Beyond The Rhetoric of False Choices: The Case for Lasting U.S. Engagement in the Middle East

Alice G. Wells speech at Columbia University Middle East Research Center


Alice G. Wells, The Ambassador of the United States to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Remarks to the Columbia University Middle East Research Center – as prepared


Thank you, Safwan, for your warm introduction and for this opportunity to speak to such a diverse and renowned audience at the Columbia University Middle East Research Center.  My sincere thanks to you and the team at CUMERC for elevating the importance of global partnership through international exchanges and research.  I’m looking forward to speaking with you today about a topic that finds its way into many a think tank article and news story:  Is the U.S. still committed to playing a leading role in the Middle East?

Now there are all sorts of reasons thoughtful people ask this question.  They point to growing American energy independence, to the so-called “pivot to Asia,” and to supposed American fatigue with the region following massive military and financial commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And of course they question whether the complicated dynamics unleashed by the Arab Spring five years ago changed the American calculus.

Let me be clear: a changing world has required the U.S. to adapt, but the evolution of our engagement should not be mistaken for a diminishment in our engagement.  Benjamin Franklin, one of our most distinguished founding fathers and the very first American diplomat once said that “when you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”  Indeed, the world today is changing at lightning speed, whether it’s science and technology, the business world, or global affairs.

To change is to learn from the past, to grow, to develop, and to adapt to new circumstances.  It is therefore natural that the Unites States’ engagement with the region in the 1990s looks different from its engagement in the early 2000s, and that our engagement in 2016 looks different than it did in 2006.

So I’d like to talk to you about the current shape of U.S. engagement in the Middle East and I will make the case that it would be directly and profoundly contrary to our nation’s interests and values to walk away from this region.  Events in the Middle East affect perceptions in every part of the world because the spiritual and ethical traditions that have their roots in these ancient lands form the foundation of faiths and ideas held dear by hundreds of millions of people on every continent.  We have also been reminded too many times that regional threats quickly become global, and we have seen that ideas transmitted by terrorists in Raqqa and Mosul can reach impressionable minds in California and Massachusetts.

But our commitment is about more than combating threats:  it is about sustaining meaningful partnerships, with the Middle East home to some of America’s oldest friends.  Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the new republic of the United States in 1777. Our relationship with Jordan now exceeds 65 years of partnership.  While Mr. Franklin counsels us to keep changing, he also cautions us to “be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing.”  It is crucial that the United States and its friends and allies in the region change and adapt, but that we do so together.  In this ever changing world, the Unites States continues to stand by its friends and allies.

Rather than walking away from the region, we’re doubling down on our friends, most of all Jordan.  Friendship may not be a word you hear often in international diplomacy, but it is the word I think best describes the special relationship between the United States and Jordan.  Our friendship goes way back:  Jordan has enjoyed a close relationship with U.S. Presidents since the Eisenhower administration.  His Majesty the late King Hussein and His Majesty King Abdullah II have been steadfast in strengthening this bond, which continues today with President Obama and his administration.  In the first 3 months of this year alone, His Majesty held consultations with the President, hosted the Vice President for a continuation of this strategic dialogue, and returned to Washington for the 4th Nuclear Security Summit, where Jordan has played a leadership role.

Members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate frequently visit Jordan as a testament to the importance of the relationship between our two nations, and His Majesty King Abdullah II is among the few foreign leaders to have addressed a joint session of Congress.  In the past year, over 200 members and staff of the United States Congress have travelled to Amman, including House of Representatives Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan as well as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell twice.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations more than six decades ago, our friendship has been based on common goals and mutual respect.  We appreciate the special leadership role that Jordan plays in advancing peace and moderation in the region, and we share the goals of a lasting peace in the Middle East, a resolution to the tragic war plaguing Syria, and an end to the violent extremism that threatens the security of the entire world.  Our friendship is also rooted in shared values – in the belief that all people deserve an equal opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their children, and that human dignity and the virtue of tolerance demand respect.

As a friend, the United States has supported Jordan in the past and will support Jordan in the future, whether we talk about bilateral assistance, U.S. investment, or military cooperation.  The United States has provided over $15 billion in economic assistance to Jordan since its founding.  Just last year we signed an MOU to provide Jordan $1 billion annually for three years, and our 2016 budget allocates even more – in total almost $1.6 billion.

So the U.S. Government and the American people are helping Jordan weather the instability among its neighbors and shoulder the burden of hosting 640,000 registered refugees; we have provided more than $730 million in refugee-related humanitarian assistance to Jordan since the start of the Syria crisis.

Our Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2000, has helped trade between our countries increase more than 8-fold to an all-time record of over $3.4 billion in 2014.  And U.S. companies view Jordan as an important market and jumping off point for U.S. products and services.  U.S. investment here now exceeds $2.2 billion, including important investments in the energy, agriculture, and consumer goods sectors.

But our friendship is not just economic; it’s about working with the Jordanian government and security forces to protect the Jordanian people from all who would do them harm.  The United States has supported Jordan’s security efforts since the late 1960s, and today Jordan receives one of the largest amounts of U.S. Foreign Military Financing of any country in the world.  We have worked together with the Jordan Armed Forces to counter threats in the region, and most notably, to combat Da’esh.  Flying in the coalition since day one, the Royal Jordanian Air Force is undertaking some of the most complex air missions while part of large, multi-nation strike packages.  With almost 400 sorties, they have helped turn the tide of Da’esh advances Jordan can feel safe knowing their Air Force is flying day and night to protect its people and borders

On the border, the United States has assisted Jordan in a $188 million border project to keep extremists out; the United States has also expedited delivery of hundreds of munitions to the Royal Jordanian Air Force to continue airstrikes against Da’esh.  We continue to work closely to expeditiously provide the equipment and other assistance Jordan needs, including small arms, munitions, aircraft spare parts, night vision devices and equipment essential to the military effort against Da’esh.

We are also looking ahead with Jordan to the securing and reopening of the road between Amman and Baghdad, a trade route that is vital to the country’s economic life.  Getting Jordanian trucks rolling again—carrying local goods for export to Iraqi markets—is an important step in rejuvenating Jordan’s economy.  The United States stands side-by-side with Jordan as it meets regional challenges head-on.

Of course no bilateral relationship is complete without expanding ties between our citizens.  That’s why the U.S. Embassy supports about 17 professional and academic exchange programs for over 400 Jordanians and Americans every year.  Over the last 5 years, visa issuances to Jordanians have increased 250%, with more than 2200 Jordanians studying in the United States.  These exchanges benefit both our peoples, building bridges of understanding, personal ties, and economic opportunity.

Now you might say to yourself:  but Jordan is a special case.  Where is the U.S. in terms of the rest of the region?  And I would say to you that the United States is just as committed to our allies in the region as we have ever been, both due to our longstanding partnerships and because of our own interests.  The U.S.-Gulf partnership, for example – built upon more than seven decades of enduring cooperation – remains vital and strong.

Our security commitments in the Gulf are more extensive today than ever, with more than 35,000 ground, air, and naval personnel at more than a dozen bases in and around the Gulf.  In addition to our robust training and coordination programs, we’ve deployed our most advanced systems to the region – cutting-edge aircraft and munitions; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; as well as missile defense capabilities.

Together, we and our Gulf partners are collectively sharing the burdens of navigating a region faced with breathtaking change.  We may not always agree, and even among friends there can be real differences, but what’s important is that we are addressing concerns frankly and honestly.  At the Camp David summit in May 2015 with Gulf leaders, President Obama committed to a new strategic partnership in order to strengthen security cooperation.

And this partnership continues to grow.  At last week’s summit with GCC leaders, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to “use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners.”  We are expanding our military exercises and assistance to meet the full range of threats, with more training and cooperation between our special operations forces, more information sharing, and more border security initiatives to prevent the flow of foreign fighters.  We’re working with our Gulf partners to improve their own capacity to defend themselves by streamlining and expediting the transfer of critical defense capabilities.  We’re standing together to support ceasefire talks for Yemen, to strengthen the Government of National Accord in Libya, and to deepen the coalition campaign against Da’esh.

Earlier this month, Secretary Kerry met with GCC leaders in Manama and they agreed to begin considering the concept of a GCC-NATO partnership.  They also agreed, given the global transformation taking place with the price of oil, to add to our high-level dialogues a major new component:  economic transformation.  U.S. firms have invested in the economic development of Gulf countries for decades, across all economic sectors, from IT to aviation to energy.

Nationals from Gulf countries have studied all across the United States – from Boston to Boise.  The bottom line is that the Gulf remains central to American national interests, and partnership with the United States remains central to the national interests of the Gulf States.

There are some who question why this should be the case, given growing American energy independence.  The answer is clear – in today’s world of increasing interdependence, no nation can go it alone.  Increased American energy independence doesn’t divorce the United States from the global energy market.  A rise in the price of oil anywhere means a rise in the price of oil everywhere – and that means a price increase for many other goods and services, the impact of which neither we nor our allies can escape.

We and our partners need each other now just as much as ever.  While some see the notion of an Asia rebalance as a turn away from the Middle East, the exact opposite is true: the U.S. and the Middle East both have an increasing stake in the stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific – the most dynamic part of the global economy.

I mentioned earlier that our engagement in the region today looks different than it did five or ten years ago.  I would submit to you that the key feature of American engagement in the region today is tireless diplomacy.  The argument that the United States is disengaging from the region is premised on a false dichotomy between massive military intervention or complete withdrawal from a leadership role in the region.  This is a false choice.  No major problem is solved, no major solution found, without diplomacy at the heart of the effort.  The United States is deeply involved in every major initiative to resolve conflict, build security, and advance prosperity in the region.

There are those who criticize our commitment to diplomacy, for investing so much effort in trying to resolve conflicts that seem intractable.  But conflicts and wars do not end on their own.  Breakthroughs do not just happen, nor do agreements write themselves.  It takes diplomacy — being willing to sit down with others — and sometimes with people whose values are completely contradictory to our own.

In the words of President John F. Kennedy, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”  We’ve seen the results of tough-minded diplomacy, not just in the region, but around the world:  a historic democratic transition in Afghanistan; chemical weapons removed from Syria; the Iran nuclear deal; detained Americans returning home; the Paris climate agreement; the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba; the Cessation of Hostilities in the Syrian civil war.  That’s strong, principled diplomacy at work.

It would be an understatement to call the challenges the region faces today daunting.  And so we should approach them with some modesty.  We know that we cannot solve all the world’s problems, and we certainly cannot solve them alone.  But even as we recognize that we do not have all the answers, we are seizing America’s unique capacity to mobilize against common threats and lead the international community to meet them.  We will continue to advance America’s vital interests and live our values through diplomacy, dialogue, and work with our allies.  Indeed, to claim we are withdrawing from the region is to close one’s eyes to everything that we are doing in the region.

Nowhere is U.S. diplomatic engagement today more evident than in our efforts to end the bloody civil war in Syria.  As Secretary Kerry has said, the challenge is “nothing less than to chart a course out of hell.”  And to do that, we have to intensify our diplomatic efforts to try to bring the Syrian civil war to a close, while at the same time stepping up our counter-Da’esh campaign. These steps are mutually reinforcing because nothing would do more to bolster the fight against Da’esh than a political transition that sees Asad go.

Last fall, for the first time ever since the start of the conflict, we brought together all the countries that have a stake in Syria – including Russia and Iran –  under the umbrella of the International Syria Support Group, or the ISSG, to take active steps towards reaching a diplomatic solution to end the conflict.  This is the most promising political initiative for Syria that we have had in years, and we are pursuing it to the fullest.

The diplomatic process launched by the International Syria Support Group has enabled us to move forward in two critical areas.  First, against all odds and most predictions, we have been able to sustain for almost two months a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria.  Despite significant violations, the cessation produced a huge reduction in the level of violence – at times as much as 80 to 90 percent.

