Middle East Quarterly
Policy Brief: Co-opt or Confront Fundamentalist Islam?
With the discrediting of leftist ideology and the disappearance of its Soviet patrons, much of the developing world now enjoys more of a chance for a normal political life. In the absence of a virulent radicalism, local politics is less a matter of life and death; procedures of moderate politics, like the alternation of parties in office, become conceivable. Thus, the Wilsonian optimism of the recent period.
History has played a cruel trick on the Middle East. Just as leftist radicalism has waned and a forty-year battle against Gamal Abdel Nasser and his spiritual heirs has been won, radical Islam has risen to take its place. Its ideological features have been well described by Bernard Lewis, Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, and others. Like leftist radicalism, Islamic rage is directed not only at the West but against the moderate, pro-Western elites in its own societies. Militant Islam turns out to represent yet another phase of the post-colonial civil war within developing societies, with those who aspire to be part of the Western world on one side and those who resent and despise the Western world on the other. It's a conflict between those who share Woodrow Wilson's dream of global integration into the world community and those who view the world community as the Western-dominated source of all ills. In this sense, from Algerian anti-imperialist ideologue Frantz Fanon to the Ayatollah Khomeini is not that great a philosophical leap.
As the Islamic political virus spreads - crisis looms in Algeria, with a potentially dire impact in Egypt - the West now confronts a principal strategic challenge of the post-cold war era. Strikingly, the West's own discussion of radical Islam closely reproduces the great debate of the past on how to deal with Soviet communism - a dispute between apostles of conciliation and of confrontation, between strategies of détente and of containment. The arguments on both sides of the present debate bear an uncanny resemblance to those of the debate over the cold war.
The intellectual starting point of the "détente" point of view holds that the spread of militant Islam in far-flung regions of the world, from Morocco to Indonesia, is the product mainly of indigenous forces. It derives from deep-seated local political, social, and economic causes, too long neglected by the United States and by the governments it has supported. It is not, the argument runs, masterminded from Tehran by some kind of conspiratorial "Khomeintern." In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of sweeping general elections in 1992 before it was blocked by a military crackdown; its electoral appeal derived, as journalist Robin Wright pointed out shortly afterward, from "mass grievances over chronic housing shortages, unemployment, substandard education and social services," and an estimated fourteen million of the country's twenty-five million people living below the poverty line. Therefore, Leslie Gelb concluded, "If the Saudis, Egyptians and others fear fundamentalism, the best place to counter that problem is not in Tehran, but in their own countries - with better care for their own people."
We have often heard similar arguments over the years, over conflicts in places as disparate as China and Cuba, Indochina and Central America, as our bourgeois society agonized over the phenomenon of revolution. A radical movement, whose ideology is implacably anti-Western on its face, is explained as a powerful popular phenomenon - an expression of legitimate grievances and of the very democracy that we purport to be encouraging around the world. Is it a threat or not? Academic critics argue against reflexive opposition and put the blame for the unrest on the governments we are supporting. Just as Stanley Hoffmann used to insist that the United States had to come to terms with leftist revolution, so today Graham Fuller suggests that radical Islam is a historical tide that must be understood, not frontally fought.
Just as Stanley Hoffmann used to insist that the United States had to come to terms with leftist revolution, so today Graham Fuller suggests that radical Islam is a historical tide that must be understood, not frontally fought.
If anything, some of these analysts see the West itself as largely responsible for the rage against it. America's support for flawed governments, its backing of Israel, its acquiescence in the Algerian crackdown against the Islamists, its eagerness to go to war against Iraq in 1991 (in contrast to its reluctance to aid Muslims in Bosnia) - all these have been cited by Western writers and journalists as explanations for Islamic resentment.
Prescriptions for U.S. policy also embrace familiar themes. If the ideological threat is overstated, it follows that the West should not prejudge the foreign-policy orientation of either Iran or other Islamic movements but should work with them in order to encourage moderation. West European leaders hold this view strongly: the European Union officially holds that a continuing "critical dialogue" with Tehran will help moderate Iran's government (conveniently justifying the continuation of a lucrative trade).
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has adopted such a strategy of co-opting its internal Islamic forces, so far with some success. Many cite Jordan as a model for the rest of the region. The same strategy is also proposed as the appropriate one for the United States to use in its dealings with Iran. In this perception, U.S.-Iranian tensions reproduce several deplorable syndromes of the cold war - mutual miscalculation (as in the Cuban missile crisis); the vicious cycle of action and reaction (the U.S.-Soviet arms race); even Iranian fear of encirclement (reminiscent of Soviet claims during the Stalin period). All these themes reappear in a 1993 analysis by Shireen Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
Because of the weakness of the post-Soviet Asian republics, Iran has increasingly come to be seen as an active threat to U.S. interests and to those of its allies such as Turkey. . . . This very well may be a legitimate concern to the United States. Nevertheless, it has generated in Iran a feeling that U.S. policy in the region is basically aimed at isolating and encircling Iran. . . . This portrayal of Iran as the new enemy has, in turn, fed certain fears and insecurities within Iran, leading to a military buildup. . . .
Because of recent changes, including the introduction of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, Iran feels threatened [as well as by] the efforts of certain regional countries to exclude Iran from all regional security plans for the Persian Gulf. This approach, in turn, has forced Iran to improve its defensive capability by exacerbating its security fears.
For its part, Tehran denies involvement in fueling terrorism or violent upheaval in other countries, and professes an eagerness for better economic and political relations with the West.
Thus has the West's long debate over policy toward the Soviet Union been transplanted - consciously as well as unconsciously - to the new venue. For Robin Wright, a more conciliatory policy toward Iran and Islam is mandated by what she sees as the lesson of the cold war: "Generally the West is not applying the most important lesson of the cold war: co-option is far more effective than confrontation in undermining a rival, in this case one perceived rather than real."
