YaLa Young Leaders

How a Facebook organization could transform the Middle East.

A month before the fateful Camp David summit in July 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (for whom I worked) made a last-ditch effort to bring peace to the Middle East, I got a call from my friend John Wallach, journalist for Hearst Newspapers and founder of Seeds of Peace, a conflict-resolution organization that brings young people, principally from the Middle East, into programs designed to promote understanding and trust, in Maine and in the region.

John, who had already been diagnosed with the non-smoker's lung cancer that would take his life two years later, was excited and emotional as only he could be. "Aaron, you must convince President Clinton and Secretary Albright to host a delegation of Palestinian and Israeli Seeds kids at the summit. They have to tell Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak about what this opportunity means for the future, their future."

I humored John when he tended to dream about things that could never be, and told him I'd get right on it.

What I couldn't say was this: John, it's a month before one of the most decisive moments in Middle East peacemaking, and you want me to waste Albright's time trying to arrange a meeting with Barak and Arafat for a bunch of kids? It sounds like a cute photo-op. But give me a break.

It wasn't that I was opposed to the meeting in principle. But I worried that I wouldn't be taken seriously if I proposed it. After all, this was only about kids.

Only about kids, indeed.

Wallach's frame of reference -- without overly dramatizing matters -- wasn't about kids; it was about the future. I'll never make that mistake again. As adults, we say we take the younger generation seriously, but I wonder. Certainly in politics and diplomacy, that's not the case. We occupy a discrete physical space for a very short period of time and understandably consider it our time. We rarely take those without power and influence seriously, particularly teens and twentysomethings. Indeed, what we often ignore or relegate to token consideration -- because we're in charge and don't have to consider it -- is the possibility of taking the younger generation into our calculations in real time and making that generation part of our strategy.

And there's little doubt that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, we're in need of a strategy that's generational in character. Trust me on this one. All of the problems we face today in the broader Middle East -- the Arab Spring, nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria -- are long movies that will produce outcomes well before they'll produce solutions. And this will require time -- the ultimate arbiter of what works and is of value in life.

And what we need is a comprehensive strategy that marries transactional diplomacy (how governments can create openings to resolve conflicts) with transformational diplomacy (how non-government initiatives supported by governments can work to change attitudes and build personal ties that break down the barriers of suspicion and mistrust).

Enter YaLa Young Leaders.

Launched in May 2011 as a joint partnership between the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine, based in Ramallah and chaired by Salah Elayyan, the Palestinian Authority's cabinet secretary, YaLa-Young Leaders is a Facebook-based movement that promotes dialogue and engagement as a means to secure a safe, productive, and peaceful Middle East.

It sounds utopian. But the movement has grown to 355,000 people, including Egyptians (103,000), Israelis (13,800), Palestinians (22,100), Jordanians (20,500), Lebanese (2,200), Syrians, Yemenis, Sudanese (100), Turks, (8,700) Moroccans (25,200), Tunisians (24,600), Iraqis (29,000), Libyans (9,900), Saudis (3,700), Algerians (40,700), Emiratis (1,100), and Kuwaitis (1,100).

The driving force behind YaLa was Uri Savir, former Oslo negotiator and now head of the Peres Peace Center, who was inspired by lessons learned from his experiences during the negotiations. Savir's takeaway was that the Oslo Accords -- as a top-down approach -- lacked the inclusiveness of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab societies. So YaLa is very much bottom-up.

Through the power of Facebook, YaLa has spread through the region. YaLa-Young Leaders provides a platform for ongoing dialogue and seeks to harness the power of youth that has driven so much of the Arab Spring and the Rothschild protest movement in Israel. In a way, YaLa can be defined as a meeting point between Tahrir Square and Rothschild. Rather than meet once a month, as Israeli and Arab negotiators might do, YaLa allows thousands of interactions a day on a variety of issues from protests in Egypt, to Syria, to the latest international crisis between young Arabs and Israelis who physically cannot engage. To imagine thousands of young Arabs and Israelis with 24/7 access to one another is to imagine the future.

