A Shifting Axis

Dr. William Quandt

William B. Quandt has been a prominent voice in American foreign policy in the Middle East for over 30 years. Serving in the National Security Council under the Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter administrations, he was front and center in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and he is an expert on Palestine, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt.

Today he is an author, professor and member of the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a regular participant in discussions of US policy in the Middle East.

The Majalla: With the American withdrawal after almost a decade in Iraq, do you have an optimistic view of Iraq’s future?

I have visited and spent time in almost every Arab country except Iraq. I never went during the Saddam period and I never wanted to go when I would have had to be escorted by American military just to leave the Green Zone. As an outsider looking at it, I wish the Iraqis well. I think they have suffered far too much, but I don’t think it is going to be easy to reconstitute a functioning democratic Iraq any time soon.

There are some things that look more promising than others.  I think the Kurdish area is doing pretty well, but it is doing well because it has essentially separated itself from the rest of Iraq, which sets a precedent for other regions in Iraq. There is a tendency within Iraq when you encounter problems to think going your separate ways is the way to go. We have seen that in Sunni provinces, and on the Shia side too. The idea of Iraq itself is under stress.

[inset_left]The idea of Iraq itself is under stress.[/inset_left]My impression is that the current Prime Minister is not an instinctive democrat, he wants to get his way. The last election in 2010 was a very interesting outcome, because the party that got the largest number of votes didn’t get to form a government. That’s the way it works sometimes in parliamentary systems, but it can leave a residue of somehow being cheated by those who did well but were left out of positions of influence, like the Iraqiyya Party, and so we have a weak government with somewhat questionable legitimacy.

I think had Maliki been a different kind of statesman, he might have tried to forge a collation not just with his predominantly Shi’a colleagues and the Kurds, but with Ayad Allawi by saying, “We’re the two biggest blocks, we’re going to have an Iraqi nationalist core government. The others can join us as they want, but we are the two big blocks and we will set the tone.” Instead, he basically left a big chunk of Iraq out of his government. It sounds as if that is again creating sectarian tensions that some people had thought were beginning to disappear in favor of a stronger government that would represent basically the Arab parts of Iraq. So I think there is a lot of work that remains to be done, this isn’t over.

I guess one shouldn’t expect easy transitions after Saddam’s terrible rule and the disruptions of the war. It’s going to take a long time, and I understand why people worry about a weakened Iraq becoming subject to Iranian influence and intervention. I think there is some risk of that. I think another risk is that, as they get their oil production up and running, the fight over who controls the distribution of the oil rent will become a very, very big issue. Iraq is at the point where four or five years from now it should be approaching very high levels of production, with huge amounts of money flowing in to whomever controls the central government. So, I think each political party will argue very strenuously over how that unique resource is allocated.

We don’t have very many examples in history of issues of that sort being handled in a generous and inclusive way. If Iraq can pull it off and make the oil resource genuinely a national resource, then the country has a potential future, economically certainly. If they don’t, it is going to become the issue they will fight over very intensively. You can imagine oil producing areas saying, “Well, if the Kurds can separate, so can we.” If that’s the dynamic of the future Iraq, it’s going to be very tough for the country to hold together.

Q: In Syria, it seems that Assad is drawing his last breath.

I think that is wishful thinking. It may be true, but it’s already been eight or nine months that he’s been under a lot of pressure, and I don’t quite see where the tipping point comes. Either there are massive defections from the regime, which can bring it down very quickly, or people in his own inner circle turn against him, or the opposition becomes much more coherent, organized, and violent, at which point it becomes a civil war, and then I don’t know why you would bet on the insurgents rather than the regime. Unfortunately, the truth is that the odds are not in favor of the insurgents unless there is outside intervention, and I don’t think the US, French, British, or the Turks are going to send in a military force, and Assad knows that. Assad faces a huge challenge—politically, I don’t think he can restore any semblance of real legitimacy—but I still don’t see how the opposition forces him out. That’s why this one strikes me as a really touchy case.

Q: Where does Israel stand on Syria?

It is hard to read the Israelis on this because their initial instinct when the Arab Spring began was to be rather skeptical about it. Although there is no love for the Syrian regime, it has been a very predictable regime; the ceasefire lines remain quiet, there are periodic proxy-wars in Lebanon and diplomatic standoffs and antagonisms, but in all honesty, since 1973 it has been a fairly orderly rivalry.

[inset_left]I think there are Israelis who deeply believe that they would be better of without the Assad regime, but there are those who say “don’t be so sure.”[/inset_left]I think there are Israelis who deeply believe that they would be better of without the Assad regime, but there are those who say “Don’t be so sure.” You might end up with a more Muslim Brotherhood-influenced regime, it could actually increase unpredictability and instability, and you could end up with a civil war to the North. At least Syria under the Assads has been stable. I don’t know what the balance between those two viewpoints is now, I do think a lot of Israelis have come to the conclusion that it is going to change in due course and they have to be ready for it. But I’ve heard Israelis say “We are conservative these days; we can live with what we have known, but we’re not so sure we can live with what’s coming ahead.”

Q: Do you sense any change in the US-Iran relationship at the moment?

I think now the relationhip is antagonistic. I think the turning point was the failure of the Turkish-Brazilian effort on nuclear issues. I still don’t quite understand how that turned out so badly, but once that failed and we no longer had a framework in which to deal with that issue, I think things have been going downhill ever since.

So, for the moment, I think the United States doesn’t want to encourage the Israelis to pre-empt, to go to war, but I think there is a kind of low-grade destabilization effort going on already. That makes the idea of diplomatic engagement fairly difficult to square with a campaign targeting the nuclear capabilities. I can’t prove that any of this is being orchestrated from Washington or from Israel, but if it is not, it is pretty coincidental that computer viruses have just hit the nuclear related computers, explosions going off at missile bases, and things like that. I think we’re in a pretty tense period with Iran right now.

To read the second installment of this interview, please click here

Subscribe to the discussion