Dear Professor Rubin,
I’ve been following you for quite some time now, and as a result read your quite frequent analysis of the West’s misunderstanding of the Mideast. While it’s very tempting as an explanation, as an economist I find it hard to accept. It requires to assume that everyone in the policy establishment of the West is a nave. While a lot of them probably are, there must be some rational reason for why they are doing this. One such reason could be that people in general, including in Israel, find it very difficult to accept the notion that some problems don’t have a solution. At least not in the short run. But I suspect there are other reasons, of a political nature. You’d probably be much better than I at spotting them.
Of course you are right. The Western mentality and the diplomatic process don’t like to say that problems don’t have a solution.
But I also make a distinction between understanding the issue and implementing a policy. In other words, the problem could be:
A. A government doesn’t understand the situation.
B. A government does understand the situation but doesn’t want to act (possibly for good reasons) or takes the wrong action in response.
Either one is possible. What is interesting about this administration is the frequency with which situation A occurs.
For example, the U.S. government could understand that Syria is an enemy of U.S. interests and will remain one but not want to have a confrontation with Syria. However, the current administration persists in the belief that it can engage Syria and change its behavior. This, then, is a failure of understanding.
Similarly, it may just be dawning on the administration–though this is not clear yet–that it isn’t going to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If it understood this, the government could still pretend to be devoted to rapid progress but not take risks or spend political capital to do so. This has not happened yet though it might be in the process of happening.
I also believe that they don’t understand that the central issue in the region is revolutionary Islamism versus nationalism or that the Turkish regime has changed sides (though diplomats have reported on that point).
In contrast, the administration did set out deliberately to withdraw troops from Iraq, seeks to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and undertake a year-long process of engaging Iran (and failing) as a basis for increasing sanctions. These are examples, for better or worse, of situation B.
One way to tell whether naivete (or misunderstanding) is the issue is if a government ends up behaving in a way that makes it look stupid. Governments don’t want to look stupid and don’t do so deliberately. I won’t go into detail about how the Obama Administration has looked stupid as I have covered this in previous articles so often.
So misunderstanding is an important factor.. This is due to cultural differences, to lack of experience (a president with zero actual experience in dealing with international affairs), and to ideological preconceptions (rather than a pragmatic approach, a problem particularly strong in this administration)–not just “naivete” or incompetence.
In some ways, the ideology of many in the administration pushes them in the precise opposite direction from what is required in the current Middle East situation. It abandons some of the most basic rules of international policy, such as maintaining a strong image, deterrence, credibility, the use of sticks as well as carrots, being willing and able to identify accurately friends and enemies, among them.
What else are relevant factors? Avoiding trouble, maintaining Obama’s popularity abroad, focusing on domestic issues are often important. This administration noted how its predecessor became very unpopular through waging two wars. Consequently, a key part of the administration’s strategy has been a “charm offensive” to persuade Arabs and Muslims that the United States is nice and likes them.
Thus, the Obama Administration’s claim is that it can avoid problems, withdraw U.S. troops to end wars, and make America “popular” again. These things do make sense as a strategy for the administration’s, but not necessarily for American, interests.
There are also additional countervailing factors. The question is whether the administration will heed them. That is a test of its ability, flexibility, and may determine its survival into a second term. (Though we all recognize that the economy and domestic issues are the main political determinant in elections.)
Some people believe that the Obama Administration is doing things on purpose because it wants America to be weak or to fail. I do not at all believe this. The essential point here, however, is that the dominant ideology among many leading officials (especially in the White House) leads to this result.
They expect to succeed brilliantly and it is easy to understand those aspects of American experience and contemporary ideology that leads to that miscalculation. Desiring to abandon the diplomatic practices of the past, thinking that America has used too much power (and has even been the world’s leading villain), believing that enemies can be won over, and similar ideas simply lead to disaster.
The question is whether they are so blinded by ideology that they don’t recognize why they are failing and do something different. If they don’t do so, the American people will.
Of course, in every given short article one cannot develop the full sophistication of this multi-factored situation but hopefully the full picture does get drawn over time.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).