Home The Washington Diplomat April 2009

Obama Tentatively Reaches OutTo Unclench Enemies' Fists

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“So let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

When President John F. Kennedy uttered these words in a 1963 commencement speech at American University, the United States was locked in an epic struggle with the Soviet Union.

Secrecy and suspicion reigned in relations between the two superpowers during the Cold War. But despite his deep mistrust of the Soviets, Kennedy never quit trying to negotiate with them, or any other American adversary for that matter.

Tapes released after his death reveal that America’s 35th president sought out secret talks with Fidel Castro up until the time of his assassination. Kennedy frequently mentioned a desire to find some common ground with enemies, instead of dwelling on differences.

Similarly, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat down with Joseph Stalin in 1943, and President Richard Nixon met with China’s Mao Zedong in 1972, leading to a historic diplomatic thaw between the communist and democratic governments.

Fast-forward 30 years to the Bush presidency. The United States disengages from the Middle East peace process and launches a war in Iraq without the support of the United Nations. Meanwhile, North Korea threatens to push forward with its nuclear weapons program. Iran does the same.

But instead of engaging Iran and North Korea, the Bush administration chooses to impose preconditions on any negotiations, labeling them along with Iraq as the famed “axis of evil.” Both countries refuse Bush’s preconditions. Consequently, the talks never get off the ground and some experts now say the delay only helped to give the two rogue states more time to cultivate a potential nuclear nightmare.

Barack Obama vowed repeatedly during the long presidential campaign that the era of American go-it-alone, my-way-or-the-highway diplomacy would be over if he were elected. And he indicated that he’ll put American ideas against those of North Korea or the Taliban any day, and let the world decide who is right.

“I think people understand the notion of talking to our enemies,” Obama said in March 2008. “If FDR can meet with Stalin and Nixon can meet with Mao and Kennedy can meet with Khrushchev and Reagan can meet with Gorbachev, then the notion that we can’t meet with some half-baked dictator is ridiculous.”

Now that he’s in the Oval Office, the American president appears ready to make good on his word and extend a hand to those who unclench their fists, as Obama stated in his inauguration address.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dispatched two high-ranking diplomats to Syria to test the waters surrounding that country’s chilly relationship with Washington. The diplomatic push is viewed in part as an attempt to wean Damascus away from its growing ties with Iran.

On that front, the administration said it would include Iran in multilateral talks on Afghanistan, and Obama even sent a personal videotaped message to Iran offering an olive branch of sorts, promising engagement “that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” The move marked a dramatic turnaround from the Iran bashing of the previous administration, and could potentially open up at least some areas of cooperation with the longtime foe.

The White House also signaled approval of Great Britain’s decision to start talking with Hezbollah’s political wing in Lebanon.

In another widely publicized development, Clinton met with Russian dignitaries bearing a “reset” button symbolizing a fresh start in U.S.-Russian relations. The message was unfortunately botched in translation, but the Russians got the idea. The Obama administration has also suggested the United States might slow down its missile defense system in Eastern Europe if the Kremlin stepped up to the plate and helped pressure Iran to stop developing nuclear arms.

This flurry of recent diplomatic overtures — after years of disengagement — has inspired both confidence and criticism.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — a former U.N. ambassador, occasional diplomatic troubleshooter for several presidents and a former presidential candidate himself — said the United States has nothing to lose, and possibly much to gain, by talking to its enemies.

Richardson, who has successfully negotiated the release of American hostages in Iraq and North Korea, said opening lines of communication just makes good diplomatic sense.

“In my judgment, one of the cornerstones of American foreign policy should be to resolve your problems though diplomacy and dialogue, not military action, threats and sanctions,” Richardson said in a telephone interview with The Washington Diplomat. “One reason Obama will benefit from talking to people we disagree with, or our enemies, is that it’s a reversal of the Bush policies, which have isolated the United States.”

Richardson, who was reportedly under consideration for the secretary of state position before Clinton got the nod, said the Bush administration’s unwillingness to engage directly was detrimental. “With North Korea, it’s hurt our national security because they developed more extensive nuclear weapons. With Syria, it’s made them more entrenched in the Middle East conflict and that is most likely helpful to Hezbollah, and in Iran they have continued to meddle in Iraq.”

That view was echoed in a recent New York Times editorial, which argued that: “Former President George W. Bush made a serious mistake by shunning Syria, pushing it further into Iran’s arms. Coaxing Syria away from Tehran would benefit Washington, deepening Iran’s isolation on the nuclear issue and encouraging Syrian cooperation in stabilizing Iraq. It would benefit Israel, giving Syria greater incentives to cut off arms flows to Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it would benefit Syria, by providing the wider diplomatic and economic opening Damascus has been seeking.”

Richardson also sees the potential benefits. “It makes little sense to isolate your enemy because then U.S. policy is unclear — it’s defenseless rhetoric and not concrete steps,” he said. “And you can deliver tougher messages if you talk to your opponents directly.”

Others say talking for the sake of talking isn’t a diplomatic strategy that necessarily produces results. John Bolton, whom Bush appointed to the United Nations (he was never confirmed), said at a Heritage Foundation discussion just before the presidential election last fall that “negotiation is not a policy; negotiation is a technique.”

Of course, these remarks came after the well-known conservative called North Korea’s Kim Jong-il a “tyrannical dictator” and said that “life is a hellish nightmare” for many North Koreans. The remarks prompted North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman to label Bolton “human scum” and “a bloodsucker” who would not be allowed to take part in nuclear talks.

