In the End, Every President Talks to the Bad Guys

By Leslie H. Gelb
Sunday, April 27, 2008

"I have been charged by the president with making sure that none of the tyrannies in the world are negotiated with," Vice President Cheney reportedly declared in a White House meeting on North Korea in December 2003. "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."

Cheney's call to battle resounded last week as the Bush administration slammed former president Jimmy Carter for talking to Hamas, the extremist Palestinian group that now runs the Gaza Strip, and began to have its own second thoughts about closing a new nuclear deal with North Korea. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain also chimed in Thursday, challenging Sen. Barack Obama to "explain to the American people how talking unconditionally to dictators like Kim Jong Il . . . advances American interests" in the wake of U.S. charges that North Korea helped Syria build a secret nuclear reactor.

But the question of talking to villains is hardly simple. Even as the powerful veep was excommunicating evildoers in his 2003 pronouncement, the Bush administration was cavorting with many of the world's biggest devils: negotiating with North Korea on its nuclear-arms program, with Iran on efforts against the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi on a historic new relationship. Washington sages are now debating whether to negotiate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or with Hamas; some are considering trying to reconcile with supposedly repentant Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Contrary to Cheney's dictum, chest-thumping congressional resolutions and op-ed pieces, the United States almost always deals with devils at some point or another. There is no alternative if a president wants to test nonmilitary solutions to the nastiest of problems. Forget the inevitable posturing. The real issue is not whether to talk to the bad guys but how -- under which conditions, with which mix of pressure and conciliation, and with what degree of expectation that the bad guys will keep their word. When figuring out how to go about negotiating with devils, the questions get very basic.

Is it right to think of certain governments and groups as evil?

Absolutely, unless you're a groupie of Third World nationalist movements or a professor of semantics. As with pornography, you do know real evil when you see it in world politics -- Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, al-Qaeda and many more.

Is it effective to publicly call another regime or group "evil"?

It can be. Sometimes, it does make sense to just shout it. The recipient won't like it, of course; it's like calling his mother a prostitute. But from time to time, enslaved peoples need to hear that they're remembered, and Americans need to be reminded of what they stand for -- hence President Ronald Reagan's accurate and bracing labeling of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire."

But how can you deal with someone after you've labeled them "evil"?

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