Interviewer: I want to welcome everybody to the Endowment for Middle East Truths webinar this afternoon on the changing geopolitical landscape under the Biden administration and the dangers that it poses to our national security. Thank you all for joining and for your support of Annette[?]. We appreciate it, and we could not move forward with these weekly webinars if it was not for you all. So thank you. I’m particularly excited about this afternoon’s webinar with Cliff May. And he’s just a brilliant, prolific writer and thinker. And I’m going to forego a long introduction of Cliff, who is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defensive Democracies because we have a lot to discuss but I urge you all to go to fdd.org. Please follow not just Cliff’s work, but all of the experts that we’ve hosted over the many years. For those of you that watch our webinars on a regular basis, you’re familiar with many of Cliff’s colleagues over at FDD and it’s an organization that is definitely worth following.
I also want to let you know that you can put questions into the Q and A prompt at the bottom of your screens and hopefully later in the program. We’ll get to some of those. This is going to be recorded and you can watch the video and share it with friends and family and colleagues in the future. And please do because I think this is an important topic, so I’m going to try to get right to it because we have a lot to cover. I also want to just say that I’ve been looking forward to this week’s webinar because of how much I respect Cliff and the work that he’s done. But I want to read something Cliff that you wrote recently to set the backdrop for our discussions this afternoon. You had stated in an article by now we should have learned that when America retreats America’s Enemies Advance, I’m not sure why our country’s leadership can’t grasp that simple concept, but when there’s a void, bad guys move in.
And I worry that the international perception of a lack of American will and might is going to lead us to some very dangerous times and that we’re approaching a point of no return. So, on that note, we’re all looking forward to hearing your insights on that and the other topics that we’re going to be discussing. But I want to start with China in a recent article, and I’m going to quote you again. You stated Mr G’s doctrine may be Asia first, but it’s not Asia only. The leader of the most powerful communist party in history has global ambitions. And then you proceed to quote President G who told Putin on a recent visit to the Kremlin, that quote, there are changes the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years, and we are driving these changes together. Putin agreed, but I think anyone paying attention would also agree and it’s quite frightening. As China builds relationships and develops infrastructure across the globe from the Middle East, and eastern Africa, to Latin America. And we’re going to get into the details of those. I want to note that it also includes the Taliban now which America has abandoned since America has abandoned the Afghani people.
And as China has developed its diplomatic bonafide brokering deals that we’ve never thought we’d see, President G has been quote-unquote ghosting and that’s a term that your colleague Craig Singleton coined President Biden. Does the Biden administration have a China policy, or is it happy to continue Obama’s policies of downgrading America’s role in the world, allowing China to advance its global ambitions as the next superpower dominating militarily, technologically, and economically in the coming years? It seems clear that G absolutely has a plan and he’s implementing it quite adeptly and swiftly. I’ll also refer to your column from last month on Frances Emmanuel Macron’s 3-day visit to China, in which Macron reportedly told G that quote, France does not choose sides. And then he announced a global strategic partnership with China. You point out in that article, what we once called the Free World currently faces more formidable adversaries than during the Cold War. Can you elaborate on all of this Cliff?
Cliff: Well, I guess I can elaborate. let’s understand a little bit of the history of this. When FTD was formed just after the attacks of 911 01, one of the misunderstandings I and others had was that we have to fight Jihadism, which was a new word back then. We had to fight radical Islam or Islamism. This was a problem for us, we had to fight terrorism, but 2 things we didn’t think we had to worry about. One was Russia and one was China. the Berlin Wall had fallen. There was no Soviet Union. I think most of us believed Russia wouldn’t necessarily become like Sweden or Finland, but it would become a fairly decent country. It would move in that direction. It would be freer. People would worry more about prosperity, and what they could build.
It would get better and better. Russia wasn’t part of the problem. And as we see now, it has become very much part of the national security problem for the United States and of course for its neighbors, most notably for Ukraine, which is now under existential threat. And the situation was seen somewhat similarly for China on a bipartisan basis in 2001. President Clinton and there was no pushback from Republicans because everyone kind of agreed on this. He decided to give China the most favored nation status and welcome China into the World Trade Organization. And he talked about it at the time. He said if we bring them into this international system and give them a reason to like it, they’ll become good stakeholders. They’ll become part of the international community as they get wealthier.
They’ll become more moderate, they’ll become more liberal. People become little class. They’ll want more than just to have a car and a vacation. They’ll want to have some freedom and there’s no reason those who rule them or lead them as you choose, would not want to give them that what will hurt them. So this is the way China is going to evolve. And for years and years, people thought of this exactly this way and we’re going to Walmart’s and everything we buy is from China. And that’s good because we’re getting it cheaper. Some people will worry because manufacturing is leaving here, going there because it’s cheaper to employ labor there. But people said that’s competition, that’s life in the fast lane. What are you going to do? And China was seen as our friend and plenty of people still hold this view of China, although I would say it’s relatively hard empirically to continue to have this view.
