On June 16, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a Distinguished Policy Discussion with U.S. Ambassador Richard W. Murphy, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs and ambassador to Mauritania, Syria, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia. Ambassador Murphy focused on how the United States used to interact with the Middle East, why it intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the new approach to the region that President Obama has laid out. The event was moderated by BDC Deputy Director Ibrahim Sharqieh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business and media communities.
Ambassador Murphy began his remarks by acknowledging that current U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East can indeed be “confusing.” He asserted that, in the past, U.S. interests—guaranteed access to oil, the security of Israel, and helping to stabilize the ascendant region—were constant and easy to define. Murphy then gave a brief snapshot of his 35-year career as a U.S. diplomat.
When asked to explain how U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could call Iraq a “strategic partner,” despite President Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly in the current crisis, Murphy said that this was indicative of the Obama administration’s approach. He noted how the Obama administration had been advocating for some time that local actors should take the lead in solving the region’s problems. Murphy said that the U.S. will still do what it can to help, but in a secondary role.
Concerning Iraq, Murphy said Obama was visibly hurt over the setbacks that have occurred during the last month. Murphy asserted that though the U.S. has a responsibility to Iraq because its invasion “cracked open that society,” the solution is not in American hands, and not solely in Iraqi hands, either, due to all of the international and regional rivalries at play. He admitted that in 2011 he had hoped that Syrians might have an opportunity to decide their own future, but regional and international actors quickly interfered. Murphy argued that regional powers needed to reach an agreement on major issues, finding compromises “they could all live with.” He emphasized that Iraq’s problems would not be solved by a strategic partnership, whether between the U.S. and Iraq or between Obama and Maliki, because there are too many separate interests at stake. Murphy noted that the U.S.’ rivalry with Russia “is not helping.”
Turning to Iran, Murphy called the lack of communication between Washington and Tehran “embarrassing”; he likened it to a family feud for which neither side can remember the original cause. He noted that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham was an opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to engage in dialogue regarding a common, and global, threat.
When asked about the United States’ stance vis-à-vis Syria, Murphy explained that the U.S. had historically been very frustrated with Syria, whether for resisting Arab-Israeli peace talks or allowing mujahideen fighters to attack American troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, Syria, had always been keenly aware, and resentful of, its long history of being invaded and partitioned by foreign powers.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Murphy argued that the U.S. has believed for years that the parameters for an agreement “were clear to all involved,” but that it was just about “working out the details” of how to realize it. He revealed that following the six-day war, Washington reached the conclusion that it was better placed to mediate the conflict than the UN or any other country as it was “acceptable to both sides.” While this was initially true, the United States “could never find the key” to an agreement. Murphy recognized that it was probably a mistake for the U.S. to sideline the UN and various European countries during the course of the process in the 1980s.
Evaluating the current situation, Murphy argued that the rightward movement of Israeli politics had polarized the country, and that Israel’s position had hardened over time as Israelis have grown more “comfortable” with the occupation in recent years. Murphy asserted that Israel will not back down from its desire to be a Jewish and democratic state, but that demographics require that they find a solution soon. He said that some Israelis entertain a fantasy of Palestinians “just leaving,” but that this would be completely unrealistic. Murphy bemoaned that American politicians cannot even refer to the West Bank as occupied, but noted that Palestinians have made mistakes in their negotiation strategy over the years.
In response to questions from the audience, Murphy said that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with the belief that it could transform societies, help establish democracy, and increase freedoms. He acknowledged that this view was rejected by much of the region, which perceived the U.S. as a reincarnation of imperial Britain or France. Murphy held that the main benefit of these interventions was the U.S.’s realization that it could not transform societies despite all its resources. He predicted that this lesson would continue to result in a more humble, modest foreign policy, but admitted that it is frustrating to watch Obama decline to take action and expect the region to tackle its own affairs.
Murphy argued that scholars will probably eventually decide that the Arab Spring started in Baghdad in 2003. He said that the one clear benefit of the Arab Spring was that the people of the region are no longer willing to live under dictatorships. Murphy acknowledged that while the United States had played a significant role in destabilizing the Middle East, uprisings were ultimately inevitable due to local factors such as corruption, the youth bulge, and economic problems.
Murphy also addressed Egypt, arguing that the U.S. had recognized that time had run out on Mubarak, adding that the U.S. looked to preserve its interests, and not specific leaders. While acknowledging that Obama’s policy toward Egypt had been “clumsy,” Murphy explained that by refusing to label the July 3 coup as such, the United States was attempting to strike a balance between its values and its interests. Murphy argued that then-U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson did not deserve the disparaging treatment she received from Egyptians as she was only trying to represent her country’s stance. He also predicted that the current ban on the Muslim Brotherhood would eventually be revoked.
In the case of the U.S. approach to Libya, Murphy noted that the country is awash with warlords, and that Ambassador Deborah Jones’ refusal to condemn General Hifter in his fight against Islamist groups did not amount to an expression of U.S. support for him or his cause.