Monday, May 31, 2010

Flash: Obama Administration Slaps Israel on Verge of Netanyahu Visit

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By Barry Rubin

One simply cannot overestimate the Obama Administration's capacity for--in the words of one of its top officials--"screwing up the message" especially when it comes to Israel. Mere hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington, the U.S. government supported the non-binding final statement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference calling for a nuclear-free Middle East as soon as possible and urging Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, in effect, to give up its nuclear weapons in the not-distant future.

Iran's nuclear program wasn't mentioned.

According to Yediot Aharnot, Israel's government was "furious" at this reversal of historic U.S. policy in not only failing to prevent the resolution but actually supporting it. The action was "a complete surprise," said Israel's largest newspaper. It  reported that U.S. officials had told Israel's government that the United States would campaign against a resolution singling out Israel and would vote against any resolution that did so.  That promise was broken. The implication is that Netanyahu was not even informed in advance of what was about to happen and that the effect on Israeli interests and U.S.-Israel relations wasn't seriously considered in Washington.  

Haaretz, which represents an Israeli left that would like to be more sympathetic to Obama, angrily stated that Israel had been "sacrificed by the United States on the altar of a successful conference." The main country pushing for this resolution was Egypt.

At about the same time, by the way, Muhammad El-Baradei, the opposition candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections, came out against any sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. Yet is even the Egyptian government going to be more cooperative and supportive of U.S. policy than it was before because Washington backed its resolution? Of course not.

What was the administration's motive? The belief that treating Israel and Iran "equally" would win support for sanctions against Iran. Really? Who's going to change their vote? This step also emerges from the administration's mania on getting a ban on all nuclear weapons, something which isn't likely to happen.

The action could be explained as a response to immediate needs, to make sure that there was a final resolution and the conference could be termed a success. The U.S. government was unwilling to risk a failure to achieve a final resolution--something that has happened several times before without the roof falling in--by standing firm on the Israel issue. It did say that it "deeply regrets" that Israel is singled out. It seems that the final draft might also mention India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

This justifies the administration's action in its own eyes and shows that one should not exaggerate what it thought was being done. One might add what will happen in future when the Obama Administration doesn't want some conference or negotiation to appear to be a failure and has the option of salvaging it by breaking commitments made to Israel?

All the rationalizations, then, are cold comfort for Israel. Note, for example, the Haaretz reaction quoted above, based on a clear understanding of what has happened. So the signal sent to Israel is once again that this U.S. government is simply not reliable and does not keep its promises. Following on the mistreatment of  Netanyahu during his previous visit to Washington, this behavior now undermines the trip he is making there now at Obama's request.

Is this going to make Israel's government more conducive on taking risks and making concessions on the "peace process," depend on U.S. commitments in exchange for such steps, or try to please a U.S. government that simply doesn't act like a historic ally? Will it make Israelis more favorably inclined toward Obama and get them to urge their government to take more risks and make more concessions to please Washington and to try to make peace with the Palestinians? Of course not. The exact opposite is true.

Will Israel be offered anything by the Obama Administration to compensate for this action? Not at all. And in a bit more than three months with Israel's freeze on construction in settlements will end, the administration will demand that it be renewed despite the fact that the Palestinians have made no concession, the talks have gone nowhere, and the United States has not given anything to Israel for going along with its wishes once more.

Am I exaggerating here? I don't think so. Hasn't this been the Obama government's  record repeatedly? Yes it has.

And when the administration loudly proclaims that it has learned its lesson--last October after Israel agreed to the freeze on construction in existing settlements on the West Bank, or in recent months when the administration acted apologetic after an internal policy review and before the November elections--suddenly it reverts to hostile behavior toward Israel.

Are Americans in general and American Jews in particular going to persist in believing that this administration really does view Israel as a good friend and a close ally? It's hard to believe, though of course many will. Perhaps the next round or the one after that will convince them otherwise.

And here's a final point for people to think about: As the U.S. government proves unreliable and somewhat unfriendly, Israel has all the more need for nuclear weapons so that it can defend itself against Iran and deter Iran from ever launching a nuclear attack. The Obama Administration itself has subverted any belief that Israel can depend on the current U.S. government in that regard.

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

More Hope from Turkey

By Barry Rubin

A reliable poll shows a dramatic shift in Turkish public opinion. The Sonar company survey shows the left-secular Republican People’s Party (CHP, to use its Turkish initials) narrowly coming in first in elections. The party would get 33 percent compared to 31 percent for the ruling AKP Islamist party. The right-wing Turkish nationalist MHP would get around 19 percent.

The next elections are expected in 2011.

There are two major reasons for this change: a popular new leader for the Republican People’s Party and a bad economic situation. Economic woes were what largely brought the AKP to power in the first place. Back in 2007, the AKP received 47 percent compared to 21 percent for the CHP.

Another poll shows the AKP only very slightly ahead of the CHP.

An interesting question will be how the AKP will try to stay in power. It is going to get dirty.

Unfortunately, I Told You So: Who Says Obama is Popular?; Arabs Think America Too Weak; Iran Wars Against US in Afghanistan

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By Barry Rubin

Al-Jazeera magazine runs a long and devastatingly critical article about how America is finished and President Barack Obama is weak. The title is: “The American Century Is So Over.” I cite this piece—much of which is about failures outside the Middle East—only to show the perception in the Arabic-speaking world being one of contempt rather than sympathy.

So far, I haven't seen a single article in the Arabic media extolling Obama. I saw two articles, Saudi and Egyptian respectively, saying that the Arabic-speaking world should give Obama more support but they both admitted that, despite Obama's efforts, those countries have done almost nothing to assist him so far.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls in Arabic-speaking countries also show that Obama’s standing is much closer to that of George W. Bush than anyone would have expected. I wrote last year that Obama was only one percentage point higher than Bush in polls taken in Pakistan.

Also, Iran is escalating its war against the United States in Afghanistan, as I pointed out some months ago. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has publicly announced that Iran is increasing the training given to Taliban forces. I have also noted U.S. officials pointing out Iran's war on the United States in Iraq and in terms of assisting al-Qaida.

So there is no engagement on Tehran's part, and it doesn't need nuclear weapons to attack U.S. forces and interests. Yet this conflict remains largely unrecognized in Washington.

Finally, here's an article in al-Hayat by the editor explaining that Americans don't understand the Middle East precisely because of the kind of conventional wisdom displayed by Bush and Obama alike. He sounds like the kind of things I've been writing for you.

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everything You Wanted to Know About Obama's National Security Doctrine But Were Afraid to Hear

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By Barry Rubin

Yes, children, there is an Obama Doctrine. The administration has now produced a National Security Strategy.

I’m tempted to say that in this document the Obama Administration does a Dr. Kevorkian on U.S. power. The White House wants to prove most of all that it isn’t the George W. Bush Administration but in doing so it also proves it isn’t the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush I, or even Clinton administration, too.

Yes, the worldview looks good on paper, at least to those who put it together and the groupthink they represent. The main theme is that America is not a superpower. It is limited, and this circumscribed power requires bringing in lots of partners. Yet is this an accurate description of the situation or a unilateral dismantlement of American power and prestige? A throwing away of its ability to punish as well as reward, to deter enemies through intimidation?

Of course, every power has very distinct limits as to what it can do. The Vietnam and Iraq wars show that. But that has nothing to do with the need to show leadership. And leadership means putting forward a clear position that combines what a situation requires along with what it is possible to get others to support. To obtain the support of others sometimes requires pressure as well as empathy, flattery, and persuasion.

In a sense, the Obama Administration's strategy for getting sanctions against Iran did follow that pattern. But it also used too little pressure (look at how Turkey and Brazil behaved), too little speed, and a reluctance to move out in front and bid others to follow.

Oh, and a good strategy also involves acting as if you are stronger than you are sometimes. If you keep running yourself down your friends and enemies might believe you.

By understating what the United States can and should do--arguably in an equal and opposite way to how the Bush Administration overstated it--is, to put it bluntly, like placing a big "kick me!" sign on America's derriere. In relative terms, Reagan got it right for his time, Clinton came relatively close. Obama is getting it wrong at a time when doing so is very dangerous.

“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama writes in the introduction to the strategy document. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

Yet that point is missed. If you don't want all the burdens to fall on your own shoulders, you have to press others to do their job and pressure them when they don't do so. By giving up your power to push them, by just asking them politely for help and giving up too much of the initiative, you assure that they do less, not more.

Equally, you don’t overextend precisely so you can concentrate on what’s important, say, pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq to focus on containing Iran in a serious way. You don’t reduce commitments in order to abandon the remaining ones.

A lot of this Obama era world view is intended to counter all the things that the Obamites hate about George W. Bush. Yet while one can certainly argue Bush did not wisely use the resources of American power that doesn’t mean American power itself isn’t there. The remedy for excessive unilateralism isn’t excessive multilateralism, or of going from drawing friend/enemy lines too sharply to seeing them vanish entirely.

While there might be times or situations where such a response did little harm, the present day—with threats from revolutionary Islamism, an aggressive Iran-led alliance, anti-American leftists, and resurgent Russian and Chinese ambitious powers—makes the Obama Doctrine a very dangerous course indeed.

How can one not think of the historical precedent. World War One was bloody and horrible. So Britain and France wanted to avoid another conflict, thus appeasing Germany and ensuring that another world war happened.

Americans were horrified by the Vietnam War and thus became allergic to having a policy that was tough enough, thus leading to paralysis about dealing with the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis along with other problems.

What's needed is a smart and balanced policy, not more swings of the pendulum!

Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor at present and global power is increasingly diffuse. Yet these are likely to be temporary conditions. If there’s going to be a vacuum, there are a number of candidates eager to fill it. And his policy makes the emergence of such competitors more, rather than less, likely.

Moreover, Obama’s doctrine calling for bringing in potential competitors (and countries that are either enemies or troublesome) as partners is a case of hiring the foxes to guard the chicken coops. China and Russia, Iran and Syria, Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey, among others, are naively seen as good buddies. Or, in the words of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes: “We are deeply committed to broadening the circle of responsible actors.”

Think of that sentence. The United States cannot make these countries “responsible actors.” There’s a reason why responsible actors include countries like Britain, France, and Germany. And the fruit of this mistaken policy is the kind of thing we just saw with the Brazilian-Turkish stab in the back over Iran.

We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this.

Moreover, it isn't just a matter of being "responsible" but of analyzing the nature of regimes, their aims, and their self-perceived interests, too.

But reading this doctrine has allowed me to understand something I never fully grasped before. Why does the Obama Administration focus on engaging enemies? Because it is precisely, according to the Obama world view, the “bad boy” powers which must be appeased. After all, since the United States is conceived as weak and overextended, the ones threatening to disrupt everything are too strong to oppose, they must be coopted.

That is why "appeasement" is a correct word here, more than I ever realized before. These countries are being offered partnership from a standpoint of weakness, a situation in which even if their price is very high they must be paid off because there is no alternative. What saves the United States and perhaps the world here is that the real enemies (and neither China nor Russia belong in that category) are so confident and extremist that--as we have seen in Iran's case--they will inevitably set the price too high for even the Obama Administration to meet.

Imagine a Western town full of outlaws and with a weak sheriff. The sheriff can deputize the criminals in the belief that this would make them “responsible actors.” Of course, as you probably guess, they would use their badges to rob, rape, and murder even more effectively. Some of them--like China and Russia--will be more restrained. Others--like Iran and Syria--won't.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, following orders and perhaps biting her lip, explained the doctrine this way: “We are shifting from mostly direct application and exercise of American power to one of indirection, that requires patience and partners, and gets results more slowly….In a world like this, American leadership isn’t needed less, it is needed more. And the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.”

Hillary, judging from the opposition to Iran nuclear weapons’ project, slowly seems to be never or, at best, much too late. How much will you pay your enemies to pretend to be partners? And suppose certain countries don’t want to solve global problems but merely to take advantage of them? Do they still need the United States?

That's why it is so important to study the words being spoken so closely. Just listen to that sentence again: "No global problem can be solved without us." Yet isn't this like saying, to pick an example, a British prime minister in 1938 saying: Peace in Europe cannot be preserved without us. The huge assumption here is that the other side shares your goals.

If Obama and his colleagues feel the United States is overextended, it is partly because they misidentify the threats and reject the best ways of dealing with them. Thus, the Doctrine says that nuclear weapons are the main threat to America, followed by climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, and cyber warfare.

This is dangerous claptrap. Without denying a threat posed by any of these, one could point out that there is no big threat from nuclear weapons (especially compared to the 1950-1990 period); that climate change as a threat is not yet proven nor is the ability of countries to do anything about it given the realistic options they have; that a combination of drilling and technology can deal with the energy problem; and that cyber warfare is still a very speculative threat.

Compare that with Iran taking over much of the Middle East; Russia rebuilding its empire, terrorism spreading in scope and intensity; and China gaining hegemony over large parts of Asia. I’m not saying those things are going to happen but they are greater threats than Obama’s list.

In a move that fully qualifies him for the Nobel Prize for Chutzpah, Obama warns that the high budget deficit is a major threat to U.S. strategic power. Since his policies have been so responsible for creating this problem and his administration shows no real sign of changing those policies one can only gasp at the audacity of this statement.

There’s a lot more of interest. The paper says:

“While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.”

Sounds great. But how about the use of power politics, threats, leverage, sticks? Well, once you assert America is weak and overextended, how are you going to convince anyone that they better do what you want? Obama’s posture makes the idea of containing Iran, for example, unthinkable. Once you announce you have no teeth, your enemies will naturally conclude that your bark is worse than your bite.

“Indeed," Obama writes, "our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

Yes, but those adversaries are equally happy to see you voluntarily throw away America's strength by denying it and hiring them to run the nursing home for what you see as a pitiful, helpless giant.

One day there might be another president who is neither a Bush nor an Obama, who will stand up straight, get rid of the wheelchair and canes, and say--to paraphrase Mark Twain--reports of America's demise are greatly exaggerated.


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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

U.S. Quietly Starts Missile Defense Program for Gulf

By Barry Rubin

One element of the plan to contain a nuclear-armed Iran is being put into place already: a U.S.-organized missile defense system against Iranian attacks, a task that is expected to take two to three years to install.

In 2008, the United States quietly put into Israel a high-powered X-Band radar and is looking for a place to put another powerful radar in a Persian Gulf country. The problem is that the two radars need to work together to be most effective in spotting Iranian attacks and no Gulf country would want to be seen cooperating with Israel even if its own existence is at stake. The U.S. argument is that this is an American-run system even if it is located on Israeli territory.

Anti-missile missiles would be coordinated in order to try to knock down any Iranian launches. Already there are such Patriot missiles in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, supplemented by sea-based Aegis missiles. This process started during the Bush Administration.

Friday, May 28, 2010

When Bibi Meets Barack: What Will Happen in Their Upcoming Meeting

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By Barry Rubin

Why was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu suddenly invited to meet with President Barack Obama next week? There are three very different reasons.

One is the Obama Administration’s realization that its harsh policy toward Israel has been mistaken and has yielded it no diplomatic benefit. Another is the knowledge that this policy is very unpopular among Americans in general as well as American Jews in particular. With November elections coming up, the White House wants to cut its losses.

