Kerry: US can no longer view Middle East ‘through lens of 9/11’

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Wednesday called for a comprehensive overhaul of America’s policy approach toward the Middle East.

Amid cries for democracy in the always-volatile region, “a re-adjustment is required,” Kerry said during a speech in Washington just days before he departs for the Middle East. “We can no longer view the Middle East solely through the lens of 9/11. Now, we must view it through the lens of 2011.”

In blunt remarks, the longtime senator said U.S. Middle East policy “has been driven by our addiction to foreign oil.” That has led American officials to cozy up to regimes and leaders, Kerry said, placing issues like human rights and democracy on a far-back burner.

“Too often over the past decade we have seen regimes in the region chiefly as bulwarks in the fight against terrorism, while looking away from abuses we find unconscionable,” Kerry said. “The result has been relationships focused on leaders rather than people.”

The revamped policy approach Kerry envisions should promote “our core values,” meaning U.S. actions “must be consistent in encouraging governments everywhere to respond to the hopes, and needs and rights of their citizens.”

Washington should also not hesitate in pushing “programs that will strengthen our engagement with the people,” he said.

To that end, Kerry said he soon will introduce legislation that would “support the transition to democratic rule in Egypt and Tunisia, that will encourage movement toward democratic reform in the Middle East, and that will spur sustainable economic development throughout the region.”

He acknowledged that with most U.S. lawmakers focused on the domestic economic crisis, garnering ample support for an ambitious foreign aid bill will be a tough battle.

Kerry said he hopes some of the “ideological excesses of the budget debate” will give way to an understanding that if the U.S. does not help nations like Egypt “we will pay for it later.”

The bill will be co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Kerry said he hopes the former will help convince budget hawks in his party to support the legislation.

The trio should introduce the bill “in a month or so,” a Kerry aide said.

Under Kerry’s envisioned revision of Middle East policy, Washington would do more to counter forces in the region that have “bred economic stagnation, corruption and popular dissatisfaction.” U.S. officials would also help stand up credible institutions that answer to “the will of the people,” while pushing for “the rule of law” across the region.

Such a new approach is in Washington’s interest, he added, because “stability and prosperity are powerful antidotes to the violent urges of nihilism and extremism.”

Kerry said America’s new Middle East policy approach must accept that religious-based political parties will be a force in many nations.

“This may be reason for concern, but it is not reason to panic,” he said. “We will reject radicalism and anti-Semitism, and we will embrace moderation.”

Meanwhile, Kerry reiterated his call for establishing a no-fly zone in Libya.

He did not overtly criticize the Obama administration for inaction, but said: “I hate that we’ve lost this time.” He was referring to the span between President Obama saying Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi must leave office and days of fighting that seem to have ensured the latter’s regime will remain in power.

“It’s getting late in the game,” Kerry said. He also added that the U.S. should not take on such a mission unilaterally.

Allowing the fighting to continue in Libya is not an “existential” threat to America, Kerry said, adding it’s also not a “vital threat.” But he believes U.S. action there will influence other matters in the region important to Washington.

Asked whether he agrees with some in Congress that the U.S. should avoid arming Libyan rebels because it is unclear who some are, Kerry replied that “we do know these people,” adding senior American officials have been meeting with rebel leaders.