WASHINGTON: Mostafa El-Dessouki
Stephen J. Hadley served in a range of national security roles under Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and ultimately as National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush. He has been a voice of conscience in American foreign policy discussions ever since: He memorably called on President Obama to respond to vigorously respond to Bashar Al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians. Floated as a potential Secretary of Defense under the Trump Administration, he proceeded instead to co-chair a new task force on Middle East policy with Madeleine Albright, a former Secretary of State. It culminated in an extensive report, published recently by the Atlantic Council, proposing a new strategy for American engagement in the region.
In his interview with Majalla, Stephen gives insight into his proposed strategy for US involvement in the Middle East that facilitates the region’s indigenous efforts in shaping their own future. He highlights the positive knock-on effects Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision will have on Saudi society. He proposes rational solutions to the civil wars raging in Middle East and assesses the influence the shift in regional dynamics could have on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
*Kindly lay out the recommendations you and Secretary Albright have made for a new American approach to the Middle East.
-Outside powers have been trying to “arrange things” in the Middle East for a century, and they have not done a very good job. And the days when that paradigm worked are over. They ended with the “Arab Spring.” The people of the region are going to need to define their own future and then win and fashion that future. They have made that clear. We spent a lot of time in this study consulting with experts from the Middle East. We made a lot of trips to the Middle East. We talked to leaders. We had former officials in an advisory board. We had working groups, including experts from the U.S., Europe, and the region. We were trying to crystallize the vision we heard emerging from the region about where the region wants to go, to bend the trajectory in a more positive direction.
We also heard that while they need to and want to take the lead, they understand they need help and support from outside powers. So we make the case that it’s in the interest of the U.S. and other outside powers to help people in the region move in this more positive direction. And there’s a useful contribution to make — but it’s facilitating and enabling, not dictating and controlling.
*How do you strike such a balance?
-We basically thought the strategy needed to be pursued in two prongs. The first prong is that we need to get an end to civil wars. They’re opening the door for Al-Qaeda. They’re the vehicle encouraging sectarianism. None of those problems will go away if you don’t start winding down the civil war. We talk about what can be done in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
Prong two is — what we found and you already know, which is not well known in Washington — that there are a lot of positive things going on in the Middle East where both countries and individuals are trying to grasp their future. You see it in some of their policies being adopted, first and foremost in the UAE, and increasingly in Saudi Arabia with “Vision 2030.” You see it in Tunisia — and much less so, sadly, in Egypt — where governments are trying to make the right decisions to include their people in mapping the future of their country, providing better governance to their people, a role for people to play in those governments, trying to provide non-corrupt governments to get economic activity and the like. But there’s also bottom-up activity: Business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the midst of violence starting businesses and social organizations to solve local problems. And this kind of activity needs to be supported. But governments need to understand that this kind of activity is not a threat but an asset to the kind of social change required if the Middle East will become more stable and secure. So, it’s working together on prong one to fight the terrorists and wind down civil wars, sectarianism and the violence. And it’s providing humanitarian assistance that enables refugees to find a role in defining their own future, while at the same time encouraging those governments that are making the right decisions in the direction of more accountable, inclusive governance, and in enabling this kind of bottom-up activity that’s the future of the region. There are a lot of things that flow from that.
*Can you explain how the approach you envision might be applied with respect to Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030”?
-If you look at the Vision 2030 that Saudi Arabia is embracing, one of the things that’s interesting is, when you talk to Saudi officials, particularly those around the Deputy Crown Prince and himself, they begin to articulate a strategy of bringing the society along. That of course is what is required. So, it’s very interesting. There are Saudi women now who are able to start their own businesses out of their homes, because of the Internet and social media. It’s an enabler. So consistent with fairly conservative social norms, they’re able to start businesses in their homes. Uber is now a way in which women can travel in a manner consistent with local norms. So when you empower women in that way and give them an economic livelihood, over time it’s going to change the social norms, in a way that the society can accept. This is what we hear from people talking about how UAE society evolves. So, one of the interesting things is that it’s an economic plan to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil which has the prospect over time of gradually modifying — modernizing — the society, creating a more productive and prosperous society as a whole. So I think one of the challenges in leaders in traditional societies is figuring out how to change in a way that will bring the society along.
