JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us as we welcome Charles Sennott to this Public Affairs program.
Charlie, as our speaker likes to be called, is the founder and executive director of The GroundTruth Project, a not-for-profit foundation that is dedicated to training the next generation of foreign correspondents in the digital age. He is also the cofounder of GlobalPost, a journalistic endeavor whose mission is to fill the void created by diminished foreign coverage by American media.
On the anniversary of World War I, The GroundTruth Project released a series of reports on the legacy of the Great War. This effort, titled "The Eleventh Hour: Unlearned Lessons of World War I," combined on-the-ground reporting with insightful commentary and analysis about how past ethnic, religious, and territorial grievances provide linkages to the world today. These lessons in history are the focus of our discussion.
The outbreak of World War I set in motion a swirl of events that brought decades of devastation to an entire continent, and to many other parts of the world as well. Its legacy is inescapable today. In initiating this Eleventh Hour project, Charlie journeyed to divided cities and countries around the world, visiting the boundaries established after the Armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. His on-the-ground coverage reveals how past mistakes and serious misjudgments at the end of the Great War have left their mark on the Balkans, Iraq, the Holy Land, and even Nigeria.
World War I also has special meaning for us here at the Carnegie Council. For those of you who are not familiar with our beginnings, let me briefly say that in 1914, just before the outbreak of the war, Andrew Carnegie founded this organization, believing that by bringing together a representative group of religious leaders, there was an opportunity to promote moral leadership in the changing world. Since the time of this auspicious beginning, it has been our quest to honor Mr. Carnegie's legacy, and we do so by exploring how shared ethical and moral values can be incorporated into action that will lead to a more peaceful universe.
With this special GroundTruth Project report, I'm confident that Charlie will add to our understanding of why ethics matters in an increasingly connected world. As any journalist will tell you, a good starting point for a story might begin with a statement or a question. Here to make his case for why World War I still matters 100 years after it began and to ask the salient question of whether lessons have been learned, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to an innovative and widely respected journalist who is outstanding in his field, our speaker, Charles Sennott.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you, Joanne, very much. I'm really honored to be here and part of this 100-year continuum of history, looking at World War I, why it's relevant today in the field and celebrating the Centennial of the Carnegie Council. It's really an honor.
I want to thank you all for coming. It's not often that you get a great crowd like this to come out on a beautiful day—just before it's going to snow again—and want to talk about history. I think that in journalism today we are bombarded by so many images and such a torrent of information. We don't step back enough. We don't look at the patterns that are important to examine.
That's the kind of journalism I have always aspired to do. It's the kind of journalism I wanted GlobalPost to be about when we co-founded that seven years ago, on St. Patrick's Day. It was the day I left The Boston Globe after many years as a foreign correspondent, to start GlobalPost. I'm very proud of what we have built at GlobalPost, and have now moved on to start a new nonprofit organization called The GroundTruth Project. The GroundTruth Project is really dedicated to training and mentoring the next generation of correspondents.
What I realized in building GlobalPost is that we really need to nurture young talent. They don't get enough editing. They don't get enough mentoring. They don't have the same pathways to rise up through an organization that I was lucky enough to have all those years ago when I started, when we still had big presses rolling and rumbling in the basements of newsrooms. I really came of age in maybe the last great newspaper war here in New York City, working for the New York Daily News and then going on to The Boston Globe.
I love newspapers, but it's a brand-new world. GlobalPost is an exciting, pioneering online international news organization. We have 70 correspondents in 50 countries. What I do now as executive director and founder of The GroundTruth Project—my goal would be to be bringing that new generation of correspondents who will work at GlobalPost. That's what we do. That's our goal. We are based at WGBH in Boston, flagship PBS [Public Broadcasting Service]. We work with Frontline. We work with PRI's The World. We work with Nova. I work with a lot of young people. We build pop-up newsrooms in Burma, in Egypt, in Haiti. We bring young people together from the places we're covering, as well as young American talent. We try to tell the important stories—voices of the Millennial Generation about the greatest issues that will affect that generation.
That's what I do now, except this project was my chance to go back in the field. "The Eleventh Hour: The Unlearned Lessons of World War I" was really a project I had wanted to do for years. As I saw the centennial approaching on World War I, I thought, this is an opportunity to go back and really look at all of the conflicts I've covered in 30 years of reporting, 25 years as a foreign correspondent, those stories I have covered, from Northern Ireland to Israel-Palestine, to Iraq, to Syria, to Nigeria.
I kept going around the world and realizing that just a few years ago, I used to pack these fat history books into my backpack when I would go off on an assignment. It's a lot easier now that I can put it on my iPad. But I still carry history with me everywhere I go. And here was a chance for me to take and build upon what I learned as a reporter in the field and now step back and really evaluate how the forces of history shaped all those conflicts I covered. That was the original idea of this series, to really reflect on the meaning of the war and to understand directly why we need to know that history today.
The Great War shaped these conflicts in every corner of the world and has been part of our headlines. But we don't think about it often enough. I think we need to think about this war now because we live in a time that is directly relevant to World War I. These are parallel histories. Some of what I want to share with you is fairly ominous in terms of what I think is lying ahead and the challenges we face.
It was June 28 when I really set out on this journey. That is the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. That event triggered the Great War. It triggered the political reactions that laid the landscape for a slaughter that was unprecedented in human history at that point. It was just 37 days from the assassination until the world was at war. Sixty-five million troops were marshaled forward that summer, and by the end of the four-year conflict, 20 million soldiers and civilians had died, 21 million people had been wounded.
When I set out on that day, June 28, it was going to be a six-month reporting journey as I had structured it. The idea was to set out on June 28 and conclude on November 11, the day, four years after the war started, that the war was brought to an end through the Armistice—the famous Armistice of the "eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour," which is why we call the project "The Eleventh Hour."
"The eleventh hour" is a phrase that has come to mean urgency. I think we live in an urgent time to reconsider war and peace. We have big movements and things shaping the world right now. Plates are shifting in what I think are profound and historic ways. I think they are perilous. I think we have to think about peace a lot more than we do in our daily considerations. We who work in the news organization are constantly covering the conflict. When was the last time you heard a story about peace? When was the last time you even heard anyone use the word "peace"? I do think it's time to think about that. That was the goal of this series.
When we set out, I wanted to really ponder the meaning, and in doing so, I wanted to think about how it is that "the war to end all wars," as the Great War was known, turned into what was known after the peace process, which took place in Paris at the end of the war—how did it turn into "the peace to end all peace"? What is there about peacemaking that can be perilous? How is it that peace processes can fail dramatically and actually trigger more war?
That's something we need to think about in the Iran nuclear deal. That's something we need to think about in Israel-Palestine. It's something we need to think about in the simmering aftermath of the wars in the Balkans.
I covered the wars in the Balkans. When I was going back to start my reporting, I began in Sarajevo, on the bridge. I'm going to come to a kind of wonderful crossroads of modern history and this centennial in telling you the journey of that.
But what I also wanted to really get at was to study the ethics of history, to look at how it is that we can look at history and understand the lessons it can hold ethically for future generations. How do you ponder history and pull the ethical lessons from it? How do we really understand that the impacts of World War I were so flawed, even the peace agreement was so flawed, that it impacted generations later right to today?
So in terms of the component of ethics, which I really want to get to in the Q&A, I think we really want to try to look at how this war has lessons that way, and just stop for a moment and thank Andrew Carnegie. One hundred years ago, here was someone who was thinking along these lines. He was thinking directly about these ethical considerations. He was building institutions like this where these ideas would be talked about. And we have as much work to do now as we did 100 years ago—more, perhaps.
As I was saying, the journey began on what I would call a bridge of history. How many of you have been to Sarajevo? How many of you have been to the bridge where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand took place, right on the corner?
It's an amazing place to go. You feel the history come alive, and you think about what it would have been like back then to see Archduke Franz Ferdinand arrive in all his glory on June 28, and to realize that lying in wait are these teenagers, many of them, very young Serbian nationalists from an obscure set of conflicts that the world media was not paying much attention to. The yearnings of Serbian nationalists were not high on the radar.
But here was this triumphant journey of Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie down these beautiful streets of cobblestone on horse and carriage. And there was this bungled assassination attempt that started with a failed bomb. A guy jumps off a bridge and gets picked up in the river. Another person—the gun doesn't work. It finally comes to this young, 19-year old Serbian nationalist, who actually pulls the trigger. They actually have the revolver. It's so small and sweaty. You think, how could this little, tiny gun change history in such extraordinary ways? How is that Gavrilo Princip, the assassin—19 years old—could alter history so dramatically?
As I was thinking about that, I was thinking about this young Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—the same age—who, with his brother, carried out the marathon bombing in Boston. He's on trial now. When I see his disheveled hair, I think immediately of that 19-year-old Serbian nationalist. His conflicts were in the former Soviet Republics, Chechnya. No one is thinking about that. Yet how did that event put in motion so many ways in which our lives in Boston changed? We see these events where distant conflicts that we aren't paying attention to careen into our lives. World War I was very much a similar war that way.
When I was sitting there on that bridge contemplating all this, I realized I was supposed to be doing some reporting. You have to stop reflecting at some point and start doing your reporting. As we talked to young people in Sarajevo, what we learned was that that Serbian nationalist yearning has not gone away because there was a peace agreement in Dayton that ended the war in the Balkans. Those yearnings are rumbling. The potential for conflict, I think, is still smoldering. We're not aware of that. I really heard that on the streets.
But after doing my work, I actually had some time to stop and think about the next part of my journey, reflect. I was working with an amazing photographer named Ron Haviv, one of the great photographers, probably the best photographer, in the Balkans. He covered that war much more closely than I did. I covered the war in Kosovo very closely, but he covered all of the Siege of Sarajevo. He was kind of like my guide.
I have a brother who is a photographer. I have a lot of dear friends who are photographers. When they tell you they need to work the light, you just relax, because it's going to take a couple of hours. Beautiful long afternoon shadows of June 28, one of the longest days of the year, gorgeous day. And I'm just sitting on the bridge thinking about all this history. I'm thinking about the maps of World War I and I'm thinking about Sykes-Picot.
How many of you remember Sykes-Picot from your history classes? I'm going to do a quick refresher. You can't really understand the impact of World War I today without knowing a lot about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. I hate to sound like my old history professor, but go back and look it up. This is something you need to know.
British diplomatic advisor Sir Mark Sykes had a French counterpart, François Georges-Picot. They were undergoing what were considered secret Anglo-French talks that would create a document called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially carved up the world. The powers, mostly the British, the French, somewhat the United States, sign off on this. But it was mostly the British and the French saying, "We're going to carve up the world."
It's an amazing thing, if you really look at the drafts of the map and how the British literally draw a large circle around Mosul, because there is something there they might need, called oil. The French were more concerned with the Levant, and the Brits thought, "You can have it. We want Mosul. We want oil. We want Iraq." The world was getting divided up in this way for colonial convenience—and you could say colonial arrogance.
Those lines, literally drawn in the sand, that created modern nations like Iraq were absolute creations of a postwar agreement. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was worked out during the war with the expectation that when they win it, let's not argue at the end; let's get this worked out now. A fateful document, important to understand.
So there I am on the bridge trying to conjure up all my history of Sykes-Picot and think of how I'm going to tell this story. As any of you know, when you're bored in this day and age, you break out your phone and you just check in. So I thought I'd just check in. So I go online and I use my phone to check my email. I get a few things at work. Suddenly I get pinged with all these Twitter feeds, because I was on a Twitter feed following the events in Iraq and Syria. This is the time, these are the days, that the Islamic State [ISIS] emerged, really broke forward on the horizon, in ways that surprised me. I did not know what this group was all about. I didn't understand how something that dark was emerging out of a very "opaque" opposition in Syria.
But it was becoming pretty clear in these days. Remember how surprised we were? Who are these guys? Where is this coming from? They were just breaking across the lines from Syria into Iraq, defying the borders. They were live-tweeting their invasion into Iraq, into Mosul.
So I'm thinking, "Wow, I'm reading this online. This is amazing history, so alive." I'm also following ISIS on Twitter.
How many of you are using Twitter in your daily lives these days and know how it works? The way it works is, you tap into ideas, words, themes, groups, and you can follow what they are up to. Strange, as a journalist, that ISIS is pushing its message. I used to have to be brave enough to cross a checkpoint to go talk to Hezbollah, because they couldn't get their message out any other way. I used to have to drive into Gaza, meet with Hamas, or I would be able to go onto certain back roads of Belfast to talk with someone from the IRA [Irish Republican Army] or Sinn Féin, the political wing. These days they are pushing their content. These days they don't need us.
In this moment, my colleague and friend, James Foley, was being held by ISIS. He had been picked up two years earlier. We knew he was in their clutches. We didn't know the ambitions of this group. It was all coming very clear. It was a perilous moment for us as we saw this group suddenly burst forth.
One of the considerations for me on that bridge was how personal this is. Those guys are holding my colleague. Those guys are holding Jim Foley, a really talented young reporter who was covering the story as a freelancer for GlobalPost and others, and in doing that, was picked up on Thanksgiving Day two years earlier.
So I'm thinking all this stuff and I'm following the Twitter feed, and then I realize that the way ISIS is tweeting it out is under the hashtag, which is how you organize key phrases—the hashtag they were sending out was #SykesPicotOver.
They know their history. Do you? Do you know this history? Do you know the Sykes-Picot Agreement? Do you understand the maps? This is absolutely resonating through what motivates ISIS. They think about it every day. We started to go online looking for the ISIS videos to see their messaging. They message on ISIS to the point where they do independent videos that you can watch on YouTube about breaking over the berm, where they describe, "This is the line that Sykes-Picot created. We don't believe in this line and we will never believe in this line and we have never believed in this line. We will restore the caliphate."
That is their motivation. They want to erase the lines that were done out of that colonial—I would say arrogance—"convenience" is certainly a fair word. We need to know that. That doesn't mean we need to let it happen, but we need to know what motivates them. We need to understand that history.
So #SykesPicotOver was the epiphany for me on this project. Day one of my reporting, on the anniversary, June 28, I just realize that I am on a bridge of history here. We began to really see that we had something, the photographer and I and some of the other reporters who were working with me on this series. H.D.S. Greenway, my really great mentor and friend from The Boston Globe, was writing from the historical perspective for us, bringing all the history of 50 years as a foreign correspondent to that. We had wonderful essays from lots of different perspectives. But it was my job to get what we call "the ground truth"—to really go back into the conflicts shaped by World War I and feel closely what it's like on the ground.
In doing that, probably the first place I knew I wanted to go was Kosovo. For one thing, I was there. It was close by. We began to drive. Having covered a conflict and then going back to it is a searing experience—the lives, the people who you remember, the terrible stories that you are hearing and how people have recovered from that. We don't do that reporting enough. Sometimes we do. Al-Jazeera often is looking at this stuff, certainly the BBC, NPR, once in a while The New York Times. But collectively we could do so much more to return to conflicts and to understand whether they are really over. Peace can be perilous. What we think is peace can just be a delay for the next conflict.
