David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
Previously, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant.
In that capacity, he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service in 2005.
He is the author of three publications, as well as numerous analysis concerning the politics of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Arab and Islamic politics and US policy.
During his visit to Amman, David Schenker met some of the leaders of various political specters. His recent analysis on Jordan, “As Jordan Stumbles, the US Response Is Crucial,” published on Sept, 19, was met with widespread criticism in the media there.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News reporter Nawal Ksar, David Schenker spoke about the situation in the region and the politics of US in relation to the Islamists.
Security and stability in the Middle East is linked to a real solution to the Palestinian issue, do you believe that the changes in the region will not be in favor of the Israelis and the Americans in the future?
The current instability in the region is not linked to Palestine. No doubt, Palestine is an important issue for people, but when you ask people in the street — and not in front of television cameras — what their main concerns are, they will say shelter, education, standard of living, and having more say in their own lives and the politics of their countries. All that will come before Palestine. These revolutions, in Tunisia, Egypt, and what happening now in Syria is not about Palestine, it’s about tyrannical governments and bad economies. Economics is a primary driver, but in other cases like Syria it is about tyranny. I believe that the changes in the region will certainly in the near term prove destabilizing.
In the case of Libya we’ve had remarkable developments, including the election of a government.
But it is a tribal society flooded with weapons, and there are historical differences between the tribes. At the same time, many people are not confident that the government will prevail in the end, and be able to exert control all over Libya. Therefore, they are keeping their weapons to protect themselves. It is destabilizing in this environment. In this country that is full of weapons and without central authority, groups like Al-Qaeda that have been present for some time in areas like Darnah — a village that was a main source of insurgents traveling to Iraq to kill Americans and the Iraqi people. Salafists want to push the direction of Libyan politics further to the right, toward more Islamist government. Likewise in Tunisia, we have seen Salafists looking to try to push what has been a moderate population and government toward a more Islamist point of view.
In Egypt, will the Islamists improve the economy, where fifty percent of the people make less than $2 a day, and the state is on the verge of economic collapse? Will the Muslim Brothers be able to turn the situation around and reestablish security? Nobody knows. There will also likely be some popular backlash, as liberals will not approve the direction of post-Mubarak Egypt, and there will be protests. It is going to be unstable for some time. And, of course Syria, the revolt could take months if not years to succeed. Assad is finished. But the longer this go on, the more suffering will occur and more weapons will be in the hands of militias that will be hard to disarm at the end. Vengeance will be taken on the Alawites and perhaps against the Christian community that has been perceived as backing the Assad regime. I personally believe that the US has an interest and an obligation to be more involved in the Syria crisis, not necessarily with direct military involvement but at a minimum through arming the rebels . Washington generally is not effective in playing local politics in Arab states, nevertheless, I think we should be playing a role in supporting democratic transitions, supporting the rights of minorities, and helping to enshrine constitutional protections for everyone. Regrettably, it seems, in some of these countries toppled authoritarians will be replaced with theocrats or perhaps military authoritarians.
America is confused with regard to the events in the region, President Obama has pledged a two-state solution and broke his promise, the bloodshed in Syria is still going, the Iranian support also, but the US administration did not make any move, is Washington waiting a regional war to break out?
A regional war appears unlikely; who is going to participate? There is a possibility, of course, that the Israelis will strike Iran, but will the Sunni street rally behind the Shiite autocracy in Iran, put their own revolutions on hold, and delay hopes for their own democratic reforms and economic prosperity in return for a destructive war with Israel? You can see a scenario perhaps, in which Israel targets Iran, and Iran orders their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon to retaliate. Hezbollah has to make some calculations. While Hezbollah says it is going to make its own decision. However, Iranians say they will listen to the Fakih (Khameini) and do whatever he says. But if Hassan Nasrallah responds on behalf of Iran, Hezbollah will undermine its raison d’etre. Hezbollah says the Islamic resistance in Lebanon is there to defend Lebanon against Israel, but if it launches a war on behalf of the autocratic regime in Iran it will show the organization to be an Iranian tool. In any event, the position will be dramatically changed after the fall of Assad, because Hezbollah will not be able to rearm.
Hezbollah has enough missiles and rockets to conduct maybe three more wars with Israel, but it won’t be like after 2006 when the militia was able to reconstitute fully.
