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Jun 10, 2008

Should the U.S. Be Talking to Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Al-Quaeda?

We should be talking, and we are talking.

Mr. Obama has said that he would talk personally, as President, without preconditions, to many countries and organizations that have declared hatred for the U.S. and its allies. He didn't specifically leave out any group.

The wags say that he didn't specifically include the leadership of Iraq, and the military officers and generals serving in Iraq.

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This is a bold position. It implies that President Bush and his administration are just too timid, stupid, or war-loving to take this obvious step toward communicating. It implies that Mr. Obama is unusually courageous, intelligent, and peace-loving, willing to go the extra step to eliminate misunderstandings and find a truce with our enemies. One smart man, with bold ideas, who can talk well, can step in and make the difference.

There are problems with this position. The U.S. already talks with all of these groups, and negotiations are vastly complicated.

The State Department has ambassadors and diplomats who devote themselves to talking. The communication goes through foreign embassies or "informal" contacts when there is no direct contact. The leaders of these groups often give speeches and issue statements. These are translated and discussed within the State Department and in universities, at least.

All this talk gives results that need analysis. For example, "Syria" is not a single entity; there are various power groups within Syria having different views. Who has real power, what are they saying, and what are they doing? The U.S. is also not a single entity from this point of view. If one President says something, will the Congress or the next President say or do the same thing?

Sometimes there is general agreement after working out the details at lower levels. The Presidents of the two (or more) groups meet to confirm the agreement as the last step.

Mr. Obama's idea does not work, because it is impossible for him to work out an agreement in that way. He can't do all the negotiation needed for the groups on his end, and neither can his adversary. He would be in the position of a diplomat, except that his political prestige would be at risk. The most he could do is offer concessions.

Consider this possible exchange:
US Pres: Hi.
Antagonist: What does the Western dog want?
US Pres: I demand that you stop attacking us.
Antagonist: Attacking you is in our blood, a service to God, and a requirement of keeping my power.
US Pres: (a) We will squash you with cluster bombs, or (b) You can have $5 Billion in aid each year.

A threat like (a) has to be delivered in a public speech to be believed. A concession like (b) is a mistake early in a negotiation.

I think Mr. Obama's idea is posturing. It sounds good but is not thought through, and he can't believe in it. He would be ignorant and arrogant if he did believe in it.

Negotiating Treaties in the Global Environment by the Australian Government: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. A quick scan of this paper gives a feeling for the complexity of a negotiation between nations or powerful groups.

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