Albright, Hadley: Greatest asset in Mideast is people, not oil

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks to former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley during a panel discussion of “A New Approach to the Middle East” at Washington University on Feb. 8. Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer (right) moderated the discussion. Photo: Holly Ravazzolo/Student Life

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

People, especially the young and women, have replaced oil as the greatest asset in the Middle East, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. 

Albright and Hadley, co-chairs of the Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) of the Atlantic Council, spoke to a large audience at Graham Chapel at Washington University last Wednesday on “A New Approach in the Middle East,” based on the extensive work of their task force. 

The Atlantic Council, founded in 1961, is a think tank in international affairs. MEST, a bipartisan initiative of the council, sought input from leaders in more than 45 nations to better understand the underlying dynamics behind the current crises in the Middle East.

Hadley, who served as national security adviser under President George W. Bush, said the task force faced a “daunting challenge” in trying to develop a new approach to deal with multiple crises and violence in the war-torn Middle East.  Albright, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, said that despite the complexities in the region, there were “green shoots of progress” in the potential of untapped intellectual energy of the younger populations of Mideast nations.   

Hadley pointed out that 60 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 30. He added that much of the youthful population is “well-educated but under-employed.” He said that in the past, world powers like Great Britain, France and the United States treated Middle East nations like chess pieces, working with autocratic central governments.

“What is needed is a New Compact for the Middle East, in which the central governments would be encouraged to devolve more powers to cities and regional government,” Hadley said. This in turn could “release the entrepreneurial and creative energy among young people and women, to encourage initiative and to tap the resources of a growing number of educated young people and women in the Middle East.”

He praised long-range plans by the governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which share these goals.

 “The New Compact would require governments to make investments in their countries,” Hadley said. “To achieve this objective, we propose a two-prong approach: First, we must work to wind down the violence in the region, especially the civil wars in Syria and Yemen—and Iraq, which has resulted in the displacement of refugees who have poured into neighboring countries as well as Europe.” 

The second prong involves encouraging governments in the Middle East to unlock their most valuable resource: people, especially young people and women. 

In terms of stopping the violence in the region, Hadley noted the recent progress in Iraq in which its army is taking back much of the land that had been taken over by ISIS. 

“As (ISIS) is stripped of its caliphate, the United States and its allies can encourage the formation of a more inclusive model of national governance,” he said. “To wind down the conflict in Syria, it is necessary to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups. It would be a mistake to partner with Syrian President Bashar Assad. A major goal must be to stop the refugee flow.”

In her remarks, Albright praised the progress towards more open societies in the United Arab Emeritus and Tunisia. “These green shoots of progress need our support,” she said. “The New Compact we support would require governments to make investments in their own people. There is more to the region than war and violence. Fundamentally, it is a bet on the people of the region.” 

Hadley stressed the importance of the world’s super powers to support efforts to empower more people in Mideast nations as well as the countries themselves to create a framework to empower their own citizens. “The choice is clear,” he continued. “Either we help create a framework in which Mideast nations empower their citizens, or see the region succumb to terrorism and criminality.” 

There is reason for hope, Hadley added. “More and more we are seeing young people in Mideast nations aspiring to start their own business instead of taking government or public sector jobs. In order to succeed, the New Compact must have the support of the leaders and citizens of the region—and outside powers can encourage these efforts.” 

In taking questions from the audience, Albright and Hadley were asked why the Israel-Palestine peace process was not even mentioned as part of their new approach to the Middle East. 

Albright said, “We are of course concerned with the Israel-Palestinian issue and continue to support a two-state solution. We would expect that to be a topic of discussion when (Israeli) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits President Donald Trump later this month.” 

Asked how U.S. intelligence got things so wrong by stating that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, Albright said, “the first intelligence information that comes in is usually wrong.” She added that she hopes lessons were learned from that mistake. 

In response to a student question regarding the possibility of a “Muslim registry,” which was discussed during the presidential campaign, Hadley said, “I am pleased we have not heard that proposal put forward. I think it is a lousy idea and hope it dies.” 

Regarding the travel ban on refugees into the United States that was in Trump’s executive action and which has been blocked in federal courts, Albright said, “I am a refugee, a Czech-American. My father was a Czech leader of the government in exile during World War II. We are a nation of immigrants and this is one of the reasons that America has been and is great now.”