About a year ago, I wrote a column commenting on the political climate at that time. Well, we now have new “leadership,” and apparently they are walking in precisely the steps of yesteryear. Perhaps that previous column is even closer to the mark today; just substitute Iran and North Korea/South Korea for the Arab spring and the Iraq war.
To think your adversary thinks like you think is a grave mistake that can have the most tragic consequences. Just because we would not launch a nuclear first strike, this is in no way indicative that Kim Jong-un of North Korea, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, would not do so.
In January 2012, I wrote, Newton teaches “actions have consequences” and Sun Tzu observes, “Know your enemy … and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” Without a clear understanding of how your adversary thinks and sees himself (and you), there can be no lasting peace, merely a perpetuation of wars and rumors of wars. Just as there are forces in nature that generate consequences, so in life. With the onset of the Arab spring and the successful prosecution of the Iraq war, there is some, but not nearly enough, discussion of the need, means and procedures necessary to establish various forms of new democratic governments.
There is a reason for the wars and rumors of wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The primary reason we remain embroiled in many conflicts (at the cost of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars) is owed in large part to the failure of Western diplomats to comprehend the significant differences between Eastern and Western civilizations.
This became evident when the Shah of Iran fell in 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini-dominated government replaced him. It is evident once again in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq as the West rediscovers the animosity that exists between various Islamic sects and tribes. Whether pro or anti-Western, Middle Eastern dictators have recognized this for years and simply subjugated the different groups under an iron heel.
Cultures arise as a result of the basic principles of a parent civilization. Just as the various cultures of India, China, Japan and the Middle East derived their behavior patterns from the basic philosophies of their parent, Eastern civilization, so England, France, Germany, United States and Israel, et al, adhere to the basic philosophies of their parent, Western civilization. As the basic tenets of Western civilization are essentially a restatement of Judeo-Christian biblical (religious) values, the moral precepts of Eastern civilizations are a restatement of their religious values.
An in-depth examination of Eastern and Western civilizations is not our purpose here, but there is a basic point critical to any attempt at achieving a lasting peace or establishing functional democracies in the Middle East. They don’t think like we think.
For example, something that was quite unfamiliar to most in the West was brought dramatically to our attention in World War II when the Japanese introduced us to “Hari Kari.” Japanese soldiers, who felt that the shame of defeat was unbearable or dishonorable, employed Hari Kari, also known as “seppuku.” Rather than “lose face,” they chose to retain/restore their honor by death at their own hand. There is no moral equivalency for this in the West. Losing face holds little terror for Westerners, as our viewpoint is predicated on the Judeo-Christian perspective of forgiveness, forbearance and mercy. These are all integral parts of our cultural and intellectual processes; they are not consciously practiced, they are just there, part of who we are.
In the East (absent the basic principles of the Judeo-Christian mindset), the concepts of forgiveness, forbearance, mercy, etc., are all foreign, at best. These virtues are not an integral part of their cultural paradigm. The critical point becomes, therefore, not just a battle or the loss of land but the loss of face and/or honor. The give and take inherent in standard negotiations prevalent in the West has no equivalent in Middle Eastern cultures.
Concessions are interpreted as appeasement and/or weakness. (The more you give, the more they want; ask Israel.) No conscientious member of any Middle Eastern or Far Eastern culture can allow himself, his tribe, his family, his culture, his religion or his country to “lose face.” Any such insult demands vengeance, usually accompanied by bloodshed – swift if possible, but implacable. A prime example of this philosophy is the “honor killing” of women by their own family members. Husbands have killed wives, and fathers have killed daughters, whom they feel have somehow “dishonored” them.
On a larger scale, some conflicts are known as “blood feuds.” Such feuds, as between the Turks and Kurds, the Chinese and Japanese, Serbians and Bosnians, Hindus and Muslims and Muslims vs. Muslims (Sunnis/Shiites) have existed for centuries. The lives and deaths of the participants are inextricably bound up with the customs and traditions that resulted in these blood feuds.
Since the concept of the blood feud, for all practical purposes, is unknown in the West, these issues, unrecognized, can constitute a grave danger to the West when it intervenes in such Middle East conflicts as Serbia/Bosnia, Iraq/Iran and various other Middle Eastern, and some African, countries.
After a successful intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts (as in Iraq), the West has often simply partitioned territories, as with Europe, into East and West (North Korea/South Korea). The West anticipates that once these boundaries are established, peace will continue. Unfortunately for the West, externally imposed arbitrary geographical boundaries, to the Eastern mind, do not exist; “Kurdish territory” remains “Kurdish territory.”
Absent this insight, the West in general, and America in particular, can become involved in a quagmire and subsequently be hated by both sides. Any attempt to placate one side will be seen as an act of hostility by the other. For example, to pacify the Shiite Muslims is to alienate the Sunni Muslims, and this exists not only in Iraq but throughout the entire Muslim world.
Wars and rumors of wars are the result of sharp divisions between groups each having their own set of absolutes. Ignorance of the differences between both sets of absolutes has often left the West without the means of implementing lasting conflict resolutions, since in the Western mind (perhaps unbeknownst to many) our Judeo-Christian biblical values of liberty, equality, forgiveness and live-and-let-live are the basis for, and embody, a set of absolutes that are applicable to all.
As our diplomats are now faced with a new set of challenges – Iran, North Korea and the still burgeoning Arab spring – one is forced to wonder if these specialists in diplomacy do, in fact, realize, they don’t think like we think.
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Most of us will more easily recognize its English translation, as in the title of the song by Bon Jovi, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”