Thursday, July 1, 2010

U.S. Policy and Debate on the Middle East: Whatever Happened to Adult Supervision?

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By Barry Rubin

If you take any given 24-hour period, it is amazing to see the drumbeat of silliness and misinformation prominently displayed and distributed by (formerly?) prestigious institutions. Let’s take just four examples in the period just finished.

First, Thomas L. Friedman is an expert on the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, he is only an expert on the Middle East as seen by the Washington DC establishment at any particular moment. This fact also requires him to jump around between contradictory positions.

His gimmick this week is, “The Real Palestinian Revolution.” Now one might call the way Hamas threw Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) out of the Gaza Strip and turned that territory into a radical Islamist state is a real Palestinian revolution. Or one might say that a real Palestinian revolution would take place when Fatah, the PA, and Palestinian public opinion really changed toward accepting a two-state solution.

Instead, his “real revolution” is merely a matter of image, as in the following paragraph:

“It is a revolution based on building Palestinian capacity and institutions not just resisting Israeli occupation, on the theory that if the Palestinians can build a real economy, a professional security force and an effective, transparent government bureaucracy it will eventually become impossible for Israel to deny the Palestinians a state in the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem....It is the only hope left, though, for a two-state solution, so it needs to be quietly supported.”

By the way, it isn't clear that anything is really changing at all but rather that the whole big state-building campaign is purely a public relations campaign as this Carnegie report suggests.

It would be a good thing, of course, if the PA did succeed in accomplishing these goals. Yet a number of cogent questions can be raised about Friedman’s model. Let’s suppose the PA failed to do these things. We can check in a year or two from now to assess what has happened. Most likely, nothing much would have changed. Perhaps the PA’s modest progress to date would have collapsed in a new round of extremism and violence.

So what if the PA failed? Would Friedman and the conventional wisdom in Washington switch to saying that Israel had no real alternative for peace and thus U.S. policy should back Israel? Of course not, they would merely find some new gimmick.

Yet what if they succeeded in creating a marvelous stable, prosperous, democratic (does that mean there would be elections that Hamas might win?) entity. Would this mean that a state would result, should result, will result?

Absolutely not. Because the issue is not whether there is more money or less corruption, the issue is whether the Palestinians are ready to make peace with Israel. This means: readiness to end the conflict, teach their people that they must give up their dream to getting all of Israel, provide security guarantees, and be willing to resettle refugees in the state of Palestine.

Why should Israel give up territory and security to a PA merely because it prosecutes corrupt leaders (don’t hold your breath) and is more prosperous? What Israel needs to know is that the conflict won’t continue, there won’t be cross-border raids, Hamas won’t take over, and that Palestine won’t invite in Syrian or Iranian military forces, to cite some examples.

Friedman’s proposition is ridiculous. And note how it is phrased, it will “become impossible for Israel to deny the Palestinians a state.” In other words, Israel won’t be convinced by Palestinian moderation and compromise but, presumably, by international pressure. That won’t happen.

But Friedman’s formula reveals the PA’s strategy: forget about making peace with Israel; just get international support for declaring independence on its own terms.

Friedman recently endorsed this strategy when he used the phrase about friends not letting friends drive drunk to characterize Israel. The idea is that Israelis are too stupid to determine their own welfare so others must step in and do it for them. Yet when one looks at the idiocy of the debate being conducted int his framework, it is quite clear that the would-be dictators to Israel are the ones driving drunk.

And it isn't just me saying this but lots of Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, too. Even Saudi King Abdallah made the point in a way that every Middle Easterner understands but which went over the heads of the "great geniuses" who think they should be running the Middle East.

And one of the main ways they want to do this is to empower the radical forces that want to seize power and set the clock back by centuries.

Second, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times seem to have a policy of running as many op-eds as possible by apologists for terrorism and advocates of engaging terrorist groups. Here’s another one from the former newspaper, trotting out all the misrepresentative arguments by people who never say a word about the specificity of groups like Hamas and Hizballah, their goals, ideology, and personnel.

This latest one is the kind of article that claims since the South African group, the African National Congress (ANC), became moderate why not Hamas or Hizballah? While it is true that the ANC had a military wing and engaged in some terrorism, that violence was very limited. The ANC was always led by a philosophy of peace and conciliation not—as in the case of its Middle Eastern counterparts—totalitarian dictatorship and genocide.

By coincidence, I revisited the terrorism museum in Israel. There were some new features, including the cigarette lighter made in China and sold on the West Bank that shows the World Trade Center on fire when clicked. There is massive documentation on the involvement of Hamas and Hizballah in terrorism, antisemitism, anti-American views, and would-be genocide. One can see videos of kids in the Hamas schools carrying out military exercises. Watch this and then ask whether Hamas is intending to produce a generation of moderates.

Revolutionary Islamism and terrorism, hatred for the United States and the desire to wipe out Israel (and Jews generally) are not some minor side issues for these groups but are absolutely central to their existence. It is amazing to think of these naïve people who think they are going to talk revolutionary Islamists into being moderates, or buy them off with money (there's that idea of prosperity solving all problems again) or concessions.

Third, speaking of naiveté, there has been some stir about members of the official U.S. delegation to Syria making fools of themselves by twittering regarding the good time they were having. Syria is a repressive dictatorship. While these American ninnies were having nice cups of coffee, a few minutes’ away prisoners were being tortured because they had criticized the regime.

[Incidentally, in the kind of misdirection common today, coverage made it sound like only Republicans opposed U.S. engagement with Syria, with the subliminal theme: Oh, they're conservatives so we don't have to pay any attention to them! In fact, Democrats in Congress have also been opposed and increasingly shocked by Obama's Middle East policy.]

When a U.S. official from the delegation says: “We made it clear that we want assurances that technologies sold to Syria won't be… used in ways to harm Syrian citizens," does he have any idea how ridiculous this sounds? Indeed, the more American delegations show up, the more peaceful dissidents get arrested.

Finally, Hamas officials are now claiming that the Obama Administration is secretly contacting their regime. What is probably happening is that the U.S. government thought itself very clever to send some well-connected but not official figures to hang out with Hamas and explore getting along with a group that happens to be revolutionary Islamist, antisemitic, genocidal intentioned, repressive toward women, expelling Christians, waging terrorism, and acting as a client of Iran.

Of course, they should understand that all this does is convince Hamas that the Obama Administration is ready to make a deal so there is no reason for it changing policy. All some Hamas leaders have to do is mumble a few words into the easily deceived Americans’ ears and the fools will rush off to shout how these people are moderates (see the NY Times op-ed mentioned above).

And of course the U.S. government makes itself subject to blackmail from Hamas which only has to reveal whatever conversations have taken place, with some creative additions and distortions. Thus, the title of the article about this issue, “Hamas says asked by US to keep silent on talks,” illustrates that point.

Let’s be clear here. If you deal with Hamas, Hizballah, and Syria, you are dealing with thugs and murderers. Sometimes you do have to deal with thugs and murders but never forgetting that reality. And one thing you have to remember is that such people aren’t going to make deals with you, keep their promises, become moderate, or respect your interests no matter how much you bribe or bow to them.

At the terrorism museum there’s a Hizballah poster that shows people giving money to Islamist charities, that money being turned into bullets, and those bullets being fired at Israel. That’s also an accurate picture of the diplomatic “charity” being given to the enemies not only of the West but also of the Middle Eastern peoples they murder and oppress.

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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