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William Burns Speech On Middle East

William J. Burns Speech - Opportunities In The Middle East

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs January 30, 2002

Remarks by William J. Burns Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Meridian International Center Washington, D.C January 30, 2002

Hannibal Club Event: "Challenges and Opportunities for the United States in the Middle East and North Africa"

It's a pleasure to be with you here tonight. I am also very mindful of the fact that few things are more painful than a long, winding evening speech. To correct that problem, an African tribe had a custom in which a public speaker was required to stand on one foot while addressing his listeners. As soon as the foot touched the ground, the speech was brought to a close. Since, like most diplomats, I am not coordinated enough to stay on one foot for very long, you can count on me to be brief.

Let me also say at the outset that I have long admired Meridian, and the Hannibal Club's work helping to build a constituency here in Washington for U.S.-Tunisian relations. I am particularly pleased to be in the company of so many people for whom I have the greatest respect, such as Walt Cutler, Bob Pelletreau and Ambassador Atallah. Hatem and I first knew each other in the 1980s, when he was a more junior official in the Embassy here, and I worked on the NSC staff. I'm sure neither of us expected then to be in the positions we're in now - and I imagine that's kind of a shock to Ambassador Pelletreau, too.

In Washington circles, the Maghreb has not always gotten it just due. Crises in the Arab-Israeli arena or the Gulf tend to draw a great deal of our attention and resources. I came into my current post as Assistant Secretary six months ago convinced that the Maghreb deserves greater U.S. attention, and my visit to the region last month only reinforced that view. Let me try to explain why, and how I think we can work together in the months and years ahead.

The countries of North Africa were often models of moderation as the Middle East went through the twists and turns of the last century. Now, with uncertainty and challenges looming over the region, we are reminded once again of the importance of North African support. Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have all been strongly in our corner in the war on terrorism. Even Libya publicly condemned the attacks of September 11 and sent signals of support.

In addition, the region is vibrant, and its potential is enormous. The countries of the Maghreb are facing up to the challenges of the new century. They are beginning the hard process of opening their economies. They are reshaping their societies. And they are remaking their political processes. The United States has an important interest in assisting the transitions of those who are acting to help themselves. All of us know that the challenges that lie ahead are not easy. There are no magic solutions, no overnight cures, no substitute for honesty and determination and hard work. Fortunately, those are attributes that the people of the Maghreb have never lacked.

There are many ways to look at the challenges facing the Maghreb and our potential cooperation with our friends there. I think it's helpful to put things in four basic categories: diplomatic, economic, political and security. I'd like to talk about each one in turn, describing both the challenge and how we in the U.S. are helping, and might help further in the future.

Diplomatically, there is simply too much intra-regional tension, most significantly between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara dispute has gone on for over a quarter of a century, at enormous cost to all the parties. The international community has been generous in its efforts to help. The United Nations spent more than $420 million in the last decade supporting MINURSO, the UN observer mission in the Western Sahara, and the UN Secretary General appointed James Baker as his personal representative to help resolve the conflict.

While our efforts have helped prevent further violence, they have had little apparent effect on the continuing political stalemate. We fully support Secretary Baker's efforts, but the parties themselves must take advantage of his willingness to help resolve the dispute. They must also address the humanitarian hardships that the conflict has created. Progress on humanitarian issues would help create a more positive climate in which political steps would be easier to take. Most importantly, all parties to the conflict will have to accept at the outset that they will need to compromise. No side will get everything it wants. But each side also needs to keep in mind that, when a solution is reached, all parties will reap additional benefits. Continuation of the conflict has economic as well as human costs. It diverts resources to military expenditures, and it inhibits investment. The conflict can be resolved, and must be resolved, so that the people of the Western Sahara, Morocco, and Algeria can devote their energies to ensuring mutual prosperity rather than nurturing grievances. That would also send a powerful signal to the rest of the region about the vision and agenda of the people of the Maghreb as a new century begins.

Another long-standing challenge in the region surrounds Libya's role. Because of Libya's history of support for terrorism, our policy is necessarily hard-nosed and realistic. But we are not oblivious to the possibilities for change. We have seen signs in recent years that the government of Libya seeks to put its terrorist past behind it. The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya because of its involvement in the horrific bombing of Pan Am flight 103. The U.S. and British governments have met with Libyan government officials in recent months to make clear what is required to meet Libya's Security Council obligations and make possible the lifting of UN sanctions. Those discussions have been constructive, and very clearly focused. Our message has been blunt, and it has not varied: Libya must comply fully with its Security Council obligations, including accepting responsibility for the bombing and paying compensation to the victims' families. There are no shortcuts. If the Libyans meet their obligations, the door will start to open for a variety of international interactions with Libya. The Maghreb countries could help by encouraging Libya to make the right decisions.

Economically, we need to continue to work with the countries of North Africa as they move toward economic restructuring. Some in the region are already beginning to head in the right direction. Morocco has pledged to reform a tariff structure that distorts its economy and inhibits trade, and is working to improve the investment climate. King Mohamed emphasized to me during our recent meeting his determination to continue to open up Morocco's economy. In recognition of its efforts, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency recently named Morocco its "Country of the Year." As President Bouteflika stressed to me last month, Algeria is actively seeking foreign investment, especially in agribusiness, housing, pharmaceuticals and transportation and is putting in place long-overdue legislation to open its economy. American business is taking note: Just this week, Algeria inaugurated its new American Chamber of Commerce.

