As the world spins further toward confrontation, pushed there in large (but not exclusive) measure by the Bush Administration’s dangerious bravado, it’s time think about talking to bad people. That’s precisely what Foreign Relations Chairman Lugar suggested last weekend with regard to Iran. Talking to bad people is tough and those of us with historic memories will always have images of Neville Chamberlain and his ill conceived and fated talks with Adolf Hitler in mind. But that’s probably the wrong point of reference. I’m not naïve enough to think Hitler was a “never can happen again” phenomenon (we’ve seen his likes in the Balkans and Africa), but we’re much too facile about using him as a catchall reason for not communicating with bad people.
Let’s also be honest about it, we have been talking to (and doing business with) bad people for a long time. We do so selectively, of course, to meet our own self interest, but we do it all the same. A prime case is our ongoing interaction with the schizophrenic techno-medieval regime in Saudi Arabia whose oil we covet and on whose often repressive faith-based governance we cast a convenient blind eye. We talked with the Soviet Union during all those years when it had nuclear armed missiles aimed at our shores, and we’re hosting the President of China even though democracy which we say all should have still eludes the people of his vast nation.
While the Chamberlain misadventure had unparalleled tragic consequences, there is overwhelming evidence that talking to bad people can be vastly more powerful than meeting them on the battlefield. While some will argue that today’s Russia is still essentially run by bad people, the Soviet Union did fall. Reagan’s arms buildup is routinely given credit for that but I think ongoing talk and a resulting freer flow of information may have played an equal if not greater role. Conversely, our ridiculous almost five decade bipartisan refusal to engage Castro has probably kept him in power and given heart to the growing number of anti-American regimes that are taking root to our South including Hugo Chavez, with whom we seem heading toward the same mistake though, unlike Fidel, he has something we need more than cigars.
We talk to bad people and while we do so selectively claiming we don’t would be, to put it mildly, hypocritical. That brings me to Iran and Hamas and to putting my “money” where my mouth is – reality verses high minded theory. To put this into context, let me stipulate that as a Jew, the regime in Teheran and the newly elected party in power in Palestine, represent in both their rhetoric and past actions, everything I deplore. Holocaust deniers like the present leader of Iran make my blood boil. That Hitler’s survivors and other members of my people living in Israel have been subjected to violence against the innocent is impossible to overlook and on some very visceral level impossible to forgive. That said, I still believe we should, indeed we desperately need to, talk with bad people.
In what was apparently the last interview before his recent illness, Charlie Rose engaged with President Assad of Syria. British educated and western world wise, he speaks perfect English. During the conversation, Assad noted that in the days following 9/11 he and his government had actively cooperated with the United States providing intelligence and other help as it launched the so-called War on Terrorism. It is well known that Al Qaeda is anathema to many of the Middle East regimes (as it was to Saddam). It was perplexing therefore for the Syrians to hear themselves vilified and painted with the same terrorist brush and to be threatened with invasion as we occupied neighboring Iraq. A few days after that interview, filling in for Rose, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour spoke with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. The brunt of his message was that his government was willing, indeed eager, to talk with the United States but that it had been thwarted at every effort to do so. Now I don’t take these interviews at face value; both men have agendas and both were using Rose’s platform to promote them. But even with that in mind, it was difficult to ignore their contentions or not to imagine them being dissed by the Bush administration.
Perhaps it’s hard for individuals to let go of past hurts or expressions of disrespect, but those in control of other people’s lives can’t afford that luxury. To be sure Hamas says that it won’t accept Israel’s right to exist, but it wasn’t that long ago that similar words were being spoken (backed up by military attack) in Cairo and Amman. Nothing excuses suicide bombing in the particular, but all of us can understand that perceived (and in this case very real) occupation can result in abject frustration and produce irrational behavior including unspeakable violence. I remember vividly the day in 1948 when Israel declared itself a nation and the joy I shared even as a child with my family and with other Jews around the world. Would it be any less for Palestinians in declaring their own Statehood, or would it be any less valid? Of course not.
There comes a moment when someone, hopefully some two, have the courage to utter the word enough – not we’ve had enough and must strike back, but we’ve had enough killing even if we have no ideal “partner”. How many Viet Nam’s and Iraq’s does it take for us to understand that bombing or marching into places like Iran is neither a short or long term solution? Being the only country in the world to have actually used Atomic weaponry, one that remains resistant to meaningful disarmament, is it so hard for us to understand that a country sitting between numerous nuclear powers wonders why it should be denied what others have? Am I missing something here? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think India, Pakistan or Israel for that matter should have bombs, but they (admitted or not) do and we who covet our neighbor’s every luxury should understand that natural impulse called envy.
We pushed for free elections in Palestine and I think we made a huge mistake in immediately withdrawing financial support when its people overwhelmingly selected candidates we didn’t like. I can’t abide George Bush and firmly believe he and his gang are ruining the country, putting it and the world into great peril, but nonetheless I pay my taxes. Hamas may be the epitome of bad people, but we didn’t even give them a chance to take a different turn in the road. Was condoning the Tel Aviv suicide bomber horrendous? Of course, but was their reaction also an inevitable self fulfilling prophecy when we collectively put them in a corner? They are unmistakably bad people, but the only game in town. Iran’s rhetoric has risen in direct proportion to our own threats. We simply can’t continue on that path and expect our children and grandchildren to live in a better world. We had better start talking to bad people, before it’s too late, before we ourselves must assume responsibility for bad consequences and be perceived as bad people.