Washington Negotiates With Terrorists—Why Can't Obama Talk to the GOP?

President Obama speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani from the Oval Office. (Pete Souza/White House)

As the shutdown drags on, the most popular meme among Democrats is to portray the House Republicans as political terrorists with whom one cannot bargain as a matter of principle. President Obama himself drove home the harsh analogy in remarks in the Rose Garden on Tuesday that revealed his apparent contempt for his opponents and appeared to slam the door on further talks. The Republicans, the president said, were demanding "ransom just for doing their jobs" and "don't get to hold the entire government hostage." As White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer put it on CNN, Obama is not going to negotiate "with people with a bomb strapped to their chest."

But if the administration's approach is to cast the House GOP members as jihadists wielding ballots instead of bullets, then perhaps it should adopt the same policy it applies to real terrorists: Don't negotiate at all in public, but meanwhile search for every back channel you can. Even among Republican jihadists, there are interlocutors to be found and not unreasonable inducements — like a repeal of the medical-device tax — to offer up.

The real danger of the current standoff, after all, is not how long the shutdown extends over the GOP's desperate and futile effort to halt or slow the implementation of Obamacare, painful though this is for the nearly 800,000 government workers already furloughed. The shutdown is likely to be resolved sooner rather than later. The risk is that there will be so little resolution of the underlying issues that by the time the more important debt-limit issue comes around in a couple of weeks, the U.S. risks an economic disaster by defaulting on its debt.

So between now and then, the administration needs to quietly reach out to wavering House Republicans, just as it often covertly does with actual terrorists.

The government's putative policy of not negotiating with terrorists is, in truth, a pretend policy. As we know from history, when terrorists hold many precious lives in their hands — in this case, the viability of the entire U.S. economy — you do find ways of quietly negotiating, sometimes deploying out-of-the-box inducements. That is what has been done secretly in hostage negotiations going back to the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 — which ended, recall, with the dramatic release of the hostages on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration, following many months of talks through secret channels.

It's also what happened in the 2000s, when the U.S. and Britain opened up negotiations with Libya over the culprits behind the Pan Am 103 bombings and the Qaddafi regime's nuclear weapons. Back then, too, there was a big difference between the "official" story of what the government was doing and what it was actually doing. As the Bush Administration liked to tell it, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was scared straight by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and promptly gave up his life's work as an international terrorist, renouncing both his weapons of mass destruction program and his terror tactics. What really happened, as corroborated by multiple sources, is that Qaddafi cut a deal in 2003 only after the British and Americans quietly assured him that President Bush would settle for "policy change" — that is, giving up his nukes — rather than regime change. Qaddafi may have been scared, but he needed a concession too.

President Obama is showing some confidence that he can simply wait out the Republicans on the shutdown. And perhaps he can: already some of the more reasonable House GOP members are saying privately that they plan to give the tea party a day or two of triumphal rhetoric, and then they expect Speaker John Boehner to call a vote on a "clean" continuing resolution that will fund the government without tying in Obamacare. "If the GOP leadership brings a clean CR [continuing resolution to fund the government] to the floor it will get a majority of the majority — maybe not today, but tomorrow or Thursday," says Rich Galen, a former adviser to Newt Gingrich when the latter, as speaker, forced the previous shutdown 17 years ago.

But in the end, Obama is probably going to have to give the wavering Republicans something too, no matter how small, in order to avoid debt-limit Armageddon by October 17. That's when, according to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Congress must authorize more borrowing if the government is to pay its bills and not default on U.S. Treasury bonds, roiling global markets. To avoid this outcome, Obama's best bet may be to follow the advice that his badly missed former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, knew well — reach out one by one, find the reasonable doubters who are less than certain of the sanctity of the jihad, and help to find them a way out of the box they're all in.

Obama is right when he says, with pride, that the issue of Obamacare has been voted on already by the Congress and the electorate in the presidential election, as well as by the Supreme Court. But it will avail him nothing to inveigh against the unreasonableness of the House Republicans, or to appeal to their sense of political survival in the face of national polls showing they will be disproportionately blamed. Many of them simply don't care about the national polls, or about the national fate of the Republican Party. As my colleagues Ron Brownstein and Charlie Cook write, many House districts are far more safely "red" or "Republican" than in the past.

Something will have to change hands.

Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.


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