Tue, Nov 01, 2011 | Rubin Reports | By Barry Rubin
Middle East: Why Obama can’t tame the Islamists
This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post. This is an improved version by Barry Rubin.
What does theocracy look like? This is what theocracy looks like!
Many people find it hard to comprehend what the Obama Administration thinks it’s doing in the Middle East. But it’s really very simple if you know the history of the arguments, read carefully administration speeches and documents, watch their actions, and talk to some of those involved.
Leaving aside a number of points I’ve made in a previous article (which would be good to read in conjunction with this one), I want to focus here on one concept: the idea that the U.S. government has outsmarted the Islamists.
After all, it has “lured” them into elections and a share of power, thus supposedly locking them into democracy and compromise, a permanent adherence to the rules of the electoral and democratic game.
And if the Islamists’ can’t deliver the goods — more jobs, housing, and cheaper prices — they’ll just lose the next election. Supposedly, they’ll just hand power over with good sportsmanship. The threat has been tamed!
Western officials and experts generally believe Islam cannot produce material results, the Islamists will have to water down their “impractical” beliefs. In order to do well in the next election, they must gradually abandon ideology. In short, the administration believes, it’s got the Islamists where it wants them! Mu-ha-ha-ha!
There are many holes in this argument but you won’t find them in the mainstream media or the talking head “experts.”
Here are some of the problems with the administration view that Islamist victories are good things.
1. The staying power of a dictatorial-minded regime is impressive even when it appears to play by democratic rules.
No Arab nationalist regime or monarchy in the Middle East has ever let itself be voted out of office. There are ways of persuading the masses that they should keep a regime even if in Western eyes that government has “failed.” There are also ways to win elections by manipulating them, selective repression, control over the media, using patronage to buy votes, etc.
Instead of “one man, one vote, one time,” you can get “one man, one vote, one result.”
Consider Turkey, where the regime has steadily increased its base of support among voters; or Egypt and Jordan, where the regime always wins the election. Once in office, the Islamists can last as long as the Arab nationalists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, that is for many decades.
And as a last resort elections can — as happened in Algeria — always be cancelled or the result repressed if the incumbents think they’ll lose.
Look at how the Islamist regime in Iran, which finally lost popularity after three decades of mismanagement, remained in power. They put down internal challenge and faced no external costs despite having obviously stolen the election. What would happen if an Islamist regime in, say, Egypt or Turkey stole an election to stay in power? Nothing.
2. Don’t underestimate the power of ideology and demagoguery, which can be more powerful than material pay-offs.
The history of the modern Arab world is full of such examples. Look at the history of the PLO and of Yasir Arafat’s leadership. (Yes, I know Hamas won, but Fatah still runs the more important West Bank to this day).
And let’s not forget the use of foreign scapegoats, which will be as important for the Islamists as it was for the nationalists. Consider how the Turkish Islamist regime has made Israel and the West into an enemy in order to mobilize both nationalist and religious fervor at home. This can also lead to foreign adventures — wars and terrorism — that are popular at home, even if they are lost.
3. Taking over institutions.
The regime can use the educational system and media to indoctrinate and ensure support; use jobs and the economy to control patronage and votes; create or control women’s, trade union, and professional associations. By controlling the religious institutions, Islamists can get rid of traditionalist Islam and entrench their own interpretations on the hearts of the believers.
And let’s not forget the greatest prize of all: control over the military, a plan that might include creating separate elite units (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, Republican Guards in Syria, etc.)
4. The Intrinsically Radical Nature of the Islamists Themselves.
If you are taking your orders directly from the Supreme Being and in accord with the most sacred religion, you’re less likely to change your viewpoint. Western materialist cynicism goes too far in thinking Islamists will sell out for luxury and power. Besides, they can enjoy luxury and power (see Iran) without having to throw away their principles.
Moreover, we are not dealing with Communism in the era of Leonid Brezhnev here. The Islamists are a relatively young movement, unbowed by failure and not jaded by long possession of power. They genuinely believe the future belongs to them. Maybe they will become tired and lose their confidence in 30 or 40 years but not now.
5. Knowing that they confront such ignorance and credulity in the West, the Islamists can use the credulity of their enemies to play moderate when necessary and get lots of benefits and concessions. How about the idea of massive U.S. aid to Islamist regimes! That’s about to happen, isn’t it?
6. The Caliphate — like Rome — wasn’t built in a day.
The new Islamist strategy, in sharp contrast to that of al-Qaida, is very oriented toward patience. Thus, for example, the external, Western-influenced, and unelected Libyan opposition leadership has chosen the respected academic and businessman Abdel Rahim al-Keib as the leader of the interim government. We are quickly told that this proves there’s nothing to worry about. Yet al-Keib is a temporary choice and not that of either the gunmen or the voters. His successor will be different.
One can understand people with no real understanding of the Middle East, having a prefabricated worldview of their own, having little sense of how history works, played on by Middle Eastern ideological con-men, and eager to avoid confrontation they make the mistake of believing that they can tame revolutionary Islamism.
Yet they will surely fail in this endeavor. Those who are wise will avoid paying the price for this foolishness.
 Note: My satire us on the popular chant: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like! (If you use my phrase please credit.)