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This summer, Fatah, Palestine’s largest and oldest political party, had its first conference in several decades in order to try to chart its future. With President Barack Obama’s recent trips to Africa and, in particular, Egypt now completed, America also has some thinking to do about the future of our involvement in the Islamic regions of the world.
Since the September 11th attacks, America has been embroiled in what President Bush declared to be a “Global War on Terror,” now known as an “Overseas Contingency Operation.” In particular, the Bush Administration took a strong stance against the “Axis of Evil”: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. These three states were perceived to be state sponsors of terrorism against the United States.
Although North Korea tends to act alone, Iran and other militant Islamist movements have been seen as presenting a united front against America. Palestine’s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s al-Qaeda, Somalia’s al-Shabaab, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Iraq’s Mahdi Army and Iran’s government have all been seen as different incarnations of a global Islamo-fascist world movement by a number of prominent neoconservatives and other foreign policy pundits.
This approach is problematic for a number of reasons.
Much like during the Cold War, it is much easier for the voting public to boil down very different movements into a single body united against us than it is to understand the motivations that our various enemies have.
Just as communists in China, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea all had their own motives, so do the political radicals within Islamic countries. Yes, each of these groups is critical of American engagement in the Middle East. But they do not have monolithic goals and tactics.
One of the reasons that America triumphed in the Cold War is that we acknowledged and exploited divisions within the communist movements around the world. By opening diplomatic relations with China, the Nixon Administration cut off Soviet prospects for a grand anti-American alliance in Asia. When we chose to indiscriminately isolate communist regimes, as we did with North Korea and Cuba, we paid a dear price. Indeed, the authoritarian regimes in those countries have long outlived the Soviets by terrorizing their people with propaganda claiming that American dominance is their eternal enemy and cause of their suffering.
By engaging with the reasonable elements within Islamist movements, America can avoid making the same mistake.
Lumping movements from Indonesia and Thailand to Nigeria and Somalia into a single, monolithic enemy will only confuse the truth and weaken our ability to break up alliances among dangerous opponents.
If we can move forward with negotiating with the moderate elements of the Taliban, welcoming some Islamists into the Iraqi government, and looking for common ground on terrorism with Iran, we may yet prevent another Cold War and let the more violent forms of Islamic government fall because of their own flaws, rather than letting them remain in power by constantly kicking at a straw man of America’s global power.
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