As the former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, there is a certain expectation that Senator George Mitchell can explain the ongoing conflict in the region, and why it much of it remains unresolved. It’s certainly a question the diplomat, businessman and former politician and judge is used to being asked. But his response may surprise some.
“Impatience,” is the sum of his answer.
The West has been too quick to forget that its own struggles for governance and stability took years, in some cases decades, he says. In the US, eight years elapsed between the end of the American Revolution and the formation of government. France stumbled along for decades between the French Revolution at the latter end of the eighteenth century until the lasting republic was formed in 1870, while the formation of the United Kingdom took more than a century.
It then took even longer for other social advancements such as women’s rights and racial equality.
“There’s a certain impatience among some in the West that the pace of change, particularly in Muslim societies, is slow but in fact if you go back in history change took a very long time in Western societies,” Senator Mitchell tells Arabian Business during a trip to Dubai.
“We have no business saying, ‘well, gee, the Egyptians had their revolution a couple of years ago, why haven’t they sorted it out? It’s going to take a long time. Revolutions, counter-revolutions, the establishment of borders…
“What started and became known as the Arab Spring really is an Arab revolution in which the political order that was largely established nearly 100 years ago … is now ending and a new period is being set. I think that will take some time. It took a long time in the Western societies.”
Mitchell is among those credited with brokering the peace deal between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland in 2001 after decades of violent conflict. He spent five years negotiating between the parties until they ultimately reached a deal, resulting in relative peace ever since, giving him relatively unique status as an international peace maker.
He was later given his Middle East peace role by US President Barack Obama in March 2009, in the hope he could work similar magic on the half-century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Unfortunately, less than three years later – not long after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia – Mitchell resigned from the position without success and arguably having made little progress.
The conflict remains relatively the same, with the two sides, each divided internally, only returning to the negotiating table in August. But the 80-year-old remains not just optimistic but adamant there will be a peaceful resolution.
“There’s a high level of mistrust on both sides [and] there’s been a lot of destructiveness and loss of life on both sides so it’s not surprising that getting the parties to even negotiate let alone agree is difficult,” Mitchell says.
“[But] I believe that a two-state solution involving an independent Palestine and a secure Israel is very much in the interest of both societies and I believe that societies, like individuals, ultimately act out of self-interest, so I believe that they will, in time – and I hope it’s sooner rather than later – create an independent Palestine state and a secure Israel.
“I was in Northern Ireland for five years, most of that time it was very difficult. We were able to get an agreement on the last day but during all the days preceding that it seemed every bit as difficult as the Israel-Palestinian conflict seems now. The point being there has to be patience and perseverance, willingness to keep going despite set-backs and repeated failures and I think that’s what should happen because the interest of peace is so great for all concerned.”
But even Mitchell, a man renowned for being even-handed, reveals a little of his own impatience.
“Yes, I felt a sense of frustration and difficulty in not being able to move forward, move faster [in the Palestine-Israel negotiations], but I also recognise that both societies are divided internally, there is a long history of mistrust and that I think is the most difficult to overcome.
“I commend Secretary of State John Kerry for getting talks started again and they’ve now been at it for about three months. The two parties have agreed to continue for a nine-month period, so there’s six months to go. And I’m hoping and praying for progress during that time.”
While no longer a member of President Obama’s administration, Mitchell, who represented the state of Maine in the US Senate between 1980 and 1995, including as Senate Leader in his final years, remains an advisor, including on the thorny issue of Syria.
He maintains a relationship with the Middle East through diplomatic efforts as well as in his role as chairman emeritus of international law firm DLA Piper, which has a strong base in Dubai.
A fellow Democrat, Mitchell supports Obama’s stance on President Bashar Al Assad: “No government can remain in office after a horrific number of its own people have been killed and it’s hard to see a nice, smooth, easy outcome out of the circumstances that exist.
“I think there’s likely to be turmoil and political competition for some time but I think it’ll be in the best interests of all the people in Syria if the fighting ended and the Assad regime left office.”
President Obama threatened in August to launch a contained military strike on areas believed to store chemical weapons in Syria after several hundred people were killed in a chemical attack the US says was carried out by Assad.
An attempt to gain United Nations backing was thwarted by two of Assad’s allies, Russia, and China, while the UK parliament also voted against participating in any military intervention.
Russia eventually helped to broker a deal with Assad to give up his chemical weapons cache, putting off any action by the US.
But while Mitchell firmly believes “massive American intervention” is not the way to shift Assad from power, he laments that more could have been done, and earlier.
“Could we have done more in arming one side or the other, possibly, yes. Although that too would have been subject to criticism,” he says. “The first time one of those opposition forces using American weapons killed an American, the president’s going to be criticised for that, we all know that.
“And I think also you can’t make a fair account just looking at the US; you have to look at Russia and China, who have prevented the United Nations Security Council [UNSC] from voting to take action, which to me is far more reprehensible than whatever mistakes the US may or may not have made.”
On that note, the senator admits he was surprised to learn of Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented snub to the UNSC by refusing to accept the two-year seat it won as a non-permanent member. He won’t comment on reports that the shock move was a direct attack on the US’s lack of action in Syria, as well as Washington’s acquiescence in the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and its new quest for a nuclear deal with Iran, before speaking to Saudi officials, for whom he says he has “a high regard”, from past dealings.
But Mitchell agrees UN reform is crucial.
“It clearly needs change and improvement. That’s not a startling statement because there’s hardly a human institution that doesn’t need constant change and improvement,” he says. “[But] we’re very much better off with it. Of course it’s imperfect, of course many mistakes have been made but you have to view that in the context. Having said all that … I think we’re better with it and we should work to improve it, not abolish it.”
