On Tuesday, Republican contender Jeb Bush accused his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of having “stood by” during the rise of ISIL in Iraq, while she was acting as U.S. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state.
“Like the president himself,” Bush said in a speech in Atlanta, “(Clinton) had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”
Standing by while the enemy rises often seems to be the liberal position in foreign affairs. It may be madness, but is there any method to it? I think there is. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman demonstrated an example of it in conversation with PBS’s Jim Lehrer, shortly after Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. I’m paraphrasing what Friedman said, perhaps somewhat edgily, but I don’t think unfairly.
The prominent writer and commentator explained that America has friends and antagonists in Iraq, just as in the rest of the Arab/Muslim world. Our friends, whether expatriates or liberated Iraqis, would like to see their country develop in democratic and secular ways. Our antagonists are Muslim militants who view both democracy and the secular state as alien transplants from the West, to be rejected by the body politic of Islam and the Arab world.
In Friedman’s liberal view, the way to win over our adversaries is to forsake our friends. Needless to say, that’s not how he put it.
Friedman’s argument was that if we support those Iraqis who prefer democracy and secularism, especially if they’re expatriates returning from the West, it will only engender resentment against us. We’ll be seen as occupiers or colonizers trying to export our values and influence. The Iraqis we support will seem like our stooges. On the other hand, if we throw our weight behind those who represent Muslim and/or Arab nationalism, any theocratic or nationalistic state they establish is less likely to bear us ill will. In time, who knows, such a home-grown Iraqi state may even begin to see the values of democracy and secularism, and develop them indigenously.
This was the liberal New York Times position then, as it seemed to me, and still is today. It doesn’t actually counsel us to support militant Islam. We’re not required to throw our weight behind ISIL or Iran’s “Death-to-America” ayatollahs, or rejectionists who wish to see Israel replaced by a Palestinian state extending, as their slogan has it, “from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea.” No, the liberal point is that we can take the wind out of the sail of extremists by supporting their more moderate comrades: the ones who don’t actually call for jihad and suicide bombers, and are content to peacefully take the prize of Iraq and the rest of the region from the hands of the Great Satan, thank you very much.
For many people – considerations of loyalty apart – deserting a friend in the hope that it might attract an enemy would seem like trading a bird in the hand for one in the bush. But liberals find birds in bushes positively irresistible.
Supporting those who doubt or oppose their own ideals has been the essence of liberal statecraft. Never mind that birds in the bush often turn out to be snakes in the grass. Fidel Castro was supported by the U.S. in the early stages of his Cuban revolution on the assumption that he was a moderate nationalist, merely anti-American rather than pro-Soviet, in much the same spirit as liberals like Friedman urged America to support “moderate” Muslim militants in post-Saddam Iraq.
Liberals find birds in bushes positively irresistible.
A domestic version of the syndrome occurred at around the same time. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a critic of militant Islam, was nominated by then-U.S. President George W. Bush to serve on the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace. This aroused the ire of apologists for Muslim militancy, such as The Council on American-Islamic Relationship, who urged the U.S. Senate to reject Pipes’ nomination.
Other American Muslims, such as Tashbih Sayyed from the Council for Democracy and Tolerance, along with anti-radical Muslim scholars and writers, welcomed the nomination of Pipes. An article in Pakistan Today quoted Sayyed as saying that, “Pipes scares the Islamists because he has their number,” adding that, “I agree that Daniel Pipes rattles liberals who value political correctness and tolerance for (likely) terrorists above all else.”
As if determined to prove Sayyed’s point, an editorial in the Washington Post at the time called for Pipes’ nomination to be rescinded on the grounds that it would rub “salt in the wound” of “U.S. Muslims, who are ever anxious that they are being singularly scrutinized.”
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But who are “America’s Muslims”? Are they Muslims who would reject the nomination of someone like Dr. Pipes or Muslims who would welcome it? And if they’re some of both, why would America’s liberals reflexively choose the first group over the second? The answer, it seems, lies in an instinct that calls for appeasing adversaries by abandoning friends. If so, it’s not a salutary instinct. It doesn’t serve America, or any country, well.