Condi Encounters Resistance

Paul Woodward

Last September, McClatchy Newspapers foreign affairs correspondent, Warren Strobel, was asked whether the second Bush administration could still keep its stories straight. During the first administration there had -- at least among Washington journalists -- been "an awestruck admiration" for the administration's ability to stay "on message." But having subsequently become mired in Iraq, was the communication machine now starting to lose some of its rigor?

On the contrary, Strobel responded, "In this administration, and especially with Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, they've imposed even more message discipline."

Bearing this in mind, what should we infer from a recent statement that Secretary Rice made? On January 18, speaking to travelling reporters on her way back from the Middle East, this is how Rice contrasted the Israeli-Palestinian situation in 2000 from the way it currently stands. At that time:

... you had Hamas, of course, sitting out as a resistance movement, not at all, by the way, involved in the politics at all. Now, I know that the inclusion of Hamas into the political system for elections has made things in some sense more complicated, but it has also made Hamas contest in the political system, and their inability to govern has led Hamas to, I think, some very -- to a very difficult situation in which they're trying to find their ways out.

For a leading figure in the Bush administration, none less than the Secretary of State herself, to refer to Hamas as a resistance movement -- which is of course what Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, the "Islamic Resistance Movement," calls itself -- is a noteworthy event. It begins to loosen a verbal straightjacket imposed by the war on terrorism -- a stricture on discourse through which the indiscriminate application of the term "terrorist" has stifled political analysis.

To say that an organization is a resistance movement implies recognizing that:

  • it has broad-based civilian support based on a relationship to land and culture -- that it is not simply a self-validating ideological collective;
  • that it is a political and militant response to a social reality which the resistance is attempting to challenge;
  • that such a movement is pursuing legitimate political goals commonly thought of in terms of self-determination;
  • that though this political legitimacy can be undermined, it cannot be invalidated by techniques of resistance that may alienate outside support.

When the word "resistance" slipped out of Rice's mouth, she might not have been signalling that the administration is preparing to engage Hamas, yet she could not be under any illusion that in the language of the war on terrorism, "terrorist organization" and "resistance movement" have ever been accepted as interchangeable terms.

Press reaction to this lapse has been strangely muted. Washington Post columnist, Al Kamen, referred to this as an "odd moment" given that the State Department's most recent list of "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" still includes Hamas. Haaretz columnist, Shmuel Rosner, wrote:

Was she just tired? Was she trying to make a point that wasn't well expressed? It doesn't matter: everybody seems to understand that the prospect of Rice opening the door to a new love affair with Hamas is not a real danger - so they just ignored these remarks, and rightly so.

At the same time, Rosner could not ignore Rice's choice of terms and went on to recount the ways in which John Kerry, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and of course, Jimmy Carter, have all been made to pay for their "verbal gaffes."

Perhaps in order to prevent similar damage to Rice's reputation, a State Department official soon stepped in to provide "clarification," reassuring those concerned that "our position on Hamas has not changed at all" -- that they are still officially designated as a terrorist organization. The Jerusalem Post went on to report that, according to this official, Rice, while attempting to make a wider point, "forgot to use the word terrorist."

The administration's most artful practitioner of message discipline said "resistance movement" but what she really meant was "terrorist organization."

Rice soon received what might be called a verbal warning from Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League.  He said that her comments had "raised some eyebrows and I don't think it was an artful term in connection with Hamas." The Zionist Organization of America found Rice's remarks even more disturbing and said that, "this sort of inappropriate positive spin on troubling aspects of Palestinian Arab society does not seem to be an aberration, but in fact is pattern for Secretary Rice." They have asked her to issue a retraction and an apology. As for the "Draft Condi" campaign, they can be assured that if Rice ever decides to run for elected office, her surprising choice of words on January 18, 2007, will almost certainly come back to haunt her.

Prior to 9/11, for a high-ranking U.S. government official to treat "resistance movement" and "terrorist organization" as interchangeable terms might have been unusual, yet its significance would have hinged on the specific case in point. After all, in any particular instance, the choice of terms has generally reflected affiliation with one side or the other in any particular conflict. In fact, in contrast to the adulatory "freedom fighter" versus pejorative "terrorist," "resistance" actually has some objective substance that the other terms lack.

After 9/11, however, a new doctrine came into play -- a doctrine that rarely gets fully articulated but that nevertheless is rigorously applied.

According to this quasi-theological perspective there is a homogeneous entity -- "Islamic terrorism" -- whose scattered manifestations fail to conceal its unitary identity. If we keep our attention focused on the underlying global evil -- our common enemy -- we can avoid the beguiling distraction of local politics. From this perspective, what parades as politics is nothing more than propaganda.

To illustrate this point, consider an attack in Gaza in October 2003. A roadside blast struck a U.S. diplomatic convoy, killing three Americans. Political observers soon started to speculate about whether this marked a strategic shift by Palestinian militants, yet an editorial in the Jerusalem Post steared clear of such considerations and cleaved religiously to the doctrine of the war on terrorism:

No one initially claimed responsibility for the bomb that killed three Americans on their way to interview Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for scholarships. Identifying the culprits sometimes takes time, just as it took time for al-Qaida to start boasting of what it did on September 11, 2001. But this anonymity is in any case fitting, because it points to what Richard Perle calls the "unity of terror." Whether it was Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or perhaps even al-Qaida itself matters little and in fact tends to distract from what the West knows but often does not like to admit: The tentacles all belong to the same enemy.

Terrorism is terrorism is terrorism.

On the other hand, if we concede that an organization such as Hamas has a legitimate political agenda -- which is exactly what referring to it as a "resistance movement" implies -- we risk turning our attention away from the common enemy. Determination and resolve in the face of the terrorist threat requires that we sustain a conviction in an underlying (yet perhaps mysterious) "unity of terror."

Condoleezza Rice's "slip of the tongue," as Shmuel Rosner indicated, does not suggest a new opening to Hamas. On the contrary, Rice seems to view the organization's entry into electoral politics as leading to a "difficult situation" by which she is content to see it constrained. That the United States has been instrumental in imposing these constraints -- both through economic sanctions and by promoting civil war -- gets conveniently left out of the picture. Indeed, if Rice's remarks reveal some strategic thinking it seems to be the assumption that by including Hamas in the political process, the administration's hope was that the organization could be both defanged and politically disempowered. Far from welcoming signs that the resistance movement might be acquiring political maturity, the administration has instead become increasingly impatient in its desire to bring about Hamas' demise.

The weak doctrinal foundations of the war on terrorism are now becoming visibly brittle. And though Condi's lapse in message discipline might not signal an imminent policy shift, it does indicate that the dogmatic suppression of political discourse and engagement cannot be sustained indefinitely. A refusal to talk about core political issues will not make them go away.



2 Comments

  1. […] Also don't miss the new report from Conflicts Forum. "After Condoleezza Rice recently called Hamas a "resistance movement" (January 18), the reaction from reporters was… No reaction!" […]

  2. Wil Robinson wrote:

    Most disconcerting is the reaction anything other than pro-Israeli speak gets immediately from the anti-Defamation league or other pro-Israeli lobby. Intelligent thought and debate can’t occur without using pro-Israeli terms.

    Unfortunate.