As Flattering as it is Self-Destructive: David Brooks on Arab Narratives

David Brooks has an interesting column on the impact (among other factors) of the Carter-Walt-Mearsheimer attack on the Israel Lobby on Arab elites. (Hat tip: Robert Schwartz)

April 8, 2007

Op-Ed Columnist
A War of Narratives

By DAVID BROOKS

On the Dead Sea, Jordan

I just attended a conference that was both illuminating and depressing. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan and the American Enterprise Institute, and the idea was to get Americans and moderate Arab reformers together to talk about Iraq, Iran, and any remaining prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

As it happened, though, the Arab speakers mainly wanted to talk about the Israel lobby. One described a book edited in the mid-1990s by the Jewish policy analyst David Wurmser as the secret blueprint for American foreign policy over the past decade. A pollster showed that large majorities in Arab countries believe that the Israel lobby has more influence over American policy than the Bush administration. Speaker after speaker triumphantly cited the work of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter as proof that even Americans were coming to admit that the Israel lobby controls their government.

Note that this kind of thinking fits into the Arab mentality of seeking conspiracy theories everywhere. Everything, no matter how public — even a published book by Wurmser — gets thrown into the “secret blueprint” hopper. And just as Arabs can claim the Holocaust didn’t happen and then accuse Israel of acting the way Hitler did (not), so they can imagine the US run by secret conspiracies even as all their evidence comes from published books.

The problems between America and the Arab world have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism or ideological extremism, several Arab speakers argued. They have to do with American policies toward Israel, and the forces controlling those policies.

As for problems in the Middle East itself, these speakers added, they have a common source, Israel. One elderly statesman noted that the four most pressing issues in the Middle East are the Arab-Israeli dispute, instability in Lebanon, chaos in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran. They are all interconnected, he said, and Israel is at the root of each of them.

We Americans tried to press our Arab friends to talk more about the Sunni-Shiite split, the Iraqi civil war and the rise of Iran, but they seemed uninterested. They mimicked a speech King Abdullah of Jordan recently delivered before Congress, in which he scarcely mentioned the Iraqi chaos on his border. It was all Israel, all the time.

The Americans, needless to say, had a different narrative. We tended to argue that problems like Muslim fundamentalism, extremism and autocracy could not be blamed on Israel or Paul Wolfowitz but had deeper historical roots. We tended to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue not as the root of all fundamentalism, but as a problem made intractable by fundamentalism.

In other words, they had their narrative and we had ours, and the two passed each other without touching
. But the striking thing about this meeting was the emotional tone. There seemed to be a time, after 9/11, when it was generally accepted that terror and extremism were symptoms of a deeper Arab malaise. There seemed to be a general recognition that the Arab world had fallen behind, and that it needed economic, political and religious modernization.

But there was nothing defensive or introspective about the Arab speakers here. In response to Bernard Lewis’s question, “What Went Wrong?” their answer seemed to be: Nothing’s wrong with us. What’s wrong with you?

The events of the past three years have shifted their diagnosis of where the cancer is — from dysfunction in the Arab world to malevolence in Jerusalem and in Aipac. Furthermore, the Walt and Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby has had a profound effect on Arab elites. It has encouraged them not to be introspective, not to think about their own problems, but to blame everything on the villainous Israeli network.

In other words, W-M and Carter have offered them a “face-saving” solution to their problems. In honor-shame cultures, guilt is consistently projected, and Israel is the scapegoat for Arab feeling of inferiority. The brief moments of introspection that might come in the wake of particularly appalling Muslim deeds — 9-11, Beslan — cannot last because the work necessary to change the dynamic takes too long, and the shame is unbearable. Like someone on opium, the Arabs keep falling back into their self-justifying slumber because coming out of it takes too much of the kind of moral fibre they lack. As one Israeli student of Arab culture notes:

    In contrast, Arab Islamic political culture externalizes the guilt: Do I have a problem? You are guilty! The Arab-Muslims have no guilt remorse towards the outsiders, certainly not to share the guilt with them. They don’t feel any shame towards the infidels. They don’t blame themselves. They are always right.

This lust to blame (libido accusandi) can have only two resolutions: either we Westerners hold their feet to the fire and “trip-sit” them through the painful process of self-examination and development, or we defeat them in the war their thinking inexorably leads to and they apparently so desperately want.

And so we enter a more intractable phase in the conflict, which will not be a war over land or oil or even democratic institutions, but a war over narratives. The Arabs will nurture this Zionist-centric mythology, which is as self-flattering as it is self-destructive. They will demand that the U.S. and Israel adopt their narrative and admit historical guilt. Failing politically, militarily and economically, they will fight a battle for moral superiority, the kind of battle that does not allow for compromises or truces.

Americans, meanwhile, will simply want to get out. After 9/11, George Bush called on the U.S. to get deeply involved in the Middle East. But now, most Americans have given up on their ability to transform the Middle East and on Arab willingness to change. Faced with an arc of conspiracy-mongering, most Americans will get sick of the whole cesspool, and will support any energy policy or anything else that will enable them to cut ties with the region.

What we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a gap between civilizations, increasingly without common narratives, common goals or means of communication.

It looks like we’re not only not waking up, in taking out sleeping pills, we are awakening the wrong instincts even among the “moderates.”

15 Responses to As Flattering as it is Self-Destructive: David Brooks on Arab Narratives

  1. Michael B says:

    Lovely. Yet Brooks’ reportage here does seem to be responsible, thoughtful, measured, probative and on an even keel. Likewise your analysis of the ramifications seems all too apt and measured as well. I previously had had the impression Abdullah was more thoughtful; seems not to be the case, assumming the synopsis of what he said in D.C. recently is accurate.

    Most pivotally though, imo, are the Carter and W-M theses and the effects they evidence in the Arab Muslim world, which was as predictable as the sun rising in the east imo. It’s the combination of shoddy scholarship and insufficiencies in their analyses, together with their prescriptive advice – both overt and inherent in the internal “logic” they are forwarding – that is so viscerally repulsive, especially so given the subject matter and what it represents. And this from an ex-president and Ivy League, purportedly “realist” professors, whose seeming bona fides, despite the quality of their arguments, will help to persuade many and will serve to further solidify many others in their prejudiced/malignant views. Too, it serves to reflect upon the deep-seated fissures in the U.S. and the West in general, from the Left certainly, also from establishmentarians such as Carter, W-M and their emulators and epigones. (Compare these fissures to the relative unity the West evidenced at other critical junctures.) I cannot believe this bodes well; these are not tactical disagreements or even strategic, they are virtually ontological and are ideological at absolutely elemental levels. Mary Habeck may be right about prospects for a two-hundred year long set of conflicts.

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  3. Web Reconnaissance for 04/11/2007

    A short recon of whats out there that might draw your attention.

  4. The unfortunate truth about Arab moderates is that they are not, in fact, moderate. The only difference between them and extremists is that they desire being loved by Europeans. If it was still sexy to brandish an AK, they would be doing that. Recall Said’s throwing a stone at Israel from Lebanon.

  5. RL says:

    to CM:
    you describe the classic dilemma of the honor-shame oriented person — how can i please the right people in order to have the image of myself that i want reflected in their eyes.

  6. The Accelerating Clash: Part II

    Yesterday I wrote about the difficulty the individual Muslim man has in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to become a full participant in the modern world. The confluence of child rearing practices that enhance the narcissistic vulnerability…

  7. Eliyahu says:

    Michael B, years ago, I L Kenen, the leading founder of AIPAC, wrote that Middle East policymaking and execution in the USA and in behalf of the USA, was the Petro-Diplomatic Complex. This complex of persons is made up of diplomats, missionaries, oil executives, CIA types, etc. Members of the group often overlap in their roles. Thus, a diplomat may come from an old missionary family long stationed in the Middle East. Likewise oil industry executives.

    Maybe jiminy cricket and walt-mearsheimer wrote what they did at the behest of members of the P-D Complex. Maybe it’s no accident –as the Commies used to say– that a whole set of books and reports hostile to Israel came out around the same time, that is in 2006. Think also of the Baker-Hamilton Report and a report drawn up by Professor Polk, a historian specializing in the modern Middle East, who was also a high State Dept policymaker.

  8. Eliyahu says:

    correction [it's late here]:
    Kenen wrote that the P-D Complex dominated American policymaking and policy execution in regard to the Middle East.

  9. Michael B says:

    The old Arabist confluences may still have some lasting influence, I don’t know, though I suspect they’ve been eclipsed by newer MESA types, post-Said, etc. Too, the Carter and W-M initiatives seem to be coming from different incentives than the older convergence of romantic/practical interests; but that’s largely intuitive.

    Related, vis-a-vis Iraq, Fouad Ajami intrigues today with some cautious hope/optimism in Opinion Journal. Emphasis upon “cautious,” certainly, but it too seems to be a well grounded piece.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Michael B,
    I regard edward sa`id as a continuation of the old Petro-Diplomatic Complex, what you call the Arabists. I suggest that you look up Said’s family connections with Western, including American, missionaries, as well as his personal friendships and whom his Christian Arab [or Arabic-speaking Christian] friends were linked to, in addition to his educational background in Egypt and the USA, and his association with higher education institutions in the USA. Much of this is in his own writings, for instance, the info that his wife’s father was the leading Quaker in Lebanon. The Quaker church [Society of Friends] has long been influential in Middle East policymaking, and has had missionary establishments in Lebanon & Israel since the mid-19th century [in Ramallah since 1868 or 1869]. Bear in mind that, according to Ottoman law [that is, Muslim law], Christian proselytism of Muslims was forbidden. So the missionaries could only convert Eastern Christians or Jews. Said’s family was converted to the Anglican church in the 19th century. His father, who had the Western name William, came to the USA, apparently before the First World War, and served in that war. He had American citizenship. So Edward was born an American citizen. As I said, much of the bio data on Said can be found in his own books, which can be supplemented/complemented by Justin Wiener’s superb research article in Commentary of seven years ago.

    Speaking of MESA, did you notice that MESA’s prez sent a letter to dePaul university asking that norman finkelstein be granted tenure?

  11. Michael B says:

    Eliyahu,

    Firstly and emphatically, I have zero desire to quibble over how to view or place Said. I understand how he can be viewed as a continuation, yet also as something pivotal/elemental and new, vis-a-vis earlier generations of “Arabists” (which I’m acquainted with only in an academic sense, viz. R. Irwin, R. Kaplan). No doubt there are continuations, some common lineaments in the overall lineage; still, there is something elemental in what Said was and in what he more broadly and critically represents, socially/politically, culturally, academically, etc. All this is by way of emphasis as I believe it’s necessary to come to terms with what Said leverages; we live in his wake.

    E.g., it’s no mere coincidence that Finkielkraut, in a nearby post here at Augean Stables (one you’ve already taken note of), invokes Said in some of the pivotal terms I’m thinking of.

  12. Eliyahu says:

    Michael, I see your point. What I feel is new in Said is actually something very frightening. The uncritical sentimentality of the Petro-Diplomatic Complex towards the Arabs –expressed over the years through such a journal as Middle East Journal, for instance– was given a theoretical basis [however faulty] by Said and became a world wide compulsory ["politically correct"] belief. This was so no matter how often Said was debunked or by whom, by Bernard Lewis or anyone else. Said did something that had probably been done before by others in other fields: He discredited a host of contrary views and reports. All the observations of Edward Lane or Chateaubriand, etc. were discredited. Said sets up Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt as a turning point and discredits Western observers who came afterwards. Of course, Karsten Niebuhr came before Napoleon. Anyhow, as you say, Said had extraordinary success in disallowing discordant voices [from his viewpoint] and thereby distorting the study of the history and society of a very large part of the world. Yes, we do have to deal with Said’s legacy, like it or not.

  13. Eliyahu says:

    Michael, I see your point. What I feel is new in Said is actually something very frightening. The uncritical sentimentality of the Petro-Diplomatic Complex towards the Arabs –expressed over the years through such a journal as Middle East Journal, for instance– was given a theoretical basis [however faulty] by Said and became a world wide compulsory ["politically correct"] belief. This was so no matter how often Said was debunked or by whom, by Bernard Lewis or anyone else. Said did something that had probably been done before by others in other fields: He discredited a host of contrary views and reports. All the observations of Edward Lane or Chateaubriand, etc. were discredited. Said sets up Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt as a turning point and discredits Western observers who came afterwards. Of course, Karsten Niebuhr came before Napoleon. Anyhow, as you say, Said had extraordinary success in disallowing discordant voices [from his viewpoint] and thereby distorting the study of the history and society of a very large part of the world. Yes, we do have to deal with Said’s legacy, like it or not.

  14. Eliyahu says:

    Michael, I see your point. What I feel is new in Said is actually something very frightening. The uncritical sentimentality of the Petro-Diplomatic Complex towards the Arabs –expressed over the years through such a journal as Middle East Journal, for instance– was given a theoretical basis [however faulty] by Said and became a world wide compulsory ["politically correct"] belief. This was so no matter how often Said was debunked or by whom, by Bernard Lewis or anyone else. Said did something that had probably been done before by others in other fields: He discredited a host of contrary views and reports. All the observations of Edward Lane or Chateaubriand, etc. were discredited. Said sets up Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt as a turning point and discredits Western observers who came afterwards. Of course, Karsten Niebuhr came before Napoleon. Anyhow, as you say, Said had extraordinary success in disallowing discordant voices [from his viewpoint] and thereby distorting the study of the history and society of a very large part of the world. Yes, we do have to deal with Said’s legacy, like it or not.

  15. Eliyahu says:

    Michael, I see your point. What I feel is new in Said is actually something very frightening. The uncritical sentimentality of the Petro-Diplomatic Complex towards the Arabs –expressed over the years through such a journal as Middle East Journal, for instance– was given a theoretical basis [however faulty] by Said and became a world wide compulsory ["politically correct"] belief. This was so no matter how often Said was debunked or by whom, by Bernard Lewis or anyone else. Said did something that had probably been done before by others in other fields: He discredited a host of contrary views and reports. All the observations of Edward Lane or Chateaubriand, etc. were discredited. Said sets up Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt as a turning point and discredits Western observers who came afterwards. Of course, Karsten Niebuhr came before Napoleon. Anyhow, as you say, Said had extraordinary success in disallowing discordant voices [from his viewpoint] and thereby distorting the study of the history and society of a very large part of the world. Yes, we do have to deal with Said’s legacy, like it or not.

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