Fanning the Fear of Islam

From home and abroad voices have begun to counsel the Clinton administration that with communism's death, America must prepare for a new global threat--radical Islam. This specter is symbolized by the Middle Eastern Muslim fundamentalist, a Khomeini-like creature armed with a radical ideology and nuclear weapons, intent on launching a jihad against Western civilization.

In the search for new doctrines for a new world, this image of a worldwide threat from militant Islam could filter deep into the policymaking processes of the new administration. In the way that the perception of danger from Soviet communism helped to define U.S. foreign policy for more than four decades, the fear of Islam could embroil Washington in a second Cold War.

This policy, however, would rest on utterly fallacious assumptions: Islam is neither unified nor a threat to the United States. Were America to let these phobias drive its foreign policy it would be forced into long and costly battles with various, unrelated regional phenomena. In the Middle East, the principal battleground of this struggle, it would place America in the position of maintaining a corrupt, reactionary and unstable status quo. In short, such a policy would run against the long-term interests of the peoples of America and the Middle East.

Conjuring up a New Menace

Like the Red Menace of the Cold War era, the Green Peril--green being the color of Islam--is described as a cancer spreading around the globe, undermining the legitimacy of Western values and threatening the national security of the United States. Tehran is the center of this ideological subversion, the world's new Comintern. The goal of the Iranian-led global intifada is said to be support for anti-Western regimes stretching from North Africa across the Near East and the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Tehran's aim is to control the oil-rich gulf, destroy Israel and threaten areas on the periphery of a new "arc of crisis"--the Horn of Africa, southern Europe, the Balkans and the Indian subcontinent.

The Islamic conspiracy theory ties together isolated events and trends: the recent bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, the civil war between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the Christians and Animists in southern Sudan; terrorist attacks by radical Muslim groups in Egypt; the popularity of Islamic parties in Algeria and Tunisia; Arab support for the Bosnian Muslims; the instability in the newly independent Central Asian republics; the Lebanese Shiites' struggle for political power; the continuing Palestinian uprising; and Iran's pursuit of economic power and political influence in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. In short, all the changes and instability in the post-Cold War Middle East and its peripheries are described as part of a grand scheme perpetrated by "Islam International."

Apart from some frustrated Cold Warriors in Washington, this campaign has been eagerly joined by a strange group of foreign governments including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Pakistan, India and the old communist regimes in Central Asia. Some of these have repressive governments that need a new enemy to preserve eroding public support. All are concerned about their weakening strategic value to America, now that the superpowers have made peace.

Turkey and Pakistan have already volunteered their services to the West to halt Iranian-led radical schemes in Central Asia. India presents itself as a bulwark against Islamic Pakistan's designs. Serbian nationalists have described their "ethnic cleansing" policies as part of an effort to contain the spread of radical Islam to Europe's center. The Israelis, who five years ago equated Palestinian nationalism with "Soviet-sponsored terrorism," are now identifying it with Islamic fundamentalism. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin justified his government's expulsion of 415 Islamic activists to Lebanon in December 1992 by suggesting that the Jewish state stands "first today in the line of fire against extremist Islam."

A mirror image of the Israeli argument is reflected in the Arab spin. Riyadh and Cairo contend that Washington's refusal to pressure Israel to give up the occupied territories increases the growing danger of Islamic radicalization of the Arab and Muslim world. Ironically, Israel might find that, in the long run, the propagation of the Islamic threat might turn against its interests.

These strategies recall the way Third World countries exploited the U.S. obsession with the Red Menace during the Cold War despite their own skepticism about its long-term threat. Even Uganda has been requesting military aid from Washington to combat the Islamic threat from Sudan. The anti-Iranian/Islamic fundamentalism hysteria that has gripped the U.S. media and Congress has already produced a theater of the absurd, when the People's Warriors of Iran, an Iraqi-based Iranian group with a Marxist leaning, succeeded in getting the majority of Senate members to sign a letter promoting its agenda. This organization, with a history of anti-American terrorist activities, even gained access to the top foreign policy aides of then Governor Bill Clinton during the presidential campaign.

