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Heather Robinson

Heather Robinson

Posted: October 14, 2009 10:25 AM

American Foreign Policy Council's Ilan Berman Exhorts the West to Find its Backbone

What's Your Reaction?

Ilan Berman's new book, Winning the Long War, Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009) catalogues American successes and failures to defeat radical Islam post-9/11. In its quiet, detailed, meticulously researched way, it is a powerful call to action in the war against radical Islam -- especially the war of ideas.

The book is wonkish, but chock full of useful facts and research about what's happening, ideologically, across the Middle East and the Muslim world. So I'll try in this blog post/review to crystallize those elements I found most hard-hitting.

Berman is vice president for policy of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington D.C. and an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. He has consulted for the Defense Department and the CIA, so I thought his book might be worth reading to get an overview of U.S. efforts.

There's much discussion of using economic leverage to weaken corrupt, autocratic regimes such as those in power in Iran, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea. But what interested me most was Berman's exploration of the need for an "ideological offensive": a full-throttle communications and education war to counter radical Islam's potency and to promote democracy and dissident movements that uphold freedom and human rights.

American leaders, according to Berman, have a habit of voicing support for democracy movements and then abandoning their champions, failing to provide them with economic or strategic support.

While acknowledging that the Middle East is "historically inhospitable" to democracy, Berman writes that, in principle, the U.S. understands the need to support true reformers and human rights advocates in the region. But practically speaking, the U.S. has done little in this area.

Palestinians, he points out, had a choice in January, 2006 between a corrupt Palestinian Authority and a fanatical Islamist one, Hamas, that they hoped would not be corrupt.

Simply promoting elections without promoting democratic institutions resulted in the election of radicals (to Berman's analysis I would add that in an environment in which children are systematically inculcated to become "martyrs," or suicide warriors, and any adult who openly voices disagreement with the government's radical agenda is brutalized, is it any surprise when fanatics like Hamas carry the day)?

Berman writes that in the run-up to the Palestinian elections, U.S. energies were not directed towards pressuring Fatah to reform corruption or towards supporting comparatively moderate political figures in the Palestinian territories (doing so, I would add, would be a far better use of American taxpayer dollars than helping to fund The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). In a stinging irony, the U.S. contributes a significant portion of the funding for this UN Agency, which employs members of Hamas and runs schools where children are inculcated to hate Israel, Jews, Americans, and British).

Despite his belief that the U.S. must defend and promote freedom and democracy, Berman writes about the need for America to pick its battles. In the case of Russia, for instance, while American politicians justifiably object to the repressive, authoritarian rule of Vladamir Putin, Berman believes the U.S. is somewhat limited in its ability to promote democracy and human rights lest we alienate a potential ally in combating Islamist extremism.

Berman also discusses what he calls the "education gap" in the Muslim world. Following the attacks of September 11, many Americans asked "Why do they hate us?" and assumed it was the result of poverty.

Berman points out that in reality, the majority of the September 11 hijackers were products of middle- and even upper-class upbringings. In fact, research suggests that to the extent economic factors correlate to Islamist extremism, they point to those who are more wealthy being more likely to embrace radicalism, especially in leadership positions.

However, "if the connection between poverty and militancy is tenuous ... the one between radicalism and education is more causal," according to Berman. Membership in terrorist organizations and Islamist militancy are strongly correlated with having received a radical Islamist education.

The implications are ominous in light of the state of education across the Muslim world today. One shocking statistic in Berman's book is that in the Middle East and North Africa, 45 percent of the population is under 25, and 21.5 percent is aged 18 to 24. Thus "more than half the entire Middle East and North Africa is school age, and will continue to be for at least another generation." Yet in these areas, madrassas and state-funded schools preaching Islamist extremism and hatred of the West proliferate, and the U.S. has done little in the realm of support for dissidents, promotion of liberal education, or dissemination of liberal ideas via media, to counter this hate education.

An especially "emblematic -- and egregious -- example of this trend" is America's failure to even fund basic education in Iraq, according to Berman.

