Sec. Albright on opportunities and challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa region

There have been tectonic and tragic shifts across the Middle East and North Africa in the five years since the beginning of the Arab Spring movement, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced. To examine the role America has played, and will play, in the region, Judy Woodruff talks to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since the start of the Arab uprisings five years ago, we have seen a tectonic shift across the Middle East and North Africa, upending the political order of the last century.

What began with hope has dissolved into civil war, extremist violence and strife. The human toll has been enormous, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced. And the role the United States has played and will play in the Middle East is now being examined in depth.

One group looking at these issues is the Middle East Strategy Task Force at the Atlantic Council, a think tank here in Washington.

Its co-chairs of the task force join me now. They are former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in the Clinton administration, and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. He served in the George W. Bush administration.

And we welcome both of you back to the “NewsHour.”

Secretary Albright, let me start with you.

Why take on this added responsibility now co-chairing this task force?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Former Secretary of State: Well, it’s great to be with you and with my friend Steve.

The reason that we did this is because we’re concerned about the fact that people are looking at the Middle East kind of in short-term ways and doing Band-Aids that have been going on, and that it was really important to take a deeper, longer look, because the issues, as you raised them, are going to take a long time to resolve.

And we needed to really take a deeper look. We also wanted it to be bipartisan, and we looked at a number of areas. One was the security issue, but governance issues, issues to do with religion, refugees, education, the economy. We had papers that we did with that.

And then we went to the countries in order to really get a view of what is going on. We also have a lot of international advisers, but part of it, Judy, is — and the way that you opened this, it is as serious and terrible as you described, but it also has whole opportunities. And those are the things that we wanted to look at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what I want to ask you about, because you have just come back, as the secretary mentioned, from a trip to the region.

Many people look at this part of the world and they see a crisis in every country, whether it’s ISIS, or a repressive leader or a refugee influx crisis. How do you see the region? Do you see it as a collection of problems, or a place that has a manageable set of issues that you can get your arms around?

STEPHEN HADLEY, Former National Security Adviser: Well, it’s very tough.

I mean, it is a crisis in the Middle East, but it’s also a crisis from the Middle East. And what I think people don’t realize is the global consequences of this. There are, of course, economic crises, but we have, of course, refugee flows that are taxing neighboring states. They are a real problem for the European Union, putting enormous stress on the European Union.

There is, of course, a terrorist problem, which is increased, as we saw, with attacks on Brussels and Paris. So it is a crisis in the Middle East. It is a crisis from the Middle East. It’s affecting the whole country — the whole globe.

At the same time, as Madeleine pointed out, there are positive things going on. One of the things we noticed is, youth are playing a role in their societies. They are empowered, they are connected, they are entrepreneurial.

And you are seeing start-up commercial ventures starting. You are seeing start-up bottom-up community organizations that are trying to solve local community problems. There’s a real bottom-up entrepreneurship that is going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we don’t hear about that here.

STEPHEN HADLEY: We don’t hear about them.

And one of the things we have tried to do is — one of the things we want to do is sort of bring that to the attention. There is an opportunity for the refugees not just to be a burden, but with the kind of training and education, they can actually be a benefit to the societies in which they are now residing and to rebuilding the societies they can return to.

There are opportunities for education, to teach people problem-solving and to counter the violent extremists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — is it possible, Secretary Albright, to prioritize which country is more important than the other, or does the United States have to approach this as, we have got to look at the entire region?


I mean, we were taking about it this way. We have to look at the local aspect of things, because we need to respond to some of the changes that are taking place inside, as Steve mentioned, but also regionally. We do have to look at it regionally and globally.

And so the countries can help each other, and we did discus with them the possibility of kind of looking at some kind of regional security agreement, but, at the same time, I think we have to recognize the differences in the countries.

Tunisia, quite a different place, for instance, from Egypt in terms of how it’s beginning to deal with its political situation and its economic situation, a good place to invest. Egypt has the problem of being very large with a huge unemployed young population.

So, we have looked at the specifics in the countries, but also how they could be dealt with regionally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But doesn’t — Stephen Hadley, doesn’t the security have to come first, dealing with ISIS, dealing with whether it’s a repressive dictator who is — a civil war, as you have in Syria?


And the message is, there are green shoots, we call them, messages of hope coming out of the Middle East that need to be nurtured. And we need to nurturing them now, because over the medium and long term, they offer the hope of a more prosperous and secure Middle East.

But in the short run, they’re vulnerable to the terrorists. They’re vulnerable to the tyrants. And in the short run, we have to deal with exactly the problems you described. And one of the things we will do is talk about some of the things, that in the short to medium term, we need to do.

We need to work on all three problems together, countering ISIS, bringing down the sectarianism, and solving the civil wars.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think one of the things, Judy, is that everybody is concerned with ISIS, or Da’esh, but the priorities are a little bit different, because they also have internal priorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They being?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The countries in the region.

And, also, they have conflicts between two countries. For instance, the Saudi-Iranian…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The historic…

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The historic aspects, or the Tunisians and Egyptians are very worried about the Libyans.

And so there is the general aspect that dealing with ISIS is a priority, but not the only thing that they’re thinking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does the United States avoid, Steve Hadley, being overwhelmed by this, because, as Secretary Albright just said, every country has its own set of issues?

The U.S. has to look at this, it seems, and make some sense of it and figure out what should be tackled first.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, it is an overwhelming problem.

And the first point that we want to make in this task force is that the United States is affected by this problem, as is Europe and a lot of other countries. And it is in the United States’ interest to try to help the Middle East get to a more stable and prosperous future.

But we heard in the region a lot of criticism. Some people said the United States historically and sometimes — and the Bush administration did too much, and the Obama administration did too little. How come you Americans can’t get it right?

And one of the things we’re trying to do is come up to and approach the Middle East that protects our interests, that contributes to what the people in the Middle East believe is their future, but does it in a way that is sustainable over time?

And I think, with the right kinds of investments, we can do that. But it is — it is — we’re going to have to rethink it. We’re going to have to build a bipartisan consensus. And then we’re going to have to sustain it, because this problem is going to be a long time in fixing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is not easy to get it right, is it, Secretary Albright, in that, as we just heard, sometimes, the U.S. is seen as doing too much, getting too involved. Other times, it’s seen as not doing nearly enough.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think, because it is so overwhelming and complicated, we need to do a better job of explaining why this matters to us.

As Steve said, it’s not only things that are happening inside, but also the pressures from — globally, and to try to explain why it’s important to Americans. And it’s important to us, obviously, because the president wants to keep Americans safe, but also because we’re concerned about the humanitarian aspects of it, obviously, the resource aspect, our relationship with Israel.

And so we have to explain that, but I do think, also, we need to understand that we found it’s not easy to be the United States there. We were saying, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And we — but I believe, as so does Steve, that we have to be involved.

And so we are going to make a point, I think, of talking about what the opportunities are, as well as the problems, so that the American public understands why the United States needs to be involved with partners. And that is what we also have to do, is make clear that the coalitions that are being built need to stay in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will continue to follow the progress of the task force and hope to stay in touch with you as you move forward.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, thank you.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Nice to be with you.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Very good. Thank you.