- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

It is always refreshing to read Barry Rubin on the Middle East. He is straightforward, chronicles events that actually occurred, cites statements actually made and never implies that everything that went wrong is really America's fault.
Mr. Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs in Herezliya, Israel, edits the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and has written 16 books and edited another l7, all on the Middle East. The fact that he has an office in Israel marks him as pro-Israeli, which in a sense he is. A review of his earlier writings, however, shows his sympathy for Palestinian aspirations.
In "The Transformation of Palestinian Politics: From Revolution to State-Building," published in 1999, he relied heavily on input from his Palestinian colleagues, and was cautiously optimistic about the Palestinian future. Now, three blood-filled years later, in "The Tragedy of the Middle East," Mr. Rubin strikes a much more somber tone.
The reason there is no peace in the Middle East, he writes, is because many people and governments simply don't want peace. In the area, he states, a regime's first obligation is survival. Of course it must protect itself and its people from foreign invasion, but more pressing is the need to prevent violent upheavals. And, reminiscent of George Orwell's "1984," a demonic enemy is necessary to ensure full mobilization of the country's resources.
Every Middle Eastern government, with the notable exception of Israel, controls its national media. The constant barrage of propaganda directed against Israel, the United States and the West in general, is not only tolerated by the governments in power but at times even encouraged. The critical social and economic problems that plague the area can be ignored while indulging in emotional orgies against mythical enemies.
Mr. Rubin uses Syria as perhaps the most striking example of his thesis. The benefits of peace for the Syrian regime, he states, would be minimal. The return of the Golan Heights, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had offered secretly, and which Ehud Barak had offered publicly, would solve none of Syria's problems. It would still need money it did not have to fund its large army and to keep its generals happy. Syria's occupation of Lebanon would also suffer. What would the 30,000 Syrian troops there be protecting and from whom?
Lebanon is now a Syrian cash cow. The widespread corruption there benefits the Syrian elite who both engender and profit from it, while its relatively efficient industry provides a variety of jobs for the Syrian unemployed, of whom there are many. Syria at peace would no longer be an attraction for the area's power brokers, nor would it receive such large cash subsidies from the rich Arab oil states. The current situation no peace, no war, but lots of threatening rhetoric costs little, and allows the regime to continue the martial law that has been in effect since 1968.
Though different in many ways, Iran is in a similar situation. The Iranian economy is ailing; a painful inflation is rampant; corruption is endemic and jobs for its rapidly expanding population are exceedingly hard to find. All these maladies are explained by the existence of a hostile United States, the Great Satan.
As for the Arab-Israeli conflict about which so much has been written, Mr. Rubin details the many opportunities for peace that have been squandered. The Palestinian leadership, like Arab leadership elsewhere, seems more afraid of the risks peace can bring than the nature of the violence they keep promoting. The author quotes Winston Churchill who long ago said, "Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry."
Mr. Rubin wrote this book before regime change in Iraq appeared inevitable. When that occurs, the capability for constructive change, meaning the growth of democracy, will certainly increase.
Together with his wife, Judith Colp Rubin, Mr. Rubin has now co-edited "Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East: A Documentary Reader." In it, the authors provide a collection of key documents, statements, testimonies and speeches surrounding September 11 and other attacks against the United States. Not a book to be read at one sitting, it is valuable to have at one's elbow when studying an area as complex and controversial as this one.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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