To analyze the US foreign policy approach toward the Middle East and the Gulf States, one must take a closer look at Obama’s famous 2009 speech in Cairo. Within his words, he committed to seek a new start between the US and the Muslims all over the world; one that hinges on mutual respect and interests, but his terms are coming to an end just when the Islamic world and the Middle East have become soil for new and rising challenges. Such recent challenges as the attempted coup in Turkey, including President Erdogan’s policies toward his opponents, Saudi Arabia’s support of the region’s Salafis, and the matter of the nuclear deal with Iran will continue forward to affect a post-Obama US foreign policy and are of continuing crucial importance. These turbulent events inspired us to hold an interview with one of the most prominent US national security experts and director of the South and Central Asia Program at National Defense University.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Dr. Geoffrey F. Gresh,
Chair of the International Security Studies Department and Associate Professor at National Defense University’s Washington DC campus*
What are the key, determining factors in the US’ foreign policy toward Turkey in your opinion?
In my opinion, Turkey is extremely important from a geopolitical standpoint. In many respects, it is on the front lines of U.S. foreign policy, being a very important member of NATO, in addition to being at the frontier of what’s happening in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the South Caucasus, as well as in close proximity to Russia along the Black Sea. It will indeed remain critically important and a vital ally for the United States despite the current tension between the two nations. In light of the recent coup attempt, however, US-Turkish relations may be drastically affected. The situation remains very fluid and the US continues to monitor the situation very closely.
Will Erdogan’s gaining more power in Turkey’s politics change the US policy toward the country?
In my opinion, we are seeing a shift and in fact in the Turkish Daily News recently, there was an interview with a prominent Turkish scholar based in the United States talking about this exact topic. Originally from Boğaziçi University, this scholar spoke about how many in the United States are concerned about the direction that Turkey is headed under Erdogan. Speaking in my personal capacity, this is an unprecedented moment in bilateral relations. As a result, there are a lot of unknown factors that are about to take place: what’s going to happen in northern Syria, for example; what’s going to happen with the PKK or the YPG; what’s going to happen in northern Iraq; how’s Turkey going to respond to this; and vice versa how are the Kurds going to respond? As a result, there are a lot of moving parts and I think it’s hard to predict what the end result will be since we haven’t been able to predict the situation previously. It’s indeed hard to predict which direction the foreign policy will head. That being said, I go back to your first main question on Turkey. Despite all these factors and dynamics, Turkey is still a member of NATO and it still remains a very important ally to the United States, despite what’s going on domestically with Turkey and even though the United States is frustrated with the current trajectory. Certainly, these are my own opinions and we will continue to have to follow and watch Turkey along with these many key factors to see what might happen next.
What do you believe the source of the recent developments and moderations is? Is it Obama’s ongoing policy or the US general policy?
Again this is my personal opinion and does not represent anyone else. First, Turkey, even pre-Obama, was always seen as being a vital and critical strategic ally. So I think for Obama currently, nothing is really changed in terms of geopolitics and geography. Geography does not change. One of my colleagues recently spoke on Turkey’s evolution over time but at the same time much has stayed the same as he argued as well. Yes, Turkey has had problems like all nations. And the Ottoman Empire broke up but the core of Turkey remains largely strong despite the altered domestic situation. Certainly, the United States has felt disappointed by the Turkish government at times, but we still keep on going back to rely on Turkey and there’s a reason why we keep on going back and that’s because Turkey is a very important ally for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
How will the attempted coup affect the ties between the US and Turkey? How will it affect Erdogan’s power inside the country?
We are still learning a lot from what took place in Turkey over the past several days. On Friday, the White House issued the following statement from a call between the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the President: “The President and Secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed. The Secretary underscored that the State Department will continue to focus on the safety and security of US citizens in Turkey. The President asked the Secretary to continue to keep him updated as the situation unfolds.” Turkey remains as an important ally of NATO, a counter-ISIL partner, and a strategic ally for the United States in general.
In my opinion, what we might see transpire–especially if the rule of law is not upheld by the AKP in a justified manner moving forward–may indeed put a certain strain on U.S.-Turkish relations. President Erdogan will no doubt be able to solidify and centralize his power even further in the months ahead and especially following a purge that is currently taking place throughout the military for those who openly or actively supported the coup against the government. We’ll have to wait and see what comes about thereafter.
I hope that peace, stability, and a restored belief in democracy returns quickly to the Republic of Turkey.
When George W. Bush was in power, we saw the intensified military presence of the US in the Middle East, while Obama made efforts to take things back in tighter grip and to cut down on the number of troops. The US decided to extract its forces from Iraq just while the country’s government was not stable. Do you think the next US President will design a new policy and doctrine? My clear point is to set a comparison between Trump and Clinton. Do they enjoy enough power to follow up on a different policy? Will Trump follow Bush’s footsteps or Clinton Obama’s?
Again these are my personal opinions. Though we cannot predict the future, Trump does not appear to be a nuanced foreign policy candidate. In fact, many have argued that he would be a dangerous candidate for international relations and for the U.S. abroad. He has a real lack of understanding of international relations and continues to make contradictory statements on foreign policy. On top of that, one of the policies that he appears to be advocating for as a candidate is certain isolationism and this isolationism, for example, would mean “I’m going to pull out of NATO.” In Trump’s world view, NATO is not important because he believes that NATO is a Cold War relic, which is not the right way to view it. This could indeed have very dangerous spillover consequences. With this type of mentality for foreign policy, it would also have reverberation effects in the Middle East. Trump has repeatedly said that he would not “rule out using nuclear weapons” against ISIS. This is a troubling line of logic and a black and white perspective that is potentially extremely dangerous. It is different from any George W. Bush policy and very much Trump’s own thinking. Mr. Trump lacks a strong coterie of foreign policy advisers and he really is his own man and also his own worst enemy. By contrast, you have Clinton who is surrounded by a wealth of advisors and foreign policy experts. Perhaps, she has a documented record of being a bit more “interventionist” from a larger or macro sense compared to President Obama but she has a much stronger grasp of foreign policy and all of its nuances as the former Secretary of State under President Obama. In general, I think that she would be more aligned with Obama’s foreign policy than not, so it would not be any extreme kind of straying from Obama’s foreign policy.
How are chances for Clinton to win the election?
So again we can never predict the future and these are my personal views not representing anyone else. It’s just like the weather. We don’t know always know what comes next but what we do know is that this current election has surprised everybody including Republicans. From an anecdotal and personal perspective, many months ago I would have never thought that Trump would become the nominee for the Republican Party. So I don’t want to say no and that he couldn’t be elected because previously I had already been mistaken. That being said, the Republican Party right now, I think, is operating on all engines to figure out ways to bring Trump down and by doing so, that potentially helps to bolster Hillary Clinton to do well in the election.
You are an international security expert and well know the Middle East and the Persian Gulf play a key role in the national security of the US. Has there been any revision in the US national security or foreign policy doctrine toward Iran over the past few years?
This is my personal opinion, but I think one of the very good things President Obama did, was to push the nuclear deal. I think from his perspective and again from my perspective, the United States has been in a war since the early 2000s and still today with more than fifteen years of war. So what President Obama said is we just can’t keep on fighting; we can’t keep on sending troops, sending young men, spending billions if not trillions of dollars involved in wars or conflicts that are never ending. And so there needs to be a diplomatic solution and because the situation in Syria as well as Iraq is so terrible, we need to resort to politics of such an important and significant actor in the region, i.e. Iran. From my small and personal perch, I supported the push because I know that the Iranian people are in general very pro-American at least this was my experience when I went to visit in the early 2005, even though the government at the time was anti-American. There needs to be a dialogue and a discussion and that’s the only way we’re going to solve some of the problems across the broader Middle East.
When did you visit Iran and who of the authorities did you meet with?
I was there in 2005 and traveled there from Turkey while I was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Bosphorus University in Istanbul. I was there about two weeks. It was eleven years ago. I was just a student and it took me about two years to figure out how to get a visa. In early 2005, I finally figured out a way to get a visa and I was able to come. I had a great experience overall and it would be a great honor to come back to Iran one day. Educational and cultural exchanges are extremely valuable.
Will the JCPOA endure the passing of time or be overlooked by the two sides and eventually, dismantled?
According to many U.S. experts, the deal that was struck is a pretty strong deal and you even have some U.S. experts who are more conservative leaning who were skeptical but who came out in the end and said that this agreement has a lot of levers and felt relatively safe. Nothing’s completely safe, but there are lots of components that would trigger mechanisms to re-implement elements of the sanctions, for example, if something ever went wrong.
Many Iranian officials are on the belief that after limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities, the US seeks to curb the country’s missile power, which subsequently places Iran in a position of vulnerability. What is your take on this matter?
