Posts Tagged Herzliya Conference

Middle East scenarios (well, not really…)

On January 30, I made this presentation to a Herzliya Conference panel entitled “Short-Term Scenarios for the Middle East” (short-term being defined as the next three years). I didn’t actually present any scenarios, for the reason explained in my very first sentence. But I did ask what I think will be the most salient questions (except for Iran, which I’m not touching). Among the panelists was Ed Djerejian, former United States ambassador to Syria and Israel. I’ve always found him to be a feisty good sport, and he stood by the quote of him that I brought. But the session was run by Chatham House rules, so you only get my side of the story. (Other panelists: Sir Mark Allen, Riad al Khouri, and David F. Gordon. Moderator: Shmuel Bar.)

Short-term scenarios are obviously more dangerous than long-term ones—dangerous, that is, to whoever formulates them. Consider that a year ago at this conference, Husni Mubarak was under siege but clinging to power. Bashar Assad was claiming that he had nothing to worry about, and the London School of Economics was still proud to have Saif al-Islam Qadhafi as an alumnus.

It’s been a humbling year for prognosticators, and in this age of the internet, it’s easy to go back and retrieve embarrassing predictions. I allude to those that exaggerated the power of the Facebook youth, downplayed the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, or described the Salafis in Egypt as a “tiny minority.” Some people have been so stung by their own predictions that they’ve vowed to abstain from making them again. Tom Friedman of the New York Times did that three weeks ago: “The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying…. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.” Whether Tom will keep his New Year’s resolution remains to be seen. But it’s now commonplace for chastened analysts just to admit that “no one knows” what will be in the Middle East.

That’s actually preferable to another approach: discounting the short-term altogether, especially as it looks so messy, and taking comfort in the long term. Ambassador Djerejian and I go back a long way, so he won’t mind if I quote something he said last September (at min. 4:30) to make my point. (You see, Ed, you’re not in office any more, but I’m still stalking you.)

I think in the long arc of history, what’s happening in the Arab world is akin to what we, the United States, stand for, both in terms of our values and our national security interests. But in the short term, there are going to be some detours, some bad actors are probably going to come to power in some of these countries, extremists will try to hijack this popular uprising. But I think in the long term, the fact that they are going to have broader political participation, more viable uncorrupt economies, is a good thing, and we have to support these movements.

Now I’m not going to pick on Ed. What he said reflects the Washington consensus: while the short-term is unpredictable and full of bumps, things will stabilize in the long term, and to our advantage. In this approach, short-term scenarios full of detours and bad actors can be disregarded, since long-term trends will correct for them—and these trends smile upon us. The most irresistable one is the spread of freedom, conceived in the American way.

I happen to believe that if things go awry in the short term, there will be hell to pay later, and I’m not alone. I respect the long-term scenario-building of the National Intelligence Council. But there’s a reason they redo their 15-year projections every five years. Still, I’m not going to burden you with short-term scenarios. That’s partly because, as long as I’ve been studying, following, and living in the Middle East, the crucial events have been flying elephants or, if you will, “black swans”—developments beyond all but the most far-fetched scenarios. Instead, I’ll pose a few questions about the future. Your answers are the scenarios.

  1. Is the “wave of revolutions” over? We’re now a year into events, and there seems to be a pattern. The wave hit the presidents-for-life in the so-called “republics” hardest. It swept some of them away. But the monarchies seem to have weathered the storm. When I was at The Washington Institute in November, I attended a session with the Tunisian Islamist guru Rashid Ghannouchi, and he said this: “Today, the Arab world is witnessing revolutions, some of which have succeeded and some of which are about to succeed. The republics have almost completed [this process], and next year it will be the turn of the monarchies…. The young people in Saudi Arabia do not feel they have fewer rights than those in Tunisia or Syria.” When the Institute published this, the Saudis went ballistic, and Ghannouchi claimed his remarks had been distorted. But he said it, and presumably people are thinking it. The answer to this question is especially important to everyone who depends on Persian Gulf oil.
  2. Is there an alternative to Islamism? Islamists are taking every ballot box by storm, usually by a margin twice that predicted by the “experts.” There are those who believe this advantage won’t last. Elliott Abrams last week wrote that “time is part of the antidote to extremism,” and anticipated that Islamists would mellow during that time and do worse in the second and third free elections. But if so, someone else will have to do better, so who might that someone else be? Who has the formula for beating the Islamists at what is becoming their game? The answer to this is especially important to Israel: Islamists may be prepared to play with the West, but to them Israel is forever unclean.
  3. Is the map of the Middle East going to change? We’ve already seen some map changes result from the ballot box: the split between the West Bank and Gaza was prompted by an election, and the split of Sudan into two, by a referendum. What about Libya and Syria? And Iraq? In 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement, which drew the map of the Middle East according to British and French interests, will be a century old. It survived decolonization. Can it survive democratization? (For those who like the 1989 analogy to the “Arab Spring,” I remind them that 1989 changed the map of Europe.) The world wants to see democracy in the Middle East, but it doesn’t want the map to change. There may be a contradiction between these two desires.

