Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Do Officials, Journalists, Academics, Analysts React to Critiques of Conventional Wisdom on the Middle East? Answer: They Don't!

Please be a subscriber. Just put your email address in the box on the upper right-hand corner of the page.

We depend on your tax-deductible contributions. To make one, please send a check to: American Friends of IDC, 116 East 16th Street, 11th Floor, New York, NY 10003. The check should be made out to “American Friends of IDC,” with “for GLORIA Center” in the memo line.

By Barry Rubin

A reader asks:
I have found your most recent articles hugely helpful in debunking so much of the international myth that the Israeli Palestinian conflict dominates and is the root cause of every problem facing the entire Middle East.

But then I largely agree with everything you and Jonathan Spyer have to say.

Apart from hate mail and frivolous objections from doubtful sources, which I am sure you get your fair share, do you ever get reasoned and logical analysis from other serious Middle Eastern experts or professors who find fault with your ideas or reject your premises entirely?

Thanks. You have asked a very good question. And the answer is simple: No, literally never. In fact, never. Why is this?

Rather than the historic ideas that governed serious analysis and scholarly work for centuries, there seems to be a pattern now that viewpoints other than the dominant one—U.S. and West largely at fault, Islamism is not the central problem, Arab-Israeli conflict at core of region, radical groups can be moderated, Syria can be won over, Palestinians eager for peace, etc.--need not be taken into account. The style seems to be that one begins with a thesis, gathers whatever talking points or documentation needed to promote or prove it, and then that is sufficient without dealing with the best arguments to the contrary.

What is missing is the need to engage and respond to other arguments. Many of my articles consist of taking up a text or speech or article by someone, honestly trying to understand fully the ideas presented, analyzing them, and then responding where I think they are wrong as well as right.

Of course, I’m presenting a perspective but I have to prove it, with evidence and persuasive logic. I probably spend almost as much time quoting people I disagree with--and linking to what they've said--as I do saying what I think. You can see both sides and judge for yourself.

The whole greatness of democracy, logic, professional ethics, and Enlightenment values is that a fair hearing is given to all sides and the strongest argument wins—though of course the "winning" argument should be open to modifications by taking elements from other perspectives that are proven correct. This is not happening, however, given the dominant ideas today, which use Political Correctness (not factual correctness), multi-culturalism, Edward Said thought, and other such mechanisms as determining their conclusions. This is what can be called a triumphalist perspective: we’re in control and can do anything we want; we represent absolute right against racism, imperialism, etc., so there is really only one side to any proper debate.

For example, take the question of whether Syria can be pulled away from Iran, one of the centerpieces of current Western policy. I can take each argument used to say this would work, explain why it isn't so, and then give about ten reasons why Syria will stick with Iran. I have almost never--and I don't use the word "never" lightly here--seen anyone take up these arguments (Syria gets more money from Iran than it would from the West, their interests are parallel, Iran provides religious cover, it thinks Iran is winning, etc.) even to say why they might be wrong.

Another example is that for a variety of reasons—belief in ultimate victory, ideology, intimidation by radicals, hope for an imposed settlement, etc—the Palestinian leadership isn’t really interested in a negotiated peace and that this is the central question in the conflict. Even a very simple and obvious point—you can’t make peace while Hamas rules the Gaza Strip; a PA-Hamas coalition government would be a disaster—is pretty much ignored.

The record on discussing the Iranian threat is better but there is still remarkably little talk on how Iran would change the strategic balance in the region once it has nuclear weapons. For example, I’ve never seen anyone take up the discussion that Iran’s possession of weapons would set off a revolutionary Islamist avalanche the way that Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal company did for Arab nationalism in the mid-1950s or the Bolshevik revolution did for Communist movements.

It would be fascinating to see their responses. Is there some point I've missed? Please educate me and I promise to revise my thinking.

But in my opinion we face something different today than there has been in the past. That is, a relative monopoly on media and academia by one viewpoint which tends to suppress the other. I don't want to overstate that, but let's for the sake of argument say it is 75 percent in the media and 90 percent in academia. Therefore, it is not necessary to engage opposition views but they can merely be ignored and kept out of the debate. To a surprising extent, even the U.S. military--to pick an example where one wouldn't expect to find it--seems to listen overwhelmingly to the current conventional wisdom.

Again, I don't want to overstate this point. Obviously there are mechanisms for expressing such ideas and there are a few people who are licensed, in a sense, to speak them. There are “air holes” through which fresh air comes into the mainstream debate. Yet compared to the past--having been involved in this for over 30 years--I find the contrast astonishing.

Finally, though, it would be possible to do a history of the debate over the Middle East and see how it has gone through different periods. For example, the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait in 1991 set off almost a decade of what I’d call more accurate assessments. The same thing happened for about two years after September 11.

Sometimes mere time or failure to make the dominant paradigm work sets off a rethinking. What do you do when the radicals fail to moderate and throw a pie in your face? The last big game-changing pie, in the other direction, was the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003 which was perceived as a failure and whose motives were questioned, helping to bring on the current era. (Of course, there are also wider social, intellectual, and political trends in the West—having little or nothing to do with the Middle East—that bring change on thinking about this particular region.)

My best guess about the next wave is that when Iran gets nuclear weapons it will send a shock to many in the West that will make it hard to maintain the kind of thinking that dominates now. This will be supplemented by such developments as: Palestinian refusal to take up even good Western offers for peace and a state; increasingly obvious Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah domination of Lebanon; growing revolutionary Islamist threats in Arab states; a clear failure to stabilize Afghanistan; the conclusion that Syria will not moderate or move away from Iran; and other things.

History doesn’t stand still.

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.