The Muslim Brotherhood is in the news a lot these days, thanks to the upheaval in Egypt. Glenn Beck — living proof that pregnant women shouldn’t do LSD — apparently sees the Twitter Revolution as a choreographed performance behind which the Brotherhood will dance its way to power, and as a first step toward bringing everything everything from London to Jakarta under a revived Caliphate. The equally goofy Frank Gaffney elevates the Brotherhood and “Sharia Law” into objects of paranoia comparable to International Communism for the Birchers.
So guess which country has courted the Muslim Brotherhood since at least the 1950s? That’s right. The U.S. government, since Eisenhower’s administration, has promoted the Brotherhood as a conservative counterbalance to secular radicals like Nasser.
In 1953, writes Ian Johnson (“Washington’s Secret History With the Muslim Brotherhood,” New York Review of Books, Feb. 5), Ike invited around thirty Islamic scholars and civic leaders to Washington to impress them with America’s status as the premier defender of religious and spiritual values against Godless Communism. Among them was Said Ramadan, representative of the Brotherhood and son-in-law of its founder.
By the late ’50s the U.S. overtly backed Ramadan, boosting the Brotherhood as an alternative to radical Arab nationalism on the pattern of the Free Officers’ Movement and Baathism.
Why am I not surprised?
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of something like this. I recall reading a few years ago that Israel had secretly funded Hamas as a counterbalance to secular radicals — in this case Arafat and Al-Fatah. It’s an open secret in the American intelligence community that Israel funneled financial support to Hamas, starting in the late ’70s. A religious competitor, the Mossad hoped, would undermine and weaken the PLO. The Israelis were subsequently surprised by the scale of Hamas’s involvement in the Intifada.
Come to think of it, didn’t the U.S. support Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan a few decades back against some secular socialists or other? Zbigniew Brzezinski thought it a cunning move, in the great game of chess with the USSR, to draw them into a Vietnam of their own — a shooting war with fundamentalist guerrillas on the border of their own predominantly Muslim southern regions. Interestingly, Al Qaeda was named for one of the bases at which the Mujaheddin trained for war against the Soviets. And Osama Bin Laden, having witnessed the defeat of one superpower, decided there was no reason to stop with just one.
This pattern should be instructive. Governments are like organized crime families, operating as “executive committees” of their domestic ruling classes, enforcing the privileges and artificial property rights by which their members extract rents from the domestic population. These crime families deal with each other, establishing constantly shifting alliances of convenience and redividing the world between themselves, as their relative strengths shift.
Palmerston noted that nations have no permanent allies or enemies — only permanent interests. But there’s no reason the principle should apply only to the recognized governments of nation-states. The truth is a lot older than the Westphalian state system.
So you wouldn’t expect a bunch of jaded characters like the U.S. national security community to be surprised that the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda didn’t have the decency to stay bought.
I wonder, though, if they really were all that surprised. Each defection of a former ally of convenience creates a new Threat of the Week, a new Moral Equivalent of Hitler, to justify the state’s self-aggrandizement. As Randolph Bourne said, “war is the health of the state.” But war is impossible without enemies.
If the tools of yesterday’s war become enemies in today’s new war, from the state’s perspective that’s a feature rather than a bug. Just look at Dubya. If not for 9-11, he’d probably have been a one-termer. Instead, we had Tom Daschle announcing that there was “no daylight” between Congressional Democrats and the President, and fearless Fourth Estate champion Dan Rather saying “Just tell me where to line up, Mr. President.” The Democrats rubber-stamped USA PATRIOT faster than you could say “Reichstag Enabling Act.”
Brzezhinski said in retrospect, after 9-11, that he still considered his splendid little war in Afghanistan to have been worth it. And I’m sure Dubya agreed. Don’t get me wrong — I’m really not into the 9-11 Truth thing. But if you’d warned the folks at the helm that their cunning little chess move would create blowback in the form of three thousand dead serfs and a whole raft of new powers for themselves, I don’t think they’d have cried themselves to sleep.
If governments didn’t have enemies, they’d have to invent them. And it seems they sometimes have.
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