The Region: A measure of the distance of peace

In the Arab-speaking world, the 'honor' gained through fighting trumps any material benefits gained through negotiating.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
The number-one mistake people make trying to understand the Middle East is refusing to believe folks here think differently from themselves. As Captain Ahab hunted the white whale, as prospectors hunt for gold, as... well, you get the idea, so is the hunt for the great Arab moderate. There are Arab moderates, some very smart and brave people. The problem is none are in positions of power and all must shut up or face repression, defined as enemies of their people. The view of the Middle East held in much - or most - of the Western media, academia, intellectual circles and large sections of governments is a fantasy that bears no relation to the region itself. One should work against dangerous extremists by cooperating with the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Kuwaiti, UAE and Iraqi governments as well as the Lebanese pro-independence forces, though these all have multiple faults. But one must recognize limits. You can't cooperatewith the Iranian and Syrian governments, Hamas and Hizbullah or the Muslim Brotherhood - not even against al-Qaida which ultimately - despite September 11 - poses a far lesser threat than they do. THE LAST half-century's most basic lessons have evaporated, partly due to Western policy mistakes - of excessive softness, not toughness - but mostly due to the incredible power of the region's political and intellectual system. What keeps the region crisis-ridden, extremist, undemocratic and unstable is not merely a system imposed by evil regimes on an innocent public. True, regimes continue their self-serving Arab nationalist, semi-Islamist, anti-Western, anti-Israel, demagogic messages urging the masses to support their local dictator. But this is what the public wants to hear. Rulers would be in far more trouble if they told the truth. The glorification of terrorist Sami Kantar is widely seen in the West as revealing something deeply wrong in the Arabic-speaking world. Yet there's also much denial. The New York Times explained Kantar's attack had gone terribly wrong when he murdered Israeli civilians, when in fact, this was the raid's purpose. In another article, the Times intoned: "The United States, Israel and some of their European allies have begun to recognize that their policy of trying to defeat their enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed." Yet Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas dispatch Kantars on missions against not only Israeli but also Iraqi and Lebanese civilians. If the extremists should not be vilified, should they be praised? If they should not be isolated, should they be embraced? Is the feting of murderous Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in Paris or parleying with the genocidal-oriented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran the correct policy? Why did the US government welcome the Syria-Iran-Hizbullah victory in knocking down Lebanon's moderate government? Who's the villain in Iraq, the United States or the terrorists? FOR THE Arabic-speaking world, the true heroes are still the terrorists. What horrified me most is not radicals cheering Kantar but that most relative moderates feeling compelled to do so. At the airport to greet him were leaders of Lebanon's anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian Druse and Christian groups as well as the ambassadors from Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Morocco. To avoid being discredited, relative moderates must affirm that anyone who murders Israeli children is a hero. That's the measure of how far - despite daily headlines to the contrary - the region is from Arab-Israeli peace. YET IT'S untrue the prisoner exchange has strengthened or encouraged the radicals. The truth is even worse: No matter what happens they'll do exactly the same things. If every operation and casualty is a victory, a profit-loss calculus doesn't apply. They'll kidnap if there's a prisoner exchange; they'll kidnap if there's no exchange. Triumph is continuing the struggle. Violence, death, and instability is cause for celebration. Charles Harb, a Lebanese professor, claimed in the i>Guardian, "The secret of Hizbullah's success" is that its ability to get back some prisoners and bodies or force Israel out of south Lebanon "is in stark contrast to what 'Arab moderates' could show for in the same decade they spent negotiating with the Israeli state." The Saudi-backed, London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat, however, reminded readers that Hizbullah's success cost "$5.2 billion in losses and 1,200 dead" in the 2006 war. In addition, the south Lebanon war took almost 20 years, and Israel would have withdrawn far sooner if it had not been trying to block attacks against its territory. The claim that Arab moderates have gained little through negotiation is also quite wrong. By negotiating with Israel, Egypt got back the Sinai, reopened the Suez Canal and western Sinai oil fields and received about $60 billion to date in US aid. The PLO got the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank, putting more than 2 million Palestinians under its rule. Thousands of its prisoners were freed (more, of course, were taken because of its continuing violence), many billions of dollars in aid were obtained, and it could have had a Palestinian state if it so desired. So who came out better, Egypt and the PLO (especially if it had really stuck to negotiating) or Hizbullah? Psychologically, the Arabic-speaking world says Hizbullah because the "honor" gained through fighting and not yielding the dream of total victory trumps material benefits. Better martyrdom than compromise, better resistance than prosperity. As long as this is true, there's no hope for peace; even those who know better are dragged into shouting militant slogans. This doesn't fit Western concepts of pragmatism, expectations that militants are just aching to be transformed into moderates, or that settling grievances through concessions defuses hatred. That's why policy prescriptions based on those premises are disastrous. While the West concludes that trying to defeat enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed, the other side concludes its policy of trying to defeat its enemies by violence, vilification, and intransigence is working. That means more of the same: many decades more of the same. 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.