Burns on America's vision for the region and more

“The absolute truth is that democratic change has to be home grown. It has to come from within. It’s not going to be imposed from the outside,” says US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns:

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  August 10, 2003

|~||~||~|AB: Why is the US so committed to promoting democracy in the Arab world, given that some would say you’ve turned a blind eye in the past?

WB: It’s a very fair question. First, I would say it is a fair criticism of American policy through several administrations since I have been working in the government for the last 20 years or so. We didn’t attach a high enough priority to supporting efforts that come from within regions themselves and particularly in the Arab world to open up societies, both economic systems and political systems.
We are making it a higher priority now. The reason we are has very much to do with listening carefully to voices, the needs and desires from peoples and leaders from the region. The absolute truth is that democratic change has to be home grown. It has to come from within. It’s not going to be imposed from the outside. It’s not going to be the result of American preaching.

One of the best things that we can do-is serve as an example, is try to work to have the very best democratic system that we can in the United States. We have our share of flaws and failures that we need to correct, but there are also ways in which we can help those who want to move ahead in that direction, who want to begin to open up political participation in this part of the world.

There are some people who have said for some years that somehow there is an exception in the Arab world. That somehow, the rules that apply elsewhere in the world, the standards that apply, don’t apply here. I think that is flawed analysis and also a very bad basis for policy. People often talk about stability and its importance and that is very true. But stability is not a static phenomenon, people have to change and adapt. They have to do that through their own initiative, but there are things that we can do to help. That’s what Secretary Colin Powell meant when he talked about supporting democratic change. It is not trying to impose an American version of reality on peoples of this region; you’re going to have to sort that out for yourselves. But there are things that we can do to help, help build civil society, help create educational opportunities and work to support economic modernisation and openness. It is very difficult to make political reforms unless you are creating a sense of economic hope for the people. The two really do go together.

AB: Is the free trade initiative one way in which you hope to promote democracy and do you feel this will have a trickle down effect? Is this a new carrot and stick approach?

WB: The Arab world is no more immune from the realities that you see in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa or anywhere else. The reality is that you need to create a sense of economic hope for people. You look at the Arab world where the demographics are startling, younger and younger populations and the pressure to create jobs and to be competitive economically is enormous.

Therefore, it is very important and in the self-interest of peoples in the region to make the kinds of reforms that open up those possibilities. There a lots of things that we can do to help: free trade, bilateral free trade agreements, WTO accession are a couple of examples. They are in our interest because it is in our interest to see stable, more open kinds of systems in this region where people see economic opportunities and have better jobs.

The impetus for this again, just as is the case with political reform, comes from within the region. For those who are determined and who are willing to make the tough choices that are required to open up economies, free trade agreements are an excellent instrument that we can use to provide support. It is not a carrot as much as it is something that it is in our mutual interest to move ahead on.

AB: The announcements at Aqaba were a change from the two years of bloodshed between the Israelis and Palestinians, yet there was a return to the cycle of violence immediately after the summit. Do you feel there can be tangible results where Arabs can see reciprocation from the Israeli side when Mahmoud Abbas tries to curb violence?

WB: This whole process of the road map is not going to work unless both sides are fulfilling their obligations and following through on the commitments that they both made, both publicly and privately, in Aqaba. That applies to security, to easing the pressures of occupation on ordinary Palestinians, so that they have tangible sense of hope and of life improving and that’s something the new Palestinian government needs to be able to show people.

That’s the pathway Prime Minister Abbas chartered in Aqaba, which was a very courageous one, is going to begin to produce results for people. It will take time to rebuild the Palestinian security services and consolidate them under one authority. There are things that we and others can do, to help in that process and we are determined to do that.

There will also be steps that the Israelis need to take and some that they need to refrain from in the broader interest of achieving security for Israelis as well as Palestinians. It seems very clear to me that the reality of the last two and half years hasn’t worked for anybody. It hasn’t made Israelis anymore secure, the conditions under which Palestinians live are truly terrible. The road map is not a magic recipe but it offers a pathway out of that. It is something that has very strong international support, President Bush’s full commitment, and that is what Aqaba meant. It meant a new beginning to people.

AB: Why haven’t you thought, as an occupying country, of using troops from the GCC to go on patrols with the American forces to alleviate or lessen any misconception that Iraqis or Arabs may have that America is in Iraq to stay?

WB: If you set aside the GCC, we have talked very actively with a number of countries around the world about broadening the basis for the military force that’s in Iraq. It’s very much in our interest to share responsibility, to share the burden for practical reasons and for the symbolic reasons. A coalition has to mean something and over time it is very much in our interest as well as in the interest of others that the kinds of signals sent to the Iraqis, as well as others in the region, show that other countries are involved. The Poles are sending a unit right now to provide support and there are other countries that will follow. I think you are going to see a significant trend in that direction. It’s going to have to produce results for Iraqis, law order, restoration of services and we’re going to have to work as quickly as we can with others in the coalition to transform the economy of Iraq, which will not be easy, and also to set in motion a political process that a new democratic government is going to emerge.

AB: How do you characterise Syria’s position now. Are they reciprocating, are they being receptive?

WB: First, Secretary Powell emphasised the United States is committed to comprehensive peace. We remain very firmly committed to progress on all tracks of the peace process and that specifically includes Syria and Lebanon and that’s something that we have repeated time and again and its very important to President Bush and this administration.

The second point, the basis of our concern, for example, about groups like Hamas and Jihad that have offices in Damascus is that if you are genuinely committed to moving ahead in the peace process and towards direct negotiation as a way of resolving the differences between Israel and Syria, something to which we’re very much committed, you can’t have it both ways. You’re committed to a peaceful path or you’re not and if you’re committed to that peaceful path then it involves certain kinds of steps that are very important to take to show that you are serious. That’s why Secretary Powell put so much emphasis on stopping the support, stopping anything that can involve support for groups like Hamas and Jihad and other violent extremist groups, which have been headquartered in Damascus.

There are other concerns that we’ve talked about with the Syrians, on Iraq for example, where there has been some movement on the Syrian side. There have been some steps taken with regard to some of the offices that I talked about. But in our judgement, as Secretary Powell said, they fall short of the mark. They don’t constitute the kind of fundamental changes that Secretary Powell emphasised that were so much in the interest of a better relationship between Syria and the United States and in our judgement in the interest of peace, security and stability in the region. So yes, we continue to have some very significant concerns. We continue to hold open the possibility of a better relationship between our two countries over time and we remain very much committed to the foundation of what was laid at Madrid. But again we need to see those kind of fundamental changes and behaviour that show commitment to those same kind of ends.

AB: Why hasn’t the US pursued with the same fortitude, the issue of weapons of mass destruction with Israel, in the way that it pursued it with Iraq, and is now pursuing it with Iran and Syria, especially when Israel is estimated to have 200 nuclear warheads?

WB: First, the United States has been committed and we remain committed to the goal of a Middle East that is free of weapons of mass destruction. That is an important goal. Second, we have particular and immediate concerns about Iraqi WMD programmes.
This is a regime that has used them against a neighbour as well as against their own people so there is a particular threat there that had to be dealt with, not just by the United States, but the international community, and there were a whole string of security council resolutions that made that crystal clear.

Third, as we look towards that long term goal of a region free of WMD, in our judgement the best way to move in that direction is to move ahead on the road map, to ultimately reach agreements between Palestinians and Israelis, to see their vision of two states become a reality, to move ahead toward comprehensive peace on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. In that environment then the issue of WMD takes on a whole new look and may be dealt with in a different way and maybe that long term goal we talked about looks much more realistic.

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