PICK THE CRAZIES OR THE BASTARDS
The choice in Egypt – and more broadly the Middle East – has traditionally been presented as: the autocrats versus the theocrats. We could either back the bastards (Mubarak, the Shah of Iran) or suffer the crazies (Ahmadinejad, The Taliban). But it’s obvious now that this was a false choice. As a recent National Review editorial wrote: “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously said we traded freedom for stability in the Middle East and got neither.”
We got both the crazies and the bastards. In the New York Times earlier this week Ross Douthat wrote:
“In ‘The Looming Tower,’ his history of Al Qaeda, Lawrence Wright raises the possibility that ‘America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt.’ By visiting imprisonment, torture and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, (Hosni) Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country. But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men like Ayman Al-Zawahiri — Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, and arguably the real brains behind Al Qaeda — out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.”
In fact, were this poker, Mubarak has ingeniously hustled the table and kept the United States bankrolling him by intentionally folding a few hands to the Muslim Brotherhood. Because at the same time he’s creating and exporting international terrorists from the prison cells of Cairo, he’s allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to build up just enough of a stake to be the only viable alternative to him. As the National Review editorial said:
“Mubarak has systematically neutered his organized democratic opposition, leaving the Islamists as the most obvious alternative to him — the better to spook us whenever we push him to liberalize.”
National Review summed it up by saying: “Mubarak was supposed to be ‘our SOB,’ but in distorting Egypt’s political landscape to make the choice him or the Islamists, he’s just been an SOB.”
A DEBATE OVER GOD AND MAN IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht makes the case that the only way to progress in the Middle East is to embrace a fully free and open democracy…a democracy that includes Islamic fundamentalists. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Gerecht said, “The history of democratic Christendom suggests that you don’t get to arrive at Thomas Jefferson unless you first pass through Martin Luther.”
In a subsequent interview with National Review’s Duncan Currie, Gerecht rejected:
“…the notion that somehow the region could embrace genuine democratic pluralism while keeping religious fundamentalists on the sidelines.”
He argued that:
“…over the long haul, drawing Islamic fundamentalists into the cross-pollinating world of democratic competition is essential to defusing the ideological appeal of jihadism.”
While Gerecht told Currie that Islamic fundamentalism had to be brought out of the dark shadows of society and into the light of public debate, he was realistic about the short-term outcome. He recognized that the Muslim Brotherhood recently captured 20 percent of all the parliament seats in the Egyptian national assembly and that the Palestinians elected Hamas. Similarly, Hezbollah is a political force in Lebanon and as Turkey continues to democratize, Islamic fundamentalists gain more power.
“I fully expect the Muslim Brotherhood to do well in any election,” Gerecht told [Currie]. “They have a fairly substantial following.”… “But the country will never achieve real progress, [Gerecht] says, without first creating the political space necessary for a momentous debate over God and man.”
Gerecht told Currie that secularism must win the battle of ideas in the Middle East, that it is the only way to allow for the evolution of these societies. In other words, the Middle East must invite Islamic fundamentalism into the public debate, endure its possible short-term wins, and chafe under its rule, before embracing secular democracy.
The big gamble in this analysis is the hope that the people will ultimately reject the rule of Islamic fundamentalism and free elections beyond the first won’t be canceled or stolen as we have seen in Iran.
This is all pretty easy for Americans, half-a-world away, to theorize about. Short-term instability or Islamist rule may lead to an Arab secular democracy over the long arc of history. But I’m not sure Israel, staring at the prospect of being surrounded by Islamist theocracies, is ready to accept the ‘long play’. And what is the model for success of a primarily Muslim country becoming a pro-democracy, pro-liberty, pro-free market nation?
Still, if Dr. Phil were analyzing our current approach to the Middle East, one where we’ve got both the bastards and the crazies, the inevitable question would be: “How’s that working out for ya?”
In the end it’s hard push all your chips in behind any theory. And the most accurate analysis might actually come from Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War Hoffman, playing CIA officer Gust Avrakotos, tells Congressman Charlie Wilson, played by Tom Hanks, the story of the Zen Master and the little boy.
“There was a little boy, and on his 14th birthday he get’s a horse. And everybody in the village says ‘How wonderful, the boy got a horse!’ The Zen Master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says ‘How terrible!’ The Zen Master says, ‘We’ll see.’ Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go out and fight, except the little boy can’t because his leg is all messed up, and everybody in the village says ‘How wonderful.’ And the Zen Master says…’We’ll see.’”