Hearing Wrap-Up: General Petraeus on U.S. Mideast Policy

September 23, 2015

David Petraeus, the retired Army General and former director of the CIA, testified on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the subject of U.S. policy in the Middle East.  In his prepared remarks and testimony, General Petraeus made clear that the security crisis in the Middle East will not resolve itself and that U.S. power will be instrumental to managing it.  In doing so, the general laid out a consistent and proactive strategy that stands in sharp contrast to the passive and incoherent approach of the Obama administration.

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes the following quotations will be useful for lawmakers and the general public as they consider the next steps for U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The Crisis in the Middle East

“The Middle East today is experiencing revolutionary upheaval that is unparalleled in its modern history. At the root of this upheaval is the weakening or disintegration of state authority in multiple countries. This has led to a violent struggle for power across a vast swath of territory—a competition both between different groups within states, and one between different states in the region and some outside it. Almost every Middle Eastern country is now a battleground or a combatant in one or more wars.”

“The crises of the Middle East pose a threat not just to regional stability, but also to global stability and to vital national interests of the United States, for the repercussions of developments in the Middle East extend well beyond it. Indeed, the Middle East is not a part of the world that plays by Las Vegas rules: what happens in the Middle East is not going to stay in the Middle East.”

“International peace and security do not require the United States to solve every crisis or to intervene in every conflict. But if America is ineffective or absent in the face of the most egregious violations of the most basic principles of the international order that we have championed, our commitment to that order is inevitably questioned… and further challenges to it are invited.”

“The situation confronting the U.S. in the Middle East today is very hard. But as I observed when I took command in Iraq in early February 2007 amidst terrible sectarian violence, hard is not hopeless. As complex and challenging as the crises in the region are, I am convinced the United States is capable of rising to the challenge—if we choose to do so.”


“In my judgment, increased support for the Iraqi Security Forces, Sunni tribal forces, and Kurdish peshmerga is needed—including embedding U.S. advisor elements down to the brigade headquarters level of those Iraqi forces fighting ISIS. I also believe that we should explore use of Joint Tactical Air Controllers with select Iraqi units to coordinate coalition airstrikes for those units. And we should examine whether our rules of engagement for precision strikes are too restrictive.”

“The key now is for the U.S. to help strengthen those in Baghdad who are prepared to pursue inclusive politics and better governance—goals that unite Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. It is vital that Sunnis and Kurds, in particular, are again given a stake in the success of the new Iraq, rather than a stake in its failure.”

“We have a unique opportunity right now to support the prime minister in Baghdad, who is a year into the job, pursuing very aggressive reforms. He's done away with the vice presidencies, the deputy prime ministers, eight ministries and is now asking for examination of the activities of the chief justice.”

“Make no mistake about it. Prime Minister Abadi has crossed the Rubicon in the form of reforms that he is pursuing…. And I think it was the right move, a very strong move. But he is going to have to be shored up in every way that is possible, not just by the United States but by the coalition and, more importantly, by forces within Iraq that want to see their country move forward again as an inclusive country rather than one that practices exclusive politics that are carried out, in many cases, at the force of a gun.”


“Syria today, Mr. Chairman, is a geopolitical Chernobyl—spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world. Like a nuclear disaster, the fallout from the meltdown of Syria threatens to be with us for decades, and the longer it is permitted to continue, the more severe the damage will be.”

“The central problem in Syria is that Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS. That means protecting them from the unrestricted warfare being waged against them by Bashar al Assad—especially by his air force and its use of barrel bombs. This, not ISIS, has been the primary source of civilian casualties; it has also been a principal driver of the radicalization fueling ISIS and the refugee crisis.”

“The problems in Syria cannot be quickly resolved. But there are actions the U.S., and only the U.S., can take that would make a difference. We could, for example, tell Assad that the use of barrel bombs must end—and that if they continue, we will stop the Syrian air force from flying. We have that capability.”

“I would also support the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition airpower, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, Internally Displaced Persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.”

“Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that, when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum, often in ways that are harmful to our interests. Russia’s actions to bolster Assad increase the imperative of support for the moderate opposition and Syrian civilians. We should not allow Russia to push us into coalition with Assad, which appears to be President Putin’s intention.”

“I think very important to underscore the fact that Bashar al- Assad can't be part of the long-run solution in Syria. He is the individual held responsible for well over 200,000, perhaps as high as 250,000 Syrians dead, and he is the magnetic attraction that is bringing jihadis to Syria to fight him.”


“As we have seen in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, Iran’s activities are not only hostile to us and our partners. They also exacerbate Sunni feelings of alienation and disenfranchisement, which in turn drive sectarian radicalization and the growth of groups like ISIS.”

“Rather than viewing the nuclear agreement as marking the end of a hostile relationship with Iran that will enable our disengagement from the Middle East, we should see it as inaugurating a new, more complex phase of that competition that will require intensified U.S. involvement in the region.”

“The United States should make absolutely clear that we will never allow Iran to possess highly enriched uranium, and that any move in that direction will be met with military force. This guarantee must be ironclad to reassure our partners in the region and have the desired effect with Iran. Such a declaration would carry maximal credibility if issued by the President and Congress together.”

“We must intensify our work with our Arab and Israeli partners to counter Iran’s malign regional activities. This can take several forms, including continued use of existing sanctions authorities against Iranian entities tied to terrorism, ballistic missile development, and human rights abuses. It should also include expedited approval of weapons systems sought by our partners in the region and greater integration of their capabilities. And it should encompass additional actions to demonstrate that the theater remains ‘set’ with respect to our own capabilities to carry out military operations against Iran’s nuclear program, if necessary.”


“I think that what Vladimir Putin would like to do is resurrect the Russian empire. You see this in a variety of different activities, or at least the Soviet Union. He has a number of different activities, diplomatic and economic and, of course, military in a variety of countries around Russia. And now, he is, of course, in Syria as well, and trying to revive Russian relationships with countries in the Middle East.”

“I think the immediate objective that he has in Syria is to solidify the corridor on the Mediterranean coast between Latakia where he has his air base and Tartus where they have the Russian naval base, the only naval base left in the Mediterranean. Clearly, he would like to shore up his ally, Bashar al-Assad. At the very least, he wants to make sure that Bashar is not thrown under the bus by either other regime members or perhaps even Iran until at least he has some better sense of the way forward."


“I do think that we have to take a very hard look at our future plans for the footprint that we have in Afghanistan, recognizing that now there is an Islamic State presence being established there, recognizing there still is work to be done to continue the disruption – the further disruption of Al Qaida senior leadership in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.”

“We're in a situation where, with a relatively modest number of U.S. forces providing assistance to our Afghan partners, we are able to continue to accomplish the mission that we went to Afghanistan to achieve.”

“We cannot forget why we went there and why we stayed. It was because Afghanistan was where Al Qaida planned the 9/11 attacks and conducted the initial training for those attacks. And our mission was to ensure that never again would Afghanistan be a sanctuary for Al Qaida or other transnational extremists to do that again.”

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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