Academic Webinar: Geopolitics in the Middle East
Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at CFR, leads a conversation on geopolitics in the Middle East.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the CFR Fall 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic, if you want to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
Today’s topic is geopolitics in the Middle East. Our speaker was supposed to be Sanam Vakil, but she had a family emergency. So we’re delighted to have our very own Steven Cook here to discuss this important topic. Dr. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations.
He is the author of several books, including False Dawn; The Struggle for Egypt, which won the 2012 Gold Medal from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Ruling But Not Governing. And he’s working on yet another book entitled The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. So keep an eye out for that in the next year or so. He’s a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and contributor and commentator on a bunch of other outlets. Prior to coming to CFR, Dr. Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So, Dr. Cook, thank you for being with us. I thought you could just—I’m going to give you a soft question here, to talk about the geopolitical relations among state and nonstate actors in the Middle East. And you can take that in whatever direction you would like.
COOK: Well, thanks so much, Irina. It’s a great pleasure to be with you. Good afternoon to everybody who’s out there who’s on an afternoon time zone, good morning to those who may still be in the evening, and good evening to those who may be somewhere where it’s the evening. It’s very nice to be with you. As Irina mentioned, and as I’m sure it’s plenty evident, I am not Sanam Vakil, but I’m happy to step in for her and offer my thoughts on the geopolitics of the Middle East.
It’s a small topic. That question that Irina asked was something that I certainly could handle effectively in fifteen to twenty minutes. But before I get into the details of what’s going on in the region, I thought I would offer some just general comments about the United States in the Middle East. Because, as it turns out, I had the opportunity last night to join a very small group of analysts with a very senior U.S. government official to talk precisely about the United States in the Middle East.
And it was a very, very interesting conversation, because despite the fact that there has been numerous news reporting and analytic pieces about how the United States is deemphasizing the Middle East, this official made it very, very clear that that was practically impossible at this time. And this was, I think, a reasonable position to take. There has been a lot recently, in the last recent years, about withdrawing from the region, from retrenchment from the region, reducing from the region, realignment from the region. All those things actually mean different things. But analysts have essentially used them to mean that the United States should deprioritize the Middle East.
And it seems to me that the problem in the Middle East has not necessarily been the fact that we are there and that we have goals there. It’s that the goals in the region and the resources Washington uses to achieve those goals need to be realigned to address things that are actually important to the United States. In one sense that sound eminently reasonable. We have goals, we have resources to meet those goals, and we should devote them to—and if we can’t, we should reassess what our goals are or go out and find new resources. That sounds eminently reasonable.
But that’s not the way Washington has worked over the course of the last few decades when it comes to the Middle East. In many ways, the United States has been overly ambitious. And it has led to a number of significant failures in the region. In an era when everything and anything is a vital interest, then nothing really is. And this seems to be the source of our trouble. For example, when we get into trying to fix the politics of other countries, we’re headed down the wrong road. And I don’t think that there’s been enough real debate in Washington or, quite frankly, in the country about what’s important in the Middle East, and why we’re there, and what we’re trying to achieve in the Middle East.
In part, this new book that I’m writing called the End of Ambition, which, as Irina pointed out, will be out hopefully in either late 2022 or early 2023, tries to answer some of these questions. There is a way for the United States to be constructive in the Middle East, but what we’ve done over the course of the last twenty years has made that task much, much harder. And it leads us, in part, to this kind of geostrategic picture or puzzle that I’m about to lay out for you.
So let me get into some of the details. And I’m obviously not going to take you from Morocco all the way to Iran, although I could if I had much, much more time because there’s a lot going on in a lot of places. But not all of those places are of critical importance to the United States. So I’ll start and I’ll pick and choose from that very, very large piece of geography.
First point: There have been some efforts to deescalate in a region that was in the middle of or on the verge of multiple conflicts. There has been a dialogue between the Saudis and the Iranians, under the auspices of the Iraqis, of all people. According to the Saudis this hasn’t yielded very much, but they are continuing the conversation. One of the ways to assess the success or failure of a meeting is the fact that there’s going to be another meeting. And there are going to be other meetings between senior Iranian and Saudi officials. I think that that’s good.
Egyptians and Turks are talking. Some of you who don’t follow these issues as closely may not remember that Turkey and Egypt came close to trading blows over Libya last summer. And they pulled back as a result of concerted diplomacy on the part of the European Union, as well as the Egyptian ability to actually surge a lot of force to its western border. Those two countries are also talking, in part under the auspices of the Iraqis. Emiratis and Iranians are talking. That channel opened up in 2019 after the Iranians attacked a very significant—two very significant oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia, sort of scaring the Emiratis, especially since the Trump administration did not respond in ways that the Emiratis or the Saudis had been expecting.
