The Crisis with Russia


This edition is a collection of papers commissioned for the 2014 Aspen Strategy Group Summer Workshop. On the occasion of the 30th year anniversary of the Aspen Strategy Group (founded in 1984), the Summer Workshop in Aspen, Colorado convened a nonpartisan group of preeminent U.S.-Russia policy experts, academics, journalists, and business leaders. The group’s policy discussions were guided by the papers found in this volume, whose scope ranges from exploring the history of the U.S.-Russia relationship, current developments in the Sino-Russian relationship, the NATO and European responses to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, energy considerations, areas of potential U.S.-Russia cooperation, and finally, the broader question of U.S. national security and interests in the European region.

Belfer Center-affiliated contributors include:

  • Nicholas Burns (co-editor)
  • Joseph Nye (Foreword, along with ASG co-chair Brent Scowcroft)
  • Graham Allison, “Russia, the Ukraine Crisis, and American National Interests”
  • Meghan O’Sullivan, “The Unconventional Energy Boom: Bad Timing for a Revanchist Russia”
  • Kevin Rudd, “Sino-Russian Relations”



Additional contributors include: John Beyrle (U.S. Russia Foundation), Stephen Biegun (U.S. Russia Foundation), Stephen Hadley (RiceHadleyGates, LLC), Wolfgang Ischinger (Munich Security Conference), Lilia Shevtsova (Moscow Carnegie Center), Angela Stent (Georgetown University), and Strobe Talbott (The Brookings Institution).

The Aspen Strategy Group’s Policy Books is an annual series of pieces on the United States most pressing foreign policy and national security issues written by contemporary thought leaders.

For more information about this book, click here.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Burns, Nicholas and Jonathan Price. The Crisis with Russia. Queenstown, Md.: Aspen Institute, Fall 2014.


Why There Won’t be an Occupy Beijing


Hong Kong’s protests are similar to movements in China in the 1980s, but mainland students won’t be protesting anytime soon.

In 1986, three years before the tragic Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989, Chinese youth demonstrated for the very reason we saw many Hong Kong students take to the streets in recent weeks: the promise and then retraction of electoral reform. Given the deep history of student activism in China, can we expect to see mainland Chinese students protesting for political change any time soon? Probably not, because promises have to be made to be broken. Since 1989, Beijing has effectively closed off debate in the political realm and has refrained from extending promises of democratic reform to its mainland audience.


After days of occupying the streets, demanding genuine universal suffrage and civil nominations for the city’s chief executive, many students in Hong Kong returned to school with negotiations underway for a dialogue between student representatives and authorities. Just months ago across the Taiwan Strait, students occupied the national legislature, protesting a trade pact with Beijing and calling for greater transparency and democratic deliberation on all future agreements with the PRC.


Given the recent student activism in Hong Kong and Taiwan, one might wonder what the youth in mainland China are up to. Plenty of news articles have highlighted the fact that most mainlanders, including students, do not support the protests in Hong Kong. Rather, they resent the Hong Kong people’s sense of entitlement and “ingratitude” towards the mainland. But why have students refrained from calling for reform at home? After all, it was students in Beijing who led the legendary May Fourth Movement of 1919, and pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the 1980s, culminating in 1989.


Student activism in the 1980s began when, at the beginning of the decade, Deng Xiaoping introduced a set of electoral reforms that permitted the open nomination of candidates and direct election of delegates to local people’s congresses. Chinese students greeted the new electoral initiative with enthusiasm, organizing campaigns and forums to discuss policy issues. Even various party outlets, including the People’s Daily and the Communist Youth League, discussed the virtues of democracy, freedom of speech and assembly around this time. Trouble arose, however, when local authorities began sabotaging nominations and refusing to seat unapproved candidates in local congresses. In 1986, a major protest broke out at the University of Science and Technology of Hefei when local authorities denied students the right to nominate candidates as promised by the central government. Protests spread across the country to other campuses in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing, with students expressing support for their counterparts in Hefei, and calling for freedom and democracy. Like the youth in Hong Kong today, Chinese students waged class boycotts and marched to local party offices when authorities first offered and then failed to uphold their promise of electoral reform.


Despite widespread dissatisfaction with censorship and official corruption, a lack of a voice in politics, and surprisingly high unemployment rates among university graduates in recent years, students in mainland China today are unlikely to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors and their contemporaries in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is because since 1989, Beijing’s leaders have clamped down on any discussion of democratic reforms and have presented a united front on the supremacy of Party rule.


In many ways, Chinese society is indisputably more prosperous and open today than it ever has been before. Individuals enjoy wide personal and economic freedoms, and average citizens do not live in fear of political persecution. And every year, tens of thousands of mass incidents occur across the country. But the themes of such incidents revolve around local level corruption, environmental pollution, and nationalism, all issues that are part of the central government’s agenda. Since the 1980s, Beijing has never again engaged in an open dialogue on democratic reform. Any discussion of “democracy” has referred strictly to intra-party democracy, and even those references have thinned in recent years. Since coming to power, Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized that “Western-style democracy” would not work in China, and that the Party must remain in charge.


Also gone are public intellectuals, like Fang Lizhi, who inspired students to advance political reform in the 1980s. In recent years, dissidents and academics deemed dangerous to one-party rule have been quickly silenced. In fact, there are reports that mainland activists who expressed support for the Hong Kong protests were swiftly detained to prevent further dialogue in the mainland. Furthermore, while more reform-minded and conservative factions have openly clashed in the past, signaling room for debate to students and intellectuals, the central government has presented a remarkably united front in recent years. The media and Internet are heavily censored, and movements like the one in Hong Kong have been quickly condemned through party mouthpieces.


Despite the fact that Beijing tends to blame “outside forces” for stirring up “trouble,” when one looks back in history, it is often Chinese leaders who have initiated debate and activism by opening political space from above. Whether it was Mao’s call to let a hundred flowers bloom, Deng’s electoral reforms, or Beijing’s promise of free elections to Hong Kong, the Chinese people, in turn, have enthusiastically responded. The boundaries set and promises made by the central government matter, and they remain strictly limited in mainland China today. So while we see students actively leading efforts for political reform just outside of the mainland’s borders, we can expect those on the inside to remain still for the foreseeable future.


Patricia M. Kim is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a PhD candidate at Princeton University.


Challenges China Faces For Its Future



China’s political, economic and foreign policy over the next decade is not only fundamental to the country itself, but also to the wider Asia-Pacific region and – increasingly — the world beyond.

