Veteran journalist discusses Arab Spring turmoil

Marcus Traxler

Veteran foreign journalist Reese Erlich spoke to a crowd of more than 150 people Sept. 11 as part of the annual Fillbrandt Forum, with his lecture “The Arab Spring Rages On” about foreign affairs in the Middle East.

Wearing a beige suit with his signature hat nearby, Erlich touched on the U.S. and its foreign affairs in a free-flowing 45 minute talk, giving an inside and critical look at what is happening in Syria, Egypt and Gaza.

He spoke about the frustrations that are felt by revolutionaries in the Middle East and around the world.

“The U.S. is once again seen in many parts of the world as an enemy,” Erlich said, comparing the sentiment today against what was felt after the September 11, 2001 attacks felt sympathy toward the U.S.

“Here we are 11 years later and that sympathy is completely gone,” he said.

He added that the U.S. has put up a strongman front in many countries, which alienates those who live there.

On Egypt, Erlich noted the struggle is ongoing, even after forcing former leader Hosni Mubarak from office.

“Everyone knows about the Occupy Movements,” he said. “Imagine if those movements had seized the power, you would get a rough idea of what’s going on there. By no means is the battle over.”

As far as Gaza, he said that Hamas, the ruling party in the region, would be willing to except two states, even if that’s not the ideal case for them. Israel has not been willing to yield to two states, allowing Palestinians to be recognized as a separate state.

“People [over there] don’t like U.S. democracy and they don’t like Israeli democracy. They just don’t.”

Erlich explained the complex back and forth the U.S. has historically had with Libyan Muammar Gaddafi.

“The reality is very much different,” pointing out that the U.S. had a “cozy” relationship with Gaddafi, who was a horrible dictator, according to Erlich.

After being to Syria five times, Erlich said he sees the nation in two groups; one that would like to see the U.S. help and get out and another group that would like to see the U.S. not get out.

So what will happen in Syria if the opposition comes to power?

“I don’t know and neither does anyone else and if they try to tell you that they know, they’re talking through their hat. I know because I wear a lot of hats,” he said with a laugh.

Overall, he said it’s not all bad.

“I believe the forces let loose in the Arab Spring are positive. If you look back on revolutions in the past, the paths were not easy.

A trio of math and statistics graduate students — Brian Vachta, Toby Flint and Jason Hennessy — took in the lecture from near the front.

“I thought it was a factual demonstration,” Flint said, who, as a political science undergraduate student, looked at developmental theory in the region and did his case study on the Arab Spring. “According to the news, it’s over. It matters and major news outlets don’t care.”

Vachta said it was interesting to compare the peace movements to each other. Hennessy said it was good to hear a first-hand opinion on the matter.

“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to engage in political process and this is a way to do that. This is someone who’s been there and he’s lived it,” Hennessy said.

Erlich’s lecture was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center where he spent seven months in the Arab Spring region. He currently works as a full-time freelance print and broadcast reporter, has written four books and has produced numerous radio documentaries on foreign affairs. In 2006, he was awarded with a Peabody Award for his work on a radio documentary on the history of Asians in the U.S.

“You have to make a distinction between anti-Americanism and opposition to American policy. Because it’s a key difference.”  In response to a question about storming of an embassy in Cairo and ongoing movements in the Arab Spring.

He also took questions on other countries and their foreign affairs and life in refugee camps. When asked about Hilary Clinton’s job as Secretary of State and asked to grade it on a scale of 1-10, Erlich said he would give her a negative grade.

“She’s a very good politician, she’s just carrying out very, very bad U.S. foreign policy,” he said.

Erlich’s speech is the first in a series as SDSU joins the Pulitzer Center of Campus Reporting’s Campus Consortium, which includes 19 other universities.

The event was sponsored by the Department of Mass Communications, the Office of Academic Affairs, the South Dakota World Affairs Council and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.