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On Iran and anti-extremism, Trump strikes different note from his predecessors

May 22, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
On his first trip abroad, President Trump met this weekend with Arab leaders in an attempt to reset relations between the U.S. and Middle East. How is this president changing U.S. foreign policy? Judy Woodruff speaks with Elliott Abrams, a former administration official under George W. Bush, Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace and Daniel Benjamin of Dartmouth College.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: During the presidential campaign, candidate Trump said he’d strengthen relations with Middle Eastern countries and do a better job fighting what he called radical Islamic terrorism.

So, with the president in Saudi Arabia this weekend and meeting with Arab leaders, we thought we’d ask, what kind of change in U.S. policy is the president making?

For that, we turn to Daniel Benjamin. He was ambassador at large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration. He’s now at Dartmouth College. Elliott Abrams, he served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Robin Wright, she is a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, as well as a contributing writer for The New Yorker magazine.

And we welcome all three of you back to the program.

So, we have been talking about — a little bit, Elliott Abrams, about the president’s shifting language in how he talks about terrorism, extremism.

But what I want to ask the three of you is, how much of a shift in policy is what Donald — President Trump is saying in his — particularly in that speech in Saudi Arabia? How much of a shift in policy would that be?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Council on Foreign Relations: There is a shift, I would say, from the Obama policy, which was much more open to friendship or a better relationship with Iran and wasn’t casting Iran as a central problem in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia, the president said very much Iran is the problem. The king of Saudi Arabia then said the same thing, Iran is the problem. Now, of course, we’re hearing it from Prime Minister Netanyahu. This isn’t a change, I would say, from Bush policy, actually, but it is a change from Obama policy, which was centered on improving the relationship with Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Daniel Benjamin, how do you see what the president had to say?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, Dartmouth College: Well, I agree with Elliott about the tilt towards the Sunni Arabs.

He’s gone all in, in terms of standing with them and with the Israelis against Iran. I think that brings with it some challenges.

I think it’s also noteworthy that he pushed the Saudis and others to do more against terrorism themselves, but it was quite interesting that the way that he described terrorism, it was really kind of flat. It was in very good vs. evil terms, but no larger discussion of what the drivers of terrorism are, no discussion about bad governance, about economic stagnation, about any repression.

And, as a result, it leaves the impression that this is going to be purely about military law enforcement, and not anything else, which is really at odds with the policy we had, which was that you can’t shoot your way out of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robin Wright, you’re nodding your head.

ROBIN WRIGHT, United States Institute of Peace: Absolutely.

I think this is — this differs in significant ways. First of all, it walks away from the kind of nation-building of George Bush or the democracy promotion of Barack Obama. It takes a very one-dimensional approach to extremism, which is militaristic, kill them all, drive them back.

It is — doesn’t factor in the kind of economic grievances, the political sense among many in the region that their governments don’t represent them. President Trump is basically siding with the autocratic regimes in the region which have been the most repressive, and which have not devoted much time or energy to some of the broad solutions of the 21st century.

And so this is a huge departure from the past. And I think that it opens up the United States to some vulnerability in the same way. We’re once again looking for stability, rather than the kinds of regimes that reflect our own values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this an approach, Elliott Abrams, that is likely to work? These regimes have had plenty of opportunities to come together against terrorism, against extremism. Is this new appeal from President Trump likely to bring results?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, there can be better cooperation, let’s say, on terrorist financing.

There can be better cooperation on the military and police side. But I think Robin is right. If terrorists were coming down from outer space, then the military approach would be fine. But they’re coming from the very countries whose leaders he was addressing. And he didn’t discuss at all, why is that and what can be done about it in your countries?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, Dan Benjamin, are we — are these countries just basically left to ignore the president? I mean, has the expectation been raised for them to do something now or not?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, he has suggested that.

One of the reasons that the Gulf Arabs are so excited about Donald Trump is that he has signaled that he’s giving them a complete pass on human rights issues. So, we could well see more repression. Over the long term, that doesn’t mean less terrorism. That may mean more terrorism.

But he’s really just saying, you know, do what you need to and be there for us when we ask. That’s also a problem because, over the last five or six years, they have paid a lot more attention to their sectarian rivalry with Iran than they have to Sunni extremism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of that, Robin, that’s come up in all of this discussion. Does it make sense in the long run for the president to pit basically Sunni against the Iran regime?

ROBIN WRIGHT: This is the great danger.

The United States is often faulted with fostering this sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites by its intervention in Iraq in 2003. And now the administration is taking a very definitive stand on the side of the Sunnis against predominantly Shiite Iran.

And this, I think, is going to deepen tensions, rather than try to defuse them. And the great danger is that you see not only tensions within societies that don’t feel that they’re represented, but a deepening regional conflict.

After all, the Saudi-Iran rivalry plays out in every major conflict in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen. And we’re not going to find solution to any of these crises unless there’s a much more collaborative effort that brings in all the major powers in the region.

And so that’s one of the challenges. He talks a game about finding peace and about stabilizing the region, fighting extremism, but how do you do that when you’re actually adding fuel to the flames?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about, Elliott?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, there, I would say I disagree, because I think the problem, seen from the Israeli point of view, seen from the Sunni Arab point of view, seen from the president’s point of view, is a remarkable effort by Iran in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Bahrain, to create trouble.

I think they are really a problem for all of those countries and for us. This is a country that is still saying death to America. I think the president’s focus on that is reasonable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Daniel Benjamin, pick up on that. What is the meat on the bones that needs to come now for something to grow out of this that advances the cause, the anti-extremist cause?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, I’m skeptical we’re going to get there, because one of the things that President Trump apparently didn’t do while he was in Saudi Arabia was talk to the Saudis about the activities that they carry on that actually promote extremism, specific with their missionary activities around the world to provide mosques, itinerant preachers, curricular materials and the like, which have really stoked the rise of a more hard-edge Islam.

And I don’t think we’re going to see anything from this administration on that score. And the other thing is, on the sectarianism, if it just gets worse, it’s going to undermine regional stability. And it could threaten the nuclear accord in the region. And that ultimately would be bad news for everyone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We even haven’t mentioned the elections in Iran, Robin, but Iran has just reelected the more moderate candidate, Mr. Rouhani. At the same time, the president is painting Iran as the enemy.

ROBIN WRIGHT: And he’s painting that picture in a country that doesn’t hold democratic elections, where women can’t even drive, much less participate or run for office.

And Iran has had a female vice president. The contrast is very stark. There’s no question that Iran is a big problem for many in the international community, its support of extremism, its missile development program, its abuse of civil rights.

I don’t think anyone disputes that. But there is a deep contrast. And remember that Saudi Arabia is a country that developed or promoted the Wahhabi ideology that was the bed of the place that gave us the ideology of al-Qaida and ISIS, and so that we need to kind of be rational or reasonable when we talk about who are the good guys and the bad guys. A lot of them share the blame.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s so much here. We’re going to continue to look at what the president had to say.

Thank you, all three, Robin Wright, Daniel Benjamin, Elliott Abrams. Thank you.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: You’re welcome.

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