A Guide to the Perplexed: Middle Eastern Time

There is an ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.”


Based on the flood of news that we have been witnessing in recent months, it would appear as though those who have cursed us have been working overtime. We have been inundated by so much news and so much spin on the events that have been taking place in the Middle East in the past few years that I think it is fair to say that many, if not most people, have been left totally confused.


To coin a metaphor, most people are now in a position that is similar to what happens to normal, sane, rational individuals when they look at a pointillist painting up close. All they can see are little blotches of paint that seem to have been laid own anarchically. It is only when they step back that they can begin to detect shapes and patterns.


When I stepped back from looking closely at the Middle East this time, what I saw was a tableau of multiple images and scenes, each of which could have been a separate picture in its own right, but, when taken together, they provided a unifying, coherent depiction of a particular place at a particular time. It was as if Breugel had met up with and gone into the picture painting business with Pissaro.


Unless one does step back, because of the sensory overload being produced by sights and sounds that the Israelis, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Yeminites are producing, the only self-protecting alternative to this kind of information overload is a retreat into a state of self-induced mindlessness.


Our DNA has simply not prepared us for coping with things such as a recent UNICEF briefing that claims that the violence taking place between the Syrian border with Turkey and the Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq has produced the “greatest human tragedy” since World War II.


But what does that phrase mean?


When you take into account Pol Pot’s massive slaughter in Cambodia, and the genocides that have taken place in venues such as Rwanda and part of Congo, It certainly must be is saying a lot. All told, according to UNICEF, (which deals only with aid to children), fourteen million children have been affected by the violence in the Middle East in one way or another. Seven and a half million children have been uprooted. And at least two and a half million children have lost four years of schooling.


And obviously, children are not the only ones who have been affected by the violence.


The Palestinians outside Palestine are one of many such groups being affected by the violence. They have largely avoided supporting one or another of the armed militias and armies. Nonetheless, even they, like so many other would-be non-combatants, have been swept up in the furies that have descended on the region. For example, the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus, which was once a bustling suburb of the Syrian capital that housed 350,000 people, is today empty of non-combatants.


The death and destruction everywhere in Mesopotamia is almost immeasurable and inconceivable to the normal mind.


When destruction and upheaval take place on the scale we have been witnessing, numbers and words tend to lose all meaning.


The secret to beginning to cope with and to understand what is going on is to avoid treating these events, whether they be the ISIS takeover of Mosul or the Houti assault on Aden, as discrete occurrences. Instead, as I keep repeating over and over, the individual events must be treated as but one tiny point on the arc of one of the processes that have been underway in the region for a long time. And in the Middle East “a long time” can mean a two or three millennia.


As I keep repeating over and over to foreigners—and as they reply over and over to my assertions with blank faces or outright denial—one of the few constants and truths in the Middle East is that history is not something that happened (as in the past tense of the verb “to happen”), it is forever present in the day-to-day lives and day-to-day thinking of Middle Easterners. Based on my experience, the primary reason why foreign mediation efforts fail with such regularity is that the would-be mediators rarely, if ever take into account the impact that history has on Middle Easterners every day.


The kind of process tracking that I recommend basically involves examining the context in which an event takes place, and then tracing that historical, cultural, social or economic envelope back to its origins.


Having said that, however, I must admit that making sense of what is currently occurring is more difficult than usual because there is something special about the situation we are witnessing at this time that is different from the other crises that we have witnessed in recent decades both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The current onslaught of news stories emanating from the Middle East is the product of one of those special, if not too rare junctures of human history when a large number of processes come to a head in the same general area at the same time.


Under these circumstances, normally accepted ways of analyzing the events taking place break down. In an almost Einsteinian fashion, standard analytical concepts of time and space become warped. And it is then that conventional wisdom—the political equivalent of Newtonian physics—can no longer provide answers to questions that arise.


Unfortunately, even when confusion is at its greatest, most people resolutely continue to believe whatever the conventional wisdom of the day may be. One reason for this, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman points out, is that the alternative, rethinking things from first principles, simply takes too much work.


Another reason is that conventional wisdom is usually the product of a very human weakness. Its creators and adherents invariably claim that it is based on empirical observation, combined with rational analysis. As Josh Kerbel, the head of methodology at the US Defence Intelligence Agency points out, most of this kind of analysis is produced by using four basic rules.

The first rule states that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Therefore, one can understand the whole by first looking at the pieces separately and then adding them together.

The second rule states that behavior tends to be repetitive. Thus future behavior is likely to be similar to past behavior. It is this rule that encourages analysts to reason by analogy and extrapolate past patterns—often indefinitely—into the future.

Rule three states that there is usually a clear and identifiable cause-and-effect relationship between actions and outcomes. It is this rule that encourages analysts to seek and find simple causal chains. “A” led to “B”, which led to “C” etc.

