“I always disagree…when people end by saying that we can only combat Communism, Fascism or what not if we develop an equal fanaticism. It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary by using one’s intelligence. In the same way, a man can kill a tiger because he is not like a tiger & uses his brain to invent the rifle, which no tiger could ever do.” –George Orwell, March 3, 1949.
Be Smarter than the Tiger or You’ll End Up In Its Stomach
By Barry Rubin
Orwell wasn’t just throwing out that last image from his imagination. One of his most famous short stories was about shooting an elephant. He didn’t do it for fun but for two other reasons. First, the elephant was menacing the townspeople.
Second, as a policeman in Burma, he knew that all the people standing and watching in the crowd expected him to take leadership and solve the problem. There was no one else who was going to do it and if he failed his credibility—and that of the British government he represented—would be shot to pieces. And if he and they had no credibility they could achieve nothing.
Orwell’s point, reminds us that what’s most scary about the current scene is that Western leaders are not being smarter than the revolutionaries, the terrorists, the dictatorial regimes, the huddled propagandists yearning to keep others from breathing free.
In fact, the basis of their strategy was to seize hegemony over “intelligence,” so that all the wrong attitudes and policies are defined as intelligent, attracting all people who wanted to be considered smart and intellectual. Or, as Woody Allen put it in “Annie Hall”:
“One thing about intellectuals, they prove that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on.”
Thus, what Orwell foresaw is the opposite of what’s happening now. Today, the West’s “best and brightest” are sure good about avoiding fanaticism in fighting the contemporary battle. But for them that becomes an end in itself.
Here’s an example.
Tolerance is good; hatred is bad. Precisely because so many Muslims have been involved in terrorism based on the Islamist interpretation of Muslim religious-political doctrine, Americans might hate Muslims, mistakenly confusing ordinary law-abiding Muslims with revolutionary Islamists who use Islam as the main source of their ideology. Therefore, editors and journalists decide that they must censor the news in order to protect Americans from becoming right-wing bigots forming mobs to burn down the local mosques, and to protect Muslims in America from being massacred in the streets of Connecticut by crazed Islamophobes wearing tee-shirts with American flags on them! They decide that their function is to lie to the audience for its own good.
Avoiding fanaticism on one’s own side is, of course, a good idea. But it should not be accomplished by, in effect, making one’s own side extremely stupid in refusing to recognize the danger or even the identity of the adversary.
It is also not intelligent to fall into the other side’s traps and echo its arguments, or to be so ruthless in criticism of one’s own far superior societies’ real or imagined shortcomings while subverting many of the foundations of Western democracy and civilization, such as community, self-confidence, and patriotism.
Of course, this is overstated. There are many exceptions as well as signs of change. Yet the truth is bad enough. The revolutionaries and terrorists are both smarter and more fanatical, that’s a chilling combination.
Since we are talking about tigers, it’s worthwhile recalling the other two relevant tiger analogies regarding politics, the paper tiger and riding the tiger.
Paper tiger: The view of a seemingly powerful state as in reality quite weak, originally applied by Communist China to the United States. This idea was revived and deepened by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamist revolution, who claimed that if Muslims united, had the proper ideology, and were willing to sacrifice themselves the United States could be defeated. The September 11 attacks, among many other events, were intended to demonstrate that fact.
Actually, such American attempts to win over the extremists made things worse. In private life, kind words or a turned cheek may avert conflict, but this was not a valid principle for U.S. Middle East policy. The United States have had only two choices in the Middle East: either the Iranians and Arabs would see America as a real tiger whose interests they would have to respect or they would view it as a paper tiger which might be easily and profitably defied. This was a case, if there ever was one, to prove the maxim that nice guys finish last.
In a sense, many Western intellectuals have embraced the “paper tiger” idea. Not that, of course, they would explicitly or consciously advocate such a thing but it is the consequence of their world view. According to the revised definition, America should go from being world bully to Ferdinand the Bull.
Or to put it a different way, the United States has too often been a ravening wolf oppressing, looting, and taking advantage of others so a bit more of a laid-back eagerness to apologize, willingness to listen to others along with sympathizing with their grievances, and not taking the lead is good therapy.
Actually, while a long list of mistakes can be assembled, the history of U.S. efforts to defeat Fascism and Communism has been overwhelmingly commendable. And some of the “faults” were either understandable on balance—given limited information and tough choices—or even absolutely necessary actions. At any rate, what is needed is to improve, not to transform fundamentally the American role and view of the world.
If, as is daily happening as a result of U.S. policies and statements, the worst elements in the world do conclude that the United States is a paper tiger then war and violence, oppression and repression, the triumph of real bullies is all the more likely.
Riding the tiger: This image fits what the radical side is doing and also is particularly apt for Arab nationalist regimes. Manipulating dangerous demagogic concepts like nationalism and Islamism, antisemitism and hatred of the West, discounting of the institutions needed for real social-economic development (freedom of speech, a reasonably regulated free enterprise system, the use of logic and the scientific method, etc.) unleashes forces that might devour even the dictators. This pattern of behavior will certainly guarantee the failure of the polities and societies that toy with such forces of irrationality and violence.
Here’s a tiny example. Recently, two medical conferences were held in Egypt regarding which the Egyptian government tried to block Israeli experts from attending. In the case of one, a major meeting on breast cancer designed to help Egypt deal with this disease more effectively, much of the financing and organization came from an American Jewish foundation. As for the other case, a meeting of hematologists, the Israeli doctor barred had been one of the supporters of holding the meeting in Cairo, as a step toward promoting peace and helping Egyptian medicine.
This situation led one Israeli blogger to remark that those responsible for these obstacles, “Hate Jews even more than they hate cancer.” Precisely. And if you don’t understand that, forget about comprehending Middle East politics.
It reminds me of an Egyptian government official’s response many years ago to a U.S. offer to pay for a project to clean up the upper Red Sea based on Egypt-Israel cooperation. The man explained: “If it helps Israel we can’t do it even if it helps Egypt.”
By the way, this has been a persistent theme in Palestinian politics that has worked well in recent years. Better suffering than cooperation and compromise. Indeed, it has been a terrific strategy because the resulting suffering then gets blamed on Israel. Recently, a supposedly scientific study blamed spousal abuse in the West Bank on Israel. Perhaps if breast cancer and hematological diseases go up in Egypt this can be used to spur on condemnations of Israel in Europe. (That was said sarcastically but on past occasions when I’ve written something like that, a reader has soon provided a clipping showing that the bitter joke had in fact become reality.)
If I want to end this article on an optimistic note, perhaps it’s possible to suggest that the “intelligence” involved in achieving victory in the long-term comes not so much from individuals but from the innate nature of a superior structure of thought, better and more open social organization, a rationally based science and technology, a freer economic and political system, a framework which more fully uses the talents of women, and general human rights and liberty.
Thus, those who are smart in strategy aren’t going to move their societies forward to confront the challenges tht will really determine who will win this conflict: providing a better life and higher living standards. Of course, in history things do, though not always, work out that way.
Given the intelligence deficit at present, one better hope so.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.