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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.