October 29, 2008

Prof Examines Role of Middle East in Election

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Last night, approximately 100 students gathered for a discussion entitled “The 2008 Presidential Election and the Middle East,” which featured Prof. Ross Brann, Alice Cook House Professor-Dean and Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies.

From the very beginning of his lecture and throughout the discussion, Brann emphasized his non-political, strictly analytical examination of the Middle East region and the 2008 presidential election.

“I am not speaking as an advocate for either side,” he clarified.

Brann began his talk by discussing the myriad of problematic issues throughout the Middle East-North Africa region, including the humanitarian tragedy in Darfur, the civil strife in Somalia and the impact of the crisis in the world food market in countries like Egypt.

Next, he moved onto “the hard stuff”: the main foreign policy challenges for the U.S. in the Middle East region.

Addressing Iraq, Brann cited the significant human and monetary cost of the war, and noted that these costs will continue to be problematic for the U.S. if the next president chooses to maintain troops in Iraq. However, Brann also cited several specific problems with any type of exit strategy: the possibility of civil war and its ensuing chaos, the possibility of a de facto partition of the country into ethnically divided zones and the significant increase in refugees.

Brann also discussed the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He noted the lack of successful diplomatic action in the current Bush administration, largely due to the tremendous divisions in both Israeli and Palestinian societies and the relative weakness of their leaders.

The anti-American sentiment in the Middle East has never been as high as it is now, according to Brann, because the U.S. is seen as “guardians of the status quo” in the region. In fact, the U.S. is so “disliked and distrusted” in the region that greater than 90 percent of those polled in the Middle East believe that the U.S. is the greatest threat to their country’s security.

Engaging in the War on Terror and the drive towards democratization have discredited the U.S. in the region, Brann explained, because countries view these foreign policy initiatives as an American excuse to dominate the region.

Being careful to stick to a strictly analytical perspective, Brann turned to the discussion of Senator McCain’s and Senator Obama’s stated foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

According to Brann, Senator McCain would set aside Israeli-Syrian talks and would continue to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “on a low burner.” McCain would commit to ongoing American unilateralism where necessary, and resist using internationalist or regional diplomatic tools.

In contrast, according to Brann, Senator Obama favors a reversion to multilateralism, with the exception of U.S. interventionism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Brann noted that Obama has stated his strong commitment to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and has said that he will take a hard-line policy towards Iran.[img_assist|nid=33105|title=Political expressions|desc=Leaders of student political groups speak yesterday in McGraw Hall as part of a lecture on the role of the Middle East in the upcoming presidential elections|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]

Overall, Brann sees “less than meets the eye” in the differences between the candidates on issues of American foreign policy.

“Their policy differences are not huge. For instance, there are no monumental differences [in their policy] on Israel and Afghanistan.”

The next U.S. president will face “discrete, interconnected problems,” he explained, and the problems themselves will drive the policy.

Alexandra Perrotti, co-president of United for Peace and Justice in Palestine, said that the discussion was “one of the most interesting talks about the [Middle East] because it was totally focused on the U.S. It maintained integrity to the talk.”

After Brann’s opening lecture, a student panel discussed these foreign policy issues and reacted to the Obama’s and McCain’s statements about Middle East policy. Members of the panel included Rammy Salem ‘10, member of the Muslim Education and Cultural Association; Jennifer Fishkin ‘10, executive vice president of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee (CIPAC); Ethan Felder ’09, president of Cornell Democrats; and Jordan Fabian ’09, editor-at-large of the Cornell Review.

In his opening statement, Salem acknowledged that he is neither the most devout Muslim nor the most political savvy student, but as a Muslim he is largely focused on the next president’s judgments in Iraq. Fishkin, in contrast, discussed Iran’s threat to the U.S. and Israel, her support for the two-state solution and her support for multilateralism. Felder and Fabian both addressed Obama’s and McCain’s foreign policies, respectively.

Reacting to the event, Amanda Rudman ’09 said, “I thought Ross Brann was very insightful.”

However, Rudman did not like the student panel discussion because she did not think that they added to the “level of discussion.”

“I thought they were there to toot their own horns,” she said.

On the other hand, Shai Akabas ’09, president of CIPAC, felt that it was “a great event to bring together groups from both sides of the aisle and both sets of views where a respected professor could moderate a constructive talk.”

Regardless of who becomes the next U.S. president, Brann noted that the overwhelming feeling in the Middle East will be, “At least it’s not President George W. Bush.”

This event was sponsored by the Cornell International Affairs Review.