Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (7/27/2006)


The valor of ignorance. Most Americans were awakened to the presence of new players on the international stage by the diabolical events of September 11, 2001. But Osama bin Laden and al-Quaida did not spring fully formed out of thin air. For a knowledgeable few, in and out of our government, bin Laden and September 11th represented the culmination of a chain of events that began 116 years before.

In 1885, a 47-year-old itinerant mystic named Jamal Eddine al-Afghani approached the British government with a revolutionary idea. He proposed the establishment of a pan-Islamic coalition to link Egypt, which the British had recently taken over, with Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan in an alliance against Tsarist Russia. The so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia was still being played. Britain, a small country with a vast and far-flung empire, had mastered the art of pitting disparate tribal, ethnic and religious groups against one another, and recognized the advantages of such a plan. Al-Afghani's first assignment for British intelligence was to head to India, which had a large and restive Muslim population, and then to Egypt, which Britain had taken under its wing only four years before.

Born in Persia, Jamal Eddine added "al-Afghani" to his name to imply that he had been born in Afghanistan and to conceal the fact that he was both a Persian and a Shiite, which would hamper his ability to operate in the mostly Sunni Muslim world. Al-Afghani was the first in a long line of Islamic activists who would preach Islamic fundamentalism--also called Islamism, political Islam and, most recently, Islamofascism. This persistent creed, which flies in the face of the spiritual vision of Islam as contained in the Pillars of Islam (five for Sunnis, 12 for Shiites), is for educated Muslims an abject pervasion of their faith. Its appeal for the uneducated, underprivileged and unemployed masses in Muslim countries, however, is powerful.

In the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, historian of Islam, al-Afghani was "the first Muslim revivalist to use the concepts 'Islam' and 'the West' as connoting antagonistic historical phenomena." Thus he was by definition the originator of the concept of the "clash of civilizations" made popular by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. The long line of religious zealots and extremists operating under British patronage and dreaming of uniting all Arabic peoples, culminated in Hassan al-Banna, founder in 1932 of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo. Soon branches of the Muslim Brotherhood were flourishing in every Muslim country, in Europe and in the United States. These Muslim religious extremists were the political and religious forbears of Osama bin Laden and Al Quaida. Radical Muslim extremism has continued to grow and to spread fervently throughout the Muslim world as a consequence of America's protracted occupation of Iraq.

Active American participation in Middle Eastern affairs began in 1938 with the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia by the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO), a joint venture of Standard Oil of California and Texaco. The 60-year contract made with King ibn Saud was an outright steal. It called for a down payment of $250,000 and an annual "rent" of $25,000 in gold. America's role was broadened in 1947 when Great Britain announced that it could no longer guarantee the security of Greece and Turkey. This was followed by Britain's retreat from India and Palestine.

To its discredit, the United States has made frequent use of militant Islam--for example, to counter the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War that began in 1946 with the descent of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. To nullify the growth of left-wing nationalism and Arab socialism in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Palestine, the United States made deals with Saudi Arabia's oil-rich kings, Saud and Feisal, but overlooked their funding of Wahhabist fundamentalist schools throughout the Muslim world.

The United States was not above using the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. We supported Gen. Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1977 and founded an Islamist state. We used Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in a jihad led by groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood. like Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster, the groups we financed and trained turned on their creator following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

With 9/11, the United States embraced the neocons’ thesis that a clash of civilizations was under way and declared war on terrorism. But instead of going after bin Laden and al-Quaida, we attacked Iraq, a secular state that had opposed Islamic fundamentalism. Then, as if to confuse our friends as well as our enemies, after conquering and occupying Iraq, the United States proceeded to back that country's Islamic extremist right--from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to radical Islamist political parties like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Call (al-Dawa), both of which were supported by Iran's mullahs.

Militarily and politically, Afghanistan was badly mishandled. We failed to capture Osama bin Laden and only succeeded in scattering the Taliban, which has now regrouped and continues to threaten the weak central government of President Hamid Karzai. Iraq, too, is now a disaster on the brink of sectarian civil war. From the start it has been a succession of military and political errors compounded by unknowing civilians in the Pentagon. The first mistake was the failure to observe the basic dictum of military strategy: use overwhelming force. Instead, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks gambled on achieving victory on the cheap by substituting speed for mass. They won their gamble, but a proud army paid a heavy price for it afterwards.

An adequate military force would have been able to seal borders, seize ammunition dumps, protect the infrastructure from looting, restore basic services and preserve public order. Instead, Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground of choice for a new generation of jihadists. And the U.S. Army in Iraq finds itself in a position not unlike the beleaguered Russian Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Despite the toll in casualties and loss of support at home, the Bush administration, like that of Leonid Brezhnev, continues to issue rosy communiqués claiming everything was going according to plan and predicting victory just around the corner.

Is there a way out of the Middle Eastern muddle into which we have gotten ourselves? First and foremost, as Israel's ally, we should encourage that country to settle its differences with the Palestinians through peace talks. One giant step toward a genuine solution would be to facilitate the formation of an independent Palestinian state.

Second, although it may smack of isolationism, we should reduce our military presence in the Middle East. Large numbers of troops occupying foreign bases only feed nationalistic resentment and provoke retaliatory acts. Although our need for Middle Eastern oil has diminished, the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf are not the Great Lakes and subject to our control. Nor did the Bush management team inspire confidence among our potential allies: a president and vice president with strong ties to the oil industry and an airhead clotheshorse as secretary of state for whom an oil company named a giant oil tanker, the S.S. Condoleeza Rice.

Next, we should abandon our unrealistic goal of reforming the Middle East through the forced introduction of American-style democracy, seen in the Arab world and in Iran as merely a pretext for greater American intrusion into the region. We should learn to accept the reality that nations like Iran and the Sudan have chosen to be governed by Islamist regimes.

Finally, the United States should overcome its habit of issuing bellicose threats to sovereign nations in the Middle East and elsewhere. In short, stop proclaiming the valor of ignorance. A big dollop of humility can go a long way.


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