4/28/2013 – – A story today on the front page of the New York Times illustrates how unrealistic and out of touch our foreign policy has become in the Middle East. The story explains that the orientation of all the rebels in Syria toward Islam was making life difficult for the United States and reducing its influence. The United States has been looking for a secular opposition to the Asad regime. But in the end there was no secular opposition. All of the opposition represented the Sunni majority seeking a more Islam friendly Syria.
This fruitless search for secularists in a conservative, highly religious region, is doomed to failure. Obviously in this context a genuinely popular movement is going to be religious in some sense. We have made this mistake now in Egypt and Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently in Syria.
More significantly, the problem is not just that secularist popular movements don’t exist, but that the United States has no reason to be concerned about them. We should have one policy in the Middle East and elsewhere – – that policy should be the promotion of democracy. In the long run, only democracy will bring both public legitimacy and peace. It is true that in the short run genuinely popular movements are going to be more anti-Israel and anti-American than the autocratic regimes we have been supporting. But that will only be true the in the short run. In the long run, a democratic regime is going to seek peace with Israel because such a peace will be in the long-term interests of its people.
There is an issue about Islam and democracy. Morsi in Egypt is not yet reassuring about whether democracy can survive an Islamicly oriented government. But that is the question, not the fruitless search for secularists. The United States should be busy selling democracy among the rebels in Syria, not secularism.