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





[Mr. Kramer, the author of Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America, was a full-time tenured academic at Tel Aviv University. He is now an Olin Institute Senior Fellow at Harvard. Click here for his blog.]

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.


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