For more than 20 years, Chautauqua Institution has hosted a Middle East Update, an annual program that brings in foreign policy experts to help Chautauquans understand the tightly wound and highly complicated knot of conflicts and relationships in the Middle East.
This year’s Middle East Update begins at 4 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy and will continue on Aug. 12 and 13 at the same time and place. Today, Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional security programs at the Center for the National Interest, will moderate a discussion with Dennis Ross, diplomat and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Ross is also speaking at today’s morning lecture.
On top of his expertise on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Kemp also has an extensive history with Chautauqua. He first lectured at the Institution in August 1984. Two years later, he joined a group of 275 government officials, Chautauquans and American performers that traveled to Riga, Latvia, to a Chautauqua conference meant to broker a cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
To set the tone for the Middle East Update, Kemp described his view on the United States’ current relationship with the region.
“After the experience of the last 25 years or so, particularly the last 10 years, the United States has to be very careful where it uses its power and influence because we’re tired; we do not want to get engaged in more military conflict,” Kemp said. “We still have vital interests in the region, and it’s a matter of importance that American citizens realize that we can’t walk away from the Middle East. But at the same time, there’s no way we can solve all the problems the region has. We need the help of others, particularly the moderate Arab states and the Europeans, and hopefully other countries like China, Russia, India and Brazil.”
Kemp said that Ross is a great candidate to discuss the relationship between Israel and Palestine because of his long background in doing just that. Ross currently serves as a counselor for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He formerly served under the Reagan administration as the director of the Near East and South Asian affairs for the National Security Council, as well as special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Certainly in the case of Dennis Ross, I will be asking him and making my own comments about the rather surprising decision of the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations,” Kemp said. “He is in a perfect position to make comments on why he thinks this happened at this time, what he thinks the chances are [that the negotiations will prove successful] and why now, rather than two years ago, perhaps something can be done.”
“My own view is that both sides realize time is running out,” Kemp continued, “and that … there’s such chaos elsewhere in the Arab world that this might be a good opportunity to do something positive while others are distracted with Syria, Egypt and Iran. So I think [my session with Ross] will cover everything from the peace process to what we’re going to do about Iran in the coming year.”
On Monday, at the beginning of Week Eight’s focus on Turkey — the week’s theme is “Turkey: Model for the Middle East?” — Kemp will host a discussion with Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
“I will steer that conversation to the role of Turkey in the Middle East, and the discussion will have three main thrusts,” Kemp said. “One, Turkey’s crisis with Syria; they used to be very friendly, and now they’re almost in a state of war with each other. Second is Turkey’s relationship with Iran, which is going through some very rough times. And third, Turkey’s relationships with Israel, which used to be good, then were very bad and now are somewhere in between.”
The Middle East Update will conclude on Aug. 13 with Kemp’s discussion with Tamara Sonn, the Kenan Professor of Humanities and a professor of religious studies at the College of William & Mary.
“We’re going to try to focus a little more on the issue of Islamic government … and what we can learn from Turkey’s experience as a predominantly Islamic country that nevertheless has a secular government,” Kemp said. “And to what extent Turkey could or should be regarded as a model for other Islamic countries, particularly in the Arab world. And this brings into question whether Egypt can ever really be a secular or Islamist state and whether the two things are reconcilable — this is clearly also something that has enormous relevance in Iraq and Syria.”
Sonn wishes to put these complicated issues into context. She is arriving at Chautauqua from Istanbul, following a period of researching developments in Egypt and Libya, as well as those connected with the Taksim Square demonstrations earlier this summer.
“There has been some discussion of Turkey’s Islamist democracy serving as a model for other Islamic democracies,” Sonn said in an email, “but the Taksim Square demonstrations have revealed a strong strain of discontent with that model. I hope to be able to put the Egyptian counter-revolution and the Turkish protests in the broader context of democratization in the region.”
Sonn believes that understanding this process of democratization is absolutely crucial to an informed understanding of many of the events and processes taking place in the Middle East.
“My main point will be that the title ‘Arab Spring’ can be misleading,” Sonn said. “Muslim majority countries (whether Arab or not), like most formerly colonized countries, are undergoing a prolonged process of democratization. It began over a century ago, with constitutional rebellions in Tunisia, Turkey and Iran.”
“Democratization is a challenging process, but as difficult as it is, people find democracy preferable to the alternatives and so will continue the struggle,” Sonn continued. “The recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — which gave rise to the ‘Arab Spring’ title — are neither the beginning nor the end of the process. The current counter-revolutions going on in Egypt and Tunisia and the stalled process in Libya must be understood as part of this ongoing process.”
With so many complex issues to cover, Kemp promises a lively and informative discussion. However, what he cannot promise is to resolve everyone’s questions by the end of this year’s Middle East Update.
“People will be left with as many questions as they probably came in with,” Kemp said. “Unfortunately, these issues are as difficult today as they ever have been. But that’s even more reason to keep the community well- informed and to bring in speakers who can address urgent subjects.”