Sunday, May 17, 2009

Realism Must be Realistic: Why So Many People Who Should Know Better Don’t Understand Middle East Politics

By Barry Rubin
I’m a Realist. In international affairs, Realists are people who believe that countries act according to their interests. But who decides the interests in dictatorships? Answer: The ruling regimes. And those interests are defined according to the regime’s interests: what keeps it in power, what allows it to mobilize support and keep down opponents, what profits the ruling class and its allies in material terms?

Here’s where much misunderstanding arises. Many academics, journalists, and diplomats can’t help but assume that radicalism and regional instability are against the national interests of Middle East countries. Since these things exist to a high degree, there must be something wrong with the situation, something that can be fixed, something—most important of all—that the regimes want to fix.

And that brings them to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The view is that continuation of the conflict is against the interests of the regimes and therefore, according to their national interests, they want to fix it as soon as possible.

Why, then, hasn’t the problem been solved? If such thinkers conclude that the villain is a group of extremists and terrorists taking advantage of the conflict or simple gridlock based on a lack of creative thinking, or various other things, they believe that a vigorous peace process is needed and can work fairly quickly and easily.

But in that case, how come previous peace processes have failed? This is explained by saying that the practitioners weren’t good enough--“I’m smarter or more charming than they were,” which today seems to be what President Barack Obama is saying—or didn’t try hard enough—how could anyone have tried harder than President Bill Clinton? Or perhaps there’s some brilliant solution that will make the conflict over east Jerusalem go away and somehow square quite a lot of circles.

These are the moderate peace processers.

Then there are those who think that it has been Israel or U.S. support for Israel which has stopped the Arab states that desperately want to solve the issue. This urgent effort has been sort of hard to find but a blend of ignorance, avid reading of Arab propaganda, wishful thinking, and anti-Israel (or anti-Jewish) thinking in wildly differing proportions makes the mirage take on three dimensions.

These are the extremists who often end up as allies, or at least enablers, of radical Islamist movements and terrorists.

Yet none of this is Realist thinking. Realist thinking analyzes the objective and perceived interests of the regimes. Things like:

--Needing the conflict in demagogic terms to mobilize support for even relatively moderate regime which are corrupt, repressive, and bad at improving their people’s lives.

There is little or no hope of democracy—that’s where the Bush administration went wrong--but plenty of possibility for Islamist revolution. Rulers know it and want to avoid it.

--Consequently, regimes have to prove how militant they are in fighting the battle against Israel while, at the same time, going too far for peace would promote internal upheaval.

--The conflict is useful in inter-state relations. For the strong, they have used it to try to subjugate weaker states, while the weaker states have rejected such absorption in the name of the most effective way of struggling against Israel. Using the conflict, some states get aid and alliances most useful for them.

--And for the revolutionaries, the Israel issue has been of great benefit. But the problem here is that they win either way. If the relative moderates demonize Israel and justify the conflict, the masses are being prepared further for the radicals’ message. And they can ask: Why haven’t the regimes wiped Israel off the map?

But if the regimes move toward peace, the revolutionaries declare them to be traitors and have an even better chance at overthrowing them. Certainly, at least, that’s what the rulers believe.

--Of course, Iran and Syria are trying to use the conflict to gain regional hegemony. But look, for example, at the state-controlled Egyptian media and see how the regime uses the stirring up hatred at Israel as a scapegoat and distraction. That doesn’t mean the hatred isn’t sincere, of course, but it does explain the intensity of the obsession and why the conflict is far more unsolvable than it “should” be.

All of this doesn’t mean that leaders and regimes act “irrationally” but on the basis of a different set of rational considerations adapted to their situations. If you’ve never been a dictator of an Arabic-speaking state, perhaps you should make some effort to understand how they view the world differently without being brainwashed into thinking that way yourself.

I’ve developed all these ideas a lot more in my books, along with multiple examples and proofs, but the basic point should be clear: Realism does explain Middle East politics but it must be based on realistic assessments of the structure of societies, polities, ideologies, and regimes.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And since so much of the Middle East is a quagmire, you can imagine what happens next.

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