Self-evident — and wrong!

Sometimes the experts really blow it. A good example is what has become the conventional wisdom about dealing with the rogue states and radical Islamists of the Middle East. Barry Rubin explains how these policies are encouraging, rather than deterring, our antagonists.

Engage, Moderate, Split

By Barry Rubin

Engage, moderate, and split—that’s the mantra for Middle East policy of the wrong-headed in many foreign ministries, newspaper editorial offices, universities, and other places where the rapidly growing international bad-ideas industry is centered.

Yet nothing could seem more self-evident than these propositions. What could possibly be wrong with engaging radical forces, persuading them to change their ways, and breaking up their alliances?

I’m glad you asked. Here is how these apparently obviously correct ideas are dangerous and even disastrous.

1. Engagement. Doesn’t one need to talk to enemies? How else can you get them to change? Well, it depends on whom, how, and when. Here are some of the problems of just having a cozy little chat with Iran, Syria, or Hamas for example.

First, what about history? If the past record shows that such efforts have failed it indicates that more such attempts are misguided and that other methods are needed. For example, the U.S. government sent numerous high-level delegations to Syria between 2001 and 2005 only to find that it was repeatedly lied to. This campaign only stopped when Syria’s government murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister (and most popular politician) Rafik Hariri.

As for Iran, Britain, France, and Germany spent three years engaged in diplomatic dialogue about Iran’s nuclear program during which Tehran lied, broke promises, and did not fulfill commitments, all along working full speed ahead to get atomic bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency has just announced a new timetable. Wow, that should scare Tehran! And of course this, too, will be flouted to be replaced no doubt by still another deal until the day Iran gets nukes.

Second, there is the momentum of engagement. In order to enter into and sustain engagement, the Western party feels obligated—and its radical interlocutor will keep pressing—to provide proof of its good intentions in the form of concessions. Naturally, the radical side will give nothing since it will play the role of aggrieved party doing the democracies a favor by deigning to talk to them. As the process goes on, the Western side gives more and more while getting nothing in return. And at the end, there is no real agreement or change. The radical side doesn’t have to shout out, “Sucker!” but it might as well do so.

Equally, to keep talks going the Western partner feels constrained from taking tough action which might lead the radical party to walk out. If, for example, Hamas continues to commit terrorism, this would not be allowed to stop the flow of money or bring tougher sanctions since that would make them angry. Of course, if any action is taken, you can guess who will be blamed for the breakdown. This has been the story of many such engagements, for example the 1990s’ Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace process.

Finally, there is how the radical side takes the engagement process as a victory, a sign that the extremists are winning and that the West is frightened and ineffective. This is precisely what the radical side’s leaders say in Arabic or Persian to their colleagues and people. Meanwhile, the democratic side’s credibility plummets and deterrence crashes, sparking more extremism and aggression.

2. Why is moderating the radical forces also doomed to failure? The basic answer is that they do not want to become moderate and why should they? This misconceived model is based on the view that Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and radical Islamists generally are reluctant militants, forced to be so by misunderstanding (the West or Israel isn’t really so horrible and means them no harm) or a lack of alternatives.

In fact, the radicals take their stance based on a blend of true belief—a deeply felt ideology based on a powerful world view—and ambition. This is their route to power, money, and glory; to act in a contrary manner is to be a loathsome traitor. They are not, to say the least, easily persuaded, especially by people they hate and seek to destroy.

Moreover, they think they are winning, an idea enforced by many experiences and often by the eagerness of the West to engage them in the first place. Only if they believe they are losing—after the imposition of tough sanctions and other measures—might they consider revising their strategies and tactics. And even the massive armed force used in Iraq shows that this is not so likely.

Finally, even if someone wants to become moderate there is the little consideration of being murdered by one’s colleagues. Sunni moderates in Iraq cannot make a deal because it is difficult to engage in politics when you are dead.

3. Splitting. Let’s examine the Syria-Iran relationship. From Iran, Syria gets:

  • Lots of money.
  • A partner of roughly similar ideological bent.
  • Islamic cover for a regime ruled by non-Muslims [many Muslims consider the Alawites, who rule Syria, as non-Muslims — ed].
  • An ally with parallel interests in terms of anti-Americanism, fighting Israel, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas among the Palestinians.
  • Iran pays the bill for these groups so Syria gets a free ride.
  • Tehran provides strategic depth, protecting Syria against any Western or Israeli attack.

To believe that Syria would desert this arrangement for a dependence on the mistrusted West and abandonment of its most valuable asset—using an alleged imperialist-Zionist threat as excuse for the regime’s failures and rationale for its survival—is foolish. And parallel arguments could be provided, given space, for Iran’s need to ally with Syria which, for instance, gives it a boost over the Persian/Arab (Syria is Arab) and Shia/Sunni (Syria is majority Sunni) barriers blocking Iran’s ambitions to become the region’s leading power.

Engagement, moderation, and splitting sure sounds like a good strategy. But it is a very very bad one.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, and author of the recently published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).

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