Across the Bay

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Dr. Rami and Mr. Khouri

The Oriental Sage Rami Khouri has thrown at us more of his precious food for thought. In an op-ed in the Daily Star, Khouri regurgitated your typical Arab pathologies. His silly piece serves as yet another text book case why the Arabs are where they are, and why they don't even realize it. Consider this statement:

"I am delighted that Saddam Hussein and some of his key associates are facing the full force of judicial accountability. I wish them a fair trial, and an appropriate verdict and fate as determined by the rule of law. I also wish all this were so simple - because it is not."

Let's leave aside Khouri's hypocrisy about his "delight" at seeing Saddam tried (remember this statement of his, nailed by Makiya: "Saddam Hussein's fearlessness in standing up to ourĀ enemies...appeals to the new spirit of the Arab world--a spirit that says we'd rather die on our feet than live groveling on the ground." -- Cruelty and Silence, p. 244). The pathological inability to deal with individual local problems away from conspiracy theories is mind boggling, and shows why the Arabs are left with nothing. It's because they always play a zero sum game. (The only place that didn't play that game was pre-war Lebanon. It was when everyone reverted to "all or nothing at all" mentality -- a direct result of the pressure of Arab nationalism -- that Lebanon disintegrated. It's also because of that mentality that the Palestinian issue is still unresolved when it could have been had the Palestinians agreed to earlier proposals of partition.) Why is Saddam's murderours brutality not "so simple"? Why is his facing trial such a tainted event? Why can't Arabs seize on a good thing and build on it and apply true self-criticism (as opposed to cutting their nose to spite their face)? Khouri is quick to reveal the warped logic behind such idiotic reasoning:

"[T]he criminality that happened in Iraq under the Baathists did not occur in a vacuum, isolated from the behavior of other Arab regimes or totally alien to the self-interest of American foreign policy. Trying Saddam Hussein while simultaneously acquiescing in the wider abuse of power throughout the Middle East, and the double standards of American and Israeli policies, is only partial progress - but progress nevertheless that must be built upon."

Nothing exemplifies the reigning psychosis of the Arab world better than that statement. 1- Preference for the "passive mood" and transference of agency and blame shifting. 2- Weaving in the ubiquitous and ever-present Palestinian narrative of victimology (despite the fact that what's happening at the hands of the Arabs in Sudan seriously challenges the exclusivity of the Palestinian suffering in the Arab narrative).

With regard to the first point, it's really outrageous on Khouri's part to portray the Americans, and American Realpolitik, as directly responsible for Saddam's legacy of genocide. But this brings us to the schizophrenic dilemma I've pointed out earlier in my post on Khalidi. The US can't get it right in the eyes of Khouri or Khalidi. Here Khouri blames the horrible legacy of ME regimes on the Realpolitik of US foreign policy, while Khalidi is supposedly urging the US to act only according to Realpolitik (as if Khalidi really gives a damn about US interests!). So it's damned if you do damned if you don't. The schizophrenia (that I once touched on in a comment on Shibley Telhami) becomes more pronounced here:

"The United States may or may not grapple with these issues in due course, but for the rest of us in the Middle East our deeper dilemma remains undented by events in Iraq: How can autocratic and irresponsible regimes throughout the Middle East be held accountable? Who can do this if the citizens themselves are unable to do so?

What is the appropriate role for the international community in fighting tyranny and promoting good governance? How can all nations in this region live according to a single standard of international law and legitimacy?

That's a very good question, one that I've been dealing with in my "Dream On" series (part III still to be posted, and it involves Khouri). But unfortunately, it reveals the love you/hate you relationship with the US. Khouri knows well that the Iraqis needed outside help to topple Saddam, but he can't get himself to say it. Instead he resorts to condescending and contemptuous columns on the "ignorance" of the US as opposed to the "sophistication" of the EU and the Arabs (a topic that I will comment on soon). Thankfully, Rami Khouri's useless ranting got called by one "Jacob Blues":

"Khouri adds further excuses for American ignorance and Arab ethnic superiority by stating we're biased and have provided our support to the "wrong type" of people whether it is Israel or Arab leaders. This is topped off with the old canard that the Arab people still nurse the wounds of old injustices, whether it is European colonialism, or the Middle Ages crusades. The America which misunderstands the Arab and Muslim mind is also the same nation which came to the aid of those in Bosnia, Kuwait and Lebanon.
Americans understand the Arab world. We understand the rhetoric that comes from its leadership; we understand the voices of the "street;" and we understand the actions of its influential figures, both nation-state, and independent actors. What we have seen is a region awash in problems, but unable to muster the will to acknowledge them, let alone provide local pro-active peaceful solutions to them whether it is ethnic, political, or religious conflict.

Moreover, perhaps nothing is more hilarious and indicative of Khouri's confusion than his sudden adoption of a "one size fits all" single standard, when his entire premise lately has been that the US can't force things from the outside on a culture that it doesn't understand, and that each country must bear out its own path! Then again, who can figure out Khouri? One day he's a cultural relativist, the next he's found the light with absolutism!

The Michael Moorish charge of American responsibility is based on the infamous Rumsfeld-Saddam meeting and the American role in the Iraq-Iran war. But, as Elie Kedourie wrote, that amounts to miscalculation on the part of US policy makers (hat tip, Martin Kramer). They were faced with two bad options and decided that Saddam was to be backed to face the potential spread of Khomeinism (a fear by the way that has been hypocritically revisited this time around by the opponents of the war and Arab nationalists. Of course, the first time around in Gulf War 1, it was due to that Sunni Arab nationalist myth that Khomeinism was projected as more spreadable than it actually was.) The true failure according to Kedourie, and many others, was the decision not to take out Saddam back then (once again, at the urging of the Sunni Arab world who warned, like they did this time around, that all hell would break loose). However, the problem here is that Khouri was opposed to that war as well! This leaves him with a pretty confused, if not schizophrenic, argument. You can't have it both ways. But Arab "intellectuals" and columnists have made a living doing just that.

Furthermore, Arab nationalism, or any Arab intellectual or ideological failure, never factors in in Khouri's distorted narrative. For instance, his own disgusting attitude quoted above in the aftermath of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, which was echoed by many an Arab intellectual and columnist, is never once mentioned. Recall, e.g., Fawwaz Trabulsi's and Edward Said's laughable portrayal of Saddam as the victimized wretch who is put in a spot where he was made to "follow the script that was written out for him" (sic. See Makiya's book.) It all comes back to outside responsibility. All we have is a charge leveled at "the regimes" and by extension, at their supposed sponsors, the Americans. How different is this view from Bin Ladin's? But more importantly, and Khouri never ventures to answer this, what does this say about the prevailing ethos in Arab societies and Arab culture today?

Bringing up the Palestinian issue is mere (predictable) icing on the cake. Now Iraq has been added to this narrative of victimology. Viewing everything through that lens is doing nothing beyond keeping the Arabs mobilized outwards and away from their self-inflicted, and regime-inflicted miseries. This attitude has taken a life of its own. Take these two outlandish examples. The first is by Al-Jazeera's Ramzy Baroud (and I'll come back to him in a later post):

"There is no way on earth, despite the lack of cohesiveness of Arab leaders, that you can convince the average Egyptian, for example, that the invasion of Iraq was not a violation of his own space and values. While the understandable despising of Saddam Hussein by many Iraqis explains the cheers of joyous crowds upon his toppling, the Arab street elsewhere was disheartened by the news. It was not simply the admiration of Saddam that harbored such bitterness, but the indescribable loathing of occupation."

Does this really need comment!? I mean beyond the obvious hypocrisy of using the Egyptian example where emergency laws have been in place for decades and then talking about "violation." Or perhaps, the convenient silence about that southern neighbor of Egypt's where violations of a whole different nature are taking place, with no expressions of "loathing" or of "solidarity" filling the airwaves. But, in order to highlight Baroud's inconsistency, Khouri's point on the Palestinians should be judged in light of a previous piece by Baroud critiquing precisely the use of the Palestinians as an excuse! Back then he wrote the following:

"[T]he persistence of some Arab countries on placing the solving of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a prerequisite to democratic reform seems rather self-defeating.
But how long can Arab governments wave this sword? Do Arab women have to be denied proper education, Arab public political representation and Arab nations an integrated economic system, until Israel's Ariel Sharon decides to end his colonial reign in the West Bank and Gaza?

As cruel and costly as the Arab-Israeli conflict has been, I still fail to see the connection.
" (Emphasis added)

For more, see this earlier post of mine.

The second example is this jaw-dropping statement by Shibley Telhami:

"Don't underestimate the extent to which, for many people in the Arab world, it's humiliating ... It's akin to having a black sheep in the family whom you don't like, whom you resent, whom you're frustrated with -- but when he's (punished by) an outsider, it becomes a collective humiliation."

How is the trial of Saddam a humiliation of Arabs? More accurately, and infinitely more importantly, how is the trial of Saddam a humiliation of Iraqis? How can anyone in their right mind say that? How can the pathological narrative attain such power as to force an identification of murderer tyrant and brutalized people? (A massive-scale Stockholm syndrome of sorts!) All this for what purpose? To maintain the bankrupt attitude of rejectionism towards the West? Makiya also put his finger on this problem, which he labeled "that other ever so destructive dictum of Arab cultural nationalism":

"[N]ever wash your dirty laundry in public, and especially not where a westerner can see you." (Cruelty and Silence, p. 321)

Telhami echoed that sick sentiment when he talked of Saddam as a "black sheep of the family" who's now on public trial. It's that same mind frame that allows Arabs to be totally blind to the atrocities committed by one of their own in Sudan today, and be obsessively focused on the US instead. (I'm preparing a post on Darfur to be posted soon.)

These general attitudes have been covered by Kanan Makiya in his truly remarkable aforementioned book. Unfortunately it has fallen on deaf ears. If Arabs maintain their victimological attitude of conspiracy theory Occidentalism and passive-aggressive rejectionism, they'll remain trampled under foot and preserve their unenviable place at the bottom of the world scale.