Re-Think the Middle East’s blog is designed to provoke thinking about the future of the region and to encourage an honest and open exchange of views on key conflict issues.Posts RSS

The Politics of Wishful Thinking

by Michael Lame, posted on August 3, 2010

In the Rose Garden last week, President Obama asserted that “if we’ve learned anything from the tragedy in the Gulf, it’s that our current energy policy is unsustainable.” Perhaps he meant energy practices rather than energy policy, since an energy policy would presumably be government policy which means the policy of his own administration. Obama’s Secretary of the Interior has slapped a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf in order to prevent more BP-style disasters, so the “current energy policy” the president criticized is clearly not his energy policy. But whatever he was referring to, what exactly is unsustainable about it?

Oil, gas, and coal will continue to be produced and consumed for decades to come. Perhaps the global reliance on fossil fuels is not sustainable for another 50 years but only for half that. In political terms, however, even 25 years is an eternity. Given how much attention the BP spill has attracted, improved industry safety practices as well as increased government regulation will likely result in diminished risk of a Deepwater Horizon-type disaster in the future. The near-term future, then, will no doubt include more deepwater oil drilling with increased safety measures.

So why would the President call something unsustainable which probably is sustainable for a long time to come? Because “unsustainable”, as a judgment on the status quo, has become the new universal watchword among change-advocates. Why must we make a change? Because the current condition, situation, policy, or system is unsustainable. It’s a more powerful word than untenable because it conveys a sense of urgency. Time is running out. We must act now!

The term “unsustainable” has also recently surfaced in Obama administration references to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. On the day after the flotilla incident, Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed that “The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable.” Since then, the Israeli government has announced a lifting of its restrictions on the entry into Gaza of many foodstuffs and consumer products, but the ban on other imports as well as all exports remains in place, as does a set of severe travel restrictions. The blockade has not ended.

Middle East scholar and Palestine-watcher Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace recently quipped that the typical language of EU documents states that “the situation in Gaza continues to be unsustainable.” He concluded that it’s possible for an “unsustainable” program or policy to be “sustained at this unsustainable level for a long time to come.”

That even the unsustainable is sustainable should come as no surprise. Human beings, after all, have an enormous capacity to adapt, even to horrific circumstances. Tyranny, oppression, malnutrition, poverty are but a few examples of the ills we bear indefinitely as a species. Through human ingenuity and perversity, that which, morally speaking, should not continue even one more day can be made to continue ad nauseum, if not ad infinitum.

If we continue to promote that which is unsustainable, then we are clearly on the wrong road going the wrong way. According to the views of most clerics and politicians, with intellectual underpinnings provided by theologians and ideologues, there is a right road and a wrong road in life. If we choose correctly, life will be long; society will prosper; civilization will flourish. But if we choose incorrectly, woe unto us! The wrong road is characterized not only by unsustainable options but also by diminishing possibilities. “The window of opportunity for a two-state solution is rapidly closing,” we have been told for the last ten to twenty years. Some argue that the window has already slammed shut. Perhaps the closing window is a trope that should itself be finally closed and retired from future discussions of Middle East peace.

The linguistic flip side of unsustainability and the wrong road is that of inevitability and the right road. In the 1990s, Oslo promoters in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington repeatedly and categorically stated that “the peace process is irreversible” and “the two-state solution is inevitable.” Neither prediction turned out to be the case, as demonstrated by the failed Arafat-Barak-Clinton negotiations at Camp David, followed shortly thereafter by the outbreak of the second intifada, the subsequent disappearance of the peace camp in Israel, and the redeployment of Israeli troops in Palestinian cities.

To call a condition “unsustainable” is to contend that it will (and must) break down. To call an outcome “inevitable” is to assert that it will (and must) occur. Both notions are presented as predictions of the future, but in political discourse often they are not really predictions based on weighing the evidence; they are projections. They project an image of the future that the speaker hopes for. The projection’s power may stem from a belief in the efficacy of affirmations: if one says it often enough and loud enough, it will become true. Sometimes matters are presented as inevitable or unsustainable not because the speaker is foolish but because he hopes to fool others. Or it may simply be a matter of wishful thinking: I want peace. Everyone wants peace. Therefore we will have peace. I want the blockade to end. All good people want it to end. Therefore it will end. But the world generally doesn’t work that way, and the Middle East definitely doesn’t.

So how does it work? Conspiracy theorists assume a conscious will behind every action on the international stage. If something bad happens, it must be because someone wants it to happen. There is a certain logic to such theories, but as historians like Barbara Tuchman have shown, wars can break out from mistakes, miscalculations, and misinformation, even when no one wants war. While that is generally true, it is particularly true in the armed-to-the-teeth, hair-trigger, security-minded Middle East. One act of disrespect, one misinterpreted troop movement, one leaked document can set in motion a chain of events leading to pulverized buildings and dismembered bodies. Capriciousness and happenstance cannot be overlooked as key factors in Middle East politics and warfare. They must be considered along with the more traditional strategic, demographic, and economic factors in composing plausible scenarios of potential futures.

While neither war nor peace between Jews and Arabs is inevitable, one is more likely to win a bet that calls for another round of blood-letting than for the achievement of comprehensive peace in our time. Given the odds, what is one to do?

Americans typically assume not only that problems have solutions but that the solutions will be found and implemented quickly. The idea of a catastrophic oil spill continuing to devastate the environment day after day for three months running has been an affront to the American can-do ethos. The fact that Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian-Israeli peace has eluded president after president for several decades is sobering if not maddening.

In the search for Middle East solutions, too often a short-term fix has morphed into a long-term fixture. Deleterious conditions which should not be sustained have been allowed to continue and to sink deep roots. Who imagined that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would still be living in refugee camps more than sixty years after the Nakba? Who thought that the occupation of the West Bank would last for more than 40 years? Who believed that the state of Israel, established in 1948, would still lack peaceful relations with most of its neighbors?

The more we assume that the Middle East’s future has already been determined, the less likely we are to take positive action to shape that future. Engagement is not required if the conclusion is foregone, while energy drains out of options that everyone “knows” will one day be implemented. The urgent question, then, is not whether an analysis is accurate, a condition unsustainable, or an outcome inevitable, but whether governments, organizations, and individuals will take timely action to alleviate human suffering and resolve the region’s conflicts.

The words people say and how they say them offer strong indications of what, if anything, people intend to do. By paying close attention to the language employed by the region’s players, we can begin to discern whether their words evoke an energetic bias for action which can make a genuine difference or rather reflect a bystander’s judgment of a pre-determined future.

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “The Politics of Wishful Thinking”

  1. Mickey Friedmanon Aug 3rd 2010 at 7:37 am

    With all due respect, Michael, I think you’re missing the main point about sustainability. And that is the price all living things are paying, will increasing pay if we don’t find a solution to the climate crisis. You may think we have 50 years to use our oil or 25, but my penguins might disagree.

    A letter by Dr. Eric Chivian in today’s NY Times says it better than I can:

    “Senate Republicans and a handful of coal and oil state Senate Democrats, driven by parochial, political self-interest and aided by the Obama administration’s failure to put up a real fight to honor the promises it made last December in Copenhagen, have refused to address the most dangerous, long-term and in effect irreversible threat to the health and survival of human beings. They clearly do not understand what is at stake for all life on earth as a result of unchecked global warming and the consequent variable, unstable and extreme changes to the global climate.

    It is up to the millions of us who do to let them know that their inaction is not acceptable.”

    Just add the crippling of the Gulf Coast ecosystem to the melting glaciers. I can understand your optimism: “Given how much attention the BP spill has attracted, improved industry safety practices as well as increased government regulation will likely result in diminished risk of a Deepwater Horizon-type disaster in the future. ”

    But given recent history, it seems remarkably far-fetched.

    Today, profit trumps stewardship, and political expediency obliterates the greater good – what you call your “right way.”

    I’m with Dr. Chivian.

  2. Thomas Mitchell, PhDon Aug 3rd 2010 at 8:41 am

    Michael,
    I think that the word unsustainable may increasingly be a synonym for “increasingly expensive or costly.” In that since the continued powering of our economy by oil is unsustainable in three senses:
    1) With shrinking reserves it becomes more expensive to import oil in purely financial terms.
    2) Because the oil-rich regimes of the Middle East are politically brittle, there is an unpredictable political and military cost in continuing to rely on their oil. This is because they are domestically unpopular and they rely on foreign adventures and stoking the rhetoric of anti-Americanism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to sustain themselves.
    3) The creation of greenhouse gases from CO2 emissions is driving climate change, although the major costs of this will be paid by succeeding generations and those in the Third World–in tropical regions.

    Using my definition there are indeed many things that are unsustainable but continuing until the costs of their continuation is perceived to be greater than the political or financial costs of changing the policy. The financial and political costs of developing new technologies that can replace oil are quite high. So many people are taking refuge in the human ability to deny that which is unpleasant. There is a large sector of the American electorate that simply denies the evidence of man-made climate change because they don’t want to change and because they are suspicious of science because it is rational and empirical rather than irrational and revealed through miracles.

    The occupation of the Palestinian territories is also unsustainable in this sense. It is mainly a question of what is more expensive: the Palestinian demand of a right of return for refuges and a desire to eliminate Israel or the continued occupation? And for Israel, which is more expensive: the continuation of the occupation or serious political reform of the Israeli partistaat (party system) that will allow Israel to negotiate a compromise two-state solution with the Palestinians?

  3. Michael Thomason Aug 3rd 2010 at 9:58 am

    A very thoughtful piece, with which I pretty much agree. Obama’s intelligence and subtlety permits him to choose words which seem to take a strong position on an issue without (if you parse carefully) committing him or his administration to anything in particular. Taking the Gaza blockade — if Obama intended to do anything much about it, he would lay out his view of what American interests are and what they require in the way of policy, and then perhaps describe the blockade, in light of that analysis, as intolerable reather than unsustainable. That is, we will not enable it, we will publicly and privately act so as to make it impossible to continue in anything like its present form, and we will work with the parties to move to a set of conditions that provide security and maximize individual freedom. Compared to that, “unsustainable” is a passive word without commitment or force.

  4. Michael Lameon Aug 3rd 2010 at 10:20 am

    Touché, Michael Thomas! You said it much more cogently and succinctly than I could.

    To state that a condition is unsustainable, that a result is inevitable – or even that a situation is deplorable – is to remove human agency from the equation, as if the future will happen without us, as if we can’t do anything about it. Talking that way lets the speaker off the hook. It’s the language of a spectator, not a leader.

  5. Michael Thomason Aug 4th 2010 at 9:44 am

    Actually, those of us who follow the administration’s policies related to the \middle East should have tumbled to this trope of Obama’s last year, when he said words to the effect that continued expansion of settlements was “not legitimate.” Some of us were encouraged, thinking that was as close as he felt he could come to returning to the pre-Reagan policy that all settlements in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, were both against US policy and illegal. But now it seems clear that it was a phrase chosen in the same way “unsustainable” was — a signal that you can read what you want into, but promising nothing. For that matter, whatever “not legitimate” meant, it applied only to settlements resulting from continued building, allowing the Netanyahu government to believe that Obama had declared the existing settlements not only legal but legitimate, and perhaps therefore permanently added to the store of Israeli land. This practice of coming up with neologisms as signals is slippery, and as we now see, potentially the cause of misunderstanding, anger, and possibly missed opportunities. We get frustrated with the careful and bland usages of diplomats, but the advantage of them is that those who know the history of the usages cannot misunderstand.

  6. Judy Cohenon Aug 5th 2010 at 4:18 am

    Sustainable is a buzz-word today. We are, according to environmental activists, trying to create/maintain a sustainable world. I like the use of the word by politicians, because it gives the necessary connection between natural and political environment. One of the dilemmas of Israel’s Green Movement has been how to answer interested potential members, when they say they are in favor of green legislation but say it has nothing to do with their political views.

    My reply is usually that as good as recycling is for the environment, not killing each other is even better. Not to mention one of the world’s biggest sources of waste, pollution, and destruction of resources and natural habitats – war and the weapons industry.

    Dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable. That’s a good thing. Maybe if we realize that we’re running out we will finally turn to the sun and the wind for our energy, more than before. We still have plenty of them.

    Using the word unsustainable regarding policy is perhaps a refreshing way to rethink how leaders always view their policies. They usually think “What we have decided will last forever – as long as the right people continue to be in charge.” Thus our occupation has lasted over 40 years, when for years people predicted that it couldn’t.

    Any policy can be sustainable as long as the public is “educated” according to it. This goes for our never-ending, rarely-progressing peace process. It goes for anti-Western attitudes throughout the Muslim world. It goes for the hysterical consumerism which is one of our modern malaises.

    Why might a policy become unsustainable today? Because people might become better informed. There are so many ways to access information, that some day people might begin to wake up and start thinking critically. When that happens, the sustainable and unsustainable, the tenable and untenable, the acceptable and unacceptable, the inevitable and the avoidable, the affordable and the legitimate, the effective and the feasible, the moral and the immoral – everything may be questioned. Perhaps Obama is one of the few world leaders who actually believe that this could happen. Most still think that their publics believe they are the ones who know best.

    When we learn to think and question, challenge and choose, passing time and status quo will not be enough to make any policy sustainable. Then perhaps what we try to do today for flora and fauna we will do for society as well – bring back the art of the balanced life and environmental harmony that is sustainability.