A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East

May 19, 2008


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Today it is a great pleasure to welcome Sir Lawrence Freedman, who will be discussing his book, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East.

The Middle East has been one of the most flammable parts of the world for many decades. The war in Iraq, the standoff with Iran, the failure to find a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the continuing danger posed by al-Qaeda all testify to the complexity of the region's problems. Along with Europe and Asia, the Middle East has been one of the three zones most strategically linked to the national interest of the United States. Yet it was not until British and French colonial domination had receded that America stepped into the Middle East, gradually becoming the principal guarantor of the region's peace and also ensuring stable access to the region's oil resources.

In Choice of Enemies, our guest this morning writes about America's involvement in this region, how issues were presented and the choices our country made in dealing with them—for example, whom should we oppose, whom should we support, and under what conditions? Professor Freedman aims to provide an account of how successive presidents from Jimmy Carter through Bush the Younger engaged with this part of the world. Professor Freedman writes that it is in the Middle East where he sees a recurrent theme, one that reflects how the United States has been made to confront its attitudes on the use of force and the role of its allies and of international law. He examines prevailing assumptions about the sources of power and how this power can be exploited.

As an organizing principle, our speaker chooses certain key events from the year 1979 which he believes set the terms of greater U.S. involvement in this region. These events include the Camp David summit, which led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which led to the overthrow of the Shah; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Also in 1979, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq.

The sequence of events might well be coincidental and unrelated, but the evidence attests to the long-lasting and historical consequences of these occurrences, which, one could argue, include the U.S. withdrawal from Beirut, the Iran-Contra affair, and 9/11.

Our speaker is Professor of War Studies at King's College London, a post he has held since 1982. In 2001, he was appointed head of the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy at King's and, shortly thereafter, its vice principal for research. Before joining King's, Professor Freedman held research appointments at Nuffield College, Oxford, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Professor Freedman started publishing in the late 1970s, and since then, almost every year a book or edited volume has emerged bearing his name. His writings have focused mostly on military affairs, nuclear strategy, and the Cold War, and include the widely acclaimed Kennedy's Wars.

Next to being a well-known figure in academic circles, Sir Lawrence's policy-oriented research has been recognized at the relevant British ministerial departments, with an appointment in 1997 by Tony Blair to be the official historian of the Falklands campaign.

If you want a better understanding about the history of America's relations in the Middle East and a glimpse into the future, at this time I ask that you join me in sending a very warm welcome to our very distinguished guest, Sir Lawrence, who is well equipped to illuminate America's involvement in this region.

Thank you for joining us.


SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Thank you very much indeed. It's a real pleasure to be in New York. As a Londoner, I have a particular affinity for the city.

I should apologize, I suppose, to start with, for a Brit writing about American foreign policy in this way. All I can say is that I hope that the detachment or distance that the United Kingdom has from the United States allows at least a slightly different angle on some of the issues. But I promise you, it comes from a deep affection for this country.

My grandfather, in fact, was a naturalized American citizen who, for reasons that we don't fully understand, decided to return to England during the First World War, even before you joined. He managed to get there by getting drunk before he set off on the Lusitania, thereby missing it. But he got caught by the great flu epidemic of 1919, nonetheless. So if things had been different, I would have been an American.

The second thing is, I always get a bit nervous when historians start projecting forward. I think historians tend to be quite good on the past but, by and large, pretty awful on the future. The comment that "the lesson of history is that there are no lessons" is one that I think ought to be kept in mind, perhaps particularly over the past weekend, when once again the only lesson of history which some people seem to be aware of, which is one that took place 70 years ago with Munich, is being put forward once again. I always get surprised that, given all that has happened over the last 70 years—numerous conferences and diplomatic encounters, the Second World War, the Cold War, coming to terms with the two communist giants of the Soviet Union and China, seeing them off, in many ways, as communist states—we keep going back to appeasement and Germany as the only episode that offers us any conclusions for the future.

It does seem to me that one of the reasons it is useful to look at the Middle East at this time and look back at its history is that one can see things from the region itself and from the American engagement with the region that might at least illuminate some of the contemporary issues and suggest some ways forward. One doesn't just have to look at this particularly awful episode of 1938 with Chamberlain at Munich.

In addition to drawing attention to the dangers of appeasement while he was on the Middle Eastern tour that he has just come back from, President Bush also did a number of things he actually did at the start of the year, the last time he visited the region. He is now making it quite a regular trip. He lectured Arab governments on human rights and democracy. He asked the Saudis to pump more oil. He tried to push forward the Annapolis process. Of course, he tried to be encouraging about Iraq. Of course, he warned about the dangers of dealing with Iran and Hamas with anything other than a tough stance.

The point about all of these is, whatever stances he was taking, there aren't going to be very many results over the next few months. This is a legacy he will leave for the next administration.

What strikes me, of course, is, if you look back—our chairman made the point in her kind introduction—the reason I go back to 1979 is that actually a lot of the problems that we are now facing come from 30 years ago. They didn't suddenly emerge over this last administration or the predecessor. They now have quite long histories. Even, of course, the events of 1978-79 can be traced back a long way before that.

So what I think the historian can do is not necessarily give you answers to what we should do about these problems—as I shall explain, these are very difficult problems; there aren't any easy answers—but to give at least some context and some understanding of where they came from.

So let's just quickly go back to the late 1970s. One of the things that is interesting about that period is that you had two upheavals in two neighboring states, Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of them were anti-monarchist. In fact, the monarchy in Afghanistan had been overthrown in 1973. But the aftermath of that was well under way in 1978-79. In 1978, there was a coup in Afghanistan, as the government, which had been edging away from Russia, from the Soviet Union, and trying to develop links with the West, was overthrown, effectively, by the Communist Party. So in 1978-79 in Afghanistan, there was a socialist revolution under way, which was opposed by Islamic forces.

At the same time, in Iran there was an anti-monarchist revolution under way, in which the socialists and Islamist forces came together in order to overthrow the Shah of Iran.

Those two forces, the socialist secular and the Islamists, represent what I call in the book the two radical waves of the Middle East. It's the interaction between these two that I think has given so many of the crises in the Middle East their particular character and impact.

The socialist revolution, one would have expected from the Cold War, would have been the most powerful and formidable in the 1950s and 1960s. In the Middle East it was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, with Pan-Arabism, secular in its politics, keeping the clerics in their place—never wholly communist, but forging close ties with the Soviet Union. It suppressed communist parties, but forged close ties with the Soviet Union.

By the late 1970s, the socialist revolution was almost running its course. They had failed. They had failed economically. They had failed with Israel. The impact of the 1967 war still lingered in that sense, the humiliation of the regular defeats at the hands of the Israelis. They failed because the Pan-Arab slogan that Nasser championed of unity amongst the Arab peoples—not the Islamic peoples, the Arab peoples—had brought disunity. Some of you, I suspect, are old enough to remember the United Arab Republic, which was an entity which was to bring Egypt and Syria together. It didn't last, because it was always based on one state being stronger and lording it over the other. It couldn't last.

So the Arab world, despite the rhetoric of unity, was divided amongst itself—Syria and Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Syria and Iraq both claimed to be following Baath ideology, which is sort of a mixture of socialism and fascism that had developed during the Second World War. You might have thought that they would be ideologically close and together, but they weren't. The ideological closeness, in fact, aggravated their differences rather than brought them together.

It's a point just to keep in mind when one is thinking about the Middle East more generally. It's a point that you could make about other parts of the world—indeed, any radical groups. It goes back to what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences," the tendency of radical groups to be far more aware of what divides them from each other than, in fact, what they argue about with their main enemy.

Nonetheless, you have Iraq, Syria, Egypt, all of them vying for influence in the Arab world, but none of them comfortable with each other. The Palestinian movement, Fatah, was part of that. Arafat was very much part of that ambience. That's the context in which he grew up.

So that is one of these traditions that by the late 1970s was getting tired.

The Soviet Union looked tired. It was also economically struggling, and it had a number of setbacks, the most important setback being, in some ways—in terms of the Middle East—Egypt, where Anwar Sadat had taken over from Nasser in 1970, and Sadat had made a very deliberate play to the West, where he saw you got better economics, better weapons, and better diplomatic support if there was ever to be any sort of deal with Israel.

1979, as was mentioned, was the year of the Egypt-Israel treaty, based on the Camp David summit of the previous year that Jimmy Carter presided over. For many, this was the end of that Pan-Arab dream. If Egypt was going to do a deal with Israel, then that was that. They were no longer going to provide the political leadership that they had provided under Nasser.

So the first radical wave of the Middle East that has grown up in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s and 1950s was drawing to a close. Its remnants are still around, but they are no more than remnants of that period.

The second radical wave was the Islamist radical wave. That's the one that we are still seeing. That, too, was given its impetus in 1979.

You have to remember that up to this point, the clerical-establishment Islamic movements were not seen as hostile to the West, but far from it. They were seen as allies in the struggle against communism. There was no way that atheistic communists could get the support of Islam. You can see this with Sadat. When Sadat came to power, he brought out from prison many members of the Muslim Brotherhood that Nasser had put in there. The Muslim Brotherhood, which also traces its origins to Egypt, going back to the 1920s, was also seen as anti-colonial, radical, but pliable and ready to work against the socialists whom they saw as more dangerous, and, of course, they had persecuted them, not only in Egypt, but also in Syria—in fact, much worse in Syria than in Egypt.

Sadat relaxed the restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood. But when it came to the fact that he was starting to do his own deals with Israel, the youngsters in the Muslim Brotherhood, the radicals, turned against him.

So you can start to see again here the unleashing of a political force that began as a potential ally of the West that turned into an opponent. Of course, Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist. He wasn't assassinated by a Nasserite; he was assassinated by an Islamist.

But it isn't one single strand. The Muslim Brotherhood represents one strand, largely Sunni. It comes through this period, through the Egyptians. The most extreme versions are those who found the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood a little bit too soft, a little bit too moderate, and became more radical. Al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, is one of those. That partly traces one line to al-Qaeda. Another line is to Hamas. Hamas was the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. Explicitly, that was its position. So Hamas is another descendant of that development of radical thinking.

The Shiite line is quite different. Shiites have always been the underdogs in the Middle East. They don't have as many countries. Of course, Iran is not Arab; it's Persian, which matters an awful lot to people in the Middle East, even if it's a distinction that often gets lost in the West.

The revolution that Khomeini was in charge of was missed, in many ways, by the Shah, as well as by the United States, because they weren't looking to the Islamists to make the revolution. They thought it would come from the communist Tudeh Party or from the leftists. They thought that, at most, Khomeini was probably a figurehead, somebody who would go back to writing about theology and giving spiritual advice, rather than leading the country in a particular direction.

After the revolution, in 1979—the Shah left in January 1979—it soon became clear that actually this wasn't going to happen that way, that Khomeini intended this to be an Islamic state. You then had a struggle between the leftists and the Islamists for the soul of Islam. Of course, part of this was the taking of the U.S. embassy in November 1979. It is forgotten that in February 1979, there was another attack on the U.S. embassy, which Khomeini's people rebuffed. That was because that one was led by leftists. It was the November one that was led by Khomeini's supporters that took a grip and was used to undermine those elements within the government who wanted to maintain reasonable relations with the United States, and then against the leftists as well.

So you have in Iran a deliberate defeat by the second radical wave of the first. Next door in Afghanistan, you have the two radical waves fighting each other, the socialists versus the Islamists. There, of course, the United States backed the Islamists. They backed the mujahideen, with the help of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Probably none of those three countries quite realized what it was that they were setting in motion when they did that. Pakistan maintained close control over who was allowed to carry the banner in Afghanistan, to who got the money. The CIA funneled money through Pakistan, with Saudi Arabia.

There is all this talk about how the CIA funded bin Laden. There is no evidence at all for that. But they were at the time on the same side, one way or another.

So you have this sort of odd situation developing, where a Sunni radicalism in Afghanistan is being supported by the United States, while a Shiite radicalism in Iran is being opposed. Of course, during the 1980s, the United States took its hostility to Iran to the point of working closely with Iran's main enemy, Saddam Hussein.

This is not a particularly glorious moment in American diplomatic history, but it does indicate that American presidents have been prepared to deal with all sorts of types, if they thought it supported American national interests. In the 1980s, there was a very clear set of American national interests that President Reagan thought was worth pursuing in order to reflect American antipathy to Iran. That involved providing intelligence to Iraq, doing the utmost to stop weapons getting to Iran. It wasn't an issue to provide weapons to Iraq, because Iraq had France and the Soviet Union as arms suppliers. They didn't need weapons, whereas Iran's arsenals had been built up by the United States and Britain, and therefore they needed Western weapons in a way that the Iraqis didn't.

They provided credits to Iraq. Many of you will be aware of this famous visit that Don Rumsfeld made in 1983, where he was acting as President Reagan's emissary to Saddam Hussein, in order to persuade them to work more closely. It had an objective of nonproliferation and antiterrorism, which were put forward then, but not with the same vehemence, shall we say, as became clear a couple of decades later.

This was fine until, of course, President Reagan also decided that maybe they should talk with Iran as well. That was because in Beirut, left over from the American intervention into Lebanese politics in the early 1980s—which was, again, a consequence, to some extent, of the Islamist Revolution, which was where Hezbollah first made itself felt, when the United States first experienced mass suicide terrorism—there were still American hostages there, and Reagan was desperate to get them out. So that also led to Iran-Contra.

So there is this very checkered history from this period of dealing with all sorts of characters in the Middle East. They are all based on certain assessments of where American interests happened to lie. It got particularly confused under Reagan, I think in part because of the nature of the administration and the divisions within it and the particular idiosyncratic role the National Security Council played at that time. But what it led to was total confusion in the Middle East after the Iran-Contra revelations came out, which, in consequence, required Reagan to become even more supportive of Iraq.

The Americans played a critical role in the defeat of Iran—or the non-victory of Iran, shall we call it—in 1987-88. The Americans blew the Iranian Navy out of the sea. You have to understand that if you are trying to make sense of Iranian attitudes now towards the United States and the role the United States might play.

Saddam Hussein, as we know, didn't actually return the favors. The hope that, once there had been a ceasefire agreed with Iran, you would have a return to normalcy, whatever that was in Iraqi politics, and a concentration on economic development soon turned out not to be the case. But right up to the start of August 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, right up to that point, the Americans were trying to maintain decent relations with Iraq, arguing that questions of human rights, questions of chemical weapons, all of these could be handled. It was just going too far to gobble up a neighboring country. That's where the line was eventually drawn by Bush the Elder, if I can call him that.

The point here, it seems to me, that you see again working in American politics is, as soon as the United States was in a direct confrontation with Saddam Hussein, as soon as it was clear that Iraq had broken a basic rule of international law, then he wasn't just described as being delinquent, as being a rogue; he was described as being "evil." Very few political leaders deserve the label "evil" more than Saddam Hussein. But this wasn't a sudden revelation of his evilness. It had been there all the way through the 1980s.

That, I think, illustrates one of the dilemmas for policy in this area. If you try to turn it into a morality play, then you get caught out by the complex politics of the region—a morality play in both senses, of describing who is good and who is bad. The sort of normal stump rhetoric of American politics, when applied to the Middle East, finds you at times with some rather strange friends, as well as with enemies that perhaps deserve a more rounded picture, which is not to justify them, but just to say that when you are dealing with countries in a region such as the Middle East, you need, I would argue, a sense of the complexities of the politics and the nature of the way that everybody is viewing the United States and their own interests.

I argue in the book that the United States tried to introduce almost a third radical wave of its own. You could see President Bush articulating that in his final speech in Egypt just this weekend. You could also see it in the speech that Condi Rice made in Cairo in 2005. This is to argue that what the Middle East really needs is democracy and human rights. It's a proposition which is very hard to argue with, and the virtues of liberal democracies are very evident when you see the mistakes that can be made by countries that don't allow for exchanges of opinion, that are based on repression, and are essentially based, in the end, on the desire of the regimes to protect themselves, to maintain their own survival.

But the problem, I think, with Bush's radical wave is, first, it's a foreign power. It's very hard to be an indigenous radical when you are a great power.

I remember when I was doing my book on Kennedy. Kennedy was very enamored of the idea that somehow the United States had a particular advantage over the old colonial powers like Britain and France, as being a revolutionary regime of its own, that it had its own revolution against colonialism. But it never really rang true in the Third World. They never really could see the United States as fellow revolutionaries. It was all a long time ago, and it created what seemed to them to be a power that supported the status quo.

It does seem to me that there is a tension in the American policy between being a status-quo power, yet dissatisfied with the status quo. Much of what has happened in the Middle East reflects that.

So when Bush is arguing the case for democracy and human rights and opening up, he has a point; the radical message has a point. But he is unable to push it through because, in the end, as a former Israeli foreign minister put it, too often in the Middle East the choice appears between a moderate autocracy versus an Islamic democracy. The mass movement, the popular feeling, is with the real radicals, rather than with the sort of liberal radicalism that the Americans and other Western countries are pushing.

Moreover, the complexity of local politics does keep on coming back. As we saw when elections were held in Iraq, it isn't philosophical differences, it isn't constituency politics; it's ethnic identities that so often describe the way that people will vote. Electoral systems can encourage this or discourage it. So you end up with elections aggravating divisions rather than finding ways of healing them.

What seems to me to happen in the Middle East is that although the United States and Britain and France and others at times may seem to have a sort of civilizing mission, the regional politics is so powerful that it draws the countries that get involved in the region into its own mores, into its own practices, into its own ways of operating, because those are the sorts of challenges that get posed to you. In that regard, the Middle East is often sort of the graveyard of foreign policy, not just for the United States. I would say it's true for almost anybody, including the countries of the region. It's very hard to think of a country that has demonstrated a consistently sure touch in working its way through the crosscurrents of the region, between Sunni and Shia, between Persian and Arab and Kurd and Jew, between oil-rich and the poor, between the demographically challenged Africans and the Gulf. The divisions within the area, and moving up into Afghanistan and Pakistan, pose enormous challenges for anybody who is trying to operate within the region delicately and sensitively. So it's inevitable that you end up making mistakes.

Is this an argument for fatalism? I don't think so, because I think you have to believe that there are always possibilities of working with the political grain and because of developments within the region itself. It isn't a particularly optimistic time to look at the region, but there is movement. We have to remember that challenges, like the one posed by Nasser, that seemed so great and overwhelming in the past nowadays don't seem that important, whereas the challenge posed by Hezbollah and Hamas seems very pressing at the moment. But these movements have their own weaknesses. They have their own failings in their foreign policies. We must always be careful about not building them up to be cleverer and more deft than we are. They make their own mistakes.

So the challenge for the next president is going to be to try to find a new entry point into some of these conflicts, recognizing that the United States can't by itself, or even with its allies, reshape totally the politics of the region, but can exercise a positive influence should it seek to do so.

I have stayed away, not because I'm in New York, from the Arab-Israel question, because I think there is actually not a lot that one can say about that at the present time. I think it has reached an impasse that is only going to be broken by development, probably, in Palestinian politics, as much as Israeli politics. But I'm more than happy to talk about it.

But what I do think is important is to keep the Arab-Israel conflict itself in this wider context. It's always a natural thing to do to zoom in on something which touches so many people in this country, in this city—indeed, in the West—so deeply, where everybody has got strong views. But it is important to keep it in context. You don't understand Hamas unless you understand what has been going on in Syria, what has been going on in Lebanon, what has been going on with Iran. You don't understand the problems that Abbas has got unless you know the background to the Palestinian movement and the fact that he is almost a dreg of Nasserism, a last remnant of a political tradition that is coming to an end.

I think that's probably a good point to stop.

JOANNE MYERS:I don't think there is any reason to apologize for being British, because oftentimes giving us a different view and distance gives us a clearer understanding.

I would like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you for that address. I would like to extend it into the current situation, where you seem to have the new division—you spoke about the old ones—between Sunni and Shia. I'm particularly interested in Lebanon, where that seems to have replaced what used to be Christian and Muslim.

I was remembering this weekend, as I was reading about it, that at The New York Times we had a very quaint phrase in the 1980s. We referred to something called "mostly Muslim West Beirut." That's really quaint now, and that is gone.

I guess my question is, for the West, is there a way for Western policymakers to thread their way through the Sunni-Shia competition that seems to be arising in so many Middle Eastern countries, or does it depend upon where it is arising as to what it represents for Western national interests?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Thanks for an easy start.

Lebanon is odd, because it has a sizeable Christian group that was a majority when the constitution was put together in Lebanon and is now clearly a significant minority, declining all the time. It was a country that was partly destabilized for that reason. Eisenhower intervened in 1958 to try to maintain the position of the government against a Nasserite radicalism. Then it was destabilized by the Palestinian question, with all the Palestinians that had been chucked out of Jordan moving into Lebanon, upsetting the balance altogether.

So everything that has gone on in the region has been reflected in Lebanon, and it's the least able to cope. Syria has been in. Israel, of course, has been in. Neither country has really left it better than it was when they found it. It was almost catastrophic for Israel, the 1982 intervention, which led to Israel being pushed out and gave Hezbollah its confidence and standing within Lebanese politics.

