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Controlled failure is not generally acceptable foreign policy: attrition is not victory


It is so easy to answer Richard Holbrook's question as to "How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?" We only get half of Marshall McLuhan whereas bin Laden gets it all. While we focus on the medium, bin Laden focuses on the message, gets the message perfectly tuned for his audience, uses our medium to disseminate it, while we broadcast things that are unintelligible short of their ability to insult that same target audience. Mr. Holbrook is a very bright fellow, so why is this so hard?
Permit me this example. In August 2002, I wrote this in a private note on the death of Abu Nidal:

"In this case, the death of Abu Nidal is the end of an era. This was a bit of a falling "Arab Wall" so to speak. Along with Carlos the Jackal, he was nearly the al Qaeda of his day. Born Sabri al-Banna, Abu Nidal was accused of having killed or injured 900 people in attacks in 20 countries since 1974. He was wanted in the US, UK and Italy and was condemned to death by the PLO. While the AP said that "Abu Nidal was born in Jaffa in 1937 [in] British-governed Palestine[,] later moved to Nablus, and he left the area to organize opposition to the establishment of Israel," it does not tell you that he was the son of the most prosperous orange grower in Jaffa, a child born with a silver spoon who attended French and Arabic schools, that was around the age of eleven when his family was thrown off their orchards and thrust into a refugee tent in Gaza. I never supported what he did, but I could understand why he did it. Whenever I told his story to Israeli supporters, they invariably looked at their shoes until I changed the subject. Abu Nidal was monomaniacally focused and ruthlessly effective. In a way, I shall miss him. But I only have to wait as we are breeding a generation in Palestine to replace him."

The flaw in my forecast was underestimating how little time it would take. Multiply that anger by hundreds of thousands and one begins to get a flavor of the hatred, hopelessness, and opportunity void that marks Palestinians and has seeped into the fabric of Arabs and a goodly number of Muslims. Go to the (tame by comparison) English al Jazeera and look at The Sharon Land-Grab Segregation Wall. Look at the maps of proscribed land, the walls, the isolation adjacent to relative plenty, and ask yourself what would you do in their place. I believe that the Security Wall is a failure of imagination, and will not bring Israel long term security as it will insure the economic collapse of what I call "Paltustan," the Palestinian Bantustan on its doorstep.

Staring at one's shoes has, of course, not been an effective response for either Israelis or Americans who are chained to Israeli action in the minds of Arabs who perceive Israel as a US client state but vastly overestimate our control over it. Abu Ghraib was the toxic icing on the cake which in Arab eyes showed them that we were as duplicitous and base as the Israelis. Leave aside what they do among and to themselves; a completely different yardstick is used against us whether we like it or not.

Current US policy to the Middle East is less effective than shoe-staring. I caution readers not to brand me anti-Bush as it not clear that a Clinton or other Democratic administration would have done better, but while Democratic performance is an unknown, we have prima facia evidence that the policy on offer is merely controlled failure that our weapons and technology will not overcome in isolation from cooperative diplomacy and a sustained multi-administration, multi-generational hearts-and-minds campaign that should have a Marshall Plan level of focus and commitment.

Shibley Telhami speaks of our failure to see or deal with Arab anger that continues to rise even as our overwhelming force on the ground is unable to achieve our aims:

No matter what else we do in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the "prism of pain" for Arabs through which they read U.S. intentions, in the same way that the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and associated terrorism are now the prism of pain through which Americans will continue to see the Arab and Muslim worlds...

First, it is impossible to succeed in our reform policy without having in place a robust Arab-Israeli peace process that commands regional trust. Second, we cannot succeed if we continue to ignore public opinion in the region. The gap between governments and publics increases the rulers' incentive to repress at the same time that it decreases our leverage with them.

As I believe that we have no mechanism for, or even see a need for, trust building; no chance of a Marshall Plan option; and that US opinion will not shift; then we must continue both our failure to win the war of ideas and our robust attrition -- where we are the force being attritted -- until we are forced to withdraw.

Double Blow To Mideast Democracy
By Shibley Telhami
Washington Post
May 1, 2004

Winning the war of ideas
By William Fisher
August 8, 2004
The Jordan Times

Gordon Housworth

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