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Should We Make Peace With Extremists?

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
February 15, 2009


"We don't negotiate with evil. We defeat it," then-Vice President Dick Cheney said at a 2003 White House meeting about dealing with North Korea's aggressive dictator, Kim Jong Il.

Cheney was only restating standard rhetoric about dealing with perceived devils whose values and interests clash with ours. But standard Presidential practice has been almost exactly the opposite.

"We often cloak in satanic robes those who oppose us, accusing them of threatening our vital interests and values--and often they do endanger us," says Frank Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to India and Egypt. "But I have yet to meet opponents who--if they had real power and did in fact endanger us--we did not eventually deal with once events forced our hand." This was the case, Wisner points out, with Stalin and the Soviets, Mao Zedong, Yasir Arafat, Muammar Qaddafi, North Korea, and even Fidel Castro.

Now President Barack Obama wants to put the devil issue to the test again--by dealing with Iran, currently America's Public Enemy No. 1. What can he expect from this bold course, and what's been the track record of dealing with devils over the last half-century?

The U.S. relationship with Iran has been tense for three decades. In 1979, Iranian clerics and revolutionary extremists scaled our embassy's walls in Tehran and took more than 50 American hostages. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's Islamic revolution, condemned America as "the Great Satan." Still, President Jimmy Carter negotiated and even made financial concessions--all of which got the hostages released, with help from the looming threat of a tougher Ronald Reagan Presidency.


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