These governments and their lobby organizations use leaks, misinformation and media spins to help construct the new Middle Eastern danger. "Government sources" and "intelligence reports," sometimes using questionable evidence and exaggerating credible information, warn of Iranian subversion in Central Asia, the export of terrorism to North Africa and Egypt, and a Khartoum-Tehran connection.

Journalists, who have become the transmission belt for such reports, so reminiscent of Cold War propaganda campaigns, add drama to the mix. They impose the term "Islamic fundamentalism" to describe diverse and unrelated movements that range from cia-trained Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan to the anti-American clerics in Iran, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, operating in a parliamentary system, to murderous terrorist organizations like the Lebanese Hezbollah, from pro-American Saudi Arabia to anti-American Libya. Think-tank studies, op-ed pieces and congressional hearings add color to this image of a unified and monolithic Islam.

The Muslims Are Not Coming

Before leading America into a war against Islam, President Clinton would be well advised to take a bird's-eye view of the so-called Islamic crescent. Instead of a monolithic Islamistan, he would uncover a mosaic of many national, ethnic and religious groups competing for power and influence; a multinational phenomenon ranging from Malaysia to France, in which Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is less a transnational political force and more a vital religion that provides spiritual support for a broad spectrum of people, some liberal, some orthodox. It is a kaleidoscope producing shifting balances of power and overlapping ideological configurations that neither Tehran--nor Washington-can control.

Far from being a unified power that is about to reach again the gates of Vienna and the shores of Spain, Islam is, in fact, currently on the defensive against militant anti-Muslim fundamentalists. In the former Yugoslavia, the Westernized and secular Muslim population of Bosnia and Kosovo is threatened with extinction by Serbian nationalists, who have a strong connection to the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Central Asia, the old communist guard, with support from Russian nationalists, is leading a bloody campaign against both Westernized and Islamic opposition groups, sending a wave of Muslim refugees from Tajikistan into Afghanistan. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist group, and the even more militant Shiv Sena are gaining power. In the West Bank, Gush Emmunim, the Jewish fundamentalist settlement movement, has been spearheading since 1967 the Greater Israel drive, aimed at suppressing the Palestinian nationalist movement, which includes many secular Muslims and Christians. And in France and Germany, racist and neo-Nazi groups are trying to violently eject large Muslim immigrant populations. These developments do not reflect a war between Western and Islamic civilizations. Actually, Western, including Jewish, sympathy seems to be moving in the direction of the Muslims in Bosnia, France and Germany, while the struggles in the West Bank and India are producing at best mixed feelings.

Ironically, the most militant and successful Islamic fundamentalist offensive has been led and financed by the United States. The broad coalition of Mujahedeen freedom fighters, trained by Washington and the Pakistani government, successfully ousted the Moscow-backed regime in Afghanistan in April 1992. Currently, the remnants of the Mujahedeen, which comprises various ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, are engaged in a bloody war for control of Afghanistan. The governments in Central Asia consider these warriors--not Tehran--the greatest threat to regional stability. These Mujahedeen veterans are also playing a key role in the Islamic rebel movements in Algeria and Egypt.

Balance of Power Games, Not Holy Wars

The disintegration of Afghanistan into mini-states ruled by different tribal leaders with complex ties to outside powers reflects the return of the nineteenth-century Great Game in Central Asia. Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, China and even Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to establish spheres of influence in the area. But the new balance of power constellations in Central Asia and the Middle East are not pitting a unified pro-Iranian coalition against a unified pro-Western axis. They are producing strange bedfellows whose moves are driven by a complicated set of interests and ideologies, Islam being only one part of the mix. The continuing instability in these regions is a result of the struggle for self-determination by ethnic groups, a largely secular-nationalist drive, though various Islamic groups carry the banner of national independence, just as the Catholic Church did in Poland in the 1980s.

Iran's role in these developments, far from being revolutionary, leans toward maintaining the status quo. It has joined Turkey and Syria to discuss ways to prevent the rise of Kurdish nationalism. Worried over the secession of its own Azeri minority and the instability in its southern Caucasian backyard, Tehran has tried unsuccessfully to bring a peaceful end to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Not wanting to see a strong nationalist Azeri state stirred by pan-Turkism, it has tilted toward the Armenian Christians, for years the darlings of the West. Iran occasionally supported changes in the status quo, for example, by backing the Islamic opposition in Tajikistan, where the anti-Western old communist guard is trying to hold on to power.

