Our Bad Habit of Negotiating with Terrorists

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


hyEvery parent should be happy for the Bergdahl family, whose son was returned to them after five years of captivity among the Taliban. But every parent is not the president of the United States, whose primary responsibility is to protect the security and interests of all Americans, both now and in the long-term. The release of 5 “high-risk”––a phrase meaning they’re eager to kill Americans–– Taliban jihadists held in Guantanamo Bay is nothing more than ransom paid to kidnappers, and an invitation to the enemy to take more Americans captive and to hold them as bargaining chips for more concessions. And the release of hardened, high-ranking Taliban terrorists means there will be more dead Americans after theses soldiers of Allah return to the battlefield.

We shouldn’t give credence, however, to the criticism that Obama’s action uniquely violates the principle that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Obama’s administration has already been negotiating with the Taliban in order to craft some chimeric “peace agreement” with the Afghan government after we leave. And talking with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, is de facto “negotiating with terrorists.” But before Obama we have negotiated with terrorists on numerous occasions, and each time we have confirmed the moral hazard that attends trying to talk with fanatic ideologues that, like Auric Goldfinger, don’t expect us to talk, but to die.

How else did we secure the release of the 52 Americans held for 444 days by the Iranians starting in 1979, other than by negotiating ransom with hostage-takers? The hostages came home after Jimmy Carter issued a series of Executive Orders that released billions of dollars of frozen Iranian assets in American banks, and that indemnified the Iranians from any lawsuits suing the regime for the destruction of American property and the abuse of the diplomats. So much for Carter’s bluster that “we will not yield to blackmail.” During the negotiations the Iranians serially humiliated the Americans. For example, Carter aide Hamilton Jordan donned a fake moustache and wig to meet with the Iranian negotiator in Paris. After weeks of negotiations, with a deal seemingly close, Ayatollah Khomeini killed it with a public speech in which he called the embassy kidnappings “a crushing blow to the world-devouring USA” and left the decision to the new Iranian parliament, which was months from being seated. Negotiations continued with a series of concessions offered by Carter, all of which were contemptuously slapped down by the Iranians. As a result, the prestige of Iran as the foremost jihadist foe of the infidel West expanded across the globe, providing inspiration and material support to other jihadist groups convinced by America’s weakness that we were a civilization with “foundations of straw,” as bin Laden put it, and ripe for destruction.

Then there’s the sorry spectacle of the 1985-86 Iran-Contra affair that unfolded during Reagan’s second term. This was a Rube-Goldberg plot to secure the release of 7American hostages taken by Iranian terrorist proxies, and to improve relations with the Iranian regime by providing them with 2200 TOW anti-tank missiles and over 100 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles in violation of an arms embargo, with the profits going to arm the Nicaraguan Contras. These were the same Iranians, by the way, that only a few years earlier had trained and funded the jihadists who had murdered 241 American military personnel in the Beirut Marine-barracks bombing, and that were funding numerous other jihadist groups like Hezbollah. The naïve belief in improved relations with these murderers and so-called “moderates” has no better symbol than a cake in the shape of a key––apparently the “key” to better American-Iranian relations–– that the American emissary brought to Iran along with a Bible signed by Reagan, both items bespeaking a criminal ignorance about the nature of the Iranian theocrats with whom they were dealing. In the end, only 3 hostages were released, only to be immediately replaced by three other kidnapped Americans.

Once again, the willingness to provide advanced weaponry to a regime that publicly and frequently expressed its desire to destroy us only confirmed the mullahs in their belief that we are weak and can be manipulated. Indeed, the intervening years suggest their insight has been correct, as they have murdered with impunity Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, trained and funded numerous terrorist outfits, and continue to pursue nuclear weaponry even as they engage in specious negotiations spiced with contemptuous public statements.

Worse than even these examples are the decades we have spent negotiating with the Palestinian terrorist gang known as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was rebooted as the Palestinian Authority after the 1993 Oslo Agreements. A whole atlas could be filled with the cities hosting these futile negotiations, many of which delivered nothing but concessions to terrorist murderers. Camp David, Madrid, Wye River, Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba, Annapolis––all have been the sites of negotiations with terrorists for whom violence against Israeli civilians is a negotiating tactic used to complement the tactic of attending “summits” and “conferences” at which the Palestinian leadership has no intentions of negotiating in good faith, instead extracting concessions from gullible Westerners. PLO honcho Yasser Arafat, a die-hard terrorist whose creed was “jihad, jihad, jihad,” was feted and hosted at capitals around the globe and treated as a legitimate chief of state instead of as the head of a murderous, kleptocratic gang that he was. During the Clinton years he visited the White House more often than any other world leader, only in the end to betray Clinton at Camp David by refusing the offered “national homeland” he supposedly wanted, and then launching the Second Intifada that killed 1000 Israelis.

And it isn’t just talk we have shared with the Palestinian terrorists. As the Congressional Research Office documents, since the Oslo Accords the U.S. has transferred $5 billion to the Palestinians, with much of the money that escaped the Swiss bank accounts of the PA “leadership” going to fund terrorist outfits. This is in addition to funds channeled through the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the only U.N. entity committed to one refugee group and self-identified as an advocate for Palestinians. The U.S. has provided a quarter of the agency’s funds, which since 1950 has totaled nearly $5 billion. Then there’s the money given since Oslo to train, arm, and support the PA security forces, presumably to fight against terrorists. In fact, these “security forces” have participated in or facilitated terrorist attacks. As Caroline Glick writes in her indispensible The Israeli Solution, “The more aid the Palestinian authority receives from the international community, the more terror attacks the Palestinians carry out against Israel.” We’re not just negotiating with terrorists; we’re funding them as well.

There are many reasons for this compulsion to try to talk or bribe out of their hatred enemies who have no intention of peaceful coexistence. Politics, of course, is ever a factor in such bad decisions. For Obama, ransoming Bergdahl deflected attention from the VA scandal with a photogenic feel-good story. Pursuing futile negotiations with the Iranians creates the illusion of action when the administration has no intention of doing anything concrete to keep a malignant theocracy from acquiring nuclear weapons.

More broadly, the modern West clings to the hoary notion that negotiation and diplomacy are the best means of resolving conflicts and creating peace. Obama recycled this received wisdom in his recent West Point address. In addressing global disorder, Obama said, “we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.” But as his disastrous foreign policy record demonstrates, negotiation works only with those who sincerely share our goal to end violence, coexist peacefully, and create peace. The jihadist gangs from the Taliban to Iran, and our geopolitical rivals like Russia and China, have other plans. With those actors, negotiation works only when backed by a credible threat of force, something Obama has serially squandered with his “red lines” bluster and bluff. Yet ever the foreign policy naïf, Obama claimed in his statement about Bergdahl’s release, “While we are mindful of the challenges, it is our hope Sergeant Bergdahl’s recovery could potentially open the door for broader discussions among Afghans about the future of their country by building confidence that it is possible for all sides to find common ground.” If sincere, this statement represents a massive failure of imagination, ever the hallmark foreign policy failure. The Taliban have one aim: to impose once more their hegemony over Afghanistan.

Exchanging Bergdahl for 5 seasoned jihadists is a shortsighted, dangerous deal, but it isn’t unprecedented. It’s a recurring bad foreign policy habit driven by politics and idealism.

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  • alexpatterson
  • joshuasweet

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      • Wolfthatknowsall

        Another flag for off-topic comment …

        • joshuasweet

          anything to distract from the message of Obama’s treasnious acts

          • Wolfthatknowsall

            It does make me wonder whether these people who post these ads are simply misguided fools who have been drawn into something that they will NEVER make money with, or actual trolls, trying to disrupt the conversation.

          • joshuasweet

            disrupt the flow of the conversation and get paid to do so. Likely members of the Obama corps you remember 100,000 strong tool for bettering the USA

  • Ban Liberals

    I’m a parent, and I’m not happy for them at all. In fact it’s a sad day for America that we traded five known terrorists for an AWOL, likely deserting traitor.

