Park East Synagogue
New York, N.Y.
March 31, 2004 Remarks as prepared for delivery
I am always happy to be here at Park East Synagogue, to my shul. I am especially happy given the circumstances: to help launch Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs.
I want to salute Yeshiva and its president, Richard Joel, for its good judgment twice over: first, for establishing an interdisciplinary center that will bring together faculty and both undergraduate and graduate students from diverse intellectual backgrounds to study and discuss some of the fundamental issues of the day. Your timing could hardly be better. This is a moment of great promise and peril alike for Americans and for the United States, and we need to prepare a new generation that understands and is tooled to address the challenges of living in this global world of ours.
I also though want to compliment Yeshiva for its good judgment in naming this international center for Arthur Schneier. We live in an age when, for better and for worse, religion and politics intersect. Alas, in many cases it is for worse. But in Arthur’s case, it is for the better, clearly. He has done a great, great deal to persuade religious leaders of all faiths to use their voices and their influence to promote tolerance and non-violence. Arthur is living proof that you don’t need to be in government or be a country to make an important and positive difference in this world.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one more thing. Arthur and Elisabeth have been cherished friends of the Haass family for many years now. Tonight provides me a small way of saying thank you for their generosity and kindness.
My subject tonight is the greater Middle East, the swath of real estate and peoples stretching from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan or even Pakistan in the east. Let me highlight some major themes before I tackle your questions, comments, and, I would bet, criticisms.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this part of the world, one which encompasses the Arab world, Israel, and other mostly Muslim countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
The greater Middle East is a historic area of great symbolic import. It has been and will remain the leading source of the oil and natural gas that powers the world economy.
But the greater Middle East is also important for what you might describe as negative reasons, namely, as a region closely connected to terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
This region has been at the center of a good deal of recent history. It was a key battleground during World War II, a major arena of Cold War competition, a major source of instability for the post-Cold War world.
This region is also difficult to understand, to get a handle on, given all its complexity and change and history. As a result, I find it useful to fall back on something I learned in college, back in the era of science requirements, when I took geology or, as it was better-known, rocks for jocks.
The image I find most useful to appreciate the greater Middle East is that of a complex geological formation, one defined by multiple fault lines. More specifically, I see a considerable number of fault lines: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq; Iran; Israel-Palestine; and the fault line that lies within the Arab world, one that stems from its struggle to modernize.
As in geology, instability or quakes along any fault line is dangerous in itself and can trigger so-called sympathetic tremors or worse along other fault lines.
Given time constraints, I want to focus this evening on a few of these fault lines. I will begin with Iraq, for several decades under Saddam and the Baath a major threat to the region and to its own people. Saddam started two large wars and used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraq’s own Kurds.
The Clinton administration was the first to set regime change as a goal of American foreign policy, and the Bush administration carried it out in the aftermath of 9/11. The current administration decided it was no longer willing to live with the uncertainty inherent in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction capabilities/intentions and the possibility that Iraq might either use or transfer weapons of mass destruction to another state or terrorist group.
The result was war, a year ago this month; I am well aware this is and remains a matter of some controversy, both as regards whether it was necessary and whether it was wise to go to war. I am also well aware it is a matter of some controversy as to whether we are better off for it.
My purpose here tonight is not to try to settle these controversies. My point is a different one, namely, that wherever you come out on these debates, everyone should be able to agree on the importance of getting Iraq right from this point on.
By “right” I mean a country which is relatively stable, relatively open politically and economically, one that does not become a failed state or a new source of instability to the region.
This will not just happen by itself. It is essential that the United States not get impatient or lose heart in the face of inevitable human and military and economic costs. Failure would not simply create problems for the future of Iraq and the region, but would encourage anti-American forces everywhere to take us on in the hope that we would withdraw as soon as the costs mounted.
The good news is that failure is anything but inevitable. To be sure, there have been setbacks and there will be setbacks to come. And there are multiple challenges: in creating conditions of security, in promoting Iraq’s economic revival, in fostering political consensus.
But there is also progress to report – in securing much of the country, in training Iraqi police and military forces, in helping Iraqis agree on a remarkable interim constitution.
Now the task is to work with Iraqis and the U.N. and the international community more generally to see that the June 30 handover of sovereignty goes smoothly, that elections are held early in 2005 for a new government, and that the core of the interim constitution— the Transitional Administrative Law— becomes permanent.
I cannot tell you that we will succeed; my crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else’s. What I can say, though, is that the United States needs to do everything possible to succeed. Iraq is one of the most important countries in this important region; its future will inevitably affect the futures of its neighbors and beyond.
Iran is a second fault line…and also an important country in and for this region. What concerns me and others most is Iran’s support for groups engaged in terror and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, above all nuclear weapons. Iran has for years supported such groups as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. It is reportedly harboring some elements of al-Qaeda. It has been hostile to Israel and worked against the Middle East peace process.
As for weapons of mass destruction, it is now clear that Iran is more committed to developing a nuclear weapons option than had been understood. We now know Iran possesses uranium enrichment programs and a heavy water production plant.
I do not believe that these or other problems to be found in Iran will be solved by a change of regime in Iran. I do not believe such a change is either imminent or likely…and even if it were to occur, I am not persuaded that a successor Iranian regime would eschew nuclear weapons.
