Last December, Thomas Friedman published an updated version of his rules of Middle East reporting. It is a brilliant, witty piece that takes aim at and hits our liberal cognitive egocentrism right on the head. This alone justifies Friedman’s having such a big ego: he deserves his swollen head. No dupe or cognitive egocentrist he! (Hat tip: Desert Brown, Israpundit)
I apologize in advance for adding a clunky, comparatively humorless, academic commentary to these fifteen points. But all really profound and pithy material deserves commentary, and since so many of the tragi-comic paradoxes Friedman outlines relate to honor-shame culture, I thought it worthwhile to unpack them. (Predictably, of course, voices of political correctness have attacked Friedman: “his racism and condescending attitude towards Arabs that has long been implicit in his writing comes out full guns blazing..”
Mideast rules to live by - Thomas Friedman
International Herald Tribune
For a long time, I let my hopes for a decent outcome in Iraq triumph over what I had learned reporting from Lebanon during its civil war. Those hopes vanished last summer. So, I’d like to offer President George W. Bush my updated rules of Middle East reporting, which also apply to diplomacy, in hopes they’ll help him figure out what to do next in Iraq.
Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Middle East, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.
David Makovsky tells the story about a US envoy to Arafat coming with a letter in English from Mubarak telling him to take a certain “moderate” action (like negotiate with Israel or denounce terrorism), and Arafat laughing in his face and saying, “when I get it in Arabic, I’ll take it seriously.”
The reason the gap between public and private is inverted relates to the impact of honor-shame culture. In private, anything goes because it’s perfectly legitimate in private to tell people what they want to hear, and there’s no price to pay since no one from the peer group hears it. When it’s in public, it’s not necessarily more honest, but it does reflect the critical factor when it comes to what real commitments are — what the peer group thinks and knows. Not that you can’t lie in public too, but that poses a different set of problems. To say publicly that you accept Israel – even if you don’t mean it – is a public humiliation for the collectivity.
In Western (integrity-guilt cultures), a whole range of positions that would be considered dishonorable — like public apologies — are not only permissable, but advantageous. What you say in public — on the record — may be diplomatic, but what you say in private has bearing on your integrity and credibility. This is not to say that Westerners do not lie in public and private, just that there’s a different center of gravity which produces the characteristic skew that Friedman notes here.
This helps us understand the difference between Hamas and Fatah. The only honorable public stance in the Arab world vis-à-vis Israel since 1948 has been the rejection of any contact with Israel that might legitimate it. The very “occupation” of the territories conquered in 1967 derives directly from this Arab refusal to recognize or even negotiate publicly with Israelis — the “Three No’s of Khartoum.” (What’s ironic there is that the Arab League said that “the burden of regaining these lands falls on all the Arab States” — which could have been done by negotiations.)
Sadat paid with his life for violating that principle of “no negotions, no recognition, no peace.” Until 1967, Palestinian and Arab leaders refused even hypothetically (and in English) to grant publicly that Israel had a right to exist. Afterwards, with some prompting from PR advisors in the West, they toned down some of their genocidal rhetoric, but it was a long hard road to get them even in English to make even hypothetical concessions in public.
Many Western supporters found their refusal to mouth the right formulas frustratingly irrational — just think of the advantages of “swallowing your pride” and thereby gaining major, even fatal concessions from the Israelis. But, at least when honor is at stake, the Arabs had to be more honest than their Western advisors counseled. Present themselves as a “secular, national liberation movement” aimed at liberating Arab land from the occupying colonialist, imperialist Israelis, even if that’s not what they were about…? No problem. As long as one could talk about occupied Palestine and mean “river to the sea,” there was no shame in letting eager cretins in the West believe that one meant the “Green line.”
The Oslo process forced Arafat to at least mouth in English and in public his willingness to accept Israel’s existence. There was a formal statement – the signing and hand-shaking on the White House lawn – that publicly accepted (from the Arab point of view) a humiliating stance. With Sadat’s fate in mind, Arafat was quick to reassure his Arabic and Muslim public that he didn’t mean this – the Trojan Horse speech in South Africa only months after the White House ceremony, in which he assured his public that this was only a ruse.
“I don’t consider the [Oslo] agreement any more than the agreement which was signed by our prophet Mohammed and the Qurayish,” he said.
“We” — and here I mean people like Peres, Rabin, Ross, Clinton et al. — were equally quick to ignore this critical revelation.
From the honor-shame perspective, Arafat had shamefully accepted a public compromise even though it meant he could better launch the promised offensive… the staged assault. Hamas represented the stance of the old PLO – point of honor: we won’t accept the right of Israel to exist, we will only destroy her. Part of what was so pathetic about the advent of Hamas to power in the elections was how eager the West was just to have Hamas mouth the “moderate” words in English that would allow them to turn on the funding and diplomatic spigots. They virtually handed Hamas the speech necessary to satisfy a Western community desperate to revive the “peace process.” And still, that was too much.
In a sense, the Arab sense of humiliation and the ersatz “honor” they “preserve” by rejecting Israel — which explains many of the pathologies of the Arab world today — makes much of their behavior irrational, even from the point of view of their own “interests.” They could have gotten far more in the way of fatal concessions from Israel had they been willing to “swallow their pride” even temporarily. But they could not do that publicly before the “Arab street.”
And so the major lesson from all of this — one learned and implemented by organizations like MEMRI and PMW — is that only what Arabs say in public and in Arabic matters. Private promises are useless; the “peer group” matters above all.