November 12, 2015, 7:00 pm - July 10, 2020, 6:32 pm


Capital Hilton Hotel

2015 Annual Conference:   Banquet  |  Conference  |  Luncheon

Robert S. Ford, senior fellow at The Middle East Institute and former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria, delivered the keynote address at MEI's Annual Awards Banquet on November 12, 2015, in Washington, D.C.


Ambassador Ford: Good evening everyone. It is really a pleasure to be here tonight and it’s an honor for me to be here tonight, especially with so many people that I respect. I see so many colleagues from the State Department here I can’t even mention them all, but there is one I have to mention. Wendy you were very generous in that introduction, thank you. The man who was my mentor and who taught me about how to be a good diplomat and maintain high professional standards is with us tonight. I don’t know where in this big room, but Ambassador Ronald Neumann is here and maybe Ron if you would just stand up.


Ah, there, okay. Much of diplomacy also involves teaching and mentoring, and Ron exemplified that during my career. So let me first start by thanking Richard Clark who’s the chairman of our Board. Richard is a real visionary for all of us working with him and I’ve learned a lot from Richard. I’ve even learned things about cyber security from Richard and I can tell you that, for example, I thought my computer was safe, has anti-virus, has anti-malware, and then I talked to Richard, and now I’m afraid to turn my computer on even.


I’d like to thank Wendy Chamberlain, who is the president of our institute, for her vision as well, and for her superb day-to-day support of our entire team. The Middle East Institute really is a team. It’s a group of people. It’s a huge pleasure to work with Wendy and I also just want to mention, they’re here somewhere in this crowded room, Paul Salem and Kate Sealy who are Vice-Presidents at the Institute.


And they’re just genuinely nice people. They’re very good at what they do, but they’re also nice and it’s just a real pleasure to work with them. I have to tell you when I retired from the State Department a year and a half ago I wanted to join the Middle East Institute because the Institute itself is different. Richard, Wendy, Paul, Kate and the entire staff helped organize, not just policy forums where people like me can get on and blah, blah about the political crisis of the day on television or on radio, the Middle East Institute teaches languages. It teaches Arabic, it teaches Persian, it teaches Hebrew, it teaches Turkish. What other institute in Washington does that to help expand an understanding of the region?

The Middle East Institute doesn’t just talk about politics, it hosted a Palestinian musician during the past year. It organized a conference about healthcare for refugee populations and how to get healthcare to refugee populations. It did a program about how to help young entrepreneurs in Egypt, and another program about how to combat theft of antiquities, a real problem now in places like Iraq and Syria with the Islamic State.

Middle East Institute did a program about Sufi poets and it did a program about how we can help e-learning in Egypt. The Middle East Institute has the biggest library of books about the Middle East and North Africa in Washington, except for a small library called The Library of Congress. I used to use that library when I was a student here. It’s a beautiful library I recommend to all of you to visit it, it’s fabulous. The Middle East Institute in sum does not just look at the Middle East as a political problem in Washington, rather, The Middle East Institute with its programs and its efforts looks at the Middle East as a place where people live and they strive and they learn and they try for better, for the next generations, and it’s that kind of holistic outlook that attracted me to the Middle East Institute. It really is unique that way in Washington. 

Wendy asked me to talk about what’s happening in the region now and I was a little puzzled. She said, “well, talk about 20 minutes,” and I was reminded of a story of a British archeologist at the turn of the century in London, stuffy London, and the British archeologist was asked to give a presentation for half an hour about his scholarly research and his digs at ancient temples in Southeast Asia, half an hour at the British museum, and he was very upset, only half an hour, and he spluttered  and he complained to his friend, Oscar Wilde, “how can I possibly, how can I possibly explain everything I know in just one half hour?” And Oscar Wilde told him, “well, speak slowly.”


So I’m gonna try to speak slowly but not too slowly and offer three observations and close with a personal story, and I offer these observations about what’s happening in the region in the context of someone who worked there for 30 years beginning with an assignment in the Peace Corps in Morocco where I was a teacher at a high school in a small town in the middle of Morocco, in central Morocco.

The region is changing and in some cases the region is going into unchartered waters, places we have not seen before. My first observation is that the Sunni Shia competition, and you’ll hear about it tomorrow, but the Sunni Shia competition is very real and it will not go away easily. When I was a young teacher, long hair, mustache, not the kind you’d want your daughter to marry, when I was a long haired Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, we didn’t even hear about Shia. We didn’t even hear about it Morocco. The only time I even remember Moroccans talking about it was on Ashura when we were eating candy and one of them said, “you know, the Shia mark today not with sweets, but they mourn because of the events surrounding the battle at Karbala.” And they said it in a very nonchalant, nonchalant, matter of fact way. It wasn’t political at all for them. They just, there was no venom, there was no poison about it. It was just, they were just talking.

But you here tonight, you know, about the sectarianism and the fighting that’s going on in the region in places like Syria and Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and in Lebanon. It’s different now. We haven’t seen this, and the fear and the resentment of many in Sunni Arab communities in places like Syria and Iraq, is feeding extremism. It’s feeding extremism. That’s where the Islamic State comes from.

I’m not trying to justify that resentment or that fear and I’m certainly not trying to justify the actions that some individuals take because of their anger and their resentment. I’m just telling you what I myself heard constantly when I was in Iraq and later in Syria.

And the worry of encirclement by Iran is driving a more assertive gulf policy towards Iran. This is especially true when people in the Gulf sense that little by little [Arabic] the Americans are starting to withdraw from the region. I think this is hard for a lot of Americans to understand. Here in the United States how many of you Americans think very much about the different Christian denominations? Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans? I dare say very few of us pay it much of any attention and so it’s a little difficult for us to understand how important the differences sometimes can be inside the larger worldwide Muslim community.

And that fear and that anger at perceived Shia oppression and aggression among Sunni Arab communities in places like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Americans, I conclude, can’t work well in the region until they understand this divide between Sunnis and Shia. We will consistently be ineffective as we were for a long time in Iraq.

A second observation. In the past summer and autumn the world media seized upon the desperate plight of refugees coming out of countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve seen political backlash because of this refugee flow in European countries. We’ve seen pledges from the American administration, very welcomed pledges, to take in more Syrian refugees and there has been backlash in our country, too, after those pledges.

Think about the candidacies of people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and what they have said. The Syrian refugees are of course trying to get away from terrible fighting in their own country, and Iraqis, too. But the refugee question, the refugee question is not new. When I was the American ambassador in Algeria between 2006 and 2008, there were hundreds, I mean, this were hundreds of North Africans every month climbing into small boats and trying to get across the Mediterranean to Spain and Italy.

The Algerian young people, now I got to talk to some of them, called them Haragas. Haragas is a takeoff from an Arabic word that means to burn, and the reason they called them Haragas is if you did make it to Spain or Italy, you would immediately burn your papers and demand refugee status. These Haragas were risking huge odds to cross to Europe. They were looking of course for jobs, and they were hoping to build their own families one day. Most of them didn’t make it. Most of them drowned and there was a constant flow of boats going out and young people drowning; not just young men, often young women as well.

And so just as you see these pictures of Syrians and Iraqis, Afghans and others trying to get from Turkey into Europe, I also remember that this goes back even to the Haragas. The refugee influx though now is so big, 218,000 last week, one week, 218,000 according to the European Union, is putting pressure on friends in places like Europe. I don’t know if you notice this but the president of the European Union Counsel said just two days ago that this is threatening to bring down the entire Schengen Agreement freedom of movement in Europe because European countries are now starting to put up border controls within Europe.

It’s threatening actually the unity of Europe, according to some European leaders. But the refugee problem, I hate to say, is not going away. In fact, if the fighting in Syria and Iraq continues, and it probably will, and if economic conditions in the region continue to struggle, and they probably will given low oil prices and instability, well there almost certainly are gonna be even bigger refugee flows in the years to come.

There’s a population bulge in the Arab countries, so many young people, more than half the population is under the age of 20 in these countries, that population bulge is just gonna push people out of their countries in search of jobs, in search of hope, to places like Europe. And this brings me to my third, final observation.

Many analysts, including some analysts in the Arab world, have accented that the Arab Spring, which was supposed to improve countries in the Arab world, bring better government and bring new hope, new opportunity, the Arab Spring that was supposed to bring hope and opportunity has turned instead to a political winter.

And with the horrible violence, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and events in countries like Egypt and Bahrain, you can understand why they would draw such a conclusion. I have to say my own assessment of the Arab Spring is different. First, the Arab Spring was inevitable. It couldn’t have been stopped by Americans or by any other foreigners.

The spread of information among people in the region, their rising expectations based on their greater knowledge, and especially their expectations of good governance among a more informed public, made the Arab Spring inevitable. You know, when I was an Arabic student in Cairo in 1983 there were three TV stations. And they were all government owned and just to give you an example, Channel 1, people there just called it Channel Zero, because that’s how dull it was, and Channel two and three weren’t much better. If you go out to the Middle East now, check into a hotel or a if you live there, and you plug into Arab Sat you have literally hundreds of channels, some playing music, some playing movies, an awful lot of news from around the world.

So people see how other people around the world are living. This is new. They never had this before. It’s gotten to the point now where if something happens in a country people whip out a phone, I still don’t know how to use it, I’m afraid after talking to Richard to even mess with it, but people video what’s going on in their own country, they put it up on the internet, on YouTube or something, it’s on Al Jazeera and it’s on El Arabia, within hours.

As Syria descended into violence in 2011 government was starting to kill people frequently, regularly, dozens every week, I told Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem, that they could not apply the old rules to the new situation. The Syrian government couldn’t just kill people, try to keep it quiet enough to intimidate the locals, and not earn the anger and the reprobation of the larger country by keeping them in ignorance of what was happening in this particular neighborhood or that particular city. I told Minister Moallem, “the world has changed and you won’t be able to prevent people from knowing around the world what you’re doing within minutes.”

I said, “you will have to think of a better way to work with people.” That’s what I told him in 2011. Unfortunately his authorities decided to try a different route. And so things have gotten much, much worse and yet, as I look at it, there is still some hope in the region.

Let me talk for a minute about what’s happening in the next phase of the Arab Spring. In Lebanon, which is struggling with a million refugees, a quarter of their population is now refugees, there are young people going out regularly into the streets of Beirut in peaceful protest. And they are demanding an end to government corruption, they’re demanding an end to government cronyism, and they‘re asking to start with that the Lebanese government organize garbage collection. They have a wonderful name for this protest movement. It’s [Arabic] which literally means in Arabic, you stink. And they’re saying that to their government.

It’s very peaceful, they’re just demonstrations. But I want to show you a photo of one of the demonstrations. Scott, can we do the first picture? So this picture is one of these demonstrations. This is about two months ago in Beirut.

Those of you who read Arabic will notice that the banner behind this women is calling for secularism. In other words it’s denouncing sectarianism. It’s contrasting the problems of sectarianism by calling for secularism and democracy and social justice. Scott, can we do the next picture please? Here’s another picture of the street protests in Beirut. This is about, again, about a month old. These young people here are denouncing corruption, the third one from your left is the one denouncing corruption. The very last one, the young man on the far left, is denouncing sectarianism again. Notice that the young lady is covered, but she’s still participating in a little protest against sectarianism and corruption.

Same kind of thing is happening in Iraq right now. I just came back from Iraq. I was there with Ambassador Jim Jeffrey who I think is here somewhere. Did I see Jim? Yeah. So Jim and I were there just a month ago and we had breakfast with some politically connected people who are working on education and they were talking about the protests in Baghdad and if you follow events in Iraq you know that there have been these protests dating back to last summer. Now, what are they protesting in Baghdad? Same thing. Governance and corruption. They’re especially anxious in Iraq about electricity. And if you’ve ever spent a summer in Iraq without air conditioning you, too, would be demanding.

Electricity is a matter of urgent national security. But Scott, if you could go to the next picture. This is a picture of one of the protests that an Iraqi friend sent to me. What’s interesting in this picture is the signs they’re holding. The one on the bottom right says, “I’m a Shia student and I’m against sectarianism.” The one in the middle, “I’m a Sunni student and I’m against sectarianism.” The one up on the top is, “I’m a Yazidi student. I’m against sectarianism.” And the last sign on the left is demanding that we be unified. “Our life depends on our being unified,” it says.

Now, I’d ask those of you who know the middle just a little bit, I just showed you people in Beirut and Baghdad, Iraq, rejecting sectarianism, what countries of the past 30 years in the Middle East have suffered more sectarian brutality than Lebanon and Iraq? Very, very few I would wager. I don’t want to overstate this, I don’t want to say that the rainbow has landed and things are going to get better. We’ve seen peaceful protests in other countries, sentiments like this urging nonviolence, it’s possible that these young people are not going to prevail.

They may not organize. They may not be able to organize. Maybe the government will stop them. They may not be able to really influence national politics, but what I do understand from what I just showed you is that there clearly are a lot of young people who don’t want violence and who don’t want sectarian politics, and they’re young now and they’re gonna be around for a long time to come. And thus my feeling, if you could do the next picture, Scott, my feeling about the Arab Spring is kind of like what Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, said to the visiting, secretly visiting, Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor at the time, who visited China in 1971, at the beginning of the opening  between the United States and China.

And Kissinger in his memories describes a very long, fascinating discussion with the Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai, and Kissinger at one point asked Chou En-lai, “Mr. Premier, we’re talking about world events, how do you assess the French revolution?” And according to Kissinger Chou En-lai thought about it for a moment and then said, “Mr. Secretary, it is too early to know yet.” 


And that’s what I think about the Arab Spring. It’s too early to know yet. But when I think about how we as Americans can relate to this younger and more politically aware generation in the Arab world, my very first thought, my very first thought is that this is not a military question. The US can’t resolve Sunni/Shia competition, it can’t resolve it militarily, and our military, as skillful as it is, really only provides a short term respite from extremism. Our military forces can’t fix the refugee problem coming out of Syria and Iraq and neither can Russian military intervention.

Nor can the United States set up democracies out of a box, or install some kind of a software program that brings good governance. Across the Arab world the people living there are gonna have to resolve their problems and build their own communities, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the Middle East, and I’ve heard some presidential candidates, in this year’s campaign, suggesting that. We can’t. We can’t for our own national security interests. But what we can do is be more selective and smart and focus on helping the people on the ground who are already seeking positive change.

Could we go to the next photo?

So this is the story I want to end with. This is the city of Tlemcen in Western Algeria. It’s very close to the Moroccan border, it’s a history city, and this particular site is one of my favorites in all of the Arab world, it is the mausoleum of the Holy Man named Sidi Boumediene. I was in Algeria with Ambassador Ron Neumann in the 1990s and this city, Tlemcen, was one of the worst places for fighting. There was a terrible Islamic extremist element in Tlemcen, in and around it, something called the Groupe Islamique Armee, the Islamic Armed Group who killed people by cutting their throats and literally thousands died in and around Tlemcen.

Tlemcen was a hot bed of extremism. And really, the civil war in Algeria only began to wind down when President Bouteflika issued an amnesty about 10 years ago.

