Saturday, April 30, 2011

Obama Administration: Eager to Save Syria's Anti-American Dictator

This is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

Before I remark on the idiotic analysis of the day, I have to write a disclaimer. Up to now I usually don't remark on what David Ignatius writes but this latest article is too good--meaning too bad--to pass up. But first some background so you can see how things work behind the scenes in Washington DC.

I grew up within about two blocks of Mr. Ignatius. One of my best friends went to school with him. After my friend defeated Ignatius for the chairmanship of the school's most prestigious club by a landslide, Mr. Ignatius said to him, "I could have beaten you if I'd wanted to!"

In 1982 or perhaps in 1983, I spoke at a conference about media reporting on the Lebanon war. I had witnessed, for the first time in person, the most amazing distortions of truth by the journalists there.

One notorious example I remember was a reporter standing in front of a Lebanese house claiming it had been callously destroyed by the Israeli forces. This statement was somewhat belied by the fact that a rather large and healthy tree was growing in the middle of the derelict building, extending its branches well above the level of the walls.

Knowing that Mr. Ignatius, who had reported the war, was on the panel, I stated several times something to the effect that, "This doesn't apply to David Ignatius who did a great job."

To my surprise, after the event he came up to me and angrily said, "You [word unsuitable for family publications] me and I'm going to get you."

Some time later, he reviewed one of my books in a tiny publication that few if any read. It was the nastiest review I've ever received. But, as I say, nobody saw it and I only noticed because the publisher sent it to me.

About four or five years later I was attending some conference sitting at the dinner table with him and Ignatius said something to the effect that I had served my sentence, been punished enough, and so his wrath had been sated.

There. So now you can judge whether I am biased against him.

Ignatius, who has all along been a defender of Obama Administration policy toward Syria, wrote in the Washington Post:

"U.S. officials see signs that Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has concluded that to survive the massive protests against his regime, which continued today across the country, he will have to distance himself somewhat from Iran.

"Whatever happens in the anti-Assad protests, Iran is likely to lose some of its easy access to Syria, its key Arab ally. If Assad survives, he will have to establish some distance from Iran to appease Sunni protesters, U.S. officials believe. And it he’s toppled, Syria is likely to be ruled by a Sunni-dominated regime that will be more hostile to Iran."

Now this is a sparkling example of the kind of idiocy that passes for analyzing the Middle East on the part of "U.S. officials" and big-name analysts in the media. Demonstrators demanding that Assad distance himself from Iran has not been a leading feature of this uprising.

Remember that Assad has adopted a strategy of identifying his opponents with America, Israel, and al-Qaida. He is toughing it out. Why would be want to distance himself from an ally which:

--Provides Muslim religious credentials to his regime ruled mostly by Alawites who are not Muslims. (When I once told an emigre Syrian Muslim journalist that a lot of people disagreed with me about Alawites not being Muslims, she laughed and said that everyone knew they weren't.)

--Gives it strategic cover against the West and Israel. When Iran has nuclear weapons that umbrella of protection would be even more valuable.

--Pays a lot of its bills through subsidies.

--Pays for its weapons and for supporting joint Iran-Syria clients like Hamas and Hizballah.

The possibility of any decision by Assad to move away from Iran? Zero.

And if he's toppled would there be a Sunni regime more hostile to Iran? That's possible but unlikely. If he is overthrown by military officers--the most likely possibility--they would not change Syrian foreign policy.

True, a Muslim Brotherhood dominated regime might well be anti-Iran, as well as anti-American and eager to go to war with Israel. A moderate democratic government would be anti-Iran. But there are plenty of Islamists and radical nationalists who would align with Iran as their only good choice of strategic ally.

At any rate what this all amounts to is merely another argument that Assad is a moderate at heart. Don't try to overthrow him and he'll come around to realizing that America is his best friend. Really?

Why is it that president Obama called for the overthrow of Mubarak and somehow believes that Assad is better for American interests than the former Egyptian president? There is a risk of an Islamist takeover in Syria but it is certainly lower than it was in Egypt when the White House helped push that regime over.

Remember the Syrian regime is the main sponsor of the terrorists killing American soldiers in Iraq. It is the main sponsor of Hamas and Hizballah. It is seizing control of Lebanon and turning that country into a satellite. And it subverts any chance of peace with Israel.

This is the regime that the administration and its pet journalists wants to preserve?

What really irks me is that one virtually never ever sees any of the points made above even mentioned in the mass media though they are all obvious and well-documented.

Here's a good policy for the United States: Assad should go now! Yesterday!

Uh-oh. I better watch out for that next book review!

Syria Not A Partner For Peace? So What's New?

By Barry Rubin

The Obama administration no longer considers Syria a potential peace partner for Israel because of its repression against its own people. This is according to media background interviews with government officials.

But wait a minute! What do we know about that regime now that we didn't know--I should say, should have known--a month or six months or six years ago? Syria has been a  repressive, radical dictatorship at least since 1963 and arguably a few years earlier.

We know the same thing about Hizballah and the other rulers of Lebanon; Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip; and--to a much lesser extent but it's still basically true--the Palestinian Authority.

So what has been the Western idea up until now? Namely for Israel to make a peace with these "partners" involving major risks and concessions. For example, Israel is supposed to give the Golan Heights to this regime in Syria in exchange for its promise of peace.

If you've never seen the Golan Heights in person you can't imagine its unique strategic significance. Israel's territory is perfectly flat and stretches to the nearby Mediterranean. The Golan Heights rise almost vertically above it and looks over this land like a balcony. Those up on the Heights can bombard downward to their heart's content with artillery, rockets, missiles, and mortars. Once Israel gives up the Heights there are no natural defenses between there and the sea. And by the same token it would be very hard--and costly in casualties--for Israel to recapture the Golan.

It is almost impossible for any piece of territory to have a greater military advantage.

Giving this territory to the Assad regime is the kind of silly idea that passes as somewhere between brilliance and conventional wisdom in every Western government and mass media outlet.

Of course, if the Syrian government were the kind of regime that would agree to eternal peace and keep that agreement then such a deal would make sense. But it isn't.

If one could have a real knowledge in advance that its successor would also keep a peace treaty--as long as the sky is blue and the rivers flow--it could be justified. But that's not true either, as the situation in Egypt is showing, as the situation in the Gaza Strip has shown. How many examples do you need?

And if one could know that the Western countries would keep their promised guarantees and then come riding like the cavalry to smite the evildoer who broke agreements with Israel than those guarantees would be credible. But, once again, that's not true, as the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, and the truce ending the 2006 war with Hizballah, and the 1993 agreement with what became the Palestinian Authority show. How many examples do you need?

According to the current way of thinking then, only after the concessions have been made, the risks undertaken, and the piece of paper signed  do we find out that these weren't partners for peace. But then it would be too late.

Isn't it better to learn such things beforehand? In fact, isn't it better to learn that reality right now this minute?

Friday, April 29, 2011

Yes, Virginia, Obama Foreign Policy Is Ignorant and Stupid Rather Than a Conspiracy

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BLOOM (screaming): “Have you lost your mind? What are you talking about? Kill the actors. You can't kill the actors --they're not animals, they're human beings!”

BIALYSTOCK: “They are? Have you ever eaten with one?”

--“The Producers”

By Barry Rubin

The most common question—or remark—that I get from readers is to say that I’m wrong to talk about how Western policymakers (and especially the Obama Administration) are ignorant, ideologically deluded, and unable to learn from experience. They claim that these problems arise from a deliberate malevolent effort to destroy America.

It tells something about how bad a lot of the administration's policies are as to make such a conclusion possible. Nevertheless, it's not correct.

With academia, mass media, most of the publishing industry, and Hollywood on their side how would these policymakers know any better? Their professors told them they were brilliant; the books they read all tell them they're right. Nobody corrects or criticizes them except those who they can rationalize are opponents--and evil people, too!--and thus these are partisan carpings to be disregarded.

If the critics can be described as conservatives their views are discounted. If you are proven to be correct that seems to have no effect on the powerful institutions and elite opinions.

In fact, the very fact of being a critic is used to disqualify criticism. When I wrote a detailed critique of Obama's policies in a prestigious policy journal, the prestigious authors responded that what I said should be discounted--and my specific arguments need not be persuasively countered-- because...I was critical of Obama's policies!

