Contacts With The Opposition – Essential Diplomacy

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Just Because They Run The Government Doesn’t Mean They’re In Charge

Gerald Loftus
March 21, 2008

Astute readers will place me chronologically if I say that I joined the US Foreign Service around the time that the Shah’s rule in Iran was giving way to the Islamic Revolution. That traumatic change, when the prime US client regime in the Middle East was replaced by its polar opposite, was the cause of much soul-searching afterwards in American diplomatic circles. How could the United States, with its pervasive presence in Iran (not just diplomatic, with consulates throughout the country, but military training facilities, oil companies, etc.) miss what later was shown to be a popular movement of massive proportions?

A few years later, at the diplomatic training center called the Foreign Service Institute, the "tradecraft" course for diplomats going off to political reporting assignments included a segment entitled "Contacts With the Opposition," and featured Ryszard Kapuscinski’s "Shah Of Shahs," a must-read on the origins of the Iranian Revolution. In discussions among young diplomats, it was clear that one of the key lessons of Iran was to avoid the trap of only talking to the people in charge, in the capital. Unless you wanted to wind up like the US Embassy Tehran hostages – again, some of them contemporaries of mine.

In the early nineties, I found myself the interlocutor for the US Embassy in Algiers with the rising Islamist opposition, the Islamic Salvation Front or FIS. At the time, the FIS was on a winning streak: fresh from victories in local and regional elections, they were in the city halls as mayors and councilors all across Algeria. Their biggest victory – the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991 – was their last: the army stepped in and canceled the second round, arresting elected officials, and resulting in more than a decade of bloodshed. But all that was still in the future.

In the process of doing my job, I used to attend political party press conferences. Most of the time the parties were minuscule groupings of government stooges, set up to drain support from the populist (and popular) FIS. The FIS and its public meetings were not to be missed. One evening after one such press conference, still at the Embassy drafting my report back to Washington, I checked the telex ticker downstairs and stopped cold at the APS ("Algerie Presse Service," government-controlled) wire service story entitled something like "The Diplomat and the Sheikh." In which a completely bogus story was planted in the Algerian dailies that I was a conduit for American money funding the FIS election campaign. Luckily, the Ambassador was also still around, and his letter to the editor(s), in which he protested against the lies about secret funding, but defended diplomats’ duties to maintain contact with all legitimate political parties, was printed in a timely manner.

Just Because They Disagree Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Talk With Them.

Therefore it came as no surprise to me that in the Algeria of March 2008, US Ambassador Robert Ford has had to defend his right to meet "political party representatives and members of civil society," after charges of American interference in Algeria’s internal affairs, coming from none other than the Prime Minister, Abdelaziz Belkhadem. Despite all the cosmetic changes since the army’s overthrow of elected officials in 1992, Algeria’s "nomenklatura" is still in charge, and doesn’t appreciate foreign governments taking the opposition seriously.

So if it’s silly, defensive, and ultimately counterproductive to expect the United States and other countries to cut off contact with opposition parties in Algeria, why do some people in the US get antsy about presidential candidates who propose essentially the same thing vis a vis America’s "opposition" abroad? Senator Barack Obama’s proposition is that, if elected President, he would engage the leaders of Cuba and Iran in discussions about longstanding differences with the United States. What is so wrong with that? Is the simple act of talking itself a "concession," to be withheld indefinitely?

If such were always the case, Anwar Sadat would never have spoken to the Knesset, and Egypt would still be at war with Israel. And Libya’s Muammar Khadafi would still be persona non grata in the international community, and carrying on who knows what nefarious activities. Yes, you can talk to your sworn enemies – just ask General David Petraeus, who now swears by the Sunnis, formerly of the anti-US insurgency.

Contacts with the opposition at the field level, and "talking with foes and friends," as Obama puts it, at the Presidential level, are essential tools of diplomacy. But it’s not easy: sometimes the local hosts get upset, and sometimes the home team won’t understand that it is in their best interests.

Gerald Loftus was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer from 1979 to 2002, and worked in Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Europe.

Settled in Brussels, he consults, writes and pontificates. Avuncular American is mostly concerned with world affairs, especially those involving diplomacy and defense. Avuncular American reads extensively and watches films from a variety of countries, so reviews will slip into the blog on occasion.



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