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Former U.S. ambassador argues for foreign policy change in Middle East

Freeman discredits popular justifications for intervention, criticizes U.S. relationship to Israel

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Former acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia discussed the ramifications of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, highlighting challenges to U.S. involvement in the region.

When the United States implements ineffective foreign policy, the government instinctually pushes more resources and energy toward that failing policy, a tendency that has proven detrimental in the Middle East, said Chas Freeman Jr., former acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, in a lecture at the University Monday.

His talk, “Order in Turmoil: Making Sense of Kaleidoscopic Change in the Middle East,” focused on the ramifications of U.S. foreign policy in the region and ways the policy should change in the future.

During the event, Freeman, who is also the former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, called for policies that better address and protect the United States’ interests in the Middle East than those currently in place. Specifically, Freeman urged recognition of America’s diminishing stake and influence in the region and espoused using the military to support diplomacy.

As factors challenging the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, Freeman cited the United States’ waning reliance on Middle Eastern oil, growing popular dissatisfaction with its intervention in the region and the total failure of counterterrorism efforts.

For instance, Freeman argued that the United States no longer needs to rely on Middle Eastern support to meet domestic oil demand, as U.S. oil and gas production and oil reserves from the northern hemisphere and western Africa could instead meet domestic need. In recent years, public support for strong U.S. intervention in the region has also declined, Freeman said. “Americans view both Israel and Saudi Arabia with increasing distaste” and their ability to “buy support in Congress … does not buy such approval” more broadly, he added.

While speaking about the weaknesses of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, Freeman pointed out the flaws in U.S. strategies for tackling terrorism in the region. The United States’ tactics are “based on the dubious theory that the best way to avoid being stung by hornets is to saddle up to their nest and poke them,” he said. “Current U.S. policies … prolong wars, disturb its and other nations’ domestic tranquility (and) corrupt the rule of law.”

Along with its decreasing economic stake in the region, the United States’ political influence has declined significantly, Freeman said. “Most countries in West Asia and North Africa no longer see much reason to defer to foreign nations,” he said. Therefore, the United States should “seek to leverage the diverse players in the region, not proceed unilaterally.”

In order to accomplish our goals, “American diplomacy must be redesigned … by joining our capabilities with others’ capabilities,” Freeman said. The United States “should be talking to all parties” in the region, “not labeling some and ruling out dialogue with them, as we’ve done with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran,” he said.  “Without talking to Iran, the United States can constrain neither its nuclear program nor its politics,” he added.

Freeman also discussed the U.S. government’s habitual reliance on military action, as well as what he called its ineffective use of diplomacy. “Our military should support our diplomacy, not the other way around,” he said.

Freeman also critiqued the United States’ individual diplomatic relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE have aligned with Israel against Iran, these Gulf states have capitalized on the power of pro-Israel lobbyists in American politics, he said.

In addition, Freedman said that the United States’ support of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE “has facilitated a series of unspeakable humanitarian disasters in West Asia, including Israel’s quasi-genocidal siege of Gaza, the multi-national vivisection of Syria and the devastation of Yemen.”

Vera Old, one of the event’s attendees, said she had heard Freeman speak over a decade prior and was particularly interested in his lecture because she had lived in the Middle East. Although she felt “overwhelmed and pessimistic about the future because it looks more and more complicated as we are connected by modern social technologies,” she thought the talk effectively covered lots of information in a short time period.

Edward Steinfeld P’20, director of the Watson Institute, commented on Freeman’s ability to discuss difficult topics in a productive way. “It is … a statement about the kind of people in this community, the kind of learning that goes on and strong statements that are made, but also the willingness to exchange ideas in a civil and civic fashion.”

In closing, Freeman said that current foreign policy practices are “severely eroding American moral standing.” Right now, “many in the United States have started to feel like the chorus on an ancient Greek stage, watching in horror as the protagonist marches inexorably towards tragedies they cannot foresee,” he said.

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