all those issues, which I think become less salient as you get to the ’90s and other where you kind of talk about the notion of democratization and democratic reform, institutional reform, which becomes part of the Clinton administration agenda, and certainly part of the post-9/11 agenda.

Now, the lessons. Well, you’re dealing with a Middle East that to some extent has come unhinged. The state system in the region is attenuated, in some cases collapsed. You have failed states in Libya, Syria, Lebanon always can fit that category, Yemen, Iraq. Your allies are less resilient. Your adversaries more ideological in terms of their character. You have non-state actors, such as ISIS. There’s more of an ideological feel to it than sort of the military officers who came to power wanting to stay in power.

And I think the lesson here is that for the United States to get the same results that it did during the Cold War, it just has to have the idea that it has to have more commitment of resources. There has to be recognition—I was thinking about this today—

LINDSAY: But given the amount of money the United—the blood and treasure—we spent in Iraq—

TAKEYH: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

LINDSAY: That would strike, I assume, many people—

TAKEYH: Right. And the answer to stability of Iraq and Afghanistan is permanent American military forces that are not going to look like South Korea. They are going to periodically engaged in policing politics.

LINDSAY: Well, judging from public opinion polls, that’s not a particularly popular proposition.

TAKEYH: Right, so this is—what does it require? This is the bill of fares. You want to pay it; you don’t want to pay it. Another thing that I think it would say—one final thing—that you saw during the Cold War that perhaps you don’t see today, although you see it in a peculiar way, was a bipartisan consensus that the region mattered and we had to succeed in it. I mean, that’s—as you were suggesting—that’s under stress today because of public opinion, because of the ideas of post-Iraq syndrome, where there’s a fatigue regarding straightening out the Arab politics. That didn’t exist at that time. Everybody kind of was on the same page.

LINDSAY: So not only the region has changed, but things have changed back here.

TAKEYH: Yeah, right.

LINDSAY: At this point I want to bring the rest of the room into the conversation. Let me remind everybody that our meeting here tonight is on the record. I will ask, if you want to ask questions raise your hand. And if I recognize you, I ask that you please stand up, state your name and affiliation, and ask a question—hopefully a relatively brief one, so we can get in as many questions as possible.

TAKEYH: Or a long one. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: Liz, right here in the front.

Q: Liz Verville.

What do you think we should have done in Iran?

TAKEYH: During?

Q: Well, at the time that you said we were too focus on the Camp David accords, and not enough on Iran.

TAKEYH: I’ll give you a long answer and the short answer, and the short answer follows the long answer. (Laughter.) Starting in mid-1960s, and maybe that was because of the preoccupation with Vietnam, the shah begins to move toward stifling parliamentary system that Iran had, with strong elites and strong parliaments and strong politicians, because he had an idea that you need a strong, decisive, autocratic leader. And a lot of people told him not to do that, because then you kind of become the sole responsibility for all the problems of the country. The Kennedy administration told him not to do that. The Johnson administration also. So there’s sort of a beginning of the rise of a single-man rule in Iran, which was unusual for history of Iran and actually hasn’t even happened in the post-revolutionary Iran. So that—the rot is kind of deeper than that.

Once you get to the revolution, we made number of suggestions or assertions. Number one, we don’t subscribe to the notion that the success of the revolution was inevitable. Two, we don’t subscribe to the notion that Iranian military evaporated. The phrase that you often hear in literature is melted like snow. There’s really no evidence there. Third, that the Iranian military was capable of essentially restoring order had it been properly guided, when the shah became mentally incapable of doing so, by an outside act of the United States, in particular, could have perhaps also.

So those are the three things that we suggest. Once you get to that brief revolutionary period that really begins in August of 1978 and ends in February 1979. This is not that long of a period. So the long-term problems should have been detected in the 1960s. And maybe the Iranian revolution in some strange, ironic way, is the misbegotten offspring of Vietnam War, when America was totally preoccupied in one place. And then down the road, you have some missteps by the Carter administration, along the lines that we suggest.

LINDSAY: So the short answer is?

TAKEYH: You might have been able to shoot your way out of it. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: OK. Well, but actually, on that, it would seem to me that at least part of your story is that the United States had opportunities for itself to intervene in the Middle East and throughout the Cold War for a variety of reasons, partly because of Vietnam, partly because of the fear of a confrontation with the Soviet Union, the United States passed on that, something that’s not true in the post-Cold War era.

TAKEYH: Well, the story of this book ends with a massive military intervention, the 1991 Gulf War.

LINDSAY: At the very time when the Cold War is actually fundamentally changing already.

TAKEYH: When the Soviet-American relations is advantageous to execution of the Cold War. It is a story of American success when the most important military intervention was the 1958 intervention in Lebanon, where I don’t think there were any fatalities, compared to the East Asian theater, where you had—basically the United States was at war from 1941 to 1975, Korean War, Vietnam War. And even Latin America, you had interventions in Nicaragua, and you had interventions in Panama and so on. It’s a story of success without inordinate military intervention. That’s the remarkable thing about it.

LINDSAY: In the back, sir.

Q: Harry Blaney from the Center for International Policy.

It seems to me that the gap in what we are discussing here is of a past that almost is been upended in a large totality. The other side is a today where almost all the countries and the struggles and the things that are taking place on the—particularly we didn’t talk at all about the Shia-Sunni conflict that has erupted and the way it has taken the strength and, in effect, created in the whole region nothing but conflict and upheavals. And the same thing is true for Saudi Arabia. No longer the, quote, “rich” nation that it once was, the oil being different, in a different way. I used to work in what Middle East oil is about for one point. And it seems to me that we got it all wrong most of the time, because we saw the Middle East in that narrow prism.

I like your phraseology about, you know, we got the strategy right but the goal was wrong. And I think that—or, the short-term interests, versus the goals. And the problem with today is we have a totally different landscape. And American policy is trying to respond to that new landscape. And my question really is, what is—to quote Lenin—what is to be done in this new landscape? Do we have the same interests? Are we going to keep pursuing a dead past? Or are we going to try to see beyond the present, going back to your phrase? Are we simply trying to put down only ISIS and conflict, or do you see a larger vision? And I’d like to hear your response.

LINDSAY: Want to go first, Steve?

SIMON: You know, I think, you know, the lesson that we drew from our historical analysis, you know, especially through the lens of the present and our own, you know, experiences in government, is that the United States did well when it acted prudently and with an economy of force, and an economy of other things. And you know, subsequently as its—the complexity of its objectives expanded, and its ambitions expanded, the U.S. did less well. And as we were discussing before, that was, you know, true in part because the region itself had evolved in ways that made it a very difficult landscape in which to pursue, you know, complicated objectives.

And the U.S. had changed. And you know, in the book, you know, the chapter on 1956 led me to, you know, think about, you know, the United States as the analogue to Great Britain in 1956. In 1956, Great Britain, in league with Israel and France, attempted to seize the Suez Canal and overthrow Nasser. The U.S. role in that episode was quite interesting, but that’s not where I’m going with this somewhat meandering point. (Laughter.) Where I am going with it is that the defeat of Britain’s effort in ’56 broke the back of British influence in the Middle East. And it did so irrevocably, I mean, decisively. As the London Times said when Anthony Eden, who was the prime minister during ’56 died—they said that he was—he was the last British prime minister to believe that Britain was a great power, and the first to confront a crisis which proved she was not.

I look at the Second Gulf War along those lines. You know, the U.S. staked all its prestige on what it believed to be an existential fight in Iraq. And it was humbled. The United States lost really rather badly. And in the process, U.S. credibility declined, I think, dramatically, in combination with other developments, especially the advent of Islam—or the reemergence, I should say—of Islam as a crucial factor in regional politics. So, you know, I think there were choices that the United States made that affected its ability to influence events in the Middle East, that reduced its effectuality. But there were also changes in the Middle East itself that would have pushed the United States to some extent to the margin, no matter what.

TAKEYH: I think sometimes when you’re having this conversation, as is almost inevitable with historical conversations and even with personal memories, it is the good past versus the disorderly present. The Middle East during the Cold War was a disorderly place. Every decade of the Cold War had an Arab-Israel war—’48, ’56, ’67, ’73, ’82. There was interstate war. The longest—there was devastating interstate conflict in the Middle East, was the Iran-Iraq War, with a million casualties and substantial use of chemical weapons. There was a war in Yemen between Egypt and Saudi Arabia—Egypt directly, Saudi Arabia through proxy.

