Remarks on U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Wendy R. Sherman
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Georgetown University
Washington, DC
September 16, 2014

UNDER SECRETARY SHERMAN: Thank you, Ambassador Pickering – Tom – for your kind words and also for being here tonight. And Dean and Mr. Hogan, thank you as well. And Barbara – I’ll get to you in a moment.

To those of you who may be too young to know – and that’s most of you in this room – for a diplomat to be introduced by Tom Pickering is the equivalent of a tennis player receiving a flattering tweet from Serena Williams, and I am most grateful. The roles are reversed – the master honors the student. I am deeply humbled to accept the Trainor award this evening, but I am humbled every day by the knowledge that the legendary and irreplaceable Tom Pickering once held the job I am now in and have been in now for three years. In a career spanning four decades – you must have started when you were a teenager – Ambassador Pickering represented the United States brilliantly, as Barbara said, in major capitals on almost every continent – earning the respect of presidents and prime ministers and the deep admiration of his colleagues. Thanks again, Tom, for all that you have done and, quite frankly, continue to do on behalf of our country, and most importantly, for all that you have taught me. Thank you.

Thanks, as well, to Ambassador Barbara Bodine who also had a long and remarkable career in the Foreign Service. Ambassador Bodine served in principally nice tranquil posts like Sana’a, Baghdad, and during the first Gulf War, Kuwait – occupied Kuwait, where she was held prisoner in the U.S. Embassy for more than four months, surviving on a diet of swimming pool water and tuna fish. So if you see her around campus, be sure to greet and thank her, take her to lunch, but do not offer to order a tuna fish sandwich.

Now, as Frank Hogan has explained, this is the 31st anniversary of the Trainor award, so-called in honor of a beloved former registrar of the School of Foreign Service. The list of prior award recipients is extraordinary and makes me really glad – when I was the age that many of you are at now – unlike my parents, I decided not to go into real estate. Instead I chose the arena of public service, which led ultimately to my daily immersion in world affairs. To those of you who are pondering a similar commitment, I am not sure whether to offer a welcome or a warning, but I can say that if you are a student of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service – which my husband graduated from and may be out there somewhere – you have made the very best start.

Thanks to exceptional leaders like Dean Reardon-Anderson and an incredibly talented faculty, the Walsh School and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy are renowned both domestically and internationally. We are fortunate to have here, in the heart of Washington, a true oasis dedicated to the discipline of critical thinking about how to solve problems instead of just complain about them – which is very good, because tonight, I have some particularly complex issues to discuss with you, all pertaining to that fascinating region we call the Middle East.

It’s no secret that we live in an era when even the most graphic images and actions can be communicated instantly around the equator and from pole to pole. Many people are not listening to this speech in this room, but they’re listening to it remotely or electronically. Because of all this, we are not easily shocked. But in recent years, we have been confronted in the Middle East by atrocities that may be remembered with bitterness for generations. We have witnessed a rise in sectarian strife that is driving a sharp wedge between the people – between people of different ethnic and religious identities. And we have seen the ugly specter of terrorism once again cast a shadow of deepest darkness from the shores of the Mediterranean to the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

Obviously, there are many other parts of the world that demand and each day receive the attention of American leaders. But much of what we see now in the Middle East is intimately related to our shared future, and richly deserves our focus this evening.

The United States cares about the Middle East because of the economic, political, and security interests we have, the many friendships we have forged, and the rich spiritual and ethnic traditions we have inherited. The region is home to Israel, our ally, and to important partners in the Gulf. It is also a venue where the values we cherish are under intense strain. So it should not be surprising that we are both alarmed and moved to act by the upheaval that now roils these ancient lands.

America’s policy in the Middle East begins with our understanding that the problems now plaguing the region have tangled roots. The internal divides, historic rivalries, and contemporary competitions feed off of one another. Fear and anger drive too many people in too many places into the snare of zero-sum thinking, thereby fueling conflict and playing into the hands of all who would harm us.

There is a need throughout the Middle East to change course and begin moving in the direction of common ground. But quite frankly for that to happen, the region’s leaders must live up to their responsibilities. The international community must put aside its divisions and exert a more positive influence. And the United States must help to show the way.

Last Wednesday, in his dramatic speech to the nation and to the world, President Obama made clear once again where America stands. We will defend our citizens by taking the fight directly to the terrorists who threaten us. We will work in close partnership with friendly governments to enhance their capacity to counter violent extremism. We will deal with multiple challenges simultaneously, applying to each the prescriptions appropriate to each, while honoring our commitments and principles – because that, quite frankly, is what great powers do. And we will move forward with men and women in the region to fulfill the affirmative agenda: to end conflicts; improve governance; increase economic opportunities; highlight the value of education; and enhance respect for democratic institutions, including freedom of the press, religious liberty, human rights, and the rule of law.

America’s policy is to assist those who believe, as we do, that people of different nationalities, ethnicities and creeds can live alongside one another constructively and in peace. That is our vision for the future. The Middle East, like other parts of the world, has its share of dividers and destroyers. The United States casts its lot with the problem solvers, the healers and the builders.

Now, some observers will argue that any vision of inter-cultural and inter-religious cooperation in the Middle East is an illusion. We reject that, because the real illusion is to believe that lasting stability without compromise is possible. To be a builder in the Middle East is not to view the region through rose-colored glasses. It is to understand that in a place with the Middle East’s history, geography, and demographics, a healthy dose of tolerance and inter-communal give and take is essential. Efforts by one group to dominate all others, whether that group is a political party or an ethnic or religious faction, will never succeed for long. To be guided by hate is to go nowhere. That is the reality, and it is a fact on view today in many parts of the Middle East.

Consider, for example, Iraq. The previous government there failed to address the longstanding political and economic grievances of the Sunni minority. This divided the country and made it vulnerable. A terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took swift advantage. This past summer, ISIL fighters occupied a significant portion of Iraq, including the country’s second largest city.

President Obama responded by sending a team of U.S. military advisers to assess the situation, but he also made clear that our help could not be taken for granted. In the absence of positive political developments, military action on our part could easily have been misinterpreted as support for an unpopular and divisive government. By moving with deliberation, the President was able to observe how Iraqi leaders would face and cope with the crisis in front of them. The United States is encouraged that they chose, in accordance with constitutional procedures of Iraq, to install a new governing team pledged to a more inclusive approach.

In the months ahead, it is vital that the new leaders prevent a return to the political gridlock that opened the door to ISIL’s rise. Iraq’s neighbors must refrain from fomenting discord. And Iraqi citizens from north and south must come together, strengthen their internal institutions, and put the needs of the whole above the narrow desires of clan, creed and faction. The more effective and broadly popular Iraq’s government is, the more rapidly support for ISIL will erode, and the easier it will be for the United States and the international community to help.

On September 10th, President Obama outlined America’s strategy – as part of a broad coalition – to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL’s ability to threaten international security. That strategy is multi-dimensional and will include a systematic campaign of airstrikes and increased support for those fighting terrorists on the ground. We have already begun a concerted effort to curb ISIL’s capabilities, hinder its recruitment, shrink its territory, cut off its financing, and expose its hypocrisy. At the same time, we have also joined in providing emergency aid to the many innocent victims of ISIL’s violence.

This firm policy is a fitting response to ISIL’s loathsome ideology and tactics. Because ISIL has nothing positive to offer anyone, its method is to compel submission by spreading fear. If captives refuse to pledge allegiance, they are executed. Women are routinely raped and treated as chattel. Children are forced to become soldiers. Religious shrines are desecrated. Prisoners have been crucified and buried alive. And aid workers like David Haines and truth-telling journalists such as America’s own James Foley and Steven Sotloff are among the murdered.