China already represents 16 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), rising to 28 percent by 2030. China is also by far the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, continued maritime boundary disputes in both the East and South China seas are a significant continuing factor in the region’s underlining strategic instability. How China deals with each of these challenges is therefore of significance to us all.


Since he came to power last year, President Xi Jinxing — has become the most powerful Chinese political leader since Deng Xiaoping. President Xi has outlined an ambitious all-encompassing national project which he has entitled the “China Dream”. He has set two deadlines for the realization of this “dream”: the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, and the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. The essence of the “China dream” is to raise income levels to those of middle-income countries, and then to the same level as the advanced economies, while at the same time restoring China’s historical greatness.


In achieving this objective, President Xi has stated that the Chinese Communist Party would be central to the realization of the “China dream”. He has also said that for the Party to remain in power, it must deal with the fundamental challenge of corruption and has therefore launched the biggest anti-corruption campaign in the Party’s history, affecting every unit of the party and all 86 million of its members. The success or otherwise of this campaign will have a fundamental bearing on the future of both the party itself, and the economic reform program China has embarked up-on.


This leads to the content of the reform program itself, and whether China will succeed in transforming the economic model that has served it well for the last 35 years, but no longer meets China’s needs.


Back in November, the Party adopted a blueprint for the future at its Plenum. But the task of its implementation is formidable. The Party has accepted the market as the decisive factor in determining the future shape of the economy. It has also embraced the need to provide new economic growth generators beyond state investment and labor-intensive manufacturing for export. It has also realized it must lift domestic private consumption and grow new jobs in the service sector, especially in China’s exploding second-tier cities.


The new model also recognizes the imperative of state-owned enterprise reform, competitive neutrality and proper access to capital markets for the private sector. Finally, the new model also requires deep reform of China’s capital markets, both public and private, to drive the efficient allocation of resources in the economy.


If China fails in this major reform task, it will significantly weaken economic growth, employment, and average incomes growth. This in turn would reduce the contribution of the Chinese economy to global growth, where for the last 5 years it has made up more than half the global growth rate.


This would result in weakened global trade, investment and capital market flows. At a time when the European and Japanese economies remain weak, and where US growth is not strong, a failure of this critical Chinese economic reform program would have severe consequences for the world.


Finally, on regional security, there are deep conflicting trends at work across East Asia between the forces of ethno-nationalism on the one hand, and the forces of economic globalization on the other. The former acts to pull nations further apart. The latter, by contrast, seeks to connect regional states and bring them closer together through the forces of economic integration. The underlying territorial disputes of the region can be located within this wider framework.


The principal problem we face is the possibility of conflict by accident or poor incident management followed by political, diplomatic and military escalation. The sheer concentration of military assets in the East and South China seas at present gives rise for real concern on this front. For this reason, there is likely to be some reduction of tensions between China and Japan as both states calculate that the risk of accidental conflict is too great and should it occur, would be in neither side’s interests. It is less certain what will unfold in the South China Sea. Conflict, large or small, in either of these theaters, would radically undermine regional economic confidence.


These three major risk factors leave to one side the continuing challenge of irreversible environmental damage and climate change. China has begun to act. It remains to be seen what effect these actions will have. Again, failure to act will have profound implications for the planet itself.



For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Rudd, Kevin. “Challenges China faces for its future.” CNBC, October 16, 2014.


Calestous Juma Honored with Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize


Calestous Juma, professor of the practice of international development and director of the Belfer Center’s Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, was awarded the coveted Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize (LAAP) during a ceremony in the Akwa Ibom State in Uyo, Nigeria, on October 10, 2014.

Juma, an internationally recognized authority in the application of science and technology to sustainable development worldwide, was awarded the “Prize for Food Security, Agro Processing Development and Quality.”



The LAAP Prize is awarded by the Millenium Excellence Foundation every two years to select individuals who have “displayed leadership within critical areas of socio-economic development in Africa, which they have championed and which impacted the lives of Africans for the better.” Juma joined 15 other distinguished LAAP Laureates who were nominated by members of the Board of Governors of the Millennium Excellence Foundation. Attendees included African heads of state, leaders of industry across the continent, academicians, the diplomatic corps and political leaders.


Activities during the weeklong dialogue and LAAP Prize ceremony included debate and deliberation on issues ranging from food security and sustainability to Ebola in Africa. This year the Millennium Excellence Foundation also plans to issue a communiqué to all African heads of state with recommendations by experts and leaders of industry.


Past LAAP Laureates include Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, late President John Atta Mills, Mo Ibrahim, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, James Wolfensohn, Ismail Serageldin, Cyril Ramaphosa, President Mwai Kibaki, Gov. Godswill Akpabio and Aliko Dangote.


For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.


For Academic Citation:

“Calestous Juma Honored with Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 10, 2014.


Refugees Themselves Can Crack This Tough Nut


The Palestinian unity technocratic government that held its first meeting in war-torn Gaza on Thursday marked several significant if symbolic realities, the most important being the need to unify all Palestinians under a single legitimate leadership. It could be an important first step in a historic series of actions that are needed to address the visible weaknesses in the Palestinian national condition.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said at the meeting — held in Gaza because Israeli would not allow Gaza-based ministers to travel to the West Bank — that, “This is the government of all of Palestine… therefore I demand all factions support the government in rebuilding the Gaza strip and restoring a normal way of life.”




If Hamdallah was speaking for the government or for all Palestinians, the welcomed drama of his presiding over a national unity government in Palestine could not hide the still missing element that weakens his words and deeds. We were all reminded of this last week by a fine report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) that noted that the vast majority of Palestinians who are refugees living outside of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, remain politically outside the corridors of Palestinian power. Until the refugees are credibly re-integrated into the political decision-making system, as was the case at the height of the Palestinian national movement in the 1970s, statements and decisions by Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and Gaza will have very limited impact, because they do not reflect the pain and the will of the Palestinian majority.


The ICG report, entitled “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question” and available on the website, is a timely and convincing reminder of why the Palestinian refugees must be central actors in the quest for a negotiated resolution of their conflict with Israel. It notes correctly that, “The Palestinian refugee question, like the refugees themselves, has been politically marginalized and demoted on the diplomatic agenda. Yet, whenever the diplomatic process comes out of its current hiatus, the Palestinian leadership will be able to negotiate and sell a deal only if it wins the support or at least acquiescence of refugees — because if it does not, it will not bring along the rest of the Palestinian population.”


For Palestinians, their refugeehood always was and remains today the central issue that must be seriously addressed and equitably resolved for any permanent peace agreement to take hold. That it can be resolved politically is inherent in the 2002 Arab Peace Plan that acknowledges two critical realities: Any negotiated agreement must respect the concerns of both Israelis and Palestinians, and it must be based on international law and UN resolutions. That is a tough nut to crack, but it is, with hard work, a crackable nut.


Refugees today are almost totally neglected by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its negotiators in the occupied territories, the report notes, and refugees also resent the class structure that the PA and its economic policies have produced. Neither in their demand for basic services nor political representation are Palestinian refugees anywhere finding receptive ears among Palestinian leaderships, especially since the PA has assumed the mantle of national leadership in place of the now dormant Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).


The positive symbolism of a national unity government meeting in Gaza to demand the rapid reconstruction of that territory captures the shrinkage of the Palestinian leadership’s concerns from truly national concerns to much more localized ones. Gaza absolutely needs reconstruction, but this is a meaningless process for all Palestinians if reconstruction only leads to renewed warfare a few years from now — which is what will happen if the political validity and force of the refugees are not harnessed and incorporated into Palestinian leaders’ daily priorities.


The ICG reports captures this urgency very well: “For the Palestinian leadership, the main priority must be to reclaim representation of the majority of refugees, for without their acquiescence it will be exceedingly difficult to implement any comprehensive agreement with Israel; this therefore should be a concern of all who seek one. The growing chasm between the political elites and the refugees also portends greater instability, particularly should refugees or their advocates, despairing of the diplomatic process, seize the political initiative. But stability in and of itself is no answer: the marginalization of refugees within their host societies has left them with little choice other than to fantasize about returning to their former homes in Israel.”


This is precisely the moment when Palestinian everywhere should actively work to rebuild a credible national movement that focuses on a realistic and fair resolution of the conflict with Zionism and Israel. Gaza’s recent war experience reminds us of the power that Palestinian refugees can muster when they work seriously, but also of the immense waste and destruction that occur when political arenas — both Zionist and Palestinian — neglect the centrality of refugeehood to the conflict.



Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.

For more information about this publication please contact the Middle East Initiative at (617) 495-5963.

For Academic Citation:

Khouri, Rami. “Refugees Themselves Can Crack This Tough Nut.” Agence Global, October 15, 2014.


Europe’s Paralysis Problem

It is seductive to think that the Russian war in Ukraine—and NATO’s sluggish response—is a crisis wholly tied to Russian nationalism and power politics. But in reality, the current crisis is neither simply a function of personal leadership nor political decision-making. As this crisis slowly expands and escalates, we must look at the deeper and far more consequential forces at work upon which the future of Europe—and Ukraine—rest. Russian President Vladimir Putin deals in the currency of force and power. He has found the nations of Europe to be weak, self-indulgent, irresolute, and intestinally unfit for confrontation.

And he is right.


But the more critical question is how Europe—collectively and nationally—has squandered the dream of its founders. Why has Europe lost the courage to confront Russian expansionism? The hard truth is that Europe’s paralysis—and those of its leaders—is rooted in deeper long-term policy choices. Only by facing the hard facts and reversing bad policies can Europe and the United States grapple with current and future acts of aggression.


Make no mistake: Putin has calculated his actions based on Europe’s tepid response to past acts of aggression ranging from Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine. Since the Second World War, European leaders have followed a flawed logic where fewer armaments mean fewer conflicts and where arms embargo freeze conflicts. While Bosnia and Kosovo proved both axioms wrong, European leaders persist with such logic. Underneath this fallacy lies the more inconvenient truth that Europe has used NATO—and the American taxpayer—to avoid the hard costs of national defense and political realism.


The abdication of national defense to NATO has allowed European leaders to avoid reforming their social welfare programs, restructuring their economies or modernizing their militaries. In a word, telling their voters—No. As late as 2010, Robert Gates emphasized that a real alliance requires shared burdens as well as shared benefits. Yet European nations have still failed to meet the agreed military spending commitments for their national conventional forces. Europeans can no longer expect America to defend them when they are unwilling to defend themselves. They cannot expect Vladimir Putin to respect, if not fear them, if they have no defense but their rhetoric. Europeans must expand and unify their military forces within NATO without delay.


Make no mistake: Europe’s failure to confront eventual political federalism has also undercut its credibility when dealing with Putin and when supporting Ukraine. Despite its work during the Great Recession, the European Union has failed to resolve its central dilemma: political sovereignty. The EU is now a treaty organization masquerading as a government. Its survival requires that it hold democratic legitimacy. Doing so requires an elected European Parliament and President with a clear democratic mandate, allowing Europe to speak with one voice and mean it. Simply put: where there is no accountability and authority, the people perish.


Make no mistake: Putin is counting on the fecklessness and weakness of European public opinion to eventually consent to his acts of aggression. Preventing such an act of infamy requires confronting the most critical and consequential policy issue at hand: European cultural dysfunction. In short, Europeans have been taught to be ashamed of their past. This is particularly true when addressing the historical role of Judeo-Christian ethics in public life and policy choices. This extends to issues touching upon work-life balance, family life, generational equity and the demographic future of European nations. It also intersects with the role of religious freedom in Europe. There is a deep cultural sickness at work in a society whose universities place Camus above Aquinas and Foucault above Augustine. A society that does not embrace its past has no future. Europe must place Judeo-Christian ethics at the heart of its laws and political identity.


Make no mistake: this war in Ukraine is a war against Europe. It will continue so long as Europe is physically and mentally disarmed. Europeans have been led to believe that speaking softly is better insurance than carrying a big stick. They have become prisoners of history rather than students of history. And now, they must rediscover their past to save their future.


Jeremy Schwarz is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


The Middle East in Crisis: A View from Israel


DAVID SPEEDIE: I’m David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. This is another in our series of Ethics in Security bulletins and I’m delighted to welcome today back to the Carnegie Council, Charles Freilich.

Charles is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and he also teaches at Tel Aviv University. He was previously a deputy national security advisor for Israel, a senior analyst in the Israeli Ministry of Defense, a policy advisor to cabinet minister, and a delegate of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. He has also been the executive director of two non-profits, Israel’s Zahavi Association, and the Golda Meir Association in the United States.




