Peter Thompson writes: In the great spat between King Kong Chomsky and Tyrannosaurus Žižek people are often asked which side they are on. Or maybe they are not, because until now these two great beasts have been roaring and knocking down trees without anyone outside leftist discourse hearing them fall. But maybe we should think who we would cheer on, because this is a debate about something very important – namely the relationship between theory, ideology and reality.
Noam Chomsky, the professional contrarian, has accused Slavoj Žižek, the professional heretic, of posturing in the place of theory. This is an accusation often levelled at Žižek from within the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition. Even those like Chomsky who are on the proto-anarchist left of this tradition like to maintain that their theories are empirically verifiable and rooted in reality.
Žižek has countered with the side-swipe that nobody had been so empirically wrong throughout his life as Chomsky. He brought up Chomsky’s supposed support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and Chomsky’s later self-justification that there hadn’t been empirical evidence at the time of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It has all got rather heated and intemperate, but then, debates on the left are like that. More time is spent ripping flesh out of each other than it is trying to find a common cause against an apparently invisible and impregnable enemy. But terms have to be defined, ground has to be laid out. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Anglo-Irish relations took a momentous step forward on Wednesday when the Queen shook hands with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.
The historic encounter between the former IRA commander – now Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister – and the Queen was unthinkable a little over 10 years ago.
But the success of the peace process and the Queen’s acclaimed visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, when her conciliatory words and gestures won over many critics of the monarchy, paved the way for their meeting.
The much-anticipated first handshake took place away from the media spotlight behind closed doors.
They later shook hands in public. McGuinness held the monarch’s hands for a few moments and spoke to her in Irish. He told her the words meant: “Goodbye and God’s speed.”
McGuinness was a senior member of the IRA when it killed the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten in a bomb blast in 1979.
The Queen is the head of Britain’s armed forces, seen in the past by Republicans as occupying troops in Northern Ireland.
David Ignatius writes:
In a rapidly changing Islamic world, the Obama administration is weighing how best to talk with adversaries such as the Taliban and, perhaps, Hezbollah.
One model for the administration, as it thinks about engagement of enemies, is the British process of dialogue during the 1990s with Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army. That outreach led to breakthrough peace talks and settlement of a conflict that had been raging for more than a century.
In the case of the Taliban, the administration has repeatedly stated that it is seeking a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan rather than a military one. That formula sometimes seems hollow when more than 100,000 U.S. troops are in combat. But it got more definition last month from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opened the doors wider for dialogue.
Clinton, in a Feb. 18 speech to the Asia Society, subtly altered the terms for Taliban participation in peace talks. She repeated the administration’s “red lines for reconciliation” — that Taliban representatives must renounce violence, reject al-Qaeda and abide by the Afghan constitution. But rather than making these preconditions for talks, as before, she said they were “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”
Thanassis Cambanis writes:
Ronald Reagan framed the debate over whether to talk to terrorists in terms that still dominate the debate today. “America will never make concessions to terrorists. To do so would only invite more terrorism,” Reagan said in 1985. “Once we head down that path there would be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.”
America, officially at least, doesn’t negotiate with terrorists: a blanket ban driven by moral outrage and enshrined in United States policy. Most government officials are prohibited from meeting with members of groups on the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. Intelligence operatives are discouraged from direct contact with terrorists, even for the purpose of gathering information.
President Clinton was roundly attacked when diplomats met with the Taliban in the 1990s. President George W. Bush was accused of appeasement when his administration approached Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Enraged detractors invoked Munich and ridiculed presidential candidate Barack Obama when he said he would meet Iran and other American adversaries “without preconditions.” The only proper time to talk to terrorists is after they’ve been destroyed, this thinking goes; any retreat from the maximalist position will cost America dearly.
Now, however, an increasingly assertive group of “engagement hawks” — a group of professional diplomats, military officers, and academics — is arguing that a mindless, macho refusal to engage might be causing as much harm as terrorism itself. Brushing off dialogue with killers might look tough, they say, but it is dangerously naive, and betrays an alarming ignorance of how, historically, intractable conflicts have actually been resolved. And today, after a decade of war against stateless terrorists that has claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of foreign lives, and cost trillions of dollars, it’s all the more important that we choose the most effective methods over the ones that play on easy emotions.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, President Bush’s nominee to lead U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, supports continued U.S. engagement with international and regional partners to find the right mix of diplomatic, economic and military leverage to address the challenges posed by Iran.
In written answers to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he will testify today, Petraeus said the possibility of military action against Iran should be retained as a “last resort.” But he said the United States “should make every effort to engage by use of the whole of government, developing further leverage rather than simply targeting discrete threats.”
Petraeus’s views echoed those expressed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who this month said that talks with Iran could be useful if the right combination of incentives and pressures could be developed. [complete article]
On the Friday before the 2004 presidential election, Osama bin Laden released a videotape slamming George W. Bush, which more than a few people took as a tacit endorsement of John Kerry. The CIA saw it differently, though. According to Ron Suskind’s fine book, The One Percent Doctrine, Deputy Director John McLaughlin said, “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.” It seemed obvious to the top CIA analysts that bin Laden wanted to keep Bush — who had let the terrorists off the hook in Afghanistan and launched the war in Iraq, a great recruiting tool for al-Qaeda — in power.
Which raises the question: Who are the bad guys rooting for in 2008? John McCain would have you believe the answer is clear. Barack Obama wants to meet with the leaders of enemy states, especially Iran, “which would increase their prestige,” McCain says, and convey the impression of American weakness. To punctuate the point, McCain persistently barks that Obama wants to meet with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a flagrant anti-Semite but a relatively powerless figurehead. Obama did say during a debate last summer that he would meet with foreign leaders without preconditions. “He shorthanded the answer,” Senator Joe Biden recently said. Ever since, Obama has been creatively fuzzy when asked directly if he would meet with Ahmadinejad — and he has begun to point out that the real leaders of Iran are the clerics led by the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who controls Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear program. Obama has also been explicit about the need to start with lower-level talks, a presidential summit coming only if there were progress in those negotiations. In his previous, straight-talking incarnation, McCain would have allowed Obama the modifications to his shorthand answer and debated the issue on the merits. Not this year.
When I asked McCain on May 19 why he kept linking Obama to Ahmadinejad, he said that Ahmadinejad represents Iran at the U.N., which is a fair point, and that the “average American” thinks he’s the leader of Iran, which he isn’t. Indeed, it could be argued that McCain’s Ahmadinejad obsession “increases the prestige” of a relatively powerless loudmouth for domestic political gain. Linking Obama to the world’s most famous anti-Semite certainly doesn’t hurt McCain among Jewish retirees in Florida, a swing state. In any case, don’t be surprised if Ahmadinejad pulls a bin Laden and “denounces” McCain just before the election this year.
Why? Because the last thing Iran’s leaders want is an American President who doesn’t play the role of the Great Satan. They need the mirage of an implacable, saber-rattling foe to distract their population from the utter incompetence of their government. [complete article]
Editor’s Comment — The question about whether President Obama should or shouldn’t be willing to meet President Ahmadinejad is in large part a product of the trivialization of politics as practiced by George Bush.
Because Bush liked to make trite remarks like, “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” after meeting Vladamir Putin, and because Bush liked to suggest that a handshake could be worth as much as a treaty, we’ve been led to entertain the comic book notion that once the big guys get along then everything else can be worked out.
If the US engages Iran, the presidential photo-op will most likely come only after a lion’s share of the serious work has already been done. The real question is this: Is the United States ready to swallow its pride and engage with representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, thereby implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Islamic state? In other words, thirty years after the Shah’s ouster, is America able to come to terms with the fact that it no longer has any say in how Iran is governed?
If and when representatives of the two governments meet, initially the only issue each side should be trying to determine about the other, is whether these particular representatives have been duly empowered to speak for their government. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what the US government will have difficulty figuring out.
