Douglas J. Feith began his career in government in 1975 as a staffer for storied Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Like others who identified as “neo-conservatives,” he later transitioned to the Republican party, serving in national security positions under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In the latter White House, he held the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy under Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld between 2001 and 2005. In the capacity, he helped formulate the Pentagon’s relations in numerous parts of the world, with a special focus on the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular.
Feith has since moved on to a combination of private consulting, scholarship, and policy research. He is director of the Center for National Security Strategies and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative public policy think-tank.
Majalla interviewed Undersecretary Feith in Washington.
Washington – Mostafa El-Dessouki
Q:During the Obama Administration, many voices in the Arab region raised concerns about White House policies toward Shi’ite Islamist militias backed by Iran, but felt rebuffed. What is your appraisal of those policies in retrospect?
A: Obama administration officials didn’t highlight Islamist Shi’ite militias as much as they should have. The failure was rooted in the administration’s desire for a US-Iranian strategic partnership.
The Iran nuclear deal is best understood as part of the effort to achieve that strategic partnership, which President Obama strongly desired and thought was possible. He knew that as long as there was a conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, it would be impossible to create the strategic partnership. He pursued the nuclear deal not because he thought it was inherently very important, but because he had to push the nuclear problem aside to open the way to the strategic partnership.
At first, he thought the Iranians would make major concessions regarding their nuclear program. He made tough demands about their ending all enrichment and dismantling their facilities because he thought they would consent. He didn’t understand the Iranians. When the Iranians said no, President Obama dropped those demands. Again, what he cared about was not the substance of the nuclear deal, but pushing the problem aside on whatever terms were possible. When the Iranians said no to a tough agreement, he agreed to a non-tough agreement.
Q: The Obama White House might have countered that a U.S.-Iranian strategic partnership could be helpful to the region.
A: If one’s motivating idea is creating a U.S.-Iranian strategic partnership, then one discounts and underplays Iranian-backed terrorism through Hezbollah, and in Yemen, Gaza and elsewhere.
Q: You said that “President Obama didn’t understand the Iranians.” What is it that you feel he missed?
A: President Obama didn’t understand the role that nuclear weapons played in Iranian strategy. He didn’t understand their indirect tactics – how they manage to act both very aggressively and very cautiously. They are strategically clever. They export their revolution, but they do it in a carefully calculated fashion that is prudent and cautious. They prefer to use proxies rather than do violent things themselves.
President Trump must reconcile his desire to improve relations with Russia and his intention to confront Iran
And sometimes, they are not cautious. When they found that the Obama administration was willing to suffer serious humiliation, they couldn’t restrain themselves from overtly humiliating the US with the Iranian fast boats in the Persian Gulf. That was purposeful, with malice aforethought. President Obama took it and swallowed it.
Downplaying the importance of Iran’s use of proxies was another way that the Obama administration humiliated itself. This was partially conscious and partially a failure to understand the aggressiveness of Iran’s strategy. It’s obvious to the Saudis, for example, that Iran is working to encircle them through attacks and support for proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Libya, Yemen, Syria. Just put all those dots on the map – in the middle is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis naturally look at this as a strategic problem. They saw the Obama administration as oblivious to that strategic problem, unwilling to do anything to counter it.
Q: Your own experience in government reached a highpoint during the Bush Administration. Though its policies were different than Obama’s in many ways, some in our region feel that it shared the same rightful focus on groups like Al-Qaeda, but was less inclined to aggressively counter Iran. Are they correct?
A: Under the Bush Administration, we never thought that the war on terrorism was just about al-Qaeda. The problem was al-Qaeda and other Sunni groups and Shi’ite groups. As I saw it, the problem is Islamist extremism, which has both Sunni and Shi’ite elements. Some of the Sunni and Shi’ite elements hated each other, but they were nonetheless allied against the West. Some people at CIA had problems grasping that ideological foes could be strategically aligned against a common enemy, but other Bush administration officials understood that, even though al-Qaeda is hostile to the Shi’ites, it can still cooperate with Iran against America. And al-Qaeda in fact did cooperate with Iran against America. The Iranians supported Hamas, and al-Qaeda — both Sunni groups, both ideologically anti-Shi’ite. The Iranians were happy to support them because they had common enemies in Israel, America, and Saudi Arabia.
Q: Now there is a new administration in Washington. In your view, has it already defined its policy vision with respect to Iran, or are such matters still in flux?
A: On many foreign policy matters, the president is a blank slate. He hasn’t personally given a lot of thought to national security matters, so there’s a major opportunity to influence his thinking. Saudi officials are presumably considering the three or four large strategic ideas they want to convey about their region. Those big ideas could help President Trump make sense of the many smaller issues in the region.
Mr. Trump has expressed notions about various Middle Eastern issues, but they are not quite consistent with one another. He said, for example, he wants to be tough against Iran, but he also wants to be cooperative with Russia, even though Russia is helping Iran in Syria. He’s talked about being tough against ISIS but doesn’t want to get entangled in Syria. If you pull together the various things he’s said about Iran, Russia, Syria, safe zones, ISIS – they don’t cohere.
President Trump is open to advice about how to defeat ISIS while pushing back on Iran and its proxies
Q: As Saudi officials begin to engage their new American counterparts, knowing what you do about the kingdom and its relations with the US, how do you think they will be perceived and received?
