The Mideastwire Blog

Excerpts from the Arab and Iranian Media & Analysis of US Policy in the Region

Parag Khanna’s Own Arab Renaissance

I am always skeptical when “leading geo-strategist(s), world traveler(s) and author(s)” weigh in on specific regions for which they don’t seem to have much deep contact or professional training.

As such, I read Parag Khanna’s recent FP piece proclaiming a coming Arab Renaissance with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Khanna’s problematic contentions are as follows:

He writes: “Arabs are learning to solve their own problems. For the first time in more than 500 years, the convulsions rippling across the Arab world cannot be blamed on Ottoman conquest, European imperialism, American hegemony, or Israeli bullying. As unpredictable as the current situations in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other Arab states remain, we must remember that having had perhaps the worst possible leaders, their societies will very likely be better off in the medium and long term because their governance is for the first time becoming an inclusive arena — both nationally and regionally. The smartest thing the West can do is to help them help themselves.”

— Beyond the patronizing opening which mimics typical Orientalist clichés about Arabs not having EVER demonstrated the capacity for solving their own problems, Khanna seems to think that this is the FIRST time the Arabs cannot play the blame game. The problems with this formulation are well known: 1) there are many examples through 500 years whereby Arabs have attempted to “solve” their own problems (the list is long, of course, but note Muhammad Ali in Egypt, emancipatory Labor movements in Lebanon and other Arab states in the last century, numerous popular/indigenous uprisings over time…etc etc.)…. Khanna also seems to forget that many Arab voices have indeed blamed internal issues, proclivities etc for SOME of the Arab world’s problems throughout the last 500 years (i.e. patronizingly, “they got it”), but that, moreover, the relative lack of successful emancipatory movements has INDEED often been the result of the active and massive suppression – by preponderant external powers often in complicity with local actors.

Khanna is also plain wrong that the current convulsions CANNOT be “blamed” on external actions, whereas the current “Arab Predicament” is very much the result of precisely the forces which Khanna outlines then dismisses a la the victim-hood argument.

Finally – Not only is Khanna is wrong to suggest that for the first time Arabs are staking out an inclusive governance space, his uncritical, sweeping assumption that it WILL BE inclusive (especially if the West acts “right) ignores the very pressing debate RIGHT NOW about the widespread, perceived counter-revolution which appears to be gaining steam across the region!

Khanna then writes:

“…From the time that Gamal Abdel Nasser took hold of Egypt in 1954 to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s charismatic coup in Libya in 1969, a generation of leaders came to power riding the wave of anti-colonial Arab sentiment. But decades of post-colonial entropy and decay have culminated in collapse. The Arab world is now graduating from anti-colonial to anti-authoritarian revolutions.”

— First, to blame a faceless “entropy is to suggest that the massive, current problems facing almost all Arabs are the result of some sort of faceless game theory when this is obviously not the case in large part (i.e. much of these problems are the result of concrete policies, especially by preponderant outside actors and local proxies/benefactors). Second the patronizing words “graduating” and “riding the wave” suggest that Arabs – and leaders like Nasser – have very little agency. Even if Khanna is now saying that Arabs are taking back their agency, the terms employed immediately undercut the import of this point and essentially “patronize” it, automate it. What’s more, by robbing Nasser of any agency – he merely rode a wave – it makes Arabs like Nasser and those who supported him merely childlike, false consciousness victims and victimizers whereas the opposite dynamic (of agency, of battling against countervailing power, of a rational discussion and analysis of ones interests etc) was very much involved (if not dominant – which is a debate of course).

He continues: “…a new Arabism is coalescing, one that is truly pan-Arab in that it has little need for the insecure nationalism of the Nasserite era. It derives its strength instead from genuinely trans-Arab phenomena such as satellite television channels and the younger generation’s demand for more accountable governance. These movements are truly borderless, with Al Jazeera largely equal opportunity in its shaming of Arab autocrats — with the notable exception of Bahrain’s — and young activists training together across the region to successfully foment the current uprisings.

— Khanna has evidently not watched Jazeera and is unaware of the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement or the effect this is evidently having on Jazeera (note the debate over the Syria coverage!). In this, Khanna’s main flaw becomes especially evident: a generalist, a “geo-strategist” honing down to a regional and even national level which he is not intimately familiar with, to make large conclusions that are perfectly soundbyted and seem to “get it,” but which are actually based on a lack of knowledge and a misreading of what is actually happening on the ground level. To characterize and then package the Jazeera effect at this point as “genuine” is to misread the way in which power is now re-circulating – and in a very dangerous and un-emancipatory manner as several specialists on the Arab media have recently argued!

