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How US presidential politics gives leverage to the Taliban, Iran

While America’s adversaries in Afghanistan and Iran cannot actually pull key strings to choose the next US president, election year politics ends up giving them some leverage. 

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 12, 2012

In a United States presidential election year, peace talks can take on a life and a direction of their own.

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As President Barack Obama pushes for peace talks with the Taliban, ahead of an expected withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014, he may keep in mind these two past scenarios, when election-year peace talks went astray:

  • In May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson's administration began three-way peace talks with North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the US. As the election campaign progressed, South Vietnam began to balk at signing a deal, and by Dec. 9 the talks stopped entirely. Pointing to reported secret meetings between South Vietnamese negotiators and a deputy of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, President Johnson privately fumed over Nixon’s “treason.” Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, lost the election to Nixon.
  • In 1980, during President Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign, negotiations with Iranian student hostage takers broke down, shortly after a reported meeting between a well-connected Iranian cleric and William Casey, a campaign functionary for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Negotiations restarted after Mr. Reagan won the election and were concluded by Mr. Carter’s team at 8:04 a.m. on Reagan’s inauguration day. In his 1991 book, “October Surprise,” Carter official Gary Sick, now a professor at Columbia University, charged that Casey encouraged the Iranians to stall the release of the hostages to deny Carter the symbolic victory of a negotiated hostage release.  

In 2012, there are no obvious signs that candidates in the current election are meeting with the Taliban, with whom the Obama administration has opened its doors to peaceful negotiations, or with Tehran, against whom many American conservatives are urging military action over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

But even without a conspiracy, there are lessons worth learning. The Taliban and the Iranians don’t need agents within the US political establishment to further their own interests. America’s system of lengthy and public presidential politics gives adversaries such as the Taliban and Iran all the leverage they need. Speeding up talks or stalling them rewards certain US politicians and punishes others. Progress, or the mere hint of progress, can be sugar or arsenic, depending on one’s political interests. So while America’s adversaries may not be able to actually pull key strings to choose America’s next president, the penchant of American politicians for politicizing American foreign policy ends up giving enemies – and friends – the tools they need to manipulate the US.

Merely criticizing a sitting president on his foreign policy achievements and blunders, of course, is not treasonous. Given the importance of foreign policy these days, post-Sept. 11, debating differences in foreign policy is an important measure of how different candidates distinguish themselves from the competition. 

On the campaign trail, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney penned a March 5 opinion piece in the Washington Post promising a much more militant stand with Tehran if elected.


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