Current Challenges and Opportunities for U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Published Apr 22, 2022

by Chuck Hagel, Ryan C. Crocker, Howard Berman, Linda Robinson

The RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy (CMEPP) hosted a roundtable conversation featuring former U.S. Secretary of Defense and RAND Board of Trustees member Chuck Hagel, Ambassador (ret.) and Chair of the CMEPP Advisory Board Ryan Crocker, Former Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of the CMEPP Advisory Board Howard Berman, Esq., and CMEPP Director Linda Robinson. These panelists explored the challenges and opportunities for U.S. policy in the Middle East 20 years after 9/11.


Linda Robinson

I'm Linda Robinson. I'm the director of RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy.

First, the ground rules. The event's on the record, and we will hold a conversation among our panelists for the first half of the program and then we'll open up to your questions and comments. We invite you, those of you who are attending virtually, to send in your questions via the Q&A function. You may do this throughout the program. And Ashley Rhoades, our defense analyst, will help us field these questions both in the room and virtually.

I'm joined in this conversation, in person, by Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense and U.S. senator, senior member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. We're honored to have him here. And virtually, we also have Ambassador— retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is former ambassador to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. We're also joined by Howard Berman, former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and longtime congressman. You have their full bios in your invitation, and they provide a snapshot of their incredibly deep experience in both practice and policy in the region.

I would be remiss if I didn't note also the key roles they play at RAND. In the case of Chuck Hagel as a RAND trustee, and in the case of Ryan Crocker and Howard Berman as chair and vice chair of the advisory board for our Middle East center.

So one of our motivations for holding this session was to reflect on lessons from the past 20 years and ones that may inform the future course of U.S. policy. Over the summer, with Secretary Hagel, we discussed some of the key inflection points, your travels in the region, including one extensive fact-finding trip in 2002. And you traveled with then-Senator Joe Biden as the debate over Iraq was being waged. And among your meetings were with Jordan's King Abdullah, Ariel Sharon, Barham Salih, Masoud Barzani, as well as Assad and Erdogan, who had just come— had just been victorious in the elections that would then lead to him becoming prime minister of Turkey. So this is just a brief illustration of how much time you've spent in and on the region.

The other motivation for this gathering is: we're eight months into the Biden administration, and it's framed its overall foreign policy approach and its approach to the Middle East as one of prioritizing the use of diplomacy as a, quote, "tool of first resort" and seeking to recalibrate U.S. security posture to reduce the reliance on the use of force. Among the rationales are to husband resources for other domestic and foreign priorities and borderless threats like climate, cyber, and the pandemic following two long-term, large-scale military interventions in the region.

We've framed our topic today very broadly as identifying both challenges and opportunities. The overarching challenge is how to recalibrate successfully and still protect U.S. interests, deter adversaries, and manage or mitigate those conflicts that do impinge on U.S. interests. Do we have an adequate approach to doing this yet? Or what is missing? We also want to explore the opportunities that may exist. And finally, since two of our panelists have deep experience in Congress and in bipartisan endeavors, we want to discuss the role of Congress at this juncture and what it might contribute to regional policy.

So I'd like to start here for a first few minutes with Secretary Hagel to provide your view of the adjustments in the U.S. approach and posture in the region and what relationships you think we need to rely on there. We have roughly 40,000 troops in the region, the largest in Qatar and Al Udeid and Bahrain, and smaller numbers in an array of missions spanning security cooperation, counterterrorism, and advise-and-assist missions. The administration has completed a global posture review, and to date, it's moved rather cautiously, I think will be fair to say. It has suspended— ended support to offensive Saudi operations in Yemen and more recently withdrawn the THAAD and Patriot anti-missile systems, including from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. So I just open with the very broad question about whether the threats that you think matter most right now and are we postured well, or do you think we need some adjustments?

Chuck Hagel

Well, first, Linda, thank you. And I want to thank RAND for hosting this and all of your years of leadership and good work in the general arena of foreign policy. It's impressive. And so it's a pleasure, privilege to be with you. My friends, Ryan Crocker and Howard Berman, thank you for your long, long service. It's impressive. I'm not an expert on Middle East. Howard and Ryan are. And so I especially appreciate being included in this conversation with them.

I think your question really is an important and fundamental question as we look out over the next few years and start to examine our foreign policy, project our influence, our power, our interests, recognizing the threats. I think I would start with something that President Biden said a couple of months ago. That this is not 2001. We are 20 years away from 2001. What does that mean? Well, like everything in life, yesterday is gone. Today is gone. Everything is about tomorrow and projecting ahead. Where are the threats? It's a different world, totally different world. China was not in the same category, however you want to define China, as a competitor, as a threat. That's totally different. Europe is totally different. Not just Brexit, but everything that's going on there. I think every Western democracy is in some state of uncertainty, of volatility. And that wasn't the case 20 years ago. Certainly the Middle East is more dangerous; it's more uncertain, and it presents more challenges to us and our allies.

That gets us to Afghanistan. And the decision—not just the decision President Biden made, the decision President Trump made. And even before that, in 2014, when I was Secretary of Defense, I presided over the ending of American combat role in Afghanistan. We brought home tens of thousands of American troops, closed hundreds of bases. And what President Obama said, this is the beginning of our exit. But yet it kind of stopped. He wanted options for how many troops we leave behind. He took one of our three options, 8,500 troops if the allies will keep 5,000. But then it just, everything kind of stopped. And I think that's the story of Afghanistan. And I don't want to get too deep into that right now; I know we'll get into that, and stay with the theme of your question, the bigger issue. But I think, and I'd say this about Iraq. I mean, Ryan Crocker is as expert on this as anybody since he was the ambassador in both places. We lost our way in both of those countries. What was our role in Afghanistan after 20— is this nation building? The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting story today that I recommend to all of you, and it focuses on what happened in Afghanistan. Well, you can go into the specifics. It's complicated.