With that diplomatic dustup behind him, Bolton pointed out at the Heritage Foundation that the “EU3” — Britain, France and Germany — had been negotiating with Iran with the understanding that the European position would mirror that of the United States. Those talks, he argued, went nowhere.

“The idea that the Europeans for five years have actually not been negotiating with Iran, but have simply been informing Iran that if Iran would meet the precondition of giving up uranium enrichment, then they would begin negotiation, is a complete charade,” Bolton said. “What it means is that the Europeans, although saying there was a precondition for real negotiation, in fact were negotiating their little hearts out with the Iranians, providing every carrot they could think of to induce Iran to give up uranium enrichment without ever succeeding in doing so.

“What this proves,” Bolton concluded, “is that negotiation with Iran is hardly a new idea. Quite the opposite: It’s an old idea — an old idea that has failed.”

But it’s clearly not an idea the Obama administration has given up on. Its Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, has advocated a mixed approach that combines negotiation and dialogue with pressure and sanctions. “The hybrid option is designed to concentrate the minds of Iranian leaders on what they stand to lose without humiliating them,” Ross wrote in a report for the Center for a New American Security.

Experts also point out that even the mere appointment of envoys such as Ross and George Mitchell brings renewed energy to rapprochement efforts. Richardson said that in his experience, simply announcing to the world that the United States is willing to talk to an adversary can help break down resistance on the other side. “The fact that we are saying we will talk to our enemies is an enormous step forward that will help us in negotiating with these regimes,” he said.

“When I was negotiating with a hostile regime, the fact that I was an American, presumably sent by a presidential administration, was already a plus on our side,” he added. “A barrier had already been broken down when I went to see Saddam Hussein or [Omar al-Bashir] of Sudan.”

But one barrier that remains up is the one against the militant Palestinian movement Hamas. Some experts argue that ostracizing Hamas has been counterproductive, while others warn against legitimizing the group through talks.

There had been speculation that Obama might abandon Bush’s policy of isolation and engage in low-level diplomacy with the Islamist group. But last month, during an international donor’s conference to rebuild Gaza after Israel’s 22-day offensive against the Hamas-ruled strip earlier this year, U.S. officials made it clear that the Bush policy of shunning Hamas wouldn’t end anytime soon.

“Hamas is not getting any of this money,” declared State Department spokesman Robert Wood, saying that donor funds would be funneled through the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and secular President Mahmoud Abbas.

Yet Obama has signaled tepid encouragement at the ongoing reconciliation talks between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party, although U.S. officials will insist that Hamas meet three long-standing obligations demanded by the West: Recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by interim peace deals with the Jewish state.

But Richard W. Murphy of the Middle East Institute argues it’s “inevitable” that the United States will have to deal with Hamas, especially if the group agrees to a unity government with Abbas.

“I don’t think we can, politically, move directly to open contacts with Hamas. What we can stop doing is endorsing a policy deliberately aimed at fighting the Palestinians and weakening Hamas,” Murphy told the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year, comparing the situation to the isolation of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for more than a decade, a policy that was eventually abandoned.

“I think there are ways to signal that we’re not going to continue to blackball Hamas as a player in Palestinian politics,” he said. “It’s time to stop being the divisive voice. I think we’ve shown in Iraq how hard it is for an outsider in Iraq to pick the right players … and when we start playing intra-Palestinian politics, I believe we’re rather quickly in over our head.”

But the concept of chitchatting with a militant Islamic group isn’t exactly embraced by everyone in Washington. A more likely prospect is rapprochement with Syria, which held indirect talks with Israel last year and seems eager to be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of state terrorism sponsors, a pariah status that has prevented U.S. companies from doing business in the Arab country.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has clearly voiced his willingness to engage Washington, indicating that he welcomes U.S. arbitration in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, is ready to meet Obama, and expects the United States to send an ambassador to Damascus in the near future. (Bush had pulled the ambassador and severed ties with Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.)

“It is important that we first begin dialogue and both take part in resolving problems,” Assad recently told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “It is not us who have changed. It is the Americans who have changed.”

To that end, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, his deputy and an adviser to President Assad recently met with the two U.S. envoys assigned to Damascus: Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Daniel Shapiro, the top Mideast official at the National Security Council. Afterward, Feltman — a former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon who’s taken a hard line against Syria’s presence in that country — told reporters little about the substance of the meeting, only saying, “We found a lot of common ground.”

Earlier in February, Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also traveled to Syria, though not without first meeting Lebanese officials. The move was seen as a nod of support toward Beirut before any dialogue with Syria.

Kerry later told reporters that his meeting in Damascus was to “test whether or not this is a moment for change.” He called for an easing of sanctions on Syria, which he praised for opening a stock market and sending an ambassador to Iraq.

A week after the Kerry visit, a delegation of senators also traveled to Syria. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) made the trip, which also included jaunts to Afghanistan and Jerusalem.

Udall said the visit served to underscore to the world that “this is a crucial region for us.” He cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and tensions between Syria and Lebanon as matters of grave importance to not only the United States, but the entire world.

“A lot of these problems are interrelated so I think it’s time we opened the lines of communication,” Udall said. “Our trip signaled a new direction for policy in the Middle East for openness and dialogue. “The thought is that this is an area where there is potential for change.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014