Joe Klein says, “the last thing Iran’s leaders want is an American President who doesn’t play the role of the Great Satan,” but Klein should know better than to talk about what “Iran’s leaders want” — as though there was a clear consensus. The Great Satan works well for Ahmadinejad but the same cannot be said of his strongest political adversary, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Indeed, whoever happens to wield the most political power in Iran by late 2009, their posture towards the United States is clearly going to be strongly influenced by how many thousand American troops remain in Iraq and how many US warships are cruising the Gulf.
If we can get past the comic book language and stop using the phrase, “talking to the enemy,” we might then be able to discuss the real but less catchy issue: diplomatic engagement with unfriendly states.
It really should be a non-issue. If diplomats aren’t employed to engage unfriendly states, what on earth is the function of diplomacy? Just to arrange cocktail parties for visiting dignitaries?
President Bush chose an odd place and time to claim that talking to “terrorists and radicals” in the Middle East is like appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. As Bush was speaking in Israel, his preferred strategy against such adversaries was collapsing next door in Lebanon. Over the past two weeks the Lebanese government, which is strongly backed by Washington, decided to confront the Shiite group Hizbullah by firing a loyalist who was head of security at Beirut airport and suspending the group’s dedicated phone network. The Iranian-backed Hizbullah retaliated, taking over large parts of Beirut and paralyzing the country. Last week the Lebanese cabinet humiliatingly reversed itself on both fronts. Iran 1, USA 0.
The Bush administration’s strategy against Hizbullah has consisted of a mix of isolation, belligerence and military pressure. It refuses to talk to the group or its supporters in Tehran and Damascus. Two years ago, Washington unquestioningly supported Israeli Prime Minister’s Ehud Olmert’s decision to attack southern Lebanon, Hizbullah’s stronghold. The United States provides the Lebanese government and Army with aid and has responded to the current crisis by promising to speed up delivery of weapons. Yet today Hizbullah is stronger in Lebanon, Iran is more influential in the region, and the United States and its ally, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, have been marginalized. [complete article]
Editor’s Comment — It’s not so long ago that it was commonly understood that if you could sit down and talk with your adversary, that, in and of itself, counted as a victory. It meant that the subtler, more constructive and precise power of discourse could – even if only temporarily – replace the blunt power of violence, intimidation and threats. And since it was the belligerent who generally lacked an interest in talking, the challenge was not to get the other side to meet a set of preconditions for negotiation; the challenge was to get the other side to negotiate.
For the last seven years, the Bush administration has been the belligerent power. As the party with a conviction in its ability to be the dominant force – its ability to wield the most destructive power – it is the one that has been unwilling to talk. It protects its ‘right’ to use violence.
When Bush characterizes talking as a form of capitulation, what he is really doing is expressing his conviction in the necessity of forcing the other side into submission. From that perspective, there is of course nothing to negotiate.
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.
Former president Jimmy Carter plans to meet next week in Damascus with Khaled Meshal, the head of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a direct rebuke of the Bush administration’s campaign to isolate it.
The disclosure of Carter’s plans by the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat and subsequent confirmation by sources familiar with his itinerary instantly placed the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a political bind.
The campaign of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, was quick to blast Carter’s plans and called on both Obama and Clinton to condemn the meeting with what the State Department lists as a terrorist group.
Both Clinton and Obama issued statements with milder language, saying they “disagreed” or did “not agree” with Carter’s plans. [complete article]
Editor’s Comment — Simply because he had the supposed audacity to describe Israel as operating a system of apartheid in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Jimmy Carter is already irredeemable in the eyes of much of Washington. But what will shape the political impact of Carter’s meeting with Khaled Meshal may have as much to do with the make up of the delegation accompanying Carter, as it does with Carter’s own presence.
If, as Al Jazeera reports, Carter is joined by Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, this would certainly capture the global media’s attention. But if this meeting is in part intended to challenge the conventional wisdom in America, then perhaps Carter should invite the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy.
This is a man, highly respected in Israel — and by no stretch of the imagination “soft on terrorism” — who like the majority of Israeli citizens supports the idea of talking to Hamas. If CNN was to broadcast a joint news conference between Carter, Meshal, and Halevy, perhaps a few more Americans might start to understand that the US government’s policy of shunning Hamas is not only ineffective, but it does not even reflect the will of the Israeli people. How can anyone claim to be loyal to Israel if they don’t pay attention to what Israeli’s themselves are saying?
