Gestures and Illusions, Assessing Obama’s Riyadh Visit: A Conversation with Amb Chas Freeman

Published: July 28, 2009

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Editor’s Note:

In “Revisiting Obama’s Riyadh Meeting,” on the Foreign Policy blog The Cable, Laura Rozen wrote on July 17 about the President’s meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia early last month. From Obama’s perspective the visit, according to sources cited by The Cable, did not “go well” in “persuading the King to be ready to show reciprocal gestures to Israel, which Washington has been pushing to halt settlements..” and that special assistant Dennis Ross said Obama was “upset [about the meeting] because he got nothing out of it.”

Administration officials, Rozen wrote, “pushed back hard” on the allegations “disputing every aspect of the accounts.” She also talked with former U.S. Ambassador Chas Freeman who offered that he was not surprised there may have been different expectations for the meeting, but that he “spoke to the king’s advisors on the topic not long after the meeting, and they thought it went extremely well.”

Meanwhile, The Cable reported on July 26, 2009 that President Obama recently sent letters to leaders of seven Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, “seeking confidence building measures toward Israel which Washington has been pushing to agree to a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.”

To provide additional context to The Cable reports on the Obama visit and “reciprocal gestures,” SUSRIS talked with Ambassador Freeman about the President’s June 3, 2009 meeting with King Abdullah. In addition to the views he shared on U.S.-Saudi relations vis a vis the peace process he asserted that President Obama’s Middle East diplomatic efforts were being deliberately undermined in Washington — including among some in his Administration — with the goal of reducing American pressure on Israel over settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Ambassador Freeman shared his insights in this SUSRIS exclusive interview by phone from his office in Washington on July 22, 2009.

Gestures and Illusions: Assessing Obama’s Riyadh Visit
A Conversation with Chas Freeman

SUSRIS: Thank you for taking time to share your perspective on relations between American and Saudi leaders, particularly on the subject of Middle East peace. As you know The Cable recently reported on President Obama’s June meeting with King Abdullah that some sources characterized as a failure to win “reciprocal gestures” from Riyadh for Israeli. The President, according to the report, made the trip which was an add-on leg to previously planned overseas travel, with the hopes of persuading Saudi leaders to “take steps toward Israel.” What’s that all about?

Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, Jr.: Here’s the issue. In order to be disillusioned you have to have illusions. There’s a long history of Americans having illusions as to what Saudis and other Arabs might be prepared to do in different contexts.

There was, for example, the effort by Secretary of State Alexander Haig at the outset of the Reagan administration to persuade the Arabs, and Saudis in particular, that they should join in a grand coalition with Israel against the Soviet Union. Haig convinced himself that this was possible, and he was very disillusioned when it turned out, not to the surprise of anybody who actually knew the Arabs or the Saudis, that it was not.

More recently we have seen illusions about the Saudis and other Arabs in the form of the assertion that somehow there could be a grand coalition of so-called Sunni conservative powers and the Israelis against Iran in order to facilitate an Israeli strike on Iran. That, frankly, just doesn’t have much credibility.

Certainly there is concern on the part of the Saudis and other Arabs with Iran’s political prestige but this does not translate into a willingness to associate with Israel and it certainly doesn’t translate into a willingness to facilitate an Israeli military strike on a fellow Muslim country, even if it’s not Arab and even if the Arabs have their differences with it.

The biggest point of delusion, if you will, on the American side is that somehow or other if Israel could be persuaded to stop doing the self-destructive things that it has been doing – among them settlement building — that this should evoke an Arab, particularly a Saudi, gesture intended to make it worth Israel’s while. This is simply not reasonable from the perspective of the Arabs.

The fact that we, on the American side, could come up with such a notion says a great deal about our misunderstanding of the region and the dysfunctional biases of the people we have managing Middle East policy.

SUSRIS: Can you talk more about the idea of confidence building measures being expected?

Freeman: That is the point I tried to make in the brief response I had to what Laura Rozen reported at The Cable. The Saudis and others feel that they have been repeatedly subjected to blandishments from well-wishers of Israel. Some were sincere efforts toward peace in the Middle East; some were disingenuous. People have said if the Arabs do something nice for Israel this will somehow get you something in terms of an Israeli gesture — progress towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In fact absolutely none of the gestures that have been made, including the very important one of the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration of 2002 — the so-called Arab Peace Initiative — has resulted in any positive response from the Israelis. They have been content to pocket whatever has been offered and to do nothing in return.

