Flynt Leverett (left) and Hillary Mann Leverett (right) Photo: Liu Zhun/GT
With the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and the struggle between Iran and the West over nuclear issues, the Middle East remained chaotic in 2014. What about 2015? What kind of role will the US play in the regional political landscape? At a seminar held by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, Global Times (GT) reporter Liu Zhun talked to Flynt Leverett (Flynt), former senior director of Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC), and Hillary Mann Leverett (Hillary), former director of Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Affairs at the NSC, about these issues.
GT: What is your forecast of the situation of the Middle East this year?
Flynt: More and more negative consequences of the failed US drive for the hegemony in the Middle East will become increasingly evident. The US is struggling to come to terms with that.
Washington should reconsider its basic strategy for this region, but President Barack Obama has a great belief in US' hegemonic agenda.
Many analysts in the US argue that Washington should "double-down" on its strategy. But this is the wrong direction.
Hillary: There will be more violence throughout the region - violence encouraged by the US. A potential difference rests on the possibility that an alternative mindset will be brought in by China as it rises. Whether Russia, with the support of China and Iran, can put Syria's conflicts on a different trajectory toward resolution is important - whether they can bring in a different paradigm for conflict resolution. I am not sure they can yet, but I am encouraged by China's rise and its focus on sovereignty and conflict resolution.
GT: If the US changes its course, will the region be a better place?
Flynt: Yes, it will be a better place. The historical record has proven that. For 20 years after China's revolution, the US was doing everything it could to isolate and hurt the People's Republic of China.
After it gave up its hostile policies toward China, China, as well as other East Asian countries, embarked on a long and productive period of economic expansion with rising prosperity for hundreds of millions of people. The Middle East will not be perfect after the US changes its policy, but it will be better.
GT: But the chaos in the Middle East, much of which is driven by religious issues, is more complicated than the conflicts China encountered with the US, which were basically ideological. What do you think of the role of Islam in the chaos of the Middle East?
Hillary: There has been a perception that there is something wrong with Islam and that it is the major contributor to the complications of the problems in the Middle East. But if you look historically, that is not really true. There is no evidence that Muslims are historically terrorists. The head of the IS was in an American prison, where he became more extreme in his own views and forged a network with other extremists.
The perennial chaos of the Middle East, to a large extent, is caused by a long history of military penetration by Western countries such as France, the UK and now the US.
GT: You suggest the US should shift its Middle East policy and pull back from trying to be a hegemon - for example, by restoring ties with Iran. What do you think of Obama's current strategy to the Middle East?
Flynt: People are talking about the Obama doctrine and his being less interventionist. I don't really think that is right. I think the Obama administration is no less committed to so-called global leadership, which is actually hegemony, over strategically important areas like the Middle East. The Obama administration thinks it has a smarter way of promoting that leadership than its immediate predecessor. But that is more a tactical than strategic difference.
GT: Many countries criticize the US for its "double standards" on many international issues. But some US analysts said the US is a victim of "double standards," because many countries hate the US when it leads, but they hate even more when the US doesn't lead. What do you think?
Hillary: This is a deliberate confusion fostered by the US. When we look at the Middle East, we find that governments need the US to provide military and financial support to protect their vested interests, so they hate us even more when we don't lead. But the people of these countries hate when the US leads, because many US-backed governments cannot represent the interests of the people.
GT: China's "One Belt and One Road" project is believed to have a major influence on the Middle East. Will it be a counterbalance of the US' influence in the region?
Flynt: US power in the Persian Gulf is in relative decline. But because it is desperate to cling to its hegemonic ambitions in the region, Washington is trying to put China's interests at risk.
China will decide what its interests are in the Middle East. As an analytic point, though, if China really wants to have an independent and balanced foreign policy, China will need to decide how accommodating it wants to be of US preferences and to what extent it wants to pursue its own interests, even when the US is not necessarily happy about that.
I think the Middle East's engagement in the Silk Road, especially Iran, is going to be a testing ground for China.
Hillary: I think the US will definitely disagree with the project. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has really focused on trying to expand its influence, military or otherwise, on Central Asian states in a bid to put pressure on Russia. This has been a consistent theme through both Democratic and Republican administrations.
China's project will unavoidably reach Central Asia, which could lessen interest in those states in aligning with various American projects and make it harder for the US to pressure Russia.
Besides, as Iran is central for both Silk Roads, China's good relationship with Iran will be very problematic for the US interests, and also for its hegemonic ambitions across the entire Middle East.
If Iran benefits from this project and rises to be a more powerful force to challenge the influence of Saudi Arabia, Israel and eventually the US, Washington will try to stop this from happening.