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August 3, 2022 10:44 am

The State Department Elite Don’t Understand the Middle East

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avatar by Yoram Ettinger


The US State Department building in Washington, DC. Photo: File.

According to the late professor John Kenneth Galbraith, “the notion of conventional wisdom … is commonly understood as knowledge that is accepted within a certain community or among the general public. … [They] tend to hold on to opinions and ideas that fit with their established worldviews. Accordingly, conventional wisdom provides an obstacle for the acceptance of new knowledge or novel and original thinking.”

He goes on, saying, “[t]o its adherents, conventional wisdom provides comfortable padding against inconvenient truths and the complexities of reality. … The enemy of conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events [evidence] … The fatal blow to conventional wisdom comes when conventional ideas fail signally to deal with some contingency to which obsolescence has made them palpably inapplicable.… The concept of conventional wisdom accentuated the difference between established truths – fundamentally out-of-touch with contemporary challenges — and new knowledge…”

Yale University’s Harlan Krumholz adds: “In science, what seems obvious may not be true, and what is accepted as conventional wisdom, may sometimes be based on flawed assumptions.”

The US State Department’s policy-making has been at odds with Middle East reality (evidence), elevating conventional wisdom over the inconvenient truths.

For example, Foggy Bottom’s conventional wisdom has assumed that some actors in the Arab/Muslim Middle East (e.g., Iran’s ayatollahs) could be induced into peaceful coexistence and the abandonment of a deeply-rooted religious-ideological vision by substantial economic benefits, despite the Middle East’s 1,400-year-old track record.

Contrary to the State Department’s conventional wisdom, Middle East terrorism has not been driven by despair and frustration, but has been driven — since the 7th century – by historic, religious, and fanatic visions.

Contrary to the State Department’s approach, the Middle East considers a posture of deterrence and the military option — not the diplomatic option — as the key factor of responsible national security policy. Moreover, the Middle East does not tolerate — and severely punishes — hesitancy, concessions, retreats, and appeasement, which it perceives as weakness.

Moreover, pro-US Arabs question the strategic reliability of the US in view of its adherence to the 43-year-old diplomatic option toward Iran’s ayatollahs (whom they consider to be mortal threats). In addition, pro-US Arabs are deeply concerned about President Biden’s delisting of the pro-Iranian Yemenite Houthis from the list of terror entities, which intensified the Houthi shelling of Saudi and Emirati civilian targets; the US’ reluctance to punish the ayatollahs for bombing Saudi, Emirati, and US targets in the Persian Gulf region; tolerating the release of frozen Iranian assets in Iraq; the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is perceived by pro-US Arabs as a retreat; and the reduction of the US military deployment in the Middle East.

The dramatic gap between Foggy Bottom’s conventional wisdom and Middle Eastern reality was revealed by the State Department’s courting of the pro-Soviet Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s; embracing Iran’s ayatollahs; considering Saddam Hussein an ally of the US until his 1990 invasion of Kuwait; the 1994-2003 heralding of Arafat as a messenger of peace, deserving of the Nobel Prize; the 2011 US-led military offensive against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which transformed Libya into an uncontrollable country; the 2009-2012 courting of Egypt’s anti-US Muslim Brotherhood; and the list goes on.

All of the US State Department’s Israel-Arab peace proposals have been driven by the Palestinian-centered conventional wisdom. Therefore, these proposals have been systematically frustrated by Middle Eastern reality, which has never perceived the Palestinian issue to be the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and neither a core cause of Middle East turbulence, nor a crown-jewel of Arab policy-making.

While the State Department’s conventional wisdom has been infatuated with Palestinians, the Middle East’s march-of-evidence has made the Palestinians a role-model of intra-Arab subversion, terrorism, and ingratitude, as well as a 100-year-old terror campaign against the idea of a Jewish State.

Will the US policy-makers for the Middle East learn from past critical mistakes by elevating the Middle East reality — as complex and frustrating as it is — over the State Department’s convenient and comfortable conventional wisdom?

The author is a commentator and former Israeli ambassador.

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