Djerejian: In addressing uprisings in Middle East, first 'do no harm'

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Article Summary
Former US diplomat Edward Djerejian also sees opportunity for US diplomacy in Gulf crisis.

Edward Djerejian, who served eight American presidents on the Middle East, observes that the Chinese word for "crisis" has two ideograms.

“One ideogram is ‘danger’; the other ideogram is ‘opportunity,’" said Djerejian, who served as ambassador to Israel and Syria and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “The dangerous situation in the Gulf now poses an opportunity.”

Seeing opportunity in crisis, and avoiding danger (and making bad situations worse), has been the hallmark of Djerejian’s distinguished record as a diplomat. His memoir of his career in the Foreign Service is appropriately titled "Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador's Journey Through the Middle East."

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor in Washington, DC, Djerejian, who is now director of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, explained that the Sept. 14 attack on the Saudi Aramco Abqaiq facility, which has been widely attributed to Iran despite Iranian denials, combined with a "disastrous" war in Yemen, provides a new opening for diplomacy in the Gulf.

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“What I would do if I were advising a president today is reengage on the JCPOA, and with a focus on the secondary sanctions that we impose on the Europeans and others, as the card to play,” said Djerejian, referring to the acronym for the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “But get Iran to make some serious compromises in order for those secondary sanctions to be lifted. This would be an opening where the United States could start getting reengaged with its allies — France, Germany and others — and with its adversaries who supported the JCPOA — Russia and China.” 

With regard to the Arab uprisings in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, Djerejian’s first line of advice is “take the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. Do not get directly involved. Promote our values, but without any false hopes that we're going to be the instrument of change in any way in these countries.”

While Djerejian considers Iran a significant threat to Israel and US interests and allies in the region, “the real existential threat to Israel is the Palestinian issue … because if it is not addressed, the geopolitics of demography are going to take over.”

A two-state solution should be the premise of any negotiations, said Djerejian, who worked closely with US Secretary of State James Baker on the difficult and ultimately successful diplomacy leading to the historic Madrid Conference in 1992.

“Any approach that focuses too much on the outside-in approach — Israel’s building relations with, for example, the Arab Gulf countries — somehow will critically change the fundamental dynamics of the Palestinian issue, I think, is wrongheaded,” he said.

Djerejian expressed frustration with the perception that the United States is withdrawing from the region, when in reality “we have this very powerful military presence in the region. We have 60,000 troops deployed in the broader Middle East.”

“The challenge is how to use this power effectively as the backdrop to our diplomacy to achieve our national interests and promote our values in the region,” he added. “This is the art of diplomacy that we have not seen for a while. Today we have this strong hand that we're playing very unskillfully in the Middle East, and you have a leader like Putin who is playing a relatively weak hand very skillfully.”

“If there's one phrase I think should be a dictum in foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is how do you move from conflict management to conflict resolution,” he said. “In other words, you have to deal with and manage crises, but then how do you step back and then go from conflict management to conflict resolution? It’s the distinction between tactics and strategy.”

An edited version of the transcript of the interview follows. 

Al-Monitor:  How do you see the shifts and trends in the Middle East since 2011, the Arab Spring and all that's followed? And how has the US been impacting those trends?

Djerejian:  At the very beginning, I called it the "Arab Uprisings" because putting a seasonal definition to it, one assumes there's a spring, a summer, an autumn and a winter. I think "Arab Uprisings" connotes that this is a tectonic shift in the political landscape of the Middle East, not only in the Arab world, but even beyond.

And that has proven to be the case as we speak today because if you see the protests that are occurring in Iraq, in Lebanon and even in Algeria in the Maghreb, you see that what started in 2011, was a popular uprising with no single political party or individual or leader in charge. It came from the grassroots, beginning in Tunisia, and then spread like wildfire throughout the Arab world, especially, very importantly, in Egypt and then in Syria and beyond. A message was being sent to the regimes and ruling elites in all of these countries that the people had had enough.

One of the most poignant placards I saw on CNN was this young man in Tunisia with a sign that he had drawn: "Kafayeh" [or] "Enough" in Arabic.

What that means is enough of systemic corruption, enough of a lack of political participation, enough of no jobs, enough of poor education and enough of inadequate political participation in the life of the country.

As you well know, there was the repressive reaction of the regimes against the uprisings, and, except in Tunisia, the status quo ante was restored. In Egypt the military consolidated their rule and in Syria Bashar al-Assad took his own hand at confronting the protesters in a very brutal way.

But the embers are still there, and they've been there since 2011 and 2012. Today we are witnessing this burst of popular uprisings, which in my eyes are even more significant, in Lebanon and Iraq. In both these multi-confessional Arab countries, the massive demonstrations are across sectarian lines.

You have in Lebanon, Christians, Muslims, Druze all protesting, not against the government, but against the system, which in Arabic is "nizam." They've gone behind the palliative of a reshuffling of government and portfolios, and they are targeting the system as rotten and that must be replaced. They are calling for constitutional reforms, elections and accountability for those in power.

In Iraq, you have a Shiite majority country where Shiites are protesting with Sunnis throughout Iraq against the system, and demonstrating before the Iranian embassies and consulates in the country. They're saying two things in both Lebanon and in Iraq: “No to the system. We need fundamental change," and "Enough foreign intervention, be it Iran, be it the Europeans, Russians, other Arab countries, or the United States." 

And I'm not absolutely sure of this, but perhaps we're seeing a rebirth of nationalism in these countries.

My wife and I arrived in Damascus in 1988. We had extensive contacts in the Syrian community. No one introduced themselves by their sect. They identified themselves as Syrians and they were proud to be Syrians. I think there's something afoot now that is very significant. It can be snuffed out again, but something important is happening.

Al-Monitor:  How do you assess the US record since 2011, and what do you think the US can do now to support a positive trend toward reform and change? Because, as you said, it's complicated for the United States because the protesters are tired of interference and may associate the United States with interference.

Djerejian:  I think the best thing the United States could do in face of this Arab Uprising, chapter two, if you will, is take the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. Do not get directly involved as we did with strategic negative consequences in Iraq in 2003. We should promote our values, but without any false hopes that we're going to be the instrument of change in any way in these countries.

In other words, let's not make the same mistake that the United States made in 1956 with the Hungarian Revolution, but we should live up to our values and adopt policies that can encourage the regimes in the region to address in meaningful ways the urgent need for political and socioeconomic reforms. 

This is not a new issue. When I was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, I gave a speech in 1992 at Meridian House in which we underscored as official United States policy the need for reforms in the region as one of the most important challenges the countries faced.

Al-Monitor:  And how do we then support positive change in a place like Iraq, where you have violence by security forces, where you have the role of Iran, which is probably not so hesitant to interfere, if need be, to defend its interests? How do we counter the negative influences that may be affecting a place like Iraq or Lebanon?

Djerejian:  Well, as we see leaderships evolve in these countries who we think reflect our values and interests, we should obviously voice support, at least in terms of public diplomacy and where appropriate in more tangible ways. We should also caution certain countries from intervening in the domestic affairs of these countries.

There is this perception that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East, but the reality is we have this very powerful military presence in the region. We have 60,000 troops deployed in the broader Middle East. The challenge is how to use this power effectively as the backdrop to our diplomacy to achieve our national interests and promote our values in the region. This is the art of diplomacy that we have not seen for a while.

Al-Monitor:  We saw it back in 1990, '91, when the George H.W. Bush administration used military force to turn back Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, and then used that political capital to launch the Madrid process and conference, which had all sorts of positive spillover effects for regional diplomacy. You were a big part of that effort. What lessons do you draw from that experience for both dealing with the protests and, more broadly, in terms of US policy in the Middle East today?

Djerejian:  First of all, we had a foreign policy president, Bush 41, and a secretary of state, James Baker, who was very effective. I remember in our internal deliberations, President Bush made clear that we're putting together this huge coalition to reverse Saddam's occupation and invasion of Kuwait. He was confident we were going to win the military battle, but he did not want to waste this coalition for military purposes alone. Remember this was a huge Arab and international coalition. We had everyone with us, and so the strategy was let's use this international support to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace initiative. This is strategic thinking. This is going beyond the immediate crisis of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and thinking about what you do next.

