There’s just so much press attention the Arab world can receive before even obsessives like me begin to tire of its frenzy, pitilessness, and perfidy. Yes, endless repetition of violence and violation can also seem routine. Which, to tell you God’s honest truth, they are. There is a great deal of exactitude behind this morbid fact. Still, the present upheavals in their cumulative impact are deadening. Not only to the victims of the regimes but to their observers, commentators, rapporteurs.
Actually, many of these observers, perhaps most, are infatuated with the Arabs. But infatuation is really a variant on infantilization. The torment now spreading in the Arab world, however, is an evidential repudiation of this view, a cardinal attribute of which is that whatever difficulties obtained in the vast space from the Maghreb to the outskirts of Baghdad are attributable to Israel, in particular, and maybe even to the Jews, in general. This was very convenient in that it matched with the traditional bigotries of Western diplomatic elites. Yet it had a contemporary ring to it—from Barack Obama’s pastor to the increasingly monolithic editorial view of the liberal press.
One of the reasons that this is so is that this is a field where knowledge is certainly arcane, if not deliberately suppressed. Given the phantasmagoric nature of Arab governmental documents, would you trust material from official archives? In addition to all of this is the haste and fashion of news itself. The “experts” simply do not know much about the topics on which they have to and do pretend expertise. Many who report and interpret for us know exactly zero about their quickly changing subjects. For most, a one-page memo or a quick update will do. Syria is a case in point. I would bet that some of the authoritative press people don’t know the difference between Hama, a town the population of which Bashir Assad’s father, Hafez, bombed to smithereens and killed some 10,000 to 40,000 (a difference that maybe should make a difference) Sunnis in the process, and Hamas, the governing terrorist organization in Gaza that is itself Sunni but is willing to make alliances with anybody—that is, Turks, the Shia of Iran, and the secularized Alawites in Damascus—as long as they are antagonists, loathing antagonists, of Israel. In this sentence alone lay a thousand facts and factoids. And don’t forget that between Turkey and Syria lies a land dispute with a long past and passions aplenty to match it.
What, for that matter, do even the professionals know about the Berbers of North Africa, players in the ongoing Libyan war and the more-or-less pacified Tunisian troubles, too? And what role will they play when disturbance turns to real chaos in Algeria and perhaps Morocco, where Berbers are really numerous but also where an Arab census is not a census at all? (There are no believable numbers for present-day Lebanon where the last calculus was taken in 1932, ten years before the Vichy government terminated the post-World War I French Mandate.) But Algeria will be the real doozey. First, the Algerians threw out the French; then millions of them left for France; now they are competing for France itself They hate one another at home with a civil war in their near history that took about a quarter of a million lives while almost no one was watching. Do you recall the long civil war? No, not the “heroic” one depicted in The Battle of Algiers where “the good guys” won and the French soldiers and the pieds noirs were all Nazis. Yes, I mean the other one that dragged on for a decade between the Salafists and the military regime. Oh, you didn’t notice. Well, the army won. Had the Islamists triumphed it would have been, if anything, much worse. Like Khomeini’s Persia without the pretentious theology but with more blood.
Actually, it is Syria where outside ignorance and inattention have reaped for the regime enormous latitude over the years. And enormous latitude now when it has over just about a month murdered a thousand people, maybe more. Not exactly its own people, by the way, but that is how things are in the body counts of tyrannies. How many wounded have been picked off by snipers (here acting as random rather than precise killers) nobody really knows. But the scandal of this all is the fact that the presidency of Barack Obama has been more or less allied with the dictatorship since it came to power, a part of the liberal idealist’s opening to the Arabs whoever they were. Or, to be precise, the ignominy of it all was that it was a courtship by the paradigmatic democracy of the paradigmatic oppressor which would respond to every overture with insult and scorn. (The Saudis experienced humiliation, too. It’s hard to tell whether they were following us or we them. Anyway, it’s clear that the president likes these royals. What will happen when the successor, Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, who is in his eighties and does not like us at all, ascends the throne after his brother Abdullah, who liked us a lot and had an ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, who likes us even more, departs to his maker and is buried in the anonymous desert sands, no marker, no monument, no nothing. This is—I am serious—a particularly tasteful part of Wahhabi tradition: the monarch dies; the monarch disappears. Poof!)
Of course, the Obama-Clinton diplomacy—oops, I almost typed “Carter” for “Clinton”—with Syria was initially an aspect of the president’s patently foolish diplomacy with Iran about which people nodded sagely but knew deep inside it was twaddle. But long after Obama understood—reluctantly, I am certain—that there weren’t deals to be had with Tehran (neither with Ahmadinejad nor with Khamenei) the president pursued his Damascus gamesmanship with a stubbornness that was born of his sense that he was always right. At least in foreign policy, about which he knows even less than about technical economic issues, his tenacity has been the cause of an almost seamless set of international failures. Alas, very few in the United States notice because we are fixated on our domestic exertions. Now, it may not be that Obama actually desires American authority and grip in the world to slip away, although I suspect that he might see this as a triumph for what old enthusiasts of this disposition call international morality and international law. Still, the decline of America is the sure consequence of his actions.