Quite a compendious background, Chuck, and welcome back to the Carnegie Council.


CHARLES FREILICH: Good to speak to you.




I should add that Chuck is speaking to us from Tel Aviv and so we are interested in a number of things relating to the situation within Israel, but also more broadly.


Chuck, if I could begin, when you were last here, about 18 months ago, you made the observation—and I think I’m quoting you directly here—”We are viewing potentially the redrawing of the entire Middle East.” That would certainly seem to be the case in this troubled situation today, particularly with the seemingly inexorable advance of Islamic State (IS) across Syria and Iraq.


What is the view of this IS situation from Israel?


CHARLES FREILICH: I think that the statement at the time certainly seems to fit with the situation we’re in today. I don’t know that the advance of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is inexorable, but what they have done already is quite significant and they will still continue expanding for a while. I don’t think that the current international effort is at a level which is sufficient to stop them, but I think the problem goes way beyond ISIS.


We’re seeing changes in countries throughout the region, whether it’s in Yemen, whether it’s in Libya, it’s far away. The ferment that gave rise to the so-called Arab Spring and that resulted from it is still there throughout the region. I think the Middle East is going to be changing dramatically for many years and maybe decades to come.


DAVID SPEEDIE: On the question of the Islamic State however, I certainly take your point that all this has done is to serve to push other crisis situations such as you mentioned—Libya, etc.—into the inner pages of the newspapers. Clearly, Islamic State is getting our attention.


You’re suggesting that perhaps the Western response is insufficient. Obama has been criticized for passivity in his approach to problems in the extended region, but of course we now have air strikes. There has been at least some talk from former military leaders of the possible need for boots on the ground. To what extent do you think that the response (a), is not adequate at the moment and (b) how it might be made more forceful?


CHARLES FREILICH: First of all, I think the response is a few years too late. It’s not just ISIS, it’s to what’s been happening in the region. ISIS is partly a result of the vacuum that’s been there in the international response for the last few years since the turmoil in the region began.


I think the United States does not have the stomach for getting into another ground war in the region. I don’t think that’s in the cards. I do think that air strikes alone are not going to do it. The boots that will be necessary on the ground will have to come mostly from other parties, not from the United States. Turkey is a good candidate. They’ve got a long border with what’s happening and it would be nice to see some of the Arab countries putting some boots of theirs on the ground. I don’t see the United States getting involved significantly.


I also don’t think that the president’s approach, saying zero boots, is an appropriate one. We also saw Chairman Dempsey, himself, saying that he could see circumstances in which some boots at least might be needed.


I think it’s going to be more required. Just dealing with ISIS at the moment because that is the immediate threat that’s gotten everyone’s attention—to deal with this is going to be a years-, possibly decades-long effort that the West has to prepare itself for psychologically and in more concrete terms.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Having said that, ISIS may be something of a test case as to how we grasp these nettles that you describe across the region.


You’ve mentioned Turkey as an example of potential boots on grounds and obviously with a long border and the attack on the border city of Kobane is very much in the forefront. Yet, Turkey’s response seems to be enigmatic at best. The foreign minister today described that any sort of forceful role of Turkey boots on ground is “unrealistic.” President Erdoğan has equated essentially the Kurds, the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), with ISIS. This doesn’t seem to be propitious for any sort of more forceful Turkish engagement.


CHARLES FREILICH: You’re right. I think there is some evolution to the Turkish position and maybe the United States can work with them over time. But I think you’re right. I don’t think they’re going to do a great deal.


I’m also, to be honest, not optimistic about the other Arab countries doing anything significant and effective. What’s probably going to happen is we’ll see airstrikes and other things which will not have a significant effect. That is the sad truth.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, that leads to one other potential candidate—which I’m sure you may have some fairly strong opinions on—and that’s Iran.


There was a piece today—an op-ed in a leading Iranian newspaper asks Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Qods Force, to defend Kobane and asked for precisely this actually, for there to be Iranian boots on the ground in the defense of Kobane and taking the struggle against IS. The op-ed cited reports and I quote, “Soleimani and Iran were involved in liberating the Iraqi town of Amreli and it supplied arms to Kurdish forces in Iraq to fight IS.” It added that “the weight of resistance in the region was on Iran’s shoulders against IS.”


Obviously, the question of whether Iran should, could, would be engaged by the United States and the coalition against IS has been in the forefront of things here. What do you think about that?


CHARLES FREILICH: We’re in a situation where there are at the moment some shared objectives between the West and the Iranians, but that’s a temporary meeting of interest. Iran is fundamentally part of the problem. It’s a great part of the problem. It’s not the solution.


I think people should not forget the big picture just because they’re looking at the immediate problem. Now, I have no—I was going to say I have no problem. I can accept the need for specific, limited cooperation with Iran where it’s needed, but keeping in mind the big picture and the big picture is, (a) Iran is a big party to this whole conflict, which is a historic conflict between the Shia and the Sunni and it’s actually part of a conflict between the Muslim world, as a whole, and the West; remembering Iran’s role there and remembering that the huge issue that awaits us is just around the corner is: Is there a nuclear deal with Iran and what kind of deal? Can you imagine what the Middle East would look like in the current circumstances if there was the one big difference that Iran was already nuclear?


DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, yes, and that’s another thing we did touch on the last time that you were here at the Council—the question of Iran having been basically been perceived by many in Israel as an existential threat, that there should be no tolerance at all for any sort of nuclear capability. And yet, as I recall, you did suggest that up to 5 percent enrichment by Iran, which is on the table at the moment in Geneva, would be acceptable.


Is this something that you would still adhere to today?


CHARLES FREILICH: I’m a pragmatist. I would really, really, really like to see this deal end up with Iran having no military nuclear capabilities whatsoever, or no capabilities they could possibly use down the road for military purposes.


What’s happened in reality is that the international community led by the United Staes has—which had adopted that position as well, until the interim agreement last November—the United States and the international community came to the conclusion that that is not an achievable deal in reality. The best we can do, the least of the bad options, is a deal which leaves Iran with some sort of limited enrichment capability whether it’s 5 percent or 3 percent, whatever, the so-called civil level. That’s a deal which I don’t think would’ve been considered good by the United States a year ago, but that’s the deal that the administration seems to think is possible.


For lack of better alternatives, I think that’s the deal that Israel has to live with because if not, then we have to be willing to go the military route and I don’t see that anyone is particularly agog over that option.


