I want to use the occasion of President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (congratulations by the way!) meeting with career diplomats at the State Department to offer another, hopefully helpful, case study. This case study, I think, is essential to speedy and fruitful progress in the Middle East, especially regarding Israel and Palestine, but also the Taliban in Afghanistan and all the groups, including Al Qaida, in Pakistan.
By the way, I remember watching George Mitchell’s great work as diplomatic envoy during The Troubles in Ireland and am glad to see him, and Richard Holbrook, back in the saddle again!
This case study is to help you to have clearer and more productive vision, and thus dialogue, with civilian populations who support radical organizations who regularly or occasionally engage in terrorism.
When an organization, such as Hamas, engages in terrorist activities, such as shooting rockets into civilian parts of Israel, it is natural that a certain skewing of viewpoint takes place by even the most seasoned diplomats. However, this skewing has become entirely too unconscious and routine and thus brings an error into the logical and the feelings that are brought to the diplomatic table. This case study is to help you to eliminate the skewing in perception that takes place when one contemplates or dialogues with an organization that is civilian based but conducts some or many terrorist activities. When you eliminate that skewing of perception, which is based on error, you can make greater progress in your objectives, including the halting of the terroristic component of their activities.
Let’s use some silly examples first. Suppose you are speaking to someone who is just wonderful but has bad breath. Doesn’t the bad breath totally mess up your encounter with them, and doesn’t it ruin your appreciation of their finer qualities? The person with the bad breath could be a beauty queen, or a young Einstein, or the holiest person you know, but you can’t appreciate any of those qualities so long as you are suffering from their bad breath!
This is what a civilian population who supports an organization with a terroristic component is like. Just because they have bad breath in their encounter, this does not mean they are not worthy and wonderful people. Thus, the people of Gaza, by having elected Hamas, are being treated as if they are nothing but gas bags of bad breath. That is unjust, incorrect and unfair.
Let us return to the bad breath example. Coffee, a wonderful beverage, is the cause of much bad breath. So there is an example of a great gift to humanity-coffee-having an unfortunate and often unconscious side effect in many, bad breath. I could not stand the breath of my ex- after he had drunk coffee; it was actually worse than how he smelled after smoking cigarettes. But that does not mean that he was no longer an intelligent person, or one who could look nice, or one that could be kind. He was all of those things, but with bad breath after drinking coffee. So coffee, a genuine gift to humanity and a beneficial thing, can, if not monitored, have an unpleasant side effect that masks all the other good, for those moments, in the person. We can also list other foods like this, such as onions and garlic, feta cheese and so forth.
However, bad breath can also be a warning sign of a health problem. Every mindful and caring parent of a small child knows this. When your child suddenly has bad breath, they are not doing it to annoy you or to be “dirty.” A child with bad breath usually has a nasal drip or an allergy, thus a respiratory health matter. Bad breath is a sign that is supposed to be helpful, to alert someone to a problematic health condition. So you don’t want to be angry at the small infant with bad breath, or just “cover it up,” but look as to why they have the bad breath so that the health matter can be attended to.
Thus the Gaza people with Hamas can be viewed as being like a person with bad breath, and one must see if it is an unconscious side effect of a good thing (coffee) or the sign of a health problem (respiratory distress). By the way, I am not saying Hamas is the bad breath, LOL! I am saying their terroristic actions are the bad breath. Separate from the terroristic acts Hamas members are the same as Gaza civilians, the good that is being masked by the bad breath.
So the first job of the diplomat is to recognize that the terroristic acts that one observes, whether by Hamas or any other group, is like “bad breath.” It has a disproportionate effect of masking the vast majority of normalcy and goodness, with common aspirations, of the people “underneath” the bad breath. Too often diplomats, to say nothing of the reactionary governments, not only just focus on the bad breath but they seem to have entire conversations (mostly threats) with the bad breath (the acts of terrorism) rather than the lips, mouths, brains and hearts of the people behind the terrorism bad breath. I’m faintly amazed that I have to explain this to so many people who think they are otherwise so intelligent.
This is one of the things that the diplomats of, in particular the British Empire, for all their faults well understood. These foreign servants lived among the local people so much that many were accused of “going native” or “going bush,” which is that they embrace the local culture. Thus they were not reactionary when there were “bad breath” incidents, because they maintained their 80 percent to 20 percent understanding of the people who are behind the bad breath and the bad breath acts itself. This was one of the great attributes of the golden age of diplomacy, this ability to maintain vision on not only the “bad breath,” but keep the majority of one’s understanding on the people and the underlying reasons for the bad breath acts.
