How Religious Faith—and Knowledge of Arabic—Can Help America’s Middle East Diplomacy

Oct. 17 2018

Having spent his career working for the State Department both in Washington and abroad, including numerous diplomatic postings in the Middle East, Alberto Fernandez is now the president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, a U.S. government-funded Arabic-language radio and television network. In an interview with Robert Nicholson, Fernandez discusses the moral component of American foreign policy, and how his own Roman Catholic faith has informed his work:

[America’s priority should be] our national interests in the Middle East, our relations with historical allies, and the need to confront aggressive adversaries like Russia and Iran. But our long-term interests are ultimately best served by regimes that respect human dignity and promote policies that encourage human flourishing. We tend—overwhelmingly—to have the opposite [approach] today across the region. The region desperately needs more critical thinking, more honesty and understanding of the “other” in the face of daunting political and socioeconomic challenges.

But we also have a built-in problem in foreign policy because we tend to have a short attention span, something our adversaries often do not. . . . And we have tended to cultivate the type of tools, I am thinking here of the training of personnel, that focus on the more shallow, short-term, and superficial. I remember in Sudan being the only Western chief of mission who spoke Arabic. But the Russian, Iranian, and Chinese ambassadors all spoke Arabic. . . .

All too often Westerners come to the Middle East with a built-in sense of the superiority of postmodern liberal society over a supposedly benighted and fanatical East. The reality is rather more complicated than that. [Furthermore], being a [religious] believer can and should help you understand people’s motivation, what touches their heart and spirit, what is most precious to them, more than life itself. Westerners, especially the highly secularized members of the elite who tend to staff Western foreign ministries, have sometimes forgotten, if they ever learned, that man does not live by bread alone.

This dismissal of the spiritual (or if you prefer, ideological or inner) dimension of the human condition can be worse than folly. It can be deadly. This is not to present a simplistic clichéd image of a spiritual East and material West, but the world is broader and deeper than the jaundiced view from Foggy Bottom or Brussels or the island of Manhattan.

Read more at Providence

More about: Arabic, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Religion, U.S. Foreign policy

Syria’s Druze Uprising, and What It Means for the Region

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the Druze for the most part remained loyal to the regime—which has generally depended on the support of religious minorities such as the Druze and thus afforded them a modicum of protection. But in the past several weeks that has changed, with sustained anti-government protests in the Druze-dominated southwestern province of Suwayda. Ehud Yaari evaluates the implications of this shift:

The disillusionment of the Druze with Bashar al-Assad, their suspicion of militias backed by Iran and Hizballah on the outskirts of their region, and growing economic hardships are fanning the flames of revolt. In Syrian Druze circles, there is now open discussion of “self-rule,” for example replacing government offices and services with local Druze alternative bodies.

Is there a politically acceptable way to assist the Druze and prevent the regime from the violent reoccupation of Jebel al-Druze, [as they call the area in which they live]? The answer is yes. It would require Jordan to open a short humanitarian corridor through the village of al-Anat, the southernmost point of the Druze community, less than three kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Setting up a corridor to the Druze would require a broad consensus among Western and Gulf Arab states, which have currently suspended the process of normalization with Assad. . . . The cost of such an operation would not be high compared to the humanitarian corridors currently operating in northern Syria. It could be developed in stages, and perhaps ultimately include, if necessary, providing the Druze with weapons to defend their territory. A quick reminder: during the Islamic State attack on Suwayda province in 2018, the Druze demonstrated an ability to assemble close to 50,000 militia men almost overnight.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: Druze, Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy