Monday, 23 March 2009

The UK chats up Hizbullah ... again

Friday 20 March 2009
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

How angry is the White House with the United Kingdom for opening talks with Hizbullah? Judging by the tirade of criticism that emanated from the US State Department last week, the answer is very angry indeed.

Despite the fact that President Barack Obama is making overtures to those the Bush White House once deemed untouchable, it is clear from the comments coming out of Washington that this new policy has its limits.

The US of course has a particular problem with Hizbullah, which it believes was behind the bomb attack that killed 241 US Marines in Beirut in 1983. But you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the White House, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, "doth protest too much" and is privately content with the UK's attempts to fly solo.

This would perhaps better explain why the UK suddenly appears to be abandoning its recent record of unquestioning acquiescence to US policy and is publicly cocking a snook at its ally, the special relationship and the most popular leader in the world at the moment.

It's worth pointing out that these latest talks, which were officially sanctioned in the summer of 2008, actually represent a resumption rather than an entirely new policy. UK talks with Hizbullah go back as far as 2001 and only stopped during the turmoil following the Hariri assassination. Therefore, over the last eight years or so the UK has spent more time talking to Hizbullah than ignoring it.

The catalyst for the current resumption was Hizbullah's decision to join Lebanon's national unity government in May 2008. A Foreign Office official told me this provided the British government with a "window of opportunity to engage Hizbullah by opening low level talks to encourage it to play a more positive role in politics." The Foreign Office insists it is talking to what it calls Hizbullah's "political wing," and will not hold discussions with the movement's "military wing."

Of course, this "window of opportunity" opened because Hizbullah, its "military wing" included, orchestrated a wave of civil unrest, followed by a military takeover of western Beirut, that substantially weakened the democratic government, including a parliamentary majority that had been targeted by a succession of (unsolved) murders of several of its members.

It is this, among other things, that has apparently so annoyed the Americans. While the UK has opted to compartmentalize Hizbullah's political, social and military functions, Washington insists that Hizbullah's leadership is so integrated that any attempt to separate its various activities is foolhardy.

But one cannot escape the feeling that the Obama administration is perfectly at ease with the UK's engagement of Hizbullah. In the space of a few months Obama has moved away from the Bush policy of isolating so-called rogue states to engaging them. Obama is preparing, according to The Los Angeles Times, to send a secret message to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, inviting him to open a clandestine "back channel" for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. Indeed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Iran to this month's international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague. Meanwhile US officials, among them the acting US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, have begun talks with Syrian officials.

Arguably, British policy is merely seeking to get a step ahead of the US, as opposed to its previous policy of following Washington's lead. The Foreign Office is keen to stress that the move to engage Hizbullah should be seen "purely within the context of Lebanon's political scene." However, insiders concede it is also part of a "wider approach" in the Middle East.

The British foreign secretary, David Miliband, has already broken bread with President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Last weekend a former minister, Clare Short, a left-wing Labor parliamentarian, also visited Damascus where she met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and called for the UK to end its boycott of the Palestinian group. The meeting was well publicized, in contrast to several low-profile visits that other British politicians have made to Meshaal over the last year.

Short was not representing the government of course, and for the record the Foreign Office still insists there are "absolutely no plans" to open talks with Hamas. An official told me: "If there's a lesson for Hamas in our low-level talks with Hizbullah it is that if it decides to agree to the Quartet principles, the door would be open." Perhaps I missed Hizbullah's announcement that it was renouncing violence, throwing down its arms and recognizing Israel. But there is clearly a pattern emerging that a more softly softly approach, which for now includes contact with Hizbullah, but before long is likely to include Hamas too, is now central to UK policy.

The previous policy of isolating enemies and promoting liberal democracy is in pieces, broken by its own failure. The West has so far failed to thwart Iran's ambitions to become a nuclear power. Israeli military actions have strengthened both Hamas and Hizbullah. Security may have at long last improved in Iraq, or at least enough for coalition troops to depart, but Afghanistan remains a disaster and neighboring Pakistan is now a political basket case as well. Large parts of Pakistan's northwest are firmly under the control of the Taliban with tacit government approval. The West cannot allow Pakistan to become another Afghanistan any more than it can sit back and allow Iran to join the nuclear club.

The UK, like the US, wants to draw a line through what has gone on before and clearly feels the interlocking relationships between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas is a good place to start. The fates of all four are inextricably entwined, and with them the future of Lebanon. The question that remains unanswered is what price Lebanon will pay for this change of policy, particularly in the run up to elections in June?

When I put this question to the Foreign Office the official said: "We don't seek to empower one movement over another. We are supportive of the Siniora government and our talks with Hizbullah do not change that."

So that's alright then. But official talks offer Hizbullah, or its political wing, an official sanction that may well undermine political parties that don't have a "military wing," those that rely on elections to bring down governments.

