Realism… or fantasy?

The ‘realists’ in the US foreign policy establishment continue to push for the US to deal with radical Islamic regimes like Syria and Iran, and with terrorist groups like Hamas. So does the EU, and even some US presidential candidates. But it is just the opposite of realistic.

Without illusions

by Barry Rubin

The alternative Western view of Middle East strategy–so influential in academic, media, and to some extent diplomatic circles—has a six-point program that boils down as:

Make deals with Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah; ally with Muslim Brotherhoods; and split Iran and Syria.

The more extreme of those that advocate this approach are sympathetic to these forces, seeing them as more misunderstood victim than aggressive oppressor; the more moderate among them merely think the radicals can be moderated through concessions and confidence-building measures. In other words, they are not really adversaries but either already good guys or can be converted into playing that role.

By this analysis, those who claim these radical regimes and movements are dangerous due to their radical ideology, violent methods, and totalitarian goals are standing in the way of solving issues quickly, painlessly, and peacefully. They are warmongers perpetrating needless conflicts.

This analysis generates tremendous anger against the United States and Israel or anyone else who tries to explain that this approach will not work. Through this transformation, those who generate grievances that create terrorists or don’t want to give in to the terrorists’ demands are the real villains. I’ve often addressed these claims in detail, for example:

The idea that Israel is the cause of all of these problems because it makes Muslims and Arabs angry—as if the main issue is not the battle for power and control over the direction of their own societies—is also easy to answer.

Of course, no amount of factual presentation seems to penetrate web of illusion but one can only keep trying. So let’s focus today on two of these points: the Muslim Brotherhoods and the Syrian-Iran alliance.

The Brotherhoods, particularly those in Egypt and Jordan, are said to be moderate because they do not directly commit terrorist violence (though they do endorse it) and participate in elections. This does not prove, however, that they are moderate but merely that they are not stupid. Rather, they abstain from a terrorist strategy because they fear the local regimes which keep a tight hold on them. And they participate in elections because they realize that this furthers their cause, not because they are devotees of democracy. Moreover, it is laughably easy to show the contrast between their English-language interviews or websites and the continuing radicalism of their Arabic statements, doctrine, and goals.

Now the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has produced a political platform providing its vision for Egypt. And it looks even more like Islamist Iran than one would have suspected. The key proposal is for a committee of Muslim clerics to pass on the validity of all legislation and government policies, just as it is done in Tehran. By this definition, then, Islamic law—as interpreted by the clerics—would govern Egypt. This in itself shows that its goal is an Islamist state and not a pluralist or democratically governed one.

In addition, neither a woman nor a non-Muslim can be either president or prime minister. And the peace treaty with Israel would be abrogated.

But this was not, contrary to media reports, the first such platform. The 2004 version states: “Our mission is to implement a comprehensive reform in order to uphold God’s law in secular as well as religious matters.”

The program includes the following points, as explained by Adel Guindy, “The Islamization of Egypt“:

  • “The media should be cleansed of anything that disagrees with the decrees of Islam.”
  • “The economic system should be “derived from Islam.”
  • “The focus of education should be on learning the Quran by heart.”
  • “The Zakah [Islamic private charitable] institutions should be in charge of distributing wealth and income.”
  • “Women should only hold the kind of posts that would preserve their virtue.”
  • “Our culture has to be derived from Islamic sources.”

As for the Syria-Iran alliance, the West has been trying to break it for a quarter-century without success. On December 29, 1983, David Ottoway wrote in the Washington Post: “Western and Arab sources…feel…that the Syrian-Iranian friendship is unnatural, short-term and not without risks to the highly security conscious government of President Hafez al-Assad because of the strident Islamic edge to the Iranian presence here and its thrust into the Arab world where Syria also has ambitions.” But Damascus and Tehran both understand how mutually beneficial, natural, and long-term is their partnership.

Writing in 1989, Patrick Seale, Hafiz al-Assad’s scribe, described the alliance as a masterstroke creating, an “axis from Tehran through Damascus to South Lebanon. From the moment Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power in early 1979 Asad judged it a supreme Arab interest to befriend him.”

Obviously this was no impulsive error which Syrian or Iranian leaders are eager to correct.

Someone who understands Middle East politics better than naive Western observers is Saad Hariri, a leader of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims and of the government coalition, whose father was murdered by the Syrians. The West, Hariri explained, might as well “engage with al-Qaeda.” By being so eager to appease the extremists, Hariri warned, “The message that is being sent today to our part of the world is you can ‘subvert neighboring regimes through terrorism’ and get away with it.” The result would be “There will only be terrorism and extremist regimes like Syria will flourish.”

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA). His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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