Can the U.S. Government Buy Moderation in the Middle East? No!
Can the Obama administration turn radicals into moderates with money?
Way back in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said that people in the West didn't understand revolutionary Islamism. "They think," he explained, "the revolution is all about the price of watermelons. It isn't." In other words, this is an ideological cause, not a quality-of-life revolution where people can be bribed.
Three examples to prove a "no" answer:
1. The Palestinian case
On May 26 at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed a new plan. He wants to find $4 billion from investors. If he does this, he claims, the Palestinian economy will be doing great, people will be employed, and there will be peace.
Actually, this is a bribe to get the Palestinian Authority back to negotiations with Israel -- which would also mean, of course, that the Obama administration can claim a foreign policy success. That's $4 billion to buy a negotiations' process that will meet a few times and break down in deadlock, as has happened over 20 years under far better potential conditions and additional billions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians. The initiative is also intended to get the Palestinian Authority to drop plans to seek statehood at the UN; to file cases against Israel at the World Court; and to try to join other international institutions as an independent state.
What should the money be spent on, according to Kerry? Why, on tourism!
No doubt tourists are just lining up to go to the West Bank. (They certainly aren’t going to go to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where the rockets' red glare has a different meaning.)
Notice incidentally that these are not productive investments. Perhaps Kerry could have proposed investment in green energy. After all, the West Bank has much better prospects for solar power than does the United States.
The supposed uses to which the money would be put further signal that this is a political bribe. If this money is found, says Kerry:
Experts believe that we can increase the Palestinian GDP by as much as 50% over three years. Their most optimistic estimates foresee enough new jobs to cut unemployment by nearly two-thirds -- to 8%, down from 21% today -- and to increase the median annual wage along with it, by as much as 40%.
Should the secretary of state be talking on such a level of fantasy? Does a single one of his listeners believe this?
Tony Blair, to whom the tourism project was turned over by Kerry, has been the negotiator for the quartet for 11 years. Guess how many visits he has made to Jerusalem? Answer: 87. And basically, he's accomplished zero. Here is the short list of achievements that he even dares claim after 11 years, 87 trips, and vast amounts of money.
How about the "experts'" more pessimistic estimates, or even their realistic ones? Kerry has chosen the worst possible plan -- investment in an industry that is incredibly sensitive to political unrest. Are Palestinians going to become hotel managers, waiters, lifeguards at swimming pools, and so on? What will Hamas think about the influx of massive numbers of Western tourists? The sale of alcohol? Western women coming in wearing whatever they want? What would happen to this investment if there was a single terrorist attack in the West Bank, much less one against tourists? Might events in nearby Egypt and Syria affect Western tourism?
While Israel is successful at tourism, it is a developed country with far more to see. Remember east Jerusalem -- the main tourist attraction -- is controlled by Israel, not the Palestinian Authority. Once you get beyond Bethlehem, which tourists can visit easily while spending a night in an Israeli hotel -- what’s there to do in the West Bank?
Is this a good idea for a $4 billion investment?
The economics will never work properly or fully without the political process. ... President Abbas, the economic approach is not a substitute for the political approach. The political approach is essential and it is our top priority. In fact, none of this vision … will happen without the context of the two-state solution.
Question: If billions of dollars have not bought PA support for a two-state solution in 20 years, why should anything change now?
Predictably, the PA reaction was that Israel would have to give still more concessions before it would do Israel and the United States the favor of returning to negotiations so that it could obtain a state -- even though it is so weak that these two have to prop it up, and it only controls half the territory it is bargaining for. No matter how much time and money Kerry takes to restart the "peace process," nothing is going to happen.
It is remarkable that the West still doesn't understand this. Or perhaps it does, and is putting in all this effort for show?
2. Syria, the Bashar al-Assad regime
For two years, during the first half of the Obama administration, the United States tried to buy Syria out of its alliance with Iran by dangling trade and other financial inducements. We were assured that the Syrians would eagerly "sell out." But of course this never happened.
3. Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood
After the civil war began, when the United States tried to isolate the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra) in December 2012 by designating it as a terrorist group, even the Free Syrian Army, supposedly the moderates, denounced the move -- as did more than 30 Syrian Salafist rebel groups. This was despite the offers of weapons and money. U.S. officials dealing with the Islamist rebel groups knew that they could not get them to do anything the United States wanted. Nevertheless, at the recent meeting of the Syrian opposition, the State Department spokesman explained:
We have recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and we will work with Prime Minister Hitto. Our assistance will be channeled in large part through him and his team into these towns in liberated parts of Syria.
Translation: One among several opposition groups -- the one controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood -- is recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative (even though many groups are boycotting it); the Muslim Brotherhood's guy is the "prime minister"; and the U.S. government intends to disburse a total of $1 billion raised internationally through the Muslim Brotherhood. How much patronage will that buy for the Brotherhood?
Kerry also announced that $250 million in U.S. taxpayer money is going to go directly to a group directed by the Muslim Brotherhood to spend as it wishes, presumably to go mainly to local Brotherhood groups and militias.
But what was the Brotherhood-dominated, so-called National Coalition -- which is the U.S. recognized opposition group -- doing at the same time? Answer: refusing to broaden its membership.
Even proposals that the Brotherhood be left with two-thirds of the seats were ultimately rejected by the Brotherhood. And who were the proposed new members? Michel Kilo and his allies, courageous moderates who the West should have been supporting all along!
After playing games on adding these people, the Brotherhood leadership turned it down. Kilo's moderate group, by the way, was not the one recognized by the United States as the "legitimate representative of the Syrian people." The National Coalition also leaves out the Kurds -- whose leadership is secular -- and except for tokens, the Alawites, Druze, and Christians, too. It basically represents the roughly 25 or 30 percent who support the various Islamist rebel groups.
They also came up with a new scheme to empower the Brotherhood's local councils within Syria as a basis for an internal opposition government that would disburse any funds. The situation is not good in rebel-controlled Syria, as there is no source of money. Would the West raise funds that would be handed out by the Muslim Brotherhood to its supporters?
Turkey and Qatar, supposed U.S. partners, are doing everything possible to support the Brotherhood. Even the Saudis now see through these schemes and reportedly realize that helping the Salafists is suicidal to their interests.
Why is it that the "official" Syrian opposition group refuses to broaden its base to non-Islamists, but still gets U.S. support?
Isn't money and weaponry supposed to provide U.S. leverage?
Meanwhile, President Obama stated recently that the United States has spent $1 trillion -- a considerable part of the deficit -- on anti-terrorism measures.
Note: My colleague, Dr. Jonathan Spyer, was on a BBC show with a British Conservative member of parliament who insisted that Syria was a secular country and that none of the rebels were Islamists. This is the level of ignorance among many politicians and others in the West.
If you are interested in reading more about Syria, you're welcome to read my book The Truth About Syria online or download it for free.
For a discussion of what I think U.S. policy toward terrorism and Islamism should be, see here.