Missing in the Arab world: Compromise and reconciliation

Friday 17/04/2015

The multiple fratricidal wars tearing the Arab world apart have provided ample proof, if any were needed, that two vital concepts are missing in the Middle East: compromise and reconciliation.

Indeed these concepts, make that these necessities, in a modern and forward-moving environment, seem entirely absent in the major­ity of present day Arab societies.

Rather, the philosophy of most governing systems in the Arab world, a turbulent and troubled patch of the planet, seems to favour authoritarian rule, where power is the monopoly of a single voice and where power-shar­ing is not really an option.

In Syria, the gov­ernment is insistent on holding on to that power come what may, even if it means the country’s entire infrastructure is destroyed, whole cities are turned into rubble, some 300,000 of its citizens are killed, and millions more turned into refugees. And yet the government is still not in the least bit remorse­ful.

A compromise in Syria is simply out of the question. That word does not exist in the Syrian re­gime’s lexicon.

Yet compromise is a very im­portant word that describes a vital endeavour that is central to the proper functionality of a modern society where a majority – often a majority by only a handful of votes – has to navigate through shallow political channels as they go about conducting affairs of state. It is a delicate affair.

Compromising means accept­ing the fact that yours is not the only point of view and, hate it as you may, nevertheless you have to give and take. You have to negoti­ate with your opponents in a civil manner and express yourself not through weapons, insults and civil wars but through dialogue, civility and understanding that the other may have legitimate fears, wants and needs.

Compromising becomes all the more important in a democratic society because without compro­mise there would be chaos. An­other word for compromise could very well be diplomacy.

Daniele Varè, the renowned 20th Century Italian diplomat and author, said it eloquently when he stated that “diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way”.

Indeed, as long as there are two human beings left living on this planet, it is a given that there will be two very different points of view regarding just about every topic under the sun. The challenge is to find the right mid­dle ground where you can have your way to a certain extent, while not alienating the other side.

Without compromise the world would be trapped in a constant state of war, turmoil and instabil­ity. In short, the world would be comparable to the state that much of the Arab world is living through today.

Alongside compromise comes reconciliation, another concept not very popular in this part of the world. The two ideas are often closely associated. For example, the war in Iraq could be contained if the parties concerned would agree to reconcile and accept compromise, rather than engage in violence and the systematic murder of tens of hundreds of its youth solely because they belong to a different branch of the same religion.

The modern Arab world, nations that won their independence in the post-World War II era, today suffer from an acute lack of the culture of reconciliation and compromise, and have adopted a “winner-take-all” attitude.

Traditions of power-sharing are indeed rare, as are demo­cratic transitions that could have encouraged the sharing of power, or allowing segments of society to co-exist instead of forever engag­ing in zero sum games.

The choice for the majority of Arabs today is clear: adapt to the changes demanded by a modern society or revert to pre-medieval times as the Islamic State (ISIS) says it wants to do. To claim to want to live life in a manner similar to that of the Prophet, yet to do so selectively, by adopting the internet, the cellular telephone and the laptop computer, the car, the airplane and television while rejecting the rest is somewhat duplicitous to say the least.

Arab leaders should know by now they ignore the United States and its wildly erratic foreign policy swings at their peril. They should also remember that US policy­makers, pundits and news outlets appear incapable of focusing on more than one issue at the same time. That is especially the case when US policy bungling created the awful mess in the first place.

The latest wild swings in US public opinion – and policymak­ers’ obsessions with Iran and the Islamic State (ISIS) — are a classic demonstration of this phenom­enon.

For most of the past year, the US media followed the rise of ISIS like terrified – and mesmerised – spectators. ISIS and its fighters were credited with superhuman powers. The collapse of the main Iraqi army exposed the bank­ruptcy of then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s eight years of corruption, vicious anti-Sunni bias and general incompetence from 2006 to 2014.

It should have come as no surprise. It was obvious the new Iraqi army was an artificial construct put together by US “experts” who did not have a clue how to go about it and that it would collapse as soon as US forces scaled down.

Sure enough, that happened. Yet the Obama administration was taken totally by surprise when the Iraqi regular army literally disintegrated last September. After six years in power, it still had not developed serious plans to deal with this contingency.

In fact, the crisis should have been obvious to anyone familiar with the 94 years of Iraqi history since Winston Churchill artifi­cially created the state at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Churchill was then the British Empire’s Colonial Secretary. That made him the direct ruler of one-quarter of the land territories of the Earth and of one-quarter of the human race.

Obama policymakers franti­cally sought a quick fix. They thought – and still believe – they had found it in mobilising the Shia militia of Iraq against ISIS.

In many respects this was an obvious and sensible move. The murderous extremism of ISIS has been relentless against all innocent Sunni Muslims caught in its path but even more against Shias of Iraq. And the principle of playing different potential enemies off against each other has been a staple of US policy­making in the Middle East for at least 35 years.

US President Jimmy Carter and his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski applied it when they quietly approved Saddam Hussein’s idiotic decision to invade Iran in 1980 to seize its oil-rich provinces. The Reagan administration consistently supported Saddam in the strong­est possible way through the following eight years of the Iran-Iraq War. It remains the bloodiest and longest war in the modern history of the Middle East.

However, the Obama adminis­tration has been willfully blind to the way its support of the Shia militias against ISIS has built up the power of Iran and its close allies, the Mehdi army, the Badr Brigades and Hashd al-Shabi, aka the Popular Mobilisation Com­mittee of Shia groups, in Iraq. The leader of the Iranian Revolution­ary Guard’s elite Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, has been directly involved in advising and coordinating them.

The cynical skill of the rulers in Tehran thus created a growing perception among Obama policymakers that Iran was a “responsible player” in the region. This prepared the way for the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal.

Efforts by supporters of Israel in the US Senate to block that agreement with a new legislative measure appear doomed, thanks to the bungling of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. His gratuitous efforts to humili­ate US President Barack Obama by addressing a joint session of Congress without first consulting the president outraged most of the 13 Senate Democrats that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) were hoping to line up. AIPAC and the Israelis needed those 13 Democrats to ensure a veto-proof majority of at least 67 out of 100 Senate votes so Obama could not block any bill to sink the Iran nuclear deal.

So the greatest achievement of ISIS, now badly on the defensive in Iraq, has been the enormous strengthening of Shia Iran at the expense of the Sunni Arab nations of the Middle East. A grateful Obama, US Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice now believe Tehran has bailed them out twice.

First, Tehran approved the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq to take the field against ISIS, and defeat it. Second, they gave Obama’s people the nuclear deal they craved so badly. Early opinion polls show the American public strongly supports the agreement.

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan have been left out in the cold. It is they who will have to survive the consequences of this latest bout of crazed US policy­making and try and clean up the carnage that American idealists and so-called experts have left behind in the region. Nothing new about that.