From Confusion to Kardashian: Misreading the Middle East

On the one hand, anything Kim Kardashian does shouldn’t be news. On the other hand, it usually is, so why not use her celebrity to push another point? I’m writing about Kardashian’s recent tweets on Israel and from Bahrain, and what the ensuing teapot-sized tempest tell us about elites, Arabs, and the magic of social media. 

Let’s start with Israel and Gaza. (I promise I’ll get back to Ms. Kardashian.) Operation Pillar of Cloud, as Emily Hauser has noted, was as much a lopsided hot war as it was a social media war; surprisingly, though, social media caught Israel unawares. I wonder whether it should have. Pillar of Cloud was the Middle East’s first war since the Arab Spring. Israel’s government appears not to have factored that in. 

These revolutions weren’t just televised. They were live-streamed, tweeted, and brought front and center by activists providing compelling, even addictive access. More Americans watched al-Jazeera during the Arab Spring than ever before. And while social media’s role in the Arab Spring might be exaggerated, it made Arabs (and Muslims) human, relatable, and even admirable. 

Thus Israel’s PR stumbles. During a creepy back-and-forth between Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades and the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF apparently managed to get its Twitter account suspended. (It’s up for dispute.) Anderson Cooper live tweeted from Gaza. Hacker collective Anonymous tied its disruption of official Israeli Twitter accounts to its intervention against Mubarak’s authoritarianism. 

Among celebrities, too, there were consequences. Stevie Wonder, a “messenger of peace” and fundraiser for the IDF, canceled a concert for the latter’s benefit. Kim Kardashian, whose prayers of sympathy for Israelis under threat of Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire, drew anger, ugliness, and even death threats (here is her thoughtful apology). She drew further protest on visiting Bahrain, delighting in its tropical charms, while staying silent about its political reality.

I don’t expect Kardashian’s micro-musings from Bahrain to produce the kind of controversy Israel and Palestine do. (They should, of course, but such is the world.) Still, that there was such a pronounced reaction to her tweets reveals a new apprehension of the Middle East. Sympathies are evident that didn’t exist before. Younger voters and Democrats show more sympathy for Palestinians. This is partly because of how we experienced the Arab Spring. 

The Arab Spring has had consequences for Israel, too. I’d argue that the post-Arab Spring political environment played a significant part in Israel’s decision not to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, rendering 2012 different from and far less bloody than 2008. After all, a live-tweeted, instagrammed incursion into the densely populated Gaza Strip, roughly the size and population of Philadelphia, would’ve been a public relations disaster.

That appeared to have been Hamas’ strategy, too, escalating rocket fire while awaiting the Arab and Muslim world’s intervention. The movement realized that newly elected Arab governments would have their feet put to the fire by empowered publics eager to see policy changes. Hamas even recognized that Egypt wanted to restore itself as a leader of the Arab world, and would jump at the opportunity.

Pillar of Cloud was made the means by which that would happen—the Netanyahu government was surprisingly slow to understand that. But once it did, not much clarity of action emerged. And I’d push this argument on the Arab Spring’s effects still further.

The uprisings, with their increased access to Arab and Muslim stories, undoubtedly affected Europe’s shift over Palestinian statehood. The recent vote at the United Nations might be described as one tiny country in Europe plus the U.S., Canada, and Israel, against the rest of the planet (a world map only underlines this). Even Germany, a historically strong supporter of Israel, chose to abstain instead of voting no, as it was expected to. 

Hence an undisputed Israeli military victory was also a diplomatic defeat. Writing for the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz explained Israel didn’t win the short war. (How Gazans saw it deserves consideration.) Britain and France have even mooted withdrawing their ambassadors in protest at continued Israeli settlement construction. In the aftermath of all this, the United States—Israel’s strongest ally—finds itself unsure of how to react to the Gaza war and to the post-Arab Spring Middle East generally. 

Cluelessness, Amplified by Power and Privilege

It’d be hypocritical of me to venture how this’ll all shake out, but I believe I know why it’s so hard to tell.  These events, and the asymmetric results of the Israel and Gaza war, are an excellent illustration of Stephen Walt’s “confusionism.”

In a recent post for Foreign Policy, Walt argued that we can understand world affairs through “confusionism”: as often as not, elite decisions are characterized by the biases, misinformation, arrogance, and human irrationality that everyday decisions are marred by. Frequently, elites don’t know what they’re doing, but keep doing it—sometimes, when they fail to get the results they want, they just double down on terrible choices. (Memo to Russia on Syria: Seriously?)

Indeed, elites often prove more dangerous than the average citizen, not because of their cluelessness, but because their cluelessness is amplified by their power and privilege. The best example might be Walt’s. What was the point of the 2003 Iraq War? What did we hope to accomplish? How did we make so many mistakes? It’s a tenacious fatuousness that can tie it to some kind of conspiratorial project. 

Now walk “confusionism” over to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Those who shaped our narratives of the Middle East—our intellectual elites, commentators and columnists—failed to grasp the consequences of the Arab Spring. Just like Arab dictators faced with popular uprisings didn’t know what hit them until they were on a plane, in prison, or face-down in a ditch. Even the IDF, the supposed fount of Israel’s “start-up” success, seemed off in the new media world.  

The Arab Spring has changed how we look at Arabs and Muslims. Social media subverts power structures, whether those are of the hard power or soft power variety. In this context, no ground is steady. The same revolution that put Mohammed Morsi in charge of Egypt now seems to be destroying the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades of work—in under a year.

That isn’t to say that accessibility automatically births democracy. After all, elites can react to changes more effectively than everyday citizens, because they have more resources at their disposal. But still, social media enables those who are frequently opined about to opine back. Social media enables a more level playing field, along the lines Thomas Friedman might write another book about, except that the world is being leveled in his disfavor. 

Which is where I want to leave you.

What happens in the Middle East isn’t always about us, even though that’s how Friedman frames it, time after time. Convergences aren’t permanent; I’d like to call this error “Kardashianism,” which as an added bonus sounds like confusionism, giving my argument an impressive and solipsistic coherence. (You’re not really surprised, are you? I’ve argued that Jersey Shore, appreciated anthropologically, affords us an unparalleled etiology of the Arab Spring.) 

Look at this picture, worth 1,000 foreign policy words. It’s Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Foreign Minister and global thinker, on a visit to a Gaza hospital during the war. (He was joined by several Arab Foreign Ministers, including democratic Tunisia’s.) It matters that he was there. It matters that Turkey is a NATO member. It matters that he seemed genuinely affected. But who does it matter to? Who feels moved by this picture? What political ends will it be put to?

This isn’t always about us, a point those concerned with Israel’s longterm security and America’s regional role should never lose sight of. The Arab Spring is about the Arab world, and while we can affect its struggles, we cannot determine them as cleanly as perhaps once we (thought) we could. Sometimes a Kim Kardashian comes along and accidentally gets stuck in a conflict she doesn’t mean to, but that conflict preceded her—and will continue beyond her. Please read deeply into that.

moghul@gmail.com'

RD Senior Correspondent Haroon Moghul is a Fellow both at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Haroon is completing his doctorate at Columbia University and is the author of The Order of Light (Penguin, 2006). He's been a guest on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, NPR, Russia Today and al-Jazeera.