The fourth and final rule states that there is proportionality between input and output—that a small action will lead to a small outcome or effect, and that a large input will lead to a large outcome. It is this rule that encourages analysts to discount the importance of unique conditions at unique moments in time.

The thing is, though, in complex situations such as the ones we are now witnessing—when many closely interrelated processes are coming to a head at the same time—those rules simply don’t hold.

For example, contrary to rule two, behaviours are not repeating themselves. When, before ISIS began its current reign of terror, was the last time that you saw mass beheadings on television?

Other events we have been witnessing on television also defy clear identification of simple cause-and-effect dynamics…which is rule three. For example, contrary to what many sociologists claimed when Moslem youngsters in Europe began to join the jihadi movements in Syria, not all of these young men and women were the products of economic deprivation. Some had lived prosperous middle class lives.

And certainly, contrary to rule four, many of the human behaviours that we have been seeing have been the product of unique conditions that were present in a unique place at a unique moment in time. For example, the bloodletting in Syria began after the people in the southern city of Dera’a began peacefully protesting over an incident in which the security services had pulled out the nails of ten youngsters who had painted graffiti on a wall. Nail-pulling by Syrian security agents was not a new phenomenon. However this time that same action became a trigger for widespread protests because Deraa’s residents, and millions more throughout the country, had had a far deeper gripe—the fact that the government had been unable to alleviate the impact of six years of drought.

And finally and most importantly, what we have been seeing in the past three years is certainly not the end-product of the sum of its parts. There have been both positive and negative synergies that have produced a whole slew of totally unanticipated events.

Added to these four factors is the very important fact that there is also a strong tendency in all individuals and by all nations to filter events through their own personal and their nation’s unique experiences and beliefs. I have long held, for example, that when American policy-makers get up in the morning, draw the curtains and look outside at the world, what they end up seeing is a slightly distorted, but nonetheless totally recognizable image of themselves as it is reflected back to them by the glass panes that separate them from the real world beyond. It is that misperception of the world—that everyone really wants to be “just like Americans” (whatever that term may mean)—that has then led so many of America’s “best and brightest” to encourage their country to enter into one tragic folly after another.


Likewise, the Europeans, in the wake of two disastrous continent-wide wars during the last century, have developed a total and sometimes violent intolerance for anyone who does not set the creation of “peace” as his or her primary personal goal. Of course, as we have seen so often over the years, the word “peace” can also mean very different things to different people.


Only very rarely do Westerners try to interpret events using the filters that others employ. This failure then usually leads observers in the US and Europe to miss and misunderstand why those “others” are reacting to occurrences as they do. As I have already mentioned, history is one of those filters. Other filters include local customs and norms, the demands made by tribal and ethnic affiliations, and local exigencies that may be totally unknown to outsiders.


What you have been getting in the news reports you have been seeing, hearing and reading since the so-called “Arab Spring” began is the product of a synthesis of all these mistakes and failures in analysis and in judgement. What is truly worrisome to me, though, is that most people continue to take these totally inadequate assessments a face value—even though these same people are aware that these very same analytical techniques produced such well-known strategic “successes” as Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq.


So what I would like to do first is to try to explain very, very briefly, and probably inadequately, how the information you are being fed is being produced. I hope that then you will be able to judge for yourself—at least in part—where reality differs from what you may have come to believe is the “truth” about the events that are taking place in the Middle East.


All of what I will be saying in this part of my remarks is based on intensive research and the collation of recently-published first-person, eye-witness accounts by current and former US government officials about how people’s impressions of what has been occurring in the Middle East have been shaped.


The news reports you see on television or read in the newspaper focus on the basics of journalism—Who? Where? What? When? and How? The answers to those questions may be more or less accurate depending on the journalists’ access to people and events. Increasingly, though, the answer to the question “Why?” has been coming from the White House, from the State Department, from spinmeisters who are acting as advocates for one side or another in a conflict, and from a motely group of so-called “experts,” including former bureaucrats and academics. All of them are interested parties to one degree or another. And so each of them fashions their answer to the word “why?” so that it serves their own interests…which too often have no relationship at all to the search for truth.


The government, for example, invariably wants to put the best face on its behaviours. Also, the former bureaucrats too often want to justify what they have done or what they recommended while they were working in government. And the academics may be seeking to join the government as advisors, may have once been in government and feel the need to justify what they did and said, may be beholden to donors who are funding their research, or may simply be entranced by a particular ideology and seek to shoehorn events in such a way as to make those events appear to support that ideology.


But here is the crucial point I need to make: Most people fail to recognize that, almost invariably, the agenda for journalists’ coverage worldwide, and the pundits’ pontifications, is set by what is said at the daily news conferences held at the White House and the State Department. People in other parts of the world may object strenuously to the position taken by the Americans at those press conferences, but the agenda itself—the list of items that people end up discussing—is usually the one set by the American spokespeople.


