2 Articles; Are You Left-Wing or Right-Wing? Hopefully, I’m Honest-and-Accurate Wing; * Arabism Is Dead! Long Live…?

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Are You Left-Wing or Right-Wing? Hopefully, I’m Honest-and-Accurate Wing

Posted: 20 Jan 2012 06:23 AM PST

By Barry Rubin

I ran into an older, retired Israeli colleague who is a fine scholar in his field. We hadn’t met for 25 years and agreed to have coffee in a nearby Tel Aviv cafe. In the ensuing conversation I learned some key things about why current  intellectual and political discussion is such a wreck.

The retired professor has read nothing I’ve written. He is on the left-wing politically, in the historic non-Communist sense, but his work has always been first-rate and untouched by any political slant.  In addition, he has worked amicably with people of different views. And that’s why I was dismayed by his first question: “Are you left-wing or right-wing?”

I sighed, partly because I hate this starting point of dividing people into two categories. A more appropriate question would have been: What do you think of….? To classify someone is to decide in advance to agree or disagree with whatever they say. To ask someone their view makes it possible to listen and think about the quality of their ideas.

A scholar or analyst, whatever his personal views, should do work that is beyond politics. Many years ago I did a scholarly article on American radical professors of the 1930s and 1940s. I was almost unable to find a single case in which anyone had even been accused of politicizing their academic work or classroom teaching. They viewed such behavior as inappropriate and perhaps some were worried about how being outspoken might hurt their careers. At any rate, even during the McCarthy era people were pursued for their organizational memberships and not their classroom behavior. Today, all those old issues of professional ethics have vanished. Professors may spend most of their time being propagandists, throw away scholarly standards, and energetically persecute dissenters.

Back to my cafe meeting. If one puts people into a box all that follows will either be banal agreement or total argument. If this encounter had been in an American context the next hour or so might have been spent on endless consensus on how great or terrible Obama is. Alternatively, the discussion would have been characterized by a heated argument in which each person would not concede that the other had a single valid point to make. Either way, nobody probably would have learned anything new or had to exercise their brain.

So I gave my standard response: “The international issues I deal with have no `left’ or `right’ wing aspect to them.  The important question is how one analyzes situations, issues, and events. They should be approached as objectively as possible with an honest attempt to be accurate, to produce evidence proving one’s assertions, and to follow where the facts lead.”

Perhaps because he is a pre-Politically Correct person on the left he completely understood my response, and he correctly added an additional point: “And not to conceal things that don’t coincide with your thesis.” A generation ago this is how people thought. You could hold totally different political views but how you wrote history or taught about works of literature was something else entirely. Not everything people said was predictable because they actually thought about things rather than merely applied a preexisting political standpoint. Instead, academics across the political spectrum respected what some call the “scientific method” and I prefer saying are “Enlightenment values.”

I continued, “Figuring out whether or not, say, the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical organization is not a matter of political viewpoint. One’s politics should be expressed by what one wants to achieve, not in one’s analysis of the situation.”

Although I didn’t say so an example I had in mind was this: I would like to see a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That puts me left of center in Israel. But my good faith assessment of the Palestinian political scene (leadership, ideology, groups, public opinion, options) and of the regional situation is that, given overwhelming evidence, this is impossible to achieve at this time.  The evidence (and there is hardly any actual evidence) offered by those who argue otherwise is not persuasive.

Consequently, I draw policy conclusions from that analysis. No two-state solution is possible at this time. I then go on—I won’t go into this right now—to develop my view of the best policy response to the situation.

Instead, I asked him how he saw this methodological problem in which one’s politics determined whether the Brotherhood was radical or moderate. Here’s approximately what he said:

“People on the right slant the facts to fit their political views while people on the left don’t.” After I questioned this he altered his statement to “most people” in either case. I then asked for examples. He gave two and I will take them one at a time.

He continued, “Rightists say that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is so extreme that you cannot talk to him. He is eager for war to wipe out Israel. You can’t talk to him so therefore war with Iran is necessary.”

That’s a fascinating mixture of points from which I think we can learn a lot. Let’s dissect it.  The opening point– Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is so extreme that you cannot talk to him—is clearly correct, not wrong at all. What is needed, though, is to separate analysis from policy proposals and always to look for alternatives.

I think these are the two points that people don’t understand and they are destroying any productive discussion of intellectual or political issues at present. So let me repeat them:

1. Analysis should be separate from policy.  If people conflate the idea that the Iranian regime is extremely radical, intransigent, and dangerous and thus no deal can be made–the perception of reality–with what should be done about it, people will reject the correct analysis because they don’t agree with the proposed response. Example: We must lie about Palestinian politics or we will damage the cause of peace; we must lie about revolutionary Islamism or we will provoke a war. Of course, lying is the most likely to hurt peace or lead to creating a crisis that will end in war.

2. When moving from analysis to policy, one should think creatively and not just give a knee-jerk response. There are many alternatives to going to war with Iran. But an accurate assessment of the threat’s existence must be the starting point. Examine each issue and the needed policy response on an individual basis rather than impose an ideological template on it.

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Arabism Is Dead! Long Live…?

Posted: 20 Jan 2012 02:17 AM PST

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post. I own the rights and I ask you to read and link to this version.

By Barry Rubin

An editorial in themoderate Lebanese publication, Lebanon Now, reminds us of just how dramaticallythe Middle East has changed. Many of the arguments and assumptions thatgoverned the Arabic-speaking world for six decades have simply vanished. Others,though, have just been modified slightly.

The biggest change hasbeen the collapse of Arab nationalism, the ideology and system that governedmany countries, controlled the regional debate, and intimidated everyone elseinto line for six decades. But is the analogy to Eastern Europe in 1991—rescuedfrom Communism and transformed into democracies—or to the situation there in1945—save from fascism only to be taken over by Communism for almost ahalf-century?

In other words is theArabic-speaking world moving into an era of democracy or merely a new form ofauthoritarianism?

We are reminded vividlyof the death of the old order by an editorial in the moderate Lebanesepublication, Lebanon Now, discussing President Bashar al-Assad’s attempts tosay in control in Syria. The editors write:

“After months ofprocrastination, months of ignoring the insistence of the internationalcommunity that he stop murdering his people; after nearly three weeks into thecatastrophic Arab League mission to assess the level of violence in the countryand after a body count that by conservative estimates has exceeded 5,000, hecan only resort to the hollow and outdated rhetoric of an era the Arab world isaching to leave behind.”

What is this rhetoric? To blame everything on “the creation of Israel and theimperial reshaping of the Middle East” after World War One. Well, 1948 (thecreation of Israel) and 1918 (when the old Ottoman Empire crumbled and Arabstates began to emerge) were a long time ago. Arab nationalism was a response tothese events and also to the belief that fascist and Communist systems inEurope offered role models for ruling the Arabic-speaking world.

Arabism was also a wayto unite disparate peoples into a coherent state while focusing on a commonethnic identity that might suppress ideological and regional differences while transcendingreligious ones. In al-Assad’s recent speech, he stated, “Arabism is a questionof civilization, a question of common interests, common will and commonreligions.”

Lebanon Now calls this a,“cobweb-ridden idea.” Yes, indeed, but it is one that sent the Arabs intoimmense enthusiasm until recently. Still, it no longer does. Today people are focusedmore on the failures of Arab nationalist regimes in the 1950-2010 period ratherthan on the alleged sins of the 1920-1948 era. Yet that might only lead tosupporting a revolutionary Islamism that argues it can do better than itspredecessors.

Same authoritarianism;same demagoguery; same enemies; just a different method of fighting them, thepolitical use of religion rather than of nationalism.

One of the institutionsthe editorial ridicules is the Arab League. Using that group to advise peoplehow to get rid of dictatorship and replace it with democracy, as is being triedin Syria, is like “a smoking doctor who advises the patient to quit smokingwhile putting a cigarette in his mouth.”

And yet that’s whatIslamism is seeking to do, merely changing the cigarette for a cigar. In doingso, a lot of these old Arabist arguments are merely being recycled. For example:

–It isn’t “Arabism”that will unite the people but…Islam.

–One of Arabism’s failuresis that it didn’t unite the Arabs, but Islamist ideology will unite the Muslims,which it insists is easier to do. That may prove true within individualcountries and even across newly forming blocs, counties where the local branchof the Muslim Brotherhood holds sway.

–Arabism failed toexpel Western “imperialist” influence from the region and destroy Israel butIslam will succeed. One Islamist complaint is that nationalist rulers madedeals with the West, as Mubarak did. The Islamists, due to the nature of theirideology, won’t make that “mistake.”

–Arabism didn’t bring economicsuccess but Islam “is the solution.” It is easy to see that this won’t work ineconomic terms yet belt-tightening, a renewed revolutionary enthusiasm, andother means might survive hard times by producing pious times.  Religion has often succeeded in doing so inthe past.

Of course, Syria is alsoa special case, a place where—again a great turn of phrase by Lebanon Now’seditors—the ruling “a system more akin to organized crime than that inspired byPericles,” i.e., democracy.

Clearly, Lebanon Now’seditors hope that Syria’s revolution does better than the one they helped leadin Lebanon. Remember, Lebanon was the original “spring” movement and now it is runby Islamists (Hizballah) who took power in an election but ultimately depend onIranian money, Syrian assassins, and terrorist intimidation to stay in power.

One cannot also help butnote that Arab nationalism did work to hold together a country includingAlawites, Christians, Druze, and Sunni Muslims, along with non-Arab Kurds.Replacing that “glue” won’t be so easy. Iraq and to some extent Lebanon suggestthe alternative solution of each community largely governing itself in practice,albeit with a lot of bloodshed. That won’t be so easy to achieve in Syria.

The editorial concludes:

“Those Syrian people whohave decided to forgo sectarianism and self interest in the name of freedom,care not one jot for the illusion that is Arabism; for Syria’s equally mythicallead in taking the fight to the Zionist enemy.”

One hopes that thosepeople win in Syria, where they do have a better chance, but they such astandpoint has clearly not won in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, Libya,Tunisia, and even—despite appearances—Turkey.

Whether justified by “Arabnationalist” or “Islamist” rhetoric the old scape-goating combined withdictatorship might be too useful a method to abandon.

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