When I was ambassador in Algeria in 2008 I got to go to Tlemcen, could never have gone during the horrible fighting there. So I went to Tlemcen just to see a small English language program that we had with the University there. And I took with me Amanda Johnson who was then at the time a brand new young, first time American diplomat whose job was to do cultural issues, and I told Amanda, “we’re going to a university, we’re going to Tlemcen, it’s had a lot of problems in the past, we’re gonna go in real quiet, we’re just gonna go in quietly, see the English language program, talk to the students, in the English language class. How many are there, Amanda? Twenty-five, great. We’re gonna talk to them and we’re gonna get right out. Quiet visit.”

I really didn’t want to be public about it because I was worried that the students would be anti-American and it could turn ugly very quickly. The morning we visited Israel bombed the Gaza Strip very heavily and I said to Amanda, “we’re gonna, real quiet, Amanda, we don’t want any problems.” “Yes, sir, yes, sir.” So we pulled up in a single car and there was a huge line waiting. President of the university, the mayor, the head of the governorate council, deans of this, all waiting and I looked at Amanda and I said, “Amanda! What is this?” She’s like, “I’m sorry. I told them I want it quiet.”

I get out of the car shaking hands with all these dignitaries. They pull me immediately and say, “we’re going right into the biggest auditorium.” And I said, “no, no, no, no. We’re just going to the little English class to see the students.” He said, “oh, no, Mr. Ambassador, we’re going into the main auditorium. We had to put it in the biggest auditorium, it’s standing room only.” This is a true story. “It is standing room only,” and I turned to Amanda and I said, “Amanda! This is exactly what I didn’t want.” “I’m very sorry, Mr. Ambassador.”

I walked into this room, this is in 2008, Israel had just bombed Gaza and the war in Iraq was raging, lots of Iraqis getting killed. I thought I would be murdered. I went into this hall and I got a standing ovation. And I’m sure they were disappointed that I didn’t look like Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt. “That’s the American ambassador, him?” But I got a standing ovation. I was dumbfounded, literally like this. Next slide. I asked the president of the university, “what is going on? Why are they cheering for an American ambassador?” And he said, “but you know about the effect of your programs, right?” And I said, “what do you mean?” And he said, “your English language programs and the long distance learning programs that you have set up, have done wonders here and we had a program with the University of Missouri at Rola, in structural engineering, we taught over long distance internet, high speed internet that the embassy installed for them, taught structural engineering classes a whole curriculum. And the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had a nursing program with the University of Tlemcen also over high speed internet. They had, of course it was in English, they had to speak English first.” He said, “we graduated 15 students from each of those two programs last year, Mr. Ambassador, and every one of the students got a job. And you know what unemployment is like here.” And of course unemployment for young people in Algeria is well over 50%, probably near 70%. Remember the Haragas I was talking about? He said, “the students know that. They know that they learn English and they can put on their resumes that they did these American programs and they’re all getting jobs. And so they’re very happy,” and he said, “Mr. Ambassador, this program is a huge success,” and I turned to Amanda and I said, “way to go, Amanda! That’s excellent!”

That program cost one million dollars, total, sunk cost. One million dollars. At that time we were spending over 500 million dollars a day in Iraq. I leave you then with this thought: we can’t fix the sectarianism, the violence, the refugees, the unmet demands for human rights. We can’t fix those. I think we can be sensitive to the problems. And I think acknowledging that the United Nations charter of universal human rights is supposed to be applied universally, would be a good start, and there may be some instances where some discrete efforts, like long distance learning in Tlemcen, but not micromanagement, can give help to people on the ground and give them tools to make their own lives better and their own communities more prosperous. And those kinds of American efforts may take time, they will take time, but we should give the people in the region that time. We don’t need to push them. We need to encourage them and let the people of the region go forward from there. That kind of thinking, encouraging, not pushing, that’s the approach of the Middle East Institute’s team and it’s an approach that I’m really proud to be a part of. Thank you very much for listening to me and enjoy your dinner.


Transcript ends

Transcriber: Ruth Frank (505/440-9096)