The Qataris and the Egyptians have repaired their relations. The Arab world, for better or for worse, is moving to reintegrate Syria into is ranks. Not long after King Abdullah of Jordan was in the United States, he and Bashar al-Assad shared a phone call to talk about the opening of the border between Jordan and Syria and to talk about, among other things, tourism to the two countries. The hope is that this de-escalation, or hope for de-escalation coming from this dialogue, will have a salutary effect on conflicts in Yemen, in Syria, in Libya, and Iraq. Thus far, it hasn’t in Yemen, in particular. It hasn’t in Syria. But in Libya and Iraq, there have been some improvements to the situation.
All of this remains quite fragile. These talks can be—can break off at any time under any circumstances. Broader-scale violence can return to Libya at any time. And the Iraqi government still doesn’t control its own territory. Its sovereignty is compromised, not just by Iran but also by Turkey. But the fact that a region that was wound so tight and that seemed poised to even deepen existing conflicts and new ones to break out, for all of these different parties to be talking—some at the behest of the United States, some entirely of their own volition—is, I think, a relatively positive sign. You can’t find anyone who’s more—let’s put it this way, who’s darker about developments in the Middle East than me. And I see some positive signs coming from this dialogue.
Iran, the second big issue on the agenda. Just a few hours ago, the Iranians indicated that they’re ready to return to the negotiating table in Vienna. This is sort of a typical Iranian negotiating tactic, to push issues to the brink and then to pull back and demonstrate some pragmatism so that people will thank for them for their pragmatism. This agreement to go back to the negotiating table keeps them on decent terms with the Europeans. It builds on goodwill that they have developed as a result of their talks with Saudi Arabia. And it puts Israel somewhat on the defensive, or at least in an awkward position with the Biden administration, which has very much wanted to return to the negotiating table in Vienna.
What comes out of these negotiations is extremely hard to predict. This is a new government in Iran. It is certainly a harder line than its predecessor. Some analysts believe that precisely because it is a hardline government it can do the negotiation. But we’ll just have to see. All the while this has been going on, the Iranians have been proceeding with their nuclear development, and Israel is continuing its shadow campaign against the Iranians in Syria, sometimes in Iraq, in Iran itself. Although, there’s no definitive proof, yesterday Iranian gas stations, of all things, were taken offline. There’s some suspicion that this was the Israelis showing the Iranians just how far and deep they are into Iranian computer systems.
It remains unclear how the Iranians will retaliate. Previously they have directed their efforts to Israeli-linked shipping in and around the Gulf of Oman. Its conventional responses up until this point have been largely ineffective. The Israelis have been carrying on a fairly sophisticated air campaign against the Iranians in Syria, and the Iranians have not been able to mount any kind of effective response. Of course, this is all against the backdrop of the fact that the Iranians do have the ability to hold much of the Israeli population hostage via Hezbollah and its thousands of rockets and missiles. So you can see how this is quite worrying, and an ongoing concern for everybody in the region, as the Israelis and Iranians take part in this confrontation.
Let me just continue along the line of the Israelis for a moment and talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict, something that has not been high on the agenda of the Biden administration, it hasn’t been high on the agenda of many countries in the region. But since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, there have been some significant developments. The normalization as a result of the Abraham Accords continues apace. Recently in the Emirates there was a meeting of ministers from Israel, the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, and Sudan. This is the first kind of face-to-face meeting of government officials from all of these countries.
Now, certainly the Israelis and the Emiratis have been meeting quite regularly, and the Israelis and the Bahrainis have been meeting quite regularly. But these were broader meetings of Cabinet officials from all of the Abraham Accords countries coming together in the United Arab Emirates for talks. Rather extraordinary. Something that thirteen months—in August 2020 was unimaginable, and today is something that doesn’t really make—it doesn’t really make the headlines. The Saudis are actually supportive of the normalization process, but they’re not yet willing to take that step. And they’re not willing to take that step because of the Palestinian issue. And it remains a sticking point.
On that issue, there was a lot of discussion after the formation of a new Israeli government last June under the leadership, first, of Naftali Bennett, who will then hand the prime ministership over to his partner, Yair Lapid, who are from different parties. That this was an Israeli government that could do some good when it comes to the Palestinian arena, that it was pragmatic, that it would do things that would improve the lives of Palestinians, whether in Gaza or the West Bank, and seek greater cooperation with both the United States and the Palestinian authority toward that end.
And that may in fact turn out to be the case. This government has taken a number of steps in that direction, including family reunification, so that if a Palestinian on the West Bank who is married to a Palestinian citizen of Israel, the Palestinian in the West Bank can live with the family in Israel. And a number of other things. But it should also be clear to everybody that despite a kind of change in tone from the Israeli prime ministry, there’s not that much of a change in terms of policy. In fact, in many ways Prime Minister Bennett is to the right of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. And Yair Lapid, who comes from a centrist party, is really only centrist in terms of Israeli politics. He is—in any other circumstances would be a kind of right of center politician.
