Stick two Fingers in Your Eyes: Augustus R. Norton’s Recipe for Dealing with Hamas

Among the plethora of bad advice coming out of the “talking heads,” I can’t resist fisking the piece by Augustus Richard Norton in the Boston Globe. First it’s my home newspaper; second, Norton’s at my university; and third, he is one of the prominent figures in pushing the notion of “civil society” that I criticize in my essay on the topic. Martin Kramer dedicates some pages to him in his Ivory Towers on Sand as one of the many examples of misplaced (but self-assured) confidence in the imminent flowering of democracy in the Arab world (67-69). This essay could have been written in 1995.

Norton, an Anthropology and International Relations professor at Boston University, author of a new book, Hezbollah: A Short History, also has a website pretentiously entitled: Speaking Truth to Power from Boston, the classic phrase that people on the “left” congratulate themselves on doing to those in power who grant them the right to dissent. Try speaking truth to Arab “power” and see how your kneecaps feel.

Palestinian fantasy vs. reality
By Augustus Richard Norton | June 21, 2007

IN JANUARY 2006, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections. President George W. Bush had insisted on holding elections on schedule, against the advice of key regional allies. While US officials described the polling as “fair and secure,” the Bush administration demonstrated that it loves democracy only so long as our friends win.

This sounds a great deal like some of the more profound comments we get at this site, this one from Yehia in Indonesia:

    America and the west are not being fair.
    they bark on democracy but when Hamas Won the election they boycot it.
    stop being double standard..

The question is, does Norton really adhere to so superficial a definition of democracy, or can he just not resist taking cheap shots at the Bush administration. After all, the first people to experiment with democracy, the Greeks, were perfectly aware that if the demos were badly educated and undisciplined and made unwise choices, their democracy wouldn’t last, soon to be replaced by chaos or tyranny. In modern parlance, “one man, one vote, one time.” But note the way that with comments like Norton’s, there’s no way in the world that people like Yehia have a chance of understanding what democracy is about. A magnificent collusion of anti-American resentments.

In this case, it was hardly “our friends” who won, but Hamas. With the United States in the lead and plenty of arm twisting, the European Union, the UN secretary general, and Russia insisted that Hamas recognize Israel, embrace Oslo, and renounce violence.

The United States was intent to see the Hamas government fail. Not only did it work assiduously to block international funding, but it poured arms and money into militias controlled by the discredited nationalist forces that had lost the election. To add to the pressure, Israel refused to transfer tax revenues paid by Palestinians to the new government.

Notice how Norton manages to make the demands sound unreasonable. And in the process, he manages not once to pronounce the key word, “terrorism.” One wouldn’t have a clue that this is an organization with genocidal goals written into its charter, one that has made targeting civilians the core of its “resistance.” The idea that this organization — with its merciless cruelty towards its own people — should fail seems, from Norton’s point of view, some kind of a crime against the Palestinian people.

A prime beneficiary of US largesse has been Muhammad Dahlan and his Preventive Security Force, which was decisively defeated last week by Hamas. Dahlan, who is about as popular in Gaza as Ahmed Chelabi is in Iraq, is Washington’s man.

The path from 2006 might have led in a different, more constructive direction if the Bush administration were not so captured by an illusory black and white approach to Hamas and similar Islamist groups. These groups are neither easily shunted aside nor ignored.

A wiser policy would have worked to implicate Hamas in the diplomatic process by insisting on incremental changes that would not only have been more palatable to the Islamist party but permitted it to demonstrate that it was winning some benefits in return for concessions.

“Wiser…”? Because we have so many other examples of working successfully with a paranoid, genocidal, organization? Again, it’s not clear whether Norton cares whether his slap-dash advice is good. Again, like the cheap shots about democracy, criticizing the US for its choice of Dahlan and presenting the “path not taken” as the good one, may be more important to him than anything to do with policies that will work. His approach remains much like his work in the 1990s, before Oslo failed, Arab democracy failed, and global Jihad became the force it is today: paint the Jihadis in moderate colors and blame American policy for their radicalization.

While the refusal of Hamas to concede the legitimacy of Israel is a core ideological value, the party also endorses a long-term ceasefire with Israel. The Hamas diplomatic position is actually close to that of Israel in terms of accepting negotiations as an incremental process. In contrast, the PLO spurns partial agreements and insists on moving to final status negotiations.

Wow, that’s quite a sleight of hand. Hamas is in favor of a “long-term truce” (really a hudna) because it is too weak for all-out war, but that’s merely so it can prepare the next round of war against an enemy it is sworn to destroy. And that, in Norton’s acute analysis, makes it “actually close” to the position of the Israelis whom Hamas wants to destroy? Could an undergraduate get away with that kind of argument?

