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To talk -- or to fight?

Robin Lustig | 10:22 UK time, Friday, 26 October 2007

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” So said Winston Churchill, more than 50 years ago. In other words, if you have a dispute, talk it out, don’t shoot it out.

“Trying is almost always worthwhile.” So said the then Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, in a lecture last June about Northern Ireland as a model for conflict resolution.

Unarguable, you may think. But it’s not necessarily so, according to the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who has just written a fascinating account of the Northern Ireland peace process (“Misunderstanding Ulster”, published by Conservative Friends of Israel) in which he argues that talking isn’t always and automatically a good idea, and that negotiating without pre-conditions can sometimes be counter-productive.

Let’s look at two examples. Some time within the next couple of months, if US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has her way, there’ll be an international meeting about the Middle East, designed to draw up a framework for future negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Prospects at present look pretty dismal; so much so that many in the region are saying it’d be better to scrap the whole idea than to have the meeting and come up with nothing.

As it happens, I was in Israel seven years ago at the start of the violent Palestinian uprising that became known as the second intifada. It came shortly after a failed Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David, held in the dying weeks of President Clinton’s second term. I wrote then: “I have never encountered such universal pessimism … Most worrying of all is what seems to be a total loss of confidence on both sides in the idea that problems can be solved by negotiation.”

That’s what happens when talks fail. If jaw-jaw doesn’t work, the strong temptation is to return to war-war. That’s why, Mr Hain notwithstanding, it may not always be worthwhile to try, if success doesn’t follow.

My second example is Darfur. Peace talks are meant to start in Libya this weekend – but as we reported on The World Tonight on Wednesday, it looks at the moment as if virtually none of the parties to the conflict will be there. Instead, one of the countless rebel groups in Darfur says it has kidnapped two foreign oil workers – a Canadian and an Iraqi – from an oil field that’s operated by a Chinese-led consortium.

When you’re invited to enter negotiations, you want as strong a hand as you can get. Maybe a couple of abducted foreigners make good bargaining chips. Could it be that all the efforts that went into setting up the Libya talks have simply increased the dangers?

The conventional wisdom among diplomats is that successful negotiations need to be meticulously planned. Each side needs to have a detailed and in-depth understanding of how far the other side can go to reach a deal. Oh yes, and it helps if each side trusts in the good faith of the other. A US president nearing the end of his time in the White House may be impatient for results, but that’s not the same as proper preparation for a handshake in front of the world’s TV cameras.

So am I saying it’s not worth even trying to negotiate a settlement in the Middle East, or in Darfur? No, of course not. But I do think there’s a danger in always assuming that jaw-jaw will end war-war. As I fear we are about to discover, it ain’t necessarily so.


  1. At 12:40 PM on 27 Oct 2007, Mark wrote:

    "The Great Man" syndrome is something which often doesn't stand up to the light of history. A recent book re-examined the aftermath of WWI and concluded that that great man Woodrow Wilson was without doubt by far the worst President the US ever had, the first President who ignored George Washington's warning and threw caution about foreign entanglements especially with Europe to the wind. Among his many blunders, his worst was helping create the conditions which led inevitably to World War II. In fact the book drew the conclusion that Wilson was ultimately largely responsible for World War II. And while Chamberlain was meeting with Hitler to jaw-jaw, Hitler was busy building planes-planes, tanks-tanks, u-boats-u-boats, battleships-battleships, rockets-rockets, bombs-bombs. It is an embarrassing fact Americans discretely choose never to bring up and Brits choose to forget about that Britain lost WWII. Today Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is busy building atom bombs-atom bombs while we talk about sanctions. Perhaps America's leaders didn't learn anything from WWII either but I think America's military leaders have and as President Kennedy found out during the Cuban missile crisis, in matters of grave national security threats, they, and not the President have the final word, they would not hesitate to take matters into their own hands IF they thought the security of the US was at imminent risk from Iran (or anyone else for that matter) and the president failed to act. Speaking of Churchill, it was Sir Winston who drew the map of Iraq setting the stage for the three way civil war between the Kurds, Shia, and Sunis three generations later. So much for history's great men. Now why do you suppose Libya suddenly surrendered? My hunch is that Qadaffi was told quietly but firmly that after Iraq, he was next on America's "Hit Parade" and there wasn't a damned thing France, Germany, Russia, China, or anyone else could do about it. Some much for jaw jaw. That's how a lunatic in North Korea got to acquire atom bombs, even if his first test firing was a dud. If they do not disarm themselves of them, will Japan build its own nuclear arsenal? With their superior technology and industry and the largest stockpile of plutonium in the world, they could become a major nuclear power in a matter of a few years, a thought that should terrify all of southeast Asia. Far better to nip a nascent monster in the bud by killing it at birth than to sit around talking about it while it has the chance to grow. That's the lesson of WWII we seem to have forgotten. And what happens to those who do not learn the lessons of history? According to an old saying, they are condemned to repeat them.