There is also, however, a third reason which relates to substantive issues. The White House wants to hear from Netanyahu what his views and plans are regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. The Obama Administration is eager for progress on indirect talks, hopeful of moving to direct talks (which Netanyahu very much wants to do), and is also looking at longer-range possibilities.

My view is that Netanyahu should stress the following: Israel wants peace and is willing to agree to a two-state solution. But here’s what we want in return, so go to the Palestinians and see what they are willing to give in exchange for an independent state.

At this point, he explains the need to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; demilitarization of any Palestinian state (which I would call “nonmilitarization,” meaning that it keeps existing security forces but doesn’t build separate, conventional armed forces); that any agreement will permanently end the conflict and all Palestinian claims; and that all refugees must be resettled in the state of Palestine. He must also explain in detail what Israel wants in terms of security guarantees.

To a lesser extent, Netanyahu can discuss his views on borders. But his task is to break the pattern in which only Palestinian demands are considered and debated. In this context, the question is only what will Israel give, never what it will get in exchange.

This is a reasonable set of demands and one that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be able to meet if it were a “normal” political entity seeking a permanent two-state solution.

Unfortunately, the leadership—and even more those who stand behind them in Fatah—wants to wipe Israel off the map and get everything. But that’s a lesson that the Obama Administration has to learn for itself.

The current PA strategy is to pretend cooperation but ensure that, in effect, the talks are sabotaged. It hopes at some point next year to go to the United States and Europeans to claim that since Netanyahu won't make a deal they should recognize a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence or force Israel to accept a Palestinian state with no concessions by the PA. This probably won't work, though there are enough hints to the contrary to persuade the PA that this kind of strategy is its best bet.

The point for Netanyahu, then, is to express his total cooperation with peace efforts. If the PA refuses direct negotiations and rejects reasonable offers he must show that this will not be Israel’s fault.

Another approach suggests that Netanyahu should offer some kind of interim solution in which the PA would become a de facto state leaving Jerusalem, borders, and most other issues for the future. I think this would be a disastrous error, in essence giving the PA what it wants first without it having to make any compromises. No matter what time limit or conditions are put on the plan, once there is a Palestinian state recognized by the entire West and a full member of the UN, all such limitations will erode away.

Remember the issue here is not what a final diplomatic solution would look like but what negotiating posture Netanyahu will take in his White House visit.

Two other points must be mentioned. Netanyahu will show appreciation for the U.S. efforts on sanctions, but what longer-range strategy does he advocate? Probably, here, he will learn more about U.S. views on containment and strategy if and when Iran gets nuclear weapons as well as further unilateral sanctions. He is going to have to listen and evaluate what this approach means for Israel, especially in considering whether or not Israel should attack Iranian facilities at some point in the future.

Finally, Netanyahu is going to have to use all his smoothness and charm to educate his interlocutors about what the Middle East is really like without ever hinting that he is being patronizing or arrogant. That’s a tall order but if any Israeli can do that, Netanyahu can.

In contrast to the last visit, where he was received quite rudely, this one is set to be a love fest publicly. Eventually, we will find out whether it was that way privately as well.

BOOK REVIEW: Zeyno Baran, The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular

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Zeyno Baran, The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular. (Palgrave-Macmillan), 190 p., $21.60
By Barry Rubin

This is a book people have been waiting for, Zeyno Baran’s, The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular. What Baran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has done is to pull together ten essays by genuinely moderate Muslims in Europe and the United States about what’s going on regarding the internal struggle within Islam and what’s wrong with how the West deals with it.

She begins with this sentence: “The most important ideological struggle in the world today is within Islam,” that of moderate and secular Muslims versus Islamists. She defines moderate Muslims as those who want an Islam compatible with Western-style democracy and society.

Baran points out that many Western governments, media, and others make the mistake of putting the dividing point between those who are and aren’t violent, rather than between real moderates and Islamists who, even if they don’t favor or use violence at the moment, still seek to capture state power and create a theologically dominated society.

To prove that the West can co-exist successfully with Muslim populations is an important way to undercut the Islamists. In order to achieve this, however, the West has to win over its Muslims both for its own society and for a moderate approach.

While many might find this point startling, it is well known to those who understand what’s going on that a critical mistake is how Western governments, media, and other institutions in fact help the radicals and push Muslims into their arms. This is not primarily through discrimination or mistreatment—though that is at times a problem—but by classifying the radicals as “proper” Muslims and working with their institutions.

Indeed, this is how multiculturalism works in practice. The Islamists create and control the main institutions in their community. The West abjures acculturation or assimilation in favor of declaring these to be separate communities in which everyone must live according to the norms. The line is not set between moderate and radical but rather those who use violence and those who don’t, thus empowering radical Islamists who focus on organizing and indoctrination for the moment.

In an excellent essay on the situation in the United States, Hedieh Mirahmadi “Navigating Islam in America,” writes how the “gatekeepers who get to determine who participates in the debate about American foreign policy, law enforcement, and national security” persist in “cozying up to known Islamic extremists” while true moderates are cut out.

Yunis Qandil in “Euro-Islamists and the Struggle for Dominance within Islam” does a parallel analysis of conditions in Europe. Other chapters cover Italy and France, along with some very well written first-hand accounts.


One cannot help but notice the numerous, highly-organized, and well-funded (ironically, some of the money comes from Western governments) are the radical Islamists while the moderates are scattered, not well-heeled, and act mainly as individuals. It is a most uneven competition, a fact which in itself should play an important role in the outcome.

Still, that fact makes this all the more a book well worth reading, though some would prefer a fuller discussion of how moderates can justify their interpretations of key Islamic texts. Baran’s volume is full of graphic examples and details of how the Islamist power structure works and how easily Westerners are taken in by it.


For more information go HERE. The book can be ordered HERE.




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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

President Obama's Ayatollah Explains Islam to the Muslims

By Barry Rubin

The president’s advisor on terrorism, John Brennan, who I’ve dubbed the worst foreign policy official in the Obama Administration, has made a new statement that is very interesting and deserves serious debate, not just dismissal or endorsement.

You can see his basic line as it has developed, with full administration support, over the last year:

“Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against jihadists. Describing terrorists in this way, using the legitimate term `jihad,' which means to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal, risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself. And this is why President Obama has confronted this perception directly and forcefully in its speeches to Muslim audiences, declaring that America is not and never will be at war with Islam.”

Brennan also said that the United States is not at war with “terror,” which is merely a tactic, but only with al-Qaida.

There are two issues here:

1. Should U.S. strategy be to make a theological judgment about the relationship of Jihad and Islam, deciding what is the "proper" Muslim stance?

2. Should U.S. strategy be to declare that there is a war only with al-Qaida and not with terrorism or anyone else?

Regarding the first point, for Ayatollah Brennan to define jihad as only peaceful and for “a moral goal” is ludicrous. All Muslims know that, at a minimum, jihad also includes a violent struggle for conquest as its main component, even if they also believe there is an internal moral aspect to it or a non-violent jihad (a jihad to be a better person; a jihad against illiteracy). Brennan saying otherwise isn’t going to change any minds or win over any hearts.

In English there's a mocking saying about one trying to be "more Catholic than the Pope." Isn't Brennan trying to prove he is a better understander of Islam than Usama bin Ladin? Should we say speak of those-who-claim-to-be-Jihadists-but-aren't?

At any rate, the key point made by al-Qaida and other contemporary Jihadists is that they are waging a “defensive jihad” to save Muslims from a Western “Crusader-Zionist” attempt to destroy Islam. They define this as “a holy struggle for a moral goal.” At times, they are more open about the use of Jihad to gather all Muslims into a single state ruled by a caliph.

