Friday, May 23, 2008

Krauthammer on Obama's Foreign Policy Gaffe; The Kosher Hedgehog on the President's Role in Foreign Policy

Charles Krauthammer's column today in Real Clear Politics is a must-read. He deals with Senator Barack Obama's adamant refusal to backtrack on his incredible blunder on foreign policy, his statement in a Democratic debate back on July 23 that he would meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong Il or the Castro brothers without preconditions. As Krauthammer notes, Senator Obama has only plunged deeper into the Big Muddy River when he should have waded back ashore. Or, as Krauthammer more articulately writes, "What started as a gaffe became policy. By now, it has become doctrine. Yet it remains today what it was on the day he blurted it out: an absurdity."

I differ from both Senator Obama's defenders and detractors over what is the real issue. It is certainly not, as Senator Obama would have it, whether the United States should talk with its enemies. It is not, as some of his critics on the right would have it, that the United States must never negotiate with the sponsors of terrorism. The George W. Bush Administration participates in ongoing multilateral negotiations with both Iran and North Korea, regarding their nuclear programs. The United States has diplomatic relations with both Syria and Venezuela, and no doubt has ongoing back-channel discussions with Cuba and Iran. There is no lack of talking, although a perceptible lack of progress on many important issues.

Rather, I believe that the question put to Senator Obama by his interlocutor at the CNN You Tube debate, as well as Senator Obama's response, showed astonishing naivete, perhaps ignorance, over how foreign policy should be conducted by a President of the United States. The question was "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?"

The President of the United States does not single-handedly conduct foreign policy. That is why his cabinet includes a Secretary of State, who in turn presides over the State Department. It is absurd to propose that the President would commit his time and prestige to meet with any foreign head of state, even an ally, but all the more so an adversary, without prior discussions that indicate at the very least reason to expect progress on substantive issues, if not an actual agreement. More often, summits follow actual diplomatic progress at lower levels that have already produced a significant agreement, with the meeting of the heads of state representing a ceremonial culmination of discussion, not their initiation.

When a U.S. President commits too much of his personal time to negotiations, the results are usually disastrous. We need look no farther back than the 2000 Camp David negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yassir Arafat was not ready to commit to an agreement with Israel. He did not want a summit meeting with President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Negotiations at lower levels than heads of state no doubt would have revealed that fact (and perhaps did). Nonetheless, President Bill Clinton practically strong-armed the Palestinian Authority and Israel into a last-ditch summit to reach a final status agreement during his final months in office. The failure of those talks probably produced more bloodshed than had they never taken place at all. Stung and embarrassed when he was justifiably blamed for the failure of the talks, Arafat responded by initiating the so-called "Al Aksa Intifada," using Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount as an excuse. His objective, which he spectacularly achieved, was to divert world attention away from his own and Palestinian intrangience, and toward the "brutality" of the Israeli self-defensive response that he knew would follow the initiation of armed attacks on Israelis.

Senator Obama likes to describe the foreign policy of the George W. Bush Administration as "cowboy diplomacy." However, that description far better fits a situation where a U.S. President stakes his personal prestige, and that of the United States, on the successful outcome of negotiations in which the President personally participates. To do so without prior lower level discussions indicating a likelihood of tangible results, i.e., "preconditions," is folly. That was the folly of President Clinton at Camp David. That would be the folly of a President Obama if he were to seriously pursue his own foreign policy born of misstatement. Let us hope that the American electorate deprives him of that opportunity.


Anonymous Paul Kujawsky said...

Good post, although I wouldn't say that Arafat was unready to reach an agreement at the Camp David summit. That suggests that he might have been ready at some later time. All the evidence points to his having planned to use the Oslo Accords to get as much as he could through negotiations, then switch back to violence and terrorism to achieve the rest.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 5:51:00 PM  

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