Chicago Ideas Week and the Arab Spring-Explained for Lay People


As a marketer, I like things to be simple. Easily communicated. Three points. Or, even better, one succinct point that explains everything and gives you a clear call to action.

Perhaps that is what I was yearning for in my decision to take three hours out of the middle of the day to go to an event for Chicago Ideas Week–After the Arab Spring: The United States’ Middle East Strategy & What’s Next? Perhaps the news radio I was listening to on the way was a clear sign to be careful what you wish for. It pointed out (acknowledging the risk of comparison) that Hitler had started out not only as an artist, but as a marketer. Ahh…one clear mission…kill the Jews. Okay, maybe clear and simple is not always the way to go.

But the conversation was interesting–gleaned new perspective–and the whole idea of Chicago Ideas Week of “transformational ideas from hundreds of thought leaders for only $15 per ticket” was worthwhile. The speakers, Ayman Mohyeldin, Deborah Amos and Leila Fadel, were are all extremely knowledgeable and brought a good perspective (although now in looking for a link to a bio for Ayman Mohyeldin, much of the news is about him and bias, but that didn’t seem evident at this program—in fact he was really good at giving ideas about why/how things happen in layman’s terms.). Oh, and moderator Rachel Bronson did a great job—apparently a last minute fill-in for illness-but she was well-prepared and kept the conversation moving.

The event was timely, given this morning’s launch of the third attempt to take back Mosul (I learned that in the talk…the first was in 2013 to liberate it from Sadam Hussein; the second in 2014-2015 to liberate it from Sunni insurgents, and now, in 2016, from ISIS) And, I sort of want to be Leila Fadal—maybe for a day—she seems like a really smart Indiana Jones.

And, my desire for cleanness also would assume that “the Middle East” was one country with one ruler and that we (we…as in the US…isn’t that how we view the world?) actually had the power to fix it. Far from it, it’s actually 22 countries, and there’s not always a single, clear leader within each country… the hard part being with countries in conflict (isn’t that all of them?), with revolutions and counter-revolutions, is that we don’t always know who is in charge, or with whom you would even negotiate. And, the US policy is “unclear on the ground” says Leila, with protecting our interests usually taking precedent over what’s right.

Ayman’s gauge question for why the US gets involved was to imagine if the US would get involved if the primary export from the Middle East was bananas, rather than oil. On the million dollar question of what the US can do, Ayman pointed out that there are two scenarios that invite the emergence of extremism…a power void (e.g. government toppled and no one, no infrastructure to replace it) or an extreme dictator–one or the other pretty much describing the situation. “So would we be better off staying out of it?” asked an audience member? Leila suggested perhaps, yes, citing Tunisia. With no strategic or financial interest there, they have pretty much been left alone, and are one of the few countries that seem to be successfully rebuilding.

So, while there is not an easy answer, the Chicago Ideas program did do what it aspired to which is inspire new ideas (and maybe transform the world down the road).

In the meantime, in trying to make sense of things, here are some resources I found that I think can be helpful, at a bare minimum to follow the news and understand what is happening.

Finally, how cool is the ink factory. An artist from there created the drawing above as the speakers spoke—that was a blank slate when the event started—fun to watch them capturing all of the ideas. But, perhaps it unwittingly (or wittingly?) it captures the essence of the Middle East with the mom and two children in the bottom right corner–grave conflict, no clear central source or explanation, chaotic things happening all over the place, while the In the meantime, the cities being bombed or occupied on the ground are full of real people, moms and dads, kids, wanting to go to school, go to work, live a life.