Benjamin Pauker: Talking to Our Enemies

Ben Pauker, Managing EditorThe savvy early adopters that read our nascent blog in its first few days last week might have noticed a curious banner advertisement, supplied by Google, along the right-hand side of our homepage. It was hard to miss.

Framed in black, the ad set photographs of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Barack Obama side by side, above the question: “Is it OK to Unconditionally Meet With Anti-American Foreign Leaders?” Below were two buttons: “Yes” and “No.” But the advertisement offered only the illusion of choice; neither button worked and a click sent one directly to a page on John McCain’s website.

While the World Policy Journal has always been a magazine of opinion—both left, right, and center (mostly left and center, to be fair)—the World Policy Institute, both the home and publisher of WPJ, is a “progressive” institution, and decidedly non-partisan. Not to mention that, as a registered non-profit, the Institute is prohibited from supporting political campaigns. The ad is now gone, banished from our site.

But there’s a much larger question lurking here behind McCain’s ad: when did the notion of “meeting” become such a scarlet letter? And how has active, engaged—dare we say preemptive—diplomacy with those who oppose us become tantamount to weakness?

This controversy began as an internecine war, touched off by Obama’s answer to a question posed to the candidates in the July 2007 YouTube debate. Asked whether he would, in the first year of his presidency, meet “without preconditions,” with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in order to “bridge the gap that divides our countries,” Obama responded affirmatively.

In what was perhaps a gut response, Obama recalled that both JFK and Reagan had met with their Soviet counterparts—not because they trusted them or doubted the very real danger that Moscow posed—but because negotiation, in and of itself, opened a door to the possibility of progress. Senator Clinton was quick to pounce, calling Obama naive, even reckless, and this line of attack has been gleefully inherited by the Republican nominee. It will no doubt intensify through November.

There are several contemporary examples of negotiation with foes that have produced unintended and damaging consequences. First and foremost is the 1938 Munich Agreement, where Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement to Hitler over the annexation of the Sudetenland emboldened the Nazi regime. Indeed, President Bush—in a veiled dig at the presumptive Democratic nominee—recalled this nadir in a recent speech before the Israeli Knesset.

Rhetoric aside, however, it is neither wise nor accurate to draw a parallel between Hitler and Ahmadinejad, al-Assad, Chavez, Castro, or Kim Jong Il. And why must talking necessarily lead to appeasement?

As Obama noted, both JFK and Reagan talked directly to our great Cold War enemy. But JFK’s first meeting with Khrushchev in June 1961 was widely acknowledged to be a disaster: the Soviet leader bullied and bludgeoned his young counterpart into submission—a meeting that Kennedy later described as the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy was perceived as weak and naïve; it was not long before the Soviets had missiles in Cuba.

Reagan, by contrast, met Gorbachev in Reykjavik against the counsel of most of his advisers who argued that negotiations with the Soviets would only legitimize the regime and weaken Washington’s position. Behind the rhetoric, however, the administration was actively and aggressively countering each and every Soviet provocation, building a vast nuclear arsenal and arming governments and political groups that opposed Moscow’s expansionist policies. This was still negotiation “without precondition,” however, Washington was carrying a very big stick.

But history can only be a guide, not a compass. Starting then from the assumption that we would prefer friends to enemies, let’s take a quick realpolitik look at what America might stand to gain or lose from talking to the five countries that Obama was asked about.

Cuba has not been a threat or a grave concern to the United States since 1962. Save for stemming the annoyance and costs of Coast Guard patrols for seaborne immigrants, the goals we seek are democracy and a market of 11 million people that is open to U.S. goods. So, would direct meetings between Washington and Havana help our objectives in this instance? Probably, but the overriding factor is whether an American president would risk the political capital for what is now a relatively low-level concern.