And again, I don't want to take my time just on that, but let me use the Afghanistan point and experience as an example of where I think our foreign policy over the last 20 years has been muddled. And one of the reasons is that we have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. We've not learned a lot of lessons that at first you've got to understand—or try to understand as best you can—the history of a country, the culture of a country, the tribalism, the religion, the dynamics of a country. It isn't just, "well, we'll use the military, and we'll shock and awe, and we'll go in there and kick the hell out of them, and we'll make democracies out of them." That's folly. That's never happening. You don't impose democracies on countries that have never had any semblance of a democracy. Doesn't mean they can't or won't. That's up to them. It's not up to the United States. And I think we somehow lost our understanding, and maybe we never tried. It was all about understanding of history. And I think it was all about our interest only. The world is interconnected. We couldn't be the country we are, the power we project, the power we have diplomatically, militarily, economically, without allies, without alliances, without NATO. If we didn't have allies that allowed to use their bases. And you mentioned some of them in the Middle East, but they're all over the world, those bases. I mean, we'd be lost. We'd be lost. And I think we've tended to get lost in our understanding of all of that. And you can't just, "because we're America, we're bigger, better, brighter, tougher and we're going to go in there and shock and awe everybody." And we've seen what's happened after 20 years in Afghanistan and in Iraq.

So I will end with this. I think Biden's review of our national security strategy, which has to incorporate diplomacy, he's focused on leading with that. I think that's exactly right. You can't put the military in a position to do it all. The military can't do it all. It's very unfair to the military. But you've got to use all your elements of government and diplomatic dynamics, economy, trade, military. And I like the way President Biden is essentially reviewing this. He's taken some bold steps. The world— life is uncertain. I mean, if anybody tells me that they know exactly what to do and what not to do in Afghanistan or Iraq, in the Middle East, or how to deal with China, I shake my head and laugh at them. I've never met anybody that smart. It's all uncertain. It's all volatile. And especially in a world where we got about seven billion people totally interdependent on each other. I mean, the economy is dependent on the environment. I mean, look at the consequences of this pandemic health issue. Trade backed up. Supply lines backed up. It's changed everything in the world. So I think what's most important? The bottom line for me is that Biden's review of this, and this is from a person who knows foreign policy. He's got 50 years of experience. That doesn't mean he's right on everything. Doesn't mean he's smarter. But it's a focus that he's had all his career, and I think it's at the right time— we need that. We need that kind of review. Intelligent review.

Linda Robinson

Thank you. We'll, I'm sure, come back to some of these broad points that you've made, and we're clearly in the post–post-9/11 period. We're weighting the Biden National Security Strategy and some other markers, as well as, I would say, a fully fleshed out view of the Middle East policy.

But there is one point, and I'll now just ask you two specific questions about some of the— what could be the priorities, and the one declared priority of the administration in the region, which is Iran. And the attempt to use diplomacy and get back into the JCPOA. And we have— I think there was some early speculation that Tehran would move back to the accord fairly quickly. Clearly, that's not going to happen. In fact, the Iranian foreign minister just indicated they want to see some sanctions relief before moving ahead. The basic question here is whether you think diplomacy can produce a result in this case, perhaps given the common interest in counterproliferation that still remains among the original parties to the accord, including Russia and China. But we see Iran proceeding with increased enrichment, staking out a pretty tough position, just if on the IAEA in terms of an inspection request. The— Raisi seems to be taking a pretty hard line. So I'd just like your view on what you think the path ahead for Iran and the US can be?

Chuck Hagel

Well, I don't know what the path ahead is, but I think the administration is right—and I think smart—in pursuing putting the JCPOA back together. Engagement is critical. Because there's only one alternative to engagement; that's conflict. You always have to make an effort. And I think what's critical now, as much as any time certainly in the history of our country, is that you do that with the support of alliances and allies. Critically important. I think allies are as important today and into the future as any time in our history.

It was— we should go back again and study a little history, and we seem to always not do that. Why did we build the world that we built after World War II? It was built on, as much as anything, one thing: common interests. So we built a world with the United Nations; IMF; World Bank; General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, now the WTO; collective security, NATO; others. And why was that? Well, it was a common-interest recognition that if we were going to eliminate possibility of a World War III and nuclear exchange, then we had to engage. But we had to engage on the basis of common interest. We weren't going to solve it all. The United Nations can't solve it all. But unless you build a platform where you can agree on certain things, whether— we can agree with Russia on certain things. And China. Then you'll never get to the big disagreements. And it will get worse and worse, and something will happen. And something very dangerous will happen. In a hair-triggered world that we live in today, when you've got so many dynamics, and cyber—it's probably as big a threat to our security as anything—you can't let that get out of control. And so I think we need to review history a little bit.

It's a different time, yes. But two words come to mind here: adaptability and adjustability. You have to adapt and adjust all the time in life. We do that in our personal lives. We do that in every facet of our life, because things change. Sometimes they get better, sometimes they get worse, but it's always projecting ahead. And if you don't adapt, and if you don't adjust, you're going to be left behind. And it will create a dangerous world. Look at the Middle East. Look at the Middle East. It hasn't gotten better in the last 20 years. And we went into Iraq, President Bush saying we will make Iraq a model democracy, and democracies will flourish in the Middle East. Vice President Cheney said, "We will be greeted as liberators." Well, Ryan and Howard know, in December of 2008, President Bush had to sign an agreement with Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq to withdraw all American forces, because Maliki said to the president, "We see you as occupiers. I'm not going to take a status of forces agreement to the Iraqi parliament to protect your troops." President Bush had no choice. And so those are examples, Linda, of what I'm talking about and how you project, in my opinion.

Linda Robinson

So I hear you clearly saying military isn't the tool that we need to use. But Iran, I think, will come back in conversation. You mentioned cyber. They're very active in a number of ways in the region, and I think it certainly is posing an ongoing challenge for this administration. Let me—

Chuck Hagel

Well, the point there is you've got to engage. You've got to try. And remember—and you mentioned it—all the signatories to that deal. China and Russia were part of that. We've still got everybody on board there. It's an interest— in the interests, common interest of everybody to get that deal done. Now, of course the Iranians are going to respond the way they are. Of course, I mean, why are we surprised by that? We want less sanctions and so on and so on. Of course they're going to respond. But if you fail to engage, if you fail to try to find a way—Ryan Crocker, his whole life has been about what I'm talking about. To find a way to do it, it has to be backed up with strength. It has to be backed up with a strong military. The other side has to know you've got that, and you'll use that if you have to use it. But be smart in how you approach it.

Linda Robinson

Let me ask you one last question for a quick comment on Syria, because that's one area where we don't really have a very, I would say, not a strategy. We have retained some forces there trying to keep the door closed on an ISIS resurgence and trying to provide humanitarian access and some hope for a cease fire. But I don't think we're— we're really, I think, on the back foot from my standpoint, with Russia having been a primary actor there in support of Assad consolidation of territory. And then you have Turkey being involved along the border recently, striking at some Kurdish units and also holding the fort in Idlib, I would say somewhat precariously. So is there a role for the U.S. There? You wrestled a lot with it as SecDef. What do you think should be done there?

Chuck Hagel

Well, I think our role— our influence there has been basically eliminated. And I think it began, whether it was a right decision or a wrong decision, when President Obama refused to go forward in dealing with the Syrians and the chemical weapons— use of chemical weapons. When he said there's a red line, this is what this means. And we had options, and he didn't do that. I think that was a pretty clear sign to the Russians that the United States isn't even gonna play here. They don't have the stomach to do this. And as you know, when that happened, the Russians only had this small little naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. That's their only involvement. The Russians had been shut out of the Middle East, basically, for 30–40 years. And that gave them an opening and an option to get back in, and they took it big time. Then you've got the Kurds; you've got some special operations— American operations, troops still in Syria protecting the Kurds; the Turks; you've got always Hezbollah and Iranian influence swirling around in this mix. So I think our options there are very limited.

I would say that what we need to do in Syria— and Ryan Crocker is a specialist in this. When I first met Ryan Crocker, he was the ambassador to Syria. So he knows Syria very, very well. But we've got to come at Syria, I think, because of the limitations of our ability and our power and our position there, but also all the countries in that area on a regional basis. You deal with each individual country, because each individual country is a little different. Saudi Arabia is different from the UAE, Qatar, [inaudible]. And you can't minimize the personality of each country, but it has to be seen, I think, on a regional basis. What are our strategic interests? What are we prepared to do and not do? Starting with committing troops. I mean, I think that winds us back to Afghanistan. I mean, one of the reasons that Biden has said that he went— continued to go forward with the exit was it's a changed world. Our capabilities and capacities now are different to deal with terrorism. This is a problem for Iran, too. Pakistan, too. And Russia's looking at this in Central Asia. So we're not alone in this deal. And I think we've got to be smart enough to understand that and then factor that into our larger strategic interest in diplomacy.

Linda Robinson

Thank you so much. I want to bring Ryan into the conversation next, to be followed by Howard. Ryan, welcome. And we have both of you here virtually, and we're delighted. We wanted to have this in person. But everyone's, I guess, used to the virtual and hybrid world now.

So Ryan, I know that you have been very eloquently speaking and writing on the topic, but I'd like to ask you to summarize for us your views about the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal on the region. What do you see as the current and near-term consequences? And welcome.

Ryan Crocker

Thanks for having me, Linda. It's a pleasure to be here and, in particular, a pleasure to listen to Secretary Hagel. I wrote down just about every word because that covers not just the Middle East waterfront, but the global one.

In terms of Afghanistan and the region, I'm picking up just where Secretary Hagel left off. He mentioned Iran and Pakistan—both, of course, states that border Afghanistan. The Pakistanis, I think, when we executed—if you can call it that—our final withdrawal, probably had about 15 minutes of high-fiving around the corridors of power in Islamabad and Rawalpindi because this was their great "I told you so" moment. When I was ambassador there in the mid-2000s and would press them repeatedly on controlling or eliminating the Taliban sheltering in Pakistan, the answer I got back, distilled down, was: "Look, we're happy to work with you on al Qaeda. We don't like them either. But we know you Americans, you're going to pull out sooner or later, because that's what you do. You did that to us once before, after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, where the U.S. and Pakistan were such effective partners. So you're going to do it again, and we're not going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy."

So their strategic judgment was vindicated for about 15 minutes, and now they're scared. We've had some quiet consultations with them at their request. How can we contain the fallout from Afghanistan? There's something called the Pakistani Taliban. They don't aim at the liberation of Afghanistan; they aim at the liberation of Pakistan. You may have seen the public statements a few days ago from the imam of the Red— the famous, notorious Red Mosque in the Rawalpindi/Islamabad area that has defied government control and taken up arms against them but is still there in the capital area. He said he's never had better days than now. "The Taliban have shown the way. Let us march forward clad only in the armor of the one true faith."

You know, Pakistan—can't remember the numbers exactly—sixth most populous nation, seventh largest standing army, eighth nuclear weapon power. If Pakistan starts to shake apart, that's a global crisis. And what has happened—what we did, frankly—in Afghanistan has increased the odds that they're going to face those dangers.

