Click here to read reviewer Amitrajeet A. Batabyal's take on Talking to Terrorists.
Freedom fighters, resistance, insurgents. Guerillas, terrorists. We admire the former and despise the latter. The designation determines how we view a particular group, and there’s no question that public perception is critical not only to political campaigns but also to the success or failure of peace missions. The trouble is, most of us don’t really know which is which or who is who. We appear to be “incapable of differentiating between Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist political movements that believe in participatory democracy.”
The U.S. government has a policy of not negotiating with - or even talking to - terrorists. (We do, of course, but not officially.) At first glance, it seems wise; don’t encourage bad behavior by acknowledging it. The tricky part of this strategy is determining just which groups are terrorists and which are potential allies. One might expect the labels would be carefully chosen after a great deal of thoughtful research, but according to Mark Perry, author of Talking to Terrorists, more often than not our foreign and military strategy is based on little more than knee-jerk reaction. Perry begins his book with the recollection of a senior assistant to Donald Rumsfeld that Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, refused to consider any dialog with Sunni leaders. He “…was almost unbalanced about this. He thought that Sunni resistance wasn’t even a resistance. … He always described them as ‘Nazis.’”
Common sense and hundreds of leadership seminars tell us that in order to solve a conflict, we must first find the basic point of contention and engage in reasoned and rational discussion to find resolution. This requires communication – not just talking to our opponents but listening to them, as well. Perry uses his experiences as a military and intelligence analyst to uncover the behind-the-scenes conversations that have taken place before and after the U.S. began its war on terror. Talking to Terrorists is a chronicle of disasters that resulted from mindlessly labeling large groups of people as ‘terrorists’ and then responding to the label rather than investigating and listening to the parties involved explain what they want . It is also a hopeful expose of a few successes that resulted from sensible implementation of logical thought processes.
Unfortunately preconceived notions afflict most of us; not even those with power and nearly unlimited resources are immune to Us versus Them Syndrome. Our failure to step outside our egocentric and often ignorant world view inevitably leads to failure to achieve our goals. As Perry points out, “We do not understand the enemy we are fighting… It is not just our policies that stand in the way; it is the language that has led us to adopt those policies.”
Perry’s discussions with those labeled ‘terrorists’ are surprising, often stunning, and certainly more enlightening than anything we see on the evening news. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation to come from this is that our stubborn refusal to move past our own ignorance of the individuals is just the sort of blinders-on reaction that the radicals use to recruit members and supporters. So long as the United States continues to deny that there is any shade of gray or even to recognize the vast differences in culture, objectives, and methods, we are feeding the terrorists’ tactics and attacks against us.
Perry is not arguing for a touchy-feely approach to world peace. Some groups, he points out, should not be part of the conversation. His point here is that knowing the true makeup and objective of each movement allows us to better judge who is our enemy and who can be an effective ally against that enemy if we let them. In Talking to Terrorists, Perry has uncovered the source of victories and defeats in the Middle East. His own conversations with various leaders throughout that region are especially intriguing, and lend even more credibility to his stance. All in all, Talking to Terrorists is probably one of the most important guides for military and political leaders everywhere.