Jim Hoagland on the dangers of reaching out to Iran and Syria

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Barack Obama's extended hand was whacked across the knuckles by the leaders of Iran, Syria and assorted other thuggeries last week. But the Obama administration did manage a good demonstration in Burma of how its brand of engagement can and should work.

Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia official, traveled to the isolated military dictatorship to talk with its corrupt junta. But Campbell also insisted on having a highly visible meeting with the leader of the country's democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, and then publicly called on her persecutors to grant her party more freedoms.

This is the balance that has been missing in Obama's outreach to other authoritarian states. Demonstrators on the streets of Tehran underlined the president's missing link Wednesday by chanting: "Obama, Obama -- either you're with them or you're with us," as Iranian police beat them, according to news accounts. Obama and his advisers need to take the dissidents' message to heart.

The dissident -- a hero and catalyst for enormous change in the Soviet empire, China, the Philippines and elsewhere only two decades ago -- has become a largely neglected and absent figure in this administration's diplomacy. Media coverage of political protest globally also seems to have waned since the end of the Cold War.

True, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made symbolic gestures toward the politically oppressed on their travels and in pro forma statements. But, as the president's coming visit to China will again show, dissident political movements have not been incorporated into his strategy for changing the world. The president believes so strongly in his powers of persuasion that the transformative work once done by Lech Walesa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Corazon Aquino, Wei Jingsheng and others now falls largely on his shoulders. Campbell's meeting with Suu Kyi provided a useful corrective, for one country at least, to this tendency.

George W. Bush proved that it is possible to overdo support for dissident movements and the vilification of their tormentors, just as his father demonstrated that it can be underdone (see Bush 41's effort to keep the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia from disintegrating). The Bush 43 administration, in fact, bears some of the responsibility for the eclipse of the dissident in the public mind. The focus of many journalists and political activists has recently been on U.S. human rights abuses rather than those of much more brutal foreign regimes.

So Obama's decision to reach out and encourage hostile regimes to relax their grip internally made initial tactical sense, especially in Iran. The administration deserves some credit for the current political fluidity there. Removing the United States as a heavy-handed, threatening enemy helped expose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's manifest failures of governance and helped meaningful dissent to surface and spread.

But the extended-hand tactic may have run its course there. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's highest authority, used inflammatory language to denounce Obama and the U.S.-originated proposal on uranium reprocessing given to Iran on Oct. 1 in Geneva. Even though U.S. officials claimed at the time that Iran had "accepted" the proposal -- which effectively drops the long-standing U.S. demand for Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium as a condition for negotiations -- Khamenei said that its terms were unacceptable.

Meanwhile, protesters were voicing concern that Obama's single-minded pursuit of a nuclear deal is conveying legitimacy to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad -- at the dissidents' expense. They did not seem to have been impressed by the general words of support contained in a message issued by Obama to mark not this political uprising but the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, an event celebrated in Iran but not here.

Syria also served notice that its priorities have not been influenced by Team Obama's repeated blandishments for better relations. Israel intercepted a major clandestine Iranian arms shipment destined for Syria and the Hezbollah guerrillas it supports in Lebanon. And As-Safir, a Syrian-controlled newspaper in Beirut, launched a vitriolic, sexist attack on Michele Sison, the able U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, that concluded by calling on its readers to "silence this chatterbox" -- an ominous statement in a country where U.S. and European diplomats have been murdered.

Friendly, principled engagement is a useful tool -- up to a point. It is probably worth exploring in Burma with new steps. But there also has to be a workable Plan B -- something Obama will now have to demonstrate that he has developed for Iran and Syria.


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