Institute President Navigates Shifting Terrain of Middle East

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Even the most dedicated followers of news and trends in the Middle East would be hard pressed to keep up with all of the rapidly changing political and social developments sweeping across the complicated region.

Fortunately, the Middle East Institute (MEI) and its president, Wendy Chamberlin, want to help us make sense of it all. The 67-year-old Washington think tank’s nonpartisan analysis and commentary on the region have become an invaluable resource for cutting through the clutter.

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Photo: Middle East Institute
Wendy Chamberlin

Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and a 29-year career U.S. Foreign Service officer, took the helm of the respected think tank in 2007 with the goal of breathing new life into an institution that some had come to view as too fusty to thrive in the age of social media and the internet. Over the past half-decade, Chamberlin has expanded the institute’s roster of scholars, dramatically improved its website, and worked to beef up its academic institute, which offers classes in multiple Middle Eastern languages.

As MEI prepared to host its 67th annual banquet and conference on Nov. 14 and 15, Chamberlin sat down with The Diplomat at MEI’s offices near Dupont Circle to discuss recent developments in the Middle East, as well changes at MEI and the upcoming conference at the Capitol Hilton. The event is billed as “Managing Transition, Containing Conflict: The Middle East in 2014.”

“So often it’s the negative story — terrorism, oil shortages, etc. — that gets the attention, but there are so many positive things that are also coming out of the Middle East,” Chamberlin explained. “That’s what we’re trying to highlight at our banquet.”

Susan Rice, national security advisor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will keynote this year’s conference. MEI is also honoring two trailblazers. Zaha Hadid will receive the Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence for her contributions in the fields of architecture and design. Born in Baghdad, Hadid is the only woman and only Arab to win the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor. Abdlatif Al-Hamad will be honored with the MEI Visionary Award for his efforts to bring clean water, power and transportation to millions in Africa and the Middle East. Regarded as the dean of development efforts in the Arab world, Al-Hamad has served as director-general of the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development in Kuwait for the past 30 years.

Chamberlin — who was U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees from 2004 to 2007 and before that oversaw USAID civilian reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan and development assistance throughout the Middle East and East Asia — said intellectual back-and-forth is a key mission of MEI. A recent panel discussion on Egypt proved the point. The event brought together a range of Egyptian and American voices to examine recent political, social and economic developments. One panel in particular, “Working Toward a National Reconciliation,” featured liberal and Islamist participants who discussed ways opposing sides can reconcile and work together to forge a more pluralistic government and society.

“We brought in a slew of people — flew them in from Cairo,” Chamberlin said. “They weren’t set pieces — they were Egyptians talking to Egyptians. We had representatives from every major faction and the leading voices so they had an opportunity to talk to each other freely, face to face. It was huge … and of course, the Twitter-sphere went crazy.”

Speaking about Egypt is something Chamberlin and other experts have been doing a lot of recently. In addition to the September conference, the MEI website is full of penetrating insight into the turmoil-torn country.

After voters elected him president last year, Mohamed Morsi was accused of trying to monopolize power for his Muslim Brotherhood party, which came out of the political wilderness following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. When millions protested against Morsi’s rule earlier this summer, the military kicked the Brotherhood out of office and is now accused of trying to crush what’s left of the movement, killing hundreds of its members in violent clashes, jailing thousands of its leaders, and seizing the group’s assets.

A defiant Morsi appeared in court Nov. 4 along with more than a dozen other defendants over the killings of protesters outside his presidential palace in December 2012. The trial quickly devolved into chaos, with Morsi shouting that he was the legitimate president, and was postponed until Jan. 8. Meanwhile, a committee is also working to rewrite the country’s constitution by the end of November and put it to a national referendum shortly thereafter.

Asked who Americans should root for in the ongoing battle between Islamists who backed the Muslim Brotherhood or the military that overthrew a democratically elected president, Chamberlin demurs.

