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tv   Natl Security Council Middle East Coordinator on Foreign Policy  CSPAN  January 27, 2022 3:59pm-4:49pm EST

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president of the export import bank. watch live coverage on the house on c-span. watch online at c-span or, or on c-span now, video out. >> senate republican leader mitch mcconnell lauded justice stephen breyer, saying justice breyer demands respect and affection across the legal world, including from those who disagree with his philosophy and cases. mcconnell said that the american people are left with -- stuart our institutions and unite america. the president must not outsource this important decision to the radical left. the american people deserve a nominee with demonstrated reference for the written text of our laws and our constitution. >> brett mcgurk, deputy
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assistant to the president and middle east coordinator for the national security council talked to the biden administration's foreign policy agenda for the region. topics include discussions with iran and the return to the jcpoa. >> good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are in this world, i hope you are safe and healthy. welcome to carnegie connects, a set of virtual discussions, at least for now, of issues on importance to america and the world. i am pleased this morning and honored to host brett mcgurk, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the middle east and north africa at the national security council. brett, it's great to see you again and welcome to carnegie connects. >> thank you for having me.
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>> terrific. we have a lot of ground to cover, but before we get to the granular tour of the region, i want to go to the thematic altitude and talk about some big picture stuff. in an interview you gave last november, i believe, he reflected on your tenure under three, maybe four presidents and talked about the challenge of over committing and overpromising in the region. if you look back now -- you have been in the job about a year. if you could identify keeping that theme of challenging over committing and overpromising with respect to american credibility and interest in the region, could you identify the administration's key success during that period? as well, i have worked for half a dozen administrations, nobody
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is perfect -- but looking back, how would you do it? >> well, we've been here a year, and it is difficult to answer that question. george mitchell famously said in diplomacy, 700 days of failure, one day of success. i do not want to characterize it like that, but this is the fourth administration i have worked in and since 9/11, over two decades, the united states of america has pursued objectives in the middle east that are maximalist and probably unachievable, from democratization through regime change, multiple regime changes, these maximalist policies every administration has set. we risk unintended consequences,
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overtaking the bandwidth of the president of the united states. we have really come in with a focus driven by our guidance from president biden, a focus on practical objectives, focusing on the situation we inherited, a difficult situation we inherited. consulting quietly over the first 100 days of this administration with every capital in the region, and setting policies and coordinating with our partners that we think align our ends and needs. it's getting back to the basics of statecraft, recognizing global power, global priorities, but in this region, are interwoven with vital american interests. it is too volatile, too important to simply disengage. we are not disengaging. i am sometimes asked, are we de-prioritizing the middle east region? that is the wrong question. you have to ask, what are we trying to do?
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we were in the bush administration, where we were engaged more in iraq, taking casualties every single day. if you look at that time until now, it is very different. that's important. we are not trying to pursue a transformation of this region. we are trying to pursue a very vital american interest in a way that aligns our ends and means and our commitment and capabilities. i think it's a somatic point about how to approach this region -- you will not see from the biden administration announcements of grandiose objectives without a basis of fact, a factual foundation. it's important when you look at presidential history. the counter example of that is jfk and we are going to the moon. if you study that decision, he
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had a study that was done, permission by the vice president, but with the top scientists at the time that said, mr. president, we can go to the moon. here is how you do it. here is the rockets, here is the cost, it's not without risk, but it is very achievable. this is coming from the president on down. when we set policy, we want to make sure they are undergirded by an understanding of facts and doing things we can achieve. >> i am all for that, but i want to return to this issue of -- this resident debate among middle east watchers are among those who argue that the u.s. is doing too much and those who are you it is not doing enough. the left lobby, if i could call it that, argues that domestic
