Jake Sullivan’s Five Hard Questions for Trump’s Mideast Policy

by Jim Lobe

On January 11, the Middle East Policy Council (MEPC) presented its 87th Capitol Hill Conference on the future of U.S. Middle East policy under the Trump administration. Speakers included Jake Sullivan, Hillary Clinton’s senior foreign policy advisor during the 2016 campaign and previously a top aide to both President Obama and Vice President Biden; Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, as well as a director at the National Security Council under Obama; Dmitiri Simes, president and CEO of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest; and Beth Long, CEO of Metis Solutions and a former assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs under George W. Bush.

The video and transcript of the panel discussion can be found at the MEPC website here, but I found Sullivan’s presentation on the challenges and dilemmas faced by the incoming administration in the Middle East, particularly with respect to Iran, Syria, and Iraq particularly compelling and incisive. It is reproduced below with a few edits from the transcript.

Sullivan’s Five Points

…I think I’d like to use my time today … [to] tee up five hard questions that the incoming administration is going to have to grapple with, which raise a series of tensions and contradictions, and for which there are no easy answers…

[1] So I’ll start with the Iran deal, which is something that I care deeply about, having participated in it from the inception. And obviously on the campaign trail we heard a huge amount about ripping up the Iran deal, getting rid of it, it’s the worst thing ever, et cetera. I think that the rhetoric has changed pretty dramatically since the election, and it certainly seems to me that we are on a course to not see the Iran deal torn up in the first instance, but rather to see it enforced vigorously, and then for any additional pressure placed on Iran, for that to happen in the context of things outside of the nuclear context: ballistic missiles, human rights, support for terrorism.

So here, to my mind, is the core challenge facing that policy, which would have faced Secretary Clinton if she had been elected president because she proposed a policy very similar to the one that I now expect the new administration and the Congress, bipartisan leadership in both the House and Senate, will pursue, which is [to] vigorously enforce the deal and then try to impose costs for Iran’s activities and behaviors outside of the context of the deal. The core challenge is how do you increase, dial up the pressure on Iran for what it’s doing with its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism, its abuse of human rights, without effectively re-imposing exactly the same sanctions you just lifted in the course of the Iran deal, and thereby blow up the deal in the process—effect what I would call a bait and switch? How do you have a credible story to tell your partners in Europe and the other members of the P-5 plus one, and a credible platform to stand on that says we have a right under the deal to sanction you for your violations of your ballistic missile obligations—restrictions, by the way, that are embedded in U.N. Security Council resolutions, but that don’t go so far as to just be the wholesale replacement of the old sanctions regime with a near-identical new sanctions regime that was the price that was paid for the deal in the first place? That is a big and very hard question, and getting that calibration right will be incredibly important, because if you undershoot you’re not going to put the pressure on that’s needed to hold Iran accountable for these other activities, and if you overshoot you could break up the coalition that’s come together to enforce the deal, and that would put the United States in a pretty difficult position going forward.

So, for me, that is a big piece of business that is a little bit less strategic than it is practical. It’s actually about what exactly are the tools available though as to hold the Iranians accountable for these other things, and what do we have to do from a diplomatic perspective to convince the rest of the international community that we are within our rights to do these things? I think that is going to be an early test of this administration’s capacity to effectuate a complicated multi-vector strategy.

[2] The second core challenge facing this administration is that the current posture talks very tough about both Iran and about ISIS. But the problem of course is that trying to push back on Iranian influence in the region and trying to hold Iran accountable for its behavior in respect to supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah runs headlong into a strategy that says by any means necessary we’re going to get rid of ISIS. Much of what we heard from the president-elect on the campaign trail seemed to be a ratification of Iran’s strategy in Syria, and much of what he talks about in respect to going after ISIS inside Iraq could have the perverse effect of actually strengthening Iran’s hand in Baghdad and across Iraq. So how do you resolve that tension? How do you, once have a go-tough, sign up with any partner who’s willing to fight ISIS, on the one hand, and a we are going to undermine and push back on and try and hold Iran’s feet to the fire and reduce its influence across the region on the other hand? Is it possible to thread the needle on that? I’m not totally convinced that it is, and I think that both the new administration’s Syria policy and Iraq policy is going to have to come down on one side or the other of this fundamental contradiction.

[3] The third issue is the larger question of Syria itself. If you listen to the weight of what we heard during the campaign — and … we heard a very wide variety of things both on the campaign and during the transition—it seemed to be in favor of essentially saying the Russians are on to something, so let them take care of it in Syria. That seemed to be where the weight of opinion was. Where is that ultimately going to leave Syria, though, in the long term? How do we think about actually trying to re-stitch some kind of stable equilibrium in Syria that reduces the killing and the slaughter of innocent civilians, that reduces the long-term prospect that even if you roust ISIS from Raqqa, you don’t just get the son of ISIS or the cousin of ISIS a year or two from now because you’ve merely installed something akin to the status quo ante? I think this set of questions is going to come home to roost for the administration very quickly, and I think they’re going to find that taking a position which just says, “Let’s support the strongman, let’s let the Russians help prop up Assad” and so forth, that that ultimately is going to beg a lot more questions than answers as that policy actually unfolds.

[4] The fourth significant question, from my perspective, facing the new administration goes to the president-elect’s seeming predilection for supporting strongmen and authoritarian regimes across the region. He loves Sisi, seems to like Erdogan, seems to like the Gulf leaders for their strength and toughness. These all, in his view, can be partners against terrorist groups, against ISIS.

And I think that that raises a very fundamental and profound question about U.S. policy, which is, do we really believe that the old bargain, the authoritarian bargain—which is we support regimes that have deep questions about their fundamental staying power and legitimacy, in exchange for their help to fight terrorists and to keep some measure of regional equilibrium—is that old bargain conceivably sustainable, particularly given what we saw in 2011, 2012 with the Arab revolutions? Can we go back to just betting on the strongman? Do we think that that is a long-term proposition, is in the best interests of U.S. national security? I have my strong doubts about that. And I wonder if we don’t have to be thinking hard about the ways in which, while supporting the efforts of our partners, our Sunni partners across the region, and raising their confidence and adding reassurance …, we don’t also have a clear vector of trying to encourage and induce the kinds of reforms that can lead to a more sustainable future for the Middle East. I think this is going to be a big piece of business that the new administration’s going to face, and its very recent history, which reminds us just how brittle and unstable a regime can become if it loses legitimacy with its people and isn’t capable of embarking on a path of reform.

This relates—it’s sort of my 4(a), you know, before moving on to my fifth and final point — to the real I think opportunity—opportunity’s always a funny word to use when you’re talking about the Middle East in general and the peace process in particular—but I do think that there is an interesting convergence of interests happening among our Sunni partners from Egypt to the Gulf, including Jordan and Israel. They share a couple of common adversaries—Iran and radical Islamic extremist groups, terrorist groups — and we’ve seen bubbling up the appearance of increasing cooperation between Israel and these countries. Does that present any kind of opportunity to potentially break the logjam and make progress in the Middle East peace process that gets away from just the kinds of negotiations that we’ve seen over the past few years? I don’t know the answer to that, but I would hope that as the new administration considers potentially precipitous moves in the early days, it at least calculate the possibility that a more careful and cautious approach out of the gate could create or at least preserve opportunities down the road for Israel and the United States and others to convert this growing convergence of interests between the Sunni countries and Israel into some meaningful progress on the peace process. I think there is a possibility there, and I think very careful statecraft coming out of the gate will be important to test that possibility and see if it can actually play out.

[5] And then, fifth and finally, is the question of Russia’s role in the Middle East. I could offer a number of thoughts on this topic, but the next speaker up here, Dimitri, will be able to talk about it to a much greater extent than I will, so I will just start by saying that I think we’ve heard a number of alarming things from the president-elect on the campaign trail about his views of U.S. policy towards Russia. Largely we have focused that discussion around Europe, around Ukraine, around NATO and nuclear weapons and the like. But I think one must have a very clear-eyed view of what President Putin’s objects are in the Middle East, where they converge with U.S. interests and where they substantially diverge with U.S. interests. And that goes not just for the situation in Syria, but for the long-term vitality of U.S. partnerships and alliances with our Sunni — with Sunni states, Egypt and Jordan, and Gulf States with the peace process, with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s larger desire to exert regional influence. And I think there are opportunities here, but I think there are also enormous pitfalls. …[I]t seems to me that taking great care to get beyond the simple maxim that says Putin doesn’t like ISIS any more than I do, and see the larger trends and dynamics at play, is going to be really important, or we could find ourselves in a significantly strategically worse position four years from now than we are today vis-à-vis Russia and its influence across the larger Middle East.

So those are questions and not answers. But from my perspective, those are the things to look at if you’re starting to judge, OK, how is this country—how is the United States going to resolve some of the major challenges facing us in the Middle East? How is this administration going to stack its priorities and make its tradeoffs? And I think if you kind of make a scorecard along these five lines, it will tell you a lot about our capacity for success in the region over the next four years.

Photo: Jake Sullivan looks on as President Obama talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So, another American exceptionalist conference in which the Masters Of the Universe gather to debate how best to rule over the peons who must look up to them for guidance on their behavior in order to suckle at the teat of western beneficence… Gag!! What they ought to be spending their time discussing is how to withdraw from the Mideast at the most rapid pace possible and how best to begin reparations for the incalculable harm we’ve caused. Once the people of the Middle East have the opportunity to collect their collective selves and determine their actual needs (rather than having their ‘needs’ dictated from D.C., London, Brussels, Ankara, Riyadh, or Tehran), they can then approach those whom the feel will best meet those needs if they cannot meet them with their own resources. Any other plan is a recipe for continued strife.

  2. Nice work Jim Lobe! Did you just ignore the last but not the least important issue in the ME or it was just an oversight? That issue of course being the apartheid and expansionist state of Israel vs Palestinians!

Comments are closed.