On Wednesday May 22, 2019 the Turkish Heritage Organization hosted a panel discussion, American Foreign Policy in the Middle East and Beyond at the City Club of Washington D.C. The panel featured Charles Kupchan, Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service and Government Department at Georgetown University and Former White House Official; Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government; and Ozgur Ozdamar, Visiting Fulbright Scholar, SAIS Johns Hopkins University. The discussion was moderated by THO Non-Resident Senior Fellow Ipek Ariogul.
The panel discussion began with opening remarks from Stephen Walt, who provided historical background and brief context for American foreign policy in the Middle East. Walt discussed American policy through the lens of different Presidential Administrations and posed the question: what went wrong with American policy in the Middle East? Walt commented that the American “commitment with spreading ideals far and wide and the idea that it would be easy for us to do, along with the idea that all roads would lead to liberal democracy” was a key point in the struggle with American foreign policy in general, but especially in the Middle East. According to Walt “liberal ideology is not a good export commodity” and in making a prediction for what to expect moving forward the “strategic importance [of the Middle East] will decline but American engagement will increase.”
Charles Kupchan then briefly gave a few opening remarks and discussed the turn away from liberalism globally and stated that “the US has by and large pushed history in a progressive direction and generally through example, not by crusade.” However, Kupchan also identified a larger theme that played a role in American foreign policy abroad and that was the idea of a “clash of exceptionalism.” Turning to the current state of American foreign policy both through the current Trump Administration and U.S.-Turkey relations, Kupchan discussed the “America First” strategy and how we have seen a shift or detour from the typical agenda of spreading American liberal values throughout the world. Speaking directly on the U.S.-Turkey relationship Kupchan analyzed that “it is as fragile as it has been at any time since WWII” and that there were situations on both sides that have led to unavoidable differences between the two actors. Speaking from his previous role in the White House he noted that “we looked at every other option aside from the Syrian Kurds” showing an example of an unavoidable difference, but alluded to the fact that it was a necessary step. Kupchan was optimistic and shared that it was “time for the US and Turkey to put the relationship back together again.”
THO Non-Resident Senior Fellow Ipek Ariogul presented the next question to Ozgur Ozdamar focusing specifically on U.S.-Turkey relations and the future of the NATO alliance. Ozdamar confidently shared that Turkey will remain a NATO ally, and that no administration official has said otherwise. “It is more valuable for Turkey to remain in NATO than the alternative.” Further, Ozdamar discussed the roles or duties of countries in the global hierarchy in that they have shifted greatly. “The problem that we are seeing today stems from that shift in roles in the global hierarchy. The biggest factor led from major changes from the Arab uprising and major shifts in the region.” Additionally, Ozdamar reviewed that “in the past, in the Bush Administration the U.S. was a security provider, in the Obama administration it was more so played less of an interventionist role, and now in the current administration there is not a specific enough plan for the U.S. in the Middle East.”
Looking forward, Walt proposed that “the U.S. ought to support the EU and in the future China will pose a major alliance management problem for foreign policy and relations.” Through this strategy and understanding, the idea of isolationism is not necessarily the route that would best serve American interests, but rather he suggested a “more selective use of American troops abroad.”
Kupchan looked ahead with what would develop in the future of the War on Terror sharing that we need to not “disengage militarily but instead get more engaged diplomatically” and wanted to underscore the degree of how difficult that has shown to be. Kupchan shared that “we keep trying to get out of the Middle East but the Middle East keeps sucking us back in. This is a tug of war that will no doubt continue. The US has to get comfortable leaving problems unaddressed—especially in a post-Arab Spring world.” Kupchan also suggested ways to put pressure on terrorist organizations that would include holding banks accountable so these organizations are not able to access funds, and to use drone strikes so that we can have surgical tactical options when violence is needed. The panel then concluded with questions from the audience. To see more from this event please watch the video below and don’t forget to subscribe above to stay up to date with the latest THO events and news.