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Challenges of the Middle East

Challenges of the Middle East

William J. Burns, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Remarks at Dickinson College Carlisle, Pennsylvania February 26, 2003

Thank you for asking me to speak this evening. I've seen the impressive list of speakers who have gone before me in this distinguished lecture series, and I'm flattered--and a little suspicious. But since I've come all this way I'll go ahead on the assumption no mistake was made.

There are lots of different strategies for appearing before a group as formidable and well-informed as you are. Mark Twain, I'm told, had a simple approach. "It is my custom," he said, "to keep talking until I have my audience cowed." I'll try to spare you that particular strategy this evening, but these are interesting times, and I'll try to cover as much ground as I can without wearing out my welcome.

These lectures honor a beloved history teacher at Dickinson, Dr. John Pflaum. He touched the lives of generations of students including one 16 year old high school student taking his first college history course, filled in that summer of 1972 with more curiosity and enthusiasm than wisdom. That student happened to be me.

Dr. Pflaum was at the very end of his distinguished career that summer, and I was just beginning a checkered career as a student of history and later as a diplomat. His History of Western Civilization course was a revelation to me, an introduction to what has become a life-long interest in the central task before gifted historians like Dr. Pflaum: creating a coherent and honest picture of events from the disparate facts available to us. It is a form of perspective, of stepping back to see the structure beneath events.

That's also the challenge for policymakers. We need to understand how we got to where we are and how our decisions today will affect where we are tomorrow. What I'll try to do this evening is piece together for you a broader sense of our approach to one of those policy puzzles, the challenges of the Middle East.

That's not an easy task, and it's not one American policymakers are always good at. It involves seeing a region like the Middle East as a whole, and connecting the dots among some extraordinarily complicated issues. It requires perspective. That s what former Texas A&M basketball coach Shelby Metcalf was getting at in describing his reaction when one of his players came to him with a report card that showed four F's and one D. "Son," he said, "looks like you're spending too much time on one subject." I'm not sure what Shelby Metcalf would say about American policy in the Middle East today, but it does seem wise to step back and keep a sense of perspective.

It is difficult at this moment not to focus entirely on the critical decisions that lie ahead on Iraq. But the challenges in this troubled region go far beyond the issue of Iraq. A Middle East mired in internal conflict is a threat to the American people as much as to the people of the region.

The stakes are clear: the Middle East is home to some of our closest friends, two thirds of the world's oil reserves, and the terrorists of September 11. In these circumstances, disengagement is not an option.

Conflict and instability are only part of the story. Economic weakness, unemployment, and political stagnation have all contributed to a region-wide sense of disappointment and anger. To counter this, the United States, the international community, and our friends in the region must together pursue a broad, positive agenda built around the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority of the region's people. That's the only effective way to counter the destructive agenda of militant minorities. The foundations of such an approach must include counter-terrorism, Iraqi disarmament, and Arab-Israeli peace, but these must be supplemented by strong support for home-grown economic and political reform.

These issues form the basis of an integrated approach. We must pursue them simultaneously, with consistent, long range strategies. We must see them as the people of the region see them: a continuum of interlocked problems that affect their daily lives and work, and threaten their common future. Finally, our approach must build on existing efforts by peoples and governments of the region. We must be seen as supporting their efforts, not imposing our agenda.

If this is a difficult challenge for us, it will be even tougher for many governments and institutions of the region. And while we will have to pay careful attention to our most important bilateral relationships, we will also have to be willing to speak plain truths to our friends as well as our adversaries.

With these thoughts in mind, I'd like to turn to some specifics.

The War Against Terror First, the war against terror. Nearly 18 months have passed since September 11, but the horrific events of that day have hardly faded for any of us. In the wake of those attacks, President Bush formed an international coalition to fight back, making clear that this is a war against violent extremism, not against Islam or the Arab world.

The first results came quickly. The United States assembled and led a powerful campaign that liberated Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida lost its safe haven, and its members are on the run. Ten thousand American soldiers remain in Afghanistan to help ensure security for that country's new representative government and help in the process of rebuilding.

