Obama Should Quit War on Terror, Talk to Hamas and Taliban

by Nathan Gardels Nathan Gardels has been editor of New Perspectives Quarterly since it began publishing in 1985. He has served as editor of Global Viewpoint and Nobel Laureates Plus(services of Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media) since 1989. These services have a worldwide readership of 35 million in 15 languages. Gardels has written widely for The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Harper's, U.S. News & World Report and the New York Review of Books. He has also written for foreign publications, including Corriere della Sera, El Pais, Le Figaro, the Straits Times (Singapore), Yomiuri Shimbun, O'Estado de Sao Paulo, The Guardian, Die Welt and many others. His books include, "At Century's End: Great Minds Reflect on Our Times" and "The Changing Global Order." Since 1986, Gardels has been a Media Fellow of the World Economic Forum (Davos). He has lectured at the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) in Rabat, Morocco and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, China. Gardels was a founding member at the New Delhi meeting of Intellectuels du Monde and a visiting researcher at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow before the end of the Cold War. He has been a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, as well as the Pacific Council, for many years. From 1983 to 1985, Gardels was executive director of the Institute for National Strategy where he conducted policy research at the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow, the People's Institute of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, the Swedish Institute in Stockholm and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Bonn. Prior to this, he spent four years as key adviser to the Governor of California on economic affairs, with an emphasis on public investment, trade issues, the Pacific Basin and Mexico. Gardels holds degrees in Theory and Comparative Politics and in Architecture and Urban Planning from UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Lilly, and two sons, Carlos and Alexander. Gardels plays the cello on his free time. 23.01.2009

Of course, I agree with my passionate friend, Bernard-Henri Levy, who writes on the Huffington Post that Gaza cannot be allowed to become an "advance base for total war against Israel."

But for the current Israeli government to think it can prevent that by blowing up the whole of Gaza is the same old mistake. The shock and awe attack, meant as a "deterrent" against Hamas (and Iran, Hezbollah and the rest of the Islamists who are shifting the power balance in the Middle East) won't work any more than the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld demonstration of America's overwhelming military might in Iraq, which enhanced the very forces it was meant to deter and defeat.

Deterrence works between powers with more or less equal capacities -- for example the US and the Soviet Union. But the use of disproportionate force against an utterly weak -- even though menacing -- enemy does not create deterrence. It saps the legitimacy of Israel's cause among honest human rights icons from Nelson Mandela to Shirin Ebadi and engenders widespread antipathy and hatred among Muslim publics expressed at its most bloody edge by terrorism. If terrorism is the weapon of the weak, suicide bombers are the weapon of the weakest.

Israeli's leaders, the last practitioners of the Bush doctrine, might want to consider another course more in line with a key inaugural theme of President Barack Obama:

"Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please, " Obama declaimed on the Capitol steps. Instead, "our power grows through its prudent use, our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."

(That, by the way, is pure Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian to whom Obama credits his worldview. His reflections on the use and limits of American power offer a better clue to where Obama is headed than any immediate policy decision which will necessarily be constrained by actions already set in motion by the previous administration.)

The place to start on a new course is to leave the "war on terror" behind and recognize that Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban -- all of which have legitimate nationalist aspirations, but wrapped in Islamist garb -- cannot be lumped into the same category as the cosmic terrorists of Al Qaeda who want to attack the US directly. The former you can negotiate with by addressing their grievances. You can't deal with Al Qaeda because their claims are in another realm beyond this earth.

Dealing with Hamas or the Taliban doesn't mean that if Obama talks to them they will roll over. It means that the use of force alone cannot work. It means that ignoring them won't make them go away.

Above all, it means de-globalizing the jihad. Rather than treating all Islamists as alike, it means identifying the legitimate aspects of their claims (Palestinian statehood, Pashtu power) and separating those into a political process that deligitimizes terror as a counter-productive tactic and marginalizes extremists. This, after all, is exactly what the General Petraeus did in the past year in Iraq, separating Sunni fighters who want a stake in Iraq from the foreign intrigues of Al Qaeda, which has no enduring local base. This is what Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposes in dealing with Hamas.

The best thinker on this subject is Olivier Roy, the French expert and author of "Globalized Islam." His recent article, "Memo to Obama: Leave War on Terror Behind and Talk to Hamas, Taliban" can be found here.


Copyright: New Pespectives Quarterly, NPQ

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