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Why the Arab/Muslim World Is Trapped

January 21st, 2014 - 10:33 am

Barry Rubin passed away on February 3rd, but we honor his memory by leaving his insightful commentary available to our readers, including his last post, which follows below. 

His fellow PJM editors

While we see few occasions of consciousness–and certainly few publicly expressed–from Arab and Muslim intellectuals of what is really going on, they still do take place. For example, in a December 30, 2013, interview that aired on CBC TV, Egyptian novelist Youssef Ziedan said:

We should reconsider our notions regarding the Jewish question. We are not even aware how much this affects us. [Antisemitism] has become a common trade, benefiting all our politicians. Any politician who wants to gain popularity curses Israel, but when he comes to power, he has no problem with Israel.

That’s stupidity. That’s stupidity which is connected to the ignorance of the people. We should reconsider this. Nobody looks out for our interests. We should be aware of this.

In other words, Ziedan shows keen consciousness of political movements and how leaders manipulate them.

Basically, the Zionism question is manipulative. The interviewer asked Ziedan,“What did you mean when you talked about ‘Jewish issues’?” Ziedan replies,

Anything that has to do with the Jewish question: the hadiths adopted from Jewish and Christian traditions, our shared history, the so-called Middle East problem, which I do not consider to be a problem at all.

The Nasserists have been oppressing the people for 60 years under the pretext of the Middle East problem…. Wars were fought, and people were killed.

Where does the problem lie? The Jews settled in Palestine and declared their state in 1947. Why did the Jews do that? After all, they had lived in Arab countries. They say that this land was promised to them. They say it appears in the Old Testament, which the Christians also believe in.

The interviewer responds, “There was also Balfour.”

Ziedan then continues,

Forget about Balfour and his declaration for a moment. We were indoctrinated at school: “What do you think about the Balfour Declaration?” According to the system of ready-made answers, we were expected to respond: “He gave what he did not own to those who did not deserve it.” That’s it. There could be no other answer.”

There are, however, three powerful forces that block this admission.

1. The way this society works, one of dictatorship

2. The repression

3. The way the leadership works

Leaders, systems, rule of the masses, and demagoguery.

Here is a perfect example of this.

john_lennon_art

If you want to understand Arab and Muslim politics, read Constantine Zurayk’s article published shortly after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Zurayk was a frustrated Arab moderate trying to understand how Middle East politics worked. He realized that as long as Israel was only perceived as a high mountain to Arab ambitions, Israel would always stand in the way of Arab political development. When Zionism or Israel is made to be the focus, this conflict will justify all Arab and Muslim anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-Western, anti-American sentiments.

See here in Zurayk’s account:

“Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop impotent before it, and turn on their heels. The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest international forums, warning what the Arab state and peoples will do if this or that decision be enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate”

His message was not Israel as the central problem, but Arabs as the central problem.

In other words, radical nationalists, traditional society, and Islamism fuse to destroy the West; all three fail. But since Islam must be true, then it has to be the right way. Islam cannot be wrong; it is the basic concept building Muslim society. The desperate work of Western society–the enlightenment and antimonarchic– is futile and unacceptable. The Arab and Muslim worlds are not ready for Thomas Paine, George Washington, or anti-clericalism (like the one that infested the French Revolution).

Arab and Islamic politics would have benefited greatly if the Eastern cultural tradition had been replaced by Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” or “Imagine” by John Lennon.

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Although this is an exceptional case, it tells a great deal more than one might believe.

Let me tell the story shortly. In New Jersey a few years ago, a family man (Jeffrey Locker) seemed to be a very successful Wall Street consultant, in fact a millionaire. One night, he called his wife from his car, explaining that he was having car trouble and was getting someone to help him. It was very early in the morning, but the wife didn’t seem dismayed by this.

The next day, his body was found in his car. He had no known enemies. His wife did not seem particularly upset either.

The focus turned to the credit card, which was missing. The police hunted down the man who had it, Kenneth Minor, who became the chief suspect.

The victim’s family tried to cash his $18 million of insurance. Incidentally, $12 million of this sum had been taken out shortly before his death.

As they investigated, the police decided it was a very unusual type of homicide. The body was unusual, because the man (Kenneth Minor) had attempted to kill him through a combination of being bound and stabbed.

Without explaining all the complications, here is the shocker: the details of the case proved to be a mutual self-suicide, with Kenneth Minor claiming he was hired.

In fact, it is clear by ample documentation that this is so. Here’s the kicker.  Can you accept a mutually aided self-suicide? This was not just suicide, because the murdered man did not actually touch the weapon. Now, what did the court ruling say?

There were many lawyers who argued that since the victim wanted to be killed, and the family accepted the decision, this wasn’t murder, but Minor was eventually sentenced to 20 years in a New Jersey prison. In other words, the reasonability was shed on the man who assisted his suicide. And guess what? The insurance companies were required to pay millions of dollars.

Here is why it was so startling to me. It means that suicide can be insured, only if not stopped. People don’t want to take reasonability for their actions, including the government. This is what American society has come to. Neither the Bible nor the Constitution are contracts of suicide. Taxpayer money is not to be used for this purpose.

The Hopelessness of Victory

January 12th, 2014 - 4:01 pm

“It went bad for us over there, but that was our job. That’s what we did. We didn’t complain about it.” — Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell 

The Obama administration is engaged in over a dozen failed operations in the Middle East, and reason shows why they’re failing: the Islamist philosophy is entirely different from theirs. The Islamists are indifferent to the cost of victory, and this makes them not give up.

More from Luttrell:

Hopelessness really never came into it, because there was never a point where we just felt like we were hopelessly lost or anything like that. We never gave up. We never felt like we were losing until we were actually dead.

The Obama administration does not understand Middle Eastern regimes and terrorist organizations, and if it doesn’t, it will meet miserable defeats. Luttrell understands the minds of the terrorists and how to bring victory — or as close an approximation to victory as there can be — to the Middle East.

The terrorist does not begin to calculate a winning strategy just because he believes in an ordained victory from Allah. He will not engage in strategy or tactics that are troublesome. For example: do you think that September 11, 2001 will lead to victory or advancement? That depends. It shaped the regional issues, the play of what has been happening, lives and deaths, political situations, and designation of resources. Just because you have a strategy without a victory doesn’t mean that the strategy does not have long-term effects. It shapes the rules of the game.

In addition, the Obama administration’s goals have not been consistent. If you can’t depend on someone for consistency in times of trouble, you can’t depend on them at all. The United States has become an untrustworthy ally, as many Middle Eastern regimes can attest to. Let’s look at how Egypt has played its cards over the last three years — you could say, as a Western statesman like Vice President Joe Biden might, that the Muslim Brotherhood “couldn’t win.” But all they need to do is block others’ victories. If the Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Qaeda for that matter, never gives up, they defy the enemy victory. That is a strategy for triumph.

After having published an article on the Muslim Brotherhood in which I generally analyzed their situation, I received a very nice critique from Egypt’s chief Muslim Brotherhood magazine. They completely understood my critique, and yet concluded that the Brotherhood strategy was right.

They understand us more than we understand them. If they never despair, they spend all the blood and treasure that is required, and Allah — in addition to other measures — will give them victory.

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The Gates of Hell: Obama and Clinton Are Cooked

January 12th, 2014 - 11:59 am

For the last five years, I have waited for the other shoe to drop.

In 2008, the American people elected an incompetent and foolish president, Obama. President Obama knew that he could only trust a handcuffed politician and loyalist like Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. He then later appointed the pompous John Kerry to fill this capacity. Yet this “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” was a ticking time bomb.

Three strikes and you’re out. Let me list them:

  1. Obama: incompetent and disinterested in policy (president).
  2. Clinton: interested in policy but a potential rival politician, so she could not be assigned to do anything too productive (secretary of state).
  3. John Kerry: assigned to do productive work but totally incompetent (secretary of state).

Imagine former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates–who recently published Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in which he criticized Obama and his administration–seething. Certainly, he never would have gotten as far as he did if he hadn’t been an opportunist, but U.S. interests, not politics, was his duty. He knew that Americans were being sacrificed uselessly to make the situation “work.”

Gates feels that he has a personal responsibility to the American public. Obama and Clinton, on the other hand, are pure politicians, and for all they try, they cannot get rid of their “me-first” mindsets. In other words, Obama and Clinton don’t want to be rid of “how does it benefit me?” as their first priority, while Gates cannot get rid of that squeaky little voice asking “what about America’s interests?” as well as “what stupid thing will Vice President Joe Biden say next?”

Here we have to remind everyone that politicians have to deal with the future of politics, post-Obama. And those future careerists like Gates need to be quiet and disciplined, because they know that they cannot risk offending other political interests, from whom they might need future support.

Career officials need supporters, especially in order to rise up the ladder.

One day, as a fourteen year old, I was riding the bus in Washington, D.C. I overheard two men, who were obviously government officials, talking. One said, “These people are so stupid. They don’t know what they are doing. They all make the wrong decisions, but after all they and I will just go into retirement.”

Almost 50 years later, I still haven’t forgotten this.

Washington, D.C., is an endless game of thrones.  But for once it came to what may be more commonly called a perfect storm.  Gates was the one knight who had nothing to lose in publishing his memoirs, except reviews–which could only increase readership. On the one hand, he could have done the noble thing; on the other hand, he could have acted in his own interests. His interests and the public’s, however, were congruent.

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The Lamps Are Going Out All Over Europe

January 9th, 2014 - 4:31 pm

The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”  This prophetic remark was made by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey in 1914 on the eve of World War One. The First World War marked the end of an era.

The question is whether now, in 2014, we are in another temporary era or whether this is a long-term shift. To answer this, we need to ask what fundamental shifts are, what are simply factual shifts, and how they lead to new eras.

