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World Affairs Councils of America National Conference

Middle East Experts Address Today’s Critical Issues

Ms. Snider reports on the World Affairs Councils of America (WACA) conference, held in Washington, DC, February 1 – 3, 2007.

The timing of this most recent WACA conference intersected with crucial policy and diplomatic decisions of the U.S. and other involved nations. For three days, speakers addressed critical issues in “Bridging The Desert: The Middle East in the Coming Decade.” Speakers included government officials, think tank analysts, authors, and individuals in specialized fields. In every session, at least 30 minutes were devoted to questions from attendees. More than 500 staff and members of world affairs councils from around the U.S. attended.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Intractable Palestinian Question — Amb. C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

Amb. Welch began by reminding his audience that six years have passed since Palestine and Israel held peace talks with the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the EU. His positive assessment was that the road map the countries established then was still potentially workable. He said that advancing this is currently hindered by weaknesses in the Palestinian Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah.

He said that failures to govern effectively have disappointed its people in areas of building law and order and more, undercutting the government’s ability to negotiate with Israel. Israel’s boycott continues, pending agreement to three conditions: recognize Israel, renounce violence against Israel and abide by previous agreements.

Amb. Welch said that having both Palestine and Israel operating as Democratic states was the goal but that politics “on the ground” related to the Hezbollah and Lebanon contributes to delays. The popularity of Hezbollah since the Israeli-Lebanese conflict and issues of Lebanese borders are further complications. Hezbollah operating in Lebanon justifies remaining armed and defensive towards Israel, contributing to instability, by asserting its ownership of Shabaa Farms. The UN’s and Israel’s position is that the land is part of the Golan Heights and belongs to Syria.

Amb. Welch also spoke about other related and critical issues in the Middle East, including his personal “balance sheet” on countries there. He emphasized development gaps that loom long-term, especially related to burgeoning populations of young people. He described a volatile mix of youth and unemployment, combined with political and social disagreements with those in power, throughout the region.

The Axis of Information is Changing: News from the Middle East — Chief Washington Anchor for Al-Jazeera English, David Marash

Mr. Marash described the expansion of news coverage from Iraq across North Africa to Mauritania through Al-Jazeera. He addressed concerns in the West that Al-Jazeera is presenting biased news reports and disclosing information detrimental to U.S. military action in Iraq.

Mr. Marash asserted that Al-Jazeera operates under the same code of ethics and journalism as all responsible global media. He called it “Jeffersonian democracy in journalism, giving voice to all cultures and all peoples to use the information for their own betterment.” He asserted that Al-Jazeera’s audience – both in the Middle East and now globally through the Internet – is composed of moderates seeking full coverage of current events in order to be better informed. He said the viewers typically speak English as a second language, are ambitious and seek information to support their own constructive participation in society.

An audience member asked whether it was true that Al-Jazeera carries propaganda that supports radical groups and precipitates violence. Marash responded that the network edits contributions from sources and presents them with editorial comments as appropriate. He said that Al-Jazeera provides coverage as broadly as it believes it serves the public interest, so that viewers can arrive at their own informed opinions.

He feels that critics underestimate the ability of its viewers to draw the right conclusions from the program content. He said Al-Jazeera’s own surveys shows that viewers’ responses to coverage of radical groups is to increasingly view them in negative terms as they receive more information about them. He also addressed the benefits of having an informed global audience, at all levels, both citizens and those who govern. He belives that history supports this view, citing instances where political failures occurred because of either censorship of information or simply the lack of it. Al-Jazeera’s home page is located at http://english.aljazeera.net .

Friday, February 2, 2007

Religion in the Middle East

This panel was composed of four individuals calling for religious representatives to be included in policy discussions on Iraq and other Middle East issues. They addressed the audience in turn and then responded to questions from the floor.

The Right Reverend John Chane, Eighth Bishop of Washington, Washington National Cathedral

Bishop Chane reminded his audience of commonalities between the three principal religions of the Middle East – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – and in turn shared with the West: Abrahamic roots, the Ten Commandments, the origins of the three religions and more. He proposed dialogue among members of the three faiths to weigh areas of agreement and disagreement.

Father Nabil Haddad, Executive Director, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.

Fr. Haddad is a Catholic priest and member of the Jordanian Royal Commission for Human Rights. He lives and works in Amman, Jordan.

Fr. Haddad advised his audience that not one representative of the three principal Middle Eastern faiths have been invited to participate in meetings related to resolving the region’s problems. He proposed that “the solution of problems we face call for one global and mighty voice for peace to build: a) an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance; b) forgiveness and reconciliation; and c) an alliance of moderates. He believes that such a dialogue can address both social and political issues and can propose a code of conduct by which all can remain and thrive in their land of birth.