Like other players in the region--the Arab states, Turkey, Israel--Iran projects a mixture of defensive and aggressive strategies that are motivated less by Islamic ideology than by its perceived national interests in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, and in particular by the need to prevent the rise of unsympathetic players in these regions. On one hand, Tehran has promoted economic cooperation and trade through the formation of regional groups like the Central Asian Economic Cooperation Organization and the Caspian Sea Cooperation Council. On the other hand, not unlike pan-Arabism, pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism, Iran has tried to export its own version of Islam, as well as the Persian language, as a way of advancing its interests in the Middle East and Central Asia, though with mixed results--the Iraqi Shiites' support for their government during the war with Iran being the most dramatic failure.

The nightmare scenario of a new Iranian-led Islamic empire is a result of misguided Western fears. Even Egypt during the heyday of pan-Arabism under Gamal Abdel al-Nasser was unable to lay the groundwork for the unification of Arabs, who share a common language and culture. Iran's Shiite religion, its historical animosity toward the Arab world, its struggles with Iraq over influence in the Persian Gulf and with Turkey over influence in Central Asia, and its limited economic and military power place severe constraints on its ability to become a magnet for the mostly Sunni Muslim world. Nor do talks about an Iranian-Sudanese alliance look promising; Tehran and Khartoum have parted ways on many issues--Khartoum refused to follow Tehran's lead in isolating Iraq during the gulf crisis and in turning against the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and other states are self-interested and well equipped to contain Iranian expansionism even without American prodding. At the same time, Iran could find itself sharing interests with some of these rivals. Tehran supported the American-led Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein and, like Israel, is against the creation of a united Arab bloc in the region. The Iranian policy of deterring an aggressive Iraq and of rejecting efforts by Saudi Arabia and the American-backed Gulf Cooperation Council to isolate it in the gulf are as understandable as are past Israeli policies of preventing its encirclement by a Soviet-

backed Arab bloc. In both cases strategic considerations and not religious beliefs have been the driving force. In fact, most of Iran's recent moves on the foreign policy front, including the reported attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, would probably have been applauded by the secular and pro-Western shah. In the anarchic environment of the Middle East, where Israel, Iraq, Pakistan and Kazakhstan possess or could possibly possess nuclear weapons, Iran's interest in acquiring similar capability is hardly surprising.

While there is a strong religious component in Iran's foreign policy, fundamentalism is usually outweighed by Iran's military and economic interests. The so-called moderates in Tehran, led by President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are in large part Iranian nationalists. While committed to a theocratic form of government, they recognize that the costs of channeling their revolutionary fervor abroad have made it more difficult to pursue Iran's security interests. Their opening to the West is motivated by the same concerns that led the orthodox-communist Chinese leadership to establish diplomatic relations with the United States--the need to improve their nation's diplomatic and economic power position.

The Mosque and the Audiocassette

If a crusade against Iran and Islam makes little sense from a realpolitik perspective, as an idealistic Wilsonian project it lacks credibility. Unlike communism in its heyday, the Islamic movement is not a powerful global ideology competing with democracy. Rather, as an umbrella for diverse and disorganized political ideologies, political Islam is only one of the many and multifaceted elements in the colorful Middle Eastern tapestry that the end of the Cold War is unfolding.

The Islamic resurgence is a response to the confusion and anxiety of modernity and a challenge to repressive and corrupt regimes. Like Christians during the Reformation, the Islamists attempt to reach directly the literal word of God and provide legitimacy to popular demands to transform their societies. Indeed, the political clout the Islamists now have is due not to the desire of Arabs and others to live under strict Islamic rule, but to the perceived failure of Western models of political and economic order, including nationalism and socialism, to solve the Middle East's problems.

