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By Barry Rubin

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remark about how the Arizona shooting is just like September 11 is such a superb example of everything wrong with Western policy toward the Middle East. Let’s summarize the issue by coining a phrase which sounds a bit Zen but has a very practical meaning:

The ear doesn’t necessarily hear what someone else’s brain thinks.

Or, to put it a different way, there are cultural or situational differences that make people think differently and interpret stuff in different ways. The job of the expert or diplomat or journalist is to make that translation effectively. Often, they fail.

And so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may think herself clever by telling students in the United Arab Emirates that the Arizona shooting is comparable to the September 11 attacks and shows that America and the Arab world have a similar problem with terrorism.

She is doing Western-speak and particularly American-speak. This includes the concept of building agreement and defusing conflict by persuading your interlocutor that you have a lot in common.

You’ve got terrorism!
We’ve got terrorism!
Let’s get together and fight terrorism!

That sounds very effective…to somebody who doesn’t know anything. They might expect those Arab students to rise from their seats and say, “Hey, those Americans aren’t bad at all!”

In fact, if they don’t get up at the end of the session and say, “Those Americans are really stupid!” they’re probably saying something worse.

 What this does is to reinforce the view that the West is hypocritical talking about revolutionary Islamism or Iranian aggression.

The fact that on one side you have virtually every media outlet calling for violence daily and on the other side virtually every media element decrying violence doesn’t matter.

The fact that on one side you have the vast majority of clergy advocating violence and a tiny few marginal figures doing so on the other side doesn’t matter.

The fact that on one side huge numbers of people cheer terrorists and on the other almost everyone boos terrorists doesn’t matter.

One, or at most two, crazies acting on their own with no popular backing or financing do not exactly compare with an organized group with thousands of members, with operations stretching from Morocco through Asia, being given safe haven by governments, with their world view constantly reinforced by massive religious and governmental institutions, and cheered on by millions of sympathizers or at least well-wishers!

Now here’s the bottom line. What is needed to fight terrorism like that within Western countries is better law enforcement and counterterrorist intelligence and actions.

What is needed to fight terrorism in the Muslim-majority world is structural change and a rethinking of basic principles.

There’s also another factor: self-deprecation of yourself and flattery of the other side. This is a commonplace in American society. Making fun of yourself is a key way of getting people to like you.

But back to the present. Let me put it in one sentence: You don’t deprecate yourself and flatter macho societies. They attribute your behavior not to winsome modesty but to cowardice and to fear that they are more powerful. What do you think is the number-one reason why revolutionary Islamists and terrorists think they will win despite the fact that the West or America or Israel is stronger? It feeds into the, “We believe in death and you believe in life” mantra.

Moreover, the relatively moderate Arab regimes–especially in the Gulf–don’t want a modest, deferential, self-critical, apologetic America. They want an America that they think will defend them from Iran, Syria, and the revolutionary Islamists. What’s needed is Mr. Tough Guy, not Mr. Nice Guy. As one Gulf Arab put it privately, “I don’t want an Arab as the American president, I want an American as the American president.”

So when President Barack Obama made his flattering, self-critical Cairo speech back in 2009, or British Prime Minister David Cameron grovels to the Pakistanis in 2010, or Hillary Clinton makes this kind of statement in 2011, it has the exact opposite effect from what is intended.

There are worse things than the dialogue of the deaf. There’s the dialogue of the misinterpreters.

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).  

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