Obama’s greatest Foreign Policy error was the same one that had been made by Bush and by numerous past administrations. The error was that the problem was not Islam, but Islamic violence. It was Obama however who took that error to its logical conclusion by pursuing a foreign policy meant to part Islamists from their violent tendencies by allowing them to win without the need for terrorism.
Violence, the thinking in diplomatic circles went, was inherently alarming and destabilizing. When Islamists don’t take over, they move to the West, preach radical theology, gather up followers and begin blowing things up. But let them take over their own home countries and they’ll no longer have any reason to draw up maps of London and New York, not when they’re beheading adulterers and burning churches back home.
The Arab Spring was to the Middle East what the betrayal of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis and the betrayal of the rest of Eastern Europe to the Communists was to 20th Century European history. It was the moment when all the diplomatic folly that had come before it came together in one great historical instant of national and international betrayal.
The diplomatic wunderkinds had never taken Islamist theology seriously, just as their predecessors had not considered the possibility that the Bolsheviks might be serious about their world revolution. And they had also failed to recognize that Islamic terrorism was not only a means to power, but also an end in and of itself, a way of harnessing the endless violence and instability in desert societies and turning them into power and profit.
What every Middle Eastern leader has always understood is that the violence, call it raids, terrorism, guerrilla warfare, gang activity, sectarian militias, military coups, desert banditry, was never going away. It was the tiger and the clever leader rides the tiger, rather than ending up inside it, harnessing and directing the violence, to remain in power.
Islam is a religion built around that violence, sanctifying it as a religious principle, and thus taking it out of the realm of Fitna and into the realm of Jihad. The difference between the two is a matter of theology and that theology is a matter of perspective. What is banditry and what is a holy war is a matter of where you’re standing and which way the bullets are flying.
The Islamists might be able to direct the violence, but they could no more shut it down than any of their secular predecessors could. They could kill their enemies, but only by unleashing the tiger on them and when the killing was done, they would still be left with a hungry tiger looking around for his next meal. So the Islamists, like the Saudis, were bound to fuse religion with realpolitik by making sure that the tigers were pointed our way.
Even if their violence were only a means to an end, the end would not come when every Middle Eastern country was run by Islamist governments. For one thing there would never be a means of agreeing on what a truly Islamist government was. The reactionary impetus of Wahhabism leads to an endless series of reforms meant to recreate a lost 7th Century theological paradise by purging those damnable 8th Century theological innovators.
To many Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood is just Mubarak with a beard. To other Salafists, those Salafists are just the Muslim Brotherhood with an untrimmed beard. After overthrowing Mubarak to end the perception that the United States supports UnIslamic dictators, maintaining ties with the Muslim Brotherhood would invite attacks from those Salafists in the hopes of ending US support for the Brotherhood, resetting that foreign policy accomplishment to zero. And the Brotherhood would wink and nod at those attacks to maintain its Islamist street cred and keep the violence going in the other direction.
But finally, the seizure of one Muslim country or two of them or a dozen of them is not the end of the Islamists. Islamists don’t recognize borders or national identities, no more than the Communists did. Their objective is not a flag of their own, but the territorial expansion of their ideology. This expansion is not measured in miles, but in populations. It persists regardless of lines on a map or country names. It measures its power in people, because people are the region’s only resource.