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The Essence of Diplomatic Engagement

Author: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
October 7, 2009
The Boston Globe

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As the Obama administration charts its foreign policy, there is increasing unease about its lack of achievements. The Iraq war lingers, Afghanistan continues to be mired in its endless cycle of tribal disarray and Islamist resurgence, Guantanamo remains open. Still, Obama has introduced important changes in both the style and substance of US diplomacy. An honest dialogue with the international community has at times led the president to acknowledge our own culpabilities and shortcomings. Even more dramatic has been Obama's willingness to reach out to America's adversaries and seek negotiated solutions to some of the world's thorniest problems.

It is Obama's declared engagement policy that has raised the ire of critics and led them to once more take refuge in the spurious yet incendiary charge of appeasement. Columnist Charles Krauthammer recently exclaimed, "When France chides you for appeasement, you know you're scraping bottom." Acknowledgement of America's misjudgments is derided as an unseemly apologia while diplomacy is denigrated as a misguided exercise in self-delusion. After all, North Korea continues to test its nuclear weapons and missiles, Cuba spurns America's offers of a greater opening, and the Iranian mullahs contrive conspiracy theories about how George Soros and the CIA are instigating a velvet revolution in their country. Tough-minded conservatives are urging a course correction and a resolute approach to the gallery of rogues that the president pledges to embrace.

Such views miscast the essence of diplomatic engagement. Diplomacy is likely to be a painstaking process and it may not work with every targeted nation. However, the purpose of such a policy is not to transform adversaries into allies, but to seek adjustments in their behavior and ambitions. North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Iran would be offered a path toward realizing their essential national interests should they conform to global conventions on issues such as terrorism and proliferation.

Should these regimes fail to grasp the opportunities before them, then Washington has a better chance of assembling a durable international coalition to isolate and pressure them. One of the problems with a unilateralist Bush administration that prided itself on disparaging diplomatic outreach was that it often made America the issue and gave many states an excuse for passivity. The Obama administration's expansive diplomatic vision has deprived fence-sitters of such justifications. An administration that has reached out to North Korea, communicated its sincere desire for better ties to Iran, and dispatched high-level emissaries to Syria cannot be accused of diplomatic indifference.

The administration's approach has already yielded results in one of the most intractable global problems: Iran's nuclear imbroglio. The Bush team's years of harsh rhetoric and threats of military retribution failed to adjust Iran's nuclear ambitions in any tangible manner. A country that had no measurable nuclear infrastructure before Bush's inaugural made tremendous strides during his tenure. Unable to gain Iranian capitulation or international cooperation, the Bush administration was left plaintively witnessing Iran's accelerating nuclear time clock. In a dramatic twist of events, the Obama administration's offer of direct diplomacy has altered the landscape and yielded an unprecedented international consensus that has put the recalcitrant theocracy on the defensive. Iran's mounting nuclear infractions and its enveloping isolation caused it to recalibrate its position and open its latest nuclear facility to inspection and potentially ship out its stock of low-enriched uranium for processing in Russia. Deprived of such fuel, Iran would not have the necessary resources to quickly assemble a bomb. In a short amount of time, the administration has succeeded in putting important barriers to Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations.

The United States will persistently confront crises that require the totality of its national power. The tumultuous Bush years have demonstrated the limitations of military force. Diplomatic interaction requires mutual concessions and acceptance of less than ideal outcomes. Moreover, as the United States charts its course, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging past errors. Instead of clinging to its self-proclaimed exceptionalism, America would be wise to take into account the judgment of other nations that are increasingly central to its economy and security.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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