Solutions for the Middle East? An Interview with Kenneth Pollack

Kenneth Pollack is a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. Pollack served twice on the U.S. National Security Council, first as Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs, and then as Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Pollack held various positions at the CIA, Council on Foreign Relations, and National Defense University, and is the author of bestselling books that advocate for U.S. intervention in the Middle East. In this interview, Pollack proposes responses to specific Middle Eastern crises as well as broader U.S. strategy in the region.

You’ve argued that the key to addressing many of the Middle East’s issues is shutting down the Syrian Civil War. How do we do that?

First, I’d say the key is shutting down all the civil wars in the region: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya. They’re all feeding off each other and destabilizing a wide variety of countries. But if you want to start with the Syrian Civil War—that’s as good a place as any to start—how do you do that? To take a very complex subject and reduce it to a soundbite, there are basically three things you need to do to end a civil war. First, you have to create a military stalemate where all sides believe that they cannot win a military victory but will be safe in surrendering their weapons, that they will not get slaughtered. Second, you have to forge a power-sharing agreement among all the different warring factions such that all the different parties receive political power and economic benefits commensurate with their demographic weight. Third, you have to put in place institutions, either external, like peacekeepers, or internal, like some charismatic leader or better still an apolitical military, that will guarantee the first two conditions over the long-term.

You apply that to Syria and say: first, we have to create a military stalemate. We have not done that. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra front, Da’esh, the Syrian regime, all of them seem to think they can win a military victory, not to mention the various groups that we’re backing. What’s more, none of them believe they can surrender their weapons and not get slaughtered. You need to deal with something like that, and there are different ways to do it. One is you could build a new Syrian opposition army that is capable of actually defeating everybody else, but then rein it in. Prevent it from actually winning a military victory, and using that, using the stopping of the new military force, to then force everybody else to come to the table and negotiate a power-sharing agreement. That is exactly what NATO and the United States did in Bosnia, where we built a Croat army that was beating the heck out of the Serbs, but before they actually won, we brought everybody to Dayton and said to the Serbs: you can either agree to this power-sharing agreement, which is a very equitable distribution, or we’ll let the Croats keep going. And the Serbs weren’t idiots; they agreed to the Dayton accords. That’s the kind of way to think about Syria. You need to change the military dynamics, forge a power-sharing agreement, and then, the thing that is hardest for the United States, the part we typically get wrong, is that long-term piece of ensuring that conditions one and two remain intact for ten or twenty years.

Let’s turn to Iraq. The Iraqi army has made recent military advances, but you warn that the political front is not catching up. What needs to be done politically?

At the most basic level, Iraq needs national reconciliation. The Sunnis remain deeply distrustful of this government. They feel marginalized and in many cases disenfranchised. They believe that the Shia do not have their best interests at heart and they are very concerned that they will have another Maliki, another Shia leader who will use the instruments of the state to oppress them. You have to forge a new power-sharing agreement, a national reconciliation agreement, whereby the Sunnis are brought back into the political system and get political power and economic benefits commensurate with their demographic weight, so they actually feel like they are a part of this thing called Iraq and do not have to fear a Shia-dominated government.

There is a lot more that needs to be done. There is a lot of local reconstruction that needs to happen, and there is a lot that needs to change in terms of making the Iraqi government more efficient, functional, and representative. But in some ways, these are all second-order problems. Until you get the national reconciliation, you are never going to get rid of the problem of Da’esh. We could obliterate it in the next twelve months, and we may very well obliterate it, but if we have not dealt with the alienation of the Sunni community, then we will have ‘son of Da’esh,’ just as Da’esh is the ‘son of al-Qaeda,’ the next day.

Some experts argue that sectarian divisions in the Middle East are insurmountable because the region was arbitrarily carved up into nation-states. They advocate for partition—Kurdish autonomy, separating Shia and Sunni. Is that a solution you support?

