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Iran and North Korea Signal the Death of Obama's Engagement Ideology

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Obama administration lacks a foreign policy ideology as a matter of ideology. Speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted, "Rigid ideologies and old formulas don't apply." The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- tempered by pragmatism, proud of its ad hockery and willing to consider everything on a case-by-case basis.

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But even lacking an ideology, the administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama's foreign policy is engagement with America's adversaries. Much of the president's public diplomacy has been designed to clear a path for such talks -- expressing respect for legitimate grievances, apologizing for past wrongs and offering dialogue without preconditions.

Six months on, how fares the Obama doctrine? Concerning North Korea and Iran, the doctrine is on its deathbed.

North Korea responded to administration outreach by testing a nuclear weapon, firing missiles toward U.S. allies, resuming plutonium reprocessing and threatening the United States with a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation." During congressional testimony, Clinton admitted, "At this point [it] seems implausible, if not impossible, the North Koreans will return to the six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again."

The Iranian regime's reaction to engagement was to cut the ribbon on a nuclear enrichment facility, add centrifuges, conduct a fraudulent election, and kill and imprison a variety of political opponents. Regarding administration overtures, Clinton recently told the BBC, "We haven't had any response. We've certainly reached out and made it clear that's what we'd be willing to do . . . but I don't think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now."

The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement -- which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.

During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, "Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, "any capacity" to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.

And the inherent instability of oppressive regimes also leads them to tighten control by invoking threats from abroad -- particularly from the United States. Because anti-Americanism is a central commitment of North Korean and Iranian ideologies, any softening of this resentment requires a kind of voluntary regime change. Pyongyang and Tehran would need to find a new source of legitimacy -- a new prop for their power -- other than hatred for America. Not easy or likely.

The Obama administration's public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened "crippling action" if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.

This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement -- and building the case for confrontation.

mgerson@globalengage.org


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