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NewsFeb 1, 2018

When cautious optimism is the only kind available

Veteran war correspondent and author Robin Wright offers candid view of Middle East

Robin Wright speaks at a podium

In the world’s trouble spots, especially the Middle East and North Korea, military solutions are no match for diplomacy, veteran war correspondent Robin Wright told a Symphony Hall audience last night.

And Wright, a contributing writer for the New Yorker and a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, exhibited some statecraft of her own at Jan. 31’s appearance at our Boston Speakers Series. Sporting a red-white-and-blue scarf, she said her regard for the New England Patriots (and her prediction of the team’s Super Bowl LII victory — “52-0?” she quipped) is exceeded only by her love for the Boston Red Sox.

(View more photos from the event.)

But she came armed with facts to back up her sports fan bona fides: As a graduate of the University of Michigan (also Pats QB Tom Brady’s alma mater), and a student sportswriter there, she says she believes legendary Wolverines football coach Bo Schembechler “toughened her up” for her eventual career as a war correspondent, one who doesn’t embed with the military for protection in the field.

Wearing a red-white-and-blue scarf, Robin Wright gives a thumbs up
Sporting a patriotic scarf, Robin Wright said her regard for the Patriots is exceeded only by her love for the Red Sox.

Around the world

Beneath a map of the Middle East, Wright — author of books such as “Sacred Rage” and “Rock the Casbah” — shared anecdotes and history lessons regarding the region in seeming perpetual conflict, but sounded many at least somewhat optimistic notes, as well. Though individual ISIS fighters wreak havoc around the world, Wright said the terror organization’s plan for a caliphate has been defeated. Nevertheless, she warned, “ISIS is not finished. We should have no illusions.”

Tunisia, though it has supplied most of the ISIS terrorist worldwide, is showing signs of hope, according to Wright.

Even in Iran, part of what former President George W. Bush termed the Axis of Evil, Wright is encouraged by a population engaged in protests, technologically connected and expressing themselves through fashion and even personal vineyards of the tasty Shiraz grape, despite the theocratic Muslim government’s position against such liberties.

From left: Gerri Weiss, Robin Wright and Lesley President Jeff Weiss.
Lesley President Jeff Weiss and his wife, Gerri, gather with Robin Wright before her lecture in Symphony Hall.

Part of the reason for this, Wright said, was that Iran (like other Middle Eastern nations) has a large, young and literate population, owing to an “enormous baby boom” that arose in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s. The situation ironically led to a very unorthodox regimen of family planning, as the people had too enthusiastically embraced the ruling clerics’ urging to ensure a robust population of post-revolution Persians, exploding from 34 million to more than 60 million in the course of a decade.

“Overnight, birth control was free,” Wright said.

Trouble persists

But, as one might expect in a region carved up somewhat arbitrarily after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East remains a cauldron of conflict. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the U.S. military operations in the region (Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, nearly 20 years in Afghanistan), the thousands-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs — likely intensified by the United States’ recent official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, jeopardizing the potential for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians — Syrian civil war, proxy wars, all these hostilities and more conspire to make peace elusive.

Yet, Wright says, there are glimmers of hope — or at least cautious optimism. Despite religious tribalism and repression, a secular government still exists in Syria. Iraq is holding elections, though the results are uncertain. And, as Wright pointed out at the beginning of the evening, ISIS’s attempt to establish a caliphate has been crushed.

From left: Dilleen Pritchett, speaker Robin Wright and faculty member Anthea Lavergne.
Faculty member Anthea Lavergne and her daughter Dillen Pritchett meet Robin Wright.

In addition, Wright says the demographics of the region — young, educated, technologically savvy and willing to speak out against oppressive regimes, either in the streets or via the Qatar-based Al Jazeera news operation and more than 500 independent television stations (“The even have rival soap operas!”) — bode well for the Middle East.

Still, Wright warned, “It’s going to be a rough road ahead. It’s going to be bloody.”