by Barry Rubin
There needs to be a much clearer understanding of why the West—and especially its political elite and intellectuals—has so much trouble comprehending the world, especially the Middle East.
Two of the most important themes are naiveté and the conviction that no one can really be a revolutionary, willing to die for an ideological belief. Radicalism is simply illogical in their eyes and an extremist is simply a moderate who has not yet been sufficiently engaged in dialogue or offered enough concessions or goodies.
So officials, journalists, and experts proclaim that an Islamist Turkey has no choice but to be friendly to the West, and Iran's regime must act "logically" and not be aggressive; that the Palestinians must want to make real peace with Israel and that Hizballah is now a moderate party playing Lebanese parliamentary politics only; that Syria without doubt has to be ready to throw Iran overboard to be buddies with America; and so on.
It's a good educational tool to look at how this basic type of thinking has worked in the past. Some time ago, I posted the 1920s' New York Times article explaining that Adolf Hitler was going into retirement in
On to the June 15, 1936, editorial in The Pittsburgh Press entitled "Red Russia Is Fading to Pink," which explains that the
"She is to have a House of Representatives and Senate, something corresponding to our institutions. Members are to be elected by secret ballot, as in democratic
Previously, the editorial continued, citizens were afraid and the media was censored. But now, even if this new democratic "system has yet to be put into practice….Nevertheless the mere proposal of such a vast change is an act of the highest importance. "
One would think that a "vast change" had to take place before being "of the highest importance." But, again, we see this mistake made over and over in today's world in which a speech or promise is enough to say that something material has actually happened.
The editorial went on:
Note the two underlying arguments: First, if the Soviet government says something then it must be true. This is a very interesting phenomenon that persists to this day. Those who would question anything that came out of a democratic politician's mouth (or at least before certain people seemed to have been granted a special exemption lately) are often quite ready to believe in the veracity of repressive dictators or totalitarian movements.
Second, the idea that moderation is inevitable. The editorial expresses this point with particular clarity:
The confusion here is between a regime not being able to realize a utopian vision—from each according to his ability to each according to his needs; abandoning the early drive for revolutionary purity, as in the USSR's abolition of military ranks for a short period after the revolution—and of it being able to realize a nightmarish vision of a dictatorial, ideological state. And so, in "practical" terms, factory managers were paid more than workers while millions of people were still sent to concentration camps, shot, or perished in government-made famines.
This is not to say things were worse back in 1936 in terms of people making these mistakes about understanding dictatorships. True, the New York Times correspondent in the
But things are probably proportionately worse nowadays. One reason is that the societies in the dictatorial states being dealt with are so different culturally, and thus harder for Westerners to read. Another is that there is no organized left party, which means observers aren't sharply divided into two camps, either for the Communists and the
In addition, there are now dominant doctrines that forbid criticizing non-Western places or people as some kind of cultural imperialism and racism. Consequently, in contrast to the 1930s, right-wing Islamist dictatorships or revolutionary movement do not face the enmity of the Western political left. Regarding today's equivalents of the Spanish Civil War, much of the left and fashionable intelligentsia support the "fascist" side.
Oh, one more thing. This editorial was discovered not long ago by a researcher in
Today, too, this kind of Western thinking circulates among the extremists, bolstering their ideology and boldness. Before the attack on him in 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was reading Western media saying that the United States would never invade and assuming that the level of opposition to that war (that's the 1991, not the 2003 one) would ensure his ability to annex Kuwait and dominate the Persian Gulf.
This reminds me of what an expert on
The Western advocates of suicide, either through naïveté or ideology, inspire the suicide bombers. The prevaricators assist the dictators. The well-meaning strengthen the evil-intending.
Or as William Butler Yeats put it in "The Second Coming":
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
The "best" better wake up soon.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.