Talking to Bad Guys, Part II

Back in July, as the war in Lebanon raged, I questioned the president’s unwillingness to deal directly with Syria and Iran on issues of mutual concern in the Middle East. The issue has resurfaced in the past few days as the Iraq Study Group is expected to recommend that the Bush administration negotiate with Iraq’s neighborsall of Iraq’s neighbors – in an attempt to rein in the escalating civil war in the country.

For now, President Bush appears firm in his opposition to direct talks with either Iran or Syria. He is encouraged in this posture by neoconservatives who believe that talking to either country is tantamount to a reward for bad behavior. A related argument is that negotiations afford respect and legitimacy to regimes that deserve neither.

I have never understood this position. Ronald Reagan, the supposed patron saint of neoconservative hawks, was never afraid to negotiate with our enemies. Indeed, his willingness to reach out, for example, to the leaders of the Soviet Union engendered considerable criticism among neoconservatives. They were equally skeptical of many of his policies in the Middle East and Asia.

As Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke write in their book America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order:

Reagan had presented the conflicts of international politics in essentially moral terms, and for this reason he looked like the president whom neo-conservatives had waited for. But as his declaratory policies gradually moved toward pragmatism, those events that seemed to be disasters in foreign policy to neo-conservatives appeared as major achievements to the moderates who were making the key decisions in the administration.

One of those moderates was James Baker. The New Republic’s Martin Peretz urges us to ”Ignore James Baker,” and AEI’s Michael Ledeen accuses Baker et al of “active appeasement.” It is easier to understand Baker’s ability to shrug off such neoconservative sniping when we recall what he learned from the master communicator and strategist. You can almost see a Reaganesque gleam in his eye when Baker explains “it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

It may be impossible to avert Iraq’s slide into full-scale civil war. But Iraq’s neighbors surely do not want to see the chaos expand over Iraq’s borders, and threaten their own peace and security. That seems reason enough to want to reach out to others in the region, including those countries we don’t like very much.