Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

As we gather this evening we should count our good fortune in having two such dedicated leaders but it is within the tradition of the Woodrow Wilson School, which as you know is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Think for a moment what a feat of imagination it was to establish a new academic program dedicated to public service and internationalism in 1930. Our nation was sliding into the Great Depression, the world order of the 1920s, the first great era of globalization, was giving way to isolationism and aggression that led inexorably to World War II. But the school’s founders looked beyond the crises of the moment to the principles that they believed should guide America in the future. And they were right to do so. We cannot be fixated on the immediate without doing damage to the future. How best do we plan for that future, make the investments for the future — that’s what the founders of the Woodrow Wilson School were concerned about. We need that kind of vision and leadership with respect to world affairs today.

This, of course, is not 1930. This is a time of tremendous global dynamism: economic, as technology transforms the way we do business everywhere; political, as more and more people choose their own governments; social, as societies come to terms with very rapid and sometimes threatening change. We need today what the Woodrow Wilson School’s founders had 75 years ago: the ability to hold fast to our core principles and to rise with new solutions to the challenges of our time. We need the founders’ understanding that a stronger America comes from strengthened bonds with other nations and we need something else the Wilson School has always had: a commitment to competence and common sense over ideology and partisanship. We need this new vision and leadership for America’s leadership. We cannot lead the rest of the world if we do not have a vision of where we are headed and if we do not summon our leadership, not just based on our military strength, but on the strength of our values and our ideals as well. We need new vision and leadership in the global fight against terrorism.

Instead, we are still drawing lines on Homeland Security Department organization charts. We need, instead, to build lines of defense and alliances against terrorist groups overseas. We need new vision and leadership in the struggle to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of rogue states and terrorists. Instead, we have outsourced over the last five years our policies with respect to North Korea and Iran, and we have missed opportunity after opportunity to buy or dismantle nuclear materials that the Russians and others still have. We need new vision and leadership in the domestic and global economy. Instead of piling up historic levels of debt and ceding fiscal sovereignty to foreign capitals and foreign bankers, we need to restore fiscal responsibility, regain that fiscal sovereignty which gives us leverage with the rest of the world.

“We need to reverse the decline in funding for scientific research and promote science, math, engineering, and technology education. If we want to keep America powerful, we have to keep the strength of American production and American intellectual property.”

We need to reverse the decline in funding for scientific research and promote science, math, engineering, and technology education. If we want to keep America powerful, we have to keep the strength of American production and American intellectual property. We need new vision and leadership on energy policy instead of an energy policy that provides more and more tax subsides to oil companies whose profits have soared exponentially. We need, once again, to be a country committed to a great and grand goal — a Manhattan or Apollo project that helps us pioneer the cleaner and cheaper forms of energy and conservation, and recognizes our responsibility to help stem global warming.

We need new vision and leadership in dealing with so many parts of the world. In Latin America, poverty and inequalities are putting democracy’s promise in doubt. In Africa, where the administration put forward a big new aid program and never really funded it, we need to redouble our commitment. In Asia, we have to face squarely the competition that we will have with China — hopefully in a peaceful way that will maximize their development and create centers of stability in the world. And we have to have greater cooperation, creating new international alliances, treaties and conventions to deal with the challenges and dangers that confront the entire world, whether it be a potential pandemic such as bird flu, the continuing spread of diseases like HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, or so many of the others that we read about on a daily basis.

Perhaps nowhere is the need for that leadership and vision greater than in the Middle East. Princeton scholars will be writing for years on the implications of the events of the last weeks and the weeks to come. I will not try to pre-empt that historical analysis tonight. Instead, I want to talk about the values that should govern America’s engagement in the Middle East and then how we can succeed – or fail – at putting those values into action.

The values are straightforward, shared by most Americans whether they have spent a lifetime studying the region or, like most of us, learning about it through the headlines or in some personal experience. They include our enduring friendship with Israel, our firm commitment to the security and well-being of our own people, our friends and our allies, and a belief that dreams of democracy and human rights are ones that America can and must help make real.

“The security and freedom of Israel must be decisive and remain at the core of any American approach to the Middle East. This has been a hallmark of American foreign policy for more than 50 years and we must not — dare not — waver from this commitment.”

The security and freedom of Israel must be decisive and remain at the core of any American approach to the Middle East. This has been a hallmark of American foreign policy for more than 50 years and we must not — dare not — waver from this commitment. As President Truman first recognized, this commitment was forged by the horrors of the Holocaust, but it has endured because of the strength of the unique relationship between the American and Israeli peoples. A relationship based on shared values that predate either of our nations, values that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, values that respect the dignity and rights of human beings.

Like many, I’ve thought about this a great deal recently. I know that many of us have sent our prayers to Prime Minister Sharon and his family as he fights to recover from a stroke, a devastating stroke. But how many democracies could carry on so steadily with such an important election campaign at such a time? And how many of any non-democratic regimes could continue? When the history of this period is written, I believe Prime Minister Sharon will be remembered for his life-long commitment to Israel’s security and his own remarkable journey that led him to the conclusion that Israel would be best served by creating the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the separation of the Israelis from the Palestinians. But we will also remember and admire the strength and stability of the state of Israel and its people at such a challenging time.

More broadly, human freedom and the quest for individuals to achieve their god-given potential must be at the heart of American approaches across the region. The dream of democracy and human rights is one that should belong to all people in the Middle East and across the world. Everyone who suffers under an oppressive regime, everyone whose future is stunted by ideology or religious fanaticism — every single man, woman and child deserves our support in the conviction that they too can have a future of freedom and prosperity.

There is no racial, religious, cultural or other barrier that prevents people from dreaming of and even craving individual freedom. This is something that Americans across the political spectrum agree on. That we must stand on the side of democracy wherever we can help it take hold, not just with speeches but with support that helps real people take charge of their own lives. Now that is not always easy to do. And we have not always lived up to our own values. But we have a history of continuing and trying to do so.

One of the keys to help people in the Middle East move in the direction of greater freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights involves the very simple but profound recognition of the humanity and dignity and the capacity of girls and women; or as we used to say way back in the 20th century, “Women’s rights are human rights.”

One of the keys to help people in the Middle East move in the direction of greater freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights involves the very simple but profound recognition of the humanity and dignity and the capacity of girls and women; or as we used to say way back in the 20th century, “Women’s rights are human rights.” I remember speaking out against the mistreatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s. It wasn’t an issue that demanded a lot of attention in our country because it seemed so far away and even disconnected from the everyday concerns of Americans. But that particular country, serving as a haven, which it did, for al Qaeda and the Taliban, struck at us with fury and hatred. And part of the ideology behind that fury and hatred is a belief in the inferiority of women.

So it gives me great personal satisfaction to see how far women have come, including a woman being a top vote-getter in the recent Afghanistan election — a remarkable feat — and yet I have no illusions about how difficult the road ahead lies for the people of Afghanistan and I hope and pray that America does not walk away from this commitment prematurely. Elsewhere, women have gained the right to vote — in Kuwait, in Bahrain. Morocco has given women equal rights in family law, and women of every faith and ethnicity have braved frightening conditions in Iraq to be leaders, activists, candidates, teachers.

Even in Saudi Arabia there have been the stirrings of change. More than a year ago, my husband spoke to a business conference in Saudi Arabia and at his insistence he wouldn’t come if women weren’t invited. And they were, for the first time, but they were segregated by barriers from the men. And when Bill spoke candidly about the importance of giving women more rights in Saudi Arabia, he was greeted with a burst of applause from the women’s side of the room. There were a few brave souls joining in on the men’s side. But then a year later, there were elections — chamber of commerce elections but nevertheless elections — where women for the very first time ran as candidates.

These are values that we as Americans must continue to support and advocate for. But as we turn to the region’s immediate and pressing challenges, we have to be conscious of the humility that is necessary in the exercise of power. We can agree on our values — democracy, freedom, women’s rights — we can agree on our goals – that America has a role to play in furthering that vision – but we have to approach that enterprise with humility and we have to be willing to analyze and hold accountable the policies that we pursue. It will not further our common goals or our American ideals if we veer from evidence-based decision-making, substituting instead ideology and arrogance. Any discussion of the Middle East, or really any part of the world, requires that Americans educate ourselves and understand the cultures with which we are dealing in order to be successful in advocating for these common goals and values.

Nowhere is that more important than in the greater Middle East, and particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. When I was last in Israel in November, I met with the prime minister and I expressed strong support for the leadership that he and his government showed in the very difficult disengagement from Gaza. After my visit in November, Prime Minister Sharon took another courageous step by creating a new centrist political party, Kadima. Just this morning I met with Shimon Peres, another of Israel’s founding leaders, and one of the issues I discussed with him was not only the upcoming Palestinian and Israeli elections, but also the need to provide economic opportunity for the Palestinians, to help raise their standard of living, to give them some belief in the future so they do not fall prey to the blandishments of the extremists.

In the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal, there was hope that further progress could be made in the future in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But of course the Israeli withdrawal is only one part of the equation. I also met with the Israeli defense minister and the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff. They both expressed great concern over whether the Palestinian leadership would be willing and able to crack down on terror. Unless and until the Palestinians assume responsibility for policing Gaza, for ending terror and providing meaningful governance, a peaceful solution will be difficult if not impossible. The Palestinian people are well known throughout the Diaspora for their success; academics and business leaders, professionals of all kinds. And the Palestinian people deserve a better future — to recognize how damaging the terror has been for them and to accept responsibility for ending it must be a first step, to show that they are capable of removing the power of the terrorism in their midst and cracking down on the suicide bombers and engaging in a meaningful dialogue with Israel.

Unless and until the Palestinians assume responsibility for policing Gaza, for ending terror and providing meaningful governance, a peaceful solution will be difficult if not impossible.

The elections to be held by the Palestinians will, in the best case, lead to the emergence of a responsible, capable leadership that can rise to these security challenges. That is really what is on the ballot: whether or not the Palestinians are capable of creating an effective government and moving away from explicit and implicit support for terrorism and forward, toward peace and stability. What is not on a ballot, and cannot be put into question, is Israel’s right to exist and exist in safety.

These two elections in Israel and among the Palestinian are turning points. No more excuses for the Palestinians. They have to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally their commitment to a peaceful future and they have to also demonstrate their ability to deliver services to their people. Now the rest of the world stands ready to help. There is capital waiting to invest in Gaza. There are economic opportunities coming from Europe, the Middle East, United States, and Asia. But no one will invest in a place where kidnappings are becoming more common, where tribal feuds have taken over daily commerce, and if we can send one clear message to the current Palestinian leadership, it must be that it is in their interest — not in Israel’s interest, not in America’s interest, but in the Palestinian’s interest — to begin to govern and take responsibility as any government must.

It’s especially important because this has been and remains a dangerous neighborhood. Instability in Lebanon. Problems in Syria. Terrorist attacks in Jordan. Dissent in Egypt. And, of course, Iran and Iraq.

The new president of Iran has made a series of incendiary, outrageous comments, questioning the Holocaust, calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, even hoping for the death of Ariel Sharon. Now he is moving to create his own new nuclear reality in line with his despicable rewriting of history. He has walked away from international negotiations with Europe. He has announced Iran’s intentions to defy the United Nations and broken the seals on nuclear facilities to resume the enrichment of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.

A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbors and beyond. The regime’s pro-terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric only underscores the urgency of the threat it poses. U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal.

I believe that we lost critical time in dealing with Iran because the White House chose to downplay the threats and to outsource the negotiations. I don’t believe you face threats like Iran or North Korea by outsourcing it to others and standing on the sidelines. But let’s be clear about the threat we face now: A nuclear Iran is a danger to Israel, to its neighbors and beyond. The regime’s pro-terrorist, anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric only underscores the urgency of the threat it poses. U.S. policy must be clear and unequivocal. We cannot and should not — must not — permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. In order to prevent that from occurring, we must have more support vigorously and publicly expressed by China and Russia, and we must move as quickly as feasible for sanctions in the United Nations. And we cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran — that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.

Part of the problem that we confront with Iran today is, of course, its involvement in and influence over Iraq. We continue to lose brave young men and women nearly every day in Iraq. It was my honor to visit our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have met with them and their families all over New York, at Fort Drum, in New York City, at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and I know how brave and committed they are to their mission while they are fighting in extremely difficult circumstances. As I have said before, there are no quick, no easy solutions to the situation we find ourselves in today. The long and drawn-out conflict this administration triggered consumes a billion dollars a week, involves 150,000 American troops, has cost thousands of American lives and many seriously injured returning American service members.

I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end, nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately. If last December’s elections lead to a successful Iraqi government, that should allow us to start drawing down our troops during this year while leaving behind a smaller contingent in safe areas with greater intelligence and quick-strike capabilities. This will help us stabilize that new Iraqi government. It will send a message to Iran that they do not have a free hand in Iraq despite their considerable influence and personal and religious connections there. It will also send a message to Israel and our other allies, like Jordan, that we will continue to do what we can to provide the stability necessary to prevent the terrorists from getting any further foothold than they currently have.

One cannot look at the Middle East today and not believe that there has been progress against great odds. Former sworn enemies of Israel are recognizing its existence, are even talking about ways of increasing trade, commerce and diplomatic relations. The unilateral disengagement from Gaza changed the map and created a new presumption about who was responsible for the future well-being of the people of Gaza. The current leadership of the Palestinians has been rhetorically quite supportive of the relationship with Israel and the hope that there could be a renewed peace process. But words alone are insufficient. And it is tragic that with all of the talent and the ability of the Palestinian people, it was so stunted for so long; that creating the leadership necessary to lead this future has been very hard to find.

The United States plays the central role as the guarantor of Israel’s security, but also of the guarantor of a better future for the Palestinians – if they will join in creating a stable, peaceful situation. In Danny Abraham’s book, Peace Is Possible, he goes into great detail about his personal contacts with generations of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He comes out of that as an optimist. He comes out of all the disappointment and the heartbreak, the rejection, the stupidity, that so often marks the actions that are taken, the evil, the hatred; he comes out of all of that with optimism. He does so because he has an overwhelming belief in the importance of peace; for the state of Israel which he loves and has devoted so much of his life serving, but also for the Palestinians, who he has also grown to love.

Optimism, some believe, is a peculiarly American virtue. That we, by dint of belief in the face of nearly any calamity, find some reason to be optimistic. I used to think, when I was first lady, that the complaint about Americans having no sense of their history may have been misplaced. Yes, of course we’re doomed to create it but it also gives grounds for optimism if you have no idea what happened before. I remember so many times having the obligatory first lady tea with the spouse of leaders from so many countries and talking about matters of mutual interest but on several occasions, when I would say just to make conversation, “Well, how are things in fill-in-the-blank,” the country of the woman I was with; “And how are things?” I sometimes got a conversation that began in the 10th century. “Ever since the Crusades, it’s never been the same.”

History can be like a yoke around a people’s neck. History can blind you to the possibilities that lie ahead if you’re just able to break free and take that step. History has weighed heavily on the Middle East. What we have tried to do over the last 30 years, starting with President Carter, moving through other presidents, including my husband, now this president, is to send a uniquely American message: It can get better, just get over it. Make a decision for hope, make a decision for peace. Create a new reality.

We are criticized for that attitude because to many it seems naïve, dangerously so. That’s why we have to combine that optimism, that idealism, with a strong strain of realism. It is not idealism or realism as some of the foreign policy commentators would have you believe: “You cannot be one and the other; you must choose.” That’s not the world we live in. That is not how America has been successful. We have a duty to combine both. The idealistic aspirations that we hold out for all people, with realistic assessment of how best we can contribute to the journey they must make on their own to realize that for themselves.

The question for the United States, and the question for the people of goodwill in the Middle East as well, is whether at this moment of great challenge and peril, we are able to look at those core values and move forward with hope and optimism. Sometimes it is easier, or at least it seems easier, to grab hold of our fears and stay right where we are, dug in, immovable. But the history of the Woodrow Wilson School, founded on the best of what was right for America at a moment when so much seemed to be going wrong for America, reminds us there is a better way. President Woodrow Wilson, one of the best reasons to be a Princeton fan, once said that “America lives in every heart of every man, everywhere, who wishes to find a region where he will be free to work out his destiny as he chooses.” Daniel Kurtzer and Danny Abraham know exactly what President Wilson meant. For 75 years now, the Wilson School has been training men and women to help keep that America alive and strong at home, and strengthen that flame of freedom wherever it burns, or could burn, around the world.

I believe that the Abraham chair and its first occupant will do much to help build a new generation of scholars, leaders and peacemakers, who share those strong values and combine them with smart, pragmatic, realistic leadership skills. The Middle East and the United States have never needed both more. I look forward to seeing the fruits of your labors here at this school with this new chair.

I thank you for coming out tonight in the midst of finals. I don’t mind at all being an excuse for procrastination, but I can’t keep going too much longer without fear of being blamed for whatever may befall you if you do not go back and study.

So let me thank you again for the great honor of being with you tonight. Thank you all very much.

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