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Talking to the enemy

Yes, if you know what you're doing ...

December 17, 2006|Joseph McMillan | JOSEPH MCMILLAN is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, which is part of the National Defense University. The opinions expressed here are his own.

CAN WE negotiate productively with our enemies in the midst of a war? It's not something most Americans find appealing, scarred as we are by the memory of protracted and ultimately unsatisfactory peace talks during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

But it's what the Iraq Study Group, chaired by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, says we need to do to extract ourselves from the mess in Iraq.

Not only do they want us to launch a "new diplomatic offensive" that would include Iran and Syria -- two countries with which our relations have long verged on active hostility -- they are calling for us "to engage all parties in Iraq," even militia chiefs like Muqtada Sadr and leading figures in the Sunni insurgency.

To some degree, American skepticism about talking to the enemy is justified. Under the best of circumstances, it is a risky business, as 2,500 years or more of diplomatic history bear out. The wartime diplomacy that Baker and Hamilton call for promises to be especially tricky, given the number of parties involved and the nature of their involvement in the conflict. Nevertheless, history demonstrates that talking while fighting, when conducted by statesmen who understand the distinction between wartime and peacetime diplomacy, can make a big difference in the outcome of a war. As we move forward, however, it is important to remember a few things:

* Fighting and talking are two sides of the same coin. Wartime diplomacy is most effective when actions on the battlefield are directed toward shaping the adversary's willingness to come to terms. Ideally, the enemy must believe that any delay on his part in reaching an agreement will lead to a worse outcome.

One reason the Korean armistice negotiations dragged on in the early 1950s was that the American negotiators representing the United Nations Command agreed at the outset of the talks that the final cease-fire line would follow the existing line of contact between the forces. North Korea was told, in effect, that there would be no real price for its refusal to come to terms.

As we enter the complicated array of negotiations with Iraq's neighbors and warring factions, we must find a way to convince each of our adversaries that the price of recalcitrance will be a certain and painful loss -- not a military loss but a serious political loss -- for itself or its proxies.

Unfortunately, the Iraq Study Group report fails to offer any ideas for using our considerable military presence in Iraq to achieve such leverage. On the contrary, the recommendation to set in motion the inexorable withdrawal of U.S. combat forces yields a situation in which military pressure is relinquished with respect to our adversaries and exercised only against our ally, the government of Iraq!

* Keep expectations realistic. The diplomat cannot expect to gain at the conference table what his armed forces cannot plausibly gain in the field. Moreover, he must understand that although he has no control over them, military operations will inevitably affect the course of his negotiations.

In August 1814, when American and British diplomats convened in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate an end to the War of 1812, the British side opened the talks by laying out a series of extravagant demands. One would have required the United States to give up most of what we know as the Midwest to create an independent state under Indian tribal sovereignty as a buffer between the U.S. and British-held Canada. Another called for the U.S. to cede a slice of northern Maine to provide a more direct transit corridor between Quebec and Halifax.

The British maintained these positions even after a series of U.S. victories in mid-September made it clear that they had no decisive military advantage to leverage. It took a frank assessment from the Duke of Wellington -- "I confess that I think you have no right, from the state of the war, to demand any concession of territory from America" -- to induce the British diplomats to lower their sights. Like Wellington, Baker and Hamilton make a compelling case for lowering our sights. What they don't provide is a military strategy that would preclude having to lower them even further in the future.

* Understand the role of passion. In his 1716 essay, "On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes," the French diplomat Francois de Callieres identified a "phlegmatic temper" as one of a diplomat's most desirable personal attributes. But in wartime, the parties that are engaged in combat are unlikely to bargain coolly and rationally, no matter the negotiator's personality. They will inevitably be affected by the sentiment, memorably expressed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, that "these dead shall not have died in vain."

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