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Re: Talking to Syria and Iran


Rich, I just want to jump in on this issue with one generic observation.  We shouldn’t hesitate to negotiate with Iran, or Syria, or anybody else.  But talks are not the same negotiations.  Negotiations are a process whereby individual interests are woven together into a settlement that is in the common interest.  Talks without meaningful negotiations are just that: shooting the breeze.  And in diplomatic (and strategic) terms, reaching out hat-in-hand to enemies who not only don’t want to negotiate, but in fact are promising to defeat us, looks and smells like surrender, and can embolden rather than mollify them. 

The Six-Party “talks” are a case in point.  Everyone is getting what the want: the State Department gets to talk and feel important in perpetuity, while North Korea gets all the nukes it wants.  But the Six-Party Talks are not negotiations. 

As for talking to these people, we are always talking to them.  People should understand that there are back channels all over the place through which we talk constantly to all kinds of people.  During the Clinton years, there was a conference room in the Australian mission to the United Nations where we used to talk to the North Koreans secretly and constantly. Rest assured that we are talking to Syria and Iran right now.  The issue here is whether to make those talks public and high-profile, and among the many consequences of doing that could be the inevitable hardening of diplomatic positions once people are forced to articulate their positions publicly. 

Baker was able to negotiate with Assad in the early 1990s because there was a clear quid-pro-quo on the table: Their support now against Saddam in exchange for our support later in the satisfaction of their outstanding grievances.  Baker’s initial position was “There will be no linkage,” and he then used shuttle diplomacy to squeeze every possible concession out of Syria in exchange for the ”linkage” they so energetically sought. 

Today, what do Syria and Iran want from us?  Nothing.  Syria wants to defeat Israel and the democrats in Lebanon, and Iran wants to defeat all of us.  Indeed, in kinetic terms they are at least as inimical to us as the Soviets and the Chinese were during the Vietnam War — but Syria and Iran are real allies, and they think they’re going to win.  Where is the prospect for triangulation?  If there is any, I can’t see it. 

“Talking” with them when they haven’t asked for anything is not negotiation, it is supplication.  Meanwhile, we seem to have forgotten how useful an ostentatious display of force can be in setting the stage for meaningful and even pleasant negotiations.  Anyone remember when we used to cruise destroyers three miles off the Soviet coast on the Black Sea?  Remember when they “bumped” us and we “bumped” them back?  And remember Reykjavik? 

Negotiations used to get us places because we used to make alternative for our “negotiating partners” so unpleasant.