The Middle East is as trashed right now as I’ve ever seen it. The Syrian conflict has killed more people than the Bosnian war. Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear weapons program while convincing fools in the West that it’s playing nice and reforming. Egypt is in its worst shape since the Nasserist era, and the Saudis are pitching the biggest fit since the Arab oil embargo in the 70s.
I caught up with my old friend and colleague Lee Smith, whom I met in Lebanon during the Beirut Spring when it was still possible for both of us to be optimistic about the region. If you haven’t yet read his book, The Strong Horse, consider it your required reading this month.
MJT: Let’s start with a tough one. If Barack Obama invited you to the White House and asked what you think he should do about Syria, what would you tell him?
Lee Smith: The Syria debate is beside the point. In effect, there is no longer a debate over Syria policy. Whatever I or other critics say, whatever dissenting voices in the administraion say, is immaterial because Obama has made up his mind. The president believes that the most important thing—the only thing—is making a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. We don’t know what that deal will look like, but those who are worried about it—like myself—think the president will be happy to walk away with a piece of paper and kick the problem off to the next administration. He’ll want to obscure the fact that the Iranians will likely be moving toward breakout capability, and so one question is whether or not Tehran will cooperate on that issue and not embarrass Obama by showing he never had a deal in the first place.
People who are much more optimistic—and I would argue much more unrealistic—believe the administration can actually make a deal, that the Iranian economy is hurting so much that the Iranians will happily seek relief and will indeed make a deal. I don’t think that can happen at all, but the reason I’m bringing this up when you’re asking me about Syria is because we need to understand regional issues in the context of Iran.
Obama has frustrated so many of his allies. The Saudis, for instance, are furious. They’re concerned about Egypt, but that’s a problem of a different order, at least for now.
The Saudis are worried about Syria and most worried about Iran’s nuclear program.
The White House wants to disengage from Syria. So to come back to your original question, it doesn’t matter what advice I might have because the administration has turned a deaf ear to Syria. There was a long, detailed, and excellent article in the New York Times on October 22 about the administration’s deliberations. One constant is the president—he has been, as the Times writes, “impatient” and “disengaged.” He’s not listening to anyone about Syria. He hasn’t been listening for two and a half years, so he’s not going to listen to me.
MJT: The White House is in line with public opinion. Most Americans are rightly suspicious of the Syrian opposition, so they’re taking a “pox on both their houses” view of the conflict. They’re basically channeling Henry Kissinger during the Iran-Iraq war when he said it’s too bad they can’t both lose.
A lot of people take the same tack between Iran and Saudi Arabia and argue that since they both suck—and they do both suck—that we shouldn’t choose sides. To hell with Assad and to hell with the Free Syrian Army, and to hell with Iran and to hell with the Saudis. That’s mainstream public opinion right now.
Lee Smith: I can make an argument for backing the Syrian rebels, but it can’t be for humanitarian reasons alone. I can make the argument that we should do it for strategic reasons.
And yes, a lot of people are making that kind of argument about the Saudis, saying a pox on them, how dare they complain. The Saudis from time to time make an awful lot of noise and at other times they cross us. And of course there were fifteen Saudi nationals on the planes on 9/11. And yet Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States for more than sixty years. The reason for that isn’t because we share cultural or political values—although some of the elites really are pro-American.
The reason we’re allied with Saudi Arabia is because they have the world’s largest known reserves of oil. This is a vital American interest, perhaps the most vital American interest after the security of our fifty states. So the idea that we can just blow off the Saudis because we’re tired of the Middle East is nonsensical.
I don’t mean to knock everyday Americans who feel this way. They’re tired of turning on the TV and hearing about some further outrage in the Middle East, another conflict, another terror attack. But the foreign policy professionals who are making this case need to check the historical record and the definition of strategic interests—the stability of world energy markets is one of them.
MJT: You live in Washington DC, so tell me: what do people in the capital make of the Saudis threatening to downgrade relations over Iran and Syria?
Lee Smith: First, what does it mean to downgrade relations? The United States has been protecting the Persian Gulf for decades. The Roosevelt administration got close to ibn Saud in 1944. Martin Kramer calls the Persian Gulf an American lake for good reason. The Russians can’t cover the Gulf like we do, and the Chinese aren’t capable either. We’re the only ones who can do that job. So part of this threat is empty. It’s hollow.
