False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East
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This event took place on Wednesday, October 25, 2017
JAMES KETTERER: Good evening, everyone. Thank you for joining us tonight. I am Jim Ketterer. I am the dean of international studies at Bard College and the director of the Bard Globalization International Affairs (BGIA) program, and we are very happy to do this event in partnership with the Carnegie Council, which very nicely hosts us once a semester. I am very happy that we are here to talk about a timely and interesting topic with Steven Cook, who is senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
I should say before we begin that this talk tonight is part of our James Chace lecture series, which we hold once a month during the semester and sometimes during the summer. James Chace was the editor of the World Policy Journal and Foreign Affairs. He taught at Bard College, and is co-founder of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He is someone that I knew. Joel Rosenthal from the Carnegie Council and many others in New York and Washington and beyond who work in international affairs can trace their lineage in one way or another back to James Chace.
So it is in his memory that we do these talks, and James I know would very much like this particular topic at this particular time. If you are interested in attending more of these conversations, certainly there is a lot going on here at the Carnegie Council, you can find all that information here and on their website, and also other talks that we do at BGIA, so please stay in touch. We would like to see you at more of our events and our conversations.
We are here tonight to talk about a very easy topic, what is going on in the Middle East. As it turns out, Steven and I have known each other for a long time. I was thinking of actually the very first time I met Steven. It was in the early 1990s, and we were graduate students together—
STEVEN COOK: You had more hair then.
JAMES KETTERER: I had a lot more hair then.
—at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. It was our first day of Arabic class, which was going to turn into two years of Arabic language boot camp. But the very first day before we started studying Arabic in this class, they said, "Well, before we have this class, something important is happening down the street, on the South Lawn of the White House." So they wheeled in a TV—back in the days when you would just wheel in a TV—and they showed the famous handshake that was going on, Arafat and Rabin and Bill Clinton on the South Lawn of the White House, which was happening just a few blocks from where we were sitting.
After this historic event takes place, the TV is turned off and is being wheeled out, Steven, who I have just met, says, "Well, now there's nothing left to study." There was this sense that this was a watershed moment, that it was one of those transformative moments that was going to change everything. We know now that it was not so transformative—historic, certainly, but not as transformative as it appeared to be and as all the hopes that were put upon that moment.
It struck me in reading your very excellent new book that people thought very much the same way about the series of Arab uprisings, that this was going to change this long period of the persistent authoritarianism in the region, that things were going to change quickly and very much for the better, and that has turned out not to be the case.
A lot of people have written about what they think happened and what did not happen, and amidst all of that I thought you could just as a starting point tell us what inspired you to write this book now about this topic.
STEVEN COOK: First of all, before I answer that question, I just want to thank the Carnegie Council and Bard for hosting me here this evening, and my old friend, Jim Ketterer. It is actually 22 years since that first Arabic class, which is really very hard to believe, to be honest with you. Thank you all so much for coming out this evening.
The book came from, I think, two stories that are bookended in the book. For those of you who have seen it or will take a look at it, the prologue is a recounting of the night of January 25, 2011 and the early morning hours of January 26, 2011, when I was in Tahrir Square with at the time probably 25,000-30,000 people. It was a rather extraordinary moment for me personally to be there, to be witnessing what was happening on the square. I was there for the following few days as well.
It had been for me particularly interesting because I had just finished the first draft of my second book, called The Struggle for Egypt, and I suddenly found myself in the square where people were demanding the end of the regime, people were demanding bread, freedom, and social justice. These were things that people were actually saying. It was an extraordinary moment of empowerment and a demand for dignity, something that I had seen through the television in 1989 during the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe but had never really experienced firsthand.
I am a little kid from the New York area. My biggest disappointment in life was getting cut from the junior varsity baseball team when I was in ninth grade. I never really had to fight for anything in my life, and here were people who were about my age, younger even, who were there demanding freedom. They were demanding a change in government and a fundamental desire to live in a more open and just and democratic society. That really had a profound effect on me, and I hope that comes through, at least in the first part of the book.
I went back to Cairo probably every six or seven weeks after Hosni Mubarak fell. The uprising lasted 18 days. Mubarak was informed that his services were no longer needed on February 11, and I traveled back and forth every six or seven weeks. I do not really remember my youngest daughter being two or three years old because I spent most of that time in Egypt.
But on one of those trips, 11 months almost to the day later, I was back in Cairo, and this coincided with the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections. And I was back in Tahrir Square. I had gone through Tahrir Square and was just to the south of it on a street called Qasr al-Aini Street, in front of the Egyptian Parliament and the Egyptian cabinet building, and I talk about this in another chapter of the book.
