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UN Ambassador: Human Dignity is Solution to Middle East Peace

UN Ambassador: Human Dignity is Solution to Middle East Peace

UCLA Today, May 20, 2008

Many Afghans told me that they were not the same after that event (the elections) and were elevated by the experience of choosing their own leader.

This article was first published by UCLA Today Online.

By Ajay Singh

SIX DECADES of Israel-Palestine discord. Iraq's rising death toll. Recent street-to-street fighting in Lebanon. Surely the Middle East is one of the most troubled spots on Earth. It's also one of the world's most geopolitically important regions, and nothing short of a wide-ranging U.S.-led reform effort will help change it.

That was the policymaking message from Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who spoke May 6 at the annual Brodie Distinguished Lecture on the Conditions of Peace. The lecture, in memory of eminent scholar Bernard Brodie, was held at the James West Alumni Center and presented by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Transforming the Middle East will not be easy, quick or cheap, warned Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and his native Afghanistan in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"There is a struggle going on for the future of this region," he said. "At the center of the struggle is a crisis within Islamic civilization between those who adhere to the moderate views of their faith and those who argue that only an extreme and intolerant vision of Islam is true."

Khalilzad outlined eight strategies to achieve peace and prosperity in the Middle East, including anti-terrorism operations; resolving regional tensions, especially in the Arab-Israeli conflict; responding to nations pursuing regional hegemony; and promoting economic opportunity in the region to integrate it with the international economy.

But he devoted most of his lecture to a single strategy: partnering with U.S. allies in the region to marginalize extremists so that the most affected nations can normalize their societies and politics.

"The majority of the people of the broader Middle East do not wish to live under tyrannical regimes such as that of the Taliban," Khalilzad said. "They want their societies to be successful — they do not want to become like the West, but they want to enjoy the social, economic and intellectual benefits of modernity."

For Middle Eastern nations, the most powerful appeal of the United States is that "we can help them build successful countries grounded in their own norms, cultures and traditions," Khalilzad said.

The key to this approach, he added, is to support the highest aspirations of the people because "the quest for human dignity is the most powerful underlying force in the world today, and we need to align ourselves with that force."

The United States should also promote the economic and political success of stable and moderate Muslim-majority countries outside the Middle East, even if these nations are not fully democratic, Khalilzad proposed. Such nations, most notably in Southeast Asia, can then serve as models of success for the Middle East.

One of the most memorable days for Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan was Oct. 9, 2004, when Afghans elected their head of state for the first time in history. In some areas, women had washed themselves ritually, preparing to die before voting, because they believed the Taliban might attack the polling stations, he recalled.

"Many Afghans told me that they were not the same after that event (the elections) and were elevated by the experience of choosing their own leader," Khalilzad said. He quoted one Afghan man whose words poignantly echoed the collective sentiment: "Finally, we are human again."

This "rebirth of Afghanistan, this hope, this promise, was the result of American power and statecraft, supported and executed in partnership with the United Nations and many other members of the international community," Khalilzad said. "This is the model for how we can help countries in similar situations realize their potential."

Burkle Center for International Relations