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Continued Transcript: Anti-Democractic Regimes: Confrontation or Coexistence?

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  • Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Mark Dubowitz, Executive Director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Evelyn N. Farkas, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
  • Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution
  • Indira Lakshmanan, Foreign Policy Correspondent 

ABRAMS:  -- that we needed -- that we needed to win.  I would -- I would use a different term because the problem I think in the argument is, you start taking about democracy and human rights, which I like to do, people turn you off.  Ah, unrealistic.  Come on, you know, let's live in the world as it exists.  I'd use the term legitimacy. 

I think it's striking that none of the Arab monarchies has fallen since the Arab Spring, because they have elements of legitimacy that these fake republics didn't have.  The Saudis, whether we like it or not, have a certain legitimacy in Saudi Arabia. 

And the regime is not on the verge of collapse.  I would argue that clearly for Gaddafi, for Ben Ali, for Mubarak, we can see this -- we can see it in the case of Assad.  But I would say also in the case now of Egypt.  This is a government who's legitimacy is declining and will continue to decline. 

And at some point, the legitimacy is so low that the people want it out.  That's the path I see ahead in Egypt.  In Saudi Arabia, I mean we may -- obviously we don't like the many things -- many, many things about the regime.

I don't think you could claim that the Saudi regime and the (Moroki) regime, (Borak) and Jordanian is an illegitimate regime in the eyes of most of the people of the country.  And the Saudi's are actually undertaking more economic reform than Sisi's ever even dreamed of. 

So I don't -- you know, it's not helpful I think to say, OK, there is democratic regimes, there is not democratic regime.  And the non-democratic regimes, we're not going to talk to or have any alliances with.  That's not realistic. 

But what I think what is realistic is to say, there are a lot of differences among non-democratic regimes.  Some have far more legitimacy than others.  Some are far more stable than others.  Some are far more repressive than others.

LAKSHMANAN:  So, Evelyn, I'd like you to take the question about Syria, but before that, do have any response to this whether any non-democratic regimes, are there times when we should be working with non-democratic regimes 'cause it's our interest?

FARKAS:  Well, I mean I think if you're a head of state, if you're the President of the United States, you have to be realist and rational and you have to deal with other governments and you can't always pick and choose.  So, you know, I would agree that we have to be pragmatic. 

The issue of legitimacy is interesting.  And I'll just leave it at that.  On the -- on the issue -- on the --


FARKAS:  Well, because I -- I -- I think I need to think about it a little bit more whether --

LAKSHMANAN:  About what determines legitimacy in the eyes of the people?

FARKAS:  About the distinction between -- whether it's OK to be not democratic, that you're somehow legitimate.

ABRAMS:  It's not OK.  It's not OK, but -- but --

FARKAS:  Because I do agree, if you have -- if you're only democratic, you know, by façade, but you somehow lack legitimacy, that's also not -- meaning you pass some kind of election.

MALONEY:  I would say the difficulty is that there are regimes like Russia, like Iran, at many points in its 37-year history of the Islamic Republic that have a reasonable amount of popular legitimacy with their people, depending on you measure it.  So how do you -- how do you then square that circle.  How do you -- how do you decide what -- what's objective measure of legitimacy --

LAKSHMANAN:  Who's legitimacy's OK?

ABRAMS:  But one -- one -- yeah, no --

MALONEY:  -- is sufficient in Saudi Arabia but insufficient in other cases.

ABRAMS:  Well good -- good point.  And one axis in my view is legitimacy.  Another axis is democracy and human rights.  And another axis is, are you an enemy.  Now the regime in Iran --

MALONEY:  That's a good one.

ABRAMS:  -- decided in 1979 to be an enemy.  The regime in Havana, the President doesn't know this, but the regime in Havana is an enemy of the United States, and how we relate to a country should depend in part -- in part on whether it decides it wants to be an enemy.

LAKSHMANAN:  That's an interesting --

MALONEY:  Totally fair.

FARKAS:  And whether it can do harm to us.

DUBOWITZ:  May I complement you on something.  There was a rare Washington moment that -- had where he said, you know, I need to think about that.



DUBOWITZ:  It was clearly -- has not spent enough time in the think tank community to learn, Sue, that you never think about things, you just actually -- you just -- you wax -- you wax or episodic about them.  Like, but --

MALONEY:  Well, maybe we'll collaborate on a foreign affairs article.  That's very Washington.

ABRAMS:  There we go.  There we go.

DUBOWITZ:  That's a great idea.  We can bring that together.  But I would say on the legitimacy issue, I mean I think Elliott's exactly right.  I mean, if they're an enemy, and they by the way, have some legitimacy, then, you know, I think the United States -- incumbent upon the United States to undermine that very legitimacy. 

Now, do we have a great track record of doing so.  In some cases, no.  With Iran, I think you would agree.  Suzanne, probably not.  But I do think it's incumbent upon the United States to try to use what we sort of call political warfare in order to try to undermine the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

I think the administration's mistake has been to, in some respect restore -- help restore legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and give it that -- that credibility after 2009 that -- that severely degrade by the Green Revolution. 

I don't think it is our job to help Rouhani and Zarif and Khamenei and any of the rulers of Iran restore the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and it's revolutionary ambitions.

LAKSHMANAN:  Well obviously democratic elections don't always turn out the way that the United States might like them to, you know, as we --

DUBOWITZ:  Which democratic elections?

LAKSHMANAN:  Just thinking of like, you know, Hamas getting elected.  That wasn't exactly what the United States would have wanted.  But maybe you could address the question about Syria which was directed partly at you.

FARKAS:  Yes, I think there's really no -- we haven't seen evidence of any linkage.  There was never a linkage intended and there isn't a linkage.  I think clearly Russia and Iran are on opposites sides of the table.  You know, they are sitting next to Bashar al-Assad. 

You know, on the opposite side of the table from us, and the Syrian opposition, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, et cetera.  That hasn't changed.  Now, I don't think that Iran and Russia are, you know, bosom buddies and that they see eye-to-eye on everything, but they're still on the same side of the table. 

So I don't think the Iran deal changed anything from that perspective.  We still have a problem.

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  Good, any other questions?  We've got one right here.

FISCHER:  Hi, Conrad Fischer, I study religious violence at Columbia University in Union Theological Seminary.  This morning's sessions had some very interesting things about looking at the lifecycle of religious violence.

And I'm just wondering why there has been -- why in your opinion there has been so little study in terms of, if we look at the financing of this violence, why is there so little study of it as a theological problem, kind of like the difference between taking HIV medications or say, putting on a condom to prevent that at the beginning? 

You know, why is there so little study of this as a theological problem?

LAKSHMANAN:  Do you mean that -- I just want to understand your question.  Do you mean, the theology of certain regimes?  Is that what you mean?

FISCHER:  Well, what I mean by this, is ISIS publishes a monthly theological journal that sends legitimacy theologically what has taken violence from a criminal act to being a sacred act, and the part of this that is a theological problem in the Muslim world.

In other words, there were no suicide bombings in the history of Islam until 1983.  How did suicide become sacred in Islam?  So I'm just wondering, that I hear very little about the study of it as a theological problem, and I'd be interested in your opinion on that.

LAKSHMANAN:  OK, any other questions?  I see someone -- let's just take two more, one here and one here.  There's a person right there in the back row who was waving his hand.  No women out there have any questions?  Just curious.  I haven't --

SILVERMAN:  Hello, my name is Daniel Silverman.  So in the recent Jeffery Goldberg article in the Atlantic, the Obama Doctrine, Obama's mentioned, not verbatim, but he mentioned something along the lines, of the Saudi's need to learn to share their Middle East with Iran. 

Isn't that kind of the root problem with a lot of these regional problems, is kind of dividing up the regions amongst these kind of empires so to say, and off that -- in addition to that question, like, if, you know, we were to let the Saudi's, you know, quote/unquote "share the Middle East with Iran," how would Turkey factor into this question or this.

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  All right.  And there was another question -- I see, it looks like there are two people there.  So maybe if you can each make it a very short question, that will be the end of this round.

(UNKNOWN):  I want to ask a question about the earlier discussion about rhetoric versus action, particular, Mr. Abraham to the whole panel.  I've hear President Obama on many occasions call out Iran, albeit in his no drama Obama style, call them out for support of terrorism.

On the contrary, the administrations that you worked in, Mr. Abrams, George Bush said very little other than a quite -- other than reference to the Axis of Evil.  I know because we had to search for it in support of our court case, a couple of reference by him and the Secretary of State, regarding Iran -- Iran harboring Al Qaeda inside Iran including bin Laden's family after 9/11. 

And then again, there's President Reagan who probably no western ever -- western leader enabled Iran in its terrorist ambitions --

LAKSHMANAN:  Sorry, OK, so what is the question?  I'm sorry.

(UNKNOWN):  Well, let -- I don't understand the non -- I guess my answer -- question in a way is what are you talking about really because it's -- I don't what you're saying being true?

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  All right.  And there's someone right behind you with a question.  If you could also identify yourself please?

TURNER:  Thank you.  Adam Turner with the Endowment for Middle East Truth.  My question is for Mr. Dubowitz.  I normally agree with you.  I'm not sure I agree with you on the idea of tearing up, as you put it, the -- or not tearing the JCPOA.

Some of the concerns I would have is first of all I think it makes the new president -- I mean, I assume we're talking about a Republican because Hilary Clinton would not do this.  It makes that person look weak, which is the exact worse thing we want to do right now with the a president.

Second of all, I think as you talked about the JCPOA, we really don't have much knowledge of what the Iranians are doing, so it gives them more time if we're renegotiating with them.

The third thing is, it's a bad precedent in general, as Armi Sarin has detailed, the administration was very dishonest in how they set up the whole agreement and if we let this go through and continue, we have a precedent for another president to do this, and the fourth thing is, is it just makes us look foolish because quite frankly there really is no agreement whatsoever. 

It's only the West that believes there is one.  The Iranians clearly don't.  They just do what they want to do.

LAKSHMANAN:  So -- so what's your question?


TURNER:  My question is simply pushing back.  I don't understand why --

LAKSHMANAN:  OK.  Got it.  All right.  Thank you.  All right, so we have the theological question, should there be more study of that.  What about sharing the Middle East, does that work.  And what are you talking about on the rhetoric.  Those seem to be the questions.

ABRAMS:  You know, I get that so often.

LAKSHMANAN:  What are you talking about?  I think the fourth question was also, what are you talking about.  But just to you, the third one.

ABRAMS:  Let me just -- on the theological -- on the theological question, it's a very interesting point and it seems to me it's partly -- because, you know, government officials are mostly PhDs in history or political science, or they're lawyers.

They're not theologians.  So one of the reasons I think people don't talk more about theology is we don't' know anything about theology.  And I think that is also -- A.  B, we don't -- most Americans, most American officials don't know a lot about Islam.  Certainly didn't until the last, what 10 -- 15 years, think they needed to know a lot about Islam.

And, also are afraid of appearing to be bigoted, prejudiced, ignorant about and sort of foolishly critical of -- of a world religion.  So I think people tend to not talk about it much for that reason.

I would just -- and the answer to the other question, I think it was -- and I think it was pretty clear what President Bush thought about the regime in Iran and what his attitude toward it was.

What he wanted to do, which -- and I think it's been pretty clear for President Obama, too.  I don't think that our allies in the region, Saudi's, Jordanians, Egyptians, Israelis, had any lack of clarity about President Bush's hostility to that regime.

And I think they also -- I mean they may be wrong, but they're clear view is that President Obama is seeking an accommodation and an reconciliation and wants the Saudi to share the region with them, and it's -- they perceive it.

They perceive it as a very different attitude from the attitude of President Bush.  And that has, I think political consequences.

LAKSHMANAN:  Suzanne, can you respond to that particularly with the -- the perception, but also the question about should the -- should we be encouraging different powers to share the Middle East?

MALONEY:  Yeah, I think it was -- it was an unfortunate turn of phrase, wherever you come out on President Obama's policies towards the region, the idea of a Saudi/Iranian entente in which the region is divided up -- up amongst these two -- whatever else they might be, very anti-democratic regimes would be ultimately a nightmare.

I think what the President was trying to suggest, if I can get into that head of that wonderful essay was that the very theme of this panel, coexistence, and in effect the simple reality is, the Saudi's have always coexisted with the Islamic Republic.  They haven't always liked it.

They've often advised the U.S. to do things that they're not prepared to do themselves, and for most of the past 37 years, they -- they were far more forward leaning in their economic relationships in Iran, in their diplomatic relationships with Iran, with periodic breaks than the United States, itself was.

So, we have a situation now where the tables are somewhat turned.  Where the Saudi's are urging us to be more hardline.  Or adopting more hardline positions themselves towards the Iranians.  But historically that hasn't be the case.

And I think we have to be careful not to be -- not to be -- find our policy toward the region dictated to by a country whose interests are not identical to ours.  We have some very important common interests, whether their energy, whether it's combative terrorism, but we are in no way, I think on the exact same page about what the region should look like.

And I think that in effect some of the failings of the Obama administration, and perhaps induced by the prioritization of the diplomacy with Iran, have been the inability/unwillingness to hold back the Saudi's from, for example the disastrous campaign in Yemen. 

We need to be guiding our allies and partners in the region in a more constructive fashion than we've been able to do under this administration.  And ultimately, yes, I do think that the Saudis and Iranians are going to have to coexist but ideally they'd coexist with better regimes.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right.  Great.  We are going to have to wrap it up, but I want to give each of you about 30 seconds to make a comment looking forward to 2016, the election.  And so, I know that for example, Evelyn, you've written a piece comparing Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin.

Maybe you want to make your comments on that, but if each of you could make a comment related to either who -- you know, whoever you think the next president's going to be, what you think their policy should be in dealing with some of these regimes, or you know, something related to the election?  Go ahead.  Mark, you can start.

DUBOWITZ:  Great, thanks.  So, look I think the next president should be guided by a simple principal that the United States is no better friend nor worse enemy.  I think that in the Middle East, they should be guided by the principal that we need to take the Iranian regime down, three to four notches, and we've got to take our allies up three to four notches.

I agree with Suzanne.  I mean the prospect of -- of Saudi Arabia, which is an authoritarian state, with the Wahhabi establishment that has done more to spread radical Islam globally than probably any other country in the world, freelancing and deciding to go and launch crazy wars in Yemen and elsewhere without any U.S. knowledge or support.

Or our ability to actually to deter them, I think is very dangerous for the region.  But it's coming from a sense of fear and abandonment, and I think we need to reassure the Saudi, the Emiratis, the Jordanians, the Israelis and others, because I don't think we want any of those countries freelancing in the Middle East. 

But we need to check Bahraini regime arrogance.  They feel like they can get away, literally with murder, and I think it's time for the next administration to send a message that we will use all tools of course of state craft, silver bullets and silver shrapnel to deter that behavior.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, Evelyn?

FARKAS:  So just very quickly on the Trump argument, the point I was making was that all of the lies that he telling, they were adding up, they were piling up, and too fast frankly for the media to counter them.  And it started to remind me of Russia because after a while it sort of didn't matter.

People didn't really care what was the truth, what wasn't the truth, was there video showing that he had -- that Trump had actually lied.  You know, the -- the Politico did a -- did a study of almost five hours of him giving a speech and it turns out, every five minutes Trump told a lie.

Again, it reminded me of Russia and their lies and propaganda and the fact that ultimately at the end of the day, the Russian people kind of don't even care anymore, if I can generalize about what the truth is.  And they were handed a bad deal.  Putin said he's going to make Russia great again, and he hasn't.

And so, you know, there were all these parallels that I made, but you can go find it online.  I think our next president will be strong and will, you know, adopt this position of probably speaking out more but also being defensively strong together with our allies and, you know, I hope that we will all be able to help her.



LAKSHMANAN:  That's your applause lie of the day.  All right, Elliott?

ABRAMS:  I am really agree with what's just been said, except for the help or forfeit.  I think the next president is likely to -- to realize that our alliances in that part of the world are not in great shape.  There not in such great shape in Europe and Asia either.  There's a sense that the United States is backing away from responsibilities.

And I think the next president is likely to, in a sense to -- I think the pendulum is likely to swing back a bit more towards the center, towards more traditionally reliance on alliances, and building of alliances, and I think that's a very good thing.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, Suzanne?

MALONEY:  I think it's entirely inevitable that whomever is elected in November is going to adopt a tougher attitude toward Iran, whether that's Hillary Clinton or whether that's Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan or whomever else might be nominated on Stage 3.

But I do think that there is this question that we need to get beyond the oscillation between picking friends and allies in the region and get to the root of the issue, which is a failure of -- of sustainable, responsible governance that has not been addressed by either some of our most important friends or by our most dangerous adversaries.

And I think this is a time for -- for real deep thinking about how we get beyond the traditional back and forth between trying to pick winners and actually coming up with solutions that address the fundamental root causes of violence and instability in the region.

LAKSHMANAN:  All right, terrific.  Well, I'd like to thank all four of you and please join me in thanking our panel for sharing their views.


LAKSHMANAN:  And I am told to turn it back over to Mark Dubowitz.

DUBOWITZ:  OK.  Folks, it's been a long day.  We've come to the end of Washington Forum.  I think we started with a full room and 700 -- 800 people, and you are the last remaining survivors.  So thank you.  So we've heard from great experts and government officials, scholars -- it's been -- it's been great because it's been -- it's been a debate.

And it's been a debate that's been respectful, which doesn't happen too often in Washington these days.  So thank you for all of the folks from the Obama administration who came here to make their case, thanks to the many scholars with their different opinions.  It's a jumping off point for future discussions.

I want to end by thanking the entire FDD team.  It's amazing what it takes to put these events together.  The details.  The attention to everything that makes your experience better.  And, you know, for people like me, as an executive director of FDD, it's easy for me.  I'm the trained monkey.

I get up there and say whatever they tell me to say, or maybe more like a semi-trained monkey.  But it's the staffers who really do everything to put this together, and I want to thank them by name, and have them stand up and please hold your applause 'till the end.

Erin Blumenthal, Allie Tannenbaum, Kevin Black, Joe Daugherty, Sammy Waterston, (Taylor Knott), Jocelyn Westray and Annie Fixler, and I hope our guests have met many more members of the FDD team, who've helped make this possible.

It's truly a great team and I'm very proud of them and very proud of them and proud to be part of the organization.  So thank you for all of you.  thank you for coming.  Next year, there will be another great Washington Forum, under a new president, President Elliott Abrams.


ABRAMS:  President of FDD?:

DUBOWITZ:  President of FDD. 


DUBOWITZ:  So again, thank you to everybody and have a wonderful rest of your day.