Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Barry Rubin: Egypt: The American Debate Has Gone Stark, Raving Crazy

By Barry Rubin

As I pointed out recently (it will be the next item so hold on for the link), the mass media in America generally presents only one side of the debate nowadays. Then, it publishes nonsense which survives because it is protected from the withering critique it deserves. And even people who should know better are just losing it.

Consider one example (Roger Cohen has gone beyond ridicule so let's focus on someone who should know better). I regret criticizing Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution as he is one of the smarter, saner people. 

Yet the kinds of things he is quoted as saying in the New York Times remind me of why the "neo-conservatives" have been so dangerous because of their naivete about the Middle East. They are fitting counterparts of the apologists for radicals who have demonized them. Both groups are trying to impose their fantasy model on the real Middle East. Of course, if Kagan didn't say things like this he wouldn't be quoted at all in the New York Times.

Kagan explains to us:

“We were overly spooked by the victory of Hamas....The great fear that people have with Islamist parties is that, if they take part in an election, that will be the last election. But we overlearned that lesson and we need to get beyond that panicky response. There’s no way for us to go through the long evolution of history without allowing Islamists to participate in democratic society.

“What are we going to do— support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?
“Obviously, Islam needs to make its peace with modernity and democracy. But the only way this is going to happen is when people speaking for Islam take part in the system. It's incumbent on Islamists who are elected democratically to behave democratically."

Presumably, you will never read how absurd this statement is anywhere in the mass media so thanks for dropping by and here's my analysis:

First, what is an Islamist? Someone who wants to seize state power and impose an Islamist state, transforming the society in the process. You cannot have pluralism because all of those who oppose you are evil.

An Islamist party is not necessarily a Muslim party. There can be Muslim parties that are not Islamist, though it is hard right now to find these. That's why, however, the elections they win tend to be the last ones or, at least, they do everything possible to stay in power. Think Communism; think fascism; heck, this is the Middle East so think Arab nationalism!

Do you know what Shakyh Qaradawi, the most prestigious cleric in the Muslim Brotherhood universe, said (he was critiquing Usama bin Ladin)? Of course, Islamists should participate in elections because they would always win them. How many votes can secular-style liberal reformers muster compared to those who say "Islam is the solution"? And Qaradawi is not intending to use those election victories to "behave democratically."

Well, actually, maybe he is. After all, if the majority of people want Sharia law, a dictatorship by the rightly-guided, hostility to the West, and Israel's destruction, I guess a revolutionary Islamist government is fulfilling the will of the people and thus is behaving democratically.   

Do you know what the United States did after World War Two? President Obama hasn't apologized for this one yet. It did everything possible behind the scenes to ensure that Communist parties--which were certainly not ready in the 1940s to be moderate--lost the elections in France and Italy. According to this new principle should it have let them win so that they would have become moderate?

Second, "overly spooked!" Is this some kind of paranoid reaction? There was not only Hamas but Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan and now Hizballah. And we have seen what has happened in Turkey with an Islamist regime, though it might accept the loss of power in the election later this year. But that's Turkey which plays by a different set of rules.

Responding to an accurate view of reality and a set of experiences is not being "spooked" it is being rational. All of the experience lines up consistently.

Hizballah has just taken power in Lebanon through elections. Any sign Hizballah has moderated?

And how about Yasir Arafat, not an Islamist though he tried to play that game a bit to maintain popular support. Remember back in 1993 when we were told that if he were allowed to take power he would inevitably become moderate because he would have to deal with road repair and garbage collection? That didn't work out too well either.

Remember when it was said that Ayatollah Khomeini would become more pragmatic once in power? I do.

But why should we deal with real experience when we can engage in wishful thinking?

Consider the following chart:

Who in the Middle East could the United States depend on five years ago to support its basic policy goals?
Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey

Who in the Middle East can the United States basically depend on today?
Israel, Iraq (?), Jordan (until next week?), Saudi Arabia

Who in the Middle East is likely to oppose basic U.S. policy goals today?
Egypt (soon), Gaza Strip (Hamas), Iran, Lebanon (Hizballah), Libya, Sudan, Syria. Turkey

Might there be a trend here?

The United States is running out of friends in the Middle East who it can overthrow. I'd love to use the 1930s Germany analogy but it is so excessively cited as to have lost effectiveness. So let's go to the Soviet analogy. “We were overly spooked by the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania...." Well, you get the idea.

But wait! The United States is not refusing to allow "Islamists to participate in democratic society," the local regimes are doing so. Perhaps they know something about their own societies. 

But wait again! Islamists do participate in elections in Jordan. Of course, the regime there makes sure they lose. So perhaps the United States should step in anhelp the Islamic Action Front wins the next election, all the better to moderate them!  I'm sure (sarcasm) that it will keep the peace treaty with Israel. Then we can keep experimenting until there are no more victims left.

“Obviously, Islam needs to make its peace with modernity and democracy. But the only way this is going to happen is when people speaking for Islam take part in the system." 

Oh, obviously. Except that it is not necessarily obvious to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, and the Iraqi insurgents, nor to non-Islamist-member-of-the- pack Syria. Why should one believe that taking part in the system will make them moderate. Is there any evidence for this? Any at all? And, no, Turkey doesn't prove that. Quite the contrary.

But what really riles me is when Westerners write a sentence like this one:

"It's incumbent on Islamists who are elected democratically to behave democratically."

Please contemplate those dozen words. What if they don't? What are you going to do about it after they are in power? What if they take your concessions but not your advice? The United States conditioned the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in Egypt's next government on that group's abandoning violence and supporting "democratic goals." There is no chance that it will meet those conditions and also no chance that the United States would try to enforce them.

I have an idea: why don't we wait until we have some reason to believe they will behave democratically before you put them into power?

Let's remember a little detail here: You are all willing to ignore everything the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has said or done for decades. You have no idea of their proposals in parliament, do you? You have no idea of their recent platform, do you? You have no idea what the Brotherhood's leader is saying in his speeches, do you? Nor do you take these things into account.

So how dare you tell me that the Brotherhood is or is about to become moderate when you cannot cite a single piece of evidence--well, ElBaradei's word when he lies to you about these things--to prove your thesis. Not one. Don't you realize that victory has made the Islamists arrogant. They are becoming more radical, not less so. And mainstream clerics in Egypt, for example, have also become increasingly more extremist, well before the latest crisis.

Frankly, the more these people talk like this about Islamists, the more I don't believe them. If they had any real proof they would offer it. And their ignorance makes me suspect their conclusions. In fact, what they have done is to give the Islamists a free pass: they don't have to change their policies or behavior at all because they can depend on Western "useful infidels" to claim they are moderate even when they are not.

I am writing this about 50 miles from Egyptian territory. Two next-door countries--Lebanon and for all practical purposes the Gaza Strip--already have Islamist-run regimes. Some would count Saudi Arabia as a third, though I wouldn't necessarily do so. A fourth, Syria, is in the Islamist alliance. Now a fifth, Egypt, might be headed that way. All that's left is Jordan. This week, at least.

So, is the United States going to, "Support dictators for the rest of eternity because we don’t want Islamists taking their share of some political system in the Middle East?" Well, you are running out of dictators, though I suppose you could back the overthrow of the king of Morocco and back the Islamic Salvation Front into power in Algeria.

But on the positive side, there are more and more dictators who the United States doesn't support! Good news. They are anti-American dictators who sponsor terrorism and subvert their neighbors. The United States doesn't support these dictators, it merely engages them. We can look forward to a bright future in which the United States doesn't support any dictators in the Middle East at all, because Iran and the Islamists will fill that role.

I have an idea: Please experiment with the lives of people closer to your own homes.

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