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May 26, 2007

A Mile In My Enemy’s Shoes

Posted in: Foreign policy,War on Terror

Somalis WalkingOne of the oddest experiences for me in watching US foreign affairs is how much I agree with Patrick Buchanan, a man whose politics I don't share. It's not just that he was against the Iraq war, it's that in his bones Buchanan actually seems to understand how America looks to the world. Strange thing to say about someone who is as nativist and racist as Buchanan, but over and over again I've seen it be the case.

Perhaps the most striking example is his writing on the election of Hamas.

For a textbook example of why we are hated, consider Gaza and the West Bank. There, a brutal Israeli/U.S.-led cutoff in aid has been imposed on the Palestinians for voting the wrong way in a free election.

Immediately after Hamas’s victory, Israel halted the $55 million a month the Palestinian Authority received as its share of tax and customs revenue. Israel demanded Europe and the U.S. also end all aid to the PA until Hamas renounces terror, recognizes Israel, and disarms.

President Bush, though he was conducting a worldwide crusade for democracy and had urged that the Palestinian elections be held and Hamas participate, obediently complied. For months now, U.S. and European aid to the PA, half its budget, has been halted.

The early returns are in. “Surgeons at Gaza’s biggest hospital,” says the Financial Times, “have suspended non-essential surgery for lack of sutures, laboratory kits and anesthetics.” Environmental protection agency workers have no money for petrol to monitor sewage and industrial waste entering the water supply. Some 150,000 civil servants, 60,000 of them armed security personnel, have gone unpaid for months.

Of course, since then the later returns are in, and it's fairly safe to say that for “voting the wrong way”, after the US had asked Hamas to join the elections, Palestinians are essentially being starved into submission.

America says she wants one thing, democracy, then punishes those who actually engage in it. If I were a Palestinian, would I hate the United States? Of course I would. And if you're honest, and you aren't Gandhi, odds are you would too.

What is so infuriating about America, to outsiders, is the inability of Americans to look at the world through other people's eyes. Michael Scheur, the ex-CIA analyst who wrote “Imperial Hubris” first wrote a book called “Through Our Enemies' Eyes”. Interesting that a (good) analyst would first seek to understand how his enemies saw the world, don't you think? It's not because Scheur is some pansy leftist, either, in his books Scheur has suggested that winning against Islam may require killing many many millions of Muslims and he doesn't have much of a problem with that. It's because if you don't understand your enemies it is much harder to either defeat them, or make peace with them.

And the odd thing about Through Our Enemies' Eyes is that it shows a lot of respect for the enemy. There's no bullshit blather about how people who are willing to die for their cause are cowards, for example. Indeed Scheur compares bin Laden to one of the greatest anti-slavery crusaders: John Brown, notes that he led troops from the front lines, is a trained engineer and ran successful businesses.

None of this isn't to say that Osama Bin Laden isn't a mass murderer who both Scheur and myself would be happy to see dead, but it does mean that even in a man like bin Laden there are things one should respect – bravery, intelligence, a willingness to give up wealth for the cause and an ability to inspire people so much they're willing to kill and die for him and his cause.

Now certainly I wouldn't quibble at calling him evil (nor would I quibble at calling Bush evil, as far as that goes) but I brought up bin Laden precisely because he's such an extreme case.

Let's walk back to our first example – Hamas's electoral victory. Why did Hamas win against Fatah? Well, a large part of it is that Fatah was irredeemably corrupt, and Hamas wasn't. Hamas runs schools and clinics (indeed it started out as a non-violent charity movement and moved into violence when its founder became convinced that non-violence was insufficient.) Its founder, who was assassinated by Israel along with some people unfortunate enough to be near the missile blast, once said that he would be willing to consider a 100 year truce with Israel.

Fatah had the stronger patronage operation, Hamas had respect. Hamas, because it had respect, had more control over violence against Israelis than Fatah did (Fatah can't stop it, because it has neither the military strength or the respect).

Which is to say, because Hamas was not compromised, because it had respect, and because it was the enemy of Israel, it might have been possible to make some sort of peace with them. You can only make peace with your enemies, and more specifically, you can only make peace with people who have control over those fighting you. One of the biggest problems France had when it decided to leave Algeria was finding leaders to make peace with and hand power over to – it had been too successful in killing them off. In the same way, killing the founder of Hamas was probably a mistake – because he could have signed a peace treaty – and made it stick. I doubt, at this point, that Hamas could make a peace treaty stick – they've been weakened too much.

This pattern – of being unwilling to deal with the people who actually have popular support, is a long run one for the US. The most tragic recent example is Somalia, and the Islamic Courts Union. The Islamic Courts Union swept into Mogadishu, tossed out the Warlords, who were rapacious murderers who, among other things, used to break into tin shacks, kidnap barely pubescent girls, gang rape them until they got bored, then send them back to their families.

Mogadishu had been “controlled” by these warlords for years – when the ICU took over they instituted Islamic law, and opened the port and airport for the first time in over a decade. While they weren't perhaps the ideal rulers from our point of view (that Islamic law thing) there was a huge drop off in rape, murder and assault when they were in charge. And, by and large, they appear to have had the support of the majority of Somalis in the regions they controlled, who were tired of the violence and rapine under the warlords.

The US, and indeed the West in general refused to acknowledge them as government and insisted on recognizing the provisional government set up under a UN mandate – a “government” so weak it couldn't even locate itself in Mogadishu and controlled all of one town. Then the US gave Ethiopia the green light to come into Somalia and invade, and even helped them with air power. The ICU, not having an army suited to operations against a battlefield supremacy army, was destroyed, and the survivors reformed into a resistance movement. The “government”, many of whose ministers are Warlords, took control of Mogadishu and violence returned to it.

Oh, joy. So, let's characterize this the way it should be characterized – a government with popular support was overthrown by a foreign mandated puppet government with so little popular support that it had to bring in a foreign army to fight for it.

How was all this justified in the US? The ICU was called an “Islamic Militia with ties to al-Qaeda”. Y'know, if I were bin Laden I'd fantasize at night that I had one-tenth the influence and power that the US claims I do. While al-Qaeda had some presence in Somalia and some ties to the ICU, they certainly weren't in control of it.

And then there's that phrase “Islamic militia” which seems to be code for “Islamic terrorist fanatics”. Well, y'know, there are a few major Islamic militias, of which the ICU was only one. Y'know what they all have in common – they all run (or ran) the schools and the clinics. The strongest one, Hezbollah, picks up the trash, gives out pensions (pensions!) and has a far stronger army than the nominal government does.

What do you call an organization which runs the schools, provides health care, pension, picks up trash, is supported the majority of the population (in Hezbollah's case, the Lebanese Shia it represents) and has an army?

You call it a government. In fact, you have a hard time not calling it a State, if it's walked far enough along the line. Hezbollah, in particular, is probably a stronger government and state than the official Lebanese one.

To Americans, to the extent they were even aware of it, the ICU was a bunch of terrorist thugs menacing the official government. To Somalis it was the first government in years that was able to bring peace and order to the capital and able to reopen the port and airport.

Now some might argue that while this may have been hypocritical and despicable, it was in the U S's interests. They'd be wrong – here's the deal. A recognized ICU running Somalia would be a government amenable to all the bribes and pressures a government is subject to. You could offer it loans, sell it weapons, give it food aid. You could threaten to bomb the port closed, or embargo it. You could make the case “we can give you things that al-Qaeda can never give you.”

The guerrillas who are the remnants of the ICU, and who are engaged in a guerrilla war they will probably win (the force with the support of the population usually wins such wars) now have no one they can go to for help except Eritrea… and al-Qaeda. They hate the United States and blame it for the fall of their movement and the deaths of their friends and family. If they win the war and re-establish some version of the ICU despite the US and Ethiopia they will be much more implacably hostile than they would have been otherwise. And in the meantime, a Somalia that is in the flames of anarchy makes a perfect host for al-Qaeda. If the ICU, actually controlling Somalia, had been convinced that hosting al-Qaeda wasn't in their interests, they could have easily kept al-Qaeda's influence to a minimum. That chance to deny al-Qaeda is now lost.

Let's move on, or back, to another Islamic militia. Hezbollah. Imagine you're a thirty year old Lebanese Shia. How do you view Hezbollah? Well, when you were a child, the Israelis invaded your country. The Lebanese central government was completely unable to stop them, and frankly, basically didn't even try. The Israelis then occupied the south of the country (where you live) for almost twenty years. Foreign occupiers. The only people who fought them successfully were Hezbollah. And Hezbollah didn't just fight them, it took care of you in other ways – it ran the school you were educated in. It ran the clinic you went to when you broke your arm. If someone stole from you, or harmed your family, you went to Hezbollah to get justice. And, eventually, it succeeded in driving the foreign occupiers out. At that time the Lebanese government came back in and said it was in charge of all of Lebanon, including the south. But Hezbollah still runs the schools, still runs the clinics, still picks up the trash and still gives out the pensions. And somehow the money that was used to rebuild the capital by the Lebanese “government” never seems to get to the Shia slums. But Hezbollah money does.

And what does the US, and the US media, call Hezbollah. Terrorists. Which, of course, they are. If you're Israeli. Hezbollah actually has a policy of not attacking Americans and has since the early nineties. But, of course, they killed a lot of US marines back in the eighties.

Ever wondered why?

Well, the US Navy was offshore, and they shelled Shia villages. In retaliation, Hezbollah killed a pile of marines.

Not a story you hear much, is it?