Likewise in Venezuela, the goals are democracy promotion, free markets—and oil. Though Chavez has now assumed the Fidel Castro role as Latin America’s chief orator and tormentor of U.S. policy, his nation still supplies roughly 11-15 percent of our annual crude oil imports. What would be gained or lost by Obama or McCain sitting down with Chavez? Not much either way at this point, unless the Venezuelan president threatens to close the spigots. Chavez’s weakening domestic support may soon dump him from office, and low-level negotiation through the State Department and other agencies are preferable to a grand summit. But certainly talks would be a better option than tacitly backing another ill-fated coup.

In North Korea the issues have always been nuclear proliferation and regional destabilization. And though we’ve often called the nation a “rogue,” one has to admit that Pyongyang has acted rationally with regard to its nuclear program, blustering and obfuscating to induce fear, then bartering concessions and IAEA inspections for goodwill, cash, and food. Would talks help? Quite simply, they have.

Syria has long been seen by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, as an enormously destabilizing presence in Lebanon, and a threat to Israel. Damascus was also a strong opponent of the Iraq war, which didn’t help endear Bashar al-Assad to the Bush administration. (Syria is now home to some 2-3 million Iraqi refugees.) As a pivot for so many of the Middle East’s most intractable concerns, direct talks would seem to have obvious value. Moreover, al-Assad’s minority Alawite government is game: they are currently engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel in Ankara.

Iran is the gravest immediate concern. Washington’s list of grievances against Tehran is long: it is a state sponsor of terror, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq; its nuclear enrichment and weapons program threatens the security of Israel and the entire region; it is an unstable, fundamentalist nation that sits atop the world’s second largest oil reserves and astride the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes at least 17 million barrels per day, one-fifth of the world’s crude.

Needless to say, the waters around Iran are pretty hot right now. In June, the Israeli army and air force staged what is thought to have been a grand rehearsal for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Suspicious bombs have been going off within the country in and around military installations—likely the work of U.S. Special Forces or CIA-supplied and funded opposition groups. This provocation induced the commander of Iran’s revolutionary guards to threaten to close off the Strait of Hormuz if attacked. (The effect on oil prices would be almost unthinkable.) So would direct diplomacy help cool things down?

It’s hard to see how it would hurt. (That said, Columbia University President Lee Bolinger didn’t come off very well in his first attempt.) Both military and political analysts believe that an Israeli strike would be of little lasting value—the Iranian nuclear program’s facilities are reportedly well-hidden and widely dispersed—and would inflame the Arab and Muslim world. An American attack, which The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh and others insist remains very much on the administration’s table, would be even worse. The top Pentagon brass are strongly, but quietly, opposed to another war. Sanctions have done little to shame or punish Iran into behaving. So why not a face-to-face meeting between the leaders of the United States and Iran instead of, or at least in addition to, all the chest-thumping?

It may well happen, but not now. While both President Bush and Ahmadinejad were popularly elected, they are now decidedly unpopular leaders coming to the end of their second and first terms, respectively. (Iran holds presidential elections in 2009.) They have both also been beholden to conservative factions within their parties and governments. Bush is laying low, praying for a Middle East peace accord and relative calm in Iraq to salvage what remains of his legacy, while Ahmadinejad works towards the bomb that will make Iran a regional power and a global player.

The task of talking directly to Tehran will be left to either Obama or McCain and to either Ahmadinijad (round two) or a reformist successor. But, with all other options either so useless or grossly destructive, talk it must eventually be.

And thus it is a particular shame that McCain’s cynical advertisement only adds to an increasingly polluted and polarized foreign policy debate that, like a soup stock, becomes more concentrated the longer it’s kept on the flame. Eventually, all you have left is a burnt mess and a pot that needs scrubbing.

The last thing we need at this juncture is to reduce the nuance of negotiation and diplomacy to a binary choice.

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Benjamin Pauker is managing editor of World Policy Journal. He has written for Harper’s magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and PBS television’s Frontline/World among other publications, reporting from Cambodia, southern Thailand, China, and Eastern Congo.

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