Part of what changed or would change our perception notably, Matt Pottinger was on the National Security Council during the Trump administration and in charge of China policy, and he became Deputy National Security Advisor. Matt Pottinger is a brilliant guy. He was a journalist in China. He learned to speak fluent Mandarin. He joined the US Marines. He is now I should say chairs, FDD’S Asia program. And one of the things he began to do, speaking Mandarin, is sort of look through the speeches that either weren’t being translated into English or were being mistranslated into English. And look at it, what is she saying? Not to the world, but to the Communist Party to the military. And he said, it’s all belligerent, it’s all bellicose. It’s all about defeating the United States. It’s all about replacing the United States as a world leader.
We have in place right now, more or less what happened after World War II. What happened after World War II is the US decided we are not going to be the ruler of the world, but we could have been because we were the only strong nation. We want to be a leader, not a ruler. And we want this to be an international community that we lead. And so, we’re going to establish United Nations, we’re going to have a universal declaration of human rights considered not just universal, Mars, Venus, everywhere because we all agree on certain basic things. The Soviet Union may be an adversary, but it’s going to be on the UN Security Council with a veto general, we’re going to try to have a way of diplomacy instead of conflict. That’s how we’re going to settle our differences.
This was an idea and this became what is known as the international liberal rules-based American-led world order. And people are not quite aware of this in a certain way. It’s like a fish. The last thing a fish is aware of is water. But this is the environment in which we’ve lived since World War II. And what China said is why should we and Russia, well China began to say, why should we accept this? Why should America be the leader, even if it’s not the ruler, even if it’s not, we don’t like the way America, should be the Communist Party. An important point here is most of us on this video, on this call, believe that America won the Cold War. Well, it depends on how you define the Cold War. If it was a struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, obviously America won because the Soviet Union is no more.
But if it was an ideological struggle between communism and capitalism, which means free markets, well, right now we have the strongest communist leader ruler in history in Beijing, and they’re challenging us. So if it’s an ideological struggle, it’s not over. It just took a break and moved to the center of the opposition to us, moved from Moscow to Beijing. We are right now in danger of losing this Cold War, whether it’s the same Cold War or Cold War 2.0 or whatever it is because China is very much challenging us on the ideological level, on the military level, and very much on the economic level. And China is in a quote-unquote no-limits partnership with Russia has been since, just before the invasion of Ukraine last year. And Russia is in a relationship now with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
And to his credit, John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman about a week or 2 ago, acknowledged that this is an absolute partnership where the Islamic Republic of Iran is giving weapons to Russia to kill Ukrainians and Russia is going to reciprocate in various ways and strengthen the Islamic Republic of Iran, which incites and vows genocide against Israel. One last point I want to make here is right now, there are 3 very dangerous countries in the world. There are more than that. But the 3 major ones are China, Russia, and Iran. And they are in an alliance, or one might say an axis. And there are 3 most endangered countries in the world. And those 3 countries are Ukraine, which is under invasion. Russia wants to subjugate the Ukrainians and wipe up the concept of Ukrainian nationality. Children, the next generation should speak only Russian, and shouldn’t think of themselves as Ukrainian. Subjugation is the aim.
There’s Taiwan. Beijing does not want Taiwan to think of itself as in any way separate. They are to think of themselves as Chinese. They are to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. They wanna subjugate the people of Taiwan. That’s their aim. They’re talking about doing it militarily if they can’t do it another way. And then there’s Israel. And the difference there is that Israel’s enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which controls Palestinian Islamic Jihad funds and instructs Hamas is increasingly present in the West Bank. Hezbollah as its proxy pointing 150,000 missiles at Israel from Lebanon. Iran under this regime does not want to subjugate the Israelis, he wants to exterminate the Israelis. It’s a little bit different. That is the real-world situation we’re looking at right now.
Interviewer: I love the way, Cliff, that you not only tied the access of the 3 countries of China, Russia, and Iran but then the 3 countries that are slated to be their victims, for lack of a better way.
Cliff: They’re most endangered, like endangered species. These are endangered nations. Accents and axis of tyranny, are 3 tyrannical regimes.
Interviewer: Very important point. so we have a lot of ground to cover. So I’m going to kind of move now away from China and I want to discuss the, [Inaudible]because it’s had a rocky couple of years. Do you know that Biden, am I frozen? Can you hear me?
Cliff: Now you’re okay. You froze for a second.
Interviewer: I’m sorry. Thank you for letting me know. I’m moving to the US-Saudi bilateral relationship. And we know that Biden started off his administration by reversing all things Trump. And that included the warm relationship that the Trump administration had with the Saudis and in particular Mohamed bin Salman or MBS as he’s known. So it’s not surprising that the Biden version of daylight has led the Saudis and many other US allies, I should add to view the US as an unreliable security partner, whether, through no longer designating the Houthis as foreign terrorist organizations or Poland or missile defenses out of Saudi Arabia in the midst of attacks from the Houthis. It just started out in a really poor way. It’s also seemingly led the Saudis into the arms of China, however, which just brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as you mentioned.
And the Saudis approved partial membership in the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which is a Beijing-led security block that includes Russia and India. So as Biden’s foreign policy team now kind of seems to realize the error in its ways through a giant wake-up call from China’s interventions, can you discuss whether Biden’s damage will have long-term implications that are irreversible? Or can the US rectify the situation and pull the Saudis back into the US fold? And if so, what will that entail? I know that several of your FDD colleagues are frequently in Saudi Arabia and in fact recently met with MBS and his team just ahead of Jake Sullivan’s meeting during which FDD briefed the Saudis on the possible path forward with the US. And there’s an important FDD report on that topic that I’m going to put into the chat for everybody and I urge you all to take a look at that so you can discuss that cliff.
