Security Studies Program Seminar

Neo-Conservatism vs. Realism: Applying Grand Theories to the Middle East

David Makovsky
Washington Institute for Near East Policy

October 7, 2009


[Note: frequent use of “We” throughout the talk is a reference to the speaker David Makovsky and his co-author Dennis Ross, now serving in the Obama administration, who co-wrote the book Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (New York: Penguin Books, 2009.)]

David Makovsky began by discussing competing schools of thought and how they approached the Middle East. The goal was to depersonalize the issues and go beyond theory to look to the realities on the ground and effectively test how big schools of thought depict the reality. He believed the reality much messier on the ground than theories depicted so they sought to test the two.

The neocons wanted to impose democracy while the realists wanted to impose peace, and we wanted to impose neither. Realists looked to issues of oil and stability that ignored the Arab-Israeli dynamic which in turn gave short shrift to peace. The neo-cons however tried to impose democracy, not peace which resulted in Hamas winning an election. Without positing a grand theory, Ross and Makovsky sought to evaluate the reality. Their conclusion was that Arab regimes base their decisions on own national interest, not just through the prism of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US-Saudi relations were strong and continued past 1948. The Arabs cared about regional dynamics. The only time the Arabs linked policies together was during the Arab embargo but this breaks up soon because of concern over Iran profiting from this and funneling this into an arms buildup. Thus the Arab states were largely concerned with their own national interest, and not simply focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like the “linkage school” suggests.

Makovsky stated he was a big believer in the Peace Process because he thinks it takes card out of extremist hands, but it likely won’t end the extremism in the region. And though it sounds like a counterintuitive idea, the Middle East is not just Israel vs. Arabs – it’s much more complicated.

With respect to Iran, the Arab states condemned actions by Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009. Egypt does not open its borders to Hamas except on occasion for humanitarian purposes. They often see Israel as a counterweight to their own enemies. When Israel hit the Syrian reactor in 2007, Arab states accepted it because Israel didn’t crow, so Arab states could allow it, and Bashar Asad did not need to retaliate.

The Iranian Track Record is Not Good
The IAEA regularly argues that Iran has been deceiving them about the scope of their nuclear program. Only once the Qom nuclear site was discovered did they then disclose it. In their book, Makovsky and Ross offer a proposal of “engagement without illusions.” Though not convinced it will succeed, they believe it is worth an effort because isolation in the Bush administration played to Iran’s hands as it kept spinning centrifuges. And the threshold that gets attention is the enrichment of nuclear grade fuel. A grand bargain is a strategy or a tactic depending on if Iran responds or not. Given Iran’s track record, its sham elections, and show trials, we cannot place a lot of confidence in them. There is also a concern of fissures within the elite circles that could lead to purges of different factions after negotiation of a bargain.

Do sanction threats seem more credible because of a legitimacy deficit? Perhaps. Iran recently agreed to remove 1200 of the 1500 kilos in Nantaz and with verification meeting coming up, this could build up confidence. However, we don’t know if there are many other centrifuges built into other mountains. And we’re not sure what caused Iran to respond this time -- the threat of sanctions or of a military strike. If there’s a peaceful way to solve this problem, that would be the ideal way to go about it.

What about regime change? Are we, as some suggest, in the pre-revolution stages like during the Shah in 1978-79? Makovsky stated that he was not an expert on Iranian domestic dynamics and was also not sure if prods from the outside would be helpful or counterproductive to such an end. He stated that the mullahs lost the people a long time ago, but losing power is another issue altogether.

The Concern of an Iranian Nuclear Weapon as a “Game-changer”
First, it sets of a chain reaction of proliferation. Egypt would start looking for one, the Saudi’s might try to get one using its Pakistan connections, and Turkey would want one as well. Second, it could increase the risks of proliferation among non-state actors that could result in dirty bombs and terrorist states. Third, many Arab states are very concerned that Iran use it to intimidate or brandish it. Small states like Oman and Qatar are already keeping their heads bowed to Iran because they believe they are ascendant. Fourth, the question of US deterrence arises. Would Iran be deterred, and could they throw weight around in oil market? Fifth, how might this affect the peace process if moderates are intimidated and extremists are emboldened? The bottom line is that we don’t know, and we don’t know if the IAEA and Geneva can set them back or not.

On the Arab-Israeli Conflict
It appears we’re at the end of the beginning of the Obama administration’s approach. We’re trying to wrap this up by delving into negotiations. The administration had good intentions and the named an envoy on day one -- George Mitchell, a man of integrity who had achieved success in Ireland.

However, the administration's initial approach also resulted in some difficulties. Instead of a calling for a settlement freeze, they could have demanded no expansion of settlements outward rather than trying to stop the building upward within existing settlements, which seemed too far. The problem is that this raised Arab expectations. If we can’t follow through, we have to cut a deal with Netanyahu, as we did, while Abbas is still going on with the freeze idea. Instead we should have dealt with the actual problem, not just the symptoms.

At a 4-6% approval rating, President Obama has one of the lowest levels of support from the Israeli people. The Palestinians are not happy either. Their perception is that, “If can’t deliver on the settlement freeze, how can you deliver bigger things? Like Jerusalem or refugees.” It seems our recent actions didn’t help us with either audience.

Where do we go from here and what can we do practically? We can’t do a “hail Mary” pass as an “all or nothing” move ends up yielding nothing. Instead we could do something like a screen pass and try to move the ball downfield.

There are four core issues: Jerusalem, Refugees, Security, and Land. Jerusalem and Refugees are related to the self-definition of the respective parties. There is a great deal of nationalistic sentiment around them and leaders on either side have not done a good job to condition their societies on these core issues. Moreover, it is unlikely the Palestinian Authority can speak for refugees who are mostly in Gaza. On security, Israel believes the 2005 Gaza withdrawal only brought on more rocket attacks.

Surprisingly, the land is the issue most promising. Olmert and Abbas were in disagreement by only 4%, and both had agreed to the principle of land swaps. Most settlers are concentrated in a section closest to the 1967 border. It is critical for both leaders to be able to say what they need to their respective publics. Netanyahu needs to say “I annexed the settlements” and the Palestinian Authority needs to say “I got what Sadat got – 100% of the land.” The settlement issue brought inside the border would be called Israel as 80% of the people are in 5% of the area. Thus there should be some hope here.

Another approach would be to renew the second phase of the roadmap: a state with provisional borders. This would give the Palestinians half the West Bank, but it would leave a lot of territorial issues and settlements open. However, many Palestinians seem to care less for a state and more about retaining the grievance issue.

But There is Some Good News
Israel always talked about the revolving door (of terrorists imprisoned who would soon come out again). But this is no longer the case. The Palestinian Authority is becoming increasingly professionalized and the Israeli and Palestinian security establishments are working together for first time. This convergence of interests began after the Hamas takeover in Gaza in 2007. The Palestinian Authority claims that the suicide bombers are coming from the mosques so they are focused on that. They have moved out numerous imams because they are increasingly concerned Hamas will come after them.

The 7% growth in West Bank was remarkable. There was a construction boom during recession. This is partly attributable to Salaam Fayad (who believes in good governance while Arafat did not as he was more focused on defiance and armed struggle given his roots in Algiers). Fayad argues that the Palestinians should model the Zionists who built institutions, and he is trying to redefine Palestinian nationalism with state building, whole new approach. Israel has responded by reducing the number of checkpoints. The question is how do we build on these successes? We need a political track to ensure institution building goes hand and hand with political progress.

As for the notion of Palestinian reconciliation, there is concern Hamas will be spoilers from the inside as they have real ideological attachments to the Muslim brotherhood. If Hamas only cared about power, cooption would be possible, but we think they have serious ideological commitments so don’t see them yielding. Where do we engage with states without illusions is an interest, but engaging with non-state actors can cut the legs out from under our partners (like the Palestinian Authority). Both Egypt and Jordan concerned are equally concerned given the Islamist political movements in their territory. One has to be aware of and take ideological attachments seriously.

We need a vigorous progress. Not peace speeches in Annapolis, but something on the ground that people can see with their eyes that is real. Theories at 50,000 feet are no substitute for dynamics on the ground.

Rapporteur: Sameer Lalwani

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2009