U.S. Interests in the Central Region: Is Washington Overinvested?

Thursday, April 12, 2018
Melanie Einzig/CFR

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East

Philip H. Gordon

Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Amy Hawthorne

Deputy Director for Research, Project on Middle East Democracy

Mona Yacoubian

Senior Advisor, Syria, Middle East and North Africa, U.S. Institute of Peace

Jon Finer

Senior Vice President and Head of Global Political Risk and Public Policy, Warburg Pincus LLC; Former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State; Former Special Advisor for Middle East Affairs, Office of the Vice President

Panelists debate the future role of the United States in the Middle East given competing global priorities.

This is Session III of The Future of the Middle East symposium. This event is made possible by the generous support of the Hauser Foundation.

FINER: So, again, thanks for being here.

This session, as you all know, is on U.S. interests, U.S. policy in the central region, and CFR took the liberty of providing me with the very first question, which is, is Washington overinvested in this region. Now this is obviously a timely topic, although almost every topic ends up being timely in a region like this.

There is obviously a huge debate, in Washington and elsewhere, over the U.S. is over or—some people believe—underinvested in this region, and I think we will explore those questions through this panel. And we could not have a better group of people, I think, to take us through this challenging set of questions than the group that is up here with me. And just to briefly introduce them, we’ve got Steven Cook and Phil Gordon from the Council—home game for them. We’ve got Amy Hawthorne from the Project on Middle East Democracy and Mona Yacoubian from the U.S. Institute for Peace—of Peace, excuse me.

So just to start off, to frame this a little bit, we’ve now had three consecutive U.S. presidents who are more deeply invested, more deeply involved in the Middle East than I think they intended coming to office, and the previous two, who I think came to office fully intending to be less invested, less involved than their predecessors, and each of them found it, I think, much more difficult to extricate themselves from this region than they believed, and that’s Barack Obama and now, increasingly, President Trump, who, you know, depending on what happens in the coming hours, may find himself more invested by the end of this panel even—(laughter)—than he was at the beginning. So those of you illicitly following your phones can let us know if there are news developments we should be aware of.

Steven, I want to start with you. Since this panel is on U.S. policy, I think it makes sense to address these questions from the perspective of American interests in the region. I think we all presume that America has deep, core national interests in the Middle East, but I’m not sure we always have a common understanding of what those are. You addressed this a bit in your book False Dawn, which I commend to everyone. It’s a sort of critical appraisal of the Arab Spring.

How have these interests typically been defined, and do you think those definitions need to be revisited in light of the events of the past few years?

COOK: Well, thanks, Jonathan, and I just want to say it’s great to be up here with the Obama administration. (Laughter.) I’m the only one who hasn’t served, and so you won’t mind if I’m critical. I’m just—(laughter)—I’m kidding.

FINER: Somebody should be. (Laughter.)

COOK: You’re right, exactly. Somebody should, right.

I think this question of interests is exceedingly important at the moment because there is this debate about investment versus underinvestment, and I think the way in which we define our interests will tell us how we should proceed in the region. I think—in the past, our interests have revolved around essentially five things: the free flow of energy resources in the region, helping to ensure Israeli security, ensuring American predominance in the region—during the Cold War it was a little more detailed in terms of rolling back or containing Russian influence in the region—and then of course counterterrorism and non-proliferation. And the reason why we knew those things were interests was because we were willing to invest resources and make sacrifices to defend them.

The question now is, as we go forward in this debate about where we should be, and what we should be doing, and whether we’re invested or whether we’re underinvested is are we willing to invest in those interests. And some—and as this debate goes on, there are cogent arguments across the political spectrum about whether these are the things—these are the things that we should still be focused on and around which our policies should be made. But in a case like Syria, for example, if we were to think about Syria policy against the backdrop of what we think our traditional interests are, one would suggest that perhaps we’re underinvested because we want to ensure that Iran or Russia do not dominate the region and put the other interests in jeopardy.

If our interests are something different, and I’m all for having a debate on what those interests are—I question whether the United States at this point politically can have a debate about what these interests are. If our interests have changed from the post-World War II Cold War era, then we should have that debate and maybe perhaps we’re—free flow of energy resources isn’t as important as it once was, or maybe securing those free flows of resources may be different than doing—maybe we help ensure Israeli security in a different kind of way.

These are—these are, I think, important questions that haven’t been asked but need to be asked in order to chart our way forward. Otherwise, we kind of have what we have in the Middle East right now, which is drift, a lot of people talking about these traditional interests but not willing to invest resources and make sacrifices to defend them.

FINER: Thank you.

I’m going to read you all a quote from Phil Gordon. (Laughter.)

“In Iraq the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and didn’t occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result”—you could all say it along with me—(laughter)—“is a costly disaster.”

So this is obviously clever. I think it’s arguably true, but what is the upshot of that analysis in terms of U.S. investment and policy in the region, and is this sort of disengagement that it seems to imply—is the smart approach actually realistic?

GORDON: That’s a great question. Thanks, Jon.

Arguably—excuse me—arguably true is the standard to which I always aspire when I write things—(laughter)—but I think it is more than arguably true and my point. So let me try to answer your question about why I think it’s important to underscore that background and then use that as a way to pivot to the core question of this discussion which is are we overinvested or underinvested.

I was just trying to say in as simple way as possible—as possible or maybe remind in as simple way as possible just how difficult for the United States to deal with the convulsions that are going on in the Middle East today. And those convulsions are political, social, geopolitical. They are, I think, mostly not caused by the United States, and I think they are also mostly not resolvable by the United States. And that’s the point of making that little dictum, if you will, because it’s always so easy to say—and people do all the time—well, of course we should have intervened; we just didn’t do it in the right way. And my point is, you know, it would be an awfully coincidental happenstance if we just happened to get each one wrong. You know, in Iraq it should have a lighter footprint, in Libya it should have been a bigger footprint. We should have intervened in Syria, but we shouldn’t have intervened in—there is not a strong likelihood that that’s the case. So it turns out that whichever of these models we have tried, it has turned out to be a costly disaster.

You can make a broader point about the overall approaches of, indeed, the past two administrations where we had one—in the Bush administration—willing to take the lead assertively, transform the Middle East, you know, define the problem—dictatorship, autocracy—transform the Middle East, use our resources, military intervention—and that didn’t work. You could—but then the following administration tried to avoid all of those consequences and it didn’t have a much better record.

So the core of that argument is just a reminder that we, as the United States, I think, need to be very humble about believing that we can use our means to solve these problems. It doesn’t mean—and I want to make this point before I conclude, having said what it does mean—what it doesn’t mean—I don’t think it means, following on Steven’s points, that we don’t have interests in the Middle East and we should walk away. Let me be perfectly clear about that because I am not of the view that, you know, relative energy independence allows us to say, well, nothing we do in the region works so let’s just move on to other things. I think we have an interest in preventing nuclear proliferation, and we need to do everything we can to do so, and we can get into the Iran deal and some other questions. I think we have an interest in preventing terrorist safe havens with groups that would have designs and means to attack the United States. Thus, the counter-ISIS campaign requires an investment by the United States.

I think we still have an interest in preserving the free flow of oil out of the region even if we are relatively independent because of shale and other things. As everybody knows, there is one global price for oil, our allies are dependent on that oil in Europe and Asia and elsewhere, and we are the ones who ensure that it flows. And so even if we can’t solve every civil war that’s going on, the presence in the region—part of our investment—buys us that free flow of oil that keeps the world economy going.

So I don’t think—please don’t jump—and I don’t jump from the notion that, you know, it’s really hard, and interventions are costly and have unintended consequences—to a conclusion that it would therefore be smart for the United States to just wash its hands from the region. That just leaves you with a reality of a complicated, messy region that I think we still have a responsibility to do all we can to manage.

FINER: Thank you.

Amy, if you define investments in the region more broadly than we typically do, you could make the argument that, other than Iraq and Israel, there is no country that the U.S. has invested in more in recent decades than in Egypt, where you’ve done a lot of your work. But after decades of investment and billions of dollars spent, you have a country that is deeply autocratic and a population that, at least according to polling, generally speaking are not big fans of the United States.

So what have we gotten for all of this investment in Egypt, and is it time for a different approach?

HAWTHORNE: Thanks, Jon, and good morning everyone. Thank you for inviting me here today.

Egypt is actually a fascinating case study to examine this question. It is not in the headlines as much today; it is relatively stable compared to places in the region such as Yemen and Syria, et cetera, but it really illustrates a lot of the challenges and dilemmas regarding U.S. policy in the region.

Since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the United States has invested about $70 billion in military and economic aid in Egypt. I believe that over time that is second only to Israel in terms of the U.S. taxpayer dollars invested.

Of course, on the one hand, Egypt-Israeli peace is one of the most important achievements that the U.S. has had in the region in all time. Preventing conflict—interstate conflict such as a war between Egypt and Israel is something that is immensely important, and we should not take that accomplishment for granted and the role that the U.S. involvement played in that accomplishment. So I just want to say that at the outset, that I believe that that peace is extremely important, and what the U.S. invested in making that happen was a—you know, a singular achievement of the United States.

However, in addition to that accomplishment, we can also look at Egypt and see Egypt as a place that—where this massive investment has not paid off for the United States or for Egyptians along other matrices, or other axes, or metrics that really, really matter to the United States and connect to some of the core interests that Phil and Steven were talking about. For example, in terms of a country that does not provide a safe haven for terrorist movements, terrorist groups that want to attack the United States, Egypt has a perennial problem with this. It has cycles of very serious problems with terrorism which it addresses basically through brute force only to see a few years later the problem reemerge.

Despite $40 billion of U.S. military aid, the Egyptian military is struggling to defeat about 1,000 Islamic State jihadists in the Sinai. This military lacks the capabilities that it needs to be an effective counterterrorism player despite massive U.S. investment, diplomatic time spent, et cetera.

On the economic front, Egypt is basically a basket case that is always teetering on the edge of serious economic crisis and then is basically bailed out because of its geostrategic importance. Over the past 40 to 50 years, we’ve seen the same problems in the Egyptian economy despite massive investments by the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S. government, the European Union. Unfortunately, Egyptians—still about a third of them live in poverty. About 50 percent live near the poverty line. Inequality in the economy is growing, and just to leave you with one important point about the economy, at the time—say 40, 50 years ago—Egypt’s GDP per capita was roughly equivalent to that of countries such as South Korea or Turkey. Today Egypt’s GDP per capita is between 5 (thousand dollars) and $6,000, depending on how it’s measured. South Korea’s is $27,000 and Turkey’s is about $11,000. So Egypt has actually failed to develop its economy in a way that benefits its citizens. And that also feeds into the problems of terrorism, instability, and other things that matter to the U.S.

So those are just a couple of examples that illustrate how complex our relationship with Egypt is in terms of investment, under or over. We have invested a huge amount in Egypt. We’ve gotten some results, for sure, but on things that really matter in terms of that country’s internal stability—and if it implodes, the way that that could affect our interests and the interests of other U.S. allies in the region—we are not in a position to effectively help the Egyptian government. We have tried for many years to help them address these economic, security, socio-economic challenges, and it has been very, very difficult for the U.S. to do so, primarily—there are many reasons, and we’ve made our share of mistakes—but primarily because the Egyptian regime itself doesn’t really share that long-term interest.

So Egypt is a case where we are both overinvested in certain respects, underinvested along other matrices, but really unable to find an Egyptian partner who can work with us really effectively.

FINER: Great, thank you.

One quick follow-up: so you mentioned, I think, what we would all agree is a singular achievement of American and regional intervention and diplomacy, which was the peace accord between the Israelis and the Egyptians. How important is American ongoing investment in Egypt to maintaining that peace?

HAWTHORNE: You know, this is a difficult question because analytically I believe that Egypt is now—as Egypt, deeply invested in peace with Israel for its own reasons. I don’t believe that it is continuing to uphold the peace treaty, almost to the letter as it has—it has been one of the most successful peace treaties, I think, ever negotiated—because of continuing amounts of U.S. aid, $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid per year. I think the Egyptian regime and the Egyptian military has internalized the importance of peace with Israel to its own security, to its own standing, to its own sort of regime survival because the current Egyptian leadership knows that it can’t probably win a war against Israel, and it doesn’t see Israel as its immediate enemy.

However, as Steven and as I know—as we know from talking to Egyptian military officials, if you get them in a very frank mode, they will tell you that they still see Israel as a major threat. And so it doesn’t mean that all the aspects of the conflict are completely gone, but there is this cold peace.

The thing that’s difficult about that question is it’s something that we can—I believe that Egypt would sustain that for its own reasons, but it is hard to know what would happen with a different Egyptian leadership. We saw, during the brief reign of Mohamed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood president—he actually was very, very serious about upholding the peace treaty because he got a very strong message from the United States, et cetera, that if he didn’t, there would be very serious costs to pay.

So I guess my analytical judgment on balance is that the Egyptian regime will continue to uphold the peace treaty for its own reasons, not because of U.S. aid.

FINER: OK, thank you.

Mona, you get the newsiest question, at least, of this opening round because it’s unfolding, as we’ve said, in real time. You’ve written about and you were involved in a Holocaust Memorial study of the Obama administration’s approach to military intervention or non-intervention in Syria. President Obama’s policy—or Phil’s policy, depending on how you want to think of it—(laughter).

COOK: He said it; not me.

GORDON: You laughed. (Laughter.)

FINER: President Trump is—(laughter)—President Trump is now wrestling with obviously a very similar problem set which is not a position President Trump likes to be in. He does not like to be repeating the approach of his predecessor.

But I guess I have a slightly different question from whether he should or should not take military strikes in response to the chemical weapons attack. I guess what I’m wondering now is, is it too late for U.S. policy to meaningfully impact the situation in Syria and the resolution of that conflict? And if not, what can and should the U.S. be doing to try to kind of meaningfully improve things?

YACOUBIAN: Well, thanks very much and good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here.

You’ve also given me the most difficult question I think.

FINER: Just because I knew you could handle it.

YACOUBIAN: Thanks. Thanks for that vote of confidence.

Now, I—listen, I think we have to first take a step back and look at where we are in Syria today. We are now entering the eighth year of the conflict. It has come at enormous cost, half a million Syrians killed, more than half of the country displaced, over 5 million refugees to neighboring countries, more than 6 million people internally displaced, many of them multiple times. This conflict has provoked the largest humanitarian catastrophe since the end of World War II. So we have to be a bit humble about where and how it is that the United States can have any sort of meaningful impact inside Syria.

In my view, the notion that we would be able to force Assad to step aside—that policy objective, I think, is unattainable at this point. I don’t see Assad going any time soon.

I do think there are two areas, however, that warrant at least deeper exploration on and how it is that the U.S. might be able to have more of an impact. The first is what we are looking at perhaps tonight if intent—if this expected missile strikes or whatever it is takes place, and it is still I think a little bit of a question mark as the president has backpedaled a little bit in his most recent tweets, but the notion of using force to deter the use of chemical weapons, to deter behavior that transgresses international norms—that is a very valid and important question that bears deeper thought and exploration.

The watershed moment I think in the—over the Obama administration’s policy on Syria was that moment faced by the administration in September of 2013 following a massive chemical weapons attack on civilians in which, as we all know, the president eventually walked back from the red line, did not undertake missile strikes. We don’t know what would have happened had he done that, but I think it raises this big question about the use of force and what that sweet spot for the use of force is.

President Trump undertook missile strikes last year around this time, also in response to a chemical weapon attack, and we see that that was not effective. In fact, the CW attacks have continued.

What is—are we at a moment where there is the potential to undertake strikes that will be—that will be resonant enough to really shift the Assad regime’s behavior or at least shift the calculus of Russia, in particular, and Iran as his key patrons, and seek to prevent that sort of behavior going forward? I am not at all optimistic that that’s a possibility; I think it’s an enormously tall order, but I also think it’s something that we have to do much more thinking about, if not for Syria, then certainly for other conflicts in the world.

Secondly—and here I’m a slight—well, in this case, with this administration less optimistic, but it is certainly an area where we do have the potential for having an impact on the ground, and that is the counter-ISIS mission, the work that the U.S. has been involved in in eastern Syria. There, with a relatively small commission of troops—2,000 boots on the ground—a new model of working by, with and through local partners on the ground, a focus on stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS—that I think is very important work that should continue and that can have an impact in terms of stabilizing, preventing power vacuums from arising, ideally preventing the emergence of an ISIS 2.0. However, it will require continued U.S. commitment on the ground and, as we know, the president has stated that he does not want to continue that commitment; that he wants to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria by the end of the year.

So I think—what I guess I’m saying is I don’t think it’s impossible for us to have a meaningful impact, but I think under this administration and under the current circumstances inside Syria, the odds are unfortunately quite low.

FINER: Thank you. I think—suspect strongly there will be several follow-up questions from the audience on all issues related to Syria.

Steven, I wanted to come back you and ask a question about Turkey which, not that long ago I think many of us used to think of as a country that was moving quite rapidly towards European integration, economic growth, modernity in every sense of the word, and that more recently—and actually I would say that that was true very much of the Obama administration, and it’s hard to think of a relationship early in President Obama’s tenure that he invested in more aggressively than he invested in the relationship with Mr. Erdogan—and Phil was involved in this as well.

We’re obviously in a very different place now with Turkey which is not, technically speaking, of the region, but is very much a part of all of these issues we’re discussing, and that is, you know, increasingly looking much more like a typical Middle Eastern autocracy than a European democratic country. It also happens to be the only country in that region that the United States maintains a treaty alliance with, so we are invested whether we want to be or not for now.

Where is this going, and how do you read what has happened in the last few years in terms of sort of how the U.S. should be approaching these problems?

COOK: It’s an important question in thinking about American policy towards the Middle East and our interests. Turkey is one of those countries, perhaps not as—we’re not as financially invested in Turkey as we are in Egypt, but Turkey has been a central, important actor in much of what we did during the Cold War and in attempts in Central Asia and the Middle East after the Cold War.

There is this kind of odd narrative about Turkey based on that history. We stood shoulder to shoulder during the Cold War, we fought and died together during the Korean—that kind of carried over into a lot of thinking in Washington about Turkey. But if you just take the word Turkey out of the discussion and you talk about a country that has purged more than 200,000 people, that threatens U.S. forces in a neighboring country, that arrests large numbers of journalists, that attempts to politicize the U.S. judicial system, that abuses U.S. citizens at home and abroad, that whips up anger at the Israelis regionally, antagonizes other regional powers, buys weaponry or threatens to buy weaponry from the Russians, floats between close relations with Iran and the West, has attempted to dominate the region, believes itself to be the natural leader of the region in which it’s in, and in the process of all this, has supported extremist groups, we wouldn’t think of that country as a critically important country to advancing American interests around the world and particularly in the region.

And that’s why, with all this investment—not financial but political investment, diplomatic investment—in bringing this country around strikes me as a major overinvestment. That’s not to say that we should have a breach in our relations with Turkey, but to understand that the United States and Turkey do not share values and don’t share interests, and that once the fight against the Islamic State has no longer—is no longer an existential threat to Iraq and Syria, the one thing that the Turks tend to hang over us—the access to Incirlik Air Base—becomes less and less important.

