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The New Neo-Con View: Radical Islam May Be Foe In New Cold War

by Paolo Pontoniere

Neo-cons Seek To Create Pro-U.S. "Islamic Progress Institute"

(PNS) -- Regardless of the success or failure of the transfer of power to a transitional government in Iraq, neo-conservative foreign policy wonks are desperately searching for an exit strategy.

The most hawkish proponents of invading Iraq to spread democracy in the region, the neo-conservatives appear to be entertaining the notion that the United States might have to live with Islamic extremists rising to power in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, and that this may not be a losing proposition for the West in the long run.

The neo-conservatives' conundrum in Iraq emerges very clearly in the recent writings of Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Ajami seems to have lost all the hope that Iraq would become a new beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Admitting he failed to foresee that radical religious beliefs, not democratic ideals, would fill the void left by the fall of Saddam, Ajami writes that even if Iraq survives the current spiral of violence, "The Dream is dead." Writing recently in The New York Times, Ajami declares, "Lets face it: Iraq is not going to be America's showcase in the Arab-Muslim world."

Ajami's belief is shared by others in Republican policy circles, who see the likelihood of the victory of Islamic extremism in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated in May on "Meet the Press" that the United States is prepared to accept a theocracy in Iraq. What seems to be emerging among neo-cons and Republican activists is a consensus that, rather than looking at the downside, the United States should concentrate on a strategy for defeating the extremists in the long run. To that end, many believe that a good lesson can be drawn from the Cold War.

Jonathan Schanzer, a terrorism analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of "Al-Qaeda's Armies: Middle-East Affiliates and the Next Generation of Terrorists," believes that treating Osama and his cohort as if they were Bolsheviks or Stalinists may pay off in the long term if the United States adopts the same strategy of political isolation and economic strangulation it used against the Soviet Union. Many historians agree that the Cold War against the USSR was won by the persistent and prolonged economic stress that the arms race inflicted on the Soviets.

Pushed to the limits of their financial capability by the need to keep up with the ever-expanding U.S. military efforts, the Soviets found themselves bankrupt and unable to fulfill the Russian Revolution's promise of a better life for its citizens. Cordoned off in its own spheres of influence and unable to invest its surplus into upgrading its industrial system and social infrastructures, the Soviets became vulnerable to Western political and cultural power.

This Cold War lesson isn't lost on Daniel Pipes, a member of the United States Institute for Peace and author of "Militant Islam Reaches America." Pipes sees many parallels between the fight with Islamic insurgents and the fight against the Soviet Union. As with the USSR, Pipes believes that the West must conquer the hearts and minds of Islamic youth by waging a war of ideas against radicalism. "There were millions of communists in the Soviet Union, but how many really followed the party directives? Ten, 15 percent, no more than that. The same happens today with the billion more Muslims living around the world," said Pipes in an interview with Italy's newsweekly L'Espresso. He says that at this stage, waging only war is counterproductive. To win against Osama bin Laden, the United States must operate on the assumption that bin Laden is the inspiration for the rise of a variant of neo-communism or neo-fascism among Muslim believers, especially in the Middle East.

Europeans living on the borders of the Soviet Bloc experienced firsthand the impact of the war of ideas, culture and tastes on communist youths. With suitcases full of Levi's jeans, Ray-Ban sunglasses and silk stockings, Western Europeans sought out scores of well-disposed Soviet, Eastern European or East German citizens, who either gave money or sexual favors in exchange for the goods the Westerners brought. The Communist Party's hope for a luminous future -- Soviet youths -- retreated from its reach. Soviet kids ended up aspiring to be more like their Western contemporaries than Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin.

The burgeoning problem of Islamic terrorism around the world may give the United States an additional reason to live with the establishment of radical Muslim states in the Middle East. With states to run, Islamic radicals may be forced to adopt a healthy dose of real-politik. For one, the need to operate under the constraints of international diplomacy and the demands of market economics could rein in the radicals' more destructive impulses. Even sleeper cells could transform into mere intelligence-gathering organisms rather than terrorist tools. Once in charge of a territory and state, Islamic radicals will be more likely than not to sell oil to the West. After all, people can't eat oil, even if it's a strategic weapon.

The events following the June 30 turnover to a transition government in Iraq will show if this neo-conservative scenario is realistic, or just a face-saving rationale for accepting the defeat of their "democratic" domino theory in the Middle East.

Paolo Pontoniere is the U.S. correspondent for Focus, Italy's leading monthly magazine

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2004 (

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