The Magazine

The Coalition Delusion

Friends aren't necessary to gain respect in the MIddle East. Power is.

Oct 1, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 03 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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"TERRORISM" IN ARABIC—as in other great Muslim languages that have absorbed so much of the ideological baggage of Islam’s mother tongue—has a politically and morally ambiguous resonance. In recent history, the term overwhelmingly connotes justified resistance to Israel and other Western powers. When Arab leaders publicly condemn bin Laden’s terrorism, it isn’t a particularly damning reproach. Secretary Powell’s determination to build a coalition of Muslim states to fight terrorism is for bin Laden and his supporters neither unexpected nor unwelcome. For them, and many others in the Muslim world, it confirms the corruptness of dictators and kings who for years have been waging brutal struggles against their own faithful Muslims.

Our war against Saddam Hussein was unfortunately a likely forerunner to our campaign against radical Islamic terrorism. The United States and its European allies achieved a military victory on the battlefield, followed fairly quickly by a propaganda defeat throughout the Arab world. Very few Arab intellectuals, religious scholars, and politicians were willing to state forcefully the simple truth that Saddam was the most savage totalitarian in Middle Eastern history. Especially after it became apparent that American and British bombing runs over Iraq were going to continue for years, Arab pride, always reinforced by the Muslim identity, turned the United States from noble victor to villain even though Saddam’s depravity was visible to all.

Muslim Middle Eastern rulers are either going to help us or they’re not based on a realpolitik assessment of whether America’s war on terrorism strengthens, or weakens, their power. Neither they nor we need a coalition to advance the nuts-and-bolts counterterrorism intelligence and police work that has long been a staple of the private relations between us. And beyond intelligence, the "Muslim coalition" has very little of practical value to offer the United States in its campaign against bin Laden and radical Islamic terrorism. We didn’t need a coalition to obtain overflight rights from Pakistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban neighbors to the north, which have already signaled their willingness to help, couldn’t care less about a Muslim coalition.

All that the key states of Secretary Powell’s envisioned alliance—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan—really do offer us is the certainty that they will rescind the legitimacy that Secretary Powell so desires. If the participation of these countries helps us deflect Arab-Muslim criticism of America’s war, it stands to reason that these same countries, when they tire of the campaign against terrorism, will hoist the Bush administration by its own petard. And their support will certainly fray as CNN broadcasts inevitably ugly images of America’s war, no doubt juxtaposed with ugly images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The shooting hasn’t even begun, and it’s clear the Saudis have no stomach for a war against the Taliban, whom they have so faithfully supported.) One would think that General Powell, who has watched his triumph in Iraq become in just ten years a public-relations disaster, would be loath to give again moral stature to the very countries whose official presses, TV stations, intellectuals, diplomats, and leaders have done so much to maul us in the court of Muslim opinion.

We need always to remember that power first and foremost is the basis of a ruler’s legitimacy in the Muslim world. We need to understand that our Muslim allies are primarily concerned with only one thing in the exercise of American power: Will we be victorious? Forty-five years ago, a few months after the British, French, and Israelis fell into political disarray following their Suez invasion, a senior officer of the Pakistani Army remarked to a visiting English scholar that he was, of course, outraged by the attack on a Muslim nation. "We are strongly against military aggression," he averred, "especially when left unfinished." With typical Pakistani mirth, the general revealed the key to political survival from Casablanca to Kabul.

In the power politics of the Middle East, there is no such thing as "soft power," multiculturalism, or liberal guilt. Muslims, who have fought each other far more than they have fought Westerners, do not spend much time worrying about hurt feelings. They are very much grown-ups about the exercise of power. When dealing with bin Laden and others in the region, like Iraq or the Lebanese Hezbollah, who intend us grievous harm, we should similarly school ourselves. If we can demonstrate militarily that we understand siyasa, the Darwinian game of Middle Eastern politics, our friends will stay our friends, regardless of how CNN portrays the clash of civilizations.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, director of the Middle East Initiative of the Project for the New American Century, is a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service.