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The World Is a Fire Hydrant

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In keeping with his campaign promise to talk to America's enemies without precondition, Barack Obama plans to turn his charms on Burma's military junta. Slowly, we're beginning to understand what hope and change were all about. Translation: Sure hope this change works.

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It may be too soon to pass judgment on Obama's new foreign policy strategy, but early returns on his gamble that talking is the best cure are less than reassuring. Each time Obama extends a hand to one of the world's anti-American despots, he is rewarded with an insult (Venezuela's Hugo Chavez) or, perhaps, a missile display (North Korea and Iran).

One may view these episodes as diminishing America's status or as a tolerable annoyance -- sort of the way Dobermans view toy poodles. At some point, the big dog reminds the little yapper of his place. Unfortunately, the American commander in chief is a cat in a dog-eat-dog world.

Obama inarguably was elected in part as a reaction to George W. Bush's big-dawgness. A new American archetype, Obama is the anti-macho man, a new-age intellectual who defeated the old-guard warrior. Whether he can win with his wits in the larger theater remains to be seen, but watching could be painful.

The shift in policy toward Burma, for instance, was announced Monday following the annual theater of the absurd, a.k.a. the U.N. General Assembly. Obama spoke eloquently there about the need for cooperation as the world tackles global problems, hitting his familiar theme of responsibility. All countries -- not just the U.S. -- have a role to play in combating crises around the world, he told the happy gathering of superpowers, banana republics, dictatorships and terrorist states.

Perfectly timed for comedians with writer's block, Obama was followed by Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, with whom Obama shook hands at a dinner in July. It isn't helpful that Gaddafi looks like a renegade from Ringling Bros. Or that just weeks ago, he hosted a welcome-home celebration for the 1988 Lockerbie bomber-terrorist, who killed 270 people. But Gaddafi's 96-minute diatribe -- which included questioning the assassination of John F. Kennedy and expressing sympathy for the Taliban -- was a prolonged assault on sane people everywhere.

In the midst of such charades, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emerging Dirty Harry persona is oddly reassuring. Often speaking through nearly clenched teeth, she has become Obama's bad cop. On Burma, she has promised to remain tough and continue sanctions pending credible democratic reforms. But, she has added dutifully, sanctions alone haven't gotten us very far.

Surely, talking is worth a shot. Or is it?

In the previous administration, the conventional wisdom was that talking to bad actors lent legitimacy where none was deserved. Bush, for instance, ignored Chavez, believing that acknowledgment was empowerment.

Chavez responded by referring to Bush as the devil no fewer than eight times during his 2006 U.N. address. This year, Chavez complimented but also chided Obama for saying one thing and doing another. There may be two Obamas, he said. And more than a few Americans thought he might have a point.

One Obama is loquacious and inspiring. The other seems somewhat removed from threatening realities and people who don't share our appreciation for visionary rhetoric. Some folks simply aren't talk-able. Some nations -- no matter how well-intentioned, sincere and earnest we are -- just aren't that into us.

Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, brothers in their own declared "axis of unity," are cases in point. United in their animus toward the U.S., they've become so close they're practically exchanging jewelry. Better than that, they're building financial partnerships that may make sanctions irrelevant and, in a "Memorandum of Understanding," have promised each other military support and cooperation.

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