As in other parts of the world, the political order in the Middle East is under challenge. With the end of superpower rivalry, Arab governments are finding it more difficult to extract economic and military support from external powers in return for their strategic services. That situation is exacerbated by the global economic recession and the fall in oil prices, which have reduced the amount of capital available for aid and investment in the region. The result is growing public disenchantment with and opposition to the socialist, Baathist, nationalist and established Islamic leaders who are trying to maintain their hold on power. In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Arab gulf states, rampant corruption, bogus legal systems, ineffective armies, mismanaged economies and dependency on the United States have eroded the legitimacy of the regimes. In North Africa, bankrupt statist economies continue to provide benefits to the politically corrupt nomenklatura.

Unlike secular organizations, or even liberal Islamic ones, the mosque has remained a relatively independent institution in many Arab states, and has therefore become an important center for expressing the discontent of the unemployed and disenfranchised youth. But trends are leading in many different directions, producing overlapping coalitions and alliances with no common ideological denominator. The search in the West for an explanation that will distinguish between the good guys and the villains--with the Islamists being usually placed in the latter drawer--is futile and simplistic.

The Islamic groups that operate in opposition to the different autocratic regimes represent a diversity of players and organizations. They are populists who do not fit into a left-right dichotomy and combine a strange mix of atavism, romanticism, and a respect for certain free-market ideas and for Western technology. The mosque and the audiocassette have become their two major propaganda tools, reflecting the love-hate prism through which they view the West. Some of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's clerics, for example, are economic liberals who are much closer ideologically to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan than are the pro-American statist leaders who rule Egypt and North Africa. Indeed, support for the Islamists has come in part from the bazaars, from the merchants and small businessmen who are opposed to government control of the economy.

Many Islamic leaders do not fit the image of radicals and terrorists. Working together with secular parties and using the language of political liberalization, they have pressed for political reforms that have led to elections in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Kuwait and to the establishment of a consultative assembly in Saudi Arabia. Most Islamic groups that operate more or less freely in the relatively open systems of Egypt and Jordan or in the more democratic systems of Turkey and Pakistan have successfully adapted to the democratic game--running candidates in local and national elections, forming alliances with secular groups and holding cabinet positions.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, although prevented from participating in elections as a political party, joined forces with the Wafd party in the 1984 elections. It then formed a new coalition with the Labor Party, calling itself the Islamic Alliance. In the 1987 elections, it won close to 20 percent of the vote and emerged as the main opposition to the government. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood remains the largest and best organized group in the country, forming recently with independent Islamists, a newly licensed Islamic Action Front. Many analysts expect the movement to win a majority in the coming parliamentary elections.

Moreover, contrary to Western stereotypes, many Islamic leaders are not medieval figures. As in the case of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, they are educated professionals, such as engineers, physicians, lawyers and academics, who control modern institutions like hospitals, schools and businesses. They are not interested in returning their societies to the past as much as transforming their political and economic structures. Even Iran's theocrats utilize Western concepts of government--"republic," "democracy" and "constitution"--to legitimize their rule.

That does not turn the Islamists into Jeffersonian democrats. There is no Middle Eastern equivalent of a Mikhail Gorbachev, let alone a Václav Havel. The most extreme among them will try to rigidly enforce the sharia, or Islamic law, in their societies, which would require the complete segregation of the sexes outside the home and the introduction of stoning, flogging and amputation as legal punishments. Westerners who believe in the universal application of such ideas as individual rights and freedom of religion should not accept an argument, smacking of cultural relativism, that their values only apply to the secular West and that Muslims, unlike Christians or Jews, are more inclined to live under repressive religious systems. By the same token, however, neither should analysts and policymakers adopt a mirror image of this argument, suggesting that for some reason Muslim societies, unlike their counterparts in Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, are inherently resistant to democratic rule. The American government that found it possible to promote elections from Russia to Nicaragua, from Cambodia to Kenya, should not believe that Muslim societies are not yet ready for democracy.

In fact, when it comes to free elections in Algeria or Egypt, Washington suddenly begins to lament over the "dilemmas," the "difficult choices," and the danger that democracy in those countries would bring anti-democratic forces to power and produce messy problems for the United States. Similarly, the media and Congress, which have constantly denounced human rights violations in countries like China, do not seem to express a similar sense of sorrow when the regimes in Algeria and Tunisia repress their own citizens.

