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Remarks by Dennis Ross to ADL National Leadership Conference

Posted: April 4, 2011

Remarks by Ambassador Dennis Ross (as prepared), Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region

to the Anti-Defamation League
National Leadership Conference 2011

Washington, D.C., April 4, 2011

To say that a lot has changed in the Middle East since I had the opportunity to speak to you last spring would be an understatement.  Indeed, the Middle East has not experienced such political upheaval for as long as I've been working on the region – and unfortunately that has been a very long time.  If you had asked me last year about the chances that a popular revolt would drive Mubarak from Cairo and Ben Ali from Tunisia, that what is going on in Libya now, and that large-scale protests would be breaking out in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen on a regular basis, I probably would have placed the odds as slightly lower than Virginia Commonwealth's run to the Final Four.

But it is happening, and in all seriousness, what we are seeing today in the Middle East represents a truly dramatic upheaval that carries with it both tremendous opportunities and significant risks:  opportunities for real freedoms, economic development, truly representative and legitimate governments, and the kind of interdependence that can produce genuine peace.  There is, however, also the risk of potential violence, instability, and the empowerment of radical actors hostile to the United States and our interests, if these transitions are not managed carefully. 


I would like to talk to you this morning about how the Obama administration views the dramatic changes happening in the Middle East and what we are doing to try to seize this opportunity to advance a more peaceful, stable, free, and prosperous region. 


Why did Middle East experts in the government and the academic world not foresee the changes that have occurred in 2011?  For many years, the analysis of the Middle East generally tended to be based on a set of assumptions:


·         regimes were too strong and ready to deploy their pervasive security apparatuses to instill fear and use force if necessary;

·         publics were simply to fearful with too little hope to challenge these systems, and  the more liberal actors in civil society were too weak and internally divided to bring about meaningful change;

·         the so-called Arab street cared more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than their own domestic needs, and governments would always be quick to exploit these emotions  to divert attention away from their own failings;

·         and that regimes and people across the Middle East preferred stability to chaos and were willing to tolerate the status quo in order to avoid uncertainty.


But those traditional assumptions clearly don't stand up to the realities we now see sweeping the region and that began with the revolt in Tunisia and moved onto Tahrir Square in Egypt.  What accounted for this dramatic change?  Perhaps, more than anything else, the loss of fear helped launch what is now referred to as the Arab Spring.  It has been the youth of the region, the "Facebook generation" that has led the way.  Demographically, there is a youth bulge in the region.  And, the level of frustration in the younger generation has been building and for good reason.   In far too many places, governments have provided for a select few, creating little economic opportunity and no promise of a better future, much less the possibility of inclusion and participation in shaping the future for the many.  Greater exposure to the outside through widely available satellite television, the internet, and more recently, social media platforms, showed this young generation the enormous gap between their limited opportunities and the prospects for participating fully in the 21st century world.  Lacking hope for a better future and faced with daily humiliation from insensitive, often brutal regimes, a few brave souls who had enough decided to defy the state. 


In Tunisia, it was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old fruit vendor who was the catalyst for revolutionary change.  He set himself on fire in front of a government building after an official inspector sought to confiscate his fruit and slapped him in public when he tried to take back the goods that provided him a meager livelihood. 


And in Egypt, it was the thousands of people who signed up to a Facebook page honoring the memory of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old businessmen brutally murdered by police after posting evidence of police brutality on the internet.  Those who joined the "We Are All Khaled Said" page knew they were signing up to be watched by state security services, but more than half a million people joined anyway.  And it was one of the creators of that page, the young Google executive Wael Ghonim, who himself became a powerful symbol of the opposition and galvanized thousands of protesters to join the movement in Tahrir Square after he emerged from 12 days in detention as defiant as ever.  The young people were not driven by any ideologies of religion or nationalism, but by the simple instinct to demand dignity in the face of humiliation. 


In the face of the growing demands for change, how has the Obama administration responded?  Recognizing that we are neither the cause of what is happening in the region nor can we be the driver of these developments, we have established a set of basic principles to guide action:


·         First, we oppose the use of violence by governments and protesters alike.  Political change should emerge peacefully, not through force.

·         Second, we have insisted that governments must protect certain universal rights, such as the right for people to gather and express themselves peacefully and have access to information.

·         And third, the President emphasized from the beginning that governments should respond to inevitable change by instituting meaningful and credible reforms. As President Obama said very early on, "The world is changing; you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity, and that if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change.  You can't be behind the curve."


We have committed to working closely with governments who have undertaken a meaningful effort to reform, and when governments have chosen the wrong approach and tried to preserve the status quo through their traditional but outdated modes of violence and coercion, we have spoken out.  On Friday, following another day of violence against demonstrators in Syria, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying: "We condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens demonstrating in Syria, and applaud the courage and dignity of the Syrian people.  Violence is not the answer to the grievances of the Syrian people.  What is needed now is a credible path to a future of greater freedom, democracy, opportunity, and justice."  Over the past few months, we have spoken out when violence has occurred against peaceful protesters in Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, and we will continue to do so, because if governments in the region should learn anything over the past few months, it should be that they cannot prevent dissent and seek to stifle legitimate grievances through force and coercion.   The Government of Bahrain, for example, should also recognize that restricting freedom of expression by shutting down newspapers or arresting bloggers is not the way to produce a political dialogue or make a political outcome more likely.


But the Obama administration's approach is not just guided by what we say, but what we have done.  Nowhere has our commitment to preventing violence been demonstrated more clearly than in our response to the Qadhafi regime's brutal efforts to quell internal opposition.  As Qadhafi's troops advanced toward the city of Benghazi and he promised "no mercy" on his own population, we helped to mobilize a broad international coalition committed to preventing what would surely have been a humanitarian catastrophe – a human slaughter and a moral disaster that could easily have led to chaos, instability, and potentially enormous refugees flows into neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, precisely at a time these countries are attempting to navigate their own political transitions peacefully. 


Having helped produce two UN Security Council Resolutions, we joined a broad international consensus that included Arab contributions from the UAE and Qatar to enforce the UN-authorized no-fly zone and to protect the civilians of Libya.  From the outset of this conflict, the President made clear that the American contribution to this effort would be largely on the front end and we would use our unique capabilities to create an environment in which others would be able to take the lead in carrying out the No Fly Zone and civilian protection mission.  That transition happened last week when NATO assumed full operational command for all missions in Libya.  We will continue to support the NATO mission with electronic jamming capabilities, aerial refueling, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance.   Now that the international coalitions has created space and time for the Libyan people, we hope to see a democratic transition in Libya through a broadly inclusive process that reflects the will and protects the rights of the Libyan people. 


Elsewhere in the region, we are actively supporting transitions and supporting governments seeking to undertake peaceful transitions, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.  In Egypt, we have been in a regular dialogue with the Egyptian military and the new government since the transition as well as with a diverse range of nongovernmental and civil society actors, making it clear that we support principles, processes, and institutions – not personalities.  Egypt has made remarkable strides in just a short period.  On March 19, more than 18 million people turned out to vote in a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments.  They did so peacefully and orderly in a process fully supervised by Egypt's respected judiciary.  Egypt faces many challenges ahead, including a struggling economy and the management of a complicated transition that will involve parliamentary and presidential elections this year as well as the drafting of a new constitution. 


We have made a number of suggestions as to how this process can unfold freely, fairly, and peacefully, and we have committed to helping this transition in whatever way we can, because we understand what is at stake. We have reassigned $150 million in assistance to support Egypt's transition, and we are working to establish a much needed Enterprise Fund that will stimulate private sector investment, support competitive markets, and provide business with access to low-cost capital—and we are working closely with our allies on the steps that can be taken to ensure economic stabilization over time.  If the Tahrir movement and the March referendum are any indication, there is reason to be optimistic that the Egyptian people will become increasingly invested in their government, establishing a degree of legitimacy that was missing for so many years. 


Renewed legitimacy of governments in the Middle East will not only improve the stability of these countries internally, but will provide new opportunities for regional cooperation, and ultimately peace.  For too long, illegitimate governments have looked to blame others for their problems, to deflect attention from their own shortcomings by stoking hostilities toward the United States or Israel


One of the most remarkable features of the peaceful protests movements across the region has been their focus on domestic issues – the abuses of security forces, government corruption, and the limited opportunities to participate in government decisions.  I fully expect that when these populations are empowered and responsible for shaping the future of their countries, they will also see the importance of pursuing peace and cooperation as essential to their own political futures.  The more that countries are able to invest their resources in their own future and the less they invest in conflict, the more they will be able to address the needs of their people that prompted the revolts of the Arab Spring.


