The Region: Sticks beat carrots

Why does the idea persist that 'engaging' dictators and terrorists will reform them?

saddam in cage 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
saddam in cage 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
One of the amazing things about the Middle East is how ideas about the region persist despite being repeatedly proven wrong. It doesn't seem to matter to many politicians, academics or journalists that a particular notion has been mistaken on every occasion over a half-century or so. Sometimes the cause of this strange behavior is ignorance; often it is political expediency.
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Consider the most durable and disastrous notion: that the way to deal with radical movements and dictators is to be nice to them. Noting that these extremists say the West is evil, imperialistic, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim, sensitive observers set out to disprove the accusation. By showing they are good guys they expect their counterparts to become grateful and moderate. This ploy has been tried repeatedly, and each time found wanting. In every case serious damage has resulted to Western interests. And while the careers of those who were mistaken prospered, others paid for these mistakes in blood. NOW this stale idea has been hauled out once more to justify a policy of being nice to Hamas - the more sophisticated word being used is "engagement" - so it will stop being genocidal. Will recognition, money, compliments, meetings, sympathetic understanding of grievances and other such devices succeed here? Let's examine six virtually identical cases: • Gamal Abdel Nasser emerged as Egypt's leader and the Arab world's hero. When Britain, France, and Israel were on the verge of overthrowing him in the 1956 Suez war, US policymakers concluded his downfall would anger Arabs. American leaders had initially supported Nasser's coup four years earlier, believing it would usher in a moderate, pragmatic regime. To save Nasser America threatened to destroy the economy of Britain, its closest ally, unless London withdrew its forces. The result: The "defeat" of his enemies was credited not to the United States, but to Nasser and the USSR. During 14 years in power Nasser was a constant thorn in the Americans' side, attacking its policies, subverting other Arab regimes and fomenting the 1967 war. Helping Nasser survive did not moderate or reconcile him. It was a disaster.
  • Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: While the United States certainly supported the shah as an ally, after the Iranian revolution began in 1977 many American policymakers wanted to show their sympathy for change in that country. They discouraged the shah from using force and finally backed a transition that included his departure. Efforts were made to persuade those revolutionaries deemed moderate to like America. The result: The new Iranian leaders concluded this friendship offensive was a plot to overthrow them. To forestall such an outcome they supported the seizure of the US embassy and the taking of all the diplomats there as hostage. Iran became the world's leading anti-American regime, the main state sponsor of terrorism, the top subverter of US interests and allies, and the cause of several wars that disrupted the region. Another disaster.
  • Saddam Hussein: Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 most American policymakers believed this was a golden opportunity to moderate Saddam and turn him into an American ally. Aid was continued to Iraq even after it became clear that Baghdad was selling food to gain weapons. When Saddam threatened Kuwait in 1990 the US government wanted to assure him that the United States would treat him "fairly" and not intervene in the crisis. The result: Saddam concluded the Americans were too weak or frightened to stop him, and he annexed Kuwait. The outcome would be a war, the bloody repression of Shi'ite and Kurdish uprisings (which the United States did not protect because it wanted to convince the Saudis and other Arabs it was not against them) and a series of crises that last to this day.
  • Yasser Arafat: If Arafat was only offered help and concessions, it was argued, he would moderate and end the long-running conflict with Israel. Not only did the US government save Arafat from destruction by Israel in 1982 Beirut, it persuaded Tunisia to let him move his headquarters there. In 1988 he was offered a dialogue on terms that he broke. Given more chances, Arafat did more biting of the hands that fed him. Given billions of dollars in aid, the Palestinian movement misspent the money through corruption or support of terrorist operations rather than helping his people. Incitement continued while few efforts were made to stop terrorism. Offering Arafat an independent state and $22 billion in refugee compensation in 2000 led to a five-year war of terrorism and a crisis that is still going on. The result was not only the loss of many lives and the deepening of a conflict. Most of the Arab world still claims the US has never done anything to help the Palestinians. And this is the example cited by some as the "successful" model for Western policy toward Hamas.
  • Hafez Assad: To assuage Syria's fears of Western imperialism Damascus's own imperial ambitions in Lebanon were countenanced. Former US secretary of state Warren Christopher made a dozen trips to Damascus to show America's eagerness to get along with the Assad dictatorship. True, there was some pressure on Syria and the US wanted Syrian support to fight Saddam (which Assad gave since it was in his own interests), but American strategy was often characterized by trying to win Assad over rather than to gain a win over Assad. The result: Syria remains a major sponsor of terrorism and subverter of American interests, especially in Iraq. THE US was far more willing, of course, to use sanctions and get tough than were its European allies. Yet when it did try the nice strategy, the result was always catastrophic. There were some cases in which Washington did appear to win a radical dictator to its side. Yet the two clearest examples - Anwar Sadat in the 1970s and more recently Muammar Gaddafi of Libya -came after extensive pressure and due to the leaders' decision to make a major policy shift. These were victories for sticks, not carrots. So why is it that an approach which should by now have been thoroughly discredited is being proposed for handling Hamas? It's a very good question. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.