John McCain, in an effort to paint Barack Obama as wet behind the ears on security issues, has taken the Illinois Senator to task for promising to meet with foreign leaders without preconditions. McCain has focused much of his blast at the implications for relations with Iran, whose leader is admittedly crazy and whose intentions are thoroughly malevolent. Of course, the United States government is already conducting negotiations with the Iranian government at several levels. How could we not? If McCain can’t see that Iran has been the principal strategic benefactor of America’s invasion of Iraq, he doesn’t understand foreign affairs at all. Instead of being in a position to isolate Iran, we are now dependent upon them and their clients in Iraq in ways we were not before George Bush (with help from McCain, Clinton and the American people) began this disastrous war. The government of the United States deals with tyrants big and small all the time. In the interest of limiting the spread of nuclear weapons we are currently negotiating with the evil North Korean regime. Richard Nixon remains highly regarded for going to China and meeting with Mao, the man responsible for more deaths in the deadliest century of human history than any other tyrant. And, the only reason we are not negotiating with Cuba is because of the stranglehold Cuban-American rejectionists have on the GOP in Florida. What if there was an immediate flare-up or crisis in the Mideast? Would the President of the United States prefer to go into dicey and difficult negotiations having no prior experience of talking with the President of Iran? No sense of when he is bluffing and when he is serious? No idea about how he responds to carrots and sticks? It is a mistake to overvalue the significance of personal diplomacy. President Bush returned from a visit with his Saudi friends unable to convince them to help lower the price of oil. FDR’s attentions to Stalin did not keep the Soviet Union from enslaving Eastern Europe. But, it is also to overvalue the "benefits" that would accrue to certain foreign leaders from such personal contacts. We are told that meeting with Iranian president Ahmadinejad would raise his stature. In whose eyes? The radical thugs who form his base of support in Teheran are not known for holding the United States in high esteem: How would meeting with a U.S. president burnish his image? One of the requirements of just war theory is that war must be a last resort. This is not only a sound moral precept but a sound strategic one. The fact that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. seemed so eager to go to war in Iraq is one of the reasons that the rest of the world grew suspicious of our motives and unsupportive of our efforts. If there must be a showdown in the future with Ahmadinejad and his regime, the U.S. government will more readily find allies if it has seriously explored all other avenues of redress. Face-to-face diplomacy at the highest level would strengthen any U.S. president in his future dealings with Iran. John McCain is a great American hero. It is much less clear if he is a great foreign policy strategist. And, he should be careful in attacking Obama’s willingness to try any and all peaceful means to redress grievances abroad. In the sixth year of a war that resulted from American bellicosity more than from strategic necessity, Americans are ready for a president who is willing to follow just war theory and make war always a last resort. Michael Sean Winters
Diplomacy with Tyrants?