Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Middle East is a place where wishful thinking gets people killed but makes careers for politicians, diplomats, academics, and journalists

By Barry Rubin

The more things change, the more they remain the same, sayeth the French. The Bible states that there’s nothing new under the sun. Doing a television interview today made me reflect on the relationship of those concepts to the contemporary Middle East.

It is untrue of course that nothing changes in the region. Quite the contrary: consider the recent upheaval in Iran and a whole list of other events. In fact, there might be truth in the idea that big explosions in the region are more common than small, fundamental changes.

And yet people—today more than ever—yearn for change, especially in the West where “change” has become the most important cultural principle and the concept of tradition is the new curse word, heard far less often than the four-letter ones seeming to pepper every type of conversation, real –life or fictional.

It is an easy step from the wishful thinking for change to the assertion that change can happen if we only do such-and-such. This is certainly the trap that the U.S. administration is caught up in. While it is natural for a new government to believe it can accomplish everything—didn’t it say that its predecessors were numbskulls?—it is especially true for the Obama administration which used “change” as one of its keywords. And what does the other one, hope, mean? Why, to hope that things can change!

These reflections are prompted by a television interview I did today. There were three questions which follow a common pattern.

Question 1: Is there anything to the story in the London Sunday Times about the United States and Saudi Arabia talking of the possibility of Israel using Saudi airspace to hit Iranian nuclear installations?

Answer 1: Of course not! First of all, nothing in the Sunday Times about the Middle East ever comes true and it should never be used as a source. But if anyone involved in any way with Middle Eastern issues doesn’t understand why this particular story is such a ridiculous notion they should look for other employment.

Question 2: Is there anything to the story that the United States and Saudi Arabia are pressing Syria to demarcate its border with Lebanon so it is clear who the Shabaa Farms belong to?

Answer 2: Of course not! What should instead be highlighted is a scenario which tells you a huge amount about Middle East politics. Here is an accurate picture of the ridiculous situation:

Syrian clients in Lebanon—like Hizballah—are demanding that Israel turn over the Shabaa Farms as occupied Lebanese territory. Yet these groups’ own Syrian sponsor still claims that the territory is Syrian! Here we have an  example of obvious propaganda-making falsification. Not too obvious for lots of people in the West to be taken in, though.

And to put the icing on the baklava—to coin a phrase—even though the UN already determined that Israel had withdrawn from all of Lebanon—i.e., that the Shabaa Farms are not Syrian territory--the Obama administration, in its opposite-to-infinite wisdom called for reopening the issue.

Question 3: Is there anything to the story that Obama might visit Syria soon?

Answer 3: Of course not! In fact, a high-ranking State Department official already denied it. Even Obama wouldn’t visit Syria without getting something small from Damascus beforehand. For a while the Syrians believed, and the administration gave them reason to do so, that the Americans would give them everything they wanted in exchange for nothing. The Syrian regime still has illusions on this point though they’re becoming aware that they’re wrong and are starting to get angry about it.

Of course the administration is returning the U.S. ambassador to Damascus at a time when it probably nows that the Syrian regime was directly involved in murdering former Lebanese prime minister and a dozen other politicians, judges, or journalists there. Isn't this pretty shameful?

All these questions have in common a belief that things are going to break open. They betray the unspoken assumption that peace, or cooperation, or moderation is inevitably on its way.

I stressed, and do so again, that I’m not saying this kind of thing because I’m a knee-jerk naysayer. Rather, this conclusion is based on a detailed analysis of the region’s realities, on what makes regimes tick, their worldview, and on the outside and internal constraints they face.

There is no good antidote for this kind of wishful thinking discussed here, but there is a good anecdote. On a radio interview I heard a year ago, former Secretary of State James Baker was bragging that when he was a current secretary of state he persuaded the Syrians to close down the terrorist group offices in Damascus. He was using this as an example of how one could deal with the Syrian regime.

Good example; bad conclusion. In fact, twenty years later the offices are still open. Proper conclusion: You can’t deal successfully diplomatically with the Syrians.

That doesn’t mean they don’t keep agreements in their interest. They haven’t attacked Israel directly since 1973….Because they know they would get smashed. (So instead they attack through Lebanon.) And they were perfectly happy when the United States supported their control over Lebanon, especially since they didn’t have to do much in exchange.

I’ve just read a brilliant book by a writer who is possibly the best political philosopher in the Arab world. It’s a good bookm but an hour after finishing it I was hit by how depressing that experience was. The author has many good and accurate proposals for fixing these societies’ problems. His logic is irrefutable; he gives examples of how others have made these strategies work. He even shows how some of them have been applied in the past in these countries.

And then it hits you: how unlikely any of these things would be done in the next few decades.

This author well understands that the solutions are all long-term. Yet the yearning for quick fixes all too often leads to the belief that quick fixes are possible, which produces policies based on this assumption, which leads to people getting killed and countries being devastated.

Come to think of it, the same point applies to the utopia-through-violence approach of the Islamists and many Arab nationalists, too.

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here” was Dante’s text for the sign that stood over the gates of Hell.

Whether or not the Middle East is the region of this world that most closely resembles that region of the underworld, it is still good advice for journalists, would-be peacemakers, and diplomats who deal with the region.

Only the substitution of mature, accurate analysis for bumbling hope can ensure the Middle East doesn’t change for the worse and give some expectation of it changing for the better.

For those of a literary turn, here's the Cary translation, Canto 3, of Dante explaining the inscription :

"All hope abandon ye who enter here."

"Such characters in colour dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus [said]: ``Master [his guide, Virgil], these words import
Hard meaning." He as one prepar'd replied:
"Here thou must all distrust behind thee leave;
Here be vile fear extinguish'd. We are come
Where I have told thee we shall see the souls
To misery doom'd, who intellectual good
Have lost."

But why, why, my friends, were these particular people, referred to at the end of the passage (the first section of Hell Dante saw) doomed and have left behind all that is good in the human soul and spirit, according to Dante's work?

Because in the struggle between the two sides (in Heaven) they didn't choose between good and evil but only looked after what they--mistakenly--defined as their own interests!

How appropriate can you get considering how many leaders and nations say? Terrorism, the Iranian regime's suppression of democracy, the Syrian regime's murders in Lebanon, Hamas, Hizballah, antisemitism and intended genocide against Israel, radical Islamism, dictatorship, mistreatment of women. Not our problem!

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