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Advice to Western Leaders: Don’t Visit the Middle East

Visits of Western leaders complicate old problems and create new ones, and moreover, the chances that these visits will yield a positive effect or result in a real solution to any problem, is quite low.
John Kerry: Here he comes again

John Kerry: Here he comes again

While speaking to American diplomats during his current tour, American Secretary of State John Kerry “created” a new state: Kyrzakhstan. Apparently he confused Kyrgyzstan with Kazakhstan. This slip of the tongue is more proof that those who hold key positions in the American government were appointed not because of their experience, talent, knowledge of the field and suitability for the position, but because of their connections, with the president, of course.

The new secretary of state, who has no experience in foreign affairs, must learn within a short time about almost two hundred states, about their history, their culture, their leaders, politicians and rulers and about the conflicts that they are involved in. The new secretary of state does not have a one hundred day grace period or a term of apprenticeship, so the inevitable result is characterized by shallowness, mediocrity and mistakes such as Kerry has already made, and mistakes that are much more severe.

And what is worse is that the new secretary of state fills senior positions in the state department with his friends, who, like Kerry, more or less, generally are not familiar with the international scene. Within the State Department a nucleus of permanent professional officials does exist, but they are not always in the center of political activity, which is located on the axis between the White House and Secretary of State.

The Middle East is one of the most difficult things for an American to understand, because the civil American culture is based on the individual, and is as far as possible from the East and its culture, which is based on groups  – tribal, ethnic, religious and sectoral – and this characterizes the societies in the Middle East. As a result of this, Americans see the Middle East through the lens of American culture and ask: “What is wrong with those people?”

There is a general pattern of failure regarding visits from senior officials, whether from America or Europe. The failure is a result of several factors:

(1) The itinerary of the visit. Naturally, the itinerary cannot include all of the states in the region, so someone will always be offended because he and his state were not included in the tour. An apology does not eliminate the feeling of disdain felt by someone who has been left out of the itinerary, and the injured party will find an opportunity in the future to take revenge on the Western leader for insulting him by visiting the region and ignoring him.

(2) Meeting the Opposition. The visitor wants to meet not only with the people in power, but also with the people of the opposition. This is acceptable in the United States and in Europe, but not in the Middle East. In June 2009, President Obama visited Egypt as a guest of Mubarak, but also met with his opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood. This meeting was like a knife in the back for Mubarak; it humiliated him and he was deeply offended by it. This is the real reason for his absence when Obama gave a speech to the Islamic nation. The meeting with the Brotherhood very much strengthened and encouraged them, and even today, many people who oppose the Brotherhood blame Obama for the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in their taking over the state.

(3) Meddling in Internal Affairs. The visitor tends to become involved in internal matters of the state that he is visiting, mainly in order to mediate and encourage reconciliation between the government and its opposition. In the Middle East such involvement is perceived very negatively, because according to the regional tradition, a mediator has the status of a judge, and how can a foreigner, who does not understand the culture of the Middle East, be a judge?

(4) Legitimizing Oppression. The visitor usually holds a press conference with his host, a president, prime minister or minister in the local state, in which he expresses support for the host and friendship toward him. In the West – where leadership is seen as legitimate – the public takes the words of the visitor as support for the state and friendship towards it. But in most of the states of the Middle East, where the government is perceived as illegitimate, a visitor who expresses support and friendship  for a ruler is seen as hostile to the population and a n accomplice in the governmental oppression that he suffers from.

(5) Offering Solutions to Complex Problems. The visitor likes to offer solutions to regional conflicts, but these solutions are usually shallow and do not address the roots of the conflicts. As a result, the “solutions” arouse opposition and hatred towards the visitor. The most obvious example is the solution based on money: monetary grants encourage governmental corruption and arouse hatred towards the visitor, since he is implicitly encouraging corruption.

(6) Middle Eastern View of Women. The visitor behaves according to the accepted behavioral codes of his state, which may differ from those of the host state, especially where women are concerned. Women who hold senior positions in the West – Madeleine Albright, Condoleeza Rice, Catherine Ashton – are accepted in the West as equals to men. But in the Middle East it is not acceptable for a woman to behave in a authoritative manner towards men, even if she represents a different state.  This was especially true regarding Condoleeza Rice, who presented a great cultural challenge to the people of the Middle East, because they had to accept her authority despite the facts that she is a woman, unmarried, and of African descent. These three components, and especially her African descent, caused many in the area to regard her with severe repulsion.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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