From where we sit on eastern Long Island, sometimes it can be difficult to grasp the complications of the world’s social, political and economic realities. The evening news offers only a fleeting glimpse of what’s happening abroad — these days the circus-like atmosphere of national presidential politics gets far more airtime — and putting the wider world into context can be extremely difficult.
Fortunately, understanding the realities of an increasingly complex and interconnected global arena comes easier with a little help from some friends, neighbors and the “Great Decisions” program underway at the Shelter Island Library.
“Great Decisions” is offered through the New York-based Foreign Policy Association. The eight-part educational program touches on some of the world’s current hot-button issues as it seeks to engage and educate Americans at the local level about U.S. foreign policy in those regions.
A companion book is published for each “Great Decisions” program with essays to help participants get up to speed on the eight topics to be discussed, while addendums with late breaking political updates are handed out prior to each session so the information is current.
The Library kicked off its own “Great Decisions” program on May 26 with part one of the 2016 series, an exploration of the shifting alliances in the Middle East. About two dozen Island residents showed up for the discussion, which began with a 20-minute film that offered a recap of the region’s history, geography and recent political upheaval.
Moderated by Island resident Kirk Ressler, a Harvard Law School grad and a career Foreign Service officer, the evening’s discussion touched on a myriad of issues related to the region — from proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to the varied success of the Arab Spring revolutions and shifting alliances between regional and international powers. Much of the focus was on the United States’ role in the region and what this country can — or should — do in order to avoid further damage and disruption. During the discussion one thing quickly became very clear — these are not black and white issues with simple, ready-made solutions.
“Before 1979 there was a twin pillar policy that relied on Iran and the Shah and Saudi Arabia to keep the peace,” Mr. Ressler explained. “That changed in ‘79.”
Of course, 1979 was the year the U.S. hostages were seized in Tehran and diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States ceased.
While Saudi Arabia remained a close U.S. ally in the years that followed, the recent nuclear treaty with Iran, the lifting of sanctions there and questions about Saudi Arabia’s role in the 9/11 attacks have made many players in the region fear the U.S. is shifting its allegiance toward Iran, a country with values that in many ways are more western than those of Saudi Arabia, especially when it comes to things like women’s rights.
Part of the evening’s discussion focused on the Arab Spring movement and uprisings that have greatly disrupted the region in recent years, in some cases for the better by forcing out long time dictators, but often for the worse, like in Syria where a brutal crackdown by the authoritative regime followed, along with instability and civil wars that have allowed groups like ISIS to move in.
Mr. Ressler furthered the discussion by bringing up the specific case of Egypt and the United States’ support for the Arab Spring uprising there in 2011.
“The US government said we wanted to be on the right side of history,” he said. “So they sent [former diplomat] Frank Wisner to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to ask him to leave peacefully. When Wisner went public and said Mubarak should stay, he was fired.
“Five years later, six countries have been affected by the Arab Spring — one, Tunisia, is a moderate success,” Mr. Ressler said. “Two, Bahrain and Egypt, have seen the return of the autocrats… and Syria, Lebanon and Libya are in chaos.”
These are the kind of issues “Great Decisions” brings up and what’s clear is that when it comes to foreign policy, there are few easy answers. The evening also provided an opportunity for participants to ask questions and posit theories as to how the situation in the region might be improved. The questions, it turns out, are never easy either.
“Should we support the Arab spring?” Mr. Ressler asked those in the room.
He expanded on the idea by pointing out that in 2011 our enemy, Muammar el-Qaddafi, was planning to attack rebels in the eastern part of Libya. European nations sought to intervene by stopping Qaddafi and came to the U.S. asking for help.
“Obama was 50/50. The military didn’t want to do it,” Mr. Ressler explained. “They had to take out Libya’s weapons systems. We did it, now look at what we have.”
“There was no plan for setting up a system afterward,” said one discussion participant.
Conversely, another pointed out, “We did nothing in Tunisia and it turned out to be the best of the Arab Springs.”
“So can Arab nations ever have democracy or do religious and other divides override it?” Mr. Ressler asked. “Mubarak was a source of stability. Should he have stayed? Now there’s even more oppression in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood held power.”
“Exporting democracy. I don’t think that’s our job,” offered one man who had worked in the region.
For Barbara Groves, the Island resident who introduced the program to Library Director Terry Lucas, the depth of knowledge of many people in the room at the first session greatly impressed her. Several in attendance had worked in the region and they offered personal insight into what they had witnessed in the Middle East.
“It was a very diverse group,” said Ms. Groves in an interview after the session. “The one thing Terry said is that there hasn’t been anything like this offered through the Library before. This is great for people who are interested in foreign policy, foreign issues or foreign affairs.”
“To me, what’s also interesting is how few people know about the ‘Great Decisions’ program,” said Ms. Groves who took part in the program some 40 years ago while living in Westchester County. “It’s wonderful. People seem to like the idea and the Library was very receptive to it. It’s unique in the category and I think word of mouth will get out more.”
“Great Decisions” discussions will take place at the Shelter Island Library at 5:30 p.m. on the last Thursday of every month through December (except November).
Program books are $25 and can be ordered through the library. New participants are welcome at any session. Future topics include:
June 30: The Rise of Isis
July 28: The Future of Kurdistan
August 25: International Migration
September 29: Korean Choices
October 27: The United Nations Post-2015
November 17: Climate Geopolitics
December 29: Cuba and the U.S.