A: Saudi officials will, I assume, try to come up with a succinct way of looking at the Middle East strategically and try to convey this to President Trump. I would guess that they would say, “Mr. President, we consider ourselves your friends. We have been disturbed that the policies pursued by the Obama Administration didn’t serve American interests and seriously damaged Saudi interests. We’ve tried to think through American strategic interests in the region, and we would like to present to you our thoughts in a way we think will serve the common interests of Saudi Arabia and the US in the region.” President Trump will be focused not on Saudi interests but on U.S. interests. As he puts it, America First.
Q: How would such common interests be advanced?
The single largest strategic problem in the region is Iranian hostility, Iranian aggressiveness, and Iranian capability. When it views the Middle East, America should have as an organizing principle that the Iranian Islamic Republic, as both a nation and a revolution, for both traditional national reasons and for ideological reasons, is the region’s major strategic problem. That’s true from the points of view of the US and Saudi Arabia.
Some people may question whether Iran is a problem due to nationalism or due to Islamist extremism. These are not mutually exclusive. Persian aggressiveness is combined with this passionate Islamist ideology that Iran is looking to export. The Nazis were both German nationalists and they had their national socialist ideology, and it was the combination that made them such a danger. Even the Soviet Union became both a national and an ideological threat.
Point two, to address what’s on President Trump’s mind, one has to address ISIS. It would be a powerful message from Saudi Arabia, for example, to highlight the problem of this Sunni version of Islamist extremism. If Saudi leaders use the term he uses, I think he would listen. The key to fighting ISIS-type extremism is to work with Muslims who consider themselves the enemies of those extremists. And so that’s where the Islamic Coalition comes in.
In the spring of 2003, there was a major terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, and it shocked the Saudi government, which started a serious effort to get its own clerics to denounce terrorism and fight the problem at an ideological level. But there are not many people in the West who know about this. It occurred not after 9-11, but after the 2003 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi message to President Trump that speaks to the countries’ shared interests could be described in terms of two main thoughts: One is Iran’s strategic importance as a threat to the shared interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — as evidenced by Iran’s ambitions, hostility to the U.S., revolutionary ideology and its capabilities. The second big thought is, if you want to fight ISIS, a key element of the campaign should be countering its ideology. There are also military means to use against ISIS. But in addition a major component of the strategy should be an ideas campaign, the key to which is American cooperation with Muslims who want to oppose and fight ISIS.
Saudis could say they are ready to work with the US in a serious effort to attack Islamist extremism and denounce all terrorism – all attacks on ordinary people for political purposes. They could say they want to work as a partner with the U.S. They could specifically say that you, President Trump, criticized your predecessor for failing to name the enemy. We are willing to name the enemy and work with you against that enemy, because it’s not only your enemy, but ours.
Again, I think President Trump lacks definite views on all aspects of Middle East policy. He’s open to ideas. If Saudi Arabia sent to Washington someone like your foreign minister, who speaks English beautifully, and he sat with President Trump and his cabinet, he could effectively get these two messages across.
President Obama was repeatedly humiliated by Iran
To repeat: First, Iran is a strategic problem for both the US and Saudi Arabia. That could help the Trump administration develop a correct appreciation of what’s at stake in Syria, where the Assad regime is Iran’s best friend in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia could also provide an organizing principle for understanding Yemen, Libya, and Lebanon. Every administration needs the right organizing principles. Obama had an organizing principle, but it was a bad one: strategic partnership with Iran. President Obama shaped all his policies in the region around that organizing principle. Saudi officials would I think want to persuade the Trump administration to adopt a more sensible organizing principle regarding Iran.
Point two is about ISIS and Islamist extremism. The main message is that, to destroy ISIS, you need a combination of military and ideological means. And the key to the ideological effort is a partnership between the US and those elements of the Muslim world that want to fight against ISIS and the extremists.
Q: How do you see the Trump administration’s views evolving with respect to the role of Iraq, and Shi’ite militias?
As for what the U.S. should do in Iraq, President Trump may be inclined to want to use local forces to the maximum extent possible against ISIS. Does that mean the U.S. should ally with pro-Iranian forces against ISIS? If President Trump is clear on the strategic importance of opposing Iran, he will not want to ally with pro-Iranian forces to fight ISIS. So the United States has to be both anti-Iran and anti-ISIS, even though Iran and ISIS are enemies. Sometimes our enemy’s enemy is still an enemy for us. The United States should fight them both.
Q: In your view, what special assets can Saudi Arabia bring to the table with respect to the struggle against ISIS?
A: As noted, if the U.S. wants to destroy ISIS, it needs a military component to the campaign and an ideological component to the campaign. It wants to make sure ISIS isn’t bringing up new people for recruitment and indoctrination. There’s no country in the world that has a greater capacity than Saudi Arabia to counter the ideology of Islamist extremism. It has singular authority on questions of the interpretation of Islam. Leading Saudis can intensify efforts to promote principles against suicide bombing and the killing of ordinary people — all ordinary people. They could fight it in principle, and have leading clerics give religiously persuasive arguments against the tactic of targeting civilians for political purposes. That could help dry up the pools from which ISIS and other groups recruit and indoctrinate their fighters.
Saudi officials could volunteer to work in partnership with the US, using the coalition. It could be effective with President Trump to tell him there are new and good things that Saudi Arabia has never done before that it’s ready to do with him in partnership. That would allow him to say that his negotiating skill and his leadership has led to the Saudis making statements and taking actions that they’ve never done before, and we’re proud to be partners with the Saudis — and they’re denouncing terrorism against Israel and against everybody else.