If Barack Obama wants to answer some of his administration's toughest foreign-policy questions, he need only ask himself this: Should I, the U.S. president, bargain with the devil? To "bargain" would mean making a deal -- trying to resolve a conflict through negotiation -- rather than fighting it out or resisting. The "devil" would be an adversary who has intentionally harmed you in the past or appears willing to harm you in the future. In short, someone who is not trustworthy -- whose behavior might even be evil.
Today, the "devil" is in Afghanistan and Iran. And Obama is finding that the answer of whether to make a deal is, "Not always, but more often than you feel like."
Let's start with Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai says he is prepared to negotiate with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. After the September 11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush demanded that Mullah Omar shut down al Qaeda's camps and turn over Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants or face the full brunt of U.S. military might. Mullah Omar asked to negotiate, and Bush refused. Instead, the United States invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban.
Now the tides have turned. Karzai's offer to sit down with even the most notorious Taliban leaders comes with the hope that talking will promote peace and reconciliation or even end the conflict. The Pentagon is also financing its own program to bring "moderate" Taliban in from the cold. But there's one problem: Most Americans believed in 2001 that the Taliban had committed evil acts, and not much has changed.
The question at hand is whether the "evil" nature of the Taliban (or in the case of Iran, the clerical regime) is relevant to Obama's decision. Cutting deals entails giving the devil something he wants. But it can also lead to getting something you want. Hence, there is often a tension between the pragmatic course and the principled one.
I've been thinking about this question a lot lately, having just written a book on precisely the same topic. I've sought answers across a broad range of contexts, from business and family disputes to international conflicts. And as a specialist in conflict resolution, I have a few thoughts that might be useful.
First, I am wary of categorical answers to the question of whether to negotiate or resist. In my field of dispute resolution, people tend to think you should always be willing to negotiate (otherwise there wouldn't be much resolution!). But many take the opposite approach: The Faustian legend suggests you should never negotiate with the devil, at any price. I don't buy such absolutes, especially because my two greatest political heroes of the 20th century took opposite paths. In May 1940, Winston Churchill refused to negotiate with Adolf Hitler, even though the Nazis had overrun Europe and were about to attack a fragile Britain. In 1985, on the other hand, Nelson Mandela decided to initiate negotiations -- from prison -- with South Africa's apartheid government. Both men made the "right" choice.