This week, Jennie Spector, our Fuller Project for International Reporting fellow, talked to Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November of 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East for the State Department. Wittes also oversaw 013789the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions. She was central to organizing the U.S. government’s response to the Arab uprisings of 2011. 

In short: she knows her stuff. And we should listen. And take notes.

Fun-fact: One of Tamara’s prized possessions is a Scottish longsword, which she is learning to wield through a course in Historical Swordsmanship. After all, she notes with a nod to a classic nerd movie of the 1980s, “There can be only one.” 

FPI: How would you describe your job to a third grader?

The Middle East is a confusing and complicated part of the world, one that’s undergoing tremendous, heart-wrenching, historic changes. My job is to help people – the US government, the media, and the American public as a whole – understand this part of the world better, so we can deal with it in a way that helps to make it a better place. And I’m lucky to have a whole group of people working with me who are doing the same thing, who specialize in different issues in different countries around the Middle East, and so the second part of my job is to help make it possible for them to do that; to run the office, to hire good support staff to help them, and to raise money so that all of us can do what we do.

FPI: As the director of the Center for Middle East policy which is such a changing, complex, and often violent area to work in, how do you ensure that your research remains not only accurate, but also relevant to the work that’s being done on the ground?

The last few years have really been head-spinning. For those of us who work on the Middle East, there’s so much going on in so many places that literally it is difficult to keep up with developments on the ground everyday. And we’re also working on long-form research that takes time, but the region is so dynamic that things we’re writing about change as we’re writing about them. To give you one example, a year ago or two years ago, everything that we saw ISIS doing suggested that this was a movement or an organization that was focused on building a territorial base in the Middle East. But the last six months, the last year? We’ve seen ISIS is simultaneously interested in attacking targets in the West. And so, you know if you’re trying to understand ISIS, ISIS is changing very quickly. And that presents a particular challenge.

But I think, in some ways, as the political institutions and the political order disintegrated, I come back to more of the foundational principles of politics, of political science, of political philosophy. I’ve been going back to some of those classic works of political theory that I read in grad school because when people, when communities, no longer trust the institutions — and that’s what you have going on all over the Middle East — then they go back to trying to solve their problems in informal ways, through non-state actors and non-state informal activities. For a lot of how that works, there are commonalities across time and space. And so for me, grappling with the dynamism of today’s Middle East, really requires me to go back to the fundamentals of what I know about politics and people. I’m talking about foundational philosophical writing on political order like Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, or classics of political science like Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies.

FPI: Tell us about one of your most important projects right now.

Despite the changes in the Middle East — the breakdown of states, also the legacy of American policy — the United States remains a global superpower and the Middle East remains a region of geo-strategic importance. That means the United States is going to remain engaged in the Middle East on behalf of its own interests and on behalf of broader global order that the United States has a stake in, like the access and the ability and the free flow of energy to global markets.

So the challenge for the United States in the midst of this dynamism is that there are a lot of people who look at what’s going on in the Middle East, and say, “Well, the United States has very little ability to affect outcomes.” And in a very short-term sense, on any given day, that would be true; the actors on the ground are engaged in struggles that they view as existential, and so they’re not particularly open to persuasion or incentives or even punishments from external actors.

But in the longer term, of course, it’s not true that the US has no influence. The US remains a dominant presence in the lives of people across the Middle East politically, militarily, but also economically and culturally. The challenge for the United States is to think about how it can bend the arc (to use an Obama phrase) over a longer period of time, how can it shape an environment within which actors in the Middle East are making these choices in the face of these day to day challenges, and how can the U.S. can shape the environment on behalf of greater stability, and on behalf of a more stable, more peaceful, more prosperous Middle East, which is important for the world order.

FPI: In your 2008 book, Freedom’s Unsteady March, you highlighted Bush’s failure in the Middle East. If we’re talking about the Obama administration, how do you think that the situation has changed since then, can you say that things have gotten any better?

The situation in the region has changed so dramatically since then, but I think that the fundamental insights that informed that book remain true. The underlying drivers of change in the Middle East are still there in terms of the demographic drivers, the economic drivers, the technological drivers that I described in the book; they are all still present.

Although there’s a lot of disorder and a lot of violence, and that leads people on the ground to prioritize security and to search for security in different ways, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be satisfied. It doesn’t mean that the, “well, at least it’s not ISIS” line is going to suffice for governments in the Middle East for very long.

The underlying drivers of change are still present, the pressure for change is still present, and a lot of those pressures are about the simple fact of individual empowerment. Expectations shifted, and people, individuals, have the ability to act in ways that they didn’t before. States and governments have to accommodate that. It’s affecting politics all over the world, and the Middle East is not immune.

So the question becomes: how are governments going to learn to accommodate that and turn it into a strength? I think that the US does have a really important role to play there. There were mistakes that the Bush administration made – setting aside his vision of Iraq, which has of course been very thoroughly discussed and assessed. But even in terms of non-military intervention to try to advance reform, the critique I made in the book is that the Bush administration was overly focused on political process and elections in particular. I think that one of the other lessons that has come of recent years is that the United States and other western countries get very focused on political institutions and think, well, if we set up a judicial system, and we set up a parliament, and a constitution, then the gears in the machine sort of start to turn, the states start to function. Look at the rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan for example.

But what we see in the Middle East today is that formal institutions aren’t enough. People have to have trust in the institutions, and people and communities have to have sufficient agreement on the basic rules of the game to make those institutions legitimate and authoritative. And that’s what’s missing in a lot of places around the region right now, that there isn’t enough dialogue and debate and ultimately negotiated agreement on the basic rules of the game. So I think that the challenge for the United States and others who care about stability in the Middle East going forward is how to help cultivate platforms for that kind of dialogue, and how to help cultivate the skills and the mechanisms for resolving very fundamental questions about how government should be organized and what should be the role of religion and politics, and what’s the balance between individual rights and collective identity.

These are big, big, questions, and right now, in too many places, they are being fought over violently. But the questions still have to be answered, and so the challenge is helping develop ways to do that, to do it peacefully.

FPI: Looking into the future, how do you hope the next administration changes when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

The longer I’ve worked on this set of issues, the more I see continuity in the dilemmas and challenges facing US foreign policy in the Middle East.

There’s a lot of continuity in terms of the interaction between American military engagement in the region, not just wars, but military deployments and military assistance and military partnerships in the region, and what it’s trying to do diplomatically or what it’s trying to do in terms of people to people engagement. That’s an ongoing dilemma.

The challenge of advancing stability, but understanding that long-term stability requires some short-term change, and change can be disruptive. Change can be discontinuous. So how to encourage change in a way that’s stabilizing? And how not to lose heart, remain persistent, in the encouragement of long-term stabilization, even in the face of short-term setbacks?

That’s a challenge for the US generally in foreign policy. Like a lot of democracies, the US faces challenges sustaining policy initiatives over long periods of time across administrations, across elections, and the transformation that they’re undergoing in the Middle East is going take a long, long time to play out. The US wants to play a positive role in trying to encourage the region toward sustainability, but that’s going to be a long-term effort. It requires an attitude, of “keep your hand on the plow, hold on,” and that is always a challenge for US foreign policy.

FPI: During your time at the State Department, you helped create an office called Middle East Transitions. How did that project came about? Does it still exist?

That’s a really good question. Look, we were faced with dramatic political change in a set of countries, in some of which the US had very large and well-developed assistance programs. Other places, like Tunisia, we had almost no assistance.

In Tunisia’s case it was a very rocky relationship with the Ben-Ali government, the US was constrained from doing even basic cultural, educational exchange work in Tunisia. In the financial assistance package, there was military assistance but the economic assistance was just a couple of million dollars. So the first challenge was mobilizing resources within the US government in a very budget-constrained environment to try and help these countries in transition to achieve their ambitious goals. And we understood that the drivers of the revolution were economic as well as political and economic. Assistance was an important part of an economic solution, but economic assistance also does things like help voters learn how to participate in elections, so it’s important for the political side too.

So we first engaged in the interagency effort to locate resources, to mobilize resources, and then we set up this office to basically try to set priorities for the United States, in initially what were called then the “transition counties” of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and to try to establish priorities for where the US could have the most impact, working in partnership with actors on the ground, the transitional governments and society, and also looking at what European governments and other actors were doing, where the US could have the most value.

