The much-discussed reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which only days ago brought an abrupt end to the latest round of attempted peace talks, is likely to have more legs than such reconciliations have had in the past. As conditions change across the Middle East, the forces that can drive Hamas and Fatah together are becoming stronger than those that have largely kept them apart. The same forces are already affecting the calculations of other players, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But at this critical juncture, the U.S. is stuck in an old framework, one that pits American policy advocates against each other, somewhat uselessly, across an outdated dividing line. An announcement this past weekend has put the issue in perspective. The Palestinian Authority, according to Ma’an News, is sending 3,000 security troops to Gaza to operate jointly with the security forces of Hamas. The PA troops are funded substantially through American aid. Hamas, of course, is a designated terrorist group, and for good reason.
The growing menace: State-Islamism
But it’s more than that. Hamas is a category of entity that the U.S. has so far failed to recognize and develop a meaningful policy on: a state-Islamist entity, one that runs a “government” and rules a people, using a combination of brutality, corruption, and guerrilla tactics in the name of a totalitarian vision of sharia. Hamas is very much like the Taliban in this respect. But it’s also like the mullahs of Islamist Iran, and like Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the jihadis of the regionalist “ISIS” insurgency in Syria and Iraq, and the self-declared “Caucasus Emirate” that serves as a focus for the Islamist insurgency in southern Russia.
The Muslim Brotherhood itself – i.e., in its nominally more respectable incarnations in formal political parties – is pursuing a state-Islamist agenda in nations from Malaysia and Indonesia to Iraq, Turkey, and the Arab-Spring nations of Egypt and Tunisia. “State-Islamism” is a better definition of the Eastern hemisphere’s big, systemic security problem today than “terrorism” is. State-Islamism is only a few breaths away (if that) from menacing multiple borders – and it’s going to be about control of territory and central governments, rather than just undermining the confidence of shaky status-quo governments and a spiritually exhausted, skittery West.
Terrorism per se will continue, of course, although state-Islamists will increasingly muscle out its practitioners where it inconveniences them. Strongmen like Egypt’s al-Sisi will try to suppress and corral it, when they get in power. What’s important, however, is that we have left behind the day when mere “terrorism,” untethered to larger territorial strategies, was the model of Islamist manifestation. And in a new and perilous way, the momentum in the Hamas-Fatah marriage is with Hamas.
That means everything else has changed. It’s impossible to overemphasize how the longstanding outline of the “Israeli-Palestinian” problem has been transformed in the last three years. The alignment of partisans surrounding the problem is more in flux than it has been in a century, if not longer. Hamas and Fatah see possibilities that are not limited by any boundaries set by American power – and so does everyone else, from Moscow to Ankara to Tehran, Riyadh, and Cairo. Beijing doesn’t despair of getting a piece of the action. Even less politically engaged players, like Japan and India, recognize the importance to their interests of the developments in the region.
The outdated policy argument in Washington
But in the United States, the conversation continues in the same old conceptual ruts. Here are Hamas and Fatah proposing to conduct joint security operations in Gaza, and the framework for considering that undesirable seems to be bounded, in the shallowest terms, by “Rand Paul,” on one side, and pro-Israel traditionalists on the other.
Senator Paul wants to set stringent conditions for the continuation of aid to the Palestinian Authority, with the U.S. fully prepared to withdraw the aid if the conditions aren’t met. Sending U.S.-funded PA security troops to Gaza to labor alongside Hamas would certainly disqualify the PA for aid under such a scheme. Naturally, Americans don’t want our taxpayer dollars going to fund joint operations with Hamas, so score one, at least superficially, for the Paul posture.
As discussed in considerable detail by columnists in the “pro-Israel traditionalist” mold, however (see here as well), the Paul posture is short-sighted. Given Rand Paul’s isolationist streak, it’s also suspect on principle. Paul’s stance is at a minimum one-dimensional, dismissing the reality that the U.S. needs to have a big-picture policy on the Levantine region, one that acknowledges the reasons for engaging with the PA and keeping it shored up.
