Journalists and intelligence officers are well acquainted with the many wild theories that constitute conventional wisdom among the people and pundits of the Middle East. Characterizing the American military presence in Iraq as a return of the Crusaders with ambitions to destroy Islam has been a basic theme.
It is interesting, therefore, that challenges to this perceived central concept of western ambition are now being floated by these same indigenous conspiracy theorists. The problem, as usual, is to determine whether any of this outlandish information and analysis holds even a kernel of truth.
Beirut and Cairo are two of the most prolific centers for the production of arcane intelligence. Most recently, in concert with the well-publicized Barack Obama call for immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq, there has been a bumper crop of rumors concerning the impact of an American pullout.
Counter-intuitively, the consensus is that a speedy departure of the U.S. military actually scares the Middle East region from Syria to Saudi Arabia.
FROM BEIRUT COMES the story that the Syrians are convinced the Israelis are about to attack them in order to cut off Hezbollah’s supply route and lines of retreat when Israel Defense Forces next attack Lebanon.
That seemingly logical fear is balanced, however, with a special Lebanese twist. Supposedly Bashir al Assad counts on the American military presence in Iraq giving Israel the confidence to stay out of Syria. Thinking “outside the box” has special meaning for the Middle East.
According to coffee purveyors in a Cairo souk, “everyone” in the region knows that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States benefit mightily from the American military presence in Iraq. The big, bad Persian wolf cannot harbor the ideas it traditionally has had to dominate its Gulf neighbors.
This Cairo source suggests that the same “everyone” knows the Americans keep the Iraqi Shia in check, much to Saudi delight. “Everyone” knows all this and the fact that the Americans spend billions in the region to maintain their forces.
But the big winner in the Arabian Nights fantasies is Iran. As long as there is a sizeable U.S. contingent in Iraq, Tehran has an easily available bete noir with which to petrify and focus the attention of the Iranian people.
The Great Satan and his army is right next door and ready to pounce. Any and all privations are easily attributed to the Americans and their proximity makes the claim all the more plausible. Ahmadinejad needs the Americans in Iraq. Our coffee guy, Daoud, seems a bit sharper on this one.
Daoud’s brother, the internationalist, says the Russians find the large US military in the region to be a definite disadvantage. Those American troops with all their hi-tech equipment are a constant reminder of the inadequacy of the Russian Army.
Moscow wants the Obama plan to succeed so they can get their oil and gas people into Iraq as soon as possible to follow up on the development contracts begun with Saddam. Hmmm.
AND SO IT GOES: Wild stories passing as considered thought proliferate the popular scene, but far more dangerously, also the regional foreign affairs establishment. It’s amazing how gullible diplomats and other government officials are in the Middle East. Every rumor is turned somewhere into an intelligence assessment.
In other words, in the Middle East the story is more important than the subject. In fact the ability to tell a story lifts the narrator far above his listeners. Classical Arabic is a language that lends itself to both flowery generalization and allegory. The Westerner with a rudimentary knowledge of street language may be able to communicate but never will be able to fully comprehend.
So it is also with analyzing events and intentions in Middle Eastern political life. Some of the Arab and Persian obfuscation and dissemblance is meant to camouflage true meaning, some to give a false impression, and some just to be polite and hospitable. Information gathered from sources in “the street” has all these characteristics and so do their official counterparts.
In the end one always must search for the true meaning of the information passed on — and then not be too sure in the assessment.
Maybe the Syrians really are counting on the American army to hold back the Israelis. And maybe so are the Israelis?