    The father is no better.

    WHAT WERE YOU SMOKING?

    • Americana

      We are in no better position as far as negotiating w/terrorists and other non-state entities than the Israelis or anybody else. Sometimes we’ll eventually cave in and negotiate and sometimes we don’t. But I’ll say this, the Israelis generally get caught out releasing FAR MORE Palestinians than this for each soldier of theirs that is released.

      As far as whether Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post or whether he was abducted under false pretenses, i trust that Military Intelligence will be able to establish that after a number of debriefings. I also believe that U.S Military Intelligence will make recommendations based on his debriefings that may or may not involve extensive surveillance of this guy for a long, long time. Given the situation, it seems as if those steps will be required. As for the guy’s father, I believe he probably converted to Islam in an attempt to save his son and prove something to his captors. None of us who haven’t faced the captivity of a family member would know in advance how we would cope and how we would choose to pull the wool over the enemy’s eyes, or not. Look at what Daniel Pearl’s wife was willing to do to try to extricate her husband! To know that a family member is at risk of being beheaded each and every day might cause any of us to undertake to prevent that possibility by whatever means we had available.

      • Ban Liberals

        Your reply is well thought out, cohesive, and intelligently written. But I respectfully disagree with much of it.

        I don’t want to and won’t belabor the issue again, but I will say that I do not trust military brass to resolve ANYTHING, because the very same brass has proven unequivocally that they care more about their promotions, rank and privilege than they do about duty and honor, and especially the troops they’re SUPPOSED to command. I speak as having served in the Army (1961-1967), and know what it USED to be like and what today’s commanders are…

        The only way we will get the hard core truth is a congressional investigation — and given that Congress fears Obama and cries of “RAAACIST” more than Plague, that won’t happen either.

        Thanks for your insight.

        • Americana

          I’m not quite following you about a Congressional investigation being the best means of enlightening us about Sgt. Bergdahl? Nor am I following you about a Congressional investigation triggering cries of “Raciiiiiism” because there are tons of people in Congress who skirt the racism issue w/great regularity and nobody blinks. I certainly don’t blink. The folks who should be handling the investigation, to me, are Military Intelligence. Their main aim is to identify how Sgt. Bergdahl’s capture happened and whether there was any intention on his part to cease to play his military role in Afghanistan and whether he’s been turned and is a jihadist waiting to be activated here in the U.S.

          The military brass have nothing to fear from this man’s return whether he is a turncoat or a deserter unless they fail to identify which of those he is. Otherwise, he’s got NOTHING to do w/them. If Military Intelligence does their job properly and figures out how his capture occurred, they’ll either have enough to do a court martial or they’ll know to keep him under surveillance. He should remain under surveillance for a good, long while (I’m talking YEARS). As for blaming all the military brass and sneering at them, well, there are individuals like Admiral McRaven that put the lie to that whole line of attack.

          • Ban Liberals

            The ‘racism but’ was SARCASM!

            The congressional investigation is necessary because what really needs to be bared here is not so much the details about Bergdahl and his father (they’ve done that very well), but the details of the TIMING and REASONS for this moronic and very dangerous trade.

            Military intelligence, and their officers and men, are whether we like it or not, at the beck and call of the guy who engineered this insanity: Obama.

            Obama can AND HAS wrecked careers of fine officers because they disagreed with his anti-American, pro Muslim policies. He was disrespected at West Point for a reason!

            No one in military intelligence — NO ONE! — is going to launch or conduct any investigation that will in any way embarrass, or worse focus on criminal or civil wrongdoing of a president at the risk of a destroyed career.

            Only CONGRESS can do that.

            And my point is that they won’t.

            Obama’s solution? He’s promoting the guy and lying to the American people as he usually and always does.

          • Americana

            I’d say the timing is fairly obvious. The U.S. will be pulling out of Afghanistan shortly and leaving behind a very small number of training troops. There is no reason to leave someone like Sgt. Bergdahl behind if he’s actively collaborating w/the enemy to present further technical bomb challenges for Afghan troops. I’d rather get Sgt. Bergdahl home and find out what he’s shared w/the enemy than leave him there and guess at what he’s shared based on how the enemy troops are now handling themselves.

            If someone in the military had substantial enough information against Pres. Obama it could be grounds for impeachment, there’s simply no way that information would be suppressed. It’s plutonium, and if brought to the attention of the correct parties, action would be taken. But there isn’t that kind of information. In fact, we’ve got someone like Admiral McRaven saying that he admires Pres. Obama and he agrees w/the process Pres. Obama went through to arrive at deciding on going through w/the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

          • Ban Liberals

            I respect your opinion; I really do.

            But I cringe whenever someone attaches “Pres.” to Obama’s name, because he is not due the respect accorded with that title.

            And OF COURSE an admiral will agree with his commander-in-chief, or he won’t BE an admiral very long.

            MacArthur was fired for that, and Obama (I will not call him “Pres.” Obama) being the lout he is, would destroy ANY commander’s career in a second for daring to publicly (or probably even privately) disagreeing with his majesty. He already has.

            So did Bush, incidentally… (Col. Allen West and others).

            So I guess we can agree to disagree.

      • truebearing

        Ex-soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit say he deserted and were forced to sign non-disclosures about his disappearance (this muzzling of people serving our nation is becoming commonplace). It has now come out from at least one of his company that several of our troops died searching for him and there is evidence he may have been a collaborator with the enemy. Do you think Obama will allow the truth on that to come out? Obama doesn’t let the truth about anything come out.

        • Americana

          As I said, I’m not going to respond to any of your posts based on your behavior in previous threads so don’t direct any posts directly at me.

  • Mariamante

    It isn’t idealism, it is TREASON!

    Famed author Seymour Hersh, clearly documents Obama’s illlegal use of the US military to support the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda, in his book, “The Red Line, and The Rat Line.
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n08/seymour-m-hersh/the-red-line-and-the-rat-line

    Obama released high risk terrorists to the care of Qatar. This is the same country that the US established for Taliban headquarters in 2011.
    http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-offers-the-taliban-a-new-mideast-headquarters-2011-9

    Iran, Russian, Qatar, Venezuela, OPEC cartels are also the worlds biggest drug traffickers. These terrorists groups are simply drug dealers just like Farc and Sinaloa, that function under the guise of ideology. They wouldn’t function without government complicity. They are protected by powerful bankers and even world leaders.

    Qatar used as transit point by drug traffickers: Expert 2013
    http://thepeninsulaqatar.com/news/qatar/253421/qatar-used-as-transit-point-by-drug-traffickers-expert-

    Obama’s entire foreign policy effort has been to support of criminal cartels. Even Ukraine is a fight over a money laundering, drug trafficking territory. What Semour Hersh and other world journalists to dare do is give this sham a name: TREASON.

  • Hard Little Machine

    I was hoping he’d free everyone in Gitmo and but forced them to live in the white House.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Force the Gitmo pigs to live in Detroit.

  • Capt Bob

    What difference does it make we got our man back and it takes 5 of them to equal one of our GI’s.

    • noodreamer

      You are demoted to Private for stupidity.

      • Capt Bob

        Hi noodreamer, you are probably right, I take the bust. But we did get him back.

        • noodreamer

          All in good fun Capt Bob. But he did desert his post and we should not have negotiated for his return. We just opened Pandora box. Just a carter did in 77.
          But then again, you and I and the good people of this country are reduced to a cog in a bad wheel turning. Led by a 535 legislators (buffoons). I so miss the fun America I was raised in.

          • Capt Bob

            HI Again Noodreamer

            Thank you for your replys. I agree with everything your are saying. Now how about the 62,000 (According to HUD) Homeless American Veterans on the streets of America. When are the Ass’s in Washington going to do something about that.

          • noodreamer

            This is just the beginning in the investigation of the travesty committed by the congress and POTUS for the last 50 years. The CA us a disgusting entity serving only itself.

          • SCREW SOCIALISM

            And the Veterans Administration.

            Why are there ads on TV asking for money to help veterans?

            The VA is failing the veterans.

          • Capt Bob

            HI Noodreamer,

            I went to a Disable American Veterans meeting last night and got an ear full about Bergdahl. It seems that he had very little honor. We needed him back but now what do we do with him.

          • noodreamer

            Whatever they do they cannot try to make him a hero. His family as well. He has really hurt this country and his army buddies.
            He like McCain sang like a canary.

        • noodreamer

          You are correct. It takes 5 of them to make one of us. But not the likes of that guy. But the likes of those who died trying to rescue him!

        • SCREW SOCIALISM

          Lets get Snowden back first.

    • CosmotKat

      Did we get a man back? His mates seem to think he was a deserter. That is not a man.

  • UCSPanther

    So we trade five Taliban commanders who will be welcomed back as heroes by their own kind and get right back to their old tricks, and we get an excuse for a soldier who is a fool at best and a traitor at worst.

    I pray the Taliban get forced to face off with Russia and/or China, but with zero western support this time around…

  • truebearing

    Carter was weak. Reagan was naive. Obama is a collaborator and enabler of Islam.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Correct on all counts.

    • SCREW SOCIALISM

      Dhimmi Carter is worse than weak. Dhimmi Carter is an arrogant, angry, racist Libertardian.

  • Chavi Beck

    Israel recently gave away 1000 terrorists to bring one young man home. That’s where this leads, America, in case you were wondering.

  • Tzipporah

    We should stop freeing any Terrorists ever for any deal. Snowden is not a hero. Israel has foolishly released Terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands. Nothing good can come of such events. This is not a game of numbers. It is time to think about ending Terrorist releases forever. It cannot ever lead to Peace.

  • http://oddhammer.com/tutorials/debt_clock/US_debt_clock_dynamic.swf John Barleycorn

    All the terrorist should be executed now . . .then drop a couple of A-bombs, providing Obama is tied up to one ..

  • JAMES

    It was not a negotiation.
    It was a capitulation.

  • Ross

    It ain’t just Obama -his flunkey in the UK has just sent out a personal envoy to Baghdad who’s on the record as blaming Salman Rushdie for being threatened with murder.by the Mad Mullahs! http://rossrightangle.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/come-off-it-cameron-is-a-groveller-not-just-to-brussels-but-to-tehran/

  • http://lesstalkmoreactivism.blogspot.com/ Canaan

    A very bad article that sheds zero light. Thornton lumps together the PLO, the PA, Taliban, Iran, Russia, and China? He doesn’t distinguish “terrorist” from “bad guy.” Without that clarification, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” is childish, pigeon-brained baloney. For non-negotiation purposes, were Stalin,
    Kruschev, and Mao terrorists? They used mass murder and nuclear blackmail, that’s pretty terrifying. Should we not have attended Yalta? No SALT, no detente?

    Thornton naively confuses U.S. superpower with omnipotence. Look at this ‘violent video game’ fantasy he writes: “negotiation works only when backed by a credible threat of force.” Does Israel lack a credible threat of force? IDF crushed the armies of Egypt and Syria 50 years ago. Despite repeated Iron Fist blitzkriegs into Lebanon and Gaza, Israel is still under attack. (And since Thornton apparently thinks he’s tougher than Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, I ask how many terrorists has Thornton personally killed?)

    So who exactly do we refuse to negotiate with? We don’t negotiate with Black September. We don’t let shadow actors convert high profile tragedies into the illusion of power they don’t really have. Once our enemy takes on the trappings of sovereignty — the Bolsheviks, Viet Cong, the P.A. — we negotiate with murderers, like we always have — preferably from strength, to quote Nixon. Negotiations will reflect the balance of power, unless one side fakes out the other. Only a pigeon-brain fantasizes that the balance of power is 100 to zero. It’s naive baloney to say “we don’t negotiate” with a sovereign power like Iran.

    Where do the Taliban stand on the spectrum from Black September to Putin? That would have been a useful article. This article is useless.