In the midst of preparations for President Obama’s second inauguration and the run-up to the Israeli elections, realpolitik reentered the public arena with a vengeance, regardless of how much people want to ignore it.
Washington went through the euphoria of the quadrennial celebration of our political system, while Israel endured a multiparty election with its usual state of chaotic transition. Both countries affirmed the uniqueness and wonders of democracy despite the major differences in their systems and practices.
Meanwhile, there was genuine trouble brewing: Islamic radicals are challenging the legitimacy of fundamental democratic values. The crisis of Islamic fundamentalism, all too apparent over the past few weeks, may ultimately challenge these reelected leaders as well as the entire free world. Nothing that happened in Mali or Algeria was surprising or unforeseen, but the violence and reprisals suggest the West does not have a coherent game plan as to how to address the threat that the Islamic radicals present.
The newest incarnations of radical Islam are seen not in the Middle East but in Africa, both in the Maghreb and points south. Those who followed the events in Somalia and the Sudan in East Africa should not be surprised that Islam has now made significant inroads across the continent, first in Libya, then in Nigeria, and now most recently in Mali. (Studies suggest that over 40 percent of those living in Africa, including North Africa, are Muslim.)
The United States and Israel face the same set of events but have been approaching them from extremely different positions, neither of which is likely to produce positive results. Recent Israeli governments have viewed Islamic radicals as totally outside the traditional norms of global politics. Their hatred of Israel, the United States, and Western culture are beyond the calculus of any negotiating platform. Only force and a hardline approach will succeed in changing their rapidly growing influence in the non-aligned and developing world, say the Israelis. From the Israeli perspective, within the Middle East now as well as in the Indian sub-continent and Africa, there are few if any reasonable voices for change. Those who see such movement are deluding themselves.
Meanwhile, the United States and most of Western Europe believe that there are signs of democratic change in the Arab world, evidenced most clearly by the Arab Spring. According to this position, there remain serious problems in Iran, Turkey, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, but liberal democratic voices are beginning to be heard. They argue that Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, despite his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood Party and his ugly past speeches against Israel, played a positive force in ending the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza and now appears to have stopped a major weapons smuggling operation in Gaza.
The global concerns seem fairly clear. Western economic needs are tied directly to numerous regimes which once were merely authoritarian but today are controlled by or threatened by religious fanatics. In addition, there are many places in the region where non-governmental terrorist operations are directly threatening the future of neutral or even pro-Western governments: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and others. The Western use of force to end the dictatorship in Libya has been followed by a total inability to develop a strategy to stop the slaughter in Syria. The continued use of drone aircraft throughout the region and the French military operation in Northern Mali do not seem to be part of larger Western doctrine. The West watched the apparently bungled Algerian rescue mission of the Western hostages at the BP natural gas fields outside Ain Amenas in frustration.
The spread of various Al Qaida groups throughout the region and the resort to militant tactics regardless of the consequences place numerous regimes and multi-national corporations in extremely dangerous situations. With the forthcoming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, an even greater resurgence of Taliban extremists is likely in the midst of a region in which two states already have nuclear weapons.
All the focus on world-wide economic issues over the past few years has been critical, but it looks clear that a more sound, coherent, and creative global strategy to address radical Islam needs to be developed soon, or the next several years could be extremely dangerous, even without Iran going nuclear.