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Talking Policy: James Ketterer on the United States' Middle East Policy

A Donald Trump administration will need to address a broad array of issues in the Middle East, from continued instability in Syria and Iraq to tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations. Trump’s statements about Muslims and his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, meanwhile, could present additional challenges for U.S. diplomats. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman sat down with James Ketterer, director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and dean of international studies at Bard College, to discuss how the president-elect’s choices for high-level foreign policy positions will affect the United States’ relationships in the Middle East.

DAVID A. ANDELMAN: Let’s start by taking a 30,000-foot look at the Middle East and what’s likely to be America’s changing role there. We have a new secretary of state nominee with deep knowledge and experience in some parts of this part of the world, but only in certain aspects, and which in geopolitical terms may be somewhat skewed or at least tangential. What do you see as the role the new secretary of state could play in some of the key issues?

JAMES KETTERER: It’s important for any secretary and the team that’s assembled around that secretary to have some experience in the Middle East and a wide variety of other issues and places in the world, and to be a mix of political appointees and career foreign service officers. I am hopeful that the secretary will avail himself of the deep knowledge that exists within the State Department. It is sometimes the case that a new team will come in and they’ll feel hostile to the career officers, because many of those officers—particularly in Middle Eastern affairs—have spent decades being posted on the field and dealing with issues back in Washington. Those officers will have a good sense of what has worked and what has not worked over the last eight years. So it’s important for everyone involved to take stock of how much has changed in the region in the last eight years and where that leaves us as the new administration takes power. It’s interesting to think back to when President Obama took office and decided that he needed to reset relations with the Muslim world, and he chose Cairo University as the place to give that very important speech and begin to try to undo as many of the wrongs of his predecessor. It really raised high expectations across the Arab states—expectations were perhaps set too high, in a way that they couldn’t be met through incremental change, which is the only way you’re really going to make any difference. The things that have changed since that time—Hosni Mubarak, who was in power in Egypt at the time of that speech, is not only gone, but the Americans are seen by many in the region as being complicit in his leaving the scene. Now I don’t happen to think that is true. I don’t think the United States could have kept Mubarak in power, but we changed our tune very late in the game to be seen as being on the right side of history, but nevertheless the perception remains that the U.S. has become an untrustworthy ally in not standing behind its friends like Mubarak.

DA: To go back to your point of Obama raising expectations, one of the reasons I suspect he did so was by making rather grand promises and proposals in his initial Cairo speech, then jetting off and basically delegating responsibility for the Middle East to first the secretary of state and then to George Mitchell, Dennis Ross in Iran, and so on. My sense is that this could happen again with a President Trump, but we do have a secretary of state who, in theory, at least has some considerable depth of experience in the Middle East. The question is between this transactional experience, which Donald Trump seems to value, and a sense of the real values of the region’s people and cultures and religions, which Donald Trump doesn’t really seem to value—and you don’t have to have those kinds of values to negotiate a lucrative deal on behalf of a major oil company. But you do have to have a sense of these values if you’re going to develop relationships with the people and the governments of that part of the world. Tell about how you think that might play out.

JK:  I don’t think it has to come down to this binary choice between what’s transaction, particularly when it comes to working with states that are oil-rich, and what is seen more as soft power, or a soft approach in dealing with issues of culture and religion.

DA: But do you have any sense that Donald Trump with his comments about Islam and Muslims is prepared to embrace soft power, or that his secretary of state is the kind of person who would be prepared to embrace that?

JK: President Obama has said that it a President Trump could well be a pragmatist. And when I think about soft power, it doesn’t have to be a stylistic choice or an ideological choice. Really, it just takes a cold-hearted look at the Middle East and what has worked and what has not worked, and we can see those decades of using military intervention and arms sales have not been successful. I don’t think any reasonable person could look around the Middle East and say U.S. foreign policies have been a great success, not only during the Obama administration, but also during the George W. Bush administration. So a combination of soft and hard power would make a lot of sense. I was surprised that the Obama administration didn’t do more of a soft power approach when they could have done so at very little cost and in tandem with other initiatives. Again, the binary choice is not the way to look at it. But I do think it would require that the new secretary have people around him who understand public diplomacy and how to deploy soft power in a way that is most likely to get the results we want. That’s where you need to have professionals who understand that game and understand that region.

DA: Let’s go into the second point you mentioned: Egypt and particularly Mubarak and his successors. Egypt for decades has played a critical role in the Middle East, but not so much lately. It’s been relatively peaceful compared to places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but is this likely to change, and how can a new president and secretary of state make use of Egypt in a more positive and useful way?