  1. What changes occur in the material-cultural and social realm (shifts such as gay marriage, material culture, family)?
  2. What comes in the realm of strategic power competition (relations between states)?
  3. What developments occur in ideology (new attitudes toward life)?
  4. What takes place in the relationship between states and their citizens?

The current era is strikingly different from the three past eras, particularly because it lacks truly innovative ideological growth. We must ask why the ideological framework has grown so slowly and why it has not caught up with the fast-growing technological framework. The need to create new concepts and frameworks for how society should be organized has fallen far behind technological development. Tech “culture” exists in an ideological and strategic vacuum. What intellectual gain is there in technology that exists in a world of outdated, archaic social systems?

In other words, on the one hand, the main solution of governments, societies, and economies is to produce wealth-sharing and social justice. But wealth-sharing and social justice dictate an inefficient form of society and do not set up wealth creation. An example of this progression is that there are far more up-to-date social media applications but there is far less wealth to distribute.

There have been four fundamental shifts in the past hundred years, beginning with 1914 and WWI; then the end of WWI in 1918 and the creation of a new order; followed by 1945–the turning point that created a new world; and last, our current system.

All of these shifts dictated new ideologies, new technologies, new economies, and challenges. Following is an overview of the eras:

Era one, 1914: War breaks out as Germany attempts to conquer the world. The British and French defend their empires. America is peripheral but becomes more engaged. There is a strategic shift to inter-continental wars, air power, and the emergence of tanks.

Results: Germany is defeated and Britain and France win, though the United States is in fact the big winner.

Era two, 1918-1945: Germany again fails to conquer the world. The USSR picks up the slack and attempts to conquer Europe and Asia; this is the start of the Cold War.

The united Western powers are insufficient to control the world. America begins to dominate, while in parallel, third world powers are strengthening. This is as much a cultural battle as a political and military one. The West believes that socialism and communism have been “defeated.”

Third era, 1945 to 2014: China establishes a communist government.  The popularity of communism and socialism is manifest–Cuba, China, Albania–especially in the ideological sense. Communism is vanquished in action but not in theory. The only new recipe is seemingly socialism.

Fourth era in 2014: Western intellectuals, politicians, and journalists simply cannot understand why Islamism is growing while Western democracy dwindles.

The irony is that the current era’s “Western democratic culture” is a thought system that could benefit from more of a sense of community, and even faith. It has become culturally and ideologically stagnant as our focus is pulled to distracting technologies. This leads me to believe that this is not the time to conclude that theological motives–whether Christian or Muslim–are really cynical. But many people, predominantly in the Western world, believe that we don’t need spirituality in this era; that it is outdated.

And Western cultures wonder why many Muslims could have beliefs so “extreme” or different from their own. This is a perceptual gap. How could extremists say such extreme things? Can they really believe them? Of course, they sincerely believe them, and they have never come into genuine contact with anything else–even in this globalized era.

Globalization, in application, is a wholly new and radical change that has refreshed our very idea of what communication is. This time the cold war consists of the following forces:

  1. The United States.
  2. Russia.
  3. An increasingly weakening Europe
  4. Turkey
  5. The Shi’a-bloc, consisting of Iran, Hizballah, and Syria
  6. The Sunni bloc, consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar
  7. An anti-al-Qa’ida bloc, consisting of the United States, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia

Note that some groups are members of more than one bloc.

There is no ideological challenge to the new world order, other than Islamism, although the U.S. government does not consider Islamists–apart from al-Qa’ida–as strong adversaries. One can predict that this foreign policy will weaken the Western alliance, create other wars, and will ultimately be an utter failure. Yet this policy is a current reality. The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood have formed a seemingly sudden alliance, a seemingly quick fix and radical change from past relations. All the Obama administration has to do is find people to “moderate” among the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the result of a large ideological commitment on the part of Obamaites in the defense department, CIA, and academia; it did not just happen.

Around 2007, I gave a lecture at the Defense Department. One of the attendees presented a scenario suggesting that the “problem of Islam” was not political but a problem of verbiage.

There was a secret debate happening in the Defense Department and the CIA in which some people thought that all Muslims were a problem, some believed that only al-Qaeida was a problem, and still others thought the Muslim Brotherhood was a problem.

The main problem, however, was that all Islamism was a political threat, but it was the second position that eventually won over the Obama administration. Take note of this; since 2009, if you wanted to build your career and win policy debates, only al-Qaeda was a problem. The Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat; after all, it did not participate in September 11. This view was well-known in policy circles, but it was easy to mistake this growing hegemony as temporary.

Actually, it only got worse.

A Muslim Foreign Service officer recounted how some U.S. officials were trying to persuade the powers that be that al-Qaeda was split from the Muslim Brotherhood. Imagine how horrified he was. Still other officials told me that there was heavy pressure and there were well-financed lobbyists trying to force officials into the idea that al-Qaeda was the only problem. Some high-ranking Defense Department officials — for example, one on the secretary of Defense’s level — were pressured to fire anti-Muslim Brotherhood people. I know of at least five such incidences.

For example, I was asked to participate in a contract and co-direct a project for the federal government, and my paper was to be on the idea that all Islamists posed a threat. To my surprise, I was told that my paper was rejected. Shocked, I asked to speak to the two co-contractors on the telephone. Isn’t it true, I said on the phone, that I was to have co-direction of this project? The response was yes it was, nevertheless, a more junior member of the press could not prevail. By the way, this co-director, who likely became interested in the Middle East in large part because of me, was very rude. I then told him that though the project had originally been my idea, I was going to walk away from it and not demand compensation.

In another incident, a high-ranking CIA official posited a paper that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat, only al-Qaeda was, and U.S. policy should therefore depend on the Brotherhood.

In another case, a U.S. official made a statement at a public function that neither Hizballah nor Hamas posed a threat to U.S. interests.

By 2013, it sprouted in a few people’s arguments that Iran could be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. The theoretical situation to government officials was thus clear: If you wanted to make some money in Washington, you would have to toe the line that the Muslim Brotherhood was not a threat. If sanctions ended against the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists, including Iran, this could also lead to trillions of dollars in potential trade deals. Note that in 2009 and 2010, an attempt was made to build such a model with Syria, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in a civil war.

But Iran was a far more valuable state. In fact, Tehran was a far easier target because it had far more money and could possibly be bought simply by agreeing not to build a nuclear weapon.

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The Middle East, at the Beginning of 2014

January 5th, 2014 - 1:36 pm

“We are at the beginning of a very long and profound transformation,” says President Barack Obama. True — and nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East.

Egypt, the largest and most populous Arab country, seems to have settled back down into the type of military regime that has existed since 1952, except for 2011 to 2013 when it had an Islamist government. Nevertheless, there have been some important changes in Egypt.

First, in the “Islamist” era, Egypt remains at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, in international relations, Egypt has been generally disgusted by the U.S. administration’s – as one of my smartest, most democratic Egyptian friends says — “cowboy” behavior. Since the Obama administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood government from 2011 to 2012, Egypt has turned to Russia, just as in 1955, when the United States confronted a radical Egypt.

It should be amusing to Egyptians that while the U.S. aid is a gift, they have to pay for Russian assistance. But then, the Egyptians are more suspicious of the Yankees than of Greeks bearing gifts. In addition, since Hamas and Turkey — which support the Muslim Brotherhood and even anti-Egyptian terrorists — have supported revolutionary Islamists against Egypt, the two are in conflict with Egypt.

Since Hamas is at war with both Egypt and Israel, Egypt and Israel have common interests in this conflict. Thus, it may seem Israel’s current situation in the region is worse, but there are actually many positive aspects.

Turkey’s situation is unstable, too. On the one hand, Turkey has been the main supporter of the rebel, Sunni side in the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood is considered antagonistic to Saudi Arabia and to the military regime in Egypt. It also potentially damages its hopes for business plans with Iran, since support is equally antagonistic to the Shi’a bloc. This has seriously damaged Turkey’s relations with both the Arab and Iranian blocs. Turkey would like to be a bridge among Islamists, but that is making Iran and the Saudi-Egyptian bloc suspicious.

Sunnis and Shi’as are in conflict, and although people may think that the Arab world is obsessed with the Israel-Palestinian conflict, this is not the case. The Arab world (being divided) is less able to do something about the conflict, and now is far less focused on it than it has been over the past few decades.

Saudi Ambassador to Britain Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who seems to be the Saudi regime’s spokesman, wrote in the New York Times that Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone“:

Saudi Arabia has been friends with our Western partners for decades … for almost a century. These are strategic alliances that benefit us both. Recently, these relationships have been tested — principally because of differences over Iran and Syria. We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East. This is a dangerous gamble, about which we cannot remain silent, and will not stand idly by.

And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them.

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Ideology: A Specter Haunting the World

January 4th, 2014 - 4:55 pm

“The fire-breathing Rebels arrive at the party early,

Their khaki coats are hung in the closet near the fur.

Asking handouts from the ladies, while they criticize the lords.

Boasting of the murder of the very hands that pour.

And the victims learn to giggle, for at least they are not bored.

And my shoulders had to shrug

As I crawl beneath the rug

And retune my piano.”

 – Phil Ochs

Karl Marx once famously said that a specter was haunting Europe and that specter was Communism. Today, specters are haunting the world. They are “progressivism” and Islamism. Yet these are misunderstood because the progressives want to pretend they are liberals and the Islamists want to pretend to be normal, technically pious, traditional Muslims of a century or half century ago.

Islam is a religion, Islamism is a revolutionary movement. Liberalism is a center-to-left political movement, progressivism is a revolutionary movement.

In fact Islam/Islamism and liberalism/progressivism are parallel in many ways. Their differences are distracting, one as a religion and one as an atheist non-religious ideology.