So it is reasonable to have a U.S. policy that doesn’t define the enemy as Jihad; it is mandatory to have a U.S. policy that doesn’t define the enemy as Islam (President George W. Bush set that theme on September 12, 2001) but it is ridiculous for the United States to compete with imams and ayatollahs in defining Islam. And this is especially true when the specific claims made about Islam are so obviously nonsensical.

And doesn't this whole approach seem to be the very act of aggression against Islam to many Muslims, a war on Islam, that Brennan and the Obama administration want to avoid? After all, if the U.S. government sets itself up as interpreter of Islam that really does seem like a threat to reshape Islam in an American image. Already, radicals, not all of them Jihadists, proclaim that there is a battle between “proper Islam” and “American Islam.” And that tactic is certainly used to enhance the "religious legitimacy" of the revolutionaries.

If U.S. policy wants to deal with this issue, it should suffice to cite a long list of Muslim theologians and leaders who disagree with al-Qaida and denounce it as proof that the group does not deserve the religious legitimacy it claims. The U.S. government should cite the casualty figures of Muslims murdered by the revolutionary Islamists, the cost in living standards, and overall suffering produced by them.

Regarding the point as to who is the enemy, an argument can certainly be made for narrowing the conflict in terms of definition. Having fewer enemies is preferable. Yet doesn't this pose of a U.S versus al-Qaida war send a signal to all attacked by anyone not part of al-Qaida that the United States is standing on the sidelines.

The United States isn't "at war" with Hamas, Hizballah, or revolutionary Islamists who attack Indonesia, India, Israel, the Philippines, Thailand, and other countries. But should it go out of its way publicly to define them as non-enemies, even when these groups have killed Americans? In fact, Brennan has repeatedly defined Hizballah, the group which has murdered--if one omits September 11--more Americans than al-Qaida to be not terrorist at all in large part.

And what about the Taliban in Afghanistan? Why are U.S. troops there if it isn’t an enemy? All that would be needed are small numbers of Special Forces’ soldiers seeking to kill al-Qaida leaders in hiding.

In discussing all these issues, U.S. policy should stick to national definitions. It was wrong of Obama to make a pitch to Muslims in the Cairo speech. After all, if the great conflict is between those seeking a national and those seeking a religious definition of their identity, why should the United States undermine this? Let it speak instead of Iraqis and Egyptians, Saudis and Pakistanis.

By the way, a further convenience here is that technically al-Qaida doesn’t have state sponsors. Yet Syria and Iran have been enablers of al-Qaida, most notably in Iraq, and Pakistan has done so in Afghanistan. Part of the administration’s effort here is to provide an excuse not to deal with these aspects of the problem.

It is better not to have a simplistic definition at all. The United States is at war with those who have attacked it. The United States is in conflict with those who are trying to destroy its allies—whether it be Israel or Saudi Arabia, Thailand or India--since, if that isn’t true, in what sense are those countries allies?

There is also a hint of a sleazy side-stepping plea: Don't attack me, attack those Lebanese and Israelis, Thai Buddhists and Filipino or Nigerian or Sudanese Christians! It is a tactic reminiscent of those "anti-terrorist" Muslim clerics whose opposition to murder is restricted to proclaiming that those who kill fellow Muslims are not proper jihadists, where as those who kill non-Muslims are A-OK.

What Brennan does have in mind, and says so elsewhere, is something prevalent in administration thinking: drawing a line between good and bad guys, moderates and radicals, in which those who seek to overthrow allied countries or destroy U.S. interests are redefined as good guy moderates. Like those nice clean-cut Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries who, for tactical reasons, believe the revolution requires mass organizing today, leaving armed struggle for some future stage.

You don’t have to be at war with Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, the Turkish regime and various others to recognize that they are in fact enemies of the United States. You don't have to see groups like the Muslim Brotherhood blow up things to know that they, too, are enemies of the United States.

And no verbal gymnastics will change that fact; they will only weaken the U.S. ability to deal with the struggle at hand.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Learning Curve Option is Already Around the Bend

By Barry Rubin

A well-connected and experienced policymaking friend mentioned in passing the question of whether the Obama Administration is still in the midst of a "learning curve" that might bring about a more realistic, workable foreign policy.

This is precisely what I expected to happen in late 2009. The only question was whether the improvement would be a small or big one. After all, there was a consistent pattern over many years in which new presidents and their colleagues gained wisdom after initial missteps.

But, in this case, nothing happened.

The administration's term (first term? only term?) is now one-third over. If there was going to be a learning curve it would have curved by now. Most likely, this is as good as it gets.

Where do learning curves come from?

--The accumulation of experience. You do things and observe what works and what doesn't. The great Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry, so a friend who played for him told me, insisted that one learns a lot more from defeat than from victory.

Thus, it's possible to grow in a job. But if you don't learn from criticism or rethink your conceptual approach, you just keep repeating the same stuff. I cannot think of a single issue--save perhaps that it isn't a good idea to bash Israel--where this administration has learned from experience. Can you?

--Personnel changes. If new people come into power or the balance of influence among them changes, policy shifts. A good example is how National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice became the dominant force in the latter part of the George W. Bush Administration and shifted away from the democracy-promotion approach as well as on other issues. The Obama Administration, however, has had virtually no such shifts.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who could make things a lot better if listened to at all, has been marginalized. Someone like Dennis Ross, who could give some good advice on the Middle East, is isolated. These two are trotted out to endorse administration policy at best. No salvation yet on this front.

--A serious rethinking of ideology and world view. Obama seems to be about the last person to be capable of self-criticism and self-change. Something I realized while watching Obama's press conference is that he seems to think that if government follows the right procedures and has the right ideas the outcome is somehow secondary.

Which reminds me of an an actual incident. A professor gives a paper explaining how countries decide whether or not to get nuclear weapons. A student responds by listing a number of exceptions which disprove that hypothesis. The professor says his theory is still correct.

"But professor," says the student, "what about reality?"

Without hesitating, the professor responds, "Reality is an exceptional case."

That seems to be how Obama thinks. If reality seems to clash with his preconception, so much the worse for reality. And if someone disagrees that only shows he needs to explain it again, more slowly, in smaller words.

--The impact of a crisis. None yet on foreign policy that might have such an effect. And one shudders to think when some major international issue springs a leak how will this administration responds. Domestic crises--like the health bill's bloody battle or electoral defeats--also seemed to have no effect on the speed and direction of the administration.

So I think by this point the learning curve solution is by this point a long shot. That leaves the country with only the electoral solution.

Seventy Years Ago: FDR Rallies Nation in Darkest Hours of World War Two, Interesting Parallels to Today

By Barry Rubin

Seventy years ago, May 1940, was just about the darkest moment ever for the democratic world. Germany was overrunning France, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands. Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR were allied. Britain was scrambling to pull out as many men as possible from Dunkirk and an invasion of Britain seemed imminent.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went on the radio and told his fellow Americans to abandon isolationism, face the threats, prepare their forces, ignore those who would destroy America from within, and preserve their way of life. He spoke, too, of the need to prepare for the great struggle ahead.

He did not apologize nor did he shrink from meeting the challenge. He inspired by extolling America's greatness and piety.

"There are many among us who in the past closed their eyes to events abroad--because they believed in utter good faith what some of their fellow Americans told them -- that what was taking place in Europe was none of our business; that no matter what happened over there, the United States could always pursue its peaceful and unique course in the world.
'
"Obviously, a defense policy based on that is merely to invite future attack....

"In some quarters, with this rude awakening has come fear, fear bordering on panic....It is whispered by some that, only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors....

"Today we are more realistic. But let us not be calamity-howlers and discount our strength....

"Today's threat to our national security is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of other methods, new methods of attack.

"The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy. With all of these we must and will deal vigorously.

"But there is an added technique for weakening a nation at its very roots, for disrupting the entire pattern of life of a people. And it is important that we understand it.

"The method is simple. It is, first, discord, a dissemination of discord. A group--not too large--a group that may be sectional or racial or political -- is encouraged to exploit its prejudices through false slogans and emotional appeals. The aim of those who deliberately egg on these groups is to create confusion of counsel, public indecision, political paralysis and eventually, a state of panic....
"For more than three centuries we Americans have been building on this continent a free society, a society in which the promise of the human spirit may find fulfillment. Commingled here are the blood and genius of all the peoples of the world who have sought this promise.

"We have built well. We are continuing our efforts to bring the blessings of a free society, of a free and productive economic system, to every family in the land. This is the promise of America.

"It is this that we must continue to build--this that we must continue to defend.

"It is the task of our generation, yours and mine. But we build and defend not for our generation alone. We defend the foundations laid down by our fathers. We build a life for generations yet unborn. We defend and we build a way of life, not for America alone, but for all mankind. Ours is a high duty, a noble task...."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

U.S. State Department on Blocking Free Speech: Today Pakistan, Tomorrow the World?

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By Barry Rubin

Here’s a tough problem they didn’t teach at Government Spokesman Preparatory School. A question is asked during the State Department press briefing:

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on Pakistan’s blockage of…YouTube and other Internet sites?

The occasion was the decision of Pakistan to block sites because some carried pictures of Muhammad, founder of Islam.

Now, how can P.J. Crowley respond? Fortunately, the State Department had prepared a statement for him:

MR. CROWLEY: “Obviously, this is a difficult and challenging issue. Many of the images that appear today on Facebook were deeply offensive to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We are deeply concerned about any deliberate attempt to offend Muslims or members of any other religious groups. We do not condone offensive speech that can incite violence or hatred.

“…We also believe that the best answer to offensive speech is dialogue and debate, and in fact, we see signs that that is exactly what is occurring in Pakistan. Governments have a responsibility to protect freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

“The best antidote to intolerance is not banning or punishing offensive speech, but rather a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, and proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression.

“….We respect any actions that need to be taken under Pakistani law to protect their citizens from offensive speech. At the same time, Pakistan has to make sure that in taking any particular action, that you’re not restricting speech to the millions and millions of people who are connected to the internet and have a universal right to the free flow of information.”

Crowley is trying to balance freedom of speech with Political Correctness plus the administration’s policy. Granted, his situation wasn’t easy and that he was trying to give a reasonable response (much more so than the snippets appearing in some media make it seem), he did fall into some holes.

What he seems to be saying is that Pakistan has the right to censor the Internet but that shouldn’t interfere with others having the ability to use it. But he also hedges on that approach.

For example, should a picture of Muhammad be “deeply offensive” to non-Muslims? Why? Granted that they want to show Islam respect, it is in no way against their custom to have such pictures. And if it is deeply offensive does that mean it is bad?

After all, since everyone knows that saying certain things—sometimes even quoting Muslim texts is “offensive to Muslims,” those exercising their free speech can be said to be engaging in a “deliberate attempt to offend Muslims,” right?

So when Crowley says that the U.S. government takes a position on saying certain things, isn’t unwarranted and unprecedented interference with Americans’ right to free speech? And where is the line between “offensive speech” that someone knows in advance will be “offensive” and a hate crime?

Indeed, how can anyone even maintain that under the U.S. Constitution there can even be such a thing as a verbal hate crime unconnected with an actual criminal act (assault, murder, arson, vandalism, etc.)?

And that’s not all. While each religion can choose to define what deeply offends it, why should it expect everyone else to accept that definition? If that happens, the religion in question (which today generally means only Islam) is thus granted veto power over what everyone else does. And that’s dangerous.

In addition, it’s farcical for Crowley to characterize what is occurring in Pakistan “dialogue and debate” over such matters. This is a country where Christians are persecuted and murdered (with no Western protest, members of the Ahmadis sect are discriminated against, and is a world center of antisemitism. Often, Christians are beaten or murdered for allegedly having done something “offensive” regarding Islam. Unfortunately, in the Muslim-majority world when governments do "outreach to minority religious groups" it's for the purpose of strangling them.

This question came within a few hours of the president signing a bill claiming to champion freedom of the press against foreign enemies of media liberty. Oh, by the way, has anyone else noticed that in signing a media freedom bill in honor of Daniel Pearl, President Obama never once mentioned that the reporter was murdered by radical Islamists in Pakistan? Here's a good example of trying not to cause offense curtailing free speech (and the recognition of reality).

Of course, Crowley is right in saying governments should safeguard free speech. But all the meaning is drained out of this since “robust legal protections against…hate crimes” includes in most countries steps that do punish free speech. That goes for Canada, the Netherlands, and many other places. So how can you deal with this very real contradiction unless you acknowledge that the mere act of speech—unless it involves a direct threat of violence or other regular crime—is never a hate crime. By the way, isn’t that what was taken for granted in American law until a few years ago.

And what does a “proactive government outreach to minority religious groups” mean? Is that just making apologies offering special treatment or explaining to them that the customs of Western democratic countries include the ability to draw pictures of Muhammad or show him as a cartoon character on television?
The reporter then asked:

QUESTION: “But who’s to say that Pakistan isn’t simply playing to the more conservative religious factions in order to maintain political viability?”

It isn’t Crowley’s job to analyze other countries’ motives. But this question contains an important implication. Once upon a time, we thought there were forces of “progress” and those of “reaction.” The former wanted democracy, modernization, freedom, equality of women, and not murdering people for alleged heresy. Now, however, if you change the word from “heresy” to “causing offense” or “multiculturalism” that apparently legitimizes the opposite practices.

Crowley then said something that sounds bland but is revolutionary: “There needs to be a balance to make sure that in rightly restricting offensive speech, or even hate speech, that Pakistan continues to protect and promote the free flow of information.”

In effect, this means: Keep the data going but censor anything that offends you. While Crowley began with U.S. respect for Pakistani law, he ends by endorsing Pakistani law. And so the U.S. State Department has now proclaimed in the name of the American government and people that it is right to restrict “offensive speech.”

The reporter was understandably bewildered:

QUESTION: “But blocking a…website doesn’t seem to go toward promoting free flow of information.”

Crowley finally responds with what he should have said in the first place: “We certainly fully understand how material that were posted on this particular page were offensive to Pakistanis and members of other Muslim majority communities around the world. But at the same time, we do in fact support the universal principle of freedom of expression, free flow of information, and we will continue to promote Internet freedom….”

Note that his reference to "├Âther Muslim majority communities around the world" shows the perception that all Muslims are basically united and to offend any Muslims anywhere is to risk the wrath of them all, a very heavy restriction on making foreign policy! Just reflect on that a moment: a U.S. government that worries about offending everyone from Albanians or Afghans to Yemenis or Zanzabaris.

So, yes, the administration’s thinking is confused. On one hand, embracing “old think,” it supports in theory a universal principle of freedom of expression. Yet on the other hand it endorses the censorship of what someone else deems to be “offensive speech” lest hundreds of millions of people be turned into bitter enemies. Talk about being intimidated!

I fear that this apparent contradiction is merely a trend in which the Pakistani model will be more and more inculcated into Western policies, and even into Western societies.

Meanwhile, Apple has removed an application for its iphones showing only hardline quotes from the Koran while continuing an anti-Christian program. Scores of equivalent examples can be offered.

It is as if freedom of speech was turned on its head. It replaces the great standard of free speech defense, "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it," with: "Shut up or I'll kill you," followed by a government spokesman saying: "We do not condone speech that would make anyone else want to kill you or anyone else for saying it."

The key issue here is not outrage that someone else is being offended but fear that there is one group that will kill, riot, and attack if it perceives offense. This is what Crowley proposes to "privilege," rather than "offensive" speech that incites merely hurt feelings or even urges the killing or oppression of others.

To see what American policy--and society?--is thus reduced to, watch the Monty Python "Colonel" sketch. Here's the script (a dozen lines down from the start) and here's the video. First, you'll laugh and then you'll see that it's frighteningly accurate. No kidding: Watch this comedy skit from 25 years ago and be astonished at how closely it matches the world situation in 2010.

Oh, and by the way, despite the money pumped in and the praise so freely expressed from the administration, the word in Pakistan is that the Times Square bombing was a Jewish-Indian-U.S. government plot to make it seem like there might be some terrorism coming from Pakistan. Remember this: Political culture always trumps flattery in shaping Middle East reactions to events.


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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

We Do Not Live in Normal Times: Britain's Best and Brightest Stage a Pogrom

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By Barry Rubin

Although two stories—the first regarding the U.S. policy handling of Turkey and Brazil’s relationship with Iran; the second, this one, on anti-Israel hysteria in the United Kingdom—are totally different, they reflect the two parts of our current crisis.

These are the ideological and policy derailment of Western governments, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the collapse of the fail-safe systems for key public institutions, especially academia and media. To understand the crisis in both sectors—the greatest perhaps since the end of World War Two—these two halves of the puzzle must be assembled.

Regarding anti-Israel hysteria, it can only be called—in spirit and worldview—Medieval in the worst sense of that word. Two British newspapers, the Guardian and Independent, are accusing Israel—on the basis of a new book—of offering to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa.

When you get through all the passionate hatred, distortion, and incited hysteria what is the basis for this accusation? There is a South African document saying that the government would like to buy missiles from Israel. There is a discussion between the South African Defense Minister P.W. Botha and Israel’s then Defense Minister Shimon Peres on the topic. Peres says that Israel has large, medium, and small warheads.

That’s it. There’s no mention of nuclear weapons. No evidence that Israel ever sold issiles to South Africa. No evidence even that the South African government ever began negotiations to buy missiles.

So how was this fantasy created? By dishonestly claiming--with no basis in fact--that "large," "medium" and "small" were codewords for nuclear weapons, and that a totally noncommital conversational remark constituted a serious offer. By the way, Peres, a man with a lot of credibility, and Pik Botha, who is well respected senior South African official at the time, have denied the story. And here's former President de Klerk pointing out that South Africa was never interested in nuclear weapons from Israel because--precisely as the documents show and the Guardian knew--it was developing them for itself.

Yet this has been built into a major campaign to prove that Israel is evil. And this is not carried out by the most sensationalist newspapers but the supposedly most respectable and intellectually oriented ones.

Any sober evaluation would conclude that there is nothing to this story, as is the same with so many stories slandering Israel, like the alleged Jenin massacre for which no evidence was ever presented.

For those of you under a certain age, let me explain how newspapers, at least those not disdained as sensationalist, used to work. The journalist would try to be as balanced and fair as possible. If the story did not hold up, he was not supposed to submit it. Different viewpoints were sought and represented. His own personal opinions were to be kept out. Those who did not adhere to these standards were fired.

The second line of defense was an editor who was supposed to do the same thing. And finally, if the story proved to be inaccurate, the newspaper would quickly provide a correction and learn something from the experience.

But instead what now exists in certain contemporary European newspapers on certain issues is a combination of hatred, hysteria, an abandonment of journalistic and intellectual standards, a disinterest in facts, and the deliberate use of institutions to create a lynch mob mentality.

And here’s what it reminds me of.

It’s a beautiful spring day for a fair, May 8, 1886, the festival of Saint Stanislav the patron saint of Dolhinov in the Russian Empire’s Vilna province. Among those walking around in the crowd and enjoying the food and festivities is the Krasovsky family of Gabytatsya village. Somehow, their 12-year-old son, Stanislav wanders off or perhaps his parents—dazzled by the splendors around them, relaxed by drink or tending their other children—lose track of him.

He’s never seen alive again. Five days later, his body is discovered deep in the forest and many miles away, covered with tree branches.

There was no evidence of what had happened to him. But the rumor spread that a Dolhinov Jew named Rubin, one of my ancestors, had murdered him to use his blood in a Jewish ritual. According to the story then told, the Jews had a barrel studded with nails. The child was dropped into the barrel, which was then rolled, so the nails pierced him in many places and drained out the blood.

And so on Easter Thursday, June 12, many peasants arrived in town well fortified with copious amounts of homemade vodka, and set off to find and kill the evil Rubin. Armed with poles, stones, and even sheep-shears, they ran across the central square, smashing and looting Jewish shops as well as destroying the inside of the near-by synagogue.

Accounts vary on how many Jews were killed or injured.

This is the level that all too many within academia and media, especially in the United Kingdom, have reached. Of course, they speak not of barrels and nails but nuclear weapons, not religious but political crimes, not a league with the devil but with South Africa. The main difference is that this modern equivalent of irrational hatred is not carried out by illiterate, half-starved peasants but by the self-proclaimed best-and-brightest who view themselves as thoroughly modern and sophisticated.

Fundamentally, though, it is the same thing.

Here is an account of this whole new atomic affair by two leading experts on nuclear weapons and Israel's policy on these issues that shows the baselessness of this new accusation. But how to keep up with the dozens of such slanders generated on a daily basis?

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

We Do Not Live in Normal Times: A Small Case Study of Incompetence and Ideological Insanity

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By Barry Rubin

Although these two stories—the first regarding Turkey and Brazil’s relationship with Iran; the second (covered in another article), anti-Israel hysteria in the United Kingdom—are totally different, they reflect the two parts of our current crisis.

These are the ideological and policy derailment of Western governments, on the one hand and, on the other hand, the collapse of the fail-safe systems for key public institutions, especially academia and media. To understand the crisis in both sectors—the greatest perhaps since the end of World War Two—these two halves of the puzzle must be assembled.

The first story relates to a detail in the recent engineering by Turkey and Brazil of a deal with Iran to try to slow or even stop the effort to put sanctions on Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program. This plan is basically a retread of something that failed more than six months ago. Iran would send out a portion of its potential material for making bombs but keep the rest. It was an obvious trick and quickly rejected as such by the United States and other leading powers.

A friend, however, was deeply puzzled by one detail of this situation. It was widely reported that the Turkish and Brazilian governments consulted with the United States prior to making this farcical arrangement with Tehran and got a green light to go ahead. How, my friend asked, could the U.S. government give the okay to actions that would clearly destroy one of its main policies?

Another element in the story is the defection of two historically reliable allies of the United States to the other side. There’s no sense concealing the fact that Turkey and Brazil are friendlier to Iranian interests than to American ones. And this is with the allegedly internationally beloved Barack Obama in the White House!

But the mistake and defection only seem inexplicable because of a failure to face two facts.

First, Turkey is now in the hands of an Islamist-oriented regime, a fact that still seems to be a secret in official Washington. Iran and Syria regard Turkey as their ally, not America’s, yet the Obama Administration continues to praise and coddle the government in Ankara, despite its unprecedented repression and step-by-step attempt to dismantle Turkish democracy

Brazil has a president who is as close to a Communist as one can get nowadays. Along with the leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia, he is no friend of the United States, again despite the administration’s praise, lack of criticism, and blindness toward these regimes.

The United States and the Western democracies have enemies in this world and they will not be charmed away, won over by appeasement, bought off with material betterment, or made to disappear if they are ignored.

This leads to the other aspect: the incompetence and ideological errors of the Obama Administration. It did not gain popularity for President George W. Bush to say that “you are with us or you are against us.” Yet there are times that a president must say that or at least something closer to that than what’s being said at present.

The U.S. government is proudly and deliberately refusing to show leadership, having swung too far on the pendulum toward a doctrinaire multilateralism, a UN worship. It has proudly and deliberately set out to show that it is not tough in foreign policy.

What Obama should have done is to tell the Turkish and Brazilian governments: We believe Iran is heading toward nuclear weapons and we feel it is the highest priority to stop it. We need your support and since you are allies for whom we have done a great deal we expect it. Your votes are needed for sanctions on the UN Security Council and, of course, if we don’t get them then we will have to think about other aspects of our relationship.


Even many in Brazil were horrified by what their country had done, and worried--being behind the times, perhaps--at how the United States might retaliate. This is leverage that could have been used on this issue. The same applies to Turkey, where the opposition is openly bitter at a U.S. policy they believe goes too far in favoring the incumbent government, and thus helping it stay in power. Yet while some reported that this may damage U.S. relations with these countries, I'll bet the Obama Administration does nothing at all.

Governments need to use both carrots and sticks in diplomacy, but the Obama Administration has countries which are hostile or unhelpful on an all-carrot diet. Given this, a lot of countries aren't going to stick with the United States, at least to the same extent as they formerly did.

Instead, in order not to offend and to keep Obama popular--which sometimes seems the main goal of contemporary U.S. policy--it said something like: sure, go ahead, we aren’t going to tell you what to do.

Thus, a major mess results. And it is typical of a whole variety of big problems and growing threats due to mistakes in U.S. policy.

Countries are spinning out of the American orbit due both to internal changes (which must be recognized and acted upon by U.S. policy) and by the conviction that the United States is weak and too friendly to its enemies to safeguard the interests of its friends. For example, this issue is being openly acknowledged by people in Saudi Arabia, fearful that the United States is going to leave them to Iran's "mercy," in practice no matter what the administration's rhetoric claims.

Enemies are being emboldened and are making gains by the same considerations.

Until America's leaders--these or, more likely the next ones--see this, the danger and crisis will deepen.

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bill Clinton (Unintentionally) Explains to Us How Obama Administration Ideology in the West Makes the World Worse

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By Barry Rubin

Bill Clinton, former U.S. president, spoke at Yale University and said some interesting things. There is a positive side to his remarks about international affairs—especially in terms of good intentions (a very American characteristic)—but he also revealed some of the very dangerous thinking that’s making the world worse, not better.

The globe, he said, is now “too unstable ... too unequal and ... completely unsustainable.”

I’m tempted to point out that there have been plenty of times, actually far more of the time, when the world was even more unstable and unequal. But let that go.

What’s Clinton’s solution?

“A non-zero sum game is when both parties can win….If you want it to change, you have to find a way for everyone to win.”

This is noble and very rational. It is also, in some respects, insane. No, not everyone can “win” because each individual, group, and nation defines for itself what winning means. And there are contradictions, which lead to what we call conflict and war.

On one level, what Clinton is saying is that America has to get everyone to redefine their own thinking and think like “us.” This is one of the oldest American conceptions around the world, one which liberals traditionally liked to ridicule. (One famous example was making fun of a Republican senator who said during China's pre-Communist era that this country would progress ever upward until it reached the level of Kansas City.)

And after all, if we are so “multicultural” why can’t we understand that people in, say, Bosnia or on the island of Ireland, or in Pakistan, or a hundred other places have totally different beliefs and goals?

On another level, Clinton is implying that prosperity will solve everyone’s problems, that if you stuff enough material goods into the craws of all they will be happy. That’s another concept that liberals have historically ridiculed and identified with conservatives.

And of course there is another problem because for purposes of environmentalism and to fight man-made global warming (whether or not this is a real threat), the Obama Administration and other Western governments are proposing policies that would slow down development. That’s why countries like India and China are so opposed to these plans.

Clinton also reveals his (and the dominant) underlying philosophy when he states:

“The Haitians are rather like the Palestinians. They are only poor in their own back yard and they deserve a better deal and a chance to build a better future for their children and I think we can give it to them.” The students applauded.

Well, they do have one important thing in common: in both cases, these people are dominated by a bad and corrupt leadership. Yet there is an all-important difference: the Haitians live in a traditional dictatorship, one that has no particular ideology but is just engaged in stealing money to protect its privileges.

With the Palestinians there is a second level, too: they overwhelmingly support their rulers and have an ideology seeking total victory. In short, the Haitians are, to a larger extent, hapless victims, the Palestinians are, in general of course, indeed shaping their own fate by supporting a radical movement and political behavior that makes solution of their problems impossible.

Yet Clinton’s views are even more ironic. After all, if all these people are mere victims who can only get their “better deal” and “better future” if “we…give it to them” isn’t this a view equivalent to nineteenth-century imperialist thinking? Yeah, let’s go in and get rid of the bad guys and build a new system for them. Um, isn’t that what George W. Bush tried to do in Iraq? You didn’t like it and it’s debatable how well that worked.

What Clinton is saying, when the rhetoric is stripped away, is this:

The world's people are suffering because they aren't as smart as we are in seeing how easily everything can be wonderful. But their problems can be easily fixed if we just solve them by passing out the riches and teaching them to be like us. Why should they cling to their guns, religion, and customs? People are only interested in material well-being, after all, so would be quite eager to follow this path and will really love the United States for saving them. Oh, by the way, they can't build any smelly factories or exploit natural resources too much in having all the benefits of modern life in an industrialized, urbanized, secularized, pragmatic, democratic society.

You see, if you really examine what these people on the left are saying they share the same basic premises they profess to hate: materialism, patronizing imperialism, a sense of cultural and intellectual superiority over the rest of the world, a refusal to recognize differences among nations and peoples, and at the same time putting additional obstacles in the way of the poor.

And now for the best part! Clinton didn’t just undermine, he totally destroyed, his own argument without realizing it, nor did his audience presumably see this flaw.

In discussing the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, Clinton noted he’d received a college degree in America before becoming a terrorist. So here’s what Clinton made of this paradox: “It shows you that when you tear down all the walls, and you can break through all the barriers of information, that the same things that empower you to get access to more information more quickly than ever before could empower you to build bombs.”

No, it isn’t just information. Mere information doesn’t make people into terrorists. The terrorists didn't fly planes into the World Trade Center because they knew how to fly planes or because the world is "unstable." They did so because they were revolutionary Islamists or because they wanted a world in which everyone would win.

They want total victory. They don't want some half-way world of compromise. And they have an idea of "a better deal" and "a better future" for their children quite different from that held by Clinton or his audience of high-minded, well-intentioned people.

Let me explain it in words that Clinton might understand:

It’S THE IDEOLOGY STUPID

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

Why Should We Be Surprised that Intellectuals have Failed to Defend Freedom and Democratic Values?

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By Barry Rubin

Something's missing. Or at least it seems to be missing. Today when liberty is at threat from Western left-wing ideologues, revolutionary Islamists, and sometimes from governments themselves, we--or I, at least--keep expecting some mass protest, some upsurge of criticism and exposure, among the intellectuals. Since this is a group I belong to (I say this in sadness rather than to brag), it is especially painful for me to admit this fact.

For years, in their thousands they have proclaimed their courage. Just let some authoritarian or totalitarian or just plain mean, human-rights' denying movement raise its head, they've been telling us and themselves, and we'll swing into action! And as long as the threat is tiny or distance and opposing it is fashionable, that happened sometimes.

Yet the notion of fearless intellectuals who dare speak truth to power and defend what is right like a lioness protects its cubs is largely the creation of...intellectuals themselves. They are best fearless when there is nothing much to fear.

