In this lesson, students will look at the ongoing situation in the Middle East with several countries experiencing demonstrations demanding more political freedom and economic opportunity. They will develop foreign policy briefing presentations on key Middle East countries providing recommendations on the best course of action for the United States.
TEACHER NOTE: When this lesson was first published, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa was very fluid. Several countries were experiencing demonstrations and public unrest. Some governments had been ousted and others were in danger of toppling. You may choose to modify this lesson as conditions warrant and update some of its content as appropriate.
The importance of the Middle East and North Africa to United States’ interests has been increasing since the end of World War II. New independent countries were formed from the shells of European colonies. The nation of Israel was established, the exploration and refinement of oil was expanded establishing a new industry which brought wealth and influence to some of the countries in the region. As Cold War tensions expanded between the United States and the Soviet Union, various countries in the region at one time or another became favorites or pariahs to one or the other superpower.
For much of this time, the region has been in a constant state of conflict between various countries: Israel and most of its neighbors, religious factions in Syria and Lebanon, Egypt and Great Britain, Israel and Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Israel and Iraq, Libya and Israel, Shiite Iran and Sunni Iraq, Iran and the United States, Kuwait and Iraq, the United States and Iraq, Israel and Iran, factions of Shiite and Sunni in Iraq, and most recently the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Bahrain, and Libya against their respective governments. Often these tensions led to various clashes ranging from terrorist attacks to full scale tank wars across the deserts. But the most recent conflict has involved educated, middle class youth in public protest, using social media and non-violent tactics to defy dictators and demand their ouster.
Since the end of World War II, America has often supported strong autocratic leaders who promised stability in a region. During the Cold War “radical political movements” were often defined as communist. In the age of global terror, “radical political movements” usually refers to Islamic extremists. The established governments in the Middle East and North Africa understood this paradigm and played into it. The United States has spent billions of dollars in foreign aid supporting leaders who, in turn, provided an uninterrupted flow of oil, relative security for Israel, and the isolation of rogue states like Syria and Iran when they got out of line.
To greater or lesser degrees, this status quo has aligned with U.S. interests. Even when Saudi-born individuals attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, many governments, including Saudi Arabia’s, became allies in the war on terror. The Israel – Palestine stalemate continues, with Palestine looking to establish a permanent state and Israel looking for acceptance by all the Arab countries. Iran is suspected of developing nuclear weapons, which if they are, would tip the balance of power and threaten the stability of the region.
But what has now emerged from the street demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt is a boundless discontent among the people against the brutality and corruption of their governments. The people not only want freedom and better economic opportunity, they also want their leaders gone and an end to corrupt regimes. While it seems these groups aspire to democratic principles that the United States supports, it’s unclear whether these groups, and the governments they will form, support United States’ interests in the region.
These most recent events have put United States foreign policy in a precarious situation and it now faces some tough choices. Does it continue to support the autocratic dictatorships that oppress the people in order to keep the region stable, protect the peace with Israel, and limit the extremists? Or does it support the people who are calling for regime change and the freedom to influence their governments’ decisions? What are the ramifications of either decision for the United States? How can the United States be sure these new governments will honor U.S. interests? Does U.S. foreign policy have to be consistent, or can the United States take each country on a case-by-case basis, in some cases supporting the demonstrators in their cause for freedom and democracy and in other cases continuing to support a government that limits civil and human rights?
- Distribute copies of the Background Essay to students to read before you conduct this activity, or read the Background Essay in class.
- Divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the paragraphs.
- Have the groups meet to summarize their paragraphs and the answer one of the five corresponding questions. (Possible answers are provided in italics below.)
- Have the groups come together back into the class. Have each group present their paragraph summary and their response to the discussion question. Encourage the other group to comment on the questions as you go through them.
- (Paragraph 1) The Middle East and North Africa region has increasingly been vital to U.S. interests since the end of World War II. What are some of these interests? (Independent countries; Israeli security; oil)
- (Paragraph 2) For most of the period, the region has been unstable with low-level conflicts between various countries. Identify some of these conflicts. (Any of these: religious factions in Syria and Lebanon, Egypt and Great Britain, Israel and Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Israel and Iraq, Libya and Israel, Shiite Iran and Sunni Iraq, Iran and the United States, Kuwait and Iraq, the United States and Iraq, Israel and Iran, factions of Shiite and Sunni in Iraq) Which ones are you familiar with? (Answers will vary).
