Dialogue with Adversaries

Dudley Weeks
© 2008

In any conflict situation, the parties involved have a critical choice: they can engage in dialogue with each other, or they can try to exclude the perceived "enemy" from participation in resolving the conflict constructively.  In April, 2008, former president Jimmy Carter is receiving criticism from the Bush White House, many members of Congress, and the government of Israel for meeting with Hamas during his trip to the Middle East.  The criticism is based on Hamas being declared a "terrorist organization" by the U.S. government, and thus should be ostracized from any dialogue.  I believe several important principles need to be considered, not only in this case but many others as well.

1.  Choosing to have dialogue with all parties involved in a conflict opens up possibilities for effective resolution, whereas the refusal to have dialogue virtually assures the conflict will continue and worsen. Countless examples from our own lives demonstrate this reality, as do major situations from around the world.  Finally involving the IRA in the Northern Ireland peace process was essential, as was creating the Multi-Party Talks in South Africa involving a diverse array of conflict parties.  Developing effective peace processes were impossible as long as the IRA in Northern Ireland, and the ANC and others in South Africa were excluded. 

2. If an individual or group is part of the conflict, they must also be involved in the resolution process if it is to be effective and sustainable.   Those who refuse to dialogue with certain adversaries often say, "To meet with them gives them credibility."  In a conflict situation, any parties that are perpetuating the conflict already have "credibility" because they are a critical part of the conflict and thus must be included in any effective conflict resolution process.   

3.  Excluding adversaries from dialogue hardens their negative attitudes and behavior. They often feel they have no way to express their opinions except through continuing the very behavior that led to their being termed an "enemy" or "terrorist".  In other words, the very attitudes and behavior we condemn are intensified.  Sadly, this sometimes becomes an intended tactic of governments and groups.  If adversaries are excluded from dialogue, they will increase the use of violence as their strategy, and then the government or group has an excuse to do what it wanted to do anyway; namely, destroy the "enemies" without having to hear or consider their opinions and needs.  

4. If the U.S. or any nation espouses fair and democratic elections to be a right of citizens and a near sacred process for choosing leaders, then the results of those elections must be honored. Whether many outsiders like it or not, Hamas was fairly and democratically elected by Palestinians to represent them.  Objective international election observers clearly verified the fairness of the voting process and the results.  Those who are now refusing to dialogue with Hamas as the legitimate leadership are, in effect, saying "Democratic elections are worthwhile ONLY if the candidates we approve of are elected."  The value of democratic elections is greatly weakened if we accept only those outcomes we desire.

5.  Most conflicts are caused and perpetuated by more than just one of the conflict parties. Objective students of the Middle East realize that all parties have contributed to the conflict.  The U.N., the PLO, Hamas, the Israeli government, the U.S., Syria, Arab neighbors, Hezbollah, Iran, the USSR and Russia, other members of the world community....the list is indeed long.   To single out one or two parties as the only "wrong doers", or one or two as the only "righteous" parties,  ignores reality and worsens the situation.  To exclude any of the parties from dialogue and the conflict resolution process greatly weakens the prospects for an effective and sustainable outcome.

6.  Refusing to have dialogue with adversaries is usually a sign of inadequacy and insecurity.   A lack of effective conflict resolution skills, low confidence in one's own ability to dialogue effectively, and doubt about the validity of one's own positions are often among those inadequacies and insecurities. 

If we truly seek effective relationships and a more peaceful world, dialogue among people and groups who have diverse opinions must be allowed expression.  Indeed, their participation must be invited proactively.   Through what I call "discovery dialogue", we develop real possibilities to understand what we agree upon, where we disagree, where we have shared needs, and how we can take steps toward significant improvement.

Dudley Weeks


(NOTE:  Watch the Commentary section of this website for a forthcoming article on "Discovery Dialogue".)

(Copyright 2008: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}