“We should be rooting for the principles of inclusion, so that one group doesn’t dominate over another group,” Chamberlin asserted. “Those days have passed in Egypt. The 2011 Tahrir Square events have moved Egypt into a new historical period, which includes women, Copts, Christians, various views within Islam, modernists, Salafists — they’ve all got to find a way to talk to each other.”

And it won’t be easy, the former diplomat predicted.

“It’s going to be painful; it’s going to be a rough process,” she said. “But I began to see it happening in our conference and some of the private meetings we held afterward. We want to continue to encourage inclusiveness.”

Having said that, Chamberlin added that the military has a role to play in a potentially volcanic society. She spoke to The Diplomat about a week before the United States announced it would put “large-scale military systems” and some cash aid to Egypt on hold pending democratic reforms by the military-backed interim government.

“In order to create this inclusive society you have to have stability first,” she said. “I’m all for stability, but [the military is] going to have to know how to move from a stabilization mode into an inclusive mode — not just get stuck there.”

Asked if, as some Middle Eastern pundits have speculated, Egypt might simply be ungovernable, Chamberlin took a shot at the U.S. Congress instead.

“I think that might be true of the House of Representatives,” she said with a laugh.

She also said that President Obama has been maligned for not having a policy in the Middle East and Egypt, in particular. She prefaced her remarks on Obama by saying: “It’s really easy for ex-ambassadors to sit back and give advice.”

“I think the U.S. becomes the whipping boy unfairly when there is … great insecurities and turmoil in these societies,” she said. “I think the Obama administration has been unfairly criticized for not having a policy. They have a policy and it’s a policy of not bullying — not imposing — because frankly, what’s important is that this is really for the Egyptians to decide to resolve. There is no external power that comes in and imposes stability. Stability has to come from the Egyptian people.”

She was more eager to critique Morsi’s short-lived presidency.

“I think that the Muslim Brotherhood made bad decisions at every point and their bad decisions came from a fundamental misunderstanding of Egypt today,” she argued. “Morsi was still representing the equities of the Muslim Brotherhood and he didn’t understand that he had to represent the equities of all of Egypt. All of Egypt rejected him for that.”

Chamberlin had no shortage of opinions on Pakistan, either. She served as ambassador to the complex and dangerous nation 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 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s probably in a better place than it’s been in a decade,” Chamberlin said, before noting that the always-fraught U.S.-Pakistani relationship was in a low place until recently.

The top-secret raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad in 2011 strained the relationship, as did the subsequent revealing by WikiLeaks of U.S. cables that showed how the U.S. government intentionally concealed the operation from the Pakistani government.

“I would not pass the info to the GOP [government of Pakistan], because we can’t trust them,” one government official wrote prior to the raid.

Since then, the U.S. military’s constant drone attacks against suspected terrorists along the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan have also exacerbated tensions. The Pakistani government officially condemns the killings but many reports have revealed that the Pakistani military tacitly condones them. However, civilian casualties continue to pile up, putting the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a precarious position as it tries to tackles the scourge of terrorism within its own borders (more terrorist attacks struck Pakistan last year than any other country in the world; also see “Pakistani Government Takes Aim at Terrorism” in the October 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Sharif, who served as prime minister in the late 1990s, is a known entity in the West and has been tentatively welcomed by Washington. Of course, America’s relentless pursuit of terrorists remains a sticking point — a point on which Chamberlin actually credits Pakistan, which has lost tens of thousands of its citizens to terrorist violence since 9/11. On the flip side, the military and intelligence services have also been accused of coddling certain terrorist networks that serve their own ends, whether in Afghanistan or India.

“They have done more to help apprehend al-Qaeda than any other country in the world and continue to and always have,” she said. “Where the problems arrive is with their own citizens. Their own sort of Pakistani Taliban, or Afghan Taliban, who have been safe havened in Pakistan through marriages — it’s tribal. If they crack down too hard, they’ll provoke a backlash, which has and is happening. They now have Pakistani Taliban with the mission of overthrowing the government and attacking the state.

“The sectarian violence, the ethnic violence has gotten worse. The Taliban is a threat to the state and they have to deal with this,” she added. “They have a new president with the right agenda for the country, but he’s also going to have some serious domestic insecurity.”

Chamberlin credited the September swearing-in of Pakistan’s new president, Mamnoon Hussain, and the country’s recent election milestone for helping to improve U.S. relations. Despite a rough road where his political demise constantly looked imminent, former President Asif Ali Zardari became the first democratically elected president in Pakistan’s history to finish a full term in office (also see “Pakistani Elections: Possible Bright Spot In Country Overshadowed by Problems” in the May 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“A successful, free and fair election from one civilian president to another one occurred without any army influence,” Chamberlin said. “So Pakistanis have really earned their stripes as a democracy. I think the military can be credited for not staging a coup for five years when [former] President Zardari had been so unhappy.

“This new president — whatever misgivings some had had about him — he has shared our agenda,” Chamberlin added of Hussain. “It’s the right thing for Pakistan.”

She said the roots of U.S.-Pakistani discord can actually be traced to Pakistan’s decades-long nuclear agenda.

“It’s one of those things where we say we can’t trust them, and they say it’s in their national interest to lie about our nuclear weapons program, which is where this all began,” she said.

Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, first developed in the 1970s as a counterweight to archrival India, is a done deal, though Washington continues to worry that nukes could get loose in the unstable Muslim nation of 180 million. But when it comes to nuclear bombs, Iran is Washington’s biggest headache at the moment — though relief may be in sight.

Chamberlin said a diplomatic thaw might be in the works under Iran’s new reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani, although she credits Washington, not Tehran, for the possible breakthrough.

“I think it’s the success of the Obama administration’s sanctions policies,” she said. “They won’t say that because that would be gloating and it could spoil it, but I think very definitely that the Iranian officials see that the financial sanctions are unsustainable and unsupportable.

“They can’t conduct transactions because they don’t have access to Swift accounts for exchanging money,” Chamberlin continued. “How can they function in a modern society like that? They can’t. They have got to get out from under these sanctions, and I think the door is wide open and Obama is absolutely right when he says we’ve got to test it.”

Finally, the outspoken Middle East expert said the situation in Syria, while heartbreaking, has been handled well by Obama — a point many critics would disagree with. While some have accused Obama of dithering and then fumbling the U.S. response, Chamberlin disagreed.

“I reject those who say Obama did not have a strategy in Syria — he did,” she said. “It was to keep the U.S. out of a war and he did.”

Chamberlin also took another jab at Capitol Hill, which wavered in its support for Obama’s call for limited strikes on Syria following its alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people this summer.

“It was a real test of an international convention and norms,” she said. “Even beyond the hideous immorality of what happened, I just didn’t think moral people and people who signed conventions and believed in international law could do nothing. I was frankly stunned at the reaction on the Hill — of both fanatical wings.”

Chamberlin said she’s not too optimistic about Russia’s offer to help dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal — and made it crystal clear how she feels about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I don’t trust Putin,” she told us. “I think it’s pretty evident who he is. I do think any international coalition to deal with Syria must include Russia and it must include Iran. I think there is a potential opening — there is a deal to be made there. I think it would be negligent to not pursue it.”

Despite the Herculean challenges facing the Middle East, Chamberlin said there is plenty to be excited about, as well.

“People at all strata are exercising their citizenship. They are not passive partners in their own destinies anymore — they’re playing roles,” she said. “The citizen rejection of the way the Muslim Brotherhood was not governing for all of Egypt is perhaps your best example. It was an exercise in citizenship that is very encouraging. Egypt is in a place it has never been before in its thousands of years of history, and it will not go back. Any government in Egypt must govern with its people because it won’t permit anything else.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 4, 2013