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Monday, December 12, 2011

Negotiating With Terrorists Shows True Leadership

It has been virtually anathema to suggest negotiating with terrorists ever since the dawn of the Iran-Contra affair and President Reagan's tortured admission in November 1986 that the United States did so. The taboo has lasted ever since and is a diplomatic third rail. It is also totally unwise and the hallmark of horrible policy.

The goal of a negotiation is the achievement of an objective. Success can be measured simply by whether you won or lost. The process, or how you played the game, is irrelevant. (Bobby Knight's famous saying, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser," comes to mind.)

The fatal flaw in ruling out negotiations with terrorists is the removal of a powerful weapon from one's arsenal. Just as bad is to reveal this decision to one's adversary. It is like entering a street brawl and declaring one will not use his fists. A unilateral promise not to use each and every weapon at one's disposal is hardly sound strategy; far from it. An announced mothballing of a key weapon reduces flexibility and the very ability to win -- which is all that counts. To do this in order to "take a stand on principle" or gain the imagined public approval of some constituency is not good strategy or policy. Rather, the elevation of diplomatic other-directedness over the achievement of a critical foreign policy objective or the rescuing of innocent lives is the triumph of individual narcissism over true compassion for others. It involves valuing the reputational benefit, the positive public relations, to oneself over the very lives of others!

True altruism would demand sacrificing one's reputation for the tangible and tremendous life-saving benefit of others. Most of us easily see which is more important and would not be so selfish. This is why it was shocking to see the Republican presidential candidates at a recent debate try to outdo one another in trying to take the strongest pledge not to negotiate with terrorists. (This is not a partisan issue; perhaps no elected official today is willing to say he or she would negotiate with terrorists.)

Perhaps a personal scenario will help focus the issue. If your son were held hostage abroad, wouldn't you want our government to take all the steps available to rescue him?

Under the current no-negotiations dogma, your son might die. This inflexible rule, placing politicians' public reputations over your son's life, would result in your son coming back to America in the hold of an Air Force plane, carried in a coffin over which an American flag was draped.

You can expect to be told that your son died a hero, he died for his country.

While Reagan didn't exactly admit it, he knew it was more important to get your son back than to chase after the approval of the rest of the world. Wouldn't it be nice to again have a President who would say he would do whatever it took so that when your son comes off that plane, he's kissing the ground and then running towards you?

Reagan was willing to take the reputational hit, and risked his presidency, to save American lives. Reagan was secure in himself, in his character, and didn't need the affirmation or approval of others. Above all, Ronald Reagan understood that being President was a vocation of service, that it was about serving others, and that trivial matters of one's place in history or standing in the polls.

Sometimes the slavish devotion to ideals, or the terror of risking public scorn, overshadows the genuine priorities of our elected leaders and candidates to replace them. It is a paradox of current political culture that those rare men and women who care little or not at all about making unpopular decisions often end up being the most popular. That is because character makes leaders, and the American people desire more than anything else to be led.

(Eric Dixon is a New York election lawyer and conservative political strategist.)

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