The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


We Finally Know What Obama Really Meant By It –
Exactly What He Said

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama stirred up considerable controversy by promising more engagement in U.S. foreign policy, including engagement with hostile nations. John McCain and the Republicans jumped over this position as proof of Obama’s naiveté and inexperience.

Why would the U.S. negotiate with our enemies without preconditions? they asked. The rest of the world would surely view such as a sign of weakness on our part. Obama quickly backpedaled to insist that “engagement” did not imply negotiations but simply keeping lines of communication open. His explanation left conservatives equally incredulous. What is the point of communicating if not to negotiate? they asked again. Moreover, what is the point of negotiating unless we are sure we will get what we want?

With the President in London today, attending the G-20 economic summit, a look back at some of his attempts at engagement during his first two months in office reveals Obama doing exactly what he promised and his critics remaining as non-comprehending as ever.

First, Obama sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in response to a letter from Medvedev congratulating him on his election and inauguration. In the letter, Obama suggested Russian assistance preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would ease U.S. fears sufficiently to end the push for a Europe-based missile defense system, something Russia has long opposed.

When the press first made the letter’s contents public, everyone assumed the revelation of a secret communiqué. Obama denied any concealment. This left some analysts outraged that the U.S. was conducting diplomacy in a completely transparent and unrestricted manner.

Then other analysts complained Obama was offering to trade missile defense for a non-nuclear Iraq. Obama again denied any quid pro quo, saying he merely pointed out a common sense win-win situation to the Russians.

Immediately, still other analysts objected Obama was placing far too much on the table without demanding any concessions in return. President Bush would never negotiate from such weakness, they insisted. However, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at the time, during a Pentagon news conference, that he had told the Russians virtually the same message a full year ago.

Finally, President Medvedev, while acknowledging the letter and thanking Obama for it, suggested that where missile defense was concerned, Russia did not want quid pro quo but demanded unilateral disbandment of the program. Conservatives viewed this as a defeat for Obama at experienced Russian hands. Obama seemed unconcerned.

Next, Obama made a videotape message for both the people of Iran and the Iranian government acknowledging their celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. In it, Obama offered friendship and acknowledged Iran’s right to join the community of nations, while simultaneously challenging its regime to act responsibly.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad immediately dismissed Obama’s overture. Iran's supreme Islamic leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, followed with a rebuff of his own a few days later. “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice. We haven't seen any change," Khamenei said. Once again, conservatives insisted Obama stumbled badly and U.S. prestige had suffered. Once again, Obama appeared undaunted.

At the time, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wryly described America’s world standing under Obama as “a grinning Goliath staggering about sporting a ‘kick me’ sign on his back.” Rued Krauthammer, “I would like to think the supine posture is attributable to a rookie leader otherwise preoccupied (i.e. domestically), leading a foreign policy team as yet unorganized if not disoriented.”

What a difference a month makes.

In anticipation of the G-20 summit, Russian President Medvedev published an op/ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post in which he asserted, “The exchange of letters between myself and President Obama this year showed mutual readiness to build mature bilateral relations in a pragmatic and businesslike manner.” Medvedev insisted, “Possible areas of cooperation abound,” with nuclear disarmament chief on the list.

This morning, the United States and Russia jointly announced their intention to have a new nuclear arms deal in place before the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires on December 5.

Meanwhile, senior U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke had a brief but cordial meeting yesterday at The Hague with Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cautioned that discussions included nothing substantive but observed “They agreed to stay in touch” and “We think there is room for more engagement with Iran going forward.”

NBC News reports that, in addition to talking, Holbrooke delivered another letter from Obama to Iran, containing “carefully calibrated overtures” about next steps.

Conservatives will be quick to insist these developments are not significant but the sort of thing that happen between countries all the time.

And they are absolutely correct.

Yet the same was also true for the earlier overtures by Obama, whose rejections the right greeted as horrendously embarrassing defeats. It is all part of something known as “engagement.”

Democrats insist America has lost respect within the world in recent years because of our tendency to act like a bully. Republicans counter Obama’s approach is no better or worse because we appear weak, trying too hard to be liked by everybody.

In fact, insisting everybody must like us is far more related to our former bullying approach than it is to engagement. The thing motivating any bully to intimidate is their own lack of self-confidence and self-worth. This has been the U.S. approach for too long. We must know in advance that we will win every argument before we will come to the table. We apparently agree that our enemies’ opinions of us define us better than our own principles and actions.

For a world superpower, this seems awfully milquetoast. A nation that is truly first among equals can lead without insisting upon dominating every decision/discussion. We can suffer disagreement, even rejection and disparagement, without feeling our indomitability wiped away as easily as cola spill picked up by ShamWow.

“Nobody believes that change in our relationship [with other nations] means giving everyone all they want,” explains White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. “That's certainly not the intention of the President.”

Obama himself described the G-20 summit as “an opportunity to lead” but also defined the more subtle way in which he intends to do just that, saying he came on behalf of the United States to “listen, not to lecture.”

Today, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said angrily in London that the G-20 must do more to enact the harsh regulations and restrictions favored by Europe for international financial markets or he may consider walking out. That seems a little out-of-sync with his editorial in this morning’s Washington Post, in which he declares, “Since this crisis began, I have argued that when we are faced by a challenge of this magnitude, cooperation is a necessity, not an option.”

Oh, no! Is this yet another diplomatic fiasco for Obama?

Relax – it is just another slightly dramatic episode in the ongoing process of communication and engagement. We can survive our ally’s denunciation and still go on to craft meaningful long-term agreement with them to our mutual benefit.

In his editorial, Medvedev made a thoughtful and germane historical allusion.

“Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted a great future for our two nations. So far, each country has tried to prove the truth of those words to itself and the world by acting on its own. I firmly believe that at this turn of history, we should work together.”

This is true for not only the U.S. and Russia but also our relations with the entire international community. Let us go forward without a compulsion to force the rest of the planet to declare us supreme but rather the self-assurance and élan to demonstrate, through word and deed, that we already know the incomparability of our goals and principles.

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