No Comment, Six Questions — March 23, 2010, 11:10 am

Talking To Terrorists: Six Questions for Mark Perry

Mark Perry is a journalist and author who focuses on the military and the intelligence community and particularly on their engagement with the Middle East. I put six questions to him about his new book, Talking To Terrorists, which tells the story of the efforts by a group of senior Marines in Iraq to launch a dialogue with Sunni Arabs in the country’s west and suggests the applicability of their strategy to other conflicts in the region.

1. You describe the process that led to the “Anbar Awakening” as an initiative that began with Marines on the ground and faced a sharply divided Pentagon–with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ultimately supporting it, as neoconservatives led by Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Lawrence Di Rita opposed it, sometimes taking dramatic steps to obstruct the Marine initiatives. Can you explain what led Wolfowitz and his colleagues to oppose the efforts at reconciliation with the Sunnis in al-Anbar Province?

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The standard response, particularly among progressives, is that Wolfowitz, Feith, and Di Rita were motivated by their support for Israel, as well as their strict adherence to neoconservative ideology. But different people have different motives. Let’s take them in reverse order.

My sense is that Larry Di Rita viewed anyone who took a stand outside of the Pentagon norm as a heretic; he viewed his job as akin to that of a high priest protecting the Holy See. Feith, on the other hand, fits the model of a Zionist true believer. For Feith, Israel is the lone beacon of hope in the region, not only a democracy that needed protection but a fit model for the region’s future. Wolfowitz was completely different. He was haunted by the slaughter of the Shias in the aftermath of the first Gulf War as America sat on its hands. It kept him awake nights.

In spite of this, their public statements—particularly those of Feith and Wolfowitz—kept coming back to Israel. It was a kind of perverse obsession that, when coupled with their conservatism, provided a parallel or corollary to the Middle East’s dead-enders. In Islam, such true believers are called takfiris—they believe that the true enemy is within. That is what Osama bin Laden believes: that the greatest threat to his program comes not from the 10th Mountain Division of the 101st Airborne but from within the ranks of otherwise devout Muslims, Islam’s fifth column. Di Rita, Feith, and Wolfowitz were the same: they were America’s takfiris. In the end, the facts are simply stated: all three opposed the U.S. Marines, America’s own soldiers, in the name of their personal ideology. They have a lot to answer for.

2. “The real gamble in Iraq was not in deploying more troops to kill terrorists; the real gamble was in sending Marines to talk to them,” you write. Assessing the picture after the Iraqi elections, has this gamble paid off?

There’s a lot to worry about. The recent election reasserted the traditional divisions in Iraq, between Sunnis and Shi’as, secularists and Islamists, and besieged minorities and empowered elites. And yet … and yet there is a growing sense, particularly among policymakers here in Washington, that these distant poles are finding common purpose and building fragile, but workable, political alliances. Whether Shi’a or Sunni, large swaths of Iraq’s population view themselves as Iraqi nationalists first, and Sunnis and Shi’as second. This is even true among Shi’a tribes in the south, which have traditionally looked to Tehran for support but are now distancing themselves from Iran’s influence and transforming themselves into Iraqi nationalist parties.

If the neoconservatives were right about one thing it is this: democracy provides a tested and credible mechanism for leaching the violence from politics: it provides the one true hope for providing stability and prosperity. The vast majority of Iraqis believe this. Has the gamble paid off? Not yet, not fully. But it will. What the Marines did worked.

3. Those opposed to discussions with violent Islamist groups in the Middle East label them as “terrorists” and attack them as “anti-Semites.” My colleague Ken Silverstein has argued that this is tied to an effort to delegitimize the perspective of groups like Hezbollah by arguing that they are driven by irrational hatred for Jews, when in fact their motivations are far more complex and nuanced. You contrast Silverstein’s portrait of Hezbollah with that of Jeffrey Goldberg. Who do you think did a more faithful job of describing Hezbollah and what motivates them?

I have a clear prejudice here: I have seen Ken Silverstein at work. He was kind enough to allow me to sit in on one interview he conducted with a Hezbollah leader (he had many), and I found him to be almost maddeningly meticulous. I don’t have that journalists’ sense (my training is as a historian), but Ken does. In spades. When I wrote Talking To Terrorists I included an anecdote about Ken that implied that he believed that Hezbollah was not anti-Semitic. I sent him that part of the book to make certain I was faithful to his views. He responded by correcting my account. “Listen,” he wrote, “I cannot read a person’s innermost thoughts. I am sure there must be anti-Semites in the Hezbollah movement; it would be foolish to think otherwise. But I am also sure there are Arab-haters in Israel. But I don’t think that should be our focus. I guess my main belief is that the conflict is certainly marked by religious hostility on both sides, but the conflict is not about religion; it is about land and national identity – and reducing it to a religious conflict is an oversimplication.” That is the most stark and true statement about the conflict that I have ever heard. I put the quote in my book.

Ken doesn’t paint with a broad brush; he takes people one at a time, and he listens to what they say. He questions them closely and at length. He isn’t swayed by appearances, and he suspends his own views. He tries to get at it, and he works hard to get it right. I don’t get that same sense from Goldberg. Ken’s view of Hezbollah is that the movement is strong but diverse – the views of its leaders are complex, sophisticated, and nuanced. Goldberg thinks they’re all anti-Semites.

