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BERMAN: Teachable moment on Mideast policy

Team Obama isn’t paying attention to the post-bin Laden lessons

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Perhaps the most striking thing about the recent death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American commandos is the reaction it has elicited throughout the Middle East. That is because, while most regional governments have welcomed news of the al Qaeda chief's demise, not everyone is embracing the post-bin Laden era.

The Taliban, for example, have been quick to lionize the terror mastermind and threaten retribution against the coalition and its allies. "Pakistani rulers, President Zardari and the army will be our first targets," a spokesman for the movement's Pakistani branch has warned. "America will be our second target."

Hamas feels much the same way. Just days after announcing a historic reconciliation accord with its secular rival, Fatah, the Palestinian Authority's main Islamist movement has come out publicly in defense of bin Laden and in opposition to the United States.

Even Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has waxed sympathetic, condemning bin Laden's "assassination" and defending al Qaeda's "resistance" against the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These pronouncements are hardly unexpected. The Taliban, after all, played host to bin Laden's al Qaeda during the 1990s and still maintains a close working relationship with the terror network. The Brotherhood, too, has much in common with bin Laden's virulent strain of radical political Islam. So does its Palestinian progeny, Hamas. It's hard not to notice how much these statements run counter to a host of assumptions now prevailing in the Obama administration's Mideast policy.

The first is that the Palestinian Authority is ready for peace with Israel. Even before its reaction to bin Laden's death, there was good reason to be leery of Hamas' reconciliation with Fatah. Such a deal effectively ensconces Hamas as a key arbiter of Palestinian policies and makes the central plank of its charter - the goal of "all of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea" - the law of the land. The group's posthumous praise for the world's most notorious terrorist only helps confirm that with Hamas in the middle, serious movement toward compromise between the Palestinians and Israel will be all but impossible.

The second is that the Muslim Brotherhood will be a moderating force in Egyptian politics. Rumors of a more mellow turn for the world's leading Islamist movement have swirled for years, capturing the attention of many within the Washington Beltway in the process. But since the ouster of long-serving Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak earlier this spring rocketed it back into political prominence, the Brotherhood has wasted no time demonstrating that its plans involve a wholesale - and radical - transformation of the Egyptian state. Tellingly, the Brotherhood's rise to prominence has been mirrored by a new, and decidedly unfriendly, direction in Egyptian attitudes toward the West.

Then there is the Taliban. With the start of the scheduled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan now just weeks away, the Obama administration increasingly has gravitated toward the idea of dialogue with the ousted Afghan radicals. This effort, however, is predicated upon the controversial and untested assumption that the Taliban can be weaned from their long-standing symbiosis with al Qaeda. The movement's reaction to bin Laden's demise suggests such a development is exceedingly unlikely.

Sadly, the White House seems determined to draw the opposite conclusions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has suggested that the killing of bin Laden could actually make the Taliban more inclined to give up their jihad and cut a deal with the West. Foggy Bottom likewise is not ruling out negotiating with the new, Hamas-dominated Palestinian "unity regime." Administration demands for more "pluralistic" government in Egypt have only served to further embolden the Brotherhood, now organizing to dominate the country's upcoming elections.

In other words, in spite of its success of late, Team Obama is still largely blind to the prevailing political realities of the Middle East. And because it is, America could easily end up snatching long-term strategic defeat in the struggle against radical Islam from the jaws of our recent tactical victory over bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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