As I said, I have spent the last few months reading the memoirs of some of those who were empowered to set those agendas. They make for frightful reading.


To begin with, it is clear from everything that I have read that the final format for all the analyses written by the different US intelligence services is heavily influenced by current American cultural, social and cognitive norms. American decision-making culture today tends to emphasize the slogan “keep it simple, stupid,” the production of “talking points” and one-page memos, and the creation of one-line “bottom line” conclusions on any subject under discussion. The nuanced use of language is considered “high-falutin.” Ambiguity is shunned. And explanations about the background that led to the events that are taking place are considered boring or of no relevance to the here and now.


As a result, complex issues too often end up being simplified in the extreme. Then, major problems with countless aspects, each of which requires careful consideration—such as is the case with the current, huge differences in perception that have arisen between Washington and Jerusalem—are then portrayed as personality conflicts. And, once that happens, this reductionism continues unabated and develops such momentum that the named protagonists are eventually divided into two camps separated by a supposed moral chasm—the “white hats” and “black hats”…those who are “good” and those who are “bad.” The pundits then try to persuade you to support Barack or Bibi, or Sisi or Morsi.


Another very important fact that always has to be kept in mind when listening to the American pundits’ and spokespeoples’ spiels is that the structure of all the American intelligence services—and the analytical techniques that are taught to new recruits—were both originally designed with the Soviet Union—not the Middle East or Latin America—in mind.


The Soviets were secretive, hierarchical and driven by Communist ideology which, by its very nature, was an extremely restricted and very often convoluted way of looking at the world.


This then led the American intelligence organizations to emphasize two things: the technology that would enable them to assemble vast amounts of secret information, and the compartmentalization of the analysis of that information so that inferences could be pulled out of the material by specialists with a deep, but not necessarily broad, contextual understanding of the material.


The thing is, though, the Soviet Union has been dead for 25 years…but this organizational structure and this approach to analysis has remained as it was. Not only that, one of the more amazing revelations that came out of the publication of the material assembled by Edward Snowden was that today, the Americans’ capacity for making sense of events taking place in the world has even lessened because, while the US vacuums up vast amounts of information, it has become so captivated by its technological information-gathering successes that it now appears to treat the analysis of that information as just an afterthought.


As well, at least according to all the memoirs I have read, the US continues to place a premium on gathering secret material—even though, in the Middle East today, almost everything that you really need to know about the motivations and actions of groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda can be most easily found by reading open sources such as the various groups’ social media postings on blogs, Twitter and Facebook.


That failure to read what the protagonists are actually writing may be dumb. But here is something even dumber.


Even when secret material is gathered, it is often useless. For example, the Urdu-speaking CIA specialist who was in charge of tracing the activities of the Pakistani terrorist group that was responsible for the assault on Mumbai in 2011, found that most of the intercepts that he was given were worthless to him and were discarded…because…they were written in Arabic or Farsi, which he did not understand.


Other former CIA analysts have also recently revealed that most of the material they actually used to create their analyses was taken from English language newspaper reports, English language Twitter and Facebook postings, and translations into English that appeared in the daily media. For that reason, for example, the US entirely missed the early warning signs of the Ebola outbreak in Africa because the initial reports were broadcast on French TV and were not picked up subsequently by any English-language medium.


It is no wonder, therefore, that a post-mortem done on the analyses provided to the White House and the State Department during the early stages of the civil war in Syria found that the reports and projections that were made at that time were less than 25 percent accurate…even though flipping a coin would have produced a more accurate result, and almost all the correct answers could be found by sifting through the various social media.


Another thing that should never be forgotten is that major inaccuracies invariably occur when the White House adopts a particular policy…and then new, hard information arrives in a piecemeal fashion.


For example, most of the media and most American officials claimed that they were caught by surprise by the rapid military successes of ISIS. However, according to recent revelations, the Iraqi government and other outside sources, as early as 2011, were reporting accurately and consistently to American officials about the growing strength and radicalization of the Iraqi Sunni militias that eventually became part of the ISIS army.


However, one of Barack Obama’s central campaign promises had been to get US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan…which he had done. Understandably, though, the White House was therefore on high alert, once the withdrawal had been completed, lest it be sucked it into sending American troops back into Iraq. As a result, as the bits of information about ISIS began dribbling in, the White House ignored those items that dealt with the growing number of terrorist attacks being launched by ISIS…and, even more importantly, the growing capacity of that organization to carry out large-scale terrorist campaigns.


Instead, those who prepared the material for the daily press briefings went out of their way to focus strictly on other issues that did not present a danger that the US might be drawn back into the Iraqi maelstrom. Most of you can probably remember the headlines that came out of the press briefings at that time. Most of those headlines dealt with subjects such as what would happen when ISIS’s foreign fighters returned to their home countries, and what was the current state of the historic Sunni-Shiite dispute.


