Several years ago, I wrote in a column that Sun Tzu observes, “Know your enemy … and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” Without a clear understanding of how your adversary thinks and sees himself (and you), there can be no lasting peace, merely a perpetuation of wars and rumors of wars. Just as there are forces in nature that generate consequences, so in human affairs.
A grave mistake being made by politicians today that can have the most tragic consequences is thinking our adversaries think like we think. Just because we would not launch a nuclear first strike against those with whom we disagree, this is in no way indicative that al-Qaida, ISIS, Boko Haram, Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations would not do so.
There is a reason for the wars in trouble spots like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The primary reason we remain embroiled in many conflicts (at the cost of thousands of American lives and billions of dollars) is owed, in large part, to the failure of Western diplomats to comprehend the significant differences between the Eastern and Western mindsets.
Cultures arose, and continue, as a result of the basic principles of the “parent” civilization. Just as the various cultures of India, China, Japan and the Middle East derived their behavior patterns from the basic philosophies of their “parent” (Eastern civilization), so England, France, Germany, United States and Israel, et al, adhere to the basic philosophies of their “parent” (Western civilization). As the basic tenets of Western civilization are essentially biblical Judeo-Christian values, the moral precepts of Eastern civilizations are, likewise, a statement of their religious values.
In the East, the concepts of forgiveness, forbearance, mercy, etc., are all foreign and, generally speaking, non-existent; these virtues are not an integral part of their cultural paradigm. The critical point becomes, therefore, not just a battle or the loss of land but, more importantly, the loss of face and/or honor. The give-and-take inherent in standard negotiations prevalent in the West has no equivalent in Middle Eastern cultures.
Concessions are interpreted as appeasement and/or weakness. (The more you give, the more they want; ask Israel and observe the present U.S./Iran negotiations.) No conscientious member of any Middle Eastern or Far Eastern culture can allow himself, his tribe, his family, his culture or his religion to lose face. Any such insult demands vengeance, usually accompanied by bloodshed – swift if possible, but implacable. A prime example of this philosophy is the “honor killing” of women by their own family members. Husbands have killed wives and fathers have killed daughters whom they feel have somehow “dishonored” them.
Feuds between Muslims (Sunnis versus Shiites) have existed for centuries. The lives and deaths of the participants are inextricably bound up with the customs and traditions that resulted in these blood feuds. Since the concept of the blood feud, for all practical purposes, is unknown in the West, these issues, unrecognized, can constitute a grave danger to the West when it intervenes in such Middle East conflicts.
After a successful intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts (as in Iraq), the West has often simply partitioned territories (as with Eastern and Western Europe, and North Korea/South Korea). The West anticipates that once such boundaries are established, peace will ensue. Unfortunately for the West, externally imposed arbitrary geographical boundaries, to the Eastern mind, do not exist; Islamic territory remains Islamic territory – Sunni or Shiite.
Absent this insight, the West in general, and America in particular, can become involved in a quagmire and subsequently be hated by both sides. Any attempt to placate one side will be seen as an act of hostility by the other. This exists throughout the entire Muslim world; to pacify the Shiite Muslims is to alienate the Sunni Muslims. Wars and rumors of wars are the result of sharp divisions between groups, each having their own set of absolutes. Ignorance of the differences between both sets of absolutes has often left the West without the means of implementing lasting conflict resolutions.
To the Western mind, our Judeo-Christian biblical values of liberty, equality, forgiveness and live-and-let-live are the basis for, and embody, a set of absolutes that Westerners feel are applicable to all. However, today we read of public executions, beheadings and the kidnapping and raping of hundreds of school girls in Africa and the Middle East.
As our diplomatic corps is now faced with this new set of challenges, plus Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, et al, one is forced to wonder if our diplomats – these supposed specialists in diplomacy – do in fact, realize, in their negotiations, that our Middle East adversaries don’t think like we think.