Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho and Eddie Bejarano
Fall Interns, 2014

On Friday, September 12, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted an event titled, “Middle East in Turmoil: Can it Recover?”

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the affair, which featured Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for the New York Times and David Ignatius, the bestselling author of Body of Lies and The Increment and journalist who has covered the Middle East and the CIA for over twenty-five years.

The conversation covered a range of topics, including the origins of turmoil, civil wars, terror groups like ISIS, and the future of American foreign policy in the region. In the following post, we explore the most thought-provoking themes from this moderated conversation.

Ignatius’ Historical Analogies

Throughout history, we have seen the ways in which broken political cultures have ignited “the revolt of the citizen.” At Friday’s event, Ignatius employed two historical analogies in order to explain turmoil in the modern Middle East: the French Revolution and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The radical “Reign of Terror” that arose within the French Revolution was, of course, the result of two decades of poor harvest, high bread prices, disease, and dissatisfaction among peasants and urban poor. Ignatius reminded those present at the Carnegie Endowment that Europe successfully absorbed the shock waves of the revolution. For Ignatius, the ISIS problem came down to reconciling with the status quo powers. He asserted that Saudi Arabia and Iran must set aside their differences and start a productive discussion about ISIS. Ignatius’ French Revolution analogy was compelling because it placed Middle East turmoil within a Western trajectory. In this way, he successfully discussed the current turmoil through a non-orientalist lens.

Ignatius also made a convincing connection between ISIS and the I979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, and he traced broken political cultures in the modern Middle East to the Iran-Iraq war. The year 1979 marked a pivotal moment in shifting perceptions of politics in the region, as urban workers and the disgruntled lower class decided that they no longer feared SAVAK, Mohammad Reza Shah’s secret police. Ignatius asserted that ISIS is a warped, hyper-driven version of that sentiment.

Freidman Deconstructs President Obama’s Policy of “Degrade and Destroy”

“Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” President Obama stated in a nationally televised address on September 10, 2014. Thomas Friedman, a leading American journalist and regular contributor to the New York Times, suggests that while the United States can and should degrade ISIS, only citizens of the Middle East can ultimately destroy the extremist group. According to Friedman, “ISIS loses if our moderate Arab-Muslim partners can unite and make this a civil war within Islam – a civil war in which America is the air force for the Sunnis and Shiites of decency versus those of barbarism.” In this particular fight, Freidman argues that our moderate Arab-Muslim partners need to act as the vanguard against ISIS’ extremism.

During his talk, Friedman identified two important reasons why Muslim citizens need to be the ones to destroy ISIS. Firstly, ISIS emerged as a product of the ongoing sectarian civil wars in Syria and Iraq, where Shiite-led governments systematically isolated Sunni Muslims. Mr. Friedman contends, “ISIS is the external enemy, and sectarianism and corruption in Iraq and Syria are the internal enemies. We can and should help degrade the first, but only if Iraqis and Syrians, Sunnis and Shiites, truly curtail the second.” The latter part of Mr. Friedman’s statement takes us to the second reason that he claims that our Arab-Muslim partners must take the lead in destroying ISIS.

The United States needs to encourage the people of the region to take ownership of Middle East Turmoil, thereby providing citizens and states in the region with more agency. Fellow speaker David Ignatius accurately summarized this idea in an article in which he wrote, “no more letting our friends hold our coat while we do the dirty work … U.S. air and military power will be provided to countries that demonstrate they’re in the fight themselves.”

Friedman strongly feels that for too long, developments in the region have been defined by U.S. actions. “We keep making this story about us, about Obama, about what we do. But it is not about us. It is about them and who they want to be,” reflected Friedman. Although the United States can militarily degrade ISIS, it is up to the region’s citizens to stem and permanently eliminate ISIS’ influence.

The event, which was co-sponsored by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, is available to stream on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website.

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