Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Realism and the Middle East

Today, we saw Arafat's death turned into political capital for peace: the meeting at Sharm-el-Sheikh and a cease fire. This is an interesting moment for realism. Realism posits that interests, not personalities, dictate matters of war and peace. Similarly, it posits that internal politics do not dictate foreign policy on big questions. If Arafat's death is the event that causes peace to break out, not a change in underlying interests, it strongly suggests that either Arafat's personality or Abbas' political position are the most important causes behind the peace settlement, not the classic combo of power and interest that realists rely on.

This also means that realists expect the current 'peace initiative' to fail unless there is a more fundamental change elsewhere. Realists in the administration, caught between a theoretical rock and a practical hard place, are reduced to pure fabrication: they claim that the overthrow of Saddam in Iraq and US success in erecting democracy there is the "real cause" of peace. In the modern world, the middle east is where theory hits the road.


WesleyWes said...


The Middle East isnt America.


Raised By Republicans said...

I'm afraid I don't follow either the argument in the original post or the comment by WesleyWes.

How is a turnover of power not a result of domestic politics (the new leaders have different partisan positions than Arrafat did)?

And for the comment: I'm not sure I follow how the original post drew any analogy between the Middle East and American politics. Rather it was about making an argument about US Middle East policy.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I'd be interested in seeing WesleyWes articulate more clearly the point he was trying to make. If he was suggesting that, as we are Americans, The Citizens do not truly understand the dynamics of the Middle East, then that may well be accurate... but unfortunately, if that premise is true, then logically speaking I would also be incapable of evaluating it.

My personal opinion is that there won't be peace until the Palestinian Authority starts arresting Hamas members by the truckload. Am I hopeful? Well, more so than a year ago. But I'm not waiting up nights.

Raised By Republicans said...

I totally agree about Hamas. When Israel was founded one of the first things the new Israel government did was arrest all the most radical elements. Granted, the ones left in charge weren't saints but they were better than the guys they locked up.

The PLA needs to do something similar.

US West said...

I think LTG was pointing out that the underpinnings of Realist theory (which is and has been the dominate theory since the 1980s with a brief foray into multilateralism in the Clinton years) are brought into question by actual events in the Middle East. If Realist theory were to hold true, Arafat’s death would not have altered the situation in Israel since the interests of neither party have changed.

That is an interesting observation. But I am skeptical over how much Arafat’s death really changed anything. In spite of Arafat, Israeli and Palestinians were always negotiating very quietly behind the scenes. The problem with Realism always has been that it thinks only states have interests and that leaders operate accordingly. But Realism discounts those states, like the PA, that are really nothing more than personality cults. Realism assumes that States are rational actors in pursuit of power. It simplifies human nature by saying it is bad, thus ignoring the complexity of human motivation. It ignores the complicated psychology of leaders as humans, leaders who use the state as a vehicle to pursue personal interests and desires. I would also argue that Realism has created a blind spot among US policy makers dealing with the Middle East. Americans might be motivated by state interests. But the Middle East is about personality cults and social custom. And that to the American seems irrational. So we never fully understand our opponent. It’s like trying to negotiate through a purdah.

Arafat is a prime example (one of many) of this. I recently heard one US negotiator say that the conflict was so much a part of Arafat’s personality that he couldn’t stand to be without it. He didn’t have a strategic bone in his body. And the joke was that Arafat never missed an opportunity to miss and opportunity. He was a revolutionary. He should have stayed a revolutionary and let politicians of goodwill negotiate the end of the first Intifada. But he was too conflict-dependant for that. Like any “dictator”, he needed conflict to provide his legitimacy. I would argue that his removal simply allowed back room negotiations to come out into the open.

Also, I think the interests of both parities have changed. It is no longer in the interest of either state to wage war. They are both tired populations, a little like Northern Ireland was by the time they got ready to negotiate. The political realities and priorities in both camps are now different. Rather than insisting on right of return, Palestinians are willing to consider compensation and Israelis are willing to consider paying it. Rather than hanging on to Gaza, Israel is willing to withdraw taking settlers with them. I also wonder if there is some secret dealing going on between Israel and its allies that have altered the situation a bit. Note that Sharon was planning a Gaza pull out before the death of Arafat. Building the wall was Sharon’s way of withdrawing from conflict- containing it in the Territories.

Anyone who makes the argument that the war (pardon, I mean military intervention)in Iraq made any progress anywhere in the Middle East possible should have their head examined. And I need not explain more to this group. And I am not inclined to believe that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will magically resolve all the problems in the Region. What the Iraq action did was give the US a staging ground for potential intervention in Iran and Syria. Our Honorable (sniff, sniff, snort) Secretary of State all but openly stated that use of force against Iran is possible. I guarantee you that the plans are all drawn up as we speak. Now that is Realism exemplified. Start a war to get bases for the real war you want to fight.

Bell Curve said...

I am confused by this entire thread. I'm going to take a nap.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Thanks, USWest, for clarifying something I had not understood: when LTG used the word "realism" he was referring to a specific political-science theory. When I hear people use the word "realism" in politics, or science, I usually hear them speak of it as the opposite to "theory." LTG: replace "realism" with "reality" and you may see why I was so confused :-)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Yes, in the context of international relations theory, realism is the dominant theory. It has been for centuries. Von Clausewitz said that war was just the continuation of policy by sharpened means. It is known sometimes as "balance of power politics" although that's just a subset. Realists do not believe that individuals or institutions can save the world. If you want peace, they say, prepare for war. Only an external threat, they believe, will end the Great Game of international politics, by turning it galactic. Ancients claimed this was human nature; moderns claim that elementary game theory (i.e., the overworked prisoner's dilemma) explain relations and are embedded in the system. When Lord North(?) said that Britain had no permanent friends, only permanent interests, he was being a Realist.

I believe Arafat's death poses an interesting question for realism. I suggested that Realists expect failure, because they do not see his death as an critical condition. USWest is right, though, that they may claim that Palesine is not a state, and thus evade the issue (note that Israel's behavior is still unexplained).

Raised By Republicans said...

The core concepts of international relations "realism" theory go back - largely unchanged - to Thucydides and his discussion of the Peloponesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 4th century B.C. So right off the bat, you know that realists have aren't the most original thinkers in the political science community.

Realist theory is also plagued by a terrible tendency towards circular arument. They assume that all international politics is driven by unitary, rational, power maximizing states. That means they think there is a single "American" interest, for example, that is constant regardless of who is in power and that that interest can be defined as the quest for more power. Which states persue in the most efficient manner available.

Neither of the political scientists on this blog count themselves as "realists." That said, I have no problem with the rational part. I have a HUGE problem with the "unitary" part and to a lesser extent the power maximizing part. I think that international relations, like all politics, is the interaction of a myriad of individual interests and institutional constraints.