Essay International

Middle East

The Politics of Error
The Middle East on the Threshold of the 21st Century

by Henry Laurens , 16 October 2007

The Middle East has become the theater of a generalized “politics of error.” Particularly since 9/11, errors of comprehension have intertwined with errors of calculation in ways that destabilize the regional system and make for an even more uncertain future.

Politics is usually considered to consist of confrontations that may prove dramatic, yet which nonetheless remain rational. Even in the Middle East, this perspective dominates: however bad and unpredictable the situation gets, the belief that the various actors make considered decisions founded on a lucid analysis of the situation is not relinquished. Unfortunately, this picture is flawed. It makes no room, in particular, for one of the most characteristic dimensions of this regions’ politics: error. Yet it is precisely this “politics of error” that is in part responsible for the unraveling of the regional system over the past few decades, notably since 9/11.

Misconceptions and Miscalculations

An analysis of regional crises prior to 9/11 demonstrates that two types of errors have often become intertwined : misconceptions (that is, errors of understanding or perception) which lead to decisions founded on a misunderstanding of the basic facts pertaining to a given situation ; and miscalculations, which produce effects that are contrary to an anticipated outcome.

Ascertaining these two types of errors is made all the more difficult by the fact that decision-makers naturally do not reveal the reasons for their decisions (which must typically be reconstructed several decades later by examining archives and first-hand accounts) and offer justifications of their actions that are usually retroactive reconstructions. Needless to say, the recognition of error and recklessness occurs only after the fact, when one observes a decision’s results.

The question of self-fulfilling prophecies must be set aside, even if these do play a major role. Thus in 1948, Palestinian Arabs were persuaded that the Zionists would expulse them, while the latter believed that the Arab states would intervene to destroy them. So the Zionists expulsed the Palestinians in order to be in a position of strength when confronted with an Arab invasion, while this very expulsion provoked the Arab states to intervene militarily.

Major regional crises have generally been tied to the “politics of error” or to outbursts of recklessness, both in the ways they have begun and in the ways they have unfolded.

Thus the American refusal in 1956 to finance the High Dam can be seen as the template of a rational yet counter-productive action. It was part of the Omega plan to isolate Nasser’s Egypt in order to bring it back to “reasonable” behavior. American authorities had in no way considered that Nasser might react by nationalizing the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company. Nasser proceeded to play his hand well on the diplomatic front, even as he underestimated what France and Britain had at stake, and the possibility that they might ally themselves with Israel. The three invading countries failed, in turn, to predict the scale of the American reaction.

The crises of May and June 1967 followed the same pattern. The Israelis pursued an aggressive policy against Syria, which provoked an unpredicted reaction on the part of Egypt, which in turn pursued a policy of escalation ultimately leading to war.

Other crises unfolded differently, as only one party behaved recklessly. In 1973, Israel did not believe that Egypt and Syria would initiate military operations. Considering such an action to be unthinkable, Israeli intelligence refused to see even the most obvious signs that war was being prepared. In 1990, Saddam Hussein underestimated the scale of the international reaction and the opportunity it afforded the United States to build a vast coalition against Iraq. However, the refusal of George Bush (the 41st American president) to keep troops in Iraq once military victory had been achieved, a decision that was vehemently criticized by neoconservatives, appears, in retrospect, as a display of genuine political lucidity.

When they fail, protagonists tend to invoke conspiracies, as if it were more flattering to fall victim to an adversary distinctly more intelligent than oneself. Simply surviving an ordeal can, of course, be a victory of sorts, since one of the goals of military operations can be to bring down a regime. The Americans and Israelis in 1967 hoped that Nasser would be overthrown, as did the Americans with Saddam Hussein in 1991. The analysis of such crises does not, however, reveal the existence of plans crafted in advance by superior minds. Conspiracy theories do, however, have a decisive impact on the behavior of actors.

The Beginning of the 21st Century

Though the Middle East has probably more experts and research centers studying it than any other region, it has recently become an arena in which a disturbingly high rate of errors and reckless undertakings of this kind occur—to the point that they have become the rule rather than the exception.

One could draw up an entire catalogue of such errors, beginning with the absolute priority placed on terrorism. The American vision of terrorism as an evil, indivisible whole lumps together the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the international jihad. As a result, the strategies of different actors are totally confused with one another, as territorialized national struggles are mixed up with a form of international terrorism that is nihilistic and completely deterritorialized. The competition and even the deep-seated antagonism between these different forms of violent action are underestimated. Those who preach the eradication of terrorism provide it with opportunities to develop.

9/11 accelerated the phenomenon, preventing a solution the Palestinian crisis by ruling out political dialogue with Hamas. The possibility that the latter might evolve along the same lines as the PLO once did was rejected out of hand. One must all the same admit that such a dialogue would be particularly difficult, given that regaining Palestine is a religious priority of the highest order for the Islamist movement.