Toward the end of the book Berman explores an ironic problem: the use, by Islamic extremists, of elections to advance their radical agenda. It happened in Egypt, he points out, with the Muslim Brotherhood's capture of more than a fifth of the votes in the country's parliament in December, 2005. It happened in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a Shi'ite militia established with Iran's help in the early 1980's, now operates as a full-fledged political party in Beirut. It happened in Turkey, where an Islamist faction, the Justice and Development Party, came to power in 2002. And it happened with Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections.

Berman speculates that the appeal of these radical groups in elections is perhaps not so much due to their inherent attractiveness to voters as to the fact that "they serve as the only viable outlet for expression among those who are opposed to official policy." In other words, Islamist victories in recent elections in the middle east may reflect the lack, not the existence, of true democracy, because any candidates advocating other values are brutally repressed.

The U.S. response has been a feeble acknowledgment of these "democratically" elected groups (I place "democratically" in quotes because again, without taking place in a society that protects individual rights and maintains democratic institutions, the validity of such results as an expression of popular will is dubious).

Berman writes that radical Islamists who are elected only use the mantle of democracy in order to attempt destruction of those values that buttress true democracy and make it possible: respect for individual rights; free speech and an independent press; checks on government power.

Instead of respecting those democratic ideals and building institutions to sustain them, Islamists are winning elections for the purpose of doing away with them. In Egypt, for instance, "the Muslim Brotherhood is adamant that the system should ultimately be transformed into a 'true Islamic state' and makes no secret of the fact that its ultimate objective is 'mastering the world with Islam,'" Berman writes.

He points out that Hezbollah still seeks destruction of the U.S. and Israel, and Turkey's AKP "envisions the transformation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular republic into an 'Islamic state.'"

Additionally, while using the apparatus of democracy, these groups seek to radicalize and mobilize a mass of people to go to war with the West.

Regime Change

In the book's final section Berman discusses regime change.

He argues that while Iraq has made Americans justifiably squeamish about regime change through force, we must not shelve the imperative to promote reform in the Muslim world and to confront the autocracy and mass indoctrination that breed terrorism.

In the case of the current standoff with Iran over its race to develop nuclear weapons, Berman theorizes that a U.S. military strike on Iran is "exceedingly unlikely" due to factors such as the political fallout from the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that painted a benign picture of Iran's nuclear quest (one wonders, reading Berman's book in mid-October, 2009 if his assessment is any different since Teheran's brazen announcement of an additional nuclear facility heretofore hidden in a mountainside outside the city of Qom).

He postulates that Iran's mullahs have become convinced, based on North Korea's breakout announcement of its nuclear capability, (which effectively stymied U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Asia since), that the ticket to survival of their regime is getting nukes. In contrast, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein illustrated the vulnerability of rogue states that lack nuclear weapons, a lesson Berman believes has not been lost on Iran's leadership. He writes, "Simply put, Iran's ayatollahs have become convinced that the stability of their regime is directly correlated to the maturity of their nuclear effort."

Berman points out that, sadly, the U.S. has been failing miserably in its stated goal of supporting the Iranian people's drive for freedom. Despite President Bush's call for Iranian leadership to respect that drive, between 2004 and 2008 the U.S. "offered only $215 million in funding for all diplomatic programs dealing with Iran" and of that, only a paltry $38.6 million was dedicated to democracy promotion.

Under the Obama administration, this neglect persists. Since taking office, President Obama has emphasized diplomacy with Iran's leadership, even despite recent protests in which thousands of peaceful Iranian freedom-seekers were brutalized by the government.

Berman argues "internal conditions [in Iran] have never painted a more hopeful picture of Iran's potential for change."

Indeed, in the opinion of this blogger, U.S. support for the brave Iranian opposition is shamefully overdue. The Iranian people's enemy, their brutal government, is also the enemy of free people across the globe. To support those who seek freedom and an overthrow of the mullahs is not only strategic, it is ethical.

A decision to take a vacation from our international responsibility as leader of the free world will not protect our freedoms; to the contrary, placing our heads in the sand will speed the day we will need to adopt that posture in defeat. Like it or not, the West is locked in an ideological struggle with implacable enemies.

I agree with Berman that liberal democratic nations and their citizens must find our conviction, resolution, and true allies and take up the task of "Winning the Long War."