Why the United States can do very little to alter the course of events in the Middle East right now.
In the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative polemicist and editor of Commentary, wrote a long essay arguing that the battle against Islamist extremism amounted to “World War IV.” Podhoretz had a flair for the apocalyptic coinage, but many commentators on both the right and left understood al Qaeda’s shocking attack on American soil as the opening round of a war between the West and “Islamofascism,” as Christopher Hitchens called it. That mood subsided as the terrorists failed to mount similarly spectacular attacks (at least in the United States) and as the grotesque failure of the war in Iraq cooled the ardor of many armchair combatants for a battle to the death between radical Islam and the West.
Suddenly, however, the metaphor of world war does not seem so hyperbolic. The establishment of a self-declared “caliphate” in the heart of the Arab world, as well as the slaughter of a group of cartoonists in the heart of Europe, has made radical Islam look far more effective, more powerful, and more threatening than it had when the movement was led by a handful of men in caves. Even some of the realists who would have laughed off Podhoretz’s call to arms — and would have recoiled at the premise that the Cold War constituted World War III — now fear that the West is in peril. George Friedman, the Kissingerian analyst who runs the global intelligence firm Stratfor, recently wrote that “a war between two worlds” — Islam and Christianity — has dawned. Foreign Policy’s own Aaron David Miller, a reliable skeptic of grandiose adventures abroad, has described the conflict with Islamic extremism as a “generational struggle” and “the long war.”
I do not find this language ridiculous. The radical Islamist denial of the primacy of individual choice in a secularized public space, along with the willingness of large numbers of people to kill others and themselves in order to destroy that way of being, poses a fundamental challenge to the West. Yet the metaphor of civilizational struggle misleads us into believing that we can do, and must do, what we cannot do and therefore should not do.
What kind of “world war” do we now find ourselves in? The only world war of the 19th century, that between France and Britain in the decades after the French Revolution, was — despite France’s republican pretensions — a classic struggle for mastery between great powers. World War I constituted the last of these geopolitical, rather than ideological, convulsions. Global struggle since that time has been precipitated by totalitarian ideologies that seek to extend themselves across the globe. Both the struggle against fascism and the struggle against communism, though global in their geographical spread, were wars between a liberal and a profoundly anti-liberal conception of how to organize Western society.
Islamist extremism presents the exact opposite situation — a war inside a non-Western civilization that has overtaken and consumed the West. This did not at first seem to be the case. Long before al Qaeda, Islamic terrorists targeted U.S. Marines in Lebanon, European and American airlines, and synagogues and Jewish institutions. But the 9/11 attacks, as well as Osama bin Laden’s own rhetoric, gave Podhoretz and many others good reason to believe that radical Islam had declared war on the West. That rhetoric, and those tactics, have continued to this day in the form of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the plots against the United States that were hatched in Yemen, and the mayhem inflicted by terrorists in London, Madrid, and other cities. Western capitals constitute the citadels of the secular order that jihadis have pledged themselves to destroy, and for those terrorists who live in the West, these cities and their citizens are ready targets of opportunity.
But even if we say that we have entered upon a war between Islamist extremism and modernity, the locus of that struggle is shifting from the West to the Islamic world itself. This is the significance of the rise and spread of the Islamic State. The “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria represents a very serious threat to the West, but it is an existential challenge to the Islamic regimes in the region. Like al Qaeda, the Islamic State views the nation-state as a Western invention alien to Islam, but unlike al Qaeda, the Islamic State has actually created an alternative model that reflects pre-modern Islamic tradition. The Islamic State “brand” has spread with astonishing speed — to Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Even if these new groups represent little more than a few terrorists with a black flag, the wish to drape oneself in that flag shows the tremendous power of the idea of setting up a “pure” Islamic state inside an allegedly corrupted Islamic world.
The 9/11 attacks thus gave the misleading impression that the rise of Islamist extremism was “about” the West and required the West to fight a war on terror in order to defeat it. But Islamist extremism is about Islam and about the regimes that rule in the name of the faith; it is hard to imagine the extremist narrative losing its appeal unless and until Arab regimes gain real legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizens. Alternatively, the very act of setting up a protostate, as the Islamic State has done, may expose the jihadi ideology to expectations of effectiveness it cannot possibly satisfy, so that the radical vision will collapse of its own contradictions, as communism eventually did.
There is a great deal that the West can, must, and will do to defend itself from the terrible consequence of this struggle inside another civilization. Much of that will come under the heading of “homeland defense” — police work, intelligence, border security, and the like. Some will involve rethinking national policies on the treatment of Muslim immigrants. And some, but not much, will involve the use of force abroad. The United States and Europe cannot afford to allow the Islamic State to consolidate its control over territory any more than neighboring states can; it would be absurd to gamble that a Wild West nation of fanatics will not seek to destroy other Islamic regimes and kill all those they deem apostates. The actual fighting, however, will have to be done by Iraqis, Syrians, and other local forces.
The West can defend itself, but there’s little it can do to change the terms of that struggle.
If in fact we’re facing a civilizational war inside someone else’s civilization, then many of the tools we used during the Cold War will prove unavailing. From the first years of the long struggle against the Soviets, the United States engaged in a vast public diplomacy campaign, covert and overt, designed to demonstrate the superiority of democratic capitalism over communism. President George W. Bush sought to revive this effort immediately after 9/11, appointing Charlotte Beers, a leading Madison Avenue figure, to develop new “messaging” for the Islamic world. Beers’ TV spots touting America’s respectful treatment of Muslims were ridiculed in the Arab world and were soon pulled. She later conceded that America should not expect to win hearts and minds. Her successors did no better. President Barack Obama’s public diplomacy office is now hard at work manning an anti-Islamic State Twitter feed to match the vast, uncoordinated pro-Islamic State one. It’s a futile endeavor — not because the United States isn’t good at public diplomacy, but because so few people in the target audience will be listening.
One common criticism of public diplomacy is: It’s deeds that matter, not words. Happy talk about American tolerance means nothing when the United States is torturing Muslim detainees and locking them up in Guantánamo. Obama announced on his first day in office that the United States would forswear torture. He gave a major address in Cairo promising “a new beginning” in relations between the United States and the Arab world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” As an experiment in influencing Arab public opinion, this seems to have been little more effective than advertising happy talk. It would be good to perform the additional experiment of closing Guantánamo, another alleged irritant, but I can’t believe it would matter. Forging a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians would constitute the supreme test — one of Beers’s successors, Karen Hughes, admitted to me that she told Bush that she wasn’t likely to get anywhere with Arab public opinion until Washington pushed Israel to make peace — but it probably wouldn’t do much to drain the swamp of jihadism.
Of course, a far more fundamental American strategy during the Cold War was delivering military, economic, and diplomatic support to allies threatened by communism. Despite a theme reiterated from President Harry Truman onward that the United States would come to the aid of imperiled democracies, virtually all the beneficiaries were authoritarian states — Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Chile, Morocco, etc. Only with the waning of the Cold War, during the tenures of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, was the United States prepared to take the risk of criticizing such autocratic allies as Chile and the Philippines. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush concluded that supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East had become a self-defeating strategy. The United States had learned, as he said in his 2005 inaugural address, that it would remain vulnerable to terrorism “as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny.” This was the foundation of Bush’s policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East
The Freedom Agenda, like public diplomacy, made only a modest dent on its intended targets. Iraq, which Bush saw as an opportunity to prove that democracy could take root in the Arab world, proved notoriously resistant to American efforts to improve governance, much less to establish democratic principles. What’s more, the Bush administration found that it still needed autocratic allies like Egypt and, of course, Saudi Arabia.
