If President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo on Thursday is designed to hit “reset” on Washington’s relations with the Muslim world, the White House may soon find that it is pushing the wrong buttons. Public diplomacy in the lands of Islam is a deeply complicated affair, and Muslims do it much better than U.S. presidents.
It is a given that anything Obama says or does will be an improvement over the Bush administration’s inept efforts at Muslim outreach. And yet it is worth recalling that the Bush administration also sought to appeal directly to Muslims. Bush’s freedom agenda, after all, was intended to give Muslims a democratic voice in their own governance. Nonetheless, Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s one-time point man for Middle East democracy, is one among many across the political spectrum who are concerned that by choosing an authoritarian police state for his podium, Obama may be signaling that the United States is ditching democracy promotion. But the real problem is that Obama has not learned from Bush’s errors. In seeking to speak to the Muslim masses over the heads of their rulers, Obama, as columnist David Goldman (who usually writes under the name Spengler) explains, is undermining an important U.S. ally on his home turf.
“By addressing the ‘Islamic world’ from Cairo,” writes Goldman, “Obama lends credibility to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other advocates of political Islam who demand that Muslims be addressed globally and on religious terms.” In other words, the American president is playing into the hands of those who seek to bring down the U.S.-backed order in the Middle East.
Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, there has been no “Muslim world,” as such. The caliphate was dissolved; Kemal Ataturk refashioned Turkey as a secular republic; and the European powers, particularly Great Britain and France, carved up the Ottomans’ former territories into nation-states like Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Palestine, and Iraq. While Middle Easterners have complained for more than 80 years that these borders were imposed on them by the Europeans, the fact is that the region’s rulers—if not always their subjects—are happy with their holdings.
These regimes fulfill almost none of the functions of a genuine nation-state—such as providing for the welfare of their citizens—but their centralized authority has generally satisfied European and U.S. officials. The stock and trade of our bilateral relations—diplomacy, commerce, and war—are less efficient instruments when transacted with tribal confederations, which, as we now know, thanks to our adventure in Iraq, is the basis of Middle East politics. There is no “Muslim world,” only the chaos of competing clan systems, which is why preserving the quasi-nation-state system of the Middle East is a vital U.S. interest.
Now that Washington has put democracy promotion on the back burner, the only challenge to these regimes is from Islamists and other so-called nonstate actors, as well as the state that stands behind them: the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Obama has unwittingly walked right into the middle of Tehran’s own public diplomacy campaign, one of the most effective PR efforts ever staged.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini introduced many important ideas into contemporary Islamic practice and thought—especially the highly contested notion of vilayet e-faqih, that the religious guide should also hold supreme political power—but perhaps Khomeini’s major contribution was not an innovation but a simplification. To the question What does it mean to be a Muslim? Khomeini gave a one-word answer: resistance.
There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, stretching from India to Indonesia and from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, which makes Islam perhaps the world’s most heterodox faith. Some pray like this, others like that; some are white, some black; some are Arabs, some are Chinese; a minority think Ali should have succeeded the prophet of Islam directly, the majority think it turned out right with Abu Bakr following Mohammed. In addition to Sunnis and Shiites, there are Sufis and Salafis, Wahabbis and Zaidis, as well as dozens of other minority sects. Islam, despite the simplicity of its profession of faith—there is no God but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God—is an esoteric creed with more than a millennium of jurisprudence and philosophy behind it. Islam is complicated. But Khomeini reduced this all to one big idea: Being a Muslim means opposition to the West, especially the United States. This is Khomeini’s Muslim world—not a caliphate or a wonderful mosaic of various practices and beliefs, but a unity forged on the anvil of resistance. This concept is what bridges, for instance, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia.
This ideological bearing has had profound strategic consequences, for if Muslims must be in opposition to the Great Satan, they must also be in opposition to the West’s allies, including not only the Little Satan, Israel, but also the Sunni Arab powers that are aligned with Washington. Tehran’s public diplomacy campaign is designed to separate the Arab masses from their regimes, a tactic it employed, for instance, in the July 2006 war pitting Hezbollah against Israel. In the court of Muslim public opinion, tacit support for an Israeli war against Tehran’s Lebanese client cost the Arab states dearly, that is every Arab state save Syria, an Iranian ally, which also supports Hezbollah.
The Iranian axis fared less well after Israel’s attack on Hamas, another Iranian asset, in Gaza this past winter. When Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah encouraged the Egyptian masses to topple President Hosni Mubarak for backing Israel against Hamas, Egyptian popular opinion turned against Hezbollah, for as much as the inhabitants of the Nile river valley may support resistance elsewhere, they don’t like it at home. How dare this “cab driver,” as some Egyptians called Nasrallah, interfere with internal Egyptian matters? Mubarak had struck gold—Egyptians were no longer behaving like fans of the resistance or as an amorphous grouping of “Muslims” supporting transnational Muslim causes; they were acting like loyal Egyptians, in line with the ruling regime. In effect, Obama’s speech to the “Muslim world” serves to erase the national borders of our Arab allies, and however questionable those allies are, their borders serve American interests, and erasing them serves Iranian ends.
The president says he understands the Iranian threat and knows how dangerous its nascent nuclear program is to regional stability. He explains that he wants to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process because he thinks this will give him leverage against Iran. He hears Arab rulers saying that peace will strengthen the moderates and weaken the radicals, but this is not what they’re really saying. The president stopped off in Riyadh before Cairo to ask the Saudis for a few minor concessions toward Israel, like opening an interests section in Tel Aviv, or, as the New York Times put it, issuing a “few symbolic tourist visas for Israelis, or agree[ing] to hold open meetings with Israeli counterparts.” But the Saudis will never do any such thing, because they know that at a very dangerous time in the region, it would only show them up as American stooges and crypto-Zionists and thereby enhance Iran’s regional status as the stalwart defender of resistance. Washington’s Arab allies are telling Obama that Iran is the problem, but he can’t hear them while he’s doing Tehran’s public diplomacy.