The Pope Francis stardust worked over Cuba. Could it work with Isis and the Taliban?

theguardian: by Jonathan Freedland —

Pope Francis: 'When it comes to moral authority, he’s the top man in the world. Now that Mandela’s dead, who else is there?'

Stalin had quite a knack for the soundbite. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That’s said to be him. “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election. It’s the people whocount the votes who decide an election.” Him too. And, among the most enduring, the dictator’s mocking riposte on hearing that the pope was urging an end to the oppression of Catholics under Soviet rule. “The pope? How many divisions has he got?”

To a practitioner of realpolitik and respecter of brute force like Stalin, the bishop of Rome was a perennially toothless do-gooder, fine for a sermon about heaven but with no heft, or troops, to see his will done on Earth.

For much of recent history that held true (though the papacy would have its revenge when John Paul II played his part in the crumbling of the Soviet empire). This week, however, saw the Vatican boast of a diplomatic triumph that had eluded the conventional players of great power politics for over half a century. When the presidents of the US and Cuba made their simultaneous announcement on Wednesday of an entente between their two nations, the man they thanked was Pope Francis.

Some of that credit is institutional. US-Cuban rapprochement has been a Vatican pursuit for 40 years. But the achievement is personal too. For one thing, as a Latin American he brought an extra layer of proximity to the issue. There’s history in that as well as nearby geography: from Colombia to El Salvador, the Catholic church has long played a peacemaking role in the region, regularly serving as the broker between governments and guerrillas.

But second, and more valuable, was Francis’s own moral authority. Not the ex-officio respect granted to any pope, but the admiration his personal behaviour has attracted. In a world grown weary of hypocrisy, he exhibits the opposite: a match between his conduct and his rhetoric. He condemns inequality – and so refuses to use air-conditioning or go on holiday, because the poor can afford neither.

His standing grows out of his “personal integrity”, says his biographer Paul Vallely. When it comes to moral authority, he’s “the top man in the world. Now that Mandela’s dead, who else is there?” It means that the pope could cajole diplomats from Havana and Washington, knowing they wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him. If you end up in a fight for public opinion with Francis, chances are you’re going to lose. The result is something beyond mere global admiration: in the US-Cuba pact, he now has a concrete achievement.

The temptation is to ask: where next? Lord knows, there’s no shortage of places that could do with some papal peacemaking magic. For just as word came of the thaw over the Straits of Florida, we could gaze anew at the consequences of dialogue that has either failed or barely started.

The week’s most harrowing images came from Peshawar, with the murder of 132 schoolchildren by the Pakistan Taliban. Some, most famously the nation’s former cricket hero Imran Khan, have long advocated negotiations with the Taliban. To that end, there have been attempts to carve out a good Taliban distinct from the bad, to separate the reconcilables from the irreconcilables. But the failure, and perhaps the impossibility, of that effort was visible in Peshawar’s bloodied classrooms.

A day or two later the Guardian reported on the previously unknown, and tragically futile, quest to save Peter Kassig, the US hostage eventually beheaded by Isis. In that case too there were secret talks and US-authorised back channels, but where those methods brought success in Cuba, they resulted only in frustration and heartbreak for the family of Kassig.

It would be nice to think that the pope, like some white-cassocked superhero, could make the difference, bringing his healing power to Pakistan or Iraq. But it’s hardly likely. The difference between the Cuba example and those other, apparently intractable conflicts, reveals much about the nature of peacemaking – and about the pain without which peace is often impossible.

The most obvious point is that Francis, as a Christian leader, had a locus with both sides of the US-Cuba dispute that he would lack when facing down the jihadists of the Taliban or “Islamic State”. They would be unmoved by an appeal from the pope.

The same goes for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians (though that did not stop Francis summoning the then president, Shimon Peres – a Jew – and Mahmoud Abbas, a Muslim, to join him in prayer in June). What’s more, the US-Cuban dispute was a conflict in the deep freeze, long past the blood-spilling phase. If settling even that bloodless clash took years of patient diplomacy, how much more daunting a task to end wars that are hot and cruel, and very much of the present.

Jonathan Powell, who as Tony Blair’s right hand did so much to broker agreement in Northern Ireland, believes two conditions have to obtain to make peace a realistic prospect. There need to be strong leaders on both sides, able to deliver on any concession they might make. (A strong mediator, like Francis, doesn’t hurt.) And there has to be a “mutually hurting stalemate”.

Both sides need to find the status quo unbearable and simultaneously believe there is no way to alter that status quo through force alone. Only then will they be willing to compromise.

For Powell, the template was the realisation by both the IRA and the British government at different points in the 1980s that neither side was ever going to defeat, or be defeated by, the other. They had fought each other to a draw. In that situation a stasis can ensue which, if bearable, can endure – as it did in Cuba for 50 years. But if it is unendurable, then people will eventually look for a way out. The key is to have a political channel open when they do.

That points to an uncomfortable conclusion: that sometimes it takes persistent force to persuade a foe that he cannot win and that he has to come to the table. It’s a strange, double-edged business: to end the bitterest conflicts, and the battles against the Taliban and Isis fit into that category, it takes both fighting and talking. These are wars that cannot be settled by a wave of a wand or papal sceptre – even one held by a leader as true and admirable as Francis.

Origional Post here:

Categories: Europe, Islamists, Pope

Tagged as: ,

Leave a Reply