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Obama's Plans to Meet Hostile Leaders Rebuffed

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, September 7, 2009

Just over two years ago Barack Obama triggered the first and most enduring foreign policy debate of the presidential campaign when he was asked whether he would "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."

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"I would," responded Obama. He later hedged a little but otherwise stuck to that stance through months of pounding by Hillary Rodham Clinton and later John McCain, both of whom called him naive. His advocacy of what he called "direct diplomacy" became a prime feature of his campaign; the suggestion was that this energetic and eloquent man could, as president, bring about breakthroughs in some of the toughest foreign policy problems through his personal diplomacy.

So it seems worth noting that as Obama heads into the homestretch of his first year he has yet to meet with any of the enumerated rogues -- a passing handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at an inter-American summit notwithstanding. Nor is he likely to have any such meetings in the foreseeable future. In fact, one of the emerging lessons of the Obama administration's foreign policy might be summed up as follows: The idea that presidential "direct diplomacy" with actors such as Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il or Fidel Castro is feasible or likely to produce results is, well, naive.

It's not that Obama hasn't tried. According to reports in the Iranian media he has dispatched two letters to Iran's supreme cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has sent multiple high-level envoys to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Shortly after the administration took office, a new special representative for North Korea publicly offered bilateral negotiations to Pyongyang; former president Bill Clinton later met dictator Kim with the administration's sanction. Obama graciously accepted Chávez's gift of a stridently anti-American book and later dispatched a new ambassador to Caracas. He lifted some sanctions on Cuba.

The problem is that none of this has brought any results. Khamenei reportedly responded to Obama's first letter, but his main initiative this year has been to launch an internal coup against the relative moderates in the Iranian leadership who might favor serious negotiations with the West. The results of the outreach to Syria were manifest a couple of weeks ago when the Iraqi government withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after blaming Assad's regime for continuing to foment terrorism in Iraq. North Korea devoted the first few months of this year to fresh nuclear and missile tests; now it has reverted to its old demand that the United States grant it a peace treaty and recognize it as a nuclear power. And so on.

The administration does seem to be learning from all the rebuffs. One of the first to draw some hardheaded conclusions has been -- no surprise -- Hillary Clinton. In April the new secretary of state suggested at a congressional hearing that bad U.S. relations with Chávez were the result of the Bush administration's refusal to engage with the caudillo. "Let's see if we can begin to turn that relationship," she proposed.

It took less than three months for Clinton to be disabused of the idea -- a stretch during which Chávez took advantage of the administration's extended hand to launch another crackdown on his own domestic opposition while attempting to foment a left-wing coup in Honduras. Now Clinton is devoting herself to boxing Chávez out of the continuing Honduras crisis; far from consulting the Venezuelan strongman, she went out of her way to meet with journalists from a television station he is trying to close.

Clinton dismissed Kim as "an unruly child" several months ago. When his regime suddenly began seeking bilateral meetings last month, she invited him to return to the multilateral "six-party" negotiations organized by the Bush administration. She has repeatedly expressed doubts about whether fruitful negotiations with Iran are now possible. The rest of the administration is not far behind. Both at the State Department and the White House officials are focused not on arranging bilateral contacts between Tehran and Washington but on persuading European governments, China and Russia to support sanctions going well beyond those put in place by Bush. George J. Mitchell, the Middle East envoy, appears to have given up on including Syria in the Middle East negotiations he is preparing to launch.

None of this means that dialogue with enemies is inherently wrong or not worth trying. Obama may yet find an opportunity for talks with Chávez or Assad, if not Kim or Khamenei. But what seems pretty clear is that the most notable foreign policy idea Obama offered during his campaign has fallen flat during his first months in office. When he was asked that question two years ago, Obama was probably thinking about George W. Bush. It might not have occurred to him that American enemies also don't see much benefit in "direct diplomacy."


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