Saturday, March 31, 2007

Volatility

The worse things get in the Middle East, the more it seems English language analysis begins and ends with the realization of the important fact that Bush is an ignorant bully. Unfortunately this often lends itself to melodrama, in the sense that other Mideast actors are assigned only secondary roles, with less than three-dimentional characters. And an incomplete and cartoon-like representation of the players lends itself to further public-relations manipulation. An example: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia referred to the American occupation of Iraq as "illegal" (or "illegitimate") in his opening speech at the Riyadh summit, and this clearly took the American administration by surprise. Since American public opinion had been convinced for a long time that Abdullah was another poodle, this seemed to be little short of a rebellion on the farm. Certaintly it was another manifestation of American policy gone haywire. One part of the PR response from Washington has been to stress that "No, Abdullah has long been impatient with the Bush's lack of action on Palestine; he brought pictures with him to Crawford; he almost walked out until Bush promised to do something; and so on." And the other part is that Abdullah is still on board with the idea of "resolv[ing] the Palestinian issue so they can turn the region's attention to combatting the threat from Iran." In other words, the new spin on Abdullah is that his impatience over the inhumanity of Palestine finally boiled over and he lashed out, in the context of the more-urgent need to get that out of the way so as to combat the threat from Iran. In this way, one cartoon-version of Abdullah, the rebellious poodle, is in the process of being replaced by another, Abdullah the angry humanitarian, cornered.

It is true that what boiled over was the Saudi realization that their regional influence was under threat not only from Iran, but now increasingly from Iraq too. The reference to an illegitimate occupation of Iraq was really an attack on an illegitimate regime, and for Abdullah a threatening regime, in Iraq, sponsored by his supposed ally Bush. It had just recently become clear that the Allawi-American scheme for creation of an alternate, and more Sunni-friendly Green-Zone regime was being discontinued. If there was any one development that pushed Abdullah into using unexpectedly harsh language, that was probably it.

It is true that the feeling of growing threat from Iran and Iraq has changed the Saudi perspective. The Saudi regime now feels an urgent need for local allies, and given the lack of Arab leadership elsewhere (meaning Egypt), this means taking on the missing Arab-leadership role itself, and that in turn means: Promoting action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine. The Saudis are hoping not only for good PR on the Arab street, but also for an end to their feud with Bashar Assad's administration in Syria, weaning Syria away from Iran and back into the Arab fold (and similarly of course with Hamas). While it isn't clear how the proposed Palestinian negotiations will relate to the possible Syria-Israel talks on Golan and other issues, at least the Saudi-Syrian relationship is friendlier than it has recently been (the two having in effect taken opposite sides in the Israel-Hizbullah war). And this is additionally important because Syria and Saudi Arabia have been rivals for influence in Lebanon. What the Saudis are looking for is authority and problem-solving influence in all of these areas. This is not the same as "turn[ing] the region's attention to combatting the threat from Iran".

Condoleeza Rice also wants action, or at least apparent action, on Palestine, so on that point Condoleeza and Abdullah are in apparent agreement. However, this is a question of incremental steps, and the first incremental step that Condoleeza is looking for is gradual de facto recognition of Israel by the Arab regimes in the region generally, so that in any eventual war with Iran, America can be seen as simultaneously on the side of its traditional Arab allies, and on the side of Israel, at the same time. That accounts for the importance of this question of Arab-Israel diplomatic recognition as a first step. The first incremental step for Abdullah is quite different: It is the closing of ranks in the Arab world including Syria and including also Hamas, in order to split both of them from their Iranian relationships and bring them back into the Arab fold. Recognition or otherwise of Israel has nothing to do with it, except in relation to a Palestinian settlement.

To put it another way: From the Saudi point of view, the role of Israel will be as interlocutor in talks aimed at peace and ending the Palestinian occupation. By contrast, from American point of view, Israel is something that needs to be grafted into the Arab world as part of an anti-Iran strategy. For the Saudis, the road will hopefully lead to stability and balance, and it starts and ends with their establishment of their own Arab leadership and influence, including in Palestine. For the Americans, the road leads to confrontation with Iran, and an important way-station is the unification of Israel with the Arab regimes in the same anti-Iran camp. These are two very unrelated, and in many ways contradictory, aims.

What does the exclusive focus on Bush-the-incompetent-bully have to do with this? Just this: We know Bush. I know him as the milk-fed punk learning about strategy on the bar-stools of Yale. You perhaps know him in some similar way, but the point is that we know him as well as anyone can know anyone. We don't feel the need to study texts in order to understand what he is about. It is not the same with Abdullah. Yesterday he was a poodle, today a rebel, tomorrow an impatient humanitarian. The same goes for others in the region. Try to imagine an Arab person interpreting America without any understanding of the English language, and maybe you will see what I mean. Or look at it this way: Americans sometimes complain that Arabs and others don't appreciate America's motives, judging us only by our actions, which of course are full of technical errors of implementation that so often obscure our real aims and objectives. They don't "know" us. I am not belittling that.

But the point is that before you try and walk you should put the shoe on your other foot too. Given the stick-figure approach by the US administration and the media, it is to be expected that public opinion in America will now oscillate between thinking the Saudis are really Bush-allies in his anti-Iran strategy, and the opposite view, namely that they are Bush-opponents in their Palestine strategy and their overtures to the diabolical Hamas and Assad. They are what they are, and the problem for institutional America is that there isn't the cultural or linguistic underpinning to understand, not only what they are, but even (it sometimes seems) that there is such a thing as fully human aspirations and motivations in other cultures, at least not in a depth that would be able to withstand the cartoon-oriented propaganda. And the more the shock-a-minute thriller narrative takes hold, the less it seems to matter, and the more it actually does matter. Because the thinness of understanding creates volatility in public opinion just the same as thin markets foster volatility in financial trading markets, and it is a far more dangerous thing, because central banks cannot clean up after violence.

9 Comments:

Blogger Randal said...

Shabash, Badger!

1:18 PM  
Blogger badger said...

shukran !

1:31 PM  
Blogger Randal said...

Afwan!

And that's exhausted my own Arabic :-)

Please, do keep up the excellent work.

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Or look at it this way: Americans sometimes complain that Arabs and others don't appreciate America's motives, judging us only by our actions, which of course are full of technical errors of implementation that so often obscure our real aims and objectives. They don't "know" us. I am not belittling that."

I would beg to differ, even though its true that not all Arabs are familiar with western history or culture, but they are more familiar with the wests history in the middle east than most westerners, thats first.

Second, nearly all Arab countries have English as a compulsory second Language and some even have French as a third Language, which means that even those who don't know western culture intrinsically certainly know it more than those in power in the west know the Arab culture.

As for poor implementation of your strategies they may be poorly implemented with regards to the way they are publicly presented, but there aren't any inconsistencies in the effects and fallouts of your strategies during the last decades and if anyone really wants to understand the real intentions behind your strategies all they have to do is look at Tel-Aviv's public statements and their strategic goals and compare that with the fallout of your so called blundered policies and you will find that they are in sync. So the only ones who consider the American policy as blundered would be the non-zionist American public and the non-zionist government officials, the rest are happy with whats happening.

3:45 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Okay, but please understand-- all I was trying to do there was to set up for Western readers the idea that there is such a thing as having a cultural understanding of what someone is all about (as opposed to just seeing a few things he does), and just as an example to show where institutional America scores zero when it comes to the Arab world. I can see now I probably picked a bad example, because as you say there's a lot more sophisticated understanding in the other direction.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice one badger - except "the Palestinian occupation" is more of an "Israeli occupation" in my view.

b.

4:42 AM  
Blogger badger said...

danke.
Bad choice of words there, trying for that delicate touch. I can't seem to get the hang of it...

6:43 AM  
Blogger Randal said...

"I can see now I probably picked a bad example,"

Pace your anonymous visitor, who makes reasonable points, I don't think you did make a bad choice of example, Badger. While undoubtedly there is better Arab understanding of the West than vice versa, the example was well chosen to get your basic point across to your predominantly western audience, who are the ones who badly need to come to terms with it.

Those of us who tend towards the "radical sceptic" position on the efficacy of human foreign policy expertise generally would, of course, suggest that the difference in understanding is between none at all and very little, anyway....

12:51 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

That's a fine, fine post Badger.

11:20 AM  

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