Hussein Ibish
NOW Lebanon (Blog)
May 10, 2011 - 12:00am

On numerous occasions during the ongoing turmoil in the Arab World, I’ve been accused by friend and foe alike of engaging in “conspicuous silence.” Commentators, particularly in the age of the internet and cable television, are expected by news organizations and consumers to provide instant analysis on anything and everything. But sometimes the only honest and intelligent thing to say is very little, or even nothing.

The most recent instance was the accusation that I’ve been “conspicuously silent” about the unrest in Syria. As a matter of fact I haven’t been all that silent, particularly on social media and television, but I haven’t written an extended analysis of the Syrian situation either. This is because, like the early phases of the uprising in Egypt, the situation is extremely fluid, and even the identity of the key players in the uprising is not entirely clear.

There is a lot that can and has been usefully written about Syria, including backgrounders on key regime or opposition figures, and historical context. But the situation is so murky and fluid that a sustained or serious analysis is practically impossible. Not only have I not written one, I haven’t read one either.

What most people really want, of course, is an expression of moral indignation with the brutality and intransigence of the ghastly dictatorship in Damascus. That virtually goes without saying, and it’s largely what I’ve supplied on social media and television. But such an approach is no substitute for an evaluation. In fact, all analyses of the Syrian situation I have encountered are phony, ideological, aspirational or facile.

One could observe that we will probably witness a period of extended violence after which the Assad regime either survives, intact or in a modified form, or doesn’t. Or one could say the most crucial factor is the Syrian military, and that if the regime can hold it together and keep it loyal, the Assads are likely to survive in power at least for the foreseeable future. Or one could warn about the dangers of sectarian strife, or the potential role of Islamist extremists.

But all of these statements are obvious and quite unenlightening, and none qualifies as worth reading or writing. As for predictions, under such circumstances--when the opposition is largely leaderless and without a clear ideology and the internal cohesion of the regime is unclear--they are the surest manifestation of a shameless charlatan.

Resisting the demand for instant analysis becomes all the more difficult when questions arise in one’s particular area of focus, and I’ve been dealing with that in the aftermath of the Fatah-Hamas national reconciliation agreement. The simple fact is that what has been agreed is obviously very vague and not precisely known, and how it will be implemented – indeed how much of the accord could possibly work – remains a complete mystery.

Virtually no specifics are clear, including the international and regional reaction, which party really has the upper hand, or what the impact will be on Palestinian national strategy in the long run. There is also no way of telling at this stage whether the agreement will be a political accommodation, bring about real national unity, or whether it is simply a temporary political gimmick. It seems clear that even the parties themselves are not quite sure, and they appear to have agreed to sign a document without knowing exactly what the outcome will look like. My conversations with people who ought to know strongly suggest that even they really don’t.

Because the specifics are entirely unknown, a serious evaluation is quite impossible at the moment. I’ve disappointed numerous editors and publications in recent days by refusing to proffer a facile rush to judgment, and on radio and television I have limited myself to saying why it’s too early to analyze its nature or implications.

As a commentator, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to pretend to understand everything right away. You’re expected to produce instant analysis of whatever happens or whatever you’re asked about, even if the basic actors or ideologies in an uprising can’t be readily identified, or the essential outlines of an agreement are totally unclear.

I was once seated in front of a camera on a major American cable news network about to be interviewed about Islamophobia in Hollywood films when the US Federal Reserve cut the prime interest rate. I was asked if I would come back the next day for the scheduled interview, but also offered 5 minutes to comment on the new rate. I declined.

This seems to me a perfect example of the kind of all-purpose punditry that is both accepted and expected by news content producers and consumers alike. But honesty and seriousness demand that sometimes conspicuous silence, rather than empty posturing, is the only honorable, and indeed meaningful, commentary.


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