*More specifically, what forms of assistance do you think the U.S. should be proffering?
-What outsiders can do to help is a tricky proposition. Because when there’s some resistance to these ideas in a society to the extent outsiders seem to be funding and promoting them, it can discredit the indigenous movement. So one thing governments but even NGOs need to be careful about is how to provide assistance and support that enables indigenous elements, rather than discrediting them. I think in many ways, business may be a safer vehicle than NGOs. They sadly have a lot of baggage associated with them, and they’re controversial in a number of these societies, whereas business seems to be in some sense safer, and it may be that this is an opportunity where the private sector, by partnering with local private sector counterparts, can be a more and better partner from indigenous organizations than some of the NGOs. It depends, but I think the criteria is to find a way to support these efforts that will be enabling and empowering of indigenous activities rather than be discrediting them.
I think most people would say that the era of the kind of major interventions in Middle Eastern countries that we saw in Iraq in 2003, for example, is over. The region does not want it, and Americans don’t want to repeat it. And I think one of the lessons of Iraq is that managing these situations post-intervention is extremely challenging.
So I think the view is, the people of the region are going to chart their own future. The people of Egypt rose up and threw out Mubarak, and the people of Egypt with the military rose up and threw out the Muslim Brotherhood. And I think the American policy has been in some sense reluctant to recognize that reality — that Sisi’s throwing out the Muslim Brotherhood was in response to the demand of the Egyptian people. We have to respect that, even as we counsel President Sisi that over the long term, if Egypt is going to become more stable and prosperous — which is what I think president Sisi wants for his country — he’s going to have to find a way over time to open up his society, to allow the people of Egypt to have more of a say in their future, and to build a more inclusive political process. And I think that starts with those young people on Tahrir Square who made the revolution. I’m not arguing for bringing the Brotherhood back into the government. That’s been rejected by the Egyptian people and you have to respect that. But I do hope President Sisi will recognize that a more prosperous future and legitimacy over time will depend on the extent to which he’s able to open up the political process, make it more inclusive, and give Egyptian people this bottom-up activity — more of a role in defining the future of the country. You can’t crack down your way to social peace and prosperity, and at the end of the day while he’s got to deal with the terrorist threats they face, to ensure the security of his country, he also has to develop a plan for more inclusive and legitimate governments providing better services and economic prospects for the future of Egypt. Egyptians will have to find their way to that future, but we should be a friend.
*How does one go about “winding down” the region’s civil wars, as you have suggested?
-Each civil war is a different case. The approaches are different. In Iraq, we need to be more aggressive in helping the Iraqi people expel ISIS and Al-Qaeda from their territory. The battle is now focused on Mosul, and I think you’ve heard from this Administration that they want to step up the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, and I think that’s right. In Iraq, for example, as the Iraqi people push ISIS and Al-Qaeda out of Iraqi territory, the Iraqi government needs to come in behind that with non-corrupt institutions of local governance. It needs to bring some vehicles for reconciling among sectarian divisions, getting economic activity going, and the rebuilding of infrastructure. If you fail to do that and fail to address some of the underlying tensions in Iraqi society exploited by ISIS, you leave the ground fertile for a return to ISIS in an even more brutal incarnation. And I think over time that the formula the Iraqi people need to find for social peace is a unity government at the national level, but empowered local governance at the regional and local level, so that increasingly these communities — Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish — are taking more responsibility for their own affairs in terms of governance, security, and economic prosperity. That is a formula — a “new model of governance” — that can recognize the realities of the demands from the three communities for more control over their own affairs, but in the context of still a unified Iraq. Again I think that’s the path that Iraqis are going to need to find for themselves with support from those on the outside.
*How does Iran fit into this equation — and to what extent do you anticipate Trump foreign policies being consistent with the approach toward the civil wars which you suggest?
-It’s too soon to know about the Iranian issue. We do know what the Trump Administration has talked about in the campaign and in their early days in office: Step up the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, defeat ISIS, and do more to check Iranian activity in the region. How that is going to work out in implementation and execution I don’t know. I think among some things that we’re likely to see — and that you’ve already seen in terms of US policy — is an attempt in the fight against ISIS to move ISIS out of Iraq. You’ve seen an effort by the US to strengthen Iraqi security forces and to help strengthen local tribal groups, particularly Sunni ones, to enhance their ability to fight and throw out ISIS, while at the same time marginalizing the role of the Iranian-backed military or “Popular Mobilization Forces.” I think that is the right strategy: Most Iraqis, even Shi’ite Iraqis, do not want Iraq to be the Western province of Iran. They’re Iraqis first and Shi’ites second, And I think a more robust role by the US in supporting the Iraqi government as it moves against ISIS will allow it to be stronger in resisting the influence of Iran, whether directly or as exercised through the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. Similarly, in Syria, I’ve argued for a number of years for a more robust US presence in Syria, directed against ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but that will also have the effect of containing what the Russians on the one hand and Iran on the other can do in Syria. I think there’s an opportunity for this Administration to work with Russia and Turkey against ISIS in Syria. But at the end of the day, while it’s ISIS forces that need to leave Syria, so do Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia now in Syria. They’re both alien in Syria and need ultimately to go home.
*Do you see — or hope for — greater American involvement in the Yemen conflict?
-On Yemen, I think the problem is, most Americans have viewed Yemen through the prism of a geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. They think that’s how to think about Yemen. What I think Americans do not appreciate is that there’s been shelling out of Yemen into Saudi cities. There’s been activity by militia groups out of Yemen into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is actually reacting to a security threat to Saudi citizens, villages, and cities. As Saudis have said to me, if America was facing that kind of attacks across the Mexican border, you would react, and we Saudis have to react. I think that is not appreciated here, and I say to our Saudi friends, they need to get the American people to understand that they’re reacting to a real security threat to Saudi Arabia and attacks on SAUDI cities and towns. That’s not well understood. I believe we should be doing more to help. I think the outcome that the Saudis and Emiratis want is a political solution — a negotiated outcome between the legitimate government of Yemen and the Houthis that brings social peace and causes Iranians to leave Yemen. Their military intervention is focused on that objective. I think we should support it.
There’s a lot of concern about collateral damage resulting from the killing of innocent civilians resulting from air operations by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We have the ability to make those operations more precise. I think we should be providing to Saudi Arabia and Yemen those kinds of capabilities that would allow them to execute military missions in a more precise manner. The prior Administration was reluctant to do that and that was a mistake. You can’t complain about collateral damage without helping your friends and allies reduce the risk of collateral damage.
*How might the Yemen conflict be resolved in your view?
-It should be a political solution in which the Houthis will have a role in the government, and I think they accept that, but I also think one of the conditions they have is if the Houthis have that role, which they’re entitled to, the flip side is that they’ll break their ties with the Iranians.
*Is there a precedent you would point to, in which an Iran-affiliated militia willfully broke its ties with Tehran?