So I went to Kosovo. I went to my old haunts. I found a woman who—it was like a reunion. I had been with her on what would have to be the worst day of her life, for sure, one of the worst days you could ever imagine. It was the immediate aftermath of 40 members of her family, if I'm remembering the number correctly—I believe it was 40—40 members of her extended family were killed in one village. I saw her right after this. She began to tell me the story of a Serbian nationalist who was part of one of the paramilitary groups under Slobodan Milosevic, who was doing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Her story was so memorable because she went to high school with this guy who came into their village to slaughter everyone. She knew him personally.
That's the story of the war in Kosovo and the war in the Balkans and so many wars. These people know each other and they are killing each other.
Hearing her reflect all these years later about how just a few weeks before he had finally been brought into an international criminal court, and there was not a lot of confidence that it was going to be a conviction, because he was such a low-level player and they weren't going to get it. But amazing that all these years later—a 1999 war, I go back in 2014; it's 15 years later—she is still grappling with that, testifying against this guy she went to high school with.
So the wars live on. They don't go away because we have left as journalists. They keep going. They live in memory. If the peace agreements aren't firmly in place, they will erupt again. In Kosovo, similarly in Sarajevo, you could feel the stress cracks. You could feel the tearing of the fabric of peace. This was true really everywhere I went.
Then I went off to Iraq. I went back to cover that place, where I had been to both the First Gulf War and I also covered the war in 2003. Now ISIS is moving in, and now I'm watching these lines fade. Amid so much global tumult and change, there are rising powers, like China, India, there are falling powers, desperately flailing to be relevant, like Russia, and there are powers like the United States that seem to be flatlining, at best, in terms of what we do with our tremendous wealth, our tremendous gifts—Where are we? Are we static? Are we still rising? What do we believe in?—this time of rising and falling powers. And no certain polar descriptions, like East-West, make any sense anymore. How is the world now organized?
That confusion we feel now around that question was very much the setting of the time when World War I took place. And that's what worries me, that we are in a time of different conflicts, and I don't think we have a great framework for understanding them. We sometimes fall back to this clash of civilizations: It's Islam versus Christendom, or something. I think all of us know that is not the problem. I really, genuinely think we all know it's more complicated than that. We know there is North-South. We know there is rich and poor. We know there is vast income inequality. We know there are forces like climate change.
After going to Iraq and seeing how the fighting looked on the ground against ISIS, I also went to Nigeria. In Nigeria, we all think it's Islam versus Christianity, right? Boko Haram is this apocalyptic cult, like ISIS. They are Islamic extremists and they are all out to capture these poor Christian schoolgirls. That is so horrific and so impossible to understand that we immediately go to light and dark, good and evil. And there are plenty of elements of both, absolutely. There is something incredibly evil and dark about what Boko Haram does, for sure, no question. [For more on Boko Haram, don't miss John Campbell's recent talk.]
But what I learned in Nigeria in covering that is, again, World War I. World War I took two separate kingdoms, the northern kingdom of Nigeria, the southern kingdom of Nigeria—southern, Christian kingdom; northern, Muslim kingdom. For colonial convenience, the British needed to organize the empire in a way that they could get a greater yield—because they didn't have a lot of time to manage, put them both together, make it one kingdom, we've got to move on. They throw it together as one kingdom, and they begin to have tensions over power and who will control the oil and the delta and who will control the farming and who will control the cattle.
One of the things I love about trying to understand Nigeria is that, at the end of the day, as important as World War I was, it may be climate change that defines the conflict in Nigeria and the emergence of Boko Haram.
Does anyone have any idea what I'm talking about? The drying of the Sahel pushes the grazing land further and further south. The predominantly Muslim North has nowhere to herd. They are herders. They are the kind who move things, just like in the Wild West, when you had Indians who moved their cattle around and didn't have fences. The Christian South is farming-based, and there are fences. As Northern Muslims push down and come up against Christians in the Middle Belt in Nigeria, that's where much of this violence has erupted.
If you read the local press in Nigeria, it will say "400 People Killed." You go to this village, and it's so tiny, you wonder—"There are probably only 2,000 people who live in this village. Four hundred were killed?" Then right at the bottom, it will say "and 75 heads of cattle were stolen." You're like, what do heads of cattle have to do with the slaughter in the village?
There you have the parameters of how some issue like climate change—we need to think about that globally. We need to think that big about a lot of the challenges we're facing. That was what I had hoped to do in setting out on this reporting.
As I say, the reporting took me to a lot of different places. It took me to these conflicts that I covered. The meaning there for me was really the idea that peace doesn't really work unless it's a real peace. That's something we have to keep as a message and hold it really close right now. This is the part that I think Andrew Carnegie wanted you to debate and think about and really ponder: That is, how do you get real peace? How do you really resolve conflict? The horrors of World War I spurred some of the greatest thinking on this, because no one ever wanted to go back to that.
But we need to be a lot better students of peace. That old hymn "Study War No More" is really relevant. It is time to really study peace, to really study reconciliation. Where does it work? Where doesn't it?
The way I want to end this is basically to share with you that there is some really important reading to do. I don't know if any of you have done it. I'm going to bet most of you have heard of Margaret MacMillan's books on World War I. The book Paris 1919 is an amazing book to study right now. [Don't miss MacMillan's talk from Carnegie Council's Sarajevo Symposion in June 2008, "Was World War I Inevitable?"] There's a new book on Wilson by A. Scott Berg that has gotten good reviews that is very good.
There are literally dozens of books out there, but there are two that I want to really draw your attention to.
One is Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers. I think this is one of the best books on history I have read in a very long time. The way that it takes you inside the story of understanding how the moment of World War I is so relevant to our moment is chilling. He basically argues that what we see right now coming out of Princip, that Serbian nationalist conspirator who did the assassination that made this all happen, was "an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death, and revenge," and "scattered in cells across political borders." Sound familiar? Post-Cold War and the post-9/11 reality we live in: Clark argued, convincingly, I think, that a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a far more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers, as we discussed. As he puts it, it's a state of affairs that invites direct comparison to 1914. That is what I hope you can really think about as you study these events unfolding.
Another book that I think is extraordinary that I want to invite you to really spend time with if you have not read it is Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson—not Lawrence of Arabia, like my favorite movie, probably, ever—actually, The Godfather Part II, but that would definitely be number two. Scott Anderson is a colleague, a friend, an amazing journalist, someone whom I admire greatly for the work he has done. This book in particular really helped me understand how World War I shaped these events in the Middle East, how the way in which the West carved the Middle East not only left it in shambles; it really can explain what always feels unexplainable. [Don't miss Anderson's 2014 Carnegie talk on Lawrence in Arabia.]
How many of you hear from younger members of your family, "I don't even care about the Middle East. I don't even want to pay attention to it. All it is, is killing. No one wants to talk about it. It's all so confusing"? I'm sure you have heard this. If you look at the lines carved out of Sykes-Picot, a half-century of conflict starts to make sense—four wars between the Arabs and the Israelis, the Balfour Declaration as a critical document right at that moment, a promise to one side and a promise to the other side. Neither of them has ever resolved it all these years later.
With the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in a pretty serious mandate, the Israeli voters have spoken. They have chosen their leader. But that's not good news for peace. That's not good news for a sense of—someone who goes into the election saying, "We're not going to have a Palestinian state"—talk about using something as enormous as these negotiations that the United States of America has dedicated so much time to, and to shatter them on the rocks to win an election—I think the White House has every right to be pretty assertive in its critique of that.
I think, at the same time, the White House needs to stop and reflect on the fact that Israel will vote its future. It is the closest thing to a democracy in the Middle East.
So I think there is a time to pause, a time to ponder, and a time to really think. But let's not get swayed by any of these sort of false polemics. It's time to think about peace. We have too much of this willingness to just throw it aside. I think we need to think about it.
Think about the 50 years: four wars between the Arabs and the Israelis, ten years of civil war in Lebanon, slaughter of ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq, four decades of state-sponsored terrorism, convulsions of religious extremism—all those forces give way to a horrific Iran-Iraq war which makes today's war in Iraq look relatively small—four major American military interventions, a host of smaller ones, and for the Arab people, just this unbroken string of kleptocracies and brutal police states that we have propped up to keep those lines in shape that were formed in World War I.
I think we can begin to think about this history and the swirling violence and hatred that has come out of it, and try to understand it historically, try to put the pieces together, work hard to understand the forces that have created it so we can figure out, the way a bomb squad would, how you defuse the thing. You have to understand how it was built. If we don't understand that, then we really are perilously close to an explosion. I really believe that.
We don't have to go that way. I think the truth of history is that you can bend the arc of history with great thinking and great ideas. I don't know that you are going to bend the arc of history against terrorism with conventional military force. I think we've pretty much proven that that is not going to happen. I have covered all of these conflicts from the ground. I have watched and listened to great military thinkers, who, in private moments, will share with you their incredible frustration with policies and procedures and tactics that are flawed.
We don't even listen enough to the very smart people at the War College, for example. I recently moderated an event there—brilliant. The history they were bringing to it, the thinking—surprising, challenging thoughts. We don't just have to go to liberal lefty think thanks to think about peace. We need to bring in the War College. They know a lot. And believe me, the veterans I know who are on their fourth and their fifth tours want nothing more than to get home to their families.
If we can understand the history, if we can understand the moment we live in, then I think we can go from that bridge of history that I told you about, where I was on June 28, and start going down the road toward peace. We shouldn't forget that that is where we need to head.
QUESTION: James Starkman.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Can you share? I didn't hear it. I've been in an executive media training course far from journalism all day, and I would love to know what he said.
QUESTIONER: He backed off the simplistic notion that he was against a two-state solution.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Good to know.
QUESTIONER: He would be for a modified two-state solution, depending upon the willingness of the other side to cease threats against the existence of Israel, and related issues of that sort.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Now that he is elected, he can be clear.