Next door in Iran. Well, they had their, you know, 15 minutes of celebration. The Great Satan got one in the shops on this one. And now they're scared. Because they almost went to war with the Taliban in 1999— '98–'99. There just isn't room in the Middle East for a Sunni Islamic Emirate and a Shi'a Islamic State. This is doctrinal and it's existential. So— and the irony there, of course, is that during a relatively brief post-9/11 period, we actually had a pretty constructive dialog going with the Iranians focused on Afghanistan. Well, we're back to that again. I wouldn't look to the same, the same outcome. So this defeat of the United States by the Taliban—and that's the optic. You know, the narrative is far more complicated, but that's the optic globally.

So we're going to have a mess on our hands going forward, if we choose to lead. And I guess that would be my final point. That applies globally, and it applies in the Middle East. We have now been questioning whether the U.S. should continue to be that post–World War II leader that we had been. Secretary Hagel talked about the institutions we furthered to make the aftermath of World War II radically different than the aftermath of World War I. That's 20 years between two world wars when the U.S. was not leading. So will we lead, or won't we? President Biden talked the talk. What he has done, sadly, in the international arena, has been quite the opposite. A full withdrawal from Afghanistan taken without any meaningful coordination with our NATO allies. Not a great way to reaffirm U.S. leadership. So both regionally and I think globally, we are entering a period of real crisis and really significant security challenges for us and globally. And thus far, the Biden administration, quite frankly, has been a little less than impressive.

Linda Robinson

Let me ask you, Ryan. Thank you so much for your comments. I want to really draw you into what this means for the region, what leading in the region with allies and partners. And that would be the Middle East region as we define it here. We do Middle East, North Africa, obviously Afghanistan proximate, and cannot— the spillover can't be ignored. But I'd really like to ask you what your formula—and since we're looking at what the diplomatic tools as well as the military tools—might be. And I'm going to put you on this spot with regard to Iraq. Because there is, it seems to me, some effort there to try to define an ongoing presence of military and a security cooperation mode. And very importantly, to flesh out the strategic framework of 2011, which you negotiated prior to the withdrawal. Is there a way forward there, or is that a pipe dream? Or do you not consider it important?

Ryan Crocker

Yeah, in a sense, Iraq is a great poster figure for the whole— the region and beyond the region. Yes, I negotiated the 2008 agreement. That was at the time envisioned to be the forerunner of a renewed agreement, which the Obama administration unfortunately decided they didn't really want. But that does not negate the framework agreement of 2008. And indeed, we've seen Iraqis, as well as Americans, refer back to that. And I think that's important.

Again, as Secretary Hagel says, we've got to understand the history. Iraq has a considerable one. But just even looking at the last 100 years. How, as Secretary Hagel alluded, how the United States was seen in Iraqi eyes basically as the successor of Britain, the occupying power that had the Iraq mandate after World War I. We may see ourselves as liberators. That is not how the region sees us based on their own direct experience. So I think there is an opportunity now to work with the Iraqi government to understand that in large part, thanks to our own actions and not working to sustain a more robust presence, that that government is going to have to deal with Iran. So we kind of need to get used to that if we're going to have an effective role at all in Iraq.

I can tell you the one way not to have an effective role is to lay down a set of conditions on the Iraqi government vis-à-vis their relationship with Iran because they can't do it. So I think there's an opportunity here again for some wise, well-informed diplomacy based on a pretty good understanding of Iraq's own past. The Iranians would do well to do the same thing. There was that nasty little episode of the 1980–88 Iraq–Iran War. Most Americans have forgotten it, but the peoples of those two countries will not. Cannot. I mention it because, for both countries, it will be a huge factor in the relationship. Iraq is Arab. Its people speak Arabic and Kurdish. Iran is Persian. They speak Farsi over there. A huge cultural, historical, social gulf. So we just need to be smart about it. The Iranians cannot run the show in Iraq. If they're smart, they'll realize it— realize that there is an interest here in long-term stability that benefits everyone. And we may get into a long-term managed situation in which we're not basing troops in Iraq, but in which Iraq becomes gradually an element of stability instead of its historical role as a creator of conflict and instability going forward.

Linda Robinson

Thank you so much. And I hope we'll— in the question period, someone will draw you out on Iran, because I think that's the other hope for diplomatic opportunity.

Howard Berman, I want to bring you into the conversation now. And Congress has been perhaps somewhat surprisingly active on a few fronts with regard to the Middle East, even though it's been logjammed on many other accounts. I want to first ask you about the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act that was signed in December. And that legislation funded both people-to-people as well as economic development for Palestinians and an effort to try to keep some bridge and some positive movement in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that has been so fraught. And it has proceeded into some degree of implementation, as I understand it, despite the Gaza conflict. But could you give us your view about what is the potential of this piece of legislation, where you think it might go? Thank you.

Howard Berman

Thanks, Linda, and happy and honored to be on the same panel with the secretary and the ambassador.

First, a little perspective. Right now in the Congress, foreign policy is not the primary issue. And on Friday, the federal government closes down, and if there's no continuing resolution sometime in the middle of or late October, the federal government cannot lend any more money unless the debt limit is raised. A bipartisan transportation bill is on the agenda, and a very partisan Build Back Better piece of legislation is interacting with that. And this is what, this particular week in Congress, the Congress is focused on.

But the fact is, foreign policy is still relevant. In some cases, like China, one part of our— of the interest in China is related to our own economic situation. And of course, there is the aftermath and the future of the decision to leave Afghanistan, which is— I think, in fact, today and tomorrow, I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of Central Command are both coming to Congress to testify on this issue.

But one interesting note is the normalization legislation. It's coming up later this week on Thursday for a hearing in markup. It is an effort— I won't go into detail on the description of it, but if you want to read an excellent paper on the potential for the normalization process, RAND—with Linda as one of the coauthors—put one out back in March, which really holds true. And it has gotten more energy and more momentum since that paper was written. For many Democrats in the Congress, normalization was Trump's way of dealing with the, of the fact that his effort to create the great peace agreement between, for Israel, and with Israel and the Palestinians, wasn't going to happen. And many people were very skeptical about it. One, for the tradeoffs that were made to get it. And secondly, because it was a Trump administration effort. And on the Democratic side, those are not— those were troublesome concerns for many Democrats in the Congress.

What has happened now is legislation has been introduced that is bipartisan, that puts normalization between Israel, the Arab countries, and other Muslim countries as a high priority for the Congress. And is marking up that legislation, as I mentioned, on Thursday. Most of it is related to things that are expected of the administration in terms of reports and activities going forward on this issue. But one interesting—particularly at this time—part of this is this is a bipartisan effort. And while some people thought normalization was an effort to help Israel out of having them to deal with the Palestinians, the House version of this legislation specifically puts the relationship with the Palestinians and the goal of two states as— and the goal of two states into the legislative effort. And it is a bipartisan piece of legislation in a time when you're not seeing a lot of bipartisan legislative efforts. The sponsor, representative Brad Schneider of Illinois. But the two chief co-sponsors are the chair, Greg Meeks, and the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul.

And in effect, incorporated within the framework of that is a statement of support that part of normalization includes two states for two people. So this legislation is moving. One major part of it is to implement something that the RAND board heard a little bit about last May. The Nita Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace program, which appropriates over the first two years of a $500 million authorization divided equally between Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people programs and the other half of that 500 million going, over five years, to help economic development startups, training, work— bolster the Palestinian economy. Make it something more meaningful. A level of independence through partnerships, in many cases with Israel. And this is also a piece of legislation which passed at the last moment in Congress last year, when Trump was still the president, on a huge bipartisan vote. And implementing that is a fundamental part of what this normalization process legislation is dealing with.

So— just take— there was a feeling— it started before President Trump was elected. It started back when Prime Minister Netanyahu sort of directly confronted the U.S. administration on the issue of Iran and invited to speak by— and came to speak in order to oppose and push strongly against our joining the JCPOA. From that developed a feeling that for the Democrats—and particularly, I'd say, the Democrats in the House—the bipartisan traditional support for Israel without regard to political party or other ideological differences was challenged. This legislation, some of these efforts now are showing that more was made of that at the time than turns out to be true. You folks know what happened with the Iron Dome issue last week, and what you're seeing now is more bipartisan efforts.

What's the reason for the change? I have to say, frankly, I think it's a new government in Israel. Not that the new prime minister has views any different on the issue of the Palestinians and statehood for the Palestinians. But because the nature of the coalition, and the tone that's taken, and the focus on economic ties and people-to-people ties, and sort of putting off for the future the issue of negotiating a resolution has sort of become the Israeli policy, which for many of the Democrats in the Congress is much more appreciated than the old policy had been.

Linda Robinson

Howard, thank you so much for that comprehensive update, and I'm glad you covered both the Nita Lowey bill as well as the pending action, it looks like, on the normalization accords. And very interesting, as you point out, that it's a robustly bipartisan effort with two hundred co-sponsors as I understand it.

What I would like to do, because I do want to make this an interactive conversation, I would like to skip the planned second round among the panelists with your agreement and ask—I believe we have Mike Yaffe, our friend from USIP, the U.S. Institute of Peace, who's the vice president for their Middle East and North Africa program—and ask him in as the first discussant here. And then we'll come to questions in the room, and I'll turn over this part of our program to Ashley Rhoades, who will field the comments and questions. Now, I can't be positive we have Mike Yaffe on the audio, but I will pause here, and we'll see if he was able to join us. Thank you.

Mike Yaffe

Yes, thank you, Linda. Can you hear me?

Linda Robinson

Yes, we can hear you. Thank you.

Mike Yaffe

Excellent. Thank you, Linda. And thank you to the three speakers, both for your service to the country in your various capacities, but also for the great wisdom that you bring to this issue as we're all trying to get a better understanding of what is happening in the region and what is the future going to be like and what can be the US role.

You know, when I was thinking about a question, it was, you know, it's easy to go down the list of problems in the Middle East, be it in— from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to the current governance crisis in Tunisia and Yemen and so on. But I was also noticing that in the past year, there has been— as the U.S. has been reducing its role in the Middle East, we've been seeing shifts taking place amongst the parties themselves. As you can infer, as they're adjusting to this shift. And there have been things like, as Congressman Berman mentions, about the Abraham Accords. There is the Libya ceasefire. There was the GCC summit in January where the GCC states patched up a number of their differences. And just last month there was the Baghdad Cooperation and Partnership Conference. And you're seeing a lot more bilaterals taking place amongst parties that were not talking to each other. There have been bilateral visits. And I wonder how the three speakers think about how this shifting dynamic and alignments are taking place in the region and how the best— how the U.S. is best positioned in order to partner with these— the various countries as they reach out towards each other in a cooperative way. And if we have the right tools for doing so. Thank you.

Chuck Hagel

Thank you. I would answer your question by going back to Howard's first comment. And I think the three of us understand what Howard is talking about, and I suspect most of us do, Linda. That is the point that Howard made about foreign policy has— right now is not a major issue in the Congress of the United States. I don't think it's a big issue in our country. We've seen over the years, in the history of America, the ups and downs of how Americans see foreign policy, how they respond to foreign policy. And in elections—and Howard knows this because he won a lot of them—rarely is an election decided on a foreign policy issue. It's economics. It's my family. "Am I doing better or worse? Or my community?" And I think we're in one of those down periods in this country, because you've had the pandemic now for a year and a half, and it's ongoing and still with us. Environmental problems everywhere in this country. Huge environmental issue in the world. "Am I doing as well as I did 10 years ago or five years ago?" I think all of these are realities that most Americans care about, think about.

