Differentiating “Good” from “Bad” in the Chaotic Mideast

For an effective foreign policy, we must know our goal: war for profit…or a peaceful world of compromise. Basing U.S. support on ethnicity or religion does not lead to a foreign policy conducive to U.S. national interests.

If war for profit is the foreign policy the American people want, then the current Mideast is just the ticket: infinite opportunity to make one’s career by taking out a “bad guy,” such confusion that anyone can arbitrarily be defined as “good” or “bad” for the convenience of Washington politicians, endless opportunities to export U.S. weapons along with its brother—rampant U.S. corporate corruption, when a new U.S. military base is desired some Mideastern leader can always be bought, and oil flows for a price—even if that price includes an occasional “terrorist” attack on the U.S. mainland. That is the current reality, and many are comfortable with it.

If, on the other hand, the American people prefer a homeland relatively free from attacks by angry Mideasterners, a government in Washington focusing its energies and resources on building the economy, a domestic political environment conducive to civil liberties and a government responsive to popular direction rather than corporate greed, with the U.S. leading the world by example rather than brute force, then we, the American people, have a problem: we cannot tell the good from the bad.

Neither, of course, can many in the Mideast, for the situation is chaotic beyond measure. Need it be said that we are all suffering, and we all need a way to make better distinctions between political factions meriting our support and those who do not? To put in a word what we could debate hopelessly for a lifetime, religion is not the basis for this distinction. Even if one true religion exists, nothing stops any man from misusing that religion for immoral personal gain. Religion may provide your personal moral guidance, but the religious words flowly smoothly from the mouth of another constitute no firm foundation for political alliance.

Instead, watch the behavior of public actors. Two simple ideas offer a way to measure that behavior: how they govern and how they interact with outsiders. Common sense? Absolutely! Suppose a man claims to be a devout member of your religion, but when you visit him at home, you find that he beats his wife and shoots up the neighborhood? Would you not decide you had chosen the wrong man with whom to be friends? Yet this approach, obvious on the surface, is remarkably uncommon as the actual basis of U.S. policy-making.

These two simple ideas of judging a political group on the basis of its domestic and foreign policies leads to a range of domestic policy alternatives and a second range of foreign policy alternatives. The first,  “Governance,” ranges from “democratic” to “centralized.” Note that “democratic” refers to something much more substantial than just holding elections—to the degree of genuine political participation of the population, not just the winners or the majority but of everyone, all the time. Elections or not, if the real decisions are made by a handful of corporate executives and the politicians whose electoral victories resulted from those executives’ financial contributions, then you have “centralized” policy-making.

The second behavioral arena, “Foreign Policy,” ranges from “reliance on negotiations” to “reliance on force.” Naturally, this varies, but it is usually pretty obvious which regimes tend in one direction rather than the other. When a politician demands preconditions as the price for sitting down to talk, that is a pretty good clue that the politician is relying on force. Back to basics: talking to your wife is not a sacrifice or a favor.

Policy-making World
All possible policies are here depicted as existing in a political landscape divided into four ideal quadrants, where the green quadrant equates to a policy process most compatible with long-term U.S. interests.

Combining the two ideas allows the generation of a graphical space of possible political action in which we can locate specific policy actions for a relatively impartial comparison of various political groups.

Four quadrants are distinguished, with green representing an inclusive domestic policy-making environment where the regime prefers negotiated (i.e., compromise) solutions in foreign policy, thus facilitating peaceful conflict resolution. Red, in contrast, represents a centralized policy-making environment in which policy-makers prefer the use of force. Real-world examples would include subjecting a minority to repression, e.g., the Warsaw and Gaza ghettos, forced movement of a minority into a reservation or Bantustan, civil wars where a military solution is preferred to power-sharing (Colombia for most of the last half-century, Syria today, Lebanon in the 1980s), or choosing a policy of war against terrorists when a negotiated solution or police action is available. The red quadrant symbolizes the zero-sum perspective.


Mideast Policy Positions
Based on actual behavior, Lebanon emerges as quite compatible with U.S. national interests, while Israeli policy toward Gaza, and the behavior of both ISIS and Iraqi Shi’a are problematic.


Locating Mideastern political actors exposes distinctions not obvious from much of U.S. media commentary. Lebanese policy-making in general is shown as in the middle between “democratic” and “centralized:” despite a political system that gives legal recognition to three ethnic groups, Lebanon’s overall political process focuses, however haltingly, on an inclusive domestic approach and negotiation internationally. Israeli policy toward Gaza, while democratic in the sense of being popular within the ruling Jewish population of Israel (i.e., excluding the Palestinian population of Gaza, which is effectively a colony), relies overwhelmingly on a policy of force, offering Hamas virtually no option of negotiating genuine solutions to Gaza’s predicament. As displayed in the chart, Iraqi Shi’i (especially Shi’i militia) policy toward Iraqi Sunnis and ISIS policy are two of many examples of Mideastern centralized policy-making combined with reliance on force. The Iraqi Shi’i case is higher on the governance dimension (range) because one might consider Shi’i militia policy to be generated by an internally inclusive process.

Even this very simple ordering suggests that the U.S. should seriously consider strengthening its ties with Lebanon, rethinking its policy of automatic support for Israel’s Gaza policy by insisting that Israel demonstrate genuine readiness to negotiate Gaza’s political issues, and moving very cautiously—as Obama indeed is doing—toward any strengthening of support for Baghdad until it has clearly implemented a more inclusive policy-making process vis-à-vis Iraqi Sunnis (and, by the way, Kurds). Natural allies for the U.S. are inclusive political actors willing to compromise; neither ethnicity nor religion predicts which political actors fit the bill.


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