The biggest problem the US has is that it has run out of enemies. There’s no Soviet Union, far fewer dictatorships of any shade, the Chinese have been encouraged to buy up everything they can in Western countries and Trump has sat down with Kim Jong-Un and treated him as a legitimate fellow member of the nuclear family.
So What Comes Next?
Now that Joe Biden has been properly elected the next US President (and he has), taking a leap of faith, in light of the US Supreme Court for refusing the motion of Texas, we are seeing the usual bouts of Clean Slate Thinking and Turning the Page. Everyone is taking the thing they dislike the most about the previous president and imprinting the opposite on Biden, and to move forward and not look back.
That is easier said than done. Those most disturbed with Trump’s alleged criminality say Biden is honest. Those who don’t like his sociopathic narcissism say Biden is empathetic. Those who don’t like Trump’s continual refusal to accept the election results, when he accepted the previous ones despite making the same charges, say Biden respects the Constitution and will play by the rules.
Whether any of these perceptions is true remains to be seen. But the one common thread in all the arguments being made for Biden is that he is inclusive rather than exclusive. Rather than the wilful stoking of division and hostility we saw with Trump, we now have a president who wants to include, to bring people together, to heal the wounds inflicted on society – or so it is said.
Inclusion is always a warmer, cuddlier idea than exclusion. We rejoice when a state built on getting rid of one group of people rehabilitates members of that group – Peron in Argentina, Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa, the Shah in Iran, Modern Russia often explains its country and its politics in terms of its Imperial past, a situation unthinkable as recently as thirty years ago
But if you are going to include, how far do you go? If Ronald Reagan, who routinely referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire”, could then disappoint its suffering peoples by sitting down for summits with Gorbachev, anything may be possible.
But even if we ignore the recent Black Lives Matter protests and simply ask Native Americans about inclusion, we will hear a litany of all the times these words have been spouted before, and nothing has been done. Go to the overseas partners of the US, whose political and economic systems have been enslaved to the dirty schemes Americans would never get away with back home, and they will also have a very different take on what the US understands by “inclusion”.
How far you include is a classic problem of liberalism. Few people regard Biden as a liberal anyway, and that was his selling point when he stood for the Democratic nomination. But soon he will have to either give up trying to include, or expect his electorate to take a bigger leap of faith than they are prepared to do – and he may only have a short time, this few months of electoral honeymoon, in which to achieve a lasting change the world needs.
Outsiders Going Into
The biggest problem the US has is that it has run out of enemies and needs new ones. To fill the void, Muslims have been demonised for putting their belief system before the secular rules invented by everyone else, just as Christians are supposed to do. By obeying different rules they are supposedly a threat to civilization, a fact conveniently exploited by the many militant Muslim groups who use violence in a way which has no basis in the Quran, or the consciences of the vast majority of Muslims.
We can reasonably expect that Biden will distinguish himself from Trump by saying that American Muslims (3.45 million of them, and growing are not enemies of the rest of the population, and should have equal rights and respect. If he does this, the next question he will have to ask is: is this because they are fellow human beings, or because they are now Americans, and have got away from the countries their families came from?
The US used to include refugees from Communism on exactly this basis – because they’d escaped from Eastern Europe or Cuba, they were better than those who stayed behind and supported those regimes. But this tactic doesn’t work with US Muslims. Many have great respect for their countries of origin, and don’t regard themselves as victims of extremism – at least not from their national governments, even if militias drove them away.
So to include US Muslims, Biden will have to stop demonising predominantly Muslim nations and those who live in them. To do this, he will have to withdraw the main charge the US makes against these nations – not that some are autocratic theocracies, but that they are sponsors of terrorism, as if the two things automatically go hand-in-hand. We remember the policy of Obama, and how the US funded terrorists, freedom fighters in Syria, and did not get much bang-for-the-buck.
As long as Muslim terrorists exist, at least in our minds, changing our attitude will be a difficult task. These terrorists, the real ones, may be shunned by most Muslims, but they still claim to be working in league with peaceful and legitimate Muslim states and Western sponsors. In practice many terrorist groups do operate from Muslim countries, and it is therefore easy to claim that they must be being sponsored by those counties – at least until you ask why terrorist groups also operate within Western countries which ostensibly don’t agree with their aims or presence.
So if Biden is going to include Muslims, which he has to do if he is serious about healing wounds, he will also have to include terrorists. Many Americans know that the US has been sponsoring its favourite terrorists for years, under the banner of “freedom fighters” to achieve its own narrow interests. But Biden will have to find a way of converting terrorists into non-terrorists, and in a cost effective way, and then selling that to a sceptical US public – meaning he will have to pick careful targets, and then stick to the decisions he’s made even if they temporarily blow up in his face.
Blowing Up Your Palace
It is a truism of global politics that yesterday’s terrorist is tomorrow’s statesman. When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin attended Middle East peace talks at Leeds Castle in the UK in 1978, just prior to the more famous Camp David Summit, it was remarked that he was still actually a wanted criminal as far as the UK was concerned, due to his involvement in the King David Hotel Bombing of 1946, regarded as terrorism then and now.
