Barry Rubin’s book, The Truth About Syria, is the subject of a recent review by the astute Lee Harris. Before getting to the specifics of Mr. Harris’ review, here is an editorial review from the Amazon site:
“[This] . . . is a welcome contribution to the largely unimpressive body of research on modern Syria. Rubin’s well-sourced study provides an unvarnished appraisal of Syrian politics, making no apologies for the brutal internal and destabilizing foreign policies that characterized the 30 year rule of Syrian leader Hafiz Assad and that persist under Hafiz’s son and successor Bashar…” [–David Schenker, Senior Fellow in Arab Politics, Washington Institute for Near East Policy]
Mr. Harris’ essay, from the October 9th Policy Review, based on Rubin’s work, is a disturbing look at the amateur diplomacy that the U.S. — and the West in general — practices in the Middle East. We are the personification of useful idiots and have been set up to be betrayed over and over again. Like a man with no memory, we lurch from crisis to crisis without ever learning anything from experience:
Consider the case of the Iraq Study Group and its recommendation that the United States engage Syria in an attempt to bring stability and peace to post-Saddam Iraq. The authors of the report included James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, each of whom had served as Secretary of State during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Both are generally known for being tough pragmatists, the kind of men one bets would be good poker players even among the toughest competitors in the game. Indeed, the members of the Study Group might be said to represent our contemporary version of the famous “wise men” who guided us through the Cold War with signal success; and if we were still in the midst of the Cold War, we could perhaps sleep more easily at night knowing that the fate of the West was in such shrewd and prudent hands. But today the challenge is radically different. We are not confronting another great superpower in the poker-like game called the balance of power, and even our wisest wise men have yet to grasp that they are currently playing a game about whose rules they have no clue.
On a personal note, my brother, a croupier in Las Vegas, won’t play poker with laymen such as you and me. It’s not simply that he would feel bad taking our money — though he might — it is simply that we are no challenge to a professional; we are boring. And so it is not just that Baker, et al, are playing by the strategy of the last war. What is more important is that when they lurch in to a game they don’t understand, they cost lives and resources. When the diplomats return from the Las Vegas of the Middle East, they have no idea that they come back to us not just with empty hands, but missing a few fingers to boot…
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Harris calls our amateur hour “cognitive asymmetry” — using the analogy of asymmetrical warfare. Using the card sharp analogy, he says that while the amateur may go into the game with a larger bank and better cards, he loses in the long run because he can neither think nor act like a professional:
This advantage will be especially great if the master player has the virtue that the Arabs call sumud — steadfastness: the patience to wait as long as it takes to wear down his opponent until he is ready to abandon the game. Sumud yields policymaking in terms of generations and even centuries, whereas Western foreign policy, like Western culture in general, is always looking for a quick fix. We want to make a deal now, and we will settle for less; they want exactly what they want, and they are willing to wait the time it takes to get it, which turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes for their opponents [i.e., the West — D.] to throw up their hands in despair.
Taken together, sumud and the cognitive asymmetry between Syria and the West explain one of the central paradoxes of Rubin’s book: How can an economically stagnant and militarily weak nation like Syria get away with murder, both figuratively and literally?
Mr. Harris gives us two good examples of the play-out of sumud (on Syria’s side) and cognitive asymmetry(on ours), from 2001 and 2003. After we went into Iraq –
How did America respond to Syria’s sponsorship of terrorists who killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousand of Iraqis? In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad had already lied to Powell once, in 2001, telling him that Syria had cut off the Iraqi oil pipeline. Powell later saw that he had been hoodwinked. On the airplane taking him to his 2003 visit, the secretary of state “insisted . . . that he . . . would not be fooled again. Shortly after he landed, however, Bashar again sold him the same old swampland by falsely telling Powell that the terrorist offices in Damascus had already been closed down, good news that the secretary of state announced to the American reporters accompanying him. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent, in the most humiliating way for Powell, that he had been taken in once more. Reporters simply telephoned the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and found that they were still open for business as usual.” In short, as Rubin trenchantly puts it, “Syria was making a fool out of the U.S. government and the Bush administration was helping it to do so.”
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me…” Fool me over and over and I obviously need to get a new game plan because this one costs lives and treasure. Mr. Harris gives us another telling example of our lethal, naïve foolishness:
In September 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trip to Syria to visit its president (and Bashar’s father), Hafiz al-Assad. Baker had prepared his case well. He presented detailed evidence that Syria had been sponsoring quite an impressive list of terrorist activities by means of surrogate agencies. Syria had denied all involvement with terrorism, and Baker was, in effect, calling Hafiz’ bluff. By Baker’s own standards it was a tough act, like that of a criminal investigator who spreads out on a table the hard and irrefutable evidence he has gathered against a suspect, and says: Deny that! Yet his confrontation with Assad had no effect. Or, rather, it had an effect, but one that Baker did not see coming. After the meeting, Rubin writes, “Hafiz did take action: He had the three Jordanian agents who supplied the information tracked down and killed.” The upshot was that “Syria kept on fomenting terrorism; and the United States did very little in retaliation.” Baker had thought he and Hafiz Assad were playing by the same rule book. They weren’t. But Hafiz had the immense advantage of knowing this, which Baker did not.
