The Middle East Waiting Game

The Middle East Waiting Game

Mini Teaser: Many in the Islamic world experience their own internal class of civilizations.

by Author(s): Claude Salhani

"See you in paradise", a Palestinian journalist and Hamas member told me, half-threateningly, on the second day of a training program in Gaza City--delivering the words with a sardonic smile that haunted me half the night, as I tried to figure out if he had been serious or simply had a bizarre sense of humor.

Over the three-day period I spent in Gaza, training a group of Palestinian journalists on behalf of a non-governmental organization, the young man from the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, bent my ears about the "great evils of America." But then the same man surprised me even more over lunch on the last day of courses by asking if I knew how he could obtain a student visa to study in the United States, preferably in Illinois or Michigan. Somewhat startled, given his professed strong dislike, even hate, of the United States, I asked why he would want to live and study there. "I like the American people. I have nothing against them", he said. "It's the Bush policy that I hate. Particularly his policy regarding Iraq and Palestine."

Ah, politics and religion, two thorny subjects preferably not brought up at the dinner table, but topics of conversation that are as unavoidable as they are confusing, particularly to the uninitiated in Levantine travels. After that stay in Gaza, I heard that general antipathy for Bush but fondness for Americans expressed by others: an elegant Turkish professor in Istanbul and an American-educated Saudi business executive in Riyadh, for example. Raise the topic of the United States and its politics these days with almost anyone in the periphery of the Middle East, and you will likely hear the same anti-Bush, pro-Americans mantra.

Similar sentiments are echoed at the official level. Usama Hamdan, a spokesman for Hamas, told me matter-of-factly during a previous trip to the region: "We are not against America. Our struggle is with Israel, not the U.S." He added, "We have differences with the United States, but no enmity towards America. I have no hate for America."

A "clash of civilizations" at the personal level is not rare in the Middle East. Many individuals experience their own internal culture clash that puts their affinity for Western culture in competition with their Islamic identity. Sometimes the two don't blend well. On a flight from London to Riyadh, a Saudi Arabian teenager sported a skin-tight t-shirt with the bold message "I did Justin." There was little doubt that she understood the full meaning of the message as she paraded up and down the aisles of the plane. As we were going through immigration, the provocative clothing had discreetly disappeared under the traditional black abaya. The traditional, chador-like cover placates cultural and religious demands and conceals the Western attire--and desires. Do the woman's inner or outer layer of clothing reflect her true identity? That personal ambivalence is also representative of the region's politics.

Are innocent Americans ensnared in the interior conflicts that lie beneath the abayas, concealing and repressing mixed feelings? People say they don't hate Americans, but somewhere within the layers of potentially conflicting views and emotions, hate--be it directed at Bush and his policies or at individuals--begins to appear.

"They hate us by proxy", said an American diplomat, one of many who hunker down in the fortress-like U.S. embassy in Riyadh. He and other diplomats are protected by rows of concertina wire, concrete barriers, closed-circuit cameras, shatterproof glass and phalanxes of heavily armed U.S. Marines. But that's once you've passed through Saudi security forces, equipped with armored personnel carriers, heavy-caliber machine guns and so forth. America's legations in the region look more like outposts in enemy territory than what they were originally intended to be--diplomatic missions to represent U.S. policy overseas.

The draconian security measures now enforced around the American embassy in Riyadh or Cairo or Beirut are symbolic of U.S. diplomacy, which is conducted out of miniature "green zones", as the heavily fortified American compound in Baghdad is known. Embassy officials harbor the illusion that they conduct diplomacy from those mini-fortresses, retreating into their own chador of protection.

While U.S. officials in the region hunker down and the Iraq War rages, the leaders in the region benefit from their Levantine sense of history. Partial blame for what is going on in Iraq today--the violent backlash directed against U.S. troops and the new Iraqi army and police force being trained by the United States and its allies--can be placed on misreading the tea leaves. Gross miscalculations in predicting the reactions of America's actions (such as in the invasion of Iraq) were made by the White House and the Pentagon. And those with a better understanding of the Middle East who warned that the war in Iraq was not going to be a cakewalk were at best ignored, at worst called unpatriotic.

