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William Burns: Challenges in the Middle East

Challenges in the Middle East

William J. Burns , Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Testimony Before the House International Relations Committee, Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia Washington, DC June 18, 2002

Thank you, Chairman Gilman. I appreciate this opportunity to discuss with all of you the challenges we face in the Middle East, and how we can best promote American interests and values.

Mr. Chairman, the fight against terrorism remains central to defending our interests in the Middle East. As President Bush has stated plainly on many occasions since the terrible events of September 11, we simply cannot tolerate the notion that any political cause justifies attacks against innocent civilians. In the Middle East, we continue to work hard to strengthen regional coalitions to fight terrorism. We are pressing leaderships to speak out clearly, and act decisively, against terror and violent extremism. We are working hard to close down terrorist financing networks. We are also working hard to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. In that regard, we continue to have very serious concerns about the behavior of some states in the region, particularly Iraq and Iran. The Iranian regime continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, and to export terror. There can be no doubt about our determination to prevent any attempt by Saddam Hussein s brutal and repressive regime in Baghdad to build weapons of mass destruction and once again threaten the region.

And there can also be no doubt that the region, and especially the people of Iraq themselves, would be better off with a different leadership one dedicated to preserving Iraq s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to developing the enormous potential of its people, and to living in peace with its neighbors.

This afternoon, Mr. Chairman, I would like to touch briefly on two other challenges that we face: the importance of rebuilding hope in Arab-Israeli peace; and the profound longer-term economic, social and political dilemmas facing peoples and leaderships in the region.

The United States obviously has a powerful interest in showing that terrorism, violence and the use of force can never bring a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But it seems to me that we have an equally compelling interest in demonstrating that a political process can and must produce that outcome.

Like many members of this committee, I have travelled frequently to the region in recent months. I have seen for myself the anger and frustration of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. I have seen for myself the horrific aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and the terrible destruction inside Jenin refugee camp. I have seen the toll taken on both sides in lives lost and families shattered. And I have seen something less tangible, but no less troubling the loss of hope on both sides, the erosion of the dream of peace and reconciliation, the collapse of faith in a better future, a future in which two states, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace, security and dignity.

There has been too much suffering, and too much death. Israelis and Palestinians deserve better than this. Both peoples deserve a future that puts an end to terror and violence, a future that removes the daily threats to the security of ordinary Israelis who worry about whether their children will return safely from school or their spouses from the market, a future that ends incitement and hate-language, a future that preserves Israel as a strong and vibrant Jewish state.

Both peoples deserve a future that puts an end to the corrosive impact of occupation and settlements, a future that stops the daily humiliations of life under occupation, a future that brings Palestinians their own state, responsible governance and the chance for the normal, dignified lives that they and their children must have.

None of us should have any illusions about the task before us. It will be very, very hard. Moving forward will require many difficult decisions. It will require courage and vision and compassion from leaders, and a willingness to speak plain truths to their peoples.

It will require the international community to supply a sense of purpose and determination and generosity. And it will require all of us to understand that today, even in the grimmest of moments and the most bitter of circumstances, the outlines of enduring peace and security for Israelis and Arabs alike are clearer than ever.

President Bush intends to address those issues shortly, and I hope you will understand that I am not able today to address them in any detail.

Let me emphasize simply that there are opportunities, as well as dangers, before us. As we seek to apply American leadership energetically to those challenges, we have a number of assets.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship is stronger than it has ever been, and there can be no doubt of this Administration s commitment to Israel s security and well-being. Key Arab states are more actively engaged in support of a return to peacemaking than in many months; the recent efforts and visits to the United States of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan have all been quite constructive. There is genuine interest among many Palestinians in political reform and institution-building in their own self-interest, not as a favor to us or anyone else. And there is growing international cooperation, centered on American leadership, and reflected in the efforts of the "Quartet," which includes the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN Secretary General.

