Introductory Remarks and Panel 1, November 17, 2011
Wendy Chamberlin: I’d like to welcome you on behalf of the Middle East Institute Board of Governors and the staff and scholars and interns and members of the Middle East Institute. I’d like to welcome the ambassadors, panelists, members and distinguished guests to the opening of the 65th Middle East Institute Annual Conference – and to say that you are really in for a treat today. The panels are terrific and I hope you will be able to stay the entire day.
Much as we Americans have our historical markers, like the assassination of JFK, the terrorist attack in New York and the Pentagon, this has been a remarkable year in the Middle East. The Arab Spring or Arab Awakening – whatever you want to call it – has been a set of pivotal events that will be the historical markers for anybody in the region and anybody who thinks about the region. But not yet a year has passed since those heady, optimistic, exuberant days of pride and empowerment, and the mood has begun to change. It is much more sober. It is anxious. There has been a little bit of a shade on the optimism that we saw at the beginning of the year.
Libya, Egypt, Tunisia – the Arab Awakening countries – are now facing the next step. They are facing the daunting challenges of democratic institution-building, elections, changing national political cultures. The other countries – Yemen, Syria, Bahrain – are struggling with conflict. A very different mood.
The MEI Conference this morning is an opportunity for each and every one of you to step back from your busy schedules, step back from what you do every day, and to pause and reflect upon the fundamental changes that have gone on and are going on and will continue for many years in the Middle East. MEI has made a point in this conference today of inviting voices from the region – people who have been living the events, participants themselves – to come to Washington and share with us their observations. Just to mention a few that will appear in the later panels: Jamal Khashoggi from Saudi Arabia; Abdelkhaleq Abdalla from the UAE; Paul Salem is joining us from Beirut. I’d also like to thank all of the scholars and experts who have come from different parts of the United States to Washington to bring us a different perspective from the usual people that we hear from: Iman Bibars from Ashoka, who is actually Egyptian; Larry Diamond from Stanford University; Ambassador Dan Kurtzer from Princeton; Mohsen Milani from the University of South Florida; Ron Schlicher from Nashville. They join some of Washington’s most astute observers on the Middle East. I thank you all.
As you know, 2011 is our 65th anniversary. We’ve held 65 of these conferences now, and once again I’d like to report to you that we have a record number of registrants: 1,200 have registered. We hope they don’t all come at once but there are four panels today that are first-rate and will attract different people who will circulate. So please stay for the whole day if you can.
We are happy to offer this event free of charge to the public because our mission is to promote knowledge and understanding and we think the best way to do that is to reach as wide an audience as possible. So you are our guests. Many of you have registered already for the private lunch to discuss the peace process and the Geneva Accord with Dr. Yossi Beilin and Samih Al-Abed. Unfortunately all those tickets have been sold. The rest of you will get to explore the different restaurants and eateries around town during that lunch hour before we begin again in the afternoon.
As I look around the room I recognize many members of the Middle East Institute. I see many others who are regular attendees of our weekly programs. We particularly welcome the members and contributors and donors because that’s how we sustain ourselves and how we are able to put on events like this Annual Conference every year. So for those of you who enjoy our events, which we make free of charge, I’d like to encourage you to become members. We have a desk in the foyer so you can register. It’s only $100 and with that you get four copies of our quarterly journal, the Middle East Journal, and advance notifications and other online materials. So please join. You can also at the same desk register for a class if you are interested in learning a language of the Middle East. We teach group lessons and private lessons in Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish and Farsi. If you are curious about our Journal you can buy individual copies there as well as some of the academic publications we have produced.
For those of you who don’t know us, maybe this is your first time here, let me take one more minute and explain all of the things that we do. In addition to this conference every year, Kate Seelye, who is our vice president, puts on weekly programs that are absolutely fantastic – a little shout-out for Kate and Elisha Meyer for the tremendous job that they have done with the help of a very dedicated and competent intern staff. We host a library, a little jewel of a library, on our property at 1761 N Street. We have just engaged, with the support of an endowment from the Sultanate of Oman, a professional librarian, so you will have a research advisor if you come visit us. We publish the Middle East Journal. We also publish other online publications, academic publications, that you can find on our website. Our website is under reconstruction right now and we will launch a new website in January. It’s going to be terrific. We also proudly host the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center at the Middle East Institute. Go online and you can find cultural events that are coming up.
MEI Scholars – there are over 40 of them – write frequently for the media, brief government officials and speak throughout the country. The Center for Turkish Studies also hosts an annual conference and the Center for Pakistan Studies, headed by Dr. Marvin Weinbaum – he is indefatigable in briefing government officials, military officials, the press, writing, talking, on the very complex relationship that we have with Pakistan.
There is more that I could talk about but I want to move on to the panel. You can see we’re not your everyday think tank. We are a unique organization – in fact we are three or four organizations wrapped into one. For that it takes support so I do appreciate it if you would consider joining us as a member, or if you represent a corporation or association making a contribution.
We have a full day ahead of us. We have a panel we’d like to get started on time and that’s about right now. Let me turn the floor over to Graeme Bannerman, who will be moderating the panel: “Arab Spring: Assessing US Policy in the Middle East.” Dr. Bannerman is a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is the founder of Bannerman Associates, an international consulting firm. Graeme, over to you.
Graeme Bannerman: I’d like to say I feel very fortunate to introduce this panel. If I were going to choose four people to speak about the Arab Spring and US policy towards it, these are the four people I would choose as being the best you possibly could have. I’ve known all of them for a while. I know Steve less well but Steve is somebody who has emerged upon the Washington scene as the most thoughtful commentator I know on Middle Eastern issues. You should read everything he writes. It is forward-looking and very much unique in his own perspective and he’s terrific.
Next to me is Tamara – I’ve known Tamara since she was a young person working at the Middle East Institute. I’ve seen her through her career, going to USIP and then Brookings and now she’s at the State Department. You have to understand about Tamara: if there’s anybody who’s implementing our policy on the Middle East, Tamara is in the middle of it. She has two or three jobs and she is absolutely essential in the policy decision-making process. It’s great to see that.
Ron Schlicher and I share a passion for Lebanon and Egypt over the years. He is the person in the State Department, all the years I worked with him, that I agreed with most. We did have a few disagreements over [indiscernible] to Lebanon but that’s a special issue.
Finally, I’ve known Dan Kurtzer since 1979, when he was a first-tour officer in Cairo. I arrived having just left the State Department, was then a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We stayed in guest quarters next to each other for a while and he and I went around for all of his introductory meetings in Cairo. It was a great experience for me, I got to know Dan, it was terrific.
I’d like to show how different the world has changed since 1979. Up until 1979 the State Department had an unstated but actual policy where Jewish officers were not allowed to be political officers in Arab countries in the Middle East. Dan was the person who broke that barrier, which has led his son to comment that he’s sort of like the Jackie Robinson for Jewish political officers. The Kurtzers have a long tradition of liking baseball and baseball analogies.
When we talk about the Arab Spring today, even the title of this panel becomes troubling, because there are those who worry that the term “Arab Spring” was too much based on Eastern Europe and there were those of us who feared that if you made too much of a parallel to Eastern Europe we’d implement some of the policies that we thought were good in Eastern Europe that were not particularly appropriate in the Middle East. Therefore last night we got from Deputy Secretary Burns a different word: he called it the new Arab Awakening, which I am more comfortable with but that means we have to compare it to the old Arab Awakening, which was secular and became the foundation of the Arab nationalism that predominated in the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s, which made a lot of Americans nervous when talking about it. In fact, some of those realities are emerging and may be true. The original Arab Awakening was also very secular and clearly what’s happening now in the Middle East has a much more Islamic tone than the first one.
