A Conversation with Ambassador Edward Djerejian
Edward Djerejian, the former United States Ambassador to Syria and Israel, discussed recent developments in the Middle East after the Arab Spring.
On November 15, the Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the American Task Force for Lebanon hosted a meeting titled “A Conversation with Ambassador Edward Djerejian: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Arab Spring” with Djerejian, founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Theodore Kattouf, President of AMIDEAST and former United States Ambassador to Syria and the United Arab Emirates, moderated the event. Michael Van Dusen, Wilson Center Executive Vice President and COO, gave welcoming remarks.
Djerejian began by putting the Arab Spring in a historical context. He considered the Arab Spring to be a “tectonic shift in the political landscape in the Arab World” and the true end of the post-colonial period. He reviewed the history of the newly independent Arab states after World War II, in which countries’ experiments with democracy were short lived. He saw the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which arbitrarily defined spheres of influence for the major powers in the Middle East, as a major reason for the sectarian, religious, and other divisions that made democracy more challenging for the newly born states. Djerejian later in his discussion also targeted Sykes-Picot as the agreement that helped to bring on the conflicts in the Middle East today, including tensions between Syria and Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Djerejian next discussed the hurdles to democratic state formation in the Middle East posed by the Cold War, as the U.S. shunned Wilsonian democracy in an effort to support anti-Soviet clients. Djerejian went on to paint a picture of the economic and demographic situation in the Middle East before the Arab Spring: high unemployment, especially among youth, combined with a “youth bulge” and discrimination against women in the economy were the fundamental reasons for why the Arab world “blew up.” Arab governments had been unresponsive to this deepening economic crisis.
Djerejian also shared his views on the quality of American foreign policy in the Middle East. On the macro-level, he criticized American political theorists who after the end of the Cold War labeled “Islam” as the greatest threat to American security. Djerejian rejected the idea that we are, or should be, at war with another civilization. Rather, he preferred a more specific and nuanced approach, such as fighting Islamic terrorism. Djerejian also warned of the U.S. being too bold or ambitious in the Middle East. As an example, he criticized U.S. efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli Conflict rather than managing the conflict by actively engaging both sides. Another example of U.S. overreach in the Middle East was trying to “parachute Jeffersonian-style democracy into the Middle East.” Djerejian cited U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia to gradually make their parliament an elected body as a positive model for U.S. policy in this area.
Further elaborating on U.S. policy, Djerejian contended that the U.S. should have been more cognizant of the economic plight of the Arab Spring countries before the revolutions and how politically unstable this made them and should have pressured the existing regimes to make political and economic reforms that would have made them less vulnerable to extremist takeover. Djerejian saw it as no surprise that when opened up to democracy, societies like Egypt elected an Islamist government. Djerejian stressed that parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood are not “monoliths” and have left and right wing components to them and that we should judge them not on their stated ideology, but on how they govern and whether they can fix the problems that the previous regimes could not. Djerejian pointed out that with the advent of more democratic governments in the Middle East, the U.S. can no longer negotiate with elites alone, and will have to pay much more attention to public opinion and devote more energy to public diplomacy.
Djerejian characterized American foreign policy as a tug of war between Wilsonian ideals of self-determination and protection of its national security interests. He described President Obama’s policies towards the Arab Spring as “differentiated,” in that the U.S. intervened in countries where we did not rely on the current leadership for strategic objectives, such as Libya, and refrained from punishing regimes such as the one in Bahrain which permits the U.S. to house its 5th Fleet. Djerejian implied that this was a wise policy but that the current U.S. policy of “reacting to crises” would have to be replaced by a more coherent grand strategy going forward.
Finally, Djerejian commented on the civil war in Syria, which he called the “crisis from hell.” He highlighted the importance of Syria’s geopolitical location and the threat of the conflict “bringing down the region with it.” Expanding on this, Djerejian feared a full-fledged sectarian conflict in Syria would impact Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. He also warned that Turkey could become involved militarily if Kurdish rebels took the chance to declare independence in Syria, something Turkey would view as an existential threat. Djerejian saw international intervention in Syria as unlikely unless a Srebrenica-like massacre occurred. He cited Russian strategic interests in Syria, including its Tartus naval station and long history of arms deals with the regime, as precluding effective UN Security Council action.
Daniel Boger, Middle East Program