It has been quite a week in the Middle East. Several Iraqi cities have fallen to Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda. Those same militants—and more secular groups—are struggling to defeat the Assad regime in Syria. Lebanon is exploding with Sunni-Shia violence, and Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Saudis have been showing concern about an ebbing United States presence.
To discuss all this, I decided to call up Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer who until recently served in the Department of Defense as Special Advisor for Middle East Policy.
Isaac Chotiner: You tweeted something interesting the other day. There was a New York Times story fretting about the lack of American influence in the region, and you basically said that people need to remember that we actually have many more troops there than we did prior to 9/11. Do you think the story of our declining influence has been oversold?
Andrew Exum: If you go to the Persian Gulf, and you talk to the Qataris or the Emiratis or the Saudis, the narrative—whether it’s fair or not—and I think Robert Worth, one of the authors of the story, channels this fairness in his Times article, is that, you know, the United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Worth and his colleagues are talking about the U.S. invasion of Iraq, AND the subsequent withdrawal. Our Gulf Partners only see that high water mark, in 2007, 2008, when the United States had upwards of 165,000 troops in Iraq. And if that’s your reference point, then it looks today, in 2014, as if the U.S. has abandoned the Persian Gulf.
One of the arguments that I made to a lot of our Gulf partners when I was still working for the Department of Defense was that, look, our presence in the Gulf is going to be orders of magnitude greater after the drawdown in Afghanistan than it was on September 10, 2001. And one of the things that the Obama administration has done is build up a lot of military hardware in the Gulf to respond to contingencies.
IC: I think the conventional wisdom is sort of hardening now into what the Worth article said, but I also think the conventional wisdom 6 years ago, when we were in Iraq, was that the American presence in the Middle East was a disaster. We got involved in these wars, and it was causing a lot of instability on the so-called Arab Street. In that narrative, Western presence in the Middle East going all the way back to the end of World War I has not been a happy story, despite some successes.
AE: Yeah, I mean one of the people who was criticizing the article was Toby Jones at Rutgers. Toby would make the argument that if you look at U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf it’s been going up since the mid-1970s, and he would argue that this has coincided with instability. I think that’s a little unfair, because you’re confusing correlation with causation. But I also think there’s a question that people have to answer: if you want the U.S. to have a greater presence in the Gulf, what historical evidence do you have that this would lead to more stability? And I don’t think the evidence is there.
IC: 1990-1991, with the first war with Iraq, seems like the highpoint. Anyway, the country that seems most upset is Saudi Arabia. Do you feel that, given our troubles with Iran, the Saudis have been rehabilitated in Washington? After 9/11, peopled seemed much more vexed by all the terrible things they were doing.
AE: I actually think that the Saudis feel that their influence is at its lowest point in a long time with this government and in Washington. They don’t have the access that they might have had during the Bush administration. In terms of what the Saudis are doing in Syria, it’s always been my impression that their eyes are on Damascus, but their hearts are really on Baghdad, and they’re in some ways trying to reverse the historic tragedy that they see of Baghdad falling to the Shia, to Iranian influence. They also fear that we’re going to wake up and realize that we have very little culturally in common with them.
IC: Well why do you let your wife drive, Andrew?
AE: Right, I would never work in Saudi because I can’t practice my faith there. You know, that’s one thing. The bigger thing is that Saudi Arabia has really big internal problems. The price of oil will have to be $300 per barrel by 2030 for Saudi Arabia to meet its financial and entitlement commitments.
IC: They need a Simpson-Bowles Commission. But just to circle back to where we started: You’re saying the Saudis are missing the old days in Iraq when Saddam, a Sunni, was ruling. And you also commented earlier on them complaining about our diminished presence. Well, if we hadn’t gotten rid of Saddam, we wouldn’t have been in Iraq at all!
AE: It doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but I think the Saudi royal family was tremendously grateful for what the United States did in 1990 and 1991. At the same time, the Saudis were very worried about what we were going to do in 2003, and I think that their anxiety about what we did and what was going to happen has never really gone away.
IC: Okay so let me ask you about Iraq specifically. How worried are you about what has gone on there over the last week?
AE: What worries me about Iraq is, if you recall back to the spring and fall of 2004, there was a lot of angst and hand-wringing over how brutal the two U.S. offensives in Fallujah were. The thing that worried me the most was this: if you thought the first battle of Fallujah and the second battle of Fallujah were brutal, the United States Marine Corps, highly trained, did their best to minimize civilian casualties. I worry that the third battle of Fallujah is going to be absolutely brutal. I worry that it’s going to be something that’s much more brutal, much more intense, like Hama in Syria or 1982 or, that’s probably a little unfair, maybe a Grozny-style insurgency, i.e. what Russia did in Chechnya in the mid 1990s.
IC: Yeah, Hama and Grozny are not the two nicest things to think about. What degree of what’s going on is a response to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s authoritarianism, and what degree is a response to what’s going on next door in Syria?
AE: I think it is possible to make two observations. One of the lessons that I focus on from my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan both as a uniformed officer and as a civilian was that there are real limits to what the United States can hope to do in either country. Because ultimately, enduring success lies in political decisions made by the host nation. And I think that Maliki deserves some responsibility for what’s taking place in Iraq. I also think it’s true that Iraq is suffering, like Lebanon, from the war in Syria. One thing the U.S. has tried to do in Syria is insulate Syria’s neighbors from the effects of the conflict. We’ve been most successful in countries that are strong, like Turkey or Israel, or countries that are really amenable to our efforts, like Jordan, where we don’t have complicated legacies. We haven’t been able to insulate Iraq and Lebanon from Syria.
IC: The one area in which I feel some optimism is that, I feel like, if the last ten or twelve years have taught us anything, both in Iraq with the Sunnis and in places like the tribal areas of Pakistan, people do not want to live under Al Qaeda rule.
AE: The one thing that I would caution you on is that Al Qaeda has learned. On the one hand, you can’t overcome a crazy ideology, which is always going to alienate people, whether you’re talking about the tribes of western Iraq or the urban middle class of Syria. On the other hand, Hezbollah certainly learned in the 1980s, when they first got to Southern Lebanon. They thought, you know, ban card playing and all sorts of stuff—backgammon—and they learned from their error. I would think that Al Qaeda might have learned from their experiences, too.
IC: What you said reminded me of what people used to say about fascism in the 30s, which is that fascists sort of had to go to war, because fascism feeds on war. You can’t have a peaceful fascist regime.
AE: Right. Like the story about the frog who gives the scorpion a ride across the river and makes the scorpion promise not to sting him. And the scorpion says yes of course, and when the scorpion stings him half way across the river, and the frog says, “Well why’d you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” And the scorpion says “I’m a scorpion, it’s in my nature.”
IC: A colleague said something darkly funny to me today. He said, “Let me get this straight: we don’t want these lunatics to take over cities in Iraq but we also want Assad to fall and these same lunatics to take over Syria.” Assad is certainly worse than Maliki, but the situation in both countries is so bleak.
AE: It’s going to be an ugly symmetry when the U.S. backed Maliki regime is waging a brutal battle to retake Fallujah from Islamist militants. And yes, the Assad regime is doing the same thing in Syria. The irony has occurred to me.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.