What the Turks do is they maintain their membership in NATO, they maintain that radar installation. It’s just enough for folks at CENTCOM, or the Pentagon, or the State Department to wonder what would happen if we altered this relationship, if we decided that we were going to seek some options, and it kind of pulls us back to, well, more intense private engagement with this country will bear some type of diplomatic fruit. And over and over again this approach has not produced results.

It’s time to change. The region has changed around us. There’s no reason to think that we should then continue a relationship with Turkey just because we talk about it the way we did in the 1980s and the 1990s about it being so critically important. Maybe it’s not as critically important. Maybe we don’t have to invest as much in Turkey going forward.

FINER: Thank you.

Phil, I wanted to ask you a bit about the overhang of Iraq and the Iraq War, beginning in 2003, on how we think about U.S. involvement in the Middle East. You know, arguably on both sides of the debate, over and underinvested, Iraq plays a role in people’s thinking because we’ve come to define investment in the Middle East in military terms, at least in the aftermath of Iraq.

I’m wondering if you think that is the proper frame. The Obama administration was often criticized for not being invested enough, at least in military terms, but was deeply invested diplomatically in the Iran nuclear deal and in quixotic—some might say—efforts to try to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

President Trump has done less on the diplomatic front; more, arguably on the military front. How should we think about the definition of investment and the role that Iraq has played maybe in how we think about these problems?

GORDON: Yeah, thanks, Jon. I mean, it’s an interesting question now because it feels to me a little bit like we’re in one of these phases of the pendulum swinging back in a different direction; that is to say maybe U.S. policy always swings back and forth like a pendulum on this question of intervention, and Iraq was a big swing in one direction against passivity and not using our power to try to transform the region. And then I think, as a country, we very much learned the lesson, so to speak, that that can have unintended consequences and costs, and boy, did the pendulum swing back in the other way, and we elected a president, arguably, as much over the issue of Iraq as anything else, right? Why did he win the nomination? Why did he win the presidency? In part because of that conclusion that most Americans reached that that was overreach and we shouldn’t do that again.

And I think we’ve been in that phase ever since, you know, 2006 or so when it was widely concluded that the Iraq War was a mistake and costly. And by the way, that phase lasted not only up until this last election, but right on through it. And it wasn’t just a Democratic thing, but even on the Republican side, when you think about that array of candidates—it was like 16 at the beginning, right? Even the most sort of hawkish interventionist—maybe Lindsey Graham—still supported the Iraq War but was maybe for, like, 10,000 troops in Syria.

My point is that even the party that should have been reacting to Obama and the perception that he was too passive, didn’t do enough, didn’t—the pendulum didn’t swing back much. And indeed, not only was there hardly anyone representing that view that we need to, you know, conduct operations like Iraq, who won? The one guy who at least claimed that, you know, he thought the Iraq War was a disaster, completely distanced himself from the Bush administration and, if anything, argued that we should be washing our hands of the region—you know the line about spending $7 trillion, and if the past two presidents had just played golf, we would be better off.

So that overhang has lasted to this day. I raise it, though, because, you know, is the pendulum now swinging back, and John Bolton—I don’t know if rehabilitated is the right word—but there was a time when the prospect of bringing on someone as national security advisor who advocated the Iraq War, still thinks the Iraq War was a good idea, would just not have been in the cards. But it is now, and there is the potential at least for some revisionism. In fact, there was a—there was a piece in the paper last week. Eli Lake, in Bloomberg, wrote that we’ve now overlearned the lessons of the Iraq War, and it’s time to, you know, stop wringing our hands and thinking that the lesson is that we can’t intervene anywhere, and we’ve got to start doing this again. So that view is out there.

You know, it takes us back to the very first thing you asked me about: this caution that, you know, intervening and occupying doesn’t work, and intervening and not occupying doesn’t work, and not intervening doesn’t work. Let’s be careful not to, I think, allow that revisionism to swing full circle to the notion that, you know, maybe that was just bad luck and we can do this again because I think history strongly suggests otherwise.

FINER: Thank you.

Amy, we often talk in foreign policy about the relationship between interests and values. There are people who believe that they are mutually reinforcing and others believe that there are trade-offs involved. But the place in which this debate usually takes place on the map most often is the Middle East.

I was wondering if you could reflect a bit on how we should think about those two factors in the making of policy in this region.

HAWTHORNE: Well, that’s one of the core questions about what it is that sort of draws the U.S. into the region or pulls it out. It’s this debate that’s been going on for a long time, and ebbs and flows, about whether in this region our interests and our values are synonymous, separate, or conflicting.

I am of the view that our American values of democracy and human rights, and good governance, and free economic systems are actually our interests in the Middle East in the sense that I strongly believe that it’s the absence of those things in the Middle East that is a—not the—but a major driver of the conflicts that draw us into the region in the first place militarily, at least in recent decades.

So the debate is really about, I think, whether these values—the absence of them, the absence of these things in almost every part of the Arab world—and now Turkey is kind of a looming example, heading in an authoritarian direction as well—whether the fact that there are almost predominantly authoritarian countries, governments, a real failure of economic development by all of these regimes to one degree or another, whether those problems drive the internal conflicts inside these countries that then create larger conflicts—terrorism, war, et cetera—that draws the U.S. in or creates the question about whether we should be involved in helping to solve those conflicts.

So it is my very strong view that there is a very close connection between those things. It doesn’t mean that, if a sudden democratic wave were to sweep over the region, all of those problems would be solved. No, of course not. We can just look to the case of Tunisia, which is the one democratizing country in the region. Tunisia is facing very serious economic challenges. It also has a real problem with its young people joining ISIS and going to Syria and Iraq to fight there, and attacking Tunisians at homes, and going to Europe and attacking—carrying out attacks in Europe.

So it is not as simplistic as saying that democratization or democratic systems solve these problems, but I believe—and there’s a lot of academic research to back that up—that democracies, democratic systems have, over the medium term and the long term, a much better chance of addressing those problems in a peaceful way than do authoritarian regimes. That’s why, in my view, the governance systems of these countries matters profoundly to the United States and also to Europe, not to mention to the citizens of these own countries.

So the debate—because these values issues are kind of long term, they take a long term to sort of unfold in a positive direction, as we’re seeing in Tunisia—it’s really a struggle for that small country, although they are continuing on their path, and they deserve a huge amount of credit for sticking on a democratic path, and I think they have a—actually a very good chance because they are democratizing, because they’ve gotten rid of dictatorship as the way of kind of managing their society.

