One of the nuttier ideas to come out of the Democratic YouTube Debate was the notion, embraced by Barack Obama, that we should always talk with our worse enemies. Wisely Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make herself acceptable to the general electorate without annoying too much the MoveOn.Org crowd, demurred.
The question was, “In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you 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, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
Senator Obama replied, “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous. Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.”
Leaving aside the fact that the Bush Administration is talking with the Iranians about security in Iraq and North Korea over nuclear arms, Obama demonstrates a fundamental ignorance of Reagan’s strategy concerning the Soviet Empire. President Reagan did not negotiate with the Soviets merely out of a desire to “find areas where we can potentially move forward” or even because he liked being in the same room with Leonid Brezhnev or even Mikhail Gorbachev.
President Reagan had an overall strategy designed not to find common ground with the Soviet Union, but to, as he so eloquently put it, “consign it to the dust bin of history.” Reagan applied pressure to the Soviets in a number of ways. He built up the US military, woefully neglected since Vietnam, including initiating the Strategic Defense Initiative to counter Soviet ballistic missiles. He gave arms and support for freedom fighters such as the Afghan Mujahidin and the Nicaraguan Contras that were fighting against the Soviets or their surrogates. He worked to cut off access to hard currency and trade to the Soviets.
Most importantly, Reagan was willing to walk away from the negotiation table, as he did at Reykjavik in 1986, much to the consternation to most of the punditry at the time. Reagan was an old hand at hardball negotiations, having been President of the Screen Actors Guild. Going head to head with the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev was nothing, Reagan would recount later, compared to wrangling with Jack Warner.
Reagan’s strategy began to bear fruit when the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987 which totally eliminated ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The INF Treaty was also a validation of Reagan’s strategy of deploying nuclear warmed cruise missiles and Pershing ballistic missiles in Europe to counter Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles. Most people on the left had demanded something called a “nuclear freeze” which would have frozen Soviet superiority in intermediate range missiles in place.
The INF treaty was just the first of a series of treaties that actually began to reduce American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Previous arms control treaties would only limit the growth of nuclear weapons, often ceding the Soviets an advantage.
The real payoff of Reagan’s strategy occurred when the Berlin Wall fell and then the Soviet Empire itself. The vast majority of experts, on both the left and the right, believed that Reagan’s dream of consigning the Soviet Union to the dustbin of history was utopian. Indeed many people on the left believed that Reagan’s strategy was dangerous, even reckless. These skeptics were proven wrong and the satisfaction lay with Reagan, along with the tens of millions liberated from Soviet tyranny and the billions who no longer had to fear the incineration of the planet in a global thermonuclear war.
And so what of Obama’s idea of sitting down with enemies of the United States to “find areas where we can potentially move forward?” The first problem is that Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and North Korea are vastly different countries which pose different problem.
Cuba is ruled by an aging communist dictator whose regime may not long outlast him. It might be best to wait until the death of Castro in hopes of more reasonable leadership.
Venezuela is ruled by one Hugo Chavez, a bombastic nut, who lives to tweak the United States at any opportunity. A summit with Chavez would likely degenerate into a circus that would prove an embarrassment to the United States.
Negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal seem to have borne fruit, largely because of pressure brought on by China, which no more wants a nuclear armed North Korea than does the United States. Negotiations with Iran are being accompanied by economic and political pressure, with military strikes on that country’s nuclear and terrorist facilities ready to be used at any time. The same kind of strategy could be used against Syria to stop it from interfering with Lebanon and funding terrorist groups.
Unfortunately Obama shows no awareness that diplomacy with enemies is best pursued in tandem with economic, political, and even military pressure. Like most people on the left, he seems to believe that there no differences that can’t be bridged by good will and good intentions. This tendency has resulted in horrible diplomatic agreements under liberal administrations.
Senator Hillary Clinton responded with a more sensible, albeit partisan answer. “Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
“I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration.
“And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy.
“And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”
No mention of pressure to be used in tandem with any of this testing of the waters of course. Senator Clinton appears to just be a little more cautious about unwise diplomacy with enemies of the United States.
Clinton’s stance during the YouTube Debate seemed to be a flipflop from this statement made in April of 2007. “I would begin diplomatic discussions with those countries with whom we have differences, to try to figure out what is the depth of those differences. I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people. You don’t make peace with your friends — you have to do the hard work of dealing with people you don’t agree with,”
It looks like Senator Clinton was for negotiating with enemies of the United States before she was against it.