Saturday, June 19, 2010

Fun With Idiocy: You Don't Need to Know Anything About the Middle East to Have a Plan for Solving All its Problems

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By Barry Rubin

You don't need to know anything about the Middle East to have a PLAN for solving all its problems. You only need to know something if you are going to produce a strategy that works.

Everyone has a solution for the Gaza Strip and, of course, for the Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict in general. I remember how at some distinguished panel in Europe an erstwhile British think-tanker had the brilliant idea of having NATO troops patrolling the West Bank and Gaza Strip, never engaging with the point that I made: What do they do when either dissatisfied or radical Palestinians started shooting at them for doing something (like stopping attacks on Israel?) they didn’t like?

We have seen the dramatic failure—well, not dramatic since it is generally ignored outside of Israel—of the grand UN scheme of 2006 to keep Hizballah from rearming and returning to south Lebanon. They fail, and fail, and don’t keep their promises, then wonder why Israelis aren’t willing to pin their survival on such gimmicks.

And you may have noticed my pointing out that the Obama Administration wrecked Israel-Palestinian talks for 15 months by unilaterally raising the idea that all Israeli construction on settlements stop. Now Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has explicitly confirmed how damaging the U.S. policy was:

"Abbas blamed the hold-up in talks on the White House, noting that they had raised the issue of settlements: `They are the ones who requested for the Israelis to stop settlements, what do you expect of me? Less than them?' he was quoted saying in paraphrase."

Note: Apparently the Obama Administration understandably--and correctly--has urged Abbas to move up to direct talks with Israel. Let's see if Abbas complies or ignores Obama. And if he ignores Obama, will the United States do or say anything to pressure him? I doubt it but let's watch and see.

If I were to design an ecumenical prayer for these circumstances it would go like this: “Oh, Lord, please keep the ignorant and arrogant from interfering with my life and foisting their schemes on me.”

Any way, here are two new ideas. First, for comic relief

The British and Swiss have put forward proposals on how the Europeans can help maintain a focused embargo to keep arms out of Gaza while letting in other goods. Unfortunately, this is basically what they tried more than five years ago that failed miserably.

I will never forget a friend in the Israeli army stationed there describing humorously how this worked. A couple of European officers sat on the Egypt-Gaza border in total bewilderment, never intervening with anything coming across the border. Think of a spectator at a particularly one-sided tennis match who keeps turning his head from left to right as the game goes on. They were worthless and when violence erupted they ran away. End of European supervision.

Another item. There’s an important clue to U.S. and European thinking buried in a New York Times article on the Gaza Strip. Here’s the relevant material:

“Mahmoud Daher of the World Health Organization estimated that political loyalties in Gaza divided into equal [one-]thirds: pro-Hamas, pro-Palestinian Authority and independent, many in the private sector. He has been telling foreign officials that if they helped foster businesses, there could eventually be a majority coalition of non-Hamas parties here.”

So this is what lies behind President Obama’s let-Gaza-prosper strategy, the belief that if there is a stronger middle class that just wants to do business, the pragmatic sector will grow and all the non-Hamas parties will become the majority and take over.

True, this might have worked to some extent in Soviet bloc Central Europe and even to some extent in China but the Middle East doesn’t fit that model. Here we see the inability of people so smart that they cannot understand other societies are really different to visualize an ideological dictatorship at the peak of its power and quite ready to murder people:


--The regime decides who does or doesn’t do business on the basis of loyalty, pay-offs, and giving its officials a big cut. So if you want to make money, perhaps you better not trouble the guys with guns or challenge the status quo. Incidentally, this is how Middle East societies have kept the independent middle class at bay and is one reason why there isn't much democracy.

--With “politics in command,” as Mao Zedong put it, the business sector, and indeed the living standards of the masses, are subordinated to the struggle. If Hamas wants to launch a war against Israel it isn’t going to worry about the damage to infrastructure, as we have already seen.

Everywhere in the world, the common people may just want the "same thing," a bigger refrigerator, a car, and better education for their children. The thing about dictatorships, however, is that nobody asks them their opinion and instead to some extent shapes their opinion through ideology, force, and indoctrination.

--No opposition parties are permitted to function in the Gaza Strip and those individuals too active on behalf of Fatah are periodically arrested, lightly tortured, and inhibited from acting.

--Fatah folk spend a good bit of their time trying to prove they are just as militant, or more so, in fighting Israel and the West as their Hamas rivals.

--Hamas people really believe that the deity is on their side, that their enemies are satanic, and that victory is inevitable. If you want to get some sense of the intensity of this passion, take an Ivy League professor’s view of the Tea Party people and multiply it by ten. Except that in Hamas there is willingness to torture, maim and kill, along with the belief in divine guidance. [This space left blank so you can insert a suitable joke.]

--There aren’t elections in the Gaza Strip so if you get a majority what difference does it make? To quote Mao again, in this case political power really does come out of a barrel of a gun.

And if you still aren’t persuaded, just consider how successful the strategy of promote business, build prosperity, and raise living standards as the road to democracy plus moderation has worked in such places as Islamist Iran, Syria, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

By the way, if you take the middle initial of the last U.S. president, “W,” and that of the current U.S. president, “H,” you get the initials for White House. Coincidence? Or perhaps the basis for a new Middle East peace plan!

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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