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Diplomacy in Action

America's Engagement with Muslim Communities in the MENA Region

Tamara C. Wittes
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Freedom House and Project on Middle East Democracy Event
Washington, DC
May 26, 2010


Tom, thank you so much for inviting me to join you today, for an event looking back on the year since President Obama spoke in Cairo about the values and principles that guide America’s engagement with the Middle East and Muslim communities worldwide.I watched that speech from a hotel meeting room in Beirut, where I was serving as a volunteer election observer on a team organized by NDI. I was still months away from the job I’m in now. Indeed, if we had gathered here one year ago for a discussion, I might have been sitting where Steve Grand or Dina Guirguis is sitting today.


As many of you know, for many years I was an analyst, a critic of Administration policy, and an advocate of a strong and sustained effort by the US government to advance political freedom in the Middle East. I have believed for a long time that supporting democratic reform in this region is central to America’s interests and to our long-term relationship with the region. That’s why I took the job that brought me to this podium.


I came to work for President Obama and Secretary Clinton because they gave me a chance to put my money (well, actually, your taxpayer money) where my mouth is. Because they believe what I believe: that, as President Obama has noted, there is no conflict between realism and idealism when it comes to political freedom – because neither America’s interests nor the world’s are served by the denial of human aspirations.


President Obama and Secretary Clinton understand, as the President explained this weekend at West Point, that what lies at the heart of America’s global influence is not just military might or economic dynamism, but the power of an idea: that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our commitment to freedom and the opportunity it presents to every individual, our belief in democracy and representative, accountable government – these are what make America admired around the world, what brought our ancestors, and today’s immigrants, to our shores.

The President often notes that these values, which are at the core of our identity, have strengthened us as a nation. They have helped us to conquer our national demons and correct our historical errors. They have inspired generations of selfless service by our soldiers and diplomats – including those serving in harm’s way today.


Administration Approach to Foreign Policy


Because of all this, President Obama and Secretary Clinton uphold the view that our efforts as a standard-bearer for human freedom are a powerful asset in securing our national interests. I want to tell you a little about what we are doing in the Obama Administration to help extend human freedom in the Middle East.


We understand that human rights and democracy are fundamental -- to use the President’s word -- to our strategy for our security. Andthat, therefore, promoting democracy and human rights around the world is not a goal that stands in isolation or opposition to our other foreign policy goals -- rather it is inextricably linked together with them.


Yemen is just one example of a country where U.S. security interests are tied very clearly to the need for political dialogue, equal opportunity, and more transparent and accountable governance. We know that a lasting solution to the security problems in Yemen will not come through military force alone. I’ll talk more about how we address such challenges in a moment.


This gathering is billed in part as a one-year retrospective on the President’s speech in Cairo last June, where he expressed his vision for a “new beginning” to relations between the United States and Muslim communities around the world. That speech was not just a call for a new start, or the launch of an initiative. It was in many ways a mission statement for his administration’s foreign policy.


The President articulated a framework of principles that guide everything we’re trying to do at the State Department, and across the government, in our approach to this part of the world. These three principles really get to the core of the President’s foreign policies -- everything from promoting democracy, to combating climate change, to containing the threat of nuclear proliferation.


The first principle is mutuality -- relations based on mutual respect, mutual interest, and mutual responsibility. Mutual respect requires being honest with one another, speaking frankly about our interests and our values -- and also making sure we give an honest hearing to others’ perspectives, desires, and grievances. We’ve seen over the years how difficult it can be to forge alliances and achieve shared goals when others do not feel they are being listened to, or worse, don’t feel that they are being valued and respected. We may not always agree, but it pays to listen and respond honestly to what we hear.


Pursuing mutual interests means that we aim to discover areas where our interests overlap with others’. And we try to expand those areas of overlap. So many challenges facing the world today are shared across borders . As the President said the other day, America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation. We have succeeded by “steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice.”

Mutual responsibility is an equally indispensable concept for guiding our policies. Achieving the goals President Obama laid out in Cairo last year, including the goals of democratic growth, women’s empowerment, and equality for all, -- is not something America can do, acting alone. We do have an important role, and so in a number of cases, like the UN Human Rights Council, the United States has moved from the sidelines to lead. But -- as the President has said -- those who once criticized America for acting alone on the world stage, cannot now sit and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone. Others must take up their responsibilities, too. That is a message that informs our policies and our diplomacy.


