Prepared remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice at the 67th Annual Middle East Institute Awards Banquet in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, November 14, 2013. (Jump to podcast and photos)

Good evening everyone.  I’m really very pleased to be part of this special evening.  And I want to begin by thanking your outstanding chairman and my good friend,  Richard Clarke, for inviting me to speak tonight.  Dick mentioned that I started at the NSC in January of 1993.  What he neglected to mention was that he was my first boss in government.  So indeed, we go back a long way, more than 20 years.  And Dick I want to thank you, as so many in this room do, for being such a wonderful mentor to me and to so many others in the field of foreign policy and national security.  And I want to thank you also for your many years of extraordinary service to our nation.   

I’d also like to thank MEI’s wonderful President, Ambassador Wendy Chamberlain, and the Board of Governors for this Institute’s myriad contributions, which have long helped shape America’s policy towards the Middle East. 

Tonight, we honor two distinguished individuals who have dedicated their lives to changing our world—both literally and figuratively.  Zaha Hadid has reshaped the landscape with her innovative and award-winning architectural designs.  And Abdlatif Al-Hamad has made game-changing contributions to development in Africa and the Middle East.  Congratulations to both our honorees.

For over 65 years, MEI has worked to promote better understanding between the peoples of the United States and the Middle East.  So, you know well that our relationship with the Middle East is not the work of a day or even of a decade.  Ours is a long-term investment in, and commitment to, a critical region of the world.     

President Obama recently outlined his vision of America’s role in the Middle East and North Africa.  At the UN General Assembly in September, he highlighted four core U.S. interests in the region: confronting aggression against our allies and partners; ensuring the free flow of energy to world markets; dismantling terrorist networks that threaten people everywhere; and preventing the development, proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.  President Obama made clear that the United States stands prepared to defend these interests with all elements of American power, including, if necessary, the use of force. 

At the same time, the President underscored that these are not the totality of our interests nor of our commitment to the region.  We have a fundamental stake in improving opportunity and prosperity for the people of the region.  We have an immutable commitment to advancing democracy and human rights.  We will always support open markets and greater protection for women and minorities.  And we will keep promoting the development of stronger civil societies and freer press.  That hasn’t changed, and it won’t change.  Furthermore, we serve all four of our core interests when we promote these fundamental democratic values, because democracies make the world stronger, and they are indeed stronger partners for the United States.

The people and the rights we protect, the lives we improve, the economies we strengthen, the hope we help build—all are measures of our success in the region.  But, as I think everyone here recognizes, none of these goals can be achieved overnight.  And none can be achieved at the barrel of a gun.  The long, hard work of political, economic, and social progress takes generations and, yes, patience and even humility.  Let us not forget that 237 years after our independence, the United States is still working to perfect our union.  Indeed, in 1964, the year I was born, in many parts of this great country, people who looked like me could not vote or marry someone who looks like my husband.  Change comes.  But it’s not always linear.  And though the jack-boot of injustice can weigh heavy, the human spirit is ever indomitable. 

As Dr. King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  That is true in every region of our world.  In the Middle East too, change will come and eventually come to stay.  But, we must recall that lasting change can only be forged by those who own it, by the people of the region.  And yet, through their long and arduous journey, the United States will stand fast with those who share our fundamental interests and values.

Tonight, I’d like to take a few moments to talk about some recent developments across the region.  First: Iran.  We are working with our P5+1 partners to reach a six-month, first phase agreement with the Iranians that will halt progress in their nuclear program and roll it back in key ways.  The goal is to put real time on the clock, so we can negotiate a comprehensive, long-term solution that fully resolves the concerns of the international community, without Iran coming any closer to break-out while talks continue.  At the same time, any economic relief that Iran might get would be limited, temporary and reversible.  The sanctions architecture that this Administration, working with Congress, has so painstakingly built would remain wholly intact.  And, since we will continue to enforce existing sanctions, the amount of revenue that Iran will lose during the next six months would far exceed any amount of relief they might obtain as part of a first step agreement. 

For the first time in many years, we are seeing signs that Iran’s leadership may be serious about a nuclear deal.  This has only been possible due to five years of effort by the United States to build a durable international coalition and to impose unprecedented economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran.  Our two-track strategy of pressure and engagement is seemingly changing the calculus of Iran’s leaders.  We owe it to ourselves and to the world to test—to test— whether they are, in fact, serious.  The latest round of talks in Geneva was substantive, and the P5+1 stood united.  But, we have not yet reached a deal.  And that is because the P5+1 will not accept anything less than concrete, verifiable terms that ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be entirely peaceful.  Talks will resume on November 21st, and we aim to build on the progress of the last two rounds.  

A second critical issue, and a top U.S. priority, is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Here too, a negotiated political solution is the only path to enduring peace.  As President Obama has affirmed, we are committed to a two-state solution that results in a viable, independent Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with Israel.  We know full well it won’t be easy.  But, we are fully invested to give these negotiations their best shot to succeed, because failing to resolve this issue would have profoundly negative consequences over the long term—for the United States, for Israel and for the Palestinians. 

While both Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas have taken important steps, and the talks are continuing, we are seeing increased tensions on the ground.  Some of this is a result of recent settlement announcements, so let me reiterate that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.  This is not new.  This has been U.S. policy over decades and multiple administrations.  The only way to resolve these kinds of critical issues is at the negotiating table.  That’s why President Obama has asked Secretary Kerry to lead a robust effort, working with the Middle East Quartet, to revive the Arab Peace Initiative in cooperation with the Arab League, and to strengthen our institution-building and economic support for the Palestinian Authority.  Ending this conflict surely will not solve all the region’s challenges, but a peaceful resolution would go a long way to anchor stability, undermine extremism, and recast relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Third, among the most serious challenges we face is the threat posed by the ongoing violence and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.  There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.  Assad’s attempts to retain power by slaughtering his citizens, gassing children, and starving civilians cannot succeed; so, there is no viable future for Syrians so long as Assad remains in power.  Assad’s backers must realize that continued conflict will only lead to an increasingly violent safe haven for al-Qaeda and other extremists to exploit.  And, as President Obama said at the United Nations, the Syrian opposition must understand that no one benefits from a collapse of state institutions.  The only way forward is through a negotiated political settlement that will end the violence and protect the rights of all Syrians.  We welcome the Syrian National Coalition’s announcement that it will attend the Geneva II conference.  The purpose of this conference is to implement the terms of the June 2012 Geneva Communique, which calls for a political transition to a new Syria—an end to decades of rule by a single family and the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, formed on the basis of mutual consent.  In other words, Assad must go.

Yet, a political solution will not emerge spontaneously.  That’s why we have pursued three main lines of action to address the Syrian crisis.  First, we have worked intensively with our international partners to unify, strengthen and assist the vetted opposition in order to counter Assad as well as extremist groups.  This is essential to making a negotiated solution viable. 

Second, we have achieved remarkable progress in reducing the extreme threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.  We cannot forget the horror of the Assad regime killing more than a thousand Syrian civilians, including hundreds of children, with sarin gas in the largest chemical weapons attack since Halabja in 1988.  In September, we adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2118 requiring Syria to eliminate its Chemical Weapons program.  Since then, OPCW inspectors have verified Syria’s declarations on the sites and holdings of its chemical weapons program.  And on November 1, the OPCW confirmed that all declared production, mixing and filling equipment had been destroyed.  The next step is removing all declared chemical agents and precursors for destruction outside of Syria.  Eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons will weaken Assad by denying him a part of his arsenal, while also strengthening the international prohibition against the use and production of chemical weapons.  So, we will continue our efforts to ensure the Syrian regime abides by its commitments. 

And third, we’ve led the international drive to alleviate the dire suffering of the Syrian people and the growing pressure on Syria’s neighbors.  The United States has contributed nearly $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance—far more than any other country.  But, money alone is not enough.  The international community must jointly pressure the Syrian regime to allow sustained and unfettered humanitarian action.  We must also work to prevent the collapse of public services like health care and education, not only in Syria, but also in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, where many communities now support more Syrian refugees than local citizens. 

In this same period, we’ve seen upheaval and transformation in Egypt.  Since January 2011, the over-riding interest of the United States has been to support a government that legitimately reflects the will of the Egyptian people.  The current interim government has laid out a clear roadmap for Egypt’s return to democratic rule, and we strongly encourage Egypt’s leaders to meet its commitments.  These include rejecting violence and promoting an inclusive political process.  The outcome that we seek is one that produces a freely elected government that protects women and minority rights, upholds the rule of law, respects freedom of speech, assembly and religion, and allows for a strong civil society.  After the interim government took action inconsistent with these principles, particularly using massive violence against civilians, the United States made clear that we could not conduct business as usual.  So we have adjusted our support to continue providing critical programs for the Egyptian people, while holding back certain forms of military assistance until further progress is made on a path to a democratically elected government.  Meanwhile, we continue to support the Egyptian people and to cooperate constructively with the interim government, including by advancing our shared interests in regional security.

Finally, even as we address these pressing challenges, we are intensifying our efforts to make a meaningful difference in the day-to-day lives of people across the region.  From Yemen to Tunisia, change is taking root, and America has an abiding interest in that change proving positive and sustainable.  Nowhere is this more true than in Libya, where the people have thrown off decades of dictatorship, but have yet to reap the fruits of their revolution. 

Qadhafi and his thugs banned any kind of democratic exercise—even student union elections.  That means Libya’s first democratically-elected government had to start literally from scratch.  We have been working with the United Kingdom and Italy to support Libya’s development of a professional national security force.  Last month, NATO agreed to help Libya build the institutions to manage its security sector.  We’re also intensifying support for Libya’s institutions, civil society, and free media to help the government meet the needs of the Libyan people.  That’s what Libyans fought for in 2011.  And after investing so much to help secure Libya’s freedom, we cannot now fail to help her secure a peace.

In March 2011, I had the great privilege of raising my hand for the United States in the United Nations Security Council to approve international military action to protect Libyan civilians.  I later learned that, for many Libyans, particularly in besieged Benghazi, the picture of that vote was their image of hope.  That November, of 2011, when I was able to visit Tripoli and Benghazi just after the Libyan people gained their freedom, I experienced firsthand what America’s leadership meant to the Libyan people.  Stepping into what was then known as Revolution Square in Benghazi, our delegation was overwhelmed by cheering throngs.  Men and women pushed through just—literally just--to touch and thank us.  Mothers pressed pictures into my hands of their sons and daughters they had lost under Qadhafi.  A transcendent joy suffused the city back then—the joy of a long-suffering people touching freedom for the first time.   

Today, that initial exhilaration has given way to some very hard realities.  We are under no illusions that progress in Libya will come quickly or easily, but we have a responsibility to press ahead.  The United States remains firmly on the side of those mothers and children and the great potential of that first flush of change.  I think of Shahrazad Magrabi  in Tripoli who runs the Libyan Women’s Forum.  In the face of setbacks and violence, her group is still working to coach women candidates for office and offering workshops on democracy, human rights, and civil society.  She is undeterred.  “We are all full human beings,” she said, “and have dreams and ambitions that have been tucked away for a long time. It’s now or never,” she said.

No one believed more in Libya’s future and the importance of our relationships across the Middle East than Ambassador Chris Stevens.  To honor his legacy of extraordinary service and sacrifice, we are partnering with the Stevens family, other governments, the private sector, and the philanthropic community to create the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative.  This new program will harness technology to boost educational exchanges and enhance the skills and the employment prospects of youth across the region.  We hope to engage more than one million young people by 2020. 

So tonight, my message to you and to the people of the region is simple:  the United States will be there to support the aspirations of people like Shahrazad and to give life to the dreams of people like Chris Stevens.  That is our long-term commitment.  We will stand beside all those who, seeing tremendous challenges ahead, still plow forward with unflinching resolve and unshakeable faith in the power of the human spirit.  They are the promise of the region, and they are laying the foundations for our shared future of security, freedom and prosperity.

Thank you very, very much.