Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists
Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists

Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk to Terrorists

Dec 13, 2010

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Global Ethics Forum TV Show

When, how, and under what conditions should governments talk to terrorists? Can opening a dialogue bring conflicts to a faster resolution?

This event was hosted by David P. Hunt, Carnegie Council trustee and Friends Committee member.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs.

We are extremely pleased to have as our guest this morning a man who is widely recognized as a distinguished diplomat and scholar, Mitchell Reiss. As President Bush's special envoy for the Northern Ireland Peace Process, and having earlier led the Korean Peninsula's Energy Development Organization, also known as KEDO, in negotiations to stem the nuclear crisis in North Korea, Mr. Reiss has been at the center of some of our country's most sensitive talks.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to justify or defend any act of terror. Modern terrorism, as we know, is extremely violent, it is destructive, and it is increasingly being directed at innocent men, women, and children.

The major question is how to stop it. Some people argue that military forces should be used. Others make the point that terrorism is a crime that the police should investigate. Still others argue that it is better to bargain or negotiate with terrorists.

While there are many who may have difficulty imagining in any way engaging with terrorists, Mr. Reiss writes that "evidence gathered over the past few decades confirms that negotiating with evil may pay dividends."

Yet, for political leaders who want to enter into a dialogue with governments or nonstate actors, initiating the conversation can be one of the most difficult challenges facing countries today.

As you may have guessed, Mr. Reiss is one who believes that we should never fear to negotiate, as talking to terrorists can have positive results.

Over the past three years, he has traveled across Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, speaking to prime ministers, generals, intelligence officers, and even former terrorists to explore why and when governments have decided to talk to terrorist groups, to discover what mistakes they have made, and reveal the victories they have achieved.

The questions asked and the answers received, while poignant, are also fascinating. For example, how could governments go from vilifying those intent on destruction to making a complete U-turn and negotiating with those very same individuals? How does a government signal that it wants to meet? How do you identify those adversaries who can act with discretion and authority? How does one determine when conciliation is not working so that other measures should be taken?

Whether it is possible to sit down and negotiate with evil and emerge with peace, justice, and honor is a question that our speaker has spent a long time thinking about. For his answers, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very distinguished guest, Mitchell Reiss.

Thank you for joining us.


MITCHELL REISS: Thank you very much, Joanne, for that kind introduction. It's a pleasure to be here.

I want to start this morning by sharing two anecdotes with you from my experiences, as Joanne recounted, around the world for the last few years.

The first took place over a negotiating table in Belfast. Across the table from me were three very senior officials of Sinn Fein, a political party closely associated with the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. In fact, these particular individuals were simultaneously three senior members of the IRA. But that day they were dressed in suits and they were representing political interests.

In the course of the negotiations, one of the members of Sinn Fein believed that I had threatened his leader. Without any warning, he leaped out of his chair and across the table to strike me. At the last minute, the leader grabbed him by the belt and yanked him back into his seat before he could hit me. I, of course, being unspeakably brave, refused to flinch. But the reality was that it all happened so quickly that I didn't have time to react.

When I later had time to reflect about this, there was a question: How far is the distance between the polished, well-tailored official that you're talking with and the underlying terrorist, the man who has done unspeakable harm to many innocent individuals? Is it ever possible to really bridge that divide? Can you sit down and actually strike a deal with this individual? The distance between those two is really rather short.

The second anecdote takes place in Amman, Jordan in 2004. I was traveling around the region trying to get a handle on what governments are thinking after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and how we perhaps can win more of their support.

I met with a group of about 20 university students. In order to break the ice, I went around the table and I asked each of them if they could tell me their name, what they're majoring in at university, and what their life's ambitions are. We dutifully went around the room.

We came to a young woman, who's wearing a headscarf; completely fluent in English with only a hint of an accent. She's 21 years old. She's majoring in computer science. Her life's ambition is to get married, to have lots of children, and hope that they will grow up to become suicide bombers to kill lots of Jews.

I'm Jewish. I'm sitting there and I really am speechless. But before I can react, one of her classmates intervenes. I think to myself: Oh, good. Better that her classmates correct her than me.

The classmate says, "You don't mean that. You don't mean Jews. You mean Israelis."

She says, "Yes. Thank you for clarifying that."

And all the other students nod their heads around the room.

Here is a young woman with an enormously bright future, and yet she has already at least begun to think in terms of destruction rather than hope, and trying to seek revenge for the past rather than to build a better future.

How do you start to chip away at that mindset? How do you meet with somebody like her across a negotiating table and try to see if you can reach a common ground to end the killing?

These were just two of the experiences over the last few years while I was serving in the government that got me thinking about talking to terrorists and whether you should ever do it.

