Is the Obama Administration Losing its Fear of Islamists?

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Has President Barack Obama, as the old saying goes, stopped worrying and learned to love the Muslim Brotherhood? Not exactly. But the Washington Post reports Friday on the first green shoots of what may turn out to be a maturing of the United States’ response to Islamist movements in the Middle East. In light of the possibility that democracy will bring Islamist movements to power in Arab countries, the Post reports: “The administration is already taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government. An internal assessment, ordered by the White House last month, identified large ideological differences between such movements as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda that will guide the U.S. approach to the region.”

Nice to see that the professionals have managed to glean what has long been obvious to anyone who’s noticed just how much of his precious ‘air’ time  Al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman Zawahiri devotes to excoriating the Brotherhood for its ‘betrayal’ of  the Islamist cause. That’s a sign that the Administration may be me moving to shed the blanket allergy to political Islam that left it initially paralyzed in the face of the Egyptian democratic uprising. I wrote at the time,

Democracy movements are attractive to Washington when they target a regime such as Iran’s, but in allied autocracies, they’re a problem. There’s no way for Egypt to be democratic and exclude the Islamists from political participation. The same is true for most other parts of the Arab world — a lesson the U.S. ought to have learned in Iraq, where Islamists have dominated all the democratically elected governments that followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster. But when the Islamists of Hamas won the last Palestinian elections in 2006, held under pressure from Washington, the Bush Administration literally did a 180-degree turn on the question of Palestinian democracy…

There are many different models of Islamist politics competing with U.S. allies and with each other for support in the Middle East, ranging from the violent extremism of al-Qaeda to the modernizing, business-friendly democrats of Turkey’s ruling AK Party. But they tend to share a hostility toward U.S. intervention in the region, and toward Israel.

Explaining why the U.S. continues to support Mubarak, the State Department’s Crowley on Thursday told al-Jazeera that “Egypt is an anchor of stability in the Middle East … It’s made its own peace with Israel and is pursuing normal relations with Israel. We think that’s important; we think that’s a model that the region should adopt.”
The problem for Washington is that Arab electorates are unlikely to agree. The democratically elected Iraqi government, for example, despite its dependence on U.S. support, has stated its refusal to normalize relations with Israel. A democratic Egypt, whether led by the Muslim Brotherhood or any other opposition party, is unlikely to go to war with Israel given the vast imbalance in military capability, but they’re even less likely to accept normal ties given the present condition of the Palestinians.

The Administration appears to be coming to terms with the reality that democracy in Egypt, Tunisia or any other country in the region whose citizens manage to bring down autocratic regimes, will bring Islamist parties into play as legitimate democratic contenders, and possibly even as governments. “We shouldn’t be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries,” the Post quotes a senior administration official as saying. “It’s the behavior of political parties and governments that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam.” And the Administration seems aware of its Hamas problem. The Post continues:

After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, the United States and Israel led an international boycott of the government. But Obama administration officials, reviewing that history with an eye toward the current revolutions, say the reason for the U.S. boycott was not Hamas’s Islamic character but its refusal to agree to conditions such as recognizing Israel.

But that, too, misses the point: Hamas is hardly alone in refusing to “recognize” Israel. Even leaders of its Palestinian rival, Fatah, insists that their movement has never formally recognized Israel [EM] top Fatah security chief Mohammed Dahlan, a favorite of the Bush Administration, insisted in March 2009, “We do not demand that the Hamas movement recognize Israel. On the contrary, we demand of the Hamas movement not to recognize Israel, because the Fatah movement does not recognize Israel even today.” Others who have never formally recognized Israel include Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other countries.

Yet, you don’t hear U.S. officials declining to do business with any of them for that reason. On the contrary, the logic outlined by the senior Administration official in the Washington Post story seems to apply: Political parties and governments will be judged on their behavior rather than being asked to recognize Israel as a precondition for having relations with Washington.

Sensible approach, that, because the U.S. ought to be the friend that can build bridges between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Hamas is an intractable part of the Palestinian body politic with which Israel will have to come to terms. But that pragmatic approach has thus far exempted Hamas. Still, a U.S. Administration that is prepared to recognize that the verdict of a democratic election in Egypt could force it to deal with the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood will, sooner or later, find itself pressed to extend the same principle to the Palestinians.