But in the short term, of course, privileging these issues, pressing our Arab allies on them does create tensions and conflicts, and so the way that I look at it—and when I worked in government in the Obama administration I saw the same thing up close every day—it’s a question of trade-offs. So we have to make a lot of short-term trade-offs because there are things that we need from these governments today or tomorrow that might be jeopardized or made more complicated by pressing on, say, the human rights agenda. And I have to say—and I work at the Project on Middle East Democracy—but I understand that those trade-offs are real. The challenge, though, is after many months, years, decades of those trade-offs, we never really get the chance to pay much attention to these underlying issues that eventually accumulate and create the problems for us that are among the challenges that we are thinking about today.

And I would just close by saying that this region—and this might sound a bit harsh but I think we need to be realistic about what we are talking about in the Arab world—this is a region that has a profound crisis, a profound failure of conflict management, and a profound failure of internal governance and economic development. These countries, these Arab countries have not been able, in most cases, to solve—peacefully solve, resolve interstate conflicts—often the U.S. or other actors get drawn in—or conflicts within their own societies. And when we think about the array of interests that draws the U.S. in to be invested, it is these conflicts that are one of the interests that draws us in—of course, oil and other economic interests—but it’s war, it’s violent conflict that pulls the U.S. in, and usually we try to address that problem with military force. And that’s what we might be doing again. And many administrations, you know—Democratic and Republican—have used that tactic, and in some senses, you could think in the short term it might seem like the best option, but this region, these countries can’t—these leaders that are in place in most of the region have been unable to address their own problems and to improve their own societies. And when we look at the constant factor why that’s true and why these countries have been so far behind—even Turkey until recent years in economic development, Asia, Latin America—the single common factor is the mode of governance in this region, and so that’s why, to conclude, I really believe that our values are our interests in this part of the world, almost beyond any other.

FINER: Thank you.

Mona, last question to you before we open it up to the audience. I want to ask you about foreign aid—U.S. foreign aid, the mythical force that most Americans believe occupies as much as 30 or 40 percent of our federal budget—

YACOUBIAN: And the reality is it’s less than 1 percent.

FINER: And the reality is less than 1 percent.


FINER: We can’t say this enough because so many people—


FINER: —misunderstand it. But even at less than 1 percent, there is a lot of debate and pressure as to whether this is money well spent.


FINER: The Trump administration has recently held or frozen about $200 million in development assistance that would have gone to Syria in areas in the surrounds. They have submitted budgets that have slashed other countries’ assistance levels by significantly more. Congress has pushed back.

How do you think about whether money spent in this region by the United States for development purposes is in fact a good investment given what Amy just said about the kind of state of governance and affairs?

YACOUBIAN: Well, I think it’s precisely, given what Amy just said, that frankly underscores the point of why it is that we should be investing more in development assistance. I mean, I’m a bit biased; I served three years at USAID in the Middle East Bureau, and was really quite impressed with what I saw and the value of the aid.

I think it’s important to step back for a moment. Looking at this overarching question of the panel, are we overinvested, and in my view, we’re not overinvested or underinvested; we’re wrongly invested. We—our priorities are off. And I think it’s because—I don’t know that we’ve all fully absorbed where the Middle East, where the Arab world is. I think the turmoil that we’re seeing in the region is the new normal. I think it’s emblematic of the fact that, as others have noted, the social contract in the region with—among various governments and their citizens has essentially broken down.

And in some ways, I think the—what we’re seeing in the Arab world is the leading edge of a broader 21st century trend, which is a changing nature of power itself, and the diffusion of power, and the ways in which disruptive, unpredictable change, I think, in many ways is going to characterize where the world is headed, and I think we’re just seeing in extraordinarily dramatic fashion in the Middle East.

I think ISIS, in some ways—the rise of ISIS is emblematic of that. The rise of this non-state actor which distinguished itself from al-Qaida in terms of having a governance agenda, in terms of holding territory and undertaking essentially governance activities in Mosul and Raqqa and in a third of Iraq and Syria.

So back to looking at the assistance agenda here, I think if we think about—to be cliché a bit—the three Ds of defense, diplomacy and development, development has, I think, too often been given short shrift in this. And I think what we’re learning and what we should be understanding more and more is that these challenges that we’re facing across the region cannot be resolved militarily. There’s certainly a place for kinetic action, but ultimately, the solutions to these challenges really lie in looking at governance systems, in dealing with economic growth. There’s really—there are anemic private sectors in the Middle East at best, so this whole issue of growth and job creation, and the whole issue of governance, and the role that governance plays, I think, in some ways in the post-ISIS landscape, the real challenge—and it’s not sexy—but the real challenge is going to be governance and ensuring that there are accountable, inclusive, responsive modes of governance in these various areas that have been liberated.

So I—you know, it’s my sense that we need to be upping our assistance, quite frankly. We need to increasingly view U.S. aid and the work that it does as a strategic asset.

And I’ll conclude by saying perhaps the greatest proponent of that view are our colleagues in the military who often point to the fact that they can only take things so far. It’s really what happens after the shooting stops that’s going to essentially consolidate those wins and ultimately secure the peace.

FINER: Thank you very much.

Let’s open it up. Hands, yes. You in the third row here.

Q: Thank you. Mona Aboelnaga Kanaan with K6 Investments.

I wanted to follow on your comments, Mona, and I couldn’t agree more that we are wrongly invested, perhaps rather than underinvested.

I wonder when we’ll have a truthful reexamination of arming the region, of military aid, and of the point of—of the 70 trillion (dollars), for example, that we’ve given to Egypt, 40 (trillion dollars)—about—has been military aid, rewarding sometimes the most corrupt, most autocratic elements of those governments. Why do we continue to think that funding, supplying and selling the equipment for traditional warfare will get us to a better place rather than economic development and education for any region, not just this one.

YACOUBIAN: Very quickly—I mean, my quick response is I think there’s a lot more work we need to do with respect to public education. I mean, we began—this last question was introduced with a joke, but it’s actually quite real that I think most Americans really do not have an appreciation of what our foreign assistance does, how effective it can be on the ground, how much more—how much less costly it is than these military interventions. And so when we’re in this moment in our own national history of this reflexive turn away from the world, of this reflexive sort of isolationism, I think it’s more important than ever to both sort of surface and be much more open, and transparent, and rigorous about how it is that these kinds of investments in economic development can actually translate.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we think of them as strategic assets when in fact they are. And I also think we need to have a much deeper understanding of what are the drivers of turmoil and conflict in the region. And again, I don’t—my own feeling is that our own national security posture is still very much on a 20th century footing; that we don’t have the appropriate tools to deal with these very complex 21st century challenges.