QUESTIONER: But getting back to your peace agreement point, it seems to me that there are two very basic issues which you didn't really get to indicate. One is basic geography, in whether a peace agreement is going to last. Second is economic ties between the adversaries. I would say the European Union is a very good example of why they have been at peace since the end of World War II in Europe, because of the economic ties. It doesn't always work. Russia has ties to the West, and right now they are breaking down. But just on basic geography—
CHARLES SENNOTT: That's a great question. Thank you for asking it. And thanks for filling me on that. I'll try not to be cynical about a politician who clarifies something that explosive two days after the election. But I think it's heartening to know that the prime minister will step off from some of those beliefs and not give up on the idea of peace. So that's something good to hold onto.
Your question about economic ties—a fantastic question. In the conflicts that I covered, how did real peace that I saw in my own time really develop?
Northern Ireland: One of the moments in Northern Ireland, when you really realized there was going to be peace, was the smallest story that I couldn't talk my way onto the front page of The Boston Globe with, where we covered Northern Ireland. My editors kept saying, "Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, nobody cares about this." You know what it was? It was the day they integrated the power grid between North and South.
The northern industrialists were tired of paying two-thirds more for power, electricity, coming through cables from the UK. The decisions were being made: "What if we had one power grid?" When that kind of thinking started to take place, where the business community realizes there is this Celtic Tiger happening to the south, by these other people who call themselves Irish—"Why don't we all do some business together?" Then you saw those enterprises open up and the cross-border economic investment start to happen. I would argue that that is what grounded peace.
Having covered Israel and Palestine, the only economic tie that I know of precisely, because I helped make it happen—I don't usually take an active role in economics, but this involved Guinness, and I needed to have Guinness in Jerusalem if I was going to be living there. I lived with my family there for five years. Two of my sons were born there. My wife and I have four sons. Seriously, I used to talk to a barman named Ibrahim at the American Colony Hotel.
Ibrahim would always say, "You can't get Guinness here, man."
And I would say, "You could. Have you tried calling the distributor?"
"The guy's in Jordan. The Israelis are never going to let it through."
The next time I was in Jordan, I happened to be in talking to someone on the ministerial level. I said, "Hey, is this deputy minister around, the guy who controls a lot of the shipping over?"
Anyway, he said, "Look, we've never had an application. Why would we hold it up? As long as the cans are the right size and they get evaluated in a certain way, there's no reason you can't add that to the Amstel Light we send over. It's going to be fine."
I said, "Can I take your card, and can I have my guy call you?"
Then we started getting the American Colony calling a Jordanian guy so that he could put the request in. They are doing business to this day. I am very proud to say Guinness is in the Holy Land.
I think you're absolutely right. The economic connections are the road to peace. The Israeli economy has brilliant streaks flashing through it right now. There is so much happening in terms of angel investors and new start-ups. They call it "Start-up Nation."
One of the most beautiful things I heard at the American Colony on this trip was—my former colleague, longtime friend, and translator, a Palestinian, met with me and he was so depressed. Too long has he been covering these conflicts. Too long has he been doing it. He was so down. He said his son was going to come and pick him up and he only had like a half-hour. So we're talking for a little bit, and I'm really worried about him. He's very depressed. Then his son walks in and he lights up. His son sits down with us for a minute. He has a start-up. This start-up is an amazing idea. It's called Imagery. I'm listening to the way he is describing it. If you could have images of things and then search them on the Internet and know exactly what they are, like flowers—if you didn't know what a flower was and you took an image of it, then the image could lead to—and I'm like, "Wow, this is such a good idea."
He's like, "Yeah, we're getting angel money."
I said, "Who is giving it to you?"
He said this organization. The name was a little hard to figure out, whether it was Israeli money or Palestinian money. He said the most beautiful thing. He said, "We're not an Israeli start-up, we're not a Palestinian start-up, and we're not an Israeli and Palestinian start-up. We're just a start-up."
The truth is, he is getting funding from both sides. He said something I will never forget, which is, "Technology has no checkpoints." The idea for partnering is extraordinary right now.
Great question. Thank you. I'm hopeful—my point being that technology can defy geography. You can do business without having to cross borders. There are little tiny tins of Guinness clinking on a truck that needs to get scanned so they know that's not Semtex rattling in that Guinness.
I think geography is the point, and technology can help solve the equation of geography that has prohibited business. Is that clear?
QUESTION: Tyler Beebe.
We know it's easy, as you pointed out very well, to criticize Sykes-Picot as being arrogant and dysfunctional. Let's put ourselves back 98 years or whatever. How would you have engineered a restructuring of the Middle East if you had the chance?
CHARLES SENNOTT: Journalists just ask the questions. We don't have the answers.
Thank you. It's a great question.
I think the thing that was not given careful enough attention was the religious and the ethnic diversity of the places they were carving up. We see that everywhere right now. How do you slice a line through the Kurdish people? Was that smart? In retrospect, probably not. I have seen the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters, who are the allies of the United States. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with them in 2003 when the war happened. The unbridled gratitude they had for the U.S. invasion was unreal, especially given the fact that we let them down so miserably. I couldn't believe these people who were willing to forgive us for the terrible oversight we made because they want their own future.
That yearning as a Kurdish people—I think it's heroic. I think it's really courageous. We have had times when we have pushed it down and pushed it aside and not cared about it. We haven't allowed that people, who are now divided across a series of borders—Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—we didn't recognize that in carving those maps.
