A few days ago, I spent an afternoon with members of the Syrian opposition delegation visiting Washington. They briefed me on their many meetings with the Obama Administration (including a lengthy session with the president) and with members of the Senate and Congress. We also discussed problems they are facing on the ground in Syria and issues with their messaging strategy.
At the very end of our wide-ranging conversation, a leader of the delegation surprised me with a few unexpected questions. He asked "What is your long-term vision for the region— from Iraq to Lebanon— how do you see it in the future? And what do you see for us in the next three years?"
I was surprised, but I was also delighted, because these are exactly the questions that should be asked and answered by leaders on all levels of government and civil society across the Middle East.
It is critically important to have a broad strategic vision of the future that embodies the values and aspirations of your people. And it is equally important to be able to project how you can see that vision being implemented in the short term.My initial response might have been a bit flippant, saying that looking 100 years down the road I can see an Arab boy from Amman marrying an Israeli girl from Tel Aviv and taking a job and settling down in the suburbs of Damascus. But I quickly added that what I meant was that I envisioned a region at peace with itself, with integrated societies, economies, and open borders (or no borders, at all) allowing for the free movement of people and commerce.
Given the bloody wars of the last several decades and continuing tumult and tension, such a vision might appear to some to be fanciful. There will be naysayers who will go so far as to argue that it is not in the genetic makeup of this or that side to ever accept such a peace or integration. But I am convinced that they are wrong. No group of people is uniquely indisposed to peace and integration and no people are immune from the inevitable pressures of history.
In this regard, the Middle East is not exceptional. It is true that the region is plagued by war and upheaval— but then what region of the world has not been so plagued. Much the same despair was once widespread across Europe. That continent had, for centuries, been the setting for bloody conflicts that pitted nations and sects against each other, culminating in the 20th century's two devastating world wars. Who, in the midst of the last century's horrors, could have imagined a Europe at peace with itself?
In the past few decades, Europe formed an economic union and then ended a Cold War that had divided the continent. Though still not a "perfect union," it is impossible to ignore the profound and positive transformations that have occurred and are still unfolding across that once tormented region.
What is important is that, in the midst of conflict, people be given a vision of the future and the possibility of change, precisely so that they not surrender to despair. Projecting such vision can inspire and motivate societies to move forward, rejecting the paralysis that comes from feeling trapped by present day "realities". By projecting a progressive vision of the future, leaders are also able to present a stark contrast between the idea of the world they seek to create with notions advocated by those operating without such a vision.
When applied to the conflicts raging across the Levant, the matter becomes clearer.
What, for example would be Bashar al Assad's vision of the future? And who would want to live in the future projected by ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra? Is there anyone who hopes that Lebanon one hundred years from now is still divided by sect, with power monopolized by the same families who have governed their clans or regions for the past century? And is there any future in the exclusivist, irredentist notions advocated by hard-line Israelis or their counterparts in the Palestinian camp?
Having a progressive vision of the future allows one to challenge those who can't think beyond the dead-end constraints of the present. It rejects those who for reasons of power and personal privilege want to freeze current realities or elevate them to the status of the eternal, and those whose blasphemous distortions of religion cause them to envision the future as a return to an idealized past.
Thinking about the future means we do not create "false idols" of the past or present. It means that we understand that we are human, subject to God's laws, and that we do not allow ourselves become so arrogant as to subject God to our own whims and fancy. It also requires that we reject the temptation to use means that contradict the very ends we seek to accomplish.
This leads me to consider my Syrian friend's second no less important question, which is to envision the Levant in three years’ time. In some ways, this is a more difficult challenge because it forces us to directly confront the constraints of the present day. While I believe that 100 years from now there will be no latter-day "al Assad" on the scene, no "religious" fanatics tormenting those who are "less pure", no clan leaders or ultra-nationalists— they are precisely the characters who define present day life. They must be defeated— but how they are defeated matters. That's why a future vision based on values is important. Fighting evil with evil, repression with repression, or fanaticism with fanaticism, is a no-win proposition. New ideas matter and so do new means by which to bring those ideas to life.
I thank my Syrian friend for asking his thoughtful questions and for the discussion that followed. It provided us both an opportunity to reflect on means and ends and goals. The very fact that he asked these questions made me appreciate his leadership. I would love to hear this challenge put to other leaders, on all levels, across the Levant. Their answers would be revealing.