Remarks
William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Manama, Bahrain
December 8, 2012


Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure to be back in Manama. It’s an honor to join Senator McCain and Congressman Ruppersberger on this panel, and an honor once again to be hosted by the IISS, an institution for which I have the greatest respect.

We live in a rapidly changing world, in which American interests are pulled in many directions. The Asia-Pacific region, surely the most dynamic part of the global economy in the new century unfolding before us, compels our attention. So does the transformation of the global energy market, and the emergence of our own Hemisphere as a bigger and bigger player. And it is a truism that America’s chief foreign policy challenge is domestic renewal, strengthening our home-grown capacity to compete and promote our interests and values around the world. That is equally true for many of the countries represented in this hall today.

For all the logical focus on "pivots" in other directions, however, the fact remains that the United States cannot afford to neglect what’s at stake in the Middle East, a region in the midst of transformations every bit as profound and consequential as the changes which swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago. It hardly seems that it was only a little less than two years ago that a desperate Tunisian street vendor, tired of too many indignities and too many lost hopes, set fire to himself and sparked a set of changes still burning across an entire region. It’s a region today that is full of both threat and promise. It’s a region that demands continued American leadership, despite the pull of other challenges and the natural policy fatigue that comes after a decade in which our national security strategy was dominated by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To frame a quick look at the United States and the region in the years ahead, let me make just a few general observations. Stability is not a static phenomenon in the Middle East, and no society is immune from the pressures which have already swept away a number of sclerotic regimes. It’s important to use a wide lens in pursuing regional security – the focus of the Manama Dialogue – and to understand that enduring security is only partly about military levers and military partnerships and counter-terrorism cooperation, as crucial as those tools are. It’s also about complementary priorities, about the pursuit of political openness, economic opportunity, and the resolution of regional conflicts – about a broad, positive agenda that makes clear what we stand for, not just what we stand against; an agenda that makes clear not just the ruinous costs of extremism, but the genuine possibilities of peaceful change; an agenda that offers a powerful antidote to terrorists and their patrons, who can only tear things down, not build anything up.

It’s important for Americans, self-absorbed as we sometimes are, to understand that the Middle East is not all about us. The changes unleashed over the past two years, at their core, are about a thirst for dignity and opportunity in a region which for far too long has offered far too little of either. But if it’s not about us, the future of the region certainly matters a great deal to us. That why clear-eyed, determined American leadership remains so important, in partnership with friends inside and outside the region.

A successful, long-term American strategy in the Middle East is not an à la carte menu. We don’t have the luxury of focusing on only one priority and ignoring others. It seems to me that there are at least four inter-connected elements to effective American policy.

First is security, and in particular meeting the urgent challenges posed by Iran’s reckless behavior across a wide front, and the related imperative of accelerating a transition to the new leadership which the Syrian people so deeply deserve. We share with the rest of the international community a profound concern about Iran’s continuing refusal to meet its nuclear obligations, and a profound commitment to intensifying economic and political pressure until it does – pressure which has already resulted in a fifty percent drop in the value of Iran’s currency and a similar drop in oil exports. As Secretary Clinton made clear again last week, the United States is ready for a serious negotiation, along with our P5+1 partners, if Iran is serious about meeting its international obligations. But time for negotiation is growing short, given the worrisome pace of Iran’s nuclear program and mounting regional and international concerns. Meanwhile, beyond the nuclear issue, we see a continuing pattern of Iranian and Iranian-proxy threats around the world, from Bangkok to Bulgaria, and especially in this region.

Nowhere is this threat more acute today than in Syria, where Iran continues to prop up the bloody and repressive rule of Bashar al-Asad. The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the greater the human tragedy for the Syrian people -- and the greater the danger of spillover into a neighborhood which already has more than its share of problems and insecurity. The United States welcomes and strongly supports the new Syrian Opposition Coalition which emerged last month, several of whose courageous representatives are here with us today. We have provided over $250 million in humanitarian and non-lethal assistance, and worked hard to achieve this week’s positive NATO decision to deploy Patriots to help meet Turkey’s security needs. The balance on the ground is clearly shifting against the regime, and Secretary Clinton looks forward at next week’s Ministerial meeting in Marrakesh to considering further ways in which we can speed a genuine transition of power, and help the Syrian Opposition Coalition and our international partners prepare for the huge challenge of ensuring a stable, democratic future for Syria. We also look forward to continuing to do all we can to support the efforts of UN Envoy Brahimi to launch a political transition to a new leadership, based on the Geneva framework developed last summer.

