Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East
(Michael Eisenstadt, February 1, 2017)

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About the speaker

Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he has published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, and nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

Prior to joining the Institute in 1989, Mr. Eisenstadt worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government.

Mr. Eisenstadt served for twenty-six years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active-duty stints in Iraq with the United States Forces-Iraq headquarters (2010) and the Human Terrain System Assessment Team (2008); in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2008-2009); at U.S. Central Command headquarters and on the Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom (2001-2002); and in Turkey and Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort (1991).

He has also served in a civilian capacity on the Multinational Force-Iraq/U.S. Embassy Baghdad Joint Campaign Plan Assessment Team (2009) and as a consultant or advisor to the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group (2006), the Multinational Corps-Iraq Information Operations Task Force (2005-2006), and the State Department’s Future of Iraq defense policy working group (2002-2003). In 1992, he took a leave of absence from the Institute to work on the U.S. Air Force Gulf War Air Power Survey.


Robert R. Reilly:

It is a great pleasure to introduce Michael Eisenstadt, who is the Kahn Fellow and Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military & Security Studies Program. A specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs, he has published widely on irregular and conventional warfare, as well as nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

Prior to joining the institute in 1989, Michael worked as a military analyst with the U.S. government. He served for 26 years as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve before retiring in 2010. His military service included active duty stints in Iraq with U.S. forces Iraq headquarters and the human terrain assessment team in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Jordan with the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, and Joint Staff during Operation Enduring Freedom and the planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is, I believe, the time I was privileged to be his colleague for a short period. Without further ado, so he has more time to talk, let me ask you to join me in welcoming Michael Eisenstadt.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Thank you very much, Bob. Thank you very much for the invitation and for the warm welcome. It is great to be here this evening. I am going to be giving a talk that is based on a monograph that I co-authored with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled – and if you will forgive me for the plug here, “U.S. Military Engagement in the Broader Middle East.” Jim wrote the first section and I wrote the second section. My section was titled the same title as tonight’s talk, “Winning Battles, Losing Wars: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Middle East.”

Now, the reason that we wrote this monograph is that we wanted to make the case for continued U.S. military engagement with the region. Basically, you know, I think, you know, one of the things we said was that the U.S. still has vital interests in the region. Even though we are no longer dependent on Middle East oil like we used to [be], our allies are and our economy depends on them.

The region is still of concern with regard to proliferation and, I think most importantly, it is a major exporter of violent extremism and terrorism. And we have learned that what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East and conversely, if you do not visit the Middle East, it will visit you. So we feel that because we still have vital interests, because of the problems of the region are bound to flow out of the region, we still need to maintain some kind of military role there.

The challenge is, I mean as a result of events since 9/11, it is very clear that our military performance in that part of the world has been, to put it delicately, has been sub-optimal. We have made a number of major geopolitical mistakes that we are still paying for and I am not sure we have really learned the lessons of the past sixteen or so years, so we wanted to write this piece in order to take a look at what went wrong, what did we do right, but where do we need to focus- since we are, at least from our point of view, doomed to- or at least our interests require that we remain engaged in this part of the world. How can we do it better if we are to remain engaged in this militarily?

I guess I would summarize my argument by paraphrasing the famous quote by Sun Tzu, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” And I think we have failed in both areas, so what I am going to start off with is the failures of self-knowledge and they are many and I am not even beginning to touch on many of these failures. I will give what I think are the most important ones.

Bob mentioned before [that] we worked together at OSD, but I had previously been at CENTCOM headquarters for the planning of the War in Iraq and I have to say both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, it became clear to me how little we understood ourselves and our own limitations and the blinders that we have and our inability to understand the region, which, to be fair, I mean, especially in the case of Iraq, it was a hard target because it was a closed society.

There were a lot of things going on below the surface that we did not understand or could not even see, and to be fair, many people in the region, you know, people always say is I am a Middle East area expert by training, you have to listen to the people of the region, which I think we absolutely have to do. Anybody who is an area specialist worth his or her salt has to listen to the people of the region, but they are also prone to the same kind of foibles and blind spots that we often are or that we have shown that we are vulnerable to.

And so, we have made a lot of mistakes. So let me just start off with what I consider to be the main errors of self-knowledge, and part of it has to do with who we are as Americans, and some uniquely American perspectives and ways of looking at the world. The first is we have as Americans an ingrained tendency to project our values on our adversaries and most importantly to believe that every problem has a solution, and I call this solutions, which is a term that has been used in other contexts, but I put it in the policy context, especially with the Middle East, our efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, to remake Iraq and Afghanistan in our own image.

And I think part of it is because we live in a society that is relatively well regulated. We have mechanisms. I mean democracy is in many ways a conflict resolution mechanism. And we have at least until recently in that regard been a pretty successful society, and because we have a well-regulated society where we are able to solve problems, you can go to court, you could sue someone, you could seek arbitration, political parties can seek to resolve their differences, we kind of assume that this is a norm that can be implemented everywhere, and in principal maybe that is something which all human beings can aspire to and someday live in accordance with that ethos. But in the Middle East, we see a region that is plagued by intractable conflicts, and we have sometimes ignored that and at our own peril.

Now, this tendency, this preference for solutionism is especially problematic when you are dealing with insurgencies and dispersed, distributed terror networks, which are by their very nature very resilient. And when you are dealing with governments whose zero-sum, winner-take-all form of governance or style of governance and scorched earth way of war in dealing with opposition groups, which is actually an extension of their form of governance, I mean the way they fight their wars is really an extension in many ways of the way they govern, which is, kind of, you know, zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach. This way of governance, a way of war, often replicates the very problems they are trying to resolve, and this is a problem which I will discuss a little more in a moment.

Secondly, as Americans we worship at the altar of technology. We all have our iPhones. In our approach to solutionism, we often tend to rely on technology as an enabler. And, you know, all around town I cannot even count how many events there are at think tanks and various places about DOD’s Third Offset Strategy, which is important. Technological advances are important in warfare, no argument. But I think the focus on technology has come at the expense of or has resulted in an underdeveloped kind of geopolitical instinct. I find very few American politicians or foreign policy specialists who really have a good kind of geopolitical feel. You know you have Henry Kissinger and Richard Haas who are both excellent, but this is especially among our political class this is geopolitical kind of savvy and instinct, something which is found wanting, and I will discuss this a little more in a moment.

