When talking with terrorists makes sense
Used wisely, talks provide leverage, not appeasement.
The ossified conventional wisdom among much of America's political class is that talking to terrorists is always and everywhere a bad idea. The ghosts of the 1938 Munich Agreement – forever linked with capitulation to Nazi Germany – aren't allowed any rest, busy as they are being hurled at the target of the day.Skip to next paragraph
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Sen. Barack Obama felt he was the target when President Bush criticized the "false comfort of appeasement" in a speech before the Israeli Knesset earlier this month. Recalling Hitler's march across Europe, Mr. Bush mocked those who "believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along." Sen. John McCain quickly echoed the sentiment.
While many politicians are willing to engage with "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea, they draw the line at terrorists, who are seen as intrinsically ruthless and radical. That's why "I will not negotiate with terrorists" is a refrain heard across the political spectrum – and why Jimmy Carter took such flak recently for visiting with Hamas.
But this knee-jerk rejection of negotiation with radicals is deeply misguided and likely to do more harm than good. The smart question is not whether to talk to terrorists, but, instead, which terrorists to talk to and how to talk to them.
Many nonstate militants are weak and peripheral; they can be quickly squashed or contained without any need for negotiation. For instance, violent left-wing groups such as the Red Brigades in Italy and Weather Underground in the US were eliminated in the 1970s without negotiation.
But some terrorist and insurgent groups are very powerful. They are embedded in robust social networks, generate revenues from areas under their control, and have enough military power to impose serious costs on governments. They cannot be easily crushed, nor can they be wished away.Negotiations and cease-fire talks, or their offer, should be seen as one of a range of tools for overcoming militancy. Indeed, there are three good strategic reasons to talk to these kinds of armed organizations.
First, and most ambitiously, it is possible that an arrangement can be made with militant groups to end violence. The Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, African National Congress in South Africa, and Mizo National Front in northeastern India have all been fully brought into the political system. The Maoist rebels in Nepal, meanwhile, may be heading in this direction.