The White Man’s Club

Alastair Crooke

Bitterlemons, November 9, 2006

He stepped in from the harsh sunlight of Egypt. He had just crossed the Sinai with two Arab friends, one of whom had died during the journey. The news that he and his friend brought was of huge import. This slight figure, still dusty and grimed from travel by camel, stepped from the Cairo hubbub into the cool starched interior with his companion and strode across to the bar for water. The interior with its comfortable leather chairs, white linen, and discreet servants breathed the comfort and certainty of upper class England. The barman gave a disdainful glance at the pair: "What is he doing in here?" he demanded to know, glaring at the Arab.

Lawrence had come to the officers' mess at the British military headquarters in Cairo to tell General Allenby that the Arab army had done what no one believed was possible - the army had crossed the Nefu Desert to take the Turkish army by surprise - Turkish guns faced only outward toward the sea. He had taken Aqaba! This mattered little, however, in the officers' mess in Cairo: Lawrence had actually brought his Arab companion to the bar to demand water!

Another club, the International Quartet, reacted with similar disdain and indignation to the news that - against an entrenched power structure - an unexpected figure had walked in on their officers' mess: Hamas had won the Palestinian elections that the Quartet had prescribed as part of its road map. An Islamist movement was seeking Western recognition of their popular mandate!

Like most clubs, the Quartet sets its rules - post hoc if necessary - to keep out those who do not quite "fit in" to its ethos. Hamas would need to comply with three hurriedly agreed-upon conditions if any club member were to speak to the new candidate.

At its meeting in New York in September of this year, however, it became clear that even if the new candidate did comply with the three new club rules and abandon its mandate to more "respectable" albeit unelected persons to govern in its place, this still would not allow the new sanitized government to "step in."

An EU member who participated at the Quartet said that if a sanitized arrangement were to be formed under the guise of national unity, and club rules were appropriately "reflected" by the incoming government, "stepping in" was still not assured; the club membership committee would first need to scrutinize the suitability of each member of the government, to ensure, presumably, that each new minister fitted with the club ethos.

Additionally, the club wanted assurances that the new government knows how to behave; Ministers are not required to wear ties, but their policy guidelines would be vetted. Only if these additional scrutinies were positive would the Quartet consider talking to the new candidate.

The Quartet saw the language drafted in New York this September as a big step forward. In their view, it was intended to be both helpful and positive. Club candidates who wish to be addressed by members need now only "reflect" the three new rules. But the reality is that, whereas there were three rules before, now there are five. In addition to recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and required re-commitment to all past agreements (whether or not they represent flawed and failed instruments), candidates also needed the extra two conditions of being validated for allocation of portfolio and policy guidelines.

The metaphor of an officers' club may seem a harsh parallel to draw in respect to the Quartet for some, but it reflects two aspects of the Quartet's current posture that are important to draw out. The first - and this has been a persistent trait - has been its disconnection from reality with its smug officers' mess ethos; and the second has been its failure to do politics, or as Senator George Mitchell used to say, to do the "choreography."

That is, it is easy to post new rules and make declarations, it is much harder to do the hard shuttle diplomatic work of patching together the moves and accompanying statements, which is how political progress in reality is achieved. Doing this work does, of course, require talking. And, of course, Quartet members have determined that they cannot talk to those with whom it is necessary to resolve the present impasse.

On the basis of the Quartet's reluctance either to do choreography or to reflect reality, it is likely that a Hamas candidate will not be addressed by members. Like Lawrence's Arab companion, Hamas is unlikely to be welcomed. Quartet members, however, might care to reflect on the future.

That earlier officers' club, which was also so remote in its cool white linen Britishness, and which also did not think Muslims should play a part in deliberations about the future of Muslim societies, was swept aside by the flow of events: The bar at which Lawrence's Arab companion was refused water after his journey from Aqaba in 1916 gave place to a swank hotel. That hotel, which became a refuge for European elites visiting the city, has now also been swept away.

If the Quartet persists in its present vein, it should not be surprised if before long voices are heard asking why Muslims are not a part of this "white man's club" that decides on the legitimacy of election outcomes and the future of their society. And the answer to the question, "what is he doing here," will be obvious: they happen to live here.

This article first appeared in Bitterlemons.



One Comment

  1. Wil Robinson wrote:

    Aren’t they already asking why they can’t be part of the white-man’s club?

    It may be disguised in terms of religion, but it’s apparent to most everyone that brown people aren’t allowed the same rights as whites in the international arena.