Ayatollah Fadlallah dies

Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah has passed away in Beirut at the age of 74. He had been in poor health for some years, suffering from diabetes and heart problems. Fadlallah became famous (and, to his enemies, notorious) in the 1980s, for his role in channeling the message of Hezbollah to thinking young Shi’ites and to the world. He played a complex game, and it long fascinated me. I published a first short piece on him in 1985, and I explored him further in a 100-page study, finished in 1992 and accessible here.

In the years since I followed him, Fadlallah’s presence diminished. First, Hezbollah acquired a political leader, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, with a powerful presence of his own. Hezbollah became less reliant on Fadlallah, at least as a mobilizer within Lebanon. Second, Fadlallah drifted even further into the stratosphere of grand ayatollah-hood, well above party politics, including those of Hezbollah. Third, some rival Shi’ite clerics, especially in Iran, thought he was getting too big for his breeches, and worked to cut him down through nasty accusations of theological deviation. Fourth, the removal of Saddam Hussein from power breathed new life into the religious academies in Najaf in Iraq, and its clerics, such as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, again began to loom large among Arabic-speaking Shi’ites. Fifth, Fadlallah’s poor health began to drag him down. His forte had always been the pulpit sermon, delivered in a controlled but fiery style, but in recent years, there wasn’t much flicker in his performances.

He was a permanent stop on the circuit for foreign dignitaries, some of them pursuers of Islamist “moderation.” They would see him (after stringent security checks), get their photo taken with the wise man, and come away pondering his elliptical comments. Last year Jimmy Carter turned up (photo), much to the chagrin of the State Department, and Noam Chomsky paid his respects last May (photo). Within Lebanon, he built a substantial empire of charitable institutions such as schools and clinics, many of them funded by wealthy Shi’ites outside the country. The institutions will long outlive him.

When I first published on Fadlallah in 1985, I wouldn’t have put a nickel on his dying a natural death. That same year, he was the target of a car bombing that missed him and killed over eighty persons. But Fadlallah was an expert in planting seeds of doubt, and over the years he dropped off the hit lists of Hezbollah’s enemies. Still, without him, Hezbollah would have had a much tougher row to hoe in the early years. He wasn’t responsible, as far as I know, for any one act of violence, but he justified quite a few of them after the fact. Up until today, he was on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of “specially designated nationals.”

Needless to say, when it came to Israel, he was uncompromising. I do think I treated him fairly and respectfully in my long study, and I made sure he received it—especially the subsequent Hebrew edition, which appeared as a monograph with his portrait on the cover. At the peak of his powers, he was truly formidable. It’s unlikely that Lebanon will be home to another figure quite like him again.

Chas Freeman and preemptive cringe

Charles “Chas” Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who is slated to become chair of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), is being praised by his supporters as a brilliantly “contrarian” analyst. But has anyone gone back to examine the analyses? Here is an example from June 2002:

I’m a very practical man, and my concern is simply this: that there are movements, like Hamas, like Hezbollah, that in recent decades have not done anything against the United States or Americans, even though the United States supports their enemy, Israel. By openly stating and taking action to make them—to declare that we are their enemy, we invite them to extend their operations in the United States or against Americans abroad. There’s an old adage which says you should pick your friends carefully. I would add: you should be even more careful when designating your enemies, lest they act in that manner.

So what has happened over the past seven years? The United States hasn’t budged on its designation of Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. (In September 2002, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage even called Hezbollah “the A-team of terrorism” as compared to the B-team, Al Qaeda.) The United States has boycotted both organizations, and has insisted that others boycott them as well. Above all, it’s supported Israel to the hilt in two wars, in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009, in which Israel pounded first Hezbollah and then Hamas for weeks with U.S.-supplied aircraft and ordnance. There’s little more the United States could have done, short of bombing Beirut and Gaza City itself, to demonstrate to Hezbollah and Hamas that they’re on America’s wrong side.

Yet here we are, nearly seven years later, and where is the wave of Hezbollah- and Hamas-sponsored international terror in and against the United States? It’s not materialized, for a host of reasons that were already clear back in 2002. Freeman’s warning was a classic example of preemptive cringe—in this case, shying away from merely naming an organization as terrorist for fear it might threaten you.

