Friday, July 31, 2009

Believe it or Not: Middle East leaders don't think like you; Policymakers make huge mistakes

People keep writing me along the following lines:

I read and respect your analysis but something in my gut tells me that....

Or, It simply isn't possible that administration officials so understand the nature of the|Middle East....

Or, They cannot possibly believe that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is within reach.....

Or, Would you really have us believe that this administration thinks (maybe by this point I should say "thought") that they could engage Iran successfully. (The Reagan administration thought the same thing, which shows this is not restricted to Democrats or the left.)

Let me stress that in political analysis what is important is not what you work out in your own head but what policymakers, dictators, revolutionary Islamists, and everyone else directly involved in action works out in their heads.

What is essential is evidence, not extrapolation from one's own thoughts and experiences.

And, yes, I have had hundreds of conversations in which powerful policymakers, officials, politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists have said the most absurd things about Middle Eastern politics. I won't get into any names but to provide just a few examples from Washington alone, these range from Carter-era people re certain that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was going to be a moderate, to Reagan-era officials who had no doubt they were going to open up a new detente with Iran, to Clinton-era people convinced that Yasir Arafat would make and keep a peace agreement with Israel, to Bush-era officials who explained to me how the invasion of Iraq would lead to a transformation of the region.

But not only Westerners make massive miscalculations. Let's restrict ourselves to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. He believed that Iran would crumble quickly in the face of an Iraqi invasion, that he would get away with seizing Kuwait and America would never attack, and then that he could continue (or pretend to continue?) his weapons' of mass destruction programs and not face a U.S. onslaught.

Here's just a couple of personal experiences. Imagine sitting in a high-level off-the-record U.S. government-sponsored conference in the 1980s and hearing the man billed as the Pentagon's leading expert on Israel predict a military coup is likely.

Imagine hearing a leading senator, a presidential candidate later billed as a possible secretary of state after the last election (no, he didn't get it) arguing that the main U.S. foreign policy theme should be an alliance with Moscow against the real threat, Peking.

Recall hearing another top senator explaining in 1991 that Saddam Hussein would certainly pull out of Kuwait because his advisors would tell him that the United States would invade and he would lose. (To which I responded that any such advisor would first have to make out his will, a factor discourging making such a revelation to Iraq's dictator.

Stand a few feet away from a supposed international affairs' expert--who would later become secretary of state--explain to a group of senators that President George Bush must be stopped from fighting Saddam in 1991 because the entire Arab world would rise up in rebellion.

I'll stop here but I could go on for many pages. And I know a lot of people--including readers of this blog--who would be happy to add their own similar experiences and anecdotes. (I invite them to send me some of their own personal favorites either for publication in disguised fashion or purely off the record.)

There are people, pseudo-experts, whose careers are prospering in Washington DC today because they claim that Syria can't wait to break with Iran and become America's friend, that Arab states are chomping at the bit to make peace with Israel but can't because of a lack of a freeze on settlement construction, that Hamas or Hizballah can be persuaded to moderate with a little kind treatment, and so on.

So to summarize, here are two all-important principles:

--Study what key officials and leaders think, do, and say, based on their ideology, experiences, and situations. Try to understand them in their own terms of reference, given the problems and opportunities they face, in the context of their beliefs no matter how they may clash with reality. If someone says to you: "If I were Yasir Arafat I'd...." then ignore everything which follows. What you think or would like to happen is unimportant. Imposing your own predetermined ideology on these matters is irrelevant and misleading. And you can't start at the end (we want Arab-Israeli peace) and then reason backward (so there must be something I can do to bring it speedily).

--Take into account that huge misperceptions and errors can be made by supposedly expert people. If they are arrogant and think they know everything, refusing to listen to others or modify their ideas, this is all the more likely. Powerful people are often extremely ignorant. It is Washington DC's biggest secret.

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