We Say We Never Will, But We Always Do….

Just getting caught up with reading again. In the week of Scott McCLellan, you’ve got to love all the chatter about Bush’s earlier appeasement comments (lordy, you mean the Administration’s wordsmiths mutilated history in the service of pithy rhetoric? this is unprecendented.…). The Economist‘s note, "Speaking to the Enemy", makes some interesting points on the subject:

EVERY noun enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Some get more fame than they deserve. In America’s foreign-policy debate one that has been bandied about too much lately is “appeasement”. When he spoke to Israel’s parliament on May 15th, George Bush blasted those who sought “the false comfort of appeasement” by negotiating with terrorists and radicals in the Middle East. Barack Obama assumed the barb was aimed at him. He in turn accused Mr Bush and John McCain, the Republican candidate, of “hypocrisy and fear mongering”.

Coming to Obama’s defense, the newspaper writes

Speaking to the enemy is an ordinary part of diplomacy and does not on its own amount to appeasement. In Munich in 1938, Neville Chamberlain’s sin was not that he talked to Adolf Hitler, but that instead of standing up to him he sold Czechoslovakia down the river. Had the British prime minister then been Winston Churchill, the outcome of the meeting, and the history of the world, might have been different. In January 1991 in Geneva, for example, America’s secretary of state talked face-to-face to Tariq Aziz, a nasty piece of work who was Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister and is currently on trial for murder. But nobody has ever been silly enough to accuse James Baker or the president who sent him (one George H. W. Bush) of appeasement. And that is because instead of letting Iraq keep Kuwait, which it had just invaded and annexed, Mr Baker told Mr Aziz that America would throw Iraq out by force if it did not leave. Hardly appeasement.

More, "Are there any people, organisations or regimes so evil that the mere act of talking should be beyond the pale, no matter what is said?"

You might expect North Korea to fall into such a category, given the slaughter and starvation for which its present dictator and his late father are responsible. Strange, then, that the very Mr Bush who admonished the appeasers from Israel’s parliament has allowed Americans to negotiate with the North for years. If these talks ever make Kim Jong-Il give up his nukes, nobody in his right mind will hold Mr Bush’s decision to talk against him. And if it’s fine to speak to North Korea, why rule out talking, as Mr Obama says he would, to Iran? As it happens, American diplomats already talk to their Iranian counterparts, though only about Iraq.

It gets even more interesting:

There is, however, a wrinkle. Speaking to the enemy should never be ruled out. But withholding talks can sometimes make your adversary give something up beforehand. For decades Israel and America said they would not talk to the Palestine Liberation Organisation until Yasser Arafat renounced terrorism. Eventually, he did. The same tactic might make Hamas, Hizbullah or Iran drop their stated plan to eliminate the Jewish state. A tactic, however, is not a principle. Choosing the right one requires guessing how much value the other side places on talking, and what it might pay for the privilege. Israel, incidentally, is currently in talks not only with Syria but also, indirectly, with Hamas.

Absolutely… and the Irish Republican Army’s success at bringing the British government to the negotiating table, on multiple occasions, despite stiff upper lip protestations that such a travesty would never transpire? Transpire the politicians did, and so the negotiations took place.

In the interest of balanced reporting and commentary, The Economist manages its usual tour de force sampling of historical cases and precedents, concluding with a nice swipe at Gordon Brown for denying the Dalai Lama an official Number 10 meet’n greet:

Mr Obama, it is true, has got into trouble by implying that he himself would sit down to unconditional talks with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That would be poor diplomacy: the prize of such an encounter could be withheld until minions persuaded Iran to stop enriching uranium in accordance with the UN’s orders.

Statesmen who want to clamber onto their high horses should note that, in some cases, not talking can be a form of appeasement. This week Gordon Brown refused to invite the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to Downing Street but met him at the home of the leader of the Anglican church. That was a fudge to appease China, and is a genuine disgrace.

When to talk? When to snub? How to incentivize spoilers and outsiders to play by mutually agreed rules? Threat perception and strategic communication are critical… and so are the legitimacy thresholds that bracket them.

2 comments

  1. And who else but Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, should crop up today, saying it’s time to talk to al-Qaeda. From today’s Guardian:

    Asked whether Britain should attempt to talk to al-Qaida, he said: "If you want my professional assessment of any terrorism campaign, what fixes it is talking and engaging and judging when the conditions are right for that to take place."Is that a naive statement? I don’t think it is … It is the reality of what we face."If somebody can show me any terrorism campaign where it has been policed out, I’d be happy to read about it, because I can’t think of one."

  2. Mark Safranski

    It’s not the talking I mind from Presidents and Prime Ministers, it’s the giving of concessions in return for nothing much beyond a photo op.

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