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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World (Part III)

Will the United States learn from its mistakes in the Arab world?

August 22, 2007

Will the United States learn from its mistakes in the Arab world?

The ignorance of most Americans, even educated Americans, about Islam and the Arab world has made a large contribution to the United States’ myriad strategic failures with both Arabs and Muslims.

Lacking understanding of those who oppose us, we have reasoned from fallacious analogies with our former foes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab World
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Instead of trying to understand and rebut al Qaeda's case against our direct and indirect interventions in the Arab and Islamic worlds, we have ascribed to it an ideology that does not exist.

“Islamofascism” is a word invented in America, redolent with politically evocative overtones of the European holocaust, and totally disconnected from both Islam and Arab history.

Rather than analyzing the objectives that al Qaeda and its allies profess — which have to do with freeing the realm of Islam of our presence so that they and other Islamic extremists can direct its course to the future — we assign to them an objective of world conquest similar to that of our past Eurasian enemies.

Our ignorance, confusion and self-indulgence have led us to impose unfounded stereotypes on Muslims and to mistake Arab friends for Arab enemies — and, no doubt, vice versa.

The great Chinese strategist, Sunzi, once sagely observed, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can win every war.” Conversely, I would argue, if we continue to contend with imaginary demons and to invade countries to vindicate our hallucinations, we will lose every contest.

The consequences of American failure against Islamic militants could be very large. The fact that al Qaeda and its ilk do not much resemble the picture of them painted by our pundits does not make them any less dangerous — but just dangerous in different ways. They must be countered by more realistic, appropriate and effective means than those we are so counterproductively employing at present.

The only good news is that al Qaeda has been almost equally inept. Many of its actions horrify Arabs and other Muslims as much as they do those they are designed to shock in the West, and its doctrines are too obviously deviant to have wide appeal in the Islamic world.

Still, al Qaeda has shown that it can learn from failure and adjust its tactics. In the long run, we must assume it will correct its mistakes.

Over time, therefore, Islamic extremists are likely to become more, not less, formidable as enemies of both the United States and those Arab regimes that remain aligned with us.

In this regard, the deepening estrangement of Arab and other Muslim populations from the United States has very adverse consequences for us. It provides a political environment favorable to recruitment efforts, operational support and concealment among the people by our extremist enemies.

It inclines Arab leaders to shrink from public association or cooperation with us, even against terrorists who are targeting us only to deter us from continuing to support these leaders. It complicates our ability to counter the Iranian inroads our policies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land have facilitated.

It increases the incentives for the Arabs to accommodate Iran, and it deprives us of the political cover they might otherwise provide for an orderly and honorable end to our military intervention in Iraq.

The causes of Arab and Muslim alienation from the United States are not hard to discern and describe. They are policies that have demonstrably served our interests no better than theirs, or for that matter, Israel’s:

  • Our decision to back Israeli efforts to pacify the Palestinians rather than to continue to try to mediate a Palestinian-Israeli peace. This succeeded only in discrediting us as peacemakers without gaining security for Israel, and it empowered Islamist unilateralists among the Palestinians to match the equally unilateralist Israeli government.
  • Our collusion with Israel in the effort to isolate and overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government. This first left Hamas nowhere to go but further into the Iranian embrace. It then catalyzed armed conflict among Palestinians, partitioned the occupied territories, encouraged an Israeli effort to crush or starve the Gaza ghetto into submission — and made the prospect of a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution more remote than ever.
  • Our witless transformation of our punitive expedition to capture al Qaeda leaders and chastise their Taliban hosts into a long-term occupation of Afghanistan directed at excluding radical Muslims from a role in governing it. This has turned the Islamic world against our intervention there, conferred new life and undeserved nationalist resistance credentials on the Taliban and lent unhelpful credibility to al Qaeda’s charge that we are engaged in an anti-Muslim crusade. (It has also had the perverse result of making Afghanistan so safe for poppy cultivation that it is now the source of almost all the world’s heroin.)
  • Our catastrophic march into the strategic ambush of Iraq, where we remain pinned down. Iraq is now a country militarily occupied by us but politically occupied by Iran. Our “transformational diplomacy” there has birthed a catastrophic mixture of anarchy and gang warfare, mounting civilian casualties and infrastructure collapse and an eruption of embittered refugees to every corner of the mostly Sunni Arab world.
  • Our continual demonstrations of strategic ineptitude and politico-military incompetence. We persist in an attempt to impose military solutions on political problems in Iraq — thereby precluding political solutions to them — even as we cooperate in Shiite suppression and ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs and thrash about in search of a way out of the mess we’ve made.
  • Our apparent plans to perpetuate our occupation of Iraq through the establishment of permanent military bases there from which we can dominate the Arab world. This is the one thing we have come up with that has succeeded in uniting Sunni and Shiite Iraqi Arabs — in almost universal opposition to such bases.
  • Our open encouragement of Israel’s mutilation of Lebanon last summer. This cemented Hezbollah’s ties to Iran, while transforming it into the dominant political force in Lebanon.
  • And our recent efforts to block peace talks between Israel and Syria. This ensures a continued state of war along Israel’s Golan front, continued proxy wars in Lebanon, continued Syrian reliance on Iran and continued stalemate in U.S.-Syrian relations.

    The policies that have produced these disasters for our interests and those of our friends could clearly do with some revision. As I noted, al Qaeda has shown that it has the capacity to learn from its mistakes and correct them. Do we?

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