Sweet, Sweet Strategic Clarity…

My colleague Onnesha is fond of pointing out that the vague assumptions that undergird the “war on terror” can lead to all sorts of strategic blunders. Well, here’s another one, as reported by Joseph Braude in the New Republic. Apparently the U.S. is trying to induce various Arab countries to cooperate with NATO, sharing intelligence and the like, in order to hunt down various Islamist terrorists. Okay.

But over the past few months, the administration seems to have shifted its grand strategy a bit. To judge from various State Department announcements, along with America’s recent semi-embrace of both HAMAS and Hezbollah as viable political entities, it seems we’re no longer concerned with radical Islamic groups per se. No, the real targets have become, as USAID administrator Andrew Natsios said last week, “autocratic governments led in many instances by militantly secular figures.” That is, the root causes of Islamic extremism.

Well, fair enough—and to some extent, I think this is a sound idea, in certain situations. The problem here is that it’s awfully difficult to get Arab despots to cooperate with NATO in hunting down dead-enders from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups if those same despots now need to be worried that NATO cooperation is just a backdoor means of undermining their rule. Certainly that’s what Arab liberals are hoping will happen. So it’s no surprise that one Egyptian foreign ministry adviser responded angrily to the new policy shift: “We were surprised that [NATO] has decided that it has a role in the political process, and in the process of democratic reform.” Oops. That doesn’t quite sound like a despot (er… make that “friend-of-despot”) ready to name names and share intelligence.

At any rate, the point here is that we really ought to decide what, exactly, our priorities for Middle Eastern policy are. No kidding, I know, but still. Do we want to put overt pressure on Arab dictatorships to change their ways, and side with Islamist groups such as HAMAS and Hezbollah, so long as they contribute to the great tide of reform? Or, alternatively, do we strengthen our alliances with Arab dictatorships in order to hunt down al Qaeda and other militant groups, alienating Islamists in the process? Or, perhaps, a little of both? (As Braude points out, different Arab countries are, well, different: the small Gulf monarchies, for instance, will probably cooperate with NATO no matter what because they’re most concerned about al Qaeda and aren’t too worried about U.S. pressure to reform.) It’s also worth noting that those Arab liberals may actually be right on: as Steven Cook has argued, despot-friendly militaries are often a prime force for modernization and reform, and increased NATO cooperation with various Middle Eastern armies may be the best “sneaky” way to promote change in some instances.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes all of these various goals contradict, as Braude shows, especially if the Bush administration remains unclear on what, exactly we hope to achieve in the Middle East. On that note, Nadezhda’s long post on a possible “marginalization” strategy that’s emerging in the region is well worth reading.