The Wisdom In Talking

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By John F. Kerry
Saturday, May 24, 2008

As President Bush commemorated Israel's 60th anniversary by attacking Barack Obama from overseas, here at home he found an all-too-frequent ally: John McCain.

When Bush accused "some" -- including Obama, Bush aides explained -- of "the false comfort of appeasement," McCain echoed this slander.

"What does he want to talk about with [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad?" McCain asked, fumbling to link Obama to the Iranian president's hateful words. Soon, a GOP talking point was born.

Lost in the rhetoric was the question America deserves to have answered: Why should we engage with Iran?

In short, not talking to Iran has failed. Miserably.

Bush engages in self-deception arguing that not engaging Iran has worked. In fact, Iran has grown stronger: continuing to master the nuclear fuel cycle; arming militias in Iraq and Lebanon; bolstering extremist anti-Israeli proxies. It has embraced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and spends lavishly to rebuild Afghanistan, gaining influence across the region.

Instead of backing Bush's toxic rhetoric, McCain should have called George H.W. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker. After years of stonewalling, the administration grudgingly tested the Baker-Hamilton report's recommendation and opened talks with Iran -- albeit low-level dialogue restricted to the subject of Iraq. Is James Baker an appeaser, too?

While the president attacks political opponents from the Knesset, responsible members of his own administration meet face to face with Iranians. Yes, Ahmadinejad's words often are abhorrent, and often Iran has played a poisonous role in Middle East politics. But when our ambassador to Iraq meets with his Iranian counterpart, he isn't courting "the false comfort of appeasement" -- he is facing the reality that Iran exerts influence in Iraq. That's why Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have called for engaging Iran. Appeasers all? Nonsense.

Direct negotiations may be the only means short of war that can persuade Iran to forgo its nuclear capability. Given that a nuclear Iran would menace Israel, drive oil prices up past today's record highs and possibly spark a regional arms race, shouldn't we be doing all we can to avoid that conflagration?

Opponents of dialogue often quip that talking isn't a strategy. Walking away isn't a strategy, either. McCain says that "there's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option, that is, a nuclear-armed Iran." But for all his professed reluctance, when McCain disavows diplomacy, he is stacking the deck in favor of war.

What might we achieve by talking with Iran? Some say our engagement to date has not been productive -- but a less half-hearted and less conditional approach might well break the stalemate. We won't know until we try.

Dialogue helps us isolate Ahmadinejad rather than empowering him to isolate us. More important, even if we fail to reach an agreement, engaging Iran will spark three conversations likely to strengthen our position.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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