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Hamilton High Students Briefed on Mideast

Historian James Gelvin reviews five major Middle East problems.

Hamilton High Students Briefed on Mideast

Parisa Sekandari, UCLA Islamic Studies doctoral student, with Hamilton High teacher Sue Casey and one of her students.

By Leslie Evans

View photos of their visit

Seventeen students from Hamilton High School in west Los Angeles took a field trip to UCLA on June 1 to attend a briefing on the Middle East by Associate Professor of History James Gelvin. Following the briefing they posed questions and joined in a discussion of the issues. Afterwards they took a tour of the campus. Their visit was sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and the outreach program of the UCLA International Institute.

Gelvin holds a doctorate from Harvard University and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College and Harvard University before coming to UCLA. He spent the 2002-03 school year teaching at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Five Big Problems

Professor Gelvin began by recalling that during his year in Beirut he used to see Lebanese friends leaving parties early to go home and watch Seinfeld on TV. He suggested that American television is much more effective than government propaganda in projecting an image of how Americans live to people in other countries. He then went on to outline five key problems for the US in the Middle East.

The first problem as he sees it is U.S. policy. The Bush administration has adopted a strategy of neo-imperialism, projecting economic, military, and cultural power abroad. At the same time, the administration accepts the clash of civilizations perspective according to which "we are fundamentally different and will never see eye to eye." This is "totally contradictory," said Gelvin. If the clash of civilizations were real, "it would be useless to try to impose our values on people with a completely different outlook."

Turning to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Gelvin observed that "both sides have recognized each other" since 1993, but that in the present situation where a negotiated settlement has not been achieved, "the Israelis have been trying to impose a one-sided settlement."

Gelvin called the Iraq war "a self-inflicted wound." He conceded that the Saddam Hussein regime "was a horrible government [that] should not have been allowed to exist," but he argued that the United States should not have acted alone to overthrow it. Every day it looks as though the occupation regime in Iraq will fall apart, he said, and the costs continue to mount. "We have spent more than $100 billion so far."

Addressing the war on terrorism, Gelvin called it a mistake. "Terrorism is a tactic,” he said, and "the tactic of terrorism is not going to go away, so there is no way to end the war." He pointed out that "declaring war on a tactic also puts us on the same side as a lot of vicious regimes that say they are fighting terrorism when they try to crush domestic opposition."

Finally, Gelvin considered the Middle East as a whole. "We see very little of democracy," he said. "There are authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. They are not doing well economically. They have huge amounts of power in relation to their populations. The region has stood mostly outside of the computer and information revolution. They stood outside of the economic boom of the 1990s." He discussed the U.S. role in bringing numerous Middle Eastern regimes to power and sustaining them. He said that the United States has been the author of many coups d'etat in the region, beginning with the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran in 1953. "What's more important, oil or human rights?" he asked. He pointed to Saudi Arabia as another example. "You have repression of women, you have guest workers with no rights."

In answer to a student's question about the role of the UN, Gelvin responded, "We spent fifty years building these organizations and now we have nearly destroyed them. The truth is there are very few laws in international law. These concern things like piracy, slavery, and preemptive invasions. On the last of these, the U.S. government has violated it. This trivializes the law, with lawyers manipulating it to justify whatever you want to do. It will be a hard fight to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We have thrown away all the good will we earned in the cold war."

Some Student Comments

After they returned to their school, a number of the students who had participated in the briefing and discussion submitted their comments to their teacher, Sue Casey. Here are a few:

"Democracy can't be imposed by force, it is harder to accept new ideas when they are forced upon you, I wouldn't want anything forced on me."

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"America tries hard but isn't perfect. We make mistakes in our policies and we need to correct the mistakes."

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"I gained a new perspective that the war in Iraq is without end. At first it seemed that the war in Iraq would be over in just a few weeks, but now it looks like it will drag on for years to come. Similar to World War I when everyone thought they would be home for Christmas, it would last just a few weeks. . . ."

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"Interesting question. . . . Does the U.S. support human rights for all . . . or does the need for oil to run our nation's economy get in the way of human rights? If we are interested in extending human rights why are we allied with Saudi Arabia?"

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"You can declare war on a country, but not on a man. Is this why Bin Laden is so elusive? Will we ever win?"

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"People from Iraq are human beings just like we are. Just because they are from Iraq does not mean they are bad. They watch American TV shows and like them. Maybe they can see we mean well and are not bad."

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"It is interesting to think that the U.S. does not know how to effectively deal with Iraq because they are still practicing cold war foreign policy with a cold war mentality."

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"I loved the tour of the campus. I had never visited the campus. I now realize the opportunities that I can strive for."

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"I liked the tour of UCLA, and I loved the food."

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Sue Casey herself commented: "What a positive learning experience for our students. The lecture opened a learning experience filled with new perspectives on modern world issues. Thanks."