William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
MEI Annual Banquet
Washington, DC
November 16, 2011

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Dick, for that kind introduction. I’m honored to be back at the Middle East Institute, for whose leadership, membership and mission I have enormous respect. And I’m especially honored to be introduced by Dick Murphy, for whom I have the greatest admiration, and from whom I have learned a great deal. There is no better model of skill and professionalism and decency in American diplomacy than Dick Murphy.

I am privileged to share this podium with your two deeply deserving award winners this evening, Esraa Abdel Fattah and Lakhdar Brahimi. You both have changed history. You both have changed the world for the better. And you both represent the very best in what courageous public advocacy and selfless, skillful public service can accomplish.

I was fortunate to speak at this same event two years ago, and am fortunate to be invited back. Since I was last here, we have all witnessed a wave of historic change in the Middle East, as consequential in its own way as the changes that emerged so dramatically out of Europe and Eurasia two decades ago.

2011 has been a truly transformative year. It brought us the first successful popular revolution in the region in over thirty years -- and then the second and the third. And, as the brave citizens of Syria are showing every day, another revolution is underway, aimed firmly at realizing the long suppressed, universal rights of the Syrian people.

It all began when a desperate Tunisian street vendor, tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes, set fire to himself and sparked a revolution still burning across an entire region. That single act, at once tragic and noble, symbolic and catalytic, has brought the Middle East to a moment of profound transformation -- one that was unimaginable when I worked for Dick Murphy a quarter century ago. Importantly, it is a transformation truly driven from within. It is not about us, as tempting as it often is for Americans to think in those self-absorbed terms. But even if it is not about us, it certainly matters enormously to us.

A workable American strategy for a rapidly changing Middle East has several dimensions. In recent months, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have spoken about this in detail. So tonight I’d like to focus on two of these dimensions: first, support for greater political openness and the democratic transitions unfolding in different ways across the region; and second, support for the economic openness and opportunities which are critical to the success of those transitions.

I fully recognize that no American strategy can succeed based on those two elements of policy alone. We face growing challenges in regional security, particularly given the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and serial interference in the affairs of its neighbors. There has never been a moment when strengthening our security cooperation with our GCC partners mattered more. Nor is there a more important task before us than continuing to build a strong partnership with Iraq, and encouraging its reintegration into the Arab world.

Similarly, we simply cannot afford to neglect the unfinished business of Middle East peace. Some people saw the absence of banners criticizing Israel or supporting Palestine among the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the year as a sign that the Palestinian issue no longer mattered so much. Nothing could be further from the truth. The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis remains combustible and unsteady, and it is no more sustainable than the sclerotic political systems that have crumbled in recent months.

As President Obama said in his speech at the State Department on May 19, we all know that a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people. The core issues of the conflict must be negotiated. But the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The President also offered key principles to guide negotiations on borders and security.

I wish I could say that we have made substantial progress toward realizing the President’s vision. I cannot. As all of you in this knowledgeable and committed audience know, the reality is a lot more sobering. Despite exhaustive efforts, we are not where we need to be. But we are determined to press ahead, with our partners in the Quartet and in the region. The President laid out a vision with the elements for successful negotiations, and it is crucial for the parties to respond and use what he offered to break the impasse.

Supporting Political Openness and Democratic Transitions

If the pursuit of regional security and Arab-Israeli peace remain core ingredients in our strategy, the past year has driven home another truth -- that stability is not a static phenomenon, and that support for democratic transitions and economic opportunity are also extraordinarily important ingredients in a successful American strategy. Two years ago, I spoke here at MEI about the “dangerous shortage of economic and political hope” confronting the region. I recall that with an ample dose of humility. It was hardly a novel thought, and anyone who had read the Arab Human Development Reports over the past decade could see the tinder that was accumulating, even if it was very hard to see what exactly would happen when a spark was lit.

The truth is that this is a moment of enormous promise for people and societies who for far too long have known far too little freedom, far too little opportunity, and far too little dignity. It is a moment of great possibility for American policy … a moment when homegrown, people-driven protests have repudiated al-Qaeda’s false narrative that change can only come through violence and extremism.

But it is also a moment of considerable risk, because there is nothing automatic or preordained about the success of such transitions. As much as it is in our interest to support the emergence of more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive governments that will ultimately make stronger and more stable partners, the journey is likely to be very complicated, very uneven, and, at times, very unsettling. We must accept that democratic transitions are often messy and unpredictable. We must accept democratic choices and engage with all emerging political forces committed to pluralism and non-violence. And we must reject the old dictators’ conceit, that we really have only two choices -- the autocrats you know or the Islamic extremists you fear. Furthermore, we must accept that we are going to have differences with democratic governments -- sometimes significant differences. Governments that are accountable to their populations are going to behave differently than autocratic governments did. It won't always be easy to work with them.

