JUDY WOODRUFF: A new king in Saudi Arabia, unrest in Yemen, and Islamic State militants on the march across Syria and Iraq. It’s a region that’s no stranger to turmoil, but this week has been marked by increasing volatility.
We explore the challenges these events pose to the U.S. with two men who have extensive experience making and managing American foreign policy.
Leon Panetta was secretary of defense and the director of the CIA during the Obama administration. And Stephen Hadley was national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration.
And we welcome you both to the program.
Secretary Panetta, to you first.
Saudi Arabia, the king, King Abdullah has died. There is a new king who is in place. Everybody is saying they expect stability, continuity. Is that what you expect or, given the royal family, something different, something much rougher?
LEON PANETTA, Former Secretary of Defense: I think, at least in the short-term, that stability will continue in Saudi Arabia. That’s the way they do things. And the new king will pretty much, I think, continue policies of the — of King Abdullah.
They will maintain a strong relationship with the United States. They will probably continue the oil policies that they’re involved with, and I think they will generally continue a lot of the policies that Saudi Arabia was involved with. I think the real big question is going to be how they ultimately deal with all the other turmoil that’s going on in the Middle East. That’s going to be the question mark for the future.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But on the royal family, Steve Hadley, you don’t expect — we know it’s a sprawling thing, a lot of princes. You don’t expect to see power struggle?
STEPHEN HADLEY, Former National Security Adviser: Well, there are two things that I think mitigate against that.
One, King Abdullah and now King Salman worked together to try to arrange this succession, which will go from Salman, to Muqrin, and then presumably to Mohammed bin Naif. So, they have tried to choreograph this and set this transition up.
Secondly, the turmoil in the region, the problems in Yemen, the problem with the challenge of Iran and the challenge of the Islamic State, there is so much turmoil, that the last thing Saudi Arabia needs is a battle of succession or a succession crisis.
So I think those two things will lower the risk of a real out-and-out struggle and will try to sort of — will encourage the family to keep the succession on track and to maintain the stability that’s really important for the country at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Panetta, I heard you continue expect much change when it comes to economic, oil policy. You expect Saudi Arabia to continue this policy of pumping a lot of oil even as the prices are dropping?
LEON PANETTA: I do, Judy.
I think that they’re going to continue that policy. They’re going to continue to try to squeeze others, so that, ultimately, they think they have the — both the economic capability and certainly the ability when it comes to oil to maintain that kind of pressure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the same thing? And thus do you see a Saudi Arabia that continues to be a huge player in the region?
STEPHEN HADLEY: They certainly will be a huge player in the region.
One of the things about oil prices that they probably like, the low oil prices, is it does put pressure on Russia over Ukraine, it puts pressure on the Iranians, it will probably discourage some of the investment in the U.S.-tied oil and shale gas markets.
But remember in the 1980s, when this happened, Saudi did lower production, but nobody else in OPEC did, and they lost market share. And I think they’re not willing to do that at this point. They have enormous reserves. They are a very low-cost producer of oil. I think they probably figure that they can ride out a period of low prices better than anybody else and maintain market share.
So I think that’s probably behind the policy that you have seen and I would expect now King Salman would continue that policy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Panetta, we spoke earlier about Saudi Arabia having more — taking a more aggressive policy in the region in recent years, certainly involved in Syria supporting the rebels against President Assad.
We see there part of the fight against al-Qaida. How do you see that carrying on now, especially with the turmoil next door in Yemen?
LEON PANETTA: Well, in fact, I worry a great deal about the crisis that we’re seeing in the Middle East.
There’s just too many flash points that are going on all at the same time. We not only have the — you know, almost a failed government occurring in Yemen now with the Shiite Houthis taking over there, and they will be at the war with the Sunnis trying to determine who runs that country — it could split that country, and it’s a breeding ground for AQAP and terrorism right now. It could get much worse in the future.
What is happening in Libya, which is basically another failed state with split forces going at it — we see what’s happening with ISIS impacting on Syria, impacting on Iraq. We see the growing influence of Iran in that region and in Lebanon and in Syria. I think all of that has produced tremendous concern.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you see, Steve Hadley? How do you see this new leadership, the priorities that it’s going to put in place?
STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, you know, the administration has put together a regional configuration, if you will, involving these more moderate states to try to help deal with the issue of Iraq and Syria.
So there is a framework to deal with these issues. I think probably the Emirates and the Saudis would say, we were too slow and too late in doing so. But that framework is in place. I think you will probably see under King Salman a continued activist Saudi policy here. Remember, Salman was actually instrumental in backing the Mujahideen in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
He was very active in coming to the defense of the Muslims in the Bosnian crisis. So, my expectation is, you’re going to still see a Saudi Arabia that is very concerned about events in the region and is going to want to be activist, if it can, and will be pushing the United States to have a more active role.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, so many people look at the relationship, Secretary Panetta, between the Saudis and Iran, big Sunni state vs. big Shia state. How do you see that relationship and do you expect to see a change or a shift?
LEON PANETTA: You know, I have — as I’m sure Steve has, I have had the opportunity to sit down with the royal family and with the king and discuss these policies.
And I can tell you that they are very concerned about Iran and its influence. They really do think that Iran represents a force for evil in that region and are very concerned about the spreading influence that Iran is trying to have in that region.
And, frankly, we’re pushing the United States to do more to try to deal with Iran. And I think we’re a little frustrated by what was happening. And I think they view Iran as representing this kind of potential division that could occur in the Middle East between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and that’s already occurring, as we see in these many nations.
And that confrontation between the Sunnis and this kind of growing Persian empire represented by Iran is, in the Saudi view, I think, one of the real dangers in the Middle East.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Steve Hadley, do you see then any shift in that approach, any easing of that tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, because it is — as we have been discussing, Saudi Arabia faces so many other challenges.
STEPHEN HADLEY: The Saudis are very worried about Iran.
It’s one of the challenges for the administration, if we should get a nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis are fearful that it reflects a shift of American policy back to Iran and away from Saudi. So one of the challenges for the administration will be, if they do get a nuclear agreement with Iran, they are going to have to take measures to reassure the Saudis and our other friend and allies in the region that we are going to continue to confront Iran in their bad behavior and threatening behavior in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon in their support for terror.
And I think that will be an important element for a — and a packaging that needs to go around any nuclear agreement that the United States and the P5-plus-one enter into with Iran.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of moving parts, as Saudi Arabia moves to new leadership.
Steve Hadley, we thank you.
Secretary Leon Panetta, we thank you.