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McCain, Obama, and the Hamas Banana Skin

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Senator McCain's 'Hamas attack' on Senator Obama has certainly got a lot of play. The McCain campaign even used it in a fundraising email.

While neither campaign has come out of the episode bathed in glory, the way in which Senator McCain manipulated this raises some worrying questions as to just how irresponsible on national security his campaign is willing to be to score points. The NYT has a good factual account of the story, including the quotes from a WABC radio interview by senior Hamas adviser Ahmed Yousef and the responses of the respective campaigns. Yousef did not endorse Obama and Obama was not fishing for endorsements off the Gazan coast. Gazans do not have a vote in US elections (they did though vote in American-sponsored elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the results of which the Bush administration then attempted to overturn by arming up a faction within Fatah, as David Rose recently exposed in Vanity Fair).

Obviously the McCain spin was all about politics. But the substantive policy piece of this should not be ignored. As has been clarified on numerous occasions by Senator Obama, the candidates' policies are identical on the issue of Hamas -- a terrorist organization with whom there will be no engagement. That symmetry is rather a shame. Current policy, including toward Hamas, is not working. It is not delivering security to Israelis or Palestinians, not advancing the peace process and not contributing to overall re-stabilization in a dangerously radicalized Middle East. Israel is currently in the midst of considering Egyptian-mediated ceasefire possibilities with Hamas. Very senior Israeli officials and ex-officials, including ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, ex-National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, and former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, are advocating Israeli engagement, direct or indirect, with Hamas. And sitting ministers and parliamentarians (albeit somewhat constrained by coalition discipline) are making similar noises. The Israeli government and defense establishment are in constant contact with a variety of regional and international officials and non-officials who meet with, and are able to convey a better understanding of, Hamas and its positions. Laura Rozen has a very thoughtful piece on this in MoJo.

In the run-up to last November's Israeli-Palestinian Annapolis peace conference, over 60 prominent Americans led by Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee Hamilton, and Carla Hills signed a letter to President Bush and Secretary Rice (initiated by the New America Foundation, among others) that argued: "As to Hamas, we believe that... dialogue... is far preferable to its isolation" and that if "Hamas is ostracized, prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has adopted a similar position.

For John McCain, Hamas policy (or lack thereof) is part of his parroting of Bush's talk-to-no-one policy and his more-of-the-sameness. Barack Obama has embraced the idea that tough diplomacy, even with adversaries, might actually have a role in problem solving, but that Hamas is a non-state actor and listed terrorist organization, and therefore is not on the to-be-engaged list. It's a reasonable distinction to draw even if there are, of course, no Palestinian interlocutors who are 'state actors'. Obama in general has demonstrated diplomatic sophistication in his Middle East pronouncements, and these were on display again in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, where the Illinois Senator gave vent to his deep familiarity with the Zionist idea, the meaning of Israel in Jewish life and the impact that the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict has on the region.

Much has been made of the role or lack thereof of Robert Malley in the Obama campaign. The Malley association was being used by various groups to misrepresent Obama and Malley has now stepped down from what was anyway an informal association with the campaign. Malley is the director of the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group and a former Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs (full disclosure: he is also a friend and former colleague).

In his professional role, it is Malley's job to understand the Middle East, the major players and forces, their considerations and the backdrop against which decisions and policy options can be evaluated. As such, Malley has met with the Hamas leadership as well as with leaderships and opposition in a range of countries across the region, including Israel. That is called expertise and a deep, first-hand understanding. It is what you have in the room if you do not want to be Chalabied time and again when you make foreign policy. Not setting oneself up to be Chalabied by filling a room with ignorance and ideological groupthink is part of the change that is required in November. The Robert Malley's should be in the room. US and Israeli officials frequently seek his counsel. By the way, the under-attack Robert Malley's impeccable credentials have also been defended in this letter from his former colleagues and the most respected Israel policy-hands.

But what of the dangerous irresponsibility on display in the McCain campaign. McCain wants to stay 100 years in Iraq, to bomb bomb bomb Iran, continue ignoring Syria. He makes no mention of the peace process (unlike Obama in his Israel at 60 greeting), and wants to turn up the heat on Russia and China at the same time.

So how does this link back to our Gaza chap Mr. Yousef. There are two ways of interpreting Ahmed's Yousef comments on the American election: the first, is that as a member of Hamas's pragmatist camp, which has reached out to the West before, Yousef is genuinely hoping for a dialogue with the US and that the differences between the US and non al-Qaeda political Islamists, like Hamas, can actually be bridged. That interpretation makes sense to me and would be a rather encouraging sign. In unequivocally rejecting Hamas, Obama would seem not to adhere to this interpretation. Again though, Obama makes an important distinction in his Goldberg interview:

I welcome the Muslim world's accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush, but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel's security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm.

Everything suggests that McCain would categorically reject seeing Yousef's comment as outreach. So how else can one explain Yousef's comments?

Like this: it's a play out of the Karl Rove book of political psych-ops. Why? Well, McCain equals a continuation of Bush policies that have strengthened Hamas and have undermined Hamas's competition -- the moderate Western allies. So Hamas has thrown some encouraging words in Obama's direction, anticipating the predictable responses, thereby intentionally harming him -- and helping McCain. Right Karl?

Either McCain is wrong about Hamas (interpretation 1), or he has fallen into their trap, been suckered, and given a foreign agent (and one he defines as terrorist at that) a prominent role in an American election. Neither version exactly flatters the Arizona Senator. McCain doesn't recognized psych-ops? Who would've thunk it?

Quick quiz: Which is the appropriate response for an anti-terror warrior: "I will not lend a hand to this attempt by terrorists to intervene in the American electoral process"; or "Dear voters, listen to the terrorists, send me cash."?

Hey, it's your election but it seems to me that McCain is saying its open season: anyone in the world with a gripe -- game on, play our politics. And in this instance he also happens to be enhancing the regional prestige of Hamas. That looks to me like a campaign playing fast and loose with national security. And why not? McCain already embraced Pastor Rod Parsley -- "The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion [Islam] destroyed." Now embracing him will make troops in the region and folks back home safer?