What I recount is not this kind of enormously uplifting, exhilarating scene that I had witnessed and to some extent taken part in in January 2011, but 11 months later here was another protest, but it was more like a riot—it was less like a riot and more like gang warfare—in which the central security forces, this paramilitary police force, military police, traffic police, squared off against Egyptians, young Egyptians, old Egyptians, the shock troops of the revolution, the Soccer "Ultras," which I think you are well acquainted with, Jim, from your time in Cairo.
There did not seem to be a principle involved. It just seemed like payback. These groups had been fighting each other for 11 months, and it was quite violent. People were using parts of the street to fight, breaking up the concrete and bricks to fight, Molotov cocktails, buckshot, live gunfire. At one point, an errant Molotov cocktail entered the Institute for Egypt, which has artifacts going back to the 18th century in Egypt. It was quite eye-opening. And instead of hearing chants like, "Bread, freedom, and social justice" or "Hold up your heads—we're Egyptian," I heard, "Death to the field marshall," people literally braying for blood.
And I started to think, What if this doesn't happen? Our frame of reference and the assumptions that everybody had made when Mubarak fell, and before him Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia had fallen in a month, Qaddafi was driven from Tripoli in August 2011, killed in October 2011—and, by the way, as only the New York Post headliners could write it, "Killed by a Yankees Fan," because the guy who pulled the trigger was actually wearing a New York Yankees cap. It was kind of a macabre headline.
But what if these things did not work out the way in which everybody had hoped and had expected? In fact, when you looked at what was going on around the region in December 2011, it was hard to hold on to that moment of wonder that came with being in Tahrir Square and came with Mubarak's fall and came with Ben Ali's fall because Egypt was—as I described it, that riot ended up with 12 people dead, and it continued for days afterward.
Libya had already begun to fragment and turn quite violent. Tunisia had tremendously good press at the time, but was neither the success that it was being declared nor was it a failure.
Of course, Turkey, my non-Arab case—I felt it was important to include a non-Arab case—at the time that all of this apparent change was happening in the Middle East, Turkey was seen as the model country for the rest of the region. Turks had not only proven that you could become democratic and prosperous, but that they could help guide these countries to democratic soft landings. But, of course, what was happening in Turkey at the time in 2011 was a deepening of authoritarian politics in Turkey.
During this rather violent riot in front of me, I started thinking about these questions because up until that point everybody had just assumed that, "Well, yeah, these are the growing pains that happen after these types of things, but everything will be well."
JAMES KETTERER: I was one of those people who had great hopes. I left the United States, I moved to Egypt, I thought, Well, you know, it has taken a while, but finally the Middle East is catching up to what we saw at the end of the Cold War, and this is really the moment. This is the moment to be there.
I arrived in Cairo a couple of months after the revolution, and you could already see some sense that it might not work out so well, but also a lot of effort was being put in to mythologize the revolution. So the tension between those two was really quite striking. And then you see the other things happening around the region, and it had this sense that things were really not only not going well, but spinning out of control. Hosni Mubarak saying, "It's either me or chaos" seemed rather prophetic fairly soon after I arrived in the middle of 2011.
But the other part of your book that I think is really important is you also talking about how Washington works, how Washington tries to grapple with difficult issues like this, chaotic issues that do not lend themselves to an easy narrative.
I was working closely with people in the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and I think they also were very optimistic about what might happen. As things started to unravel—the title of one of your chapters is "Unraveling"—they appeared to be a little slow to respond, and there was not a specific policy to respond to that set of circumstances.
So when you talk about the meeting that happened in DC in March of 2011 and the various people around that table and trying to sort through what already were some disturbing signs, I think that is worth recounting.
STEVEN COOK: Thanks. But I just want to get back to one of the statements you made about prophecy. Hosni Mubarak's third speech, the speech that everybody expected he was going to give it up and say, "Okay, I'm done, I won't run for president again, but let me have the graceful exit," and he actually gave a very tough speech. In that speech he said, "No good will come from this, and the people who are going to suffer the most are the youth of Egypt." That is the epigram of False Dawn. I used that quote.
It seemed like it was menacing at the time, but it turned out to be precisely the case. Who has suffered more in Egypt—if you set aside the Muslim Brotherhood for the moment—has been what was known as the "revolutionary youth," many of whom have been in jail for quite some time. And Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, Muammar Qaddafi's son, who is widely regarded to be a reformer in the years leading up to the uprising, someone who was alleged to have gotten his PhD from the London School of Economics—turns out he kind of bought a degree from the London School of Economics—and had become well versed in consultancy/reform-speak, five days after the uprising in Libya began, anybody who was paying attention at the time remembers Qaddafi saying, "We will fight to every last man, woman, and bullet." Clearly he was not a reformer, right?
But he said something else that I thought was incredibly prescient. He said, "Libyans, we're not Tunisians, and we're not Egyptians. We will fight each other for the next 40 years." What he was getting at was the make-up, the nature, the informal institutions, the political culture of Libya lent themselves to fragmentation and violence.
This is a great segue into a discussion about Washington and Washington reference. The book is about the Middle East, but it is also about Washington and the Middle East, and it is about the way in which Washington responds and the way in which Washington tries to make policy and tries to make sense of very complicated things.
So the discourse in Washington about Libya was, "Wow. Libya is in the best position to become a democracy," because when Qaddafi was driven from Tripoli and killed, he left nothing behind. So Libyans had a blank slate to have this kind of perfect democratic experiment, whereas Egyptians would have to contend with the army, the senior bureaucracy, the judiciary, all of whom were from the Mubarak era. Tunisians would have to struggle with the leftovers of Ben Ali. But Libya was somehow going to make that transition relatively easily.
These were the kinds of things that I think people in the policy community desperately wanted to believe. No one knew much about Libya. Think about Libya up until around this time, or the mid-2000s. It was a black box. There were no Americans there. Qaddafi and the United States had extraordinarily difficult relations. It was under sanctions through most of the 1980s, we had military conflicts with the Libyans in the 1980s. And Libya had only recently opened up. What did we really actually know that much about Libya?
Yet we were prepared to believe certain things, and this fashioned our approach. Of course, our frame was the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1980s. So Washington came together from a good place. We had saved the world from Naziism, we had saved the world from Soviet communism, now we were going to help make democracy in the Middle East. Washington came together with a flurry of activity, a tremendous rate of production of knowledge and analysis about what was happening and what the United States should do.
But if you take all of the things that were said and written at the time—and Jim is referencing a meeting that I went to in the spring of 2011 at the Brookings Institution, in which all of the people in the Middle East-watching world and Washington were going to get together and have this big discussion and it was going to result in a book about what the United States should do in the new Middle East. And the stuff that came out of this meeting and subsequently was, pardon me, but lame blandishment on top of lame blandishment. The argument that I make in the book is that this is not because people in Washington are stupid. You have enormously accomplished people with tremendous government experience in the region. That was not really the problem, that we were dealing with dumb people, it is the nature of the problem itself.
What diplomatic tools does the United States have to bring to bear to influence politics in a country where people define their struggles in essentially existential terms? What is it that the president of the United States can do constructively to make Egypt a democracy, or Egypt less unstable, or make Libya not fragment? These are conflicts that are at the very root of societies that are asking basic questions about their identity, about what kind of governments they want, what kind of societies they want. And when the stakes are so high, outsiders have very little ability to influence how politics works.
There is this certain conceit in Washington because we have all of this power that we can somehow leverage that power into getting people—it is an uncomfortable view because it suggests that people in the region do not have their own ability to calculate their own interests and what their politics on the ground is and that we can somehow shape their behavior by either making statements or withholding aid or adding aid; when I think this entire episode proves that at least when it comes to these kinds of conflicts—these kinds of existential conflicts about what it means to be Egyptian, or what Libya-ness even means at this point, what kinds of societies people in these countries who are experiencing these kinds of uprisings and conflicts—there is not a lot that the United States can do. Nevertheless, Washington gets all geared up to help.
One more anecdote on this. I remember, I guess it was probably a year after this meeting at the Brookings Institution, 2012, and I went to a meeting at the State Department. I got asked to go and listen to a presentation from folks at the State Department about what big idea they had for the Middle East.
It was not a very big group. I am sitting there, and I am uncharacteristically quiet throughout this meeting. It dawns on me that what they are proposing—it was some sort of region-wide bank that will invest in infrastructure and social development. I could not quite get my arms around exactly what they were doing, but it had echoes and things that people had proposed before—did not really have that much to do with the Middle East or what was needed in the Middle East. It had to do with what we call in Washington the "interagency process," who got the money to do what and justifying one's existence for members of Congress who are appropriating this money.
So this is the kind of thing that I think, on the outside, if you are not in the Beltway and you are not part of this world, and you scratch your head and you say, "What are we doing?" I think is often lost, and that is why I spend a lot of time talking about this kind of thing.
JAMES KETTERER: What I found interesting when I was out there in Egypt during these same years is that the kinds of things that the U.S. government normally does in these circumstances—we can argue about whether it is the appropriate thing to do or whether they were done well—were not really happening. It was actually in the George W. Bush administration, so before these uprisings, that we saw a host of the kind of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) democracy-promotion programs, institution-building, capacity-building programs in places like Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan—I know these programs well because I ran some of them. As you know, in the book it is very hard to determine in a short-term time frame whether they really delivered on much or not. That is certainly a fair criticism of them.
But given the lack of institutions in many of the countries that were now very much in need of institutions, it seemed to me that there was a lot of scrambling around, but not a lot of interest in drawing upon the tools that the U.S. government had developed during the Clinton administration and the George W. Bush administration that had some relevance to this. There seemed to be a certain amount of paralysis.
STEVEN COOK: I think there was a certain high principle involved in this process, believe it or not. I am going to discuss the Obama administration. This is not a political statement, it is just an observation of what happened at the time.
Look at two Obama speeches, the first one his big Cairo speech in June 2009. It was called "A New Beginning." This was the big speech to the Muslim world. Given my age, I had hoped they would call it "A New Hope," not "A New Beginning." That is a little Star Wars joke.
Obama listed 10 priorities for the United States in the Middle East. I think if George W. Bush had been giving that speech, democracy would have been number one. For Obama, it was number seven, but it was caveated. He said, "Democracy would be great. If you all become democracies and you want my help, I'm here to help you." It was not anything that he was going to put—and it was an accident of history that this all happened while he was the president. He had been cool to the idea of a democracy approach. One of my friends who worked—
JAMES KETTERER: Well, so had George W. Bush, before 9/11, had been cool to the idea.
STEVEN COOK: That is exactly right. When it comes to Obama, one of my friends who worked for him said, "You have to understand, he's a realist, but he feels bad about it, so that's why you get some of the things that you get."
Then, after the uprisings, in May of 2011, Obama gave a speech at the State Department, his big Arab Spring speech, in which he said—and I am paraphrasing—we need to look at what has happened in the Middle East with humility without abdicating our values.
We can discuss whether he abdicated our values, and I tend to think that he did. That was the realist part of him. But when he said, "We need to look upon what has happened with humility," the administration made a decision that we had been tarnished, especially in a place like Egypt, because we had enabled authoritarianism over the course of many years, well beyond Mubarak's almost 30 years in office, and that we will accommodate ourselves to outcomes that Egyptians themselves make. We will not try to reverse, we will not try to influence, we will not try to direct. We will offer whatever best advice when Egyptians come to us or Tunisians come to us or Libyans come to us and ask us for advice.
JAMES KETTERER: So after so many years of people assuming, decades, that the United States is and in fact was in several cases engineering outcomes, it was clear that the administration was saying with the Egyptian parliamentary elections and then the presidential elections in 2012 we are not going to try to engineer outcomes. We are not in that business anymore. We are just going to support good process. We stand by to assist whenever we can, and we are taking a hands-off approach.
The problem as I saw it, though, is that pretty much no Egyptians believed it. So when Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president, the general assumption was that this was done via the hidden hand of the United States. There is no other way he would have been elected, and so this is part and parcel of U.S. meddling.
So where do you think the United States went wrong? Was it in the policy-making or in presenting the policy? Or was it inevitable that the United States would be blamed?
STEVEN COOK: By the time the uprising happened, and for the years before, the United States had become a negative factor in Egyptian politics, and there was this belief in the hidden hand. So no matter what happened, the United States was going to engineer Mohammed Morsi's election. They were also going to engineer the coup d'état that brought down Mohammed Morsi, because that is the way it lines up in Egypt. People either believe that the United States supports the Muslim Brotherhood or that the United States supports the military.
I think the real problem is, going back to that speech in May 2011, when the president said we need to have some humility here without abdicating our values; but they abdicated our values. Had through the ebbs and flows of crises—in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, wherever, Turkey—had the United States kept to an articulated tolerance, nonviolence, the equal application of law, and held each one of these leaders or would-be leaders to their own publicly articulated principles, we would have been in a much better situation.
It would not have changed the outcome whatsoever, but when Mohammed Morsi issued decrees in November 2012—this is the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt—placing himself above the law and we were silent because the day before Morsi had helped hammer out a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, that leads Egyptians to believe that there is a hidden hand and that we are back to just stability. When quite obviously a coup d'état happens and we refuse to call it a coup d'état for a variety of, I think, important reasons, the other half of Egypt that supports Mohammed Morsi believes that the United States engineered the coup.
When the Turkish government, the model, engages in repression that is on par with or even exceeds those of recently deposed Arab dictators and we are utterly silent about it, what are people to believe? That the United States supports this kind of thing.
I think we ended up in the absolute worst position in the region by saying we will accommodate ourselves to the outcomes that people in the region themselves make but then remaining silent about our values. I think USAID, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, this entire infrastructure of promoting democracy in the region, could have been extraordinarily active and coherent and so on, and we still would have had these problems.
JAMES KETTERER: So values and interests coming together. You argue that this might have been a time—or we might be at a time now—where we need to really rethink what are American interests in the region. They have been in place for many decades. Do we really need to maintain them in the same way that we have maintained them? Do you have any sense that we are getting closer to that conversation, or have we missed that opportunity?
STEVEN COOK: Let me put it this way. I am going to say something very controversial. I think what President Trump said in Riyadh in May about the era of the United States telling people how to live, how to arrange their societies, and that they should live with some approximation of the way we live, is over, I do not think that was necessarily a bad thing; not because I am opposed to democracy, not because I support authoritarians, but because after this episode, after it has become clear that we have very little ability to alter the politics in these countries. It would be harmful to American interests to continue to do those kinds of things.
Where I differ from the president—of course, it is not the only way that I differ from the president—is his gutting of the foreign affairs budget. You talked about USAID and these democracy and governance programs, and we have had long conversations with this over many years. My view is that we should get back to the basics, broadly thinking about the Middle East, and when we think about the missions of organizations like USAID.
So, to me, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even Beji Caid Essebsi, the alleged democratic leader of Tunisia, are not much interested in democracy and good governance programs. The Moroccans, the Jordanians, they are very good at writing these grant applications and extracting this reform-minded money, but it has not really changed things. Maybe it is a 50-year project, and I am being unfair, but it seems to me that if we go back to what USAID used to do, which is actual development work—rural electrification, potable water, developing sewerage, protecting historical sites, those kinds of things, public health and education—
JAMES KETTERER: International exchanges, Fulbright, etc.
STEVEN COOK: Right. Those kinds of things, I think over a longer period of time are more helpful to your average person in the Middle East than good governance conferences with Egyptian governors at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza. Because if you know anything about Egyptian governors, they are retired military officers or police officers who have a very different view of what good governance is than what we believe to be good governance. So it is sort of like we are wasting money when we could be contributing to the health, wealth, and education of populations that may over a long period of time produce fundamental kinds of change.
What should we then do in the Middle East? Again, I talk about going back to basics, about what is important and why, and how do we get there.
It strikes me that after this episode, after Operation Desert Storm and this kind of America striding the world alone, basically, and then the post-9/11 environment where we determined that what goes on inside of these countries uniquely produces terrorists—I do not think that is the case. I think all the research would suggest that it is really a wash. We do not know—and remaking societies has not really worked.
So what is it that is important to the United States in the Middle East? Basically three things: the free flow of energy resources out of the region, helping to ensure Israeli security, and making sure no other country dominates the region other than the United States. You can add counterproliferation and counterterrorism to those things as well, but I think those three big ones are the things.
Maybe they are not as important as they once were. Maybe it deserves a national debate and a national conversation about whether those are really our goals. I have my doubts though that in our current situation of political dysfunction that we can have a productive national conversation about what is important to us. So the default is what we have been doing over a long time.
JAMES KETTERER: For a long time those have been the answers.
QUESTION: To pivot to Russia, I am wondering, from the perspective of U.S. interests, is Assad's departure from power a requirement for normalizing relations?
STEVEN COOK: The question is, can we normalize relations with Syria or normalize relations with Russia? With Russia or with Syria?
QUESTIONER: With Russia.
STEVEN COOK: Let me just say by way of caveat I am not a Russia expert. And we do have normal relations with the Russians. We have diplomatic relations with the Russians, we cooperate with the Russians every single minute of every single day in Syria because our military is right up against their military in Syria, so we have very significant security cooperation with the Russians on this issue. The issue between the United States and Russia is the multiple investigations going on into alleged Russian meddling in our electoral process.
But let me talk a little bit about Syria. Let's make no mistake about what has happened in Syria. The Russians have intervened in Syria beginning in 2015, working with the Iranians and the Assad regime, and have basically won the war. It is a matter of time. The Trump administration has essentially signaled that it can live with this outcome as long as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is defeated or in the words of the president, "as long as we bomb the expletive out of them."
I think the real challenge going forward for the United States in Syria—and this is the drift of the debate in Washington—is whether we stay in Syria, under what circumstances, and in what form of cooperation to prevent the Iranians from establishing this belt from Tehran all the way through. They want to build a road, literally a road, from Iran all the way to Lebanon.
Of course, no one in Washington wants to stand up and say, "Well, American forces"—and there is a large number of American forces—"in Syria are going to be there for 25 years" because we have been in Iraq for 13, 14 years. That is significant. We have been in Afghanistan 16 years. No one wants to get up and say, "Hey, American people, we're going to be here for a long time."
So I think what will happen is ultimately there is going to be some sort of division of labor in Syria. We are going to accommodate ourselves with a continuation of the Assad regime in Syria, and we are going to have to come to some sort of deal with the Russians over the Iranians in Syria. And if we cannot, there is going to be a lot of tension there.
JAMES KETTERER: So when the statement was made, "Assad must go," it really meant Assad might go, but we do not have a plan.
STEVEN COOK: Two things: One, I think that the information that the U.S. embassy in Damascus was feeding to the White House was wildly overstated. When they were saying that it is only a matter of time before Assad goes, I think they were using the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt where fearsome leaders fell in a number of weeks as a template for what was happening in Syria, not really recognizing how different Syria was politically from either of those two countries, and that all of the incentives were for the Assad family to fight it out.
