Is Barack Obama justified in his willingness to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions?
Background and context
The debate over Barack Obama's position on meeting with foreign leaders without preconditions became a central component of the 2008 elections during a CNN/YouTube debate, on July 24th, 2007. He was asked, "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?" Obama responded, "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."
Position: What is obama's position? Has it been constant or shifted?
Obama has not changed positions on meeting hostile leaders Obama has not changed positions on meeting hostile leaders without preconditions, as has been claimed by his opponents. He has always held that he is willing to meet without specific behavioral preconditions, at the same time as saying that he would not meet without specific US interests being involved and without diplomatic preparations being made first (specifically, lower level diplomatic relations). While he has clarified that this is his position, and given nuance to it in specific situations (such as in rejecting meeting with leaders of Hamas (an Palestinian organization currently considered to be a terrorist organization in the United States), this should not be confused with "changing positions" or "flip-flopping". See the argument that Obama's conditionless meetings would involve diplomatic preparations to view the long and constant history of this position.
McCain has no case against meeting hostile leaders; relies on Obama's "changing positions". John McCain and the Republican's position against Obama's position on meeting with foreign leaders relies almost entirely on the shallow premise that Obama has "changed positions". This has nothing to do with the principle of the matter of meeting with hostile foreign leaders, for which McCain presents no serious opposing case based on principled arguments.
Obama is only willing to meet rogue leaders when it's in US interests. Meeting without "preconditions" does not mean meeting with rogue leaders without any specific purpose in mind that relates to US and global interests. Furthermore, a willingness to meet with rogue leaders is not a promise to meet. Obama has not committed to meeting with all rogue leaders. He has only said that he is willing to meet without setting pre-conditions regarding the behavior of those states. An important condition on all meetings remains: that it be within US strategic interests to meet, and work toward something.
In The New York Times, Obama Claimed "I Didn't Say That I Would Meet Unconditionally." Obama: "I didn't say that I would meet unconditionally as John McCain maintained, because that would suggest whether it was useful or not, whether it was advancing our interests or not, I would just do it for the sake of doing it ... That's not a change in position, that's simply responding to distortions of my position." (Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny, "Obama Seeks To Clarify His Disputed Comments On Diplomacy," The New York Times, 5/29/08)
Obama Campaign Website: "Obama Is The Only Major Candidate Who Supports Tough, Direct Presidential Diplomacy With Iran Without Preconditions." "Diplomacy: Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions." (Obama For America Website, http://www.barackobama.com, Accessed 7/23/08)
One Year Ago Today On July 23, 2007, Barack Obama Announced He Would Personally Meet With Leaders Of Iran, North Korea, Syria And Other Hostile Nations "Without Precondition." QUESTION: "[W]ould you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?"... OBAMA: "I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous." (CNN/YouTube Democrat Presidential Candidate Debate, Charleston, SC, 7/23/07)
History: Does US diplomatic history support Obama's position?
US has a history of meeting rogue leaders without preconditions President Dwight D. Eisenhower's invited Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the White House in 1959. President Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev at a time when the two nations were on the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy said, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate. President Nixon met with China's Mao Zedong, even "with the knowledge that Mao had exterminated millions of people." It is also notable that Teddy Roosevelt engaged with the world so openly, particularly because John McCain claims to model his career after him. Barack Obama has noted, on many occasions, the diplomatic history of the United States in engaging with hostile foreign leaders. "what I have said is that at some point I would be willing to meet...what's puzzling is that we view this as in any way controversial when this has been the history of U.S. diplomacy until very recently...the tough but engaged diplomacy that I am suggesting is the kind that was carried out by John Kennedy, it was carried out by Richard Nixon, and it was carried out by Ronald Reagan. There is a strong bipartisan tradition of engaging in that kind of diplomacy. You mirror military strength with aggressive, effective, tough diplomacy."
US should never negotiate out of fear but never fear to negotiate John F. Kennedy said, famously, we should never negotiate out of fear but we should never fear to negotiate. Barack Obama continues that legacy, saying "The next president has a job to do to repair our image and to send a signal ... that a new era is being ushered in and that we are not afraid to talk to anybody, including those who we have grave problems with."
