By Barry Rubin
Ladies and gentlemen, liberals and conservatives, Obama-lovers and Obama-haters, no matter what your race, creed, gender, national origin, or level of unpaid college loans, two things should be clear to all of you:
First, to describe the Obama administration’s Middle East policy as a disaster — I cannot think of a bigger, deadlier mess created by any U.S. foreign policy in the last century — is an understatement.
Second, the dominant analysis used by the media, academia, and the talking heads on television has proven dangerously wrong. This includes the ideas that revolutionary Islamism doesn’t exist, cannot be talked about, is not a threat, and that extreme radicals are really moderates.
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I won’t review all the evidence here, but it amounts to a retreat for moderates, allies of the West, and American interests coupled with an advance for revolutionary Islamists.
On the morning of July 23, 1952, the Middle East entered a new era. The Free Officers Movement took over Egypt and there followed more than a half-century of war, anti-Western hysteria, terrorism, repression, social stagnation, and the basic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse type stuff in the Middle East. That was the Era of Arab Nationalism.
On February 11, or October 23, or November 28, 2011, the Middle East entered a new era. Whether you date it to the fall of Mubarak, the Tunisian election, or the Egyptian election, what do you think is going to happen in the next half-century in the region? This is now — I call it officially — the Era of Revolutionary Islamism.
There is a great deal that will ensure the Islamists aren’t triumphant in the end, but there’s nothing that can stop them now from being dominant ideologically in the region and politically in the majority of countries between Tunisia and Iran, probably Afghanistan, and possibly Pakistan.
As early as the 1980s these trends were visible but the outcome was not inevitable.
There were four key elements in this victory for the Islamists.
First, the long, failed reign of Arab nationalist regimes went on in a downward spiral of increasingly less effective demagoguery, losing wars, and poor economic development performance as a demographic explosion took place.
Yet as late as 2000 the prospects for the Islamists looked poor. Almost a quarter-century after Iran’s revolution, they had not taken over in any other country except remote Afghanistan.
Then, second, the September 11 attacks revitalized the movement. Osama bin Laden lies moldering in the sea, but his movement goes marching on.
But while bin Laden lacked strategic flexibility, other Islamists were more effective.
And so, third, from Turkey came the idea of what might be called “stealth Islamism”: just pretend to be moderate and the suckers will buy it. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood guru, also contributed here: bin Laden is a fool, he said in effect, of course we should run in elections. We’ll win.
Reinforcing this, and fourth, came the idea of adapting Western rhetoric and public relations methods. After decades of bragging about how they would conquer and murder all their enemies, nothing changed in Arabic. In English, however, they spoke about being pitiable victims of imperialism, Zionism, Western racism, and so on. A key pioneer here was Edward Said, a man who hated the Islamists. They proved to be his best students.
And finally, there were disastrous Western policies and misconceptions, with the presidency of Barack Obama being the crowning catastrophe. For whatever reason, the Obama administration has empowered America’s enemies and the new oppressors of the local people. Appeasement is one thing; giving those who hate you most a boost into power goes far beyond that.
To summarize, I will merely say:
Egypt, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Six countries or entities listed above have come — or are likely to come — under Islamist rule. Each is different.
But in all but the case of Turkey (where the administration ignored State Department reporting and has continually honored and excused an Islamist regime) and the Gaza Strip (where the administration helped entrench Hamas’s rule by forcing Israel to slash sanctions) they happened almost completely on Obama’s watch. Turkey and the Gaza Strip have become far worse on Obama’s watch.
The seventh, Syria, might merely remain under a repressive, pro-Iran, anti-American regime. And while there is a chance for a moderate democratic revolution, the White House is supporting the Islamists. If the State Department hadn’t revolted and the Saudis acted decisively, Bahrain would probably have been added to the above list.
There is no way to conceal this situation in October 2011, although it has been largely hidden, lied about, and misunderstood until this moment.
Even now, the nonsense continues. The article you are reading at this moment probably could not have been published in a single mass media newspaper. Libya’s new regime calls for Sharia to be “the main” source of law. That is what the Muslim Brotherhood has been seeking in Egypt for decades. Yet we are being told that this isn’t really so bad after all.
The title of the Washington Post‘s editorial, “Tunisia again points the way for Arab democracy,” can be considered merely ironic. It certainly points the way… toward Islamist dictatorship. And then there are the New York Times and BBC headlines on the Tunisian elections telling us it is a victory for “moderate Islamists.”
They aren’t moderate. They’re just pretending to be. And you who fall for it aren’t Middle East experts, competent policymakers, or serious journalists. You’re just pretending to be.
I’m putting those headlines in my file alongside Moderate Islamists Take Power in Iran; Moderate Islamists Take Power in the Gaza Strip, Moderate Islamists Take Power in Lebanon; and Moderate Islamists Take Power in Turkey.
Without taking any position on climate issues, let me put it this way: Why are people frantic about the possibility that the earth’s temperature might rise slightly in 50 years but see no problem in hundreds of millions of people and vast amounts of wealth and resources becoming totally controlled by people who think like those who carried out the September 11 attacks?
And that brings us to the Tunisian elections. In the words of the song “New York, New York,” if the Islamists in Tunisia can be “top of the list, king of the hill” in Tunisia, they can say, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
Next stop, Egypt.