WASHINGTON : MOSTAFA EL-DESSOUKI
Fusing scholarship, business acumen, and sharp political strategic thinking, Dov Zakheim ranks among the most capable veterans of the American defense establishment. His career in government under the Reagan Administration and continued into the George W. Bush years, during which he served as Undersecretary of Defense under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Comptroller of the Pentagon. Along the way, he taught at Colombia College, Trinity College, the National War College, and Yeshiva University. He also served as CEO of SPC International, a hi-tech analytical firm, for over a decade. With trademark candor, he reflected on the Bush Administration’s problems charting an effective course for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in his 2011 book, A Vulcan’s Tale.
Majalla caught up with Mr. Zakheim for an interview while he was in the midst of a whirling week of travel.
Q: At the dawn of a new White House, kindly rank the two highest priorities which you’d like to see addressed by American policy toward the Middle East.
A: I think the most important thing is resolving the Syrian mess. In my view, that does require an understanding with Russians of some kind. It seems to me that, you should actually talk to everybody with the exception of the Iranians. I think you can reach some understanding with the Russians. The Iranians would have to get out of Syria, as would Hezbollah. I don’t think the Russians would necessarily object to that if their relationship with the Alawites was allowed to remain and if they could keep their bases.
So number one is finding some vehicle for stabilizing Syria, peace for refugees to come home, and pushing Hezbollah out, because to Jordan and others it’s a danger to the entire region. The stronger Iran is, the more the region is threatened, the Gulf states and Jordan in particular.
To that extent I think the U.S. could play a positive role, if trump’s relationship with Putin remains as solid as it currently appears to be.
Number two is ensuring that Iran itself doesn’t use the money it has already received to destabilize the region — and in particular, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and Yemen. Iranians don’t necessarily send their own troops, but they send money to others to go around causing mayhem, and somehow that needs to be limited.
An accommodation with Russia in Syria is important in seeking to drive Iran and its proxies out of the country.
Q: Do you foresee an end to the Iranian nuclear deal in its present form?
A: I don’t think we’ll walk away from the nuclear deal, but Iran might — if we reimpose sanctions, which I think we should. If we do so for human rights and terrorism reasons, it would be welcomed in the Arab world and in Israel. We can impose some sanctions on our own — and maybe, if Mr. Trump can convince Mr. Putin, some with the Russians, and with Britain maybe as well.
Q: You suggested an accommodation with Russia and the Alawites in Syria. In that event, what would the political map of Syria look like?
A: Syria’s future borders are not for me or anyone else to predict. Clearly the Alawites would have to be in charge of their own part of Syria. Whether they have literally the strength, personnel, and firepower to reassert control over the whole country is an issue. I don’t know whether that’s the case. Clearly some kind of modus vivendi between those who support the government and those who oppose it may be necessary. Whether you can have a more inclusive government, I wouldn’t be willing to predict.
With respect to the Kurdish side, the problem is that the PKK are considered terrorists by the Turks. The other minority peoples are Christians, who have traditionally worked with Assad. On the Sunni side it’s hard to know. There are so many different groups. We have to weaken Jabhat al-Nusra and any ISIS influence, and then see who’s left standing. It’s not clear to me who exactly represents the Sunnis — especially the “Bazaris,” who only want stability.
If prying Russians from Iran fails, you have an ongoing civil war, and tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Can Russia defeat the rebels as opposed to containing them? I don’t know. You have a much stronger Iran, and an ongoing civil war could push Iranians and Russians close together. The outcomes would not be good.
Q: To gain advantages from Putin in Syria, would that entail concessions to Putin elsewhere — in the Baltics, for example?
A: I think there probably will be somewhere. If we consider accommodating the Russians, we need first to determine what it is we want. Some things we clearly want — for example, that Russia back off any of our NATO allies, meaning that there should be no military or any other kind of harassment — including attempting to corrupt elections. Clearly there is a case to make to accommodate the Russians on Syria. They want a commitment from us not to back Georgia and NATO. We need to define exactly what we want before sitting down with them.
Q: Opposition to President Trump at home appears to be very strong. Will domestic polarization in some way limit the president’s ability to develop and implement coherent foreign policies?
When it comes to foreign policy, any administration has a lot more leeway than it does domestically, and domestic pressure had no real impact at all on Mr. Obama. The last time domestic pressure really made a difference was the Vietnam war, and I don’t see that you get the same kind of emotion when people aren’t being drafted to the military. Even many demonstrations don’t prevent the President from conducting foreign policy. What does affect his freedom of action is when policy is implemented by dollars. Congress then plays a major role. But on the whole I don’t see domestic pressure making a difference. To the extent there is relief for Syrian refugees inside Syria, they will return home, and ease the pressure on Europe. When Afghanistan was pacified in 2001-‘02, two million refugees came home. People will go home. They want to go home.
Q: Do you see conditions emerging that would enable a regional peace settlement with Israel?
A: I think as long as there seems to be friction over the Palestinian issue, it limits the degree to which Arab governments can publicly open up to Israel. There’s always a possibility of some kind of more open cooperation on terrorism. But what the Israelis want is a relationship. They’re already cooperating regarding terrorism. The situation is going to be complicated for the U.S. administration — whether it’s the possible move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, or attitude toward the West Bank settlements, it puts the Arab countries into a difficult corner. If they’re more inclined to do more, they don’t want to give their own oppositions — funded and supported by the Iranians as well — any more excuses. That I think complicates their ability to move more quickly. I think they’d like to but I don’t think they feel they can.
Remember who’s the opposition and where’s it coming from. Iranians will exploit this like crazy. So there has to be movement on the Palestinian issue to generate more cooperation between the moderate Arabs and Israel.
Q: Turning more specifically to Saudi Arabia, we’re interested in your thoughts about “Vision 2030,” and other new initiatives by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A: Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is a good vision, though implementation is always difficult. So I think that, Vision 2030 may or may not be implemented on the time table he would like. But I think there is a growing recognition that some change is necessary. Assuming that he’ll continue to have the support of the Saudis, he’s going to make important progress especially if Saudi Arabia succeeds in its campaign to protect the legitimate government of Yemen.
To find political leadership in Syria, defeat ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra then see who’s left standing.
Q: What forms of support do you think the United States can proffer, whether with respect to economic reforms, the war in Yemen, or other matters?
A: I don’t know how much more we can do to help him out. We’re providing targeting support and so on. If they asked for economic advice, help with planning and so on, we’ve done that for other countries.
The one thing we can do is expand the sanctions on Iran. We can certainly make sure we don’t release any more funds to the Iranians. That I think is the primary lever we’ve got.
Q: Some are skeptical of prospects for a reconstituted sanctions regime, because they doubt that Europeans will participate.
A: Whether or not the Europeans impose sanctions, if we impose third party sanctions, then the Europeans will have no choice. If we tell European companies that if they do any business with Iran they cannot do business in and with the United States, they will have little option but to comply with our sanctions. Whether or not the Europeans are with us is a lot less important than what we do ourselves.
Q: Turning to Egypt, do you see change or continuity in policies toward the country and its leadership under Trump?
A: It sounds like President Trump is much more sympathetic to President Sisi than Obama was, and that’s good. Egyptians need to know we’re going to back them. They need economic support. Israelis are helping them out, but the United States can and should openly be supportive.