Op-Ed by Joel A. Brodsky, Chicago, Illinois USA;
Disclaimer: The opinions, facts and content in the following article are presented solely by the author, and are not endorsed by The Israel Guys or necessarily reflect the opinion of this site.
Recent events in the middle-east have been hectic. The May 2021 Gaza “war”, Iranian aggression, battling militias in Iraq, the establishment of a jihadist province in Syria, the fall of Kabul and Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority vs. Hamas, and terrorist groups obtaining sophisticated rockets, just to name a few. Now, especially with the fall of Afghanistan, pundits and politicians are wringing their hands, fixing blame, and predicting dire consequences. One prediction is certain, whatever is predicted will be wrong. There is only one certainty in armed conflict; the long term outcome will never be what you plan it to be.
But all of this begs the question. The real question is why does the west consistently fail to achieve any positive outcome in the middle-east? Why has each and every one of our interventions, our foreign policy initiatives, our negotiations and involvement, end up in disaster? I have come to the conclusion that it is because the approach of the US and western countries to
the middle-east is racist. Racist, but not in the traditional sense of the word. Not racist in that we believe that middle-eastern people are inferior to us. It’s racist because we believe that middle eastern people are the same as we are. US foreign policy for the middle-east is racist because we refuse to see just how different the people are, culturally, historically, in their societal organization, political expectations, and basic beliefs. We treat every Arab, Persian, Kurd, Assyrian, Afghan, Egyptian, Shite, Sunni, Alawite, Druze, and the innumerable other divisions and subdivisions that exist in the middle-east, as Jacksonian Democrats just waiting to be set free so they can be just like us. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is racist to believe otherwise.
To illustrate, let me start with the middle-eastern subculture of Palestinian Arabs. While I am not a Palestinian Arab, it is a culture that I know very well. To live in a Palestinian town in the West Bank is both wonderful and oppressive. For example, as you walk from your home to your shop everyone will greet you, saying “peace be with you”, “what a blessing to see you”, “may your family be blessed with continued success”, and they will actually mean it. It is like a warm blanket of social acceptance. If you have an accident and break a leg, you don’t have to worry. Without even asking, someone will open your store for you and run the business. Without you having to make a phone call, someone else will show up to walk your children to school, and will pick them up after. Another person will just show up at your home, make sure the refrigerator is fully stocked, that the clothes are washed, and dinner is cooked. You don’t have to fill out a form, put in a request, or deal with some agency. It is just done.
However, there is a price to pay for all of this. You cannot deviate from the agreed upon narrative, and violation of cultural taboos are not tolerated. You do not get to have an opinion on politics, religion or how life should be led that is different from what is the accepted norm. You cannot have a different religion, or even a different view of religious teachings. You have no right to question or dissent. You have to accept alternate facts as true, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. You accept that if someone is strong they can impose themselves by using force. The failure of someone to use force means they don’t have power, they are weak and can be dominated. And most importantly, you have to accept that everyone not in your group is the enemy, who must always be seen with suspicion, and whose actions always have a nefarious motive.
For example, I was once the guest of the Mukhtar (village chief) of a village in Judea (the West Bank). It was a village of five families, or approximately 1500 people. The Mukhtar is the sheik of the most powerful family, and heads a council that consists of himself and the sheiks of the other four families. While I was in the village as his guest I could not have been safer or made to feel more welcome. Hospitality to a guest is so deeply ingrained as a sacred value in Arab and middle-eastern culture they would rather die, literally, than see their guest harmed. I had to have coffee in the homes of each of the sheiks of all five families, and I was genuinely treated with warmth and goodwill by everyone I met. The experience was truly heartwarming. However, after my visit was over and I had safely returned to my hotel, this kindness was over. When I was no longer their guest, had some terrorist cut my throat, any one of the sheiks I drank coffee with would have publically applauded the “operation”, handing out sweets in the village. This would not have seemed inconsistent to the villagers I had such a great time with. When I was not their guest and under their protection, I was not one of them, and therefore, for no other reason, I was the enemy.
This is how it is for all the differing tribal and ethnic societies in the middle-east. In Afghanistan, for example, there are ten major and nine minor tribes. In these tribal cultures it is, as the saying goes, me against my family, my family against the clan, the clan against the tribe, the tribe against the nation, and the nation against the world. It is into this world view that the USA and the west waltzes with all of the finesse of the proverbial bull in a china shop. The US gets involved in the mid-east for noble reasons, such as to take down a tyranny, stop the development/use of weapons of mass destruction, provide humanitarian aid, and secure the world’s access to oil and gas. At least at the start. But we go in with the assumption that everyone in the world is like us. The US takes it as a given that everyone in the middle-east wants individual freedom, democracy, respect for an individual’s right to his own opinions, freedom of opportunity for women, and the right to free speech. When a Taliban commander is asked by a reporter if the new Afghan government will be democratic, he laughs at the very question. We assume that democracy is a universal desire, and to reject it is pure evil. These assumptions are racist to their very core. To the Taliban commander democratic values are not part of his culture, and is a concept of the enemy. If US foreign policy is failing in the middle-east, this racism is the main reason.