I have just read two articles about Syria. One, “Hundreds Reported Arrested as Syria’s Crackdown Widens,” is in The New York Times, datelined Beirut. One knows that it is based on sources in Damascus and other Syrian cities. But names can’t be used and, even in Lebanon, informants are better off nameless lest Assad’s long-armed secret police reach over the feeble frontier to silence him, like he silenced Rafik Hariri, the zillionaire Sunni prime minister of the neighboring cedar republic in 2005. “The scale and ferocity of the crackdown” is actually hair-raising, what with young children being arrested with their elders. There were dead ... but no one can make a true estimate. Be afraid! (There are no consolations to be drawn from the fact that the byline of Anthony Shadid, to whom we are all obligated for his sophisticated and textured reportage out of the region, appeared today with a Damascus dateline. He was admitted to Syria for the sole purpose of interviewing Assad’s chief flak. In and out.)
“Living Dead: Why is Syria Going Up in Flames?” is the second article, really an interpretative essay on Syria where a new writer for TNR, Theo Padnos, lived for several years. We think we know a dictatorship by how it behaves in exigent threat. But Padnos actually conveys the essence of how “normal” life prepares people slowly, almost casually, for dread. You can even sing along with the fashionable young of Damascus in the jolly days. But you’ll end up being cannily knowing about the erratic and also almost completely static rhythm of the police state. How well the tyranny plays off these two impulses determine its destiny. Maybe Assad will win this call. But maybe he won’t.
Still, the Obama administration has been wishing him well for at least two years. Or, rather, it should be said that Obama administration initiatives involving Syria—had they been successful which, of course, they were not—would have propped up the dictatorship by exaggerating its intrinsic sway, its own freedom of movement and the justice of its grievance against Israel. It is as if we have suddenly decided that a regime that tries to capture another country and loses territory in the process has the right to have it repatriated as if nothing had ever happened. Try, try, and try again, so to speak.
This is especially the case in the Levant where the diplomacy of boundaries going back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire—whose power had been wielded at a time from Vienna to Central Asia—was so scrawly and shifting that no one could know from one day to the next where this scepter held sway and that one did not. A propos these vagaries, in the diplomatic talks between France and England following the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 up to 1923 the biblical phrase “from Dan to Beer-Sheva” was the template of any map. But, of course, the words were more evocative than determinate, metaphoric than concrete. And so the cartographic war, from then and now, continues. What are Syria’s real claims to the Golan Heights? There were Syrian Arabs in the Golan prior to 1967. But no one actually thought of himself as ethnically or nationally Syrian. Instead, they replicated the diversity of hate, the permanent schismatics of difference. Moreover, the resident Alawite contingent—surprise! surprise!—is quite loyal to Israel. And there are Druze whose affinities are hard to judge since they are neither Arab nor Jew. In any case, what is Syria? It is certainly not a coherent or cohesive nation, what with its constant incitement of sectarian strife. And then there is the hydrostrategics of its geography, a permanent temptation for anyone governing from Damascus.
Spotted around Israel are failed states. I doubt that the states to the north, Lebanon and Syria, can be mended. Their essence was always difference. But certainly not as democracies where the rights of diverse groups are honored. Nobody sang hymns to variety and diversification in the lands of the Arabs. Have we already forgotten Iraq where the colonials established Sunni rule over a vast preponderance of Shia? In Syria, 10 percent of the population governs. The majoritarian rest, the Sunnis and their Muslim Brotherhood vanguard, have been cowering since 1982 ... until they had just cowered too much. Pity the Alawites when the Sunnis will strike for revenge. On the other hand, how much can you pity the Alawites who have been plundering and imprisoning and also murdering for four decades?
What had Obama in his head when he tried to jumpstart Israeli negotiations with Syria? Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, what else? The answer is simple and transparent: Israel’s retreat from territories it had captured while they were being used by enemies trying to vitiate Israel itself. But this is the president’s steady trope. Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and ancient Jerusalem and East Jerusalem and, yes, the Golan Heights, too, without a shred of evidence that it would be protected, could be protected from attack by armed soldiers, armed aircraft and armed terrorists, by a deadly admixture of regular troops with guerrillas somehow coddled by human rights organizations which define the latter virtually as civilians. Do you believe that the Arabs truly want peace? Does President Obama? Well, I don’t. There is always the ministration that NATO could force the keeping of a peace. But Obama has blown that alternative, too, by virtually opting out of its venture against Qaddafi and leaving the leadership to Great Britain and France, whose bona fides are suspect.
Why am I not a believer? Because the only unifying strand in the disparate state systems of the Arabs is their struggle against the Jews, the Zionists, the Israelis. Nothing else motivates them so doggedly. The Christians also are targets of the various Muslim governments under which they live, and their numbers are falling in every country of the region—except Israel where those who kneel at the cross are experiencing what one might even call a revival. This is especially so in Jerusalem where, quietly but decisively, the communicants of Jesus are hitching their future to Zion. Ironic, no?
But the future plight of the Christians in the region has been foreshadowed in Egypt where yet another slaughter of innocents took place on May 8 after a string of fiery incidents. “We are in a jungle,” cried a Coptic bishop. Eleven men and women, both Christian and Muslim, were left for dead, with about 250 wounded, of which some 50 were shot. Two churches were incinerated. It was an assault by Salafists who make the Muslim Brothers appear moderate.
We are now being sermonized, mostly by journalistic oracles, to believe that these last months are a Prague Spring for Muslims. They have an agenda and it is to convince Israel not to be a killjoy but to join the party and ease the path to peace. I happen to believe that Arabs need to learn to live with each other before Israel opens itself to its neighbors’ villainy now being practiced on their own.
Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.
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