From the Woodrow Wilson Center
The Wilson Center was honored this past September to play host to former president Jimmy Carter at an event marking the 25th anniversary of the historic Camp David Accords. During the negotiations at the presidential retreat, Carter recalled, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were “totally incompatible, shouting, banging on the table, stalking out of the rooms.” But after nearly two weeks, Begin and Sadat signed the agreement, ending decades of conflict between Israel and Egypt. At the Wilson Center, Carter saluted the two men for showing “that when leaders are willing to take enormous risks, peace is possible.” (For a report on the event, see the Center’s Web site at www.wilsoncenter.org).
A willingness to take risks is an essential element of statesmanship. So is the somewhat contradictory quality of patience. It took years of patient effort to get Israeli and Egyptian leaders to negotiate seriously. And still more patience is required today, for while there is no longer open conflict between the two countries, neither is there much of the ordinary sort of exchange of goods, people, or ideas that is so essential to real peace. That will take much longer.
The importance of risk and the need for patience are surely pertinent lessons for the current United States (US) situation in the Middle East. Whatever one’s view of the Bush administration’s decision to pursue war against Iraq, it is clear that a sea change in US policy toward the Middle East was inevitable. During the Cold War, realpolitik dictated that the United States should accept the status quo in this vitally important strategic region so long as our Soviet adversaries were not strengthened. But with the end of the Cold War, one of the fundamental rationales for turning a blind eye to undemocratic and repressive regimes no longer existed. Then 9/11 occurred, crystallizing the new threat to the United States posed by Islamic radicalism. It also made clear that many of the region’s existing regimes were not only threatened by the same radical Islamic forces but had helped give birth to them. In some cases, they may even have directly aided those forces. More commonly, the radicals benefited from the regimes’ flaws—the economic stagnation and corruption that breed deep popular discontent, the political repression that helps channel followers to the religious radicals.
The US and coalition commitment to Iraq, though not yet a year old, already shows signs of promoting the kinds of changes that are needed in the region. Some of the signs are ironic but still important. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who presides over a police state next door to Iraq, recently declared that the Iraqis must be allowed to write their own constitution and elect their own leaders. “In those remarks,” observed The New York Times, “the Syrian President joined the unusual chorus of Arab leaders calling for measures in Iraq that often do not exist in their own countries.” Statements such as theirs, however, do have a way of mattering.
Other portents of change are more concrete. In Saudi Arabia, the government has set a timetable for beginning local elections, and there are signs that those Saudis who recognize the need for change in the closed kingdom are gaining strength. In Iran, too, advocates of change seem to have been strengthened by the visible sign of US commitment across the border in Iraq, and even the entrenched Tehran regime has consented to international inspections of its suspect nuclear program.
The United States cannot transform the Middle East, but it can support those throughout the region who seek change. The evidence suggests that their numbers are much greater than many imagined. The fabled “Arab street” which was expected to erupt in anger over the US occupation of Iraq, has remained relatively quiet. Ordinary people in the Middle East are watching, like much of the world, to see if the United States has the fortitude and patience to stick to its commitments and high purposes. Only by staying the course can we lead the way toward positive change.*
* Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2004 edition of the Wilson Quarterly. It is reprinted by permission.
Chair, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars;
United States Ambassador to Switzerland, 1989-1993