Hillary Clinton was expressing what has become Washington's new conventional wisdom when she implied, in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, "moderates" might have prevented the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In fact, America has provided massive and sustained aid to the moderates in the region.
Remember, ISIS was created in Iraq and grew out of that country's internal dynamics. Over the last decade, the U.S. helped organize Iraq's "moderates" — the Shiite-dominated government — gave them tens of billions of dollars in aid, and supplied and trained their army.
But, it turned out, the moderates weren't that moderate and as they turned authoritarian and sectarian, Sunni opposition movements grew and jihadi opposition groups like ISIS gained tacit or active support. This is a familiar pattern throughout the region.
For decades now, American foreign policy in the Middle East has been to support "moderates." The problem is that there are actually very few of them. The Arab world is going through a bitter, sectarian struggle that is "carrying the Islamic world back to the dark ages," says Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
In these circumstances, moderates either become extremists or they lose out in the brutal power struggles of the day. Look at Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and the Palestinian territories.
The Middle East has been trapped for decades between repressive dictatorships and illiberal opposition groups — between Hosni Mubarak and al-Qaida — leaving little space in between. The dictators try to shut down all opposition movements, and the ones that survive are vengeful, religious, and violent.
There was an opening for moderates after the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012 but it rapidly closed. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had a chance to govern inclusively but it refused. Without waiting for vindication at the polls, Egypt's old dictatorship rose up and banned and jailed the Brotherhood and other opposition forces. In Bahrain, the old ruling class is following the example of the Egyptian regime — while the Saudi monarchy funds the return to repression throughout the region.
All of this leads to an underground and violent opposition. "Because of the culture of impunity [from the government], there is a new culture of revenge" on the street, Said Yousif al-Muhafda, head of documentation at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, explained to Al-Monitor, a news and analysis website.
In the Palestinian territories, Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is indeed a moderate. But notice that the Israeli government and the West have happily postponed elections in the West Bank year after year — because they know full well who would win. Moderates don't do well in an atmosphere of despair and war.
Perhaps the biggest stretch of all is the idea that the moderates could win in Syria. It is one thing to believe that moderates can organize well, make their case, and get to the polls. But the Bashar al-Assad regime turned its guns on the opposition from the start. In that circumstance, the groups that are going to gain power are those who will fight back with zeal and ferocity.
Consider the new head of the Western-backed Syrian opposition, Hadi al-Bahra, who now urges more support for moderates like him. A successful businessman of decency and sincerity, he left Syria in 1983 — more than 30 years ago! How likely is it that people like him can take over from those on the ground who are fighting and dying?
And who are those people? After the Syrian struggle began, The Associated Press reported that the opposition to the Assad regime could be characterized as "poor, pious, and rural." Describing these people in Aleppo, it said, "They frame the fight in a religious context and speak of martyrdom as something they wish for." The University of Oklahoma scholar Joshua Landis points out that of the four largest and most effective rebel forces in Syria, not one espouses democracy.
In an excellent essay for The Washington Post, George Washington University professor Marc Lynch cites careful historical studies that demonstrate that in a chaotic, violent civil war such as Syria's — with many outside players funding their favorite groups — U.S. intervention would have had little effect other than to extend and exacerbate the conflict.
"Had the plan to arm Syria's rebels been adopted back in 2012," Lynch writes, "the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved."
Asserting that the moderates in Syria could win is not tough foreign policy talk; it is a naive fantasy with dangerous consequences.
Fareed Zakaria hosts CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," and makes regular appearances on shows such as ABC’s "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press." He has been editor at large at Time magazine since 2010, and spent 10 years overseeing Newsweek's foreign editions. He is a Washington Post (and internationally syndicated) columnist. He is author of "The Post-American World." For more of Fareed Zakaria's reports, Go Here Now.
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