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Thinking Through a Calculated Risk

November 14, 1986|ROBERT C. McFARLANE | Robert C. McFarlane is a former national-security adviser to President Reagan. He contributed this commentary to the Washington Post

Let me ask you to take part in a decision-making exercise such as takes place in your government often.

This theoretical problem will involve whether or not to take a risk that, if successful, will provide enormous benefits for the country but, if unsuccessful and misunderstood, could result--at a minimum--in great embarrassment and more likely in a considerable setback to U.S. relations with allies and to your relations with Congress. This kind of situation, where the potential gain is very high but where information is incomplete and risks are high, is not uncommon in government. But let's get on withthe scenario.

It begins with the arrival in your office one day of a foreign diplomat who reports that a third government of great strategic importance with which you have no relations has expressed an interest in a dialogue to determine whether or not common interests exist that may make possible a modus vivendi --a renewal of stable relations.

You are concerned, for this involves a country whose government has recently gone through a very violent revolution in which the government killed literally hundreds of thousands of its own people and where there is no certain basis for confidence that the people you might deal with carry real authority, or will deal in good faith, or will be able to make good on their commitments.

Furthermore, it is a government that at this very moment is involved in supporting elements in third countries that are engaged in killing Americans. And the diplomat urging you to do this also makes clear that there will undoubtedly be a quid pro quo involved: You will have to pay something for this, probably in the domain of security assistance of some kind, for the country in question is locked in a strategic struggle with its neighbor. At the same time, there is no question but that if such a dialogue were to develop and be kept clandestine for long enough to identify a set of milestones for renewing stable relations, the strategic interests of the United States would benefit enormously.

The question for you is: Would you agree to go to a first meeting as suggested by this foreign diplomat?

It isn't too presumptuous to assert that most of the readers of this column, given the events of the past few days, would cluck self-assuredly at this scenario and say, "Of course not, what do you take me for?"

Of course the scenario isn't theoretical; it has happened, and the government decided to go ahead with the clandestine contacts. The country was China, and today most people credit the secret diplomacy of Henry A. Kissinger with giving us one of the most dramatic diplomatic triumphs ever achieved in our history.

My point here is not to assert the China experience as a perfect analogue to recent efforts toward Iran. But the basic issue was the same. Nurturing a strategic reorientation in a country's policy requires discretion, judgment and patience. And it is never risk-free.

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