What do you learn from that?

The first thing is that a mass movement able to mobilize during a conflict is in a very strong position. The more that Lebanon is put in terms of competing forces on the ground, the stronger Hezbollah is. That just plays to its strengths. If you are trying to think of Lebanon as people used to think about it in the past, as a dynamic economy, then you are not looking to Hezbollah.

I think you can make the same point elsewhere in the region, that, actually, the Western strengths in the region are in the social and economic. They are not when it comes to competitions of force.

One of the most dangerous things we could probably do at the moment is to try to beef up Siniora in such a way as to feel that he is able to take on Hezbollah. Unless we are prepared to go in and help take on Hezbollah, you will have exactly the same result as when we tried to encourage Fatah to take on Hamas in Gaza: They will lose.

So you are playing for time in Lebanon.

The other thing, of course, is Syria, with Lebanon. Syria is in an intriguing position. It's a country that's going nowhere in terms of its own people. It's, again, a relic of an earlier time, an example of dynastic politics—socialism in one family. The Syrians need to work out what it is they are trying to do.

One of the interesting things that's going on at the moment is a debate between Israel and the United States about whether there should be some opening to Syria. The Israelis are always intrigued by the possibility, and have been, through the 1990s, about doing a deal with Syria. It's actually, as often with Israel, that they like the idea of the deal, but they are not quite sure of the concessions they should make. But the Bush administration has been hostile because of what Syria is doing in Lebanon, its interference in Lebanese politics.

So while the attention is on, "Do we talk to Iran?" I would have thought an early conversation with Syria, who did turn up to Annapolis, about whether formal relationships, at least, are better might be more profitable. If you could turn Syria away from Iran, then you have created the incentives for Iran to talk as well.

I'm not optimistic about that. But I think that's part of the way they are playing it.

Lastly, this is not just Sunni and Shia. This is a division. The Sunnis feel it, possibly, stronger than the Shia, and Sunni elites tend to feel it stronger than the Sunni masses. You can't just assume that that is going to keep Arab governments hostile to and wary of Iran. It may not work as simply as that. With more intelligent Iranian policies, and perhaps playing down the Hezbollah role, which does alarm a lot of Arab governments, that division may not appear quite so exploitable as sometimes it appears, I think, at the moment.

QUESTION: Thank you for an extraordinary, insightful tour d'horizon of the Middle East, reminding us of the historic background, ethnic and so forth.

You were pressed for time. I don't believe you mentioned the word "oil." In American policy, oil is often paramount and is given as the underlying explanation for our presence in Iraq. Could you deal with that?
Continuing on the economic front, President Bush, in Egypt, mentioned the free enterprise system as really a way out of the impasse in Palestine and elsewhere—that is, if the Arabs themselves and the Persians would use their oil revenues, as is sometimes happening, to spread the wealth and to encourage a middle class, which is often the real basis of democracy.

Two very good points.

My good friend Ed Luttwak once wrote an article explaining why the Middle East was so unimportant, except for the oil. It sort of defeated the whole point of the rest of the article.

The oil is obviously absolutely central to the Middle East. It's why it's important. It's not just important to the United States. One of the odd things about this debate is that it's assumed to be a uniquely American interest, as if nobody else either uses oil or has oil companies. We have too. (And I'll tell you, our petrol prices are far higher than yours.)

So oil makes the Middle East an important part of the world. It doesn't seem to me that it defines a policy. That, I think, is the difference. There was that comment in 1990 when the United States rose to the defense of Kuwait. The comment was made that if Kuwait produced broccoli, which was the elder Bush's least favorite vegetable, as I recall, rather than oil, then he wouldn't have bothered. Yes, but if Kuwait produced broccoli, then Saddam Hussein wouldn't have invaded it in the first place. It was because of oil. Probably more intensely in 1990 than at any other time, oil was at the heart of the conflict, because it was Kuwait's wealth and oil reserves that Saddam was after.

But I think my general point about oil is that it just doesn't tell you what policy to follow. If you just look at Iraq, the United States has had every possible policy you could imagine with regard to Iraq. It has appeased it; it has contained it; it has invaded it; it has tried to build it up. Oil may be there in the background, but it doesn't tell you what to do.

