Why do presidents negotiate with terrorists?
In January, 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schulz designated Iran a sponsor of international terrorism and, under a program called “Operation Staunch”, the U.S. began actively pressuring allies to enforce an arms embargo against Iran, which was fighting a war of survival against Iraq. However, later that summer and fall, and continuing into 1985, U.S. diplomatic and intelligence specialists began to reevaluate U.S policy toward Iran. The internal reappraisal was prompted in part by the fear that the U.S. had little leverage to influence the power struggle in Iran that was likely to occur in the aftermath of the elderly Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, and that the post-Khomeini Iran might move closer to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. That reappraisal, moreover, was taking placing while the U.S. was debating how to secure the release of several kidnapped Americans, including the CIA station chief William Buckley, who were being held by shadowy extremist groups in the Mideast. (At least 17 Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon alone during the period 1982-1987.) Eventually Reagan officials’ concern over the fate of the hostages combined with their desire to increase their influence with “moderates” in the Iranian government led to the Iran-contra affair, a secret and ultimately politically disastrous effort authorized by Reagan to trade arms to the Iran government for the release of the American hostages. (The contra element refers to a related effort, masterminded by Reagan’s national security staff, but evidently without Reagan’s full knowledge, to use the proceeds from the sales of arms to Iran to fund the American-backed Nicaraguan contras who were battling the Soviet-supported Sandinista government in that nation.)
The on-going effort to trade arms for hostages, and the related diversion of residual funds to the contras, was ultimately ended by the public revelation of the secret negotiations and subsequent transactions in November 1986. In the firestorm that followed, Reagan’s public approval plummeted, Congress initiated a joint congressional investigation amid calls for Reagan’s impeachment, and an independent prosecutor was appointed to investigate the affair. Key members of his administration were forced to resign, and some were charged with criminal conduct. Ultimately, although Reagan regained his political footing, the Iran-contra affair permanently tarnished his presidency.
Why did Reagan undertake a policy that ran so manifestly contrary to his administration’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists – one that was opposed by many of his key advisers, including Secretary of State George Schulz and defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger? In the immediate fallout from the disclosure of the Iran arms trade, Reagan insisted he had not actually traded arms-for-hostages, since the U.S. only dealt indirectly with the terrorists through a third party (the Iranian government). Moreover, the initial overture to Iran had been couched in geopolitical concerns regarding the balance of power in the Mideast in the aftermath of Khomeini’s death. But as Reagan’s biographer Lou Cannon concludes in his brilliant President Reagan The Role of a Lifetime, the tipping point in Reagan’s decision likely took place when his aides allowed him in the summer of 1985 to meet with members’ of the hostages’ families, who pleaded for Reagan to do something to secure their release. Cannon concludes in an assessment supported by most of Reagan’s closest aides that “Reagan’s personal feelings about freeing the hostages was the principal cause, though not the only one, for his enthusiastic pursuit of the Iran initiative. “
One cannot help but see echoes of many elements of the Iran-contra affair in the fallout resulting from President Obama’s Rose Garden announcement on Saturday, flanked by Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s parents, that Bergdahl was being freed by his Taliban captors in exchange for the release of five Taliban fighters held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. In initially defending the exchange, some administration officials framed it as one part of a broader effort to open up a dialogue with the Taliban forces. They note as well that they dealt only indirectly with those holding Bergdahl prisoner and that, strictly speaking, the Taliban may not be a terrorist organization – a distinction lost on Obama’s critics. However, as was the case with Iran-contra initiative, key members of Obama’s administration, including Secretary State Hillary Clinton, evidently opposed earlier efforts to negotiate a similar prisoner swap. Moreover, as did the Reagan administration, Obama’s officials are defending cutting Congress out of the loop because of the time sensitive nature of the hostage negotiations, even as questions are raised regarding whether in so doing Obama’s administration broke a law requiring him to give Congress 30 days’ notice before the release or transfer of Guantanamo prisoners. And, as was the case in 1986, the administration is walking back from initial statements justifying the trade, such as National Security adviser Susan Rice’s claim on Sunday that Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction,” in order to sort out the facts surrounding Bergdahl’s capture more clearly.
To be sure, the Bergdahl swap differs in important ways from the Iran-contra affair, not least in the significance of the policy implications at stake. Nonetheless, the Obama administration is going to be dealing with the fallout from this exchange for days and months to come, particularly in light of the inevitable Congressional hearings which are already gearing up. Beyond the damage to Obama’s standing the fallout from the affair, which has drawn bipartisan criticism, is not likely to strengthen Democrats’ hands in the run up to the 2014 midterms.
Given the strength of the political backlash, it is worth asking: why did Obama agree to negotiate with elements of what many see as an organization that, if not a terrorist group, is at least affiliated with terrorism? In my view, particularly after watching an emotional Obama hugging Bergdahl’s parents after the Rose Garden announcement, Obama acted in large part on the same sentiments that motivated Reagan’s efforts to secure the release of the American hostages. Indeed, in his recent remarks at the end of the G-7 summit, Obama explicitly couched the prisoner exchange in humanitarian terms: “I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child–and we don’t condition whether or not we make the effort to try to get them back.”
On a personal level, we might find presidents’ willingness to subjugate political concerns to humanitarian ones a quite admirable trait. But when presidents are allowed to act on their “best” impulses, they often underestimate the political repercussions. This is particularly the case when presidents’, and their closest aides’, political sensitivity grows dull because they no longer worry about reelection. This does not mean humanitarian concerns are misplaced. Like it or not, however, the presidency is an inherently political office, one whose capabilities are determined by the willingness of those who share the president’s powers to support his (someday her) initiatives. This is not to say the presidents ought never to act on humanitarian impulses. But when they do so, they should be fully cognizant of what it will cost them in influence down the road. That is the very definition of how presidents gain and maintain power. At this point, based on what is known via media reports, it is not clear to me that Obama fully understood the price he would pay for negotiating a prisoner exchange with the Taliban.