Who is Responsible?

There has been mounting criticism of Arab states since September 11th on the absence of democracy in the region. Many in the Arab world see much of this pressure as politically motivated, intended to undermine US-Arab relations. Others point out that much of the world does not have Western-style democracies and that the Middle East is no exception. Still others argue that the particular cultural, historic, and economic conditions in the Arab world make it unlikely that the region will, or even should, develop Western-style democratic institutions.

While many of these arguments include elements of truth, there is an important sense in which the criticism is valid and should be carefully considered in the current debate in the Arab world: More than any other region in the world, there is an absence of accountability and of taking responsibility for one’s actions. There is the most pervasive psychology of helplessness and utter dependence on the outside world, as if none of the ills that plague the region have anything to do with the local actions.

Certainly what happens in the Middle East partly depends on the actions of the outside world. The region’s strategic importance means that powerful states like the U.S. will always have a central say in shaping events. Israel, as the most powerful state in the region also plays a major role in shaping the regional strategic outlook. But rarely does the outcome depend only one side even if much of the burden falls on the most powerful party. Rarely in recent history have governments in the region accepted even partial responsibility for disastrous failures. This makes the region different from much of the world, both the democratic and non-democratic states.

Take for example how Israel reacted to the failure of the Camp David negotiations with the Palestinians in July 2000, and to the eruption of the Intifada. Almost universally, Israeli politicians and the public blame the Palestinians for the failure, not themselves. In particular, both the left and right in Israel place most of the blame on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who has emerged as their favorite villain. In this regard, the Israeli reaction is not different from the Palestinian reaction, in fact it is its mirror image: The Palestinians almost universally blame the Israelis for what happened, and place much of the core blame on Ehud Barak for the failure at Camp David. But there is one significant difference: Israelis defeated Ehud Barak soundly and elected his opponent. Even if they believed that the events were “imposed” upon them by the Palestinians, they clearly also held their prime minister responsible. There was a collective sense of responsibility which generated change, whether good or bad. But Palestinian politics continued as usual, as it did after 1982 and after 1991. The Palestinian sense that Israel and the US, among others, bear much of the responsibility for the tragedies that Palestinians endured always seems to absolve leaders from any responsibility whatsoever. If all the problems that ever happen are the consequence of the actions of more powerful parties, why don’t leaders form their policies based on understanding that power, why don’t they anticipate the consequences?

The examples are not limited to Western style democracies. When the military junta in Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, most Argentinians supported the action as a war of liberation. But a powerful Britain went to war that led to the defeat of Argentina. Most Argentinians certainly blamed Britain and never ceased to believe in the justness of their positions. But they dumped their generals who had to be held responsible for the disaster. And they opened a new chapter of their history.

Contrast this with the disaster that befell Iraq in 1991. Its government remains entrenched on the simple proposition that all that had happened was merely a function of American hegemony. If so, why not understand it before hand and design policy accordingly? The sense of dependence on the outside world once again is used to absolve governments of any responsibility. This justification has been so pervasive in the past century that it has become an accepted norm even among segments of the public and the elites: Because the actions of outside powers seem to be “bad,” regional actors must therefore be “good.” This way, defeat is not even recognized when it occurs and the mere survival of leaders is seen as a “victory.” This self-defeating narrative in turn reinforces the cycle of blaming the world and absolving regional leaders of responsibility and accountability.

Power matters in world politics and the region remains partially dependent strategically on the actions of more powerful interested parties. But the Arab world will not be able to change to accommodate the power realities, let alone change them, unless people begin taking responsibility for their actions, even if others are also responsible.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.