Talk to the Hand

Posted January 4, 2007

Categories: Articles

At the YouTube-CNN debate with the Democratic presidential candidates, Barack Obama boldly said that he would, in his first year as president, speak with the leaders of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Iran “without preconditions.” Rival Hillary Clinton pounced on the answer by declaring Obama’s approach “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

Forget liberal vs. conservative or realist vs. idealist. Obama belongs to the Joan Rivers school of diplomacy: Let’s talk. Clinton subscribes more to the Jerry Springer model: talk to the hand (because the face don’t understand).

Foreign policy worthies have lined up on both sides. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright leapt to Clinton’s defense by identifying the importance of “diplomatic spadework” before high-level discussions could take place. Former national security advisor Anthony Lake sided with Obama by pointing to Nixon’s confabs with China and Reagan’s with the Soviet Union.

The gap between the candidates was more a question of style than substance. Outside a debate format, the two rivals would likely agree with one another. But Clinton had been looking for just such an opportunity to demonstrate her greater experience and stateswomanship.

Here’s the $10,000 question: since when does a reluctance to talk with the leaders of adversary countries equal wisdom and experience?

This is one of the more depressing legacies of the Bush administration. The White House has employed the “talk to the hand” approach all too frequently, with Syria and Cuba and Venezuela. Diplomacy has been the last resort rather than the first resort.

It has nothing to do with the political character of the country or the severity of its human rights abuses. The Bush administration has enjoyed good relations with military strongman Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, with undemocratic China and Saudi Arabia, with a couple Central Asian autocrats. Even with North Korea, the Bush administration reversed its uncompromising stance to authorize bilateral talks between U.S. envoy Chris Hill and his North Korean counterparts. The Bush administration will talk with unsavory characters if it needs something: help on terrorism, access to key resources, or, in the case of North Korea, some serious face-saving in light of Pyongyang’s 2006 nuclear test and the ongoing embarrassments of Iraq.

Otherwise, the Bush administration has shown its “resolve” by selectively freezing out countries where it holds out hope that leaders will fall and regimes will change.

In the sandbox otherwise known as geopolitics, the United States has tussled with its playmates time and time again. It has lashed out. It has employed the silent treatment. Sensible politicians from all parties recommend the obvious alternative: use your words.

Talk to the Fist

In Africa, the Bush administration has decided to address the continent’s myriad problems through the military. It has established a new Africa Command—or AFRICOM—to focus counter-terrorism efforts and secure access to what will be an increasingly share of U.S. energy imports.

“The Bush administration’s new obsession with AFRICOM and its militaristic approach has many malign consequences,” write FPIF columnist and co-director Emira Woods and FPIF contributor Ezekiel Pajibo in AFRICOM: Wrong for Liberia, Disastrous for Africa. “It increases U.S. interference in the affairs of Africa. It brings more military hardware to a continent that already has too much. By helping to build machineries of repression, these policies reinforce undemocratic practices and reward leaders responsive not to the interests or needs of their people but to the demands and dictates of U.S. military agents. Making military force a higher priority than development and diplomacy creates an imbalance that can encourage irresponsible regimes to use U.S. sourced military might to oppress their own people, now or potentially in the future.”

Meanwhile, Japan is preparing to create a fist of its own. The Japanese constitution—known informally as the “peace constitution”—has long prohibited the country from conducting offensive military operations. Indeed, the Japanese armed forces are known as the Self-Defense Forces and are not even allowed to assist in war. According to Article 9 of the constitution, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

But that was then. As FPIF contributor Akira Kawasaki explains in Article 9’s Global Impact, the Japanese government—with encouragement from Washington—wants to change the constitution. Tokyo, under the politically weak Shinzo Abe, is aiming for a “normal” military to facilitate relations with the United States, deal with threats such as North Korea, participate in UN peacekeeping operations, and get a cut of the lucrative arms exports market.

Some argue that Japan has already departed from its constitutional straitjacket. Kawasaki, however, still believes the constitution is important and well worth preserving. “According to the ‘three principles on arms control,’ declared in 1967 and strengthened in 1976, Japan can’t export arms, regardless of the destination,” he writes. “The exception for military technology transfer between Japan and the United States notwithstanding, these arms trade control measures amount to one of the highest standards in the world. Finally, the ‘three non-nuclear principles’ enjoin Japan from possessing, producing, or permitting the introduction of nuclear weapons into the country.”

Misunderstanding Iraq

The Iraqi soccer team recently won its match over Saudi Arabia to capture the Asian Cup. It was a moment of rare unity for the country and an opportunity for newspapers to run an upbeat story on Iraq.

When it comes to unity in Iraq, less often remarked on is the consensus of opinion that the United States is an occupying force rather than a liberating force. This widespread perception in Iraq helps explains the popularity of such figures as Muqtada al-Sadr, a leader of the Shi’ite insurgency. As FPIF contributor Matt Duss explains, however, the United States should—are you listening, Hillary?—change policy and engage al-Sadr.  

“Given his popular support and nationalist credibility, the cooperation of Muqtada al-Sadr is essential for stability in Iraq,” Duss writes in Misunderstanding Muqtada al-Sadr. “One possible way to bring about Muqtada’s cooperation is for the United States to offer him the one thing that he seems to want from us: the United States out. Working through Ayatollah Sistani as an intermediary, the United States could agree to a phased withdrawal timetable, with each phase being contingent on Muqtada’s ability to reign in of violence by his followers, and by his willingness to acknowledge the legitimate authority of the Iraqi government.”

One reason for the inability of the United States to understand what is going on in Iraq is the ghost of Vietnam. U.S. leaders and generals continually view Iraq through the lens of U.S. defeat 30 years ago in Southeast Asia.

“The three- and four-star generals and admirals still on active duty are the last of the Vietnam War veterans,” FPIF’s military affairs analyst Dan Smith explains in Iraq: Finding the Diamonds. “They were part of the U.S. Army that withdrew from South Vietnam. They lived through the post-Vietnam reduction-in-force, the transition to the all-volunteer army, and the mid- and late-1970s when there were more bases and units than volunteers to fill the ranks. Most are on their last assignment. At the end of their careers, they do not want to be associated with anything that suggests failure. Thus they will search for every flash of good news as evidence that sustaining political pressure on Baghdad will—like sustained pressure converts carbon into diamonds—transform the country’s current chaos into a durable, shining democracy.”

Post-Poodle Politics

The new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in town to chat with President Bush. On the agenda: Iraq, Darfur, the global economy. Brown will be seeking to tread a fine line: establishing rapport with Bush without being labeled a lapdog (like his predecessor Tony Blair).

FPIF contributor Ian Davis gives an important rundown of what will likely be the new British foreign policy. On transatlantic relations, Davis writes in Blair to Brown: Something New Under the Sun?, “Brown is an admirer of many aspects of U.S. society and a regular visitor. There is nothing in his history to suggest a radical shift in the terms of the Anglo-American relationship. In September last year, for example, he gave strong backing to the United States in an article in popular tabloid The Sun, suggesting those hoping for a significant tilt away from Washington will be disappointed. But he will want to distance himself from aspects of Bush’s foreign policy—Guantanamo, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and U.S. hostility towards the UN.”

FPIF, July 31, 2007

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