Monday, October 12, 2009

Middle East: Things Look Catastrophic but It Will Work Out, Why I'm Optimistic

By Barry Rubin

Every day dreadful things happen in the Middle East and in the echoes of that region—diplomacy, news coverage—in the West. Yet things are by no means as bad as they seem. Precisely because a lot of what happens simply doesn’t reflect reality, ultimately the material effect is minimized.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," warned Edmund Burke. But even when those who should be the defenders of liberty spend their time coddling and apologizing to evil, that still doesn’t mean it’s home free.

Let’s examine two aspects of the situation: Israel-Palestinian (and Arab-Israeli) along with the effort of Islamists to seize power in Muslim majority countries. By the way, it is the second—not the first—of those two topics is by far the most important in the Middle East, arguably the most important issue for our entire era. Then we'll say a few words about President Barack Obama's learning opportunity.


Despite all the sound and fury—note this well—absolutely nothing has changed on this issue since the end of the Gaza war in January. The Palestinian side is intransigent and has no interest in serious negotiations, therefore these go nowhere. Hamas has been intimidated into virtually stopping its attacks on Israel. (Note to Western leaders: force still works at achieving reasonable goals.) Israel’s morale and national unity is relatively high; the economy continues to do well, especially in light of the international recession.

A potential crisis in U.S.-Israel relations has been brilliantly defused by the Israeli government. The Obama Administration has still not taken—despite a lot of questionable verbiage—any material step against Israel. The West wants to pretend it is negotiating peace but won’t devote much real effort to doing so.

Therefore, all this talk of freezing construction, final status negotiations, Western pressure, Palestinian threats, and so on has amounted to absolutely nothing in practice.

What is the long-term prospect? On one hand, there will be decades more—an entire generation at least—without formal peace. Yet that doesn’t mean war either but rather a status quo punctuated by sporadic low- to medium-level violence. The biggest danger, a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, has been pushed back. Israel’s defensive capacity grows steadily stronger. Life will go on.

Again, please note that there is possibly no issue in the world which generates as much media coverage, academic publication and debate, peace plans and conferences, and Western officials’ speeches as the Israel-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict. And yet nothing really changes. Keep that in mind every day.

Islamists Seizing Power

Islamist governments now rule in Iran, the Gaza Strip, and to some extent in Sudan. In every other country (including Israel) of the region (including Central Asia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), radical Islamists pose the main real opposition to the status quo. They make propaganda, sometimes run in election, and carry out violence. With every ounce of energy and a great deal of innovation, they are trying to seize state power.

Will they succeed and if so where? Are they really the wave of the future?

While the Islamists have a lot going for them, they also face many problems. First, don’t underestimate the incumbent regimes. Arab nationalism still appeals to a majority of Arabic-speakers. The rulers have lots of resources at their command, including money and repressive power. The Islamists are not poised to take power in any country, while basically they have not—despite the spilling of so much blood--taken over any state since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago.

The Islamists are often divided. While they have definitely picked up ground, they are still saying and doing many things which most Muslims deem to contradict their normative, traditional Islam.

And the Islamists also make a lot of mistakes.

Within their own countries, confessional differences among Muslims often matter a great deal. In Lebanon, for example, Shia Islamists led by Hizballah have unnecessarily antagonized Sunni Muslims, while in Iraq the revolutionary Sunni Islamists are rejected by the majority Shia Muslim Arabs and ethnic Kurds. In North Africa, the large ethnic Berber minority opposes Islamism.

At home and internationally, the intransigence of radical regimes (Iran, Syria, and Hamas) and movements alienates potential allies. By making such huge demands and refusing to make small concessions to make big gains they throw away opportunities and virtually force the West to confront them despite the preference of many Western leaders for appeasement. Similarly, the constant aggression and insults pushes Western public opinion to reject concessions or surrenders.

Nor can the Middle Eastern dictatorships, whether Islamist or nationalist, defeat the West or Israel. Their treatment of women (there are variations) as second-class citizens deprives them of half their potential talent. They lose out on the advantages which democracy brings to development. The centralization used to preserve the dictators’ power inhibits prosperity. In the longer-term, the oil-producing countries will run out of petroleum and the rest of the world might even develop alternative and more efficient energy use.

“Commerce,” wrote Winston Churchill of the Sudan in 1898, doubting that country would ever be a success, “is a plant of slow growth even in the most generous soils. And it never grows more slowly than when the unwise husbandman has tried to fertilize with corpses.”

Then, too, there is the endless bickering and conflicts that sap their strength. Where Westerners see such unified categories as “Arab” or “Muslim” there are really many different communities, sects, ideologies, and factions competing for power. These include such deep-seated conflicts as Persian versus Arab, Sunni versus Shia, and the rival ambitions of the various dictators and states.

U.S. Policy

Something very big--but totally predictable--is starting to happen: the Palestinians and no doubt soon a lot of the Arab world is turning against Obama. He will find shortly that unless he gives everything and asks nothing they will soon be calling him another Bush.

Their grievances are: He hasn't (or hasn't gone far enough) in dumping Israel; he didn't threaten or punish Israel for not doing a complete freeze of construction on settlements, he forced Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to appear with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN photo opportunity he set up, he pressed the Palestinian Authority not to take the lead on pushing Goldstone.

The fact that Obama is perceived as weak doesn't help him any.

Cairo speech, UN speech, distancing from Israel, engaging radicals? All these things will get him nowhere. Help him on Iran? Well they weren't going to do that any way. The hostility is partly due, of course, to the interests of the Arab rulers, partly to the radicalism of the opinionmakers there; partly to the Islamists who always outbid their incumbent rivals and need anti-Americanism as one of their main tools to stir passions.

This is how the Middle East works. It is totally predictable. But in most of the mass media, academia, and in Western governments (especially the Obama Administration) they have absolutely no idea. They basically accept the concept that if you are nice enough, give enough, and bash Israel enough, the Arabic-speaking political forces--and maybe even Iran--will love you and be nice to you, or at least leave you alone.

When this proves wrong, as it does periodically (1990-1991, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; 2000, failure of Camp David followed by September 11) there is a period of comprehension when policies get better. Might this be a stage coming next year?

All the silly articles in Western newspapers, wrong-headed speeches by Western leaders, threats of mass murder by Islamist clerics, and all the other things that could be added to this list changes the material realities of the Middle East. Or, to use a supposed Arab saying, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

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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