The Guardian has a must-read long essay by Jonathan Powell, one of the negotiators of the 1997 Northern Ireland peace deal, on "how to talk to terrorists." It will make you reconsider everything you know about "us" and "them." And it likely foretells how the latest us-them conflict will turn out.
Powell identifies the "Islamic State" as the latest chapter in a long history of modernity's encounters with "terrorism"—a term that gives him understandable misgivings. Terrorists are always evil, impossible to bargain with... until we bargain with them:
When it comes to terrorism, governments seem to suffer from a collective amnesia. All of our historical experience tells us that there can be no purely military solution to a political problem, and yet every time we confront a new terrorist group, we begin by insisting we will never talk to them. As Dick Cheney put it, "we don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it". In fact, history suggests we don't usually defeat them and we nearly always end up talking to them...
We usually delay talking to armed groups too long, and as a result, a large number of people die unnecessarily. General David Petraeus admitted that, in Iraq, the US left it far too late to talk to those "with American blood on their hands". We delay because it is argued that talking is too risky—but experience suggests the real risk lies in not talking.
The obvious question to put to a man like Powell is that a Briton dealing with Irish Republicans is a little different than dealing with young Islamists who want to execute non-Muslim westerners simply for existing, isn't it? But Powell has considered this—in a franker, more circumspect way than most Americans have:
While it is true that it is unlikely that any government is going to agree to the creation of a global caliphate, the terrorist groups we encountered in the past also put forward demands that would never be acceptable. No British government was ever going to concede a united Ireland against the wishes of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland. Once discussions were begun with the Irish Republicans, we discovered that they were prepared to settle for something else...
He adds that an effective strategy against ISIS "will certainly include security measures—if the terrorists feel they have the prospect of winning, they will just carry on fighting—" but that's a far cry from calibrating a military response for maximum effect on domestic "public opinion."
The upshot is, not talking simply is not an option:
At some stage, we will need to negotiate with violent Islamic extremism, whether in this form or another one, if their ideas continue to have political support and we want to find a lasting solution to conflict in the region. They are unlikely to simply fade away.
Powell's point is that we will never "win" a "war on terror," and that the best outcome from our standpoint will never come from the application of violence alone. The best outcome will involve us revising our notions of victory and of enemy downward. It will involve us shaking the hands of people we might gladly have killed, or been killed by. On some level, this is perhaps intuitive. But show me the American politician, left or right, who's willing to say it, much less build a policy around it.
[Photo credit: AP Images]