Team Obama blind to Mideast po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Per­haps the most strik­ing thing about the re­cent death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of Amer­i­can com­man­dos is the re­ac­tion it has elicited through­out the Mid­dle East. That is be­cause, while most re­gional gov­ern­ments have wel­comed news of the al Qaeda chief’s demise, not ev­ery­one is em­brac­ing the post-bin Laden era.

The Tal­iban, for ex­am­ple, have been quick to lion­ize the ter­ror mas­ter­mind and threaten ret­ri­bu­tion against the coali­tion and its al­lies. “Pak­istani rulers, Pres­i­dent Zar­dari and the army will be our first tar­gets,” a spokesman for the move­ment’s Pak­istani branch has warned. “Amer­ica will be our sec­ond tar­get.”

Ha­mas feels much the same way. Just days af­ter an­nounc­ing a his­toric rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ac­cord with its sec­u­lar ri­val, Fatah, the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity’s main Is­lamist move­ment has come out pub­licly in de­fense of bin Laden and in op­po­si­tion to the United States.

Even Egypt’s Mus­lim Brother­hood has waxed sym­pa­thetic, con­demn­ing bin Laden’s “as­sas­si­na­tion” and de­fend­ing al Qaeda’s “re­sis­tance” against the U.S. pres­ence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These pro­nounce­ments are hardly un­ex­pected. The Tal­iban, af­ter all, played host to bin Laden’s al Qaeda dur­ing the 1990s and still main­tains a close work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the ter­ror net­work. The Brother­hood, too, has much in com­mon with bin Laden’s vir­u­lent strain of rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal Is­lam. So does its Pales­tinian prog­eny, Ha­mas. It’s hard not to no­tice how much these state­ments run counter to a host of as­sump­tions now pre­vail­ing in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Mideast pol­icy.

The first is that the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity is ready for peace with Is­rael. Even be­fore its re­ac­tion to bin Laden’s death, there was good rea­son to be leery of Ha­mas’ rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Fatah. Such a deal ef­fec­tively en­sconces Ha­mas as a key ar­biter of Pales­tinian poli­cies and makes the cen­tral plank of its charter — the goal of “all of Pales­tine, from the Jor­dan River to the Mediter­ranean Sea” — the law of the land. The group’s post­hu­mous praise for the world’s most no­to­ri­ous ter­ror­ist only helps con­firm that with Ha­mas in the mid­dle, se­ri­ous move­ment to­ward com­pro­mise be­tween the Pales­tini­ans and Is­rael will be all but im­pos­si­ble.

The sec­ond is that the Mus­lim Brother­hood will be a mod­er­at­ing force in Egyp­tian pol­i­tics.

Ru­mors of a more mel­low turn for the world’s lead­ing Is­lamist move­ment have swirled for years, cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of many within the Wash­ing­ton Belt­way in the process. But since the ouster of long-serv­ing Egyp­tian strong­man Hosni Mubarak ear­lier this spring rock- eted it back into po­lit­i­cal promi­nence, the Brother­hood has wasted no time demon­strat­ing that its plans in­volve a whole­sale — and rad­i­cal — trans­for­ma­tion of the Egyp­tian state. Tellingly, the Brother­hood’s rise to promi­nence has been mir­rored by a new, and de­cid­edly un­friendly, direc­tion in Egyp­tian at­ti­tudes to­ward the West. Then there is the Tal­iban. With the start of the sched­uled U.S. with­drawal from Afghanistan now just weeks away, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in­creas­ingly has grav­i­tated to­ward the idea of di­a­logue with the ousted Afghan rad­i­cals.

This ef­fort, how­ever, is pred­i­cated upon the con­tro­ver­sial and untested as­sump­tion that the Tal­iban can be weaned from their long-stand­ing sym­bio­sis with al Qaeda. The move­ment’s re­ac­tion to bin Laden’s demise sug­gests such a de­vel­op­ment is ex­ceed­ingly un­likely.

Sadly, the White House seems de­ter­mined to draw the op­po­site con­clu­sions. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has sug­gested that the killing of bin Laden could ac­tu­ally make the Tal­iban more in­clined to give up their ji­had and cut a deal with the West.

Foggy Bot­tom like­wise is not rul­ing out ne­go­ti­at­ing with the new, Ha­mas­dom­i­nated Pales­tinian “unity regime.” Ad­min­is­tra­tion de­mands for more “plu­ral­is­tic” gov­ern­ment in Egypt have only served to fur­ther em­bolden the Brother­hood, now or­ga­niz­ing to dom­i­nate the coun­try’s up­com­ing elec­tions.

In other words, in spite of its suc­cess of late, Team Obama is still largely blind to the pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of the Mid­dle East.

And be­cause it is, Amer­ica could eas­ily end up snatch­ing long-term strate­gic de­feat in the strug­gle against rad­i­cal Is­lam from the jaws of our re­cent tac­ti­cal vic­tory over bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Ilan Ber­man is vice pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can For­eign Pol­icy Coun­cil in Wash­ing­ton.

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