Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Can’t Western Policymakers Believe There are Actual Revolutionaries in the World?

By Barry Rubin

A reader sent me an article asking me if it made me feel like laughing or crying. Neither. I just gasped in amazement. Studying the Middle East isn’t really a matter of being a Democrat or Republican; liberal or conservative; “pro-Israel” or “pro-Arab.” It should be based on the simplest possible common sense, along with a basic knowledge of the situation under discussion.

But nowadays it is as if nothing can be too bizarre to say as long as it is based on wishful thinking and mirror-imaging. Often, it seems as if the most elementary rules of human conduct and international affairs are forgotten by those who claim to be experts and, much worse, those who have positions to direct national policies and preserve or put at risk millions of lives.

Consider Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Disarming Hizballah: Advancing Regional Stability,” for Foreign Affairs. These gentlemen have good reputations and are not ideologues. One is at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the other is a professor at the Naval War College. Perhaps the problem is that they are experts on "terrorism" but don't really understand Middle East politics. They do acknowledge that Hizballah is gaining power in Lebanon and is a threat to Israel, but despite these successes they think it is on the verge of becoming moderate. Why? I have no idea and don’t see any evidence presented in the article.

Nevertheless they maintain, “Hezbollah, like the IRA 15 years ago, may be ready to shift more decisively into the political realm.” According to a RAND study, we are told, “Hezbollah was distancing itself from Iranian patronage in order to increase its domestic legitimacy among parties that have viewed it as Tehran's lackey. ....Some of Hezbollah's leaders might see a move toward demilitarization as a new avenue for increasing the group's appeal and bolstering its credibility as a party. Contact with Hezbollah would have to exploit this impulse to be useful.”

Let’s consider what’s being said here. Despite its radical Islamist ideology, despite the fact that it has been advancing steadily in power, despite the fact that it depends on Iran for money and weapons, despite its tight organic links to Tehran, Hizballah is supposedly distancing itself from the Islamic republic.

Why? Because this supposedly will make more voters support them. Hello? This is Lebanon. Hizballah’s supporters are Shia Muslims. They know they won’t win over Christians, Sunnis, and Druze by posing as more independent. The Lebanese non-Shia, who haven’t the benefit of advanced academic degrees, know they can’t trust Hizballah, and Hizballah knows it as well.

Moreover, Hizballah’s leaders know that their political power depends on their militia’s strength. The idea that they believe demilitarization is a good idea because it will bolster the group’s credibility is awesomely ridiculous.

To make matters far worse, the prescription offered is that the Obama administration should start official contacts with Hizballah with the aim of moderating that group. If the U.S. government can succeed in deciding Hizballah to throw away its arms (remember, this is the Middle East we are talking about), the authors say, then everything will be just great. The chance of war with Israel will be lowered, there will be peace within Lebanon, the lion will lay down with the lamb, and by the way I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

Oh, and as is usual in such cases the bait is for Israel to make more concessions by turning over some territory to Lebanon (the Shabaa Farms) and limiting any responses it makes to attacks on itself.

Another article in Foreign Affairs is introduced with this summary: “Washington's only option is to confront Hezbollah indirectly: by getting its backers, Syria and Iran, to help change its focus from militancy to politics.”

But why should Damascus and Tehran abandon a trusted, successful ally for Western promises? And why should Hizballah change its focus from militancy to politics? Can’t one do both at the same time?

Every day Iran and Syria make statements about their solidarity and tighten their relations through actions overt and covert. Virtually every day Hizballah leaders praise and pledge allegiance to Tehran, receives weapons and money from Iran and Syria, while also deriving benefits in Lebanese politics from its military power. How can dozens of Western analysts simply leave all this out to prefer their own personal interpretations of what these forces “really” want?

These kinds of ideas, produced by well-paid, highly credentialed and honored “experts” are just nuts, showing absolutely no comprehension of the situation. It is even more daunting coming from people who are mainstream foreign policy thinkers one would expect to know better.

And the same kind of thinking is going on in the United States and Western countries about Iran, Syria, the Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban, Afghanistan, Hamas, Venezuela, North Korea, and lots of other issues.

A large part of the problem is a disbelief in the possibility that one would want to remain radical; or that militancy can co-exist with running for office and having a political party. But why is this so hard to understand?

Thank goodness for al-Qaida, giving us at least one group in the world that Western intellectuals and policymakers don’t think they can win over by sympathy, conversation, and concessions.

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