As during the past years, the Williamsburg Area chapter of the League of Women Voters is once again sponsoring the annual Great Decisions series, an eight-week program that brings expert speakers to the Williamsburg Library to address global topics suggested by the Foreign Policy Association.
This year the subjects discussed range from the role of the United Nations, to climate change, to migration to the Middle East. The last lecture of the Series will be presented on March 29. by Mike Holtzman, Vice President for Communications at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation..
What makes Holtzman an outstanding expert on the Middle East is his work in many of the region's dark corners. He worked closely with the rulers and powerbrokers in numerous Middle Eastern and North African countries. This experience provided him a unique insight into Middle East politics.
Holtzman, a graduate of William & Mary and a member of the college's Reves Center for International Studies Advisory Board, has served as an advisor to the State Department.
I asked him, what is the message he wishes to convey to his audience at the Great Decision Series Forum.
"I suppose my main message is that foreign policy matters! There is an old saw that all politics is local and it is surely true. But the environment, security, trade and commerce are all transitional issues that shape our well-being here at home. We have a moral and economic stake in the stability of our neighbors. Our most basic values and ideals are tested in faraway conflicts and crises. So we have to stay engaged and vigilant in the world because what happens in the world affects us," he said in an interview with the Gazette.
I was interested to learn his views about what role did the Arab Spring play in unraveling the political situation in the region.
"The so-called Arab Spring is clearly not a singular historical moment, nor is it symbolic of the progress and enlightenment it once promised.... Rather it has unleashed powerful sectarian forces that are pulling the region apart. Libya is in chaos. Egypt ousted one ruler in the name of democracy and then quickly faced a military-led counterrevolution that has yet to stabilize the country. Syria is a humanitarian crisis on an epic scale. In the vacuum that the chaos produced, ISIS has emerged, metastasized and grown into a direct threat on our homeland."
Holtzman pointed out that leaders bear ultimate responsibility for the well-being of their people. "History has proven again and again," he said, "that no government can withstand deep inequities and injustices among their people. Leaders must give their people a path to social and economic progress and those that can't or won't, will not long endure because they don't rule legitimately. But empowering people comes at the expense of a leader's power. That is a compromise that is hard for many in the region to reconcile."
As a longtime adviser to the U.S. State Department, Holtzman has learned not to make a hasty judgment. "The failure of the Arab Spring to achieve the progress it promised is partly the result of there being no democratic institutions in these countries that could establish legitimacy in the eyes of a widely divergent, expectant population. So a people suddenly free to choose their destinies find themselves terribly frustrated by the lack of stability and responsiveness. It is incredibly easy in this environment to go to their traditional battle stations or to revert to a strongman model."
Thus, in his view, what Western democracies can and should do, is step up their activities that promote development of democratic institutions. "But this is a long-term play," he said.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and on Amazon.com