Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?

                  Great Decisions 2008

My topic is “Talking to Our Enemies.” That construction implies two separate, equally important questions: should we talk to those with whom we disagree? And if the answer to that question is yes, when and under what circumstances?

Let me give you an analogy drawn not from my non-existent experience as a diplomat, but from my far-too-extensive experience as a mother: when your two-year-old is throwing a tantrum, you don’t choose that moment to have a frank exchange of views. But you don’t use the tantrum as an excuse not to talk to him for the next twelve years, either. To translate that lesson to international affairs, you obviously don’t respond to a military attack by suggesting we talk it over, and you don’t negotiate with terrorists who are holding Americans hostage for equally obvious reasons. But talking—done properly—should help us avert many of those kinds of situations. And in their wake, after they have been resolved militarily or in some other fashion, resumption of talks can ease lingering tensions and increase American safety and national security.

We sometimes forget that talking to is not the same thing as talking at; it is a two-way process; in order to have a discussion, you need to be willing to genuinely listen to what the other person (or country) is saying. Even while the two-year-old is kicking and screaming, he’s probably saying something that gives you a clue to what has set him off. That information can provide a basis for discussion and what parents like to think of as “re-education” when he does calm down. At risk of belaboring my point, listening is how we acquire information, and information about those who have the potential to do us harm is obviously valuable.

In order to acquire useful information, however, we need to begin with a framework for understanding what we hear. We should enter any discussion, but especially a discussion with our enemies, armed with as much credible, accurate background information as possible. We need to understand the motivations, the history and the culture we are dealing with, in order to really hear what is being said. Uninformed conversation can be worse than useless—if we misread the signals, or misinterpret the information, it can be positively dangerous.

Applying these general observations to our current situation, let me just suggest that this Administration’s disinclination to talk to our enemies—or on too many occasions, even our allies—is part and parcel of its approach to policy in general: This is a President and an Administration that simply do not base policy decisions on evidence or information. The word “arrogant” is often applied to George W. Bush, but I really don’t think what we are seeing is arrogance as we usually define that term. It’s faith—in his own righteousness, in the complete adequacy of his own knowledge, and in the superiority of his own worldview. And as we have seen over the past six years, that sort of “faith-based” approach to the world has been enormously counterproductive—even disastrous.

Just last week, I saw a news analysis in the International Herald Tribune revisiting the President’s decision—announced in 2002—that he would not engage in communications with countries he had decided were part of the so-called “axis of evil.” The story quoted James Baker, former Republican Secretary of State, saying he believed in talking to your enemies, and it quoted Jimmy Carter saying that refusing to do so was “the stupidest thing a government can do.” According to the article, many within the White House are urging the President to reconsider this tactic, but thus far the President remains adamant.

What are the arguments for and against engaging in discussion with those we believe to be our enemies? What considerations should prompt the timing of those discussions? What issues are relevant to those decisions, and which are tangential?

This question of relevancy, in particular, hit me when I was reading the background materials that were distributed for this session. The reading focuses on Iran, and suggests (among other things) that we need to determine whether Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. It then spends several paragraphs struggling with a definition of terrorism. But is defining terrorism really necessary to our decision whether to talk to Iran? I don’t think so.

Let’s look at the situation: Bush has taken the position that he already knows that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism, just as he already knows that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Based upon these asserted attributes, he claims that Iran must not be “rewarded” by being allowed to talk to us. Note the assumptions built in to that approach: not only the assumptions about Iran’s behavior, which may or may not be accurate (according to the recent National Intelligence Estimate, which the President clearly does not believe, the weapons assumption is false), but President Bush’s obvious conviction that our refusal to talk will be viewed by Iran as a punishment.  As many foreign policy experts have pointed out, however, our refusal to engage is one of the major factors helping prop up President Ahmedinijad, whose economic policies have made him very unpopular at home. Our bellicosity has allowed him to position himself as a leader who has successfully defied the “Great Satan” and to thus divert attention from his other failings.

The situation with Iran is a very good example of the pitfalls involved in failing to ask the genuinely relevant question: What are the considerations that should guide our decision about whether to engage in negotiations? Let me suggest two:

·         What are America’s national interests? and

·         What tools do we have available that are likely to advance those interests?


As a 19th Century diplomat once said, “We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” A more recent formulation was that of British Lord Gore-Booth, who in 1974 put it this way:

“Foreign policy is what you do; diplomacy is how you do it. Of course the two get mixed up especially when a diplomat is advising on policy or a member of the government normally engaged in policy decision takes over a diplomatic operation which seems to merit top level or summit discussion. But generally speaking, the task of a government is to decide and the task of a diplomat at any level is to try to make the decision work.”


