Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Obama Doctrine of Extremist Diplomacy

I've recently discussed the dangers of a Barack Obama presidency for the direction of American foreign policy (see here and here).

Not only is Obama inexperienced, but, as I've noted, his call for greater engagement with extremist regimes would "open uncritical diplomatic arms to our enemies, placing America's hard-fought gains against the world's nihilist henchmen at risk."

Apparently Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution agrees in an article at today's Wall Street Journal, "
Obama as Diplomat in Chief":

Applied categorically, this would be a bad idea. Meeting with enemy heads of state is neither as original as Mr. Obama implies, nor as promising as he claims. As a specific option for dealing with difficult regimes, it has potential merit on a case-by-case basis, and should always be considered -- but only after a careful assessment of what the United States believes it can get out of such meetings and dialogues.

The would-be Obama doctrine has understandable roots. Upon becoming president, George W. Bush ended American efforts to promote a peace process in the Middle East, and Israeli-Palestinian violence worsened. He turned a cold shoulder to Kim Jong Il and North Korea wound up with perhaps eight more nuclear bombs. His administration successfully worked out a modus vivendi with Iran at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in 2001, but Mr. Bush's subsequent "Axis of Evil" speech, pre-emption doctrine, and termination of contact with leadership in Tehran led to a deterioration in relations that has haunted us in Iraq and that worsened when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.

However, just because Mr. Bush went too far in one direction does not mean these situations would be rectified by going to the other extreme. U.S. negotiations with difficult regimes may sometimes be catalyzed by presidential engagement, but they only tend to work when we are in a commanding negotiating position or when we are prepared to make trades with foreign leaders that serve their interests as well as ours. Implying otherwise risks being labeled as naïve in the fall elections, with Democrats sounding like they believe ruthless dictators would behave better if only we took the time to try to understand them.

In fact, the U.S. has a long history of talking to unsavory extremist leaders. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't....

Mr. Obama is not wrong about the utility of negotiations with unsavory regimes. They are often useful, and they need not amount to appeasement or even a false raising of hopes. If handled carefully, they can be done in a manner that minimizes the prestige accorded a foreign leader we do not wish to risk strengthening. But such high-level contact is not a new tool of American foreign policy, nor does it guarantee success.

If elevated to a doctrine, reliance on presidential-level diplomacy is a mistake. It risks rewarding foreign leaders who cause the most trouble, creating perverse incentives for those desiring the attention of the U.S. It also can confuse us about the nature of diplomacy. Foreign leaders, nice or not, make deals based on assessments of their interests, and any new diplomatic doctrine that fails to recognize as much would ignore centuries of history and potentially damage American security.

I've omitted O'Hanlon's case-study analysis at the core of the article.

I don't have any big disagreements, however. I'd only add that Obama's also speaking more and more to the language of retreat in Iraq, and by implication the larger war on terror. It's not just his apparent bear-hug approach to our most implacable enemies (a highly ill-considered gambit), but that he's also been one of the Democratic congressional majority's biggest boosters of U.S. failure in Iraq.

The Illinois Senator's badly out of sync with our tough progress on the war. His pronouncements that Iraq's been a complete failure discredit the mission and our service personnel in the theater.

On diplomacy and war, Obama's shown he's unfit for command.

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