REVIEW: Article

Building Hope: A Positive Agenda for American Policy in the Near East

At the end of four years as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, I welcome this opportunity to reflect on our recent experience and the way ahead, at a time of renewed hope in the region. 

I’ll focus in particular on four interconnected policy challenges: (1) helping all Iraqis build upon the successful January 30 elections to establish the stable, democratic and prosperous country that they so richly deserve; (2) helping Israelis and Palestinians capitalize on what Secretary Rice has called “the best chance for peace that we may see for years to come;” (3) fighting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); and, (4) supporting the growing, indigenous efforts at political and economic reform in a region which has for too long known too little of either.

We cannot afford to be naive, or to underestimate the difficulties posed by these four challenges. But there are opportunities now to achieve progress that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

In recent months, we have witnessed successful elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, President Mubarak’s call for competitive elections in Egypt, the beginnings of broader political participation in Saudi Arabia, and dramatic Lebanese and international pressure for an end to Syrian occupation of its neighbor. It was just a little more than a year ago that Libya stunned the world by renouncing weapons of mass destruction, opening the door for its return to the international community of nations. 

In each of these cases, the United States (US) had—and continues to have—a vital role to play, but our efforts cannot substitute for the initiative and leadership of the people of the region. Change will not come easily or quickly, nor will it be risk-free. But, taken together, continued progress on these four issues offers a basis for making common cause with people and leaderships in the region struggling against the militant minorities who threaten us all. And these four issues offer a renewed basis for international cooperation on a set of challenges that are likely to be as crucial as any that we will face in the decade ahead.


As I write this, Iraq’s newly elected leaders are reportedly close to finalizing an agreement on the composition of a new government. The country’s first freely elected assembly in more than a half-century was seated just a week ago.

Where some observers find reason to worry in the political haggling that followed the January 30 elections, I see a political leadership learning to represent constituencies and compromise to reach core objectives. In addition, the importance of a peaceful transfer of governmental authority from one Iraqi government to another should not be underestimated.

The way ahead in Iraq is clear. The insurgency will not be easily or quickly beaten, but it will—in the end—be defeated. There is no purely military solution, and there can be no solution imposed from the outside. It must be Iraqis, through their own security forces and an inclusive political process, that win the fight for Iraq’s streets and drain the pool of insurgent sympathizers.

The US will continue to help.  On the military side, the US and our partners will continue to support the training of Iraqi security forces capable of defeating a rugged insurgency while upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights.  We are gratified that all 26 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies have now agreed to participate as part of this training effort.

In addition, our economic assistance represents a clear manifestation of the American commitment to success in Iraq.  US efforts to support economic rehabilitation, job creation, electricity, water and sewage improvements, trade and investment opportunities and health and education programs are helping the Iraqi people—step by step—rebuild their economy and their nation. 

There is much more to be done. We and the Iraqi people have our work cut out for us, but we are pointed in a direction that can, and must, succeed. We simply cannot afford the alternative.

Israel and the Palestinians

As President Bush recently said, “After many false starts, and dashed hopes, and stolen lives, a settlement of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is now within reach.”  Here too the way forward is clear—based on the President’s vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace, security and dignity. 

The passing of Yasir Arafat from the Palestinian scene and the election of President Abbas have opened the door to progress, but years of mistrust on each side will not be washed away quickly. Israelis rightly fear a return to the broken promises of the past to fight terror. Palestinians still suffer under occupation and see the expansion of settlements as an effort to undermine chances for the equitable two-state solution, which is deeply in the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis.

In order to maintain the momentum of recent months, both Israelis and Palestinians must recognize tangible benefits from the different reality emerging today. Israelis must be free from terror in their homes, on their way to work, and in cafes and restaurants.  Israelis must see real prospects for a final end to the conflict and full acceptance in the region.  Palestinians must see an improvement in the quality of their daily lives, their dignity respected and hope restored for an early, negotiated end to the occupation which began in 1967, and the creation of a viable, independent state of their own.

Palestinians deserve credit for their careful management of a difficult leadership transition, and their commitment to the electoral process. Israel’s initiative to withdraw settlements and military installations from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank offers an historic opportunity to revive progress toward a two-state solution, and to resume movement along the “Road Map.”

The reality, however, is that road maps and visions and final status proposals do not implement themselves. They require hard work and hard choices from the parties, and support from the international community. 

