Click here to read reviewer Deborah Adams' take on Talking to Terrorists.
On some of the most contentious matters of the day involving foreign political actors, the position taken by the United States (US) is that it does not talk to terrorists. This position immediately raises two related queries. First, who is a terrorist? Second, what, if anything, does the US gain by not talking to terrorists?
As Mark Perry, the author of this book points out, it is not always straightforward to determine who is a terrorist. Even when one comes up with a workable definition, it is often not consistently applied by the US. In addition, claims the author, the US rationale for not talking to terrorists is that by engaging in such conversation, the US would be undermining its democratic principles and acknowledging terrorists as legitimate political actors. The author’s primary objective of this book is to shed light on those two questions. In the process, he focuses on contemporary affairs in many nations in the Middle East and argues that not talking to terrorists is counterproductive. He also points out that there are many situations in which diplomacy with extremists may be the only way to end the scourge of terrorism.
The first part of the book focuses on events in present-day Iraq since the US-led invasion shortly after the dastardly events on 9-11-2001. We are told that, even by the beginning of 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently had doubts about the utility of America’s Iraq strategy and that these doubts “were spreading to senior commanders in key combat positions in Iraq” (p. 15). What was urgently needed in the restive al-Anbar province in Iraq was economic development, and this meant partnering with the more reasonable members of the various Sunni tribes. Even so, L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, refused to subscribe to this development-oriented line of thinking. In fact, Mr. Bremer made it clear that the Sunnis were not going to be listened to, that there would be no pay for civil servants, the army, the police, and that all government departments would be cleaned out. In the author’s words, “America’s ham-fisted conduct of the post-invasion period...turned the Iraqi people against them” (p. 57).
The refusal of the US to talk to the Sunnis in the tense al-Anbar province and elsewhere in Iraq stemmed from an unhelpful mindset which regarded anyone who took a shot at Americans as a terrorist. We are told that even though it is now conventional wisdom to regard President Bush’s gamble with the “surge” of troops as the reason for dampening the Iraqi insurgency and ensuring a US “victory” in Iraq, this perspective is inaccurate. The author persuasively argues that what really turned things around in Iraq was a fundamental shift in US military thinking. Specifically, this involved recognizing that “the fighters in al-Anbar were not terrorists, they were not dead enders, and they were not Nazis; they were the national resistance” (p. 109).
The second part of the book focuses on Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel, and concludes with a broad discussion of the merits of “talking to terrorists.” This part of the book is particularly compelling, and it makes an admirable attempt to dispel common misperceptions in the US about the genesis, the working, and the aspirations of both Hamas and Hezbollah. Two points made by the author in this part of the book are worth emphasizing. The first is that Western policies concerning groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have “reflected not only an undifferentiated view of Islamist organizations, but a mistaken conflation of moderate, pro-democracy groups with the network of radical Salafists that had attacked the United States” (p. 122). The second is the author’s endorsement of the position of journalist Ken Silverstein concerning the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel: that this conflict is not about religion but about land and national identity.
The chapter on Israel is arguably the most lucid chapter in this book. The author does a good job of explaining the nexuses between the activities of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the conduct of US foreign policy in the Middle East and the differences between the ways in which Israelis see their country and the ways in which American Jews see Israel. In the author’s words, “many supporters of Israel in the United States are more Israeli than the Israelis” (p. 172). The author concludes his discussion of Israel by suggesting that Americans need to think clearly and differently about Israel. In this regard, he urges us to think of Israel not as a “Jewish national project” but instead as a “nation-state” (p. 189) that is capable of making mistakes and even waging wars in which innocent people die.
Talking to Terrorists is really a combination of two smaller books. The first, smaller book is about contemporary Iraq and the second smaller book is about Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel. The first one is less contemplative and more focused on the hurly-burley of life in post-invasion Iraq. The second one is more contemplative, and it does a fine job of substantiating the author’s central claim - that instead of shunning its enemies, America must engage with them.