What I’ve seen in the last few weeks is there’s been talk of going beyond that kind of compromise. For example, leaving them with more of the centrifuges but just disconnecting the plumbing. Is that face-saving for the Iranians but it really keeps them away the six to twelve month minimal break-out period? I don’t know. If that report is true, I find it both ludicrous and very, very worrying. There’s a bit of selling out the store with that kind of ideal because then the West can temporarily feel good, “Oh, we got them to reduce capability.” But, they’re not really six to twelve months away. They can put that back together pretty quickly.


DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to get back to that in just a moment—Iran’s intentions and track record here—but first of all, again, P5+1 talks in Geneva have been kind of side-tracked by other issues that we’ve been discussing, but nevertheless, I think the prevailing mood here is one of relative pessimism. I think it is in Iran, too, that the ideal is not as likely to be reached as it seemed a couple of months ago.


Is it not true that key question here really is the question of fuel for the energy reactors that Iran desires to supply its own fuel and the P5+1 group would prefer that Iran imports the fuel? Has there not been a compromise suggested by, I think, Frank von Hippel in Princeton for a sort of delay in sort of forcing this issue?


CHARLES FREILICH: I’m not aware of that proposal. My understanding was that the issue is the overall level of enrichment that the Iranians will be allowed to have.


DAVID SPEEDIE: On Iran’s attitude, let me throw out two things that those who would defend Iran’s position, certainly more than you would, have offered over here.


The first is that over the past decades, not years, we’ve heard, “Oh, Iran will have a nuclear weapons capability in a year, 18 months, two years.” We’ve heard that repeatedly, a mantra, over that extended period. It hasn’t happened. Now we hear again, it’s going to be another year, etc., etc.,. It’s like the “boy calling wolf” syndrome.


Secondly, people point to the Iran-Iraq War, where Iran for eight years endured chemical weapons attacks from Saddam’s Iraq and did not respond in kind, which would seem to indicate that if ever there’s a case for Iran to muster WMD (weapons of mass destruction) capability and use, that would’ve been the time.


CHARLES FREILICH: As far as the “crying wolf” issue goes, anyone who makes that argument is I think forgetting a couple of factors. First of all, the reason that the 18 months has been repeatedly extended is, well, various parties have helped extend the timeline. There’s been all sorts of accidents and explosions and viruses and all sorts of things that have extended the timeline considerably. That’s one factor.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Viruses that the West has used to affect Iran’s program, yes.


CHARLES FREILICH: The second factor is that the international community finally got its act together a couple of years ago and imposed very, very, very heavy sanctions on Iran. There was also, by the way, the fear of a U.S. attack after 2003 that led to Iranians to temporarily suspend their activities.


So it’s not by chance that Iran hasn’t achieved the ability yet—and I also agree with you that there’s more reasons to be pessimistic today that it won’t be—but even if a deal is achieved, it’s not about Iran abandoning its nuclear ambitions. It’s about really temporarily putting them aside until such time as circumstances change and Iran can go back to pursuing those ambitions.


We have to give Iran credit. They have very, very, very good reasons for wanting a nuclear capability. This isn’t just some whim that somebody woke up with one morning. Iran has got very good strategic reasons for wanting a nuclear capability. That’s why getting them to give it up is so extremely hard, why the various inducements and pressures applied to date haven’t succeeded, and why they may not succeed in the final negotiations now.


The fact that they didn’t use the chemical weapons at the time during the Iran-Iraq War is interesting. There’s no reason to deduce anything from that behavior at the time.


DAVID SPEEDIE: I want to ask you about the situation in Israel because you had some very interesting points to make when you spoke here.


It was, if you remember, fairly shortly after the last round of elections and there were some interesting developments. There had been, if I remember, a loss of four seats by Likud in the Knesset and you said that there might be some potential rise of the Left in Israel. How do you see the political landscape at this point?


CHARLES FREILICH: First of all, I would say that my hopes that the center would be strengthened in a new government have probably not materialized. The events over the summer with the operation in Gaza also put on hold much of the attempts to promote a new socioeconomic agenda.


The defense budget has already gotten a big increase and will, over the next couple of years, be getting a huge increase. That’s where all of the focus is and I think the Yesh Atid party, the party headed by Yair Lapid, which was the big surprise new kid on the block, has really lost steam enormously. They got 19 seats in the election. Today, they’d get an order of magnitude of half of that.


There is another new party that will probably come in to the scene next time, but I think the hopes or the expectations for some really successful new force to come into play, that’s not going to happen.


From Benjamin Netanyahu’s perspective, the good news is that he is now in his third tenure. He already is just now, or soon to be, the longest sitting prime minister in Israel’s history. He either has, or will soon surpass Ben-Gurion and there is no one out there who looks like he can challenge him, certainly not for the next few years. So then he will probably by the prime minister again next time.


DAVID SPEEDIE: You also said, and I quote, “Crisis is the steady state in Israel. Israel lives day to day.” Obviously, the Gaza operation, the rocket attacks over the summer, have not presumably changed that predisposition to live in a state of crisis?


CHARLES FREILICH: No. The “good news” is that Gaza can re-erupt any time and in the meantime, the Gaza operation ended a month and a half ago. In the meantime, the northern border has heated up because there’ve been a number of incidents with Hezbollah and maybe a couple with some of the rebel groups on the Syrian side of the border.


So, the Syrian border, the Golan Heights border, which was absolutely quiet for 40 years—not a shot was fired for 40 years—there were a couple of incidents after the Syrian Civil War broke out, but in the last half year there’ve been a rising number. There’ve been a bunch in the last few weeks alone. The concern of Israel is actually that northern front, or the Syrian border, which as I said, was quiet for 40 years, will actually become an active one.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Also, I believe that today is the first session of the new so-called Fatah-Hamas Unity Government. I think I know the answer to this question, but do you see this having any discernible impact one way or the other on the peace process?


CHARLES FREILICH: This is a first step. I would say the safe money is to say that it’s not going to go anywhere, that the Palestinians have tried various reunification efforts over the years since the split in 2007. They all failed. The safe money is to say that that’s what’s going to happen this time as well. It does seem to be something a little bit different now.


Hamas got hit very, very, very hard in the operation over the summer. They are in absolute financial crisis. They need Fatah at the moment. The Palestinian prime minister was actually in Gaza today, the first time anyone like that has been there since the split.