He continues: “…The Arab League’s backing of a no-fly zone in Libya and its ongoing consideration of peacekeeping forces for Palestine and Lebanon are striking examples of a meaningful transnational Arab political sphere coming into being. Even ruthless intrusions like Saudi Arabia’s sending of forces into Bahrain to suppress the swelling street protests are evidence that Arabs cannot continue simply to rejoice in their neighbors’ suffering and instead see their collective stability on the line.

If Khanna is referring to the Saudi wiki-leaked plan for arab troops in May 2008 in Lebanon then this is a serious disservice to the word “Meaningful.” If he means Arab League support for troops after a possible peace deal in the region, then he misreads a thinly veiled power play and political ploy by anti-democratic regimes and their elite backers. Either way, to refer to the widely derided and evidently ineffective and obviously hypocritical Arab League – and their divided (non)backing of the Libya adventure! – as examples of a “meaningful” Arab sphere…. and to add the KSA’s “ruthless intervention” as ANOTHER example of this great awakening… well I would challenge Khanna to find much genuine support for this view in either the halls of the elites in the region (behind closed doors of course) or, especially, among Arab public opinion!

Khanna then launches into the part which most troubles me, in a sense, as it mirrors the DC-type “catch-wordism” that gets so much funding, and which seems “to get it” to those outside of the policy target box, but which instead usually only guarantees that the underlying, structural problems DONT get attention, dont get solved and that more funding and hopes are pinned on nicely packaged, small ideas (how Clintonesque!) which hopefully will do “the trick” on the cheap (at least it will make us SEEM serious). Indeed, this part, below, sounds so remarkably like the Netanyahu plan for “economic peace,” that it is hard to read on as a serious prescription or analysis for the next stage of the Arab awakening:

“…Yet no greater step could be taken to alleviate Arabs’ economic and political woes than investment in cross-border infrastructure. The recent launch of the New Palestine Party — whose explicit platform is to implement the Rand Corporation’s proposal for an infrastructure “Arc” to unite the West Bank and Gaza into a viable and independent state — is a visceral reminder of how fundamental territorial realignments must be made to overcome political division and economic stagnation.

— Put simply, a Rand Corp proposal is wildly out of place if you are talking about an indigenous action plan and movement for change! And to then wed it to a blogospheric “New Palestine Party” that few have heard of (a google search yields the hit New Palestine Brothers Party Limousine service) is, well, just contradictory, not to mention unserious.

I mean – there is NO GREATER STEP for addressing political AND economic woes than…. a RAND corp expressway? Really….?

He continues with his virtuous cycling, saying, “…This new Arabism deserves strong Western support. Its goals are secular: jobs, education, women’s rights, and good governance. If Europe and the United States play their relations with emerging leaders in government, the private sector, and civil society correctly, they can be more certain to have good ties with whoever prevails in future elections. Furthermore, as Hurriyet columnist Mustafa Akyol argues in a provocative new book titled Islam Without Extremes, these new secular young Arabs claiming a political voice can be Islamist without succumbing to political Islam. But unless the West buttresses the goals of these new secular Arabs through foreign investment and technical assistance, political Islam will continue to thrive among the marginalized underclass.”

— First Khanna should know that Islamism is NOT only thriving among poor people and indeed in several countries is rooted in a pious middle class (with extremist versions like the 9/11 bombers strongly present among some upper classes as in KSA!). I.e. Islamism is NOT JUST FOR MANIPULATED DUMMMIES.

Second, Khanna, perhaps unknowingly, quotes a writer in the right wing, anti AKP paper Hurriyet who is TURKISH… hardly a great or ideal support for an argument about ARABS…

And finally, the main point: Khanna constructs a vision which is his Western vision for how “good Arabs” and Muslims should look and act. The problem is that this may not be what a whole lot of people in the region RATIONALLY want. What then? What does that mean for the Rand Corp ideas for economic peace in Palestine? Khanna says he knows what this Arab awakening truly wants – the SAME as “us.” But how can we take Khanna’s word for it? And what if most people here, quite democratically, don’t agree with him…? How will Khanna suggest “we” react, one wonders: with a bit of force and a gentle but firm-fatherly display of dismay?


Written by nickbiddlenoe

April 28, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Posted in ANALYSIS

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