The Lexicon of the Contemporary Middle East Expert
The Associated Press
The Lexicon of the Contemporary Middle East Expert
The Associated Press
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Long before the latest convulsions in the Middle East, but certainly encouraged by them, that unendangered species of think tank fellow or academic known simply as the "Middle East Expert" perfected a new lexicon for the English language. Everything that has occurred in a troubled region, from the auto-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor to the barrel bombing of Aleppo, has been made intelligible, if not inevitable, by this carefully constructed lexicon of the elite opinion-makers and policy-formulators of our day. And while it is true that other fields of intellectual pursuit - literary criticism, evolutionary psychology - have minted their own select jargons, rarely have words that are devoid of any meaning or forensic value become so instantly imbued with definition and importance by their mere usage as those deployed by the Middle East Expert.

You're on pretty solid footing to know that you're about to learn everything there is to know about political or social or economic upheavals in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Palestine based on the casual dropping of key terms and phrases - terms and phrases which instantly announce the dropper's bona fides and the demand to be taken seriously. The Middle East Expert who uses this vocabulary, particularly he who uses two or more examples from it in the same sentence, is to be consulted as closely and often as possible. Herewith a dictionary:

Narrative: This word is highly valued by the Middle East Expert because it beautifully reduces the empirically verifiable to the category of a hotly contested theory or abstract construct. E.g., "The narrative that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy is totally simplistic." Genetically developed in the amino acids of philosophical relativism, moral equivalence and comparative literature doctoral programs, narrative also conflates reality with idle opinion: one man's is no better or more provable than anyone else's. E.g., "The narrative that ISIS is doing anything worse than what the US has done in Guantanamo Bay and Bagram is bullshit."

Political solution: Whenever war in Arabia looms, this phrase is to be invoked to pretend that it isn't, or that it can be stopped by non-war. Somewhat complementarily, its usage ensures that one will never be confused with a neocon (see below). Lately, political solution has also served as a prerequisite for Middle East Experts applying for jobs in the Obama administration through the unusual channels of newspaper or magazine op-eds.

Facts on the ground: Once perfected by Israeli expansionists to account for how land that was not theirs could magically become so with a little demographic adjustment, this phrase now encompasses new worlds of epistemological overstatement. Can any one person truly claim to have a grasp of all the facts in any one place, much less something so geographically indeterminate as "the ground"? Which ground? Where does one ground end and become another ground? The answer, of course, is yes.

The Middle East Expert knows all the facts on the ground in Damascus, Homs, and Raqqa because they recently took part in a two-day symposium in Beirut on finding a political solution to the Syria crisis. Much was discussed at this gathering of fellow Middle East Experts, not to mention a dozen or so charismatic officials from Arab governments. Various narratives were exchanged and argued. But what began only as a comprehensive knowledge of the facts on the buffet table at the Four Seasons ended in a think tank publication that explains exactly how a three-year conflict can be brought to a swift and just end on the basis of retweets.

Imperialism: Any possible policy pursued by the United States government in the Middle East, including hypothetical political solutions.

Anti-imperialism: Any policy pursued by an enemy of the United States government in the Middle East, including the invasion, occupation and annexation of other countries, which is not to be confused with imperialism (see above).

Resistance:The pursuit of anti-imperialism by means other than a political solution. The Middle East Expert takes care not to confuse resistance with insurgency or terrorism, the means by which imperialism is now being furthered in Syria.

Soft landing: This soothing metaphor describes how an anti-imperialist or resistance-oriented regime can be finessed or gently coaxed from decades of power by a little diplomatic creativity and the careful application of sanctions. Many a Middle East Expert predicted that a soft landing would indeed be the preferred political solution to the Syria crisis, probably because a pillowy descent sounds much nicer than awkward facts on the ground, such as 200,000 people gassed, starved, shot or rocketed to death.

Neocon: A term of abuse employed by the Middle East Expert to silence critics who may have done damage to a prized narrative or two. Derived from neoconservative, an epithet coined by the radical American socialist Michael Harrington to describe a generation of ex-liberal intellectuals, this somewhat truncated but roomy portmanteau has multiple contemporary uses indeed. Most readily, it reminds people of the Iraq War, which the Middle East Expert was against even if there is documentary evidence to suggest that he was initially for it. It can also be used to describe anyone who believes that a political solution is the wrong narrative to adopt for reconciling the latest anti-imperialist endeavor. (The pleonasm imperialist neocon should only be considered a last-resort in moments of polemical pique or social media frustration.)

Today, neocons have come to include several million Syrian refugees, the entirety of the Free Syrian Army, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, the overwhelming majority of the past and present White House cabinet, and an embarrassingly large number of foreign correspondents (albeit many of them still keeping their own counsels). This word is also a quick and easy way to keep anyone from noticing whenever U.S. Senator John McCain says anything awkwardly resembling the truth (or approaches an agreeable narrative).

At its absolute lowest level of usage, and because neocon has suffered from a decade of semantic tinkerings and subtle insinuations, neocon also conjures the image of a shadowy manipulator of American foreign policy, possibly with tentacles, who is generally unavailable between dusk on Friday and dark on Sunday. Not that any Middle East Expert would ever stoop so low. Only a neocon could ever believe them capable of that.