Friday, July 30, 2010

Albert the Alligator and the British Ambassador

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By Barry Rubin

Once upon a time in an intellectual galaxy now seemingly far away, liberals and conservatives shared a common view. There were the forces of democracy and the forces of totalitarianism (or, if you prefer, authoritarianism) that threatened the world, took away freedom, and held back both economic and social development. The goal of Western foreign policy was to help those favoring liberty against the tyrants and would-be tyrants.

Naturally, there were different views about how to do this, for example should some dictatorships be backed against those deemed worse, but the basic template was the same.

Then came a turning point which can be symbolized by a line in Walt Kelly’s comic-strip “Pogo.” A dialogue balloon destined to shake the world: “We have met the enemy,” said either Pogo the possum or Albert the alligator, “and he is us.” Kelly later wrote that he originated this line in 1953 in an essay opposing McCarthyism but it really took off in a 1972 cartoon, perfectly timed for the "1960s," the era whose ideas rule us today in much of the West.

The sentence was a parody of Oliver Hazard Perry’s message—“We have met the enemy and they are ours”—describing his naval victory during the War of 1812. So what had once been a triumphant shout of American victory was transmuted in a post-Pogo world to symbolize a vitriolic yell of self-induced anti-Americanism.

And so if there are evil forces in the world, they are said either not to be evil at all (mislabeled as so by false Western propaganda) or were only made to behave that way by our (Western, American, democratic, capitalist, etc) sins. In other words, the guilty party is the democratic victim whose bad behavior created the monsters. In this spirit, a supposedly great American intellectual claimed America was the cancer of the world. Formerly, it had been known as the last, best hope of humanity.

How often do we see this worldview evinced nowadays? After September 11, America was said to be the cause of the terrorism that struck it. After the bloody July 7 attacks on British mass transport, a top British intelligence official said the terrorism happened due to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. President Barack Obama has made this a constant theme, most recently putting the Turkish trend toward Islamism (without admitting it exists) on the shoulders of European states that didn’t admit Turkey into the EU.

So nowadays, the most common way of dealing with radicalism, repression, terrorism, and such things in the Third World is to blame it on democratic states so often victimized by such issues.

The latest contribution to this genre comes from British ambassador to Israel Tom Phillips who said Israel’s sanctions’ regime on the Gaza Strip “was breeding radicalism.”

He claimed it had driven “Gaza into a Hamas-controlled tunnel economy, and the Palestinian Gaza private sector has been almost completely destroyed….Young boys on the streets [have had] no role models apart from the Hamas guy in the black shiny uniform on the street corner...creating, in psychological terms, another generation of people that are not going to feel that friendly about Israel.”

The message is that the problem is completely due to “us.” The other side doesn’t actually exist. It has no history, no worldview, no ideology, and no goals. The “other side” is merely a blank screen or mirror, reflecting back what we do.

This is, of course, a racist and imperialist vision. It denies the others any culture or history or mentality of their own. If one is only a victim always, one has no volition, higher intelligence, or ability to affect history.

Can somebody just be a sincere revolutionary Islamist or radical nationalist who wants to seize state power, wipe you out, and implement his own program for achieving utopia?

The truth can be found by examining the sequence of events. For instance, Islamist Iran is not radical because it has been isolated; rather, it has been isolated because of its radical behavior. Same thing with Syria.

In the case of the Gaza Strip, the publicly known facts should be recalled. Let’s count the number of times Hamas was treated generously and not driven toward radicalism.

The participation in elections of Hamas in Palestinian elections was clearly illegal, since that group did not accept the Oslo Accords, recognize Israel, or cease using terrorism. Yet despite all of this, the United States actually urged, and Israel accepted, its participation. (1)

When Hamas won the elections, neither the United States nor Israel tried to intervene or reverse the results. Again, they didn’t “drive” Hamas into radicalism by denying it that electoral victory. (2) True, the Palestinian Authority tried for a while to hang on, but in the end it signed a power-sharing agreement with Hamas. (3) But then Hamas staged a coup, killed fellow Palestinians, and seized power. Yet even then there was no move by Israel or the United States to unseat the new regime. (4)

After repeated Hamas attacks on Israel and Israeli retaliation a ceasefire was signed. There were restrictions on supplies but they regularly flowed into Gaza. (5) There was, for example, a border industrial area that provided jobs for Gazans from Israeli companies until Hamas attacked it.

