Think Again: Beware of the nerds

In the Arab-Israeli context, we continually witness attempts to frame the issues as technical ones

0602-think (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
"The older I get the more I see how overrated brains are," an older friend said to me recently. Even in talmudic learning - on its face an intellectual exercise - pure intellectual firepower is an unreliable predictor of long-range achievement. So when I see the The New York Times becoming all hot and bothered by the multiplicity of Ivy League degrees in the new administration, I get nervous. There are many good reasons for Israelis to be concerned about a shift in American policy toward us. One is the appointment of Harvard professor Samantha Powers, who has called for the stationing of a "mammoth [American] force" here to protect Palestinians from genocide, to a senior position in the National Security Council. A second is President Barack Obama's Alice in Wonderland portrayal on Al Arabiya of some halcyon era of "respect and partnership" between America and the Muslim world "as recently as 20 or 30 years ago." That period includes the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran, Hizbullah's bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut, the Lockerbie bombing and a ruinous Arab oil embargo, just for starters. No one begrudges the president a few rhetorical flourishes and outreach toward the Muslim world, as long as we know he doesn't really believe what he is saying. But of no less concern is the misplaced confidence in their ability to solve all the world's problems of all those high-IQ types in the new administration. Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Lucas declared in 1996 that economists now possess sufficient knowledge and tools to end the threat of another worldwide depression forever - a boast that appears less and less well-founded by the day. The US Congress issued the economic wizards of the Treasury a blank check to free up credit markets, but so far more than $350 billion have been spent to no effect. Hints of similar hubris with respect to forging an Arab-Israeli peace are flying fast and furious from Washington. Obama's first phone call was to Mahmoud Abbas, the present or former head of the Palestinian Authority, depending on whom you ask, and one of his first newsworthy acts in office was the appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the region. The president has pronounced the Palestinian-Israeli conflict "ripe" for resolution, and even allowed on Al Arabiya that "there are Israelis who think that it is important to achieve peace." But wherefore the ripening of hopes? Has there been an end to anti-Israel incitement in the PA media? Some new polls showing a growing Palestinian rejection of terrorism? Has Fatah shown itself capable of running a state? Someone should send the president the collected news reports of Khaled Abu Toameh on the PA. Abu Toameh told an audience in Philadelphia this week that Americans have no idea with whom they are dealing if they think peace is to be had with either Fatah or Hamas. Peace will only come, he said, when the Palestinians and Israel are forced to deal with one another alone, without the former looking for an outside savior. The main lessons learned since the last bout of hyperactive American peacemaking, in the dying days of the Clinton administration, are that territorial withdrawals lead to missile fire and only an IDF ground presence can protect against missiles and terrorist attacks. Mitchell's denial that there is such a thing "as a conflict without end," prior to leaving for the Middle East reflects the same dangerous belief that to every problem there is a solution. The successful peace negotiations in which Mitchell participated in Northern Ireland did not bring about a dramatic shift in attitudes between Catholics and Protestants. Rather, those negotiations followed the emergence of a Protestant leader, David Trimble, eager to put aside old hatreds, and a radical shift in attitudes by the leadership of the IRA on the Catholic side. No such shift of attitudes has taken place among Palestinians, nor has a Palestinian civil society begun to emerge that can underpin a stable, democratic state as our neighbor. As long as the conflict remains one over Israel's legitimacy - i.e., essentially theological in nature - there can be no permanent peace. But smart technocrats are notoriously thick when it comes to apprehending the force of religion, either for good or bad, because it so rarely plays a role in their own lives. Those who entreat Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist, for instance, fail to comprehend that they are asking Hamas to dissolve itself and renounce its fundamental religious belief that all land which was ever under Muslim sovereignty must remain so forever. A COROLLARY of the smarties' overconfidence in their own problem-solving ability is the tendency to reframe every situation as a technical problem. Thus, after the first World Trade Center bombing, the Clinton administration did not awaken to the threat of Islamic terrorism, but rather treated the matter as a simple law-enforcement issue of rounding up the relevant miscreants. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen repeated the mistake last week when he waxed ecstatic about Obama's declaration, albeit sotto voce, of an end to the war on terror. From now on, no more talk of Islamic terrorism, only of defeating particular terrorist organizations. And that, declared Cohen, is "not a war, [but] a strategic challenge." Dangerous talk of civilizational clash can now be canned, writes Cohen. Apart from a few Muslims who wish to violently destroy America (and who hopefully don't include the Iranian leadership), most Muslims, Cohen declares, "merely dislike, differ from or have been disappointed by America." In other words, they have a series of local grievances, many of which can be healed by ceasing to embrace "an Israel-can-do-no-wrong-policy." Pattern recognition is one of the key indicators of intelligence, but apparently not when it cuts against the cherished belief that all problems are merely technical in nature. But some patterns cannot be safely ignored - e.g. the unique propensity of Muslims to react to grievances with murderous rage. Or the findings of a UN study written by Muslim scholars of high rates of illiteracy, scant scientific achievement, low democratic indicators and suppression of women in almost every Muslim country and every Arab one. In the Arab-Israeli context, we continually witness attempts to frame the issues as technical ones, essentially no different than negotiations over a new union contract. Each side is portrayed as seeking a slightly larger slice of the pie, and the general contours of the final solution are said to be known in advance. That picture, however, is predicated on a false equation of incommensurate items as the subject of trade-offs - e.g. recognition of Israel's right to exist versus settlements. To attempt to impose solutions without first eradicating a culture of Palestinian hatred, which has only intensified since the outset of Oslo, reflects not intelligence but a flight from reality.