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Biggest factor in U.S.-Middle East relations is perception that U.S. is withdrawing

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, Michael Morell speaks with Will Wechsler, the director of Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, about why the region is still of strategic importance to the U.S. Wechsler discusses the perception in the Middle East that the U.S. is withdrawing, the influx of young men in the region and the potential for more negotiations after the Abraham Accords. 

Listen to this episode on ART19

Highlights:

  • Widespread perception of U.S. withdrawal in the Middle East: "If I was going to put my finger on the single most important factor that explains the largest number of actions that are taking place in the region today, it is the widespread perception of American withdrawal. Now, the reality is that unless you compare it to the high points of our occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan, in which case the numbers of troops have gone down from then. But if you compare it more historically, the United States really hasn't withdrawn. We still have a lot of military forces. Our diplomatic presence is second to none, our intelligence efforts, our economic engagement. But this perception remains. The perception is not without merit. The perception comes from actions that consecutive U.S. presidents have taken. It comes from the rhetoric that one hears from the United States."

  • The most dangerous people in any society: "When you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don't have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues."

  • Ties between Israel and the Gulf: "What can be done right now are smaller achievements. What can be done are limited agreements on individual topics that can alleviate some Palestinian misery. I think actually over the long run, the Abraham Accords and growing ties between Israel and the Gulf can actually help potentially set the stage for better negotiations when the circumstances are more opportune."

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Photo provided by Will Wechsler, director of Atlantic Council's Middle East programs

"Intelligence Matters": Will Wechsler transcript

Producer: Paulina Smolinski

MICHAEL MORELL: Welcome to Intelligence Matters, it is great to have you on the show.

WILL WECHSLER: Thank you very much for having me. 

MICHAEL MORELL: I should mention that I am on the board of the Atlantic Council, which is where you currently serve. Full transparency here to my listeners. I think that's important. Will, this episode is part of a series of episodes that we're doing between now and the inauguration on the key national security issues that we are facing as a nation and that President-Elect Biden will face. We started the conversation with H.R. McMaster, who gave us an overview of what's going on in the world. We've now done episodes on both China and North Korea. Today with you, we turn to the Middle East.

Let me start by by asking you to explain why the Middle East is still important to the United States, even though we are now, as a nation, energy independent?

WILL WECHSLER: U.S. policies change and presidents change, but our interests remain stable or at least long lasting until there are deep changes. One of those deep changes that has happened is that the United States, thanks to a fracking revolution, has become an exporter of oil instead of an importer of oil. That's a real change and that has important implications. However, that change can be overstated as well.

What it really does mean is that, in the absolute worst scenarios, nobody can do to us what we did to Japan before World War Two, which is cut off our source of energy in context of a war. If worse comes to worse, we can go to autarchy. We can produce the energy that we need, at least the oil that we need, in the United States. That's a really good thing. But that doesn't mean that the United States is isolated from the world. It doesn't mean that the price of oil and energy and gas in the world doesn't affect the United States. The reality is that price is a global price and that price is not just dependent on US production. US energy producers do not give Americans a discount for being Americans. American consumers do not pay more for gas when it's produced in the United States. This is a global market. 

The reality is that a very significant proportion of all that energy still comes out of the Middle East. Because of the nature of the sources of energy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia still is the swing producer and has very disproportionate impact on those global energy prices. We saw that recently when because of a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia, Saudi Arabia decided to push energy prices into negative territory. Something that we have never seen. Thus, demonstrating their clout and their power in the world. These are realities in the world and realities that the United States policies have to take account for.

MICHAEL MORELL: Are there other reasons why the Middle East is important? One of our key allies, Israel, sits right in the middle of it. Sources of extremism, refugees. Are there other reasons why we need to pay attention?

WILL WECHSLER: Absolutely. The counterterrorism challenges that we all face are at a low ebb at the moment. But we've seen them be at the low ebb previously and we've seen them get much larger and more powerful and more directly threatening before. There's no reason to expect that can't happen again. We have a real concern about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons in this region, especially Iranian nuclear weapons. 

We have a real concern about Israel. Israel is more secure and more prosperous than it's ever been before. But that doesn't mean that there are no threats to Israel anymore and a lot of which come from Iran and its proxies. We generally, ever since really the Eisenhower administration, have acted as a status quo power, trying to return the region to the status quo when it's been upset in order to build a foundation for general security and general prosperity in the region. Because we believe that overall serves US interests. We have a variety of those interests which aren't going away. Despite the very popular view out in the American public- that's expressed by people on both sides of the aisle in the Congress and almost everyone that was running for president that the United States- that we should do less in that part of the world. That doesn't mean that we should be doing nothing in that part of the world.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you find yourself more and more having to explain why the region is still important?

WILL WECHSLER: Absolutely. There's a lot of reasons for that and very understandable reasons for that. For the last 20 years, starting with George W. Bush's war in Iraq, the United States really changed its policy that it had been following for roughly five decades before that. Instead of supporting the status quo, it became one of the most important threats to the status quo. On top of that, the failures and mistakes in the implementation of that policy has led a lot of people in the region and a lot of Americans to ask why are we still in this part of the world? Why should we be spending our treasure? Why should we be having our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines die for this part of the world? What's really in it for us? The president of the United States, President Trump, says this repeatedly, even when probably at the high point of his administration, at least in this part of the world, when he was announcing the recent Abraham accords between the United States and the United Arab Emirates, from the Oval Office, he couldn't control himself. He went off script and said, 'I don't know why we have any of our forces there protecting the energy resources anymore.'

MICHAEL MORELL: Big picture. Why has the Middle East been such a mess for so long? 

WILL WECHSLER: There are lots of reasons why the region is unstable. The most important of which is that the countries themselves are not natural countries in terms of aligning towards ethnic, tribal, religious lines. They have a lot of internal incohesion to them. They are relatively new countries. Many of them have not too distant colonial pasts, where there were lots of dysfunctions that were built into the colonial architecture that was created. The lines were drawn by European powers, and the minority groups were promoted by those colonial powers intentionally. That is still a destabilizing factor. Almost all these countries are fundamentally nondemocratic, which in the short term sometimes might have some advantages when it comes to stability, but over the longer term is inherently unstable.

MICHAEL MORELL: There seems to be a long-term struggle with governance in many of the countries in the region.

WILL WECHSLER: Indeed, many of the leaders did not for many decades see their chief objective as improving the well-being of their populations. That's changed in some of the countries and the region. It will have to change if the region is going to become less stable over time. But when you look at the poor economic growth, when you look at the very high demographic growth, what you see is as a region that has a lot of challenges ahead of it. There are very few things that are true for every country in the world. But one of those is that the most dangerous people in any society are young men. Testosterone is a hell of a drug. There are lots of young men in this part of the world that don't have avenues to channel their innate aggression into productive, constructive forms. They are attracted to destructive avenues.

MICHAEL MORELL: How important is the strategic competition between Iran and its Sunni rivals with regard to stability in the region?

WILL WECHSLER: It's very important right now. I can take one step back. I believe that today and actually for the last 5 or 10 years, there are a lot of different factors that are affecting trends in the region, lots of different micro factors that affect individual countries, lots of local rivalries. But if I was going to put my finger on the single most important factor that explains the largest number of actions that are taking place in the region today, it is the widespread perception of American withdrawal.

Now, the reality is that unless you compare it to the high points of our occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan, in which case the numbers of troops have gone down from then. But if you compare it more historically, the United States really hasn't withdrawn. We still have a lot of military forces. Our diplomatic presence is second to none, our intelligence efforts, our economic engagement. But this perception remains. The perception is not without merit. The perception comes from actions that consecutive US presidents have taken. It comes from the rhetoric that one hears from the United States. If you're a country in the region whose security architecture has depended for many decades on the United States, are you going to depend on that in the immediate future? Of course. But looking ahead, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, these countries are not going to bet the existence of their country on the United States staying the course as it has. They already experienced this. Their fathers, in some cases, experienced this when the British left in the early 70s after promising that they would not leave. 

This widespread perception exists and that perception itself is creating a vacuum that other actors are moving into. China is moving in economically, politically, to a degree. But not yet from a geostrategic point of view, China is very actively not trying to take the United States position, and they would much rather free ride off of our security guarantees for as long as as possible. But they're an important actor to note. 

But aside from them, there are three other non-Arab powers that all have historical legacy aspirations in the region and have all been moving very actively, very aggressively into the region. Those are Iran, Turkey, and Russia. All of whom have advanced their position quite significantly and materially in the last number of years. If you look back historically, when any of those actors have tried to move into this region, they've had to confront the historic Arab powers in the region, those powers in Cairo, in Damascus and in Baghdad. The leaders in those cities were the ones that had the ear of the Arab street. They had the armies. They had disproportionate interest, disproportionate power, not only in their countries, but around the region. All of those places are at very weak moments in time right now. Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad are unfortunately each closer to being a failed state than they are to being regional leaders. 