JK: I think we’re going to have to do so. If you think about the enduring interests of the U.S. in the Middle East, which has been unchanged since WWII in large part—the safety and security of Israel; the free flow of navigation, not just of oil but for the U.S. Navy as well; and the desire to keep other powers from dominating the region. All three of those require that we need to find ways to continue to work with Egypt. It’s the largest country in the region, it’s the latest Arab state, it has the Suez Canal, it’s strategically important, it’s right on the border of Israel and Gaza, and it is always going to be important for those reasons and more. There has been a period of instability in Egypt and I think there has been a period of the U.S. not knowing quite what to do as Egypt has gone through various convulsions from the ouster of Mubarak to military rule to the Muslim Brotherhood and then to Sissi being elected. That’s a lot to tackle in just a few years, and the U.S. has been slow and awkward in responding to those changes, but we have no choice and we see that President-Elect Trump already met with President Sissi during the campaign. There is real hope in Egypt that this will be an improved relationship.

DA: How critical are these convulsions to the core problems that America sees in the Middle East, particularly the threats to the United States—the Islamic State, unrest on other parts of the region, and threats to oil reserves, for instance?

JK: We just saw a tragic bombing of the Coptic church in Cairo, and the Islamic State has taken credit for it. Whether that claim is credible will be determined, but it does raise the specter of Egypt going in the direction of other states we see in the region. One of the things we have to think about is whether Egypt will stay self-contained or become a venue for what we see ailing Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Egypt is not the same as those places and it has many things going for it, but it also is not immune to things happening across the region. It would be better engage Egypt in a way that forestalls the possibility rather than wait for a major crisis and say, “Oh, now what do we do?” A little foresight could be quite important.

DA: In the past Egypt has played a particular role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and Trump has said he sees a resolution as one of his core missions—as have most presidents before they get into office and discover how difficult that really is. How might Egypt play a role again in that issue if Trump does see it as becoming one of his priorities in the region?

JK: You’re quite right, it has become the tradition of American presidents to come into office seeking some resolution to this seemingly intractable problem. And they’re trying to do the same thing on the way out when they’ve got nothing to lose and can do one more roll of the dice. It is not surprising that President Trump is going to take office vowing again to take on this issue, but it is surprising that he has suggested the U.S. will move its embassy to Jerusalem. Other presidents have said the same and then ended up not doing so.

DA: Is moving the embassy a huge mistake?

JK: We’ve seen already that the president-elect is willing to give up tradition and standard diplomatic practice and accept a phone call from the president of Taiwan, so I don’t really know what to anticipate. It would certainly be seen as outside the normal practice in dealing with the Israelis and Palestinians, and would send a signal that Americans were seeing Jerusalem in one way and not leaving it open to negotiation. It has always been U.S. policy that the status of Jerusalem, along with other issues, are to be left open to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians, and that the U.S. should not signal anything that would be seen as taking a side and undermine negotiations.

The real challenge is making those negotiations happen, and happen in a constructive way. President Trump is making that vow, as have his predecessors. In terms of Egypt and Gaza security, the Sissi administration has been very tough on border issues and has been no supporter of Hamas—quite the opposite—so we see a lot of security cooperation between the Egyptian government and the Israelis. There still is a peace treaty in force between Egypt and Israel. Even through all of the challenges in Egypt over the past two years, the Camp David Accords still hold.

DA: And Egypt is prepared to honor those?

JK: Absolutely. Even President Morsi, who came from the Muslim Brotherhood, did not dismantle the accords. When I was in Egypt, President Carter was there and held important conferences about the reason that those accords had the support of both sides. They remain important to the United States and continue to uphold American interests in the region.

DA: Let’s talk more about our secretary of state nominee. This is a man who has had great ties to the oil-rich segments of the Middle East—the Saudis, the Emirates, Iraq, and so on. How confident are you that someone with these connections could still play a useful and constructive role in Egypt, Israel, or Palestine?

JK: Again, I think it’s going to come down to the team that he assembles around him. I don’t think it’s impossible for him to learn about the other parts of the Middle East and to rise above that. A lot of attention is still paid to those countries and people controlling resources. Clearly they are important to the United States, though perhaps less so than in the past because we rely less on their resources, but they are critically important to our allies and will remain important. What goes on between those states and within those states, as well as assurances that we can freely navigate those waters and transport oil, is very important. So I think the nominee doesn’t forfeit his standing just because he has been the head of Exxon, but what will be important to pay close attention to are changes within oil states. One curious thing to note is that the monarchies in the region, both oil monarchies and non-oil monarchies like Morocco and Jordan, have largely not suffered through these ups and downs of the Arab uprising. Maybe some of that has to do with the money that is produced in the oil states, but for the non-oil states something in the monarchical system is allowing for some flexibility in government structures.