So we are seeing evolving events that we never anticipated and we have no idea where they are going. So it’s going to be very interesting for them to describe the policy of the United States to evolving events that we don’t know where they’re going. So I’d like to start with Tamara, because she has the job of explaining the administration’s position. Fortunately for her Bill Burns spoke last night and put out the general outlines so she can go into more details.
Tamara Cofman Wittes: Graeme, thanks so much. Let me just start on a personal note to say what a pleasure it is for me to be on this podium with these fantastic colleagues and to be here celebrating the Middle East Institute, which is really the place that gave me my start in Middle East policy work in Washington. So thank you so much for welcoming me back. Congratulations also to last night’s honorees, Lakhdar Brahimi and my friend Esraa Abdel Fattah, two inspiring individuals.
Because you heard from Deputy Secretary Burns last night in some detail, I’m not going to attempt to summarize or repeat those remarks here. What I thought I would do is just go into a couple of specific themes that I think are worth further discussion and hopefully in that way start the conversation for the rest of the panel.
The first theme is one of the themes that grounds very much our approach to the events of this year, which is that this has been coming for a long time. The pressures for change in the region have been building for a long time. Those of us who study the region, spend time in the region, have seen those pressures building in this younger generation and its determination to play a role in the future of its society, in economic stagnation and corruption and the frustration and inequality that that produced. And changes in the media environment and the way that shaped people’s conceptions, their access to information, their sense of connection to one another.
So the pressures producing the demands for change that we see across the region today have been building for years. They are not going away any time soon. They exist in various forms all across the region. That means that while we don’t know how those pressures will manifest in any given place, we know that we’re going to be living with this for quite some time to come. One of the clear conclusions that we have drawn from that is that the root to lasting stability in the region is only going to come through significant political and economic reform.
As Secretary Clinton said a few days ago, the greatest single source of instability in the region today is not the demand for change but the refusal to change. I think we see this fact clearly reflected in the different trajectories evident in different places in the region, whether it’s Tunisia where peaceful protest led the military to side with the people and push Ben Ali from power, or Syria where Bashar al-Assad is fruitlessly but with great brutality trying to hold back change at the point of a gun.
Fundamentally though we see this moment as a moment of strategic opportunity as well, and that’s because of how these changes came about. Seeing this rising generation of Arab young people taking control of their future and doing so with great determination and discipline – they were not only rejecting the tired voices of their elders who told them to wait their turn but also rejecting the dark voices of those who were telling them that the only path to change was through unending confrontation and violence. It’s they who have put forward a positive alternative for the future of the region that is really promising and something that all of us should not only be inspired by but work to support.
So we do see this fundamentally as a moment of opportunity. That said, I understand the anxiety and skepticism that we see across the region and in other places as well, including here in the US, about what these changes might bring and what their implications might be. Transitions are by their very nature uncertain. They carry risks. Certainly we know that a revolution by itself does not produce democracy, just as an election by itself does not produce democracy. Democracy requires not only a vote but a voice – that is, fundamental freedoms – and accountability, meaning the rule of law that applies equally to everybody.
We know also that not all of those who win support in newly democratic politics will agree with us on everything. They might not even like us very much. They might not agree with us on things that we think are very important. Even with our closest allies we sometimes have disagreements, even serious disagreements, on policy. So that is neither unprecedented nor unusual. The record shows that we find common ground with countries around the world on many issues and that our closest partners internationally are democracies.
What matters to us most about the new political actors that are emerging in the countries undergoing transition is not what these parties are called – whether they are Islamist, leftist, secularist, some other label. What matters to us is what these parties do, and whether sustainable democracy wins or loses by their actions. Do they reject absolutely the use of force to achieve political ends? Do they commit to democratic rules of the game, even when they lose the game? Do they respect the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms for all citizens, including women and minorities? Do they act with a sense of the responsibility that comes with power and representation – a responsibility to preserve the peace and to put citizens’ interests above their own?
I know, and this has been an issue of longstanding discussion in the region, that there are many who are skeptical about the democratic credentials of some of the new political actors emerging in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. I think it’s good to ask the questions that I just laid out of all of those who want to join the democratic process. Those are the questions that we are asking as we engage with this increasingly diverse set of political actors.
Fundamentally, the way to ensure that democracy wins is to ensure the quality of the democratic process, to ensure not only that elections are free and fair but that the process as a whole is open, fair and competitive – that voters have real choices and parties competing for those votes face real challenges. It is ultimately the citizens of the region who have to press the parties to speak to the issues that concern them the most.
The second theme I’ll raise briefly: one of the things that I’ve learned during my time in government is how hard it is sometimes for us not to do things. We care deeply about the outcomes of these dramatic changes, both because we have been inspired by them, because they reflect values that are very dear to who we are as a country, but also because we have strong interests at stake. But it’s been very important for us to remember as we’ve structured our response that what’s happening in the Arab world today is fundamentally not about us. We are not driving these changes and we will not determine the outcomes. We do have a role to play and we have targeted support that we can offer to those who seek it – support to bolster civil society, to build democratic institutions, to cultivate broad-based opportunity for citizens so that democracy delivers real results for people.
In fact in many ways we are fairly well prepared to respond to these events and to provide that kind of targeted support, because even before the Arab awakening began we had already done a good deal of work to change the way we did business in the region. President Obama and Secretary Clinton embarked on this effort from the very beginning of their time in office, and as President Obama promised in Cairo we have worked pretty assiduously to broaden our engagement, to build partnerships with citizens as well as with governments – partnerships rooted in universal values, in mutual respect, in mutual accountability. Secretary Clinton throughout her tenure has emphasized the centrality of young people, of this rising generation, and the importance of civil society. Virtually every trip she has made to the region, she has taken time to meet with civil society activists. She stood up strongly for the right of citizens to organize and advocate for change. I think in all our foreign policy, in this region and elsewhere, the president and the secretary have elevated the integral links that we see between diplomacy, democracy and development.
At the end of the day, how would I characterize our role? If we think truly about what’s driving this change and where the resources are that the region will draw on as it moves through this process, the region’s greatest resource is its young people. They have already demonstrated their ingenuity, their discipline, their commitment, their creativity. Just look at what they have already achieved against such incredible odds. So our role is to listen to them, to understand what they are trying to do, to facilitate their work and the priorities and the goals that they set for themselves. In everything that we do we try to hearken to the voices from within and invest in those voices.
What we have to remember is that whether we are talking about economic development or inequality or the environment, the citizens of the region have made their own priorities clear. They have said very vocally that political change, democracy, is the best way they think they have to solve their economic, political and social problems. We embrace that call.
There is certainly no single playbook that we can pass on to those working in the Middle East today to build their own democracies but there are some fundamental lessons of successful democratic practice we can share. There is some targeted support we can offer. As these countries move down the path of democratic change and economic reform, we are working to respond and will continue to respond to help them build all the core elements that sustain democracy over time. At the end of the day, we can acknowledge the uncertainty and anxiety but all of that to me is an argument for us to remain closely engaged. Thanks very much.
Steve Clemons: I thought it was such a great idea to have Tamara go first, until you did such a great job. What I’d like to do is offer some scattered provocations about this question – some of it perhaps at the more uncomfortable edge of discussing Arab Spring. My three colleagues who will be talking are so knowledgeable from a policy practitioner point about the nuts and bolts of the region, but I think there are far bigger issues that we just don’t know how they are going to evolve or where things come out. If you were looking at global trends and change from around the world from, say, Mars, you wouldn’t be just looking at the Arab Spring. I just got back from a long trip to China followed by a trip to the UAE. The most consistent question I got during the last fourteen days was how real was the Occupy Wall Street movement; were we seeing the beginning of a protest exercise here that was somehow a sibling of protest movements elsewhere in the world. I don’t have an answer to that. My gut feeling says that things are very different, that this isn’t a moment of global change in the equation between the rulers and ruled, even in places like the United States and democracies. But I think it behooves us to be very careful as we think about what’s going on in the Arab Spring as being something that’s happening “over there.”
There’s been a lot of triumphalism in Washington, D.C. – a sort of embedded pride that somehow we had something to do with what’s happening or that we can help nurture or cultivate the further positive developments in the Arab Spring. I think these are possibly serious mistakes in assessment and could lead to some real mistakes in policy.
There’s a very powerful explanation. I think President Obama, and the speeches that he’s given on the Arab Spring and the various differences between Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen, are absolutely right. When you look at these micro-questions, I agree with the dissimilarity between issues. But there are also some macro factors in the world and it may be very possible that the changed perception of American power and the infrastructure of America’s place in the world and a sense of weakness and doubt in America’s ability to achieve the things it says it’s going to do may have a lot to do with the kind of macro ecosystem in which these changes are shifting. When you look at what’s happening in the world – if I were to look at strategic classical allies, take Israel and Saudi Arabia, take Japan and Germany – the behavior of our strategic allies over a long period of time are changing in ways we wouldn’t have seen ten years. If you were to look at the changing behavior of foes, I think they are changing as well. If you look at the Middle East and the rivalries that are building and becoming hardened and more creatively deployed between Saudi Arabia and Iran, throughout the Middle East, that in a sense is also a function of a perception of American disengagement or at least less capacity in the region.
I realize this runs against some of the conventional wisdom that’s often thought about US power and engagement in the world, but what may be happening in the Arab Spring may be a function of a perception of American weakness – not a cause of triumphalism or the success of a brand of democracy or the views of those have-nots in societies who want to see more. So that’s one provocation that I wanted to offer.
The other is very important. As a guy who’s a blogger and spends a lot of time – I’ve been tweeting this a little bit last night and today on social networks – I really do feel and see when I move around the world the power of social networks and connectivity. In China, for instance, 900 million people have cell phones, 500 million are on the internet. Whether you like China’s system and rule of law, there is a scale of things going out there beyond this country that is extraordinary – a global conversation.
I always fail with this – at weddings sometimes I go and I have a lousy line – I’ll never get to make a toast again. There’s this great Jeremy Bentham line that I think is good called, “Happiness is a function of relative deprivation.” It usually falls flat in an audience. But when you think about it, to a certain degree what you see is that that’s a very important law of how societies think about opportunities. As they come into with what they see other societies have – and I think this is part of the global conversation, part of what social networking has done. It has changed the appetites of people. We saw the peddler in Tunisia say “I’ve had it with the rules and corruption,” as Tamara just said – killed himself, and essentially sparked something where people around the world armed with both more knowledge about what’s going on around the world and saying, “We’re not going to be as fearful that the equation between ruler and ruled was changing.” That had a lot to do with what people were doing but again, to talk about D.C.’s arrogance in all of this, that was a function of Silicon Valley. If you spend time on the West Coast of the United States, with biotech people and innovators, you see people who are phenomenally changing the world in ways that we don’t. We approach from a policy and regulatory perspective but we see things that are happening that D.C. is characteristically trying to take credit for.
The other trends that are interesting in the Arab Spring, that I’ve been struggling with and I don’t know whether they are real or not, is the fact that – and the US being more reactive and behind events rather than in front of them. Over the last few years, Wadah Khanfar, who is now the resigned former director-general of Al Jazeera, has been organizing an annual conference on political Islam and bringing together Muslim Brotherhood members, essentially, but other adherents – Dan, you were there once, I think. Or another forum that Al Jazeera did. It was an attempt to bring in different groups and have a discussion about democracy, political Islam, the rights of minority and majority views in different countries. To see and hear from folks from Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, a wide variety of areas, and have that conversation. They would bring in a couple of Americans, I think largely as tokens. I was always fascinated by this discussion because you realize when you’ve stepped away from it that the US government has not had a strategy at all for engaging and dealing with political Islam. What’s interesting is you’ve heard these people, political Islam and those adherents, those Muslim Brotherhood members, were the biggest proponents of what they believed democracy to be. They have been part of the driving change through the Middle East. It’s going to be a very complicated equation for the United States that again I don’t see us rushing to deal with out at the front end of that. I think there are a lot of questions about democracy being used as a tool, or the aspiration of democracy per se being used as a tool to get into power and then transition to something else.
Also in the Arab Spring, and I’m sure that [indiscernible] and Tamara implied it, I think we’ve moved from highly static, rigid regimes in which Tamara was right – absolutely the time had come – moving to very fluid circumstances. We may see lots of convulsions. It reminds you of that Arnold Schwarzenegger “Terminator” movie, where he’s dying in the pit and there’s a face that keeps coming up over and over. We may see many different variants of governments coming in, going out quickly. This notion of a binary choice between totalitarian arrangements and democracy is a fairly vapid and unrealistic one that I think is not going to be there.
The other thing that has been part of the US discussion on the Arab Spring – my very good friend whom I respect a great deal but frequently disagree with, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote a piece for the Atlantic that was originally titled, “The New Age of Intervention.” I’ve subsequently noticed this morning that she changed the title but there are feeds that have it listed as “The New Age of Intervention.” In this was essentially part of a moment where she was questioning whether what we did in Libya was intervention or not. From her perspective, from a legal arrangement, what Responsibility to Protect (R2P) did is it has changed the equation of outside powers versus other powers when those powers essentially forfeit, in line with the notion of Responsibility to Protect, their sovereignty because of a violated ideal with their citizens. Thus those citizens necessarily – and the responsibility of the international community to work with and protect them and their interests is essentially an organic and an inside thing rather than an outside thing and an intervention.
You may think that’s a bit of a pretzel to think through but there are many who are trying to take the Libya exercise and turn it into a cookie cutter in terms of applying it to other cases around the world. I think it’s going to be very hard. I think there is no new age of intervention.
I spent some time in the White House trying to get my head around what were the terms of engagement in the Libya exercise. This can be debated at length. If you read the Time magazine profile of Hillary Clinton and what she did, it’s going to run quite differently from the Michael Hastings story that just ran in Rolling Stone that showed more of Obama’s hand in it. There are a lot of people that have different takes on this.
But the five items that Barack Obama put on the table for intervention in Libya if we were going to proceed, on the eve of the decision and with different tracks – both the Pentagon and State Department, Susan Rice and others – is that they were expecting: number one, a material, not just rhetorical, support from Arab leaders; two, that they wanted no unilateral action, that they wanted to act multilaterally but concurrent with our interests; three, no boots on the ground; four, consistent with legal mandates, meaning what the UN could produce and do; five, it had to be effective, meaning not a no-fly zone for a no-fly zone’s sake, that would not solve the problem. So that little clause in the UN was always the place where the real debate was, about other means or what other necessary means. Then finally, a well-defined, achievable goal, very much focused around Benghazi.
