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Talking To Our Enemies: Why Even Bother?

President Bush’s recent trip to Jerusalem hinted at what will surely become a contentious issue in the upcoming presidential election. In addressing the Israeli Knesset, the president said something to the effect that talking to Iran’s leaders was tantamount to “appeasement,” which history has proven to be a failed policy. In fact, the Bush administration has been repeatedly criticized for refusing to negotiate with certain, specifically selected enemies, like Iran and Syria.

Presidential candidate Barak Obama immediately countered, and reasserted his position that a refusal to talk to one’s enemies is not a sign of strength, but is rather a sign of weakness, and that a policy of robust negotiation, even with our enemies, would be part and parcel of an Obama administration.

Who is right on this score? Should we be willing to talk to our enemies, as Obama suggests, or should we shun them, as the current administration contends?

Both points of view have some measure of validity. President Bush could say that we sacrifice some of our prestige, as the most powerful nation on earth, when we talk to our enemies. It is as if the President lowers his stature when he talks to leaders like Iran’s Ahmadinejad. And what could be accomplished with such talk? Do we have any chance of changing Ahmadinejad’s mind? Obviously, his actions speak louder than words. He does not even hint at being open to suggestion. And conceivably, even in the face of the most persuasive of arguments, he is not likely to budge from his extremist views. So what’s the point?

A lot of the reluctance to talk to one another has to do with pride, both personal and national pride. You don’t become President of the United States without having a certain amount of pride in your country, and without being able to inspire a sense of pride in the hearts of your fellow Americans. And so, when you accuse Ahmadinejad of being complicit in the killing of American soldiers, or of sponsoring terror, or of pursuing nuclear weapons for the sake of consolidating control of the region, it becomes almost impossible to swallow your pride, and to sit down and talk.

But the fact is that not talking is a way of saying something as well. If we refuse to talk to Ahmadinejad, we’re saying that his policies are so off the wall, that we cannot even imagine brokering a deal, and that we don’t want to waste our time even trying. And Ahmadinejad, whose only claim to fame is his ability to arouse passions in his people, can use our refusal to talk as confirmation to his people that there is no alternative to resistance, and that Iran has no choice but to protect herself from the arrogance of the West, as exhibited by a failure to talk. As such, our refusal to talk plays right into Ahmadinejad’s hands.

So who is right? One approach may be to sit down and talk to leaders like Ahmadinejad, and to talk tough to him, but not for the purpose of convincing him, but rather for the public consumption of the people of Iran, and of the world at large. So, for example, you could say to Ahmadinejad, and the leadership he represents, something along these lines: “Look, with all due respect, we’re not about to let you acquire nuclear weapons, and we’re prepared to go to the mat on this; but we are also prepared to offer you a deal that gives you the energy you need, and that compensates your nation for giving up its nuclear aspirations.”

If you say something along these lines, you’re still making your point, you’re still able to hold your head up high, but you’re also driving home the point that you’re open to making a deal, and that such a deal will allow Iran’s leaders to save face. Saving face is big in the Middle East. Saving face can be the difference between success and failure in negotiating our differences away. And truth be told, even the Bush administration has proven that negotiation, and allowing your adversary to save face, are possible even with the most intransigent and irrational of enemies.

It is difficult to imagine a more off the wall leader than Kim Jong-Il of North Korea. He was much closer to having a nuclear weapons stockpile than Iran. And his country was much more isolated than Iran. The U.S. did not refuse to negotiate. The U.S., instead, negotiated within the framework of the six party talks, thus utilizing the common interest of other countries in the region, particularly China, to exert even more pressure on North Korea, than could have been exerted by any one nation. It proved successful, at least for the time being, and U.S. food shipments are on their way to North Korea even as we speak. Success in North Korea contrasts sharply with stalemate in Iran.

This is not “one size fits all.” Each adversary has to be handled differently, in relation to the circumstances at hand. On balance, however, if handled properly, it could well be argued that Obama is right to suggest that robust and direct negotiation is preferable to a failure to talk to one another. Such negotiation could convince a leader like Ahmadinejad that he can save face by cutting a deal, and thereby strengthen his position, and that such an outcome is preferable to military intervention.

If Ahmadinejad is not moved, then at least the willingness to talk, and to place a reasonable offer on the table, may convince Iran’s citizenry that it is in their best interest to pressure their government into a deal. And if such negotiation, as in the case of North Korea, could be undertaken within the framework of a consortium of nations with vital interests in the outcome, then so much the more reason why the outcome will likely be a positive one. And if we fail to solve the matter peacefully, we can at least take comfort in knowing that we did everything we could in that regard, which in and of itself is at least worth something too.

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