Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Steven A. Cook | The End of Ambition

    Lawrence Brown is a student at Northeastern University who works with the Huntington News. Brown is also a writer at 7 News WHDH-TV.

    On June 11, 2024, WorldBoston hosted a Chat & Chowder program featuring Steven A. Cook, author of the book The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a widely published columnist and commentator.

    The subject of The End of Ambition could be much anticipated by many as the war between Israel and Hamas. However, to my surprise, the Israel - Hamas War was not the main subject of his talk, but rather how the U.S. has been involved in the Middle East, where U.S. foreign policy in regards to the region stands now, and where it is heading. Cook began his talk with three simple, yet complex questions: “Where have we been? Where have we gone? And where should we be going?” 

    The argument was made that rather than thinking about the relationship between the U.S. and Middle East as filled with tension, there have actually been significant amounts of time when the U.S. has achieved its strategic goals in the region. Many people view U.S. involvement in the region as a failure, but this was not always the case, although the U.S. has always faced setbacks. Cook used the Arab - Israeli War in 1973 as an example of a setback the U.S. faced. It was a time when the Nixon administration had realized that there could be major consequences as a result of Arab frustration over Israel’s choice to not withdraw from territories it had occupied in 1967.

    Cook went on to explain that the U.S. post-9/11 devoted resources to changing society in the Middle East with the idea that by enforcing reform you would gain peace in the region. This was a reversal of earlier U.S. policy that said that it was through peace that you gained reform. Cook used the example of Operation Iraqi Freedom, saying that it was sold on the idea that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a threat to global peace, and that by removing him you would bring democracy to the region.

    Cook then asked if anyone in the audience lived in Vermont. While one gentleman said he grew up in Vermont, no one from the audience lived in Vermont. Cook went on to describe how U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, then in the House of Representatives, voted for the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 which Cook argues was the precursor to the invasion of Iraq five years later. This example was used to point out that people across the political spectrum have supported U.S. foreign policy that was intended to change the Middle East.

    In his talk, Cook defined what he calls “prudential conservatism.” He criticized the spending strategy in the U.S. saying that it was delusion filled ambition that propelled American foreign policy for years and actually sapped our power in the region. He says that the U.S. government spent on things that weren’t important. His idea of “prudential conservatism” is that there should be a clear way to assess how we should use our resources in the world. Cook then went on to describe the six main points of his book.

    The first point, he argues, is what he calls the prime directive. The prime directive, Cook states, is continuing to prevent disruptions to the free flow of oil resources. Cook then cracked a joke, defending his own actions to protect the environment, but argued that we are not going to decarbonize our societies anytime soon. 

    The second idea, Cook argues, is what he calls legacy interest. He argues it is still in the interest of the U.S. to help prevent threats to Israeli security. However, he says the relationship between the U.S. and Israel continues to change. 

    The third idea he puts forth is counterterrorism. He argues that although the September 11th terror attacks were almost 23 years ago, we continue to be concerned about counterterrorist attacks to this day. 

    The fourth idea, he says, is to accept the world as it is and acknowledge that Iran is a nuclear capable state.

    The fifth idea, Cook argues, is climate. He asks the audience, “When people don’t have water because it’s so hot, what is it that they do to adapt to that situation?” “They move,” said an audience member. He adds that those who move from the Middle East often go to Europe and that a core global interest for the U.S. is the stability, prosperity, and unity of Europe. 

    The last idea, he argues, is great power competition. Cook uses the example of the Chinese as a competitor of the U.S., and then stated that the Chinese actually share U.S. interests. He argues that our partners in the region don’t like it when we say we’re going to do something and we don’t, citing examples of when the U.S. did not come to the aid of partners in the region.

    Cook says that while we will be more successful if the U.S. follows through with these ideas, it is hard for Americans to hear these strategies. 

    The talk ended with Cook’s overall argument that we should accept the world as it is rather than pushing for an idealistic American plan which may not end up solving conflict.

    The talk left the audience with a few questions. And while this topic is of great importance and debate today, the audience and Cook were able to talk out and debate these complex and divisive issues with respect for one another.

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