-We don’t have a lot of examples where these kinds of civil wars have been wound down successfully. I think the formula is that you cannot wind down these civil wars without a regional framework in which the outside parties are willing to sustain the peace settlement, in part by withdrawing their support from the combatants. So I think the formula, and you’re seeing it in Syria, the only way you’ll wind down the civil war in Syria — and in Yemen — is not only is there a process within the country whereby the parties begin to turn away from violence and accept a political solution, but there has to be an agreement among outside powers that they’ll accept that outcome and support it, and stop providing arms to their particular sectarian faction. And the question, can you bring not only the parties within the country but the outside powers to the point where they think it’s in their interest to bring down the violence, I think with respect to Syria, the Turks want this to cool down. The Russians have achieved their objectives in Syria and now may be willing to bring the violence down, and I’d hope that the Turks and Russians would both put pressure on Iran to bring the violence down. It is Iran that is the most wedded to Assad and the most concerned about maintaining their reach from Iran into Lebanon and their ability to support Hezbollah. And the question is, can you find a way to marginalize but nonetheless take into account some legitimate Iranian interests while curbing and constraining their illegitimate interests. That’s the challenge for diplomacy. You only get that outcome if you can begin to change the facts on the ground, so both Iranians and Russians have more to lose on the ground in Syria than they do now. The Turks are dealing with the Russians and Iranians because they’re the only parties on the ground. We need to increase our participation in Syria on the ground, as that will give us more leverage to work with Russians and Turks to try to achieve an outcome that brings down the violence.
*What is the relationship between the fighting in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq on the one hand and prospects for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement on the other?
-It’s too soon to say. The Middle East is very different now than it was five or ten years ago. Many of the Sunni states in the Middle East view Israel as part of the moderate coalition against extremism. There are a number of people who have written in the press that there is a lot of cooperation going on between Israel and moderate states in the region to try to contain extremism. It’s all under the table at this point in time, and a number of people have said the only way it could become more explicit is if there’s a way to find some kind of political process between Israel and the Palestinians. That’s the prerequisite for Sunni states to be able politically to acknowledge greater cooperation with Israel. One of the issues we’re hearing discussed in the region is whether Arab countries would be willing to come together in some kind of update of the Arab Peace Initiative, and whether that could be a regional framework within which Israel and the Palestinians might begin to have some kind of political dialogue about the future. I don’t know. From what I’ve heard from the Trump Administration, President Trump likes to do deals and has talked about the Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “mother of all deals” — and maybe they’ll be tempted to try to encourage it. I think the first question is, are the regional states willing to sponsor the process in the way I just described? The second question is whether within both Israeli and Palestinian politics, they’re ready to actually try and make the peace. I think there are political challenges within both the Israeli and the Palestinian populations. And my question is, are they ready to make another effort at peace, and if they aren’t, are there things that might be done concretely on the ground to improve the atmosphere? Continuation of course of security cooperation between the Palestinians and Israelis is needed. Greater efforts by Israel to facilitate economic progress within the Palestinian territories is also needed — particularly in “Area C.” Are the Palestinians willing to continue and do more in building the institutions of a Palestinian state, even while under Israeli occupation? Those are the kinds of steps that might be taken now that could over time change the political complexion and calculations, both within the Israeli body politic and the Palestinian community, that might be easier to move in a direction of a political process under the sponsorship of the other Sunni states. That may be how it unfolds over time, but I think it’s too soon to tell what the approach of the U.S. will be, what role the Russians want to play now that they’ve returned to the Middle East, and what role Palestinians and Israelis are willing to contemplate at the time.
*How do you respond to the view that one of the causes of the longstanding impasse in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been President Mahmoud Abbas?
-I think Abu Mazen is criticized by many on the grounds that he missed opportunities for Israeli-Palestinian peace under Sharon and Olmert. I think Abu Mazen, though, does not get enough credit for the enormous courage he showed in ruling out violence as a vehicle for trying to create prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It’s a courageous position he took. I know he’s been criticized for permitting too much anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement, and perhaps for not doing enough to rhetorically object to terrorists in terms of the financial support for the families of terrorists who attacked Israelis. I understand those concerns — but Abu Mazen also deserves great credit for eschewing the path of violence to get to Israeli-Palestinian peace. You have to respect him or taking that position, even as he is criticized with some cause for not having addressed these other matters.