Big Ideas in the Middle East

Martin Kramer delivered this address to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy program in Beverly Hills on November 29, 2006. It was first published here. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

U.S. policy over the last decade has been very much influenced by big ideas designed to transform the Middle East. None of these ideas has worked, which is why Washington is being bombarded with new, alternative big ideas.

I have watched one of these ideas evolve over the past year, getting bigger and bigger, and I would go so far as to call it the enemy from within. But before I tell you what the enemy is, let us briefly look back at what has already gone wrong. We must look back, because the debate today is the result of a decade of American failure in the Middle East. Three big American ideas or grand strategies for transforming the Middle East have failed over the last ten years: peace, globalization and democracy.

Grand Failures

First, peace. That is the generic name, but you also know it under its brand name, the “new Middle East.” In the 1990s, some observers began to argue that the conflicts in the Middle East had been put out of business by the end of the Cold War. The Soviets were not around anymore to back up their Arab clients, such as the PLO and Syria. Their weakness supposedly left them more amenable to joining the “peace process.” If peace agreements between Israel and its remaining enemies could be nailed down in a diplomatic push, the Middle East could become a cooperative zone, like the European Union. Animosities would wane; borders would melt.

The brand name, “new Middle East,” came from the title of a book published by Shimon Peres in 1993. Peres wrote: “I have earned the right to dream. So much that I dreamed in the past was dismissed as fantasy, but has now become thriving reality.”

But not every dream comes true, and the failed pursuit of fantasies is not without cost. In reality, it turned out that Syria and the PLO, even without the Soviets behind them, were not going to be pushed or pulled into any “new Middle East.” Syria never came in, and the PLO stepped in at Oslo and then out again at Camp David. Yasser Arafat’s intifada then turned the “new Middle East” into an object of ridicule, and the peace process went down with it.

Second big idea: globalization. Where diplomacy couldn’t do the job, so the globalists said, economic forces would do it. Tom Friedman became the champion of this notion in his 1999 book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. There he wrote about the “silent invasion going on in the Middle East the invasion of information and private capital through the new system of globalization.”

The Arabs and Iranians would eventually have to put on what he called the “Golden Straitjacket.” “As your country puts on the Golden Straitjacket,” he wrote,” two things tend to happen: Your economy grows, and your politics shrink.” Friedman filled his book with anecdotes about another Middle East, full of wired, business-focused Arabs and Persians. His book became a bestseller, because it made Americans feel good: market forces would fix the world.

The United States tried to accelerate the process by organizing Middle East economic summits. And the United States punished bad guys with economic sanctions, which became the all-purpose jackknife of U.S. Middle East policy.

Even by the late 1990s, it was obvious that economic sanctions were not taming the radicals. But the globalization idea finally came crashing down with the Twin Towers on September 11. Globalization, it turned out, could also empower the wrong Arabs most obviously, Osama bin Laden and the global jihad. They were using e-mail to plot terror acts, the banking system to transfer money and websites to post their videos, which were carried by Al-Jazeera via satellite to millions of viewers. Globalization in the Middle East, we now know, has not made politics shrink; it is making them expand, politicizing every corner of society, often against us.

If globalization wasn’t going to cure the Middle East, what would? Obvious, said the neoconservatives: democracy. The root cause of the problems in Middle East, they said, is the absence of democracy and the continued rule of dictators.

The way to cure the Middle East was to shake it up by promoting democracy first by forced “regime change” in Iraq and then by encouraging liberals across the Middle East. The president launched what he described as his “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” It became known as the “Bush Doctrine.”

Now that big idea has crashed, too. It has crashed, first, as a result of the maelstrom in Iraq, and second, as a result of the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the fact that free elections everywhere end in victory for Islamist zealots. The “forward strategy of freedom” is ending in a quest for an exit strategy from chaos. Poll after poll now shows that the majority of Americans think there is no chance of making Iraq into a model democracy, and that is understating it. Promoting democracy to Arabs is coming to be regarded in this country as the ultimate fool’s errand.

