Mark Tooley speaks with contributing editors Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute and Joseph Capizzi of Catholic University about the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s latest report, “A New US Paradigm for the Middle East: Ending America’s Misguided Policy of Domination.”

The Quincy Institute is a collaboration of the Charles Koch Foundation and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, among other philanthropies, in a union of leftist and libertarian advocacy for a much-reduced US military global presence.

Rough Transcript of the Conversation:

TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. And today I have the pleasure of speaking with two of our distinguished contributing editors and writers, Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute here in Washington, DC, and also Joseph Capizzi, head of the Institute on Human Ecology at Catholic University here in Washington, DC. And together we’re going to address this new report on the US and the Middle East published by the Quincy Institute, which is a collaboration of the Koch Brothers and the George Soros philanthropy, an unusual partnership. Rebeccah and Joseph, thank you for joining this conversation.

CAPIZZI: Thanks Mark, thanks for calling us together.

TOOLEY: Rebeccah would you like to lead us off with your thoughts on this latest report from Quincy Institute?

HEINRICHS: Yeah, I’ll just say a couple of broad big points and then I think we can get into some more of the details. Number one, some of the reported goals of the Quincy Institute I think seem innocuous. They seem fine, and that’s that it stated in the report that US policy towards the Middle East should be guided by two core interests—protect the United States from attack and facilitate the free flow of global commerce. Those two goals I think standing on their own seem fine, and most people would agree with those. But then when we get into the meat of the report, I would argue that what they’re arguing for would actually increase the threats to American security, it would harm global commerce, and we would end up fighting larger scale wars than the ones we’re fighting today. And so, the unintended consequence would be the very thing that they’re reportedly seeking to avoid. And that has to do with their assumptions for how we have peace and security, and it also I think is because of their failure to actually accurately see threats, adversaries, and who our allies and partners are. One core ally for the United States is Israel, and our foreign policy towards the Middle East should be anchored in that reality, rather than what they suggest, which is a disengagement to Israel’s security. It was just a kind of an in passing in the report. And then they also recommend something that the Obama administration put forward, which was having a normalized relationship with Iran, a regime that’s driven by dangerous Islamism and is primarily responsible for a lot of the terrorism throughout the region, proliferation of the worst kinds of weapons, proliferation and support for other malign actors like North Korea. And so, having a normalized relationship with Iran, re-engaging them economically, would be against American security, American interests.

And then the last point I would make too is, the Trump administration has I think correctly identified China as the preeminent threat facing the United States now and in the long term. And so, when you’re competing with a great power like China, you cannot disengage from all these various regions of the world. Because, for instance, in the AFRICOM theater, we are competing with China in terms of resources there and also economically with some of those countries. And we obviously don’t want those countries to become hotbeds for terrorism. And so, the small degree that the United States has a force presence there—I think there’s six thousand military personnel spread across the entire African continent—that is providing a great bang for our buck in terms of American security. And so disengaging from the Middle East completely, when we already have really small numbers of forces there, and also disengaging from the AFRICOM theater, I think would be very dangerous for American security and would not bring about the kinds of outcomes that the Quincy Institute authors are alleging they would, and that they support in their report. So, I’ll just kind of end there and turn it over to my esteemed colleagues here.

TOOLEY: Well Joe, I want to get your thoughts, but first, for the benefit of our listeners, I will summarize the Quincy Institute. Essentially, they advocate a US decrease in military spending and an overall decrease in US military engagement around the world, for a combination of fiscal and ideological reasons. So, Joe, what are your thoughts?

CAPIZZI: Well, this will come as no surprise to you, Mark. A lot of what Rebeccah said are things that I would agree with regard to both the Quincy Institute’s new paradigm—I think is the phrase they use—the new paradigm for engagement in the Middle East, and also in terms of the suppositions or presuppositions of their analysis that she began to unearth. I think Rebeccah and I see these things sort of in the same way. I think we both agree that the goals that they identify are intelligible goals. I might have a little bit more question about the free flow of commerce as a second goal and sort of what that entails or how one understands that, as though it seems to be freestanding from certain kinds of political considerations that they don’t identify as goals. But beyond that, I think Rebeccah is right to question whether in fact the analysis that they provide in the full report really will lead to increased stability.