And as a result, in the Middle East we have made geopolitical mistakes. And let me just say, when you make a geopolitical mistake, its impact is often very broad and very deep. What we did in Iraq and the mistakes we made there contributed to the emergence of what we are seeing now, which is a regional kind of struggle, and it already was there, it was nascent, but we exacerbated some of the preexisting problems with regard to sectarianism and the like.

And now we have this regional wide struggle between Iran and its proxies and Saudi Arabia and its proxies and the Emiratis and also the Qataris are involved. We often try to use tactical virtuosity and high tech or high-tech advantage to work our way out of the problems we have gotten ourselves into because of our geopolitical mistakes. I think we are overdeveloped when it comes to our technological prowess, but I think our geopolitical skills have been found wanting in the Middle East and probably elsewhere.

And I will give an example, whether it be our call for elections in Gaza in 2005 when the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority said this is not the time and it happened. Hamas won the elections. It eventually resulted in the Hamas takeover in Gaza. So what do we do? We helped the Israelis develop the Iron Dome system and military technologies to deal with the problem. What you have as a result is three wars. Three very, very destructive and painful wars as a result.

In Syria, our inaction since 2011 has had consequences for the region and for Europe and I would even argue for the United States and for our politics, which are very far reaching. And likewise in Iraq, our inaction after 2011 with the return of AQI, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in the form of the Islamic State also had tremendous consequences for Iraq, Syria, and then the spread of Islamic State to Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region.

Third, the U.S. has a stunted conception of warfare that is defined by several factors. First of all, a tendency towards binary thinking in terms of war or peace, regular vs irregular conflicts, or victory or defeat. As Americans we often have trouble grappling with ambiguous circumstances and outcomes or kind of dealing on multiple tracks. In the Middle East, everybody has got a two or three track game they are playing, and they are operating on several tracks, and sometimes they are mutually incompatible or apparently contradictory.

We are very binary, and we saw this in the negotiations with Iran.

If we are trying to seek a breakthrough in a nuclear deal with Iran, we’ve got to be careful with what we do in Syria lest we undercut by supporting the opposition against Assad, we might undercut the potential for a nuclear agreement. Well, Iran was playing at the same time a two-track game at least with us, while negotiating, seeking advantage in Syria and elsewhere in the region. This ends up hobbling us by our inability to think and play multiple games at the same time because we’re very binary in our approach. You also saw this in President Obama’s statement of our military operations in Syria and, basically, he said it is either go in, 160,000 boots on the ground, or basically, you do very little. You try to support the opposition, but in a small, limited way.

And getting back to the whole solutionism theme I mentioned before, and I will quote him here, and thanks to Kendall, my RA, for finding this for me today. I will quote, this is from the President in April 2016, although he said it many times in the years before, “In order for us to solve the long-term problems in Syria, a military solution alone is not going to bring that about.” Now, first of all, I would just say we have to acknowledge maybe this problem is not solvable, but we have interests there that we need to tend to. Why not engage by supporting the opposition – I did not want us to be involved directly – but support the opposition to see what kind of options it creates. Maybe it would be a disaster or maybe it enables us to put pressure on the Assad regime to bring about a diplomatic settlement.

But the bottom-line is we had vital interests there that I think required our involvement. We were not going to solve the problem, but that does not mean you do not get involved, okay, again, because we had vital interests and we have seen what has happened with the refugee crisis, how that has affected the politics of Europe. And if right-leaning parties in Europe come to power, these parties by and large see Putin as a more natural ally than the United States, although under our current president maybe that will change, we will see. But again, not being able to solve the problem does not mean we should not get involved, but again, there are different ways of getting involved that do not involve either all in or not in at all. I think I understand why the president did not want to get involved, but I think we paid a high price for that.

We also have a general preference for brute strength and overwhelming force rather than ambiguity, guile, and indirection in our ways of doing things. That goes back in a way to the Weinberger and Powell doctrines. If you go in, go in to win. Candidate Trump, now President Trump, when talking about ISIS he talked about bombing the hell out of them. And I will touch on this in a moment, but sometimes more force is not better. Actually, sometimes more is less, and I will explain why in a moment.

But again, going in big is not the only way to do things. We always as Americans, and this is embedded in our military doctrine, we always talked about decisive battles. That is the Clausewitzian tradition. You seek phase three decisive operations. Now we call it, I think, ‘dominate.’ That is one way of doing it, but sometimes our adversaries instead of seeking rapid decision, they protract conflict over time in order to seek incremental gains through attrition and wearing out the enemy, and outlasting them.

Of course, our form of government does not really allow that because we have elections every four years and really, a president only has two-and-a-half years before he has to start campaigning again if he wants to run again, and if he does not have results to show after two-and-a-half years for a campaign, it is very easy for his adversaries to claim that the campaign is not working. So our form of government does not allow us to very often play the long game, but there are other ways sometimes of seeking victory, and our form of government forces us down a certain path in how we use the military instrument, which is not always the best one.

And also, by the way, with regard to seeking decisive results and rapid outcomes, even though since 9/11 we have been saying this is a generational struggle, this is a long war, what did we do in Iraq and Afghanistan? We did surges, twelve-to-eighteen-month surges, so while we are talking about long wars, we try to turn them around quickly, so again, there is this contradiction in our way of war and how we think about things.

This is not original on my part. I will give credit to Antulio Echevarria, who is a professor at the Army War College. He is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. I am not sure if he coined this exactly, but he has written about this, and his work is really worth reading. We have a way of battle rather than a war of war in that we tend to focus on seeking battlefield victory, and as a result, we are not very good at transforming military victories to sustainable political outcomes.

Now, part of it again, in the Middle East is the way we think about warfare, and part of it is the operational environment that I will explain a little bit more in a minute, but when you think about how President Obama defined our goals, I think it was September 10, 2014 when he defined the goals of the war, [and] he said our goal is to degrade and ultimately destroy [the] Islamic State. And these terms, again, are terms that make sense if you are thinking about kind of battlefield victory, but it does not get to the whole issue of the ideological struggle. And ISIL is an expression of a movement within Islam, which has a narrow base but deep roots. We could defeat them on the battlefield, but the ideas remain.

