Thursday, January 03, 2008

Professor Krebs Sez: Play It Cool with Moderate Moslem Leaders

This seems well argued to me: anti-American/anti-Western sentiment has reached such a fever pitch in the Islamic world that support of any kind from U.S. or European governments actually hurts the political aspirations of moderate Moslem leaders in Islamic democracies.

Professor Krebs's proposed solution: pull back from folks like Nawaz Sharif so they can carve out an ideological space for themselves that is distinct from both Islamic extremism and Western liberalism. If we appear to like a candidate too much, his hopes are dashed.

Krebs acknowledges that there's a bit of a paradox here: if our object is to win hearts and minds, it's hard to make meaningful progress by maintaining a cold and critical distance. But he argues that it's a paradox with a way out: you give the Sharifs of the world time to establish themselves and sell their moderate position on the relationship between Islam and state. Then you can do the glad-handing and relationship-building.

Sounds to me like an interesting long-term strategy, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable, too. After all, it's not in America's nature — Katrina, excepted — to sit back and hope in the face of a crisis. That's what Krebs would suggest: hope folks like Sharif emerge and flourish in these states' democratic processes, hope they can put forward a moderate agenda that will enable long-term normalization of relations with the West, hope they don't go off the deep-end themselves. A lot of hoping, to be sure. Maybe we can advance our hope a little with some back-channel support, maybe the occasional discreet wink/nod encrypted into the critical rhetoric?

On the other hand — and this might initially come across as patronizing or politically incorrect, but hear me out and I hope it won't — the West's frustrating dealings with the Islamic world sure seem a lot like what a parent faces with a difficult adolescent child. Bring down the hammer, and you make the kid hate you. You can go the other route and try to be the kid's best friend, but he doesn't want any part of you. A teenager needs to — and in fact is entitled to — define who he is. There's a point in his development where the only way he knows how to do that is to rebel against the parents — the standard he knows, and the standard he's had thrust upon him (fairly or unfairly) since he was born.

Like the teenager, Islamic states are entitled to figure it out for themselves. They're entitled to self-determination. They're at the point now where they only now what they don't want. They're rejectionist and reactionary. As Krebs notes, even the moderates know that they don't want their societies to turn into The West All Over Again — But Steeple-Free and with Minarets! And so long as Whatever These States Come Up With meets some bare-minimum standards and is able to function, if not flourish, in the larger world, we should be content. It's not our place to command the Islamic world to conform to our image, any more than a parent should insist that a child make the same choices. So maybe it does make sense to give the societies that are best positioned to figure it out — the ostensibly democratic Islamic states — the time and space to fashion a distinct, constructive identity for themselves. Krebs proposes this approach as a matter of political expediency for the West; I wonder if it simply isn't the right thing to do.

And maybe it's just our job, in the interim, to keep the Pakistans, Iraqs, and Indonesias from breaking the neighbors' windows, crashing the car, and — God/Allah help us — pulling the geopolitical equivalent of a Columbine. On this last part, Krebs does not offer any advice. So it goes.