But there’s another part that needs to be taken seriously. If you’re a superpower, you have allies all around the world. Some of them won’t be entirely to your liking, but there are reasons you have allies all around the world. And the Saudis are one of our allies.
We have similar strategic interests with the Saudis, so to brush this off entirely is absurd. There’s no reason. It doesn’t take that much keep the Saudis on side. The main problem the Saudis have with the White House is the same problem the Israelis and a lot of other countries have: Iran. No one believes the president of the United States when he says “all options are on the table.” No one.
MJT: I certainly don’t.
Lee Smith: There are a few Democratic activists and administration mouthpieces who make that case, but foreign officials don’t take it seriously. They can’t afford to swallow White House messaging as geopolitical reality.
The administration clearly wants to make a deal with Iran. All options are not on the table. Maybe the Iranians won’t decide to go for a nuclear breakout before Barack Obama leaves office and rub his nose in the dirt, although everyone else has rubbed his nose in the dirt for the last five years. Vladimir Putin does it and gets away with it. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani did it and got away with it when he disdained to meet with the Commander-in-Chief after the White House sought a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.
This is the main problem. Everyone knows the president is bluffing. No one thinks all options are really on the table.
MJT: Does the White House actually believe they can cut a deal with Iran? I rather doubt it myself. The idea is ludicrous. For at least a year now I’ve suspected that the Iranians and the Obama administration are both just trying to buy time—the Iranians so they can keep moving forward and the White House so the president doesn’t have to make tough decisions over a problem he’d rather ignore.
Lee Smith: A lot of people see it that way, including me, but I think some people have deluded themselves into thinking there’s a deal to be had. So it’s hard to say. But it looks like the US deal with Russia over Syria is a way to sweep the problem under the rug and make it go away, and I think that is a likely pattern for negotiations with Iran, as well. They want to have a piece of paper and for the problem to go away until January 2017, when someone else has to deal with it.
MJT: It looks like the US is going to withhold some of Egypt’s aid. Do you think that’s the right call?
Lee Smith: I actually agree with the administration on this one.
MJT: I do, too.
Lee Smith: I think it’s a good idea, but they’ve been so unclear about it. They need to explain why we need to withhold, or suspend, some of the aid.
MJT: You and I agree, but I’m curious what your reasons are.
Lee Smith: We’re withholding tanks and fighter jets and others things the Egyptians don’t need right now because they’re not going to war against another nation-state. However, we’re also withholding Apache helicopters which the Egyptians apparently need for their counterinsurgency against the jihadis in the Sinai, and the conflict is growing there. So I’m not sure why we’re cutting that off.
But in general I think it’s a good idea to cut aid as a matter of principle. General Sisi gave an interview to the Washington Post and insulted and threatened the United States and I think that’s outrageous. We need to remind him who he is and who we are.
He is the general who overthrew the elected president of an Arab state. That’s who he is. We’re the United States of America. He needs to understand that.
I’m not a huge fan of this administration, but the United States is my country and Barack Obama is my president, and I don’t want an Egyptian general threatening him or us. So that’s one thing. And let’s face it. What Sisi did was a coup.
MJT: Of course it was.
Lee Smith: And the response of outraged Egyptians reminds us how extremely damaged Egypt’s political culture is. Maybe the Egyptians in all sincerity believe Sisi is a great man who is preserving Egyptian democracy—and our Secretary of State unfortunately said something similar—but that’s nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense.
If there are people who want to take a position against Obama and say he is wrong for cutting off aid and that the Brotherhood is evil, fine, but what Sisi did was still a coup.
If we continue to give the Egyptians money it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’ll have influence. If we condition the money and aid we’ll have a better chance to influence that government. Maybe we won’t, but if we keep on handing them money no matter what they do, we definitely won’t have any influence. It will just convince Sisi he can do whatever he wants and we’ll keep paying out.
And besides, compared with the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the Kuwaitis, the US isn’t paying that much. Our aid is important because it’s for the military, but it’s not an Egyptian priority right now. With what we give, we should indeed be conditioning it to maximize whatever influence we have with the regime.
MJT: The Saudis have said they’ll replace whatever we cut. Our money won’t buy us anything if it can be replaced that easily.
Lee Smith: The Saudis don’t like the Brotherhood, which is fine, and Egypt is in big trouble. The amount of money they’re pouring in now is going to delay the inevitable, but it’s not going to prevent the inevitable. At a certain point, some Gulf leader is going to ask how much longer they need to pay out so the Egyptians can have bread, rice, flour, and gasoline.
The Arabs are being generous at the moment. Sure, they’re also pursuing their own interests, but they’re keeping the country from going under. Egypt is in a lot of trouble.
MJT: I haven’t tracked Egypt’s finances that closely. Do you know how much of Egypt’s economy is based on aid from abroad? What would happen to Egypt if it found itself all alone?
Lee Smith: Without Qatar’s money before the coup, Egypt would have been in very big trouble. Now the Egyptians are throwing it back in Qatar’s face and saying they only paid out to help Morsi and the Brotherhood, but that money put food on more plates than just Morsi’s. After the coup, without this money from the Gulf, Egypt would be up against a very tough wall. It’s not going to get an IMF loan. How long are donors going to keep kicking in money? Egypt will almost certainly not be able to satisfy the conditions for an IMF loan because they’ll not be able to cut the subsidies.
MJT: I mean, good God, how could they cut bread subsidies without massive upheaval?
Lee Smith: Right. And it’s not just about cutting subsidies. They need to open up the Egyptian market. The biggest cash industry is tourism.
MJT: And it’s dead.
Lee Smith: Who is going to visit Egypt right now?
Lee Smith: That might change if things settle down and if people get cleared off the streets and the fighting in the Sinai doesn’t spread too often to Cairo and Alexandria, but who knows? Tourism may return, but it’s not right now.
MJT: It might not be a bad time to visit the pyramids, actually, because you’d get less hassled.
Lee Smith: Or you might get more hassled. [Laughs.] Because you’d be the only poor sucker there.
Lee Smith: And let’s not ignore what’s going on in Turkey right now. There’s a media campaign against the Turkish intelligence service and Prime Minister Erdogan. The intelligence chief is reportedly backing Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria, and he gave up ten Israeli agents in Tehran to the Iranian government. These are damning stories. They’re meant to show that Turkey is not trustworthy right now, and I think that’s true.
Turkey is causing a lot of trouble for itself. Erdogan’s policy of having zero problems with neighbors has created nothing but problems with all of its neighbors. It’s almost laughable. Turkey has problems with all of its neighbors.
MJT: It sure does.
Lee Smith: Erdogan is a fantasist. He believed he was actually capable of leading the region.
Look, Turkey is a NATO ally and a longstanding American ally. And I think it’s the job of the United States to take wayward allies—as Turkey is right now—by the hand and guide it. Apparently the Turks don’t know what to do on their own.
We’re always eager to tell the Israelis what to do. And the Turks right now are reckless. I don’t know why we can’t give them some guidance and say here’s what we want and need from you. Turkey is still an ally and can be extremely useful, but Erdogan can be extremely dangerous to Turkish interests as well as American interests. And it’s going to get worse if we don’t take the matter in hand.
MJT: What would you suggest Erdogan do if he asked you?
Lee Smith: I’d tell him to abandon this absurd zero problems with neighbors policy and pay attention to what the Turkish national interest is. For instance, why does Erdogan keep supporting Morsi? As we said before, the US should suspend some of its aid to Egypt, but that hardly means we’re pro-Muslim Brotherhood.
MJT: Of course we’re not pro-Muslim Brotherhood.
Lee Smith: But Erdogan keeps beating a dead horse. Morsi is in detention. He’s finished. All Erdogan is doing is getting the Egyptian army mad, he’s getting the Saudis mad, and he’s getting the Emiratis mad.
Erdogan needs to be much more circumspect in Syria. I agree with him that Bashar al-Assad needs to come down. However, Erdogan is the leader of a country on Syria’s border. He’s causing domestic problems for himself. Public opinion is against his Syria policy. They don’t like the refugee problem. They’re worried about more retaliatory terrorist attacks from Iranian and Syrian agents like they had a few months ago on the border. And they’re worried about the influx of Sunni militants who are affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Turkey can’t dictate terms. It isn’t a superpower. It’s a regional power. It’s not the United States. The bizarre thing, however, is that under this administration the United States seems to be shriking. Indeed, Obama seems to be shrinking us out of the Middle East. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I’d like to hear the rationale for it.