While China is the paramount strategic priority for the United States, the Middle East remains a region of significance for U.S. national security interests. The Trump administration prioritized pressure on Iran, efforts to reduce the number of U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Syria, and good relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The incoming Biden administration is expected to continue some aspects of the Trump approach while changing course in others. Our two experts will assess the Trump record in the region and what they expect from the Biden administration. Please join us for this timely discussion.
Matthew R. A. Heiman, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Waystar Health; Senior Fellow and Director of Planning, National Security Institute
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer, Adjunct Professor, NSI Founder, and Director, National Security Law & Policy Program, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
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Dean Reuter: Welcome to Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. I’m Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. For exclusive access to live recordings of practice group teleforum calls, become a Federalist Society member today at fedsoc.org.
Nick Marr: Welcome, everyone, to The Federalist Society's Teleforum conference call as this morning, December 18, 2020, we're discussing the U.S. and the Middle East: Trump to Biden. I'm Nick Marr, Assistant Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society.
As always, please note that expression of opinion on today's call are those of our experts.
We're very pleased to be joined this morning by two experts. The first is Matthew Heiman. He's General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Waystar Health. And he's also the Senior Fellow and Director of Planning at the National Security Institute.
We're also joined this morning by Professor Jamil Jaffer. He's Adjunct Professor, National Security Institute Founder and Director at the National Security Law and Policy Program at Antonin Scalia Law School. That's at George Mason University.
So after our speakers give their opening remarks and have a bit of discussion between themselves about U.S. and Middle East policy, we'll turn to you, the audience, for questions. So be thinking of those as we go along and have them in mind for when we get to that portion of the call.
Thanks very much for being with us here. Matthew, I'll give the floor to you first.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Thanks so much, Nick. So I'm delighted to be joined by an old friend, Jamil Jaffer, to talk about the Middle East, which as the program description noted, remains a region that I think we both agree is of critical importance to the U.S. for a variety of reasons that we're happy to talk about as we go along.
Notwithstanding the appropriate pivot to focusing on China, the Middle East is not going to leave the headlines. It's going to remain a region that U.S. national security leaders are going to have to pay close attention to in the coming years for a host of reasons. One of the most obvious is that it sits on top of half of the world's oil reserves. But there are more reasons than that to be paying attention.
So Jamil, one of the countries that gest significant attention year in, year out, whether we're talking basically every administration since the revolution in 1979 is Iran. And the Trump administration had an approach to Iran. The Biden administration is likely to have a slightly different approach to Iran. What are your thoughts on the future of U.S. policy there?
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Well, look, I mean, I think one of the biggest questions in Iran / U.S. policy -- and thanks by the way, Matthew, to you and The Federalist Society, and Nick for hosting this call. I mean, one of the biggest challenges in U.S. / Iran policy is figuring out what to do about some of the big challenges that Iran presents in the region and to the globe.
One, obviously their huge effort to obtain nuclear weapons that's gone on over the better part of two decades. And has gone -- has increased and decreased over time. The Obama administration sought to control it by engaging in a nuclear deal, which focused on the enrichment question. Can they enrich uranium, and if so, to what level and how much? And if they don't -- if they agree to do certain things, that the Obama administration would give them sanctions relief, which has been in -- there have been sanctions in place on Iran since the 1970s coup is Iran. Which brought the supreme leader and the Iranian revolutionary government into power.
And we've increased those sanctions over time to address the nuclear program and other threats. And so the Obama administration provided that relief. And so the Trump administration obviously walked away from that deal. That deal never had political support in Congress. And the Trump administration walked away from it. And now the Biden administration is talking about getting back into some sort of a deal, whether it's that original deal or a new deal, that'll be an open question.
And then the question becomes, well, if you do give them a new deal, what do you do about the fact that Iran supports terrorists and has done so for a long time, between Hezbollah, its support for Hamas, its rocket attacks in Iraq, its attacks on American soldiers in Iraq, and that support terrorism around the region. Not to mention destabilized activities in Yemen with the Houthis and the like.
And so what do you do about those destabilizing activities? What do you do about the fact that they oppress their own population? There are a lot of tough questions about what to do about Iran if you do get into this new deal. And the Biden administration, having made clear it wants to get back into some sort of a nuclear deal with Iran, is going to have to confront those head on fairly early in this new administration.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Yeah, I agree with you. I also think when we think about Iran policy, if we focus on the Trump administration, I would say there were some good things about the Iran policy. And then there are some just major disconnects in my mind.
So the good thing was, I think it was appropriate for the Trump administration to pull out of the JCPOA. And I think there were all kinds of reason for doing that, foremost which is, you're depending on Iran to be honest and true to its agreements. Iran never did stop, as you pointed out, supporting terrorist activities across the region, around the world. And that agreement just failed to address those things.
Also, all the restrictions that were in place were timebound. And many of them, if we followed the schedule, would be expiring relatively soon. And so in the wake of departing that, the Trump administration also coupled out with what they called the Maximum Pressure Campaign, which ratcheted up economic sanctions.
I don't know about your feelings, but I always felt like there was sort of a disconnect, because they wanted to have a Maximum Pressure Campaign on Iran, but at the same time, they were drawing down troop levels in Syria, and in Iraq, and other places. And so it felt like sort of what I would call, like a remote-control policy on Iran. If we can do it from here and it didn't require any real engagement in the region, we were all for it. But once it required boots on the ground, and maybe even more creative thinking, it seemed like there wasn't an appetite for that.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Well, that's a great point, Matthew, and you're exactly right. And part of this has been -- this has been a challenge now for the better part of over a decade, right? We had 12 years of this between eight years of Obama and four years of Trump, where America's been very afraid of putting boots on the ground in any region in the world and keeping them there.
Barrack Obama talked about ending all endless wars. Getting out of Afghanistan, getting out of Iraq, getting out of these conflicts. And of course, he had to go back to Afghanistan, more troops. He had to go back into Iraq after the rise of ISIS. And Donald Trump has been talking about pulling troops, not just out of the Middle East, but potentially pulling troops, moving from surrounding Europe, take some troops out of Europe, pulling troops out of Afghanistan, but also talking about Korea. And why do we have troops in Korea?
And so we've had a decade, over a decade of consistent policy on this that's been problematic for the ability of the U.S. to carry its desired foreign policy. It's one thing to say, I don't want to use troops. It's another thing to take them off the table and make your only tool, really, sanctions and berating people. It just doesn’t work effectively.
One question I have for you, though Matthew is, you know, as we look at this Biden administration coming in, are they going to really be any different? Are they also going to be afraid to use troops? I mean, remember Joe Biden and his entire national security team, a lot of them are from the Obama administration, have that point of view. So are they going to be that different, number one? And number two, even if they are going to be different, they clearly want to get back into the deal. Is there anything like a good deal with Iran? And if so, what would that look like? And if it involves their regional activities, is that realistic?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Yeah, so you put your finger on my fear. So to answer your question, what is going to be different in the Biden administration? With regard to troops in the region, I don't think it's going to be much different. That's the strange part about this is, I think there will be significant continuity from Obama, to Trump, to Biden in terms of willingness to commit forces in the region. Troop presence in other parts of the world, but let's just park it for purposes of this conversation.
You rightly noted, Biden and Obama were quite happy to draw down U.S. troop presence in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East during the Obama administration. And frankly, that's what gave the space for ISIS to rise up and occupy large swaths of land there. And of course, then they had to send troops back.
So I think the instinct to draw down troop presence in the Middle East will continue. Now, they may not be quite as rash about it. There may be more deliberation before they make a move. But I think, instinct-wise, they're going to do the same, or follow the same track.
In terms of your second question, which is a great one. Which is, what does a good deal with Iran look like? You know, from where I sit, the only good deal with Iran is one that Iran is never going to sign up to, which is something that somehow boxes in the enrichment program and the nuclear development program that has robust and thorough inspection regime. And also puts a cap on development programs around non-nuclear ballistic missiles. And somehow boxes them in, in terms of supporting their proxies, which are essentially terrorist organizations in places like Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
And so to me, that's the only kind of deal with Iran that would make any sense. And there's no way Iran's ever going to sign up to it. So to me, it's a bit of a dead end. But I don't know if you've got a different take.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, no. I mean I tend to agree with you. I mean, I think it's a really tough nut to crack. And when you're not willing to sort of put more on the line. I don't know what there is to put on the line. We've already put all of our key sanctions on the line in favor of the nuclear deal. They know that. And they know the administration wants to get back into the deal. So it's going to be very hard for this administration to really change the calculus there.
You know, one of the things that we haven't talked about yet, so far, is what's going on with Iran's external activities. We talked briefly, I mentioned the Houthis in Yemen. I mentioned Syria. I think it might be good for us to talk about what's going on in Syria and the real challenge that presents to the region because this ongoing conflict in Iran is largely stoked through its support of various groups in the conflict. And frankly, so have our Sunni allies in the region.
How do we convince -- the Iranians are supporting the regime, Bashar Assad. And the Sunnis have been supporting the rebels. And we've been supporting, what we call, the moderate opposition, whatever that is. And then of course we have -- and the Kurds and our abandonment of the Kurds. I mean, there's a lot to talk about in Syria.
But I think for me, one of the biggest concerns, is the destabilizing effect of that conflict and the spread of refugees throughout the region. We have friends in the region, including Israel and Jordan. Jordan obviously has been facing a lot of these challenges with the outflow of refugees. How do we think about the Syria conflict? And is there anything we could be doing better, or differently?
The Russians have been playing a big role in that, too, as we've sort of stepped away from it. Should we be doing more in the Syrian conflict? Or less? Or different? What are you thinking there?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Unfortunately, I think when you talk to people -- think about this a lot, in addition to us, I think everyone acknowledges it's a miserable bleeding ulcer and there are no good solutions. Now there are a lot of Republicans, and I was one of them, that criticized Obama for the infamous redline and the walk back. That certainly didn't help things.
But I don't think much in the way of Trump policymaking has helped things with regard to Syria. And so I don't think there are any great answers for Syria. Because in addition to all the players you just mentioned, there's also Turkey, to the north. And our relations with Turkey are frosty, at best. And trying to cooperate with them and the north of Syria has been miserable. And so I think the only thing you can do, or the thing that might be most productive, is to sure up all the areas around Syria.
So Syria is like an ulcer that bleeds badness through the rest of the region. So I think we have to continue to buck up Jordan, who is a neighbor and is heavily dependent on us, economically and militarily. I think we have to continue to work closely with Israel.