By and large, our approach to the fighting even though we pay lip service to the information operations [and] ideological struggle, by and large, most of our resources are devoted to the military struggle. I mean if you look at the number of people at [the] State [Department] and DOD devoted to the information operations campaign, not the tactical side but kind of on the strategic level, again, it does not compare. And the resources devoted to that does not compare to the battlefield campaign.

Now, I mentioned that part of the problem is the way we think about war. Americans tend to focus on seeking results on the battlefield, but part of the problem is as I mentioned due to the operational environment. Let me discuss the second half of our failures. I was talking before about failures of self-understanding. There are also failures to understand our adversaries and the operational environment. And the operational environment is a military term that basically refers to all aspects of the battle space where you are fighting that effect military operations. It could be human terrain, it could be geography, it could be topography, it could be climate and weather, and the nature of the enemy. And I am going to focus on mainly the human dimension here.

Now, the first thing that I think is important to understand is that the Middle East, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger’s term, the Middle East is a non-Westphalian state system. He used the term pre-Westphalian. I prefer non-Westphalian. Now, let me just say the United States during that Cold War also acted as a non-Westphalian state at certain times by virtue of our interventions around the world, covert action and the like. But by and large, through most of our post-war history since the Cold War, we have gone back and forth between being a Westphalian and a non-Westphalian actor.

The Middle East though is almost completely non-Westphalian in its workings in that, basically, it is one big family and everybody considers everyone else’s business [to be] their business. So, we had in the ’60s Nasser intervening against the monarchies, and you had the rivalry between the Nasserists and the Baathists, and you had the two Baathist states in Syria and Iraq constantly trying to undercut each other and scheming to undermine Lebanon, and the Palestinians trying to undermine Jordan. And we see it even today where you have the Gulf intervening in Libya and in Syria, and now Iran is part of the mix.

So this has been an established pattern in Middle Eastern politics for several decades now. The consequence of it is that there is almost always a band wagoning effect. Whenever somebody wins a war, their enemies kind of collude to undermine their achievements. So as a result, rarely will military outcomes justify the blood and treasure invested. And I will give you a few examples in a minute. But the dynamic nature of the Middle East operational environment has tended to reinforce those elements intrinsic to war, which Clausewitz wrote about, friction, uncertainty, complexity, that so often anywhere make victory elusive, but especially in the Middle East all the more so.

And then in the Middle East, you have the power of nationalist and religious narratives that extol resistance, and the knowledge that military assistance is almost always available from some quarter, so as a result, there is a universal tendency for defeated people not to accept defeat. That is normal. That is the normal human reaction, but it is strengthened by these ideological factors that I mentioned, nationalism, religion, and then the knowledge that there is almost [always] somebody in the neighborhood or a great power who is willing to give you arms to fuel your fight, so do not give up. And this, again, as a result, [means that] conflicts in the region tend to be more difficult to resolve than I think in other parts of the world.

So what you get is that the benefits of even the most decisive military victories are often ephemeral. They are very short lived. Wars often yield unintended consequences that sometimes are as vexing as the threats they averted, and then finally wars have rarely resolved fundamental conflicts more often leading to a new round of fighting, and I will give you a few examples. I am writing a paper now where I go into all of these, and I titled this chapter or this section, “One Damn Thing After Another.” When you read it, you will see. I will give you a few examples, okay?

The ’67 Arab Israeli War was a decisive Israeli victory, okay, but within a little more than a year, the Soviets had rearmed the Egyptians, the Egyptians launched the war of attrition, and then you had five years later the ’73 war. The ’73 war led to the quadrupling of oil prices, and as a result of that, Iraq was able to undergo a major military buildup, which when Iran experienced its Islamic Revolution, they saw the opportunity to invade and occupy the oil fields, leading to the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. That war ended with Iraq in debt to the tune of about $85 billion dollars to its Gulf neighbors. They looked at Kuwait on its border and saw a way to solve their economic problems. They also had to demobilize all of their troops, and all these guys were now unemployed. So they go into Kuwait.

That brings them into collision with us then. We go in, we get them out of Kuwait, but we established this containment regime, which contributes to the rise of anti-Americanism, sanctions fatigue, the rise of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia because of our presence in the land of the Two Haramain, the holy land, which for Muslims is Saudi Arabia, primarily. And that leads to the rise of Al Qaeda, 9/11, a return to Iraq, and then you also had the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which led to the rise of Hezbollah, which fought an eighteen-year war against Israel, caused Israel to withdraw in 2000.

The Palestinians had already been talking about a Second Intifada if they did not get their way in the negotiations. They took inspiration from the withdrawal. When Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, you have the intifada, the Second Intifada. Hamas, when they took over Gaza, saw the Hezbollah model as an inspiration for them, and tried to do the same with the Israelis, succeeded in getting the Israelis to withdraw in 2006, and then you had three wars that followed that. They were kind of buoyed by their successes. So one thing really leads to another, and everything is kind of connected as you see. So rarely are outcomes decisive or definitive.

And there are some positive things. Let me just say, the ’73 war also led to the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty and actually Henry Kissinger handled the war in an exemplary way to enable the diplomacy which led to the peace treaties, so it is not a dismal picture. We did some very good things during this time, and the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty was really a game changer in terms of American stature in the region and changing the regional conflict dynamics.

Okay. I mentioned before in terms of failures to understand our adversaries or our operational environmental that more force is not always better. Let me give you examples. In 2001, when we invaded Afghanistan and in 2003 in Iraq, we caused the rapid collapse of enemy resistance, not the defeat. We basically overwhelmed them. They did take heavy losses, but then they went to ground and came back as insurgents. We did not defeat them in detail, and they did not consider themselves defeated. Again, they were overwhelmed but not defeated.

So there are times when actually more is not better. Sometimes a long squeeze, such as what we are doing now in Iraq, although I would have liked to have seen us devote more resources to this effort, but sometimes a long painful squeeze is actually more effective in defeating your enemy than causing their rapid collapse.

The third point about our failure to understand the operational environment is that the success of U.S. strategy in the region is often not up to us but contingent on our partners’ politics, and we still have this in Iraq. We stabilized the situation with the surge. General Petraeus says the surge created space for the Iraqis to kind of reconcile themselves and to create a political solution. But again, in this part of the world, people will make agreements very often under duress. But if it is under duress, once the pressure is relieved, they will revert to form, and we saw that with Maliki.