The Bush Administration excelled in fighting the initial stage of the war but fell short in planning for peace. Why? Because unlike most of the Middle East's leaders, politicians in the United States do not know how to play the waiting game. America's society is in a state of perpetual rush, accustomed to instant gratification. The West's obsession with time contrasts sharply with a Levantine sense that time is in abundance. When I was transferred to Cairo in 1979 and voiced my frustration with the country's painfully slow-moving bureaucracy, this is how a more experienced acquaintance explained the phenomenon: "The Egyptians are a people who for centuries have sat back and watched the Nile flow by."

Contrast that with American administrations, be they Republican or Democrat, who tend to think, plan and act in four-year increments. They live in a political environment that exists from one presidential election to the next. First-term presidents spend almost half their time in office preparing for their re-election campaign, often neglecting the rest of the world.

America's foes are not burdened by periodic electoral concerns, popularity polls, and rising or falling approval ratings. Instead, they tend to plan out their policies with a far longer-term perspective--primarily that of remaining in power. The same is true in Iraq, where anti-American forces are biding their time.

The insurgents know that America's chronic attention deficit disorder when it comes to foreign affairs will eventually work in their favor. Odds are the American public will get tired of the war much sooner than the insurgents. The improvised explosive devices that are killing on average 1.5 American soldiers every day in Iraq resound in American public opinion and therefore sway U.S. politicians. Despite America's superior firepower and its highly motivated and better-trained military, the insurgents in Iraq and those supporting them believe they can hold out until the end of the Bush Administration's term of office. They know that the next administration, even a Republican one, will undoubtedly bring with it much change to its Middle East policy.

The same can be said of Syria's clash with Washington over its support in Lebanon of Hizballah, which the United States deems to be a terrorist group, and Damascus's tacit support of insurgents making their way in and out of Iraq across the Syrian border. And the same could be said of Iran's dispute with the United States over the Islamic Republic's desire to acquire nuclear capability and its aid to anti-American forces. If the leaders of Iran, Syria and the Iraqi insurgency can play the waiting game, they win.

There is another fundamental difference between what constitutes winning for the United States and the meaning of winning for authoritative regimes such as Syria's or Iran's. For Washington, winning is an intricately complex process. Winning involves regime change, often at the cost of sending American military personnel to fight and die thousands of miles from home, and of billions of taxpayer dollars. Winning requires the investment of considerable resources in the U.S. intelligence community, in order to arrest or eliminate insurgent leaders. Winning means introducing the concept of free and fair elections in countries that have not experienced freedom in several decades, or possibly ever, and reshaping an entire society's culture and way of thinking within a few short years. Winning demands re-educating the military, the police and intelligence services to understand the concept of basic human rights. This is what the Bush Administration is trying to accomplish in Iraq today and why it is not working as the president hoped.

The Pentagon expected a sequel of the Gulf War, where American GIs were greeted by Kuwaitis with rice and flowers and rose water. Experts said Iraq would be a cakewalk. From "liberated" Baghdad, the Third Infantry Division was expected to quickly veer westward for a repeat performance in Syria. (The Syrians certainly expected it.) And then perhaps a Marine Expeditionary Force with unprecedented air power could have attempted the same game plan in Iran. There would have been a domino effect with the rest of the Middle East's autocracies, theocracies and assorted dictatorships disappearing and being replaced by democracies.

In contrast to the Americans' long list of requirements for a real victory in the Middle East, winning for President Bashar al-Asad of Syria and his Ba'ath Party, or for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and the ruling theocracy, is a lot simpler. All they have to do in order to win is to remain in power. If they can outlast Bush's presidency, they win. This is why Syria and Iran are applying what can be termed tango diplomacy--one step forward, two steps back.

Essay Types: Essay