February 25, 2008

Where's The Diplomatic Beef?

Benny Avni at the New York Sun looks at Barack Obama's promise to meet with America's enemies, and wonders what could come from this policy. Given that Obama doesn't discuss the goals or the potential trading points would be, Avni sees the potential for humiliation as far greater than that of progress. It also demonstrates Obama's moral relativism:

For Mr. Obama, however, dangling high-end diplomatic meetings as an incentive for a change in behavior is bad policy rooted in American hubris. "If we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time," he said during the CNN/Univision debate with Senator Clinton on Thursday.

His aversion to American exceptionalism aside, Mr. Obama's position evolved out of a primary debate last July, when he casually said he would talk, without preconditions, with the leaders of Iran and Syria. Mrs. Clinton immediately seized on the statement as a gaffe by an inexperienced politician, but Mr. Obama declined to correct his course. He instead doubled down and in last week's debate said he favored a sit-down with Raul Castro, selected yesterday in Havana as his brother Fidel's successor, before a single political prisoner is let out of Cuba's gulags.

Because of his background, Mr. Obama is likely to increase goodwill toward America around the world. The leaders of Cuba, Syria, Iran, and North Korea are likely to welcome him too, which may open up new diplomatic opportunities. But what will he tell them? So far, he has declined to articulate a coherent negotiation policy beyond the need to negotiate.

For tutoring, he may turn to President Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, whose multiple trips to Damascus during the reign of Hafez al-Assad in the mid-1990s famously led to little of note beyond a great humiliation to America's diplomacy. Or Mr. Obama may want to talk to the European Union's foreign policy point man, Javier Solana, who has negotiated endlessly with the Iranian mullahs in an effort to convince them to suspend their enrichment. Or he could secretly turn to his nemeses at the current White House. Try Christopher Hill, whose negotiations with the North Koreans were successful on all fronts — except for Pyongyang's failure to deliver its end of the bargain, as in dismantling its nuclear program.

Supporters of Obama wonder what it would hurt to meet with people like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Kim Jong-Il. As Avni explains, it creates a legitimacy that has far-reaching repercussions. In nations ruled by extraordinarily oppressive regimes, we try to support ground-up democratic movements to find alternatives to the dictatorships. These nations directly threaten the US and its allies, and it is in our best interest to encourage the reformers than to publicly befriend their oppressors.

We can, however, push for progress in lower-level diplomatic contacts in hopes of gaining real change by holding out the possibility of higher-level contacts later. We gain more from supporting the reformers than we can in a tea party with the dictators. The point of diplomacy, after all, is to further American interests, and that has usually meant helping to free people from oppression than to give oppressors a nice photo op.

Moreover, in contract to Obama's rhetoric, the US does stand above many other nations in terms of liberty, justice, and standard of living. North Koreans routinely starve while Kim's elite delight in Western trade. The Iranians chafe under the theocracy that has brought them misery and poverty despite having enormous oil resources.

Why should an American President consider Iran and the DPRK our equal among nations? Why should Americans elect a man to the presidency who does not believe that we stand above at least those two nations and their dictators? That's what Barack Obama doesn't understand, and why his stated foreign policy smacks of dangerous moral relativism.

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