Top US diplomat on the Middle East David Welch Urges Effective Diplomacy on Iran and Continuity on the Peace Process
With less than five weeks left for the Bush administration in office,
the top U.S. diplomat to the Middle East, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, speaks to Al-Hayat in an exclusive interview discussing the long journey that Washington has taken in the region over the last eight years. The U.S. official who brokered the U.S.-Libyan comprehensive claims settlement agreement, calls for an effective diplomacy in the face of the increasing Iranian threat, and sees urgency in continuing the peace process and pursuing a two state solution:
• Only few weeks are left for the Bush administration, you have been one of the most active diplomats in the field, joggling between Libya, Lebanon, Palestinian territories and Israel. Looking back at the last eight years what are major accomplishments, setbacks, and challenges that you leave behind?
I think what has happened in these eight years, both in the US foreign policy as well as developments in the region, holds a historical importance. It can also offer us some clues about what will be likely the case in the future too.
On the Arab Israeli conflict, which I believe is central to our National security, we inherited beginning of the decade in 2001 a very difficult, complicated and violent picture. Today, at the end of 2008, we managed in restoring for the first time in ten years a serious negotiating process.
What does this say for the future? We wish we could be turning it over solved with an agreement. However, it is not failure that this is not the case. We have a very sophisticated file, and Secretary Condoleeza Rice intends to personally brief Secretary designate Hillary Clinton about it.
On Lebanon on the other hand, the country has its troubles I won't deny this, but it stands on its own two feet in a way it hasn't done so for many decades. Sometimes in human history, something as catastrophic as the murder, in this case the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri has invigorated new and good things in the country. I was in Cairo when it happened; it was devastating for the Arab world, to lose such a prominent and respected figure. Today, there is no Israeli presence in Lebanon. Instead there is a competent force deployed in the South to protect the Lebanese sovereignty and the Israeli sovereignty. Syria is not there, it is of course trying to exercise it influence but Syria and Lebanon will always have a close relationship, the question is whether it is going to be a healthy one.
From the point of view of the Bush administration, we believe we have constructed the most solid Lebanon policy. It's a policy in its own right, and not a card as a part of another policy. As we look to the future, that presents some question to Lebanon, how will it behave as a sovereign nation?
• You personally mediated the agreement between Libya and Washington on Lockerbie case, among other issues. How did you reach the breakthrough?
There have been attempts from several American administrations to move Libya out of the game of terrorism into a more responsible behavior and away from weapons of mass destruction. And only because Libya decided to do this, it offers an alternative role model. As Americans, we took some steps too, you know my country, sometimes it is hard for Americans to close the book, and we cannot forget that Americans died, and Libyans died. Today, we have turned the page and it is very important to remove a country from terrorism list when it has done the things expected from it. In the next five years we will see dramatic changes in the policy, as Secretary Rice says there is no "hole in the policy" going from here.
• With this picture in mind, what are the major challenges in the Middle East for the next administration?
The challenges going ahead are first how to protect, sustain and advance the peace process. President Elect Barack Obama said in his press conference when he introduced his national security team that he will focus on this as a priority. That is a very important indication, especially to do that in the first term of the new administration.
I also believe that the economic situation will be a challenge in the region. We are in a global recession, and it'll be very important how we choose to face it together. One of the quiet successes of the last decade, is the economic boom in the Gulf, and how it has become more globalized. The Gulf is an epicenter of globalization, from communication to air routes to media outlets. That social and historical trend will be sustained but Governments will go through period of stress because of economic, so it is a domestic challenge, and I hope we have strong partnerships as we go through that.
I believe Iran presents a very difficult problem in its own for everybody. We want the diplomatic option to succeed but it is troubled, it is not changing the Iranian behavior. Thus, it needs to be made more effective and there has to be a more coordinated effort from the international community.
• Do you mean by being more effective to impose tougher sanctions?
What I meant by more effective, not that it should punish better or offer more, but the standards for effective is the ability to change their behavior. So far, the answer is apparently not. Add to that that the debate now, is how close is the risk from Iran, and not the existence of the risk.
• Is there still time for diplomacy?
Yes there is time, but all those who argue for the diplomatic option have to meet the standard of effectiveness. It is very troubling that Iranians continue to pursue weapons of mass destruction and work on their nuclear program.
• Do you agree with the critics that the US position in the region is weaker?
No I don't. I go back several years to 2006 which was the peak of the extremists' sense of empowerment. We witnessed then the elections of Hamas in the territories, the Hizballah war, the rising of oil prices, the golden mosque bombing in Baghdad and an increase in violence in Iraq. Today things are really different. Iraq is standing as an Arab nation back on its two feet determining its future, Americans and Iraqis came to understanding on our orderly departure. Violence levels have gone down and the price of oil has declined. The decline in the price of oil is hurting Iran more than others, as it didn't manage its resources equally. On the other hand, when I talk to people in Lebanon, it doesn't matter who or where they worship, I don't think they see the future of the country in the hands of a militia.
