In a way, it doesn't seem especially newsworthy that all the countries with a stake in Iraq are meeting with each other. But it's big news because—five years after the president named North Korea, Iran, and Iraq the three members of an "axis of evil"—we are using the model of our negotiations with the first…to guide our meeting with the second…in order to get their help with the third.
All of which seems a long way from the morally unambiguous "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric right after 9/11—a time when negotiation was almost a dirty word, and of course America wouldn't compromise with our adversaries, America would defeat them.
This evolution in the way the administration does business got me thinking about negotiations, and their value. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister who was assassinated for compromising with the Palestinians, said "it is not with one's friends that we need to negotiate, it is with one's enemies." John Kennedy, in his famous inaugural address, expressed a similar sentiment. He said, "let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."
There's another school of thought that negotiation is a sign of weakness, and certainly its proponents have experience to call on. When the Israelis, under Prime Minister Sharon, voluntarily gave up land to the Palestinians—for the sake of negotiating an eventual peace—and then militant groups used that land as a launching pad for attacks against Israel, the feeling was, "we gave an inch and they took a mile."
Life is rarely black and white. And often there are no hard and fast rules—like always negotiate, or never negotiate. Negotiating can have great value—in translating human understanding into advances in policy. And yet, those person-to-person cues can be misunderstood: like when President Bush looked into Russian President Putin's "soul" and saw a good man. Sometimes it's a question not of whether to negotiate but how to negotiate. And then there are people with whom we will (rightly) never negotiate: terrorists, for example.
I once attended a meeting of senior Bush administration officials, one of whom had a theory I found pretty compelling. He said that the president believes in talking with other countries not for its own sake, but if there is a clear goal that can be achieved.
Twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev, a clear goal could be achieved: reducing both countries' stockpiles of offensive nuclear weapons, and ultimately that goal was achieved. Last month in North Korea, in six party talks in which the US participated, there was a goal: shutdown of that country's nuclear program, and it's hopefully on its way to being met. And this weekend in Baghdad, an important goal might be achieved: getting Iran to stop destabilizing Iraq.
In all three cases, critics would argue that those goals could have been met earlier—if Presidents Reagan and Bush had negotiated when problems first appeared, not when they got a lot worse.
As Robert Baer, the former CIA operative and Time.com columnist, said last week, "the truth is we're negotiating now because we're stuck in Afghanistan, stuck in Iraq…and we need to find out what Iran wants and cut a deal." And it probably won't be the deal we would make if we were succeeding in the region.
In the end, everybody can agree that it's better to negotiate from a position of strength, not of weakness. But at times, world leaders can mistake stubborness for strength, and dismiss any opportunity to be face to face with an adversary, concluding too often that no negotiation is a good negotiation.