Contrarian thinking about dialogue

WASHINGTON — In a rapidly changing Islamic world, the Obama administration is weighing how best to talk with adversaries such as the Taliban and, perhaps, Hezbollah.

One model for the administration, as it thinks about engagement of enemies, is the British process of dialogue during the 199

0s with Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the terrorist Irish Republican Army. That outreach led to breakthrough peace talks and settlement of a conflict that had been raging for more than a century.

In the case of the Taliban, the administration has repeatedly stated that it is seeking a political settlement of the war in Afghanistan, rather than a military one. That formula sometimes seems hollow, when more than 100,000 U.S. troops are in combat. But it got more definition last month from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who opened the doors wider for dialogue.

Clinton, in a Feb. 18 speech to the Asia Society, subtly altered the terms for Taliban participation in peace talks. She repeated the administration’s “red lines for reconciliation” — that Taliban representatives must renounce violence, reject al-Qaida and abide by the Afghan constitution. But rather than making these preconditions for talks, as before, she said they were “necessary outcomes of any negotiation.”

To draw the Afghan insurgents toward reconciliation, the administration is supporting a plan by President Hamid Karzai that would allow the Taliban to open an office in Kabul or outside Afghanistan, where contacts might be easier. Saudi Arabia was discussed as one possible site, but a more likely venue would be Turkey. The Turkish government is pondering the issue.

Back-channel U.S. contacts with some Taliban figures have already begun, according to a report in The New Yorker last month by Steve Coll. This leak was regarded as so sensitive that one official suspected of sharing information is said to have been reprimanded.

The guiding premise for the administration is that political and diplomatic strategy must drive policy in Afghanistan this year, rather than being an afterthought to military operations. Here’s how the White House put it in its December policy review: “In 2011, we will intensify our regional diplomacy to enable a political process to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

This regional approach already has led to two U.S.-sponsored meetings on Afghanistan that included Iranian representatives — one in Rome last year and one in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 3.

The Hezbollah issue is still being framed, in terms of policy debate. But the White House has focused on it in recent weeks because of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Hezbollah that is nearing completion.

Officials who have read draft versions of the new estimate say it assesses Hezbollah in a broad context, as a political and social force in Lebanon in addition to the militia officially designated by the U.S. as a “foreign terrorist organization.” Like most NIEs, this one is said to contain a broad array of views, with some analysts stressing Hezbollah’s terrorist capabilities and others noting the organization’s growing political role, including its representation in the Lebanese cabinet.

The political time bomb ticking away in the NIE is the question of whether the United States should seek some kind of direct or indirect engagement with Hezbollah — at least with its political wing. Officials who support this course argue that the organization is like the IRA or the PLO — with non-military components that can be drawn into a dialogue.

Contrarian thinking about Hezbollah was voiced publicly by John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser. In May 2010 he described it as “a very interesting organization” and said the U.S. should try to “build up the more moderate elements.” And at a conference in August 2009, he offered this summary: “Hezbollah started out as purely a terrorist organization back in the early ’80s and has evolved significantly over time” to have members in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet.

The high-level discussion of Hezbollah illustrates the ferment in U.S. thinking about a Middle East that is being transformed by democratic uprisings. Officials caution that for now, the Hezbollah question is a matter for intelligence analysts, not policymakers. The White House recognizes that it has enough to deal with already without opening a new question that would produce shock waves in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

The bottom line is that after a decade of American wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration is increasingly looking for ways to talk with adversaries and draw them into a process of dialogue. The world is changing, and perhaps so should U.S. policy.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

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