On talking with the enemy

Phillip Klein at the American Spectator blog looks at the question of how to deal with North Korea, and the more general matter of “talking with the enemy.” As Klein notes, the latter issue shouldn’t turn on simple-minded slogans such as James Baker’s “I believe in talking to your enemies.”
We should, of course, make an effort to find out the real views of our enemies. And if those views indicate the possibility of negotiations that hold a reasonable promise of a beneficial outcome for us, we ordinarily should hold such negotiations. But it’s pointless at best, and dangerous at worst, to hold publicized negotiations when we know that the enemy’s bottom line is one that we cannot accept. Indeed, while critics of the Bush administration like to remind us that we talked with the “evil empire” Soviet Union, we actually learned though bitter experience to avoid holding major summit-style talks unless there was reason to believe they would succeed in advancing our interests.
How do the Bush administration’s practices hold up under this standard? We certainly have access to the views of North Korea, both through our partners in the six-party talks and through our own bilateral contacts within that framework. In effect, we are talking with our enemy. But the key to successful negotiations (if such are possible) appears to lie in changing the dynamic by bringing new pressure to bear on North Korea through key regional players and especially China. Otherwise, negotiations will likely proceed along the same lines as the failed Clinton-Carter talks — a prime example of negotiations we would have been better off not undertaking.
With respect to Iran and Syria, I assume (as Secretary Rice assures us) that we have access to the views of these two states through, at a minimum, other states in the region with whom we have relations. I assume further that Iran and Syria have certain non-negotiable goals. Iran’s is to become a nuclear power so as to establish itself as the pre-eminent regional force and a world power. Syria’s is to regain the Golan Heights and to re-assert itself in Lebanon. If these are not their non-negotiable goals, then they have ways to communicate this to us.
In the absence of such communication, we should not negotiate with Iran or Syria unless we find their above-stated objectives acceptable. Otherwise, the negotiations will end either in unfortunate concessions (as the Clinton-Carter negotiations with North Korea did) or in a highly publicized failure. Those who push the administration for negotiations with Syria and Iran — whether they be James Baker style Republicans or partisan Democrats — should be required to move beyond slogans and state what, specifically, they think the negotiations will accomplish, and why.
Some suspect that Baker has in mind a deal with Iran in which they get the green light on developing nukes in exchange for helping us exit Iraq. If that deal — two defeats for the price of one — makes sense, then by all means we should negotiate. Maybe Jimmy Carter can help Baker iron out the details.


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