Principles: Is speaking with hostile nations morally, philosophically sound?
Talking to hostile leaders takes the higher moral ground. The greatest philosophers in history have all espoused the importance of compassion, empathy, humility, and open-mindedness to one's enemies. Jesus Christ even espoused the principle of loving one's enemy. A willingness to speak with hostile nations upholds the principles. Shutting off contacts does not.
Not talking to nations does not punish them; talking is no concession. Obama, D-Ill., said after being asked at the CNN/YouTube debate whether he would meet with rogue nations without preconditions, replied, "Yes. I would. And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous."
Iran sponsors terrorists; talking with them is like talking with terrorists."Obama's nonsensical foreign policy". Republic National Committee. 11 May 2008 - State Department’s Recently Released Annual Terrorism Report Says That Iran Is The World’s “Most Active” State Sponsor Of Terrorism. “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism. Elements of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were directly involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts throughout the region and continued to support a variety of groups in their use of terrorism to advance their common regional goals. Iran provides aid to Palestinian terrorist groups, Lebanese Hizballah, Iraq-based militants, and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.” (“Country Reports On Terrorism,” U.S. Department Of State, Office Of The Coordinator For Counterterrorism, 4/30/08)
Iran Is A “Principle Supporter” Of Groups Like Hamas And Has Provided Them “With Extensive Funding, Training, And Weapons.” “Iran is a principal supporter of groups that are implacably opposed to the Middle East Peace Process, and continues to maintain a high-profile role in encouraging anti-Israel terrorist activity – rhetorically, operationally, and financially. Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad praised Palestinian terrorist operations, and Iran provided Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups, notably HAMAS, Palestinian Islamic.
Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, with extensive funding, training, and weapons.” (“Country Reports On Terrorism,” U.S. Department Of State, Office Of The Coordinator For Counterterrorism, 4/30/08)
Iranian leaders are effectively evil; it is wrong to meet with them. John McCain said May 28, 2008, "Senator Obama has said, as you know, that he wants to sit down without any preconditions with the president of Iran, Ahmadinejad. He has said that he wants to sit down with the leader of a country that a few days ago called Israel, quote, a stinking corpse. He wants to sit with the leader of a country that is, as recent news reports indicate clearly, moving towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which could destabilize the entire region, obviously, not to mention a direct threat to the existence of the state of Israel. More important perhaps, to many families, and to you and to me, this is the leader of a country that is sending the most explosive devices, the most lethal explosive devices, into Iraq and killing young Americans."
Strategy: Is meeting with hostile leaders a sound strategy?
Iraq Study Group called for meeting Iran, Syria without conditions.Iraq Study Group Report - "Dealing with Iran and Syria is controversial. Nevertheless, it is our view that in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests. Accordingly, the Support Group should actively engage Iran and Syria in its diplomatic dialogue, without preconditions."
Not talking to hostile nations fails to change their behavior. Obama said in May 2008 that John McCain has a "naive and irresponsible belief that tough talk from Washington will somehow cause Iran to give up its nuclear program and support of terrorism."
Hostile diplomacy creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of hostility. Antagonizing diplomacy has, under the Bush administration, arguably worsened the United States' position by creating a self-perpetuating prophecy, in which hostile diplomacy causes foreign nations to feel obliged to protect themselves via seemingly more hostile actions. Indeed, transcripts from both Iran and North Korea demonstrate that the United State's diplomatic hostility (and preparations for war scenarios), caused both Iran and North Korea to feel obliged to build-up their defenses. This, in turn, was interpreted in Washington as a furtherance of hostile actions. Speaking with these hostile nations without preconditions can help break the cycle of hostile relations leading to more hostile behavior.
Not meeting hostile leaders is a failed Bush policy The Bush administration has long said that it is unwilling to talk to hostile leaders in nations such as Syria, Iran, North Korea, Palestine (Hamas), Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere until they meet certain conditions. And yet, this policy has achieved virtually no progress in all of these nations.
It is irrational to meet unconditionally with irrational leaders.
Talking to Iran is like appeasing the Nazis prior to WWII.
