Special Report

Talking With the Bad Guys

It's always part of the game, no matter what the politicians say.

By 6.10.08

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The discussion/argument over whether talking to a hated foreign opponent is appeasement or smart diplomacy is one of those false issues that politicians utilize for their own interests and foreign affairs professionals rarely entertain.

Some level of contact is always a part of the foreign policy context no matter the existing antagonism. Sometimes it is done through intermediaries. Representatives of third countries are regularly the formal conduit between the principals handling ongoing business and governmental administrative matters.

The Swiss Embassy has acted in this role up to now in American diplomatic contacts in Tehran, though there has been some recent grumbling from Washington on how well the job was being done. At the same time the U.S. has had various Gulf States and even Pakistan, among others, as informal routes of contact.

Perhaps Washington's most useful behind the scenes third country contact with Iran surprisingly has been through members of the Shia-dominant government of Iraq. Whatever the method of intermediary communication, this confidential third party methodology provides a continuing exchange -- sometimes merely procedural, but sometimes substantive.

Rounding out these multiple devices of continuing contact between antagonists are the various covert operations that put individuals in a position to gain information from and pass information on to the parties who supposedly refuse to talk to each other. These non-official clandestine messengers often provide a useful service in introducing new ideas -- positive and negative -- into the non-relationship.

With this proliferation of extra-curricular devices to create an exchange of views, it rarely can be said that two countries really have no means to communicate. The Delegates' Lounge at the United Nations is always abuzz with the latest in rumor, innuendo, and sometimes, but not often, even a worthwhile new line of diplomatic opening.

It is generally agreed that the summit meeting in most instances should be restricted to the theatrical aspects of intergovernmental accords. "Back channels" are used so that which would be deemed publicly objectionable might be considered without external pressures.

ALL THIS IS PERFECTLY well known by anyone with a modicum of foreign affairs background. So why has such an issue been made of the need to sit down and talk things out between adversarial heads of government? The answer possibly lies both in political ignorance and also personal predilections for high-level diplomacy. Some world leaders (and those who aspire to that rank) appear to enjoy the mano y mano contest with their opposite number. Ego plays a large part in all of it.

From the standpoint of the career foreign service officer, the last thing with which he or she wishes to deal is the insecurity of what their national leader will agree to, or even imply agreement to, in a one-on-one meeting with their opposite number.

The world of international politics is arcane, and domestic politicians -- which most heads of government are -- just don't have the background and knowledge required. There are some exceptions, but they are rare. Ronald Reagan surprised many people by being one of those exceptions that proved the rule.

Foreign leaders aren't any smarter than their American counterparts. On the contrary, they often are far more parochial in their experience and interests. National culture often dictates much of the character of the various chief executives. Men like Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are hardly sophisticates.

WHAT THESE MEN do have is a full comprehension of the utility of political propaganda plus the use of deadly force in all its ramifications. Both characteristics have been very important in their careers. One cannot expect to be able to negotiate with autocrats, dictators, and fanatics through the use of Aristotelian logic.

The concept of sitting down with an adversarial foreign leader and working out differences as one would a domestic business negotiation is not merely inappropriate; it carries with it a dangerous misconception that both sides seek a reasonable solution.

Anything that can be conceived of as appeasement gives the initiative to the other side. Being acquiescent, or even appearing to be, neither works with the schoolyard bully nor with any of the international versions. "Treading softly" does maintain the appearance of peaceful intentions, but carrying the potential of the "big stick" makes effective a reminder of the alternative. In that respect today's world is no different than Teddy's.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.