Talking to Your Adversaries, 2008 Style

One of the great false issues of the 2008 election campaign has been the question of whether the United States should engage in face-to-face discussions with its adversaries. The issue arose, of course, because Barak Obama suggested he might be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership, a position which evoked gasps of disengenuous horror from John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Is it wise to talk to those with whom you disagree?

The conventional wisdom is that of course it is. Most of the time when countries talk to one another, it is about matters on which they disagree, not on their points of agreement, which scarcely need talking about. That is and always has been the norm of diplomacy. But things have changed during eight years of George W. Bush’s incumbency. Bush has a well known and documented aversion to talking to anyone who disagrees with him, and if the “disagreer” has views fundamentally different from those of the “decider,” the result is an utter lack of interaction.  

Obama’s disagreement with this position is being trumpeted as something radical, and it is not. As Obama himself put it on May 28, 2008, “I think it is an example of how stunted our foreign policy debates have become over the past eight years that this (talking to adversaries) is an issue. It is actually a pretty conventional view of how diplomacy should work traditionally that has fallen into disrepute in Republican circles and in Washington.”

He is, of course, absolutely right. U.S. presidents have talked to our adversaries throughout American history without their doing so being considered strange, but have the metrics changed? Would critics now condemn Eisenhower for starting summit diplomacy or Nixon for opening relations with China if those events were to transpire today? It is, after all, the purpose of negotiating with adversaries to narrow differences and to resolve policy inconsistencies through diplomacy rather than shooting at one another. Is that so hard to understand?

There are two major places where the faux debate is centerig. One is Iran. What, McCain asks as if he did not already know the answer, do we have to talk to Iran about? Well, the obvious answer is Iraq. As pointed out in earlierpostings here, there can be no stable outcome in Iraq that Iran has not bought off on, because Iran has such strong connections to all Shiite elements in the country. Their initial help in Afghanistan suggests they can be helpful if they ewant to be; calling them nasty names and refusing to talk to them certainly does not enhance the prospects. One does not have to invite Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to tea in order to have a dialogue with the largets and most powerful Islamic state in the region, and one that is adjacent to Iraq.

The other issue is Israel and Palestine. Jimmy Carter has created a firestorm in the United States by suggesting the American approach to dealing with peace there would be better served by trying to reestablish a more even-handed approach to the two sides, rather than swooning over Israel and shunning the Palestinians, which the United States continues to do. For example, President Bush went to Israel to celebrate the May 14, 2008 60th anniverdary of the founding of Israel. May 15, however, is Nakba Day to the Palestinins, the day of the “catastrophe” of their uprooting. No one in the American government made note of that.  Can we wonder why the Palestinians do not really trust us to represent their side of the dispute fairly?

That the United States should surmount the petulance and immaturity of the Bush view of diplomacy and begin a dialogue with those we dislike is too obvious for serious discussion. The question, Senator McCain, is not whether we should talk to our adversaries, it is what we should talk about.

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