I think you have to look at it from a U.S. perspective. Again in my personal capacity and opinion, after we signed the nuclear deal, President Obama was under and currently is under enormous pressure from our allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and even Israel, even though they’re collectively a complicated bunch like all allies. These regional allies were angry and upset about what the US did. So as a result, President Obama with Vice President Biden had to travel around the region to reassure our allies that we haven’t abandoned them. I would imagine again, purely my perception and my interpretation, is that the United States still needs to show that they support their allies, and that they’re not going to let anything happen to the Saudis, for example, whatever may be the case. So that’s why I think they might have come out and say well you shouldn’t be doing this because it’s their messaging to the Gulf partners that we have not abandoned them. They think right now that they’ve been abandoned and so I think it’s part of this larger delicate balance that’s going on, from my personal view.
Why do we detect such strong US support of Saudi Arabia and its policies while scrutinizing their ties?
There’s a really good article if you haven’t read it, you should read it in the Atlantic Monthly by Jeffrey Goldberg, and it talks a lot about this diplomatic dynamic. More to the point of your question, however, is that I would actually argue slightly differently from the subtext of the assumption. Yes, a certain element of the United States is assisting Saudi Arabia. But at the same time, I think, as Goldberg discusses in the article, the red line that Obama drew with Syria was a mistake at the same time. And this was in part liberating for President Obama. It was liberating in the sense that now President Obama and his administration didn’t have to be beholden to Saudi Arabia similar to prior administrations, for example. Look at the recent visit of President Obama to Saudi Arabia: Who came to greet the presidential delegation at the airport? It wasn’t the crown prince nor the king, despite his age. It was the governor of Riyadh. That was not well received from a diplomatic standpoint. It signals and symbolizes that there is tension in the relationship and I don’t think the United States under President Obama is going to be so quick to step into line with what Saudi Arabia wants. Think about it from our U.S. perspective, too: You have the declining oil prices recently and the United States does not rely upon Saudi Arabia’s oil the way it used to. So the U.S. can begin to step back a little bit and this is why other countries like China in particular really need Saudi Arabia’s oil more than we do and are becoming more involved across the region as a result. We are there as a way to help to protect regional allies. But the United States does not rely upon the Gulf the way it used to do.
Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia can be interpreted as steps for inviting the country’s officials to calmness and ridding of tensions. How do you view this matter?
Yes, I mean the thing about Saudi Arabia is that they are in a challenging spot today as has been widely documented by a new age of low oil prices and massive regional instability. They are in a difficult position: low oil prices; war in Yemen; concerns about ISIS in the north; concerns about violent extremism inside of their borders; and fears about a perception of a possibly dwindling monarchical legitimacy. So this puts Saudi Arabia in an unstable position. It appears from the outside that they possibly have eroding support from the local population so a combination with all these other factors means that Saudi Arabia is in a potentially vulnerable spot.
Given the current circumstances, we are witnessing that even analyzing Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11 is ruled out and Obama spoke of vetoing any possible bill in this regard. As an international security expert, do you think of such approaches as weakening the US international security?
From my personal perspective, I think the reason why President Obama came out and said that he doesn’t want to support this law is that he knows that a country like Saudi Arabia can be a much worse spoiler than it currently is if they are turned away from the US. So if you completely push Saudi Arabia away, they could be potentially more dangerous than keeping them at least in the orbit, providing them with supplies, support, munitions, technology, and training, etc. They have been an important ally for the US previously and since the Second World War. It’s not perfect. It’s not always ideal but if the US completely cuts ties and pushes Saudi Arabia away to the side, they might be potentially ten times more dangerous. So I see that President Obama has adopted more of a strategy that tries to manage the regional turbulence rather than always intervening directly. It’s not a great foreign policy in terms of trying to end war but we know the various actors that are involved after more than 15 years of war. This is why we have this delicate balance all the time between a strategic and/or more of a pinpointed involvement rather than the massive nation-building and stability operations that we saw under the George W. Bush administration. In sum and back to your original question, we’ll see what happens on that front with the current legislation being pushed in Congress against Saudi Arabia. It still needs to be passed by Congress and President Obama said that he would veto the bill because it would be counterproductive to the larger U.S. strategic interests.
Can the US military bases be relocated in ongoing conditions?
First, and as I have argued in my recent book Gulf Security and the U.S. Military where I look at this exact question on base politics between a host and basing nation, I think realistically and a bit controversially, the U.S. policy on basing will probably not change anytime soon. If you think about it, we have base installations or access in the U.A.E.; we have a base in Qatar; we have a base for the U.S. Navy in Bahrain; and we have a base in Kuwait. We also have limited access in Oman and these are just the Gulf Arab states. If ISIS in Iraq continues, the likelihood of our staying is probable. But if someone like Trump comes as president, I don’t know what will happen.
*The views expressed here are those of the interviewee only and do not represent those of his employer.
Link to “Gulf Security and the U.S. Military: Regime Survival and the Politics of Basing”, Written By GEOFFREY F. GRESH