Lettre à Obama

February 10, 2009

 Dear Mr President, 

We, the undersigned, work in international affairs institutes and universities in Europe and the Southern Mediterranean and have collaborated together for many years over policy issues in the Middle East and North Africa, although here we speak in our individual capacities.  We would like to wholeheartedly congratulate you on your recent inauguration as president of the United States, which we see as a first step in rebuilding the trust between our region and your country.  This, we feel, will be vital factor for the successful construction of peace in our region during your presidency.  We would also, therefore, like to take this opportunity of proposing to you elements of that process of peace-building which we consider would be essential to such a success, in the hope that this could be a useful contribution to your deliberations about the policies you will follow. 

The financial and social crisis

One of the most important considerations, perhaps, is the consequences of the current global financial crisis.  Although the Mediterranean region has played little role in the development and evolution of that crisis, having been marginal for major financial markets in recent years despite repeated attempts at economic restructuring, the likely constraints on  future flows of private investment and aid are certain to affect the region very profoundly.  This, in turn, will worsen the social crisis as scarcity of consumer goods at affordable prices worsens and as unemployment forces ever more people into absolute poverty.  This, in turn will have political consequences as desperation increases, widening the gulf between the region and the developed world.

In addition, during previous administrations in the recent past, the United States has promoted the global expansion of an economy based on the untrammeled application of market principles of unrestricted competition and unrestrained economic liberalization.  In consequence, social concerns seem to have regressed, both in international and domestic arenas, particularly in the Mediterranean region.   Yet social action in the fields of employment, education, health, housing and development strategy, particularly with respect to policies against poverty, marginalization, social exclusion and insecurity – themselves generators of serious political problems – is vital and urgent.  They cannot simply be relegated as a responsibility of charity and other non-government forms of social assistance, however praiseworthy such initiatives may be, for they are too short-term to properly deal with the challenges they face. 

The Mediterranean has always been and continues to be one of the world’s most important economic, political and cultural meeting-places.  It needs an international response to its problems of social governance and development and here the United States should have a major role, alongside other regional actors, such as Mediterranean states and the European Union.  Your own desire for change, Mr President, which you evoked so powerfully during your election campaign and in your inaugural speech, alongside your warnings of our shared problems, gives us hope that you will reintroduce that concern for social well-being which, in past decades, has been a hallmark of American policy.  We hope that, perhaps for the first time, your administration will consciously address the Mediterranean in these terms as a coherent and integrated region which should be treated as such.

A major part of such a response must also be to encourage a growth in aid flows and to seek to persuade private investors not to ignore the region.  The United States has a key role in this respect because it can set the tone for market confidence there and thus help to avoid the crisis that will result if external aid and investment flows are ended.  Although there is a widespread belief that the oil-rich states will weather the crisis relatively easily and thus could aid their neighbours in the Arab world and in the Mediterranean, this is unlikely to happen and Western investors will continue to be the best hope for regional development, provided they are encouraged to do so.

This, in any case, would parallel European and American interests in the region.  Anything that minimizes intensified hostility will also reduce the potential for violence.  Aid and investment, in this respect, could form part of a virtuous circle to this effect.  Targeted aid and investment, furthermore, can support other essential initiatives that would therefore also help to strengthen the security of the United States and Europe.  And, finally, although oil consumption is likely to fall over the next year-to-two-years because of the impending recession, it will eventually rise again as the recession comes to an end.  Then the current failure to invest in increasing productive capacity is likely to lead to a sustained increase in oil prices, unless steps are taken now to expand production capacity and to prepare for the post-recession period.  This is something which the new administration, in developing its energy policies, should factor into its calculations.

Political objectives

The political aspects of the region also need acute attention alongside these apparently more immediate economic and financial concerns.  The objectives of democracy, sustainable development and peaceful, cooperative relations between the states of the Mediterranean region – long the objective of the European Union –  require a combination of diplomatic and, where necessary, security initiatives within the context of long-term political and economic reform.  As you launch a vigorous Middle East peace initiative, you could also actively support such an inclusive Euro-Mediterranean project.  In effect, this would be an essential component in building peace in the Middle East for it reflects the mix of policies that constructed an enlarged democratic Europe in the wake of the Cold War. It would, in short, provide a new, cohesive and constructive vision for the Mediterranean that would help to cement a common purpose in the region for the United States, Europe and the Southern Mediterranean states themselves.

In this context, support for democracy inside the Mediterranean region is a noble ideal but has been damaged in recent years by being confused with specific issues, such as relations between the United States and Iran, not to speak of the crisis in Iraq.  It has failed, furthermore, to address the internal problems states have faced in transitions towards democratic governance, not least in the attitudes adopted towards political Islam.  The United States should distinguish between different trends within political Islam, encouraging the integration into the democratic process of those that wish to participate, whilst confronting those Islamist extremists who wish to eliminate political pluralism and democracy within the region.

Indeed, whilst the United States, with its allies, must continue the struggle against trans-national violence and international terrorism, that struggle can only be won if it is conducted on transparent principles of equity and justice, for ends cannot justify means, as has often been the case in the recent past.  Thus, for many in Europe and the South Mediterranean, the arbitrary use of force to suppress trans-national violence seems to have only legitimized terrorism precisely because it has been arbitrary, indiscriminate and unaccountable.  We therefore fully support your decision to end practices such as imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay or “special rendition” as expeditiously as possible, providing those involved with proper judicial process or freedom instead.

National objectives

Turkey is a key player in the Middle East, both because its good relations with surrounding states, including Israel, and because of its special relations with Europe – a fact long recognized by American policy in the region.  Yet some European states seem reluctant to accept this logic and to speed the process of Turkish membership of the European Union.  It is an approach which will redound, it must be said, to their long -term detriment.  Despite the recent cooling in relations between Washington and Ankara, largely over the issue of Iraq, the United States should revive its interests in promoting Turkey’s regional role and should encourage European states to recover their past enthusiasm for Turkish membership of the Union.

There is an ancillary importance in this issue which could reflect on other crucial initiatives inside the region.  Turkey has recently been engaged (although this is currently in abeyance because of the crisis in the Gaza Strip) in trying to establish peace between Syria and Israel, an initiative that must receive the full support of your administration, whatever past attitudes towards Syria may have been.  In a similar fashion, we would wish to offer our full support to your proposed engagement with Iran.  However, there is one issue which is even more acute and of even greater fundamental importance to regional peace and prosperity.  This is a definitive resolution of the dispute both between Israel and the Arab world and between it and the Palestinians.

Over the past decade, the situation of the Palestinians has steadily worsened as a result of international neglect and hostility.  This, in turn, has increasingly prejudiced Palestinians themselves against the idea that a meaningful, comprehensive and just peace is possible, an attitude that has been immeasurably deepened by the recent brutal war in the Gaza Strip.  Israelis, in their turn, have interpreted the violence of the past decade as evidence of the insecurity that they face and of the impossibility of peace.  Little has been done to persuade them of the contrary to this position or that their national security is guaranteed by international concern.  Instead, settlement expansion has continued apace, rendering any solution ever more difficult.

Your administration, however, enjoys the advantage of taking a completely fresh approach to the crisis and, therefore, of enjoying much greater opportunities than its predecessor in achieving a viable solution.  Any such solution, however, must not only attend to the situation on the ground, it must also seek to ensure that the discourses and claims of both sides are accorded equal respect.  We consider that to be essential if the unsuccessful approaches of the past are to undergo radical change and if the parties to the conflict are to seriously confront the implementation of the long- established and generally-accepted principles for peace, as exemplified by the Arab peace initiative and the Geneva Accord.  Speed here is of the essence, for lengthy negotiating processes in themselves amplify the opportunities for division and failure.  So is inclusiveness, for the participation of all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, for a meaningful and effective peace process in the Middle East.  Similarly, the recognition of the innate legitimacy of past and future Palestinian democratic processes will be essential for democratic processes elsewhere in the region to succeed.

We fully support your view that regional peace is a matter of the utmost urgency, for we are convinced that no effective solution to the other crises that face the region could precede it, for they are all contingent upon it.   The time available is now extremely short and we very much hope that you will appreciate the urgency that we feel about these matters and the importance we believe them to have for the interests of the United States and the wider world, despite the immediacy of the other problems that you must address.

Yours faithfully,

Álvaro de Vasconcelos (Portugal)

Roberto Aliboni (Italy)

Abdullah Saaf (Morocco)

Amr al-Shobaky (Egypt)

Bishara Khader (Belgium)

George Joffé (United Kingdom)

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Address for Correspondence:


Centre of International Studies,

University of Cambridge,

17 Mill Lane,

Cambridge CB2 1RX,

United Kingdom.

The President,

The White House,

Washington DC 20500,

United States of America.

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