One of the things that I liked most about Barack Obama when he was first running for the US presidency was his philosophy about talking to one’s enemies. In a presidential debate on July 24, 2007 with Senator John McCain, candidate Obama was asked the following question:
“In 1982 (the year was actually 1977), Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
Without hesitation, Mr. Obama answered that he would, adding, “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration — is ridiculous.”
I thought, “Now there’s a gutsy guy. Optics be damned.” After all, what’s the use of being the world’s only military superpower, with an annual military budget greater than that of the next 10 countries combined and nearly as much as that of the rest of the world, if you’re not secure enough in your own strength to sit down and chat with those you feel pose a threat to you?
Candidate Obama often repeated his position on talking to unfriendly nations, even though he faced criticism by those who viewed such willingness as a sign of weakness and naiveté, rather than strength and pragmatism. This, despite the fact recognized great political leaders like Ronald Reagan successfully applied this strategy with the Soviet Union, as did Egypt’s Anwar Sadat toward Israel, and a few select others in history.
The consummate quote in this regard comes from Israel’s great military general and politician Moshe Dayan: “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”
Those who do not subscribe to this way of thinking instead like to point to Neville Chamberlain’s decision to negotiate with Hitler in 1938 and sign the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. They hold this up as the classic example of how talking to one’s enemies is a bad thing. Ultimately, Hitler was not appeased, and he went on to invade Poland, which led to the start of World War II.
Of course, the problem with this interpretation of history is that it is utterly wrong. The take-away lesson is not that Chamberlain was wrong to meet with Hitler; the mistake was that he agreed to give away a big chunk of Czechoslovakia to try and appease the German leader.
In other words, talking to your enemies is not synonymous with appeasement. In many cases, particularly when the only alternative is war, the move may be the smartest and most pragmatic option available. Yes, even if it doesn’t look good.
It has been reported that the Speaker of the Syrian parliament, Mohamed Jihad al-Laham, has written a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and others in the US House of Representatives proposing cooperation between the US and Syria on combating ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) — a mutual enemy.
According to a story today in The Independent of the United Kingdom: “Syria has asked Washington to engage in military and intelligence collaboration to defeat their mutual enemy Isis, inviting US congressmen and senators to visit Damascus to discuss joint action against the jihadis who threaten both America and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.”
There’s the opening. The Independent article goes on to say that the letter “could not have been written without the seal of approval of the regime” — which means that President Assad okayed it.
Yeah, yeah… crazy idea. The US could never be seen actually working in partnership with the Assad government. It would look bad, because our standards are higher than that (…say we, as we prepare to launch another unprovoked war against another volatile Middle Eastern nation). Although there was our partnership with Stalin against the Germans in WWII. Oh, and our partnership with Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1970s. There was that cozy relationship with all those Apartheid governments in South Africa. The Shah of Iran. Mubarak in Egypt. The endless array of unsavory Latin American dictators — Batista, Pinochet, Somoza, and Trujillo, to name only a few.
I mean, it’s not like we’re totally uncomfortable sitting down with the nasties of the world.
Mr. Obama, you’ve pretty much declared war on Syria. Talk to Assad. It’s not like you’d be trying to be his best friend or anything. Maybe try and broker a deal between him, his Alawite ruling minority, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Offer billions of dollars in aid to help rebuild Syria and resettle the more than 3 million Syrian refugees. A lot cheaper than another American war. That would surely isolate and weaken ISIL. Now that would be a heckuva chess move.
Be one of the great ones.
Hey, best of all, you don’t even need Congress for this. That’s a bonus.