Unfortunately, repeated violations by the Asad regime and supporting forces threaten the hard-won respite the Syrian people need so desperately, prompting President Obama to urge all combatants to reinstate the agreement.  I am proud to say that we have a team here in Amman and a team in Geneva reporting on and working through those violations.  Thanks to the cessation, most Syrians are going about their daily lives in a way that that they never would have dared to two months ago. All Syrians deserve that chance and the cessation is the only way to give it to them.

The second critical area in which we have made modest, but real progress is humanitarian access.  Our diplomatic efforts have made possible the delivery of emergency supplies to communities inside Syria, some of which had not seen assistance in years.  Since the ISSG’s February push to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas, more than 600 trucks have provided aid to upwards of 560,000 people in 23 hard-to-reach locations.  Despite this progress, we remain deeply concerned about the Asad regime’s practice of removing badly needed medical supplies, particularly the surgical kits which literally mean life and death for people.

We continue to work closely with the United Nations to see that future requests for access are honored and that humanitarian assistance is available particularly in East Ghouta, in Daraya, in Deir ez-Zor, and in other especially hard-hit regions in the country.

Finally, our diplomatic efforts have led to renewed negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime for the first time in two years.  We know that despite reductions in violence and increases in humanitarian assistance, lasting peace will be impossible without a genuine political transition.  Our goal is to facilitate a negotiated political transition that all parties have stated they support:  a unified Syria; a non-sectarian Syria; and a Syria that will choose its own leadership in a future election supervised by the United Nations under the highest standards of international law, with full transparency and accountability, and with the participation of the Syrian diaspora.

For the first time, Asad’s strongest sponsors – Iran and Russia – have publicly supported a political transition that moves towards a presidential election.  I can’t promise you we will succeed, but I can promise you that we will work tirelessly to encourage all parties to make the necessary choices to end this war.

The strong results of U.S. diplomacy in the region are also evident in the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.  As complicated as things are in the region, they would be unimaginably worse if Iran possessed nuclear weapons.  Put simply: we are not blind to Iran’s actions in the region, but we know a meddlesome Iran without nuclear weapons is better than a meddlesome Iran with nuclear weapons.

Two years ago, when our formal negotiations began, Iran’s nuclear activities had already grown from a few hundred centrifuges to more than 19,000.  They were spinning.  They were enriching.  And they had a stockpile of enriched uranium enough for a dozen bombs.

Today, after two years of intensive negotiations, the United States and its partners in the P5+1 have achieved what decades of animosity did not – a long-term deal that closes off every possible path to building a nuclear weapon, and subjects Iran to the most comprehensive nuclear inspections ever negotiated.  Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, every single one of Iran’s pathways to a bomb is blocked – its uranium pathway, its plutonium pathway, and its covert pathway.  Thanks to this deal, Iran has dismantled two-thirds of its installed centrifuges.  It has shipped 98 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile out of Iran.  It has removed the Arak reactor core and filled it with concrete.

In January, the IAEA verified that Iran had fulfilled key commitments of the deal.  And if Iran were to cheat, the breakout time to build a nuclear weapon has gone from two to three months to about a year, and it would have to come up with an entire nuclear supply chain from start to finish—something our experts agree Iran could not do without being detected with sufficient lead time for us to take action.

The reality remains that Iran is a regional presence by geography, population, and trade, and its policies have a very real effect on the Middle East, from Syria to Iraq to Yemen and beyond.  Iran must decide whether to use the opening of this nuclear deal to play a constructive role in the region – the onus is on Iran to rebuild trust and resolve its differences with its neighbors after decades of destabilizing activities in the region.  This deal did not attempt to resolve all of our differences with Iran and conclusion of this deal does not absolve Iran from responsibility for its dangerous and aggressive actions.  We continue to vigorously enforce sanctions pertaining to Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program.

Even as we move ahead and implement the deal, we remain as vigilant as ever in working with our partners in the region to counter Iranian bad behavior, including interdicting illegal arms shipments to Yemen.

I cannot speak about U.S. diplomacy in the region without speaking about the Middle East Peace Process.  The kind of violence we have seen in recent months hurts everyone: the innocent victims and their families; the Jewish and Arab residents of Israel; and the Palestinian people.  This moment is a difficult one, and there are not many in the region right now who believe in a path to peace.  Still, we cannot throw up our hands and walk away; the current situation is simply not sustainable.  Israeli and Palestinian leaders have a joint responsibility – and a shared interest – in lowering tensions, countering extremism, and finding ways to cooperate where possible.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians will fully secure their legitimate goals in the absence of such a peace agreement.  Secretary Kerry continues to be in regular touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to talk about any number of ways to try to change the situation on the ground in an effort to re-establish confidence and begin to move forward.  The United States remains deeply committed to helping the parties realize a negotiated solution that creates two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.  But it’s predominantly up to them to take the first steps necessary to make peace possible.  In the words of His Majesty, King Abdullah II, “we have to always hope in humanity that people will make the right choices.”

Looking beyond our diplomacy in the political realm, I would also like to take a moment to discuss U.S. economic and commercial diplomacy, which are key to creating jobs, lowering unemployment, and creating prosperity for the region and its peoples.  The Middle East is the home of energetic, youthful, and forward-looking populations that are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than slugging it out with historic foes.  The President has stated his personal commitment to the young women and men of the Middle East – to help them find the jobs they need by expanding educational exchanges, facilitating cooperation in science, and building networks of entrepreneurs.

To that end, we provide billions in economic assistance annually to support the people of the region.  Our Fiscal Year 2016 budget request includes a total of $7.3 billion in U.S. foreign assistance to the Middle East and North Africa – an increase of ten percent from 2015 levels.  We currently have five Free Trade Agreements with countries in the region – with Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman – and have increased trade between the United States and the Middle East by $1 billion per year since 2010, reaching $197 billion in 2014.  We have also enlisted the help of the American business community, academic institutions, and professional groups in our endeavors.

This economic engagement matters because prosperity in one region fuels growth elsewhere, and because economic desperation can make extreme political arguments more alluring.

Finally, the United States will always have a strong connection to the region based on the personal ties that exist between the peoples of the region and the peoples of the United States.  We are joined not only by common interests and values, but also by family ties.  The Arab American Institute estimates there are 3.5 million Arab Americans living in the United States, across all 50 states.

We are proud of these Arab Americans, like Jordanian-American Amin Matalqa, who directed the first Disney film in Arabic.  Or Dr. Farouk el-Baz, born in Egypt, who helped plan all of the Apollo moon landings.  Or Pulitzer Prize winning Anthony Shadid, who died in the course of shining a light on the Asad regime’s brutalities.  Arab Americans have also served in the highest level of government.  Former Congressman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, of Lebanese descent, served the people of Illinois and the United States for nearly 20 years.   Congress Darrell Issa and Senator John Sununu continue that leadership role today.  While our longest serving Secretary of Health, Donna Shalala, was the first Arab American ever appointed to a Cabinet Secretary post.

They and so many other Arab Americans have played a central role in American society – as entertainers, politicians, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, community leaders, and as every-day, hard-working citizens.  As we prepare to receive 10,000 Syrian refugees in the coming months, I want to underscore that the Arab-American experience is truly an American story, and one that has enriched and will continue to enrich the American experience.

Recent history is filled with failed predictions of declining U.S. interest in this region.  Some pundits made that case in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis while others argued the U.S. lost its grip on the region following the rise of theocracy in Iran and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.  Still others saw the United States losing ground with the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000.  But despite these and other challenges in the history of the United States and the region, we are still here, and our commitment remains ironclad.  And that is because the fundamental values and interests that bind us to this region endure.


Even in this time of global uncertainty and chaos, I have more confidence today than ever in the power of American diplomacy to navigate the turmoil, to guard against its risks, and to take advantage of its opportunities to help build a better, more prosperous, and more secure future for ourselves and for our friends and allies in the Middle East.