Monday, October 26, 2009

America on the Children's Crusade: Think they're attacking you because they really want to make a deal?

By Barry Rubin

A friend of mine who used to be a high-ranking U.S. government official made a very interesting remark: Intelligence does not settle disputes in government, theories do. In other words, no matter how badly an enemy acts, you can interpret it as their building up bargaining chips to make a deal. They are hitting you to force you to offer them a good bargain.

The bottom line is, therefore, that even if you can prove that a country is sponsoring terrorism, subverting peace, and shouting, “Death to America” every day, that doesn’t prove anything about needing to get tough.

Another friend of mine with a similar background said something that fits nicely with that which I will put into my own words: the bureaucracy generally follows the president’s framework, especially if their boss is someone who the president appointed in tune with that policy.

Today, that second aspect doesn’t hold completely true since both the secretary of state and secretary of defense have a somewhat independent standing—the former a power in her own right who doesn’t agree with the chief executive deep down; the latter, a holdover from the previous administration who is a career professional.

Still, the bureaucracy is partly “Obamized,” to coin a phrase or, to do a play on words, the troops know who pays the rent on their Barack’s (barracks). Sorry about that one. Ok, back to being serious.

It’s funny that so many people in the administration have a view about the behavior of the “other” which is so contradictory to their own concept of foreign policy. After all, they think that Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Russia plus China, too, among others, are playing hard ball in order to reach a compromise. Yet they don’t play hard ball themselves but just seek the compromise straight out.

How do they reconcile that difference?

I guess they don’t.

So to return to the theme, they think that Iran is rushing to get nuclear weapons only to gain leverage for a deal that respects their defensive needs, or that Syria is helping terrorists go into Iraq to kill Americans just in order to gain normal relations with the United States and power over Lebanon.

Yes, this does parallel the world view of the British and French when they gave away Czechoslovakia in 1938. But Obama Administration officials don’t think of it as appeasement but as being smart and saving time. Let’s cut out the middle man of threats, intimidation, and violence—they say in effect—and just cut to the check-writing.

Or as Bob Dylan put it in "Like a Rollin' Stone" when discussing the issue of diplomatic engagement with ruthless dictatorships:

"You said you'd never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He's not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?

What are the problems in this conception of foreign policy? They can be summed up by saying a belief that everyone is the same. In more detail the misunderstanding includes:

--The theory is that they want material benefits like statehood, money, higher living standards and consumer goods, along with apologies for past mistreatment and respect in the future. In short, they can be bought off. You don’t beat them up again to win, rather you apologize for having beaten them up in the past to create a situation in which everyone wins.

But not everyone can be bought off.

--The theory assumes that the other side thinks the best it can achieve is a tie. In fact, for a variety of reasons, the enemies of freedom believe they will achieve total victory. Among other things they attribute this to the tide of history, a “scientific” ideology, the help of the deity, their own greater ruthlessness, a belief that democracies are soft, and other such reasons. Read Mein Kampf or Communist writings and you find parallel arguments, sometimes word for word identical to those of radical nationalists, neo-Marxists, and Islamists today.

But they think they can win.

--The theory ignores the other side’s profound belief in ideology. Pragmatism means you think about what yields the greatest benefit; ideology means you think about what is right in terms of your idea system. You may discount the most profitable course or just disagree about what that route might be.

(I’ll never forget as a kid seeing a somewhat comic American war film in which the Japanese officer in World War Two, when asked whether he was prepared to die for his country laughed and ran to save himself instead. More recently, that fascinatingly dreadful film “Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (which deserves a serious analysis in itself) has the main terrorist character have the real ambition of wanting to own a chain of fast food restaurants. Sure, it’s a comedy but it really does reflect American expectations, that’s why the audience laughs in recognition of what it already thinks.)

--Finally, (well there are a lot more points but your time and patience are no doubt limited. If you want read my book Modern Dictators) the theory doesn’t understand the nature of dictatorships. The realism school of international affairs claims that dictatorial governments are guided by relatively unchanging and rational concepts of national interest. In fact, they are guided by rational concepts of regime interests, that is of their own selfish interests even if these severely damage their people and country. The Syrian government genuinely doesn’t care whether the economy goes to hell as long as it controls the economy and uses it to stay in power.

Even in dictatorships, public interests public opinion is of some importance but the regime certainly doesn’t have to deliver goodies like a democracy does. Sure, it wants to avoid reaching a situation in which it is overthrown, but it can get away with a lot more than it could if the problem being faced was to ensure victory in the upcoming election.

At this moment, I can’t help think of all those proud graduates in political science, international relations, and conflict management who have been systematically educated to misunderstood all the points mentioned above.

It is all like the fabled Children’s Crusade of the thirteenth century, in which European Christian clerics organized children to march forward into the Holy Land and conquer it from the Saracens through their innocence. (Note: the Muslims had conquered the same land and attacked Christianity countries ever advancing their frontiers, today, however, people are taught the aggression all came from Europe.)

I knew that someone must have written a poem about this appropriate for our present circumstances. And sure enough Henry Wadsworth Longfellow did. Here’s the opening verse:

“Children in the flower of youth,
Heart in heart, and hand in hand,
Ignorant of what helps or harms,
Without armor, without arms,
Journeying to the Holy Land! …

“O the simple, child-like trust!
O the faith that could believe
What the harnessed, iron-mailed
Knights of Christendom had failed,
By their prowess, to achieve,
They, the children, could and must!”

In their case, when the children reached the Mediterranean, however, the monks who recruited them sold them into slavery. Things are much better now: they’ll just sell others into slavery instead.

"Ignorant of what helps or harms," wrote Longfellow. What a perfectly applicable image of so many foreign policymakers in the Middle East today and sorcerer's apprentice academics. He who believes very much in soft power is soft in the head.

Make no mistake of it: this is not the way your enemies think. When they hit you over the head with a two-by-four they aren’t negotiating, they’re trying to kill 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). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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