The Politics of Sharia

The Buzz

Seldom do we see non-sequiturs as stark as the lead in Mohamad Bazzi’s New York Times book review of Sadakat Kadri’s Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. Bazzi, a New York University journalism professor, says America has “succumbed to a peculiar form of Shariah-phobia” stirred by fears that Muslim immigrants will agitate for consideration of Islamic law in U.S. jurisprudence and otherwise seek to supplant Western ways with Islamic conventions. “According to this narrative,” he writes, “[a] caliphate will rise on the ashes of the Constitution, Americans will be forced to pray in mosques and judges will mete out stonings and amputations.” He then quotes Newt Gingrich decrying what he sees as a stealth effort on the part of domestic jihadis to push Sharia law in America. 

Then comes the non-sequitur: “To Gingrich and his supporters, Shariah is a monolithic system of medieval codes, set in stone and bent on world domination. But…Sadakat Kadri challenges the notion that Shariah is based solely on cruelty and punishment.” The book, he explains, explores two distinct versions of Sharia law—one austere and harsh, the other more tolerant.

But it doesn’t really matter which version of Sharia we’re talking about. Either one, if pushed into American cultural and legal institutions, represents a cultural clash on the American home front. With his straw-man argument and non-sequitur ploy, Bazzi subtly debunks the notion that there might be a real issue here. 

He notes that Oklahoma voters approved a constitutional amendment banning the use of Islamic law in legal proceedings, and, while a federal court blocked the amendment, other states have considered such legislation. The question raised by such actions and concerns is whether there really is an issue in America regarding the insertion of alien principles into American customs and procedures. We know that in Europe, where the Muslim population is considerably larger in relative terms than here, such matters stir serious cultural frictions. Bazzi’s use of a book review to debunk that concern is clever—but ultimately transparent.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsReligion RegionsMiddle East

The Saudis Batten Down the Hatches

The Buzz

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius recently titled a column “Is Saudi Arabia on the edge?” Perhaps he should have asked whether the entire Middle East was out there on the ledge beside the kingdom.

With Syria locked in civil war, Iran staring down the barrel of Israeli and U.S. threats, and Egypt, Tunisia and Libya struggling to emerge from decades of dictatorship, Saudi Arabia may not seem the likely choice for concern. But, as is so often the case, Ignatius has singled out a pivotally important and largely overlooked occurrence that sheds light on the precarious situation of the entire region. 

The kingdom recently appointed a new intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar is a seasoned veteran of diplomatic and covert affairs. He was ambassador to the United States for two decades and has taken part in secret deals with China, Syria and Lebanon (and likely many more that remain classified). His appointment, according to Ignatius, “probably signals the desire of both King Abdullah and the new Crown Prince Salman to have an experienced covert operator to handle sensitive foreign contacts at a time of sharply rising tensions.”

But that’s not all. The Saudis also mobilized military and security personnel last month, going so far as to call some back from summer leave. On the home front, Abdullah has been struggling to contain protests by the country’s Shia minority. Regionally, he is faced with the fallout from Syria’s ongoing civil war, which is reinvigorating simmering sectarian tensions, as well as the possibility of a conflict between Iran, Israel and the United States. Tehran has taken special aim at Bandar’s appointment, calling him “the linchpin in the ‘dastardly subterfuges’ of the CIA and Mossad against Syria” and ratcheting up long-standing Saudi-Iranian resentment. In short, the kingdom is “going to battle stations”—and with good reason.

Ignatius’s smart column lays bare the degree to which the Middle East is teetering on a precipice. Now, one of Washington’s closest Arab allies has “installed . . . a war cabinet.” That’s a development the United States ignores at its own peril. 

TopicsGrand StrategyRising Powers RegionsSaudi Arabia

The Campaign Non-Debate on Foreign Policy

Paul Pillar

To the extent that choices of vice-presidential running mates make any difference at all, one effect of Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan will be for foreign policy to recede even farther into the background in the presidential election campaign. As much commentary has already noted, with Ryan known chiefly for his austere budget plan, attention will intensify toward salient features of that plan, including proposals involving Medicare, discretionary spending and the definition of taxable income. Romney evidently is happy to be associated with those proposals, and Democrats certainly will be happy to sink their teeth more deeply into them. The more overriding attention these issues get, the less attention will be left over for everything else.

