Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Understanding the Middle East: Me, You, The Scorpion, The Frog, and Barack Obama

By Barry Rubin

There’s a little fable that’s often used to explain the Middle East. You’ve probably heard it but for those of you who haven’t I’ll tell it briefly and then analyze it in detail to explain better about this most perplexing yet highly important part of the world.

First, the story:

One day, a frog and a scorpion are standing by the river bank. They both want to get across to the other side. The frog can swim; the scorpion can’t. So the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across.

“But,” protests the frog, “if I let you on my back you’ll sting me!”

“Don’t worry,” answers the scorpion. “Why would I do that since if I sting you I’ll drown?”

This makes sense to the frog. He lets the scorpion climb aboard, jumps into the water, and starts swimming. In the middle of the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, paralyzing him. And as they sink down into the depth, the frog speaks his last words: “Why did you do that! Now we’ll both die!”

The scorpion shrugs his carapace and says, “Oh well, after all this is the Middle East. Glub. Glub. Gl….”

What I’ve never liked about this story is that the scorpion’s action seems to be irrational and is clearly suicidal. But what if the scorpion has good reason for acting as he does and isn’t just committing suicide? I’ll come back to this point in a few sentences.

Before that, though, let’s consider some scenarios.

Scenario One: The nice, pragmatic scorpion.

Assume a rational Western policymaker who thinks that everyone in the world thinks and acts pretty much the same because they have the same goals. In his other experiences handling domestic issues or with friendly foreign powers, he knows that if you make concessions to reach a deal, the other side will do so as well. Everybody seeks to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.

Or, in Obama’s words: "I'm not interested in victory. I'm interested in resolving the problem."
So in that sense, the frog is dealing with a ”scorpion” he can trust—say Canada, Britain, Israel, Colombia, Botswana, or Japan.

Scorpion and frog want to get to other side, scorpion and frog cooperate (the scorpion will even put his claws into the water and paddle since he’s interested in success), problem solved.

Scenario Two: The nasty but rational scorpion.

But the policymaker isn’t so naïve. He knows there are some real differences, but he chalks these down to misunderstandings. Perhaps previous frogs haven’t treated the scorpion properly. If he apologizes and shows he’s a different kind of frog than the scorpion won’t sting him but will be one over by his charm and willingness to compromise.

So he makes a speech: Scorpions have a long and proud history. Frogs have often been arrogant in their treatment of scorpions. Let’s be friends.

To make this mistake, you don’t have to assume blindly good will on the scorpion’s side. You will give more than the scorpion in terms of concessions but in the end the scorpion will give something because it has an interest in making the arrangement work.

So the frog jumps in with the scorpion on its back, the scorpion lets the frog do all the work, demands refreshments, and doesn’t say “thank you” at the end. But at least it doesn’t sting the scorpion. The other bank is reached; peace and quiet is achieved.

Perhaps this can be said to characterize places like Egypt, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia. They put a higher value on getting along but will give the absolute minimum in exchange no matter how much they get from America and Europe.

Scenario Three: The Radical Frog-Hating Scorpion That Wants to Rule the Habitat

Here is where our problem is today. Briefly, the radical scorpions of the world—which include in alphabetical order: Cuba, Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, North Korea, the Palestinian Authority, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and some others that could be mentioned don’t want to compromise and be friends.

Unlike the pragmatic scorpion, they won’t give a lot; unlike the nasty but pragmatic scorpion, they won’t give a little. They will take everything they can get and give nothing in return.

Does this make them irrational? No, because if they believe they can win by this strategy then it is quite a rational one to follow. And if you give them reason to think you are weak, stupid, naïve, or sympathetic enough to give them everything in exchange for nothing then you have persuaded them of that fact.

But now I have to redeem my promise about explaining why the scorpion isn’t committing suicide. In effect, answering this question has been one of my main efforts for 30 years now.
Briefly, the scorpion has good reason to think he is more likely to die if he doesn’t sting the frog.

Let’s put it this way: the scorpion stings the frog, the frog dies but becomes like a boat that the scorpion can use to stay afloat and to paddle wherever he wants. By using his stinger, the scorpion improves his situation.

Or to elucidate:
--Radical regimes use anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israel doctrine and conflicts as rationales for their many failures. Support your dictator; don’t complain about low living standards or lack of freedom because I’m saving you from the imperialist-Zionist-infidel plots against you.

--By stinging, radical regimes show how tough they are, thus pleasing and intimidating their own people and outdoing their rivals at home and competitors abroad.

--Not stinging is more dangerous than stinging. After all, if radical dictators had good relations with the Western democracies they could more easily influence the dictatorship’s society by opening up its economy and society more. The dictator will forego benefits in order to sustain his rule.

--They believe in their ideology. The scorpion must sting or he isn’t a scorpion. Iran’s leaders really believe what they say, as did Saddam Hussein or Yasir Arafat or Fidel Castro. Down with the frogs! Long live the scorpions!

--Finally, these regimes are ambitious. They want to rule their region and know that the West truly is an adversary. It isn’t a friend to be hugged or a limited rival with which you make a deal after tough bargaining, but rather an enemy to be defeated.

So it doesn’t matter whether Obama wears an “I love Scorpions” T-shirt, or speaks at the Scorpions’ Club (I mean the UN), or apologizes for previous frogs croaking too loud.

To the scorpions of the world, though, he's making America look like a plate of frogs’ legs.

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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