Obama’s “Talking” Cure

Joshua Muravchik has an enlightening piece at Commentary Magazine, Obama’s “Talking” Cure:

“In the never-ending torrent of attacks on the Bush administration’s conduct of American foreign policy, the President’s supposed neglect of the peaceful instruments of diplomacy has come in for especially pointed criticism. Bush has been faulted, for example, for his unwillingness to talk directly with Iran and to negotiate one-on-one with North Korea, for his crude attempts to “isolate” Syria, and for his failure to immerse himself in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. The general line was encapsulated by the television news star Anderson Cooper last year in a leading question to Barack Obama:

In the spirit of . . . bold leadership would you be willing to meet . . . during the first year of your administration . . . with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?

Obama did not hesitate. “I would,” he replied. “And the reason is . . . that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous.”

As is his wont, Obama later offered up a number of qualifications and clarifications of this statement. Electoral maneuvering aside, however, he stuck to his main position, which he seemed to treat as so obviously true as to be irrefutable. But is it? How valuable is diplomacy? Can it in fact “bridge the gap” with enemies by disclosing unsuspected common ground and thereby changing the equation between them and us? Has it ever done so?”

The short answer is “no”.  Successful talks follow a change in some regard by the other side.  Talks in and of themselves accomplish little.  They are illusory.

“To say that talking with our enemies has more often done harm than good does not mean that we should always avoid it. But when we do speak, it is essential that we eschew the conceit that, whoever they may be and whatever their own purposes, it lies within our power to manipulate or seduce them into becoming friends or serving our interests. If they have truly undergone a metamorphosis and wish to revise their relations with us, they will find ways to let us know about it—as happened, despite early missed signals, both in the case of Mao and Chou and in that of Sadat. That is why it is preposterous to assert, as some continue to do, that at a certain moment in 2003 Tehran sent a message through a Swiss diplomat that it was ready to settle all of its differences with Washington—but, because the Bush administration failed to seize the opportunity, the moment was lost forever.

What is essential is to understand whom we are talking to. In particular, messianic revolutionary regimes operate in a moral universe whose values are antithetical to ours. Their goal in talking is virtually never to have better relations for their own sake, but to have the advantage of us. The fatal allure of transformative diplomacy is that, by means of summitry, the lions can be charmed not just into lying down with lambs but into becoming lambs. That goal is a chimera; it has never happened.”

Read the whole thing.


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