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Engage, moderate and split: the bad ideas about Middle East

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Engage, moderate, and split—that’s the mantra for Middle East policy of the wrong-headed in many foreign ministries, newspaper editorial offices, universities, and other places where the rapidly growing international bad-ideas industry is centered.

Yet nothing could seem more self-evident than these propositions. What could possibly be wrong with engaging radical forces, persuading them to change their ways, and breaking up their alliances?

I’m glad you asked. Here is how these apparently obviously correct ideas are dangerous and even disastrous.

1. Engagement. Doesn’t one need to talk to enemies? How else can you get them to change? Well, it depends on whom, how, and when. Here are some of the problems of just having a cozy little chat with Iran, Syria, or Hamas for example.

First, what about history? If the past record shows that such efforts have failed it indicates that more such attempts are misguided and that other methods are needed. For example, the U.S. government sent numerous high-level delegations to Syria between 2001 and 2005 only to find that it was repeatedly lied to. This campaign only stopped when Syria’s government murdered former Lebanese Prime Minister (and most popular politician) Rafik Hariri.

As for Iran, Britain, France, and Germany spent three years engaged in diplomatic dialogue about Iran’s nuclear program during which Tehran lied, broke promises, and did not fulfill commitments, all along working full speed ahead to get atomic bombs. The International Atomic Energy Agency has just announced a new timetable. Wow, that should scare Tehran! And of course this, too, will be flouted to be replaced no doubt by still another deal until the day Iran gets nukes.

Second, there is the momentum of engagement. In order to enter into and sustain engagement, the Western party feels obligated—and its radical interlocutor will keep pressing—to provide proof of its good intentions in the form of concessions. Naturally, the radical side will give nothing since it will play the role of aggrieved party doing the democracies a favor by deigning to talk to them. As the process goes on, the Western side gives more and more while getting nothing in return. And at the end, there is no real agreement or change. The radical side doesn’t have to shout out, “Sucker!” but it might as well do so.

Equally, to keep talks going the Western partner feels constrained from taking tough action which might lead the radical party to walk out. If, for example, Hamas continues to commit terrorism, this would not be allowed to stop the flow of money or bring tougher sanctions since that would make them angry. Of course, if any action is taken, you can guess who will be blamed for the breakdown. This has been the story of many such engagements, for example the 1990s’ Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace process.

Finally, there is how the radical side takes the engagement process as a victory, a sign that the extremists are winning and that the West is frightened and ineffective. This is precisely what the radical side’s leaders say in Arabic or Persian to their colleagues and people. Meanwhile, the democratic side’s credibility plummets and deterrence crashes, sparking more extremism and aggression.

2. Why is moderating the radical forces also doomed to failure? The basic answer is that they do not want to become moderate and why should they? This misconceived model is based on the view that Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and radical Islamists generally are reluctant militants, forced to be so by misunderstanding (the West or Israel isn’t really so horrible and means them no harm) or a lack of alternatives.

In fact, the radicals take their stance based on a blend of true belief—a deeply felt ideology based on a powerful world view—and ambition. This is their route to power, money, and glory; to act in a contrary manner is to be a loathsome traitor. They are not, to say the least, easily persuaded, especially by people they hate and seek to destroy.

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