It was really an effort to coordinate the American support for these transitions, much the way that the US did in Central and Eastern Europe back during the fall of the Berlin Wall, but with many fewer dollars. Frankly, the big challenge has been that here in Washington, it’s been very difficult to have any sort of regularity in the appropriations process, and therefore in foreign assistance resources. We put together a proposal that the president sent up to Congress as a part of his budget request for a Middle East Transitions Fund, for an incentive fund of $770 million…that fund was never supported by congress. So the United States government has been trying to provide support in unprecedented circumstances with essentially no new money. And that’s, I think, a real challenge.

So this Office of Middle East Transition has now been absorbed into what’s called the Assistance Coordination Office in the Near East Affairs Bureau. The program that I used to run, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, also has been absorbed into the Assistance Coordination Office. So that office now — instead of laying big strategic goals for US assistance policy and then attracting new resources to implement them — is essentially coordinating the existing assistance and trying to use it as efficiently as possible. That’s a really sub-optimal outcome, but frankly until the legislative and executive branches can overcome this degree of political polarization and stop using the foreign affairs budget and the federal budget overall as a political football ever year, I don’t think that there’s another alternative.

FPI: That’s such a shame.

You can hear the frustration in my voice.

FPI: Well I’ll move away from congressional frustration and ask you some fun questions. What’s something about what you do that you think your twenty year old self would find surprising?

I think my twenty-year-old self would find surprising that a lot of what we do on foreign policy is not about arguing. It’s not about arguing positions, it’s about coming up with new ideas. It’s more creative and less about debates, and I think that’s because I work in a think tank in foreign policy rather than working in Congress. If I worked in Congress, it probably would be more about debates. But I feel very fortunate that I get to emphasize the intellectual creativity of looking at hard problems and trying to come up with innovative ways to solve them. And they’re hard, not just because states and conflict are hard, but because the politics of the issues are hard, and that’s part of what we do. We try to come up with solutions that are politically viable. And another thing: my twenty-year-old self would be dismayed at how little time I have to read. Because when I envisioned this life of the mind, a lot more of that life was spent in a library.

FPI: With the time that you do have to read, are there any books or documentaries that you would recommend to people who want to learn more?

One is a book that came out a few years ago called Why Nations Fail, and it’s a great kind of political-economy look at the relationship between politics, whether politics are inclusive or exclusive, and economic outcomes, whether they are able to construct economic institutions that produce growth and development over time. They found that the countries that have more inclusive politics are able to generate more success and more sustained growth over time. And that’s a really notable finding.

The other book that just came out, published by one of my former colleagues, Hafez Ghanem, is called The Arab Spring Five Years Later. Hafez is an economist; he’s now actually at the World Bank. He does an economic forensics of the Arab Uprising. In other words, what was going on in terms of economic exclusion in these countries that helped to drive a sense of grievance; the perception of corruption, the unemployment, these are things we’re familiar with. But what Hafez uncovers is who was in fact most excluded, where, and why. And one of the really interesting findings from this book is that it’s not just about, for example, youth unemployment. But it’s about the exclusion of rural youth, rural women, from economic opportunity. For example, the lack of clear property rights so that, for example, the small farmers could not effectively borrow money or reliably sell their product or grow in any way. By doing the forensics, he helps us understand what we saw emerge in 2011. He also points to what the priorities are for countries that are now trying to pick up the pieces and figure out which reforms are most important for stability and success, both political and economic.

FPI: What advice do you have for emerging and fellow interruptors?

Madeleine Albright’s advice to interrupt is fantastic advice, and I have to say coming into this foreign policy universe, as a young woman coming out of graduate school, it is a somewhat intimidating culture, but I think it’s less so now then it was when I came in.

I actually found my time in the State Department was the most diverse working environment I’ve ever been in. I think that says something about the federal government and the laws and rules and commitment to equality and equality of opportunity, non-discrimination, and diversity that exists in the federal government. It was a wonderful experience. And I hope that the think tank sector and the non profit sector generally, can move more in that direction.

There are more women in Foreign Policy now then there were when I started out. That means that there are more models and more mentors available for younger women in the field, but I would encourage young women to think about seeking mentors and supporters and building their network not just among women in the field. I’ve had some really amazing male mentors and bosses over the course of my career, and still do. So I think that younger women should reach out widely, just as young men do, for mentoring, and for advice, and never ever be afraid to ask a good question.