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priorities -- fixing america's broken house, weaning yourself off of hydrocarbons, and most of the problem in the region are beyond america's capacity to repair. the other lobby is that you have unresolved conflicts that undermine american credibility. where is the balance, brett? between doing too much on one hand and not doing enough on the other? governing is about choosing. >> i think that is a false choice, though. you have to look at our interest in the nature of this very important region. the waterways of the region from the suez canal to the strait of hormuz -- if you want to say the
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middle east doesn't matter, we had a couple weeks with a tanker blocking the suez canal that almost shut down the global economy. these are vital interests that are interwoven in this region, and trying to ensure as best we can -- we have no more failed states in this region. those were opening up vacuums filled by extremist actors across the region, which was dangerous and in -- and destabilizing and ultimately comes back to bite us. i got an example to the trump administration, when we couldn't bring laptops on airplanes, that was a threat that was coming out of syria, a very serious threat. it's not less or more, it's ultimately whether we try to pursue maximalist goals, we will
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be over invested. if we try to focus on what our interests are, i think we can actually get it right. that's what we are looking to do. >> you touched on a key thing. a policy is just another way of describing the search or pursuit of a set of objectives, assuring you have the means and capacity to achieve those objectives. if you had to define -- i have my favorite 3 -- i will identify them if we need to -- i have my favorite three core american interest in the region. if you had to identify, and this distinction between vital and --what would they be? >> number one, that a rock could
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never have nuclear weapons, because that would be incredibly destabilizing to our friends and allies across the middle east region, let alone what one could do around the world. we want to assure that waterways remain open and there is a vacuum opening up in which threats could emerge against our allies and partners around the world -- those are some basic, important vital objectives we are pursuing. through diplomacy and working to make sure that we don't have new wars breaking out in the middle east as best we can takes a lot of maintenance and work. the blocking and tackling of basic diplomacy. three themes we work on every day our deterrence, first of all. we are very focused on deterring threats from extremist groups, from iran, from around the
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region. integration -- one of the positive trends in the region from the abraham accords to the healing of the gulf rift to the polarization between turkey and the uae, which we have seen, those integrations and dialogues going on are very important, something very encouraging. even the discussion between gulf states and iran, this is important to see what it means. it gives us a tool to avoid miscalculations while seeming realistic. anti-escalation where we can. we want to de-escalate through plummets and a combination of deterrence. we will not make everybody -- through diplomacy and a combination of deterrence. we will not make everybody happy, but we are trying to pursue a straight course. >> the word vital refers to the security and prosperity of the
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united states. what are the vital interests we have? you mentioned water, but did not mention oil? we might be weaning ourselves off of hydrocarbons, but the rest of the world will be dependent on them for many years to come. you mention the notion of -- you didn't say the emergence of a regional hegemon with a nuclear weapon, which is the way i would phrase it, which is critically important to conflict in the region. iran is the only one that could precipitate a regional conflict in which the united states would come involved. and then there is the issue of protecting the homeland. those would be my three. each of them pertain to the security and prosperity of the united states. there is a lot of the reason that is discretionary, would be nice to have, but whether we are going to get there, i don't know. before we turn to the regional
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tour i want to take with you, a couple more big picture questions -- values and interests. john mccain famously said our values are our interests and our interests are our values. previous administrations framed american porous -- american foreign policy as --. how would american values figure in our policy? >> just to duck tail, i think your summary is apt and very close to what i laid down. energy price pressures, oil, natural gas, are a central component of policy in this region, there is no question. it is obviously something we deal with, and right now, given the global economic recovery, as we begin to emerge from covid, which is ongoing -- i think it will be ongoing through the coming year at least -- that is
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a central component, obviously, of policy. it affects domestic economy and our position in the world and economic growth. as however are our values. jake has put it this way, jake sullivan, that the question of values and human rights is at the table when we are having discussions about our national security interest in this region. that alone is unique and how american diplomats where our values on our sleeve, together with our handshake and representing the american people. that's very important. does that mean that human rights and values overtake every other issue? no. but it is part of the conversation. if i could give an example of egypt, we are the first administration that has not issued a national security