To learn more about Halevy’s views on Hamas and the Palestinians and understand the thinking of this hard-headed realist, watch this March 19 interview (18 minutes) he did with Al Jazeera:
[Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair's chief of staff for 12 years] Jonathan Powell’s candid reflections on talking to terrorists in his book revealing an insider’s view of the Northern Ireland peace process will ring true to anyone who has worked at the highest levels of government – in Britain dealing with Northern Ireland, in France with Algeria, in Israel with Palestinian Islamists. But is his call that we should be prepared to communicate with al-Qaida a step too far?
Experts make a clear distinction between territorial-based groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the jihadist movement inspired by Osama bin Laden, below. “Al-Qaida are what we call ‘incorrigible terrorists’,” said Peter Lehr of St Andrews University. “They have political demands but we cannot and should not meet them. We need oil so we can’t leave the Arabian peninsula and we can’t help them dismantle Israel. There’s nothing to discuss.”
Talking to Hamas and Hizbullah is a different matter, Lehr argues. “They are rational actors fighting for something negotiable, and with negotiations you start with maximum demands and whittle them down until you get agreement, or not.” [complete article]
As President Pervez Musharraf grows more unpopular in Pakistan, his newly named successor as army chief is seeking to distance the institution from the Musharraf regime and pull back its virtual occupation of the top senior ranks of civilian ministries and state corporations.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was named to the top military job in late November, took two steps this week. First, he barred all senior military officers from meeting directly with Musharraf without prior approval and prohibited officers from having any direct involvement in politics. Second, he recalled many army officers from civilian job assignments.
Kayani’s new path could help restore the image of a military that’s bruised by association with Musharraf’s excesses during eight years of rule since a 1999 coup and weakened by the worsening domestic security situation. [complete article]
At the core of the troubles here, many say, lie demands by the United States that the Pakistani military, generously financed by Washington, join in its campaign against terrorism, which means killing fellow Pakistanis in the tribal areas. Even if those Pakistanis are extremists, the people here say, they do not like a policy of killing fellow tribesmen, and fellow countrymen, particularly on behalf of the United States.
The Bush administration is convinced that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have gained new strength in the past two years, particularly in the tribal regions of North and South Waziristan and Bajaur. It has said it is considering sending American forces to help the Pakistani soldiers in those areas. Mr. Musharraf has scoffed at the idea.
Any direct intervention by American forces would only strengthen the backlash now under way against soldiers and the police in Peshawar, said Farook Adam Khan, a lawyer here. That reaction spread last week to Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, where a suicide bomber killed almost two dozen policemen at a lawyers’ rally, he said.
“Pakistani soldiers never used to be targets,” Mr. Khan said. “Now we have the radicals antagonized by Musharraf and his politics of cozying up to the United States.” [complete article]
Islamabad has tried to defuse the situation by negotiating with selected Taliban leaders. Most recently, a Pakistani Taliban shura (council) headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan responded positively to a government offer of a ceasefire, despite opposition from Takfiri elements who view non-practicing Muslims as infidels.
The backlash was immediate. Militants launched attacks in Mohmand Agency, followed by Wednesday’s mass assault.
This response is orchestrated by al-Qaeda from its camps around the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. Al-Qaeda views any peace agreements with the Pakistani Taliban as a government maneuver to split the militants, and also says Islamabad has been consistently intransigent over the years.
Al-Qaeda demands that it be the chief interlocutor in any peace talks, and it has set its bottom line: guarantees of the withdrawal of all security forces from the tribal areas; enforcement of sharia law, the release of Maulana Abdul Aziz of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), who was apprehended last year; and that President Pervez Musharraf step down. [complete article]
Throughout 2007, the British Embassy in Kabul under Sherard Cowper Coles made desperate overtures in southwestern Afghanistan to find a political solution with the Taliban, but without Mullah Omar. Multiple clandestine operations were launched and millions of dollars were funneled to the Taliban.
However, it all came to nothing and only caused serious differences between the two major allies – Britain and the US. And all the time the Taliban consolidated their position in the south.
The case of Irishman Michael Semple, who was acting head of the European Union mission in Kabul, is instructive. The fluent Dari-speaking Semple had spent over 18 years in Afghanistan in various capacities, including with the United Nations and as an advisor to the British Embassy in Kabul, before being expelled last month after being accused of talking to the Taliban. [complete article]
See also, Pakistani forces say kill up to 90 militants (Reuters) and Taliban now seriously in the fight, war begins: NGO (AFP).
Ashdown’s real mission [-- Paddy Ashdown is the UN's newly appointed special envoy to Afghanistan --] lies elsewhere, in addressing the core issue: What do we do with the Taliban? No doubt, the Taliban’s exclusion from the Bonn conference seven years ago proved to be a horrible mistake. That was also how the Afghan and Pakistan problem came to be joined at the hips.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made a valid point in his interview with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel this week when he said al-Qaeda isn’t the real problem that faces Pakistan. “I don’t deny the fact that al-Qaeda is operating here [Pakistan]. They are carrying out terrorism in the tribal areas; they are the masterminds behind these suicide bombings. While all of this is true, one thing is for sure: the fanatics can never take over Pakistan. This is not possible. They are militarily not so strong they can defeat our army, with its 500,000 soldiers, nor politically – and they do not stand a chance of winning the elections. They are much too weak for that,” Musharraf said.
The heart of the matter is Pashtun alienation. The Taliban represent Pashtun aspirations. As long as Pashtuns are denied their historical role in Kabul, Afghanistan cannot be stabilized and Pakistan will remain in turmoil. Musharraf said, “There should be a change of strategy right away. You [NATO] should make political overtures to win the Pashtuns over.”
This may also be the raison d’etre of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s intriguing choice of a Briton as his new special representative. Conceivably, the inscrutable Ban has been told by Washington that Ashdown is just the right man to walk on an upcoming secretive bridge, which will intricately connect New York, Washington, London, Riyadh, Islamabad and Kabul. [complete article]
Just what were the Iranians up to Sunday, when five small Iranian gunboats reportedly came within a couple hundred yards of three U.S. Navy vessels, dropping “box-like objects” (naval mines?) in their path, while threatening messages were transmitted over the radio?
Was it a rogue operation? Were the Iranians seeking to undermine President Bush’s upcoming trip to the region? Testing U.S. reactions? Preparing for a future attack? Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, couldn’t say when briefing reporters yesterday, because the Navy honestly doesn’t know.
The 30-minute incident was far from the most serious altercation between U.S. and Iran in recent history. But, as long as there’s no dialogue between the two countries, even innocuous interactions can quickly become dangerous. [complete article]
In a conference call with Pentagon reporters, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the US Fifth Fleet, said the transmissions were to the effect that the “US ships would explode” – sparking fears of a repeat of the suicide bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000 that killed 17 US sailors.
But Roughead said it was unclear whether the radio warning came from Iranian vessels or from shore along the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow, 34-mile opening into the Persian Gulf, through which an estimated 40 percent of the world’s oil supply is shipped. Sunday’s incident occurred at 8 a.m. local time when the three American vessels were entering the Persian Gulf through the straits.
“In that part of the Gulf, who was saying what [is] sometimes very difficult to determine,” Roughead said. [complete article]
See also, Bush assails Iran for naval confrontation (NYT).
Seven years of President Bush’s Don’t-Talk-to-Evil policy are over, even under the helm of the administration that crafted it.
Now administration officials are openly making nice with Syria, holding round after round of talks with Iran over the fate of Iraq, and making preliminary plans for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Libya.
And President Bush himself has gotten in on the act — writing a personal (“cordial,” the White House says) letter to the secretive and enigmatic North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il that held out the possibility of normalizing diplomatic relations.
The morphing of the White House from imperial protector of American presidential exclusivity to sending Christmastime greetings to North Korean dictators will leave the next president, whoever he or she is, with a lot more legroom to decide whether to talk to America’s foes, foreign policy experts say. These experts include Republicans and Democrats, current and former officials from all administrations since 1977. [complete article]