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Talking to Terrorists

In a new book, Mark Perry argues that groups like Hamas will behave rationally if the U.S. engages with them. He’s wrong.

Lee Smith
March 03, 2010
A rally honoring Hamas “martyrs” in the southern Gaza Strip last month.(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
A rally honoring Hamas “martyrs” in the southern Gaza Strip last month.(Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)

“If you can talk to an insurgency that kills Americans, it should be easy to talk to ones that don’t,” Mark Perry tells me on the phone. Perry is author of the recently published Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies, a book documenting his meetings with terrorists around the Middle East, including officials from Hamas and Hezbollah. But his favorite template for successful engagement with terrorists is the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that eventually partnered with the Americans and turned against al-Qaida in Iraq. Perry argues that al-Qaida is the one terrorist group we shouldn’t be talking to, since it has no natural constituency and no interest in the democratic process. The others, Perry says, are “national resistance movements.”

Perry, who has lived and traveled in the Middle East for several decades, started talking to terrorists during the second intifada, when he built relationships with Hamas leaders like Ismail Haniyeh, Abdul Azziz Rantissi, and Mahmoud al-Zahar. These contacts would eventually lead to Perry’s partnership with former British intelligence official Alastair Crooke of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum, an organization that regularly meets with terrorists and arranges meetings with non-active Western policymakers and diplomats. Perry left Conflicts Forum in the wake of Iran’s June presidential election, when he and Crooke found themselves on opposing sides. “He wrote an article on the June elections that showed disregard for the demonstrators,” says Perry. “And I wrote a piece castigating the regime and showing admiration for the opposition.”

Still, Perry has not lost his enthusiasm for the Iranian regime’s violence-prone proteges, like Hezbollah. How, I asked him, can the Party of God be considered democratic if its forces overran Beirut in May 2008, when the democratically elected government made a decision that Hezbollah didn’t like? The government, explained Perry, “wanted to take away Hezbollah’s privileges, so they pushed back.” Apparently, the fact that Hezbollah members only killed a few dozen of their fellow Lebanese before handing over their positions to the Lebanese Armed Forces makes them democratic.

“I’m not a reconciliation freak,” says Perry. “I’m not a pacifist. The vulnerability of my book is that people may come away thinking that simply by talking or listening, the scales will fall from our eyes. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Sometimes, you sit down with them and you’re thinking, Holy cow—conflict is inevitable.” Still, he believes that Hamas may be willing to make a transition similar to that of the Iraqi insurgency and come to the negotiating table with Israel.

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We are in the midst of a golden age of engaging with our enemies, and while the Obama administration still refuses to talk to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the president’s key foreign policy goal is to reach out to their state sponsors, Syria and Iran. The White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan doesn’t want to talk to terrorists—not just yet, but he excitedly notes moderating influences within Hezbollah and suggests that it would be wise “to increase Hezbollah’s stake in Lebanon’s struggling democratic processes.”

Of course enthusiasm for democracy has little to do with the reasons why journalists and policymakers love talking to terrorists and their sponsors: Compared to boring democrats in suits, terrorists are hard men whose power and sex appeal issues from their willingness to use violence. Hence, they are attractive to Western media, and they know how to play the media. A famous terrorist like Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah is well aware that an interview with him is a form of currency, and he enhances the value of his interviews by granting them sparingly—and only to those who can be counted on to deliver a positive spin. It is hardly an accident that while Nasrallah has harsh words for the Jewish state, he likes to use Jews, like Seymour Hersh and Noam Chomsky, to convey his more polite-sounding messages. It’s good PR, and the attachment of Hezbollah’s Jewish messengers to their counter-ethnocentric mission makes it unlikely that they would ever risk making Nasrallah mad.

It was the conviction that there was altogether too much talking to terrorists that led some Lebanese friends and me to bring some American journalists and analysts to Beirut to speak with the other side of Lebanon’s political equation: politicians and activists who were not at present shooting at their countrymen or dragging the rest of the country to war. We had some successes, with articles placed in various U.S. media outlets, but we also came to recognize that even with the least hostile of interlocutors there are limits to the power of positive engagement.

First, we learned that it was difficult to control our message: We introduced one delegation member to Lebanese officials, journalists, intellectuals, and activists who detailed how, counter to what the delegation member believed, there was little similarity between Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army. Still, even after a week’s worth of exposure to our arguments, he published an article contending that Hezbollah could be persuaded to put down its weapons in a process much like the one that disarmed the IRA.

We also learned that some Western reporters and analysts have such a deeply personal stake in their desire to understand “the other” that any suggestion that groups like Hezbollah might actually be motivated by a dangerous political ideology that has nothing in common with secular democratic norms is quite literally unbearable. One night at dinner, one of our hosts, an anti-Hezbollah Shia political activist, was criticizing the Party of God when a member of our delegation became anxious and annoyed. A researcher who has interviewed the leadership of other Islamist parties in the region, she snapped at our host and asked if he had “ever actually met someone from Hezbollah.” “Why yes,” replied the host, laughing. “I live in a Hezbollah neighborhood and have family members in Hezbollah, even Hezbollah martyrs.” Ideally, the messenger’s credentials would have at least persuaded her to listen to the message; instead, she got up and walked away from the table.

