Talking With Our Enemies Is Smart Policy
The recent meeting between American and Iranian officials in Baghdad effectively brings to an end the Bush administration’s use of ‘enforced isolation’ as a strategy of its foreign policy.
Although American officials have publicly emphasized that the talks were limited in scope and that our approach towards Iran has not changed, the reality is quite different. With Rice’s trip to Damascus recently and our current attempts at diplomacy with Tehran, there seems to be a growing consensus within the administration that trying to punish our enemies by isolating and ignoring them (as we’ve done, most notably, to Syria and Iran in recent years) has not been a successful strategy. No one is admitting this publicly, of course, but with the situation looking so dire in Iraq and the region as a whole, I imagine that administration officials are being forced to confront the fact that isolating two major players has not quite had the desired effects.
Thinking about this strategy of ‘enforced isolation’ makes me realize that I can’t point to a single positive outcome of our policy of refusing to talk with some of our most important enemies. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. While not talking to Iran and Syria for several years, we have witnessed the development of an advanced Iranian nuclear program, an increasingly authoritarian Syrian government, a dangerously unstable Lebanon (a situation that is inherently connected to Syria), and an escalating civil war in Iraq. Could we have prevented all this from happening? Probably not. But there is no doubt that we could have had a lot more success in dealing with these issues if we had sat down with Iran and Syria much earlier on and had very frank discussions of where our interests might overlap.
Juan Cole, who has always been a strong supporter of engaging with one’s enemies, points out that even when countries may have dramatically different ideologies or goals, that shouldn’t stop them from talking. Indeed, despite apparent differences that they might have, “effective diplomacy can often lead a country to see the advantages of cooperation on some issues.” In terms of the US and Iran, for instance, Cole cites three main areas in which interests overlap.
1. Shiite Iran is a deadly enemy of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which the US is also fighting. Instead of making up silly charges against Iran, the US could explore avenues of cooperation against these enemies.
2. Shiite Iran is a deadly enemy of the Iraqi Baath Party and of the radical Salafi Jihadis who are responsible for most of the violence in Iraq and for most of the killings of US troops. There are ways in which the US and Iran could cooperate in defeating these forces, which are inimical to both Washington and Tehran.
3. Shiite Iran is happy with the Shiite led government of Iraq and wants to see Iraq’s territorial integrity maintained. Supporting the al-Maliki government and keeping Iraq together are also goals of the United States.
Although Cole lists just a few examples, I imagine that there are plenty of others that one might think of. For instance, I’d say that domestic economic concerns and the situation in Afghanistan are two other areas in which the US and Iran might have similar interests.
Talking with our enemies will not always work, of course, but it’s insanity not to try. The poor results from the Bush administration’s reliance on this strategy of ‘enforced isolation’ over the last few years should make that extremely clear.