I cannot imagine any other time in modern Western intellectual history when this kind of thing has happened.

So the usual corrective institutions aren’t functioning. If no one tells the emperor and his courtiers that they are under-dressed such people are going to keep peeling off clothes confident of the fact that nobody (or at least anyone who counts) will tell them that they are naked. With so much insulation, they don't feel the chill.

Those certain that Obama and his government—and I only speak of foreign policy here—must be acting deliberately out of malice generally have one thing in common: they have never actually dealt with high-level politicians and decisionmakers.

Believe me, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity, a smug arrogance that closes one off to learning from advice or experience, and ideological blinders are not so unique in those circles. I've seen this pattern over and over again, both as a historian and from direct observation.

And those readers who have had such first-hand experience are no doubt nodding their heads at this point and thinking of their funniest anecdotes that demonstrate this point.

What's unique is the almost total way various enablers keep up this pretense, making the situation far more extreme than usual. Presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush no doubt believed in their positions. But having to confront daily a firestorm of ridicule and criticism forced them to question themselves constantly, to make adjustments, and even to change. policies that clearly were either not working or were too unpopular.

That's the way the system is supposed to function.

What is different now are the following points:

--In the past, there was a lot of feedback from non-government institutions that had to be taken into account. Even if you were a smug, arrogant son-of-a-gun you had to be cautious so as not to be embarrassed or humiliated by doing something dumb and getting called on it. The Obama Administration doesn’t have to worry, and that has a bad effect on its behavior.

--Conservatives and Republicans still have to live by the old rules because they get no such pass by these institutions. On the contrary, they are subjected to intense scrutiny, biting criticism, and even deliberate misrepresentation. So whether or not they are correct, they know that every mistake or miscalculation will be relentlessly highlighted. This can be annoying and unfair but it is also a good thing for a government to deal with critics and not just courtiers.

If Sarah Palin says something stupid, a hundred sources will ridicule her and she won't make the same mistake again. If Barack Obama says something stupid he won't learn anything because of the silence of the fans.

--Conversely, politicians want to be loved by the "cream" of society, the people they meet at Washington cocktail parties. They are stung by being considered fools and so trim their sails in order to court praise. But if the intellectual elite, the universities, the mass media, the cultural elite, and Hollywood almost unanimously sing your praises daily it is easy to think you are infallible no matter how wrong you are.

--The career bureaucracies at the State and Defense departments represent an institutional memory and an independent source of information and analysis. Even if one doesn’t agree with ideas and proposals put forward by the uniformed military, Foreign Service, and civil service, they have a lot of experience and knowledge that is indispensible.

Unfortunately, while all presidents decide not to listen to this advice at times no one has done so more freuquently than the Obama Administration.

This is partly due to having a secretary of state who is a former rival and a secretary of defense who is a holdover from the previous administration. The CIA is led by someone who is clueless, while the national security advisor is a political operative who administers ideologues who have their own channel to the president.

In short, this is a moment in history when external and internal checks have failed to an almost unprecedented extent.

--Finally, it is helpful to have a president with some grasp of international affairs, who is willing to depend on someone with tremendous knowledge (think of President Richard Nixon’s close working relationship with National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger), and doesn’t think he already knows everything.

Let’s face it, why would a man who has only been a community organizer, adjunct law professor, state legislator, and very briefly a senator with a bad attendance record have a real feel for international affairs? The fact that he is an ideologue and arrogant even by the usual standards of politicians and presidents makes things worse.

So while there are some very good people in U.S. government agencies and even some very competent political appointees, the mess does result from arrogance, stupidity, ignorance, inexperience, and ideology of those who are making the final decisions.

Of course, it is also true that the ideology guiding these decisions--which is supposedly so wonderful--is objectively quite destructive of U.S. interests. A reader wisely suggests the maxim that there are those who know what they are doing and those who don't. For those who really understand the ideology they are promoting, it is intended to weaken the U.S. role in the world because they think it has been bad, to end U.S. leadership because they think it has been bullying, and to empower various people in the Third World because they think that they've been oppressed and exploited by the United States.

They are thus doing a huge amount of damage and dismantling--hopefully only temporary--much that American diplomats and soldiers have spent decades in building.

Yes, they are doing the best they can. And that’s precisely the problem.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at 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 His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

U.S. Government, Media Completely Wrong on Egypt, Now Advise on Peace Process

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

One of my readers points out that last February I mockingly quoted the New York Times' assurances that everything would be all right with Egypt’s revolution:

“The New York Times piece…answers Israeli concerns with a `reassuring' response:

"`Arab analysts counter that new Arab realities and democracies should be welcomed by Israel, because the new Arab generation shares many of the same values as Israel and the West. [That remains to be seen, doesn't it? BR] They argue that there is no support among Egypt’s leaders for the abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty, though it is unpopular with the public, and that the Egyptian Army will not disrupt foreign policy.’"

Note that while in this paragraph the newspaper was quoting “Arab analysts,” this was precisely the line the newspaper was taking. Before Mubarak fell, none of the concerns about the revolution were even reported seriously. After it took place, they still sneered at these warnings.

Now, without a single mass media outlet admitting that they were wrong, the Times runs pieces like this:

“Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel's and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran.”

And one has to add to that the attacks on the natural gas pipeline that supplies 40 percent of Israel’s needs and the Pew poll showing hostility to the United States and majority support for throwing away the peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, there was even a protest by social network types urging the peace treaty be ended.

Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post gets it but his comprehension is so rare it is almost jarring to read him while holding a newspaper in one's hands:

"If Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas moves forward with the reconciliation with the Islamic Hamas movement, it will mean he has written off the Obama administration and the peace process it has tried to broker, once and for all."

One cannot sue the media for malpractice. But most of these same newspapers daily urge Israel to make more unilateral concessions and take risks. They have no awareness of how this situation fits perfectly with the question of Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

Here’s what the Times and other media might say as a Palestinian state was being created:

"`Arab analysts counter Israeli concerns that a new Palestinian state should be welcomed by Israel, because now the Palestinians will settle down to developing democracy and their economy.They argue that there is no support among Palestine’s leaders for discontinuing the peace treaty with Israel, though it is unpopular with the public, and that the Palestinian security forces will not disrupt foreign policy.’"

And then two months later:

“Palestine is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to let Palestinian groups cross the border with Israel to launch attacks, stepping up anti-Israel propaganda, and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran.”

What then would President Barack Obama and the European Union, and the academics, and experts, and media say then, when Israel faced cross-border terrorist raids from the state of Palestine along with no dimunition in Arab and Muslim hatred?:

 Sorry about that? Who knew they'd break their word? Why did you listen to us?

No, they wouldn't even say that.

Don’t worry. Israel has already understood that game very well and won’t listen to them, which won't stop them from criticizing it for following its interests rather than their advice.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Will Speak to Congress

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

To try to turn American liberals and Democrats--and especially Jews--against Israel on the pretext that they are only opposing Israel's current government, there's an attempt to portray Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to make a major speech before Congress as a partisan appeal for Republican support against a Democratic president.

It isn't. It's an institutional appeal for congressional support against a partly unfriendly, partly uncomprehending, and partly ideologically stupified president.

While U.S.-Israel relations in terms of military aid and cooperation have remained good, there have been lots of political problems. The truth is that these problems have come amost totally from Washington not Jerusalem. I've been documenting this for more than two years.

The truth is also that Israelis across most of the political spectrum know that they cannot trust the Obama administration for help, support, and protection. On many occasions, it has helped Israel's enemy or to create dangerous situations. Do you really think that Israelis trust Obama to decide the terms of peace with the Palestinians when he and his White House colleagues simply don't understand the issues involved?

Incidentally, the same applies for most countries in Latin America, Central Europe, the southern Caucasus, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states, India, and several Asian countries. And its becoming increasingly true in much of Western Europe, too.

In Congress, there are not only Republicans but a majority of Democrats whose instincts and knowledge of international affairs exceed those of the president. Among those people is the likely source of a Democratic revolt against the administration's mistaken policies. We've already seen that begin, especially on Israel-related issues. Now that's the bipartisan spirit in action!

