Much has been made of Barack Obama's stated willingness to have direct talks with the leaders of so-called enemy nations. When he first made a direct statement about meeting with so-called enemy leaders during a Democratic debate back in July 2007, made of the pundits called it a gaff. The audience at the debate, however gave his answer ample applause. Here is exactly what was said:
QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.
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?
OBAMA: 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.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.
They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region.
Republican candidates and spokespeople have been calling Obama naive on foreign policy and stating that his willingness to talk to "enemies" is a major problem. Recently President Bush, while in Israel, likened those who would try to talk to "enemy" nations to "appeasers" of the Nazis. John McCain has jumped on this bandwagon and called Obama's ideas on foreign policy a complete disaster.
John McCain's recent statements on this subject include the following:
"All I can say is: If Senator Obama wants to sit down across the table from the leader of a country that calls Israel a stinking corpse, and comes to New York and says they're gonna, quote, "wipe Israel off the map," what is it that he wants to talk about? What is it that he wants to talk about with him?
And the belief that somehow communications and positions and willingness to sit down and have serious negotiations need to be done in a face to face fashion as Senator Obama wants to do, which then enhances the prestige of a nation that's a sponsor of terrorists and is directly responsible for the deaths of brave young Americans, I think is an unacceptable position, and shows that Senator Obama does not have the knowledge, the experience, the background to make the kind of judgments that are necessary to preserve this nation's security."
"He now claims that some 'fear' to 'negotiate' with the likes of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse' or Ayatollah Khamenei, who called Israel a 'cancerous tumor.' I have news for Senator Obama: I have met some very bad people before in my life. It is not fear that drives my opposition to unconditional meetings with Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, Kim Jong Il, and Raul Castro; rather it is my clear understanding that such a course will fail to eliminate the threat posed by these rogue regimes. I don't fear to negotiate. Instead I have the knowledge and experience to understand the dangerous consequences of a naive approach to Presidential summits based entirely on emotion."
So, according to John McCain, President Bush, Hillary Clinton, and others, having high-level communications between nations is a completely horrible policy and it somehow bolsters the prestige of the enemy and it is a form of appeasement and surrender. This is completely absurd. As the famous quote from Sun-Tzu states, "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."
Leaders of "enemy" nations have a long history of having negotiations with one another. Sometimes this was able to improve relations and conditions, sometimes it wasn't, but I can't think of any situation where the talks themselves made matters worse. At the very least one is able to learn about their enemy. In the best case scenario common ground can be found, irrational fears can be mitigated, and more normal relations can ensue. There are no guarantees of course, but communication is not a problem in and of itself.
If we look at American history, have examples of American presidents engaging in direct high-level diplomacy with "enemy" nations to good effect. We also have examples where we refused to engage in direct diplomacy and the effects have been disastrous. If one goes down the line of scenarios, in cases where we engaged in high level direct diplomacy the outcomes were generally very good. In cases where we didn't engage in direct diplomacy the outcomes were usually bad, for us.
The primary examples of beneficial direct diplomacy are Richard Nixon's visits to China and the Soviet Union, both of which are now hailed today and the greatest achievements of Nixon's presidential career. There is no doubt at all that Nixon's meeting with the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1972 was good for China, good for America, and greatly strengthened America's hand in dealing with the Soviet Union. Watch the segment below from a documentation on Richard Nixon that discusses Nixon's meeting with Mao. Not only did Nixon meet with Mao, but he did it in Beijing. That is how presidential diplomacy is done.
Nixon also went to Moscow and met with the Soviet leader Brezhnev in 1972 as well, after having met with China. During that meeting Nixon signed and important nuclear weapons treaty and there is no doubt that the visit reduced tensions between America and the USSR and also strengthened America's hand. You can watch a documentary segment on that meeting below as well.
Ronald Reagan had numerous meetings with the Soviets during his presidency. In 1988 Ronald Reagan traveled to the Soviet Union, after having given his famous "Evil Empire" speech in America, to have direct talks with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. During that visit Reagan stood in Red Square and was asked in from of national Soviet television if he still thought that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire", to which he answered "No". At one time Reagan addressed the Soviet Congress within its own halls standing under a statue of Lenin.
John McCain claims that we can't possibly even talk to the leaders of enemy nations because doing so would give these nations too much prestige, that talking to them is some kind of honor that will inflate their egos and strengthen their hands, as if, by us simply talking to them, even if we are telling them that we disagree with them, that this will somehow make them look better in the eyes of their nation and the world. If Richard Nixon was able to go to China and shake hands with members of the Chinese Red Army, if Ronald Reagan was able to stand in front of the Kremlin and say on national television that the Soviet Union wasn't an evil empire, and these things actually strengthened America's hand, how is it that John McCain thinks that simply talking to someone is going to undermine American interests and strengthen our "enemies" leaders?
McCain's position is an absurd joke that only proves he has been drinking too much of Bush's tainted Cool-Aid.
Today the Chinese still have political prisoners. Today there are still human-rights abuses in China. Today China has met very few of the conditions that McCain says other nations must meet before he's be willing to talk to their leaders. But you know what, today China is moving in the right direction. I don't that anyone believed that America or China would be better off had American presidents refused to talk to them. You can't wait until a foreign government meets all of your demand before you talk to them, you have to open up communication in order to influence them in order to move the country in the direction that you want. And even that may not work, but its not going to hurt to try.
The results speak for themselves. We have remained closed off from North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, and what good has come of it? Nothing. Its bad for the people of these nations and its bad for us.
But look at examples where we didn't have direct communications. There is the example of Kennedy's meeting with Kruschev, which went badly, but that ws due to Kennedy's poor performance. There was nothing inherently wrong about the idea of the meeting, its just that Kennedy was unprepared. The lesson there is, don't go in unprepared. Besides, the problems with that meeting have nothing to do with McCain's arguments about meeting or not meeting certain requirements. Many other American leaders met with them without these conditions either, and to good effect.
The Cuban missile crisis followed this meeting between Kennedy and Kruschev, but there is a great chance that if we hadn't embargoed Cuba in the first place that the Cubans wouldn't have had to cozy up to the Soviets so much to begin with and rely on them for aid. There is no doubt that a more open relationship with Cuba even right after the Revolution would have had a greater chance of moderating the regime and preventing their forming of alliances with America's other "enemies" to begin with.
The other perfect example is Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh was trying desperately to communicate with American leaders, who snubbed him. Ho Chi Minh wanted to form an alliance with America and was seeking America's help to gain independence from France. However, we refused to have direct negotiations with him, in large part due to our alliances with France, and so, since we wouldn't help, he turned to the Communists for help, because what was certain was that the Vietnamese were going to fight for independence from France, which was an abusive imperialist rulers of the country. The entire Vietnam War could have been avoided if American presidents had entered into some direct talks with Ho Chi Minh, there is really very little doubt about that.
So, the fact of the matter is that John McCain's position of not talking to "enemy" leaders until they meet certain conditions is not only a foolish position, but it is a position that has been proven to fail time and time again. His position is just a continuation of the Bush policies, which we have seen are a total failure. George Bush is one of the most disliked presidents in the world in American history, he started a foolish war, no progress had been made by his administration in dealing with American "enemies", and our negotiating power and influence in the world has grown weaker under Bush. This is what McCain calls an "experienced" foreign policy, while he calls Obama's call for a return to direct engagement, which has been shown time and time again to bring meaningful results, "naive". McCain's positions would be laughable if not for the fact that some people do buy into them.