The US will continue its active engagement. Secretary Rice has asked General Ward to coordinate security assistance to the Palestinians, and he is already hard at work.  We will work directly with the parties, with our friends in the region and with the Quartet.  As Gaza disengagement moves forward, we also will continue our efforts with the World Bank and other donors to support Palestinian economic recovery.  

To this end, President Bush announced in the State of the Union Address that he is seeking $350 million in assistance to the Palestinians; this aid will help the Palestinians address economic and technical challenges of ensuring successful Gaza disengagement, and also will help build institutions, strengthen civil society, and develop infrastructure—the necessary foundations for an emerging democracy.

Stopping Terrorism and WMD Proliferation

A third critical challenge is our ongoing struggle against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. 

A particularly troubling problem is the behavior of Iran, about which not only the United States but an increasing number of countries have profound concerns. On his recent trip to Europe, President Bush found consensus on the need to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to develop a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian program. The European Union is engaged in a diplomatic effort to make permanent Iran’s cessation of nuclear fuel cycle activities, and to bring Iran into compliance with its international commitments. The President made clear that the US supports the European Union initiative and wants diplomacy to succeed. On March 11, Secretary Rice announced practical steps that the US was taking in order to support Europe’s diplomatic efforts. The focus now rests squarely on Iran to meet its obligations. Iran remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, and its continuing attempts to undermine prospects for Middle East peace present a sharp contrast to the efforts of many to seize this moment of opportunity.

We have made clear to the Syrian leadership that we remain committed to comprehensive peace, but we have made equally clear that Damascus cannot have it both ways: it cannot profess a commitment to peace, while supporting groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who have done everything they can to explode prospects for peace.

The last twelve months have seen continued progress on commitments by Libya and a steady development in our bilateral relationship, which has enhanced US security and showcased to the international community the wisdom of Libya’s decision to voluntarily renounce weapons of mass destruction and uphold global nonproliferation norms.  Nevertheless, many challenges remain, particularly concerning Libya’s repressive practices at home.

A Forward Strategy of Freedom for the Middle East

The fourth element on our policy agenda, intertwined with the other three, is our support for the expansion of freedom, political reform and economic modernization throughout the region. This is not just a matter of values, or of ensuring basic human rights, crucial as both of those concerns are.  It is also a matter of hardheaded self-interest.  As President Bush noted in November 2003, “Lasting peace is gained as justice and democracy advance.”

These values need not (nor could they) be imposed from the outside. The millions of Iraqis who turned out to vote, in defiance of brutal insurgent threats, needed no encouragement to display their ink-stained fingers proudly as symbols of national pride.   We recognize that lasting reform will be homegrown and reflect the culture, history and religion of individual societies, but that can be no excuse for governments to fail to act.

Supporting reform is now a fixture of our bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.  In the jargon of professional diplomats, the issue has shifted from “if asked” to “must do” as part of our overall relationship. The G-8 last year at Sea Island issued a strong statement of support for regional reform efforts, following a meeting joined by a number of regional leaders. At the Forum for the Future in Morocco last year, government and civil society sought practical ways to advance reform.  Arab civil society has spoken eloquently of the need for more political space, including at the most recent Alexandria Conference and in the Arab Human Development Reports. 

The US will continue to support those—in government and civil society—who make the often difficult choice to pursue reform. Through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the President has committed $293 million over four years to advance political, economic and education reform, especially for women and youth, throughout the region. MEPI has implemented more than 100 reform programs that have resulted in growing international and regional support for the President’s vision of a free and democratic Middle East. MEPI programs have trained Palestinian women subsequently elected to municipal councils, prepared Morocco and Bahrain to implement their free trade agreements with the US, created networks of women lawyers and judges, and are creating partnerships with Ministries of Education in Algeria and Oman to transform national secondary education curricula to meet the needs of the 21st century.            

Steady, determined American support for internally-driven processes of economic and political modernization is a crucial feature of a positive agenda for US policy in the Near East. So are sustained efforts to realize a two-state vision for Palestinians and Israelis; the emergence of a stable, secure and democratic Iraq; and our continuing struggle against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Collectively, these four priorities offer a powerful basis for renewed hope in the region, and for the promotion of American interests and values for many years to come. 

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Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs