A Recommendation; nay, an endorsement!

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



Published: December 20, 2006

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.

NYTimes OpEd article by Thomas L. Friedman, December 20, 2006 http://select.nytimes.com/2006/12/20/opinion/20friedman.html?em&ex=1166763600&en=f30acf6847341740&ei=5087

Untrustworthy Use of Power

(How can I write this blog without overusing the phrase “It seems to me . . .”?)

The current difficulty posed by Iran and North Korea does not lie so much in their possession of some nuclear capacity, as it lies in the Eastern and Western great powers of the United Nations Security Council, especially China and the United States. Both China and the United States have a history of untrustworthy use of power, of going rogue–China by the invasion of Tibet, and the United States by the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps it is the utmost in responsible leadership for Kim Jong Il and Ahmedinejad to protect their countries through the public and visible development of WMD and delivery systems. No fear that they will develop WMD, no doubt about what they have, and the clear expectation that if invaded (or bombed) they will have the opportunity to damage countries (Japan and Israel, Formosa and Mongolia) important to the powers that otherwise have all the resources.

It is really difficult to think outside of the box on this one. Remember, though, that one reason the U.S. invaded Iraq was to prevent full development of nuclear capability, sometime in the future. In other words, once Iraq (supposedly) went nuclear, we could no longer invade so easily. It was now or never, so U.S. thought, before the fact of the invasion.

I think the specter of Iraq or Iran or North Korea using nuclear power against a neighbor to assuage ancient hatreds or gain resources is a Hallowe’en (a North American holiday involving ghosts and monsters and all things imagined and fearful) goblin. Deterrence is the major international value, and actual possession of deterrent nuclear power does achieve protection for a country that cannot be accomplished by diplomatic means, or by appeals to the United Nations. To what extent is that worth a starving population? In reality?

Does any country care enough about its greatest social problem (or the greatest social problem of its nearest neighbor) to abandon weapons that allow it to project power among the nations?

QGOs “Quasi-Governmental Organizations”

This is a roughed out versions of comments that will be edited later, when I have more time.Over the weekend of August 5th and 6th, 2006, as news broadcasts highlighted the diplomatic efforts around the U. N. Cease Fire Resolution, someone commented on the United States refusal to talk to Syria and Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas. That was said to hamper diplomatic efforts, and threaten the implementation of any cease fire. The New York Times published the entire text of the resolution (link to be added).

There are two problems here (only two?!)–for the sake of making my point, at least. One is a problem for U.S. diplomacy that does try to resolve problems with the dictatorship in North Korea by indirect participation in regional meetings. The U.S., in the Middle East, talks only to its friends–Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, Lebanon–and through them tries to talk to Iran and Syria. Only at Oslo, for the Oslo accords, were any NGO organizations included in the discussions. I’m referring to the sub rosa inclusion of Hajj Faisal al Husseini, the “mukhtar” of East Jerusalem, as well as the more obvious inclusion of the PLO, represented by Yasser Arafat.

Village life in the Arab world, as in many other parts of the world, is organized in what might be understood as a patronage system. It is part of Islam, that when a person is asked to provide for the needs of someone else, if he (or she) is able to do so, he or she is obligated to do so. The flow of assistance in a village or tribal settlement flows through one person, the village “mukhtar.” This enhancement of the role of the tribal leader is someone who negotiates on behalf of the village, dispenses welfare, raises troops if needed, and does many other things. In East Jerusalem, when I was there, this role was once again “enhanced” in the person of Faisal al-Husseini, who had no elective power, but was the de facto ruler of East Jerusalem and the surrounding area. As such, he was invited to Oslo. As such, when Israel felt he had overstepped, they would start to make noises about shutting down “Government House,” apparently a metaphor for unseating Faisal al-Husseini. An American(US) friend and I walked up to Government House one day, asking to see Faisal al-Husseini. We were politely told that he was out of town; that was probably true. And then we were given a tour of the building and grounds. First, we saw al-Husseini’s reception chamber, which looked designed for a ritualized approach of supplicants and the dispensations by al-Husseini. Then we saw some of the offices which dealt with social service problems. As al-Husseini ran Government House, it was not a war-making machine. I suspect that he had knowledge of various rebellious initiatives, and could exercise some control by recalling loans, talking to combatants, etc. Whether at any one time he chose to do so, was part of his principled and yet unpredictable power. This was not democracy, but for occupied East Jerusalem, it was government.

Within this system, good students would get scholarships, widows would get support for their families, orphaned children got placement. The weak point was schools; there were a number of private schools in East Jerusalem; some of them were run by Roman Catholic orders. There was no real public school system–as such systems are designed to educate citizens of democracies?

Hamas, and now Hezbollah, are beloved by the people of Gaza or Lebanon because of their social services, and fervently supported for their military results as an outgrowth of this role of the (arab village) Mukhtar. What one does with a mukhtar is negotiate. He speaks for the village.

The U.S. and European countries are not familiar with negotiating with NGOs, which is essentially what Hamas and Hezbollah are. Would we negotiate with the International Red Cross for favorably treatment of claims against the U.S. under the Geneva Conventions? Would the IRC raise an army to enforce the Geneva Conventions? Neither is seen, in the western world, as a legitimate function of a non-governmental agency, an NGO. Yet we do recognize their interest in various ongoing problem-solving efforts between countries.

<>Both Hamas and Hezbollah have been democratically elected into their respective governments, which means they are a recognized part of the political process. Whether an organization that replaces the village leader, the mukhtar, but (sort of) serves in a government organized in a nation-state pattern, should also be a negotiating partner is a sticky problem in conceptualization. It was solved at Oslo by secretly including Faisal al-Husseini, de facto mukhtar of East Jerusalem. Oslo, while ultimately overreaching, did bring 10 years of comparative stability to Israel and her neighbors, with concomitant economic benefits. Was Faisal al-Husseini at Camp David, which was the most recent best hope, other than unilateral action, for peace in the region? I will check this out. I do suspect that Arafat envied al-Husseini’s power; he began to describe himself as descended from the Husseinis, though his claim to be a citizen of Jerusalem, let alone a Husseini, rested on a very slim foundation.

Hamas and Hezbollah, precisely because they function in ways that unify fighting and social services, are quasi-governmental organizations, and should be included in some fashion in cease-fire and peace negotiations. If they do not make the peace, they have many ways to destroy it.