With all this in mind, I now want to use how Westerners analyzed events in Turkey over the past decade or so, as a case study of how the meaning of events in the Middle East can be distorted. I could just as easily have chosen any other Middle Eastern country, including Israel, but I decided to focus on Turkey because Turkey has a special place of honor in American strategic thinking; and analyses of events in Turkey are considered to be particularly important by Americans concerned with the future of NATO. Moreover, during the time under discussion Turkey was being held up by the Americans as being a model for how democracy could and should be implemented in Moslem countries.


Whether a country employs democratic-style procedures is one of the primary filters used by Western Europeans and Americans alike when they try to judge the legitimacy of the regime that is ruling a particular country. When conventional wisdom asserts that a country is a democracy because it has adopted democratic voting procedures, events that take place in that country are then filtered and massaged to support the predetermined conclusion.


Thus, both the Americans and the Europeans applauded when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan began implementing a series of reforms that most professional Western analysts persuaded themselves were designed to pave the way for Turkey’s entry into the EU. In particular, the outsiders lavished extreme praise on Erdogan’s government when it finally brought the Turkish military to heel. The Westerners, using their standard filters, perceived this event to be part of a process that would lead to greater democracy in Turkey. They persuaded themselves that henceforth the military would no longer be able to overthrow civilian governments in defence of what the military perceived to be Ataturk’s secular heritage… and that would be a “good” thing. They could not even conceive of the fact that, in fact, Erdogan’s primary aim at that time was to remove the last powerful, institutional roadblock to both his grab for authoritarian power and his desire to increase the influence of Islam in public life.


Likewise, the Westerners commended Erdogan when he began to introduce market reforms. In this case, they failed to recognize that the real purpose of those reforms was to enable Erdogan’s AKP party functionaries in central Anatolia to dole out favours and to arrange corrupt business deals for party supporters on a grand enough scale so that the AKP would gain enough of a majority in Parliament that it would be able to alter the very nature of the country’s constitution to make the presidency more authoritarian.


I’ll be coming back to Turkey at the end of my remarks.


I could go on almost forever criticizing the analytical techniques that are used or not used by foreigners to the Middle Eastern region. But, from hereon in now I want to focus on a point I made in passing at the very beginning of my analysis. I believe that the two greatest analytical weaknesses Western journalists and analysts have is their inability or unwillingness to address or comprehend two conceptual (as opposed to technical) issues that drive events in the Middle East. These issues are the roles played by space and time in the thinking of the people in the region.


In this analysis, I will concentrate only on the issue of time. My next analytical effort will focus on the role played by space when policies are adopted—or policy-making is avoided— by Middle Eastern politicians.


For the sake of simplicity, I will also focus only on how these two concepts have dictated the positions taken by Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak Obama, Ali Khamenei, the Saudi royal family, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan…and their respective supporters.


As I suggested earlier, one major element of Middle Eastern politics that Westerners have always ignored and continue to ignore at their peril is that when Middle Eastern leaders discuss issues being raised and events taking place, they invariably either directly or indirectly refer to the first recordings of the events and prophesies that led to the type of government in power today. No current Middle Eastern leader can legitimize his presence in public office without making constant reference to those very particular and seminal moments in his nation’s history—even if those events took place three or more millennia ago.

Bibi Netanyahu is a classic example of what I am talking about. He is not just an avid student of history, he is the son of a famous and respected historian. More significantly, he is the son of a famous and respected historian who spent most of his working life studying Jewish tragedies that date back to the time of ancient Egypt.

In his best-known work, Benzion Netanyahu, the father, reinterpreted the Spanish Inquisition in a way that went totally against the conventional wisdom of his day. That interpretation of history asserted that the Jews in 15th century Spain were persecuted for secretly practicing their religion; and the inquisitions only began after those Jews had been shown to have merely pretended to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Netanyahu, the father, however, in a closely argued tome titled “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain” (1995) claimed that most Jews in Spain had actually become willing Catholics, and they were enthusiastic about their new religion. Using more than 1300 pages of text and references, he claimed that the Inquisition, like so many tragedies in Jewish history, was the product of the same “Jew hatred” that dated back to ancient Egypt.

The elder Netanyahu argued that those Jews who converted to Catholicism and were then persecuted—and were sometimes burned at the stake—were treated that way because of jealousy and because they were perceived by their neighbours to be irrevocably evil. The Inquisition, he wrote, had little to do with anything the Jews had believed or had actually done. Instead, among other things, their plight was the product of Christian Spaniards’ envy over the Jews’ success in the economy and at the royal court.

