Dialogue sounds like a good idea. But is it, asks Khalil El-Anani*
President Barack Obama's infatuation with dialogue may have gone too far. He began his presidential term with a promise to talk to foes across the board, including Iran and Syria. And a few days ago he told the Iranians to turn over a new leaf, promising to engage them in far-ranging discussions.
It is good to talk, but not when your opponent sees your overtures as a sign of weakness. The US currently promises to talk to all its adversaries -- Syria, Iran, the Taliban, North Korea, Russia and Somalia. Only Al-Qaeda has been excluded. Even they might be approached! Just wait.
Obama's call for dialogue with Iran, as well as with moderate members of the Taliban, seems rational and pragmatic on the surface. But deep down there is something inane, if not outright sinister, about it. The Nowruz speech shows the US administration to be indecisive at best, hapless at worst.
Thanks to Obama's new policy radicals are being rewarded. The more extreme you are the more likely the US is going to treat you with kid gloves. This type of diplomacy will encourage hardliners to stand tough and feel vindicated. Now Iran, Syria and the Taliban are all thanking their lucky stars.
Everywhere dialogue is offered hardliners will use it to bolster their own position vis-à-vis moderates. This is clear in the case of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who saw Obama's call for dialogue as a personal reward for all the years during which he challenged the West. Come the next presidential elections in June Ahmadinejad will be hard to challenge. And Taliban extremists, who vowed not to let up until the US is defeated, just as the Soviets had been, now feel their years of bloody radicalism have paid off.
From now on the US must brace itself for a hardening of position by all its opponents. And its allies in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, now feeling vulnerable, are soon going to start making demands of their own.
In the midst of all the talk about engaging former foes one group seems to have been left out, the moderate Islamists. President Obama doesn't seem interested in opening channels of dialogue with Islamist moderates, be they legally organised as in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and the Movement for the Society of Peace in Algeria, or legally handicapped as is the case with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria and the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia.
It is ironic that Obama's aides, while touting dialogue with the radicals as if it were a magic cure, seem to have forgotten about the moderates. Newsweek 's Farid Zakaria thinks it is a great idea when in fact it is both naïve and unethical.
Moderate Islamists have a wider appeal across the Arab and Islamic world than the radicals, and are well positioned to challenge Islamic radicalism. Yet they are being left out of the equation while groups that used to chant "death to America" are being solicited to engage.
What is this if not a backhanded boost for the radicals?
Why exactly are the moderates left of the equation? One, perhaps the most important, reason is that the US doesn't want to step on the toes of its allies, who all face a political challenge from Islamist moderates. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria (now a potential US ally) are all happier repressing the Islamist opposition than talking to it. And the Americans don't want to get caught in the middle.
Another reason is that moderate Islamists are not that interested in talking to the US. Some Islamists think that such a dialogue would compromise their puritan image and undermine their political appeal. And now that the US is losing interest in the moderates they are likely to be repressed more by their governments, which in turn may fuel the flames of radicalism. That's how self-defeating the current policies are. We've already seen how Arab governments cracked down on the Islamist opposition in the last two years of the Bush administration. The trend is likely to continue.
By talking to the radicals the US is hoping to drive a wedge between hardcore extremists and those within their ranks with more moderate views. But do you really believe there are moderates in the ranks of the Taliban? Do you really believe that Al-Qaeda was spreading mayhem around the globe just for fun? And what would happen, I wonder, if it transpires that Al-Qaeda is planning a big attack on US interests or those of a US ally? Would the US still opt for dialogue then?
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine published by Al-Ahram.