Middle East Brief Comments

Comment by: Marty Gross ’72
Regarding: Abdel Monem Said Aly, “From Deterrence to Legitimacy: A Proposed Shift in US Policy in the Middle East,” Middle East Brief 17, March 2007.

I recently read Crown Center Brief No. 17 by Abdel Monem Said Aly, “From Deterrence to Legitimacy: A Proposed Shift in U.S. Policy in the Middle ” March, 2007. I am aware of the author’s reputation as a serious scholar of the Middle East. I am also aware of the Crown Center’s mission to present diverse points of view, based on rigorous scholarly analysis, concerning various issues of Middle Eastern affairs. Nevertheless, I think this Brief suffers from poor labeling, historical inaccuracies by commission and omission and lack of context that taken together add up to an overall misrepresentation of the current reality. Palestinian violence is scarcely mentioned. Instances of alleged cause and effect are unsupported, if not contradicted, by the historic record. In short, the historical portrayal is incomplete and, therefore, misleading. I think we owe it to the reader to ensure that Crown edited manuscripts are factually accurate, regardless of the policy prescriptions of the author, and that relevant context accompanies the author's assertions. This Brief is in need of serious editing.

Poor Definitions

On page 1 the author suggests that Fatah, which lost to “Islamic fundamentalist forces,” is “liberal.” Yet Fatah is known to have committed dozens of suicide murders in this decade alone and continues to propagate messages of incitement and hatred to the Palestinian body politic, especially children, in the Palestinian media. Calling Fatah “liberal” is quite inappropriate, and inclines one to think that the Brief is a political statement rather than a conclusion based on serious scholarship. Unfortunately, the sentence construction is confusing and potentially misleading. Did the author mean that of the losing “liberal and secular” parties, some were “secular” but not “liberal,” others “liberal” but not “secular,” and some both. The reader can only guess. This reflects poor editing. Sadly, taking the sentence at face value, the losers were “liberal and secular,” which results in a reader applying both labels to Fatah, again an inaccurate inference.

Errors of Omission

In the next sentence, the author states: “On June 25, 2006 a mini-war erupted in the Palestinian territories as Israeli forces returned to Gaza, less than a year after Israel disengaged from the area. And on July 12, 2006, following a cross-border incursion by Hezbollah, Israel launched a major military operation against Lebanon….” This is both bad history and amounts to a sanitation of Palestinian violence, since in both instances an abduction was involved. Moreover, Hezbollah accompanied the kidnapping of two and killing of eight Israeli soldiers with rocketing of Israel along its northern border.

Whereas there was at least some operative cause cited for Israel entering Lebanon, war just ‘erupted’ when it came to the Palestinians and Gaza.

Factual Misstatements

On page 2 we read that “the nuclearization of Iran” is a response to Bush’s war on terror. Did not the Iranian nuclear program pre-date the Bush Administration? In fact, the IAEA has concluded that Iranian unreported activities date back to 1988. To establish a cause and effect relationship between Bush’s war on terror and Iran’s nuclearization program is highly inaccurate and once more is suggestive of a political viewpoint, rather than scholarly deduction. The author made the same point in Crown Center Brief No. 11, October 2006, where he characterized the Iranian nuclear program as part of a counter-offensive to Bush’s war on terror.

On page 2 the author states: “In some sense, Islamic fundamentalism, in its different faces, questions the merits and justification of U.S. and western hegemony over world affairs…” That is quite an understatement. One key aspect of Muslim fundamentalists is a desire for a global caliphate, which is a bit more than questioning U.S. and western “hegemony” over world affairs. This understatement again sanitizes radical anti-western views. The author does qualify his sentence by beginning with “in some sense.” What does this mean? In exactly “what sense?” Why the generalized phrase? Documentation of Islamic fundamentalism’s self-proclaimed global ambitions is extensive and widely known. Why is the author ignoring this?

Also on page 2, does it make any sense (as the author suggests) to think that, from Hezbollah’s perspective, it views its incursion into Israel last July as primarily a counter-offensive against Bush’s war on terror, as opposed to a move taken in regard to internal Lebanese politics?

Does it make sense to view Hamas’ victory in the Gaza strip as primarily a reaction to Bush’s war on terror, as opposed to internal Palestinian politics? Again, no supporting evidence is proferred. Instead, an unsupported political statement is offered to the reader.

Lack of Context

When discussing our “legitimacy deficit,” the author simply stipulates that hatred of the US extends beyond the Arab world to the world at large. There is no doubt that war in Iraq has engendered a lot of criticism against the US. At the same time, I do think that the complex interplay between the State and the media requires examination when it comes to Arab public opinion. With the notable exception of Arab satellite television, much of the Arab media is state-sponsored. In other words, they are shaping some of the anti-Americanism that is emerging from the region. It is well known that the various autocratic governments have reason to blame external forces for their own failures, to re-direct frustration to the convenient American (and often Israeli) scapegoat. In any treatment of Arab public opinion about American policies, it seems to me that one must at least mention the interplay between the state and the media in shaping such hostility.

On page 8, the author makes another unsupportable statement, writing: “The major lesson the U.S. should draw from the history of the Middle East is that unless it works hard to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the conflict will in turn threaten America's vital interests. As the U.S. abandoned its efforts in this realm following the failure of the second Camp David summit, the resulting diplomatic and political vacuum was filled by violence, terror, suicide bombing, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.” In fact, the most intense American involvement in Arab-Israeli peacemaking efforts, that of the Oslo years beginning in 1993, ushered in the some of the worst terrorism in Israel’s history before the failure of the second Camp David summit. Much has been written about the outbreak of the second intifada, but nobody reasonably argues it was attributed to US neglect. Moreover, the outbreak was sustained by Arafat’s failure to delegitimize the violence. Instead, he explicitly exhorted his people to jihad.

On page 9, the author writes that while deterrence worked against communism since it was state-based, Islamic fundamentalism is not state-based (except for Iran) and that the US needs a different conceptual strategy — legitimacy. It is interesting that Abdul Monem Said Aly, a renowned Egyptian, did not make the same argument when the Mubarak regime crushed — and thereby deterred — Ga’ama Islamiya activity in the 1990’s. It may also be noted that military action has also served to deter Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and others, reducing substantially the attack levels of 2000-2004. While it has not stopped all violence, to assume it had no material effect is to ignore the facts. A recent Foreign Affairs article made this point quite convincingly. (See Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted killings Work?,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006; Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 95-111.) Also on page 9, the author argues that a new policy of seeking legitimacy — defined as promoting “broad acceptance of our behavior” — should be substituted for our current policy of deterrence, as opposed to working hand in hand with deterrence. This defies experience.

The last sentence is quite remarkable in its call for “the creation of a coalition of states united by shared values and aimed at facing the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism…” Where does Saudi Arabia fall in this new topography of shared values? It is hard to imagine a situation of ‘shared values’ as opposed to occasional ‘shared interests’ given their Wahhabi religious establishment and its funding of the global jihadist worldview.

I am concerned that this Brief falls short of the top academic standards Brandeis sets for itself.