Now with 355,000 members, it's the biggest movement of its kind in the region and has developed partnerships with governments, including the United States, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as the support of private-sector companies such as Microsoft and Facebook. YaLa's members are active, not only in ongoing dialogue, but also in peace advocacy through the promotion of YaLa's Peace Initiative and in YaLa's Online Academy (YLO@), with online courses for Arab and Israeli students from leading universities in the United States, such as Princeton, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and University of Michigan. It has also launched an online media platform, YaLa Media Cafe, with blogs from young leaders emphasizing peace, democracy, and gender equality.

John Wallach was a dreamer. But like Uri Savir, he also understood reality. And in a historic conflict likely to take time to resolve, investing in a younger generation is critically important.

"The aim of YaLa-Young Leaders," Savir told me, "is to be a regional voice for the generation of change in the MENA region in order to promote common values and aims in relation to the respect of human rights, democracy, peace, and economic cooperation.... I believe that in these times, governments in the region and the international community will have to listen more carefully to the voices of young constituencies in the MENA region as expressed on YaLa. It is a voice of change, equality, and hope."

And who can argue with that?

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Reality Check

How Geography Explains the United States

Even after the tragedy in Boston, our country remains uniquely secure from foreign threats -- and that shapes how Americans see the world.

Do Americans have a worldview? And is there a central organizing principle that explains it? To frame the question in Tolkienesque terms: Might there be one explanation that rules them all?

I think there is.

Sigmund Freud argued that in the human enterprise, anatomy is destiny. In the affairs of nations, geography -- what it wills, demands, and bestows -- is destiny too.

It can't explain everything, to be sure. Britain and Japan are both island nations. That might explain their reliance on naval power and even their imperial aspirations. But what accounts for their fundamentally different histories? Other factors are clearly at play, including culture, religion, and what nature bestows or denies in resources. Fortune, along with the random circumstances it brings, pushes them in different directions.

Still, if I had to identify that one thing that -- more than any other -- helps explain the way Americans see the world, it would be America's physical location. It's kind of like in the real estate business: It's all about location, location, location.

The United States is the only great power in the history of the world that has had the luxury of having nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west. The two oceans to either side of the country are what historian Thomas Bailey brilliantly described as its liquid assets.

Canadians, Mexicans, and fish. That trio of neighbors has given the United States an unprecedented degree of security, a huge margin for error in international affairs, and the luxury of largely unfettered development.

From the earliest days of the country's founding, geography has been much more an ally than adversary. As the Brits found out, an island cannot rule a continent. To be sure, America was vulnerable in those early years. The French and Spanish threatened North America with their imperial ambitions. The British also wouldn't give up easily: The king's troops invaded and burned parts of Washington in 1812 and again looked for advantages during the U.S. Civil War.

Still, for most of its history, the United States lived with a security unparalleled among the countries of the world. And despite the shrinking nature of that world and the threats it carried -- take the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cuban missile crisis, the 9/11 attacks -- the United States never faced a threat to its existence. Its only real existential threat came not from abroad, but from within -- a civil war over slavery that almost tore the country apart. Indeed, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, the United States would never again be faced with a threat quite like that.

Because America's geographical position is so unique in the world, it has led to a worldview that is often unrealistic and riddled with contradictions. However well-intentioned Americans may be, their view of global politics is frequently at war with itself. Here are three strains of thought in Americans' approach to global affairs that continue to impact their country's role in the world today.

American pragmatism

Freed from the religious and ethnic conflicts of the Old World, America emerged as a world power relatively free from the heavy burdens of ideology. In the New World, Americans created a creed based on the centrality of the individual and the protection of rights and liberties.

Part of that creed also involved a commitment to pragmatism. To overcome the challenges of nation-building, the United States became a country of fixers. Above all, what mattered was what worked.

Sure, it was America's unique political system that forced compromise and practicality. But we shouldn't kid ourselves: The United States' success was made possible by a remarkable margin of security provided by two vast oceans, which allowed Americans the time and space to work on their union largely freed from constant external threats and crises.

