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HomeBlogSohrab Ahmari in The Washington Post: Ignore the Hawks, Mr. President. You’re Right on Ukraine.

Sohrab Ahmari in The Washington Post: Ignore the Hawks, Mr. President. You’re Right on Ukraine.

Image credit: U.S. Army Europe

By Sohrab Ahmari

The following piece was originally published by The Washington Post. IPD is republishing it with permission from the author.

America can’t, and mustn’t, go to war with Russia over Ukraine. President Biden stated this inescapable truth at his Wednesday news conference — and sent foreign policy hawks into a sputtering rage. Their reaction says more about the hawks’ mindless rigidity than it does about Biden’s oft-questioned mental acuity.

The president was admittedly ineloquent — but he managed to ramble his way to a refreshing realism. He made clear that the U.S. response should be proportional to the magnitude of Moscow’s aggression; that we can’t guard Europe’s frontiers if the major European powers themselves are divided; and that the Kremlin has strongly held concerns about Ukraine joining NATO.

The reactions are revealing. Left and right agree on very little these days, but they share a sense that something has gone profoundly wrong with America — internally. The two camps disagree over the diagnosis, whether it’s structural racism or elite liberalism that’s to blame, but the symptoms are apparent to both: our decrepit infrastructure, the loneliness that haunted young Americans long before social distancing, widespread job and health precarity, addiction and homelessness. And this isn’t even to mention our cultural incohesion, our inability to agree on the most basic facts about our history and identity. Yet the hawks’ always-escalate reflex continues to distort national priorities.

The work-from-home MacArthurs blew a predictable gasket. “Much of that performance was profoundly disturbing,” tweeted National Review’s Rich Lowry, “especially on Russia.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said the president had “shocked the world by giving Putin a green light to invade Ukraine.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, where I used to work, linked the West’s failure to deter Vladimir Putin to Biden’s earlier decision to abandon the Afghanistan war after two fruitless decades. Meanwhile, Biden’s usual defenders railed at him for inadvertently revealing fundamental truths they would prefer to remain obscure.

The outrage over Biden’s indiscretions — including in Kyiv and other European capitals — prompted the White House to issue a statement vowing a “swift, severe and united response” in case of a “renewed invasion.” It’s too bad. Biden’s posture was perfectly sensible, given the political mood in Europe and especially its pivotal power, Germany. It also reflected a deeper wisdom, in continuity with his two immediate predecessors, that U.S. power is overstretched, exhausted and battered by domestic polarization and decay.

The hawks are in essence asking Team Biden to be more zealous for European security than are Europeans themselves. The fact is that a majority of Europeans are ambivalent, at best, when it comes to America, NATO and the Russian threat.

A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of populations in 16 key NATO states found that a majority opposes using force to defend a fellow member state in a conflict with Russia. In France, 53 percent oppose fulfilling the Western Alliance’s Article 5 obligations under such a scenario, compared with 41 percent who’d back military action. More startling still, 60 percent of Germans oppose using force to defend a fellow member state.

Ukraine, of course, isn’t even a NATO member. Its territorial claims inspire even less resolve in Europe’s core. Biden’s statements triggered much grumbling across the Atlantic. But Western Europe’s sentiments about Ukraine’s inviolable territorial integrity are just that: misty sentiments.

This is a bitter reality. But it’s a reality reflected in Western Europe’s response to the Ukrainian question going back to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and stealth invasion of the eastern Donbas region. At various points since, Paris and Berlin resisted economic sanctions against Moscow, on occasion even calling for existing sanctions to be lifted.

Meanwhile, Germany has remained determined to push ahead with Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea — thus bypassing Ukraine and Poland and tightening Moscow’s energy stranglehold on the continent. Successive U.S. administrations of both parties begged for a rethink, to no avail, until Biden dropped the issue last year. Lately, Berlin has signaled it might abandon the project if Russia invades Ukraine — maybe.

So is it really that crazy for Biden — and the American people — to groan at a supposed duty to police Europe’s borders when Europeans have been this indifferent, this long? No, it’s the height of sanity, actually.

What, exactly, does our deeply divided America stand for abroad? Will a potentially catastrophic confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia over Europe’s miserable peripheries — or with nuclear China over the island of Taiwan — address any of our deeper internal crises?

By saying no to the hawks, Biden gave the right answers to these questions. The United States has treaty commitments that it must honor, to be sure. But we can’t create flash points wherever revanchist powers such as Russia, China and Iran seek to reassert claims within their historic civilizational spheres. There has to be at least some attempt at prioritization.

For two decades, America neglected the internal foundations of its power while pursuing stupid and costly regime-change wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Our domestic hearth crumbled. The hawks have much to answer for and no standing to complain about the consequences of their policies.

Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of the American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor