Sunday, November 12, 2006

State/Fernandez Follow-Up

Unlike Abu Aardvark who I'm sure has been continuing to follow the post-Fernandez direction of USG efforts in the Arab media and will probably write extensively on it, my attention is never as sustained. So this is just a brief snippet. Was watching just a brief few minutes of Jazeera's 7iwaar Maftuu7 (Open Dialogue) program tonight and they had another State Department Arabic speaker on with Ghassan Bin Jidu and a panel of maybe a dozen or dozen and a half what seemed like mostly journalists from around the Arab world. Few points:
  • State Department guy I think was named Michael Balty (I'm trying to transliterate into English from the Arabic transliteration of the English, so I'm sure at least the last name is off). His Arabic was about the same quality as Fernandez' in my opinion, for better or for worse. See the prior post on Fernandez and the excellent comments from readers afterwards for more discussion of that.
  • Unless I've missed recent appearances by Fernandez (which is certainly possible), I presume this means that at the least the heat in the kitchen at State was too hot to put him right back on the air. At the worst he may be done. I imagine by 2-3 months from now we'll know if they ever intend to put him back on the air or not.
  • However, beyond linguistics and politics one thing hasn't changed: it's a complete dialogue of the deaf. The US diplomat spends all his time explaining inexplicable policies. Arab questioners and audiences spend all their times pointing out how hypocritical US policies are, but never really getting the true dynamics behind US policies. I'm with the Arab questioners in that US policies are indefensible, but I'm also with the US diplomats in saying that Arab questioners rarely understand what really drives those policies.
  • There is a bottom line though: my (remarkably useful I've found over time) rule of thumb is that in imbalanced power relationships, it is the far more powerful party that generally carries the greater weight of responsibility. In this case, that means the US. US politicians and diplomats may be correct in saying that Arabs don't get US policy, but that's because the policy is rubbish, the diplomats of course are in no position to admit that, so it's hardly any surprise that Arabs never get what's really up as they're too busy trying to wipe the sand out of their eyes (which comes both from the sand that the US politicians and local Arab allies try to throw in Arab publics' faces and the sand thrown up from US and Israeli bomb craters). Of course, power balances operate on many levels and this is a very high (albeit important) macro level. US policy bad does not mean Saddam the dictator was good, Saddam the dictator being bad doesn't mean Mahdi death squads are good, Palestinian resistance to occupation doesn't mean suicide bombers are good, etc, etc, etc. It's complicated.
  • I speak in very broad terms of "Arabs" and Arab publics not getting US foreign policy drivers, but of course that is overly broad and some folks do get it. Probably the best quip from the show I saw was from a Tunisian journalist who turned to the State guy and said (trying to remember right here and translate) "it's clear the State Department has learned Arabic, but it's also clear they still don't understand Arabic". Brilliant. In other words, you can speak the words and throw the same old rubbish at us in Arabic as in English now, but you still don't have any idea what we're talking about. And that to me is a big part of what this is all about: even if there are some excellent Arabists scattered here and there in the USG, some of whom are even being put to good use, the real decision makers in Washington don't have a freaking clue (and don't care enough to learn) what's really on the mind of Arab publics and the context they live in. They want to tell Arabs what they want, couching it in terms of "universal" values without understanding that those values - while shared - look very different and can come in very different priority orders to people who have experienced a very different history and current reality. And that's the heart of the problem again: US decision makers don't want to understand how it looks from the other side of the fence, and they can't be bothered to do so, not even after 9/11 should have woken them up to the necessity of doing so. Far more important to win the next election by acting tough overseas (no matter the consequences to innocent folks abroad) than actually make good foreign policy.

My rantings for tonight.


At 11:42 AM, Blogger badger said...

Very enlightening, please post more often ! (One other request: When you say the Arab interlocutors don't understand what really drives the US policies, I bet a lot of people don't. I certainly don't. Could you in a couple of words explain what you think they're missing ?)

At 3:47 AM, Anonymous Tom Scudder said...

US guy is named Michael Pelletier. There's a piece from Arab News about him (I grabbed the reprint because I'm lazy - they tend to make stuff subscriber-only after a few weeks, tho.)

At 8:21 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Tom, thanks for the clarification. I do recall seeing him before now, just my laziness/busy-ness. Badger, I was admittedly speaking in broad brushes and could rip my own argument to shreds if I wanted to, so...why not stay in the same genre and clarify with equal unfair broadness :) I guess it's more to do with misperceptions. The broad belief in the Arab world that (1) there is a unified "America" or even just "American Government", and (2) That that unified body cares intensely and deeply about the Middle East. The reality as I believe it is totally the opposite. American politics are fractured and splintered (indeed were designed as such), and only a tiny fraction of people in American politics genuinely cares about the Middle East. That of course brings up the whole topic of interest-group politics and how small numbers who care deeply one way or the other about an issue can work at multiple levels of the system to bend it to their will by portraying some given issue in a way that can either connect to passive emotions in most citizens/voters or at least scare or motivate them briefly at the polls. And of course the role of money in interest group politics, the fact that the Israeli lobby is much more than just right-wing Jewish folks but also hugely dominated by even more right wing Christians, the way that "the Middle East" in American political-speak has bizarrely come to mean pretty much only Israel/Occupied Territories and maybe it's immediate neighbors. Could go on and on, but the point is (broadly adn unfairly oversimplifying) my experience tells me that a lot of folks in the Arab world don't get that most Americans and most American politicians could't care less about them and that a narrow (not colossal) body politic is messing with them. Of course, that's half of what makes US foreign policy so dangerous: a handful of people with bizarre views, humongous military and financial might, and essentially no domestic or foreign checks on their power.


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