Bargaining With the Devil

How should Barack Obama deal with evil?

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.

So if there is no absolute answer, how should one decide? There are five questions that I have found to help guide a particular case: What are the interests at stake? What are the alternatives to negotiation? What are the costs of negotiation? Is there a potential deal that both parties would agree to? Could such a deal be implemented?

In 2001, I asked myself those five questions about Afghanistan and agreed with Bush's decision not to negotiate with the Taliban. I thought it nearly inconceivable that paramount U.S. security interests could be achieved through talks because it seemed doubtful that the Taliban had the will or capacity to shut down their training camps and turn over terrorist culprits. I also thought the costs of entering into negotiations with the Taliban regime were unacceptably high; doing so would undercut the United States' capacity to build an international coalition to resist terrorism. I thought the use of force was morally and legally justifiable, so I didn't have to make any hard choices between pragmatism and principle.

Today the question is more complicated. The Taliban is not a monolithic group with central control. It's less clear with whom one would negotiate -- or about what. So far, I think the Obama administration has gotten it right by distinguishing among three categories of Taliban and answering the question differently for each one.

The first group of Taliban is made up of rank-and-file individuals who are not ideologically committed to any grand cause. These are the so-called "$10 Taliban" -- opportunists who, it is hoped, might lay down their arms if they are offered $11. The second group is made up of Pashtun tribal leaders with "moderate" political goals, including security and order. The hope is that they and their followers might agree to join in a political process that could lead to improved local governance.

Although I am not terribly optimistic about the prospects of "flipping" these two groups, I see nothing wrong with trying to engage them. It should simply be remembered that if they think the United States won't be in Afghanistan for long, any alliance they make with U.S. forces is likely to be unstable.

The third Taliban group -- the least promising for negotiations -- is made up of ideologues whose primary goal is to regain national power and reimpose an extreme version of Islamic law. As long as they think time is on their side, concessions on their part don't make much sense. This is certainly true for Mullah Omar, who flatly turned down Karzai's invitation to engage in any form of negotiation as long as there are foreign troops on Afghan soil. I would not negotiate with Mullah Omar or the other Taliban leaders from this third group. They seem unlikely to give ground, so it makes more sense to try to defeat them.

But in fact the more troubling question is what might happen if Mullah Omar does become open to serious bargaining and a deal seems enforceable. What the Taliban leadership wants is political power, and any deal with Mullah Omar would involve a form of powersharing that at a minimum gives the Taliban some regional control. Suppose they said to Washington, "Give us regional power, and we promise not to harbor terrorists on our soil." How should the United States respond? It might serve pragmatic interests better than a protracted war, but it would allow the Taliban to once again shut down all schools for girls and brutally repress dissent. U.S. officials shouldn't delude themselves: They might make that deal, but it would be a Faustian bargain.

Iran is an even tougher case. Obama has already said that he thinks there are vital U.S. interests at stake due to the risk of nuclear proliferation and the danger Iran could pose to its neighbors. The United States should not take the use of force off the table. The perception that you have the will (and the capacity) to resist can often influence the other side's perception of their risks -- should they refuse to negotiate.

At the same time, no one seriously thinks that Washington has a very good military option, given the complex situation in the region, the difficulty of the task, and the limited intelligence available on Iran's nuclear facilities. Nor are economic sanctions likely to have much of an impact without the cooperation of China and Russia, and so far the Chinese haven't been very cooperative.

The bad news in Iran is that Washington has a very limited ability to influence internal events. But the good news is that internal opposition to the regime is growing. That's why the United States should push for tighter economic sanctions: to signal support to these dissenters. Yes, such a move would have real costs for ordinary Iranians. Still, I don't buy the argument that stricter sanctions would weaken the democratic opposition or make it easier for the ayatollahs to demonize the West. As I underscore in my book, weighing the expected costs and benefits of various alternatives nearly always involves uncertain predictions about the other side's response.

These are the questions that a pragmatist must manage, and they come with inherent and profound tensions. I applaud Obama's willingness to negotiate with anyone, no matter how odious their acts, if it serves the national interest. That's my inclination, too. But I also applaud his administration's courage in acknowledging that there are evil regimes in the world -- and that sometimes military force is simply necessary.



The Boogeyman Bomb

How afraid should we be of electromagnetic pulse weapons?

It's a scene fit for a Hollywood movie: A terrorist group launches a nuclear weapon from a ship off the coast of the United States. But instead of directly hitting a city or military installation, it detonates miles above the ground, seemingly causing no damage. Almost instantaneously, the lights darken over a large portion of the United States, cars stop in the middle of the road, and computers go dead. Panic ensues and the nation is soon economically and militarily crippled, sent back to the pre-modern era.

This is the catastrophic scenario depicted in the opening scene of a 1980s-style public service announcement released last year by EMPACT America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "protecting the American People from a nuclear or natural electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe."

First observed in a 1962 high-altitude nuclear weapons test over the South Pacific, EMP is an intense burst of electromagnetic radiation resulting from a large explosion that can potentially wipe out all unprotected electronics. During the Cold War, strategists worried about EMP primarily as part of a larger nuclear scenario: Military hardware needed to be hardened against the pulses' effects to be able to survive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

In recent years, however, and particularly after 9/11, EMP has emerged as the latest fear factor-type threat among Washington's doomsday crowd. "A single EMP attack may seriously degrade or shut down a large part of the electric power grid in the geographic area of EMP exposure effectively instantaneously," the congressionally mandated EMP commission concluded in its 2008 report. In recent months, EMP fears have resurfaced as Iran hawks like Newt Gingrich and Daniel Pipes have suggested that the Islamic Republic could use an EMP against the United States.

