The Doorstep: America in the Middle East & the "Caliphate" Controversy, with NYU's Mohamad Bazzi

Oct 23, 2020

On this week's "Doorstep," hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev are joined by NYU's Professor Mohamad Bazzi, an expert on the Middle East. The discussion focuses on America's role in the Middle East, including a look at the recently released Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on how the Trump doctrine has affected national security, and "The New York Times"' "Caliphate" controversy. 

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to today's Episode Three of The Doorstep. We have so much to talk about since the last time, bringing the news to you that you may have missed and news that you can use in your everyday decision-making.

Today we are joined by a special guest, Professor Mohamad Bazzi from New York University, who is going to be sharing his thoughts on the Middle East and how news and events and actions in that region are affecting our lives here in the United States, on Main Street, USA.

As always, we want to hear from you, so please do share your comments after the podcast.

I want to also welcome Nick back to the podcast, who will be discussing a very important Senate Foreign Relations Report that came out yesterday about what the future might look like in American foreign policy.

Welcome, Nick and Mohamad.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much.

Hello, everyone. I'm Nick Gvosdev joining my cohost Tatiana Serafin in this issue of The Doorstep.

To start off with, yesterday the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report, "The Cost of Trump's Foreign Policy: Damage and Consequences for U.S. and Global Security."

What's interesting about this report is it very much takes to heart the concept that we have here behind The Doorstep, which is that foreign policy can't just simply be about moving pieces on the chessboard of grand strategy, but how does this connect to the needs, concerns, interests, and values of American citizens, to what extent has the Trump administration helped or hurt what Americans think to be important about foreign policy, and what are some of the ways moving forward.

Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, discussed the release of this report in a discussion moderated by Nahal Toosi of Politico, who was our guest on the second edition of The Doorstep.

What was interesting was that the senator sounded some of these key themes: that we have to connect to the needs of the "ordinary" American citizen, they have to see benefits from what America does in the world. But, more importantly, he really attached this question of values, that Americans want a foreign policy that they believe is rooted in American values related to democracy and free expression and individual liberties, and that we need to prioritize working with other democracies pushing back against the tide of authoritarianism.

Where this may play out—and this goes back to the first edition of The Doorstep—is he called out the technology question: that for citizens of the United States and our democratic partners in Europe and Asia, it's not enough to condemn what China does and to be concerned about Chinese digital networks and the 5G networks and social media apps, but that we then have to redouble our efforts to provide alternatives. I thought it was interesting that he called that point out.

What was also interesting was that the bulk of the questions and answers in the discussion revolved around the Middle East, which speaks to what polling data suggests is still the region of the world—despite the rise of China, despite the resurgence of Russia—that captures the attention of Americans. They perceive threats emanating from the region, whether from extremist organizations or from Iran, they are looking at the question of potential with regard to are there going to be breakthroughs in the peace process, and there is still a sense that what happens in this part of the world has a direct impact on their sense of peace and security at home.

It was interesting that, although China came up, the bulk of the discussion still revolved around the Middle East, which makes it a fortuitous timing that we are discussing the Middle East in this session of The Doorstep—and, again, right before the election, where, to the extent foreign policy has found its way into the election campaign, the Middle East remains one of those topics for both the public at large and also for specific interest groups and voting blocs within the United States.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that's so interesting, Nick, and you're absolutely right. From word-on-the-street interviews that I've been doing, it's clear that the view of America's strength and projecting its strength are clearly on the street seen as happening in the Middle East.

Would you agree, Mohamad? Is there strength? Does the United States come from a position of strength in the region? Can you talk to us about Trump's fragmented policy in the Middle East and what he has or has not accomplished over the last few years?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Thank you both. I think, Nick, it's very interesting, the themes that you laid out that emerged from the Senate Foreign Policy Report.

As you laid the themes out, I would add one element that felt missing to me out of the report is just the enormous media attention that stories on the Middle East receive, and I would argue that that's one major reason that it's on the minds of so many Americans.

The other major reason has to do with Tatiana's question of projection of strength. That would be the presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East. That's one place where we can see Trump's fragmented policy towards the region—and probably his entire fragmented foreign policy—most clearly.

