Competing Views of the United States

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Jon Alterman: Emile Hokayem is a senior fellow for the Middle East at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He grew up in Lebanon and France. He spent a bunch of time in the United States. We first met working on arms control in the Middle East about 15 years ago. Emile, welcome to Babel.

Emile Hokayem: Thank you very much, Jon—happy to reconnect after all these years.

Jon Alterman: How have Middle Eastern views of the United States changed in the last year? You talk to people. You travel in the region. What's changed?

Emile Hokayem: I think it has changed in many ways, and it really depends on who you talk to where and under what context. At the popular level, the United States is still a quite an unpopular actor in the region, but typically these are complicated sentiments. The United States is unpopular because of its perceived slights to the region, but at the same time there's still a degree of respect for the country—its ability to go through crisis and reinvent itself. The people I know who are very harsh on the United States also want to move to the country if given a green card. I know it sounds cliché, but it's also true. I’ve met a lot of people who have very conflicting views. At an elite level, however, things are more complicated. There were always questions about U.S. strategic wisdom Why does it decide to do some things that, at least at an elite level, make no sense? The Iraq war is a typical example. Why do you undertake this massive operation that is not just controversial—strategically, morally, and politically—but completely misguided and at an enormous cost to the region and the United States? What has happened over time is that there are questions about U.S. operational competence, and I can tell you from talking to people while watching the Afghanistan withdrawal that the question of competence was on everyone’s mind. It wasn't really about how evil the United States is. It was about: how could you get something like that wrong?

There are genuine questions about U.S. competence, and then there are other questions about U.S. strategic priorities—that it no longer cares about the region and will make any deal with anyone to offload the region. It’s a view that is sometimes prevalent among those who think that any U.S. diplomacy with Iran is essentially meant to help the United States wash its hand of the region. Obviously, U.S. officials and other Middle Eastern officials will push back against that idea, but it’s there.

The views exist across a very broad spectrum, but there are certainly a couple of milestones. With the George W. Bush administration, you had the Iraq war and his own views on Middle Eastern democratization and charges of U.S. hypocrisy. Then, you had President Obama’s Cairo speech and the sense of a renewal for relations with the region contrasted with the reality that Obama was a much more calculating, realist—almost cynical—president when it came to the Middle East. Then, it shifted to pandemonium under President Trump, where it was difficult to understand what U.S. policy was about, beyond transactional deals and bombast. Seen from the region, the United States—contrary to some other actors, especially Russia and China—looks like a tired, sometimes unreliable actor because of changes in leadership and the ups and downs of democratic systems.

Jon Alterman: The Biden administration has talked about taking a much less security-focused view of the region. You've talked about how it's complicated shifting from the security-focused diplomacy we've had for decades. What impact does the Biden administration's emphasis on diminishing the security component of its regional strategy have on the Middle East?

Emile Hokayem: Views here differ massively. There are those who say it's a ploy. The United States is not really changing. It says it wants to play a lesser security role in the region, but it's not going to change its defense and military presence in the region. It’s just licking its wounds in Afghanistan and Iraq but it's still ready to intervene if it needs to. There are others who look at that and see this with great concern about the strategic quid pro quos and tradeoffs that the United States could enter with regional or global powers. My point about Iran is one that is shared quite widely. The view is that if it finds a modus vivendi with Iran, the United States will somehow forget about Gulf security. There are others who think that the United States is entangled in local relationships—like with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Force (SDF) or other Iraqi factions—and is sucked into local situations with no real perspective or no real prospect of coming out on top. I would say that at an elite level, there is a lot of anxiety about what Washington has in store, and I often tell them that I don’t think Washington knows exactly what it wants to do. It would like to spend less political capital, less time, and fewer resources on the region, but the reality is that it can get sucked in very quickly. The United States hasn't ended its arms sales to the region. It has suspended some here and there, but it hasn't completely resolved its defense diplomacy in the region. It hasn't started to close bases, so we're not yet at a point where the United States has extricated itself from the region. It is still the preferred security partner. It is the ultimate security guarantor. These things haven't changed. It's really a question of how wise and how competent the U.S. is at this point. These are the big questions on the table.

Jon Alterman: In your view, is it right for the United States to take a less security-focused approach to the region? What would a more diplomatic, economic, or cultural approach really look like, if the United States were to put a big emphasis on those aspects?

Emile Hokayem: I understand why many in Washington want to see the United States play a lesser security role in the region. However, I also think that the United States—although it can right-size its role—cannot completely drop that role because the danger is that by doing so, it will exacerbate local anxieties or create strategic vacuums. I still think the United States has a good role to play as a stabilizer, but it really depends on who is in the White House. It depends on events as well. No one expected that George W. Bush would jump into the Middle East the way he did when he was elected president, but 9/11 happened and it changed everything. I suspect that other presidents also are quite reluctant play that role, but I think the United States still has a restraining role on security actors. At times it hasn't used its influence. At times it has forgotten that it has more leverage on the local parties than the local parties have on Washington. I think partly because the military dimension of the relationship tends to be the dominant one.

The Gulf states don't have real alternatives in the foreseeable future to the United States. Yes, they will flirt with China. They will flirt with Russia. But no one offers the suite of guarantees and services and reassurance that the United States does. The question is really whether the United States is interested in playing an ordering role in the region, or if it just wants to deal with those issues on a discrete basis. That’s what worries me. If the Biden administration only wants to focus on counterterrorism and a nuclear deal with Iran, that's a very narrow approach to the region. It is not going to create the basis for regional stability. It will lock the United States into some security roles that are not necessarily conducive to greater political dialogue in the region. Fundamentally, reassurance—how to reassure partners to make sure they’re not freaking out or taking you for granted—is a very difficult thing to do. I can understand the difficulty of that in Washington, D.C., and that is why I'm very happy I'm not American or a policymaker because I don't envy those who have to do that.

Jon Alterman: We haven't talked at all about the energy transition, and the likelihood that sometime over the next 50 years, the world is not going to be reliant on the Middle East for energy. The way the Middle East fits into the world and global security is going to be different. The Middle East will not be synonymous with global energy security. What impacts do you think the energy transition will have, and when do you think we'll start to see something and say that's a consequence of the global energy transition?

Emile Hokayem: This is probably the biggest structural challenge on the horizon for all producing Middle Eastern states. Their global relevance, their wealth, their centrality to global security has to do with fossil fuels, and it's very difficult to accept that this soon may not be the case. In the short term, I suspect that a number of Middle Eastern countries will say, “You know what, it's still a few decades down the road. Let's make the most out of it.” But, the energy transition super charges the fundamental dilemma for the Gulf states—which is that their security lies in the West while their economic prosperity is in the East. They're trying to reorient themselves, but it's a very tricky dance. I don't necessarily think that all the leaderships across the region have understood the medium- and long-term implications of that in terms of the ability of the state to provide jobs and sustain those social, economic benefits and incentives and they've offered their population.

I don't necessarily see this level of awareness. You're talking about the energy transition. I would say that it's even more so the case when it comes to climate change and its consequences in the region. I think the levels of resilience and preparedness are quite low because that awareness is not there yet. From a strategic perspective, the Middle Eastern states say that they are strategic not just because of oil, but that issues of great power competition are going to unfold in the Middle East.

Therefore, the United States will have to be invested here and great infrastructure projects like the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will go deep into the Middle East, therefore, the United States will have to be engaged here. Technology transfers will come to the Middle East and the United States will have to be engaged there. Proliferation is going to happen. Iran is already a nuclear capable actor and other countries may jump on this train, therefore, the United States will have to be engaged. I think that misses the new thinking, not just in Washington, but elsewhere that dealing with the challenges ahead--whether it's pandemics or climate change --will require very difficult choices and that the Middle East is a place where you never win. You just manage problems and that perhaps the cost of managing conflicts and tensions is not worth it.

Jon Alterman: But you suggest that that they're not really contemplating a step change in American commitment to stabilizing the region?

Emile Hokayem: This is a region that's very sensitive to global shifts and power and every time I visit any city, any capital in the region. I get this. I get questions about, “Has China overtaken the United States? Have you seen this latest report on Chinese naval capabilities? Have you seen this new Russian supersonic missile?” There's a lot of attention to what's happening inside the United States. The 2008 financial crisis was a big turning point. The Trump presidency—internal political tensions and all of this—is on their mind constantly, and so they're always trying to see whether there are alternatives but no one at the moment and for the foreseeable, the United States has the will, the capability, the infrastructure, and the know-how be a dominant security actor in the region. After the frenzy, things cool down, and people “Okay, the U.S. remains the security provider.” I would say, though, that even then, managing that anxiety—which sometimes can be irrational, but is sometimes quite legitimate—is not something Washington should shy away from.

Dealing with the United States if you're sitting in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi or elsewhere is a complicated proposition. It's even more so now that it's increasingly clear that the United States is going to make dealingswith China a topic of conversation for them. “What technology are you buying? What are you deploying? What are you buying next to the F-35 that we may sell you. Why are you negotiating the purchase of F-400s from Russia? Are you not understanding that we as your security provider require that you be mindful and protective and appreciative of our presence and our commitment?” At the same time, the others are saying, “Well, we have to hedge.” I think they're entering very tricky territory.

Jon Alterman: A couple of years ago, in a conversation you had with our mutual friend Kori Schake, you said, “Americans aren't Machiavellian. Americans are idealistic, naïve, and at one level incompetent.”

How does that shape how Middle Eastern states engage with the United States—in this sense that maybe the U.S. is just profoundly incompetent? How should either a sense that the U.S. isn't as competent as it wants to be, or a sense that Middle Eastern states think the U.S. is incompetent, shape what the U.S. does and what it seeks to do in the Middle East?

Emile Hokayem: Let me be clear, I think I'm in the minority. I think most people in the region see the United States as Machiavellian and incompetent, but the part about idealistic and naïve––that's essentially me and my experience in Washington. It was quite striking for me that Americans are well-intentioned. They want in and then they don't realize necessarily know what they're getting into, what they're creating, or the entanglements that they unintentionally sometimes create and end up owning.

I remember a discussion back in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq war, where a classmate of mine basically told me, “Of course we can get Iraq right. We sent a man to the moon.” I think for the United States, there is this massive dilemma, and I agree with critics of U.S. presence in the region that there is never a hard win for the United States. I don't think policymakers in Washington will ever be satisfied in their dealings with the region. They always feel that the expectations placed on them are unrealistic, that they're asked to mediate between parties that are at odds with each other, that if they welcome a Muslim Brotherhood government in this or that country because it's been voted in power, Washington gets accused of being pro-Islamist. That won't change, but at the strategic level, in terms of constraining states, in terms of their choices on defense, on security policy, on interventions in the region, the U.S. will remain key.

In Yemen, there was massive pressure on all parts of the U.S. system to essentially extricate the United States out of this, association with Saudi Arabia, in the hope that this would generate the political process. Their approach was, and remains, quite problematic. Saudi Arabia is a very problematic actor in Yemen, but today, the problem is not really Saudi Arabia. The problem is the other side, which now is, in a way, winning. They see that the U.S. is unwilling to support the Saudis. It sees Saudi as being in a very difficult spot, having paid a massive political and reputational cost. Same thing with the Iranians in the region. Of course, the Iranians are not winning the region—as in they are controlling everything all the time—but they’re enough in control in all these capitals in the northern Middle East and they've been quite successful. Who pays a price for that? The societies in the region.

Jon Alterman: Given what you've seen the United States able to do, you said the United States is often incompetent. You suggested the United States has a role constraining Iran's efforts to put its fingers into the politics of a whole range of countries in the region. You've noted that when the United States has done that, it has often stumbled because it oversimplifies the way politics work. It gets tied to domestic actors and doesn't understand the implications. In Lebanon, the Iranians have been very successful having a large role in domestic politics and the United States has been trying to calibrate—pushing Lebanon toward reforms and a way that constrains Hezbollah, the Iranian ally in Lebanon. How does all this play out? What is the outcome if the United States is idealistic, naïve, incompetent, powerful, and has an interest in pushing back against Iran? What do you end up with other than a muddle?

Emile Hokayem: Let's look at Lebanon, which is one of the least strategically important countries in the region at this point—although many Lebanese like to think otherwise. Lebanon is a good example, where the United States is certainly not the main party to state failure. American support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has been consistent—and it's the main pillar of U.S. engagement—but in the past decade, it was probably the only real track with Lebanon. There was no real attention in Washington to governance or reform issues because the objective was to keep Lebanon stable while Syria was burning. It was a pure containment strategy. There was no U.S. policy on Lebanon. It was a U.S. policy on Syria—containment—and Lebanon was a subset of that. I think there were opportunities for the United States to push more and to be harder.

Today, things are in such a dire strait that I can't fault Washington for having a minimalist approach to the problem—just “let's make sure that this thing doesn't get too unstable, that it doesn't export too many economic migrants and refugees, and that it doesn't collapse and send refugees abroad.” The goal of checking Iran—which I think could have been met earlier—is now unattainable. Hezbollah is a dominant player and Hezbollah is going to be holding the fortunes of that country. It will be domestic and regional dynamics that can constrain Hezbollah or not. I don't think the United States itself can have that role anymore. I don't use Lebanon as an example of success or failure of U.S. policy because I think it's peripheral.

When I say “incompetence,” I want to be clear that the United States has so many more instruments of power than just its military engagement. The problem with the Americans is sometimes the way they do things but put this aside. When I ask people in the region who told me about China and Russia, I ask them, “Would you get health care in China or Russia? Would you send your kids to university there? Have you bought real estate for your holidays there? Are you putting your savings in those countries?” The answer is usually no. Of course, appeal is not necessarily power or influence, but we have to understand that in the Middle East there is still an appreciation for the U.S., for its trends, for its innovation, for its higher education, for the dynamism and diversity of society. That is a net plus for the United States.

You would need the United States to be a very dysfunctional country to really lose that edge at this point. That doesn't always translate into greater confidence in the United States as a security actor, but I go back to the point: it's very hard to see the Chinese and the Russians deploying forces in the region in the way the United States did in 1990-1991. What is the greater purpose? Is it trying to reorder the region or order the region, or is it just managing problems so they don't grow too problematic? That is where I have some unease with President Biden’s focus on counterterrorism and nuclear diplomacy with Iran, because so much more needs to be done, My fear is that if they get these two things right—which would be a good thing—they'll say, “Okay, you know what? We can offload the rest of the problems of the region.”

Jon Alterman: Emile, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Emile Hokayem: Thank you.