Building off the current national conversation surrounding the ongoing turbulence in the Middle East, a cadre of panelists reflected on the future of the region and laid out several prescriptions for the United States’ involvement in the Middle East, with varying degrees of optimism and pessimism.
Fadi Elsalameen began the discussion by commenting on the public focus on a military strategy to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He asked whether military force is the only solution to regional instability and insecurity when the majority of the Arab population consists of poor, unemployed youth. Citing the World Bank, Elsalameen noted that “the Arab world has to generate about 100 million jobs” by 2020 in order to maintain the current rate of employment.
Highlighting the need to focus on the youth, Elsalameen stated:
You have unemployed poor people who aren’t being included in political process, who aren’t being included in economic process. There are many, many, many sides to this issue; it’s not just the military.
Former Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine, reiterated Elsalameen’s comments on the current focus on “bombs and bullets.” She emphasized the importance of the “ordinary citizen.” Sonenshine lamented:
We did not really pay attention to those voices calling for peaceful change, ultimately voices drowned out by extremists. I think our sin… is the sin of impatience. Revolutions, they are not evolutions. Transitions take time. We have grown increasingly impatient for change, results, and improvements.
However, she expressed hope for the region. She called for a return to fundamental U.S. beliefs – democracy, the promotion of civil society, and freedom of speech and expression – and that we must focus on these goals alongside our military aims.
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Power and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, took a more pessimistic view of the United States’ future involvement in the region. Hamid critiqued President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy as too narrow and “not enough to combat ISIS because [ISIS] is more than a terrorist group. It is a serious threat that requires a long-term plan.”
Hamid expressed concern that there was no broader vision talking about the role of democracy and democracy promotion in the Middle East. He agreed that the U.S. needs to “look beyond the narrow military aspects” and re-focus on democracy promotion. Citing the importance of democracy in countering terrorism, Hamid said:
Well, if the failure of democratic processes during and after the Arab Spring and the general failure of governance is one of the contributing factors of extremism, then it becomes very important. It becomes important to look at the root causes of terrorism and extremism… We can’t lose sight of that.
Thinking in the long term, therefore, is essential. Hamid concluded by emphasizing the need to rethink and fundamentally change America’s foreign policy approach. He urged that the United States must find a way to distance ourselves from autocratic regimes, whose long-term goals the U.S. does not share. To do so requires strong leadership that he believes the U.S. currently does not have.
ASP COO Paul Hamill also stressed the need to strike a balance between “dealing with the immediate and the strategic.” The ‘immediate’ can be supporting an Arab-style ‘NATO’ and Arab boots on the ground, which then needs to balance the strategic need of democratization. Aside from democracy promotion, Hamill underscored the need to look at trade and the economy. Harking back to Elsalameen’s comments on unemployment, Hamill noted that creating 100 million jobs is not easy to do. Hamill believes that education is key in solving the Arab world’s underlying socioeconomic problems.
Concluding the event, all four panelists agreed that the problems in the Middle East are long-term. It is necessary for the United States to pay attention to the future and not solely the present, and that it must mold its strategy to accommodate the multiplicity of issues facing the region: terrorism, youth unemployment, poverty alleviation, rule of law, and many more.
Video of the Event is Available Below