Washington Babylon — February 11, 2009, 8:14 am

Former CIA Official on Engagement With Hamas and Middle East Peace

Yesterday I posted the first part of a conversation with Emile Nakhleh, former head of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and author of the new book, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World. Here’s the second part; the interview was conducted by my editorial assistant, Sam Fellman:

Q: What are the primary reasons for engagement with political Islam?

EN: Political Reform, democratization, and economic growth are goals that cannot be attained in the Muslim world without engaging Islamic groups and parties in these societies. Of these credible, indigenous organizations, many are Islamic. They are in Arab and non Arab countries, from Turkey, the Balkans, to Southeast Asia, to Central Asia, to Africa; we need to engage them if our policy is to be credible. As the book argues, engaging mainstream Muslims and separating them from terrorists serves US national interest. And the last element entails engaging the American Muslim community. I call it CBI—Community Based intelligence. If our engagement with the Muslim world is going to be credible, the American Muslim community has to be engaged in this process.

Q: Specifically, what are some groups that the U.S. should begin to engage with?

EN: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Even with Hamas and Hezbollah, which I realize are groups on the U.S. terrorism list, we can find common ground on daily issues, including issues of education, economics, commerce, health services, and community services. Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organization, yet it has to deal with Hamas on a daily basis. Commerce from Israel, labor permits, the power grid that comes from Israel, travel permits. Israel must deal with Hamas on a daily basis on issues that are not political but are germane to the populace.

Q: What approaches would you recommend the U.S. adopt to restart the peace process, particularly with regard to Hamas?

EN: The result of the U.S. supported Palestinian elections of 2006, which were observed to be free and fair, was the election of Hamas. As a result of the Gaza War, the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas have become more and more discredited. If we are going to rebuild Gaza, if we are going to restart the process of rejuvenating Gaza, we need to engage with Hamas. For Hamas to become a partner, we need to focus on two major impediments: the continued Israeli occupation and the blockade of Gaza. Gaza has become a huge prison. If Gaza is going to economically grow, the blockade must be lifted. This can’t be achieved without engaging Hamas.

There is growing dissatisfaction with the two-state solution, amongst both Israelis and Palestinians. I’m not dismissing the two-state solution, which is prominently considered in my book, but there are many now arguing against it. The other alternatives—like a one-state solution—would be difficult to sell either in Israel or the U.S. because of our domestic politics. If we are going to pursue the two-state solution, it must involve all Palestinians. And talking to the Abbas government in Ramallah is not a conduit to reach Gaza. The 2002 Arab peace initiative would be, as President Obama indicated, a good start. It generally calls for the Arab states to establish normal relations with Israel if Israel withdraws from the lands it occupied in 1967.

Q: What are the primary domestic obstacles to changing U.S. policy on the Middle East?

EN: Over the years, the U.S. has steadfastly supported Israel, a policy viewed as a given in the Muslim world. Despite that, Arabs and Muslims for a long time viewed the U.S. as an honest broker and believed that its involvement will move the process forward. In the last few years, during the Bush administration, the U.S. lost that reputation. This has been shown in many opinion polls. This biggest challenge for the new administration is to recreate the image of the U.S. as an honest broker. Once we reestablish that, the process becomes easier. Our low standing in the Muslim world is reversible. Engaging the Islamic world can bring it about.

Q: What’s your take on the situation in Afghanistan and the chances of success there?

We have seen a resurgence of the Taliban. We are not really clear about the role of the Pakistan against terrorism. We’re not sure about the direction of the civilian government or the security services. As the President shifts attention to Afghanistan, the biggest challenge is to develop a clear end-game. What is it we want to achieve in Afghanistan? I’m not convinced we have developed this vision yet. If we’re going to go there for a victory, we need to establish what a ‘victory’ is. Whatever we define it as, it will be difficult to achieve.

Part of defining the endgame in this region involves determining our purpose there. Are we only a military force? Or are we a nation-building force? If it’s nation-building, then we should assign the resources through the State Department, U.S. AID and make it an international or United Nations effort to rebuild Afghanistan, like rebuilding Gaza. The appointment of the U.S. Special Envoy to this region reflects the newfound importance of U.S. efforts there.

Q: What do we need to engage the Muslim world?

EN: To engage the Islamic world, the U.S. needs expertise—cultural, political, and languages. The C.I.A. was the first government agency that recognized this and systematically began to assign resources to acquire expertise on the Islamic World. This started before 9/11. The C.I.A. had begun to realize that this was a major generational challenge—political Islam—and that we needed to know more about it if we were going to engage it intelligently. And so the C.I.A., especially the Directorate of Intelligence, established a whole office on political Islam and began to develop that expertise. It remains the only government agency with expertise on this subject. It should be commended for that, but it is not sufficient. Engaging the Islamic world is not going to be done haphazardly or on the cheap. It requires expertise. And the U.S. must use more resources to develop this expertise. While I was at the agency, I helped nurture this process while I was directing the Political Islam project. The Agency’s directors in the Analytic section, saw this challenge many years ago and proceeded to allocate resources to begin the process. But the bad news is that C.I.A. remains the only entity in the U.S. government that has cultivated this expertise.

Q: In your book, you discuss the case of Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim intellectual who was denied a U.S. work visa in 2004. What happened?

EN: Tariq Ramadan is generally considered a moderate voice among Islamic thinkers, despite his frequent criticism of specific policies by the US toward the Muslim world and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2004, Ramadan got an offer to teach Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame. He was given a U.S. visa to start teaching and began making arrangements to move to South Bend, Indiana in the fall. Then, two weeks before he was to leave, his visa was revoked. This is a case where politics trumped ideology. Notre Dame wanted to bring him to the U.S. to have a moderate thinker teach Islamic law. Ramadan was not given a reason for the revocation of his visa. Then there were protests by academic and other professional associations in the country. Eventually, after some debate in the U.S. government, a decision was made rescinding the revocation of Ramadan’s visa. But the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland did not relay this information quickly to Ramadan. By the time Ramadan got it, it was already well into the fall semester. And he decided not to come.

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