Kramer is one of America's great scholars on Arab and Islamic affairs.
With a PhD from Princeton, he has written nine books including Ivory Towers on Sand, which
was actually a revelation in and to the academy of how intellectually
and financially indentured is much of the professoriate in the field. Via the Shalem Center:
is the new buzzword in Washington and the Middle East. The incoming
Obama administration has pledged itself to launching negotiations with
Iran, while Hamas has invited the administration to begin a dialogue.
The potential rewards of such a policy are much discussed. But what are
the risks? In this number of On Second Thought, Martin
Kramer, senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard's at Olin
Institute the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard and at the
Shalem Center in Jerusalem, proposes some answers.
What do the present financial crisis and U.S. Middle East policy have in common?
By Martin Kramer
the financial crisis was a well-practiced mechanism for concealing
risk. The risk was there, and it was constantly growing, but it could
be disguised, repackaged and renamed, so that in the end it seemed to
have disappeared. Much of the debate about foreign policy in the United
States is conducted in the same manner: policymakers and pundits, to
get what they want, conceal the risks.
case of the Middle East, they concealed the risks of bringing Yasser
Arafat in from the cold; they concealed the risks of neglecting the
growth of Al Qaeda; and they concealed the risks involved in occupying
Iraq. It isn't that the risks weren't known—to someone. The
intelligence was always there. But if you were clever enough, and
determined enough, you could find a way to conceal them.
concealed risk doesn't go away. It accumulates away from sight, until
the moment when it surges back to the surface. It did that after Camp
David in 2000, when the "peace process" collapsed in blood; it did that
on 9/11, when hijackers shattered the skies over New York in
Washington; and it happened in Iraq, when an insurgency kicked us back.
This tendency to downplay risk may be an American trait: we have seen
it in U.S. markets, and now we see it in U.S. election-year politics.
In Middle East policy, its outcome has been a string of very unpleasant
A case in point is radical Islam.
One would think that after the Iranian revolution, the assassination of
Anwar Sadat, the terrorism of Hezbollah, the Rushdie affair, the
suicide attacks of Hamas and Al Qaeda, the Danish cartoons, and a host
of other "surprises," that we would not be inclined to ignore the risks
posed by radical Islam. And yet there are batteries of interpreters,
analysts and pundits whose principal project is to obscure if not
conceal the risks. Here are some of the most widespread variations on
Worried about Ahmadinejad? Pay him
no mind. He doesn't really call the shots in Iran, he's just a
figurehead. And anyway, he didn't really say what he's purported to
have said, about wiping Israel off the map. What the Iranians really
want is to sit down with us and cut a deal. They have a few grievances,
some of them are even legitimate, so let's hear them out and invite
them to the table, without preconditions. Iran isn't all that
dangerous; it's just a small country; and even their own people are
tired of the revolution. So pay no attention to Ahmadinejad, and pay no
attention to the old slogans of "death to America," because that's not
the real Iran.
Worried about the Palestinian
Hamas? You've got it wrong. They merely represent another face of
Palestinian nationalism. They aren't really Islamists at all: Hamas is
basically a protest movement against corruption. Given the right
incentives, they can be drawn into the peace process. Sure, they say
they will never recognize Israel, but that is what the PLO once said,
and didn't they change their tune? Anyway, Hamas controls Gaza, so
there can't be a real peace process—a settlement of the big issues like
Jerusalem, refugees, borders—without bringing them into the tent. So
let's sit down and talk to them, figure out what their grievances
are—no doubt, some of them are legitimate too. And let's get the
process back on track.
Troubled by Hezbollah?
Don't believe everything they say. They only pretend to be faithful to
Iran's ayatollahs, and all their talk about "onwards to Jerusalem" is
rhetoric for domestic consumption. What they really want is to earn the
Shiites their rightful place in Lebanon, and improve the lot of their
aggrieved sect. Engage them, dangle some carrots, give them a place at
the table, and see how quickly they transform themselves from an armed
militia into a peaceable political party.
so on. There is a large industry out there, which has as its sole
purpose the systematic downplaying of the risks posed by radical Islam.
And in the best American tradition, these risks are repackaged as
opportunities, under a new name. It could just as easily be called
appeasement, but the public associates appeasement with high risk. So
let's rename it engagement, which sounds low-risk—after all, there's no
harm in talking, right? And once the risk has been minimized, the
possible pay-off is then inflated: if we engage with the Islamists, we
will reap the reward in the form of a less tumultuous Middle East.
Nuclear plans might be shelved, terror might wane, and peace might
The engagement package rests upon a
key assumption: that these "radical" states, groups, and individuals
are motivated by grievances. If only we were able to address or
ameliorate those grievances, we could effectively domesticate just
about every form of Islamism. Another assumption is that these
grievances are finite—that is, by ameliorating them, they will be
It is precisely here that advocates
of "engagement" are concealing the risk. They do so in two ways. First,
they distract us from the deep-down dimension of Islamism—from the
overarching narrative that drives all forms of Islamism. The narrative
goes like this: the enemies of Islam—America, Europe, the Christians,
the Jews, Israel—enjoy much more power than the believing Muslims do.
But if we Muslim return to the faith, we can restore to ourselves the
vast power we exercised in past, when Islam dominated the world as the
West dominates it today. The Islamists believe that through
faith—exemplified by self-sacrifice and self-martyrdom—they can put
history in reverse.
Once this is understood,
the second concealment of risk comes into focus. We are told that the
demands of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran are finite. If we give them a
concession here, or a foothold there, we will have somehow diminished
their demand for more concessions and footholds. But if their purpose
is the reversal of history, then our gestures of accommodation, far
from enticing them to give up their grand vision, only persuade them to
press on. They understand our desire to engage them as a sign of
weakness—an attempt to appease them—which is itself an enticement for
them to push harder against us and our allies. And since they believe
in their narrative of an empowered Islam with the fervency of religious
conviction, no amount of insistence by us that we will go only so far
and no further will stop thOur
inability to estimate this risk derives in part from our unwillingness
to give credence to religious conviction in politics. We are keen to
recast Islamists in secular terms—to see them as political parties, or
reform movements, or interest groups. But what if Islamists are none of
these things? What if they see themselves as soldiers of God, working
his will in the world? How do you deal with someone who believes that a
paradise awaits every jihadist "martyr," and that the existence of this
paradise is as real and certain to him as the existence of a Sheraton
Hotel in Chicago? Or that at any moment, the mahdi, the awaited one,
could make a reappearance and usher in the end of days? How do we
calculate that risk?
are the real risks posed by Islamic extremism? If I were preparing a
prospectus for a potential investor in "engagement," or a warning label
on possible side effects of "engagement," they would include these
Iran: The downside
risk is that Iran will prolong "engagement" in such a way as to buy
time for its nuclear program—perhaps just the amount of time it needs
to complete it. At the same time, it will use the fact of "engagement"
with the United States to chisel away at the weak coalition of Arab
states that the United States has cobbled together to contain Iran. If
"engagement" is unconditionally offered, Iran will continue its
subversive activities in Iraq and Lebanon until it receives some other
massive concession. Indeed, it may even accelerate these activities, so
as to demand a higher price for their cessation. If the United States
stands its ground and "engagement" fails, many in the Middle East will
automatically blame the United States, but by then, military options
will be even less appealing than they are today.
The downside risk is that "engagement"—even if conducted indirectly
through various mediators—will be the nail in the coffin of Mahmoud
Abbas, and of any directly negotiated understandings between Israel and
the Palestinians. It is true that Israelis and Palestinians aren't
capable today of reaching a final status agreement. But the present
situation in the West Bank allows for a degree of stability and
cooperation. This is because Israel stands as the guarantor against
Hamas subversion of the West Bank. "Engagement" with Hamas would weaken
that guarantee, signal to Palestinians once again that terrorism pays,
and validate and legitimate the anti-Semitic, racist rhetoric that
emanates daily from the leaders and preachers of Hamas. It might do all
this without bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace even one inch closer.
The downside risk is that "engagement" will effectively concede control
of Lebanon to an armed militia that constitutes a state within a state.
It will undermine America's pretension to champion civil society and
pluralism in the most diverse Arab state. It will constitute the final
rout of the beleaguered democracy forces within Lebanon, which have
been consistently pro-American. It will compound the unfortunate
effects of the 2006 summer war, by seeming to acknowledge Hezbollah as
the victor. And it might do all this without bringing about the
disarming of a single Hezbollah terrorist, or the removal of a single
Iranian-supplied missile from Lebanon.
would have to be a relentless pessimist to believe that all the
downside risks I have outlined would be realized. But every serious
advocate of "engagement" should acknowledge the risks, and explain
their strategy for mitigating them. And it isn't enough to say: don't
worry, we're going to practice "tough engagement." Perhaps we might.
But most of the risks arise from the very fact of engagement—from the
legitimacy it accords to the other party.
the Middle East, the idea that "there's no harm in talking" is entirely
incomprehensible. It matters whom you talk to, because you legitimize
your interlocutors. Hence the Arab refusal to normalize relations with
Israel. Remember the scene that unfolded this past summer, when Bashar
Asad scrupulously avoided contact with Ehud Olmert on the same
reviewing stand at a Mediterranean summit. An Arab head of state will
never directly engage Israel before extracting every concession. Only
an American would think of doing this at the outset, and in return for
nothing: "unconditional talks" is a purely American concept,
incomprehensible in the Middle East. There is harm in
talking, if your talking legitimates your enemies, and persuades them
and those on the sidelines that you have done so from weakness. For
only the weak talk "unconditionally," which is tantamount to accepting
the enemy's conditions. It is widely regarded as the prelude to
The United States
cannot afford to roll the dice again in the Middle East, in the pious
hope of winning it all. Chances are slim to nil that the United States
is going to talk the Iranians, Hamas or Hezbollah out of their grand
plan. Should that surprise us? We "engaged" before, with Yasser Arafat,
and we know how that ended. We downplayed radical rhetoric before, with
Osama bin Laden, and we know how that ended. We assumed we could talk
people out of their passions in Iraq, and we know how that ended.
is time to question risk-defying policies in the Middle East. The
slogans of peace and democracy misled us. Let's not let the new slogan
of engagement do the same. The United States is going to have to show
the resolve and grit to wear and grind down adversaries, with soft
power, hard power and will power. Paradoxically, that is the least
risky path—because if America persists, it will prevail.