What Gaza’s Crisis Shows About Israel’s Ambitions and America’s Decline

Al Jazeera has published our latest piece, titled “Gaza’s Crisis, Israeli Ambitions, and US Decline.”  To read it, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on Al Jazeera’s Web site.

Gaza’s Crisis, Israeli Ambition, and US Decline

As Israel’s military kills and injures hundreds of civilians in Gaza—whose population Israel is legally obligated to protect as an occupying power—people around the world, including in the United States, wonder why official Washington appears so indifferent to even the most graphic instances of “collateral damage.”

The primary reason is that most American policy elites still believe the United States needs to dominate the Middle East, and that Israeli military assertiveness is instrumentally useful to this end—a mindset the Israel lobby artfully reinforces.

Since World War II—and especially since the Cold War’s end—the US political class has seen Middle Eastern hegemony as key to their country’s global primacy. For two decades following Israel’s creation, it contributed little to this; thus, the United States extended it virtually no military or economic assistance, beyond negligible amounts of food aid.

Washington started providing substantial assistance to Israel only after it demonstrated a unilateral capacity, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, to capture and hold territory from Arab states allied, for the most part, with the Soviet Union.  Support for Israel grew through the rest of the Cold War; after the Cold War, US policymakers doubled down on the US-Israeli “special relationship,” calculating that facilitating Israel’s military superiority vis-à-vis its neighbours would help solidify US post-Cold War dominance over the strategically vital Middle East.

The instrumental nature of the “special relationship” also shaped what seems, from outside, Washington’s chronically ineffectual stewardship of the so-called Middle East peace process—especially in seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Notwithstanding rhetorical professions, neither Israel nor the US has ever wanted a two-state outcome.

Palestinian self-determination precluded 

Israel’s national security strategy has long rested on a military doctrine—which Israeli officials misleadingly label “deterrence”—requiring that Israel’s military be capable of using force first, disproportionately, and whenever and wherever in its neighbourhood Israeli politicians want.  Pursuing a two-state solution seriously would ultimately curb this freedom of unilateral military initiative.

Moreover, for a Zionist project with inherently religious roots, a two-state outcome would mean surrendering too much of the Jewish Biblical homeland to sustain the Jewish immigration on which Israel’s long-term future depends.

Likewise, the US never intended the peace process to help Palestinians achieve real self-determination—for that would inevitably constrain Israel’s exercise of military supremacy over its neighbourhood, attenuating America’s own drive for Middle Eastern dominance.  The process has instead been conducted to empower Israel, to subordinate Palestinians and other Arabs into an increasingly militarised US sphere of influence, and to leverage Arab states’ buy-in to this scenario.

These dynamics are vividly displayed in Israeli and US approaches to Gaza.  The roots of Gazans’ current trials go back to 2005, when Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from Gaza.  Widely credited with having pushed Israel to take these steps, Hamas won internationally supervised Palestinian elections the following year.

But Gaza’s occupation was far from over.  While Israel had withdrawn soldiers and settlers, it hardly let Gazans exercise anything approaching sovereignty:  Israel’s military continued exerting strict control over their access to the world—whether by land, sea, or air—and over flows of food, medicine, and other essential goods into their territory.  For nearly a decade, this siege has eroded living conditions for 1.7 million people.

After becoming the elected governors of Gaza’s population, Hamas offered Israel a long-term truce, if Israel withdrew to pre-1967 borders.  Instead of negotiating with Hamas, to consolidate a sustainable and truly self-governing entity in Gaza that could ground broader conflict resolution, Israel and the US rejected Palestinians’ electoral choice and worked in multiple ways to isolate Hamas and undermine its popularity by increasing civilian suffering in Gaza—including, in 2006, 2008-2009, and 2012, through military assaults inflicting thousands of Palestinian casualties.

In some respects, this approach “succeeded,” for a while.  By this spring, Hamas was at what even ardent supporters described as its weakest point, in terms of financial resources and regional backing, since its founding.  (To be sure, Hamas contributed to this by abandoning its base in Syria and counting on Egypt’s short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government to become its biggest regional backer.)

US failure

But Israel’s insistence on perpetuating occupation—even without settlements—is renewing Hamas’ resistance agenda.  Earlier this week, after Israel accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that would have done nothing to address the ongoing siege, Hamas made its own proposal: a ten-year truce, including a comprehensive ceasefire—if Israel met a set of ten demands.