What Obama to a certain degree, in my view, hatched possibly – but the White House has been terrible at marketing it – is a new kind of intervention, in the sense that this was not a one-size-fits-all. It was also not something that some of us, like myself, were worried about – that it would create a slippery slope to a deep engagement in Libya where we would own the outcome and the process from beginning to end. This was the president creating very clear and limited criteria, very constrained criteria, on engagement. This was what was needed. I think if you look at Syria and others, this explains why we aren’t going to do more, if they maintain this template.
But when you look at these others it was to offer a chance to rebels, that many revolutions don’t work out on behalf of those rebelling. That’s one of the rules of history, is that you see many cases where things don’t work out. What President Obama and NATO somewhat did is to give them a tipping point opportunity to try to take advantage of it. But there was no guarantee of fundamental success in the end.
What the president did, in my view, is he essentially took a page out of what we did with the G20 during the global financial crisis. In that case you move beyond the traditional incumbents around the world that dealt with global economic issues and you broaden the players significantly. To some degree Libya is a messier example but it’s very much an example that while we talk about France, Britain and the United States allying together to do something, it’s far more important that Qatar, Jordan and the UAE took very direct action, were right there on the front line with money, material, planes and people. Also working covertly and there were other Arab League members that did as well. The G20-ification of national security issues, what some people have wrongly called “leading from behind,” is in a sense a very smart strategy if the stock of power that the United States has in the world to deal with these things isn’t as high as it used to be. You can call it the Tom Sawyer strategy – how to try and get others to paint your fence. To some degree, that may be the smartest kind of power and change in the world, of trying to figure out how to do that.
But one needs to be humble and careful, because I agree with Tamara in what was one of her final points – what seems to be moving in the Arab Spring, where we’ve been largely behind – we’ve been on the edges but we’re not going to advocate these kinds of changes in Saudi Arabia. We clearly haven’t in Bahrain. Yemen is still a mess. Syria is a very different kind of engagement.
I was worried in the moment that President Obama made his decision, that the moment you saw an alliance of Britain, the United States and France taking an intervention in Libya, that the narrative would change from the brave people on the street challenging their government to the question of what would or would not the US and its allies do. It would take the cameras off the street. I think the president deserves a lot of credit for not letting this be a slippery slope into a deeper engagement and doing everything he could to maintain the cameras on those rebels in Libya.
So it’s a very different kind of model that I hope we can learn from, but the biggest thing is that this is going to go on for years and years. There are big questions out there about the limits of American power actually being one of the drivers of the Arab Spring as much as the capabilities that we may bring to bear. Thank you.
Ron Schlicher: Good morning, everybody. First of all, let me thank MEI for the opportunity to be on this panel. MEI does amazing work and I’ve certainly been the beneficiary of a lot of that work over my thirty years in the Foreign Service. It is really something special to be in a large room like this that’s full early on a morning of people who are interested in the issues in the Middle East region. That’s certainly consonant with what the interests of our country are in the region and I see that there are lots of people, especially young people, who going forward are prepared to pursue those interests.
Let me start out by saying that we’re less than one year into this new era of awakening. As Steve points out and as Deputy Secretary Burns pointed out last night in his remarks, it really is too early to firmly project what is going to happen in any given state, in any given political system. It is certainly much too early to come up with judgments on whether the awakening is going to be, in very raw terms, a success or a failure. I do think it’s clear that, as Tamara pointed out, this new surge of popular activism, this yearning for democracy especially led by young people, does represent the best chance for the peoples of the region to claim their rights, to empower themselves, to come up with more responsive governments, and for those governments to be more stable and better partners for those from the outside, including us. But I think it’s very far from knowable at this point whether that’s going to happen or not.
I think that so far at least the process that these countries are going through of getting to good, decent, democratic, representative elections seems to be going tolerably well. I think the Tunisia vote was actually a good one. I hope that similar efforts in Egypt come to pass very soon. We have another exercise in Morocco next week. But what’s going to happen when these new governments come to power? Are they actually going to be able seriously to come to grips with the huge political, social and especially economic issues that they’re going to have to grapple with – the sorts of issues that create popular unrest and deprivation in the populations.
In a sense, we could have wonderful political reform, we could have the best elections in the world – and that is important – but how important is it going to be if the economic needs of the people aren’t met? I don’t think any of the governance, any of the peoples themselves – certainly nobody on this side of the ocean – has the answer to questions like that right now.
Clearly the current focus in most Arab countries is very much domestic, very much what’s going on in those places at this time. But will that remain so? Is there a possibility of some sort of intervening event changing the subject in a way that takes some of the focus off the domestic processes? I don’t see that coming but if god forbid we have some sort of regional war, that might change the equation somewhat.
Tamara also mentioned media as a factor in what’s been going on. The media coverage of the last year’s events has been enormously important to creating and sustaining the momentum of what’s happened in lots of these countries. If there’s some sort of new media focus on these issues, will that make a difference? I’m not saying it is but I think it’s a question to watch.
Just as it’s too early to know whether the changes underway are actually going to deliver on the promise to the peoples of the region, I also think it’s too early to know whether these changes are going to produce developments, produce governments that we can work effectively with. I certainly hope so and I do agree that the more stable, the more rooted in popular support a government is, the better partner in theory that government should make. But that’s rather an unproven proposition at this point. We’re just going to have to try to make it so.
Let me give a few remarks on the overall US approach to the Arab Awakening, which I agree is a much better term than Arab Spring. For my personal taste, early on I think the USG approach had a little bit too much romance of revolution. But I think that actually over the weeks and months that followed the outbreak of these events, the USG approach actually evened out to a very sensible place where we could make clear that as much as we supported the rights and the need for these peoples to try to claim their democratic rights and create new systems that let them express their democratic rights, the fact of the matter is that even as we do support those changes and efforts we also have a lot of regular, standing, garden-variety strategic interests that we have to pursue in parallel. We can’t choose to focus solely on one issue in most of these countries. Egypt is a very sterling example of the many things that we have going on.
This is something that I think the USG has basically gotten right and I would note that on the State Department side of things, which I’m most familiar with, the unique collection of individuals that we’ve had actually working on these issues has in my mind made a difference. First of all, we have a Secretary of State who not only has extremely high visibility but she is uniquely well qualified to comment on and pursue issues that deal with civil society. That’s one of her things. I think she has credibility around the world. Bill Burns – there is no one who knows the region better, as you heard last night, and the good common sense that infuses everything that he does and says. We’ve had Jeff Feltman, who is an enormously intelligent, active assistant secretary. Tamara will blush but she’s done an amazing job of turning the MEPI office into an office that instead of looking solely at what we want people to do and trying to make them do it, instead that office is now something that seeks to ask people what it is they need to do their jobs and to try to give them those tools that they want. It may be a subtle difference from times past but believe me, it’s a very real one. Now most recently we have Ambassador Bill Taylor, who has enormous experience in handling complicated transitions, especially those economic in nature, who is going to try to spearhead our efforts. I think that’s going to be particularly important because as I mentioned earlier, there is every possibility that economic difficulties are going to be the banana peel in the path of successful economic reform. So do pay a bit of attention to this collection of individuals who are actually working these issues inside our government, because I think it is enormously important.
Even with the right approach and even with such excellent people working the issues, we do have a real sustainability issue. Are we going to be able to have the resources we need to actually do the job? I think that remains to be seen. You heard Bill Burns say last night that the administration is still working the Congress to come up with the resource base to do what we think we need to do. If it turns out that some of these countries need massive economic assistance to help make their transition successful, are we going to be able to cough up those resources? It’s a really hard question. Maybe over time, as our economic and fiscal plight improves here, maybe there will be a different answer. But it’s a very tough sell at this particular point.
Let me mention as well that I give the administration kudos for opening up the engagement with different Islamist groups with whom we had had either very sporadic in the past or no s. It’s important that they open up such dialogues but I think it’s equally important to note that they did so really without fanfare. These groups are not treated as necessarily the vanguard of change and what’s going to happen and these are the people to talk to now. Instead it’s a much more prudent approach, that these folks are one among many, we’re talking with everybody so of course we need to talk to them. I think that’s very sensible. It’s the right approach and I hope it continues.
But I also see a sustainability issue in our dealings with Islamist movements and Islamist governments. I very much hope that in the new regional atmosphere that Islamist movements can move in moderate directions, in an atmosphere of freedom and much less repression. But it’s not at all clear that that’s going to happen. I think we should try to encourage it and dialogue is one way to encourage it, but we just don’t know yet. Are we going to be able to continue as a government to deal with these folks if they don’t moderate their approach, if instead the dynamic is one of competition along the lines of who can be more Islamist and radical than the others. That’s not necessarily going to happen but it’s something that we’re going to have to keep an eye out for and try to tweak our policies and approaches along the way to get it right.
I mentioned the Tunisian election a bit earlier. I think it’s an interesting question whether Tunisia is going to be the bellwether not only for other electoral exercise, but will the An-Nahda movement in particular also be some kind of bellwether for the development of the approach and ideology of other Islamist movements in the region. I don’t think we know yet. A lot may depend on what actually happens in Tunisia and the success that An-Nahda and others may enjoy. It’s probably much more likely that Egypt will be the bellwether, by dint of size, by dint of the reputation and reach of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood into other Islamist movements in the region.
There’s an interesting question that arises. Some people would say – and I’m not one of them – but some people will say that what we’re looking at at this point is a region that’s going to be characterized by an extreme of Muslim Brotherhood – that’s a very broad term, but Muslim Brotherhood governments in the region. I don’t think we’re quite there but if we do get there, what does that mean for regional political leadership dynamics? How does that change? Will a resurgent Egypt also assert a strong regional leadership role in such circumstances? What’s going to be the role of states like Turkey, which is clearly making a bid for some sort of regional leadership even though they are not Arab and have that self-limiting factor. What is Qatar going to do? They’ve staked out a very important role of political support, with monetary resources and with the media. What’s Saudi Arabia going to do in circumstances like this? In particular, if we have a change in Syria that yields a Sunni-led government in that country, what’s the competition for influence among all of these players in the region and indeed the Western powers going to be? It’s going to be fascinating. It’s going to be a textbook example of competition for influence. It will be fun to watch.
I think I’ll stop at that point and stop with the very general observation that as important and as fascinating as what’s happening in each of these countries is, to me the big enchilada, the big mango you may even say, is going to be Egypt, what happens in Egypt. Will the civil society actors in Egypt and the military be able to make the necessary accommodations to keep things stable? Will the forces that rule Egypt be able to come to grips with the severe economic issues that they face? Will the secular elements of political life be able to overcome the disarray that has characterized them up to this point? Will the Muslim Brotherhood and associated movements be able to evolve in ways that are moderate and sensible, or will instead they move toward confrontation? In Egypt, people always seem to find a way to muddle through and make it happen, and that may be the best-case scenario for a few years. But what happens there is going to be of enormous consequence to the region and to the United States as we pursue our interests throughout the region. I hope our former ambassador to Egypt here on my left will be able to answer some of those questions. Thank you.
Daniel Kurtzer: Good morning. I was asked by Wendy and Kate to address a different perspective on the Arab Awakening: the implications for US policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict and peace process. I will do that and then perhaps if there is some time remaining, comment on a couple of the things that my colleagues have addressed thus far.
For inspiration in looking at the current state of the peace process, I recalled the Monty Python skit of the 100-meter dash for runners with no sense of direction, in which the runners line up at the starting gate and the gun goes off and they head off in all kinds of different ways. It’s easy to see why this is inspiration for where we are in the peace process.
Palestinians, as we know, are seriously frustrated both with what they perceive to be the unwillingness of the Israeli government to stop settlements and to articulate a position that would be reasonable in order to bring about negotiations. They are equally frustrated with the United States for what they perceive as the US having put them, as they say, up in a tree with no ladder, having demanded a settlements freeze from Israel and then not having been able to achieve it. Therefore the Palestinians have turned in two different directions: one, to achieve reconciliation with Hamas and try to bring about national unity – which always has been a major goal and value within Palestinian society; and secondly, to try to bring about membership of the state of Palestine in international organizations, both in the United Nations and the specialized agencies. All of those elements of Palestinian policy are understandable against the backdrop of frustration but they also suggest a turn away from negotiations, at least as an immediate tactic and strategy for the Palestinian national movement.
Israel, for its purposes, has been quite nervous about the implications for Israeli security of the Arab Awakening and the question of the durability of its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. These are concerns that have in fact proved to be somewhat grounded in reality. We know that, for example, the Tahrir uprising did not articulate as any of its immediate goals any kind of change in Egypt’s policy with Israel, but several months later frustration on the part of a segment of the population with the failure of the awakening to produce the kind of results that the people wanted, and longstanding grievances on the part of Egyptians toward the Egyptian government and its policy toward Israel, spilled over onto the streets and ultimately into the Israeli embassy in downtown Cairo.
So Israel is concerned about the implications on both its security and the durability of the peace treaties with its neighbors, but has reacted to it in a way that in a sense makes no sense: by continuing its settlement activity, by posing preconditions – for example, recognition of the character of the state of Israel as a Jewish state – which in a sense take it as far away from the prospect of resuming negotiations as Palestinian policy has taken the Palestinian national movement.
For our part, on the part of the administration, first of all, we’re fatigued. This is an administration which started out on day one with a president who said that the peace process is a US national security interest. The president appointed a high-level envoy. Despite the proliferation of issues on the president’s agenda, many of them of far greater moment for American interests than the Middle East peace process, the president has nonetheless taken presidential time to try to advance the prospects for a Middle East peace settlement. Yet each tactic tried by the United States, whether it was a confidence-building measure in the demand for a settlements freeze, whether it was the idea of proximity talks, whether it was the very short-lived notion of final status talks, or whether it was what the president said last May – the idea of starting negotiations with borders and security – each one of these, having failed, has left the United States tired and upset and angry. It’s a question of whether or not the administration continues to have a stomach for moving on the peace process, certainly in this first term of President Obama, and in fact we are now entered into election mode, in which it is far brighter for an administration to turn its attention to jobs, jobs and jobs rather than to embark on risky policies overseas in the Middle East peace process.