In other words, foreign policy consists of asking two questions: where are we going, and how do we get there? Or, what are our national goals, and what is the best way of reaching those goals?


Your reading identifies three broad categories of tools for achieving our foreign policy goals: talking (negotiation); economic sanctions; and military action. Within each of those categories are various options for their deployment: for one thing, each of these tools can be deployed unilaterally, bilaterally or multi-laterally. In other words, we begin by asking “what is it that we want,” which should include a discussion of whether those goals are the proper ones. (During question and answer, we can discuss whether “bringing democracy to the Middle East” ought to be a goal of American foreign policy, for example.)  When we have settled on our goals, we ask “which of these tools, used in what manner, is most likely to help us get what we want?”


Those are the questions that have guided our foreign policy through both Republican and Democratic administrations, but they rather clearly are not the questions this Administration is asking. In fact, the President reminds me of clients I used to have when I was a practicing lawyer—the ones who would come in and want to bring a lawsuit that would cost them much more in legal fees than they could ever expect to recover, or the clients who refused to settle a suit for a reasonable amount even when continuing to litigate was likely to cost them much more. They all said the same thing President Bush says: “it’s the principle, not the money.”  Those clients almost always ended up getting hosed. As any lawyer will tell you, you do your best work for the client who comes in with a specific and achievable goal, and who is willing to be both reasonable and realistic about reaching it. The “my way or the highway” guys are disasters waiting to happen, and that’s equally true of governments; when the United States has disregarded our national interest and taken a stand “on principle,” we’ve generally shot ourselves in the foot.


Invading Iraq was a case in point: it was an unbelievable gift to Osama bin Ladin. It has allowed him to achieve a level of importance he could never have achieved otherwise. As numerous military men and CIA operatives have testified, our presence in Iraq has been the single most potent recruitment tool Al Quida has ever had.


In fact, the War in Iraq is a case study of what happens when we don’t understand the difference between talking to and talking at, when we don’t have sufficient information to evaluate a situation properly and engage in meaningful conversations, and when we don’t base American policy on our national self-interest, using the two questions I’ve identified.


·         First question: Was invading Iraq in our national interest? Clearly, it was not, and the fact that it was not was apparent to many observers from the beginning. As we know now, and as many experts at the time suspected, there were no WMD. But because the Administration refused to listen to reports from the United Nations inspectors, refused to work with our allies, and refused to talk to any Iraqis who didn’t talk to any Iraqis who didn’t already agree with them—most of whom hadn’t even been in Iraq for years), they refused to believe that there weren’t any WMDs.


Once it became obvious that there were no weapons, the invasion was retroactively justified on the basis that Sadaam was a tyrant, which he certainly was. But the world is full of tyrants. The question we should have asked was: When is it in America’s interest to topple a bad guy? It certainly can’t be in our interest to go around the world deciding who should be in power and who shouldn’t. (Even if we had wanted to take out all the dictators, why not start with Kim Jong Il, who has a million people in concentration camps?) I don’t mean to suggest that it is never appropriate to intervene in another country for humanitarian reasons, but those reasons need to be considerably more compelling than they were in Iraq, and our allies in such instances should be far more substantial than those who joined the so-called “Coalition of the Willing.”


There is pretty widespread agreement that it is in America’s national interest to promote stability in the Middle East—one of the least stable parts of the globe. Promoting stability is not the same thing as promoting democracy. Invading Iraq always held a threat of further de-stabilizing this volatile region and upsetting a delicate balance of power, which meant that any decision to intervene militarily required higher levels of justification and evidence supporting that justification. And it required especially careful planning for the aftermath of military action. We now know that such planning never occurred. As a result, rather than advancing our national interest, our actions harmed those interests, and diminished our opportunities to advance other important national goals, both at home and abroad.


One example among many: It is clearly in America’s interests to maintain good relations with our allies. When we act unilaterally, when we “blow off” advice from those with whom we have enjoyed long-term alliances, and generally behave as if they don’t count, our ability to achieve other important goals is compromised. (Terrorism) When we go it alone, or with “Coalition” partners like Albania, Costa Rica and Latvia against the wishes of most world powers, we also end up harming our own economic interests.  Look at the differences between the first and second gulf wars (expand) Again, I’m not suggesting we should never make decisions contrary to the wishes of our allies, only that the reasons for doing so need to be particularly compelling. In foreign policy, as with other policy areas, leaders need to be able to connect the dots—to consider all of the ramifications of anticipated actions on American interests.