There is no predisposition whatsoever — in fact a lot of predisposition to the contrary — on the Arab side to pay for what Israel, in its own interest, ought to do. Moreover, the matter at issue is much less than Israel pulling settlements out of the Occupied Territories. The United States is now simply asking Israel to stop their expansion. While that would be a very useful first step in getting back into a dialogue or process that could lead to peace, in itself it doesn’t produce peace. It doesn’t undo the damage that Israel has done to the prospects for peace by building settlements all over the place.

It’s also quite apparent from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, for example about Jerusalem, that the current Israeli government, and probably the majority of Israelis as well, do not accept the premises that the United States is putting forward.

In the case of the Saudis and Arabs, they have offered what they believe is a very reasonable quid pro quo for peace in the form of a bonus to Israel for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. They believe that it is in Israel’s interest to do so. The Arabs are not prepared to make down payments, to bargain or to haggle over the details of what the Israeli and Palestinian peace is going to look like. That is something that Israel must do with its captive Palestinians, not the Arabs at large. I don’t expect this position to change.

The Saudis in particular and the Arabs in general have already put a very generous offer on the table in the form of the Beirut Declaration. It is an incentive, a major incentive in their view, for Israel to reach agreement with the Palestinians. The Arabs believe that Israel ought to want to reach such an agreement. Their reward to Israel for such a self-interested agreement would be the normalization of Israel’s relations with all the Arab countries including Saudi Arabia. This is a major gesture for the Saudis to have made. They neither asked for nor have they received any quid pro quo for it.

Nobody in the region outside Israel wants more “peace process;” they want an actual peace. So I think it’s a basic misreading of Arab sentiment and the Saudi position to presume that somehow there are trade-offs to be done in return for some sort of Israeli inching toward a return to a “peace process.” But the possibility of such a trade-off seems to be the basic assumption in the Administration’s policy. If that was the assumption of the president’s staff and they went to Riyadh only to discover that this assumption was emphatically not shared by the Saudis, and was in fact rejected, that entirely predictable outcome would account for the reported sense on the part of some that things didn’t go well. It is not, of course, that the United States cannot or should not ask help from the Saudis on peace in the Holy Land, it is that such requests have to be realistic. They have to take account of Saudi views if they are to have any chance of success.

The Saudis, for their part, in saying that things did go well, seem to have been referring to the fact that they were impressed by the President’s sincerity and seriousness of purpose on this issue. They appear to accept that this is a man who understands the issues and is trying to find a way to deal with them. However, until the United States persuades Israel to accept and begin implementing the framework of peace — the United Nations Security Council Resolutions, the “road map” and other agreements which call for Israel’s acceptance — until that moment I don’t think there’s any prospect of a quid pro quo from the Arabs.

So you have a difference of opinion. The American side is thinking that any gesture by Israel, of any kind, should be paid for with some gesture from the Arabs. You have the Arabs saying no, we’ve made it clear that we’re not paying anything until something concrete happens.

SUSRIS: How do you account for the variance between what the Administration thought it could achieve in Riyadh – if one were to accept the premise of “The Cable” report – and what the sentiment was in the Kingdom toward a reciprocal gesture.

Freeman: There are two broad issues. First, there’s the question that many people have asked, “Can the same old people produce a new policy?” What you have is an amazing amount of continuity on this issue from one Administration to another in terms of people who are dealing with it. Dennis Ross has emerged as a symbol of this for all concerned.

Second there is frankly an issue of objectivity and effectiveness. Can a group of people, virtually all of whom have close personal ties to Israel and much empathy for the Israeli point of view but no such experience, ties, or feeling for the Arab world, can they accurately predict or gauge the political requirements of the Arab sides to this dispute as they do for the Israeli side? The evidence over the past twenty years is no, they cannot. That is to my mind part of the reason for the failure of the second Camp David process. The Bush Administration didn’t even try until the very end and then it did so in a way that was almost farcically unrealistic.

We now seem to have another American diplomatic effort essentially focused on Israeli politics, and helping the Israelis make decisions that they ought to be able to make on their own, if they are really interested in achieving acceptance in the region. Acceptance is, of course, the issue. The State of Israel cannot presume that people in the region will accept or endorse its right to exist until they see that its existence is compatible with the cause of justice and consistent with their own interests.

