We absolutely do negotiate with terrorists, which is good because we have to

The United States does not negotiate with terrorists, except when we do. In the most recent example (that we know of), last year President Obama coordinated a prisoner swap with the Taliban, releasing five terrorists soldiers in exchange for Bowe Bergdahl, a captured American soldier.

One could quibble over whether this constituted a true negotiation with terrorists, or whether Bergdahl was better-described as a prisoner of war, making the negotiation for his release more common, but that’s beside the point. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both negotiated with the Iranians, who were on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Bill Clinton met with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, which was at the time classified as a terrorist organization. Despite all of our grandstanding, the United States negotiates with terrorists when it suits us.

We allow ourselves to do this, in part, because the definition of terrorism is itself squishy, with different intelligence and security organizations in different countries coming up with different, defensible interpretations of the term. These definitions all coalesce around the theme of “non-state actors using violence to achieve political ends,” but that implies that political violence by states never counts. Ask any Palestinian if they think that makes sense.

However, the real reason we negotiate with terrorists is because we have to, as Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues in his new book: Terrorists at the Table: Why Negotiating is the Only Way to PeaceIn the book, Powell takes on the arguments for and against talking to terrorist organizations, describes the conditions necessary for successful negotiation and examines prospects for resolving current conflicts. Drawing on his experience negotiating an end to The Troubles in Ireland, along with his experience in less-successful negotiating efforts, Powell makes the case that, like it or not, negotiation is a necessary component in ending any violent conflict — especially when the conflict is between groups with seemingly intractable differences.

Powell describes successful peace processes in Ireland, El Salvador, South Africa, Mozambique and Oslo; along with unsuccessful talks in Sri Lanka, Colombia and Angola. Each case is, of course, unique and context-dependent. A great deal of chance was involved in both the success and failure of given negotiations. However, taken together, patterns emerge. There are conditions in which negotiations are more likely to succeed, and characteristics that make negotiators more likely to bring warring parties together. Negotiation is a long, meandering, tricky, delicate and politically dangerous process. Channels are often established in secret, and negotiations must often be conducted on the terrorists’ home turf. Talks can go on amicably in private while battles rage in public. Personalities can be the deciding factor in making or breaking a peace deal, and meeting in person is often preferable to talking over the phone or through intermediaries (a finding supported by a growing literature on the neuroscience of diplomacy).

terrorists at the tableIn short, negotiations are part art and part science. We know as much about what doesn’t work as what does. However, we also know that “the biggest human-rights violator is war,” and that bloody military stalemates will rage on in perpetuity if one or both sides feel that their grievances are not being addressed.

What’s more, terrorist groups derive their power not only from guns but also from political support. Hamas is more than just a group of Islamic fundamentalists with RPGs; they are the democratically-elected ruling party in Gaza. At the height of the Troubles, Sinn Féin held over a third of the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland. Even if these groups were completely incapacitated militarily, their political grievances would still be represented in their respective populations, meaning that even if the violent conflict were to be (temporarily) resolved, the political conflict would remain.

The theoretical arguments against negotiation are so committed to strength that they betray their own weaknesses. Powell states and responds to them early on before turning to specific cases:

1. Talking to terrorists allows one to be blackmailed and encourages more terrorism.

Not so. As Powell points out, “The problem is not talking to terrorists, it is giving in to them…The British government talked to the Irish Republicans but never gave in to their demand for a united Ireland at the barrel of a gun.” A willingness to negotiate, and to walk away if necessary, is the mark of a self-confident country.

It is also held that talking to terrorists grants them their first goal: legitimacy. While that’s true, the legitimacy granted by talks is only maintained so long as groups are seen as negotiating in good faith with the goal of ending the conflict. If talks break down, and the terrorist group is seen as being at fault for the failure of negotiations, that legitimacy fades. This being the case, all there is to lose by granting terrorists legitimacy via peace talks is violent conflict. That seems reasonable enough.

2. Terrorists are irrational and therefore it is pointless to negotiate.

This is rarely true. Irrational actors are, by definition, inefficient and generally don’t last very long. Instead, as Powell writes, “Terrorist groups have their own rationality, just one that we don’t always understand immediately.” They almost invariably have material goals that they pursue in an efficient manner, the standard definition of political rationality. And since states, by definition, cannot fully understand their set of preferences and incentives, “It is impossible to untangle their rationale without talking to them.”

3. Talking to terrorists is immoral, and rewards their behavior.

It is generally held that terrorists’ propensity to target civilians is so morally reprehensible that they should be obliterated without discussion. This may be a reasonable moral reaction on a gut level, but doesn’t hold in practice. Especially when one considers that we have no problem talking to, trading with and forming military alliances with foreign (and domestic) governments that carry out similarly horrific violence against their own citizens on a larger scale.

4. The best time to negotiate with terrorists is also the best time to finish them off militarily.

In a more practical sense, governments are in the best negotiating position when terrorist groups are at their weakest. However, this would seem to also be the best time for a “surge” or “one last heave” of military effort that finishes off the terrorist group without “saving them from defeat” by granting any form of concessions in a peace deal.

However, as Powell argues, there is little evidence that this theory works in practice. There is scant evidence that terrorist organizations can ever be fully eradicated. If the underlying reasons for their existence are not addressed, even a largely defeated organization will either go underground or regroup, later returning in a slightly different form.

A variant of the “one last heave” argument is that talking to terrorists gives them time to regroup. This argument is paradoxical at best, as it it implies that a cease-fire is a bigger threat to a citizen population than continued fighting. What’s more, as Powell notes, the longer a cease-fire holds, the harder it is to resume fighting.

5. Talking to terrorists undermines moderates.

It does, in a way, and that’s fine. As Powell notes, “If you want to stop violence, then you have to talk to the men with guns.” What’s more, the most extreme groups in a given conflict are often given the most latitude to negotiate, since there aren’t any more radical groups that can accuse them of going soft. This isn’t to say that moderate groups have no part in the peace process; they do. But successful peace talks often start on the outside and work their way in, not the other way around.

6. Negotiations can lead to unintended consequences.

This is perhaps the most compelling critique of negotiations, highlighting their volatility and fragility. Powell outlines examples in which terrorist groups used secret negotiations as an excuse to escalate public violence, seeking to negotiate from a position of strength. If incentives are not properly set, this strategy can succeed. However, this is “not [an argument] against talking per se,” so much as it is an argument about how to talk. It is an admonishment to negotiate better, not to keep from negotiating at all.

Once the point is conceded that we have to talk to terrorists, the question then turns to how best to talk to them. In Terrorists at the Table, Jonathan Powell describes how (and how not) to do just that, combining his first-hand experience with the stories of other diplomats in the field. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s out today. It’s a fascinating read, and it’s out today.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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