Monday, August 3, 2009

Obama Middle East Policy: Clueless is an Understatement

By Barry Rubin

The best thing to read about Western Middle East policy is Richard Dowden writing about some of the anti-AIDS campaigns in Africa, in his book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. The difference is that in Africa there are also some good anti-AIDS campaigns, there are not great Western Middle East policies.

Dowden explains:

“It is these vital cultural perceptions that outsiders miss when they rush to save Africa from the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The bring with them quick, slick jingles and images thought up in…New York, London or Paris and try to impose them on…rural and shanty-town Africa. Often they do not even know they are imposing anything. They have no idea that they are in a different cultural world. When the results don’t work, they become frustrated and angry and start muttering about stupid Africans.”

That's precisely the point. The cultural and intellectual arrogance of ignoring the way local people think and act, what they want and say, substituting for it a made-in-London or Washington or Paris version. Note that the people doing this are consciously trying to adjust but do so in ridiculously stereotyped ways, like those in the Third World who think that America is all gangsters and car chases.

Well, there are some differences, of course, between the big mistakes made in Africa and those in the Middle East. The problems with the Middle East are not just cultural but also ideological, historical, and political, too. And when the results don’t work, they start muttering about stupid Israelis.

And the amazing thing is that they never learn. Here is President Obama’s Middle East envoy, as quoted in the New York Times:

“George J. Mitchell likes to remind people that he labored for 700 days before reaching the Good Friday accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland. So the fact that Mr. Mitchell has shuttled back and forth to the Middle East for the last 190 days without any breakthroughs, he said, does not mean that President Obama’s push for peace there is stalled.”

True, the length of time alone does not prove failure, though it can be an indication. For the record, U.S. policymakers have been working on Israeli-Palestinian peace since 1974 which is roughly 12,775 days. Moreover, there is the not unimportant detail that in Northern Ireland, both sides wanted peace while in the Middle East only Israel (along with the Egyptian and Jordanian governments) does.

You can keep doing the wrong thing as long as you like, the wise person starts to understand why it's wrong; the merely smart person simply recalls that tough tasks sometimes take a long time.

Oh, yes, and there’s that little thing about using political analysis to understand the motivations, goals, and limits in the policy of those involved in the conflict.

Mitchell explains:

“One of the public misimpressions is that it’s all been about settlements. It is completely inaccurate to portray this as, ‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.’ We are asking everybody to do things.”

Problem here: this has only been really true for about one month out of the six the administration has been in office, and even that came about only due to the obviousness of its failure. In addition, the administration wasn’t “asking” Israel to do things, it was ordering it.

He also says it isn’t true Arabs have refused to make any concessions. “We’ve gotten, over all, a very good response, a desire to act, some public statements to that effect from the crown prince of Bahrain, the president of Egypt,”

I think that totals about one op-ed piece. If I were him, I’d cite Jordan rather than Egypt, but the point is that those two countries aren’t the main problem.

But have no fear for we are coming to the main point. The White House is about to begin a public-relations’ campaign in the region. According to the New York Times:

“To better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement….”

My older readers might remember that the newspaper once offered to pay anyone who found a typo. Now it deals in obvious split infinitives along with splintered logic. Imagine the bizarre idea that what the region has lacked is the voice of Obama explaining things to them. What hubris! What chutzpah! What a joke.

To his credit, the Times reporter notes that there is “little evidence” of any Arab change regarding Israel and that the Saudis are being uncooperative. He also quotes government officials explaining the, “Trick…is persuading both sides to act simultaneously when each wants to see the other move first.”

No, there isn’t any trick. There is reality, all the bits left out. All the politics is simply not there for Obama Middle East policy, as if Arab states and societies had absolutely nothing keeping them from peace except some trick or encouragement needed. Substitute the word “democracy” for “peace” and you have everything wrong with Bush Middle East policy.

Almost everything the administration says about the Arab states is wrong. The fact is that relatively moderate Arab regimes believe very radical things and benefit by using the conflict for demagogic purposes. They fear the radicalization of their population, Iranian-Syrian aggression, and radical Islamist groups at home. They do not desperately need formal peace with Israel; Egypt and Jordan don’t need more normalization; Syria desperately needs the conflict to continue.

And, no, the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key to regional politics.

Then there are the Palestinians. Where does one begin? Hamas running the Gaza Strip and subverting the West Bank; the dominant radicalism in Fatah; the PA's corruption, incompetence, and lack of eagerness to make peace by the PA leadership, the fact that they haven’t even begun to prepare their people for compromise. Then there's the PA strategy--unintentionally encouraged by the Obama administration--do nothing, make no concession, and wait for the U.S. government to deliver to you Israel bound hand and foot.

Underlying all of this is the reality that the vast majority of Palestinian leaders and masses prefer trying to wipe Israel off the map to getting their own state.

The huge problem is that none of these factors—and many more which are listed—are taken into account by the Obama administration. It is assumed that Israeli-Palestinian peace is central, that everyone in the region wants it, and that it can be quickly achieved.

The administration’s Middle East policy is doomed to failure in the most incredibly obvious of ways. Six months, a year, two years from now will anything be learned by this or will the hot-shot, career-building hustlers merely conclude: We didn’t do enough, Israel didn’t make enough concessions, the shape of the table was wrong? All the usual excuses will be applied.

It is the equivalent logic of that in my favorite Peanuts cartoon, which goes roughly like this:

Lucy: "Look! A giant butterfly that's flown up here from Brazil!"

Linus: "That's not a butterfly. That's a potato chip."

Lucy: "I wonder how a potato chip got up here all the way from Brazil."

Nothing, nothing, nothing has been learned from all the experience accumulated in the region for decades. No deep thought has resulted from the failure of the 1990s’ peace process. Everything is superficial, tactical, on a quicksand basis. This is truly pathetic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.