There have been any number of dire scenarios -- of varying degrees of probability -- that have caught Washington's attention over the years: The threat of nuclear Armageddon drove U.S. policy during the Cold War; "Y2K" led to a national campaign to fix computer bugs; and the threat of terrorist attacks post-9/11 has led to two wars and billions in new spending for intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. Cybersecurity and the concept of a "digital Pearl Harbor" are now gaining traction, with the director of national intelligence warning that cyberattacks could "wreak havoc" on the United States.

One of the most outspoken prophets of EMP doom has been physicist Lowell Wood, the brain behind such Reagan-era Star Wars weapons as Project Excalibur, the plan to create a hydrogen-bomb-pumped X-ray laser to shoot down enemy missiles; and Brilliant Pebbles, the concept of deploying thousands of anti-missile satellites in orbit over the United States. Wood famously called EMP "a continental-scale time machine" in a 1999 hearing to discuss the threat.

"We essentially pick up the continent and move it back in time by about one century," Wood warned. "And you live like our grandfather[s] and great-grandfathers and so on did in the 1890s, until you rebuild. You do without telephones, you do without television, and you do without electric power."

The EMP threat has, so far, not sent Middle America scrambling to the store to stock up on aluminum foil, a potential home defense against the pulses' electronic-frying effect. (Though in this case, the stereotypical conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats might actually have the right idea.)

But unlike some of the other national security threats on the horizon, the "e-bomb" has emerged as a partisan issue, with a core group of conservative supporters. Gingrich has been among the most outspoken. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has been one of the most ardent supporters of those pushing for an EMP defense, establishing the investigatory commission, and warning of a catastrophe "on a scale far greater than Hurricane Katrina."

Despite EMPACT's claims of nonpartisanship, liberals have largely dismissed the idea as conservative fear-mongering. EMPs were even derisively labeled "the Newt Bomb" by New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley.

The real debate is not so much over whether EMP is a real phenomenon -- even critics of the commission's findings agree it exists --  but how much of a threat it poses to the nation's infrastructure, how likely it is that a group or country might build and use such a weapon, and what should be done about it.

Philip Coyle, a former top Pentagon official and current nominee for associate director of national security for the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, has in the past criticized some of the EMP defense advocates for exaggerating the capabilities of a potential EMP attack. "The commission deliberately wrote their report the way they did because they wanted to call attention to it; they didn't want it just to get buried and lost," Coyle told me in an interview in 2005. "So, some of this inflammatory language they use about the 'end of life as we know it,' this rhetoric, was to try to get people's interest and attention."

There has long been debate about just how devastating an EMP weapon would be on the United States. After reviewing the possible effects of EMP and comparing it to natural lightning, Mario Rabinowitz of the Electric Power Research Institute wrote back in 1987 that an EMP burst could never take out the entire U.S. power grid. "It would be practically impossible for the EMP to cause widespread damage to the U.S. transmission line system," he concluded. "With the exception of isolated cases, it appears highly unlikely that EMP could produce extensive damage to the U.S. distribution grid."

For critics of the EMP threat, the problems with the e-bomb are both practical and technical. If a country has the capability to launch a nuclear bomb that could wreak immediate massive devastation, why settle for something that would merely shut the lights out? The argument, according to EMP-defense advocates, is that terrorists or rogue states might prefer to attack with an EMP weapon because it hits at the United States's most vulnerable point -- its infrastructure -- while reducing the threat of nuclear retaliation. "EMPs could be used to circumvent America's superior con­ventional military power while reducing vulnerabil­ity to retaliation in kind," Jena Baker McNeill and Richard Weitz argued in a Heritage Foundation paper.

Similarly, as in the case of EMPACT's scenario, rogue states might choose to provide an EMP weapon to a terrorist group, thus making attribution all the more difficult, if not impossible.

Therein lies part of the problem. Yousaf Butt, a staff scientist in the High Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argued persuasively in a recent article for The Space Review that under this scenario -- an attack from a rogue state or terrorist group -- it is unlikely that an EMP weapon could wreak total havoc. (Ironically, Butt has some common ground with those arguing for EMP defenses; he agrees that geomagnetic storms pose a similar threat and is in favor of hardening the grid to protect against them.)

If the primary threat is from a crudely constructed EMP weapon launched from a Scud-type missile, that sort of weapon wouldn't have nearly the capabilities needed to take out U.S. infrastructure, he argues. Butt estimates that such a device, with a one-kiloton yield, would have to be launched much lower in the atmosphere, and thus would have more localized effects. "Serious long-lasting consequences of a one-kiloton EMP strike would likely be limited to a state-sized region of the country," he writes.

True, an EMP that affected even a single state would be, no doubt, traumatic and disruptive, but it would also be recoverable, and more importantly, fall far short of a "continental-scale time machine."

In the end, advocates for EMP preparation could end up being their own worst enemy. The unlikely scenarios they peddle lend themselves to caricature. And though there are certainly some intellectual heavyweights among those who have warned about the effects of EMP -- like Johnny Foster, the former head of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- critics have derided EMP defense supporters for relying on the likes of science fiction writer William R. Forstchen to help bolster their case.

By talking about "time machines" and turning the EMP bomb into something that goes bump in the night, those advocating for better defenses risk pushing the issue further into the margins of science fiction.

Image: Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack