Democratization EffortsForeign Policy

America’s Middle East Delusions

When Samuel Huntington wrote his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, many in the Western political arena considered it unnecessarily provocative – that is, until a beautiful Tuesday morning in New York City on September 11, 2001.

The tragedy of 9/11 should have mandated a fundamental re-assessment of Western policies towards the Arab world. Instead, we continue to base our policies on delusions of our own making rather than on the dangerous evolving realities that confront us in that region. We have yet to confront what George Shultz once called “asymmetrical” warfare where professional standards have been turned into self-imposed liabilities by enemies who reject civilized international conduct.

We in the West know what we desire, so we project that desire onto other nations, even those whose culture, mindset and historical experiences are totally different from our own.

And to make matters worse, we have developed policies based on these erroneous paradigms. Our weakness is our belief that democracy always results in good which is why U.S. and European leaders saw the “Arab Spring” as the modern-day equivalent of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. As a consequence, we have inadvertently facilitated the revitalization of pan-Islamic extremism and its goal of resurrecting its caliphate.

Remember the rationale used by this Administration to justify using the U.S. military to help Libya’s “opposition”? In his March 28, 2011, speech, the President spoke of “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings,” adding that not assisting them “would have been a betrayal of who we are.” Although it was common knowledge that al Qaeda and other fiercely anti-American forces were involved in the Libyan jihad, this did not shake Obama’s “responsibilities” to his “fellow human beings.”

Predictably, the thanks the U.S. received was an al Qaeda attack on the American consulate in Benghazi and the murders of four American officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Perhaps that’s why, this time round, the White House opposed Pentagon, CIA and State Department plans to arm the rebels in Syria many of whom are linked to al Qaeda, although the CIA continues to provide select members of the Syrian opposition with operational intelligence. The rebels have already begun to put in place a variety of their own Islamic organs of governance in the areas the regime has left. And the head of the so-called “provisional government” (Ghassan Hitto) is himself a man with significant ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

We can’t understand the Arab Spring if we continue to look at it through Western eyes. As products of the European Renaissance, we assumed that the vast majority of the Arab world wanted liberal democracy and the many freedoms that derive from it. The reality however is quite different.

The problem lies in the long-term dysfunctional politics of Middle Eastern Islamic nations. UN Arab Human Development Reports, written by Arab intellectuals, have continuously reached damning conclusions about the lack of freedom, education, women’s rights, and other factors holding back the Arab world. As military historian and author James Corum wrote recently in The Telegraph: “True reform and democracy require a tolerance for peaceful protest, a free press, the rule of law, economic freedom, and respect for the fundamental rights of groups and individuals. Successful democracy also requires constant adjustment and self-criticism by the political leadership. All these essential elements of democracy took the West centuries to evolve. Unfortunately, not one Islamic nation in the Middle East has the cultural or legal traditions that might allow real democracy to evolve…..No Arab nation has succeeded in creating a political system that allows opposition parties to flourish, or allows for a regular and peaceful turnover of political power. Such things are anathema to the Egyptian tradition.”

Quite simply, you can’t build a true democracy without establishing a foundation. As a result, Western leaders should not have been surprised when the Arab Spring turned out to be an Islamic Winter. Elections, for better or for worse, are determined by demographics and in Egypt, the demographics and popular thinking were clear long before its parliamentary and presidential elections.

Gallup polls conducted in Egypt back in 2008 and again in 2010 had already determined that 95% of Egyptians wanted Islam to have greater influence in politics and 64% wanted Islamic Sharia law to be the basis for legislation. A Pew Study conducted in 2010 found that 54% supported the separation of men and women in public places; 82% supported the stoning of adulterers, 84% endorsed the death penalty for apostates who leave Islam and 77% said thieves should be flogged or have their hands cut off. And according to a summer 2009 World Public Opinion (WPO) poll, 75% favored investing a body of “senior religious scholars” with “the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran.”

