Monday, February 22, 2010

When It Comes to Analyzing the Middle East, We Live in the Age of Idiocy

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By Barry Rubin

After more than 30 years of watching people write dumb things about the Middle East, I believe that in the last month I've seen more nonsense than at any previous time. The problem arises from ignorance, lack of understanding of the region by those presented as experts; plus arrogance, treating the region and the lives of people as a game (Hey, let’s try this and see what happens!), fostered by the failure of such control mechanisms as a balanced debate and editing that rejects simplistic bias or stupidity; as well as a simple lack of logic.

To put it another way, I am reading material that simultaneously has no connection with the real world, is full of internal contradictions, and often seems deliberately tailored to misrepresent events in order to prove a false thesis. Fortunately, this stuff has not done actual damage in the real world--much of it has not been implemented in policy--yet but may in future.

As examples:

--The former director of for Gulf and South Asia affairs at President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council writes that al-Qaida will go away if a Palestinian state is created. (This article is so astonishingly bad in reshaping the facts and leaving out anything that proves the contrary point I kept thinking it was a forgery meant to discredit him. Alas, in these days people actually do write in this intellectually dishonest style all too often.)

--The most famous American columnist writing on the Middle East says the United States is responsible for radicalization in Saudi Arabia and Europe is to blame for Iran’s Islamist revolution;

--The New York Times publishes an op-ed by a U.S. Air Force analyst arguing that Iran getting nuclear weapons will be good for the U.S. position in the Middle East.

--France’s foreign minister in an interview explains that Israel's allegedly killing a Hamas terrorist in Dubai proves there must be a Palestinian state as fast as possible, regardless of whether Israel agrees, a bilateral peace treaty is made, or even that state’s boundaries are defined. Charmingly, he adds that he might be wrong, which suggests that if such a policy resulted in total disaster and a massive number of deaths he’d just give a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and say, “Tant pis.” (Too bad.)

--Numerous people who should know better, ranging from the president’s advisor on terrorism to the former senior director for transnational threats at the National Security Council, say Hizballah is now moderate even though it has not changed in any real way.

--A prestigious foreign policy blog carries an article from a professor at a Washington, DC, university calling for an end to any restrictions on imports by the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip despite its openly declared intention of commiting genocide, repression of its own people, and clear goal of returning to war as soon as possible because this will supposedly strengthen the hand of the Palestinian Authority government which Hamas is trying to overthrow.

What are the main themes being constantly purveyed? Blame America, blame Israel, blame the West, say that radicals are moderates, insist that making concessions and holding dialogues with ideologically-directed extremists will work, blocking serious discussion of the Islamist threat, refusing to recognize the unalterably aggressive intentions of the Iran-Syria bloc, arguing that radical states and movements will act in a "rational" manner by following Western conceptions of what is in their true interest rather than their own world view.

What themes are there no room for in the prestigious foreign affairs journals and newspapers, with rare exceptions?

--The strategic disaster for Western influence that would ensue if Iran got nuclear weapons even if it never fires them.

--Revolutionary Islamism doesn't exist mainly to get revenge on the West but to seize state power and transform their own societies.

--The fact that the Palestinian Authority neither desires nor is capable of making a comprehensive peace with Israel no matter what the West does.

--The specific things that Israel wants in a peace agreement and why it needs them.

--That Syria, for very solid interests of its own, will never break its alliance with Iran.

--The situation of Arab governments which want the United States to be tough against Iran, Syria, and the Islamists, and are rapidly losing faith that it will protect them.

--The steering of Turkey toward as much of an Islamist state as possible plus as close an alignment with Iran and Syria as posible by the regime there which pretends to be moderate but clearly is engaged in transforming the country..

--Most bad ideas, crises, radical movements, and conflicts in the Middle East are locally generated and not just reflections of wrong Western policies or misdeeds.

--The West can do only a very limited amount to solve the problems of the Middle East. Coming up with some clever gimmick, flattery, apology, concession, appeasement, or higher level of understanding isn't going to do it.

Should I link to each of the above-mentioned articles and refute them point by point? I’m not sure. On one hand, that would be intellectually and emotionally satisfying, but would it be worthwhile?

I don’t like spending time and space talking about how someone else is so silly, how we are deluged with far more people speaking stupidity from power than speaking truth to it. I can’t help but feel that it is better to use the chance to explain what's really going on and perhaps develop some accurate or useful ideas. But it is necessary to talk about some of the insanity just to give a sense of its all-encompassing scope.

Only events will teach these people anything, like the completely ignorant New York Times writer who had no experience in the Middle East whatsoever, became an apologist for the Iranian regime, and then was forced by the stolen election and subsequent repression to rethink his position.

Rudyard Kipling wrote (is it still acceptable to quote Kipling?):

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you….
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating….,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Kipling’s son of course was killed in World War One, which shows that no matter how well we perform we aren’t immune for suffering from the mistakes of others.

I rewrote it to suit modern circumstances:

IF you can accurate be when everyone with power
writes nonsense and blames conflicts just on you….
You rarely will be quoted or be published,
For speaking truth’s a foolish thing to do.
What’s most important are the views in fashion,
Repeating them makes certain your career.
Just hope that history justifies your passion,
The sole reward you’ll get, that’s what I fear.

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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