The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Return of Pragmatism?

June 18, 2006

By now we are all familiar with the current status of the civil war in Somalia. Last week, Islamic militias in Somalia seized the capital of Mogadishu, defeating the US-backed coalition of warlords. The Christian Science Monitor had an interesting article discussing the next step for the US in its bid to avoid the creation of neo-Afghanistan on the Horn of Africa. The answer–diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Courts Union. The US, it would appear, is starting to realize that the world of international politics is not so black and white.

According to the CSM:

“…the US is sending out conciliatory signals to the Islamic Courts Union, which vows to turn Somalia into a religious state under sharia law. In addition to setting up the international contact group, the State Department is issuing cautious, open-minded statements toward the advancing Islamists.

The tone suggests a carefully revised US position on Somalia, analysts say. The broader lesson, they add, may be that instead of rejecting Islamist political groups outright, the US will have to do more to differentiate friend from foe within Islamist political movements.

The US is seen to be appealing to the more moderate factions of the Islamic Courts Union, with the intent of separating out those elements that have already declared their opposition to providing a refuge for terrorism in Somalia.

What the US has to guard against, experts in Muslim countries say, is seeing all Islamic political movements through the prism of the war on terror and automatically putting America’s weight against Islamist militants in a struggle like Somalia’s.”

To me, this is reminiscent of US strategic choices during the Cold War, whereby over time distinctions were made between different communist regimes. The didn’t just cut deals with unsavory, non-communist dictators. They also managed to engage other communist regimes at different times. What followed was a kind of triage–at the end of the day you do not like any of these regimes (what they stand for, the laws they pass, their culture, etc.), but you realize that some are greater threats than others.

The Cold War saw the US wax and wane between the position where Communism needed to be beaten back at every turn and the realization that not all communist regimes were created equal, and that we could live with some communists if they were ‘independent’ so to speak. The experience of Tito in Yugoslavia influenced (or helped rationalize after the fact) US actions towards China during that country’s Civil War in 1948-49. Similarly, the rapprochement with China by Nixon sought to exploit the Sino-Soviet split and similarly reflected the position of working with communist regimes that were not closely aligned with the USSR. Pragmatism and realism emerged many times (although certainly not all of the time) to trump rigid ideological stances. Containing communism was the ultimate goal, but the more pressing/immediate goal was containing the Soviets–even if that meant allying with (implicitly or explicitly) other communist regimes. At minimum, it meant learning to live with some communist regimes.

It would appear that the US is moving in a similar direction today with the war against Islamic fundamentalism (which is what this campaign really is–you can’t fight a war against strategic bombing any more than you can against terrorism–however, that meme has sailed). Given the obvious resource limitations the US operates under it must now engage and work with some existing and emerging Islamic regimes to contain and eliminate the remaining terrorist networks as well as help curb the rise of new cells, especially if the administration persists with its democratization strategy (the Palestinian experience is not simply an aberration, but possibly a bellwether). Do they want to necessarily work with these regimes? No. But at the end of the day we have to choose our battles wisely and not let ideological rigidity get in the way of making actual progress.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.