COOK: Let me just add one quick thing, and Mona, I think you are really on to something here. I think, though, to bring it back to my initial comment, if we set Egypt aside because there are some longer historical reasons why we have continued to arm the Egyptian armed forces, but look at the arm sales to the Saudis. President Trump touts $110 billion. This is a deal that comes out of, actually, the Obama administration, and it speaks to this question about how much investment we want to make in the region to defend our interests. And it strikes me that we don’t really want to make that investment, so we turn to those who have money and say, OK, we’re not—we’re interested in your security, but it’s time for you to take care of your own security. Buy what you will, buy what you need. And it has a number of terrible consequences, including the war in Yemen in which, you know, the Saudis went about rewriting their own military doctrine and using our equipment because the sense that we weren’t as invested in the region, we weren’t as invested in their security, which goes to a number of those core interests that we had historically defined.

So, again, this is a function of our inability to really understand are these our interests now, or are they just 20th century interests. And how we define that will tell us whether we’re overinvested, underinvested, and whether we should continue to allow these countries which hardly share our values to continue to, you know, buy as many planes and tanks and guns and whatever it is that they think that they need. That tends to wreak havoc through the region.

FINER: Thank you.

I should have said this before, but just a reminder that this is all on the record. And please do as was just done: State your name and affiliation before you ask a question.

Let me go to the way back.

Q: Thank you. This has been an excellent conference. John Sakowicz of KMEC radio, host and producer of “Heroes and Patriots,” which goes out to many public radio stations.

I’ve interviewed senior State Department people in Iraq, Peter van Buren, and Matthew Hoh in Afghanistan, and they’ve spoken to the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been lost in reconstruction efforts to waste, fraud and corruption at the local level. If any of the panel were the inspector general of the State Department, what specific concrete recommendations would you make for the best investment, best strategic investment in new internal governance models and economic development? Because, indeed, that’s our best chance for counterterrorism.

Thank you.

FINER: Would you like to tackle this one, Mona.


It’s a great question, and I think there are some very valuable lessons learned from both Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of the ways in which reconstruction efforts were undertaken in those countries. Huge amounts—literally bags of cash dropped on people, very little accountability. I mean, I think the initiation of the special investigators that are looking at both Iraq and Afghanistan—and there was a new one added for Operation Inherent Resolve—to ensure that these monies that are U.S. taxpayer dollars are well-stewarded and do not in fact have the impact—which they have in the past—of both entrenching corruption and also, frankly, in some cases, furthering conflict. There’s been some studies that have shown in places like Afghanistan, in some areas the more aid received, the deeper the conflict became.

I think to hearken back to what I said before, this idea of working by, with, and through, what we’ve done, in particular, I think, in Syria is really interesting. There are not—it’s not a ton of money. It’s less than a billion dollars by far, in terms of the stabilization assistance that’s gone into Syria. It’s hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps, over four or five years. And what’s really interesting about that model is both the fact that it’s small amounts of money, that we worked very closely with local partners on the ground. And at the same time that the money is coming in, there’s capacity being built up by those local partners on the ground, and that this assistance is much more organic and nimble and responsive to local needs. I think, for me, the biggest issue or the best way to sort of move forward is not to have these huge, enormous sums of assistance being plunked down, but rather to go to this model that works in partnership with partners on the ground; and frankly, that also works in partnership with other donors if—certainly from the international community, and I would hope increasingly in this realm from the gulf in a way that’s done in a responsible manner that’s transparent, and again, that is responsive to needs on the ground.

HAWTHORNE: I just wanted to add a word to what Mona said. That’s an excellent question. I really agree with what she said.

In my view the big—the single biggest, potentially most effective long-term investment that the United States—and Europe for that matter—Europe, this region is even more important to Europe than it is to us in many respects because it’s so close—would be to help transform the educational systems of these countries.

There are two challenges with that, though. First of all, we need to have partners in these countries, in the leadership of these countries, who agree with that goal. And to be sure, there are many people across the Arab world who have that goal and are already working on it completely separate from any U.S. involvement. But my view is that most of the leaderships of these countries are not currently interested in transforming their educational systems to create systems that really create educated citizens, critical thinking citizens, because of course that would potentially create a generation of citizens who would challenge their rule, potentially.

So the first challenge is that we don’t have a lot of obvious partners for a massive effort of that scale, and the second is that it’s a very long-term transformation. I mean, look at the challenges that we have with the educational system in our own country, and how contested that is and how complicated it is. And I don’t think the American public, particularly at this point, really has the patience or interest in that sort of long-term commitment, which is sort of uncertain outcome.

I guess one other thing I would add is in addition to thinking like what we can do in this region, I also think it’s important to think about what we should not do, and I think there’s a lot of ways, in my opinion, in which we engage with these Arab governments that make the problem worse. So the problem is there. It’s primarily an indigenous problem that has to do with conflict in governance, et cetera. A lot of the ways that the United States engages with these leaders and engages with these governments makes the problem worse, and so that is something that the U.S. could change immediately, is just change the way that we engage to at least not exacerbate the problems that exist. But that’s a very sort of subtle and complex policy shift that is difficult, you know, to make in practice, I think, so—

FINER: Thank you.

In the front row.

Q: Thank you very much. I’m Allen Hyman from Columbia University Medical Center.

Some people, especially in the region, would find it surprising, even shocking that 15 experts on this platform have not even mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wouldn’t—it wasn’t too long ago that people would have said that is the ultimate root cause of everything else, especially during the days when Yasser Arafat was with the Palestinians. So is it? Is it important anymore? And why haven’t we mentioned it?

GORDON: No, that’s a pertinent observation, and one that has occurred to me as well. There was a time not too long ago where you couldn’t have a high-level diplomatic meeting or a conference or any engagement in the region without starting with that issue. And it has gone from the top of the agenda, whether it’s, you know, U.S. leaders meeting with not just regional leaders but Europeans, or others, to almost not on the agenda. And it’s not, I think, because anyone has found it less important or in any way solved. That’s for sure. But it says something about the region where other issues have surged to the top of the agenda in ways that just overshadow in geopolitical and economic and humanitarian consequences the tragic but relatively inconsequential situation between Israel and the Palestinians now. And what I mean by that is a civil war in Syria that has killed half a million people and displaced 11 million and created millions of refugees in all of the neighboring states, and an Iranian nuclear issue that, you know, could either lead to an Iranian nuclear weapon and proliferation, or a military strike on Iran, and a geopolitical challenge between Saudi Arabia and Iran; and a war in Yemen that is having devastating consequences and costing intervening governments a fortune and also displacing lots of people and killing lots of people. And so when you put it in that context, you start seeing these regional leaders now and they don’t—even on the Arab side, those who used to bring up the Palestinian thing first.

