By Barry Rubin
Let me sum up the situation regarding U.S. policy toward revolutionary Islamism like this. A man threatens, “Surrender or I’ll kill you!” The victim surrenders and then boasts of how he put an end to violence by offering an alternative, peaceful “channel” of expression!
Michael Hirsh has responded to my critique of his article. Amazingly, yet typical of our era, he didn’t engage with a single—not a single—idea I presented. It’s clear that Hirsh knows nothing about the Middle East and so is merely arguing based on unsuitable analogies, a lack of knowledge about history, and a blind faith in “experts” who don’t seem to be very expert at all.
Hirsh’s main point is a partisan political characterization This’s how things work now. You cast the person in a political category your readers detest, signaling the readers that they should ignore the substance of what that person says. Thus, Hirsh begins:
“On the Web, other conservatives joined in: Barry Rubin, a zealously pro-Israel writer, addressing what he called the “great controversy” that “erupted” over my article, acknowledged that Obama had discarded the GWOT.”
I don’t write as a conservative but as a foreign policy analyst of the Realist school who has dealt professionally with the Middle East for 35 years almost to the day (happy anniversary!). I also guess he didn’t want to add that I’m a zealously pro-American writer, too. And ironically, I’m the one who represents a liberal position here, not those who are indifferent to a right-wing repressive, dictatorial, and clerical regime gaining power.
So that makes me one of those silly, strange people who think that when your worst enemies take power in key countries, through violent revolution or election, it’s no cause for celebration. I discuss the proper alternative policy here which is as “conservative” as Franklin Roosevelt’s strategy in World War Two and Harry Truman’s strategy for the Cold War.
I’m also amused that he said I “acknowledged” his claim when what I actually wrote proved that I’d scooped him by three years. More important, however, he ignored my point that this is not a political issue:
“Still, why should someone have to be `right wing’ to oppose a group that in Marxist terminology would be called `clerical-fascist?’ Why should those on the `left wing’ (or mainstream, which often seems to amount to the same thing nowadays) back a group that wants to suppress women, kill homosexuals, wipe out Jews, crush basic freedoms taken for granted in the West, and holds an ideology that resembles fascism more than any other Western ideology? Since when does the `left wing’ love those who could be called reactionary religious fanatics?”
Incidentally, that is why those on the Western left must always insist that their opponent can never be liberal: because they must conceal the anti-liberal nature of their own views.
“But then Rubin went on to lament how misguided this approach still was. `In this context, then, all other revolutionary Islamist groups—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so on—are not enemies. They can be won over or at least neutralized as threats to U.S. interests,’ he wrote. This is dangerously naïve, Rubin concluded. The truth, he said, is that America’s “interests and allies are increasingly menaced by a growing threat [revolutionary Islamism] whose existence, meaning, and scope current U.S. policy does not even recognize yet, much less counter effectively.”
It is nice he quoted me but he responded to nothing I said! Hirsh goes on:
“Yet Rubin’s contention no longer appears to stand up well to the developing realities in the Arab world. Not only are bin Laden and most of his senior lieutenants (except for Ayman al Zawahiri) dead; the so-called Arab Spring has opened up new channels of expression, supplying for the first time in decades an alternative to violent jihad.”
The fact that Islamists taking over countries is an alternative to “violent jihad” is not so marvelous for two reasons.
First, violent jihad is a form of revolutionary struggle. If the revolution wins and you take over the government you don’t need to continue terror attacks on the government. For example, there were violent revolutionary Communist insurgencies in Latin America. If they had succeeded there wouldn’t have to be Communist guerrillas in the mountains?
Second, as I pointed out:
“At least today it should be clear that a group capable of taking over a country with millions of people and running it for decades (the Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizballah) is a greater threat than a group that can stage a few terror attacks each year. But it still isn’t even on the radar of the Western mainstream debate or the Obama Administration’s strategy.”
Yet Hirsh assumes the question of power doesn’t matter, what’s bad is violent jihad but if the jihad triumphs then that’s okay. And, of course, once the jihad–violent or otherwise–wins you can start trying to spread the revolution, as happened with the USSR, Cuba, and Iran, for example. At home, you consolidate power through repression.
Now there are cases where elections may weaken radical forces. In Morocco, the king has coopted the Islamists at least for the time being. Elections in Iraq brought more jihad for a while but also helped to undermine it. In Tunisia, Islamists have been forced into a coalition, though there’s far more potential for an Islamist dictatorship there now than there was before the revolution and things could get much worse. The Jordanian government masterfully outmaneuvered the Islamists through (fixed) elections.
But if the Islamists win they will create what is essentially a Sharia state. The idea the United States should help them into power or cheer their triumph on the smug assumption that this will moderate them has no basis whatsoever. It is dangerous and it will costs lives, lots of lives.
Where the struggle doesn’t triumph. or loses the election, violence continues. The only reason you don’t see more violent jihad is that it has been largely repressed in many places like Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, even in the Palestinian Authority-ruled area. You don’t see it so much because it has been crushed, not because there is an electoral alternative. In Iraq, by the way, it became so bloody precisely because there was an electoral alternative.
Instead of providing any actual arguments that shows he knows the region and these societies, Hirsh’s last refuge is to fall back on (unnamed) “experts”:
“Experts point to fractionalizing of the Brotherhood and Salafist groups, which will be forced to govern pragmatically in the jostle for influence and power in their home countries.”
