Confronting a “New Middle East”: A Conversation with F. Gregory Gause

Published: February 13, 2012

Share Article

Editor’s Note:

In December a SUSRIS “Item of Interest” introduced you to Professor Gregory Gause’s “Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East,” a Council Special Report, from the Council on Foreign Relations. In it he takes on the important questions about regime stability, foreign policy in the context of new regional realities and the relationship with the United States, a very helpful examination of developments affecting the Kingdom and America’s ties with it. A week after we profiled Gause’s CFR report we were further rewarded with his contribution to understanding the hyper-dynamic year that was 2011 in the Arab World, in a Foreign Policy essay, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” In it he prescribes the hard to swallow pill of self-restraint for U.S. policymakers,”

“Rather than approach this fluid moment [‘changes sweeping the Middle east’] by jumping in with both feet, Washington would be better advised to take the sage advice that the White Rabbit gave Alice in Disney’s 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Although American interests are at stake in the Middle East, there is no immediate threat to any vital national concern. We can count on the structure of the regional system to thwart efforts by any regional power, Iran or some other state, to play a hegemonic role. America can afford to wait and see how the democratic and Islamist wave plays itself out. Self-restraint is not a typical American virtue, particularly when it comes to telling other people how to organize their own politics. But given America’s track record in the Middle East, it is called for now.”

Gregory Gause is professor of political science and department chair at the University of Vermont. He is author of “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf,” among other books and articles about Gulf affairs. In 2010 he was a research fellow at the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies and Research in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Professor Gause is familiar to our readers and some of the SUSRIS articles and interviews by and with him are listed below. Today we are pleased to provide for your consideration an exclusive conversation with Professor Gause on his CFR Council Special Report, “Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East,” his Foreign Policy article, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There,” and his perspectives on what could be in store for US-Saudi relations moving forward. He was interviewed by phone from his office at the University of Vermont on January 4, 2012.


Confronting a “New Middle East”: A Conversation with F. Gregory Gause

[SUSRIS] Professor Gause, thank you for joining us today to talk about developments in the Arab world, especially U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.

[Dr. F. Gregory Gause, III] My pleasure.

[SUSRIS] Let’s start with “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” Can you give us the context, the situation America finds itself in the Middle East that led you to this position?

Professor F. Gregory Gause, III
Professor F. Gregory Gause, III

[Gause] The upheavals we’ve seen in the Arab world over the course of the year, in 2011, seriously affected American interests in that Egypt, the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, was a real centerpiece of American policy. One can also argue that the upheavals in Bahrain were an important challenge to American policy, and in general the position of the United States towards these democratizing movements.  They are at the same time also destabilizing movements, and movements that, as we’ve seen, have brought Islamists to power through free elections in a number of these states.  They have presented a number of challenges to American policy in the region.

And it seemed to me that the overwhelming response from the chattering classes in America was: “Oh, what can we do to encourage this? What can we do to channel it? What can we do to involve ourselves in this period of enormous change?”

I thought that was just a complete misreading of our ability to affect the course of politics in these very fluid situations. I think that if Iraq teaches us anything it’s that even with 150,000 troops on the ground, the United States couldn’t direct the politics of post-Saddam Iraq. And if that’s the case, our chances of directing the politics of a post-Mubarak Egypt, or a post-bin Ali Tunisia, or a post-Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen are very, very slight.

And thus, I think it would be much more prudent for us to stand back, see where things go in the Middle East, emphasize our core interests in the area to the new leaders that are emerging, and see what kind of relationship they want with us.  Getting involved directly in their domestic politics, which is what most of the recommendations coming out of the chattering classes in Washington call for, is, I think, a recipe for unintended consequences and more conflicts.

[SUSRIS] The situations confronting American policymakers in much of the region appear to challenge the balance between U.S. interests and values. Can you comment on that dilemma?

[Gause] Well, I think it’s really, really hard if you define American values as promotion of democracy, because democratic change in many of these countries is going to bring to power governments that are not particularly friendly to the United States. And thus I think that we’re caught on the horns of this dilemma between values and interests.

