The Sunni Response to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Toward MAD or Stability?

The Sunni Response to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – Toward MAD or Stability
(Robert McFarlane, March 1, 2017)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Robert “Bud” McFarlane was National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985.

His record of public service included ten years in the White House and State Department in posts that included service as Military Assistant to National Security Advisors Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, Counselor to the Secretary of State, the President’s Advisor to the Middle East, and ultimately as President Reagan’s National Security Advisor.

He is perhaps best remembered as the architect of U.S. policies – including most notably the Strategic Defense Initiative (or Star Wars) – which so stressed the Soviet economy to bring it down, and in the process, accelerated the collapse of Marxism in the former Soviet Union. Mr. McFarlane served as Chairman and CEO of McFarlane Associates Inc., a consultancy focused on the development of alternative fuels and other measures designed to reduce US reliance on foreign oil.

He was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served 20 years in the US Marine Corps, held a Master of Science from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and was selected as a White House Fellow.

In recent years, Mr. McFarlane focused on organizing investment into developing countries, nurturing reconciliation between rival Sunni and Shia sects in Iraq, coaching the tribal leaders of Darfur, and in 2011, co-founding The U.S. Energy Security Council. The USESC is a bipartisan group of former Cabinet-level officials, Fortune 50 CEOs, a Nobel Laureate, and retired military officers focused on raising public understanding of the risks to (and the means to restore) the security of our nation when all air, sea, and land transportation must utilize a single fuel (oil) whose price is set by a foreign cartel.


Robert R. Reilly:


Our speaker tonight needs very little introduction because of his distinguished reputation, and you know, of course, of his tremendous service to President Ronald Reagan and this country as the National Security Advisor of the president and the key role he played in the peaceful elimination of the Soviet Union, particularly in creating certain non-kinetic pressures upon that evil empire that brought it down through economic and other measures, so our country owes a great deal to Bud McFarlane.

He also served as a counselor to the State Department, a military adviser to Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger. He served for 20 years as a marine officer. I once made the mistake when I had the privilege of meeting Tom Moynihan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza, I said, “Oh, you were a marine.” He looked at me sternly and said, “No, I am a marine,” so I will not make that mistake with you tonight, Bud. He is a marine. I know there are some other marines in the audience tonight, so…

Now, I will not tell you where Bud McFarlane studied. It is part of the resumé you were sent on the email. I will just mention that he has been working hard in recent years in the kind of work out of which he will never run and that is reconciling Sunni and Shia, reconciling tribes in Darfur – you may have to go back, Bud, on that one – and most recently, working with recently retired four and three-star generals and other senior diplomats on arms control issues in the Middle East as, of course, he was a seminal player in arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, so it is something about which he knows a great deal.

You know that the first lecture topic we announced might have been considered somewhat anodyne, “Restoring America’s Leadership Role in the World.” It is not that tonight’s topic is unrelated to that, but Mr. McFarlane asked if he might be able to switch to this topic on which he will be speaking tonight, if conditions allowed him to talk publicly about it, and I am so glad that conditions have permitted that and that he will be talking to us tonight on, “The Sunni Response to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – toward MAD or Stability?” Please join me in welcoming Bud McFarlane.

Robert McFarlane:


Thanks to each of you – you have choices in 68-degree evenings like this. You do not have to be listening to turgid lectures from the over-the-hill gang, so to speak.

Your introduction I noted was too generous and in passing you said early on that I do not need an introduction but that provoked a memory here about- it must have been 2009, as a former staffer for Kissinger, I was asked to organize a reunion of all of the former staffers that had worked for him on the 50th anniversary of when he came to the White House, and so it was not a big challenge. Everyone wants to be in the same room with Henry, so I got everybody together.

Everybody came and because everybody knew him, for goodness sake, [I thought] he really does not need an introduction to that crowd, so I had the bad judgement to essentially use that cliché and say, here is our boss, he needs no introduction, and sat down. Bad choice. Henry got up. Then he was obviously disappointed, and he said, “Bud, I may not need an introduction, but I always enjoy one.” That was a blessing to work for Henry.

Tonight, we are focusing on a difficult agenda. All of you are well read, follow the news and the headlines as you have an ever more depressing state of mind over the past ten, fifteen years in the Middle East. Currently, I believe if someone were to ask you, you could probably name at least five (probably more) challenges of a seriousness that keeps you awake at night. I am not going to ask for a show of hands, but obviously, everybody knows about ISIS.

Radical Islam has become an acceptable term now thanks to Bob Reilly, really. If you really want to get beyond the headlines on what is the nature of this menace. He has the definitive book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which tells you how the rejection of reason, of modernity occurred, and the Faustian bargain that was reached between the Wahhabist group of wannabe-imams back in the middle of the 18th century. But it is undoubtedly the best work anywhere. I would include in that Bernard Lewis’ books on the Middle East and Islam.

But this is a modern manifestation of this Wahhabist apocalyptic vision, a team, a tribe that believes truly that they are carrying out a mission, a mandate from god to destroy all of the infidels in the world, ending in a caliphate and the End of Time. I did not come here to talk about that tonight, but that is the first challenge that all of us and our country and the West generally face in the Middle East.

It is not the only one. The second one that ought to keep you awake at night is Iran. This country now remaining a revolutionary state since the Ayatollah Khomeini returned in 1979, and has been since that time on a theocratic crusade first to expel all Western influence from the Middle East and then, gradually, directly into the use of surrogates like Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East and ultimately the world as the leader of Islam.

Iran, of course, being Shia, but about 15% globally of the Muslim faith, but now well-funded, well-trained, well-armed, well-advanced in using surrogates indirectly to expel our presence from the Middle East, and ultimately to outflank the Sunni-dominant populations of the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, all of the Gulf Cooperation countries, Egypt, Jordan, and North Africa).

The third challenge is equally daunting, and it turns on the intervention of Russia into the Middle East. This is the first time they have been able to establish a presence with a host country, Syria, welcoming them. [I have a] small footnote if you would indulge me. Russia for years has wanted to break out of the relative isolation as a great power, as a global power, that stems from their not having access to the oceans of the world except through Vladivostok. And having to come through the Dardanelles, Turkish-controlled straits that prevent easy in-and-out access given the Montreux Convention, which gives Turkey, sovereign control over [ships moving] in-and-out there.

In 1958, I was still in college. President Eisenhower recognized the probes and the attempts here and there. The Soviet Union in those days was trying to establish access to open waters and would go to great lengths to try to subvert governments that had a presence on a major strait or on an ocean to grant them basing rights and so forth. And at the time in ’58, they were trying to subvert one of the political parties of Lebanon, and thereby once it was in power, to have a port on the Mediterranean and to be able to contest what had been an American lake for all of the post-war period.

Well, President Eisenhower, no slouch at grand strategy, could see that intention and how far it had advanced, and the readiness even of Soviet forces to back up this party in Lebanon. At the time, I was having my twenty-first birthday, and we were tied up on an aircraft carrier called the Essex in Greece, Piraeus.

Well, on my twenty-first birthday, I was determined to have twenty-one drinks. Unfortunately, I did and so I did not go on Liberty the next night, but half of the Liberty party was ashore, and I was recovering. And in the middle of the night, there was a general quarter. That does not usually happen when you are tied up to a pier in some port, but the direction had come from the White House to the Sixth Fleet and to the Essex to lead a battlegroup to Lebanon and land a battalion of marines tomorrow morning. So we singled up all lines, pulled out of Piraeus, we are on our way, and did, indeed, land marines the next morning and prevented the Soviet Union.

Well, I mentioned that not that it was heroic, it was not, but it was how some presidents really can identify strategic purpose of great powers, China, Russia, in earlier days Great Britain, and the United States. Decisive leadership [matters]. Well, Russia has come into Syria, going back two years now, with the same goal in mind, establish a presence, a basing presence that you can use to project power. Today, [Russia projects] into the Mediterranean, but of course, [it wants to project power] through Suez and all into the Indian Ocean, the Far East, and the West as well.

In addition to that foothold that they have established in Syria, propping up this government there, and assuring that it will be there to be the arbitrator of Syria’s leadership and its position in the Middle East, Russia also has the capability to establish influence over governments here and there by virtue of its ability to sell weapons, and this relates to many countries, but today in Iran, the ability to deliver state-of-the-art air, ground, naval vessels and so forth, and nuclear power generation has enabled them to ingratiate themselves to Iran.