Cliff: So, one of the benefits of doing a webinar like this is we can do more than sound bites. We can provide a little history and context and try to understand the situation a little better. And a number of important points to keep in mind I think is FDD was as you know, founded after the attacks of 911. Those attacks were by Sunni Arabs who were jihadis and how had that evolved? As you may know, I was a reporter in 1979 and I covered the revolution in Iran. I got there about the same time I had told Khomeini to return from France. That revolution was misunderstood broadly. It was not an Iranian revolution. It was assertively an Islamic revolution. And it created the first modern state that was dedicated, and committed to jihad against the West.
That’s the idea of that revolution and the restoration of the caliphate. Although to Shia, you wouldn’t say caliphate, you would say IMAME[?] because it’s Imam rather than a Caliph. That’s a difference without much of a distinction. It was a Shia revolution and a predominantly Persian revolution that were the revolutionaries were Shia and Persian predominantly, but it had a galvanizing effect in the Arab Sunni world. Why? Because there were a lot of Arab Sunnis a lot who said, this is a humiliation. The first modern nation-state committed to jihad and restoration of the caliphate. And it is Shia a rival. It is Persian rather than Arab. Where’s ours? Where’s r Jihadi state? It’s supposed to be Saudi Arabia. It’s Saudi Arabia we think. But the Saudis are having too much fun skiing in some Ritz shopping in Paris and drinking whiskey with her infidel buddies in Washington.
And from that seed was Al-Qaeda grown. and one other thing happened in 1979, about which too few people know and that was what’s called the siege of Mecca. Ultra Wahabi is the sect of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Ultra Wahabi took over the holiest places of Mecca under the leadership of someone who called himself Ahmadi the Messiah. And the Saudis couldn’t defeat him. They eventually brought in the French special forces and there was a bloody battle and they wiped him out and killed him. This was not well reported because in those days there was very little reporting from Saudi Arabia. There’s a great book called The Siege of Mecca by Yaroslav Trofimov, who is probably the best living foreign correspondent right now, reports for the Wall Street Journal and reports a lot from Ukraine. And everybody, I totally recommend that you read it to understand the relevant history.
So what happened after that? The Saudis decided we have to show that we are committed to jihad, that we are committed to an Islamic revolution. And they spent billions of dollars fomenting the Islamic revolution, for example, by funding madrassas in Pakistan that would train young men to wear suicide vests and kill infidels. They did this for a good 20 years and spent billions and billions of dollars. Eventually, they did realize as one Saudi high official put it to me, we created a Frankenstein monster. And it attacked you and it has attacked us. And today I am convinced that the Saudis are very much opposed to Al Qaeda, opposed to the Islamic State, and opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, which a lot of people in the US are not. They oppose all of that. And one thing that is progress and amazing is 20 years ago when I started FDD I never thought I could set foot in Saudi Arabia.
And I’ve been there a number of times and they could not be more hospitable to me at this point. What I need to understand about Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, he is a serious reformer, but not at all a democratizer, there’s a difference. In other words, he’s 37 years old, he’s the crown prince, and when he’s 87 he expects to still be king and his goal is to have transformed that country into a very different kind of modern nation-state. He might call it a startup kingdom, like if there’s a startup nation in Israel. He sees what Israel has accomplished. He sees that no Arab or Muslim state has accomplished the same thing. He is not unlike the Iranians trying to dominate their neighbors. He’d like to lead his neighbors, but he’s not trying to take over anybody else’s territory.
He wants to transform Saudi Arabia into a dynamic. And the dynamic nation-states know to do that people have to want to come and live in Saudi Arabia, and visit for vacations. They can’t be afraid to come. If he wants to have great hospitals, great universities, all that’s possible. And he wants to use the oil money they have to do that. He’s going to have to help from other nations and other people and they have to come and see it very differently. So he’s trying to transform it, but he will brook no opposition. So, I do believe he was responsible in one way or another for the murder of Khashoggi, whom he saw as a traitor to the country and somebody who was trying to undermine him. And it was a terrible crime and a stupid thing to do and America should have denounced it but Biden went way too far. He personalized it and said, I’m going to make a pariah out of Mohamed Bin Salman MBS. He took that very personally. And then what else did Biden do? Biden is waging a war, I think a very misguided war against fossil fuels. And so, before the last election, the price of gasoline was high. He wasn’t to back off his war on fossil fuel. So, he goes to Saudi Arabia and says why don’t you do me a favor and pump a little more I’ll bring the price down a little bit. That’ll help me in my election. I’d appreciate it. Who is he to ask us to do that? And they understand the basis of the relationship since 1945 when the king of Saudi Arabia back then met with Franklin Roosevelt.
