Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Understanding What Governments Say: Two Case Studies, Israel and Peace; America and a Nuclear Iran

By Barry Rubin

How to analyze statements by governments is an important task. In doing so, we should focus on context and not force-read extraneous ideas based on conceptions of their ideological orientation.

An example of how not to do this task is the Western media coverage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's positions and the new Israeli peace plan. Assuming that Netanyahu is just a "hardliner" who "doesn't want" peace, there is a tendency to ignore what he actually says and does to the point of caricature.

First, Netanyahu was criticized when he didn't say he wanted a two-state solution. Then when he did, this was simply dismissed as bowing to U.S. pressure and insincere. Yet the context was that he would accept this option as long as Israel's requirements were met. He then laid this out quite clearly.

Let's take another example. Dan Meridor, Israel's minister for security agencies, told interviewers that a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implied a willingness to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.

What Clinton said was:

"We want Iran to calculate," that if it gets nuclear weapons, "the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region [and will] do even more to develop the military capacity of those (allies) in the Gulf, it is unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer."

In short, Meridor misunderstands Clinton; Clinton misunderstands the Middle East.

What was Clinton obviously saying? Iran, don't bother to develop nuclear weapons because even if you do you will be no better off. We will counter that move by U.S. actions.

Is she wrong? Yes, quite obviously so. Iran knows that it isn't going to launch nuclear weapons at, say, Saudi Arabia. Tehran will merely use possession of such weapons to intimidate Arab and European states into doing what it wants.

Moreover, Iran's popularity in the Muslim and Arab world among the masses would soar, as it would be seen as an Islamic superpower that is going to flatten Israel, defy the West, and defeat the United States.

And any Islamist regime in Tehran that would make an apocalyptic choice to use nuclear weapons on Israel--which is not so likely but chillingly possible--won't be deterred by a U.S. threat. After all, it knows that Israel already has nuclear weapons of its own.

For their part, Arab states will not feel so secure with a promised U.S. nuclear umbrella. It will be cold comfort on them if America strikes back at Iran after they are all dead. And would you trust your life to a promise by Barack Obama to go to war on your behalf? As or the idea that America will strengthen Gulf Arab allies to the point that they can defeat Iran or even defend themselves against Iran's nuclear arsenal is laughable.

Consequently, Arab states will rush to appease Tehran, and given America's self-inflicted weakness today who can blame them?

In other words, Clinton is flatly wrong, quite distant from realities that millions of people in the Middle East understand. But being dangerously mistaken is not the same thing as desiring something bad to occur.

Similarly, a State Department spokesman responded to a question at a press briefing asking whether the U.S. government was considering putting financial pressure on Israel to get it to stop construction, he responded, "It's premature to talk about that." This was not a major new U.S. threat, it was simply an official without guidance on what to say, simply answering: No one is talking about that now.

Then he added, "What we're trying to do...right now is to create an environment which makes it conducive for talks to go forward." But obviously U.S. sanctions on Israel would sabotage any such climate.

It is imperative to comprehend what a given government is actually saying.

If a government is acting on bad intentions--as the West often mistakenly thinks about Israel's leaders and many mistakenly think about the Obama administration--it is an enemy.

And if a government is making huge mistakes and misreading the situation--like the current U.S. administration but decidely not like Israel--it should be persuaded.

One also must watch as events show it to be wrong and point out the increasingly obvious gap between policy and reality.

The irony is that Israel's analysis is demonstrably in accord with reality, so much so that to argue otherwise requires ignoring such things as the last 15 years of history, the nature of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, the ideology and structure of Iran or Syria, and so on down a long list of items.

Good analysis, which should be followed by good policy, doesn't come from projecting motives or engaging in stereotypes but through real comprehension of what is going on.

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