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waiver for our allocation of foreign military finance. it's a conversation we are having with the egyptians right now. we had a conversation with senior people in cairo yesterday. at the same time, egypt is critical to the security of israel, coming out of the gaza war in may, egypt has played a critical role in not only winding down that in 11 days, but working to ensure we have some stability in gaza in the wake of it. that is central to our discussions with the egyptians. the horn of africa, which david satterfield just took over, it is complex and multifaceted. but the issues are central to discussions as we have this conversation. i saw the president last fall and the first part of the
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meeting, i was focused on human rights. it is central to our administration and approach, and that is what makes us unique. >> and we have a foreign policy in which human rights should play a significant role. we need to be consistent in the way we stand up for our values, which we are not. anomalies and hypocrisies, u.s. foreign policy, i know from my own experience, is littered with hypocrisies and contradictions, and many inconsistencies. it would be nice to think that human rights and democracy figures centrally in american foreign policy, but no administration i ever worked or was that the case. it certainly isn't now. it's a balance. you mentioned egypt, we will get to saudi arabia and syria in a
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minute. one of the big picture questions >> i wanted to ask you, that's the notion of our partners. by, with and through, the leaders with whom we cooperate and depend on in the region. do we have allies in the middle east or do we have partners? if an ally is a country with which we share common interests and values, how would you describe countries like egypt, saudi arabia, and even the israelis, where there is a high coincidence of interests and values, but by no means is that across the board with respect to american interests. our partners are critically important in the achievements of
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our objectives and our policies. >> i love talking to you, because you have done this work and recognize the flexibility. i am not trying to paint broad categories, but this is a dictionary definition of a treaty ally, that's one thing. in cooperating of the area of affairs -- let me give you an example, when we had the afghanistan crisis and had to bring out what became well over 100,000 afghans. myself and others called every capital in the gulf and said, we are going to have to ask your permission to use your facilities to bring out, we don't know how many afghans that will be in your country for an indefinite period of time. we don't know. they all said yes. the reason we were able to
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execute that mission is because of our partners in the gulf. i would call those allies. frankly, it was harder to get cooperation from some treaty allies. that's the nature of international affairs, with every country. when the uae is facing a missile attack, his first phone call is to us in the middle of the night. they are cordon dating from the diplomatic level on down. however you want to define it, i would call these countries allies in that respect. we also have tremendous disagreements with our friends and partners in the gulf. in israel, joe biden has said it before, our first principle is the security of israel and that's something we focus on
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every day. we just had another strategic consultation meeting with the israelis yesterday. it is a daily endeavor for us. >> partners and allies, they work best when there is reciprocity, when each country respects the interests of the other. that raises the question of american leverage. how do we use american leverage in situations where we need to cooperate because our interests are involved, our material, tactical, or strategic interests. and yet when our values are undermined by the very countries with which we are cooperating, it's a very difficult, and i am possible line, i would argue, to walk unless you want to break a lot of crockery and, for
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example, in the case of egypt or saudi arabia, see values as a more important proposition than interests. no administration i think is going to be privy to. but we will get back to the issue of saudi arabia in a minute. let's take a regional tour. let's start with iran. negotiations only have two speeds, slow and slower. but your current colleague rob malley's in vienna still, i think. how would you describe the state -- we will get to the state of negotiations in a minute, but how would you describe the state of the iran negotiations in vienna on january 27? >> yeah, rob is in vienna. i spoke with him this morning. on this issue, i think it's important to back up. i know we have limited time, but it's important to back up.
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i read this morning that the former chief of the israel defense forces, that the last administrations decision to get out of jcpoa was a strategic mistake, and it led to an unshackled iranian nuclear program. go back and read where we were a couple months before we walked in here, say december 2020. we had two dozen rockets falling at our embassy in baghdad. we were flying b-52 bombers from the united states to the middle east and back as a show of force. iran enriched uranium was at 20%. this is something we inherited, and we are not placing blame -- that's not our job, this is our responsibility, but this is not a problem we should be having.