The second principle undergirding the President’s approach, and which he discussed in Cairo, is a shared commitment to universal values. Our beliefs about liberty and equality are rooted in international law, and are shared by people of every race and religion in every region of the world. So as we engage others in dialogue, we root ourselves in these shared values, we seek to live them fully at home, and we work to promote their universal realization abroad.


The third principle of our approach is that as we engage abroad, we will engage more *broadly* -- with citizens as well as governments. This administration is engaging actively with governments – on issues where we can cooperate, and often on issues where we have strong differences, including democracy and human rights.


I recognize that much this diplomacy is done in private – and as a result, some question whether these conversations are taking place at all. Let me assure you that they are, at every level, from the president on down. Regional governments know well that the Obama Administration maintains a keen interest in human rights and democratic progress in the Middle East. It is a constant theme of our engagement. So we believe government to government engagement is crucial to make our views clear, and to find a way forward together where we can. But as important as engagement with governments is, it is not enough.


The ability of individual citizens around the world to make and shape change is powerful and indispensable. And so it’s also central to our approach to engage in more meaningful ways with citizens and civil society groups. We are increasing initiatives, like MEPI’s local grants program, that support local civic activists. And the President and Secretary make it a point to try and meet with civil society every time they travel overseas. Secretary Clinton, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in February, met with a group of women lawyers, business leaders, and students who had just completed a MEPI-sponsored project on social entrepreneurship and civic activism.


So the approach to foreign policy described by the President in Cairo is defined by the three principles: of mutuality, a shared commitment to universal values, and a broader engagement with citizens, as well as governments. I want to tell you a little bit about what this approach means in practice when it comes to promoting political and human rights in the Middle East.


Goals of Democracy Promotion in the Region


I spoke a few moments ago about Yemen, and how more representative and accountable government there is necessary to help counter the spread of violent extremism. What are we doing to support this effort? First, we engage energetically with the government of Yemen both bilaterally, and multilaterally through the Friends of Yemen process, to help it undertake necessary reforms and promote political dialogue as a lasting solution to internal conflicts.


We are backing up our diplomacy with programming, including a new assistance package focused on improving governance at the national, and community levels. Finally, we are engaging directly with the people of Yemen, who in spite of significant obstacles, have built an active and thriving civil society sector. The Middle East Partnership Initiative has 26 active programs in Yemen, and more grants to Yemeni civic groups than to groups in any other country in the region. These programs support Yemeni citizens’ work on the priorities they themselves identify. With MEPI support, for example, Yemen’s civil society created student councils, and their success persuaded the government to include them throughout the national school system – teaching the habits of democratic dialogue to a new generation.


Iraq is another place where democratic progress and our national security goals go hand in hand. We have witnessed some real progress in Iraq over the last few years, and the recent elections are a good example. Voter turnout was high -- and more importantly, we saw the emergency of multi-sectoral, multi-party coalitions -- as well as much higher Sunni participation. That’s good news because it means that more and more, Iraqis have confidence that their vote means something, and they are voting their interests, not just their identity.


The United States has made very clear our expectation that the next government in Iraq be inclusive, democratic, and representative. Iraq offers bright spots for the region, including its progressive NGO law. We hope, and expect that the government will develop equally progressive implementing regulations within the next few months. Although much work is yet to be done in Iraq to establish protections and respect for the rights of all Iraqis, this law reflects the ability of civil society to mount an effective advocacy campaign to achieve political goals.


We also appreciate the Iraqi government’s efforts to promote the protection of its religious and ethnic minorities, and we will continue to encourage the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for violent acts against these communities. Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iraq, Michael Corbin, also serves as our Coordinator for Iraq’s Minority Communities so we have some high level focus on this issue. We will continue to promote human rights for all in our police training program, as we take over that task from the Department of Defense next year.


Now let me say a few words about Iran. Iran aspires to a role of global importance -- but it cannot earn the respect of the world until it respects its own people. At the highest levels of our government, we have condemned Iran’s serial violations of human rights. We are outraged, as are many around the globe, at widespread arrests and detentions of peaceful protestors, seeking to have their voices heard; at threats of executions, unfair judicial proceedings and severe sentences meted out against individuals whose only crime was the exercise of their basic rights. This must stop.


