By Barry Rubin
December 6, 2008
In explaining why he was too fearful to vote in Jerusalem's mayoral election, an east Jerusalem Palestinian shopkeeper, Issam Abu Rmaileh, said, "I would have liked to vote because it's in our interest, but who's going to protect me and my family afterwards?"
So let's call it the Abu Rmaileh principle, and it is extraordinarily important in the Middle East. Why should someone support you if you cannot protect them? Because if they cannot depend on you to be tough, they might as well play it safe by doing nothing or make their own deal through appeasement and shout radical slogans.
Here is the Abu Rmaileh principle at a higher pay grade. Jordan's Foreign Minister Salah Bashir stated in a closed meeting, "For us the Iranian surge for hegemony has become a crisis," according to the participant who asked not to be named.
And here's the flip side from a frustrated American colonel fighting in Iraq, "All these guys we rounded up, they're saying in the interrogation, if we don't torture them, we're not going to get the information."
How important is popularity? According to the school enthusiastic about President-elect Barack Obama in the United States, it is everything. One journalist explained that al-Qaida is afraid of Obama because, presumably, he will win away Muslims from supporting radical Islamism. It is written in the Washington Post: "Even among the followers of radical groups, such as Hamas and the Taliban, Obama has inspired a sense of change and opportunity."
That last statement--intended to imply that even the extremists like Obama--is worded with a shocking, though unintentional, ambiguity. It is sure true that Hamas, the Taliban, Hizballah, Iran, Syria, and al-Qaida view this "change" as an "opportunity." Unfortunately, they view it as an opportunity for being more aggressive.
Here's how Iranian Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami put it, in words typical of the reaction from Iran and these other groups. He attributes Obama's slogan of "change" as a retreat due to Iran's revolution which has brought down American power, though the United States is continuing to decline.
For them, Barack is seen as a bringer of a popular America but a figure of weakness. Should there be any doubt that his flexibility will be interpreted as retreat, no matter how well-intentioned he is?
The debate in Washington is far away from the debate in the Middle East. In America's capital, the talk is of how the radicals are more moderate than thought, how they will be won over by Obama's charisma and changed American policies. The disconnect between the region and the rationalizers is frightening.
There is no policy change in Washington that will appease the radicals. And there are no concessions that will make an American president popular in a meaningful way among Middle Easterners. Even more worrisome, such steps are not going to make moderates feel more secure.
Here the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri gets it just right. He tells Obama: " It appears that you don't know anything about the Muslim world and its history....You are neither facing individuals nor organizations, but are facing a Jihadi awakening and renaissance which is shaking the pillars of the entire Islamic world; and this is the fact which you and your government and country refuse to recognize and pretend not to see."
Zawahiri even invokes the Abu Rmaileh principle: "It appears that you don't know anything about...the fate of the traitors who cooperated with the invaders against it." In other words, anyone who cooperates with the United States or fights the Islamists will die.
Al-Qaida is not a very important group nowadays. But the rise of Islamist forces is clear, even though some of them are hostile to each other. It is Iran, not Ayman, who is the main beneficiary of this phenomenon, though Muslim Brotherhood groups--most notably Hamas--are also advancing.
How are President George Bush and his successor exactly alike? Because both believe that being liked in the Middle East will bring victory. Bush thought that by gifting the locals with a non-dictatorial Iraq and democracy they would come to love him. The opposite happened. Obama's strategy of being a nice guy and making concessions is likely to be less costly in direct terms for the United States but will also be used by the radicals for their own benefit.
One problem with the belief that Obama's popularity and flexibility will succeed is the Abu Rmaileh principle: Don't tell me who is nice; tell me who is going to protect me. Being feared and respected, as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad rightly put it, is more important than being liked. Usama bin Ladin noted that people understandably prefer to put their money on the horse that seems most likely to win the race.
A second problem is how people in the Middle East are going to find out that you are such a great guy. They don't follow the American or European media but local sources, including both government and radical Islamist propaganda.
The frustrated American colonel in Iraq quoted above was bewildered by the fact that ""We poured a lot of our heart and soul into trying to help the people" only to hear them say the most inaccurate things about the United States stealing their oil, taking their land, and "turning our country over to Israel." A U.S. pull-out may well be the right policy, but it will not bring gratitude.
What's needed is not a president who can work with Iran or Syria but a president who can work with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Lebanese forces who want their country to be free, and so on, along with Israel and Europe in a grand alignment. Yes, it is in large part a zero-sum game. What makes Tehran or Damascus happy is going to damage their intended victims.
Alas, just because something isn't true doesn't mean people can't believe it. That's a truism applicable both to the Middle East and to Washington DC.
BarryRubin 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).