Mid East Update Kenneth M. Pollack on the Region in the Era of Trump

LENOX – On Sunday, November 10 at 2 p.m., the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires’ Middle East Update 2019 will feature Kenneth M. Pollack, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) who works on political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.

The program will be held in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, and is free and open to the public.

About the Speaker

Kenneth Pollack began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War. He is the author of ten books, including Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Economist and one of the “100 Notable Books of 2013” by The New York Times); A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East” (one of The Washington Post’s “Best Books of the Year” for 2008 and as an editor’s choice of The New York Times Book Review); and The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller in 2002.

His most recent book, published in 2018, is Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness, an analysis of why Arab armies have historically underperformed despite considerable monetary investment and extensive training by Western interests.

Before joining AEI, a public policy think tank in Washington, DC, Pollack was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Before that, he was the center’s director and director of research. He served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs. Dr. Pollack has also worked on long-term issues related to Middle Eastern political and military affairs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he was a senior research professor at the Institute for National Security Studies at National Defense University.

The Middle East in the Trump Era

In early October, Kenneth M. Pollack spoke with BJV editor Albert Stern about his upcoming talk in the Berkshires. What follows is an edited version of their conversation condensed for space and clarity.

Let’s start by revisiting some of your remarks from your 2017 talk at our Middle East Update. One of the things you said would be essential was for the United States to engage in the Middle East with much greater resources. Do you feel as if that has happened in the last two years?

No, unfortunately, I don't. What I see is the Trump administration effectively just walking away from the Middle East –  not even in the kind of more deliberate and determined way that Obama did. It seems strange to say it, but Obama kind of understood what he was doing and was trying to be very deliberate about it. I think what he did was problematic, but at least there was a kind of a conscious thought being directed to it. What I see with Trump is just neglect, where he's not understanding what he's doing –making decisions on the spur of the moment, not responding when things happen over there that affect American interests. And so there's an overarching sense of neglect, which in many ways is even more dangerous and certainly more frightening to our allies in the Middle East. I think it creates even more opportunity for our adversaries in the region and that's exactly what I'm seeing – I see our allies terrified that the United States just isn't playing the role that it once did, despite the fact that President Trump keeps talking incredibly tough.

How is that manifesting itself now?

At the most basic level, our greatest adversary in the region, Iran, has made very significant gains in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And our allies are being forced to make choices about dilemmas that they never wanted to confront. The Israelis have become even more aggressive, and they're not only striking Iranian targets in Syria with abandon, they're now going after running targets in Iraq, as well. And there have been clashes up near the Golan. The Israelis feel like they are fighting a low-level war against Iran all across the region, and of course, that's been their choice. But it's not something that they wanted to do, and it's something that I would argue we should not want to see them do. This is not going to end well for them, for us, for anyone.

The Saudis and the Emirati, our [Persian] Gulf allies, face the same dilemma, but of course, they don't have the military capability that Israel commits. So, what they’ve seen is the failure of the United States to help them defend themselves, and let's remember that for 75 years, the United States has had an informal alliance – but a very important alliance – with Saudi Arabia that expanded to include the other Gulf states. They would provide a stable oil market, which was and continues to remain critical to our economy, and in return, we would defend them from external threats. Well, Trump has thrown that out the window.

The Saudis have been repeatedly attacked by the Iranians, and not only has the United States done nothing, but we have made statements which are outrageous to them, saying that we don't regard any threat or any attack on anyone but American stuff (whether it's people or just our toys, like the drone) as a threat to our vital interests. That, again, is just a wild reversal of 40 to 75 years of American policy. They've looked at the situation and said that ‘without the Americans, we can't fight the Iranians, we simply don't have the capacity to do so.’ So, they're being forced at least for the moment to accommodate the Iranians - they have felt that they have to go and kiss the ring in Tehran to try to get the Iranians to stop attacking them. We need to recognize that this state of affairs is one where the Iranians are being emboldened. I think that we are likely to see more attacks and more support to their allies and our adversaries across the region. At some point, I think the Gulf states, in particular, are going to decide that ‘if the Americans won't defend us, we're not going to be able to fight the Iranians in the conventional level and the only resort we're going to have is to acquire nuclear weapons.’

Is this retreat from engagement a tougher line that reflects the idea that countries have to do more to defend themselves, similar to what Trump has said to our NATO allies, for example?

He may tell himself that that's what he's doing – I'm not at all convinced that that is the case. I just don't think he's terribly interested in foreign affairs or any of this stuff. The only thing he seems to be interested in the Persian Gulf is what goes on with Israel, which I think has clear domestic ramifications for him, and what goes on with Iran, which he has pitched as ‘Obama has got a terrible deal I can get a better one.’ Over the last four months, he’s been fawning all over the Iranians trying desperately to get them back to the table, not understanding that his own policies have made it close to impossible.