We continue to call on Iran’s leaders to respect the rights of the Iranian people -- to afford them the protections guaranteed them by Iran’s own constitution -- and to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. We work with our international partners to call attention to these abuses, to give voice to the aspirations of Iran’s citizens, and to support their efforts.


We continue to emphasize the importance of Iranian citizens having access to independent sources of information, and of citizens having the tools to exercise their universal rights to speak out and organize and make demands of their government. But at all times we are keenly aware of the need to ensure that we are supporting, not supplanting, local voices.


Mechanisms for Achieving our Goals


This emphasis on supporting local voices is not an accident – it’s a reflection of the forces that are driving change in the Middle East. From groundbreaking labor groups in Egypt, to activists fighting domestic violence in Jordan, to Yemen’s more than 7,000 registered NGOs, we see evidence of one of most striking developments in the Middle East of the past 10 years: the explosion of civil society. These local groups are attracting -- and some are creations of -- a new generation of activists. And the dynamism of these local actors, the specific issues and strategies they are highlighting, is what really makes me optimistic about the future of freedom in the Middle East.


The Obama administration recognizes our role and our responsibility to empower and bolster local civic activists. We want to amplify their voice and increase their impact. And we work to shape political environments in which they can operate freely and in which their efforts at progress can take root. This is why we couple our bilateral and multilateral diplomacy with direct support for civil society organizations, with reform and capacity-building programs with governments, along with high-level, high-profile statements of policy. This strategy is aimed at empowering local citizens to advocate, organize, and lead the change they want to see in their own societies.


Egypt is an important focal point for our efforts to support locally-driven reform. I think you are all aware that Egypt is facing three sets of national elections in the coming eighteen months. This is an historic opportunity for the Egyptian people to express their views about who should govern their country. The Egyptian people alone should decide who will run and ultimately win in Egypt’s elections. We want to see open, fair, and competitive elections in which the Egyptian people can have confidence and in which they are encouraged to participate. We have a strong bilateral relationship with the government of Egypt – and a longstanding partnership with the Egyptian people. We continue to urge the Government of Egypt to uphold the rights of all people to express their political views and to exercise the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration.


We share concerns expressed by many Egyptians that the State of Emergency constrains political freedom and individual rights. And we were disappointed that the Government of Egypt chose to renew the law, especially in light of President Mubarak’s own promise to his people in 2005 to end the state of emergency. There are many active Egyptian citizens calling for reforms to support the country’s move down the democratic path.

We are committed to sustaining our support for Egyptian civil society, through direct funding, capacity building programs, and diplomatic dialogue. In fact, as POMED’s recent report notes, despite a significant reduction in total US bilateral assistance to Egypt from FY2008 to FY2009, our level of assistance to registered Egyptian civil society groups remained constant – and we actually increased the level of our direct assistance to unregistered Egyptian NGOs.


In every country where we work to advance democratic rights and practices, we must pay attention not only to what governments are doing and what civil society is doing, but also to the environment within which they are doing it. And so weWe also seek, through diplomacy and programs, to create social and political environments that shape active citizens, and facilitate civic engagement and the protection of human rights. We work to solidify progress with reforms in the legal and institutional infrastructure that make these changes lasting.


MEPI, for example, is working to capitalize on the momentum created by the historic elections in Kuwait last year, which saw women parliamentarians elected for the first time in Kuwaiti history. One MEPI project, administered by Freedom House, is focusing on legal reforms, particularly in family law, that promote the rights of Kuwaiti women. This is one example of dozens like it, where the Obama administration is working in partnership with local actors to empower them, to open political space, and to expand freedom of association.




As we continue to go about our work, we hold in mind the core principles President Obama highlighted in Cairo a year ago: mutuality, universal values, and engagement with citizens and governments alike. And we move forward clear-eyed about our approach. We know that engagement is no guarantee of agreement – but we believe that delivering an honest message face-to-face can sometimes have more impact that shouting it from behind a barricade. We know that the international system often falls far short of the universal values it espouses. But we believe that our engagement can do more to shape that system toward liberty and justice than carping from the sidelines.


And, fundamentally, we know that if we can hold true to those universal values that are our founding truth as a nation, if we can seek every day to realize those values in our own society and to see a world that extends those universal rights, then we will all be stronger and more secure. As the President said the other day, “when an individual is being silenced, we aim to be her voice. Where ideas are suppressed, we provide space for open debate. Where democratic institutions take hold, we add a wind at their back. ..That is who we are. That is what we do.”

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