So instead of the customary three scenarios, I’ve asked three questions. Your answers are your scenarios—short-term ones, because we’ll have answers to all three questions within the next three years.

And that brings me to my last point. President Obama has often mentioned the imperative of being on the “right side of history.” He’s said that on Egypt, “we were on the right side of history.” Qadhafi, he said, was on the “wrong side of history.” And the Middle East, he said, “will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history.” The danger here is the assumption that events unfold in accordance with certain laws, and the most we need to do is position ourselves. This thinking provides an excuse for inaction—the belief that there is a predestined path to history, from which there are, at most, “detours.”

But there is no “long arc,” because people have choices they’ve yet to make, and those choices will affect outcomes. On the three questions I’ve asked, there may be policies that the United States, Europe, and even Israel can implement, to tilt the odds in favor of certain scenarios and against others. And since we too have to live with the consequences, why not? Let’s hope that, despite having plotted the ‘long arc” of the “right side” of history, we haven’t entirely given up on making it.


Smear intifada

Electronic Intifada, a death-to-Israel website run by Ali Abunimah, says that in my Herzliya Conference speech, which I posted two weeks ago, I “called for ‘the West’ to take measures to curb the births of Palestinians, a proposal that appears to meet the international legal definition of a call for genocide.” According to the site, “Kramer proposed that the number of Palestinian children born in the Gaza Strip should be deliberately curbed, and alleged that this would ‘happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies to Palestinians with refugee status.'” The usual suspects, Philip Weiss and M.J. Rosenberg, have jumped on the bandwagon. Being accused of advocating genocide by people who daily call for Israel to be wiped off the map of the Middle East is rich.

In my speech, I made no such “proposal.” The full quote:

Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different. Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why, in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40 percent. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030, to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men. That is rising to the real challenge of radical indoctrination, and treating it at its root.

I didn’t propose that Israel take a single additional measure beyond the sanctions it now imposes with the political aim of undermining Hamas. And I didn’t call on the West to “deliberately curb the births of Palestinians.” I called on it to desist from deliberately encouraging births through pro-natal subsidies for Palestinian “refugees,” which guarantee that Gazans will remain both radicalized and dependent.

The Electronic Intifada claims that “neither the UN, nor any other agencies, provide Palestinians with specifically ‘pro-natal subsidies.'” This is a lie: UNWRA assures that every child with “refugee” status will be fed and schooled regardless of the parents’ own resources, and mandates that this “refugee” status be passed from generation to generation in perpetuity. Anywhere in the world, that would be called a deliberate pro-natal policy. Electronic Intifada: “Kramer appeared to be equating any humanitarian assistance at all with inducement for Palestinians to reproduce.” Appears to whom? A pro-natal subsidy is a national or international promise to support the yet-unborn, not humanitarian assistance to the living. The pro-natal subsidy in Gaza is the unlimited promise of hereditary “refugee” status to future generations.

(Stopping pro-natal subsidies isn’t an original idea, and I credit Gunnar Heinsohn for making a much more detailed case for it, in his January 2009 Wall Street Journal Europe article, “Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel: Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge, and the fighting will stop too.” He also coined the phrase “superfluous young men.”)

Of course, Palestinian extremists and their sympathizers are quick to throw the “genocide” charge against Israel, and so are some Israelis. The late Tanya Reinhart once accused Israel of “slow genocide” against the Palestinians—which, if it were Israel’s policy, must be counted its most dismal failure, since population and life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza have grown by an astonishing rate since 1967. The rise didn’t all result from Western subsidies (Heinsohn calls them “unlimited welfare”), and employment of Palestinians in Israel played a crucial role as well. But now the responsibility lies primarily with the West. I will leave the final word to Heinsohn (who, by the way, heads an institute for comparative genocide research):

As long as we continue to subsidize Gaza’s extreme demographic armament, young Palestinians will likely continue killing their brothers or neighbors. And yet, despite claiming that it wants to bring peace to the region, the West continues to make the population explosion in Gaza worse every year. By generously supporting UNRWA’s budget, the West assists a rate of population increase that is 10 times higher than in their own countries. Much is being said about Iran waging a proxy war against Israel by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. One may argue that by fueling Gaza’s untenable population explosion, the West unintentionally finances a war by proxy against the Jews of Israel.

If we seriously want to avoid another generation of war in Gaza, we must have the courage to tell the Gazans that they will have to start looking after their children themselves, without UNRWA’s help.

Overnight addendum: I’m amused by my sudden overnight promotion to Harvard preeminence (by bloggers—why not?), but I have to disappoint. I’m not a “Harvard prof” (Rosenberg) or a “distinguished Harvard professor” (Richard Silverstein). My own homepage records that I’m presently a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center (in the National Security Studies Program). The purpose of visitorships is to facilitate joint research between Weatherhead faculty and non-Harvard colleagues; a visiting scholar must hold a regular academic appointment somewhere else. I enjoy my Harvard research and library privileges. But I’ve never taught at Harvard, I’m not there now, and I don’t use the Harvard affiliation as an identifier on this Sandbox blog. For that, I rely solely on my permanent affiliations. So my rapid promotion at Harvard is really just a stunt by demagogues to attract attention, and the wild exaggeration is of a piece with all they produce. (Still, it was flattering…)

Further update: The directors of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard: “Accusations have been made that Martin Kramer’s statements are genocidal. These accusations are baseless.” Full text here.

More commentary:  Harvard Crimson editorial:

The blogosphere clearly overreacted in perpetuating the genocide meme created by Electronic Intifada and others. While the 1948 U.N. Convention does delineate “measures intended to prevent births” as a form of genocide, Kramer was not advocating an ethnic cleansing of Gaza’s citizens, but rather a shift in the average age of their population with the intention of, in his opinion, benefiting them in the long run. Considering the content of Kramer’s speech, labeling his policy as “genocide” is unfair, and steers the debate away from his actual argument.

Although we disagree with Kramer’s politics, creating a thriving marketplace of ideas among academic Fellows at Harvard can only benefit the University as a whole. Indeed, a major goal of the Weatherhead Center is to promote “vigorous, sustained intellectual dialogue” within the Harvard community, and a diverse view like Kramer’s will certainly foster the sort of debate the center seeks to promote. Although we question Kramer’s judgment, we refrain from questioning his continued presence at the Center and the legality of his statement in light of the U.N. Convention on Genocide. We encourage the blogosphere to follow suit.

Article by Jeremy Patashnik in the Harvard Political Review: 

Kramer’s remarks were not softly worded, and there are plenty of good reasons to reject his conclusions, but to call his proposal genocidal is, quite simply, absurd. This is not merely a semantic question of hyperbole gone awry. When M.J. Rosenberg, and others, label legitimate ideas as morally repugnant without rationally refuting them, it creates an environment of hyper-political correctness where people become afraid to share new–sometimes controversial–ideas for fear of being branded “radicals”…

It’s good that Kramer’s remarks have caused controversy. If people disagree with him, they ought to make their opinions known, and Kramer should, in turn, defend the ideas he put forth. Much of what Kramer said deserves to be rejected, but there are also parts that can contribute to the ongoing dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps ending pro-natal subsidies is morally unpalatable, but that doesn’t mean a discussion of how Palestinian population growth affects the conflict shouldn’t enter into the picture. Rosenberg does this important topic a disservice by irrationally branding ideas he doesn’t like “genocide.” Political correctness serves its role in society, but when it’s taken too far, it inhibits creative thinking.

Update, 2018: Read “A Controversy at Harvard,” my retrospective on this affair.

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Superfluous young men

You get six minutes at the Herzliya Conference to say something memorable (and there is a clock ticking away at your feet, facing the audience). So I made a memorable argument for the role of population growth in radicalization, a clip of which is embedded below. It’s memorable—but not at all original. I first encountered the idea (and the phrase “superfluous young men”) in the stimulating work of Gunnar Heinsohn (here is one example of many). My discussion of the Palestinian angle isn’t original either. See Heinsohn’s “Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel: Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge, and the fighting will stop too” (here).

There is also one error in my popularized recycling of his thesis. Heinsohn’s rule of thumb is that when 30 percent or more of the total male population is between 15-29 (fighting age), violence ensues. In my talk, I added that I would put it higher, at 40 percent. But that 40 percent should be of the total adult male population (15-64). I doubt that in any of the countries of the region, the 15-29 range accounts for 40 percent of total male population. Heinsohn is right.

An excellent compendium of demographic data on age structure in the Middle East, and a valuable discussion of it, may be found in the Stanford Center for Longevity’s “Critical Demographics of the Greater Middle East: A New Lens for Understanding Regional Issues” (here).

Update, February 22: See my rejoinder to critics of this presentation. It’s entitled “Smear Intifada.”

Update, February 23: The directors of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard: “Accusations have been made that Martin Kramer’s statements are genocidal. These accusations are baseless.” Full text here.

Update, 2018: Read “A Controversy at Harvard,” my retrospective on this affairs.

Text of speech as delivered: I’m going to try to pull the focus back a bit. Our panel title implies that indoctrination is the key to radicalism. If we could shut down the jihadi websites and silence the radical preachers, if we could get the Saudis to stop funding extremists and fix the textbooks, the radical fever would subside.

But there are other views. There are those who say that the heart of the problem is despotic governments. If there were more democracy, and less Western backing for kings, emirs, and presidents for life, the radical fever would subside.

Others say that the heart of the problem is America’s unconditional support for Israel, and U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the U.S. were to take its armies out of these lands, if the U.S. were to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory, the radical fever would subside.

Now as between these three explanations, you might prefer one to another. I myself have had a running debate with people who think that anger at Israel drives Al Qaeda or recruitment to Al Qaeda. Typical is this view, expressed last week, by a noted, prominent analyst: “We can separate Al Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims by advancing a just and lasting peace that Palestinians accept.” I don’t know what the Palestinians would accept, and I think the vast majority of Muslims are already separated from Al Qaeda. But in places like Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, where Al Qaeda is most deeply entrenched, a “just and lasting” peace for the Palestinians wouldn’t make a shred of difference.

But the indoctrination explanation and the lack-of-democracy explanation also underestimate the problem, by suggesting that our policies can go far to change the dynamic. They can’t, and let me explain why.

The societies in which radicalism thrives differ from ours in many ways, but one way is crucial. The median age in Germany is 44, in the United Kingdom it is 40. In the United States, it is 37. In Israel, it is 29, in Turkey it is 28. That’s for perspective. In Iraq, it is 19. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Gaza, the median age is 17. Where the median age drops below 20, Islamist radicalization takes place on a massive scale. The biggest radicalizer is fertility that hovers at 6 or 7, and masses of economically superfluous young men of fighting age, between 15 and 29.

A German demographer, Gunnar Heinsohn, has a rule of thumb, that when 15- to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence ensues. I would put it higher, at 40 percent—which is exactly where it stands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Gaza. If the state can’t control these young men, someone else will; if society can’t offer dignified pursuits for the fourth and fifth and sixth sons, someone else will. And it isn’t just the frustration of poverty; it is just as much the shortage of status. Osama bin Laden lacked for nothing, but his father, Saudi Arabia’s biggest contractor, married 22 times and had about 55 children. Osama was number 17. Radical Islam is a way for the superfluous sons to enter history.

So radical Islam answers a demand among frustrated young men, it doesn’t create it. How should that affect the West’s approach to the problem? First, let us not delude ourselves about the prospects of counterradicalization techniques. Afghanistan and Yemen will almost double their populations between now and 2030. What will 28 million more Afghans and 20 million more Yemenis do? What about the nearly 80 million more Pakistanis who will be added by 2030? This explosive growth will drive radicalization through another generation at least, and push it into Europe and America through emigration.