There was a civil war in Lebanon, which is, I think, analogous to the Civil War in Syria today. There was a problem of all the stuff—institutional decay, problematic leaderships, and so on. It was a chaotic, disorderly place. If you’re sitting—having this conversation in the 1970s, you wouldn’t be saying, well, this is great. (Laughs.) Oil embargo of 1973, which destabilized the global economy. The rise of popular revolution in Iran in 1979. The emergence of terrorism and then the emergence of Islamist terrorist, where the complexion of terrorism changed. This is not a happy place.

And to kind of try to realize your interest in that is uncanny in some ways. And this goes back to your first question: Why do other people look at the Middle East and see a different picture of success than we do? Because they look at sort of the credit—the debit side of the ledger. And what we’re trying to suggest is there’s a credit side to the ledger as well. So the problems of Middle East today are different. I mean, history doesn’t move in a linear way. Your problems aren’t exactly the same. But in some cases, they look more manageable if you kind of think about them in some sense.

The critical question to explore is the does it matter question. Does the region still matter? And you know, that’s the debate that the country has. Usually presidential elections would be the time for such grand debates. Maybe that’s not the case today. But what are the American interests in the Middle East today, with the complexion of the oil markets changing? Is it just the question of terrorism? Is it a question of stability in the region being important for stability of Europe—the migration crisis. There are profoundly compelling humanitarian interests in the region. The Syrian Civil War perhaps doesn’t have the strategic implication of Lebanon. So maybe Lebanon Civil War didn’t have that many strategic implications, but certainly—

LINDSAY: But the death toll was nowhere near what we’re seeing in Syria, nor was the spillover.

TAKEYH: Syria’s civil war takes probably twice as much as the same civil war today. So there’s a compelling humanitarian argument and everybody has to figure out do these mandate or merit the type of American intervention that can tranquilize the region, because it would be quite a substantial commitment, I think.

LINDSAY: But Steven’s argument earlier was about narrowing the range of interests, as opposed to expanding it.

TAKEYH: Well, I’m just saying—

LINDSAY: Would you narrow it?

TAKEYH: Well, I’m just saying the problems are somewhat different, and they—and given the absence of a reliable state structure in the region, your commitment to ameliorate them are going to be more substantial. As I said, in Iraq you’re talking about permanent American forces. In Afghanistan, you’re talking about—it’s been 15 years, it’ll be another 150 years to keep Taliban from coming to power, or a successor radical militia, or to maintain the cohesion of Iraq. These are permanent. And we don’t talk about them as permanent. You know, United States withdrawals, the withdrawal’s back up, the withdrawal’s back down, because that’s not a conversation that is taking place.

LINDSAY: OK, we have time for one last question. Before I take it, I just want to remind everyone that this meeting has been on the record. Also, Ray and Steve’s book is on sale in the back of the room. I encourage you to add it to your bookshelf. And you get to have the last question.

SIMON: It’s the ideal stocking stuffer. (Laughter.)

Q: My name’s Tara McKelvey. I work for the BBC.

I wondered if you could tell me more about—you said, Steve, about when America becomes ambitious it becomes harder to carry out good policies. I’m wondering if you can tell us about what the Clinton—the new Clinton administration might look like in terms of its ambition, expansionism.

SIMON: I actually don’t know the answer to that question. Probably nobody does. Probably, you know, the candidate—presumptive candidate herself doesn’t quite know. I mean, you know, the new administration’s actions are going to be regulated by constraints. And where there are constraints, it will be constrained. And where there are opportunities I think—you know, her instincts are activist. And it’s generally acknowledged. So I think she’d be inclined to perceive—to seize opportunities if she perceived them, if they exist.

LINDSAY: Where do you think there are opportunities? Do either of you see opportunities in the region?

SIMON: In the Middle East? (Laughter.) As they would say in Paris. (Laughs.) Well, you know, I could conceive of, you know, interesting things. But they would require, you know, changed conditions and the cooperation of other countries, particularly Russia and Iran. And I’m thinking here about Syria. You know, the best outcome for Syria at this point is one which produces some kind of relatively stable burden sharing arrangement between parties to the conflict. I doubt that the parties right now are terribly interested in such a thing.

And the outside parties, who do exercise a fair amount of influence, direct and indirect, whether it’s the Saudis, you know, or the Qataris, or the Turks, or the Russians, the Iranians, what have you. They’re not—I don’t think they’re all there yet. I mean, they’ve all reached the conclusion that I’ve just stunned you with, you know, about the utility of a burden sharing—that is to say a power sharing—arrangement in Damascus. You know, it would certainly be better than the capital moving to Raqqa, which is the ISIS headquarters.