For example; progressivism and Islamism both seek to be political monopolies and ideologies. They’re comprehensive. Both use intimidation, though progressivism is more verbal and Islamism is more violent. Whenever anyone takes one to task, they insult the whole system. They are not rational systems and are not open to debate.

Both invite large elements of opportunism and careerism. People who see the winning side endorse them to benefit their own careers, not out of genuine belief.

Both of these institutions should be studied coherently. They’ve not been studied well on political terms. I will explore Islamism further in an upcoming article.

The English Civil War from 1642-1651, the struggle between monarchy and religious political ideologies, mirrors what Islamism is going through now. This was the West’s struggle between “Christianity” and “politics” which is now the equivalent of the struggle between “Islamism” and “politics.”

This could be called a Manichean model. One side is completely right, and one side is completely wrong. Therefore, a democratic dispute would not be possible.

Phil Ochs, quoted above, was creatively mocking the situation. He showed this ambiguity. Incidentally, I was his guide at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Here was the new professional elite: so pompous, so arrogant. They were benefiting materially, yet were contentious, simultaneously arrogant yet luxury-loving, but also virtuous and well-intentioned, superior. What more perfect combination would there be but the well-heeled Bill Ayers, the son of a senior Detroit automaker, and yet a bombing revolutionary who did nothing to deserve his good estate!

Imagine! Someone with a gold spoon in his mouth made a scruffy revolutionary, and yet the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars from conservative Republicans, superior to everyone. Surely a new ruling class if ever there was one.

You get the privilege but pretend you are the victim. You can take a lot of wealth while pretending to be the champion of the downtrodden.

Nowadays nobody seems to know what “progressive” means, though it is in the history books. From around 1910-1924, “Progressive” meant liberal, which was not anything like what it is today. When Theodore Roosevelt was disappointed by his chosen successor, William Taft, he formed the Bull Moose Party from the Republican, often referred to as “the progressive party.”

The progressive party of that day did well among people who wanted to continue liberalism.

FDR was always conscious that the American system might turn sharply to the left if he failed, leading to some kind of Obamaesque situation. Remember there was large scale violence (mostly labor related) and an extremely left-oriented culture war. People forget that there was a looming radical threat at that time, for example the Labor Movement.

In 1924, Robert Lafollette decided that his party, Republican, was not liberal enough, and ran under the “progressive” title. He actually got 17% of the popular vote, but concluded that this was not the amount of people needed to win an election, even though this was a rare opportunity to create a three-party system. Ultimately, he decided that the country was not left enough. The brilliance of President Roosevelt was in playing the centrist view. There were communists and progressives and horrid “reactionary republicans.”

Roosevelt, however, pitted the idea that the far left (i.e. communists and socialists) were the only other alternative to the “reactionary republicans.” Often, liberals said that these were the only choices.

During the 1924 election and the 1930s, Earl Browder and other Communist Party leaders used the word “progressive” as a cover.  In 1948, it was the name chosen by the Communist Party for its front party.

Consider how the Communist Party approached the New Deal. Here’s that party’s leader, Earl Browder, in a 1936 interview:

“Roosevelt was being pulled by some to the left and by the others to the right. Consequently, it would be wrong for ‘all progressives to unite around Roosevelt as the sole means to defeat reaction.’  …It seems that personally Roosevelt and [Republican leader Alf] Landon look pretty much alike to Browder.”

Incidentally, I’ve never seen anyone note that when the 2010 electoral organization’s far-left organized, it was called Progressives for Obama. The head was Carl Davidson, the former chief of SDS in the 1960s.

What the Obama movement did was to combine philosophical idealism, the farthest left of the old democratic party, and the lumpen proletariat, convincing more moderate liberals that this more radical movement identified with them, while everyone else was reactionary (as was done in the 1930s). Furthermore the Republican leadership was headed by an unimaginative “rhino.”

If you want to understand Obama and his movement, you have to go back to the 1960s and 1970s. For more on this, see Barry Rubin, Silent Revolution: How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance (Harper Collins, forthcoming April 2014).

The following is an extract from Barry Rubin and Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press, forthcoming February 2014).

 

JERRY: Well here’s your chance to try the opposite. Instead of tuna salad and being intimidated by women, chicken salad and going right up to them.

GEORGE: Yeah, I should do the opposite, I should.

 JERRY: If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

GEORGE: Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something! – Seinfeld “The Opposite”

In 1939 a World War loomed in Europe. The British–which ruled Palestine as a mandate–were desperate to soothe Arab views and keep them on their side during the impending war. It did not care what the Jewish Zionists said; it was going to dictate- as the Americans want to today- the parameters of a peace agreement. Note the similarity to today, but with Iran in the place of Germany. Here is now why its diplomacy will not work. The Arab states had rejected the British concessions, hence the foreign minister Ramsay MacDonald embarked on another round of concessions to them.

