Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mainstreaming the Extremists; Marginalizing the Moderates

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By Barry Rubin

Simultaneously, in some far-flung places in the world, several smart people have come up with a horrifying conclusion: radicals are being systematically mainstreamed, real moderates are being declared extremists.

For example, the two semi-official lobbyists for Hamas and Hizballah—Alistair Crooke and Mark Perry—and the biggest defenders of the Ahmadinejad regime in America—Flyntt and Hillary Leverett—are getting adoring write-ups. Crooke and the Leveretts have been profiled in the New York Times. These peoples op-eds appear everywhere, including in the FP (Foreign Policy) blog. Criticism of them seems pretty much barred from the mainstream (there’s that word again) media.

In Australia, there’s an attempt to portray anti-Israel Jewish activists as mainstream and moderate while the traditional pro-Israel groups are said to be extremist. And of course this is what J Street is about: a group headed by a former lobbyist for a company working on a Qatari anti-Israel propaganda group and which itself has hardly ever taken a position supportive of Israel. Could J Street's cover possibly be more transparent, yet no mainstream media organ ever seems to mention this.

When Hussein Fadlallah, who might be called Hizballah’s founding spiritual guide, died recently, CNN’s chief editor for Arab affairs gushed in all a twitter that she had enormous respect for him (it appears CNN forced her to resign in response) while the BBC leaned backwards to sanitize his record. The British ambassador to Lebanon wrote that he was a decent man.

It sounds better to say someone was an implacable foe of Israel or the United States than that he made virulently antisemitic statements and endorsed numerous terrorist attacks against Americans in which more than 240 U.S. servicemen were killed in Beirut. You see, if people knew this sort of thing they might not like him, or Hizballah.

Mainstreaming may seem to be a great solution but it is the gateway to a much worse situation. For example, General David Petraeus declared on taking command in Afghanistan, "We are in this to win." But how is the U.S.-led international force going to win? Certainly, they cannot wipe out the Taliban, since the rules of engagement restrain them from doing the kind of thing necessary to root it out.

Nor can they solve Afghanistan’s problems and establish a strong, effective and democratic central government there. So what constitutes winning? It simply isn’t clear and that is a bad situation. I get the feeling that the main purpose of the Afghan war is to provide one place in the world where the Obama Administration shows itself willing to use force.

But perhaps here, too, the trick is the concept of the moderate Taliban purveyed by some high-ranking U.S. officials. If the Taliban is coopted into the government, then victory can be declared. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban would take over large parts of Afghanistan again. The Taliban, though, may believe they can do so without even having to play America’s game.

There is a whole industry in declaring people moderate nowadays. Russia and Turkey engage with Hizballah and Hamas; some in Europe are yearning to do so, and the Obama Administration sends (more properly, gives a green light for) a U.S. delegation to visit Hamas.

Meanwhile, Israel is systematically being demonized. Even the German parliament passed a resolution criticizing Israel on the flotilla issue, thus objectively helping Hamas, the political group whose views and policies toward Jews most closely resembles the Nazi party. That previous sentence is undeniable, there are mountains of evidence, yet some would be shocked to read it.

Arab liberal reformers, the real moderates, are also being ignored. These people live in fear that revolutionary Islamists will (or already have) take over

The number-one best-selling novel in America today is The Overton Window by the controversial talk-show host Glenn Beck. I don’t know anything about the novel itself but the title is based on a brilliant idea invented by a researcher named Joe Overton.

The idea is that at any given time there is an acceptable area of ideas and debate, with things too extreme (often too far left or right) being excluded. Overton’s point was that a skillful politician can move the window. In recent years, the window has been pulled sharply to the left.

There is a very conscious effort to continue this process. In the case of the Middle East, the idea would be that Hamas, Hizballah, revolutionary Islamists, and Syria, among others, would be considered acceptable while Israel would not. The behavior of the parties and the evidence would not have changed, only the perceptions of what was outside the margins, beyond the pale, unsustainable, immoral, etc.

One of the features is that the window-changers, as one of my friends put it, “know what they are against even if they don’t know why. Perhaps they don't care why.”

Such a person is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. After condemning the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip as just plain wrong because it was so effective that it made people suffer, after visiting Gaza Kristof did a 180-term and now he writes:

"Visiting Gaza persuaded me, to my surprise, that Israel is correct when it denies that there is any full-fledged humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The tunnels have so undermined the Israeli blockade that shops are filled and daily life is considerably easier than when I last visited here two years ago."

In other words, he was against it because he thought it was effective but now that he thinks it isn’t effective…he’s still against it. I could easily explain to Kristof why Israel’s policy made sense. The goal was not to starve Gazans but to keep up pressure on the economy so that Hamas remained unpopular; lacked rewards for its cadres; was unable to get lots of dual-use items (cement for military installations; pipes for rockets; excess gasoline for military vehicles; and could not consolidate power for the long-run.

When then Senator Barack Obama visited Israel he concluded, according to his post-trip blog, that Israel was so strong that it could make huge concessions. Some months later, he told an interviewer that Israel was so weak that it had to make huge concessions.

See? Evidence changes, dislikes stay the same. Radicals become moderate; moderates become radical.

Or as that great political analyst Lewis Carroll put it in Alice in Wonderland regarding some letters for which the Knave is put on trial:

“`Are they in the prisoner's handwriting?' asked another of the jurymen.
“`No, they're not,' said the White Rabbit, `and that's the queerest thing about it.' (The jury all looked puzzled.)
“`He must have imitated somebody else's hand,' said the King. (The jury all brightened up again.)
“`Please your Majesty,' said the Knave, `I didn't write it, and they can't prove I did: there's no name signed at the end.'
“`If you didn't sign it,' said the King, `that only makes the matter worse. You MUST have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man.'…
“`That PROVES his guilt,' said the Queen.
“`It proves nothing of the sort!' said Alice. `Why, you don't even know what they're about!'"

Right on, Alice! The trouble is that if you open the Overton window too wide logic leaps out of the house and a lot of horrors fly in.

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 books include Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East; and The Truth About Syria. To see and subscribe to his blog go here; for GLORIA Center publications go here.

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