Israel has certainly not recently been prepared to do anything to end that lack of acceptance by its neighbors. But Israel absolutely requires such acceptance to guarantee its existence as a state in the Middle East over the long term. So this is a major problem. It is pretty clear that the present government of Israel believes it doesn’t need political acceptance from its Arab neighbors because it has the drop on them — military superiority — and a continuing blank check from the United States. So, in its view, it doesn’t really have to compromise on the issue of a Palestinian state.

I would say the Netanyahu government has not just zero credibility on this in the region and more broadly in the international community, but it has actually less than zero credibility. That’s because almost everybody believes it is acting insincerely and in a deceptive fashion. So in this context to ask the Arabs to do something for Israel just seems quite unrealistic.

SUSRIS: What role can the Saudis and other Arab leaders play to make progress?

Freeman: It isn’t a quid pro quo for minor gestures by Israel. The real question is this. Are there measures that the Arabs can take that would be helpful in terms of rebuilding some capacity on the Palestinian side? The Palestinians are disunited. There is no longer an effective Palestinian national movement. Part of Palestine, Gaza, is ruled by an electorally endorsed movement which has, however, been rejected as an interlocutor by Israel. The other part of Palestine, the West Bank, is ruled by people with little or no credible political support, who lost an election, and who are increasingly seen as collaborators in the Israeli occupation.

The terms under which Israel seems to be willing to deal with the Arabs over whom it rules resemble those of a jailer dealing with prisoners more than they do a respectful dialogue between equal parties. This is a very bad context in which to ask others to come forward and do things helpful to Israel.

The question then is, what can one do to strengthen the hand of the prisoners — to follow that analogy — to give them both a reason to bargain more effectively and sincerely and to keep whatever bargains they strike with their jailer? And that is something that the Arabs might be asked to address to promote the prospect of peace.

In fact the Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, are afraid of Hamas — don’t like it — and they are not impressed by Fatah and are not convinced that there is now anyone with the ability to make a deal on behalf of Palestinians that they would seriously keep. If the Arabs really want peace, they will have to address these issues, not leave them to Israel or the United States.

I come back to the thought that if you’re going to persuade people to do things you want them to do, as we know and as we in fact do when we are dealing with the Israelis, you have to understand their hopes and fears and their attitudes and beliefs and convictions. And you have to craft something that deals with those political realities. We don’t seem to be capable of doing that with the Arab side. That’s reflected, as I said, in the fact that almost no one involved with this really has a strong set of ties to the Arabs or any empathy for their position.

The Obama Administration so far hasn’t changed that.

SUSRIS: Among the points made in The Cable report we’ve been discussing was an observation of David Markovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s major address on U.S. foreign policy this month a recalibration of the Administration’s approach and that Obama has expectations on both sides. What do you make of this position, as assessed by WINEP’s Markovsky, that was put forward subsequent to Obama’s hopes of a quid pro quo reportedly being rebuffed in Riyadh?

Freeman: I don’t know whether the King had a tirade or not, as was stated by a source in The Cable piece, but I think the Arab perception is that interaction between the sides in the Holy Land resembles a dialogue between a jail keeper and his inmates; it’s very one sided, and rather arbitrary and capricious on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side it’s not unified or authoritative. If that’s the perception then it’s hardly surprising that a proposal that the Arabs should reciprocate some slight correction of misbehavior on the part of the jail keeper with a gesture of their own would draw an angry response.

SUSRIS: We talked with Georgetown Professor Jean-Francois Seznec before Obama’s June visit to Riyadh about the relationship between President and King. They had previously met at the G-20 meeting in April. He thought they showed good chemistry, that they have a similar philosophy in dealing with people – inclusiveness – and an understanding of other cultures and religions, that they have mutual respect. What are your impressions of the relationship between President Obama and King Abdullah?

Freeman: Well, I think it’s actually pretty good for the reasons you state.

Let me add something more about the reporting on the Riyadh meeting. Let’s not forget that this kind of story should be suspected to have a political motivation. It’s clearly in the interest of the supporters of the Netanyahu government, or the attitude that it embodies, to demonstrate that it’s not worth working with the Saudis. It’s misguided and possibly injurious to do so, in their view. So why bother?

That’s accompanied by the broader notion that there’s no reason to pay attention to Arab opinion because the Arabs are unhelpful or they have a bad attitude or whatever. So it seems to me very likely that all of this was a story line contrived for effect and that it was intended precisely to undermine the Administration’s effort to persuade Israel to address the issue of, the first step, of settlement expansion. What The Cable reported was in fact another aspect of the effort that was reflected in Ehud Olmert’s op-ed in the Washington Post – “stop bothering us with this issue.” [“How to Achieve a Lasting Peace – Stop Focusing on the Settlements”]

The issue is pretty central because if you accept the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who insists that Jerusalem is not on the table and that there’s no reason not to expand settlements elsewhere, then you clearly have nowhere to go in your diplomacy.

So I think this was part of a concerted effort to discredit the Obama diplomacy and I think it’s coming from people in his own Administration as well as from people associated with AIPAC, like WINEP.

I was really struck by something in “The Cable” posting. I had responded that it wasn’t surprising the Saudis — given that they had made an offer in the form of a bonus — were not prepared to haggle over the terms of the bonus when, in their view, there had been no step whatsoever to create the conditions in which the bonus would have to be awarded. An anonymous source was quoted as responding to this point by saying that we certainly don’t need to accept the Saudi position on that, we should just keep haggling. Of course we don’t have to accept the Saudi position but we cannot simply ignore it in formulating our own. It appears that we have a set of presumptions on which we are going to act regardless of whether they are realistic. That is, not surprisingly, a formula for accomplishing nothing.

The same people who dismiss the relevance of the Saudi position argue, in the case of Israel, that we have to start with Israeli positions and work backwards. There’s something to that but we don’t start with the Arab position and work backwards. This reflects the problem I was talking about, that is the lack of empathy, of real expertise on the Arab world or Saudi Arabia in particular, in official Washington. It reflects the essential one-sidedness of U.S. policy.

I don’t think the President is one-sided. At Cairo he expressed a balanced view and made it clear that he would like to do something that is really good for both Israel and the Arabs. I just don’t think he’s getting a lot of effective support for the tactics of dealing with the Arabs from his own subordinates.

SUSRIS: Any last thoughts on these issues.

Freeman: What I found of interest in The Cable piece was not so much the views that it reported, which I think, indeed, are held. It was the glimpse it gave of the more general effort to discredit Obama’s diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to cause the administration to end the pressure it has begun to put on Israel to address the longstanding issue of the settlements.

So I think the complaints about Saudi Arabia are part of a wider campaign and need to be seen in that context. To my mind, this is not really a bilateral issue between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

About The Honorable Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Ambassador Freeman was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs from 1993-94, earning the highest public service awards of the Department of Defense for his roles in designing a NATO-centered post-Cold War European security system and in reestablishing defense and military relations with China. He served as U. S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm). He was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the historic U.S. mediation of Namibian independence from South Africa and Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.

Chas Freeman served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires in the American embassies at both Bangkok (1984-1986) and Beijing (1981-1984). He was Director for Chinese Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 1979-1981. He was the principal American interpreter during the late President Nixon’s path-breaking visit to China in 1972. In addition to his Middle Eastern, African, East Asian and European diplomatic experience, he served in India.

Ambassador Freeman earned a certificate in Latin American studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, certificates in both the national and Taiwan dialects of Chinese from the former Foreign Service Institute field school in Taiwan, a BA magna cum laude from Yale University and a JD from the Harvard Law School. He is the recipient of numerous high honors and awards. He is the author of The Diplomat’s Dictionary (Revised Edition) and Arts of Power, both published by the United States Institute of Peace in 1997, and a sought-after speaker on a wide variety of foreign policy issues. Ambassador Freeman is Chairman of the Board of Projects International, Inc., a Washington-based business development firm that specializes in arranging international joint ventures, acquisitions, and other business operations for its American and foreign clients.

Current Affiliations

1995 – Present Chairman, Projects International, Inc.
1995 – Present Executive Committee, Atlantic Council of the United States
1995 – Present Board of Directors, American Academy of Diplomacy
2003 – Present Chairman, Committee for the Republic
2004 – Present International Advisory Board, China National Offshore Oil Company, Ltd.
2006 – Present Board of Overseers, Roger Williams University
2009 – Present Advisory Board, Center for Security Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology