Old truths about appeasement in the Middle East

When I recently followed a link from a tweet by Jamie Kirchick, I came to an almost 10-year-old post by Jeffrey Goldberg in Slate. While the piece focuses primarily on a controversy with New York Times columnist Robert Wright who objected to the description of Sadam Hussein’s massacres of Kurds as genocide, Goldberg also explained why he supported invading Iraq. I think some of his points should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Middle East, not least because some of Goldberg’s observations remain very relevant even though — or perhaps because — they are based on reporting he did before 9/11.

So here are the most relevant passages:

Wright takes issue with my claim that a successful invasion of Iraq would cause America to be respected in the Middle East, rather than loathed. He writes that many people will loathe us even more in the event of an invasion, and that they are “the kind of people who will work hard to kill lots of Americans.” Wright argues not infrequently against the use of military force to defeat terrorist groups and terrorist regimes because such use of force will lead to more anti-American terror.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I spent some time in a madrasah, a Muslim religious seminary, near Peshawar, in the Northwest Frontier Province. The madrasah was populated by mainly Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun boys, and they were quite feverish in their support for Osama Bin Laden, whose attack on America was still more than a year away. After staying at the madrasah for a while, I drove across Afghanistan, ending in Kandahar. I wrote this experience up for the New York Times Magazine, which published the story under the headline “Jihad U.”

[The piece, published in June 2000, is actually entitled “Inside Jihad U.; The Education of a Holy Warrior,” and makes for very worthwhile reading – particularly in view of the fact that it was published more than a year before the 9/11 attacks.]

Shortly after it was published, Robert Wright, in Slate, posted the following: “On Sunday the New York Times Magazine had a spooky piece about Pakistan’s thousands of madrasahs, schools that immerse boys and young men in Islam and often have a militant bent. Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, visiting one of them, asked the students, ‘Who wants to see Osama Bin Laden armed with nuclear weapons?’ The reaction: ‘Every hand in the room shot up.’ “

“This is a reminder,” Wright continued, “of what a bad idea it was for Clinton to launch that cruise missile attack on Bin Laden in retaliation for the African embassy bombings. […] the cruise-missile strike in Afghanistan was self-defeating: It no doubt guaranteed Osama Bin Laden 10 new recruits for every terrorist who was killed.’ “

When I first read Wright’s comments on my article, two thoughts crossed my mind: One, I was glad someone noticed the piece (this was before Sept. 11 of last year, when virtually no one cared about madrasahs or the strange goings-on in Kandahar). The second thought that crossed my mind was: This guy’s got it exactly wrong.

I left Pakistan and Afghanistan believing that America had done nothing to alienate the Taliban or these madrasah boys: Their hate was independent of American action. In fact, these fundamentalists owed the United States their thanks: It was the United States that supported them during the fight against the Soviets; the food many of them ate came to them courtesy of USAID, and many of the men I met who spoke English learned their English from American teachers, funded by American taxpayers. Their hatred of America, I realized, was rooted in their culture, in the theology of Islamic supremacy, in their jealousy and rage at American success.

I also noticed another emotion present in these men: contempt. They were contemptuous of America and Americans; they found us weak and unmanly, they found our culture corrupt and perverted, and I don’t have to tell you what they thought of American women.

It was after a couple of months in Pakistan and Afghanistan that I began to realize that these forces of Islamic fundamentalism had already declared war on us; that there was nothing left for us to do but fight them; and that by not fighting them, we were convincing them we were without virtue, strength, or courage.

Robert Wright took a different message away from my reporting: The best thing to do would be to leave these people alone and hope they go away. But what he failed to understand is that we provoked them by not provoking them.

Of course I recognize that an invasion of Iraq will cause some people to hate us more than they already do, but I also recognize that their hatred of America will not dissipate—and that their contempt may intensify—if we do not take strong action against Iraq.

This past weekend, at a conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, I had the chance to talk about these issues with two men I admire very much: Bernard Lewis, the scholar of Islam, and Ali Salem, the dissident Egyptian playwright. Lewis told me the following: “Sept. 11 was quite obviously supposed to be the opening blow in a series of attacks. These attacks have not happened because our enemies were shocked by the forcefulness of our response. This is connected to the way they have viewed our society, and now view our society. They were expecting a soft, ineffectual response, a few misdirected cruise missiles, perhaps. And they were met with much more force than they expected, which is why they are running.” He went on to say that America is more or less powerless to turn hate into love, but that it still possesses the means to turn contempt into fear.

