Posted on November 01, 1993 in Washington Watch

Last weekend, an Arab American organization held its convention in Washington. Bringing together a number of Arab American and Arab academics and intellectuals, the conference was little more than a harsh three-day long attack on the Israel-PLO accords.

Most of the 100 or so attendees were sharply critical of the agreement, and used terms like “abject surrender,” “tragedy,” and “catastrophe” to describe it. Some of those who defended the accord were denounced as “collaborators,” apologists” or “opportunists.”

As distressing as it was to hear the harsh rhetoric, what is more troubling is that these attacks are a function of a deeper malaise gripping many Arab and Arab American intellectuals, which derives from their lack of engagement in real political processes and their resultant self-marginalization.

For example, while many of last weekend’s speakers heaped abuse on the PLO for having agreed to the accord, not one of them offered a realistic political alternative.

We have witnessed many such sessions over the past number of years. I can recall going to conferences in the 1970s and 1980s and hearing paper after paper delivered on “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Middle East.” The presentations were like a Bach fugue—infinite variations on a single theme: the U.S. is an imperialistic power and under the control of a Zionist lobby and, therefore, worthy of no more than condemnation.

The Arab and Arab American intellectuals in fashion back then were mostly Marxists of one stripe or another, and their criticisms reflected that language.

When, some time in the late 1970s, some Arab Americans began to organize politically in order to understand the workings of the U.S. political process and make changes in U.S. policy, the intellectuals distanced themselves from these efforts and remained unengaged. They were Marxists who had never read Marx. In his famous “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote, “The philosophers have, to this point, sought only to describe the world, in varying ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

So, if U.S. policy was, in fact, what the critics of the 1980s said it was, their responsibility was to do something to change this reality and not merely spend the 1980s and 1990s repeating their stale charges.

Being engaged in political processes is an imperative for intellectuals because there can be no real analysis without real practical experience. And it is this absence of involvement in political processes that produces the cynicism, the absolutism and, ultimately, the irrelevance of the so-called intellectuals.

For example, they denounce the Israel-PLO accords as a capitulation that was the result of an asymmetry of power. But what is their contribution to correcting this imbalance? It is in fact correct to observe that the accords are a function of an asymmetry of power and as such, represent the best possible result available to the Palestinians at this time. Further, conditions on the ground in and outside of the Middle East strongly suggest that this time is the best available for at least the next generation or two for reaching any negotiated settlement. To have refused to come to an agreement, the engaged Palestinian leadership would have created a situation that could only yield greater suffering for Palestinians under occupation and increased economic hardship for Palestinians dependent on the PLO’s support.

These choices being unacceptable, the leadership acted. But the intellectuals, not responsible for the products of their thought, propose no political alternatives other than continued struggle in support of maximalist demands—without a care as to how much suffering would result from their abstract slogans.

Because they are unengaged in politics, their failure to achieve their absolutist demands produces cynicism and harsh name-calling of those who either disagree with their views or propose alternative political courses. And because they have not learned the lesson that can be learned only through engagement, that `politics is the art of the possible,’ they continue to pretend that their moralizing desires about what “ought to be” and “what is fair” are anything more than the tragic-sounding whines that they really are.

Having said this, I state that there is a real role for Arab and Arab American intellectuals to play—but it must be based on real politics and propose real alternatives, so that there can be a real debate over the future course of peace and U.S.-Arab relations.

We are, all of use, supporters and critics of the peace accords, operating in uncharted waters. Not having been in this situation before, we genuinely need a collective discussion to help us discover the new language and new priorities we must develop to address the new realities.

I do not believe that in the new circumstances of the post-Cold War, and now, the post-peace accords world, that the Arabs have to be the losers. But we may well lose ground in the competition with Israel if Arab intellectuals and analysts do not engage in an effort to formulate new policies that can help mold the new realities in a pro-Arab direction.

Absent such engagement, we have the current situation in which the Israelis are developing proactive and creative approaches (to open diplomatic relations and commercial relations with Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and now several of the Muslim countries, and plans for Israeli involvement in the post-peace Arab East are evolving apace); while Arabs appear to be either paralyzed or reactive, with their intellectuals and opposition-thinkers seemingly capable of no more than issuing denunciations or recasting outmoded Cold War formulae.

I have recently read excellent analyses from two generational poles in Arab intellectual thought. Mohammed Hassanain Haikal of Egypt and Rami Khouri of Jordan, though differing in their views, both present the types of engaged intellectual analysis that this period requires. Their writings reflect an appreciation for reality and, at the same time, are inspired by visions of attainable future goals.

It is on this question of vision that I want to close. A leading Arab political figure once described for me what he felt were the prime requisites of leadership. They were, he said, power in reserve (meaning force and the capacity to use it when required) and communication (meaning the ability to always remain in contact with one’s people). When an aide chimed in “And vision,” the leader responded, “No, that is not so necessary.”

This apparent refusal to consider vision, or future thinking, as central to leadership and the formation of policy is so clearly at the heart of the malaise of many Arab and Arab American intellectuals and political leaders. Political leadership, caught up as it is in the day to day struggle of implementing policy, frequently finds it difficult to project a vision. But when both the intellectuals who support the leadership as well as those in the opposition have no vision, this is a recipe for disaster.

We have labored with this issue in the U.S. Much has been made of the Clinton Administration’s effort to define its vision of U.S. foreign and domestic policy in the post-Cold War period. It is a difficult challenge for the new Administration because it must define, in terms acceptable to the American people, our relationship with the world, the use and limits of our power, our national interests, and our vision of how all this is to be brought about and the values we want to project in a changing world. And the Administration must do all this while addressing immediate pressing needs: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Russia and NAFTA on the foreign policy side; and the systemic problems of urban poverty, racism, the health care crisis, crime and violence, and the staggering national debt on the domestic side.

This debate is over vision was central to the 1992 Presidential election and has continued to develop since then. In fact, it was the absence of what Bush himself referred to as “the vision thing” that contributed to his defeat last November.

Clinton won and now must apply his vision, all the while modifying it to meet changing realities. But he knows that, if he is to succeed, he must construct and articulate a future course that can inspire and mobilize voters to support his policies.

While it may be fair to criticize Clinton’s vision or to find it inadequate or inconsistently applied—it nonetheless exists and is being regularly presented by Administration officials and is being discussed and constructively criticized by analysts and intellectuals. The debate is intense.

It was, in conclusion, the absence of this kind of debate that I found so troubling at a meeting of Arab and Arab American intellectuals. To either support or criticize an extant policy is easy. But to plot a future course, to know the kind of Palestine one wants to see in the next ten years, and to propose a realistic course of action that will lead to that end—that is what is required and has been, until now, so sorely missing.

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