And this wasn’t the only time Freeman did it. In October that same year, as war with Iraq loomed, he raised the specter of Saddam attacking the United States. This came in response to a cost-benefit analysis of war made by the strategist Anthony Cordesman. Warning that Saddam “would will use every weapon in his arsenal” if attacked, Freeman asked:

Is Saddam so stupid and autistic that he hasn’t noticed that for several years the United States has been declaring our intention to come and get him—especially this president? And if he has noticed, do you think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he has prepositioned retaliation against the United States here in the United States? Inspectors can find and eliminate nuclear programs because they’re bulky, consume a lot of power and the like, and maybe they can do the same with chemical programs, but biological programs can be cooked up in the basement of relatively small houses. So I just wonder again, as we look at the possible benefits—and Tony [Cordesman] has made an eloquent case that, great as the risks are, the benefits are substantial, and waiting increases the risks—do we have a risk that we might experience an attack on our own homeland by unconventional means from this regime as it goes down?

“The problem with this argument is several-fold,” replied Cordesman gently. “First, it means Iraq has to be very confident that its intelligence operations are clever and subtle. But I have never been impressed by the cleverness and subtlety of Iraqi intelligence.” In any case, he added, “the threat of such risks also isn’t a valid argument against going to war,” since “presumably they can make the threat more sophisticated over time”—i.e., an Iraqi terror threat was an argument for U.S. action, not against it.

Of course, Saddam went down without launching an unconventional attack from a basement in America.

All this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow had Freeman warned us in advance of the possibility of a 9/11-style attack coming out of Saudi Arabia—and remember, he’d been U.S. ambassador to that country when the threat began to coalesce. Some “contrarians” did warn, but he didn’t, and he isn’t even credible in explaining the attacks after the fact. (Example: “What 9/11 showed is that if we bomb people, they bomb back.”)

So I don’t see anything realistic about Freeman’s sort of “realism,” and if this is what constitutes “contrarian” thought—conjuring up threats to intimidate ourselves—then we’ll only have dropped preemptive action in favor of preemptive cringe. Washington is teeming with real realists—rigorous thinkers who are independent of foreign billionaires and relatively free of that psychological scarring that induces an obsession with Israel. Is Chas Freeman the best this administration can do?

Update: Terrorism expert Thomas Joscelyn points out that Hezbollah did attack Americans more recently than Freeman allowed in his 2002 quote—to wit, the Khobar bombings, done by the Saudi Hezbollah in 1996 (here is the 2001 indictment). He asks how Freeman—supposed authority on all things Saudi—managed not to know that. It’s an excellent question. Joscelyn also reminds us that Hezbollah has had a hand in attacks on American forces in Iraq. True, but this is not what Freeman had in mind when he warned against designation of Hezbollah. There were no American forces in Iraq yet, so he was cringing over something different: an attack on the homeland or international terrorism against Americans. They haven’t happened.

Pointer: See my previous post on Freeman and 9/11.

Update, late afternoon, March 10: “Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair announced today that Ambassador Charles W. Freeman Jr. has requested that his selection to be Chairman of the National Intelligence Council not proceed. Director Blair accepted Ambassador Freeman’s decision with regret.”

What do the financial crisis and U.S. Middle East policy have in common?

Behind the financial crisis was a well-practiced mechanism for concealing risk. The risk was there, and it was constantly growing, but it could be disguised, repackaged and renamed, so that in the end it seemed to have disappeared. Much of the debate about foreign policy in the United States is conducted in the same manner: policymakers and pundits, to get what they want, conceal the risks.

In the case of the Middle East, they concealed the risks of bringing Yasser Arafat in from the cold; they concealed the risks of neglecting the growth of Al Qaeda; and they concealed the risks involved in occupying Iraq. It isn’t that the risks weren’t known—to someone. The intelligence was always there. But if you were clever enough, and determined enough, you could find a way to conceal them. But concealed risk doesn’t go away. It accumulates away from sight, until the moment when it surges back to the surface. It did that after Camp David in 2000, when the “peace process” collapsed in blood; it did that on 9/11, when hijackers shattered the skies over New York in Washington; and it happened in Iraq, when an insurgency kicked us back. This tendency to downplay risk may be an American trait: we have seen it in U.S. markets, and we saw it in U.S. election-year politics. In Middle East policy, its outcome has been a string of very unpleasant surprises.

