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Extreme Makeover

Obama’s Middle East policy may soon shift away from moderates in favor of extremists

Lee Smith
June 16, 2010
Barack Obama stepping off Air Force One shortly before his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama stepping off Air Force One shortly before his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo.(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s point-man for his latest approach to the Muslim world is John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism czar, recently described by the Washington Post as one of the president’s most trusted advisers. Two weeks ago Brennan explained to a Washington audience that “we need to try to build up the more moderate elements” within Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia militia. The State Department rushed in to explain that there was no change in U.S. policy toward a group it has designated a terrorist organization—however, this was the second time Brennan had spoken of reaching out to Hezbollah “moderates” (and the second time he was corrected by the State Department), which means he has the president’s approval.

In reality, there is no such thing as Hezbollah moderates. The party itself claims there is no difference between what the British incorrectly describe as Hezbollah’s political and military wing. And so identifying Hezbollah “moderates” is just political cover for the real work, which as Brennan, a longtime CIA hand, surely knows, is speaking to the hard men, the extremists, since they are the only people worth speaking to.

This is news: Moderate Muslims, the darlings of the George W. Bush Administration’s foreign policy, don’t matter, or so Obama has concluded. Ever since he was on the campaign trail Obama has promised to reach out to Iran and Syria, state sponsors of terror and Hezbollah’s patrons, and now the reason why is clear: because he believes that it’s Middle East extremists who call the shots. Someday soon, the Obama Administration is going to reach out to Hezbollah, as well as other terrorist organizations, in Afghanistan, Gaza, and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Indeed, the Middle East’s savviest rulers have already read the writing on the wall. Look at Turkey. The Bush Administration believed that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government represented the model of a moderate and democratic Islamic state that would influence its neighbors, especially Iraq. Now, under the Obama Administration, Turkey will still serve its traditional role as a bridge to the Muslim world—not to the moderates but to the extremists. As if to polish up his résumé for this new direction, Erdogan stacked the Mavi Marmara with activists from the IHH, as if to prove that he has relationships with Hamas. Now, when Washington wants something from the armed gang that runs Gaza, they can use Ankara as a mediator.

Obama, it seems, doesn’t care about moderate Muslims for the same reason that he doesn’t make much noise about human rights and democracy promotion in the Middle East: For all his talk of hope and change, he takes a much more pessimistic—and more realistic—view of the region’s political culture than the Bush Administration did.

And the truth is that the Bush White House was never entirely serious about backing up its talk about moderate Muslims with action. Sure, the White House rode Cairo and Riyadh hard for their human-rights abuses, but it still wound up describing Egypt and Saudi Arabia as “moderate” Arab states—meaning that they were less bad than Iran. Worse yet, the Bush Administration committed the cardinal sin of Middle East politics: failing to protect its (moderate) allies and punish (extremist) enemies. Take the case of the late former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, an exemplary moderate Muslim politician, whose foundation provided tens of thousands of scholarships to students from all confessions while Hezbollah’s culture of resistance turned the Shia community into a death cult. And yet five and a half years later, after Hariri was killed in a car-bomb explosion in Beirut, there’s not even an indictment in his murder. The message is clear: There’s not much use for Middle East moderates since, like Hariri and Anwar Sadat before him, their moderation only gets them killed by extremists.

President Obama has keyed in on Muslim extremists because his own history shows that it’s the strategically sound choice. The lesson that extremism is the foundation of political legitimacy in politically charismatic communities was driven home to the president, Sunday after Sunday, as he sat in Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20 years. Obama, a half-white community organizer from Hawaii by way of Harvard Law School, did not seek to establish his bona fides in Chicago’s black community by attending the church of some middle-class black pastor who would speak about the glories of mowing the lawn every Sunday. The politically ambitious Obama chose to sit in the church of a man who spouted lunatic conspiracy theories about how the CIA was killing black babies not because he believed it, but because he knew back then that extremists confer legitimacy—especially when you are an outsider hoping to curry favor with the locals, as he is now with the Muslim world.

What Obama knows about extremists and moderates was not lost on our founding fathers, who understood that the great and vast moderate majority anywhere are a bunch of saps who will gladly follow the knave who knows how to play on their grievances and lusts. The moderate majority is the hash you get when you have made a virtue of human nature by balancing off competing prejudices, fantasies, fears, and vanities; and if you want to deal with this moderate majority you must go to their leaders, the men of fierce purpose who nurture the worst in mankind.

It is typically assumed that the president’s history, his family background, and the time he has spent in the Muslim world have made him deeply sympathetic to the Muslim masses. Another possibility is that it has left him wary of what he has seen and heard. As someone with a Muslim father who grew up partly in a Muslim country, and who embraced radical political tropes, it is notable that Obama chose to become a Christian and reject his father’s religious faith. Both his critics and defenders are quick to argue that his choice must have been motivated by naked political expediency. But what if it was a conscious decision to distance himself from a Muslim world he found distasteful?

In any case, Obama sees, correctly, that the real choice isn’t between moderates and extremists, but between cutting a deal with the extremists or making war against them. The fact is that a war against all the extremists in the Muslim world—Sunni and Shia, from the Persian Gulf to Western North Africa—is effectively a war against Islam. And a decades-long war of civilizations is not a war that an economically damaged United States can afford to wage. We have neither the money, nor the manpower, nor the will. A total war of the kind that appears to be on offer would change U.S. society in ways that are unimaginable and would make the Bush years look like an idyllic holiday. Our few remaining allies—with the exception of Israel—would no longer wish to fight beside us and would make deals of their own, if they already haven’t.

So, instead, we’re going to bargain with the actors who have the final say over war and peace: the extremists.

The present moment is not the first time the United States has had to choose between war with Muslim extremists and appeasing them. As Israel’s ambassador to the United States Michael Oren detailed in his 2007 book Faith, Power and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, America’s first policymakers considered paying off the Barbary Coast pirates and the local sultans on whose behalf they took captives and booty, as the French and British did. After a public outcry, they decided to make war. Taxes were then levied to establish the U.S. Navy, tasked to defend American commerce on the high seas and take the fight to the enemy.

Looking back to the origins of the United States’ blue-water navy is a reminder that the founding fathers judged that fighting, rather than paying tribute, was what best suited the character of the American people. And there’s little doubt that U.S. citizens will again rebel against policymakers who have chosen appeasement, especially since the extremists will negotiate by killing more of us, in the streets of U.S. cities as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is unclear whether the political damage that the incumbent will suffer because his countrymen are dying is sufficient to change his thinking, which is that it is more cost efficient for a weakened United States to buy off extremists than it is to run the rest of the world at the end of a gun.

But negotiating with extremists will look like war, just that only one side will be fighting while the other side—the United States—tries to stop the bloodshed by petitioning the extremists to accept more ransom. The way Obama sees it, the upside is that it will not be a war without end, like the war on terror. All the extremists in the Muslim world want is money and the power that will flow their way as the consequence of the U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. The faster the United States leaves, the cheaper the cost. This is why the Jewish state is isolated today and why Washington stands with her only reluctantly: Distancing ourselves from Israel is part of the deal we are preparing to strike.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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