Among them: opening all land crossings into Gaza, lifting the naval blockade, establishing an international airport and a seaport, freeing all prisoners arrested in the Israeli military’s current campaign, and committing not to re-enter Gaza for a decade.

Israel, of course, is not about to accede to any of this. And so the world waits to see if a ceasefire can be brokered, or whether Israel’s military, after bombing at least 1,800 sites in Gaza since July 8, is mounting a “boots on the ground” operation there which, Israeli officials warn, could last “many months.”

Among this situation’s many tragic aspects, one is particularly galling:  After strategically failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (by proxy) Syria, it is abundantly evident that Washington’s quest to dominate the Middle East has not just failed.  This quest has sapped US capacity to shape positive strategic outcomes in the region and, at least in relative terms, weakened the United States as a global player.  Looking ahead, the experience of the Arab Awakening casts further doubt on the long-term plausibility of co-opting unrepresentative Arab governments into a US-led regional order that, among other things, enshrines Israel’s perpetual military ascendancy.  Yet, US policy elites stick with their hegemonic script.

The alternatives to Washington’s failed quest for hegemony are twofold:  to shift US strategy towards cultivating a stable balance of power in the Middle East and to promote greater reliance on international law and institutions as contributors to regional and global stability.  Either or both would compel fundamental revision of US posture towards Israel.

Cultivating a stable regional balance will take serious engagement with all relevant actors, including those (Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran) that seek to constrain Israel through both hard and soft power.  It will also require the United States to stop enabling Israel’s unfettered freedom of military initiative, which contributes to regional instability.  Similarly, promoting international legal frameworks as strategic stabilisers is meaningless unless Washington stops shielding Israel from the political consequences of thwarting them—whether by regularly violating international humanitarian law or by opting out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and developing the region’s only indigenous nuclear arsenal.

Unfortunately for Gaza’s people and US interests, the US political class remains deeply resistant to these imperatives.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett










What Washington Has Learned From Negotiating With Iran—And What It Still Needs to Learn

The National Interest has published our latest piece, co-authored with the University of Tehran’s Seyed Mohammad Marandi, titled “What Has America Learned from Negotiating With Iran?” To read it, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest Web site.

What Has America Learned From Negotiating With Iran?

Flynt Leverett, Hillary Mann Leverett, and Seyed Mohammad Marandi  

While negotiators from Iran, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 will not meet their July 20 target for a comprehensive nuclear agreement, it is clear they won’t walk away from the table in a huff.  So, as the parties prepare to continue the process, what has America learned from negotiating with Iran, and what does it still need to learn to close a final deal?

One thing Washington has learned is that the Islamic Republic is deeply committed to protecting Iran’s independence.  Thirty-five years ago, Iran’s current political order was born of a revolution promising Iranians to end subordination of their country’s foreign policy to the dictates of outside powers—especially the United States.  Since then, the Islamic Republic has worked hard to keep that promise—for example, by defending Iran against a U.S.-backed, eight-year war of aggression by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and fending off a steady stream of U.S. and Israeli covert attacks, economic warfare and threats of overt military action.

On nuclear matters, the Islamic Republic’s commitment to protecting Iranian independence focuses on the proposition that Iran has a sovereign right, recognized in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to enrich uranium indigenously under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.  The Islamic Republic terminated the purely weapons-related aspects of the U.S.-supplied nuclear program it inherited from the last shah, going so far as to reconfigure the Tehran Research Reactor—which, when transferred by the United States in the 1960s, only ran on fuel enriched to weapons-grade levels (over 90 percent)—to use fuel enriched to just below 20 percent.

But the Islamic Republic has also been determined to develop a range of civil nuclear capabilities, including indigenous enrichment for peaceful purposes.  It won’t surrender Iran’s right to do so—even in the face of massive U.S. and Western pressure and sanctions.  Beyond sovereignty and practical needs, Iranian policy makers judge that appeasing Washington on the issue will simply lead to more aggressive U.S. demands and pressure on other disputes.

America may have begun to recognize that respecting Iranian independence is key to diplomatic progress.  For over a decade, Washington has insisted—contrary to how the vast majority of states read the NPT and to America’s own publicly stated view during the Treaty’s early years—that Iran has no right to enrich.  Even today, while Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledges Iran’s right to a “peaceful nuclear program,” the United States refuses to acknowledge that this includes a right to safeguarded enrichment.

However, when Washington has moved, in practical ways, to accept safeguarded Iranian enrichment, Tehran has responded positively.  In the Joint Plan of Action agreed last November, America and its British and French partners dropped their longstanding demands that Iran cease all enrichment-related activities before substantial diplomatic progress would be possible.  Furthermore, the United States and the rest of the P5+1 agreed that a final deal would encompass an Iranian enrichment program.  In return, Tehran made multiple commitments to diminish what America and its Western partners portray as the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear activities.  These confidence-building measures—which, the IAEA reports, Iran has scrupulously implemented—include stopping enrichment at the near-20 percent level needed for TRR fuel, converting part of its near-20 percent stockpile to oxide form and diluting fissile-isotope purity in the rest, freezing its centrifuge infrastructure and accepting IAEA monitoring well beyond NPT requirements.

While U.S. officials have started to grasp the importance of respecting Iran’s independence, they have yet to draw this insight’s full implications—the main reason a final deal isn’t at hand.

America and its Western partners continue demanding that Iran dismantle most of its safeguarded centrifuge infrastructure—a demand with no basis in the NPT or any other legal instrument and which contributes nothing to Western powers’ purported nonproliferation goals.  Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has made clear that, in a final deal, Iran could agree to cap temporarily the scope and level of its enrichment activities and to operate its centrifuges in ways rendering alleged scenarios of rapid “breakout” implausible (e.g., no stockpiling of low-enriched uranium).

Unfortunately, Western demands for dismantlement appear grounded in a determination that Tehran must “surrender” in a final deal—to forego sustainable indigenous enrichment capabilities and instead rely on foreign fuel suppliers (especially Russia).  If Western powers insist that Iran compromise its sovereign rights, there will be no final deal, no matter how long talks are extended.

The United States also still needs to learn—however incomprehensible this may seem to some—that the Islamic Republic is, in fact, a legitimate order for the overwhelming majority of Iranians living inside their country.

Besides restoring Iranian independence, the revolution that produced the Islamic Republic promised Iranians to replace externally imposed autocracy with an indigenously created system, grounded in participatory Islamist governance.  For thirty-five years, this is what the Islamic Republic has offered Iranians the chance to build.  With all its flaws, the Islamic Republic has delivered for its people in important ways, including impressive (and progressive) developmental outcomes in poverty alleviation, educational access, health-care delivery, scientific and technological advancement, and improving the status of women—despite decades of war, threats of war, and intensifying sanctions.

Still, many American elites persist in depicting the Islamic Republic as a system so despised by its own people as to be chronically in danger of overthrow—a fantasy that has driven Western enthusiasm and not-so-tacit support for regime change in Iran.  Beyond its falsity, this misapprehension of reality continues to warp the Western approach to nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.  Beyond dictating the “acceptable” scope of Iran’s indigenous capabilities, Western powers want the limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in a final deal to apply for well over a decade.  Conversations with Western officials indicate that this demand—also with no basis in the NPT or any other legal instrument—is motivated by assessments that the Islamic Republic will not last for more than ten years.  By insisting on a more-than-ten-year term, Western powers are calculating that, when a final deal expires, Iran will have a political order less committed to strategic independence.

This is both foolhardy and reckless.  The Islamic Republic is not about to disappear—and no truly legitimate Iranian government will compromise what the vast majority of Iranians see as their nation’s sovereign rights.

When the United States fully understands that, the nuclear issue will almost resolve itself.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The “Two-State Solution” Is Dead—Where Does the Palestinian Conflict Go From Here?

The National Interest has published our latest piece, titled “The Two-State Solution Is Dead.”  To read it, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.  As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest Web site.

The piece develops three themes we’ve highlighted for some time regarding Israel and Palestine; in addition to our National Interest piece, Hillary returned yesterday to MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry to discuss these themes:

–First, the real drivers of the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” are not “shared democratic values” and the legacy of the Holocaust—the real driver is America’s determination to dominate the Middle East.  As we write in The National Interest,

“Washington only began providing substantial military and economic assistance to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel showed itself capable of unilaterally defeating and seizing territory from Arab states allied with Moscow.  From Washington’s perspective, supporting an Israeli military that would periodically show up Soviet-supplied Arab opponents was, in a Cold War context, strategically valuable.  After the Cold War’s end, U.S. policymakers continued calculating that U.S.-facilitated Israeli military superiority helped keep the region subordinated.”

–Second, American foreign policy elites’ attachment to what is humorously called the Middle East “peace process”—and, for the last decade and change, to its ostensible goal, the “two-state solution”—is fundamentally misleading.  As Hillary explains on Melissa Harris-Perry (see here, starting 4:20 in),

“The peace process was never an indigenous phenomenon; it was never conceived by Israelis or Palestinians or Arabs.  It was conceived by the United States, after the 1967 war, after Israel proved it could be, essentially, an aggressive state against Soviet-allied neighbors.  That’s where the peace process comes from.  It’s always been an instrumental element of American foreign policy, never about peace or ‘Kumbayah moments’ for Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians.”

And, as we elaborate in The National Interest, “The process was never meant to constrain Israel and help Palestinians exercise their right to self-determination as part of genuine conflict resolution; it has always been about empowering Israel and subordinating Palestinians and other Arabs as part of an increasingly militarized U.S. sphere of influence in the Middle East.”

–Third, the reigning paradigm for addressing the conflict over Palestine is shifting ineluctably from a two-state model to a one-state model.  As we write and as Hillary points out on Melissa Harris-Parry (see here, starting 8:00 in), the U.S. government’s own demographic data and analyses show that the number of Arabs living in areas under Israeli control—“Green Line” Israel, Gaza, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank—already exceeds the number of Israeli Jews.

Against this reality, the Israeli military’s ongoing abuse of Gaza will inevitably drive more and more Palestinians, other Arabs, other Muslims, and communities around the world to shift their terms of reference for the Palestinian conflict from a two-state framework to a one-state framework.  (For Hillary’s assessment on Melissa Harris-Perry of the grossly illegal character of Israeli military action against the civilian population in Gaza, see here, starting 6:03 in.  For her political impact of repeated Israeli military action against Gaza and of Washington’s open-ended support for Israeli occupation of Arab populations, see here, starting 5:05 in and here, starting 2:50 in.)

The Two-State Solution Is Dead

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, originally published in The National Interest

Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian “final status” deal highlight American foreign policy elites’ rhetorical attachment to a negotiated “two-state” solution as the only acceptable basis for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, though, underscores a fundamentally different reality:  the two-state solution is dead.  And no matter how much Israel and its supporters object, the reigning paradigm for addressing the conflict is shifting ineluctably from a two-state model to a one-state model.

The two-state solution is the illusory end product of a U.S.-conceived “peace process” that has always been about things other than actually achieving peace—just as, contrary to the conventional trope, the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is not really about “shared values.”  From Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 to 1967—when memories of the Holocaust were fresh and Israel was arguably at its most democratic—America provided it no appreciable military or economic assistance; indeed, Washington barely gave it food aid.  During the same period, there was plenty of fighting between Israel and various Arab parties—yet America did not initiate any kind of “peace process.”

Washington only began providing substantial military and economic assistance to Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel showed itself capable of unilaterally defeating and seizing territory from Arab states allied with Moscow.  From Washington’s perspective, supporting an Israeli military that would periodically show up Soviet-supplied Arab opponents was, in a Cold War context, strategically valuable.  After the Cold War’s end, U.S. policymakers continued calculating that U.S.-facilitated Israeli military superiority helped keep the region subordinated.

Likewise, Washington only launched a “peace process” after 1967, to elicit Arab states’ buy-in for what were going to be ever-increasing flows of U.S. weapons and money to Israel’s military.  The process was never meant to constrain Israel and help Palestinians exercise their right to self-determination as part of genuine conflict resolution; it has always been about empowering Israel and subordinating Palestinians and other Arabs as part of an increasingly militarized U.S. sphere of influence in the Middle East.

- In its first proposals, Washington suggested in 1969 that Israel return some of the territories it had conquered to Arab states—but not to Palestinians.

- Henry Kissinger’s 1974-1975 “shuttle diplomacy” sought to give Saudi Arabia political space to break with the oil embargo imposed in 1973 by key members of OPEC.

- To facilitate Egypt’s transformation into a subordinated American “partner,” the 1978 U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords posited a self-governing administrative council for Palestinians, with some recognition of their “legitimate” (but not political) rights.

- As the Cold War ended, Washington was challenged to appear more forthcoming on the Palestinian issue to maintain Arab state buy-in to a heavily militarized, U.S.-led political and security order in the Middle East.  So, at the 1991 Madrid Conference, America brought Palestinian representatives into the “peace process” for the first time.  Two years later, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops still deployed in the region after the first Persian Gulf War, the 1993 Oslo Accords held out the prospect of a self-governing—but not sovereign—“authority” in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, with some recognition of Palestinians’ “legitimate and political rights.”

- President George W. Bush’s 2003 “Roadmap” finally proposed two states,” Israel and Palestine, “living side by side in peace and security”—but neither his administration nor his successor’s made appreciable progress toward this goal.  (While the Obama administration also endorsed the two-state model, if it were serious about “peace” and helping the parties achieve their rights, it would not be using every lever at its disposal to block Palestinian membership in international institutions and access to the International Criminal Court; it would instead be leading the charge.)

As Washington’s “peace process” strategy has become harder and harder to sustain, U.S. officials have hid behind pious claims that America can’t want peace more than the parties.  In reality, though, Washington is the only party that truly wants the “peace process.”  Certainly Israel has never wanted it; Golda Meir’s “leftwing” Labor government rejected Washington’s first peace plan in 1969.  Palestinians, for their part, have never come together to accept a “process” meant to deprive them permanently of genuine sovereignty and self-determination.

The two-state solution’s demise inevitably conditions long-term erosion in the perceived legitimacy of the current Israeli political order.  The proposition that Israel cannot continue occupying Palestinians while claiming to be both Zionist and democratic is no longer predictive analysis.  The U.S. government’s own demographic data show that the number of Arabs living under Israeli control—in “Green Line” Israel, Gaza, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the rest of the West Bank—already exceeds the number of Israeli Jews.

In other words, what we call the state of Israel is already a minority regime for the people it governs.  In the context of the current Gaza campaign, Israeli officials’ descriptions of Hamas as a foreign threat that must be defended against are disingenuous.  Hamas is a homegrown movement, born in 1988 in Gaza under Israeli occupation.  Even with the 2005 closure of Israeli settlements there, Gaza remains under Israeli control.  Thus, Hamas is not an “external” threat to Israel—it is an internal challenge to what the movement’s constituents see as an unjust and illegitimate political order still dictating their interactions with the world and exercising harsh and indiscriminate police powers over their daily lives.

This leaves the one-state option—some version of one person, one vote for people living under Israeli control.  For the foreseeable future, the one-state model will be opposed by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel.  It will also threaten current regional governments—e.g., in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—that have bought into Washington’s vision for a U.S.-led political and security order in the Middle East that includes nearly absolute freedom of unilateral military initiative for Israel.  But other important actors—Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and any other regional state where government becomes more representative—would support it.

A one-state scenario has profound implications for America’s position in the Middle East.  For the United States to “lose” Israel as a proxy for projecting hard power would severely circumscribe Washington’s capacity to keep its Middle East strategy oriented toward regional dominance.  It would instead push Washington toward a strategy of stabilizing the regional balance through serious diplomatic engagement with all relevant players (Iran as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia).

This is a radically different approach from the one envisioned by U.S. policymakers during the Cold War and pursued in relatively unconstrained fashion by U.S. administrations after the Cold War’s end, entailing a highly militarized U.S. presence and American micromanagement of regional political outcomes.  Given the deeply counterproductive results of America’s Middle East strategy over the last quarter century, one may hope that Washington will finally stop making policy in defiance of on-the-ground reality.  In the near-to-medium term, though, American politicians and policymakers are more likely to continue doubling down on the sorts of policies—including ever-increasing military assistance for Israel—that have put the United States on a trajectory of ever-declining influence in one of the world’s most strategically vital regions.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett Underscores the (Studiously Ignored) Demise of the “Peace Process”—and Rebuts the Myth of “Inclusion” as Panacea for Iraq

As the apocryphal Chinese curse would have it, we are indeed living in interesting times as far as the Middle East is concerned.  Hillary appeared today on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry as part of an extended panel discussion on developments in Palestine and Iraq.  The discussion spanned three separately linked segments (two on Palestine and one on Iraq).  The above embedded video is actually the third segment and is discussed below.