The simpleton formulations of the Iraq Study Group are so clueless that they harm our attempts to conduct foreign policy. Who was on that study group? None other than the blinkered Mr. James Baker. In fact, he drew on what he fantasized as his “success” in 1990 to push the idea of “dialogue.” As Harris notes:
…the recommendations to engage Syria offered by the Iraq Study Group were not made by men who lacked experience with Syria; they were made by men who simply had not learned from the experience they had. Their inability to acknowledge the rules by which Syria plays has led them repeatedly to believe that Syria is playing by their rules. Unable to put themselves into the position of the Syrian regime, they fail to see the logic and cogency of its behavior — behavior that in Western eyes so often seems infantile, counterproductive, or just plain irrational.
Harris emphasizes Rubin’s understanding of the game: for Arabs, the bottom line is not progress, it is honor. Just keep up the thirst for revenge among average citizens, and they will sacrifice their own well-being to make sure their honor remains intact. And if their honor is unassailed, then survival is ensured:
Despite his seductive façade of Westernized modernity, it was Bashar who predicted “that Bush would fail in Iraq because he ‘does not understand that for Arabs honor is more important than anything else, even food.’” Rubin notes caustically that “Bashar’s dinner table is not noticeably bare because of this sense of priorities,” and then goes straight to what is perhaps the most unpleasant truth of all about Syria. Despite his flight of rhetoric, Bashar “is also correct and comprehends his people far better than do American policymakers. This passionate search for pride and revenge means that material benefits — high living standards, more rights, security from violence — can be trumped by religious and patriotic appeals.”
Harris sums up Rubin’s outlook about the Middle East this way:
Though not a pessimist, Rubin is equally opposed to the “quick-fix” optimism that prevails among Western leaders. That optimism may come in different forms, from the promotion of peace accords to the initiation of regime change. What they have in common is that they are looking for a miraculous transformation of the region in the blink of an eye. The West, typically, likes to solve problems swiftly and decisively. Once it settles an issue, it wants that issue to stay settled. But, as Rubin tells us, that is not how the problems of the Middle East can be solved. He wants the West to think in terms of 50 years, not the next presidential election cycle. He wants the West to relinquish the dangerous and often counterproductive search for a quick fix and to acquire the virtue of sumud, or steadfastness, in its approach to the region. Finally, Rubin is searching for a long-term consensus in the West that will focus on the genuine challenge facing us in the Middle East. The worst thing that the West can do in the face of threat of Islamism is to degenerate into the insanity of partisan politics.
And there you have the fatal flaw in the Western character: we are addicted to the simple solution and the quick fix. Our “fixes” lead to the grotesque unexpected results we refuse to examine — or even admit — ahead of time. It happens with government, business, and academia. The “bottom line” is paramount, but it is a line drawn by myopic moral midgets in each generation who leave a bigger mess for the next generation to clean up.
Meanwhile, the election cycle mania breeds monsters who want us to feast on empty promises. Social Security? Who cares? National health care? A panacea — the national consensus on the subject leaves the door firmly shut against discussion. Global, man-made warming? We have to do something big, and we have to do it NOW — discussion closed.
We float on a sea of myths generated by the utopians who seem to sprout in every clime. They are either telling us how bad it is and suggesting immediate, draconian “solutions” or they are selling some brand of feel good that is sure to bring peace in our time and a cure for cancer.
Unfortunately, our hubristic leaders play games with our futures. Anything for a vote, even selling the country down the river in the process. What matters is not what happens, but who wins on Election Day. And since they don’t even know the rules of the game, or the fact they they’re being played themselves, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of developing a wise strategy for foreign policy. It’s enough to make you weep when the Speaker of the House puts on a scarf and sashays over to Bashar’s place for a few photo ops. How embarrassingly idiotic can one person be?
American politics has become a cacophonous tale babbled by many, many idiots, and often signifying less than nothing. It becomes difficult to think while surrounded by the noise generated in sound bites. Daily we witness the spectacle of short-sighted pols pushing one another aside so as to position themselves in a better light.
We listen to these pushers at our own risk…their first solution is free, but after that we will pay dearly for their lack of finesse at the game…I wouldn’t mind so much if paying my nickel meant I got to take my own chance. The tragedy lies in the fact that we all hand over much more than a nickel while those who take in our money have no idea what they’re doing.
American foreign policy consists of a group of rank amateurs being played by professional gamblers. Until we get someone who knows what they’re doing — and so far the horizon is empty — we will continue the long slide to total incoherence. These idiots will gamble away the house, the family jewels, and our heritage, as they continue to lose, all the while protesting that they are professionals.
Sure they are. You have only to look at the results of The Iraq Study Group, and the members who produced this piece of bilge to understand the magnitude of our risk.