It is embarrassingly comical how analyses of so-called ‘Middle East experts’ have become empty of substance and almost indistinguishable. If you walk into a room and start watching television without knowing the name of the program, it is very difficult to tell whether you are watching CNN’s Wolf Blitzer or John Stewart’s the Daily Show. One can read a hundred of newspaper articles every week and find the same ideas being recycled over and over again and you do not know whether to laugh or to cry.
On the Palestinian issue for instance, you can watch CNN, read The New York Times or even the Pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat which I write for, and still find identical analyses and the same conclusions being reused by different experts and commentators. Consider the following statement and try and count how many times you heard it on television or read it in an op-ed piece about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“The solution begins with breaking the cycle of violence in order to attain a state of calm in the region that is conducive for negotiations. In this light, we must pressure Abu Mazen to unite his security apparatus and to control Hamas and Jihad and prevent them from waging operations against Israel. At the same time we must empower Mr. Abbas and provide him with the political and economic support he needs. We should be clear, however, that the Palestinian must change their violent approach and must end the phenomenon of suicide bombers who blow themselves up on buses and in nightclubs. The cycle of violence must be broken and we must bring the parties back to the table of negotiations, and ask them to fulfill their obligations so we can begin implementing the Road Map. We must explain to the parties that there is no way out of direct negotiations and that America does not have a magic stick that can resolve all the existing problems.”
After counting the hundreds of times one reads such statements over and over again in any given month, one can only wonder whether all those analysts have studied the Middle East at the same school, and whether they prepare their articles and interviews in the same room.
The phenomenon of recycled analysis is not limited to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (or what is also known as the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, depending on the week), but also extends itself to ‘expert analysis’ on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Let us look at the generic commentary we encounter every day on each of those countries.
An expert is asked to comment on the current situation in Saudi Arabia or the future of US-Saudi relations, and the following answer is always invoked:
“First, we must put pressure on Saudi Arabia to eliminate the Wahhabi content of its school curriculum. The Kingdom must also undergo a process of reform to transform its economy from an oil-based economy to a diverse and open one. We should not expect the Kingdom to undergo that change overnight, because we cannot ask the new King to confront the Islamic radicals right away, considering the religious extremism that the country is suffering from today and given that King Abdullah just took over from his late brother. We have to give King Abdullah some time to deal with the internal divisions inside his family, or the divisions between the pro-Western ‘taqarob’ wing and the anti-Western ‘tawheedi’ wing. The United States must also support the Kingdom in its internal war against Al-Qaeda terror and against terrorist financing in order to prevent this support from going to jihadist elements in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The logical question to ask here, is the above statement: (a) familiar or (b) too familiar?
As for Egypt, “this is a different and sensitive situation, especially when we talk about the conflict between Mr. Mubarak and religious extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood. We must put pressure on President Mubarak to advance more reform, but at the same time we must be careful not to pressure him too much or else the country can fall into hands of the Islamic fanatics. This can be very dangerous, and I do not need to remind our viewers that Egypt is a key country in the Middle East peace process and in the US war on terror. Whoever wins Egypt, which is the largest Arab country, wins the whole Arab world. We have to stand by Egypt in order for Mubarak to play the role of moderation in peace negotiations, and in tackling the problem of Islamic extremism.”
Whenever asked about Syria, our ‘generic expert’ tells us, “The problem of Syria is similar to that of Egypt. In the two cases, the Syrian and Egyptian regimes must take a strong stance against the Old Guard. We cannot expect change in Syria or Syrian policy until the regime deals with its Old Guard.”
Finally, “the goal in Lebanon is to get the truth behind the assassination of Hariri, and to guide the Lebanese people away from sectarianism and violence. What is important is to put all those responsible for the Hariri assassination on trial, and to create a national dialogue that can reconcile the differences between all the various sects.” US experts usually close with “We must disarm Hizbullah,” while most Arab experts close with “Hizbullah is Lebanon’s weapon of resistance and it must remain so until all conflicts in the region are resolved.”
The same holds for Iraq, tells us the generic experts, where “the international community has to stand firm by Iraqi Prime Minister Jeffery [Ja’fari] in his confrontation with Al-Zarqawi and his group.”
The above excerpts, in a nutshell, summarize what we listen to on a daily basis. We are consistently bombarded by the same clichés, like “the importance of reform from within and not through external pressure”, all of which underscore the phenomenon of intellectual stagnation in an environment of fear and intimidation. Put simply, every one is resorting to easy and generic remarks in order to preserve their own political correctness. If one says, “reform must be advanced from the outside,” then he/she is accused of being an agent of the Americans. If you say “reform must come from within” then you are an agent for local autocratic regimes. Statements like “it’s important to maintain Islamic values” brings the accusation of being a secret agent for the Muslim Brotherhood, while advocating the “separation of state and religion” makes you a prophet for secularism, an advocate for liberalism in the Arab world, or sometimes a tool in the hands of international Zionism.
This corrupt intellectual environment is the perfect recipe for meaningless and recycled commentary that contributes nothing to either policymakers or to the observers’ understanding of Middle East issues. Such statements sound acceptable and logical, not because they are sound, but because they are all what we have and because they are casually exchanged in interviews and public dialogues, notwithstanding their lack of substance and depth. Until the next time I read or the hear phrases like “the old guard” or “we must break the cycle of violence”, I can only appeal to the creativity of our Middle East ‘experts’ to find us a solution.