Hagel, Brennan, and the Obama View of the Middle East

by Victor Davis Hanson

NRO’s The Corner

The Meaning of Hagel and Brennan

Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, given their long public service, will probably be confirmed. Their appointments will have a force-multiplying effect on our new foreign policy as it pertains to the Middle East. If one were to collate their speeches and more unfortunate statements, a surprisingly similar view of the world after 9/11 emerges. And the result dovetails nicely with that of the president’s. The latter’s long-held beliefs will no longer be so carefully guarded as in the past when reelection loomed. What most find shocking about some of the Hagel-Brennan statements on Israel, jihad, and US policy is precisely why they were appointed.

The Standard View

In a word, the new Obama worldview does not subscribe to the more or less conventional American interpretation of the post-9/11 Middle East. The prior orthodoxy can be summarized thusly: radical jihadists and Islamists scapegoated the West for the mostly self-inflicted wounds of the Middle East. Endemic tribalism, gender apartheid, statism, corruption, religious intolerance, fundamentalism, and an absence of transparency — in a globally connected world that is progressing without these burdens — best explain why the region is a remarkably poor place, despite enormous natural wealth.

In rage at the more successful systems abroad — who, after all, should not be successful given their obvious decadence and absence of piety — the Islamists call for a reactionary return to centuries-past glories. These mythologies are based on solutions found in sharia and the Koran rather than in liberalizing their societies.

The great masses of the Middle East are usually receptive to the arguments that secular Westernized authoritarian puppets — a Saddam, a Qaddafi, an Assad — are not natural manifestations and expressions of Middle East pathologies. Instead these mass killers are symptoms of neo-colonialism, Western conspiracies, foreign oil-intriguing, and an absence of indigenous fealty to Islam.

To the degree the Islamists humiliate the West without consequence and can offer some improvement, the strongmen piggyback on the payback and remain popular. To the degree they cannot, the verdict on their future is bleaker — as we see with the Arab Spring, and earlier with polls that recorded broad admiration for bin Laden following 9/11, but very little after the so-called War on Terror and endemic Muslim-on-Muslim violence brought the ramifications of his extremism home to the Middle East everyman.

Finally, hatred and violence is usually directed at the US — and not to the same degree at Russia or China, whose records on Islam are far more intolerant than that of the West — largely because such grievances against the world’s superpower better resonate worldwide, and because a self-critical America is so bothered by such dislike in a way not true of a Putin or the Chinese Communist Party.

The Obama Orthodoxy

In contrast, in the Brennan 2.0 view, which is shared by Hagel and Obama, jihad, Islamism, and Muslim intolerance are largely Western caricatures — a product of either Western ignorance of Middle East customs or willful prejudices. A far better approach than a “war on terrorism” or zero-tolerance of Islamic hate-filled extremism toward the United States, or constant calls for Middle Easterners to reform, is a more subtle understanding of what drives such hatred — poverty, hopelessness, illiteracy — for which to some degree the West is culpable and therefore obligated to be patient with and understanding of otherwise incomprehensible rhetoric and violence.

This does not mean that the Obama administration will not expand drone targeted assassinations, or indeed, embrace or expand the very Bush-Cheney protocols (of which Brennan 1.0 was such a part). After all, a single 9/11 repeat would traumatize American society and destroy the credibility of those in power.

Instead, the War on Terror mentality must be checked and “balanced” by a more “nuanced” approach. Thus we hear of amateurish euphemisms (“overseas contingency operations,” “man-caused disasters,” etc.), therapeutic insights into the meaning of jihad, civilian trials for KSM, Miranda rights for Mutallab, possible judicial consequences for over-zealous CIA inquisitors, tough rhetoric for Israel’s Likud Party, empathy for a Palestinian people “in chains,” below-the-radar, backchannel support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts at “democracy,” a casual, non-threatening security presence in Benghazi, the idea that Iran, like Pakistan, can be contained as a nuclear renegade, and expeditious exit from Iraq and Afghanistan regardless of circumstances on the ground. All this is adorned, as we saw with Hagel and Brennan, with loud, careerist, and often contradictory blasts against the Bush administration for which Brennan once worked and for whose war “for oil” Hagel once voted for.

Sometimes these two general views overlap; neither is applicable to all situations; some analysts embrace elements of both interpretations. But that said, Hagel and Brennan illustrate an unchained “let Obama be Obama” worldview different from American policy since 9/11, and so things will now start to change, perhaps quite rapidly, particularly in regards to Israel.

©2013 Victor Davis Hanson

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