As for Ali Salem, when I put the same issue to him, he quoted a Bedouin proverb: “You beat the dog to scare the lion.” I asked him to apply the lesson of this saying to American behavior in the Middle East. He mentioned, like many people mention in this context, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut 20 years ago. The American response to the murder of 241 Marines by Hezbollah was to run away, to flee Beirut in terror. […]

“This is the root of your problem,” Salem said. “You should have flattened Beirut.” I must have appeared surprised at the ferocity of his response—he is a well-known secular humanist—because he said, “Yes, I, Ali Salem, the great liberal, says, kill your enemies.”

Obviously, these observations are very interesting in the context of the interminable debates about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but they are also relevant for current debates about the effect of the so-called “Arab Spring” on Hamas. There is a lot of speculation that Hamas may be “mellowing,” but I’m afraid this is not very likely when the points made by Goldberg are taken into account while reading the recent interview by Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of The Independent, with Gaza’s prime minister Ismail Haniyeh:

With the old certainties in the Middle East suddenly upended after a year of revolutions, it seemed more legitimate than ever to wonder how Hamas saw the region’s affairs developing. Haniyeh agreed to see me because there was a message he wanted heard.

We met in his office in Gaza City. […] Behind him hung the Palestinian flag, its colours reputedly drawn from the work of the 13th-century Arab poet Safi al-Din: “White are our deeds, black are our battles, green are our fields, red are our swords”.

I had hoped that what he wanted to say would be a call for reconciliation and that he would see the revolutions of the previous 12 months as an opportunity to start a blank page in relations with the Israelis. There had been signs that compromise was in the air. […]

But what I found was not a man seeking to reach out the olive branch. It was a man who had seen how the Middle East had been reshaped and who now believed – or so he said – that his version of the Palestinians’ destiny might now be on the point of being realised.

“The Palestinian cause is winning,” he told me. “With the Muslim Brotherhood part of the government [in Egypt], they [the Egyptians] will not besiege Gaza. They will not arrest Palestinians. They will not give cover to Israel to launch a war. Gaza was a main reason for the Arab Spring. It was people’s anger at the regimes that co-operated with Israel and did not recognise the government here.

“Israel is disturbed by this. It knows the strategic environment is changing. Iran is an enemy. Relations are deteriorating with Turkey. With Egypt, they are really cold. Israel is in a security situation they have never been in before. The Palestinians are winning more than anybody else due to what’s happening in the Arab countries. That will come out clearly in the future.”

Haniyeh did not mince his words, blaming the West and particularly the United States for having tried to keep the people of Gaza trapped even when they sought to play by the rules set by the international community. “These people asked us to have elections and respect the result of elections, and we did. We did what we were asked to do. Anybody who asks for democracy to be introduced should respect the results of democracy.” […]

The Israelis, he claimed, had “tricked” the West into thinking they would willingly do anything for the Palestinian people. It was “20 years” of negotiations that led to “nothing” as the “Israelis don’t want to see the Palestinian people get anywhere”. When he talked about the Israelis, the smile vanished. His eyes narrowed, and the air of stillness around him, previously reassuring, seemed suddenly intimidating.

He was particularly angry when he railed against the Israelis’ blockade on goods going in and out of Gaza. This was enacted in September 2007, after Hamas won the brief but brutal civil war against Fatah that saw street-to-street fighting consume the territory. […] Haniyeh has spent most of his life in Gaza. […] This may help to explain the strength of the Hamas leader’s feelings about what Palestinians call the “the siege”. […] With anger in his eyes and voice, Haniyeh leaned forward and – seemingly forgetting about the Holocaust – declared that the blockade was “the biggest crime that modern history ever witnessed”. Gaza simply wanted to be treated fairly, he insisted. “We want to live like the rest of the world. To have rights. To have a state.”

Stated in those terms, it seemed a reasonable aspiration. But what of Hamas’s past use of suicide bombers? Had resorting to such a tactic not discredited the organisation from being part of any long-term policy settlement as the Israelis, and the Americans, maintain?

His response was blunt. They were not “suicide operations” but “martyrdom operations”, he said. “We only did this because there’s bloodshed done by the Israelis. It is a reaction to F16s bombarding people, killing people, women and children. They continued targeting Palestinian civilians and that’s what pushed the Islamic fighters to do this kind of operation.”

Yet he also declared (illuminating the dilemma Hamas sees itself facing over how far to go in limiting armed struggle): “The Europeans and Americans have said the martyrdom operations are why Hamas has been put on the terrorist list. But now these operations have stopped. Did they then remove Hamas from the list of terrorist organisations?

“We do not launch wars,” he concluded. “We are people resisting occupation.”

Any doubts about what exactly Haniyeh means by that can be resolved by watching the relevant parts of Haniyeh’s speech on the occasion of the 24th anniversary of the establishment of Hamas in mid-December.


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