Commentary Magazine


The Malaysia Example

Jackson Diehl, in an immensely important column, writes:

Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia’s political opposition, has become known over the past decade as one of the foremost advocates of liberal democracy in Muslim countries. … Lately, Anwar has been getting attention for something else: strident rhetoric about Israel and alleged “Zionist influence” in Malaysia. He recently joined a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur where an Israeli flag was burned. He’s made dark insinuations about the “Jewish-controlled” Washington public relations firm Apco Worldwide, which is working for Malaysia’s quasi-authoritarian government. Therein lies a story of the Obama era — about a beleaguered democrat fighting for political and personal survival with little help from Washington; about the growing global climate of hostility toward Israel; and about the increasing willingness of U.S. friends in places such as Turkey and Malaysia to exploit it.

Diehl explains that Anwar is being prosecuted. (“Freed after six years, he built a multi-ethnic democratic opposition movement that shocked the ruling party with its gains in recent elections. It now appears to have a chance at winning the next parliamentary campaign, which would allow Malaysia to join Indonesia and Turkey as full-fledged majority-Muslim democracies.”) But, once again, the Obama administration is of no help:

Obama said nothing in public about Anwar when he granted Najib a prized bilateral meeting in Washington in April. After a “senior officials dialogue” between the two governments this month, the State Department conceded that the ongoing trial again had not been raised, “because this issue was recently discussed at length.” When it comes to human rights, the Obama administration apparently does not wish to be repetitive.

Diehl provides a vivid example of why Obama’s foreign policy is precisely — and dangerously — wrongheaded. By ingratiating ourselves with Muslim despots, slapping around Israel, and downgrading human rights, we are systematically encouraging aggression and repression by Muslim governments. Rather than use a combination of carrots and sticks to encourage helpful conduct, we have given radicals every incentive to become more radical and have undercut moderates. It is the most counterproductive and, yes, uninformed foreign policy in memory. Obama says he “gets” the Muslim World, but he really doesn’t. If he truly understood the motives and incentives of these countries and the political landscape in which they operate, he’d being do the exact opposite of what he has been doing. Rather than telling radical Muslims what they want to hear, maybe it’s time to start telling Muslim governments what is expected if they want to have a productive relationship with the U.S. and avoid some adverse consequences. Now, that would be smart diplomacy.