WASHINGTON – Joseph Braude*
United States National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster made rare remarks about “political Islam,” Iran, and North Korea — and provided a preview of President Trump’s soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy — in Washington Tuesday. The venue, attended by Majalla, was the first-ever conference convened in the United States by Policy Exchange, a leading British think tank. Focused primarily on the future of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and UK, it also featured McMaster’s British counterpart, Mark Sedwill CMG, and veteran policy voices including Sir John Jenkins, former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the UK Government’s “Muslim Brotherhood Review.”
The UK Government’s landmark review was raised by McMaster in response to a question by Dean Godson, director of Policy Exchange and moderator of the discussion. “The last administration seemed to view political Islamism as a potential bulwark against Al-Qaeda,” Godson observed. “Where do we stand now as a reality check on that?”
“I’m a big fan of the former Prime Minister’s report on the Muslim Brotherhood,” McMaster replied, “to understand the threat from certain forms of political Islam. Radical Islamist ideology is a grave threat to all civilized people. We defined the threat too myopically in recent years. The U.S. in particular took a realistic view of designated terrorist organizations being those that posed the gravest threat, and didn’t pay enough attention to how extremist ideologies were being advanced through madrasas, mosques, and so-called “charities” more broadly. … What we’re committed to doing better with our allies and partners in the Gulf States and more broadly — with the establishment of a counter-extremist and [counter-]terrorist financing center in Saudi Arabia — is to track these financial flows, not only to designated terrorist organizations but to organizations that set conditions for the growth of terrorism, through the Qutbi or Salafi jihadist ideologies, and which perpetuate ignorance to foment hatred and use hatred to justify violence and prey on most the vulnerable elements of the society.”
McMaster qualified his assessment of the Brotherhood in addressing Islamist political participation in several Arab countries: “When this Islamist ideology bridges into political organizations, they can also be extremely dangerous. Not all are alike. Muslim Brotherhood chapters in Jordan, for example, are different from some elsewhere in the mideast. But what we’ve seen is two models that Islamist organizations can use to take power. One is the “Morsi model.” That is, after the collapse of an authoritarian regime, it takes advantage of being the only organized group — a clandestine group — with all other political alternatives having been crushed in Egypt. One of the key antidotes to that is to help grow legitimate opposition groups that are tolerant to rights and can join opposition through the political process. If those groups are crushed, all that does is perpetuate that problem. The other model is Turkey and the AKP, which a lot of Islamist groups have learned from. It’s a more patient model of operating through civil society, then the education sector, then police and judiciary and military, to consolidate power in the hands of a particular party, which we prefer not to see. And I think that is sadly contributing to Turkey’s drift away from the West. So I think this is a problem. We have to be cognizant of local dynamics, but not brush it aside, and it’s a problem we have to confront.
In his address, McMaster summarized the forthcoming American “National Security Strategy” document as identifying four national security interests and addressing three threats. The interest: “Protect our homeland and protect the American people. Advance American prosperity, as economic security is linked to national security. Preserve peace through strength. And finally, advance American influence.” As to the major threats, they were described as follows: first, “revisionist powers — China and Russia — which seek to undermine the international order, stability, the rule of law, and sovereign rights; second, rogue regimes — Iran and North Korea among them — which pose a growing threat to peace by supporting terror and pursuing weapons of mass destruction; and third, jihadist trans-state actors, which are constantly seeking new ways to attack our nation.”
An operative principle in the new strategy, to which McMaster referred repeatedly, was “competitive engagement” — a concept elucidated in 2013 in a substantial paper by Nadia Schadlow, a scholar who now serves as McMaster’s deputy. In the paper, she wrote that a posture of competitive engagement “would require that civilian actors who oversee U.S. economic and humanitarian programs account for the fact that new ideas, economic strategies, civic action plans, and even public health-related initiatives are contested by vested interests or ideological or political opponents.” In essence, it would involve the use of a range of non-military tools — including financial and economic leverage, strategic communications, international education, and other capacities — to challenge hostile actors’ hold on states and their societies.
Dean Godson also raised the question of a possible “grand bargain” with China over North Korea, “and whether there’s any prospect of removal at the top of the regime.”
In response, McMaster said, “One of the approaches we’ve taken — the fundamental approach — is that the President is not asking President Xi for a favor. We’re basing our cooperation and work with China vis a vis North Korea on the understanding that it’s in both of our interests to resolve this problem. It’s immensely important to consolidate understanding with the Chinese in three key areas: “First, it’s not a problem between the U.S. and North Korea but between North Korea and the world. Second, it’s in China’s interest and all of our interests to make the objective the denuclearization of the Peninsula, and negotiations can’t be viewed as an end in themselves, or a freeze that allows … the [eventual] fait accompli of a global nuclear threat. Third, China’s acknowledgment that it has tremendous coercive economic power. So we have to consolidate that understanding and recognize that time is running out and it’s time for all nations to do more. And we’re seeing, thanks to help from the UK and others, is tremendous momentum with the Philippines, cutting off trade and ties. Same in Vietnam, elsewhere in Asia, Sudan, and North Africa.”
British national security advisor Mark Sedwill added, “The world is round. We often look at the world through projections onto maps. But intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles can reach the continent of the U.S., and of Europe too. So it isn’t just a China problem, it’s a global problem. I think in terms of the overall approach, we’re working hand in glove with U.S. leadership to do that. China has the most leverage over North Korea — less than we’d like, but certainly the most. And it’s in all of our interests to engage them and find a solution.
McMaster then interjected, “The economic power course is considerable, especially in the area of oil, and fuel products. We’ve seen quite a bit of ship-to-ship transfers … Any company that engages in that, all those companies whose ships would engage in that activity ought to be on notice that that might be the last shipment they make in a long time, anywhere.”
To Godson’s question about the hypothetical removal of North Korea’s ruler, McMaster said, “Regime change is not our policy now. What we’re emphasizing is the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Finally, Godson asked both discussants whether there was “any role for people power in North Korea and Iran” — drawing an analogy to Poland’s historic “Solidarity” independent labor union, which challenged Soviet political repression in Eastern Europe.
McMaster replied, “On Iran, I think it would be important to encourage the growth of alternative power bases that lie outside of the theocratic regime and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and we can best do that commercially by ensuring we don’t do business with companies of which the beneficial owner is one of those two groups. [Similarly] for North Korea, where there’s an elite in Pyongyang that depends on [the regime’s] perks.
*Joseph Braude is an author, broadcaster and Middle East specialist, and advisor to the Al-Mesbar Center for Studies and Research.