First off, I would say that it is a mistake to assume that the problems of the Middle East are a result of ancient hatred, irreconcilable identity conflicts. People say this all the time about these conflicts, but it is just not true. The history of Sunni-Shia relations is actually pretty good, especially in Iraq over the last century. What we found time and again, whether it be in the Middle East or places like Bosnia, Congo, or Mozambique, you name it, is that identity conflicts are created by circumstances. Change the circumstance, and you can get rid of the identity conflict. Now, that is not to say it will happen in Iraq or Syria. Iraq and Syria will require the kinds of solutions that I previously mentioned. It is not clear that the international community is willing to do that, and if not, partition may be a good alternative. But even then, the problem is that in both Iraq and Syria, the people, with the exception of the Kurds, are not looking for separate states. What they are fighting over is who is going to control the states that they have. Iraqis tend to be fiercely nationalistic, even to this day, same thing with Syrians.

You’ve stated more optimistically that the Arab Spring led Arab leaders to recognize that they must enact reforms. However, should we be concerned that pushing reforms in the current environment could lead to greater instability in the immediate-term?

I think this is a very important issue because you are right that unstable countries that enact rapid reforms can wind up destabilizing themselves further. That is why reform is typically best done gradually. Now, it is hard to argue exactly how fast or how slow, but slower is better than faster in most cases. That is what we would really like to see these countries do: start moving down the path of reform, demonstrate to the people that change is coming, but do it in a gradual, controlled fashion, so that you actually can test things, try them out, see if they work. If they work, you keep pushing forward. If they do not work, you try something else.

One “control” you’ve recommended is for the U.S. to pressure newly-created democracies to exclude extreme Islamist parties. Is there a danger that by intervening in any way, the U.S. would delegitimize newly-created democracies?

Yes, I think that is a definite risk. But I think that one of the things that the U.S. has going for it at this moment is that the Middle East is so unstable, the people of the region are so fearful of that instability, that they are desperate for American assistance. There is a receptivity to American engagement that we have not seen in decades. Again, it is not perfect or all-encompassing. There are plenty of people who say, in effect, “Yankee, go home.” But there is a much greater receptivity than we have seen in the past. At the end of the day, I think some of these things are necessary, and so if they’re necessary, you have got to do them even if you are going to get bad press for them. But right now, we seem to have the greatest likelihood that we will not get bad press.

American engagement is the strategy you lay out in The Path out of the Desert, which reads in many ways like a path into the desert. You justify American engagement by the need for oil market stability. But how severe really are the risks if the United States withdraws from the region? What is the likelihood of Saudi Arabia or Iraq collapsing?

Obviously, no one can answer that question. Most of these events seem highly unlikely until they happen. In 2010, no one predicted that Syria would be in a state of civil war the next year. In 2010, no one predicted that Hosni Mubarak would collapse. And yet they did. So these things can happen very unexpectedly and very quickly. In many circumstances, they can be catastrophic. The collapse of the Qaddafi government and Libya falling into civil war all but eliminated Libya’s oil production. Libyan oil production was not so big that it could not be compensated for by increased fracking, Iraqi oil production, and now Iranian oil production. In the future that may not be the case. If in the future it is Saudi Arabia that falls or is destabilized, there is no amount of fracking in the world that could compensate for the loss of Saudi oil. This is the problem. The Middle East is terribly unstable because of the failure of the Middle East state system and because of the outbreak of these civil wars. And what we have seen is that the American disengagement from the region between 2009 to 2014 did not help the region. In fact, the region got much, much worse.

If the United States increases its engagement in the region, how should it act toward Iran?

Iran is a tough one. Iran is not our friend and Iran often defines itself as our adversary. But I do not think that we should see the Middle East as just kind of a zero-sum fight between the United States and Iran. I think that is a very dangerous way of looking at things. I actually think the United States and the Iranians share some interests. I think there are areas where we can, have, and should co-operate to the extent that it is possible, and I think there are other areas where we should just leave the Iranians alone because they are not bothering us. That said, I think there are areas where the Iranians are taking actions that are directly affecting American interests: attempting to destabilize our allies, fighting on the other side in some of these civil wars, and prolonging these civil wars. In those circumstances, I do think we need to deal with the problems that Iran is creating. My hope is that we can do so co-operatively. But it may be necessary to do so confrontationally, at least for some period of time until the Iranians figure out that confrontation is not a good path for them to take, and so hopefully then they will come around to co-operation.