Former Ambassador Analyzes Middle East Conflicts

Karim Kawar, the former Jordanian ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 2002 to 2007 and BC ’87, spoke with Kathleen Bailey, a professor in the political science department, at the second-annual Omar Aggad Memorial Lecture on Friday. The discussion ranged across a variety of topics about the current state of the Middle East, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Syria’s civil war, refugees, and the state of education in Jordan itself.

Kawar began by speaking about how the competition for influence in the Middle East among foreign powers like Russia, the United States, and China—whose intervention he ascribed to the variety of the Middle East’s natural resources, especially oil.

The chaos arising from the tensions in the region, Kawar said, has caused a “brain drain”: More moderate young people in Jordan have fled the country, leaving behind others with “more fundamental” beliefs.

The conversation then shifted to the tensions between Israel and Palestine, and the role that the United States plays in that conflict, especially under the Trump administration.

The 70-year-old conflict, Kawar explained, is at the core of many issues in the Arab World and is “a deep wound that, unless it’s healed, is going to create even further problems.”

Kawar expressed skepticism about U.S. policy for Israel, specifically the Trump administration’s so-called “Deal of the Century” for peace in the Middle East, in terms of its morality and its political effectiveness.

“My question is, where is the moral compass of the United States?” Kawar said. “Now, the U.S. is contributing to further suffering of the Palestinian population.”

Kawar spoke about the Trump administration’s push to strip away the refugee status of children of refugees, which he said was a violation of international law. He also said that the Obama and Trump administrations “[turned] a blind eye” to illegal Israeli settlements being built in the West Bank, a parcel of land heavily contested by Israel and Palestine.

The former ambassador then talked about the complications that have arisen from the Trump administration’s decision in late 2017 to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. One result of this action, Kawar said, is that the U.S. embassies in Israel and Palestine—which had already been located in Jerusalem before last year—were merged.

The upshot of this, according to Kawar, is that Palestinian journalists’ criticisms of U.S. policy in the area are “going to be channeled through the U.S. embassy that serves Israel.”

In effect, he said, “the U.S. will be receiving a one-sided story about what’s going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

“If this is the start of this ‘Deal of the Century,’ I’m worried about what might come,” Kawar said.

The topic of discussion then moved to the civil war in Syria and the associated refugee crisis.

Kawar noted that in addition to the devastation felt by refugees themselves, the large influx of Syrian, Libyan, Somali, and Sudanese refugees has caused “internal displacement” for natives of Jordan and other similarly-sized countries that have aided a large number of refugees relative to their populations.

Speaking more broadly about the Syrian situation, Kawar said that he believes that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power because of his administration’s backing by the Russian government. He also said that Syrians are more willing to live under a dictatorship for the sake of stability rather than face the uncertainty that would accompany the alternative rule of the country by ISIS.

Kawar concluded the talk by discussing the connection between Jordan’s education system and the country’s economic problems. In addition to external pressures, including Jordan’s inability to trade with major trading partners like Iraq and Syria due to conflicts, Kawar said that the country’s decline in educational quality—which he said was once ranked first in the region—has also hurt Jordan’s economy.

He pointed to the fact that Jordan now has 30 universities—a number far out of proportion to the small population of Jordan. He said that Jordanians need to focus on vocational training to offset the large amounts of unskilled labor that is outsourced to foreign workers in Jordan.

He also discussed how Jordan’s public education system does not have an equivalent of kindergarten, resulting in the illiteracy of around 100,000 students.

Yet Kawar noted that there is cause for hope, due to the emergence of online educational resources that would allow students to learn how to read, as well as acquire technical and entrepreneurial skills through YouTube, Twitter, and other internet outlets.

Much of Jordan’s future also depends on reshaping attitudes surrounding success and failure, Kawar said.

“If you have failed, that’s it—that’s the end of your life,” Kawar said. “We want to change that culture to realize that it’s failure, ultimately, that leads to success.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons