There's something about the word "negotiations" that sends some people into an optimistic frenzy. Out comes the Churchill quote that it's better to "jaw-jaw" than to "war-war," and suddenly all is well with the world. "They're talking." Its what proper people do. How can anyone oppose "negotiations"?
Well, few oppose negotiations outright in most cases, but there are informed people who wave the "caution" sign, and that sign has been much in abundance this week, especially after President Obama's interview on Al-Arabiya television. The president signaled his view that relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world could now be different, that negotiations, not conflict, will be our preferred method of operation, that his vision of the world is different from that of his predecessor, who'd committed American troops to combat in the Muslim world. Fouad Ajami, of Johns Hopkins, however, quickly held up the caution sign in The Wall Street Journal:
"This war was never a unilateral American war to be called off by an American calendar. The enemy, too, has a vote in how this struggle between American power and radical Islamism plays out in the years to come."
Ah yes, that little problem - the enemy. There's an old saying that, in war, all plans become obsolete on first contact with the enemy. The enemy has a brain, too. The enemy has an objective. He may not care what changes in policy or style an American president might care to make. Ajami cautions further:
" foreign challengers and rogue regimes are under no obligation to accommodate our mood and our needs. They are not hanging onto news of our financial crisis, they are not mesmerized by the fluctuations of the Dow. I know it is a clichÃ©, but sooner or later, we shall be hearing from them. They will strip us of our illusions and our (new) parochialism."
Negotiations to end the Korean War ended in a relatively stable situation and a free South Korea. Negotiations to end the Vietnam War ended in the enemy violating the terms of an agreement and seizing South Vietnam. We have been constantly warned about using the term "war on terror" because terror is a method, not an opponent or cause. Similarly, negotiations are a method as well, not an objective or a solution. We run a substantial risk of glorifying "negotiations" or "diplomacy" - another method - and raising them to the level of objectives. It is an illusion that can have tragic consequences. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has said of recent negotiations with Iran, "We were talking and talking, but got nowhere." The Iranians, though, got somewhere - substantially advancing their nuclear program while "negotiations" were going on.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson was even rougher on the president's televised approach to the Muslim world, and the basis Mr. Obama laid out for negotiations. The President said, "And so what we want to do is to listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there's a possibility at least of achieving some breakthroughs... but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well."
" the supposition is that somehow the culpability is largely ours--and therefore ours to rectify. In fact, the widespread hatred in the Islamic world, manifested, and sometime applauded, on September 11, was largely a result of the failures of indigenous autocracy--whether in the past Pan-Arabist, Baathist, theocratic and Islamic, Nasserite, or pro-Soviet statism.
"Such repression and failed economic policies, coupled with the sudden ability of a long-suffering populace in a globalized world to fathom that things were bad in the Middle East but no so bad elsewhere, led to growing anger and frustration. That state megaphones (in a devil's bargain with radical Islamists) preached that the real culprit of general Muslim misery was neither Islamic terrorism nor state dictators nor gender apartheid nor religious intolerance nor state-run economies, but solely the fault of America and the Jews hardly helped."
And what, precisely, would "negotiations" do to change that cultural drift?
The president's outreach, through Arab TV, did not produce any immediate improvement in our relations with the Muslim world. There were some pro-forma statements expressing hope for better ties, but the lack of excitement or enthusiasm was obvious. The Iranian government not only failed to see a new paradise, but in fact trashed the president, as The New York Times reported: "A day after President Obama struck a conciliatory tone toward Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged America on Wednesday to apologize for its actions toward his country over the past 60 years and said it was unclear whether the new administration was merely shifting tactics or wanted real change." Perhaps, for cultural reasons, he saw Mr. Obama's comments as a partial surrender, rather than conciliation.
The point, of course, is that words are not actions. Negotiations are not policies or decisions. The president speaks beautifully. He knows it. He understands his rhetorical skills. But the number of pundits who criticized his performance on Al-Arabiya is striking. Mr. Obama is getting no automatic grades for the quality of his oratory. As Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post pointed out, "The Arabs understand all too well how to use words as substitutes for action. Obama will not get very far if he tries to outdo them in a game of rhetoric."
The president and his advisers understand the risks of making "negotiations" into some reachable star. Already, the incoming flak is starting to sting. Sarah Baxter, in The Times of London said, "Less than two weeks into his administration, President Barack Obama is being portrayed by opponents as a new Jimmy Carter - weak at home and naive abroad - in an attempt to dim his post-election glow and ensure that he serves only one term.
"The charge has stung because it was made privately by Hillary Clinton supporters during a hard-fought primary campaign and plays to fears about Obama’s inexperience."
Most people and nations, but not all, desire peace. Negotiations may indeed work in some areas. But the president must be careful. Comparisons with Jimmy Carter are not compliments. And Carter was rushed out of office in large part because he seemed not to understand the challenges of the real world. We should not encourage a repeat.