But the terror attacks in Bali last fall, recent assassinations of Americans in Jordan and Kuwait, and the al-Qaida cells rolled up in Europe, from London to Rome, show that the threat has not ended, and it is not likely to end anytime soon. With our partners, we are continuing to employ every resource at our disposal political, diplomatic, financial, intelligence, law enforcement, and military to fight back against violent extremist groups.

Iraq While our struggle continues against the dangerous remnants of Al-Qaida, our thoughts today center on the challenge of Iraq's disarmament and reintegration into the international community.

Saddam Hussein's appalling record is by now familiar. Even before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saddam acquired and used weapons of mass destruction: to crush his opponents, to terrify his neighbors, and to destabilize the region. In his hands, weapons of mass destruction are one more tool, to be used directly or bartered to those extremist groups willing to do his bidding. Nothing else explains his relentless pursuit of these weapons even after his defeat in 1991, despite United Nations resolutions, economic sanctions, and the presence of inspectors through most of the decade.

In November, the Security Council passed Resolution 1441, giving Saddam a final chance to disarm voluntarily. 1441 is about compliance and cooperation; it is not about sending inspectors on a scavenger hunt across territory the size of the state of California. It requires Iraq's active cooperation and disclosure of information to allow monitors to verify and account for Iraq's WMD programs.

That Saddam at one time had this material is not in serious dispute. Secretary Powell made this clear in New York three weeks ago. The question is, what happened to tens of thousands of liters of anthrax, to 30,000 chemical warheads, 550 artillery shells filled with mustard gas, and the VX and Sarin gas that the UN has previously documented. Nearly four weeks after passage of 1441, no one can argue that Saddam has met the test of full, active, complete cooperation.

The blunt truth is that the Iraqi regime has failed to take advantage of the final opportunity offered by 1441. The choice for Saddam was simple: to disarm voluntarily or be disarmed. He is not disarming, and the UN Security Council must now face up to its own choice: applying the serious consequences that 1441 promised. If "serious consequences" turn out to be empty words, then there is a real danger that the UN will be exposed as an empty institution.

None of us relish the thought of war. It is a terrible undertaking, with enormous uncertainties. But if the use of force is required as a last resort, we will strive for the broadest possible international and regional support. That is why the U.S. supported this week's introduction of a new UNSC resolution. We also recognize that our success in such an undertaking will be judged as much by our efforts the "day after" as it will be by the conduct of our military operations. The Iraqi people deserve a better future, free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. We will work with our friends in the region and in the international community to achieve it.

Arab-Israeli Issues As we end the threat posed by Iraq, we cannot and will not ignore the tragic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On June 24 of last year, President Bush outlined a vision for peace in the Middle East based on the simple but profoundly important idea of two states, Israel and Palestine, living alongside one another in peace, security, and dignity. It will be very hard, especially after the violence of the past two and a half years, to realize that vision. But the emergence of a viable, sovereign, democratic state of Palestine alongside a secure, Jewish, democratic, prosperous state of Israel is critical to the hopes of both peoples, to the stability of the region, and to American interests for many years to comes.

As the President's June 24 speech made clear, and as the roadmap for implementing it that we have been working on with our international partners reflects, both sides will have to make difficult choices if we are going to revive hopes for peace. Palestinians must transform their leadership and end the use of terror as a political tool. Period. They must build the kinds of institutions that prepare them for effective statehood institutions that Palestinians deserve and are eminently capable of creating, and which would give Israelis confidence once again that they have a partner for peace.

Israel has obligations too. It must end settlement construction activity, and stop creating facts on the ground which corrode Palestinian hopes and are wholly inconsistent with the President's two-state vision. The truth is that both sides must see a different reality emerging. Israelis must see an end to terror, and hope for a final end to the conflict and full acceptance in the region as a Jewish state. Palestinians must see their daily humiliations eased, their dignity respected, and their hope restored for an early, negotiated end to the occupation which began in 1967.