Essentially, this wasn’t a treaty, but everybody understood this was an oil-for-security relationship. You pump oil and do it in a responsible way and we can restore the world’s global economy post World War II. And if you will do that, we’ll provide you with the security you need. But the US security guarantee has been very weak under the Biden administration, even under the Trump administration, Trump got along well with him but in 2019, Iran attacked the Saudi oil facilities and we didn’t really do anything in response. And that was a disappointment to them. They thought that was the deal we had. And certainly, the Obama administration’s policy was, and I think the Biden administration has not veered far from it, we have to find a way to make have a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
And we can do that. I think Obama thought partly because they’ll like me, I’m different from everybody else, I had a Muslim father and I’m a person of color and they’ll like me and also will respect their equities. Biden had what I sometimes call the Mr. Rogers approach to diplomacy. He said you Saudis and you Israelis, you got to share the neighborhood with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But Islam doesn’t want to share the neighborhood he wants to dominate the neighborhood. It’s not going to take half a loaf. It’s not going to accept that, but that was his idea. He thought he could accomplish that. And that’s what the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was not comprehensive and was not a plan of action.
That’s what that was meant to do and he was going to say, we’re not going to tell you not to develop nuclear weapons, just do it more slowly, delay it and we’ll make you rich. And it was a little bit like what we talked about with China. If we make you rich, one should be more moderate and he didn’t seem to understand what Khomeini had said. This revolution is not about the price of watermelons. And so that has been the philosophy. So right now the relationship is strained, certainly between the Biden administration and the Saudis, and the Saudis have looked to China, which is an important trading partner. They sell a lot more oil to China than they do to the US. And China said we can get Iran a little bit off your back and you can sleep a little bit better at night.
And they said well I’ll take that. Is this the tie between Riyad and Tehran real, it’s real, but it’s limited. Don’t forget, the Sunni-Shia split is 1400 years old and no peace process has ever managed to overcome it. And I think the Saudis know very well that the mole [?] and Tehran don’t really have any respect for them. They still see them as they always have, as interlopers and usurers who have no business being custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and who are discriminating against the Shia of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, which is where the oil is. And there’s some validity to that charge. So it’s a bad situation, the US is seen as weaker. Don’t forget, going back to certainly the Clinton administration, Clinton said, we’re going to pivot to Asia, you’re going to pivot to Asia, what part of your anatomy are you showing to the Middle East? They understood that.
I think the Saudis have closer relations with the Israelis than ever before, they’ve welcomed Israelis, and we at FDD have brought some Israeli investors over there. I don’t think they’re hostile to Israel. I think they understand very clearly that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East that has the will and the capability to stand up to Iran. And Israel is not pivoting anywhere, Israel’s not going anywhere but I don’t think they want to join the Abraham Accords. I think they think they’re bigger than that. They’d have to have their own accord of some kind. And I think it’s possible, as you mentioned the FDD door-to-long paper about how this could be done and what they would need. But the Saudis are going to look up to their national interest. I don’t think it’s imminent, I think it is likely coming in time if the US doesn’t screw up, but the US would’ve to be very much part of that and a security arrangement would need to be part of the overall deal.
Interviewer: So, I’m glad you brought the Abraham Accords in Israel into the conversation because that was actually going to be my next question to you. And I think that given the time that we have, maybe we can come back to the details of what might be blocking that. So I will move past Israel right now but I’m glad you brought that up because I think that most of us that are on this webinar right now are wondering what’s going to happen and whether the Saudis in Israel are going to have come up with some sort of normalization in the near future. I would like to see that.
Cliff: Can I also make this point because people miss it? Normalization is a process. Normalization isn’t a state of affairs and I think it’s clear that you should have a normalization process that leads to treaties and agreements and you don’t do it the other way and this is one of the things not understood in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinians have consistently rejected normalization. And a lot of people and a lot of diplomats have said, well, that’s okay. After we get a peace agreement, there’ll be normalization. No, I think you need to have normalization first. If Israelis and Palestinians are working together, if they’re benefiting from one another, and getting to know one another, then they can move on to that. But you don’t just have a sign of paper and it’s all good and then have normal.
And so one of the ways in which that was being pursued, if you remember Soda Stream, the manufacturer, I forget the name of the guy who runs it now, but he established a factory in the West Bank and in that factory in the West Bank, what he had Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, men and women all working together on an equal level. All were getting good health insurance. The kind that you can’t get normally in the West Bank. He knew he was spending more for the extended families. He wanted to prove that this was possible. This was an experiment in normalization, which would lead to other things. They all sit in the same cafeteria and eat their halal, kosher meals. And he wasn’t making money from this, he was doing this because he thought this was important.
And the so-called international community was not supportive of this. So, we would find that distributors in Sweden would say, where were these Soda Stream products made? Were they made in Israel or because we’re not sure we want them? He said don’t worry, they were made in China. Oh, they’re made in China, that’s just fine. Nothing’s bad happening to Tibetans in China or to the Uyghurs in China or to Freedom or Christians in China and there was the BDS and with all the pressures eventually he closed it down, and the experiment normalization failed. He moved to the NEGAV and began to employ better wings instead as a way to do the kind of work he wanted to do. So, when we talk about normalization, understand that should precede not follow treaties and agreements.
Interviewer: Very important point. And before we move on, I just want to ask you also in this context, should we be concerned about the meetings? the PA President Mahmoud Abbas and representatives of Hamas had met on separate trips with the Saudis. They went to the Saudi Kingdom for meetings with the Prince. Should that concern us?
