Thursday, July 30, 2009

Conversations with Readers: Middle East dictators, Western comprehension, and the Iraq war

One advantage of new technology is it brings experts and readers together more closely. I often find that I get my best ideas when talking to readers and non-experts who ask interesting, basic questions and force a writer to express things clearly. Here’s a two-part interview with blogger James Biga which explores a number of interesting questions about the contemporary Middle East. I hope you find it interesting and useful.

James Biga: You always seem to be more positive about things. You always provide a "but if."

Barry Rubin: Most things in politics are more laid back, loose, and complex than they seem. It is easy to make a situation sound apocalyptic when it isn’t. I predicted for months that Netanyahu's trip to DC would go fine. It did. I predicted for months the Obama Administration won't bash Israel in a material way. It hasn't. When I forget about this principle—as in predicting the outcome of the Lebanese election, when in fact nothing much changed—I usually discover I should have remembered it.

After you've been dealing with the Middle East for many decades you realize that there is a Western misconception of imminent catastrophe—unless of course something is done, which nowadays means unilateral concessions. Yet in the 1950s, they believed that Nasser’s Egypt, pan-Arab radicalism, and Soviet influence was on the verge of seizing the region. In the 1960s it was neo-Marxist revolutionary groups. From the late 1970s, there were supposedly going to be a wave of Islamist revolutions emanating from Iran. And so on.

That doesn’t mean big events don’t happen—in the last 30 years one should count among them the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq war, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the rise and fall of the peace process, September 11, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example—but more rarely than we expect. And even then the world isn’t really transformed.

At the same time, though, we see the repetitive nature of mistaken assumptions about how international affairs work or what the Middle East is like which constantly mislead people. One example nowadays is the concept that force never achieves anything, so we get a progression like this:

Israel defeats Hamas in a military campaign
Hamas stops firing missiles
Western conclusion: Hamas is acting that way because it has become more moderate rather than it has been somewhat intimidated into changing its behavior, at least temporarily.

James: Treating the sniffles doesn't get rid of the flu.

Barry: Ah! But if you always have the flu you feel normal with it. That's an important point! In the West, they are used to what they think of as a perfectly stable society in which there is no risk, no violence, and no threats. But when you are used to a higher level of tension and difficulties, having problems seems more normal. This Western juxtaposition of saying things like: We must solve the Palestinian problem right now or the region will blow up has repeatedly been proven wrong.

But you are right. The idea, for example, that the goal of Western policy should be to bring down the Hamas regime is unthinkable in Europe and America. It is a terrorist, openly antisemtiic, and genocide-minded movement; it is a client of Iran trying to spread subversion and revolution; it is a huge barrier to any successful peace process; it is extremely oppressive to Palestinians in Gaza; and it is generally seeking to foment bloody armed conflict with Israel. Yet despite all that, the best that can be hoped for is a policy of isolation, and many Europeans seem eager to retreat  from even that posture.

Yet leave aside Israeli interests, does a policy of accepting a Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip accord with Western interests or any serious desire to have a successful Israel-Palestinian peace process? Definitely, no.
James: If someone such as me sees this, it has to be more than ideology that keeps this going. People like you write about this every day. What prevents people from actually stepping back, take in what is really going on, and then acting accordingly?

Barry: I would prefer the world to be different. There are answers to that question. First, many do see accurately and sometimes they even have the power to affect events. I also remember the phrase: In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and in the kingdom of the insane, the half-wit is hanged. The first part applies to establishment thinking; the second to those of us who try to explain things differently.

What are some of the factors involved, though, in the shortcomings of world view?

--Ideology. Certain things must be true and to hell with the facts.
--Mirror-imaging, there really isn’t any difference between the West and the Middle East.
--A good way to build a successful career is to tell people what they want to hear.
--Revolutionary romanticism.
--Some want to see the West destroyed and therefore deliberately subvert its interests while pretending to do the opposite.
--Some decide to support radical groups because that coincides with their ethnic, nationalist, or religio-political world view.
--Dissenting thought is dismissed between it is attributed to Zionism and American or Western imperialism.
--Mouthing certain ideas is a great way to make a lot of money.
--Short-term memory, forgetting the lessons of the relatively recent past repeatedly.

