Interview with Matthew Bonham

6 July 2014, Istanbul

Matt Bonham is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Newhouse-Maxwell Public Diplomacy Program in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. The Maxwell School is a member of APSIA, The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.

Selma Bardakcı: Particularly looking at the Middle East, what are some key similarities and differences between the foreign policy approaches of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations?

Matthew Bonham: Well, Clinton was not very much involved in the Middle East and he had a lot of domestic agendas. He also had, of course, his domestic problems that actually resulted in his impeachment, so that was a huge distraction. He also had Bosnia and the whole difficulty in the former Yugoslavia, so I would say this was not a major focus for Clinton, but it did represent a change on the foreign policy of the US, since this was a period of the rise of terrorism – this is even before 9/11 – and so they were actually following the terrorism debate quite closely. And he established a unit within the government to track terrorism and I think they actually did a good job. They had good people working on it and following it closely. Clinton had realized that there was a big terrorist threat to the United States.
There was also the Oslo Accords; Oslo I and Oslo II, which was not something that the Clinton Administration initiated. But then there was a series of unfortunate events, you know - the assassination of Rabin and then the Intifada - which just ruined the whole process and put an end to the process. This ruined the chance for the development of the reconciliation. This was a big blow for the Norwegians who were involved in the process, but also was very bad for the United States, because this was a third force that was coming in and playing this role as mediator. They weren't able to go beyond because of the new leadership in Israel. So it was a period of some apparent promising developments that did not take place. It was frustrating.

The Clinton administration ended and there was a new president. Everything was tranquil in the US foreign policy or the Middle East until 9/11. And given the kind of people they had in positions in foreign policy, Bush was not very much involved in it. This was something that Vice-President Cheney was involved in, because he had an interest and he had worked as President and CEO of Haliburton, which of course had major interests in the region with oil and so on. Cheney also knew a lot about the oil industry, about the region, about the players, he knew everyone. So he was more or less handling Middle East policy. On the other hand of course you have the lower-level people, who are appointees and are the so-called neo-cons and mainly in Defense. They were people like Paul Wolfowitz and they had their own agenda, which was to the large extent promoting the position of Israel, the views of Israel – a very big difference from Clinton. So you have Clinton, Bush and then you have these neo-cons. They actually were very responsive towards Israel and Israeli policy and that's how the thing got started.
And of course 9/11 essentially radically changed his administration. Instead of having a domestic agenda, now the rest of the time was devoted to fighting the so-called "war on terror" which, of course, is only a metaphor as everything is. And he didn't know how to react at first. They were in a puzzle, and it took a while to figure out what they wanted to do. One of the problems they had was that all of the people in the administration had a kind of Realist perspective. According to the theory of Realism and its understanding of international politics, there are only states and states have foreign policy and they have interests. There's no room in this theory for networks like the terrorists. And the way they did it was to develop a theory that there were states that were supporting the networks and the idea was to hold these states responsible for letting the networks operate. And possibly some of these states like Iraq and, I suppose, possibly Iran, also were going to give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists – this was the fear, because again, you only have state actors, and the non-state actors, there is no place for them. And so all activity is generated by the states. So they began looking around for who are the states responsible for this - and of course the first one was Afghanistan, the Taliban.

So they go into Afghanistan, overthrow the Taliban and try to establish a government that was more in the interests of the West. This led to the war in Afghanistan, which is still continuing of course. And the partners more or less left, but this has been a very long war from 2001 to 2014, a 13 year effort, very expensive in terms of not only the money but also of killed and injured, casualties. So then we have the whole question about well, what else. We are looking around to see what are the other things that are need to be done to suppress these terrorist networks, to make sure these weapons of mass destruction don't come into the hands of the terrorists. The obvious candidate was Saddam, to go into Iraq and plan a way to overthrow him and install a new government – and this was extremely interesting because it wasn't just about weapons of mass destruction, although that was a part of it – the fear that Saddam had these weapons. But then they added a new thing - and this I suppose came from the neo-cons - this idea that we can establish a democracy, overthrow Saddam, establish a democratic Western-style democracy in Iraq and this would then provide a base of operations for the US, possibly a source of oil for Western Europe. But more importantly that it would help stabilize the whole region because as democracy takes hold and takes root in Iraq it spreads out to neighboring countries, and soon you have many democratic countries emerging in the region. And we all know of course that democracies don't fight each other and this would provide a high degree of stability that would serve the US in oil, would undercut the Iranians, be good for Israel because you have these democratic regimes that would not be making trouble for Israel and would be good for the United States because we would have all these friends. So it was a kind of grand design to create, to democratize the whole region and Bush talked about this all the time because you know they talked about weapons of mass destruction and they made Powell go in the UN and talk about this to try to get the Security Council to support the idea. There was also this other agenda that was unprecedented for us.

In the past it was always about stability, about oil, regimes that are friendly to the US and of course during the Cold War to make sure that the Soviet Union made no serious inroads beyond the relationships they had with Egypt and with Syria and Iraq. So that was a major change in US foreign policy and Bush talked a lot about it, he talked about the Axis of Evil which was of course Iraq but also included Iran and North Korea so those were the countries that were supporting terrorism and the idea was to take them one at a time and try to neutralize it. So that was the plan, the Axis of Evil, and somehow this was seen as kind of an alliance of evil forces and so in the world there are countries that are good, that are on the side of the US, and there are opposite things that are bad, that are the enemies of the US. They are working together to also potentially supply terrorists, promote terrorism in the world and they thought that Iraq and Iran definitely were. Now you can ask did they really believe this was or was it a lot of talk well I don't know. I think some of them believed it. It fit into the neo-con agenda. Maybe it was just something that sounded good. I think that the president, people around the president had a sincere commitment to a change in US foreign policy that this was what the US ought to be doing. So they went in and the military operation went very quickly and they got to Baghdad and they, you know, that was the end of Saddam. But there were problems and they hadn't thought through about what to do next. And what they did do turned out to be a mistake: basically purge the existing government, the Baathist structure, and the - basically get all the Sunnis out of the military, get rid of all of them, start all over. The idea was cleaning the house, starting with a new slate and we can get new people in and have a new institution and so on. So we just start over from the beginning, get rid of all the old people, don't try to rehabilitate them or anything, just get rid of them, which proved to be a huge mistake, because then this was going to be a secular state. And it was going to be through the participation of different religious and ethnic groups mainly - you know, you have majority Shia, substantial numbers of Sunni, and then we have the Kurds, so they're all going to sort of participate in this sharing power somehow and then have a democratic election. You have then the development of this big problem in Iraq with things falling apart into now moving toward three countries. The Bush administration was not very successful in creating democratic institutions and civil society, which would provide a Western style democracy. It just failed. They didn't know what they were doing, it became a mess and, in the meantime, there was this continued military opposition of people in the government .It created a huge distraction so they could not implement the policy of building a new nation, a new government in Iraq.

Selma Bardakcı: What about the Obama administration?

Matthew Bonham: So now Obama comes in. His administration came in with the idea that they're going to do everything opposite from Bush. They told that whatever Bush did we are going to do the opposite in foreign policy, we're going to start over and try to leave this whole thing behind. They actually began by working on the Iranian issue. They are willing to talk to them. The whole language, the way they talked was different. They didn't talk about terrorists; it was left behind as a Bush concept. Obama doesn't talk about terrorists he only talks about extremists. So they realized that the way they talk about this has implications. Obama also wished - gave New Year's greetings to the Iranians and he tried very hard. I think there was a lot of resistance in the administration people in the bureaucracy who didn't understand what Obama was trying to do, didn't understand how he approached this. They were part of the old thing, the old approach. And Obama probably didn't articulate and explain exactly what this was about, but maybe they would never understand because they were the realists, they were the leftovers from the Cold War, they were a different generation of people and Obama was something new something different that tried different approaches.
So they did make a major effort with the Iranians and it was unsuccessful. The Iranians weren't willing to engage and then they decided to focus on the Arab part. In a very early, interview that Obama gave, he said he was going to give a big speech someplace in the Middle East. He didn't say where and of course it turned out to be Cairo - this is in June of 2009 and this is the famous 'A New Beginning' speech. That was kind of pressing the reset button or whatever and saying, you know, 'forget about everything we've done in the past, we're going to start over'. And it was a very impressive speech and people thought this was a big change, that somehow Obama understood the region better and he did say that he - he was, I mean, he did seem to be very much more familiar with Islam, and the way he talked about the Middle East and Muslims and that, you know, because of his background and how he grew up and spent some time as a young boy in Indonesia and his family background from his father's side people are Muslim... and, you know, he seemed to understand more about what this region was like and who these people were, what their aspirations were. It was very different from Bush, who said you're a friend or you're an enemy, you're good or you're evil. And Obama had a much more subtle understanding and way of describing the region and US interests, and he talked a lot about a variety of issues including democracy - promoting democracy, you know, the importance of democracy.

Selma Bardakcı: How would you describe today's US policy in Iraq in light of the most recent chaos and developments?

Matthew Bonham: Well Obama was committed to getting out of Iraq and he did it. I mean, he did what he said and I think most Americans support this - a lot of Americans - most Americans probably support this. They don't want to be in Iraq and they don't see why the US was in Iraq in the first place, because it turned out of course there were no weapons of mass destruction. So let's get out of Iraq. The domestic political situation in Iraq with Maliki is not good. And this isn't exactly what we had in mind: someone who is corrupt, divisive and polarizing. But now we have this new development this ISIL. The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant caught everyone by surprise right now I think they were shocked and surprised that this kind of very radical rebel group that in many ways is more extreme than al Qaeda has been so successful and really scaring the government and military forces of Iraq. I think the US is frightened that they're going to be blamed, that this some kind of new state will be emerging from this thing that will change all the boundaries and this would be a very radical state that's a lot worse than the Taliban, a lot worse than al-Qaeda, and who knows where this is going to lead.

So there's been an attempt now to provide some aid and we're talking about some very small very modest support - for the groups that are fighting this for the Iraqis...but again there are conditions. So it's turned into an unbelievable mess and disaster. Now on Iran, things are going better, and they're having these really tough negotiations this month that may lead - and there's a deadline that may lead to an agreement. Since Rouhani's election, things have been going pretty well. And even in the Syrian situation...I mean of course they're in this terrible civil war, but in terms of getting rid of the chemical weapons, that's been achieved, so, you know. And then the fourth one is Afghanistan. They had an election there but there's no real plan for what to do starting next year and there's some money, some budget for this, but no plan. So obviously overall there are some bright spots and the main bright spot is Iran who, if there's an agreement about proliferation, about their nuclear program, could be very helpful in Iraq. They could be extremely helpful in a lot of things in the region. But the rest of it is quite bad including, of course, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Selma Bardakcı: How would you describe US policy in reaction to the Arab Spring countries?

Matthew Bonham: In the Arab Spring at first Obama hesitated and didn't know what to do, but then decided that they were going to come down on the side of people trying to develop a democratic form of government in these countries. But then there was of course this counter-revolution that's symbolized by the developments in the most important country in the region, which is Egypt: the military coup. The result is that the US is now becoming a little bit distant from Egypt; I think people in the Obama administration did not like what happened. The spring has ended.

Selma Bardakcı: Where do you see this post-Arab Spring trajectory heading?

Matthew Bonham: Will it be an Arab winter? I don't know; it's hard to say. Right now it seems to be moving towards a winter landscape of this, you know: trouble in Iraq; trouble with Syria, this terrible civil war; this new regime in Egypt, a military regime; Afghanistan. It's somewhat useful to talk about this Spring or Awakening, but it's just metaphorical, it highlights is the idea of this is a natural process, an inevitable natural process. But nothing is inevitable in real life and this is where the metaphor falls apart. It doesn't really describe the possibilities. It's not inevitable that the winter follows, that there will be a winter in the Middle East.

Selma Bardakcı: Does the Arab Spring signal the start of a new Cold War-like situation between the forces favoring authoritarianism (Russia) and those advocating democracy (USA)?

Matthew Bonham: Where it breaks down is, the US has throughout its relations with the Middle East, throughout the history of US relations with Middle Eastern countries, and even with relations today, has supported authoritarian regimes. So I think that, you know, it's not a split with Russia on this. When it's in the interests of the US to support an authoritarian regime, as it did in Egypt and it continues to provide support to Egypt, it will do so. And there no one's complaining about Saudi Arabia and saying there ought to be democracy there. And then you have a kind of democratic country like Iran - which is semi-democratic - where the US is not applauding that country. So I would say this is not a good statement of what's going on, this is not accurate. The U.S. is not going to be engaged in a new Cold War with Russia over type of government.
The US is not going to an autocratic leader drifting towards the Putin approach. No, the US hasn't said anything about that, and I don't think the Russians have said anything about it either. So Turkey has to decide what they want to do and what form of government do they want presidential or parliamentary? That's for them to decide. So I don't think this is what is going to happen. I mean, there are different issues of the US and Russia and it relates to their different geographical and historical background but Obama regards Russia as a regional actor sort of kind of a minor regional actor. The Russians – Putin at least - does not like that characterization and rejects it, but it's not like the days of the Cold War when these were two global actors in this competition.

Selma Bardakcı: Are we currently facing a wave of global authoritarianism as supported by Russia and China? If so, will there be a particular country or coalition that opposes or challenges them?

Matthew Bonham: I think that China may be coming actually moving more towards democracy. I mean, it's going to take a long time, but they have an emerging middle class, people are well educated. I can't see this one party domination, continuing forever and it may evolve. And then in Russia, Putin is a very strong leader, has these autocratic authoritarian tendencies of course. But he represents the past. He was a KGB guy, he was a different generation, he is not Obama's generation, and there are -and I talk to and I am in contact with - people in Russia who are in their thirties, and they are thinking about "well what should Russia be doing after Putin?" In the short term, yes, I think you're right, that there is – it is difficult to deal with Russia and China and particularly Russia because Putin has this, you know, orientation toward the West and kind of an antagonistic nature. But even there, on this Ukrainian issue, he is really backed down a lot because of the nature of interdependence which limits what the West can do vis-à-vis Russia over the Ukraine, but also limits what Russia can do. I think Russia needs to have normal trade relations economic relations with Western countries. They cannot cut themselves off; they need that for the development of their oil industry, which needs Western help, and it's hurting them, it's hurting their economy. You can't have a new kind of Cold War. They know that. And so they have backed off a lot since - in just the last couple of months, last month.

Selma Bardakcı: What does the rise of groups such as ISIS mean for global security? What kinds of impacts do you see these groups having now and in the near future on the current global order?

Matthew Bonham: You know, this is a new actor and kind of a new approach and it was unanticipated, people were caught off guard. If they play this out and if they see this group as being successful, then other groups might imitate it. You know people are like Pandora's Box, so once this thing is out, you can't put it back in. I think this frightens people, it was unexpected and no one knows where the whole thing is going to lead. But it's clearly a result of this - of the US policy, the consequence of US policy in the Middle East and this competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia and all the activities they have been doing. This is sort of the fruit of it. It is something that I think even the Iranians and the Saudis realize, that maybe they should have thought out a little more about what they were doing and where it was going to lead and it could create a monster. I don't think anyone knows much about them. They sort of have just a vague notion of whom they are and what they want to do. And it's one thing to have a group of international group of people, recruit internationally to be in a kind - to create this kind of military force. But it's quite another thing to actually govern, and if they have this territory they control it's very difficult to govern. And they may find they can't do it and the whole thing would collapse. Because it's one thing to fight and another to try to administer some, work with a civilian population and create an Islamic state.

Selma Bardakcı: Are you expecting a change in American foreign policy approaches towards the Middle East after the 2016 presidential elections?

Matthew Bonham: Yes, Obama won't be the president anymore. Well if it's Biden it could be kind of a continuation of Obama because I think they share a lot of ideas, but if it's Hillary Clinton, I think it's going to be a much tougher policy in the Middle East, more actively promoting US interests and maybe even committing from time to time American troops to support this policy. So I see that as more if she becomes president. And the Republicans I don't know. I think Rand Paul is somewhat like Obama in many respects in not being terribly enthusiastic about committing American forces because he realizes that you know this is very expensive in terms of lives and money but also this is not something that the US ought to be doing and in a way I think this is similar to Obama.

Selma Bardakcı: In particular, how might foreign policy interests and patterns towards Iran, Saudi Arabia and post-Arab Spring countries shift with a new administration?

Matthew Bonham: The hope is that they're going to make a deal with Iran this month and that the deal will work and that it will solve the problem: it will provide assurances to the rest of the world that they're not developing a nuclear weapons program and that they have only peaceful intentions and to set up a mechanism to inspect, to make sure they're telling the truth. And that could lead to maybe the establishment of diplomatic relations again. The United States needs Iran to help out with this Iraqi situation, so the Iranians can be very helpful - and they have helped out in the past, they helped out in 1985, during the Reagan administration they helped to achieve the release of hostages that were held in Lebanon, and so on. So they can be helpful, they can be useful, so I hope that will be off the table, that will be solved by the time a new president comes in—but nothing is for sure.

Selma Bardakcı: Is there a shift in approach towards Saudi Arabia?

Matthew Bonham: I think if Hillary gets in, there will be very good relations with Saudi Arabia and if Jeb Bush gets in as president, there will be very good relations with Saudi Arabia too because the Bushes know all the people there, all the princes and this and that.

Selma Bardakcı: What about post-Arab Spring countries? Would Egypt and Libya be effected if a Republican versus a Democrat were to come?

Matthew Bonham: I don't think so. It's a big question mark about who the Republican nominee will be. Also will the Republican nominee have success is another question. I just can't answer the question, because, I mean, we can't even speculate who this person is. But there is going to be a political process with primaries and so on and they will select a candidate so then you can ask me this question.

Selma Bardakcı: You're right. I think that there is a lot of divergence among Republicans. What are your prospects?

Matthew Bonham: You're right, especially on foreign policy. On domestic policy, they tend to be conservative, but on foreign policy - I mean McCain is very much an activist, but Rand Paul is very much an isolationist and that represents a tremendous variation. I don't know who will rule. I suspect that Hillary has an advantage, regardless of whether it's Rand Paul or Jeb Bush. It seems like she has the money and support – very strong support within the Democrats, Democratic Party and pick up a few independents - that she has a very good chance of winning the election. As Secretary of State and she is in a very good and strong position, she has the money, she's very smart, she has demonstrated that she has foreign policy knowledge. I don't see any Republican being able to overcome that. I can't see that at all. So it looks like she will be our next president.