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.
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More than six months later, Obama can claim no breakthroughs or cite any obvious unclenched fists. Of the cases where the policy faces its biggest test – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba – responses to Obama's outstretched hand range from a bite back on the nuclear front (North Korea) to silence (Iran) to modest movement (Syria and Cuba).Skip to next paragraph
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Administration officials have met with Syrian and Cuban officials, and the White House has said the US will return its ambassador to Damascus. But critics say the months since the extended hand of the inauguration have allowed adversaries time to further their own goals.
"Yes, there's been some progress with Syria – but forgive me for being distracted by the North Korean nuclear detonations and by Iran's brutal repression of its own people while its centrifuges continue to spin," says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Considering a list of lower-profile adversaries – ranging from Burma to Zimbabwe – she says, "I don't see any dividends at all."
President Bush was criticized – "and fairly so," says Ms. Pletka – for lack of results in the same places Obama is trying to make progress. "So it's hardly unfair," she adds, "that this president should be criticized for the same lack of results, even if it comes after using different tactics."
But the apparently meager returns thus far on the "talk with our adversaries" approach do not offer a full picture of the policy's advantages, supporters say. The improved international image of an America seen to favor dialogue over conflict will yet pay dividends even if the dialogue never takes place, backers say.
"It's still early to draw specific conclusions on President Obama's approach," says Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of State for political affairs in the Bush administration, "but already we can say this: It has helped our national image to appear as a confident leader ready for dialogue, and it has put a number of our adversaries on the defensive."
In the case of Iran, Mr. Burns says, Obama's "outstretched hand" not only put an aggressive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the defensive, but it also denied the Iranian government the "easy excuse" of a hostile US to explain its postelection crackdown.
But Mr. Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says another important factor in assessing Obama's policy is how it plays with America's allies and diplomatic partners.
"At the end of the day, no matter how Iran responds, Obama will have gone the extra mile," he says. "So at some point if he has to go back to the Russians and the Chinese to get tougher international sanctions, they won't be able to say he didn't make the diplomatic effort."