Why the West stopped talking to terrorists: a theory of the “Chicago Schools”

At a recent private meeting of peace mediators, I had a conversation I thought it worth recording.  My interlocutor, whom I shall call “C”, was someone with deep experience of the Middle East and terrorism: as a member of the intelligence service for a powerful country he had himself pursued direct contacts with Hamas, Hezbollah and others.  Now retired, he continues to do so today, but now his aim is reconciliation and mutual understanding among often-warring groups.  I asked him about something that has long bothered me.  For a long while, the West “talked to terrorists”.  It maintained contacts with such groups even while condemning their actions.  This duality was not seen as contradictory, but helpful: it was vital to know what these groups wanted and whether their aims could be peacefully resolved.  But now the West had, by and large, ended the discussion.  Hamas, for instance, was now treated as a pariah, even though it had been democratically elected in Gaza.  Its exclusion from discussion of the Israel/Palestine problem was counter-productive.  Of course, 9/11 was the major turning point, but was there a deeper reason?  C’s answer surprised me.


“The reason lies in Friedman and the ascendancy of the Chicago School” C said.  He explained further.  The introduction of supply side economics would inevitably create social fragmentation, turning us against one another.  Leo Strauss’s philosophy was the natural solution: the creation of an external enemy (the “Noble Lie”) would help unite society which would otherwise fall apart under the rigours of market forces.  The Straussian world view, including the necessary myths of a common enemy, was the vital corollary of an otherwise destructive economics.  Together, these philosophies demanded a Manichean world of dichotomies: good/evil, us/them, our guys and the enemy.  Ultimately, this philosophy required that there be no engagement with the enemy.  They had to be dehumanized.  Above all, they had to be perpetuated as the enemy.


I found this argument surprising, coming from such a source.  Adam Curtis, in his BBC film “The Power of Nightmares”, first popularized the notion that the neo-cons, following Strauss, created the “Noble Lies” of Soviet military supremacy and, eventually, jihadist terrorism.  The connection C made with monetarist economics was a new one for me, however.  Both originated in Chicago (what’s wrong with that place???) but that of course fails to prove any connection, let alone a deliberate one, between the two schools.  But even if there was no explicit connection, there is a deep consonance between the two philosophies.  Strauss argued that modern American society had no unifying beliefs, that individualism and liberal mores would ultimately bring about collapse.  One could argue that social collapse is exactly what has followed the ruthless introduction of monetarist economics in the US and elsewhere (Tony Judt saw the 20th Century as an epic battle between Hayek and Keynes; well, Hayek won).  Such collapse is precisely the danger that neo-conservatism sought to address, even if they would see its origins in liberalism and individualism, and not economic policy.


So, perhaps it would be safer to see a correspondence between the two philosophies rather than a more deliberate plot to introduce both, with one balancing the other (which was what C was suggesting).  For that conjecture, we must await the evidence, tempting as the conclusion may be.  Some saw the Noble Lie in the creation of the WMD threat before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  I addressed this argument, drawing from my own experience, in a long article in the Financial Times in 2005, concluding that I did not see the creation of a deliberate lie, but a more chaotic process, even if still thoroughly dishonest.  But I could only speak about the UK government and of course we all know that the lie (and it was a lie, by the way, to those who still doubt) started in Washington, not London, even if the Brits shamelessly went along with it.  I had no experience of what happened there.


I also fret that these theories are worryingly close to “conspiracy theories” that see the hand of a small group of people in epic global events.  But at the same time I do not believe that events simply “happen” as a result of inhuman and uncontrolled geo-political or economic “forces”.  There is a human hand on the tiller of history: to return to the original question, there is a choice whether to talk to terrorists.  And foolishly our governments in the West have chosen not to (until it is absolutely essential for their own ends, as we now see with the US talking to the Taliban).  Someone made that choice, and they made it for a reason.  Understanding that reason is profoundly important, but what that understanding does not do, unfortunately, is offer solutions to the current social and environmental disaster caused by simplistic economic theory or the endless War on Terror initiated by the neo-cons.  Understanding alone is insufficient in clearing up the epic mess that the “Chicago Schools” of supply side economics and Leo Strauss have made of our world.  But one answer I would propose: don’t put small numbers of people in charge of anything that really matters.  You never know what foolish ideas might possess them.






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