Academics Just Don’t Get It
As I was reading a few of Marc Lynch’s posts, one quotation in particular caught me by surprise. According to the influential Middle-East expert, President Obama’s “hands-off” approach is starting to gain dividends throughout the Muslim World; both in terms of America’s image and in terms of public popularity. More specifically, the foreignpolicy.com blogger decided to base his case-study exclusively on Indonesia, a country with the largest Muslim population, yet one in which I know very little about:
“Andrew Higgins has a very good piece in the Washington Post today about the fortunes of Islamic moderates in Indonesia. It demonstrates how overt American attempts to promote “moderate Muslims” or “liberal Islam” routinely backfire — and offers more evidence in support of the Obama administration’s hands-off, disaggregated approach to what used to be called the “war of ideas”. I’ve seen this again and again in the Arab world, and its fascinating to see how it is playing out in Indonesia (a case I follow much less closely). His account offers considerable support to the argument I’ve often made that less is more when it comes to America’s role in intra-Islamic battles. And his story shows the value of moving away from sharp binary oppositions defined by “violent extremism” towards a more nuanced and disaggregated approach defined by, as they say, mutual interests and mutual respect.
Higgins writes that there are many reasons why Indonesia favorable views of the U.S. have gone from 15% in 2003 to 63% today, that al-Qaeda’s terrorism is generally viewed with revulsion, and that moderate Islam is a normal part of the political system.”
At first glance, I agreed somewhat to Lynch’s proposal. After all, the Muslim community is beginning to view the United States in a less hostile-light. Yet, as I started to read between the lines, I could not help but notice that a few of Dr. Lynch’s claims are based in sheer fantasy.
While I understand that President Obama’s “hands-on” approach is starting to result in some significant behavioral changes within the Muslim world, I am still quite skeptical of its effectiveness in the long-run. U.S. research grants and American donations to Indonesia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Afghanistan can only go so far. There comes a point in time when “soft-power”- that all too infamous phrase in the American diplomatic arsenal- needs to be employed for the sake of U.S. interests in the Muslim community. Sure, the jump from 15 percent to 63 percent in Indonesia is amazing, considering President Bush’s profound global unpopularity just last year. However, as is often true in politics, public opinion does not necessarily tell the whole story.
It seems like Dr. Lynch is denouncing “soft-power” in general; that all-too important tool striving to better the American image through democratic values and “mutual respect.” And by American image I mean a rise in popularity, accompanied by a change in foreign-policy (and as we all know, Muslim Governments have not exactly modified their policies). Anyone remotely interested in the diplomatic process recognizes that winning the battle of ideas is one of the primary objectives.
Likewise, a hands-off approach may work well in Indonesia, but not necessarily in other areas of the Islamic world; some of which are a heck-of-a-lot more violent and fragmented. Do you suggest that President Obama stop intruding in Afghanistan, or Iraq? The answer is no, because this would be a terrible mistake; only strengthening the jihadist movement at the expense of Islamic pragmatism. Just because Indonesia is a good-example of a hands-off strategy does not necessarily mean that every single Arab country will follow a similar path.
Like it or not, a large part of the War on Terrorism is about competing ideals and values. Yet, Dr. Lynch is implying that the United States should ignore this reality. As we all know from the Iraq and Afghan debacle, showering ourselves in ignorance is not a bright thing to do.
-Daniel R. DePetris