“An Arabist Administration?”



James D. Hardy, Jr., PhD, Korey Harvey, JD, and Leonard Hochberg, PhD


       The static from the New York mosque debate has turned into a choral rant, including claims of civil rights denied, and chances to call people racists, and an opportunity to discourse at full bellow on the First Amendment, and charges of lack of sensitivity to 9/11 families, and dark suggestions of terrorist connections among the mosque promoters, and fuel for talk shows, and opportunities for politicians to put both feet in it, sometimes twice, and, in general, random noise suitable for the August congressional recess.  Are these genuine issues imbedded in the mishegas about the mosque?  Of course.  Plenty of people have already had plenty to say about the First Amendment, so we leave that alone.  The possible political fallout from President Obama’s two comments has generated much speculative heat.  But he has gone to Martha’s Vineyard, where no one ever watches Fox News, so there will be nothing new on that front.

       We ask instead about President Obama’s initial comment, which defended the rights of the mosque promoters under the First Amendment and the American traditions of religious pluralism and toleration.  Was this just a throw away line, or did it say something substantive about the Obama Administration’s attitudes?  We suggest the latter, not from the remarks themselves, but from their context within the current administration’s Middle East policy.  The Obama administration has an Arabist tilt, and the Obama comments were simply part of that general attitude.  Hence the article below, not occasioned by Obama’s remarks, but made more timely because of them.


Stealth and Policy Change: Enter John Brennan

       Policy change often makes its initial appearance quietly, being announced in speeches by subordinate officials to select audiences.  If the press covers the speech at all, a story appears only in the larger papers, buried in the inside pages among reports of municipal elections in Winnipeg or a new clinic opening in Birmingham.  This stealth approach has two primary virtues.  It permits plausible deniability by political leadership, should that be needed.  Stealth also encourages tightly controlled comment by those willing to support the new policy, who praise the ideas presented, implying that every right-minded person is already on board.  The combination of official silence and buzz by the claque makes perfect political sense.  Everyone does it, from presidents to mayors.  

Brennan’s First Speech at the CSIS

       The Obama administration has used this technique to introduce a new Middle East policy.  The first indication this was happening was a speech by John Brennan, the President’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on August 6, 2009 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-John-Brennan-at-the-Center-for-Strategic-and-International-Studies/, accessed August 8, 2010).  Brennan entitled his address: “A New Approach to Safeguarding Americans,” placing a review of foreign policy within the context of physical security at home.  The Obama administration had been in office only six months in August, 2009, so the process had only begun.  The noise at the time involved domestic issues, especially the increasing bitter war on health care, and Brennan was dispatched to tell the cognoscenti at CSIS that the review process was well underway.  The stealth lay in hiding behind the transient circumstances of the health care debate along with the procedure of a subordinate making an interim report.

       Brennan laid down the lines of future policy.  No dissimulation there.  He announced nothing less than “…the new thinking and new approach that President Obama brings to the task of safeguarding the American people from violent extremism and terrorist attack.”  New was perhaps too strong a word to describe the thoughts involved but it was entirely appropriate for the Arabist directions that would define American policy in the current administration.  Brennan stated that the Arabist tilt would have no effect on the immediate terrorist threat from al Qaeda, which would be opposed relentlessly, but it would inform the long range American security policies.  In terms of long range security, the new administration would address “…the threat of violent extremism generally, including the political, economic, and social factors that help put so many individuals on the path to violence.”  Such a policy review came, Brennan relates, from President Obama’s nuanced world view, with the President understanding geopolitics not in terms of a “war on terrorism,” nor as a “global war,” nor as America “in conflict with the rest of the world.”  Translating those global policy goals into specific policy recommendations certainly “…included committing the United States to a new partnership with Muslims around the world – a partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”  What must be particularly avoided is the impression that the United States is “at war with Islam,” and the Obama administration has clearly presented that position both at home and to the world, particularly in his speech in Cairo.

       Brennan articulated three unremarkable themes in this speech.  The first was boilerplate left over from the nomination and election campaigns.  President Obama himself recognized the need for a new and more sophisticated policy in the Middle East.  He had begun to recruit staff, including Brennan, as early as November, 2008, and they had begun to work at once.  The President also articulated the directions and outline of the new policy, which was far superior in every way, utilizing particularly “…our greatest asset of all – the power of America’s moral example.”  The appeal to human rights, in the wake of Abu Graib and rendition and Guantanamo Bay was clear to all, and went without saying.  The new, and to Brennan, the incomparably more virtuous administration would certainly do better than the previous one.  As Brennan stated, “Eight years ago this morning [August 6, 2001] I read warnings that Osama bin Laden determined to strike inside the U.S., but our government was unable to prevent the worst terrorist attack in American history that would occur on 9/11.”  President Obama will, it is obvious, do better, particular as under President Bush Islamic opinion of America had “hardened often into hatred.”  In general, the attribution of both conception of the policy and inspiration in bringing policy to reality reflected the then quite public sense by Obama’s followers that their leader was transformational, exceptional, even salvifical.  The praise was, therefore, obsequious and excessive.  Brennan did not hit the right note, described by Euripides (in “Iphigenia in Aulis”):

How can I praise you sufficiently, yet not overpraise 

And lose thereby the grace of praise.

       The second theme that Brennan explored involved the failed policies of the previous administration.  He never mentioned President Bush by name, though Brennan did not suggest that all of Bush policies had been reversed.  But President Obama had already started to change the emphasis of Bush-era policy.  The Obama administration would rely on diplomacy to every extent possible.  The Obama administration would not use the word “jihadist,” for fear of giving religious sanction to “violent extremists.”  The Obama administration recognized that frustration and hopelessness were causes of “violent extremism.”  Islam was a religion of peace, and Brennan also noted, Hamas and Hezbollah undertook important social programs.  Finally, the Obama administration was already attacking the root causes of “violent extremism,” however “upstream” was the term he used.  Both in the short term, immediate security, and the long term, causes of terrorism, the Obama administration had begun a complete policy review.

       What this policy review would produce remained essentially a matter of speculation.  Fine-sounding platitudes are appropriate for public relations, but they always retreat before reality.  Islam may be declared a religion of peace, but the overwhelming majority of international terrorists were (and are) Muslim.  Still, a new administration always seeks to be transformational.  We recall President Kennedy changing the Cold War Co-Existence, although the facts of Russian-American relations remained unchanged.

Brennan at NYU

       Brennan repeated the substance, and much of the language of the August speech in an address given to students at the Islamic Center at New York University on February 13, 2010.  The event was co-sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Islamic Society of North America.  Brennan was introduced by Ingrid Mattson, the president of ISNA, and an academic whose research, in Brennan words, “continues the rich tradition of Islamic scholarship.”  ISNA has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sami Al-Arian, a convicted terrorist, claims to have been a co-founder of the group.  ISNA has maintained constant close ties to Hamas, and to the Palestinian intifada and terrorism in general.1  Beyond all that, the open forum occurred during the worst winter of snow in decades, but this was too important to be called on account of weather.  Brennan made it to New York and the locals came out on a cold Saturday morning.  Whatever else might be said, this was an “official” event, and had the administration’s imprimatur.

       The speech itself, which ran about 35 minutes, had two main themes.  Part of the carefully constructed speech was extended and fulsome praise of Islam.  The Islamic Society of North America has “…been a voice for tolerance and diversity that defines Islam.”  This simple falsehood set the tone for the rest of Brennan’s comments on Islam, which he described as a faith of “greatness and beauty,” of “peace and tolerance,” reflecting a culture of “tremendous warmth.”  In America, Muslims have suffered from association with “violent extremism” spread by Muslims abroad and then again by discrimination from fellow Americans at home.  Beyond that Muslims in America see their children being targeted by extremists abroad.  The victimhood of American Muslims is broad indeed.  Ignorance at home about Islam, the prejudice at home against Islam, and discrimination against Muslims at home are all threats to our national security.  The unreasoning hostility to Islam is that serious.

       The second main theme of the speech came from the Clinton dictum that the campaign never ends, no matter how the last election went.  Brennan spent about half the speech praising President Obama.  The President has spoken to Muslims at home and around the world; he has done this in Cairo, on Arabic television, on remarks (via videotape) the Islamic World Forum (February, 2010).  According to Brennan, the President will combat “violent extremists” (this administration refuses to use the words “jihadist” or “terrorist,” which are now politically incorrect); he, and by implication the Republicans did not share his magnanimity or breath of view, viewed Muslims and non-Muslims alike as “all Americans,” who “share a common purpose.”  As Brennan has asserted when advancing President Obama’s point of view, “We are a nation of faith, founded by men and women who came here to escape religious persecution, and have since been joined by believers in every faith.”  President Obama – and his defender John Brennan – viewed Muslims as part of this tapestry of a shared search for freedom, and as fellow victims.