Finally, near the end of 2008, Hamas tore up the ceasefire and launched a massive attack on Israel. Israel defended itself. After the resulting war in which Western countries made sure Hamas would not be overthrown (6) the sanctions’ regime we've seen until recently was implemented by both Egypt (which feared Hamas’s revolutionary Islamism and status as an Iranian client) and Israel.

This is not a picture of Gazans being driven to radicalism, it is a story of how the consequences of a radical policy unfolded, forcing Israel to react.

There’s more. Ambassador Phillips, and the many others who speak about events around the world in similar terms, simply fail to comprehend how a dictatorship works. They think that if you engage hardline ideological revolutionaries they will moderate. If you offer to trade with them, a process of materialism will set in so that the once fire-breathing radicals will be transformed into luxury-loving bourgeois.

Suppose Gaza didn’t have a “Hamas-controlled tunnel economy” but merely had a Hamas-controlled normal economy, would that be better? And why should one believe that the economy wouldn’t be controlled by the dictatorship, because Western governments or companies were doing business there? But that is equally true of Syria, Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and ideological dictatorships in other parts of the world. Has this turned them toward love and moderation?

Oh, and let's remember that the main purpose of those tunnels was to import weapons for attacking Israel.  Hamas will take advantage of any openings to bring in more arms and things that can be used for fighting (cement for military installations; pipes for rockets). It will tax and seize assets to build up its military machine. The more satisfied are people's material needs, the less reason they will have to oppose the Hamas regime.
This Phillips-Pogo view also ignores the political mechanisms of ideological dictatorships. Hamas doesn’t wait for young boys to see its cadre as role models. Here’s what it does:

--Pays people with money obtainable, including that siphoned off from aid and trade, to recruit them and make them the arms of the regime. The more commerce, the more money Hamas has to spend on indoctrination, organization, and weaponry.

--Arrests and intimidates opponents so they don't provide alternative role models. In the Gaza Strip there aren’t that many moderate role models. Wealthy businessmen? Fatah gunmen? Corrupt figures against whom people voted for Hamas. Maybe the dedicated UNRWA teacher offers an alternative role model? OK, but how many of these are also radicals?

--Control all institutions including mosques, media, youth organizations, schools, and so on which all actively and intensively preach the same message. Support Hamas; kill the Jews; be a Jihad fighter. The regime isn’t going to let external institutions or countries that oppose its Islamist radicalism have influence in its territory. Hamas would rather sacrifice benefits to its people than give up authority to those it knows want to overthrow the regime.

Phillips’ line that it is Israel’s policy which is creating “another generation of people that are not going to feel that friendly about Israel” is rather ludicrous in light of this reality. After all, the same thing is happening on the West Bank where there is no sanctions’ regime in place, Western aid flows lavishly, and supposed moderates are in control. Whatever Israel does, incitement and indoctrination will continue at the same level from those who  hate Israel because it exists.

Here’s the truth: revolutionary forces that use terrorism, preach a totalitarian ideology, create dictatorships, and have genocidal goals are responsible for war and conflict in the Middle East.

No matter how intensely Western democracies flagellate themselves, no matter how much they appease and concede, that basic and deadly fact will not change. No, let me correct the end of that sentence: the cost will become more dangerous, bloody, and deadly.

Speaking of alligators, it was another Briton, Winston Churchill, who said that an appeaser is someone who feeds the alligator--ok, nitpickers, I know he said crocodile but they differ only in the roundness of the snout--in hopes that it will eat him last.

Our problem is that contemporary appeasers also hope the alligator will eat us first.

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). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at

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