Five hard truths about the Middle East

No one begrudges politicians or diplomats their lies. Lying is their stock in trade.  First of all, it’s not like they lie all the time. Sometimes the truth slips out or, by coincidence, happens to support their objectives and thus manages to escape their mouths unscathed. Secondly, there are plenty of other people who, like ...

555486_110412_Qaddafi2.jpg
555486_110412_Qaddafi2.jpg
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi (R) speaks with presidents Jacob Zuma of South Africa (L) and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo outside a tent erected at his Bab al-Aziziya residence in Tripoli on April 10, 2011 during a meeting with a high-ranking African Union delegation trying to negotiate a truce between Kadhafi's forces and rebels seeking to oust him. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA (Photo credit should read MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)

No one begrudges politicians or diplomats their lies. Lying is their stock in trade.  First of all, it's not like they lie all the time. Sometimes the truth slips out or, by coincidence, happens to support their objectives and thus manages to escape their mouths unscathed. Secondly, there are plenty of other people who, like our top officials, also spin impossible stories to "help" us -- like religious leaders or certain cheating ex-girlfriends from long ago. But that's another story.

No one begrudges politicians or diplomats their lies. Lying is their stock in trade.  First of all, it’s not like they lie all the time. Sometimes the truth slips out or, by coincidence, happens to support their objectives and thus manages to escape their mouths unscathed. Secondly, there are plenty of other people who, like our top officials, also spin impossible stories to “help” us — like religious leaders or certain cheating ex-girlfriends from long ago. But that’s another story.

No, we not only expect the lies, but we factor them into how we hear what our leaders are saying. The translation lobe of our brain hears “humanitarian intervention” and understands “regime change”, hears “Pakistan is our ally” and understands “Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world.” The problem comes when the politicians and the diplomats starting believing their own sound bites and lose their grip on the underlying truth.

Thus, periodically, it is important to strip away the coats of speechwriter- and communiqué-applied varnish and get to the core realities of situations that have been spun so often that they have started to resemble gyroscopes. The simplest way to do this is to ask direct questions and get direct answers. So hear goes:

Five big questions and a few hard truths about the current situation in the Middle East:

1.) Is there any chance Qaddafi will be pushed from power in Libya?

Yes. But, as things look right now (see David Sanger’s good piece in today’s NY Times) it’s no foregone conclusion. Indeed, it’s looking tough enough and messy enough that Les Gelb’s suggestion in the Daily Beast that the U.S. and its allies give the African proposal for a negotiated settlement a good hard look makes good sense. His revolutionary core idea: that we actually live by our story that we went in for humanitarian reasons.

2.) Is the Pakistani government right that our primary goal in Pakistan is to neutralize their nuclear arsenal?

Let’s call a spade a freakin’ shovel here. Pakistan’s government is a far greater threat to U.S. interests than Al Qaeda. Their assertion that we are there primarily to “neutralize” their nuclear program is largely correct. And to address another issue raised in the NY Times piece that broke the story that Pakistan asked us to cut back our CIA, special ops and drone attacks in that country, to the Pakistani official who said their intelligence services made an ultimatum to the U.S. that we either trust them or not…we don’t. And we shouldn’t. Because the big truth in Pakistan is that a nuclear Pakistan is vastly more dangerous than Al Qaeda or any of the other terrorist groups they harbor and often assist.

3.) Is the biggest upheaval of 2011 yet to come?

While we’re on the subject of truth, let’s get real — one reason we need to get this Libya thing behind us is because bigger problems are coming down the pike and the biggest of 2011 is likely to turn on the renewed Palestinian move toward independence later in the year. Not only will they win considerable international support, they deserve it. But as we have repeatedly seen, a strong and even a justified impulse to change does not a smooth, peaceful or lasting transition make. This is going to be a thorny one for the region and for the U.S.

4.) $5 gasoline?

Yes, probably. Yet the Fed doesn’t see inflation as something to worry about. So don’t worry. When has the Fed ever been so deeply in denial that it ignored a brewing problem?

5.) Bahrain?

See the Pro Publica piece on what we’ve been sidestepping our way around there. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is traveling in the region (going “operational” is one of the things national security advisors are regularly counseled not to do, diplomacy really ought to be left to diplomats) talking to the Saudis and the UAE. We must hope he is actually raising this issue behind the scenes…because the alternative is an unacceptable U.S. silence on some very troubling behavior from our “friends.”

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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