I think early on there was probably an opportunity for an intervention in Syria that would have either slowed down the killing or brought down the Assad regime and would have averted this humanitarian disaster, but I think the fear within the Obama administration was that that would suck us into another long-term occupation of another Arab country. And, of course, President Obama ran in 2008 on getting the United States out of the Middle East because he believed that the Middle East was sucking the United States dry.
QUESTION: Peter Russell is my name.
You catalogued U.S. interests and points of leverage. Could you speak a little bit about the arms trade? I am thinking also particularly about some of the major countries that are joined at the hip with us.
STEVEN COOK: First, I am not sure that there are points of leverage, to be completely honest with you. In fact, there is a chapter of the book called "Getting the Middle East Right," which is not a plan to get the Middle East right. It is sort of punking my reader into thinking that is what I am going to say when I say something completely different. I talk about the kind of overstated, half-baked idea of leverage with countries.
But your specific question is about the arms trade, and we are the single largest supplier of weaponry in the Middle East, bar none. When President Trump was in Riyadh in May, contracts worth $110 billion of arms—the president claimed credit for that, as he is wont to do, but actually that was a policy of the Obama administration, which was to sell as much weaponry to these countries, and have their national armies and security services take care of these problems without having to send American forces over to do it, or the American forces would be there in a supporting or advisory role.
We sell massive amounts of weapons to the Gulf. We recently signed a huge contract with the government of Qatar on F-15s; as I said, Saudi Arabia; we continue to arm the Egyptians. Of course, the Egyptians have started to diversify and are buying weapons from the Russians as well as the French.
Obviously, the Israelis are well taken care of by dint of our military aid package to them. We have about a thousand Marines in Tunisia. Tunisia has the status of a major non-NATO ally, which gives it opportunities for greater security cooperation and greater aid, a tremendous amount of military and security cooperation with the Jordanians. There are very few countries in which we do not have some sort of military-to-military relationship in which there is not a huge weapons contract on the other end of it.
Those weapons are often used in ways that are deeply upsetting. Those weapons are being used by the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force to essentially carpet-bomb Yemen, the poorest country in the region, which now has about a million cases of cholera and is on the verge of a famine. Yet, F-16s, F-15s, and all kinds of other things are built in all 50 states of the United States. So it is good politics to want to sign up on these huge weapons contracts.
I would say that in our relationship with Saudi Arabia at this point, weapons sales are far more important than oil because we produce so much oil in this country; even though we want the free flow of oil out of the region, but we want the free flow of oil out of the region primarily because we want a healthy global capitalist economic order because we want our trading partners to be able to function. The oil is not for our consumption. So we are peddlers without peer of weaponry around the region.
QUESTION: How concerned are you by the developments in Turkey? I know you are following very closely, and I know you have been bombarded through Twitter by some of Erdoğan's trolls, and you have been doing great, and we are so proud to watch you.
Now they are the second largest army in NATO, and for the first time it seems that the pro-Russia generals are in power over the army. As you said, the U.S. administration has been very quiet. There is a lot of anti-Americanism going on in Turkey. A third arrest warrant has been out for a U.S. consulate employee. Are you concerned at all?
I was just listening to what happened in Egypt. I remember how Erdoğan's intelligence chief had told Morsi to go to Iran, and he went to Iran and came back and then the coup happened. So could you talk about that?
STEVEN COOK: Some context for those people who are not following Turkey on a daily basis. As I mentioned in my opening in talking about the context of the book, there has been an acceleration and deepening of authoritarianism in Turkey. A lot of people point to the summer of 2016's failed coup, but actually the purge that has happened since then is actually an extension of a purge that had been going on for a number of years beforehand.
Turkey's genuine liberalizing reforms really came to an end around 2007 and 2008. The situation is quite dire in Turkey. Am I concerned about it? I cannot even go back to Turkey. I have voiced my objective analysis in saying that Erdoğan's claims to be leading some sort of democratic state are obviously inaccurate, and Turks have taken umbrage to this.
The latest flare-up between the United States and Turkey, among many recently—the Turks say that they are buying Russian defense articles, which has complicated our military operations in Syria because they do not like who we are working with—they actually have a point on that. We are working with a Syrian Kurdish group that is connected to a Turkish Kurdish terrorist organization that has been waging war against Turkey for 30-some years. These are the complications of Syria and the fight against ISIS.
And there has been this drift. What once was considered by President Obama a model partnership, by the George W. Bush administration as a country of "critical strategic importance," does not look like an ally, or it is an ally because it is a member of the North Atlantic alliance, but it is not much of a partner. It has not been all that active in working with us against the Islamic State, which is why we are working with this Syrian Kurdish group. It coordinated with extremist groups in Syria to punish the Assad regime, which has now had blowback on Turkey, on Europe, and other parts of the world.
