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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The moral relativism of Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama is running for the presidency, and he has stated -- repeatedly -- that he would meet with our enemies with no set pre-conditions. This has dismayed a number of people not only in the government, but also across the nation. Benny Avni in today's New York Sun addresses this pressing point:

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.

I am no fan of the Cuban embargo, but removing it now — or announcing a presidential trip to meet with Raul Castro — would indicate that America views this familial transfer of power as real change, rather than what it is: a maneuver meant to leave the brutal Castro legacy intact.

"Meet, talk, and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature, but it is dangerously naïve in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill," Mr. McCain said last week in a statement reacting to Mr. Obama's pledge to talk with Raul Castro.

A policy barring any meetings with dictators — even one as ironclad as Mr. Bush's critics imagine — is no worse than a hope that presidential power and personal charm alone can solve problems with the simple scheduling of a face-to-face meeting. Targeted talks with the bad guys may help, but so can a ban on negotiations. Unlike presidential campaigns, reality is complex, which is why Mr. Bush talks with enemies when he deems necessary, and also why, if elected, Mr. Obama will at times probably refrain from talking.

The NorKs came back to the table when we tightened sanctions, and won a final round in the UN. They came back to the table with promises that have failed to be fulfilled. Because of that, talks were broken off again, and what was promised isn't being delivered to them. The art of negotiation in diplomatic circles is a fine line to walk. Thus far, we haven't done a bad job under President Bush's watch, though there were a couple of negotiations we would have preferred hadn't occurred. (These include the "informal" talks held by members of Congress with other leaders around the world like Bashar Assad in Syria.)

Obama is dangerously naive if he thinks that his charming smile and charismatic rhetoric is going to change the minds of brutal dictators. It won't. And in the end it could cost this nation dearly. The talks held by the Clinton administration with the NorKs in the mid-nineties did little to help us, but it gave the NorKs the ability to come up with exactly what they wanted -- a working nuclear weapon. If Obama were to engage in talks the way Madeline Albright did, we might just end up with a nuclear armed Iran much quicker than is speculated today.

Direct negotiations should be reserved for when a nation complies with our requests, and proves that it has. If we directly negotiate with Iran, it should be after they have suspended their enrichment program, shut down their crash program for a nuclear weapon, and after they quit sending IRGC and Quds forces into Iraq. Mr. Avni is correct in maintaining that this is a carrot-and-stick mentality. They give up what we want through informal, multi-party talks, then we'll address them directly. Not before.

HT to Captain Ed, now blogging at Hot Air

Publius II


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