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Talking to the enemy
Robert Grenier says unofficial US contact with Hamas reflects change in tone, not policy.
Last Modified: 06 Apr 2010 11:37
Has the US changed its tone towards Ismail Haniyeh's Hamas? [GALLO/GETTY]

A number of commentators, including Al Jazeera's Clayton Swisher, have remarked of late on the apparent willingness of the Obama administration to permit a level of unofficial contact with senior Hamas officials.

They refer to discussions which reportedly took place last summer in Zurich, when Tom Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, and Rob Malley, a former advisor to the Clinton administration on Arab-Israeli affairs, met for informal talks with Mahmud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister.

Neither of the Americans involved has any official status in the current administration, but it was apparently understood by their Hamas interlocutor that they would brief officials in Washington on the substance of their discussions.

And in February, a career US diplomat, Rachel Schneller, who is currently out-of-status and on loan to the council on foreign relations, was permitted by the state department to participate in a panel discussion in Doha which included Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan.

Schneller's brief apparently extended so far as to permit her to share a cup of tea with Hamdan afterwards.

Language of ultimatums

IN depth

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These are welcome developments and are indicative, I believe, of a very different attitude and tone in the Obama administration concerning how best to deal with adversaries.

It puts me in mind of the controversy which flared between Obama and then-senator Clinton when the two were candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Obama had had the temerity to suggest that he would be willing to hold talks with Iran without preconditions. Clinton, trying to run to Obama's right on foreign policy and to present herself as representing the "moderate, experienced mainstream" of Washington thinking, strongly criticised the Illinois senator for being willing to "reward" the Iranians in uncompensated fashion, and suggested in the process that he was, at best, dangerously naïve.

Obama's spokesmen and handlers, sensing vulnerability, promptly began to suggest all manner of caveats which would have had the effect of making any such talks with Iran highly conditional - until, that is, they were pulled up short by Obama himself, who indicated that he had no desire to apologise for his stance, but wished instead to make this a point of clear differentiation between himself and those like Clinton who (at least at the time) were aligning themselves with precisely the sort of arrogant orthodoxy espoused by the Bush administration.

Having held a number of bureaucratic positions during the Bush years, and having seen close-up the effects of the Bush administration's general unwillingness to communicate with adversaries in anything other than the language of ultimatums - 'Do what we want, or suffer the consequences' - it was clear to me at the time how self-defeating these attitudes were.

A missed opportunity

Nowhere was this more apparent to me than with Iran during the early months after the US invasion of Iraq.

The Iranians, had they desired to do so, could have caused the US no end of problems in those early days. The fact was, however, that they and the US shared certain broad, common interests in Iraq during that period, upon which the two sides might have built.

Had the US been willing to share its perspectives with Iran in those early days and to solicit Iranian views in a similar manner, there might at least have been an effective mechanism in place to moderate the worst effects of the tension between them when US and Iranian interests in Iraq began to sharply diverge later on.

Indeed, there had been very effective cooperation between the US and Iranian delegations to the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in November-December 2001, thanks in large part to the wisdom of James Dobbins, the US envoy, who understood the common interests at work and who had the sense and flexibility to exploit them to mutual benefit.

Changing tone

For now Obama's approach has been limited to a change in tone, not policy [GALLO/GETTY]

Indeed, that is all we are really talking about here: Common sense and flexibility. One would not suggest for a moment that the Obama administration has cast off the shackles of domestic political orthodoxy in the US, particularly where "rogue regimes" and officially-branded terrorist groups are concerned.

No one has hinted that the current administration will substantially alter the conditions previously laid down before engaging officially with Hamas.

Let us not forget that Rob Malley, one of the US interlocutors at the Zurich encounter with Hamas last summer, was forced to resign as an advisor to the Obama campaign when his past contacts with Hamas as a senior director of the International Crisis Group became widely known.

The change in the attitude and tone of the current administration from the one which immediately preceded it is largely that: A change in tone, and not a clear change in policy.

One looks to see the common-sense pragmatism of the current administration, in contrast to the narrow ideological doctrines of the Bush administration, somehow translated into a more permanent change - if not in actual policy, at least in terms of substantive practice.

Institutionalising dialogue

The point, it seems to me, is to find a means of institutionalising the dialogue with adversaries - whether we are speaking of Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, or others - in a way which permits greater understanding of the two sides' respective positions, establishes trusted means of contact, and helps to mitigate both misunderstanding of intentions and miscalculation of likely reactions.

The point of such dialogue is not necessarily to bring about change and reconciliation - though that would always be welcome - but at least to better manage conflict in the meantime.

I have long been an advocate of the enhanced use of my old organisation, the CIA, to manage just those sorts of discreet, unofficial contacts.

Obviously, the CIA has been used in this fashion in the past. However, it has not traditionally played such a role so widely or commonly as many tend to assume. In fact, the CIA has traditionally avoided such roles, preferring to stay away from politics and to stick to intelligence-gathering.

In order to communicate with adversaries effectively, and to build up the necessary institutional relationships and capabilities to do so, simply using one-time panel discussions and occasional contacts with former government officials is unlikely to meet the need. In this, as in other areas, the US needs a sustained and systematic approach.

Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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