The ad hoc approach to foreign policy

Michael Gerson:

The Obama administration lacks a foreign policy ideology as a matter of ideology. Speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted, "Rigid ideologies and old formulas don't apply." The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans -- tempered by pragmatism, proud of its ad hockery and willing to consider everything on a case-by-case basis.

But even lacking an ideology, the administration does have a doctrine. The defining principle of President Obama's foreign policy is engagement with America's adversaries. Much of the president's public diplomacy has been designed to clear a path for such talks -- expressing respect for legitimate grievances, apologizing for past wrongs and offering dialogue without preconditions.

Six months on, how fares the Obama doctrine? Concerning North Korea and Iran, the doctrine is on its deathbed.

North Korea responded to administration outreach by testing a nuclear weapon, firing missiles toward U.S. allies, resuming plutonium reprocessing and threatening the United States with a "fire shower of nuclear retaliation." During congressional testimony, Clinton admitted, "At this point [it] seems implausible, if not impossible, the North Koreans will return to the six-party talks and begin to disable their nuclear capacity again."

The Iranian regime's reaction to engagement was to cut the ribbon on a nuclear enrichment facility, add centrifuges, conduct a fraudulent election, and kill and imprison a variety of political opponents. Regarding administration overtures, Clinton recently told the BBC, "We haven't had any response. We've certainly reached out and made it clear that's what we'd be willing to do . . . but I don't think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now."

The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement -- which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.

During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, "Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

...

This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement -- and building the case for confrontation.


What Obama and Clinton are discovering is that it is not us but them that is the problem. And once those talks produce no results, what then? The answer for this administration is more meaningless sanctions that will not be enforced consistently by Russia or China. Meanwhile the regimes continue their pursuit of weapons that will permit them to blackmail and destroy the "other."

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