Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Academics Just Don’t Get It

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on October 26, 2009


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


4 Responses

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  1. bb said, on October 26, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    This analysis is quite bizarre.

    The 15-63% turn around in Indonesian public opinion occurred during the BUSH ADMIN, not as a result of Obama’s Cairo speech!

    The same dramatic turnaround in public opinion occurred right through the Muslim world during the Bush Admin, including the Arab middle east.

    On this reasoning it could be said that the turnaround was a direct result of the Bush Admin’s strong policy response to 9/11 and its outreach to moderate Muslims.

    In fact, the largest component in the turnaround in Indonesia came from the Indon people’s revulsion at the extremeities being perpetrated in the name of Islam – that were killing other muslims. Just as happened in Iraq, Jordon, Saudi Arabia and other places. It had nothing whatever to do with Obama, but with the fact that the west, particularly the US and Australia built on this revulsion, assumed the best of ordinary muslims and nurtured and buttressed the emerging Indonesian democracy while at the same time implacably prosecuting the war on terror both domestically and internationally. On these policies they were derided at almost every step by their domestic political opponents acting for their own advantage!

    As an Australian, I remember the shock here when the aftermath of 9/11 revealed the extent to which al quaeda had entrenched itself in our region, particularly Indonesia and the Phillippines. There was even a training camp in Australia! Before long nearly 200 Australians, other westerners and Indonesians were murdered in two suicide bombings in Bali. The Australian embassy in was attacked in Djarkata. All the victims were ordinary Indonesians

    It is to the great credit of the US that it turned this grave situation in Indonesia and Phillipines around within the space of just a few years.

    It is also ironic to read this crap about Obama at the same time as a significant section of the Democratic Admin is mounting a concerted effort to abandon the people of Afghanistan to the return of the Taliban – when in poll after poll the ordinary Afghans reject the Taliban by a margin of 93% to 7%.

    It would be very interesting to see Prof Lynch conduct a parsing of the Condi Rice Cairo speech in 2005 and compare it to Obama’s imitation this year. But some how I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

  2. Zathras said, on October 26, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    I’m sympathetic to the analysis offered here by Lynch, but I think he underestimates the importance of the fact that Indonesia is not full of Arabs.

    Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country, but has a rich and diverse culture as well as a complex recent political history to which Islam is important but not all-important in the way it is in the Arab Middle East. It has rather more to teach Arabs in the political area than the other way around, and there is probably a much greater reservoir of resistance in Indonesia to thinking about Islam as requiring violence on behalf of Arab causes than many thought in the wake of 9/11.

    I think the Obama administration recognizes this. Actually, after a rough couple of years the Bush administration seems not to have done as badly here as it did in many other areas. Having said that, I do agree that direct American participation in intra-Muslim debates about the meaning of that religion is probably unwise anywhere.

  3. anthonyxb said, on October 26, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    -it’s true, as one commentator said, that it’s a bit bizarre to give Obama credit for a trend in ‘popularity’ that was already well in evidence before he arrived in office. it’s a bit like a GOP supporter blaming Obama for current economic woes, when the foundation for them came before his stay in office.

    -that said, neither would I credit the Bush Administration here. Bush clearly had policies that were responsible for accelerating an already pre-existing decline in U.S. soft power (a decline that, in turn, preceded his stay in office).

    -to the degree there has been a turn-around, one has to move away from a U.S.-centric point of view and look at dynamics to which the U.S. is not central (not that the U.S., as a global hegemon, is ever entirely separate from anything).

    I would criticize Lynch here not so much for over-praising Obama (though reading this and other posts of his, one has to wonder if he isn’t pimping for a job in the administration — a bit more hard-headedness, please!) but for understating how it is Islamists who are primarily responsible for their own general (the trends aren’t the same everywhere, of course) unpopularity.

    That said, Lynch’s basic point is correct: the best thing the U.S. can do is get out of the way. Insofar as Islamists can pitch politics as a battle between “us and them” (i.e., true/authentic Muslims vs outsiders) they will gain popularity. Insofar as the U.S. can remove itself from the picture, then it becomes a battle of how much Islamism resonates domestically, a battle which they generally will lose.

    Obama has done a good job so far making the U.S. less of the issue. So while giving him all the credit Lynch does is obviously silly, it’s still basically the right approach.

  4. keggy said, on October 26, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    The UK ministry of local government and communities sponsored an interesting report by Muslim scholars and activists. It says all the right things about multiculturalism, secular politics, and the khalifa.


    Peruse the British Muslims blogs and the Islamists are apoplectic while the mainstream commentators are skeptical about the source of funding and their government’s meddling in theology.

    It’s a heckuva interesting document to me and you’d hope it stimulates the debate even more but is this aspect of the PREVENT strategy still too heavy handed?

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