x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Margins of error

American policy in the Middle East continues to rely on a specious division between 'moderates' and 'radicals'.

Radical chic: posters of Ahmadinejad, Assad and Nasrallah outside the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine in Damascus.
Radical chic: posters of Ahmadinejad, Assad and Nasrallah outside the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine in Damascus.

Naming things is always the first step in analysing them. After you name them, you put them together in categories, with like things grouped together. Then you can begin to decide how to deal with each of your categories. But if you make a mistake in this process, and put unlike things together because you have misnamed them, you are bound for trouble. This kind of category mistake has plagued American Middle East policy for decades. Washington is fond of dividing the region neatly into two camps: "moderates" and "radicals." President Bush, on his recent trip to the region, emphasised this distinction, but he is hardly the first American president to do so. The radical-moderate divide has been a staple of American views of the Middle East for decades.

The criterion for dividing moderates from radicals for Washington has always been the question: "Are you with us or against us?" During the Cold War, states aligned with the Soviet Union were the radicals and those aligned with the United States were the moderates. After the Cold War, the moderate designation went to those states co-operating with Washington and willing to make peace with Israel. The radicals were no longer pro-Soviet socialists, but Islamists. The 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War hardened that distinction for the Bush Administration.

In Washington's eyes now, the radical camp consists of al Qa'eda, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizbollah, Muqtada al Sadr and anyone else who actively opposes the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and rejects the Arab-Israeli peace process. One could argue that these governments and groups are radical by definition - in that they seek fundamental changes in the status quo. But aside from their refusal to accept the American-supported political order in the Middle East, they have very little else in common. And there is where the problem for American policymakers begins.

Al Qa'eda is certainly a radical organisation, and a dangerous one, but it is also a marginal organisation. It does not have a mass following. It is not strongly embedded in any society in the Middle East. Where it has appeared, it has alienated even its target constituencies. It can be confronted and defeated through military and police methods without turning large numbers of people against the United States and its allies in the region. We have seen this in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and now Iraq, where al Qa'eda has lost substantial support among Iraqi Sunni Arabs and is losing ground on the battlefield.

But just because you call both al Qa'eda and Hizbollah radicals does not mean that you can deal with them in the same way. Unlike al Qa'eda, Hizbollah has substantial support among Lebanese Shia. It has important regional allies in Iran and Syria. As events of the past month in Lebanon have proved, it cannot simply be confronted militarily by state authorities. Hizbollah might be radical, in some sense, but it is hardly marginal. The same can be said about Hamas, the Sadrists in Iraq and the governments of Iran and Syria.

The problem with American policy is the notion that all radicals are, almost by definition of their radicalism, marginal as well. Because they are marginal, they cannot possibly have substantial public support. Because they do not have substantial support, they can either be ignored or confronted. But events throughout the region demonstrate that this is not the case, and American policy has suffered a number of setbacks as a result.

The tendency to lump the radicals together - and to treat them all the same - also leads to missed opportunities for engagement. The Syrian government of Bashar al Asad is no friend of Washington. It has facilitated the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, destabilised Lebanon in a brutal way and allied with Iran. But Damascus also has sought for years to renew its negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. In the past, Washington would have supported such a move, which fits perfectly into American strategy in the region. But in the Bush Administration, the designation of Syria as a "radical" has meant that it must be isolated and punished. So Syria and Israel have gone to Turkey, rather than the US, to find a mediator for their negotiations.

The catalogue of recent missed opportunities to find some new basis for dealing with the "radicals" is not limited to Syria. In 2003 the Iranian government of Muhammad Khatami proposed negotiations on a "grand bargain" with the United States. The Bush Administration ignored those feelers, and got Mahmoud Ahmadinejad instead. Muqtada al Sadr declared a ceasefire in August 2007, contributing enormously to the reduction in violence in Iraq over the past 10 months. Instead of building on that, American forces participate in the current military campaign by the Maliki government against the Sadr movement. While Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, might be in retreat in the face of this campaign, it would be a profound mistake to imagine that his political movement can be made marginal.

If grouping together such disparate actors in the "radical" camp leads to policy errors, belief that the "moderate" camp is a cohesive unit that can confront the radicals is sheer wishful thinking. A key element of this moderate coalition for the Bush Administration, the Iraqi government, is as closely allied to the Iranians as some of the radicals. As long as the Palestinian issue remains unsettled, Arab governments cannot openly co-operate with Israel, no matter how much they all regard Iran as a threat. Some of the moderates are substantial players with real assets to be deployed. Others, like the Lebanese and Palestinian governments, are weak reeds. And none of them like to be lectured about their domestic political failings, as President Bush did in Sharm el Shaikh in May.

It is notable that many of the moderates are already engaging the radicals directly. Egypt is mediating between Israel and Hamas. Israel is dealing with Syria through Turkey. Qatar, which houses a large American military base, hosted the negotiations between Hizbollah and the Lebanese government. The Iraqi government turned to Iran to mediate its agreement with the Sadrists in Basra. That should tell the Bush Administration something.

It would be naive to think that the problems facing policymakers in the Middle East can be solved by a better classification scheme of its friends and rivals. Whatever Washington calls Iran, it will still be a challenge. But the first step toward good policy is to understand the ground realities. That means treating different actors differently, even if all those actors are united in their dislike for you. It means abandoning binary categories and easy oversimplifications, even if they look good in a PowerPoint presentation or sound good in a presidential speech.

It means substituting subtlety and a longer view for moralistic rhetoric about good guys and bad guys. It means realising that a skilful and patient strategy which mixes firmness, openness and an opportunistic sense of the moment might be able to shift some of those bad guys into the other column. F Gregory Gause is is an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont and director of the University's Middle East studies program.