Talking to Terrorists: yesterday’s gunmen, today’s politicians?
-John Bew is Lecturer in Modern British History at Peterhouse, Cambridge University. Martyn Frampton is a Research Fellow, also at Peterhouse. Their book, co-written with Iñigo Gurruchaga, is called “Talking to Terrorists: Making Peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country” and they blog at Talking to Terrorists. The opinions expressed are their own.-
One of the current fashions in British and American diplomatic circles is the idea that it is necessary to engage with our enemies, no matter how extreme they might seem. In response to the recent Iranian election results, for example, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation – a think tank with strong links to the Obama administration – suggested that “nothing at all has changed in the equation that Obama set out during the campaign: we have to deal with out enemies – we must engage”.
Equally, many observers now suggest that the same logic should be applied to non-state actors including Hamas, Hezbollah and even “moderate” Taliban in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the British Foreign Office reanimated contacts with Hezbollah and several senior British MPs invited Hamas to participate in a video-link discussion in Westminster.
On May 17, we will discuss some of these issues in a lunchtime event run by the Henry Jackson Society in the Houses of Parliament. As we point out in our book, Talking to Terrorists, this belief in the need to “engage with the extremes” often takes the example of Northern Ireland as an inspiration, where the Irish Republican Army (IRA) ended a thirty-year campaign of violence in the late 1990s.
The assumption here is that the British government took the brave decision to talk to those who were committing terrorist violence and therefore managed to bring them within the fold of the eventual political settlement. Thus, yesterday’s gunmen became today’s politicians, so the story goes.
Yet this version of history does not accurately reflect what really happened in Northern Ireland. First, the British state had tried to talk to the IRA at various intervals throughout the conflict, starting as early as 1972. At various points, this encouraged the terrorists that momentum was on their side and coincided with a surge in expectations and in violence.
Second “hard power” also played a crucial role: the IRA only came to the negotiating table after a hugely successful campaign of intelligence and policing forced them to recognise that their military campaign was failing. They achieved barely any of the aims they had set out with and were arguably further from success than they had been thirty year before. As its star rises, does anyone expect Hamas to sue for peace with such lowered expectations?
The Spanish government’s recent success against the Basque separatist terrorists, ETA, provides an interesting contrast to the idea that talking to terrorists is a pre-requisite for peace. For years, the Spanish government tried talks with ETA but these never yielded a political breakthrough. More recently, however, the new strategy has been to asphyxiate ETA through proscription of its political wing, arrests of suspected high profile ETA members, and successful prosecution through the courts.
Ultimately, there is a crucial difference in talking to terrorists who are on the crest of a wave and believe they have momentum on their side and talking to those who have been made to realise – by hard power as well as a soft power – that their aims are unattainable through violence.
The message of our book is not to reject the idea of talking to terrorists outright. But it is to provide a reminder that it is unlikely to provide a magic solution and runs the risk of making the situation immeasurably worse. The U.S. and the UK are likely to travel further down this road in the near future; they should take care to proceed with extreme caution.