Interview with Wendy Chamberlin

10 May 2015, Istanbul

Wendy Chamberlin has been president of the Middle East Institute since 2007. Previously, as deputy high commissioner for refugees from 2004 to 2007, she supervised the administration of the U.N. humanitarian organization. A 29-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, she was ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2002, when she played a key role in securing Pakistan’s cooperation in the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the U.S. on September 11. A graduate of Northwestern University, Ambassador Chamberlin earned a M.S. in education from Boston University and attended the Executive Program at Harvard University. She was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from Northwestern University


Selma Bardakcı: Did we come to the end of the Arab Spring? Is there hope for popular demands to change authoritarian regimes?

Wendy Chamberlin: It’s a very complicated question, and I can only give you my view. No one really knows what will happen in the future, but my view is that we are at the beginning of the Arab Spring, that it is not over, that it will lead, eventually, to the demands for popular participation. Call me an optimist, but I don’t believe that the people will go backwards, I think they will go forwards. I think the world has admittedly shrunk through communications, that people know what other people are doing in real time, everywhere in the world, and that has created a demand for openness, a demand for participation in their own political affairs, a demand for more economic equality, a demand for more accountability from leaders, and this will not go away.

If you take Egypt for example, a country that I have been studying closely, I think that Sisi coming back into power, the military coming back into power, was a half step backwards, maybe a full step backwards, but it has been accepted by the people. They are incredibly supportive of Sisi, even the democrats. We talked to the democrats, these secular democrats who were fighting in the streets in the Arab Spring. Their view is, ‘thank goodness for the military; thank goodness we had the military,’ because the Morsi government had taken Egypt to the point where they were afraid that they were going to lose the sovereignty of Egypt, the concept of Egypt, and that the Arab Spring and the move to democracy had been hijacked for very obvious reasons.

Because they are organized by an ideology, the Muslim Brotherhood, that didn’t believe in the sovereignty of Egypt, believed in a higher ideology, a greater cause, if you will. But the nationalists who loved Egypt wanted democracy for Egypt, because they wanted a role in the Egyptian government. They were frightened that they were just about to lose it altogether. At that brink, there was a sense of urgency and that’s what enabled the army to move in, and the democrats are happy that they did, and the democrats are waiting, buying their time. I hope they’re organized, and I don’t know if they are, but this society is learning its moving forward, and when the moment is right, it will evolve in the right direction, that’s what I believe. I am not so pessimistic for Egypt; I am very pessimistic for Syria.

Selma Bardakcı: What are the conditions for stability and security in the Middle East? How far are we from this goal?

Wendy Chamberlin: It varies from place to place of course, but let’s take two places where it is the most unstable: Libya and Syria. In general, in order to build the peace, and to have stability in Syria, you need several elements. You need to be able to identify what the root cause of the instability problem is. Right now it is Bashar Assad in Syria. He is the main problem; he is killing his own people, he is standing in the way of national consolidation, and he has prevented the peace, for a number of reasons. The reason is that it is his regime, and the Alawites that protect him, are fearful of revenge, that there will be mass genocide, and there is historical precedent of that. Look at Iraq, where the Shia are revenging against the Sunni. So, Bashar Assad is a root cause, and you have to remove that root cause if you want to get to stability. Then when you do, you need to have security for the people so that there is no revenge. You need to have a rule of law, a constitution. You need to have economic development so that the people get a sense of well being, that they have schools, clinics, and roads, and a livelihood of jobs. A lot of that takes investment. So these will be the building blocks to a normal society.

It will be enormously hard in Syria because it has been ripped to pieces. He is dropping chemical weapons and chlorine gas, and barrel bombs on his own people. That is hard to forget. Then in the vacuum, there is Daesh (ISIL). That will go on for a long time, and that will be a violent war because you can’t negotiate with them, you cannot bring them to the table. You can bring the Alawites to the table; you cannot bring Daesh to the table. So, Syria is an example of real instability.

Libya is another example of instability, because when you removed the root cause of why Libya was not developing as a country, it was Gaddafi, but he left nothing behind. He had systematically destroyed the state of Libya. It was him and his security forces that held it together, and without that, there were very few national tools, there was no state to build on, it was a group of tribes really, and when those tribes began to compete, the country just split apart. In both Libya and Syria, there is no external power that is coming in to try to help them end it effectively. So I would say those are the two countries that are the weakest.

Selme Bardakcı: Would the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry continue to escalade? What does the future hold?

Wendy Chamberlin: Historically, when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, back in those days, the United States had a two-prong policy in the Middle East. It had its relationship with Saudi Arabia and it had its relationship with Iran, and together they were two allies, with the Shah, and we relied on them for stability and to keep the balance in the region. Well, of course when Khomeini took over and the Shah left, we relied very heavily on Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners. They are very comfortable with that, they like that. They are not looking forward to a position where the United States begins to rely on Iran, because Saudi Arabia is a smaller population with great wealth, and when you have a country that’s much larger and has more power next to you, the fear that they may attack and steal your wealth is very real.

