Many people find it hard to comprehend what the Obama administration thinks it’s
doing in the Middle East. One liberal friend of mine has called my analysis
“mind reading.” But it’s really very simple if you know the history of the
arguments, read the speeches and documents of Obama administration officials
carefully and observe their actions.
Leaving aside a number of points
I’ve made in previous articles (which would be good to read in conjunction with
this one), I want to focus on the idea that the US government has outsmarted the
After all, it has “lured” them into sharing power openly by
participating in elections and a share of power, so now, it is argued, the
Islamists have to play by the rules of the electoral and democratic game. They
must produce policies that please and benefit the people if they want to remain
in power, since if they fail to do so, they will just lose the next
Having accepted democratic norms, the US administration’s
expectation is that the Islamists will be locked into the system and have no
choice but to compromise ideologically or hand over power with a show of good
Western officials and experts generally and genuinely
believe radical Islam cannot produce material results.
They believe the
Islamists will have to water down their “impractical” beliefs to be effective in
government. To remain in power they will gradually abandon their radical
ideologies. In short, the Obama administration believes it’s got the Islamists
where it wants them.
THERE ARE just a few problems with that
1. No Arab nationalist regime (even those pretending to be
democratic) or monarchy in the Middle East has ever let itself be voted out of
office. There are ways of persuading the masses to keep supporting a regime even
if in Western eyes that government has “failed.” There are also many ways to win
“elections” – by manipulation, selective repression, media control, using
patronage to buy votes, etc.
Together, instead of “one man, one vote, one
time” you can get “one man, one vote, one result.”
For example, consider
Turkey, where the regime has steadily increased its base of support among
voters; or Egypt and Jordan, where the regime always wins the
Once in office, there is no reason to think the Islamists can’t
last as long as the Arab nationalists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Syria –
that is, for decades.
In addition, as a last resort elections can always
be canceled, as they were in Algeria, or results can be repressed if the
incumbents think they’ll lose. Another example is the Islamist regime in Iran,
which finally lost popularity after three decades of mismanagement but remained
in power by simply quashing internal resistance, and faced no external costs due
to the stolen election.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology and
demagoguery, which can be more powerful than material pay-offs. The history of
the modern Arab world is full of examples where ideology and demagoguery trumped
material political achievement. Look at the history of the PLO and of Yasser
(Yes, I know Hamas won the 2006 elections and rules
in Gaza, but Fatah still runs the more important West Bank to this
And let’s not forget the use of foreign scapegoats, which will be
as important for the Islamists as it was for the nationalists. Consider how the
Turkish Islamist regime has made Israel and the West into an enemy in order to
mobilize both nationalist and religious fervor at home. This can also lead to
foreign adventures – wars and terrorism – that are popular at home, even if they
3. The elected regimes can use the educational system,
religious institutions and media to indoctrinate the public and ensure continued
support. They can use jobs and the economy to control patronage and votes;
create or control trade unions and professional associations.
controlling the religious institutions, Islamists can get rid of traditionalist
Islam and entrench their own interpretations.
And let’s not forget the
greatest prize of all: control over the military, a plan that might include
creating separate elite units (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran,
Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, Republican Guards in Syria, etc.)
intrinsically radical nature of the Islamists themselves: if you’re taking your
orders directly from the Supreme Being and in accord with the most sacred
religion, you’re unlikely to change your views. Western materialist cynicism
goes too far in thinking Islamists will sell out for luxury and power. Besides,
they can enjoy luxury and power (see Iran) without having to throw away their
Moreover, we are not dealing with Communism in the era of
Leonid Brezhnev here. The Islamists are a relatively young movement, unbowed by
failure and not jaded by long possession of power. They genuinely believe the
future belongs to them. Maybe they will become tired and lose their confidence
in 30 or 40 years, but not now.
5. Knowing that they confront such idiots
in the West, the Islamists can use the credulity of their enemies to play
moderate when necessary and get lots of benefits and concessions. How about the
idea of massive US aid to Islamist regimes? That’s about to happen, isn’t it?
Played on by Middle Eastern con men and eager to avoid confrontation, it’s easy
to understand how those with no real understanding of the region make the
mistake of believing they can “tame” radical Islam.
Yet they will surely
fail in this endeavor. Those who are wise will avoid paying the price for this
The writer is director of the Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.