On the other hand, in their defense, they’re not calling for disengagement. I think we have to be careful about what they’re advocating. They’re advocating what they describe as a demilitarized engagement. Instead of engagement, according to their analysis, along the mode of militarized engagement, which involves military domination, intervention, arms sales, and so on, they instead want the United States to pull back to an engagement that’s led by diplomacy and economic activity. So, there is a kind of engagement that they’re advocating for, but with Rebeccah, I think that that’s presupposed by certain conceptions of political action that I think are unrealistic. I think, in fact, they would actually destabilize the area.

Maybe one specific example of where they begin to surface this account which I think would be destabilizing, is when they call for a military drawdown—I think is the word that they use—by the United States, that is done irrespective of stability milestones. In other words, the United States needs to pull back militarily, regardless of whether instability appears to be increasing in the region. Because, were we to pay attention to stability milestones, they argue, this would incentivize regional actors to destabilize in order to keep us there. That could be true, right. In fact, that may be true in some circumstances. But to advocate for instability in the name of stability is a tough argument to advance, and I think there are good reasons to question that tactic.

TOOLEY: Is it accurate to call the Quincy Institute “realist?” Are they isolationist, or is there another category they fit into?

CAPIZZI: Rebeccah you want to take the first swing at that?

HEINRICHS: Yeah, I would say they might claim to be more realistic. I think that their plans and their strategies are based much more in very naive hopes about what actually motivates people, and motivates nations, and motivates people groups. So, I certainly wouldn’t give them the credit for having that kind of title. And there’s evidence of that in the fact that one of their other big complaints is the United States’ cooperation and partnership with the Saudi government. That’s something that the United States has had for a long time; it’s even increased under the Trump administration. And the reason the US policy is that way is because we actually are trying to rebalance powers, and so you’re trying to push back on the Iranian influence, and so you want to make sure that you have partners and allies that are willing to work with the United States based on shared interests. And so to the extent that the United States can cooperate with the Saudis—obviously we’re not happy with a lot of the internal politics of Saudi Arabia, their treatment of Christians, and Jews, and other non-Muslim religious people—and yet, we see a lot of shared security interests with that country, and so, the United States has worked to strengthen that alliance and to make sure that they have the kinds of weapons systems that they need so that they can present a counter to the Iranians. And the Quincy Institute has a problem with that. Again, that would be to pull back from our efforts both with the Saudis and with the Israelis in making sure that they are supplied with the arms that they need through arms sales and some of our other Gulf partners would—if we slowed that down, that would necessarily mean that the United States has to have a larger presence, if in fact what we’re concerned about is the terrorism problem and the instability in the region. So, they’re trying to have it many different ways here, and I think it’s based on a wrong understanding of how people are motivated and how states and power actually play out in foreign affairs.

TOOLEY: Joe you alluded to this a little bit, but how does Quincy address the US special relationship with Israel?

CAPIZZI: It wants to reset that, as far as I can see. Part of a kind of renewed paradigm for the Middle East I think you see in the document itself as a kind of subtext—it’s not always explicitly said—and also, if you’ve read some of the authors’ other writings or heard their other speeches, they are interested in resetting that relationship, resetting the Middle Eastern relationships, and the US relationship with Israel in particular, on a kind of equal footing. Stop treating Israel and Saudi Arabia as special relationships to US interests. Instead, make those transactional, exactly in the same way as other relationships in the Middle East are.

To go back real quickly to a couple things that Rebeccah just said and answer your question, I think what the Quincy Institute people would say is, theirs is a restraint posture. The language of realism and idealism can seem unfair to those who are cast as idealists as opposed to those who are realists. Part of what’s animating them is this sense that we’ve engaged ourselves in an endless war—this is a term that’s being used now—and we cannot find a way out. And who’s not sympathetic to that? I think Rebeccah and I, and probably you, Mark, are all sympathetic to this idea that we we’ve involved ourselves in conflicts from which we don’t seem able to remove ourselves. But among my fears with this document, this approach, is that you conflate bad strategies, bad American practices, and so on, with what might in fact be good American practices, or necessary American practices, like military presence. Military presence itself is identified as a problem here. So the US should draw down, like I said earlier, or, as Rebeccah was saying, they describe a kind of new security architecture for the Middle East that they want. But they say they don’t want the US to lead. Well, if the US is not going to lead that then who is? I would say it’s hard to imagine, it’s unrealistic to imagine, the US not leading a security architecture in the Middle East that actually conduced to US interests. These are, I think, real problems for this kind of account. You can think of exceptions where the US military presence remains good and we haven’t lapsed into the kinds of problems that they describe here. Korea is one, Japan would be another. So if you’re going to advocate for the US pulling out to the point of some regional instability, I think you have to offer a better alternative than we see in this document.

TOOLEY: Here’s my cryptic critique of the Quincy Institute, and tell me how unfair it is. It’s essentially two atheist philanthropies trying to overturn America’s spiritual self-understanding of itself in the world. Is that completely unfair or are there grains of truth there?

HEINRICHS: Well so I don’t know, Mark, you may have actually studied this even more than I have. I will just say it does seem to be a couple of things. One, I would say not everybody who writes for Quincy Institute subscribes to this particular document. Patrick Porter, for instance, is affiliated with the Quincy Institute and he’s written some much more thoughtful pieces than this—I still am confused as to why he wants to be affiliated with the Quincy Institute, but I’ll leave that to his own judgments to make.

But I do think it is very dangerous. I think that a lot of the ideas, especially that are laid out in this particular document, are dangerous. I still think that they’re very fringy as well. I’m still confident that these ideas aren’t shared with the vast majority of American people. However, I think that they are trying to exploit some real sentiments that exist in the United States, and they’re conflating some desires with what they’re trying to do, in a way that I think is really malicious. For instance, I think it is true that the American people are very tired of the long war in Afghanistan, not because they are tired of the United States leading in the region, not because they’re tired of American military strength, but because they’re tired of what they perceive as a protracted war with very uncertain goals, this this notion that we’re going to make democrats out of Afghanis when they’ve shown no interest in actually having the kind of self-governing requirements to do that, like protecting their own women. One of the things I say to people is it’s very difficult when you’re trying to put as a criteria the protection of women in Afghanistan before you leave when you don’t have fathers and husbands willing to protect their own women, and so that is a perpetual problem, I think, that exists in Afghanistan and which the American people are tired of. But the American people have been supportive of the United States’ decision to enforce the red line in Syria when president Trump authorized the 50-some tomahawks into Syria when Assad used chemical weapons again. So, it’s not military strength that they’re opposed to, it’s not American leadership. I think what they want is, they want to have realistic goals that clearly protect American interests and are achievable in a way that they understand. And so I think the Quincy Institute is kind of taking this idea of this fatigue and this being tired of this endless kind of mission creep in Afghanistan and trying to make it a larger issue and take advantage of that in terms of making an argument against American leadership and military engagement.

And the other point I would make is, I think the point is absolutely right, it’s not disengagement. They say that they’re against American military engagement, and they put a lot of their hopes in international law, diplomacy, and economics. And I would just say that a lot of the failures we’ve seen—the rise of China, for instance—is because of that very sentiment that has existed from a bipartisan consensus for decades, that, if we merely engage in countries economically and diplomatically, without requiring that they have political liberalization in these authoritarian countries, that we will just in fact enrich our enemies to the point where we have a pure competitor in China that’s still guided by and governed by the communist party.

And so, I think what the Quincy Institute is prescribing is exactly the opposite of what we need. We actually need a stronger pulling back and understanding that it’s American military strength, economic strength, and American interest and security that are really going to enable us to create environments regionally, and for the United States, most conducive to peace and security.

TOOLEY: Joe would you not agree that many American Christians, as they look at US foreign and international policy, on many levels would be in sync with the Quincy Institute?

CAPIZZI: Would I agree that many American Christians would be in sync with some of what they’re prescribing? It’s hard to speak about numbers. I think I probably agree with Rebeccah that many Americans in fact agree with aspects of American strength, military and otherwise, and are probably not as critical as the Quincy Institute statement seems to be of America’s activity.

On the other hand, I think there’s no question: Americans like to see their military employment synced to political goals, synced to discrete political goals. And when those political goals become obscured, or cease to be discreet, and become increasingly elastic, people rightly become fatigued by that. And I think there is a lot of that in the country right now. I think some of that helped even elect Donald Trump. I think some of that was related to why Trump became a plausible alternative.

I don’t think we make any gains, as people who are thinking about these difficult problems, by branding those who disagree with us by their religious affiliations or otherwise. I think the way we have to engage is in terms of the arguments that are put forward, the presuppositions that we find there, and so on, in many of the ways that Rebeccah has helped us begin to do right now. At the level of argument, I think these arguments are insufficient and can be beaten, and I think many Americans are sympathetic, in the ways that Rebeccah also said, to the kinds of arguments that she, or I, or others might put forward.

TOOLEY: Joe Capizzi of Catholic University, Rebeccah Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute, thank you as always for very good conversation.

HEINRICHS: Thanks Mark.

CAPIZZI: Thank you Mark.