It is obvious to anyone who has followed Binyamin Netanyahu’s statements over the years that he has come to believe passionately in his father’s assessment of what the Jews’ role in history has been. As a result, he very often conflates what was with the situation in which Diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel live today. He rarely projects a vision of what he would like the future to hold. Although he does boast often about one-off projects that his governments have initiated—such as the establishment of the new cyber centre in Beersheba—he has almost never taken a significant role in major future-oriented debates. For example, he has never taken a public position on such future-oriented subjects as what should be taught in schools to enable today’s children to get and hold successful jobs three decades from now…or how the country’s health system should be structured to cope with the rapid advances in medical research.


To Netanyahu the son, the world is a hostile place, full of constant, immediate and palpable threats that must take up all his energy and attention. That is why, for example, when he recently opened the ceremonies marking the annual memorial day to the Holocaust, the bulk of his speech was devoted not to the Holocaust itself or even such important corollary problems such as the plight of poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors, but to the Iranian nuclear arms issue. It was quite obvious from his remarks that he equates the events that took place in Europe more than 70 years ago with the intent of the Mullahs in Iran today.


Critically, when it comes to Israel’s relations with the United States and Europe, in other recent speeches he has made it plain that he also believes that Israel and world Jewry can be threatened by those who might otherwise be perceived of as friends or close allies.


As a result, another thing that must always be kept in mind is that, because Netanyahu continuously conflates time he finds it very difficult to distinguish between short-term tactics and long-term strategies.


For example, both many of his critics and some of his closest associates say that he has been recently behaving towards Obama as he has because he perceives Obama to be only a short-term tactical problem with which Israel has to cope. This has proven to be a blinding weakness which, among other things, caused him to ignore many long-term strategic issues that his behavior towards the American president was raising.


Among many other things, he appears to have ignored one very salient feature of the American system of governance. The American foreign policy and security bureaucracy has an extraordinarily strong institutional memory that very often continues to have an impact on American politicians who come to power many years after that memory was implanted. The best and most immediate example of that fact is the case of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Although many senior American figures from Henry Kissinger to George Schultz have called for Pollard’s release, no president has dared to defy the bureaucracy and both its ongoing desire for revenge and its self-felt need to use Pollard as an example to others.


All the current evidence point to the conclusion that Bibi’s seeming insults to Obama will be long-remembered by that same bureaucracy. What Netanyahu has said, and how he has acted recently, may very well become yet another filter through which future American government analysts will use when they are called upon to give their assessment of a situation in which Israel is involved.


Incidentally, fearing just such a scenario and wanting to mitigate its potential effects, many of Israel’s leading intelligence and policy analysts have publicly cautioned Netanyahu. Respected figures such as the former head of the National Security Council, Giora Eiland, have said repeatedly that it would have been better for Israel had Netanyahu decided to ease up on his criticism of Obama’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat and had tried to enter into joint counsel with the American negotiators. Only in that way, they claimed, would Israel have had at least an opportunity to try to modify some of the proposals—and prevent relations with the Americans from deteriorating further.


However, because of both his personal history and his concept of time, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Netanyahu truly perceives that the recent agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called P5+1) is a threat so immediate and so potentially devastating to the continued existence of Israeli Jews that it must be undone at all costs—even if that action entails doing damage to relations with Israel’s closest ally, the United States, in the mid-term.


Another thing worth taking into consideration is that Bibi has had a predilection for panicking, which cannot but reinforce the impact that his father’s teachings have on him…and especially his preoccupation with the here and now. For example, his aides have admitted that he did panic when, at the close of the recent election campaign, it appeared as though the “Zionist Camp” would come out ahead in the balloting. It is quite obvious, at least to me, that he was so concerned with the immediate present that he then did not consider the long term consequences of his remarks when he called on his supporters to rush to the ballot boxes because the Arabs were “voting in droves”.


Spokespeople for Israel abroad relate that nothing that Netanyahu has said in recent years has had as negative an effect on Westerners as that short phrase, because, after passing through Western filters, it made Netanyahu appear to be anti-democratic.


Unlike Netanyahu, who is fixated on the present because, to him, there is no difference between the present and the past (and the future is but a haze that is dependent for clarity on what people do in the present) Barack Obama seems to be obsessed with the medium term. He seems to have difficulty in coping with sudden new events that he had not considered previously. His waffling about what to do when the Assad regime began using poison gas on Syrian civilians is but one example.


His perceptions, like those of Netanyahu, appear to have been shaped by his childhood, which was spent, in part, in racially-charged America.


At that time, a black child’s dream of becoming President seemed to almost everyone to be nothing more than a flight of the wildest, most uninhibited imagination. However, within only a few decades, while he was maturing, America had changed sufficiently that it enabled such dreams to become a reality. In other words, he seems to have come to believe that major, even revolutionary changes in society and in politics, can take place within a person’s lifetime so long as there is active engagement by the parties involved. That perception appears to have been reinforced by his experiences as a community organizer in Chicago.


That particular way of looking at the world would appear to explain why Obama approved of a fifteen year agreement with the Iranians—rather than pressing for one that extends for a longer period of time. As the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, David Rothkopf, has pointed out, this means that the Iranians will be able to earn 300 billion dollars from dropped sanctions in return for just delaying their nuclear programme for a few years.


From the talking points used by his spokespeople, it seems that Obama nonetheless believes that a medium-term agreement, such as the one that has been proposed, will lead to a rise in the Iranians’ standard of living. During recent off-the-record briefings, his spokespeople have argued that, as the standard of living rises, Iranians will likely become more materialistic and so will inevitably place a greater emphasis on seeking an even better life. That, in turn, could lead to a diminishing of the power of the mullahs, which, ultimately could lead to a reduction of the threat the Iranians currently pose to other nations in the Middle East. In other words, A will lead to B, which will lead to C, etc.


The key word, of course is “could.” If you think about that argument just a bit, though, isn’t it identical, when one trades the word “Mullahs” for “Security Agents” and “Oligarchs,” to the one that was used by optimistic Americans when first Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin first came into office?


Only Obama’s and Netanyahu’s very different perception of time can explain many of the foolish mistakes that Obama has made in his handling of his relations with Israel—and especially his failure to conceive of the impression his actions and words have been having on Israelis’ underlying insecurities.


For example, throughout his tenure at the White House, America has demonstrated a unprecedented commitment to Israel’s physical security. In fact, Israeli military and intelligence officials have been fullsome in their public praise for the level of security coordination and cooperation that has been achieved between the two countries.


And yet, time after time, Obama has managed to grate on the Israeli public’s nerves as few other American presidents have ever done. Invariably, he has disregarded Israelis’ perceptions of the meaning of events as they emerge from the filter of their short-term perspectives. Those perceptions then create real psychological needs that should be addressed immediately if they are not to lead to festering, emotional sores.


There are innumerable cases in point. For example, following his speech in Cairo, during which he called for a new opening to the Moslem world, the Israeli social media were flooded with popular Israeli requests that he visit Israel too. It would appear that Obama, however, believed that he had to focus solely on the Moslem world and could afford to ignore the Israelis’ entreaties. He seems to have believed that any diversion from his objective, especially one involving Israel, would have detracted from the central purpose of his speech, which was to create a new relationship between America and the Moslem world within the medium term. Furthermore, he appears to have believed that because he was proving himself to be totally committed to assuring both Israel’s long-term security needs, a trip to Israel could take place at any time that was convenient in the future…such as after the medium-term goal of engaging the Moslem world in a full-fledged dialogue had gained momentum.


The Israelis, however, fixated as they are on present dangers, perceived Obama’s refusal to visit Israel at that time as an attempt to snuggle up to the Arabs at Israel’s expense.


A similar scenario was played out when Israel agreed to an 11 month freeze on construction in the West Bank, but refused to renew that construction freeze, despite heavy pressure from Obama, because Obama had been uninterested in or incapable of using any of the leverage at his disposal to get Mahmoud Abbas to make concessions of his own during that 11 ninth period.


The Iranians, of course, have a conception of time that is very different from either that of Netanyahu or Obama. Ali Khamenei, in everything he has done and said, has shown that he believes that human life is a continuum stretching on into infinity—or at least as long as God will permit it to continue. Therefore time belongs to God, not man. To him, Westerners’ beliefs that they can somehow control God-activated time, by setting up time-limiting frameworks, are worthless heresies.


Westerners fail to take into account that Kamenei and the other senior Mullahs believe that they are the living embodiment of a 1200 year old Shiite dream. Iran today, for the first time in recent memory, is being run strictly according to a political order laid down by Shiite scholars very soon after the Sunni/Shiite split in the 8th century. Under this system, a religious leader who can trace his origins back to Mohammed is appointed to rule by a group of religious leaders. That leader is then given absolute authority to determine public policy on both religious and secular matters. According to Iran’s religious leaders, the very fact that they continuing to control the Iranian government—despite the power of “Big Satan” America—validates all the other Shiite doctrines and dogmas.


It is important to recognize that, by contrast, the Sunnis, with whom Westerners are far more familiar, have, depending on how you count them, four or five schools of religious legal thought…and any number of would- be scholar/leaders. Unlike the Shiites, even though Sunni Caliphs have ruled over vast empires, the Sunnis have never had a central religious or political leadership accepted by all.


The Iranian Shiite’s extended wait for power, together with the Iranians’ long-standing and carefully-honed skills at bargaining without taking time into consideration as a limiting factor, have, first under Khomeni and now under Khamenei, produced a style of bargaining that Westerners have been ill-equipped to cope with.


