Talking to Terrorists: Could Back Channel Diplomacy Prevent the Worst?
Part 2: The Humiliation of Failed Attacks
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Then was the failed suicide attack in Britain a humiliating experience for the terrorists involved?
Richardson: Absolutely. It is humiliating to come away from a suicide attack still alive. Interestingly, in the instance of a failed attack, terrorist groups try to mitigate the humiliation by destroying the video suicide notes before they can reach the public.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: If revenge is one of the motivations for terrorist attacks, how can governments evaluate the legitimacy of the terrorists’ grievances?
Richardson: It’s very effective to take into account what your enemy is thinking. As we’ve found out, if you don’t try to understand terrorists, you may well just be playing into their hands. A purely military response might only exacerbate the perceived grievances that motivate terror attacks. It’s unbelievable, but the public diplomacy budget of the United States is only two-thirds of one percent of its military budget -- even though public diplomacy could be an effective way to combat the impression of the United States as an imperialist power.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You’ve mentioned the possibility of setting up talks with groups like al-Qaida. How would such talks be set up?
Richardson: Well, I’m not suggesting that President Bush sit across a table from Osama bin Laden. They would be informal, set up through back channels. These sorts of efforts from the British government were instrumental in the successful resolution of conflict in Northern Ireland. And it’s conspicuously lacking from the United States right now.
Talks wouldn’t have to be negotiations. Sometimes diplomacy is just a matter of feeling the other side out, of finding out what they actually want. If we could find splits within the organization of al-Qaida, we could play them off of each other for our benefit, isolating the most radical elements. Some people say that setting up talks with terror groups would grant them too much legitimacy. But, in my view, declaring war on a terror group is actually the most effective way of granting legitimacy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2004, Osama Bin Laden issued a video addressed to the European Union, in which he offered a truce with Europe in exchange for a pull-out of European troops from the Middle East. The EU dismissed the offer. How do you think they should have responded?
Richardson: Europe made the right decision. Ultimately, it’s up to a state to decide how its strategic interests line up with the perceived grievances from other parties. In that video, bin Laden had put away the automatic weapons, and appeared sitting behind a desk. He wanted to come across as a statesman, as a legitimate representative of his group.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: We’ve been hearing a lot about the stoic temperament of the British in the face of terrorism -- contrasted implicitly, presumably, with the hysterical reaction of Americans after the onset of terrorism. To what extent is staying calm an important part of fighting terror?
Richardson: Even-handedness is absolutely a part of any effective response to terror. Remember, terrorists are trying to provoke a reaction. Now, the British have developed that even-handedness partly because they have a history of having dealt with terrorism with the IRA. Political leaders play a big role in setting the tone. And the leadership in the United States has had a catastrophic influence in that regard. The Bush administration’s coinage of the “war on terror” has been more detrimental to American interests than anything else.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the Democratic Party done enough to resist the Bush administration?
Richardson: Unfortunately not. Perhaps the country hasn’t recovered from the hysteria encouraged by the Bush administration. Just a few weeks ago, John Edwards, one of the Democratic nominees for president, suggested that the “war on terror” terminology should be disbanded -- and he was excoriated. Hopefully, the Democrats will be able to make more headway towards an effective anti-terror policy before the next election.
Interview conducted by Cameron Abadi.
- Part 1: Could Back Channel Diplomacy Prevent the Worst?
- Part 2: The Humiliation of Failed Attacks
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