And I’ll just point out that in recent days the Israeli government has declared six Palestinian NGOs—long-time NGOs—terrorist organizations, approved three thousand new housing units in the West Bank, and worked very, very hard to prevent the United States from opening a consulate in East Jerusalem to serve the Palestinians. That consulate had been there for many, many, many years. And it was closed under the Trump administration when the U.S. Embassy was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Biden administration would like to reopen that consulate. And the Israeli government is adamantly opposed.
In the end, undoubtably Arab governments are coming to terms with Israel, even beyond the Abraham Accords countries. Egypt’s flag carrier, Egyptair, announced flights to Tel Aviv. This is the first time since 1979. You could—you could fly between Cairo and Tel Aviv, something that I’ve done many, many times. If you were in Egypt, you’d have to go and find an office that would sell you a ticket to something called Air Sinai, that did not have regular flights. Only had flights vaguely whenever, sometimes. It was an Egyptair plane, stripped of its livery, staffed by Egyptair pilots and staff, stripped of anything that said Egyptair.
Now, suddenly Egyptair is flying direct flights to Tel Aviv. And El-Al, Israel’s national airline, and possibly one other, will be flying directly to Cairo. And there is—and that there is talk of economic cooperation. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Sharm al-Sheikh not long ago. That was the first meeting of Israeli leaders—first public meeting of Israeli leaders and Egyptian leaders in ten years. So there does seem to be an openness on the part of Arab governments to Israel.
As far as populations in these countries, they don’t yet seem to be ready for normalization, although there has been some traffic between Israel and the UAE, with Emiratis coming to see Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and so on and so forth. But there are very, very few Emiratis. And there are a lot of Egyptians. So as positive as that all is, this is—this has not been a kind of broad acceptance among the population in the Arab world for Israel’s legitimate existence.
And the kind of issue du jour, great-power competition. This is on everybody’s lips in Washington, D.C.—great-power competition, great-power competition. And certainly, the Middle East is likely to be an arena of great-power competition. It has always been an arena of great-power competition. For the first time in more than two decades, the United States has competitors in the region. And let me start with Russia, because there’s been so much discussion of China, but Russia is the one that has been actively engaged militarily in the region in a number of places.
Vladimir Putin has parlayed his rescue of Hafez al-Assad into influence in the region, in an arc that stretches from NATO ally Turkey, all the way down through the Levant and through Damascus, then even stretching to Jerusalem where Israeli governments and the Russian government have cooperated and coordinated in Syria, into Cairo, and then into at least the eastern portion of Libya, where the Russians have supported a Qaddafist general named Khalifa Haftar, who used to be an employee of the CIA, in his bid for power in Libya. And he has done so by providing weaponry to Haftar, as well as mercenaries to fight and support him. That episode may very well be over, although there’s every reason to believe that Haftar is trying to rearm himself and carry on the conflict should the process—should the political process in Libya break down.
Russia has sold more weapons to Egypt in the last few years than at any other time since the early 1970s. They have a defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. It’s not clear what that actually means, but that defense agreement was signed not that long after the United States’ rather chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which clearly unnerved governments in the Middle East. So Russia is active, it’s influential, its militarily engaged, and it is seeking to advance its interests throughout the region.
I’ll point out that its presence in North Africa is not necessarily so much about North Africa, but it’s also about Europe. Its bid in Libya is important because its ally controls the eastern portion of Libya, where most of Libya’s light, sweet crude oil is located. And that is the largest—the most significant reserves of oil in all of Africa. So it’s important as an energy play for the Russians to control parts of North Africa, and right on Russia’s—right on Europe’s front doorstep.
China. China’s the largest investor and single largest trading partner with most of the region. And it’s not just energy related. We know how dependent China is on oil from the Gulf, but it’s made big investments in Algeria, in Egypt, the UAE, and in Iran. The agreement with Iran, a twenty-five-year agreement, coming at a time when the Iranians were under significant pressure from the United States, was regarded by many in Washington as an effort on the part of the Chinese to undercut the United States, and undercut U.S. policy in the region. I think it was, in part, that. I think it was also in part the fact that China is dependent in part on Iranian oil and did not want the regime there to collapse, posing a potential energy crisis for China and the rest of the world.
It seems clear to me, at least, that the Chinese do not want to supplant the United States in the region. I don’t think they look at the region in that way. And if they did, they probably learned the lesson of the United States of the last twenty-five years, which has gotten itself wrapped around the axle on a variety of issues that were unnecessary and sapped the power of the United States. So they don’t want to get more deeply involved in the region. They don’t want to take sides in conflicts. They don’t want to take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They don’t take sides in the conflict between the United States and Iran, or the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
They want to benefit from the region, whether through investment or through extraction, and the security umbrella that the United States provides in the region. I’m not necessarily so sure that that security umbrella needs to be so expensive and so extensive for the United States to achieve its goals. But nevertheless, and for the time being at least, we will be providing that security umbrella in the region, from which the Chinese will benefit.
