The Region: Discovering the obvious

Arab "moderates" blame Israel, Arab radicals blame America.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Success in the world, whether individual or national, ultimately depends on the ability to understand reality and respond appropriately. It requires addressing your actual weaknesses and fixing your real problems in a process of constructive self-criticism followed by a process of reform or correction. That isn't the way the Middle East works. At the same time, though, that's also not the way most of the world sees the region. As a result, we must be profoundly grateful when someone discovers the obvious. Here are three examples of this phenomenon. The first comes from David Brooks, writing in The New York Times on April 8. Brooks attended one of the endless series of dialogues which always seem to follow the same pattern. The program was supposed to be getting "Americans and moderate Arab reformers together to talk about Iraq, Iran, and any remaining prospects for democracy in the Middle East." But, guess what? All the Arab speakers wanted to discuss was Israel and its alleged control over US policy. In Brooks's words: "The problems between America and the Arab world have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism or ideological extremism... They have to do with American policies toward Israel, and the forces controlling those policies." And, by the way, all the problems within the Middle East, too, stem from Israel. That includes not only the Arab-Israeli dispute, but also all the crises in Lebanon and Iraq, and those stemming from Iran's ambitions. The Americans tried to get their counterparts to discuss other things, including the need for modernization in the Arab world. They failed. THERE WERE two points in this that Brooks failed to understand. No, make that three. First, he saw this as a new phenomenon, as if it was something that had developed recently, when of course it has been consistent. Second, he thought that the result of this kind of behavior would displease the Arab side: "Faced with an arc of conspiracy-mongering, most Americans will get sick of the whole cesspool" and look for anything that will let them get out of the region. This, of course, is precisely what both Arab nationalists and Islamists desire. The third point was brought out by a reader in a letter published April 12. The author, Michael Smith of Cynthiana, Kentucky, shows more wisdom than a boatload of Middle East experts. Here is his letter in full: "David Brooks reports that 'moderate Arab reformers have traced the problems in Iraq, Iran and other Middle East hot spots to a country roughly the size of Massachusetts that dominates the affairs of its Arab neighbors and operates a puppet government in Washington as well. "OK, but what do the hard-liners think?" The answer to his question is simply this: Moderates think the United States behaves the way it does because it is Israel's puppet. Radicals view Israel as America's puppet. Thus, the moderates think it is possible to deal with America by convincing it to change its evil ways, while radicals view the United States as irredeemably imperialistic. ANOTHER example of discovery comes from the well-known blogger who calls himself IraqPundit, an Iraqi exile. He writes of watching an Al-Jazeera television show on which a Somali guest complained about Islamist terrorists making the lives of Somalis miserable. The host responded, "You sound like the Iraqi government when it calls any act of resistance 'terrorism.'" This sent IraqPundit into a spin. Suddenly, all he could think of was "Iraqi men, women, and children choking to death in a cloud of chlorine gas released by one of the noble resistance's truck bombs... I saw Iraqi girls who had gone to school and Iraqi mothers who had gone to the market, all murdered and lying in a sea of Iraqi blood." He concludes, "But that's Arab nationalism, isn't it? When the Ba'athist regime was overthrown hardcore nationalists equated Arab 'honor' with the survival of brutal and tyrannical trash. Now they equate 'resistance' with our slaughter." MY FINAL example comes from an Islamist Internet site, courtesy of MEMRI's translation. One member posted an article opposing a nuclear attack on America by Islamists since the resulting US retaliation against Muslims would be devastating. He also stated that Muslim religion permitted revenge only on those who directly commit an act of aggression, and not on unarmed civilians. Most responses strongly disagreed, starting with one that began, "This article was not written by a Muslim... but by an American... [probably from] one of their strategic centers for countering the Islamic jihad." The notion was that anyone who opposed attacking a stronger adversary by killing millions of people must be an enemy agent. Of course, the great majority of Muslims reject doing any such thing, but the argument that those who speak in real-world terms are traitors is widespread, a constantly employed tactic. THERE ARE two basically wrong responses to all this in the West. The first, the radical one, is that these claims about Israel's omnipotence, the virtues of Arab nationalist "resistance," and the right to murder Westerners are correct. The alternative, more "moderate" stance, which appeals to a far wider circle, is that since Arabs or Muslims truly believe these things, such grievances must be addressed by apologies, policy changes and concessions. When it comes to the Middle East, there is often nothing more difficult than discovering the obvious.