America and a Changing Middle East

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary of State
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey
May 4, 2013

Thank you, Dan. It’s an honor to be back at Princeton, and back at the Woodrow Wilson School, an institution whose commitment to public service I have long admired. It’s an honor to be among so many people whose service to our nation I respect so much -- from George Mitchell to Ryan Crocker. And it’s a particular honor to be introduced by my friend, Dan Kurtzer. There is, quite simply, no better model of skill and professionalism and decency in American diplomacy than Dan.

I’ve been asked this morning to offer a few reflections on American policy across a Middle East in the midst of profound and turbulent change. I promise to be brief, which is probably a healthy instinct at this hour on a Saturday morning.

I wish I could also promise to be uplifting, but that’s a little harder. The Middle East is a place where pessimists seldom lack for either company or validation, where skeptics hardly ever seem wrong. It is a place where American policymakers often learn humility the hard way … a place where you can most easily see the wisdom in Winston Churchill’s famous comment that what he liked most about Americans was that they usually did the right thing in the end; they just liked to exhaust all the alternatives first.

I’ve learned a few things about the Middle East during my own checkered thirty-one year career in the Foreign Service. I’ve learned that stability is not a static phenomenon, and that regimes which do not offer their citizens a sense of political dignity and economic possibility ultimately become brittle and break. I’ve learned that change in the Middle East is rarely neat or linear, but often messy and cruel, and deeply unpredictable in its second and third order consequences.

I’ve learned not to underestimate the depth of mistrust of American motives that animates so many people in the region, and I’ve learned that we often get far more credit than we deserve for complicated conspiracies. I’ve learned that, with all its stubborn dysfunction, the Middle East is a place where people and leaders are capable of great things … and that America diplomacy, with all of our own occasional dysfunction, can make a real and enduring difference.

So let me first talk briefly about why the Middle East still matters in American foreign policy and how the Middle East is changing, and then outline several elements of a positive American policy agenda -- what we can do to help shape, within the limits of our influence, the great generational struggle between moderation and extremism that is unfolding across the Middle East today.

Why the Middle East Still Matters and How It Is Changing

After a post 9/11 decade dominated by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s not hard to see why Americans would seek to rebalance our priorities. We live in a rapidly changing world, in which American interests are pulled in many directions. I just returned from a long trip to Asia, and it’s obvious that the Asia-Pacific region is not only the most dynamic part of the global economy in the new century which lies ahead, but also a logical centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. The transformation of the global energy market through the shale technology revolution is also affecting our views of the Middle East. With the U.S. likely to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer in the next five years or so, and with the prospect of genuine energy independence in the next twenty years or so, it’s natural to wonder if we really need to pay so much attention to the Middle East. And it is a truism that American’s chief foreign policy challenge is domestic renewal, strengthening our home-grown capacity to compete and promote our interests and values around the world.

Tempting though it may be, we do not have the luxury of pivoting away from the Middle East, which sometimes has a nasty way of reminding us of its relevance. We don’t have the luxury of pivoting away from a part of the world that holds some of our closest allies, and a very sizeable chunk of the world’s oil reserves, on which the global economy is still dependent even if we are headed towards self-sufficiency. And we don’t have the luxury of pivoting away from a part of the world that holds several of the world’s most poisonous regional conflicts, and violent extremists who feed on the region’s bitterness and alienation.

We cannot, in short, afford to neglect what’s at stake in a region going through its own awakening, at once promising and painful, and potentially every bit as consequential for international order as the changes which swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago.

It’s important to understand that the Arab Awakening is about several layers of change -- within, among and beyond Arab states. Within a number of states, the spark produced by a desperate Tunisian vendor, tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes, proved highly combustible. Within months of that tragic self-immolation, a half-century old political order collapsed in several Arab states, including Egypt, the biggest of all. Societies that for far too long had known far too little freedom, far too little opportunity and far too little dignity began to erupt. But what also spilled out, in addition to the thirst of individual citizens for dignity, were all the demons of sectarian and communal tension that authoritarian rulers had forcefully contained.

