Jiaying Xu ’17
Tamara Wittes is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, and has served in senior positions in the Department of State under President Obama. One of the most prominent and visible Middle East policy specialists in the United States, Wittes was invited to discuss the future of U.S. policy in the Middle East in a post-Obama era at Smith on Oct. 27. Wittes emphasized that America’s policy in the Middle East, which has aroused endless conflicts and disputes over the years, should begin with an understanding that the problems now plaguing the region have tangled roots.
Steven Heydemann, professor and chair of Middle East Studies at Smith College, explains the importance of having such a discussion on campus at this particular period of time. “The Middle East remains a critically important region for the United States, and it raises policy issues on which the American public and policy makers are deeply divided. Obama’s approach to the Middle East, including his response to the Arab Spring, the agreement he negotiated with Iran to delay its development of nuclear weapons, and his handling of the conflict in Syria, have been the subject of considerable debate and disagreement. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have sharply criticized one another’s positions on the Middle East throughout the current presidential campaign. As the end of the campaign approaches, it is important for Smith students to have an opportunity to hear about all of the issues the U.S. faces in the region from someone who has been deeply involved in US Middle East policy.”
The discussion revolved around three major questions: first, what happened in the Middle East and why it happened; second, how the U.S., and the Obama administration in particular, has dealt with the changes and upheavals in the region; and third, what America’s role in the region will be like in the future. Wittes ascribed the cause of social unrest in the Middle East to the tensions among the authoritarian governments in the region. She explained that the U.S. did not create the uprisings in the region, and neither U.S. response nor a lack of response to these uprisings lead to the current war that has allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to thrive; the dictators did. Many of the dictatorial governments in the Middle East used coercion to enforce compliance and to sustain their power. They responded poorly to civil protests, resulting in increased social tensions and institutional violence that has enabled the growth of terrorist movements. Rather than appealing to their governments, citizens have sought protections from sectarian militia groups with horrific agendas, thus creating the vacuum that has allowed for a special branch of the former Al-Qaeda to evolve into today’s ISIL.
“Speaking just logically,” said Wittes, “it doesn’t make sense to me that one could blame American intervention in Libya and American non-intervention in Syria for the same outcome of civil war and radicalization. What explains these similar outcomes is what these two cases have in common, which is the legacy of authoritarian rule.” What the U.S. government should consider is not whether it should intervene in the region, but how it can guarantee a robust present and a good handling of aftermath crises. Wittes argued that social trust is the key to address regional stability, make effective investment and secure the future of the Middle East on behalf of the region and the interests of the United States. Concerning how to build social trust, Wittes suggested that “we should address violence with tools that are not primarily military tools by helping people build the skills, platforms and forums to manage conflicts peacefully.”
Wittes’s insightful diagnosis of the conditions in the Middle East and her nuanced appreciation for the challenges of the U.S. policy in the region inspired many questions from students and professors during the question session. “Smith students have an interest in U.S. foreign policy,” Professor Heydemann later commented on the event. “This event offered an opportunity for Smithies to learn how one veteran policy specialist thinks about matters they care about, and to engage with her on issues that are important for the future of the U.S. Wittes is a long-time advocate of U.S. support for efforts to achieve political reform in the Middle East, and to empower the peoples of the Middle East to shape their own futures. Her views on where she hopes the next president will move U.S. policy in the Middle East were consistent with the positions she has taken throughout her career.”
The students who participated in the event also remarked that Wittes’s speech demonstrated an unshakable commitment to combatting terrorism and bringing stability to the region. She enabled them to understand that social upheavals in the region originated in combined reasons of historic conflicts, contemporary rivalries and internal divides, and that the U.S. government should engage in the long-term battle against these problems. In the meantime, the students hoped to learn more about concrete U.S. policies in building new mechanism and social trust in the Middle East.