American Strategy in a New Middle East

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Statement before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC
March 17, 2011

Mr. Chairman, Senator Lugar, Members of the Committee:

Less than three months ago, a desperate Tunisian street vendor, tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes, set fire to himself and sparked a revolution still burning across an entire region. That single act, at once tragic and noble, has brought the Middle East to a moment of profound transformation, as consequential in its own way as 1989 was for Europe and Eurasia.

It is a moment of enormous promise for people and societies long denied freedom and dignity and opportunity. It is a moment of great possibility for American policy … a moment when the peaceful, homegrown, non-ideological movement surging out of Tahrir Square offers a powerful repudiation of al-Qaeda’s false narrative that violence and extremism are the only ways to effect change. But it is also a moment of considerable risk, because there is nothing automatic or foreordained about the success of such transitions. Helping to get them right is as important a challenge for American foreign policy as any we have faced since the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Chairman, it seems to me that the starting point for sensible policy is to understand clearly what’s at play and what’s at stake in the Middle East today. The revolutions that began in Tunis and Cairo are not about us. They’re about the brave, proud, and determined people of Arab societies, intent upon better governance and more economic opportunities, intent upon erasing the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled that for so long has been so stifling for so many. And they’re about the universal values that the President spoke about two years ago in Cairo -- the right of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to determine one’s own destiny.

The most intense impression I had three weeks ago after visiting Tahrir Square and meeting youth leaders was a remarkable sense of public empowerment. It is fueled by a communications revolution that stripped governments of their old monopoly on the flow of information, made people more aware of what others had in other societies that they didn’t, and helped them mobilize without central leadership or conventional political organizations.

If the indigenous energy and drive of the new Arab awakening is its most potent ingredient, it is also a vivid reminder that stability is not a static phenomenon. Political systems and leaderships that fail to respond to the legitimate aspirations of their people become more brittle, not more stable. Popular pressures to realize universal values will take different shapes in different societies, but no society is immune from them. Political systems are a little like bicycles – unless they’re peddled forward, they tend to fall over.

The long-held conceit of many Arab leaders was that there were really only two political choices – the autocrats you know or the Islamic extremists you fear. That provided a convenient rationale for blocking real political outlets or broadened participation, and it ultimately produced the spontaneous combustion of Tahrir Square. The inconvenient truth is that many, if not most, of us involved in American policy in the Middle East in recent decades have sometimes fallen prey to that same conceit. We recognized the tinder that was accumulating in the region, the combustible mix of closed systems and corruption and alienation and indignity documented so eloquently in the Arab Human Development Reports. We tried to drive home that concern to leaderships in the region, but we didn’t always try hard enough. So it’s good to apply a little humility as we enter this new era unfolding before us.

The honest answer also is that, as much as it is in our long-term interest to support the emergence of more transparent and more responsive governments, who will ultimately make stronger and more stable partners, the short-term is likely to be pretty complicated and unsettling. As in other democratic transitions in other parts of the world, there is a danger of authoritarian retrenchment, especially if economic stagnation persists and newly-elected leaders don’t produce practical improvements in people’s daily lives. Successful transitions are about a lot more than just elections; institutions have to be built too, with checks and balances and an independent media to hold people accountable.

There will be plenty of vulnerabilities to exploit, and no shortage of predatory extremists ready to take advantage. And there will be plenty of hard tradeoffs for American policymakers, with popularly-elected governments sometimes taking sharper issue with American policies than their autocratic predecessors did, and elections sometimes producing uncomfortable results.

None of that argues for pessimism, in my view, although it is a fact that the Middle East is a place where pessimists rarely lack for either company or validation. I actually see considerable cause for optimism in what is underway in the region. I am not naïve, and nearly three decades of experience in the Middle East have stripped me of most of my illusions, but there is no mistaking the very real opportunities before us if we employ a thoughtful, carefully-integrated strategy.

The key to a successful strategy, it seems to me, is to make common cause with people and leaders in the region – as well as our partners outside it – in pursuit of a simple, positive agenda. We should contrast that with the fundamentally negative agenda of violent extremists, who are much better at describing what they are against than what they are for, at describing what they want to tear down rather than what they want to build up.

Beyond our obvious interests in developing greater energy independence and leading by the power of our own democratic example, there are at least four main elements for such a positive agenda.

First is support for peaceful democratic change. In countries that are taking decisive steps away from old systems and toward democracy, we have a deep stake in stable transitions. Secretary Clinton emphasized our commitment to Egypt’s success in Cairo earlier this week, underscoring the hugely-important demonstration effect of Egypt’s experience for the rest of the region. The Secretary stressed that same reality in Tunisia today, noting that no one will ever forget where this wave of change began.

In countries where protests have emerged but change is uncertain, such as Bahrain, we will continue to urge serious political reform as well as urgent peaceful dialogue between governments and opposition leaders. In countries working to stay ahead of the wave of popular protests, such as Jordan and Morocco, we will continue to emphasize the importance of taking reform seriously now as a way of creating positive avenues of citizen engagement and avoiding sharp conflicts later on. And in the sad and violent case of Libya, we are working hard to maximize international pressure for Qadhafi’s departure, and to support the courageous Libyans who have risen up to regain their rights. Following the Arab League's important and unprecedented call for urgent measures to protect civilians in Libya and establish a no-fly zone, we are pressing for a new UN Security Council resolution to authorize a range of further actions against the Qadhafi regime.

A second element, closely connected to the first, is strong support for economic modernization. In the short run, that means helping Egypt and Tunisia, for example, to navigate past significant difficulties created by political turmoil and the temporary collapse of tourism. But that also means thinking boldly and ambitiously about how we can promote genuine long-term modernization. We strongly support the Enterprise Fund that you, Mr. Chairman, and Senators McCain and Lieberman have proposed. Secretary Clinton just announced that OPIC will provide up to $2 billion to stimulate private sector investments in the Middle East and North Africa.

It is also crucially important to consider trade liberalization initiatives for key Arab states in transition, ideally in cooperation with the EU. In the process, we can help encourage intra-regional trade and integration in a region in which both are in short supply. We can help produce private sector jobs desperately needed to keep pace with demography and expectations. And we can help spread the benefits and opportunities of economic growth across Arab societies, rather than just to a narrow circle at the top.

The success of political transitions will require strong, practical economic results, and creating a sense of economic hope. Much of that obviously depends on Arab countries themselves, who need to put themselves in a better position to compete in a very unsentimental global marketplace. But it is deeply and urgently in our self-interest to do all that we can to help.

A third element of a positive American agenda for the Middle East is renewed pursuit of comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. The status quo between Arabs and Israelis is no more sustainable than the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled in recent months. Neither Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state nor the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be secured without a negotiated two-state solution. While it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is also no substitute for continued active American leadership.

A fourth element is our own huge and enduring stake in regional security – in strengthening ties to the GCC states; in fighting terrorism; in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and setting off a catastrophic regional arms race; in not losing sight of Iraq’s own crucial democratic transition and reintegration into the Arab world. We have to remain clear-eyed and resolute about the threat that Iran’s behavior poses across a number of areas – and equally straightforward in our support for the aspirations of Iranian citizens for freedom and dignity. Beneath Tehran’s bluster, the truth is that nowhere in the region is the disconnect between rulers and ruled any greater than it is in Iran. It is the height of hypocrisy for Iran’s leaders to profess their enthusiasm for democratic changes in the Arab world while systematically denying them to their own people.

Mr. Chairman, this is one of those moments that come along only very rarely in the course of human events. It is full of historic opportunities, and some very large pitfalls, for people in the Middle East, and for the United States. It is a moment which demands our attention and our energy, and as much creativity and initiative as we and our partners around the world can generate. I look forward very much to working closely with you and Senator Lugar and the Members of this Committee in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you today.