Sunday, March 7, 2010

Criminal Naivete: A 1936 Article Shows The Costs of Believing Dictators' Lies

By Barry Rubin

There needs to be a much clearer understanding of why the West—and especially its political elite and intellectuals—has so much trouble comprehending the world, especially the Middle East.

Two of the most important themes are naiveté and the conviction that no one can really be a revolutionary, willing to die for an ideological belief. Radicalism is simply illogical in their eyes and an extremist is simply a moderate who has not yet been sufficiently engaged in dialogue or offered enough concessions or goodies.

So officials, journalists, and experts proclaim that an Islamist Turkey has no choice but to be friendly to the West, and Iran’s regime must act “logically” and not be aggressive; that the Palestinians must want to make real peace with Israel and that Hizballah is now a moderate party playing Lebanese parliamentary politics only; that Syria without doubt has to be ready to throw Iran overboard to be buddies with America; and so on.

It’s a good educational tool to look at how this basic type of thinking has worked in the past. Some time ago, I posted the 1920s’ New York Times article explaining that Adolf Hitler was going into retirement in Austria and wouldn’t be a problem in future. Now we have another example. But first I want to emphasize that the point here is not to laugh at the mistakes made by people in the past—everyone makes mistakes—but to consider why mistakes were made so they can be avoided in present and future.

On to the June 15, 1936, editorial in The Pittsburgh Press entitled “Red Russia Is Fading to Pink,” which explains that the USSR is now becoming democratic because Josef Stalin was giving it a constitution:

“She is to have a House of Representatives and Senate, something corresponding to our institutions. Members are to be elected by secret ballot, as in democratic England, France, and the United States….But most important of all in our judgment is the provision for freedom of speech and the press.”

Previously, the editorial continued, citizens were afraid and the media was censored. But now, even if this new democratic “system has yet to be put into practice….Nevertheless the mere proposal of such a vast change is an act of the highest importance. ”

One would think that a "vast change" had to take place before being "of the highest importance." But, again, we see this mistake made over and over in today's world in which a speech or promise is enough to say that something material has actually happened.

The editorial went on:

“For years Russia has been moving gradually though slowly in the general direction of moderation….Like [Nazi] Germany and [Fascist] Italy she practices a sort of state socialism.” The differences among them are due to local characteristics rather “than of fundamentals”

Note the two underlying arguments: First, if the Soviet government says something then it must be true. This is a very interesting phenomenon that persists to this day. Those who would question anything that came out of a democratic politician’s mouth (or at least before certain people seemed to have been granted a special exemption lately) are often quite ready to believe in the veracity of repressive dictators or totalitarian movements.

Second, the idea that moderation is inevitable. The editorial expresses this point with particular clarity:

“Russia has been forced to recognize that while regimes may change, human nature, for all practical purposes, is immutable.” The message is that no system can be organized in a very different way from that of America and it is only a matter of time before dictatorships learn to practice pragmatism. Even in the USSR, some people live better than others; income depends on capability; individuals want personal recognition. “No longer do leaders minimize or ignore the great truth.”

The confusion here is between a regime not being able to realize a utopian vision—from each according to his ability to each according to his needs; abandoning the early drive for revolutionary purity, as in the USSR's abolition of military ranks for a short period after the revolution—and of it being able to realize a nightmarish vision of a dictatorial, ideological state. And so, in "practical" terms, factory managers were paid more than workers while millions of people were still sent to concentration camps, shot, or perished in government-made famines.

This is not to say things were worse back in 1936 in terms of people making these mistakes about understanding dictatorships. True, the New York Times correspondent in the USSR whitewashed the oppression there, while Communist intellectuals and fellow travelers fell for all the same tricks. Similarly, there were those who thought Germany and Italy under fascism were just splendid societies. At that same time, the British and French governments--even if horrified by its internal policies--believed that fascism could be appeased into non-aggression.

But things are probably proportionately worse nowadays. One reason is that the societies in the dictatorial states being dealt with are so different culturally, and thus harder for Westerners to read. Another is that there is no organized left party, which means observers aren’t sharply divided into two camps, either for the Communists and the USSR or against them.

In addition, there are now dominant doctrines that forbid criticizing non-Western places or people as some kind of cultural imperialism and racism. Consequently, in contrast to the 1930s, right-wing Islamist dictatorships or revolutionary movement do not face the enmity of the Western political left. Regarding today’s equivalents of the Spanish Civil War, much of the left and fashionable intelligentsia support the “fascist” side.

Oh, one more thing. This editorial was discovered not long ago by a researcher in Moscow as he examined material that had been translated and circulated among the Communist Party leadership. They must have shaken their heads and say: how can we fail to defeat such suckers!

Today, too, this kind of Western thinking circulates among the extremists, bolstering their ideology and boldness. Before the attack on him in 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was reading Western media saying that the United States would never invade and assuming that the level of opposition to that war (that's the 1991, not the 2003 one) would ensure his ability to annex Kuwait and dominate the Persian Gulf.

This reminds me of what an expert on Indonesia told me. When he visits radical Islamist leaders in that country invariably their bookshelves hold left-wing books by European or American authors portraying the West as evil and imperialistic. When challenged about their claims, the Islamists would then say that such wild assertions--America is seeking world empire; Israel is evil; the West wanted to destroy Islam--must be true because Western intellectuals had endorsed them.

The Western advocates of suicide, either through naïveté or ideology, inspire the suicide bombers. The prevaricators assist the dictators. The well-meaning strengthen the evil-intending.

Or as William Butler Yeats put it in "The Second Coming":

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The "best" better wake up soon.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.