Let's be very candid about it. There are many reasons not to do this.

The most famous, of course, is that it smacks of appeasement. You are rewarding bad behavior. The touchstone that everybody uses is the Munich Agreement . Nobody wants to be compared to Neville Chamberlain.

There is also a question of legitimacy, with a heavy overlay of morality. Our meeting with groups that have blood on their hands legitimizes and validates them, and it raises them up to a place of moral equivalence with us. That's something that you simply don't want to do.

Vice President Cheney sort of captured this essence in a speech he gave in Philadelphia at the end of 2002 when he said, "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." Hence the title of the book, Negotiating with Evil. But still, that's an argument that has some purchase.

Another reason not to do so is because it undermines our friends and allies that are supporting us in whatever particular war on this group may exist. It may also upset domestic constituents, members of the armed forces, in some societies members of the security and police forces, and families who have lost loved ones to these groups. It's a rare politician that is going to go out on a limb and publicly say, at least without preparation, that he or she wants to talk to these groups, because there is a domestic price that you pay.

It's also possible that the groups aren't sincere. You may want to talk to a terrorist group or an insurgent group but they're just not genuinely interested in doing so. This phenomenon is as old as history. In fact, Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War talks about pretending to negotiate seriously so that you can gain time to regroup and reload.

Finally, it's also possible that you're simply too far apart. There is nothing to negotiate. The demands of a terrorist group are simply unacceptable and they're non-negotiable in that sense. For many people, the demands of Osama bin Laden in terms of the U.S. exiting from the Middle East and no longer supporting our friends and allies in the region is simply a non-negotiable demand, and therefore there's no reason to sit down with him.

The point is that reluctance to engage with terrorist groups has a price. We may miss a chance in some circumstances to end a conflict. If we can't end a conflict, we may miss a chance to gain greater insight by engaging with a terrorist group into its personalities, structure, organization, rivalries, and ways in which members of this group may be recruited and turned to our advantage. All of this is a price that may be paid if you decide not to engage with these groups.

It seems clear, wherever you come out on this issue, that the price of not engaging with terrorist groups in the future is likely to increase because the arrows for terrorism trends all point in the wrong directions as we look forward.

There will be more terrorist groups in the future than in the past. One reason for that is simply demographic: 60 percent of all the people in the Middle East are below the age of 25. Terrorism is a young man's game. If you combine this demographic bulge with a lot of the social and political pathologies throughout the Middle East, it's a toxic brew. Indeed, the National Intelligence Council, the CIA's in-house think-tank, has talked about exactly this demographic bulge and its implications for terrorism in its last two reports on Mapping the Global Future.

In addition, there are going to be more places for terrorist groups to gather and to scheme in the future than in the past. A few years ago, CIA Director George Tenet, talked about "stateless zones." These were areas of countries where the government's writ did not run. They simply had no control over these areas, and they were havens for criminality and for terrorists. With the economic downturn in the last few years and some of the hardship that has imposed, especially on some of the developing world countries, these stateless zones have increased and are likely to increase more in the future.

In addition, terrorist groups are going to have greater access to more lethal technology and weapons. If you can just consider this for a moment—I'm quoting from a recent RAND Institute study: "Since 9/11, al Qaeda has engaged in more terrorist attacks on more continents, with more sophisticated weapons, than in its entire history to date."

It seems as if the terrorism trends are pointing in a direction where this is going to become more of a problem rather than less of one. That's why the Pentagon has developed what it calls "the long war concept." We're in for a very long war against lots of these types of groups in the future.

The "bumper sticker" answer to this long war challenge comes from General David Petraeus. General Petraeus has said repeatedly and famously that you can't kill or capture your way out of an insurgency. What he means by that is that at a certain point in time you're going to have to talk.

There are good arguments that we need to think more deeply, powerfully, and comprehensively about whether to engage with terrorist groups, when to engage with them, and especially how to engage with them.

What I have done in Negotiating with Evil is I've spent the last three years traveling around the world, as Joanne mentioned, with a variety of individuals to try to get a better understanding of how we might do better in the future than we have done in the past. The reality is that governments have talked to terrorist groups in the past, but most of these negotiations have been in the shadows. It's very hard for the experiences to have been captured.

Very rarely have they been memorialized, except perhaps in a few memoirs by some of the individuals. But there hasn't been any really comprehensive analysis of how the governments have done here, what lessons they have learned, and in particular what mistakes they have made, so that we can do better in the future.

What I've done is I've looked at five case studies: the British and the IRA; Spain and the Basque terrorist group ETA; Sri Lanka and the perhaps most innovative terrorist group on the planet at the time, the Tamil Tigers; the U.S. military and the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province in Iraq, especially in the period of 2006, 2007, and 2008; and then Israel and Hamas.