These people are not even remotely interested in the rule of law, better education or gender equality. They want Islamic law, Islamic education and gender apartheid. The Islamists who benefitted from democracy across the Arab world have no enduring commitment to it. For them, it is merely a tool for achieving absolute power. A mean, not an end. They are looking at life through a religious prism. It is attitudes such as these that have now delivered Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and quite possibly Syria as well into the arms of Islam, or, more specifically, into the arms of the Sunni jihadist Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

Today, millions of Arabs believe, as a matter of faith, that Sharia law, empowered by Arab petro-dollars, blessed by Allah, promoted by jihad, and encouraged by the perception of Western weakness given Western “retreats” from Afghanistan and Iraq will lead them back to global respect and prosperity, regional hegemony, and their lost caliphate. That is what they believe, and that is why 75% of Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extremist Salafist allies in the November 2011 – January 2012 parliamentary election.

For Islamists like Mohammed Morsi, Islam is not just a religion; it is a comprehensive system that must govern all financial, judicial, social, familial, political, military, educational and even hygienic activity. It is not, as many Western leaders believe, just for prayer and worship. Morsi however is pragmatic and politically savvy enough not to overplay his hand at this time due to Egypt’s need for a massive infusion of foreign currency.

But even this will not stop his religious zeal to impose Sharia law on millions of Egyptians. Although the Muslim Brotherhood’s extremist and violent nature has been toned down, its claims and actions which, at this moment, appear to adhere to democratic principles are merely tactical and a way for them to achieve absolute power. As we have witnessed since the beginning of the Tahrir revolution, when it is convinced that it has the ability to seize more political and military power, it acts without hesitation and with complete disregard for its past promises.

In the early days of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood vowed that they had no interest in politics or power, and would not be standing for election in the new government. It also promised not to front a Presidential candidate. Twelve months later, the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies control the Egyptian parliament.

At around the same time, in December 2011, Nicholas Kristof interviewed some Muslim Brothers in Ismailia who stated unequivocally that the Copts and the ancient Coptic Church have no reason to fear the Brotherhood. “Conservative Muslims”, he wrote “insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-discriminatory, and the perfect home for pious Christians – and a terrific partner for the West.” Yet, during the presidential elections Al Ahram reported that “the Muslim Brotherhood blockaded entire streets, prevented Copts at gunpoint from voting and threatened Christian families not to let their children go out and vote” for the secular candidate and the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt and throughout the region continues to deteriorate. A chameleon is still just a lizard that changes its color to avoid detection or to quote Jordan’s King Abdullah, they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

In Arabic, Islam means “submission”, and the Muslim Brotherhood fully intends to demand submission from its subjects irrespective of Western delusions to the contrary. If Islam is to be identified with the state, criticism of the state will be prohibited and no laws will be above Sharia laws. In the end, Islam will be a requirement for citizenship and for holding public office; non-Muslims, as second-class citizens, will be required to pay the jizya – a protection tax revived from the medieval period (Quran 9:29); “civilian” Islamist paramilitary militias with the power to arrest those “deemed to be criminals” will be established; legal and other social restrictions will be imposed on the right of non-Muslims (most notably Coptic Christians who represent 10% of the Egyptian population) to worship, women will be consigned to a new Dark Ages, and a literal interpretation of mandatory, non-negotiable Sharia law will govern all aspects of Arab society. As Charles Krauthammer writes: “(Morsi) has been harassing journalists, suppressing freedom of speech, infiltrating the military and trying to subjugate the courts. He’s already rammed through an Islamist constitution. He is now trying to tilt, even rig, parliamentary elections to the point that the opposition called for a boycott and an administrative court has just declared a suspension of the vote.”

Egyptian Salafists are calling on Morsi to ban Shiites and Baha’is from Egypt and according to several reports in the Arabic media, prominent Muslim clerics have begun to call for the demolition of Egypt’s Great Pyramids – or, in the words of Saudi Sheikh Ali bin Said al-Rabi’i, those “symbols of paganism” which Egypt’s Salafi party has long planned to destroy just as the Taliban destroyed the 6th century Bamiyan Buddahs of Afghanistan.

This, however, did not stop James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence from telling the House Select Committee on Intelligence on February 10, 2011 that the U.S. had little to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood as it was essentially “moderate and largely secular”. His address was made the day before then Egyptian president and longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from office (with U.S. urging) thereby paving the way for the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. In his testimony Clapper said: “The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ is an umbrella term for a variety of movements. In the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular which has eschewed violence and has decried al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam. They have pursued social ends, betterment of the political order in Egypt, etc.”

