In the prologue of Talking to Terrorists, Mark Perry promises to tell two different stories with the same meaning: "how U.S. (and European) policies in the Middle East — and our two societies' rhetoric about ‘terrorists' — have undermined our standing in the world, how we got the war on terror wrong, and how we can begin to get it right." It's unrealistic to expect that any single book could deliver on that promise. Perry, nevertheless, comes close.
The two stories are about American and European efforts in 2004 and 2005 to engage in useful dialogue with "terrorists." The first is a complex account of how a diverse collection of Americans — a businessman, a couple of senior civilian officials in Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense, and a group of U.S. Marine Corps officers — engaged in exchanges with Sunni Arab business and tribal leaders tied to the insurgents in Anbar Province that ultimately contributed to the "Sunni Awakening." Iraqis who had been fighting against what they regarded as American occupiers of their country turned their guns on Al-Qaeda in Iraq and joined with U.S. forces to secure their province. The second story tells of meetings in Beirut, which Perry arranged and in which he participated, between American and British academics, politicians and former officials, on one side, and leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, on the other.
Much of the Iraq story fits a widely reported and accepted view of an American policy seemingly determined to pick the worst available option at every key point. First, we invaded he country with a force sufficient to break Iraq's armed forces but woefully inadequate to the follow-on task of securing the country. Then we disbanded the Iraqi army and civil service, depriving us of the only possible offset for our decision to go in without the means to govern the country. And all along, we rejected overtures from Iraqi nationalists who were seeking to make deals with us that would enable our declared objective of establishing a viable democratic Iraqi state.
Surprisingly, Perry's story presents Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld as an official who saw the ineffectiveness of the overall effort and who, as early as the autumn of 2003, was interested in the prospects for engaging Sunni factions in order to separate as many as possible from committed "terrorists" (or, to use Rumsfeld's term, "dead enders"). Not surprisingly, the book records that Rumsfeld's probes in this direction were immediately and vigorously opposed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who regarded all Sunnis as Baathists and all Baathists as "Nazis." Perry's story, thereafter, is a fascinating back-and-forth between what his sources labeled the "R Group" (Rumsfeld and supporters of engagement) versus the "Z Group" (Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, whose association with the Zell law firm yielded the "Z").
The story provides a glimpse into a previously unknown dynamic at the senior levels of the Defense Department. It reads like a thriller. This handful of Pentagon civilians supporting Marines in Iraq and Jordan meet with Iraqis who gradually reveal themselves to be directly connected to insurgents fighting the Marines in Anbar who are opposed to Al-Qaeda and, especially, to what they regard as an Iranian-influenced regime in the Iraqi interim government and our Coalition Provisional Authority. The story oscillates between what the Marines perceive to be small victories and serious defeats as the initial contacts in Amman and continuing communications take place against the backdrop of increasingly violent combat in Anbar and across Iraq. The crisis moment of the story is worthy of Hollywood.
On July 23, 2005, one of the key Iraqi interlocutors among the Iraqi-Marine contacts phoned the American businessman to say, "We're in trouble." A group of "jihadis…led by heavily armed Al-Qaeda operatives" had taken over the northwestern town of al-Qaim and driven the defending tribal militia into the desert as night fell. The militia was expecting to be pursued by the jihadis at first light on July 24. The militia was out of ammunition and thought they would be wiped out. In an hour-long flurry of phone calls among the businessman, a key "R Group" Pentagon official and Marines in the United States and Iraq, however, Marine air support for the militia was arranged. Instead of wiping out the tribal militia, the Al-Qaeda-led jihadis were destroyed by a "package" of Marine Cobra helicopters from Camp Fallujah. The civilians and Marines believe that Al-Qaim was crucial. "Marines in helicopters over al-Qaim shifted the American war in Iraq, siding with a national resistance movement against the ‘dead enders' of al-Qaeda."
Perry makes the case that, while it took until 2006 for the "Sunni Awakening" to take off in conjunction with the "surge" and the adoption of Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, "the truth is quite different." Perry writes that the key was "not a surge in troops, but with a surge in thinking." He reveals that "the real gamble in Iraq was not in deploying more troops to kill terrorists; the real gamble in Iraq was in sending Marines to talk to them."
The second story in Talking to Terrorists is quite different. It is about a series of meetings in Beirut between non-official Americans and Europeans and the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah in which the "terrorist" groups presented their case for political, rather than military or law-enforcement engagement with them by the United States and Europe. But it is more than that. This section also relates Perry's long experience in the region and many contacts with these two groups and others that form the basis for his conviction that the United States and other Western powers are profoundly mistaken in refusing to engage with nationalist resistance groups whom we identify as terrorists. Perry also provides useful histories of both Hamas and Hezbollah and presents scholarly arguments for engagement.
The second story does not describe meetings between U.S. officials and opponents, but between leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and non-officials who hope to bring them about. There is no stirring tale of Marines to the rescue, but a record of contacts that, at best, might pave the way for later official engagement.
There are, nevertheless, significant moments. The Hamas leadership used the Beirut meetings to back away from a policy aimed at the destruction of the State of Israel. Perry reports that at the March 2005 meeting, Musa Abu Marzouk, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, stated that Hamas would "fight Israel until it abandons the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem." When it was noted that this position contradicted the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, his response was, "The charter is not the Koran. It can be amended."
The chapter on Hezbollah does not reveal any surprising modifications of their basic policies. Despite repeated efforts by the American and European conferees to draw Hezbollah leaders into a discussion of their attacks in the early 1980s on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut and the kidnapping, torture and murder of Marine Colonel William R. ["Rich"] Higgins and CIA Station Chief William Buckley, the Hezbollah officials deflected the discussion, repeating the implausible mantra that "Hezbollah does not have blood on its hands."
The chapter entitled "Israel" is about much more. It provides a complex look at America's view of Israel, Israel's view of us, and changes in the American Jewish community's relationship with and understanding of Israel. Perry also provides a revelatory chapter on himself, relating stories from his "twenty years traveling to and from and living in the Middle East." He is unabashedly emotional about the region and its issues.
The final lines of the book sum up Perry's emotional reason for urging that we talk to terrorists to end terrorism: "The men and women and children who have died in the wars of the Middle East, European, Israeli, Iraqi, or Palestinian, the Americans who fell through the sky on a clear September day in Manhattan — all of them had one thing in common, no matter who killed them. They were innocent."