Many conservatives equate talking to the enemy with appeasement. They cite Neville Chamberlain's simplistic, naïve appeasement of Adolph Hitler and President Jimmy Carter's of Leonid Brezhnev as examples of the very kind of approach that President Barack Obama should avoid. It may be the conservatives who are simplistic and naïve.
I recently appeared as a panelist on a Fox News show with a former CIA operative who had longstanding, on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan. He scolded me for suggesting that we should talk to the Taliban. He said we should never negotiate with them because they are brutal, evil, and irrational. I pointed out that despite all of our military superiority, the Taliban controls great swathes of Afghanistan and enjoys widespread support in Pakistan's tribal regions. Demonizing the Taliban--no matter how much we loathe them--is not going to defeat them. It is doubtful the military option in Afghanistan is ever going to succeed, something Great Britain and the Soviet Union can attest to.
Talking to the enemy is not appeasement. It is shrewd, patriotic, and serves our national interest. For example, demonizing Iranian President Ahmadinejad Mahmoud--or even Osama bin Laden--will not help us to achieve our goals. Islamic terrorism is not going away, not matter how many predator missiles we fire.
As an intellectual exercise, let's take a walk in the enemy's shoes. Both Ahmadinejad and bin Laden insist that Israel does not have the right to exist. Have they lost touch with reality or does that claim have any merit? Essentially, the state of Israel was allowed to come into existence in 1948 by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. (For reasons not worth going into, one of them--the Soviet Union, which would have vetoed the creation of the Jewish state--was absent.) What most Americans don't stop to think about is that none of the five permanent members of the Security Council was Muslim or was located in the Middle East. Now, let's step into the enemy's shoes. What if all five had been Muslim and had been located in the Middle East, and had voted to deposit the new Jewish state in the middle of Kansas, from which tens of thousands of American families were forced to flee? And what if the Jewish state had later invaded and occupied half of Nebraska, on which it was now feverishly building new settlements? How would we Americans feel? Would we declare that Israel does not have the right to exist? Would radical terrorist Americans, God forbid, be flying planes into Dubai skyscrapers?
Are Islamic terrorists motivated by their rabid hatred of freedom and democracy, as former President George W. Bush once simplistically insisted, or are they motivated by outrage over American foreign policy? Are they livid that the state of Israel was deposited in the Middle East without the courtesy of any consultation on land they consider holy? Are they also outraged over America's continuing support--due to our dependence on foreign oil--of what they consider to be a corrupt Saudi Arabian monarchy? (If we had poured the $3 trillion we will spend on Iraq--a country that had nothing to do with 9/11--into creating wildly successful alternative sources of energy, would we care whether the Saudi monarchy survived?) And finally Islamic terrorists are also enraged over the callous statement in 1996 by Secretary of State Madeline Albright that the deaths of 500,000 Muslim children (caused by American sanctions against Iraq after Gulf War I) were "worth the price." What if Muslim sanctions had proportionately caused the deaths of 5.5 million American children? How outraged would we be?
Demonizing the enemy gets us nowhere. Let's not forget that the Founding Fathers were terrorists who would have been hanged for treason had Great Britain won the Revolutionary War. Menachem Begin, future prime minister of Israel, was a terrorist who once blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. As far as Chiang Kai-shek was concerned Mao Zedong was not even a terrorist, but a bandit.
Talking to the enemy is not appeasement. Understanding what motivates and infuriates the enemy is not appeasement. We may not agree with their positions, but at least we can understand that if we were in their shoes we might appreciate that their concerns aren't necessarily irrational.
Here's where we enter the danger zone. What if talking to the enemy leads to a modification of American foreign policy? Would that modification be called appeasement? That depends on whether or not you're a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). We then enter far bigger danger zone when we ask if our unequivocal support of Israel is in our long-term national interest, especially if it means (a) that the cost of the war on terrorism may bankrupt our nation and (b) that Islamic terrorists will be targeting us long after our grandchildren have grandchildren.
That's the real reason conservatives and the Israeli lobby fear President Obama's talking to President Ahmadinejad. They fear that talk may lead to understanding and understanding may lead to changes in American foreign policy.
Gary S. Chafetz is the author of the recently published book, The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff.