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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 denunciations.


Negotiations are 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.


Negotiating with 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 violence.


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 relations.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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