He did what we asked him to do when we were there [and] when we had 165,000 people on the ground, but once it became clear that we were drawing down and leaving, he started going against his enemies. And as a result, especially after we withdrew, he targeted the Sunnis. In fact, it happened the day after. It started right after we finally left in 2011. And you have the return of Al Qaeda in Iraq in the form of Islamic State.

We are dependent on our partners’ politics, and our success is contingent on their politics, and their politics are dysfunctional. So again, that is another argument for why we should understand [that] we should have limited and modest expectations in terms of what we can accomplish in this part of the world.

And part of the problem though when we went into Iraq and Afghanistan is Americans always focus on things. To fix the society we help them draft a modern constitution, create effective institutions of governance, improve the economy, [and] build a strong civil society. But again, as unfortunately we have seen in Washington in recent decades, we have the goal to create better institutions, but our political culture is heading in a direction of polarization, which makes it very hard to get things done in Washington. So it does not matter if you have gold standard institutions, and you can build them the nicest institutions if the political cultures are not appropriate to those institutions, which is the problem in the Middle East. Again, I talked about the zero-sum, winner takes all approach to politics. The political culture subverts the institutions every time.

So that is the problem we face, and we have not even acknowledged that because if you look at all the studies that have come out of Washington about the way forward in the Middle East and how to fix the region’s problems, they still focus on structural issues, and not on the issue of political culture. In a way it is kind of natural because I think our political culture has changed in recent decades in ways that many of us do not understand, although I have seen some very good studies of why the polarization in the United States and in Washington [has increased].

But the ability to engineer change or alter the political culture even in our own country is very limited. All the more so in a foreign country that we do not understand very well, so part of the problem is, A., we are not addressing the right problems, but even if we were, I think we are just at the very beginning of trying to understand how to help them find the solutions to these problems. I know I am getting a little long, so I will wrap it up [with] just a few other points I will make. The Q&A is very important. [It] is often the best part of these things.


Terrorism: our prior president was fond of saying that terrorism is not an existential threat, which I agree [with]. It is not an existential threat in the way that nuclear weapons are, that is very clear, but we have seen that in Europe and in this country, it has been profoundly corrosive, and it has had an impact on politics in Europe and in this country, which is significant. The thing is we have to look at terrorism not just in terms of its physical effects but its effects on politics and political culture. And I would argue in that way it has had a major impact on us and what should have justified a greater effort earlier on to deal with.

[I want to talk about] a few other things. We have emphasized working with, by, and through local partners in Syria and Iraq in order to achieve our goals because we do not want to send 150,000 Americans on the ground in this part of the world, and we should not. I do not want us to. So as a result, our security force assistance efforts have been a very significant part of what we have been doing there, [our] training and equip efforts so to speak.

I would argue though, and I have actually done some work on this, I have looked at a lot of the lessons learned literature, and all the lessons learned literature – and I have talked also to the people who have done this, and the impression I get is what we try to do is create little U.S. militaries in this part of the world. And we do not recognize the fact that our military works with us because it reflects our culture, and the kinds of militaries we are trying to create for our allies are not appropriate to the cultures in that part of the world by and large.

We try to create little U.S. militaries, [and] in all of the articles they say what is missing in the Iraqi military is a strong non-commissioned officer corps. Well, the problem is that is one of our strengths, but in the Middle East generals have to sign off on actions that in our military, a lieutenant can sign off on. And there is no way an NCO is going to be given the authority in the Iraqi military that they are given in the U.S. military. And we are trying to teach them tactics, techniques, and procedures that require decentralized execution [and] initiative. And again, in that part of the world, you are talking about kind of a patriarchal culture, top-down. Except for small units, and maybe like the UAE has maybe succeeded in their air force and some of their special forces units, and you find centers of excellence throughout the region, every country has small units that are able to function much better than the mass military, but by and large when you are talking about the mass military organizations, our model does not work with them. And yet we keep trying to export a model which I do not think is appropriate.

Now, the interesting thing is that Iraqis in the past, Egyptians in the past found workarounds to their weaknesses. And we should work with them to find local solutions to these problems rather than trying to impose foreign solutions that are just inappropriate.

And then finally, in the Middle East, at least for many of our adversaries, information operations are their decisive line of action, and military operations are very often conducted to achieve battlefield effects, but very often they are conducted even more so to create psychological and informational effects. And Hezbollah mastered this in their war against Israel, where Israel was losing only 25 soldiers a year in Lebanon. I think they probably lost more people, more soldiers in car accidents, in training accidents than in Lebanon, but it created a psychological atmosphere in Israel where it caused them to withdraw. And likewise, you see Al Qaeda in Iraq, all of the videos they took of them attacking our vehicles for propaganda purposes, to get recruits, as well as to demoralize us.

We, again, I still think have kind of a pro forma approach to information operations. Yeah, check the block. Sure, we are doing that. But if you look at the resources, as I mentioned before, devoted to this, it is just not I think where it should be. It was said to me once by somebody who does this for the military that our enemies bake in their I.O., whereas we sprinkle it on after, and that has kind of been our approach for I think most of these last sixteen years. I hope it is changing.

So what do we do? What is to be done?

I did not say how do we solve these problems because, again, first of all, I do not have [all the answers]. There is a two-fold problem. First of all, we have to change our own strategic culture, and for the region’s problems to be better managed, their political culture has to change. I am not sure I have the answer of how we change our own political culture, never mind help our friends in the Middle East to change their political culture because, again, by and large when we have tried to do that, we have made a hash of it. But I still think we need to be engaged in that task.

Now, there have been a number of people who have written about America’s lack of strategic competence. There is actually a number of very good monographs. Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts have written about this, restoring America’s strategic competence. They have some ideas on this. The bottom line is this is something which it is not just our military but our political class. There has to be a stock taking, but the problem is they do not go to war colleges, they do not get professional military education, and they come to office with their kind of commonsense notions about the way the world works and about the Middle East, which often I think – we have seen in the last fifteen, sixteen years has caused more damage than good in many ways.

So I do not have an answer to how do we change our strategic culture, but the beginning of wisdom is to understand we have a problem, and part of the problem is us and the way we look at the world, the way our mental models [work], the way we think about warfare, the way we think about the Middle East, and go to town in trying to understand how we could avoid those problems in the future and find a better way forward in terms of how we use the military instrument in that part of the world.