Finally on Hamas, they've taken over Gaza, but they have been unable to feed people in Gaza or facilitate their going to the Hajj. The Hamas clique has made a complete mess of the situation.
• Do you think these turnarounds will be reflected in the several upcoming elections in the region?
Here is my leadership transitions chart for all 19 places in Near East area. There are 18 countries and the Palestinian territories. In the last ten years, in 13 of 19 places there have been transitions of leaderships, and in 6 of those 13, those transitions occurred through elections. Of course in some cases those elections are not perfect, but an imperfect election is in many respects better than no elections. But, there has been an important trend for legitimacy based on popular mandate in the region. It is not even, and sometimes the results to the United States are not happy ones, but it's there.
In 2009 you will have the following elections: Israel, possibly the Palestinian Authority, Iraq (two elections provincial and council representatives), Algerian presidential elections, a Yemeni elections, Lebanese parliamentary elections. When you look at evolution and maturation of politics, this is very interesting phenomenon and even as a realist, we can discern gradually a change in attitude.
• If elections in Lebanon produce a majority for Hizballah and their allies, how detrimental that could be for the US policy?
Let us see whether that happens. I don't want to predict who the Lebanese people will choose, however, Lebanon has consensual politics so I think the positive energy of Lebanese are the one what to look for here. Most Lebanese want their country to benefit from what they have seen from last decade and what they will most likely see in the next decade is this increasingly globalized area. The Hizballah message is difficult to convey too, who this militia exist for, who are they protecting from what?
• Has there been any contact with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu? There is fear in the Arab world that if he emerges as the next prime minister, this might jeopardize the peace process and the two state solution. Do you share this fear?
First of all, it is up to the Israeli voters to decide who they want in office, we don t interfere in these decisions. Nevertheless, we are working every single day to try and advance the negotiations, and we will do that until January 20th. Our belief is that it will be good for the next administration to continue this effort, and ultimately, we think that the best solution here is the two state solution and reached through negotiations free of violence and terror. Those are very simple and straight forward principals. We expect any government to try for the same goals, the international community expects that, and I believe the region also expects it.
This formula is at the heart of the Arab initiative which doesn't talk about regaining Arab land by violence, but about a negotiated outcome and is an important component for reaching a solution. So on the Arab side, their will be requirement to come forward with a new initiative and to push forward, and we will encourage whatever Israeli government is formed to do likewise. The alternatives to the two state solution are all worse.
• How urgent is the two state solution?
This is very high national priority in this administration. President Bush has given this lot of emphasis in his second term and especially in last two years.(Secretary) Rice devoted lot of time and has been to Jerusalem, 23 or 24 times. The Middle East is very high priority and will be for next one too.
• There is another track, the Syrian-Israeli one, an indirect process. How do you view this process?
We have not been able in this administration to examine sufficiently how this will work. Generally we've taken the position, that the ideal goal is to have a comprehensive peace. We would like to see Israel having peaceful normal relations beyond Egypt and Jordan to include Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon, and the rest of the Arab world.
We focused more on the Palestinian track, as we've considered it to be more promising. However, we would be willing to look objectively if there are consequential changes in those areas where have had difficulties with Syria. The ground has been set, in a way that if Syria is convincing about addressing some of concerns that US, Europe, and the Arab league has, then there is some promise for the relationship.
• Some in Syria, see in the departure of the Bush administration, while they are still in power, same regime, they view that as a victory. They also see that the isolation that the US tried to impose has failed as they're having British officials visit them, the French president might go again, what is your response?
There is a difference between diplomatic tourism and real change. The Syrian government has changed once in 39 years, to suggest that continuity in Syria as change occurs somewhere else is a victory for Syria, is a really odd historical parallel. We like the way our governments change.
• There is a fear in Lebanon that the change of administrations might mean reversal of policy or it'll impact Hariri Tribunal.
The tribunal is international law and all countries are obliged to uphold it. Given the history of Lebanon, the Lebanese can be appropriately worried, but the support in the US for a Lebanon that is secure, sovereign, independent is very strong, and bipartisan in the congress. There is no indication whatsoever that the new administration will have a different policy. I have worked in Syria before, and I personally regret that our relation with Syria has become what it is, because I would have liked to have a professional dialogue with them. There have been some improvements in certain respects, I am not sure how much it has been due to a conscious decision or to the historical current.
President Bush was going to leave anyway, there wasn't going to be a third term, we are term limited here unlike some other places. In the last few years there has been so much economic development and change in the Arab world, but some places have been absent of this change.
• You have served five consecutive US administrations, and taken assignments that ranged from Islamabad to Riyadh to Cairo to Damascus. What is next for you?
Secretary Rice thinks I am very busy working on the Quartet meeting next week.
• And in ten weeks from now?
I do not intend to be far.