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Nothing Gained By Not Talking

By Robert Robb

John McCain, abetted by President Bush, is trying to depict Barack Obama as a foreign policy naïf for being willing to meet with the leaders of troubling countries.

This stems from Obama's response to a debate question last year asking whether he would be willing to meet, without preconditions, in the first year of his presidency with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama said he would.

Promising to do so in the first year of his presidency was foolish. In fact, Obama probably shouldn't have committed to such meetings. All he should have said is that he wouldn't have a policy of not meeting with such leaders, contrary to the policy of the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, the intense criticism of Obama's position is based upon a view of presidential diplomacy that is outdated and has proven to be ineffective if not counterproductive.

According to McCain and Bush, meeting with the United States, and particularly the president of the United States, confers prestige and legitimacy on those being met.

The United States is certainly the most powerful nation in the world. However, the rest of the world no longer regards us as possessing some special moral authority to render judgment on the legitimacy of other governments.

This is in part a natural and inevitable result of the rise of other nations. It is also, however, because the United States has not, and cannot, consistently practice pure moral hygiene regarding the countries with which we conduct business.

Obama has frequently made the sensible comparison to the willingness of the United States, including its presidents, to meet with the Soviet Union. If the president of the United States can meet with the leader of the Soviet Union while the Soviets have thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at us, why can't the president meet with the leaders of Iran while they are in the process of acquiring one?

This has set off an amusing scramble on the right to, in essence, whitewash the Soviet Union in comparison to Iran. McCain asks how can Obama meet with Iran, which denies Israel's right to exist and is supporting regional terrorist organizations and militias.

However, when Richard Nixon opened up détente with the Soviet Union, it was financing and training the Palestinian Liberation Organization to conduct terrorist attacks against Israel. A former high-ranking KGB official has said that the Soviets had an extensive campaign to incite radical Islamic sentiment and actions throughout the Middle East.

President Bush recently met with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia without being criticized by McCain. The Saudi royal family runs one of the most repressive regimes in the world, measurably more repressive than Iran. Democracy in Iran is permitted only in very narrow channels, but Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in a competitive election he was, in fact, expected to lose. Nothing close to even such limited democratic expression is permitted in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi royal family imposes a radical and intolerant strand of Islam, Wahhabism. The Saudis have aggressively financed and promoted the spread of Wahhabism throughout the world.

Saudi-financed madrassas spawned the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was the children of Saudi Wahhabism who hijacked planes in the United States and flew them into buildings on 9/11. It is the terrorist children of Wahhabism who seek weapons of mass destruction to use against us.

There is simply no moral distinction that would say meet with the Saudis and the Soviets but not the Iranians. Instead, it's a matter of realpolitik.

Which raises the question of what has the United States gained from the Bush policy, which McCain has pledged to continue, of putting troubling regimes in the diplomatic deep freeze?

The failure is most evident with Iran. Iran moves inexorably toward a nuclear weapon. Its influence in the region has increased immensely.

There is no set of sanctions strong enough to alter its course that can possibly get past Russia and China in the U.N. Security Council or that Western Europe would actually implement. It won't change its behavior just to get a meeting with a U.S. president.

Contrary to McCain and Bush's caricature, Obama isn't claiming that he can sweet-talk troubling leaders or sweep them off their feet with beguiling rhetoric. In fact, he's been considerably, and appropriately, circumspect about what engagement might produce.

All he is really saying is that refusing to talk hasn't produced anything worth hanging onto.

He's right.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at Read more of his work at

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