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To Talk Or Not To Talk With The Enemy, That Is The Question

President Bush and his secretary of state, Senators McCain, Clinton and Obama, and President Carter as well, have been embroiled in a debate about the level-headedness of talking to the enemy. The outcome of this debate will be decisive for the two remaining presidential candidates.

Much seems marred by confusion and imprecision, deliberate or not. Who do they see as enemies in the first place and based on what? What does it mean exactly: talking to or with the enemy? Conversing or dialoging with terrorists, insurgents, radicals, or enemies, what does this entail? Is there a difference with negotiating, hard core or not, or reaching an accord? What are the diplomatic nuances between face to face conversations or indirect contacts? What does “with conditions” or “unconditionally” signify? Is collaborating and cooperating the same? Is appeasement and being a pacifist madness? (Among others, Peter Adler, Robert Benjamin, and Kenneth Cloke have contributed their views and clarifications about these issues here.)

This is what, most recently, the presidents, the two remaining presidential candidates and Senator Clinton had to say in this regard:

President Bush: “Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before.”

Senator McCain waffles on the issue. Recently he said: “Communications and positions and willingness to sit down and have serious negotiations in a face to face fashion enhances the prestige of a nation that’s a sponsor of terrorists and is directly responsible for the deaths of brave young Americans, I think is an unacceptable position.” But a couple of years ago, he said that sooner or later one needs to talk with Hamas.

Senator Clinton she too had expressed that it was naïve to want to sit down with Iran’s leaders for example. And she had threatened Iran with obliteration should they have attempted to attack Israel under her presidency. No talks there.

Senator Obama has been quite clear as well. He did say he would meet with controversial foreign leaders. „I do think it is important for the United States not only to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies,“ he said. He supports tough, direct diplomacy with Iran without preconditions. He also did say he would carefully prepare such meetings. He declared to aggressively use diplomacy as a general foreign policy approach as this „has been the history of U.S. diplomacy until very recently.” And he also said: „I have never supported engagement with terrorists.“ And more specifically he said that there are terrorist organizations that the U.S. should not negotiate with unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence and unless they are wiling to abide by previous accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So here we go for Obama: Talking without preconditions but with preparations with Iran; negotiating, however, only conditionally with certain terrorist organizations (and not identifying which ones).

And President Carter, as a citizen of the U.S., President of the Carter Center, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, continues to do what he believes is the right thing to do—no matter who sits in the White House. He pursues unperturbed what the majority of the people of Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and the world want: The inclusion of Hamas in all negotiations. And he talks with the Syrians. Just as the Israelis have been doing for several years.

Although the president and the secretary of state pronounce that they don’t talk or negotiate with terrorists or Iran, sometimes they have and they don’t reveal that they did. For now: Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Iran are officially out and talking with them is unthinkable because there are irreconcilable elements (=people) who want to destroy the U.S. or its way of life according to the administration’s language. But North Korea and Libya are in. And how did this change come about?

What if President Bush and President Saddam Hussein had sat down in 2000 and had a conversation, and this all the more as Mr. Rumsfeld, as an example, knew Mr. Hussein personally? And what if—consider the unthinkable—President Bush and Sheikh Osama bin Laden had a talk in 2000, and this all the more since the bin Ladens and the Bushes have been friends for a very long time and Osama had been of great use to the U.S. before?

The “talk/no talk” question will be a decisive topic in the upcoming debates among the two remaining presidential candidates and it will continue to be at the forefront of foreign affairs in the years to come. As presidents, Senators McCain and Obama want and need safety and security—in the widest sense—for the U.S. population first and foremost. This is not the issue. The issue is which strategy has the highest chance to ensure safety and security for generations to come and for all peoples on the planet: Talking or not talking?


Noa Zanolli

  Noa Zanolli, Ph.D., is a Swiss social anthropologist, teacher and mediator living in Bern, Switzerland. In the U.S., she worked for several years as a mediator in a community mediation center in Ames, IA, was Director of Education at the Iowa Peace Institute, and has been working internationally as… MORE >

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