Making points or making progress
By OLIVER R. GOODENOUGH | February 28,2008
When and how should the U.S. government talk to our adversaries? This question underlies some of the most glaring failures of the Bush administration. It has also cropped up in the recent debates between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The classic Bush line is that talk itself constitutes a "reward." You only open negotiations with an adversary that has in effect already surrendered on the points to be discussed. Even with dangerous adversaries, this is generally a bad strategy. The fundamental problem is that it takes talk off the table as a means of exploring mutually acceptable solutions. If there isn't talk, there is only force or stalemate. And when force won't work or isn't available, then all that is left is a failure to progress.
The other side of the Bush view is that starting to talk is necessarily a concession. Nothing could be further from the truth. Talking, even with bitter adversaries, is a process of exploration, finding common ground that will let us live better together. It isn't surrender. You hang tough on your core positions, and if the ground isn't common, you don't go there. But you don't know what is possible with an adversary until you start to find out. Ronald Reagan, old union negotiator that he was, understood this — and kept a conversation going with the Soviet Union through much of his presidency.
The benefits of a strategy of tough dialogue are understood by most competent players in the international arena. In fact, when a competent player refuses to talk, it is a strong signal of an intention to resort to force — it is otherwise a stupid move. Such a threat may have its time and place, but only when force is indeed the next step. You otherwise look weak, dumb, or both. Teddy Roosevelt, no girly-man he, famously stated his policy was to "speak softly and carry a big stick." In a rough world, power is necessary, but so is talk. The two complement each other, and, as the failures of the Bush foreign policy show, power alone generally won't do the trick.
So why all this bother about not talking? Domestic politics. We have been fed a line for years now that talking must itself be used as a bargaining chip, rather than as the medium through which bargaining chips are offered and evaluated. There may be isolated instances where this makes sense, but as a general policy it is self-defeating. Then again, the Bush administration has always used a distorted politics of over-the-top toughness to define and justify itself, and this is not the only stupid position it has backed itself into as a result.
One would hope that the Democratic contenders to replace Bush would know better, but Sen. Clinton has chosen to sing out of the Bush songbook on this one. Like Bush before her, she is trying to use an opponent's better understanding of strategy — and greater real audacity — as an excuse to call him weak and naive.
Actually, there is a much better lesson to learn from the Bush administration, although you have to look at what it is doing, not what it is saying, to discern it. The surprising progress that the new initiative on security in Iraq has made in recent months is a quiet example of the success that can come from talking to an adversary. Represented to the American public as the "big stick" of the "surge," the decrease in violence appears to be based at least as much on talk and tribute — oh, excuse me, I mean stipends — to Sunni groups that were recently our sworn enemies. Folks we used to vilify, and who used to attack our troops, are now relabeled the Awakening Movement, negotiated with, and paid a reported $10 each a day to patrol against a common enemy.
Stick and talk, and even a few bucks thrown in. It must be Gen. Petraeus's idea. Now will somebody tell Hillary?
Oliver R. Goodenough is a professor of law at Vermont Law School.