Middle Eastern Political Behaviour is Spreading World-Wide


Over the years, one of the greatest problems I have faced is trying to explain to folks abroad that politics in the Middle East operates on different premises than it does in their countries—and so so-called “solutions” concocted in Washington or Brussels may be of no value because they fail to deal with what are core issues in Middle Eastern countries, but which are considered to be secondary or even irrelevant matters in other countries.


For example, I don’t know how many times I have been told sternly or in exasperation: “Why can’t these people just sit down and work out their problems?” or “Why can’t you get your act together?”


Worse still, too many foreigners became convinced that they had arrived at the secret for resolving those problems. Too often, of course, those so-called “solutions” were based on a knowledge of the situation here that was only partial or outright wrong. And when their ideas were proven to be faulty, instead of reassessing the positions that they had held, many of these pontificators dug in their heels, let their emotions take over, and then adopted extremist positions in support of or in opposition to one side or another in the various Middle East disputes. The so-called BDS movement (Boycott, divest, sanctions) of Israel is one example. Unthinking support for any and all Israeli government actions by some Jews abroad is another.


The underlying reason for their frustration was their assumption that the system for conflict resolution that they had been used to, and that they wanted to employ here, applies universally.  The thing is that it doesn’t…for all sorts of historical and cultural reasons.


There is tremendous irony in all of this because I have come to the conclusion that, in recent years, social and economic and political changes that have been going on abroad have led many foreign nations to begin behaving like Middle Easterners…without realizing it.




Recently, Middle Eastern states have been going through an unusually chaotic period. But so too have other countries.


One need only look at what the economic crisis has been doing to almost everyone in the world.


Even more interestingly, though, there are great parallels between what is currently happening in the Middle East and what is taking place elsewhere in the world. The thing is: nobody seems to be noticing.


That is because, on the surface, it would not appear to be so.


In Israel, we have been witnessing a series of devastating state comptroller reports on incompetence and foot-dragging by government ministers. The social revolution is once again raising its head because the government has failed to deal  with some of the most important issues of concern to the average Israeli, such as the cost of housing and the fact that food prices are, on average, 30 percent higher than they are in Europe.


In the Arab world, Islamism has been making rapid gains and Syrian President Assad keeps slaughtering his people—as does President Bashar in Sudan. Iraq has gone back to waging what is in effect a civil war. And Egypt remains a political and economic basket case.


And, given the current level of instability, it has been only natural that the two non-Arab states bordering the region, Turkey and Iran, have been competing for hegemony in Fertile Crescent.


In Europe, the economic crisis continues—and continues to affect us—because the politicians there can’t get their act together. And the United States is so riven politically that compromise on even basic issues has become almost impossible in Washington.


When viewed as discrete events, there doesn’t seem to be much commonality among all these events. But, there is not only a pattern, there are also many unifying elements that lie behind almost everything of import that we have been witnessing in the past few years around the world. Unfortunately, as I have just said, these similarities have gone largely unnoticed, and thus finding solutions to the problems has been delayed.


As invariably happens at times like this, when political, social and economic instability seems to be pervasive, it has been only natural for people to look for guidance from history, and for lessons on how leaders in the past coped or failed to cope with similar periods of instability.


Maybe the best example of a person doing just that today is Germany’s Angela Merkel, for whom the lessons learned from the tragedies in Germany in the 1930s are at the forefront of her mind in all her negotiations on how to deal with the European economic crisis.


One problem that has arisen in its sharpest form from this examination of the past, though, is that, because each nation-state in the world has a different history, most of the world’s leaders cannot agree on how history should be interpreted and which lessons should be taken from history.


However, if people looked back far enough in history—before nation-states came into being in the 18th century—they could find the explanation for many of the issues facing us today.


I think that the best place to start an examination of what is happening world wide is to look at the history of and what is happening in the Middle East. And that history goes way back.


Based on archeological findings, it is not unreasonable to assume that, since the Fertile Crescent was the first place where agricultural settlement took place, the art of politics as we know it was also invented in this region. Prior to that, bands of hunter-gatherers undoubtedly negotiated with each other, and even went into battle over territorial rights.


But it was only with the development of the idea of a division of labour in the newly-founded cities that paid diplomats, courtiers, tax collectors, accountants and professional soldiers began to make their appearance. There was a need, in effect, to invent the idea of a middle class that would not only provide goods and services, but also be able to earn enough to pay a lot of taxes. Prior to that time, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, who were members of extended families, clans or tribes, simply didn’t need such services because responsibilities for communal services, such as mutual protection, were shared by all the members of the group.


