Outside the box, or out of their minds?


A perennial shortcoming in America’s interactions with the Middle East is that they tend to emerge from insular discussions. Policy is the result of calculations that usually rotate around Washington. Consequently, regional realities are frequently ignored, poorly understood, or bent out of shape to fit a favored agenda.

This was the case in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Disagreements between different government bureaucracies, civilian and military, played themselves out through media leaks. Intellectuals, too, hotly debated the merits of war. However, the Iraqis were marginal in the commotion, which is why so many Americans were taken aback by what happened once Baghdad fell.

The latest twist on this failing comes from the exchange now taking place in some American policy circles and the military over whether to engage Middle Eastern militant Islamist groups, particularly Hizbullah and Hamas. Last week, Mark Perry, author of a book advocating talking to Islamists, published a blog post on the Foreign Policy website saying that a recent “red team” report by senior officers in US Central Command had proposed a new approach to Hizbullah and Hamas. The officers cast doubt on the current American isolation of the groups, Perry wrote, and they recommended “integrating the two into their respective political mainstreams.”

The officers also revived the idea of incorporating Hizbullah and Hamas into their government-backed security forces, arguing: “The US role of assistance to an integrated Lebanese defense force that includes Hizballah; and the continued training of Palestinian security forces in a Palestinian entity that includes Hamas in its government, would be more effective than providing assistance to entities – the government of Lebanon and Fatah – that represent only a part of the Lebanese and Palestinian populace respectively.” (Italics in the original.)

Perry noted that while the officers acknowledged that Hizbullah and Hamas “embrace staunch anti-Israel rejectionist policies,” they added that the two groups are “pragmatic and opportunistic.”

Here was a controversial example of “thinking outside the box” on Hizbullah and Hamas, Perry opined. It was precisely the opposite. A bevy of Americans essentially made assumptions with no grounding whatsoever in the reasoning of either of the two Islamist groups. Worse, the officers lazily lumped Hizbullah and Hamas together, even though both have different aims and operate in significantly different political contexts. This was thinking made in Washington, directed at Washington, based on terms largely defined by Washington. It was the pure product of a closed Washington box.

Let’s start with the last point raised by the officers, namely the fact that Hizbullah and Hamas are pragmatic and opportunistic. Of course they are, but it’s worth recalling Lenin in these instances. One can be pragmatic and opportunistic in the pursuit of firm goals (and opposition to Israel and the United States are essential to the Islamists’ goals). In the case of Hizbullah and Hamas, their overriding goal can be defined as the accumulation of greater power at the expense of what Perry calls their political mainstreams.

But let’s be more specific. Hizbullah, at least its leadership and security cadre, is an extension of Iran. The party is there primarily to defend and advance Iranian regional interests, even if Tehran has anchored Hizbullah, or allowed it to anchor itself, in the Lebanese Shiite condition. That means that Hizbullah will never defy Iranian directives when it comes to matters as fundamental as the United States or Israel. As for Hamas, its ultimate ambition is to seize control of the Palestinian national movement, supplant Fatah, and redefine the conflict with Israel in terms the movement prefers. Both groups believe in what they’re doing and regard “resistance” as an ideal, one lying at the heart of a worldview defined largely by their religion. Where they have been pragmatic – for example by participating in national elections – they have been so for tactical gain, in order to enhance their authority and rework the political environment in their favor.

When these groups see Americans, not least American soldiers, contorting themselves to justify flexibility toward militant Islamists, they assume, rightly, that their political strategy is working. And if a strategy is working, why do anything to overhaul it?

Then there are the specifics the officers raised. They appeared to be unaware that Hizbullah has spent years resisting integration into the Lebanese “mainstream” and army, yet they toss this out as a given. Hizbullah has no desire to integrate and never did. Rather, it seeks to neutralize the ability of the Lebanese state and the society to challenge the party’s military autonomy. Hizbullah has largely been successful: it has great sway over the commanding heights of government and the army, especially its intelligence services. Similarly, Hamas will only integrate into the Palestinian security forces once it is sure that it won’t be obliged to surrender its freedom of military action.

The officers’ statement that American aid would be more effective if it went to integrated national forces in Lebanon and Palestine is true. However, so self-evident a remark hardly qualifies as original. Nor does it have any basis in reality. Hizbullah and Hamas will continue to preserve their autonomy because they can. All else is idle chatter.

Which leads us to another alcove in this secluded Washington conversation. If the US considers opening a new page with Hizbullah and Hamas, what happens to the domestic adversaries of these groups who are closer to Washington politically? What dynamics might such openings release? Plainly, initiating negotiations with Hamas would undermine the Palestinian Authority. But what of Hizbullah? Lebanon is a complex place. Barring for a moment that Hizbullah has made it amply clear that it has nothing to discuss with the Americans, what might the Americans try to put on the table with the party? Greater Shiite representation? Disarmament? On all of these, the US would run into successive walls of Lebanese contradictions.

That’s the difficulty in the “talk to Islamists” scheme. It is entirely America-centric, built on an assumption that the obstacles come from Washington and have nothing to do with the ideology and convictions of the Islamist groups themselves. It also rests on a Yankee notion that everyone secretly yearns to talk and that dialogue can resolve most issues. That’s not innovative thinking; it’s a case of transposing America to the minds of others, which is either naive or astonishingly smug.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. His “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life
Struggle” (Simon & Schuster)
has just been published.

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