Regarding Palestine, see here and here, Hillary places the sad events of recent days against an essential strategic backdrop, which America’s political class goes out of its way to ignore—namely, that if there were ever any serious possibility of a “two-state” solution, this option is dead, and has been dead for a long time.  But American elites keep talking about a “Middle East peace process.”  They do so because that process is—as it always has been—about things other than actually resolving the conflict.  As Hillary explains,

“The ‘peace process’ started after the 1967 [Arab-Israeli] war.  The state of Israel was declared in 1948.  From 1948 to 1967, there was lots of fighting—but there was no peace process.  The reason a peace process was initiated, in particular by then national security advisor Henry Kissinger, was to get buy-in by Arab states for what was going to be an increased amount of military aid and financial aid to Israel—to justify that to Arab states.”

Of course, American elites like to tell themselves and their countrymen that the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is somehow rooted in “shared democratic values.”  Hillary recounts the uncomfortable historical truth:

“It’s so important to understand this.  From 1948 to 1967, when the Holocaust was fresh in our minds and Israel was arguably at its most democratic, we barely gave Israel food aid.  It’s not about shared values; it’s about…our relationship, our alliance with Israel.  But I would say it’s, strategically, to work with or to use Israel to project American dominance.

Now if you want that out of U.S. policy, Israel is useful.  And so during the [George W.] Bush administration, Israel was particularly useful.  Where it’s less useful is in an administration that’s pulling back from the Middle East, and that’s where you have the friction between Obama and Netanyahu.”

And so, to keep perpetuating the charade with (willfully?) gullible Arab states, Washington has pursued “various iterations of a peace process” over the last four and a half decades.  But, in Hillary’s view, we are coming “to the end of the road, with the two-state solution being the putative goal of that kind of peace process.  And I think what we’re seeing now—what we’ve seen, probably, for the last couple of years—is the death of the two-state solution as a possible resolution.”

As Hillary notes, this means “we’re left with a one-state solution.”  And that ultimately means a big shift in Palestinian strategy:

“I think what you’re going to see over the next few weeks—you may see more or less violence.  But what you’re really going to see, if the Palestinians can step up to what I call their ‘Nelson Mandela moment,’ is to proclaim ‘one state, one person, one vote,’ and to push in September, with the opening of the General Assembly here in New York at the UN, for a state to sign up to the International Criminal Court, bring the Israelis there, and have this adjudicated that way, and not rely any longer on the United States and Israel to come to their aid.”

As Hillary lays out, this shift is linked to important “changes in the international system, where you have the United States as a power in relative decline, and other powers relatively increasing.  And so with that, this focus that I think you’ll see as a next step with the Palestinians—to unilaterally declare statehood in the General Assembly…[to] bring their case to the International Criminal Court, to use international institutions and international public opinion will be something that the United States has never had to deal with before.”

Regarding Iraq, click on the video above or see here, Hillary takes issue with the conventional Washington wisdom—espoused with particular fervor among Democrats—that the current crisis is all the fault of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:

“This is an excuse.  This is a bipartisan failure of catastrophic proportions for the United States—first with Republicans in invading Iraq, and now with the Democrats essentially blaming it on Maliki.  The idea that Maliki can be more ‘inclusive’ and bring in foreign fighters—one of the key leaders in this is Chechen, for Russia—the idea that that can become a more inclusive government is snake oil and should be seen for what it is.

Maliki won the last election, it’s a parliamentary democracy.  He is now going to go about the very messy process—like he did last time—of assembling a coalition in a state that is majority Shi’a.  So surprise, surprise, the majority government is going to be Shi’a.  The Sunnis have never accepted this, they’ve never accepted to live under a Shi’a-dominated political order, and they have very powerful patrons outside the country—like the Saudis, like the Qataris—that have armed, funded, and trained this to the hilt, and now we have a disaster on our hands.”           

Hillary also disputed the accumulating collection of overly facile demands from Washington elites that the United States micromanage some new and, at least from an American perspective, “superior” political reality in Iraq:  “We shouldn’t be in there manipulating political outcomes to our favor.  People don’t want to live in a militarily dominated, U.S. political order in the Middle East.  We need to pull back and rethink this policy.”

Yes, but old habits die hard in official Washington.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Moscow and Riyadh’s Shifting Strategies In the Context of American Decline

Al-Arabiyya has published a provocatively interesting commentary by Theodore Karasik, titled “Moscow to Play Negotiator, Riyadh Holds the Keys.”  To read the piece online, click here; we’ve also appended the text below.

Karasik, a regular columnist for the Saudi-owned al-Arabiyya, is also Director of Research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai.  He strikes us as well-informed about strategic debates and decision-making in Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf; for this reason, his most recent column merits attention.

Karasik’s article examines what he sees as intensifying efforts by Russia and Saudi Arabia to collaborate in managing various contested Middle Eastern arenas—including Iraq, Syria, and Egypt—with Iran as a critical point of reference for Russian and Saudi calculations.

–According to Karasik, Moscow and Riyadh both view the current crisis in Iraq as an opening to remove incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Russians as well as the Saudis consider problematic with Iyad Allawi, whom Russia and Saudi Arabia alike consider “the best candidate to run Iraq” and whom the Saudis believe the Kremlin can get “Iran and Iraqi Shiites to accept.”

–Karasik contends that the Russians have already helped persuade the Saudis to come back to the “Geneva process” for conflict resolution in Syria—a “significant development” signaling that “Syrian President Bashar Assad’s election on June 3 for another term is cemented as Russia wants and which Riyadh now appears to see as critical for Syria’s stability.  Iran will be happy with this outcome because their efforts supporting Assad with military and financial aid are paying off.  Iran is close to the Kremlin, and Russia will be able to negotiate between Riyadh and Tehran in a way to please both parties in the Syrian outcome.”

–As to Egypt, Karasik assigns “critical importance” to Saudi King Abdullah’s visit there, which highlighted Riyadh’s interest in holding up Egyptian strongman as “a model that needs to be emulated in the Levant:  a strong ruler who is able to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists.”  Alongside Moscow’s strong support for Sisi, political developments in Egypt underscore the extent to which “the Kingdom and the Kremlin see eye to eye across the region.”  And, from a Saudi perspective, “this cooperation may be acceptable to Iran since such activity does not hurt the Islamic Republic’s interests—at least for the time being given the threat of Sunni extremists.”

We are more skeptical than Karasik that Russia can actually “sell” these propositions in Tehran—or, on some points, that Moscow would necessarily want to sell them.  However, Karasik’s piece provides a revealing window into at least some official views on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf on the Middle East in a period of what the Saudis, the Russians, and just about everyone else see as declining American influence in the region.

Of course, American influence in the Middle East is declining as a consequence of George W. Bush’s “imperial overreach” on steroids.  American influence is also declining because of Barack Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s disastrous course, with military interventions in Libya and, less overtly, in Syria that have reinvigorated al-Qai’da-like jihadi extremism and set the stage for the dramatic rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It is in this context that Moscow finds multiple openings through which to expand its own regional influence—and, in the process, to push back at an arrogant superpower that, ignoring its own relative decline, continues to intrude ever more assertively on important Russian interests.  It is also in this context that Riyadh—for so long a major facilitator of America’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East—is looking for other external powers that can help advance the Kingdom’s regional agenda.

Moscow to Play Negotiator, Riyadh Holds the Keys

by Theodore Karasik

A flurry of diplomatic activity is occurring between Riyadh and Moscow over not only Iraq but Syria.  Russia is seeking to play the role of negotiator on all questions and Saudi Arabia holds the keys.  If successful, Russia stands to gain substantially at the expense of the United States.  The Kingdom engagement policy with the Russians may indeed produce peace dividends and further alter the geopolitical landscape.

Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Jeddah two days ago discussing the Levant crisis with senior Saudi officials.  The talks follow a meeting on June 3 between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.  On June 9, Lavrov and Prince Saud held a telephone conversation on ways to resolve the crisis in Syria.  On June 20, Putin called embattled Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to give him support in the attempts by Iraqi parties and other countries to force him to step down.  Putin confirmed Russia’s “full support for the Iraqi government’s action to quickly free the territory of the republic from terrorists.”  This flurry of activity shows that the Kremlin wants to play a major role in settling the situation in the Levant that leaves America out of the picture.

