Behind the financial crisis was a well-practiced mechanism for concealing risk. The risk was there, and it was constantly growing, but it could be disguised, repackaged and renamed, so that, in the end, it seemed to have disappeared. Much of the debate about foreign policy in the United States is conducted in the same manner: Policymakers and pundits, to get what they want, conceal the risks.
In the case of the Middle East, they concealed the risks of bringing Yasser Arafat in from the cold; they concealed the risks of neglecting the growth of Al Qaeda; and they concealed the risks involved in occupying Iraq. It isn't that the risks weren't known. The intelligence was always there. But if you were clever enough, and determined enough, you could find a way to conceal them.
But concealed risk doesn't go away. It accumulates away from sight, until the moment when it surges back to the surface. It did that after Camp David in 2000, when the "peace process" collapsed in blood; it did that on Sept. 11, when hijackers shattered the skies over New York in Washington; and it happened in Iraq, when an insurgency kicked back. This tendency to downplay risk may be an American trait: We have seen it in the financial markets. In Middle East policy, its outcome has been a string of very unpleasant surprises.
Here are some of the most widespread variations on the theme: Worried about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Pay him no mind. He doesn't really call the shots in Iran; he's just a figurehead. What the Iranians really want is to sit down with us and cut a deal.
Worried about Hamas? Hamas is basically a protest movement against corruption. Given the right incentives, it can be drawn into the peace process. So let's sit down and talk, figure out what its grievances are — no doubt, some of them are legitimate too.
There is a large industry out there, which has as its sole purpose the systematic downplaying of the risks posed by radical Islam. And, in the best American tradition, these risks are repackaged as opportunities. It could just as easily be called appeasement, but the public associates appeasement with high risk. So let's rename it engagement, which sounds low risk — after all, there's no harm in talking, right? And once the risk has been minimized, the possible payoff is then inflated: If we engage with Islamists, we'll reap the reward in the form of a less tumultuous Mideast.
The engagement package rests upon a key assumption: that these "radical" states, groups and individuals are motivated by grievances. It is precisely here that advocates of "engagement" are concealing the risk. First, they distract us from the deep-down dimension of Islamism — from the overarching narrative that drives all forms of Islamism. The narrative goes like this: The enemies of Islam — America, Europe, the Christians, the Jews, Israel — enjoy much more power than the believing Muslims do. But if Muslims return to the faith, they believe they can restore to themselves the vast power they exercised in the past, when Islam dominated the world as the West dominates it today. The Islamists believe that through faith — exemplified by self-sacrifice and self-martyrdom — they can put history in reverse.
Once this is understood, the second concealment of risk comes into focus. We are told that the demands of Hamas or Iran are finite. But if their purpose is the reversal of history, then our gestures of accommodation, far from enticing them to give up their grand vision, only persuade them to press on. They understand our desire to engage them as a sign of weakness — an attempt to appease them — which is itself an enticement for them to push harder against us.
Our inability to estimate this risk derives in part from our unwillingness to give credence to religious conviction in politics. We are keen to recast Islamists in secular terms, to see them as political parties, reform movements or interest groups. But what if Islamists are none of these things? What if they see themselves as soldiers of God? How do you deal with someone who believes that a paradise awaits every jihadist "martyr"? How do we calculate that risk?
It is time to question risk-defying policies in the Middle East. The slogans of peace and democracy misled us. Let's not let the new slogan of engagement do the same. The United States is going to have to show the resolve and grit to wear and grind down adversaries, with soft power, hard power and willpower.
Martin Kramer is senior fellow at the Shalem Center's Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.