Barry Rubin has some advice for political junkies trying to understand the Middle East: It defies logic.
“If you who think you can understand politics in the Middle East using the same logic used to understand politics in Pittsburgh, you are sadly mistaken,” Rubin said at his Nov. 11 lecture at the University of Pittsburgh.
He spoke, following a talk on Iran given by columnist Abby Wisse Schachter, whose work regularly appears in The Chronicle.
The director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel and a senior fellow of its International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Rubin blogs regularly on the complex issues facing Israel and has written more than 60 books and articles on the subject.
And even he says the subject defies normal logic.
Rubin’s presentation focused on the importance of knowing an insider’s perspective on Middle East politics, which he provided. Among his major points:
• Israel is not the most important issue when discussing the Middle East; the conflict between the nationalist Arabs and the radical Islamists is;
• The nationalists, who want to turn the clock back to the 1950s and start policies from that time period over again, are bad, but, the radical Islamists, who believe the problem is that governments are not extreme enough, are worse;
• Any hope of achieving a meaningful peace between Israel and her neighbors in the next 20 to 30 years is badly misguided as long as the Arab powers continue to favor principal over pragmatism.
Rubin also criticized U.S. policies for Israel and Iran under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. While he favors diplomacy, he said, it’s crucial to understand popularity among the people means nothing in an environment where might makes right. As one Middle Eastern man told him in reference to Obama’s Cairo speech earlier this year, “We don’t want Obama to be Arab. We don’t want him to be Muslim. We want him to be American.”
According to Rubin, the Obama administration has quickly learned that negotiating with radical forces is impossible, and will develop a strategy of “soft engagement” within the next few months.
Tougher sanctions against Iran are inevitable, he said, but noted that such sanctions will be “good, but useless” in the long run.
Rubin also touched on other regional issues, like why an Israeli-Syrian peace won’t happen soon, the mindset of Arafat in the Oslo process, the impact of a nuclear Iran (which he gave a “10 to 20 percent chance of happening”), why a pre-emptive military strike by Israel wouldn’t change much if Iran did go nuclear and how Middle East dictatorships prevent liberal progress through Orwellian means.
Students at the talk generally found Rubin’s perspective refreshing.
“I think he is a genius,” said Sam Mellits, an undergraduate at Pitt. “He put Middle Eastern politics in a way Western people can understand it. I lived in Israel for a few years so I kind of know where he was coming from.”
Aaron Walinsky agreed. “I will use this information in the future whenever it comes up in arguments and in life,” he said. “He didn’t really change my opinions since I was already on his side, but to hear him give his opinions in the intelligent way he does, this really helped me to broaden my base.”
Rubin’s points need to be heard at Pitt, said Samantha Vinokor, Legacy Heritage fellow for the Pitt branch of CAMERA and president of Panthers for Israel.
“I was thrilled to have someone with such a great breadth of knowledge saying things you don’t often hear on campus,” she said. “You don’t hear much criticism of the current administration in The Pitt News, or anywhere else [here], and there is not much dialogue. To hear we are not showing enough strength on Iran from someone who knows so much … it reinforced and gave credibility to my beliefs to hear them so well represented.”
But for graduate student Josh Solomon, the talk came up short.
“In my opinion, he came across as someone who knows a lot about the intricacies of the Middle East, but not about what might work,” Solomon said. “He talks about the U.S. having a heavy hand, but also not going to war. I don’t want war. He says we should have sanctions [against Iran] but then says sanctions don’t work. I don’t know what he just told me.”
(Derek Kwait can be reached at email@example.com.)