In an event today to launch the 2014 edition of “Big Bets & Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book,” event moderator David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, asked the expert panelists from Foreign Policy at Brookings to comment on “the absence of American leverage in so many conflicts around the world.” He said,
… if you read through this [briefing book] thematically, what really jumps out at you is the absence of American leverage in so many conflicts around the world. There are a few exceptions to that. And I would say Iran … might be one of them. But through so many of the others, there are recommendations for what the president should do, and then the frustration that the United States right now, despite its status as not only the world’s largest military and economic power, but its biggest diplomatic convener, seems to have a hard time convincing other nations that what is in the world’s interests or America’s interest is also in their own. And so I wanted, as I ask questions to each of our authors and scholars here, to ask them to sort of focus in on that question of where the American leverage is or if it’s gone, where it went.
Tamara Cofman Wittes: Very Little the U.S. Can Do to Affect Things in Egypt
Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, spoke to the Obama administration’s late decision to cut off of aid to Egypt following the military coup there as an example of failure to exercise leverage over the situation in Egypt. “So having failed to exercise leverage,” she said,
at least having failed to establish the credibility of the threat that it had made, the [Obama] administration, when it finally made the decision to suspend certain forms of assistance in October, really was just trying to draw a line under the problem. And I don’t think anyone either here or in Cairo expected it would have an effect.
But the broader problem that you identified … of reduced American leverage, is not about the choices that have been made here in Washington, it’s about what is going on in the region, and what’s happening in Egypt. The decisions made by the Egyptian generals this year, the decisions made by the [Muslim] Brotherhood—first to govern in a very troubling, exclusionary and ham-handed manner and then to fail to compromise when presented with a mass uprising against that style of governance—those choices are driven by the political competition taking place in Egypt. And at this point the Brotherhood and the military feel that they are engaged in an existential struggle. The military believes they had no choice but to carry out the coup to protect their own interests and what they view as the stability of Egypt. That’s what they see as at stake. And the Brotherhood of course is now facing the wrath of the military in a full-on crackdown and believe they are fighting for their organization’s survival.
So I think in that context of existential threat on both sides there is very little that any outside actor, even the United States, could do to affect things.
Listen to the full event audio to find out what Wittes said the United States can do to protect its own interests in Egypt. She is co-author, with Dan Byman, of the “Nightmare” scenario paper “Muslim Brotherhood Radicalizes.”
Bruce Riedel: Saudis Are Deeply Disappointed in President Obama
Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project, answered Sanger’s question about where President Obama is in influencing Saudi Arabia and what happens if the Saudis “become convinced that the negotiations with Iran won’t work.” “The Saudis are deeply disappointed in President Obama,” Riedel said. However,
at the end of the day, the United States-Saudi relationship is not broken. This is our oldest alliance in the Middle East. It dates back to 1945. It continues to function in many ways despite the public irritation. And the reason it does and the reason we don’t have that much leverage is we need each other. Saudi Arabia not only is important to global energy supplies—it may not provide very many Americans with their oil anymore—but it’s critical to the functioning of the global economy. And without Saudi oil being distributed at a reasonable price, there would be severe financial and energy disruptions.
Secondly, their soft power in the Islamic world remains very important. They are the home of the two holiest mosques in Islam.
Third, they are very important to us in the fight against al Qaeda. The last two attempts by al Qaeda to attack the United States homeland were thwarted by Saudi intelligence.
And they need us, too. At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia’s defense against external aggression is from the United States of America. No one else can provide them that kind of shield and that especially applies to the Iranians. So we have a relationship in which we both need each other and therefore can’t push too hard in the other way.
Listen to the event audio to find out what Riedel had to say about the Saudi position on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, what the Arab Awakening exposed about the difference in fundamental values between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and what Riyadh’s dealings with Pakistan might mean. Riedel is author of the paper “Avoid a U.S.-Saudi Divorce,” in the Hold category, which are updated recommendations to stay the course on the policy approaches put forward in 2013.
Steven Pifer: We Don’t Have Much Leverage Over Russia, but May With Ukraine
Sanger asked Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-proliferation Initiative, to comment on Ukraine’s unrest and Russia’s influence there, and also arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia. Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Moldova, had initialed association agreements with the European Union, steps that Vladimir Putin has seen, in Pifer’s words, as “intruding on his turf.” Putin may, Pifer said, decide to take punitive action against Georgia and Moldova, and if Ukraine “gets back on the European track, Ukraine could also find itself in Mr. Putin’s target sight.”
And the problem that we have is, there is not a lot of leverage that the United States has now to exercise over the Russians on this.
And it reflects a couple of things. One is the deterioration in the U.S.-Russia relationship from, say, two-and-a-half years ago. So it’s a thinner relationship. We don’t have much leverage to say “if you do A then we might have to undercut you on B.” But second there is also a huge imbalance in interests. For Russia and for Vladimir Putin, building Russian influence in the post-Soviet space is the number one priority. It’s important to his vision of Russia as a great power. It’s important to his domestic views, being tough in the neighborhood. Having that influence is important with the constituency that he looks to for support at home. …
Now on the case of Ukraine, I actually think there is an area where we may actually have some leverage … but it’s leverage that is going to be maximized if we can somehow work with the Europeans. And it wouldn’t be leverage used with the Russians, it would be leverage targeted at Kiev.
