The tragedy of Newt Gingrich is neither his ignorance nor his arrogance, both of which can be easily explained and dismissed as nothing more than politically irrelevant stupidity, but the realisation that what he actually said about the Palestinians being an “invented” people has not been rejected by most of his countrymen.
Even worse, and despite decades of immersion in American culture, the greater calamity of this latest ‘revelation’ is the perpetual optimism of the Arab elite that such prose reflects little more than internal jockeying for power. Most react with justified amazement though few ought to. Is there a remedy to the ongoing caricature that passes for intelligent opinion?
Editorials and commentaries often opine that the way foreign policy issues are discussed in US political campaigns reflect a candidate’s maturity, or lack thereof, though this is wishful thinking. It may be gratifying to state that Gingrich’s declarations amounted to foolishness, but it may be more accurate to wonder why journalists and academics have not taken him to task.
Save for a few tangential comments delivered by individuals with little or no impact on the American polity, no major analyst or leading university professor stepped-up to the bully pulpit, and chastised Gingrich for being a first-class bigot.
To be sure, the Republican aspirant to his party’s nomination appeared before the ‘Republican Jewish Coalition’, whose minuscule membership amounts to a fraction of the predominantly Democratic Jewish voters. As widely reported, Gingrich ingratiated himself with Jewish Republicans to champion Israel, secure additional campaign funding, as well as lobby the estimated 40 per cent of Republican primary voters who identified themselves as “born-again” Christians.
Not only were the latter perfect examples of theologically confused believers, since most actually thought that it was their duty to seek absolution for unspecified sins, but most perceived such devotion as worthy of eternal salvation on the “Day of Judgment”.
Typically, leading American clergymen, both Christian and Muslim, were AWOL (absent without official leave) and as this observer is poorly qualified to speak of theological matters, it may be easier to focus on why Gingrich’s hysteria drew mild rebukes.
Academics, including those who benefit from Arab financial largesse by sitting on so many ornate chairs in the most prestigious universities, were distinctly silent. Writers who travel throughout the region and who, presumably, know something of contemporary history, opted to dismiss the nastiness for what it was.
Hopeless journalists whose superficial understanding need not be repeated here, chose to pen yet fresh stories on the latest schisms between Sunnis and Shiites, or on their ‘exclusive’ reportage of grandiose geo-strategic developments that spoke of declines for some and the threatening culminations of others. The paradigms are too many to repeat in this article though it is clear that few bothered to say anything about Gingrich or men and women of his ilk.
In the region itself, and save for the mild Arab League condemnation of Gingrich’s remarks, few officials made any public criticism. One doubts that private complaints were lodged either.
Regrettably, powerful politicians and master manipulators will continue to refer to Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as ‘terrorists’, or ‘invented people’ as long as the latter limit themselves to scraping the bottom of the respect barrel. Of course, esteem is earned, but one of the modest ways to do so is to associate with individuals who reciprocate. Rather than dole favour on to those who literally despise simply because that individual may one day reach a position of authority, it behooves those in key positions, to tell the difference.
Beyond Gingrich, the Arab elite ought to focus on what their scholarly allies — who were the only folks equipped to respond to infantile comments that passed for historical facts — actually did. Platitudes aside, where are the renowned American academics that greatly influence the foreign policy establishment, to correct mistakes uttered by wily politicians?
If one were less demanding, one would even wonder where are some of the many visitors who are shown the Red Carpet treatment when they travel in the area, to at least raise their timid voices?
The Gingrich soliloquy reminded me of an October 2010 conversation with the director of a US Middle East centre after the Obama administration proposed to sell Saudi Arabia 84 advanced F-15 fighter planes and upgrade 70 already delivered.
The astute administrator/scholar complained that Washington was transferring sophisticated electronics and weapons packages that would necessitate long-term commitments to fly and service these aircraft. When I quizzed him on the harm that presumably such an engagement might entail, my interlocutor opined that the “Saudis were too stupid” to fly or serve their planes, which would presumably add to America’s burden.
Needless to say I was stunned by his audacity, for I knew how well he was received in every Arab capital including Riyadh, where he spewed flowery (false) praise and appreciation. Saying sweet things to appease the easily satisfied was a remedy long consumed in the Arab World. It ought to end. If Arabs do not want to be referred to as terrorists, or Palestinians want to be existent, it’s time to think about appropriate responses. Let us stop pretending that past efforts earned admiration. It’s time for Arabs to know their allies and what may be the price of obduracy.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.