Juliette Kayyem on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Arab World

Interviewed by Doug Gavel on October 19, 2011

Tectonic changes in the Arab World combined with ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are having an impact on the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy strategy. The strategic framework rests upon support for democratic governments and free markets, but the threats posed by terrorist organizations and emerging economies are providing new challenges. Juliette Kayyem is lecturer in public policy, and has served as Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Q: How is U.S. foreign policy being affected by the incredible changes taking place in the Arab World?

Kayyem: The changes in the Arab World are significant for American foreign policy for two reasons. First, I think it shows that ten years after the September 11th attacks our national security policy can’t be focused solely on counter terrorism. So in many ways this indigenous natural uprising in the Arab World made us look around and say, “Wow, lots has been going on and we better catch up.”

The second issue is, it raises very complicated international dynamics that relate to the United States’ interests in the Middle East. You have first, Israel of course, and the dynamics that are going on between the Israelis and Palestinians, but you also have what I have often called “the Cold War we don’t know is happening,” and that is the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a lot of the Arab Spring, now that it’s a couple months later and you see what’s going on. Behind the popular movements in a lot of these Arab countries is really a fight between the sort of monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Iran and their government. And so you are now seeing that dynamic played out, and so we’ll see how it unfolds for us and of course for the Arab people who are wanting to promote freedom but also know that that promotion is quite dangerous in places like Syria and Libya.

Q: What are the most significant challenges facing the U.S. as it prepares to begin winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Kayyem: Ending these military operations will be complicated for the United States. First of all, we don’t know what we’re leaving behind in these two countries. Even in Iraq, where things have been relatively stable recently, there is still significant violence within the country; whether that’s related to our continued presence there we don’t know.

Extricating ourselves from Afghanistan is even more difficult. I think it is still too early to tell for certain, but it seems that the U.S. counter insurgency strategy has been only partially successful. There is still significant violence in areas around Kabul. There is significant violence against us and Western interests. And Pakistan has been less than a transparent player in this realm. Pakistan’s interests are different than our own in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are tremendously worried about an Afghan-Indian alliance and I think it’s safe to say that they have been involved at the highest levels in helping stir up some of the unrest in Afghanistan. So I am not too terribly optimistic about our withdrawal from Afghanistan and I think that we will probably continue to have interests in Afghanistan related to counter terrorism. But what’s going to happen in Afghanistan is, I have to admit, anyone’s guess.

Looking forward, we also have to think long and hard about the costs of American military operations. There is tremendous pressure on the Department of Defense to respond to the current budget crisis. The debt ceiling debate here in America will have tremendous consequences on the Department of Defense’s budget: where we have troops, where we will commit troops, and the kind of weaponry we will be able to commit to in the decades to come. These decisions will have a tremendous impact on formulating our national security priorities. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I think in some ways it’s necessary.

Q: How important are U.S. relations with Pakistan and India in regards to critical global counter terrorism efforts?

Kayyem: They are very significant. The Pakistan-India relationship is not only contentious; it is also nuclear in real terms. And more importantly, we don’t really have a good long-term solution for easing the temperature between those two countries. I will compliment India — which has suffered tremendous attacks, some of which seem to be linked back to Pakistan — and India has kept its powder dry. Whether it will continue to do so is anyone’s guess.

We need to pay close attention to how the dynamic is being played out in Afghanistan, where the Pakistanis are not overly supportive of the Taliban, yet remain quite nervous about whether the government will form strong alliances with India. If that were to happen, there would be an India-Afghan alliance right on the Pakistan border. It’s a very volatile region.

The Pakistan-U.S. relationship is at an all time low, not just because bin Laden was found in Pakistan, but also because of very clear evidence showing that Pakistan has been involved with attacks against U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

Q: Recent allegations of an Iranian-involved plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States have raised new questions about state-sponsored terrorism and U.S. policy toward the region. How do you read the current situation there and how should the U.S. respond?

Kayyem: I am a lawyer by training, so I tend not to comment about cases that are brought because I know that the evidence that can be disclosed now is far less than what can come out in a court of law. But there are a couple of lessons to take away from the allegations of a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador.

What we do know now is that the evidence essentially suggests that the Iranian government was involved in very deep and meaningful ways in a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Most foreign policy experts and analysts and indeed even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that this scenario was beyond anything they could have imagined, and I think that’s probably true. And so what that suggests is something much more complicated is going on and that complication could be a number of things.

One possibility is that some renegade unit operating within the equivalent of the Iranian intelligence service is using money and the drug lords in Mexico to make a statement about Iranian influence in the United States. There has also been some speculation in the Middle East media about whether or not the Saudis set this up with the goal of to making Iran more isolated in the international community. But what is not surprising is that this is between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

There is a Cold or Luke Warm War going on in the Middle East right now over what country will be the new center of influence, especially with the changes in Egypt and Libya and the uprisings in Syria. At one stage we thought the new center of influence in the region might be Turkey, but essentially there is a power struggle going on between Saudi Arabia (essentially the Sunni Royal families) and Iran and the Shia Islamic states. This struggle is playing out in Bahrain; it’s playing out in post-Mubarak Egypt; and people are wondering, was it playing out in the assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador? I don’t know, and the truth is maybe most people don’t know.

Q: Please give us your assessment of U.S.-Israeli relations in light of the Arab Spring and other developments in the region.

Kayyem:  U.S. support of Israel — especially in the past six months with the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N.— has unfortunately isolated the United States at a time when it has been pursuing better relations in the Arab world. That effort began with the transition from President Bush to President Obama and his speech in Cairo. The United States wanted to pivot away from the perception in the Arab World that we were hostile to Islam, that we could only deal with them in terms of wars and that our support of Israel was blinding us to complex dynamics within the Middle East.

I think it was very shortsighted of the United States to think that the Arab Spring — which is essentially a democratic movement that we have supported throughout the Middle East — wouldn’t in some way have an impact on the Palestinian Authority. And that shortsightedness led to this drama at the U.N.

The U.S. role as an honest broker has been seriously undermined, I think, by the isolation that we have felt and that others have put on us because of our support of Israel during that U.N. bid.

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