What do US comedian Jon Stewart and Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal have in common? What does Stewart have in common with Syrian President Bashar al Assad or outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for that matter?
For starters, they’re all sick of waiting for the American government to do something useful. And just as critically, they are pretty tired of the “you’re either with us or against us” theme too.
Watching Jon Stewart speaking to more than 200,000 Americans who had traveled far and wide to attend Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” two weeks ago, I was struck by some themes that I repeatedly heard throughout the Middle East this summer.
In August during an interview in Damascus, Hamas Chief Meshaal described a new trend in the Middle East where certain leaders and states were rejecting the notion of being stuck in “blocs” or political camps, always warring with the other side:
“Why should we be dividing ourselves into two blocs — either being against America and the West, or acquiescing 100% to them? We do not want to wage a war against the world. Or to sever relations with countries. So the nations and the people of the region want a state model based on self respect — without any enmity with the world.”
Not that we would know this back home. The divisive media that Stewart and Colbert rail against for partisan politicking in Washington is on hyper-drive when it comes to the Middle East — creating more fear, more hate than is good for us. It paralyzes our ability to act and ensures that we will have zero policy breakthroughs.
I am fairly sure that Stewart was not thinking about Meshaal when he said “we can have animus, and not be enemies,” but I am equally certain the core of his sentiment — the promotion of the kind of political maturity we used to see in politics where foes could sit around a table, break bread and try to find common ground — is absolutely relevant to our foreign policy breakdown, too.
Today, as a matter of principle, we disengage from countries with whom we disagree. Like Syria. We withdrew our ambassador in 2005 and are still playing footsies with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the reinstatement of a new one. Why? We want Assad to break up with his current friends — Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — before we will play with him again.
The Syrians reject this possibility. Assad said in an interview earlier this year that the US had insisted on solving the region’s problems “and we waited. Now we don’t believe any longer in the role of other countries. If someone wants to help, welcome. But the solution is up to us. We must move ahead.”
How is Assad doing this? The same way as Meshaal and a select group of other innovative leaders in the Middle East. They are forging alliances with whomever can help them achieve their goals. “Reach across the aisles,” as Stewart says.
In the past year, Syria and Iran worked with regional “opponent” Saudi Arabia to broker the formation of a government in Lebanon, and all three countries have made periodic high-profile visits to Lebanon to keep the peace when tensions are high. And it’s a formula that works. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria have now power-brokered a similar solution in Baghdad eight months after Iraqi elections failed to produce a clear victor — something the US could not achieve in a million years with our divisive politics that insists on choosing a “side” and then sticking with it.
Just last month, we drew another such line with longtime ally and NATO partner Turkey when we boycotted the Anatolian Eagle military exercises because Ankara expelled Israel’s air force from participation for the Jewish state’s 2008/9 attack on Gaza.
Turkey’s reaction? It invited China to participate instead, marking the first time a NATO member has held joint drills with China. In the process, Ankara and Beijing also signed a nice pile of agreements pledging to increase trade from $17 billion to $50 billion in five years, and shunning the dollar in favor of their own currencies in bilateral trade.
Our reaction always seems to be the same. If a nation chooses to act in its own interest, we punish them. But the old “containment” maxim does not work any longer. The New Middle East will just shrug and go elsewhere. Bashar al-Assad outlines the shape of a new geopolitical scene in the region, and credits its emergence to the failure of the US and Europe to solve regional problems since the end of the Cold War — he calls it “redesigning the regional order”:
“There emerge necessarily other alternatives: namely, a new geostrategic map which aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, which are brought together by shared policies, interests, and infrastructure.”
Which is not vastly different from the ambitions of the Godfather of this kind of regional geostrategic thinking, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The compact, Mona Lisa-smiled, former academic has long advocated the establishment of a new world order, claiming that we missed an opportunity to define our way forward after the Cold War, settling instead for a unipolar world determined by US hegemony.
Well, times have changed. China shrugged off Clinton’s offer to mediate between Beijing and Tokyo, Brazil and Turkey trumped the west in striking a coveted nuclear deal with Iran, and the recent alleged “coup” attempt in Equador had Latin American leaders huddling within hours to emphasize that they would take care of neighbourhood matters.
The die is cast. Like a dysfunctional adult, our homegrown polarization habits, which we have exported far and wide, are being rejected internationally. We don’t know how to be “friends,” just “enemies.” Republicans and Democrats, Fox and MSNBC, CIA and FBI, Us and Them. And a promisingly mature global community has decided to leave home and try being adults without us.