Friday, August 8, 2014

Falling for it

In recent days a story has been circulating on social media that was picked up by Samir Mansour in a column Wednesday for the daily An-Nahar. It affirms that the United States was responsible for the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – since renamed the Islamic State.

That would have been a remarkable scoop, had it only been true. On Wednesday the US Embassy in Lebanon issued a statement saying the story was “a fabrication.” More surprising is how easily Mansour was duped, as Al-Nahar’s publication of his article lent credibility to an otherwise doubtful story.

In the article, Mansour cited an alleged passage from Hard Choices, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recently-published memoir. According to the passage, the United States sought to use the Islamic State as an instrument to partition the Middle East, including the territories of such longstanding allies as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and control its oil. Along with other countries, Clinton purportedly wrote, Washington was prepared to recognize its state as soon as it was formed.

Everything about Mansour’s article displays sloppiness and gullibility. For a start, he should have simply picked up Clinton’s book to confirm that incriminating passage. Instead, he appears to have reproduced it from a social media outlet, simply assuming it was accurate. In fact, no such quote exists in the memoir, and no one would seriously expect it to.

The reason is fairly obvious. American politicians, particularly those with their eye on the presidency, do not generally admit to cooperating with terrorist groups, let alone supporting a vast conspiracy to break up and destabilize the Middle East. Surely that alone should have set off alarm bells in Mansour’s head.

Secondly, Mansour should have remembered that a principal reason why the United States has avoided sending weapons to the opposition in Syria is because it fears that they may fall into the hands of jihadists such as the Islamic State. America wants to avoid blowback, similar to what happened on September 11, 2001. If you write a column, you should be able to grasp context to better distinguish the truth from the nonsensical.

This was also an embarrassment for An-Nahar, where nobody caught Mansour’s mistake. It really does pay to hire fact-checkers. Yet on Friday, after the embassy’s denial, the piece was still up on the newspaper’s site. Was there no alert editor around to ask Mansour, for example, on what page the Clinton quote was located? Ghassan Tueni must be rolling in his grave.

But beyond the awkwardness of Mansour’s article, a great deal has been written about the propensity in our region to believe conspiracy theories. The irony is that such accounts can be reassuring. If events are explainable and appear to have a rational, guiding hand, they are easier to absorb than those that seem propelled by chaos – neither planned nor predicted.

The impulse to believe and disseminate conspiracy theories can also be ahistorical: the narratives are often based on archaic interpretations of behavior, frozen in time. Hence, Mansour still adheres to the image of an omnipotent America that no longer corresponds to reality, if it ever did.

Arabs should wake up and see that America, despite its great strength as a nation, is in relative decline. It is struggling economically; its infrastructure has deteriorated dramatically; its uninspiring politicians can’t work together as populism gains ground; and its people have lost the confidence they once had, and are wary of their country’s involvement in the world as they find themselves increasingly preoccupied by parochial concerns.

Obama may be the worst president in decades, but his focus has been, understandably, on reversing the malaise at home. One thing he is definitely not thinking about, and does not want to think about, is being sorcerer’s apprentice to the Middle East’s disintegration. Why do so many Arabs not see this, instead harking back to an all-powerful America working slyly to manipulate all global events to its advantage?

The problem with conspiracy theories is that, to the believers, efforts to deny them are regarded as their confirmation – a sign that powerful forces seek to conceal their ways. This is where Mansour comes back in. His piece has legitimized the arrant absurdity of Clinton admitting to an American plot to break up the Middle East. He must admit his error and withdraw his article. All journalists slip up, so we will sympathize.

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