Yet this is precisely what hasn’t happened. In Egypt we heard a lot about the Brotherhood collapsing, we just didn’t see it happen. The New York Times correspondent, one of the main advocates of this claim, actually admitted that the Brotherhood has simply expelled the “moderates” and then ignored that fact.
Hirsh repeats the disproven pre-election argument for Egypt. The Brotherhood has remained united for all practical purposes and received almost half the vote. The Salafists have always been “fractionalized.” Yet note how they are splitting: Between those who support the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate and those who don’t and are more likely to return to violence. In other words, the Islamists have become more united and dangerous.
And how much are you jostled by electoral politics when you have 75 percent of the seats in parliament and perhaps the presidency as well?
Why should we assume that when revolutionary Islamists gain power they will moderate? It fits historical precedent as well as the specific characteristics of this movement far better to believe that they will try to implement their program.
Consider these quotations from a Middle East leader when he was just taking power:
“The foundation of our Islamic government is based on freedom of dialogue and we will fight against any kind of censorship….Personal desire, age and my health do not allow me to personally have a role in running the country after the fall of the current system.”
Who said these things? Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s dictatorship, which has consistently dealt with electoral politics and held elections over a 30-year period.
In the end, Hirsh can only fall back on his argument that even conservatives agree with him:
“And what is most interesting is that some U.S. conservatives are starting to agree with this proposition, and to see things in a very different way from Thomas and Rubin. Even prominent neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have outraged their former allies on the right by saying the U.S. has no choice but to engage the new Islamist political parties formed by the Muslim Brotherhood (which renounced violence decades ago) and other former jihadist groups.”
That is not what is most interesting. What is most interesting does not relate to the debate among people in the United States but to events on the ground! Moreover, it is a myth that the Brotherhood renounced violence a decade ago. Note that this is always said with no supporting documentation. Hirsh simply ignores my denial that this is true and repeats what he said originally even though it has no basis in fact. As I wrote about this renunciation of violence claim:
“The Brotherhood has never renounced violence. Its articles and speeches have been full of calls for violence against, for example, against Israel and against U.S. forces in Iraq. The Brotherhood only renounced violence within Egypt because it knew that otherwise the Mubarak regime would respond by—as we used to say in the old neighborhood—knocking them upside the head.”
Here is one example of the Brotherhood’s leader showing how it has renounced violent jihad:
“The improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as the enemies pursue life.”
How many more would you like me to provide?
As for Kristol, he endorsed the revolution from the first day. The “neoconservatives,” blessed in their ignorance of the actual Middle East, tend to take such positions. As for Krauthammer, Hirsh misrepresents him. He’s as horrified about the policy as I am but simply accepts—as I do—that you have to talk to people who hate you. The important thing, however, is to know they hate you, that they are going to try to hurt you, and you are not going to change their minds.
I could not possibly care less if conservatives say something inaccurate. That doesn’t prove it is right. We are supposed to engage the evidence. And when it comes to political analysis, the majority doesn’t rule; persuasive arguments that fit the facts and show themselves able to predict the future do.
In addition, there is a big difference between having “no choice but to engage” hostile forces that gain power—that is what diplomacy must do– and the Obama policy of enthusiastically doing so even beforehand based on the argument that they are going to bring liberal democracy. The United States had full diplomatic relations with the USSR and with Nazi Germany, though it did withhold them from Communist China for many years and Communist Cuba down to today.
The issue is not just engagement but the method of engagement. The Obama Administration engaged Iran’s and Syria’s regimes as if they were potential friends, not as if they were enemies who had to be intimidated, contained, and outmaneuvered. Only the other side’s behavior made this impossible, and that is what will happen in the Middle East.
Are the Islamists hostile to America, hostile to democracy, repressive and totalitarian? Will they yield power? What will they do with the power they have? Hirsh and those who agree with him ignore all of that.
It all comes down to insisting:
Empower your enemies. They will inevitably be moderated by the burden of governing and the need to win elections.
That’s what they said about the Iranian Islamist regime; that’s what they said about Yasir Arafat.
And so this is how twenty-first century policy arguments go. It boils down to this: you are a member of an unpopular group; the experts support me. The science is settled. In Obama’s way of speaking: the economists all agree with his economic policy; the experts all agree with Obamacare; and the scientists all agree on man-made global warming. There is no more reason to have a serious debate on substantive issues.
What is most distressing is the method of “debate.” Hirsh doesn’t feel the need to engage in a logical response to specific and detailed arguments because the mass media and academia mostly all says the same thing. I honestly try to take on arguments I disagree with and show to the reader how they are wrong. The other side simply seems content to shout out something like this: You’re a nerd and I’m the popular kid so I must be right and you should shut up.
Here’s how a friend of mine whose job is to research Islamism responded to this issue: “Unreal. Hirsh’s piece is simply bonkers….[He and other] “experts have no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to Muslim Brotherhood doctrine; they think that being on the ground and chatting with the enemy (while they hoodwink you) is all you need. It’s expertise by MSM headlines, no research, nothing. Not the slightest bit of curiosity about what this `new world’ entails, from an Islamist point of view. It’s madness. ”
Let me sum up the situation like this. A man says, “Surrender or I’ll kill you!” The victim surrenders and then boasts of how he put an end to violence by offering an alternative “channel of expression.”
PS: Here’s two of many examples from groups that disagree with Hirsh’s perspective–and are a lot more important and informed than American “experts”– but are never mentioned in such arguments: Arab liberals and relatively moderate Arab governments.
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 book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. (see ad on outside right column) Other recent books include 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 and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.