Talking to Hezbollah

The Obama administration seems to have ushered in a welcome wind of change (well, for now).  The British government this week has announced that it is opening up talks with low-level officials from Hezbollah’s political wing. The UK had cut off all ties with both the military and political wings of the party in 2005, and had added the military wing to its list of “banned organizations” in July 2008.

While the US has officially distanced itself from this policy change (see this article from Hezbollah’s Al Manar), it seems to have very subtly opened the door for it to take place. President Obama after all has very recently started calling for reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the US. An anonymous State Department source quoted in the Al Manar article also states that the US might find the UK-Hezbollah talks beneficial.

There’s a great Op-ed today in the New York Times by Roger Cohen which discusses these policy reversals:

“Like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah has long been treated by the United States as a proscribed terrorist group. This narrow view has ignored the fact that both organizations are now entrenched political and social movements without whose involvement regional peace is impossible.

Britain aligned itself with the U.S. position on Hezbollah, but has now seen its error. Bill Marston, a Foreign Office spokesman, told Al Jazeera: “Hezbollah is a political phenomenon and part and parcel of the national fabric in Lebanon. We have to admit this.””

The Cohen piece is highly recommended reading.

What is he talking about?

I still am confused after reading Egyptian author Alaa Aswany’s Sunday editorial in The New York Times:

PRESIDENT OBAMA is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.  But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?

Quite frankly, this is one of the stupidest articles I’ve read about the Arab reaction towards Obama and the American elections!  I was ready to stop reading by the time I got to the second sentence when Aswany expressed astonishment that Obama said the US is a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Non-believers, as if this is something extraordinary that’s not happening in Germany or India for instance.  Or as if Egyptians and Arabs  don’t already know this about the US. 

I know that I’m disappointing many of those working on improving  the US image in the Arab world, but seriously if you reread that article you’ll notice how silly it is.

In Cairo, which is seven hours ahead of Washington, some people I know stayed up practically all night waiting for the election results. When Mr. Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians — southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo — dancing in victory.

Ok,  if we believe Aswany’s account the poor, illiterate, underprivileged and politically and socially oppressed Nubians (even more than the rest of the Egyptian society) rose up dancing in joyous victory that Obama won.  I wish Aswany would inform us which papers said this nonsense because I read them all and  this is the first I’ve heard of the Bedouins dancing in the streets when Obama won.  Nor did I see any talk in the Egyptian papers about a feeling of happiness that filled the Egyptian society that would be solved just because Obama got elected. 

But Aswany didn’t stop there and went on to talk about  “our”  supposed admiration for Obama.

Our admiration for Mr. Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.  This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.   That is why the image of President-elect Obama meeting with his predecessors in the White House was so touching…We saw Mr. Obama as a symbol of this justice. We welcomed him with almost total enthusiasm ….

 These empty statements  leads me to recall the Angry Arab when he says ” you have the right to be stupid, but please don’t speak on behalf of (the Egyptians) as you are being stupid.”  I can only raise one question here: ” What does the average Egyptian possibly know to favor or admire with Obama?  Can anyone present a reason to tell us why would they care to know who is Obama in the first place? They have nothing against him for sure, but the point is why would they be keen to know who he is?  How would that effect them?

Although Aswany points out that Obama ignored  Gaza, he thinks that “we”  are still enthusiastic for him, because, according to him, the “Egyptians still think that this one-of-a-kind American president can do great things.”  Frankly,  this piece looks like a primary student learning how to write a composition. I think even if an Egyptian  child read that last part he would just ask him one simple innocent question “why would the American president do great things for you?” Although I think he answered that question when he said it’s because he embodies the great American values. I just wonder what values is he talking about? And the Egyptians just left all their problems to learn about these values? And above all to know how they are embodied in Obama?

Mr Egypt is an Egyptian who lives in Cairo.

Non monsieur le President, Je suis desole….

Under President Obama, the US is  going to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the argument being that we need to “finish what we started.”    One of the key aspects of this new strategy is to convince the NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan.   Convincing them to do so, however, is going to be very, very difficult.  Lost in the inauguration hoopla, the French Defense Minister seemed to give a pretty strong signal of his country’s intentions: 

France’s defence minister on Wednesday appeared to rule out any immediate reinforcementof French troops in Afghanistan if requested by Barack Obama, the new US president.  Hervé Morin said deploying additional French forces to the war-torn country was “not a question for now”.  France had, he said, already made the “necessary efforts” when it sent 700 extra troops to Afghanistan six months ago, taking the total to 2,900.

These comments  prompted a couple negative posts from Daniel Drezner  ( here and here) who blames the decision on public opinion saying that  “less than five percent of those polled believed that European countries should send troops to Afghanistan as a gesture of solidarity with Obama.”   Here are a couple of points worth noting:  

1)   Public opinion is very important.  True, and here’s a great comment from the Drezner posts:

 I assume the French know their public better than the rest of us do. If they already know that their public will not support additional deployments of troops to Afghanistan, then the French did Obama a favor by clarifying this point now. The alternative would be to allow Obama to invest prestige in in a policy ambition that could not be achieved, and then face embarrassment and a loss mojo when he fails to achieve his aim. Better to make a clean and neat statement now

2)  But its more than just public opinion.   I recommend reading this post by Judah (who follows French politics closely)  at World Politics Review. 

But the reality of European resistance to an escalation in Afghanistan is much more complex than American caricatures which focus on public opinion (which certainly is lacking) or the willingness and courage to fight (which certainly is not). So before President Obama decides to go to that well, he might want to make sure there’s some water left in it.

Looking at this from the French perspective, its hard for me to see why its in French interests to send troops to Afghanistan.   If the US ship is sinking in Afghanistan, as many are saying, why should France jump on board,  given their long-term interest in maintaining a global foreign policy independent of the United States?  Furthermore, US-Europe relations during Bush term II   (and especially with France since Sarkozy took over)  weren’t  nearly as bad as the media sometimes portrays,  so its  not as if France feels any urgent incentive to make some gesture to the US on Afghanistan. Or even to “repair relations.”