Let’s Not Make a Deal with the Taliban
A minefield is ahead if we do.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 began a needed reassessment of our ossified foreign policy doctrines. Trump has rejected in part the shibboleths of “multilateralism,” “transnational institutions,” “democracy promotion,” and “diplomatic engagement” as the most important elements of foreign relations. He’s returned the focus to America’s national interests and security, and to America’s military strength as the guarantor of both. Allies now are valued insofar as they complement our interests, and honor reciprocal obligations. Matching action to words, he’s withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords and the multinational agreement with Iran on limiting its program to develop nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them, and scolded NATO allies over their meager spending on defense.
These moves have all been a welcome corrective to the Obama-era globalist prejudices and received ideas that reduced the U.S. to just one of many international players, one “mindful of its own imperfections,” as Obama put it, and morally obligated to cede sovereignty to supranational institutions and multinational treaties. The subsequent howling of the decrepit internationalist establishment about Trump’s “disrespecting” allies and violating the “rules-based, liberal international order” is the sound of feckless, moribund institutional oxen being gored.
Yet it is testimony to the staying power of such globalist institutions that even Trump seemingly ascribes to some of their dogma. Foremost is the idea that diplomatic negotiation, what Trump would call “the art of the deal,” can resolve differences and settle conflicts without a credible threat of overwhelming force to punish violations of the agreement. Hence the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, the jihadist movement that nurtured al Qaeda in the years before 9/11, and continues to shelter and support other jihadist outfits like ISIS bent on attacking our interests and security.
But just as a meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government was set to begin at Camp, David, a suicide-bomber in Kabul killed 12 people, including an American soldier. The president angrily cancelled the meeting he never should have initiated in the first place. Let’s hope the lesson extends to the continuing negotiations to make a deal with the Palestinian Arabs that, just like the Taliban, the Palestinian Arabs have no interest in other than a delaying tactic and mechanism for extorting more aid from the West.
Rather than pursue such diplomatic delusions, the president should engage in a much more thorough dismantling of the failing postwar order. Diplomacy, the heart of this order, needs to be redefined and restored to its rightful function: as an adjunct to force, not a substitute for it. It’s one of those many ideas that have warped our foreign policy and led to dangerous blunders.
In his new book Stephan Walt explains why:
Instead of being a disciplined meritocracy that rewards innovative thinking and performance, the foreign policy community is in fact a highly conformist, inbred professional caste whose beliefs and policy preferences have evolved little over the past twenty-five years, even as the follies and fiascoes kept piling up.
Walt may have missed the mark in his earlier unsavory distortions of our relationship with Israel, but his description of today’s foreign policy establishment is spot on. Like all government-funded, bureaucratically organized institutions unaccountable to either voters or the market, our security and foreign policy agencies are vulnerable to group-think, received wisdom, partisan politicization, and outworn paradigms obeisance to which is necessary for advancement and influence.
In such institutions, it takes courage and persistence to break through the defensive carapace of authority, “institutional norms,” and dogma. The hysterical reaction to Trump’s modest moves against the dogmas of our credentialed foreign policy officials and mavens testifies to the price one will pay for challenging them.
But Trump’s clinging to the chimera of negotiated settlements bespeaks a reticence to make the bold changes that would shift the paradigm back to a more realist understanding of foreign relations. At this point, there is uncertainty about the president’s motives for engaging the Taliban. Was he rope-a-doping them as part of some misguided strategy? Or, more likely, was he trying to create a “parchment barrier” to justify to voters his desire to eventually withdraw our 14,000 troops from Afghanistan? These political calculations, of course are always a factor in such misdirection. The enemy may get a metaphorical vote, but the citizens have a literal one. This eternal flaw in democracy, noted over 2400 years by Demosthenes, de Tocqueville, and Churchill, has historically contributed to foreign policy failures by sacrificing long-term military strategy to short-term political tactics.
Beyond that reality of electoral politics, the idea that a “deal” can be made with a fanatic, religiously motivated adversary sworn to inveterate hatred of the infidel is a fantasy. Obama’s appeasement of Iran is just the most recent example of such myopic agreements. An agreement or treaty depends on a “meeting of the minds,” a clear, sincere, mutual understanding of common principles, such as the obligation to abide by the terms of the agreement. Of course, given human nature and different cultural mores, there also must be a credible threat of punishment for those who violate the treaty. Diplomatic clichés of “deeply troubled” and “very concerned” and the like are mere words to the determined cheater. They are like Jonathon Swift’s laws: “cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.”
Worse yet, even weak states that have seen the failure of nerve and depleted morale of a stronger one, can bet that a strong state won’t have the gumption or will to punish violations. States like Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China–– for decades serial violators of international treaties and organizations–– get that our foreign policy is mostly about optics and process, vulnerable to public opinion both at home and abroad, particular among our fellow Western states that, since they are military pygmies, glorify “soft power” and “diplomacy” and “international norms” as compensations for their military dependence on the U.S.
Moreover, these “allies” and supposed upholders of these “norms,” whose good opinion internationalists of both parties crave, in reality behave as all sovereign nations do: they serve first their national interests as their governments define them. Hence the fiscal fecklessness of most NATO countries about meeting the requirement to spend at least 2% of GDP on their militaries. Trump critics who squealed about his endangerment of Article 5, which states that an attack on one member “shall be considered [note that gaping verbal loophole] an attack against all,” never mention Article 3, the precondition of 5: “In order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
Does anyone believe that any European NATO country, even the four in the top 10 of global economies, could “resist an armed attack” without America’s help? NATO is often held up as the longest and most successful multinational mutual defense treaty in history. But the truth is, it provides diplomatic cover for nations that don’t live up to their treaty obligations because it is not in their national interests, and the U.S. taxpayers fund their security.
Indeed, even as we speak our European allies thwart the spirit of the Iran agreement, and “make mock” of the country that “guards them while they sleep.” The reason is simple: doing business with a genocidal, anti-Semitic, tyrannical, apocalyptic cult that finances terror across the globe is a more important national interest than keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the mullahs’ hands. I’ve said it more than once, but I’ll quote yet again George Washington: “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by interests.”
So now we see the Taliban also exploiting negotiations for an agreement as a tactical move. Indeed, the Taliban have been openly contemptuous of the “agreement in principle” yielded so far by the current negotiations, and made no secret that any agreement will be merely a tactic in their long-term strategy to once again dominate Afghanistan:
The Taliban have been rather rude with the U.S. throughout the peace process because they have the impression that a withdrawal deal is a desperate desire of the USA, not the Taliban,” says a senior European diplomat in Kabul. “Imagine how rudely and offensively the Taliban will treat the already upset and isolated President [Ashraf] Ghani.
Sound familiar? The mullahs smelled the same desperation coming from Obama and John Kerry during negotiations over the nuclear weapons deal.
The perception that Trump wants and needs a deal is why the Taliban are negotiating in bad faith with the government in Kabul. For example, they have accepted preliminary agreements to honor human rights, but with the proviso, “based on the principles of Islam,” which means sharia law inimical to Western notions of human rights. And continuing terrorist attacks during negotiations ––including the suicide bombing on Sunday––are a blatant form of contemptuous blackmail against the U.S. and the Afghan government powerless to stop them.
Rather than pursuing impossible “deals” with sworn enemies like the Taliban or, for that matter, the corrupt, murderous Palestinian Authority, the president needs to change the paradigm. We don’t negotiate with terrorist states or entities whose beliefs and interests are diametrically opposed to our own, and who see negotiation as a tactic for buying time and getting concessions. There is no “global community,” no international “harmony of interests,” no Kantian progress towards “perpetual peace.” There are only sovereign nations with their own interests and beliefs, some of which we share, others we abhor. Alliances, treaties, and agreements must have accountability and reciprocity based on the interests we share, and credible punishment for violations. They should not be based on some utopian belief in what George H.W. Bush in 1991 called a “new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom and the rule of law.”
Such idealism, noble as it is, contradicts the vast diversity of peoples, cultures, and differing conceptions of human good, not to mention the only thing universal about humans: their penchant for violent appropriation of the resources of others. Some do desire the Western paradigm of human rights, political freedom, and material prosperity. Millions of others find these goods to be the agents of apostasy from the true faith. Still others find tribal, ethnic, religious, or national pride, power, and prestige to be more important than the goods we prize.
In the case of the first group, our mere existence, as John Quincy Adams said, provides a model that shows what is possible for all humans, and that makes us “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.” As for the other two groups, we cannot convert them with democracy seminars or foreign aid. All we can do is guard the bloody borders, as the Romans did at the Rhine and the Danube, ready to punish brutally the savage tribal bands to the east and north that tried to raid and plunder the Roman borderlands.
We don’t need a “deal” with the Taliban. We need to destroy enough of them so they fear us and respect our power. That will require a paradigm shift from a worn-out, tottering foreign policy orthodoxy.