That dynamic in turn helped set off new uncertainties and frictions among states in the region, as sectarian troubles and old Sunni-Shia passions spilled across borders still not firmly rooted nearly a century after their post-World War One formation.

Meanwhile, beyond Arab states, violent extremist groups were quick to try to fill emerging vacuums and take advantage of post-revolutionary chaos. Non-Arab regional powers like Turkey, Israel and Iran loomed larger as traditional Arab powers like Egypt turned inward, and major external players like China and India grew even more reliant on access to regional energy supplies. And across this whole shifting landscape, the Arab Awakening stirred up familiar debates about the role of religion in politics, gender equality, individual human rights and globalization.

What all of these layers of change add up to is the most significant transition in the Arab world since the revolutions of the 1950’s. And what they have laid bare is the long-term question of whether an “Arab center”, as my friend and former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher has described it, can eventually replace the old order … gradually establishing democratic institutions to manage sectarian differences and provide an outlet for individual dignity … or whether hardliners and extremists of one stripe or another will prove more resilient. The United States has a powerful stake in that very complex competition, and in shaping a careful, long-term strategy for enhancing the chances for a new, moderate order which best protects our interests and reflects our values.

Elements of a Positive American Agenda

If “rebalancing” has been a central feature of American foreign policy under President Obama more generally, it also applies in particular to how we’re approaching a rapidly changing Middle East. With the end of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military footprint in the region has become smaller, although it’s obvious that our security commitments remain enormously important. Diplomatic and economic tools get greater emphasis, as does the value of applying American leadership to build partnerships with key players inside and outside the region to support positive changes. We need to convey a clear sense of what we stand for, not just what we stand against -- an agenda that offers a powerful antidote to extremists, who are much better at tearing things down than building anything up.

It seems to me that a workable, long-term American strategy has three inter-connected elements: support for democratic change, economic opportunity, and regional peace and security. All three are crucial to our broader goal of enhancing the chances that moderates will shape the new regional order more than extremists. All three require us to look carefully at where the United States can uniquely make a difference, and at how best to mobilize other countries, inside and outside the region, in common cause. And all three require us to find a sensible course between self-defeating inaction and unsustainable unilateralism. We also have to be honest with ourselves: there will inevitably be some tough tradeoffs among these priorities at different moments, and times when it will be hard to weigh the long-term benefits of pushing democratic reforms against short-term security demands. But all three elements have to frame our broader agenda. Let me touch quickly on each.

Democratic reform can proceed in different ways and at different paces in different places in the region, but there won’t be a moderate outcome to the Arab Awakening over the next generation without it. Whether in countries in post-revolutionary transition, or countries trying to stay ahead of the wave of change through evolutionary reform, the United States consistently emphasizes a common set of principles: respect for the rule of law; peaceful and inclusive political processes; protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens -- including women and minorities and people of all faiths; and steady focus on building strong democratic institutions, real checks and balances, and vibrant civil societies.

We try to hold leaders and parties of every political shape to these standards. When it comes to building sustainable democracies, the most consequential distinction is not between Islamists and secularists, but between those who embrace pluralism based on rule of law, and those who seek to impose their own vision on others. All parties need to engage in the political process and not sit on the sidelines. Those in power have a special responsibility to make clear that force is no substitute for politics, and that a majority is no substitute for dialogue and consensus. And all must condemn and prevent violence, which truly poisons politics.

Whether in fragile, post-revolutionary states like Tunisia or Egypt … or in monarchies trying to keep pace with their people’s expectations, like Morocco or Jordan … sustainable democratic change depends upon the full participation of all citizens in political and economic life; the belief of all citizens that their peacefully-expressed views are heard and respected; and the conviction of all citizens that they share a stake in their country’s future.

No democratic transition can succeed without a sense of confidence in a better and more inclusive economic future. Unless the Arab Awakening is accompanied by an economic awakening, it will collapse. The hard truth is that most Arab societies have ducked serious economic reform for far too long; where economic liberalization has occurred, its benefits have often been limited to a privileged few. But serious reform cannot take place in a sustainable manner without basic political consensus on the rules of the game, lest it provoke chaos and instability. That’s why inclusive politics and inclusive economic change have to go hand in hand, and why the long term goal should be societies in which getting ahead depends less on who you know and more on what you know.

There is much more that we and other outsiders can do to support long-term economic reform. Even more than conventional assistance, we can use the promise of market access and open trading arrangements to encourage reform and create jobs. We can use initiatives like the new Enterprise Funds in Egypt and Tunisia to support small and medium-sized enterprises. And we can invest even more actively in helping to renovate educational systems and promoting scholarships and exchanges, so that the next generation is better-equipped to compete and succeed. Those are some of the very best investments in a moderate future for the region that I can imagine.

Finally, just as sustainable democratic reform and economic opportunity depend on one another, both depend on a more stable regional environment. I hardly need to tell any of you how hard it will be to make progress on the deepening crisis in Syria, or the Iranian nuclear issue, or the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But these are areas in which American diplomacy and influence can make a difference, and in which we have a profound stake. Our interests and credibility are at risk on each of them. While I realize that there are lots of other significant security priorities for American policy -- from the continuing importance of Iraq’s stable evolution, as Ryan Crocker has rightly emphasized recently, to getting ahead of growing terrorist threats in the Maghreb -- let me offer a few brief thoughts on Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and I’d be glad to address other challenges in our discussion.

The scale and scope of the human tragedy in Syria today is staggering, and it is inexorably becoming a regional tragedy. More than 70,000 Syrians have died. According to the United Nations, one out of three Syrians will have been forced from their homes by the end of 2013. Jordan is overwhelmed by the burden of 500,000 Syrian refugees -- a number which could reach a million by the end of the year. The crisis in Syria has spilled over to seriously inflame politics in Iraq and Lebanon. State structures in Syria are crumbling, extremists are expanding their influence among the opposition, and the dangers of long-term sectarian conflict and fragmentation are growing rapidly. Apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is deeply troubling, and we continue to press for a comprehensive UN investigation to fully establish the facts, as we consider our options for responding.

The simple truth is that there can be no stability in Syria, no resolution of the crisis, without a transition to new leadership. The longer Asad clings to power, the greater the odds of state implosion, fragmentation, and regional spillover. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have made clear that our strong preference remains a negotiated transition. The Geneva framework of last summer offers a reasonable starting point, but Asad refuses to engage. Russia has been resistant, to put it mildly, to using its leverage on the Asad regime; Secretary Kerry’s visit to Moscow in a few days is an opportunity to test whether cooperation is possible.

We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus. The Secretary announced last month that we’ve doubled non-lethal assistance to the opposition, and the Administration is actively considering our other options. There is a mounting urgency to this effort, as both the human and strategic costs grow.

I wish I could offer you a neat, new prescription this morning, but I cannot. All I can tell you is that we have to work even harder with our allies and the opposition to accelerate Asad’s exit, while there’s still a Syria left to save, and to prepare for what will inevitably be a very difficult day after -- more likely, very difficult years after.

Whatever decisions we make on further steps in Syria, it is crucial to mobilize as much regional and international support as we can -- leveraging our actions to help produce a stronger and more inclusive opposition coalition; and a stronger and more coordinated set of outside backers. That kind of “compact” has been the aim of Secretary Kerry’s very energetic diplomatic efforts over recent weeks. If we’ve learned anything from the experience of the last decade, it’s that on extraordinarily tough, complex Middle East problems like Syria, we want to build as much shared purpose and responsibility as we can -- we should want company on the take off, because we will all need it for the landing, in the huge challenge of post-Asad Syria.

On Iran, let me say simply that our concerns are profound, and they extend beyond the nuclear issue, across a range of dangerous Iranian behavior that threatens our interests and those of our friends in the region, and to the Iranian regime’s denial of the human rights of its citizens. The President has emphasized since his first days in office our readiness, along with our P5+1 partners, to seek a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem. That shouldn’t be impossible -- if Iran is serious about meeting its international obligations and demonstrating through concrete steps the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, Iran has been stubbornly unwilling, so far, to seriously address international concerns, and has given rise to new ones with its steady, defiant expansion of its nuclear program, in direct violation of numerous UNSC resolutions and IAEA decisions. At recent meetings in Almaty, the P5+1 put a reasonable, reciprocal confidence building proposal on the table, aimed at beginning to create some sense of trust and allow time and space for negotiation of a more comprehensive arrangement. Unfortunately, Iran’s response gave no indication that it is willing to take meaningful steps to address international concerns.

There is still time for diplomacy, and we and our partners hope Iran will take advantage of it. But there is also increasing urgency on this issue too. The President has made very clear that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We and our partners have put in place an unprecedented set of sanctions, which has had a significant and growing impact on Iran’s economy. I continue to hope that serious diplomacy is still possible; too many opportunities have been missed before, including the abortive fall 2009 deal on the Tehran Research Reactor, in which I played a direct part. It would be a huge miscalculation for Iran to miss this one too.

On the Palestinian issue, I’m convinced that the status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is as unsteady, unsustainable and combustible as the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled elsewhere in the region over the past couple years. I have never been a big believer in the notion that we have to let the conflict “ripen” to the point that resolution seems more likely. I’m afraid the more likely effect of that approach is to watch the prospects for a two-state solution -- which is so deeply in the interests of Israel’s long-term security as well as the interests of the Palestinians and the region -- wither and die on the vine.

President Obama underscored in Jerusalem earlier this spring his belief that progress towards Middle East peace is necessary, just and possible. In only a few months in office, Secretary Kerry has been tireless in his efforts to find a path back to serious negotiations -- a path that blends a renewed political horizon for a two-state outcome, with steps to create an encouraging economic horizon for Palestinians, and a renewed focus on the decade-old promise of the Arab Peace Initiative, which the Secretary discussed with a visiting group of Arab foreign ministers last Monday.

None of this will be easy. It never has been. Former Secretary of State Jim Baker, a proud Princeton graduate, keeps a whole wall of caustic newspaper cartoons outside his office in Houston, which reflected the skepticism surrounding his trips to the Middle East before the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. But he proved his doubters wrong, and American diplomacy worked. The landscape today is in many ways much less promising, but as Secretary Kerry knows as well as anyone, that is not an argument against trying, given all that is at stake.

Final Note

I’ll close with a simple thought.

I’m not naïve about the Middle East or how little we really know about where this period of profound change will take the region and its people. The story that is unfolding is also very much a story of Arab peoples taking their own destiny in their own hands, which should provide a cautionary note about the degree to which we can help shape their futures. The Middle East can be very unforgiving for American policymakers and diplomats, and it would be foolish to assume the best.

We’ve had our share of recent tragedies, including the death of my friend, Chris Stevens, our Ambassador in Libya, who was killed trying to help Libyans realize the promise of their revolution, and not let it be hijacked by extremists. But we cannot afford to pull back from the region, whether because of security risks or rebalanced priorities or policy fatigue or domestic preoccupations. There’s too much at issue right now, and we can increase the odds that moderates across the region can succeed over the next decade or two if we engage actively and creatively on behalf of democratic change, economic opportunity, and regional peace and security.

We will not get every judgment right, or take every risk that we should, but we are far better off working persistently to help shape events, rather than wait for them to be shaped for us.

Thank you very much.