The problem is that as we look at this race for runners with no sense of direction, there is an implicit idea that somehow the status quo can be maintained, the process can be left to its own devices at least for the immediate period ahead (on the part of the United States, for the next year until after the election) and that perhaps at some point when things are in better shape the parties and the United States can pick up where they left off and try to advance the prospects of a final peace settlement. We know however that status quos are not static. Things either get better or they get worse. In the Middle East peace process and the Arab-Israeli conflict, things have a tendency to get worse. They don’t improve in and of themselves. Even if they were to try to improve in and of themselves there are spoilers, on both sides, that will actively seek to undermine that status quo and to advance their particular spoiler interests. There are continued bad behaviors on both sides, whether it’s terrorism and rocket fire from some elements of Palestinian society, whether it’s settlement activity and violence on the part of some within Israeli society. Bad behaviors which have always plagued the Middle East peace process will play a particularly important role if everyone is trying to maintain a very delicate status quo.
As noted, the absence of movement in the process can also become a rallying cry for those who are not gaining what they want in terms of democracy and, as Ron suggested, most importantly economic benefit from this Arab Awakening. There’s no easier place to turn than supporting the Palestinian cause for Arab masses that are stifled in their desire for enhancing their ability to influence the politics and economics of their society.
So if one can suggest that the status quo is an okay place to be during this period of confusion and different directions of strategy, I think one would be terribly mistaken. And yet, especially in Washington, if one argues to try to advance the peace process in general or specifically today, one faces what I have come to call the “Washington consensus.” Many of you have sat around tables of peace process discussions and commissions and groups and working groups, and one hears a series of arguments why the United States should not today be in the business of advancing a serious Middle East peace process strategy. This is what I call that Washington consensus.
First of all, we hear that we really have not reached a period of ripeness – this idea of a mutually hurting stalemate which the literature suggests one has to reach in order to make a conflict resolution possible. I don’t know what we are in if not a mutually hurting stalemate. In some respects Palestinian society, having benefited a great deal over the past couple of years from economic and some political growth, will reach a point where that will become impossible to pursue. It may reach that point sooner rather than later. We are now hearing that as one of the impacts of reconciliation, one of the most important people within the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, may become the sacrificial lamb thrown overboard in order to maintain national unity. But, thrown overboard having tried to shepherd in a period of Palestinian economic and political development.
Israel enjoys economic growth, it is a member of international organizations dedicated to growth. But how far can a country go that remains isolated among all its neighbors and a kind of island in a sea of continued animosity?
So if there is such a definition of a mutually hurting stalemate, one can suggest that it already exists between Arabs and Israelis. Therefore the ripeness for resolving this conflict has been with us for some time.
The second argument you hear in Washington is that it’s really hard. It’s very hard to do. The reality is, of course that argument is correct. It is hard to do. If it was easy it would have been done many years ago. But I would suggest that American diplomacy, like our military, is able to do hard things. We’ve had three experiences in the past where with very important American assistance breakthroughs have occurred in the Middle East. In the 1970s with the Kissinger step-by-step shuttle diplomacy we achieved three disengagement agreements involving Egypt and Syria. Through the diplomacy of Jimmy Carter we helped broker the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Through the efforts of the George H.W. Bush administration we helped bring about the Madrid peace conference which launched the current phase of peacemaking that we have been living through. None of these efforts was easy. The people we had to deal with were not pushovers. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir on the Israeli side, Hafez al-Assad and others on the Arab side – they were as difficult leaders to deal with as any. Yet persistent, strong, determined American diplomacy was able to help make a difference.
So the argument that this is too hard is an argument for capitulation, which I don’t accept.
The third argument: the leaders are too weak. That may in fact be the case; there are weak leaders in the Middle East, too ready to retreat rather than advance, too willing to forego the possibility of exploiting openings rather than not. The reality is that no one from outside the region can shape leadership. But the United States can challenge leaders to be something that they may not be today. If those leaders don’t take up that challenge we can also challenge their societies to push their leadership to do the things that have to be done.
I don’t argue for US interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. We don’t do that – or at least we say we don’t do that. But I would argue that the United States can pose choices for other societies that sometimes those other societies cannot pose for themselves. If we don’t do it, sometimes no one else will. So yes, leaders are weak, but why wouldn’t we then challenge those leaders to either become strong or to stand aside for leaders who will take up the challenge of peacemaking?
Then you hear the argument in Washington: we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves. The hair on the back of my neck stands up whenever I hear this because of course it’s true – this is an Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs and Israelis have to solve this conflict. But my goodness, this has been a US national security interest for more than 30 years. To hide behind that silly slogan as though that somehow gives us an excuse not to get engaged in serious policymaking makes no sense.
If we have a leadership in the United States that says, you know, we’re no longer interested in the Middle East peace process – we’re walking away, it’s not an American interest – we can have a different kind of debate. I would argue against it, but at least we could have a debate over whether or not we do want peace as much as the parties. But our presidents in most cases have already determined that this is important to the United States. So why would we argue today not to be involved in the peace process when it’s our own national interest that’s involved?
Then we hear the argument: what if we fail? Things might be worse if we fail. I’ve never heard of a diplomatic activity which is stopped in its tracks because the prospect of failure looms. All diplomatic activity holds the prospect of failure. In fact in some diplomatic cases we have received no for an answer. But the successes that we have registered in the past have often been successes in which we have turned nos into yeses.
One of the great privileges I had during my career was to serve in the administration of George H.W. Bush on Secretary Baker’s peace team. We got nos from Israel and Syria in the course of the summer of 1991. We tried to advance the idea of the Madrid peace conference – we didn’t know it would be in Madrid at the time – the idea of a conference leading to negotiations and both leaderships said to us no. We didn’t take no for an answer. Now there was no guarantee that not taking no for an answer would lead ultimately to yes, but that’s what diplomacy is all about. It’s trying to shape outcomes that are consistent with the interests that have driven you into the diplomatic activity in the first place. So this question of “what if we fail?” is a question for people who don’t want to do diplomacy. I’m not one of them.
Finally, we get two other questions, particularly this year. Number one, we have a lot of other priorities. As I mentioned, jobs and jobs and jobs. We have other foreign policy priorities – Steve noted some of those in his comments. The reality is that we do have other priorities. This is a president who is being pulled in many directions in order to address the myriad problems that face our society.
But it is also a president who has defined this issue as one of those priorities. You therefore can’t walk away from something that you have invested in for three years by arguing that we now have other priorities, because then your opponents can say, “Why did you invest in this in the first place?” In other words, the strongest position for a president in a first term seeking reelection who has invested heavily already in trying to make peace is to continue until the day of the next election, in order to say to the American people, “I’ve told you this is a priority, I’ve been working on this and I’m going to work on it until my first term has ended and hopefully into my second.”
That leads to the last question: why not just wait until after the next election and we go back full circle to the idea of the status quo? It ain’t going to work. Things will not get better, they are certainly not going to be the same, and they will be far worse.
So having dispensed with this so-called Washington consensus, the question then looms: can we do anything? I would argue that rather than try another tactic, another discreet approach, each one of which in the last three years has not worked, why don’t we try an American strategy? Why don’t we have a comprehensive look at what needs to be done? I would suggest this includes four elements.
Number one, Obama parameters. We don’t have to make them up out of the blue. We know where the negotiations left off in 2008. We have heard from former Prime Minister Olmert in his recently released book how close he believes the parties came. We know from the leaked Palestine Papers that even the Palestinians believed the negotiations had made substantial progress. We know from Condoleezza Rice’s just released book that she agrees that these negotiations narrowed the gap substantially. So the parameters that Mr. Obama inherited from Mr. Clinton can now be refined and sharpened and narrowed. They can become American policy of where negotiations should start.
