By Professor Robert Mnookin and Program on Negotiation Managing Director Susan Hackley
This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 26 Los Angeles Times
During the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Black September Palestinians demanding the release of 200 Arab prisoners. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to consider making a deal with terrorists. The hostages ended up being killed in a rescue operation gone awry.
Earlier this month, Islamic extremists demanding independence for Chechnya took hundreds of captives in a school in Beslan, Russia. Refusing to negotiate, the Russians fought the terrorists, and the tragic result was more than 300 dead children, parents and teachers.
Two weeks ago in Iraq, two Americans and an Englishman were kidnapped. Their captors demanded the release of female prisoners being held in Iraq, but when no one would negotiate, the Americans were beheaded; at press time, the fate of the British hostage remained unknown.
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over time, it’s that you can’t negotiate with these kinds of terrorists,” Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said.
But is that true? And if so, why is it true?
Is it because it is morally wrong to carry on discussions with people who threaten the brutal and ruthless murder of civilians? Or perhaps it is a practical consideration, as Powell suggests when he says we don’t want to “incentivize them to do it again.”
But does it make sense to rely on such a firm, unwavering principle?
Governments are certainly right to worry about setting a precedent, conferring status on the terrorists and not wanting to reward bad behavior. They may not want to have heinous acts be the impetus for dialogue. Furthermore, if negotiation requires making concessions that jeopardize vital interests, governments are right to be cautious.
There may be circumstances that call for more nuanced responses. And, in fact, this too is probably part of U.S. policy. In the words of L Paul Bremer III, the former chief of the State Department’s counter-terrorism program and later the top U.S. civilian leader in Baghdad, “We will always talk to anybody about the welfare of American hostages, but we will not negotiate because that implies making concessions.”
It can be valuable to open up informal channels of communication, even if you’re not prepared to make concessions. Because of the potentially damaging political cost of doing so publicly, it is often best done quietly, through an intermediary or back channel.
Talking to terrorists is different from giving in to them. Sometimes it may be good practice to know what they are thinking, or, as a line in “The Godfather” goes, it is important to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” FBI and police hostage negotiators nearly always negotiate with hostage-takers — to gather information, to look for leverage and in an effort to gain the psychological advantage.
Another strategy is to make a deal, but one that appears to disconnect the “quid” from the “quo.” An example would be the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviets eventually withdrew their missiles from Cuba. We now know that although President Kennedy had publicly refused to link the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey with the Cuban missiles, he privately gave assurances that the U.S. would in fact do just that at a later date.
The millions of deaths in World War I can be seen as the result of a failure to negotiate effectively in the aftermath of the assassination in Sarajevo. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s willingness to negotiate rather than stand up to Adolf Hitler in 1938 cost millions of lives in the years that followed. Winston Churchill described the appeasers as “those who want to feed the crocodile, hoping it would eat them last.”
All too rarely, the answer is simple. When Saddam Hussein was pulled out of a spider hole in December, he said: “My name is Saddam Hussein. I am the president of Iraq, and I want to negotiate.” At that point, he had nothing left to negotiate with, so it was not particularly difficult to say no.
Whether or not to negotiate with terrorists? Useful generalizations are difficult to come by except to say that there often is a choice.
And, behind the scenes, a lot more might be going on than meets the eye.