Listen to the event audio to find out the points of leverage with Kiev, including sanctions against the inner circle of President Viktor Yanukovych. Pifer is co-author, with Fiona Hill, of “Putin’s Russia Goes Rogue,” one of the “Nightmare” scenarios. He is also author of the paper “Beyond New START,” in the Holds category.
Vanda Felbab-Brown: The Tragedy of U.S. Policy in Afghanistan Is that We Once Had Leverage and Chose Not To Exercise It
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, addressed multiple issues related to Afghanistan’s security, especially as the end of 2014 looms without a bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul. Will any American troops remain in that country after 2014? Would it make a difference if they did? “The troop number,” she said, “is linked as well as independent of leverage.”
Importantly the troop number is anchored within a critical triangle of the bilateral security agreement, the elections that are coming up this year in Afghanistan, as well as negotiations with the Taliban.
The tragedy of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is that this is one place where we have had significant amount of leverage and often chose not to exercise it, ending up with progressively greater and greater deterioration of both governance in Afghanistan as well as [the] U.S. relationship in Afghanistan.
And indeed, there is a palpable collapse of our leverage, not the least in the negotiations with the bilateral security agreement, which is the deal that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Our assumption heading into the negotiations was that it would be obvious that, to the extent that we are kind enough to devote any troops to stay, the Afghans would have to jump on that and absolutely not miss the deal. And we have found ourselves shocked and perplexed by the fact that President Karzai has refused to sign the deal, is making up a variety of conditions—some of which perhaps cannot be satisfied—and is himself turning that bilateral security agreement into what he believes is leverage on his part.
Listen to the audio to discover what Felbab-Brown had to say about the effect of troop levels in Afghanistan, on that country’s upcoming elections, and why U.S. policy “should get away from constantly badgering President Karzai.” She is author of the Nightmare scenario “Afghanistan’s Presidential Election Goes Awry.”
Jonathan Pollack: No One Has Been Able to Get North Korea Right
Jonathan Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center, spoke about both the misreading of what has been happening in North Korea recently, and also China’s recent assertive moves in the region. “I think what the latest events in North Korea yet again demonstrate,” he said,
is just how thin our knowledge is about the North. Even though frankly it’s a little leakier than it used to be—for example in the case of the purge and execution of Jang Song Thaek, the South Korean intelligence anticipated this and disclosed it a few days in advance. So it’s not as if there’s no information coming through. But I think that there was a misreading in many circles of the way power is structured in the North, the capacity for a member of the Kim family to dominate—because it is a dynasty—and the fact that [Kim Jong-un] may have been a young, impetuous kid at the end of the day didn’t seem to matter even as he seemed in a lot of his actions to take on various kinds of deeply entrenched interests.
So in a very short period of time … he has moved against all of those core leaders who supported his father, including a number of people in uniform. He has had his uncle executed, which is extraordinary. And he has defied the Chinese repeatedly. So, there’s something going on here that still we don’t fully grasp. …
As for China, the irony in the situation is that the Chinese have long insisted to us and to others that they did not have the influence that we believed they could have or should have on the peninsula. And in this case it may well have been true. There is very little to suggest that China had advance awareness of what was going on, the imminence of the purge and the execution.
… The failures with respect to North Korea with respect to intelligence and with respect to policy are collective failures. No one has been able to get this place right or to understand whether indeed there are levers that can be turned in any kind of meaningful way.
Listen to the event audio to learn what Pollack said about China’s renewed assertiveness in the region and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s actions at home and abroad. He is co-author, with Jeffrey Bader, of “Return to the Asia Rebalance.”
Suzanne Maloney: Strategy on Iran Built on Real and Powerful American Leverage
What we’ve seen is the success of strategy that was built on the assemblage of real and powerful American leverage. It was what we would like to see in American foreign policy. I think both a kind of long-term investment not just in sanctions, not just in the covert programs … but also in the assembling of a worldwide consensus for isolating Iran and for eliminating the trade and Iranian access to the international financial system that was so incredibly powerful in changing the leadership’s priorities there.
There was also, I think, and it should be credited to the Obama administration, not just this long-term investment, but really a nimble exploitation of an opportunity that was presented to it. What we now know is that the administration was in fact pursuing diplomacy, attempting to engage the Iranians even at a time when the pressure was ramping up to its highest levels. Even at a time where that public image was of a strategy that was almost entirely pressure and very little engagement. And the fact that those efforts and engagement continued even when I think expectations were lowest enabled the strategy to pay off once the opportunity of the Rouhani election came through.
Maloney also discussed the opportunities for Iranian President Rouhani to succeed in what she called “his primary mission” to get a nuclear deal. Maloney authored the paper “Broaden the Approach to Iran.” See also the paper “Iran Nuclear Talks Fail,” by Robert Einhorn and Kenneth Pollack.
All 22 of the Big Bets & Black Swans papers are available from the interactive page, where video interviews with the authors are also available.