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Talking with Enemies

June 12, 2009

This week, the Obama Administration decided Vice President Joe Biden would not attend the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting in Providence, Rhode Island out of respect for a firefighters’ union picket of the event. For an administration committed to dialog and openness, this seems strange to say the least.

The dispute between Providence firefighters and the city has a long history. Local news reports indicate that the mayor has met directly with union officials only twice in seven years.

The fire department in Providence, like many heavily unionized fire departments in strong-mayor cities, has developed a dysfunctional culture characterized not just by distrust but also by each side’s outright disdain for the other and its positions. Any action by the administration in Washington, D.C. short of direct engagement with both sides, including the supposed inaction of choosing not to attend the national gathering of mayors, will only serve to entrench the dispute further.

If talking with America’s enemies is seen as a way to advance our national security interests, what would it hurt for the administration to fulfill its commitment to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and send a delegate to Providence? Maybe mediating the dispute between the local mayor and his firefighters would set an example that all of the mayors in attendance could benefit from.

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