BPR Interviews: Charles Freeman, Jr.

Charles “Chas” Freeman, Jr. is an American diplomat, author, and writer. He served as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992 during Gulf War and was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993 to 1994. From 1997 to 2009, Freeman served as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a leading think tank in Washington, DC.

For its Middle East foreign policy, the United States has historically relied on unconditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many assert, however, that this is no longer in America’s best interest. What are your views on this argument?

No two countries have identical interests. The interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia have never been identical with those of the United States, despite the tendency of supporters of those partnerships to make that claim. Today, the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia are markedly different and quite at odds with the interests of the United States. Israel pays no attention to international law or United States’ desire for a halt of settlement expansion in the occupied territories. Israel acts as it will towards its neighbors without regard to American advice.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia, after many decades of a quiet and unassertive approach to affairs in the region, is now acting on its own without regard for the United States and demanding, as Israel does, that the United States back it. Is it in the United States’ interest to enable such behavior and to create moral hazard by covering the risks of such behavior? I would say that [such behavior] is emphatically not in the interest of the United States, and it is a major problem in our relationships in the region. We need to focus on our own interests and not automatically back actions by others that contradict those interests.

How can we justify maintaining a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia, despite its human rights record and private funding of radical Islamist groups?

Well, I’d like to start by taking issue with the word “alliance.” The United States has no treaty obligation to Saudi Arabia, or Israel for that matter. Saudi Arabia has no obligation to the United States whatsoever. We have unilaterally extended our protection over them — that is not an alliance, although that word is bandied around with great abandon in the press and universities these days.

As far as whether there is an inconsistency between offering protection to Israel, Saudi Arabia, or others in the region despite disagreements with their human rights practices, the fact is that we have never been consistent on that score. We have talked a lot about human rights, but we have never made it the principal deciding factor in our foreign policy, not even at the height of the Cold War. Are there other interests that justify our cooperating with Saudi Arabia?  I think there are, and we have chosen to give priority to those matters.

What are those specific interests that justify our relationship with Saudi Arabia?

Historically, we have had six major areas of converging interests [with the Saudi’s]. The first is the famous bargain of American preferred access to Saudi energy supplies in return for our protection of Saudi Arabia from its external enemies. That bargain, which was struck in 1945, is now greatly weakened by many factors, not least of which is that the United States is now a competitor in the market of oil exports with Saudi Arabia. The second interest has been cooperation on Islamic interests, and that has been overtaken by the growth of Islamophobia in the United States and the estrangement of the Saudis from the United States’ policies. We have also been dependent on the Saudis in a third area, which is transit through Saudi Arabia’s airspace and adjacent seas as part of our global power projection. That dependence continues, as there is no formal agreement on our use of Saudi airspace or sea space.

Saudi Arabia has also been the largest US commercial market between Morocco and India for years, by quite a large margin. That position has now been taken by the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia remains an important source of revenue for the US and its companies, including its universities, where over 70,000 students are studying in the United States at the Saudi government’s expense. We also have had a close cooperation on foreign policy and intelligence matters. That has largely gone away, as the Saudis who used to pay for that no longer are able or inclined to do so. We are left only with the sixth area of convergence, which is an interest in combatting Islamist terrorism, and there the cooperation is quite robust. These are all important interests, but most of them are, at the moment, in a state of uncertainty.

It seems as if the United States no longer has a cohesive strategy in the Middle East. What should our overall foreign policy goals be in the region?

I agree that we have no cohesive strategy, but frankly that does not distinguish the Middle East from any other region where we currently operate. We have an extremely dysfunctional political situation in the United States with a government that is not governing. It is unrealistic to expect that a government that can’t make decisions domestically would be able to do so in the foreign policy arena. The United States has lost a great deal of influence in the Middle East for precisely that reason. Our interests, which once converged with those of our partners in the region, now diverge. Our partners are frustrated that we no longer back them unconditionally, and we are essentially estranged from many of our former stalwart partners in the region. This provides an incentive for them to diversify their international relationships, and it provides an opening for others like India, Russia, China, and major members of the European Union.

Part of the weakening of our position in the Middle East is due to our own rigidity and ineptitude. We have no relationship to Iran which we can use to influence Iranian policy. We have a bad relationship now with the Saudis, who are the principal rivals of Iran, and do not have much influence over their policy. Israel has essentially decided to go its own way without regard to our views on key issues of war and peace in the region. Egypt, having undergone turmoil and a political and military coup, is also not paying much attention to the views of the United States. Iraq is in a state of turmoil as is Syria, and neither have met US expectations. The entire situation is in flux. A good part of the reason for that can be traced for the knock-on effects of the US invasion, occupation, and destabilization of Iraq, which catalyzed sectarian warfare in the region.

In your view, what is the best immediate course of action for President Obama and Secretary Kerry to take regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The United States is no longer in a position to mediate the conflict. Our [previous] mediation turned out to be part of an essentially fraudulent diplomatic posture by Israel. The United States does not have much credibility with Israelis these days and has even less with Palestinians and other Arabs…Israel is currently resisting attempts at mediation by the French and other Europeans, suggesting that it does not want any outside hand to help shape the contours of Palestine…If we were serious about promoting a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, we would use the leverage of our aid programs to Israel, as we have done in the past, to compel the Israelis to confront the need to reconcile with their fellow Arab inhabitants of Palestine.

Given the current facts on the ground, what do you believe is the ideal solution to the conflict moving forward?

At this point, a two-state solution, which would have been the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, is impractical. The issue is coming down to a human rights and civil rights struggle within the area controlled by Israel, which encompasses all of Palestine now. We are talking about a one-state solution in which it is likely that over time Jews will cease to be a majority.

In this one-state solution, how do you envision governance structures changing? How can the occupation end?

Israel does not face any serious military threat. The threats to Israel are primarily internal and derive from its own actions within the area it controls. It is unrealistic to expect Palestinians to remain docile when they feel oppressed, and therefore we see spontaneous eruptions of violence by young people primarily directed at the occupiers and the settlers, and if they can’t reach the settlers, ordinary Israelis. This is making life in Palestine extraordinarily insecure for everybody. It is making life for Israeli Jews insecure in much the same way that it has for Palestinians, including Arab Israelis, for a long time. This is not a situation that can continue and endure.

What current actions should the United States take regarding the Syrian Civil War?

There is a basic rule in dealing with civil strife that there often comes a time, usually early in the conflict, when it matters less which side wins than stopping the fighting and the misery it produces. There are now between 300,000 and 450,000 dead Syrians. There are over 11 million who have been displaced or forced to flee abroad, and Syria has essentially been destroyed. It has been destroyed with the collusion of many outside powers, including the United States. The priority in Syria should be ending the violence and restoring Syria to a form of domestic tranquility where people can live their lives and not have to flee to foreign lands for safety. That means cooperation between the United States and Russia in brokering a peace between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and other supporters of Syrian factions…It requires the involvement of the United Nations to put together a coalition of Western and Islamic powers to deal with [ISIL], an embodiment of extremism and evil, to which everyone should be willing to cooperate to remove from Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the other places where it has taken root. Stopping the war would involve overlooking other differences with opposing countries, like Russia, and trying to broker some sort of ceasefire between the regional actors so that the parties on the ground in Syria can be encouraged to make local ceasefires and bring some degree of stability out of the current anarchy and chaos. That is a difficult task, but it is not undoable. As part of this, the United Nations should take up the issue of terrorism for which there is no agreed international definition. Terrorism should be dealt with like piracy or any other criminal activity. Although it sometimes does require a paramilitary or military response, it is primarily a law enforcement and rule of law issue, and it needs to be returned to that realm.

The majority of our readers are currently Brown students. Do you have anything specific you wish to say to them as a college audience?
The generation now at Brown has an opportunity to fix the peculiar inversion of military means and diplomacy in US foreign policy. Normally, the use of force is considered a last resort. That has not been the case in the United States recently, where the first refuge of decision makers has been to call on the military. The United States needs to be clever in our democracy…Diplomacy is a great deal cheaper, less bloody, less risky, and more predictable than the use of force. Therefore it is very much in our interest to rediscover it as a tool of foreign policy. This generation at Brown has an opportunity to better understand how the United States should make use of its two broad oceans, its enormous human and physical resources, and its potential to lead not with force, but with diplomacy.

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