America and the Middle East
By William J. Burns, Deputy Secretary of State
Reviewed by David T. Jones
Speaking at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School on 6 May, State’s Deputy Secretary William Burns offered a 3,500-word critique and analysis of circumstances and prospects in the Middle East. He was not optimistic. “The Middle East," he noted, "can be very unforgiving for American policymakers and diplomats, and it would be foolish to assume the best.” But he concluded, “We will not get every judgment right, or take every risk that we should, but we are far better off working to help shape events, rather than wait for them to be shaped for us.”
Burns observed that change in the Middle East is rarely neat, but often messy and cruel, and deeply unpredictable in second and third order consequences. We should not underestimate the depth of mistrust of American motives that animates people in the region.
The Arab Spring has created multiple layers of uncertainties and frictions among states in the region. Burns believes that the key is economics: “Unless the Arab Awakening is accompanied by an economic awakening, it will collapse .[M]ost Arab societies have ducked serious economic reform [W]here economic liberalization has occurred, its benefits have often been limited to a privileged few.”
Burns identified three proximate challenges:
Syria. The United States is committed to Asad’s departure. But forging an agreement with Moscow and struggling past Iranian/Hezbollah support for the regime is easier said than done. Coordinated regional action is an imperative. Burns noted “apparent” Syrian government chemical weapons use without commenting on the UN's conclusion that rebels employed chemical weapons.
Iran. Burns described the P5+1’s nuclear negotiating presentation as a “reasonable, reciprocal confidence building proposal” (which Tehran has effectively ignored). He emphasized that, “The President has made very clear that he will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he did not identify any “red line.”
Middle East Peace. Burns stated that the “status quo between Palestinians and Israelis is unsteady, unsustainable, and combustible.” He touted reviving the decade-old, dead-on-arrival Arab Peace Initiative. But invoking former Secretary Baker’s successful 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, he concluded, “The landscape today is in many ways much less promising."