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Should The U.S. Negotiate With Its Enemies?

It's hardly a new issue for the U.S. Today the nations in question include Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

In the Iraq Study Group, we recommended that the United States talk directly to two countries that have been hostile to us—Syria and Iran. This goes to the heart of an important question for American foreign policy: Should we talk to countries we don't like, or not?

For years, the U.S. has refused to negotiate with Syria and Iran as a kind of punishment for their support of terrorist groups and their contributions to instability in Iraq. It hasn't worked.

Talking to other countries is not a concession; it is how you advance your interests in the world. Syria and Iran have influence in Iraq; we have to make them part of the solution, not part of the problem.

And talking is worthwhile, even when you don't reach immediate agreement. When you sit down with other countries, you can better explain your policies, probe your adversary's intentions, collect intelligence, deter bad actions, and build trust. You also present a more reasonable, and less arrogant, image to the world.

We shouldn't be starry-eyed about diplomacy. We're not going to resolve all of our difficulties with Syria and Iran in one meeting. But we can create an opportunity to make progress. Diplomacy is a critical tool of American foreign policy, but it's a tool that cannot work unless you use it.

The U.S. talked to the Soviet Union for decades, even though it was a far greater threat than Syria or Iran. Denouncing countries we don't like and ignoring them may make us feel better in the short run, but it makes little sense in the long run.

Lee H. Hamilton, Former Congressman (D-Indiana) & Co-Chairman of the Iraq Study Group

The U.S. should not negotiate with its worst enemies. There are some regimes that are so evil that talking to them merely legitimizes them.

The dismal record of appeasement toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s shows the perils of negotiating with diabolical regimes. Adolf Hitler used negotiations to lull the world into a false sense of security, while he continued to build up Germany's military. Using force sooner would have saved many lives.

Similarly, the U.S. should refuse to negotiate with rogue regimes such as Iran and Syria, and terrorist groups like Hezbollah. The militant religious leaders of Iran view negotiations as a way to deceive the world about their ambitions to build nuclear weapons, defeat the U.S. in Iraq, and dominate the Middle East. Hezbollah sees negotiations as a way to get concessions from Israel that they couldn't win on a battlefield.

However, refusing to negotiate is the exception, not the rule. Americans tend to be optimists. We assume that discussion can solve conflicts and encourage cooperation. This is usually true, particularly with our allies.

Sometimes, negotiating even makes sense with our enemies. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan considered the Soviet Union an evil empire bent on world domination. Still, Soviet-American talks reduced the danger of a war by miscalculation.

One mark of a great leader is the ability to make reasonable distinctions. In international politics, that means knowing when and when not to negotiate.

Robert G. Kaufman, Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University