I do think one of the things that has helped in Syria in a small way is the pressure on Iran. So if we think about Iran's malign activity, their tentacles reach to Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen primarily. And so one of the knock-on effects of shackling their economy and largely cutting off their ability to export oil has been Iran's inability to fund, as lavishly, groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Now that doesn't mean those groups can't find ways to cause mischief on their own. But it does make it harder for them to execute grand-scale plans. So I think that's what you have to kind of do, is instead of saying, how are we going to fix Israel -- I'm sorry. How are we going to fix Syria, you have to think about what do we do to sure up our allies that are around Syria. So Iraq, Jordan, Israel. To a far lesser extent, Lebanon, because I'm not sure there's much for us, as a country, to work with in in Lebanon right now. But I think that's how you have to think about the problem.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: All right so Syria looks like Bashar thought it largely, for better or worse, has won the day. Lebanon is now a basket case, right. They're in trouble. They've had all sorts of issues from the government, their economy is in crisis.
And then you mentioned Turkey. And Turkey to me is an interesting one because you put out Turkey as not a great actor in the region. Of course, they're a NATO ally. A NATO ally has just bought the Russian S-400 Surface-To-Air-Missile that is obviously not compatible with NATO systems, intentionally so because Russia is one of the major threats that anyone's created to defend against, even though they maybe sort of more of a combatocracy today and oil-focused nation. They still mess around in the regions. We know we've obviously heard about their cyber activities here in the United States.
But what do we do about Turkey? I mean, the Trump administration's been all over the map on Turkey. Erdogan is problematic because he's a dictator. But the President seems to have an affinity for him. He gave him somewhat free reign with the Kurds, which obviously undermine the very people that the President trumpeted helped us remove ISIS's territorial caliphate. That caused all sorts of problems. And they're buying these weapons from the Russians, albeit a NATO ally. It's our very good NATO ally. What do we do about Turkey when it comes to all these issues?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Well, you know, it's such a dated term, and I'm loathed to use it, but Turkey truly is the definition of frenemy, right. As you point out, they are a NATO ally, but they don't act like one. It's hard to imagine any other NATO ally buying Russian defense systems.
And I think the problem that we face with Turkey is, it is largely an Erdogan problem. And that was reflected in the very inconsistent Trump administration approach to Turkey, where when you would listen to people, appointed officials in the Defense Department, in the State Department in Turkey, they would say reasonable and rational things. And then you would listen to the president, who as you said, acted like Erdogan was a golfing buddy. And so there was a total disconnect between what sort of the policy apparatus of State Defense and other national security entities were thinking about, and then what would come out of the White House.
And with Turkey, I think the best thing we can do is wait Erdogan out. At some point, he has to leave. Now that's not a great policy. But I think the other thing that we could be doing more of in places like Turkey, and frankly, in places like Iran, although not easy, is to continue to find ways to support civil society organizations.
One of the great disappointments of mine with the Obama administration was how they essentially turned their back on the green revolution and people that supported that in Iran. And I think, similar to Turkey, there is a good number of people in Turkey and political organizations that we could be finding ways to more creatively engage with as we wait Erdogan out.
Erdogan's rule over Turkey is not ironclad, as you know. The election I believe was last year for the mayor of Istanbul went to a political opponent of his. And there's an increasing level of dissatisfaction with Erdogan and his regime. Especially when you look at the economic performance in Turkey, which over the last five, ten years, has been really core. And it's the old game that all intelligence folks point out, which is you don't create fissures, but you identify where there are fissures and you try to widen them to your advantage. And I think that's what we should be doing in Turkey.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, no I think that's agreeable. By the way, you know, I know we've got some folks on from the audience. So let's check and see if the audience has any questions. If they do, I think, Nick, there's a method for them to raise their hands, isn't there, and if there are no questions, we can continue our tour of the Middle East as it were, Matthew. But let's see if our audience has any questions.
Nick Marr: Hey, great idea.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: So if we get a question, we'll cut to it immediately. But, Jamil, we can't talk about the Middle East, obviously, without talking about Israel. So Trump administration certainly invested a lot of time and effort right up to the closing bell here, with regard to The Abraham Accords and his relationship with Netanyahu. But what did the Biden administration do with Israel? How does Biden approach a character like Netanyahu? And is there a future in continued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Or is the direction of travel such that we continue to support normalization efforts with the other countries in the region and that -- the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation continues to sit on the back burner?
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Well, look, I mean, it's a really interesting question because we've sort of whipsawed in our sort of position on Israel from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, who went from Barack Obama, who made clear he expected certain things out of the Israelis when it came to the Palestinian issue. I mean, you heard John Kerry, his Secretary of State in no uncertain terms say that the road to Middle East peace goes through Palestine, infamously.
And there was a lot of criticism, and I'll admit having levied some of it too, the Trump administration almost complete pro-Israel policy. The U.S. has been pro-Israel. But the Trump administration took it to another level, essentially saying, look if you want to annex the West Bank, go do it. If you want to build settlements, go do it. We're going to bet on you. And people who had a conventional view, like I did, said look this isn't going to go well. The Palestinians are going to be very upset. They're going to cause trouble. They're going to make it very hard. It's going to empower the Hamas and the folks in the Gaza Strip and empower them within the Palestinian authority in the West Bank.
And as it turns out, we were all wrong. This significant pivot of an already very strong pro-Israel policy by the United States has actually empowered peace in the region. Because what it's done is it's taken the policy and debate off the table for some of these Arab countries and said, look, do you want to deal with the economic benefits that a deal with Israel would give you? The U.S. will put some skin in the game. If we took Palestine off the table for a minute. By the way, let's be -- unfortunately for the Palestinians, we got to be honest with the situation. The Arab -- most of the Arab states does not real care for the Palestinians. And really, has viewed them as a tool to effectuate their own policy.
And now, the Trump administration sort of pushed the Palestinian issue off the table. We're not going to force Israel to deal with that. All the sudden, now Arab states are like, well, now we can't use it as a tool anymore.
And then largely, with the exception of Saudi Arabia and a couple other ones, have largely come to the table and started cutting deals. Frankly, the Saudis are at the table, too. This idea that because the Saudis haven't (inaudible 00:20:49) yet. They let Bahrain -- Bahrain in a lot of ways, as an independent country, relies on Saudi for military support, and guidance, and the like. And so the fact that the Bahraini king was able to sign this agreement, or the Bahraini government, I should say, was able to sign this agreement with the Israelis suggests that the Saudis are willing to go down this road.
And so once MbS become comes to power, and we know that King Salman won't do it, but once MbS comes to power, it's very likely they will come to deal, if the U.S. is still in the business of doing deals between Israel and the Arab states. Which, I think at this point, it's actually kind of interesting. You know, I think this is almost inexorable at this point. I think the Biden administration is not going to have much of a choice.
Now I do think that they will want to put the Palestinian issue back on the table, and frankly they should. There needs to be a resolution for Israel's own benefit to the Palestinian situation. Israel is in an untenable situation occupying these areas and trying to maintain control. It's just not realistic in the long run. It's also not realistic to make all the Palestinians full scare Israeli citizens from an Israeli perspective if it wants to maintain its character as a Jewish state. So they're in a very tough demographic box. And security box.
And so these really need a resolution, too. The resolution cannot possible be, annex the West Bank. There's a very good reason why Benjamin Netanyahu, when given the greenlight to do it, didn't do it. It would be a disaster for Israel to just simply annex. They just want the security procedure if they need to do it. If they wanted to do it, they could have done it militarily, and they didn't. They haven't for decades. And so there's got to be a solution. And it's got to be something approaching a two-state solution.
But that means Israel's got to have the security assurances it wants. The Palestinians have never really been able to give that. Now the question becomes, how do you really empower the Palestinians to do that when everyone else sort of backed out of their corner and they're in a very tough place. The Palestinians are in a very, very tough position today.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: I agree with most of what you said. The one thing that fascinates me about what the Trump administration did visa vie Israel, is they did the two things that you're supposed to never do. The Foreign Policy Establishment said, the world will implode if you do it.
One, you move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. They did it. Almost nothing happened. Yes, there were some comments from leaders of Sunni countries that they didn't like that and they recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
And then the second thing they did, as you were just saying, they put the Palestinian issue on the back burner. And basically, yes they had some window dressing around it, but they didn't really do anything in earnest. You know, there were no famous pictures of Pompeo shuttling back and forth between rooms, or thing that we saw in every administration since the Nixon administration.
And so what I think is interesting is, I think the chances of reaching some sort of durable accord between Israeli and Palestinians is higher now than it's ever been. Only because the Palestinians can't rely on the mouthpieces of the rest of the Sunni states and say, oh we back the Palestinians. Because they've basically cut the rug out from under them.
And my sense of it is, Jamil, and I'd be curios for your take, is in all the negotiations, up to the Trump administration, the Palestinians always overplayed their hand. They always thought they had the backing of the rest of the Sunni states in the region and that they could make demands. And even when not great, but okay deals, were on the table, they would blow them up. And they did it repeatedly.
And I think one of the reasons, in addition to maybe Israeli intransigents, that there hasn't been a deal so far is that Palestinians have never had great leadership when they've had the opportunity to cut a deal. And I’m just wondering if The Abraham Accords changed that dynamic in a way where the Palestinians look around and say, you know what? We're sort of painted into a corner here. Maybe we need to cut a deal because it's not going to get better as time goes by.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, no, I agree. I think that's exactly right. You know, and audience members, by the way, if you want to get in this conversation, please jump in and feel free to ask questions about that. Matthew and I can do this for hours. We won't subject you to a full hour of it. But we will continue the conversation.
So look, I think you're exactly right about this issue. And one of the things that we didn't talk about Israel is, you know, some of the forward leading activities that we've seen in the Middle East that they've been doing largely without any push-back. In particular, I'm thinking about the alleged responses to the Iranian efforts to continue their nuclear program.
Right now, again, we don't know that the Iranians are continuing their nuclear program, but we know they have lots of nuclear scientists. We know that they are continuing to enrich uranium. And after we left the deal, they've increased their enrichment of uranium, so we suspect that they're preparing for breakout. Not that they would necessarily engage in breakout. And we recently saw the killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist by a mysterious attack. We've seen a number of them sort of spontaneously explode in their cars allegedly with motorcyclists placing bombs in their cars.
We've seen a lot of this happen. We've also seen mysterious explosions of various facilities across Iran over the last year. People suspect that the Israelis are playing a role. They suspect the U.S. may also have a role in it, also. If not directly engaged in the activities, but supporting the Israelis, or at least passively allowing them.
Do we worry that any of this activity -- and by the way, remember the U.S., after the attacks by Iran in Iraq, we killed the leader of the Iranian Revolution Guard Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, which nobody thought was ever possible. I mean, even the Bush administration never seriously, as far as I know, considered that. It was a massive move by the Trump administration. A very tough move and a strong move, and the right thing to do. But I wonder, do we worry that any of these things have any destabilizing effect and could cause things to tip over in the region?
