By Barry Rubin
A great controversy has erupted over a National Journal article by Michael Hirsh entitled, “The Post Al Qaida Era.” I think this is an important issue there is absolutely nothing new here that couldn’t have been seen—as I’ll show in a moment—five years ago.
The Obama Administration has long thought along the following lines:
Al-Qaida is an evil and terrible organization. It attacked America on September 11, 2001. It is a sworn enemy of the United States and it uses terrorism. Consequently, to protect the American homeland, al-Qaida must be destroyed. Our “war on terror” is then a war on al-Qaida.Oh, yes, one more thing:
Al-Qaida is the only enemy and the only threat. So once al-Qaida is destroyed there is no more problem, no more conflict.In this context, then, all other revolutionary Islamist groups—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizballah, Hamas, and so on—are not enemies. They can be won over or at least neutralized as threats to U.S. interests. And perhaps even they can become allies because they also oppose al-Qaida or, as they are now called, really radical Salafist groups.
So when the administration now says the “war on terror” is over because al-Qaida has been defeated, it is speaking with total consistency.
Please be patient and let me quote what I wrote about this in 2007, which applies completely to today:
“The Brotherhood and the jihadists [especially al-Qaida] are the two main Islamist streams today. They are not enemies, and there has been no violent conflict between them, nor has there been a great deal of ideological battle. Yet at the same time they are rivals, following different strategies and knowing that one or the other would gain mass support and perhaps state power….The best example of this is the use of elections….Contrast here the views of the al-Qaida leader in Iraq, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and the influential Brotherhood ideologue Qaradawi. In a January 23, 2005 statement, Zarqawi condemned the upcoming Iraqi elections and threatened to kill those running and voting. In sharp contrast, Qaradawi endorsed elections, arguing that the majority of voters would back an Islamist party, while liberals would get little support. If truly fair elections were to be held, he insisted, Islamists would win by a landslide.
“Second, a critical difference between the two groups is that the jihadists–except in Saudi Arabia and Iraq–focus on attacking what is called the “far enemy,” that is, Israel, the United States, the West in general. The Brotherhoods, in contrast, while strongly anti-Israel (and supporting Hamas, see below) and anti-Western, focus on the “near enemy,” that is, Arab governments. Thus, for them, while al-Qaida is fighting for the cause, it is also undermining it (except in Iraq) by pulling resources out of the struggle for change within the Arab world.
“Third, while the Brotherhood groups are tactically flexible (as has been shown above), al-Qaida is exclusively focused on armed struggle. The Brotherhood groups view the revolutionary process as a long-term one, involving such things as providing social services, educating and indoctrinating young people through institutions, using elections, compromising at times with Arab governments, showing restraint to avoid government repression, at times allying with non-Islamist groups, and so on. Thus, while al-Qaida is far more of a danger in terms of terrorism, it is far less likely to seize state power because of what would be called in Leninist terms, its “infantile leftism.”
And at the moment Obama was taking office in 2009 I wrote:
“Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s policy is the precise and exact opposite of what is needed. Instead of emphasizing the need to combat the [Islamist] radicals and reinforce the moderates, it focuses on conciliating the radicals, which undermines the moderates…..Since then, America’s enemies have made great progress; the Obama Administration almost none at all.
“Here is the central point and problem for the United States: Its interests and allies are increasingly menaced by a growing threat [revolutionary Islamism] whose existence, meaning, and scope, current U.S. policy does not even recognize yet, much less counters effectively.”
Everything you need to know about the regional situation was obvious five years ago. Everything you need to know about the Obama Administration was obvious three years ago.
At least today it should be clear that a group capable of taking over a country with millions of people and running it for decades (the Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizballah) is a greater threat than a group that can stage a few terror attacks each year. But it still isn’t even on the radar of the Western mainstream debate or the Obama Administration’s strategy.
As a result, it is misleading to say, as Michael Hirsh wrote in the National Journal, that “the Obama administration is taking a new view of Islamist radicalism.” This is the view it has taken since Obama opened his Middle East policy with a Cairo speech where he invited Brotherhood leaders and told his audience that an Islamic viewpoint was the proper one for Arabs.
Hirsh writes, “The president realizes he has no choice but to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood and other relatively `moderate’” Islamist groups emerging as lead political players out of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.” But this is misleading because Obama’s policy has favored Islamists in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, and arguably in Libya.
Hirsh writes: “The Muslim Brotherhood officially renounced violence decades ago, leading then-dissident radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri to join al Qaida.”
This is totally misleading. The Brotherhood has never renounced violence. Its articles and speeches have been full of calls for violence against, for example, against Israel and against U.S. forces in Iraq. The Brotherhood only renounced violence within Egypt because it knew that otherwise the Mubarak regime would respond by—as we used to say in the old neighborhood—knocking them upside the head.
The article continues: “It is no longer the case, in other words, that every Islamist is seen as a potential accessory to terrorists.” But this is misleading because the Obama Administration never thought that way at all.
The passage that has stirred up so much debate is this one:
“`The war on terror is over,’” one senior State Department official who works on Mideast issues told me. Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism.’”Yes, the war on terror is over but now it is the struggle against revolutionary Islamism that should begin. But it isn’t. Instead the phrase is “legitimate Islamism,” meaning in effect, good anti-American, antisemitic, totalitarianism.
And yet there is even more that’s nonsense here. Very few people ever went to join al-Qaida! We are talking about at most a few thousand in the whole world. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hizballah recruited tens of thousands in each country.
Of course, those radicals would be damn fools not to realize that it makes more sense to join groups that have taken power in Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Tunisia, and Turkey than guys hanging out in caves. Who are the effective revolutionaries?
This is like saying in 1917, after the Russian Revolution:
The war on anarchist terrorism is over. Now that people have come to see a legitimate means of expression in the Russian November, people who once might have gone into assassinating government officials instead see an opportunity for a legitimate Marxism through Bolshevism.”And there’s still more foolishness. In Egypt–and this is extraordinarily significant–many of the Salafists (the people the Brotherhood is supposedly protecting us from) have now endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for president. They understand what Obama, his colleagues, and his supporters don’t comprehend: that the Brotherhood wants the same revolution as the more obviously militant groups.
The article continues:
“The president may have no choice but to preside over chaos at this point–a chaos that may not be the disaster that critics say and may in fact be the Arab world’s only path to modernity — but it won’t play well in the seven months between now and election day.”But it might—in fact, it will—lead to disaster. And it would be a strange path to modernity that aimed at turning back the clock. Still I suppose you could say that Stalin and Mao ultimately led to modernity for their countries, though backing them in their seizure of power might have looked bad to American voters, right?
Remember that in the early Cold War years the far right wing falsely accused a Democratic president of helping Communists gain power. Today, amazingly enough, that equivalent accusation is true, based not on a conspiracy theory but on the open behavior and declarations of this president and his administration!
Finally, to show how ultimately nonsensical the mainstream debate is, consider this passage in the article:
“Some of the smarter hardliners on the Right, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, are coming to realize that the Arab world may find another route to democracy–through Islamism.”The implication is that if you think that Islamism isn’t a great way to achieve democracy you must be a dumb right-wing hardliner. Can’t you just be a good analyst who understands the Middle East, reads the documents, knows the history, and doesn’t have a political agenda? Nope, I guess the political science is settled.
Still, why should someone have to be “right wing” to oppose a group that in Marxist terminology would be called “clerical-fascist?” Why should those on the “left wing” (or mainstream, which sometimes seems to amount to the same thing nowadays) back a group that wants to suppress women, kill homosexuals, wipe out Jews, crush basic freedoms taken for granted in the West, and holds an ideology that resembles fascism more than any other Western ideology? Since when does the “left wing” love those who could be called reactionary religious fanatics?
Would Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Hubert Humphrey, for example, think that putting the Muslim Brotherhood into power and not seeing it as a threat was some great liberal idea?
And is nothing too ridiculous as those who think the Muslim Brotherhood is just fine and dandy usually simultaneously view Christians in their own country, or at least Evangelical Protestants and perhaps practicing Catholics, as fundamentalist extremists who want to impose a dictatorship?
Guess what? Even that’s not all that is wrong with Hirsh’s claim in that above-cited paragraph. Gerecht has been advocating engagement with Islamists for years. In 2004 (!) he wrote a monograph entitled, The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy. He was making this argument when Obama was still a gleam in David Axelrod’s eye!
It is hard–I’d say impossible–to find any time in American history when the government’s foreign policy has been more clearly disastrous than the Obama Administration’s current Middle East policy. It is equally impossible to find a time when the mainstream conception of international reality has been more totally upside-down.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. You can learn more about the book via the ad on the right side of this post.Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.