Today's date:
FALL 2001


Cold War II-Prelude

[note: This column was originally written for the Spring 1992 issue of NPQ when the Algerian government aborted elections that seemed certain to bring the fundmentalist Islamic Front to power...Editor]

Nobody wants Cold War II. Yet that is precisely what we will get if we continue our misguided, unthinking policies in the Middle East. A cold war needs an enemy. And we seem to have found one in Islam.

Cold War II really began in the early fifties when the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt maneuvered the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, the popularly elected prime minister of Iran. In the knee-jerk anti-communist temper of the times, such a coup was easy to pull off and to justify. Mossadegh had been sufficiently pro-Soviet and the US was intent on having a land-based aircraft carrier in the region to thwart Soviet expansionism.

We got our carrier, but the results were devastating. The Iranians never forgot nor forgave the US for blowing out the candle of their democracy and installing the pro-Western Shah. His modernizing efforts appealed more to the West than to his own people. Thus, ultimately, we received our due when the Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite zealots seized power and, soon after, the US embassy in Tehran.

Traumatized by the hostage episode, we lost the ability to differentiate between religious zealots who used violent means and other Muslim political activists. Indeed, we tended to confuse Islam itself with terrorism.

Such an attitude on the part of the West left us without the capacity to understand the critical dynamic operating in the deeply religious Islamic world: the denial of political rights and economic justice leads to a justification of militant remedies in other-worldly terms entirely outside the discourse of the secular, rationalist West.

Though he lost militarily, Saddam Hussein gambled on that very dynamic. He counted on the secular failures, blamed on the West, to cause massive sympathetic uprisings throughout the Muslim world in support of his aggression against Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and then Israel. Despite his debacle, fundamentalist fervor continues to mount, especially in the Arab world. Witness the ominous increase in strength of the Hamas fundamentalists in Israel's occupied territories, largely as a result of the PLO's inability to make significant progress on the worldly front.

And look at Algeria. Even though democratic processes had not yet fully developed, it is clear that a genuine blossoming was under way. No longer.

Faulty analysis trapped the United States into supporting the military junta after it aborted the democratic election process in which the fundamentalist Islamic Front (FIS) would have almost certainly triumphed. The FIS has been outlawed and thousands of the followers have been jailed.

Once again, as so often during Cold War I, the US has resorted to the support of a repressive government. This time it is no longer out of paranoia about communism but out of fear of our new enemy: Muslim fundamentalism.

Once again, we abandon our principles, in this case democracy. This is exactly the kind of approach that led us into the disaster of Vietnam.

Now we are faced with a new foreign policy decision, our stance toward the five Islamic Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union that lie so critically between China and Russia and constitute a kind of buckle in the Islamic belt stretching from the Sahara to Bangladesh. Will we dismiss them all, assuming that all Muslims are fundamentalists and terrorists? How does this happen to the US time and again? And will it continue? The roots of our repeated political misapprehensions can be traced to our grievous tendency to place a higher priority on pragmatism and efficiency-realpolitik -than on adherence to values.

Such pragmatism is well founded in American society. The positivistic methodology of the social sciences on which pragmatism is founded is the dominant ideology in the universities today. Accordingly, if something cannot be proven scientifically, then it does not belong in academic discourse.

Descriptive techniques of what exists empirically are easier to develop than the wisdom and judgement essential for prescription. We do not educate ourselves or our children to search for normative goals.. It thus becomes all too easy, as in the case of democracy in Algeria, to ignore the criteria of values.

In Algeria, we let prevail the simplistic and confused notion that, even if democratically elected, Islamic power is unacceptable.

Unless we develop stronger confidence in and commitment to our stated values, Cold War II will be a creation of our own making.

Principle itself should prevail as the operative value, not paranoia.

Without values we lose our spirit. Without the spiritual we lose our way. If the spiritual does not move us, if our values are not in order, how do we steer?

Stanley K. Sheinbaum

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