When we hear ISIL’s leaders insist that their campaign of killing, mutilation, torture, rape, and slavery is in fulfillment of God’s commands, we can only reply with a diplomatic term of art: “That is garbage.” Members of ISIL are often described as “Islamic” terrorists, but that is a lazy and inaccurate description. ISIL is the enemy of all that true Islam teaches. Every state in the Middle East – in fact, all states everywhere – have reason to oppose ISIL.

Secretary Kerry has just returned from visits to Europe and the Middle East, where he found a broad array of national leaders prepared to contribute practical assistance to defeat the terrorists. In Jeddah, he joined with the representatives of ten Arab states as a – in a declaration of shared resolve. This demonstration of support is critical because it shows the galvanizing nature of the ISIL threat, and because it can help to give Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria the confidence they need to expel ISIL from their lands. The global reach of our effort will be on display in the UN Security Council when, on Friday, the Secretary chairs a high-level debate on all aspects of the Iraq crisis.

The following week, President Obama will convene a special Security Council summit to focus on the ways to halt terrorist recruitment of foreign fighters both in the Middle East and in other regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Governments and opinion leaders everywhere must convince prospective recruits that they are being asked to become murderers and dupes, not defenders of a faith. The quality that terrorist propagandists are looking for when drawing young people into their web is not courage; it is not piety; and it is certainly not an understanding of the tenets of Islam; it is the willingness to obey orders and the gullibility to believe whatever they are told. Like a pyramid scheme in the financial world – only far deadlier – ISIL and the groups like ISIL are conceived in duplicity and built on lies.

This leads to the dilemma posed by the terrible civil war in Syria, where ISIL’s ability to attract fighters surged in direct proportion to the Assad regime’s brutality.

Over the past three years, the Syrian Government’s repression has triggered one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes in human modern history, with more than 190,000 people killed, 3 million refugees, and 6 million internally displaced people. The crisis began early in 2011 with public protests against economic hardships and corruption. Assad could have undertaken reforms but instead launched a crackdown, including and involving widespread torture and executions, indiscriminate bombing, and the deployment of chemical arms. What started as a struggle for dignity and fairness took on a sectarian edge when Assad turned for support to Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The political opposition, already hampered by internal divisions, became increasingly fragmented as Sunni Muslim extremists – including ISIL – saw a chance to battle their Shiite rivals. Many Syrians were caught in the crosshairs between a murderous dictator on one side and ruthless terrorists on the other.

United States policy is to provide diplomatic support and a robust training and equipment program to moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. In company with our many partners, we are enforcing strict economic sanctions against Damascus. At the UN, Ambassador Power has led a determined fight to enable the investigation of human rights abuses and the delivery of emergency aid. And over the past year, we participated in a remarkable and successful international effort to eliminate Syria’s declared arsenal of chemical weapons, thus removing 1300 tons of illicit arms, agents and precursors from the battlefield. These measures have saved lives, but a breakthrough is still needed to end the war.

Going forward, our coalition must work with all Syrians who will work with us to empower the center and weaken the extremes. That goal is achievable if we move toward it patiently and systematically; if we combine coercive measures with creative diplomacy; and if we demonstrate the kind of international cooperation that marked our effort to destroy chemical weapons. Although past diplomatic initiatives have not borne fruit, the most desirable outcome remains a negotiated political transition to a new and broadly representative government. That would be the best way to marginalize the terrorists, purge foreign fighters, enable the return of refugees, and begin a process of reconciliation. Given past horrors and present circumstances, this can only, sadly, be a gradual process. But ISIL’s emergence gives every concerned actor fresh cause to move in the right direction. This horrific circumstance is in some ways an opportunity we must seize.

Defeating violent extremists and ending Syria’s civil war are two crucial elements to the construction of a stable and forward-looking Middle East. Ensuring the wholly peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is a third – not necessarily in any priority order.

Let me stress how significant this imperative is. An Iran armed with nuclear weapons would have the ability to project devastating power far beyond its borders, threaten Israel, and further assist violent extremists. If Tehran developed a nuclear weapon, other countries in the region might well pursue the same goal, generating a potentially catastrophic nuclear arms race and intensifying the sectarian divide that is a major source of Middle East tension.

For these reasons, President Obama has pledged that Iran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. Since late last year, I have been leading the U.S. negotiating team that is seeking a diplomatic path to that objective. The talks, which have been extended through November 24 and are chaired by the EU High Representative Cathy Ashton, include Iran, Germany, and the five permanent members of the Security Council. America’s purpose in the negotiation is to develop a plan of lasting duration that would block all of the Islamic Republic’s potential paths to a nuclear weapon.

Thus far, we can say on the positive side that our talks have been serious and that we have identified potential answers to some key questions. However, to get to a comprehensive agreement, we remain far apart on other core issues, including the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. I fully expect in the days ahead that Iran will try to convince the world that on this pivotal matter, the status quo – or its equivalent – should be acceptable. It is not. If it were, we wouldn’t be involved in this difficult and very painstaking negotiation. The world will agree to suspend and then lift sanctions only if Iran takes convincing and verifiable steps to show that its nuclear program is and will remain entirely peaceful. We must be confident that any effort by Tehran to break out of its obligations will be so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success. The ideas we have presented to Iran uphold this standard, and are also fair, flexible, and consistent with Iran’s civilian nuclear needs and scientific knowhow.

As should be obvious, a peaceful solution of this issue is highly desirable because, compared to any alternative, a diplomatic outcome is more likely to be permanent and less likely to generate new risks.

A fourth challenge for builders of security in the Middle East may be the steepest of all, and that is to forge a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The latest round of violence highlights the obstacles that exist. Leaders on both sides have questioned the sincerity of the other. The terrorist group Hamas continues to play an intentionally destructive role. And each side is under pressure to take actions that would make the restoration of confidence even less likely.

According to the – bless you. According to the cliche, those in the Middle East who are weak feel that they cannot afford to compromise, while those who are strong see no need to compromise. But weak or strong, there is no avoiding the fact that Israelis and Palestinians must live as neighbors. Most leaders understand that, which is why Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas welcomed Secretary of State Kerry’s tireless efforts to facilitate a two-state solution. But achieving such an outcome requires giving as well as taking, a reality that not everyone is yet ready to accept.

Going forward, let no one doubt that the United States will stand by its unshakable commitment to the security of Israel. We will oppose any efforts through international organizations or elsewhere to undermine Israel’s legitimacy or deny the right of the Israeli people to defend themselves by themselves. In using force, Israelis – like all nations – have a duty to abide by international law, but they also have a right to insist that missile, rocket, and terror attacks come to a permanent end.

At the same time, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a joint responsibility – and a shared interest – in lowering tensions, countering extremism, and finding ways to cooperate where possible. The Obama Administration and its predecessors have repeatedly argued the case for Middle East peace; we believe that neither side will fully secure its legitimate goals in the absence of such an agreement. That remains our conviction, and we stand ready always to help, but it is up to the parties to act.

My remarks tonight would not be complete without a mention of Libya, where fighting among armed groups has slowed the economy, impeded the democratic transition, and created grave uncertainty about the future. Our policy is to work closely with the country’s neighbors, the UN, and our other international partners to help Libya right itself.

Here, as elsewhere in the Middle East, three fundamental needs must be met. First, those inside the country who want to build a true nation must join in support of that project. Second, those on the outside who have fueled the conflict must change course and instead collaborate to end it. And third, all must agree that Libya cannot become a safe haven for terrorists. As in Syria, the middle must find its voice and be supported against the violent extremes. In recent months, we have made progress in identifying the steps necessary for Libya to move forward, but the journey from swords to plowshares has many miles to go.

Surveying the Middle East can be disheartening, but let us not forget that even in recent memory the region has enjoyed moments of accomplishment and promise. Within the past quarter century, we have seen a broad coalition roll back a dictator’s aggression in Kuwait; we have cheered as Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat clasped hands on the White House lawn; we have observed Jordan’s King Hussein lead his people into peace with Israel; and we have watched as the tragic self-sacrifice of a Tunisian fruit peddler inspiring a democratic revolution – a revolution that is succeeding in his country and that has the potential to serve as an instructive example for others.

Today, even in nations such as Egypt where democracy’s hold is tenuous, the pressure for a more open and inclusive political system remains strong. Citizens and voters who have been given a first chance to participate democratically will never willingly forgo that right. Skeptics may argue that the so-called Arab Awakening has gone dormant, but beneath the surface, I profoundly believe that powerful new forces remain at work. These include an increasingly vibrant civil society, the expansion of social media, widening demands for official accountability, and growing support for the empowerment of women. All of this is vital, because new thinking and fresh energy are essential to brighten the region’s economic future.

The Middle East is blessed with a talented population, ample natural resources, and a genuine commitment in some countries to better education, economic diversity, and the rule of law. Aside from petroleum, however, the Middle East does not produce or export nearly enough.

The Obama Administration’s regional Trade and Investment Initiative is designed to foster growth, encourage reform, and spur innovation. The President has stated his personal commitment to the young women and men of the Middle East – to help them find the jobs they need by expanding educational exchanges, facilitating cooperation in science, and building networks of entrepreneurs. To these ends, we have enlisted the help of the American business community, academic institutions, and professional groups. This matters because prosperity in one region fuels growth elsewhere, and because economic desperation can make extreme political arguments more alluring.

Each day, millions of boys and girls sit in Middle East classrooms and absorb information about the world from their unique vantage point. Much depends on what happens when three or five or ten years from now, they leave those classrooms and take into their own hands the destiny of the region.

Will they have the incentive, the knowhow, and the chance to raise their families in dignity and hope? Will they be bridge-builders and healers who seek harmony with others? Or will they be pushed down a more twisted path?

Aside from the irreconcilable few, it is in everyone’s interest – whether Sunni, Shia, Jewish, Christian, Yezidi; Arab, Persian, Turkmen or Kurd – that the answers to those questions be the right ones.

The message I want to leave with you tonight – and you’ve been patient through this long speech – is both clear-eyed about present difficulties and realistic regarding future possibilities. We cannot afford to deceive ourselves. Violence can leave deep scars on both bodies and minds. Hatred and distrust are hard to dispel. And the politics of division are not unheard of even in America’s own great capital city.

And yet, we also know that there are many, many people in the Middle East – in and outside of government – who are searching for a better way, making connections, sharing ideas, creating new networks for peaceful change. They may not always agree with us or with each other, but they are willing to demand respect for themselves while still according respect to those with whom they do disagree. They are determined not to be prisoners of the past, but to shape the history to come; that is what “being awake” means.

Ultimately, the United States has faith that the region will emerge from its current trials with a deeper understanding of its own interest in settling disputes and rising above rancor.

We believe that progress can be made in preventing ideological and theological differences from degenerating into conflict, and that controversy about the role of religion in politics and governing can be managed.

We believe that nations that have been torn apart can knit themselves back together, as we, the United States, did long ago, and as Lebanon did after its own more recent civil war.

We believe that the battle cry of terror will be rejected because at the end of the day, it is far easier to make noise and attract a crowd than it is to transform people, however misguided, into murderers.

We believe in the future of the Middle East because we know something of the resilience of the human spirit, which along with the love of liberty and justice has sustained our own land for more than 200 years.

Equally important, we believe in the future because we have faith in all of you – the students of today, the builders, the healers, the leaders of tomorrow – not only in the Middle East but in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and across the globe. I say that not because your generation is likely to be smarter than any other; I say it because you tend to be more aware of the world around you, more comfortable with diversity in all its forms, and more conscious of the dependence we all have on one another. And in the case of this particular group, you also have the awesome advantage of being trained by the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

On that note of hope, of you, I thank you for your hospitality, for your attention, for this honor, and in what time we have remaining to answer your questions. Thank you. (Applause.)