       Brennan ended the speech by echoing President Obama’s rejection of Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the inevitable clash of Western and Islamic civilizations (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/48950/samuel-p-huntington/the-clash-of-civilizations).  President Obama has certainly acted as if the Huntington thesis has little merit.  “There are those who say that Muslims and non-Muslims are somehow fated to disagree,” Brennan claimed, “… that different civilizations are doomed to clash.”  That Brennan was allowed to include a dissent from Huntington’s baleful prediction is one indication that the realities of cultural distinctiveness impinge lightly on the formation of foreign policy.  After all, Western Civilization rests on values associated with toleration for religious minorities and atheists, promotes secular public institutions, and advances freedom for homosexuals and women.  In the intensely religious world of Islam, which is beset by Islamist ideologues, heretics are to be converted by persuasion if possible but by force if necessary, the state’s legal code must be directly informed by religion (i.e., sharia), and women rarely possess let alone exercise the same rights as men.  And what can be said of the situation of homosexuals in the quasi tribal, often pre-modern, Islamic world?  

       Beyond its obvious campaign characteristics, Brennan’s speech had other, equally psychological and atmospheric, uses.  It did not, of course, contain any insights on geopolitics or specifics on policy; the audience of Muslim law students and eminent personages made that inappropriate.  But the speech did contain effusive, extensive and obsequious praise for Islam and apologies for the poor persecuted Muslims who had suffered such discrimination in pre-Obama America at the hands and tongues of their ignorant countrymen.

       What did this malarkey mean and how was it meant to be received?  Those familiar with the rituals of American politics recognized this as routine flattery of the target audience, assuring them that they were a worthy part of the national mix and the President had their welfare on his mind.  And the Muslim audience?  They asked an hour worth of questions, mostly relating tales of personal discrimination, mostly involving air travel!  Both speaker and audience grandly overlooked the role of Muslims in air piracy and terror.  Two questions concerned Israel, and Brennan, here, could not satisfy his audience, replying that “we’re not going to separate ourselves from Israel.”  That was the exception.  It was the only inconvenient truth to mar the rhapsody of praise for Islam from the speaker and the litany of victimhood from the audience.

       Brennan himself, in his speeches and answers to questions, denied “jihad” was a commitment to Islamic militancy.  Instead he defined “jihad” exclusively as an internal struggle – a rarified understanding of jihadism given the commonplace appreciation of the ideal on the Arab street as engaging in a struggle on behalf of the wider Muslim community.2  In redefining jihad, Brennan articulated a romantic view of Islam, one coupled with the belief that Islamic political aims should be advanced because Islam basically had only good will for the West.  The British, after decades of supporting Arab and Palestinian positions, received the reward that infidels get.  In this case it was the bombings in the Underground.  For Spain, the same support got the same result, train bombings.  Hence, our characterization of Brennan as a romantic. 

       As for the audience, their complaint against Western and American misdeeds, both personal and collective, was not the “hard jihadism” of violence, but “soft jihadism.”  Brennan was treated as a “useful fool,” a term of derision Marxist true believers applied to their non-party supporters and fellow travelers.  The “soft jihadists” launched their IED’s of cultural guilt, to which liberals, such as Brennan, are particularly susceptible.  The affair was very successful, though for whom, exactly, cannot yet be known.

Brennan Returns to CSIS

       John Brennan’s third speech came in the crucial month of May, 2010, when the Obama administration agreed to discuss the Muslim position that Israel should not be a nuclear power, and when Turkey launched its flotilla (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-assistant-president-homeland-security-and-counterterrorism-john-brennan-csi).  On May 26, 2010, Brennan returned to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to present an early view of the forthcoming “National Security Strategy” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/national_security_strategy.pdf).  The third speech was in the nature of the long Hollywood tradition of a “sneak preview.”  It was also a standard line-of-duty speech.  This time, Brennan gave “just the facts.”

       The new (new in description more than in policy) “strategic approach” did not depart much from what Brennan had promised in August, 2009.  Brennan went through the three elements of “advancing our interest.”  The first was security, the short-term aspects of the Obama administration policy.  This involved increased resilience in security at home and unrelenting pressure on “violent extremists” abroad.  This sounded a lot like President Bush’s stance.  Brennan didn’t mention that.  Secondly, the Obama administration put the emphasis on prosperity, at home, of course, but mostly abroad.  This was the first prong of the administration’s long-term strategy, the effort to deal with “upstream” problems that Brennan had mentioned earlier.  This was followed by a section on American values, which were, in dealing with terrorism, the administration’s ultimate weapon.  Over the long haul, civil society, human rights, economic prosperity, and political freedom were simply a more attractive future than sending yourself and your children to be suicide bombers – at least for most, even in the Muslim world.

       The National Security Strategy is a general statement and Brenan’s précis of this document was general as well.  Specifics, after all, may not be possible to implement and therefore should not be bandied about in public pronouncements.  But the inclination of policy, the vector of administrative decision, the tone of administrative rhetoric, these things are within the purview of the administration in office.  What does it sound like?  How does it fit with other administration pronouncements?  Does a consistent policy orientation emerge?  And it does seem so.  Brennan is not an outlier.  We believe that the Obama administration is going to try and Arabist policy.

Straws in the Wind

       When first publicly announced, policy is still at the stage of wish list; only later, with support from the public, in Congress and within the administration itself, will policy positions be translated into reality.  Support within the administration is not unimportant, and two straws in the bureaucratic wind indicate that such support exists.  A released (or leaked) “Red Team” report, dated May 7, 2010, appeared from the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).  A “Red Team” exercise is designed to examine geopolitical and geo-strategic options that run counter to current policy, and the senior intelligence officers at CENTCOM did this with American Middle East policy (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/29/red_team).  They came up with the Brennan solution:  initiate continuing and even closer contact with Hamas and Hezbollah, attempt to bring them into both the local and regional political systems in Palestine and Lebanon, encourage civil rather than militant policies within the two movements.  Cooperation will replace isolation.  At its worst, this policy is founded in “appeasement” – concessions delivered without the expectation of a quid pro quo.  At best, it is “constructive engagement” – the term used by the Reagan administration to suggest that political and economic ties might be maintained (with the apartheid South African regime) while encouraging reform.  The report was prepared for General David Petraeus, who, doubtless read it, but who, in a non-McCrystal fashion, has made no comment.

       What is one to make of this?  Of course, these intelligence, geostrategic, and geopolitical exercises are part of routine planning for the regional commands.  Not to run Red Team exercises would be tantamount to negligence.  So it is just part of the military planning background.  As far as it goes, this is certainly true.  Still, the Red Team internal report did find its way into the sunshine and at a crucial time, May, 2010.  And it was sent to a crucial officer, General Petraeus.  And, like Brennan, it did criticize a Bush policy effort to train and support a “National Security Force” in the West Bank, an effort to help maintain the power of the aging terrorists-turned-kleptocrats of Fatah.  And the commander of the training effort, Lt. General Keith Dayton, saw part of his mission as winning the trust and respect of the Israelis, an attitude that the Red Team implicitly condemned.  Perhaps the report is more than routine.  Perhaps, it falls into the category of “something else again.”

       The second straw indicates that the President is serious about supporting “constructive engagement” with the Arab and Islamic world.  In June, 2010, President Obama gave NASA updated missions.  These did not involve space.  One of them was to emphasize the Arab contributions to mathematics, made in the early middle ages.  If this was emphasized the Arab and Muslim world could be proud of their contributions to modern civilization, and would feel better about themselves and things in general.  Leave aside the wretched psychobabble from the self-esteem movement that deformed American public education a few years ago; that particular fraud from advanced thinkers on the left is not the issue.  The opening to Islam is.  The impetus for the Arabist policy goes all the way to the top.

An Arabist Administration:  Consequences

       The fundamental choice undergirding the Arabist policy of embracing Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamist movements, as well as Muslim governments, involves the issue of credibility.  Can one believe Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, et al. when they swear eternal enmity to the “Zionist entity” and demand that the Jews leave Palestine (the Helen Thomas solution), or demand all the land in the former British mandate of Palestine?  No, thinks John Brennan.  This is all pre-negotiation and negotiation rhetoric, suitable for the canaille in the Arab street but meaning little beyond that.  There is, now with Obama as president, an historic chance for a genuine settlement of these issues.  He alone among Western leaders has advanced the virtues of Islam as a religious basis for peace.

       Brennan is totally wrong, fundamentally wrong, as wrong as it is possible to be, as wrong as Alger Hiss was about the virtues of communism, as wrong as Neville Chamberlain was about Hitler.  Arab and Islamic spokesmen should be believed when thy deny Israel’s right to exist and demand that it be destroyed and that the “Zionist occupiers” be expelled or exterminated.  They will pursue this policy as far as they can, if only to prevent the emergence of new insurgent and terrorist groups who, should “moderation” somehow take hold among the current radicals, will emerge to take up the Islamist banner, subverting whatever deal may be struck.3  This is not modern Europe with its advanced decay of cultural vigor, its dependency on Middle Eastern oil, or its eagerness to tolerate religious minorities who do not practice toleration; this is the Islamic Middle East where there is no lack of political will.  The congruence of Arab rhetoric and policy was amply provided by Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, when he rejected the most generous concessions consistent with Israel’s survival, on the ground that the Palestinians demanded everything, and if he settled for less his own people would kill him.  In short, there is no credible evidence in Islamist movement politics for political moderation, religious toleration or respect for human rights, not in al Qaeda, nor Hamas, nor Hezbollah, nor LET, nor Islamic Jihad, nor the ideological and perhaps even the organizational grandfather of all these organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood.  When these guys utter homicidal, and nuclear, threats, we believe they mean them.

       Of course, it is always a delicate and risky calculation in taking fascist leaders at their word.  Europe remembers that, at Munich, Neville Chamberlain took Hitler at his word, and that did not turn out as well as it might have.  In the case of the Palestinian “violent extremists,” they have opposed Jews in Palestine since the late nineteenth century and have engaged in pogroms and other terrorist attacks on Jews over that same period.  Palestinians rioted in 1920 against the Balfour Declaration and increased Jewish immigration.  Led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (1921), the Palestinian riots achieved the repeal of the Immigration Ordinance, ending unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine.  With the American restriction on immigration in 1924 and the rise of virulent anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish migration rose to over 65,000 a year by 1935, and four years of Palestinian terror and guerrilla war (1936-1939) required the British army to intervene.  When the world war came, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, predictably became a Nazi, supported the creation of an Arab Legion, and worked for the extermination of the Jews in Europe by raising troops among the Bosnians to fight along side the Croats and Nazis.  After the Second World War came the wars to create Israel, and Nasser’s efforts – often with the active support of Jordan, Syria and even Iraq – to destroy Israel, and the terrorism of Fatah, and the intifadas, and the rockets from Gaza and Lebanon, all accompanied by loud proclamations of hatred for Jews and the intentions to destroy Israel.  Can one seriously maintain that the peace and beauty of Islam trumps this past century of organized terror and hatred?  We do not think it does.

       Further, Muslim leaders interested in peace with Israel, and opposed to terrorism against the west said so in terms that could be believed.  Anwar Sadat convinced everyone of his desire for peace, including the Muslim Brotherhood, so of course Islamist extremists assassinated him.  A genuine desire for peace, which the Israelis could believe, was half the equation for peace with Egypt and Jordan.  The other half was American support.  Both Israeli and Arab leaders believed that the United States had Israel’s strategic back.  Under those two conditions, and only under those conditions, can peace in the Middle East be achieved.

       Brennan’s policy choices, which reflect the administration’s new direction, of denying that Arab terrorists are terrorists and jihadists, of pretending that contemporary Islam supports peace, appears in the Islamist world as weakness.  Weakness has terrible consequences.  Weakness leads Iran to think that America is all bluster and no action.  Weakness leads Israel to think that it is alone and can only survive through victory in a war that must be fought before its enemies fully marshal their resources.  Weakness gives rise to the belief that there is now a strategic opening (i.e., a fatah) which Hamas and Hezbollah should exploit militarily.  Weakness leads Islamists to think that now, finally, they can get all they want.  Weakness increases the chances for war.  American policy, in words, deeds, and foreseeable consequences ought to foster peace through strength; regrettably, it does not.


1 See the detailed, carefully documented and extensive report by the Investigative Project on Terrorism on the Islamic Society of North America, its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, and its extensive ties to organizations that fund and support Palestinian terrorist groups, like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas.  Steven Emerson, “ISNA: An IPT Investigative Report,” Investigative Project on Terrorism - http://www.investigativeproject.org/documents/misc/275.pdf, accessed August 22, 2010.

2 For a detailed discussion of the difference between the “greater” – internal and spiritual – and “lesser” jihad see Antony T. Sullivan, “The West, Mediterranean Islam and The Search for a New Beginning,” Media Monitors Network - http://www.mediamonitors.net/sullivan1.html, accessed August 22, 2010.  On the other hand, Walid Phares, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against the West (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 17-26 claims that jihad has a widespread and common meaning in the Middle East, specifically a struggle that is undertaken on behalf of the Islamic community.

3 James D. Hardy, Jr., PhD and Leonard J. Hochberg, PhD, “Palestinian Community,” New Mexico Independence Research Institute - http://www.zianet.com/nmiri/palestinian_community.html, accessed August 23, 2010.