The Region: The scariest sentence
Do radical ideological movements say things in their campaigns to gain power, including election campaigns, which disappear due to the pragmatism forced by the need to govern?
Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol. Photo: REUTERS
If I’ve ever seen a sentence that spells disaster in the Middle East it’s this
one: “‘People say things in a campaign and then when they get elected they
actually have to govern,’ [US State Department] spokeswoman Victoria Nuland
The specific context of this statement were remarks by the Obama
administration’s favorite Egyptian presidential candidate, Abdel Moneim Aboul
Fotouh, in a debate. He called Israel racist, an enemy of Egypt, and a state
based on occupation (that is, which has no right to exist), then calling to
alter the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Pay no attention to the man in front
of the curtain, says Nuland, he doesn’t really mean it. The problem with this,
like hundreds of other statements by the currently dominant worldview in the
West is that almost nobody is around in the mainstream media or academia to say:
Wait a minute!
In fact, I can make a very strong counter-argument that would
persuade most people if they were allowed to hear it.
So let us parse
Nuland’s sentence, which does accurately reflect US foreign policy today, and is
indeed a death or prison sentence for many people in the Middle
Nothing is easier, of course, than finding examples of politicians
who did not keep their election promises. But that’s not what we are dealing
with here. No, the case here is: Do radical ideological movements say things in
their campaigns to gain power, including election campaigns, which disappear due
to the pragmatism forced by the need to govern?
this argument before, most notably in 1978- 1979, when the Islamist revolution
came to Iran. The Islamists have won every election since and have not been
moderated by the need to govern. On the contrary, they have used their extremism
to continue to govern.
“The depiction of Khomeini as fanatical,
reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily
false.... To suppose that Ayatollah Khomeini is dissembling seems almost beyond
belief... Having created a new model of popular revolution based, for
the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may yet provide us with a
desperately-needed model of humane governance for a third-world
It is only poetic injustice that Richard Falk, a man who
totally misjudged the Iranian radical threat, has now been made by the UN the
judge of Israel, which is facing that same threat.
The same kind of thing
was said throughout the 1990s. Yasser Arafat will be moderated by having
to pave roads and collect the garbage. Power is inevitably moderating and
ideology is meaningless.
This is not true, and history shows it isn’t
Were the Communists moderated by being in power? Well not in the
USSR (maybe a bit after 70 years). And not in China (well, yes, more than a bit,
after only about a half-century). We’re still waiting for Cuba and North
Korea, both between five and six decades old. Add in such examples as the
Taliban in Afghanistan, the Ba’ath Party in Syria or Iraq, and Hamas in the Gaza
It is important to understand why this isn’t true. There are some
dangerously false assumptions in Nuland’s simple sentence.
assuming that radical movements are saying things to please voters in the same
way that American politicians do. But American politicians are
overwhelmingly unideological. Deep down, few of them think that ideas
matter. But what if they sincerely and passionately believed that every plank on
their platform was ordered by the supreme being and that this was in fact the
only reason their political party existed?
Suppose their rivals were willing and
able to destroy their careers or even kill them if they showed they were totally
phony in their devotion?
Suppose a large portion of the masses took all of this
seriously and meant to hold them to their promises? And suppose they truly
believed themselves that instituting Shari’a law – perhaps at most with a
slightly more liberal interpretation here and a few exceptions there – was the
only way to govern?
In other words, there are lots of reasons for radicals to
remain radicals in government. And, after all, that is what usually
But that’s not all, by a long shot. What happens when those who
actually have to govern fail to make things better and to satisfy the masses’
aspirations? Then they really need those things said in the campaign: the
demagoguery, scapegoating, and impossible demands.
At this point, these
kinds of things aren’t just forgotten promises, they are magical solutions that
are vital for governance! Instead of falling or facing serious internal conflict
due to failure, the regime puts itself at the head of the masses marching
against evil foreign enemies onto whom it puts the blame for these
Let’s suppose that Egypt elects a “moderate Islamist” as
president. Will he call out the army to suppress his Salafist voters when
they burn down a church, assassinate a secularist, or help Hamas attack Israel
and set off a war? Does the fact that this person would not have a single
reliable vote in parliament affect things at all?
What do these wishful-thinking
observers believe must happen to throw their views into question? Presumably
Egyptian presidential candidates would have to come onto the stage drooling,
wearing horns and a tail, and screaming, “Kill! Kill!”
For example, from The New
York Times, February 16, 1979, an op-ed by Richard Falk: “Meanwhile, back in
Egypt, Aboul Fotouh is not the worst person who might be elected president and
he probably would restrain to a small degree the speed of transformation to a
radical Islamist regime.” But in an interview with an Egyptian station, Abul
Fotouh has just said that he is against “terrorism” but Osama bin Laden was not
a terrorist, that the United States only called him one in order to “hit Muslim
interests,” and that the killing of bin Ladin was an “act of state terrorism.”
In other words, he’s saying September 11 wasn’t an act of terrorism but that
Obama’s policy is anti-Muslim and terrorist.
The writer’s book, Israel:
An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. He is
director of global research in the International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a
featured columnist at PJM and editor of The Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) journal.