Memo to Mitt Romney: Before blasting the Obama administration for its peace talks with the Taliban, make sure your own advisers haven’t advocated a similar policy of negotiation.
The GOP presidential candidate fired his misplaced zinger in Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Asked by Fox News questioner Bret Baier if the Taliban might be, as a Romney adviser had said, “our enemy and our negotiating partner,” Romney responded vigorously:
“The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers. The right course is to recognize they’re the enemy of the United States. It’s the vice president [Joe Biden] who said they’re not the enemy of the United States. The vice president’s wrong. They are the enemy. They’re killing American soldiers.”
But wait a minute, governor. The aide the questioner was referring to was Mitchell Reiss, who wrote a book called “Negotiating With Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists,” which explores precisely the sort of negotiations the Obama administration has begun with the Taliban. Indeed, Reiss’s book is something of a “must-read” these days among State Department officials who are involved in the Taliban contacts.
Romney didn’t respond to the part of the question about his aide. But Reiss is listed as a “special adviser” and member of the Romney foreign policy and national security advisory team in a campaign press release dated Oct. 6, 2011. Reiss is currently president of Washington College; he was director of policy planning at the State Department from 2001 to 2005 and served as special envoy for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007.
The Romney team’s interest in peace negotiations with the Taliban goes deeper than that. The co-chair of Romney’s working group on Afghanistan and Pakistan is James Shinn, a former Pentagon official, according to that same October press release. Last year, Shinn wrote a report for the Rand Corp. titled “Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer,” co-authored with James Dobbins, a former State Department official.
Shinn’s report argues that “peace negotiations would obviously be desirable if they could succeed” in getting the Taliban to renounce al-Qaeda “and end its insurgency in exchange for some role in Afghan governance short of total control.” That’s a pretty good summary of the policy that Obama is pursuing.
But Shinn goes even further than that, arguing that the talks are worth it even if they fail, because the risks of participation are greater for the Taliban than for the United States.
“Oops,” as Texas Gov. Rick Perry said after a debate stumble last year. Either Romney needs to fire his advisers or he needs to read their work. Or best yet, maybe he needs to be more careful before attacking anything that he thinks he can tag as belonging to the “Obama” administration, and therefore bad. Perhaps when the general election comes around, Romney will find a way to reconnect to the bipartisan consensus about the need, under some circumstances, to “negotiate with evil,” as his adviser Reiss put it.