Cliff: Yeah, it’s not good. I would tell you that the Saudis understand that Mahmoud Abbas is not a peacemaker and is not somebody you can solve this with they know who he is very well. And as for Hamas, they can tolerate Hamas, but they also know Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and they know them at this point, the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s not a friend of theirs either. So they know what they’re looking at. I remember a conversation I had, I was authored with a high Saudi official in Saudi Arabia over at dinner, and I’m talking about the Palestinians and he was a very clever guy. He said to me Cliff, you must understand, we Saudis, we care a great deal about the Palestinians. We care for them. In fact, sometimes I think we care more about the Palestinians than do the Palestinians. So, I understood what he was saying.
Interviewer: So how does all of this play out with Iran and the hope on the part of teams, Obama and Biden, who have been bending over backward to build an Iranian hegemon to replace the American presence in the region? I know it’s complicated geopolitical maneuvering and while Obama invited Russia and Syria, I don’t think that the Obama and Biden foreign policy folks anticipated China’s very quick entry into the Middle East diplomacy, let alone their military and economic forays that are harmful to US interests. And now we’re seemingly facing this access that you brought up in the initial conversation, China, Russia, and Iran. It’s also on top of the fact that you’re pointing out that the Sunni Saudis are meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and the form of Hamas and realigning with Shia in Iran. So, it’s complicated.
And we’re going to bring Syria into the conversation in a few minutes, but with Iranian influence now across the entire region and the anti-Iran coalition seemingly coming apart with warming ties with the Saudis and perhaps other Gulf nations who fear the unreliability of the US, what do you think we can expect to see in the near term? And I’m just going to add, and maybe you want to touch on this, that I’ve read that Egypt might be the next Arab nation to reconcile with Iran with reports in the Wall Street Journal that Egypt is ignoring US requests and allowing Moscow to use its airspace to transport weapons to Ukraine also. So, I don’t know how that all plays into this.
Cliff: The weaker America seems the more that the various countries of the Middle East, not least the small Gulf countries, but Egypt, not others, they’re going to hedge their bets. They’re thinking if the Hegemon is going to be the Iranians, let’s not be first on their to-do list, to take off these, they know what what’s happened to Lebanon, they know what’s happened to Syria as well and they’re going to pursue their interests and hedging bets and they will, as Osama bin Laden rightly pointed out, recognize who is the strong horse and they will defer to the strong horse, not to the weak horse. And you can say, well, but we have some very clever diplomats who are very persuasive that we can send in. No, we don’t, it’s all about hard power.
It’s not about soft power. It’s all about who has military might and who has the will to utilize that military might if this is a larger point, but I think it’s usually an important one. So, let me make it while we’re thinking about it. The only way we can be a world leader or even a free world leader is if we’re clearly and unequivocally the world’s superpower. And when I say superpower, I mean at the very top of the food chain. The notion that we can lead by example, that diplomacy and soft power, that’s all it requires, is naivety on steroids. This is simply not true. Gazelles, no matter how pretty they are or how nice a pet do not tell Lions what to do. That’s the way of the world. If we don’t understand that, we really don’t understand.
I get that leadership is a heavy burden. I get that some Americans are tired of bearing it, but we’d be really foolish not to consider the alternative, which is a new world order. As I mentioned before, a new world order in which the rules are made in Beijing by the Chinese Communist Party. And Americans and others obey their new masters. That’s what they have to do. This would be a tremendous change from what was established after World War II and it will not be good for our children and our grandchildren to live in a world in which America has been second-rate power. So that’s the larger issue. Bring me back to where you started because I forgot.
Interviewer: I think that we were talking about Iran’s role in the Middle East and the access of the anti-Iran access sort of breaking down.
Cliff: The other point is that, and this is where I disagree with some of my friends who are not on the left, but on the right, but they’re on China first I would say where they say, well, because China is so important, we have to abandon the Middle East, we have to abandon Ukraine. We just have to focus on China. If we are seen as abandoning Ukraine and abandoning the Middle East, that will just be another signal of our weakness. And at a time when China is expanding its influence and power all around the world, all these other battlefields China’s on, if we leave them, it will be seen correctly that we are shrinking, we are being diminished, we are being pushed back, we will not do better in terms of Taiwan because of that. On the contrary, just as I do believe it’s not the only thing that Putin saw, but when Putin saw our shameful surrender to the Taliban in Afghanistan, we were not losing, Kabul was a pretty free place, and women were getting an education.
We had a guy the other day who escaped that day and he said Kabul was a decent place to live and it was just going to be a struggle. We had a chance of having a decent country, but we needed the Americans to help us not hundreds of thousands, not 28,000, which is about the number we’ve had in Korea since the 1950s. We just needed a few thousand because we hadn’t gotten to the point where we could repair our own helicopters. We needed air support, there were things that the Americans were providing us that we needed. And the Taliban was reduced, had no major urban areas, they were reduced to the countryside, they couldn’t take over and we had a background air base, a very useful asset in that part of the world.
After all, what’s on Afghanistan’s borders? How about China? how about the former Soviet Union? all very useful. And we gave all that up, left billions of dollars in military equipment behind, and let the Taliban walk in and kill people who had dared to align with us and side with us. What a dreadful thing. So Putin sees that and thinks among other things, maybe this is a good time for me to do what I’ve been thinking about doing and kind of working on for many years after all, he sliced off 2 provinces of Georgia in 2008. He invaded Ukraine in 2014 and remained in the Eastern region called Donbas. And we all said that’ll satisfy him. W That’s too bad, wish he hadn’t done that, but it’s done.