Israel and Hamas is what I might call an outlier—or if there are any academics here, it was an attempt to control for the dependent variable. Because Israel refuses to talk to Hamas, that is really the exception among this grouping. But even in the case of Israel, as you might read in the chapter, the Israelis do talk to Hamas. They talk to them indirectly, in negotiations to try to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has now been held captive for over four years.

They also negotiate with Hamas over mundane things, such as sewage, water, health issues, particularly avian flu, as it impacts Gaza and may impact Israel. At a certain level, on non-political, very pragmatic things, there is a dialogue. At a higher level, there's an indirect negotiation over Corporal Shalit.

What I've tried to do is to understand the histories of each of these negotiations and then to distill some lessons that might help us in the future. In particular, they might help us today in understanding and carving out a way forward in Afghanistan. Let me share some of these lessons with you.

One of the lessons, right off the top, is that it's not always hard to decide whether to talk to terrorists or not. In many cases it's actually quite easy.

The reason for this is that some terrorist groups are simply irreconcilable. They have maximalist, millenarian, or nihilist goals. There is nothing to negotiate with them. It's a zero-sum game for them. They're not willing to compromise. Therefore, there's really no reason to engage them.

This, sadly, has been Spain's example with the Basque terrorist group ETA, and it was at the end of the day Sri Lanka's experience with the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran.

Then there's another group, which might be called the reconcilables. These are groups that signal that they want to compromise and that they're open or willing to negotiate. It's not really a very hard call. They're telling you that they want to talk. You can test that proposition by actually meeting with them.

There's a third group that falls somewhere in between the irreconcilable and the reconcilable. These are the tough calls.

It may be that on a Tuesday they're signaling that they want to talk to you but on a Thursday they're going to set off a bomb that is going to blow up a security official. It could be that some members of the group are interested in negotiating but that other factions inside the organization are absolutely opposed to it. How do you tell? These are tough calls.

A couple of examples where this proposition was tested and it proved that you could move this group into the reconcilable category were the British and the IRA, and the U.S. military and members of the Sunni tribes in Anbar. These were very hard calls.

A second lesson is that, with apologies to Clausewitz, engagement is war by other means. You cannot win at the negotiating table what you can't defend on the battlefield. What this means really is that you need leverage.

Terrorist groups have no incentive to come to the negotiating table if they don't think that our side is winning, that they are losing, or if you remove all hope from their ultimate victory by demonstrating that you have the stamina, you have the determination to slog it out for as long as it takes. This, of course, is a very hard political message to be able to convey. It's probably even harder if the terrorist group is religiously motivated, because they're taking their orders from God, and God doesn't compromise.

We know in some cases that it is possible to demonstrate this type of resolve. But it's not easy. One of the examples in the book is that it took the British over ten to 15 years to be able to demonstrate to the IRA that it was not going to leave Northern Ireland.

The IRA believed that "one more big push" was all that it would take to raise the political cost to the British to leave the North—not that they could ever defeat the British military on the streets of Belfast or Derry, but simply that it would be too politically painful for the British to stay. It took the British, as I said, almost 15 years to disabuse the IRA leadership of that.

There is a wonderful quote in the book from Gerry Adams, when I interviewed him in 2009, in which he said, "We were looking at war for another 30 or 40 years, and I didn't want to do that."

Until you were able to change that mentality, you're going to have a conflict.

Another lesson is that it still may be worth talking with the terrorist groups even if there is no hope of a deal. This may seem counterintuitive, but in fact it's a different animal altogether. You're not talking about a negotiation here; you're talking about a counterintelligence operation.

The ability to sit down with these men—and they're almost always men—to take their measure, to see if there's any fractures within the organization, to understand better the personal relationships, and to be able to recruit and turn them to your side, is invaluable. You can do both simultaneously; they're not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The British were quite good at this. By the early 1990s, many of the IRA's operations were stillborn because the British intelligence services had infiltrated the IRA so massively. Indeed, the number three official of the IRA and the head of counterintelligence for the IRA were on the British payroll. The British were very successful, but it took them almost two decades to get to that point.

One of my favorite examples has to do with Spain and ETA. Again, it took a while to get this negotiation set up, but in the mid-to-late 1980s the Spanish and the Basque terrorist group ETA met in Algiers in Algeria. The Spanish had no real interest in negotiating. They didn't think a negotiation was possible because they didn't think ETA would compromise.

But they had a different plan altogether. It was a very sophisticated counterintelligence operation. What they had done is that they had gotten the Algerians to agree before the talks that if the talks failed, the Algerians would expel the ETA members to certain countries in Latin America. Sure enough, after a year or so, the talks did fail. The Algerians expelled them to certain Latin American countries.