As the dominant military and economic power in the world, Mitchell says the US is unfairly pressured to intervene whenever there is a major conflict. But under Obama’s rule the country is learning some restraint.
“One of the consequences of [being a superpower] is that it brings enormous benefits but it also brings enormous problems,” he explains. “One of which is the constant request for intervention, literally everywhere in the world. There’s hardly a conflict anywhere in the world that occurs without one side or the other, sometimes both, demanding that the US intervene – on their side.
“And so, whether you’re for or against American intervention usually depends on which side you’re on in the struggle. So no matter what the US does it’ll be condemned by one side or the other. That’s true in Syria as it is in other places as well.
“I support President Obama. I think he’s show commendable restraint in getting us into wars. The one thing I think we should have learnt in recent years is that it’s very easy to get into wars and very hard to get out of them.
“[And] we’re going to see over the next 40 years a dramatic increase in population and conflict, and an accelerating increase in demands for US intervention. It’s going to be a huge challenge for the US to determine when and where not to intervene and when to.”
While much of the world, and media attention, is focused on Syria, where more than 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed, Senator Mitchell is amazed that other violent conflicts are raging with far less attention and demand for US resources. It demonstrates the self-centredness of human nature, he says.
“I get asked about Syria all the time. My answer is always the same: ‘how come you didn’t ask me about five and a half million people dying in the [Democratic Republic of] Congo’,” he says.
“Well, the answer is, of course, the question reflects the self-interest of the questioner. Understandably, [the questioner is] concerned about something closer to home, [while] something in Africa is a very distant place. But for a president of the US, the requests come from everywhere.
“If you pull out a map of the world today, you could probably identify 10 places where people are asking the US to intervene militarily, to do this, to do that.”
Several of those places could be in the Arab region, a hotbed of conflict for the last 60 years or so. While the problems often stem back decades and are linked to a history of authoritarian leadership in many of the affected countries, the Arab Spring was sparked by a far more simple problem: unemployment and the related feeling of unworthiness that led a poor street vendor to burn himself to death in central Tunisia. The shocking protest in December, 2010, led to the toppling of former authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and flowed east into Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was killed after four decades of rule, and Egypt, which has seen both Hosni Mubarak and his Muslim Brotherhood successor Mohammed Mursi overthrown.
Several other Arab nations, none of which are democratic, have so far managed to suppress the seeds of their own uprisings, particularly by paying increased attention to improving social conditions and infrastructure. Some, such as Bahrain, however, remain fragile.
At the heart of the Arab discontent is a key issue: peace and stability, Mitchell says. At the end of the day, citizens want a job and security.
“A simple task of finding jobs for people in an age of technology and rapid advances in communications is a huge challenge everywhere in the world, but when you add to that the explosive population growth that is occurring here in the region – very, very rapid population growth – the task of governance involves trying to create opportunity and jobs for not just for the people who are alive today but for the millions who are coming.
“These are immense and difficult tasks and there is no doubt in my mind they are an important factor in all of the revolutions that are occurring; young men and women have very high rates of unemployment and difficulty in finding marital partners and establishing families at an early age, and it’s a tremendously disruptive factor in every society, not just here. Here you have a microcosm of what is a combination and intensification of all of these.”
The job priority has been highlighted in the counter-revolutions occurring in Tunisia and Egypt, where many say they would rather return to the security of the dictators they overthrew than continue to endure the hard economic times that are lingering.
Making things worse is a divided opposition – often between those in favour of an Islamic state and those pursuing a more secular form of government – and an intensification in the Sunni-Shi’a rivalry.
“This is a complicated, difficult, mix of issues and concerns that is hard for leaders everywhere to confront,” Mitchell says. “I think what you’re seeing is going to become a normal part of the region, this constant search that people have for opportunity for work, for the chance to get their kids off to a good start in life. That means education, that means jobs, that means the acquisition of skills, it means the creation of opportunities – not easy to do in the best of circumstances.”
With the World Economic Forum estimating two million jobs need to be created in the next five years only to keep unemployment levels in the Arab world stable – not to mention the tens of millions of young people due to enter the workforce – creating a strong legal system will be crucial to avoiding further unrest, he says.
Trade and support of entrepreneurs will be key.
“Industries don’t spring up on their own, out of nowhere. They need the context in which they can grow and thrive. They also require a legal basis,” Senator Mitchell says.
“The reason why I think the US has been economically successful is that from the beginning we’ve placed a high premium on an independent judiciary and the rule of law so that people felt comfortable in entering into contracts [and] people felt comfortable going to the courts.
“I think that’s critical in all of these societies: the proper rule of law, the kinds of laws that encourage people to take risks and to innovate and try out new ideas and to – I think it’s safe to say – alter the course of human history.
“[Founder of Apple] Steve Jobs’ father was born in Syria – one generation removed from Syria, one of the greatest entrepreneurs in all of human history flourished in the US.
“Intelligence knows no boundary, drive and energy knows no boundary, it’s the climate – the legal, the economic, the entrepreneurial – that helps lead to these things.”
But speaking to Arabian Business two weeks into the US economic shutdown, which risks leading to the country not paying its debts for the first time in history because politicians cannot agree on a budget, Senator Mitchell concedes the Western ideal of democracy usually purported is, in fact, not perfect.
“Certainly coming through the past two weeks in the US, no American is in a position to make adverse comments about others’ forms of governance; we have enough trouble in our own country, the oldest functioning democracy in advanced modern society,” he says.
It seems no-one has all the answers.