Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Don't Western Elites and Governments Comprehend International Realities?

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By Barry Rubin

The question readers most often ask me is an extremely basic, vitally important one.

So how can we explain the world's second biggest problem today. The first is the flourishing of radical, often violent forces, committing aggression, making gains, increasing repression. The second is the refusal of all too much of the Western leadership and intelligentsia to notice that reality, then try to do something about it.

And so why does so much of the political and intellectual establishment in the United States and Europe fail to understand what's going on in the world? How do they not see that radical forces are enemies of their societies, not just misunderstood or mistreated potential friends? What prevents them from championing Western civilization's democratic, humanist, liberty-oriented, and free enterprise with reasonable government regulation system?

In short, why don’t they get it?

There are lots of answers, of course but even after one goes through the list the basic disconnect between reality, perception, and policy remains baffling. To see a society with such advantages and assets act as if it were intent on suicide, or at least with blind disregard for its survival, is a strange phenomenon. To view the stronger obsessed with making concessions, the more moral consumed with guilt, a blind inability to identify enemies who keep proclaiming their nature and intentions is just plain bizarre.

If I had to put it all in one sentence--admittedly a long, complex one--it would be this like this:

American and Western policymakers and intellectuals cannot believe or comprehend that so many would fight for bad causes out of ideological--nationalist, religious, traditionalist--worldviews, turning down material betterment in exchange for years of sacrifice, defeat, and suffering; engaging in a battle that a pragmatic assessment says they cannot win.

Much of the West has lost the ability to understand how a world view can be narrow and fantastical or, on the contrary, quite internally rational but merely designed to deal with a very different set of circumstances and society. You don't get to be the dictator of Venezuela or leader of al-Qaida or a powerful cleric in Iran by behaving and thinking like a Western democratic politician.

They don't understand what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tried to explain back in 1979: We didn't make the Iranian revolution to lower the price of watermelons. In other words, material deprivation doesn't motivate the revolution, and the goal is not higher living standards as the main priority. The goal is to manifest the divine will, to take over the world, to create a utopian society which invokes the absolute good against the absolute evil; to gain total victory because one is absolutely in the right.

In this political world, pragmatism is immoral compromise is treason. The situation is NOT one of business as usual.

Of course, one can find this kind of thing in Western history--including within living memory, fascism and Communism--but not today. What one does find today in Western society is insistence on an idea that renders people completely incapable of comprehension: the idea that everyone in the world thinks the same way and wants the same things.

How ironic: "multi-culturalism" denies the fact that some cultures are really very different. And Political Correctness fails to see that some politics see your well-intentioned humanitarianism and democratic values as so incorrect as to be punishable by death.

But if one shuts eyes to all of this, the remaining conclusion is that other people, groups, and countries only behave that way because they have been mistreated by the West. And the new situation—the West is very sorry and wants to make amends--hasn't been explained properly to them. There haven’t been enough apologies and self-criticism made; insufficient confidence built, not enough ingenious new plans laid and made; not enough concessions offered.

Since, too, this is the only right answer in a battle against imperialism, racism, and reactionary forces, it is the right--nay, the duty--for right-thinking journalists and professors, media and universities--to preach the good and censor plus censure the bad. Institutions thus stop doing their job of promoting debate, of questioning their own premises, as adjusting to facts or events, of ringing the alarm bell when the train is off the tracks.

Along with such an approach there is also one other indispensible element: to find a charismatic, sensitive, empathetic, Western leader (no prize for guessing who) capable of reaching out and persuading those who the “less astute” merely see as revolutionaries, terrorists, and dictators that there is no need for all of this strife. Conflicts can be settled amicably but only if we first repent and give, give, give.

Yet even when these efforts fail, as they have repeatedly, the cry goes up: Not enough! Throw in more concessions! Apologize more abjectly! Censor out the unpleasant facts as to the other side’s misdeeds and intransigence. Increase the confidence-building measures. Step up indoctrinating your people into believing that their country and system is the real problem. Down with us! Long live the other!

Is this too harsh an assessment? Well it must be, at least by its brevity and generalizations. But by how much is it excessive, and doesn’t it catch the real spirit of the problem?

Certainly, this isn’t just the result of bad ideas. Dealing with the dictators can bring good profits. It certain avoids confrontations, seems to eliminate the possibility of war, postpones crises, and makes people in the West feel good.

Then there are the punishments for those who point out these contradictions: name-calling, exclusion from powerful institutions and the glittering prizes, simply ignoring or censoring out the arguments.

And yet with each new stage, every rejection and act of aggression or intransigence from the enemies of democracy and freedom (it is revealing that merely to use a phrase like that would embarrass much of the West’s intelligentsia) it should be harder to conceal the reality that it is indeed the other side that's the problem.

Only a paradigm shift can suffice which is why specific events--the failure of the 1990s peace process, September 11 being two of the main ones--can shake people out of their cocoon of preconceptions and knee-jerk responses. The mere accumulation of failure, of cognitive dissidence will shake people up and wake people up. The pendulum will swing back.

Perhaps that is what’s happening step by step. Would that it would be happening faster!

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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