by Barry Rubin
“Don’t apologize. Your enemies won’t believe it and your friends don’t need to hear it.”
— Bumper sticker.
It should be obvious by now that President Barack Obama and his administration don’t know some basic things about the conduct of international relations. The apology to Afghanistan affair is an example of this problem but not quite in the way that the debate over it posits.
Now it is being reported that five U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter are going to be charged with burning the books. If this happens, not only will these hapless soldiers who had no idea they were doing anything wrong have their careers ruined, and might face prison time, but they will have the possibility for the rest of their lives that Islamist terrorists will come after them. As for the Afghan interpreter and his family, the odds of their being murdered are very high.
The way the story has been reported — though much of the mass media has not mentioned the initial cause of the problem — is as follows. Some Taliban prisoners were writing secret messages in their Korans to pass back and forth. The books were confiscated and in order that the messages not go any further someone ordered something and these Korans were burned. I don’t know the true details of this incident.
So far more than two dozen people have died, riots have proliferated, several U.S. soldiers were murdered, and Obama apologized for the destruction of the Korans.
On Obama’s side, the president said that the apology had cooled things down. This was demonstrably untrue as the turmoil was continuing. And there is no proof at all — an important point — that his apology soothed anyone.
The critics said that instead of the United States apologizing to Afghanistan, Afghanistan should apologize to the United States for the ensuing violence.
Let’s examine this in realpolitik terms rather than as a manual of etiquette would do it.
To my knowledge, no Middle Eastern government has apologized. For example, the Afghan government never has, and never will, apologize for that country’s role in the September 11 attacks on the United States. Equally, no Middle Eastern government expresses gratitude, a point that applies to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Libya for the U.S. role in helping to “liberate” them from foreign occupation and dreadful dictators. And what about the Palestinian Authority for billions of dollars of aid and all the diplomatic support the United States has given? Nope again.
The culture of apology and gratitude are Western or American characteristic, at least in terms of diplomacy.
On the contrary, if the United States says: We accidentally destroyed a couple of Koran that had been written all over by terrorists so they could murder more Afghans and Americans. Sorry.
The message received is:
THE INFIDELS DELIBERATELY BURNED THE HOLY KORAN! KILL THEM!!
The poor translator and anyone else who works with the United States in Afghanistan will be assaulted with the following words:
YOU WORK WITH THE INFIDELS WHO BURNED THE KORAN! TRAITOR! WE WILL KILL YOU.
The response is not going to be: Wow, thanks, guys, we’re sure you didn’t do it on purpose and we really appreciate all your help in getting rid of a murderous dictatorship. Don’t worry about it.
See, it doesn’t quite work.
What we have here is a total disconnect between reality and White House policy. To apologize is seen as confessing guilt to an unpardonable offense that deserves death as a punishment. Better just to shut up.
This Koran incident is a relatively small matter in geopolitical terms but it is reflected in much bigger policy aspects. For example, in 2009 Obama’s first strategy on Israel-Palestinian negotiations was to tell Arab states that in exchange for all the U.S. effort to help them, distance itself from Israel, and pressure Israel for concessions, they should push the Palestinian Authority toward peace.
Then there was the engagement with Syria and Iran to show them American apologies, concessions, and distancing from Israel in order to get them to moderate.
And now this policy of apology, concession, being a nice guy, showing sympathy, and trying to prove America is number one in being sympathetic to Muslims and Arabs is being applied to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Insanity, they say, is repeating the same action while believing it will lead to a different result.
Sort of like revolutionary groups in the Middle East who think they can wipe Israel off the map, chase the West from the region, and wipe Israel off the map. The fact that this strategy hasn’t worked for more than 60 years and has led to defeat and disaster for their own side doesn’t discourage them.
There is nothing liberal or conservative about the mistakes the Obama Administration is making. It is the triumph of the bogus “We are the bad guys” mentality that currently dominates the West. They are basically violating the tenets of traditional diplomacy and national security strategy as carried out by almost every president of the last century (Jimmy Carter comes to mind as the main or sole exception) and the Europeans for at least the last two or three centuries.
These principles include: credibly scaring your enemies; rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies; using your strength as leverage; demanding others do what you need and only in that context offering compromises and concessions.
Instead we are seeing the triumph of the bogus “conflict resolution” mentality — talk about a useless college major! — that has never succeeded in resolving any conflict. From a domestic standpoint, however, Obama’s policy seems to be working. According to polls, there is general approval of his foreign policy. He’s pulling out troops; Osama bin Ladin is dead; and supposedly America is loved again.
Helpful hint: They don’t like you. The world is divided into three camps: those who are laughing at you, those who are screaming insults at you, and those trying to figure out who is going to protect them because you are so unreliable.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center,
editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA)
Journal, and Middle East editor and a featured columnist at
PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books include Israel: An Introduction
(Yale, 2012); 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).