It never ceases to amaze me that people who know nothing about the Middle East, in this case Roger Cohen but many other names come to mind, can suddenly proclaim themselves experts and make the most elementary errors involving the lives of other people. It also never ceases to amaze me that people can visit a country, especially a dictatorship, be wined and dined, handed a line and believe it so thoroughly that their mind is closed ever after.
Recently, I met a young man who helped me understand this phenomenon better. He worked on Afghanistan and took exception to my saying that there was no way that Western intervention was going to make that a stable and moderate country. It was too geographically diverse, bound by traditional culture, beset by conflict, and economically underdeveloped to achieve that condition. And no matter how much money was poured in to train its army to be efficient or to finance its government to be honest and effective, the situation would not change drastically.
He responded with some heat that after the Soviet withdrawal that the Communist government Moscow had established lasted three years, proving how good the Afghan army could be. That argument surprised me since—like so many I hear nowadays—it was so easy to refute, indeed containing within itself its own refutation.
My response was simple: so, in effect, what you are saying is that if the Western forces are withdrawn then the Taliban will take over within three years. In short, this is precisely the kind of thing I was saying.
I think that the mainstream view of the Middle East is so reinforced by its hegemony in the discussion, so underpinned by cultural and ideological assumption (which it isn’t even aware of making) that one often hears such weak or, in other cases, factually inaccurate statements. The idea of free debate is to test and correct our views. Yet when there is such hegemony in academia and—to a lesser extent—the mass media , for one viewpoint that set of arguments is weakened simply because it dismisses all challenges without even considering them.
Later that day, I had a chance to talk further with this young man, who was very sincere and dedicated to his studies. He had spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And it quickly became clear what that meant. He argued passionately that the West must overthrow the current government and install others who, he said, were honest and would provide the country with a great government.
Upon further discussion, it turns out that these were powerful people from wealthy families who had courted him. They had invited him to their palatial homes, wined and dined him, and flattered him. “You understand our country,” they had said in admiring terms. In some cases, though not this one, aside from access and flattery, career promotion opportunities and money are also offered.
One might speculate—this is just a thought—that women are used to being courted and have learned how to discount flattery to a greater extent. Men, however, are probably especially prone to such appeals as they are used to colder treatment by their fellows.
At any rate, we see this constantly. One young scholar, given unprecedented access to write the biography of a ruthless dictator, gushes at how wonderful he is. Roger Cohen of the New York Times, goes to Iran, they treat him well and thus he deduces that the mullahs have only benign intentions. Robert Leiken, totally ignorant about the region and formally succumbing to similar treatment by the Nicaraguan Contras, meets the Muslim Brotherhood and—with no knowledge of what they write in Arabic—believes everything they tell him and describes them as moderate. I also think such a process went on when Iraqi exiles assured American interlocutors that Iraq was just waiting for America to liberate it, that all would go smoothly, they would then take power and be moderate and stable democratic friends ever after.
As I write these words, I see an article in the Los Angeles Times that provides a terrific example of this phenomenon* about David Lesch, a man with no real knowledge of the region who was chosen to be the biographer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad. Lesch hero-worships the dictator who, in a real sense, made his career.
“He is very low-key, he is a very amiable, very humble individual, not intimidating at all,” Lesch says.
He admits that he wouldn’t get tough with Bashar: “It would do damage to this access, which will be far worse than bringing it up.” And he talks more like a fan for a rock star than a serious analyst of regional politics: “He values my opinions and ideas.” How pitiful, how easily deceived. Yet in dealing with Iran and Hamas, Hizballah and Syria, Muslim Brotherhoods and assorted other dictators and anti-democratic movements or states, how often this happens.
This article is positively embarrassing and the fact that Lesch, the article’s author, and the Los Angeles Times
don’t see this is an important sign of how seriously mainstream journalism and academic Middle East studies have gone off the rails.
But to return to my subject here. Why is the gap between reality and perception so much wider on the Middle East than on other subjects or areas of the world? It would take a book to give a proper answer but here are some admittedly too-brief and incomplete talking points:
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1. High level of partisanship, making even the simplest statements of fact controversial at times.
2. Indoctrination on campuses to an extraordinary extent.
3. Since so much is written about the region—often bad material–people think they know everything, a mistake less likely to occur in more “obscure” places.
4. The need for special knowledge to understand the region which should not—but is—often lightly disregarded.
5. A complex historical picture which people may ignore since history is not deemed to be important.
6. The importance of cultural differences in understanding the region at a time when, according to PC, everyone is supposed to be seen as being exactly the same. A letter by Iranian-American academic in the New York Times this week asserts that it’s ridiculous to claim Iranian regime nuclear weapons are threat because Iranian mothers want good lives for their children and living standards have gone up.
7. The importance of ideology which is discounted as an influence creating totally different world views, at least among regimes. (See point 6, above).
8. Precisely because the threat from the region and in it is so high there is a tendency either to claim no threat exists or that it can be easily defused through understanding and concessions.
9. The hysteria about alleged Islamophobia and misuse of the concept of racism which makes it somewhere between hard and impossible to have a serious discussion of these issues.
10. Failure to understand the difference between what’s said in English or in Arabic and Persian, discounting the latter as of no importance
People have a right to be foolish and naïve. But they have no right to misdirect national policies and risk—or cost—the lives of hundreds and possibly damage the lives of millions on the basis of their own stupidity.
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), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org