In terms of how we operate in the region, I think we have kind of figured out on an ad hoc basis how to operate in Iraq and Syria, eastern Syria. Western Syria has been a disaster. Our work, both covert and overt, efforts to support the opposition have been a disaster, but I think those were not serious efforts, [which] is part of the problem. [In] eastern Syria, we have done better with the Syrian Kurds, the PYD. But we need to institutionalize these ad hoc approaches that we have developed into a way of war that is part of our DNA, part of our military’s DNA.

We also have to think about the struggle that we are engaged in now as the long-term struggle where we seek incremental advantage to advance our interests while understanding that we are engaged in long, open-ended conflicts that are likely to yield ambiguous outcomes, not decisive outcomes as we would prefer, and not decisive endpoints as we would prefer. I use the analogy of surfing. If you are surfing on the ocean, there is an infinite [number] of waves coming at you. There will always be waves. And you try to ride them, or you try to avoid them, or (the analogy breaks down) you try to contain them, that is where the analogy breaks down. But the point is it just never ends. And again, that flies in the face of most Americans’ way of thinking about overseas military intervention. We want our wars to be short, decisive, and discrete, and ending in American victory.

And the problem is I am not even sure the term victory really fits in what we are trying to accomplish in this part of the world because there is a large – the most important part of what we are trying to accomplish is in the political domain, and as I mentioned before, it has to do with trying to find a way to encourage political cultural change. We also do not have a good feel of how and why extremist movements arise, how they gain traction, and then they lose traction, so that we could catalyze this process.

Why is it that fascism or communism gained traction in the ’20s and ’30s and seemed to provide the answers to people? And why is it that Islamism after the defeat of ’67 [become seen by many Muslims] as the solution? Although I think it is clear [this happened] after nationalism lost its credibility. But I think there are psychological dimensions, there are social dimensions, but I still do not think we have a very good understanding of why groups like IS and Al Qaeda gain traction among a certain portion of the Muslim population and how it will eventually lose its appeal just like other extreme ideologies have lost their appeal.

But let me just say, okay, Nazism was defeated sixty, seventy years ago, but you can see the iconography and many of the themes still today on the internet, and they are animating some political movements around the world today. Even in Syria, you look in Lebanon, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party has kind of a stylized swastika, and they use the colors red, black, and white, so the iconography [endures]. Islamic State is brilliant when it comes to iconography and symbols. And their symbols will be around perhaps for generations even if the movement is defeated. We have to recognize that fact.

I also mentioned implicitly in what I said before, you need to have a tailored approach to security force assistance, which takes into account your partner’s culture. We have to be much bigger on information operations. In fact, I do not even like the term information operations because I am not sure it really captures [it]. Information warfare I am not sure really captures it. And let me just say it is something that requires a whole-of-society approach, not a whole-of-government approach, and I am not sure how you do that because in a democracy, a government cannot mobilize civil society to achieve policy goals, although we can enable civil society to do what it does, and hopefully that will advance our interests.

My final comment is that I really do not like saying this after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, pursuing transformational goals, I do not want us to do this again, but there is no avoiding transformational agendas in the Middle East without occupation, without invasion, that is for sure. But the problems of the region, I think like I said before, are rooted in the region’s political culture to a great extent, and trying to help our partners there transform their zero-sum, winner-takes-all approach to politics, simply breeds [itself so that] once you defeat the problem, you just kind of cause it to come about again.

How do you stop that cycle? I think that is the challenge ahead. I do not have the answers to that.

I think that is actually a life’s work, but simply acknowledging that fact, acknowledging that a big part of the problem is political culture, which I think [has] not really [been] part of the mainstream debate until now, is the beginning of wisdom and the first step towards moving forward in this regard and achieving a better outcome both for us and for the peoples of the region. So I will conclude my comments there and I look forward to the discussion afterwards. So thank you very much.


Audience member:

My question, sir, you are not trying to establish an empire, but you talk about trying to establish local armies in effect. What about the success on a long-term basis of the British in establishing armies to manage their widespread empire?

Michael Eisenstadt:

Yeah, I mean I will be honest with you. I do not know much about British history. There is actually a great article though by John Lynn in his book on battle, [Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture]. He has a chapter about the British approach in India with the Sepoys. And they created a regimental system that built on indigenous structures, and he holds that out as an excellent example of how the British adapted themselves to local culture [and] local social structures in order to create successful fighting forces. And again, as Americans we have a tendency to impose ourselves on others rather than to find ways to synthesize the best of each and understanding there are limits as an outsider to what you can accomplish.

So I will just say that article had a big impact on me. You have lit a spark that I am going to actually look more there to see if there are other examples elsewhere. But I think in the past, they were better than us, although I will tell you with my experience dealing with British planners during my time at CENTCOM and the like, I think they have lost a lot of the feel, but they had it. Of course, their people lived in India. They were born there, and they lived there their whole lives, and that also gave them advantages that we do not have as Americans, by and large.

Audience member:

Thank you, Mr. Eisenstadt. First of all, I want to thank you for crediting me for a great deal of intelligence for presuming that I know the difference between pre-Westphalian and post-Westphalian. I think I am nerdy enough to know that, but if I really knew that when I was eighteen, I would have gotten into a better college.

Michael Eisenstadt:

My knowledge of that is Wikipedia-deep, so [I am no expert] to be honest.

Audience member:

I want to say that the Westminster Institute is the one think tank to go to if you are only going to one because you never get speakers quite like this. So I have two questions. I am interested in what you mentioned towards the end of your lecture. How will we know if we get victory? How would we know what the definition of victory looks like? Just hold that [thought]. Here is my question. A little bit more than ten years ago, I was sitting in the Republican Palace in Baghdad, and I was a State Department official, and I was a public affairs guy. And [with] my colleague sitting next to me, [I] was looking at the talking points every single day for several months, and it was always the same. And the talking point was ‘our strategy is working, the government of Iraq is standing up a democratic apparatus, which is gathering the various constituencies in Iraq, and it is creating a new democracy in Iraq.’

Okay, so here is my question. Remember twenty-five years ago, Francis Fukuyama published a book. It became a bestseller. It is called The End of History and the Last Man. And he proposed that the debate about ideologies was over because democracy had won, had totally won, there is no dispute. Now, my question for you, sir. Is Iraq today according to its constitution an Islamic state, is it a democracy in the ranks of the democracies of the West, or is it sliding toward the sectarian theocracy of its neighbor Iran?

