printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

America and the Middle East in a New Era

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Remarks to the Middle East Institute
Washington, DC
November 10, 2009


Thank you very much Wendy for that kind introduction. And thank you for this opportunity to speak again at the Middle East Institute, for whose leadership, membership and mission I have enormous respect.

There are a lot of different strategies for appearing before a group as formidable and well-informed as all of you are. Mark Twain, I’m told, had a simple approach: “It is my custom,” he said,” to keep talking until I have my audience cowed.”

Another of my favorite authors, George Bernard Shaw, was an advocate of a less long-winded strategy. Hosting an event in London one day, Shaw was approached by the first speaker, who asked how long he should speak for. Shaw replied that he should probably limit his remarks to about 20 minutes. The speaker looked at him in horror and said: “Twenty minutes! How am I supposed to tell them everything I know in twenty minutes ?” Shaw paused and replied: “In your case, my advice would be to speak very slowly.”

In my case, you don’t have to worry about me going much beyond 20 minutes, even if I speak very slowly. So I’ll spare you Mark Twain’s strategy, try my best to emulate George Bernard Shaw, and offer only a few brief thoughts on America and the Middle East in the new era unfolding before us.

In my checkered career as an American diplomat, I have divided my labors mostly between two nice, boring areas: the Middle East and Russia. Given my extraordinary track record of achievement in those two areas, you should probably be worried about where they might send me next. But in the course of my professional efforts, I have learned a few things, sometimes the hard way, about America and the Middle East.

I have certainly learned that we do not have the luxury of ignoring a part of the world that holds some of our closest friends, two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves, several of the world’s most poisonous regional conflicts, and violent extremists who feed on the region’s bitterness and alienation.

I’ve learned that a little humility goes a long way in the exercise of American power and purpose in the Middle East. We come by that humility honestly, through many trials and many errors. Winston Churchill, a life-long admirer of America, once said that the thing he liked most about Americans was that “they always did the right thing in the end … they just liked to exhaust all the alternatives first.” The latter describes much of our historical experience in the Middle East; the former is an outcome to which we always aspire.

I’ve learned that America can lead more effectively through the power of our example than through the power of our preaching. I’ve learned that other people and other societies have their own realities, not always identical or hospitable to ours. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept them or indulge them, but it does mean that understanding them is the starting point for successful policy.

I’ve learned that stability is not a static phenomenon. To borrow an analogy used by one of your very deserving award winners last night, both political systems and peace processes, like bicycles, tend to fall over if they’re not moving forward. I’ve learned that the Middle East has many good and decent people, who seek dignity and respect and a better life for their children, and a few great leaders, like the late King Hussein of Jordan, a man of uncommon courage and vision, who died shortly after I began my tenure as Ambassador in Amman more than a decade ago.

I’ve learned too that the Middle East is a region of deep discontents and powerful grievances, many of which roll to a rest, rightly or wrongly, at the doorstep of the United States.

I’ve learned that there is no substitute for determined American leadership in the Middle East, aimed squarely at addressing the problems at the core of some of those real or imagined grievances, and serving as a catalyst for making common cause with others. And I’ve learned that we must be clear not only about what we stand against, but also what we stand for.

In his speech in Cairo last June, President Obama spoke far more eloquently than I ever could about what American stands for in this new era. He called for “a new beginning … based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” We have been working hard, starting well before that historic speech, to translate the President’s compelling vision into practical policy, to begin the long, difficult process of turning rhetoric into results.

That is not easy. It never has been in the Middle East, a land where dreams are regularly shattered, where good intentions regularly run aground, and where pessimists rarely lack either company or validation. Progress means applying mutual interest in a way that builds on common ground wherever it exists, but doesn’t shy away from dealing plainly with our differences wherever it doesn’t.

It means translating mutual respect into an approach that doesn’t patronize or pretend to hold a monopoly on wisdom, that shows that listening is occasionally something other than an unnatural act for Americans – but that also shows no hesitation in speaking honestly to both our friends and our adversaries about the importance we attach to universal human rights. It means exercising our responsibility to lead, to set a good example, to help resolve regional conflicts, to help build coalitions in support of a new positive agenda. But it also means that others in the region and outside it must live up to their responsibilities, whether in upholding non-proliferation norms or taking risks for peace.

Progress is possible toward realizing the President’s vision, toward realizing a positive agenda for the Middle East. Such progress is the ultimate antidote to the fundamentally negative agenda of violent extremists, who are much better at describing what they want to destroy rather than what they want to build. America’s contribution to a positive agenda has many parts, and today I’ll highlight only a few of them. They include: building peace between Israelis and Arabs; supporting the emergence of a new Iraq, at peace with itself and its neighbors; dealing with the challenge of Iran; and building economic and political hope, in a region which for too long has known too little of either.

This is not an a la carte policy menu. We cannot successfully neglect one priority in the pursuit of others. Progress will inevitably be uneven, but it is important to connect the dots among issues, and pursue a comprehensive strategy. Let me touch briefly on each of the four priorities that I mentioned.

Building Peace Between Israelis and Arabs

If there’s one issue that should keep us humble, it is the elusive quest for Arab-Israeli peace. While not a magic solution to all the many ills of the region, no other issue cuts closer to the core of what drives emotions throughout much of the Middle East. It is a truism that the parties themselves must make the difficult decisions for peace, and it is an historical fact that most of the biggest breakthroughs, from Sadat in Jerusalem to the secret negotiations in Oslo, have come from the parties themselves. But persistent, hard-headed, day-in-and-day-out, high-level American engagement has also been a critical ingredient for success, from Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, to Jimmy Carter at Camp David, to Jim Baker on the road to Madrid.

It is exactly that realization that has animated the efforts of President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell, appointed as the President’s Special Envoy on the second day of the new Administration. Our goal is clear: two states living side by side in peace and security; a Jewish state of Israel, with which America retains unbreakable bonds, and with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, that ends the daily humiliations of Palestinians under occupation, and that realizes the full and remarkable potential of the Palestinian people.

Toward that end, as Secretary Clinton emphasized last week in the region, we seek to re-launch direct negotiations, without preconditions. That emphatically does not mean starting from scratch; it means building on previous agreements, resolving the core issues of the conflict, and settling it once and for all. At every step of this process, the United States will be an active and creative partner.

We seek to create the best possible circumstances for negotiations, working with the parties, working with key regional partners like Egypt, and the Quartet. We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements; we consider the Israeli offer to restrain settlement activity to be a potentially important step, but it obviously falls short of the continuing Roadmap obligation for a full settlement freeze. We seek to deepen international support for the Palestinian Authority’s impressive plan to build over the next couple years the institutions that a responsible Palestinian state requires. And we also seek progress toward peace between Israel and Syria, and Israel and Lebanon, as part of a broader peace among Israel and all of its neighbors.

I wish I could stand before you today and point to substantial progress toward those goals. I cannot. But what I can say is that the Administration’s commitment and determination are undiminished, and that we will continue to work hard to bring about the early resumption of negotiations, which is the only path to the two state solution on which so much depends, not only for the future of Israelis and Palestinians, but for the entire Middle East. Setbacks and complications are the common thread that runs through every effort at Middle East peace. We need to learn from them, but not be deterred by them. We have made limited headway – a shared understanding between the parties about a two state objective; a shared interest in moving back to the negotiating table; wide international backing for this process; steady progress, in the face of very difficult odds, toward shaping reliable Palestinian security organizations and governmental institutions in the West Bank. Now we need to bear down, move ahead, fulfill our responsibilities for leadership, and challenge every other party to fulfill theirs.

The Slow Path to a New Iraq

Let me turn quickly to a second crucial issue, Iraq. Iraqis have come a long way from the ugly sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. But their journey remains difficult and incomplete, as they work toward the goal we all seek – a sovereign, self-reliant and stable Iraq, at peace with its neighbors. Progress in Iraq is obvious on many fronts. Last Saturday, Iraq’s Council of Representatives passed a critically important elections law, paving the way for national elections in January. Prime Minister Maliki came to Washington last month to co-host an oversubscribed U.S.-Iraq business conference, which was followed by two major oil deals, a reminder of Iraq’s enormous economic potential. At the same time, however, terrorist violence is a persistent threat, a reminder of all the work still to be done. The fact that these attacks, including bloody car bombs in the heart of Baghdad, have not re-ignited sectarian conflicts or undermined the institutions of government is a testament to the will of the vast majority of Iraqis, who remain determined to build the normalcy that has so often been denied them in their tragic past.

The United States will continue to stand firmly with Iraq in this hugely important effort. We will fulfill scrupulously our security and strategic framework agreements, and have already begun the transition from a relationship focused on security issues to a civilian-led partnership increasingly based on cooperation in non-security areas, such as education, health and economic ties. Meanwhile, we continue to support Iraq’s reintegration into its neighborhood. Iraq is now an active member of the GCC Plus Three group, which brings it together with Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Iraq’s ties with Turkey have improved considerably in the last two years. Just last week, Egypt and Iraq launched a strategic cooperation framework similar to our own.

None of us are naïve about the problems that lie ahead for Iraq, and the United States will need to continue to focus intensive, high-level energy and attention on the future that Iraqis are trying to build for themselves. That future holds growing promise, and we would be foolish to lose sight of its significance.

The Challenge of Iran

A third challenge before us is the difficult question of Iran. As all of you know very well, this conference falls almost exactly thirty years after one of the most painful, and shameful, episodes in the often turbulent relationship between our two countries. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran deeply affected the lives of the courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage for some 14 months, and we owe each of them and their families an enormous debt of gratitude for their extraordinary service and sacrifice.

This anniversary is a vivid reminder that the hostility between our governments has cost both our nations dearly. To be sure, Iranians have their own list of grievances. But the question before us is whether we can move beyond this troubled past, and seek to ensure that the antagonisms and suspicions of our past do not define the future for America and Iran.

President Obama has made clear that the United States, for our part, wants to look ahead. We seek a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interest and mutual respect. We do not seek regime change. We have condemned terrorist attacks against Iran. We have recognized Iran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power. With our partners in the international community, we have demonstrated our willingness to take creative confidence-building steps, including our support for the IAEA’s offer of fuel for the Tehran research reactor. With our partners in the international community, we are ready for a serious dialogue with Iran about how it can resolve longstanding doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear ambitions, doubts only reinforced by the recent revelation of a clandestine enrichment facility near Qom. With our partners in the international community, we are ready to move with Iran along a pathway of cooperation, not confrontation, of integration, not animosity. But that depends squarely on the choices that Iran makes, on its willingness to meet its international obligations and responsibilities.

We have heard for thirty years what Iran is against; the question now is what kind of future it is for. Most Iranians today are too young to remember the hostage crisis. They seem eager to build a better future, to invest in their country’s education system and infrastructure, to connect with the rest of the world in ways that benefit us all, and to open the door to the opportunity, prosperity and justice that they deserve. We in the United States, along with the rest of the international community, continue to bear witness to their courageous pursuit of universal rights, in the face of appalling brutality, and the sad spectacle of show trials and mass arrests that dishonor Iran’s rich history and traditions. While we remain ready to engage the Iranian government on the urgent matter of its nuclear program, and on other matters of common concern, that does not mean that we will turn a blind eye to abuse, or compromise our principles. In Iran, as in any other country in the world, we will always be with those who seek peacefully to protect basic human rights.

We have before us an historic opportunity, but it won’t last forever. The talks that took place in Geneva last month were a constructive beginning. The tactics of recent weeks, however, have been far less encouraging, and we and our international partners are not interested in talking simply for the sake of talking. Too much is at stake, not only for Iran itself, but for a region hardly in need of more tensions or more arms races; for the credibility of the United Nations Security Council; and for the future of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is time for Iran to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or to move beyond it; whether it wants to dwell on familiar suspicions and imaginary external enemies, or make a positive choice about the role that it seeks to play in the world.

Building Economic and Political Hope

The Arab-Israeli peace process, Iraq and Iran all pose immense challenges, but equally important to long-term regional stability is home-grown modernization of economic and political institutions. The hard truth, as the Arab Human Development Report makes clear, is that much of the region continues to suffer from closed economic and political systems which produce too little diversification, too few jobs, too few outlets for peaceful political change, and too much intolerance.

With populations growing as fast as any in the world, and per capita water availability lower than anywhere else in the world, the economies of the Middle East remain vulnerable. We owe it to our friends in the region as well as ourselves to encourage further structural reforms to open up and diversify economies, stimulate private sector-led growth, improve transparency and fight corruption, and strengthen educational systems.

Greater economic openness cannot exist in a vacuum. Open economic systems ultimately require more open and accommodating political systems. Today, political structures in most of the region all too often serve to insulate governing elites from change, rather than to lead it. The voices of publics are all too often ignored, until raised to a shout. While we ought to be mindful of the limits of our influence, and of the limits of other people’s patience for us telling them what we think is best for them, we must continue to support efforts to open up avenues for democracy and political participation. How we deliver that message does matter, but whether to deliver it is not really an issue.

As President Obama has emphasized, and as Secretary Clinton discussed at length at the recent Forum for the Future meeting in Morocco, healthy relationships between America and the countries of the Middle East are about ties between societies, not just between governments. We have a long and painful history of mutual mistrust and misunderstanding to overcome across much of the region. We will not overcome such suspicion and hostility overnight, nor will neatly packaged public diplomacy be a substitute for compelling policies – and actual results – on issues that matter most to people in the Middle East. But we ought not to underestimate the importance of simple human contact, using tools ranging from exchanges and scholarships, to English-language teaching programs, science envoys, and cultural and sports diplomacy.


I realize that I am now perilously close to embodying Mark Twain’s model for public speaking, the talk them into submission approach. So let me conclude with a few comments that may seem blindingly obvious to all of you, but that bear repeating.

This is a hard time to be optimistic about the Middle East, or America’s role in it. Palestinians and Israelis seem stuck in patterns which do little good for either of them. Iraq faces formidable hurdles. Iran’s leadership seems capable of endless obfuscations. Economic and political systems across the region are often brittle and resistant to change. Most people manage to contain their enthusiasm for American prescriptions, and doubt in any case that results will follow our rhetoric.

None of that, it seems to me, is cause for despair. Of course the road ahead, for us and for our friends across the Middle East, is littered with problems. Of course it will be hard, full of roadblocks and potholes and dead ends. Of course we will fail at least as often as we succeed.

But I genuinely do believe that progress toward peace is possible between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israel and the wider Arab world. It will take strong nerves, persistence, and a willingness to take risks. Iraqis are also making fitful but unmistakable progress toward the stable, unified state that seemed unimaginable a few years ago. Unity amongst our international partners may yet have an impact on the calculus of the Iranian government. And societies in the Middle East are no more immune to the inexorable pull of economic and political openness than those in any other part of the world.

I suppose that makes me something of an optimist, at least by the standards of the Middle East. That reminds me of one of the many, characteristically fatalistic, Russian definitions of an optimist – “someone who thinks tomorrow will be better than the day after.” I actually have something a little different in mind. I suspect that tomorrow is going to be pretty complicated in the Middle East, with no shortage of troubles and frustrations. But I genuinely do believe that, with sustained and creative American leadership, a willingness from leaders in the region and outside it to take responsibility alongside us, and long-term investment in building economic and political hope across the Middle East, the day after tomorrow holds real and enduring promise.

Thank you.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.