No, it wasn’t done. This was just one step in one battle. And this is misunderstood. If Putin prevails in Ukraine, that’s not the end. He’s not done. He doesn’t retire and open a yoga studio. He has other countries on his list that he is going to attack, including NATO countries. And if he sees America lose again, he’ll think he can do that. And Xi Jinping will say, America can do that. And imagine these guys are in a no Limits alliance that they say, let’s coordinate a little bit. How about Vladimir, you take Lithuania while we take Taiwan simultaneously, that’ll confuse the Americans well, don’t you think? And I think they’d be right to think, to believe that.
Interviewer: You’re making some excellent points, Cliff. And I am going to pivot out of the Middle East in one second, but I just want to touch on Syria really quickly, because Assad was just welcome with open arms at the Arab League summit last week, despite US opposition adding one more dis to the Biden administration by the Saudis. So, with Russia pulling [inaudible] Syria to focus on [inaudible] there and [inaudible] targeted airstrikes, which have[inaudible] Iran from establishing a new Hezbollah-like proxy on its northern border. You’re basically adding a new front to this multi-front war that Israel’s facing by Iran and its surrounding proxies. So what are your thoughts on Syria and Assad back in the Arab League? Are there wider implications?
Cliff: Well, Syria is someplace where the Obama administration decided not to intervene and not to support what was, I believe a reasonably moderate opposition. They were simply abandoned by us, and the red lines were crossed by Assad. And President Obama decided to let him cross those red lines and not have any consequences on him, and to go to the Russians and say, can you help us out? And the Russians of course, smiled and said, of course we can. And there was the fiction that Assad was giving up chemical weapons, which he did. He gave up somebody, he didn’t give up others, and he continued to use them and then Russia intervened militarily. And Obama said to Vladimir Putin, it’s a quagmire, you don’t want to do this and Putin thought for you, it may be a quagmire, but you’re a naïve young man who doesn’t understand the ways of the world I’m going to succeed here which he did.
Iran came in as well. and among the things that the Islamic Republic Iran has been doing in Syria, not only boosting Assad but as you say, also trying to build forward operating bases to open another front against Israel. And Israel bombed Syria almost every night in order to stop that. But meanwhile, Assad killed something like a half million of his people. Do you think the world would be outraged at that, a half million, mostly Sunni Arabs being killed? Every time Israel goes into the West Bank and kills 3 terrorists, it’s disproportionate, Oh my God. They bombed Gaza. 800 missiles come from Gaza and 6 Islamic jihad terrorists get killed, oh my God, look what Israel is doing, the world can’t, this is terrible, this is apartheid. Israel is delegitimized, but half a million of his people he kills, and that’s okay.
And about 10 million are displaced, and about a million of those are refugees in Europe. And meanwhile, another thing that people don’t know too well is that the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken over a lot of the Sunni Arab villages in Syria and brought settlers colonists there from Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Shia and they get this reward for having joined a militia under the instructed by Tehran. So you have settler colonials, and they’re moving the Sunnians and moving the Shia into various places. On Friday Syria is readmitted to the Arab League, and Assad shows up at the summit of the Arab League in Riyad and gets big hugs from everybody. And let me tell you why, we’ve already discussed this. He’s a strong horse.
You pet the strong horse, you whip the mule that is weak. That’s the way it works in the Middle East and most of the world. And a lot of Americans just can’t get that through their head that that’s the way the world works. They’re going to follow our example we’ll lead by example. No, that doesn’t work. So that’s a bad thing. It’s going to make it harder for the Israelis to continue to bomb these bases in Syria? Yeah, but I don’t think they’ll back down. I don’t think anybody’s going to push them. It’s also Iran getting a foothold in the Arab League. Iran is not Arab. Assad is Arab, but he is neither Sunni nor Shia, he’s Alawite. Alawites are seen in Syria by the Islamic Republic of Iran as being an offshoot of Shiasm. But trust me, if the Alawites were in Iran, they would be seen as heretics and oppressed. But it is good enough for their purposes right now to have this Alawite dictator in Syria. The Alawite are a minority not a terribly large minority. We should see this as another defeat for American interests in the Middle East.
Interviewer: Thanks for all those important points. There are a lot of questions in the Q and A but I want to just ask one more of you to discuss Latin America. I said I was going to turn away from the Middle East, and I think we need to turn south for a second before I get to the questions that the audience has submitted. Brazilian president Lulu De Silva visited China terminating the US dollar’s dominance in international trade. China is South America’s top trading partner today and is expanding its military and political access and influence. And you point out that 10 years ago when John Kerry was Secretary of State, he held up a [inaudible] by announcing that the quote error of the Monroe Doctrine is over. That was something that you had written in an article recently.
The Monroe Doctrine was the US foreign policy that opposed European colonization in the Western hemisphere, which was viewed as potentially hostile to the US interests. Then there’s Iran, which has developed relationships with the leaders of Venezuela and Nicaragua, and which recently in February, [Inaudible] ships in Rio with the consent of Brazil’s President Lula. And we know that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has set up shop across South America posing imminent national security challenges for us. So, can you share your thoughts on what we should be concerned about in our South and perhaps what can be done about it?
