Over the past decade or so, as the conflicts in the Middle East and the growing challenge of radical Islam have moved up the agenda of American foreign policy concerns, a new breed of analysts, born and raised in the region, has appeared o the scene. Walid Phares is one of the leading figures among new breed of American geo-politicians with a Middle Eastern background. He is also among the most outspoken in his defense of “American values” and his opposition to forces that try to challenge the United States’ global leadership position in the name of religion and/or ideology.
In an emotionally charged introduction, Phares tells us that he regards himself as a victim of Jihadism. In 1990, he was forced to “pack and leave for freer land” to escape a Middle East in which brute military force and despotism appeared to set the tune.
Once installed in the United States, however, Phares quickly realized that America, and the West in general, were “missing the picture.” He says he noticed “Western understanding of the nature of the Salafist and Khomerinist ideologies and agendas was almost nonexistent. Even worse the Jihadists were also winning a second war of ideas.”
Phares cites no reason for this Western failure to appreciate the threat it faced. However, one reason may have been the West’s habit of measuring everything in terms of economic and military power. By the early 1990s, with the Soviet Empire no longer in existence, the West appeared to face no further challenges in balance of power terms.
Phares says he thought it his moral duty to warn the West of the dangers ahead. Thus, he became “a voice in the wilderness, heard by audiences but not listened to by decision-makers.” Then came 9/11 and the attacks on New York and Washington. The spectacular attacks, forced the Americans and the West in general to pay attention. Suddenly, people wanted to hear and listen to Phares was soon emerging as something of a media star.
The bulk of Phares’s new book consists of a historical background to the rise of radical Jihadism in the Middle East and behind. In that sense “The Confrontation” is probably the most complete handbook one could find in English on the subject.
Policymakers, however, would be more interested in the chapters dealing with what Phares presents as a strategy for “winning the war against future jihad.”
To start with, Phares asserts that what we are facing is , indeed, a war between two diametrically opposed visions of the world and man’s place in it. Terrorism of the kind conducted by Al Qaeda and its imitators, and the Khomeinists, is a war that has o be fought both on the battleground and in the field of ideas and values. In other words, this type of terror is not just a form of crime that ought to be handled by the police.
Phares also rejects the notion that this new form of terrorism is caused by poverty and/or economic underdevelopment. Thus, it would be foolish, not to say suicidal, to think that economic aid, better terms of trade and other routine methods of dealing with underdevelopment would remove the threat. Phares is not against economic aid and all that. What he says is that Jihadism cannot be tamed by money alone.
Equally important is Phares’s rejection of the fashionable view that all of the Middle East’s problems stem from the Palestine-Israel issue. He shows hat the Palestinian issue, which ahs its own merits, is one of the many causes of the current crisis, and not necessarily the most important either.
Phares says that “revolutionary change” are needed if the ” Free World’ is to win this war. Since the menace is global, it would be wrong to assume that Jihadism targets only the Western democracies. Almost all Muslim countries are also threatened. This is why a range of alliances is needed to face up to and ultimately defeat “the common enemy.”
Phares is critical of aspects of the way the war in Iraq has been conducted by the Bush administration, but continues to believe that removing Saddam Hussein from power was just and necessary. He also insists that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) should remain in Afghanistan until that country is fully stabilized and the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda totally defeated.
According to Phares, the consolidation of democracy in Lebanon should be a major goal of the Western powers. In that context, he also supports regime change in Syria, though not by direct US military intervention. He blames Syria for a good part of the violence in Iraq since the liberation, and claims that the Syrian leadership hopes to “meet up with an Iranian advance and open a path between the two regimes via an Iraqi radical partner.”
Possibly the most important threat looming on the horizon may be the Khomeinist regime’s plans to create an empire in the Middle East. According to Phares, the Islamic Republic in Tehran is trying to “export its influence to eastern Arabia, central Iraq, and Central Asia, as well as consolidating power in Lebanon.” Ultimately, the aim is to extend Khomeinism to the Mediterranean, turning Iran into a player in that sea for the first time since the 7th century.
Although, the Jihadists have failed to organize another attack against the US homeland in the past seven years, Phares believes that the main battles in this war will be waged on American soil. The Khomeinists and Al Qaeda and its imitators regard the US as “the main threat to their agenda.” Phares writes: “In their view, it is on US soil that world confrontation can be affected.” This is something that Americans might wish to ponder in their current electoral season.