Related to the presence of a Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gülen here in the United States in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, where he has been in self-imposed exile since 1999, who the Turkish government blames for the failed coup, there has been a further deterioration of relations with the Turkish government claiming that the United States was somehow behind this by dint of the fact that Gülen is here and by dint of the fact that we do not just put him on a plane and return him to Turkey, that there is an actual extradition process. There is another court case here related to a Turkish-Iranian businessman who was busting sanctions on Iran with the full knowledge, it is believed, of the Turkish leadership. All of these problems, and in response the Turkish government has arrested about 20 Americans as well as long-time Turkish employees of the American embassy, what they call foreign service nationals.
Many people do not recognize this, but our overseas installations would not function if we did not have foreign service nationals, people who are Turks or wherever and who work in the embassy, not just as guys in the motor pool, but political analysts, working in the political section. Most recently, the questioner is referring to a foreign service national who had worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) office at the U.S. embassy in Ankara for 32 years. He was arrested for allegedly being part of this network of this cleric who lives here in Pennsylvania.
But really, the 20 Americans and the number of foreign service nationals who have been detained and arrested by the Turkish government are actually bargaining chips—Amnesty International calls them "hostages;" I prefer the more polite "bargaining chips"—in order to exchange them to make this case with this Turkish-Iranian businessman go away or to do something about extraditing Fethullah Gülen, this cleric in Pennsylvania.
So it is a huge mess. Yet the United States has only taken limited actions to express its unhappiness: One, they said we are not going to sell weapons to Erdoğan's security team because, oh, by the way, in May Erdoğan's personal guard beat up American citizens protesting against Erdoğan outside of the Turkish ambassador's house in Washington, DC—not the first time they have done this, by the way—and recently, a number of weeks ago the U.S. embassy announced that it was going to stop processing non-immigrant visas, but, you know, we are going to work it out and so and so.
The reason why, with all of the repression and all of the attacks on the United States and the arrest of American citizens and denying them consular services and the arrest of foreign service nationals, the Trump administration has remained relatively quiet is because the president has about five ideas about the world. That is not such a bad thing. Ronald Reagan had three ideas about the world, and he is seen as a historic, transformative figure.
One of the ideas that the president has about the world is destroying the Islamic State. Turkey, although it has not participated as robustly in this fight as many would have liked them to participate, does have an airbase that is very close to Syria and Iraq that makes it much easier for the United States to undertake operations against the Islamic State.
The question is, what is going to happen now that the existential threat of the Islamic State has receded and it becomes a nuisance—a deadly, horrible nuisance—but not that existential threat? What happens?
In my own view, we are going to continue to see a divergence between the United States and Turkey, because the thing that really held the two countries together was the Soviet threat, and the Soviet threat ended 26 years ago, and we have been searching for a rationale for the relationship since then, and we have been living on the romanticized history of that relationship for a long time.
That was much longer than a yes/no/maybe answer, but Turkey is really complicated.
QUESTION: The United States has publicly stayed neutral in the current dispute between Kurdistan and Iraq, and I wanted to get your thoughts on whether the United States should take a side between two groups that it has large investments in, both, [fighting] the Islamic State as well as countering Iranian influence, and where you see the United States' role in the dispute between the two parties?
STEVEN COOK: It is a great question. It is another complicated question. Let me just say by way of caveat, I have written a bunch about the Kurds over the course of the last number of years and in the run-up to the referendum and afterward, and there were significant aspects of my analysis and what I thought would happen that I got wrong. There were things I got right, but I did not believe that the Iraqi government would use force against the Kurds, and if they were threatening to use force I thought the United States would step in immediately.
I did not believe that the United States would be so opposed to the referendum that it would allow the Iraqi central government along with what is called the Popular Mobilization Unit, some of which are aligned with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to use force to retake areas—granted, disputed areas—of Iraq that have significant numbers of Kurds that took part in the referendum.
Now, on to what I think might happen. First of all, I think Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the man who has dominated Kurdish politics, is going to ride off into the sunset in the next day or so. There is going to be a graceful exit for him, and that will pave the way for a negotiation between Baghdad and Erbil about the way forward.
I think the outcome, though, in the end, without going into all the details—and I recommend, because I go into the fine details of this in a CFR podcast called "The President's Inbox." But to preview it, I think what has happened is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is an autonomous region of Iraq, will continue. It will remain, but it will be less autonomous than it has been in the last 25 or 26 years as a result of this episode.
I fear that American policy has thrown its weight toward the central government in Iraq and burned our relationship with the Kurds, and that whereas we had previously reliable allies—not to say that they were not difficult in Erbil and the KRG—Iraqi politics have proven themselves over the course of the last 14 years or so to be craven and ungrateful, and have demonstrated an ability to turn their backs on the United States and made things worse for us because, of course, they do not necessarily believe we are going to stay and they know who is going to stay: the Iranians.
So we may be as a result in a significantly worse strategic position by having burned the Kurds. And it is raw. They are very angry at the United States. And we have fallen in love with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who now has all of this political capital, but who knows what is going to become of him?
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
In the title of False Dawn, you mention violence. This is a major question for the past and for the future: How much violence will continue? What effect will this have, for example, with the Syrian refugees or with other groups who feel displaced and whose societies have been destroyed and so forth? How is the violence going to be overcome rationally? Is there such a thing? And what can we look forward to?
STEVEN COOK: Titles are a really funny thing when you are writing a book. This was not the original title of the book. I think it is a better title than what the working title was because I came to the conclusion that I could not really pronounce the words in the working title, so that probably would not be good for selling a book.
Here is another movie reference: I thought False Dawn, people might confuse it as a sequel to Red Dawn from 1984.
But what I wanted to drive home in the title False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, is that these are all features of the Middle East going forward; not so much democracy, but there remains the desire—people still want to live in more open, just, and democratic societies—but that this episode, this uprising, did not produce that. And what has it produced, and what can we expect going forward?
I want to be careful about prognosticating. It is very hard. But if you read the book, you will get a sense of why I feel fairly confident in suggesting what the future of the Middle East will look like.
Let me go back to Condoleezza Rice's famous speech at the American University of Cairo in 2005, when she said that "the era of authoritarian stability in the Middle East is over." We used to refer to governments in the Middle East as authoritarian. Hosni Mubarak, he was an authoritarian, but it was stable authoritarianism, and we could count on him to keep the Suez Canal open, maintain the peace with Israel, and keep his boot on the throat of the Islamists. And we liked that. Yet, post-9/11 we decided that authoritarian stability in the Middle East produced terrorism and we needed to promote democracy in the region.
I think Condoleezza Rice was right, the era of authoritarian stability is over. But she believed that when the era of authoritarian stability came to an end, democracy would emerge. In fact, what you have is a sort of counterintuitive authoritarian instability, and that will be a characteristic of the Middle East going forward. What I am saying is it is sort of contradictory because authoritarian suggests control, and instability suggests something that is out of control.
What I see is a dynamic where you have authoritarian leaders emerge seeking to establish control over their societies and their societies still mobilized, and at least parts of the societies wanting to live in a different kind of society resisting, which then produces more authoritarianism, additional measures, additional violence and coercion to establish control over this population. That population responds, sometimes with violence.
So it seems to me that what you have for the foreseeable future is a lot of what you are seeing today—political contestation over everything, unsettled politics, non-agreement, instability, and authoritarianism, until leaders emerge that can answer the questions that Arabs and Turks have about their societies, a positive vision that answers, "What does it mean to be Turkish? What does it mean to be Egyptian? What kind of society do we want? What is the relationship between religion and society? What is the relationship between the individual and the state?"
These are questions that have not been settled. Until they are settled, I think you are going to have a lot of competition over what society is supposed to look like, and that will often manifest itself in violence.
JAMES KETTERER: I always say to my students, "Anyone who offers you a simple answer to complex questions in the Middle East or anyplace, you should probably stop listening to them." You are offering nuanced answers to very complicated situations. I think part of the problem before the Arab uprisings was that people said, "Well, authoritarianism is just the way that it is in the Middle East."
And then very quickly people said, "Well, now it is all going to be democratic."
And again now, I think all too often people are reverting to the idea that, "Oh, the area simply is not conducive to the growth of democracy."
Those are all too easy an answer, and I thank you for giving us much more nuance, much more complexity.
STEVEN COOK: Before we bring it to an end, let me just say one more thing about this false dawn. This is not an argument that Arabs and Muslims cannot live in democracies, that culturally they are unsuited to this. Not at all. In the book I go through some very specific reasons why these uprisings did not result in transitions to democracy, but in no way, shape, or form do I make the argument that that possibility is forever closed off.
JAMES KETTERER: Though there are many who do make that argument.
STEVEN COOK: There are many who do that.
JAMES KETTERER: Yet another reason that people should read your book, because it does, although it was initially a false dawn, it is not necessarily all false hopes.
STEVEN COOK: It is not. People have asked me, they say, "It's a little tough going. There is not a lot of good news in this."
To me, it makes it more interesting. It makes it a much more human story that there are these moments of triumph that are not met with success and how people deal with it. It is a work that is informed by social science, but it is really also stories about Egyptians and Tunisians and Turks who want to live in more democratic and open societies.
JAMES KETTERER: That is a good note to end on. I would like to thank Joel Rosenthal and everyone here at the Carnegie Council for being such wonderful hosts.
STEVEN COOK: Thank you all very much for coming this evening.
JAMES KETTERER: I would also like to thank the BGIA students who are here and everyone else from BGIA. And thanks, Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations.