May 18th 2010

Ready to Rumble in the Middle East?

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Sun Tzu, the much quoted Chinese military strategist, stressed the value of knowing your enemy. A broader diplomatic formulation is: know your enemy, know your allies, know everyone in the field of action -- including yourself. Washington, like most great powers, is incapable of the last. Our special defect is the strong tendency to think that we know the enemy when we discern its hostile intent. That intent, in turn, is totally disconnected -- in our minds -- from what we, for our part, do and say. Such is strikingly the case in the Middle East. There, the resulting distortions in our reading of reality are compounded by including Israel in the American "we." Washington has come to identify so completely with the Israelis as to deny ourselves dispassionate understanding of their place in the complicated regional scheme of things. Hence, we operate with two sets of blinders -- little sense of how others' behavior is affected by Israel as well as disregard for how it is influenced by their perceptions of us.

So it's time for a few home truths as might be seen by a visitor from Mars -- or, more prosaically, an observer in Beijing. Here is my take on their perspective.

1. Washington is unduly prone to lump together as enemies a diverse number of parties who share a lack of sympathy with American ends and purposes. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas are tightly knit co-conspirators only in the minds of the United States and Israel. Each has its own priorities, its own ambitions and its own vulnerabilities. Iran's are most complex and opaque. We assume they are preoccupied with doing us harm. That is a dubious assumption when we look beyond the rhetoric. That they see us as an opponent and a threat is surely correct. But its meaning needs to be placed in their perspective for its full meaning to be understand. The regime's weakness, the country's encirclement by American military forces and its being the object of an unrelenting American political and economic campaign to undermine it are compelling features of their strategic environment. Does this mean that the leadership in Tehran is guileless? Of course not. It does mean that they will seek every means to counter the United States -- including gaining allies by means fair and foul. They also will cooperate with us when it serves its interests -- as it did in Afghanistan in 2001 before Bush short circuited the connection by declaring Iran a charter member of the "Axis of Evil."

2. America's unflinching backing for Israel creates opportunities for the Iranians and creates powerful incentives for Hamas and Hezbollah to welcome practical help from Tehran. The same logic applies to Sunni Hamas as it does to Shi'ite Hezbollah. The former's abiding interest is Palestine. It has no wider ambitions. Hezbollah's abiding interest is Lebanon and its growing political strength there. Israel's implacable hostility and violent attacks play to the political advantage of both insofar as they are in a contest with local rivals (Fatah, other Lebanese factions). Will they use violence themselves, in one form or another, against Israel? Of course. Provoking that violence also serves the political interests of Israel's ultra nationalist government. The United States' uncritical siding with Israel makes it a party to this cauldron of emotion and political intrigue.

3. Syria, for its part, plays its own hardball game of protecting its stake and advancing its self-defined interests in a region dominated by the United States, its Arab allies and Israel. Does it want a settlement with Israel? Probably -- on its own terms, as does everyone else. Is it viscerally anti-American? Probably not. It can't afford to be with the Soviet Union now history and being a secular regime in the vicinity of Sunni and Shi'ite fundamentalists with whom it shares little in the way of ideology.

4. American endorsed Israeli violence against Palestinians and the Lebanese has produced 500 times more casualties than Hamas and Hezbollah violence against Israelis. To recall the facts, thousands of civilians were killed and wounded in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008-2009. Entire sections of Beirut and villages in the south of the country were razed, and much Lebanese infrastructure destroyed. As for Gaza, there is the stunning report of Justice Goldstone, the self-avowed Zionist from South Africa whom the White House reflexively scorned. You still may judge that Israeli violence was justified. That is not the point of this commentary. Rather, it is the inability to comprehend how those actions were experienced by Palestinians and Hezbollah followers that is a serious foreign policy failing. Recent Israeli murmurings about another 'go' at Hezbollah to erase the humiliating stalemate of 2006 feeds fear and anger. The attitudes thereby engendered are objective facts of the political state of affairs. The behavior that flows from them can best be dealt with by recognizing it as such -- whatever one chooses to do about it. If administration officials want to avoid a close concert of the Iranians, Syrians, Hamas and Hezbollah, then they should cease making the casual, convenient assumption that they're all a bunch of bad guys out to get us. That is not simply wrong; worse, it is not very smart and a recipe for diplomatic failure.

5. Following on the above, it is an analytical mistake to view Hamas and Hezbollah as Iranian proxies who are obediently doing Tehran's bidding. Whatever the reality of alleged Iranian Scuds to Hezbollah, and collaboration between Damascus and Tehran, it stems from a tactical, self-interested calculation among the parties. It is not diabolical machinations on the part of a latter-day 'Axis of Evil.' That is a self-serving, intellectually lazy notion nurtured by many inside and outside the Obama administration. It can only lead us into blind alleys. That is, unless one sees all these intricate issues liable to resolution by confrontation with the prospect of war.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "