The Region: Ideology is a powerful deceiver

We are living in a time when pragmatism no longer dominates the Western intellectual and political debate.

By BARRY RUBIN
January 9, 2011 23:07
Obama speaks at a press conference in Jakarta

Obama speaks in Indonesia 311 AP. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Some of my readers are bothered when I say that mistakes in Western Middle East policy are caused by stupidity and ignorance – abetted by ideology – and want to argue that the shortcomings are due to deliberate sabotage or evil intentions (often against Israel).

I can understand why people think such things. But almost 40 years of studying the Middle East have shown me time and again that foolishness, misunderstanding, wishful thinking and naivete are powerful forces in international affairs. As the great statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand put it almost two centuries ago: “This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.”

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Remember that we are dealing with people (policy-makers, journalists, academics) who are trying to function across cultural, experiential, historical, linguistic and usually religious lines. And what is their biggest handicap at present? Why, the very denial that such lines exist. Once you accept the assumption that everyone is basically alike in their thoughts, dreams, goals and worldview, you have no hope of understanding anyone who has a different standpoint.

True, sometimes these decisionmakers and opinion-makers (especially the academics and European journalists) have taken up partisan positions. Yet this is far less true for politicians and policy-makers who must keep in mind both their own and their country’s interests. We tend to focus on extreme exceptions – which certainly exist – but are a minority.

Ideology, of course, is also a powerful deceiver. It sets up preconceptions that often dominate even when the facts go against them. Central here is the sad reality that we are living at a time when ideology rather than pragmatism dominates the Western intellectual and political debate.

The academic world has broken down to an astonishing extent in terms of its ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. The mass media have followed this pattern, albeit to a lesser extent. Thus, the Western world has been deprived of its two greatest sources for “reality checks.”

That’s devastating.

“Since the masses are always eager to believe something,” said Talleyrand, “for their benefit, nothing is so easy to arrange as facts.”

But what’s worse is the domination of governments by forces that cannot even acknowledge that the great struggle of the time is between revolutionary Islamism and other radical forces – as in not only North Korea, Venezuela, etc., but in the West as well – and traditional liberal Enlightenment, democracy, freedom of speech, Western civilization and family values.

In Talleyrand’s words: “To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool than to discover who is a clever man.”

Of course, a number of Western governments do things that favor the wrong side in terms of domestic policies. It is easier to believe that in domestic affairs there is a hidden agenda, an ideologically dictated series of goals concealed because the public would reject them if it understood what was really going on.

Yet when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, many Western leaders think they are buying peace and stability when they are actually undermining it, precisely because they don’t understand their enemies. Often, they no longer seem to understand the foundations of statecraft either. Perhaps this is symbolized by people being able to obtain a degree in “conflict resolution” but not learning about the uses of force, deterrence and credibility.

CONSIDER A little case study. The Obama administration has messed up on Israel-Palestinian issues for two years, a story I can tell – and have, in previous articles – in great detail. Recently, it proposed a three-month freeze of construction on West Bank settlements. If it had gotten precisely what it wanted, this would have led to no gain at all.

The administration reportedly promised Israel a great deal if it agreed to the proposal. The Israeli government responded cooperatively. Yet what was the US government offering? Apparently, the administration was so incompetent as to contradict itself to the point where Israel couldn’t figure out the supposed deal. Then the Palestinian Authority demanded more, and even if it was given concessions wanted to sabotage talks.

In short, the Obama administration became increasingly entangled in seeking a goal that wasn’t worthwhile, offering more and more but in a confused, contradictory manner, and having to deal with Palestinian leaders who refused to cooperate and an Israeli coalition that might splinter over the issue.

So the administration abandoned the whole mess. Yet to read the explanations available to average Americans, or even opinion-makers, one would never know any of this clearly. The alternative explanations mostly blame Israel for Washington’s failure.

Indeed, after two years in which Israel has offered to negotiate with the Palestinians every day and they have refused to negotiate almost every day, the ruling establishment, mass media and academia generally persist in saying the deadlock is Israel’s fault.

If people are unable to understand the simplest points – due to preconceived ideology, a failure to look at the facts or and inability to understand them – we are not dealing with a conspiracy, but with what might be called intellectual blindness.

What is the way out?

First, keep explaining the truth, since there’s a large portion of people open-minded enough to be persuaded, if they only are allowed to see the ridiculous flaws in what they’ve been told. In other words, use the free marketplace of ideas to the greatest extent possible.

Second, let events (and the behavior of their enemies) teach people that their ideas, policies and programs just don’t work, make them look like idiots, and lead to a loss of prestige and power. That has been clearly happening.

Third, develop and put into place a counter-elite that has a far better level of understanding about how the world works.

Having seen so many different and changing eras already, I’m confident that this combination will work. Hopefully, it will work faster so that fewer people will die and suffer, while the damage already done will be easier to reverse.

Or, to quote Talleyrand once again: “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies. www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.


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