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Has Obama’s ‘let’s talk’ approach worked with US adversaries? A report card.

One of Obama's objectives entering the White House was to show that dialogue could be more effective than confrontation with US adversaries. From Iran to Burma, here's how it's going.

By Staff writer / December 23, 2011

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves upon arriving for an official visit to the Armenian capital Yerevan Friday. Obama's dual-track approach of dialogue and pressure on Iran earn dialogs in his first year, but has not paid off as of late, especially after Iran's capture of and American drone.

Tigran Mehrabyan/Reuters

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Washington

When Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009 on the heels of George W. Bush, one of his objectives was to demonstrate that engaging in a dialogue with America’s adversaries could be more effective than confrontation in addressing such prickly foreign policy concerns as nuclear proliferation and authoritarian regimes.

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Some three years later, the media salvos President Obama launched this week against Venezuelan strong man Hugo Chavez were a small but striking reminder that the “talking with the enemy” approach has had few successes.

Here’s how Mr. Obama’s “let’s talk, not fight” policy has fared with five countries at the top of America’s adversaries list:

Iran

The administration insists it is still on the dual-track approach of dialogue and pressure when it comes to perhaps America’s No. 1 adversary, Iran. But the halting stabs at dialogue the US made with Iran in Obama’s first year have ceased, and these days key officials seem loath to utter the D word as they discuss toughened financial sanctions, oil-products embargoes, and other punitive measures aimed at halting Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s recent capture of an American reconnaissance drone that was operating over its territory laid bare a covert war between hardening adversaries that seems to leave little opportunity for dialogue. And the domestic political environments in both Iran and the US don’t favor any amicable gestures, either.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert in US-Iran relations, says the opportunity for dialogue still exists. But with Republican presidential candidates promising they’d be even tougher on Iran, the chances of Obama extending a hand to Tehran before November seem slight.

Syria

When Obama talked about a “comprehensive” Mideast peace upon taking office, one of the elements of such a peace was to be a Syria that no longer looked to Iran for support and guidance. Administration officials thought the young Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad could be coaxed down a different path through dialogue – and as a result the US ambassador’s post that had sat vacant under George W. Bush was filled.

But that was before the Arab Spring and the bloody repression in Syria. The US still has its ambassador, Robert Ford, in Damascus, but his principle interlocutor is no longer President Assad but the Syrian people as they battle for Assad’s departure.

Obama publicly called for Assad to “step aside” in August, and since then the tenor of the administration’s statements on Syria has only hardened. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a high-profile meeting in November with a group of Syrian opposition leaders, but the door to dialogue with Assad appears to be closed shut.

North Korea

 Obama was greeted in his first year in office by a North Korean nuclear test and a long-range missile test – hardly friendly gestures towards a new president who said he wanted to give dialogue a chance. Those actions were followed by further slaps at a rhetorically extended hand in the form of belligerent acts toward US ally South Korea.

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