Secondly, as well as Palestinians have done in institution-building and security reforms, they have to do more. The last thing we would want in the context of an Arab Awakening is to create a Palestinian state that becomes a failed state. I don’t think Palestine will be a failed state. The people are too qualified and too educated and too committed to the idea of making Palestine work. But we can use this next year, these next two years, to enhance Palestinian institutions, to build the capacity for Palestinians to govern themselves and to continue to work hard on security reform.
Third, Road Map implementation. You know the saying in the Middle East, that you’re not really dead until you’re dead and buried. The Road Map has been dead for a few years but it’s not yet buried. The fact is that Israel and Palestine have both agreed to implement that Road Map that requires fundamental changes in behavior. It’s about time that we asked them to do what they said they’re prepared to do, to hold them accountable through monitoring and to exact consequences when they fail to carry out their responsibilities. In the context of a negotiating process this could make a great deal of sense.
Finally, number four, we have an Arab peace initiative that’s been sitting out there since 2002, reiterated in 2007. Nobody has done anything with it. I’ve suggested often since 2002 that there’s been a cosmic change in Arab states’ behavior and positions inherent in that Arab peace initiative. The failure of all of us, including the Arabs, to see through and activate their own initiative is one of the great losses of this past decade. Why not use this opportunity then to bring the Arab world again, as it was in the 1990s, into a peacemaking process through discussions, negotiations on issues of health and water and environment, issues which know no borders, issues which need to be resolved even if Palestinians and Israelis have trouble reaching a final status agreement. Not only would those negotiations, activated through the Arab peace initiative, be important but they would also provide encouragement and perhaps even a safety net for Palestinian decision-making in favor of peace. Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
Question: I had a question for Ms. Cofman. You mentioned the importance of the youth movement as a resource for change and how important it is to listen to this youth. My question is, how do you communicate with the youth while at the same time maintaining very close relationships with the governments that are not always exactly democratic governments? So how do you combine trying to move change forward while maintaining good relationships with the regimes?
Tamara Cofman Wittes: I think that’s a good question and an important one. The answer is: diplomacy. I think we actually have a lot of great tools to do this beyond the very concerted outreach that all of our embassies are engaged in across the region every day. Of course we are talking every day not only to governments but also to NGOs, students, educators, people in the private sector, so that we have a full picture of this very quickly shifting landscape. Doing that listening, asking questions, conveying our own views, making sure people understand our policy – that’s what our embassies do.
But we have additional tools that help us in that regard. One of them, as Ambassador Schlicher mentioned, is MEPI, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which I’m very proud to supervise. This is a very important tool for us because it’s a program that’s designed to support the work of civil society activists across the region, not only through training and capacity building and that kind of traditional stuff but through small grants that are given out through our embassies across the region. These are not determined in advance what topics they are going to focus on; the ideas come from the local organizations on the ground. That really gets to what Ambassador Schlicher was saying about harkening to the priorities of the people on the ground and letting them guide our support. They propose projects. It’s about helping them do what they’re already trying to do. It’s a great program and it gets all of our embassies engaged directly in the work of supporting civil society in the Arab world.
Graeme Bannerman: Excuse me a second – the ambassador of Tunisia would like to make a comment.
Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya: Thank you very much. I would like to thank the Middle East Institute for choosing the theme of Arab Awakening as an important part of its annual conference. I have appreciated very much the richness of the presentations that have been made by the distinguished panelists. I’d like to make one or two comments.
One of them concerns the issue of uncertainty. I heard, well, we don’t know what will happen in Tunisia, things are not quite clear. I’d like to respond by saying that uncertainty is a normal phenomenon in any transition, but we don’t want that uncertainty to last very long. It is unavoidable in any transition, as we have seen in the past transitions to democracy in other countries. What could be worrying is the lack of clarity in those transitions. But in the case of Tunisia there is a clear vision for the future. That vision has been really implemented since the early days after the revolution. We do have a clear vision. We organized elections and those elections went very well – they were credible, transparent, as was confirmed by international observers. A great number of them have come from the United States.
We do have a vision concerning the economic and social development of the country and the outgoing government has prepared a comprehensive plan for that. The issue of jobs is a top priority. The issue of regional development is also another important issue. The plan also focuses on a variety of political, economic and social reforms; the reform of the financial sector, the reform of the banking sector, the reform of education. We hope that people and especially investors understand that they shouldn’t wait. They should think about the success of Tunisia as something that would encourage them to go and explore the opportunities that the new Tunisia offers in terms of investment. Without investment we will not be able to respond to the aspirations of our youth for jobs and dignity.
I think the initiative that the State Department has taken – and I would like to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for organizing a day on investment in Tunisia. That partnership day is really an eloquent testimony of the support that the United States is giving Tunisia.
So I would like to highlight the connection between economic development and transition to democracy. They are very well connected. Tunisia of course counts on itself, on its own capacities and it has the means to succeed. The ingredients of success are there. A large middle class. The role of women is very important, Tunisian women enjoy far-reaching rights. We are a moderate society. I think people should believe in the ability of Tunisia to succeed. We count on ourselves but we also count on the support of our friends and partners. We welcome investors to come and invest in Tunisia and invest in a nascent democracy. I think it would be in the interest of all.
So that issue of uncertainty, I hope it will not discourage others to come and support and invest. Thank you.
Question: I have one quick question. A couple of you touched on the US role in the Arab Awakening as we need to invest in their voices and support them if they need economic aid and if they call for it. There are some countries, such as Libya, they have resources, they have funds that they could use to ensure that they achieve their goals and that democracy prevails, but their assets have yet to be unfrozen – not just by us but in the international community as well. What do you think is preventing us from unfreezing them and letting them use the resources they have to further their goals?
Tamara Cofman Wittes: Let me try to tackle that. Number one, I think you’re absolutely right that the key here is to facilitate an environment where those on the ground can make use of their own resources in order to further their own goals. In the Libyan case, the Transitional National Council knows that it has a really tough job ahead in moving forward a country whose social and political infrastructure was eviscerated by the previous regime. So it’s a tremendous undertaking. They do have resources, natural resources that they are already producing and selling and getting income from. But they know also that their own citizens are looking to them to ensure that those resources are husbanded and managed in a way that’s transparent and that people can trust – very unlike the previous regime.
So the TNC is working hard to put into place the financial management systems it needs in order to manage those Libyan resources in a way that the Libyan people have confidence in. So as we move forward and as others in the international community move forward with transferring assets and unfreezing assets, we are working jointly through the UN and in other ways in consultation – and very much in consultation with the TNC so that we provide those assets at a rate and in a manner that works for them and for the financial management systems they are setting up.
Question: My name is Sean Borg [phonetic], I’m a student at American University. My question has to do with regional conflict. Ambassador Schlicher, you stated that a regional war could be very devastating to the stability of it. What if any effect would a conflict with Iran do to change stability of the region? Also, on the part of stability, are the youth going to get tired and eventually start caving to more violent and radical movements coming in and infiltrating their desires to change, especially in Egypt?
Ron Schlicher: Nothing would do more to keep Iran in check than to have an Arab Awakening amongst Sunni Syria. Iran could easily lose its only major ally. To what extent is Iran propping up Bashar al-Assad? What is the [indiscernible] and Al Quds presence on the ground in Syria?