Violence between Hamas and its political rivals has been growing for months. This is why King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia interceded (to the displeasure of Washington) earlier this year. The resulting Mecca agreement created a national unity government between Hamas and Fatah but it could not stop the clashes between rival militia and police groups loyal to Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas.

Notice how, when it comes to the failure of Palestinian politics to work things out peacefully, there’s no explanation… no mention of the murderous culture that Hamas has contributed so much to creating, and which so suits Fatah as well. It’s like nature. It just happens.

Having lost control of Gaza, Abu Mazen has issued an emergency edict to establish a government in the West Bank under Salam Fayyad, the respected economist. Israel promptly announced that it will release nearly $600 million in confiscated Palestinian funds. Both the United States and the EU will resume funding to bolster the emergency government.

For the foreseeable future there will be two governments, both claiming legitimacy. With Hamas controlling two-thirds of the seats in the Palestinians’ equivalent of a parliament, the long-term legitimacy of the Fayyad government is by no means guaranteed.

The present Washington fantasy seems to be that the “good” West Bank government will become a model of diplomatic accommodation and a voice of non violence, as against the “bad” government under the elected Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyah.

This is a revealing fantasy, but it underestimates the well-honed capability of the Palestinians to see through diplomatic smokescreens. A Palestinian government that can deliver not just bread and jobs but a stable solution to the conflict would win a lot of credit, but a government that is merely a pliant dependency of the United States will soon lose its shine, especially given the absence of a sustained commitment to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abu Mazen was extolled two years ago by George Bush as a democrat and reformer, but American engagement and support proved to be an empty promise.

Let me unpack this. Prosperity, stability, employment, none of this will do anything to appease the Palestinian need to “address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And of course, what the Oslo process had to offer in the way of compromise would surely not do with Hamas, so the idea that this policy of moderation accompanied with those compromises won’t
“address” the problem. As for this “well-honed capability of the Palestinians to see through diplomatic smokescreens” — it’s actually a combination of a culture of conspiracy in which everything is a smokescreen, and “advisors” like Norton who encourage irredentism with their contemptuous “take” on moderating efforts (no matter how misguided) in US and Israeli foreign policy — makes sure that nothing that might lead to moderation and trust can set in. You cannot close a deal with someone while bystanders are busy hollering “you’re being taken” — even if it’s a good deal.

Actually, we could just as easily apply Norton’s logic to his “wise strategy” for domesticating Hamas outlined above. Indeed, Hamas’ attitude towards the “incremental” moves Norton suggests would almost surely be: a) there’s no way we’ll let the Americans buy us off with these blandishments, and b) we’ll do what Arafat did — take the concessions and prepare for war. Had they survived the first error, I don’t think the Trojans would have let another wooden horse into their city. But that’s precisely what Norton urges us to do. Is he being driven mad by the gods?

Meantime, efforts to isolate Gaza under Hamas control will only reinforce America’s abysmal standing in the Muslim world. Eighty percent of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza now live in poverty.

Nice. We should determine our policies around concern that the very Arab world that has so contributed to that misery by pursuing their “sustained commitment to the addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” might view us poorly. In a sense, much of Norton’s policy — as with others like John Esposito, Jimmy Carter, Walt and Mearsheimer — consists of hardening Arab attitudes and then urging the US to appease them in order not to offend.

The United States needs to rethink its approach to Palestinian politics and peacemaking, as well as how it comprehends groups such as Hamas. The bloodletting in Gaza is a reminder that unless diplomacy makes room for all the major Palestinian players, the United States will only increase the vehemence and the cohesion of those who are left out of the picture.

So that’s what Norton “learns” from the “bloodletting in Gaza.” Not that we’re dealing with real enemies, who use terror to establish their authority, but rather that if we don’t appease them, they’ll get worse. Alas, and Norton was one of the “political experts” consulted by the Iraq Study Group. Advisors like this make our enemies rejoice.

And this is the kind of action this organization, which Norton says we need to appease, deals with the opposition (from Avi Issacharof):

    Hamas was not using a random hit list. Every Hamas patrol carried with it a laptop containing a list of Fatah operatives in Gaza, and an identity number and a star appeared next to each name. A red star meant the operative was to be executed and a blue one meant he was to be shot in the legs – a special, cruel tactic developed by Hamas, in which the shot is fired from the back of the knee so that the kneecap is shattered when the bullet exits the other side. A black star signaled arrest, and no star meant that the Fatah member was to be beaten and released. Hamas patrols took the list with them to hospitals, where they searched for wounded Fatah officials, some of whom they beat up and some of whom they abducted.

    Aside from assassinating Fatah officials, Hamas also killed innocent Palestinians, with the intention of deterring the large clans from confronting the organization. Thus it was that 10 days ago, after an hours-long gun battle that ended with Hamas overpowering the Bakr clan from the Shati refugee camp – known as a large, well-armed and dangerous family that supports Fatah – the Hamas military wing removed all the family members from their compound and lined them up against a wall. Militants selected a 14-year-old girl, two women aged 19 and 75, and two elderly men, and shot them to death in cold blood to send a message to all the armed clans of Gaza.

Truth to power, Augustus? Or does “original sin” not apply to the Palestinians?

UPDATE: My friend Hillel Stavis sent me this letter that he wrote the Globe, which the Globe immediately put up on their website and published in today’s newspaper… not.

Augustus Richard Norton (op-ed “Palestinian Fantasy v. Reality” ) suggests that Hamas’ desire to implement “a long term ceasefire” with Israel is a constructive,first step in achieving calm, if not ultimate peace, in that seemingly endless conflict. Since 1997, Hamas has unilaterally declared no less than ten “hudnas” or temporary ceasefires. As fundamentalist Muslims, Hamas understands, as I’m certain Professor Norton does as well, that the model for a hudna is Mohammed’s treaty of Hudaiybia of the 7th century in which The Prophet concluded a temporary truce with his Meccan adversaries for a ten year period. He broke the hudna after three years when he determined that his forces were sufficiently strengthened to conquer Mecca. Having replenished its arms from Iran, Syria and Egypt, Hamas will emulate the practice of the 7th century until it feels that Israel can be destroyed. Some ceasefire. Some peace.

Which again raises the question, is Norton ignorant of history, and if not, on what basis does he think it has no bearing on the thinking of the people he’s supposed to be explaining to us?

14 Responses to Stick two Fingers in Your Eyes: Augustus R. Norton’s Recipe for Dealing with Hamas

  1. Joanne says:

    “A wiser policy would have worked to implicate Hamas in the diplomatic process by insisting on incremental changes that would not only have been more palatable to the Islamist party but permitted it to demonstrate that it was winning some benefits in return for concessions.”

    First of all, Hamas wouldn’t see it as winning concessions, it would see it as winning … period. Hamas didn’t see Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a concession, Hamas saw the move–or portrayed it–as its own victory. Further concessions would’ve only encouraged Hamas to press on even more aggressively.

    Norton seems to not want to consider at all the possibility that Hamas knows what it wants and will not be deflected from it. This reminds me of a story told by an economist professor I had once, to show how economists think (but apparently not only economists):

    Three people are shipwrecked on an island: a physicist, a chemist and an economist. They are very hungry and have one can of beans with them, but no can opener. The problem they face is how to open the can.

    The chemist suggests: “Let’s make a fire and the heat will force the beans to expand, thus cracking open the can.”

    The physicist says: “Let’s throw the can up really high, and the force of impact when it hits the ground will split the can open.”

    The economist says: “Let’s assume there’s a can opener…”

    Norton is like the economist in this story. He just simply wants to stick to untenable assumptions so that he won’t have to question his comfortable conclusions. Let’s just assume Hamas would come around if given the right incentives. Let’s just assume that Hamas would come around if the U.S. convinced the Palestinians of its own good intentions. Let’s just assume that Hamas acts the way it does because economic stress and Israeli pressure make them desperate. Let’s just assume that Washington just needs to “make room” for Hamas in its diplomatic policies. Let’s just assume…

    On another subject:
    As for his critique that the Bush administration was warned about pushing for elections too soon, I think the Bush administration was indeed foolish. Here Norton is right. But it’s interesting to see how Norton takes a swipe at Israel here. He says that Bush was warned not to hold the election by “key regional allies.” Not surprisingly, Israel was among those giving this advice:

    Notice how Norton doesn’t mention Israel directly as sharing credit for this wise advice. He avoids giving credit to Israel by retreating into vague language. This is a small point, and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but sometimes these small omissions speak volumes about someone’s biases.

  2. David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 06/22/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  3. […] the same to a recent article, Palestinian Fantasy vs Reality, by Augustus Richard Norton Stick two Fingers in Your […]

  4. Eliyahu says:

    RL, you and Joanne came very close to what I want to say. Here Norton utters the old claptrap, that is, Pragmatism, which is a magic notion to many American social scientists but usually does not fit Arabs and other Muslims. Norton’s simplemindedness appears in his reference to “incremental changes.” He might just as well have said: We will give Hamas a carrot for every good change that they make, however minor. Hence, Norton shows no comprehension of how the jihadist mind works. The jihadist can be calmed or even tamed –at least temporarily– but only when he feels that jihad warfare is going to cause him to lose something valuable –without advancing the jihad. He is ready to lose his life if he feels that the jihad is winning. After all, there are those 72 beautiful virgin broads in the Janna, in Paradise [or, if he is so inclined, another Quranic version of reward in Paradise offers beautiful boys].