In order to control the centrifugal forces of residual, independence-oriented tribalism, these new urban agglomerations needed strong leaders capable of putting up walls around the cities for defence and of putting down revolts inside their cities. They also needed to develop and enforce a common value system to bond all the people with the glue of a set of agreed-upon laws, visions and beliefs. Hammurabi’s code, for example, was the product of just such an effort.


It was also for that reason that, from the very beginning, politics (the practice of rule) and religion (which is essentially a platform for expressing fears, beliefs and visions) became intimately enmeshed. In Egypt there were god-kings, and in other places, shamans and religious practitioners were at the top or near the top of the social hierarchy.


In places where that melding was most successful, the result was the establishment of whole empires.


But this new system of rule was also a mixed blessing.


Once they were no longer mobile, people needed protection from the vagaries of those who sought to rule, from natural disasters such as floods and drought over which the rulers had no control, and from brigands who did not accept the rules of the society that had been established.  And so a reliance on mutual assistance through personal commitments to blood relations in the form of extended families and tribes persisted.


Tribalism only really began to ebb in the Western world with the advent of industrialization, the development of the concept of self-governing nation-states, and the evolution of the concept that every individual has certain inalienable rights. Industrialization meant that people were no longer tied to the land or to their places of birth. They were thus more mobile because they could seek work in the mills and steel plants in the cities—or even journey half-way around the world to new-found lands. The nation-state demanded that people show their primary allegiance to the state and not to a third cousin four times removed. And the idea of inherent rights gave individuals the opportunity to defend their personal interests, even when those interests went against the interests of the tribe, in independent courts of law.


But before I go on, I have to define how I use the word “tribe.” Tribes are groupings of people who adhere to a particular culture that may include similar forms of dress, similar ceremonies, similar food habits, and similar dogmas…even if those dogmas have no scientific or historically-proven basis. In particular, established group practices are believed to over-ride any individual rights. Not surprisingly, each tribe considers itself, and its beliefs, to be superior to any other group—and therefore it does not necessarily accept, and may even actively try to undermine the norms that bind other people living in close proximity.


Throughout history, the only effective challenge to tribalism has been the establishment of a strong, centralized government, with adherents to that government’s value system willing to sacrifice their own personal interests or safety to protect this central authority. Such governments have been based on religion, geographical residence, or in more modern times, adherence to an accepted set of secular values.


By the way, by religion, I also mean full-blown ideologies such as communism.


The chaos we are witnessing in the Western world today is the product of the fact that many of the basic foundation stones on which whole societies have been built over recent centuries are crumbling.


As a result of globalization, people can no longer move to find work because it is the factories that have now moved. And in many cases, the owners of the business don’t even have to pay for moving a factory or a set of offices. All they need is an internet connection and much of the work can be outsourced.


Globalization has also meant that nation-states can no longer impose measures to protect local jobs as they once could and did. And the rights of individuals have been eroded because those who control the finances in the world perceive that they are no longer dependent just on their own nation-states for their wealth. For that reason, they no longer have the same commitment to preserving the values of the nation-states or taking an interest in the welfare of their customers as they once did. The idea is that if people in your country can’t afford to buy your brand of shampoo because they are unemployed, that’s still okay because you can always sell the same stuff elsewhere in the world.


Since the US has long been a model of how successful nation-states should behave, I will use the United States as my case in point. Then, I will discus what is going on in the Middle East.


Most successful nation-states have a single, fundamental guiding premise or ethos on which its society is based—and to which everyone is expected to subscribe. Among other things, that social contract helps keep tribalism at bay. Almost invariably, chaos develops when that elemental premise is challenged or undermined or no longer performs the service for which it was designed.


Since the fall of the Second Temple, the premise among Jews has been that “Kol HaYehudim Arevim zeh el zeh.” All Jews are responsible for the fate of all other Jews.


In the United States, the national premise is the very opposite of that of the Jews…that every individual is born with certain inalienable rights. Therefore the primary duty of the state is to protect those rights.


The foremost of these rights is liberty for the individual. The American Revolution was justified by the belief that this right to liberty had been trodden on by the British monarch. Among Jews, of course, the central ethos is not that of individual liberty, but of responsibility to other Jews and a duty to obey God’s commandments.


A corollary to the premise that all people have the right to liberty, though, is that each individual then does have a duty—to protect the state that enshrines his or her rights. In other words, just as in times past, politics and religion were inseparable, in the secular United States individual rights and individual responsibilities to the nation, but not necessarily to other individuals within that nation, were always intertwined and inseparable. That was why the robber barons of the 19th century felt no guilt in gouging California farmers seeking to market their produce in the East. The railroad barons were proud that they had united their country with bands of steel, but felt no obligation to deal with the fate of those individuals who used their services.


Any immigrant who chooses to live in the United States is expected to accept the idea that individual liberty is a supreme value before acquiring citizenship.


But what then happens when there is no agreement, or the previous agreement breaks down?


Invariably, the result, as I said, is instability and widespread confusion and uncertainty. At that point, people tend to seek anchors in the storm whirling around them. Most of those anchors, however, involve taking extreme positions that may not have any inherent logic.


A good example of this is the Tea Party, which takes both an extreme position on individual rights, such as its opposition to compulsory medical care payments and a no less extreme position on the right of the state to impose norms on a society…the best example being the party’s position against abortion.


When different groups take different extreme positions, the result is polarization within the society and the breakdown in the basis for all consensual government—the ability to compromise. The stalemate in Congress these days is a perfect example of this phenomenon.


But a much more important outcome of political polarization is the revival of tribalism, as blood relations or like minds join together for what they perceive to be self-protection or the opportunity for self-aggrandizement during this period of turmoil. Since financial deregulation began more than 3 decades ago, the bankers, the hedge fund managers, and those who operate private equity funds have all exhibited tribal traits.


What do I mean by that, and how do those traits affect us directly?


Well, in order to explain that, I have to provide you with an example of effective, anti-tribal nation-state leadership that you can use as a comparison. And the best example I can think of is the presidency of Harry Truman.


Harry Truman was a smart man. In fact, he is probably the most under-rated president in American history. To begin with, he was a fervent democrat (with a small “d”), and believer in pluralism and the sharing of responsibility and national wealth. The Marshal Plan encapsulated almost everything he stood for.


The reasons for his success in elevating the entire Western world from the chaotic after-affects of World War II can be best summed up in two of his more pithy statements. He kept a sign on his desk reading “The buck stops here.” In other words he held himself accountable to all the people of the United States for everything that happened in the US government during his watch.


He also used to say “It’s amazing what can be accomplished if you do not care who gets the credit.”


Unfortunately for us all, it’s too bad that neither of these statements applies to the Middle East.


In recent weeks, we have all seen examples of the refusal by leaders in this region to apply Truman’s maxims. In Israel, Netanyahu tried to take all the credit for putting out the Carmel forest fire. But then, when the state comptroller handed down his detailed report on how and why Israel’s biggest forest was destroyed, not one of the politicians criticized by the comptroller, including Bibi, was willing to take responsibility for the massive failure in leadership.


In the Arab world, one can trace all the street protests to the failure by all the leaders there to abide by Truman’s precepts.


But as we have seen in recent years, his two aphorisms no longer apply in the United States as well. In its stead, tribalism has reared its head. One problem that those concerned with the collapse in governance in Congress in particular fail to recognize is that tribalism can and has reached the United States.


There have been a lot of articles written recently about the rise of a class system of haves and have-nots in the United States. That is because class warfare was a familiar theme up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so it has been only natural to analogize between the current situation and something that happened in the recent past and is familiar to most people. As well, Marxism continues to be studied and debated in academe. As a result, most of these critics cannot recognize tribalism even when they see it.


The current situation in Libya is highly instructive in his regard. The Libyans recently held elections. The two main Islamist parties were defeated by a coalition of tribally-based parties. Because the Islamists were defeated for the first time since real elections began taking place in the Arab world, pundits in the West, and especially in the United Statesm, almost universally declared that “the liberals had won.”


Of course nothing of the sort had happened. Almost all the independent non-Islamist party candidates were either clan and tribal leaders, or people designated by the tribes to run for office on their behalf. If you look at a map of the election results, you will find that the voting was almost strictly along clan lines. Liberal democracy was never an issue in the election. The preservation of tribal rights was. But that issue was apparently invisible to the Western commentators.


A further, intensive look at the politics of the Middle East is therefore very helpful in explaining patterns of behaviour we now see appearing in the West, because no country in this region, not even Israel, has ever managed to replace tribalism with a true secular nation-state.


Tribalism, whether in the form of religious groupings such as the Haredim in Israel, or the Druze and Alawites in Syria, or formal tribes such as the Bedouin or the tribal groupings in Libya, or ethnic groups such as the Kurds, have continued to retain considerable power in countries throughout the Middle East.


In the Arab states, tribalism and the discipline needed to maintain tribal cohesion through punishments doled out in the name of “family honour,” both of which date back to the pre-Islamic an even pre-Biblical times, continue to infuse political considerations. Therefore, with such a long history of behaviour to guide us, it is possible to make direct useful comparisons, for example, between the Tuaregs in Libya, the Haredim in Mea Shearim, and the brokers on Wall Street


So now, here are a few salient points on how tribal politics plays itself out in this region.


One of the most important things to keep in mind is that liberal democracies are dependent on a belief in pluralism and majority rule. For liberal democracies to thrive, they need a strong, educated Middle Class to provide new ideas, entrepreneurs, and lots of taxes.


Tribalist politics although usually believed to be highly authoritarian, is based on consensus by members of the group. It resists novelty or invention and so does not require that there be a strong educated class. Generally-speaking, entrepreneurship and external regulation in any form is frowned on because it might upset the status quo. So too, a broad education is resisted because it might lead some members of the tribe to question the tribe’s basic precepts.


Most importantly, tribalist governance within the boundaries of a multi-cultural nation-state is essentially parasitic because it requires that the majority support the lifestyle that the minority rapidly becomes accustomed to after it seizes power.


And finally, when tribal minorities take power or at least take charge of the public agenda, they tend to do so without any self-felt need to behave responsibly towards the majority or address the majority’s needs.


When it comes to dispute resolution, a central feature of political conduct in this region is a belief that group safety and group wealth can only be achieved by attaining victory over any would-be competitor. There is no such thing as “friendly competition.” Only after victory has been declared does a victor then begin to think about how harshly or leniently it will deal with the defeated population. In this area of the world, real compromise, where both sides are willing to trade crucial assets or interests in return for long-term stability is rare if not nonexistent.


In the Middle East, there are basically two forms of domestic political warfare—that conducted by two highly-centralized and hierarchical bodies such as the Egyptian army and the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, and that conducted by tribes against centralized authorities, such as the recent war and the recent election in Libya. In extreme cases, such as in Syria, a tribe, such as the Alawites, can actually take over the reins of the central authority.


In general, in this region, a political stalemate does not usually lead to compromise, but to a “sulha,” or “reconciliation,” which too often means nothing more than a cease-fire until one of the groups comes to believe that it has gained enough power to become a victor…and then the fighting begins again.


This is one reason why Anwar Sadat believed he needed to be able to claim a victory in the Yom Kippur War before he could negotiate a peace agreement.


Negotiations within states or between states in this region follow a regular pattern. First, the two sides present their maximalist demands. Then, the side that most wants an agreement, and as a gesture of supposed good will, will offer a compromise on one issue in order to get the talks going. This is immediately perceived by the other side to be a sign of weakness. As a result, the second side then usually rejects the offer as inadequate, and uses that as an excuse to break off the talks.


If and when the two sides meet again, the first side says that it is now time for the second side to offer up an equivalent compromise measure. In classic Western diplomacy, the second side does just that—or a neutral mediator cajoles it into doing so. The second side then makes its offer and the two begin to inch towards an agreement. In professional terms, it’s called “Getting to Yes.”


Not so in the Middle East.


In keeping with tribal politics, the second side announces that the first side’s initial offer of compromise was so pitiful as to be worthless. Therefore the first side’s initial position, minus the compromise already offered, must from now on be used as a baseline for further talks. According to the side that has yet to offer up any equivalent compromise, it is up to the first side to first up its offer before any progress can be made. If the first side refuses, the second side, feeling empowered, says it is going home and won’t come back to the negotiations until the first side makes a better offer.


If you think that sounds like a Turkish rug market…or, say, the talks between the Iranians and the West…or, maybe, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians… or how about between the CEOs of failed banks who oppose new regulation in financial markets but then demand government rescue funds so that their companies can pay them whopping bonuses…or even the bargaining between the Israeli prime minister and the Haredi parties, you’re beginning to get the hang of what I’m talking about.


In Israel, tribalism has always existed on many levels. In the past, the Labour Movement was no less tribalistic in its behaviour than the Sinai Bedouin. The most notable non-Haredi example in Israel today is the use by candidates in party primary elections of what have come to be called “vote contractors.” These individuals are usually local political bosses who deliver blocs of votes, made up of family members or friends or dependents, to particular candidates in return for a fee.


But Israel’s financial oligarchs run them a close second.


Maybe the greatest impact that tribalism has is almost never discussed. In order to press their positions, tribes tend to base many of their public statements on exaggerations that are so great they create what I call “The Big Lie.” These are falsehoods that are so monumental that they are ignored…for too long. By repeating them endlessly, though, the tribal leaders end up distorting other people’s perceptions about what is really going on within the society. The greatest danger of big lies is that if they do become accepted as part of normal daily discourse, those who know them to be falsehoods, after a while and out of disgust, drop out of the public debate…and so the tribes gain in relative strength. This then accelerates the process of polarization within the society where the lying is taking place.


But undermining big lies usually requires intensive investigative work.



We have been witness to a growing number of big lies in recent years. I’ll give just three examples.


The most obvious example, of course is President Assad’s claim that there is no civil war in Syria, only an attempt by the government to put down attacks on the state by foreign terrorist elements.


In Israel a big lie that I have spent a lot of time refuting over the years, but which has nonetheless has remained part of the country’s political discourse because it has been so often repeated by the settlers, the Haredim and those on the far right (all of whom exhibit tribal tendencies) is that the so-called “leftist Zfonim,” the well-to-do North Tel Avivians and their equivalents elsewhere in the country, have managed to escape doing their share of military service. The objective, of course has been to delegitimize these three groups’ critics.


The thing is, though, that all the surveys, even those undertaken by right-wing think tanks, have demonstrated that those who identify themselves as being on the left, in fact have been more willing to “fight for the country” than self-proclaimed right-wingers.


The evidence was further strengthened by a survey published just last week by the Municipal Department of Education in Tel Aviv that showed conclusively that the so-called “Zfonim” who graduate from Tel Aviv high schools actually serve in higher numbers, are more likely to join combat units, are more likely to join top-flight “combat assistance” units such as intelligence and electronic warfare departments, and are more likely to volunteer for officer training than the national average.


And a third example is the claim made on behalf of the United States’ wealthiest one percent that they create jobs. In fact, all the evidence shows that because of mergers, asset-stripping by leveraged buyouts, and outsourcing, the very opposite has been the case.


Britain has now exposed an almost unimaginably extreme example of this form of behaviour. And it is the best example we have at the moment of what happens when tribalism, in this case by bankers, is allowed to run rampant in our globalized world. Even the swaps deals under which banks made bets that they could not pay off, or created securities they knew would fail, but nonetheless peddled them to clients as a safe investment (which set off the world economic crisis) pale by comparison with this latest scandal.


The narrative traces how Barclays Bank and at least 2 other British banks manipulated what is called “the Libor Rate.” This is the interest rate that banks in London charge each other for loans. Since almost all the major banks in the world have offices in London, this rate has become the standard used throughout most of the world.


I’ll try to make this very arcane story very short. Basically, every morning 18 of the biggest banks in London, the equivalent of clans in a tribal system of financial governance, declare how much in interest they are willing to pay for loans from other banks. Almost immediately, 360 trillion dollars in loans around the world—from adjustable rate home mortgages to student loans to credit card charges—are adjusted. To give you some idea of how much money is involved, 360 trillion dollars is five times the GDP of the whole world.


By falsifying their declarations the banks may have made over 5 trillion dollars in the past 6 years…and screwed billions of people.


All these actions I have talked about tonight followed a similar pattern. Tribal-style politics has emerged in nation-states big time. Tribalized minorities that did not accept the norms of the majority, have been gaining power and influence because they lie consistently and know that, in the end, whatever mistakes they make and whatever costs and hardship they impose on others, will be paid for by the majority so that that most important of social conditions, stability, can be restored. In other words, based on their own axiom that greed is good, and despite all the pain they cause, they have actually been acting rationally.


The advantage that these successful minorities have had is based on the simple fact that rational behaviour on their part is not necessarily what most of us would consider reasonable behaviour towards the majority. The idea of fairness doesn’t even enter their minds.


So, if anyone ever asks you whether there is any difference in the political behaviour of President Assad, or Haredi leaders such as Eli Yishai, or the Executives on Wall Street, you can answer, honestly, “None!”


And if anyone asks you “Why can’t you guys get your act together?” you can answer just as honestly “For the same reasons you guys can’t.”





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