Cliff: We should be very concerned about Latin America because we’re losing influence in Latin America very rapidly. Hezbollah, which is Iran’s proxy, is very active there, involved in terrorism, and working with cartels in terms of money laundering, and drug trafficking and the Chinese are becoming the most important influence in Latin America. It’s the major trading partner for Latin America. During the Trump administration, we had, for the first time ever an American who was the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Mauricio, Mauricio Clarer-Carone, a really brilliant, wonderful guy, an American. And his main mission was to dilute Chinese influence in Latin America. And at the Indian development bank where America pays the most of the bills. But China was utilizing most of the influence, one of the first things that very early in the Biden administration, he was fired. And now there’s a Brazilian head of the bank, and he’s much more friendly to China than anybody else. So we’re losing China rapidly, I would say.
Interviewer: Thank you for…
Cliff: Sorry we’re losing Latin America rapidly, I say.
Interviewer: It’s frightening. That’s our border which is wide open. I should just add.
Cliff: Well, that’s another very big problem too. And another thing China doing with Mexico is they’re sending in precursor chemicals for fentanyl. They’re working with the cartels. The cartels are getting fentanyl into the US and it’s probably the biggest killer of young men of military age going on right now. And we have a border that is absolutely open and anybody can walk through, terrorists and others. And the Biden administration is refusing to take serious steps to secure that border. These are all huge problems for the future.
Interviewer: So, I’m going to turn to the Q and A and the first question in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last weekend, historian William and Boden suggests there is a lesson to be learned from the Cold War about the contingency of history. That nothing is inevitable, that geopolitical and national security trend lines or anything but linear. And that ultimately it comes down to political will and leadership, that presidents matter, and that the fate of the world can rest on that, given the lack of any discernible parallels between Reagan and Biden, the question is, are we doomed?
Cliff: Well, we’re not doomed. And we have a new president in a couple of years, a new administration, this administration could be a, I think it’s on a bad trajectory, I think it’s that there are serious damages that are being incurred right now because of the foreign policy and national security policies of the Biden administration But I think William and Biden are right, It’s not irreversible. We’re not to the point where we can’t recover. But that point will come eventually, and I think a lot of people will depend on the next election. If we have somebody who has a more realistic view of the world and has policies that are more determined to protect America’s interests in the world and also understand that if America doesn’t lead tired as we may be of leadership, then we are going to pass the torch.
After World War II Britain, which had sort of been the world leader, they were tired and they passed the torch to the US and said, thank goodness we have somebody else to do it. The problem now is there are countries that are good enough, but they’re not strong enough. There are countries that are strong enough, but they’re not good enough. I don’t see us passing the torch to Denmark and Denmark taking world leadership. The EU is kind of a mess in a lot of ways. They’re not going to do it either. You mentioned Macron. He goes to China and he says this is a dispute between America and China. We’re not involved really, you’re not involved. And they say what we really need is an independent European defense force.
Well, how are you going to pay for that? Macron has not even been able to get the French to be happy about delaying the retirement age from 62 to 64. If all these 63-year-olds are too tired to work, they can burn down city halls and protest. I lived in Africa for a number of years, used to be that the French were very, so they had great affection for their former colonies. And I remember covering a war in Chad as a reporter, and the French Foreign Legion came in there to assist the Chadians and did a hell of a good job. What most recently happened, the French military was forced out of Mali and took their place, the Wagner group from Russia. That’s what’s going on. And that’s a whole other thing in this Bogner group and Russia.
Russia and China. You mentioned Latin America. It’s also happening in Africa. Africa is in a certain, you have neo-imperialism by China and Russia in Africa stripping the continent of its resources, treating the people terribly and those who claim to be anti-imperialists and rail about the British empire of the 19th century don’t seem to understand that imperialism is taking place right now. That doesn’t seem to bother them quite so much. They’re not railing against that and it’s really quite hypocritical and startling.
Interviewer: Somebody asked, can Israel trust Biden for serious support if a hot war breaks out with Iran?
Cliff: Well, this is a hard thing. Trust, what does that mean? Israel may have to act on its own. I don’t think it believes that Biden is going to act militarily against Iran’s wishes, that the Biden administration would at least give the impression that it might. But I don’t think anybody in power in Tehran believes that of Biden at this point. Israel would benefit greatly if the US simply has Israel’s back, should Israel decide to militarily take steps against a regime that has threatened genocide and made it clear that genocide is its intention and is trying to develop the capability to carry out that intention. But it’s tricky, If you are Netanyahu and his security council, you have to worry very seriously and think very seriously, what can we do? What do we have the capability to do?
And what kind of support will we get from the US? How much do we tell the US in advance? It’s a very complex equation. The only thing I’d say is a very senior Israeli, I won’t mention the name, people would on this would know the name. FA former military intelligence guy said if we take on a run at a certain point, and people like you Cliff are watching it, and you say that’s what I expected they do, then we know we’ve failed. We only succeed if we take on Iran and people like you say it never occurred to me, they would do it that way, I didn’t know that was possible. That’s the only way it works.
