The Threat of Daesh: A Conversation with Amb Chas Freeman

Published: March 9, 2015

Editor’s Note:

The annual Middle East tour d’horizon keynote remarks of Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., have become staples at the Arab-US Policymakers Conferences in Washington. His unvarnished assessment of the landscape facing America and its partners in the Arab world, shared in the latest in the AUSPC series, included a thorough review of the Daesh threat and the prospects and internal divisions challenging the coalition aligned against it.

“The revelation that anarchy also empowers Islamists is now cutting into American enthusiasm for regime removal. Think Iraq, Libya, and Syria. But as Americans trim our ideological ambitions, the so-called “Islamic State” — which is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan is Christian so I’ll call them Daesh — is demonstrating the enduring potential of religious fanaticism to kill men, maim children, and enslave women in the name of God.

“The United States and many NATO countries are now engaged against Daesh from the air, with a bit of help from a few Arab air forces. So far, however, the Shiite coalition of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi and Syrian governments has been and remains the main force arrayed against Daesh on the ground outside the Kurdish domains. This has exposed the awkward fact that Iran has the same enemies as the United States, if not the same friends. In the region that coined the adage, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” everyone is waiting to see what — if anything — this might mean. For now at least, Daesh is a uniquely brutal force blessed with an enemy divided into antagonistic and adamantly uncooperative coalitions.”

SUSRIS recently spoke with Ambassador Freeman, who served as America’s top diplomat in Riyadh from 1989-1992, about the legacy of King Abdullah. He was kind enough, at the conclusion of that interview, to entertain several questions about the problems in countering Daesh and the perception among some of Washington’s regional allies concerning relations with Iran. We are pleased today to provide his insights and perspectives on these important topics for your consideration. We will also reprint Ambassador Freeman’s remarks from the October 2015 Arab-US Policymakers Conference in a separate item.


The Three Dimensional Threat of Daesh: A Conversation with Amb Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

[SUSRIS] A year ago few people had heard of ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. Now it is the transcendent security threat in the Middle East and beyond. What are your thoughts on this challenge?

[Amb. Chas W. Freeman, Jr.] I think we’re mishandling it. The one exception to all of the words of praise that I uttered in our earlier conversation about King Abdullah’s legacy [Link] is that, in his last years, he was misled by key advisers and pandered to opinion in Saudi Arabia by carrying out a foreign policy organized mainly on sectarian lines. This makes no sense if the geopolitical problem is Iran. To weaken Iran’s hold on their fellow Arabs, the Saudis should be emphasizing their Arab identity, not their schismatic Sunni identity.

The Saudis have a terrible problem in Daesh. I don’t like to call it ISIS or ISIL. Neither they nor we have handled this problem at all effectively. But there are some indications that King Salman – perhaps with help from Prince Mohammed bin Nayef – understands this and the Saudi policy may be shifting.

Daesh is a three-dimensional thing. First, it is an idea – a renegade idea within Islam – and, second, it is a political movement. It has the structure of a state. I mean every attribute of a state – territory, tax collection, the enforcement of order, judicial authority – is now present in Daesh. And, third, Daesh is a military force. It has a very effective infantry, now US-equipped by virtue of the Iraqi army’s retreat and abandonment of its weapons and transport equipment on the battlefield. Daesh has to be attacked on all three dimensions, not just the military one.


The U.S. cannot lead an effort to deal with renegade Muslims. We have no authority, no knowledge, no competence, no standing to say who is a Muslim and who is not, what a Muslim is, and whether Daesh fits within that definition or not.

It’s also ironic for non-Muslim Americans to object to Daesh as non-Muslim. Daesh is Takfiri. It pronounces anathema on Muslims as well as the people of other religions. Daesh strikes me as a terrible perversion of Islam but it does not make sense for us to emulate it by arrogating to ourselves the right to declare that Daesh is not Muslim. It makes sense for non-Muslims to shut up and to insist the Saudis and others who do have the standing to undermine or attack or discredit Daesh’s religious credentials do that, with us helping but only in the background and not even visible.

Second, on the political front we’re not in a position to reconstitute the Iraqi state. We may have destroyed Iraq by invading and occupying it but Nouri al Malaki and the overambitious Shiite majority then completed the job. Only Iraqis can reunite Iraq.

Click for larger map.

Click for larger map.

Syria fell apart in part because of the sectarian nature of the divisions and fighting in Iraq, which was communicated to Syria, producing contagion there and ultimately erasing the Syrian border with Iraq. We’re not in a position to address the political problems that come about from the collapse of Sykes-Picot or the collapse of the authoritarian states that succeeded the colonial governments that Sykes-Picot created. Those governments were designed to facilitate divide and rule policies by colonial regimes, and divide and rule is how the subsequent governments have governed. That’s all broken down. We can’t do anything about that.

What we can do is supplement the efforts of regional military forces. We have military and intelligence capabilities they don’t. But again, we should not be in the forefront. This is ultimately a struggle within Islam, within the region, within the Arabs, perhaps between the Arabs and Iran and in none of those contests are we competent to lead.

So the question now is will King Salman step into the leadership vacuum that we have partly and mistakenly attempted to fill, and help us out. After all Daesh wants to rule in Mecca and Medina not in Washington.

There is a pattern of commentary emerging which counters the mindlessly militaristic John McCain-Lindsey Graham position. There’s a good article by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post this morning [“An ideological war American must watch, not fight”], for example, which makes some of these points. We’re not yet sophisticated enough, apparently, about these issues to deal effectively with them but we are beginning to think about how to do so.

[SUSRIS] Where do you fall out on the Washington parlor game of whether it’s called countering violent extremists or Islamic radicals?

[Freeman] As I said it’s not for us to make that distinction. I think the President is very wise not to label this as a war on any particular Islamic idea because the implications of that would be that we are at war with 1.6 billion people and their faith. One of the basic rules of statecraft is not to multiply your enemies but diminish them.

The debate here doesn’t deserve the title debate. It’s part of ‘gotcha’ politics, and it’s very dysfunctional. But that shouldn’t be news because our government is dysfunctional.

So what could we do about this? King Salman just sponsored a conference, though he didn’t attend. He had Khaled al Faisal read out his speech in Mecca but it was devoted to the first two of these issues which are the ones that only the Arabs can deal with, mainly the ideological or theological questions and the political issues. We ought to get behind that. But we ought to be saying look, this is a Muslim problem, it’s an Arab problem and we will be helpful, but we are not going to take the lead because we can’t.

That is a very difficult message to put over in a Washington where the main renewable resource seems to be hubris. It’s election season. We’ve got all kinds of posturing going on.

We have many presidential candidates, none of whom have any ideas at all about what to do about these issues other than more of the same. That includes the lead candidates. Jeb Bush certainly doesn’t understand any of this and he is being advised by the very people who got us into Iraq and who bear ultimate responsibility for creating the conditions that fostered Daesh. Hillary Clinton led the charge into Libya — that turned out to be not so smart — and encouraged the destabilization of Syria. That also hasn’t worked out too well for anyone but Daesh.

So we’ve got people running for office who are not qualified to deal with these issues: Hillary by her record, and Jeb by his ignorance and his advisors. Paul Wolfowitz as an advisor again? Give me a break.

[SUSRIS] There were not too many fresh names on the list.

[Freeman] One hopes it’s basically symbolic, but if it is symbolic it’s symbolic of deep incompetence in our statecraft. I’ve said all this before. At the Arab-US Policymakers Conference [Link] last October I lamented how everything we have been trying to do in the Middle East has gone awry.

We don’t have any standing or answer on any aspect of the situation in the Holy Land – Israel or Palestine. We’ve lost control of the issues. We’ve now got Netanyahu coming to Washington basically to join the Republicans in abusing the President. I’m no fan of this president but it’s disgusting to watch this. It’s being facilitated by people in Congress who have pledged allegiance to a foreign country and are more committed to its leader than our own. They have to be among the least patriotic politicians in our history.


Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress about the P5+1/Iranian nuclear negotiations on March 3, 2015 

Israel has its problems but we have lost control of our problems, specifically the problem of Daesh.

We don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t have good relations, basic cordial, good relations, or mutual trust now with anybody in the region – not Israel, not Egypt, not Saudi Arabia, not the U.A.E., not Iran, not Turkey, not Syria, not Iraq, not even the Kurds in Irbil.

We don’t have a diplomatic strategy. We don’t even have politicians who know what diplomacy is.

What are we doing? There’s no effective strategy for dealing with the ideological and political issues. The purely military approach we have taken is facilitating the metastasis of anti-Americanism with global reach.

This problem is now all over the Sahel and North Africa and in the heart of Africa, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and you know it also has some resonance in the Caucasus and even in Europe.

We’re just not dealing with it. We don’t know what to do. We imagine that you can deal with it as you could with an enemy army: decapitate it; take out its leadership and it falls apart.

Well, this is a political structure. It’s a network that you can’t decapitate because by definition you can’t decapitate a network. It’s partly a political structure that requires compromise between people over whom we no influence. We can’t deal with the political aspects of Daesh effectively unless there’s some sort of understanding among Iraqis and among Syrians and between Riyadh and Tehran, and we’re very far from that.

My fear with respect to the nuclear negotiations is that we will do a deal with Iran – one which under the circumstances will be the best we can do and much better than not doing a deal. The Israelis will then either succeed or not in derailing that deal. If they derail it, Iran will go nuclear. If they don’t succeed in derailing it they will raise sufficient doubt about it in the course of their attempts to do so that they will erode its credibility enough to force the Saudis and others into proliferation. In either case, Riyadh will have no confidence in the possibility of holding Iran to nuclear latency or precluding its building weapons.

Map Saudi Iran Green

The question is, if the Saudis believe that an Iranian nuclear breakout is possible in a fairly short timeframe, what do they do? Will they have any confidence that there will be no breakout?

I think we’re much better off with an agreement than with no agreement, but the fact is that nothing’s perfect. Meanwhile, we’ve got the nuclear counter-proliferation advocates as well as the Israeli lobby agitating against any rapprochement with Iran for reasons that have nothing to do with Saudi concerns.

The gurus of the non-proliferation effort write in the New York Times that we have to do this, this, and this to hem in Iran – an entirely coercive approach, all sticks and no carrots. All technical approaches and no strategy. Nobody’s making an effort to think about how to address the security issues that might drive Iran to actually field a nuclear deterrent. We need a strategy on that level, and we don’t have one.

We probably also need to administer some tough love to Riyadh. “Hey, guys you live in the region. We’re happy to support you up to a point, but you cannot afford an entirely confrontational approach to Iran. This business of conducting a simultaneous war of religion and geopolitical rivalry with the Persians doesn’t serve your interests and it doesn’t serve ours. It facilitates the rise of things like Daesh, which are mainly a menace to you, not us.”

We need to have a serious conversation about regional strategy with Riyadh. But that presumes that we’re capable of strategic thought – for which there’s very little evidence at present.

[SUSRIS] Is the larger problem the sentiment in Riyadh that Washington is going soft on Iran?

[Freeman] Of course, that is the concern and underlying it is Saudi recollection of the days when Iran, not Saudi Arabia, was our principle partner in the region. I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine a return to those days, but it’s easy to understand the Saudi concern. Saudi fears may not be well grounded but they’re there. There’s no doubt about this.


Secretary of State John Kerry meeting King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh, March 5, 2015 (SPA)

We need to restore confidence in our sense of strategic direction and steadfastness. The problem goes well beyond Saudi Arabia. There’s no one in the region who believes we know what we’re doing or can be counted upon to do it — not General Sisi, not King Salman, not the late King Abdullah, not the terribly exposed King Abdullah II in Jordan, not Prime Minister Netanyahu. There’s no on in the region who thinks we listen to them or pay attention to what they think. Dysfunctional government at home does not stop at the water’s edge.

Amb Chas Freeman was interviewed by SUSRIS by phone on Feb. 27, 2015


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