So can Israel be blamed for not wanting to put its fate in Obama's hands? Come to think of it, given so many mistaken foreign policy positions, should the Democratic Party want to leave its fate and the country's fortunes in Obama's hands?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fatah-Hamas Agreement: Another Nail in the “Peace Process’s” Coffin

This article is published on PajamasMedia. The full text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

Suddenly, after years of persistent failure, Fatah and Hamas--which means the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas--have signed a detailed reconciliation agreement.

Why now? It's preparation for the UN and the claim that the PA is sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians. In exchange for being able to claim it now rules both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fatah (PA) made huge concessions that it has always refused to give before.

Naturally, the accord will break down. Presumably after the PA gets a lot of support for being an independent country later this year and before projected Palestinian elections in 2012.

Why is Hamas going along with this? Because the deal gives it a lot, including a promise of elections in a year. Hamas won the last elections and presumably is confident--especially as it looks at electoral successes for Hizballah in Lebanon and probably soon for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt--that it will win again.

But there's also another reason. Hamas is probably quite happy with the idea that many countries--and perhaps the UN--will recognize an independent Palestinian state unconditionally. In other words, there will be a widely, or internationally, accepted Palestine without the need to make peace with Israel. No concessions need be made. The Palestinians will get everything and give up nothing. They will not be bound in any way by border changes or security guarantees. The struggle to wipe Israel off the map can continue.

It's Hamas's dream come true.

Anyone who thinks this helps the peace process is deluded. Hamas will never accept any peace agreement with Israel and will radicalize Fatah's negotiating position out of competition between the two rivals to prove their militancy. The race to commit the most bloody terrorist acts would also intensify.

Make no mistake. Whether or not this development has any direct effect on the ground, it's another step toward the death of any real Israel-Palestinian peace process.

For a detailed account of the deal:

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at 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 His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

If The Obama Administration Doesn't Understand Syria's Dictator is No Sensitive Westernized Wimp, It Understands Nothing

This article is published on PajamasMedia. The full text is published here for your convenience.
By Barry Rubin

Why was Egyptian President Husni Mubarak so evil in the eyes of the Obama Administration while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seems to enjoy endless indulgence?

If you cannot explain this fact then the current government's policy cannot be justified in terms of U.S. interests. And if the media and most "experts" were not solidly soft on the incumbents that policy would be torn to shreds and help up to public ridicule.

Consider this simple comparison

Mubarak: Ally of America; Assad: Enemy of America

Mubarak: Enemy of Iran; Assad: Ally of Iran

Mubarak: Fights revolutionary Islamism; Assad: Sponsors revolutionary Islamism

Mubarak: Opposes international terrorism; Assad: Sponsors international terrorism

Mubarak: At Peace with Israel; Assad: At War with Israel

Mubarak: Supports peace process; Assad: Sabotages peace process

Mubarak: Repressive; Assad: Extremely repressive

Mubarak: Dictatorship with some pluralism; Assad: Total dictatorship

Mubarak: Mixed economy; Assad: Largely Soviet-style statist economy

Mubarak: Limited reforms; Assad: No reforms at all

Obama Response to Egypt Upheaval: Mubarak must go! Yesterday isn't soon enough!

Obama Response to Syria Upheaval: I'm sure if we show a little patience and understanding Bashar will show himself the Westernized, sensitive reformer we expect him to be.

Well, you get the idea.

No matter how much you favored the overthrow of the Mubarak government and the success of that revolution, you should support all the more the overthrow of a worse government that is far more hostile to the United States and the West.

And yet there is this bizarre illusion in the Obama Administration that somehow--despite two years of total failure by American flattery and concessions to get Assad to do anything, anything!--he's a good guy.

And despite the fact that he's shot down hundreds of demonstrators--more than Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen put together--the most minor response is acceptable.

The failure of the Obama Administration effort to engage the UN human rights council is shown by that body's total uselessness in dealing with Middle Eastern dictatorships. No, it's worse! It's largely comprised of Middle Eastern and other dictatorships.

Here's an administration official quoted in the New York Times on these points:

"Administration officials say that while they lack many effective economic tools, they believe Mr. Assad is sensitive to portrayals of his regime as brutal and backward. `He sees himself as a Westernized leader,' one senior administration official said, `and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.'”

Is this for real? How cannot one be sarcastic and hypercritical when leading U.S. officials think that a ruthless dictator--in fact, the most cleverly ruthless dictator in the Arabic-speaking world--really cares if people in the West say mean things about him.

Look, anyone who has read any of Bashar's speeches and watched his action should know that the exact opposite is true. He knows he looks like a giraffe and has a most non-macho past. He has based his career on trying to be like his father, tougher than his father. Bashar has constantly posed as the toughest of the tough, the patron of Hamas and Hizballah, the chief resister who taunts Israel and spits in the face of Uncle Sam.

It would be impossible to find someone more eager to be a brutal dictator and who does not see himself as a Westernized leader. If this were the "Godfather," Bashar would be Michael, not Fredo.

If the Obama Administration doesn't understand this, it understands nothing. Yes, that's the point. It understands nothing.

And if they still don't get it, let them examine this graphic illustration by Martin Berman-Gorvine, done specially for Rubin Reports:

P.S.: In an interview with a Los Angeles Times correspondent covering the upheaval in Syria, the NPR host and the journalist tried desperately buf futilely to find some way to excuse Bashar of blame for the killing of demonstrators. Perhaps he didn't have enough riot control gear or someone else gave the orders? Truly amazing apologetics. With Israel's they act like a lynch mob, with Syria like a groupie. How revealing.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at 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 His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Anti-Democratic Super-Weapon: How The West is Being Turned Into A Version of the Middle East

This article is published on PajamasMedia. The full text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

I have long thought that we are experiencing what might be called the Middle Easternization of the West but never fully understood it until a friend asked me a question.

Why is it, he asked, that when moderates in the Arab world are attacked they always react defensively and apologetically, trying to prove that they also hold safely radical views?

The key, I realized, was the existence of basic principles that were beyond question and could be manipulated to ensure conformity. There are four main commandments of this type, along with several secondary ones. They can be expressed in the following terms:

Thou shalt hate Israel with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all they might.

Thou shalt have no other ideological deities before the promotion and protection of Islam.

Remember the importance of Arabism and keep it holy.

Thou shalt not speak well of the West or of its works.

To prove my point, if I had written the previous four lines in Arabic as a citizen of an Arab country I would be risking my life or more likely my career. There are individuals who have done so but their number is limited. They have almost all been either Western-educated or spent many years living in the West. And they often end up having to flee there. Individual rebels who disregard the consequences--I can give you a list if you like--they may be brave but this is not the stuff of which whole movements are made.

The existence of these imperatives limit debate, not only because someone crosses the acceptable line but far more often because they can be accused of doing so. People lie, people misunderstand, people want to win arguments, and to win or hold onto power.

That’s why the authors of the American Constitution forbade limits on freedom of speech: because once you start creating off-limit areas the worst thing that happens is the empowerment of people who have a self-interest in setting and misusing these limits. They can administer these no-go zones by declaring anything they don't like to be a hate crime.

Before explaining how this has been transferred to the West, let me give a random example of how this works in the Middle East.

A few year ago a group of courageous Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals produced a manifesto calling for Lebanon to be a truly sovereign country rather than a satellite of Syria. How did the Syrian regime and its stooges in Lebanon respond? By accusing them of being Zionist lackeys.

You see, there was no way out of the trap. The authors of the manifesto had left out the Israel issue. First, that wasn’t their subject. But also it was a no-win situation. If they had gotten into the issue they would have had to say that, of course, Israel was the main enemy of Lebanon and of the Arabs. Therefore, since Syria and Hizballah were fighting Israel they had every right to use Lebanon as a base for the battle. To interfere with those resisting Zionism and American imperialism was equal to siding with the enemy.

In short, they had no right to complain about Syrian domination in the first place. Now imagine that this is extended to every single issue in public life.

Women’s rights? Do you want to copy the Western enemy? What if this contradicts Islam?

Peace with Israel? You can imagine. And so on. The response to any statement or event is entirely predictable. I can tell you the text of the speeches and newspaper articles in advance. This system becomes a straitjacket.

Incidentally, the transition to electoral politics may well intensify this problem, since now instead of just the regimes and Islamists slinging mud at each other, there will be multiple parties competing to use these issues for their benefit against rivals. In the 1940s and 1950s, the radical nationalists and Islamists used this to destroy moderate parties in Egypt,, Syria, Iraq, and among the Palestinians. Already we see this system of competitive demagoguery being revived in Egypt.

An Arab proverb that applies here is that no voice can be allowed to rise above the din of battle. If the absolute evils of Zionism, imperialism, and the infidel West are fighting it out with the absolute goods of Arabism and Islam, how can there be any real open debate permitted?

Of course, the left has always had its slogans of class warfare. But that's precisely the problem. One can shout about the downtrodden workers and the greedy capitalists. Many people, however, don't accept this argument. Indeed, since it is class warfare there are large groups--historically a large majority in America--that define their interests as being against these politics.

What is needed is a foolproof tactic, one to which there is no institutionalized opposition so that even your enemies must bow their heads in shame and knees in homage when called names.

So how has the Middle Eastern approach revolutionized Western discourse? What slogans are potent enough to shut people up instantly?

Racism! Homophobia! Islamophobia! And to a lesser extent, perhaps, Sexism! The minute you are accused of racism you are finished. There’s no effective response. And fear of being accused shuts most people up. Criticize the policies of President Obama? Racism!

Call for enforcement of immigration laws? Racism!

Explore the boundaries between religious Islam and political Islamism? Islamophobia!

Suggest that thousands of years of history has defined marriage exclusively as between a woman and a man? Homophobia!

There are no pro-racism, pro-Islam-hating, pro-sexist, or pro-homosexual-baiting lobbies. Indeed, all of these things are at an all-time low in the West, rare to a degree unthinkable a decade ago. Yet the pretense must be that such dangerous enemies are lurking everywhere, just as Communist regimes constantly uncovered conspiracies that justified their existence and repression. 

Thus, freedom of speech, rational discussion, and opposition are trumped by "higher values." The most basic and long-held principles are quickly jettisoned in fear. Newspapers accept censorship, intellectuals embrace telling lies, and women's rights' groups cheer the suppression of women's rights in Muslim societies. Those who have spent years fantasizing how they would have been heroic resistance fighters against dictatorship fold, trembling, in the face of a single letter of complaint.

Remember, victims of this tactic don't have to be actually guilty but merely accused to be considered guilty. Consequently, and most likely of all, they would already have been intimidated into silence.

And then you are finished as completely as any Arab or Muslim accused of being a running dog of the Zionists and imperialists. In many cases, those in public life so branded might as well get a shopping cart and hang out on street corners collecting bottles to return for the deposit.

Most Western observers who look at the Middle East don’t comprehend how these core accusations work there. Who cares about fighting Zionism when it comes to providing jobs or collecting garbage? Well, yes this system does transcend pragmatism, which is why it blocks progress.

One might as well say that there can be rational discussions of budget cuts, immigration, counterterrorist policy, and dozens of other issues in Europe or North America. The manipulation of these core accusations is destroying academia and scholarship.

Public, even semi-public expressions of racism are virtually extinct in America, whatever might be inside people's minds and hearts. The level of hostility toward homosexuals has fallen faster and further than anyone would have believed a decade or two ago. As for Islamophobia, its definition is unclear but certainly its scope has been greatly exaggerated by those who have a political interest in greatly exaggerating it.

The critical point is this: For every bit of "hate speech" or action, there are hundreds, even thousands of false, politically motivated accusations. Like the secret police in a dictatorship, the forces must seek out new crimes and conspiracies. But unlike an earlier phase of genuine efforts to promote tolerance, the strategy becomes a political one for crushing dissent and consolidating support for the prevailing ideology and rulers.

If laws restrict freedom to speak in the West on a variety of topics then people can be legally in a way making the West arguably more restrictive than Muslim-majority countries which, after all, generally solely restrict Islam from open discussion.

The idea that the West would transform the Middle East in its image has become a bad joke. It is the West that is becoming transformed into another version of the Middle East. And if you want evidence, three of the Arab world's main taboos--support for Israel, praise for America, and any critical discussion of Islam--have also become among the things forbidden in large sectors of Western society.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at 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 His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

Monday, April 25, 2011

Syria: Crackdown Begins; West Does Nothing

This article is published on PajamasMedia. It is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

As I predicted yesterday, the Syrian government has now started a full-scale violent crackdown against oppositionists beginning in the south, the most active area for protests. Dozens of people are being killed or wounded. Where are the Western governments and mass media who are ready to criticize Israel at the drop of a hat and are mainly stuck in the theme of, "Please, Mr. Dictator, be a reformer!"

This should go down in history alongside the indifference to the Warsaw uprising of 1944, the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and the indifference to Iran's repression in 2009 as a shameful Western failure. Ironically, this comes at the very moment of supposed obsession with protecting civilians and a confused war in Libya which--whether or not it is the right thing to do--is far less important in both humanitarian and national interest terms.

About three years ago, a brave Syrian dissident asked me if there was hope for democracy in Syria in his lifetime. When I hesitated to answer, he said, "Perhaps in my children's lifetime." Little did I dream that the West's refusal to help would be as responsible for the long wait as the regime's demagoguery and repression. Shame on President Obama who for the second time--Iran being the first--has only empty words at a time when one of the world's most repressive states, enemy of America, and sponsor of terrorism could be brought down.

In recent weeks, the Western countries have said that Mubarak must go, that Qadhafi must go. But not a single one has said what should be shouted out right now: Assad must go!

Warning: Middle East Analysis Gone Inaccurate

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

OK. I admit it. It’s hopeless. When prestigious newspapers can’t get the most basic points about the Middle East correct, when they make mistakes that I wouldn’t expect from an undergraduate taking an introductory course on the contemporary Middle East (by the end of the first semester, not on the opening day).

Years ago, an acquaintance of mine wrote a novel whose plot involved brain surgery. His mother was bragging that he had become an expert on brain surgery.

I joked, “Yes, but you wouldn’t want him to operate on you!”

She quickly responded, “He could if he wanted to!”

And that is precisely the situation that exists in regard to understanding the Middle East today. Most of those carving away with scalpels as analysts or policymakers—especially since September 11 and even more so since Tahrir Square—should never be let into the operating room.

I’m not going to say the newspaper’s name because it isn’t relevant. This stuff is omnipresent. The argument is as follows: Syria is in turmoil; the West is tied up elsewhere. What to do?

Brilliant idea! Turn the problem over to Turkey! It likes getting involved in things and it should do its best to persuade the Syrian dictatorship not to kill people. Also (and it is hard not to laugh while writing this):

“Turkey is able to provide Syria with a model of a well-functioning democratic and secular Muslim majority state, an example that Syria could follow.”

[Note: The words have been altered so don’t try googling it.]

Unfortunately, this robust democratic and secular state has been moving toward Islamism for most of the last decade, hundreds of people have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges, Turkey is number one in the world in terms of jailed journalists, Turkey is an ally of the regime in Syria, and also of Iran.

Oh, yes, and Syria has been ruled by a largely secular regime for about fifty years.

Other than that, it’s a great idea.

Let’s summarize:

There’s a problem in Syria an ARAB country that we don't want to go ISLAMIST or to be allied with IRAN. So let's turn it over to the non-Arab TURKISH GOVERNMENT who are ISLAMISTS and allied with IRAN and also one of the Syrian regime’s two best allies. (I’m not including Lebanon since that is a satellite state.)

You see, a lot of the problem for governments and the media in dealing with the Middle East derives from politics and ideology. But also a lot arises from just plain total ignorance.

The general public cannot be expected to know better. Yet when government officials (the Muslim Brotherhood is secular?; Hizballah is moderate?), journalists dealing with international affairs, and “experts” who provide the talking heads (recently I heard a top expert when asked to cite examples of contemporary moderate Islamists, name two people who have been dead for almost a century; did a single expert on the mass media point out that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a radical group that favors violence?) make the most basic errors, ignore what they say and expect things will turn out differently from what they predict.

Syria: Is It So Hard to Understand that Bashar al-Assad Is Dictator Not A Reformer in Training?

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

It is often hard to believe the density of some New York Times writers. One can disagree with someone and still respect them, or you can find their opinions too illogical or detached from reality to take seriously.

Consider this passage from the New York Times article of Robert Worth on April 25:

"Mr. Assad could still succeed in quelling the unrest, diplomats and analysts say. But to do so he would have to realize the hopes once placed in him when he inherited power from his father 11 years ago and confront his own family, which controls Syria’s thuggish security apparatus and appears to be pushing hard for a continued crackdown."

Note the touching belief on a level with illiterate nineteenth-century Russian peasants who believed that "if only the czar knew" about the malfeasance in the kingdom all would be made right.

The truth is that anyone who placed any hope in Bashar when he took power--or at least within the first few months--was quite deluded. His father got rid of the old guard to ensure Bashar's firm rule, something Egyptian President Husni Mubarak should have learned from. There is no old guard.

Who controls the "thuggish security apparatus" but Bashar himself? And who is the big power in his family? His sister and brother-in-law with whom Bashar closely coordinates his reign.

This kind of mediocrity would look bad on a college newspaper, much less what used to be called the "newspaper of record." But then this is the same newspaper--and same establishment view--that has yet to acknowledge that a policy of trying to win Assad away from Iran through flattery and concessions was totally ridiculous and has failed totally.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Syria: Who Is the Opposition and When Is The Moment of Truth?

This will be published as my Jerusalem Post column but I own full rights so please only credit this site if you forward or reprint.

By Barry Rubin

There’s a bit of a mystery regarding Syria. First, who is the opposition? Second, what will happen?

Having been the first to warn about the threat and power of Islamists in Egypt, I think that’s earned me some credibility to say that Syria may well be a different case. There is a possibility of an Islamist takeover and of an ethnic conflict in Syria, make no mistake, but a number of factors suggest that those things might not happen.

First, ironically, in Syria as in Tunisia the tough repression against radical Islamists by the regime has weakened those forces. It is easy to forget that Mubarak’s Egypt was a relatively tolerant country. The Muslim Brotherhood was allowed to operate, spread its propaganda, build a large membership, and control institutions. In Syria, there was a bloody suppression of the Brotherhood in the 1980s. Islamists are a lot less organized.

Second, while this might seem a paradox, while Islamists opposed the Egyptian regime they largely have supported the Syrian one. While the dictatorship in Syria is nominally secular—and was strongly so in earlier decades—President Bashar al-Assad courted Islamists with his foreign policy. After all, his government has been strongly anti-American (though a lot of American officials, journalists, and analysts did not seem to notice), anti-Israel, allied with Iran, supported Hamas and Hizballah, and backed the terrorist insurgents in Iraq.

What’s there for an Islamist not to like? Indeed, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood declared a few years ago that it was not permissible to oppose the Assad regime because of these policies.

At home, the regime promoted an Islamism that it hoped would support the status quo. While some of these post-Brotherhood preachers might be itching to go for an Islamist revolution, they seem to be hesitating both because they are suspicious of the anti-regime opposition, like many current policies, and think Assad might well win.

No doubt, there are people in the protests who want to fight Israel and battle America. But if that's your view, why not just support the continuation of the Assad regime? In fact, why not denounce the protestors as CIA and Mossad agents trying to subvert the revolutionary Islamists' best friend in the Arabic-speaking world? The government does this and the Islamists can join in.

Third, Syria is a very diverse country. While Egypt is about 90 percent Sunni Muslim Arab, the figure for Syria is about 60 percent. There are Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Kurds, too, of which only the Kurds are Sunnis and they have a lot of nationalist feeling against the regime. The Christians tend to support the regime, however, fearing radical Islamism, a concern that events in Egypt and Iraq have no doubt increased.

Fourth, the Sunni Muslim Arabs, the constituency for revolutionary Islamism, also provide a large part of the middle class, secular-oriented, pro-democracy movement, thus providing a strong alternative leadership. Consider that Islamism has never made big inroads within the Sunni Muslim community of Lebanon. The parallel is far from exact but gives a sense of that situation.

Fifth, my sense is that in Syria there is a stronger pro-democratic middle class and a relatively more urbanized population. Having lived under a dictatorship that used Islamism to stay in power—like Iran but the opposite of Egypt—people are more skeptical about that doctrine.

I don’t mean to suggest that Islamists are unimportant and might not emerge as leading forces, but roughly speaking I would bet that while the level of support for Islamism in Egypt is at around 30 percent—and has a tremendous capacity for growth—the equivalent number for Syria is about 15 percent and is naturally limited by the size of the community.

Again, there are a lot of Islamists and potential Islamists in Syria. They are among the demonstrators. Some fire and brimstone speeches have been made and the slogan of “We only want to live under Islam” has been raised. The content may seem ambiguous but everyone in Syria knows what that means. It would be a disaster for the Christians and the Alawites who collectively form more than one-quarter of the population.

As to what will happen, there will come a moment of truth and I believe this period has now begun. One sign of that was the eruption of serious demonstrations in Damascus. Another would be if inter-communal strife began or if there was any real sign of a split in the army.

Remember that all the Arab regimes have a three-level priority of response.

Level 1: Hope that the protests will go away and can be waited out.

Level 2: Respond with a mixture of repression and promises.

Level 3: Go to heavy repression and killing people in order to destroy the protests and intimidate people from participation.

The shah’s Iran in 1978, as well as Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, did not go from Level 2 to Level 3 because large elements in the elite did not want to do so. In contrast, in Iran, everyone knew that the regime would not hesitate to go to Level 3.

The moment of truth on this point—the transition from Level 2 to Level 3 has apparently begun in Syria. When it is in full motion the regime will either respond ruthlessly, indifferent to international reaction, or will lose its nerve. All of the nonsense about Bashar as a reformer or about the existence of an alleged “old guard” will disintegrate fast. 

(You notice that people babbling about Bashar being a liberal restrained by the "old guard" never give specific names. That's because such people don't exist. Bashar is the old guard.)

Does Bashar have the killer instinct like dear old dad, or is he just a wimpy eye doctor? Assad means lion in Arabic, and Bashar will either have to bite and scratch or be quickly perceived as a cowardly lion. And that would be fatal.

There’s no third alternative. If he falters, the demonstrations will grow much bigger very fast. Would the army, and especially the elite Alawite-dominated units, replace him and take over? Possibly.

For the moment, though, the case for cheering on and helping the Syrian revolution is stronger than that of Libya by far. But by the same token, its prospects are poorer than in Egypt or Tunisia precisely because those states were more moderate than the ruthless, radical Syrian regime.

Who Makes U.S. Policy? UN, Arab League, international community or U.S. Government?

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The text is published here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

This interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deserves close analysis for a reason that neither I nor anyone else noticed before.

"QUESTION: But, I mean, how can [Libya] be worse than what has happened in Syria over the years, where Bashar Asad’s father killed 25,000 people at a lick? I mean, they open fire with live ammunition on these civilians. Why is that different from Libya?


"QUESTION: This [Syria] is a friend of Iran, an enemy of Israel.

"SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, if there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal – but that is not going to happen, because I don't think that it’s yet clear what will occur, what will unfold."

On one hand, what Clinton says is quite logical. It doesn't make sense for Western countries to send forces to Syria and start bombing. But that's not the issue. The issue is about supporting the Syrian opposition and really comprehending that Syria is an enemy of America whose regime deserves no quarter. 

Yet what does Clinton begin with as the reasons for treating the two differently? Let's list them:

1. "a coalition of the international community"

2.  "passage of Security Council resolution"

3. "call by the Arab League"

4.  "a condemnation that was universal"

But, she correctly concludes, "that is not going to happen."

Now, this is no way for a U.S. secretary of state to speak. What about U.S. interests? What about an independent American decisionmaking process?

Again, these steps might be appropriate for military action--which, again, is not the issue here--but let's recall, for example, how President George Bush set U.S. policy on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and then put together an international coalition on the basis of decisions made on the basis of U.S. national interests. That's the way it's supposed to work. Not the other way around.

Since Syria is an American enemy killing Americans in Iraq and backing terrorist groups to a degree exceeded only by Iran--which is its ally and also an enemy of the United States--why does the U.S. government need an international coalition, UN resolution, Arab League call, and universal condemnation to act?

At any rate, this kind of things certainly does not apply for taking a strong U.S. stance of diplomatic opposition, freezing all the concessions this administration has given to Syria, recalling the U.S. ambassador in protest, building an anti-Syria alliance, blocking Syria's takeover of Lebanon, working actively to eliminate Syria's Gaza client, supporting the Syrian opposition and trying to bring down the regime, punishing Syria for its surrogate warfare against the United States in Iraq, and so on.

But instead the kind of thinking this administration all too often represents turns over U.S. power and sovereignty to others.

Every American secretary of state from 1789 onward would be shaken and shocked by such thinking. They would say: No, the United States determines its interests, sets its policy, and implements that policy. Getting international support is an element in that process but it is a byproduct of U.S. interests and decisionmaking; not the other way around.

It is preferable that the United States act multilaterally if possible, but it is not the precondition for action either. Nor should trying to maximize foreign support require too much watering down of the measures taken or--in the case of the Iran sanctions--smoothing passage by giving exemptions to Russia, China, and other countries thus gutting the sanctions.

Similarly, the U.S. government should not become so obsessed with international popularity and multilateralism as to ignore it when countries stab it in the back, as Turkey's government did on the UN sanctions issue. Nor should it bring situations, as is happening with the unilateral Palestinian independence issue at the UN, in which the United States opposes something as dangerous but doesn't lobby energetically with other countries on it.

During the Cold War, the United States usually acted with coalitions under president after president. Even the supposedly obsessive unilateralist President George W. Bush put together an international coalition to invade Iraq.

Yet now broad international support has in many cases become the precondition for U.S. action or indeed formulating a U.S. policy at all. In other cases, the U.S. government  refuses to take leadership as if such behavior was a demonstration of high virtue. This kind of thing has become so common as to be accepted without anyone even noticing.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Big Historic Event Today: Syria's Biggest Crisis in 40 Years

By Barry Rubin
Today Syria has entered its biggest internal crisis since 1970. The regime has come out to crush the insurrection. Either it will succeed by killing many people or the insurrection will build into a real potential revolution.

And the Western states are doing...precisely zero.

One Syrian expert friend responded: "Less than zero."

Here's White House press secretary Jay Carney on Air Force 1, April 22:

"As we have consistently throughout this period, we deplore the use of violence and we’re very concerned about what we’ve -- the reports we’ve seen from Syria. We are monitoring it very closely; call on the Syrian government to cease and desist from the use of violence against peaceful protestors; call on all sides to cease and desist from the use of violence; and also call on the Syrian government to follow through on its promises and take action towards the kind of concrete reform that they promised."

That's fair and evenhanded: They are monitoring closely; both sides must cease their violence; and Syria's dictatorship must end the state of emergency. Sort of sounds like insisting the revolution stop without changing anything.

What happened to: Mubarak must go now! Yesterday! Qadhafi must go or else! Or even condemning Israel at every opportunity that involves even the claim of the mistreatment of one Palestinian?

Oh, right, Bashar al-Assad is just an anti-American dictator who is even now a leading sponsor of terrorism; ally of Iran; host and facilitator for terrorists killing Americans in Iraq; just caught trying to get nuclear weapons secretly; aggressor against Lebanon; torturer of political prisoners; and so on. It isn't as if he were a real problem for U.S. interests!

Note: After this article was written President Obama issued a tougher statement.

It begins:

"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators. This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now. We regret the loss of life and our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims, and with the Syrian people in this challenging time."

It continues saying that Assad has not fulfilled his promises of reform and that the Syrian people are rightfully demanding human rights and ends: "We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people."

But once again: Or what are you going to do about it?

Now compare today with what Obama said about Iran two years ago when it was arresting thousands of demonstrators and shooting unarmed protesters:

June 2009: “I would suggest Mr. Ahmadinejad think carefully about the obligations he owes to his own people."

April 2011: "We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people."

Ahmadinejad didn't think then; Assad won't change or heed now; Obama didn't do anything then and won't do anything now.

The Plan in Libya (in 100 words)

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

Here's what's happening now in Libya:

--Western forces bomb Libyan government forces on various pretexts.

--Give intelligence to rebels.

--Give military advisors to rebels.

--Give rebels arms indirectly.

Goal: Rebels win war with no direct Western intervention on the ground or Western casualties. Dictator Muammar Qadhafi falls; Western intervening states say: All we did was protect civilians and have a no-fly zone! We stuck to the UN resolution.

What happens afterward? Not clear anyone has thought that through.

In a few years critics will skewer this operation as deceptive. One hopes they won't also be ridiculing a catastrophic outcome.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Western Self-Destructiveness: A Small Example Regarding the Arab Media

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

There are two major Arab satellite television networks.

One of them is al-Jazira, owned by Qatar. Beginning as a radical nationalist station, al-Jazira became several years ago an Islamist station. News is slanted against America and the West; discussion shows turn into lynch mobs against moderates; and--though this is a well-kept secret--al-Jazira helps terrorist target-spotters by letting them pose as staff members to get into certain countries.

A moderate Arabic-speaking friend of mine who was on a show told me that while he expected the network to be only 99 percent antagonistic he was wrong. It was 100 percent hostile. When I was invited on a show, I refused since the other interviewee to discuss Israeli policy in a supposedly serious manner from a supposedy analytical viewpoint was a Jewish member of Fatah who had supported anti-Israel terrorism.

Then there is the number-two network: al-Arabiyya, owned by the United Arab Emirates. Al-Arabiyya isn't perfect but it is a real moderate network that tries to be more balanced and does not incite anti-Western hatred. It is run by one of the best Arab journalists in the world who has shown himself to be an advocate of democracy and an opponent of revolutionary Islamism and Iranian-Syrian power over the region.

So, which network is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the current U.S. government, and various well-known American media figures promoting as a wonderful, terrific source of accurate news?

Why, al-Jazira, of course!

What Will Happen on the "Peace Process," Why It Will Fail, Why It Will Do Harm

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By Barry Rubin

There is confusion on two points regarding the Israel-Palestinian "peace process."

First, will the Europeans give unilateral recognition to a Palestinian state without any commitments at all to Israel. There are conflicting voices in Britain, France, and elsewhere about what these states intend. The fact that such recognition conflicts with every commitment they have made to Israel for twenty years doesn't seem to figure in their

Second, is there going to be a U.S. plan for resolving the conflict that will be offered with confident smugness and end up by making things worse? Reportedly, though it might not be true, there are four principles in the projected U.S. plan:

--Israel accepts a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.

Let's see, the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will be closed and the corridor connecting Jerusalem to the rest of the country reduced to a very narrow neck that can be cut by a Palestinian state whenever it chooses. Tens of thousands of Israelis will be displaced from settlements within one mile of the pre-1967 borders. A lot more can be said on this but these are two immediate points.

But there's another detail here. What might it be? Ah, yes, the second to last president of the United States agreed that Israel would get to negotiate its own borders with the Palestinians. Later, that same president proposed minor border changes involving about three percent of the West Bank but allowing Israel to protect its security and keep a large portion of settlers where they were without taking property belonging to individual Palestinian Arabs. In exchange for these promises, Israel made concessions and took risks.

The last president before this one promised--in exchange for more Israeli risks and concessions--that the United States would support the incorporation of "settlement blocs" along the lines mentioned above--into Israel.

In the autumn of 2009, the Obama Administration promised Israel, in exchange for the settlement freeze and other steps, to accept the settlement bloc idea.

Now the Obama Administration proposes to abrogate all of these promises, raising the question of why should Israel believe any of its future promises.

--The Palestinians giving up their demand that refugees or their descendants return to Israel.

This would, of course, be a concession in Israel's favor. But the Palestinian Authority would never and could never accept this. It won't happen. "President" Mahmoud Abbas opposes it, his public overwhelmingly rejects it, and Hamas would make too much political advantage from such a concession. Forget it.

"We oppose any U.S. peace plan which wants us to waive one of our most basic rights and that is the right of return for refugees," Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath said. And he's a relative moderate who has been coddled--and enriched--by U.S. governments. Far from being pleased the U.S. peace plan will make Palestinians even more anti-American. What do we need Obama for, they will say, when we can get everything we want through a unilateral declaration of independence, violence, and patience.

--Jerusalem would be the capital of both states.

While Israel would not want to make such a concession, it is possible. Prime Minister Ehud Barak even proposed this in 2000. But if Israel gets nothing in exchange such a concession is unthinkable.

--Security guarantees for Israel.

Sounds good but there are four problems.

First, while borders and Jerusalem, major concessions for Israel, are demanded ahead of time, the guarantees for Israel would only be defined later. The Israeli concessions are front-loaded; the concessions from the Palestinians will never come.

Second, such ideas as a non-militarized Palestinian state, a ban on foreign military forces being allowed in there, Israeli early-warning stations along the Jordan, or other such things, are not going to be accepted by the Palestinian Authority.

Third, who is going to be making these guarantees? The United States and Europe? The United Nations? Yet the first have repeatedly broken promises to Israel and the second is going to remain passionately and unfairly anti-Israel no matter what concessions Israel makes and after a Palestinian state is created.

Consider the last very big promises regarding security guarantees:

In 1993, the United States and others guaranteed the Oslo process. But when in 2000 the Palestinians didn't live up to their commitments, refused to negotiate, and launched a war of terrorism against Israel, the West did nothing.

In 2006, the United States, others, and the UN guaranteed Israel's northern border with Lebanon, promising to keep Hizballah from returning militarily to southern Lebanon, block arms smuggling to Hizballah, and even help to disarm that terrorist militia. But since then not only have these promises not been kept but there has been no serious attempt even to try.

In 2008, when Hamas tore up the ceasefire and attacked Israel, the main Western and UN response was to blame Israel for defending itself.

These are not encouraging precedents.

Fourth, any commitment the Palestinian Authority makes does not bound Hamas which rules almost half the Palestinian people and territory. There is absolutely no way the United States, Europe, or UN will make Hamas observe a peace agreement. And they won't even try.

How can anyone even pretend to negotiate a peace agreement that doesn't bind the co-government of that people and territory? Moreover, as we are now seeing in Egypt, if a new Palestinian government comes to power by election or coup it will feel totally vindicated in disregarding any agreement made by its predecessor.

This, then, is the context of a proposed new U.S. peace plan. Might the U.S. government, the mass media, or the "experts" acknowledge and respond to any--even a single one--of these points? One hopes a lot but doubts even more.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at 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 His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hillary Stamps Her Foot; Dictators Laugh

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday condemned violence in Syria and said the Syrian government must stop the arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of prisoners."

There's a problem with that word "must." See, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot help overthrow or move away from allies, stress your own weakness, decry your past leadership and use of violence, and appease radicals without losing a certain amount of credibility.

What's the United States going to do if the Syrian regime continues arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of prisoners? Isn't Hillary Clinton the person who called Syria's dictator a reformer? Isn't head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and potential next secretary of state John Kerry praising the repressive Syrian dictatorship?

Didn't the U.S. government abandon Lebanon to Syrian control? Help consolidate the rule of Syrian client Hamas in the Gaza Strip? Make clear its strong criticism and limited backing for Israel? Rush to bring down the regime in Syria's main Arab rival, Egypt?

Hasn't it tightened relations with Syria despite that regime's human rights violations, sponsorship of terrorism, and even involvement in murdering Americans in Iraq?

So why the [expletives deleted] should Syria's anti-American, Iran-backed, dictatorship care about such people telling it what it "must" do?

What will the Obama Administration do if Syria's regime shoots 500 or 1000 opponents? Issue a press release?

Even warnings from experienced U.S. diplomats and advice from senior military officers have been largely ignored.  Everyone in the Middle East--and all too few in the White House--understand how totally ridiculous this government appears in the region.

Surprise! Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Seeks Islamist Dictatorship

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The text is presented here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood wants an Islamist state in Egypt. After all, that's been its goal since the organization was founded almost 75 years ago, a goal from which it is never deviated for one minute.

Yet some people are shocked, shocked, to see revolutionary Islamism going on. Still, something positive may come out of the Brotherhood leaders' loose lips.

Two Brotherhood leaders, Mahmoud Ezzat, the deputy Supreme Guide, and Saad al-Husseiny, announced the group's two-stage strategy, though I'm expressing it here in my words:

Phase one: Use its new Freedom and Justice Party to build a broad base of support. Do well in a couple of elections. take 30 percent of parliament, lay the basis for an Islamist state in the new constitution.

Phase two: Use anti-Western and anti-Israel demagoguery, preach Islamism in every possible way, indoctrinate young people, watch as a more secular regime fails, and then establish a radical Islamist state with the full array of special punishments, killing of converts, jihad against Israel, etc.

As always happens with Islamists, success breeds arrogance. The Brotherhood was trying to pretend moderation--a tactic that has worked brilliantly with Western journalists--and keep its mouth shut. But once things started looking good, its leaders couldn't stop themselves from bragging about their future total triumph.

Meanwhile, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has announced that France is ready to talk to all Muslim Brotherhood groups. There are two particular problems here. First, using logic to analyze the foreign minister's position goes like this:

--France's government says that the country will talk with all groups that have renounced violence.

--France's government says that the country will talk with all Muslim Brotherhood groups.

--Therefore, France's government says that all Muslim Brotherhood groups have renounced violence.

The last statement is, of course, untrue. The Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhoods--and one coud add the Palestinian Brotherhood, better known as Hamas, too--have not renounced violence. They openly and daily advocate violence against Israel, and the Egyptian Brotherhood has also called for jihad against the United States.

Concluding that the Brotherhood is now a pacifist group thus totally discounts any threat from it.

Second, Juppe said--in words that echoed Obama--that France was fooled by Arab leaders (Egypt? Jordan? Saudi Arabia?) who said that revolutionary Islamists were a threat. "We believed them," Juppe explained, "and now we can see the result."

So the Brotherhood is non-violent, non-threatening, and doesn't seek a radical Islamist regime. That's a basis for disaster if used by Western policy to set strategy in the Middle East. And that's precisely what most Western decisionmakers seem to think. 

But something good may come from this. With the Brotherhood acting arrogant, other groups are uniting against it. This candor might well weaken the Islamists over the next year or so, though their longer-term prospects for seizing power are still very real.

Obama's Passover Message Misses The Message of Passover

This article is published in PajamasMedia. It is reprinted here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

There's some controversy about President Barack Obama's Passover message. The key passage is this:

“The story of Passover…instructs each generation to remember its past, while appreciating the beauty of freedom and the responsibility it entails. This year that ancient instruction is reflected in the daily headlines as we see modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Ironically, of course, Israelis and Jews who support that country generally see that transformation as being in a negative direction from their standpoint and the forces being liberated involving a good deal of anti-Jewish ones.

I think the greater problem here is the endless universalizing of specifically Jewish experiences that are never seen as sufficient in their own right, as well as the basic opportunism of making Passover into an event backing Obama Administration policy.

But a peculiar personal experience of mine has given this controversy a special meaning for me. Some years ago I attended a dinner in Washington that was one of those endless--and always futile--events bringing together Arabs and Israelis for "dialogue." Since it was during the Passover table, the thoughtful hosts had placed matzo on the table.

One of the Egyptians, a relatively moderate diplomat who had built a whole second career in the peace process industry, said in an annoyed voice something like: "Isn't this a Jewish holiday that celebrates a victory over the Egyptians?"

I had a fraction of a second in which I knew I had to think of the perfect answer. And it came to me. I replied, "That was during Jahiliyya times." He nodded with understanding and the problem was solved.

The Jahiliyya era, for Muslims, was the time of pre-Islamic paganism and ignorance. In the Koran, the pharoah was a villain. So if it happened then he could see the "Egyptians" as having nothing to do with him and accept that the pharoah was a bad guy who deserved to be drowned in the sea.

Here's the problem. When radical Islamists killed President Anwar al-Sadat, they said, "I shot the pharoah." One of the reasons that Sadat was assassinated was because he made peace with Israel. Another reason was that he opposed making Egypt an Islamist state. Now that President Husni Mubarak has been overthrown, he's referred to as the pharoah for reasons including those two.

An important lesson from Jewish experience--for those willing to heed it--is that change is not always good and that some things never change. But after all, the Jews were doing pretty well in ancient Egypt until there came a pharoah who knew not Joseph.

It is also no accident that the Passover seder reminds us: "In every generation, there are those that rise up against us to destroy us...." Wow, does the history of the last few years prove that to be true!

Left-wing Jews, who also generally don't like Israel, have failed to grasp that lesson. And those who joined the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist movement thereafter often learned that lesson the hard way.

The Biblical text reminds us how the problem began. A new ruler decided that his predecessor had been too friendly to the Jews. Now, he warned, the Jews had become too strong and so must be defeated, enslaved, and finally wiped out entirely through a genocidal policy. That has rather different implications for the contemporary situation than the version given by Obama.

In the Middle East, the collapse of old democratic regimes and their replacement by Arab nationalist ones--and in Iran by an Islamist one--marked the end of centuries'-old Jewish communities. The passing of a bad ruler or a bad system often leads to a worse one.

It remains to be seen whether the recent events in the region are ultimately going to be ones of liberation for people living under the new regimes. It should already be obvious, however, that the result in Egypt is dangerous for Israel's security and very bad for U.S. interests. The main concern stemming from Obama's Passover message is that he still has no clue regarding this reality.

Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have gone the opposite way from liberation with no serious U.S. effort to reverse events or even realization that what has happened is disastrous social transformation at the hands of radical Islamism assisted by Iran and Syria.

Indeed, in Iran and Syria, two places where change could be genuinely liberating, the Obama Administration has done nothing to help.

More genocidal-minded radical nationalist and Islamist forces may come to power elsewhere. The main concern stemming from Obama's Passover message is that he still has no clue about such things. Indeed, I think Obama genuinely does not understand that social transformation and change can be a very bad thing.

Finally, there is another aspect of Passover that Obama could chosen to have emphasized, though I doubt he heard the Reverend Wright preach on it. The purpose for which God took the Jews out of Egypt in the first place. For otherwise, the creator of the Universe might merely have transformed Egypt into a multicultural society, right?

"God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, `I am the Lord...I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob....I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan....'"

At a time when Israel's right to exist is coming increasingly into question--mainly so among Obama's supporters--that would have been a nice gesture.

PS: Bonus supplemental jokes.

Joke 1
What will be Obama's Hanukkah message?
Answer: It shows the need for renewable green energy since oil will burn for only one day and is thus unsustainable, but using wind and solar can make the lamp last for eight days!

Joke 2
What did Obama not want to remind people about Passover?
Answer: That as a prelude to enslaving the Jews, pharoah set the tax collectors on them.
Exodus 1/11: "So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens...."

Joke 3
The Passover seder does not include the lines, "Next year in West Jerusalem."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The State of the "Peace Process," An Enlightened Mass Media Viewpoint

This article is published in PajamasMedia. The full text is provided here for your convenience.

By Barry Rubin

Mass media editorials are worth analyzing not because they influence government policy—they don’t—but because they reflect current thinking in elements of the elite and sometimes precisely what high government officials are thinking.

Nowadays the New York Times gives us the loony concepts that dominate America’s government. What is shocking—the equivalent for an analyst of coming upon some amazing geographical feature like the Grand Canyon—is the massive craters of logical contradiction. You can’t believe that these could possibly go unnoticed by their authors but they do. Once you have an ideology that doesn’t conform with reality anything is possible.

In contrast, the Washington Post reflects the most enlightened elite thinking. To read a Post editorial is almost to be persuaded that there is something approaching a normal situation in Washington, where policymakers still live by such things as national interests, credibility, rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Far from perfect, mind you, but sane. A good measure of the credit, at least when it comes to the Middle East, should go to one man, Jackson Diehl, who—to use current slang—“gets it.”

When one reads Post editorials it is usually possible to feel hope. When one reads the Times editorial one often feels like buying Iranian war bonds and hiding in a cave in New Zealand.

Recently, the Post had an excellent editorial asking the simple question: Why is the U.S. government acting as if Syria’s dictatorship is a good guy and its ruler a “reformer” when it is far more repressive than its Egyptian counterpart was, not to mention anti-American, an ally of Iran, opposed to Arab-Israeli peace, and a huge sponsor of terrorism including killing Americans in Iraq?

These are the kinds of points one would expect to be made daily rather than once in a blue Ban Ki Moon. And so while it is understandable that I was concerned when I saw the headline—“Will the Arab Spring bring a peace agreement with Israel?”—the Post came through. The answer is basically “No.”

The opening paragraph is very good:

“ONE OF THE MOST remarkable aspects of this year’s Arab uprising has been the absence of the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the agenda of protesters. It turns out that the rising generation of Arabs is preoccupied not with Palestinian statehood but with political freedom and economic opportunity in their own countries. It follows that for the United States and other Western democracies, the most critical challenge in the region in the coming years will be guiding Arab states toward liberal democracy and preventing the rise of new authoritarian or extremist Islamic regimes.”

Note the two key basic points that are the most important concepts for understanding the contemporary Middle East:

--The Arab-Israeli conflict ain’t everything.

--While liberal democracy is better, new authoritarian (I read that as radical nationalist) or extremist Islamic regimes are a threat to be combatted.

If this part of the Post editorial ran for president, I’d vote for it.

The editorial goes on to say that “Western diplomats and politicians nevertheless remain preoccupied with creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the issue is likely to return to center stage in Washington in the coming month.” Indeed, there is a desperation to push the issue by U.S. and European leaders that has nothing to do with reality.

The editorial actually points out—gasp!—that the Palestinian leadership is largely responsible for the impasse:

“The problem with this policy is that Palestinian leaders have little interest in negotiating with the current Israeli government. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just twice in two years and has conditioned further talks on concessions that he knows Israel will not make — such as a freeze on all housing construction in Jerusalem….As President Bill Clinton learned a decade ago, such interventions won’t succeed if the parties themselves are not ready to deal.”

With amazement, this reminds me of how rare it is to find such logic and accuracy in mainstream media coverage of the issue, which usually just says the problem is Israeli intransigence, ignoring the history of the last two decades and more.

The editorial then proposes “a more practical approach” in which the administration presses “both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to begin taking unilateral steps to lay the groundwork for two states.” In other words, a process. The suggestion is that Israel withdraws from more of the West Bank while Abbas is pressured “to begin talking to Palestinians about why peace with Israel is desirable and what concessions will be necessary—something he has never done.”

While well intended this approach runs into the usual problem that Israel is asked to make a material and irreversible concession while the other side is merely asked to alter its words. And this is being proposed at the very moment when Egypt's new regime is openly talking about tearing up the Egypt-Israel peace treaty! At any rate, Abbas won’t do what is being asked even if Netanyahu were to fulfill fully the good-faith action requested of him.

And here we come to the real problem between media, expert, or policymaking opinion and reality. The Palestinians can’t make a deal because their leadership is too weak. They won’t make a deal because most of their leaders are still radical. And they are even less inclined to make a deal since recent developments strengthen their Hamas rival. Moreover, the West has taught them that the more the Palestinians can seem to suffer the greater the international support for them.

All of these points come together to answer the question: “Will the Arab Spring bring a peace agreement with Israel?” The answer is that it makes a peace agreement less likely.

The other part of the editorial I don’t like is the one about the Palestinians not wanting to negotiate with this Israeli government. Let’s pose a hypothetical. What if the biggest dovish Israel party and leader of the time became prime minister and offered an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and more as a starting point for talks. Let’s say that the United States under a liberal Democratic president offered full support and $21 billion as an opening compensation offer. Surely, the Palestinians would conduct serious negotiations with that government?

Oh, no, that was Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000.

OK, try this one. An Israeli prime minister desperate for a deal and willing to give away even more because otherwise he will fall from office offers additional concessions. Surely, they would negotiate seriously for a comprehensive agreement then?

Oh, no, that was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.

Beginning to get the picture? Why then is it so hard for Western elites to do so?