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Why Not Talk?

Author: Noah Feldman
October 1, 2006
The New York Times Magazine

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After a summer of protracted and mostly pointless bombing, the talking season is upon us. Unable or unwilling to halt Qassam rocket attacks on Israel and starved for funds, Hamas has begun discussing a national unity government with its rival Mahmoud Abbas. Tony Blair is rather bravely using his last months in office trying to get Abbas to sit down with the Israelis, who themselves have little to show for their campaign against Hezbollah. Iran, which spent the summer ignoring barely veiled bombing threats, seems poised to discuss its nuclear program with a coalition that includes China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

Conspicuously absent from any of these negotiations is the United States. We approve of all of them, and our diplomats are doubtless in the loop. But officially speaking, silence is our policy. We do not speak with Hamas because of its terrorist activities and unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist. In the case of Iran, the trouble stretches all the way back to the 1979-81 hostage crisis, during which we refused to recognize the Islamic Republic. In the latest cycle of tensions over Iran’s nuclear progress, the U.S. refuses to join any talks unless Iran first suspends uranium enrichment—which was also the position of our partners until they announced they would be willing to start talking anyway. President Bush put his position bluntly last month: “I have made it clear to the Iranian regime that we will sit down with the Iranians once they verifiably suspend their enrichment program. I meant what I said.”

What’s the point of not talking, especially when others are talking for us? If politics is the art of compromise, then surely conversation is one of its methods. Of course, some enemies—a Hitler or a Pol Pot—may be so repugnant that the mere prospect of reaching a compromise with them would violate our deepest moral principles. The only time it would be right to hear them out is when they are proposing to surrender. There are radical jihadists who see us in similar terms: they find us repellent and see little point in speaking unless it is to warn us of our downfall if we don’t submit to their demands. Given their principled unwillingness to compromise, there is little point in talking with them.

And yet even intractable interlocutors may be worth engaging. Perhaps the conversation serves as a strategy of subterfuge and delay, maintaining a holding pattern or cease-fire until the time is ripe to restart hostilities. Talking can also reveal information about an adversary’s leaders—their preconceptions, their blind spots, their fixed beliefs.

Ultimately, however, the most fruitful negotiations are based on a different premise: under certain conditions, the motives that drive people and regimes can be changed. Properly carried out, diplomacy creates new incentives that alter countries’ underlying interests—and thus their behavior. Over 50 years, a slow and painstakingly negotiated process of economic integration has taught Western Europe’s traditional enemies to look upon one another as allies, then friends and now almost as parts of one big country. If there is ever to be a meaningful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will involve something similar: putting both peoples in a position to gain more the closer they come together.

When we put our trust in diplomacy, it is not because it is an inspiring or uplifting discourse or because it helps us see the common humanity in others. The stylized circumlocutions of diplomats can make them seem ridiculous or irrelevant: they never seem to be talking about what is really going on. Moreover, talk between enemies may remind both parties of the depth of their mutual enmities and of all the reasons why they were tempted to use force against one another in the first place.

Nevertheless, diplomacy is essential as long as the use of direct force has limits. After 9/11, most Americans were in no mood to talk with our enemies in the Middle East, whatever those enemies’ ideology, and the Bush administration’s policies of invasion and pre-emption reflected that sentiment. Now, having relearned the lesson of our limitations, we find ourselves edging back to the table.

Our refusal to speak with Hamas since its election victory has had real costs. It has suggested to many that our commitment to Middle Eastern democracy is partial at best, and it may have enabled violence by implying that the United States doesn’t care all that much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, our policy may pay dividends in helping to establish a new Palestinian government, and we should continue to shun Hamas to make sure that such a result occurs. If the new government agrees to abide by previous Palestinian commitments to Israel, however, we should get back to the table quickly.

In the case of Iran, the problem is that we are at once desperate for its help in quieting the chaos of Iraq and determined to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon. We have been willing to speak with Iran’s leaders about Iraq but not about the weapons—a distinction that Iran regards as arbitrary and has thus far yielded few gains in either realm. We would do better to sit down with Iran now, recalling that by the time we began negotiating with North Korea, its nuclear progress had become all but a fait accompli.

In short, we need a breakthrough, one that will help either the Israeli-Palestinian track, the Iraq situation or both. To get that, we will need the much-maligned diplomats. It could be a British prime minister on his way out, able to accomplish what Bill Clinton in his last days could not. It could be the first Muslim secretary general of the United Nations—Prince Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan is a leading candidate—who breaks the impasse. Or it could be the usual suspects, just muddling through and lowering the temperature. In an ideological age, diplomacy may seem weak and prosaic. But sometimes it is all we have.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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