The below transcript is from the keynote address of MEI's 72nd Annual Conference, held on November 8, 2018 at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C.


  • Paul Salem
    President, MEI

  • Ambassador David Hale
    Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, U.S. Department of State




Paul Salem: [00:00:00] With today's conference we're nearing the end of a very exciting year at MEI. We are engaged in rebuilding our headquarters on N street and we will move into them in June of next year and the new building will feature a contemporary arts gallery, large conference facilities, state of the art classrooms and ample office space for various policy educational communication and cultural programs. In the meantime our temporary home on 18th Street has been a busy hive of activity every week with panel discussions conferences and expert roundtables on the region's issues. A vibrant schedule of arts and cultural events and nightly language and Regional Studies courses and a vigorous communication outreach and track two diplomacy agenda. To keep up with MEI's publications or to sign up for upcoming events or tune in to our podcasts and other multimedia output, please visit our totally revamped new website at 2018 was indeed a turbulent year for the Middle East and 2019 promises to be no less challenging despite pockets of stability and economic growth. The Middle East is still in the throes of regional proxy confrontation several ongoing civil wars dire refugee and humanitarian needs and down but not out terrorist organizations and the US itself is going through a period of transformation in its politics both domestic and foreign. How will states and leaders in the Middle East address the challenges facing their region? How Will the U.S. administration as well as the new Congress shape policy in the year ahead? The four panels of today's conference will explore various aspects of these questions. The first panel looking at challenges facing U.S. policy. The second panel explores how to end the region's civil wars. Third examines the role of new powers both regional powers and global. The fourth highlights the horizons of economic development. And we are lucky to have an excellent group of panelists and moderators to help us explore these issues. But To anchor today's discussions and provide a keynote address to start off the day, we are very honored to have with us the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs His Excellency Ambassador David Hale. Ambassador Hale is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service Class of career minister. He has served as ambassador to Pakistan Jordan and Lebanon which is I think where we first met. In Washington D.C. he has served as the special envoy and Deputy Special Envoy for Middle East peace and as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He is the recipient of numerous senior State Department awards including the Distinguished Service Award and the presidential rank award of meritorious service. Ambassador Hale will deliver his keynote address and then has to leave us to attend to official business. David thank you for taking the time to be with us today and we look forward to hearing your views. The floor is yours.

David Hale: [00:03:08] Thank you very much Paul for that introduction and allow me also to offer my congratulations on your recent appointment as MEI president. Your deep experience and understanding of the region will be an invaluable asset for MEI. As Paul just mentioned, I've served in Lebanon I served there three times actually. So it's been a big part of my life. And Paul you may not know this because we haven't discussed it quite this way, but in each of those three assignments the Salem family played a very important part in my life as well. When I first arrived there as a very wet behind the ears political officer, Paul's mother Phyllis was a pillar of the American Lebanese community and was a leader in organizations such as AMIDEAST Beirut, which by the end of the Civil War was one of the few institutions still surviving that was linking America and Lebanon together at that time. Then when I came back as DCM Paul was my primary interaction. The U.S. Lebanon relationship was getting stronger. We had more interactions which meant more visitors for an American embassy from Congress from NGOs from around town and they were hungry for information and so we often took them to Paul who was willing to spend his time in order to help educate American visitors on the realities of Lebanon and what would be the best way to promote American and Lebanese interests and relations. And then when I went back as ambassador I had of course the honor to interact more with his father, a distinguished statesman, foreign minister of Lebanon in the 80s, who at that point had become the head of Balamond University and one of the prominent educational institutions in Lebanon in the north. But he had a special instinct and way to bring whoever the current and arriving American ambassador was up north, sit down and tell them some home truths in a very avuncular way about how best to conduct a relationship he cared deeply about. So the Salem family has played a big part in my life and it's great to reconnect with you. It's also of course a pleasure to join you in opening this conference and throughout the day I know that you'll hear a vigorous debate about what the United States should be doing in the Middle East to address the region's many challenges. And I'd like to start you off with a look at what the United States is doing in the region with a focus on some of the issues on which I spend some of my time. Governments across the region face tough decisions. My job is to help our leaders use the full range of American power and influence to encourage regional leaders to make choices that advance our shared objectives and are consistent with the president's foreign policy agenda. We're protecting America's security at home and abroad and promoting U.S. leadership through a balanced engagement across the Middle East. We're working actively with our partners to counter the threat from terrorist groups and states that sponsor terrorism. But as the president has made clear we cannot and should not bear the sole responsibility for stabilizing and securing the region. We continue to urge our partners to do their part to promote regional stability. The challenge lies in how we balance our efforts. Responding to breaking crises and ongoing conflicts while addressing the long term trends shaping the region's future. One of the current flashpoints is the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi many of whom I'm sure you knew. I was with Secretary Pompei when he traveled to Saudi Arabia to hear directly from King Salman and the crown prince on how Saudi Arabia would handle the investigation of Khashoggi's murder. We asked that the Saudi leadership uncover the facts and hold accountable those responsible. So far we've seen some positive steps. Clearly more needs to be done including identifying a number of individuals responsible. We are taking strong action in response including revoking visas and reviewing the applicability of sanctions under the global Magnitsky Act. At the same time our shared strategic interests with Saudi Arabia remain and remain strong. The secretary Pompeo said we continue to view as achievable the twin imperatives of protecting America and hold accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. One of our most critical shared objectives is to improve maximum–impose, excuse me–maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until it changes its malign behavior and threats. Iran remains the most significant threat to regional stability.

David Hale: [00:07:22] Several weeks ago in New York secretary Pompeo outlined Iran's malign behavior: ongoing assistance to proxy militias that stoke regional conflict, support for terrorist organizations, the development and proliferation of ballistic missiles that destabilize the region and threaten our partners. We also remain deeply concerned with the Iranian regime's serious human rights abuses against the Iranian people. These abuses include Iran's continued arbitrary arrests of individuals solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression opinion belief association and peaceful assembly as well as its detentions of foreigners and dual nationals. We seek international support for efforts to change Iranian behavior through pressure deterrents and support for the Iranian people. We want every single country onboard. And this is among the president's top diplomatic priorities. In the wake of the president's decision to ceaseU.S. participation in the JCPOA, countries now face a choice about doing business in Iran. Earlier this week we completed the reimposition of the sanctions that had previously been lifted under JCPOA. Most significantly we reimposed sanctions on the purchase of Iranian petroleum, petroleum products, and petrochemicals from Iran. The sanctions that the Trump administration has placed on Iran over the past nearly two years are the toughest sanctions ever on the Iranian regime. The sanctions target the Iranian regime, I would underscore, and its enablers. Our economic pressure is directed at the regime and its malign proxies not at the Iranian people. The Iranian regime's longest suffering victims are its own people. And America supports them in their quest for a better life. Iranian support for militias in places like Syria and Yemen prolongs regional conflicts and exacerbates human suffering.

David Hale: [00:09:09] In both cases we're pressing Iran to end its role in the conflicts while we increase our own efforts to reduce and resolve these conflicts that if left unaddressed clearly create openings Iran can exploit to extend its malign influence. In Syria we have three critical priorities. The enduring defeat of ISIS which requires not just battlefield victory but stabilization so ISIS cannot reemerge. Ending the military presence of Iran and its proxies which are significant forces of instability and conflict in Syria and the neighborhood. And we want to see a Syrian political process progress because without it Syria will not achieve stability security and prosperity. Syria of course will also need to end its support for terrorism and verifiably eliminate or surrender its WMD stockpiles and programs. And it's essential to create conditions for the safe voluntary and dignified return of refugees and internally displaced persons. In Yemen we're pressing all parties to join in a political resolution and for a cessation of hostilities including missile and UAV strikes from Houthi controlled areas against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently coalition airstrikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen. We support the efforts of U.N. special envoy Martin Griffiths and encourage all sides to work through the U.N. building a political framework for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As Secretary Pompeo has said substantive consultations under the UN special envoy must commence this month in a third country to implement confidence building measures to address the underlying issues of the conflict the demilitarisation of borders and the concentration of all large weapons under international observation. We urge all sides of the conflict including our partners in the Saudi led coalition to avoid civilian casualties. We're also working to address Yemen's humanitarian tragedy more than 18 million Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from. If unaddressed this lack of food could become one of the world's worst instances of mass famine. Over the past two years we've provided 1.2 billion dollars in humanitarian assistance for Yemen including food assistance and access to safe drinking water shelter protection and medical care. We urge all sides in the conflict to allow all Yemenis unfettered access to shipments of humanitarian aid and commercial supplies including food fuel and medicine. Our engagement with partners in Iraq and the Gulf is also helping to mitigate Iran's malign influence. In Iraq, the enduring defeat of ISIS entails continuing along the path toward a stable inclusive and democratic government free of malign foreign influences and capable of providing security stability and prosperity for the Iraqi people. Following democratic elections Iraq is experiencing a peaceful transition of power and I join Secretary Pompeo in congratulating President Barham Salih prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and speaker Mohamed al Halbousi as they assume their new offices. These Leaders are supportive of coalition efforts and we look forward to working with them. Iraq is not now nor should it ever be another nation's vassal. Based on the foundation of our strategic framework agreement, we will help Iraqis build their institutional capacity politically economically and in providing for Iraq's own security while fully respecting Iraqi sovereignty. Ultimately a united Iraq is the strongest Iraq and we continue to urge disputing parties to forge peaceful solutions to their differences. The continued Arab Gulf rift not only opens the door to increased Iranian meddling but detracts from efforts to address crises including in Syria and in Yemen, it reduces the region's ability to deal with emerging external challenges. We have a more positive vision of the potential for regional collaboration in the Gulf, it's called the Middle East Strategic Alliance or MESA. In New York several weeks ago the president outlined it. A regional strategic alliance for us with the GCC, Jordan and Egypt to advance prosperity stability and security in the region. MESA holds the potential to improve the way these states work together on the region's defenses against internal and external threats, economic and trade linkages and energy security. Secretary Pompeo brought the GCC foreign ministers together with Egypt and Jordan for the first time since the rift began at UNGA to deepen in this discussion on regional unity. Our work to resolve these regional conflicts that I've just reviewed and build partnerships helps us to stabilize the region contain threats to America and close the opportunities Iran is using to expand its influence. Beyond our strategic efforts to counter that influence, we're addressing some of the region's other regional conflicts. As we've seen these conflicts radiate instability threatening not only American national security but the security of our closest allies in Europe and elsewhere. In Libya we're working with the UN Support Mission in Libya and the UN special representative Hassan Salameh to advance a political reconciliation process towards an inclusive constitutional process and credible peaceful and well-prepared elections. We support elections as soon as possible but artificial deadlines and a rushed process would be counterproductive. Our support for the U.N. and our Libyan partners focuses on laying the necessary technical and security groundwork for elections. The international community will be most effective when it speaks with one voice in support of special representative Salameh andU.N. mediation and to curb any attempts to impose a military solution which would only plunge Libya into further chaos. The recent escalation of violence in Tripoli highlights that the political track alone is insufficient. It must be coupled with security and economic reform without stability in Tripoli, no effective political mediation much less a solution can happen. Instability also opens the door for ISIS and al-Qaida resurgence. We support comprehensive currency and subsidy reform to revitalize Libyan economy and reduce instability and we've collaborated with the U.N. to facilitate a much needed Libyan led dialogue on fiscal transparency and longstanding grievances over resource distribution. The administration has also stepped up its engagement on the Western Sahara conflict. I recently met with both Moroccan and Algerian officials their foreign ministers and I'm encouraged by their agreement to participate in upcoming talks in Geneva. Direct negotiations under the auspices of personal envoy the secretary general Koehler can yield a just lasting and mutually acceptable political solution for the people of the Western Sahara. Resolving this conflict will unlock greater regional integration and cooperation.

