The Region: Facts and arguments

Arguments can sometimes be ignored; facts cannot -easy to forget when analyzing the Middle East.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
Dear readers, I know you're out there because I can hear you rustling the paper or clicking the mouse. While we wait for Hamas to name a government and Iran to get a nuclear weapon, it's a good moment to pause and talk about what it means to analyze and understand Middle East politics. My initiating this chat has been prompted both by a careful examination of readers' letters and a recent experience with a radio program interview.
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I explained that Hamas was a radical movement involved in terrorism and unlikely to moderate very soon. My Arab colleague was asked about these points and responded, "Professor Rubin can say whatever he wants." And then, of course, ignored all the examples I had just provided. But that's just it! I thought. I cannot say whatever I want. What I say must correspond with the evidence, factual points like quotations from Hamas figures and documents as well as the group's behavior. The analysis must be based on that evidence and must make sense of it, not just derive from someone's political preference or some theory. Categories like optimistic/pessimistic, liberal/conservative, pro-Israel/pro-Arab should not play any role with our analysis, except as impulses we should try to keep under maximum control while doing it. Arbitrary consistency is indeed, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, a hobgoblin of little minds. The role of politics should be to come in only when politicians, policymakers, or anyone else decides what is to be done on the basis of an analysis. Let me give an example, using Israeli politics for simplicity and brevity. The analytical proposition universally accepted and based on lots of evidence is that there is no partner for peace in the Palestinian camp today who is going to produce any results. The Labor party takes that and concludes it is a good idea to emphasize talks with Mahmoud Abbas as the lesser of evils. Kadima chooses unilateral withdrawals to focus Israel's efforts on territory it wants and needs. Likud argues that this conclusion makes necessary control over all the territories captured in 1967. Each party draws very different policy views from a similar interpretation of the facts. This is as it should be. Analysis should not be determined by politics or ideology. The outcome of such an approach is very dangerous and often has proven so. Instead, however, we often hear arguments to the effect of: "Hi! I'm a liberal so naturally I believe that Hamas is moderate, Iran isn't seeking nuclear weapons, and that everything in the Middle East is America's fault." Or: "Greetings! I am a conservative so I must claim that the Arabs will never make peace, Iran would immediately use nuclear weapons on Israel, and current US policy is right about everything." This is nonsense. Yet the advantage of democracy over dictatorship is precisely supposed to be that people not only are allowed to think freely but use the advantages they enjoy to do so accurately. It is dictatorships that suffer from their own restrictions when trying to figure out what is happening in the world, and they often pay very highly for those kinds of mistakes. IN THIS context, here are two basic principles of the greatest importance: We should not know what we think until after we finish looking at the evidence; we must always be ready to change our views if facts and events warrant it. A propagandist is someone who bends the evidence to prove his case and who always says the same thing. How boring and useless. A common and pernicious example of this, powerful though unspoken, is what I call "lying for peace." It goes something like this: Peace is good; tolerance of other peoples and religions is good, people having their aspirations satisfied is good, alleviating the plight of the oppressed is good. Opposite these beliefs have stood certain facts: that Yasser Arafat was a terrorist who didn't want to resolve the conflict, Mahmoud Abbas is a weak incompetent, the peace process is dead, and Hamas is going to remain an extremist terrorist group. Yet when forced to choose between these beliefs and facts, the preference has been to jettison the latter. For if peace seems more obtainable, so this thinking goes, it will be easier to achieve. It should be unnecessary to say - but alas it isn't - that such nonsensical substitution of wishful thinking and ideology for being truthful is quite dangerous. We should have learned from the 1990s' experience with the peace process that "lying for peace" produces only more bloodshed and suffering. As for optimism and pessimism, after making my analysis I am only pessimistic about two things: • That far too much, but by no means all, of Western intellectual life is dominated by blindness about the realities of the Middle East. • That during the next era the struggle for moderation and democracy in the Arab world and Iran faces an uphill battle against the forces of dictatorship and radical ideology. My despair arises not because I fear that Arab dictatorships or Islamist Iran, or Hamas, Hizbullah, or Osama bin Ladin will win but the fact that I know they will lose and in doing so inflict so much suffering on their own people. At the same time, they are blocking solutions to a wide variety of serious regional problems including terrorism, poverty, lack of freedom, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. When those in the West, through greed, stupidity or misguided intention, help prolong the era of suffering, it is inexcusable. Otherwise, though, I believe in the common sense of the Western public; the basic values of the American system; the generally good policies (in substance if not always in words and gestures) of democratic states; the extremists' failure and ultimate defeat; the long-term spread of freedom, the survival and prospering of Israel. There is much for us today in the wisdom of Charles Dickens describing his own era as simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.