Radical forces in the Middle East have rewritten the international rulebook in a way designed so “they can’t lose.” That is, there’s no easy response to their behavior and strategies.
What’s even more worrisome is the widespread failure in the West even to realize this is happening. Hamas and Hizballah fire from among civilians and use civilian homes for military purposes; Syria or Iran deploy disinformation, radical regimes pretend moderation, and there are plenty of suckers to take the bait.
Extremism makes many believe that kind words and concessions can transform them; intransigence produces a response that if they won’t give up we must do so.
Here are some new rules in which “we” represents such disparate forces as Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, Iraqi insurgents, al-Qaida, Syria, the Taliban, and others including radical Arab nationalists. These forces are not all alike or allied but do often follow a parallel set of rules quite different from how international affairs have generally been conducted.
- We’ll never give up. No matter what you do, we will continue fighting. No matter what you offer we will keep attacking you. Since you can’t win you should give up.
- We’re indifferent to pressure you put on us. We will turn this pressure against you. Against us, deterrence does not exist; diplomacy does not convince. Neither does the carrot buy us off, nor does the stick make us yield. There are no solutions that can end the conflict. You cannot win militarily nor make peace through diplomacy.
- If you set economic sanctions we’ll say you are starving our people in an act of “collective punishment.” Moreover, sanctions will cost you money and generate opposition among those who lose profits.
- In response to military operations we’ll attack your civilians. Casualties will undermine your internal support. We will try to force you to kill civilians accidentally. We won’t care but will use this to persuade many that you are evil. Thus, we will simultaneously murder your civilians and get you condemned as human rights’ violators.
- If you try to isolate us we will use your own media and intellectuals against you. At times, we’ll hint at moderation and make promises of change. We won’t do so enough to alienate our own followers but enough to subvert yours. They will demand you engage us, which means you making concessions for nothing real in exchange.
- Talking to our own people, we foment hatred and demonize you. Speaking to the West, we will accuse you of fomenting hatred. We will hypocritically turn against you all the concepts you developed: racism, imperialism, failure to understand the “other,” and so on. These, of course, are our ideas but your feelings of guilt, ignorance about us, and indifference to ideology will make you not notice that fact.
- We will claim to be victims and “underdogs.” Because you are the stronger and more “advanced” that means you are the villains. We’re not held responsible for our deeds or expected to live up to the same standards. There is no shortage of, to quote Lenin, “useful idiots” who will echo our propaganda.
- Since our societies are weak, undemocratic, and have few real moderates, you will have to make deals with phoney moderates and dictatorial regimes weakened by corruption and incompetence.
- Even the less radical regimes, often our immediate adversaries, partly play into our hands. Due to popular pressure–plus their desire to mobilize support and distract attention from their own shortcomings–they trumpet Arab and Islamic solidarity. They denounce the West, blame all problems on Israel, and revile America, even as they accept your aid. They glorify interpretations of Islam not too far from ours. They cheer Iraqi insurgents, Hizballah, and Hamas. They don’t struggle against Iran getting nuclear weapons. They lay the basis for our mass support and recruits, as Lenin said selling us the rope to hang them as well as you.
- There’s no diplomatic solution for you, though you yearn to find one. There’s no military solution for you, whether you try that or not. You love life, we love death; you are divided, we are united; you want to get back to material satisfaction, we are dedicated revolutionaries. We will outlast you.
- Finally, our greatest weapon is that you truly don’t understand all the points made above. You are taught, informed, and often led by people who simply don’t comprehend what an alternative, highly ideological, revolutionary worldview means. In effect, we will try, and often succeed, toturn your “best and brightest” into the worst and dimmest who think you can persuade us, blame you for the conflicts, or expect that we will alter our course, and we will use those mistakes against you.
The above analysis seems pessimistic but actually is the opposite. Most of this strategy’s power is based on spreading illusions, depending on gullibility. Much of the rest relies on their enemies’ psychological weaknesses.
In a sustained conflict, the radicals’ technological and organizational weaknesses, along with their mistaken assessments and unrealistic ideology, will bring inevitable defeat. They will lose even if they never surrender.
They can kill people but not overcome societies determined to grow, prosper, and survive. The keys to a successful response are steadfastness and understanding. To paraphrase Francis Bacon and Franklin Roosevelt, there is nothing to fear but fear–and gullibility–itself.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).