Commentary: From Beirut to Washington
I’ve spent most of my career covering Middle East politics. I always thought it was its own unique field. But, in the last few weeks, I’ve felt myself to be at a real advantage trying to explain American politics. You see, it turns out that all those years covering Sunnis and Shiites, Israelis and Palestinians, tribal conflicts and “Parties of God” have been the best preparation for covering today’s Washington, D.C., and particularly the tea party. Seriously, you’d get a much better feel for Washington politics today by reading “Lawrence of Arabia” than the Federalist Papers. This is not good news.
Let me start by recalling a column I recently wrote from Kansas that noted the parallel between monocultures and polycultures in nature and politics. It began with the scientist Wes Jackson, the president of The Land Institute, explaining that the prairie was a diverse wilderness, with a complex ecosystem that naturally supported all kinds of wildlife, until European settlers plowed it up and covered it with single-species crop farms, mostly wheat, corn or soybeans. Today, noted Jackson, we now use high-density fossil fuels — in the form of gasoline-powered tractors, pesticides and fertilizers — to sustain these single-species, annual monoculture crops, which are much more susceptible to disease and are exhausting the nutrient-rich topsoil that is the source of all prairie life. During the Dust Bowl years of the ’30s, Jackson reminded, the monoculture crops died but the polyculture prairie, with its diverse ecosystem, survived.
What is going on in the Arab world today, I argued, is a relentless push, also funded by fossil fuels, for more monocultures. It’s al-Qaida trying to “purify” the Arabian Peninsula. It’s Shiites and Sunnis, each funded by oil money, trying to purge the other in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The more these societies become monocultures, the less they spark new ideas and the more susceptible they are to diseased conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies. It is no accident that the Golden Age of the Arab/Muslim world was when it was a thriving polyculture between the 8th and 13th centuries.
The same is true of the Republican Party in America today. Tea Party conservatives funded by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel donors are trying to wipe out whatever is left of the Republican Party’s polyculture and turn it into a monoculture. When Senate Republicans last week first offered their compromise proposal to end the shutdown, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a tea party congressman from Kansas, warned that “anybody who would vote for that in the House as a Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger” from the tea party. In short: They’d be purged in favor of a monoculture.
When the GOP was more of a polyculture, it gave us ideas as diverse as the Clean Air Act (Richard Nixon), daring nuclear arms control (Ronald Reagan), cap-and-trade to curb acid rain (George H.W. Bush) and a market-based health care plan (“Romneycare” in Massachusetts). The purge being mounted by the ultraconservative, oil-funded monoculturalists in the GOP today will kill the Republican Party if continued. They will wipe out “all of its topsoil,” all of its rich nutrients, said the environmentalist Hal Harvey.
That is, unless the GOP can avoid another lesson of Mideast politics: Extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away. With the feeble House speaker, John Boehner, and majority leader, Eric Cantor, consistently appeasing the tea party extremists, it is no wonder the party went over a cliff and almost took the country with it. But here’s another lesson I learned in the Middle East: It is not enough to just stop extremists from acting extreme. You have to take on and take down their ideas. After 9/11, Arab governments were more willing to arrest their violent fundamentalists, but few, if any, were willing to really take on and take down their ideas in public and offer moderate alternatives. Only Muslim moderates can take down Muslim extremists; only mainstream conservatives can take down tea party extremists.
It’s striking how much the tea party wing of the GOP has adopted the tactics of the POG — “Party of God” — better known as Hezbollah. For years, Lebanese Shiites were represented by the mainstream Amal party. But in the 1980s, a more radical Shiite militia emerged from the war with Israel: Hezbollah. Under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah began to run for seats in the Lebanese Parliament in 1992 to change its brand. But it still refused to give up its weapons to the Lebanese army, arguing that they were needed for “resistance” against Israel. Ultimately, Hezbollah could only win a minority of seats, but today it uses its arms and pro-Syrian allies in Parliament to block any policy it doesn’t like. As Hanin Ghaddar, the Lebanese Shiite writer who edits NowLebanon.com put it to me: “Hezbollah’s rule is: If we win, we rule, but if you win, you’ll think you rule, but we will do anything and everything to hinder you, and then we rule.”
The tea party is not a terrorist group. It has legitimate concerns about debt, jobs and Obamacare. But what was not legitimate was the line it crossed. Rather than persuading a majority of Americans that its policies were right, and winning elections to enact the changes it sought — the essence of our democratic system — the tea party threatened to undermine our nation’s credit rating if the Democrats would not agree to defund Obamacare. Had such strong-arm tactics worked, it would have meant that constitutionally enacted laws could be nullified if determined minorities opposed them. It would have meant Lebanon on the Potomac.
Which brings up one last parallel: Hezbollah started a war against Israel in 2006, without knowing how to end it. It didn’t matter whether it won or lost. All that mattered was that it “resisted the Zionists.” Hezbollah’s tacit motto was: “I resist, therefore I am.” Early in that 2006 war, Nasrallah boasted of Hezbollah’s “strategic and historical victory,” by holding Israel to a draw. But, in the end, the Israeli army dealt a devastating blow to Hezbollah’s neighborhoods and Lebanon’s infrastructure. After the smoke cleared, Nasrallah admitted that it was a mistake.
The tea party started this war on Obamacare with no chance of success and no idea how to end it — similarly intoxicated by a self-image of heroic “resistance.” And just like Nasrallah, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas engaged in magical thinking, declaring that the House vote to defund Obamacare — although rejected by the Senate — was “a remarkable victory.” But most of his Republican colleagues aren’t buying it. They see only ruin.
If nothing else comes out of this crisis than the fact that such Hezbollah-like tactics have been discredited in our politics, then the pain of the last few weeks will have been worth it.