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Career Ambassador returns to SIS to discuss foreign policy challenges across the Middle East

By Anne Deekens

Pickering_Middle East

“The Middle East has this tremendous capacity to intrude itself in the international scene in ways that I think are particularly hard,” Ambassador Thomas Pickering said during his discussion with Dean James Goldgeier and students on Friday, March 25. “From ISIS to the Syrian crisis, there are all of these pieces out there that we are grappling with. It is like trying to build a square house with round bricks.”

The severe challenges facing the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East was the topic of Ambassador Thomas Pickering’s latest discussion at the School of International Service (SIS). Students asked questions about the Syrian crisis, rights of refugees, proposed plans from Republican presidential candidates on intervention in the Middle East, and efforts to curb radicalization.

ISIS: Need more than military force to defeat it

Dean Goldgeier asked the ambassador about the eruption of ISIS' attacks in Europe—most recently, the bombings in Brussels, Belgium last week.

To defeat ISIS, Ambassador Pickering stressed that the United States must deploy political tactics in addition to military might.

“We tend to look at ISIS in a military way. We have never been able to muscle in place the political requirements necessary to deal with ISIS alongside the military one,” said Pickering.

Doing so, the ambassador continued, would require an understanding of ISIS as a global, terrorist conglomerate. He explained that ISIS’ strategy has three prongs: expanding its caliphate; exploiting and developing its franchise; and then, using that swollen, frenzied base to infiltrate and attack the West from the inside. Thanks to its ability to recruit and indoctrinate followers, ISIS has been able to conduct large-scale attacks in western cities, including Brussels, San Bernardino, and Paris and as the ambassador grimly admitted, “whatever is next.” According to Ambassador Pickering, the United States is only addressing the caliphate at the moment by trying to decrease ISIS’ territorial capacity.

“We said we have gotten 20 percent of Iraq back. We have said we have surrounded Mosul. Well, we perhaps cut off the roads, but anybody who has spent any time in the Middle East out in the desert knows that the roads don’t count,” he said, exasperated. “If you have light logistic requirements, pickup trucks or Humvees are the answer for getting around that. ISIS has become an expert at doing this, so I think our tactics to date are not realistic yet.”

The ambassador emphasized that allies and strengthened leadership in the region will both continue to be necessary in the fight against ISIS.

“ISIS’ excesses have begun to turn Sunnis who are not terribly religious in places like Mosul against them. To an extent, we do have a recruiting base there. The Sunnis and Kurds who have been fighting together against ISIS are also an important part of our future. But to some extent, the necessary ground equivalent in my view must come out of a political change in the Iraqi government,” Pickering declared. “Because ISIS’ goal is to produce horrendous attacks that they believe will be the great stimulant in the Muslim world for building their franchise and strength. That is primarily an intelligence, police, and law enforcement tactic, as opposed to a military function. It has a lot to do with politics.”

Syria: What’s next?

Regarding Syria, Ambassador Pickering noted that many challenges remain before peace can be achieved. These include addressing whether cease fires should be monitored and maintained, how to create a transitional government, and making a full-time effort to look at a permanent constitution.

“In a transitional government, elections are clearly important for those who are supportive of the opposition to Assad. In an election process properly designed, say for a parliament or a constituent assembly, I wouldn’t object to Assad running for parliament in Syria. But he would, so it would be a good way to ease him out,” Pickering explained.

Future of the Middle East

The first step to resolving challenges in the Middle East is to focus on the anti-ISIS effort, according to Pickering. However, he recommended viewing that in the context of a future Middle East, one defined by several major players: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. These nations would need to address challenging questions of how to balance power, build security and stability in the region, and eventually, to rebuild the Arab-Israeli piece.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the whole Middle East and solving it won’t resolve the other questions in the region. But it would take out from the center of the problem what has been for a long time perhaps the central reckoning point of people and their attitudes toward the United States and its engagement in the region,” said Pickering. “This will not be an early or an easy peace.”

About the series

This event, titled “Confronting Challenges Across a Turbulent Middle East,” was the second in a three-part series of foreign policy conversations featuring the ambassador.

When Ambassador Pickering, who holds the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service, last visited SIS on March 1, he discussed ways to manage relations with an increasingly assertive Russia amid economic and political strife.

In a diplomatic career spanning five decades, Pickering was U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. From 1989 to 1992, he was Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations in New York.

Please join us for the final discussion with Ambassador Pickering on Wednesday, April 13,“Envisioning the Future of the United Nations." This event will be held in the Abramson Family Founders Room at SIS from 3-4 p.m.

Read about Ambassador Pickering's previous discussion at SIS, "Managing Relations with an Increasingly Assertive Russia."

Learn more about upcoming events at SIS.