    After the French conquered Algeria in 1830, following earlier American attacks on them at Tripoli and elsewhere, the Barbary Pirates calmed down, eventhough most of the Barbary pirate ports had not been conquered. Cesar Famin argued [1853] that the French conquest of Algeria had ended Mediterranean piracy. That is, the kufar [unbelievers] and harbys [enemies] seemed to have attained such unchallengeable military [inc. naval] power that it was not worthwhile to continue the maritime jihad. In other words, overwhelming military force and geo-strategic domination [control of strategic areas] by the Kufar dissuaded the jihadis for a very long time. Now, that is what Israel must have. It must have unchallenged military superiority and geo-strategic assets [such as the hills west of the Jordan]. Norton either cannot see this or he is simply inventing excuses for besmirching Israel and helping to put Israel in an inferior geostrategic situation. And I think that Joanne may be right about Norton’s significant omission.

    In facing any determined enemy, it would be foolish to give up a concrete asset –like a geostrategic area– in exchange for paper promises. But Israel’s enemy is the Arab Muslim jihadist. He does not respect agreements reached with enemies if he feels that he has obtained strategic superiority. Both Fatah and Hamas violate agreemenst –signed and unsigned– day and night, even when in conflict with each other, let alone when fighting the hated Yahud, who are not only kufar but worse than other kufar. So I don’t know whether Norton is just foolish or ignorant or if he is being disingenuous.

    Anyhow, Norton as an anthropologist ought to know that Arabs/Muslims imbued with a jihadist ideology, like Hamas, like the Muslim Brotherhood, do not view peace as an endgoal unless the final situation is Islamic domination, that is, the transformation of Dar al-Harb into Dar al-Islam. Peace is not desirable in itself. It is not an Islamic value. On this Norton ought to read Prof Majid Khadduri’s book, The Law of War and Peace in Islam [or some such title]. Khadduri might know more about these matters than even our Bostonian anthropologist.

    RL, you are right urge that Norton’s “advice” be discarded.

  5. fp/ says:

    It does not matter how misguided and ignorant Norton is, the point is that this claptrap is now the “conventional wisdom” throughout the west.
    Knowledge and reason will no longer work, because the west has lost it. None of those who believe in this nonsense has to live with the consequences, or understand global jihad. And even if Israel is entirely exterminated, the Nortons will say “well, they were asking for it”.

    You see: we need to be consistent. If we argue that the palestinians won’t change until they pay the price for their attitudes and behavior, the same applies to the west. It may have to experience life under islam to pay the price for its failures. Whether it’ll be able to recover from that, though, it’s a tossup.

  6. Bruce Kodish says:

    Good job analyzing the illogic and factual blindness of Norton.

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that with such views as his, we would need a good psychiatrist to explain them.

  7. Bruce Kodish says:

    comment on fp’s:
    Not all in the West have lost their reason.

    Israel has not yet been exterminated.

    We, in the West, e.g., the U.S., are not yet living under the reign of Islam.

    We must not give up the fight because of undue pessimism because then we will surely lose it.

    The fight has not yet been lost.

    i believe the expression is, “we have yet begun to fight.”

  8. fp/ says:

    i did NOT say that all those things HAPPENED. what I did say was that ***given the current clear and accelerating trend***, this is more than likely to happen. the question is can the trend be stopped or reversed?

    our argument is that to stop their destructive behavior the palestinians must be left to pay the price for their behavior. consistency requires that we apply the same reasoning to the west: for it to stop self-destructing it must also pay a heavy enough price. and my sense is that the only price that will have an effect is islamist takeover, which may take a long while.

    but i would love to be proven wrong, no matter how low the chances for that are.

  9. fp/ says:

    i did NOT say that all those things HAPPENED. what I did say was that ***given the current clear and accelerating trend***, this is more than likely to happen. the question is can the trend be stopped or reversed?

    our argument is that to stop their destructive behavior the palestinians must be left to pay the price for their behavior. consistency requires that we apply the same reasoning to the west: for it to stop self-destructing it must also pay a heavy enough price. and my sense is that the only price that will have an effect is islamist takeover, which may take a long while.

    but i would love to be proven wrong, no matter how low the chances for that are.

  10. fp/ says:

    btw, the long process will more and more constrain the west and will make it more and more miserable, but the instinct to appease is too strong, as hitler well knew and now islamists are learning. you give in a bit here, a bit there, not a big deal. and before you know it …

  11. […] he Protestant Churches again as I read the following exchange in the comments at my blog: A comment J […]

  12. […] s, gays, Latinos, Native Americans — Arabs are now in the crosshairs. Somewhat like Norton talking about Hamas […]

  13. […] likely to fall prey to PCP and LCE… which is why the guardians of the public sphere — academics and media talking heads — don’t like to bring it up much. Hamas and Islamic […]

  14. […] University professor-blogger Richard Landes deconstructs a Boston Globe Op Ed column written by fellow BU professor Richard Augustus Norton. Notes Professor Landes: Norton, an […]

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