EDITORIAL: Talking to the enemy

Choosing the right battles

In the world we’ve been forced to inhabit for the last eight years, international relations has become the arena in which buddies congregate to engage in grooming behavior based on fawning, flattery and patronization. Participants then, like dogs pissing against a lamppost, gather for the all-important photo opportunity that says: “We were here. We left our mark.”

In this context, the idea of talking to the enemy has become tantamount to an act of treason. Even so, to his credit, Barak Obama has put this out on the table. Given that he was merely echoing some of the recommendations of the hallowed Iraq Study Group, he might have thought he was already on fairly safe ground. It turns out he put himself out on a limb.

There are those who now argue that since he’s already out there, for the sake of consistency, he should continue moving in the same direction. The logic that someone willing to talk to Iran should also be willing to talk to Hamas, is irrefutable.

That said, there’s a difference between trying to win an election and trying to win an argument. It won’t benefit Obama to come down on the right side on this issue if by doing so he undermines his ability to get elected.

In large measure, the foreign policy community has already accepted the idea that Hamas represents a political trend that cannot be wished away and that must be engaged. But is this an idea that can filter through into the presidential debate. No way! It’s taken a significant number of Americans several years to grasp the idea that Saddam Hussein was not the mastermind for 9/11 — and of course many more have yet to be disabused of the notion.

Supporting Obama’s campaign for change requires a realistic sense of timing about when is the optimum moment to try and drive each specific shift. I do not see an iota of evidence that America at large is ready to work through the laborious process of deconstructing most of the assumptions upon which its view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is based — least of all during a presidential campaign. What might come after the election is another matter. At that time, the viability of the debate will hinge on the credibility of an administration, not the electability of a candidate. Will President Obama be bolder in taking on the issue then than he is now? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

Meanwhile, there’s reason to wonder whether Jimmy Carter is being politically tone deaf right now. If he goes to meet Khalid Meshaal, I think this would be a courageous act, but as I suggested earlier, it’s all important that this event be framed in the right way: it needs to act as a nudge towards a genuine political engagement between Israel and the Palestinian people — not just as campaign fodder for the Israel lobby.

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2 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: Talking to the enemy

  1. Enzo

    Paul: “Meanwhile, there’s reason to wonder whether Jimmy Carter is being politically tone deaf right now.”

    Certainly possible. But Carter and Mandela are two old foxes. I’ve read that Carter has all but formally endorsed Obama. And I think Mandela must surely support him. It has suddenly occurred to me that whatever they may try to do to advance the Palestine-Israel situation, they’ll not only be careful not to do something that might undermine Obama; they might also look for a way to give him a boost. Now that would be cool.

  2. carol Elkins

    I like your pragmatism here. When it comes to “deconstructing assumptions” it is important to stay under the radar. A politician must, of course, work within the limitations of a constituency, however dysfunctional that constituency may be.

    But then, that is true of elected officials as well, and there is much which is specious about the designation of “great” upon such leaders– compare Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Where does Carter rate in the public mind? Way down!

    Speaking for myself, having Obama as a candidate who fulfills my longing for a great leader, I get depressed when he “triangulates”, but am glad to be reminded of the reality of what he has to do to win.

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