Saturday, August 29, 2009

COMMENTARY: Sitting Down With Our Enemies (Yes, Even al-Qaeda)

By Nicholas Patler
Special to

It’s no earth-shattering news—and no surprise—that the war in Afghanistan is going badly. So far in 2009, eight years after the war began, civilian death and suffering has risen dramatically, the Taliban has remained intact, Osama bin Laden has not been killed or emerged from a cave holding a white flag with al-Qaeda in tow and one of the poorest countries in the world has gotten poorer from the destruction caused by the deadliest military might on the planet.

To make matters worse, the Afghanis are getting tired of us being there—downright angry to be more accurate—and a growing number of Americans and British feel that the war is not worth fighting. And while the richest nation in the world makes one of the poorest poorer, increasing numbers of U.S. troops, young boys mostly, continue to get blown up, crippled for life or suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

One would think that all of this would be a sure sign that perhaps we should rethink the war in Afghanistan. Rethink meaning here not just bringing our young people home but also to rise above the muck after eight futile years and find new ways of doing things.

Instead, one of the most eloquent and visionary presidents of the last half-century, Barrack Obama, is pushing twenty thousand more kids through the bloody meat grinder of war, bringing the total to over fifty-thousand. What will happen next is not rocket science. This troop increase means an increase in firepower and destruction, leading to further deterioration of relations with the Afghani people not to mention the Pakistanis who are mad as heck about the cross-border attacks and bombings in their country.

Our troop increase is also a boost to the successful membership drive for groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which means more enemies for the U.S., which has always been the case since the beginning of the so-called war on terror.

And what about this nebulous reference “war on terror?” Terror is not a country, government or conventional army, so who in sam-hell do we think is going to surrender? Indeed, terrorism turns conventional war logic on its head. The more you use conventional force against those who use this tactic, the stronger and more emboldened they become. They are extraordinarily mobile, diffused and can thrive in just about any hiding place imaginable. They have no national resources, communities and homes to protect or preserve, which might encourage a more conventional enemy to surrender.

President Obama is an exceptionally bright man who must be acutely aware of this conundrum. So why in the heck is he beefing up our forces to fight a war that cannot be won? Two words: American prestige—which can be summed up in one word: pride. Pride is the unacknowledged driving force behind most U.S. wars and foreign policy, which every president gets sucked into like a dark vortex. We have done atrocious things just so we could maintain an inkling of that sacred pride-based American prestige in front of the world.

For example, we have literally dumped millions of tons of bombs on human beings and their communities—Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq, to name a few—in an attempt to squeeze out a victory at all ungodly costs so that American prestige could be preserved. And once we were in other lands, such as Afghanistan today, it does not matter if our actions create an apocalyptic wasteland, we will keep the war machine thundering on until we are convinced that our image as the premier superpower is, if not preserved in tact, at least not tarnished too badly.

The only thing I know of that can free us from such destructive, misery-producing pride is a little—no—a lot of humility. Humility is almost always overlooked as a form of power that has the potential for releasing reservoirs of creativity in human affairs that pride restricts and blocks. And if we can humble ourselves enough perhaps we can see clearly enough to consider sitting down with our enemies. Yes, this means even sitting down with those we have labeled as terrorists such as Hamas, Hezbollah—and even al-Qaeda.

For the most part, this must produce a similar feeling as sharp fingernails sliding across a chalk board. For others, the thought of sitting down with extremist groups is morally repugnant and makes them mad as hell. It seems to violate every instinct in our American-pride-being. But since our violent approach to terror in Afghanistan makes the world more unstable and dangerous, increasing America’s enemies while killing its children with no end—and I mean no end—in sight, then perhaps we should try a revolutionary approach to engaging our enemies, like talking to them, even the ones we have removed from the pale of humanity. (By the way, this is only revolutionary within a political context since the best of our religious traditions has for eons stressed this course of action. With that in mind, Muhammad’s affirmation of an essential oneness and unity of all life could function, perhaps through Muslim intermediaries, as a call to the table).

Of course, this is easier said than done. But there has been a little progress, or potential progress, made here already. In the 2008 campaign, President Obama stated unabashedly that America should be willing to negotiate with its adversaries.

Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, revealed in a special post-election edition of Time that a majority of senior diplomats, from Carter to Bush, believe that “we should talk to difficult adversaries.” But let us be clear here: for them adversaries are leaders like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. President Obama still wants to “kill bin Laden” and Burns emphasized that “we should have absolutely no interest in sitting down with Qaeda fanatics or the Taliban leadership.”

So while they are inching us in the right direction, I want to suggest that we can go even further. While most Americans would never approve of their leaders sitting down with extremist groups, not within our current political-ideological framework, perhaps we can begin to change the way we structure our language and in the process change the way we think. This could be done by re-conceptualizing and redefining our political language in a way that would accommodate engaging this new enemy through some form of creative diplomacy. While the thrust and momentum for this transformation must come from outside of the political system—moved forward by all of us who are inspired to lend our voices and talents—the best chance for success—though not the only chance— would be for President Obama to exert his persuasive leadership here with courage and conviction.

This would require the president using his powers of persuasion (and global standing) to turn our conditioned understanding and definitions of words such as prestige, pride, power, strength and courage on their head within a political context. True to the all-American John Wayne bravado, we have for so long associated and made these words synonymous with military force and heavy handed threat and punishment diplomacy. Genuine people to people diplomacy on the other hand, particularly with people whom we have decided we don’t like, has often been portrayed as weak, naïve, dangerous and below America, as we heard from Senator John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin during the 2008 election.

However, President Obama, along with his diplomatic team, could begin to recast these words within the realm of political discourse. Proposed talks with America’s most egregious enemies could be presented as acting boldly with courage to stop escalating violence and create a safer world for all of us. The president could be honest—and stress that he is being honest—by explaining that our current approach to the war in Afghanistan is one that will go on indefinitely and cost enormous human and material resources while making the world less safe. He could emphasize that now is the time to have the courage to do what we might not like to do so that our children and grandchildren will not inherit anymore of these terrible, self-perpetuating mistakes. He could make it clear that the U.S. is using its strength, power and prestige to take a new course of action that may be unfamiliar (and unpopular) at home but that would ultimately be in the best interests for our nation and the world.

In one way, at least, embarking on a relationship with those whom we consider as “reprehensible” is really nothing new. We have supported leaders and factions that were committing terror and atrocities against their own populations when it was in our interest to do so. So perhaps now instead of a terribly reckless and negative support we can engage our enemies in an effort to work towards the positive and noble goal of true peace.

President Obama could even heighten the level of understanding beyond anything we have heard on mainstream news networks by explaining that while terror tactics are reprehensible, they have often been a response to our own egregious actions in the Middle East. He essentially admitted as much when on a recent visit to Cairo he humbly apologized for the legacy of U.S./Western actions in the Islamic world “that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims …without regard to their own aspirations”—the first sitting American president to do so. This is the major grievance of Osama bin Laden and others who feel they have had no conventional political means to express their discontent. While transforming our language to help us make this difficult transition to conceptualizing sitting down with our enemies, perhaps we could begin to make moves for transforming U.S foreign policy in general. Language here presents a barrier as well. We are very overt within our political discourse in always saying that we are doing this and that to serve American interests, sending an implicit message to other nations and peoples that their interests are simply less important and could be infringed upon if it is in our interests to do so (which we have certainly done).

Even the most progressive and visionary foreign policy thinkers today, such as Nicholas Burns, Samantha Power and Robert McNamara, while stressing the necessity of transcending old ways of dong things, still speak in the same old paradigm language such as “defending our interests” or using our “influence …to get what we want,” which they seem to express reflexively. What I would like to suggest instead is that we begin to restructure our language and intent to treat the interests of others as equal to our own.

Only by taking such bold steps to transform foreign policy and break out of the cage of selfish Machiavellian language and politics, rather than just a little shuffle in the same old paradigm, can we ever expect to reduce suspicion and gain the trust of the world so that together as equals we can find solutions to problems that impact us all such as war and climate change. And rather than treating human beings as pawns in a chess game, perhaps we can begin to consider their humanity—not oil or whatever else—as the highest end value, and begin from there. Foreign policy, in other words, should be seen as means for seeking a better world and for uplifting all life, rather than a game where every move is a strategy to benefit only one group of people at the expense of all others.

And I believe that sitting down with our contemporary enemies, no matter how repugnant it may seem, is the only chance that we may have of reducing conflict, averting potential regional and even global disaster, stabilizing the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and procuring a lasting peace. Violence will only create more violence and instability, as we see it doing today.

Perhaps by treating our worst enemies like human beings—recognizing something of value within them—they will then consider the democratic norms in which we value. But we must first be humble enough to use our hearts and imaginations to question the everyday assumptions that we have been conditioned to accept as the only reality—that is, our unquestioned belief that our only option is to wage all out war against an implacable enemy. This will not work, much less so today than even in the past. Thus, far from strength, it betrays an intrinsic weakness or limitation that we tragically fail to recognize. Strength and courage, on the other hand, lies in dong what we assume is impossible, but which if we are bold enough to give it a try, may very well transform this conflict and our world.

It is time to defy all of our political logic, transform and expand its meaning and application, and to humbly sit down with our enemies.

* * * Staunton, Va. author Nicholas Patler is a biographer and historian and a contributor to Use the search engine on the Huntington site to read other commentaries by Patler.

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