In an article in the current National Journal called "The Post Al Qaida Era," I write that the Obama administration is taking a new view of Islamist radicalism. The president realizes he has no choice but to cultivate the Muslim Brotherhood and other relatively "moderate" Islamist groups emerging as lead political players out of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. (The Muslim Brotherhood officially renounced violence decades ago, leading then-dissident radicals such as Ayman al-Zawahiri to join al Qaida.)
It is no longer the case, in other words, that every Islamist is seen as a potential accessory to terrorists. "The war on terror is over," one senior State Department official who works on Mideast issues told me. "Now that we have killed most of al Qaida, now that people have come to see legitimate means of expression, people who once might have gone into al Qaida see an opportunity for a legitimate Islamism."
The new approach is made possible by the double impact of the Arab Spring, which supplies a new means of empowerment to young Arabs other than violent jihad, and Obama's savagely successful military drone campaign against the worst of the violent jihadists, al Qaida.
Some of the smarter hardliners on the Right, like Reuel Marc Gerecht, are coming to realize that the Arab world may find another route to democracy--through Islamism. The question is, how will this play politically at a time when Obama's GOP rival, Mitt Romney, is painting the president as a weak accommodationist?
According to a senior advisor to Romney, the campaign is still formulating how to approach the new cuddle-up approach to Islamists. But the spectacle of an administration that is desperately trying to catch up to the fast-evolving new world of the Mideast fits into the Romney narrative of a president who "has been outmatched by events," the adviser said. "Obama came to power with a view of the region that would make progress in the Arab world and get the Iranians back to the table. He would deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the key to that was dealing with settlements. Instead it's been chaos."
The president may have no choice but to preside over chaos at this point--a chaos that may not be the disaster that critics say and may in fact be the Arab world's only path to modernity -- but it won't play well in the seven months between now and election day.
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