Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We don't negotiate with militants

Two days ago, following a security conference in the Gulf States, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was queried by reporters about the possibility of negotiations with Iran. The queries were evoked, in part, by a recent U.S. Intelligence Community report downgrading Iran as an immediate nuclear threat. Gates affirmed the Bush administration’s hard line policy toward negotiations with Iran. In concluding his statement the secretary stated, simply and firmly, “we don’t negotiate with militants.”

That he didn’t say, “we don’t negotiate with ‘terrorists”” interested me. My own writing has focused on violent political conflict, predominantly in Sri Lanka. Finding the appropriate words to describe different protagonists, without making implicit value judgments has been important to me. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter or ‘revolutionary.’ (The United States, after all, won its freedom in what is often labeled not ‘The War of Independence’, but the revolutionary war.) ‘Militant” is the value neutral term I have settled upon to describe those who organize and challenge constituted authority using violent means.

After hearing the reports of Secretary Gates’ comments, I checked out two dictionary definitions, on line. One definition was 1; “engaged in warfare or combat: fighting” or 2: ‘aggressively active (as in a cause): combative (militant conservationists; a militant attitude). A second was 1: ‘at war; fighting' or 2: 'ready and willing to fight, especially vigorous or aggressive in support or promotion of a cause.'

As I reflected on these definitions, the names of five U.S. Political Leaders whose reported attitudes and behavior seem to fit them well came to mind: President George Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and former U.S. Representative to the United Nations, John Bolton. All of them are vigorous in support of their causes, aggressive active, ready and willing to fight. All have been “at war.” From an Iranian vantage point, surely they must be viewed as “militant.”

Perhaps the U.S. Policy of ‘not negotiating with militants’ should be reconsidered.


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