One of the silliest debates in the American presidential campaigns is the one over whether the United States should talk to its enemies. Of course it should. The question the candidates should be asked is not whether they are ready to talk to America's enemies, but when, how and under what circumstances such talks should take place.
Talking with their enemies is what countries should do when they are not shooting at them, and sometimes even when they are. It's one of the main tools of foreign policy â€“ or was until the Bush administration, flush with what it thought was victory in Iraq, decided that it did not need to talk to the other major player in the region, Iran. That was a big mistake.
Iran's leaders were badly rattled when the United States and its allies toppled their neighbor, Saddam Hussein. They feared they would be the next victims of regime change. As we now know, the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran (we have not had diplomatic relations for almost three decades), informed the State Department that Iran was ready to settle all disputes with the United States. According to an authoritative account by a French expert, all issues would be on the table.
The Iranians were willing to stop giving material support to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and to pressure militant groups in the Palestinian territories to stop terrorist attacks on Israel, to take action against members of â€œAl Qaeda in Iraqâ€ and to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency on weapons of mass destruction. In return, the Iranians wanted the U.S. to lift sanctions on their country, to stop supporting Iranian dissidents and to give Iran access to Western technology.
It was the sort of offer that sounded hard to refuse, indeed almost too good to be true. You would have thought the Bush administration would at least have wanted to talk to the Iranians about it. Instead, it never responded to the offer because it was convinced the Iranian regime was about to collapse. Five years later, the Islamic regime is still in power, and Iran is our major foreign policy problem.
That doesn't mean that there have been no communications with Iran in the meantime. There have been back-channel talks on Iraq and last year when the American troop surge seemed to be working, the United States began official but low-level talks with Iran on how to stabilize the Baghdad government.
But when it comes to the most important issue â€“ Iran's continuing program to enrich uranium in defiance of a UN ban â€“ President Bush has preferred to let the Europeans and Russians do the negotiating, although it's unlikely that a deal can be reached without American involvement. The administration's position is that it will not talk with Iran about its nuclear program until Iran stops enriching uranium. In other words, it has to agree to the outcome of the talks before they can begin. Mr. Bush turned what should be the goal of the negotiation into a precondition for negotiation.
He has done much the same thing with the Palestinian group Hamas, by insisting the United States will not deal with Hamas unless it accepts a list of preconditions recognizing Israel's right to live in peace and security. Hamas has been indicating its readiness to talk and declare a â€œtruceâ€ with Israel. One obvious way to find out whether their intentions are serious would be to invite Hamas leaders to the negotiating table.
Contrary to the assertions President Bush and Senator McCain, talking to your enemies does not imply approval of their policies. Talks do not have to begin at the highest level. Far better when they are thoroughly prepared by diplomats, who can clear away the underbrush and prepare the ground for the top leaders to reach a deal.
Sometimes there's a breakthrough, as when President Carter brokered the historic agreement at Camp David between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel. Sometimes the talks fail, as I witnessed at the 1986 Reykjavik summit between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev. The negotiations collapsed at the last minute, but the progress they made led to the conclusion a year later of a treaty eliminating intermediate and shorter-range nuclear missiles in Europe. You will never know whether talks will succeed unless you try.
And one more obvious point: talking with an adversary does not cost a trillion dollars or the lives of 4,000 American soldiers.
So why the argument between Senators McCain and Obama? I suspect there is less difference between them than meets the eye. Right now they are trying to score points. A hard-fought political campaign is not conducive to reasonable discussion of foreign policy choices and realities. You can't put much detail or nuance on a bumper sticker.
I would be interested to know what you, the reader, think. Should America be talking to Iran, and at what level? What other potential adversaries should the U.S. be talking to?