Trump campaigned on the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from all of these foreign conflicts, all of these wars that the United States has been involved in since September 11, 2001. Of course, as previous presidents have found out, that is much easier said than done, and the United States continues to be entangled in multiple foreign conflicts in the Middle East. In Iraq, with the presence of several thousand U.S. troops there; Syria, where there's a lower number of troops, probably in the hundreds, maybe up to 1,000—we've never really had a clear sense of the level of U.S. troops, partly because the Pentagon stopped sharing those numbers—and then, going outward, into Afghanistan, the other country where there is a significant U.S. troop presence.

Certainly I'd argue that's one of the major reasons that the U.S. public sees the Middle East as integral and vital to U.S. foreign interests—the presence of those troops, the enormous media attention that is focused on these countries and on the conflicts in these countries—that's the major reason it's such an important part of the American psyche.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It's so interesting that you also mentioned media attention. One of the stories that I have been following is the controversy over The New York Times' podcast Caliphate. I think that encompasses what you're saying, this idea that Americans have that we're invested in the region because we're trying to fight an Other, whatever and however the U.S. populace sees that Other.

Caliphate was a podcast The New York Times debuted in 2018 based on interviews with primarily one person who claimed to be a fighter for ISIS and was giving the reporter, Rukmini Callimachi, information about terrorism and that organization. The way that the podcast played out over 10 episodes was this very dramatic—well, as someone put it, "fear sells"—the fear of Islam, the fear of Muslims, and this is how, episode by episode, it was built into with very vivid and graphic scenes, if you listened to the podcast, of what ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) was doing.

Until of course last month, in a story that went under the radar, the Canadian police arrested Shehroze Chaudhry, who was her primary source for this series. Now it is in The New York Times, and many media watchers are seeing, as The New York Times is reflecting, how the story is reported and what it means, and how The New York Times may have played into this media frenzy over the Middle East—and also media exploitation a little bit.

Mohamad, do you think so?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Yes, I think that the case that's unfolding right now over Caliphate and The Times' reporting and presentation of that podcast do build into this sentiment we saw. It feels long ago—you're talking about 2018, which is only two years ago, and the crush of news we've faced since November 2016, since that fateful presidential election—it does feel long ago.

I think all of us on this show right now follow international news pretty closely, and I imagine it feels far off for all of us because there has been so much and we can't quite grasp that time when ISIS was in the news every day and when there was a concern that somehow ISIS was going to reach America.

I think that one of the central problems of the coverage was this fear that these cells were striking Europe—which they were; there were many European fighters, volunteers, people who were recruited from the disaffected Muslim communities in various European countries, to go to Syria and Iraq to be part of the caliphate as ISIS presented itself, to be trained and to be involved in those wars there, and then in several cases to be sent back to Europe and to carry out terrorist attacks inside Europe.

Some of the coverage in the United States highlighted that and went into that phenomenon, that pattern, which is important to explore. But there was a byproduct of it, which was that soon the sense was that ISIS would reach America, that it would strike Americans in their homes, in the same way that it was striking fear in Europe. I think that's one place where the problems emerged.

One place where the coverage didn't quite stand up to scrutiny—partly because of this desire to reach for the most sensational characters and the most sensational stories—and that was where Caliphate and that journalist Rukmini Callimachi were tripped up in this particular case.

There were also some problems in some of the other coverage she had done for The New York Times, as several media observers have noted. The New York Times right now is doing an investigation and really reevaluating the reporting that went into the Caliphate podcast. It's having a team of editors and reporters pore over all that reporting to see what went wrong in the reporting of that major undertaking that The New York Times spent about a year working on, a whole team of reporters and editors.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Do you think, though it has kind of run its course it seems as a headline, that it has impacted or resurfaced American fears towards ISIS? There is a trial of two ISIS fighters going on. And then, on Friday we heard the news that outside of Paris a middle school teacher had been killed by a Chechen refugee who was upset with the discussion and portrayal of Muhammad in the teacher's classes.

Is this fear coming back that you mentioned and this frenzy coming back? Is this a way that Trump can play to his strength in the region? Do you see that happening as an "October surprise," if you will, before the election?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think we're past that point. Partly because of everything else that has happened and partly because coronavirus has been dominating the news and dominating our lives for the last eight months or so, the fear of ISIS is under the surface.

ISIS has been effectively defeated as an organization that controls a large territory in Iraq and in Syria, where it was able to carry out its operations. Without holding that territory, it has been difficult. There are remnants of ISIS—mostly in parts of Iraq; they're not as present in Syria—but those remnants are there. They have carried out some attacks that killed Iraqi civilians and some members of the Iraqi security forces.

I think that speaks to the deeper fact underlying all of this, which is that ISIS killed far, far more Muslims, far more people in Iraq and in Syria and in the Middle East and in the wider Muslim world, than it ever killed in Europe. There was always a disconnect between the hysteria around ISIS's impact and the ways it was gong to reach Europe and eventually the United States and the death toll that it would impose in these places. That's at the basis of this hysteria.

It affected those countries in the Middle East much more directly. In places where it was operating, in Iraq and Syria, the death toll was enormous there due to ISIS. It never reached that level of power and influence in Europe and in the United States.

Nick might have some thoughts on this as well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that this comes back to larger questions of perceptions of threat versus reality.

And then the question—tying it back in to The New York Times and the Caliphate podcast and blog—is things that then diminish the credibility of the media outlets that are charged with reporting, The New York Times and other institutions. If their coverage of events is being open to challenge, this then opens up the space, as we've seen in the last election and in this election, for people to question whether or not what is being reported is accurate, it opens up the space for disinformation to creep in, it opens up the space that what actually is happening on the ground matters less than the perception that people believe.

And again, tying it in to the Middle East theme, we had reports that hackers tied to the Islamic Republic of Iran have been essentially impersonating Proud Boys members to send threatening emails to potential Joe Biden/Kamala Harris voters.

And again, the idea of: Where do you turn to for trusted information? Why does this region matter? How do you separate the noise from what's actually happening on the ground?

And then again, back to "Why does it matter?" I think this is coming back as well to the United States and the public has a whole has seen a massive investment—certainly of treasure, and then for members of the volunteer military, the loss of blood—to be involved in different spots in the Middle East because people were told that "If we're not there, bad things will happen here." I think you have had people beginning to question that: "Is that the case? If we leave Syria, if we leave Afghanistan, does this necessarily mean that there are problems in the United States?"

Again, there's a lot that then begins to flow back into this, and some of this in the end comes back to: Where are people getting their information and how are they forming their impressions, to the extent that they are following this closely, but, even if they aren't—Tatiana, going back to your opening point—even people who aren't Middle East experts all seem to have an opinion about what's happening there. Where are they getting those impressions from, who is shaping them, how accurate are they, and then what are the policy impacts?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Did either of you see the press conference last night when John Ratcliffe came out very briefly and said, "Here's what happened," and then didn't take questions and left?

To your point, how are people getting information? It's difficult to get information when not much information is given, so you're left then with either looking at disinformation—people just promoting theories online—or a lack of information.

When we look at the potential next four years, Nick and Mohamad, from the perspective of if Trump wins, what might happen in the Middle East in the next four years, versus if Biden wins, what might happen in the Middle East in the next four years? Thoughts on the next four years, if we can look ahead?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think most countries in the Middle East don't want Trump to win the next four years, probably with two very notable exceptions, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have been the closest allies of the Trump administration. Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia would be very pleased if Trump won, as would Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan in the UAE. Aside from those two leaders, I think most other leaders—well, maybe Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt also would be pleased that Trump would win.

As a whole, I expect people with relations in the Middle East would be worried about another four years of an administration that had largely gone along with Saudi-UAE priorities in the region when it comes to Arab world allies, and then Israel's priorities in the region, and especially the Benjamin Netanyahu government's priorities in the region.

We have also lost sight a bit in the crush of news of the past weeks and months of the significance of the UAE and Bahrain signing the Abraham Accords, the deal with Israel trumpeted by the Trump administration as a huge accomplishment. It was important. It did put on paper a reality that already existed on the ground.

If I were to make a prediction if Trump wins, I think we would likely see Saudi Arabia added to that list of countries that sign an agreement—it's not really a peace deal since the countries weren't at war—and I think Mohammed bin Salman would wait until he is sent to the throne, until he becomes king, to be able to do that because his father has resisted the idea so far to make a deal with Israel. But Trump would probably tout that as the greatest accomplishment ever in the Middle East.

But on the very negative side, we would continue to have tensions with Iran, a fragmented and confused policy regarding Iran, one that just seems to highlight punishment and economic sanctions and this idea that the regime in Iran can be forced and humiliated into negotiations. I think it will just continue trouble throughout the region.

We would likely to see, and are already seeing, steps toward a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which is one of Iran's highest priorities and an interesting contradiction, in that one of the main goals of Major General Qasem Soleimani was to get U.S. troops out of Iraq, and by his death he would likely have accomplished that. We have already seen the winding down of U.S. troops who no longer want to be the target of the Iran-backed Shias in Iraq.

We are also seeing a potential move to shut down the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, one of the largest U.S. embassies in the world. There was a huge investment of money and effort and lives lost to building that embassy and establishing that presence.

Untangling all of that without any apparent policy for what the U.S.-Iraqi relationship would look like under Trump. So I'm not optimistic.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think a lot, first of all, depends on who wins the presidency, whether or not we have a second-term Trump administration or a first-term Joe Biden administration.

If it's a first-term Joe Biden administration, then a lot depends on how that administration is staffed out. I think that one of the things from last week that our guest Nahal Toosi had pointed out was that there is competition within the Democratic Party for shaping the direction of the Biden administration.

Where does that come through on the Middle East? Returning back to Senator Menendez yesterday, what would a Democratic administration do differently? Would it be more willing to enforce human rights standards on allies of the United States that are autocratic in nature, and would that cause them to accept this as criticism from the United States, whether in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, will it cause them to turn more to Russia to counterbalance?

What happens in terms of whether or not a Biden administration chooses to reenter, or to seek to reenter, the Iran nuclear deal, versus a Trump administration that, despite its talk about wanting a "better deal," seems more or less intent on regime change in Tehran, even if it's not by use of the U.S. military but just essentially using economic pressure to cause a collapse of the regime? Obviously, two very different directions.

But particularly also an interesting note for Generation Z, which tends to want to focus when it thinks about foreign policy or global policy on wide-ranging issues, such as climate change. The policies that are taken on climate change in the next four years have an impact on our Middle East policy.

If Joe Biden, despite some of his campaign rhetoric in Pennsylvania, accedes to some of the demands of the more progressive/environmental wing of the Democratic Party, and therefore really seeks to put new limits and restore Obama-era limits on U.S. oil and natural gas production, we aren't going to be able to immediately pivot to green technology, so there will be a gap where we need oil and gas. If we're not producing it and we restrict how much we're producing, then the Middle East becomes important again, even if we're not the direct importers, but because a greater source of the world's supply comes from the Middle East.

Last year, the Trump administration—a kind of one-off from Donald Trump—essentially said, "We don't really need to secure the free flow of energy from the Middle East anymore for ourselves or for our allies because we can source it." I think it's a bit overestimating how much the United States could supply world markets, but that was a sea change after 40 years of the Carter Doctrine, saying "Keeping Middle East oil flows open is no longer necessarily a security issue of the United States." Well, that depends on how much is being produced domestically, so domestic environmental policy could cause us to reengage.

The other thing that will be interesting is Donald Trump wants to continue his haphazard withdrawal from the Middle East.

But Joe Biden—will the real Joe Biden step up—because now we're being told that Joe Biden really had opposed the Libya intervention in 2011, he was a proponent of a very light footprint for Afghanistan, he didn't support the surge, he just wanted to essentially keep a very minimal counterterrorism force.

Would we see either a second-term Trump administration or a first-term Joe Biden administration trying to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the region, and what would that do with existing allies and the like?

And then finally, of course, I don't see a Biden administration, if it were to come in, reversing some of the decisions the Trump administration has taken vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the status of Jerusalem, the status of the Golan Heights, other things. Would a Joe Biden administration have a fundamentally different approach than the Trump administration when it comes to Israel, and how much of that will depend on whether or not Netanyahu remains as prime minister, versus at some point the Israeli opposition coming to power?

Similarly, if I'm Mohammed bin Salman, I must be worried to some extent about trying to get a read of what a Joe Biden administration would mean for my plans for the region, my vision for Saudi Arabia's development, but also how that plays out vis-à-vis Iran.

I think that these are questions that we can pose today, but we're not going to know the answers, not even after November 3, and in many cases we may not know the answers until next year, either with seeing who staffs a second-term Trump Administration, because so many key positions right now are not staffed or people are leaving, and then, of course, if it's a Joe Biden administration coming in, who gets the nod, who will be appointed to those key foreign policy and national security positions. Then we will have a better idea next year.

TATIANA SERAFIN: So we don't have the answer.

Mohamad, do you have a sense of how Biden is perceived in the region, how people are viewing the election and what's going on in the United States?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think Biden is viewed much in the same way he is viewed here, which is as a stabilizing force, a return to norms of U.S. foreign policy and less erratic behavior.

Nick laid out the key issues very succinctly. There is some hope that he would return to the Iran deal, whether entirely or elements of it. A counterpoint to that is that Iran is going to make more demands this time. It's not going to be so quick to trust a U.S. administration or a U.S. president or the signature of anyone in the United States or the commitment of any U.S. official this time because of what Trump did, shattering that norm of respect of previous U.S. deals reached with past administrations.

It wouldn't be an easy negotiation. In some ways, Iran and its allies in the region—the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a few others on that list—are looking for breathing space under a Biden administration in a way they haven't had, certainly in the last year or two, under the Trump administration.

I think one of the things we are seeing—for example, I think the delay in forming a government in Lebanon is partly driven by Iran and others, the Gulf countries—is they are waiting to see what happens with the U.S. election. Lebanon has its own dynamics, and we would need to spend an entire show to get through those, but that's one of the factors driving that delay.

Today, actually Saad Hariri was named again—I guess this will be potentially his fourth time—prime minister. He is the prime minister who resigned a year ago at the start of the popular protest, continued to serve as the caretaker for a few months, then was replaced by another prime minister, and then later that prime minister and his cabinet resigned after the Beirut port explosion, and now Hariri is back and tasked with forming a new government. That's a sign that the factions are coming to some agreement. He probably does have the support of Iran. I imagine he does because Hezbollah seems to be ready to sign off on his nomination.

Those are all the different ways that the region is waiting for this election and to see the outcome, and basically to see how a Biden administration—I think Nick is right—we would need to look at who is appointed in the key positions, who staffs these positions, who creates the day-to-day policy.

I wouldn't expect radical change. I agree with Nick that Biden and his administration would not undo the deals that were reached between Israel and the Gulf. He has already expressed support for them.

On the Golan, that is something that is important to resolving the Syrian War and Syrian crisis. I wonder if he would try to find some leverage with a non-Netanyahu administration. But on the questions of what has been achieved so far, he would probably continue.

I think the American left will be looking at how a Biden administration deals with autocrats in the region—deals with el-Sisi, deals with Mohammed bin Salman—and deals with the Yemen War, which started under the Obama administration, and, despite the protests of so many Obama-era officials that tried their best, they went along with that war for the first two years and they continued to arm Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the early years of that war.

I think the left progressive elements of the Democratic Party are going to be looking very closely at what a Biden administration does on Yemen, what it does on weapons sales to those regimes in the Arab world, and that could potentially be a really difficult early test for a Biden administration.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is an excellent point, bringing up the progressives, because they are driven by the younger generation with different thinking—Gen Z's thinking that we've been talking about, young Millennials' thinking driven by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

It is very much a "wait and see." We're going to wait and see about the debate tonight and we are going to wait and see about November 3. Our next podcast will be after the election, and I'm sure we'll have more to talk about.

Before we sign off today, I want to mention that yesterday was Global Ethics Day. I know a lot of what we talked about is asking our current leadership to think about ethics in their leadership roles and in their positions both abroad and at home. I do want to give a shout-out to the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Day, which was yesterday.

Very important, because this week is also Global Free Speech Week. We'll be talking of course more about that and this idea of disinformation as we continue to watch the story of what is Iran really doing in the election and how this is going to play out over the next couple of weeks.

I want to thank you very much, Mohamad, for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

Thank you, Nick, and thank you to our listeners.

Remember, if you have comments or questions, you can follow us @CarnegieCouncil or Tweet me at @TatianaSerafin.

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