The Middle East

Definition of Middle Eastern countries: Central Intelligence Agency

With Middle East tensions at an all-time high, the Forum heard an up-to-the-minute analysis from frequent Forum contributor Steven Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and European Union (EU) perspectives from Middle East experts Professors Stéphane Lacroix and Jean-Pierre Filiu of Sciences Po University. They provided in-depth reports on regional conflicts, emerging alliances, terrorism, and immigration and discussed how these issues are affecting, and are being affected by, United States (US) policies. They examined the implications for the states. This timely discussion occurred just as negotiations on the US-Iran nuclear agreement were being concluded.

The Middle East: Part One (Dr. Steven Cook)

Dr. Cook provided a review of recent events that have led to the current instability and conflict in the Middle East, pointing out that Mideast governments had been stable for many years. Egypt had been under the rule of Muhammad Hosni Mubarak for 30 years, while Muammar Gaddafi led Libya from 1969. There was relative stability until a cascade of failures created a power vacuum, thereby opening the way for competing organizations to ramp up their bids for control.

There was relative stability in the Middle East until a cascade of failures created a power vacuum, thereby opening the way for competing organizations to ramp up their bids for control. Now everything is changing.

Failure Of The US In Iraq

After the Gulf Wars, the US became the dominant power in the region. However, the failure of America to establish a stable regime in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq unleashed powerful⎯and contradictory⎯forces in the Middle East, leading to the current  instability in the region. Supposed allies of America in the Middle East no longer conformed to US policy, but pursued their own agendas, further contributing to the chaos in the region.

Failure Of Egypt To Democratize

Then the 2011 Arab Spring revolt displaced Mubarak and ushered in the brief ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But their leadership failed. Within a year, the new Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown after mass protests and former Egyptian army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed control, forcing Morsi from power and suspending the Egyptian constitution. Despite the idealism of the Arab Spring, Egypt, representing one-fourth of the Arab world, did not make the transition to democracy and saw the resurgence of an authoritarian regime.

Failure Of Libya To Democratize

A 2011 revolution in Libya led to Gaddafi’s death and, for the first time in 42 years, the country would have a new leader. Libya is now a failed state, broken up among factions as Islamist and anti-Islamist militias compete for control there.

Failure Of New Middle East Leadership

The post-Arab Spring governments promised jobs, mobility, and social support, sometimes in exchange for people surrendering some freedoms. But they did not deliver on these promises. Instead, power struggles ensued as multiple groups⎯from tribes to terrorist organizations⎯wrestled to gain the upper hand and fill the power vacuum. More militias have emerged with more people taking up arms.

Failure Of US Leadership

The US failed to recognize its mistake in Iraq, that is, deposing Hussein but leaving the country without a leader and without support. America repeated that error in Libya. After Gaddafi was killed, all the allies exited from Libya, leaving no institutions and no leadership for the nation. Finally, the US failed to intervene early enough as Syria committed war crimes and disintegrated into warring factions. Without national leadership, people revert to their regional identities and religious loyalties.

Today, the tally of failed states is mounting with the disintegration of Iraq, Libya, and Yemen with its ongoing regional proxy war; Syria with 4 million refugees fleeing its civil war⎯more than were displaced by World War II; Egypt, now ruled by an authoritarian regime, and ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and its adherents posing threats to Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia. Meanwhile, Iran is becoming a de facto nuclear power and making a bid for leadership in the region.

What Can The US Do?

The national interests of America should define its policies, Dr. Cook pointed out. The US should:

Ensure access to energy resources for itself and its allies. While the US is moving toward energy independence, some allies are not. India, for example, gets 60% of its oil from the Middle East.

Ensure Israeli security

Ensure that no country other than America becomes dominant in the region.

We should expend our resources to fulfill these objectives, Dr. Cook continued, focusing on containing the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist groups and blocking nuclear proliferation in the region.

A question of the moment, Dr. Cook said in closing, is “Will the Iran nuclear agreement⎯the end of economic sanctions in return for Iran’s commitment to limit its nuclear program to peaceful purposes⎯make a difference? Will Iran meet its obligations and sustain its support for US-friendly policies?”

The Middle East: Part Two (Jean-Pierre Filiu)

Jean-Pierre Filiu, an historian and an arabist, is a professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po University, Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He has served as an adviser to France’s Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (2000-2002) and is a prolific author of articles and books on Arab and Islamic politics, including Apocalypse in Islam, Best of Enemies, and Arab Revolution.

“Who controls the Middle East controls the world,” Dr. Filiu said, quoting the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who, in 1902, coined the term “Middle East” ‪‬to designate the area between Arabia and India. Interestingly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used this quote in a 2010 speech. ‬‬‬‬

US Interventionism vs Isolationism

The US may be tired of being the “policeman to the world” and may not want to be the main power in the Middle East; however, other countries, including France, count on the US to sustain its leadership role. “If America withdraws from the Middle East, Europe’s peace is at risk,” Dr. Filiu opined.

Echoing Dr. Cook’s comments on a “string of failures” in the Middle east, Dr. Filiu pointed out that the US made mistakes at 2 extremes: first, the use of excessive interventionism during the war in Iraq; then, erring on the side of non-interventionism in August 2013, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime gassed thousands of its own people, and the US decided not to bomb Syria in retaliation.

The result of this non-interventionism was that America was perceived as unwilling to act against aggression. This led Russian President Vladimir Putin to assume that Russia would have a free hand in Crimea. It also emboldened ISIS and other non-state actors, increasing worldwide recruitment. “A frightening prospect is that this could unleash a mass terror campaign on the European continent,” Dr. Filiu said.

Commenting on these extremes, Dr. Filiu stated. “You cannot correct one mistake with another.” Instead, he proposed that “the middle way,” using politics and diplomacy, has the best chance to achieve stability in the Middle East. Unfortunately, no one is pursuing this strategy, Dr. Filiu observed.

US and Egypt

The result of the US abdicating its role as global policeman is that Egypt is experiencing the worst political violence since 1798. President Sisi is imposing a military dictatorship and eliminating his competitors. An insurgency of fewer than 1,000 people in the Sinai Province, Egypt’s ISIS affiliate, is controlling part of the Sinai, despite the presence of 500,000 Egyptians.

“The US is making a mistake by siding with Egypt’s new totalitarian regime. Furthermore, the idea that an Iranian nuclear deal can help solve the regional conflict is ‘ridiculous,’ ” Dr. Filiu said.

US and Turkey

The American strategy against the extremist Sunni militant Islamic State (IS) depends on local forces in Iraq and Syria, including Kurdish militias, fighting on the ground, while the US-led coalition provides cover from the air. The Kurds have proven unusually capable of wresting back territory from IS militants. On the other hand, the US considers another group of Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to be a terrorist group. The PKK has waged a long insurgency inside Turkey, seeking independence, and the US acknowledges Turkey’s right to defend against these “terrorists.”

The conundrum of conflicting alliances became even more convoluted this past July when the US agreed to help Turkey oust ISIS forces in Syria along the Turkish border in exchange for allowing America’s military to launch airstrikes against ISIS from its Incirlik Air Base. As soon as the agreement was signed, Turkey began shelling both IS and Kurdish targets.

Today, we have a revolutionary crisis in a regional system that is bankrupt. We are trying to make a defunct system work again. We are abandoning the people. We need to look at the situation through the lens of the people’s lives and needs, and be realistic about the roles of non-state actors. Democracy is not the goal, stability is the goal, he said.

US and Iran

Dr. Filiu concluded that France and the US have 3 major conflicts to address: Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Concerning the US-Iran nuclear agreement, Dr. Filiu said, “The US wants this deal too much; you have to read the footnotes to see what is being given away.” France has dealt with Iran many years longer than the US has, he continued, and that experience gives the French no confidence in the agreement.

US and Syria

Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian disaster of our time, yet the US has kept its focus on the IS and articulated no clear policy regarding Syria. Granted, divisions between Syrian anti-government secular and Islamist fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict, but the civil war has killed over 300,000 people and displaced 7.6 million people. Horrific human rights violations have characterized Syria’s reign of terror. The US did not help Syria rid itself of government-prescribed terror. The fact is that the Arab world is being reshaped by these non-state actors, and, without a policy, the US will not have a foothold in the new Arab world.

US and Israel-Palestine

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been allowed to fester for far too long, Dr. Filiu said. It is unreasonable to expect a solution from the countries. “They seem to be saying, ‘Impose a solution on us. We cannot do it ourselves,’ ” he observed. France has asked the United Nations (UN) to set a deadline for recognzing Palestine. If Israel and Palestine do not come to an agreement before the deadline, the UN could impose a solution.

The Middle East: Part Three (Stéphane Lacroix)

Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po University in Paris, a researcher at the Center of International Studies (CERI) and an associate researcher at the Centre de d’Etudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales (CEDEJ) in Cairo, Egypt. He is a permanent consultant to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the author of numerous books on Middle Eastern affairs, including: Les islamistes saoudiens: une insurrection manqué; Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia; L’Egypte en Révolutions; and Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change, among others.

Dr. Lacroix characterized the 2011 Arab Spring as a profound moment for political freedom, a rebellion against the long-standing and harsh authoritarian regimes in the region. Leaders of the Arab Spring rebellions were diverse; some were secular, others religious, but all wanted a new political model and shared a belief in a pluralistic democratic system.

As rebellion spread, authoritarian reaction by the regimes escalated to combat these changes. Eventually, the authoritarian dictators (for example, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya) were overthrown, but their systems remained. What looked like change on the surface deteriorated into a new façade for the old counter-revolutionary structures.

Mideast Fault Lines

Several fault lines have broken open in the Middle East as a result of these conflicts. Some countries, for example, Turkey and Qatar, support the revolutionaries and favor particular non-state actors. Other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are providing weapons, money, and resources to support the authoritarian status quo. A second fault line runs between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where each country supports those non-state actors that are sympathetic to them. President Assad transformed the Syrian revolution into a civil war by heightening sectarian feelings.

As these fault lines fractured, the states lost authority. Repression produces radicalism and militarization. If rebels cannot change things politically, they will resort to arms. State failures left a territorial vacuum of power. And non-state actors such as the Jihadists of ISIS, ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), and Al-Qaeda have emerged to try to fill that void.

ISIS vs. Al-Qaeda

Today, ISIS and Al-Qaeda are competing with each other to attract insurgents, and Dr. Lacroix illustrated the differences between the 2 groups. ISIS is more sectarian, pitting Sunnis against the Shia Muslims, whereas Al-Qaeda is not sectarian and seeks to unify all Muslims against the West.

While the pair differ in their methods, their goal is the same, establishing caliphates with strict adherence to Muslim strictures. Al-Qaeda’s modus operandi is to change the balance of power, win the guerrilla war first, and then establish caliphates. ISIS, in contrast, seeks to weaken and eventually destroy the Middle East states, by fueling sectarian conflicts, pitting Sunnis against Shia Muslims, and so they can establish a new state and then export the revolution.

The choice between authoritarianism or ISIS is not the only option for Middle East states. Dr. Lacroix pointed out that Tunisia is a case in point. Tunisia created a multi-pluralistic regime, where multiple parties participated in writing a new constitution. But as subsequent events demonstrated, Tunisia is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and this fear is driving the government to adopt more authoritarian measures. If the Tunisian economy weakens, ISIS may be able to recruit new adherents and destabilize this country as well.

Discussion

Sen. Ryan McDougle (VA): The US will have a new President in January 2017. What should the new President do to improve the situation in the Middle East?

Dr. Cook: “Salvage” is needed. Putting “warheads on foreheads” is not a solution. Killing more people does not help the situation. America could cut military assistance to Egypt, but this will have no effect on President Sisi’s regime. The US could help Tunisia financially, but how much would it cost to stabilize the economy for 10-million Tunisians? The US could salvage Iraq and recognize an independent Kurdish state in North Iraq. But the reality is that this is a regional problem where the US is not a key actor. The next President will face the same problems in the Middle East and be confronted with the same conflicting options.

Dr. Filiu: January 2017 is a bit over a year away, and catastrophies can happen in the meantime. My advice is to listen to the French, support Tunisia, and trust Turkey.

Sen. Robert Stivers (KY): The US has more fossil-fuel resources than the Middle East, so we should exploit our own resources. Why should we worry about the Middle East? We are involved to help keep oil flowing to our allies, but the return to us on our investment is minimal. Why shouldn’t we just let Europe worry about its own security?

Dr. Filiu: If the US wants isolation, then they should get out of the Middle East and let the Turks and the EU deal with the situation. The Middle East was conceptualized by America. Today, the EU is looking to the US for help in resolving this crisis.