Again, is it going to go anywhere? I think skepticism is warranted, but maybe there’s a meeting of needs now. It’s not going to lead to full reunification, but it might lead to some progress. Without full reunification, it’s really hard to see how we can go forward on the peace process, because the truth is that Abbas does not speak for the Palestinians today. He speaks at best for the West Bank and it’s been over eight years—eight and a half, shortly nine years—since he was elected. His legitimacy in the West Bank is somewhat questionable also. But let’s say he could speak for the West Bank in peace talks.


On the other side, I don’t see any enthusiasm by the current Israeli government to go forward either. So I don’t think we’re going to see much progress.


DAVID SPEEDIE: So in other words, again, if I may, I quote you from your last talk here, on the peace process: “Trying and failing at this point is worse than not trying because the peace process has had too many failures.” That still applies?


CHARLES FREILICH: I think so. In the meantime, since I said that a year and a half ago, we had a major American attempt to go forward: Secretary Kerry’s effort, which failed abysmally; he gets credit for trying although I have no idea why he did. I think it was another case of a failed attempt which further decreases the chances of future success because nobody believes that a successful outcome is likely.


Anyone on the Palestinian side, anyone on the Israeli side who really wants to see progress is disheartened by this. The radicals are strengthened by these kinds of failures so that if we get to see another attempt—and we’re now entering the last two years of the Obama administration and presidents sometimes have a tendency to try a Middle East peace process within their last two years. I don’t see the traction.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Okay, finally, I want to come back to something that you threw out at the beginning. It’s also something you took up in an article you wrote just last month in The American Interest called “A Generational Challenge.” This deals with us being beyond IS; it’s a pan-regional imperative for the West to pay attention to. You refer to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Sadam’s rapacious Iraq, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, the slaughter in Syria, Darfur as a sort of historical litany. Basically, you say that there are fundamental Western values that mean that we simply have to address this because it governs not only the circumstances there, but impacts potentially, as you put it, our lives at home.


Let me just throw this out to you. You know, this sort of “city on the hill,” wholesome, democratic West versus the barbaric, backward Middle East. Therefore, we have to act because we have to act. But it’s not just here, but throughout, across the world, Russia, China, others are pushing back against this notion of a sort of one-size-fits-all liberal democracy.


This is probably a simplistic way of putting this, but what I’m trying to say is, that, coupled with the fact that some of our adventures in the greater Middle East have been hardly resounding successes—the ’03 Iraq War being the obvious one that comes to mind—why do we assume that this is going to work?


CHARLES FREILICH: Well, of course we can look at ’03 as a failure. Why not look at ’91 as a success?


But, no, I’m not suggesting significant military intervention. In other words, I don’t rule out any boots whatsoever, but I’m talking Special Forces, some other limited deployments. I’m not talking about any major use of force. I think we have to understand the question here.


First of all, let’s look at what’s happening in the Middle East and let’s look at what’s happening at the West. Is it a really wild, culture-laden statement to say that the Middle East is a really sick place and that the West is a nicer place to live, that we prefer Western democracy to what’s happening in the Middle East?


Anyone who has a problem saying that, okay, I have a serious disagreement with them, but that’s on one level. That’s a moral level.


There’s a second level which is a totally practical one. Let’s say we want to forget it. We either don’t really believe in those values or we don’t think they’re applicable to everyone and I don’t think they’re necessarily applicable to everyone. I think most people prefer them to the alternatives, but let’s put that aside for a moment.


Let’s say we’re not going to do anything. It’s benign neglect, it’s whatever. Well, President Obama tried that for the last three years. He did everything he possible could not to get involved in the region.


Now, I don’t have any brilliant ideas of how to deal with the problems. I don’t know how you really deal with ISIS. I don’t know how you deal with a lot of the other problems. I have some ideas about it. The question is whether we’re going to ignore this, or we’re just going to make half-hearted efforts and say, “Do your worst.” Well, 9/11 happened.


There are a lot of people out there who are thinking of other ways of attacking the West because many of the Islamists look at the West as the ultimate enemy. They want to spread some of their ideology throughout the world. So, do we sit back and do nothing or do we say, “Look, this is a problem that we have to deal with because it affects our national security”? I think the latter is the case.


We have to be prepared that there’s no easy solution here, but this is going to be with us for a very long time and unless we realize that that’s the case and are willing to make an effort, I think things will just be worse.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me, finally, push you just a little bit further than that, Chuck, because you think about this on a daily basis. You write about it with great insight and articulateness.


If it’s not the time for a peace process, recognizing that the peace process isn’t going to solve Libya, isn’t going to solve ISIS, if boots on the ground may not be the answer, can you think even in a sort of blue-sky way of potential responses that might be more adequate if not ultimately perfect?


CHARLES FREILICH: I think the answer goes way beyond some specific action. We have to choose where the military battles are going to be. We have to choose where we do or do not try and promote political reform, democratization. In some places, democratization is the worst thing that we can do, certainly short-term.


We have to look at the Middle East as a big picture issue, which is going to be with the West now for decades. I would pour a lot of money into the region trying to promote economic development and I know it’s hard to do that because there isn’t a lot of free money around at the moment. But the West, the international community—that means mostly the West—has to get together and see what kind of economic development programs it can put forward, because economics are part of the problem. They’re only a part, but it’s a part of it.


Where appropriate, we have to try and promote political reform. That doesn’t necessarily mean real democratization; in some cases, maybe, and in some cases, it’ll just be better government and some forms of liberalization. In some areas where we think we can do something militarily, we should be doing that. We’re not going to solve the problem tomorrow.


We’re going to take lots of hits. We’re going to take losses. In some cases, the president’s hesitation to get involved was absolutely appropriate because there was no great option available for what to do, how to solve the specific issue. I’m talking about a change in mindset. This idea that we can turn away from the Middle East, we can pivot to Asia, we cannot make any more stupid wars in the Middle East. I don’t think 2003 was stupid.


There are things happening in this region which are very dangerous and we’re not going to solve all of them, but we’ve got to be engaged. Again, I think we have to view this as a generational effort. We’re going to be dealing with the Middle East for a long time to come.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me throw in, before we conclude, a plug for a future Ethics in Security bulletin that we’ll be doing in the coming weeks and that is with an organization called the Education for Employment Foundation. It’s an important reminder that we don’t only deal with governments. I think you said this a couple of minutes ago, if I remember rightly, that government action is one thing but the private sector is also critical in terms of investment.


This is an organization that has opened vocational schools across in, I think now, 10 countries in the greater Middle East, from nursing to accounting to civil society training and so on and so forth, basically from Yemen to Tunisia and it’s a remarkable enterprise. It deals with situations where there are 50 percent and upwards of majority populations of young people, 50 percent upwards unemployed. This is the kind of thing that I think you may be talking about in terms of a holistic view, long-term view of the situation.


CHARLES FREILICH: Absolutely, it sounds great.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Well with that, Chuck Freilich, thank you so much for your time. Your thinking is always both though-provoking and, I want to say, to some extent reassuring. It’s always good to have you as a guest.


Thank you very much, Chuck.


CHARLES FREILICH: Thanks very much, David.


UN Summit Can Accelerate Momentum to a New Approach to Climate Change

World leaders are meeting Tuesday at the United Nations for a summit that is intended to set the stage for global negotiations later this year in Lima and next year in Paris, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the threat of global climate change. The negotiations are at an important crossroad.


Twenty years ago at the original “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world enacted the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and established two key principles. One was the goal of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The other was that the governments should protect the climate system “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”

This second principle signaled the conviction that although the climate problem is a global issue, with all countries contributing, rich nations had historically contributed more to the atmospheric stock of greenhouse gases than others. Listed in Annex I of the Convention, the wealthy nations were committed to take actions.

In the first decision of the first Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, the global community agreed to the Berlin Mandate, which interpreted “common but differentiated responsibilities” as meaning that the Annex I countries alone would take on emission-reduction responsibilities. The Berlin Mandate, codified with numerical national targets and timetables in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, produced a dramatic gap between rhetoric and reality.

By the time of the Berlin Mandate, greenhouse gas emissions of non-Annex I countries surpassed those of Annex I countries. By 2005, when the Kyoto Protocol entered into force, per capita fossil fuel CO2 emissions of nearly 50 non-Annex I countries exceeded those of the Annex I country with the lowest per capita measure. The six largest greenhouse gas emitters were not constrained by the Kyoto Protocol, because of lack of commitments (China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia), the non-binding nature of its emission commitment (Russia), or failure to ratify the agreement (United States).

Since 1990, the base year of the Kyoto Protocol, emissions have grown by approximately 5 percent annually in the non-Annex I countries, while remaining about flat in the Annex I nations.

Furthermore, the dichotomous structure effectively quadrupled the global cost of emission abatement necessary to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, relative to a cost-minimizing scenario.

But prospects for change began to emerge in 2009, when annual negotiations led to the Copenhagen Accord, followed in 2010 by the Cancun Agreements, which together blurred the distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I.

An even greater departure from that dichotomy arose from negotiations in 2011 in Durban, South Africa, where agreement was reached on a structure focused on the participation of all parties in the effort to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, delegates agreed to craft a future legal regime that would be “applicable to all Parties . . . under the Convention.” This presented the potential to essentially eliminate the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, and was therefore an important step toward breaking the logjam that has prevented progress.

The goal now before negotiators is to produce a new international agreement — under the Durban Platform — in Paris in 2015, for implementation in 2020, as a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This presents the greatest opportunity the world has had in 20 years to make meaningful progress on this exceptionally challenging issue. The UN summit in New York can accelerate the momentum toward such a new, path-breaking approach.



For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Stavins, Robert N. “UN Summit Can Accelerate Momentum to a New Approach to Climate Change.” Boston Globe, September 23, 2014.


Backsliding on Nuclear Promises


For much of the past six years, President Obama has talked about working toward a world without nuclear weapons. Yet his administration is now investing tens of billions of dollars in modernizing and rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal and facilities, as The Times reported in detail on Monday. And after good progress in making nuclear bomb material more secure around the world, Mr. Obama has reduced his budget requests for that priority. This is a shortsighted and disappointing turn.



Not only is this spending unwise and beyond what the nation can afford, multiple studies by the Government Accountability Office have described the modernization push as badly managed. In a statement released on Monday, nuclear weapons experts from the Arms Control Association, the Federation of American Scientists and others called the modernization plan excessive and said the country can reduce the number of missiles and bombers it buys and still maintain a safe and reliable nuclear arsenal.
There has been little debate among members of Congress and the public about the decision by Mr. Obama and Congress to pour billions of dollars into new nuclear weapons systems — even as other government programs have been cut significantly.

But the Congressional Budget Office now estimates that Mr. Obama’s plans will cost $355 billion over the next decade; other studies put the price at $1 trillion over three decades. The wish list includes 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, 400 land-based missiles, plus upgrades to eight major plants and laboratories.
When he first came to office, Mr. Obama was clearsighted about nuclear dangers and ambitious in his disarmament goals. His major arms control achievement was the New Start treaty with Moscow aimed at reducing deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 on each side, down from 2,200, by February 2018. But to win Republican support for the treaty in 2010, Mr. Obama made a Faustian bargain, promising to spend $84 billion to upgrade aging nuclear weapons over the next decade, a $14 billion increase over the regular $70 billion modernization budget.

With the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominating news headlines, it is easy to forget the threat that nuclear weapons and nuclear material continue to pose around the world. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says there are 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 98 sites in 14 countries, a vast majority in the United States and Russia. There are also 25 countries that possess enough nuclear and radiological materials to build a weapon, with such material held at hundreds of sites, many vulnerable to extremists.


Worse yet, the administration is making a foolish trade-off — pouring money into modernization while reducing funds that help improve security at nuclear sites in Russia and other countries where terrorists or criminals could get their hands on nuclear materials.


Since Mr. Obama took office, he has pushed the international community to improve nuclear security. The result is that 13 countries have eliminated their nuclear materials stockpiles and 15 others removed or disposed of portions of theirs. But a report by experts at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government says the Obama administration’s proposed 2015 budget would cut spending for nuclear security by 21 percent, from $700 million this year to $555 million. While Congress restored some of that money in a stopgap spending bill, it expires in December and no one knows what happens after that.


Fortunately, 26 senators have recognized that such cuts are dangerous and urged that they be reversed. Investing in nuclear security protects Americans more than unwise investment in new nuclear weapons.


A Generational Challenge


President Obama’s plan for dealing with ISIS is a step in the right direction, albeit one that doesn’t go far enough. That’s because ISIS is the symptom and immediate threat, not the primary problem: The Middle East is a fundamentally ill region, one that has repeatedly exported its problems to the United States and the rest of the world and will continue to do so for decades. Iran’s Islamic revolution, Saddam’s rapacious Iraq, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Hamas, the slaughter in Syria, Darfur. The litany goes on.