I think, just to close on this issue of great-power competition. And because of time, I’m leaving out another big player, or emerging player in the region, which is India. I’m happy to talk about that in Q&A. But my last point is that, going back to the United States, countries in the region and leaders in the region are predisposed towards the United States. The problem is, is that they are very well-aware of the political polarization in this country. They’re very well-aware of the political dysfunction in this country. They’re very well-aware of the incompetence that came with the invasion of Iraq, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, or any number of disasters that have unfolded here in the United States.
And it doesn’t look, from where they sit in Abu Dhabi, in Cairo, in Riyadh, and in other places, that the United States has staying power, the will to lead, and the interest in remaining in the Middle East. And thus, they have turned to alternatives. Those alternatives are not the same as the United States, but they do provide something. I mean, particularly when it comes to the Chinese it is investment, it’s economic advantages, without the kind of trouble that comes with the United States.
Trouble from the perspective of leaders, so that they don’t have to worry about human rights when they deal with the Chinese, because the Chinese aren’t interested in human rights. But nevertheless, they remain disclosed toward the United States and want to work with the United States. They just don’t know whether we’re going to be there over the long term, given what is going on in the United States. I’ll stop there. And I look forward to your questions and comments. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Steven, that was fantastic. Thank you very much.
We’re going to now to all of you for your questions.
So the first raised hand comes from Jonas Truneh. And I don’t think I pronounced that correctly, so you can correct me.
Q: Yeah, no, that’s right. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, Dr. Cook, for your talk. I’m from UCL, University College London, in London.
COOK: So it is—(off mic).
Q: Indeed, it is. Yeah. That’s right.
Q: So you touched on it there somewhat particularly with great-power competition, but so my question is related to the current energy logic in the Middle East. The Obama administration perhaps thought that the shale revolution allowed a de-prioritization, if I’m allowed to use that word, of the Middle East. And that was partly related to the pivot to Asia. So essentially does the U.S. still regard itself as the primary guarantor of energy security in the Persian Gulf? And if so, would the greatest beneficiary, as I think you indicated, would that not be China? And is that a case of perverse incentives? Is there much the U.S. can do about it?
COOK: Well, it depends on who you ask, right? And it’s a great question. I think that the—one of the things that—one of the ways in which the Obama administration sought to deprioritize and leave the region was through the shale revolution. I mean, the one piece of advice that he did take from one of his opponents in 2002—2008, which was to drill, baby, drill. And the United States did. I would not say that this is something that is specific to the Obama administration. If you go back to speeches of presidents way back—but I won’t even go that far back. I’ll go to George W. Bush in 2005 State of the Union addressed, talked all about energy independence from the Middle East.
This may not actually be in much less the foreseeable future, but in really—in a longer-term perspective, it may be harder to do. But it is politically appealing. The reason why I say it depends on who you ask, I think that there are officials in the United States who say: Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed. But when the Iranians attacked those two oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia, that temporarily took off 50 percent of supply off the markets—good thing the Saudis have a lot stored away—the United States didn’t really respond. The president of the United States said: I’m waiting for a call from Riyadh.
That forty years of stated American policy was, like, it did not exist. The Carter doctrine and the Reagan corollary to the Carter doctrine suddenly didn’t exist. And the entirety of the American foreign policy community shrugged their shoulders and said: We’re not going to war on behalf of MBS. I don’t think we would have been going to war on behalf of MBS. We would have been ensuring the free flow of energy supplies out of the region, which is something that we have been committed to doing since President Carter articulated the Carter doctrine, and then President Reagan added his corollary to it.
I think that there are a number of quite perverse incentives associated with this. And I think that you’re right. The question is whether the competition from China outweighs our—I’m talking about “our”—the United States’ compelling interest in a healthy global economy. And to the extent that our partners in Asia, whether it’s India, South Korea, Japan, and our important trading partner in China, are dependent upon energy resources from the Gulf, and we don’t trust anybody to ensure the free flow of energy resources from the Gulf, it’s going to be on us to do it. So we are kind of hammered between that desire to have a healthy global economy as being—and being very wary of the Chinese. And the Chinese, I think, are abundantly aware of it, and have sought to take advantage of it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question, which got an up-vote, from Charles Ammon, who is at Pennsylvania State University. And I think this goes to what you were building on with the great-power competition: What interests does India have in the Middle East? And how is it increasing its involvement in the region?
