U.S. Department of State
95/10/20 Remarks: Robert Pelletreau on the Middle East
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
by Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Foundation for Democratization and Political Liberalization
in the Middle East
October 20, 1995
POLITICAL REFORM in the Middle East:
Thank you for that introduction. I appreciate the invitation to speak before you today. I see many familiar faces, and I know from Dan that you are a serious audience with a deep knowledge of Middle East politics. I look forward to learning from you through your questions and comments.
As we look out over the world today, the spread and development of democracy is, without doubt, the biggest political story. In Europe, Latin America and Asia, democracy is on the march, spreading from country to country. Today in the Western Hemisphere, for example, every nation but one has a freely elected government and a market economy. South Africa has become a multiracial democracy. The former Soviet Union has taken clear if troubled steps toward the rule of the people. In Europe, the fastest growing economies are those Eastern nations that moved most decisively toward economic and political reform. The flourishing of open societies and open markets is lifting the lives of hundreds of millions of people. As Ghassan Salame asks in the introduction to his recent collection, Democracy Without Democrats?, is not representative democracy becoming the new universalism?
Elections have become an indispensable part of peacemaking in the 1990s. In Cambodia, in Haiti, in the recently concluded Palestinian-Israeli Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza, elections have been seen and accepted as an essential element of the agreements that were reached, a way for the people to validate the results of agreements and confer legitimacy on their leaders. They are a vital tool of conflict resolution and will be a major ingredient of the peace talks on Bosnia when they convene here in this country at the end of the month.
The United States welcomes these momentous changes and feels a measure of pride for having contributed to them. The development of democracy and human rights--for the two go together--has been and remains central to U.S. foreign policy.
America's commitment to democratic enlargement is based on more than principle. It also rests on a hard-headed assessment of our long-term interests. Briefly put, we know that democracies are less likely to go to war, less likely to traffic in terrorism, more likely to stand against the forces of hatred and intolerance and organized destruction. We also know that removing the heavy hand of bureaucracy and opening up national economies within and across borders fosters the sort of economic growth that underpins regional peace and security.
We must all be aware of the severe costs that repression and authoritarianism impose on the world. In this century, the number of people killed by their own governments under
authoritarian regimes is four times the number killed in all the wars on the planet. Repression and persecution have pushed refugees across borders, creating problems for neighboring countries and the international community. The point is that governments that disregard the rights of their own citizens are not likely to respect the rights of people in other countries. The record shows that they are more likely to clash with their neighbors, wreak environmental destruction and violate international law.
For all of these reasons, the Clinton Administration is committed to help countries make the arduous transition from authoritarianism to freedom, and to work to create institutions that will make leaders accountable and responsive to their peoples' aspirations.
Limited Openings in the Middle East
The Middle East presents unique challenges to the growth and acceptance of democratic principles. In all too many cases, authoritarian regimes have blocked the path to free elections, impeded freedom of speech and association, and undermined respect for basic human rights. Yet, so great is the appeal and legitimizing effect of democracy as a form of government that even the most authoritarian leaders like to proclaim themselves to be "democrats" and their governments as democratically chosen.
Regional conflict and instability also have been contributing factors to the limited political openings. For much of the past five decades, the Middle East has been embroiled in conflict and turmoil. There have been six major regional wars during this period, as well as numerous internal armed conflicts. Many nations have remained on a war-footing, diverting resources from economic development projects to sustain an outsized defense and security apparatus. Mental energies have been diverted from the political project of democracy. The threat of conflict has been wielded by autocratic governments as an excuse to suppress domestic opposition and stifle free expression.
Regional instability is not the only excuse or the only obstacle. Across the Middle East, those who embrace democratic ideals are often squeezed between radical forces with an extremist agenda and besieged state authorities bent on preserving their rule. In this highly- polarized environment, it has been difficult for democratic reformists to find common ground and organize as an effective political force. Nevertheless, we hear their voices and we salute them.
The situation is particularly grim in Iraq and Libya. These outlaw states illustrate the general point I made earlier: regimes which threaten their citizens' democratic rights also threaten other regimes and peoples. Acting without accountability, their leaders have poured their national treasure into militarization and efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction--biological, chemical, and nuclear. Although the drive to acquire such horrific weapons was largely designed to attack other states and peoples, Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons on his own people in northern Iraq showed that the line between domestic and international violence of despots is blurred.
Yet it would be wrong to suggest that all is dark in the Middle East. There are encouraging signs of change in several places. There have been significant political openings and elections in Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen. Old taboos against speaking out on political issues are being worn down through satire, theater, and the media in Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere. In Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, rulers have appointed consultative councils to provide an avenue for broader participation. To be sure, progress has been uneven, but the worldwide spread of democratic ideas has important echoes in the Middle East.
This has been particularly true with respect to Palestinian elections which we expect to take place early next year. Palestinian thinking has come a long way since I first raised the subject of elections during the early days of our dialogue with the PLO in Tunis. The PLO was adamant in those days in considering any sort of elections as a dark scheme to create an alternate leadership. In an effort to open their thinking, we asked hypothetically how they would react to elections for PNC members. Yasser Abd Rabbo recognized some possibilities here and it led to a tentative yet encouraging discussion of the whole concept.
The agreement that was signed at the White House on September 28 contains detailed provisions for the holding of elections. Article II begins with this language:
"In order that the Palestinian people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may govern themselves according to democratic principles, direct, free and general political elections will be held for the Council and the Ra'ees of the Executive Authority of the Council in accordance with the provisions set out in the Protocol concerning Elections attached as Annex II to this Agreement.
"These elections will constitute a significant interim preparatory step towards the realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements and will provide a democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian institutions."
There is not time here to review the provisions of the Annex which runs for nineteen pages but scholars among you will find it a fascinating document.
Nascent Civil Society
There is a firm basis for expanding civil society in the Middle East today. For example, there are independent human rights organizations in many countries, a phenomenon that seemed only a distant dream when the Arab Organization for Human Rights was first established in 1984. The political environment at that time was so inhospitable that the AOHR was forced to hold its founding meeting in Limassol. Cyprus. The environment for human rights groups is still difficult; nevertheless, they have established a foothold and are growing, thanks to the courage and commitment of brave citizens in many Middle Eastern countries who believe they can make a difference.
The same could be said for the region's "think tanks" and research organizations. Ten years ago, few Middle Eastern governments felt confident enough to allow such organizations to come into existence. Today, however, many of these same governments find that these groups provide indispensable economic and social research, including public opinion polling. Research activity has moved out of the bureaucracy and into civil society.
Still other private groups seeking economic reform, and the integration of their countries into the world economy, have emerged. The Egyptian- American Chamber of Commerce, founded in the early 1980s, comes to mind. Across the region, we see evidence of an unfolding civil society in the activities of women's movements, professional and labor groups, and grassroots self-help organizations, both religious and secular.
One may argue that these "reformist" groups have scant effect on the public policies in their countries. I would disagree. In almost every case, they represent a form of citizen involvement and participation in the broader issues of society. This is true of religious, professional and cultural associations. It is true of youth and sporting clubs, welfare associations and chambers of commerce. Beneath the surface of today's headlines in the Middle East, civil society is slowly gaining strength and with it, the prospects for broader political participation and more open democracy.
What Role for the United States
What can or should the United States do to help improve the climate for political liberalization in the Middle East? Three principles drive our efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere.
o First, making human rights an element of our dialogue with governments and others in the region.
o Second, working with governments and others on practical measures to foster greater political openness, press freedom, political participation, civil society and free enterprise economic development, and to combat extremism and terror.
o Third, striving to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process and regional security.
Every year, our Congress requires that the State Department prepare reports on human rights in each country in the world, including the Middle East. These reports shine a bright light on human rights violations that might otherwise be shielded from public view. They provide a frank assessment of human rights problems and prospects that meet stringent standards. These reports have acquired a worldwide reputation for accuracy and fairness. We put a lot of effort into them and into making sure they are factual and objective. International human rights organizations draw extensively on them in making their independent assessments. They frequently form the basis for productive discussion, not only with local human rights groups or critics of the governments concerned, but also with Ministers of Interior and Justice, members of the law enforcement and judicial systems, even Kings and Presidents.
