Marc Lynch sees a different, smarter approach at work in the Obama administration. Rather than the Bush approach of choosing (and unwittingly delegitimizing) moderate Muslim allies, the Obama administration has chosen to allow the debates to take their course. Lynch comments:
The Obama administration understands this dynamic extremely well. As the Cairo speech showed, he has designed America’s outreach to the Muslim world around deflating the extremists through indirect action and a reorientation towards common interests. Instead of building up al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements with an exaggerated focus on “violent extremism”, he isolates and marginalizes them by switching the conversation to other things about which ordinary Muslims and Arabs care far more.
While there hasn’t been as much public follow-up to the Cairo speech yet as many of us had hoped, the internal work that they’ve been doing is beginning to pay dividends. The new $150 million Arab technology fund announced the other day (to little American notice) is only one of a whole range of programs which will likely be rolled out in the coming months. This approach has already dramatically and impressively undermined the appeal and relevance of al-Qaeda in the Arab world– an important achievement all the more noteworthy for the administration’s not making a big deal of it.
Lynch’s post is a response to Andrew Higgins’ article from the Washington Post. Higgins writes about the new U.S. approach in Indonesia:
Public fury at the United States over the Iraq war has faded, a trend accelerated by the departure of President George W. Bush and the election of Obama. In 2003, the first year of the war, 15 percent of Indonesians surveyed by the Pew Research Center had a favorable view of the United States — compared with 75 percent before Bush took office. America’s favorability rating is now 63 percent.
There are many reasons for the change of mood: an economy that is growing fast despite the global slump; increasing political stability rooted in elections that are generally free and fair; moves by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a U.S.-trained former general who won reelection by a landslide in July, to co-opt Islamic political parties.
Another reason, said Masdar Mas’udi, a senior cleric at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s — and the world’s — largest Islamic organization, is that the United States has backed away from overt intrusions into religious matters. A foe of hard-line Muslims who has worked closely with Americans, Mas’udi said he now believes that U.S. intervention in theological quarrels often provides radicals with “a sparring partner” that strengthens them. These days, instead of tinkering with religious doctrine, a pet project focuses on providing organic rice seeds to poor Muslim farmers.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington deployed money and rhetoric in a big push to bolster “moderate” Muslims against what Bush called the “real and profound ideology” of “Islamo-fascism.” Obama, promising a “new beginning between America and Muslims around the world,” has avoided dividing Muslims into competing theological camps. He has denounced “violent extremists” but, in a June speech in Cairo, stated that “Islam is not part of the problem.”
North, the USAID mission chief, said the best way to help “champions of an enlightened perspective win the day” is to avoid theology and help Indonesia “address some of the problems here, such as poverty and corruption.” Trying to groom Muslim leaders America likes, he said, won’t help.
Higgins also gives an example of the Bush administration approach:
The Asia Foundation, founded with covert U.S. funding in the 1950s to combat communism, took the lead in battling noxious strands of Islam in Indonesia as part of a USAID-financed program called Islam and Civil Society. The program began before the Sept. 11 attacks but ramped up its activities after.”We wanted to challenge hard-line ideas head-on,” recalled Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an Indonesian expert in Islamic theology who, with Asia Foundation funding, set up the Liberal Islam Network in 2001. The network launched a weekly radio program that questioned literal interpretations of sacred texts with respect to women, homosexuals and basic doctrine. It bought airtime on national television for a video that presented Islam as a faith of “many colors” and distributed leaflets promoting liberal theology in mosques.
Feted by Americans as a model moderate, Abdalla was flown to Washington in 2002 to meet officials at the State Department and the Pentagon, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the then-deputy secretary of defense and a former U.S. ambassador to Jakarta. But efforts to transplant Cold War tactics into the Islamic world started to go very wrong. More-conservative Muslims never liked what they viewed as American meddling in theology. Their unease over U.S. motives escalated sharply with the start of the Iraq war and spread to a wider constituency. Iraq “destroyed everything,” said Abdalla, who started getting death threats.
Indonesia’s council of clerics, enraged by what it saw as a U.S. campaign to reshape Islam, issued a fatwa denouncing “secularism, pluralism and liberalism.”
The Asia Foundation pulled its funding for Abdalla’s network and began to rethink its strategy. It still works with Muslim groups but avoids sensitive theological issues, focusing instead on training to monitor budgets, battle corruption and lobby on behalf of the poor. “The foundation came to believe that it was more effective for intra-Islamic debates to take place without the involvement of international organizations,” said Robin Bush, head of the foundation’s Jakarta office.
Abdalla, meanwhile, left Indonesia and moved to Boston to study.
I’m not sure what to think about this yet. I would imagine that Bush administration officials would have a defense of their approach, and it would have been helpful and fairer to have their defense in the article.
If Higgins portrayed the Bush approach accurately, it seems a bit like the way that the British approached the Arabs when their lands were stilled controlled by the Ottomans at the beginning of World War I. David Fromkin describes British strategic thought in A Peace to End All Peace. British strategists hoped to create a caliph and thereby control the region, but their understanding of the region was quite incomplete. I think that it’s part of the arrogance of empire to believe that you can change another culture to benefit you. Of course, one might argue that Obama’s approach is just empire in a subtler disguise.