Define your terms

Saw this on the Twitter machine this morning:

Oh, man, the Times flubs a big one on the Middle East! Well, that’s easy to believe. It’s not like they’ve never made mistakes, particularly about the Middle East. What happened this time?

If you have a moment, read the introduction to the Times’s “Room for Debate” feature, which this week asks the question, “Has support for Israel hurt U.S. credibility?” and see if you can identify the enormous analytical failure embedded within:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

It’s not that difficult to see the fatal flaws and assumptions built into the exercise. Iran is a Persian country, not an Arab country, and its leadership and ideology are loathed across much of the Arab world. The leaders of Arab nations ranging from Morocco and Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom are American allies, see Iran as the primary threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, and have been asking President Obama to confront Iran for three years. You’ll recall that the king of Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” before it was too late, and many other Arab leaders, as well, have lobbied President Obama vociferously. Whoever wrote this introduction doesn’t read the Times, apparently: Arab anxiety about Iran was covered extensively by The Times during the massive Wikileaks release.

Hm, OK, I guess. Iran is certainly not an Arab country. Its leadership and ideology may even be loathed across much of the Arab world, at least the Sunni Arab world. But you know what is NOT compelling evidence to support that contention? The fact that autocratic rulers in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and the UAE all hate the Iranian regime. What Goldberg is actually saying is that a few Arab kings loathe the Iranian leadership and ideology, not that “Arabs” do.

Pundits often fall into a bad habit when they talk about “Arabs” or how “Arabs” think about a thing, or how “Arabs” will react if America does X versus Y, and somebody ought to ask them: what’s an “Arab” in this particular tale, and why do they all seem to react to stuff in exactly the same way that their despotic leaders do? (To be clear, many of them fall into this habit when talking about any community other than their own, but I digress.) Why would you assume that if the kings and emirs of a few Arab states think or feel a certain way about a potential American or American/Israeli attack on Iran, that the residents of those states would all, as a unit, think or feel the same way? This kind of monolith-building is a bad idea in the best of circumstances, but are we not still watching the so-called “Arab spring” in which Arab populations are busily demonstrating that they don’t in fact, agree very much with their rulers, or necessarily with each other? All the monarchs he lists are still in power, but we’re talking about the King of Jordan, whose people have been openly protesting their conditions; the King of Morocco, who had to quickly and quietly give up big chunks of his authority to prevent what happened in Tunisia from happening there; the King of Saudi Arabia, who’s been quietly but efficiently suppressing unrest for some time now, and the emirs of the UAE, where (like the other Gulf states save Bahrayn, which has sectarian problems) there’s simply so much wealth to go around that nobody has much cause for dissatisfaction.

Surely he’s going to offer some evidence that non-ruling elite Arabs would also support an American attack on Iran, right?

It is not only the leaders of Arab countries who fear Iran. There is a reason the Iranian regime has failed to export its revolution to the Sunni Arab world, and that is popular suspicion of its motivations, as well as a range of other sectarian and religious disputes. And Iran is especially unpopular now that it has sided with the minority Alawite regime in Damascus, against Syria’s Sunni majority.

No, he’s…well, he’s got some nice conjecture, so that’s something. The 1979 Islamic Revolution never spread to the Sunni Arab world because Sunnis are suspicious of its motives. Well, sure, that might have something to do with it. It’s certainly why the Arab autocrats don’t like the Iranian regime, they having thrown off an Iranian autocrat and all. But there are plenty of other reasons why the Iranian revolution didn’t spread. Sunnism inherently lacks the independent, formal clerical hierarchy that drove the revolution and took power in Iran, so that’s one hiccup. There are other possible reasons, like such as:

  • centuries of cultural and political separation between the Persian-speaking Iranian world and the Ottoman-dominated Arab world
  • specific, alienating steps on the part of the Pahlavi rulers in Iran to reject the country’s Islamic heritage, steps that were not taken by monarchs in the Sunni Arab nations
  • the fact that the Shah was a pretty nasty, repressive piece of work even in comparison to contemporary Arab despots
  • the impact of specific-to-Iran events, like the British- and American-backed overthrow of the Mossadegh government, in creating a sense of powerlessness among the Iranian people
  • direct colonial involvement in the Arab world versus more indirect western involvement in Iran; this, for example, contributed to the establishment of Sunni authority and the rise of the Baath Party in Iraq, which was able to stifle any revolutionary stirrings among Iraq’s majority Shiʿa population

But “Arabs don’t like Iran because they’re Shiʿites” is all Goldberg has got. Sunni Arabs would cheer an American attack on Iran, and the reason we know this is because a generation ago “they” didn’t participate in widening the Iranian Revolution to the rest of the Middle East. Also too, “they’re” probably mad about Iran backing the Alawites against the Sunni majority in Syria–and, look, “they” probably are, but is that really it? This is really woefully meager evidence to support his argument. Concede the obviously flawed implication that all Arabs or all Sunnis or all Sunni Arabs are one monolithic thing. Concede that the reason the revolution never spread can be boiled down to “Sunnis don’t like Shiʿites.” Concede that most or all Arab Sunnis really do loathe the Iranian regime and, hell, the Iranian Shiʿite population. Concede that “they’re” all furious that Iran is still backing the Assad regime in Syria. The problem with Goldberg’s argument is, even if you concede all those deeply conjectural and downright flawed assumptions, that still doesn’t mean that all or even most Sunni Arabs would be pleased to see America and/or Israel attack Iran.

In other words, American action against Iran could be understood as America siding with the Arabs, not only with the Israelis. This is not news, of course, except to the author of this contentious and ill-informed introduction.

Sure, it could be. American action against Iran could be understood as lots of things. Maybe it’s all just a brave stand against ghormeh sabzi. But Jeffrey Goldberg clearly wants to tell you how it will be understood, just as much as he says the Times piece wants to. And, frankly, he doesn’t know either.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.