America's commitment to democracy has a programmatic dimension as well. A wide range of programs sponsored by U.S. government agencies foster broader political participation and strengthen the institutions of civil society in ways that promote democracy.
For example, USIA frequently sponsors visits of U.S. specialists on political parties, national assemblies, electoral procedures, and political campaigning.
We also sponsor visits to the U.S. of members of Middle Eastern parliaments and consultative assemblies to meet with members of Congress and their staffs and familiarize themselves with our form of representative government including the importance of constituency services and drafting and reviewing legislation.
We have undertaken a sizable program with the Palestinians to promote democratic institutions and a civilian political culture. We will be participating in the international observation delegation for next year's Palestinian elections. We are also managing a several million dollar set of programs to support dispute resolution, the rule of law, legal infrastructure, training for judges, criminal justice, and commercial law reform. We have, for example, funded an overall assessment of Palestinian criminal and civil procedures and a project on criminal justice.
One imaginative type of program to promote the rule of law involves putting on moot court trials for local bar associations, prosecutors and judicial institutes in which women as well as men act as lawyers and judges, evidence is tested through skillful cross-examination, and the unreliability of confessions as evidence is emphasized. Another program provides training to young journalists in investigative reporting.
Our steadfast commitment to peace and security in the Middle East -- to securing a just, lasting, secure and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict -- has been a cornerstone of American foreign policy for four decades and is relevant to a discussion of democracy. In addition, we seek to contain those states and organizations which promote or support extremism--religious or secular-- and which threaten their neighbors. Peace and security are the essential conditions under which democracy and responsive government can flourish.
A Sustained Commitment
The challenge of democracy in the Middle East and how the U.S. as a government can best contribute to advancing democratic principles needs to be viewed in the context of other priorities which we have as a nation in this turbulent region. These include:
-- Securing comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors;
-- Maintaining our commitment to Israel's security and well-being;
-- Assuring stability in the Persian Gulf and commercial access to the petroleum resources of the Gulf region on which our economy is vitally dependent;
-- Supporting U.S. business interests in the region; and
-- Combating terrorism and checking the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
In advancing this very ambitious agenda, our objectives sometimes compete with each other in terms of their relative priority and urgency. Although purists may disagree, it
would be self defeating to bear down on promoting democracy to such an extent that we defeat or undermine our other objectives. It often requires openness, flexibility, optimism, patience, endurance and a careful balancing of interests to reconcile so many varied goals. These qualities are also the requirements for managing a modern democracy, and the skills we have developed to govern ourselves also help us to manage our relationships with other nations. Perhaps this is one of the hidden benefits of democracy.
I want to leave you with another thought as well. In advocating democratization, the U.S. is not advocating a one-size-fits-all system of government ready-made in the USA. Our viewpoints and institutions are shaped by our unique traditions, history, and circumstances. European and other democratic states have found their way to rule by the people amid forces and habits unique to their situation. The results have sometimes differed widely. Today there are many points of difference in the outlook and shape of countries which are indisputably democratic. But there are even more points of similarity and consensus. These provide a critical basis for internal stability and international cooperation. The countries of the Middle East must draw on their own cultural and societal traditions in shaping governmental institutions which meet the aspirations of their people. It would be shortsighted and ultimately unsuccessful to seek to transplant alien forms of government into the bodies politic of the Middle East. By the same token, we cannot be complacent about the status quo. A middle course that is patient but engaged, flexible but persistent, is required. While visiting Kuwait last year, I had the honor to appear as the first foreign witness before the Kuwaiti Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. Each member had a strict time limit in which to question me and Committee Chairman Jassem Al Saqer ran the proceedings with a firm hand. I tried to respond as I would during a Congressional hearing in Washington. We all had a good time and found it a worthwhile experience.
Only a few decades ago, one often heard that democracy was a political system unique to the nations of northwestern Europe and their descendants and inheritors scattered around the world. The massive spread of the democratic ideal since then proves that it is not a parochial urge but something which appeals far more broadly to societies and to the heart of humankind. It is a cause and a commitment which matches our ideals, and also our interests.