President Obama has been rightly criticized for his response to Libya, Syria, and Egypt. The problem is two-fold: slow reaction and inconsistency. After all, why a responsibility to protect in Libya, but not in Syria and Egypt? Leading from behind is often not leading, and certainly forfeits American leverage: see the disastrous aftermath of Libya’s liberation from mad dictator Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, it is evident that the United States simply lacks a strategy when it comes to political Islam.
The Bush administration to some extent and the Obama administration that followed certainly reached out and experimented with embracing political Islam: witness both Bush and Obama with regard to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to welcome Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian elections. Obama has reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood from his first months in office, as the group became a more frequent target of engagement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt—and also among the Syrian opposition, with all due respect to Sen. John McCain—it is clear that American outreach to Islamists has not resulted in any benefit to U.S. national interests.
Perhaps it’s time to recognize that militant Islamism isn’t simply the motivator of “workplace violence” as Obama has characterized the Fort Hood massacre, but a noxious political ideology which means both the United States and traditional notions of Western liberalism harm. The reason why so many proponents of the Muslim Brotherhood respond with ad hominem attacks when such arguments are advanced is that they simply have not substantive argument to respond constructively.
What we need is to take a lesson from the Cold War and begin to roll back political Islam: First in Egypt, and then in Gaza, Turkey, and elsewhere, but supporting opposition groups. Political Islamists will never be our friends, and so we should not waste time or effort siding with them but should rather engage with their adversaries. That does not mean Cold War-era embrace of dictatorship, but it does mean standing aloof from Islamist groups, recognizing that the Islamist embrace of the ballot box extends to Election Day only, and not beyond. Sometimes the best hope for democracy as an end result is not full democracy in the initial process.