However, the Saudi’s real fear about Iran is that they have ambitions to be the leader of the religion. Saudi Arabia is the keeper of the Mosques. I think they are afraid that they are the real target for Iran’s ambition, because its theology, as a theocratic state, is to take Mecca. They are worried about Mecca, they have told me this. Americans don’t understand that, but I understand that. I think that their fear is real, but whether that is what the Iranians want, I do not know. But that fear is real, because in historical terms, the Saudi’s have not controlled Mecca for very long, so those tensions are real, fear is real, so the fear that Iran will get the bomb gives them power. They are not afraid that the bomb will be used against them, they are just afraid that the bomb would be a threat. They are also afraid, that, as the U.S. becomes closer with Iran, that Iran will be able to do mischief all around the world, mischief in Iraq, mischief in Syria, and mischief with Hezbollah, who they use as their tool. So they worry about that, and you know they have every reason to be worried.

Selma Bardakcı: How do you view the situation in Yemen? Would Saudi intervention improve the situation in Yemen?

Wendy Chamberlin: I think that the solution in Yemen is the same as I was proposing for Syria, and maybe Libya, which is to remove the cause of the problem, and the cause of the problem is the historical exclusion of the Houthis. The Yemeni president Saleh has never really provided much for the Houthis, he has excluded them from power, and the Houthis have been upset for decades. They have fought wars in the past.

Irrespective of if the Iranians are helping them or not, the root cause is internal, and so, including Houthis in the political process, power sharing, the sharing of wealth, and government services has to be part of the solution, and to get there you are going to have to have a peace making reconciliation process, where you sit down at the table with the parties and begin to negotiate a constitution and the mechanism for doing that. But I think that the Saudis, maybe the Iranians, certainly the West, the U.S., and the U.N. have a role in getting those parties to the table. Ultimately, for the wellbeing of the people, foreign aid will need to go into that country, and certainly the Saudis have the money for that.

Selma Bardakcı: What is your assessment of the Syrian situation? Is there a way out of the current deadlock?

Wendy Chamberlin: I think several points need to be made. One is that the U.N. needs to continue its role, it has its envoy, Steffan de Mistura, he needs to continue, he is continuing, but his chances were slim. He has since left and was replaced. They had Geneva I and Geneva II, both of them failed to end the conflict, but they made progress, and the progress they made is that they developed the framework for peace, and it was pretty much what I have been talking about here, a framework for peace is that Assad must go, which is the root cause. They need to have a referendum where the people select their next government by voting, all of the people need to get involved so you get the buy in, and you need to protect minorities.

So, that is the framework that was developed and that is a starting place. How to get there I think, my view, is that you need to put more pressure on Assad, and I think that the American led coalition is a sham, it is phony, it is too little and it is too late. I think, what you need is what the Turks are asking for, that is a no fly zone, both in the north and in the south. I think the time is right now to do that, and then you will need enormous amounts of foreign aid assistance to help them rebuild this society, which has been both intellectually and emotionally destroyed.

Selma Bardakcı: What is the U.S. position vis-à-vis the Middle East, what are the priority areas, how would the U.S. help?

Wendy Chamberlin: The Obama administration, taking the lessons from the George W. Bush administration, really wanted to be what most of the students wanted. What the students didn’t understand is that the U.S. position was in agreement with them that the U.S. should not intervene and should withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. That is Obama’s policy. Obama did not get going into Libya after Gaddafi was removed; he was sort of forced into helping NATO, who launched it. However, they were failing and we were partners with NATO, we had to help them, but we didn’t continue it.

We did not go in, we did not stay, and I think that’s part of the problem in Libya is that we did not stay and help rebuild that society. We are not going to put boots on the ground in Syria, we are resistant to the Turkish government in regards to the no fly zone, and I think that is part of the problem now. I think we should be more interventionists, but our government is not. The pendulum swings, it was on one far side with Bush and it swung too far to the other side with Obama. I think the next president is going to have to be in the middle more. So, a non-interventionist, non militarist, multilateral rather than unilateral, policy is what Obama represents, and that is diametrically opposed, a hundred percent different from what Bush did, and the feelings yesterday were remembering what Bush did, but that is not what is happening today.

Let’s start with Israel, remember Hillary Clinton was the first public figure in the U.S. to publicly call for a Palestinian state, when she was first lady. She got criticized and ripped to pieces, but she stuck to it and watched as it became our policy. So, she is sympathetic for a Palestinian state. She was also senator in New York, where a lot of American Jews are, so she is very close to support for Israel, more so than Obama, so expect that.

Hillary Clinton, when she was in the Senate, she was on the defense committee, and her policies were much closer to McCain’s than they were Obama’s. She is more likely to commit U.S. forces abroad, she is very much likely to establish a no fly zone and step up American involvement to help the armed resistance in Syria. She actually sent Obama a memo encouraging him to do that when she was Secretary of State, so she will move to the center. A republican candidate will move to the center, she will move as well. No matter whom you get, you are going to see an America that is much more involved.