There are two tired cliches that have been repeated ad nauseum over the last few days. The first is “America does not negotiate with terrorists” (yes we do). The second is “America never leaves a man behind” (yes we do). Politifact calls out Ted Cruz for saying that Obama has changed American policy and “we now negotiate with terrorists.” In fact, we always have.
The United States has a long history of negotiating prisoner trades in times of war. But does it have a history of negotiating with terrorists, as some might classify the Taliban?
According to experts we spoke with, it does. (For his part, Cruz didn’t respond to a request for comment by our deadline. We’ll add their response to this item if we hear from them.)
“There’s little that’s actually new here,” said Mitchell Reiss, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush and served as national security adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It may be new to certain individuals. Whether it’s new or not is not as important as whether it’s sound policy and promotes national security. That’s the ground where there’s a more legitimate debate.”
In his book, Negotiating with Evil, Reiss wrote that America actually has a detailed history of negotiating with terrorists and rogue regimes that support terrorist activity. How long? Even the Founding Fathers struck agreements with terrorists of the time: pirates.
George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson “accommodated what today would be viewed as terrorists,” Reiss wrote. “They each authorized payment to the Barbary pirates, and the U.S. Senate even ratified a treaty that enshrined the annual provision of naval supplies as ‘protection.’ ”A century later, President Teddy Roosevelt granted demands from the descendants of those pirates to secure the release of captured American resident Ion Perdicaris.
To his credit, Cruz said the policy of not engaging terrorists was decades old, not centuries. But there are more recent examples where, as Reiss wrote, “American presidents have negotiated with terrorists and rogue regimes to secure the release of hostages, to arrange temporary cease fires and to explore whether a more permanent truce might be possible.”
Here’s a few, according to Reiss’ book:
After the North Koreans captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson apologized for spying as part of negotiations to secure the release of 83 American prisoners.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel, Switzerland, West Germany and Britain to release Palestinian prisoners after two airlines were hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981, President Jimmy Carter agreed to unfreeze $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets after more than a year of negotiations with the Iranian revolutionaries.
In perhaps the most famous swap, after seven Americans were captured in Beirut, Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan agreed to send missiles to Iran in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.
President Bill Clinton’s administration sat down with Hamas in attempts to negotiate peace with Israel. His administration also worked directly with the Taliban nearly two decades ago on several occasions to see if the group would hand over Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
Reiss also noted that President George W. Bush engaged in negotiations with Iran and North Korea even after decreeing them part of the “Axis of Evil.”
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq under Obama and deputy national security adviser for George W. Bush, agreed that “there have been many cases of negotiations with terrorists or rogue regimes for the return of Americans.”
If I never hear this phrase again, it’ll be too soon.