Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman and well given.
– William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Caesar, of course, was right in being suspicious and Marc Antony was wrong. Result: Caesar murdered; civil war; tens of thousands killed; Marc Antony dead. Makes you think. Or at least it should.
An interesting and important question about the Middle East (and one can treat it on a global level, too) is whether being in power or running in an election inevitably moderates those who are radicals. It is automatically accepted by many people that this is so. Yet an examination of evidence shows such behavior more rare than common.
Let’s begin by pointing out that some of the problem is the unthinking transference of things that might be true in private and personal life into the political sphere. As individuals mature and have experience, they often become more moderate. And there are many cases of individual politicians “selling out” and abandoning more militant ideas to become corrupt. Yet neither case necessarily applies to systems, movements, or ideologies.
Even more questionable is the view that the difficulties of having to make decisions in government forces leaders to become more responsible. For example, they learn that money is not unlimited and therefore priorities must be set. Supposedly, they say to themselves: Hey, collecting the garbage and fixing the potholes is what’s important, forget about all this silly stuff about fundamentally transforming society, imposing the Sharia, destroying Israel, or chasing America out of the Middle East.
A problem with this argument is that it leaves out the political advantages for rulers of using demagoguery, incitement, and populism. To stay in power, a politician — particularly in a non-democratic country — gains advantage from militancy, real or feigned.
Another simplistic argument is that anyone who runs in elections and wins is automatically moderate because they participated in a legalistic, democratic process. This argument is quite full of holes. One should not confuse tactical caution with moderation. For example: President Hafez al-Assad of Syria knew after 1973 that a direct confrontation with Israel was a losing proposition, so instead he backed terrorist groups and used Lebanon as a launching pad for the attacks. Being radical does not necessarily mean being suicidal.