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Rubin Reports: Does Power Moderate Radicals? Where’s the Proof?

A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi

A Palestinian woman holds a picture of Egypt's new president, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi
Photo Credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90

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Julius Caesar: “Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights: Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.”

Marc Antony: “Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous; He is a noble Roman and well given.”

–William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Caesar, of course, was right in being suspicious and Marc Antony was wrong. Result: Caesar murdered; civil war; tens of thousands killed; Marc Antony dead. Makes you think. Or at least it should.

An interesting and important question about the Middle East (and one can treat it on a global level, too) is whether being in power or running in an election inevitably moderates those who are radicals. It is automatically accepted by many people that this is so. Yet an examination of evidence makes such behavior more rare than common.

Let’s begin by pointing out that some of the problem is the unthinking transference of things that might be true in private and personal life into the political sphere. As individuals mature and have experience, they often become more moderate. There are many cases of individual politicians “selling out” and abandoning more militant ideas to become corrupt. Neither case necessarily applies to systems, movements, or ideologies.

Even more questionable is the view that the difficulties of having to make decisions in government forces leaders to become more responsible. For example, they learn that money is not unlimited and therefore priorities must be set.  Supposedly, they say to themselves: Hey, collecting the garbage and fixing the potholes is what’s important, forget about all this silly stuff about fundamentally transforming society, imposing the Sharia, destroying Israel, or chasing America out of the Middle East!

A problem with this argument is that it leaves out the political advantages for rulers of using demagoguery, incitement, and populism. To stay in power a politician—particularly in a non-democratic country—gains advantage from militancy, real or feigned.

Another simplistic argument is that anyone who runs in elections and wins is automatically moderate because they participated in a legalistic, democratic process. This argument is quite full of holes. One should not confuse tactical caution with moderation. For example, President Hafiz al-Assad of Syria knew after 1973 that a direct confrontation with Israel was a losing proposition so instead he backed terrorist groups and used Lebanon as a launching pad for the attacks. Being radical does not necessarily mean being suicidal.

Clearly, the most famous ideological dictatorships did not become more moderate. These include the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Communist Cuba, among many others.

But wait, there is an escape clause of sorts. The USSR arguably became more moderate but only with three caveats. That process took place only after 70 years in power. Structural changes were involved but there was an equally or larger accidental factor, that is the coming to power of one or two specific individuals. And after the start of a cautious moderation policy, the regime quickly collapsed, sending a warning to others who might have similar thoughts of loosening the reins. Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet bloc was taken as a lesson by Middle Eastern dictators to hang tough lest they simply hang.

One might make a stronger case with China having moderated. But again it took a very long time indeed, roughly a half-century and of course some old features remain. Waiting for 50 years, however, is not what people are talking about when they speak of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt and quickly becoming teddy bears.

Turning to the Middle East, power does not bring about moderation. The Ba’thist regime in Syria remains radical after a half-century in power and the same would be true of Iraq if not for the U.S.-led invasion. What about the PLO? It did sign the Oslo accords after one-third of a century of terrorism but it did not keep the agreement as a result. The movement’s basic doctrine and strategy remains the same while its tactical shifts could be reversed in future.

Of course, it seems to be a stretch to say there has been no moderation in the PLO and Fatah. Yet let’s remember the original moderation thesis here. The argument made in the 1990s was that the responsibility of power (collecting garbage; fixing roads, educating the kiddies) would so moderate the group as to lead it into a compromise peace treaty with Israel and the end of the conflict.  That certainly did not happen and the moderation thesis was a failure regarding Yasir Arafat. As for education, radical movements in power tend to train the children to be radicals, preaching the horror of compromise and the glories of aggressive war.

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About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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