Trump misunderstands oil markets. I think that's a commonplace belief that because of US shale oil production and some other changes in the structure of the oil market, we no longer need to worry about oil from the Persian Gulf. And that's not really correct. What many Americans and, I suspect, the president himself do not recognize is that the world economy still is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil – about 30 percent of all the exported oil in the world still comes from the Persian Gulf, and that is expected to remain true for at least 10, if not 20, years down the road. If there were a major disruption a Persian Gulf oil, all the fracking, all of the strategic reserves, all of the increased production from places like Iraq, could not compensate.

It seems that the Trump administration is putting a lot of faith in and devoting resources to Israel, which sometimes seems predicated on the idea that Israel can take care of itself and will do so as the dominant power in the region. Is that a fair observation?

I know that that is a very common American perception and I can certainly understand why, but if you were to speak to any Israeli they would tell you that that is completely mistaken. And I think that they're absolutely right. Because while it is true the Trump more or less allows the Israelis to do whatever they want, what the Israelis understand is that they can't solve their own problems. They have no ability to solve the Palestinian issue by themselves, they have no ability to solve the threat from Iran by themselves, they have no ability to deal with the fact that the Sunni Arab states are extremely fragile and that they desperately need help to reform themselves and strengthen themselves. Israel can't deal with any of those problems, and those are the real problems that Israel faces.

It's nice for a right-wing Israeli government to be told by the United States, ‘you know we will move our embassy to Jerusalem and recognize your control over the whole city of Jerusalem and acknowledge your annexation of the Golan Heights.’ But the bigger problems that Israel faces – the real strategic issues that Israel faces in the long term – are enormous problems that Israel cannot possibly handle on its own. It desperately needs the United States to lead an effort to deal with them, and they are furious and frustrated and terrified that the United States is making zero effort to do so.

Also, Trump hasn't actually put forward his peace proposal on the Israeli/Palestinian issue. What we've seen from him so far are efforts to kind of buy Palestinian tolerance or acquiescence to what seems like what’s going to be a very pro-Israel peace agreement. We don't know if Jared Kushner’s plan will be mutually beneficial, mutually tolerable, or even mutually intolerable. All of this is very worrisome to the Palestinians, who don't believe that they're going to get a peace deal that actually recognizes balanced and fair terms for their side of the deal. What the US seems to be offering them is money – ‘We’ll buy you off in return for you agreeing, more or less, to what the Israelis want.’ That's very disconcerting to the Palestinians, and of course the fact that the Trump administration keeps saying that the deal is going to be forthcoming and yet it never comes forward is also disconcerting to a lot of people who are worried that this is not a deal that's going to fly under any set of circumstances.

Your most recent book, Armies of Sand, explores why Arab armies have been historically ineffective. Why did you choose this topic, and how does it relate to some of the things we’ve been talking about this morning?

[Pollack, in an article for Foreign Policy, identified overarching problems as fraught civil-military relations of the Arab world that has caused many Arab rulers to be so “frightened of being overthrown by ambitious generals that they purposely hobble the armed forces to keep them weak”; a lack of full industrialization in the Arab world, with the result that “Arab personnel often failed to get the full potential out of their weapons and invariably failed to maintain them properly”; and “Arab cultural-educational practices [that have] conditioned too many of their personnel to remain passive at lower levels of any hierarchy and to manipulate information to avoid blame,” thus undercutting the effectiveness of junior officers in making battlefield decisions.]

I started out as a Middle East military analyst and what you learn as a Middle East military analyst is that the most important element of the very stable military balance that we've had in the region over 70 years has been the utter ineffectiveness of the Arab armies. This has allowed Israel, the United States, and other countries like Russia to completely dominate. It took them 30 or 40 years but the Arab states figured out ‘we just can't defend ourselves and we can't attack each other, we just don't have the military capability.’ [That is] an incredibly important driver of the military balance in the region. I will also say that it's just kind of a fascinating mystery. This is been going on for so long, and they are so bad, so incompetent, that it's a just huge mystery that any number of people have sought to answer. I felt as I read other people's work that they just weren't doing so systematically or methodically. They would just offer up some kind of one-off explanation and provide one or two anecdotes as if that was evidence.

I felt like it was a very important intellectual question, but then there's also a critical strategic element for the United States which does bear very heavily what you and I have been talking about. In an ideal world, the United States could say that we've been helping the Middle East for long enough, that we've invested enough blood and treasure (and the truth is we haven't invested nearly as much blood and treasure as we think), but we've invested enough blood and treasure. We'd like to step back and we'd really like our allies in the region to take up the burden and defend themselves. The problem is we can't do that because they simply cannot defend themselves. They do not have the ability to stand up to the Iranians, let alone to the Russians or the Chinese, if they came in. What we've seen is even when they intervene against each other – like the Saudis intervening in Yemen – their military capabilities are so limited that they tend to overstrain themselves and risk their own political and economic collapse.  

That looms really large for the United States. One of the things I also try to do in the book is to talk about, both in the long term and the short term, how the United States can do better in helping them to overcome these problems. And there are some answers. The longer-term answers are obviously better, but even the shorter term are very useful. I've been very pleased with the responses I've gotten from the US military who have read the book who’ve said that what I’m suggesting we do makes infinite good sense.