Warning signals of coming war multiplied daily. The London Conference had been planned as Britain was appeasing Hitler. The Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia during its sessions. The opening day, February 7, 1939, was marked by Italian threats to attack Egypt from Libya, coupled with a German general’s touring fortifications near the Libya-Egypt border.58 In this context, the Middle East’s immense strategic significance was at the center of British policymakers’ thoughts. This meant making the Arabs happy. British forces in the area, no matter how strong, would be insufficient if local populations revolted. But once Palestine was amicably resolved, they reasoned, they need not fear a pro-German Arab fifth column or Islamist rebellion.59

            Yet the Arab stance made any solution impossible. During pre-conference Arab consultations in Cairo, the states agreed that Palestine’s Arabs would have the decisive voice in the London talks and governments would support whatever they–that is, al-Husaini–wanted. That enabled al-Husaini to set the guidelines to ensure that the talks failed. He demanded a total ban on Jewish immigration and land purchases plus rapid creation of an independent Arab Palestine under his rule. For al-Husaini, and thus for all of the Arab leaders, it would be all or nothing.60

            In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and MacDonald shuttled between Zionist and Arab delegations, which met separately except on three occasions. Making no secret of his desperation for appeasement, Chamberlain assured Arab delegations of Britain’s desire to maintain and strengthen friendship with them, while MacDonald noted that trouble in Palestine would echo throughout the region.

            MacDonald frankly presented the reasons behind British policy. The likelihood of war necessitated surrender to Arab demands as long as such concessions made London feel more secure. Halifax was blunt: “Gentlemen, there are times when the most ethical consideration must give way to administrative necessity.” MacDonald gave the details. Egypt commanded the Suez Canal route to Asia; Alexandria was the only naval base suitable for defending the eastern Mediterranean. Iraq controlled air and land passage to Asia and was Britain’s main source of oil. A hostile Saudi Arabia would threaten British strategic routes. In the event of war, all of these places must be on Great Britain’s side.61

            Moshe Sharett, a Zionist leader, tried to counter these arguments. If the Palestine question were settled, he said, Arab governments would merely raise more demands. In the event of war with Germany, Jewish support would be more reliable than Arab pledges. Ben-Gurion added that whatever happened in Palestine, Arab governments would follow their own interests. The Jewish leaders dismissed promises of being protected in an Arab-ruled Palestine, pointing out that the regimes did not even protect Jews in their own countries and insisting that events in Europe made it impossible for them to abandon demands for Jewish immigration.62

            The British didn’t care.63 Instead, the British government, believing war would begin within months, offered to accept virtually all the Arab governments’ demands. It proposed a Palestine constitutional conference be held in six months followed by the creation of a Palestine executive council on which Arabs would have 60 percent of the seats. In addition, the council could stop all Jewish immigration in five years.64

            While the Zionists considered walking out, Arabs celebrated this news, but that didn’t last long. The Palestine Arab delegation quickly rejected this plan. Instead it demanded the immediate establishment of a Palestine government and a ban on all Jewish immigration or land purchases, with full independence to follow within three years. The Arab states were frustrated, and even some of the grand mufti’s followers wanted to accept, but al-Husaini wouldn’t budge. Trapped by their earlier promises, Arab government delegations fell into line. Indeed, not trusting as-Said to concur, Iraq’s government recalled him and sent radical Foreign Minister Taufiq as-Suwaidi instead.65

            In response to the Arab rejection, MacDonald embarked on another round of concessions to them. Not only would Jewish immigration be under Arab veto after five years, but even before that time it would be limited to a total of seventy-five thousand people. The proportion of Arabs on the executive council would be raised from 60 to 66 percent. There could be no doubt that the result would be an Arab-ruled Palestine. At this point, Ben-Gurion whispered to a colleague, “They have called this meeting . . . to tell us to give up.”66

            The Arab side was on the verge of victory; no Jewish state could ever be created. Yet again the Arabs stood firm on rejection.67 On March 15, Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, marking another step toward international confrontation. Two days later the London Conference ended in failure.

            Still, the European crisis, wrote British High Commissioner to Egypt Sir Miles Lampson on March 23, “makes it all the more essential that [a] rapid end should be put to disturbances in Palestine.” The Arab states, except for Iraq, also still wanted a quick deal.68 So despite the breakdown, Arab delegations again met in Cairo to propose a new basis for agreement. Arab leaders were still optimistic. How could such a favorable offer be turned down? Egypt’s ambassador assured the British Foreign Office that with his country endorsing this plan, the grand mufti Amin al Husaini, the leader of the Palestinians, could not interfere.

            The Arab states proposed some changes in the British plan intended to assure that the result would be an Arab-ruled Palestine as soon as possible. According to this counteroffer, a Palestinian state would be established within ten years and consultations with Arab governments would be held if this schedule could not be met. Jewish immigration would be reduced and the Jewish population of Palestine would be frozen at 33 percent. Palestinian ministers would be chosen to prepare for independence.