This attitude is based partly on the genuine concern that if Islamic parties come into power through democratic elections, they will impose an intolerant, undemocratic order on society and usher in a new dark age of fundamentalist rule. But it is doubtful that any serious voice in Europe and the United States, using this same logic, would suggest that because of the real danger of rising nationalist-authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, the West in retrospect would have been better off with the communist governments remaining in power.

The inevitable rise of Islamic regimes in countries like Algeria or Egypt is a transitional phase in the process of political and economic transformation of the old order in the Middle East. Once in power, Islamic groups like the FIS, who have thrived on the martyrdom of political oppression, will have to deal with the mundane social and economic problems of their country. If they want to expand their political bases and remain in power, they will have to form political coalitions, modify their rigid theocratic agenda, and take into consideration the interests and views of competing groups like the military and the business community as well as those of foreign governments and investors.

Like other political parties, Islamic groups will be judged by their ability to "deliver the goods," mainly economic opportunities. Religion, as King Hassan of Morocco once said, is not enough to run a country. Iran's clerics, facing public discontent, including food riots, over their handling of the economy, have had to move toward major changes in domestic and foreign policy aimed at stimulating the economy. "Had the Algerian elections been allowed to proceed, we would have seen the [FIS] at work," suggested King Hassan. Their failure could have led to the emergence of new secular opposition groups.

Instead, the cancellation of elections in Algeria in January 1992 and the pursuant violent political repression there and in Tunisia have only enhanced the popularity of the Islamic groups and helped to radicalize the FIS as well as Tunisia's Islamic Renaissance Party, leading to more confrontation and violence. Washington should not be surprised if, when those groups come to power, they have a hostile attitude toward the West, which has, after all, applauded their repression and encouraged the stifling of democracy in their countries. The crusade against political Islam is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Washington: The Guarantor of the Status Quo

The greatest hypocrisy in the debate over political Islam is the fact that Americans have fought a war and committed their military and diplomatic power to secure the survival of the most fundamentalist state of all--Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime's own legitimacy is based on an alliance with the Wahhabi movement, an extremely conservative Sunni sect. The Saudi government is actually more rigid in its application of Islamic law and more repressive in many respects than the one in Tehran. Saudi Arabia has no form of popular representation, political rights are totally denied to women and non-Muslims, and the regime has consistently applied sharia to criminal justice. It has financed a variety of Islamic groups worldwide, including the Hamas. Its ruler, King Fahd, has publicly stated that the "democratic system that is predominant in the world is not a suitable system for the peoples of our region" and that "the system of free elections is not suitable to our country." Indeed, Saudi Arabia, like all the other Arab oil-exporting states of the Persian Gulf, is an absolute monarchy that does not recognize the concepts of civil rights or civil liberties.

Washington also backed the regime of Jafar Muhammad Numayri in the Sudan after he had declared an "Islamic revolution," and supported Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he had allied himself with the Islamic groups in his country. In both cases Islam was used, as in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to legitimize the rule of pro-Western authoritarian leaders. Similarly, U.S. concerns over democracy in the region do not prevent Washington from providing its second largest foreign aid package to the Egyptian government, whose security forces, according to Middle East Watch, "regularly resort to physical and psychological torture" of political and security suspects. Nor does Israel's own brand of Jewish theocracy diminish in any way its position as America's largest foreign aid recipient.

Indeed, the language of Wilsonian idealism with which the current criticism of political Islam is being framed masks clear political interests and has little to do with concerns over the status of liberty in the Middle East. Such rhetoric is used to mobilize support for the pro-Western autocratic regimes and by extension to secure U.S. hegemony in the region, and in particular its access to oil.

There is a major contradiction between America's global democracy project and its pax-Americana program in the Middle East. U.S. policymakers know that democratically elected and popularly based governments--Islamic or otherwise--would be less inclined to bow to American wishes. It is not a coincidence that the governments in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria (before the military takeover) were the most critical of U.S. policy during the Persian Gulf crisis, reflecting the general public mood in those countries. Hence the vicious circle: continued support for repressive regimes, exacerbated by America's alliance with Israel, only fans resentment toward the United States. And the existence of that resentment makes it more difficult for Washington to tolerate the idea of democratization and reforms in the region.