A case in point is radical Islam. One would think that after the Iranian revolution, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the terrorism of Hezbollah, the Rushdie affair, the suicide attacks of Hamas and Al Qaeda, the Danish cartoons, and a host of other “surprises,” that we would not be inclined to ignore the risks posed by radical Islam. And yet there are batteries of interpreters, analysts and pundits whose principal project is to obscure if not conceal the risks. Here are some of the most widespread variations on the theme:

Worried about Ahmadinejad? Pay him no mind. He doesn’t really call the shots in Iran, he’s just a figurehead. And anyway, he didn’t really say what he’s purported to have said, about wiping Israel off the map. What the Iranians really want is to sit down with us and cut a deal. They have a few grievances, some of them are even legitimate, so let’s hear them out and invite them to the table, without preconditions. Iran isn’t all that dangerous; it’s just a small country; and even their own people are tired of the revolution. So pay no attention to Ahmadinejad, and pay no attention to the old slogans of “death to America,” because that’s not the real Iran.

Worried about the Palestinian Hamas? You’ve got it wrong. They merely represent another face of Palestinian nationalism. They aren’t really Islamists at all: Hamas is basically a protest movement against corruption. Given the right incentives, they can be drawn into the peace process. Sure, they say they will never recognize Israel, but that is what the PLO once said, and didn’t they change their tune? Anyway, Hamas controls Gaza, so there can’t be a real peace process—a settlement of the big issues like Jerusalem, refugees, borders—without bringing them into the tent. So let’s sit down and talk to them, figure out what their grievances are—no doubt, some of them are legitimate too. And let’s get the process back on track.

Troubled by Hezbollah? Don’t believe everything they say. They only pretend to be faithful to Iran’s ayatollahs, and all their talk about “onwards to Jerusalem” is rhetoric for domestic consumption. What they really want is to earn the Shiites their rightful place in Lebanon, and improve the lot of their aggrieved sect. Engage them, dangle some carrots, give them a place at the table, and see how quickly they transform themselves from an armed militia into a peaceable political party.

And so on. There is a large industry out there, which has as its sole purpose the systematic downplaying of the risks posed by radical Islam. And in the best American tradition, these risks are repackaged as opportunities, under a new name. It could just as easily be called appeasement, but the public associates appeasement with high risk. So let’s rename it engagement, which sounds low-risk—after all, there’s no harm in talking, right? And once the risk has been minimized, the possible pay-off is then inflated: if we engage with the Islamists, we will reap the reward in the form of a less tumultuous Middle East. Nuclear plans might be shelved, terror might wane, and peace might prevail.

The engagement package rests upon a key assumption: that these “radical” states, groups, and individuals are motivated by grievances. If only we were able to address or ameliorate those grievances, we could effectively domesticate just about every form of Islamism. Another assumption is that these grievances are finite—that is, by ameliorating them, they will be diminished.

It is precisely here that advocates of “engagement” are concealing the risk. They do so in two ways. First, they distract us from the deep-down dimension of Islamism—from the overarching narrative that drives all forms of Islamism. The narrative goes like this: the enemies of Islam—America, Europe, the Christians, the Jews, Israel—enjoy much more power than the believing Muslims do. But if we Muslims return to the faith, we can restore to ourselves the vast power we exercised in past, when Islam dominated the world as the West dominates it today. The Islamists believe that through faith—exemplified by self-sacrifice and self-martyrdom—they can put history in reverse.

Once this is understood, the second concealment of risk comes into focus. We are told that the demands of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran are finite. If we give them a concession here, or a foothold there, we will have somehow diminished their demand for more concessions and footholds. But if their purpose is the reversal of history, then our gestures of accommodation, far from enticing them to give up their grand vision, only persuade them to press on. They understand our desire to engage them as a sign of weakness—an attempt to appease them—which is itself an enticement for them to push harder against us and our allies. And since they believe in their narrative of an empowered Islam with the fervency of religious conviction, no amount of insistence by us that we will go only so far and no further will stop them.

Our inability to estimate this risk derives in part from our unwillingness to give credence to religious conviction in politics. We are keen to recast Islamists in secular terms—to see them as political parties, or reform movements, or interest groups. But what if Islamists are none of these things? What if they see themselves as soldiers of God, working his will in the world? How do you deal with someone who believes that a paradise awaits every jihadist “martyr,” and that the existence of this paradise is as real and certain to him as the existence of a Sheraton Hotel in Chicago? Or that at any moment, the mahdi, the awaited one, could make a reappearance and usher in the end of days? How do we calculate that risk?

