Americans are on Venus, Syria is on Mars
Recently, Fox News ran a one-hour interview of Bashar al-Assad by Dennis Kucinich, the former congressman, and Fox correspondent Greg Palkot. What we saw on clear display is the abyss that stands between the U.S. and the Middle East. We are so very different in so many critical ways.
Mr. Assad is a seasoned and sophisticated diplomat. He listens to questions carefully and turns his answers to cover subject matter more to his liking. This skill comes naturally to people from this area of the world; they may appear to us to be speaking in riddles, but in fact they are constantly alert to opportunities to manipulate circumstances to their own advantage. The ability to spar verbally and maintain a confident composure is a very desirable trait in these societies, and it is carefully cultivated.
I have had the occasion to work with Iranians in an American business setting. Middle Eastern cultures view the truth entirely differently from how we do. One person told me that he didn't understand Americans' crudeness -- "You ask them a question, and they just blurt out the answer." To them, every person is a potential opponent, so you must position yourself to your own advantage at all times.
In the same vein, there is a reason why Middle Easterners insist on speaking their native language in front of others, even knowing how rude we consider this. It is because your accent and manner of speech are critical to your image in that society. For them to speak only English to a new acquaintance would be like having on a blindfold. Someone once told me, "In Farsi, your accent is everything." The challenge of dealing with their peers takes precedent over being civil to us.
Mr. Assad made every statement seem plausible within the statement he was making, even if he totally contradicted himself a moment later. He was incredibly articulate in English. Throw in the odd compliment -- e.g., "America is the greatest country in the world; this is clear" -- and you have a really masterful performance.
Mr. Assad also looked the part -- a dapper suit and perfectly tied tie to go with masterful body language. I'll bet our president didn't like the show; if he watched, he saw a guy who is so sophisticated and articulate that you hardly even notice the lies. That must have been a little too close for comfort.
Assad got what he wanted: a chance to show his best song-and-dance to the American public. He outclassed and dominated his interviewers with style. One has only to look at the comparison between his subtle presentation and the blunderbuss accusations of his questioners.
As for us in the United States, maybe we should work a little at understanding the issues in that part of the world and stop trying to reduce everything to a sound bite. This only leads to bad ideas, such as "arming the rebels" or considering the attack in Benghazi a matter for U.S. criminal courts. Please. "Rebels" is a romantic American term; one man's crime is another man's intentional terrorism. Somewhere in the mass of combatants in Syria is a group of valid opposition that wants Syria for Syrians. They are no match for the assortment of assassins and whack-jobs who have "joined" them. We need to stay out of this rather than salivating like Pavlov's dogs every time the subject of chemical weapons comes up.
We need to grasp how very different people in this part of the world are from us. America has a homemade culture. We are very young; our founders came to a wild land full of Indians and forged a new culture. Our ideas about the culture of our pre-American ancestors are more "quaint" than immediate. To a jihadi, the Crusades were yesterday, they happened to his mother, and he is still out for revenge.
Middle Eastern cultures have had to adapt over and over to alien invaders overrunning them. This has left them with a particular survival trait: they will jump into bed with the strongest player on the field. If yesterday's enemy wins a battle, he is today's best friend -- for political purposes, anyway (actual loyalty is out of the question). That is why it has been so important for the U.S. to be overwhelmingly strong; it had the effect of overriding differences. It is the only reason we had any success at all, and our diminishing power is the main reason why we are not having any now. These countries don't need another sympathetic peer; they need a buddy with a big hammer.
Middle Eastern people carry around millennia of cultural baggage. We, conversely, efficiently take obstacles from in front of us and put them behind us, never looking back. The difference between us is elemental, and it is vast.
This doesn't mean we can't cohabitate on this planet and make agreements, but it does mean that our style of democracy is not suited to them, nor are our ways of operating and thinking of the world appropriate for them. I saw a woman in a focus group plead the other day, "They used chemical weapons; we have to do something." Sometimes we can do something that is productive and matters. Other times, we just need to butt out.
I love being an American; I love the ability to say what I mean and mean what I say. I think our directness is our salvation and one of the secrets of our success. I pray that we keep it that way and stop undermining our unique honesty with political correctness.
But I recognize that not everyone is this way, and some people are never going to be.
If your argument is "Don't you care about babies being gassed?," my answer is yes. I also care about thousands of Rwandans hacked to death -- they are just as dead, and we did nothing. I care about the boarding-school barracks in Nigeria that was recently set afire in the middle of the night by Boko Haram Islamists, just because these children were Christian. We did nothing for them, either.
The simple facts are that U.S. interests were better served when Gaddafi was running Libya and Mubarak was running Egypt. Maybe a dictator who outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood knows what he is doing. There is no reason to believe that a forced successor to Assad would be any better for American interests, and that should be our primary concern. I vote for butting out.