I think there was a lot of handwringing after the Soleimani strike in January of last year before COVID began, about whether the Iranians respond, and if so, how. We haven't seen a whole lot. There were some additional missile attacks, but it didn't really move the needle. And the Israelis have been largely killing nuclear scientists with large measure impunity. Will this continue? What do we think is going to happen here?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: It's a great question. So part of me thinks the uptick of Israeli activity -- alleged Israeli activity in Iran was because they had a greenlight from the Trump administration. Or at least no active opposition from the Trump administration to the extent that they ran these issues by the National Security Council.
I also think part of what Israel is doing is trying to create facts on the ground to, in some ways, box in the Biden administration. So they've struck all these deals with Sunni states. They've been very aggressive visa vie Iran. And I think it's to sort of say, hey, this is a worry for us and we're not going to have -- or almost to the anticipation of maybe the Biden administration trying to put some more restraints on Israeli activity, or trying to emphasize the need for an Israeli-Palestinian accord.
What it looks like going forward, I suspect maybe a few less spectacular events. But I also think -- I think Israel has sort of taken -- has got a good hold of its head right now. And Israel can point to its new allies across the region and say to the Biden administration, look Iran's a threat to us. An existential threat. And they're an existential threat to the UAE, to Bahrain, to Saudi Arabia, and all these people are aligning with us.
So in some ways, to the extent that the Biden administration wants to put Israel in a box, it reinforces the relationships that have been created under the rubric of The Abraham Accords. I don't know if you've got a different view.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Matthew, I totally agree with you on this. I think that's exactly right. And I think that's part of the challenge of the region, you know, we don't have a real obvious path forward on some of these things. Even where things are getting more aggressive and more spicy, right, it's not clear how it all plays out. And so one of the things I think we need to think through is what about our other -- you know we've talked a lot about Syria. We've talked about Iran. We've talked about Israel. There are a lot of other players in the region. We talked about Turkey. There's some of these other states.
What about the situation in Egypt? We've got -- we still have a quasi-military government. Right, government came to power in a coup d'etat that we obviously supported because we were opposed to the Islamist government at the time. Is Egypt -- how's Egypt doing? Are they going to make it through this? What's next for Egypt in your mind?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Egypt is one of those countries that, at one point, they had the strongest military in the region. They don't anymore. At one point, they were the intellectual leader of the region. I don't think that's true anymore. And so from my perspective, Egypt's this very brittle state and it's run by a pretty repressive dictator. One that's obviously friendly to U.S. interest.
And look, let's be honest, the U.S., in the past, has worked with some unsavory folks because they aligned with broader interests. And I think that's certainly the way the Trump administration, or in particular Trump, viewed Sisi. I mean, Trump, I think even one point said, he's my favorite dictator, which is such a wacko comment from a President. But there you are.
And so what worries me is, it is so brittle there. And they've already gone through the Arab Spring. And there's no reason to think that something else could easily set that tinderbox alight again. And so while we can work with Sisi, I think we have to keep an eye on the -- as I've been saying in other places, on the broader populace of Egypt.
If you look at the economy there, it's done a little bit better recently, but I know it's being throttled by COVID, particularly as dependent as they are on tourism. They're also heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, and that has largely dried up.
So I just worry, I look at Egypt as a place that, while stable for the moment, could be very quickly become unstable given the size of their military, even though it's not what it once was. It does make you nervous as to, if Sisi goes away, what replaces him? Because it doesn't seem like there's -- I don't think we're going to have a normal represented democracy in Egypt anytime soon --
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: I share some of the concerns you raise, although I tend to have a more positive view of Sisi. I mean, look, we need Egypt to be strong and stable, particularly for Israel's interest in the region. They're right there on the border. Long had a security cooperation relationship. By the way, it's true in Saudi Arabia, too. And I think that represents a really interesting challenge for the Biden administration coming in, as for Sisi, but I think more for Saudi Arabia because you still have a lot of baggage over the killing of Jamal Kashoggi, a Washington Post journalist by the regime. Essentially, if the newspapers are to be believed, at the hands, at the direct request of the Crown Prince, will be the next --
And yet, Saudi Arabia's a key ally. They're not quite the population. Frankly, they've been completely -- they've abdicated their leadership role in the Muslim world on the issues of China and the oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang problem. I mean, it's not like they're doing right out in the world in a ton of places. Yet, I'm a big believer in the U.S. / Saudi alliance and the need to maintain this relationship. Frankly, Mohammed bin Salman is a young modern guy. And frankly, Sisi, while he may be older, he's more of a modern leader than Morsi would have been, right? Or was at the time he was in office.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Yeah, I agree with that.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: So you know, I don't know what to say here about Egypt and Saudi Arabia because we need the alliance with them. Could we coach them to do better, could we encourage them? Of course. Are we going to -- are we or should we abandon them because they're strong men and they conduct -- they're engaged in challenges at home. I don't know. I mean, that's a really, really tough question. I think the answer's no. But you know, what do we do about it? I don't have a great answer for you. What do we do about the potential economic decay that might cause and the challenges it causes them at home, as you're pointing out, in Egypt?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Yeah, I don't think there's a great answer here. The thing that -- and ask you know, you've served in administrations and so have I. And so when we talk about what we see in the press and the public side of things could be very different from what's going on behind the scenes. The thing that I'm mindful of is, I agree, we need to continue to work with Sisi. We need to continue to work with King Salman and MbS in Saudi Arabia. They are allies. They do support U.S. interests, broadly speaking.
You know, their human rights records are nothing to write home about. So the thing I always think about is, when you have countries that you are working with, if you've got a decent relationship, you should be able to be critical in the right way.
So what I don't know is, when Secretary of State Pompeo would go to visit these places, does he give Sisi a bit of grief over his repressive regime? Does he give MbS and King Salman a tongue lashing over the killing of Khashoggi, is that all happening in private? Because in public, there's nothing like that. There's no hint of any kind of daylight between the Trump administration and those regimes, which you would like to at least hear them give -- I'm not saying that they sort of move in the Obama mode, which is you essentially criticize all your friends, and you try and cut deals with your enemies, which seem to be very much the motus operandi of the Obama administration. But I do think it's okay to say, this is disappointing. We expect a little bit more.
And I never even heard a hint of that from the Trump administration. I mean, to get anyone from the Trump administration to concede that the killing of Khashoggi was a bad thing was, it was difficult to sort of parse that out. And so I think friends can speak frankly to each other. I think it would be decent if occasionally some of that frank speaking was in the public space so people could appreciate that, yes, while we work with this country, it's okay to have difference of opinion and we voice them when we do.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, no I think that's right. Matthew, I think that's --
Nick Marr: If I could jump in here real quick. So we've got one audience question. But first, before we go to it, I'm going to take the host prerogative and ask a question I've been wanting to get some insight on. So it's kind of fallen out of our nervous cycle a little bit, but it's relevant to the discussion. The Nagorno-Karabakh region conflict isn't going away. It's got geopolitical ramifications. Humanitarian ramifications. Obviously it has to do with our relationship with Turkey. I don't know if you read the recent foreign policy article by Nick Danforth urging the Biden administration to kind of step away, to move back from Turkey. So what do we think, or what do you guys think the Biden administration should do? What should its posture be towards this conflict? Obviously, Russia is involved, too.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Well, you know, I mean, this has been a long -- the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, complicated by Armenia and Azerbaijan over that region, has been going on for -- well, it's been going on for hundreds of years, but really it's been going on in recent decades. And it just recently has heated up and I do think it presents a larger challenge for U.S. policy because we never really -- you know, we encourage them to come together and have conversations. But we've never really been able to figure out how to solve this problem.
Russia's allegedly shown the ability to try and get to a deal here, and get this armistice, or whatever you want to call it, cease fire going. It hasn't lasted in the past. And so it's going to keep popping up. I think at the end of the day, you got to figure out, what does a stable solution look like.
And look, these are two countries that have long, deep-seeded issues between them. I don't know that there's a lot we can do, other than trying to find a stable path forward. I mean, this is a -- Nagorno-Karabakh, it's been the subject of huge concern and just humanitarian horribleness. And so I don't have a lot of great answers. It's a great question, Nick. It's a terrific question. I don't have a good answer. Matthew, thoughts on your side?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: I don't have a good answer. But when I think about these issues, I'm mindful of geography. And when you look at where those countries are, sandwiched between Turkey, Iran, obviously to the north, farther to the north, you've got Russia and states that kind of align with Russia. Our ability to -- and I look at countries that -- our closest ally in that space is probably Georgia.
And Georgia's already been run over by the Russians. And it wasn't like we were -- you know Georgia is an ally and we didn't do a whole lot, in terms of rushing to their defense. And I'm not saying that was inappropriate that we didn't do a whole lot. So I think when we talk about Armenia and Azerbaijan, I don't think there are a lot of good options, other than us continuing to keep diplomatic pressure for some sort of a truce. I just think America's ability to kind of solve for that problem is really limited.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, I think that's right. And we have to know what our limits are. Again, we can play a productive role in the sense that we can try to bring people together. But it's a tough -- that's a tough nut to crack.
Nick, you mentioned there was a question from the audience. Do we want to go to that?
Nick Marr: Yeah, that's right. So our first questioner.
Caller 1: Good morning gentlemen. Thanks for the discussion. Very good, very interesting. So I have two questions, I'll give you the first one first, if I can.
The first one is, I'm curious as to why there was this world-wide furor over the killing of Khashoggi and the Iranian dictators just killed a French journalist. It warranted about two column inches in the Washington Post on the day it happened, and I haven't seen a word about it since. And I'm just curios to get your perspective on why there's this obvious double standard between a murderous regime in Iran, and a semi-murderous regime in Saudi Arabia?
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: You know, it's a great one and thank you. Yeah, thanks for the question and thanks Matthew for -- look, the killing is obviously is a huge problem. I actually think there was a lot -- there was a decent amount of press coverage about it. A lot of folks in the U.S. and those of us who worked on the Iran issues for a long time raised the issue of the killing.
You're right, though, it wasn't compared directly, as often as you might have thought, to the Jamal Khashoggi killing. And it didn't nearly generate the amount of furor. And I actually think the answer is much more benign than you might think. And I think the reason why it's more benign is because the Iranians killed journalists, and killed civilians, and engaged in all sorts of oppression all the time. We're sort of used to it. And it's not surprising we hear, oh the Iranian Revolutionary Regime executes somebody. It's a day that ends in Y, right.
When the Saudis do it, again, they do have very aggressive punishments in a very sort of, in some ways, medieval justice system based on Islamic law. But the Saudis didn't -- this wasn't even that sort of thing. In this case, this was a murder in another country where you have a team that flew there and the body was chopped up. It just seemed more -- and it was a Washington Post journalist, to be sure a French journalist. And the French expressed condemnation and the like.
