The same dumb thing, over and over

The phenomenon of doing the same dumb thing over and over again, each time getting made a fool of and yet not learning from the experience — this characterizes Western relationships with Middle Eastern entities.

Unfortunately it is not caused by a rare form of brain pathology as Barry Rubin surmises, but springs from attempts to get a short-term appearance of gains at the expense of producing a long-term deterioration of the situation.   

Fifty First Negotiations
By Barry Rubin

For those who don’t know, “Fifty First Dates” is a comedy film undistinguished except by its brilliant premise. It describes the dilemma of a man in love with a woman who has short-term memory loss. Each day she forgets she has ever met him and he must start the relationship all over again from the beginning. No matter how kind, funny, or romantic he is it doesn’t really matter. Like Sisyphus in the legend, he has to roll the boulder up the mountain from the bottom and never — at least until the Hollywood-style happy ending — gets to the top.

Actually, I don’t know if he succeeds since I lost interest before the end. Even if I knew, why should I ruin the film for you?

But I realize this situation is a great parallel for the Middle East. People constantly urge negotiating with Syria or with Iran, as if this has never happened before, or it just wasn’t done right, or not enough concessions were offered. We are supposed to believe that success is just around the corner, and as people say before they gamble away their life savings: What can you lose by trying? But what about all the other times this has been tried and failed? Are these simply forgotten by people with systematic memory loss?

How about the numerous visits of U.S. secretaries of state to Syria which failed to get Damascus to stop cooperating with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein (before 2003) or stop helping terrorists murder American soldiers and Iraqis in Iraq (after 2003), or close the offices of terrorist groups in Damascus, or make peace with Israel .

What about the ten year (ten year!) effort in the 1990s, pursued mainly by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat (yeah!) not an “evil Republican”, to bring Syria into the peace process and to make peace between the Palestinians and Israel?

Remember how the Syrians made a fool out of Secretary of State Colin Powell who assured American journalists that Syria had already closed the terrorist offices in Damascus on one occasion and had already closed the oil pipeline to Iraq on another only to realize he had been conned?

I have actually heard Powell speak recently about what a success his diplomacy was. As if that weren’t enough, I also heard former Secretary of State James Baker in a radio interview speak of his attempt to get the terrorist offices closed as a success, even though they are still open 18 years later!

How about the bait and switch tricks President Bashar al-Asad pulled on French President Francois Sarkozy regarding negotiations over Lebanon?

Sarkozy sent high-ranking officials to Syria without preconditions; had officials falsely deny Syrian involvement in a 1983 terror attack against French peacekeeping soldiers in Lebanon; asked Bashar to mediate with Iran; dropped demands that Syria normalize relations with Lebanon; begged — rather than demanded — Asad show some sign of respecting human rights; and pushed forward a highly profitable EU association agreement with Syria despite that country’s failing to meet earlier demands for reform.

On every point, Bashar let Sarkozy down yet this did not lead to a learning of lessons. Indeed, Sarkozy had forgotten what experience had taught his predecessor Jacques Chirac by 2006, that “the regime of Bashar seems incompatible with security and peace.” It’s bad enough not to go forward, even worse to go backward.

And then there are those gullible American members of Congress, notably Senator Arlen Specter, who said Bashar promised them to free political prisoners only to discover he had arrested even more?

Regarding Iran the situation is even worse. For about five years European states — led by Britain, France, and Germany — have negotiated with Iran over the nuclear weapon program only to find Tehran:

  • Lied to them.
  • Broke commitments.
  • Ignored deadlines.

Obviously, systematic memory loss is the only explanation.

I, however, have a solution. Every politician who wants to negotiate with Iran and Syria (or the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hizballah, or Muslim Brotherhoods for that matter) must sign the following pledge:

I  ___________________
__  prime minister
__  president
__  foreign minister
__  secretary of state
__  member of parliament/congress

Of  ____________; (Fill in name of country)
Hereby promise that if I bargain with this
___  name of country or
___  name of terrorist group
And it
__  treats me like dirt
__  lies to me
__  breaks commitments
__  ignore deadlines
__  murders my friends or allies
__  all of the above

I solemnly pledge that if I try and fail in negotiations, and especially if I make concessions in exchange for promises not fulfilled, I will learn my lesson, understand that these forces are extremist enemies, honestly inform my people of this fact, and treat the said regime or terrorist group accordingly in future.

If I do not do so let my popularity fall below zero, my campaign treasury be empty, my secret diary fall into the hostile media’s hands,


(Fill in Title and Name)

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit

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