In short, we must partner with them as we would with any political party. After all, they are “moderate and secular”. Thus, so the reasoning goes, if we accommodate these Islamists politically (i.e., accede to their calls for incremental acceptance of Sharia and open financial doors to them), they will work with us in good faith and dissuade their followers from becoming Islamic extremists. Under this utopian view, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a jihadist enemy to be feared, but a political organization to be negotiated with and accommodated.

Excuse me? Isn’t this the same Muslim Brotherhood whose leaders call for the violent annihilation of Israel and for jihad against the U.S.; the same Muslim Brotherhood that birthed many of the leaders of al Qaeda, Hamas, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad; whose motto has not changed in 84 years –“Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope”; whose founder Hassan al Banna said: “It is the nature of Islam to dominate, not be dominated, to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power to the entire planet”; and that has a long, violent history that includes bombings, assassinations and attempts to overthrow governments?

Truth be told, the West has invested heavily in the delusion that Islamic extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood can be moderated. The Arab Spring, the Palestinian “Peace Process”, the illusory “two-state solution”, and every similar Western bid to transform the region presumed that powerlessness was the cause of Arab violence and that, conversely, empowerment would be the solution – another myth.

Empower these Islamists, we are told, and they will be our friends. Give them weapons, control over a country, a ballot box, free and open elections, and billions of dollars, and they’ll be less inclined to blow themselves up while seeking 72 virgins on the road to Paradise.

But dropping this Western delusion appears to be out of the question which is why, according to Jeffrey Goldberg of The  Atlantic, the U.S. State Department and other U.S. officials told Jordan’s King Abdullah…..”The only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”So we’ll continue to write bigger checks, send the Egyptians sophisticated F-16 fighter jets that will one day be used against Israel, open International Monetary Fund doors for them, send them advanced Abrams tanks, and continue to pursue our delusions.

Unfortunately, the equation that “Radical Islamists + Power + Money + Weapons = Peace” has proven to be a global disaster. And yet, it’s easier to let denial carry us forward until, five years from now, as Islamic terrorism analyst Daniel Greenfield writes: “We’ll find our State Department explaining why al Qaeda ruling Libya is actually a good thing for everyone”.

Why has the Administration gotten it wrong everywhere? Perhaps because “Hope for change” is not a policy, and certainly not a policy that ought to be pursued by the world’s last remaining superpower. There is no logical or historical precedent for empowering and funding Islamic extremists based on the hope of achieving moderation, peace and freedom.

The short of it is this – those who predicted that the Arab uprisings would bring on a new, friendly, multicultural, democratic Islam, and an age of secularism, freedom and an end to the violence between Islam and the West were just plain wrong.

When this Administration and the European Union supported “democracy” in the Arab world, what they were really supporting was the transition from one tyranny to another – from secular autocracies to Islamic theocracies – neither of which will enact the liberal democratic reforms the West naively thought would result from the Arab Spring.

Sharia law, as the Egyptians are now discovering, is incapable of resolving the vast economic problems that plague their society. Forty-five percent of Egyptians are illiterate and voted as they were told by the leaders of their mosques. Today, millions of Egyptians are forced to live in cardboard boxes, trash bins, and cemeteries in rundown cities and slums – and most of these impoverished millions voted for Morsi and the more extreme Salafists in the expectation that Sharia law would solve their enormous economic, social and political problems. But Egypt’s foreign reserves are almost exhausted. It desperately needs International Monetary Fund loans (yet refuses to comply with IMF conditions to get them), the tourism industry that produced billions of dollars in annual revenue, employed 12% of the Egyptian population and provided hundreds of thousands of jobs is gone as are its foreign investors; and even flour, which provides sustenance to 90 million Egyptians, is being imported from the West.

With a $36 billion annual trade deficit, soaring food prices (Egypt imports half its food), and just $7 billion in liquid foreign exchange reserves, Egypt is on the brink of economic disaster. As David Goldman (Spengler) writes in the Asia Times: “Egypt will pursue a provocative course of Islamist expansion that cuts off its sources of financial support at a moment of economic desperation…. (It) lacks all of the elements for successful economic development. Its university graduates are almost without exception incompetent; it has insufficient water from the Nile to expand agriculture; its existing agriculture is inefficient and leaves the country dependent on imports for half its food; (and) its population is for the most part pre-modern, with a 30% rate of consanguineous marriage and a 90% rate of female genital mutilation.”