Meanwhile, Anthony Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, finds the containment analogy more apt. In a major article on how to deal with today's radical states, Lake quoted from George Kennan's 1947 "X" article and argued explicitly for the same strategy of patience and firmness - on the theory that Americans can best encourage Iranian moderation by frustrating its radical thrust. This more skeptical view reflects the U.S. government's serious worries about Iran and Islamic radicalism. Iran's geopolitical thrust - its nuclear and conventional military build-up, its bullying of the smaller Gulf Arab states over territorial disputes, its hostility to the Arab-Israeli peace process - is not a figment of a hyperactive imagination. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, not known to be a rabid hawk, has called Iran the "most worrisome" of a group of "dangerous states" that are contributing to regional tensions. The U.S. Central Command describes Iran as "the single greatest threat to peace and stability in the Central Region."
The Iranian regime's deeply felt convictions lead it to provide moral, financial, and logistical support to fraternal radical movements - quite definitely including terrorists: it has been caught in the act in southern Lebanon (where it supports Hizbullah) and the Sudan. In April, the British government accused Iran of involvement with terrorists as far afield as the Irish Republican Army and the Japanese Red Army. The deep-seated indigenous social and economic causes of discontent cannot be disputed, but their exploitation by a revolutionary state ideologically hostile to the West poses a strategic challenge that indeed bears comparison to the one the West faced for the seventy years after 1917.
Sandinista leader Tomas Borge used to refer to Communist Nicaragua's "internationalist duty" and its "revolution beyond our borders." Iranian rhetoric displays an identical enthusiasm, as in this 1989 interview of a man often described in the West as a moderate, Javad Larijani:
We accept the world's geographic boundaries in order to avoid trouble. [But] our Islamic responsibility does not go away. This responsibility passes across borders. . . . No country other than Iran can lead the Islamic world, and this is a historical position.
The Soviet Union did not create the conditions for revolution in Central America, but it stood to profit strategically from the region's problems. In the same way, Iran would gain a strategic bonanza if one or more pro-Western Arab governments succumbed to an Islamic upheaval - whatever its origins. Experts can point to the diversity and complexity of the Islamist phenomenon and the tenuousness of the specific links between Tehran and its distant cousins. Yet a political link-up between Iran and any new Islamic states is inevitable. And Iran's influence on these movements is undeniable: even where Iranian funding does not reach, the prestige of the Iranian Revolution gives strength to the ideology. For a comparison, note how the radical Left in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa first rose with the Soviet Union and then was deflated and demoralized by the discrediting of communism in the Soviet motherland.
Should Tehran be willing to settle differences and coexist peacefully, Washington needs always to be willing to do so as well. But the concept of peaceful coexistence, alas, is more the West's than Iran's. At present, it is essential first to interpose countervailing power - just as the West did to the Soviet Union - to contain Iran's ambitions pending some ultimate erosion of its revolutionary élan. That means bolstering regional allies, punishing terrorism, blocking Iran's access to militarily useful advanced technology, and maintaining a strong U.S. deterrent presence in the Gulf.
The governments of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states are friends of the West and (by Middle Eastern standards) reasonably benign. Washington should encourage them to reach out to all moderate elements in their societies, including Islamists, but should not push them into political experiments they consider dangerous. The West is under no obligation to commit strategic suicide out of guilt at social conditions whose improvement, after all, is more likely to come about from the Third World's integration into the world community than from terrorism and upheaval. Millions of moderate, modern men and women in Muslim countries see themselves in a desperate struggle against obscurantism, and we do them a grave disservice if we assume the inevitable triumph - or, even worse, the democratic necessity - of the revolutionary tide.
Islamist leaders may be willing to seek power through parliamentary means, but their program calls for an all-embracing mobilization of the population that - as Iran exemplifies - negates the constitutionalism that is the essence of democracy as we know it. Revolutionary Islamic doctrine and practice have little to say about limitations on the power of government; respect for individual civil and political (including women's) rights; or the alternation of parties in office. The key question is not how a movement comes into power but what it can be expected to do with that power once it has attained it. The West need not be so relativist about the meaning of democracy as to concede away its fundamental elements. In the end, the issue for the West may be less the question of how it should conduct foreign policy than of whether it believes in itself.
In the end, the issue for the West may be less the question of how it should conduct foreign policy than of whether it believes in itself.
Thoughtful observers like David Ignatius and John Esposito fear that the West is rushing too fast to enshrine Islam as its new enemy to take the place of communism - in fact, this seems to be the prevailing opinion among Middle East specialists. They despair that the West always seems to need an external enemy to unite it and give it purpose. They caution against prejudging fundamentalist Islam and point out the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies. This advice is well meant, but it also misstates the problem, which is less a psychological condition of the West than it is the empirical reality of a new revolutionary movement on the world scene.
Islamic radicalism's attitude toward the international system is openly and avowedly what diplomatic historians would call revisionist: Its proclaimed goal is a transformation of the region, if not of the world, to diminish the West's influence and undermine the West's friends. Political Islam is also a proselytizing ideology. The resemblance to earlier revolutionary movements - including Soviet communism - is analytical, not psychosomatic.
The resemblance of political Islam to earlier revolutionary movements - including Soviet communism - is analytical, not psychosomatic.
The debate is familiar. It would be tragic if the West's response to the new challenge of radical Islam were hampered by the same intellectual confusion that so tormented our policies during the cold war.
Peter W. Rodman, a former White House and State Department official, is the author of a forthcoming book, More Precious Than Peace: The Cold War and the Struggle for the Developing World (Charles Scribner's Sons), from which this article derives.
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