Interviewer: So, on that topic on a similar topic, somebody sent in Israeli IDF chief Ha has issued perhaps the most pointed warning ever about Iran’s nuclear weapons progress. How close do you think the Israelis are to taking military action to stop Iran from deploying a deliverable nuclear weapon?
Cliff: Well it goes back to what I was saying. The answer is we don’t know and we shouldn’t know. The Israelis are going to figure this out and if they’re telegraphing, if they’re showing their cards, not playing their cards close to the vest, that’s a terrible mistake. The Israelis understand this. They’re thinking about it, they’re planning for it. They’re looking at different options and contingencies and strategies, and we don’t know what they’re going to do or when, and we don’t really don’t know exactly what their capabilities are entirely. There are those who say they can’t do anything at this point. It’s too late. The Iranian nuclear program is too dispersed. It would take too much. They don’t have the range for their play. Those who talk don’t know. Those who know, don’t talk.
Interviewer: Do you believe that a Republican administration will recognize that American power in the world is crucial and act accordingly? Or will the isolationist tendencies in the party prevail?
Cliff: I don’t think the isolationist tendencies in the party will prevail, but I think there’s some danger of those isolationist tendencies spreading. Essentially it’s very odd where you see in terms of, say, Ukraine Republicans who are neo-isolationist taking the same position as code pink and the different sort of is that the code pink leftists think that America isn’t a good enough force to be out in the world and the new isolations to the right think the world isn’t a good enough place for the Americans to go ahead into.
Interviewer: A lot of people are asking questions that they’re trying to get their heads around why the US does certain things, why the EU does certain things. And someone said that you listed examples, [Inaudible] did they not understand? Somebody else asked why is the EU cozying up to Iran. Seemingly at times none of these alliances seem to make sense. None of these decisions seem to make sense.
Cliff: They make perfect sense. If you understand that whoever is seen as strong and threatening will be the one to whom everyone bows. People in the world will kiss the hand they cannot bite. It’s really as simple as that. If they see China strengthening, they’re going to begin to kowtow as Macron did when he went. If they see Iran becoming powerful, they will say, how do we keep you from hurting us? If they see America’s powerful, they’ll side with America. It’s as simple as that. And if we cut the military and reduce the military, and we are not seeing, and usually, the important point is this, our military goal is to deter. And you only deter if your enemy says, I can’t fight them, that won’t work. I won’t succeed. If they say I think we’re evenly matched, I think we got a 50-50 chance of winning, then they will take you on or they think it’s better than that. So, I got to say, when President Biden says, I think he said 4 times now that he would defend Taiwan.
Well, nice of him to say, I suppose. But if you’re going to, will the ends, you must, will the means. And we do not have a military that clearly can defeat China in Asian waters. We do not, the navy’s not prepared for it. The Air Force is not prepared for it. Infantry is less important for this kind of conflict. If he’s going to say that he needs to be giving the Navy and the air force, not just the means to win a war, if it comes down to that, but the means to deter China. So, Xi Jinping woke up in the morning and says, I can’t do this today because I don’t want to fail. I don’t think my odds are good. I’m not feeling lucky today.
That’s what you have to do. And he’s not doing that. And he is weakening the US in many other ways with inflation, war, and fossil fuels. This is not a subject you want to get into today necessarily, but if every internal combustion engine in America were turned off tomorrow for the next 10 years, would there be less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Not meaningfully because the Chinese are building every week, new power plants based on coal and coal are the most polluting, plus the most carbon dioxide producing. Those are two separate concepts that are often conflated and it shouldn’t be. And we are also if we are going to become dependent on electricity and batteries and solar and wind, we are going to be as dependent on China as Europe has been on Russia.
Because 80 to 90% of all the batteries that are made for every electric vehicle are made in China and processing of critical minerals, about a dozen of them are. That’s all done in China. We’re going to become totally dependent on China for our energy needs. Is that a smart thing? I don’t think so. Please explain to me how this is smart. And we say, well but it’s a climate crisis. I can tell you, people, to listen to Bjorn Loberg and Mark Mills at the Manhattan Institute, we’re making an emergency of something that is not an emergency is merely a challenge and the Chinese must think we’re very stupid because they’re going to do nothing and they’re going to increase and they’re going to use coal because they want to get richer. And yes, if we want to get poorer, they’ll be happy to see us get poorer. That’s only helpful to them.
Interviewer: I’m glad you brought that up because I think that makes the larger point, which is that US policy has impacts across the globe and domestic policy influences foreign policy and they’re internally tied together. And I don’t think that people focus on foreign policy, but domestic policy can have foreign policy implications. And so I’m glad that you brought up climate change because the world’s being turned upside down over something that’s not emergent as you say. And our enemies are not doing what we’re doing and we’re weakening ourselves in the same way.[ Inaudible] o’clock and had you for a day, we could talk about all this. I didn’t get to touch all that I had prepared for you. So maybe we’ll bring you back another time but thank you so much. Your brilliant insights are always appreciated and I really appreciate you taking the time to join us and thank you to everybody who joined us this afternoon. Please again share the video form-wide because I think that the conversation was an important one. Have a good afternoon.
Cliff: Thank you. Good to see you.
Interviewer: You too Cliff.
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