Constructive Disengagement

The end of the Cold War has provided the United States with an opportunity to begin disengaging from trouble spots around the world, shifting security responsibilities to regional powers. The withdrawal from military bases in the Philippines points in that direction. At the same time, the end of the superpower rivalry has also permitted Washington to decouple itself from Third World tyrants and despots who lost their job of serving as regional anti-Soviet policemen. Bidding farewell to characters like Zaïre's President Mobuto Sese Seko reflects that trend.

No similar post-Cold War reexamination of U.S. policies has taken place in the Middle East, with the exception that the Bush administration proved unwilling to sponsor then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Greater Israel policies. That shift in policy led indirectly to the defeat of the Likud government in June 1992 and helped revive the peace process, thus improving America's position in the region. In the other parts of the Middle East, however, the fall of the Berlin Wall has been followed by a dramatic extension of U.S. military power and massive commitment to autocratic regimes, highlighted in Operation Desert Storm.

President Clinton should take a cue from one of his predecessors at the White House, John Quincy Adams, and resist the pressures from interested political parties and foreign clients to go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Indeed, searching for imaginary Muslim monsters will involve major costs for the United States. Clinton's geo-economic strategy, with its goal of shifting resources from the military to the civilian economy, does not fit with a costly involvement in the Middle East, which a crusade against Islam would certainly entail. After all, why should the United States continue to police the Persian Gulf for the Europeans and the Japanese, who are more dependent on oil coming from that region, while they beat Americans in the trade competition?

A policy of constructive disengagement from the Middle East would permit the United States to encourage Europe and Japan to start taking care of their interests there. Such a policy will also help create new and independent balance of power systems and security arrangements. Washington will not need anymore to play the role of balancer in the Middle East and to use Israel, Egypt, Turkey or Saudi Arabia as regional cops, while Iran could play a role in the region that is commensurate with its political and military power.

In the 1970s Washington opened lines of communication to Beijing during the height of its revolutionary fervor and helped Red China to gradually move away from its isolation and to begin reforming its politics and economics. Realpolitik considerations suggest that the Clinton administration adopt a similar strategy vis-à-vis Tehran that could lead to the restoration of diplomatic relations and the expansion of trade relations with Iran. A policy that rejects the idea of a grand Western crusade against Iran fits with U.S. interest in having a diplomatically responsible and economically prosperous Iran in the Persian Gulf. It will, in turn, strengthen the Iranian nationalists interested in attracting Western aid and investment and in integrating Tehran with the world community.

The new administration's neo-Wilsonian orientation with its emphasis on defending democracy, human rights, self-determination and arms control worldwide clearly runs contrary to the interest of maintaining alliances with Middle Eastern despots and arming them to the teeth. Directing such a policy only against Iran and the Islamists, while exempting the pro-American Arab axis from its pressure, will only signal to the rest of the world that American policy is dominated by duplicity.

President Clinton should use American diplomatic influence in the region to be an honest broker and to help Israel make peace with its neighbors, including the Palestinians. The integration of Israel into the Middle East will contribute to the creation of a stable Middle East, while self-determination for the Palestinians will advance the cause of political freedom. An Arab-Israeli peace could be a nucleus for the economic renaissance of the region, which, in turn, would strengthen the hands of the more Westernized and modernizing forces there. An America whose ties with Israel have ceased to be a burden in its relations with Muslims and that has left its Cold War legacy behind will not have to chase any more monsters or saints.

America should not lead a crusade for democracy in the Middle East. But neither should it continue, through aid and military support, to provide incentives for maintaining autocratic rule. Removing those incentives might force those rulers to begin reforming their political systems. If they refuse to do that, Washington should adopt a policy of benign neglect toward the coming political changes in the region. Disengaging from the Saudis and the other Middle Eastern despots will ensure that when new regimes come to power, they will not direct their wrath against Washington but against those external powers, like France, who might find it in their interest to maintain in power groups like Algeria's National Liberation Front. The interest of America lies not in isolating but in maintaining friendly relations with the new Islamic governments and in playing into the hands of the liberal and democratic elements in their countries through trade and communication. By doing this America will best serve both its own interests and the interests of the people of the Middle East.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now