Samantha Power

Rejecting False Choices: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East - April 13, 2016

Samantha Power
April 13, 2016— Annapolis, Maryland
U.S. Naval Academy's Forrestal Lecture on Foreign Policy
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Thank all of you for coming out. Thanks to Admiral Carter for having me. It is a huge privilege to join you here at the great Naval Academy – especially during your celebration of 40 years of women. [Applause.] I am right now the only woman permanent representative serving on the 15-member UN Security Council. [Applause.] I guess it’s good there’s one [laughter] – but you all are doing a lot better, and I congratulate you on the fact that 25 percent of your remarkable student body is now women. [Applause.]

And I am so excited to be here and to be a part of this occasion that I brought my parents, who are here in the front row – my mother and my father. [Applause.] And, arguably even more dramatically, I brought my aunt and uncle from a very small village in County Kerry Ireland. So they are here at the Naval Academy, Patricia and Derry Gibson. [Applause.]

All right, to business.

In reflecting on the period immediately following the European revolutions of 1848, the historian A.J.P. Taylor once wrote: “History reached a turning point but failed to turn.” Looking at the Middle East and North Africa some five years after the onset of the Arab Spring, Taylor’s description can feel strikingly apt. Autocratic governments remain in place in much of the region, and a handful of countries are being roiled by some of the most hellish violence the world has seen in at least a generation. Meanwhile, as you all know, terrorist groups have exploited the growing instability and despair to seize large swaths of territory and to attract thousands of foreign fighters.

Because the United States is the most powerful country in the world – and given the state of the region – some have second-guessed the decisions that President Obama and his Administration have made on the Middle East.

We take very seriously the critiques of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in the region. Some, citing Libya, have charged that we have mistakenly used military force when our vital national security interests were not at stake; others, citing Syria, have blamed us for failing to intervene militarily and suggested that, had we used force against the Assad regime, hundreds of thousands of lives could well have been saved. On the diplomatic front, some feel that our concerns about the absence of political reform in the region have caused us to be too critical of our friends, complicating – or even weakening – partnerships that have served our interests well over many decades. They say we’ve been too idealistic in believing that the mass uprisings of the Arab Spring could lead to more inclusive, accountable governments. At the same time, other critics have deemed us too quick to give up on political reform and the reformers, too quick to revert to allying with strongmen who offer no lasting hope of stability.

These critiques go to the heart of how America is engaging in the Middle East in the most tumultuous period the region has experienced in decades. And they raise a fundamental question that American leaders will continue to grapple with going forward: How do we deploy the foreign policy tools at our disposal – chief among them our military, our diplomacy, and our support for governments and citizens in the region? How do we deploy those tools to advance America’s vital national interests in a period of seismic upheaval? Tonight I would like to take each of these tools in turn.

First, how do we effectively deploy the U.S. military to advance our interests in the region?

We will not hesitate to use lawful and necessary force unilaterally to systematically degrade and destroy violent extremist groups. We – you – have aggressively hunted down terrorists across borders, killing Osama Bin Laden and decimating Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have done the same with many of ISIL’s top leaders, as American fighters, bombers, drones, and artillery are routinely now pounding ISIL targets. The 66-member coalition that President Obama has marshaled has carried out more than 11,500 airstrikes to date, not only hitting ISIL fighting positions, bunkers, and staging areas, but also degrading ISIL’s ability to move fighters and materiel; and targeting the oil production, industrial base, and money-storing facilities that ISIL needs to finance its violence.

In Iraq, where we have a capable partner, we are working by, with, and through the Iraqi government. Iraqi forces have rolled back ISIL from nearly half of the populated areas that the group dominated at its peak in August 2014. American advisors are assisting Iraqi security forces as they retake territory from ISIL, including towns along the Euphrates River Valley. We have also deployed special operations forces to Iraq and Syria, where their unique capabilities in intelligence gathering, targeting, and training local forces have made them significant force multipliers on the ground. As a result, by any objective measure, ISIL is losing ground.

