The Region: Yogi Berra was right

Things not to expect any time soon, despite what the pundits say.

By BARRY RUBIN
December 3, 2006 22:04
4 minute read.
barry rubin 88

barry rubin 88. (photo credit: )

 
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One thing I've learned from 30 years doing contemporary history about the Middle East is that Yogi Berra was right. You might remember the great New York Yankees' catcher, who was almost equally famous for mangling the English language. "It's tough to make predictions," he once said, "especially about the future." But what can be done with a fair degree of certainty is to rule out scenarios that are not going to happen. Sometimes, though, these unlikely outcomes loom so large as to blot out much more likely, or dangerous, developments and lead to disastrous policies. The best way to expose these fallacies is to look at the basic interests, track record, and goals of those involved. Remember that what is most important is how the political actors actually portray their interests and goals, not how outsiders think of them, or believe they should. I find a structural approach most useful. Look at how a governmental or social system really functions rather than what it explicitly claims. Also, statements made in their own language are usually more revealing than what is said in English for foreign consumption. And, finally, primary sources are more useful than arguments by journalists or "experts." I want to know what Bashar Assad said, not what reporters or academics said about what he said. A good example of the false prediction that takes over people's minds is the belief by many US policymakers in the 1980s that communists might take over Iran and/or that Soviet forces might invade that country. Yet a simple look at the facts should have quickly dissuaded anyone from expecting such things since communists were almost non-existent in Iran, and the Soviets were in a period of decline, were too over-extended in Afghanistan, and so on. Acceptance of this basic expectation was a key factor, leading to the ill-fated secret conversations and arms deals with Iran conducted by the Reagan administration. Then there was the belief that radical Islamists would never attack America directly. Whenever I was asked, back in the 1980s and 1990s, why this hadn't already happened, my answer was always given on the condition that it wasn't put into print. The answer: because they don't realize how easy it is. ANOTHER WHOLE set of fallacies has been the peace-is-at-hand prediction. This one has special strength because people want to believe it. Indeed, and this has really happened numerous times, those who explain why peace isn't going to happen are accused of being "against peace." All one has to do, however, is look at the ideology, goals, performance, and structure of a group like Hamas today - or Fatah a half-dozen years ago - to see why the tough decisions necessary to achieve a political settlement are not going to happen. A related category of mistaken predictions is based on the belief that moderation is an absolute necessity for political movements or countries. The truth is that radicalism is often a viable - even profitable or inevitable - position. How to take power or stay in power often requires extremism, at least in the Middle East. The belief in imminent peace or inevitable moderation takes up a huge proportion of space in public debate about the Middle East. It also obsesses many leaders, producing distorted policies. These problems are very much in evidence today. IN LIGHT of the above analysis, here are some things I feel confident are not going to happen, at least for a very long time:

  • Hamas is not going to moderate, stop terrorism against Israel, or make a compromise peace.
  • The Palestinians will not reach an internal political solution, turn toward economic development, or moderate their positions.
  • Syria's government is not going to help any compromise solution in Iraq, make peace with Israel, or stop trying to take over Lebanon.
  • The current regime in Iran will not stop trying to get nuclear weapons, subverting the region, or sponsoring terrorism.
  • The incumbent Arab regimes - with a few exceptions among the smaller Gulf states - will not implement any substantive economic or political reforms.
  • Hizbullah will not moderate its goals. Even if it adopts "political methods," these are merely at the service of its extremist goals. Anyway, at the same time Hizbullah - like other radical groups - sees no reason why it shouldn't use violence at the same time as it holds demonstrations or runs in elections.
  • All the same points apply to the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) in Turkey.
  • The communities in Iraq will not reach any power-sharing compromise until one side in the civil war has decisively defeated the other. Democracy, in the meaningful sense of the word, is not coming to the Arabic-speaking world very soon.
  • Most Western Middle East "experts" will continue failing to understand the Middle East. Honestly, I'm doing my best to explain these things. But as Yogi once pointed out, "There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em." The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.

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