By ROGER COHEN
Published: December 20, 2010
LONDON — At this point it is clear enough who invaded Iraq. Contrary to general opinion, it was Iran. After all, applying the Roman principle of cui bono — “to whose benefit?” — there can be no question that Iran, the greatest beneficiary of the ousting of its enemy Saddam Hussein and the rise to power of Shiites in Baghdad, must have done it.
I know it appears that the United States was behind the invasion. What about “shock and awe” and all that? Hah! It is true that the deception was elaborate. But consider the facts: The invasion of Iraq has weakened the United States, Iran’s old enemy, and so it can only be — quod erat demonstrandum — that Tehran was the devious mastermind.
This mocking “analysis” is often deployed deadpan by my colleague, Robert Worth, the New York Times correspondent in Beirut. After three years living in Lebanon and crisscrossing the Arab world, he uses this “theory” to express his frustration with the epidemic of cui bono thinking in the region.
I say “thinking,” but that’s generous. What we are dealing with here is the paltry harvest of captive minds. Such minds resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.
While I was in Beirut this month, the conspiratorial world view was in overdrive, driven by WikiLeaks and by the imminence of an indictment from an international tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri: more on that later.
The notion was actually doing the rounds that recent shark attacks at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik were the work of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Hadn’t someone seen an electronic device attached to a shark being directed from Tel Aviv, video-game style, to devour a Russian tourist’s leg?
One Egyptian government official suggested the theory was plausible enough. After all, damage to the Egyptian tourist industry could only please Israel. Cui bono ?
In his seminal collection of essays, “The Captive Mind,” Czeslaw Milosz described the intellectual’s relationship to Stalinist totalitarianism: “His chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”
Lebanon is a freewheeling delight on the surface — as far from Soviet gloom as can be imagined — but it betrays the servile mind-set of powerless people convinced that they are ultimately but puppets. This playground of sectarian interests, where each community has its external backer, may be the perfect incubator of conspiracy theories.
But Lebanon is only an extreme case in an Arab world, where the Internet and new media outlets have not prised open minds conditioned by decades of repression and weakness.
Hariri, who was pro-Western and anti-Syrian, was assassinated in downtown Beirut. Suspicion fell on Syrian agents. A United Nations tribunal was set up to investigate — itself a reflection of Lebanon’s weakness in that the country’s own institutions were deemed inadequate.
Five years later, I found the investigation irrevocably infected by cui bono fever. “Who took advantage of the killing?” Talal Atrissi, a political analyst, asked me. “Not the Syrians, they left Lebanon afterward. It was the United States that benefited.” Hah!
Ali Fayyad, a Hezbollah member of Parliament, told me: “The tribunal is entirely politicized, an illegal entity used by the United States as one of the tools of regional conflict against Syria and the resistance.”
Theories abound that Israel penetrated the Lebanese cellphone system to coordinate an assassination portrayed as providing the pretext for a failed anti-Syrian putsch by the West (much as 9/11 is grotesquely perceived in the Arab world as a self-inflicted pretext for the United States to wage war against Muslims).
Why, it is asked, was an international tribunal set up for Hariri but not for Benazir Bhutto’s killing? Why has the C.I.A. not been interrogated? Such questions now have such a hold on Lebanon that I have reluctantly concluded that justice and truth in the Hariri case are impossible, victims of the captive Arab mind.
In the cui bono universe there can be no closure because events stream on endlessly, opening up boundless possibilities for ex post facto theorizing.
Of course, the saga of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and the leak of a quarter million secret U.S. diplomatic cables are also viewed as part of some grand conspiracy. They reflect the decline of America and the revolt of its vast federal bureaucracy! No, they demonstrate America’s enduring power, recruiting female Swedish agents to accuse Assange of sex crimes!
The truth is more banal. The WikiLeaks cables reveal autocratic but powerless Sunni Arab governments calling on the United States to do everything they are unable to do themselves — from decapitating Iran to coordinating a Sunni attack on an ascendant Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such fecklessness, and the endless conspiracy theories that go with it, suggest an Arab world still gripped by illusion.
Milosz wrote powerfully of the “solace of reverie” in worlds of oppression. I found much solace in Lebanon but little evidence that the Middle East is ready to exchange conspiratorial victimhood for self-empowerment — and so move forward.