Slackman talks about foreign policy in the Middle East

Slackman spoke on Tuesday about his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East, as well as the U.S.’s involvement in the changes occurring in the region.  (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) Slackman spoke on Tuesday about his experiences as a journalist in the Middle East, as well as the U.S.’s involvement in the changes occurring in the region. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/)

He lived in Egypt for eight years — three as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and five for The New York Times — and returned to the region to witness the dramatic conflict in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

Speaking before a half-filled auditorium in Porter Hall, now Deputy Foreign Editor for The New York Times Michael Slackman visited Carnegie Mellon on Tuesday to discuss the United States’s role abroad, particularly in the Middle East. The discussion was presented by The New York Times, Undergraduate Student Senate, and the Collegiate Readership Program.

During his discussion, Slackman stressed the importance of the citizen’s responsibility to be informed. “Just read about the world about you,” he said. It’s what everyone in the world is fighting for right now — the people in Ukraine, the people in Egypt — you have the right to have that information.”

Slackman told the story of the day he was fired at in the island country of Bahrain in February 2011. Slackman was dispatched to Bahrain when a community of Shiite Muslims demanded rights from the ruling Sunni Muslim family during a series of peaceful protests. “Members of the Shiite community were coming out by the tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — and they were determined to push for their rights,” Slackman said during an interview with The Tartan.

One day, abut a thousand young protesters marched to Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.

They were fired upon by the police. Slackman and his colleagues ran from the conflict, but were fired upon too. “A helicopter ... flew overhead, and I thought we were being shot at by the helicopter,” Slackman said.

He ran into an alley with a colleague and saw the helicopter follow. “And that was when I was like ... they’re hunting us.” A car drove by and Slackman screamed at it before the driver took him away from the area.

Slackman told the audience, “What foreign correspondents do is they bear witness.” He said correspondents witness events so that people have access to information about the world around them — so that they can be responsibly informed citizens.

“Being a reporter is one of the most thrilling and rewarding jobs you can have,” Slackman said to The Tartan. “It allows you to experience life through someone else’s eyes ... to give voice to the downtrodden and the oppressed.”

Slackman then turned the discussion to the United States’s involvement in the Middle East, as well as Crimea. He questioned, “How much of an actor should the United States be in other nations’ revolutions?”

Slackman compared President Barack Obama’s current foreign affairs footprint to former President George W. Bush’s footprint. President Obama’s footprint is much smaller than Bush’s footprint was, Slackman said. He explained that Bush’s term ended after two wars and two occupations and resulted in resentment from several parts of the world.

Meanwhile, President Obama promoted foreign policy through an aggressive diplomatic core, Slackman said. While Bush turned to his defense secretary for matters of foreign policy, President Obama turned to his treasury secretary to promote sanctions. “It seemed to be working fairly well until now,” he said. “Right about now everybody’s asking, ‘Has the lighter footprint run out of gas? Is the world coming apart and moving backward again because the United States is taking a different approach?’ ”

“What’s playing out is very mobile and it is kind of immune to the influence from abroad,” he answered, noting that it is misguided to ask what America and other outsiders should or shouldn’t be doing in the Middle East: “What’s happening now is a search for identity.”

He said that the United States and Western Europe have trouble accepting the search for identity by countries in the Middle East while they stand by. “But that’s not to say that there’s no role for the international community in the Middle East,” Slackman said. “And if there’s one thing that I’d like you guys to take away tonight, I want you to think about Syria.”

Syria is a country of 23 million people, over half of which are displaced. Slackman said that people in Syria are caught between a brutal dictatorship and foreign powers, but the United States has not become heavily involved. He stated that maybe the United States shouldn’t have applied the lessons it learned from Iraq to Syria. “The humanitarian crisis that we’re experiencing in Syria is unprecedented in my life,” he said. “It breaks my heart when I think about what’s happening in Syria.”

Slackman ended his talk with the assertion that the Obama administration has not articulated it’s foreign policy well, but that if a democratic nation like the United States is not going to get involved in a foreign affair like the situation in Syria, the nation has to explain why. Slackman then opened the floor for discussion.

Business Affairs Committee Chair for Student Senate and newly elected Student Body Vice President for Finance Divya Kothandapani said about Slackman, “I thought it was important that someone [in media] come and explain how media works — how newspapers, editors, and writers — what they think, their thought process, and giving a different perspective.”

As Business Affairs Committee Chair, Kothandapani, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major, oversees the Collegiate Readership Program and works with The New York Times through this program.

The program is responsible for providing newspapers across campus in various campus buildings and dorms, including the University Center and Resnik House.

Students pay a five dollar media fee each academic year for the papers, which are otherwise free throughout the year.

For a transcript of The Tartan’s interview with Slackman, visit