The only qualification I would make is that it makes you very hesitant as to what you say to the Saudis, because the Saudis are playing a pretty important role. It's not quite the same as being rude to your bank manager, but it can have the same sort of impact.

I don't believe in the ideas of energy independence. I think that's a myth. When the first oil crunch came in 1973-74, 12 percent or something of the United States' energy imports came from the Middle East. Its prices still went up with everybody else's. It's a global market, while oil is in short supply, and the Middle East is becoming more important, not less, in the market. You just have to accept that that is a limitation on American politics. It's why it's a status-quo power which is satisfied with the status quo.

On your point about free markets, I think there is truth in that. If anybody is hopeful about Egypt, it's because recently they have been trying to open up the economy more and have had some success, although current economic conditions are not going to make it any easier for them. I don't think it's going to work in transfers of wealth from the oil states to the non-oil states. They haven't done it much in the past, and I don't see them doing it much in the future. It isn't wealthy Arab states, for example, keeping Palestine afloat. It's the European Union as much as anybody else. So I'm hesitant as to how far solidarity of that sort will go.

I think it's undoubtedly the case that the economic backwardness of much of the Arab world—and you will be aware of these development reports that were done in the United Nations—has held it back. There's low Internet use, low—basically, the whole of the Middle East is an economy the size of Spain, which, given the wealth and intellectual capacity of the region, is dreadful. The last few years have been better. GDP in the region has been growing. So maybe something will come out of that.

Tony Blair has produced some quite interesting ideas for the West Bank, to create an economic zone, which, if the Israelis help enough, could perhaps start to generate some wealth and give people a stake in what's going on.

But I think in most of these areas you need security to have good economics. It's very hard to have one without the other. I don't think the economics is a route out of the security problem, but it's a way that, if you can create the security, you can certainly build on it.

QUESTION: Many of the things that you have been talking about basically come down to supporting another state, where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." That happened with Iraq versus Iran. It happened with even supporting Saudi Arabia. It certainly happened in World War II, with the United States working with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.

As an historian, could you comment on the whole concept of supporting "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," both pro and con?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: You're right, it's an organizing principle of regional politics, and it creates some very strange bedfellows.

I think the difficulty with that is that it's very short-term. It's tactical. Therefore, it creates alliances that are fragile, that don't survive. Churchill's famous comment during the Second World War, when they found themselves on the same side as the Soviet Union, was that he would say a good word for the devil if he joined the fight against the Nazis. But it didn't last to the end of the war.

The expedience alliance against Iran—never mind that the United States fell out with Iraq; Kuwait was one of Iraq's big supporters during the Iran-Iraq War.

So it's very short-term and very expedient. I think there is this danger, coming back to the other point—insisting that your enemies are pure evil and will never have a more implacable foe is to insist that your friends are really very good and they will never have a surer friend. They are often not so good. They have their own issues and problems, and you end up hiding them and pretending that they don't exist.

So you can't view the Middle East in an idealistic sort of way, as if you are looking for the goodness in everybody. Everybody is calculating. It's a very tough neighborhood. You may end up making tactical alliances. But just be aware that that is what they are. Sometimes they make sense. You wouldn't argue that we should have rejected the Soviet Union in 1941. But you have to be aware that they have very brittle foundations.

QUESTION: Syria is a sort of unused card for the last few years. I think it was used seriously by the Americans when Clinton met Assad in Geneva in 1997 or 1998, something like that. But, of course, the Syrians, it is my firm opinion, will never like to negotiate alone with the Israelis. Like the Palestinians, they always want to have the Americans around. So if Americans signal that they are not very interested in negotiating with Syria, there will be no serious negotiations from Syria. After all, I think they were on the U.S. side in the first Kuwait war. They even sent troops there.

They are, as you say—and I can't subscribe more to that—a perfect interlocutor with Hamas and Hezbollah. We are not allowed on the EU side. The view is, don't engage in dialogues. So this is a perfect way to do it.

Also the peace equation with Syria is infinitely easier. It's basically a question of the Golan Heights. In return, Israel will, of course, ask for diplomatic recognition from as many Arab states as possible.

Thank you.

QUESTION: I would like to ask you if you could summarize some of the successes of United States policy in the Middle East and how they would apply to any current situation, or whether we are just dealing with expediency and situational ethics.

If you take a long historical view, first, you can argue that things could have been a lot worse, which is not the same as saying it's all great. But it could have been a lot worse. Some of the success resolves to the wider successes of American foreign policy over the last few decades, particularly the end of the Cold War on the terms on which it ended, which should never be underestimated as a great achievement. That took the stuffing out of the socialist camp, if you like, in the Middle East, which was once seen as a great threat and now is no longer.

The United States, to the extent that it wanted to punish Iran and put it in its box, you can argue that what it did in the 1980s ended up as a successful foreign policy. You could also argue that the United States in 1991, after the first war with Iraq, was in an extraordinarily strong position.

Now, we look back at that and we say, wasn't it a shame that Saddam Hussein was not taken out there and then? I think, in retrospect, it certainly was. But I don't think you should underestimate the extent to which this was seen, at the time, as a demonstration of a responsible, restrained, focused American policy. The assumption was that somebody who had lost a war so badly and had done so badly for his people would somehow be checked out.

But this is the Middle East. You can make a political career out of losing wars, as Nasser did and as Saddam Hussein did.

So, in a sense, they got that wrong, but for good reasons.

In my book, what's interesting—you often surprise yourself when you are looking back as a historian—is how well, I think, the elder Bush's administration worked as a foreign policy team, with coherent policies, and by 1992, had actually got itself in a reasonable position to make some inroads on the Arab-Israeli conflict as well.

Indeed, it just may be that Bush had been too successful in his foreign policy, because it meant that the American people felt that they could take a risk with Bill Clinton. I think there were tens of words in his acceptance speech about foreign policy. He didn't campaign on foreign policy at all. It was all about, "We have a good foreign policy if we make America at home strong." I partly felt that Bush had taken out a lot of the most difficult issues from being domestically salient in the United States.

I think that was probably the high point of American influence and prestige in the region. I think, through the Clinton years, he was able to trade off that and, to some extent, in some areas, build on it. But they couldn't bring certain things to a close.

What strikes one about the last few years is how little progress—in fact, things have gone backward on most of the issues that seemed to be close to movement forward in the 1990s. By the late 1990s, you obviously have the second failed Camp David, but you have tentative attempts to talk to Iran. You have had two summits to try to solve the Syrian-Israel problem. You have the treaty with Jordan. You have the Oslo process. You have Saddam pretty well contained. It hasn't really progressed since then.

So this has been a difficult few years, a difficult few years for the region, a difficult few years for the United States. Things will be starting anew.

The American political cycle is not the same as everybody else's political cycle. But other people do tend to wait and see what's happening. You will have a new president. That much is sure. They will have a chance to come in again. I think, in the end, the Americans remain a crucial external power in the area. But I think you have to go back to the way that the first Bush administration worked its way through—working, I think, quite well with the local political grain—to see ways by which the next president might be able to take it forward.

QUESTION: You mentioned Nasser and the time when he was trying socialism and he imprisoned some of his enemies. As I recall, there was a very well-known Islamic nationalist who was imprisoned during the Nasser period. I think it was Qutb or some name like that.

Sayyid Qutb.

QUESTIONER: My question is this. Is Islamic fundamentalism primarily driven by being anti-Israel and anti-United States or is it really driven by perceived inadequacies in the Islamic states that exist? Could you comment on that?

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: One, "fundamentalism," I think, is the wrong word. There are Jewish fundamentalists; there are Christian fundamentalists—it just means you are more pious than everybody else. Islamism is a political ideology that believes that the word of God must be put ahead of the word of man. It has views about the caliphate and return to Islamic rule. Therefore, it's basically an argument against apostates, against those who have turned away from the word of God.

Anti-Zionism and anti-Israel is used and fuels it. Sayyid Qutb was basically anti-decadent, as he would see the United States. It wasn't particularly about Israel.

If you look at the history leading from Sayyid Qutb, whose brother, I think, taught Osama bin Laden, into al-Qaeda, Israel was actually low down on their list of priorities. It wasn't what they were about. What really annoyed Osama bin Laden, for example, was American troops based in Saudi Arabia, close to Mecca and Medina, because they were foreigners and Christians, not necessarily because they were American.

So I think it's a much deeper philosophy, which is why the idea that it would just go away if you solved the Arab-Israeli conflict, unfortunately, probably isn't true, though it would be great to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you very much for this wonderful talk.

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