Broadly speaking, our approach will involve a commitment to progress in parallel along three tracks, all aimed at the ultimate goal of a permanent two-states solution. The first track is security, where all terror and violence ends. The second is reform and economic recovery, where Palestinians with the active support of the international community build strong institutions in preparation for statehood. The third is political, where Palestinians and Israelis renew discussions about their future, leading as soon as possible to the emergence through negotiations of a responsible Palestinian state alongside Israel. Central to this concept is the conviction that progress along these tracks must be made in parallel; it is clear that there can be no real security without a restoration of political hope, just as there can be no enduring political progress without security.

Let me be very clear: Palestinians have legitimate national aspirations; but there can be absolutely no justification for suicide bombings or any other form of terror. I repeat, Palestinian authorities must do everything possible to confront the terrorists whose acts are causing grave harm to Palestinian interests and hopes for a better future. For us, there is no middle ground on fighting terror.

Let me turn finally to the broader questions facing the region, and American policy. As crucial as fighting violent extremism and achieving Arab-Israeli peace are to the future of the region, they are by no means the only challenges before the societies of the Middle East.

Economically and socially, it is obvious to anyone with eyes to see that the region faces enormous dilemmas. The truth is that economic and social inequality in many Middle East countries has grown in recent decades, rather than diminish. Political, economic and social systems are often intertwined, and they appear closed to outsiders. For those who are not already a part of the system, advancement seems hopeless.

Corruption is becoming a more and more corrosive force.

I do not mean to dwell on depressing statistics, but the facts are sobering, and unavoidable. Per capita incomes throughout the Middle East are stagnant or dropping, while the size of the labor force keeps growing. 45% of the population of the Arab world is now under the age of 14, and the population of the region as a whole could double in 25 years. Meanwhile, the Middle East share of world GDP, trade and foreign investment continues to shrink. Throughout the region, there is a lack of transparency, weak capital markets, barriers to trade, and a workforce lacking modern skills. On top of all this, the region faces the lowest per capita water availability in the world.

The Middle East cannot be healthy socially or politically so long as its economies are in crisis. It seems to me that the United States has a powerful interest in doing all that we can to help those who want to help themselves in the region, who take difficult decisions to open up their economies and expand opportunities for all their citizens.

While we will not offer a single model for change, we will be strong advocates for enhancing private sector involvement, diversifying economies and narrowing the gap between haves and have nots.

Young people should emerge from educational systems with appropriate skills for the workforce, not only the skills that educational systems are now best equipped to teach. Globalization should be viewed not as a threat, but rather as opening a whole new world of possibilities for the region s next generation.

Politically, the truth is that many political systems in the region do not function effectively as mechanisms for citizens to express and work out their discontents. Political structures all too often serve to insulate the regime and governing elite from change, rather than lead it. The voices of publics are all too often ignored, until they raise them to a shout. Information can no longer be controlled and manipulated, and satellite television and the revolution in information technology will become ever more profound forces in the years ahead.

While we as Americans need to be mindful of the limits of our influence and the imperfections of our own system, we will work with those who seek to deepen respect for the rule of law, and the rights and sanctity of the individual. Every society can find ways to broaden political participation and respect for basic freedom consistent with its own political culture and traditions.

None of this will happen overnight. But I am convinced that societies which anticipate and get out ahead of inevitable pressures for greater economic and political openness will prosper; those that do not will fall farther and farther behind. That s the simple reality of life in the 21st century. It is, as I said, very much in our long-term interest, and it is very much a reflection of our values, to support those who want to move toward greater openness. That is why the President has asked Secretary Powell to outline shortly a new American initiative to use all the tools and forms of assistance currently at our disposal, as well as some innovative new programs, to support regional efforts to restructure economies, strengthen educational systems and build vibrant civil societies.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you this afternoon. I value greatly the frequent conversations I have with you and the other members of the committee. We may not always agree, but I always learn from you, appreciate your insights and am grateful for the chance to explain Administration policy. I have absolutely no doubt that the challenges before us in the Middle East will require continued close cooperation and consultation in the weeks and months ahead.


Released on June 26, 2002

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