Can you imagine being held captive by radicalized militants for five years? The confusion, anxiety, and fear over whether you get to see your family or friends again must be excruciating. For loved ones, the pain goes even deeper. Unanswered questions of health and safety are enough to drive anyone to extreme emotional distress. It’s a wound that can feel permanent, even if the imprisoned is lucky enough to make it home safely.
The recent trading of prisoners by the United States government and the Taliban has ignited a firestorm over the issue of negotiating with terrorists. After five years as a prisoner of war, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was released back into the custody of the American military. The price paid was five detainees released from the dubiously constitutional Guantanamo Bay prison. It’s expected these newly freed men will rejoin the terror group.
The return of Sgt. Berdahl has been a joyous affair for his family and much of the country. The recounting of his release on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan is the kind of dramatic conclusion you would expect in a well-done novel or emotionally-stirring movie. When Bergdahl was finally given over to a squad of special forces, he wrote on a piece of paper “SF?”, referring to Special Forces. One soldier responded with: “Yes, we’ve been looking for you for a long time.” It was at that point Bergdahl broke down in tears.
On the happy day the prisoner swap was announced, and as President Obama declared that Bergdahl “wasn’t forgotten by his country,” several commentators and military officials spoke out against the trade. According to an in-depth report by Rolling Stone, Arizona Senator and war cheerleader John McCain had grave misgivings about negotiating with terrorists. Two other lawmakers – Sen. James Inhofe and Rep. Buck McKeon – both questioned the efficacy of cutting deals with the enemy. Officials in the Pentagon worry that the trade will send the wrong signal to the Taliban: that if they capture American troops, terrorists already in custody will be released.
It’s a common trope to declare “we never negotiate with terrorists.” The enemy is supposed to be a blood-lusting mongrel incapable of reason. As the heroes in any conflict, the American armed forces are supposed to occupy a higher moral platform than the slime that plots destruction from afar. To negotiate with scum is to lift scum to our level, it is so alleged.
But even when American politicians boast about not speaking to the Other, there is a history of negotiation with foes far stronger than a small band of gun-toting peasants halfway across the world. The swapping of five prisoners for one is relatively mild compared to negotiations done while the lives of millions were on the line.
President Jack Kennedy may have been a drugged-up philanderer, but he had the sense to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba. The price paid was American missiles removed from Turkey and Italy. The move, which was conducted in secret, saved the country from the brink of nuclear war. It would be insane to chastise such a life-saving, deft move, but no doubt Kennedy was considered an appeaser by war hawks back then.
As conservative icon Pat Buchanan points out, the U.S. government negotiated with both the Chinese and Vietnamese to retrieve captured soldiers. Jimmy Carter talked with the Ayatollah in Iran to save American hostages. Ronald Reagan spoke with the Iranians to ensure the return of prisoners held by Hezbollah. The point is: America has a history of negotiating with enemies.
But even if that weren’t true, and Uncle Sam refused to stoop down and talk to his adversaries, it should be asked: what’s so wrong with dialogue? Is fighting to the death much more preferable?
Only a sociopath would choose conflict over diplomacy. If the goal of war is to preserve peace – not the most convincing argument, but an argument nonetheless – then preserving peace through nonviolence is logically consistent. It makes no sense to wish for harm if avoidance is an option.
War and violence are the worst elements of humanity. At times, they may be necessary – but only as a last resort. If people were more prone to forgiveness than to resentment and anger, some of the world’s greatest atrocities could have been avoided. To think, had the allied powers of Britain, France, and Russia negotiated with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, we may not have seen World War I. If a skirmish over the breakup of the Ottoman Empire could have been talked out, reparations imposed on Germany through the Treaty of Versailles would not have led to Hitler’s rise.
Had the Great War been avoided, Nazism, national socialism, and fascism could have been skirted. The twentieth century would not be home to hundreds of millions of needless deaths thanks to communism. T.S. Eliot famously called history “a pattern of timeless moments.” In the moments where caution and reason are chosen, prosperity is often the result. When irrationality and hubristic emotion are opted for, the follow up is almost always despair. It’s a clear pattern. We are only given the equivalent of a few moments on the earth. The choice of legacy can either veer toward peace or destruction.
Negotiation is not appeasement but a means to an end. It’s not an insult to moral stature. It’s a choice among many, and one that avoids the misery and damage of full-on aggression. By negotiating for the return of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. government relayed an important message. As Buchanan phrased it, “the nation with a preponderance of the world’s hard power has a soft heart.”
That’s not to say the American government is without sin. Of all the states in the world, the plotting kleptocrats in Washington D.C. are some of the most diabolical. The dropping of nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ranks as one of the most evil deeds in history. Economic sanctions that caused the death of a half million children in Iraq – an act Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “worth it” – is another example of Uncle Sam’s propensity for death. The current arming of jihadist rebels in Syria will only come back to haunt America in the end. The overall meddling in foreign lands in the name of global hegemony will be looked to by historians as one thing: the longing for empire.
Amid the countless atrocities committed by American military might, negotiating and digging the semblance of civilization out of the dirt of barbarism is definitely a good thing. Sgt. Bergdahl may eventually be charged with desertion of his unit, and his fellow soldiers may not forgive him for the loss of life that occurred because of his abandonment, but bringing a soldier home should not be looked down upon. The price paid – five terrorists almost guaranteed to rejoin their comrades – may be steep, but then again, the U.S. government had at least a decade to put them on trial. The chance was squandered. And we now face the consequences.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.
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