There was a time when Israelis and Palestinians were able to go off on their own and make peace by themselves. This is not one of those times. It is deeply in our interest to do all we can to help, and to show active American leadership. Inaction on this issue is as dangerous to our interests as on any other challenge we face in the region.

Economic Modernization and Political Participation The issues I have been discussing are critical and urgent ones for the United States. But they are in some ways manifestations of deeper problems. Indeed, many in the region are beginning to realize that their most profound challenges at this moment lie not in war and conflict, but in meeting the political and economic expectations of a new generation.

Another hard truth as we enter the 21st century is that countries that adapt, open up and seize the economic and political initiative will prosper; those that don't will fall farther and farther behind.

The facts are sobering. Per capita incomes throughout the Middle East are stagnant or dropping. Growth lags, even as the labor force expands. Forty five percent of the population in Arab countries is now under the age of 14, and the region's population will double over the next quarter century.

Middle Eastern economies are not equipped to handle the surge of young people into the job market. The region's share of world GDP, trade and foreign investment continues to shrink. The region's economies suffer from a lack of transparency, weak capital markets, barriers to trade, and a workforce lacking modern skills.

Given the high stakes, we must find new ways to support those who are working to open up their economies and expand opportunities for all their citizens. While there is no single model for change, we must be strong advocates for enhancing private sector involvement, diversifying economies, and educating children to compete in the modern global economy.

Economic modernization cannot exist in a vacuum. Open economies require open and accommodating political systems. Today, however, many political systems in the region fail to give voice to their citizens. Political structures all too often serve to insulate the regime and governing elite from change.

The good news is that some people in the region are beginning to take action, not as a favor to us or any outsider, but in their own self-interest. In Iran, young people are peacefully demanding freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right to choose their leaders. Throughout the region, women, journalists, trade unionists, and educators are demanding a say in their system, in ways that fit their societies and cultures.

And some political leaderships are taking note. We hope that last fall's elections in Bahrain in which women voted and ran for office are a hopeful sign for expanded popular participation. In Qatar, Jordan and Morocco we have seen more important experiments in political openness.

There are other examples. But what should be clear is that the people of the region understand the challenges and the opportunities far better than we ever will. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report, prepared by some of the region's brightest thinkers, lays out in very candid terms the gaps in economic openness, political freedoms, educational opportunity, and women's empowerment that obstruct the realization of the vast human potential of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah recently seized on the Arab Human Development Report's challenge to issue a proposed "Arab Charter." The Charter document calls for internal reform, enhanced political participation, and economic revitalization based on free market principles.

We need to encourage this ambitious and hopeful vision, and support it. At President Bush's direction, Secretary Powell has taken the lead in organizing the Middle East Partnership Initiative to work with those in the region who are committed to broadening economic and educational opportunities, and expanding political participation. Together with our partners in the region, we have developed a set of promising initial projects.

None of this will be easy, and it will take time to see real results. But for the United States, it is deeply in our interest to encourage these long-term structural changes.

Change can quickly overwhelm our ability to act, whether we are talking about an individual, a business, or a nation. Success is a function of anticipating change, and preparing for it. In the Middle East, that change is coming. Neither we nor, more importantly, the peoples and leaderships of the region, can afford the mistake of seeing stability as a static phenomenon. Change must be shaped and managed, but it cannot be ignored.

This is a time of crisis and great challenge for the Middle East. I spoke earlier tonight about taking an historical approach to current events, as I learned from Dr. Pflaum that summer in Carlisle 30 years ago. One thing historians often do is identify critical events on which the path of history turns. We are at one of those points now.

Courageous thinkers in the region have identified a path of hope and opportunity. If we join them on that path; if we keep a clear sense of perspective; if we apply American power with a sense of purpose as well as a sense of humility, for we certainly have no monopoly on wisdom in approaching the Middle East; if we understand the connections between issues and the importance of what's at stake for American interests for generations to come; then a time of crisis can become a turning point - a turning point in which hope begins to replace the despair on which violent extremists breed.

Thank you. [End]

Released on March 11, 2003

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