David Hale: [00:15:45] So as you've just heard we certainly have our hands full with the region's many conflicts and ongoing crises. Yet we cannot neglect the broader trends that will shape our engagement in the Middle East for the years to come. There are two–there are two trends in particular to which I pay increasingly close attention. The first is the slow methodical and renewed effort of other external powers vying for influence in the region. The president's national security strategy identified an era of great power competition emerging in world politics. The Middle East is one of the prime arenas for that competition just as it has been historically. Russia seeks to undermine American influence and the institutions of international order worldwide and the Middle East is no exception. Russia's intervention in Syria saved the Assad regime from certain defeat. Although American and Russian objectives in Syria are by no stretch wholly aligned we do seek common ground with Russia to end the conflict and advance the goal of a Syria free from the presence of Iranian proxy of Iranian and proxy Syrian security forces. Those forces destabilize the entire region and serve only the interests of Tehran and not those of the Syrian people or of its neighbors. Despite our low level of trust we must engage Russia while assessing actions and follow through on its commitments starting with Russia's commitment to implement U.N. Security Council resolution 22.54. In Afghanistan Russia continues to obstruct Afghan led peace negotiations with the Taliban rather than allow meaningful discussion. We've also seen in Libya how Russia's encouraging parties to continue fighting just when the rest of us are urging them to come to the negotiating table. China is also seeking to expand its influence in the region primarily through investment trade and infrastructure deals. And while China's Belt and Road initiative is focused on East and South Asia it does extend into central parts of the Middle East. And already China is the largest customer for Saudi Arabian oil. And just this summer Chinese companies pledged a record one billion dollars in investments in the Khalifa port free trade zone. As we've seen elsewhere Chinese trade and investment comes with strings and can produce a debt trap. A deliberate strategy to create long term dependencies that benefit the interests of the Chinese state and its economic institutions not the recipients of these loans. This type of Chinese influence runs counter to our model in which we incentivize market based reforms build local capacity and help nations grow economically without jeopardizing their own sovereignty. In contrast we've encouraged commercial ties between the U.S. private sector and the region. Whether helping a U.S. company invest in Iraq to make more efficient use of the gas produced at oil wells or selling power generation equipment in Libya Algeria or Iraq to increase electricity output, American investments in the region help us and help our partners. The socio economic and demographic pressures facing the region are great, which is the second long term challenge that I'm focused on. Corrupt systems that serve elites not the people have taken a toll lasting stability is possible only when governments and societies of the Middle East face up to these challenges. America can only do so much. We offer assistance to our partners, those are supportive of American goals. We ask our partners to make necessary reforms to spur economic growth and job creation. Only the private sector can create the level of job growth needed by an ever burgeoning population. Attracting that level of private sector investment requires moving from an economic model that protects the status quo through patronage and corruption to a sensibly regulated environment that encourages private sector growth and opportunity. And we support reforms to unlock that opportunity. Increase transparency and improve the delivery of basic services. So we stand ready to work with our partners who have the courage and leadership to do just that and to address these challenges as we seek the stability peace and prosperity that the people of the Middle East so desperately want but that their leaders and sometimes their neighbors have all too often failed to deliver. Thank you very much for your time today. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.

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