"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Trouble With Talking

So Nobel Peace Prize winner, former US President, and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter has spent his time in the Middle East laying a wreath at the tomb of Yasser Arafat and will now, reportedly, be meeting with leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza strip and is officially committed to the destruction of Israel, the establishment of an Islamist state, and is on the State Department's terrorist list, among other highlights. Giving honor to Arafat, an unrepentant terrorist and scourge of his own people, is bad enough, but even Obama wouldn't meet with Hamas. (Though why, exactly, is unclear, since they're certainly not any nastier than Iran).

We're often told - and Carter seems to be operating under this premise - that it does no harm and possibly great good to talk to enemies. "You make peace with your enemies, not your friends," or so the saying goes. But in what way is that true - when exactly should one talk to your enemies? It seems to me that Carter's view - talk to everyone - betrays a dangerous and rather silly naivete, particularly because it lumps all of one's "enemies" together. Of course, you make peace with your enemies, but any reasonable understanding of history shows that you don't make peace with *all* of your enemies. Or, to put it a bit too bluntly, sometimes the only peace available is the peace of the dead - you get peace, but only because one of you is no longer on the scene.

But surely just talking to one's enemies couldn't do any harm, could it? Well,consider what talking might accomplish (and by "talking" I have in mind general diplomatic exchanges, to include everything from meet-and-greets to formal negotiations). Talking could very well clear up misunderstandings and provide greater transparencies, mitigating conflicts and solving problems before they get dangerous. Talking can also be a vehicle for getting one side to understand clearly that their position is untenable and finding ways for them to do a "climb-down" with minimal damage. Talking can also be a means for bargaining, where one side gives something up in exchange for something else.

But none of that covers the sort of "talking" Carter and others have in mind with respect to Hamas and, say, Iran. What seems to be at work in this sort of talking is the profoundly naive hope that simply by talking to them, both will come to see the unreasonableness of their views and will modify their behavior accordingly. But why, if one talks to them (and does so publicly) without preconditions, will they come to see the unreasonableness of their views and modify their behavior? It is precisely those views (and the actions they produce) that have pushed you (so they will think, perhaps rightly) to the talking table. With Hamas, if you are willing to talk to them, willing to "negotiate" with them, then haven't they already won half the battle? Haven't they pushed you to a position of "talking" precisely with the sort of behavior you hope they will give up? And if their most fundamental goals - say, the destruction of Israel - are precisely what you want them to give up, isn't the "talking" inevitably bound to fail, unless you allow them to maintain those fundamental goals? That is, Hamas (and a similarly constructed argument could be made with respect to Iran as well) is constituted fundamentally as an organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel. They will not give that up (whatever they may claim) except that they decide to close up shop and exit the stage of history; talking to them will not change that and will instead merely put you in a position of implicitly legitimating that goal, since it is something that can be negotiated over.

It's a shame ol' Jimmy wasn't satisfied with peanut farming.


James F. Elliott said...

What kind of influence does Jimmy Carter have, really? No one, and I mean no one, liberal or conservative really gives fig one what Jimmy Carter does or thinks. He has no substantive power.

What a tempest in a chipped teacup.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As an ex-US president, he confers a certain legitimacy on those he faces as equals.

Michael Simpson said...

Yeah, that's just nonsense on stilts, James. What kind of influence? When he meets with the nutters in the region, it makes the front pages of all the news outlets, that's how much influence he has. It's true that there probably aren't very many Americans who will vote "according to Jimmy", but when an ex-Pres and Nobel Laureate does or says something, people listen. And, maybe more importantly, it opens the door for others to follow along. Now that JC has met with Hamas, don't you think Europe will begin to push to include them in the "peace process"? It just adds to their legitimacy (which is precisely what he means to do).

James F. Elliott said...

It just adds to their legitimacy (which is precisely what he means to do).

What problem was ever solved by refusing to engage with all parties with power in the situation? Complaining about "giving Hamas legitimacy" ignores the fact that they were freaking elected -- their own people gave them legitimacy. Unfortunately, the Palestinians don't vote according to the wishes of American bloggers. You can either ignore part of the power dynamic or acknowledge it and try to work within it.

But what you're advocating is acting like a bunch of toddlers. "I'm going to hold my breath until poopy-head Hamas goes home!" Stupid and dangerous. Which, come to think of it, sums up the Right's national security strategy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Perhaps, James.

But if Hamas wanted peace with Israel, they'd already have peace. Ask Egypt and Jordan.

The problem with legitimizing those who don't want peace is that every agreement is just the beginning of the next negotiation.

"Good faith" is a legitimate requirement for entering into negotiations. Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler is a tired analogy by now, but apropos.

Carter dishonors his ex-presidency and his nation. He is the "toddler." Negotiations between adults require good faith.