10 September 2013

Jefferson of Arabia

While I thought that Thomas Friedman was trying to have it both ways by arguing against the U.S. getting "embroiled" in Syria but for arming select Syrian rebel factions, many readers of his New York Times column apparently took him at his word that he wanted to avoid war, and then took him to task for it. "[P]lease do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here," he protests in his follow-up column, addressing those who felt (prior to the Russian proposal for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons stocks) that there was no credible alternative to military action against the Assad government. Friedman's protest is prelude to a column-closing hissy fit against the Arab world.

Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so. We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other.” That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters.

I'm not sure whether this outburst satisfies Friedman's critics -- I had thought the subject was the correct response to the use of chemical weapons by anyone, not just Arabs -- but his main point this time is that political outcomes in the Middle East have relatively little to do with the "right" or "wrong" approach taken by the U.S., and more to do with what Friedman and many others diagnose as an almost uniquely dysfunctional political culture in that part of the world.  He points out that Libya is rapidly sliding into Iraq-type chaos despite the supposed superiority of President Obama's regime-change strategy over that of President Bush. Friedman now thinks that Obama's approach may have been worse, because it did not allow the U.S. to have "boots on the ground" in order to act as a "referee" for the factions that have emerged since Khadafi's fall. Such an army, Friedman believes, should act as an "army of the center," to support the good "centrist" factions in any benighted country. The problem with Arab countries, in his view, is that the "center" is underdeveloped and weak in many of them. The "center" consists of those with the most advanced sense of citizenship, or a "deep ethic of pluralism." These countries are pluralistic as they are, he notes, including a variety of tribal, sectarian or other divisions. "Deep pluralism," however, means more than each group having its own enclave; it depends on their ability to cooperate, or at least compete peacefully for political power, trusting each not to trample all the others whenever one gets the chance. There needs to be an evolution, in Friedman's headline words, from "[Saddam] Hussein to Jefferson," without sidetracking toward Hobbes, at one extreme, or Khomeini at another.

Half a century ago, Arab dictators were the "center" of their region, or the nearest thing to it. They promoted national if not supra-national identity. Egypt and Syria very briefly merged into a United Arab Republic that was undone by personal rivalries and policy disputes. Throughout the region, "Arab Nationalism," not "militant Islam," was the specter haunting the West. The Assad government is one of the last vestiges of that spirit and continues to illustrate its handicaps. From the liberal perspective, the Arab nationalists wanted to do everything in top-down fashion, while liberals would argue that the center can only grow out of grass-roots "civil society." From an objective perspective, the self-styled nationalists were often hypocritical, appealing to national consciousness while favoring and depending upon minorities: the Alawites in Syria or Saddam's Tikriti Sunni cronies in Iraq. I'm not sure whether the liberals want to argue that a "centrist" ideal of citizenship can't be imposed from above, or that it shouldn't be, but Europe's history suggests that the undoing of feudalism by absolute monarchs was a precondition for modernity, while the U.S. was exceptional in its doing away with much of the feudal heritage simply by abandoning it and colonizing a conquered land. The very exceptionalism that Americans boast of, to the extent that it is real, limits the relevance or usefulness of the American example for other countries.

For that matter, how good a model for modern centrism is Thomas Jefferson? Was the early U.S. a model of "deep" pluralism? Recall that until 1865 a large segment of the population was enslaved, slavery itself being defined by race. Jefferson knew that his doctrines and his ownership of slaves were inconsistent, but he described his dilemma thus: "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." How different is this from the  "tribal" statecraft that compels any faction to trample the others, on the assumption that any other will do the same given a chance. Jefferson's idealism was compromised by his gut feeling that the white and black races were incompatible. He wasn't exactly the keenest advocate for economic development, either, as Alexander Hamilton could tell you. Jefferson's party opposed Hamilton's development agenda because they could not see past "Northern" merchants or industrialists benefiting at supposed "Southern" expense. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Friedman here, since I suspect he only used "Jefferson" symbolically, to signify "American values" if not "democracy." If so, however, that only proves him no less carelessly loose-lipped than the President, whose "red line" remark brought on the current crisis, or Secretary Kerry, whose stating of supposedly impossible terms may show us the way out, whether Kerry or Obama intended it that way or not.


Anonymous said...

I invite Mr. Friedman to put his money where his mouth is. Let him take up arms and lead this "centrist army" into the thick of things. Otherwise let him shut up.

Samuel Wilson said...

Don't you realize that it isn't his credibility on the line!?!

On a slightly more serious note, the fact is that would-be humanitarians like Friedman have heard the "it's none of your business" argument for so long that they tend to ignore it when something really isn't any of their business. Slavery was none of their business; segregation was none of their business, etc., etc. It's one thing to hear and dismiss those arguments when something's happening in your own country, another once you've convinced yourself that your humanitarian impulses needn't respect any borders at all.

Anonymous said...

As I've said, he should feel free, as an individual, to act on those humanitarian instincts with his own effort. He should not expect our nation to bear the cost of those efforts when we get nothing out of it.

My original post was meant to be taken as serious. Anyone who feels they have the right to tell another nation how to run itself should go over to that nation and do so first hand. Not hidden away on a different continent, whining and cajoling others to act on his whim.

Samuel Wilson said...

I didn't question your seriousness, but was mocking Friedman's rant about credibility. But wouldn't you agree that good international relations would require each nation to restrain its more impulsive types from the sort of first-hand action you recommend?