In an effort to score points against President Trump, many Republicans and a few Democrats this past weekend attacked him for his plan to ink a deal with Taliban and Afghan leaders at Camp David…plans that were eventually scuttled, as Trump told us in a series of tweets on Saturday:
Now, first things first, this is not a defense of how Trump handled the situation. There was a potential peace deal on the table, brokered in part by Mike Pompeo against the wishes of bloodthirsty war hawk John Bolton, and it might have allowed the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a promise from the Taliban to stop harboring terrorists. The negotiations had been ongoing for nine weeks, and a deal was imminent, but it was Trump's ego that scuppered the deal, per the Times:
Before the end of the meeting, Mr. Khalilzad brought up the idea of a Taliban trip to Washington. Taliban leaders said they accepted the idea — as long as the visit came after the deal was announced…That would become a fundamental dividing point contributing to the collapse of the talks. Mr. Trump did not want the Camp David meeting to be a celebration of the deal; after staying out of the details of what has been a delicate effort in a complicated region, Mr. Trump wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be.
The Taliban objected to the inclusion of the Afghan government at the Camp David meeting, since they don't consider that government legitimate, and there was disagreement about a ceasefire and the release of Taliban prisoners. And Trump's Saturday tweet was premature—other than him, nobody else thought the whole peace deal was off because of the Taliban bombing, and it still might not be. But as usual, his Twitter diplomacy is a mess.
So, clearly Trump committed a number of stupid errors, and some of it had to do with his narcissism. He probably even lied about who called the meeting off. And many were quick to point out that in 2012, he had criticized Obama for, you guessed it, negotiating with the Taliban:
But the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, or negotiating with anyone, is not inherently bad. This is how peace deals are made, this is how wars are ended, and adopting a position of “we don't speak to our enemies” only ensures that an ongoing conflict will continue with increasing mistrust on both sides. Which isn't to say that negotiations will always work, of course. But fundamentally they do more good than harm, and if negotiations fail, the original options, whether that's status quo, war, or covert war, haven't been removed from the table. Speaking broadly, there's not much to lose by talking with the other side when the other side is willing.
You wouldn't know that by the reaction from the left and right. Statements like this one from Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, were the norm:
This is meaningless rhetoric designed to appeal to a rah-rah sense of patriotism—by refusing to negotiate with a group like the Taliban, it only puts more American lives at risks as the forever war in Afghanistan continues. As Pompeo said in response, “In the end, if you’re going to negotiate peace, you often have to deal with some pretty bad actors.”
Democratic criticism was more nuanced, and Amy Klobuchar managed to find almost the right balance in attacking Trump’s methods without denouncing the concept of negotiating:
“Yes, we should be negotiating with the Afghan government and we should be negotiating with the Taliban to try to end the bloodshed in this country that has been going on for decades. The whole focus of this, of course, is to bring our troops home, which I strongly support,” she said.
“But this time, you see again that he has some kind of hastily arranged summit, which no one knew was happening. So, the whole thing doesn’t quite make sense to me. And it’s just another example of the president treating foreign policy like it’s some kind of gameshow,” she said, adding: “This isn’t a gameshow. These are terrorists.”
But while Klobuchar didn’t go so far as to say it was wrong to invite the Taliban to Camp David, she did invoke the same “terrorists” line to at least imply that they should be off limits only moments after saying she supported negotiations. Even that rhetoric gets into Kinzinger territory, in conveying the idea that there’s a certain class of opposition that can’t be included in talks. But whatever you want to call the Taliban, the fact is that they have power, and any group with the power to take lives on that scale should be on our diplomatic radar.
To castigate Trump for the way he mangled these negotiations is fair game. To castigate him on the grounds that you “shouldn’t” negotiate with the Taliban, or Kim Jong-un, or anyone else deemed “evil,” is to wrap yourself in the comfortable but ultimately damaging rhetoric of exceptionalism, and to ensure that our conflicts around the world will never improve, and will in many cases continue to spiral into violence and death.