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the jcpoa, whatever you want to say about it, it did put cap on iran's nuclear program through 2031. but where we are right now, given the advances of iran's nuclear program -- it was predicted when that decision was made by sun that iran would never dare restart its nuclear program. anyone who has dealt with the iranians would have said the opposite was going to happen. we are now on the verge of a nuclear crisis because their program has advanced, even as it has faced tremendous setbacks, it continues to advance. it's getting to the point where the breakout time, when it would be able to divert material to weapons program and we could not detect it, we are starting to approach that window. this is an extremely serious situation. at the same time, as secretary blinken and others have said repeatedly, these talks will have a culmination points, and we are reaching that pretty
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soon. we will know very soon whether or not it is possible for the iranians to return to compliance with the nuclear deal on terms that we in the international community can accept. i will say, over the past year, we have united people. the iranians are surprised by the united front, and we are back to where we were at the end of last summer, which means there is a chance for a deal. there's also a pretty good chance there is not going to be a deal. we are prepared for either scenario. if there is no deal, we are very prepared for that scenario. >> is the last four latched -- less for less approach viable in your view? is it conceivable to preempt constrain, create some sort of
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bridge to accept less for less? less iranian compliance on the nuclear side for less removal of sanctions? >> i would always think that is a somewhat pejorative way to say, if we need to buy time, perhaps. but we are very much focused on return to full compliance at the jcpoa. that would give us and the international community comfort, that this program is not going to break out. >> i know this is a tough question to ask you, but i will. wall street journal reporters have reported in recent days that -- is departing, who knows more about sanctions than i ever know. is there a reason for that departure? some have argued there is a serious break between those who
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are arguing for a tougher approach on sanctions and those who are not. can you shed any light on this? >> richard is an incredibly talented teammate and he is taking a new position at the state department. you've been on negotiating teams. it's a pretty intense 12 months. i think richard is going to a new position at the state department. the intelligence community, the department of energy, the treasury, it's a large, multifaceted team. i want to give you an example of how this plays out. when the team came back to talks in december, they walked in the door with all sorts of, walking back everything that had been done over the course of the summer in the administration. we had a choice. do you walk away from the table? what happens, the iranians had a united front, not only the e3
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but also the russians, the real collapse to an all-time low, and the iranians came back a week later with completely different proposals. so that, in my view, is pretty good diplomacy. we are in the ballpark of a possible deal. but again, i am not going to [inaudible] if these talks collapse very soon, and we shift to something else. >> let's move on to syria, a long time and long-term interest of yours. human rights activists and hawks are hammering the administration because they believe our policy towards the assad regime has fundamentally changed, or we have accepted reality that assad has consolidated his power, and we have not formally accepted him and may never, but these efforts to bring him bout from
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the cold, so to speak. what is the biden administration's policy now on the assad regime? we are well be the obama, assad must go talking points, i suspect. but what is your thinking here, and on how the jordanians, just about everyone in the euro world is going to reconcile? look. >>, -- look, we do not support normalization of the assad regime. this is a trend. these verma sees two to three years ago. this is a trend that has been ongoing and if you travel around the region, the views on syria are pretty consistent. from capitals all around the region and israel,, who have
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recognized the reality of the conflict as it exists now and they're trying to protect and pursue their interests. we have focus on, we did a comprehensive review of syria, and we really focus on three core issues at the top. number one is the humanitarian situation, which as -- which has devolved to an all-time low, and we are looking to reauthorize humanitarian aid into northwest syria, something that is ongoing. number two, we want to keep cease-fires in place in syria. the dial -- the violence is at an all-time low. major military offenses are over. we are trying to hold that the major era of military offenses in syria is over. third, importantly, the isis al
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qaeda channels in syria remain real. that's why we are on the ground. and also, accountability for the assad regime's atrocities, to hold regime officials accountable. we have increased sanctions on a side regime officials, and that something that will continue. finally, looking for opportunities. define a political resolution for the overall situation in syria. that's what we are doing, just doing that alone takes an awful lot of effort, and i think we have it pitched about right. but i agree, you are not going to make everybody happy. that reflects not only the views of partners around the region, including very close partners, and the situation on the ground. in terms of discussions between capitals and damascus, if
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jordan, a neighbor, wants to have a discussion about border security with we are not going -- with syria, we are not going to say no. >> i think your policy with syria is following this transactional rather than transformational objective you have identified. as you describe it -- the political settlement in syria would require intense cooperation with russia and iran , and i think that's not right now on anybody's bandwidth. the new york times reports that we have around 900 troops deployed, several hundred near the jordanian-syrian border and the bulk in hausa,. . is any of that related to iran's
