Commentary Magazine


That “Loaded Word”

In his latest “Memo from Cairo,” New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman virtually begs the Obama administration to avoid using the word “terrorist” in reference to Hamas and Hezbollah.  According to Slackman (who, by the way, happens to be a gentleman), calling these groups “terrorists” turns off the Arab world, in which people view Israel as the “real terrorist,” whereas Hamas and Hezbollah are just “trying to liberate their countries.”  In turn, intimates Slackman, using a “loaded word” like “terrorist” when describing Hamas or Hezbollah makes peace impossible.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that Slackman has managed to pass off his own view on the mind-numbingly dull one-man’s-terrorist-is-another-man’s-freedom-fighter cliché as a news story.  Let’s also leave aside that Hezbollah isn’t actually fighting an occupation, as Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon – with U.N. certification – almost nine years ago.  And let’s also accept Slackman’s assumption that a woman sitting on a curb in Cairo selling bread, mint, and green onions while watching goats eat trash off the street – yes, this is one of Slackman’s sources for this story – has a significant impact on Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.  There’s still a good deal wrong with Slackman’s analysis.

First, the administration’s choice of words – i.e., whether it calls Hamas and Hezbollah “terrorists” or “our dearest friends” – has nothing to do with Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.  Hamas didn’t start firing rockets into Israel because the Bush administration called it a terrorist organization; nor did Hezbollah kidnap Israeli soldiers to set off the 2006 Lebanon war because it was on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.  In short, Slackman’s causal argument is at odds with the facts, not to mention basic logic.

Second, it’s not clear what the upshot is of the U.S. changing the language it uses to describe these groups.  For starters, it seems incredibly unlikely – and that’s being generous – that Hamas would suddenly be willing to recognize and make peace with Israel if the U.S. no longer referred to it as a terrorist organization.  Moreover, changing our definition of “terrorist” to give Hamas and Hezbollah a pass would jeopardize U.S. public diplomacy: the moment we fail to call non-state actors who target civilians for political ends – and this is precisely what Hamas and Hezbollah do – terrorists, we lose the right to our most compelling and widely accepted moral argument against al-Qaeda.  How long will it be before 9/11 is seen as remarkable only on account of its scale, with its criminality a topic for navel-gazing debate?

Finally, Slackman conveniently ignores the primary reason why the U.S. still refers to Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations – namely, because these groups have refused to renounce terrorism, and doing so has long been a key precondition for their engagement with the U.S.  Naturally, Slackman doesn’t bother to ask a leader from Hamas or Hezbollah the obvious question: if you’re not really a terrorist organization, why don’t you just renounce terrorism as per western demands?

Of course, it’s easy to explain these oversights.  In Slackman’s world, the Arab-Israeli conflict has little to do with the major combatants’ strategic choices – after all, Slackman doesn’t interview these combatants.  Rather, he interviews ordinary Egyptians and a handful of former Arab diplomats and scholars – so, naturally, resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict requires that the U.S. do what it must to achieve their approval.

Does foreign policy analysis get any lazier than this?