COOK: So India is—imports 60 percent of its oil from the region. Fully 20 percent of it from Saudi Arabia, another 20 percent of it from Iran, and then the other 20 percent from other sources. So that’s one thing. That’s one reason why India is interested in the Middle East. Second, there are millions and millions of Indians who work in the Middle East. The Gulf region is a region that basically could not run without South Asian expatriate labor, most of which comes from India—on everything.
Third, India has made considerable headway with countries like the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia, in counterextremism cooperation. This has come at the expense of Pakistan, but as relations between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and relations between Pakistan and the UAE soured in recent years, the Indians have been able to take advantage of that. And Indian leaders have hammered away at the common interest that India and leaders in the region have in terms of countering violent extremism.
And then finally, India and Israel have quite an extraordinary relationship, both in the tech field as well as in the defense area. Israel is a supplier to India. And the two of them are part of a kind of global network of high-tech powerhouse that have either, you know, a wealth of startups or very significant investment from the major tech players in the world. Israel—Microsoft just announced a huge expansion in Israel. And Israeli engineers and Indian engineers collaborate on a variety of projects for these big tech companies.
So there’s a kind of multifaceted Indian interest in the region, and the region’s interest in India. What India lacks that the Chinese have is a lot more capacity. They don’t have the kind of wherewithal to bring investment and trade in the region in the other direction. But nevertheless, it’s a much more important player than it was in the past.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Curran Flynn, who has a raised hand.
Q: How do you envision the future of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia politics for the next thirty years? Ethiopia controls the Nile dam projects. And could this dispute lead to a war? And what is the progress with the U.S. in mediating the talks between the three countries?
COOK: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: And that is coming from the King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia.
COOK: Fabulous. So that’s more than the evening. It’s actually nighttime there.
I think that the question of the great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is really an important one, and it’s something that has not gotten as much attention as it should. And for those of you who are not familiar, in short the Ethiopians have been building a massive dam on the Blue Nile, which is a tributary to the Nile. And that if—when competed, threatens the water supply to Egypt, a country of 110 million people that doesn’t get a lot of rainfall. Ethiopia, of course, wants to dam the Nile in order to produce hydroelectric power for its own development, something that Egypt did when it dammed the Nile River to build the Aswan High Dam, and crated Lake Nasser behind it.
The Egyptians are very, very concerned. This is an existential issue for them. And there have been on and off negotiations, but the negotiations aren’t really about the issues. They’re talks about talks about talks. And they haven’t gotten—they haven’t gotten very far. Now, the Egyptians have been supported by the Sudanese government, after the Sudanese government had been somewhat aligned with the Ethiopian government. The Trump administration put itself squarely behind the Egyptian government, but Ethiopia’s also an important partner of the United States in the Horn of Africa. The Egyptians have gone about signing defense cooperation agreements with a variety of countries around Ethiopia’s borders. And of course, Ethiopia is engaged in essentially what’s a civil war.
This is a very, very difficult and complicated situation. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution the problem. Now, here’s the rub, if you talk to engineers, if you talk to people who study water, if you talk to people who know about dams and the flow of water, the resolution to the problem is actually not that hard to get to. The problem is that the politics and nationalism have been engaged on both sides of the issue, making it much, much more difficult to negotiate an equitable solution to the problem. The Egyptians have said in the past that they don’t really have an intention of using force, despite the fact of this being an existential issue. But there’s been somewhat of a shift in their language on the issue.
Which recently they’ve said if red lines were crossed, they may be forced to intervene. Intervene how? What are those red lines? They haven’t been willing to define them, which should make everybody nervous. The good news is that Biden administration has appointed an envoy to deal with issues in the Horn of Africa, who has been working very hard to try to resolve the conflict. I think the problem here however is that Ethiopia, now distracted by a conflict in the Tigray region, nationalism is running high there, has been—I don’t want to use the word impervious—but not as interested in finding a negotiated solution to the problem than it might have otherwise been in the past.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Bob Pauly, who’s a professor of international development at the University of Southern Mississippi. It got three up-votes.
What would you identify as the most significant likely short and longer-term effects of Turkey’s present domestic economic and political challenges on President Erdogan’s strategy and policy approaches to the Middle East, and why?
COOK: Oh, well, that is a very, very long answer to a very, very interesting question. Let’s see what happens in 2023. President Erdogan is facing reelection. His goal all along has been to reelected on the one hundredth anniversary of the republic, and to demonstrate how much he has transformed Turkey in the image of the Justice and Development Party, and moved it away from the institutions of the republic. Erdogan may not make it to 2023. I don’t want to pedal in conspiracy theories or anything like that, but he doesn’t look well.
There are large numbers of videos that have surfaced of him having difficulties, including one famous one from this past summer when he was offering a Ramadan greeting on Turkish television to supporters of the Justice and Development Party, and he seemed to fade out and slur his words. This is coupled with reports trickling out of Ankara about the lengths to which the inner circle has gone to shield real health concerns about Erdogan from the public. It’s hard to really diagnose someone from more than six thousand miles away, but I think it’s a scenario that policymakers in Washington need to think seriously about. What happens if Erdogan is incapacitated or dies before 2023? That’s one piece.
The second piece is, well, what if he makes it and he’s reelected? And I think in any reasonable observer sitting around at the end of 2021 looking forward to 2023 would say two things: One, you really can’t predict Turkish politics this far out, but if Turkish elections were held today and they were free and fair, the Justice and Development Party would get below 30 percent. Still more than everybody else. And Erdogan would have a real fight on his hands to get reelected, which he probably would be.
His approaches to his domestic challenges and his approaches to the region are really based on what his current political calculations are at any given moment. So his needlessly aggressive posture in the Eastern Mediterranean was a function of the fact that he needed to shore up his nationalist base. Now that he finds himself quite isolated in the world, the Turks have made overtures to Israel, to the UAE, to Saudi Arabia. They’re virtually chasing the Egyptians around the Eastern Mediterranean to repair their relationship. Because without repairing these relationships the kind of investment that is necessary to try to help revive the Turkish economy—which has been on the skids for a number of years—is going to be—is going to be more difficult.
There’s also another piece of this, which is the Middle East is a rather lucrative arms market. And during the AKP era, the Turks have had a significant amount of success further developing their defense industrial base, to the point that now their drones are coveted. Now one of the reasons for a Saudi-Turkish rapprochement is that the United States will not sell Saudi Arabia the drones it wants, for fear that they will use them in Yemen. And the Saudis are looking for drones elsewhere. That’s either China or Turkey. And Turkey’s seem to work really, really well, based on experience in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
So what—Turkish foreign policy towards the region has become really dependent upon what Erdogan’s particularly political needs are. There’s no strategic approach to the region. There is a vision of Turkey as a leader of the region, of a great power in its own right, as a leader of the Muslim world, as a Mediterranean power as well. But that’s nothing new. Turkish Islamists have been talking about these things for quite some time. I think it’s important that there’s been some de-escalation. I don’t think that all of these countries now love each other, but they see the wisdom of pulling back from—pulling back from the brink. I don’t see Turkey’s position changing dramatically in terms of its kind of reintegration into the broader region before 2023, at the least.
FASKIANOS: Great. Let’s go next to, raised hand, to Caleb Sanner. And you need to unmute yourself.
Q: Hello, my name is Caleb. I’m from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
So, Dr. Cook, you had mentioned in passing how China has been involved economically in North Africa. And my question would be, how is the U.S. taking that? And what are we doing, in a sense, to kind of counter that? I know it’s not a military advancement in terms of that, but I’ve seen what it has been doing to their economies—North Africa’s economies. And, yeah, what’s the U.S. stance on that?
COOK: Well, I think the United States is somewhat detached from this question of North Africa. North Africa’s long been a—with the exception of Egypt, of course. And Egypt, you know, is not really North Africa. Egypt is something in and of itself. That China is investing heavily in Egypt. And the Egyptian position is: Please don’t ask us to choose between you and the Chinese, because we’re not going to make that choice. We think investment from all of these places is good for—is good for Egypt. And the other places where China is investing, and that’s mostly in Algeria, the United States really doesn’t have close ties to Algeria.
There was a tightening of the relationship after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, recognizing that the Algerians—extremist groups in Algerian that had been waging war against the state there over the course of the 1990s were part and parcel of this new phenomenon of global jihad. And so there has been a security relationship there. There has been some kind of big infrastructure kind of investment in that country, with big companies that build big things, like GE and others, involved in Algeria. But the United States isn’t helping to develop ports or industrial parks or critical infrastructure like bridges and airports in the same way that the Chinese have been doing throughout the region.
And in Algeria, as well as in Egypt, the Chinese are building a fairly significant industrial center in the Suez Canal zone, of all places. And the United States simply doesn’t have an answer to it, other than to tell our traditional partners in the region, don’t do it. But unless we show up with something to offer them, I’m afraid that Chinese investment is going to be too attractive for countries that are in need of this kind of investment.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to a written question from Kenneth Mayers, who is at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. In your opinion, what would a strategic vision based on a far-sighted understanding of both resources and U.S. goals—with regard to peace and security, prosperity and development, and institutions and norms and values such as human rights—look like in the Middle East and North Africa?
COOK: Well, it’s a great question. And I’m tempted to say you’re going to have to read the last third of my new book in order to get the—in order to get the answer. I think but let me start with something mentioned about norms and values. I think that one of the things that has plagued American foreign policy over the course of not just the last twenty years, but in the post-World War II era all the way up through the present day, you see it very, very clearly with President Biden, is that trying to incorporate American values and norms into our approach to the region has been extraordinarily difficult. And what we have a history of doing is the thing that is strategically tenable, but morally suspect.