So what are the real risks posed by Islamic extremism? If I were preparing a prospectus for a potential investor in “engagement,” or a warning label on possible side effects of “engagement,” they would include these warnings:

Iran: The downside risk is that Iran will prolong “engagement” in such a way as to buy time for its nuclear program—perhaps just the amount of time it needs to complete it. At the same time, it will use the fact of “engagement” with the United States to chisel away at the weak coalition of Arab states that the United States has cobbled together to contain Iran. If “engagement” is unconditionally offered, Iran will continue its subversive activities in Iraq and Lebanon until it receives some other massive concession. Indeed, it may even accelerate these activities, so as to demand a higher price for their cessation. If the United States stands its ground and “engagement” fails, many in the Middle East will automatically blame the United States, but by then, military options will be even less appealing than they are today.

Hamas: The downside risk is that “engagement”—even if conducted indirectly through various mediators—will be the nail in the coffin of Mahmoud Abbas, and of any directly negotiated understandings between Israel and the Palestinians. It is true that Israelis and Palestinians aren’t capable today of reaching a final status agreement. But the present situation in the West Bank allows for a degree of stability and cooperation. This is because Israel stands as the guarantor against Hamas subversion of the West Bank. “Engagement” with Hamas would weaken that guarantee, signal to Palestinians once again that terrorism pays, and validate and legitimate the anti-Semitic, racist rhetoric that emanates daily from the leaders and preachers of Hamas. It might do all this without bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace even one inch closer.

Hezbollah: The downside risk is that “engagement” will effectively concede control of Lebanon to an armed militia that constitutes a state within a state. It will undermine America’s pretension to champion civil society and pluralism in the most diverse Arab state. It will constitute the final rout of the beleaguered democracy forces within Lebanon, which have been consistently pro-American. It will compound the unfortunate effects of the 2006 summer war, by seeming to acknowledge Hezbollah as the victor. And it might do all this without bringing about the disarming of a single Hezbollah terrorist, or the removal of a single Iranian-supplied missile from Lebanon.

One would have to be a relentless pessimist to believe that all the downside risks I have outlined would be realized. But every serious advocate of “engagement” should acknowledge the risks, and explain their strategy for mitigating them. And it isn’t enough to say: don’t worry, we’re going to practice “tough engagement.” Perhaps we might. But most of the risks arise from the very fact of engagement—from the legitimacy it accords to the other party.

In the Middle East, the idea that “there’s no harm in talking” is entirely incomprehensible. It matters whom you talk to, because you legitimize your interlocutors. Hence the Arab refusal to normalize relations with Israel. Remember the scene that unfolded this past summer, when Bashar Asad scrupulously avoided contact with Ehud Olmert on the same reviewing stand at a Mediterranean summit. An Arab head of state will never directly engage Israel before extracting every concession. Only an American would think of doing this at the outset, and in return for nothing: “unconditional talks” is a purely American concept, incomprehensible in the Middle East. There is harm in talking, if your talking legitimates your enemies, and persuades them and those on the sidelines that you have done so from weakness. For only the weak talk “unconditionally,” which is tantamount to accepting the enemy’s conditions. It is widely regarded as the prelude to unconditional surrender.

The United States cannot afford to roll the dice again in the Middle East, in the pious hope of winning it all. Chances are slim to nil that the United States is going to talk the Iranians, Hamas or Hezbollah out of their grand plan. Should that surprise us? We “engaged” before, with Yasser Arafat, and we know how that ended. We downplayed radical rhetoric before, with Osama bin Laden, and we know how that ended. We assumed we could talk people out of their passions in Iraq, and we know how that ended.

It is time to question risk-defying policies in the Middle East. The slogans of peace and democracy misled us. Let’s not let the new slogan of engagement do the same. The United States is going to have to show the resolve and grit to wear and grind down adversaries, with soft power, hard power and will power. Paradoxically, that is the least risky path—because if America persists, it will prevail.

This post originally appeared in the series On Second Thought, published by the Adelson Institute, Shalem Center, Jerusalem.