Thursday, February 18, 2010

How Naïve Westerners Exaggerate Middle Eastern Moderation: Today’s Example

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By Barry Rubin

How does a leading sponsor of terrorism cease being a sponsor of terrorism? By stopping the encouragement, organization, funding, logistical backing, and even ordering of terrorist attacks? No. By being given a free pass by its would-be victim who doesn’t see what is going on under its own nose—literally.

Consider U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Burns. He was in Damascus to reestablish U.S. relations with Syria. Syria has paid nothing for its past involvement in terrorism. It is still backing terrorist attacks to kill Americans in Iraq. True, the U.S. government hopes that it will talk Syria out of this behavior. But that won’t happen, especially since it isn’t willing to threaten Syria when such attacks do occur.

Indeed, as Reuters reports, “Washington has muted its criticism of Syria's authoritarian system.” Needless to say, Damascus has not muted its criticism of the United States, and will never do so.

Burns gives a press conference in which he says that he “is under no illusions of the challenges ahead” but that his “meeting with President Assad has made me optimistic."

If you look at the video of the press conference you will see that one microphone on the right side is larger than the others and is placed by the Syrians above them, practically thrust into Burns’ face. It is the microphone of al-Manar, the Hizballah television station, famous for its anti-American diatribes and calls to kill Israelis.

As a close observer of Syria puts it: “I don't think that the al-Manar microphone was placed there by accident. It seems to me that there's a message being sent. The Middle East runs on metaphor, insinuation and symbols.”

Ah, but is Hizballah terrorist? There is a growing campaign to launder its reputation. Of course, Hizballah hasn’t committed any terrorist acts for a while because it doesn’t need to do so and has been at least temporarily intimidated by one intended victim. In Lebanon, though, the terrorist acts have already done their work for the moment, making everyone there fear the Iran- and Syria-backed group. It has not attacked Israel for a while, largely because Israel gave it such a walloping in 2006, but Hizballah is preparing for a next round and openly talking daily about wiping Israel off the map. As for Iraq, it is literally business as usual with some minor cutback.

Yet here is what the Associated Press, the main wire service for the Western English-language media tells us under the byline of Zeina Karam:

“The leader of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah recently delivered an odd but deeply important political message to his followers: Heed traffic signs and pay your electric bills.

“The call may not seem particularly significant, but it was widely seen as the latest sign that Hezbollah — long considered mainly as Iran's militant arm in Lebanon running its own state-within-a-state — is reinventing itself as a more conventional political movement in Lebanon.”

While the U.S. president’s terrorism advisor says that Hizballah isn’t terrorist because its membership includes lawyers, AP uses its alleged law-abiding urgings to demonstrate the same point

But guess what? Hizballah is now part of the government with cabinet minister and veto power over all decisions. Why shouldn’t the group tell people to pay taxes which in large part go to itself? And if reporters once proclaimed that at least a fascist dictatorship made the trains run on time they can now tell us that terrorist groups tell their supporters to stop at red lights.

For the reasons behind this kind of behavior, see here.

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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