In the March 9th edition of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria's cover story is entitled, "Radical Islam Is A Fact of Life. How To Live With It." In his cogent piece of analysis he inserts a powerful argument for a return to rationality and measured analysis as the primary basis for American foreign policy going forward.
Western governments and societies find much about Radical Islam justifiably troubling. The recent capitulation by the Pakistani government in the Swat Valley presents an ominous development. However, a number of questions need to be asked to accurately evaluate this development and plot a course forward. Zakaria begins with such questions.
The militants are bad people and this is bad news. But the more difficult question is, what should we--the outside world--do about it? That we are utterly opposed to such people, and their ideas and practices, is obvious. But how exactly should we oppose them? In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we have done so in large measure by attacking them--directly with Western troops and Predator strikes, and indirectly in alliance with Pakistani and Afghan forces. Is the answer to pour in more of our troops, train more Afghan soldiers, ask that the Pakistani military deploy more battalions, and expand the Predator program to hit more of the bad guys?
He goes on to postulate that maybe the idea of a monolithic Radical Islam, with lockstep designs on bringing jihad to the shores of the US is a illusion, and that even though we may find many of their beliefs and practices repugnant, we have to do a better job of assessing threats. He then asserts that even the Taliban is a loose affiliation of groups, most of which have no association with Al Qaeda and just want to control local politics. Now, before anyone goes off into a righteous tirade, he's not saying he likes the idea of local Taliban rule, but he is trying to distinguish between things we don't like, and things which are a real threat. Moreover, what are we really able to support in our current economic state? In addition, he goes on to show by example, that sometimes the simplistic idea of Sharia Law and strict Islamic society gains in the crucible of chaos and oppression, but does not really flourish when it gets a chance to run its' course. Foreign Powers meddling in local affairs does a great deal to raise fundamentalist stock; actually governing and moving a society into the 21st Century--that's a different proposition. Ultimately, the question remains--what other choice is there? Direct force has not worked, and its beyond our means to continue.
He drives this major point home with description of US actions in the last 24 months in Iraq. Saddam's despotic rule pretty much insured that most of the forces left after his demise were fundamentalist and extreme. This was particularly true in the Shiite dominated south. He quotes former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht, "It's hard to hand over authority to people who are illiberal...What you have to realize is that the objective is to defeat bin Ladenism, and now you have to start the evolution. Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s." Zakaria concludes with a reiteration of the recognition that the facts on the ground may not be as we wish, but they won't change with the same policies or perspectives.
The veil is not the same as the suicide belt. We can better pursue our values if we recognize the local and cultural context and appreciate that people want to find their own balance between freedom and order, liberty and license. In the end, time is on our side.
It would have been useful if Mr Zakaria noted that the Bush administration did next to nothing in the education of the US electorate regarding the subtle shifts in focus that occurred in Iraq in the last 12+ months of his administration. Simply citing that "The Surge is Working," did nothing to educate as to why the violence receded. Moreover, no groundwork was laid in the public consciousness for the very real possibility of a partitioned Iraq, with some pretty pronounced anti-American sentiments. This will be up to Obama to resolve and subsequently sell to the American people. In any case, we are way overdue for a new strategy on how to deal with societies that we cannot control.