Other countries have not been so lucky. It's fascinating to observe, for example, that Israel has no written constitution. Instead, it has a series of "basic laws" that have evolved over time. Why? The Israelis could not devote the time or risk the divisions that might have resulted from debating core issues when they were struggling to preserve their independence. These core questions -- such as those about the religious character of the state and the role of Arab citizens -- remain largely unresolved to this day.

Although the U.S. political system failed to resolve the problem of slavery without a civil war, the United States did manage to make it through that war as a united country. Location had much to do with this: You can only imagine America's fate had it been surrounded by hostile neighbors eager to take advantage of years of bloody war.

Americans seem to believe that because rational dialogue, debate, and compromise have served the United States well, the rest of the world should follow in their footsteps. As Americans extended their influence beyond U.S. shores, it was inevitable that this fix-it mentality would influence U.S. diplomacy.

At the 2000 Camp David summit, I'll never forget how impressed I was by the Americans' ability to come up with ingenious fixes -- and how disappointed I was when the Israelis and Palestinians didn't buy them. What could possibly be wrong with granting Israelis sovereignty below ground on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and granting Palestinians sovereignty above ground? It seemed like a brilliant solution to Americans looking to cut a deal, but the parties themselves didn't see it that way.

Americans' belief in solutions is both endearing and naive. I think that as the United States gets older as a nation, Americans are coming to accept theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's notion that the best we can do is come up with proximate solutions to insoluble problems.

American idealism

The luxury of America's circumstances -- particularly its physical security and detachment from the world's ethnic and tribal quarrels -- has given Americans an optimistic view of their future. And it has produced a strain in U.S. foreign policy that seeks to do good across the globe.

That optimism can often obscure the grimmer realities of international politics. Americans never really knew the mentality of the small power -- the fear of living on the knife's edge, the trauma of being without, and the viciousness of ethnic and tribal struggle.

U.S. nationalism was defined politically, not ethnically. Anyone can be an American, regardless of color, creed, or religion. America's public square has become an inclusive one -- and is becoming more so, not less. That's all good news, but too often, it leads Americans to see the world on their terms and not the way it really is.

Just look at America's recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans' mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It's the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.

Americans weren't alone in creating this false narrative, but that doesn't make their inclination for self-delusion any more comforting. This annoying tendency to see the world as they want it, rather than how it really is, can get them into real trouble. Just take Egypt, which is now in the hands of that country's two least democratic forces: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Army -- both of which the United States is supporting.

American arrogance and ambivalence

Being powerful and relatively free from the threat of attack means Americans don't have to care much about what the rest of the world thinks. And like all big powers prior, America has taken full advantage of this privilege: It has championed human rights while supporting dictators and has mouthed support for the United Nations and international law while undermining both when U.S. interests demanded it. America's recent behavior in the Middle East serves as a case study: The United States encouraged reform in Egypt and largely ignored political unrest in Bahrain, highlighted women's rights in Egypt but not in Saudi Arabia, and intervened in Libya but not Syria.

What sets the United States apart from past world powers is Americans' ambivalence about their country's role abroad. Americans have an almost schizophrenic view: They want to be left alone on some days (the post-World War I era, for example) and on other days try to fundamentally change the planet (Iraq in 2003). This is related to the fact that they can come and go as they please -- a luxury of America's location. It's almost as if U.S. foreign policy is discretionary.

I would have thought that in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the United States would be entering a period of full-fledged retreat from global affairs. And though President Barack Obama is indeed extricator in chief -- determined to take America out of old wars, not get them involved in new ones -- he has also been a wartime president since his first term.

Obama may well remain a wartime president until he leaves office. The crisis on the Korean Peninsula, mission creep in Syria, and the prospect of military action against Iran all hold out the likelihood that the next four years will see America more involved in trying to solve the problems of the world. And if the April 15 attack in Boston turns out to be perpetrated by an al Qaeda contractor or part of some Iranian-sponsored black ops, the deadly business of whacking bad guys will intensify. After all, the organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protecting the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy.

There's much good America can do in the world. It remains the most powerful and consequential actor on the world stage and will likely maintain that status for some time to come. Americans just have to be smart about how they use that power -- and always remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have Canadians, Mexicans, and fish for neighbors.