Put simply, we understand that our military can and often does play a decisive role in the region, and of course more broadly, in the world. Nobody needs to remind us how strong we are.

And we recognize that is true most of all because of the brave men and women who serve in our military’s ranks – individuals like you, who are taking tremendous risks to serve our nation, upon whose shoulders our security rests, and some of whom have made the ultimate sacrifice.

At the same time, we recognize that force cannot be the only – or even the primary – way we advance our interests. Nobody makes this argument more powerfully than our Secretary of Defense, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and of course, than President Obama, who said at West Point, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” This is not timidity. It is judiciousness. There is nothing weak about weighing carefully when and where we deploy our troops. You would expect nothing less, and you deserve nothing less.

This is one of the most important lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As President Obama has said, Iraq shows that, “we can dedicate hundreds of thousands of brave, effective troops and trillions of dollars into building a more stable country, but any order we help achieve will only be fleeting unless leaders embrace a form of governance that defeats the ideas that led to strife in the first place.” Iraq also underscored the critical importance of weighing the consequences of military interventions before launching them, and of planning sufficiently for what will follow them; timeless lessons – lessons I’m sure that come up in much of your coursework – but lessons we need to relearn perpetually.

Some see the Administration’s military intervention in Libya as reflecting a similar lack of forethought. Let me take this argument head on. In March 2011, Qaddafi announced that his forces would go, as he put it, “house by house, room by room” to hunt down rebels in their stronghold, and that they would show, as he put it, “no mercy.” In response, after the UN Security Council took the very rare step of authorizing the use of force in Libya to protect civilians, an international coalition – including the United States – launched airstrikes to stop an impending massacre, which ended up helping turn the tide in the conflict against Qaddafi, who was eventually toppled. After Qaddafi’s fall, many of the militias who had come together to oust him turned on one another, undermining the efforts of successive governments to restore a sense of order and set up basic institutions, and fostering a climate of instability that extremist groups have exploited to gain a foothold in the country.

Now, there is an ongoing debate about whether the international community should have done more to prepare for the aftermath of the NATO air campaign. I believe that this question is very valid and very fair. Indeed, President Obama himself has expressed regret for, in his words, “failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”

But I also think it is naïve to argue that, if we had failed to act back in 2011, we could have avoided violence and instability in Libya. It was not the United States or the coalition of which we were a part that shattered the tenuous stability of the Qaddafi’s tyrannical rule; it was the Libyan insurrection, which was a thoroughly Libyan-driven occurrence. Once the Libyan people had decided to contest Qaddafi’s rule, he would not have been able to restore order – whether by repression or even by brutal massacre. On the contrary, had Qaddafi gone forward and carried out his threats, it would almost certainly have galvanized more fighters to join the ranks fighting against him. So the increasingly common claim that our standing by would somehow have made for a more stable Libya just isn’t right.

The truth is that as Qaddafi’s regime crumbled, it was always going to be immensely challenging to prevent disagreements and power struggles from consuming the rival parties that toppled him. And even in the absence of fighting among militias and tribes, it was never going to be easy for the people of Libya – or successive transitional governments – to lay the foundation for a more pluralistic, inclusive society after four decades of tyrannical rule, during which Qaddafi had done everything in his power to quash the kinds of institutions that are the bedrock of good governance. Even more so because one of the points on which the vast majority of Libyan factions were united was in their opposition to any foreign troop presence, even international troops to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid or to protect UN diplomats. In a context in which Qaddafi may have retained power but could not have achieved victory outright, one cannot credibly argue that the United States or NATO were what caused instability and violence in Libya.

As Libya continues to confront profound challenges today, the United States has worked extensively with the international community to try to help restore stability and functional governance. Just two weeks ago – in large part because of sustained mediation efforts led by the UN, with full U.S. support – a new unity government arrived in Tripoli. The new government brings together representatives of all of Libya’s regions and major parties, and it has committed to building institutions that serve all Libyans. Immense – daunting – as the obstacles are that Libyans face today, the new government is the best chance the country has had in years to take on the profoundly challenging work of confronting terrorist groups, reining in powerful militias, and rebuilding a country ravaged by war and ravaged by decades of dictatorial rule.

Now, if in Libya we are accused of using force where it was not merited, when it comes to Syria, we have received the opposite critique: that our unwillingness to use our military more extensively – whether by establishing a no-fly zone over part of the country or some other more robust military measure – that that was a mistake.

There is no way that one can look at Syria today and feel that the international community has delivered sufficiently for the Syrian people. You can’t. The scale and intensity of the violence that Syrians have been forced to endure? Incomprehensible. And we have seen the profoundly destabilizing effect that the ongoing violence in Syria has had on the region and on the world, from the spread of terrorist networks to the displacement of millions of refugees across the region and to Europe.

Nonetheless, the situation in Syria is very different from that of Libya in 2011, when we took part in an international military intervention. Neither the Arab League nor the Gulf Cooperation Council have called for creating a no-fly zone in Syria as they did in Libya; nor has the UN authorized the use of force against the Assad regime to protect civilians. On the contrary, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia – is openly fighting alongside the Syrian military. So is Iran, which has a deep stake in Assad maintaining his grip on power. Syria also has nearly four times the population of Libya, with a much more complex array of combatants than were present in Libya in 2011. Now these complexities do not in any way diminish the suffering of the Syrian people – they have endured a degree of pain and tragedy that is literally hard to wrap one’s mind around – nor does it in any way negate the additional harm and instability caused by Russia’s and Iran’s involvement. And that is why we are so invested in finding a solution. We are supporting the moderate opposition and building the multilateral pressure that we know will be needed to deescalate the violence in a durable way and to reach a political settlement. Secretary Kerry is working 24/7 because of the human stakes, because of the strategic stakes. We are also using our military to systematically degrade and destroy ISIL; and we are ensuring that humanitarian aid can reach the Syrians whose lives depend on it, despite the efforts of both the Assad regime and terrorist groups to block its delivery.

Now this brings me to the second question: How can we use the tool of diplomatic engagement to mitigate the threats posed by our adversaries to advance our vital interests? The most prominent example of our use of the diplomatic tool has been our engagement with Iran, engagement aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is and remains exclusively peaceful.

There is consensus in the United States that we cannot and will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. In the words of President Obama, “Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region…but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” In addition, it would significantly undermine the non-proliferation regime that is itself a core national security interest.

And yet, when we proposed trying to use the tool of diplomatic engagement to try to get Iran to verifiably ensure that its nuclear program would be exclusively peaceful, many said it was a mistake even to sit down with the Iranian government, arguing that doing so would legitimize a regime that has been a leading sponsor of terrorism, and that any deal reached would be fatally flawed, because it would be predicated on trusting a government with a track record of deceit. But let’s look at what has happened since Iran began taking the steps necessary to implement its commitments under the deal.

Iran has gone from installing nearly 20,000 centrifuges capable of enriching uranium for a nuclear bomb, to removing two-thirds of those machines, including every single centrifuge used for nuclear enrichment at the Fordow facility. Before the deal, Iran possessed enough enriched uranium for up to 10 nuclear bombs. Since the deal was reached, more than 98 percent of that stockpile has been removed from the country, leaving Iran far short of the material needed for a single bomb. Before the deal, Iran was nearing completion of a new reactor at Arak capable of producing plutonium for a bomb. Today, the core of that reactor has been removed and filled with cement. All of this has quadrupled Iran’s “breakout” time from two to three months, to approximately a year. And unlike before the deal, we will know if Iran tries to break out and rush to a bomb, because the deal gives us comprehensive visibility and access to Iran’s nuclear program. Today, international inspectors are subjecting Iran to the most comprehensive, intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program – one that gives round-the-clock access to Iran’s key nuclear facilities and regular access to its entire nuclear supply chain. Many new transparency measures will stay in place for decades to come.

Our engagement has proven effective so far for four reasons, which apply not only to U.S. engagement with Iran but which would apply to any adversary – in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.

First, our diplomatic engagement was backed by a broad coalition, whose collective pressure was crucial to getting Iran to change its calculus. Iran would never have come to the table in a serious manner, much less agreed to the rigorous deal we reached, had we not rallied the P5+1 – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China – and the EU, to join us in applying hard-hitting sanctions and in pressing for a diplomatic resolution. That pressure came not only from the extremely tough unilateral sanctions put in place by President Obama, but also from the robust multilateral sanctions that the UN first imposed on Iran in 2006, and tightened incrementally and progressively in 2007, 2008, and 2010, largely thanks to American leadership. Tough as they were, unilateral sanctions levied by the United States alone would never have brought Iran to the table.

The second reason that our engagement produced this deal was that it was principled. We went into the negotiations clear-eyed, with the mindset that if Iran moved closer to achieving a nuclear weapon, we would walk away from the table. We did not and do not believe in engagement for engagement’s sake; we believe in engagement when it provides a way to advance our interests, chief among them keeping the American people safe.

The third reason our engagement has worked is that it holds Iran accountable, with serious consequences if it does not hold up its commitments. The entire deal is predicated not on what Iran says, but what it does. Not on trust, but on verification. Implementation is everything, which is why we built so many verification measures into the deal. And if Iran does not follow the terms of the deal, all sanctions that have been suspended can be snapped back into place – including where I work, at the UN, where we can unilaterally trigger a process to reinstate multilateral sanctions the moment we believe Iran is breaching the agreement.

The fourth and final reason our engagement has worked – and one of the reasons we were able to mobilize such broad international support – is that in addition to setting out a genuine diplomatic path, we offered Iran the credible incentive of relief from nuclear related sanctions. And we are determined to follow through on our commitments to provide this relief – both to preserve Iran’s long-term incentive to comply with the deal, and to maintain the credibility and effectiveness of U.S. sanctions going forward, which is in part predicated on holding up our end of the deal.

Now, some have faulted the deal for failing to halt Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, or the widespread human rights violations the regime carries out against its own people. But that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the deal itself, which had a single objective: to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The deal does not prevent us from being any less vigilant, any less outspoken, or any less responsive when Iran pursues other forms of destabilizing behavior. And here let me just give you a few examples. Twice since the nuclear deal went into effect, Iran has staged ballistic missile tests in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. And twice – in January, and then in March – we have imposed new U.S. sanctions on individuals and companies assisting the ballistic missile program. We continue to carry out also aggressive interdiction efforts to seize illegal Iranian arms shipments, as we did just a few weeks ago, on March 28. On that day, the USS Sirocco, assigned to the U.S. 5th Fleet, intercepted and seized a shipment in the Arabian Sea of some 1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPGs, and 21 fifty-caliber machine guns – a shipment that we assess came from Iran and was likely bound for Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Now it is worth noting that the channels of communication developed with Iran over the course of negotiations have proven useful to engaging in other areas of vital interests, including the welfare of our men and women in uniform. When, in January, 10 U.S. sailors were detained by Iran in the Persian Gulf, a series of calls between Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, helped us secure their release in less than a day. Those channels also proved useful in persuading Iran to play a more constructive role in pressing for a cessation of hostilities in Syria, which – while very tenuous – has helped to reduce violence in that country. These relationships simply did not exist before we negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran.

Now, having spoken to how we can use military force and diplomatic engagement to advance our interests in the Middle East, this brings me to the third foreign policy tool I’d like to discuss today – our relationships with governments and individuals in the region. So here’s the question: What is the U.S. role in promoting inclusive, accountable governments and robust civil societies that we know are so crucial to advancing our long-term interests in the region?

