Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Roots of U.S. Policy Insanity in the Middle East and the Cure

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By Barry Rubin

Why is U.S. and European policy toward the Middle East so off-base, and why do policymakers believe the strange things they think and the crazy things they do are good strategy?

I'll focus on the U.S. government but you can adapt, as appropriate, this analysis for various European countries.

They believe--partly due to White House ideology and partly to the CIA (I don't know why the Agency is pushing this idea) that al-Qaida and perhaps much--but not necessarily all!--the Taliban is a terrible enemy of America that must be combatted because it attacks America directly with terrorism.

But since Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syria don't launch terrorist attacks on Americansoil and installations (I'd add sarcastically: on a regular basis) they can be reasoned with and either won over or neutralized as an anti-American force.

From a narrow counter-terrorist perspective this may make some sense. But as a strategic doctrine it is disastrous. What's worse: al-Qaida committing a few terrorist attacks or the fact that those revolutionary Islamist groups and their allies rule with more than 100 million people (Iran, 78 million; Syria, 23 million; Gaza Strip, 1 million plus); with billions of dollars in assets and Iran en route to getting nuclear weapons.

Revolutionary Islamists now have the prospect of adding another 86 million people through the control of Lebanon and potentially Egypt (4 million, Lebanon; 82 million, Egypt) and are also allied with the current regime in Turkey (78 million people) which is Islamist and seems headed toward reelection.

That means that as many as 265 million people live under regimes allied against the United States and promoting a revolutionary Islamist ideology.

I don't mean to exaggerate here so you can take the above figures as pretty shocking even if not one hundred percent fully indicative of the situation. Moreover, we don't know yet what will happen in Tunisia and--despite ample U.S. involvement--Libya.

That seems pretty serious and qualifies as the leading strategic threat to the United States and the world.

Over the last 30 years the region has seen:

Iran's Islamist revolution and the seizure of American diplomats as hostages; 1982 Israel war with the PLO and Syria; Iran-Iraq war; Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; civil wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and Algeria; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing war; the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban and ensuing war; the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war; two Palestinian intifadas coupled with rejection of a compromise peace agreement that would give them a state; popular revolutionary upheavals in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain; and massive terrorism of which the September 11 attacks are only the largest single example of many.

I think even the above list isn't complete. Virtually all of these events have been generated by revolutionary Islamism or, to a lesser extent, radical Arab nationalism which is sometimes allied with Islamism.

In the face of these facts, to ignore revolutionary Islamism as the main threat to America, the West, and the world is a pretty phenomenal conclusion. To do things like helping destabilize regimes so that the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to take over, accepting a Hamas regime in Gaza and standing by and watching a Fatah-Hamas deal, and viewing Iran as only a direct military threat that can be dealt with by conventional deterrence is suicidal.

Yet this is the road the U.S. government and much of Europe is taking.

They seem to think that if they show how much they respect Muslims in general, distance themselves from Israel, and engage the radicals in dialogue while making concessions to them, this will defuse the problem.


How bizarre is the situation? I have to beg people to consider that the Muslim Brotherhood might be a radical group even though every single statement of its leadership in Arabic is full of jihad, anti-Americanism, threats to wipe out Israel, and calls to make Egypt an Islamist state.

I have to explain that Hamas has in fact not accepted a two-state solution but merely will accept a Palestinian state to use as a base to wipe Israel off the map. With this two-state strategy Hamas has now come up to the level of moderation shown by the 1974.

We know from Wikileaks that the U.S. Embassy in Turkey warned about the pro-Islamist and anti-American policy of that government yet this had no effect on U.S. policy.

Even the obvious disastrous mistakes made in Egypt earlier this year has not turned around the White House and much of the mass media to understand what's going on.

If not for a valiant battle by wiser people in the State Department, the administration would have blithely cooperated in the overthrow of Bahrain's government and replacement by largely (though not wholly) pro-Iran forces. And all the Defense Department's efforts to talk sense to the White House didn't stop the Libyan intervention.

And so on.

Consider the Usama bin Ladin funeral. A whole elaborate scenario was devised to persuade Muslims that America respected Islam. (I suspect that the president's advisor on terrorism, John Brennan, who is responsible for a large amount of this idiocy, was the source of this idea.)

Yet what happened? The funeral and burial at sea was denounced by virtually all Islamists and even mainstream clerics as a moral crime and against Islam.

This strategy just doesn't work, yet when it fails the dominant policy elite doesn't even seem to notice. What's needed is to stop throwing allies under the bus; recognize the revolutionaries as enemies; and work with moderates who oppose the spread of revolutionary Islam.

Is this really so hard to understand?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

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