When the House of Representatives takes up arms against $4 gas by voting 324-84 to sue OPEC, you know that election-year discourse has gone surreal. Another unmistakable sign is when a presidential candidate makes a gaffe, then, realizing it is too egregious to take back without suffering humiliation, decides to make it a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Before the Democratic debate of July 23, Barack Obama had never expounded upon the wisdom of meeting — without precondition — with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il, or the Castro brothers. But in that debate, he was asked about doing exactly that. Unprepared, he said sure — then got fancy, declaring the Bush administration’s refusal to do so was not just “ridiculous” but “a disgrace.”
After that, there was no going back. So he doubled down. What started as a gaffe became policy. By now, it has become doctrine. Yet it remains today what it was on the day he blurted it out: an absurdity.
Should the president ever meet with enemies? Sometimes, but only after minimal American objectives — i.e., preconditions — have been met. The Shanghai communiqué was largely written long before Richard Nixon ever touched down in China. Yet Obama thinks Nixon to China confirms the wisdom of his willingness to undertake a worldwide freshman-year tyrants tour.
Most of the time, you don’t negotiate with enemy leaders because there is nothing to negotiate. Does Obama imagine that North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela are insufficiently informed about American requirements for improved relations?
There are always contacts through back channels or intermediaries. Iran, for example, has engaged in five years of talks with our closest European allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency, to say nothing of the hundreds of official U.S. statements outlining exactly what we would give them in return for suspending uranium enrichment.
Obama pretends that while he is for such “engagement,” the cowboy Republicans oppose it. Another absurdity. No one is debating the need for contacts. The debate is over the stupidity of elevating rogue states and their tyrants, easing their isolation, and increasing their leverage by granting them unconditional meetings with the president of the world’s superpower.
Obama cited Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as presidents who met with enemies. Does he know no history? Neither Roosevelt nor Truman ever met with any of the leaders of the Axis powers. Obama must be referring to the pictures he’s seen of Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta, and Truman and Stalin at Potsdam. Does he not know that at that time Stalin was a wartime ally?
During the subsequent Cold War, Truman never met with Stalin. Nor Mao. Nor Kim Il Sung. Truman was no fool.
Obama cites John Kennedy meeting Nikita Khrushchev as another example of what he wants to emulate. Really? That Vienna summit of a young, inexperienced, untested American president was disastrous, emboldening Khrushchev to push Kennedy on Berlin — and then near fatally in Cuba, leading almost directly to the Cuban missile crisis. Is that the precedent Obama aspires to follow?
A meeting with Ahmadinejad would not just strengthen and vindicate him at home, it would instantly and powerfully ease the mullahs’ isolation, inviting other world leaders to follow. And with that would come a flood of commercial contracts, oil deals, diplomatic agreements — undermining precisely the very sanctions and isolation that Obama says he would employ against Iran.
As every seasoned diplomat knows, the danger of a summit is that it creates enormous pressure for results. And results require mutual concessions. That is why conditions and concessions are worked out in advance, not on the scene.
What concessions does Obama imagine Ahmadinejad will make to him on Iran’s nuclear program? And what new concessions will Obama offer? To abandon Lebanon? To recognize Hamas? Or perhaps to squeeze Israel?
Having lashed himself to the ridiculous, unprecedented promise of unconditional presidential negotiations — and then having compounded the problem by elevating it to a principle — Obama keeps trying to explain. On Sunday, he declared in Pendleton, Ore., that, by Soviet standards, Iran and others “don’t pose a serious threat to us.” (On the contrary, Islamic Iran is dangerously apocalyptic. Soviet Russia was not.) The next day in Billings, Mont.: “I’ve made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave.”
That’s the very next day, mind you. Such rhetorical flailing has done more than create an intellectual mess. It has given rise to a new political phenomenon: the metastatic gaffe. The one begets another, begets another, begets . . . .
© 2008, The Washington Post Writers Group