“You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks….
You’re very well read
It’s well known
Yet something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
–Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
The entertainment director on the ship of fools that constitutes so much mainstream analysis of the Middle East—I refer, of course, to Thomas Friedman—has produced a wonderful paragraph that beautifully characterizes the problem, exquisitely expressing a Western mentality that not only makes it impossible to understand the Middle East but even to set up the question in a way people that could help people even begin to confront the truth. So perhaps it is worth disassembling. Sound like fun? Let’s go!
The paragraph is from an article entitled, “Egypt – The next India or the next Pakistan?” And that’s the first problem. Analogies are no substitute to understanding the specific reality of a country and culture, its history and balance of forces that shape the local political culture. You don’t understand Egypt by comparing it to India or Pakistan—very different places indeed—but by examining Egypt itself.
Let me first quote the entire paragraph and then deal with it a bit at a time. Here’s the whole thing:
“Yes, democracy matters. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election. It is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates….More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the postrevolutionary political scene. Elections without that culture are like a computer without software. It just doesn’t work.”
I will now go a sentence at a time.
“Yes, democracy matters.” It is strangely ironic that suddenly democracy has become the main issue shaping the American debate over the Middle East. When President Jimmy Carter in 1978 called for democracy in the shah’s Iran that call might have played some role in setting off a revolution that didn’t turn out too well. After a hiatus—due in part to that debacle—the democracy issue returned under President George W. Bush. The people who pushed that idea became known as “neoconservatives” and were absolutely loathed, even demonized, by liberals and the left.
Now this idea that democracy would solve the region’s problems was indeed a bad one, having failed in Iran, been (perhaps unfairly) ridiculed in Iraq, and become a deadly joke in Afghanistan. Yet suddenly the left adapted the conception of the man they most hated in the world! And nobody in the mainstream debate even remarked on that rather obvious point! Thus, we get the Obama policy based on a Bush idea. Except while Bush’s approach worked acceptably in Iraq because the extremists were defeated militarily, Obama’s approach helped put the radicals into power in Egypt and will soon do so in Syria.
One would think Friedman would continue by explaining that strategic interests are more important for U.S. policy than formal democracy. Nope. Instead, he assumes that democracy is or should be everyone’s goal:
“But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election.”
Whenever an article or editorial contains the words “needs to understand” you know that’s trouble. For one thing this phrase often means that some Western pipsqueak whose most strenuous activity is hailing a taxi is lecturing men ready to commit mass murder and crush their opponents under a hobnailed boot. By the way, the Muslim Brotherhood is unlikely to heed the advice and will be no worse off for doing so.
Yet this also raises another intriguing issue: Why “must” they do so? Suppose staying in power, establishing a dictatorship, and chopping off various body parts of those who don’t live the way they decree is their goal? Suppose they already know that “democracy is so much more than just wining an election” but couldn’t care less? And what will the columnist, op-ed writer, or editorial scribe do to them if the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t heed his advice? Experience shows these people won’t even use mean words in response. What a joke.
Doesn’t Friedman know that Obama’s hero and guru, Turkish Prime Minister Mehdi Erdogan, has said that democracy is like a streetcar and you just have to decide where you want to get off? Hint: You get off as soon as possible after you’ve won the election.
“It [democracy] is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates.”
At this point I must tell a story I once heard from a former member of a motorcycle gang, though I cannot attest to whether or not it actually happened. There was a really dangerous criminal motorcycle gang (it made Hell’s Angels look like Obama’s Ostriches) and the local police decided something must be done. They picked a young policeman to infiltrate the gang and dressed him accordingly.
The undercover cop met the gang and tried to join. Suspicious, they asked him a question: What is the meaning of these ribbons we wear? The symbolism involved various kinds of murder, rape, and various acts I won’t describe for a family audience but each one had a very specific significance. Unfortunately, the policeman hadn’t been briefed on this and after a long pause he answered, “I thought they were just decorations.” I won’t describe his fate.
That is sort of like Friedman and various others thinking they can teach revolutionaries willing to commit genocide how to play nice. They don’t understand the significance of what these radicals say and do. Indeed, they don’t understand that what they say–especially in Arabic–is significant at all. These tough guys aren’t interested in inclusion, political dialogue, or “surprising” opponents by giving them presents under their tree. No. They are interested in seizing state power and exercising total power. They are ready to order others to martyrdom and in some cases to be martyrs themselves. They are ready to deliberately and coolly order what happened in that Connecticut elementary school many times over. The only limitation on that behavior is a consideration of whether or not it will help their cause.
They don’t care whether the New York Times or some other American newspaper they don’t read is going to scold them. In fact, if they do know what’s in this mass media they understand that no matter what they do they are more likely to have it explained away more than criticized.
Shouldn’t we recognize that reality rather than lecture them on playground comportment?
“More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the post-revolutionary political scene.”
Why does Egypt “need” that? One might argue that it needs such a system to be most effective at being a truly democratic society whose supposed top priority at home is increasing living standards and abroad is living in peace with its neighbors. The full answer to that question lies beyond my space limits but briefly: that might not work in Egypt; the people who think it would work lose all of the elections; if you try to implement such a system you are far more likely to be overthrown or face chaos. Suppose you have no way to solve your country’s social and economic problems. It then makes more sense to stir up passionate hatred of “the other”; distract attention from your own failings by blaming foreigners for the problems; and engage in aggression abroad so the masses can blow off steam and get some loot. Ironically, this is the kind of thing that Western radicals claim leaders of their own countries have done. It is amazing that they never seem to notice this is how Arab dictators have repeatedly felt a “need” to do in the past.
Also, whatever Mubarak’s shortcomings, there was a lot more dialogue and peaceful arguing under his reign then in any Islamist state or in Syria and Iraq under radical nationalist regimes. This line of argument that is all too familiar from the left in assuming that pro-American dictators are more brutally repressive than anti-American dictators. Usually, the truth is the opposite.
And then at the end, Friedman admits that the post-revolutionary political scene has not been so great. Should this have been a surprise or wasn’t it painfully obvious back in January 2011 what was going to happen? It was obvious to me and a few others but scarcely anyone in the mainstream media pointed out the consequences. And those who dared to be right are practically blacklisted from those places despite having been correct.
The main Western accomplishment of the last two years has been to move from step one to step two in the mainstream interpretation of what’s going on in the Middle East:
Step one: The Islamists will be moderated by gaining power through elections.
Step two: The Islamists should make themselves become moderate after gaining power through elections because they need to do so.
What is needed is an altogether different approach:
Extremist revolutionaries whose goal is to set up regimes that are supposedly implementing the will of Allah—a will no human can question or alter—and who loathe the West, despise Christians, and want to commit genocide on Jews are not going to be moderated. Nor are they going to follow Western instructions on how they should behave. Nor is democracy their ideal, since they don’t believe at all in governance on the basis of the majority unless the majority agrees with them.
These points are all rather obvious, aren’t they? Yet what we have seen for the last two years is not an attempt to understand these realities but rather a series of obfuscations and rationalizations designed to shore up a mythical world that is increasingly diverging from the situation on the ground.
Lewis Carroll wrote the following dialogue for “Alice in Wonderland”:
Alice: “Do you think I’ve gone round the bend?”
Charles: “I’m afraid so. You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
The problem nowadays is that an insane interpretation of international affairs seems to be a quality defining who “the best people are.” A man has just been appointed secretary of state for exhibiting a particularly virulent case of this malady.