Many of you will remember how Shimon Peres – who is having lunch with President Obama tomorrow - spoke about the New Middle East in 1993 that would be built on the foundations of peace, cooperation, and trade.  Unfortunately, Peres's vision was not realized two decades ago, because such a future could not be built on an authoritarian foundation.  The Middle East today has very little internal trade and investment.  The region also has very few domestic or transnational institutions when compared to other parts of the world.  All that needs to change, and the democratic movements today offer the prospect of a truly new Middle East – a vision that we must strive to realize.  The United States can help support this process by facilitating the work of civil society and non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions, and private-public partnerships to help countries in transition secure the resources and knowledge needed for a better future.


Peace is essential in the region not only to enhance the prospect of trade and cooperation, but to ensure that as a new generation of leaders emerge, they recognize the prospect that Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs can coexist in their own states without the ever-present prospect of renewed hostilities.  New leaders need to see that peace is possible and not impossible.  They need to see that negotiations can take place and actually produce.  And, Israelis and Palestinians need to feel that their respective requirements for peace are understood clearly by each other and will actually be addressed.  Israelis, particularly during a time of change with inherent uncertainty, must see that their security will be addressed meaningfully, and in a way that does not leave them vulnerable to the uncertainties of the future.  Palestinians must know that they will have an independent state that is contiguous and viable.  For Palestinians, that prospect is certainly made more credible when tangible steps are taken to show that the occupation is receding.


If anything, our relationship with Israel becomes more important during a time of change and upheaval in the Middle EastIsrael is an enduring partner whose stability can be counted on.  We are bound by shared values and interests, and our commitment to Israel's security is iron-clad and unshakable.  For the Obama Administration, those are not just words.  Many of you may have heard what Secretary Gates recently said  in Israel:  "I cannot recall a time during my public life when our two countries have had a closer defense relationship.  The U.S. and Israel are cooperating closely in areas such as missile defense technology, the Joint Strike Fighter, and in training exercises such as Juniper Stallion -- cooperation and support that ensures that Israel will continue to maintain its qualitative military edge."  Our cooperation contributes to Israel's security every day, signified by Israel's recent deployment of the Iron Dome short-range rocket defense system, which we helped fund with more than $200 million in support this year.  I too cannot recall a time when security cooperation between our two countries has ever been as intense or focused. 


All this is important because, as I noted earlier, political change in the Middle East does not come without risk, and it is occurring under the backdrop of ongoing threats.  Iran, in particular is trying to exploit the political changes in the Arab world, and using its proxy Hezbollah to enflame sectarian tensions in countries like Bahrain at precisely a moment when sectarian differences and legitimate grievances need to be overcome politically and not exacerbated.  Iran has also been quick to criticize Arab governments for using the very repressive tactics it continues to employ against its own people.  Indeed, it is the height of irony that at a time when Arab publics throughout the Middle East are finding their voice, the Iranian leadership seeks to quash the voice of Iranians who are asking only for their rights. 


The Iranians are fooling no one.  And, they are also fooling no one as they continue to pursue their nuclear program in defiance of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions.  As National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stressed last week, "Even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East, we remain focused on the strategic imperative of ensuring that Iran does acquire not nuclear weapons."  On our own and with others, we will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian regime.  On March 24, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution appointing a special rapporteur charged with investigating and monitoring human rights abuses in Iran – a move that the ADL praised.   Iran continues to contend with sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before, and as a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure—and it has found in that critical sector, alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued.   Other sectors are clearly being affected as well as leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran and are no longer doing so. 


Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure.     


We clearly have a full plate of challenges in the Middle East today.  But our agenda is clear: support coalition forces in their mission to protect the civilians of Libya and support a peaceful, inclusive, and democratic transition there; help Egypt and Tunisia to conduct a successful, orderly, and credible transition; encourage others in the region undertake meaningful reform now before they too face destabilizing unrest; work to expand economic opportunities; continue the push for peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; and build the pressure on Iran.  This is a complex and demanding agenda, but it has the complete attention of the President and his full national security team. 


Thank you very much.


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