4. You write that the American media’s conflation of the terms “Jew” and “Israeli” has contributed to the confusion in the current public debate over the “war on terror” and how America should be engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What do you mean by this?

The foundational belief of the war on terror is that we are fighting not a credible movement with a set of core beliefs but “evildoers”—people who have nothing to say, who are without values, who hate our freedoms, and who want to return their societies to the seventh century. We believe and act as if militant Islam is much like worldwide communism, an empty shell that, if confronted with overwhelming power, will crumble. It will not—it has not. That it hasn’t has fueled our frustration. We have the strange feeling that we have somehow gotten the war on terror wrong, that not only are we not winning this conflict but, if we follow our current policies, we cannot win it. We have a growing sense that the enemy we are fighting cannot be contained, limited, or quarantined, that its foot soldiers are not easily identified, and that its ideology is ever changing. We fear that what we face is not terrorism at all, but a coalescing transnational uprising that does not so much oppose our beliefs as demand that we live up to them—and that gains strength with every aircraft carrier we deploy.

—From Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Basic Books. Copyright © 2010 Mark Perry

About two years ago I met a senior Palestinian leader who gave me a speech about the conflict. He began every sentence with the words “the Jews” – as in “the Jews are taking our land,” “the Jews are oppressing our people,” or “the Jews are friends with America.” At the end of his monologue I issued a correction: “You mean the Israelis are taking your land,” “the Israelis are oppressing your people,” “the Israelis are friends with America.” He blinked: “Yes, of course that’s what I mean,” he said. I responded: “Then say it. Because when you say ‘the Jews’ you are talking about my friends. But my friends are not taking your land, the Israelis are.’”

If the distinction I made is important for Palestinians, why isn’t it for Americans? And particularly for American reporters and columnists, who regularly talk about (as an example) “the right of Jews to live in East Jerusalem.” By which they really mean: the right of Israelis to take Palestinian land. More specifically, we might argue that Jews have the right to live in East Jerusalem (which may or may not be true) but that’s not really the issue. The issue is not where Jews get to live, but where Israelis get to live. The conflation of “Israeli” and “Jew” in the American press is purposeful. Israel’s supporters here would love to paint opposition to Israel as hatred of Jews. Which is why I also, and stridently, oppose the official recognition of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Not only is it not a Jewish state (about 20 percent of its citizens are Arabs), but by describing it as a Jewish state we are falling into a trap: it would mean that all criticism of Israel would be criticism of the Jews – and therefore, anti-Semitic. The purpose is not to open debate but to close it; not to reinforce political language but to censor it. Language is the most powerful weapon in any political arsenal. It’s important that we get it right.

5. In a post at Foreign Policy, you recently disclosed that General David Petraeus had sought to have the West Bank and Gaza transferred from the U.S. European Command to his own Central Command, arguing that U.S. policy in this conflict was having a harmful conflict on the security of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. What did you make of the reaction of Petraeus’s erstwhile neoconservative boosters to these statements? Do you think Petraeus’s view is likely to have longer-term influence on American policy towards Israel?

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What an irony. In 2007, as General Petraeus was preparing to testify in the House and Senate on the surge strategy in Iraq, the neoconservatives and their allies were urging Americans to “listen carefully to what General Petraeus has to say” (Rep. John Boehner), to “support him and send a message to our troops that we are behind him,” (Rep. Eric Cantor) and to “support him 100 percent” (John McCain). Now, those same neoconservatives and their “Israel can do no wrong” allies are questioning his understanding of the war on terrorism (breathtaking), describing his concerns as “dangerous and counterproductive,” (Abe Foxman) or remaining silent – which might be the best strategy. Or, perhaps more wisely, the neoconservatives have ignored what Petraeus has to say and have focused, instead, on the messenger – on me. In the wake of the Petraeus testimony – during which he drew a direct correlation between America’s unstinting support of Israel and our increasing difficulties in the region — Max Boot discredited what Petraeus had to say by attempting to discredit me; he called me “a terrorist groupie.”

I knew that the article that I wrote for Foreign Policy would be controversial, but I did not know that it would be explosive. It changed the way people think about the conflict. Even so, I remain skeptical that it will change policy, particularly when I hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continue to mouth platitudes. In the wake of my article she issued yet another statement reassuring our Israeli allies. “We are committed to Israel’s security,” she said. She doesn’t get it. The question is not whether we’re committed to Israel’s security, the question is whether they’re committed to ours.

6. In Afghanistan, the Karzai government is engaged in an open dialogue with Taliban leaders that the United States does not support—and occasionally even appears to work to undermine. Are there some lessons from the al-Anbar experience for General McChrystal?

What happened in al-Anbar can and should provide useful lessons for our conflict in Afghanistan. The Taliban is a diverse and complex political movement—and not wholly to our liking. Nor should they be. But we cannot kill our way to victory in Afghanistan, and it seems unlikely that we will defeat the Taliban in the field of battle. There are, as I understand, parts of the Taliban amenable to negotiating an end to the fighting in exchange for a place in the government. I see no reason why, instead of expending American blood in a vain effort to shift the facts on the ground, we cannot begin an exchange with those elements that would take the lives of our soldiers out of Afghanistan’s political calculus. The standard rejoinder is: well, we don’t like them. That’s true. It’s also irrelevant.

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