Securing the Future in a Changing Middle East – CCWA

Our second event for Wednesday, January 23rd, was a Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) program titled “Securing the Future in a Changing Middle East,” featuring Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Diplomat in Residence at Princeton University. The CCWA pamphlet described Amb. Crocker as “a statesman whose distinguished diplomatic career spanned four  presidencies and who served as U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon.” He has had a truly remarkable career as a public servant and has held numerous faculty positions. We encourage our readers to read his biography at the Wilson Center website.

Early in the evening, we talked to Mr. Michael  Perrins, Director of International Programs at St. Edward High School, who told us that Amb. Crocker had visited the school earlier in the day and had spoken to the junior and senior students about diplomacy, foreign service, and the Middle East. Mr. Perrins said that Amb. Crocker possessed a very positive demeanor and related well to the students. He also said that he believed Amb. Crocker actually looked and sounded like a diplomat.

When it was time to take our seats, we sat just ahead of Mr. Basel M. Abdallah, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon about ten years ago after living in France. He said that as a small child in Lebanon he remembered watching Amb. Crocker on TV speaking Arabic. We congratulated Mr. Abdallah because he had recently passed the bar exam and is looking forward to practicing law. The incredible Mr. Richard Fleischman also sat beside us. For those unfamiliar with him, he is a highly respected local architect who will be part of the 2019 class of the Cleveland International Hall of Fame.

Before Amb. Crocker spoke we heard from Ms. Carina Van Vliet who was recently installed as the new CEO of the CCWA. She said that, as a child of U.S. citizens born and raised raised in France, she considers herself to be an international citizen. In a statement that appeared on the CCWA website, Ms. Van Vliet was quoted as saying, “I deeply believe in the mission of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) to help educate global citizens. Indeed, the path forward for Cleveland-for any urban and economic center-is an increasingly international one, and yet the world is growing seemingly more complex. It is therefore incredibly important for Clevelanders to have this wonderful resource called CCWA to nurture their international curiosity and understanding of the world. I am honored that the board of directors has decided to entrust me with leading this vital effort for our city.”

Then it was time to hear from Ambassador Crocker who, in the course of his speech, retraced the history of the Middle East from the aftermath of WWI until present times. Prior to the Great War, much of the area was united under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. As depicted in the famous film Lawrence of Arabia, the British supported Arab rebels in defeating Turkish forces in the region. Rather than helping set up a unified state, however, Britain and France put their own colonial interests first and divided the area along the artificial boundaries we are familiar with today. Because of this, the states that were set up have been weak and not internally united. The ambassador believed that recent turmoil was brought about by the failure of these governmental institutions to create security and inspire people’s confidence by acting in their best interest.

Accordingly, the United States can only do so much because democracies have to be built from the bottom up instead of the top down. Thus, as far as the United States was concerned there were no good policy choices; instead it’s either bad or it’s worse. The U.S. has also made its share of bad decisions that have destabilized the region. However, while many have called the pullout of American troops from Syria a mistake, Amb. Crocker supported the move largely because the mission has never been clearly defined and there were too few soldiers to do much good. Time will tell which course was the right one.

In the case of Afghanistan, however, the ambassador believed that we definitely have to maintain a presence there to protect the advances of women in terms of education and career choices because to not do so would be contrary to the humanitarian principles espoused by the United States. This forces us to confront an issue that is very much a staple of our foreign policy: if the United States pulls out of a vulnerable area, then another entity will probably move in and could prove to be lethal not only to that area but surrounding areas as well. The problem is, where do we draw the line?

Afterwards. we spoke to a person who was living in Lebanon in 1983 when Amb. Crocker was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. He said that he really respected the courage of the ambassador because he chose to remain in Beirut and continue his service even after the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks were bombed.

As with all CCWA events, Amb. Crocker’s presentation was powerful and thought provoking.  It motivated us to question our own values in terms of when it is appropriate to intervene and in what manner. We are sure that we are not the only ones who have been inspired to learn more after listening to him speak.