The problem—and, you know, this is the tragedy of the Middle East today—is that doesn’t make the Israeli-Palestinian issue any less important, certainly for Israelis and Palestinians, or potentially consequential in the sense that it may for now be the dog that is relatively not barking, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t bark again. And just because we’re, you know, focusing on these more dramatic questions, like are we going to strike Syria over chemical weapons today, that doesn’t mean that the fundamental issue that we have identified for decades in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, that it’s, you know, arguably unsustainable, and Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish and secure state is imperiled if something can’t be figured out with the Palestinians—that hasn’t gone away. And periodically, it has led to intifadas, and Israeli invasion into neighboring countries, and missile wars, and any of those could happen at any time and could be even more devastating than in the past. And so I don’t think it’s in any way—and it certainly shouldn’t be—a sign that, well, that one’s not so important anymore, we don’t need to worry about it. It is just sadly overshadowed by some even greater challenges in the region.

COOK: Let me just add very quickly, agreeing with everything that Phil said, the question is, do you invest in a conflict that is essentially unresolvable? If it’s unresolvable, what is—even if the president says it’s the ultimate deal, you’re not going to get anywhere and you have scarce resources. I think where the problem’s going to be is when the Israelis actually move to annex the West Bank, or parts of the West Bank. That is a potential flashpoint where it all comes—where, you know, it’s been low on everybody’s agenda for a long time, where things get hot once again. But up until now, the agenda that Phil just listed—and you can probably add to it—overshadows something that just seems unable to do anything about.

FINER: And I’ll just point out briefly that the answer that the last three administrations have given to this question of do you invest in a conflict that is ultimately unresolvable has been yes.

COOK: But that has to do with political reasons.

FINER: For a whole range of reasons that I think do not have much to do with the other issues that we’ve been talking about. I think there was this notion at one point that many other problems in the region flow from this core central challenge, and that if you address that and resolve it, many of those other problems will go away. I don’t think there are many people that follow the region closely that believe that.

GORDON: And just as an example, as we sit here, there are daily protests going on in Gaza, and Palestinians in Gaza being killed, but it just doesn’t register because we’ve got Syrian chemical weapons and Iran and everything else going on.

HAWTHORNE: And one of the things that contributed to this situation that Phil has described so well in your excellent question is that in 2011 a lot of Arab countries had mass popular uprisings that had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. For decades, Arab leaders told us and told their public this is the central issue: until Palestine is liberated, we can’t have peace, we can’t have economic development, we can’t have freedom. And this rhetoric seemed to be seeping in, at least with a certain generation of intellectuals and influential people. But it turned out for a lot of the people in the region, although this issue still has huge emotional and political salience, this wasn’t what finally led people to come out into the streets in their millions. It was their own government’s repression and failures, not what Israel was doing to Palestinians. So we’re in a new phase now, as Phil said, in the region.

Q: I’m the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

Back to Turkey and Turkey’s membership in NATO. I see this as a major vulnerability that could impact U.S. national security, and it goes back to the good governance piece of all of this. But what we know about NATO is that it’s not just a security alliance; it’s a values-based alliance. And good democratic values are important to being a good member and ally. So what do you think—moving forward, what do you think that we have in our toolbox to encourage and to expect and demand that Turkey upholds the values that are necessary for being part of this alliance?

COOK: Well, there is, as we know, no mechanism for pushing Turkey out of NATO. So as long as Turkey wants to remain within the alliance, it will remain within the alliance. I think Richard’s put it well in saying that Turkey’s an ally but not a partner. And I think we’ve seen, over a period of time, as I alluded to in Jonathan’s question about Turkey, that administrations have preferred more honey than vinegar when it comes to Turkey, and this has given the Turks license to do all kinds of outrageous things that have either undercut or complicated American interests, have done things to American citizens, have made it impossible for the United States to think about Turkey as that constructive partner that it—we once talked about.

So my own view is that we have very, very little in our diplomatic toolbox. For President Erdogan, there is an existential issue at stake. He believes that the traditional Turkish establishment is out to undermine him and his transformative project for Turkey. And unless he pulverizes his enemies—those real and imagined—that project will come to an end—like many of the projects of his predecessor parties. So there’s little that we can do in terms of kind of private intensive engagement about values because we don’t share those values. He’s out to pulverize his opposition.

One think that I think would be worthwhile would be for an American president to speak out about some of these excesses. And, you know, it may or may not work. We do have some examples of when this has worked in the past, and I go back to 2005/2006, when President Bush spoke forthrightly about freedom in the Middle East. Now, freedom didn’t result, but it did force leaders in the region to kind of position themselves in ways that allowed people who wanted to live in more open and democratic societies a way to do the work that they had previously been doing on the margins. That may or may not worth with Turkey. We seem to believe that our equities with Turkey, the things that we need Turkey for are so much more important. But as I pointed out, with the existential threat of ISIS receding—not over—Turkey has become less and less important. And it’s actually important for the—less for the things that it can do with the United States and more important fir the things that it can do to complicate the kinds of things that we would like to do in the region.

GORDON: I would just add—and first going back to Jon’s point earlier about where we’ve come on Turkey, you know, from the start of the Obama administration since, as you pointed out, I was around then, I’ll just remind or reflect, Turkey—we had so much hope for Turkey in 2009. It’s almost a decade now. But if you recall, when President Obama had to take his first foreign trip abroad, the country he chose to go to was Turkey. He had to go to a NATO EU summit which was already planned. You know, you do what’s on the schedule. But then he had a little bit of time at the end of the trip and it was, OK, we should go somewhere else. Where should we go? And the answer was Turkey. Why? Because it’s hugely important. It’s moving towards the European Union. It’s democratizing. It’s reforming its economy. It’s got an Islamist-oriented government, and you could show that that would work, right, to be a NATO member.

FINER: Right, compatible with democracy.

GORDON: Compatible with democracy. So let’s go. Let’s give a boost to Mr. Erdogan. Let’s talk about a potential model partnership, and we’re going to show how this is going to work. And then, you know, you can extrapolate from there what it means to the rest of the region.

