Is Obama's 'let's talk' diplomacy failing?
The US has scored no big wins under his policy of talking with the enemy. Doubts that it can are rising.
President Obama may be willing to talk to America's adversaries abroad, but six months into his tenure hardly anyone is returning his call – a situation that is prompting restiveness in Congress and a round of "we told you so's" by diplomatic hawks.Skip to next paragraph
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In one sign of impatience with Mr. Obama's approach, the US Senate in late July unanimously urged the president to seek "crippling economic sanctions" on Iran if it does not move soon to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Whether the issue is key security threats, as with Iran and North Korea, or lower-profile matters, as with Cuba or Burma (Myanmar), Obama's critics and even some backers of the "talk to the enemy" approach are starting to speak of the policy's limits.
"I'm one who thinks the president is right to pursue this path, but he needs a major success pretty soon to make his case," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations here. "None of these cases is low-hanging fruit, and he doesn't have to score across the board. But without a major success we're going to see the Bush-McCain refrain coming back: that engagement is appeasement."
No policy position more thoroughly distinguished candidate Obama from his campaign rivals than his pledge to meet unconditionally with leaders of troublesome states such as Iran and Cuba. As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton is on the front lines of implementing the president's policy, but as a rival Democratic primary candidate she called Obama's openness to meeting with America's enemies "naive" and "irresponsible."
(Secretary Clinton's husband, former President Clinton, visited North Korea earlier this month in what the White House described as a private mission to secure the release of two imprisoned American journalists. That event, plus Pyongyang's release of a South Korean worker Thursday, have raised some hope of a slight thaw in North Korean relations. But any concrete shifts remain to be seen.)
As Americans went to the polls last year, they were apparently ready to give Obama's approach a try, after the perceived failures of the Bush administration's practice of freezing out enemy states. As president, Obama wasted no time converting a campaign pledge to official policy, declaring in his inaugural address, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."