Monday, September 21, 2009

Force Your Friends to Give In, Pay Off Your Enemies: Two Newsweek Articles and the Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Philosophy

By Barry Rubin

I want to start by talking about two specific articles and then draw some conclusions about the current philosophy of U.S. foreign policy so please keep reading. Ready? Here we go:

So let me get this straight. Newsweek publishes an article advocating “tough love” on Israel, insisting that this U.S. ally must be pressured into making huge concessions in order to “save itself” and then publishes another article advocating bribes to the anti-American, radical Islamist, terrorist-sponsoring Taliban so that it will stop attacking America.

Is something wrong here, with each of these two themes individually and the sharp contradiction between them?

Well, yes there is.

Fareed Zakaria is one of many acclaimed “foreign policy experts” who, after years of reading their writings I can’t possibly understand why they should be acclaimed foreign policy experts. True, it is too easy to oversimplify in ridiculing his article, "The Way Out of Afghanistan: We need to buy off our enemies," published on September 12.

The British long used the bribery of tribal chiefs to govern that area—and a number of others as well—and U.S. payoffs to Iraqi tribes have played an important role in undermining the Iraqi insurgents among sections of the Sunni population. So one can argue—although there are also arguments against it—that bribing tribes can be a valid tactic.

But in context this argument shows just how dangerously out of touch such positions are. Could the United States have paid off the Cuban or Vietnamese Communists to keep the Communists out of power? We are talking here about the Taliban and its supporters, ideologically motivated Islamists who genuinely believe in their ideology. No, you cannot buy off the Iranian regime or the Syrian regime or Hamas or Hizballah or the Iraqi insurgents with money.

Only a few hours ago an Arab friend asked why Americans simply seemed incapable of understanding the nature of their enemies. I replied that Americans—certainly not those in intellectual and political power--just don’t take ideas and ideology seriously, find it impossible to conceive that people would fight, die, and kill for their beliefs; would be motivated by things other than material gain; would act against their “rational self-interest.”

And if anyone doesn’t understand that these people are dedicated, serious, willing in many cases to sacrifice their lives, believing that the deity has commanded them to behave as they do he is going to lead the West into disaster. By the way, since they think they’re winning so why sell out?

When Zakaria writes, “The Taliban is proving a tougher foe than anticipated,” isn’t that precisely because of the factors mentioned above? If it was so easy to buy off the Islamists in Afghanistan why didn’t the Soviets succeed in doing so?

He continues by saying the problem has been that, “efforts to reach out to the Taliban so far have been limited and halfhearted.” Well, what makes it different from saying that the problem with al-Qaida is that the United States hasn’t tried hard enough to reach out to them? Oh, perhaps it’s because Usama bin Ladin has all the money he needs already? Is that the only distinction?

Zakaria concludes, “A few years from now, we can be sure that Afghanistan will still be poor, corrupt, and dysfunctional. But if we make the right deals, it will be ruled by leaders who keep the country inhospitable to Al Qaeda and terrorist groups like it. That's my definition of success.”
Yet if one is giving to people who already are committed to Taliban and al-Qaida, why shouldn’t they just take the money and use it to seize power? Also, in common with current doctrine that claims to be liberal but is in contradiction to the liberalism of every previous decade, Zakaria is indifferent to the degree of repression and oppression that involves. For example, while it is probably true that the fate of women in Afghanistan won’t improve over the next few years no matter what the United States does, pursuing a policy that actually sells them into slavery seems a pretty sleazy thing to do.

I seem to remember generations of liberals excoriating conservatives as people who backed ruthless, oppressive dictators because it was good for investments or helped to fight Communism.

Perhaps this is an idea of broader merit. The United States could try to pay off all the Islamists to stop taking anti-American action, perhaps even watch them seize power (say, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) in exchange for a promise not to bother the United States; possibly feed Israel to them (which matches up with the “tough love” Newsweek article), give Central Europe to Russia as a sphere of influence, and so on.

Yet at bottom I don’t think the Obama administration is following some left-wing policy to sell out U.S. interests, or Israel, or Central Europe. Something else is going on. It is instead a policy of saying:

Don’t bother us. We don’t want any confrontations. We don’t want any crises. We don’t want to have to fight anyone. Pressure your friends to make concessions because they should give in rather than battle for their rights. Pay off your enemies so they don’t come after you.

And this is the philosophy of all too much of the contemporary media, academia, and elites in the West. It could work politically. By staving off conflicts, governments can hope to please their publics who don’t want conflict and war and hearing about people hating them. Then, too, they can claim success at having avoided crises.

This applies to U.S.-Israel relations as much as it does to U.S.-Taliban relations. The administration loudly proclaimed that it would bend Israel to its will, force it to give a big concession while getting nothing in return. Yet once Israel resisted, the administration backed down.

That’s one reason why U.S.-Israel relations are going to be okay. The administration doesn’t want a confrontation with Israel any more than it wants one with Iran. And the fact that there is a lot of domestic popular and congressional support for Israel reinforces that fact.

The Obama Administration is not responsible for these Newsweek articles. But the general worldview from which it emerges underlies their approach to international affairs.

Will the world let the administration get away with this approach? We will see. It is unlikely that the administration will be bothered by protests from friends who feel insufficiently protected or even betrayed. But it may not be able to disregard the aggressions of anti-American radical forces which see this passivity and fear of conflict as a splendid opportunity.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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