Last Friday, I spoke to a group of visiting students from various Arab countries. The topic was U.S. policy toward the Middle East. I told them an abridged version of my own story, starting from September 11—the day that changed my life’s trajectory, but also a day that none of them had any recollection of. They ended up being quite curious about think tanks, what they did, and why I had chosen to work in one. These were good questions.
It was only after I spent time living abroad that I realized that the concept of “think tanks” was somewhat odd. In the Middle East, the idea itself was more or less self-negating. If the goal of a think tank is to influence government policy as well as the broader public debate, then this would seem to require some level of democratic openness. For those who live under dictatorships, governments aren’t something you influence. Rather, they are omnipresent sources of worry—the very entities against which you hope to escape unscathed.
As it happened, I would have been skeptical of think tanks too. I came of age not just after 9/11 but also during the Iraq War. I saw myself as opposing the system, because, apparently, the system had given us this absurd war, the Patriot Act, and any number of other post-9/11 abuses. (To the extent that people today reflect on the Bush years with nostalgia, it is a nostalgia that is largely unwarranted.)
I remember how the Iraq War forced me to rethink my assumptions about the nature of change. It was almost as if something clicked, suddenly, after the first phase of the war ended with Bush’s infamous declaration of “mission accomplished.” Anyone who was involved in the anti-war movement would have believed in “people power.” The organizing principle—at least among those who wanted to do more than merely virtue signal—was that each and every one of us had a duty to do what we could to stop the war. Like anything that actually happens, recorded in history with permanence, it now seems as if it couldn’t been otherwise. But the war didn’t seem inevitable at the time. Across the globe, millions were mobilizing and protesting in dozens of countries, something that their own leaders couldn’t quite ignore
But of course, “we” couldn’t stop the war. Instead, a group of ideologically committed individuals—many of whom had known each other for decades, including as early as graduate school—were able to influence government from within, with much smaller numbers. And so they managed to do something that is generally not so easy to do: they made the absurd seem real and the indefensible defensible. After everything, I was disillusioned. We had given our hearts and our time and our energy to organizing sit-ins, tent-ins, die-in, and God knows what else, but it was an exercise in futility. I didn’t want to feel what I felt, which was resignation but also a sense that these were “systems” that were so much more powerful than us, and that we, in turn, were powerless when confronted with the reality of the world as it was.
Even if this had been an accurate description, this was no way to think, live, or act. It was better to act under the impression of individual agency and free will, regardless of whether or not it was true. This is part of what I hoped to convey to the students, as we discussed whether those outside of government (or even inside) would ever really change U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Of course, we can tinker around the margins and make things less bad or slightly better on specific policies or initiatives, but that wasn’t what they were asking. They were asking about the entire edifice of U.S. policy and strategy in the region as it has been for the better part of seven decades—one that is built around a distinctly authoritarian structure, supported, funded, and sustained by successive American administrations. If there was any doubt about the longevity and durability of this structure, it was helpfully put to rest by President Biden’s cringe-inducing visit to Saudi Arabia last week.
What could I tell them? When a policy becomes entrenched over decades, it is extremely difficult to undo. There were moments when it seemed like it could change, during the short-lived (first) Arab Spring of 2004-5 when George W. Bush was advancing his Freedom Agenda. And it seemed like it was changing during the (second) Arab Spring of 2011-2013. That these moments invited us to imagine a genuine alternative to the old ways of relying on dictators makes what actually happened all the more tragic. Was all of this inevitable? Did it actually have to be this way, as opposed to all the others? Of course, nothing is inevitable until after it has already happened. Systems may be stubborn and seem immovable, but they do not have a will of their own. They are the accumulated result of individual actions, and individuals make choices. Those choices, at least in theory, can change.
That doesn’t mean they will, only that they can. But my message to the students was, in a way, simpler than that. We, as mere mortals, are only responsible for what we do. That is our range of freedom, and maneuver. To be individuals endowed with free will is to believe, at some level, that this is enough.