Wilson School colloquium spotlights challenges for U.S. in the Middle East

Former U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell urged patience for the region at a colloquium held recently at Princeton University.

"When it began, the Arab Spring appeared to represent a highly positive turning point in the Middle East, and it still may be that," Mitchell said. "But for many people in the region, it has become a winter of discontent and continuing violence."

U.S. policy in the Middle East was the focus of the colloquium, and keynote speakers and panelists drilled down and debated about reforms needed to stabilize the region. In its 11th year, the two-day Princeton Colloquium on Public and International Affairs, held May 3 and 4, was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as part of its Graduate Alumni Weekend. More than 175 Wilson School graduate alumni and their guests from around the globe attended the colloquium, with classes from 1953 to 2012 represented.

Mitchell served as U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace from January 2009 to May 2011 and as U.S. senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995. In his May 3 keynote address before approximately 400 guests in McCosh Hall, he reminded the audience that it took the U.S. and France many years to complete their revolutions and become stable. He also called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said could be achieved very soon but could not be imposed externally.

"The parties themselves must negotiate directly with the active and sustained support of the United States, but it will require leaders on the two sides who want peace and are willing to take the risks to achieve peace," Mitchell said, and he hopes it will happen because "the political pain that leaders will have to endure to get an agreement is far less than the pain that their societies will endure if they don't get an agreement."

On May 4, William Burns, deputy secretary of state, opened the day with a presentation focusing on "why the Middle East still matters and how it is changing."

"We cannot afford to neglect what's at stake in a region going through its own awakening, at once promising and painful, and potentially every bit as consequential for international order as the changes which swept over Europe and Eurasia two decades ago," Burns said.

Speaking to a capacity audience in Dodds Auditorium, Burns outlined what he views as the three interconnected elements needed for positive change in the Middle East: support for democratic change; economic opportunity; and regional peace and security.

"All three are crucial to our broader goal of enhancing the chances that moderates will shape the new regional world order more than extremists," Burns said. "All three require us to look carefully at where the U.S. can uniquely make a difference, and at how best to mobilize other countries, inside and outside the region, in common cause. And all three require us to find a sensible course between self-defeating inaction and unsustainable unilateralism."

U.S. Foreign Service Career Ambassador Ryan Crocker — who has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan and Syria — continued with many of the same themes after lunch, as he took the audience on a journey that focused on how the history of the Middle East has influenced its turbulent present and how that history is shaping the current state of affairs in the region. Crocker, who was a mid-career fellow at the Wilson School in 1984-85, explained that with the exception of 9/11, all of the United States "games" (involvement in conflict), have been "away games" (on foreign soil).

"If you are playing away games in other people's stadia, you better know their ground rules — their history, their culture, their language, their perceptions of the West," Crocker stated. With this background in mind, Crocker went on to discuss the Arab Awakening, as well as the state of play in various countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to these three talks, four panels were presented, on the topics of American intervention strategy, the Arab Awakening, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Speakers from government, academia and the nonprofit sector — all of whom are deeply engaged in Middle East policy — participated. A full listing of speakers can be found at the colloquium website. Video of all the proceedings are available on the Web media section of the Wilson School website.