Saturday, July 5, 2008

Western-Islamic Confrontation: The Elite vs. the People

Is the confrontation between the West and Islam a clash of civilizations or a clash between the interests of self-centered elites and the people on both sides?*

[* first published on Media With Conscience]

Why did Tel Aviv rush to snatch the first excuse to break its own agreement with Hamas? On the surface, Israel got an excellent deal – Hamas stopped fighting even though Israel did not grant Palestine autonomy or agree to recognize Hamas as the legitimate government of Gaza, much less free the Palestinians from their colonial status. Israel has not even halted its steadily expansion into Palestinian territory. Hamas relinquished the main lever it has to persuade the rest of the world to pay attention to it even as Israel further consolidated its already overwhelmingly dominant position. So why did Tel Aviv leap at the opportunity to violate its own agreement?

Explanations of chronic international political disputes can be made on multiple levels, with each having a measure of truth. The level of explanation used in the media is frequently one of the least important of the several perspectives that together reveal reality. The Palestinian-Israeli dispute exemplifies problems that need to be seen in significant part as a struggle between elites and people rather than as a struggle between two different societies and, in particular, as a struggle between a “good” side and an “evil” side. The past two weeks’ events are a case in point:

  • On June 19, Hamas and Israel implemented an agreement halting Hamas rocket attacks in return for an end to Israel’s economic war against people of Gaza.
  • On June 24, Israel launched a military operation on a Nablus university campus, killing two Palestinians.
  • On June 25, Palestinians (Islamic Jihad, not Hamas) fired rockets from Gaza to protest the Israeli attack; Israel immediately took advantage of this to abrogate its part of the agreement, reinstituting its economic warfare against the whole population of Gaza.
Why? Why the rush to break an agreement with Hamas orchestrated by Israel’s ally Egypt and return to the morally repugnant collective punishment of the people of Gaza because a radical faction (Islamic Jihad) responded to an egregious case of Israeli incitement that clearly violated the spirit of the new ceasefire? Does Tel Aviv not understand that this only promotes the unity of Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the whole population of Gaza--if not all of Palestine? Why would Tel Aviv not take advantage of this opportunity to split Islamic Jihad from Hamas?

Indeed, Hamas is practically inviting such an attempt by insisting that it intends to continue observing the ceasefire in the face of Israeli abrogation of its side of the bargain even as it refuses to “police” Islamic Jihad. After all, if Hamas, which claims to be the legal government of Gaza, will not police the Gaza population, then who else can do it…but Israel?

There may well be many answers to the question of why Tel Aviv was in such a hurry to violate its brand new agreement with Hamas, including a mental block on the part of Israeli politicians who simply cannot imagine any form of useful cooperation with their “implacable” Hamas opponent. But one level on which these events must be viewed for complete understanding is that of the competing interests of the elite and the people.

The Israeli garrison state receives almost limitless military and economic aid from the U.S., enabling it to stride the world stage as a mini-superpower and maintain its governing elite in power. Without the endless flow of free offensive weapons, Israel would have to learn to compromise with its neighbors to develop a joint security strategy. Without the endless flow of economic aid, Israel would be forced to cooperate economically with its neighbors and live within its means. Without being able to wave the bloody flag of fear, the political elite that now controls Israel would, in Israel’s vibrantly open system, be faced with overwhelming challenges from outspoken Israeli intellectuals who believe Israel can be a good neighbor and oppose the steady encroachment of the garrison state on Israeli democracy. Both the garrison state and the current Israeli governing elite that manages it stand on a foundation of fear. Neither would be possible without the occasional Palestinian cross-border military strike to keep both the Israeli and American populations on edge.

A ceasefire would do even more damage to the Israeli elite than that – it would allow the world to take a breath and actually look at the situation, at which point all would see that Hamas is actually doing a relatively professional job (by regional standards) of local governance despite being the victim of full-time Israeli economic warfare and intermittent Israeli military warfare. For the world to realize this would embarrass a lot of elites – not just Israeli, but also the Egyptians, whose indifference to the plight of the people of Gaza has been so clear in recent months.

Beyond this, a ceasefire would greatly inconvenience Washington, which finds the unsinkable Israeli aircraft carrier a very nice base from which to impose its will on the Mideast. Note I am not claiming the highly counterproductive “unsinkable Israeli aircraft carrier” actually is an efficient way to dominate the Mideast; just that Washington, afraid of less “realist” approaches to power projection (e.g., setting an example, finding a win-win solution), perceives traditional military force projection over the Mideast from an Israel armed to the teeth with attack aircraft, missiles, submarines, and nuclear weapons as too great a convenience to give up.

In short, elites in every direction view a compromise solution to the Israeli-Hamas stand-off with consternation despite the urgent need for peace on the part of both the Palestinian and the Israeli people. Yes, the dispute is inconvenient and occasionally dangerous for Israelis living near the Gaza border. Yes, the dispute requires the oppression and torture by economic warfare of the whole population of Gaza. Yes, the dispute provides grist for every real radical (e.g., al Qua’ida types; the extremists in the part-radical, part-local government movement, Hezbollah; Islamic Jihad) and every opportunistic politician (e.g., Ahmadinejad) in the region. Yes, it amounts to an Israeli-run terrorist factory. And, yes, it lays the groundwork for a far more dismal long-term future for Israel, Palestine, and everyone else in the region, not to mention the rest of the world. Nevertheless, for the elites, the Israeli-Hamas standoff offers a simply irresistible array of goodies.

The phenomenon of an international political dispute becoming chronic in part because it benefits elites despite the harm that it does to populations on both sides is much more widespread than just the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, it underlies the whole global clash between the West and Islam. Inflammatory headlines, irresponsible rhetoric, and mutual misunderstanding may make the intensification of the Western-Islamic confrontation appear inevitable. But these superficial characteristics conceal a more basic reason for the confrontation: the benefits that elites on both sides derive from the confrontation. In truth, the basic problem is less a matter of irreconcilable differences than a matter of how the two sides are defined.

On both sides, politicians and media frequently paint a picture of a zero-sum confrontation between Western and Islamic societies. The meaning of the confrontation and the path to resolving it would be instantaneously transformed if it were instead perceived as a confrontation between power-hungry, violence-prone elites on one side and common people on the other.

Many groups benefit from this confrontation:
  • Politicians (in Western electoral systems; Christian, Jewish, and Moslem fundamentalist movements; and Moslem dictatorships) use fear and nationalism to marshal support;
  • Arms manufacturers gain endless profit from endless war;
  • Big Oil (both Western oil companies that buy the petroleum and corrupt elites in Moslem societies who sell the petroleum) just keeps getting richer as the price rises.
It is in the interest of all these groups—call them The Elite--to convince everyone else that a clash of civilizations is occurring in which neutrality, compromise, and consideration of potential positive-sum outcomes are immoral and treacherous. Indeed, the fact that these extremists so often fall back on the emotional charges of immorality and treachery to prevent thoughtful dialogue is a key clue to the situation: what they fear more than anything else is that people will simply start talking, analyzing the situation, and searching for mutually beneficial solutions. The extremists understand with crystal clarity that their hold on power depends on the myth that “our society” faces an existential threat from “your society.”

It is not the societies that face existential threats, however; it is the power structures. Western control over global oil and the concomitant continuation of the West’s orgy of consumption probably are essential to the maintenance of the current power structure, but this behavior is not essential to the average person. Indeed, it is extremely dangerous. The longer the world continues to consume oil as though it had no limits, the sooner the collapse will occur and the harder it will hit. What would be in the real interest of our societies would be slowing the consumption of oil as much as possible to ensure that the supply lasts until a viable alternative can be made available in combination with a mature social attitude toward conserving our rapidly deteriorating environment.

An international political system organized to maximize egalitarianism and local control—a democratic, global confederacy of units composed of people who choose to be members—would be in the interest of society. The democratic nature of the system would enable all units to participate; the confederate structure would minimize central control but overcome the tendency of our current system based on state sovereignty to spawn “rogue states.” Such a system would certainly undermine current power structures – both of the states that compose the current system and of movements such as al Qua’ida who are challenging that system: superpowers, dictatorial client states, and extremist anti-system movements would all be extraneous in an all-inclusive, participatory system based on the rule of law but designed to maximize local initiative.

What is good for The Elite is bad for society. Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, and Bush all have built careers out of the clash of civilization myth. Moslem oil exporting elites and the Western military-industrial complex both benefit from the artificially high oil prices resulting from global conflict, and they both benefit from the conflict itself – the wars inflate their importance, provide profit, marginalize opposition, and create opportunities.

The benefits that the Israeli elite derives from the dispute with Palestine is just one example. Analogous arguments can be made about benefits that Iranian and American elites derive from blowing out of proportion “clash of civilization” rhetoric.

A more efficient economy and strengthened civil liberties are clearly in the interest of the Iranian people and almost certainly recognized by most Iranians as among their top goals, but Ahmadinejad is maintaining an impressive level of political support despite failing to deliver on either score simply by waving the bloody flags of fear and nationalism. Every one of the endless threats and insults flowing out of Washington and Tel Aviv is pure gold in Ahmadinejad’s pocket, on which he skillfully obtains compound interest.

Similarly, those threats and insults panic ignorant Western voters, convincing them to grant “near dictatorial powers” to elites with a private exploitative agenda. Constraints on civil liberties that undermine democracy to solidify elite control are sold to voters as necessary for security. Environmental destruction for the short-term profit of the rich is sold as necessary for energy independence. A war of civilizations designed to empower extremists is sold as the only way to survive.

So, what is good for The Elite is frequently bad for society; fear and anger are the tools the power-hungry use to manipulate society. That is not necessarily completely true or always true, of course. But the starting place is important. Starting with the assumption that people everywhere have a common interest that differs from the interests of those in power is a fundamentally distinct perspective from starting with the assumption that a zero-sum conflict exists among societies or cultures. The assumption of common interests shared by all humanity opens doors to a host of new ways to overcome problems, such as replacing the view that “national security” in a system of sovereign states must be maximized at everyone else’s expense with the view that security is a common good.

To assert that the enemy is not someone else’s culture is not at all to belittle the real dangers that exist. All major global cultures include individuals and, today at least, movements that are absolutely dangerous to humanity. The danger comes, first, from those individuals and movements; second, from the ignorant who are tricked into supporting them or the desperate, angry, and frustrated who understandably seek any port in the storm. But the solution is not the destruction of a culture, a people, a religion, or a country.

The key to resolving the confrontation between the West and Islam lies in redefining the definition between “them” and “us.” Certainly, problems will remain. Replacing fear with trust will require a long struggle. We will still need to figure out how to share insufficient water and land resources. But when “The Elite vs The People” becomes recognized as a major element in the confrontation between the West and Islam, then the door will open to addressing the needs of the desperate, the angry, the frustrated, and the insecure of all societies as a shared problem to be resolved jointly, partly—to be sure--through compromise but also in great measure through the definition of breakthrough, win-win solutions.

Breakthrough, win-win solutions are not fairytales for the naïve. The nuturing of democracy in post-World War II West Germany and Japan was one example; the peaceful breakup of the Soviet empire was another. In both cases, the challenge was defined as a shared problem to be resolved for the benefit of both sides. When leaders govern professionally, win-win solutions are possible. In contrast, elites who encourage conflict for their own benefit enormously raise the cost of solving the world’s real problems.

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