So what I would say is, I mean, just look at what’s happened recently. The president of the United States studiously avoided placing a telephone call to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Egyptians, as many know, have a terrible record on human rights, particularly since President Sisi came to power. Arrests of tens of thousands of people in the country, the torture of many, many people, the killings of people. And the president during his campaign said that he was going to give no blank checks to dictators, including to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. And then what happened in May? What happened in May was that fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas and others in the Gaza Strip, a brutal eleven-day conflict. And Egypt stepped up and provided a way out of the conflict through its good offices.
And that prompted the United States to—the president of the United States—to have two phone calls in those eleven days with the Egyptian leader. And now the United States is talking about Egypt as a constructive partner that’s helping to stabilize the region. Sure, the administration suspended $130 million of Egypt’s annual—$130 million Egypt’s annual allotment of $1.3 billion. But that is not a lot. Egypt got most of—most of its military aid. As I said, strategically tenable, morally suspect. I’m not quite sure how we get out of that.
But what I do know, and I’ll give you a little bit of a preview of the last third of the book—but I really do want you to buy it when it’s done—is that the traditional interests of the United States in the Middle East are changing. And I go through a kind of quasi, long, somewhat tortured—but very, very interesting—discussion of the origins of our interests, and how they are changing, and how we can tell they are changing. And that is to say that the free flow of energy resources may not be as important to the United States in the next twenty-five years as it was over the course of the previous fifty or sixty years.
That helping to ensure Israeli security, which has been axiomatic for the United States, eh, I’d say since the 1960s, really, may not be as important as Israel develops its diplomatic relations with its neighbors, that has a GDP per capita that’s on par with the U.K., and France, and other partners in Europe, a country that clearly can take care of itself, that is a driver of technology and innovation around the globe. And that may no longer require America’s military dominance in the region.
So what is that we want to be doing? How can we be constructive? And I think the answers are in things that we hadn’t really thought of too systematically in the past. What are the things that we’re willing to invest in an defend going forward? Things like climate change, things like migration, things like pandemic disease. These are things that we’ve talked about, but that we’ve never been willing to invest in the kind of the resources. Now there are parts of the Middle East that during the summer months are in-habitable. That’s going to produce waves of people looking for places to live that are inhabitable. What do we do about that? Does that destabilize the Indian subcontinent? Does it destabilize Europe? Does it destabilize North Africa? These are all questions that we haven’t yet answered.
But to the extent that we want to invest in, defend and sacrifice for things like climate, and we want to address the issue—related issue of migration, and we want to deal with the issue of disease and other of these kind of functional global issues in the Middle East is better not just for us and Middle Easterners, but also in terms of our strategic—our great-power competition in the region. These are not things that the Chinese and the Russians are terribly interested in, despite the fact that the Chinese may tell you they are.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Ahmuan Williams, with a raised hand, at the University of Oklahoma.
Q: Hi. And thank you for being here.
You kind of talked about the stabilization of northern Africa and the Middle East. And just a few days ago the Sudanese government—and they still haven’t helped capture the parliamentarian there—have recycled back into a military—somewhat of military rule. And it’s been since 2005 since the end of their last civil war, which claimed millions of innocent civilians through starvation and strife and, you know, the lack of being able to get humanitarian aid. There was also a huge refugee crisis there, a lot of people who evacuated Sudan. How’s that going to impact the Middle East and the American take to Middle East and northern Africa policy, especially now that the Security Council is now considering this and is trying to determine what we should do?
COOK: It’s a great question. And I think that, first, let’s be clear. There was a coup d’état in Sudan. The military overthrew a transitional government on the eve of having to hand over the government to civilians. And they didn’t like it. There’s been tension that’s been brewing in Sudan for some time. Actually, an American envoy, our envoy to East Africa and Africa more generally, a guy named Jeff Feltman, was in Khartoum, trying to kind of calm the tension, to get the two sides together, and working to avert a coup. And the day after he left, the military moved.
That’s not—that doesn’t reflect the fact that the United States gave a blessing for the military to overthrow this government. I think what it does, though, and it’s something that I think we all need to keep in mind, it demonstrates the limits of American power in a variety of places around the world. That we don’t have all the power in the world to prevent things from happening when people, like the leaders of the Sudanese military, believe that they have existential issues that are at stake.
Now, what’s worry about destabilization in Sudan is, as you point out, there was a civil war there, there was the creation of a new country there, potential for—if things got really out of hand—refugee flows into Egypt, from Egypt across the Sanai Peninsula into Israel. One of the things people are unaware of is the large number of Sudanese or Eritreans and other Africans who have sought refuge in Israel, which has created significant economic and social strains in that country.
