Stephen Walt has an interesting post ennumariting the the “Top 10 Taboo Topics on Contemporary Foreign Policy Discourse.” Some of them really aren’t taboo per se — as Walt describes himself, they’re simply “conventional wisdom” that simply goes unchallenged. Nevertheless, this one probably falls in the former category.
#10: Thou Shalt Not Favor Negotiating with “Terrorists.” U.S. leaders often say that we will not negotiate with terrorists, and we refuse to have direct dealings with groups like Hamas (among others). Accordingly, anyone who openly calls for talking directly with these groups is taking a professional risk. Of course, the truth is that many countries—including the United States–have negotiated with terrorist organizations in the past, and a number of former terrorists (e.g., Yasser Arafat, Gerry Adams, Yitzhak Shamir, etc.) have been welcomed to the White House. For that matter, the United States has even supported “terrorist” organizations when it was thought to be in our interest to do so. Yet the whole issue about whether we ought to talk to such groups remains something of a taboo, which means that potentially fruitful initiatives don’t get the consideration they deserve.
This is obviously something to which people are warming. Indeed, much of the success of the “Surge” was predicated on literally paying allies of AQI to switch sides, and a similar tactic has been floated with respect to the Taliban. Even still, I think this is an issue where more open discussion could enhance the level of politically vialable policy options.
Like the concept of “negotiating with terrorists,” it seems people are beginning to move away from the “Terrorists Are All Violent Nihilists Like The Joker In The Dark Knight” theory of terrorist motivation. Still, a lot of people — especially on the right — believe that terrorism against the United States and our allies is predicated on some unhinged hatred of social freedoms. In fact, terrorism is largely animated by policy — Osama bin Laden has famously admitted as much. And because we do have agency over the policies we implement, it stands to reason that there are concrete security gains to be realized by negotiating with terrorists. What’s more, since terrorism is politically motivated, it further stands to reason that establishing precedent for nonviolent conflict resolution will lead to lower levels of terrorism.
Contrast this with the conventional wisdom on negotiation which presumes that by giving in to demands, we will incentivize terrorism as a means of resolving political conflict. But the fact is that terrorism is not like blackmail. If, for example — and note, I don’t suggest this course of action — the United States were to remove itself entirely from the Persian Gulf, stop interfering in Middle Eastern politics, and cease providing aid to Israel, I think Osama Bin Laden would encounter a difficult time recruiting terrorists to fight an enemy that caused no trouble. The political forces driving terrorism are politically motivated; discontinue the policies in question, and you’ll probably end the terrorism those policies engender.
Anyway, as aforementioned, I don’t advocate simply acquiescing to the demands of every single terrorist. But we also shouldn’t rule the possibility out. Instead, each situation should have its costs benefits weighed individually. Clearly, it’s the opinion of policy makers in the United States that constant worldwide deployment of military forces during peacetimes provides a benefit that outweights the political strife associated with it. Likewise for many other policies. However, discourse on national security shouldn’t preclude the possibility that enhanced outcomes might be reached through negotation.