Thursday, September 10, 2009

How the West's Enemies Are Saving It

By Barry Rubin

When people are very pessimistic, I say to them: Don’t worry our enemies will save us.

By that I mean that the enemies of peace, progress, and democracy—Islamists and radical Arab nationalists, terrorists and silly people in the West alike—are so intransigent, obviously lying, and dangerously wrong about society that they will convince and force most people to reject and combat them.

Even when thrown lifelines, even when confronted with naiveté, they reject concessions, turn up their nose at compromise, go too far, and make their nonsense so illogical and apparent, as to either teach the naïve in political and intellectual power or persuade others push them aside in order to survive.

Today offers some examples of this idea:

The presidency of Barack Obama and the relatively soft stands of European states have given Iran a great opportunity. Tehran could have made a show of flexibility, a strong pretense about being cooperative, and met with Obama. This would have forestalled a higher level of Western sanctions, while Iran could still work secretly on nuclear weapons.

After all, even after a virtual coup by the most hardline faction, the stolen election, the strong repression, the show trials of dissidents, and the appointment of a wanted terrorist as defense minister [that’s a pretty amazing list, isn’t it?], the West was still willing to deal with the regime.

Instead, Iran produced an “offer” to negotiate so minimal that even the Europeans rejected it. While this doesn’t mean all is well—Russia and China will block and sabotage even moderate sanctions; the West Europeans will oppose really strong ones—at least Iran’s last-minute effort to derail the process altogether will fail.

Imagine what the Iranian regime could have done if the ruling establishment had let someone less extreme than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad get elected, then claimed this showed what a moderate and democratic state they were running. A charm offensive could have defused the nuclear controversy and the sanctions would have fallen away. Iran would have been set loose and a few years from now could have finished its nuclear program in a relaxed manner.

But no!

Turn to Lebanon. The Syrians were riding high. A new government was going to be set up in Lebanon with their clients have both thirty percent of the cabinet seats and veto power over all government policies. But when the March 14 coalition, which won the recent elections, presented its own list of ministers, the Syrians and their Hizballah allies rejected it: not subservient enough. March 14, which has been giving ground steadily, was pushed so hard that it dug in its heels and rejected the Syrian demands. The negotiations will now have to start all over again.

Syria could have gotten back around 80 percent of its former total power over Lebanon in one day, but that wasn’t enough for Damascus.

The same applies to U.S. attempts to engage Syria. The Obama Administration was eager for progress, but the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship would even give an inch to gain a yard. The talks have been frustrating for Washington. The Syrians weren’t willing even to deescalate the terrorism in Iraq for a while.

Syria could have gotten out from under U.S. sanctions, reestablished normal relations with Washington, and have the Obama Administration turn a blind eye to its sponsorship of terrorism and subversion throughout the region.

But no!

The same applies to Hamas. It tried a little to pretend to moderate and already Western suckers were swallowing the bait, but it couldn’t—and wouldn’t –sustain the pretense very long. It couldn’t resist going back to its super-hardline statements and actions.

But the Palestinian Authority (PA) offers an even clearer example. Imagine how much it could have obtained if it played along with the U.S. president’s eagerness to help. A show of flexibility, an eagerness to negotiate, and an effort to get a Palestinian state on something approaching reasonable terms real fast probably would have brought success.

Atmost, there could have been a Palestinian state within 18 months on pretty favorable terms for the Palestinians. Or should one say, at most the PA could easily—and I mean easily—engineered a U.S.-Israel conflict unseen in the history of the Jewish state. But from the start PA leader Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that he was asking for everything and giving nothing. His best chance is already past.

And similar things can be said about various Arab countries regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict specifically and also getting in good with the president.generally. They could have rushed to make minor, meaingless gestures toward Israel in exchange for U.S. support on their broader demands.

Can I have a “But no!”?

One more, historic example: Remember Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein? In late 1990 or early 1991 he could have cut a very favorable deal which would have left his country with part of Kuwait, billions of dollars, and the Saudis trembling at his every command. Instead, he refused any deal, kept his army in Kuwait, and suffered a military defeat.

He did the same in the 2000-2003 period when he could have made some kind of bargain for stopping his nuclear program in exchange for all sorts of concessions. Instead, he did the opposite: he pretended to keep up the program even when he cut it back.

It is very important to understand why this kind of thing happens repeatedly and, though ultimately disastrous for Saddam, usually works out pretty well for the dictators or the leaders of powerful opposition movements.

First, all these forces really are radical and extremist. They don’t want a deal; they want total victory, all the disputed land, total rule, complete dictatorship, the expulsion or extinction of their adversaries. And they can also rightly argue: these methods got me this far.

Second, they really believe their own propaganda. They think they can win and assume that those on the other side—whether Israel, the West, or other regimes they want to overthrow-- are weak and doomed. And, in turn, their enemies give them enough signals to this effect to make them continue to believe this is true.

Third, they are wedded to brutal methods. Terrorism is no accident; it is the tool of people who exult in deliberate violence against civilians. And in such political groups the gunmen and their values rise to the top.

Fourth, they are afraid of internal rivals and their own followers. They know that the people have been so conditioned by extremism as to reject moderates as traitors. This is obviously less true in Iranian but more true in Palestinian politics.

But the other part of this factor is even if a given leader, say from Hamas, wanted to follow a more moderate policy he knows that this would be used against him by rival leaders to destroy his power and maybe even kill him. They must continue to ride the tiger or be eaten. And the fact that they helped give birth to the tiger in the first place won’t save them.

Finally, this is the region’s political style, which to some extent mirrors Western history. Toughness counts; fear is better than popularity.

Many Western leaders and much of the Western intelligentsia are like someone sleeping through a burglary. But not only their friends are trying to wake them up, so are—however inadvertently—their enemies.

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 Reports.

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