Why Obama Isn't Talking to America's Enemies

Americans will have a hard time making even back-channel contacts with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Marco Longari / AFP-Getty Images

As someone who's done it, I can tell you that talking to terrorists is pretty unpleasant. When you've seen the horrors they inflict on civilians, you don't really want to sip their tea or endure their bland rationalizations. But terrorism, to paraphrase Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means, and to fight it effectively requires an understanding—of the enemy's goals, perceptions, and intentions—that you're only going to get if you listen to him.

At the risk of sounding obvious—at least, to me, it seems obvious—talk is better than war, and dialogue is better still. Negotiation leading to agreement takes a lot of patience, but it's a worthy goal. As a candidate and then a newly minted president, Barack Obama seemed to embrace all this as a matter of deep principle. On the subject of regimes like those in Iran and Syria, he liked to quote John F. Kennedy saying, "Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate." Even today, hints about dialogue with notorious bad guys keep surfacing. In Afghanistan it's not a matter of whether to talk to the Taliban, but when. In the Middle East, a U.S. Central Command "red team" looking for alternative strategies offered a detailed (but still classified) proposal for "managing" Hamas and Hizbullah that would set the stage for serious talks. American dialogue with Iran remains stalled as sanctions ramp up (Turkey and Brazil failed to fill the gap), but Catherine Ashton, the European Union's new high representative for foreign policy, says she's confident talks can start again in the fall, and it's not likely she'd make that claim if she didn't think the Americans would be on board.

None of these initiatives seems to have gained much traction, and it's easy to blame the other side: it's really hard to sit down and talk with people who are inclined to blow themselves to pieces (or, more likely, have their pawns do that job). And we should be clear that most analysts agree it's not possible, or worthwhile, to talk with the core leadership of Al Qaeda. You can't negotiate with zealots bent on apocalypse. But Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, and the Taliban are not Al Qaeda. And over the last year, the administration has made the job of talking with such groups a lot harder for itself.

After the Taliban, Back to Normal: Click on image to view gallery James Reeve

A case in point was the Pyrrhic victory that Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department won in the Supreme Court last month. It was a triumph for some of the more dubious aspects of the Patriot Act, which offers fines and jail terms for anyone who provides "material support" to U.S.-government-certified terrorist organizations. That may sound reasonable, but as interpreted by the court it could mean that anyone who talks to people in these groups, especially anyone who tries to draw them into a dialogue, would be liable for prosecution, fines, and imprisonment. It is now up to Congress to fix this problem, if it cares to, but it would have been wise for Obama's administration not to defend it in the first place.

In fact, the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project comes straight from the Bush-Cheney playbook. Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting, dissects it well: the Obama administration has embraced the argument that talking to terrorists, even teaching them nonviolent ways to communicate and negotiate, supposedly would make their organizations stronger and would undermine "this nation's efforts to delegitimize and weaken those groups." Not only is this kind of thinking a threat to the First Amendment right to free speech, says Breyer, but "once one accepts this argument"—that talking equals legitimizing equals material support for terrorists—"there is no natural stopping place."

In practical terms, it also means there's no natural starting place if you want to coax listed terrorists or their sponsors to the table. In many if not most cases, the first steps toward dialogue are taken by "unofficial" envoys: academics, clergymen, businessmen, scientists, even Nobel laureates. The long roads to the end of fighting in Northern Ireland, the Oslo peace accords between Palestinians and Israelis, détente with the Soviet Union, and the end of apartheid in South Africa were the work of "unofficial" envoys long before official government contacts were established.

One informal interlocutor in the Middle East is anthropologist Scott Atran, author of the forthcoming Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, and he has found himself and his colleagues caught right in the middle of this judicial mess. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Atran and political scientist Robert Axelrod wrote about meeting "with violent groups in order to find ways out of intractable conflicts."

"In our fieldwork with jihadist leaders, foot soldiers and their associates across Eurasia and North Africa, we have found huge variation in the political aspirations, desired ends and commitment to violence," they wrote. And as Atran testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, "these differences can be used as leverage to win the cooperation of the next generation of militants, who otherwise will surely become our enemies."

So when I asked Atran how he felt about the Obama administration's record on talks, I wasn't surprised at his disappointment. "Of course, the bigger obstacles to talking with the enemy are in Washington than in the field," he said. "In the field anyone (besides Al Qaeda) will talk to just about anyone. When I tell people in Washington this, and provide evidence that this is indeed the case, they still think I'm from planet fruitcake. Reminds me of an angry child who thinks that just by folding arms and huffing and puffing, others will surrender or at least back off."

Other contacts inside the U.S. government are a little more optimistic. In the Middle East, for instance, a senior American intelligence analyst says, "I think there are all kinds of back-channel informal discussions going on with everybody [including Hamas]. But they will go nowhere until the Israelis make a move. I think [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's visit [to the White House this week] was a positive step and he seemed a bit contrite and didn't have on his pit-bull face. Hopefully he realizes he has taken things to the brink and needs to backpedal a bit. Obama, too, seemed to realize he had to reassure Israel he was on their side."

When dialogue has worked, alleged terrorists have sometimes come to be viewed as heroes of peace. Nelson Mandela would be one shining example. Former IRA leader Martin McGuinness is now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, who liked to talk about making "the peace of the brave," was a more problematic figure. But his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is now regarded as essential to any future Middle East agreement.

Engineering a transition from terror to peace, in fact, does take a lot of bravery, and any American president who gets involved is likely to use up a lot of the political capital. The Rush Limbaughs, the Glenn Becks, and the Republicans in lockstep on the Hill opposing almost anything Obama proposes are not going to cut him any slack about talking to Hamas. But the president, or at least the attorney general, would have been wise to make it easier for others to do so.

"I don't think Obama was so much naive as, in the end, timid," said Atran. "He had the right idea to begin with on talking to enemies. He has backed away from that … for political expediency."

If that pattern continues, we could be looking at a repeat of the Bush-Cheney doctrine: all action and no talk. We know where that got us.

Christopher Dickey is also the author most recently of Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—The NYPD, chosen by the New York Times as a notable book of 2009.