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Ambassador Skip Gnehm on the Middle East

The Middle East has been a complicated, if not violent, region for millennia, which has only been exacerbated by recent events in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza. As the United States and its allies embark on a campaign to bring down ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State or ISIL), the area looks even more volatile than it did in 2002.

Edward “Skip” Gnehm served as Ambassador to Kuwait shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, from 1991 to 1994, and was Director of the State Department’s Kuwait Task Force. Before that, he had worked extensively in the Middle East. He ran the two-man U.S. Interests Section in Damascus during then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Syria.  As a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at both the State and Defense Departments, he was the Pentagon’s point man on the five-man interagency coordinating committee during the 1987-88 deployment of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf. He has also served with the Foreign Service in Vietnam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia and Nepal. After his assignment to Kuwait, Gnehm served as Ambassador to Australia from 2000 to 2001 and Ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2003. He is now a professor at the George Washington Elliot School of International Affairs. He was interviewed by ADST on September 9, 2014.


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Q – How did the group gain membership and influence so quickly in the region?

GNEHM:  Good question. In short response, I believe the first instance, they were able to get recruits because there were plenty of young people who believe in a very Wahhabi and severe interpretation of Islam, and so they saw this as a very legitimate move, politically. But I think more importantly -–and probably more than anything — was a humiliation that was really set through the region for decades now, on how the world treats them. This was a way of joining something that was triumphant.

I think that particular point is a way of saying, too, that a large number of Sunni Arabs, who wouldn’t naturally adhere to the ideology, would respond on this question of humiliation, and saw this as a cause that they should support. I don’t think they support the beheadings, I don’t think they support the violence on minority groups or anything of that sort, but I think they saw this rise of Islam and Arabism.

Q: Do you think there is potential for them to spread throughout the region?

GNEHM:  I think the potential is there, but I think, quite frankly, the likelihood is not because I think the reaction to people to the way they are behaving and what they are doing is going to hurt them and this feeling is spreading. Again, in Iraq particularly, I didn’t really say this before, but the Sunnis there are so alienated from the Shi’a-dominated government that they naturally saw IS [the Islamic State] as an ally to get rid of Maliki. It was an alliance for political convenience, not for ideological purposes. So they when they start sweeping into Iraq, the Sunni populations in the area of which they moved were glad to see them coming because they were wiping out the central government and the Shi’a militia.

What the government had sent North was the Shi’a militia, which the Sunnis saw as an occupation force. So that is one of the reasons why they moved so fast but we may see a break in that relationship now that there is a new government in Baghdad — if [the new government] makes approaches toward a more unified Iraq and an involvement of all the different elements, including the Sunnis.  As soon as they’re involved, they’ll break that relationship and the Sunni population won’t be as interested in IS.

Q:  Do you favor the idea of Iraq splitting itself into three nation-states for the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds?

GNEHM: Do I favor it? No, it’s always been American policy, going way back even to Saddam’s days, not to support the division of Iraq. Lots of Iraqis didn’t believe us, lots of Arabs at least didn’t believe us when we said it. But in fact I know that’s been true in the American policy quite clearly, and I think that’s because to divide Iraq is difficult because the population is sort of mixed and intermingled, even given the certain migrations of recent years.

Also independence of these kinds of groups really leaves a very weak political situation in the Middle East and it opens up questions like Kurdish independence that includes areas of Turkey and Iran which then opens up inter-state issues and would require some significant problem-solving. We will continue to advocate that they be one state and be in accommodation to all these various groups.

Stability of Jordan

Q:  What effect do you think the current war and conflicts within Jordan will have for the future of the Kingdom? Specifically, the impact of Syrian refugees and ISIS.

GNEHM: I have to speak about this at the National Defense University, so it’s a good question. There’s a fragility about politics in Jordan and that’s due to the historic split between the Palestinian community, origins and East Bankers. And the overlay  to that is the — you can use the word “radicalization” because I mean it in terms of mobilization, intensification of Islamic feelings in the community as a result of what’s going on around the region. That plays well now — it’s going to be an overlay to that. (Photo: Reuters)

My own personal view is that the regime, meaning the government, the King, and the present  political system are likely to survive. I don’t see it threatened – no, let’s put it in a different way, I sort of see it threatened maybe, there are all these threats to it, but I don’t see it collapsing. They have to be careful about things because the troubles in the region can easily spill into or cross the border, because these are ideological moves, these are not army units, they’re people coming back.  I believe these fighters are organized and will start doing things. That can happen.

The Jordanians have a pretty good security situation inside the country. The other thing that the government has going forward — and I felt this true for some time — is that Jordanians as a group simply do not want the violence that’s going on around to come there. So even those who don’t like, for example, the powers of the King or the lack of ability to vote for parliament or whatever political reform or would like to see the government be more Islamic — whatever it is that they want to see changed, they don’t want to push that change to the point of that violence coming there. And that gives the King and government and security forces at least a basis on which they will work the situation. So I think in the end, the Jordanians are more moderate overall, but the danger is there.


Q: How do you feel about Russian and American positions on military intervention in Syria?

GNEHM: This is back at the point of the so-called Red Line? Well, as we in Washington see the Russian position, it is very much in strong support of Assad. I think our assessment is because Assad and the Ba’ath government have been very staunch friends of the Soviet Union and Russia. They are the strongest historic traditional alliance that Russia has. The one Russia had with Baghdad was destroyed when we went through Saddam. As well as other situations, Russia’s relationship with Egypt, from decades ago, changed. (Photo: Reuters)

Maintaining Assad in power is preserving an important role for Russia in the region.  The United States does not like that, obviously. Our own problem in Syria is that we do not like the Alawite regime because of the brutality that it uses on its own population. We certainly had diplomatic relations with them prior to all of this. Finding whom we can assist and ally with us has been difficult because of the fragmentation of the opposition. Now that we have two groups designated as terrorist groups, ISIS and al-Nusra,we obviously have no relations with them. There is also a great concern in Washington that if we provided weapons to any of the resistance groups, it would fall into the hands of one of the terrorist groups.

And in fact if you saw the paper in the last day or two, there’s evidence from I think it’s a Scandinavian group saying that they’ve done some investigation and found some of the weapons captured in Iraq now in the fighting there that actually were American or Saudi-provided items that went to friendly groups that were either captured or sold or whatever.

So I guess I’m not sure but we are in odds with Russia over how this should go. We believe that there needs to be a different government, but we do share a common view that the terrorist groups should not end up on top. Russia argues, of course, that Assad is the best defense against those groups and we can’t quite accept that so they were going to see differences ongoing. But not confrontational differences.


Q:  What’s your stance on the current situation in Gaza? Do you believe the bombing of the UN shelter was truly a mistake or a deliberate act?

GNEHM:  I don’t know the answer to that last part, I really don’t. And also I don’t feel confident trying to decipher Israeli thinking – honestly, I don’t understand it so I don’t know how to explain it because I happened to have been President of an organization called ANERA, American Near East Refugee Aid, which works with Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

I’ve been to Gaza and the facts on the ground would be evidence in my mind that the Israelis have targeted other than military targets: wells, farms, schools, other things. I don’t for a moment believe the Israelis deliberately target a place where there are children and women, deliberately. But I’m quite convinced that they probably killed women and children because that’s what happens in urban warfare, it’s historic but it happens that way.

I think Gaza is a really difficult situation to have any optimism over because the Israelis seem convinced that they have to keep it down for their own security sake. The Gazans are not going to quit fighting for what they hope would be their own state just because they get beaten down — that’s not the way people act.

And so then you take it one level more into pragmatics, you bomb the place to hell, you do have to rebuild it, because you just destroyed houses that people need to live in. What do you use to build houses in the Middle East? Steel and cement. What do you use to build tunnels that are used to infiltrate Israel? Cement and steel. So how then does Israel permit those two items to be sent into Gaza in large quantities to rebuild and then be sure they’re not being used again to undermine Israeli security?  It has to be done.  There has to be some mechanism that has to be worked out. But it’s complicated, very complicated.

Poor Gaza, it’s been a ghetto since 1948.

Iranian Nuclear Capacity

Q:  A few years ago John Mearsheimer posted an article about why Iran should obtain nuclear capabilities. He claims this would help balance out Israeli’s power and in turn create greater stability within the Middle East. Do you agree with that? Or do you feel it might lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East?

GNEHM: I fall in the latter school. I understand why Iran would like to develop a capacity to produce nuclear energy because if I were an economist in their shoes I would want to try and provide electricity to my people without using the oil that I’d like to sell abroad for dollars, right? Makes just common sense.

But they don’t need a weaponization program and it will destabilize the region. Maybe not quite  immediately but there will be ramifications as we’ve seen many, many times.

We armed the Shah to the hilt because he was going to protect our interests in the Gulf. And what did Baghdad do?  They went and signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union became its major benefactor. And suddenly, the Soviet Union was back in the region big time, which is exactly what we said our policy was to avoid. So there could be consequences of actions and there will be consequences of this over time. Negative ones. I don’t agree with Mearsheimer on that point.


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