But let someone threaten violence if a cartoon of Muhammad appears and they crumble up like a cardboard suit in a tropical downpour. What they are really good at, however, is coming up with excuses for making going down on their knees seem an act of exquisite humanity.

This situation has actually been worsened by the credentialization and professionalization of intellectuals. They are defined in large part as people with the right certificates--we call them degrees--and the proper jobs.
As the Wizard of Oz explained it, “Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning--where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts--and with no more brains than you have [and this is being said to the straw man, remember!].... But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma!"
But a college professor a fellow at a think tank, perhaps the most readily identifiable examples of a professional intellectual, is not necessarily one but merely a person who has dug a hole narrow and deep enough to become an "expert" in some field by passing certain tests set up for the purpose. It is remarkable how little many of these people know much outside their fields. Indeed, when it comes to international affairs, it is often remarkable how little many of these people know inside their field, how limited the sense of how policy is really made or foreign societies actually function.

Back when students had to sit through a two-semester Western Civilization class and fulfill course requirements that were intended to lay the basis for a broad literacy in history and philosophy, at least having a diploma meant something more.

Academia, especially in recent decades, has done more than any other institution to kill intellectual life by creating an army of technocrats. Among the negatives are: narrowness rather than breadth of knowledge, the transformation of a yearning for wisdom into a yearning for a salaried position, and the glorification of inexperience with the real world.

Why one could, just to set up a hypothetical example, go from undergraduate to graduate student to adjunct professor with a few months of community organizing experience to a few more months in a legislative body to the White House. This might be hard to believe but it could happen.

And then the country is divided into two groups: those who think you are a marvelous intellectual and those who are astonished that you have no idea how to make decisions, forge coalitions, balance a budget, or administer a huge organization. Imagine, just because you lack any real experience but merely apply theories you learned in school to complex situations!

What is most important for a leadership, however, is not to be "smart" but to be "wise." Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were despised by intellectuals but were two of the wisest men in American public life, despite the fact that they held very different views.

Of course there is no such thing as a monolithic intellectual class. Yet if you have a stratum of society with a common background, parallel work experiences, and certain other characteristics (even geographical concentration) a herd instinct does seem to emerge.

The late William F. Buckley, a genuine intellectual who I respected though I rarely agreed with him, correctly said that he would rather be ruled by people chosen at random from the phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. He was right.

When we look at history we see over and over again that if there is any "constructed" myth it is that of the intellectuals as heroes and leaders. As Walter Laqueur, the best kind of old-school intellectual, wrote recently in his memoir, "Best of Times, Worse of Times":

"The record of the French and Italian intelligentsias in resisting fascism had been less than brilliant during the war [World War Two]: collaboration with the Nazi and fascist regimes had been widespread. Most leading French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, had not joined the resistance, and his plays continued to be performed all through the occupation. Even in Britain the record of the Colonel Blimps [i.e., traditionalist, conservative patriots] resisting fascism had been better than that of many intellectuals, as George Orwell observed....The New Statesman in particular had been reluctant to denounce the Moscow trials and Stalinism in general. It had opposed rearmament in the 1930s and in 1938 had found it difficult to decide whether Hitler should be appeased or not....

"The Zeitgeist [spirit of the age] in the 1950s and early 1960s was largely "progressive" in foreign policy--that is to say, neutralist, and even defeatist....It was not that the majority of Western European intellectuals favored the installation at home of a regime like the Soviet regime [though there were many intellectual Communists and fellow travellers as well] but that they argued there really was no such danger, that the Soviet threat was an American invention, or at least a gross exaggeration. Many were not well informed about the situation in the Soviet empire, nor did they want to know too much."

And then, as Laqueur points out, the intellectuals generally also failed to meet the challenge of opposing Communism. Indeed, today in intellectual circles the fellow travellers have a better reputation than do those who resisted totalitarianism. Today Jean-Paul Sartre is an international intellectual hero despite the fact that he collaborated with the Germans and then believed, in Laqueur's words:

"that communism...was the wave of the future; that Stalin, all things considered, was an enlightened if somewhat harsh ruler; that the Gulag did not exist; and that the Soviet economic system was making enormous progress." Shortly before the end of his life, Sartre embraced Maoism which was an affectation treated as a sort of comic misunderstanding but reflects far deeper trends in his thinking and the intellectual's handicaps."

In contrast, Raymond Aron, who warned about totalitarianism and was right on just about every contemporary issue "had been ostracized for decades" and is forgotten today. Laqueur points out that there was a saying among intellectuals in Paris: "It was better to be wrong with Sartre than right with Aron."

Often there is an explicit decision to behave this way. Regarding Alexander Werth, a left-oriented writer who was very well-known at the time, Laqueur notes: "When challenged of having knowingly downplayed the role of the Gulag and the number of victims, he admitted that he had indeed done so, but only because in the 1950s there had been so many people in the West eager to make war against the Soviet Union that one could not provide grist to their mills."

There are equivalent people today. I heard with my own ears those who said they wouldn't write the truth about Saddam's Iraq, Islamist Iran, or Syria because it might contribute to stoking a U.S. war with those countries. Advocate any position you want, endorse any policy you wish, but first tell the truth.

Yet why should we be surprised by the failure of all too many intellectuals once again to show courage, to endorse Western civilization, to oppose the erosion of liberties, to analyze and battle against revolutionary Islamism? Nothing should be less surprising.

Indeed, we need a new paradigm to understand the role of intellectuals in society. The one we are accepting now was created by intellectuals: the great heroes bucking social conventions. Galileo? Most of his contemporary counterparts in academia opposed him. And you can go down the list. When there have been intellectual heroes their main opponents have also been intellectuals who adhered to an ideology or world view which could not be justified logically.

No doubt, many intellectuals--if they live long enough or have their defenders--will be like the German assistant to the American businessman in Billy Wilder's great film, "One, Two, Three" who insisted that he was in the "underground" during World War Two. When challenged on this as an obvious falsehood, he quickly switched to explaining that he meant he worked on the subway. In other words, twenty years from now they will tell us how brave they were.

Another problem rarely admitted is that intellectuals tend to look down on the masses. It can be very lonely to be one fascinated by ideas and absorbed in books among many who ridicule such priorities. While school is supposedly dedicated to education, few are those who genuinely want to read and think on their own. To understand this situation, one need merely list the nasty labels so common among the young created to ridicule such people.

And so there is some in-built sense of fear, loathing, superiority, and a desire for revenge among many. That's the funny thing. Intellectuals often join causes and groups designed to express their love for the masses when they feel so uncomfortable and unappreciated by the larger group. It is not surprising that some develop the notion that they know best and should design the ways in which others live.

Moreover, intellectuals have notoriously failed to recognize their own "professional deformations," that is, how does being an intellectual distort one's picture of the world? What corrections have to be made, most obviously, too much book-learning and not enough practical experience; the wisdom/smartness paradox; isolation from one's own people; overestimating the value of blueprints; rejecting concepts related to human nature or at least natural human and social processes; a contempt for material well-being; underestimating the importance of community and national identity; thinking that ideas can solve most problems; and many more such misleading concepts.

In this context, during the last century or so, the far left (though at times in the past the far right) has had a special appeal for intellectuals who would like to believe there is some magic formula for understanding the world, an ideology (that is, a set of ideas) which can be put into power, and thus let them direct society rather than let it go its own anarchic way.

That'll show all those football players and prom queens!

But here's a more accurate view, from the film "Annie Hall":

ALVY: "Boy, those guys in the French Resistance were really brave, you know?..."

ANNIE: "M'm, I don't know, sometimes I ask myself how I'd stand up under torture."

ALVY: "You? You kiddin'? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdale's charge card, you'd tell 'em everything."

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.