            The British gave in on almost every point. Chamberlain explained, “We are now compelled to consider the Palestine problem mainly from the point of view of its effect on the international situation. . . . If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”69 It seemed as if al-Husaini’s radical policy and move toward Germany had succeeded in generating enough leverage to make the British surrender. But London wanted a long interim period. What would be the point of turning over Palestine immediately to al-Husaini only to see him support the Germans? So they wanted to make al-Husaini wait until the European crisis would be resolved. At that point, if he became the head of an independent Arab Palestine there would be little harm to British strategic interests.

            On April 28, after talking with Arab negotiators, Lampson reported that the exchanges “are going more favorably than expected.”70 The main point still blocking a deal was the Arab side’s demand–which the British knew came from the grand mufti–that an Arab government would start running the country within three years.71

            C. W. Baxter, head of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Department, wrote that the Arab states had come to terms “on all the most difficult outstanding points.”72 Lampson agreed that there was ‘“substantial agreement . . . on all the main issues.” But, both men explained, the Arab states must persuade the Palestine Arabs to agree. The Egyptians were confident of success, with Prime Minister Mahmud claiming he would simply invite the grand mufti to Cairo and “make him toe the line.”73

            On May 17, 1939, Mahmud and Ali Mahir, soon to be his successor, met the Palestinian Arab delegation to talk them into agreeing. Mahir told them that they should accept the British plan. The reason the Jews were so much against it was that it so favored the Arab side. This was a tremendous opportunity; the best deal the Arabs could ever obtain. Cooperation with Britain was better than being “at the mercy of the Jews.” Once the Palestine Arabs had a state, sympathetic Arab regimes would help ensure their total control.74

            Winning an independent state, Mahir continued, required training administrators, preparing for defense, and achieving international “legitimacy.” A transitional period, Mahir suggested, was an advantage, not a trap. The best way to triumph was to advance step by step, as in a war in which “One army is vacating some of its front trenches. Would you refrain from jumping into them and occupying them?”

            But the Palestine Arab leaders retorted, “If we accept, the revolution will end.”

            So Mahir tried again to explain reality to them. “Do you believe,” he asked, “that Great Britain is unable to crush your revolution, with all its modern satanic war inventions?” Mahmud and Mahir knew the Arab revolt in Palestine had been defeated by the British. “Is it not better for you, Mahir continued, to come nearer to the British authorities and get them to forsake the Jews?” Then the Arabs wouldn’t have to ask London to stop Jewish immigration, they’d control it themselves and not even a single Jew could enter the country. Next Mahmud weighed in with a prophetic warning. If the Palestinian Arabs agreed right now, he insisted, they could have their way. But soon there would be a war that would put them in a weaker position. Britain would lose patience and invoke martial law. Arab countries would be too involved with their own problems to help.

            Again the Palestine Arabs refused: “When the revolt started, we had aims in view to attain. We cannot now tell our people, ‘Stop the revolution because we got some high posts. . . .’”

            “You can tell your people,” Mahir answered, “that you shall be able to control your country’s government; to stop [British] persecution, deportations, and harsh measures. You could set Palestine’s budget, limit the Jewish population to one-third, and justify accepting the deal on the basis of the Arab governments ‘ advice.” The Palestine Arabs would not even have to sign anything, but merely to agree verbally to cooperate with a British government White Paper setting the new policy. None of his arguments made any headway.

            Mahir and Mahmud were right. The British wanted to satisfy Arab demands as much as possible and thus a little temporary compromise and patience would have achieved a total victory for the Arab side. Under these conditions, an Arab Palestine would have obtained independence within a decade, by 1949 and would have ruled the entire country from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.75 Once Palestine was independent, the Arabs could do whatever they wanted to Jews there including–as al-Husaini had made clear–killing them all. If the Palestine Arabs had accepted the British proposal, taken over the government, and worked with the British, Israel never would have existed.

            Instead, the Palestine Arab leaders rejected the White Paper, sought total victory, collaborated with the Germans against the British, and in the end received nothing. This orientation made inevitable the Arab rejection of partition and a Palestinian Arab state in 1947; Israel’s creation in 1948; five wars; the delay of Israel-Palestinian negotiations for forty-five years; and the absence of a Palestinian state well into the twenty-first century, generations after the rejection of the 1939 deal.

            But in 1939 it was possible to believe history would take a different course. A like-minded regime in Germany seemed the world’s strongest power, supported the radical Arabs, and might soon destroy all of the Arabs’ and Muslims’ enemies. The growing radical movement believed that millions of Arabs and other Muslims were about to revolt under its leadership, that soon it would seize control of Iraq and Egypt, Palestine and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Believing total victory imminent, why should Palestine’s Arabs make any deal with the British, even one requiring the smallest compromise? Al-Husaini was set on a revolutionary approach depending on Germany. Already he was for all practical purposes the Arab world’s strongest leader. Such was the power of saying “no,” a lesson that would be fully absorbed by postwar Arab leaders.

            While Arab governments generally understood that Britain’s offer was a great opportunity, they also knew that radicals would exploit any sign of compromise to inflame their own people against them. Moreover, they were trapped by their decision to grant al-Husaini total veto power. Indeed, many wondered whether the grand mufti might be right. Perhaps the Nazis were the wave of the future and a more useful ally than the British.76 As a result, even though all the Arab governments except Iraq wanted a deal with the British, al-Husaini’s men walked out of the talks, certain that their ambitions would be met more quickly and fully by violent Arab revolts combined with Axis victory in the coming war.

            At long last, it was London’s turn to dig in its heels. It told the Arab states that unless further progress in negotiations was made, it would set its own policy. On May 17 the White Paper proposed that a united Palestine–which everyone knew meant an Arab-dominated Palestine–would be established in ten years. Jews could only buy land in a few areas; Jewish immigration would be strictly limited for five years, after which the Arabs would decide how many would be admitted, which meant none. Yet on the Arab side only Transjordan and the an-Nashashibi faction publicly said anything favorable about the White Paper.77

            The Jewish Agency strongly protested the White Paper as contrary to the mandate’s provisions. Even the Soviets accused Britain of selling out the Jews for its own benefit. Despite the refusal of any Arab state to approve it, the British White Paper became the governing document for Palestine during the next six years. The restrictions on immigration would cost hundreds of thousands of Jews their lives.

            Instead of making a deal with Britain, by the summer of 1939 virtually every Arab leader except Abdallah of Transjordan had secretly contacted Germany to offer cooperation. Most enthusiastic were the radicals in Iraq. When the relatively moderate Iraqi politician Rustum Haidar said British policy didn’t give the Arab side everything from fear of international Jewish financial power, a radical politician responded that it didn’t matter. Might made right. Force rather than more talk was the answer.78

            Egypt’s government, the most ardent advocate for accepting the White Paper, was the first to denounce it. In line with the new Arab style of outbidding rivals in militancy, the Wafd Party–even more moderate and pro-British than the government–attacked its rejection as being too mild. The fascist Young Egypt Party started a bombing campaign against Jewish stores.79

            Iraq and Saudi Arabia also rejected the White Paper. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ali Jawdat neatly showed the Arab governments’ ambiguity on the issue. On the one hand, he denounced the White Paper, claiming the transition period was too long and restrictions on Jewish immigration too mild. On the other hand, he called the White Paper a great Arab victory, and confided privately that he and as-Said had tried to convince Jamal al-Husaini to accept it.80 The Iraqi regime also tried to calm the passions the radicals were fomenting. Instructions were issued to newspapers not to publish anything that might damage Anglo-Iraqi relations. Still, Baghdad would not cooperate with a request from the moderate Palestinian Auni Abd al-Hadi to support a pro–White Paper group of Palestine Arabs.81 Only al-Husaini and his hardline stance would ever be allowed to represent the Palestine Arabs.

            Blinded by bitterness toward the British and overestimating German power, the grand mufti had already taken the road to Berlin. In mid-1939, al-Husaini made his first request to Canaris to visit the German capital.82 When the grand mufti left Lebanon for Iraq in October 1939, his triumphalism was enhanced by his reception in Baghdad, where he was granted refuge and acclaimed a national hero. Every politician from the prime minister down, as well as all the political clubs and groups, threw parties in his honor, events that turned into Pan-Arab, anti-British demonstrations.83

            Nor was this support expressed only in words. Iraq’s parliament granted the grand mufti £18,000 a month plus £1,000 a month from secret service funds and a 2 percent tax on government officials’ salaries. More contributions came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Although he promised as-Said not to engage in political activity, the grand mufti played political kingmaker in Iraq, helping first Taha al-Hashimi and then al-Kailani become prime minister. He strengthened the radical faction by placing militant Palestinians and Syrians in teaching jobs and in the government bureaucracy.84

            The difference between radicals and moderates was well represented by the remark of the Palestinian Arab delegates in their May 1939 meeting with Egypt’s leaders, “We cannot now tell our people, ‘Stop the revolution because we got some high posts. . . .’”But that was precisely what moderate Arab politicians wanted: not a revolution in Palestine but a solution to Palestine. And they viewed that as having been achieved in the London negotiations because Palestinian Arabs would obtain “high posts” and thus would be running the country.

The story of al-Husaini and the 1939 London Conference would be reenacted by Arafat at the Camp David meeting in 2000, when Arafat rejected getting a Palestinian state through negotiations because he preferred the illusory hope of getting it all by violence.

Now, the moment had come for each Arab leader to choose between the Anglo-French alliance and the German-Italian Axis. The radical faction had already decided on Berlin; even moderate leaders sought to hedge their bets in case the Axis emerged triumphant. It seems as if the time of von Oppenheim’s old plan had truly come. But once again a world war would determine the outcome.

Which is why instead of Palestine celebrating 65 years of an Arab-Palestinian state in 2014 it was facing occupation, war, and no prospect of anything being changed.