As a result, my own view is that the United States needs to use diplomacy in the first instance (as was done with Libya) to pressure the Iranians to change their ways. We need to do this in close cooperation with Europe and Russia and others, and we need to make clear what sorts of Iranian behavior (such as ratifying the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] additional protocol and permitting more intrusive inspections) will meet with political and economic benefits and what sorts of behavior will meet with sanctions and potentially other penalties.
The third fault line is also one of major concern to many here this evening, namely, the relationship between Israel and the Arab world and with the Palestinians in particular.
Let me begin by stating what should be an obvious point: no one involved benefits from the current state of affairs. Actually, everyone involved pays a large price: this includes Israel, Palestinians, and the United States.
I do believe too that everyone involved would benefit in particular from the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. Palestinians would obviously benefit from controlling the bulk of their own affairs. But a political settlement would also be good for Israel. We all want Israel to be a secure, Jewish, democratic, prosperous state. In my view Israel will not live up to its potential so long as the status quo persists. And a political settlement would be beneficial for the United States. Progress would remove a significant source of anti-Americanism, not just in the region, but in Europe and beyond.
History suggests that the preferred path is through negotiations between the parties themselves. It is important to recall here that negotiations between Israelis and Arabs have succeeded in the past and have left all parties better off for it.
The situation now is that many in Israel have concluded that no acceptable Palestinian partner exists. The result is that Israel’s government has embraced an approach of unilateral disengagement, that it will withdraw from Gaza and limited areas of the West Bank.
This policy need not be seen as inconsistent with the road map, which calls for a Palestinian state with provisional borders. The risk, of course, is that unilateral withdrawal can and will be interpreted by some as a sign of weakness. This could well bolster some of the most radical forces among the Palestinians. Also a risk is that the resulting political space will be filled by these forces.
I would suggest three things. First, any unilateral action by Israel needs to be tightly coordinated with the Palestinians and Arab governments so that handoff does not create vacuums filled by the most radical.
Second, unilateral action should not be undertaken in a manner that would make negotiations more difficult. Thus, any physical barrier erected to frustrate terrorism should follow as closely as possible the 1967 lines – and where they depart (e.g., to embrace the three principal settlement blocs) – it should be made clear that Palestinians will be compensated as part of future negotiations.
Third, Israel and the United States should not see unilateralism as anything more than a temporary and arguably necessary expedient…and that it be replaced as soon as possible by the negotiation of phase 3 of the road map— a negotiation that can only be expected to bear fruit when the Palestinian leadership demonstrates it is doing all it can to end terrorism and incitement.
Let me now turn to the fourth and last of the fault lines I’ve chosen to focus on this evening, the internal situation in the Arab world. A number of studies, including some by Arab intellectuals, has shown that this region lags much of the rest of the world when it comes to the degree of democratization and economic development.
What we learned on 9/11 is that all this is not just their problem. It is our’s as well. Young men and women, who constitute the bulk of their societies, who receive terrible educations, who have little political say or freedom of expression, who have no real skills for getting a job – not surprisingly these young people often end up alienated and frustrated, and are all too vulnerable to being recruited by extremists and terrorists. It is thus very much in our interest that these countries and societies embark on a path of meaningful reform: political, economic, educational, social.
We should be careful not to confuse elections with democracy. What makes democracies unique are not elections, but rather constitutions that create checks and balances within governments and place limits on what governments can do. There must be a diffusion of authority throughout society. The rights of all citizens, including girls and women, need to be protected.
Real opportunity for reform exists. These issues are being debated with increasing frequency and openness. There are interesting experiments taking place in some of the smaller Gulf states, in Morocco, and in Jordan. There is the Alexandria document. Even the recent failure to hold an Arab summit on this subject reveals the intensity of the debate in the region. To use another metaphor drawn from the world of geology, the tectonic plates of this part of the world are moving.
Americans and Europeans and others with experience with open societies and markets can play a role here. But they must do it with great care. Reform should be gradual. The west cannot export specific models; indeed, modernization will only take if it gains internal supporters. In short, change can be encouraged and facilitated, but not imposed, from the outside.
Let me turn to something I noted at the outset: that what happens along one fault line in the greater Middle East can and will affect the others. Progress in Iraq, for example, will help promote reform elsewhere in the region and help counter terrorism. Progress with Iran will help reduce terror and frustrate proliferation…and help us achieve our aims in both Afghanistan and Iraq, two places where Iran enjoys great influence.
It is true, too, that U.S. ability to play a leading role in promoting reform will be enhanced by progress in Iraq and by the perception that it is playing an active and principled hand vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. And it is also true that the emergence of more democratic governments should enhance the chances for peace throughout the region.
What also emerges from this overview is that the greater Middle East remains a deeply troubled region, one in the early stages of a difficult yet essential transition. Facilitating this process of modernization is likely to remain “a” if not “the” largest foreign policy challenge facing the United States for years and possibly decades to come. In so doing, we must confront old regional disputes but also newer, pressing problems of terror and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The United States will need to be involved for the long haul; there are no quick fixes to be found. We will need to use all of our tools – not just the military, but also diplomatic, intelligence, and the economic, including aid and trade. We will need to be sensitive to local traditions, history, and culture. And we will need to work with others – with Europe, Russia, Japan, the U.N., the local governments, and people themselves. There are no unilateral answers here.
All of this provides more than a little purpose, more than a little rationale, for the Schneier Center at Yeshiva. I wish you well in tackling these issues. Your and our futures depend on it.