What had changed was the perceived rightness of Begin’s cause. In 1946 Palestine was still ruled by the British under a mandate. Begin and his Jewish terrorist friends bombed the hotel, the headquarters of the British administration, to achieve a State of Israel. They got one, most believed they had the right to one, so everything which had gone before was sanitised by the idea of correcting an injustice inflicted on them by Germany and the West.
Indeed, terrorism is even given the status of a retrospective virtue in such cases. Before women were allowed to vote in most countries, those who campaigned for this were divided into two groups – the suffragists, who tried to achieve the vote through the democratic system, and the suffragettes, unashamed terrorists perfectly happy to bomb governments of men into submission.
Now women have the vote the suffragists, who were the majority, have been all but forgotten. The suffragettes are seen as heroes, as if they alone conducted the women’s suffrage campaign, and were responsible for its success. Their terrorism isn’t mentioned, even as a necessary evil, thus justifying the sponsorship of any terrorists provided you agree with their cause.
The names of many terrorist organisations are still bywords for evil, and rightly so when you consider the innocent people they murder. Long-extinct groups such as Black September and the Baader-Meinhof Gang are still remembered for the terror they spread and for the strength of their commitments to their causes.
But where does a movement such as Hezbollah, once spoken of in the same breath, fit into all this? It used to be one of those names synonymous with indiscriminate violence. Like others, it has fallen off the radar due to the rise of Al-Qaeda and Daesh (both banned in the Russian Federation) – not because it is less violent, but because it has become the victim of its own success.
Like the US, Hezbollah is running out of enemies. It’s been around so long it has had to deal with all the governments and states it opposes. It may still technically be a militia, but it is also a police force, humanitarian organization, evolving into a less radical alternative to the ones now presented as unstoppable by their sponsors. In Lebanon it is a political party which stands for election like the others – and although violence and foreign interference got it there, it doesn’t automatically follow that this legitimises its continued presence.
Of all the organisations currently described as “terrorist”, Hezbollah is the one with the closest peaceful links with the community (Shia Muslims) it claims to represent. It is the best candidate for rehabilitation into the international community by being granted political status outside Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. We may not like how it got there, but treating this organisation as political will have far greater benefit than continuing to wage war with these three countries, or undermining them from within, ever could.
Black Hand of Friendship
Hezbollah is the main political representative of the Shia community in Lebanon, whose political system, to the annoyance of the rest of the world, is still largely based on each politico-religious group electing its own representatives from within its own networks of patronage. If former IRA men such as Gerry Adams can represent the Catholics of Northern Ireland, and be described as “men of peace”, Hezbollah can equally represent the community which chooses to vote for it when the rest of the world wants it not to.
Hezbollah retains a paramilitary presence, which has led to it being regarded as a “state within a state”. There is a solution to that: integrate it into the state from the top down.
In Lebanon and Syria, this has largely happened. Hezbollah’s military activities are not directed against other internal enemies, their foreign sponsors and random civilians, as they long were, but against threats to the country itself: they try and regain lands lost by the central government, even when they are not in government themselves, in much the same way that naval heroes such as Sir Francis Drake, who was effectively no more than a pirate, protected their countries from national rather than political enemies.
In Iraq, Hezbollah represents the majority community, long disregarded (or worse) by Saddam Hussein, who the West fought an on-going controversial war to rid the country from. The continued Western presence in Iraq is justified by helping develop democracy and protecting the liberated country from Daesh (banned in Russia) and its splinter groups. This is entirely consistent with how Hezbollah presents its ideology. The quickest way to achieve these goals would be to call Hezbollah’s bluff, and make it take responsibility for moving Iraq forward, instead of staying there to impose these solutions as an occupation force.
The US won’t get out of Syria because Russia supports the Syrian government, and is there legitimately as it was asked to come by the Syrian government itself. Want to be rid of both Assad and the Russians? Legitimise Hezbollah, which has shown it wants Islamic government, but by popular choice.
The West will never leave Lebanon alone to sort out its own affairs because it does it both differently and well, given the opportunity. Any artist will tell you that is the greatest threat of all in the eyes of Western society.
But Lebanon will always do things its own way because its “divisive and unworkable” system has strong and healthy roots. Want a new distribution of power in Lebanon acceptable to all communities? Support the continued politicisation of Hezbollah, and help it make the same transition as the suffragettes, as no political group there is in a position to cast stones at it over violence or foreign connections.
Including Muslims should not be equated with giving in to terrorists, but long years of propaganda have ensured that that will be the perception. The fight against terrorism may, unfortunately, be phoney but it will have to continue for domestic political reasons.
Biden can square this circle by simply removing the label of terrorist from Muslim groups which are part of legitimate political processes, whose causes can be aligned with those of legitimate governments and political movements. This will make American Muslims who still love their old homelands “Hezbollah Muslims”, or those with backgrounds in countries which could, if friendly, achieve a similar status.
This will only achieve a little in the US, at least to begin with. But it will go a long way to defusing global tensions – and this will ultimately have much greater benefits for the US, which can then go back to being the honest policeman, the bringer of peace, and stop being all the things it attacks everyone else for allegedly being. It has voted for change, after all!
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.