Do I know where the lines should have been carved exactly? No. But greater attention to the ethnic makeup of those areas—without dividing them so whimsically, almost, and putting big circles around Mosul because it gives you the oil—I think more attention to the people who live there than to the interests of the empires drawing the lines was the key.
Christian minorities similarly haven't been factored in well, but they were factored in better, because it was Christian powers—the history of Christendom was alive and they were a little more sensitive to it.
So I think we missed a chance to recast the world in a way that maybe we could have avoided a lot of these tensions and cross-border fighting.
JOANNE MYERS: We just had a discussion yesterday, for the people who weren't here, on the Kurdish spring and the Kurds and how important they are.
CHARLES SENNOTT: This beautiful fighter, Colonel Mansour, who I was just with—it was a small, little battle, but we—well, I don't know if my wife is going to be watching this. I had promised my wife I would not go to the front lines. Then I was with a videographer, who almost comically captured the moment when this gentleman, Colonel Mansour, said, "We just got a radio report that ISIS has done an incursion 10 kilometers from here. We're going to go. Do you want to come?" I turned around and said, "Yes, let's go," without thinking. And we went.
I said, "I don't have a vest and a helmet, so I probably shouldn't go."
He said, "We can provide you with a vest and helmet."
I said, "Okay, let's go."
So we go. We go only to an artillery position. It was just watching the little ways in which these incursions happen. It's so cat-and-mouse, so small. But the heroism of these Kurdish fighters in really standing up to ISIS was so glaringly apparent.
We get back, and the guy has one of those Nespresso machines and we're drinking Nespresso. He has just been out shelling artillery, and he's the most elegant and—I don't think "heroic" is a bad word—who really, genuinely believes in the Kurdish state. He believes that they need an independent state. He was very convincing about it.
One week ago, I got an email from the person I was working with there, a wonderful Kurdish translator, who informed me that Colonel Mansour was killed by a sniper's bullet. It's not what you are going to read in the news of the day, in the big takeout in the front of The New York Times or anywhere. But just thinking of that guy and the sacrifices made and how the lines drawn in World War I defined his aspirations—worth pondering.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
You said that Gavrilo Princip changed history. But did he really change history? A lot of people would argue that if it hadn't been Gavrilo Princip, it might have been somebody in Prague or some German officer near Belgium, and so on, and that what's important is not what any individual or group of individuals do, but forces of history. If they are right, maybe we are spending too much time focusing on individuals—Netanyahu, even Putin—and ignoring the forces of history that are dictating what is happening today and will dictate what is happening in the future.
CHARLES SENNOTT: I still take my kids to see the church from which Paul Revere got the signal. I still take them to the places where history is made relevant by the individuals who made that history relevant.
That is a truism. Absolutely, I agree with you. These were much bigger forces than Serbian nationalism that set the world at war. But sometimes it is an individual who lights the fuse. I worry about that individual emerging somewhere in our lives. How many people were involved in the attacks of 9/11? Nineteen. It doesn't take many individuals to set things in motion in a way that you alter the course of history.
I think we need to be aware of everything you are saying. Of course these forces are much bigger than that. But I do think history is a narrative, and sometimes it comes down to the people who are at the critical junctures of that narrative.
Another person at a critical juncture of that narrative is Woodrow Wilson. Hearing how Wilson goes to Paris in 1919 and really presents a new vision for the world, where he talks about self-determination and he says, "This is what America believes in. We believe in the right to create your own democracy"—that vision that he put forward is something that I love to think of as what we believe in.
Except then I covered the Middle East for 25 years, where I did not see that right to self-determination being upheld by the country I'm so proud to be from. I think we have to keep asking really hard questions about what we believe in.
Through The GroundTruth Project, I partnered with Frontline to cover Tahrir Square in Egypt. Being there for those 18 days was one of the most extraordinary things I ever got to do as a journalist. And I'm not alone in feeling that way. Tom Friedman said the same thing. Some journalists from the BBC who I greatly respect, like Jeremy Bowen—really one of the great journalists on the Middle East—we were all getting together. We had been doing this for a long time.
Maybe not to a person, but certainly a majority felt, "This is the most exciting thing we have ever seen." I never thought in all my years of covering the Middle East that I would see young people take to the street, organized through Facebook, social networking, come in very large numbers, rise up, then get joined by larger forces, for sure, like the Muslim Brotherhood. That's what our film for Frontline was about, so I wasn't naïve to the forces that were coalescing around these young people. But the germination of an idea of self-determination, that 30 years of brutal dictatorship needed to end, was heroic, and even, you might say, a joyous celebration of what I felt like we believe in.
I don't think I have ever seen people believe in that idea as much alive—I didn't cover some of the revolutions in the collapse of the Soviet Union or Poland or some of the other great expressions of dignity that have been all over the world. But this one I watched every minute of, and in this one I really knew these people. I had seen them. I had looked at these activists, who had been working really since the 1990s—labor union movements and other people who were against police brutality—trying to do what they could to get Mubarak out of power, human rights activists celebrating.
Look at what has happened since. On the Fourth of July, Secretary of State Kerry was on vacation. It's the Fourth of July; he deserves to be on vacation. President Obama also off. Quietly, the democratically elected leader—who, by the way, was terrible and who was a total failed governance, emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood and their political party. I think of him like a political boss, but one who didn't even understand patronage and was failing. He wasn't representing minorities and women. I think he was going to implode all on his own volition.
Instead, what we saw was the Egyptian military, who we give a lot of money to, go to the democratically elected president's home, arrest him, put him in a prison where no one knew where he was, not able to communicate with his family, and everyone in America kind of went, "It's the Fourth of July. I don't know. Isn't that guy Muslim Brotherhood or something?"
When I think back on that moment and I think of Woodrow Wilson and I think of what we believe in and I think about self-determination, we missed a chance to stand up for what we believe in. I'm not saying we wanted to stand up for the Muslim Brotherhood. I genuinely think the Egyptian people loathed having them in power, and they would have done that themselves. But should we have allowed a military coup to take place in what could have been one of the most promising emergences of democracy?
The Muslim Brotherhood is hated by al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri, now the head of al-Qaeda, comes out of Egypt hating the Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because he sees them as suckers who believe in democracy. For 80 years underground, the Muslim Brotherhood—a deeply flawed organization. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying I love the Muslim Brotherhood. They are flawed. So are many political movements in the world. But one thing they are not so flawed about is that they win democratic elections. They believe in democracy.
What Zawahiri of al-Qaeda has always said to them is, "The second you win, the West won't let it stand." That is exactly what happened. You don't want and I don't want to be party to empowering al-Qaeda's message. We had other options there, and I think we really missed an opportunity to put forward what we believe in, as articulated by Woodrow Wilson in 1919, in a way that inspired the world.
If we're going to really come at this time, this perilous time, when there is so much to think about, so much work to do to find out what is the right peace agreement is for the people of Israel and Palestine—it has to be good for them. They have to make their own peace.
We have to be sure we get a nuclear deal with Iran so that we can bring down the tensions in the region. If you get an eruption that is Sunni-Shia in nature, then you really, really have a regional conflagration like we haven't seen in a long, long time. The war in Syria is a tinderbox that way. It is essentially a proxy war between Sunni and Shia. Right now everyone is focused on ISIS, which makes it a little bit easier to think about those much larger forces. But there is a very serious aligning of conflicts. God forbid an individual ignites a fuse that sets those much larger forces directly into confrontation.
That's the idea here. We are in this perilous moment, and we're going to have to recognize that we need to know that history and understand how the bomb was built if we are going to defuse it.
JOANNE MYERS: A very quick last question, because we are over time.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
You mentioned the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc reconstituting itself. It seems reasonable to me to ask what went right there. You say we never talk about peace. But what went right there that is highly problematical in the Middle East and the other areas you focused on?
I think what went right is that you had civil society there and you had institutions, particularly in Czechoslovakia with the Helsinki Accords movement, to enforce the human rights that the Soviets had supposedly guaranteed to their satellites, you had labor unions and you had the church in Poland—
CHARLES SENNOTT: This is not a short question.
JOANNE MYERS: I think not only is he asking a question, but he's answering it.
QUESTIONER: We could go through the whole list—
CHARLES SENNOTT: The beauty of this is that you have answered your own question.
QUESTIONER: I did not. Don't you think that that shows that you have to build these things from the ground up and that what the president of the United States does may be helpful marginally, but—
CHARLES SENNOTT: Thank you. I see where you're—
QUESTIONER: These were very well-organized civil societies.
CHARLES SENNOTT: I think that's a great question. In its essence, if you are saying, "Shouldn't the president really have nothing to do with it? Let's let them figure it out," are you telling me that—
QUESTIONER: I didn't say that he should have nothing to do with it.
CHARLES SENNOTT: Okay, well, they need to figure it out on their own. But you aren't really arguing that President Reagan and many presidents before him didn't absolutely target the fight against the tyranny of the Soviet Union and bankrupt them through an arms race that we knew we could win because we had more money. We put them out of business by building up an arms industry that could cripple their ability to really have any effective power. People began to recognize that. We salted money everywhere we could—into Radio Free Europe, into different kinds of movements. There were forces that coalesced against a tyranny, and it was toppled.
But that doesn't mean democracy won. I hate to get too political, but I think capitalism definitely won, hands down, but I'm not so sure democracy did yet. I think it's inevitable, because I think it's the greatest idea on the planet to have inclusive governments in which people vote for their leaders. That's a good idea.
Just in conclusion, it's a great question. It's a great idea to go back and ponder—look at how the Russian Revolution grows out of World War I as well. You have a time in which the revolutions around the world are formed in crucibles. We could reflect on the fact that that's also 100 years ago. Just remember, 100 years later, I think it's ideas that win. I think the idea of what it meant to live in the United States and to be part of a democracy is what broke the Soviet Union. It was the idea we had.
The effective strategy was to bankrupt them with this ridiculous Cold War and an arms race. Maybe we needed that strategy. Maybe it even helped our economy. A better strategy is, never lose sight of the ideas. If we keep true to the ideas, then I think we're on the side of history.
JOANNE MYERS: I thank you also for filling us with ideas. Please join us and continue the conversation.