The Spanish had already prearranged with these Latin American countries that the ETA leadership would be under house arrest and that all of their residences had the phones and fax machines tapped, and had listening devices throughout the entire house.

What happened is that they could then start to roll up ETA's organization inside Spain and over the border in France by tapping into this network of leadership outside the country. There's a quote in the book by the security official who was in charge of this, who said, "These leaders were much more valuable to me sitting in the Dominican Republic than they would have been sitting in Spanish jails." This was a very sophisticated and well-run counterintelligence operation under the guise of a negotiation.

Another lesson seems almost obvious. You have to have first-rate intelligence, and the integrity of the intelligence collection process and analysis must be preserved. If there was one great surprise to me in the book, it was how often the intelligence process had gotten corrupted as it went up the chain of command.

It's also true that a lack of good intelligence will kill you. It's very painful to talk about some of these cases here.

Perhaps the most well-known one has to do with Iraq after the invasion in 2003. We had 1,400 intelligence officers in Iraq at that time. All of these 1,400 were tasked to finding weapons of mass destruction. Very few were actually tasked with reaching out to the growing Sunni insurgency at the time. There's an argument that we missed an opportunity to talk to some of these people and perhaps walk them back in late 2003 and early 2004, certainly before the event that took place in Fallujah.

In addition, there is a story that has gained some currency—unfortunately, because it's not true—that the United States missed an opportunity to engage with what I call the "fake sheiks" in Amman, Jordan. There were a number of Sunni leaders that decamped from Anbar over the border into Amman. They were telling us that they could turn the insurgency off like a faucet if only we gave them lots of money and lots of weapons.

Some academics and some reporters, have actually reported—there's a Vanity Fair article on this point—that this was a golden opportunity that we missed. In fact, we did spend a little bit of time running down that particular rabbit hole, unfortunately, because none of these individuals had any influence that we could ever tell.

Perhaps the most upsetting case has to do with Abu Ghraib. There's an argument there that our frustration, our inability to understand what was happening in Iraq, led us to adopt extreme measures that led directly to some of the abuses that we saw so vividly with Abu Ghraib. This all goes under the heading of an intelligence failure.

There are also examples in the book about the poor handling of intelligence and how it compromised the British, Spanish, and Sri Lankan governments in their negotiations. We're all familiar with the events of the last week or so where there was an imposter who presented himself as the number-two leader of the Taliban and apparently was successful in separating us from a rather large sum of money before he was exposed. This highlights the absolute centrality of having good intel. You cannot do anything without that.

Another lesson has to do with my experience in Northern Ireland. I debated for a long time whether I really wanted to call the book something different. The title I was toying with was "In Search of Gerry Adams."

The reason for that is that Gerry Adams is just a remarkable historical figure. There is a phrase that's trotted out in all of these conflicts, that we're looking for a partner for peace. Everybody needs a partner for peace, whether it's in the Middle East, whether it's in Kashmir, or what have you.

That really is just a euphemism. We're not just looking for a partner for peace; we're looking for a very specific individual with certain skill sets that are exceedingly rare.

The person must have a lot of credibility with his comrades inside the organization. He must also have the political imagination to envision a different way forward for this particular terrorist group. And he must also have the physical courage to be able to take risks, including risking his life. He must be able to meet with the government repeatedly—for months, perhaps even for years—when many people inside his organization may be strongly and violently opposed.

That skill set is very unusual. The Northern Ireland peace process was very fortunate in having one of those individuals in Gerry Adams.

There was a possibility that our interlocutor in Anbar Province in Iraq also had those qualities. Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was a member of one of the minor tribes in Anbar Province, but he was willing to stand up, to talk points against al Qaeda in Iraq at that time, and align himself publicly with the U.S. military to bring in the other Sunni tribes with him. This gradually, over time, led to what was called the Sunni Awakening.

Less than a year after the Sunni Awakening was announced in his house, he was assassinated by al Qaeda. It's possible that he had these qualities, but it also highlights how rare it is for these individuals to bubble up and then the difficulty of keeping them alive long enough so that they can make a difference.

Just a few more to share with you before questions.

Patience is not just a virtue, but in these cases it's a strategic advantage. All of these engagements take time, and they take far longer than any government expects them to.

The process starts usually with lower-level officials, intelligence officers, sometimes military officials, cutouts, third parties—track-two negotiations—who meet, they probe, they talk, they meet again, they talk some more. Months and even years can go by before the decision is made to take these talks out of the shadows and bring them into the public light, and to set up what is hoped to be a sustainable diplomatic effort.

The problem here is that they take time because terrorist groups aren't terribly sophisticated. They don't get out a lot.

They are also very anxious about engagement. For some of the reasons that I mentioned before, it's not clear that these terrorist groups are monoliths. In fact, we know that they are not. There are factions within them. People have different motives for joining these groups. It could be that factions are violently opposed to these types of engagements. This leads to some rookie mistakes.

One of my favorites was at one of the first engagements that the IRA had with the British government. The IRA brought a lawyer along with them to examine the credentials of the British intelligence officers, to make sure that they were really who they said they were. I recounted this a year or so ago to Martin McGuinness, one of the senior members of the IRA now, a senior official in Northern Ireland. As I was talking about "you did this wrong, you did that wrong," he interrupted me and said plaintively, "I was only 22 at the time."

He was absolutely right, he was only 22 at the time. The IRA hadn't been talking to the British in this manner for 50 years, not since Michael Collins. None of them had any experience.

This in fact is par for the course. It's not that they're not smart, because many of them are extraordinarily smart; they don't tend to be sophisticated, at least not in the terms of the rules of a formal negotiation.

It's also possible that many of these groups have a very shallow talent pool. As I mentioned, there's only one Gerry Adams. It's unclear who that figure might be for the Taliban, if that person exists at all.

What this means is not only is it hard to identify these individuals, but it's almost impossible to do what some of my academic colleagues love to do, which is to group all of the grievances together, call it a grand bargain, and say, "Let's just put it on the table, get it all out there, and have them agree." It is very hard for these groups to assimilate and to address so many different issues simultaneously. It's convenient for us to propose it, but in practice it is quite difficult.

To show how difficult it is, in Northern Ireland it took the British almost 25 years to get the IRA into a sustainable diplomatic framework, and it took the Spanish almost as long to do that with ETA. The one with ETA fell apart in a year and a half. You have to have patience and persistence.

The final lesson—and perhaps it's appropriate that it be the final lesson here at the Carnegie Council—has to do with the ethics of talking to these individuals, the morality.

The last question that I asked every single person that I interviewed across the globe was: What do you think about sitting down with people who have so much blood on their hands?

The answers really ranged across the spectrum, from some people saying, "You should never do it; the only thing I want to do to terrorists is kill them," to other people who actually were quite conflicted but also quite reflective about the ethical price that you have to pay in order to do this.

The last part of the book talks about the ethics of doing this, with some of the sentiments along the following lines: "I can't turn back the clock, I can't change the past, I can't stop the last person from being killed. All I can do is stop the next person from being killed, if I'm lucky."

It's almost a utilitarian argument: the greatest good for the greatest number.

If you're not conflicted, if you don't have a heavy heart, when you meet with some of these individuals, then you're really misunderstanding what the nature of your charge is, because there is an ethical price that you pay.

The only question is: At the end of the day, if you do it right, if you're fortunate, if you set it up and structure it correctly, then that price is worth it, because you may have a shot at ending a terrorist conflict, and that would make it worthwhile.

Thank you very much. I'm happy to take questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Edward Marschner. Thank you very much for a very cogent and well-organized, well-reasoned presentation.

I noticed a theme through your talk that seemed to put greater hope in diplomacy and what I would call a crime-fighting approach to terrorism, rather than the military approach. You touched on the war on terrorism notion very early but then moved quite firmly away from it.

I wonder if you would address the utility or danger of rhetoric invoking the military and whether, putting aside the actual use of the military for intelligence and so forth, the rhetoric of military approaches to terrorism.

I don't think I have much trouble with a military approach to certain terrorist groups. Some groups are irreconcilable and we're deluding ourselves if we think we can sit down and talk to them. In those cases it's capturing or killing them.

You're actually talking about a slightly different issue, and it's one that I have thought quite a bit about, which is how do political leaders explain these issues to their people.

One of the examples that I spent quite a bit of time with was Margaret Thatcher. I talked to all of her senior officials about her relationship with the IRA. The IRA tried to assassinate her and they killed some of her friends, including Lord Mountbatten. But even Margaret Thatcher authorized her officials to engage with the IRA.

When this topic came up, one of the sitting officials now in the security forces said that it's dangerous for politicians to overload the political space by demonizing the group if you think that you may have to make a U-turn and actually talk to them. He thought that Thatcher was guilty of that, which made it more difficult to engage with the IRA. In fact, there was a decade, during the 1980s, corresponding to her time in office, when the IRA had given up hope of negotiations and was returning to solely using violence to get its point across.

So there are some problems.

On the other hand, nobody is going to defend what terrorists do. It's despicable. It's a fine line between how far do you demonize this group in order to explain to the American people and to others what's at stake.

If I can try to capture another aspect of your question, my sense today is that we have not fulfilled our obligation properly to come up with the system where we can prosecute these individuals under what I think should be a hybrid. It's not solely a military campaign. It's certainly not solely a criminal act. It's some combination of the two.

There's a fellow at the Brookings Institution, Benjamin Wittes, who has written what I think is the best book on this. He calls for a special set of courts with new legislation that will actually marry up the two in a way that will defend our constitutional liberties but also make us more effective in this fight.

It's a pretty sorry indictment of our Congress that we're coming up to the tenth year since 9/11 and we really don't have a legal framework for dealing with what is a new threat out there.

Politicians are always going to be tempted to use rhetoric. That's understandable. It's a little bit less understandable that our legislators haven't come up with a new framework for dealing with it.

David Ignatius wrote a column in The Washington Post the other day in which he raised this point: It's easier for us now to send predators to kill these guys than it is to capture, interrogate, and actually acquire some information from them that's valuable. He is making the same point I am trying to make here, which is that we need to rethink the legislative framework. Perhaps that will lead to a more measured assessment by our political leadership at the same time.

QUESTION: Philip Schlussel.

You said that in order to negotiate with someone you've got to be reasonably sure that they have the ability to make a decision and follow through with it.

Would you suggest that Abu Mazen has that ability in Israel?

MITCHELL REISS: The problem is that he has the ability to deliver some but not all of the Palestinian national movement. Can you cut a deal with him? Can it stick? Well, maybe. It gets you something, but it doesn't get you everything that you might wish for.

The Palestinians have a civil war. It's on the low boil right now, but they have a civil war that's going on. That makes it very difficult for the Israeli government, for us, and for the quartet members, to be able to move forward. It doesn't make it impossible, but it certainly makes it more of a challenge.

QUESTION: I'm interested in your comment on the designation of groups as terrorists. The example that comes to mind is that Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were designated by the U.S. government as terrorists at one point. Many years later Mandela won a Nobel Prize. This was pointed out in my class at Columbia yesterday.

A totally different example is that the United States for many years would not negotiate with the PLO because it was a terrorist organization. The United States, of course, covertly did. But the real negotiation was through the Norwegians. The United States did not really negotiate what became the Oslo Peace Agreement and the opening to the negotiations later on that happened in the 1990s.

I'm wondering if you could comment on whether the designation of a terrorist is sometimes very politicized. In some cases such as al Qaeda, I don't think there's a big argument. But if I give you the ANC [African National Congress] example, and the Mandela and Tambo example, could you comment on how it was appropriate or inappropriate to designate one or another individual as a terrorist and the consequences of that?

MITCHELL REISS: Let's revisit some of that history.

Andy Young lost his job during the Carter Administration by talking with the PLO, unauthorized. A few years later, the Clinton Administration was sitting down in Amman, Jordan, with Hamas in 1993 trying to get them to join the peace process.

I don't have a problem designating these individuals as terrorists. In most cases they have earned it.

There is some value in having a little bit of moral clarity here. But that doesn't necessarily preclude you from talking to them if you determine it's in our national interest to do so.

A recent case that pains me to mention has to do with removing North Korea from the terrorism list. We did this a few years ago in the latter stages of the Bush Administration. It wasn't clear that North Korea deserved to be removed from this list. It was politicized, and I don't think it was helpful. It's just inevitable. It's politics. You're going to have politicization of it.

But I don't think that it's as debilitating and paralyzing, as perhaps your question suggests. You can call these guys all sorts of names and you can still sit down and talk to them. That's fine.

QUESTION: Arlette Laurent.

In Europe we are extremely lucky to have stepped away from the First World War and the Second World War. However, some of our parents or grandparents were involved in what you might call terrorism insofar as some of our countries were invaded and some of our peoples were in what we call the Resistance Movement. Now, those would have been called in today's words terrorists. They were defending their land.

What would you say about the root causes of terrorism in those particular cases?

MITCHELL REISS: We could spend all day debating this issue. What I tried to do in the book was to sidestep that question. There are over 100 definitions in the academic literature as to what terrorism is or isn't these days. I didn't want to make it 101 in my book.

What I thought I'd do was to actually invoke the governments involved. The governments involved have called these groups terrorists. I thought that that sort of got me out of a jam, on the one hand, but it also indicated how difficult it was for the governments then to make the reverse course. It gets back to the first point, that the rhetoric was politically charged and yet the governments still were able to overcome that and talk to these groups.

I don't think we want to debate the heroic resistance in World War II or the heroic resistance to British colonialism at the start of our own country.