The historical European powers with interests in the region are similarly either not capable or not willing largely to play any types of roles with the exception of France. But even France is limited in what it can do and wants to do, mainly to Lebanon and to some degree in North Africa. What's left is a coalition that should have emerged a while ago, but for a number of reasons didn't. But it's finally emerging now between states, Israel and the Gulf, that have largely been interested in their own defense, but not been larger regional players. They are coming together now to position themselves to be able to protect the region against massive encroachment from these non-Arab powers. Quite frankly, that's a good thing because a region that ends up being dominated by Iran or Turkey or Russia is not a region that serves our interests.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let's start with Iran- its nuclear program, its regional ambitions, its malign behavior. How would you think about a strategy of dealing with the Iranians?

WILL WECHSLER: I think the American strategy of dealing with the Iranians has to look really hard and learn the correct lessons from both the Obama administration and the Trump administration. In my view, the Obama administration was absolutely right to consider diplomacy with Iran on its nuclear program. The results of that diplomacy contributed indisputably to positive outcomes on the nuclear file. But there were some weaknesses with that approach. One of the key weaknesses was the division between the United States and its traditional friends and partners in the region, in particular Israel and the Gulf. A sustained approach to diplomacy has to bring those partners along with it rather than being perceived to be cutting them out. The Trump administration took a very different approach to this, a maximum pressure approach to to Iran. They got out of the nuclear deal formally, which I think was was a mistake. I don't think it was a mistake to add sanctions on Iran at all. In fact, the nuclear deal very specifically allowed for such sanctions to be increased on Iran as long as those sanctions weren't on the nuclear file. Unfortunately, Iran has a lot of other malign behavior in the region that merit sanctions. But the Trump administration decided to go a different path. 

The big strategic problem with the Trump administration's approach was that internally it never really came to a conclusion about what the purpose of its maximum pressure campaign was. At the outset, there were groups in the Trump administration, some groups that just wanted to increase sanctions in order to make it more difficult for Iran to conduct its malign behaviors. There were other groups in the administration, I include the president of the United States in this group, that wanted to increase sanctions in order to get to a 'better negotiated outcome.' There were other groups that really saw this as an opportunity to promote regime change. Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. The way one goes about constructing a sanctions regime differs depending on which outcome you desire. The way that the sanction regime was constructed appears to be most in line with the people who wanted regime change and not in line with people who wanted to facilitate additional negotiations. What I think we should do now, what I hope an incoming Biden administration does,  is opens the door for diplomacy, but use the leverage that the Trump administration gives it with the existing sanctions to try to drive a hard bargain that would bring our partners along with it. 

Our partners in the region, the Arab countries on the western side of the of the Persian Gulf and Israel, they only one year ago all sent emissaries rushing to Washington because they were terrified that the maximum pressure campaign was driving them in a direction of a regional war with them on the front lines.  They want to de-escalate as well. So I hope the goal is de-escalation. I hope the goal is confidence building measures. I'm a little skeptical, quite frankly, about whether or not a new nuclear agreement can be reached. I think that Iran has turned much more hard line. In the interim, windows of opportunity open and close for such things. I hope I'm wrong on that. But I don't see a downside in trying.

MICHAEL MORELL: Second issue is extremism, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and al-Qaida in Syria. What should the U.S. role be here?

WILL WECHSLER: The Salafi jihadist terrorist groups are different from other kinds of terrorist groups, are different from other kind of Islamic terrorist groups, are different from other kinds of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. We find that with terrorist organizations that have this particular kind of ideology, wherever they are able to achieve a degree of physical sanctuary where they believe that they can act with impunity, they have a one hundred percent record of doing external attacks. That's just a sad reality. Our goal should be to deny them that kind of sanctuary. 

The United States has tried a lot of different approaches to achieving that goal. We've tried invading and occupying countries. We've tried dropping hell fires from the sky to take out high value targets. What we've learned is that the most effective way of combating these kinds of terrorist adversaries is indirectly, is working by, with, and through the local actors who can themselves conduct these kinds of counterterrorism missions. Sometimes these are through military channels. Sometimes through intelligence channels. Sometimes these are through law enforcement channels. Sometimes that effort involves the United States doing nothing more than passing information and allowing our friends and partners to take action. But sometimes it takes more. Sometimes it takes efforts to equip these partners, to train these partners, to advise these partners, to assist them in what they do and sometimes even to accompany them on their missions. 

All of these are different fundamentally than direct action, where the United States has to do it on its own and and has to do the finish against these terrorist actors. What I hope is that the United States doesn't look at the world as it is today where al-Qaida and the Islamic State have, thanks to great work that people like you were doing for quite a long period of time, has been diminished. And imagine that current state will be the state in the future. As long as there are underlying Sunni grievances in so many of these places, we will find young men who will be attracted to this Salafi jihadist ideology and we'll need to work with our partners to disrupt their external attacks. At the same time, we need to do the kind of work to prevent the extremism from catching on. Helping our partners change their educational system, provide more economic opportunities. Here, the United States isn't the the largest actor, the most important actor at all. We're not going to be the ones that are going to win the ideological battle for the heart of of Islam. But we can do things to avoid making it more difficult for our partners, and we can assist our partners. That's necessary.

MICHAEL MORELL: Next is the two-sided coin. That is Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. One side of the coin being the reformer, the other side of the coin being the autocrat.

How should the United States should approach Saudi Arabia?

WILL WECHSLER: We can't write off Saudi Arabia, let's just say that out front. We have interests. There are a number of countries around the world where there are challenges to working with them. Turkey is another one. It'd be a mistake to write off any of these countries. I include Saudi Arabia in that category. However, there are real challenges with with Mohammed bin Salman. If I can take one step back, right now, Saudi Arabia, no matter who's running Saudi Arabia, they really have three existential threats. I don't use the word existential lightly. The first threat is from a transition in leadership that is not yet finished. Saudi Arabia, like it or not, is a monarchy. Anybody who has watched Game of Thrones knows the particular dynamics that come into effect when a transition in the monarchy is not finished. This is a particularly challenging transition as compared to other transitions that have happened in Saudi Arabia, because it's a transition to a new branch of the family. It's a transition to a new generation in the family. It's a transition in the fundamental way of doing business in Saudi Arabia from a very consultative, collaborative model to a more centralized model. That's the first existential challenge. Until that's complete, that will continue.

The other challenges, the need for reform on virtually every aspect of Saudi society. This one, Mohammed bin Salman has recognized in a way that none of his predecessors had. That's a really good thing. It's a really challenging set of problems that they have economically, socially, politically and so forth. When Franklin Roosevelt met with Mohammed bin Salman's grandfather, I think Saudi Arabia had about three million people and now it has roughly ten times that. Saudi Arabia is a rich country, but it's a country that has lots of poor people in it. We've already talked about the challenges of having young men that are aimless. There's a massive need for reform in Saudi Arabia. 

The third one is Iran. If you're sitting in Riyadh as compared to 20 years ago, you see Iran vastly expanding its placement and access and encircling you. It trying to- whether it's in Iran, Iraq, Syria or in Yemen- trying to build in Yemen the kind of threat against Saudi Arabia from the South that they've been able to build over the decades against Israel from its north. So these are really huge issues. The person that has to deal with them, Mohammed bin Salman, is somebody who was not trained all his life to deal with these problems. Most Americans know the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That was a horrible crime. In the old line in War and Peace, 'It was worse than a crime. It was a mistake.' It really set Saudi Arabia back, but it was not isolated. It was the end to a year and a half of poor, rash decision makings by Mohammed bin Salman on a series of of issues. It wasn't like Mohammed bin Salman was inventing problems, but the the way that he chose to deal with these problems made the individual problem worse. One hopes that MBS, if he is able to move from crown prince to King, that he has learned from that experience because we could all be living in a world where he's going to be the king for many decades to come and our interests will remain there for quite a long time. If he has not learned from that experience that he's had, then we're in for a very bad situation.

MICHAEL MORELL: I have two more issues I want to cover. The first is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. How do you think about that?

WILL WECHSLER: There is not a very high probability of a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian problem today. The only real solution, the only lasting solution is a two state solution. That's really clear to anybody who's looked at it. Unless you want to imagine solutions that are really horrific. The challenge is that the circumstances are not set at the moment for those kinds of negotiations to continue. I suspect it's going to require generational change. We've had three U.S. presidents in a row, Bill Clinton, Condi Rice under George W. Bush, and John Kerry under Barack Obama, who spent a wildly disproportionate amount of their time trying to get to a holistic solution to this problem. All of which have failed. I don't think a fourth attempt is going to do any better in these circumstances. What can be done right now are smaller achievements. What can be done are limited agreements on individual topics that can alleviate some Palestinian misery. I think over the long run, the Abraham accords and growing ties between Israel and the Gulf can actually help potentially set the stage for better negotiations when the circumstances are more opportune.

MICHAEL MORELL: What's the one piece of advice that you would give to President-Elect Biden on the region?

WILL WECHSLER: The one piece of advice is to really understand how much the perception of American withdrawal is affecting the region and how much his personal relationships with leaders there will be able to impact their continued thinking on that subject.

MICHAEL MORELL: Will, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a real education on the region, which I think is absolutely necessary at this time. 

WILL WECHSLER: Thank you so much for having me. 

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