Surveying the MENA Region: An Interview with Jon B. Alterman
Jon B. Alterman is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS in 2002, he served as a member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State and as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He is a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel and served as an expert adviser to the Iraq Study Group. In addition to his policy work, he teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and George Washington University. From 1993 to 1997, Alterman was an award-winning teacher at Harvard University, where he received his PhD in history.
JMEPP interviewed Jon B. Alterman on 3 December 2012.
JMEPP: Do you think that in 2013, Jordan could disprove the rule of monarchical stability in the Arab world?
ALTERMAN: I would be very surprised if 2013 were the downfall of the Jordanian monarchy. What circumstances will prevail, how they will navigate their way in a different environment, through potential Saudi succession, potential dramatic changes in oil prices, potential spillover of the conflict [in?] Syria, Palestine, Iraq. I am not sure what the future of Jordan will be, but it would be rash and premature for one to estimate that future would not include the king in the near term.
JMEPP: Concerning Iraq, there have been concerns about the government’s proximity to Iran. How do you see the Iraqi attitudes toward Iran, especially with a large Shi’i majority favorable to Iran on the one hand and the memory of a long and bloody war with Iran on the other?
ALTERMAN: It depends which Iraqis you’re talking about. At the national level, there is a principal desire to triangulate between Iran, the West, and the Gulf Arab States, Turkey, and the Kurdish regions. They are not trying to pick a friend; they are trying to fine-tune relationships in three dimensions. The Iraqi government has decided there is no security in being hostile to Iran, but they can’t yet trust their neighbor.
JMEPP: What is Iraq’s short-term foreign policy in the region? Additionally, do we see any evidence that Iraq would pursue a similar Shi’i-oriented foreign policy similar to that espoused by Iran?
ALTERMAN: I think it is a mistake to see Iranian foreign policy as being a Shi’a foreign policy. It is an Iranian foreign policy, with Iranian national interests in mind. There is an ideological commitment to anti-Americanism and opposition to Israel, but that is an ideological rather than sectarian take. I think Iran’s leadership is comprised of nationalists, not sectarians. The Iranian government has a clear sense of Iran’s national interest, but the Iraqi government has a much less clear sense. What Iraqis are trying to do is to try to find a balance between different interests they are trying to pursue. In some cases you have multiple policies that may or may not be coordinated, carried about by various parties in the Iraqi government. I do not see anything that could be called an Iraqi strategy, except to continue to balance between antagonists.
JMEPP: Let’s move on to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Now that most troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, how do you envision President Barack Obama’s administration will use that greater flexibility approaching the Middle East in a second term?
ALTERMAN: The president came into office in 2009 feeling that one of the most important discretionary things he had to do was to get serious about Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and to try to heal the distrust and hatred toward the U.S. he felt that the Bush administration had engendered. So we saw the appointment of George Mitchell [as special envoy for the Middle East] on the president’s first day of office. We saw the phone calls that he made to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, President [Mahmoud] Abbas, [Saudi Arabia’s] King Abdullah, and President [Hosni] Mubarak on his first day in office. And we saw the Cairo speech in June 2009. Those were the discretionary things that were high on his list. I don’t think he starts this term with a long discretionary set of tasks in the Middle East. That being said, there may be opportunities in the Middle East on the Arab-Israeli peace process and Iran, but I do not think he starts off saying, “This is where I want to make my mark.”
JMEPP: The United States is increasing its production of natural gas at rates far in excess of what most people expected. How will this affect our policy regarding the Middle East? Will it give us more flexibility with Middle East and North Africa oil producers?
ALTERMAN: We currently do not receive a lot of our energy from the Middle East anyway. Most is from the Western Hemisphere and North America. That doesn’t explain why we are involved in the Middle East. We are militarily involved the way we are in the Middle East because global energy markets are aligned in the Middle East, and our interest in protecting global commerce and our allies cause us to invest in Middle East security. I don’t think that is going to change. Concerning the pivot to Asia, people believe that that is a turn away from the Middle East, but Asia itself is starting to turn towards the Middle East, meaning we are turning to the Middle East from the other side. China, Japan, India, and South Korea are top Middle East energy consumers, and those are the countries we are most concerned with. I do not think we get out of the Middle East business. I think our diplomacy will have to have a more Asian focus, but I do not think the concern goes away.
JMEPP: How would you describe and evaluate the Obama administration’s strategic approach to Islamist political parties and their ascendency?
ALTERMAN: I think that the president’s approach to Islam more broadly derives from the fact that his introduction to Islam was not 9/11. His introduction to Islam had to do with his upbringing in a Muslim majority country for some of his youth. He was aware that his father was Muslim; he didn’t start from a premise that Islam is part of the problem. This has helped create a sense in the administration that there is not necessarily something threatening about people of faith in the Muslim world entering politics. There is an interest in democratization, a concern with intolerance and discrimination, but Islam is not seen as being inevitably linked to those things. There has been a willingness to engage with a whole set of religious actors, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, in Egypt, embassy officials met with a range of Salafi and Brotherhood actors, as well as with secular liberals because a pluralistic political process is inclusionary. I think that it is the right approach. I think the concern is when the anti-democratic aspects of religious politics start to intervene. Americans have a keen sense that straightforward majoritarian rule is not the American system; the American system is meant to protect the minority. The great contribution of America to the world is not necessarily democracy so much as tolerance. I think the key thing that we have to stress going forward is to create more tolerant systems, not merely systems that could give power to the majority of the population. If I look at the threatening aspects of the Middle East, almost all of them can be mitigated by a greater sense of tolerance, not because everyone has to follow the same course, but because permitting diversity protects the dynamism of the system and that will lead to better outcomes.
I think it is a mistake to see Iranian foreign policy as being a Shi’a foreign policy. It is an Iranian foreign policy, with Iranian national interests in mind. There is an ideological commitment to anti-Americanism and opposition to Israel, but that is an ideological rather than sectarian take.
We are militarily involved the way we are in the Middle East because global energy markets are aligned in the Middle East, and our interest in protecting global commerce and our allies cause us to invest in Middle East security. I don’t think that is going to change. Concerning the pivot to Asia, people believe that that is a turn away from the Middle East, but Asia itself is starting to turn towards the Middle East, meaning we are turning to the Middle East from the other side.