The Obama administration took two important steps last week that demonstrated much-needed realism and nuance in the evolving U.S. relationship with political Islam.

First, on Wednesday, it unveiled a new counterterrorism strategy that focuses squarely on Al Qaeda and its affiliates. It acknowledges that other groups, like Hezbollah and Hamas, might menace U.S. allies and interests, but the strategy vows to work “aggressively to counter their efforts and activities even as we avoid conflating them and Al Qaeda into a single enemy.”

This is a crucial contrast from the George W. Bush administration, which diluted its counterterrorism efforts and undermined U.S. national security by targeting “all terrorism of global reach.” That policy had the effect of turning potential allies — or even neutral parties — into confirmed U.S. enemies. It helped justify a devastating war in Iraq and undercut U.S. relations with much of the Muslim world.


Second, on Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that U.S. officials will be allowed to have contact with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — granddaddy of all Middle Eastern Islamic political movements.

“We believe, given the changing political landscape in Egypt,” Clinton said at a new conference in Budapest, “that it is in the interests of the United States to engage with all parties that are peaceful, and committed to non-violence, that intend to compete for the parliament and the presidency.”

For years, U.S. officials had been barred from any contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, even after it renounced violence in the 1970s. The group remained technically outlawed and U.S. diplomats feared the wrath of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak if they contacted its representatives. I remember U.S. diplomats in Cairo in the mid-80s sheepishly debriefing American reporters, who met regularly with Brotherhood members.

Under the Bush administration, U.S. officials in Cairo were allowed to meet Muslim Brothers, who had been elected as independents to the parliament.

While Clinton portrayed U.S. policy as a continuation of “the approach of limited contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood that has existed on and off for about five or six years,” it extends beyond that to a blanket recognition.

By expanding the range of permissible official contacts, Clinton was belatedly acknowledging the major role the Brotherhood is likely to play in post-Mubarak Egypt. She demonstrated that Washington realized banning talks would limit future U.S. influence in the Arab world’s most populous state.

U.S. recognition of the Brotherhood also sends a signal to other Islamic movements and parties in the region – like Hamas – that U.S. hostility is not implacable. It can change if these groups renounce violence. It was U.S. refusal to accept Hamas’s victory in 2006 Palestinian legislative elections – which the Bush administration had aggressively promoted – that discredited U.S. democracy promotion efforts throughout the region.

Now democracy is breaking out on its own — and U.S. policy is struggling to catch up.

Taken together, these two announcements demonstrate that Washington is able to distinguish between sworn enemies of humanity — like Al Qaeda — and groups that have a genuine constituency and future in the Muslim world. This is crucial as the Arab spring moves into a summer and fall of party politics and elections.

President Barack Obama, in his 2009 Cairo speech, promised “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

The governments that emerge in the Middle East are unlikely to be of America’s choosing and may well include groups that espouse policies that Washington dislikes. But at least, U.S. officials will be able to talk to all the major players and not engage in self-defeating boycotts.

That is the best way to defeat Al Qaeda and build U.S. influence with the Middle East’s new leaders.

Barbara Slavin is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. This article originally appeared on Politico.

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