But I do think that there's a since that you sort of expect it from the Iranians, and we are opposed anyway, so of course, we're opposed to this thing, too. The Saudis are our allies, right. They're supposed to be better, even though we know they don't behave well all the time, they're supposed to be better. And when they don't do the right thing, we're able to tell them in a more aggressive way. If they're an ally, we should be able to coach them better, I think is the theory. Where when it's a country you're opposed to, of course you're going to be upset if they did it.
Again, we wouldn't be shocked if Russians started killing journalists, or if the Chinese imprisoned journalists, they do it all the time. Sort of par for the course. When our people do it, or our team, or our allies, even though they may be allies that we have concerns about do it, I think we get more upset. And you know, you argue more family than you do with the other side. Matthew, thoughts? Have I totally missed the boat here?
Matthew R.A. Heiman: No, I agree with most of what you said. And the other thing I would add is, as Americans, the killing of a Washington Post journalist, the major paper in our capital city, is going to get more ink in this country than the killing of a French journalist, unfortunately.
And so I think that's the other thing, as Americans, we need to be mindful of is, when we think about press coverage, we're always looking at it through the lens of the U.S. media landscape. And so I just -- I think for the reasons you articulated, Jamil, and the fact that the killing of Khashoggi, he was working for the Washington Post, it's just going to get the attention of all American media outlets in a way that the killing of a foreign journalist won't.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Yeah, and I know our caller had a second question. Nick, if there are no other questions in the queue -- are there any other questions in the queue, Nick?
Nick Marr: Yeah, we've got a second question in the queue right now so we can --
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Well, let's go with the second question, and then we'll come back to our caller if he still has another question.
Nick Marr: Okay, go ahead.
Caller 2: Yeah. Good morning gentlemen. Thanks for the discussion. I'm curious, in terms of what you see the compelling U.S. interests are in the region, comparing, and I say this as somebody who's got 22 months in Iraq in uniform. You know, the traditional four pillars of U.S. foreign policy is, they usually come out in the national security strategy and so forth.
Yeah, we want to support democracy, but I can't recall which founder it was that said that, Americans are friends of democracy everywhere, but defenders only of their own. Now that we are much less dependent on energy resources from that part of the world, I think that kind of undermines that degree of interest. Yeah, you know, but in conflict in that area can create refugee crises and so forth. But they're not likely to get here. And while they may threaten allies in Europe, and so forth, well, that may be a further prompting for those allies to step up their contributions to their own defenses. Those kind of problems are just as likely to threaten our frenemies in the region, Turkey, adverse actors like Russia, and so forth.
Especially since, I would argue, we're facing a genuinely existential threat in the Indo-Pacific region, China primarily. We tried back when President Bush II came into office, there was a stated intent to pivot to the Pacific then. And then 9/11 happened. And you know, for those of us who are more open to conspiratorial theories, it seems entirely possible to me that China saw that and was perfectly happy to support whatever was necessary to facilitate us returning our attention to the Middle East.
So I'm just curious as to what -- and like I said, I've got lots of friends in the region. But I'm curious as to what you see merits investment of further blood and treasure in that part of the world that has absorbed so much of it with no apparent satiation of the appetite.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: I would love to take first crack at this, Jamil. And it's a great question. And it's a very fair question. And one that people ask all the time. And I think it's one that we have -- you know, folks that are interested in foreign policy. And they're interested in thinking about how you invest U.S. resources around the world. We need to challenge ourselves.
I believe the Middle East still matters for these reasons. Number one, the Middle East, as I mentioned at the top, sits on half of the oil reserves of the world. And while the U.S. dependency on those oil reserves has greatly decreased through fracking and other means, which is great for U.S. -- for our U.S. strategic interest, many of our allies still depend heavily on Middle East oil. So that's one reason. Our alliance network is dependent on Middle East oil.
The second thing I would say is, there are a couple of powers in the Middle East that either have nuclear weapons or aspire to have nuclear weapons. Now there's never been any public disclosure of Israeli's nuclear arsenal. But a lot of people think they have nuclear weapons. And it's clear that Iran aspires to have nuclear weapons. So I think any region where you have two actors that are at odds with each other, that want to arm themselves with nuclear warheads requires U.S. attention.
And the third thing I would say is, I often hear this refrain about, well, we could pull back and focus on Asia or the Indo-Pacific, which is 100 percent appropriate. We should be doing that. But I would challenge people with the notion that we were able to face down the Soviet threat while still maintaining a level of engagement in the Middle East because it mattered. And the reason it does, the reason we stay engaged in the Middle East is because problems that arise in the Middle East don't stay in the Middle East.
Iran has been a bad actor around the world supporting terrorism across Europe, in South America. Obviously, al-Qaeda came out of the Middle East and struck us on 9/11. ISIS is a bad actor that will cause problems around the world if we give them free reign in the Middle East.
And the last reason, perhaps the weakest, but still one that is on my mind is, if we leave and there's a vacuum in the Middle East, the powers most likely to try and fill it, and it will not enhance U.S. national security interests, are going to be Russia and China. And I just generally don't think it's a good thing to give space to them to operate. I don't know, Jamil, if I've missed something.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: No, I think you actually covered it all. I wish I had something more to say. But I think you hit all the key points. I think that's exactly right. I mean, I think look, historically the reason we've been addressing the Middle East is partly because of economic and resources. That's less of an issue now, although, with COVID and the change in our economy maybe it could easily be an issue. But part of it also is, as Matthew says, those issues, these problems spill over. And every time we've tried to reap a peace dividend, or we've left Iraq, or we've left Afghanistan, we've had to go back because these problems -- when we don't fight our enemies overseas, or deal with them overseas, or deter them overseas, we confront them at home. Or we confront them in going up against Americans and other parts of the world. We've seen it over, and over, and over again.
