Governments, it seems, never learn. I was saddened but not surprised last week to watch policy moves in the Arab world by four leading governments in Iraq, Israel, Egypt and the United States that aimed to promote peace and security, but instead are guaranteed to lead to more conflict, violence, death and chaos. Why do governments with able people and plenty of analytical resources keep making decisions that surely will worsen conditions for themselves and their citizens?
The first bad decision was the Egyptian government’s total ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and its designation as a terrorist organization. This was coupled with the continuing arrests of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters, and the closure of over a thousand Brotherhood-linked non-governmental organizations. Participants in Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations can now be jailed for five years and organizers sentenced to death.
This decision will not reduce the core supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who will simply lay low for a while or provocatively hold demonstrations around the country. It is also likely to push some militants on the edges of the Muslim Brotherhood into overt armed resistance against the state, while galvanizing more active anti-government and anti-armed forces sentiment among millions of Egyptians who have quietly hoped that the armed forces’ removal of the elected president, Mohammad Morsi, in July would lead to a new era of political calm and economic growth. It seems that the Egyptian armed forces have the same low level of understanding of the political and social sentiments of the Egyptian people that the Muslim Brotherhood displayed when it was in office.
The second bad decision last week was the Israeli government’s moves on three fronts – bombing Gaza, announcing new settlement construction in the West Bank, and pondering a parliamentary bill to annex the Jordan Valley region – that are guaranteed to increase Palestinian resistance against Israel and lead to new strife. Some of these decisions are also likely to accelerate pressures on the Israeli government from international parties, including most world governments that oppose Israel’s settlements and annexation policies and a growing civil society movement to isolate Israel because of its apartheid-like controls on Palestinians.
Israel has pursued these and other policies for decades, which is why it is increasingly isolated and stigmatized, and has even been pressured by its closest ally the American government.
The third bad decision last week was the announcement by the U.S. and Iraqi governments that Washington would send surveillance drones and air-to-ground missiles to the Iraqi armed forces to help them fight the growing movement of Al-Qaeda-linked Salafist-takfiri militants in Iraq and Syria. While it is appropriate for governments to seek to eliminate these criminal groups, it should be clear by now after three decades of unsuccessfully fighting them in Afghanistan and Iraq that military force alone cannot defeat them. In fact, using drones and missiles against such militants kills a few hundred of them, but only seems to stimulate the anger of societies that are targeted from the air, leading to the subsequent mobilization of thousands of new recruits who join these movements.
It was ironic but telling that in the same week that the U.S. announced the decision to send sophisticated military systems to help the Iraqi armed forces fight the Salafist-takfiri militants, Taliban fighters attacked the American embassy in Kabul. So after the longest American foreign military engagement in modern history, the symbol and base of American determination to fight these groups in Afghanistan is directly attacked by the forces that massive and sustained American military might neither destroyed nor deterred. The “global war on terror” has used drones to attack and kill militants and civilians in half a dozen countries in recent decades, with the result that today the Salafist-takfiri militants are the fastest growing political actors in the entire Middle East.
It is troubling that the American, Israeli, Iraqi and Egyptian governments last week have all signaled their determination to make poor policy decisions that are certain to lead to higher levels of violence, resistance, militancy, terror and instability in the months and years ahead. These and other governments have been doing this for years, without learning the lessons of their own sustained failures.
More troubling today, however, is the new reality that the Salafist-takfiri militants, whose rise is one of the most significant consequences of these sustained failures, are increasingly linked with each other in an expanding regional web that threatens all governments and societies. Perhaps when government offices in the U.S., Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Israel and half a dozen other countries are attacked simultaneously, the leaders who perpetuate the failed policies will admit colonialism and militarism cannot resolve conflicts whose surface manifestations of violence hide deeper root causes that are political, social and economic in nature.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.