That being said, people are concerned about what might happen in Saudi Arabia. How stable is the government? How worried are the Saudis about the Americans living up to their commitments in the region? Allowing Mubarak to fall, the failure to intervene in Syria, the failure to follow through on chemical red lines, and the nuclear deal with Iran have all upset the Saudis. Will the new secretary travel there? Will President Trump meet with the Saudis and others to address concerns about what is going to happen with Syria and with Iran? If Trump comes into office having promised to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and then does not do it, how will the Saudis react? I think that’s going to be a major task for the secretary of state to navigate diplomatically.

DA: Trump is also coming into office on Jan. 20 with major baggage concerning Islam more broadly. He modified his statements somewhat recently, but he basically suggested that Islam is an enemy of Western democracies, and his national security advisers have even been more strident in that. How concerned are you that countries in the Middle East may have trouble getting past this language, which hasn’t really been repudiated yet by the secretary of state nominee?

JK: This is a major concern, though I think that what one says the campaign trail might not align with what one says as president after realizing the consequences painting Islam with broad strokes as being a generator of violence. It’s going to be counterproductive in dealing with not only the Middle East but with the broader Muslim world. So that’s highly problematic, and understanding the distinction between Islamist movements and Islam in general is going to require having people who understand these nuances involved in the formulation and implementation of policy. That said, there are leaders in the Middle East like Sissi who are hopeful that the Trump team will better understand than they felt the Obama team did the struggle the Egyptians feel in facing the Muslim Brotherhood. Other states think maybe the Trump team will better understand the dangers of the Islamic State, so while the nomenclature matters a great deal, at least some of the leaders in the region will be willing to look past the awkward words and see if the policy might be more to their advantage.

DA: Bard has major ties in the Middle East as an institution, right?

JK: Bard does have a long-standing exchange agreement with the American University in Cairo.

DA: What sense have you gotten from students, faculty, and people who are in the community there in terms of what this new administration might mean for education and cultural life in that part of the world?

JK:  People are very worried about change. Usually when we’re talking to students who would like to come study in the United States, they’re worried that they won’t be able to get a visa. The doors will essentially be closed, and even students who are deeply unhappy with American foreign policy are largely still interested in the possibility of studying in the United States. Bard also has its own liberal arts college, working with Al-Quds University in Palestine, and we bring over a certain number of those students to Bard College every semester. We’d like to make sure those students keep coming—we think it’s important for their education, but we also think it’s important for relations between the United States and the Middle East. I haven’t heard anything about a change in policy for students, but the tenor of the conversation about Muslims has been so strident that it has made everyone feel deeply concerned.

DA: And this kind of atmosphere, I gather, really transcends national borders or cultures in the Middle East.

JK: Yes, these are not limited to any one country, and of course they take on a different coloration depending on a country’s relationship with the United States. But on the individual level these concerns also exist for Muslims within the United States. We haven’t talked about the refugee crisis, but that’s another pressing issue that the new president and secretary of state will have to deal with, not just in the Middle East but also in how it affects our allies in Europe.

DA: What sign posts should we look for in the immediate future as to the real tenor of American policy toward Egypt and the Middle East more broadly?

JK: There are a lot of political appointee positions in the State Department to be filled, and who is selected to take those positions and what kind of track records they have will be important to watch. When we get to the stage of nominating new ambassadors, what types of people will be nominated and how much will they be empowered to do their jobs? That’s another immediate signpost for the secretary himself. Another question to consider is, how much foreign policy will be run directly from the White House and the National Security Council, and how much will the State Department be involved? This has been an issue in the past two administrations—we saw several signs that the National Security Council under President Obama was taking a policy implementation role in a way that normally would have been left to the State Department. Will the sheer number of people at the NSC now, compared to the way it has been over time, going to change or will it be centralized again with State playing a secondary role? That will be important to watch.

DA: Is the closeness of Trump and General Mike Flynn, his national security adviser, a signpost that perhaps the man he wanted for secretary of state is something of a goodwill ambassador for all these countries where he has business interests, while policy decisions will be made by Flynn and Trump in the White House?

JK: Going back through recent presidential administrations, the relationships between the national security adviser, the secretary of state, and other principles in the national security establishment, the national security adviser can play a traffic cop kind of role or be more of a gatekeeper, having the final word with the president. This will be hugely important and we just don’t know—those relationships tend to take funny directions, are hard to predict, and in some cases they’re driven by events on the ground. The world doesn’t stop during presidential transitions. As George H. W. Bush handed things over to Bill Clinton, Somalia was taking a turn for the worse. As Clinton was handing things over to George W. Bush, it was clear that things dangerously fell though the cracks that led quite possibly to 9/11. These are dangerous times because there is so much movement within these positions in government. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Amr Helmy]

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