So the three big ideas for transforming the Middle East peace, globalization, democracy all have been repulsed or hijacked by forces opposed to America’s vision.

The Next Big Thing

This has left us at one of those rare moments in Washington, when the playing field is suddenly made level for the competition of new big ideas. It happened after September 11, and it is happening now because of Iraq.

In this environment, everyone gets a hearing. Jimmy Carter has a book on Palestine, and former Sen. George McGovern has one on Iraq. Ideas are ricocheting around town, some of them old, some of them recycled and some of them brand new. We are seeing the beginning of a true battle of ideas. And there is a big idea out there that is moving toward the center of the battlefield and that I have no hesitation in describing as the enemy from within. This big idea calls itself “engagement.”

Its basic premise is this: the root cause of the pathology of the Middle East is… us. The Middle East has its problems, but everything we do just makes them worse. All the big ideas that have failed were about transforming the Middle East. What we really have to do is first transform the United States to get ourselves back over the horizon, as much out of the Arab line of sight as possible. And since Israel is our client and its treatment of the Palestinians is blamed on us, we have to pull Israel back today.

To do that, we have to treat a domestic problem: we have to democratize our own policy toward the Middle East. Right now it is being dictated by the Israel lobby, which got us into the Iraq war and which could get us into an Iran war. This is America’s own pathology the inability of our political system to resist the pressure of a highly motivated, aggressive and determined interest group, whose parochial interest now conflicts with the national one.

And as we pull back, say the engagers, we have to admit that our putative Arab friends are too weak to hold the line. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are all weak reeds; the radical forces are stronger. So to manage our withdrawal, we have to talk to the stronger forces to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas. We have to “engage” them in a “dialogue” and find some shared interest with them, so that we can reposition ourselves safely and not leave chaos behind.

After all, they continue, radicals have interests, too. Perhaps if we get out of their line of sight, we might even be positioned to transform them it is our policies that made them radical in the first place, so if we change those policies, it might make them reasonable. For in every radical resides a potential moderate and we have the power to bring him out, through humility and dialogue.

Now I hope that even in this abbreviated summary of “engagement,” you can appreciate its appeal. Why fight what the Pentagon calls the “long war” already longer than World War II when we can send in the pinstripes and get better results? Why battle the radicals, when we can de-radicalize them by getting out of their sight?

It helps that many advocates of “engagement” call themselves “realists” Americans are nothing if not realistic. And proponents of “engagement” come from the pinnacles of the foreign policy and academic establishment here is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, there is a chaired Harvard professor, and over there, a former national security adviser.

A False Realism

They call themselves realists. But the interesting thing is that “engagement,” despite its realist pretensions, actually oozes optimism about the Middle East. And in a bizarre twist, its optimism is fixed first and foremost on Syria, Iran and the Islamists.

“Engagement” rests on the notion that these states and movements don’t have big ideas or grand strategies of their own. They have interests, but what really drives them is “grievances.” If we were only to address these “grievances,” we could diminish their bad behavior their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, their support for terrorism, their anti-American incitement. The assumption of course is that these grievances are finite that is, addressing them would somehow diminish the pool of resentment.

I could give you lots of examples of “engagement-think,” but I will confine myself here to one relating to Hamas. U.S. policy toward Hamas has been to isolate it, sanction it and give Israel a wide berth to punish it. None of this has moderated Hamas, but it has arguably diminished its popularity. But here is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, on how “engagement” would approach the problem.

U.S. officials, he says, should “sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of Sinn Fein.” And once they are all seated together, what should they discuss? Haass thinks now is the time for the United States to outline a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. Then he adds: “The more generous and detailed the plan, the harder it would be for Hamas to reject negotiation and favor confrontation.”