So, when you take into account rampant illiteracy, ancient tribal hatreds and rivalries, a lack of truly democratic institutions or processes, a controlled media, the absence of political and religious freedoms, poverty on a scale Westerners can’t imagine, an educational system that instills the idea in its children that their lives are meaningless other than to be used in the cause of killing and dying for Allah, and all-encompassing Sharia law, and add to this a history of humiliation and defeats, and a culture of victimhood that blames the West, and Israel, Zionists and Jews (who, for all intents and purposes are treated as a single entity) as the sole source of their misfortune – the prognosis for peace or the evolution of truly democratic institutions in the Arab world are highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. These are not problems that Sharia law is capable of resolving.

And when these millions of impoverished Arab supporters of the Brotherhood come to realize that they have been betrayed again, it will be the treachery of the West, and especially the Jews, the Zionists and Israel, not their own incompetence and dysfunctional societies that will be blamed because Arab society has yet to liberate itself from the fears, conspiracy theories and prejudices that have plagued it for centuries. As long as America and Israel are around, no one in the Muslim world ever has to take responsibility for anything. In that regard, anti-Semitism remains the opiate of the Egyptian masses as well as its educated elite. It is, as George Jonas writes in the National Post: “…the organizing principle of the Middle East……the all-purpose enemy”. In fact, anything less is considered unpatriotic.

Truth is, Islamists prospered in opposition because they could blame others, especially Israel; but they are now suffering in power because others are blaming them. If they dilute their domestic and foreign agendas, they will lose their rank-and-file; if they pursue their agendas, they will alienate non-Islamists and the West. If they postpone their struggle against Israel, their rhetoric will appear disconnected from their policy; and if they wage their agenda, their policy will appear dangerous to their allies in the West.

Past U.S. Administrations failed to understand that the reason their overtures to the Arab/Persian world failed so miserably was simply because you can’t moderate regimes such as these. Over thirty years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini mocked the Carter Administration by noting that “the Americans think that our Islamic Revolution is because of the high price of melons”. These Islamists have lost any respect they may have had for the West and no longer fear any consequences for pursuing their jihad against us (as Iran continues to do in its quest to become a nuclear power), especially since we are currently pursuing a policy that pretends they are really our friends, should be accommodated (read: bribed), and can be moderated once in power as Thomas Friedman suggested in his January 7th, 2012 article “Watching Elephants Fly.”

There is no historical precedent in the Arab world for this belief. If anything, the opposite is the case. The Ba’athist regime in Syria remains autocratic and barbaric after a half-century in power and has slaughtered over 70,000 of its own citizens in the past two years; Iran with its Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Hezbollah proxy has become the world’s largest exporter of global terrorism; Hamas (the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) remains a terrorist organization ensconced in Gaza; and although the PLO and Fatah signed the Oslo Accords after one-third of a century of terrorism, they have failed to fulfill any of their commitments in those Accords. While the Brotherhood’s tactics have changed, its basic doctrine and long-term strategy have not – the destruction of Israel and the subjugation its population to Sharia. And as for education, Islamist movements in power tend to educate their children on the virtues of being “martyrs for Allah”, the dishonor inherent in any compromise, and the glories of jihad or holy war.

So much for “moderation”.

Almost four years ago, President Obama delivered his apologetic Cairo Address on June 4, 2009. He claimed that America’s “outstretched hand approach” to Hamas, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood would win us new friends in the Middle East. But the polls and the Arab Spring suggest otherwise. According to a July 2011 Zogby International Poll that surveyed Arab opinion on U.S. foreign policy the Middle East in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Washington is now less popular in major Arab countries than it was when George W. Bush was in the White House.

And why is that? Because in the Arab/Persian world, U.S. efforts to seek accommodations and compromises enhance the perception of U.S. weakness, undermine U.S. effectiveness as a global power, emphasize the retrenchment of American power and the decline of its authority abroad, and draw contempt and derision from those whom the U.S. seeks to accommodate.


The Arab world is convulsing in the midst of an Islamic awakening. The historic disintegration of the Ottoman Empire into the modern-day Arab nations is now leading to the breakdown of their states along tribal origins – the same tribal origins that gave birth to Islam’s imperial expansion.

Yemen was well on its way to failed statehood and economic collapse before the Arab Spring, and virtually all indicators remain alarmingly negative. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is working to undermine King Abdullah with the ultimate goal of turning the kingdom into an Islamist emirate. The UAE worries that the Brotherhood’s growing power will inspire local MB activists, encouraging them to demand further reforms or even to act against the regime, thus bringing the Arab Spring to the UAE. As a result, in the past year, UAE authorities have cracked down on Islamist activists from the local branch of the MB – the Da’wat Al-Islah (“Reform Campaign”) movement – which is demanding political reforms in the country. Thirteen of the movement’s members have been arrested.

Even Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest of all the Arab countries, is in danger of an Islamist coup despite its vast wealth. Its aging monarchs are dying with no clear successor in line for the throne. Unemployment is 40% among 20-to 24-year-olds – a very dangerous age group to have wandering your streets in search of work. 40% of Saudis live in poverty, 70% can’t afford to own their own home, the kingdom’s one-dimensional economy earns 78% of its revenues from oil and oil alone, and 90% of all workers in the Saudi private sector are foreigners – a dismal comment on the state of the Saudi higher education system.

And in Egypt, in the wake of the terrorist raid of August 5th last year in which 16 Egyptian troops were murdered by al Qaeda-linked Army of Islam terrorists at their Mansoura base in northern Sinai, pro-Western military leaders including the Chief of Intelligence, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff, the head of the Military Police, and the head of the Republican Guard were purged by Morsi who then ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense and air force and canceled the military-declared constitutional amendments that gave top generals wide powers – an act done in direct defiance of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

As was the case in Iran under Khomeini and Turkey under Erdogan, Morsi now holds dictatorial powers surpassing by far those of President Hosni Mubarak. The leadership of the Egyptian armed forces has now been replaced by Muslim Brotherhood loyalists who are less-inclined to work with Israel on security matters or respect the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

As things currently stand, the Western powers are clueless on how to deal with the Middle East, even as successive Arab regimes crumble and the region cries out for direction. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the parliamentary elections, the Obama administration waived congressional conditions tying U.S. military aid to democratic progress and transferred $1.5 billion dollars in military aid to the Brotherhood even as the regime persisted with the trial of Egyptians working for human rights and democracy organizations. In the process, it squandered any leverage the U.S. might have had. As Robin Wright notes in the New York Times: “Washington still embraces authoritarian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy should be nuanced, whether because of oil needs or to counter threats from Iran. But there is something dreadfully wrong with tying America’s future position in the region to the birthplace and bastion of Salafism and its warped vision of a new order.”

A better policy would be for the Western powers to invest in transparent and accountable political institutions and secular public educational institutions in the region, and condition the billions of dollars in foreign aid they are providing on explicit measurable liberal democratic benchmarks and tangible, verifiable reforms to the educational and political systems of these countries – meaningful reforms that dovetail with our long-term liberal democratic objectives for the region. In effect, U.S. foreign aid should be conditioned on the Egyptian government’s respect for the rights of minorities and women; its acceptance of political pluralism and open political competition; and respect for its international obligations, including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. All this would be consistent with the position advocated in the UN’s Arab Human Development Reports (2002-2005 and 2009) of reinforcing democratic political practices and free market economic changes in these countries that lead to prosperity.

The results of the Arab Spring are going to be widespread, long-lasting and difficult if not impossible to reverse. The U.S. and the Europeans were warned many times that what they were unleashing was not going to go the way of their delusional scenarios but nevertheless they continued to push for regime changes which have only caused more bloodshed and suffering and not the quick implementation of reforms and the appearance of liberal democratic governments.

Given the rising tide of resurgent Islamic extremism across the Arab world, the Western powers had best put aside their delusions and recognize what should have been recognized years ago – The more we accommodate these Islamists, the more we appease them without tying our financial aid to specific secular democratic reform benchmarks, the more powerful and dangerous they will become.

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