Again, it doesn't mean that our current force posture or our current activities aren’t necessarily the right ones. We may want to modify them. But abandoning our allies, abandoning the role of leadership in the world, abandoning reasons where there are real threats and people are implacably opposed to us is a mistake. It's also giving up -- giving up any region of the world to the Chinese or the Russians, or anybody else for that matter, but really the Chinese is also a mistake and we continue to do that around and around, over and over again.
The Trump administration was, frankly, no different on that than the Obama administration. And I worry the Biden administration will be the same. I hope they aren't. But we've had over a decade of U.S. abandonment of allies, U.S. abandoning its role in the world, not being a leader, trying to run from problems, and that is a complete failure for us as a country.
Frankly, we need presidents who will lead our country and explain to the American public why we're in various regions in the world. Why Americans are being deployed. And if we're not doing a good job and we need to move things, let's move them. But we need leaders in Washington, D.C. who will go to the American people and say, look, we're not going to end all endless wars. We're going to talk about why we're at war, why we're in conflict, why our troops are deployed. Make a decision on it and then defend the American people and lead the American people. Not simply say, well, the American people are weary of it. We'll just bail and all come home. That's a failed strategy. We've done it for a decade and a half. It hasn't worked.
Ronald Regan was right. We need to be leading in the world. We have a moral role to play in the world. It's one of leadership. America is safer when we lead and lean forward.
Nick Marr: We've got one question left in the queue. And actually, I think our caller that had the other question just might have dropped off. But if he comes back up, we'll go to him. Otherwise, we've got one question, five minutes, so I'll ask our questioner to please keep it concise.
Caller 3: Hey, good morning. I was wondering if maybe we could synthesize and bring some of those questions together and talk about the extent to which China has an interest in getting involved here, as their power protection capabilities grow, and what some of their inroads might be. What countries might be willing to cooperate with them more. What strategies they might take and how they might try to challenge American dominance in the Middle East. Thanks.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Jamil, you want to go first or do you want me to?
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: You can take it, Matthew.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Well, I think we have to view China as a competitor in the region. So China has already set up a military base in Djibouti, which is, of course, right across the way from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. So they're projecting force in the region. In addition, all the players in the region have very quickly figured out that if they can't get to decent terms with the U.S. on defense article deals or other things, the common refrain is, well, if we can't get a reasonable deal with you, we'll buy it from the Chinese. And we've heard that recently from the UAE, in terms of their negotiations to try and purchase military goods from the U.S.
So in addition to that, China has an almost insatiable appetite to expand their economic influence. And if you look at the Belt and Road Initiative, it runs right through the Middle East. So I think China has a desire to expand its influence across the world through regions where the U.S. traditionally took the lead. And I think if we don't take note of that, and as Jamil said a moment ago, we haven't. We've said that, China, you can have economic influence in Latin America. You can have economic influence in Africa. China's essentially building all the new airports in Africa. And I know China would be quite happy to have that kind of influence and leverage over our allies in the Middle East. So I think China's intentions are clear and it would be a dereliction of duty of the Biden administration if they don't take heed of that and do things to head it off.
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: Yeah, no Matthew I think that's exactly right. I think that we have to recognize that China's seeking to play around the globe. They are our strategic competitor for the long run. We have to counter them wherever we can. They've already run rough shot over Africa. We've largely locked Africa to the Chinese. And if we're not careful, it could happen to other regions of the world.
We also need to demonstrate that we are willing to back our allies against them. So that starts, first and foremost, in the Indo-Pacific. And we need to do a better job with India building a stronger alliance with India and the rest of the quad. And really pushing back on Chinese aggression. The Taiwanese need to know that we are there for them. I don't think that they believe that. In fact, I'm not sure that we are. And that's a real concern we have.
Again, this goes back to the willingness of America to defend her -- to be an ally to her allies and an enemy to our enemies. We don't live up to that old adage of no better friend, no stalwart foe, and we need to do more than that. We'll see if the Biden administration is going to be that administration to do it. But if not, the next Republican administration darn well better. Because the Trump administration did a fail on that front.
Matthew R.A. Heiman: Well, and I think that is a perfect place to end the conversation. You almost, Jamil, could predict, even though we were focused on the Middle East, that we would have to talk about China at some point because it's unavoidable.
Great conversation. I don't know, Jamil, any closing thoughts before we let Nick close us out?
Prof. Jamil N. Jaffer: No. I think we're good. Nick, take us away.
Nick Marr: Well, thank you both very much for joining us. On behalf of The Federalist Society, I want to thank you for the benefit of your valuable time and expertise this morning. Especially your flexibility in doing it in the morning. And to our audience for calling in and listening and for those downloading this as a podcast. Also to the audience or your great questions.
As a reminder, we welcome your feedback by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also be keeping an eye on your emails and our website for announcements about upcoming teleforum calls. We have one later this afternoon, and we may have one or two next week, we'll see. Keep an eye on that. But otherwise, have a great holiday season, and we are adjourned for now.
Dean Reuter: Thank you for listening to this episode of Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society’s practice groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the practice groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at fedsoc.org.