We also know from transitions in other regions that there is a danger of authoritarian retrenchment or violent instability, especially if economic stagnation persists and newly-elected leaders don’t produce practical improvements in people’s daily lives. For these reasons, we have a huge stake in the success of post-revolutionary transitions where citizens are seeking inclusive political systems where none existed before.

Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya hold the potential to shepherd the Middle East into a new era, one defined by free, fair, and credible elections; vibrant civil societies; and accountable and effective institutions. Tunisia, which lit the spark of the new Arab Awakening, held the first truly democratic elections in its history last month. Whereas a turnout of 70% in the Arab world once signaled a rigged election, today it is a sign of Tunisians’ determination to chart their own future. We too, are invested. This year, America has committed about $60 million, to offer expertise to political parties and poll watchers, strengthen civil society, and promote freedom of expression. The remarkably peaceful and orderly conduct of these elections and the embrace of multiparty democracy, just ten months after Ben Ali fled the country, has set the standard for the rest of the region.

We will begin to see a breadth and diversity of political groupings as the people of the region are allowed to give voice to their views. And, as Secretary Clinton said last week in a speech at the National Democratic Institute, we will judge the parties of the region not on what they call themselves, but on what they do. We should be less concerned about which parties win or lose than about whether democracy wins or loses in the process. And democracy means more than elections -- it means the protection of fundamental freedoms and equal rights for all, including women and minorities.

In Egypt, we must not underestimate the importance and consequence of the transition underway there. Long the cultural and political leader of the Arab world, Egypt can offer another powerful signal when it begins its own elections later this month. But successful parliamentary elections, for all the effort they require, are only a first step. It is important, in Egypt’s own self-interest, to see competitive presidential elections follow soon after; steps to consolidate an elected civilian-led government; and the continued emergence of a strong and independent Egyptian civil society to safeguard the principles of democracy.

Libya, too, has won its liberty. This victory over tyranny is a testament not only to the bravery and determination of the Libyan people, but also to the undeniable potential of international partnership and American leadership. But much work remains. After contending with Qadhafi himself, Libya must now contend with Qadhafi’s legacy of eviscerating Libyan institutions and civil society. The TNC has made good progress in its brief existence, against overwhelming odds. We look forward to welcoming a new interim government and to close and continued cooperation as they consolidate authority, secure dangerous weapons, and focus attention on the difficult task of building a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for Libya.

That so many Egyptians, Tunisians, and Libyans risked their lives to demand freedom, dignity, and opportunity inspired us all. But these are not the only nations where citizens calling for universal rights and more responsive governments demand our support.

We continue to urge leaders and citizens in the region -- in Jordan and Morocco, for example -- to stay ahead of the wave of demand for democratic change. We are closely following Jordan’s efforts to enact additional reforms, including new laws on elections and political parties. And we will continue to support Jordanians as they navigate their own path to the dignity, political openness and economic opportunity that they so richly deserve. As Morocco prepares for elections next week, we’re looking to the government and a new parliament to implement promised reforms and to show the Moroccan people that political institutions can change their lives for the better.

In countries where protests have emerged but change is uncertain -- such as Bahrain -- we will continue to urge swift and meaningful political reform, dialogue between government and opposition, and respect for human rights, including the right to peaceful protest. As the Secretary said at NDI: “Meaningful reform and equal treatment for all Bahrainis are in Bahrain’s interest, in the region’s interest, and in ours -- while endless unrest benefits Iran and extremists.” We will continue to urge the Bahraini government to undertake concrete reforms and uphold the principles of justice and accountability.

In Yemen, we have spent months working with our Arab and European partners to persuade President Saleh to follow through on his promise to transfer power and allow a democratic transition to begin. It’s time – in fact it’s long past time – for him to live up to his commitments.

And in Syria, President Asad is attempting to hold back the future at the point of a gun. This strategy may work for a time, costing the lives of more innocent Syrians, but it cannot prevail. The United States has condemned the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, and, working with the international community, continues to step up pressure, including a robust and growing set of sanctions and coordinated diplomatic efforts, to further isolate the regime. It is no small thing that the Arab League decided a few days ago to suspend Syria’s membership, or that some of Asad’s neighbors are starting to call on him to step aside. This makes it abundantly clear that the Asad regime’s brutality can no longer be tolerated.

And for all Iran’s tough talk, nowhere is the disconnect between rulers and ruled greater than it is today in Iran. Nobody is fooled by Iran’s hypocrisy -- when Iran pays lip-service to democracy elsewhere, then brutally denies it to the Iranian people.

