Thursday, May 22, 2008

Talking To Your Enemies

“You talk to the most awful in order to get what you claim to be looking for --- Peace. And you will be surprised ... You don’t negotiate with your friends. You negotiate with the person you regard as your enemy.” (Bishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa)

A few weeks ago, former president Jimmy Carter scheduled meetings with Palestinian Hamas leaders in Gaza, and with leaders of Syria. He sought to continue his quest to try to bring some resolution in the Israel / Palestinian / Middle East dilemma. The effort was based upon his belief that no progress will be made without recognizing the reality of the role and influence that these players have, whether we may like it or not. His efforts were predictably criticized by the Bush administration as ill-timed and improper, followed by charges/counter-charges as to whether he was asked by the administration not to go.

Subsequently, President Bush went to Israel to participate in the celebration of their 60th year as a nation. Instead of playing the true positive statesman/presidential role, he instead appallingly took the low road; he pandered to that local audience by calling people who would talk to terrorists and enemies of Israel as akin to “the appeasers who talked to Hitler, leading to tanks rolling into Poland” in 1939. As is typical with this President, disagreeing with his views equates to being a traitor to freedom and our country’s well being. His words and performance were deservingly outrageous to all who seek genuine peace and an equitable resolution to these most difficult problems.

Never mind that his Secretary of Defense recently said that talking to these same people was ultimately going to have to happen. Or that John McCain (notwithstanding his sad continuing quest to be “politically right” rather than principled) echoed Bush, ignoring that McCain had already previously acknowledged that Hamas et al were “the new reality” that we had to recognize and deal with. And all of these words of refusal to talk to Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah ignored the reality of our current talks with Korea after years of silence ― talks that have been the only cause of some movement and progress by Korea, however slight.

Then, to top it all off, yesterday it was announced that Israel and Syria have already been conducting secret peace talks using Turkish mediators, “with a goal of reaching a comprehensive peace.” The U.S. was nowhere to be seen in this announcement. The very audience that Bush played to with his appeasement labeling was the same audience already talking to an audience “undeserving” of conversation with us!

Northern Ireland has had 10 years of peace, however tentative, because the “ruling party” finally sat down with “the terrorists” and gradually inched their way to trust ― combined with the mothers of Northern Ireland marching to say “no more.” South Africa ended years of racial apartheid and minority oppression when government and rebel leaders sat at the table, overcoming their long hatred, and took a chance with each other. Begin and Sadat finally said “it is time for a change,” and Israel / Egypt / Jordan have had 30 years of relative peace with each other. Progress in relationships, for countries and with individuals, does not come from silent isolation or from punishment for being bad.

Yet George Bush and his people continue to preach “hate my enemies” rather than “find common peace with my enemies.” Yet as was recently said to me, “If Bush was a president with a sound foreign policy then we would not be in the mess we're in. Taking Bush's foreign policy advice is akin to asking a blind man to lead a sight-seeing tour.” Or as the Governor of Ohio said, “who is even listening to this man anymore?”

Neville Chamberlain’s mistake as Prime Minister of Great Britain was not in talking to Hitler; it was what he said to him. Chamberlain gave Hitler the belief that England would not defend its neighbors, that it sought peace at any price. So Hitler took the apparent invitation and marched out believing there would be no consequences to his actions, no resulting war. It took Winston Churchill to correct that critical misunderstanding. Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah will not act out of fear of America, nor will they respond to our attempted punishments. Neither will Russia, or most any other nation. We have nothing to fear from talking, except perhaps fear of talking succeeding. That is one risk we should take.

“You don’t negotiate with your friends. You negotiate with the person you regard as your enemy.” Such a simple lesson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Wright Stuff

I recently experienced a clear demonstration of the significant shortcomings of the national press media in America. For weeks, we had been exposed to film bites of pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright enthusiastically condemning the United States for its shortcomings, including his use of the singular phrase “America be damned.” All of which would have gone by without notice EXCEPT that Dr. Wright just happens to be the pastor of presidential candidate Barack Obama.

These excerpted statements by Dr. Wright led to never-ending headline ravings by the national news speakers and opinion-givers, all of whom never met a headline controversy they are willing to either explore in depth or let die. Finally, a clearly wounded Dr. Wright decided to fight back to try to redeem his injured reputation.

The medium he chose for this counter-offensive was PBS’s interview show with Bill Moyers, one of a handful of national journalists that I respect for their thoughtfulness and thoroughness. What emerged from that hour’s quiet conversation and respectful verbal investigation was a totally different Jeremiah Wright. Thoughtful, very well read and educated, rational, with deeply reasoned messages that he carefully explained. A person with a background of patriotic military service to his country, who had taken a small church in Chicago’s difficult South Side and built a commendable record of growth and support to his community. I ended watching this in-depth discussion with an acute re-appreciation for how little real “information” we receive from the ratings-driven snippets that pass for news in this country. So many people draw conclusions about their fellow human beings from such snippets of words and opinions that have so little context of explanation.

Unfortunately, having made such a positive turn of impression with Bill Moyers, for some inexplicable reason Dr. Wright then proceeded to undo all that he had gained. In an appearance at the Washington Press Club --- televised by several news networks almost in its entirety --- he opted to put on a performance that was a looney-tune caricature of himself. He descended into new race-divisive and unsupportable statements in stark contrast with his reasoned comments in his individual interview, thereby reaffirming the worst criticisms of him. Feeling his oats? Long on adrenalin? Focused on his own ego, his own selfishness while on center stage? Who knows, but it was a grievous and unfortunate error, undermining the case statement for himself he made on PBS. Yet his human frailty and would-be martyrdom of that moment still did not weaken criticizing the news media for creating and continuing much of this would-be controversy in the first place.

The unfortunate thing in this follow-up event was the negative spillover on the campaign of Barack Obama, without any apparent concern for his parishioner, but also on the larger issues of race relations and spiritual goals. The angers of the Jeremiah Wrights and Al Sharptons and their generation are more than understandable. But these spokespersons undermine their arguments and their objectives by their words. Problems are rarely solved from hate and anger, and ultimately progress will only come when we focus on right for right’s sake, not right for guilt’s sake. Anger and hatred are separating forces, not unifying ones. So Obama was forced to follow in the footsteps of John Kennedy, Mitt Romney and others to explain how as president he would separate his actions in that secular office, responsible to all stripes of Americans, from his personal religious obligations to his church and church leaders. Maybe this is a question every presidential candidate should grapple with and answer, hopefully with the opportunity to do so in a quieter less public arena. Maybe such questioning and understanding is ultimately the real and only gift of this whole Jeremiah Wright episode.