This racist assumption that everyone is an American on the inside; that everyone wants to be governed by a western style democracy, results in manifest errors of policy. Even when we see the policy fail, rather than challenge our assumptions, we just double down and “surge” ahead believing that we are simply not doing enough. We do not even consider the possibility that continuing a policy based on erroneous assumptions is like building on mud. We do not think for one second that equal rights for women is not a value that other cultures value like we do. We do not consider that when the Taliban commander laughs at the question of democracy he does this because in his culture democracy is a foreign concept of the outsider and believes that his form of government is far superior and culturally acceptable. To fail to recognize that other cultures have a right to value democracy, or women’s individuality, differently than we do is racist. To question their cultural beliefs with the view that ours are superior is arrogant, insulting, and in the long run self defeating.
One of the most obvious manifestations of this racist world view at the heart of US foreign policy in the middle-east is in the conception and idea of strength. In the US we conceive strength as winning the contest and being magnanimous to the defeated. We believe that winning, but then not being generous with the defeated, shows weakness. The corollary of this is that when our magnanimity is rejected, abused, or not appreciated, we take that evidence that we have not really won, and that the “enemy” is still out there, and we still have to defeat it. (This should sound familiar to students of the 20 year Afghan war.) While we train and equip the most powerful military in history, we also define strength as not hitting back when we can and should. We believe we are not destroying the enemy even though we can. However we fail to recognize that this conception of strength is not universal. It is uniquely western. Believe me when I say that the mullahs in Qom cannot understand why the US hasn’t leveled Tehran. In their culture you utterly destroy your mortal enemy at the first opportunity.
In the middle-east the belief is that strength means defeating and completely destroying your enemy. In this culture showing mercy or wanting to make peace is a sign that you are weak and can be defeated, if not now, then eventually. Listen to the Farsi language speeches of the Iranian leaders, (properly translated), and understand that this is not hyperbole. Listen to the Arabic language speeches of the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Authority, (properly translated), and understand they are saying what they will do if given the opportunity. It is we in the west that choose to believe it is just talk and saber rattling, and that they could not possibly be serious. In the religious training centers for Iran’s rulers in Qom, and in the government centers in Tehran, Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon, the fact that we haven’t destroyed Iran, or that Israel hasn’t leveled Gaza, is seen as a sign of weakness. Our reluctance to strike at civilian areas, and our abhorrence at the site of dead civilians is, to them, a weakness to be taken advantage of in order to beat us. It is not seen as a noble trait; it is seen as weakness and proof that we do not have the strength to win.
When Israel stopped bombing Gaza, and when the US voluntarily withdrew from Afghanistan, we in the west smirked when the Taliban and Hamas declared victory. We labeled it a cheap propaganda ploy to save face. But to think that the Taliban or Hamas are just propagandizing victory when they know they actually lost is wrong. It is the result of our racist conception of their cultural beliefs. To Hamas the fact that Israel didn’t keep bombing, shelling, and even invading Gaza, until every member of the organization was dead, meant that the enemy was weak and could be eventually defeated. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan could only mean, as the Taliban saw it, that they had defeated America. They cannot conceive that the US had no ambition to capture and hold their territory, and impose a non-Muslim western style government on them. From the Taliban point of view, if they had invaded the US and captured territory, they would keep it and impose Sharia law under their governance, so why wouldn’t the US do the same in Afghanistan? In the middle-eastern world view the failure to be strong as they define the terms, can only mean weakness.
We also have to understand that in the middle-east, strength is respected and obeyed. It is no coincidence that, (other than Israel), there are no democracies in the middle-east. Whether it’s a monarchy, dictatorships, or oligarchy, every middle-eastern government is authoritarian. No democratic government exists. The reason for this is that in the middle-east the cultural norm is to obey and follow those who are strong. The strongest becomes the head of the clan, the sheikh of
the tribe, and the leader of the nation. If the west wants to be involved in the middle-east and succeed in achieving its goals, we have to realize this fact, and we have to incorporate it into our tactics and strategies. We have to abandon our racist conception that there can be a truly western style democratic government in the middle-east.
While it is not necessary to torture, murder or bomb civilians in order to succeed in the middle-east, and while it’s acceptable and proper to have moral lines that we will not cross, we still have to be able to do things that are distasteful to our western sensibilities if we want to be involved there. We also have to be able to suspend our empathy and do what needs to be done, however offensive to our western sensitivities. We have to be able to do many things that project strength, no matter how distasteful this may be in our western cultural norms. For example, take the Israeli policy of blowing up the homes of people who commit terrorist acts against Israelis. Westerners condemn this practice as collective punishment, and it is. But in the middle-east it works. Studies show that punitive demolitions lead to a significant decrease in terror attacks in the months immediately following the demolitions. In the middle-eastern way of thinking it projects strength and sends the message that “you may think you’re in charge of your village, however cross the line and we will show you that we are really in control”. If we can’t do this, or things like it, then we best stay out of the middle-east, because all we are doing is projecting weakness, inviting attack, and assuring that our policies will fail. We have to shed our racist views of the middle-east or stay out.
We cannot ignore our adversaries’ conception of strength and weakness when developing and executing policy in the middle-east. If we fail to do the acts that project strength, not only will we fail to achieve our goals, we will make things worse. If we are not able to take the actions that project power and strength, then we shouldn’t get involved.