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presence in syria or is it primarily a counterterrorism measure? >> thanks for that. we are in syria together with partners, there is still a coalition of 83 countries focused on isis. that is why we are there. that is our legal basis. that is the basis for our coalition and having partners, and we are there for isis. if you look at the situation over the last week and the attempted prison break, our force is sending in democratic forces to retake a prison from isis fighters, as a reminder, isis remains a very serious threats. that is why we are there and the only reason we are there. at the same time, we will defend our forces. we made that very clear to the iranians and others. that is why we are there. i should say one more thing
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before leaving syria, of course, you know, syria and the activities of the iranians remain a real threat in particular to israel. we -- getting tired of some of these activities inside syria. we support israel's stream of action and will defend our people, period. the iranians know that and everybody on the ground in syria knows that. but the basis is the counter isis mission, the only objective. >> thanks for clarifying. saudi arabia. the president as a candidate had a very tough choice of words for -- in the middle east, but it may be a reevaluation of the u.s. and saudi arabia. is that happening and if it in
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fact has happened, how would you differentiate the biden administration's policy towards saudi arabia? you might describe the saudis as an ally, the previous administrations' policies to saudi arabia. >> we don't give any blank checks to anybody. our capitals, diplomatic and otherwise, are frank and direct. when it comes to saudi arabia, this is a historic partnership that is going to endure. in order to do anything in this part of the world, you have to be able to work very closely with the saudis. at the same time, we have discussed with the saudis from the top down, and the president had a call with king solomon early in the administration about our concerns with saudi arabia and
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the fact that in congress, saudi arabia has lost the credibility of both parties. it is something that is dangerous for any country, because you have to try and maintain that level of some art. -- of support. that said, we are committed fundamentally to helping saudi arabia defend its sovereign territory and its sovereign space. the defense of saudi arabia is a fundamental, very important interest of ours and something we are working on every day. the yemen conflict, sometimes i think when we have discussions with yemen, particularly with members of congress, the conflict is locked in a paradigm of 2015, 2016, 2017. over the last year, the saudis have supported the yuan initiative first led by martin griffith, initiatives to wind
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down a war. who -- the houthis have answered this -- i want to focus on this, for a minute, because it is important. this place is where the people who do not want to live under the who -- the houthis. there are one point -- 1.5 million displaced people living there, and the houthis have not given up this military offensive to take the city. they have not succeeded. they have launched missiles repeatedly at saudi arabia, targeting, according to u.n. expert panels on the security council, civilian areas. this is the current situation
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and we are working in the region right now, talking to the saudis and others to find a way to get this conflict to a cease-fire. but as president biden said in his press conference, it takes two to get to a cease-fire. >> and the prospects of a broader settlement in yemen are beyond anyone's capacity to imagine. we are also dealing with a very problematic saudi partner, let's be clear. you have a would be king that is reckless and has proven his ruthlessness over time. this is where the value proposition becomes important. i agree, that the saudi's are an important partner for the united states. and the houthis deserve their
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fair share of responsibility for the humanitarian disaster in yemen, but the saudis and the emma -- emma -- emirat ies as well, i don't envy tim's mission and the prospects he's got. let's move on. we are running out of time. i will not belabor the wind on the israeli-palestinian issue. the issue of the promised land will remain a problem for many years to come. but in dealing with the israeli and palestinian issue, where do you rank the israeli-palestinian issue on a list of priorities for the administration? where would you put this issue? >> i think we are trying to ensure that the embers of
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potential conflict are dampened, so we don't have the risk of a breakout of another conflict. we had the gaza conflict in may, which i mentioned earlier, which lasted for months and president biden was directly handling in present days, and the conflict wound down in 11 days. of course, the work with egypt since then, the israelis and others to make sure the situations in gaza that re-flare up are not there. similarly on the west bank, jake sullivan and i were in israel just before christmas, trying to ensure that situation also. the embers of conflict, that there is no unilateral action taken by anybody that could give extremists and hamas reason to start another conflict. we support a two state solution.
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we are trying to create a political horizon and there is a new dialogue ongoing between individuals from different governments and they are trying to see what is there to create a foundation, while again being realistic. this gets back to my first principle -- we are not going to set expectations that are unlikely to be met. you know better than anybody, this is incredibly complex. it is interwoven with multiple interests and i think as americans, we have to approach it with some humility and not coming in with some master plan, but working from the bottom up to try and create the conditions that a conflict can't breakout. over time, we begin to establish an important horizon, which has to be set. it's a daily part of our work and trying to reduce the risks of conflict.
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in terms of an actual peace process, i do not think we are there yet. but we are working to get the foundations in place to move it. >> i take your point. with respect to the three major breakthroughs in the israeli conflict, egypt-israel, jordan-israel, palestinians-israel, all of those breakthroughs occurred without the presidents of the united states. it is instrumental and instructive that unless the israelis and the palestinians are holding their own negotiations, which is extremely difficult for the united states to expect a player brokering role. what do we do about creating an environment in which those negotiations can take place? that involves difficult choices and some potential conflicts, particularly with the israelis over issues like settlement
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activities, land confiscation, and the palestinians, with respect to incitement, corruption and the perennial problem of what you do with a divided palestinian leadership. i suspect a two state solution is not available now, what you've got is a three state solution. israel, hamas, and what remains of the palestinian authority in the west bank. another problem that is not ready or ripe for resolution. the conventional wisdom in washington and elsewhere is that an american vacuum has enabled china and russia to play a much more important and consequential role in the region. someone argued they are simply eating our lunch from one end of the region to the other. i do not share that view, but
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how do you process chinese and russian involvement in the region? >> i've heard that quote. i think it is quite overstated. first of all, we are the security partner of choice across the region. i think that is something that will maintain. when a country comes under missile attack, and rightfully so, we are the first call. and we are there immediately. look. again, this is something we inherited. i was not surprised by too many things walking in the door, but there were a few of the inroads the chinese had made in certain areas. we have had a very close dialogue with our friends across the region about certain activities that would jeopardize the level of american cooperation. that is something that is ongoing. in terms of economic
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partnerships, trade, commerce, that is something that's obviously ongoing. when it comes to certain activities, technology, military cooperation, that is when there are very serious issues at stake. i would say over the past year, my fellow coordinator here at the nfc, kurt campbell, we think it is pretty interwoven. having a dialogue with countries in the middle east about what china's actual ambitions are, what this project actually means. it might be under the guise of a commercial project but is something quite different. that is something i think we have had a very good dialogue and a bit of an awakening, i think, from some of our partners in the middle east region about this. that is something that is ongoing.
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the russians are kind of a different story. obviously, the russian intervention in syria was significant. they are there. they have been in syria, the cold war, the book about henry kissinger -- he gets a taste for that, it's nothing particularly new. but we find ways to work with the russians where we can. but we have tremendous differences. that is something that is not going to change. we do not see any of our partners saying, you know what, we think the chinese will have our backs. not the americans. that's not where this is heading. >> although there is some hedging going on, the conventional wisdom in the region is that the u.s. is somehow de-prioritizing --. last question, we are actually out of time, but looking out into 2022, what is the single most important issue that keeps you up at night?
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is there one more than any other? >> i am inclined to give jim mattis' answer, it is our job to keep others up at night. but the security of our personnel -- i spend a lot of time in these areas, including in war zones. our men and women out there, that is something fundamental to us. i think our first reason in the morning, every morning, is making sure people have what they need to defend themselves and protect themselves. that is fundamental and vital. and the prospect of a nuclear armed iran is something that keeps anyone up at night, but i assure you that is never going to happen, one way or the other. we think diplomacy is the best way. that is an outcome that we will never see, and we are committed to that. i will leave it there. >> i want to thank you for
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sharing your time and your thoughts and your views. it may well be the most broken and dysfunctional region in the world today, but i am glad you are working on it. thanks so much for coming. thanks to everyone for tuning in. stay positive and test negative. >> honored to be with you, thank you so much. >> take care, brett. >> west virginia governor jim justice delivers his state of the state address from the state capitol in charleston. watch live at 7:00 p.m. eastern on c-span, online at, or find full coverage on our new video app, c-span now. tonight, a discussion about space exploration, research, and rising public-sector interest and investment, hosted by the davos world economic forum.
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watch tonight at 8:00 p.m. on c-span two,, or our new video app, c-span now. supreme court justice stream -- stephen breyer made it official, writing that he plans to retire when the court takes its summer recess. he writes, i have found the work challenging and meaningful. my relations with each of my colleagues have been warm and friendly. justice breyer joined president biden at the white house to talk about his decision. you can watch that online at or on c-span now, or new video app. ♪ >> download c-span's new mobile app and stay up-to-date with live video coverage of the day's biggest political events, from live streams of the house and senate floor and key congressional hearings to white house events and supreme court
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