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Diplomacy in Action

The Democratic Wave in the Arab World: Transatlantic Perspectives

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Remarks at the EU Washington Forum, Sofitel Lafayette Square Hotel
Washington, DC
October 27, 2011


So, it’s nice to see you but also to see other friends in the room, colleagues from the diplomatic community and elsewhere, and it’s a great opportunity to discuss this hugely important topic that you have chosen which is the transformation in North Africa, the Middle East, the Arab World, which affects us all on both sides of the Atlantic very much.

As President Obama said in a speech that he gave at the State Department in May, the United States sees this historic change that is going on in the Middle East obviously as a moment of great challenge but also, and this is one of the things that I want to stress, as an opportunity for greater peace and security in the entire region. It’s a moment that will require tremendous energy and attention from us, but one in which we choose to see the positive aspects without denying that there are potential perils and risks ahead.

So I think it’s right, Alvero, that you chose this topic as an almost exclusive focus for this because I have to say from the point of view of somebody working these issues in the State Department, while the transatlantic agenda as always is vast and there are hundreds of topics on it, we probably spent more time on this particular challenge over the past six to nine months than on any other.

That’s really symbolic and indicative, I think, of the state of the transatlantic relationship overall today which is really marked by the degree to which we spend our time focusing on global challenges. Once again, that’s not to say there aren’t remaining challenges in Europe, and as Pierre and others will attest, we talk an awful lot about the Balkans, the Caucuses, Russia, Ukraine, and stability in Western Europe, the economy. But so much of our time and attention is focused on how we manage global challenges -- Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East -- and that’s really a sign of the maturity of the transatlantic relationship.

As President Obama has also said, Europe and our European Alliance is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world. We know we need strong partners and when we look around the world and ask where those strong partners might be to help us tackle these challenges, Europe is almost always at the top of the list.

So let me get into some of the challenges in North Africa and the Middle East that we’ve been dealing with. I’d like to start with Libya which is really the most recent challenge that we tackled together and I think quite successfully, noting the celebration, really, of the liberation of Libya from more than four decades of Gadhafi’s brutal dictatorship just last week.

The United States and Europe came together in the United Nations and in NATO to support the Libyans who demanded their freedoms, to protect innocent civilians from death, and to end massive human rights abuses. When it was clear in March that Gadhafi was not heeding the international community’s call to stop attacking civilians, President Obama responded to the indigenous demand and Arab League calls for action and European calls for action and led the international community to go to the United Nations to get a mandate to establish an arms embargo, a no-fly zone, and authorizing member states to take all necessary measures to protect civilians.

Within ten days of this UN action NATO took command of these three missions to enforce the UN Security Council mandate. That was a conscious decision of ours. It wasn’t necessarily going to be the case that NATO would do this. We believed strongly that with such European support and such an important European role to play we wanted to see this alliance formally take on this mission. I think in retrospect that was the right judgment.

NATO’s command and control proved very useful for the mission and it brought all of the allies together -- [inaudible] also to cooperate with other partners in the Arab world and elsewhere, which is one of the innovations that all of you in this room who have worked on NATO over the past 20 years have seen, adapting the alliance to be able to do that--allowed us to execute this mission, we think, highly successfully.

The timeline that I’m talking about is remarkably quick, especially when you compare it to previous cases of lengthy deliberations by the alliance before deciding to act and suggests that swift action to prevent violence against innocent civilians is more effective and efficient than waiting to act until that violence has scarred a society.

Again, without going through the history of this operation I do think it’s telling. It tells us something about the alliance. When President Obama ordered the use of American assets -- fighter planes and cruise missiles -- to take down Libya’s integrated air defense system at the onset of the crisis, this halted Gadhafi’s advance and what we believe would have been a sure massacre in Benghazi.

Then we handed this operation over, after the United States provided unique capabilities that only the United States could provide, to the NATO alliance and its command and control system, and really made it possible for Europeans then to play the role that they played, supported by unique American assets like in-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and targeting capabilities.

The entire alliance supported this operation and most allies participated in some way militarily. The North Atlantic Council met, all allies backed all of its decisions. NATO’s command and control was used. And all allies, even not those conducting strikes, participated in command and control.

Fourteen allies and four partners provided the naval and air forces necessary for the operation in Libya. The United States flew 25 percent of all sorties, while France and the United Kingdom together accounted for a third. What this means is that 40 percent of all sorties were flown by other allies including Italy, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain and Turkey as well as our partners in the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, and Sweden. That is a true and genuine international coalition at whose heart was the transatlantic partnership.

I think if you put this in context, a telling thing about the degree to which we really use NATO and the transatlantic partnership function in Libya is a reminder that as you will recall in the Kosovo operation in 1999, the United States provided 90 percent of the precision-guided munitions that were used and Europeans 10 percent. In Libya it was exactly the other way around, with Europeans providing 90 percent and the United States 10 percent [inaudible] military contribution of the European allies.

As President Obama told the Libyan people, following Gadhafi’s death you have won your revolution and now will be a partner as you move forward to a future that provides dignity, freedom and opportunity.

The point is, we will stand by the Libyan people and help them as they move forward, trying to build an inclusive and democratic Libya.

Let me say a word about Egypt and Tunisia which we are also trying to support, and that’s really the key word I want to stress because this is about them and our efforts are designed to help them. We’re supporting Egypt and Tunisia obviously in different ways from the way in which we supported Libya, but I think our assistance can be critical there as well. Again, I do want to stress this point, and this is why I said at the beginning President Obama sees this as an opportunity even as he is aware of the challenges because it started with their own efforts, it was not influenced from outside, and that will guide us moving forward.

So how are we working to support them? In Tunisia, which just had we think successful democratic elections which we supported. We’re obviously still waiting for final results, but we congratulate the Tunisian people on these elections. We look forward to working with the people and the government, the government in Tunisia, including a new constituent assembly over the next phase of its historic transition.

The United States ramped up our bilateral assistance to prepare for these elections and helped lay the ground work for wider opportunity through private sector-led-growth, investment and entrepreneurship.

We’re working with Congress to provide loan guarantees to Tunisia that could mobilize up to $650 million in budgetary support.

In Egypt we’ve also provided support for economic and democratic development. We’re working with Congress there to replace Egypt’s debt payments to the United States with investments and a brighter future for Egyptian citizens. In both of these countries we intend to establish enterprise funds which as you all recall were such an important engine for growth in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989.

The United States continues to offer our support to Egypt in carrying out free, fair and credible elections beginning with the first round of lower house parliamentary elections on November 28th. We remain deeply concerned about the outbreak of violence recently in Cairo including the tragic loss of life on October 9th. It is important to ensure that Egypt respects the universal rights of all of its citizens. We’ve urged the Egyptian government to conduct a credible investigation that holds all perpetrators of violence accountable with full due process in law.

That’s what the United States is doing, but I want to underscore here that we are also working closely with our European partners who have really taken the lead on assistance to North Africa. We welcome the EU’s new response to a changing neighborhood as well as its renewed focus on good governance, human rights, and democracy. The EU has a lot of experience with these things and is playing a major role in this transition.

We recognize the contribution of the European Investment Bank in its follow-through on the promises of the G8 Deauville partnership and the 7 billion Euro allotment to its southern neighborhood, especially the transition of the Arab countries in North Africa. We also appreciate High Representative Ashton’s efforts in the EU-Tunisia Task Force including the increase in foreign assistance over the next three years and initiatives to begin trade liberalization and a mobility partnership.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe which have recent experience of their own revolutions and transition democracies and market economies are offering their solidarity and contributing lessons learned. There have been a number of conferences throughout Central and Eastern Europe, some of which we have participated in, in which these countries have sought to share those experiences (inaudible). We are fully conscious of the differences. We’re not trying to suggest in any way that the parallels are exact. But going through a transition from a command economy and authoritarian government to a stable and prosperous democracy is something that we think can be shared with those in North Africa. We thought it was fitting that anti-regime activists from Egypt and Tunisia and Libya observed the recent parliamentary elections in Poland to gain insight into the development of a free and fair electoral process.

I would also note that the OSCE which played such a critical role in assisting democratic transitions in Europe is poised to provide expertise on democratic institution building in its Mediterranean Partner states. There will be, of course, an OSCE Ministerial in Vilnius in December and we will look to that meeting to help build on the lessons learned in Central and Eastern Europe.

We’re facing a very different transition and process in Syria. The Syrian government through its own actions including the oppression and murder of peaceful protesters and average Syrians has become one of the greatest causes of instability in the region. Change is coming to Syria. While Bashar Al-Assad may seek to obstruct or delay that change, he cannot stop it.

