I just attended a conference that was both illuminating and depressing. It was co-sponsored by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan and the American Enterprise Institute, and the idea was to get Americans and moderate Arab reformers together to talk about Iraq, Iran, and any remaining prospects for democracy in the Middle East.
As it happened, though, the Arab speakers mainly wanted to talk about the Israel lobby. One described a book edited in the mid-1990s by the Jewish policy analyst David Wurmser as the secret blueprint for American foreign policy over the past decade. A pollster showed that large majorities in Arab countries believe that the Israel lobby has more influence over American policy than the Bush administration. Speaker after speaker triumphantly cited the work of Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and Jimmy Carter as proof that even Americans were coming to admit that the Israel lobby controls their government.
The problems between America and the Arab world have nothing to do with religious fundamentalism or ideological extremism, several Arab speakers argued. They have to do with American policies toward Israel, and the forces controlling those policies.
As for problems in the Middle East itself, these speakers added, they have a common source, Israel. One elderly statesman noted that the four most pressing issues in the Middle East are the Arab-Israeli dispute, instability in Lebanon, chaos in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran. They are all interconnected, he said, and Israel is at the root of each of them.
We Americans tried to press our Arab friends to talk more about the Sunni-Shiite split, the Iraqi civil war and the rise of Iran, but they seemed uninterested. They mimicked a speech King Abdullah of Jordan recently delivered before Congress, in which he scarcely mentioned the Iraqi chaos on his border. It was all Israel, all the time.
The Americans, needless to say, had a different narrative. We tended to argue that problems like Muslim fundamentalism, extremism and autocracy could not be blamed on Israel or Paul Wolfowitz but had deeper historical roots. We tended to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue not as the root of all fundamentalism, but as a problem made intractable by fundamentalism.
In other words, they had their narrative and we had ours, and the two passed each other without touching. But the striking thing about this meeting was the emotional tone. There seemed to be a time, after 9/11, when it was generally accepted that terror and extremism were symptoms of a deeper Arab malaise. There seemed to be a general recognition that the Arab world had fallen behind, and that it needed economic, political and religious modernization.
But there was nothing defensive or introspective about the Arab speakers here. In response to Bernard Lewis’s question, “What Went Wrong?” their answer seemed to be: Nothing’s wrong with us. What’s wrong with you?
The events of the past three years have shifted their diagnosis of where the cancer is – from dysfunction in the Arab world to malevolence in Jerusalem and in Aipac. Furthermore, the Walt and Mearsheimer paper on the Israel lobby has had a profound effect on Arab elites. It has encouraged them not to be introspective, not to think about their own problems, but to blame everything on the villainous Israeli network.
And so we enter a more intractable phase in the conflict, which will not be a war over land or oil or even democratic institutions, but a war over narratives. The Arabs will nurture this Zionist-centric mythology, which is as self-flattering as it is self-destructive. They will demand that the U.S. and Israel adopt their narrative and admit historical guilt. Failing politically, militarily and economically, they will fight a battle for moral superiority, the kind of battle that does not allow for compromises or truces.
Americans, meanwhile, will simply want to get out. After 9/11, George Bush called on the U.S. to get deeply involved in the Middle East. But now, most Americans have given up on their ability to transform the Middle East and on Arab willingness to change. Faced with an arc of conspiracy-mongering, most Americans will get sick of the whole cesspool, and will support any energy policy or anything else that will enable them to cut ties with the region.
What we have is not a clash of civilizations, but a gap between civilizations, increasingly without common narratives, common goals or means of communication.