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Ignorant thieves

Monday 10 September 2007, by Azmi BISHARA

Arabism was not a slogan but a stage in Arab perception of looming danger before which current political darlings appear both ignorant and complicit, writes Azmi Bishara

If the US proceeds on the basis of the conviction that, after its failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, it needs to score a success in Lebanon by rolling back the opposition through the application of international resolutions, and another success in Palestine by feeding the West Bank and starving Gaza in the hope of compelling the Palestinians to accept anything Israel offers, the only thing it will accomplish will be to propel these two countries to civil war and destruction.

For America’s friends and allies in these countries, this is their moment to shine. If they have an ounce of patriotism, they should be able to picture the possibility of national reconciliation and agreements that will spare their countries death and devastation. They can give the Americans some sound advice. They can tell them that no amount of outside support or money will resolve the domestic conflict, that a Hamas desperate enough to initiate resistance in the West Bank, for example, will frustrate the projects dreamed up by various research institutes for a Western-financed social safety net to take the place of the Hamas- run philanthropic societies along with all the economic initiatives conceived in the course of a businessmen’s convention in Tel Aviv. They can say that only national reconciliation will work, that local balances of power are one thing and the balance of power in the Security Council another, and that forcing the former to mirror the latter has only succeeded in inflicting on the region an endless train of disasters.

Of course, as useful as this advice is, one pretty much has to don rose-tinted lenses to believe that those friends and allies of America will offer it to Washington; indeed, lenses of a more hallucinogenic quality if those people think that there is still time to turn an impetuous America under the yolk of a reckless president to the advantage of their domestic agendas. Naturally, too, we did not mention here the need for Syria and Iran’s friends and allies in these countries to whisper similar advice to Damascus and Tehran, since they have already declared their position with regard to the need for national reconciliation in Palestine and national unity in Lebanon.

It had long been an Arab custom to point the finger abroad or at “certain elements” in order to avert rupture between them. In the post- independence phase, from the time when coups stopped and regimes settled down, until the alienation of the Saddam Hussein regime following the war to liberate Kuwait, there was something of an unwritten agreement between Arab regimes to keep their mutual acrimony from exceeding the bounds of their collective interest and the preservation of stability. Directing blame away from each other was the way to do this. So when they cried out in unison against the “imperialist, Zionist and Arab reactionary” conspiracy, as though it were a three-headed monster, and held this trinity responsible for the latest outbreak of fighting inside Palestine or the latest resumption of gunfire in the backstreets of Beirut, no one blinked an eye. Even Israel shrugged off the accusation and fell in with the universal pretence that this was a form of revolutionary bombast and the Arab regimes’ way of sweeping their problems under the carpet.

But the phenomenon goes much further back. It dates at least to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which ordained that there could be no Arab nationalist concern and that domestic conflicts in the Arab world had to reflect or play a part in international conflicts. So when, in that twilight of the Ottoman era, Arab political forces were ranged as for or against the Great Powers and other outside powers, the local categorisers with grudges to bear against certain national forces made no distinction between these, some of which had sided with this or that of the outside powers for various reasons of their own, and actual security breaches, which is to say individuals that were actively acting on behalf of, or conspiring with those powers. Either one was an “Arab in spite of all else,” and therefore part of that great Arab family that was summoned to unite against colonialism, or one was a “proxy” or a “spy”.

It is not my concern, here, to define who might be categorised as a security breach or an “agent” working on behalf of a foreign power. Suffice it to say that the concept could extend to those individuals we read about in books produced by former US officials (such as Ross and Tenet); individuals who proved to have had a hand in the American decision-making process if only because they were a source of information — very carefully selected information, it should be added, furnished to the US on the eve of the war against Iraq to show that the Saddam regime was ripe for the plucking, or on the eve of Camp David II to show that Yasser Arafat was ready to accept anything on offer as long as Bill Clinton could work his magic charm. It goes without saying that such information had very disastrous consequences.

What does concern me here is those forces that regard it in their interests to ally themselves with the US and that are currently studying the possibility of an alliance with Israel. These we cannot categorise as a “security breach” because they represent the interests and attitudes of the regime and even some relatively narrow social strata. It is too easy to pass these off as weak or pretending to be weak, or stupid or easily gulled. Such assessments are simplistic and will inevitably lead to folly. The Arab world has a whole new generation of politicians that subscribe to the concept of the sub-regional nation state and the need to place its interests (most often as identified with the interests of the existing regime) above all other considerations. To them, if that requires an alliance with the US, even at the expense of that nation’s relations with other Arab countries, then so be it. The Palestinian cause, in their opinion, is simply another national issue, as opposed to an Arab national issue. The Arabs have to help resolve this problem, of course. But a just solution is not necessarily required, not when that problem continues to form a source of trouble and potential instability, because it constantly arms domestic opposition forces with fodder to sustain their anger against the regime and their resentment of its alliance with the West and of never-ending attempts to delegitimise supranational frames of reference such as pan-Arabism or Islam.

Some Arab democrats, especially those with a history of leftist leanings, had pinned their hopes on US interventionism in the name of democratic reform. How deluded they were. Whatever immunity they once had has been swept away by an imperialist policy that they helped to usher in through their strident hostility even towards those modernist elements in Arab nationalism that they equated with prevailing regimes. I suppose they were always this way. In the past they fell into the thrall of the international revolution. More recently they were captivated by globalised democracy. In both cases, outside power always held the key.
But these are not the ones I have in mind when I speak of forces currently allied with the US. Rather, I am talking about various rulers and their coteries of relatives, friends, nouveaux superrich businessmen and “neo-liberal” intellectuals. These have never been anywhere near the left and they never had a warm spot in their hearts for democracy, civil rights and liberalism. Liberalism to them means economic privatisation and deregulation to feed their small circle of the rich and privileged, which is a far cry from what even economic liberalism is supposed to be about. Sadly, this is the only policy that is systematically succeeding amidst the devastation in Iraq. Whereas in the past one pondered such alternatives as democracy, dictatorship and monarchy, today the Arab world should add a new term to its political glossary: “kleptocracy”, or rule by a gang of thieves.

These neo-liberal kleptocrats are not puppets on strings; they have become the strongest component in Washington’s equations for the Middle East in the wake of its intervention in Iraq. So dependent has the US become on them that it has long since removed the sword of democratisation and political reform from over their heads. They pursue their own agendas and, right now, are working to secure the might of the world’s superpower towards the advancement of these agendas, domestically and regionally. And they have their own way of looking at things, which generally involves some unrealistic perception, founded upon smatterings of selective information digested through a maze of prejudice and hand-me- down slogans, of the old Arab order, and upon the media-fed impression that Israel is ready to make peace and the equally propagandistic notion that Arabs had better not let another opportunity slip by.

At some point in the recent past, such concepts as “the battle of Arabism” and the Arab “fight for survival” against Israel have become objects of derision, a kind of adolescent joke among teenagers who have just discovered the signs of puberty and who already show signs of never being able to grow up. The fact is, however, that these were not airy slogans but rather the substance of an actual phase in Arab perception of a peril that is now looming closer than ever. This understanding has eluded those to whom “national liberation” was never more than a slogan, who tout the pragmatism of any settlement with Israel at all, and who blame the Palestinians for holding this up. Regretfully, their reading of reality, their knowledge of Israel as based on this reading, and their total dependence on Israel’s good intentions, has only worked to whet Israel’s appetite for extorting more. Their take on reality lets them operate on the assumption that the US is prepared to use its influence to get Israel to back down and that Israel is eager to help them save face when needed. It is a take that is certainly not founded on facts, but then facts and information are not this generation’s forte. Indeed, I would suggest that the generation of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the old Baathists were far more informed, far more realistic, and immeasurably less corrupt.

Certain significant Arab quarters are not only happy to be free from US pressures at a time when they are needed to confront opponents to a fictitious peace process; they also relish in the opportunity to lash out at that Arab camp that does not share their assessment of reality and the opinions they espouse accordingly. So their opinion pundits sound the alarm against the “Shia crescent,” regardless of the facts and, most likely, indifferent to the truth. Others, at the moment, are taking jabs at Damascus, whose rhetoric about Syria’s capabilities and regional role has become a little too much to bear. Syria really must learn its place. It’s perfectly okay to want the Golan Heights back, but only so long as Syria neo- liberalises its economy (in the kleptocratic sense, of course). Then they will stand behind Syria, just as they are standing behind the Palestinian leadership after its disengagement from Hamas, and they will help it accomplish both objectives. But if Syria, for a moment, forgets that it has no role to play in Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine, and if it does not transform itself into the type of country that wants to solve its border dispute with Israel, then it will have to be isolated and given a couple of tough lessons. I have no doubt that these quarters are, at this very moment, whispering some very urgent advice into Washington’s ear about Syria, just as they had about how to deal with Iraq and how to deal with Arafat.

I would even bet that someone from these quarters volunteered to explain to Condoleezza Rice the story about Syrian-Iranian differences and that she went from there to build a rosy scenario of a complete fall out between the two countries. No doubt too, someone suggested turning off the food, medicine and fuel taps in Gaza, so as to keep Hamas busy supplying Palestinians there with their most essential needs, while showering the West Bank with aid and West Bank leaders with privileges in order to demonstrate the advantages of negotiating over declarations of principle.

But if I were these people, or at least those who listen to them, I would take care. For some reason it always transpires that their analyses, such as they are, are founded on scattered evidence and impressions tailored to suit the hypothesis. And just as Iraq failed to turn into an American satellite and friend of Israel, and just as Hizbullah refused to back down before Israel, so too will such daydreams as the collapse of the Syrian regime turn into fresh nightmares. Nor do I have a shadow of doubt that the only way to avert more nightmares in Lebanon and Palestine is for people there to set their minds on national reconciliation and to resolve their domestic differences.

*Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly