Diplomats at the Geneva 2 talks. (Arnd Wiegmann/European Pressphoto Agency) Diplomats at the Geneva 2 talks. (Arnd Wiegmann/European Pressphoto Agency)

President Obama and his B team of national security advisers are plagued by the standard liberal misconception about “diplomacy.” They see this as a discrete activity, an alternative to force. One sits down and sort of works things out with enemies. The problem is not conflicting interests or values, but “mistrust.” Ah, if only.

Former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, a labor lawyer before entering government service, was asked if union negotiations were good preparation for international diplomacy. He replied that in, say, a supermarket negotiation, the other guys aren’t intent on blowing up the market. He understood that contract negotiations in which both sides want a deal and need to work things out is fundamentally different from a negotiation with a committed foe, one bent on destroying you, repressing its own people and/or attacking its neighbors. If such actors were amenable to chatting, they would not be doing what they are doing.

In other words, successful diplomacy when dealing with a committed adversary is the end result of pressure, leverage and often the threat or use of force. If you’ve abandoned leverage or declared your unwillingness to use force if need be (see Afghanistan “negotiations” with Taliban) there is no reason for the other side to give up its destructive ways; to the contrary, your weakness only encourages more aggression.

This is Foreign Policy 101, but apparently it is a revelation for our secretary of state. In Geneva, John Kerry finally got his “peace” conference. But after years of feckless conduct by the West, military success for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and an estimated 200,000 dead — surprise, surprise — the Assad regime is not only unwilling to deal, but it is openly contemptuous of the United States.

The Post reports:

Kerry, who has called the Syrian president a killer unworthy of his office, reiterated the U.S. demand for a new government.

“We need to deal with reality here,” Kerry said. “Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal echoed Kerry in insisting that Assad has no role in a future Syrian government.

When it was his turn to speak, [Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem] rebuked the chief U.S. diplomat directly.

“No one, Mr. Kerry, in the world has the right to give legitimacy or to withdraw legitimacy from a president, a government, a constitution or a law or anything in Syria, except Syrians,” he said.

Moualem also argued with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the conference host, who interrupted the Syrian foreign minister when his speech ran past his allotted eight minutes.

“You live in New York. I live in Syria,” Moualem retorted. “I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum. After three years of suffering, this is my right.”

“Let me finish my speech,” he said angrily, and Ban let him go on.

President Obama tells us (and himself) that he didn’t miscalculate here: “It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome.” Spoken like someone entirely clueless about the use of force and/or the real nature of diplomacy. (Really, if we’d used military action to enforce the red line, nothing would have changed?) He can tell himself whatever stories he likes to assuage any tingling sensation of guilt or shame, but it was years of trying to woo Assad and then serial excuses for not acting (including the humiliating about-face on the red line) that brought us to this point.

There is no incentive for Assad to comply with demands for him to leave. His contempt for the United States knows no bounds. In a sense he’s got it right: There is no reason for him to capitulate so long as he is succeeding on the battlefield and the United States refuses, even after Assad’s use of weapons of mass destruction, to act decisively.

Worse yet, the mullahs in Tehran are watching. The centrifuges keep spinning.