In a story describing President Obama’s six conversations with Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi that led to the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the New York Times summarized Obama’s estimation of Morsi. Obama told his aids “he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology.” Obama “considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver . . . This was somebody focused on solving problems.”
Technocratic qualities like “engineer’s precision” and “little ideology” sound strange when describing the leader of an organization whose credo is “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Quran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” And Obama’s praise is oddly obtuse about the tactical reasons for Morsi’s cooperation. A near-broke Egypt has over $9 billion in foreign aid pending, and Morsi’s government has not yet consolidated its own power or its control over the military. Given the international prestige that has accrued to Morsi for his role a mediator in the conflict, it should surprise no one that he would make a short-term tactical retreat in order to buy Egypt time until it can more confidently flex its Islamist muscles on behalf of its ideological offspring Hamas, and pursue its own goal to create a powerful and expansive Islamic state governed by “shari’a, then the shari’a, and finally the shari’a,” as Morsi has defined his aims.
Perhaps the President’s comments were just diplomatic public relations, though they are consistent with Obama’s previous misunderstanding and confusion about the nature of Islam particularly evident in his 2009 Cairo speech. But they remind me of another great-power leader who drastically underestimated an aggressor and worsened the conflict he was trying to resolve.
In 1938, Neville Chamberlain reported back to his cabinet on the second of the three meetings he held with Adolph Hitler that make up the Munich debacle. Chamberlain said he “was satisfied Hitler was speaking the truth” about the resolution of the Sudeten crisis as the road to peace––just as today Western leaders believe Muslims who say resolving the Israel-Arab conflict will make jihadist terror disappear. Of course, the Palestinians are as much a pretext for the jihadists’ aggression as the Sudeten Germans were for Hitler’s. Indulging an over-estimation of his powers of personal persuasion, Chamberlain claimed, “He had established some degree of personal influence over Herr Hitler.” Remember when we were told that Obama’s Muslim name and admiration for Islam would create “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world . . . based upon mutual interest and mutual respect,” as he said in Cairo, and thus advance American interests? At the next meeting Chamberlain assured his cabinet that Hitler “would not deliberately deceive a man whom he respected and with whom he had been in negotiation, and he was sure that Herr Hitler now felt some respect for him. When Herr Hitler announced that he meant to do something it was certain that he would do it.” Doesn’t this sound like Obama’s comments above that Morsi is a “straight shooter who delivered on what he promised”?
Of course, in reality Hitler had nothing but contempt for Chamberlain and the ease with which he had gulled the Prime Minister, whom he threatened to kick in the stomach and called “a little worm.” Obama and America’s low approval throughout the Middle East––lower than when the hated George Bush left office––suggest Obama has earned a similar contempt. Remember the chant of the 9/11 rioters at our embassy in Cairo: “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama”?
Hitler’s true aims were no more a secret then than are the Muslim Brotherhood’s are today, so ignorance cannot excuse either Chamberlain or Obama. For nearly a decade British ambassadors had sent reports to London about the nature of Nazism and Hitler. In 1933 Sir Horace Rumbold summarized Hitler’s frequent “derogatory remarks about ‘such nonsensical ideas’ as international understanding, peace pacts, and spirit of Locarno [the 1928 multi-national treaty that “banned war,” as the New York Times put it], the policy of conciliation, and the like.” He described the Nazi German belief that “only brute force can ensure the survival of the race,” and that the young must be “educated to the maximum of aggressiveness” and be implanted with “manly courage and passionate hatred.” Rumbold’s successor Sir Eric Phipps prophetically reported, “If [Hitler] finds that he arouses no real opposition, the tempo of his advance will increase” and will be checked only “by the knowledge that the Powers who desire peace are also strong enough to enforce it.”
Likewise the Muslim Brotherhood’s similar ideology of violence and subversion as the tools to advance its Islamist agenda has been clear ever since its creation by Hassan al-Banna in 1928. If anyone believes the tactical deception that the Brotherhood has “renounced violence” and so is “moderate” and “pragmatic,” listen to the speeches of the Brotherhood’s “spiritual leader” Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was welcomed back to Egypt from exile after the fall of Mubarak. Qaradawi sanctions violent jihad including “martyrdom” operations, the recreation of the Islamic Caliphate, the conquest by jihad of Europe and America, the universal application of shari’a law, and suicide bombings of Israeli Jews including women and children. And he has expressed admiration for Hitler and the holocaust, about which he has said, “This was a divine punishment for them [the Jews]. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”
And if you think the Egyptian rebellion against Mubarak was about creating democracy, consider Morsi’s remarks made in May 2012 at a televised campaign rally. There he recited the Brotherhood’s credo line by line as the crowd repeated his words, including “Jihad is our path” and “Death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration.” As for the line “the Quran is our law,” a day after the cease-fire, Morsi cashed in on the gushing praise from Hillary Clinton and Obama, and decreed for himself sweeping dictatorial powers that mean, as his spokesman put it, “The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.” An important effect of this power-grab is to neutralize the judiciary and thus prevent it from interfering with the Islamist-dominated assembly now writing a constitution likely to enshrine shari’a law. Unless current protests in Egypt erupt into a civil war that the Muslim Brotherhood loses, Morsi is now closer to fulfilling the promise he made at that same May campaign rally: “This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic shari’a. I take an oath before Allah and before you all that regardless of the actual text [of the constitution] . . . Allah willing, the text will truly reflect [the shari’a], as will be agreed upon by the Egyptian people, by the Islamic scholars, and by legal and constitutional experts . . . Rejoice and rest assured that this people will not accept a text that does not reflect the true meaning of the Islamic shari’a as a text to be implemented and as a platform.”
Given the ample evidence of the Islamists’ true beliefs and aims, why do so many Westerners misread them and their leaders as badly as Chamberlain misread Hitler? One obvious reason is the failure of imagination that allows many in the West to project their own ideals and goals on people who have very different ones. Since for us religion has been reduced to a private lifestyle choice and banished from the public square, we assume other peoples are equally casual about their faith. Because we prize personal freedom and material well being as the highest goods, we interpret revolutions against dictators as based on the desire for political freedom and economic development rather than on goals like a government consistent with illiberal and intolerant religious laws. In short, we think the whole world is comprised of peoples who are embryonic Westerners just waiting for conditions to change so that they can be and live like us. Hence we dismiss all evidence that contradicts that questionable assumption, or misinterpret it as mere rhetoric.
Given the high price paid for England’s failure to take seriously Hitler’s professed beliefs and aims, you’d think that by now we would have learned to believe an aggressor when he says he wants to destroy us, and to accept that negotiation and “engagement” absent a credible threat of force are futile. The Munich analogy may be overused, but the chronic failure to learn from its mistakes means we still need to be reminded of its lessons.
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