The Consequences of Toppling Tyrants

Foreign Relations Experts Discuss Revolutions in Middle East and the Implications for American Policy at Robbins-Wilf Lecture

As collapsing Middle East governments and unease about United States involvement in Libya dominated news headlines, Bloomberg View Executive Editor and former Assistant Secretary of State James P. Rubin and New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David E. Sanger met at Yeshiva University’s Schottenstein Cultural Center to share their take on the events unfolding overseas.

From left, Daves, Rubin and Sanger discuss Mideast turmoil
From left, Daves, Rubin and Sanger discuss the implications of recent turmoil in the Mideast.

The discussion, titled “Toppling Middle East Dictators,” was part of the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence program at Stern College for Women. Moderated by Bryan Daves, clinical assistant professor of political science at Yeshiva University, Sanger and Rubin debated the New York Times’ handling of WikiLeaks, in which Sanger played a major role, as well as the strengths, weaknesses and determining factors of the Obama administration’s approach to revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and the upheaval in other countries in the region. The two also speculated about the costs and benefits of U.S. military force in Libya for the Obama presidency and American interests abroad.

Sanger suggested that Obama wanted to avoid the errors of his predecessors. “Governments, like all of us in our individual lives, are influenced by the last mistake they made,” he said, citing the Clinton administration’s widely-criticized decision not to go into Rwanda on the one hand and the Bush administration’s struggle to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq on the other. Adding to that tension, Sanger noted, were also concerns about how Iranians would view an American decision to stay out of Libya: “The lesson that the Iranians might emerge with from that might be, ‘This is a president who’s not willing to use military force under any circumstances, perhaps including to back up his other statement[s] that Iran would never be permitted to build up a nuclear weapons capability.’ ”

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“The [fear] of Iran getting a nuclear weapon has been, if anything has been, the organizing principle of Obama foreign policy,” said Rubin. “If that was truly part of the argument for using force initially, the Iranians certainly will not believe we’ll use military power against them when this is through,” suggesting that he did believe that this was a clear indicator of U.S. resolve. He added: “What we’re dealing with right now is a time when the President of the United States has said very loudly and clearly that he doesn’t see our role as one of leadership. I think that’s unfortunate in a time when the world needs leadership because these momentous changes are occurring in places that really do matter to the United States, both for our own national security interests and the interests of our friends like Israel.”

Both speakers brought years of experience in international politics to the table: Rubin served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Clinton and as chief spokesman for the State Department from 1997 to 2000, while Sanger is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner known for his lucid analysis of foreign policy and national security.

New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent
David E. Sanger, New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent

“It was very exciting to hear some of the terms I hoped would come up, like ‘internationalism’ and the proper use of strategy,” said Josh Reynolds, a political science major who hopes to go into public policy. He is currently enrolled in Media and Politics; Mideast Politics; and War, Security and Defense at Yeshiva College. “It’s cool to see that terms used in the classroom are not just used by academics,” he said. “Tonight we got to see political theory in its real context.”

For Howard Brookman, an attorney who attended the lecture, the discussion of possible implications for Israel was especially important. “This talk was extremely relevant for the YU and Jewish American community because of our connection to the state of Israel,” he said. “Israel will be deeply affected by whatever happens in the region and it’s certainly good to hear the perspective of people who are knowledgeable in this area.”

“I can’t think of two people who would be possibly more informed or better able to discuss the events in the Middle East, the U.S. reaction to it and the implications for US policy,” said Daves. “This lecture series has become an important venue for students and members of the university community to hear about major political and foreign policy issues currently at the center of policy discussions in this country, from people who are currently involved.”

The Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence program was established and funded by Dr. Robbins-Wilf, a founding member of the Stern College Board of Directors. It brings top scholars, authors, artists and opinion makers to Stern College, offering students unique perspectives on the world.

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