May 20th 2014

The Importance of Vision

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

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.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "