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Posted by on Jun 13, 2008 in At TMV | 5 comments

The Reagan Connection

I try not to make it a habit of responding to every op-ed piece that lashes out at Obama’s willingness to negotiate with foreign adversaries, but I can’t resist this time. The latest offending article is written by Mr. Karl Rove, for the Wall Street Journal, in which he attacks the Democratic nominee-to-be for the recent parallels that he has drawn between his own stance and that of Ronald Reagan’s.

During his AIPAC speech last week, Rove writes, Obama sounded out a new defense of his willingness to talk with Ahmadinejad and other hostile autocrats: that although he’d be willing to negotiate, he would be “tough” like Reagan – a president who, in Obama’s words, “understood that diplomacy backed by real leverage was a fundamental tool of statecraft.”

Not so fast, Rove writes. Reagan had a “strategy” for engaging with the Soviets: he built strong alliances, upped our military capabilities, and restored our struggling economy. Rove then articulates this highly erroneous thesis:

When it comes to America’s adversaries, Mr. Obama doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy to match Reagan’s. Mr. Obama believes in talking and in meeting, in the hope that his charm will sweep despots off their feet like college students in Madison, Cambridge and Berkeley.

If Mr. Obama wants to portray himself as Reagan, then let him show it by spelling out his strategy for Iran and the other rogue states he’s pledged to spend his first year visiting. What specifically will he say in those meetings that will cause their leaders to change? What will he do to create the conditions that lead them to abandon their aggressive course?

If Mr. Obama keeps dodging these questions, then the American people will have every reason to view him as unprepared for the world stage. America’s adversaries are watching too. And one can only imagine the guffaws in Tehran, Damascus, Pyongyang, Caracas and Havana as tyrants think about how they’d be able to take advantage of Mr. Obama’s arrogance and innocence if he were elected president.

Wait, rewind. Obama doesn’t have a “comprehensive strategy to match Reagan’s?” That’s quite a leap. In fact, Obama has articulated in numerous forums how he’d go about negotiating with hostile foreign leaders. (This is no surprise. Since he’s been so strongly attacked on this issue, he has had to defend his approach quite vigorously on multiple occasions.) When talking about his preference for this style of diplomacy, Obama has discussed the need to launch more coordinated diplomatic efforts and to think outside the box on negotiation strategy. He’s talked about the selective use of military power; he’s made the case for restoring America’s global economic prowess, as well as for revitalizing our image so that other countries will respect us as they once did.

Indeed, he’s even gone into some depth about the specifics of particular negotiations. Obama’s Iran platform is well detailed, for example. (See my earlier post about this topic.) Contrary to Rove’s assertion that he’s “dodging these questions” and that he won’t give frank answers about the kinds of carrots and sticks that he’d use when talking with the Iranian mullahs, Obama has actually been very forthcoming. Consider this brief segment from an NYT article last November in which Obama names not one, but three different sets of carrots that he’d use for leverage:

Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that “changes in behavior” by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.

“We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith,” he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior.”

Obama’s ability to detail this type of nuanced approach indicates that he not only has a decent understanding about the Iranian political scene, but that he also knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a good negotiator. Contrast this with the Bush administration’s foray with diplomacy, which can be summed up with these two slogans: “you are either with us or against us” and “change your behavior or we’ll bomb you back to the stone age” (for results, see: America’s global standing; the carefree actions of Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Burma.) But I digress.

The point is, contrary to Rove’s assertions, Obama has talked in depth about his diplomatic strategy and he has detailed what his approach would look like towards Iran. His vision is not naive; there is no evidence to suggest that he believes he can just “charm” foreign adversaries. Rather, the Democratic nominee-to-be appears to have a solid grasp of what it will take — from thinking creatively about carrots and sticks, to reestablishing America’s global image, to building stronger relationships with our allies — in order to be succesful in negotiating with the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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