I wish this is the one lesson that future administrations will draw on. Today we have this strong hand that we're playing very unskillfully in the Middle East and you have a leader like Putin who is playing a relatively weak hand very skillfully. If there's one phrase I think should be a dictum in foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is how do you move from conflict management to conflict resolution. In other words, you have to deal with and manage crises, but then how do you step back and then go from conflict management to conflict resolution? It’s the distinction between tactics and strategy.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that that's still possible today in the age of social media and all the demands and intrusions that that has created for diplomats? Is it harder or not?

Djerejian:  I think it's harder because of the huge diffusion of communications. I remember when I was ambassador to Syria, I was the channel to Washington. If I were ambassador to Syria later on, there would be text messages and emails going back and forth that are not in the control of the personal representative of the president of the United States. Today social media is exploding and affecting not only our private lives but policy formulation.

When I was ambassador to Israel and given our close bilateral relationship, there was no question that I was not the primary channel. Everybody wanted to be the voice of America in Israel. I remember Yitzhak Rabin telling me, "Everyone wants to be prime minister of Israel," and I felt the same way as the ambassador. There were all sorts of channels that make your job more difficult to handle.

You're right. The situation has become much more complex in the world of massive social media and electronic communications. Beyond any partisan considerations what we need is a foreign policy president and a national security team that are capable of strategizing and putting their political will and power behind coherent policies.

I wouldn't be blaming social media alone for not making us capable of conducting serious, coherent, strategic policy.

Al-Monitor:  You're regularly out in the region. You have phenomenal contacts among the leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere. Let's start with the Gulf. What are you hearing from leaders and friends and others out there about how they feel about the US commitment and US policy, and what are they most concerned about?

Djerejian:  This goes back to two administrations — the Obama administration and the Trump administration — entirely different administrations in the context of diplomacy. I supported the JCPOA because I thought it put serious breaks on Iran's capability to produce a nuclear weapon and that, yes, it has faults and deficiencies, but those could be rectified in subsequent negotiations.

At the same time, in the Obama administration it was the so-called pivot to Asia that concerned our Gulf partners a great deal; and then in the Trump administration, you have these hot and cold changes in policy that confuse our partners at any one given time exacerbated by the manner in which diplomacy is conducted today from Washington.

One of the best ways I can characterize what I hear from Gulf leaders is — and this, I have to be discreet — one leader asked me, "Where's the coach?" I think that says everything: "Where's the coach?" “I don't know where the coach is.”

As a former professional diplomat, that's very distressing.

Al-Monitor:  What about the threat from Iran? You mentioned you supported the JCPOA. The Trump administration stepped back from that, the nuclear deal, in May 2018, and has imposed highly impactful sanctions on Iran. Last year, Iran lost 4.8% GDP growth. This year, it's projected 9.5%, maybe even 10%. That's a heavy hit. You've obviously dealt with the challenge of Iran for some time. What could and should we be doing now? Are the sanctions an effective tool, and how would one begin in diplomatic track if you think that's a viable option?

Djerejian:  It's very difficult because of the politics and policies in Washington and Iran's policies and the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and their support of various parties in the region, including terrorist groups. The attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in Abqaiq may be a turning point. Saudi Arabia was attacked on its own territory on one of its most critical energy-producing facilities. In 2015 [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] said the kingdom was going to take — in terms of Yemen — the war to Iran and not allow Iran to bring the war to the kingdom. Four years later, we see that the opposite has occurred. The parties moved closer to a military confrontation in the aftermath of Abqaiq, but they all peered into the abyss and stepped back realizing the disastrous consequences.

I see an opportunity for diplomacy here.

There are reported back-channel talks between the Saudis, Iranians, the UAE, with Oman being an intermediary. What I would do if I were advising a president today is reengage on the JCPOA, and with a focus on the secondary sanctions that we impose on the Europeans and others as the card to play. But get Iran to make some serious compromises in order for those secondary sanctions to be lifted. This would be an opening where the United States could start getting reengaged with its allies — France, Germany and others — and with its adversaries who supported the JCPOA — Russia and China. That's what I would do, something akin to that.

You know, I wrote a book called "Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador's Journey Through the Middle East," and the reason for that title is that the Chinese word for "crisis" has two ideograms. One ideogram is "danger"; the other ideogram is "opportunity." The dangerous situation in the Gulf now poses an opportunity. If we have the capacity for creative diplomacy that wasn't ideologically driven, I think there's an opportunity now for diplomacy.

Al-Monitor:  When you speak of diplomacy, I'd be remiss if we didn't talk for a few minutes about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. You spent a great deal of time on this in your career. I'm always fascinated by the diplomacy leading to Madrid. I tell folks regularly, "Go back and read James Baker's 'Politics of Diplomacy.'"

Djerejian:  Yes.

Al-Monitor:  It seemed every meeting leading to Madrid was hard. I mean, these were hard meetings with [Yitzhak] Shamir and with the Palestinians, and with the Syrians and others. It just was not easy to get those folks there, but bringing those people together really was the catalyst for Oslo and so many of the negotiations and things that happen. 

There's been a lot of discussion and anticipation about the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian initiative. There was a workshop in Bahrain. What's your thought on what you know about what the Trump administration is trying to do? And based upon your experience, what do you think could work at this time, and how do you see the environment?

Djerejian:  Right now, I don't call it a status quo because status quos in the Middle East are not static. Bad things happen in status quos in the Middle East. I say the continuation of no settlement between Israel and Palestinians is very dangerous. You see the attacks by Palestinian Islamic Jihad on southern Israel, the threat of Hezbollah in the north of Israel, the growing frustrations in the occupied territories. This is not a healthy situation for Israel. It's not a healthy situation for the Palestinians and the region. I think what one should put in front of one's mind's eye is that the Palestinian issue is still a central issue in the Middle East. A lot has been said that the Iranian issue overshadows the Palestinian issue. The Iranian threat is a threat sui generis that can be dealt with and should be dealt with on its own merits, but not at the expense of the Palestinian issue. It should not be a zero-sum game.

My bottom line is that while Iran poses a very significant political military threat to Israel, Israel, with the support of its allies, especially the United States, can deal with that threat, but that the real existential threat to Israel is the Palestinian issue, the nonresolution of the Palestinian issue, because if it is not addressed, the geopolitics of demography are going to take over. Simply put, that in between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, there are 6-point-odd-million Palestinian Arabs and 6-point-odd-million Israeli Jews. But with the demographic rate of growth of the Arab side, eventually they will become a majority. What would a one state look like? An apartheid state with different citizenship rights or a state that gives equal rights to all its citizens, which, in a way, would be contrary to the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state?

In my view, at least, if the goal of Israel is to be a democratic Jewish state, there should be a two-state solution with self-determination for the Jewish people and self-determination for the Palestinian people. And that's why this issue is not going to go away. I don't know what the Deal of the Century is. 

I haven't seen it. Those privy to it don't want to make it public yet. I have no idea what it is, but let me also comment that any approach that focuses too much on the outside-in approach — Israel’s building relations with, for example, the Arab Gulf countries — somehow will critically change the fundamental dynamics of the Palestinian issue, I think, is wrongheaded.

Al-Monitor:  You believe the premise of talks and negotiations should still be around the two-state solution?

Djerejian:  Definitely.

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Andrew Parasiliti is president and chief content officer of Al-Monitor. He previously served as director of RAND’s Center for Global Risk and Security and international marketing manager of RAND’s National Security Research Division; editor of Al-Monitor; executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US and corresponding director, IISS-Middle East; a principal at the BGR Group; foreign policy advisor to US Senator Chuck Hagel; director of the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and director of programs at the Middle East Institute.  He received his Ph.D. from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; an M.A. from the University of Virginia; and a B.A., cum laude, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He is an adjunct political scientist at RAND and a member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Virginia Club of New York. 

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