Across the Bay

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Bash-a-Josh Fest

Josh Landis' poor op-ed is generating a lot of reactions from enraged and outraged commentators. But unlike Michael Young's (see below) dissection of Josh's piece, the other commentators are simply shocked by Josh's generalization in his note on authoritarianism in Syrian culture. I think Josh's view on this is based on his study of the education system in Syria, and in that (i.e., his study of the education system) he may have a point, although I don't share his conclusion and the end to which he takes this point, which results in keeping Bashar in power at all cost.

One such commentator is Syrian analyst Rime Allaf (scroll down to "Syria: with friends like this..."). Again, Rime's outrage is at Josh's generalizations about Syrians. She does score some points (after all, it's quite easy in this case, because the piece was rather poor) but fails to actually make a convincing counter-argument because, at the end of the day, she actually agrees with Josh (and Flynt's) basic premise: the US should talk "with" (not talk "to," as Rime cutely put it) Syria. The question however is in the event that the US were to do this "talking with," whom exactly will it be talking "with"? Will it not be Bashar and his kleptocratic posse? Will it not have the exact same effect as Josh's proposal: extending the lease on Bashar's and the Baath's pathetic rule!? So when she asks: "Is he [Josh] actually openly calling for American support so that the majority of Syrians can be even more repressed?" she does have a point. But it's a point that's contradicted by her premise that the US should work with Assad! This is the dilemma of the Arab liberals by the way (see Michael Young's recent Reason piece on this issue). Talking "with" Bashar inevitably means empowering him. It hasn't hit Allaf that the entire world has dumped Bashar because it figured out that there is no use in talking "with" him or "to" him, as he never delivers.

It's amazing though how even a (supposed) liberal like Allaf ends up sounding like the regime, as in her "taking Syria's national interests seriously" line. Here I think Feris Khishen's piece in Al-Mustaqbal today makes a good point. Bashar has been screwing up since the beginning. Khishen points out how he alienated, actually embarrassed, Chirac and damaged his credibility with the Paris II fiasco. He did it again with the extension of Lahoud's term. The result was alienating everyone. You want to talk about Syria's national interests?! Kishen's point is actually to discredit the silly logic used by the regime in its attempt to exonerate itself of the Hariri murder. The logic goes as follows: Syria is the biggest loser as a result of Hariri's murder, therefore, it couldn't have been Syria who did it. Nice try, says Khishen, but Bashar's moves have been consistently harming Syria's interests and inflicting more losses on the country. Does that mean that he didn't do any of them?!

Still, Allaf wants the US to talk "with" Bashar, without telling us how exactly this will be good for US or Syrian interests. In other words, she's got no answers. Her basic premise therefore hardly differs from Josh's or Flynt's.

Secondly, Allaf pooh-poohs the possibility of ethnic strife, which is unwise. Instead of the post-colonial outrage, she should be aware of that possibility and offer an option or solution. It's easy to bash Josh's obsession with fundamentalism and ethnic strife, but what is Rime's position based on? (I will be dealing with this exact question in my upcoming post on Syria).

So despite the good criticisms, Rime actually has very little to offer. In fact, she is closer to Josh's basic thesis than she would like to think, and as such shares its inherent contradictions and its lack of credible answers.

(PS: the other commentator is the clown As'ad AbuKhalil, who had the audacity to criticize Josh's generalizations, calling them "racist" and an "old colonial trick." Now that's rich! At the same time, the Angry Hair sustains his blog by making worse and more dishonest generalizations about Lebanon, and passes them for actual insight! For instance, after informing us -- at least once a week -- how the Lebanese are racists, and that Lebanese pop-culture pollutes the Arab aesthetic and is a cause of misogyny and sexism in the Arab world, today we learn that "there is a national narcissism that afflicts the Lebanese political and popular cultures." Oh, and he wants to write a book about it!)