In addition to the absolute priority placed on terrorism, one sees a projection of European categories, such as fascism and Nazism, defined as the greatest of evils, onto the Middle East. The logic of stigmatization, while useful for domestic political mobilization, makes it impossible to understand the Arab world as it really is. Contemporary references to totalitarianism prove this. Rather than attempting to grasp the specificity and novelty of the present situation, which is the necessary precondition for effective action, the history of another time and another place is seized upon to justify current policies, making their failure practically inevitable. As soon as genocide and terrorism are mentioned, negotiation and political solutions are ruled out, leaving eradication as the only option.

The Israelis defined the second Intifada from the outset not as an uncontrolled social movement, but as a centralized military action that could be forthrightly crushed. Consequently, the actions of the Israeli army were, juridically speaking, acts of war retaliating against acts of terrorism. The situation was defined as a war rather than as a social movement. The scale of the Israeli repression led the conflict to escalate extremely quickly, giving rise to extremism and making it impossible to turn back. In the same way, Arafat negotiated as if Sharon could never come to power and completely underestimated the impact of 9/11. The result of Israel’s policy was to destroy its interlocutor in order to negotiate with it—as if it still existed.

The Iraq war of 2003 was founded on a complete misunderstanding of the reality of Iraqi society, on the belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction, on the dismissal of contrary evidence (the phenomena of self-intoxication), and on the failure to consider the possibility of guerrilla warfare and low-intensity conflict. Ideology played an important role. The international embargo destroyed the moral fabric of Iraqi society, forcing its members into a logic of individual survival. Yet it was impossible for the Americans to acknowledge the destructive effects of their prior policies. They thus attributed them to the dictatorial socialism of Saddam Hussein. The processes leading to the decision to launch the 2003 war have even led some authors to invoke works of cognitive psychology to understand how such aberrations could occur.

The Americans have thus laid out the battlefield of a war that they cannot win. Having made practically no plans for the occupation, they had to constantly improvise, and thus created the conditions for their failure, doing pretty much everything that they should not have, and in general doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The democratization of the Greater Middle East is founded on the postulate that democracy is the perfect antidote to terrorism, despite the counter-examples that exist in Europe. It does not take into account the reality of national sentiment, which is equated with terrorism because of its rejection of oppression. It is the projection of a reality that is uniquely American, the primacy of civil society, and of a misunderstanding of the role of the state in this part of the world. In the American analysis, the non-democratic state produces terrorism, whereas previously, the state had been the most compliant partner of American policy. Yet the common denominator of the region’s various political cultures is anti-imperialism. In other words, the appeal to civil society, when it is genuine, brings to the surface forces that are actively anti-imperialist, be they nationalist or Islamist.

One thus finds oneself before a complete contradiction. In Palestine, opposition to Arafat’s role led to a veritable international coup d’état, transferring effective power to a Prime Minister who did not exist in the Palestinian constitutional arrangement. Once this was in place, the situation had to be upended once again and a second coup organized when Hamas came to power by winning at the polls. The result was Hamas’ seizure of the Gaza strip. As in Iraq, the consequence of the democratization discourse was not the establishment of a regime supported by militias, but the seizure of power by militias.

The militia phenomenon in Iraq and Palestine is a direct consequence of economic sanctions and of the destruction of legitimate authority. The de facto embargo directed against both societies made joining militias, legal or otherwise, a means of survival not only for militia members, but also for their families and broader kinship networks.

Moreover, American policy has tended to define two kinds of democracy. The first, of a peaceful kind, concerns Europeans and, when possible, Arabs. The second is military in nature, involving a legitimate right to violence. It is exclusively reserved for the Americans and Israelis—which poses the related problem of how to find active allies for combat coalitions cobbled together on a piecemeal basis. If democracies are peaceful by nature, then it is unclear how effective coalitions can be built. In Iraq, with the exception of the British, the Americans have been unable to find effective allies in combat. Rather, their allies’ forces were officially assigned to humanitarian or reconstruction missions. If democracies fight, it is unclear what the additional advantage of a democratic Middle East would be compared to the present situation. It is said that democracies never fight amongst themselves, but this is to forget that the European belligerents in the First World War were for the most part states founded on the rule of law and endowed with representative institutions, and that the only political forces that attempted to oppose the war were socialist parties whose discourse remained revolutionary and hostile to representative democracy, even if they had adopted it in practice. For the neoconservatives, the democracy of others consists of a sort of caretaker government with no national consciousness.