·         Second questions: What are the tools that we had to advance those national interests? In the case of Iraq, we now know that U.N. monitoring and consistent multi-national pressure would have prevented Sadaam from reconstituting his weapons program, thus achieving the stated, legitimate goal of protecting America against attack. It is even likely that with continued diplomacy, we could have facilitated a transition to a somewhat more democratic—or at least, less repressive—government in that country. It would have required patience—and it would have required real discussion, real give and take. But we wouldn’t have lost 4000+ young soldiers. We could have used the trillion dollars we’ve wasted to address needs at home. And we wouldn’t be dealing with a vastly diminished national image, and a Middle East that is exponentially more treacherous and dangerous for Americans than it was prior to our unilateral invasion.


Whatever our mistakes in Iraq—and they will haunt us for a generation, if not longer—we now must learn from those mistakes when dealing with other countries, notably but certainly not exclusively Iran. And learning means talking before we start bombing. Senator Obama has made that point repeatedly during the Presidential primary campaigns.


Diplomacy and negotiation sound complicated, but they are really just more sophisticated versions of the processes that mediators use every day. I talked to a friend of mine who teaches mediation at the Law School, and I’d like to close by sharing some of his insights, because they illuminate both the techniques and the benefits of talking to those with whom we disagree.


·         Although Mediation is sometimes called “positional bargaining,” the actual goal is to get beyond “positions” to “interests.” With respect to Iran, for example, our position is that Iran should not have a nuclear capacity, but our interest is in peace, stability and reduced risk of nuclear war.


·         The point of discussion is to identify common interests. For example, both Iran and the US have an interest in seeing the global energy markets stabilized and efficiently operating—Iran because much of its national income depends upon oil sales, the U.S. because our economy is heavily dependent on continued supplies of inexpensive oil.


·         How you frame the conversation, according to my mediator friend, is key. Beginning a conversation with the equivalent of “how can we both accomplish our goals?” is different from the equivalent of “how can we get you to stop beating your wife?” Lawyers sometimes characterize the proper approach as “bargaining in good faith.”


·         The goal of a productive discussion is not venting—it is not an opportunity to score points and engage in one-upsmanship. The goal is to listen carefully, in order to determine where the parties might be able to agree. We want to know: What is going right? What are our respective priorities? What is most important to the other party? What are the challenges and obstacles as we each see them? A good listener then tries to detect what genuine priorities lie beneath the rhetoric. Information truly is power, and informed listening allows us to acquire information. Listening is informed if it is preceded by careful preparation and research that allows us to truly understand the information we are acquiring.


In a genuine negotiation, we won’t get everything we want. But we are likely to get what we need—if we are realistic about what our needs are.


We are also highly unlikely to do harm to America’s interests by talking. If talks prove inadequate, and sanctions or military action do become necessary, we will be more likely to get the assistance of our allies if it is clear that we have made a good-faith effort to avoid conflict. Our ability to achieve our other foreign policy goals may well depend upon the perception that we played fair, and didn’t rush to use our superior military might against those with whom we had disagreements.


Furthermore, if we have talked—and listened—and still find it necessary to engage in military action, we will probably have acquired insights and information that will help us fight smart.


On the other hand, what do we gain by refusing to talk? What is the downside? With very few exceptions, refusing to talk hurts us—at the very least, it deprives us of valuable information; more often, refusal to negotiate costs us dearly. I can think of very few situations where talking harmed our national interests.

As Barack Obama recently noted, “even during the Cold War, when there were nuclear missiles pointing at every major U.S. city, there was a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin.”

There really is something to be said for a foreign policy based upon intelligence and realism, rather than faith and self-righteousness. There really is an advantage to be gained by engaging other countries in conversation rather than lecturing them on their flaws (I don’t have to remind those of you in this church of the biblical passage “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” We aren’t without flaws of our own, and the natural response to our hectoring is to point those out. We end up having the equivalent of the old playground argument: “you’re a bigger one.”)

There is also a more general point to be made about engaging in discussion and dialogue–it’s harder to demonize people when you know them. That’s true domestically, and it’s equally true in the international arena. Recent polls confirm that people in other countries who actually know Americans are able to separate their disapproval of our government from their opinions of us as a people. As we get to know those from other countries and cultures, we learn that in many important respects, we want the same things: the ability to raise our children and provide for them in a world where they will be valued and respected. Ignorance of “the other” breeds intolerance and fear; and intolerance and fear are never a sound basis for decision-making.

The world is shrinking daily. To belabor my playground analogy, since we have to share this sandbox with the other kids, maybe we need to talk to them.