David Mack: My question follows up on Ron Schlicher’s very justified credit to the administration for having a variety of administration officials that are engaged in different places in the Arab Awakening where their particular talents or travel schedules seem to work out. My question is for Tamara. Are we also seeing a new policy in this administration toward the public activities of US diplomats on the scene, in the country? Whereas previously we just sort of sent them out there to talk to governments and report back, we now seem to be doing some very imaginative, even risky sometimes things like letting Bob Ford drive down to Hama just ahead of Syrian military units, or virtually parachuting US diplomats into Benghazi and Tripoli during very fluid political situations when there really wasn’t established people for them to be talking to. We sent them in just to have a presence on the ground and take advantage of the fluid political situation and the media opportunities it provides.
Ron Schlicher: Thanks very much for the questions about Iran. When you posed the question, it was clear to me that Iran really had not come up as a specific topic in any of our presentations and it probably should have. The context that I mentioned that Iran is relevant to was the current focus in the Arab states is very much a domestic one. Are there any sort of intervening events that could change that focus or alter that focus or at least give multiple foci to the political forces in the region? I said a regional war clearly could. A regional war could certainly become the constant topic in the media. A regional conflict with Iran would certainly be big news in the sense that it would sharpen the Sunni-Shi’a cleavages throughout the region in a very real way. It would probably create new tensions in Lebanon and along the Lebanese-Israeli border. It would create some tensions in Syria although at this point I think that Syria is probably moving according to Syrian rhythms instead of Iranian rhythms.
That touches on the second question, to what extent is Iran trying to prop up Bashar and his regime? I’ve been out of the info flow for about three months now but my strong impression is that at different points over the last eight months or so that Bashar has been having his difficulties, the Iranians have tried to find ways to give material and security and certainly political support to Bashar. I do think it’s notable that at a couple of points publicly Iranian officialdom did rather explicitly criticize Bashar. So I think you see a situation where even the Iranians, and even as important as Bashar and the Alawi regime is to Iran’s regional calculations, the Iranians appear to be trying to hedge their bets a little bit about what’s going to happen as well. To me that’s related to the point I made about if we have a Sunni-led Syria there is going to be this enormous competition for influence between all sorts of players – ourselves, the Turks, the French, the Russians, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Qataris, the UAE, etc.
So the question of Iran is enormously important. What will be the effect for Iran and Iran’s regional strategies and calculations if they lose their great Syrian ally? Will they naturally try to bolster their influence in Iraq, where they do have history and commonality with lots of the factions in Iraq, a long border, etc.? Or will they try to come up with new and different and more subtle strategies? I don’t think we know yet. I think they probably don’t know yet. Again, a regional war could be one of those intervening events that changes the focus from the domestic issues a little bit.
As Dan was talking about the peace process it struck me that we could have intervening events that don’t necessarily negatively impact on developments in these countries – but we might, if we’re really lucky, have some progress on these issues that could create a more positive and conducive atmosphere for political and economic development in some of these states as well. That’s extremely optimistic but it is something to consider and think about and try to make happen.
Tamara Cofman Wittes: On David Mack’s question about the instructions that we give to our ambassadors in the region, as I said in my opening remarks I think that from the beginning of the administration we have put a very strong emphasis on building relationships not just government to government but people to people. Our embassies and ambassadors have been a hugely important part of that effort. Also, trying to leverage technology and new media to expand the ways that we communicate with people in the Arab world and around the world. As Secretary Clinton said when she spoke at the National Democratic Institute a week or so ago, we have sent out guidance to all of our ambassadors in the field consistent with the president’s policy announcement on May 19 that it’s our policy to support democratic transitions and reform across the region. All of our ambassadors are working to implement that guidance as well.
Question: I’d just like to follow up that question about democracy. The US has had a very close relationship with the Egyptian military for thirty years and yet it seems that the Egyptian military right now are the ones that are really dragging their feet and prolonging the process. If we have another Tahrir Square, how do you see US policy evolving?
Question: In October 1789, George Washington wrote a letter on the French Revolution to Gouverneur Morris, our ambassador in Paris. He wrote, “The revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful nature that the mind can hardly realize the facts. But I fear, though it has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm, it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled. The revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space and with the loss of so little blood.” Washington’s apprehension proved true with the French Revolution, and that last sentence haunts me. Is history repeating itself?
Dan Kurtzer: On the Egypt question, there was a very perceptive article this morning in the New York Times in which the dilemmas of the administration are laid out quite clearly. On the one hand the administration would like to see the Egyptian military open up as much political space in as little time as possible, consistent with the need for an orderly and effective transition. On the other hand, the administration would like to be able to maintain its longstanding relationship, particularly our security assistance relationship and our nil-nil relationship that has provided – as Ron suggested in his remarks – very tangible national strategic benefits to the United States. So this is the dilemma. This is not going to be a straight line process in which the administration and the Egyptian military and the opposition elements within Egypt are going to agree. There are going to be pushes and pulls and tugs and all the rest. One can recall for example in the early days after the Tahrir uprising, there were voices within the administration that were suggesting that maybe things in Egypt were going too fast. There was this idea of parliamentary elections in September followed by an immediate constitutional reform and then presidential elections. Now there may be some voices suggesting that the transition is going a little bit too slowly, that there may be a need to speed it up to effect that transition.
I think it’s a fair issue for policy debate in Washington but it’s also fair to understand that the same debate with real tangible implications is going to take place in Egypt. We tend to hear from those who speak in Egypt. We don’t of course hear from what we used to call the silent majority. But there is also a population in Egypt that is nervous about fast transitions and the military perhaps moving out of its praetorian role as quickly as some would like. So I think both societies – Egypt, where it counts for immediate terms, and here where we have very significant policy interests – we are going to see this tug of war within the policy community go on for some time to come.
Tamara Cofman Wittes: Just to add something briefly here, I think Dan is absolutely right. This is a subject for debate in Washington but fundamentally it’s a subject that’s being debated in Cairo and it’s a decision that’s going to be taken in Cairo. It’s an Egyptian decision. This gets to one of the recurring themes through all of our discussion up here: what is the relative importance of the US role in these events as opposed to what’s actually taking place on the ground? You heard from me on that score. You heard Steve say in some ways he sees what’s happened in the Middle East partly as a result of American weakness, which in some ways might be as myopic a view as saying it’s because of American strength. I think that what happened in the region is because of what’s been going on in the region and it’s very much driven by trends within these societies. I think the outcomes are going to be driven by trends within these societies.
But we have an interest and we have a role to play in seeking to promote outcomes that we believe will be stable and will contribute to peace and prosperity and to our interests thereby. A lot of the questions have talked about economics and the relationship between economic progress and democratic development. I think it’s so important that we keep an eye on this because it’s an absolutely crucial factor in what’s going to take place. Somebody asked whether we are going to have the foreign assistance resources necessary to hold these economies up but as you heard from Ambassador Tekaya that’s not what the countries of the region are looking for. That’s not really the best way we can play our role. What’s ultimately going to produce sustainable growth and equitable growth in these societies is private sector and business to business ties. Part of our role is not only by ourselves but working with other countries to create a trade and investment framework that will support that kind of private sector-led growth and private sector-led job creation.
That takes me to one final thing I wanted to say. We have to do this together with others in the international community. All of us have a stake in what happens in the Middle East. This is a tremendously strategic region for the entire world. We are working closely with others in the international community. You can call that if you wish the G20-ification of national security issues – I guess I would just call it diplomacy.