Supporting Economic Openness and Opportunity

A second element of our strategy that I want to highlight this evening -- partnering to create broader economic opportunity -- flows out of our conviction that political transitions can’t succeed without confidence in a better economic future. As President Obama has said: “Just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.” Revitalized, open, and regionally-integrated economies are key to ensuring the success of democratic transitions. In the short term, we need to be clear-eyed: the unrest and uncertainty that has accompanied the new Arab Awakening has strained already difficult economic circumstances.

But there is a far deeper deficit: the one outlined starkly in the Arab Human Development Reports, year after year. We need to nurture economic systems where talent is cultivated and rewarded, where entrepreneurs and innovators are unleashed to enrich their societies, where nations can trade with their neighbors and compete in the global economy.

To support the democratic transitions underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya we’ve created a new office, the Special Coordinator for Middle East Transitions, to organize all the tools at our disposal to help them succeed. And we’re working with Congress to ensure that, even in difficult times at home, we get the resources we need to seize the strategic opportunity the new Arab Awakening represents. The Enterprise Funds we are seeking to establish in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing work of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will help people in the region access capital to start and grow their own businesses, providing hope for a better economic future. In the end, this is about translating the promise of political change into real, palpable hope for a better economic future, and about giving new leaders the tailwind they need to navigate bumpy transitions amid high expectations.

Conventional assistance, no matter how generous, will not be enough. Nor will a short-term approach. We must help these countries empower individuals to make their own economic as well as political choices, and grow a real middle class. The revolutions in countries like Egypt and Tunisia were driven by a firm rejection of a past where prosperity was confined to a narrow segment of society. As we saw in Egypt, economic liberalization that fails to achieve inclusive growth is a false path to prosperity. That is why we are working with Congress to achieve $1 billion in debt swaps so that the Egyptian government can use those resources for the benefit of the Egyptian people, especially the younger generation.

This kind of genuine economic reform process will require that leaders have visions compelling enough to drive what will be tough and sometimes unpopular choices. That is why we and our European partners must think, and act, more ambitiously to open up trade and investment across the region. Through the G8’s Deauville Partnership, we are mobilizing the world’s leading economies and international lending institutions to support the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as the major reforms underway in Jordan and Morocco. As G8 President next year, we will keep high-level attention on these transitions, and the imperative of regional economic integration across the Middle East and North Africa.

As President Obama noted in May, if you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. That is exactly why the President has proposed a new Middle East Trade and Investment Partnership. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Central and Eastern Europe twenty years ago, so should the vision of prosperous, thriving, integrated economies, and the promise of market access to the U.S. and Europe, create a powerful impetus for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

We should be ambitious and creative in how we promote trade and investment, just as we have been in the Asia-Pacific region, where we are launching the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This ground-breaking initiative will bring together the United States, eight Asia-Pacific and Western Hemisphere partners, and eventually future members, in a single trading community, using the highest standards. In the Middle East, we need to seize the moment of opportunity ahead of us and find ways to leverage the promise of market access and regional integration to encourage countries to raise their standards and pursue policies that drive growth that benefits all their people.

And let me add that promoting trade and investment is not simply the work of governments. Many in this room have an opportunity to play an important role in this story -- making the investments that allow the citizens of the region achieve a better life for their children, and their children’s children. This means supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, investing in education, and launching initiatives to empower the region’s youth with the knowledge and skills they need to make it in a global economy.


Our own American revolution, over 230 years old, remains a work in progress -- and certainly the same can be said of the new Arab Awakening. It is not over in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where there is hard work ahead in building democratic institutions and economic hope. It is not over in Syria, where the Asad regime may be able to delay changes with brutality, but where there is no going back to the way things were. And it is not over in Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan, where genuine reform is the only path for progress.

The struggles ahead in the Middle East are deeply complicated, and fertile ground for pessimism. And it is a fact that the Middle East is a place where pessimists rarely lack for either company or validation. But I remain convinced of the continuing value of the kind of stubborn, clear-eyed optimism and vision that have animated American diplomacy in the Middle East at its best moments in the past.

Whenever I talk about “optimism,” one of my Russian friends invariably reminds me of one of the many, typically fatalistic, Russian definitions of an optimist -- as someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after. I have something a little different in mind. I actually think “tomorrow” is going to be very tough, as people across the Middle East struggle with transitions that are only just beginning, and challenges that will outlive the regimes that perpetuated them.

But if we can approach the historic challenges before us -- from Arab-Israeli peace, to regional security, to promoting economic opportunity, to supporting democratic transitions -- in a thoughtful and integrated way … if we can mobilize a sense of common cause and initiative among partners in the region and around the world … then the day after tomorrow, and the years that lie ahead, can offer a great deal of promise, and a great deal will be possible.

Thank you very much.