I'm the president of a college that was started and endowed by our Founding Father, George Washington. He was a British officer at one point. George III issued a proclamation saying that we were all a bunch of rebels.

Once you go down that path, you've got some difficulty there. We always believe our side is right, the other side is wrong.

For this case, though, we're talking from the perspective of the governments. The governments are designating these groups as terrorists. They're finding some way to overcome that political hurdle to actually sit and talk to them.

What the book tries to do is to show when they have done it well and when they have done it poorly and what lessons we can take going forward.

QUESTION: I'm John Richardson.

You mentioned early in your talk that most of these terrorist characters were men. I sense a great opportunity here to defeat any force that will expire of its own limitations. All you have to do is put some pressure on them.

We know so much in the West about women and the science of equality. How can you mine that with the Taliban, who supposedly don't like to educate women, who blow up schools, and I've read that they throw acid in people's faces—how can you mine that to embarrass them, to make them appear to be more limited? How can you mine that fact that they abuse women, or appear to abuse women, and what we know about equality and the abilities and things like that? How can we mine that in these primitive societies?

MITCHELL REISS: The best way to tackle that is really through the prism of development rather than counterterrorism.

The UN Development Agency a few years ago did an analysis. There was a direct correlation to economic development and the literacy and education rates of the female population. The more literate, the more education the females had in society, the greater their economic growth. No surprise for all the women in the audience here.

Can we do more along those lines? Yes, we can. We are trying to do that in Afghanistan, in terms of building schools and trying to educate a generation of young women who are going to be returned to the 13th century if we are no longer there.

But that's really hard. It takes a long time. That is a long play, if you will, in this ongoing war. The bad guys are the ones with guns, and it's easy for them to undo at a stroke what you have been striving to do at great cost and great effort. So it's a problem.

The real challenge is to try to change the culture to value women and women's education more highly. You're really swimming upstream in some of these societies. This is very difficult to do.

I'm not that optimistic that we have the ability and knowledge to be able to reengineer these societies.

I sat down a few months ago with a senior American general who was telling me about all the wonderful things that were taking place in Afghanistan and how we were going to leave it in a much better state than we found it.

When he finished, I said, "General, I sincerely hope you're right. That would be a very good thing if that's true. But we have been trying to reform the D.C. school system now for decades."

We just have to be very clear-eyed, and perhaps a little more humble, in terms of what we can do in terms of reengineering societies that have their own cultures, own histories, and that are on the other side of the planet. We need to maybe be a little bit more modest in our goals.

QUESTION: Jim Starkman.

First of all, if called upon, would you be willing to serve as a national security adviser to the president of the United States, whoever he might be?

Secondly, how would you characterize the link between negotiations and nation-building both from within or without around the world?

MITCHELL REISS: I've got a great job now and I'm really happy. President of Washington College is a terrific job. Thank you very much.

More seriously, public service is a privilege, and I have been very fortunate to have that opportunity in my career. I hope one day to be able to serve again in the U.S. government, but right now I'm very happy doing what I'm doing.

In terms of the relationship between negotiating and nation-building, I'm not quite sure I understand.

QUESTIONER: How would you describe the link between them? Is one a necessary precursor to nation-building, particularly from without? The United States has certainly been active in nation-building around the world.

MITCHELL REISS: And negotiating with terrorist groups?


MITCHELL REISS: Nation-building can be an element that can advantage you in a negotiation by removing some of the grievances that some of these terrorist groups may have. Just because they use terror to express their interest doesn't always mean that some of their grievances aren't valid.

In Northern Ireland, there was discrimination against the Catholic community in education, employment, and housing. That's no excuse or justification for the IRA using violence. But you need to understand that there were some underlying grievances that needed to be addressed that weren't by the British government.

In the case of Spain, the Spanish government has been extraordinarily generous in terms of the money it has channeled to the Basque region in order to dry up some of the sea in which the ETA members swim. It has given the Basque region far greater autonomy than any other region of Spain in order to address some of the sentiments for Basque nationalism.

These are all parts of what can form the context for negotiation, and they can be quite helpful.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson. Thank you for your very clear and thoughtful analysis.

To follow up on some of the previous questions, there is a very important query about Hamas. You didn't have a chance to mention that case study. But you did mention sewage. This is the transition from political ideology to the actual governing of a territory in the interest of its citizens. It's so important to have social services and education, and it's difficult if a great deal of the resources of the territory are directed toward terrorism.

How have you been dealing with this?

MITCHELL REISS: Let's talk about Hamas for a moment.

One of the challenges for the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis and everybody else is that Hamas has an internal leadership that's based in Gaza and an external leadership that's currently based in Damascus.

The internal leadership appears to be slightly more realistic and pragmatic because it's having to deal with some of those issues that you mentioned, in terms of how do you deliver services to the people that live in Gaza. The external leadership is much more hard-lined and ideological, and much less willing to even consider compromises.

That adds a layer of complexity to any thinking about how do you engage this group, because who speaks for the group? Is it the internal leadership? Is it the external leadership? Is it some combination of the two? Or is it neither?

On the pragmatic issues, the Israelis have been able to deal with Hamas in Gaza. But on these larger, more existential issues, the two sides are miles apart.

It's hard to see that changing anytime in the next few months or years, from my perspective. I plan to be there next month and I can report back if that changes. But right now it's one more hurdle that needs to be surmounted if we're going to try to find our way to peace over there.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

Can you discuss the impact of WikiLeaks on negotiations at this point?

MITCHELL REISS: That's great.

I was quoted in Foreign Policy as saying that I actually didn't think that these were going to have a great impact.

The question that I asked, which I urged the journalist to focus on, is: Are the leaks going to change any country's policy; are they going to change how a country does business with another country? The answer to that clearly is "No."

Then, is it going to change some of the personal relationships? The answer there may be "Yes, a little bit."

But that's conditioned by the fact that these governments are talking to the United States because they have things that they want to say. In some cases they have things they need to say. They want to communicate their concerns, worries, and anxieties to us and have that fed back to the officials in Washington. That is not going to change.

Much of the reporting has been sensationalist about the personal peccadilloes of some of the leaders around the world. It's titillating. It makes enjoyable reading. It's kind of like a Hollywood news magazine.

At the end of the day governments still need to do business with each other. It was important that the leaks only went up to the secret level. There is a whole universe of classification and ways in which governments can talk to us that go well beyond that classification level.

I don't think it's going to have a huge impact. In fact, because I tend to be a contrarian sometimes, I wondered if in fact the leaks might have a positive benefit in some areas. It is allowing the Iranian people to get a better sense of what the Arab world thinks of their government and what low esteem the leadership in Tehran is held in by their neighbors. It may be something that would be useful, if we can make sure that it actually reaches the Iranian people.

QUESTION: Alain Olivier. Thanks very much for your remarks.

In dealing with these alleged terrorist groups who come from different religious/ethnic backgrounds and have very strategic objectives, I'd be curious to know in your experience how do you read their intentions, how do you discover what makes them tick, and how to distinguish between what is said and what is really meant in a negotiation?

MITCHELL REISS: It gets back to the point that I tried to make earlier about having a first-rate intelligence service. You have to have people who are fluent in the language, who understand the culture, the history, the politics of these groups, and who are empathetic enough to understand their grievances. They don't need to agree with them, but just simply to understand them.

All these groups come from somewhere. They don't just arise from nothing. There's a context. There's a society in which they emerge. They reflect many of the grievances that are shared, if not in such extreme forms, by many of their countrymen or else they wouldn't be able to perpetuate themselves.

At the negotiating table, it's difficult, it's always a challenge. I spent four years negotiating with the North Koreans over their nuclear weapons program. We all know how that went.

During the negotiations there were actually three levels of agreement that I made sure that we had to achieve.

    • The first was a conceptual agreement: "Are we talking about the same issue? Are we in the same ballpark? We're going to talk about this issue. Do you agree we're talking about this issue?"

    • The next level was do we agree on the words? It is a question of draftsmanship. You can change your table language, you agree, you sign off on language.

  • The third level was actually the trickiest because you thought when you're done with the second level, you agree on the words, and you're done. That's sort of the Anglo-Saxon tradition—I was a lawyer by training—"We sign off and we're done."

With the North Koreans—and I suspect with many of these terrorist groups—there is this third level. That is, do they assign the same meaning to these words that we do?

It was really surprising to me how often the North Koreans had very different ideas about what these words meant, what their obligations were, what commitments flowed from this language, than we did.

You would have to dive down to that third level to make absolutely sure that you were agreeing at a really fundamental level. Until you get there, you really didn't have an agreement at all.

There is an added burden, especially when you are dealing with a lot of these groups. They're not terribly sophisticated. They haven't done this before. Generally they're not lawyers.

It gets back to that point that it takes a long time. Everybody wants these things to be done quickly. If you indicate just for one moment that you are more eager than your counterpart to get the deal done, you're dead. They're just going to eat you for lunch. You never want to indicate that. Patience is a virtue and it's a strategic advantage. But you have to dive down to all of these three levels in order to really make sure you get a deal.

Of course, it could fall apart the next day because there are factions in these groups. So it's very tricky on how to do it. It is possible to do it, and that should be somewhat encouraging to all of us.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much. I know there's no disagreement on the agreement that you were terrific.


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