By Barry Rubin
Some of my readers are always bothered when I say that mistakes in Western Middle East policy are caused by stupidity and ignorance—abetted by ideology—and want to argue that the shortcomings are due to deliberate sabotage or evil intentions (often against Israel).
I can certainly understand why people think such things. But almost forty years of studying the Middle East and Western policy toward it have shown me hundreds of times that foolishness, misunderstanding, wishful thinking, and naivete are powerful forces in international affairs. As the great statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand put it almost two centuries ago, “This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.”
Remember that we are dealing here with people (policymakers, journalists, academics) trying to function across cultural, experiential, historical, linguistic, and usually religious lines. And what is their biggest handicap at present? Why, the very denial that such lines exist! Once you accept the assumption that everyone is basically alike in their thoughts, dreams, goals, and world view, you have no hope whatsoever of understanding anyone who has a different standpoint.
True, sometimes these decisionmakers and opinionmakers (especially the academics and European journalists) have taken up partisan positions. Yet this is far less true for politicians and policymakers who must keep in mind both their own personal and their country’s national interests. We tend to focus on extreme exceptions—who certainly exist—but they are a minority.
Ideology, of course, is also a powerful deceiver. It sets up preconceptions that often dominate even when the facts go against them. Central here is the sad reality that we are living at a time when ideology rather than pragmatism dominates the Western intellectual and political debate to a greater extent than has happened within living memory.
The academic world has broken down to an astonishing extent in terms of its ability to tell truth from falsehood. The mass media has followed this pattern, albeit to a lesser extent and with more exceptions. Thus, the Western world has been deprived of its two greatest sources for “reality checks.” That’s devastating.
“Since the masses are always eager to believe something,” said Talleyrand, “for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts.”
But what’s even worse is the domination of governments by forces that cannot even acknowledge that the great struggle of the time is between revolutionary Islamism and other radical forces–as in not only North Korea, Venezuela, etc., but in the West as well!—and traditional liberal, Enlightenment, democratic, freedom of speech, Western civilization, and family values.
In Talleyrand’s words, “To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man.”
Of course, a number of Western governments do things that favor the wrong side in terms of domestic policies. It is easier to believe that on domestic affairs there is a hidden agenda, that is an ideologically dicated series of goals concealed because the public would reject them if it understood what was really going on.
Yet when it comes to foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, many Western leaders think they are buying peace and stability when they are actually undermining it precisely because they don’t understand their enemies. Often, they no longer seem to understand the foundations of statecraft either. Perhaps this is symbolized by people being able to obtain a degree in “conflict resolution” but not learning about the uses of force, deterrence, and credibility.
Having said all this, though, I want to stress an often-ignored factor in such matters: the power of alternative explanations. These explanations may transgress logic and reality but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe them, especially when they match up with their prejudices.
Let me give two examples. Consider the Tea Party movement. Whatever one thinks of it, how can anybody not understand that it is motivated by a very simple platform: less government, lower taxes, less regulation? Their argument is that this would preserve freedom and allow the economy to grow much faster and more certainly.
Again, one could debate these ideas. But that’s the point: the avoidance of a debate by the movement’s enemies. Instead, the bulk of the establishment, mass media, and academia says it is mystified: what can these people possibly want? They must be just a group of racists and extremists. This alternative explanation probably satisfies at least 40 percent of the American public, maybe more, as being true.
International affairs, of course, are far more arcane. But consider this little case study. The Obama Administration has messed up on Israel-Palestinian issues for two years, a story I can tell—and have in previous articles—in great detail. Recently, it proposed a three-month freeze of construction on West Bank settlements. If it had gotten precisely what it wanted this would have led to no gain at all for anyone.
The Administration reportedly promised Israel a great deal if it agreed to the proposal. The Israeli government responded cooperatively. Yet what was the U.S. government offering? Apparently, the Administration was so incompetent as to contradict itself to the point where Israel couldn’t figure out the supposed deal. Then the Palestinian Authority demanded more, and even if it was given concessions wanted to sabotage talks.
In short, the Obama Administration became increasingly entangled in seeking a goal that wasn’t worthwhile, offering more and more but in a confused, contradictory manner, and having to deal with a Palestinian leadership that refused to cooperate and an Israeli government coalition that conceivably might splinter over the issue.
So the Administration abandoned the whole mess. Yet to read the explanations available to average Americans or even opinionmakers one would never know any of this clearly. The alternative explanations, mostly just blame Israel, for Washington’s failure.
Indeed, after two years in which Israel has offered to negotiate with the Palestinians every day and the Palestinians have refused to negotiate with Israel almost every day, the ruling establishment, mass media, and academia generally persist in saying that the deadlock is Israel’s fault.
Now, if people are unable to understand the simplest points—due to preconceived ideology, failure to look at the facts, or inability to understand them—we are not dealing with a conspiracy but with what might be called intellectually structured blindness.
What is the way out?
First, keep explaining the truth since there’s a large portion of people open-minded enough to be persuaded if they only are allowed to see the ridiculous flaws in what they’ve been told. In other words, use the free marketplace of ideas to the greatest extent possible.
Second, let events (and the behavior of their enemies) teach people that their ideas, policies, and programs just don’t work; make them look like idiots; and lead to a loss of prestige and power. That has been clearly happening to an extent.
Third, develop and put into place a counter-elite that has a far better level of understanding about how the world works.
Having seen so many different and changing eras already, I’m confident that this combination will work. Hopefully, it will work faster so that fewer people will die and suffer, while the damage done already will be easier to reverse.
Or, to quote Talleyrand once again, “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”
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).