Another persistent security challenge is the effort of terrorists and violent extremists to hijack the promise of regional change and take advantage of popular frustrations. In the face of militant groups who threaten us all, counter-terrorism cooperation remains a high priority.

A second element of American strategy across the region is continued support for political openness, democratic reforms, and successful post-revolutionary transitions. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to such transitions or reform processes; much will depend on local circumstances and the quality of local leadership. The United States, for its part, will consistently emphasize the importance of respect for the rule of law; of peaceful and inclusive political processes; of protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens -- including women and minorities and people of all faiths; and of steady focus on building strong democratic institutions and real checks and balances.

In societies which have gone through revolutions, we’ll try to be plainspoken about our concerns. In Egypt, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been direct in emphasizing the importance of peaceful, inclusive dialogue, genuine give and take, and forward-looking compromise in navigating toward the strong, democratic constitution promised by the Egyptian revolution -- while also emphasizing the risks of continued unrest and uncertainty. For all its obvious fragility, Libya’s transition deserves our sustained support. So does Tunisia’s, and Yemen’s. Nor can we afford to neglect Iraq, or the significance of its continued reintegration into the Arab world.

We also will continue to support the efforts of our friends in Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain to stay ahead of the wave of change sweeping the region, and keep pace with their people’s expectations and aspirations. Bahrain is a valued strategic partner and a longtime friend. Under the leadership of King Hamad, Bahrain has begun to implement the recommendations of the independent commission of inquiry. There is still a long road ahead, and I know it is not easy. But as Crown Prince Salman stressed last night, it is crucial to move decisively down that path, without violence from any quarter. Long-term stability, and enduring security, depend 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; the conviction of all citizens that they share a stake in their country’s future.

Third, no political transition or democratic reform process can succeed without a sense of economic possibility. Economic revival in Egypt, for example, is essential to sustained democratic change. Hard choices about domestic economic reform are part of the answer. So are generous conventional assistance programs. But we must also think more ambitiously over the coming few years about expanded trade and market access arrangements between the U.S., Europe and regional countries; about expanded support for educational programs in regional societies where empowering very young populations with the knowledge and skills to compete effectively is critical to future stability; and about expanded programs to strengthen small and medium-sized enterprises, such as the Enterprise Funds in Egypt and Tunisia which Senator McCain has done so much to create.

Our long-term goal should be societies in which getting ahead depends less on who you know and more on what you know; and in which economic growth is revived and spread widely across populations, not just monopolized by a tiny minority at the top. An economic awakening has to be at the heart of the Arab Awakening, so that the entire region can compete more effectively in the global economy. As President Obama pointed out last year, if you take out energy exports, this region of 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. It is deeply in all of our interests for that to change.

A fourth element of strategy is a re-energized effort to resolve regional conflicts, especially renewing hope for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. I won’t belabor the point, except to stress my view that the status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is unsteady and combustible, and ultimately unsustainable. UN General Assembly resolutions don’t bring a two-state solution closer. Israeli settlement activity continues to corrode and undermine hopes for the only workable solution -- two states for two peoples, a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. It’s time also to revive the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative, launched a decade ago and long-neglected. Progress toward a stable, secure future for the Middle East depends significantly upon progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, and it’s a mistake to ignore that complicated reality.

Pursuit of an American strategy in the region based on the four elements I’ve very briefly described is much easier said than done. I’m not naïve about the huge pitfalls on the road ahead. There is nothing automatic or foreordained about the success of post-revolutionary transitions or democratic reform processes, and there are many forces eager to hijack their promise. As President Obama and Secretary Clinton have emphasized, American engagement, American vision, and American leadership across the problems of this endlessly fascinating but endlessly complicated region are as important as ever. Our influence has obvious limits, but we’re far better off continuing to work with people and leaderships across the Middle East who want to shape trends and events in a positive direction, than we are if we simply wait for them to be shaped for us. Thank you.

[This is a mobile copy of Remarks at Manama Dialogue]