And if you look at a map or picture it in your minds, if you are Russia in the Middle East, and you have an established foothold in Syria on the western edge, and then Iran, you really are within reach of changing the balance of power in the Middle East that has endured for 72 years. And I use that number because 72 years ago, Franklin Roosevelt concluded an agreement with the King of Saudi Arabia in which he pledged to provide security for the entire region in perpetuity, forever. So important was the repository of most of the oil in the world.

Today, the OPEC cartel owns about 70 percent of all the oil in the ground, and that is notwithstanding all of the fracking. Canada, Mexico, the United States, other sources are dwarfed by the oil holdings of OPEC. Well, why should we care? We should care because the United States needs markets. And we look around the world. Where are those markets? There is China, Japan, Korea, all of East Asia, as well as Europe, and all of those countries rely on the Middle East for oil. [They rely] on OPEC, and so it is important to us, to our self-interest and prosperity, that we have access to Japan, Korea, Europe, and so forth. And today, thanks to this Russian presence and prevailing influence on Iran, Syria, and pretty soon, much of the rest of the Middle East, is important to us. And that is the third issue that we really ought to care about.

The fourth challenge that is on our agenda turns on the socioeconomic horror, really, that is unfolding as people flee Syria. So far, on the order of nine million people having to leave, being forced to leave. After huge losses, 400,000 of them have made it thus far to Europe, and, predictably, within those 400,000, there are Wahhabist, radical Islamist people, schooled by ISIS and ready to do harm. And they have, have they not? In Paris, November of 2015, coordinated attacks at six locations made it possible to kill 130 people, and later, a driver in Nice. Later, terrorists in Brussels’ airports. ‘And, and, and’… San Bernardino… Florida.

So this menace is not something that we can say we are protected by oceans, not anymore. [There are] a lot of challenges. Well, in case you were to a point where you were going to say, well, I can imagine solutions to those, those are pretty easy, let me give you a fifth one. The fifth one derives from the agreement that was concluded two years ago now between Iran and five countries, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany, concluded an agreement that sought to put restrictions upon the Iranian nuclear power generation program, a program that had been a cover already with solid American intelligence, identifying efforts to create a nuclear weapons program by diverting nuclear fuel to weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium.

Well, this program, whatever you may think of it, and people that I respect argue both sides of whether it was good, did it work, is it working or not, one thing is clear, and that is that it has stimulated a lust by every other Muslim country in the region, the Sunnis, notably, who view Iran as their heretic, in their judgement, but their threat, their enemy. [And this view is held] because Iran tells [them] that without hesitation that it intends to expel Western influence and overcome the Sunni, infidel countries and ultimately dominate the Middle East.

So you have Saudi Arabia and all of the countries in the Persian Gulf, seeking to obtain nuclear power generation or at least that is the stated goal, but they are looking across the Persian Gulf at a nuclear weapons program. They are confident of that. They do not believe this agreement is going to be enforceable, verifiable, and that they had better get on their way to be competitive.

Equally predictable, Russia and China, which have very robust industries, nuclear power industries, have rushed to the area and have offered to build nuclear power plants for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the [United Arab] Emirates, as well as Egypt and Jordan, six countries, and have already put on paper memoranda of understanding or letters of intent where Russia is committing to build these plants, dozens of nuclear power plants in the Sunni Arab side [of the Persian Gulf].

Well, you do not have to be a Kissinger to see the potential of what could happen here. If you have a nuclear arms race in which [the] Sunni Arab community is competing to see who can develop both warheads as well as delivery systems, it is a recipe [for disaster]. Well, Henry Kissinger, when we met with him, my team who I will tell you about in a minute, [would agree. I believe] that we will have mutually assured destruction within ten years. That refers to the M.A.D. doctrine, and I will not bore you with that, but that is what happens when countries, seeing a competitor, concludes that it can destroy the weapons of the competitor with a first strike. And of course, that sets off an uncontrollable exchange of nuclear weapons. Nobody wants that.

Well, how do you cope with an issue like that, especially if you are in the unfortunate position of the United States right now, where notwithstanding Franklin Roosevelt’s commitment to secure all of the Middle East, all of the Arab states’ view that we have betrayed them and thrown that 72-year record and commitment down the drain, and they do not believe they can trust us anymore?

Well, understandably, many Americans are inclined to say, well, why should we care? We have all of the oil we need. But the truth is that we should care because all of us are at risk if there is a nuclear conflict anywhere, let alone all of those markets I mentioned before of countries which are affected by oil coming out of the Middle East, and which would clearly be disrupted.

So what do you do about it?

Being able to commit to all of these Arab states that we can do what Russia can do, we can do what China could do in building nuclear power plants for you, but we would come with control measures that would insist upon the fuel cycle being ironclad, that it could not be diverted to a weapons program because the United States wants to control it.

Well, there really are ways to do that. It is why the United Nations has this organization in Vienna that is supposed to go and monitor any country that has any kind of nuclear power program, and that is good guys, bad guys from Russia, Japan, and every other country. And there are dozens and dozens that do have nuclear power generation programs.

But it involves important measures and technology because you are really talking about going to dozens of plants delivering fuel, first making the fuel, taking it there, overseeing the operation of the plant, and when the fuel is depleted, recovering it and making sure that it does not go back into reprocessing, usable again for weapons. So it is not a trivial undertaking.

Similarly, when you stop to think about, well, who might threaten a nuclear power plant? Well, there is no end of candidates in the Middle East (ISIS, Iran), but the point is you really have to go there, not just to deliver fuel and oversee the operation of a power plant. You better have pretty good intelligence. You had better be able to know what ISIS is up to.

Better still, why not destroy ISIS before you go? That is no Sunday afternoon walk in the park. It is feasible. General Jack Keane is a member of our team, and if you have the interest in what operations ought to be undertaken here in the next couple of years to rollback this menace, he has given testimony on the Hill that is easily accessible. If you Google “General Jack Keane,” it will come up and it explains a very plausible, sensible, tried and true strategy for going after ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.

And done properly, it can be done. We have done it in the past to a point, but then we pulled the plug on the conflict back in 2012 before we had finished. Well, let me try to constrict what I have said thus far down to kind of the nexus of the crisis that we have got to deal with in the next year’s time. First of all, you have Russia, a great power with massive nuclear power as well as conventional forces, and it is on the ground in the Middle East astride 70 percent of the oil of the world.

Second, you have Iran with a declaratory policy of bringing down Western influence in the Middle East and having demonstrated already with direct use of Iranian forces, killing American forces in Iraq. And in addition to the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), this very, very well-trained, well-funded Iranian military force, relying on surrogates, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, [which] has been very, very active in Syria, propping up the Assad regime, but on behalf of Iran, ultimately to enable Iran to establish this arc that outflanks the Sunni countries, the entire Arabian Penninsula.

So you have Russia on the one hand, [and on the other hand] you have Iran, determined to overcome governance and disrupt the Sunni Muslim community of nations. Finally, there is good news, though, with the third element that I want to spend a little time on. And the good news is that in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the [United Arab] Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, all in all in the order of 300 million people, Sunni Arabs, there has been the beginning of an awakening that their stability is very much at risk. Yes, from Iran, of course, but also from their own dysfunction.

These monarchies have always thought they had the blessing of living off a predictable, reliable resource, oil, that the whole world needs, and they have most of it, so their future is assured. But now that they have begun to think hard about is it really going to last forever, and Americans, McKinsey, a well-known consulting firm, has gone there in considerable strength at Saudi request, and has pointed out, you know, this really is finite, your oil, and you are not using it very well. For one thing, you are using it to generate electricity, and that is oil that you cannot sell. You are using it on yourself. So better that you hold on to it because in the bottom line, McKinsey told Saudi Arabia, you are going to be importing oil if you keep on the way you are, by the late 2030s.

That is not far away, and it has really concentrated the mind of the leadership of Saudi Arabia. The King right now is 81 years old, King Salman, but it is his son, a man named Muhammad bin Salman, 31 years old, Western educated, [a] very bright, thoughtful person, who has dealt with those facts. And right now, we have several problems. The oil is going to run out. We are wasting it by using it to generate electricity. However, the bigger problem is we have a population that has been largely on the dole, and it is expensive. And worse, when they go off to school and they come back and there are no jobs, there is no career path. If any of you when you were children were going to pursue the American dream and you managed to find a way to go off to school and get an education, you did it because you had a way. There were jobs available.

Not in Saudi Arabia, and so this Deputy Crown Prince has had the good sense to say our country must industrialize. We have to begin doing things which other countries do routinely like feed ourselves. We have to develop agriculture. It takes a lot of water. That has to be desalinated. Why aren’t we making pharmaceuticals? Other countries make quite a lot of money [from pharmaceuticals]. Everything from fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, [and] petrochemicals [are imported]. In short, this young, 31-year-old has developed a plan. It is called Vision 2030, and it calls for the industrialization of the country, moving away from exclusive reliance on oil, and instead by generating electricity by other means.

Well, how do you do that? Well, there are a lot of them, and up until now, for about four or five years, they have been relying upon renewables. Well, there is a lot of sun in Saudi Arabia, that makes sense. Wind, yes, that makes sense. But when you add all of those up, and again, McKinsey’s consultants have gone through the very detailed calculation of could you really make enough electricity, using solar and wind to desalinate enough water to become an agricultural country?

And they concluded no, it really does not even begin to scratch the surface of how electricity you need. Desalination of saltwater is a very power intensive, electricity intensive process. And the bottom line is the only way you are ever going to be able to generate enough electricity to begin to do any of these things, whether it is agriculture, pharmaceuticals, or anything else is with nuclear power.

So it is good news that you have these enlightened, next generation rulers finally seeing that being kind of dictator-monarchs is not going to work anymore, and if you want to have a vibrant society that has career paths that are predictable to the next generation of kids coming along, you had better identify what could we do, what could we make, how do we do it.

Their blessing, of course, is they do have the money in the bank. If you have got $750 billion dollars in your central bank, you could finance a lot of things. And if you have an oil company that goes public with only 5 percent of ARAMCO, the Saudi oil company, being offered for public investment, you make a lot of money on that IPO, trillions of dollars. So it is not a matter of not having the cash. And now that they have decided they are going to use it in a sensible fashion, [they should profit.

Well, so you have three pieces to this thread, Russia, very ambitious in trying to coopt the Arab states with power plants that are not necessarily going to have the strict control over the diversion of nuclear fuel, Iran, sworn enemy across the Gulf, anxious, of course, to prevent them from doing what Iran has done, and the United States not anywhere to be seen. And worse, very few people in America have been challenged to think about that. And as the election showed here back in November, because we do have fracking and a lot of oil, there is going to be a very reluctant sentiment throughout our country.

Why in the world should we do this?

Well, I have tried to give you a sense of why it is terribly important, and that it really can be done. It is not going to get done be fasting and prayer, though, I will tell you. It is going to take a great deal of concentration, rallying American corporations. And here you begin to see that there really is an upside for the United States. What I mean by that is that today it really would be irresponsible to go to Saudi Arabia, build a power plant, and turn it over to Saudi Arabia. I mean that is not disparaging, it just takes a little bit of study, time, and effort to learn how to be a nuclear engineer, and so our country could, and [would] get paid for, bringing young Saudis here to go to any of our about one hundred nuclear power plants, and under contract and careful tutoring, spend a year here in figuring out how do you do this.

Now, this would not be a kind of whimsical operation that you just invite them here, hold classes like in a room like this, and send them back [with] best wishes. No, we would also have to be there on site, coaching and really doing it ourselves for up to five years, and we would have to secure those plants, and we would have to put into orbit satellites that would collect sufficient intelligence to be able to be confident that you are not going to be hit by Al Qaeda, ISIS, or anybody else.

But if there is another piece of good news, it is that in talks already taking place, there is this awakening. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, the [United Arab] Emirates [realize] that they really need help. And it comes down to whether or not it is better to come from the United States, or from Russia, [or from] China, and because historically we have been a reliable ally for that part of the world, they stepped up to the bottom-line issues in this whole scenario and said we will pay for it.

So I do not mean to make this sound easy, it is certainly not easy, but at least it is something that can be done to enable the United States to restore stability into the Middle East region without costing taxpayers’ money to do that, and have some confidence then that the oil to East Asia, and Europe, and Africa is not going to be disrupted by Russia or anybody else, that there will be a balance of power again that has not been there for the past eight or fifteen years, really. So those are things that I am afraid may keep you awake at night.