Obama's position on meeting hostile leaders is naive; poor judgement. Hilary Clinton referred to Obama as "irresponsible and, frankly, naive", referring to his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile nations without preconditions.
Diplomacy: Does meeting hostile nations help diplomacy?
"Preconditions" for talking are often what need to be talked about. Barack Obama said in May, 2008, "Preconditions, as it applies to a country like Iran, for example, was a term of art because this administration has been very clear that it will not have direct negotiations with Iran until Iran has met preconditions that are, essentially, what Iran views and many other observers would view as the subject of the negotiations. For example, their nuclear program. The point is, is that I would not refuse to meet until they agreed to every position that we want."
Speaking with rogue leaders demonstrates US is not impeding progress. Barack Obama said in May, 2008, "[when you meet with rogue leaders without preconditions] you have sent a message to the world that we are not the impediment of making progress, that they're the ones who are holding up progress" which allows us then to strengthen our alliances to impose the kinds of tough sanctions that may be necessary to change their behavior."
Speaking with rogue leaders helps build alliances, enables action. Barack Obama said in May, 2008, "[when you meet with rogue leaders without preconditions] you have sent a message to the world that we are not the impediment of making progress, that they're the ones who are holding up progress, which allows us then to strengthen our alliances to impose the kinds of tough sanctions that may be necessary to change their behavior."
Talking with all Muslim leaders shows Muslims US is listening A significant portion of the Muslim world believes that the United States and the West does not care to listen to Muslims or even that they are engaging in religious war against the Islamic world. Not speaking to Syria and Iranian leaders perpetuates this myth. Speaking with them will help change this attitude in the Muslim world toward the West, and soften relations.
Meeting foreign leaders is a means of engaging in aggressive diplomacy. An interview on Fox News in May, 2008 - "MS. KELLY: Senator, do you assume too much about men like Ahmadinejad? In other words, that you could reason with someone as irrational as he is? SEN. OBAMA: First of all, he's not the most powerful leader in Iran, so he might not be the person that we would need to meet with. But more importantly, the reason that you have discussions and diplomacy is not because you assume reason or good motives on the other side. That would be naive. What you assume is that if you are very clear about the need to stand down on nuclear weapons, that you are very clear about the need to stop funding Hezbollah and Hamas and to stop threatening Israel"
Meeting rogue leaders better reveals their true interests. Barack Obama said in May, 2008, "[when] you have engaged in those direct talks, and you're listening about what their interests are, number one, we get a better sense of what their true interests are"
Obama's offer would cause rogue leaders to request showy meetings. Michigan Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, responding to the notion of these requests, predicted, "That would be an untenable position for the President of the United States to be put in."
Status: Does meeting with hostile leaders give them too much status?
Talking to regimes does not give them international legitimacy. Kenneth Schultz, an associate professor of political science at Stanford. - "If you talk to anybody who works in regime stability and ask them the top 100 things that grant legitimacy to a regime, I don't think 'meets with the US president' would be on anyone's list."
Unconditional meetings would give undue status to hostile leaders. President Bush said, regarding Obama's stance on meeting with foreign leaders without preconditions, "It will send the wrong message. ... It will give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman said, "Senator Obama has said he would sit down without condition with Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran. That not only gives prestige to a terrible America- and Israel-hater, but it also threatens our allies in the region."
Scholars: Where do scholars stand on the issue?
The majority of scholars support unconditionally meeting hostile leaders.Mark Oppenheimer. "Let's talk". Boston Globe. 22 June 2008 - "among international relations scholars, there is far less controversy. Virtually all specialists agree that meetings between leaders of regimes at odds can be a good thing, and that while the circumstances of such meetings have to be right for both sides, it's better to express an openness to them, Obama-style, than to rule them out ahead of time. Most thinkers, in the mostly liberal academy and even in conservative think tanks, are deeply skeptical that we can "isolate" our enemies by refusing to talk with them; the very idea of isolation is, to use the words of Harvard's Graham Allison, "a radical exception and departure from the mainstream of policy under Republicans and Democrats forever, and for most of the practice of the last 2,000 years of recorded history."
Public opinion: What is the public stand on this issue?