The government often cites the lessons learned through the peace process in Northern Ireland when discussing the Middle East. But it is worth remembering that the moderate political parties quickly lost ground to the extremists once the government opened a dialogue with them. The two moderate Northern Ireland politicians who won the Nobel Prize in 1998, John Hume and David Trimble, both lost their parliamentary seats to more extremist parties a few years afterward.

Of course the advances in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the recent outbreak of violence, have been fantastic. But crucially the IRA leadership told the British government that "the war was over" before formal talks began. Has Hizbullah given a similar assurance? I doubt if it was even asked.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The gun gets an olive branch

Wednesday 18 March 2009
NOW Lebanon
By Michael Glackin

Britain reaches out to Hezbollah

Those in Britain with an interest in political Islam suffered a blow over the weekend when it emerged that a Hezbollah official, Ibrahim Moussawi, would not be allowed into the United Kingdom to lecture on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies later this month.

The Home Office, the department responsible for the banning order, does not comment on individual cases, but department insiders told me that Moussawi’s application for a visa was denied on the basis that his presence in the UK “was not conducive to the public good.” It’s worth pointing out that Moussawi can appeal the decision, although the process is unlikely to offer him much comfort.

Moussawi will probably feel hard done by. Quite why his presence is now suddenly “not conducive to the public good” after he happily visited Britain’s shores last year and in 2007 without interference is a bit of a mystery. During Moussawi’s previous trips, Hezbollah was a proscribed movement. Now when the British authorities are openly talking to Hezbollah, he has suddenly found himself persona non grata.

Confused? Well it’s not the only confusing occurrence in the UK’s relationship with Hezbollah in the last week. Earlier this month Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, whose remit includes the Middle East, caused consternation when he announced that the government had just “reconsidered” its policy toward Hezbollah and would now talk to ‘‘carefully selected’’ contacts within the movement’s “political wing” – by which he meant members of parliament.

Unfortunately for Rammell, the policy he thought he was unveiling has been in existence for almost a year, and was first revealed in July 2008, five months after Moussawi’s last visit to the UK. In fact, the policy is even older than that. In December 2001, then-British Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Kinchen met with the secretary general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. This “official contact” lasted until 2005, and ended because of a combination of factors, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and the fact that it was yielding little positive results.

Putting aside Rammell’s blushes, not to mention his ignorance of his own department’s policy, the catalyst and purpose for this not-so-new approach was explained to me by a friendly but unenlightening Foreign Office spokesperson. She told me that Hezbollah’s decision to join the Lebanese national-unity government – which of course came about after it brought the country to a standstill and used force against the existing government – provided an opportunity for the UK to “engage Hezbollah.”

This meant that the British ambassador in Lebanon has been given permission to open what the Foreign Office describes as “low-level talks” with the aim of “encouraging Hezbollah to take a more positive role in the political process.” The government’s objectives are straightforward: “We want Hezbollah to disarm and stop supporting terrorism and participate in Lebanese politics as a democratic party. This dialogue helps us communicate these points to Hezbollah,” the spokesperson said.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hezbollah was already aware of what the UK and most Western governments wanted them to do for some time now. But in the spirit of this engagement, Moussawi was probably looking forward to explaining how these aspirations fit in with Hezbollah’s view of “political Islam” to a British audience, which was set to include a number of Foreign Office staff members.

Actually, Moussawi found himself caught up in purely domestic row. The government was heavily criticized after it banned Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders from entering the UK earlier this year for a screening of his controversial film “Fitna” – which links Islam to terrorism – at the House of Lords. The government faced accusations of being tough on critics of Islam and soft on Muslim extremists. The public perception that the British government is soft on Muslim extremism was further evidenced for many when a handful of such extremists were allowed to protest last week during a parade for soldiers returning from Iraq.

Moussawi aside, the new British policy toward Hezbollah is broadly in line with Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s speech in India earlier this year, when he poured scorn on the idea of the “war on terror”. It can also be viewed as part of what US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton calls America’s “smart diplomacy”, although the White House insists, for now at any rate, that it will not talk to anyone from Hezbollah.

Has the UK’s olive branch to Hezbollah achieved anything?

The Foreign Office insists it is too early to say if the approach is working. The spokesperson said, “The jury’s still out. We’ll assess it on a regular basis. There is no open-ended check here.” But with Lebanon’s elections just under three months away, there may be some who think this very public rapprochement with Hezbollah, by a government that just a year ago was one of its most vociferous critics, will be money in the bank for the party on polling day. Maybe Rammell isn’t as ignorant as we thought.
Michael Glackin, a UK based journalist and former managing editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of NOW Lebanon.

Monday, 2 March 2009

British Conservatives and the Middle East

The Daily Star
Tuesday 3 March 2009
By Michael Glackin

Gordon Brown's government is in its death throes, propelled there by a recession, rising unemployment and a succession of revelations highlighting ministerial sleaze. The odds on Brown being prime minister after an election, which he must call before May 2010, are long indeed.

The latest opinion polls reveal the government is trailing the opposition Conservative Party by 16 points and is now just three points ahead of the much smaller Liberal Democrats.

So what can the Middle East expect from a future Conservative government?

Speaking to me earlier this month David Lidington, the Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs and the party's Middle East spokesperson, outlined what the region could expect from a Conservative government, and made it clear that lofty ideals such as democracy will no longer be the yardstick for measuring political progress in the region.

"The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has given us a more sober assessment about how difficult it is to introduce political reform," Lidington told me. "I think we've learned that it is very difficult to impose democracy by force, particularly by foreign force, and that democracy in terms of votes and competing political parties is not enough."

Lidington said a Conservative government would remain "very interested" in human rights and democratic reform, but it is clear that stability, not democracy, will be the guiding principle of Conservative Middle East policy. "We are not starry eyed about the ability of Britain or even a country as powerful as the United States simply to snap its fingers and impose such a system on places with their own cultures and histories," he explained. "I would hope that we will see the development of democratic and plural institutions in the Middle East in different countries, but in each country it will have to be in a fashion that takes account of the particular history and culture of that nation."

On one level this "more sober assessment" is a reflection of the policy shift in the corridors of power of Washington and London. But this sort of realpolitik in Middle East affairs has never been far from the surface of Conservative policy. When the American and British government, along with France, cold shouldered Syria in the wake of the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, the Conservative Party continued to talk to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Lidington has long believed Western attempts to isolate Syria have failed. Britain and France have already undergone a Damascene conversion and the obvious desire of US President Barack Obama to bury the hatchet that his predecessor waved over Assad's head is the latest vindication of his party's policy of maintaining a dialogue with Damascus.

But you get nothing for nothing in international diplomacy, and as the West rushes to bring Syria in from the cold, many people in the Middle East, particularly the Lebanese, wonder what price will be paid for this rapprochement? Many wonder whether the Hariri Tribunal, which begins operating this week but will not hear testimony before next year, might now grind to a halt as Syria's international rehabilitation gathers pace.

No says Lidington. "We haven't moved from our position supporting the Hariri Tribunal. But, we do take the view that you need to talk to governments even when you have the most profound differences with them. I certainly take the view that efforts to isolate a government are rarely effective and probably breed greater risk of misunderstanding. That doesn't mean you take on trust everything that another government says to you, you have to sup with long spoons."

But why stop at Damascus? If you can use a long spoon to sup with a regime that the UN has implicated in a terror attack on another state then why not use it to sup with Hamas, or Hizbullah? Both groups have successfully contested elections that were more open and democratic than those won by Assad and the Baath Party in Syria. Both groups are also crucial to any hopes of stability in the region. Do they not fall into the "more sober assessment" category?

Lidington agrees both groups are central to creating a stable Middle East, but insists the United Kingdom must distinguish between the governments of a sovereign nation, in this case Assad and Syria, and a group which "openly advocates violence."

"I would accept that Hamas has electoral support and it does represent a significant strand of Palestinian opinion," he said. "But I think that if we are going to deal with it as a party to Middle East diplomacy that can only be on the basis that it has committed itself to being a political movement rather than a movement based on violence."

Lidington concedes his party has what he calls "channels of communication" with Hamas through some of its backbench MPs and contacts in various NGOs, but insists no direct talks will take place until Hamas renounces violence for good and formally recognizes Israel.

Despite this there is strong support within the Conservative Party for direct talks with Hamas. Former Conservative ministers Michael Ancram and Chris Patten, both of whom were involved in the Northern Ireland peace process, recently called for the scrapping of preconditions on talks with Hamas, insisting the group should only be required to halt its violence, not renounce it entirely, to join peace negotiations.

Bearing in mind the Conservatives' willingness to cock a snoot at both the US and UK government over Syria, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see a situation where a Conservative government would be prepared to break bread with Hamas or indeed Hizbullah if it felt it was in the UK's wider interests. While describing Hizbullah as a terror group on the one hand, Lidington also insists it is "an authentic movement," because of its strong electoral support, and as such would have to be part of any Middle East peace settlement.

"You cannot disentangle Hizbullah from broader questions of the Middle East. If you think about prospects of a deal between Israel and Syria over the Golan you can sketch quite easily the territorial demarcation lines; but I cannot see any Israeli government finalizing a deal without some firm assurances concerning the supply of arms to Hizbullah across Syrian territory. When you start getting into that discussion you're immediately talking about the relationship of Hizbullah to Iran as well. These are all part of a broader regional picture."

Whether you see the Conservative Party's "more sober assessment" of the region's future as a long overdue correction or a contradictory and indeed dangerous policy, one thing is certain: The West now appears to view the idea of Middle East democracy with the same disdain it once had for Soviet Communism. It is fast becoming the doctrine that can no longer speak its name in this part of the world.
Michael Glackin is former manging editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star