Michael Young
The Daily Star (Opinion)
October 8, 2009 - 12:00am

By coincidence, I happened to pick up another book while reading Hussein Ibish’s excellent, precise dismantling of the agenda for a single Jewish-Arab state in the area of historical Palestine. The book in question, which provided a handy conceptual context to Ibish’s, was Robert Conquest’s “The Dragons of Expectation,” which discusses how ideological delusion has “seized the mind of many in the West and elsewhere – with misleading thought about what faces us, much of it bred and projected from unreal obsessions about the still-living past.”

The phrase sums up well the failings of those advocating a one-state agenda, particularly Palestinians and Arabs living in the West. For as Ibish writes, such a project is largely a diasporic one, far removed from Palestinian and Israeli realities. Yet its proponents continue to press on with the binational state idea, oblivious to its unpopularity and their own specious assumptions, because they believe in the pure idea, a dragon of expectation that, left unquestioned, can be destructively consuming.

Conquest has fought such dragons for decades, particularly those to which many in the West succumbed at the time of the Soviet Union. His masterpiece on the Stalinist purges, “The Great Terror,” was maligned by so-called “progressives” when it was published in 1968, particularly his estimation of the number of victims, which he placed at some 20 million. The critics pointed out that Conquest later lowered his figure once the Soviet archives were opened. The joke was on them. So appalling did these remain, that they only confirmed how right he was early on in regarding the decades of Stalin as a defining monstrosity of the 20th century.

The delusions of Western or Western-educated Arab progressives have also shaped views of other Middle Eastern issues after the 9/11 attacks. Yet why focus on the left when the right, too, is afflicted with myriad faults? Principally because it is the left that has purported to speak in the name of universalist, humanistic values, while those on the right – old-line realists or neoconservatives – have either tended to preoccupy themselves with maintaining stability, regardless of its repercussions for liberal values, or have placed American power at the center of their contemplations.

There is also the reality that the left, more than the right, has allowed its discourse to be overtaken by a utopian urge, by the Ideal. And those like Ibish, or Conquest, each in their very different worlds, are commendable, and set upon, because they cannot stomach the bending of reality to satisfy that Ideal. They know that when ideas take on a greater import than the evidence sustaining them, in other words when they become counterintuitive, those holding onto these ideas will fall in love with their own moral righteousness, denouncing dissenters as immoral.

Let’s take two examples from the contemporary Middle East. In the last decade and more, not a few Western progressives have embraced Hizbullah as a regenerative force among Lebanon’s Shiites and in the midst of the country’s fractured political culture. Because Shiites tend to be poor, this sympathy has been accompanied by a form of ethical sanction, a sense that the party is a dispenser of social justice, a righter of past wrongs. Hizbullah’s hostility toward Israel and the United States, like its successful resistance in the south up to May 2000, have fed into a broader mood that the party, even if it is not what a Westerner, or a Westernized Arab, would naturally gravitate toward, nonetheless has come down on the right side of history, against outside hegemony and a Lebanese system that is corrupt, archaic, and morally indefensible.

These thoughts tell us more about those thinking them, than about Hizbullah and the Shiite reality. It is a mystery how individuals who consider themselves partisans of humanistic principles can identify these in an autocratic religious, militarized party whose ideological mindset and political continuity is reliant on the perpetuation of violence. And this against a Lebanese social and political order that, for all its faults, is organically pluralistic, allowing invigorating variety and dissent.

A second example. For years after the invasion of Iraq, progressives referred to the foes of the “neo-imperialistic” United States and its allies there as a “resistance.” This sloppy, expansive term did not filter out former regime criminals or Al-Qaeda, at a time when it was beheading foreigners and representatives of Iraqi institutions. I vividly recall one left-wing professor with tenure at an American university regretting the capture of Saddam Hussein, because, he said, this would strengthen George W. Bush. There was “the resistance” and there was America. In the odd zero-sum moralism of the time, what one gained the other lost, and no self-respecting humanist was going to side with the US president.

Today, this neat dichotomy is falling apart. Whatever “resistance” there may be is undermining the emergence of a sovereign Iraqi state. Iraq’s leaders openly accuse Syria of continuing to allow Al-Qaeda militants across its border to strengthen the Syrian hand in a post-America Iraq. Regional cynicism has taken over. The US is on its way out. Progressives are lost. Who to blame? Who embodies the total Ideal? There are no clear answers, except perhaps one: The nasty, brutish rule of Saddam Hussein is over, a new Iraq is emerging, and the US, basically responsible for this, is evidently averse to playing the neo-imperialist bogeyman by lingering.

In defense of their virtuous choices – that of endorsing a supposedly just Hizbullah against a Lebanese state riddled with shortcomings or the idealization of a purported Iraqi resistance against Western domination – progressives have sided with the very forces most dedicated to thwarting liberal outcomes. In that way they are defined more by what they oppose than by what they stand for. To paraphrase Robert Conquest, they have failed in their duty to clear the ground of false witness.


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