16 November 2008
Barry Rubin - Nov 13, 2008
The Jerusalem Post
Dear President-elect Obama,
They say that you prefer the name Barry, and so it pleases me no end that another Barry is finally president of the United States. In addition, I once worked as a community organizer, so we have two things in common.
On that basis, then, I hope you don't mind my making some suggestions about how you might think about the Middle East. I'm not looking for a job in Washington. In fact, as I look back on my life, I note that if I'd been successful in some obsession for a US government post, I might have been a participant in such endeavors as the catastrophic mishandling of Iran's revolution, the failed US dispatch of troops to Lebanon, the botched trade of arms for hostages with Iran, the crashed peace process and the Iraq war.
So don't be misled. Today, everyone's talking about how wonderful you are. Those are the people who want jobs, favors and access. There are others who want something else from you - like control over Lebanon, Israel, Iraq or Georgia - who are more likely to be psychopathic than sycophantic.
Your expressed theme for your administration's Middle East policy can be described in one word: conciliation. You think that your predecessors made unnecessary enemies and blocked, rather than furthered, progress. Building on the basis of your perceived popularity and sincere goodwill, you believe that it is not so hard to make friends with Iran and Syria, soothe grievances that have caused Islamism and terrorism and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Good luck. We hope you succeed.
But please bear in mind some important points.
In the Middle East, it is not so useful to think yourself popular and show yourself to be friendly. You have to inspire fear in your enemies and confidence in your friends. And if you don't inspire fear in your enemies - if you're too nice to them - then you will indeed foment fear among your friends.
Not everyone thinks the same way. When you talk of "empathy," America's enemies hear the word "fear." When you speak of change, they, too, want change. Unfortunately the change they want means wiping other states off the map, creating radical Islamist dictatorships and kicking the United States out of the region.
This is no misunderstanding: it's a conflict.
IN THE film, Cool Hand Luke, the noble convict (played by Paul Newman) jokes to the sadistic guards, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." The audiences laughed. What everyone has forgotten is that a moment later they shoot him dead. Harvard Law School meets the law of the jungle.
You are going to talk to Iran, negotiate with Syria and try to buy the Palestinians or press the Israelis into making peace. It's your presidency and many Americans think - rightly or not - that this hasn't been tried enough.
But please keep in mind four very important points for when the going gets rough:
1. How much do you offer them and at whose expense? Not too much, please.
2. How closely will you monitor whether or not they are keeping their commitments? Be tough, please.
3. At what point will you conclude that they don't want to end existing conflicts or be America's friends? Don't wait too long, please.
4. What do you do when you figure out this doesn't work? Don't be afraid to admit the truth, blame those responsible and try something else.
Iraq, for example: You want to withdraw and turn the war over to the Iraqis. This makes sense. But what will you do if Iran escalates to make your withdrawal look like a defeat and fill the vacuum - subtly, of course, not too openly.
And what do you do to combat Iranian and Syrian efforts to turn Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip into their sphere of influence? They will pump in money, pump up hatred and kill anyone who stands in the way. Making a good speech, apologizing for the past or offering more concessions won't work.
If you think Afghanistan is easier to deal with than Iraq, the opposite is true. No one tames Afghanistan. Its endless conflicts are a product of geography, ethnic conflict, a macho militarist political culture and a very low level of development. In Iraq, the majority wants a stable resolution. In Afghanistan, the choice is permanent holding action or collapse.
What happens when the Europeans hug and kiss you, then refuse to extend sanctions on Iran further? Will you remain Europe's favorite American president by asking them to do nothing? How will you convince the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Lebanese and others that you are their reliable protector against Iranian nuclear weapons and the advance of Iranian-Syrian power when they know how eager you are to make up - possibly at their expense - with Teheran and Damascus?
Westerners are eager to resolve conflicts; revolutionaries want to use conflicts. You think grievances can be resolved; their grievances are insatiable. Make a concession, they ignore it and demand another. Withdraw from a territory, they occupy it and turn it into a base for the next advance. Explain that you feel their pain, and they add to your pain.
This is what it is like to deal with extremists and ideologues.
Right now you don't understand why Bill Clinton and George Bush couldn't solve a little thing like the Arab-Israeli conflict, defuse the massive hatred of America in the Middle East, end terrorism or turn radical Islamism into an ideology of peace.
Don't worry. You will.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.
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