In a post below, I challenged Middle East commentator Mark Perry’s analysis of the Hizbollah (note spelling change) actions that triggered the Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
Mr Perry and I entered into an email dialog, in which I asked if he’d be willing to elaborate on his understandings of the Middle East here, in front of what was bound to be a challenging audience. To his credit, he agreed.
He asked me to direct readers to a series in the Asia Times series he co-authored as a good primer on his positions.
I read the Asia Times piece and disagreed rather strongly. I think I sputtered. Then I thought about two things.
The first is that much of my thinking about war and national-scale conflict comes from my own training and familiarity with violence and conflict on a smaller scale. Many – but not all – of the precepts scale elegantly.
One of my instructors, the inestimable Clint Smith, is famous for his pithy sayings. Two seem particularly relevant today.
“You know the last words most LEO’s (police officers) killed in the line of duty ever say? “I’m gonna go in there and kick his ass!” Suicidal aggressiveness is not good tactics.”
“You better learn to communicate real well, because when you’re out there on the street, you’ll have to talk to a lot more people than you’ll have to shoot, or at least that’s the way I think it’s supposed to work.”
Which explains why it is that I spend a lot of time poking around thinking about ways to a peaceful Middle East that aren’t suicidally aggressive, and ideally involve talking rather than shooting.I haven’t found one yet, and I do believe that the social and political tension stored in the Middle East and extending through much of the Muslim world is due for a big blowoff, and it isn’t going to be pretty. Part of looking for alternatives involves taking my assumptions out, cleaning them off, and putting them on the table for examination. One of the best ways I know of to do that is to look at things that make me sputter, and shut off the automatic reaction in favor of a considered one. You may still sputter at the end of the process, but it’ll be sounder sputtering.
So without further ado, here is Armed Liberal chatting with Mark Perry:
AL: Here’s the first thing I was going to ask you.
In my reading, the heart of your strategic suggestions comes from your belief that daylight can be created between the takfiri movement and the more general Islamist one, and that relatively traditional political engagement (a la the IRA) can move the Islamist movement from a violent one to a political one.
Is this an accurate assessment?
And what do you think it would take to move the Islamists to political
engagement and away from violence?
MP: Your characterization is correct, but I would nudge it a bit more. We don’t think that we have to create the daylight as it already exists quite abundantly, albeit it is not fully realized by diplomats and this administration.
As to your second question: We move them towards engagement by engaging them — by opening a dialogue and creating a narrative. Now narratives can take several different forms, but in our view they should be unending even if, at times, they do not show results. Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich refused to celebrate Oslo, commenting to me: “This is simply the beginning of an exchange of narratives — we will sit down with the Palestinians and they will tell us their story and we will tell them ours. Sometimes that dialogue will come in the form of bullets, but we should never stop talking and we should not grow impatient — this exchange could take a hundred years.”
I think it was Dean Acheson who said “we will talk to anyone at anytime about the subject of peace.” That was certainly our strategy during the Cold War, but it has not been our strategy in the Middle East. I have a theory about why, but will leave the theorizing to you. I would only add that your question contains an unstated premise — that we need to move them away from violence. In fact, we need to move ourselves away from violence. This administration has been particularly notorious for responding to every crisis by deploying aircraft carriers. Of course, the administration has very poor thinkers (remember, I am a Republican) and no diplomats that I can see. Their response to my criticism of this is that our violence is good, while “they” are the extremists.
I think your second question is a little more loaded.
AL: OK, so here’s my second question.
By my perception, Bush I and Clinton didn’t deploy carriers as easily; they actually did a pretty credible job of using law-enforcement tools against the perps of WTC I etc.
But the takfiri movement grew strongly during that period. Why?
MP: I don’t exactly know the answer to your question. My sense is that a process of radicalization has been taking place in the Arab and Muslim heartlands for a period of 30 years, from the execution of Sayad Qutb and the Six Day War until now. At each point along that time line, Arab liberals believed they could leverage increased power inside increasingly modernized societies. The Arab-Israeli conflict intruded on this to a large extent as well as the Cold War. There was an implicit promise: that when the Cold War ended the US would intervene to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Of course it was Israel that tried to do that — I think from the belief that Israel would be a lot less important to the US without the USSR around.
When the US failed to really engage in the region by empowering secular liberals (throughout the 1990s) and then failed at Camp David (the history of which has been interpolated to shape our view of the region — and not reality) and then failed to differentiate political Islamic groups from the Takfiris the radicalization accelerated, and is accelerating still. The current situation does not help this, as the American foreign policy establishment is in the hands of our own Takfiris — who believe we are fighting a war of civilizations and that Islam, as they say, is a violent religion. The rhetoric here is very harmful. I would not say that Bush I and Clinton did all they could to resolve these issues rationally, believing that market forces and American hegemony would push the region into a different direction. A lot of your readers will disagree but … it is time to talk to Hamas and Hezballah, to Jamaat e-Islami and the Brotherhood. Our clients in the region cannot maintain their present position and their replacement is inevitable.
AL: OK, one final question.
Tell me a bit about your involvement with Arafat. Did it overlap the establishment of the PA?
And I’d be interested in your response to this old quote of mine:
“On the second question, the harsh reality is that had Arafat led 100,000 Arab people on a peaceful march to the sea…imagine a modern version of the “Salt March” of Gandhi…he’d have won already. Picketing, boycotts, and marches…the vocabulary of the American Civil Rights movement…would have granted him an unassailable moral high ground, and Israel would within months have been negotiating on his terms.”
MP: I must be a bit older than you. I can remember that one day (I must have been six years old) my mother handed me the Milwaukee Sentinel (a morning paper at the time — I grew up in northern Wisconsin) and there was a headline about how Nelson Mandela had been jailed by South Africa. She approved and wagged her finger at me: “He’s a communist,” she said. I remember it clearly because, up until the date of his release, he was always called a terrorist and a communist. Then, really it was quite sudden, he was something else. He was a great man.
The transformation of armed groups into peaceable political parties happens when armed groups either win or become a part of the government. It does not happen, obviously, when they surrender — or are wiped out. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was a violent political militia. It was bent on the overthrow of the all white government of South Africa, a goal which it never abandoned. It did not accommodate. The negotiation that placed it in a lead position in the government came about through its victory — not because it decided to adopt non-violent tactics. Nelson Mandela came off the State Department’s proscribed list in 2003.
Then too, there is the myth of the American Civil Rights movement. We watch documentaries on the Civil Rights movement and the videotapes are strikingly similar: the Edmund Pettis Bridge, fire hoses on innocent marchers in Birmingham, Martin Luther King, the children bombed in the church. What we don’t see is what everyone my age remembers quite vividly: H. Rap Brown talking about “burning America down,” the confrontations between black crowds and white racists, the incredibly violent summer riots, the Black Panthers, the campaign of confrontations in Chicago between the police and black activists. We would like to believe that societies can be changed through non-violence, but it is rare that they are. Change is painful because of the pain that it exacts.
I cite these two examples because we remember them and because they happened in particular societies: Black Africans lived in a single society with their white overseers in both cases — and were working for equal rights in both cases. That is not true in the Palestinian conflict, which has the characteristics of something quite different: a revolutionary independence movement that is facing off against an occupying power. The model of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more characteristic of an anti-colonial revolution. Such movements are always violent. The Palestinians are not fighting for equal rights, they are fighting to end an occupation. Then too, I would note, those who argue for Palestinian non-violence don’t understand that for years it was tried and failed, primarily because it lacked a key component: an engaged and sympathetic press. I am very aware of the support for Israel in the US, and the sometimes rather puzzling unstinting support of Israel in any and all circumstances. But we should not be naive — the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza is vicious and unrelenting, and anyone who thinks otherwise simply has not been there.
I traveled to the West Bank and Gaza first in 1988 and worked with a PLO official here in Washington to arrange the trip. I was a stringer for a number of publications. As was my wont, I wrote extensive notes during my trip, which came just months after the start of the first Intifada. I paid for the trip (as I am quite sure this question will arise). I was asked to write up my notes, which I did. They appeared as an essay (entitled “Counting”) which was, to my surprise printed and paid for by the PLO. Mr. Arafat very much liked the essay and asked me to visit him in Tunis, which I did, that next summer. One year after that I visited him in Tunis for an extensive visit, living and chatting with him regularly.
There are many anecdotes that I could relate about those visits, but will only say that I found him a fascinating and quite capable person. One of the most single-minded whom I have ever met. In 1991 he asked me if I would share my thoughts on the political situation here in the US with him on a regular basis. I did so for the next fourteen years, providing him with a memorandum each month, or more, during that time. I never was an “official” advisor — that is to say, I was never paid. I was more of a friend, a second set of eyes and ears for him. We did not always get along, but I think it safe to say that I was his closest American friend. My last meeting with him was quite relaxed, he was showing me his camera. In all of that period I worked very hard with him on learning about the American media, American public opinion, and how to shape and present a coherent message. It was a frustrating but fascinating experience.
I hope you will see fit to print my remembrance of him for your readers as it is likely to give you a taste of my own views. Many people say that I should remain silent about my friendship with Mr. Arafat, that it is not good for my standing, that it harms my reputation, that it leaves me open to attack. I knew him well, I was his friend, and I am proud of that.
[AL note: Perry attached an anecdote about Arafat; I replied that this email was a better argument for his case, and he agreed that it would be acceptable for me to go with this]
I’ll reserve my response for the comments threads for now.