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.

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