Malaysia and the Allure of Bridge-building

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In a post on The Compass last week, I mentioned Malaysia's Anwar Ibrahim as an example of a politician whose anti-Semitic views are all too quickly glossed over, when they actually deserve further attention. The aside provoked a few comments, so I think a followup is in order.

Ibrahim has a roster of politically significant defenders in America - particularly Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz, who have lauded him on numerous occasions to the U.S. media - mostly stemming from what was fairly obviously a politically motivated series of legal attacks waged against him under the auspices of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir was, as commenters noted, both anti-American and anti-Semitic - and those weren't even his worst qualities. By comparison, Ibrahim is a charming fellow with a gift for gab, exactly the kind of personality the Western media adores.

Yet Ibrahim is also an example of the kind of political personality who displays magnificent ability to manipulate situations to his advantage, and to say one thing to one audience, and another to another. The game Ibrahim engages in is not new.

As Marco Vincenzino recently noted, Ibrahim is cut very much from the cloth of Ahmed Chalabi, whose name you might recognize as another would-be leader who wooed editorial writers and intelligence agencies with false promises and grand proclamations. As Vincenzino writes:

[Chalabi] also raised millions of dollars from American taxpayers for his Iraqi National Congress. Now back in his native-Iraq, this Machiavellian political survivor has re-invented himself as a staunch Shiite advocate and close ally of Iran. A sense of betrayal overwhelms many of his original supporters in Washington.

I recall seeing Chalabi circulating in the halls of Congress and courting powerful right-wingers months before the Iraq invasion - besides the fact that it was a policy decision I opposed at the time, I found him to be a slick and untrustworthy operator to a disturbing degree (though I am curious what his daughter's new book will reveal). Chalabi was fool's gold and, however you come down on his actions, American leaders were clearly wrong to embrace him as closely as they did.

Yet America's political leadership tends to repeat this mistake over and over again - they fall in love with the idea of bridge-building to the Muslim world, of finding moderates who maintain that they can act as go-betweens to factions many of our policymakers barely understand. This idea leads policymakers to sometimes embrace potentially disastrous figures who know how to manipulate these circumstances and desires - men like Ibrahim, who can intone about the vile influence of "the Jewish lobby" in their own countries and in their own language, but in English, charm former vice presidents and respected foreign policy leaders.

George Washington never actually warned Americans to "beware of foreign entanglements" in his often misquoted farewell address. But he did say that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other." If you replace "nation" with "bridge-builder," you'll find it's still accurate in today's Washington.

Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for Tommy Thompson and Sen. John Cornyn, is editor of The New Ledger and a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. He writes on defense and security issues for The Compass.

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