Wilmington native and Salesianum School alumnus (class of 1976) Gregory Gause, Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, is one of America’s top commentators on the Middle East. A noted expert on Saudi Arabia and author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf, Dr Gause will be doing a monthly Q&A on current events in the Middle East with TownSquareDelaware. See last month’s discussion here.
TSD: Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been arguing that with the current fiscal climate, it is time to abandon the enormously expensive nation-building strategy in Afghanistan in favor of a leaner and more surgical counterterrorism approach that relies on drone strikes and special forces.
Given the current economic realities, is continued nation-building and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan worth the cost, or even necessary, given Bin Laden’s death? Or can the U.S. ensure its interests in Afghanistan through the counterterrorism approach advocated by Sen. Coons?
GG: I am very much in favor of drawing down in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, more quickly than the president’s timetable. I’m not sure that keeping more troops in Afghanistan for a longer period of time is going to do much good. Keeping the current number of troops through the next “fighting season” (the latest term of art for the Washington punditocracy) might help during that brief time, but there is no evidence that it would increase the chances that Afghanistan will be able to build a relatively strong central government. The country has never had a strong central government, so I do not see the benefit to keeping our troops there. And I see lots of costs.
The current negotiations with elements of the Taliban seem like the best way to encourage a stable atmosphere for our withdrawal, even though it will mean that some elements of Afghan politics will not be to our liking. The most important thing is that no Afghan government see it as in its interest to cooperate with what remains of al-Qaida. I think that there is a decent chance that even the Taliban recognize that cooperation with al-Qaida would not be in its interests.
TSD: The government of Syria is under enormous pressure not only to reform but also to save its skin. What, if anything, can the U.S. do in this situation? Some American commentators are arguing that the U.S. should be doing more to publicly support the protesters. What’s your take—would that help or just make the situation worse?
GG: I don’t think that there is much we can do in Syria, aside from rhetoric. We have few levers on the regime, because they are not allies. We cannot cut off aid or trade or things like that, because we do not give them aid and do not trade with them much. The EU has more economic levers on Syria than we do, and they are starting to apply them. We certainly do not have a military option there. Unlike in Libya, the protesters have not secured a part of the country that we could protect (though I do not like our involvement in Libya either).
I think this is a situation where we just have to sit back and see how events develop. I’m not against a rhetorical statement in favor of the protesters. The Assad government has not been very useful to us in recent years. But there is certainly a risk that if the regime falls, Syria could fall into a civil conflict along sectarian lines, which would not necessarily be good for Lebanon, Iraq or Israel. But I think that our influence on Syrian domestic events right now is very limited.
TSD: With ongoing revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and with Yemen and Syria literally burning, we don’t hear much about Iraq anymore. Is Iraq ironically turning into a model of political stability in the Middle East—at least compared to some of its neighbors? Is it fair to say that the Iraqi political process seems to be headed in the right direction?
GG: Iraq is certainly weathering the Arab Spring better than many other states, but it is hardly a “model of political stability.” There were a number of demonstrations in Iraq against the government’s inability to get its act together. Two provincial governors were literally run out of their local capitals by protesters. But I think the reason Iraq has been more stable than other Arab states is that it has already had its civil war, with the intense sectarian conflict that peaked in 2006 and early 2007. We are seeing an uptick in violence just in the last month, but nothing near what was happening in 2006. The biggest immediate problem in Iraq is the inability of the political elite to put aside their personal and ideological differences and get going on the job of governing. The interior and defense ministries, the two most important security ministries, still do not have ministers more than six months after the supposed formation of the most recent government.
TSD: Nearly two months after Osama Bin Laden’s death, Al-Qaida announced that Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the group’s long-time number two, would take over the leadership. Whereas Bin Laden seemed to be more of a figurehead and spiritual “cheer-leader” of terrorist fanatics around the world, Zawahiri is believed to be more of a tactician and an advocate of aggressive tactics. Does Zawahiri’s appointment make Al-Qaida more dangerous? Or does the group’s downslide, which you mentioned last month, continue regardless of who succeeds Bin Laden?
GG: I think that al-Qaida is losing its relevance and that al-Zawahiri cannot bring it back. He is not a charismatic guy. His track record is one of falling out with his allies. His desire to run the show could alienate non-Egyptian members of al-Qaida. In general, I think that the organization remains dangerous as a terrorist threat but not as a political threat. It is not going to take over any Muslim state or be able to rally large numbers of people to its banner.