The Region: In the Middle East, fear trumps popularity

The region's dictatorships have too much to lose by compromising - even with someone as nice as Obama.

By BARRY RUBIN
September 13, 2009 22:23
4 minute read.
The Region: In the Middle East, fear trumps popularity

barry rubin new 88. (photo credit: )

When people are very pessimistic, I say to them: Don't worry our enemies will save us. By that I mean that the enemies of peace, progress and democracy - Islamists and radical Arab nationalists, terrorists, neo-Marxist dictators and silly people in the West alike - are so intransigent, prone to lying and dangerously wrong about society that they will convince and force most people to reject them. Even when thrown lifelines, they reject concessions, turn up their nose at compromise, go too far and become astonishingly illogical. There are many examples. The relatively soft approaches of the US and Europe gave Iran a great opportunity. Teheran could have feigned flexibility, pretended cooperation and extolled engagement. This would have forestalled sanctions, while it could still have secretly worked on nuclear weapons. After all, even after a virtual coup by the most hard-line faction, stolen election, repression, show trials of dissidents and appointment of a wanted terrorist as defense minister (that's a pretty amazing list, isn't it?), the West was still willing to deal with the regime. Instead, Iran produced an "offer" to negotiate so minimal that even the Europeans rejected it. While this doesn't mean all is well - Russia and China will block and sabotage even moderate sanctions and Western Europeans will oppose really harsh ones - at least Iran's last-minute effort to derail the process altogether will fail. Imagine what the Iranian regime could have done if the ruling establishment had elected someone less extreme than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then claimed this showed what a moderate democratic state it was running. A charm offensive could have defused the nuclear controversy, sanctions would have been taken off the table, and Iran could have built nuclear weapons at a more sedate pace. NOW TURN to Lebanon. Hizbullah was riding high there. A new government was going to give them both 30 percent of the cabinet seats and veto power over all government policies. But when the March 14 coalition, which won the elections, presented its own list of ministers, the Syrians and their Hizbullah allies rejected it as insufficiently subservient. This pushed March 14, which had been steadily conceding, so hard that it dug in its heels and rejected these demands. Negotiations will now have to start all over again. The Syrians could have regained most of their former power over Lebanon - Hizbullah was practically in the driver's seat but that wasn't enough for them. The same applies to eager US attempts to engage Syria. But the Damascus dictatorship wouldn't give an inch to gain a yard. The Syrians weren't willing even to deescalate terrorism in Iraq for a while. Washington is getting annoyed. Syria could have wiped out US sanctions, gained good relations with Europe and have the Obama administration turn a blind eye to its terror-sponsoring and subversion throughout the region. Instead, it threw away this opportunity. The same applies to Hamas. It tried a little to pretend moderation and some Western suckers were swallowing the bait, but it couldn't sustain the pretense very long. The Palestinian Authority offers an even clearer example. Imagine how much it could have gained by playing along with the US president's desperate desire to help. It could have shown flexibility, professed eagerness to establishing a Palestinian state on something approaching reasonable terms. Its success would have been tremendous. At the very least, the PA could have easily engineered the biggest US-Israel conflict in history. But from the start PA leader Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that he was asking for everything and giving nothing. Their best chance has thrown away. One more, historic, example: In late 1990 or early 1991 Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could have cut a great deal - part of Kuwait, billions of dollars and the appeasement of Gulf Arab states. Instead, he refused any agreement, kept his army in Kuwait, and suffered a military defeat. He did the same in the 2000-2003 period when he could have made a good bargain for stopping his nuclear program in exchange for concessions. Instead, he did the opposite: He pretended to keep the program even when he cut back. IT IS vital to understand why this patterns repeats itself so often. First, these forces really are radical and extremist. They don't want deals; they want total victory, all disputed land, complete dictatorship, expulsion or extinction of their adversaries. Second, they believe their own propaganda. They think they can win and assume those on the other side are weak and doomed by deity and history. Third, they are wedded to brutal methods. Terrorism is the tool of people who exult in deliberate violence against civilians and among whom gunmen and their values rise to the top. Fourth, they fear internal rivals and their own people who they know have been so conditioned by extremism as to reject moderates as traitors. This is obviously less true in Iranian politics but applies to Palestinian politics. Equally important, if any individual leader in these circles wanted to follow a more moderate policy, he knows rival leaders would use this against him, to destroy his power and perhaps kill him. All these leaders must continue to ride the tiger or be eaten. The fact that they helped give birth to the tiger in the first place won't save them. Finally, this is the region's political style: Toughness counts; fear is better than popularity. In contrast to Western viewpoints, to concede or compromise shows weakness which means others will walk all over you. Of course, this is precisely how they view the West's sensitivity and apologies. "Confidence-building" measures become contempt-building measures. Many Western leaders and much of the Western intelligentsia are like people sleeping through a burglary. Not only are their friends trying to wake them up, so are - however inadvertently - their enemies.


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