- (Paragraph 3) Since the end of World War II, America has often supported strong autocratic leaders who promised stability in a region. What were the some of the costs and benefits of this policy? (Costs: U.S. supported dictators, sometimes going against its principles; billions in foreign aid. Benefits: oil, stability for Israel, management of rogue states)
- (Paragraph 4) The groups demonstrating in the streets of various countries are demanding regime change and a say in their government in hopes of bringing economic reform. Why would the United States support these demands? (Because the aspire to democratic principles the U.S. supports) What questions might the United States have about the governments that form after the dictators are gone? (Answers will vary, but some question might be: Do the new governments support U.S. interests? Are the strong enough to survive? Are they influenced by radical elements?)
- (Paragraph 5) The United States faces a challenging and evolving situation that may require a change in its foreign policy approach to the region. Do you think the United States needs to change its foreign policy in the Middle East? Why or why not? (Answers fill vary)
Part 1: In this activity, students will work in small groups to view a NewsHour news segment featuring Middle East experts discussing the future of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
- Divide the class into small groups of 3-5. Distribute the student handout graphic organizer, “What Should U.S. foreign policy be toward the public demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa?”
- Show the NewsHour news segment, “As Protests Continue in Egypt, How Should U.S. Respond?” (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world/jan-june11/egyptguests_01-27.html) to the entire class or assign the news segments as homework before you conduct the activity.
- Provide time for students to meet in their groups after viewing the video to review their graphic organizers.
- Then discuss the following questions with the class or have them discuss in their small groups and present to the class.
- Describe the dilemma the United States faces as more countries experience citizens demanding a change in government and major political reforms.
- Do you agree that the United States should not support either the leadership or the demonstrators while these protests continue? If so, why? If not, why not?
- If you feel the U.S. should not become involved at this time, should it become involved if violence in any country escalates and many are killed? If so, what actions do you advise the United States to take?
- For those countries that have experienced regime change, like Tunisia and Egypt, what concerns does the United States have in terms of the type of government that replaces the deposed dictators?
- What can the United States do to ensure these revolutions don’t follow the paths of the French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions when extremist element took over?
- How should the United States government respond to a country that democratically elects a government the U.S. considers dangerous?
Part 2: In this activity, students will take on the role of U.S. National Security Council advisors who will analyze the situation in a selected Middle East/North African country and develop a recommendation on the best foreign policy for the United States. Have students divide up the work to maximize their time. You can have students develop these reports as multimedia presentations (slides, websites, pod casts, social media pages, etc.) or as traditional presentations.
- Divide the class into small groups and assign each group one of the following countries:
- Others? (Optional as conditions warrant)
- Distribute the student handout “National Security Council Briefing” to all students and review the directions and activities.
- Provide time for students to develop their reports and recommendations.
- Have student groups meet in full class to present their findings.
TEACHER NOTE: You can have students participate in this activity in “real time” having students analyzing the conditions of their assigned country as they are occurring. If the country has stabilized or the conflict has been resolved, you can have students look at what would be the best course of action under those conditions. You can also have students examine a past event, such as the 2009 uprisings in Iran, to develop their foreign policy recommendations.
- You can extend the activity by having students deliberate on the foreign policy recommendations they make by role playing various groups involved in the situation: groups representing the demonstrators, the government leaders, various interest groups (petroleum industry, extremist groups, isolationist groups in the United States, etc.)
- Hold a public forum with information students have gathered from this lesson for the school or community. Bring in foreign policy experts from your local college or university.
- Have students write Op/Ed articles or letters to their Congressional representatives expressing their views on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa and provide recommendations on what foreign policy the United States should follow.
- Have students conduct follow up research on the country the examined and update events. Have them find out how the United States responded or is responding to the situation in the country. Then have them compare and contrast their recommended response made in Main Activity, Part 2 with response of the United States and comment on the similarities or differences.