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EDITORIAL: Listening to Islamists

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Obama administration is continuing its outreach efforts to radical groups. On Tuesday in Islamabad, U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke met with Liaqat Baloch, a leader of Pakistan's Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party. The two had what was billed as a "very useful" 90-minute meeting. Mr. Holbrooke also met with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party who is closely tied to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari approves of this approach, saying that outreach to Islamist parties is part of "a new era" of seeking reconciliation instead of retrenchment and violence.

The new outreach approach has changed the diplomatic process but has yet to have a major impact on policy. Mr. Holbrooke said that his meeting with Mr. Baloch was "the most intellectually sustained debate I've ever had in this country," but the Islamist leader observed that regardless of the change in administration, "there still is no change in the practice." There is a decided gap between rhetoric and reality.

The problem is not that U.S. policymakers do not understand the Islamist position, or so we assume. The issues at hand are over important policies that leave little room for compromise. The United States wants to continue the very successful program of targeted missile strikes on terrorists; the Islamists want the strikes to end. The United States wants to expand the size of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan; the Islamists want the project to stop. The United States wants to augment the capabilities of Pakistan's armed forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations inside the country; the radicals oppose it. A listening campaign will not change these differences. The only issue on which the Islamists agree with the United States is the need to increase aid money, assuming they are the recipients.

The main effect of widening the scope of diplomacy to include radical Islamist parties is to increase their legitimacy, particularly among their followers. Now when Mr. Baloch leads a mass demonstration through the streets of the capital, he can do so as the man who personally handed Mr. Holbrooke their list of demands. If U.S. policy changes, he will take credit for it. If it does not change, he will say the Americans have deliberately shown disrespect. And if the aid money turns up, he will claim to have wrested it from Washington after tough negotiations.

The more American diplomats meet with the radicals, the more consequential they become, whatever the outcome. And the street will understand the implications of the fact that it was the Americans who asked for the meeting, not the radical leaders.

The big losers are Pakistan's liberals. The Islamist parties oppose democracy except as a means to power. They support voting only to the extent it will help put them in a position to impose strict Shariah-based laws. Elevating their stature through bilateral contacts undercuts the status of liberal parties that seek to move Pakistan's politics and society in a more progressive direction. It sends the message that in Washington's eyes, all parties are equal, when in reality, they are not.

After this week's meeting, while Mr. Holbrooke was praising Mr. Baloch's debating skills, Mr. Baloch was leading demonstrators in chants of "Go America Go!" in a protest rally across town. We hope Mr. Holbrooke was listening.