As for the US pledges on the peace process, I think Obama went very far pressuring Israel concerning the settlements, and it proved in the end to be counterproductive. Israel made a settlement freeze that secretary of state Hillary Clinton said was the deepest, most profound settlement freeze in the history, and yet this wasn’t enough for Mahmoud Abbas, who chose to press for even more Israeli concessions, and when Israel didn’t comply, Abbas decided not to talk with Israel for 18 months — the first time Israelis and Palestinians stopped direct negotiations since 1994. So the US did what the Arab world requested, and it didn’t work. It was unprecedented approach and it was a wrong approach. This must be a bilateral agreement for Israelis and Palestinians, sitting down and deciding for themselves that they don’t want war anymore, and both are going have to make tough concessions. It is not up to the US to tell Israel what to do, just as much as in the past when Saudi Arabia tried to tell Arafat what to do and he didn’t listen. Israel and the Palestinians know their own interests — sometimes they are wrong as we see it — but we are not the masters of their destiny. As for Syria the US should be more involved, and I believe it’s a tragedy that the US is not. What Washington is doing is insufficient and prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people. But just like the US is not doing enough, the Arab world has been absent, by sending Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi, and by supporting UN initiatives that were never going to succeed.
Precious time has been wasted as 26,000 Syrians have been killed, with more than 40,000 missing, who, its regrettably safe to say, are likely also dead. This is the time for action, like the Arab League took in Libya. If the Arab States don’t like the suffering in Syria, they should agree in the Arab League to deploy airplanes and other military assets, and/or an Arab Peace Keeping force. If the Arab states take a bold decision, the west will follow.
US knows about Iranian intervention and support to radical groups, sometimes with its help, Washington has handed Iraq to Iran, and Tehran is meddling with Gulf security, especially in Yemen, why is the US role is absent? Is US retreating globally against the presence of Russia and China?
The Obama administration was elected on a platform of ending US involvement in the Middle East. I don’t believe this is a wise policy. The US should have a more active policy in the region. By not actively countering destabilizing Iranian activities — for example, by helping the Saudis to go after the Houthis in Yemen, or by putting more pressure on Hezbollah’s connections with Assad regime. Absent a more robust US policy, these problems are getting worse. The Iranians have been meddling in the Middle East since 1979. Currently, the Obama administration is focusing on futile negotiations with Iran, and has been careful not to anger Tehran. Sanctions and diplomacy have hurt the Iranian economy, but haven’t dissuaded the Iranians for the past three years from pursuing their nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, Tehran has been destabilizing the Middle East, particularly in Syria. This should be countered and called out publicly, and the US should be providing assistance to those who are committed to countering Iranian influence in their own countries. It is not clear that even after US elections, the Obama Administration will do anything militarily against Iran. While it’s not a great option, as senator McCain said, the only thing worse than bombing Iran is having an Iran with a nuclear boms. If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, it will mean the end of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
US human rights violations were unveiled in Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib prison, and in Kandahar, what does America provide as reflection of its global image? Is the concept of freedom, civil and human rights is exclusive for Americans?
Guantanamo was extremely damaging to the US. There was a big debate in the United State about what constitutes torture, but most Americans agree with John McCain that this is a stain on the US reputation. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to put all sorts of pressure on people — captured Al-Qaeda prisoners do not have the same rights as US citizens.
The US is at war with Al–Qaeda. Captured Al-Qaeda prisoners are not entitled immediately to a lawyer. Some people would say that this is a mistake or a violation of the law. I am not a lawyer. Since President Obama came to office, it appears that there have been some changes about the type of pressure you could put on captured Al-Qaeda terrorists. I don’t think that human rights are American rights, they are applicable to all people of the world.
Wars, political changes and transformations reveal and expose countries and political parties, how do you see the future of Hezbollah after he persuaded the Arab youth that it is a hero, meanwhile it supports a tyrant today, and works against the will of the Syrian people?