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  2. At 11:28 AM on 31 Oct 2007, tomtmo wrote:

    James Baker clearly reads this blog, as he said the same thing (but with one more jaw and another war) on the Today Programme....

    Here's the link to the audio:


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  3. At 08:16 PM on 01 Nov 2007, Mark wrote:

    tomtmo, very interesting interview. James Baker, former White House Chief of Staff (keeper of the President's appointment book and checker to see that the guests didn't steal any silverware), Secretary of the Treasury (counted ALL the beans, every last one) and Secretary of State (top hot dog eating surrender monkey) is the Bush family's "favorite lawyer" (heaven save us from the lawyers.)

    "It's going to be very hard to deal with that problem militarily (Iran's nuclear weapons program) through some sort of a surgical strike." Looks like we'll have to blow up the whole damned country. If we don't, Israel will, only they'll do it with the only means they have, nuclear weapons. "...Then, in order to help his steadfast ally, Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, he (President Bush) agreed reluctantly to try and get a second resolution which he was unable to get and that's where things got all wrapped around the axle." Looks like had they left things alone after the first UN Resolution which passed, there would have been no problem. More jaw-jaw was just plain dumb-dumb and started all the trouble-trouble. Baker says you hold out military action as a last resort but the problem with jaw-jaw is that many politicians become so enamored with the sound of their own voice that they never know when it's time to shut up and move on to the next step. That's what happened with the Clinton administration in North Korea and the penalties for NK being believed to have nukes may not have begun to manifest themselves, especially if Japan feels threatened by them. We haven't heard the last of this by a long shot.

    BBC Presenter: "Do you accept that a huge amount of damage from your point of view and the point of view of all Americans has been done to your country's standing one way or another in the last decade or so?"

    Baker: "I think the way we went into Iraq turned out to create some serious tensions in long term alliances that were regrettable."

    Absolutely 100% incorrect and exactly what you'd expect from a sniveling mealy mouthed double talking diplomat/lawyer. What it did was reveal unquestionably and astonishingly who America's true allies aren't, including nations it thought it could count on like France and Germany. Far better to understand the truth that they are not merely not allies but in fact enemies. Most of Western Europe falls in that camp. I think most Europeans have no concept that their loud anti-American rantings has resulted in a backlash of anti-Europeanism in the US every bit as intense and it probably won't go away anytime soon no matter what governments seeking rapproachments would wish. For example, I see Merkel and Sarkozy every bit the liars their predecessors Shroeder and Chirac were, in fact even more so since Shroeder and Chirac were so open in their confrontation. Who would have imagined Merckel telling Bush the US ought to join the EU at the very moment the Austrians were telling Turkey it couldn't join because it isn't part of Europe. And Sarkozy preaching to the US about global warming during his political campaign was nauseating.

    I really don't see why America needs Europe anymore, I see no benefit to any participation in any organizations including NATO, the UN, even the WTO. NATO is just a cover for the US to operate alone or almost alone with tacit approval of Europe anyway, Europe almost entirely unable to make any substantive military contribution to a NATO effort, Kosovo being a prime example.

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