By WILLIAM YALE
WASHINGTON–Last month on March 9, former U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley arrived at SAIS for a wide-ranging discussion on the Middle East, moderated by SAIS Foreign Policy Institute Senior Fellow, Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli. Much of the conversation focused on the long-term, second- and third-order effects emanating from current crises in the Middle East, particularly the Islamic State’s violent attempt to establish a Caliphate and the potential of a diplomatic deal regarding Iran’s nuclear capability.
Both Hadley and Ambassador Tahir-Kheli agreed that most policy discussions regarding the Islamic State focus on narrow tactical questions, such as whether to increase or scale back bombing of the Islamic State or whether to embed troops in Iraq. But the real challenge for both the U.S. government and for the policy community, Hadley said, is to construct a long-term political and economic development plan for a post-Islamic State Iraq and Syria. In this sense, Hadley endorsed a return to nation-building in the Middle East to maintain stability once it has been won. Hadley insisted that this would not be a futile exercise, asserting that by 2008, the U.S. had achieved what it wanted to achieve in Iraq; namely, an inclusive political structure, decreasing sectarian violence, and hopeful economic indicators. In addition, he gave Afghanistan a 50/50 chance of maintaining political stability and economic growth under that country’s new president, Ashraf Ghani.
At the same time, Hadley worried about impediments to stable, liberal governments in the Middle East, quoting former Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Marwan al-Muasher as saying that neither of the twin political traditions in the Middle East, Arab nationalism and political Islam, have any tradition of tolerance and inclusion. Hadley noted that not only does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to serve as an excuse for Arab countries not to liberalize, but autocratic leaders (such as President Mubarak of Egypt) also commonly eliminate moderate democrats so as to present a rigidly-defined choice between the existing regimes and variants of political Islam such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, sectarianism continues to be exploited by all sides, including the Islamic State and Iran.
Hadley also channeled the views of Sunni-majority allied states in the region, saying that while they are active in both participating in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State and challenging its ideology, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States question U.S. commitment. They believe, Hadley said, that the U.S. was too slow to respond to Syria and that the current strategy is a failure; they worry intensely about a potential nuclear deal with Iran (there is a pernicious theory, Hadley said, that any deal would signal a reversion to Iran as the principal ally in the Middle East); and they are worried that given the U.S. failure to enforce red lines in Syria, Iran will be granted impunity as long as it does not develop nuclear weapons.
In Hadley’s view, any nuclear agreement with Iran will be in “the eye of the beholder.” Under the current plan of action, some enrichment capability will remain. Key questions to be answered include: How much nuclear infrastructure will Iran be allowed to keep? And how long will the agreement last? Hadley iterated that if an agreement is made, the U.S. must be able to sell it to allies in the region by including provisions for the contingency that Iran reneges on the deal, such as snapback sanctions, a pre-authorization of military force, and a general push back against Iran’s influence in the region. Ultimately, Hadley noted, Arab states (particularly the Saudis) worry that if sanctions are lifted on Iran as part of the deal, billions of dollars in oil revenue will be put in the hands of people like Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force (the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps unit), who is currently on the ground in Iraq, helping to push the Islamic State out of Tikrit.
At heart, Hadley’s belief in nation-building and strong opposition to autocracy in the Middle East is rooted in both his personal experiences and moral convictions. Hadley recounted that the many failed attempts to deal with Bashar al-Assad during the Bush administration led him to be jaded about cooperating with autocrats, and stated it would be a moral affront to negotiate with a leader who had killed 300,000 of his own people, asking, “What lesson is that to the tyrants of the world? If you’re brutal enough, the international community will allow you to keep power….Do we want to live in a world of Assads and Saddam Husseins?”