James: But these radical groups are power-hungry and in the end destroy themselves.

Barry: Yes, quite right. Though how long that takes, how much is destroyed, and how many die is the problem in that process. Consider Fatah, for example, it is now 50 years old. It has behind it a huge number of disasters and failures. In addition, the honest truth is that it is dominated to a large extent by thugs and thieves yet it—and the Palestinian Authority which embodies its influence—is the darling of the world. Money pours into their pockets and from thence to Swiss bank accounts.

Like so much that happens in the Middle East if it weren't so tragic it would be hysterically funny.

James: Arafat had billions in his bank account when he died.

Barry: Right. But also one cannot understand Arafat unless it is remembered that he wasn't interested in money. For him, money—as with Hafiz al-Asad, Saddam Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser, etc.--was a way to control others. He was interested in power. If the dictator is interested in money rather than power he's in trouble. But he used it because he knew everyone else's weakness.

James: These factors get all kinds of political leaders in trouble eventually.

Barry: Well, no, not necessarily.

James: How’s that?

Barry: If they are good at what they do and not blind. One shouldn’t just think of the Caligula type who goes crazy from these processes, or say an Idi Amin or a Bokassa.

James: If they are good then they have some ability to keep these characteristics in check

Barry: Precisely. Nasser, Assad, and others died in power, and Saddam could have also except for some unusual circumstances. I wrote a book about this called Modern Dictators.

James: Was the toppling of Saddam Hussein the right thing to do?

Barry: I don't know. That’s a very complex question and there are no easy answers. I never was an advocate of that war. In 2005 I wrote an article calling for withdrawal. Contrary to mythology, nobody in Israel was enthusiastic about this operation for a number of reasons, though of course when the U.S. government decided on it everyone had to go along. But people in Israel had no illusions that the United States would make Iraq into a peaceful, stable, democratic state.

The reason was that people in Israel who worked on the region knew too well how Arab polities and societies work. In addition, there was a belief at the time—which proved wrong--that Iraq might attack Israel. More correctly, there was concern that if the war went well, Israel would have to pay for it politically, and the same would happen if the war went poorly. I suppose that this is what’s happening now, because of the perception in Europe and America that the war was a mistake and went poorly.

One might say, to put it into a brief phrase, that Obama’s administration is to Iraq what Carter’s administration was to Vietnam.

James: If the US had fought this war in the same manner as, say, World War Two and fought for true victory instead would that have made it more palatable to American public opinion? America's fear of appearing colonial may have had a lot to do with how the war was fought and how it was handled afterwards.

Barry: One shouldn’t forget, though, the factor of Iraqi society, politics, and religion. You don’t win a victory over an Arab or Muslim or, perhaps more broadly, a Third World polity and then everything is fine ever after. If the basis isn’t there, one cannot create a moderate, democratic society which is going to be grateful to America for what it’s done. The German and Japanese post-World War Two model doesn’t work.

Look at Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Even there, one doesn’t find eternal gratitude for the fact that in 1991 the United States saved them from being crushed, raped, and ruined. The United States didn’t kill locals, didn’t inflict economic damage, didn’t try to change those societies, and didn’t stay very long and yet we see the results ranging from relative non-cooperation to Usama bin Ladin’s popularity.

So one can have success, one can greatly improve the situation, but victory is something else. This is part of the problem with a Western expectation of “solution” in which problems come to an end. So Israel can win meaningful successes, as in 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars, or the military successes that ended the two intifadas, or the leverage against Hizballah in 2006 and Hamas in January 2009, but the conflicts continue. And that is why some misperceive many of these events as either defeats or deadlocks. What is important, however, is that afterward Israelis can live their normal lives and the threats are reduced for some time.

But there won't be anyone on the other side who will say: We lost. Let's end the conflict. We want nice quiet lives and we won't bother you any more. Arab liberals have visited China or Japan and been astounded by the contrast. The Chinese say they suffered greatly under imperialism; the Japanese were hit by two nuclear weapons, but their attitude is: ok, that's history now. Let's move on, not bear grudges, and be constructive in avoiding violent conflict and building up our own countries. That's not the Middle Eastern approach.

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