And then you look at our foreign policy. "My God, two trillion dollars in Afghanistan, hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. I mean, what are you guys doing back there? I mean, you're sending all that money out to these countries, and it's a disaster." And I think there's a lot of that in play. I think that very much drove Trump and Trump's people. And so I would answer, broadly, the question based on that, that I think that it's an up-and-down process in this country on foreign policy.

And when you don't have— and this is an interesting, and I'll make this my last point. Ryan mentioned that Biden came into office talking about foreign policy, that he was going to rebuild our alliances and confer with our allies. And he noted, and he's right: well, on a couple of the specific areas here, he hasn't conferred. And it's pushed our allies away from us. And that means that they question, then, "oh my God, where are we going here? Can we support these people? Can we trust these people? Are we going back to just a prettier look of a new Trump administration? What are we doing here?" So I think you've got to factor all of that in to answer Mike's question. And Howard's point is exactly right. And Ryan. And each of their comments, they weren't specifically addressing this, but I would pull those two dimensions out of the— out of my friends' comments to answer the question.

Linda Robinson

Let Ryan, if you would like, and Howard to have a brief comment, and then we'll turn it to Ashley to take the next questions here in the room.

Ryan Crocker

Well, these are good points. And I think—I know—we are all in agreement here about the potential significance of the Abraham Accords, played down, I think, by the professional peace process establishment because they didn't do it. But it is something, very definitely, that we're going to want to pick up, first just to understand the dynamics that are going on that shape this, and then to look for opportunities to broaden it still further. So very much potential, I think, coming out of those three signed peace treaties between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

More broadly speaking, though, I remain pretty troubled about the U.S. role. I do think President Biden still has time and opportunity. Broadly speaking, I think our traditional alliance partners see in him someone who does understand the importance of foreign and national security policy and understands the role of ally. So I'm not sure that we've seen irreparable damage yet, but we are really going to need to see an administration redefine itself—and I think they can do it—as the leader in this part of the 21st century.

And again, to just go back to what's at stake: after World War I, Woodrow Wilson wanted to play a global role. He had his 14 points that he brought with him to the Versailles talks. Well, the Europeans, particularly France and Britain, were not interested in having the United States play a major role, and certainly not in the Middle East. Isolationist politics caught up with President Wilson. The Senate never ratified the League of Nations. And what did the world get? A two-decade truce—20 years—between two halves of a horrific world war. And the Holocaust.

We took a completely different role post–World War II. As Secretary Hagel alluded, we were the guiding spirit behind the United Nations, NATO, the Bretton Woods agreement to put the world on the dollar standard vis the gold standard. And for decades, we led. That is now in question. And for all of the missteps we've had, the world's gone a good 70-plus years with U.S. leadership globally without another truly global conflict. That looks pretty good compared to what balance of power got you after World War I. So I would say the stakes here are existential. I think that President Biden still has the opportunity to assert not a role of American domination, but American leadership in concert with allies. And I cannot think of a time when that has been more important than it is right now. First, this administration has got to stop digging its own hole ever deeper and find a rally point to show that the U.S. can and will lead, and that is in the interest of global stability.

Howard Berman

The only thing I'd add is, I think Ryan makes— Ryan says something we should listen to. And one big test of all this will be to what extent there becomes a sensible, realistic process for addressing issues involving China and what it's doing, and— in the economic sphere, and potentially in very– with great fear, other spheres as well. And to what extent we can do what we need to do playing a role here. So far, it's not clear that we've accomplished that. But I think it's going to be a very important test.

Ashley Rhoades

OK, great. Well, thank you, Linda, and thank you to all the panelists for such excellent remarks so far. What I'd like to do for the remainder— we have about 20 minutes left, so lots of time for Q&A. What I would like to do is to turn first to those of you in the room to see if there are any questions here, and then I know we have some questions trickling in online. And a quick reminder to those of you who are dialed in on Zoom, we have a very robust showing, so please do feel free to use the Q&A function to put in any questions you might have, and I will read them to the panelists.

But first, if we could turn to the room for any questions, and if you would just briefly identify yourself, a quick introduction when you ask your question. And if you want to direct your question to a certain panelist, please let us know as well. So in the room, do we have any questions? Jeff Martini, if we can start with you.

Jeff Martini

Thanks, Ashley. And thanks to CMEPP. I'm Jeff Martini. I'm one of the Middle East-focused researchers at RAND. I wanted to pick up on a thread that Linda raised, which is: This administration seems to have taken some initial steps in recalibrating relations with really important but somewhat difficult partners, say, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. I think Ryan had brought up, in a historical period, Pakistan. And Linda had mentioned, you know, probably the most visible steps have been vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in limiting enabling of offensive operations in Yemen. We had a smaller step taken by the Biden administration on Egypt, not certifying some of the foreign military financing.

I wonder if the speakers think that the impulse of the administration for recalibrating relations with these partners is the right one. And if there's other steps that need to be taken on this agenda, are we headed in the right direction? What hasn't been done? Thank you.

Linda Robinson

Would you like to go?

Chuck Hagel

Well, thanks for the question. I would just respond this way. I do think, and it's— seems to me it's pretty obvious after eight months of this administration, that this president is reviewing our entire set of relationships in the world. And I suspect that's going to lead to some new strategies in how we use diplomacy, how we use strength. And I think that's wise. It's a different time. And Howard and Ryan have talked about that; I mentioned the same thing about, you know, tomorrow is what it's all about. Not yesterday or today. And things are changing. They're changing rapidly. And I think that is the responsibility of a president in foreign policy. And I think the point that Howard made about some good signs out there about seeing some bipartisanship in tangible legislation that's going forward in the House, especially, I think that's all a good sign.

I think that—again, I go back to a point I made earlier—I mean, this is a president of the United States who has more foreign policy experience than any president we've ever had. 50 years' worth. And it's always been a priority of President Biden's foreign policy. I think what he's got is the reality of the challenges of that office that he's dealing with now. He's got a pandemic blowing in his face. He's got a 50-50 Senate and about a four-vote majority in the House. He's got no margin at all. Again, some of the points that Howard made, I mean, he's in a tough political situation. He can't lose a vote in his own party. And all the other domestic issues that he wants to accomplish. And I think that's probably taken so much of his time and focus and energy that I'm not so sure that isn't part of the answer to what happened in Afghanistan and that chaotic exit, that they took their eye off the ball in some ways, because their attention and their energy and their focus were on these political domestic issues that are very real.

Then you've got the politics of this, which you can't diminish. If you're president United States, you're thinking ahead. You're thinking about the midterm elections. You know, "what can I do? What can I accomplish here?" And so you can't minimize that either. And so I think President Biden has got a very tough situation on his hands that's taking a lot of energy and focus off the foreign policy piece, that I do believe that he is sincere about, and what he said earlier in the administration over the last few months about reestablishing relationships and our influence in the world. I mean, he said, his words: "America is back." To Ryan's point, no, we're going to lead. I think he believes that, absolutely believes it. But I think he's been pushed back because of the realities of what he's dealing with right now that he's got to deal with, and that doesn't mean the State Department is folding up their tent. Of course not.

But you know, the reality is, we've only— each of us in life have only so many hours in the day and so much time and so much energy and so much focus. And he's getting hit as well because the Senate is really giving him a hard time on confirming so many important nominations that he needs. These are top people. And well, Howard and Ryan understand this. I mean, you can't just say things in the White House and this is the way it's going to be. But you've got to have the soldiers carrying that out. Who's going to be actually the Assistant Secretary of State? Who's going to be doing this? Who's the Secretary of Defense, whatever it is, across the board?

So that's my answer to your question. I think all those things have come down with such impact on this administration. And he's got only about a month and a half to try to get this done because if he fails on this financial package, the Democrats are probably going to be in some trouble in— coming up next year in this midterm election. And that would be a very, very difficult problem for him going forward.

Ashley Rhoades

OK, thank you very much for that. Dr. Rifka, did I see a hand? Do you have a question?

Safa Rifka

My name is Safa Rifka. I'm a student of Chuck Hagel, so I'm going to go a little bit back to the history part. I think everybody is confused about what is the foreign policy of the U.S. and the Middle East. I mean, what is the aim of it? Of course, in retrospect, it's like a flat tire. It has no traction. And if I want to go back to history, in 1949, President Truman have put four points as his foreign policy. There was the fourth point, which I think was fantastic in the Middle East. It was to build infrastructure, to share technology, subsidize or open clinics, education. I used to go to the United States Information Center to watch movies, borrow books, libraries. Now all what we see is sanctions. Is there any clear-cut foreign policy in the areas that we can follow and appreciate whether it is succeeding or not?

Chuck Hagel

Well, I think, at least my opinion is that I go back to part of the answer I gave before. I think President Biden is reviewing our foreign policy. And because he's been such an observer and participant in foreign policy—and leader in foreign policy—the last 50 years, I think he knows that we've got a problem. Something's not right. I mean, it's imperfect. Of course it is. And you'll never get it perfect. But my guess is that he understands what you're saying, Safa. And I think he wants to change that. And I think over his administration, over the next three years, I think you will see some changes on some of that, focusing on the things that you're talking about when you were growing up in Lebanon and doing the things that you were— that you just mentioned. Then— those are things that worked. And I think you always have to go back, no matter what business you're in, at what worked.

Now, it's a different time. You've got to adapt. Adjust. I get all that. But it's instructive to be aware and review what worked and understand, why did it work? And why was it so important? I mean, I agree with your points that, unfortunately, what the world has seen a lot of—too much of—in the last 20 years, because of the two long wars, they associate America with occupying, with invading, with militaries.

I'll give you one example. And Howard and Ryan have seen this so many times. When I was in the Senate, and I would travel around Africa or different places. I'd go into a country in Africa, and we'd be driving from the airport into the embassy, and I'd see a new highway or a new dispensary, a new soccer stadium. And I'd say, "that's beautiful. That's— who built that?"

"The Chinese."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, they're very generous."

Well, the Chinese were building all these things and still are. They bring their own laborers in; they don't hire anybody locally. And at the same time, in the back room, they're tying up 50-year contracts on bauxite or minerals. But they're not people— they are not seeing soldiers. They're not seeing occupiers. And I think we've got to think about that.

And I mean, you obviously need a strong military, and the military backs up the diplomacy, and, you know, we all get that. But a smarter use of our military is, in my opinion, part of the strategy question that you ask. So this has to be a comprehensive all-of-government policy strategy for our foreign policy. I mean, that's the way it works. It's why we have a National Security Council. That's why that was put into effect in 1949, to bring all the elements of your national security under one roof. Secretary of Defense can— he's got input. Secretary of State, CIA director, so on and so on. But it's got to be coordinated. And that coordination has to, and can only, come from the president. And the National Security Council and National Security Advisor is a big part of that. So I'll stop there. Those are just some general thoughts I'd have about your question.

Ashley Rhoades

OK, well, I know we have one more question in the room, and then I want to make sure we take some of the ones on Zoom as well. But Howard, I saw your hand.

Howard Shatz

Thanks, Ashley. This is for Ambassador Crocker. Very simple. What do you think we can achieve in Syria, and how do we get there?

Ryan Crocker

Right now, I think it is to recognize that we are literally not calling the shots. We need to sustain a relationship, obviously, with the Syrian Kurds with whom we worked. We need to see if we can produce a— kind of a better conversation with the Turks who have pissed us off sometimes, as we have pissed them off, not least by lining up with a Kurdish element that is directly associated with the Kurdish Workers Party, which has been labeled, including by us, a terrorist organization. So we need to be there.

We need to keep a very low profile, which we're doing. Don't make a lot of noise. Talk to the United Nations. We had a very good special representative, the secretary general, who we did not do well by—Staffan de Mistura—in Syria to see if there is some new options there to keep an international focus on the broad issues. And see what develops.

We're not in a position, I think, to shape a future path for Syria at this time. The rest of the world is accommodating itself to what was inevitable from the beginning. Bashar al-Assad remains the leader of Syria, whatever we may think about it. And again, exhibit some strategic patience, which is possibly the hardest thing for us in the international arena. And it's our impatience that got us out of Iraq, got us out of Afghanistan. Pretty bad consequences to both. I think we should maintain the presence we've got. Look for other opportunities, but realize this is going to be, this is going to be a long haul. Don't overbid your hand, but don't fold it either. Just stay the course.

Oh, on the Russians, I wanted to get this in earlier. You know, Putin played a really bad hand brilliantly in Syria. But that's probably the furthest extension of a Russian direct involvement in the region he can literally afford. The Soviet Union ultimately was defeated by its own economy. Well, Putin's Russia, I think, teeters on that brink as well. You know, for one example, when Putin spoke of sending Russian military forces to Venezuela to support its regime, my immediate reaction was, "Great idea. And don't be cheap about it. Send a division. You may want to get your one and only aircraft carrier there as well. We can help tow it when it breaks down again." It's, again, the Russian bugaboo is, I think, just that. They are out of gas. China, of course, is a different matter. But I just don't want to see the role— the potential role of Russia in the Middle East be overdrawn. They are pretty much at full extension.

Ashley Rhoades

Great, thank you, Ambassador Crocker. I want to make sure we get in at least one of the questions from Zoom. So this is a question from Francesca Eremeeva, and this is directed to all the panelists: So what are the obstacles you have faced throughout your careers in helping the American public understand the importance of America's role in the world? If we are set to experience more conflicts domestically, whether it is polarization, disease, climate change, etc., is there a risk that Americans continue to disengage with issues related to foreign policy?

Chuck Hagel

Well, I will defer, I'll defer to the chairman on this as the opening question.

Howard Berman

I think a compelling case can be made; I wish I could make it, but a compelling case can be made that an America not engaged with the rest of the world, not thinking through the many difficult issues that this president and the previous ones have had to deal with, and just turning inward invariably turns out to be a very terrible decision for the country. How we do a better job of making that case is a different story. I do think— I mean, I have some confidence in the president and his team, but I think he is quite hampered by the—not only all the other issues he must deal with now, and right now recovering from the pandemic is certainly first and foremost—but because of the slow confirmation process, key people in key places are not there to play with the title and the position that the president wanted, and others on his team wanted to be there, to help keep track of, formulate, and propose policies that— active. And I think that accounts for some of the mistakes that have been made. And I think it will change.

Ashley Rhoades

Great. Well, I think we have time for one more question. So, the director of Century International has clearly read RAND's report on reimagining strategy in the Middle East, and so this question is related to that as a follow up. The question centers on how much of a shift in the Middle East can the Biden administration accomplish through executive action without Congress? So I'm sure the honorable Howard Berman will have something to weigh in on there. They continue: Or should we expect that we'll see a drift in Middle East and North Africa policy because the political costs of change will be viewed as too high?

Ryan Crocker

Let me just say, I would like to hear from Linda Robinson on this. She has put an enormous amount of really sound thinking into reports like this. I'd like to get her view.

Linda Robinson

Well, thank you, Ryan, and I want to acknowledge these. as most RAND reports, it's a collective, multi-authored endeavor that three— four people in this room were part of. But thank you. What we really tried to do is look at, and I think, depart from the assumption that there would not be more resources forthcoming for the Middle East. But could a more productive use of those resources be made?

And some very extensive work was done in looking through the programs and funding lines through the years. And the general view that we espoused in the report was the idea that the development— the fundamental challenges of the region are really huge unemployment, very statist economies, unmet human needs. And those are some of the principal drivers of conflict in the region. And putting more resources in that direction and less—though not zero—in the military account, would be the smarter long-term play, but also looking at more productive implementation of programs. And that's something that many people at RAND have worked very hard to try to assess programs and improve the output and the outcome there. So it is a typical, heavily data-driven report for RAND, but we really thank the mention of it. And it's an attempt to really try to reset what the U.S. can do in the region. And also—and I want to call out Jeff Martini—looking at the partnerships, and perhaps some of the smaller players are actually punching above their weight. And might we redirect more efforts in support of them? So going to this general theme I think we've had here in the room about allies and partners are really the way— they're the force multipliers for anything the U.S. might do in the region.

And I would like to just end by saying, I think we would like to continue to have periodic policy roundtables, and we want to welcome everyone to come back for these. And we took kind of an ode toward the "à raison" approach today, but we can slice up different specific problems and drill down to them. But I think it's really in our interest to have this kind of deep, deep long-term experience that you three have brought to us and brought to the table. So we'll look forward to some continuing engagement virtually, but we hope increasingly in person as well. Thank you all very, very much for joining us today.

Chuck Hagel

Thank you.

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