Manama Dialogue 2012: The US Role in the Middle East – John McCain

Published: January 4, 2013

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SPECIAL REPORT

[This is the second of six reports resulting from the IISS Manama Dialogue regional security summit.]

Editor’s Note:

The International Institute for Strategic Studies convened the 8th Manama Dialogue regional security summit, bringing together 30 delegations to “engage in high level international defense diplomacy on regional security issues.” The Manama Dialogues in Bahrain were launched in 2004 and have become an important opportunity for heads of state, foreign and defense ministers, other officials, military officers, specialists and others to gather to examine the critical issues of the day. The Dialogue is preceded by “Sherpa Meetings,” this year held in February and October, which lay the groundwork for the Dialogue sessions as well as providing “a unique opportunity for delegates who have high-level responsibility for foreign and security policy to engage in an off-the record, substantive exchange of ideas and information about regional security.”

The Manama Dialogue itself opened with an evening plenary session on December 7, 2012 at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Bahrain, followed by two full days of plenary and special (closed) sessions. The opening session tabled “Global Views on Syria.” Subsequent plenary sessions addressed: “The U.S. and the Region”; “Priorities for Regional Security”; “Intervention and Mediation”; “The Influence of Sectarian Politics in Regional Security”; and “Middle East Security in a Global Context.”

It is rare to see so many senior U.S. officials participating in a single, open event in the Gulf of the stature of the Manama Dialogue.  Americans participating in the conference included: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Senator John McCainCongressman Michael Rogers and Congressman Charles Ruppersberger. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Abdulaziz Bin Abdullah Al Saud led the Saudi delegation. Presentations from each of these participants, as well as an interview with IISS Director General John Chipman, courtesy of The Majalla, are provided today including this report of Senator John McCain’s remarks.

U.S. Senator John McCain (center)

Senator McCain, addressing the Manama Dialogue panel on the “US Role in the Middle East,” sketched out the possibilities of positive and negative outcomes from current challenges in the region.  He related that an American role was not the only factor, or even necessarily a welcome factor, but it was important to a hopeful future.  McCain noted that Americans need evidence that they should play a greater role in international affairs in general and the region in particular, that the perception was “that the United States is disinterested, disengaged, or distracted can be very dangerous” and they were war weary and more concerned with domestic issues, especially the economy.

Today we present for your consideration six reports including video presentations of plenary sessions from the Manama Dialogue and an interview with IISS chief Dr. John Chipman, and commend your attention to the IISS Manama Dialogue web site for more presentations and materials that provide background, context and insight into the Gulf security paradigm. There are links to all pertinent materials following this presentation as well as all of the SUSRIS reports today including:

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John McCain
Ranking Member, Armed Services Committee, US Senate
The 8th IISS Regional Security Summit – The Manama Dialogue
First Plenary Session – The US and the Region
December 8, 2012

[Prepared remarks]

I’m very honored that you would invite not one, but two members of Congress to speak with you this morning. In case you did not know, the approval rate of Congress in the United States is now down to about 10 percent. At this point, we’re down to paid staff and blood relatives. And I still have not met anyone in that 10 percent. If I did, I’d like to ask them what the hell it is they approve of.

One of the benefits of being as old as I am is that provides great perspective, and I was thinking on the way over here that I cannot recall a period of greater upheaval and uncertainty in this part of the world — certainly not in my lifetime, and possibly not since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The last time this conference was held, two years ago, Ben Ali was in power in Tunisia, Mubarak was in power in Egypt, Qaddafi was in power in Libya, and Saleh was in power in Yemen. With any luck, next year, we will be able to add Bashar Assad to that list.

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During these past two years, I have traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, and North Africa, and the Gulf, and it is increasingly clear to me that this region now stands at a crossroads between two very different alternative futures.

One of those futures is hopeful and positive. It could reflect all that is good, and inspiring, and promising about the Arab Spring. It could be built on the overwhelming desire of millions and millions of people in this region, especially young people, for greater human rights, rule of law, opportunity, and democracy. It could be a future where diverse societies are at peace with themselves, where all nations respect the sovereignty and independence of their neighbors, and where enduring security rests on the reality of justice, and freedom, and security for all citizens. I thought His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince, described much of this vision well in his speech last night.

However, there is another possibility — a future of gathering darkness, conflict, and stagnation. In this scenario, the collapse of Syria into a failed state overrun by violent extremists of all sects and ethnicities could destabilize the entire region, re-igniting civil conflict in Iraq and Lebanon and threatening the survival of the Kingdom of Jordan. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, which continues to move forward despite sanctions and other disruptions, could finally be realized — setting off a nuclear arms race in this region. Egypt, in many ways the heart and soul of the Arab world, could become mired in civil strife that tears apart Egyptian society and suffocates Egypt’s economy. In this world, the promise of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, would surely fade away and ultimately vanish altogether.

I can envision either of these two alternative futures coming to pass. But what is so unsettling is how entirely possible either scenario is. Which future we ultimately are faced with in this region will be a function of many factors, but one factor above all is the role of the United States.

Now, I certainly would not overstate the ability and the wisdom of the United States to influence events in this part of the world positively, nor the desire of people here for us to do so. But the greater danger now, I fear, is understating the ability that America still has to help our friends and allies here to shape events in their region for the better.

This is a message I hear again and again as I travel throughout this region. I hear it from our partners in governments and legislatures, in the business community, in the military and security services, and among civil society and opposition groups. So many of them want greater U.S. engagement and leadership on behalf of the interests and values we share. And unfortunately, there is a visceral sense among so many of the people and leaders I meet in this region that they are not getting as much support from the United States as they desire. There is a perception here that the United States is withdrawing from this part of the world and seeking to pivot instead to other priorities elsewhere.

Click for larger map.

This is the perception I have detected here in the Gulf, where greater U.S. support really is an existential matter with regional threats looming.

This is the perception in Libya, where the Libyan people do not want to live at the mercy of militias and extremist groups — and do want greater support and assistance in fostering democratic institutions and the rule of law, and building national security forces.

This is the perception in Syria, where everything that people said would happen if we did not intervene has now happened because we have not intervened — growing radicalization, sectarian conflict, the collapse of the state, and now the spectre of chemical or biological weapons being used.

And this is the perception among so many civil society and opposition groups, including here in Bahrain, who recognize that America has national interests that it must look after, but who want America nonetheless to speak up more, and more often, on behalf of their peaceful democratic aspirations.

This perception that the United States is disinterested, disengaged, or distracted can be very dangerous. It could lead our enemies to test America’s commitment to our friends and allies in this region through even more threatening actions. And it could bolster the more radical or hardline elements among our friends who say that they must take matters entirely into their own hands because America can’t be trusted.

None of us on this stage wants that to happen, but I will talk straight with you: It is difficult to convince the American people right now, both Republicans and Democrats, that we need to be doing more in the world, not less — whether it is in this region or any other. It is difficult when American war-weariness, and our own domestic and economic challenges, lead to a general reluctance to embrace greater international commitments. It is difficult, but not impossible, but we need greater leadership.

There have always been tensions within both of our political parties between internationalists and those who want minimal U.S. involvement in world affairs. Those internal tensions are now as present as ever, especially in the Congress. And that makes it all the more important for the internationalists in America to support and strengthen one another. I want to work with my Democrat colleagues, especially the President, to ensure that this region can progress toward the more hopeful and peaceful future that all of us seek. And if the President does the right thing, if he leads and takes greater actions to support our friends, our interests, and our values—in Syria, Libya, or anywhere else—he will have my support.

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