Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What’s the Difference between Middle East and Western Politics? The Race to Moderation versus The Race to Militancy

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By Barry Rubin

In a democratic country, where politicians need to gain the majority of votes, to win an election requires convincing  voters that you are not too extreme. It’s ok to talk about hope and change and reform, but generally speaking the citizens will support a candidate who convinces them he will create some combination of stability and material benefits.

In Middle Eastern dictatorships, and even if there are elections it is the regime’s power which determines the outcome, things are different. Demagoguery and ideology comes from Arab nationalist (or Islamist in Iran and the Gaza Strip) rulers as well as from Islamist oppositions.

In this narrow spectrum ruled by hardline nationalism and religious passions, you are either a hero or a traitor. Militants are heroes; moderates are traitors. And material benefits just aren't important. The virtues are honor and steadfastness, defending Islam and Arabism, resistance to the forces of evil.

Sure, the regime gives material benefits to its elite cadre of supporters but these governments don't mobilize support by promising a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and better health care. And any way the resistance to the forces of imperialism, Zionism, and the infidel come first. No voice, as the Arab saying goes, can be allowed to rise above the din of battle.

Alas, how Middle East politics works! And so if you do something that can be portrayed as moderate--even as a cynical maneuver to benefit your own side--rivals will use this to portray you as a traitor. Western observers often write as if people are afraid to speak out lest they be killed. In leading circles however, the more immediate fear is to have your reputation ruined and to be cast out of power.

Imagine for the moment that Syria were to make peace with Israel in exchange for all the Golan Heights. Within days, two-thirds of the population would be demanding a peace divident in terms of more freedom and democracy, threatening the regime's survival. And another two-thirds would be denouncing the rulers as traitors who any way aren't proper Muslims who should be overthrown. A lot of people would be doing both at the same time. The dictatorship's survival would be put in question.

Instead, the Syrian regime thunders about resistance and not surrendering one inch. It supports Hizballah and Hamas and the Iraqi insurgency to kill people. Naturally, the economy is in the dumps. But the regime is wildly popular at home.

Naturally, this inhibits moderation and provokes a race in which everyone tries to prove how militant they are.

This common tactic in Arab politics can also be seen in Iran. The opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi says that the Iranian regime is selling out by talking with the Americans. He criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as being too soft on the United States because he expressed “readiness for dialogue” and met personally with non-governmental Americans.

Karroubi said:

"If one-tenth of such a meeting happened at the time of all past government, Islamists would have come onto the streets...to protest the government….National interests should be observed. The national interest is not a matter that different governments can change."

And who’s the enemy here? President Barack Obama, the man who has bent over double-backwards to make Tehran want to engage with him. The problem is not who the American president is but the needs of radical dictatorial regimes in the Middle East

So if Karroubi came to power he’d have to build nuclear weapons and follow anti-American policies because he defines these things to be in the national interest of Iran, and certainly in the regime’s interest, and most certainly of all in his own political interest to stave off accusations that he was too moderate.

The same thing applies to Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas. Even after the United States and Israel announce that Israeli construction will be frozen, Abbas must insist that he can’t even talk to Israel unless not a single cinder block is laid atop another one. He also says that he will hold new elections next January but won’t run in them.

First of all, there won’t be new elections because his Fatah movement will never get a deal with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and maybe also because Fatah’s afraid it won’t win.

Second, Abbas is trying to use this threat as leverage on the United States to get more. Let’s remember the situation: President Barack Obama wants direct Israel-PA talks and Abbas refuses. Obama made a deal with Israel on freezing construction on settlements, Abbas rejects it.

Once again, this is the farce played out in which everyone pretends Abbas is serious, while Washington pretends that it can get some real cooperation from the PA

But what is triggering Abbas’s action most immediately is the cries of betrayal when he agreed with Obama’s request that the PA not take the lead in pushing the Goldstone report in the UN. Everyone knew that it would pass and that all the Arab and Muslim-majority regimes would support it. Yet Washington wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having one of the two parties it is trying to get to the negotiating table call the other one a bestial war criminal that should be lynched.

Abbas went along for about 48 hours but there was an uproar in Fatah. Why? Because everyone was scoring points by proving they were more militant than Abbas. So Abbas did a turnaround. That wasn’t enough so then he helped provoke riots on the Temple Mount and now is doing this resignation farce.

This is one of the main reasons why the region is caught in a vicious circle from which Arab governments and Iran don’t escape.

Equally, that’s why when Obama asks Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt to make some small concession so he can get a construction on settlements freeze from Israel they turned him down flat.

And that’s why no amount of apology, flattery, or concessions from the United States will moderate radicals or make moderates more outspoken and ready to compromise.

Western politicians generally don't want to face this reality. Instead, they even defend their adversaries' behavior (as the alternative would be to have to confront them.)

Thus, Obama claims, with no conceivable justification, that getting a deal on nuclear weapons, "is going to take time, and part of the challenge that we face is that neither North Korea nor Iran seem to be settled enough politically to make quick decisions on these issues."

No, the problem is the precise opposite: they have already decided they won't make a deal. One reason for this is that they are all to "settled enough" politically and can ignore any argument that they would be better off if they made a compromise agreement. Another reason is that they want to remain "settled enough" and realize that an agreement to make peace with Israel or dispense with nuclear weapons would leave them worse off.

And when the inexperienced president says things like this, he doesn't understand that he is signalling Iran to stall for an even longer time while it rushes to get nuclear weapons. In other words, Obama is playing right into Iran's hands and sabotaging his own efforts. Sure, he can pretend he's making progress now but what's he going to do in six months?

Or consider Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who is generally more realistic, explaining:

"It is not in Iran's interest to have a nuclear arms race in the Gulf, where they would be less secure than they are today. It is not in Iran's interest, to the Iranian people's interest, to be subjected to very onerous sanctions."

Sure, but it is in Iran's interest if Tehran believes that having nuclear weapons will raise Islamic fervor and Iranian patriotism at home while intimidating Arab and Western states into appeasing Tehran. It is in Iran's interest if it believes--and in listening to Obama how could it help but believe?--that "very onerous sanctions" are just a bluff and the president is desperate to avoid using them.

These administration arguments are bogus. Most people in the Middle East--whether Arab, Iranian, or Israeli--can see through them easily. The U.S. and European leaders simply miscompehend the Middle East because they keep seeing it in terms of their own world view and behavior.

Here's the real answer: Arab and Iranian politicians put their own survival above making Obama happy every time. If they can use a show of militancy and intransigence, it is all the better for them. And if they can get away with it and not incur any cost from U.S. criticism, punishment, or pressure, then that is an extra incentive to bash U.S. interests and reject peace with Israel.

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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