One of the more subtle lessons Americans can take from the controversy over the Ground Zero mosque in New York City is how difficult it is for us to converse with the Muslim world or its representatives. For us, the bloody recollections of recent history are still raw—Americans are on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing. For them, the pressures in their home countries often make it politically unpalatable to be seen as too friendly, lest they be considered a lackey bowing to the wishes of a foreign populace.
As the second US-ASEAN summit approaches this weekend in New York City, there could be an opportunity for America’s political leadership to reach a closer understanding with Malaysia, a Muslim nation of great significance. Yet it’s important that, should the Obama Administration choose to do so, they sacrifice nothing in terms of American interests.
Malaysia is in a critical moment. Economic stagnation has placed them in a precarious position, in need of a significant round of policy reforms and reconsiderations. And unfortunately, Malaysia is very close to a nation that concerns much of the Western world: Iran.
As one of their top trading partners in the Middle East, Iran is engaged and connected to the interests of Malaysia’s military, industry, and corporate structure, raising concerns—particularly when it comes to natural resources—that the relationship is being manipulated to avoid trade sanctions.
As it stands, however, the possibilities for achieving positive results from a closer relationship with Malaysia likely outweigh the negatives. The Malaysians know this, too—late last year, when a Malaysian senior representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency cast a lonely “no” vote on a resolution denouncing Iran, he was promptly dismissed by the foreign ministry. They have shown signs of being open to a closer relationship with the United States, signing into law a Strategic Trade Act in advance of President Obama’s April summit on nuclear non-proliferation, and vowing to take a more rigorous approach to ending their reputation as a middle-man for the transfer of weapons.
These are fine statements, but the United States should expect more. The current political leadership has made the right noises in many respects, but they must come to the negotiating table honestly, and with a willingness to make a firmer commitment to severing ties with Iran—the kind of commitment that can be measured in deeds, not just words.
When local political pressures prevent self-styled moderate Muslims from denouncing Hamas or Hezbollah, we are right to consider their true motives. But this should not bar us from adopting a closer relationship with other Muslim nations as we seek to advance our national security interests. With the proper approach to bringing Malaysia closer to the United States, we can tug them away from Iran—an aim that will serve our interests, and theirs as well.
Benjamin Domenech, a former speechwriter for U.S. Senator John Cornyn and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, writes on national security and foreign policy issues for RealClearWorld.