So what is Hezbollah? A resistance movement to an occupation which turned into the de-facto government for most of those who were occupied. A movement which has a stronger military than the supposed Lebanese “government”. An organization with the support of a million Shia.

For Americans as a whole there seem to be two operating theses “our enemies are always unmitigatedly evil and America is good, therefore whatever America does is good.”

There's quite a bit of variation in Islamic militias, but what they generally have in common is that they fulfill many of the roles of government, they tend to have the support of a large chunk of the population, quite often a majority, and they don't tend to be very corrupt.

On most metrics of who you'd want to be ruled by they're better than Saudi Arabia or Egypt, two governments that the US has gone to great lengths to prop up.

A sane foreign policy would stop pretending they don't exist; would stop pretending they are illegitimate and can't be talked to . The ICU wanted nothing more than it wanted peace and acknowledgment and was willing to go far to get it. As usual these days, State wanted to talk, the Vulcans wanted war, and in this case the Vulcans got what they wanted. As a result a country that could have had peace; that could have rebuilt; that could have been carefully brought back into the family of nations in a way that would deny al-Qaeda a nesting ground, has been turned into a festering war zone, returned to being a failed state, and seeded with hatred of America. It's now a perfect place for al-Qaeda to grow and thrive.

In Palestine, the US has decided to give money and arms to Fatah to try and crush Hamas. Fatah has never been able to guarantee a peace, stands a better than even chance of losing to Hamas, and if it does win due to American and Israeli aid, it won't have legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians. Hamas, if actually destroyed, will odds on be replaced by organizations which are even more radical and violent and less amenable to peace (the pattern in Palestine hasn't been to move towards more moderate organizations over the years, to understate the case.)

In Lebanon, a US wink and nod to Israel lead to a war which humiliated America's chief ally in the area, as the supposedly most powerful military in the Middle East lost a war to a militia. Hezbollah was strengthened, not weakened. And for what – because of a kidnapping? How many Lebanese are still in Israeli jails, called “terrorists”. Well, as the Israelis themselves should know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Hezbollah had made prisoner exchanges before, they regard Lebanese held by Israelis not as criminals or terrorists but as prisoners of war, which is entirely reasonable if you think that resisting an occupation is war, and not crime. (Occupiers tend to think it's crime.) And yet, the irony is, that what Hezbollah wants – its people back, a very small amount of land, and maps to minefields, is so minor, and so little a risk to Israel's actual security, that one has no idea why it isn't simply negotiated in exchange for a formal peace. The answer that Americans and Israelis might give is that “we don't negotiate with terrorists”. Whatever – the violence ended in Northern Ireland when terrorists were negotiated with. Hezbollah has the support of a million Shia. It isn't going away, it can't be destroyed short of committing genocide against its supporting population. And if there's one thing that's clear, it's that Hezbollah's army is professional. Nasrallah can probably enforce a peace with Israel.

And once such a peace is made, the Iranian spur against Israel, using Hezbollah, is largely a thing of the past.

In all three cases, then, talking to the “Islamic militias” would probably have produced better results than fighting them. But in all three cases, apparently talking to them was “out of the question.” In all three cases they were (and are) dismissed as illegitimate terrorist organizations, when they actually had the support of the population.

When you decide that who the population supports is unimportant, that you don't give a damn about the will of the people – the people wind up hating your guts.

America needs to stop treating its enemies as EVIL and MONSTROUS and HITLER. It needs to stop assuming that just because a movement is Islamic, it can't be negotiated with. It's not just that demonization often leads to horribly immoral acts, it's that it often leads to very bad foreign policy and to blowback which hurts the U S's interests.

And above all, Americans need to start seeing the world through the eyes of their enemies. They need to understand why others often hate them. Understanding something, in the US, is often taken as excusing it. Being judgmental comes before judging, and as soon as a regime is labeled “evil” suddenly they can't be talked to. (The definition of evil, of course, is very flexible. The Saudis and Egyptians, who supplied most of the money and men for 9/11 are good American allies, after all.) But “evil” isn't an analytical framework, and all it does is close down opportunities to actually have peace. Organizations like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah have much less in common than they have differences, but in American discourse you'd never know that.

And that's a problem, because while one needs to be destroyed (Al-Qaeda), the other doesn't, and probably can't be. And while you can't make peace with one of them, you probably can with the other.

If America wants to be safe and secure again, Americans need to learn to start making these distinctions and needs to stop insisting on making enemies out of people who would be willing to live in peace with America. Hezbollah doesn't attack Americans, the ICU was never going to send suicide bombers to Manhattan. Palestinians wanted to have the right to choose their own government and not be punished for it.

When America stops doing the Muslim=bad short circuit, peace may be possible. When America stops saying one thing (we believe in democracy) and then doing another (but not when you vote for the wrong people), foreigners may stop hating America. In the meantime, if the US insists that every Islamic militia is its enemy – then every Islamic militia will be its enemy.


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