But we should not view North African economies only from the perspective of individual countries. One area that holds a lot of promise is increased trade and cooperation among the Maghreb countries themselves. Incredibly, it is often difficult to fly between North African countries without making a detour to Paris or some other European city. Trade often goes North-South, but rarely East-West. It would make a huge amount of sense for North Africans to trade more with each other, as well as to band together as they trade with the rest of the world. Individually, they are relatively small markets facing great challenges. Together, they have to potential to become a significant player on the global stage.

The North African countries have already begun to show interest. Tunisia in particular has been a leader in understanding the link between economic integration and growth, and I was quite impressed during my recent visit to Tunis by President Ben Ali's vision for further economic openness and cooperation. The Arab Maghreb Union, or UMA, is a useful vehicle, and we'd like to see it used more. For our part, we will seek to revitalize the U.S.-North Africa Economic Partnership to further support economic cooperation among the Maghreb states.

While we cannot supply shortcuts to progress, we can help point the way forward. For instance, we are ready to provide technical assistance to North African countries that seek to join or to expand their engagement with the World Trade Organization. There is also the possibility of beginning to negotiate Free Trade Agreements between the U.S. and governments in the region, although achieving one would require an enormous amount of work and some difficult choices. During my time in Jordan, I was proud to support the hard work of Jordanians as they joined the WTO in record time and concluded a bilateral FTA with the United States. While the competition is fierce and the requirements are very tough, such achievements are not beyond our reach in North Africa -- if the local partners show real commitment and resolve.

Such agreements help invigorate local economies and attract foreign investment. But the truth is, no country in the region can attract sufficient foreign investment if it cannot also attract local investment. Many local investors have been reluctant to put money into their own economies because of a wide variety of concerns. They include systemic issues like bureaucracy, corruption, cronyism, and a lack of transparency, as well as more specific concerns about political risk and economic stability. As you know as well as I do, all of these issues are intertwined. The region cannot be healthy socially or politically so long as its economies are in trouble.

In order to realize a brighter economic future, the governments of North Africa must make tough choices. They must act decisively to improve the local business environment. They must attract investment on its merits, not force investors to put money into some projects in order to participate in others. They must remove non-tariff barriers. They must improve the quality of regulation and protect intellectual property rights. In short, they must open up their economies. There is simply no other way to attract capital, which has an unsentimental attraction to pursuing economic gain.

Politically, we also see promising signs. There is movement toward greater participation and toward greater recognition of the rights of the individual. Morocco's elections later this year will be an important test of just how far such movement has gone. We are encouraged by King Mohamed's pledge that the elections will be free and fair, and we will watch them with interest. The United States is working hard with Moroccan partners to help strengthen Morocco's political parties, raise the status of women and reinforce the rule of law.

Similar U.S. programs are underway in Algeria. Legislative elections this spring represent an opportunity for that country to demonstrate its own commitment to an open political process. Thus, we will be watching closely as Algerians take this next step in their political development. After their "nightmare decade" Algerians deserve a new chance.

For all of these countries, the answer to the problems they face is not heavy-handed governance that aims to suppress dissent, but often has the effect of prolonging it. Mass media can't be manipulated to shape opinion in the way it once was, and advances in technology make censorship increasingly anachronistic. Governments in the region must strengthen the tools they have to attract adherence as the tools of compulsion wither. Technological change will continue to have societal effects, whether governments want them to or not. The simple fact is that the technological change that has gripped the world is beyond the ability of any one country to control.

One of the deeply troubling indicators of economic and political difficulties in the Maghreb is the belief among too many young people that the sole route to success begins with a visa to leave. Many see no reason ever to return. Such a pattern not only drains North Africa of many of its most talented young people, but also provides a disincentive for Maghreb societies to invest in education. Turning around "brain drain" is a difficult challenge, but one which must be met. The only way it can be done is through making North Africa an environment that is economically, politically and socially competitive.

On the security side, mutual suspicions make all of the reforms I've just talked about more difficult. The Maghreb cannot band together as long as each distrusts its neighbor. Rivalries, suspicion, and competition among the Maghreb states sap energy, inhibit cooperation, and ultimately hold the individual countries of the region back. We can help by participating in regional exercises that bring military officers together. From other arenas we know that working together helps diminish suspicions and contributes to a better atmosphere. We must also ensure that the goal of our policies is not merely strong bilateral relations with the individual states of North Africa, but also relations that help promote cooperative interaction between them.

I don't mean to preach here, nor do I mean to lay out irrelevant expectations. We in the U.S. government don't have all the answers. Even if we did, there is no simple solution to the challenges that the countries of the Maghreb face, nor is there a single solution that fits all the countries of North Africa.

What I've tried to do here, instead, is lay out a roadmap for partnership between the United States and the countries of North Africa, individually and collectively. North Africa is important and will remain important, and we want to help where we can. We cannot make hard choices for leaderships and people, but we must help embolden them by highlighting the benefits for those who take risks. Our goal for North Africa is a sure but steady evolution toward stronger systems that gain strength from the productivity of their people. That's the best guarantee of the interests and well being of the people of the region. It's the best way to promote America's interest and values. And it's the best message that the people and leaderships of the Maghreb can send to the rest of the region as well.


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