Possibly Democrats will question whether a forty-two-year-old who has spent most of his still-young adult life on Capitol Hill and has had no other involvement with foreign relations has sufficient experience to be entrusted with the duties of the presidency if he had to assume them and to respond to those proverbial 3:00 a.m. phone calls. This is unlikely to become a significant issue in the campaign. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin four years ago shifted the frame of reference for judging vice-presidential candidates along these lines. Ryan seems to be a smart and shrewd man and a quick learner, and any efforts to portray him otherwise probably would not gain traction.

Romney appears to have concluded, not surprisingly, that foreign policy does not offer him many potentially winning issues. Reactions to his foreign tour, which—fairly or unfairly—were disproportionately negative, probably firmed up that conclusion. It may be no accident that reportedly his choice of Ryan also firmed up about the time he was finishing the foreign trip.

This year's campaign probably was never going to be one of the better ones anyway for useful foreign-policy debate. Where President Obama should be most subject to challenge, on matters ranging from the war in Afghanistan to pressure on Iran to the kinetic approach to counterterrorism, meaningful challenges would have to come from a direction other than the Republicans. Romney's pronouncements on foreign policy have consisted in large part of statements that are delivered forcefully as if they were criticisms but substantively resemble restatements of current policy. The press and the commentariat are left to try to discern whatever pieces of daylight they can between the two presidential candidates. Expectations of how Romney would handle a situation differently from Obama are more a matter of conjecture and inference, and of applying Kremlinology-type analysis to Romney's roster of advisers, than of any openly stated positions. Romney evidently does believe he can gain votes through obsequiousness to the government of Israel, but the practical difference between him and Obama there is so far little more than a difference between always deferring to Benjamin Netanyahu and almost always deferring to him.

Maybe a second-term Barack Obama would do some significant things differently in foreign affairs than a first-term Barack Obama—or a first-term Mitt Romney. As Obama remarked earlier this year to Dmitri Medvedev, this will be his last election, and afterward he will have “more flexibility.” But this, too, is a matter of conjecture and inference and not of anything the president has felt it politically safe to say now.

Foreign policy has generally, of course, played less of a role in presidential campaigns than domestic and especially economic issues. The partial exceptions have come mostly amid major and costly wars such as those in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. In the remaining twelve weeks of this year's campaign there is still the possibility of some jolting event overseas that will force itself into the campaign. If so, the October 22 presidential candidates' debate that is reserved for foreign-policy issues could become interesting. But most likely this encounter, which will be the last of the candidates' debates and comes just fifteen days before the election, will determine few votes and not be remembered as a major event.

All of this is too bad, because there is no shortage of important foreign-policy issues that could use much more vigorous public debate than they have received. These include questions, such as Afghanistan and the U.S. military posture in the eastern Pacific, that are related to the overall role of the United States in the world. They also include matters, such as counterterrorist strategy and the economic war being waged against Iran, that involve assumptions that ought to be far more energetically questioned than they have been.

Image: Tony Alter

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsDefenseGrand StrategyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Breaking the West Bank Deadlock

The Buzz

Is the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dead? Over the past few months, a growing number of commentators have suggested so. In April, Gideon Levy declared, “It's time to raise the white flag, to admit publicly that the two-state solution has been foiled.” Robert Wright concurred, saying it was “on its deathbed.” And in the cover story of TNI’s most recent issue, Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar examined in detail the demographic and political changes in Israel making such a solution increasingly unlikely.

Now Jonathan Tepperman has a new article up at the Atlantic proposing a way out to break this deadlock. His title says it all: “Why Israel Should Withdraw From the West Bank—Now.” In short, he suggests Israel unilaterally disengage from the West Bank as it did from Gaza in 2005.

Tepperman cites a number of prospective advantages to this plan. First are the financial benefits that would come from eliminating the costs of the occupation—around $6.3 billion a year.  Second, he says it would help Israel’s image internationally, depriving its enemies “of their biggest rhetorical weapon.” Along these lines, it would also aid Israel on security issues. Arab leaders who might like to partner with Israel in opposing Iran, for example, but are loath to do so because of Israel’s image in their countries, might find it easier if Israel ended the occupation.

One suspects that Tepperman knows his proposal is a political nonstarter, especially in the current Israeli political environment. There are a host of potential objections—for example, that the Palestinians might just pocket the concession and do nothing else, or that it would expose Israel to additional security risks—that make it difficult to imagine the Israeli government taking this kind of step anytime soon.

Nevertheless, this piece is a welcome, bold idea in a debate that often seems to retread the same familiar ground. The conflict has long been deadlocked, with the two sides simply too far apart on the core issues and not under any real urgency to come to an agreement. Tepperman’s proposal, while imperfect, is a notable one that might just prove to be attractive to a future Israeli government as it drags on.

TopicsPeacekeeping RegionsIsrael

Why Empires Fail

Paul Pillar

A lot was said about empires in some comments by Charles Hill that Robert Merry recently critiqued in these spaces. If I understand the gist of Hill's message, it is that an activist United States has long been the world's guardian of the state system and of open expression and free trade and that if the United States does not continue to play that role,  the world will fracture into spheres of influence, which leads to empires, which is bad. Merry's comments about this are on the mark, with regard to how a role of active world guardianship has or has not played in American political traditions and how Hill seems to have difficulty keeping states and empires straight.

My main problem with Hill's ideas are that the value-laden assertiveness that he seems to be defending and that appears to be equivalent to modern neoconservatism involves acting like an empire rather than being an alternative to empires. Even the more gung-ho neoconservatives tend to eschew the term “empire” as applied to the United States, but observers from outside the United States do not hesitate to use the term that way. The British-born historian Niall Ferguson in an article in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, for example, argued that one of the reasons the twentieth century was exceptionally bloody was that empires were disintegrating. With fewer empires still around to disintegrate, this suggests the twenty-first century will have less bloodshed. But the one region where Ferguson says that favorable scenario does not apply is the Middle East, and one reason it does not apply is that there is still an empire there—the American one.

Insofar as the United States acts as an empire (as it especially has when under neoconservative influence), it behooves us to think about what makes for successful and unsuccessful empires. That question is analyzed in a book written by a German academic, Herfried Munkler, and translated into English a few years ago: Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. The main characteristic Munkler identifies that distinguishes successful empires, such as those of the Romans and ancient Han Chinese, from ones that quickly broke apart, such as the Macedonian and Mongol empires, is that at some point the imperial rulers determined that further expansion of the empire was unnecessary and that barbarism beyond its borders could be ignored except in very limited instances where it posed some kind of security problem. There is an important distinction, says Munkler, between imperialism and sound imperial rule. The Romans had decided by the time their empire had reached its greatest territorial extent under Emperor Trajan that they could let barbarians be barbarians and concentrate their own attention not on the periphery of the empire but on the prosperity of its central zone, which embraced most of the then-civilized Western world. The ancient Chinese had even more of a geographical basis to call a halt to further imperialism once their empire came to embrace most of the then-civilized Eastern world as the Chinese knew it and to disregard most of whatever was going on beyond the periphery of the empire.

It is harder to use such an approach in a more modern, interconnected world. It is harder to put down an imperialist, civilizing, humanitarian, value-expanding mission by which an empire has defined itself, without being seen—by those within the empire as well as by others—as in decline. “The United States today,” says Munkler, “finds itself facing just such a dilemma”:

The peaceful safeguarding of resources would imply not taking on too many global commitments. In order to hold its subglobal world, an astute imperial policy should keep out of the problems of the global world and protect itself from them by drawing “imperial boundaries with the barbarians.” But it is scarcely an option in the age of democracy and media saturation: it would continually contradict the imperial mission of the United States, and without such a projection of moral purpose, the U.S. empire would lose much of its strength. To put it plainly, it may be that the American empire will founder not on external enemies but on the moral overload associated with its mission, because this makes it impossible to maintain the required indifference to the external world.

It seems the only way out of the dilemma is to avoid the moral overload by not trying to act like an empire in the first place.

Munkler has an interesting observation about empires that also are democracies and what this means for choice of methods. “The burdens of empire are long-lasting,” he says, “but democracies have little time and are always in a hurry.” He cites in particular the impact of a four-year election cycle. As for what this means in the methods used:

Probably, Washington's growing tendency in recent years to use the military for problem-solving also has something to do with the time pressure built into democratic mechanisms. Military solutions offer themselves with a suggestion of speed and finality, so that an “empire in a hurry” may grasp at them more often than would be sensible or advisable.

Being an empire these days is tough. The difficulties do not go away by pretending one is not trying to be an empire.

Image: Jimmy Walker

TopicsDemocracyGrand StrategyHumanitarian Intervention RegionsUnited States