Second, there is hope. By 2030, these societies will have passed through the youth bulge. Fertility is already falling, in some places steeply. And when it falls, the radicals will lose their pool of recruits. A present example is Iran, where a revolt is brewing against the agenda of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners. It is also a place where fertility has dropped from 7 to below replacement, below 2—as steep a drop as China’s. Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different.

Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why, in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40 percent. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030, to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men. That is rising to the real challenge of radical indoctrination, and treating it at its root.

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Memo from Gulfistan

Martin Kramer made these remarks at the 8th Herzliya Conference on January 21.

Lately it has been said that the Arabs are in a panic over the growing power of Iran. We are told that Arab rulers so fear the rise of Iran that this fear has eclipsed all others it’s the sum of all fears. And it’s making a new Middle East

That is what David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote last November: “Iran has done what decades of peace proposals have not done brought Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinians and the U.S. together. You can go to Jerusalem or to some Arab capitals and the diagnosis of the situation is the same: Iran is gaining hegemonic strength over the region.” Martin Indyk of the Saban Center used the same language in a November interview. Iran, he said, was making “a bid for hegemony in the region.”

The Sunni Arab states, and… Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians. And so that created a strategic opportunity which the [Bush] administration has finally come to recognize, and that’s, more than anything else, what’s fueling the move to Annapolis.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just last month, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit of Arab Gulf rulers (the Gulf Cooperation Council) in Qatar. That was the first time an Iranian president had ever attended a GCC summit. Two weeks later, Ahmadinejad arrived Mecca, for the haj pilgrimage, at the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah. It was the first pilgrimage by an Iranian president since Iran’s revolution. And as any travel log of Arab and Iranian ministers will show, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What game are the Gulf Arabs playing? Pretend for a moment that you are ruler of a mythical state called Gulfistan, and I am your national security adviser. You have asked me to prepare a memo on our strategic situation. Page one:

  • Your Majesty, these are good times, thanks be to God. With oil at $100 a barrel, you are awash in cash. You have built mega-projects, you have bought new weapons, you have put us on the map. An American university and a French museum have opened branches here. Our skyline flashes glitz and prosperity. And there is no end in sight to the strong demand for our oil. The developed countries are addicted, and China and India need us more every day.
  • We are enjoying this boom under the protection of the greatest power on earth. The United States has built a front line of bases right through the Gulf, and not far from your palace. The Americans are here to protect the oil, and as long as we keep it flowing, we need not fear any enemy.
  • But Your Majesty doesn’t reward me with a mansion in Aspen to tell you only good news. True, it never rains in Gulfistan, but you wish to know if I see clouds on the horizon.
  • I see two clouds. There is President Bush, who thinks God has placed him on earth to make peace in the “Holy Land,” and bring so-called democracy to the Arabs; and there is President Ahmadinejad, who believes God has put him here to spread his Shiite perversion, and who wants nuclear weapons to turn Persia into a great power.
  • These are dangerous men who threaten our security. Your Majesty, wisdom dictates that we not chose sides in their quarrel. We need good relations with the Americans: they are our biggest customers, they will defend us against any foreign enemy, and the weapons they sell us make us look stronger than we are. But we need good relations with the Iranians too. Iran is so close, we can feel its breath on our faces, from OPEC to Iraq. Were Iran to subvert us, by inciting our Shiite minority or encouraging terror, it could burst our bubble.
  • Your Majesty, a nuclear Iran is undesirable. The Persians are pushy; nuclear weapons would only make them more arrogant. For a moment, we thought the Americans would bomb them to stop them. A few of us privately urged them to do that. But the Americans can’t make up their minds. Some think Iran should be bombed. Some think Iran has no weapons program. Others share the view of General Abizaid, the former U.S. commander here. “Iran is not a suicidal nation,” he’s said. “Nuclear deterrence would work with Iran.” The Americans would destroy Iran if it touched our oil, which is ultimately their oil. But if Iran is careful, it might get the bomb.
  • In this uncertain situation, we should balance America and Iran. On the one hand, let us reassure Iran that we are good neighbors. Tell the Iranians we will oppose aggression against them, and we won’t boycott their business or freeze their assets. On the other hand, let us reassure the Americans that we are good allies. Tell them we will stabilize oil prices and let them build their big bases off in the desert. We must keep Washington and Tehran equally close and equally distant.
  • Your Majesty, the Americans want you to shake the hands of Jews and give a hand to Palestinians, to support the so-called “peace process.” We are fortunate: God gave us all the oil and no Jews. He gave the Palestinians no oil and all the Jews. If you join the “peace process,” the Jew will be at your door, demanding “normalization,” and the Palestinian, as usual, will repay generosity with ingratitude. The wise course is to keep this an American problem. Say you will help, but set impossible conditions; come to their “peace conferences” but make no commitments. True, many of your people are moved by the plight of the Palestinians. But this won’t weigh on us, so long as they blame only the Jews and the Americans. If we avoid commitment, the blame will never fall on us.
  • If we are wise, we can keep up this game until Bush and Ahmadinejad fade into history. I, your humble servant, will continue to act as your adviser in these sensitive matters. Perhaps, then, I might be rewarded with that small estate outside London? My youngest wife very much fancies it…

Now obviously I’ve simplified things here. There is no typical Arab Gulf state like Gulfistan different Gulf states have different interests and different policies. That is why we have Gulf experts.

But this isn’t the place to explore what distinguishes, say, Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. The point I want to make is this:

We all know how little fuel there is right here to keep the Annapolis process going. At this point, Israelis and Palestinians are running on fumes. That’s why Martin Indyk said that most of the fuel for Annapolis would have to come from a grand anti-Iran coalition. But the reality is that the coalition never formed, and now even its premises have disintegrated. Assembling this coalition was bound to be difficult; after the NIE, it has become impossible.

We have been here before. Every few years, a prophet arises to proclaim a new Middle East, including Israel. In the 1990s, peace between Israel and the Palestinians was supposed to turn the Middle East into a zone of economic cooperation including Israel. Then we were told that Iraq’s liberation would turn the Middle East into a zone of democracy including Israel. A few months ago, we were told that the Iranian threat would turn the Middle East into a zone of political and military alliance including Israel.

This latest new Middle East has had the shortest life of them all. Apparently, new Middle Easts just aren’t what they used to be.


Know Thy Enemy (or an Approximation Thereof)

On Monday, January 22, I gave this address to the Herzliya Conference, an annual Israeli gathering for high-level soul-searching. The title of the panel (not of my choosing): “Knowing Thy Enemy: Decision-Making Processes of Regional Adversaries.”

My role here this morning is to serve as a proxy for “the enemy.” Now it might have been more interesting to invite “the enemy” and have him speak for himself. But Israel has so many enemies that one wouldn’t know quite where to start. And once one goes beyond “enemy” to include “regional adversaries,” as our panel title does, the list grows long. Then if I define these adversaries from a dual perspective, American and Israeli, the list becomes a who’s who. It includes states like Iran and Syria, an array of Islamist movements, Sunni and Shiite, and insurgents and terrorists of all stripes. As someone once said, friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.

In a mere ten minutes, then, all I can do is give you a flavor of how Israel and the United States might look to a composite enemy, someone you couldn’t invite because he doesn’t exist. And to get you in the proper mood, I’ll do it in first person. I know it’s hard, but imagine me as some sort of composite of Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, Osama bin Laden, Bashar Asad, Muqtada as-Sadr, and Khalid Mash’al. You’ll admit it’s a good disguise; good enough to get me through the security cordon outside this hall.

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. I’m flattered that you wish to know me better. As it happens, the phrase “know thy enemy” isn’t in our Holy Quran, but it comes from the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu. The full quote goes like this: “Know thy enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”

Now it’s true that your societies are self-critical. The purpose of your famous conference is to look hard at yourselves. We follow it most closely, for what it tells us of your strengths and weaknesses. This self-knowledge works in your favor. But fortunately for us, your knowledge of us is deeply flawed. That’s the prime reason why you’ve been losing every other battle.

It’s not that you don’t understand our decision-making processes. Your intelligence agencies probably have a good idea of who answers to whom in Damascus and Tehran, and among our brothers in Hamas, Hezbollah, the Sunni mujahidin in Iraq, and Al-Qaeda. What you don’t begin to understand is how we see the world.

To summarize your problem in a sentence: you don’t give us credit for having what you have, which is vision. In America and Israel, you keep your greatest thinkers in tanks, where they come up with grand visions and strategies. These minds produce fresh ideas of how to engineer a “new Middle East” to your liking. Then you give these ideas imposing names: the peace process, globalization, democratization. Your ideas usually fail, but you keep generating them, because you have a sense of destiny. And your destiny, so you think, is to remake the world in your image.

Too often, you aren’t prepared to give us credit for having visions of our own. And when you overhear snippets of our own big ideas—a map without Israel, a resurrected caliphate, and so on—you say: oh, that’s not really serious. No, you assure yourselves, all that the Muslims want is that we address some of their grievances and accommodate a few of their interests. A gesture by you here, a concession by you there, and before you know it, you think you’ve turned us into your servants.

We find it amusing how you persuade yourselves that just one more gesture, just one more concession, is all that’s needed to impose your will.

Here are some examples we’ve collected from your press, mostly from Haaretz. If only Israel would give up the Shebaa Farms, our brethren in Hezbollah would surrender their weapons. If only our imprisoned fighters were released by Israel, we would allow your “peace process” to be renewed. If only the United States would wink at Syria over the Golan, our brother Assad would ditch Iran. If only Iran were given economic incentives, it would ditch its nuclear program. If only Hamas were recognized, it would recognize Israel in return. If only Israel acknowledged responsibility for the plight of the refugees, the Palestinians would shelve the “right of return.”

And on and on. There’s even someone at Harvard who claims that Al-Qaeda “is likely to bring an end to the war it declared in return for some degree of satisfaction regarding its grievances.” Our brothers in Al-Qaeda felt insulted: just what do they have to do to be regarded as visionaries, and not as angry Arabs with so-called “grievances”?

Not a single one of these “if-thens” is true; time and again, we’ve told you so. Yet still you’re disappointed when your “generous offers” are spurned. The offers are generous, so you think; but to us, such “generosity” is a mark of weakness, a signpost reassuring us that we’re on the road to realizing our grand vision.

And we do have a grand vision. It’s as deeply rooted in our hearts as the idea of liberty and freedom is rooted in yours. Our leaders, thinkers, intellectuals, and clerics have spread it to millions of people. Untold numbers are prepared to fight for it. It exists in several versions—Islamist, Arabist, nationalist. But in the end, all of these versions revolve around the same idea, and it’s this:

We Arabs and Muslims can and must seize control of our destiny. This means wresting the Middle East away from America and its extension, Israel. Every move we make thus has the ultimate purpose of pushing you back, out, and away. We have no interest whatsoever in “final settlements” or a “new Middle East” that would fortify the status quo. We’re out to defeat you—and to replace your vision with our own.

You may think this is impossible. We admit it: the Arab and Muslim world isn’t a seat of great technological achievement. It struggles with poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance on a daunting scale. But our cadres have taken Sun Tzu to heart. We know ourselves, and we’ve made a careful study of you, from Bint Jbeil to Baghdad. We demand of our followers sacrifice, but we promise them victory, and we prepare for it. Of course we make mistakes; we’re human too. But on balance, we’ve played a weak hand with skill, while you’ve played a strong hand ineptly.

Now you may enjoy a brief respite from us, because Sunnis and Shia are regrettably at each other’s throats. Your diplomats whisper to you that this is an opportunity. Don’t rejoice. If Sunnis and Shia can demonize and massacre one another—fellow Muslims who profess the same faith, speak the same language, share the same culture—what does this portend for you? The Sunni-Shia strife is a warning to you: our visions, our history don’t ever go away, they always come back.

Let’s set aside the Chinese general, and end with a quote from our own Bin Laden. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” He’s right. We sense, not that you’re weak, but that you’re weakening. We see America’s “wise men” produce an alternative plan for Iraq comprised of gestures to us, disguised under the thin euphemism of a “new diplomatic offensive.” We hear America’s best-placed foreign policy analyst declare that “the American era in the Middle East has ended.” And Israel, defeated in the summer, now debates concessions and initiatives toward us, all of which suggest that Israel is anxious to forestall further defeats.

We know you will launch more offensives, to reverse your decline, or at least create the illusion of its reversal. We expect many “surges.” We can’t defeat you yet in a straight confrontation. But you are already defeating yourselves, in your think tanks, in your universities, in your editorial boardrooms, in the conclaves of your “wise men.”

Finally, you ask us about the place of Iran’s nuclear program in our vision. It’s an excellent question. Unfortunately for you, Martin Kramer’s time is up. We return him to you—unharmed.