If you talk to one enemy, talk to all

Here’s one for the Moral Confusion and Political Double Standards Department: the United States’ armed forces and government are holding discreet talks with Iraqi “insurgents” who are attacking and killing Americans in Iraq, and negotiating with a North Korea that they see as a nuclear threat. Yet the same U.S. government refuses to talk to Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in the Arab world, and Iran, all of whom challenge the state of Israel. Say what?

The U.S. single handedly created the Iraqi insurgents through its invasion and regime change, and it now is acting rather sensibly in opening discussions with these groups that want the Americans to leave the country. The U.S. did the same thing years ago in Vietnam, when it negotiated with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong while they were actively fighting and killing Americans. It also pursued a similar strategy in Northern Ireland, where it played the third-part mediator role and actively (and successfully) engaged the various Protestant and Catholic militant groups who routinely used terror as a political tool.

These are examples of realism and pragmatism for which assorted U.S. administrations should be commended. Living in the real world is a noble and useful endeavor. When Washington practices this here and there on the international stage, it should be acknowledged for its level-headedness and encouraged to expand this approach to define its policies everywhere. However, something happens to American official pragmatism and realism when it comes to political and diplomatic moves related to Israel. The Moral Confusion and Political Double Standards Department kicks in, and the U.S. repeatedly opens itself up to accusations of hypocrisy and expediency. If the U.S., Israel, Micronesia and Tony Blair are tired of hearing these accusations, they should stand in our shoes and feel the pain of being at the receiving end of this sort of sustained moral laxity and political double standards for decades on end.

This persistent double standard has enormous consequences over time, which is why it must be dealt with in a more effective manner than has been the case to date. It generates strong skepticism about American policies in the Middle East among the public, and now has also sparked active military and terror attacks against American interests and troops.

The most important point about the double standard these days is not that it is counter-productive, but that we may stand before an opportunity to replace it by a more sensible and effective policy that responds to the legitimate concerns of all parties – namely the U.S., Israel, Arab groups and states and Iran. This opportunity is the current twin focus on the widespread international and more limited Arab demand to “disarm” Hamas and Hizbullah, while those groups and other Islamists actively engage in democratic elections and slowly move into power-sharing arrangements in national governments.

The key to progress requires acknowledging the basic legitimacy of both sides’ posture and principles, in order to induce changes in their respective policies. The current American-Israeli approach is unlikely to succeed because it places a higher priority on the security of Israel than on that of adjacent Arab societies, especially in Lebanon and Palestine. A better way would be to apply the American approach to North Korea and the Iraqi insurgents-terrorists to Islamists in the Middle East, by identifying the legitimate needs of both sides and engaging in sober discussions to agree on how to move to meet those needs. 

This is not only eminently sensible and politically productive; it is also profoundly American in its conceptual and moral approach. Americans generally adopt a nuts-and-bolts attitude that embraces the realities of the world, rather than a romantic or stubborn divergence toward political landscapes inhabited by people who are unreasonable, colonial and racist. Why Washington deviates from this pattern when it comes to Israel remains an important question that has never been honestly answered.

More important than the rhetorical discussion, however, is the impact of policy, and in this domain all concerned should pause and take a deep breath to explore how we can replace the distortions, double standards and killing cycles of the recent past with a win-win outcome that is more satisfying and humane. Israel is unlikely to budge for the moment, but Washington is not so fettered (one presumes), as evidenced by its pragmatism in talking with those killing Americans whom it spawned in Iraq.

Islamist groups and Iran, for their part, also should reach into their largely untapped reservoirs of diplomatic sensibility and bold realism. Hamas, Hizbullah and others should spell out more clearly – in public or private, it doesn’t matter much in the early stages – how they would envisage moving along the same path of military disarmament, political empowerment, and national integrity and security that, say, the IRA in Northern Ireland has traveled in the past decade. Washington is comfortable with this approach, and the Arab and Iranian Islamists should exploit it more adroitly than they have to date. The aim is to close the Moral Confusion and Political Double Standards Department, not chronically to dwell in it and suffer its ravages.


Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.