Across the Bay

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Subprime Engagement

Martin Kramer has a superb new essay on the "engagement" craze that is really essential reading:

Behind the financial crisis was a well-practiced mechanism for concealing risk. The risk was there, and it was constantly growing, but it could be disguised, repackaged and renamed, so that in the end it seemed to have disappeared. Much of the debate about foreign policy in the United States is conducted in the same manner: policymakers and pundits, to get what they want, conceal the risks.
And in the best American tradition, these risks are repackaged as opportunities, under a new name. It could just as easily be called appeasement, but the public associates appeasement with high risk. So let's rename it engagement, which sounds low-risk—after all, there's no harm in talking, right? And once the risk has been minimized, the possible pay-off is then inflated...

The engagement package rests upon a key assumption: that these "radical" states, groups, and individuals are motivated by grievances. If only we were able to address or ameliorate those grievances, we could effectively domesticate just about every form of Islamism. Another assumption is that these grievances are finite—that is, by ameliorating them, they will be diminished.

It is precisely here that advocates of "engagement" are concealing the risk.
We are told that the demands of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran are finite. If we give them a concession here, or a foothold there, we will have somehow diminished their demand for more concessions and footholds. But if their purpose is the reversal of history, then our gestures of accommodation, far from enticing them to give up their grand vision, only persuade them to press on. They understand our desire to engage them as a sign of weakness—an attempt to appease them—which is itself an enticement for them to push harder against us and our allies. And since they believe in their narrative of an empowered Islam with the fervency of religious conviction, no amount of insistence by us that we will go only so far and no further will stop them.
In the Middle East, the idea that "there's no harm in talking" is entirely incomprehensible. It matters whom you talk to, because you legitimize your interlocutors. Hence the Arab refusal to normalize relations with Israel. Remember the scene that unfolded this past summer, when Bashar Asad scrupulously avoided contact with Ehud Olmert on the same reviewing stand at a Mediterranean summit. An Arab head of state will never directly engage Israel before extracting every concession. Only an American would think of doing this at the outset, and in return for nothing: "unconditional talks" is a purely American concept, incomprehensible in the Middle East. There is harm in talking, if your talking legitimates your enemies, and persuades them and those on the sidelines that you have done so from weakness. For only the weak talk "unconditionally," which is tantamount to accepting the enemy's conditions. It is widely regarded as the prelude to unconditional surrender.

Make sure you read the whole thing.