September 29, 2012
Courting Extremism: Playing with Fire
by Prof. Abbas J. Ali (first published on 09-18-12)
The killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (left) and three other Americans, though tragic, is only the beginning of a gathering storm where unprecedented bloodshed will be the dominate scene in the region,predicts Abbas J. Ali.
In her comments on the most recent violence engulfing the Arab World, Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, declared (September, 14) that the people in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia “did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob.” While this statement may appeal to various quarters in the West, for Middle East experts and the progressive forces in the region the violent eruption is a predictable outcome of misguided foreign policies that stress short term gains at the expense of world stability and the future of the Arab people.
For decades, US Middle East foreign policy has been driven by two primary considerations: preserving Israeli regional supremacy and ensuring the security and survivability of the Arab authoritarian regimes. While the first goal has been aggressively sought, the vitality of the second has been occasionally, though reluctantly, questioned.
George W. Bush, in a speech in 2003, at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, declared that “60 years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.” In the same speech, he praised Arab dictators as champions of democracy stating that Egypt under Hosni Mubarak showed “the way toward peace . . . and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East.”
The popular uprisings, which took place first in Tunisia and which rapidly energized the masses across the Arab World, at first caught policy makers in Washington off guard. Indeed, the uprisings could have shifted the balance of power against authoritarian regimes and toward empowering the youth and the patriotic progressive forces. This would have profoundly changed the political landscape and eventually would have been a major setback to Washington’s design for the region.
It was for this very reason that President Barack Obama (November 30, 2011) declared that the popular protests in the Arab World presented a formidable challenge that must be managed in a way that allowed Washington to “be very firm with respect to the security of our allies. And obviously, no ally is more important than the state of Israel.”
He went on to say that “we do have enormous challenges in making sure that the changes that are taking place in Egypt, the changes that are taking place throughout the region do not end up manifesting themselves in anti-Western or anti-Israel policies.”
Initially, policymakers in Washington entertained two options for containing the popular uprisings: closely working with the Arab dictators to co-opt popular uprisings by introducing half-baked reforms, and capitalizing on well trusted ethnic, tribal, secular, and religious groups to hijack the uprisings and marginalize the patriotic progressive elements. However, the rapid crumbling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime made the first alternative irrelevant.
Policymakers, therefore, had to revisit their options and determined to rescue other Arab dictatorial regimes facing immediate threat (e.g., Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, etc.) while coordinating activities with wealthy Arab states. Coordinating activities focused on means of effectively unleashing religious groups and altering the directional goal of the uprisings. While policymakers in Washington have an understanding of the efficiency of religious groups in derailing the popular uprisings, they differed on whether all or select religious groups should receive support. Two camps emerged with sharply different approaches.
Top Pentagon brass, including General Martin Dempsey (left), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opted not to provide weapons to any religious group without knowing their aims and outlooks. The experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the rise of Al-Qaeda were on the minds of the leading figures of this camp.
The second camp, including the CIA and those in the administration who espouse the neoconservatives’ scheme for the region, argued that religious groups, especially the Salafis, can swiftly deliver goals and are easily manipulated and managed by friendly Arab governments. Furthermore, this camp made a powerful argument that monitoring these groups in the battlefields and communicating with them could enable Washington to infiltrate or dictate their agenda.
Facing unfamiliar circumstances and a rapidly shifting regional balance of power to the advantage of the regional resistance forces and Iran, the Obama Administration espoused the second camp’s vision. Thus, Washington deliberately acted to channel resources to groups that thought to ease the rapid removal from power of the unfriendly regimes in Libya and Syria.
In the meantime, Washington discovered that the presence of Salafis in the battlefields not only accelerated the demise of the unfriendly regimes but was also instrumental in deepening the reliance of the Muslim Brotherhood on Washington and keeping it within Washington’s orbit of influence and away from its arch enemy, Iran.
Courting unruly and uncontrollable religious zealots, however, is a dangerous game. The New York Times (September 1, 2011) reported that religious groups in Libya who were “Once considered enemies in the war on terror, they suddenly have been thrust into positions of authority — with American and NATO blessing.” In recent months, many zealots and militants from various parts of the world have been lured to fight in Syria. These groups have openly established training camps in Turkey and Lebanon and are financed, according to news reports, by friendly authoritarian governments.
Indeed, it is in Syria that the religious groups have been the most effective in turning the balance of power, energizing and inciting vocal resentment to the regime, and greatly weakening its ability to govern. The New York Times (July 24, 2012) reported that the “evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for . . . extremists, including those operating under the banner of Al Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels’ hands last week, Bab al-Hawa, has quickly become a jihadist congregating point.”
The killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, though tragic, is only the beginning of a gathering storm where unprecedented bloodshed will be the dominate scene in the region. Unlike Reagan’s mujahedeen in Afghanistan who were motivated to fight the communists and were largely trained by Washington and displayed obedience to friendly governments, the new religious extremists are driven by uncompromising ideology and seek to polarize the Middle East by changing the social fabric and maintaining chaos and instability.
In an interview with the Economist (August 4, 2012) a representative of one group stated, “The killing will not stop when Assad falls. . . . We will kill all those who stood by the regime –and not only Syrians.”
Policymakers in Washington are neither able nor willing to learn from history. Facing the rise of leftist ideology and Arab nationalism in the late 1940s and after, Washington mobilized authoritarian governments and religious groups to counter Arab liberalism and progressive patriotism. The outcome was misery and widespread destruction.
Today, Washington is confronting a different challenge. Instead of heeding the history lesson, it blindly pursues destructive policies. Some policymakers may get satisfaction from seeing the Middle East destabilized. However, the ascendancy of religious extremists will not only corner the moderate religious forces in the region, it will initiate an era of unmanageable conflicts. Deepening bloodshed and instability in the Middle East is a fatal mistake. It demonstrates lack of moral clarity and an absence of responsible leadership.
Abbas J. Ali is Professor and Director, School of International Management, Eberly College of Business and IT, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.