America must revolutionize its understanding of the Middle East

For the past generation, America’s Middle East policy has primarily been a chronology of failures.  The proactive promotion of democratization in Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian arena resulted in catastrophes.  Leading from behind appears to have failed too, as chaos in the Middle East deepens, and U.S. outreach to Iran raises tensions and creates instability in the region.  Moreover, U.S. intelligence didn’t foresee significant developments in the Middle East such as the Arab Spring, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or the severe deterioration in Yemen.  These failures and many others certainly do not stem from a lack of resources, capacity, or gifted individuals.  They stem from a more fundamental flaw.

The foreign policies of Western governments are largely shaped by five major circles: academics; corporations; media; non-governmental or non-profit organizations; and politicians.  The concepts, conversations, information, knowledge, narratives and thinking exchanged within and between these circles, play a significant role in the shaping of policy. 

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An examination of the process through which information and knowledge about the Middle East is conveyed and assimilated within these circles in the United States reveals two major weaknesses.  One has to do with the mediating of information and the other has to do with the processing of information.

First, we must examine the mediators of information.  The majority of Western mediators of knowledge about the Middle East—people perceived as experts such as artists, celebrities, journalists, media personalities, politicians, professors, etc.—do not speak Arabic, the predominant language of the Middle East.  This is critically important.

Absent these crucial language skills, the mediators themselves are completely dependent upon translated, heavily interpreted, and sometimes deliberately manipulated information.  As a result, the reality they are exposed to and ultimately the reality they present, at best, reflects a small part of the picture.  Lack of language prevents them from having their finger on the pulse of events and developments in the region.  The commentaries, information, and opinions on the Middle East that they pass to their audiences in the West are fragmented and far from the true picture of what is actually taking place.

The second weakness is the processing of information.  The discussion about the Middle East within Western circles is guided by an outlook and codes that are suffocated with Western terminology like “Colonialism,” “Democracy,” “Freedom,” “Human Rights,” "Pluralism," "Social Justice," “Global Warming,"—combined with a healthy dose of political correctness.  These theories and concepts rarely provide a better understanding of the Middle East reality, and worse: quite often they result in a false reading of the Middle East.  As a result, superficial theories spread within Western circles suggesting that "Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier;" or "There is a connection between global warming and the emergence of ISIS."  Neither of these theories offer an accurate understanding of the serious conflicts roiling the region.

Mediators of knowledge have created an “echo chamber” by talking amongst themselves and quoting themselves.  Their inaccurate interpretations percolate into the public consciousness.  The concepts they create become “facts.” The narratives they generate become “reality.”  The theories they develop become “the truth."  This must not be allowed to continue.

Improving America’s ability to have a more accurate reading of the Middle East requires revolutionizing the process through which information regarding the Middle East is gathered, processed, evaluated, and assimilated.

The core of that revolution must include encouraging the study of Arabic; assimilating an analytical approach based upon dedicated information gathering, evaluation, processing, and re-evaluation; and prioritizing media literacy and critical thinking skills through teaching professional intelligence methodology and reducing dependence on Western news platforms while increasing the use of Middle Eastern media news platforms.  Ultimately, facts and evidence must replace concepts and theories if America’s foreign policy is to succeed.

Melamed is the fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College and author of the new book, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth.

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