Yes: Power grabs in key Arab nations would be setbackWASHINGTON – At its best, U.S. policy toward the Middle East consists of a deft combination of short-term pragmatism and long-term idealism.
In the short term, Washington works to protect Israel and other U.S. allies, combat terrorism, rebuff Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, and support regional stability, all of which ensures the continued flow of oil to power Western economies.
In the long run, Washington promotes the advance of freedom and democracy in the region and elsewhere to expand the circle of nations that share our values, reduce threats to U.S. national security, expand opportunity for hundreds of millions of people and create new markets for U.S. investment.
Unfortunately, the recent rise of Islamic movements in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere threatens both our short- and long-run goals, generating profound new challenges for the United States.
These groups, which include the Muslim Brotherhood and Nour Party in Egypt and al-Qaida-inspired jihadists in Yemen and Libya, are anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-women, anti-Western and, indeed, anti-modern. At their most extreme, they seek to restore the region and convert the world to 7th-century life during the time of the Prophet Mohammad.
To understand what they have in mind, consider recent Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored rallies in Egypt that featured calls to “one day kill all Jews,” a wave of church bombings in nearby Nigeria by the group Boko Haram, whose motto is: “Western civilization is forbidden” and generalized violence against Christians across the region.
The ascendance of Islamic forces, whether at the ballot box or on the battlefield, raises serious questions about whether they would scrap such key building blocks of regional stability as the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and create more safe havens in the region for anti-Western terrorists.
At the ballot box, in particular, experts fear that such groups will employ a “one man, one vote, one time” electoral strategy – secure political power legitimately and, with that power, then impose a strict and un-democratic Islamic law, known as shariah, on their societies.
That would replace the dictatorships of old, some of which were U.S. allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or contained by the West such as Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi with equally intolerant but profoundly anti-Western theocracies.
The early returns are not encouraging.
In Egypt – historically the leading Arab state and the one from which others often take their signals – the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 40 percent of the popular vote in recent parliamentary elections while the Nour Party that’s affiliated with the more fundamentalist Salafis won almost 25 percent.
The Brotherhood’s motto is “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Quran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” The group wants to establish an Islamic state based on shariah and recognizes no right for Israel to exist or for Jews to live.
The Nour Party would go further, creating a society akin to what the Taliban had established in Afghanistan – with all forms of modernity rejected and women reduced to slave-like status.
On the battlefield, al-Qaida-inspired militants in Yemen are capitalizing on the demise of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to expand their presence. Likewise in Libya, al-Qaida has deployed jihadists to create another safe haven for its operations – now that Gadhafi is no longer around to contain such efforts.
Some U.S. foreign policy experts pine for the regional stability of pre-Arab Spring days and cast the emerging Middle East as a cautionary tale of what may ensue when dictators fall, leaving power vacuums for others to fill.
For Washington, however, the necessary path forward is not to eschew freedom and democracy but to double-down on them – that is, to better assist the truly democratic forces that launched the Arab Spring and that seek a freer Middle East over the long term.
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, can be reached at AFPC, 509 C Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002. COLUMBUS, Ohio –
No: Surge of Islam is a response to bad White House policiesIslamic political parties are assuming roles in the new order in Arab countries. Will these parties hurt American interests in the region? Depends on what you consider our interests.
Tunisia, the country where the political change began in early 2010, seems to be doing quite well so far. Islamists are part of the political process there, but Tunisia just elected as president a secular candidate who seems to enjoy general support.
If by American interests in the Middle East one means access to oil, there is probably no problem. Whoever has oil needs to sell it. Saudi Arabia is as Islamic as it gets, and they are happy to cash our checks.
It may not be irrelevant to ask how political Islam came to be a factor in the Middle East. Some fellow in a turban issuing fatwas?
Hardly! To find the source of political Islam, don’t go to a mosque. Try 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which had no minaret on top last time I checked. American presidents have created political Islam and are still its main facilitators.
Islam is the rallying cry for opposing outsiders, especially us. Consider these examples:
• Iran had a secular parliamentary system until we brought it down in 1953 and replaced it with the Shah. The Shah’s heavy-handed ways resulted in his being overthrown in 1979 by the ayatollahs, who went to Islam to explain how bad we are.
• In Lebanon, the Islamist-oriented Hezbollah party, now part of Lebanon’s government, came to prominence to oppose the occupation of southern Lebanon by our ally Israel.
• In Afghanistan, we gave shoulder-held missiles to a rag-tag group to shoot down Soviet helicopters. Exit the Soviets, enter the Taliban.
• By letting Israel use “negotiations” as a cover for taking Palestinian land, we brought the PLO-backed Palestine government into disrepute and set the stage for PLO rival Hamas in 2005 Palestine elections. After Hamas won, we isolated it as a pariah because of its opposition to those negotiations. Hamas is not opposing our approaches because of something they found in the Quran. Hamas is reacting to our own wrong-headed policies.
If we are concerned about Islamist parties, one might think we would learn lessons from this history. But witness our current campaign to promote Hamas. In November we cut off funding to the U.N. Economic, Social and Cultural Organization because it admitted Palestine as a member state.
The Obama administration claims that it was forced to do so by 1990s-era congressional legislation against U.S. funding of U.N.-affiliated agencies that admit Palestine. That legislation was aimed at the PLO, which we then considered terrorist. Now we give aid to the PLO and consider Hamas to be terrorist. By thwarting Palestine’s admission to U.N. agencies, we show the PLO-backed government to be ineffective.
The beneficiary, thank you very much, is Hamas. Hamas could not ask for a better publicity agent than President Barack Obama as it fights for hearts and minds.
Then there is our current policy on Iran. Following Israel’s lead, we view Iran as a threat. This is the Iran, please recall, led by elements who came to power only because we foolishly backed their predecessor.
Our 2003 invasion of Iraq has destabilized that country along sectarian lines and enhanced the stature of Iran, which is aligned with the newly dominant Shia elements in Iraq.
We need a serious conversation about our own policies and about what our interests truly are in the Middle East.
Should we promote democracy? Then we need to be consistent.
Should we do whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks? Then we need to consider the consequences.
So long as we pursue short-sighted policies in the Middle East, we can expect a negative reaction, and some of that reaction will be clothed in Islamic garb.
John B. Quigley, a professor of law at Ohio State University, can be reached at Moritz College Law, 55 West 12th Street, Columbus, Ohio 43210.