Michael Eisenstadt:

Okay, [that was a] two-part question, and actually, you gave me the answer to your question when you asked about when we know when we have won or when we have achieved victory [because] my response was going to be a paraphrase of Fukuyama’s title, that there basically is no end to history. I talked before about Americans have this binary approach, there is war and then there is peace. Well, I would just say there are more peaceful times and there are more conflict-riven times. I am not sure you ever win because in every generation there is always evil, and there is always extremism, and as long as we are human beings, flawed as we are, there will always be extreme movements.

As I mentioned before, we still see the progeny of the Nazis. Thank God they do not control any state, but these ideologies still have a powerful pull on people and influence on people. And likewise, I think IS has a very narrow slice of support or support base among Muslims, but they are very successful at intensively mobilizing this space because they have a global reach. And I would say the effective technology is unforeseeable in the far future, but thus far has been to assist groups like this that have a very narrow appeal.

It depends when you look at the polling data, and you always have to take the polling data with kind of a grain of salt, but in many Arab countries their support is in the low single digits, although in some places it is much higher, but by and large, it is in the low single digits. In Europe, it is higher, but the people who are actually willing to join them, to make hijrah and participate in jihad, is much smaller. But if you can intensively mine that narrow slice, that narrow support base, on a global basis and bring them all to one place, you are able to put up a pretty darn good fight as they have been doing.

So anyhow, I am not sure this really ever ends, [that] is what I am trying to say, but you go through periods. We had a period of Cold War. We had a period in which the Cold War was over. And now geopolitics does not end. We are now looking at the Russians as a potential geopolitical rival again. It is not the Cold War anymore. It is not communism versus capitalism. It is maybe more traditional great power geopolitics, but this never ends, so the best you can do is try to keep the demons in the box as best you can, and to agree that right now you have a dominant political culture [with problems].

And again, I want to be very careful. When I talk about the political culture in the Middle East, it is not the same everywhere. You have regional, local variations, and there are countries that have much more open, tolerant societies than others. But by and large, the dominant political culture in places that have the problems is this [idea] that either your boots are on someone else’s neck, or their boot is on your neck. And that reproduces the problems.

Now, in Iraq, I am tempted to give you in response to your question, is it a democracy, [the answer that] as David Petraeus said, it is Iraq-cracy. It has kind of uniquely Iraqi features. And this gets to the whole problem of political culture. In Iraq, a lot of the Shiites after the first election was held, they said, well, you told us democracy is majority rule, we are the majority, so we rule. The idea that there are protections for minorities against the tyranny of the majority as we have in all democracies or functioning democracies was kind of [alien. Their attitude was] do not detract from my victory, do not rain on my parade. [That] is kind of the approach that a lot of people took.

So it is a functioning democracy. They have had multiple elections. They do have cross sectarian alliances, but the politics is somewhat demagogic, and there are a lot of demagogues. There are people who rely on street muscle for their political power, and we are seeing [unrest] now also with the [political militias]. You have armed elements. The state does not have a monopoly of authority over arms in Iraq today. If that continues, and as a result of ISIS, you now have the Popular Mobilization Forces, these militias, many of which are pro-Iranian, [though] not all of them, become incorporated into the armed forces kind of on the model of the Revolutionary Guard.

People talk about the Hezbollah model and its application to Iraq and elsewhere, so it would be a combination of the Hezbollah model and kind of the IRGC in Iran, where you have this parallel military structure which counterbalances their regular military and plays a political role. I think that would be a very bad outcome, and I think we would continue to see the institutions of democracy eroded there because, again, once the state loses its monopoly over arms and power comes through the barrel of a gun, you are beginning on a slippery slope towards either chaos or certainly not a functioning democracy. And we see in Lebanon that problem as well. So, there are elements of democracy, but it is a mixed system as a result.

Audience member:

I came from the Middle East. I was tortured enough to be [unintelligible] U.S. diplomat. I saw over the years the relation of soft diplomacy the U.S. employs. I saw the abolishment of the Voice of America, the abolishment of the U.S. Information Service, the nonexistence of the Ford Foundation for Middle Eastern countries. I saw [unintelligible] the location in the embassy as preventing, isolating the American diplomatic corps from my country. And why don’t we take some action on that? Why don’t we establish USIS? Why don’t we establish [unintelligible]?

Michael Eisenstadt:

I think this is Bob’s question, really.

Audience member:

This is my question. Why don’t we revisit the successful programs we have?

Michael Eisenstadt:

Yeah. Bob has a lot more life experience in this than I do. I would just say I think we did so at great cost to ourselves. Bob, did you have anything you want to answer? You want to add to this?

Robert R. Reilly:

I would say that my experience in government has been to stop doing what works, and double down on what does not. That is another talk.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Yeah, it is.

Audience member:

I was in Lebanon during the war with Israel in 2006, and we were completely isolated from any Lebanese. We were in the embassy. We ate and drank with the marines in the embassy. We never went out, including the ambassador. We could not get a message out in Lebanon.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Well, and you had what happened in Libya, where you had a U.S. Ambassador who was very proactive, and unfortunately, paid the ultimate price for doing his job, being courageous, trying to meet with Libyans. And you see the bureaucratic response is then to further hunker down. And the domestic politics do not help in that regard the way this became a domestic political issue, which then only further reinforced the tendency to hunker down. So we are in a bad place, I agree with you. This is the most frustrating thing.

It is easy to sit in a think tank and say we should do a, b, c, and d. We have real, fundamental problems in terms of our institutional cultures, which is what you are talking about, and our way of doing business. We have problems with our political culture, which had been long in the making today, going back to the ’70s and ’80s with the increased polarization and Congress’ inability to get things done. And I do not have the answers. Like I said, the Middle East has its own political culture problems, but so do we, and we have to acknowledge that, and I do not have the answer to how we fix it. So if we cannot even fix our own problems, it is kind of hard to give advice to other people when our own house needs to be put in order, and we do not have the answer for how to do that. But again, like I said, the beginning of wisdom is recognizing the problem.