So “engagement” with Hamas is essentially about appealing to some Hamas sense of fair play getting it to say “yes” by being “more generous.” Here you have, in capsule form, the core optimism that infuses the “engagement” strategy the idea that a movement whose leaders have vowed they will never, ever recognize Israel can somehow be talked out of it by acts of American generosity.

The flaw of “engagement” is the same flaw that has wrecked the last decade of U.S. policy. It is yet another case of unfounded, unwarranted, unjustifiable optimism about the Middle East. Just as you could not turn Arafat into a man of peace (even with a Nobel peace prize ceremony), and just as you could not turn Iraqis into democratic citizens (even when their fingers turned purple), you cannot change Syria and Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah into our partners by sitting down with them.

That is because they have more than interests and more than grievances. They also have big ideas and grand strategies, just like we do.

The essence of their biggest idea is simple: America will never be anything but an enemy of their regimes, their culture and their religion. So every move they make has the purpose of pushing America back, out and away. Their big idea is served every time America is humiliated, reviled and defeated. They aren’t interested in helping us to achieve final settlements or our visions of a “new Middle East.” They are out to defeat us and to replace us.

And nothing so feeds their big idea than our own defeatism. They were ecstatic when Haass wrote these words: “Less than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East … has ended…. The second Iraq war, a war of choice, has precipitated its end.”

We’re on the run. In a recent Newsweek, a report from Damascus by a veteran journalist described the mood in ruling circles as “cocky,” because they overhear us. A Syrian analyst close to the regime has told the foreign press that Syria has its terms for “engagement,” but the package, in his words, is “all or nothing.” This is “engagement” Syrian-style: the dictation of terms by the victor to the vanquished.

So “engagement,” which masquerades as realism, is as naive and ahistorical as any big idea America has produced about the Middle East. It envisions a fantasy new Middle East of radicals transformed, working with us over Iraq, proliferation and resolving the Palestine issue. This fantasy, if carried to its conclusion, would simply continue and complete the failures of the past decade. For although proponents of the idea give it the feel-good name of “engagement,” in the Middle East, it looks, feels and smells like appeasement. It is emboldening our enemies, and it is leaving our allies bewildered.

Appeasement can work if your opponent has limited aims. But everyone in the Middle East knows that the aims of Iran, Syria and the Islamists are not limited, that every concession will give rise to a new demand, that every sop to violence will produce more violence. “Engagement” is one more disaster just waiting to happen one that would leave the Middle East under the thumb of Iranian nukes, Al Qaeda insurgents and Bashar al-Assad’s mafia. “Engagement” is the enemy within because only we can so thoroughly defeat ourselves.

Fatal Attraction

Now so far, we have been winning the battle against “engagement.” The White House has resolved instead to engage its Arab friends more intensively, and that means Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates what is coming to be called the Arab Quartet.

One of the more fanciful notions of the neocons was that you could make Iraq work while criticizing your own Arab allies for being undemocratic. That has been jettisoned for a new approach of bringing together all the Arab forces that fear a Middle East dominated by the wrong people. The strongest of those forces are the status quo regimes. They are much stronger than they are made out to be, and if they were provided with packages of incentives and generous offers and if we were to stop delegitimating them they could do more.

In the short term, this is the real realism a policy that doesn’t accept America’s decline as a fait accompli, and that is savvy enough to know that you keep your position in the Middle East by rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, not vice versa.

This probably will not end the American quest for the next big idea for the Middle East, because Americans are attracted to big transformative ideas. But this is a fatal attraction. The last decade has shown, time and again, that big ideas lead to big trouble, because they underestimate the strong undercurrents of Middle Eastern societies. A process has to start of disabusing Americans of the notion that the pathologies of the Middle East have one root cause and one grand fix. There are many different pathologies in the Middle East and no single fix. For some of the pathologies, alas, there may be no fix at all.

Further reading: For some things the United States has gotten right about the Middle East, see Martin Kramer’s article “The American Interest,” also from fall 2006.