Jimmy Carter’s Magic Words

Should we talk to our enemies?

Jimmy Carter 

Jimmy Carter holds the trump card when he talks about the need to speak to one’s enemies. His advantage is the instinct harbored by most Americans, who reject “the policy of isolating problem countries” and believe “that the United States should be willing to enter into talks with them,” as one public-opinion poll put it in December 2006.

In that poll, only 16 favored “pressure,” while a whopping 82 percent was “willing to talk.” Eighty-four percent of respondents supported the proposition that “communication increases the chance of finding a mutually agreeable solution.” So although Carter wants you to think he is working against the odds, calling for talks is, in fact, the easier political position.

It is easier for Barack Obama to explain why he is ready to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than it is for Hillary Clinton to explain why she opposes such a meeting. It is easier for Carter to explain why meeting the leader of Hamas is preferable to “isolating” him. It is easier because no details are necessary. All you have to do is use one of the magic words: engage, communicate, talk. The burden of proof lies with those who oppose engagement. They have to make their case and clarify why they don’t want to talk.

Carter met with Hamas leaders last week, and he explained his position in Monday’s New York Times. In his op-ed, two reasons emerged for the necessity of such talks, but Carter, misleadingly, turned them into one.

The first is that “Hamas [is] steadily gaining popularity.” That’s the let’s-just-deal-with-reality argument: Hamas is strong, Hamas makes the rules, and we have to talk to the party in power. The second is “there can be no peace with Palestinians divided.” That’s the what-we’re-trying-to-do-here-is-help-make-peace argument. Presumably, Carter is not in the business of sabotaging the peace talks being conducted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas or undermining his efforts to rebuild a moderate, democratic Palestinian Authority. It just looks that way.

It is no accident that in Carter’s version, these two arguments are mushed together and left unrecognizable. Carter is a calculating diplomat, and he knows his way around land mines. He needs the arguments to be confusingly entangled, because neither can stand on its own feet. Helping the cause of peace by engaging a party that expresses no interest in a two-state solution makes no sense. Talking to a villain because he is strong while giving up on the possibility of moderates being able to overcome their difficulties is a despairingly defeatist goal.

“[D]irectly engaging Hamas would not only empower a terrorist group designated by the United States and the European Union, it would pull the carpet out from under Palestinian moderates who are truly interested in pursuing peace and are trying to contest support for Hamas through non-violent means,” wrote Matthew Levitt, author of the authoritative book Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad. And Levitt is not alone. The Israeli government, the U.S. administration, the European Union, and the so-called international Middle East Quartet all reject engagement and support the isolation of Hamas.

Carter is defying them all, and he is trying to erode international support for isolation. “This policy” he argues, “makes difficult the possibility that such leaders might moderate their policies.” The hope of eventual moderation is another easy argument made by proponents of engagement, who fail to recognize that in some cases, moderation is not a reasonable expectation. Here, Carter is guilty not only of miscalculation but of hubris. He apparently believes that by the force of his personality and powers of persuasion, he can make Hamas change a deeply rooted ideology. Unfortunately, he can’t.

Carter goes on to add Syria into the mix. He claims, “Israel cannot gain peace with Syria unless the Golan Heights dispute is resolved.” That is probably true. He also uses the “desire of high Israeli officials” to negotiate with Syria to show that the U.S. government’s stance against such talks is counterproductive. (Conveniently enough, Carter listens to Israelis’ desires only when they bolster his arguments, but that’s another story.)

But what Carter fails—or, more likely, doesn’t want—to explain is why the Bush administration is reluctant to encourage Israeli engagement with Syria. Reading his article, you might think that preventing bilateral peace talks is the reason—that Washington is somehow opposed to peace between Israel and Syria. This makes no sense. Why would the administration oppose a peace agreement—any peace agreement?

Again, it is those damned details that skew his reasoning. The Bush administration does not oppose an Israeli-Syrian peace accord, but it does oppose an accord that Syria will interpret as a license to keep meddling in Lebanon’s affairs or an accord that will let Syria off the hook with respect to its unhelpful Iraq policies.

There’s no moral virtue in talking to one’s enemies. Engagement is a tool, but so are disengagement and isolation. Both are effective, if used wisely; both can be damaging if used in haste. Talking to one’s enemies is a tool—as is complaining about one’s reluctance to talk to one’s enemies. This is the tool now being used by Hamas and Syria—assisted by Carter—as they try to escape and counter the isolation being applied to them. Making the case for engagement helps them achieve their strategic goal.

Carter’s bouillabaisse of Hamas, Syria, and the Maoist guerrillas of Nepal, whom he uses as a positive example of his approach, allows him to offer a one-approach-fits-all solution: Get Carter on board, engage, solve. This should come as no surprise to the people following his diplomacy in recent years. Professor Kenneth Stein, who worked with Carter for more than 20 years—until he chose to break their ties over the controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheidwrote in the Middle East Quarterly that throughout the book Carter “allows his premises to supplant the facts.”

He “possesses missionary zeal,” Stein wrote of the former president. Last week, writing about Carter’s visit to Israel for Ha’aretz, I revisited this zeal and “the fundamental hypocrisy which is the basis for the political partisanship concerning Carter.” Why is it, I asked, that people who have attacked a president such as Bush for “distorting facts in order to push a political goal” have no problem with Carter’s book? Why is it that people suspicious of the religious faith that serves as the foundation of Bush’s political actions have “no problem with the same religious motives of Carter’s messianism”?