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Panel 1

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America: Actor or Spectator?

  • Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow,Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Bret Stephens, foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor,The Wall Street Journal;Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist
  • Michéle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
  • Moderator: Jackson Diehl deputy editorial page editor,The Washington Post

FDD’s Washington Forum opened with an animated panel discussion, led by Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, on the United States’ engagement – or lack thereof – with a Middle East engulfed in turmoil. With the world’s most volatile region at its most unstable period in memory, panelists debated how America can and ought to shape events to benefit its national interests and those of its allies, and how to limit the influence of resurgent adversaries.

On the use of U.S. military force in the region:

  • Diehl: The Obama administration has limited its ambitions in the Middle East, viewing the U.S. as a “balancer” which seeks to “tip the scales” of the region to favor situations “we can live with.”
  • We shouldn’t be a “balancer” in the Middle East but rather clearly identify our allies and interests and put our muscle into promoting both. For example, the U.S. cannot “endlessly pretend to be half-pregnant in Iraq.” America has 6,000 boots on the ground, but “we have a president who never speaks about them – it’s as if they don’t exist.” President Obama’s premature and precipitate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011 left the country – predictably – open to Iranian influence.
  • Flournoy: We must reengage the Sunni population in Iraq and condition our military support to the government on it reining in Iran-backed Shiite militias. We invaded Iraq without a plan to build institutions and civil society and that vacuum encouraged Iranian influence and Sunni extremism.
  • Gerecht: Without American soldiers in and around Iraq in a combat role, the U.S. cannot have significant influence there. Current developments in Iraq and Syria, however, will not be sufficiently compelling to get the U.S. military more actively involved in those countries unless an event on the scale of 9/11 takes place to force Americans to take notice.

 On supporting our allies and partners:

  • Flournoy: The possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran has raised anxiety in the region. We must reassure our allies that the perceived rapprochement with Tehran is “not a fundamental realignment.” Still, there is a lot more we could be doing to bolster security cooperation and allay the concerns of regional allies and partners.
  • Stephens: Providing the Gulf States with a few more weapons is small consolation for them. Most of these nations’ militaries “aren’t worth a damn,” and it is doubtful that U.S. troops would be willing to “die for Doha,” for example. Are we going to “risk military confrontation with a nuclear Iran for the sake of these principalities? I don’t think so.”

On pressing for reform in the Middle East:

  • Flournoy: Pushing for reform should be a key element of our Middle East policy. We need to condition international assistance on steps toward reform.
  • Gerecht: It’s impossible to progress toward reform in places like Egypt when there is a military junta corrupting civil society and the business community. The only way to have economic reform is through political reform first.
  • Stephens: “I’ve met all of the Egyptian liberals – all seven of them. They’re terrific.” Still, those who pass for liberals in Egypt are often disconcertingly anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and anti-American. They exemplify the fact that we should be defending liberalism – not necessarily pro-forma democracy. There is such a thing as illiberal democracy, as represented by Turkish President Erdoğan. What is most urgently needed in the region is stability, followed by reform – not precipitous, often premature elections.

On Iran’s regional influence and nuclear program:

  •  Flournoy: We should judge the Iran framework agreement by asking the simple question, “Does it put time on the clock for the regime’s nuclear breakout?” In any case, even a comprehensive nuclear deal will not solve the problem of Tehran’s bad behavior across the region.
  • Gerecht: Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iran Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, has “greater influence in Iraq than the president of the United States.”
  • Stephens: The nuclear framework agreement with Iran is “extraordinarily ill-judged. This isn’t a recipe for stabilization or even for balancing.” The U.S. has failed to give Iraq the kind of help it receives from Iran. We need to extract whatever we can from Iraq’s “rubble,” such as an independent Kurdistan, which would be an island of stability and pro-Americanism in a region where both are scant.

 On U.S. long-term strategy in the region:

  •  Flournoy: We need to root our policy on “core strategic interests,” such as preventing instability and safeguarding the security of Israel. The debate is how to do this. “All of us would support a more engaged policy of U.S. leadership in the region,” using all elements of power – diplomatic leverage as well as military strength.
  • Gerecht: The Saudis have been one of the most destructive forces in the Middle East. Quite simply, we call them allies because of oil.
  • Stephens: We should adopt the “Larry David method” of foreign policy and curb our enthusiasm. The Middle East is less likely be the source of the next great high-tech revolution, and more so of the next 9/11. The fallout from the Arab Spring has shown us that the end result of revolution is often not a 1776 situation, but the bloodletting of 1789 France. The U.S. should center its policy not on realizing dreams but on “keeping nightmares at bay.” That would include preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, blocking nuclear proliferation, the establishment of an ISIS “caliphate,” the collapse of the Egyptian state and serious threats to Israel.