Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict
[ States and cultures ] [ Statehood and ambitions ]


Trust is a matter of predictability, and so prevails where values are similar or easily comprehensible. Trade is simple enough that formal agreements describe its terms, and trust is unnecessary beyond the mere assurance of not cheating. Complex economic cooperation requires a different level of trust, and most businessmen prefer working with people of the same culture. That does not, however, make them willing to fight people of other cultures.

Complex adaptive systems rely on many conflicts for continuous readjustment. Family quarrels, market bargaining, and wars make societies efficient. The more interaction there is, the more readjustment is required. Since most interactions take place inside groups, most conflicts do as well. Fault line wars are the least bloody, because the enemies are clear. People are unwilling to fight over vague things; often only border populations are involved. The more blurred the lines fault lines are, the bloodier the conflicts are. Civil wars likely cause the most casualties because everyone is an enemy, and real interests are at stake.

A billion Muslims have produced only few thousand terrorists to fight the West. Others cheer the terrorists but are too little involved against Western civilization to join them. Many terrorists have immediate reasons to fight rather than a vague hatred of another civilization: ambitions, past abuse, or adventurism; the chance to kill with impunity and win laurels is tantalizing to many. Terrorists belong to a minor sub-group inside dar al Islam. Terrorists are Muslim, and Nazis were Christian; neither represent their civilizations.

People generally cooperate inside groups and compete with other groups. Groups are defined by behavioral traits. Different values thus mean competition and hostility. People are averse to alien habits. They rationalize hatreds and clad their interests in ideology. They draw lines to push the others behind, transforming them into aliens, a perceived threat, and legitimate prey. Moralizing made wars of plunder unacceptable and created the need to disguise conflicts in “ethnic” terms, thereby replacing plunder with murder. Ancient for-profit wars caused few casualties; ideological wars are bloodbaths.

Clashes between civilizations are limited to ideologically inspired or political goals. Real conflicts are few, often none. Touted confrontations over economic issues are often irrelevant to nations and even benefit them, though they harm influential groups. Cultural frictions dissolve amid economic cooperation and rise to prominence when cooperation is insignificant; a trade portfolio, especially speculative foreign investment and oil sales, does not amount to cooperation.

Elites that fail as leaders imitate the masses; poll-based policy-making and indigenization of elites are common examples. Elites are often out of sync with their nations, Westernizing when people are not ready or pushing the old values when people want to Westernize. Failing rulers become ballast to their countries, pulling them back to the traditional past. Government support gives religion authority and draws more people to it.

States rely for their existence on nations, fictional groups, and so promote nationalism and religion, fictional group identities centered on ideas, not people. States need to prove themselves indispensable to their citizens and so are active. Ambitions prop up international involvement. States, therefore, promote the fiction of national and civilizational identities to rally people for what are really the goals of power politics. Politicians fish for religious quotes and customs to justify any policy. Much hateful rhetoric, “them versus us,” remains only rhetoric, aimed at uniting the nation.Its potential for confrontation is slight.

At the other pole, political correctness produces a similarly violent backlash from people resisting multiculturalism, policies that benefit minorities, and alien immigration. Modern communications, inexpensive transportation, and political ease of movement allow immigrants to retain strong links with their homelands. Immigration is no longer a decision to change cultural identity, and unassimilated immigrants—especially the poor who depend on communal ties—form antisocial groups. Political correctness is likewise counterproductive in international relations, transforming a respected gendarme into a feared and hated nanny; people who accept intervention that stops atrocities oppose the use of force for non-essential purposes, like democratizing, economic liberalization, and preserving borders. Short interventions thus become civil wars, often with inter-civilizational dimensions. Minimizing meddling in other people’s business would go a long way to eliminate the clashes of civilizations.

Saudi Arabia cannot establish an empire militarily and poses as the core of an informal Muslim empire, sponsoring schools and terrorists and claiming to protect its kin worldwide. Poor countries and endangered Muslim communities accept the pretense of kin allegiance so long as it benefits them practically. People appeal to kinship when profitable: West Germans did not jump the wall to join their brethren, but East Germans did. Paupers agree to a common religion, ancient values, and authoritarianism if they can thereby increase the redistribution of wealth. The balance between individualism and communalism shifts toward the latter in poverty or under a threat; affluent societies rarely resort to kinship.

Kinship is often the last resort: rejected by Europe, Bulgaria turned to Russia. Appeals to kinship or other affiliation produce only limited, often token assistance: great powers invested little resources in proxy conflicts during the Cold War. Same-kin powers often find they can gain more political dividends by mediating conflicts rather than inflaming them; the Serbian government soon started trying to contain the Bosnian Serbs’ aggression. If there is no kinship but real interests call for alliance, other common traits are found to satisfy the need: unable to appeal to common ethnicity or religion, Israel calls for affiliation with the West because both are democracies. Protectorates appealed to the arbitration of Rome, with which they lacked any cultural similarity. In the balance of power game, both Europeans and Arabs at times appealed to Britain.

Civilizational identities are forsaken when necessary. Kuwait appealed to America for help against Iraq, and France sabotages the US-led Western alliance in pursuit of political dividends, preferring to be in the vanguard of Muslim interests in the West than the rearguard of American interests anywhere. The Russian government supports anti-Muslim sentiment domestically to repress the Chechens but allies with Arabs against America—their allies in the war on Muslim terrorism. Governments are equally mendacious about xenophobia and kinship.

The boundaries of any civilization are pragmatically fluid and substantiate any line of conflict. The anti-communist “free world” included Japan and even Saudi Arabia. The Nazis drew civilizational line between Arians and everyone else. Nationalism surpasses religious identity in the secular world. Explaining the world as clashes of civilizations—religious confrontation, racial competition, etc.—is a desperate attempt to rationalize a system too complex to comprehend fully or explain simply.

People identify with different groups: family, football team fans, town, nation, religion, and civilization. Groups form around interests, not culture: diplomats and businessmen are at times more comfortable with foreign colleagues than with their compatriot voters and workers. People continuously juggle and arbitrate conflicting allegiances. The importance of any threatened group increases: soldiers forsake their families for a nation at war. Threats are relative: when prosperity decreases a town’s or a family’s lowers immediate problems, even cultural influence against one’s civilization matters. The Cold War defined major interests in terms of allegiance to socialism or freedom; with détente, the only interests left were old religious and civilizational allegiances. Soon, however, new alliances will form around interests more meaningful than religion: trade, flow of investment, international charity.

Very poor people cannot afford concerns about civilizations, and the affluent do not fight over intangibles. Cultural hatreds are common at a specific economic level: well above sustenance yet lower than others, a point at which people can afford to pursue their ambitions by taking time from work but cannot realize them. That status can be attained either by externally acquired prosperity—welfare, international aid, or sudden improvements in agricultural productivity or medical care—or by stifling opportunities—by economic sanctions (post-WWI Germany), overregulation (USSR), or lack of education (dar al Islam).

A little sudden prosperity endangers morals: some people’s ambitions surge beyond their means, while with others, consumption habits lag behind, leaving free time for radical activities and contemplation. Such people are few but enough to trouble societies.

Xenophobia is often the last resort of self-esteem. Snobbery and superiority make people despise, not hate others. Hatred is a product of envy. Instead of admitting that their own shortcomings prevent them from reaching the (usually material) level of others, people imagine they do not want that path or that level and reject the values they long for. If the object of envy is weak or acts weakly, hatred sees no barrier and intensifies. The Soviet people greatly envied American development but did not hate America—because it was strong; Muslims envy and hate America because they do not fear it.