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Soft on Persons, Hard on Issues - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The most important American rule in diplomacy is to be “soft on persons, hard on issues.” This rule, however, can cause real confusion to peoples of a culture that has little knowledge of how to separate between issues and persons. This is why, often times, Arab officials misinterpret policies and political stances in the West. Notwithstanding that Vagueness, to be fair, remains a useful tool in Western politics, making misinterpretations even more likely.

That’s what I was thinking while watching some Arab officials making the same mistakes of their predecessors. Soft personal demeanor on the part of Western officials, and even a touch of kind humbleness, is subservient to Western interests. The counterfeit warmth of official encounters remains in the meeting rooms, but the results accomplished by that warmth walk out to make history. Western officials are quite savvy in employing sociology, psychology and cultural nuances to reach their goals. We, Arabs, on the other hand, think that the hand patting on our shoulder is directly connected to the heart, and a photo of warm handshake is the key to accomplishment.

A telling anecdote I remember from my work with President Hafiz Assad is a case in point. After signing the Oslo agreement between Arafat and Rabin, American Congressman Arnold Spector said to the late President: “Mr. President, if you sign a similar agreement, you will find your photos on the front pages of all newspapers in the world.” President Assad reply was memorable: “First, I am not interested in having my photo in the front pages of newspapers. Second, if I sign a peace agreement, it will have to be for a kind of peace that my people will defend even after my death.”

What does George Bush mean today when he says that “Lebanon is a role model for the Middle East”? Is he referring to some Lebanization of the other countries of the Middle East? The American occupation has already lebanized Iraq, dividing it to conflicting sectarian and ethnic groups incapable of creating a unifying democratic system. Or was President Bush referring to compromises that merited an affectionate pat on the shoulder from his own hand that lately stopped aid to Palestinians?

While some Arab leaders are savoring the euphoric elation of walking side by side with the American president, the rest of us, in the Arab world, in Iraq, and in Palestine are wondering if these gloomy days will ever pass. For now, a five minute visit to the president in DC seems to be worth all the suffering, and definitely worth keeping the American list of personas non grata at an arm’s length. This is even if those personas non grata were democratically elected by their people.

The question is: when will Arab officials see through their egocentrism that they are transitory on this earth? And that the issues are much more important and lasting than their smiling photos? Israeli officials are definitely teachers in this regard. Sharon fell out of the political process, and yet Israeli policies, settlement plans, aggression and killing continue unscathed. The issues remain to be Israeli security, and Israeli future, and Israeli plans; while personal images dwindle in the background.

It is high time for the Arabic political “I” to mature, and prove worthy of carrying the issues to a different level in the international political arena. Individuals do change history. They do, however, only when the issues become the individuals. The national interests triumph when their guardians reach beyond photo opportunities and remain steadfast on issues, even when they are soft on persons.

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

Prof. Bouthaina Shaaban is political and media advisor to the Syrian presidency, and the former minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer, and has been a professor at Damascus University since 1985. She received her PhD in English Literature from Warwick University, London. She was the spokesperson for Syria. She was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

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