So I think there’s an opportunity there that’s diplomatic in nature. I don’t think it’s kinetic. I don’t think that there’s a role for U.S. military forces in Syria, quite apart from the role that these forces are now playing in defeating ISIS. And I think they are defeating ISIS, certainly in Syria, in combination with, you know, strange bedfellows, like the Kurdish militias. But anyway, I don’t see a role for the United States as a combatant in the civil war. But the diplomacy will be effective only if it’s multi-lateralized among key outside players, and particularly the Russians and Iran.

Perhaps in a new administration if the Iranians remain in compliance with the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, and the Iranians and the Russians begin to see that if there isn’t some kind of political settlement they’ll be stuck supporting a hollowed-out and impossibly overtime, desperate regime, constantly under attack, then, you know, they may—they may come around. And that’s an opportunity that a new administration may want to take advantage of.

LINDSAY: I’ll note the irony, Steve, that—and your book argues that the Soviet Union essentially lost in the competition with the United States in the Middle East during the Cold War, but Russia now has been able to insert itself as a major player, perhaps as a spoiler, certainly when it comes to Syria.

But I want to ask you, Ray, do you see any opportunities perhaps on Iran or elsewhere?

TAKEYH: My view on Syria, and Steve is more informed of this, are informed by the Lebanon Civil War. And maybe that’s the wrong prism to look at Syria. At this point, all the actors that I can decipher in Syria are playing for keeps. They’re not looking for a diplomatic arrangement. And should there be a diplomatic arrangement—I mean, along the way there were many diplomatic agreements on Lebanon—the Riyadh agreement, the Cairo agreement, the this agreement, the that agreement.

Ultimately, I think somebody would have to enforce it. Paradoxically, in case of Lebanon, that was the Syrian troops. (Laughs.) I have to think there has to be some kind of an external actor enforcing whatever agreement comes after the parties exhaust themselves. I don’t know who that actor is. And defeat of ISIS that I hear about—ISIS is a symptom of Sunni grievances. If they disappear tomorrow, there will be another one. So the collapse of the state system, the sectarian polarization, the competition between the Iranians and the Saudis, have all produced conditions that make agreements difficult and, if achieved, rather unenforceable without some external actor. And I think that’s probably the case in Syria for a long time to come.

I think there’ll be diplomacy in Syria. I think there will be agreements, like there were in Lebanon. But eventually somebody has to—the end of the Cold War facilitated the end of the Lebanese Civil War, and then the Syrian enforcement of the compacts between various local actors. Along the way, there always are temptations to, like, partition it. Whenever Americans confront complicated, confessional situation, and multiethnic society say, I’ve got an idea let’s partition it.

SIMON: I know. I’m from the South Bronx.

TAKEYH: Yeah, exactly. (Laughter.) You know, and the problem with partitioning Syria or Iraq is none of the local actors want that, because if you say we’re going to partition Syria and have a little Alawite country, you know, that essentially is an Iranian beachhead that Israelis and the Saudis don’t want.

And one of the final things I will say that I think we—here our pragmatism is at fault. Is when—and maybe Steve will say something about this—when Iranians and the Russians look at Syria, they are invested in Assad. And we say, how about another Alawite general? They don’t want another Alawite general. They want Assad. And that’s what pragmatically we say to them, what’s the difference between Alawites, you know? You have another guy who is committed to your interests, and so on. But the personage of Assad I think is more central in Iranian factor—I don’t know what you would on the Russians?

LINDSAY: OK, well, I think that the takeaway here is that we don’t have any ready-made—we don’t have any ready-made solutions for the next administration, whoever it will be led by.

TAKEYH: But we’re very good at unpacking the challenges. (Laughter.)

LINDSAY: You are. And it’s detailed at great length in your book, “The Pragmatic Superpower.”

TAKEYH: Lots of challenges.

LINDSAY: Available in the back. So the historical roots of the situation we face today.

Please join me in thanking both Ray and Steve. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

United States

Recent killings by U.S. officers have sparked widespread calls for police reform and an end to systemic racism. Here’s how U.S. policing compares with other countries’ approaches.


Secretary Pompeo, advocating a policy of transforming China, is proposing a course that is bound to fail.


Yemen’s internal divisions and a Saudi-led military intervention have spawned an escalating political, military, and humanitarian crisis.