Audience member:

I had a number of reactions that I will throw out. You can respond to any of them. The best binary in my mind is we think of conflict as we approach it by military or diplomatic means. The idea that they can magnify each other’s effectiveness would be a new idea in our strategic culture. Sort of elaborating on what you were just saying, self-knowledge I think begins with the fact that the Left would just as soon we lose the war, and if we make a mistake, they are going to make you pay the price politically at the domestic level for every error that you make. Even if they have overwhelmingly authorized the war, in effect, they will withdraw authorization while the troops they authorized are engaged. That is something you cannot predict, and you cannot prevent.

If George Bush had won the Iraq War, all of the mistakes would have been forgotten by now. I mean winning overcomes a whole lot of things, and we lost that because of undeniable military and diplomatic, intelligence ineptitude. All three of those institutions severely let him down. The military needed to transition to counterterrorism long before they did, and they did not know how, probably because it is not capital intensive, probably because it involves a way of fighting that we have not trained our troops [to do].

I think what we have learned over the last couple of conflicts is that the best way to engage is to move the north German plain to the Middle East because when we went in there in 1991 with that advantage, we were dynamite. You have tanks and artillery and infantry all engaged, talking to each other, coordinating, and so on. But when it is done, when that part is over, we are clueless. And it was the same mistake we made in Vietnam. It was the exact same, and the solution was the same one. And we had failed to prepare for it the same way. I mean I think our strategic culture requires a lot more honesty than we are willing to devote to it.

Michael Eisenstadt:

I will just say I am glad [you mentioned Iraq the way you did]. When you talked about Iraq, I agree this was an across-the-board failure that I will have to say goes from the president to the lowest sergeant on the ground who did things that contributed to the emergence of an insurgency. So this was an across-the-board failure. Our military was totally unprepared for the type of war that we have to fight after the war, the war after the war, after the fall of the regime. We were totally unprepared for the governance challenges we faced there. DOD at its senior levels [and] State Department at its senior levels failed, so it is an across-the-board failure, it was a national failure, and I agree with that. There was a tendency at the time to [point fingers and say] it is the neocons [or] it is Bush. They were part of that, but it was across-the-board. I am sorry to say, [but I have] nothing else to add to what you have to say there.

Audience member:

If you see it as a situation where the conflict sometimes does go a little higher, one of the things that emerge from that is people in the region trying to get out of the immediate conflict area, and so we have seen refugees. That has been in the news recently. In terms of safety valves when the conflict goes up and people begin moving, the refugees have been a solution that we have had for several years. Now, people are talking about safe zones, administering safe zones is another whole set of challenges and skills. Could you sort of address those two options but also is there any third way to deal with local populations who essentially impose a burden on their neighbors?

Michael Eisenstadt:

First of all, the best way to deal with refugees is preventing the emergence of a refugee problem. Okay, so first of all, when people live in communities, there are established communities, there is infrastructure, there is chains of supply of food and electricity. And this was the big mistake. My argument for supporting the Syrian opposition was not because they will get rid of Assad because my feeling was until we know what is going to take his place, that should not actually be our goal. It was important to test to see if we could help create a third way in Syria.

I will use the example of Syria because that is really what I think you are talking about. I think it was important for us to try to create a third way because, first of all, if there was to be a diplomatic solution, which I was skeptical of because as I told you about the politics in the region, people will act under duress and then once the pressure is lifted, they revert to form, and the fighting starts again. Civil wars have a long history of recidivism, that there is often a second or a third round. We saw this in Lebanon. We saw this elsewhere [like] in Iraq.

But you need to keep pressure on the regime for diplomacy to work, apropos your comment. You also needed to create a third way because if people did not have a third way, they [would have] ended up going to Jabhat al-Nusra and [the] Islamic State because those are the strong horses in Bin Laden’s famous terms. Those are the guys who are fighting and dying, and actually doing something.

And our effort was kind of pathetic, and as a result, we contributed to the emergence in a way because of our failure to support a third way, which, again, like I said, it may have failed. It may have [failed] even if we had effectively resourced it. The non-Salafist opposition is fragmented, it is factionalized, [and] they do not work well together, so it may have been a disaster anyhow, okay, but at least we would have known that we did what we could have done, and you would have prevented, hopefully, a refugee crisis on the scope and scale that eventually emerged. There probably would have been some refugees, but maybe not on the scope and scale that we have now.

I do not see this administration pursuing what I am going to recommend now, but we still have an interest, and it may be too late, to create [or] to try to create a third way. Idlib, northwest Syria, is a disaster because the extremists, especially the local Al Qaeda affiliate, is the dominant element there after the loss of Aleppo, which was a human tragedy and for us I think it was also a geopolitical setback. So, you want to prevent more refugees from being created, so we should do what we can to arm people who are more or less aligned in terms of our interests and who are able to govern in a way that is acceptable to the locals who are not extremists. Again, it may be too late for that. Turkey may not cooperate with those efforts now, also.

Then, okay, so you are talking about a safe zone. Now, a safe zone has to be secured on the ground, so who is going to do that? Is it going to be the Turks? Is it going to be the Syrian government, which is maybe something Donald Trump agrees to? Maybe the Syrian government returns to areas that are now under rebel control as part of an agreement. In certain areas, that just will not happen because the jihadists will fight at least, if not the non-Salafist opposition, the ‘moderate opposition.’ I do not have an answer for you because of the complexity of the situation on the ground now, but it would be desirable to create [a safe zone]. If you could create a safe zone that was policed by locals, members of the opposition who could keep those areas projected against the regime, against Al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS, in an ideal world that would be the right option, but I am just not sure that is possible right now.

And let me just say, even if there is some kind of political agreement as a result of the Astana talks that were held recently with the Russians, and the Turks, and the Iranians, and the Syrian government, Assad is already getting rearmed by the Russians. Okay, so the balance of power, unless the opposition is rearmed by the Gulf [states or us], the balance of power on the ground is going to change in the course of the ceasefire, and eventually, Assad is going to say, you know what, I do not have to negotiate with these guys.

Now, he does not have the manpower to take back the whole of the country, but maybe [his forces could] retake Idlib and control the entire west of the country, retake the areas near Damascus that are still controlled by the opposition. Even if you want the ceasefire to work, you still have to arm the people on the ground, and I am not sure this administration [would do that]. Donald Trump sees all of the opposition as terrorists or extremists, and that is the Syrian regime’s narrative, also. I do not know whether or not we should actually prepare for a new wave of refugees. It depends on what policies the current administration takes, and it is too early to judge them, so let us hope for the best.

Audience member:

I spent my time in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Thank you very much for a very insightful and thought-provoking presentation, laying out the extreme difficulties and trying to achieve whatever it is [that] we are trying to achieve. My question then is given what you have said, given the complexity and difficulty of our military operations in foreign lands, why do it? What are the circumstances under which you think American interests would be served by actually engaging militarily in light of all you said?

Michael Eisenstadt:

It goes back to the points I made at the beginning, which are if you do not visit the Middle East, it will visit you, and what happens in the region does not stay in the region. I believe many prior presidents entered office trying to ignore the Middle East, and inevitably the Middle East draws them in. The challenge is to limit [how much the Middle East draws us in]. Look, we now have challenges in Eurasia with the Russians, East Asia with the Chinese [and] the North Koreans. Our military is not rightsized to deal with the emerging geopolitical challenges we face, so the challenge is not to get sucked so deep into the Middle East that it prevents us from responding elsewhere in the world.

Now look, I am a Middle East specialist by training, this is what I make my living on, and I will tell you, please rebalance to Asia. First of all, we have done a lot of damage to this part of the world, and so it can afford to [have] a little less attention, but also, we cannot afford to get sucked deep in a big way in the Middle East because of Russia, China, [and] North Korea. So that is why I advocated for a light-footed approach. Do no try to hit homeruns. Do not try to solve the region’s problems because we are not [going to solve them]. History shows, I gave you that litany of one war leads to the next, one damn thing after another.

The point is rarely does the investment in blood and treasure yield results that are worth the investment in this part of the world. But we have vital interests there, so we need to find the right balance. So it is a light footprint, enabling people whose lives are on the line and who have to live there, again, with the likes of Al Qaeda and [the] Islamic State. And they have skin in the fight, so give them the wherewithal to prosecute that fight, and seek incremental advantage. Like I said, do not try to solve the problems. Do not try to win big, but try to advance our interests, that is all.

It is a modest [approach]. It is a call for modest goals. Like I said, because of the state system, because everybody bandwagons, Iranians and Syrians will bandwagon against you, or the Russians are going to help other people. Even the most decisive victories, Israel in ’67 and us in ’91 were wasting assets, anyhow. [We should] have modest goals, but we have vital interests. Keep plodding away in trying to play a long game there, as hard as that is culturally for us to do.

Ahmet Yayla:

Thank you very much. I just want to ask about the future of Russian advancement in the region.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Yeah, I mean, look, we created a military vacuum that the Russians filled, and now it is getting much more complicated for us because in Syria, we have to deal with the possibility of Russian aircraft and Russian surface-to-air missiles. They are playing now in Libya. They are doing stuff in Afghanistan, and maybe next to the Gulf, I do not know. [In] Iraq, they also reemerged as a [factor]. We are still the major arms supplier to the region, but they are kind of filling certain gaps in certain places.

So, they have played a very weak hand very well, and I have a lot of respect for [that]. They are kind of low tech compared to us, they are a generation behind us in their technology, but they are high concept. They are very good at integration of political military actions. You see it in their cyber [operations]. You see it in their use of limited military force to achieve political goals.

Russia is not trying for a big win in Syria at this point. It was enough simply to reverse the situation that the Assad regime was facing of imminent defeat. But they also left their allies hanging because they do not have the desire to put large numbers of people on the ground either. So there is a lot we can learn from them, although, God forbid, we should never use their tactics. I mean scorched earth and the like. We cannot do things that way, and we should not, but there are things to be learned from watching how they operate.

Audience member:

Thank you. First, I want to say I agree with you that some conflicts never end.

Michael Eisenstadt:

Well, never say never, but [yes].

Audience member:

Never say never.

Michael Eisenstadt:

That is a long time.

Audience member:

Like the Zoroastrian concept of cosmic duality between good and evil, it just goes on forever. Now I am going to focus on Iran for a moment just to introduce pertaining to Sunni Islamist extremists, like Al Qaeda, ISIL, and so on. It would appear they derive some inspiration from Wahhabists and Salafists born of Saudi Arabia, yet we Americans are more favorable to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, even though Iran is fighting Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda and ISIL. And Iran’s Shia variety of Islamism like Velâyat-e Faqih does not gain much traction, and therefore is not as much of a threat to us as Salafism. So please share your opinion about Iran in the counterextremist fight, and more broadly what our policy should be towards Iran.

Michael Eisenstadt:

This gets back to the point I made about binary thinking. A lot of our friends in this part of the world are problematic, too, okay. The Saudi Da’wah activities, the missionary activities, did create [or] lay the groundwork for emergence of some of these groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. It grew from that soil.

And too often in the past, [they turned a blind eye to terror]. My understanding is the Saudis have changed dramatically on this, but they took an indulgent approach to these guys. [They said to themselves], send them out to fight in Afghanistan, let them fight jihad elsewhere, they are good boys, they are good Muslims, but as long as they do not muck around domestically, [we do not mind what they are doing]. And then in 2003, [there was] a series of bombings in Jeddah and, I think, Riyadh. And then for a couple years, they had a domestic insurgency that they were dealing with. They had kind of the blowback effect.

Look, our allies are not innocent either, but the bottom line is Saudi Arabia is a status quo power. Iran is a revanchist or anti-status quo power. Okay? And our enemies in the region, Salafi jihadists like Al Qaeda and IS on the Sunni side, and Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran are both trying to undermine the Arab state system. Our interest is preserving what is left of the Arab state system and the status quo, so that is why, basically, our interests are still aligned. As problematic as the Saudis and the Qataris are, our interests are still basically aligned with them and with the Egyptians in the way they are not with the Iranians.

And I do not think the solution to fighting Sunni jihadism is by aligning with Shiite jihadism, especially now that some of our allies have recognized that as a result of the blowback that I mentioned before with the Saudis, they have seen religion, they have gotten religion, so to speak, on this issue, and they are doing things now that they did not do in the past in terms of arresting these people, trying to reeducate them. There are mixed results. I am not sure anybody has had a great degree of or total success with those efforts, but I still think our interests are still aligned with our traditional allies in that part of the world even though they are problematic. And they are to some extent, have been in the past, and still are now to some extent part of the problem, but not in the way that the Iranians are [a problem].

Robert R. Reilly:

Great, please join me in thanking Mr. Eisenstadt.