Thursday, July 05, 2007

Middle East Rules #2

Rule 2: Any reporter or U.S. Army officer wanting to serve in Iraq should have to take a test, consisting of one question: “Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?” If you answer yes, you can’t go to Iraq. You can serve in Japan, South Korea or Germany ­ not Iraq.

There’s a telling story about a conference of post-modern historiography in Germany between the new historians and the old guard. In the wrap-up session, one of the older participants noted, “all this [new-fangled stuff] is fine, just so long as you get the story straight.” “Oh no,” responded one of the new historians, “the whole point is to get the story crooked.” As the reporter of this exchange commented, all the new historians laughed knowingly at this snappy witticism, although most of them weren’t quite sure why.”

Now on one level, the meaning of this story has to do with “unintended consequences.” Historically speaking, most developments do not arise because someone plans them, but because someone, in pursuing a goal, sets in motion something that leads to an entirely different, often opposed result. The Magna Carta is a good example: the barons who put together the document never could have imagined that 600 years later, English-speaking peoples would see that as the earliest document in the creation of a constitutional democracy that gave equal rights to commoners.

Part of the crooked story that makes the Middle East so Byzantine is not only how many unintended results there are to people’s actions, but the ways that they insist on reading those results as intended, often by people who didn’t actually produce those results (see conspiracy theory below). But here, briefly, the reason why the straight line does not operate in the Arab world comes from the particularly remorseless way the Arabs play their zero-sum honor-shame games. In other parts of the world where honor-shame rules predominate — China and Japan come readily to mind — one can still count on a certain amount of rational self-interest. If one can make the choice palatable, it’s possible to arrange a positive-sum outcome.

But in the Middle East, a different dynamic is at work, one in which self destruction plays an unwontedly prominent role. The old joke runs:

A scorpion approached a crocodile and asked him to take him across the Nile.“But you’ll sting me and I’ll die,” protested the croc.“Why would I do that? I you die, I drown,” responded the scorpion.Accepting this irrefutable logic of self-interest, the croc takes the scorpion on his back and starts to swim the Nile. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the crocodile.“Why did you do that?” the croc asked plaintively as the poison spread through his body. “Now we’ll both die.”

“It’s the Middle East.”

Normally, when people choose a hard zero-sum game (like war) and lose, and their conquerors offer them a positive-sum outcome, they take it (like Germany and Japan). But in the Arab world, the choice following failure is more likely a negative-sum game — we both lose. This problem existed long before the arrival on the scene of Jews who talked back (Zionists), but since then it has become profoundly aggravated by the total psych-out of having a few million Jews beating hundreds of millions of Arabs (see #11). It is the logic of everything from the Palestinian refugee camps scandal to the Three No’s of Khartoum to the big No of Camp David and the suicidal Oslo Intifada. Until you realize that Arab leaders want Palestinians to suffer, you can’t understand anything.

Iraq, of course, has its own particular problems.

  • Start with tribal politics of vendetta sharpened and (temporarily) frozen by a Stalin-admiring dictator,
  • bring in Western troops who free Iraqis of their hated ruler thus highlighting the impotence of the Arab world to handle their own monsters (and hence making gratitude nearly impossible),
  • add apocalyptic Muslim ideologies (in which the prevailing rule is “my enemy’s enemy is my enemy”), who use suicide bombing aimed at civilians as a major tool of “resistance,” and
  • top off with Western commentators so riddled with Western Derangement Syndrome (aka Post-colonial theory) that they have to call Sunnis who blow up Shiite Mosques “insurgents”, and blame the West for the civilian casualty toll,

and you have a recipe for consistent irrationality by any standards –honor-shame or modern reason.

Shortest distance between two points? You can’t get there from here.

But if you give up, things will be even worse.

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