Egypt I think is just the most, it’s just the clearest example. It’s the one that’s in the sharpest relief. But I do think there are other elements of American values that one can draw upon in this context. And one of those values is a value from the earliest years of the republic about not getting involved in other peoples’ affairs. John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State very famously said that America does not go abroad seeking monsters to destroy. And Quincy Adams also famously said that America is the friend of liberty everywhere, but the champion only of its own. Thus it seems to me that if we go back to those values from the earliest days of the republic we can have a foreign policy that emphasizes our interests in the Middle East, that defines those interests in a limited way, and that also is in accord with those values of self-restraint that characterized the earliest days of the republic.

[SUSRIS] Now the title of the piece, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There,” would suggest possibly, or could be misinterpreted – I’ll leave to you the interpretation – by our allies and friends in the region that America is standing back, especially in a time where there are increasing challenges in the region. What would you say to those who might think this is a sign of America retrenchment?

[Gause] Well I think we are retrenching. There’s no question about that. I mean, the withdrawal from Iraq is a retrenchment. I think a very necessary one and a positive one, but it is a retrenchment. And I think that we have to face that head on. We’ve been far too involved in the politics of the region, specifically in Iraq, and we needed to disengage. So I think that’s positive, but it also is something that we have to face head on. I argued in that piece for a foreign policy that was based on core international interests, that is to say the free flow of oil, the prevention of any effort by a regional state to dominate the oil region, efforts to prevent Arab-Israeli war, and to encourage movement towards Arab-Israeli peace, although regional realities on the ground are not very positive for that result in the near future.

If we define our interests in terms of those international goals as opposed to directing, trying to direct the domestic politics of these states, then I think we remain committed to involvement in the region, but on a much more limited basis than we’ve seen in the last ten years.

[SUSRIS] Let’s turn to your Council of Foreign Relations special report, “Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East.” What should we know about how the Kingdom is coping with revolutionary change we’re seeing in the region?

[Gause] In many ways Saudi Arabia was the country least affected by the upheavals in 2011 in the Arab World. And I think that there are a number of reasons for that, but the most important one is that the Kingdom had enormous financial resources at its disposal to meet the economic discontents, which were part of the revolt in every one of the Arab countries that we’ve seen revolt.

The Saudi government committed $130 billion to short and medium-term spending in its domestic economy. It increased salaries in both the private and public sectors and established an unemployment benefit. It committed itself to creating tens of thousands of new government jobs. It committed itself to building housing, an enormous amount of housing, to increase the housing stock in Saudi Arabia. I think all of these steps, which it was able to do because of the very high oil prices in the last five or six years, went a long way to channeling discontent and preventing discontent from coalescing into countrywide protests.

Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East by F. Gregory Gause, III
Click Here for Ordering Info

[SUSRIS] You talked about Saudi Arabia’s relations with its neighbors in this new period. At every turn the neighborhood is a tough place for Saudi Arabia to maneuver, and most observers would agree that Saudi Arabia has taken a more proactive approach in its foreign policy. Can you talk a little bit about how its approach to some of the problems has changed in the way it acts vis a vis Yemen, Iran, Iraq, what’s going on in Syria – the problems that probably are foremost on their minds these days?

[Gause] I think from the Saudi perspective, they saw the events of 2011 as very, very dangerous for them – not so much domestically. I think that they thought that they had a pretty good hold on the situation at home, and that proved to be true. But in terms of regional politics, because the second casualty of the Arab upheavals was probably their closest major state ally in the Arab world, in the larger Middle East, and that’s Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. They don’t know what is going to come next in Egypt. Without Egypt behind them so to speak, the Saudis feel that they face an Iran that’s ambitious and aggressive, with very little regional backing. Thus the Saudis are playing from a very defensive standpoint in terms of their regional policy. And that defensiveness in terms of what they see as Iranian aggressiveness has led in the direction of understanding politics and viewing politics increasingly through a sectarian lens – Sunni versus Shia. That helps to explain Saudi policy towards Bahrain, the sending of the troops into Bahrain to support the Bahraini government in quelling its own upheavals and revolt, public revolt against the regime. It helps to explain the Saudi unwillingness to deal with the Malaki government in Iraq, which it sees as basically just a Shia government that is a sectarian ally of Iran. And it also helps to explain why after some hesitation Saudi Arabia has publically come out in favor of, in effect, regime change in Syria, Iran’s closest Arab state ally.

[SUSRIS] The changes and challenges that Saudi Arabia and the United States are facing in the region are reshaping the relationship in many ways. Can you talk about how the relationship may be evolving? In your CFR special report you talk about reimagining the relationship as simply transactional. Can you put that in context?

[Gause] Sure. I think that in the early months of 2011 we saw real tension in the relationship. The Saudis didn’t like the way the United States handled the last days of the revolt in Egypt against Mubarak, and saw the U.S. as far too eager to overthrow a longtime ally. Washington saw the Saudi moves in Bahrain as preempting what it hoped would be a political solution to the conflict in Bahrain, and the Saudis basically supporting a pure security solution based upon repression for the political crisis in Bahrain.

So there were real tensions in the relationship, but I think that over the course of the months that followed the common interest in containing Iranian ambitions, the common interest in preventing Yemen from becoming even more of a destabilized, almost failed state than it has been in the past came more to the fore. And there was more cooperation certainly on Yemen, and as we saw just at the end of 2011 the Administration’s announcement of the fighter plane sale to Saudi Arabia. There has been a return to the idea that both sides’ shared strategic interests in the region bring them together. That is despite the fact there’s a very different sense of where they would like to see the domestic political developments in the region go.

So when I use the term transactional, and that was a term suggested by former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, who was the head of the advisory committee for that Council on Foreign Relations report.

What is meant by that is that the United States and Saudi Arabia can’t assume – as was the case during much of the Cold War – that they share such a strong common view of the world that each side can expect the other to be with it no matter what.

You’ll recall in the 1980s the United States called on Saudi Arabia to help it all over the world, not just in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union or in the Middle East itself, but Saudi Arabia supported American policy in Africa, even in Latin America, because there was this sense of a common set of interests based on a common world view.

I don’t think that exists anymore. I think that we have really important common interests, and we have to understand those common interests and emphasize them for mutual benefits. But the idea that the Saudis will always be with us, or frankly that we’ll always be with the Saudis is something that we can’t, we shouldn’t rely on as we go forward.

[SUSRIS] As you highlight areas of cooperation, like the arms sale that was just announced and also noting the very successful, recent high-level business to business forum that was held in Atlanta in December, it sounds like you’re reassured that there is still a firm basis for the relationship moving forward on many fronts.

[Gause] I think as long as we both emphasize the common interests, there is a very firm basis for the relationship, as long as we don’t have unrealistic expectations of each other. I think that on the American side we shouldn’t have an unrealistic expectation of Saudi domestic political reform. I think on the Saudi side they shouldn’t have an unrealistic expectation of what the United States can do on the Arab-Israeli front. If we can set aside unrealistic expectations and concentrate on a few core interests, I think there’s a very firm basis for the relationship to go forward. We do share a number of interests in the Middle East.

[SUSRIS] Well this CFR special report is highly recommended to people who want to understand what’s happening in Saudi Arabia and how it’s facing up to the variety of challenges that exist, but let’s turn for just a second to what’s in the headlines as we start the new year. We’re seeing saber rattling on the part of Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, and questions about shutting down the strait, the U.S. increasing sanctions and the Europeans likely to move in that direction. Can you talk a little bit about the year 2012, what people might expect to see playing out in the Gulf?

[Gause] I think it’s going to be a tense year in the Gulf, and partially because it’s going to be an American Presidential election year. And it seems that the Republican candidates – all of them – are arguing for a much more aggressive stance towards Iran. And that raises the temperature. The Iranians react in their own way, and I think that much of the recent back and forth revolves around this increased salience of Iran in American domestic politics. The President signing this bill that includes these sanctions to be implemented later in 2012, the Iranians reacting to the Republican Presidential candidates talking openly about war with Iran I think puts the Iranians on edge. And so I think that that’s going to be a major issue, and this brings up an issue over which the United States and Saudi Arabia have similar, but not completely identical reactions.

The Saudis would like to see the Iranians taken down a peg – there’s no question about that – but the Saudis also worry about blowback. They worry about the effects of any kind of confrontation with Iran on the region itself, and the Iranians retaliating for moves against them by America or hypothetically by the Israelis, and the Iranians reacting against Saudi Arabia and against the smaller Gulf states. And that’s a real fear, and a very prudent one I think on the part of the Saudis. Thus there is this tension, even within the context of a shared interest.

I don’t think the Obama Administration is looking for a war with Iran, and in that sense I think that we can exaggerate this state of rhetorical exchange between Tehran and Washington. As the domestic upheavals in the Arab world wear down and work themselves out — and perhaps we’ll see that in Syria and Yemen over the next few months — I think the regional agenda will become more concentrated on how these domestic political changes play into the balance of power game between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and a new Egypt.

[SUSRIS] It is a pretty complicated neighborhood, and it’s pretty complicated for policymakers to come up with solutions, especially as you cited the Saudi position on Iran, that they would like us to take Iran down a peg, but don’t want blowback. It suggests to me a juxtaposition of words from your essay, “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There,” perhaps it could be said in this case, “Get something done without actually doing anything.”

[Gause] Right. I think that there’s — on all sides of the Iran issue — some amount of wishful thinking. You know there’s the wishful thinking that says, “Oh, the Iranians, they’re not really trying to get the bomb.” I think that’s wishful thinking to a certain extent. There’s also the point of view that says, “Well if we hit the Iranians, they can’t really do anything back against us.” I think that that’s wishful thinking. And I think in some parts of the Arab side of the Gulf there’s some amount of wishful thinking, “Oh, hit those Iranians, but make sure nothing comes back to harm us.” That’s wishful thinking, too.

[SUSRIS] You also talked about the American political scene, the Presidential election coming up. And we’ve already seen foreign affairs positions staked out in debates and commentary. What do you see in terms of the U.S.-Saudi relationship becoming a topic, an issue, in American politics in terms of political rhetoric?

[Gause] I don’t think it’s going to involve Saudi Arabia that much. We had Saudi Arabia become something of a domestic American political issue post-9/11, and in the 2004 Presidential race Senator Kerry tried to bring Saudi Arabia up as a domestic political issue. It didn’t really go anywhere.

I think that what we’ve seen from, let’s call him landslide Mitt Romney with his eight vote win in Iowa. Landslide Mitt has been like every other Republican presidential candidate except for Ron Paul in emphasizing the Iran threat and, I think, overhyping it and overemphasizing it.

It seems to me that if there’s a Middle East issue, or a Gulf issue, that comes into this Presidential election it’s going to be Iran policy. Of course all of the Republican candidates again with the exception of Ron Paul have also criticized the President for being too hard on the Israelis, which is a tough argument to make it seems to me, but that I think is going to be part of the campaign, too. But in terms of the Gulf, it’s not going to be Saudi Arabia that’s going to be the issue, it’s going to be Iran.

[SUSRIS] What are your final thoughts on the current state of play in the relationship between Washington and Riyadh, Americans and Saudis?

[Gause] Whenever there’s an upheaval in the Middle East, folks in the United States immediately say, “Oh, there’s going to be a crisis between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.” We had some of that talk at the beginning of 2011, and there certainly have been real crises in the relationship – the oil embargo of 1973-74 was one, the post 9/11 period was one. But even when there are real crises, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia seem to come back to an understanding of common interests, and that’s certainly been the case in 2011. I think that bodes well for the future of the relationship. It’s pretty strong, it’s based on important common interests, and it’s based on an increasing amount of people to people exchanges.

[SUSRIS] Thank you so much, Professor Gause, for spending time with us and helping talk through some of these important issues.

[Gause] My pleasure.


About F. Gregory Gause III

Professor F. Gregory Gause, III
Professor F. Gregory Gause, III

F. Gregory Gause, III is professor of political science at the University of Vermont, and, since 2010, chair of the department. From 1997 to 2008 he was director of the University’s Middle East Studies Program. He was previously on the faculty of Columbia University (1987-1995) and was Fellow for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (1993-1994). During the 2009-10 academic year he was Kuwait Foundation Visiting Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In spring 2009 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the American University in Kuwait. In spring 2010 he was a research fellow at the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies and Research in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

His research interests focus on the international politics of the Middle East, with a particular interest in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. He has published three books — “The International Relations of the Persian Gulf” (Cambridge University Press, 2010); “Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States” (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994); and “Saudi-Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence” (Columbia University Press, 1990).

His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Middle East Journal, Security Studies, Washington Quarterly, National Interest, Review of International Studies and in other journals and edited volumes. He has testified on Gulf issues before the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio commenting on Middle East issues.

Before completing his Ph. D., he held research positions at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California and at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 1987 and his B.A. (summa cum laude) from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia in 1980. He studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo (1982-83) and Middlebury College (1984).


Related Material:


Articles and Interviews on SUSRIS