“The State Department and the Middle East”

by Jon B. Alterman

Presentation at Al-Hewar Center 

30 January 2002

                I’d like to begin by suggesting something that may be surprising to you: the State Department shares with you a basically similar vision for the Middle East. As we look at the Middle East, we see a region where there is simply too much misery. It is in our own interest, as well as in the interest of people in the region, to use all the tools at our disposal to alleviate much of that misery, and to work together as partners to build a better future for the people of the Middle East. 

When we talk about improving people’s lives, our goals fall into several areas. First, we need to find solutions to the many long-running conflicts in the area. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one, and Iraq’s conflicts with both its own people and its neighbors are two more. But we see myriad tensions throughout the region, and they keep countries on a war footing. That environment both creates instability and stifles economic growth. We also need to work to make the region one free of weapons of mass destruction. Proliferation is a persistent threat in the region, and it contributes to instability as well. Third, we need to work to create a better economic environment in the region. Opportunities are still too limited for talented people coming onto the job market. Finally, the Middle East needs more pluralism and rule of law, and we need to help where we can to encourage governments to share power, often times with their current opponents. 

That vision of the future is one that I think everyone in this room shares. We may differ on how to get there, both in short term and longer term, but the vision is quite similar.

In order to get there, the U.S. government is reinvigorating its policy on four basic fronts: diplomatic, economic, political and security. Let me take them one by one.

Diplomatically, we need to work on the wide array of persistent problems in the region, chief among them the Arab-Israeli dispute. U.S. goals have never been clearer: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. The President has endorsed this vision, as has the Secretary of State. In the near term, it will require a 100% effort against violence. The government also remains committed to the idea that the way back to negotiations is through the process outlined in the Mitchell Report, envisioning a series of confidence-building measures to help us get back to serious negotiations. To go from the implementation of the Mitchell Report to peace will require an enormous amount of work. There are difficult issues to agree upon, from Jerusalem to refugees to mutual recognition. There will be advances and setbacks. But never before has the U.S. government spoken so clearly and with such a singular voice about where we are trying to go.

Let me add one more thing: there can be no hope of reviving a political process, let alone making progress toward a fair, long-term vision, without a maximum effort against violence and terrorism. There's no other way.  Mutual respect must also be painstakingly rebuilt. That respect must include an end to incitement.  Free speech is good, but hate speech --whether officially sanctioned, acknowledged with a wink, or left without rebuttal --is deeply destructive of the necessary fabric of trust between Arabs and Israelis.  Rebuilding respect also means taking steps to restore economic hope for Palestinians, and refraining from unilateral actions, such as settlement activity, that undermine political hope for a fair solution.

Economically, it is obvious that the Middle East faces mounting challenges. The region's share of world GDP, trade and foreign investment continues to shrink. Governments still play too large a role in regional economies. Rapidly growing labor forces without jobs are a prescription for frustration. Middle East populations are now growing faster than anywhere except sub-Saharan Africa, and will double between 2000 and 2025. Iran, to give only one example among many, is producing only half the number of jobs needed to meet demand. Hundreds of billions of dollars in local capital remains overseas, instead of improving the economies of the region. On top of all this, the region faces the lowest per capita water availability in the world.

The region cannot be healthy socially or politically so long as its economies are in crisis. No single third party or collection of third parties can force change from afar. But we all owe it to our friends in the region to work in concert to promote policies that enhance private sector involvement, diversify their economies, and steadily narrow the gap between haves and have-nots. Young people must emerge from educational systems with appropriate skills for the marketplace, not merely the skills that the educational systems are now best equipped to teach. 

Politically, the truth is that many political systems in the region do not function effectively as mechanisms for citizens to express and work out their discontent. Political structures all too often serve to insulate the regime and governing elite from change, rather than to lead it. 

Technology is changing the political climate in the Middle East. Not so long ago, regimes could rely on state information organs to mobilize their people, and the tools of censorship to restrict “dangerous” ideas. This is no longer the case. Photocopiers, fax machines, video and audio cassettes, and more than a dozen major satellite television stations mean that populations are increasingly bombarded with information beyond their government’s control. All sorts of non-governmental groups will be putting out a dizzying array of messages, in a Darwinian competition for attention. Some of them will succeed, and some of their messages will be very disturbing. As governments lose control over the information their populations have, we need to help them adjust to the new environment. We are all used to operating in an open environment. Many of them are not. We cannot make decisions for them, but we can help strengthen their positive impulses, and work with them to quell their negative ones.

            Our goal must be to work with our friends to open up avenues for political participation and deepen respect for the rule of law, and the rights and sanctity of the individual.  Every society can find ways to improve public participation and respect for basic freedoms, consistent with its own political culture and traditions.

In terms of security, we and our friends in the region also face increasing challenges. The Iraqi regime's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction are a particular and continuing threat, especially since it has used such weapons in the past against its own people. And as we sharpen the international community's focus on that threat, we need to work together to move away from civilian sanctions and ease the burden on the Iraqi people, whose suffering has been so cynically manipulated by the Iraqi regime. 

Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is another serious and continuing concern.  In the struggle against the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, and in the long-term battle against global terrorism, we will continue to require close security cooperation with Europe and with our allies in the region.

Never has there been so much attention paid to Arab public opinion, both here and in the region. There is a sudden, and likely sustained, desire to understand how Arabs perceive us, and to address their concerns. This is not to say that U.S. policy toward the Middle East will turn around overnight, nor that it will necessarily turn around at all. But it suggests that those who lazily said, “It doesn’t matter what most Arabs think because all the countries of the region are dictatorships anyway” are in retreat. They are being squeezed out by those who point to changes in the region, and opportunities to engage with a broad array of Arabs.

The U.S. government is handicapped in much of this by having a relatively small number of Arabs or Muslims working in foreign policy positions. Beginning in the last administration, efforts were begun to change that. It will take a lot of time. In the interim, I have seen a steady stream of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans coming into the State Department. Ideally, such encounters help educate Americans about your countries of origin. In turn, there is also a hope that you will help explain America to others. We have a chaotic system of government, with all sorts of checks and balances. It is hard for many to understand, and if it were easy, lobbying would not be a competitive, multi-billion dollar business in Washington. Among many in the Middle East, there is an assumption that processes are much neater than they really are, and that what comes out of the process is wholly rational. That’s not always the case.

            We need you to understand this, and we need you to help explain it. It’s one of the reasons I’m so pleased to be here tonight. I want to explain to you as best I can, and I want to listen, as well. And you can be assured that first thing tomorrow morning, I’m going to tell my colleagues what you told me here. Will it affect our policy? That depends. But I hope that this is part of a larger process of much more interaction and involvement. 


Jon Alterman is Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

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