The Region: A Middle East strategy for the West

We have to work with Arab nationalist regimes against Islamist ones - but we shouldn't romanticize them.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit:)
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
The great battle during our younger years was between communism and democratic liberalism. Its contemporary equivalent is Arab nationalism versus Islamism. That implies some extremely important, often misunderstood conclusions: First, regrettable but true, democracy isn't in the running. The problem is not just that cynical rulers mislead the masses through demagoguery - though that's true - it's that the masses embrace extremist world views. Even in Iraq or Lebanon, what exists is not democracy but merely elections regulating the precise balance among ethno-religious blocs. Instead of lobbying, they use violence as a means of persuasion and leverage, violence periodically breaking into civil war. Other countries are dictatorships, though the degree of repression varies. Kuwait, a sort of monarchical semi-democracy, is the exception proving the rule. There, pro-democratic liberal forces do poorly against dynasty-controlled Islamists and tribal foes. The Palestinian political scene provides another example. Remember, Fatah accepted Hamas's victory at the polls. Only after an agreement made a coalition government possible did Hamas stage a coup. There is nothing theoretical about this. Is democracy possible in the Arabic-speaking world? Why not, once one discounts all the existing political, ideological, social and organizational forces? Will it come eventually? Probably, if "eventually" is long enough. In terms of practical politics and strategy, however, these two questions are irrelevant. Democracy isn't on the agenda. JUST TO provide guidelines, and remembering that every country differs, I'd suggest roughly 60-70% of the Arabic-speaking world is still Arab nationalist, 20%-30% is Islamist and 10% pro-moderate democracy. Numbers and definitions are subject to challenge, but the basic proportions seem right. Two hybrid regimes exist. Libya follows dictator Muammar Gaddafi's bizarre mentality. More important is Syria, where the regime is Arab nationalist but its international policy and domestic propaganda are largely Islamist. It backs Iraqi, Lebanese and Palestinian Islamist terrorists, and is deeply committed to the Iranian alliance. NOT ALL Islamists are the same or allied, but all are extremely dangerous. Iran and Syria, which can subvert whole countries and sponsor large political organizations, are far more dangerous than al-Qaida. The notion of helping groups like the Muslim Brotherhood become more powerful or seize control of countries is insane. It is more likely to ensure decades of bloodshed, the deaths of many thousands of people in internal strife and foreign warfare, and the destruction of Western interests. The two contending forces are both local. The West is an outside factor whose intervention - either through force or concessions - won't decide this contest generally, and certainly isn't going to transform either side. The West can, however, do some critical things if it knows how to distinguish between friends, enemies and interests: * Help one side against the other where appropriate. The people to help are the Arab nationalists. As a group, at least with Saddam Hussein gone from Iraq, they are less internationally aggressive and less internally repressive than the revolutionary, enthusiastic and ideologically idealistic Islamists. They have also absorbed some lessons from the past half-century about their own limits and Western power. Their people suffer because they're incapable of transforming these societies for the better; their subjects benefit because they don't seek to transform these societies and govern every detail of their lives. * Don't romanticize Arab nationalist regimes. They're incompetent, corrupt, anti-democratic and unreliable. We know their failings are one significant reason the Islamists have grown but, frankly, there's nothing we can do about it. There's no third alternative. The Bush administration tried and failed miserably. Ironically, a genuinely moderate government, the Lebanese "March 14" coalition, didn't receive serious Western support and inevitably fell to Hizbullah pressure and Iranian-Syrian subversion. Arab nationalist regimes will do as little as possible to combat the Islamists internationally, appease the other side quickly if they think it's winning, and play anti-American, anti-Western and anti-Israel cards. * Show Arab nationalist regimes that the West won't let them get away with anything nasty, and show the Islamists it won't let them get away with anything at all. Any concession made to the Islamist side - including Syria - sends a signal to regimes, radical Islamist groups and the people that the Islamists are winning and everyone better join or appease them. * Trying to obtain Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace is a useless strategy, distracting from real issues. It isn't going to happen; Islamists would use any such peace to portray those signing it as traitors; and even many Arab nationalists would denounce it to raise their credibility as tough, unyielding fighters. Violence and unrest would increase, not lessen. Similarly, the main reason to oppose Iranian nuclear weapons is not because they would threaten Israel - though that's important - but because they endanger Western interests by swinging the balance wildly in favor of the Islamists. If you want a good analogy, think of how the US and Britain had to ally with Joseph Stalin's USSR during World War II (though they were too trusting of him) and with a variety of dictators during the Cold War (without countenancing their systems or practices, which didn't happen often enough but more so than many think today). In short, the priority is not to be nice to Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood or Syria, but rather to work with - critically and sometimes pressuring - the governments of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, the smaller Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, and with democratic forces in Lebanon. This group also includes Fatah's Palestinian Authority, but that already receives far more money and diplomatic support than it needs or deserves. It should be made to work for these benefits rather than contribute so much to the problems. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.