Negotiating With Enemies: Now The CW

This part of President Obama’s Afghanistan speech deserves attention, if only because it’s one of so many things that conservatives used to condemn but now have become part of the conventional wisdom:

In a country with extreme poverty that has been at war for decades, there will also be no peace without reconciliation among former enemies. I have no illusions that this will be easy. In Iraq, we had success in reaching out to former adversaries to isolate and target al Qaeda. We must pursue a similar process in Afghanistan, while understanding that it is a very different country. There is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated. But there are also those who have taken up arms because of coercion, or simply for a price. These Afghans must have the option to choose a different course. That is why we will work with local leaders, the Afghan government, and international partners to have a reconciliation process in every province. As their ranks dwindle, an enemy that has nothing to offer the Afghan people but terror and repression must be further isolated.

Compare this to Dick Cheney’s assertion (on behalf of President Bush) that “we don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it,” in reference to North Korea — which, if you haven’t heard, is now threatening to test a new ballistic missile. In Iraq, not only did we negotiate with evil, we paid evil vast sums of money to change sides. And now we’re going to attempt something similar with Taliban elements in Afghanistan, as well as with Iran: Try various methods and inducements — some of which have been/will be derided by many conservatives as “appeasement” — to change the strategic calculations of some of our enemies in order to gain advantage against other, worse enemies.

As we continue to discuss and debate the way forward, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, it’s hugely important to remind people that this central insight — our enemies are not monolithic, they can be disaggregated — represents a resounding refutation of the neoconservative “war on terror” approach that characterized the Bush administration’s foreign policy in the years after 9/11. Clearly, there are terrorist networks that seek to do Americans harm, but they do not represent anything like a united “Islamofascist” front against the West, no “axis of evil” necessitating “with us or against us” ultimata. The fact that progressives have won this argument is, of course, small comfort when one considers the enormous costs incurred by the Bush administration in making our case.