A bastardized form of this discourse invokes globalization: no two countries with McDonalds have ever gone to war. And yet there are McDonalds in Beirut and Tel-Aviv…

UN resolution 1559 rests on a starting point that is quite narrow: it specifically opposed the extension of Lahoud’s mandate rather than Syrian hegemony as such. Grouping together Hezbollah and the Palestinian armed forces, though indispensable for American support, complicated the resolution’s implementation, as these are in fact two Lebanese parties. The assassination of Hariri was this error’s mirror image, in that it called the Syrian presence in Lebanon into question, leading the Sunni community to join the anti-Damascus opposition. The Syrian retreat established two parties in Lebanon (those of March 8 and March 14) which have been at the root of new conflicts.

The war of July-August 2006 was the result of Iran’s belligerent rhetoric. The nuclear question raised a fantastical threat that Israel could be destroyed. In July 2006, Hezbollah miscalculated. This sparked a disproportionate response from Israel, which launched a war against Lebanon rather than Iran. Hezbollah’s military capability, consisting of about 5,000 combatants, does not constitute a vital threat to Israel. In Palestine as in Lebanon, recourse to war to free military prisoners caused death and destruction, without leading to their liberation.

Deterrence or Stigmatization

All sides have lost sight of the key argument of deterrence.

We thus see the perversity of the discourse of deterrence. Deterrence that requires a war to be respected is no longer deterrence. This applies to nuclear proliferation as well as to weapons of mass destruction. Their raison d’être is to establish deterrence to prevent reciprocal destruction. However, the creation of a weapons of mass destruction potential highlights the specific moment when a threat comes into existence without being real. Hence the temptation of preventative action. This type of deterrence provokes the very kind of conflict that it is designed to prevent. A preventative war is not a deterrent, but is, on the contrary, the expression of deterrence’s failure.

Faced with guerilla movements defined as terrorists even if their only targets are armed forces, the strategy has been to strike civilian populations in order to separate them from these movements. This has been done in Lebanon and Palestine for decades. As a result, Hezbollah and Hamas have filled their ranks with new recruits. The time has come for military strategists to read Victor Hugo’s poem about the Greek Revolution, “The Child of Chios.”

In recent years, we have witnessed a resurgence of the rhetoric of stigmatization. In defining an “axis of evil,” the Americans ruled out any dialogue with important political forces. The logical consequence has been eradication, since compromise is no longer possible. Viewing the enemy in absolute terms makes the transition to politics impossible.

Anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism are transformed at the local level into struggles against traitors at home. By using extremist rhetoric, the current Iranian government no doubt satisfies itself, but it also discredits itself internationally and loses a number of potential supporters. Once again we thus encounter the problem of a rhetoric that demonizes and casts antagonism in absolute terms, which makes it impossible to find compromise solutions acceptable to all. The current crisis in Lebanon proves it. Sharing power in a unity government is discussed, even as the opposing sides denounce each other as “traitors.”

The Nature of the Regional System

The essential question is to know if error is the motor of current policy or the symptom of a broader disorder in the regional political system. Briefly put, the latter has functioned for the past two centuries according to a contradictory logic of interference and involvement. Interference occurs when a foreign power intervenes in this region of the world in the name of its own interests. Involvement occurs when a foreign power is called upon by one or several local actors to become involved in regional affairs. Consequently, interference and involvement are difficult to separate analytically, and in both cases discourses referring to elevated moral categories are invoked.

One can speak of manipulation at two levels: that of foreign powers in relationship to local partners, and that of local partners in relation to foreign powers. Those who find themselves in a position to contest external intervention will use a stigmatizing discourse against both the foreign power and its local allies. Conversely, when local actors prove recalcitrant, they are demonized by foreign powers invoking totalitarian frames of reference that have no basis in the region’s history.

The contradiction lies, in the first place, in the tension between casting conflicts in absolute terms and seeking the political resolution of antagonisms. One can more or less live with this one. Thus from 1949 to 1967, the respective parties had antagonistic positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which made it possible to produce negative consensuses in response to any attempt to mediate. But contrary to the saying, the absence of a solution does not make it possible to resolve the problem. At best, it is put on the back-burner.

An additional difficulty lies in the continuation of contradictory alliances. Thus the United States has, for fundamental strategic reasons, made itself the protector of both the Gulf oil monarchies and the state of Israel. The U.S. has never been able to overcome this contradiction, even in the name of the struggle against the Soviet Union. At best, the Gulf States and American allies more generally have at times been able to pretend that the conflict with Israel did not exist. The cost, however, has been the entrenchment of robustly anti-American attitudes in public opinion.

The second trait is the abolition of the boundary between domestic and foreign policy. In external but involved countries, this is the price that must be paid for democracy’s existence. As their intervention in Middle-Eastern affairs matters, these conflicts are transferred onto domestic public opinion, along with a corresponding mobilization of emotions. For a long time, Zionism’s force lay in its capacity to mobilize public opinion in its favor. Before the Second World War, it suggested a resolution to the “Jewish Question.” After the Second World War, it drew on the justified feeling of collective guilt tied to the extermination of Europe’s Jews. In English-speaking countries, it was able to invoke Biblical references in a persuasive way. Elsewhere, it drew on its ties to socialism.

Pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian movements joined progressive anti-imperialist and tiers-mondiste groups. Later and in a distinctly more complex context, they became involved in various ways of thinking about multiculturalism.

While in the nineteenth century, the various rivalries between European powers were reproduced within the Ottoman Empire through the intermediary of their clients (e.g., the pro-British Druze and the pro-French Maronites), today Middle-Eastern conflicts are projected onto the domestic politics of Western democracies.

This has resulted, following decolonization, in a more balanced situation in Europe, which has considerably reduced its direct involvement in local conflicts. On the other hand, in the United States, the scale has been overwhelmingly tilted in favor of the Israeli position. Because of this country’s deeply-rooted juridical culture, partisan arguments and pleading have replaced expertise in decision-making. “Think-tanks” have played a particularly negative role in this respect, by producing a completely fantastical vision of the political realities of the Middle East.

It follows that what is at stake in the Middle East is inseparable from what is at stake domestically in Western countries. In terms of references, values, and emotions, no other set of conflicts lends itself to political mobilization as much as those of the Middle East.

This can also be seen in the way that the past is mobilized, making it an active memory—that is, one that is perpetually refashioned. The major experiential reference point in Western culture remains the Second World War, all the more since Nazism has become, albeit in a decontextualized form, absolute evil incarnate. The more chronologically distant 1945 becomes, the more we become its pseudo-contemporaries.

The most characteristic example is that of the United States. America’s great democracy distanced itself from the dangers emerging in Europe in the thirties, and refused to undertake the rescue of European Jews during the Second World War. Yet today it presents itself as opposing Munich-like compromises, even though it did not participate in the fateful 1938 conference, and as being actively opposed to any new Holocaust. Furthermore, its Middle-Eastern enemy is reinterpreted in terms of fascism, alternatively of an Arab or Islamist kind. While the concept of totalitarianism has been abandoned by historians of the twentieth century in favor of those of brutalization or the prioritization of political and military violence, it is anachronistically enjoying a second wind in discourse about the Middle East.

In this region, the same process is underway. The foundation of its political culture is anti-imperialist. But imperialism is no longer simply understood as foreign political domination. It is at once the totality of longstanding conflicts and the expression of a reconstruction of values that are uniquely its own. In this instance, we once again find ourselves in a process of demonization or stigmatization. The Western idea of authenticity is borrowed in order to challenge the entirety of their normative contributions.

In seeking at the same time to appeal to one’s own unique history and to extract universally valid lessons from it, a two-fold anachronism occurs. Westerners, or in any case the Americans, are perpetually replaying the Second World War, even as the generation that fought it leaves the political stage. The Cold War has ceased to be a major reference point, to the extent that it involved pragmatic arrangements that have been characterized after the fact as immoral (particularly the rules of détente). In the Muslim world, the anti-imperialist struggle is constantly being relived, as foreign powers continuously become involved in its problems.

A Provisional Conclusion

The question to be answered is thus whether errors make the regional system impossible to manage, or whether is it in the nature of this regional system to generate errors.

Clearly other complementary factors, of multiple kinds, are at play, from the individual interests of particular actors wrapped up in an ideological discourse, to the image that particular countries seek to project abroad. Thus multicultural America projects itself as monolithic; dechristianized Europe is not perceived as such; the complexity of Muslim societies is rendered in extremely impoverished terms. The shortcomings in knowledge of the principal actors and the production of stereotypes are as problematic in the emitting as in the recipient countries. Knowledge of the other dwindles, even as the other is discussed more than ever.

We thus find ourselves caught in a formidable contradiction. The continuation of the status quo is untenable, for it permanently produces violence that may be exported abroad. The will to change the rules of the game or in any case to modify the situation runs the risk of leading to a situation that is even worse than before. In any case, peace remains improbable as long as violence persists.

All that remains to hope for is that we find ourselves at a specific historical juncture that can be surpassed through the renewal of analysis on all sides and a new pragmatic approach. The most immediate concern is perhaps to make up the deficiencies of knowledge, which would require that everyone reexamine their prejudices and the implicit assumptions of their political action. This is a tall order, especially if the ready-made formulas that justify political action are to be abandoned. If the West and the East are complicated, the time has perhaps come to abandon simple ideas.

Translated from French by Michael C. Behrent

by Henry Laurens, 16 October 2007

To quote this article :

Henry Laurens, « The Politics of Error. The Middle East on the Threshold of the 21st Century », Books and Ideas , 16 October 2007. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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