While the researcher in question was hardly displaying a devotion to open-minded inquiry, her behavior was founded on an undeniable truth: Talking to your enemy can be risky business. The greatest danger in talking is the possibility that you will be controlled by the other side’s message; or, if he’s yet more skillful, that your adversary will manage your perceptions to his advantage. Let’s consider Perry’s argument that the groups we should be talking to, like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraq’s Sunni Awakening, have constituencies, believe in democracy, and play roles in governance, all of which distinguish them from al-Qaida.

Iraq’s Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaida in Iraq and made common cause with the Americans only when the foreign fighters started to spill tribal blood. Therefore, the tribal Awakening in Iraq was not an act of national resistance but a tribal reaction to interference by murderous outsiders. This distinction is hardly trivial since the Middle East is a region where national affiliation is only one among many possible types of identity, including sub-national affiliations like tribalism and supranational attachments like religion. Al-Qaida in Iraq also had a constituency, a regional and sectarian one. As long as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killing Iraqi Shia, an Al Jazeera audience approving of his bloody project confirmed that his constituency was actually quite large across the Sunni-majority Middle East. There are plenty of reasons not to talk to al-Qaida, but not because it doesn’t have a constituency.

It’s a mistake, says Perry, to see Hezbollah and Hamas as Iranian stooges, “just like we thought Ho Chi Minh received his marching orders from Moscow.” Like many American journalists and academics of a certain generation, Perry has a worldview that is shaped by the U.S. experience in Vietnam—and our adversaries are well aware of how we see the world and happy to exploit our tendency to extrapolate from past wars in parts of the world that have very little in common with the Middle East.

In intelligence work, the effort to sort through the disinformation of your adversaries is called counterintelligence. This is one of our intelligence community’s famous weaknesses, but the issue runs much deeper than the flaws of Washington bureaucracies. Americans value transparency, in part because we are incapable of sustaining any other mode for very long: We believe in the absolute divide between lies and truth, and we think that the truth is always more productive and interesting. That belief is a dangerous liability when talking to your adversaries. The Obama administration’s engagement policy is premised on the notion that diplomacy is preferable to bloodshed. However, more often than not, diplomacy in the Middle East is an instrument of warfare, one that can be used to stall, exact concessions, or confuse the other side.

Information warfare is the art of splitting your opponents on issues that you have selected for them to fight over. For instance, Perry writes, incorrectly, that, “the most serious claim leveled against Hezbollah [is] its reported ‘virulent anti-Semitism.’ ” Obviously, the most serious claim leveled against Hezbollah is that it’s a terrorist group—one whose members are responsible for the deaths of thousands, including Lebanese citizens, U.S. soldiers, and diplomats, as well as Israelis. Omitting the fact that Hezbollah is alleged to be responsible for killing 85 people in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Perry devotes several pages to a quasi-theological debate in the U.S. media about whether Hezbollah really hates Jews or not.

As far as Hezbollah is concerned, the argument over whether the organization’s desire to wipe Israel off the map is truly a form of anti-Semitism is a godsend, because it distracts the press from the actual threat that the organization poses to U.S. interests. The fruits of this rather deliberate rhetoric of distraction can be seen every day in the press, as well as in more sophisticated discussions by policymakers and analysts. Having been fed a diet of this stuff, it is no accident that the U.S. intelligence community’s dangerously inaccurate assessment of Hezbollah reads like a Conflicts Forum press release. Hezbollah, the document asserts, “which has not directly attacked US interests overseas over the past 13 years, is not now actively plotting to strike the Homeland.” What this sentence somehow elides is the obvious fact that America’s allies are our chief interests abroad; these allies include not only Israel and Lebanon, but also Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait, and Azerbeijan, all countries where active Hezbollah cells have been rolled up in the last two years. Add to this Hezbollah’s involvement in “direct” attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq, and we have a clear picture of an American enemy with an international reach.

Hezbollah’s anti-Semitism is not particularly important when evaluating the threat that the organization poses to U.S. interests. But Hezbollah’s well-documented hatred and fear of Jews (recently the group demanded profiling at Beirut airport for “Jewish-sounding” names) cuts to the heart of the problem of talking to terrorists regardless of their public statements and past behavior. If what your dialogue partners have said and written in the past doesn’t matter, then talking is not a method of gathering information; rather, it is a matter of personal dogma, an active affirmation of faith in the innate decency of all mankind. As theology, this is weak stuff. As a principle of American foreign policy, it defies belief.

But Mark Perry thinks otherwise. “Here we are refusing to talk to the great moderate middle in the Middle East,” Perry says of his interlocutors in Hamas and Hezbollah. “Maybe the environment isn’t right with Hamas right now; I think it is.”

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.