He said that his own family has been Christian since 53 AD and has lived in peace with Jews and Muslims for more than one thousand years. He said that one of his direct ancestors was part of the welcoming committee for the first Muslim imam coming to their community.

M. Bruce Lustig, Senior Rabbi, Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Rabbie Lustig organized the U.S.’s first Abrahamic Summit for dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Rabbi Lustig asked his audience to consider “What is our own moral and social responsibility?” He said there are no superheroes coming to save the world, but that each of us must live with courage and commitment to resolve issues. He recounted an event reported in the Israeli Press that involved a near tragedy at a beach. A riptide carried away three young Jewish girls and their father. When the situation became desperate, a stranger rode the riptide to them, speaking in Arabic, and intervened as the lead person in a human chain reaching out from the shore. Both Jews and Arabs were in the chain.

At this point in the story, Rabbi Lustig asked his audience to view this as a normal human response rather than with sentimentality. He proposed this was possible in all relations in the Middle East, provided supporting structures were put in place. He said the first Abraham Summit brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims for dialogue addressing ways of creating futures together. He proposed that the burden for solutions is not on governments but on all of us.

Sulayman S. Nyang, Professor of African Studies, Howard University.

Professor Nyang previously served as Deputy Ambassador and Head of Chancery of the Gambia embassy in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Professor Nyang said that Abrahamic religions have prevailed and are more dominant today than Hindu and Buddhism. He proposed that the commonality of heritage provides a basis for building bridges and living contemporaneously with the 6 billion people who embrace Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His view is that the three religions should agree on a common symbol that would support dialogue and stand for their common heritage. He suggested that the migration motif is very strong and includes common religious ancestors: Abraham, Noah and Moses, among others. These and other biblical figures all migrated during their lives, drawn by religious visions.

In response to questions from the floor, panelists shared their opinions that 1) by the middle of this century an estimated quarter of the world’s population will be Muslim; 2) in our increasingly secular society, we need to address the ways we place value on human life; 3) we need new vehicles and methodology for dialogue among people committed to reaching concurrence on critical issues and seeking engagement at spiritual levels – not territorial or societal conquest and submission 4) it is hard for voices of moderation to be heard in the time in which we live but essential that we persist with a new theology of conciliation and forgiveness that we may term “religious diplomacy’”

Ambassadorial Luncheons

Twelve countries provided luncheons that included formal presentations and discussion with attendees. I attended the luncheon hosted by the Syrian Ambassador to the U.S., Amb. Imad Moustapha.

Amb. Moustapha focused on the diplomatic gap between Syria and the U.S., starting with an overview of previous decades of cooperation. He recalled that Syria participated in the first Gulf war with the U.S. and our allies. He expressed his government’s willingness to meet at any time. He said his government is concerned about what it perceives as extreme criticism of Syria by U.S. leaders, especially during the past three months, as reported in major U.S. media. He emphasized that Syria is not an enemy of the U.S. and is ready to officially resume talks with the U.S.

He also said that his government considers the present situation in Iraq to be close to catastrophic. This is of particular concern to Syria, not only because of Iraq’s geographic proximity, but because Syria considers Iraqis to be brothers and sisters with a long shared history, language and political relations. On a state level, Syria fears for its own security if the critical problems in Iraq worsen. If a full-out civil war does occur, Amb. Moustapha asked how Syria could possibly support one side against the other, given that his country is composed of all the Iraqi groups involved. He proposed that all parties in the area with interests in Iraq be convened to seek a solution, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and Turkey, along with the U.S., the EU and the U.N.

Syria also believes that it is being unfairly treated by the Western press, with accusations that his country was involved in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He said that U.N. investigation to date has found no evidence for this claim and, in fact, praised Syria for its cooperation. He further pointed to the 650,000 Lebanese who sought and were granted sanctuary in Syria during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. He felt that the media was confusing the official actions of his government with the corruption of some Lebanese and Syrian officials whom he said were acting in their own interests and not those of their respective countries.

In response to questions from attendees, Amb. Moustapha provided these further comments:

  1. democratization is an unattainable ideal requiring decades of endeavor within any country to achieve progress as demonstrated by the history of the U.S., including issues of civil rights and national suffrage;
  2. degrees of political freedom are better in the Middle East than they were ten years ago, so progress is being made;
  3. the Palestinians conducted free elections but the outcome was unsatisfactory to the U.S. government and the people there are now being driven further into poverty and suffering by draconian sanctions;
  4. the Israeli press has indicated that a “Peace with Syria” group has been formed there, calling for resumption of talks with Syria;
  5. The Syrian government is willing to live in peace with Israel but considers it a myth that Israel needs the Golan Heights for its security, given Israel’s arsenal of modern weapons;
  6. Twenty percent of Syrians are Christian, with every Christian holiday being a national public holiday in his country.

Afternoon - Small Group Discussion Sessions

I attended a session on Lebanon and related Arab State issues, one of eight offered on a variety of topics. The presenter was Hesham Melhin, Washington bureau Chief, An-Nahar, and Senior analyst for al-Arabiya TV. Mr. Melhin is considered one of Israel’s top reporters.

Mr. Melhin first spoke about how the Israeli administration’s current weakness is making it difficult for the country to provide leadership. On the positive side, he said Israeli authorities have proven themselves unafraid of investigating and prosecuting officials at several levels, on charges of corruption and more. He asserted that law enforcement is proving that it protects the citizenry.

He also said that Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon has dramatically lowered the approval ratings of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with a recent poll registering 3% approval. He believes it essential for Olmert to take some decisive action soon, given no apparent solution to terrorism and the failure of the wall defense. Possibilities that Mr. Melhin proposed for Olmert included: a) establishing peace with Syria and b) taking Israel out of the nuclear cycle forever, given that the Syrians have agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons capability.

Mr. Melhin proposed as a model for the peace process the experience of earlier successful peace negotiations in the region, e.g., with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat. He suggested:

  1. Israel needs to assess whether any peace offer is serious and will be enforced. President Sadat came to speak to the Israeli parliament, showing good faith and resulting in the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement being passed with only minor debate;
  2. Possibilities are present for both Israel and Syria to follow the example set by President Sadat. Mr. Melhin asserted that every Israeli knows that their country’s price for peace will be to relinquish claim to the Golan Heights. Syria might consider returning bodies of Israeli soldiers buried in its country to Israel.

Plenary Session: The Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Dilemma Speakers — His Excellency Sallai Meridor, Ambassador of Israel to the U.S.; Ziad J. Asali, N.D., President, American Task Force on Palestine; Amb. Dennis Ross, Counselor, Washington Institute

What follows is a composite of comments provided by the speakers.

  1. Palestinians must navigate the gap between their historic hope and today’s reality, accepting that they must give up certain territorial claims;
  2. Both sides struggle with conflicting visions which must be exposed so work toward convergence can proceed with neither side being considered a betrayer of its people;
  3. Political weakness on both sides at this time is unfortunate; however, agreement might be effected with the cover of outside interests, e.g., Saudis and others embracing a compromise that includes both sides a) giving up their dreams and b) making geographic decisions that are workable.

Embassy Receptions

Three countries invited conference attendees to visit either embassies or ambassadors’ residences. I attended the reception at the Saudi Arabian embassy, hosted by His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al Faisal who greeted me and others with personal comments about places he had visited in the U.S., including Ohio. Hospitality included an array of Saudi Arabian entrees and desserts, accompanied by coffee, tea and fruit juices. The other two countries extending invitations were Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Plenary Session: Challenges with Iran — Michael Rubin, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

Mr. Rubin gave an overview of Iran’s history related to European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries that he believes is essential to understanding this country in the modern world. He told us that Iran’s concept of its history rests largely on its never having been formally colonized by Great Britain or France even though its borders were changed. As a result, he believes that Iran sees itself as a global power rather than a “status quo” power, demonstrated more recently by its outreach to South America, China and India. Mr. Rubin believes this also results in tension between Iran and its neighbors in what it views as the ‘Persian Gulf’.

This is further complicated by the political power of Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who has been in power since 1989, ruling Iran more as an empire than a nation with the 12-man Guardian Council. The designation of empire relates to the historic mix of ethnic groups through the country, with some seven or eight different languages spoken. Mr. Rubin referred his audience to an Iranian movie, “The Little Stranger”, as an example of this complexity. The movie is based in the period of the Iran-Iraq War. A small child loses his mother and is cast adrift in the midst of the military conflict. He seeks shelter in a truck whose driver unknowingly transports the child to a northern region. He is discovered there by a woman who finds the child’s different appearance and language bewildering at first. They are able to create a bond through the Persian language with the finale being “We are all Persians Now”.

Mr. Rubin believes what unites Iran is this sense of nationhood resting on the country being so diverse, both historically and at present. He pointed, however, to problems based in Khamenei being, in effect, the ruling power. His reign poses problems because of issues of legitimacy. In the Islamic faith, religious legitimacy is passed down through generations from the original 12 Imans. Clerics in the present time view their role in relation to government as an advisory one, their stated goal being to support just governments over unjust ones in what they view as a corrupt world. Khamenei changed this role by assuming power as Iran’s Supreme Leader, resulting in opposition from the majority of clerics in the region which continues today.

The most recent problem, of course, is Iran’s asserting its right to nuclear power, Mr. Rubin told his audience. The response of its citizens, based on polling, is complicated. When asked if Iran has the right to nuclear power, 80% participating said “yes”. When asked if they would feel more secure with Iran having nuclear power, 67% said “no”.

He believes that attempts to stop Iran diplomatically are likely to fail because of Iran’s competing power centers and insincerity. He suggests some alternatives: 1) mechanisms have proven effective in the past in monitoring nuclear power, citing the decades of U.S. and Russian inspections; 2) the U.S. could consider overtures to certain of the Iranian independent trade unions that are known for wildcat strikes and willingness to assert themselves with the government, including bus drivers, textile workers, finance and oil workers.

Mr. Rubin expressed concern about what he termed “demonization of Iran”. He reminded his audience that Iran had previously had U.S. political figures and journalists in ongoing communication with Iran, including competence in the Persian language by Peter Jennings, President Bill Clinton and others. At this point in U.S. and Iranian history, Mr. Rubin said he doesn’t understand what our country’s policy is towards Iran or what sources of intelligence or communication this may rest on.

Afternoon - Small Group Discussion Sessions

Six sessions were offered, and I chose the program featuring the book Storm from the East: The Struggle between the Arab World and the Christian West. The speaker was the book’s author, Milton Viorst.

Mr. Viorst began his talk by challenging his audience to consider that the West is the latest in what the Middle East regards as 1400 years of outsider invasion. He also said it was important to look at more recent history to understand why the U.S. is regarded as the most recent Western imperialist, even though our nation has never occupied any of the countries there. He was quick to address comparison to U.S. occupation of Japan and Germany after WWII as also being that of nationalistic countries. He said, however, that these nations’ conception of the U.S. and confidence in being treated fairly in the post WWII period is vastly different from the situation in the Middle East today.

He continued by asking attendees to consider possible gaps in their understanding of the rich history of the Middle East. He asserted that “Arab culture is, in many ways, distant from Western experience. American education pays scant attention to the ideas and events that produced the Arab mind.”

He provided an overview of the Golden Age in the Middle East, a period when learning from the Greeks was emphasized, libraries were assembled and intellectual quests undertaken. This ended by the 11th century AD, with a civil war between the intellectuals and the traditionalists, who wanted to maintain desert values. Subsequent invasions by the Mongols and others resulted in assimilation and conversion to the Muslim religion.

He spoke about the region’s historical memory and its diversion from actual history. It is selective memory, he said, based in myth and symbols and carrying grievances mingled with fears, self-doubt, grudges and hatred. In this context, there is a yearning for the return of the vanished Golden Age and names of historic invaders are used as pejoratives. An example is “Crusaders”, a term heard now in Iraq, being directed at U.S. military.

In more modern times, attempts were made to restore good relations through overtures by some individuals. A notable example was Hussein ibn Ali, with the title sharif, who ruled the Hejaz, covering western Arabia. Shortly before WWI, his ambitions resulted in his forming alliance with the British government and the French, looking to preclude Germany controlling access to India via the Red Sea. Throughout WWI, Sharif Hussein and the British worked in tanden to achieve this.

What subsequently ensued may seen ancient history except to history buffs and those who have seen the Lawrence Arabia movie; however, Mr. Viorst assured his audience that the outcome reverberates today. What transpired post-WWI was public release of a hidden Anglo-French-Russian agreement later termed the Sykes-Piko agreement, the names of its Western drafters. Reference to Sykes-Piko, Mr. Viorst said, is today commonplace. Why? It became the foundation of the post-WWI colonial system, the very thing the Arabs feared most in their relationships with the West.

At Versailles at the end of WWI, President Woodrow Wilson called for Middle East “self-determination”. His initiative failed both because he was a poor bargainer with Western powers and lacked the support of the American Congress and people and then suffered a stroke which incapacitated him. The serious outcome that persists to the present time is the Middle Eastern perception that the U.S. was complicit in 1919 with the plans of Britain and France.

Mr. Viorst expressed concern that the U.S. government today fails to fully recognize the persisting depth of betrayal felt in the Middle East. He believes that it is virtually impossible for most Arabs to accept the presence of any foreign power, given the long history of colonization in the area and the accompanying abuses. The period of embargoes following the first Iraq War, he believes, further drove suspicion of Western motives.

He believes, however, that whatever the outcome for Iraqis in their country, whether civil war or partition, that the U.S. has already obtained advantages for itself. These include the U.S. a) building a “green zone” where U.S. bases will be maintained; b) access to oil reserves; and c) American private-sector benefits from eventual reconstruction.

Mr. Viorst’s book, Storm from The East, was published in 2006 by Modern Library, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group.

Keynote Luncheon Speech: “A Democratic view of the U.S. Middle East Policy” — Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, former Majority Leader, U.S. House of Representatives, and currently director of the Gephart Institute in St. Louis.

Mr. Gephardt believes in following a multilateral approach with the U.N. and other organizations in our foreign policy, with emphasis on diplomacy and use of the military as a tool. He argued that the U.S. must never cut off communication and diplomacy with our foes. He reminded his audience of the long Cold War with the Soviets and how the U.S. continued its dialogue throughout this period.

He expressed concern that the U.S. is no longer talking with the Syrians and the Iranis and anyone else we have problems with. He would like to see the U.S. call on the Secretary of the Arab League for support with re-establishing communication.

His proposals on U.S. energy policy stress conservation as key. Auxiliary to this is his concern that the U.S. as the largest producer of CO2 is “not doing much of anything” to address global warming.

Plenary Session: Saudi Arabia — His Excellency Abdullah Alireza, Minister of State for Saudi Arabia

Mr. Alireza spoke about his country’s initiatives in addressing its burgeoning population of under-30 men and women. He told his audience that Saudi Arabia is

  1. working to accelerate integration with the world economy through broadening its economic base to include a knowledge economy;
  2. providing innovative education that is fully underwritten through all grade levels and university degree work for qualified individuals, earmarking 42% of the country’s annual budget for this purpose;
  3. encouraging the private sector in new development, including a major complex in the Red Sea area with zones for industry, residences and education, to upgrade the quality of life of its citizens;
  4. seeking more investment from the U.S. and South America;
  5. launching a national dialogue with a cross section of its citizens to explore resolution of problems and new initiatives;
  6. working to create value-added jobs, seeking to employ 600,000 people at the managerial level within 15 years;
  7. expanding roles for women, many of whom are already serving in significant positions, including in education;
  8. realigning education to emphasize math and science.

Additionally, Mr. Alireza pointed out that there are no homeless persons in Saudi Arabia and all citizens have health insurance. Saudi Arabia at present is the 25th largest economy in the world with 25% of the proven oil reserves and 40% of the world’s oil economy.

Plenary Session: The Future of Oil in the Middle East — John Duke Anthony, President and CEO, National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and Robert Ebel, Chairman, Energy program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Mr. Anthony’s presentation focused on issues related to the U.S. presence in Iraq. He was skeptical about positive outcomes for the Iraqi citizens but felt that the U.S. was poised to benefit in ways covered by Milton Viorst in his presentation earlier in the afternoon.

Mr. Ebel’s overall contribution to his listeners was his expectation that U.S. access to sufficient energy to meet our needs will continue well into the future for two reasons: a) the U.S. has stable relationships with its most important oil suppliers, including Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia; b) he does not support the concept that oil production has peaked and believes that major reserves remain for the foreseeable future; c) he believes this stability provides time for the U.S. and other nations to further develop reliable alternatives with emphasis on nuclear reactors.

In alignment with this, Mr. Ebel would like to see both China and India get more involved with protection of the environment, working together with the U.S. and other nations.

Members of world affairs councils are eligible to register for these annual conferences. If not a member, you can learn about councils in your area by consulting the World Affairs Councils of America Web site.

The Akron Council on World Affairs welcomes members from throughout the greater Akron region to join ACWA. There are also world affairs councils in Cleveland, Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati. Each is independent and has its own program initiatives that afford you choices in participation. For more information on the 80 plus councils throughout the U.S., visit the World Affairs Councils of America Web site.

NOTE

Opinions expressed by conference speakers are their own and not necessarily those of the Akron Council on World Affairs or The World Affairs Councils of America.† Effort has been made to accurately report the content of speakersí presentations.† We invite speakers to advise ACWA of any errors, addressed to info@akronworldaffairs.org.† We ask others not to forward their opinions as we will be unable to include them.

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