Despite the President’s repeated efforts to deny it, the bitter reality is that the West is embroiled in a normative and strategic conflict with much of the Islamic world, a conflict that it did not seek but is nonetheless underway. On the normative level, the conflict is between a West that enshrines the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in this life, and the fundamentalists and others, for whom much of this vision is anathema. Theirs is a vision not of life and liberty—and happiness, if it’s possible at all, is only truly available in the next life. It is a vision of the future shrouded in theocratic or authoritarian backwardness, oppression, and poverty. This normative clash is not about mushy, sentimental ideas, but about the fundamental values that will govern international life and, increasingly, our lives at home.


Strategically, the conflict is between a West that seeks to promote stability and the existing order in the region, along with gradual socio-economic and political reform, and the fundamentalists who seek to overthrow the regional and international systems and to restore the era of Islamic grandeur. ISIS’ establishment of a caliphate, long written off in the West as the dream of isolated loonies, is the first step toward the realization of these visions. In one way or another—Sunni or Shi‘a, state (Iran) or non-state (ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas)—many fundamentalists share a dream of a united Muslim world regaining its place of leadership in the international community at the expense of the non-believing West.


Unfortunately, the President has yet to abandon his well-meaning but misguided belief, embodied in his Cairo speech and other attempts to reach out to the Arab world early in his first term, that the West’s problems with the Arabs and parts of the broader Muslim world are a function of specific disagreements and grievances that, if rectified, would lead to significantly improved relations. In fact, the problems are far more fundamental. It’s time to realize that we are in the midst of a generational battle, and that the U.S. and West simply do not have the luxury of disengaging from the Middle East, pivoting to Asia, avoiding “stupid wars”, and just hoping for the better. To ignore this harsh reality is to invite the next ISIS—and these movements will get progressively worse.


ISIS is the immediate threat and must be dealt with effectively, but we should view our efforts to deal with it as part of a much broader and multi-dimensional effort. Here is what an overall strategy would look like:

State building: No, it’s not a dirty word, and the U.S. has done it successfully in the past. What is needed is a Western and, to the extent possible, global commitment to a decades-long “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East to diminish those grievances that do stem from a lack of socio-economic opportunity. This will not solve the problem; many of the region’s ills and grievances have little or nothing to do with economics. Still, it’s an essential step. Resources are scarce, but certainly Europe, which faces an increasingly realistic prospect of mass immigration and turmoil spilling over from its neighbors across the Mediterranean, should understand the need. The Arab oil producers should also be enlisted in the effort. The U.S. has long had a “security for oil” deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it is time to add regional stability and development to the equation—and no one has a greater interest in this than they.


Political reform: Democracy, as we learned bitterly in Iraq and elsewhere, is not easily planted in Middle Eastern soil; it simply does not yet enjoy the necessary prerequisites. There are, however, three reasons that we shouldn’t abandon the effort, our failed experience notwithstanding. First, it is the right thing to do; it is what we are about. We cannot sustain a long-term effort that is not informed by our fundamental values, even if we wanted to. Second, following the Arab Spring, short-lived though it may have been, many of the Arab peoples are no longer just oppressed masses. They have gained, or will eventually demand, a voice in the governance of their lives. Third, stability and long-term resolution of the region’s ills require political reform. This isn’t to say we need overnight democratization—and certainly not an effort subject to the vagaries of American politics, as was the case in Iraq—but a slow, gradual and persistent approach, based on a commitment to stay the course. Our approach must be tailored to the needs of each country, but also subordinated to considerations of stability and strategic interest. For example, we need clear and explicit support for gradual change in Egypt, glacial change in Saudi Arabia, and major change in Iran.


Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation: Terrorism of all types must be rooted out, regardless of motivation, and dangerous states such as Iran simply cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation are at the heart of Western interests in the region. Western policy will have to continue to span the gulf between two competing needs: working with Arab countries to promote reform and better relations, and combating the threats emanating from them. Fortunately, there is far greater understanding and support for this goal in the region than in the past.


Limited military engagement: Today’s adversaries in the region do not have major conventional armies, and there is no need for large-scale ground interventions, such as in 2003. President Obama is wrong, however, to repeatedly stress the limits to U.S. military involvement, and that no combat troops will be deployed whatsoever. The truth is that special forces boots are already on the ground, and additional limited deployments are likely to be necessary. The President must address the concerns of a U.S. public wary of further entanglements in the Middle East, but making such promises emboldens U.S. adversaries and fails to prepare the public for the effort ahead. Bush already made this mistake, promising the public that the war in Iraq could be won on the cheap. Bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the Iranian nuclear program, if talks fall through, do not require major military commitments and risks; they do, however, entail some.


A joint effort: In the end, the West’s primary motivation for prolonged engagement in the Middle East is because of the threats the region poses to its interests. The U.S. cannot do it all alone, a Middle East reconstruction plan, political reform and possibility of some military action, all require an effective international coalition. It is a long-term effort, requiring deep Western resolve, of a type rarely manifested in recent years (especially by Europe). Europe and other allies must do their share, and this is especially true of the Arab countries. Every partner will have particular concerns and constraints, but the U.S. must make clear that a generational battle requires a different order of response, and that the nature of the response will have an important impact on their overall relations with it. Turkey, for example, must understand the new priorities. When the U.S. shows true resolve and leadership, partners tend to fall line more readily.


A word of caution is in order here. In the end, it is all about determination, persistence and a commitment to stay the course. Experience has taught us, however, that political reality and decision-makers’ resolve are not always up to the task. Whole-hearted efforts won’t guarantee success, of course, but they are a prerequisite. The President has spent the past three years doing his very best to stay out of the Middle East morass, on the assumption that the U.S. could not significantly affect the course of events. Developments in the region have now forced him to undertake somewhat greater engagement, but unless he is willing to truly engage, partial measures may just make things worse. The President has to define clear objectives, both for his own administration and, hopefully, for future ones as well.


An old adage warns that “if you do not visit the Middle East, it will visit you.” The U.S. simply cannot escape the region; no matter how much it wishes to do so, its interest there are too wide and deep. The prerequisite for a successful generational struggle is the recognition that this is what we face, and that the costs of benign neglect are unacceptable.


Chuck Freilich is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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