The United States has clearly stated that it wants to see a Syria that is unified, where tolerance, rule of law, respect for human rights including minority rights, are the norm. This is the message that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have conveyed to the Syrian leadership and the Syrian people.

While Syria’s opposition has taken a major step towards unification and formation of the Syrian National Council, we must encourage them to consolidate their support within Syria’s minority and business communities, continue to preach non-violence and articulate a concrete plan for an inclusive political transition.

The United States was deeply disappointed, as we made quite clear, by the failure of the UN Security Council to pass a resolution that would establish tough targeted sanctions, impose an arms embargo on the Assad regime and dispatch human rights monitors. Since the resolution was defeated in New York we’ve seen the regime intensify its attacks against opposition leaders inside Syria.

We continue to need the EU’s help to convince the Arabs and the BRIC countries that the international community must take stronger action against a brutal regime that shows no signs of stopping its violence, torture and persecution of its people. These actions should include pressing for access for human rights monitors and journalists.

The United States has imposed its own tough sanctions against the government of Syria which bans purchases of Syrian petroleum, prohibits U.S. citizens or residents from engaging in any financial transactions with the government of Syria, providing services to Syria or making new investments in Syria. We appreciate the EU’s efforts to maintain momentum by continuing to expand its own sanctions against the Assad regime including the latest designations and bans on purchasing or transporting Syrian petroleum, investing in its oil sector, and on printing currency for Syria’s Central Bank. We welcome the EU’s decision earlier this month to sanction the Commercial Bank of Syria.

These strong measures are sending the message to the Syrian regime and the Syrian people that the regime’s course is not sustainable.

Let me address Israel-Palestine. As President Obama has said, the events that have swept the region make the goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace even more important. This is why we’re working closely and intensely with the parties towards a negotiated outcome that will lead to the establishment of the state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security with the state of Israel.

The President was clear in his May 2011 remarks, the speech I referred to earlier, that Israelis and Palestinians must work out their differences in direct negotiations. We will continue to work with them and our international partners including the European Union through the Quartet toward that goal on the basis outlined by President Obama in those May remarks.

We do not believe that attempts to resolve permanent status issues in international bodies like the UN or UNESCO will bring about the enduring peace sought by the parties and ourselves.

The September 23rd Quartet statement provides a credible path forward for both parties. Just yesterday our Quartet envoys concluded initial meetings with the parties in Jerusalem, building on the timetable and program outlined in New York in September. Our focus is now on implementing the statement’s preparatory phase by laying the groundwork for an exchange of comprehensive proposals on territory and security within 90 days as outlined in the statement’s timetable. Our Quartet envoys with the parties in the region urged them to move forward on that basis.

The united European position behind the Quartet approach will assist in creating a positive climate to resume negotiations. Negotiation between the parties is the only way to achieve our goal of a two-state solution.

Like every U.S. administration for decades, the Obama administration has been clear that it does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. The fate of existing settlements is one that must be dealt with by the parties along with other permanent status issues including the status of Jerusalem.

As such, steps by the government of Israel to advance significant new construction are deeply disappointing. We believe such actions would be counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.

Let me offer a couple of concluding thoughts. I realize I was brief on all of the above issues, but it’s a vast agenda and I want to be sure to have time for our discussion.

We’re clearly witnessing a historic transformation in the Middle East and North Africa. Ultimately our interests will be best served with the establishment of partnerships, legitimate governments that are responsive to their people’s will and that unleash the potential of the regime’s citizens to chart their own future.

Close transatlantic cooperation is the indispensable starting point in our efforts to respond effectively and efficiently to locally driven demand for real and lasting change across the Arab world. President Obama prioritized reengaging with our European allies to build a true global partnership which we think has clearly paid off in our coordinated response to the dramatic events of the Arab Spring.

The United States continues to use all tools at its disposal ranging from NATO and the Quartet to assistance funding and bilateral engagement to ensure transatlantic support for political and economic developments. We have no illusions. The process won’t be easy. It won’t be a straight line towards democratic transition. But the United States was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves and it is prepared to work with partners in government, in the private sector, in civil society, to support Arab citizens’ aspirations for real and lasting change. Their actions have inspired Americans and Europeans alike and it’s our job to support and assist their brave efforts. We stand ready, and I think it’s fair to say on both sides of the Atlantic, to help.

Thank you very much.

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