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.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Chin up: Backers say Obama’s approach has raised US standing around the world.
Rich Clabaugh/ Staff

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.

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."

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).

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."

Some diplomats say the policy's biggest impact may be how it alters America's global standing.

"The main dividend so far is in the enhanced credibility the administration has with others in the international community," says James Dobbins, a special envoy on Afghanistan for both Bush and Clinton. Now director of the RAND Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center in Arlington, Va., he says the policy has led to "[America's] greater credibility and influence with the third parties that will be critical down the road."

Others aren't convinced. "Both Germany and Italy remain firmly committed to huge levels of [economic] investment in Iran, so I'd say it's business as usual on the European front – no matter how much they profess to like the Obama approach," says Nile Gardiner, a foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation here.

As for Russia and China, both are permanent Security Council members and, as such, would have to sign on to tougher United Nations sanctions against Iran. "I've seen no commitment by either," he adds, "to follow a rebuffed diplomatic bid with really harsh and effective sanctions."

Mr. Gardiner has other reasons for criticizing Obama's approach. He is persuaded that it emboldens challengers to global security and weakens the world's "sole superpower."

"The 'softly, softly' approach adopted by Obama and Clinton is only encouraging America's adversaries to toughen their positions," he says. "It's a strategy that is undermining American power across the globe."

So which is it? Is the new policy enhancing or undermining US standing and power?

The Council on Foreign Relations' Mr. Kupchan is in the "enhancing" camp, but he acknowledges the growing impatience and vociferousness of the "undermining" camp – especially on Capitol Hill. That is why he sees the need for "results on the ground" soon in at least one difficult area, even if it's not in any of the top-tier cases.

A breakthrough with Russia on strategic arms reductions or missile defense might do the trick, he suggests. "He'll have to have something to point to," Kupchan says. "Otherwise, Obama is going to face increasing pressure over the whole policy."

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