And so how—you know, it’s for all of our common reflection—how we got from there to this list/parade of horribles that Steven already read out—to which I might add I think Turkey was the only country, when we put together the global counter ISIS coalition—and Jon, you were a part of that—that leveraged its willingness to participate, that conditioned it. So everyone else sort of said, well, we’ll do a bit more or we’ll do a bit less, but of course we’re with you against ISIS. And Turkey more or less said, well, what will you give us? And that just reflected—

FINER: Well, in fairness, in part because I think there were a lot of Turks who were prisoners of ISIS at the very beginning of that coalition formation period, so part of their hesitation was—

COOK: Although after those—they were released, there was still a year-long negotiation over using Incirlik.

FINER: Absolutely.

GORDON: There was that as a—right.

FINER: Pound of flesh.

GORDON: Right, that. And then there was something they very much wanted, which at the time, ironically, was us to help him overthrow Assad. They’ve changed their view on that. But my point is, it just reflects—going back to your question—how far we’ve come in this strategic divergence that Steven already described.

On the specific NATO point, I would almost say it’s even worse than has been described. First of all, I think we can overstate the degree to which common values were really a pillar of NATO. There were times when Greece and Turkey were under juntas or autocratic government or military governments—Portugal—obviously—

COOK: We can add countries who are currently in NATO that don’t share our values or democracy, in addition to Turkey.

GORDON: Well, the former ambassador to Hungary might want to—

COOK: Exactly. I was being—I was being diplomatic to the ambassador. (Laughter.)

GORDON: But my point about even worse is, so we’ve managed to overcome times when we all didn’t share the same values because we shared the same interests, and that was the pillar of NATO. And now, with Turkey, I think on both of those counts you can certainly question the values piece.

COOK: Right.

GORDON: And on interests, we just see them very much in different ways. I mean, in Turkey it was never—you know, it was not the Soviet invasion that was the core reason for Turkey’s participation in the first place, but now that that’s a lesser glue for holding NATO together, we’ll only align with Turkey if we have common interest in the Middle East, and apparently we don’t, especially in Syria but even more broadly. So I think it raises questions that may be unresolvable because, you know, there’s no mechanism for getting them out of NATO, and I think the relationship there probably becomes even more transactional and NATO becomes even less capable of helping us solve these problems.

FINER: On the left here, please.

Q: Thank you very much for your time being here. Adam Scher from the United States Military Academy.

Given the discussion specifically about Turkey, but diffusion of power in general in the region, and perhaps a U.S. 20th century perspective, are we over or under invested in the Kurds? And maybe, you know, if we look at that list, does Turkey sitting there in Ankara saying, well, the United States is so invested in the Kurds and use the Kurds to fight ISIS in Syria, and is that the potential existential threat to Turkey or a reason why we are making it hard for governments to deal with their internal conflicts because of our relationship with Kurds? Thank you.

COOK: I’ll start and—I think, as a general rule, becoming a friend of your friend’s enemy doesn’t generally work out very well. But of course, our hand was forced because after the Islamic State overran Mosul and other parts of Iraq and we went looking for allies in the fight, the Turk’s conditioned and forced us to negotiate over a period of time, and then wanted us to work with their allies in Syria. And I think that U.S. Central Command and others looked at these guys and said, well, we really don’t want to work with al-Qaida affiliates in Syria. So we—and the Kurds were eager to work with the United States. With the problem that was presented to the U.S. military, which is to—I think that President Obama’s terms were “degrade and defeat ISIS.” I think President Trump’s words were “bomb the expletive out of them.” The Syrian Kurds were extraordinarily important. Those Syrian Kurds are from the People’s Protection Units, which are—which were brought into this world by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a party that—a party, a terrorist organization that’s been waging war against the Turkish state since the president was married to Ivana Trump. That’s a very, very long time ago. (Laughter.)

I knew that would work in New York. It falls flat in Florida, but it works very well in New York. (Laughter.)

Anyway, the question is, has the relationship with Turkey—between Turkey and the United States moved in such a way and has deteriorated to such an extent that the Kurds are a better option for the United States in terms of our security interests? So, of course, we’d want to work with a NATO ally, the second-largest military in NATO. But as Phil just pointed out, Turkey neither shares our values nor our interests in the region. And given the changes in the region, that is an option. Of course, it’s been difficult to do that. If you look at the situation with the Iraqi Kurds, what to do about the Syrian Kurds—I mean, the president said we’re getting out. It seemed to suggest that he had seen the Turkish position on the YPG. It strikes me that if we were to get out soon, what that would do to our relationship with Turkey and with the Kurds is undermine our relationship with an ally that has been working effectively against the Islamic State, as well as not do much to improve our relationship with Ankara, because the distrust is so great. And although the YPG is a flashpoint, that long list of things, the Turks can turn around and give you an equally long list of things that essentially mirror the list of frustrations that I outlined.

FINER: Mona, got about two minutes. Try to end on time. Thank you.

YACOUBIAN: Two minutes. I mean, I—just the only thing I would say, I think both you, Jon and Phil are fully aware of how it is we ended up with the Kurds. There was a certain sense of expediency, urgency to dealing with ISIS in Syria. There were external operations planning directed at the West happening in cities in Syria, and a sense that this was a threat that had to be addressed. And frankly, there were no other options. There was more than a lot of diplomatic and other types of capital spent in trying to see whether there was something we could do with the Turks and their allies on the ground in Syria, and it simply didn’t work. I think going forward, though, we are looking potentially with—at this tension between Turkey and the Kurds in Syria potentially unraveling the entire counter-ISIS mission. We’ve already seen Turkey take control of Afrin, a Kurdish canton in northwestern Syria, and they are threatening to move further east into Manbij, which is really kind of the crux of where our operations lay. If they do that, that could very well unravel our entire counter-ISIS operation, and therefore, I think their—it’s incumbent on the U.S. to step up its diplomatic game, to figure out what that sweet spot is—and it has to exist—with Turkey and the Kurds, where we are able to assuage the Turks of their concerns. And it may be that there’s got to be more diplomacy inside Turkey, some attempt to try and rejuvenate Kurdish—PKK Kurdish-Turkish negotiations, which faltered in 2015, and some sort of middle ground solution in Manbij and that part of Syria where the Turks have really expressed deep concerns about a Kurdish presence.

FINER: Great, thank you.

I want to remind everyone that the closing session we were going to have with General Joe Votel from CENTCOM has been canceled due to a change in his schedule.

Invite you all outside to attend a lunch reception. And on behalf of Rita Hauser and the Council, just want to thank everyone for coming. And please thank our panelists. (Applause.)


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