Hezbollah is in a terrible position. The organization depended on Syria as the key link in its Iranian supply chain. But when Assad falls, there is little doubt that it wil be replaced by a Sunni Muslim regime which, regardless of whether it’s Islamist or secular, will remember the position of Hizbollah and will not continue the relationship with the Shiite militia. As a result, there will be a change in the balance of power in Syria and in Lebanon as well. Hezbollah will be isolated. Before the revolution in Syria it was taken for granted that if Israel attacked Iran, Hizbollah would respond, but now we just don’t know, because Hezbollah knows that it can’t rearm. How ironic that this organization, which was so outspoken on behalf of Shiites in Bahrain, is supporting Assad in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Sunnis and other peoples in Syria. Hezbollah’s hypocrisy has been exposed, and the group is losing the popularity and legitimacy it gained in 2006. And I anticipate it will continue to lose popularity.
After the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, there appeared landmarks that there is a strategic understanding between them and Washington, and cracks exist in their relationships with national forces and the Salafists. Do not you think that Washington is losing its bet on the Brotherhood?
While the Bush administration was concerned about the Islamists, the Obama administration was more interested in reaching out to the Islamists. In some small way, this outreach lent US credibility to the Islamists and gave the impression that the US was supportive to the Islamists — even more so than the secular political forces in the region. In fact, in Egypt, secular forces were so upset with the US position that they shouted down Hilary Clinton during her recent visit to Alexandria. While the US has engaged the Islamists, Washington hasn’t done a great job in engaging the liberals. At the same time, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood feels very much that they are in competition with the Salafists, particularly in Egypt, but in Tunisia also. This dynamic could push these Islamist governments even further to the right, especially regarding restrictive social policies.
There is an insurgence against US policy in the Middle East, an alliance between the group of resistance countries, and in Russia, Iran, China and Latin America there is a sociological analysis that confirms significant changes in American culture and the decline of support to the American external role. Are we facing the of formation of a new international entity?
The group you are mentioning here — Russia, Iran, China and Venezuela — is an emerging bloc of some repressive and or socialist states that aims to counter US influence in the region and around the world. I think that this is significant and interesting development and a reality that Washington may have to deal with in the future. Whether this bloc can in any way supplant the US is not clear. I am not sure the group has the economic, or military power, or enough of a shared vision to do so. The US will still be looked to to play a global role. There are a whole slew of benefits to relations with the United States that don’t come with relations with countries like Iran, Venezuela, China or Russia.
Nuclear negotiations with Iran represents a marathon of negotiations without results. There was a secret agreement to enable Iran, the evidence on that is silencing Tel Aviv, and the weakness of political means that are used to deter its program. Will we witness a Middle East packed with nuclear weapons? And why is Washington and the West behaving differently with Iran, the opposite of what happened in Iraq, though there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction?
The negotiations were finished before they even started. I think Iran is not interested in a deal. The theocracy understands, just like north Korea, that the only way to prevent being topped over or attacked by a coalition of global forces is to have nuclear weapon. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, other states will also do so, including perhaps Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. To date, the Obama administration’s efforts to end Tehran’s nuclear program have proven insufficient. The theocracy in Tehran intends to remain in power and continues to have regional ambitions. A nuclear weapon would help the regime to achieve this goal, and it is willing to endure much suffering.
You talk about human rights in the region and issue reports about this, but you neglect to talk about Palestinian human rights, and human rights in Iran, is this because it does not serve the US interests?
There are US concerns about Palestinian human rights. This is an occupation. At the same time, however, its important to note that Palestinians in the West Bank right now are engaged in an Intifada, not against Israel but against the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile in Palestinian-ruled Gaza — which is not any longer occupied by Israel — Hamas is incredibly unpopular, due to its harsh social policies and repressive security apparatus. Palestinians rightly complain about the Israeli occupation, but between 1994-2000 they were more likely to complain about their corrupt, brutal and caprecious PLO leaders led by Yasser Arafat. American human rights reports prepared by the US State Department include sections on Israel.
What is the reason for canceling the People’s Mujahedin of Iran from the terrorist list?
In the United States we have a law that you need to be not involved in a terrorist activity for six months and then you can be certified to be taken off the list. This happened with Arafat and Qaddafi, and People’s Mujahedin of Iran had been not involved for some time. But the primary reason is that the Obama administration wanted to engage the Iranians and didn’t want to offend them. Recently, Washington seems to have reached the conclusion that negotiations were going nowhere, so there was little to lose by removing the MEK from the list.
David Schenker: Palestinian issue not linked to ME instability
David Schenker: Palestinian issue not linked to ME instability
David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.