Russia proves its point

Russia’s role as a mediator in the Near East and in other conflict zones is not new.  During the air war over Serbia, then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated a halt to America’s air campaign that raised the ire of Moscow.  For more than a decade, Russian foreign policy has ostensibly been against intervention of foreign powers in the affairs of other sovereign nations and it has increasingly viewed the Middle East as a good example to prove its point, highlighting the chaos and violence following direct U.S.-Western military action or support in various states.  In addition, the Kremlin has positioned itself as a peacemaker, trying to avert the same Western mistakes in Syria by pushing for a solution to the country’s internal conflict that does not involve U.S. military action and making America and Western Europe the villains.  Notably, Russia’s role in finding a solution to the use of chemical weapon in Syria and halting “American aggression” is seen as a diplomatic win for the Kremlin by some Arab officials.

The Kingdom and the Kremlin agreed to return to the Geneva 1 process which is to find a political transition in Syria.  This is a significant development that signals that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s election on June 3 for another term is cemented as Russia wants and which Riyadh now appears to see as critical for Syria’s stability.  Iran will be happy with this outcome because their efforts supporting Assad with military and financial aid are paying off.  Iran is close to the Kremlin, and Russia will be able to negotiate between Riyadh and Tehran in a way to please both parties in the Syrian outcome.  Time will tell what that political transition will look like.

Riyadh’s distrust of America

ISIS’s tidal wave in Iraq played right into Kremlin arguments about how the failures of “global color revolutions” led by the “American-Atlanticist Community” wreck countries and leave them wide open to terrorist infiltration.  Russia’s fresh diplomatic offensive is based on the new conceptual, doctrinal outlook from Moscow and is now being presented to the Saudis as a reason for the Levant’s woes and especially the unfolding catastrophic debacle in Iraq.  The Kingdom seems to be buying the argument, and well they should, based on Riyadh’s distrust of America.

ISIS’s activity in Iraq is reminding the Saudis how opposed they were to American invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Consequently, the events are giving the Kingdom “a ground-hog day moment” according to an Arab official.

During their meeting in Jeddah, Lavrov and Saud also said efforts should be made to “maintain the integrity of Iraq and the unity of all the components of the Iraqi people, who should benefit from equality of rights and duties.”  Clearly this is a signal that the Kingdom and the Kremlin want to find a middle ground for Iraqi state stability while at the same time finding a possible solution to the leadership crisis in Baghdad.  According to an Arab official, Riyadh and Moscow agree that Ayad Allawi is the best candidate to run Iraq as he has had close ties to Kingdom and Kremlin in the past.  In addition, the key is Assad:  All sides now see that Assad and the stability of Syria is now key and is part of the deal to getting Alawi into power in Baghdad.  Clearly, the Saudis see the Russians are able to exercise their good ties with Iran and Iraqi Shiites to accept Allawi.

Also of critical importance during this sequence of events is King Abdullah’s visit to Egypt.  This visit to Egypt to support Egyptian President Sisi is full of significance and importance because Saudi Arabia sees Egypt as the core of the Middle East.  The Kingdom also sees that Al-Sisi represents a model that needs to be emulated in the Levant:  a strong ruler who is able to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic extremists.  Moscow’s support for Egypt is also at play and taken together, the Kingdom and the Kremlin see eye to eye across the region.  As such, this cooperation may be acceptable to Iran since such activity does not hurt the Islamic Republic’s interests—at least for the time being given the threat of Sunni extremists.

Overall, Saudi Arabia is acting quickly to help resolve regional security issue.  Russia sees her historical mission coming to fruition by rushing into the debacle of the Levant and coming up with solutions that will perhaps firmly place the Near East within Moscow’s orbit and influence.  The move is smart and timely.  As such the status and prospects for the Saudi-Russian bilateral relationship are growing, and both the Kingdom and the Kremlin stressed their readiness to intensify it, including trade, economic and energy cooperation which has a solid potential for growth.  On June 18, Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed on a draft intergovernmental framework agreement on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy and subsequent steps in preparing the agreement for signature.  All of these developments come on the heels of Putin’s praise for King Abdullah a few months ago and the resumption of Lukoil’s drilling efforts in the Eastern Province.  Clearly, Riyadh sees Moscow as a future security and economic partner who is an honest broker; much more than other Western powers.