That story came to my mind as I read Benjamin Gordon's article, "Islam -- Washington's New Dilemma" (MEQ, March 1996). Gordon contends that in its approach to fundamentalist Islam "from Presidents Reagan to Bush to Clinton, the U.S. government has migrated from rhetorical confrontation to timid outreach to outright accommodation." To buttress his claim that the Clinton administration has adopted a policy of outright accommodation to Islamism, Gordon quotes a number of administration spokesmen, including National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and President Clinton himself.
Gordon's basic thesis is that the Clinton administration has "an extremely benevolent interpretation of [Islamic] fundamentalism's nature" and believes that it "could play a productive role in reforming Muslim societies."1
But the examples Gordon cites demonstrate that he has grossly misunderstood this administration's approach. Far from being accommodationist, the administration has followed a clear and unambiguous policy of condemning those, however they describe themselves, who use or advocate violence in pursuit of what are essentially political agendas. To make his case, Gordon relies principally on approving references in speeches by Lake and Clinton to the Muslim tradition of devotion to faith and good works, to family and society. He fails to understand that the national security advisor and the president referred in their speeches to the outlook of practicing, believing Muslims who adhere to a moderate, tolerant tradition of their faith. Neither of them spoke of persons intent on imposing their way of life on their fellow citizens.
Lake's SAIS Speech
To prove his contention that Anthony Lake is a supporter of "the conciliatory definitions of extremism," Gordon cites Lake's speech of September 21, 1993, at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). That speech argued that the United States should "strengthen the community of major market democracies," "help foster and consolidate new democracies," and "counter the aggression -- and support the liberalization -- of states hostile to democracy and markets."
Regarding the last of these points, Lake referred to the
Backlash states . . . such as Iran and Iraq [which] may engage in violence and lawlessness that threatens the United States . . . [and] are more likely to sponsor terrorism and traffic in weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology.Having spoken of two Muslim states to which the administration is opposed, Lake emphasized that the U.S. government does not view the Islamic religion as an enemy: "our nation respects the many contributions Islam has made to the world over the past 1300 years, and we appreciate the close bond of values and history between Islam and the Judeo-Christian beliefs of most Americans." Then followed the sentences quoted by Gordon:
We will extend every expression of friendship to those of the Islamic faith who abide in peace and tolerance. But we will provide every resistance to militants who distort Islamic doctrines and seek to expand their influence by force." (Emphasis added.)Gordon sees this speech as evidence of Lake's "cautious treatment of fundamentalist Islam," in that he "avoided labeling nonviolent fundamentalists as enemies of the United States." But Lake drew a line between Islam as a religious faith (like Christianity and Judaism), a faith which stresses "peace and tolerance," on the one hand, and, on the other hand, "militants" who while identifying themselves with Islam seek to expand their influence by force. In drawing this line, Lake was neither cautious nor ambiguous: he identified extremism -- Islamic or otherwise -- as a phenomenon we must resist.
In short, it is what individuals or groups do, the policies they advocate and the methods they use -- not the labels that may be assigned them -- that counts for the Clinton administration. This approach was fully and accurately reflected in statements on Algeria by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Parris, which Mr. Gordon also cites in his article. As he also notes, those statements were fully in line with views expressed elsewhere by the president and Mr. Lake.
Lake's Washington Institute Speech
Gordon may very well have gone beyond what we might call an honest misunderstanding in his discussion of Lake's May 17, 1994, speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That speech, he says, "expressed more concern with the excesses of oppressive governments (such as the military rule in Algeria) than with those of their fundamentalist alternatives." Gordon contends that Lake's alleged
Unwillingness to define U.S. policy in key locations suggests the degree to which U.S. policy remains in flux. It also points to Lake's desire to avoid committing unambiguously to anti-fundamentalist and (more-or-less) pro-Western regimes in Algeria, Egypt, and Jordan, presumably hedging his bets in the case of Iranian-style revolutions in those countries.It is difficult to believe that Gordon read the May 17, 1994, speech. None of the foregoing allegations are supported by words in Lake's text. Here is how Lake states the U.S. national objectives in the Middle East:
The free flow of oil at reasonable prices from the Gulf. . . . The security and well-being of Israel. . . . A secure and lasting Arab-Israeli peace. . . . The stability of friendly Arab countries. . . . Our need to contain Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Sudan, the reactionary "backlash states" of the region. . . . And efforts to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction. (Emphasis added.)Lake also made it clear that backlash states were not the only threat:
There should be no doubt. Islamic extremism poses a threat to our nation's interests. There are forces which use the cover of Islamic revival to suppress freedom, withdraw from the world, and justify hostilities. These movements threaten the United States and the global community of nations because they speak in a powerful and all too seductive language --the age-old cant of hatred, fear and prejudice. But above all -- as we have learned -- they threaten the future of the Middle East. (Emphasis supplied.)According to Gordon, Lake implied that "extremism followed from a state's or movement's opposing U.S. interests"; in other words, the U.S. government concerns itself only with those states and movements presenting a direct and immediate danger to the United States. To be sure, given his role as national security advisor to the president, Lake's principal responsibility is to be sensitive to threats to U.S. national security. But with regard to Islamist extremism, he clearly traced its appeal to "age-old hatred, fear, and prejudice" and argued that it is a threat to the future of the Middle East and also to the global community of nations. Lake fully recognized the danger posed by any ideology of hatred --religious or secular -- and unequivocally declared the Clinton administration's readiness to meet this threat.
Gordon makes much of Lake's disagreement with Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis. Lake holds that future confrontations will not, as suggested by Huntington, take place along cultural fault lines but along ideological lines: "between oppression and responsive government, between isolation and openness, and between moderation and extremism."2 No one looking at Clinton administration statements on Islam with an open mind can seriously suggest that it sees extremists acting in the name of Islam as being on the side of responsive government, openness, and moderation.
The President's Speech to the Jordanian Parliament
Gordon also finds inconsistency in President Clinton's speech of October 26, 1994, to a joint session of the Jordanian parliament. An impartial reader would find it perfectly consistent:
"[i]n the Middle East, as elsewhere across the world, the United States does see a contest -- a contest between forces that transcend civilization; a contest between tyranny and freedom, terror and security, bigotry and tolerance, isolation and openness. It is the old-age struggle between fear and hope. . . .Could the case against Islamist extremism be stated more clearly?
The people of Jordan and all those throughout the Arab world who are working for peace are choosing progress over decline; choosing reason, not ruin; choosing to build up, not tear down; choosing tomorrow, not yesterday.
Lastly, Gordon makes light of the president's observation that Islamist "forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty and despair." He fails to recognize that the president did not suggest that all militant Islamists come to the movement solely as a result of economic deprivation. Granted that Islamic extremism has roots in a specific culture, the fact is that the same culture has produced other, far more benign outlooks. Rather, the president explained that extremists in a Muslim society -- as in any society -- can all too readily exploit economic deprivation for their own purposes, and have indeed done so.
Gordon concludes by recommending that "the U.S. government not cede the mantle of Islamic tradition to the revolutionary ideology of fundamentalist Islam," and that the litmus test by which we judge Muslim groups "ought to include support for regional democracy and Arab-Israeli peace, as well as opposition to terrorism." These recommendations, I submit, are not necessary, for present U.S. government policy is fully in line with them.
Richard Schifter is special assistant to the president and counselor on the staff of the National Security Council. He has also served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and deputy U.S. representative in the U.N. Security Council.1 He uses the term "fundamentalist Islam" as a synonym for "Islamism," "radical Islam," "militant Islam," and "political Islam."
2 I analyze the Huntington thesis in more detail in "Is There a Democracy Gene?" The Washington Quarterly, Summer 1994.