"This has left us at one of those rare moments when the playing field is suddenly made level for the competition of new big ideas," said Martin Kramer, a fellow at both the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Harvard University, during a lecture held at the Union League of Philadelphia.
Sponsored by the Middle East Forum, Kramer's Oct. 29 talk, titled "America's Flawed Ideas in the Middle East," examined two theories being discussed in Washington about U.S. policy, both of which he finds misguided. One idea being kicked around, he said, is called "engagement" — a theory that abandons the idea of militarily transforming the Mideast, and that would necessitate a scaling back of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Middle East has its problems, but everything we do just makes it worse," said Kramer, outlining the engagement option to an audience of about 150 people. This would mean that "we must get ourselves back over the horizon and as much out of the Arab line of sight as possible."
Kramer — who was recently named the senior Middle East adviser to Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani — said proponents of the engagement plan favor negotiations with regimes like Iran and Syria, as well as groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, noting that, "after all, radicals have interests, too."
He also said that those touting the engagement plan paint themselves as "realists" who admit American failure in the region; however, he argued, the plan actually "oozes optimism" by hoping that Islamists will change their political posture.
"Just as you couldn't turn Yasser Arafat into a man of peace — even with a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony — and just as you couldn't turn Iraqis into democratic citizens — even when their fingers turn purple — you can't turn Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah into our partners by sitting down with them."
The engagement plan, he remarked, "looks, feels and smells like appeasement."
The other notion that some policy-makers hope will guide American thinking in the Mideast, he added, is the idea of "staying on the offensive."
Proponents of this idea contend, according to Kramer, that the Sept. 11 attacks have not been repeated because of U.S. military deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. If America doesn't defeat them there, these folks argue, they will strike again here.
If the United States were to leave Iraq now, "our enemies will control it … uncertainty will grow, terrorists will be emboldened, and oil prices will skyrocket," he said, echoing the sentiments of proponents of the plan.
But Kramer doesn't fully agree with staying on the offensive either, mostly because it hinges on the transformation of these troublesome regimes into working democracies.
He would rather see systems in place that would allow everyday people the right to express themselves politically.
"Without that," he said, "the only result that one can expect from a democratic vote is the election of terror regimes like Hamas and Hezbollah."
Earlier in his talk, Kramer said that America should perhaps look at how the region was ruled by the British, French and Ottomans throughout history.
"Rule lightly, unless provoked. Delegate power and don't tamper with local customs," he suggested. "Using these rules, great empires dominated the Middle East for centuries. Our problem, though, is that we don't see ourselves as a great empire, and we don't want to rule anyone directly. We just want to transform them thoroughly."