Marc Lynch on confronting Islamic radicalism

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.



  1. It seems to me that pretty much every country attempts to influence other countries to benefit themselves, whether economically, culturally, diplomatically, militarily, etc. In that context, does “empire” imply more than just the dominant country in that struggle?

    Lynch’s “more nuanced and disaggregated approach defined by, as they say, mutual interests and mutual respect” sounds good as far as it goes. Of course, the things we have in common are the easy part of diplomacy — I wonder if even isolationists reject that. The difficult part comes when Obama stands up for something that other countries do not want. How does disaggregation work in that case?

    I don’t quite understand how Lynch can fault Bush for both dividing Muslims into competing theological camps and also for undifferentiating the Islamist menace. Or supporting moderates while alienating centrists? Unless he has in mind specific examples. I suppose he just means that Bush alienated more people than he needed to, which is likely since Bush drew lines. It seems Obama may be overcompensating in the opposite direction. But Bush and Obama have different goals and priorities.

    Lynch is right that US support of moderates is a huge cultural stigma and political negative for them. I’d be surprised if the US didn’t use that fact to its advantage in some cases. Of course, the alternative of not supporting moderates also has negative consequences. Even just shifts in the appearance of support: e.g. Egyptian Reform Activists Say U.S. Commitment Is Waning.

    Foreign democratization and its associated human rights do not appear to be priorities for Obama. That’s not terrible from an isolationist perspective, but I’m not sure Obama is an isolationist. And if not, then what are the priorities he’ll fight for? Unlike Bush, Obama is far more complex, indirect, and subtle; even deceptive. But maybe that strategy is best in the real world of political intrigue. I guess the results will tell, but the machinations involved make it virtually impossible to forecast.

    As such, Lynch comes across as overly enthusiastic. Obama’s foreign policy is just getting going with a $25-150M Arab Tech Fund and he’s already “undermined the appeal and relevance of al-Qaeda in the Arab world” and not taken credit for it? It’s that kind of thinking that won Obama a peace prize.

  2. Kevin,

    I agree that all countries try to influence others. Empire can be distinguished from this in three ways. One is the power differential that the US has with Indonesia. Second is the global scope of US ambitions. Most countries aren’t able to even think about influencing theological debates in countries thousands of miles away. Third is the idea so characteristic of imperialism (especially modern imperialism) that the empire can improve another culture because it knows best.

    I think that his point about Bush’s categorization of Muslims and aggregation of Islamists is this: the administration saw Muslims as divided into moderates and radicals and wanted to help the moderates. This oversimplifies things in two ways. First, Muslims aren’t so easily divided by Western categories. Second, Lynch has made the point in some of his other writings that the Bush administration tended to lump “violent extremists” together, including Shia and Sunni Islamists. I suppose that the most hamhanded of these would be the Axis of Evil. I understand the Middle East political spectrum to encompass Westernized liberals and moderates, moderate Islamists who want society to reflect Islamic principles while not embracing violence, and an assortment of violent groups that don’t always like each other. Then, of course you have the authoritarians and their parties that often sit atop the societies, having to exercise some kind of give and take with these elements. The article that you linked to talked about the democracy funding, and it is too bad that people feel betrayed, but we also have to ask (and I don’t know the answer) how much good it does to pour money into developing other countries’ democracies. Also, as the article noted, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood would probably win in Egypt. They seem to be Islamists who by and large play by the rules of democracy, but it also shows that the idea of transforming societies through democracy promotion is unpredictable.

    You’re right that Obama is more indirect than Bush, and perhaps deceptive. Bush and his supporters put a big emphasis on stating things very directly. They liked “moral clarity” in international relations and using the word “victory” when talking about wars, almost worshiping these concepts regardless of the results of the policies. You make a good point: what does he do when disagreements with countries take us beyond the pursuit of mutual interests? What are the lines in the sand? Right now, the focus has been on correcting what Bush, in Obama’s estimate, did wrong. But once you “reset” the relationship with the world, what’s next?

  3. Scott,

    It seems likely to me that if a country believes that theological debates in other countries thousands of miles away negatively affect their security, they will try to influence it, even if they do not have great resources to do so.

    Is your third criteria of “knowing what’s best for another culture” really defining of empires? Would the US not be an empire if it only claimed its own best interests?

    Or are you just saying that it is a common excuse for those with power that they are acting in everyone’s best interests, regardless of whether that is true or not?

    Thanks for explaining that Lynch’s point was Bush’s oversimplification. Some of that was probably due to general consumption, but I do wonder what “experts” they had working on these problems that wouldn’t be aware of the distinctions you make or if their analysis just didn’t flow to all the right people. The “Axis of Evil” moniker was certainly a fiasco since it did not help Bush gain international momentum against them.

    You also make a good point about judging whether democracy funding is effective and in our or their best interests. I would hope it is not merely democracy funding but the freedoms we associate with democracy. I also assumed it was a tiny fraction of our aid to Egypt, but perhaps that is mistaken? In any case, I am very curious how the U.S.’s current financial straits will affect foreign aid.

    Sorry for raising old threads: I wrote most of this in December and I’m just now catching up on our discussions! 🙂


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