A Conversation with Ambassador David Kurtzer, Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel

October 10, 2011 • Blogs, The World at Yale • Views: 692

by Ashley Wu:

Courtesy of Woodrow Wilson Scholars


Standing in front of the elaborate floor-to-ceiling plexiglass world map in the Sterling International Room, Ambassador David Kurtzer offered up a simple proposal: that human beings can rectify the problems that human beings have created.

A career diplomat who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and as Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, Kurtzer stressed that there is still room for optimism when discussing the “revolutions, tsunamis, earthquakes, and train wrecks” that define conflict in the Middle East.

His belief — that human agency, the notion that dynamic leaders can resolve the problems of the world, regardless of whether or not “the time is ripe for change,” is not one for those faint of optimism.

But Kurtzer maintains that his optimism is well grounded: “When analysts or policymakers talk about bad things that happen, we tend to ascribe them to individuals. But good things that happen can be ascribed to individuals as well.”

Just as we talk about Bashar al-Assad as being responsible for the deaths of thousands of pro-democracy protesters, we can also talk about Yitzhak Rabin as having sacrificed his life in the name of Arab-Israeli peace.

That being said, in a region where only Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are undergoing some form of democratic transition (all with questionable degrees of success), and authoritarian dictators in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and other nations, have shown that they are not afraid to push back, it is sometimes hard to believe that we should have hope for human agency.

Addressing these concerns, Kurtzer points to the Arab-Israeli conflict: “Every Israeli and Arab has a mental picture of how they believe the conflict will end – not necessarily how they want it to end, but how they believe it will. And this picture, on both sides, essentially looks like the 1967 borders. Thus, it becomes of a question of human choice by leaders.”

And Kurtzer has a point. The national narratives on both sides rationalizing their claim to the land contain the same themes: victimization, the need for historical justice, religious attachment to the land, etc. There’s a sum total of land and a sum total of resources – both of which can be shared and/or split.  To believe that there is anything about the Arab-Israeli conflict that can’t be solved by Arabs and Israelis would be to discredit their human capacities.

Speaking from his realist side, Kurtzer also acknowledged that there are some serious issues that stand in the way of human agency. He refers to these as the three deficits: the deficits of freedom, knowledge, and women’s empowerment.

“There are 120,000 students enrolled at the University of Cairo. Because of its sheer size, education is focused on rote memorization and students either don’t show up or regurgitate facts and graduate… And refusing to grant women the ability to participate in society is like playing baseball with one of each limb.”

Despite these deficits, leaders in the Middle East, and President Obama as well, have a choice to make: are we going to hide behind the perceived insolvability of these problems? The alternative (and right) choice is to believe that, through diplomacy, we can resolve the problems that we helped to create.

Following his lecture, The Yale Globalist sat down for an interview with Ambassador Kurtzer:

Q: Human agency as a resolution to the problems of the Middle East almost seems like an overly optimistic notion. Are there historical examples that you would point to as evidence that it is something we should believe can overcome the deep-rooted animosity that exists in the region?

A: Anwar Sadat was perceived to be a weak president, when he came into office in Egypt, he followed the most popular Egyptian leader ever (Gamar Abdul Nasser). Within the course of ten years, he turned every Egyptian policy on its head. He made peace with Israel, started the deconstruction of Arab socialism, and he started the opening up of the political system by creating three parties. Who is his counterpart in this process? Menachem Begin. He’s a far right wing radical that no one ever thought would be prime minister – but he’s the man who makes peace and gives up the Sinai Peninsula. These two people, they did it.

Q: Is the possibility of peace then something that depends on the election of new actors and leaders?

A: Not at all, ideally, three of them are going to wake up tomorrow morning and do something. Obama probably won’t, what with elections in 13 months, and the kind of partisanship in this nation that leads Rick Perry to assail Obama’s Middle Eastern policy just blocks from his speech at the U.N. This kind of partisanship didn’t exist in the 90’s.

Q: Are there leaders in the region now that you think are capable of making these difficult, but dynamic, decisions of human agency?

A: I actually think that Netanyahu and Abbas could make a similar decision that peace is their nations’ best interests. Abbas, like Sadat, was perceived as very weak when he came into office, following charismatic Yassar Arafat. But he’s now been elected chairman of the PLO, been elected president of the Palestinian Authority. What’s he waiting for? He’s 75 years old. If he turns unpopular, so what? And Netanyahu, who’s been elected twice – he’s got a very strong mandate. You know, is the Volvo – the accouterments of power – worth it? There’s no reason why the two of them couldn’t do it.

Q: You talk about human agency as primarily the prerogative of leaders of nations. What does the populist nature of the Arab Spring uprisings then indicate?

A: It shows that there aren’t any inherent factors in these societies that prevent them from moving in the right direction. For example, if the king of Saudi Arabia tries to put together a coalition of monarchs to prevent change, that’s a conscious and affirmative decision. I would not call it a positive decision, but that’s a decision. Bashar al-Assad has decided his own response, which is to kill people instead of allowing change. The Egyptians on the other hand, even though there are problems and a lot of issues, have embarked on one of the most peaceful processes of change that we’ve seen in a long time. Though there were hundreds of people killed during the uprising, since it we’ve had essentially a constitution and law-based effort – not without problems, again. But here’s a time when people have decided they’re going to give it their best shot and try to make a difference.

Q: The deficits of freedom, knowledge, and women’s empowerment that stand in the way of human agency – do you think that countries themselves are equipped to deal with them?

A: There are enough resources in the region, that if they are allocated more efficiently, yes, these problems can be resolved. I hinted at this when I talked about sovereign wealth investments – you’ve had trillions of dollars over these decades that have been absorbed by oil-producing, gas-producing Middle Eastern states. Some of it has ben invested locally, but much more of it has been invested outside the Middle East in order to bring higher returns.

Q: Stability in the region is obviously a global concern, do you think that America should or could have a role in addressing these deficits?

I think there is a role for the U.S. We can provide resources, technical assistance. I don’t think we should be dictating anything, but we have gone through a lot of these issues and we have some experiences to show.

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