Commentary Magazine


Drawing Conclusions From the Myth of Middle East Moderates

In today’s Washington Post, that inveterate peddler of foreign policy conventional wisdom Fareed Zakaria tells a great truth about the myth of Arab moderation. That he does so in order to cover up for the failures of President Obama and while also hedging his bets about the Palestinians does not detract from the general truth of his thesis.

Zakaria is merely stating what has long been obvious to critics of the political culture of the Arab and Muslim world. In that toxic environment, “moderation” is political poison and extremism, especially of the Islamist variety has become mainstream. As Zakaria rightly notes, the dynamic that has brought ISIS to the brink of overrunning Iraq has been manifested throughout the Middle East over the last generation as Islamists have become more powerful and their so-called moderate opponents have become less moderate as well as unpopular.

The purpose of this Obama cheerleader’s detour into reality is not, however, to debunk the fantasy that Israel must make concessions to the Palestinians in order to strengthen their moderates. Nor is he seeking to pour cold water on those promoting the delusion that Iran’s leaders are becoming more moderate and that justifies American appeasement of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are two fallacies that Zakaria is perfectly happy to continue promoting in his writing and on the bully pulpit he occupies on CNN.

No, the only reason that Zakaria is interesting in shooting down the idea of Arab moderation is because that is a convenient way to defend the Obama against the criticisms lodged against him by Hillary Clinton last week in her Atlantic interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Clinton rightly noted that an early and vigorous Western intervention in Syria would have probably toppled the brutal Assad regime. But even more importantly, the chaos that stemmed from the protracted civil war there led to the rise of ISIS, a vicious Islamist terror group that has overrun parts of Syria and much of Iraq.

But Zakaria is determined to absolve Obama and therefore declares that there were never any real moderates in Syria and that any Western intervention would have been in vain. Like the president, whose alibi for a record of almost unbroken foreign policy failure during his time in office is that the world is a complicated and confusing place he can’t be expected to do much about, let alone fix, Zakaria’s response to Syria is to throw up his hands and to say that nothing could be done.

To be fair, the Syrian opposition was never very impressive and is now totally overshadowed by the extremists in the field against Assad. But to assert that inaction was the only reasonable option in Syria is to promote a different kind of myth. History is fluid, not set in stone. As uncertain as the situation in Syria was three years ago, there’s little doubt that Assad was on the ropes and, like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, would have fallen if Obama (who kept predicting the demise of that regime) had acted. While it is possible the country would have descended to chaos as was the case in Libya where the president’s lead from behind style led to disaster, could it have been worse than what is happening now, with the country divided between Iran’s ally Assad and Islamists who are also threatening to take over Iraq?

But even if we leave the Syria out of the discussion, what’s most disappointing about Zakaria’s truth-telling about the missing Muslim and Arab moderates is that even as he tries to debunks Clinton’s criticisms of Obama, he refuses to connect the dots between his thesis and the president’s Middle East policies that he has supported.

Zakaria insists that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine moderate. But, if he was being consistent or had a shred of intellectual integrity, he would note that the same dynamic that has driven other moderate regimes to extremism has applied to Abbas as well. Abbas talks like a moderate at times when speaking to Westerners or left-wing Israelis. But his refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to denounce Palestinian Islamists gives the lie to the talk about his moderation, although even the Israeli government regards him as a necessary evil these days.

Zakaria also distorts the truth when he says the reason why there have been no Palestinian elections in recent years (Abbas is currently serving the 10th year of a four-year presidential term) is that the Israelis and the West have postponed them. That is nonsense even though he’s right when he says there is good reason to believe the Hamas terrorists might win. The autocratic and utterly corrupt Fatah run by Abbas needs no prompting from the Israelis or the Americans to act to protect themselves from the trappings of democracy.

But the main failing of Zakaria’s piece is that he refuses to draw the proper conclusion from his correct diagnosis about the failure of Arab moderation. If it is a fantasy to imagine that there are no moderates who can make peace with the Jewish state and live with the West without resorting to terror or nuclear blackmail, then it behooves the U.S. to stop trying to hammer the Israelis into making dangerous concessions that will only strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would also be good reason for Obama to sober up about the prospects of détente with Iran and to realize that rather than loosening sanctions on Tehran, tougher ones along with a credible threat of force is the only way to avert the nuclear threat.

For Zakaria, Arab and Muslim moderation is a myth. But only a myth when it serves the purpose of absolving Obama from his responsibility to lead, not when it comes to pressuring Israel or appeasing Iran.

Update: This afternoon, The Washington Post responded to complaints such as the one I made about Zakaria’s wrongly blaming Israel for the failure to hold Palestinian elections. It reads as follows:

An earlier version of this column erred in stating, “the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank.” The elections have been postponed by the Palestinian Authority.

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