What do the recent shoe-throwing incident with Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, the uncertain truce in Gaza, and Lebanon's national dialogue all have in common? Very little, except that the three offer up a vision of the Middle East as a place largely devoid of constructive ideas, where the rule of the gun looms large on the horizon.
There is little new to say about the Zaidi incident. Yes, we really do know that the shoe expresses contempt in the Arab world, and if we had doubts about that, then Zaidi clarified matters by calling President George W. Bush a "dog." We know that the Iraqi blamed Bush for all the woes that his country had suffered in recent years, and we also know that he would have never thrown his shoes at Saddam Hussein, who was responsible for Iraqi woes until April 2003. And we know that the Zaidi affair became a giant funnel of interpretation, which many outraged Arabs fell into to make the journalist's shoe-toss a personal statement of their own.
Not many Arabs saw irony in the fact that Zaidi's action is now a game circulating on the Internet. Hit Bush on the head and you can score points. But that detail summed up the sheer mediocrity of this Arab moment, with its earnest demonstrations in support of the journalist, when few Arabs ever bothered to demonstrate on behalf of the countless Iraqi journalists executed by their country's armed gangs. As Tunku Varadarajan wrote so appropriately in Forbes: "The Arabs, who once upon a time boasted Averroes and Avicenna, are now reduced to eulogizing a boorish act of agitprop as a heroic achievement."
Somehow, missed in all this was Iraq itself. For too long the Iraqi conflict has only been about America. When Iraqis were being slaughtered by suicide bombers arriving from Syria, all the Arab world could do was applaud the murderers as "resistance" against American imperialism. Yet when many members of that resistance turned against the murderers in Al-Qaeda, appalled by their sadism, the Arab world became silent because the narrative had changed and the Americans and their former foes suddenly seemed to be in accord. The obsession with America, the pervasive desire to see Bush fail in Iraq, has been the running theme of Arab and much Western commentary on the Iraqi conflict. Only a minority observed that American failures would also be Iraqi failures, and that while the Americans could always pick up and leave, the Iraqis would have to endure the consequences of that failure for a long time afterward.
Zaidi's act came at the worst moment for Iraq. Here was Bush on a farewell trip to acknowledge that Iraq had gradually broken free from the United States, after the administration's ambition in 2003-2004 to run the country as a protectorate. Far from being the leader Washington considered removing from office a few years ago, here, too, was Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, now in greater control of his country. Bush made his trip to Baghdad to burnish his own legacy by saying that Iraq could stand on its own two feet. That was the stated aspiration of many Arabs not so long ago. And yet Bush's final visit ended up not being about Iraq's emergence from the nightmare of dictatorship and war; it ended up being about a man whose feat became a computerized entertainment.
No less demoralizing are the events in Gaza. The callousness of the Israeli blockade has been the focus of much justified attention in the Arab world. In the absence of any clear policies on achieving peace with the Palestinians, Israel tends to resort to brutality. However, it is also worth questioning what Hamas has made of Gaza, a territory that could have once served as an encouraging example of what Palestinians could achieve when Israeli occupation ended. Instead, what we have is a failed political order, and one cannot blame this solely on Israeli pressures. Hamas has chosen the armed struggle, which required overcoming Fatah in Gaza before transforming the area into a garrisoned statelet.
Will the truce in Gaza be renewed, or won't it? Hamas last week said the truce was over because Israel had not abided by its conditions. However, that seemed to be hypocritical bluster, an effort to cover for the fact that the Islamist movement has been unable to give Palestinians a normal life despite the cease-fire. In fact, Hamas' pursuit of the armed struggle requires extending the truce so the movement can build up its weapons arsenal and prepare for a long war. That's why it was no surprise to hear Hamas' leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahhar, tell Egypt's Al-Ahram that the movement might agree to renew the truce under the previous conditions.
Even if Israel lifts its siege, the only things Palestinians in Gaza can look forward to is the prospect of more carnage ahead. Hamas is not a state-building enterprise, it is a military movement that plays politics to retain the military option. The dystopia it offers is many decades more of the gun, and like Zaidi's shoes, the gun has left no room for discussion of an alternative, more desirable Palestinian future.
Much the same can be said of Lebanon's Hizbullah, as it engages in a bogus national dialogue on its weapons, which the party has already indicated it will not give up. At what stage will the Lebanese throw up their arms and admit to the absurdity of finding common ground between the logic of a sovereign Lebanese state and the logic of a sovereign armed group in the midst of that state? Hizbullah, like Hamas, offers only a project of open-ended war, apparently now tied in to developments in Palestine, if we are to believe the party's deputy secretary general, Naim Qassem, who declared a few days ago: "We are responsible, like all Arabs and Muslims, to completely liberate Palestine, from the river to the sea."
Who is looking flexible these days, amid such maximalism? Oddly enough the dictator in Syria, with Bashar Assad having declared on Monday that he would move to direct talks with Israel at some stage. Assad may be pulling the wool over American eyes as Barack Obama prepares to take office, but the truth is a grim one for the Lebanese. On the one side we have Hizbullah promising open-ended conflict, while on the other the Syrians are hoping that a new beginning with Washington will allow them to re-impose their hegemony over Lebanon, that rare society in the region with spaces of liberalism between its imperfectly applied despotism.
If you live by the gun you will probably die by the gun. That's the promise of the Middle East today, where weapons have become the ornaments of men, and where the foulest dictatorships end up looking like a good bet.