So it’s a big deal. Thus far, it seems we don’t—that the U.S. government doesn’t know exactly what’s happening there. There are protesters in the streets demanding democracy. It’s very unclear what the military is going to do. And it’s very unclear what our regional allies and how they view what’s happening. What Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, what Saudi Arabia, what Israel—which Sudan is an Abraham Accords country now—what they are doing. How they view the coup as positive or negative will likely impact how effective the United States can be in trying to manage this situation. But I suspect that we’re just going to have to accommodate ourselves to whatever outcome the Sudanese people and the Sudanese military come to, because I don’t think we have a lot of—we don’t have a lot of tools there to make everybody behave.
FASKIANOS: OK. So I’m going to take the next question from Elena Murphy, who is a junior at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. And she’s a diplomatic intern at the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Representation in the United States.
COOK: That’s cool.
FASKIANOS: That’s very cool. So as a follow up, how much do you believe neo-Ottomanism and attempting regional hegemony has affected Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy, especially in consideration of Turkey’s shift towards the MENA in their foreign policy, after a period of withdrawals and no problems with neighbors policy?
COOK: Great. Can I see that? Because that’s a long question.
FASKIANOS: Yeah, it’s a long question. It’s got an up-vote. Third one down.
COOK: Third one down. Elena, as a follow up, how much do you believe neo-Ottomanism—I’m sorry, I’m going to have to read it again. How much do you believe neo-Ottomanism and attempting regional has affected Erdogan’s both domestic and foreign policy, especially in consideration of Turkey’s shift towards the MENA in their foreign policy, after a period of withdrawals and no problems with neighbors? OK. Great.
So let us set aside the term “neo-Ottomanism” for now. Because neo-Ottomanism actually—it does mean something, but people have often used the term neo-Ottomanism to describe policies of the Turkish government under President Erdogan that they don’t like. And so let’s just talk about the way in which the Turkish government under President Erdogan views the region and views what Turkey’s rightful place should be. And I think the Ottomanism piece is important, because the kind of intellectual framework which the Justice and Development Party, which is Erdogan’s party, views the world, sees Turkey as—first of all, it sees the Turkish Republic as a not-so-legitimate heir to the Ottoman Empire. That from their perspective, the natural order of things would have been the continuation of the empire in some form or another.
And as a result, they believe that Turkey’s natural place is a place of leadership in the region for a long time. Even before the Justice and Development Party was founded in 2001, Turkey’s earlier generation of Islamists used to savage the Turkish leadership for its desire to be part of the West, by saying that this was kind of unnatural, that they were just merely aping the West, and the West was never actually going to accept Turkey. Which is probably true. But I think that the Justice and Development Party, after a period of wanting to become closer to the West, has turned its attention towards the Middle East, North Africa, and the Muslim world more generally.
And in that, it sees itself, the Turks see themselves as the natural leaders in the region. They believe they have a cultural affinity to the region as a result of the legacies of the Ottoman Empire, and they very much can play this role of leader. They see themselves as one of the kind of few real countries in the region, along with Egypt and Iran and Saudi Arabia. And the rest are sort of ephemeral. Needless to say, big countries in the Arab world—like Egypt, like Saudi Arabia—don’t welcome the idea of Turkey as a leader of the region. They recognize Turkey as a very big and important country, but not a leader of the region.
And this is part of that friction that Turkey has experienced with its neighbors, after an earlier iteration of Turkish foreign policy, in which—one of the earliest iterations of Turkish foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party which was called no problems with neighbors. In which Turkey, regardless of the character of the regimes, wanted to have good relations with its neighbors. It could trade with those neighbors. And make everybody—in the process, Turkey could be a driver of economic development in the region, and everybody can be basically wealthy and happy. And it didn’t really work out that way, for a variety of reasons that we don’t have enough time for.
Let’s leave it at the fact that Turkey under Erdogan—and a view that is shared by many—that Turkey should be a leader of the region. And I suspect that if Erdogan were to die, if he were unable to stand for election, if the opposition were to win, that there would still be elements of this desire to be a regional leader in a new Turkish foreign policy.
FASKIANOS: Steven, thank you very much. This was really terrific. We appreciate your stepping in at the eleventh hour, taking time away from your book. For all of you—
COOK: I’m still not Sanam.
FASKIANOS: (Laughs.) I know, but you were an awesome replacement. So you can follow Steven Cook on Twitter at @stevenacook. As I said at the beginning too, he is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. So you can read his work there, as well as, of course, on CFR.org, all of the commentary, analysis, op-eds, congressional testimony are there for free. So I hope you will follow him and look after his next book.
Our next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday November 3, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time on the future of U.S.-Mexico relations. In the meantime, I encourage you to follow us, @CFR_Academic, visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for new research and analysis on global issues. And stay well, stay safe, and thank you, again.
COOK: Bye, everyone.