06.02.2013 _____________________

Jane Elizabeth Digby died in 1881. A promiscuous English aristocrat who had had four husbands and many lovers, she traveled to The Levant at age 46 and fell in love with a much-younger man, Abdulmedjuel el Mezrab, a sheikh of the Syrian Anayzah tribe.

She converted to Islam, became Jane Elizabeth Digby el Mezrab, and lived a happily married life for 28 years.

She’s buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Damascus, where I once visited her grave.

I’ve also visited the shrine that may contain the head of John the Baptist, revered as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims, within Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque.

And I visited, in a small garden not far from the Umayyad Mosque, the tomb of the great warrior Saladin.

And I walked on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus — known as the Apostle Paul — once walked upon when he was converted to Christianity:

“Immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.” Acts 9:18, KJV

Today, there are many new grave sites in Syria.

Too many.

Tens of thousands of people have been slaughtered in the two-year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Millions have been displaced or forced to become refugees in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The borders between Syria and her neighbors, including with Israel’s illegally annexed Golan Heights, witness increased tension daily and there are regional and global fears that the conflict will engulf some of those neighbors.

As America considers what its response to Syria, if any, should be, it confronts the problem that Americans don’t know how to look at Arab identities, positions and challenges from within an Arab cultural context — to assess Arab interests and narratives within their broad cultural perspective.

This form of American myopia, embraced by our military, politicians and the press in their approach to the Middle East, was identified at the time of the Iraq War, perhaps inadvertently, by Paul Wolfowitz in an interview with Vanity Fair: “I think the greatest mistake is assuming that people will behave, well it’s a version of mirror imaging, I guess. People will be rational according to our definition of what is rational.”

“People will be rational according to our definition of what is rational.”

We make that mistake over and over again.

Personally speaking, I don’t think the architects of our encounters with Afghanistan and Iraq, with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, with torture and drone attacks, with our Middle East policy in general, have a clue what is rational in the greater Middle East.

The challenge is not for Americans to keep Syrians from killing Syrians.

We can’t do that.

The patterns in media coverage — of Syria, of the Arab world, of Islam, of the conveyors of their narrative — demonstrate the limits of American commitment to knowledge and understanding. The resultant ignorance constrains what gets discussed in public arenas and jeopardizes America’s ability to make well-informed decisions about issues of national interest.

In difficult times, ignorance can be dangerous.

Syria, independent only since 1946, is home to Alawite Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Christians and Druze, and was once home to a thriving Jewish community.

Its modern history has been scarred by coups and coup attempts and, since the al-Assad family came to power in 1970, has been brutally ruled by the minority Alawite faction, which controls all seats of power.

Today, the two-year-old civil war is fragmented beyond anyone’s ability to understand who is allied with whom, who’s secular, who’s Islamist, who’s pro-Iran, who’s pro-Western (whatever that might mean) and who wants peace.

It is beyond our unilateral or interventionist reach.

It is not Libya. It is not Bosnia or Kosovo, It is not Georgia or Iraq.

It is a catastrophe. There is no place for the United States there.

When America failed in Iraq, Iraqis lost the most and Iran won the most.

If we unilaterally intercede the Syrians will lose the most and a re-assertive Russia will seize the opportunity to reinsert itself in the Mediterranean theater.

Recently, Sen. John McCain, an advocate for a no-fly zone and the arming of Syrian rebels, entered Syria from Turkey and met with Gen. Salim Idris, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, and some other rebel leaders. The senator urged the Obama administration to reconsider its stance on arming the Syrian opposition, and argued that it would be a mistake to avoid getting involved for fear of repeating the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, for John McCain, there was no Pauline conversion on his road to Damascus. Sadly, the senator has not learned the limits of American power.

Let us pray, as he considers the stakes for America, that the good senator from Arizona will see the interventionist scales fall from his eyes and have the sight of reason, and rationality, restored.