Now, here is another analogy to help you to understand. There are certain things that the Republican party tends to do that makes me just vomit in disgust, just as there are certain things that the Democrat party does that also makes me vomit. But I do not reduce all the millions of people who agree in each party with those particular positions into thinking of them as just barf making sub-humans, LOL. I know that behind the party platforms and individual heinous viewpoints are, in general, a bunch of individual people who share aspirations and are trying to do the best that they can.
Here is a related analogy. Let’s look at the political party affiliation of the ten Presidents after our first, George Washington.
John Adams: Federalist
Thomas Jefferson: Democratic-Republican
James Madison: Democratic-Republican
James Monroe: Democratic-Republican
John Quincy Adams: Federalist until 1808, Democratic-Republican until 1825, National Republican (Whig) thereafter
Andrew Jackson: Democratic
Martin Van Buren: Democratic (during Presidency); Free Soil (from 1848)
William Henry Harrison: Whig
John Tyler: Whig
James Knox Polk: Democratic
Now, from this list you can observe without reading a “too long” dissertation that political parties came into being and evolved at a rapid rate. Democratic-Republican used to be one party, and they evolved and split. Federalists were the party of our country’s founding, yet even though they were the “original” they did not maintain a mandate once the country was well established. Other parties such as “Free Soil” sprang up in response to current conditions, yet they are forgotten today. Political parties and affiliations are a living and vibrant thing. Likewise people like the Palestinians have an evolving attempt to organize around “parties,” for lack of a better word, that reflect their aspirations and their current reality. Yet countries such as the United States and Israel act like they should be frozen in time.
It is a diplomatic error to think that, “Well, the Palestinians had the PLO, which we denounced since they were terrorists, but they gave up terrorism to become Fatah and thus they are ‘OK’ and we will ‘allow’ the Palestinians to ‘have’ Fatah and Fatah alone.” Huh? What if the United States was forced to only have the Federalist party, one party, the “first and only” alone? After all, the USA was formed by the Federalists. Shouldn’t the USA be forced to have only one party, the Federalists? Are not the Democratic and Republican parties invalid?
When Gaza people voted Hamas into power they were doing so because they were frustrated with the shortcomings, including financial corruption, of Fatah. Yet to this day western diplomats are mouthing off that Hamas is not “legitimate?” Well, I don’t think that any USA political party since the Federalists is valid. I’m not joking. If you are going to tell me that people halfway around the world do not live like the rest of us, having evolving needs and evolving responses in affiliation (and yes, some of them have some bad breath) then I think we should live by the same “rules,” else we are shameless hypocrites. So I am quite serious that I believe that all political parties since the Federalist Party are invalid.
If a diplomat cannot look at a people, such as the Palestinians in Gaza, and have the most fundamental understanding that despite the terroristic actions that are the bad breath of the party in power that this is part of normal democracy and the urges of the people, then one can neither achieve peace nor even have correct vision of the problems, challenges and opportunities. You are punishing the Gaza people for trying to self correct what they thought was a problem with the ruling party, Fatah. You are enabling Israel, by focusing only on the bad breath terrorism, to bomb the hell out of people to punish them for trying to “kick the bums out of office and elect new people,” which was just what they did. It is one of the democratic hypocrisies of the century, in my opinion.
So to wrap up this case study, the point I am trying to make is that politicians, most especially diplomats, must learn to recognize normal democratic process in the natural form that it takes place in other countries and cultures, such as the forming and electing of new parties. Second one must recognize if the bad breath of terrorism of those parties are due to systemic health problems which must be addressed, rather than punching the teeth and gums of innocent men, women and children out of their mouths to “cure the bad breath” and then blame them for it to boot. Third, one must look at the diplomatic challenge and see the parallels in our own history (the British thought we were terrorists, by the way) and respond with a resonance and firm guidance in more fruitful channels rather than denial. Fourth, we need to invest in people’s political interest and participation, not discourage it when we don’t like the results. Fifth we must not have dialogue with the bad breath acts and, instead, go back to having dialogue with the people, friend and foe alike. Sixth, just as the USA would resent being told we must go back to Federalist party alone, so too we must not expect people to have “one size fit all” political parties that meet our (or Israel’s) approval.
I hope that you have found this helpful. I have a lot more to say about how to get going in productive diplomacy but I don't want to make this "tl/dr" (too long; didn't read).