Thursday, July 2, 2009

Diplomatic Deportment Lessons from Saddam Hussein

By Barry Rubin

Every day we have evidence of how people think and politics function in the Middle East. There are, however, two particular malformations of thinking that inhibit Western understanding of the Middle East.

First, what is necessary is to understand the differences between those systems and world views and those of Western democratic states. Ironically, the biggest barrier to that knowledge are the empowered experts in academic, government, and the media who so often insist that there is any difference at all.

But, ironically, if the Saudi prince thinks exactly like the Swedish Social Democratic politician, or the Hamas chieftain looks at the world precisely in the same way as the Danish ambassador, what do we need experts for at all?

(This reminds me of a statement decades ago by a Jordanian monarch that he would govern his people as in Switzerland when his people behaved like the Swiss.)

Second, just because other people think differently—and we are aware of it—does not mean it is equally valid or that we should accept that perspective. The idea of “perceptions” is important: I need to know how others perceive the world—and consider that in evaluating their behavior, while asking if there is some validity in it that might shift my own view--without losing my own perception.

Many diplomats, academics, and journalists simply take on a new persona, in short becoming virtually identical in their views to those they are studying. The colonial British used to call this contemptuously, “going native” while the more contemporary, respectable phrase is “clientism.” (Sometimes, there is an exchange of cash or access that goes beyond the merely psychological motivation.)

Or, to put it more bluntly, the post-modernist, political correctness crowd is right in saying that everyone has their own narrative. What they fail to understand is that most of those narratives are wrong (in accurately describing reality).

[A digression:

How do we know this, merely due to our own personal prejudices and interests? No, because we honestly and sincerely examine our own views, compare them to the evidence, subject them to logic, employ experimentation where possible, seek out reliable sources, see if our concept has predictive power, defy or redefine our interests if necessary, and be willing to alter our thinking so it is accurate.

All those things that people used to do in those long-forgotten times when journalists sought balance and objectivity, universities were places for unfettered inquiry (real diversity rather than ideological hegemony described as such), and people were taught to understand and take price in being part of Western civilization. End of digression]

What is the difference between these two, often compatible and negative phenomena, I described above?

In effect, the first, more moderate concept says, for example: If they think you are aggressive imperialists maybe they have a point.

The second, more militant, asserts: They're right (or even, We're right). You are aggressive imperialists.

The bottom line amount to about the same thing.

These thoughts are prompted by reading the now available interrogation transcripts of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with his captors. Near the beginning, Saddam is asked to discuss his achievements and mistakes. After being expansive on the former point and trying to evade the latter one, he finally bursts out:

“Do you think I would tell my enemy if I made a mistake?”

Compare this with the Western propensity for admitting error—or having independent institutions which, rightly or wrongly, are eager to point out the mistakes of others. In the Obama era, it would seem as if the main job of the politician is to make apologies. Naturally, the apologies are usually not so much an admission of one’s own mistakes as they are throwing dirt on one’s country and predecessors.

Of course, admitting mistakes is an important element in democratic and Enlightenment intellectual life. It can be most effective for fixing what’s broken, righting what’s wrong. Saddam's refusal to admit errors (including to himself, not just his enemies) is part of the reason why dictatorships aren't the best form of governance.

Still, it should be used in moderation. One shouldn’t, to make a pun appropriate for Iraq, throw out the baby with the Baathwater, or should we say the Bushwater?

For Western politicians, a variation, or rather three, should be made to Saddam’s approach:

--Do not exaggerate or make up mistakes in order to appease enemies. Remember that those who hate you don’t give a Saddam for your apology.

--Understand that others see you through their cultural-historical prism. In a society where no one apologizes, apologies and concessions are seen as signs of weakness, insanity, or an admission that you are terribly evil.

--Finally, recognize the fact that in this world you—or at least your country, its people, and its values—do have enemies.

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