WUOMFM

Understanding the Middle East: What our next president needs to know

Oct 11, 2016

Robin Wright began her journalism career as a student at the University of Michigan, where she was the first female sports editor in the history of the Michigan Daily.

She has gone on to become a widely known and honored foreign affairs analyst, journalist and author. Her books include Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East, Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam and The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran.

This coming Thursday, Wright returns to Ann Arbor to give the Margaret Waterman Alumnae Lecture. She joined us today.

As we’ve seen during this presidential campaign season, there’s certainly fear and alarm among many Americans when it comes to the Middle East.

"It's always been a great challenge for many American presidents. Stability has been the preference, in part because of America's dependence on oil. The challenge is trying to figure out a way that those who are insecure about their futures, who feel marginalized or excluded, can feel that they are part of the solution."

That fear might be mitigated if more people had a stronger understanding of what’s happening in the region, but according to Wright, that might be easier said than done.

“The Middle East is not only the most volatile area of the world, it’s also the most complicated,” she said.

“It has a host of religions. It is of course a region that dates back to all the Abrahamic faiths, and everyone wants a claim to part of its land and part of its history and also part of its future.”

She told us it’s become particularly complicated in recent years due to the different trends playing out in the region, pointing to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab Spring, as well as “the biggest national security threat, the most complicated threat to the United States right now … the war against the Islamic State.”

She calls those three conflicts “the simple version” of what’s happening in the Middle East.

Wright told us that since World War II, the U.S. has struggled with balancing American values of democracy and inclusion with issues of stability in the region.

“It’s always been a great challenge for many American presidents. Stability has been the preference, in part because of America’s dependence on oil,” she said. “The challenge is trying to figure out a way that those who are insecure about their futures, who feel marginalized or excluded, can feel that they are part of the solution.”

“There are no real military solutions. … You can isolate or try to contain extremists or defeat them, but that at the end of the day doesn’t kill the ideas that have fueled a lot of these movements.”

The problem, then, is figuring out how to help people in the region create their own alternatives.

“We tried after the war in Iraq to come up with solutions for the Iraqi people, and it didn’t work. It will probably be judged historically as the greatest mistake in U.S. foreign policy,” Wright said.

“You think we’re afraid? People who live in the region feel just afraid. … After so many decades of conflict, the solution in the future is not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fast.”

In the meantime, Wright told us she wishes that America would do more to help or accommodate the millions of people who have been dislocated by conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

She told us that more than 60 percent of Syrians now rely on international aid just to get a daily meal. Almost five million, a quarter of the country’s population, have fled Syria altogether. More than half of the population have “fled internally in some form,” she said.

“The vast majority of these people are innocent civilians who have fled a conflict,” she said. “We’re talking about the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II.”

“I’m kind of ashamed as an American that we haven’t been more generous in bringing the women, the children particularly, the elderly, the injured to the United States and giving them a sense of hope, and showing how generous we are and what a role model we are as a melting pot for the world,” Wright said.

Wright will be in Ann Arbor on October 13 to give the Margaret Waterman Alumnae Lecture. The town hall will be from 11:30 to 1:30 at the Michigan Union Ballroom. 

(Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or with this RSS link)