It is absolutely contrary to the nature of the political blog, which this is, more or less, to endorse someone else’s commentary. Yet Thomas L. Friedman’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times deserves commendation, agreement, discussion, absorbtion, and, if necessary, neo-cons should use it as a substitution for thought. As in, take one rule each day, and internalize it, digest it, and write it down twenty-five times.
To read the entire piece requires a Times Select subscription, which is basically free to the occasional or sporadic user. The following is an edited version, directly quoted from the NYTimes site.
Mideast Rules to Live By
For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.
Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.
[The above rule is major, major, major.]
[Rule 2 applies if you are among the 150,000 civilians and military who will serve in Iraq. Too specific for this blog.]
Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all — they won’t believe it.
[Take a Middle Easterner out of Jordan, say, marry him to a Mormon, have him live in Utah for ten years, and it still applies. Works for both ultra-religious and completely secular Jews in Israel, as well.]
Rule 4: In the Middle East, never take a concession, except out of the mouth of the person doing the conceding. If I had a dollar for every time someone agreed to recognize Israel on behalf of Yasir Arafat, I could paper my walls.
[The above rule explains a lot of failed diplomacy, and a lot of apparent craziness. So maybe it’s 100% true for Arafat, and only 85% true for Netanyahu, 90% for Sharon, and maybe 95% true for Saddam Hussein. But always figure it applies 100%.]
Rule 5: Never lead your story . . . . with a cease-fire; it will always be over before [the next day].
Rule 6: In the Middle East, the extremists go all the way, and the moderates tend to just go away.
[Worse, they tend not to vote! Neo-cons need to know this. Historically, there’s the Israeli election of May 1996, where the absence of Israel’s Arab-Israeli citizens from the polls gave the election to Netanyahu instead of Peres. Or the absence of Sunni voters in the first Iraqi elections.]
Rule 7: The most oft-used expression by moderate Arab pols is: “We were just about to stand up to the bad guys when you stupid Americans did that stupid thing. Had you stupid Americans not done that stupid thing, we would have stood up, but now it’s too late. It’s all your fault for being so stupid.”
[Neo-cons: Well, why not support Mubarak in Egypt. He’s stabilized his country; we can call it a democracy. We don’t need a few radical malcontents destabilizing Egypt and killing American tourists. We can count on Mubarak. Me: sometimes people do stand up. As in Iran’s elections in the fall of this year. As in Egypt against Mubarak.]
Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas . . . . They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. . . . . It’s the South vs. the South.
[This rule above is super simplified; I agree that ideas as we understand them are not any more present in the Middle East than in the West. But underscore, or put in italics, the word “tribe,” in “They are about which tribe gets to rule.” This is a pervasive form of government in the Middle East; see my post of 8-7-6 on “Quasi-Governmental Organizations.” There is a moderate similarity to the patronage system of Chicago governance under the first Mayor Daley.]
Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” And when it’s strong, it will tell you, “I’m strong, why should I compromise?”
Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. . . .
Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel’s mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can’t understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”
[Yes, but Israelis understand it very well. Every conversation I’ve ever heard between an Israeli and an Arab (or, often, an Israeli Arab) ends in crying over the Arab losses of villages and towns, and comparison crying over the Jewish losses in the Holocaust. They are saying the same thing, on one level, and talking past one another on another level. The Arabs/Israeli Arabs don’t feel responsible for the Nazi Holocaust; Israelis don’t feel responsible for the loss of Arab villages and towns. And discussion goes nowhere after that.]
Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.
Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs’ first priority is “justice.” The oft-warring Arab tribes are all wounded souls, who really have been hurt by colonial powers, by Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, by Arab kings and dictators, and, most of all, by each other in endless tribal wars. For Iraq’s long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.
Rule 14: The Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi had it right: “Great powers should never get involved in the politics of small tribes.”
Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can’t want it more than they do.