Obama took his cues from those failures, soft-pedaling the language of democracy and emphasizing a doctrine of “engagement” with autocratic regimes in the hopes of winning their compliance on global goals like nuclear nonproliferation — in effect, restoring the status quo ante. The Arab Spring briefly kindled hopes that Arab publics would demand a voice in their own affairs, leading the president to restate, in a more modest key, Bush’s claim that America had a compelling interest in democratic reform in the Middle East. But the collapse of popular movements everywhere save Tunisia has largely put an end to that rhetoric. Obama’s recent decision to change his plans in order to visit Saudi Arabia immediately after the death of King Abdullah showed just how heavily Washington continues to rely on traditional sources of Arab stability. The Saudis are prepared to join the West in the campaign against the Islamic State, just as Iran under the Shah was prepared to stand firm against communism.
Of course, that very analogy demonstrates the brittleness of autocratic stability. I suspect that the time will come when the United States will rue its single-minded support of the Saudi royal family, as it once did with the Shah. Perhaps more so, for in this war the legitimacy of Islamic states is an even more central issue than was the legitimacy of capitalist ones half a century ago. Islamist extremists are motivated by many of the same grievances that moved non-extremists to protest against brutal, corrupt, paralytic regimes. (If you doubt this, just read FP Middle East editor David Kenner’s recent dispatch from Jordan.) The reactionary fantasy of the caliphate, even the sectarian rule embraced by millions of both Sunnis and Shiites, can only be upended by a state that rules in the name of more inclusive principles. In that very central respect, Bush was right, even if he was wrong about the capacity of the United States to address the problem.
It’s understandable that the Obama administration goes to endless lengths to soothe ruffled Saudi feathers — every prior administration has done the same. But the immediate benefits that the Saudis provide, in the form of oil and security and emollient rhetoric, is more than offset by the malign influence of the harsh, intolerant Wahhabi faith in whose name Saudi kings rule, and of the brutal repression that makes the implicit claim that Islam is inimical to democracy, human rights, and self-expression. Let’s be clear: Saudi Arabia is more a fountainhead of extremism than a bulwark against it.
A far more appealing, and potentially legitimate, form of Islamic rule appears in islands of stability like the United Arab Emirates, where the practice of religion is privatized, as it is in the West — though public morals, in matters of dress and alcohol consumption and the like, comport with mainstream Islamic precepts. As someone who travels regularly to Abu Dhabi (where I teach at NYU Abu Dhabi), I can testify that this system — at least when underwritten by billions of dollars in oil revenue — works very well for the people who live in it, though no one would mistake it for a democracy. Perhaps such a system might even have worked in a relatively prosperous, relatively moderate state like Syria had it been governed more benevolently; we’ll never know. But it will not work in bigger, poorer, more pious places like Egypt. As Shadi Hamid points out in Temptations of Power, his book on political Islam, Egyptians are deeply pious people who do not accept the idea that religion belongs in a privatized space. They want to live under sharia, though they disagree among themselves about what that means. So do hundreds of millions of people in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
In a recent conversation, Hamid argued that the only Islamist movement that has seriously tried to accommodate the nation-state is the Muslim Brotherhood, which came into being in the 1920s as the Ottoman caliphate disappeared. The Brotherhood, as Hamid makes clear in his book, is in no sense a liberal organization — but it has largely come to terms with democracy and has even accepted non-Islamic democratic outcomes, as Islamists do in countries like Morocco and Tunisia, which permit the consumption of alcohol and the like. The election of a Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2012 gave the Arab world its greatest chance to demonstrate that Islam and democracy are compatible. But thanks to the incompetence and narrow-mindedness of the government of President Mohamed Morsi, as well as the active conniving of the military and the judiciary, Morsi’s government was overthrown after a year in office — one of the great self-inflicted wounds of the Arab Spring. Egypt is once again, as it long was, a secular autocracy dominated by the military. I wonder how long the Egyptian people will put up with brutal repression and economic stagnation. Whether or not President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime endures, though, the events of recent years have demonstrated to Islamists that there is no place for them in the Arab political order.
The destruction of the Muslim Brotherhood is now treated as a tremendous success in Egypt and across the Persian Gulf (except in Qatar, a Brotherhood stronghold). Yet it is hard to think of anything that would strengthen the long-term legitimacy of Arab governance more than an embedded, democratic role for moderate Islamists. It is as deeply in the interest of the United States to encourage its Arab allies to find a place for such groups as it is to encourage democracy itself. But it won’t happen. I recently asked a senior administration official whether she thought Washington could nudge regimes to rescind the prohibition of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization across much of the Middle East. “No,” she said, flatly.
At least for the moment, the issue is an existential one: The only acceptable form of political Islam will be that practiced by the regimes themselves. In this war of the civilization next door to our own, there is very little that the West can do to fortify the legitimacy of Arab regimes — even if it seems that those regimes are harming their own long-term prospects.
But doing little is not the same as nothing. Anything outside actors can do to fortify the legitimacy of Arab states — in the eyes, that is, of their own citizens — will help tip the scales in the war inside Islam. This includes economic assistance aimed at improving education or public health, or at increasing entrepreneurship, or at providing jobs for young people. It is a simple fact that young men and women with jobs will be less angry than they were without jobs. It includes the kind of training and education programs organized by groups like the National Democratic Institute. And above all it includes the kind of hardball diplomacy that led Iraqis to dispose of the harshly sectarian Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in favor of the far more inclusive Haider al-Abadi.
Such things matter; but only just so much. The United States is not about to separate itself from Saudi Arabia; the Obama administration has not even been prepared to punish Bahrain, a minor ally that has repeatedly crushed any hint of political dissent. After all, it wouldn’t do any good: Bahrain is effectively a satellite of Saudi Arabia, which has sent in troops to help throttle the political opposition. The administration has begun to sharply criticize the mass trials through which peaceful protesters in Egypt are given endless prison terms, but Cairo remains a crucial ally in the face of spreading chaos in the region.
If the United States and other outside actors can do very little to change the Islamist narrative and improve the legitimacy of Arab states, what is left is the use of force. This, too, will raise a series of fundamental questions. At the outset of the Cold War, many of Truman’s military advisors, along with senior political and policy officials, argued for an all-out mobilization in order to roll back Soviet gains in Eastern Europe. Despite deploying the rhetoric of rollback, both Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower adopted the more measured policy that came to be called containment. The public execution of American hostages gave an exhausted and largely apathetic American public the appetite for Obama’s air war in Iraq and Syria; even a modest attack on American soil could have the public baying for revenge. One of the problems with the rhetoric of civilizational war is that it prepares one for actual, not metaphorical, war.
Obama has tried to adjust the dialing-up of hostilities with exquisite care. He agreed to bomb the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria only after Abadi replaced Maliki — only, that is, after Iraq made a serious bid to establish legitimate political authority. I think he has done right there. I can’t quite fathom his policy in Syria, where two to three years ago he passed up the chance to support nationalist, if still broadly Islamist, rebels in the face of the homicidal regime of Bashar al-Assad; now he hopes to train those rebels, currently decimated, to fight against the Islamic State rather than against Assad. Meanwhile, he hopes to contain and degrade the Islamic State in Syria through a separate campaign of bombardment until the rebel force is ready. Or so we’re told. Perhaps, in fact, he expects little to come of his training program; his real policy may be to make peace with Assad in the hope of enlisting him against the extremists. Assad, however, is a cunning realist: He may be prepared to live with the Islamic State so long as it stays within its current borders in northeast Syria. He may believe, in fact, that this is the best of a series of bad options.
So, yes, it will be a long war — not between “us” and “them,” but inside the Islamic world. The next U.S. president may prove to be a more bellicose figure than Barack Obama. The nation may tire of appeals to patience in the face of more attacks by al Qaeda, or from an expansionist Islamic State. Containment may begin to look like appeasement. But in this one respect, at least, the Cold War metaphor is right: Americans will have to learn to contain an enemy that they can neither destroy nor convert. And that will be a great national test.
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