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Too Much Negotiating

By David Warren

The British were negotiating with the revolutionary Iranians to get their 15 sailors back. Prime Minister Blair claimed, probably truthfully, that no concession was made to obtain their freedom; that the freeing of a significant Iranian prisoner the Americans had caught in Iraq had nothing to do with the outcome. Mr Blair said that, nevertheless, the channels of communication opened during the crisis would be useful for the future. (You never know when there will have to be more negotiations.)

The British are currently still negotiating with Hamas, the terrorist party that mostly governs "Palestine," in the hope of freeing a BBC journalist who went missing in Gaza nearly a month ago. That negotiation was a little more open: the British consul-general in Jerusalem went directly in to see Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister. After the meeting the envoy, Richard Makepeace, stressed that no change in Britain's policy towards Hamas had been signalled. (Don't laugh.)

In Britain itself, the police are still negotiating with radical members of the Muslim community, in the hope of averting violence and finding more suspects and evidence in light of charges just brought against three alleged conspirators in the London bombings of July 7, 2005. (The actual bombers cannot, of course, be negotiated with, as they blew themselves up that day.)

What a lot of negotiations, for both the Foreign and Home Offices. I'm sure there are many more we know little about, since the object of the negotiations is played down in the news. For instance, the endless negotiations with Pakistan, over both Jihadis using Pakistani territory as a safe staging area for their incursions into Afghanistan, and Jihadis using Pakistani territory as a safe staging area for their incursions into Britain.

Perhaps there are negotiations with Britain's new-found Iranian contacts to determine which Iranian-sponsored terrorist cell triggered the bombs that blew up four British soldiers in Basra, just as President Ahmadinejad was basking in world publicity for releasing the 15 sailors he captured in the international waters of the Shatt al-Arab. These sailors were, we assume, under orders not to offer resistance if the Iranians tried to detain them illegally -- but instead, to negotiate.

As an American military contact has assured me, American or Australian personnel would be under contrary orders. Orders to engage, in such circumstances. It breaks my heart (as it breaks his) to see the Royal Navy reduced to such pathetic and squalid grovelling; to see the speed with which first the woman sailor, and then several of the men were persuaded to pose for Iranian propaganda.

Worse, to my mind, was the cheerful reception they received on returning home, and the statements they gave to the media once they were in freedom. There was no condemnation of the Iranians for having held them illegally. Just expressions of happiness to be home, phrased in the contemporary way, so that every sentence can be parsed to reveal some underlying narcissism. It was as if the whole incident was "all about them."

It was only one generation ago, that sailors like these went off and reclaimed the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta. But that was when Britain was governed by Margaret Thatcher, a woman with a reputation for not always negotiating.

To be fair, I think Tony Blair probably knows that negotiations with implacable enemies are, in the longer run -- but usually in the shortest run, too -- utterly counter-productive. Just as rewarding any kind of bad behaviour is, by definition, counter-productive: it can only encourage bad behaviour. He has the brains and the experience to grasp this fully, but the political judgement to lose this grasp, and crucially: he lacks the spine of Mrs Thatcher. She had to face down what had happened in the Falklands from a political position that was as precarious as Mr Blair's, to start with.

To do what had to be done, from the beginning of the Shatt al-Arab encounter, would have meant publicly risking the lives of 15 sailors, and all the media fallout that would come of it. Ditto with Hamas, and in all other circumstances in which we, in the West, decide that a peaceful outcome for the small matter at hand is more important than a successful outcome for the much larger matter that is really at issue.

We cannot endure difficulties; we cannot endure losses; we cannot endure bad press. For we are men of straw, waiting for the fire to test us.

© Ottawa Citizen

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