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By Barry Rubin
In a moment, I’ll present you with what might be the most frightening paragraph in the modern history of U.S. Middle East policy. But first, here’s one that’s among the most deplorable. It’s from a Washington Post article:
“The Obama administration is preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region’s politics.”
What? While people like me have been warning about the emergence of Islamist regimes, in contrast the Obama administration, European governments, mass media, and most academics have repeatedly assured us there’s no such danger! Those people doing the warning have been almost totally shut out of the mass media.
But now is the Obama administration realizing that those changes they’ve been cheering and even promoting could end by producing Islamist regimes? Is that the kind of regime that’s anti-American, promotes terrorism, subverts neighbors, and wants to wipe Israel off the map?
Now we come to the paragraph I warned about, the explanation for how the administration may be about to plunge into the biggest disaster in U.S. foreign policy of…well, of a very long time.
Here it is:
“The administration is already taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government. An internal assessment, ordered by the White House last month, identified large ideological differences between such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda that will guide the U.S. approach to the region.”
Get it? Al-Qaeda is bad because it wants to attack U.S. embassies, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon.
BUT the Muslim Brotherhood is good! Because it merely wants to seize state power, transform Egypt into an Islamist state, rule almost 90 million people with an iron hand, back Hamas in trying to destroy Israel, overthrow the Palestinian Authority, help Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood overthrow the monarchy, and sponsor terrorism against Americans in the Middle East.
I’m sure you can see the difference. This is the nonsense that the administration has been working toward for two years. It is the doctrine pushed by the president’s advisor on terrorism, elements in the CIA, and White House ideologues. The State and Defense departments are probably horrified.
Here’s the next paragraph:
“`We shouldn’t be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries,’” said a senior administration official….`It’s the behavior of political parties and governments that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam.’”
That first phrase is correct. We shouldn’t be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries. Islam has always been present in Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia or post-Saddam Iraq, and even Iran before its revolution and Afghanistan not under the Taliban. But we should be very afraid of Islamism in the politics of these countries.
And, yes, we should judge them on their relationship to Islam! Here’s how:
Are they merely pious Muslims who advocate conservative social policies and want to protect Islam’s institutional position in their countries?
Or are they revolutionary Islamists who want to fundamentally transform their societies and make Islam–in their strict, strident interpretation of it–dictator over every aspect of life?
In other words, are they the equivalent of Communists or Social Democrats, Fascists or right-wing nationalists. Both al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood are totalitarians in this sense.
Note, too, the dangerous idea of letting the genie out of the bottle to see if it devours us. We should already be able to tell right now this minute on the basis of the ideology, platform, and methods of these groups. Arguably, Western democracies didn’t do enough to keep Communists out of power in Russia in 1917 or the Nazis out of power in Germany in 1933.
But nobody accuses the Western democracies of helping them gain power on the false belief that this would be a good thing.
The problem here is not that the U.S. government is promoting democracy but that it isn’t simultaneously fighting against anti-democratic forces that want to take advantage of it to install even worse dictatorships profoundly dedicated to the destruction of all U.S. interests.
In short, the Obama Administration doesn’t care the least about keeping the Muslim Brotherhood out of the Egyptian government or Hizballah from running Lebanon’s government. Is it against the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power in Jordan or radical Islamists taking over Saudi Arabia or Morocco?
Why put the Islamists into power as an experiment? Then after a few wars, massive terrorism, bloody repression, and the destruction of the U.S. position in the Middle East, these great geniuses can say: Oops! Sorry for all you dead people but now we have a good basis for judging them: They really meant what they said! Who could have guessed?
If al-Qaida is the measure of all things, then everyone looks moderate in comparison. At least they aren’t attacking Manhattan! And this is why we’ve been subjected to the whitewashing of the Muslim Brotherhood, to make it acceptable to the American people and Congress. That’s why President Obama unilaterally welcomed the Brotherhood into Egypt’s government before anyone asked him to remark on that subject.
Then there’s Iran, which is not really viewed as too much of a threat. Just a little containment will make Tehran behave, right? And the bloody repressive regime in Syria is okay according to this worldview because it is against al-Qaida. The increasingly dictatorial regime in Turkey is positively wonderful to this viewpoint since its Islamist regime gives the appearance of being moderate. What a shining example!
Why object to Hizballah taking over Lebanon or the Muslim Brotherhood playing a major role in Egypt? After all, this gives Islamists a chance to show they are moderate and to be moderated by a taste of power. The administration’s definition of moderate is someone who is willing to participate in elections. If they knew any history they’d be aware that both Communists and Nazis participated in elections.
Yet we see this theme everywhere in terms of Obama policy: the attempt in Afghanistan to win over the “moderate” Taliban elements; the effort to get Syria to abandon its alliance with Iran in order to be a friend of the United States; the building and restoration of mosques with U.S. taxpayer money; the wooing of the Muslim Brotherhood; and so on.
There is also the view of Turkey’s regime as benign because it offers a “moderate” model to the Islamists and thus cannot be criticized. The only reason that Hamas is not included in this process, presumably, is because that would set off pro-Israel forces.
When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton says the United States is competing with Iran does she mean for leadership in the region or for the hearts and souls of Islamists? When she praises al-Jazira is it because she believes the United States needs to do a better job of offering an alternative version of Islamism? Remember Obama’s Cairo speech was not “pro-Arab” but rather endorsed Islam as the primary identity in the region, with invited Brotherhood guests seated in the front row.
U.S. policy, then, is deliberately helping the Islamists in order to show them America is their friend, to separate ”radicals” (al-Qaida) from “moderates” (Hizballah and the Muslim Brotherhood!), and to get them in a situation where they will be “moderated” by having to exercise of power (the same strategy that failed miserably with Yasir Arafat and the 1990s’ peace process, leaving several thousand people dead).
This policy approach is irresponsible to say the least. Strategy and tactics are means to a goal. If the goal of an Islamist group is to seize state power and transform one’s country into a totalitarian nightmare, violence and elections are equally good means if you think they are going to work.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi has said it all in his critique of Bin Ladin: Of course, Islamists should participate in elections, he explained, because they will win. And so if Qaradawi openly advocates genocide against the Jews, imposing totalitarian regimes, and chasing the West out of the region these facts are censored out by much of the Western media. After all, he favors elections and that’s all that counts.
It is bad enough for U.S. and European policies to do nothing in the face of the greatest challenge of our time, but to assist actively in the coming to power and flourishing of enemies is incredibly foolish. The bottom line is that this goes beyond appeasement. It is a strategy of actively helping the enemy grow stronger in the belief that this is a brilliant idea.
There is some precedent here. Some State Department experts thought Mao Zedong was a harmless “agrarian reformer.” In 1952, U.S. policymakers thought military regimes in the Arab world would be legitimate, efficient, pro-American, and anti-Communist. Thus, they welcomed the Egyptian coup of that year (which produced the regime just overthrown recently). Within three years, however, they reversed course realizing that the Egyptian government was hostile and pro-Communist. Almost a decade later they figured that Fidel Castro was just an honest nationalist, not a Marxist-Leninist.
Another thing it makes me think of is British domestic policy on Islamism, in which radical groups are encouraged and even funded as long as they don’t advocate terrorist violence within the United Kingdom, i.e., they aren’t al-Qaida types. The Muslim Brotherhood was (and is) considered a very useful force for peace and moderation by British policymakers.
This is the tragic mistake being transferred onto the wider stage: turning the chicken coop over to the foxes just because they aren’t rabid foxes.
The article includes this claim:
“`If our policy can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, we won’t be able to adapt to this change,’” the senior administration official said. “`We’re also not going to allow ourselves to be driven by fear.”‘
I can distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are very different but they are both very bad, too. The apparent alternative to being “driven by fear” is to be directed by ignorance and stupidity.
No doubt many who read this will think I’m being alarmist and presenting an exaggerated picture. I certainly hope so. But I don’t think so. My worry is that in a couple of years you won’t think so either.
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Islamic Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics and The Muslim Brotherhood (Palgrave-Macmillan); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, a study of Arab reform movements (Wiley). GLORIA Center site: http://www.gloria-center.org His blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.