Read Eric's bio and previous columns
April 21, 2008
Jimmy Carter is Right:
You Can’t Get an Agreement Without Talking
You’d think that someone who wins the Nobel Peace Prize
would be expected to travel around the world promoting . . . you know,
peace. But, that’s apparently not the case.
The latest overseas trip
by Jimmy Carter, former president and 2002 laureate, has prompted a
reaction in this country that suggests that peace is only worth pursuing
where it’s easy and among only those who in the first place are
peaceful. Carter’s visit to the Middle East to talk to the leaders of
Hamas and the president of Syria has provoked a typical firestorm of
historically the most productive way to end violence, and the first step
toward meaningful negotiations is getting people to talk. It might sound
naïve, mostly because breakdowns that produce violence are often
spectacular enough that it appears talking never works. On the other
hand, talking to terrorists has helped to turn Shiite tribes away from
attacking Iraqi army units and toward Al Qaeda in Iraq. This is
something those now denouncing Carter with the harshest of words seemed
to accept just three months ago.
terrorists also helped bring what has become a lasting peace in Ireland,
with the country just recently celebrating 10 years since the historic
Good Friday deal that prompted the Irish Republican Army to renounce
terrorism and enter into the mainstream of Irish politics.
Is that possible in the
Middle East? There has been success, most notable in the ending of
hostilities between Egypt and Israel 30 years ago through the Camp David
accords. Just five years before that, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had launched a
surprise attack on Israel that, had it not been for the arrival of
top-of-the-line American hardware – would have probably succeeded in
destroying the country.
The Palestinian problem
is much more delicate. There are local issues, nationwide issues and
international issues. Complex problems layered on top of each other,
none of them the kind of thing that violence can solve.
On top of that, no one is
pure. Everyone’s hands are dirty, and even the nation of Israel itself
has roots in a post-World War II campaign of bombing and sabotage by its
precursor, the Haganah. Violence and terrorism comes with this package
deal. You buy the ticket, you take the ride.
That includes the United
States. Bush policy started with hope that it might be a breath of fresh
air. The administration put a lot of effort into it for like a week, and
then – as has become its hallmark – got interested in other things and
descended into the kind of simplemindedness that, coming out the other
hand, encourages people to use violence.
The Bush Administration
first encouraged democracy, and then when its favored candidate didn’t
win, declared the results null and void and then sought to oust the
winner. Now, the United States refuses to talk to the party that won.
The most conciliatory of our presidential candidates – Barack Obama –
said that he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists because they didn’t
possess the proper mechanisms of a nation-state, but that he’d engage
its sponsors, the Iranians, with aggressive diplomacy.
Thinking about someone
else’s feelings has become a sign of weakness in this country, which is
precisely why we’ve got something of a reputation for not playing well
with others. But it’s worth considering for a second what someone who
has – at some level – a legitimate territorial claim and who wishes to
see that expressed as his own nation might react to this kind of thing.
It’s further worth exploring whether that person might think the best
way he has to achieve that is through the political process or through
But that demands a more
nuanced approach than folding one’s arms over one’s chest and
uncompromisingly demanding that you’ll talk only when the other party
yields to your every demand without promise of getting something in
return (not to mention your own countrymen who express disagreement
through their actions). We understand that this is a terrible way to
conduct business. But we’re not so smart when it comes to foreign
North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
Click here to talk to our writers and
editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.
To e-mail feedback
about this column,
click here. If you enjoy this writer's
work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry
This is Column #
Request permission to publish here.