by Barry Rubin
There’s a remarkable exchange from a May 2009 presidential press conference that is extraordinarily revealing.
Question: “Aren’t you concerned that your outstretched hand has been interpreted by extremists, especially [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, [Hizballah leader] Nasrallah, [Hamas leader] Meshal, as weakness?”
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it’s not clear to me why my outstretched hand would be interpreted as weakness.
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Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I have often written that Obama does not accept the most basic principles of international relations. Why should he know any better since he lacks any experience while the advisors he most depends on usually also lack experience? In place of understanding and experience, they have an ideology that so distorts reality as to ensure failure.
(If you say that Obama is doing it on purpose, I would suggest that if that were true he’d be doing a better and less obviously incompetent job than he’s doing now.).
I think the above sentence from him is pretty sincere. He has no idea at all why apologies, unilateral concessions, undermining friends, and rewarding enemies doesn’t work. A lot of the problem is the absolute refusal of politically correct (but factually incorrect) politicians and intellectuals to understand that other people in certain parts of the world think differently from them. Indeed, this has been defined as “racist” thinking.
If Obama were to offer an “outstretched hand” to Canada, for example, of course it wouldn’t be “interpreted as weakness.” The two countries have a relatively similar history, system, and worldview. Both sides accept the other’s good intentions and desire for friendship. Neither seeks to conquer the other or institute a system that would dominate the region or even world.
That commonality doesn’t apply across certain cultural-intellectual-historical lines. Yet the previous sentence in this paragraph is not (or only barely) permissible. By being deprived of any understanding of these fundamental differences, students and the public simply cannot understand most of what’s going on in the Middle East.
Of course, a lot of the public has enough life experience to see what’s obvious. But the more “education” (consider “conflict resolution” training) one has under the current indoctrination, the harder for them to comprehend reality of this sort.
My education on this point was considerably advanced about 35 years ago when a very “Westernized” and “moderate” Egyptian fellow student explained to me that Israel and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin cooked up the hijacking of a passenger plane and all of its passengers to Entebbe. The goal of the plot was to let Israel rescue them and thus make that country look good. He really believed this to be true.
Contemporary behavior in the West (media, academia, government) rewards and humors such thinking. A turning point in my life came more than two decades ago when I was in a meeting with high-ranking Egyptian officials in Cairo. They were spouting the most incredible nonsense about the region, U.S. policy, and Israel.
What was the point for me, a researcher, to sit there and hear this recitation of propaganda, lies, and conspiracy theories that I’d already heard so many times? I wasn’t a diplomat there to flatter or befriend but rather to find out things. So I challenged them. The other members of the delegation were shocked and I was promptly disinvited from the rest of the trip.
The truth is that in dealing with the Middle East, the West is often dealing not so much with people who have an equally valid narrative but real wackos (multiculturalism translation: people who have a different worldview) whose grasp of reality is not so firm. That such people may have trillions in oil money, nuclear weapons, or powerful armies is rather disconcerting.
A timely reminder of this is an interview with Ahmed Ezz El-Arab (not my preferred transliteration!), who is vice-chairman of Egypt’s Wafd Party and heads the party’s foreign policy team. To understand the significance, remember that the Wafd Party is the great liberal, moderate party that was central in Egypt’s history from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. If Egypt was going to become a modern, democratic and reasonably secular state, the Wafd Party was the great hope.
Yet in the mid-1950s the Wafd and other such groups were pushed aside by the radical nationalists (Nasserists) and the radical Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood) and they have never recovered, despite all that excitement in Tahrir Square. Indeed, the traditional moderate liberal Wafd is now in partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood for the coming elections.
El-Arab has not yet mastered, apparently, the great art of saying something quite different in English than he does in Arabic. Perhaps there should be a school run by those ubiquitous public relations firms to teach this; it could be called the Yasir Arafat School of Speaking and Public Communication.
Teacher: OK, now assume you’re on CNN. What do you say about Israel?
Student: The evil satanic Jews are enemies of Islam and must be wiped out!
Teacher: No, no. [Points at the teacher’s pet]. Can you tell us what the answer should be?
Student 2: Yes, teacher. We would like to live in a just and lasting peace with Israel but the Zionists are aggressive and oppress our people. The Palestinians are the new Jews.
And so the candid El-Arab told the interviewer (on tape, mind you!):
–The Holocaust largely never happened.
–The Diary of Anne Frank is a fake.
–The September 11 attacks were staged by the U.S. government and Israel, not Osama bin Laden.
–Obama’s election doesn’t reflect American democracy but a ruling class plot.
–“American soldiers with double Israeli nationality and Jewish religion” stole Jewish antiquities from the Babylonian exile period and buried them in Jerusalem so they could be later dug up so Jews can claim an association with the city.
How, then, do we know El-Arab is a “moderate”? (I’m not joking.) He said Egypt should only go to war with Israel if attacked (of course, there’s always the problem of what constitutes being attacked), he said Jews once did live in the land that today constitutes Israel, and he is against killing all the Israeli Jews. If he were an Islamist he would have a different stance on those three issues.
Now, since Obama cannot comprehend a person like El-Arab or Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah, or Meshal, he cannot comprehend how his policy is interpreted as weakness by such people. Nor can he understand that these people are not merely the Middle Eastern equivalent of Obama supporters but are very sincere about throwing U.S. influence, non-radical governments, and Israel out of the region.
Here’s the difference: When Obama reaches an “outstretched hand” to the other side in the Middle East that hand is open and holding money and concessions. When those on the other side put out an outstretched hand it is intended to strangle America and all of its friends.
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 a featured columnist at PajamasMedia http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are 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). The website of the GLORIA Center is http://www.gloria-center.org. His articles published originally in places other than PajamasMedia can be found at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com