Now, this question rests on a premise that some in the region – and even in our own country, including a few prominent presidential candidates – might contest. That premise is that the way the countries of the Middle East will achieve greater stability and security over time is by moving toward governments that have to answer to their own people, and that respect human rights. People who challenge this premise tend to argue that strongmen are the only forces that can hold these societies together, and that it was the very collapse of the region’s strongmen that led to the rising violence and turmoil that harm U.S. interests today. One almost encounters a kind of nostalgia for the autocrats who are seen to have maintained order back in the day.

It is true that, for decades, undemocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa – many of them in fact ruled by strongmen – offered a veneer of stability, particularly when compared to the current upheaval. But the leaders did not grow the political or economic institutions in their society, and, by refraining from pursuing political evolution, they set the stage for much more disruptive revolution. The wave of popular uprisings that spread across the region in 2011 represented a clear rejection of the corrupt, ineffective, and abusive machinery that had stifled people’s aspirations for so long.

Some have argued that the United States should have prevented the Arab Spring, or that different policy choices could have preserved the old order. But the truth is that once the citizens of the region lost their fear – and that was a big threshold they had to cross – once they lost their fear and took to the streets, the strongmen would have needed to use significant violence to try to put the genie back in the bottle – violence of a scale that the United States could not have aligned. Violence that would have never succeeded in the end in turning back the clock.

Let me be clear: the old system was not the source of stability – it was itself at the root of so much of the violence we see in the Middle East today. Autocratic rule is bad for the future of the region and it is bad for the interests of the United States.

Rather than invest in their people, strongmen use their nations to enrich themselves and to crush independent checks on their power. To give just one example, it is estimated that, at one point, approximately one in five people in Libya was on the payroll of Qaddafi’s Orwellian security apparatus. Just think about that: a fifth of a country paid to police itself. Imagine if those resources and that energy had been directed to Libyan schools or Libyan hospitals.

In addition, autocrats routinely stoke ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions that can quickly lead to explosive violence. They recognize that one of the most effective ways to entrench themselves in power is to persuade members of one group or another that their survival depends on patronage and protection. Similarly, they are also quick to repress the rights of minorities when they see such actions as a useful distraction, or as an opportunity to strengthen their own hand. In this way, the tension fueled by strongmen becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, igniting divisions between communities that have long lived together in relative stability. And the fiber that binds pluralistic societies together is much easier to tear apart than it is to sew back together.

Another reason we should be wary of supporting strongmen is that they foster a climate of fear and despair that can be exploited by terrorist groups to grab territory, as we have seen, and to attract new members. Extremist groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda have seized upon the frustration that builds up in places where people feel they have no agency to overcome the injustices they endure. These groups promise them a delusional but nominally righteous pathway in which to channel their resentment.

Now no suffering, no matter how profound, can justify terrorism. Nothing can justify a person violently attacking innocent human beings. ISIL is a monstrous, nihilistic movement that has inflicted immeasurable suffering that goes well beyond what its members themselves have experienced. My point is only that that the systematic repression and atrocities that despots rely upon to maintain their grip on power creates a climate of instability and despair that extremist groups have used to help recruit.

Consider Syria, again. No single factor has been a bigger boon for the recruitment of groups like ISIL than the horrors committed by the Assad regime. Each time the Syrian military has gassed a civilian neighborhood; or barrel-bombed a school, hospital, or bread line; or cut off another community from vital humanitarian aid, starving helpless men, women, and children to death – every time the Assad regime has not just succeeded in inflicting tremendous suffering on Syrian people, it has fueled the hatred that ISIL and extremist groups use to draw more fighters to their cause, including thousands of foreign fighters holding American and EU passports.

Thanks to the cessation of hostilities, some of these horrific practices have been reduced. But we still see persistent violations and indiscriminate regime attacks.

The Assad regime also provides an example of the fourth reason autocrats make for bad and unreliable partners: they often support terrorism when they see it as advancing their narrow self interests. During the war in Iraq, the Syrian government allowed its territory to become the main transit route for terrorists traveling to Iraq to fight the American-led coalition. The Syrian government also has sponsored the terrorist group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon for decades. And while Assad presents himself as the only man standing in the way of ISIL overrunning Syria, he conveniently omits that it was his own government that released up to a thousand violent detainees, including many individuals who had been radicalized in his own appalling prisons, and he did that in order to justify his government’s crackdown on peaceful protesters. Just think about that for a moment: a dictator deliberately, cynically strengthens the hand of terrorists in order to try to gain Western support and create a pretext for crushing nonviolent dissent. Similarly, Qaddafi consistently sponsored terrorist groups and attacks during his reign, including the infamous Lockerbie bombing. Is it really credible to argue that partnering with leaders like these will help us fight terrorism over time?

By now, I suspect some of you are asking: If it really runs counter to U.S. interests in all these ways to prop up strongmen in the Middle East, how do we navigate a region where leaders are not often accountable to their people, and in some cases fiercely crack down on those who criticize them? Or, to put it another way: How do we reconcile what we believe is the path toward greater stability, human rights, and opportunity and prosperity in the region with governments that too often seem to be moving in the other direction?

While it is true that more inclusive, accountable, and rights-respecting governments have the potential to be more effective U.S. partners, we have other priorities in the here and now alongside political reform. The U.S. government is always weighing a complex set of goals – short-term and long-term – when shaping our policies toward other nations. And the balance of those interests demands that we cooperate with governments whose policies do not always reflect our values and governments that are not as committed to inclusive governance and respect for human rights as we would like.

But working with these governments on issues of mutual interest does not change our assessment of what we think will ultimately make their countries, and ours, more stable and more secure. Nor should it prevent us from calling out governments when we see alarming patterns of abuse, corruption, and impunity.

Take Egypt. As many of you know, the United States has a long-standing, important relationship with Egypt, grounded in a range of common security interests, such as preventing the influx of weapons into Gaza that Hamas will use to attack Israeli civilians and – starting more recently – neutralizing a savage ISIL presence that targets innocents within Egypt. Yet at the same time, successive Egyptian governments have cracked down on human rights, using force and mass arrests against peaceful protesters, and suppressing freedom of expression and of the press. While President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, he exploited that privilege and began to destroy the checks and balances necessary for democracy to function. It wasn’t clear whether there would be more elections or whether he himself would be held accountable through the same process that had brought him to power. The situation has continued to deteriorate and it has taken on new dimensions under the government now of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. His ascent to power inaugurated a wave of brutal violence – including the deaths of over 800 demonstrators on a single day in 2013. Egypt faces very real, very grave security threats, and the United States intends to work with Egypt in order to combat those threats. But at the same time, its crackdown on Islamists, on the independent media, and even on apolitical civil society reaches far beyond tackling these grave threats. These actions suggest a government deeply uncomfortable not just with dissent, but with any activity that is not directly controlled or monitored by the state.

In recent weeks, the government reopened an investigation into more than 150 Egyptian nongovernmental organizations and civil society activists, many of whom are dedicated to documenting human rights violations. Staff from these organizations have been interrogated and threatened, banned from traveling abroad, and smeared in the state-run media. These are not foreign-based organizations like Freedom House or Human Rights Watch, which were already expelled from Egypt by the Sisi government. These are Egyptian organizations, staffed by Egyptian citizens, working to improve the lives of Egyptians.

While the United States and Egypt have really important, common strategic interests, that should not prevent us from speaking up when we see a growing crackdown on the country’s civil society groups like this one, and an alarming pattern of abuse being carried out by security forces. That is why it was important that – days after the government reopened its sweeping investigation into Egyptian nongovernmental organizations in March – we publicly urged Egypt to ease restrictions on civil society groups and allow them to operate freely, saying that, “Restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security.”

So if we have such profound concerns about autocratic behaviors, who or what are we for? I’ll just lay that out here. We are for pluralistic, inclusive governments that empower all their people, regardless of their sect, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, rather than pitting them against one another. Governments that give a share of power to all groups through transparent, democratic processes, and give their citizens the tools to hold those in office and those in civil and public service accountable. We are for governments that give their people a chance to provide for their families through honest means, rather than creating a system where corruption and patronage is the only way to get by or to get ahead. We are for governments that empower women and girls, both because it is right thing to do and because countries where women enjoy equal rights and equal opportunities are, on average, more prosperous, healthier, more democratic, and more peaceful. We are for leaders who give people a path to participating in their societies without having to take to the streets in protest. We are for institutions that are built to empower their people, rather than to exploit them; to serve their people, rather than to repress them. We are for using political processes, institutions, and negotiations to resolve conflicts, rather than using violence. We are for rule of law, rather than rule by law.

Now, some may point out, that, for most of the Middle East, this is not what the world looks like when autocrats fall. How do we who believe in this model of more democratic and accountable government account for the terrible turmoil that has followed the collapse of strongmen in places like Libya and Yemen?

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that when a mass of people suddenly comes together and manages to overthrow a repressive system that has ruled them for so long, splits are going to emerge in shaping a new order. History teaches us that it is much easier to find unity in bringing down a despotic system than it is to find unity in building one up in its place. Qaddafi, the Assad family, Yemeni President Saleh spent approximately four decades asphyxiating the kinds of institutions and empowered citizens that provide the foundation for a more open, pluralistic, and accountable form of government in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Mubarak did so for three decades in Egypt; Ben Ali did so for two decades in Tunisia. This is a long time. Overhauling institutions in countries like the ones they ruled, or standing them up for the very first time – and giving individuals in those nations the tools to build the societies they want – was never going to be a short-term proposition. And yet too often, people are quick to write off nations experiencing rocky transitions as governable only by dictators. That is a mistake. The Middle East doesn’t need more strongmen – it needs more strong institutions and strong civil societies.

It is the growth of such institutions that we are supporting in Tunisia, where we have been working with the coalition government and citizens as they try to do everything from overhauling abusive law enforcement institutions, to reforming the country’s broken justice system, to fostering opportunities for young Tunisians who might otherwise be drawn to violent extremist groups. The reform effort continues to face profound challenges, such as high unemployment and a series of ghastly terrorist attacks by ISIL, which are crippling the economy and creating divisions in a society that is working so hard to bridge them. Yet the Tunisian people have made genuine progress since toppling the country’s strongman – providing a living rebuttal to the axiom that people in the region are somehow incapable of creating pluralistic democracies.

There are some who look out on all the unfulfilled promises of the Arab Spring and see a litany of U.S. policy failures in the Middle East. If only the United States had used our military might more or less often; if only we had been less naïve, or more effective, in our diplomatic engagement; if only we had done a better job of supporting the emergence of pluralistic, inclusive governments, or standing by – by contrast – “our” strongmen – they argue – we would see a different Middle East today. More stable and more secure; with less conflict and a smaller foothold for terrorist groups.

Questioning U.S. decision-making is entirely fair. We who are within the Administration do it all the time. But the fundamental flaw in most of the critiques is that they leave out the central players in this drama – the people of the Middle East. People like the Tunisian fruit seller who, on December 17, 2010, set himself on fire, because he could no longer take the daily humiliation of being beaten and extorted by police for trying to earn a living, and who, in turn, catalyzed the mass protests that became the Arab Spring. People like the tens of thousands of Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square to call for an end to the corrupt and abusive government that they had endured for decades. And countless other individuals of all ages, religions, and ethnic groups who have risen up across the region to demand the most basic of rights.

Obvious as this point may seem, it is a crucial one, because it reminds us that the catalyst behind the upheaval that shook the region in 2011 came not from the United States, but from the people in the Middle East: individuals who share with each one of us an intrinsic human desire to be treated with dignity, and to have a say in the societies they live in. It is no coincidence that opponents of reform and terrorists both claim that these aspirations are manufactured from afar by the West – it saves them from having to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people do not want to live under the tyranny they impose, and it provides a pretext for repressing them. I don’t believe we could have reversed the overwhelming sentiment that brought those people out into the streets. And I certainly don’t believe it would have been right to try.

It also reminds us that it is the people of the region who ultimately will determine whether the current moment represents a genuine turning point, or a moment when history fails to turn. The United States has an abiding stake in working to strengthen our partnerships and cooperation against threats to our vital interests, most especially and immediately from terrorist groups who threaten the United States, our allies, and the region. We also have a stake in encouraging governments to increasingly respect the rights of their people and allow for more inclusive governing arrangements that can better meet their peoples’ needs. We also have to learn from our mistakes and constantly evaluate, and re-evaluate, whether the combination of foreign policy tools we are using are being deployed to maximum effect. Yet at the same time, we have to be cognizant about the limits to our influence, and the need to support the partners in the Middle East who will play the greatest role in guiding their nations’ – and the region’s – trajectory.

Despite the devastating bloodshed and repression, the terrorists and the autocrats, and despite the overwhelming suffering and hardship that so many millions of people have suffered – amazingly, despite all of that, the vast majority of people in the region still want to live in more open, just societies, and they are still willing to make great sacrifices, and take huge risks, to help build those societies.

Look at Syria. After five years of being gassed, bombed, and starved by their government and attacked by extremist groups, what did Syrians across the country do when a cessation of hostilities began early last month? They staged more than a hundred peaceful rallies across the country, denouncing the atrocities committed by both the Assad government and by terrorists. In a recent rally in Aleppo, a young protester risked his life to carry a handwritten sign that read, “Islam arrived in Syria before the arrival of Al Qaeda. Thank God.”

Look at Mahmoud Mohammed Ahmed, an Egyptian student who was arrested in January 2014 when he was just 18 years old. Mahmoud’s crime was trying to walk to a peaceful rally marking the three-year anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak, wearing a t-shirt that said, “A nation without torture.” Week after week, month after month, for that crime, Mahmoud’s family and human rights defenders fought for his release, denouncing his detention in the press, through social media, and even in Egypt’s courts. Yet despite routine threats and harassment, they did not give up. Neither did Mahmoud, who – despite deplorable conditions and abuse – wrote to his brother from prison, “I am positive that the day will come when we will do everything without fearing prison or oppression.” In large part thanks to his family’s efforts, Mahmoud was finally released just a few weeks ago, after being jailed – without charge – for more than two years.

Look at the Moroccan investigative journalists who continue to report on the taboo issues of corruption and abuse, in spite of being harassed and even prosecuted. Look at Saudi Arabia, where female law students led an effort to collect more than 3,000 signatures to allow women to register and work as lawyers for the first time – a power they have used to open legal clinics dedicated to educate women and girls about their rights, and defend them when they are violated. Look across the region, and you will find so many brave individuals and groups like these. We can’t lose sight of them.

Critics of our policy in the Middle East often frame our approach through a series of Manichean choices. Advance our security, or hold true to our values? Retrench from the world’s problems, or use military force to solve them? Support autocrats who ensure order, or accept the instability that comes with empowering the masses? But when we dig a little deeper, we see that all of these are false choices. We have the most powerful military in the history of the world, but we recognize it is only one of many tools in our toolkit, and that being judicious when it comes to deploying our troops is not weak, it is an essential part of staying strong. And we know that the path to long-term stability in the region is through encouraging development of stronger institutions. And we know that the path to long-term stability in the region is not through strongmen, but through strong institutions and strong civil societies, which lay the foundation for more open, accountable government.

If we continue to reject false choices; if we continue to engage in the Middle East following these principles; and if we are careful not to lose sight of the people in the region who have so many of the same aspirations that we do in our lives – including the right to be able to live with dignity and in security – and who will ultimately be the driving force behind the region’s trajectory, then we will help make this a genuine and positive turning point in the history of the Middle East. Thank you. [Applause.]

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