The Region: The hopelessness of victory

The Obama administration is engaging in over a dozen failed operations in the Mideast, and reason shows just why they’re failing: The Islamist philosophy.

January 19, 2014 22:06
4 minute read.
US President Obama addressing reports at White House, September 27, 2013.

Obama at White House 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)


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“So, let me just say, it went bad for us over there, but that was our job. That’s what we did. We didn’t complain about it.”
– Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell

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US President Barack Obama’s administration is engaging in over a dozen failed operations in the Middle East, and reason shows just why they’re failing: The Islamist philosophy is totally different from theirs. The Islamists are indifferent to the cost of victory.

Clearly, the Obama administration does not understand Middle Eastern regimes and terrorist organizations, and if it doesn’t remedy this, it will continue to meet miserable defeats.

Luttrell, on the other hand, does understand the mindset of the terrorists, and how to bring victory – at least as close an approximation as there can be to victory – to the Middle East.

“Hopelessness really never came into it,” Luttrell said, “... [b]ecause there was never a point where we just felt like we were hopelessly lost or anything like that. We never gave up. We never felt like we were losing until we were actually dead.”

Moreover, the Obama administration’s goals have not been consistent. If you can’t depend on someone for consistency in times of trouble, you can’t depend on them at all. The US has become an untrustworthy ally, as many Middle Eastern regimes can attest to.

Let’s look at how Egypt has played its cards over the past three years. You could say, as probably a Western statesman like Vice President Joe Biden would, that the Muslim Brotherhood “couldn’t win.” But they don’t need to – all they need to do is block others’ victories. If the Brotherhood, or al-Qaida for that matter, never gives up, they deny the enemy victory. That is a strategy for triumph.

After having published an article on the Brotherhood in which I generally analyzed their situation, I received a very nice critique from Egypt’s chief Brotherhood magazine, which completely understood my argument and yet concluded from it that the Brotherhood’s strategy was correct. They understand us better than we understand them. If they never despair, and spend as much blood and treasure as it takes, Allah – in addition to other measures – will give them victory.

What Obama and his administration do not understand about the Middle East is that in this part of the world, he who wins is he who compromises less, not he who compromises more.

This principle is the same everywhere in the Middle East. Iran is willing to risk negotiations falling apart, as is Hamid Karzai’s government in Afghanistan – thus, in Middle Eastern terms, they win.

Politics in the Middle East is like a game of chicken, not a game of bridge.

A new story has just emerged in Tunisia: the government fell apart due to the army’s pressure. That was the quiet end of Tunisia’s democratic dream.

And, in fact, all true Arab, Turkish and Iranian democracies have fallen apart. The same has been true of the Iraqi democratic dream. Iran, not the US, is the country that has played the game well there.

In another example, the West thinks the Syrian political opposition, politicians and terrorists actually care how many people die, when in fact they are all willing to sacrifice millions. The West simply cannot understand that these people are fighting for different stakes, and persists in the delusion that materialistic considerations and pragmatism determine their decision-making.

Yet everybody who knows the Middle East knows the problem is that you need to think the Middle Eastern way, not the Western way. Or perhaps to cite another Western leader, “You come with a rock, we come with a knife. You come with a knife, we come with a gun.” The closest thing in American politics to Middle East politics is that of Chicago or Boston, with its bridges and outlets.

No extent of compromise is going to cause radical nationalists and Islamists to make real peace. Yes, Islamists can be and are often pragmatic, particularly in order to obtain millions of dollars of trade and nuclear weapons. But that is only if they not required to give much in return.

Here’s an anecdote. A Western intelligence agent was interviewing captured Afghan terrorists. He asked, reasonably, “Why did you come here?” They responded: “To kill you” – and attacked him with a knife. Several people in the camp were killed.

If you don’t know why the Muslim Brotherhood will not make peace with Arab regimes, you cannot understand the Middle East.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the IDC Herzliya. He is co-author of Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Yale University Press, forthcoming in February 2014).

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