That style has three basic components. To the Iranians, there can never be an absolute deadline for completing negotiations. The appearance that a formal deadline has been agreed to can be fostered if doing so creates a tactical advantage. Almost invariably, for example, when Westerners negotiate with Iranians over anything—whether it be the purchase of a carpet or the sale of millions of dollars of oil drilling equipment—the Westerners come into the negotiations at a disadvantage. In most cases, they perceive that time is money and therefore there is a natural limit to the time and effort that should be put into any deal. This then leads to self-induced pressures to get the negotiations completed by a certain date…which then often leads the Iranians’ negotiating partners to make more concessions than would otherwise be prudent.


Obama’s self-felt need to complete a draft agreement by a certain time so that it could be presented to Congress prior to the self-imposed deadline set by Congress is a wonderful example of this kind of situation.


Second, delays are not merely used as tactics in order to exhaust the other side. They very often are considered to be strategic assets because they can be used to create facts on the ground that can, in turn, eventually influence the course of the negotiations themselves. For example, Iran, because of its success in delaying its talks with the P5 +1, succeeded in completing all the research necessary to build reactors capable of producing the whole nuclear cycle. Once it had that knowledge, the nature of the discussions changed entirely from the Westerners’ previous emphasis on prevention to their current concern with containment.


Third, in what is sometimes called “the salami slicing technique,” any concession offered or even suggested as a theoretical possibility by a negotiating partner need not be even noted by the Iraniansin passing. However, it can be and usually is immediately banked by the Iranians as a firm concession and a “done deal” even if the Iranian side has offered no quid pro quo in return. This phenomenon helps to explain some of the vast differences in interpretation that the Americans and the Iranians have given to the recently-signed framework agreement. This, by the way, is also the same negotiating technique that was adopted by Yassir Arafat, and it has continued to be employed by Mahmoud Abbas to his very day.


All these factors are at work at this very moment, not only as part of the negotiations on Iran’s future as a processor of nuclear materials, but also in the way that the Iranians have been acting in their proxy states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and now Yemen.


Because of their conception of time, the Iranians have been willing to exercise infinite patience and to expend both lives and a very considerable amount of national treasure. One distinct advantage they hold over the querulous Sunnis is that, because Shiite religious rule is centralized, the Mullahs are capable of mobilizing supporters to threaten Arabian Peninsula regimes whenever they choose to.


If you look carefully what has happened since the Iranians’ revolution in 1976, their accomplishments have been quite extraordinary. The only place where they have failed to achieve their goals has been in tiny Bahrain, where the Shiites are in a majority. They failed because those Shiites were confronted and suppressed by the Saudi army the moment that widespread demonstrations took place.


But that has been only a minor setback in a small state. The failure in Bahrain has been more than made up in another state with a Shiite majority, Iraq. In Iraq, where Shiites make up 60-70 percent of the population, Iranian Revolutionary guards are today openly assisting and commanding the American equipped and American-trained Shiite militias that have been doing battle with the Sunni ISIS fighters.


Elsewhere, the Iranians have taken de facto control of all those Arab states where the central government has been both weak and the country has a large Shiite or Shiite-oriented minority.


The war in Syria is a good example of the Iranians’ modus vivendi. Sanctions, together with a drop in world oil prices have meant that Iranian revenues from oil sales have dropped from 90 billion dollars in 2012 to an estimated 15 billion dollars this year. Nonetheless, aid to the Assad regime in Syria has continued unabated, and by some estimates, has now totaled 15 billion dollars since the civil war there began. No less importantly, Assad has become dependent on Iranian-financed Hizbollah fighters from Lebanon for his regime’s survival. In other words, to the Mullahs, when a choice needs to be made between money and extending the time for an event endlessly, the possibility that the availability of money may be restricted in the short term is viewed as merely a minor impediment that can be overcome as time passes.


The Saudis bring both an imperial and an extremist Wahhabi Sunni approach to governance; and this affects their perception of time as well. I use the world “imperial” because, with the exception of the strip of Emirates along the western coastline of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula is very much a closed empire. It is inhabited by a plethora of tribes that had once behaved as independently as many countries do today. However, the House of Saud, beginning in one small village, and after a string of wars lasting all the way from from the18th century until well into the 1930s, eventually defeated all those tribes that chose to compete with it in battle. It then became the hegemon in the peninsula.


Nonetheless, like the Israelis, and despite its previous military successes, the Saudi royal family remains pathologically insecure; and it can become as obsessed with short-term issues as the Israelis are. As Moslems, though, and like the Iranians, the Saudis also carry with them a sense of timelessness when it comes to anything other than what the royal family believes is an immediate threat.


It is interesting, though, that while the Iranians begin counting time from the period of Mohammed’s rise to power in the 7th century, the Saudis, while they keep to the same formal calendar as the Persians, and despite the fact that the odyssey of Islam began in what is today Saudi Arabia tend to use 1744 as their primary reference point in time when making policy decisions. That is the date when a small-time warlord named Muhammed ibn Saud entered into a strategic pact with Mohammed ibn Abd-el Wahhab, a radical, fundamentalist, Moslem preacher. Originally, in return for ibn Saud agreeing to cancel taxes on the local peasants’ harvests, el-Wahhab gave the desert chieftain religious freedom to engage in the plunder of other Moslems. Since then, the two families have lived a condominium existence and have even inter-married.


Today, of course, the Saudis don’t need plunder, and the availability of oil wealth has become the primary factor influencing Saudi political and diplomatic behavior. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald noted in “The Great Gatsby,” the rich do think differently. Since the big oil embargo in 1976, the Saudis, have spent an estimated 100 billion dollars building schools and mosques and funding university departments worldwide with the aim of promoting Wahhabist beliefs.


That does not mean that the Saudi rulers do not break with Wahhabist beliefs when its short-term survival is at stake. One of those beliefs is that no non-Moslem should be allowed entry into the holy cities of Mecca and Medinah. However, when the Grand Mosque in Mecca was taken over by a group of fundamentalist fanatics in 1979, and the Saudi security forces could not remove the interlopers, the government called in and paid French commandos to do the job. The Wahhabist fatwa against non-Moslems being in Mecca was overcome when the commandos were “converted to Islam” by the authorities without the French legionnaires even realizing that it had happened.


The Saudis’ recent reaction to the fall in world oil prices is a further example of how they meld their vast wealth with their sense of time. During the past year, the Saudis have both increased payments to Saudi citizens to make them happy, and they have also driven the price of oil down to levels that have caused pain to all of the Saudis’ main enemies—and even to some of their erstwhile friends. In the short term, very deliberately, they have cause great financial pain to the Iranians and the Russians, whom the Saudis believe are siding with the Iranians. In the long term, the Saudis are also trying to undermine the fortunes of American frackers, who initially appeared to have been able to make the US independent of imported Arab oil for the first time in decades.


All their recent behavior has pointed to one fact: So long as the Saudi royal family does not perceive that it is facing an immediate threat, its members are willing to use an always-unspecified and even infinite amount of time to accomplish their policy goals—just like he Iranians. But if threatened in the short-term, they act like Israelis. They seem to have little perception of a mid-term.


I’ll again use the example of Turkey to show even more clearly how the Saudis go about using their approach to money and time in real life.


Erdogan in Turkey, unlike all the other leaders I have mentioned, has adopted short term, medium term and long term domestic and foreign policy strategies. In the short term, Erdogan has sought, as I have already mentioned, to slowly consolidate his AKP party’s authoritarian position and to give it the power to even alter the constitution—while not alienating needed Western investors. In the medium term, he has needed to find ways to pay for that approach. Erdogan’s long-term strategy has been to try to position Turkey as the Sunni hegemon in the Middle East—in competition with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.


In the short term, Erdogan was able to make the Turkish economy grow at a very rapid rate largely by encouraging the construction industry. At the same time, he has pursued his long-range goal by, among other things, damming up most of the rivers that flow into other countries—especially Syria and Iraq This has since enabled Turkey to hold these countries up to political ransom.


His medium-term problem has been how to pay for all this. Since 2008, Turkey has amassed 320 billion dollars in hard currency debt, and its currency has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar since mid-2014.


Erdogan has been able to get away with such profligacy because he has been able to purchase cheap oil and gas from Iran in return for helping the Iranians break the sanctions package imposed on Teheran. Turkey did so by paying the Iranians in gold.


The Saudis have looked askance at this behavior by the Turks, because the Iranians, through their fostering of terrorism and their pursuit of nuclear power, have become the Saudis’ blood enemies. Not only that, the Turks are allies of the Moslem Brotherhood, with whom the Saudis are also war.


The Saudis have not hidden their displeasure, and now there is growing evidence that, in reaction, and very quietly, the Saudis have been buying up enough of Turkey’s foreign currency debt, and holding it for the long term, so that should Riyadh choose to suddenly dump its holdings of Turkish paper, this could create panic among other foreign banks and investors and drive the Turkish economy into a tailspin.


Like I say, only the uber-rich and those for whom time is irrelevant to policymaking could ever conceive of such a timeless strategy. And, of course, only time will tell whether the Saudis feel the need to carry out what has become an implicit existential threat to the Erdogan regime.


The impact of the Saudi move, though, was immediately visible. Within days of each other, Erdogan both visited Teheran on a “goodwill” mission and he also openly criticized Iran’s Yemenite allies, the Houtis, for over-running their country.

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