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.
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But this year the climate appeared to shift, as US and North Korean officials met for exploratory talks, first at the United Nations in New York and then in Beijing. North Korea wanted food aid for its hungry people, and the US wanted a verifiable suspension of the North’s enrichment activities and a halt to nuclear and missile tests.Skip to next paragraph
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The two adversaries appeared to be on the verge of some agreement when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died suddenly Dec. 17, suspending if not outright scuttling any accord. As US officials and North Asia experts say, it will be at least several months before we know if there’s any chance of dialogue blooming again, and this time bearing fruit.
President Chavez has rarely been at a loss for words in his 13-year rule over his oil-producing South American country, and he remained true to form this week after Obama told a Caracas newspaper that the US is “deeply concerned” about restrictions on personal freedoms and the erosion in the separation of powers in Venezuela.
“Leave us alone,” Mr. Chavez shot back on state television. Calling Obama a “clown,” the Latin leftist then advised the US president to “focus on governing your country, which you’ve turned into a disaster.”
It was a sharp contrast from the days, early in the administration, when Venezuela was considered to be one of the easier adversaries to win over with dialogue. The two countries exchanged ambassadors again after having called them home at a breaking point in relations in 2008, and Obama and Chavez shook hands and smiled for cameras at a regional summit in 2009.
But the handshakes never transitioned to conversations, as each country accused the other of hegemonic actions in South America, and Chavez deepened his relations with other American antagonists including Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chavez is up for reelection in October and Obama in November, but neither leader will look to the other for support.
Ask an administration official if Obama’s policy of dialogue with America’s adversaries is dead, and the top piece of evidence offered to prove that it’s not is likely to be Burma – or Myanmar, as the Southeast Asian country is also called.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s groundbreaking trip there in early December – the first visit by a US secretary of State since the 1950’s – is held up as evidence that engagement can trump confrontation in coaxing adversarial regimes to change their ways.
But as dramatic as Secretary Clinton’s visit was, a full thaw in US-Burma relations is still a ways off. The US has not had an ambassador in Burma (the US is represented by a charge d’affaires) since the military junta refused to accept the results of parliamentary elections in 1990. The US is looking for a further liberalization of basic rights, free elections, and release of political prisoners before sanctions are lifted, but US officials say dialogue will continue with Burma’s leaders to see that reforms move forward.
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