Dr. Cook: There have been historical cycles of isolationism in the US. After the 1960s Vietnam era, Americans wanted to pull back. There is a natural tendency to want to pull back after big interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan. But the US cannot pull back. Today, we are part of a global energy market; we are not separate from it. In addition, we want our allies to be successful; consider, for example, the energy needs of India’s 1-billion people. We have to multi-lateralize the security of the Persian Gulf. We also have responsibilities to our allies in the EU to protect them from the threats posed by ISIS and Russia. National self-interest dictates that we support the stability and security of the globe.

Sen. Troy Fraser (TX): The US does not know who the good guys and the bad guys are in the Middle East. We used to be pro-Assad, and now we are against him. We cannot decide who we should help. The world asks the US to be the policeman but then our allies will not help us in Russia and China.

Dr. Filiu: Actually, France was ready to join in the fight against ISIS, but then President Barack Obama gave a speech that did not mention France’s participation. This was seen as a betrayal and is still hurting. Saudi Arabia started an oil price war that was aimed at Russia, but this affected the EU as well as the US. The Saudis would not have started the price war if they did not feel threatened. The problem is trust between America and its partners. The best partners in the Middle East are the people, not the regimes.

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia (PR): Is there any possibility of back-room discussion with ISIS or with ISIS cells? Is there any chance to negotiate and understand who the players are and what they want? Or do we simply not talk and bomb them? Could further terrorist activities come to the US?

Dr. Lacroix: ISIS does not want to talk with the West. Their only communications are through brutal beheadings and slavery. Their strategy is to fuel terror. Eventually, even very radical groups can normalize. Two centuries ago, Saudi Arabia was like ISIS.

Dr. Cook: The US could get trapped in a war on terror. But the ISIS strategy is to take territory, establish a regime, and take advantage of failing states’ weaknesses. They are not so interested in America. US bombs will only add to the instability, and we have to consider the cost to our own society.

Sen. Susan Wagle (KS): Would you recommend a current-events blog that accurately reports what’s happening?

Dr. Cook: The Council of Foreign Affairs blogs are reliable, including my blog, “From the Potomac to the Euphrates.”

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): Turkey’s stability has been maintained by a secular military regime that has been able to contain extremism in Turkey. Will this continue? What will be the effect of Turkish Kurds joining an independent Kurdish state?

Dr. Filiu: The EU and the US have not treated Turkey with sufficient respect. And Turkey has been a stabilizing force in the region. It is an institutionalized, democratic state. There needs to be a peace process within Turkey between the central government and the Kurds, and  the Turks have to reconcile with their own Kurdish people. The largest Kurdish population in the world resides in Istanbul. There needs to be a Turkish-Kurdish coalition for the future to stabilize Turkey and the region.

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): After World War I, the US and its allies imposed a map on the Middle East region. How has that contributed to today’s problems?

Dr. Filiu: The Middle East plan imposed after the first World War was a disaster for self-determination. Today, people are fighting for their freedom within these boundaries, but the boundaries are not being redrawn.The institutions will change from the bottom up, however.

Mr. Tom Finneran (Moderator): Why is President Obama’s administration so eager to make the Iran nuclear deal?

Dr. Cook: The hope is that Iran will be an ally in stabilizing the Middle East. Some experts predict that some portion of the $150 billion that Iran stands to gain will be used to extend Iran’s gains in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and with the Hezbollah. These funds will give them the means to advance their agenda.

Dr. Filiu: Ayatollahs actually run Iran, and they were not included in the negotiations concerning the Iran nuclear deal. This could lead to big problems in implementation. The ayatollahs run the Shia military and they are behind destabilizing the region. The Iran deal is not being signed by the real actors.

Dr. Lacroix: Sunni resentment has fueled the rise of ISIS. The deal with Iran to remove sanctions will boost Iran’s economy and will also be seen as another Shia triumph, adding fuel to the ISIS movement.

Speaker Biographies

Steven A. Cook

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Cook is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford University Press, Fall 2011), which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's gold medal in 2012, and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

Dr. Cook has published widely in foreign policy journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers, and he is a frequent commentator on radio and television. He also currently writes the blog, "From the Potomac to the Euphrates."

Prior to joining CFR, Dr. Cook was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution (2001–2002) and a Soref research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1995–96).

Dr. Cook holds a BA in international studies from Vassar College, an MA in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and both an MA and PhD in political science from the University of Pennsylvania. He speaks Arabic and Turkish and reads French.

Jean-Pierre Filiu

Jean-Pierre Filiu, a historian and an arabist, is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po University, Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He teaches at Sciences Po since 2006 and has been an associate to the CERI since 2009. He has held visiting professorships both at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and at Georgetown School of Foreign Service (SFS).

He served also as an adviser to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (2000-2002), to the Minister of Defense (1991-93), and to the Minister of Interior (1990-91). Prof. Filiu was a career diplomat from 1988 to 2006, following humanitarian missions in Afghanistan (1986) and Lebanon (1983-84). He was assigned to Amman, before becoming Deputy Chief of Mission in Damascus and Tunis.

His book Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2011) was awarded the main prize by the French History Convention. His works and articles about contemporary Islam and the Arab world have been published in a dozen languages. Prof. Filiu also wrote the script of Best of Enemies, a graphic novel about US in the Middle East (the first of three volumes is already out with Self Made Hero). His Arab Revolution, ten lessons from the democratic uprising was published in 2011 by Hurst (London) and Oxford University Press (New York).

Stéphane Lacroix

Stéphane Lacroix is an associate professor of political science at Sciences Po Paris, a researcher at the Center of International Studies (CERI) and an associate researcher at the Centre de d’Etudes et de Documentation Economiques, Juridiques et Sociales (CEDEJ) in Cairo. He is also a permanent consultant with the policy planning staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2008-2009, he was a post-doctoral scholar at Stanford University. Mr. Lacroix holds an MSc in mathematics area from Paris VI (in 2000), an MA in Arabic language and civilization from INALCO (2002), an MA in comparative politics from Sciences Po (2003) and obtained his PhD in political science from Sciences Po (2007).

His articles have appeared in the Middle East Journal, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of Democracy, Politique Etrangère, Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée, Pouvoirs, etc.

Stéphane Lacroix is the author of a number of books including: Les islamistes saoudiens: une insurrection manquée (Presses Universitaires de France, 2010), Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia (Harvard University Press, 2011), The Meccan Rebellion (Amal Press, 2011 - with Thomas Hegghammer), L'Egypte en Révolutions (Presses Universitaires de France, 2015 - co-directed by Bernard Rougier) and Saudi Arabia in Transition: Insights on Social, Political, Economic and Religious Change (Cambridge University Press, 2015 - co-directed by Thomas Hegghammer and Bernard Haykel).

Other Foreign Relations articles:

Dr. Steven Cook

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for
Middle Eastern Studies

Council on Foreign Relations

 

There was relative stability in the Middle East until a cascade of failures created a power vacuum, thereby opening the way for competing organizations to ramp up their bids for control. Now everything is changing.

 

Without national leadership, people revert to their regional identities and religious loyalties.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Filiu

Professor of Middle East Stuides

Sciences Po University, Paris
School of International Affairs

Center of International Studies

 

“Who controls the Middle East controls the world.”

 — Alfred Thayer Mahan (1902)

 

You cannot correct one mistake with another. ‘The middle way,’ based on politics and diplomacy, has the best chance to achieve stability in the Middle East.

 

Today, we have a revolutionary crisis in a regional system that is bankrupt. We are trying to make a defunct system work again. We are abandoning the people. We need to look at the situation through the lens of the people’s lives and needs, and be realistic about the roles of non-state actors. Democracy is not the goal; stability is the goal.

 

The Arab world is being reshaped by non-state actors, and, without a policy, the US will not have a foothold in the new Arab world.

Dr. Stéphane Lacroix

Associate Professor of Political Science

Sciences Po University

Researcher at the Center of International Studies (CERI)

 

Leaders of the Arab Spring rebellions were diverse; some were secular, others religious, but all wanted a new political model and shared a belief in a pluralistic democratic system.

Sen. Ryan McDougle

Sen. Robert Stivers

Sen. Troy Fraser

Sen. Eduardo Bhatia

Sen. Susan Wagle

Sen. Martin Looney

Tom Finneran

Dr. Steven A. Cook

Dr. Jean-Pierre Filiu

Dr. Stéphane Lacroix

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