Friday, January 9, 2009

Change I can believe in

The Guardian reports that the incoming Obama administration is considering initiating low-level, back-channel, informal, as "who, me?" as you can get-style talks with Hamas.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush ­presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 ­Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The Guardian has spoken to three ­people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start ­contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.
Obama has defined himself in part by his willingness to talk to America's enemies. But the president-elect would be wary of being seen to give legitimacy to Hamas as a consequence of the war in Gaza.

I am fascinated. I don't know what will happen if such a thing takes place. I do think that some publicity, as unwelcome as it might be for the administration, could actually do a lot for perceptions of American even-handedness in this conflict.

"We will be perceived to be weak and feckless if we are perceived to be on the margins, unable to persuade the Israelis, unable to work with the international community to end this," said Aaron David Miller, a former state department adviser on the Middle East.

"Unless he is prepared to adopt a policy that is tougher, fairer and smarter than both of his predecessors you might as well hang a closed-for-the-season sign on any chance of America playing an effective role in defusing the current crisis or the broader crisis," he said.

This bit, of course, is about American hegemony. Especially in the last few years, the U. S. has essentially become just another player in the endless cycle of conflict. We all know how the scenario goes, and we all know what the U.S.'s role is just as we know Israel's and Hamas's and the PA's. We know what everyone is going to say.

That makes the U.S. look pretty bad if your diplomatic brand name is The Mediator. The U.S. was the country that you couldn't seem to resolve a conflict without, although I would bet that has more to do with picking winners than it does actual conflict resolution.

I would not personally regard that status as a particularly good thing, but it was a form of power. Getting sucked into a conflict and essentially being subjected to it is not a way to preserve that power. What Miller is saying is that we are rapidly losing our hegemony and we don't have many chances left to save it; and that the way to do so is to become more of a mediator, a communicator, than a partisan. He's right.

One consequence of declining U.S. hegemony has been the emergence of regional arbiters to mediate conflict: Turkey and Qatar in the Middle East, South Africa in Africa. I think this is fantastic, but of course it reduces dependence on the U.S.--and so what "we" need, for advocates of American power, is a flagship conflict to shake right up.

Here it comes.

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