This whole argument is frankly misdirected. The problem with the U.S. policy today is that it’s comprehensively outdated. In strategic terms, it helps neither to keep throwing money down the rat-hole of PA institutions, such as they are, nor to propose simply cutting that money off for bad behavior. Our whole policy, starting with the premises and expectations, is out of position. It has fallen off the back of a moving train, and is lying inert across the tracks as the train chugs away in the distance.
Some thoughts for the future
It would require a separate, multi-part post to frame everything we need to be doing to develop a better policy. But we should start by tallying up how conditions have changed, with the Arab Spring, resurgent Russian aggression, the change in regional governments, the internal conflicts, Iran’s nearness to having a bomb, etc. Integral to any valid assessment is recognizing the importance to the whole equation of American passivity. Conditions have changed in large part because we have become inert, and are failing to support our interests and allies assertively.
That said, these acknowledgments are necessary measures for developing good policy; they’re not sufficient ones. The serious look we haven’t given the situation centers on the “who” and “what” that we can work with in the region. Cynicism about this question is short-sighted; we would pay a high price in the long run for merely trying to pick winners from among strong and weak horses. A future for American security lies in a more visionary approach: cultivating moderates, liberalizers, and pragmatists where we can find them, across the great swath of territory from North Africa to Southeast Asia.
The task may be a very difficult one, but it is indispensable. Such people exist, and four or five years ago, we knew – and said – more about them (see here and here as well). We need to find these people, and develop through iterations and interaction a resonance of vision with them. We need to seek them out, care about them, encourage and support them, and not give up hope for regional models of liberality and consensual government, on which they would be the ones to put the important stamp of authenticity.
We can’t fail as this task unfolds to protect boundaries and allies, with the force of arms and ceaseless vigilance. But a great conflict of visions has been inaugurated, and the time has passed when it was adequate to police the hinterland for terrorists, and tend, mechanically, the old institutions and alliances. The alternative to reforming our own vision is letting state-Islamism drive us into a new and potentially worse “cold war,” one that will probably move faster and more dangerously than the last one. One way or another, we can end it only in one of two ways: by surrendering; or by winning the conflict on a political, moral, and spiritual level.
Winning, of course, will require a renewal of the West’s own spirit. Not exactly simple stuff. I’m as well aware as the next person of how far we seem to be from such a goal. And we will be routed on an excruciating detour of some kind over the next three years, as the Obama administration and the rest of the West flounder.
But we mustn’t lose sight of the endgame, and where we really want to be. It isn’t enough to punish the PA for sending security troops to Gaza, as if that can satisfy America’s real security requirements. Neither is it enough to prop up the PA in a situation that’s falling apart in other ways. Doing that will equate more and more, with each passing day, to signing checks to our enemies.
Frankly, it should not be out of bounds to consider changing our approach to the PA. We must do it deliberately, and while retaining the initiative for ourselves. Handing the PA triggers to pull, in the form of ultimatums, would be foolish. But it would be equally foolish to ignore a changing reality.
Fortunately, as we contemplate all this, we do have a ready touchstone in the Israeli-Palestinian aspect of the global state-Islamist problem. Israel is an ally whose character and value have not changed, and will not. In important ways, Israel is not just an outpost of the West but a gateway to it. This will become more apparent in the days ahead, although the lies about it are sure to proliferate as well. But the more we are told that Israel is a liability, the more true it will be that Israel is actually indispensable to the grand-strategic project of cultivating peace partners in the Islamic world.
There are ways in which America’s strategic vision will always be larger than Israel’s, as long as a recognizable America endures. But in at least one way, our interests can’t be larger than the fate of Israel. The measure of our commitment to human spiritual freedom is whether we will passively accept its extinction there. If we will not, then we will, for this generation at least, and quite probably for the next, win the fight.