Monday, August 24, 2009

The Trouble with Washington: The Middle East Doesn’t Exist Solely in Their Minds

By Barry Rubin
                                                                                                    Washington, DC

It is hard to convey the enormous gap between Middle East reality and Washington thinking. To try to explain here what things are actually like in the region is to invite ridicule. People in the Nation's Capital—even if they don’t read regional languages or follow events really closely—are convinced they know everything. This is an old Washington phenomenon which has over the years been applied to many issues and often ended in failure or even disaster.

As a very successful lobbyist told me, “An idea in Washington is something you can express between floors on an elevator.”

And so such people—I won’t mention names but you can see it in the media as well as hear it in conversation—believe that President Barrack Obama’s approach is really great. (Come to think of it, this is where his advisors get it from in the first place and turn it into policy.) He would appeal over the heads of leaders to the people and the masses would say: “No more settlements! Peace with Israel! Two-state solution! Why didn’t we ever think of that?”

The more I hear, the more I’m reminded of how much this resembles the Bush administration’s shortcomings in this regard. It was going to show the benefits of democracy and, voila, the region would embrace it. Centuries of political culture, decades of ideology, the structure of dictatorial regimes will all melt as fast as a frozen dessert in an expensive K Street restaurant.

In turn, this mentality recycles basic elements of American elite political culture which seem to exist across the spectrum of partisan commitment and ideology:

--If history doesn't matter to us, why should it matter to them?

--If we've abandoned religion can they really take it serously?

--If war is always foolish and there's nothing worth dying for, they must be desperate for peace.

--If all that matters is material possessions and a nice life-style, let's give them that and they'll leave us alone.

And so on.

More than a half-century ago, a Republican senator from Kansas uttered the much-ridiculed line that the United States would help raise Asia up and up until it reached the level of Kansas City. That basic notion persists, though in contemporary administration parlance it would be Cambridge, Massachusetts or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or the appropriate neighborhood in Los Angeles.

But don’t Obama and his crew believe in the celebration of differences, cultural relativity, and different strokes for different folks, all is equally valid?

Well, not really. It’s very superficial. Yes, you have the right to your forcing hijabs on women, religion, and world view. But suicide bombing is merely a career choice for those who have nothing better to do. Underneath everything all people are exactly the same, aren’t they? They all want a nice home, a good education for their kids, a chicken in the pot, and a car or two in the garage.

What multiculturalism gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. To stretch the point a bit but to convey the reality better, according to prevailing doctrine:

--If you suggest that everyone should think the same because there are universal values, that’s “racist.”

--But if you suggest that people in different parts of the world are profoundly different, that’s also “racist.”

--And if you suggest that you honestly believe your own culture is superior, that’s also…"racist.”

--If, however, you suggest that someone else’s anti-democratic, ideologically extreme, less-coinciding-----with-reality, more stagnant society or culture is superior to that of the West, that’s…really terrific.

--And if you can figure out a good way to assume they are precisely like you, want to be even more so (because after all isn't your society the epitome of everything anyone must want), and help them to do so, that's foreign policy. High-five!

Make no mistake: that sense of superiority to all the rubes out in the world’s sticks (old American slang for suburbs and small towns) is still very much there.

[Brief digression: I grew up here and know this first-hand: They have equal contempt for all those outside Washington and a few other enclaves. And the worst snobs are those who come from flyover-land and intend never to go back there. Sometimes, as with Obama's famous speech dissing small-town people as a bunch of biased gun-lovers who actually believe there's a deity--the saps--that basic loathing slips out.]

Here’s how it manifests itself in foreign policy: the belief that we can make you an offer too good to refuse. We can persuade you to do what we want by offering you so much, by showing you where you went wrong. Because we are smarter than you, more advanced, and not caught up in your stupid little details of meaningless petty quarrels. If you get a degree in it, they call that "conflict management."

To truly understand this mentality, consider how in the film “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” the deepest desire of the master terrorist (from Hizballah?) is to own a chain of fast food restaurants. The mental message is: We respect you and your culture! But of course we know you really want to be like us.

From popular culture we go to administration terrorism advisor—talk about a charlatan—John Brennan who explains that Hizballah (and probably Hamas when he isn’t speaking in public) can’t be terrorists because they are in politics and some of them are even lawyers.

They don’t really mean it, you see, and are just behaving that way because they are enraged, haven’t been treated right, or haven’t been offered enough. Since Washington political culture isn’t too much into history, all the past events disproving this thesis are neglected.

For people in this world, like Brennan, an intransigent radical Islamist who believes that he knows precisely what the deity wants and will impose it on the world with automatic weapons is simply someone who hasn’t met him yet.

Nothing is more amusing than watching people in the inside-the-Beltway elite either predict the imminent success of Obama’s Middle East program or, among those who are brighter, now start to be puzzled about why it isn’t working.

I can think of no better way to end than with a joke that perfectly illustrates this mentality. It is most often told about Henry Kissinger, but having seen Kissinger in operation first-hand he’s one of the people who succeeded in Washington who least deserves it. I’ll leave the details on that for another time but I will tell the joke in a generic fashion:

A backpacking student and a high-level foreign policymaker are on a small plane. The plane develops engine trouble and the pilot says: “I’m sorry but there are only two parachutes and one of them is mine.”

The policymaker says, “Well, since I’m the only one capable of making Middle East peace I’m too valuable to the world to lose, so I’m taking the other one.” With that, he grabs a pack and leaps from the plane.

“I’m sorry, son,” says the pilot, “but I guess you’re sunk.”

“Don’t worry about me. There’s still a parachute left. The world’s greatest policymaker just leaped out of the plane holding my backpack. “

Yep, that about sums it up.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Report.

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